Left with the dregs

England Calling

Edited by Julia Bell and Jackie Gay <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 318pp, £12.99</em>

England Calling bills itself as "24 stories for the 21st century . . . a brilliant anthology of new English writing". It is true that there are 24 stories in the book. Every other claim is so false and flimsy that all I want to do is sit down and be as rude as possible, for as long as possible. The anthology begins by asking: "What does Englishness mean to you? . . . It's the question on the lips of newspaper journalists, magazine editors and commentators from Northumberland to Cornwall."

At the time that it was sent out for review, during the general election, I know for certain that this question was on absolutely no one's lips - apart from those of a mad woman who called Radio 4 to argue that the English are in the same position as were the Jews of Nazi Germany, conjuring up a future where the Scots and Welsh herd us into prison camps while the French and Albanians loot our fridges.

Tempting as it is to go full speed for the negative, I recognise that there is an alternative: to ask whether there is any value in an anthology that celebrates the English short story. It is possible to argue that there is no living short-story tradition in England. Certainly, there is no market. Mass circulation newspapers and magazines publish them too infrequently to build a vibrant short-story scene. A collection of short stories will always sell poorly compared to a novel by the same author. Anthologies sell even worse. In fact, anthologies sell so badly that the only way of having a hope in hell of shifting even a couple of thousand copies is to make a wild claim on the cover and then sprinkle enough well-known writers throughout to pique the interest of the casual browser - which is what Julia Bell and Jackie Gay have done with England Calling. Would you buy a book that was described, more accurately, as "The University of East Anglia's creative writing department calling a few friends and writing a begging letter to Julie Burchill"?

Only two anthologies published in England in the past ten years have been successful: Disco Biscuits and All Hail the New Puritans (a third would be Children of Albion Rovers, published in Scotland). Like England Calling, these were largely the work of provincial writers, although they were British rather than just English. I was fortunate enough to be involved in both. They sold well, they were reviewed everywhere, and they created a powerful sense of debate. The secret, in both cases, was that they did what was said on the jacket. Disco Biscuits billed itself as the writing of the "chemical generation" and, although every contributor later rejected the "chemical" tag, the anthology did announce a new subject matter: broadly, the subject of leisure and just how desperate and important a subject it had become in the 1990s. All Hail the New Puritans was different only in that its focus was style rather than subject matter. It used a ten-point pledge to dramatise the radical and aesthetic differences between contemporary writing and that of a previous generation.

One wonders whether there is another world where the short story is valued for itself. In fact, England Calling has emerged from this parallel reality: the world of creative writing programmes and community writing groups. The short story does have a role here, although its value is chiefly its shortness. In universities, it fills the place of a mid-term essay. In writing projects, it is something that can be shared without imposing too much on someone else's goodwill. England Calling is stuffed full of this kind of short writing. All I can say is that Ashley Stokes's "Pondlife" is touching, and Sarah O'Mahony's "Tides" is the most cynical marshalling of telling details in pursuit of a First that I can imagine. She did get a First.

The problem with prose is that it falls on to the page like cold porridge; hence the adjective "prosaic". The fiction writer's job is to energise this cold lump. One way of doing it, perhaps the only way, is to foster a mood of surprise. But few of these writers are interested in surprises; they aim instead for a balanced modulation of mood. Nothing happens for a while, we linger, and then we leave. This is the kind of aesthetic that informs the poems of William Carlos Williams and, to a lesser extent, the stories of Raymond Carver. Neither of these writers is English; if they are the main influences on the contemporary English short story, it is because stories have become coursework, and the writing course is largely an American invention.

There are two great stories in this collection: Harland Miller's "Castle Early" and Kevin Sampson's "Diamond White". Both create a mood where anything might happen but, if it does, it will be entirely necessary. They are plot-driven, but the writers have focused their entire intelligence on the narrative. Above all, they are fresh. Given that Miller was educated in art schools, it is a good time to ask why the British art school has proved itself such an incredible national resource, while the writing school has not.

Is there an English short-story tradition? Possibly. It is a decidedly minor tradition, but that is no bad thing. In the world of major art, there is only good and bad. In the world of minor art, we can argue for hours over Hollywood comedies as we do about Saki, Wodehouse and Maugham. However, in order to make an English tradition, it is necessary to cleanse writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle, who bring a different and darker sensibility to our lightweight world. That is the problem with Englishness: if the other nations of the United Kingdom ever go their own way, we may be left with the dregs.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?