Throughout February, I've been reading, reading about, writing and even reading about writing short stories. It’s as tough a gig as writing that sentence.
Exerting considerable discipline, I've countenanced only short fiction for the duration of the shortest month in anticipation of March's literary festival in Oxford and Cambridge's counterpart in April. Why? Because there's much talk, in admittedly confined circles, of a renaissance in the form, not least for the accessibility and digestibility of the short story's smaller canvas and its respectfulness of time and attention in readers' increasingly frenetic lives.
It's been palate cleansing in a pre-Lenten, literary sort of way, spiriting my usual reading away from the novel's extended sojourn to the short story's more immediately gratifying rewards, both in time and space. So the extended comforts of armchair travel have given place to capricious day tripping. All this fictive dashing about, though, is tiring. I've attempted, then, to treat myself to a few restorative forays back to what I consider home territory, only to find that there are surprisingly few short stories set in or around Oxford and Cambridge.
I feel confident asserting that there's a substantial and acknowledged genre of Oxbridge novels, many of which will be familiar, distinguishable by their university settings and preoccupations. Think Evelyn Waugh, C P Snow, Dorothy L Sayers, Philip Pullman, Colin Dexter, Penelope Fitzgerald and, more recently, Naomi Alderman, James Runcie and Deborah Harkness. As inspiration, and for reader popularity, no other British or Scottish universities, or university towns and cities for that matter, can compete with Oxford and Cambridge. (Though honourable mention must be made of the fictional universities imagined by Kingsley Amis, David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury and, as rendered by J P Donleavy, Trinity College Dublin).
Clearly, they're settings which sell, even in translation. For something shorter, however, I highly recommend the title story (as well as the rest) in Angus Wilson's startling collection Such Darling Dodos, first published in 1950. Short it may be; sweet it is not. For a taste of post-War Oxford, it is astringent and entertaining. Try as I might, though, I've yet to find such a satisfying gobbet set in Cambridge.
At the forthcoming festivals, many of the same names are listed to appear at both. I choose my infinitive with care, there; all will, naturally, be speaking about their writing but it's hard not to sense that a few are going through the motions for the sake of sales rather than striving to deliver fresh insights into their art. Nor are all successful writers equally as eloquent off the page.
Many of the same themes will be addressed at both festivals, too — the future of literary fiction, the impact of e-publishing, writing for children, writing memoir, and son on — but I wonder what differences, audience generated, will be discernible through the smoke of book promotion. Will I be able to tell the Cambridge event from its Oxford precursor?
In fact, I'm mildly daunted, and fascinated too, by the preponderance of talks targeted at Oxbridge's legions of writers, latent or potent, unpublished or published, indolent or diligent. Talks targeted at people like me. Perhaps I should, therefore, set aside the attractive if time-thieving Venn diagram of overlapping literary events which are all competing for my attention to get on with writing those short stories. Dodos may be extinct but the time is surely ripe for the evolution of some fresh short fiction set in Oxford and Cambridge.
If you’d like to exercise your creative side, why not take part in our new flash fiction competition?
Image by erin m under Creative Commons license.