Can Zadie Smith salvage the short story?

It’s often said that the short story is ‘in crisis’; unfortunately The Book of Other People, a colourful tome containing 23 character-driven tales by hip youngish writers, will not return it to glory.

Nathalie Rothschild

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The short story is a literary form that is often said to be in crisis. So much so that the BBC set up a campaign in 2002 to ‘Save Our Short Story’, launching an online anthology with the alarming title Endangered Species and, later, a National Short Story Award.

It seems appropriate, then, that an art form regularly declared to be in need of passionate advocacy, public support and generous funding should be the chosen medium for The Book of Other People, published in aid of a children’s writing charity, 826 NYC.

The Brooklyn-based charity was founded by Dave Eggers, one of 23 contributors to The Book of Other People, which was edited by the British novelist Zadie Smith. He is one of the authors who took most advantage of Smith’s loose-strings approach to editing. ‘The instruction was simple’, Smith writes in her modest introduction: ‘Make somebody up.’ Eggers’ story, Theo, is an anthropomorphic tale of hillsides turning into giants with very human emotions.

Each of the 23 stories is named after its character, though Smith heeded protests against her attempt to impose uniformity on the book by suggesting all authors give a first and last name to their stories. Smith herself named her contribution Hanwell Snr.

Toby Litt, one of seven contributors to The Book of Other People who appeared on the 2003 Granta Best of Young British Novelists list, displays great potential for engaging children’s literature with The Monster, about a creature who lacks self-awareness. Unable to distinguish one day from another, the monster, Litt mischievously concludes, had no story, ‘unless being a monster is story enough’. It was not, in fact, enough.

Other stories that did not conform to the first-name, second-name format are much more satisfying. There’s Aleksander Hemon’s biblical fable The Liar, for instance, in which a man about to be crucified says he is the Son of God and silently hopes ‘the voices in his head have told him the truth’. And George Saunders names his engaging story Puppy, as a dog brings two women of different social standings together in a central scene tragically devoid of empathy.

Some authors have chosen unordinary names for their characters. Take Cindy Stubenstock by AM Homes, Newton Wicks by Andrew Sean Greer, and Perkus Tooth by Jonathan Lethem, for instance. Though an unusual name alone is not enough to make individual stories stand out in this star-studded anthology, which has been ordered alphabetically after the characters, Lethem’s contribution does rise above the rest. It describes the formation of an unlikely friendship between a former child actor and the critic Perkus Tooth – an obsessive, pot-smoking, cross-eyed, migraine-afflicted cult figure who is prone to ‘veer into ellipsis’.

Lethem packs in a vivid description of Tooth, who, with his eccentric routines and surprising inclinations, feels at once entirely knowable and elusive. At the same time, the story is about the city and its social layers. ‘To live in Manhattan’, the protagonist Chase explains, ‘is to be persistently amazed at the worlds squirreled inside one another, like those lines of television cable and fresh water and steam heat and outgoing sewage and telephone wire and whatever else which cohabit in the same intestinal holes that pavement-demolishing workmen periodically wrench open to the daylight and to our passing, disturbed glances’.

A great number of contributors, who form an A-Z of the contemporary British and US literary scenes, are concerned with inter-generational relations, stressing how parents shape one’s character. David Mitchell’s Judith Castle, whose story opens the anthology, does not only have a fraught relationship with her own daughter, but her own awkward personality was, it seems, shaped by the callousness of her father.

Intergenerational trouble also afflicts the Hanwells in Zadie Smith’s piece, and the families in Heidi Julavits’ Judge Gladys Parks-Schultz and Colm Tóibín’s Donal Webster, about a man who returns to Ireland from New York to be with his mother in her final days. Childhood memories contribute to the melancholia of Edwidge Danticat’s Lélé and Adam Thirwell’s Nigora.

Written for charity, The Book of Other People itself has a charitable air to it. With the aim of retaining the individuality of each piece, Smith has made very few changes, and even regrets having to streamline the books appearance by changing the fonts of the original submissions.

In the end, the generous instruction to ‘make somebody up’ makes for a disjointed reading experience; in this assortment of 23 characters the quality varies greatly between contributions. It is interesting to note how individual authors responded to the brief, the result indeed being, as Smith puts it, ‘a lively demonstration of the fact that there are as many ways to create “character” (or to deny the possibility of “character”) as there are writers’.

While it was not necessary to include a treatise on fictional character construction, it would have done no harm if Smith had been a bit more daring in imposing an order on the collection or if she had offered some further thoughts in her introduction on how and why patterns do or do not emerge throughout the book. The Book of Other People is an enjoyable read, but a good cause, it seems, is not enough to make a great book.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

The Book of Other People by Zadie Smith (ed) is published by Hamish Hamilton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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