There is hardly any market for the short story in Britain. This perhaps explains why we have so few masters of the medium to rival the great Americans such as John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor and Flannery O'Connor. But if more publishers displayed the commitment that Time Out/Quartet and Tindal Street Press have shown to the medium, the situation would soon change.
The backdrop of most of the stories in these two new collections is the urban jungle of the modern city. The stories in Hard Shoulder are linked by a broiling cultural mix and the "wide liquorice strips of concrete and tar that snaked round the city"of Birmingham (from Julia Bell's "Hard Shoulder"). There is also social division and a comic English parochialism, as best exemplified in "Ringers", an account of the theft of a Ford Capri, sympathetically narrated from the viewpoint of both the victim and a gang member. Apart from a slightly repetitive obsession with drink, drugs and clubbing, the chief preoccupations, of both collections, are women who are fed up with men, and men who no longer seem to know what women want and so are locked into struggling relationships.
If Hard Shoulder features mostly new writers, Neonlit has some already familiar names, including a characteristically amusing contribution from Jonathan Coe, and a thoughtful meditation on the subject of denial from Margaret Drabble - a reminder of what a fine writer she once was and could be again. The outstanding story is Rhonda Carrier's "St Wilgefortis Blues," a well-paced meditation on the subject of facial hair which reminds us, as Chekhov put it, that a story can be written on any subject. I also particularly enjoyed Steve Grant's "You Can't Hurry Love", a laddish variation on the eternal triangle, although one tires of the modish cultural references.
Not all the stories are good and some collapse into parody. The stories in Hard Shoulder present a rawer, more hard-up, booze-fuelled, and hard-pressed England. Neonlit, which is well edited and the more polished collection, is cooler, detached.
If there is a recurring problem, it is that too many of the writers seem obsessed with the pain of individual loneliness. Tom Paulin once complained of one story collection that reading it was a bit like visiting an art gallery only to find that it was displaying nothing but paintings by Edward Hopper. It is something like that with these collections. But, I suppose, an entire collection is not meant to be read in one sitting, but rather savoured and digested slowly. And there is plenty in both these books to satisfy all appetites.