Short story writing in interwar Britain

Short stories are a relatively niche genre of fiction writing these days. The fiction short story appears to have originated in the 1820s. It is primarily the short stories of famous novelists that have stood the test of time: Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and, on the other side of the pond, Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.[i] For the interwar period, literary authors such as James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield may come to mind. Yet the works of Joyce and Mansfield were only read by a limited audience at the time of their publication. They are decidedly ‘highbrow’ authors with no mass-market appeal.

Alongside these literary outputs, thousands of other, now forgotten, short stories were published in interwar Britain. They were found in newspapers, weekly magazines and dedicated publications such as the Strand Magazine. Due to their placement, short story writing was often considered aligned with journalism. Dozens of guide books appeared in the 1920s and 1930s instructing young hopefuls in how to ‘live off the pen’, whether that was through writing news articles; human interest stories; short stories; or novels (or even screenplays for films).

Literary critic Q.D. Leavis let rip against this commercial market of fiction writing in her 1932 polemic Fiction and the Reading Public. She is highly critical of the marketisation of fiction, which in her view sees editors prioritise high circulation figures above all else. ‘The kind of fiction published in this way – the briefest inspection will show that it is all of a kind – is carefully chosen by the editors in accordance with the policy of wat is called ‘Giving the Public what it wants.’’[ii] The result, Leavis argues, is that the public is inundated with ‘fiction that requires the least effort to read and will set the reader up with a comfortable state of mind.’[iii]

Although the tone of Leavis’ book is snobbish in her assumption that the increased commercialisation of literature signals a cultural decline, an inspection of 1920s and 1930s guide books on ‘how to become a writer’ demonstrates that these books did consistently advise to keep the readership in mind when writing short stories. Often, these books break the short story down into constituent elements and tell the aspirant writer how to put together a successful story. They actively warn against individualism or stylistic flourishes in writing. For example, the author of the 1934 book Short Stories and How to Write Them declares: ‘My earnest advice to all at this stage is to study the markets. The stories you find should be your models. Every story should be written with a definite market in view.’[iv] Similarly, The Craft of the Short Story, published two years later, argues that ‘Always remember that your purpose in writing a short story is, or should be, to amuse and entertain.’[v] It is the reader, not the writer, who is the most important part of the equation.

The explosion of print media had made commercial writing an attractive career option for many people. Unlike professions such as medicine or law, you did not need an expensive university education to become a journalist or writer. Indeed, many of the books on the subject argued that all that was needed was a sound grasp of the English language, some stationary supplies and probably a cheap typewriter, and resilience, as the aspiring writer could expect many of their first attempts to be rejected by editors.

One author who made a good living out of the writing of guide books was Michael Joseph, who was also a literary agent and from 1935 a publisher (Michael Joseph continues to exist as an imprint of Penguin). Joseph wrote eight books on the topic of writing and making money, between 1924 and 1931. His prominence in the field is acknowledged by Leavis, who repeatedly uses his books as examples of how writing has become a business. In How to Write a Short Story, Joseph argues that ‘Many writers actually cannot visualise their market when they set to work on a story. Artistically, there is a good deal of justification for this; commercially, it is liable to result in failure to place the MS [manuscript].’[vi] Some of his other books tackle the business side of writing even more explicitly, by listing publications which accept submissions and explaining in detail how one goes about submitting a manuscript.

If the self-study of guidebooks was not enough, the aspiring writer could also enrol into one of dozens of writing schools and correspondence courses that were available in the interwar period. Often these were advertised in short story publications. Professional writers were generally highly sceptical of these ‘schools’ which tended to promise unrealistic returns on investment. Yet some writers set up schools themselves. One of the earliest and most commercially successful was the London School of Journalism, founded by novelist Max Pemberton and still in business today. ‘The Short Story Course’ offered by the School in the 1920s consisted of 12 lessons, each ending with a few exercises which the student could complete and send back to the School to be marked. Lessons include ‘About Plot’ (lesson 2); ‘Heroes and Heroines’ (lesson 4); and ‘Atmosphere’ (lesson 5). Exercises often included copying out examples of existing short stories to study them. The main advice at the end of the course is to ‘work with diligence every day’ and apply oneself, and then success is sure to follow.

All of these courses and books demonstrate that the writing of short stories was big business in interwar Britain, at least for the happy few who were able to claim authority in the field and make a living out of encouraging others to follow the same career path. All of the books highlight resilience and consistency as key to success, but do not mention elements more traditionally linked to artistic endeavours such as inspiration or reflection. Like journalism, which had become increasingly commercialised, short story writing became ‘hack work’ in the interwar period.

[i] All male, of course – not because men are better short story writers but because they have traditionally been more readily classed as ‘great authors’ and have had their oeuvres canonized accordingly.

[ii] Q.D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968 [1932]), p. 27

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Cecil Hunt, Short Stories and How to Write Them (London: George Harrap & Co, 1934), p. 187

[v] Donald McConochie, The Craft of the Short Story (London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1936), p. 27

[vi] Michael Joseph, How to Write a Short Story (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1925), p. 91