I developed a conference-crush when I was in Vienna earlier this year. From the moment University of Texas’ Farhat Iftekharuddin began delivering his paper, Micronarratives, Flash Fiction, Liminal Stories: Austerity of Design, I was hooked. That night, in my hotel room, Google told me he had a new book coming out, but for now I’d have to be content with The Postmodern Short Story: Forms and Issues, co-edited by Iftekharuddin in 2003. Back in Sydney, this book would become my bedside companion—the fictional pleasures of George Saunders, Ceridwen Dovey and Moya Costello tossed aside for a bottle-green hardback with silver lettering on the cover and filled with academic essays.
As a publisher of short Australian stories, most of my reading time is consumed by our submissions, as well as by keeping abreast of short fiction published elsewhere. My everyday work is talking and thinking short stories: beginnings, middles and ends, how to edit them, how to order them in a collection or anthology, titles (of individual stories and of collections) and about achieving cohesion and/or diversity across a volume. This work, while interesting and engaging, does not allow for detailed literary analysis of a short story and broad and deep study of the form. That’s what was on offer at the International Conference for the Short Story in English in Vienna. At the conference, there were both practitioners and academics, or as Robert Olen Butler says, ‘both birds and ornithologists’. Ryan O’Neill told me I’d be in short story heaven there. He was dead right.
Conference-goer Richard E. Lee’s essay in The Postmodern Short Story: Forms and Issues, argues that titles not only operate as synecdoche and simulacra, but they can also ‘titillate to the point of autoeroticism’ since, he rather cheekily asserts, ‘the goal of both reading and masturbation is the achievement of desire’. Publishing is sexy work and I’m passionate about it. But literary criticism is the biggest of teasers. Lee goes on to quote Lyotard and Derrida and his attempt to compile a titular taxonomy (thematic, metaphorical, evocative, present tense discontinuous phrase, random…) has me moaning for more.
I realised in Vienna that I had been longing for this deeper level of analysis. Back home, there are the occasional insights to be cherished—such as when literary reviewers do not merely express personal taste but write from a comprehensive knowledge of the literary landscape and display an understanding of the writing process. A good example is when Kerryn Goldsworthy recognised the influence of Melbourne social realist John Morrison in A.S. Patric’s collection, The Rattler & other stories (review in the Sydney Morning Herald). Another is when Jennifer Mills acknowledged Mary Manning’s experimentation in the collection Damaged in Transit, describing the influence of Jolley and Murakami and concluding that ‘the power of these stories lies in their failure to settle’ (in Overland). And there is much to love and respect about an intelligent and wide-ranging author-interviewer exchange such as the one between Mark O’Flynn and Marjorie Lewis-Jones, which reflected on quotes from short fiction gurus such as Lorrie Moore, Mavis Gallant and Lorin Stein. See this and this.
At the Vienna conference there was session after session of comprehensive literary analysis: on individual authors such as Poe, Munro and Saunders; on the form, from story cycles to tweets; on themes such as death, masculinity and liminality and on national and regional settings. Even as I re-read the program now for this blog post I am titillated by the titles. ‘Timber!!! Logging the Canadian male in Contemporary Women’s Short Fiction’ by Felicity Skelton is a personal favourite.
Happily there was a contingent of Australian writers and academics at the conference. Lisa Smithie, Paul Mitchell and Cameron Raynes each gave informed and entertaining presentations and I facilitated a session on Australian short fiction involving Andy Kissane speaking on David Malouf and Joanna Atherfold Finn on the coastal stories of Robert Drewe and Gretchen Shirm. Sadly, there are no conference papers available for those of you who are interested. I at least have the booklet of abstracts to thumb through while I wait for the next of these biennial conferences, which will be in Shanghai, 2016 and Australia in 2018.
This blog post is meant to be about what I am reading. But in the face of a gaping hole in Australian literary criticism, I will end with a description of my fantasy academic hardback with silver lettering. The Contemporary Short Australian Story: Forms and Issues (working title only) contains essays addressing some of the questions I am concerned with. There will be a section on the short story collection in Australia with a provocative essay by Mark Welker, elaborating on his interview with Spineless Wonders (The Column, May 2011) about whether short story collections should exist at all. ‘The behaviour of reading novels,’ he wrote, ‘that is, sitting down, ploughing from beginning to end, isn’t always applicable for reading short fiction’. My Viennese heart-throb, Farhat Iftekharuddin, asked, ‘How micro can the micro-narrative be before it loses contact with the sense of macro it must address?’ It’s a more useful way of thinking about microfiction than merely word count and I’d like to read responses from some of our micro-literati such as Angela Meyer and Patrick Lenton as well as teachers of the form such as Moya Costello and Alice Grundy. Ryan O’Neill will select and discuss his favourite Australian non-realist short fiction authors and someone will write about the legacy of a Sleepers Almanac decade—how Louise Swinn and Zoe Dattner have showcased and shaped the short Australian story. There are enough ideas for a couple of volumes.
Bronwyn Mehan is the founding publisher of Spineless Wonders. She recently co-edited with Julie Chevalier, Cracking the Spine: ten short Australian stories and how they were written. www.shortaustralianstories.com.au