I’ve often thought, growing older, that one of the most important things we can do as human beings is to try to see the world from other points of view. The best way of doing this, surely, is through the work of literature. There is plenty of rather dry academic work that seems to indicate that the habitual reading of novels is conducive to thinking about others and to more sociable behaviour. The point can’t be stretched too far. There is plenty of fiction that encourages and rewards pretty awful behaviour.
All the same, the question “What would this world look like if I weren’t me?” is one that fiction always asks; not an ethical question in itself, but one at the beginning of ethical consciousness.
Over the past eight years, I’ve been reading short stories written since 1700 or so. They’ve mostly been by British authors, in preparation for three successive anthologies for Penguin. The third of them, The Golden Age of British Short Stories, 1890-1914, was published at the beginning of October.
I guess the thing that has swept me away is just how I’ve been introduced to a crowd of different viewpoints. Perhaps it’s only the short story that could do this. I’ve probably read something like 30,000 short stories in that time, by maybe by 2,000 different authors. It would be simply impossible to read that number of novels, or novelists, in a lifetime. If fiction introduces you to the world of others, brought together in the fellowship of the imagination, the short story does so with incomparable efficiency.
These are some of the things I now feel I understand: what the excitements of newspaper offices were like, either in rural India (Kipling) or northern England (Bennett); what the Devil feels like when his stratagems succeed (Beerbohm) or fall to pieces in his hand, presented with virtue and a Catholic priest (Graham Greene); what it is to rise to heaven (Forster) or fall to your death from a high window (Malachi Whitaker); what it is to be an Anglican vicar’s wife with money to spend on a holiday for once (EM Delafield) or a hopelessly impoverished actor lying in bed in digs on a day off ( Malloch).
Sometimes, while reading, I would lift my head from Arthur Morrison and take a moment to remember that I wasn’t a widow with nothing to eat and no more furniture to sell; I was in the pleasant setting of the London Library and in a moment would go out for a lunchtime sandwich. That day, I chewed the sandwich thoughtfully, thinking about someone else.
Thinking about other people is the best that we can do, and thinking about them (I believe) not in a spirit of “Poor them” before the TV news turns to the important question of sport.
Rather, what literature helps us to do is to think “I could be this person” – sometimes in joyous envy, sometimes in fellow feeling and recognition, sometimes in pure compassion.
It was a series of historical accidents that gave the short story between 1890 and 1914 an unparalleled opportunity to do this. First, because of education reforms, almost everybody could read. Printing technology made literature very cheap to buy.
Before the invention of the cinema, magazines were the dominant form of mass media, and dozens of them sprang up, carrying short fiction of every variety. And those magazines wanted to interest their readers – very often by telling them, in detail, about a life they might never experience, like Israel Zangwill’s enchanting tales of life among sequestered orthodox Jews in the East End.
There’s no doubt, really, that the opportunities and energy of the short story have diminished a lot since then.
The short story magazines have gone; the short story writer, these days, is much more likely to be used to writing for approval than with confronting a large readership with something quite unfamiliar. I don’t think the circumstances pre-1914 are ever going to be repeated, and the short story is now a minority pursuit. But it sometimes still does its job. Just before writing this, I was sent an enormous new collection by the writer Robert Shearman: We All Hear Stories in the Dark is comprised of three volumes, 101 stories, readable in an order decided by the reader.
There are stories about tyrants and zombies, the Apostles, Snoopy and Charlie Brown, the dead, a teacher and his teenage mistress, and dozens of others. I felt, reading it, that the old task of the short story, to introduce us to humanity, its dreams and its worst moments, had been taken on once more. Imaginative literature is a vital toolbox; the short story the sharpest tool. Its edge still gleams.
The Golden Age of British Short Stories, 1890-1914 is published by Penguin