The Big Short: Why quick reads are so underrated

PUBLISHED: 14:00 19 April 2019

Short story vending machines already exist in France, the US, Canada and Hong Kong. Picture: Short Edition

Short story vending machines already exist in France, the US, Canada and Hong Kong. Picture: Short Edition

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As a new initiative to encourage the reading of fast fiction is launched, CHARLIE CONNELLY sings the praises of short-form literature.

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“For sale: baby shoes, never worn” is the famous response attributed to Ernest Hemingway when challenged to write an entire story in six words. This was the ultimate short story and the quickest of reads, a heartbreaking intimation of tragedy and grief in six spare words that leave the reader imagining the circumstances and characters for themselves.

The mark of a good piece of fiction – and a good short story in particular – is that it keeps the reader thinking afterwards, exploring the characters and narrative in their minds long after their eyes have left the page.

Since then, we’ve also had flash fiction, twitterature, the mini-story and the micro-story, and this month we might have to find a name for a new addition to the short story genre.

There isn’t yet a specific term for the stories dispensed by the three literary vending machines opened last week in London at Canary Wharf. They aren’t quite as short as the six-word baby shoes masterpiece but some of them aren’t far off. Either way, they represent an imaginative and ambitious attempt to draw people in to the world of stories.

In an effort to wean us from our smartphones and spend at least a little time in our own heads the innovative Grenoble-based publishers Short Edition are offering busy and stressed commuters a new form of temporary escapism by making use of their free service, which offers passers-by complete works of fiction with a beginning, middle and end that can take as little time to read as a station escalator ride.

The terminals are quick and easy to use: you don’t choose a story or author, you don’t even select a genre, you pick a story that takes one, three or five minutes to read.

Once you collect the piece of paper (or in the words of the press release ‘eco-friendly papyrus’) that curls out of the dispenser that’s it, you’re away, off to the office, gym, pub or home with a short story to read that hasn’t cost you a penny. Less soul-sapping than social media and less cumbersome than a free newspaper, the stories are, in theory at least, a perfect way to reintroduce the 21st century attention-vacuums we’ve all become to the joys and pleasures of reading fiction.

To launch the Canary Wharf machines, the first to be introduced to the United Kingdom, Anthony Horowitz wrote a specially-commissioned whodunit thriller called Mr Robinson that takes just a minute to read and for the plot twists to unfold. Whether that means everyone using the Canary Wharf machines receives a copy of Mr Robinson or you have to keep pressing the ‘one minute’ button until the randomly generated story emerges isn’t clear, but Horowitz is an impressive name to have on board.

He certainly took the commission seriously, revealing that he spent four days working on Mr Robinson in order to produce a story that could be read in the time it takes to boil a kettle. It’s a little like the ‘Poems on the Underground’ project that began in London in 1986 and spread to Paris and New York, only it’s more intimate and personal as you’re taking the stories with you rather than reading them over people’s hats and heads.

Only a tiny percentage of the stories are by professional writers but the quality is high; the torrent of submissions received whittled down by Short Edition’s thousands of subscribers in an impressive example of literary democracy.

Short Edition introduced their first dispensers to their home city of Grenoble in 2015 – eight of them located at transport hubs, the tourist office and city hall – and they were an immediate success with 10,000 stories issued in the first fortnight alone. Since then machines have popped up across France, Hong Kong, and the United States and now they’ve arrived in Britain.

“Smartphones have blurred the limits between our professional life and our distractions,” Christophe Sibieude, co-founder of Short Edition explained. “The paper format provides a break from omnipresent screens.”

Although it’s probably the most zeitgeisty thing since Instagram poetry, the literary vending machine is an idea dating back more than 80 years. The British publishing visionary Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books and the first person to publish affordable paperback editions of classic literature, was always in the hunt for innovative ways to get people reading.

In 1933 he’d been to visit Agatha Christie at her home in Devon and, frustrated by the paucity of quality reading available at Exeter station’s platform tobacconist for his journey home, conceived what he called the ‘Penguincubator’, a coin-operated vending machine that dispensed books.

He installed one a stone’s throw from Foyle’s bookshop on Charing Cross Road in 1937 and made noises about spreading them across the country but it’s not totally clear if that ever happened. The Penguincubator might have been an elaborate publicity stunt but even if it was it emphasised a valid point: that good quality literature needed to be made readily available and affordable at a time when novels were still being published often in pricy multi-volume hardback form available only from dusty old bookshops.

