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.

Photo:Getty
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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.