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.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear