As Harper Lee, The Stone Roses, or Sam Raimi will tell you (and that’s a dinner-party I’d like to attend), it’s not easy following up a cultural touchstone. When your debut strikes a chord with a wider public and becomes higher profile than anyone expected then there’s bound to be added pressure to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. Chris McQueer’s short story collection Hings was just such a debut, one which found its way into the hands of people who don’t normally bother with literary fiction.
As with lain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, and Alan Bissett’s Boyracers, Hings is a book with a reputation which spread in no small part by word of mouth, praised and quoted in the workplace and passed around the playground. It received mainly glowing reviews on sites such as this one, and in print, but so do many other books which don’t manage to achieve the profile Hings did.
In the age of social media such a reach can be more readily measured, with people posting pictures holding their copy on a variety of social media, often accompanied by messages professing that it’s the first book they’ve read in ages, a claim also made for those mentioned above. It feels as if Chris McQueer is reaching an audience outside of the usual Scottish literary scene in a manner not witnessed since Allan Wilson’s Wasted In Love received similar attention in 2011. But now we get to find out if McQueer can follow Hings. That’s the question which inevitably arises with the publication of his latest collection, HWFG. Continue reading
One of Scots Whay Hae!’s Best Books of 2017 was Helen McClory’s novel Flesh Of The Peach, which should have reached a much wider readership but it became a casualty of the sudden demise of Freight Books, being published but with little or no publicity. I urge you to get a copy, if you still can, and treasure it. Thankfully, 404 Ink are publishing her latest collection of short fiction, Mayhem & Death – an apt title, taken from the powerful opening story ‘Souterrain’, as there proves to be plenty of both between its covers.
McClory’s stories share DNA with those of Kirsty Logan, particularly those in The Rental Heart and A Portable Shelter, and Ever Dundas’ excellent novel Goblin, but they are also reminiscent of Angela Carter and Alison Lurie, often looking to the natural world and animal kingdom, and the accompanying mythology, fantasy and fables, to examine themes of grief, alienation and loneliness. In fact Mayhem & Death has a dedication which reads ‘For The Lonely’, and it’s a subject which McClory returns to and examines throughout these tales. Continue reading
Jellyfish – Janice Galloway
Janice Galloway’s Jellyfish, her recently published short story collection, feels like a call to arms on at least two fronts. In the Acknowledgements she states, “Publishers are shy of short stories in the here and now, shy like people are shy of three-legged puppies, which is to say they’d love to give them a home, but are nervous of their apparent handicap in that they are not novels.” It’s a theme she returned to while promoting the book. In interview with The Scotsman, she confesses, “I’m delighted to get this book published because nobody wants to publish short stories these days. Publishers always say to me, ‘what we’d really like is for you to get on with that novel you’re writing.” She is only partly correct in that in recent years some of the best new fiction has appeared in short story collections, but more often than not they are by new and unknown writers and are published by small, independent publishers. In that sense, with Freight Books, she has found the perfect home.
It’s something she acknowledges when describing herself as “hugely grateful to Adrian Searle at Freight for taking them on…”. Recently Freight have been responsible for memorable collections from Anneliese Mackintosh (Any Other Mouth), Vicki Jarrett (The Way Out) and Rodge Glass (Lovesextravelmusic). Other notable recent collections include Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart And Other Fairytales, published by Salt, and Allan Wilson’s Wasted In Love by Cargo Publishing. But the fact that my list is so short suggests Galloway’s complaint is a valid one. It was not always this way.
Where Galloway is undoubtedly correct is that the short story is a form which is currently largely overlooked by the more established publishers. At the end of the last century, and concentrating on Scotland, James Kelman’s short story collections were regularly published and contain arguably his greatest work. Lanark and 1982, Janine aside, the same could be said of Alasdair Gray. Their contemporary and friend Agnes Owens’ short stories are some of the best examples you will read anywhere and from anytime (get a copy of Lean Tales to read some great examples from all three – it might just change your life). The next generation of Scottish writers were also well served, with A.L. Kennedy and Ali Smith (whose latest collection Public Library & Other Stories is also out now) both publishing memorable short stories in a number of collections in the ’90s and early noughties. They were not seen as lesser books, just great writers’ fiction presented in a shorter form.