BBC National Short Story winner – a plea to publishers to take risks

KJ Orr, the winner of the 2016 Short Story award, explains why writers need freedoms in order for the form to thrive

Since winning the BBC National Short Story award this week for “Disappearances”, I have been asked whether I am writing a novel. This is something that happens to short story writers. I have responded obliquely. There are good reasons for this: most importantly, one of the exciting aspects of writing is finding the form appropriate to the subject you are exploring – whatever it may be.

In talking about writing, I’ve found myself describing the process of feeling my way as a writer, and the power of not knowing – something David Constantine has written very eloquently about. I’ve found myself talking about my love of the shapeshifting quality of the short story, a capacity that I’ve always felt gives you great freedom to lend form to the territory you are drawn to write about. I’ve talked about how it can give expression to a host of contradictory impulses and feelings and understandings, how it honours complexity, how it doesn’t patronise the reader. Ali Smith, in one of my all-time favourite interviews on the short story, has discussed it as a form that calls to the reader for a responsive engagement, one that can feel really alive: “The life of form and the form of life both become spotlit.” I have returned to short stories over and over for the love of this living quality.

The fact is, the sort of creative challenge and freedom I associate with the short form is there for the taking. I have been excited to witness the successes of Max Porter, Claire-Louise Bennett, Dorthe Nors – writers who are embracing these challenges and freedoms. I recently heard Porter talking about writers who are permission givers – writers who open up the possibilities of form. I believe there is a hunger for form that is playful, that thinks on its feet about the best way to communicate what it means to live in our times – in this head, with this heart, through this experience.

But in publishing, too, we need permission givers, people who say: “Yes, I will publish your short stories, your novel in fragments, your novella in verse, your prose poems.” I believe there are readers longing to enter into dialogue in this way, from the bookseller who presses a book into your hand and says, “You have to read this”, to editors, agents and marketing departments. We need people who are brave enough to back a book they can’t pin with a label.

KJ Orr

The GuardianTramp

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