Publicity stunt or not, the Penguincubator idea is still very much alive: as well as the Short Edition terminals the Singapore independent bookshop Books Actually recently installed literary vending machines in busy locations around the city state offering a range of around 20 books by local authors from dispensers decorated by local artists.

“These vending machines could be a visual touchpoint: you may not buy a book but we’ll let you know these exist,” said bookshop owner Kenny Leck, “and from there, there could be more possibilities.”

Meanwhile in 2007 the Espresso Book Machine was unveiled at the New York Public Library for a short residency in which library visitors could order any title whose copyright lay in the public domain – around 300,000 books – and have a printed, bound copy made up in a matter of minutes, for free. There are now more than 100 Espresso Book Machines across North America, printing books on demand in locations from Austin, Texas, to Prince Edward Island to Alaska.

In Houston in 2017 Hurricane Harvey left a trail of destruction across the city, with seven of the city’s public libraries damaged so badly they would be closed for nearly two years of repair and renovation. Worried that the city’s children, especially in poorer areas, would be left with no access to books, a vending machine was opened in the city where children could choose and take home free books until the libraries were open again. Similar machines have since been installed in low-income areas of Detroit, Los Angeles and Washington, DC.

What’s most interesting about the Short Edition machines is that rather than attempting to put whole books into people’s hands it takes the concept of the short story and pares it down until it’s tailor-made for the modern time-deficient world. I’ve wondered for a long time why short story collections aren’t the most popular literary genre of our age given how they are, in a way, bitesize novels; complete stories that can be digested in a relatively short time.

Publishers are notoriously wary of short story collections: often it’s only well-established novelists who are permitted to unleash a book of stories onto the shelves and even then they’re seen as an indulgence, a side project from the serious business of long-form fiction.

Yet the short story should be the perfect format for the age we live in, when we have so many constant demands on our time and, as Canary Wharf Estates, who commissioned the story terminals, pointed out last week, 70% of us start reading books that we never finish.

There are reports in the literary press every couple of years or so that the short story is enjoying a resurgence, renaissance or sometimes even a veritable golden age. In 2017 there was great excitement when it was announced sales of short story collections had risen by 50%, a spectacular figure all right, but almost a quarter of total sales could be accounted for by two unusually high-profile books for the genre: Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type and Paris For One And Other Stories by Jojo Moyes.

Kristen Roupenian’s short story Cat Person, chiming as it did with the #MeToo movement when published in the New Yorker in December 2017, went viral to become the most read short story in the online history of the magazine, passing five million views within days of publication and earning the author a spectacular book deal. But that deal was for two books: a short story collection and a novel, as if the short story form wasn’t enough to be taken seriously as a writer. Five million reads are all very well, but it’s only when your novel is on the front tables of bookshops that it seems you’ve really arrived.

The short story is arguably the one genre we have all written, at school, concentrating hard on our spidery writing with our tongues sticking out of the side of our mouths, and most of us grew up reading collections of stories (I still have my copy of The Goalkeeper’s Revenge by Bill Naughton, a book based on his Lancashire childhood of which Spit Nolan, the heartbreaking tale of a kids’ cart race on cobbled streets, is still one of my favourite stories of all time).

Maybe that’s why short stories are given short shrift, that they’re reminders of school exercises? Or is that the word ‘short’ implies less craft, less effort, less investment by the writer and hence less reward for the reader? If anything it could be argued that the economy of words of a short story requires more craft and more work, just look at the four days Anthony Horowitz spent on the few words allowed him for Mr Robinson. A good short story requires extraordinary levels of skill, imagination and discipline to pull off.

Masters of the art include Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, Katherine Mansfield and Annie Proulx, not writers who could ever be accused of phoning in a story because they couldn’t be arsed writing a novel. A tale as taut, nuanced and cinematic as Brokeback Mountain was, after all, originally a short story by Annie Proulx, ditto The Shawshank Redemption, from a novella by Stephen King.

The great Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor even wrote a brilliant book about the form called The Lonely Voice, published in 1962. In this masterpiece of literary criticism his argument that “the conception of a short story as miniature art is inherently false” rings as true today as when the book came out nearly half a century ago, while his assertion that the short story is the ideal vehicle for “the submerged voice”, the people on the fringes of society, can be traced as far back as Nikolai Gogol and to the work of modern writers like William Trevor and Alice Munro.

There’s great skill and artistry in the tiny slices of fiction provided by the Short Edition terminals at Canary Wharf, stories that allow us a brief escape from the noise and tumult of the modern routine. Whether we’re on an underground train or waiting in line at a coffee shop, they represent an opportunity for a few moments of intimacy with a writer and their characters whose submerged voices are now available at the touch of a button.

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