I’ve said it before, but there is no doubt that short stories get a bad rap, and I’m not entirely sure why. Some of the finest books of the last 10 years have included memorable collections from Anneliese Mackintosh, Kirsty Logan, Chris McQueer, Vicki Jarrett, Helen McClory, and there are many more, but there is still a prevailing feeling that a writer can’t really be considered such until they have a novel published. This is nonsense, and ignores the fact that some of the most celebrated writers’ greatest work is to be found in the shorter form.
It could be argued, and I’m happy to do so, that James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, and Agnes Owens are rarely better than in their short stories (more of which below), and there are many other examples I could name. As most writers will tell you the short story is not a lesser form of writing, just a different one – one which allows established writers to experiment, and which can also work as an introduction to a new voice.
With that in mind, it was with great interest that I read Good Listeners, the short story collection from Alan Warner and Brian Hamill, published by latter’s new publishing entity The Common Breath. Warner has written eight novels to date, including personal favourites Morvern Callar, The Sopranos, and The Deadman’s Pedal and it’s always a treat to read new work.
I know Brian Hamill as much as an editor and publisher than as a writer, particularly through his work with the excellent magazine thi wurd, and their fiction anthology Tales From a Cancelled Country, but he has had several of his stories appear in some of Scotland’s finer literary publications including Edinburgh Review and New Writing Scotland. I was fascinated as to how such a collaboration would work, and what it would tell us about each writer.
Multi-authored collections are not unknown. One of Scotland’s essential works of literature is Lean Tales, with stories from the aforementioned Agnes Owens, Alasdair Gray, and James Kelman. Warner himself was first brought to many readers’ attention with his contribution to Children of the Albion Rovers, where he shared pages with, among others, Irvine Welsh, Laura Hird, Gordon Legge, and Kevin Williamson. Such collections, when they work, tell us something about the writing of the time in terms of both style and substance.
Good Listeners is small but perfectly formed, with six stories, three from each. If you have never read Warner before this is a great place to start as you get the sense of his world-view that is always slightly askew. A local luminary’s legend grows without his knowledge – the community keeping a secret to save his blushes, there’s an ingenious yet simple money-making scam which has a terrible twist in the tale, and an unforgettable funeral fulfills an unusual last will and testament. All perfectly normal in the world of Alan Warner
Hamill also shows himself as a storyteller willing to examine the everyday in a fresh and atypical way. Like Warner you get the feeling that he is writing about people and places he knows, but not in a way that anyone involved would (necessarily) recognise themselves. A creative writing student gets conflicting advice leading to a crisis of confidence verging on the existential, an unlikely friendship examines the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of relationships, and the story which gives the book its title sets out the dangers in “Sitting there and doing nothing” for too long as a bus journey becomes a dark night of the soul. Taken as a whole the stories work together seamlessly – two writers who are clearly close in terms of style and vision.
Good Listeners is an interesting and welcome publication, and one which leaves you wanting more – not only from these two writers, but for the prospect of a further collection of short stories which reflects the current state of Scottish writing. While we are lucky to have fantastic literary magazines such as Gutter, New Writing Scotland, thi wurd, The 404 Ink Magazine, and the eagerly awaited Extra Teeth (among others), surely the time has come for another standalone collection to rival Lean Tales, Children of the Albion Rovers, and 2011’s The Year Of Open Doors. The Common Breath is the perfect place for such an idea to flourish and I urge you to visit their website to see how you could get involved. I have a feeling that Good Listeners could be the start of something very special indeed.