Picador Shots

The NS guide to Picador Shots

Picador is repackaging a selection of its short stories as "shots". This isn't fashionable dyslexia, but an appeal to those of us too busy propping up the bar at Wetherspoon's to read The Brothers Karamazov or David Foster Wallace's latest. They've been reviewed by GQ and the "women's fashion bible" InStyle, which compares Picador to Topshop. Publicity copies are accompanied by a laddish press release informing us that "great writing is about depth, not length (no laughing at the back, please)".

But it's only skin-deep. The jacket colours are tastefully muted - more beach house in the Hamptons than lurid Midori green or curaçao blue - and adorned with minimalist line drawings. And there's a certain lack of conviction in the oo-er Ingerland rhetoric: "this much-lauded yet mysteriously under-read art form", the press release piously continues, suggesting that the whole venture is an example of elitism by stealth: of dosing the masses with improving lit in a sugar coating.

The stories themselves are a mix of the superior and the second-rate. From its deadpan first sentence, Bret Easton Ellis's "Water from the Sun" has the acid fizz of cheap champagne: "Danny is on my bed and depressed because Ricky was picked up by a break-dancer at the Odyssey on the night of the Duran Duran lookalike contest and murdered." And Tim Winton's "Small Mercies" is uncomplicated in its emotional force. Others, aiming for subtler effects, seem strained. Claire Messud's tale of a French atrocity in wartime Algeria, "The Professor's History", collapses under the weight of its own artifice, while Nell Freudenberger's "Lucky Girls" never really gets off the ground.

The short story is a struggling genre, and attempts to revive it - such as the National Short Story Prize, the first winner of which (James Lasdun) was announced last month - are to be commended. We're not sure, however, that this half-hearted packaging exercise is the answer.