By Annie Kirby, a writer and winner of the Asham Award 2005 (THE GUARDIAN, 18/04/06):
The short story is undergoing a revitalisation in Britain, and the success of the Asham Award, which this week celebrates its 10th anniversary, is just one reflection of this revival. The award was launched to promote new women writers, with winning stories published in an anthology alongside stories specially commissioned from established writers.Little more than a decade ago, the short story was at the nadir of a decline precipitated by a fundamental misunderstanding – on the part of writers, readers and publishers – of the form. Short stories tended to be perceived as safe learning zones for budding novelists – a place to practise plot, dialogue and characterisation – or as vacation time for serious novelists. Unfortunately, talent as a novelist does not always equate to talent as a short-story writer, and many exceptional novelists have produced mediocre short stories. A lot of bad short stories found their way into print and readers, naturally disappointed, decided short stories weren’t for them.
Far from being safe, the short story is hazardous territory for writers, the degree of risk inversely proportional to the word count. There is room for forgiveness in a novel, but botch a sentence in a 500-word story and there is no space to recover. There is also risk in the necessary ambiguity of short stories. The writer, with so little time to tell the tale, must trust the reader to take responsibility for filling in the gaps.
Managing this level of ambiguity – which in a novel is liable to leave the reader feeling cheated, but in a short story is a gift from writer to reader – is a finely honed skill. A well-crafted short story takes a little time to read but remains long in the mind. Novels are tidal, requiring ebb and flow, but a good short story functions like an electric charge and supports an intensity that would be exhausting in a longer work. Only bad short stories make for easy reading.
Happily, the short story in Britain has been resurgent for some years, rising steadily to a position that, if not on a par with the novel, at least represents a growing respect for the short story as a serious art form in itself. The National Short Story Prize, launched in 2005, offers £15,000 for the winning story submitted by a previously published writer and the ever popular Bridport Prize, open to new and seasoned writers, produces a consistently high standard. Small independent publishers champion some of the most original and innovative short-story writing.
But why, as in the case of the Asham Award, promote and encourage specifically “women’s writing”? Some critics interpret the term women’s writing as patronising and reductive, an exercise indicating to women what they should write about and how they should write about it. This is an interpretation we need to move beyond. Feminism has evolved to a point where staying at home to look after the children is a choice that is (or ought to be) as valid as focusing on a full-time career, the freedom a woman has to make that choice being the essential detail. Women’s writing is also about freedom of choice.
The Asham Award celebrates the freedom and ongoing commitment of writers who happen to be women to tell challenging stories about the things that are important to them, be that the kitchen sink, the Vietnam war or a revolution on the planet Gilgamesh in the year 5099. Does it matter that books written by men tend to sell more copies and win all the prizes? Maybe, but the stories we tell matter more.