Bronwyn Mehan runs Spineless Wonders, a publishing company devoted to producing quality short Australian stories in print, digital and audio forms. Here, she talks about the perks and pitfalls of literature in its more unusual forms.
In general, short stories are neither as lucrative nor as popular as the novel form. Why do you think that is, and is it wrong?
I agree that it is rare for short stories to reach the same level of success that some novels do. One advantage that short story writers do have over novelists though is that they can achieve public recognition and publication more readily. In the time that it takes even a talented writer to produce a novel and find a publisher, an equally talented short story writer could win competitions and awards and have their work published their work in literary magazines, newspapers and anthologies. One of my favourite short stories is Brokeback Mountain. I’d say it is on par in, terms of lucre and popularity, with Annie Proulx’s novel, Shipping News. They are both great stories success. In the end, length is irrelevant.
The dichotomy between short stories and novels persists even though the distinction between the two forms is constantly blurred. Recently, on RN’s Books and Arts Daily, Chloe Hooper said she admired Alice Munro because of the way she seemed to write novels within her short stories. The comment could be applied to much quality short fiction in which, to paraphrase Hemingway, nine-tenths of meaning is concealed below the surface. Molly Ringwald ‘s novel, When It Happens to You, is subtitled A novel in Stories. It is a collection of short stories, revolving around the theme of betrayal, involving characters who are loosely connected to the married couple whose marriage is falling apart. Cate Kennedy, a writer of both forms, recently raved about the Pulitzer Prize winning books, Olive Kitteridge (2009) and A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011), both of which are long form fiction comprised of linked short stories (RN 17/10/12).
You publish primarily in digital format- e-books, online, podcasting, and so on- but a lot of major literary awards, reviewers and so on still won’t accept books that aren’t published in hard copy. So, first of all- why do you think that is?
At Spineless Wonders, we publish short fiction in print, digital and audio forms.
Judges of literary awards and reviewers, although esteemed and discerning individuals, are actually much like the rest of us. They have been slow to choose the ereader over the printed book when it comes to reading fiction. Ditto for the major literary funding bodies. And while ebooks may be taking off in some genres (romance and speculative fiction, for instance) we are yet to see a similar trend of digital-only, or digital-first, releases of literary fiction (short or long).
Western Australia is the only literary award with a digital narrative category. It was won this year by Max Barry for Machine Man (Scribe) which was ‘originally released online, a page at a time, Barry’s ideas were scrutinised and celebrated by daily readers whose input helped shape the resulting novel’. http://pba.slwa.wa.gov.au/ Sounds like fun!
There are, of course, a growing number of influential online bloggers, journals and sites devoted to fiction, notably Literary-Minded, Newtown Review of Books, Rochford St Review as well as Cordite and Mascara. Like other publishers of ebooks, I have the capacity to distribute many hundreds of review copies for a fraction of the cost of printing and mailing out print copies. For now, however, the majority booksellers as well as reviewers (even those exclusively on-line) still prefer to complimentary copies to be printed on paper.
Secondly, what made you decide to publish in a form that would be harder to get recognised?
Even though our publishing house is called Spineless Wonders we do publish books with spines. When I founded the company, almost two years ago, the future of ebooks was the hot topic- still is, I guess. But it quickly became obvious that the main game (for literary fiction, at least) was still print. As noted above, the relai d’influence of the literary world prefer to read in print. Our authors also wanted to hold their freshly-minted book, to see it launched IRL and to see it on the shelves in book stores. So, like most Australian publishers, we do both.
As a small, independent press promoting short fiction by new and emerging writers, we knew we would have to struggle to get attention. I’ve recently written a blogpost (What we talk about when we talk about short stories Part 1 Reviewers & Part 2 Bookclubs http://bit.ly/Q6Ivbg ) about the challenges and preconceptions and involved in this struggle. It’s not all gloom and doom. All six of our publications have been reviewed in the national press (SMH, The Age, The Australian, The Canberra Times) and we have reviews in literary journals and trade magazines (Southerly, Famous Reporter, Australian Book Review and Bookseller + Publisher). I very much doubt this would have happened if we were producing ebooks only.
Like the rest of the Arts, the literary world is in midst of change. But it is not a case of video killing the radio star; the paperback is not about to become extinct. The key is to have a range of platforms. Some weekends I want to go to the cinema, see a film on the big screen with some friends then chat about it over a meal. Other times, I stay in and download a new release to my smart, flat screen TV and on a long weekend, I might pull out my DVD set of MadMen. Same with books. I might start reading a short story on my smart phone while I’m waiting to see the doctor. Later that night I’ll hop into bed, grab my ereader and pick up the story where I left off, before returning to the collection of prose poems I bought at a recent launch or the library book that’s due back soon.
We’ve recently found that the same multiple-platform approach was needed when it came to Earworms, Spineless Wonders audio. We have been producing audio short stories as mp3 files and promoting them via social media and SoundCloud, a free audio-sharing program. This platform really suits people who are used to downloading audio and podcasts. But there are lots of people who like to listen to a CD in the car or on their home stereo and who like to borrow talking books in CD form from their local library. We are currently putting together CDs and plan to have them ready for Christmas. http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/audio-2
Do you believe we should have literary prizes in general? Why?
Literary prizes are great for writers and publishers. Who wouldn’t want the gold seal of approval from the Miles Franklin or a Premiers Award on the front jacket in the bookstore window? Recent discussions around the formation of The Stella Award, however, have been a timely alert for all of us in the literary industry, as well as to readers, to issues of fairness in the awards process.
From the point of view of a relatively new, small publisher of short stories, literary awards in Australia are especially challenging. We are not only up against larger, more established publishers but, in most cases, we also compete in general fiction categories along with novels. The prize formerly known as Queensland Premiers Literary Award is the only competition offering prize money specifically for short story collections.
From time to time, short story collections by smaller publishers are selected. I am comforted by this fact whenever I pick up Ryan O’Neill’s slim collection of short stories, Famine in Newcastle. It is published by Ginninderra Press and in 2007 was shortlisted for the Steele Rudd Queensland Premiers Award. And, for me, the most inspiring recent example is this year’s Booker Prize shortlisting of The Lighthouse, a novel by Alison Moore published by Salt, a small UK press set up by West Australian poet, John Kinsella.
Do you see the Australian arts industry as a healthy one? Should the government be doing more to support it?
There are many small-scale companies like Spineless Wonders throughout the Australian Arts industry who are nimble enough to respond to changes in both technology and the behaviour of cultural consumers, and who are well-placed to discover and nurture new and emerging talents.
If outfits like ours are to continue to flourish and if we the writers we publish are to gain recognition outside of Australia, we need Government support. Like many small publishers, Spineless Wonders is struggling financially. Increased Government funding at the individual company and organizational levels would be a big help. Organisations such as SPUNC (which advocates for small presses) as well as state-based writers centres and regional festival organisers, all play vital roles in supporting and developing a vibrant literary scene. They need ongoing funding.
It would greatly enhance the status of the Australian short story if we could stage a national conference for short stories along the lines of the international conference held in the US. Festivals which specifically showcase short fiction and literary awards with short story collection categories would also help build the profile of short fiction writers, and promote both excellence and innovation in the form.
Bronwyn Mehan will be on the panel State of Literary (Award) Affairs at the Emerging Writers’ Festival with Stephen Romei and Kirsten Tranter. You can purchase tickets to the Emerging Writers’ Festival by visiting our product page or calling the NSW Writers’ Centre on (02) 9555 9757.