A new home for the short story

Not just another literary prize.

Let’s imagine that you have aspirations to write fiction and have never written before. You decide to write a short story, because writing a novel straight away is too daunting, and you write and write and write and work hard at it and revise your work and write some more, and once you have arrived at something that you feel confident is finished you feel ready to send it out into the world.

Then things get difficult. Who do you send your story to? You are not involved in the literary scene (if indeed there even is such a thing). You do not work in publishing. You are not a journalist. You do not personally know any published writers, let alone editors. You are very definitely outside the circle of people in the know about these things, and you are almost certainly on your own. Your options, you will soon realise, are limited.

Aspiring non-fiction writers (critics, journalists, etc.) can submit their work to many different publications – from newspapers to magazines to trade publications – in the hope of being published and developing their talents. Writers of fiction cannot.

In the US, (literally) hundreds of "little" magazines sandwiched between the Paris Review and n+1 in New York and McSweeney’s and the Believer in San Francisco are flourishing. New writers are given more of a chance than ever before as competition among magazines to publish the best fiction has intensified (or mollified, depending on who you're talking to about this) since the beginning of the "Era of the MFA". Your submission options, for better or for worse, are wide-ranging.

In Britain, where to submit? Granta, the "magazine of new writing", is an obvious choice and an excellent publication, by far the most professional operation this side of the Atlantic. But a closer look at back issues will quickly reveal that while Granta is indeed the home of new writing, it is largely that of established writers. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find Craig Raine’s Areté, the venerable Ambit (where J G Ballard was Fiction Editor many years ago) and Litro in the print sections, and the likes of 3:AM Magazine and Untitled Books online, where limits are often placed on word counts.

In Ireland, the situation is (proportionally) better. Brendan Barrington’s Dublin Review and Declan Meade’s Stinging Fly stand out amidst a host of others, not least in giving new writers and writing a chance.  

Not much choice, is there? And it might well be that you, freshly-blooded writer of fiction, might sift out some of the options mentioned above on aesthetic or ideological grounds. (Which is to say: you might realise that some of these publications may, to some degree or other, favour certain styles of writing that you do not align yourself with.)

It is time to disclose that I am an editor at a (London-based!) literary magazine called The White Review. We publish fiction, among other things, in print and online, on a quarterly and monthly basis respectively. And we always, in every print and online issue, publish new writers alongside more established ones.

And now, thanks to a generous grant from the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, we are launching the imaginatively titled "White Review Short Story Prize", awarding £2,500 to the best short story by an unpublished writer each year. The first prize is open to submissions until 1 March 2013. It will be judged by the Booker-shortlisted writer Deborah Levy, literary agent Karolina Sutton and Alex Bowler, editorial director at Jonathan Cape, and Tom McCarthy, author of Men in Space, Remainder and C, will award the prize at a party in April 2013.

Even more exciting, the winning entry will be published in a print edition of the White Review, and all shortlisted writers will be published online.

This isn’t simply about demonstrating the vitality of a form – the short story – which is too often neglected in Britain and Ireland. We would also like to encourage writing appropriate to our times. (None of that "readibility" business.) The judges will be looking for short stories that explore and expand the possibilities of the form. We encourage submissions from all literary genres, and there are no restrictions on theme or subject matter. The only emphasis is on ambitious, imaginative and innovative approaches to creative writing.

Aspiring writers: pick up your pens! Send us your stories! Our culture needs new writers, new writers need exposure. We need writing for our times. 

For more details, visit www.thewhitereview.org
"Little magazines" have traditionally been the home of the short story (Photo: Getty Images)

Jacques Testard is co-founder and editor of The White Review.

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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