Review: Frank Cottrell Boyce and Sean O’Brien at the MLF
The plucky short story has had a long and eventful history.
Back in the 19th century, most self-respecting novelists were also writing shorter fiction, simply as a matter of course. Even as recently as the 1940s, there was a whole swathe of short story magazines on the newsagent shelves, requiring a constant supply of material from authors to satisfy the healthy demand from readers. Then, in the cultural shifts after the Second World War, something went awry. Other media – television, cinema, music, comics – took centre stage, and the short story was pretty much shunted underground. There were still many fine proponents of the form, but readers would have been required to look a bit harder to find them.
In recent times, the short story has been enjoying something of a renaissance, and a very significant factor in this development is Manchester’s own Comma Press, run by Ra Page and Jim Hinks. As well as publishing the annual BBC National Short Story Award book, Comma has given exposure to many fine new writers, and allowed established authors to experiment with the form. They’ve presented important translations of foreign work, and published collections breathing new life into established genres such as science fiction and horror.
Tonight’s event, part of the Manchester Literature Festival, focuses on a volume called Morphologies, published by Comma late last year. It consists of a series of essays by short story writers, each singing the praises of a classic story writer dear to them, and attempting to unpick their technique. Here, two of the Morphologies contributors revisit their choices and state their case. Firstly Sean O’Brien, perhaps best known as a much-garlanded poet, shares his admiration for Edgar Allan Poe. He reads a “loosened-up” version of his Morphologies piece. He brings a real poet’s eye to Poe’s work, revealing how his stories, drenched to the point of suffocation in obsession, loneliness and insanity, seem almost to be constructed to an algorithm. O’Brien pinpoints precisely when it works and when it doesn’t – and when it does, Poe’s technique, described by O’Brien as “all climax”, is quite devastatingly powerful.
By way of contrast, Frank Cottrell Boyce, much-loved Liverpudlian screenwriter and children’s author whose recent credits range from the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony to a forthcoming episode of Doctor Who, shares his love of Anton Chekhov. He does so by reading a very personal piece he wrote for the New Statesman at the start of the year, tying together the story of the sailor grandfather he never knew who died on board the Cydonia in 1949, and Chekhov’s little-known 1890 short story Gusev about an aggravating Russian orderly who dies while sailing home and whose body is cast into the sea. Cottrell Boyce’s approach is full of tangents and stray observations, and even recent corrections to the tale courtesy of his relatives around the world, who have since posted comments on the article online.
The event as a whole is kept plain and unfussy. The two guests speak in turn, and then there’s a brief, sparky Q&A session chaired by Comma’s Ra Page. It’s the sort of occasion which could risk becoming disjointed and dry – in the rather august surroundings of the Burgess Foundation, the audience might feel like undergraduates in a lecture theatre – but it assuredly doesn’t. It requires a degree of attention, yes, but it certainly rewards it. O’Brien and Cottrell Boyce are full of contagious enthusiasm for their chosen subjects, and both manage to be sharp, insightful, engaging and often very funny.
What’s perhaps most striking is that the guests, while contrasting with each other well, both follow in the mould of their hero. Whereas O’Brien’s piece is intense, lyrical and thoughtful, Cottrell Boyce’s is free-wheeling, unpredictable and full of character. Together, they actually go some way towards demonstrating the sheer scope and variety that the short story form can achieve. Crucially, on leaving, the overwhelming urge is to go straight out and read the stories discussed, and generally to wallow in the delights of what the short story form can offer. Job done, then.
By Andy Murray
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