Best British Short Stories 2015 review – Mantel on Thatcher and more
Hilary Mantel’s fantasia about the assassination of Margaret Thatcher leads this year’s collection of familiar and lesser known writers
Wednesday 8 July 2015 08.00 BST
ou might assume that an anthology with a title like this is going to be a genteel affair, perhaps because when we think of the form we often imagine a sort of archetypal New Yorker short story, which tends to follow the formula of Small and Poignant Domestic Events Hinting at a Dark Truth. Otherwise it’s the kind of magazine competition in, say, Grazia, illustrated by a floaty-dressed model aged about 19 staring into the distance with a typewriter in front of her.
But Nicholas Royle’s book is not a wholly genteel affair; you can tell this from his introduction, which begins with the description of a naughty shelf on which he keeps authors who “don’t get out of bed for less than a grand”, those who write unreasonably bad reviews, either from malice or laziness, and those who cavil about the fees he offers for inclusion in this selection (which has been appearing annually, under his editorship, since 2012, but goes back much further). He goes on to say that he is about to add a shelf for publishers who refuse to allow their authors to appear. This particularly upsets him. “There’s no point in publishing a series called Best British Short Stories if we don’t include what are, in the editor’s opinion, the best British short stories.”
Which neatly brings us, as it does Royle, to Hilary Mantel, and her story “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher”, which caused a bit of a stink last year. The piece appears in the anthology, which means neither she nor her publisher will be on Royle’s naughty shelf; its inclusion also confers on the collection the kind of legitimacy that rubs off on the lesser-known authors. (The other big name here is Helen Simpson, whose “Strong Man” appeared in the New Statesman last year.) Mantel’s story is very good – “a subtle meditation on possibility and alternate realities”, as Norman Tebbit put it. Oh no, wait, he called it “a sick book from a sick mind”.
There are 21 stories here, or books, if you prefer to use Lord Tebbit’s term, from 20 authors (one writer, Julianne Pachico, makes it in twice). Naturally, this means there are 21 different points of view and at least 20 ways of approaching narrative description; it would be pointless to try to describe or review them all. But I can at least determine the hazy outline of a pattern. It would appear that – going by this collection and scrutinising the author biographies – your chances of appearing in Best British Stories 2016 will be given a boost by (1) being a woman, (2) having a connection with the north west (Royle is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Manchester is currently a good place to get a short story published, thanks to the magazine Cōnfingō), and (3) writing your story in the present tense. The first two things are good, or neutral; the third I’m not so sure about. I wouldn’t want to place a ban on stories that use this perfectly legitimate technique, but I think the novelty has worn off, and sometimes it can be a little irritating once noticed, like when you notice the seat coverings on public transport. Still, on the whole it’s well used here.
Also, (4): be a bit weird, or uncanny. Royle has a soft spot for this, I think, judging from some of his own fiction and general past form, but here it’s behind some of the best work, such as Bee Lewis’s take on the origins of Antony Gormley’s beach-bound iron statues, or the moment of magic in Helen Marshall’s “Secondhand Magic”, which gave me the willies. I won’t pretend that every story is my cup of tea, or guarantee that they will all be yours – but that’s the point of an anthology, after all.
• Best British Short Stories by edited by Nicholas Royle (Salt Publishing, £9.99).