Short fiction has had a bit of a chequered history. Despite the fact that authors such as Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield and Doris Lessing were champions of the form, it is still considered in some quarters to be the poor relation of the novel. So it is always heartening to come across writers who are committed to keeping the short form as part of their repertoire.
Mr Jolly is a new collection of short stories by Bradford-based author Michael Stewart who is better known as a novelist. His debut novel King Crow, which came out in 2011, was very well received and won The Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker’ Prize and he followed that up with equally successful Café Assassin last year. But short fiction has been a long-standing interest.
“I have been writing short stories for a long time,” he says. “I started when I was still at school but it is becoming increasingly difficult to get them published. I’ve read quite a few articles recently saying that the e-book will change publishing, making it a level playing field for short fiction, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
He feels that many publishers are resistant to the short story partly because it is more difficult to market. “The way that marketing works means they want a single tagline which makes it easy to pitch something in one sentence,” he says. “So I think it is partly to do with that. But I think it is also an English thing – in Ireland and America, for example, short fiction is very popular.”
Stewart’s new collection is a fascinating read. “The oldest story in the collection goes back about eight or nine years,” he says. “Most of them have been published before in various magazines over the years.”
There are 16 stories in all and each one is a spare, tightly-constructed gem. Stewart is also an award-winning playwright and poet – and this is evident in the style and structure of many of the stories. He has an elegant, lyrical way with words and a sharp ear for dialogue. His stories also benefit from another essential ingredient to make a really good short story – an awareness of the importance of what is not said. Often it is in those gaps or silences where the most profound things are communicated.
“There are themes running through the stories, such as isolation and alienation,” says Stewart. “But hopefully there is also a lot of humour and pathos in there as well.” His stories are quirky and original (and often funny). While considering some of the big questions about what it means to be human, they frequently contain an element of the surreal. Subjects include a conformity-obsessed league of bald men, a public interview and Q&A with God and one man’s strange obsession with marshmallows, while alien abductions and ghosts also feature.
“I have tried to stretch the form and do something ambitious without pushing it into genre fiction,” says Stewart. “The tradition with short fiction is to keep it fixed in reality, so I am trying to do something different. It doesn’t become fantasy or sci-fi but I have incorporated elements that we associate with genre fiction. All the characters are ordinary people – they get up in the morning and get on the bus and go to work.
“There is a bit of magical realism and slightly absurdist situations. There are certain conventions that short stories have to exist in a realistic world but I don’t see why that has to be the case. Also, as a child I loved Tales of the Unexpected and The Twilight Zone and my first love as a reader was Edgar Allen Poe.” Stewart is currently working on another novel as well as writing scripts for BBC Radio 4’s afternoon play slot, but short fiction is never far from his thinking. “I’ve just completed another short story,” he says. “That is a continuing thing for me.”
Mr Jolly by Michael Stewart is published by Valley Press, £8.99. The book will be officially launched on May 26 at Waterstones in Bradford as part of Bradford Literature Festival.