Short Stories

Eugen Bacon’s début short story collection, The Road to Woop Woop, plays with the genres of speculative fiction and magic realism. Using familiar tropes such as time travel, shapeshifting, and prescient characters, the stories typically refuse formulaic outcomes. The title story, for example, confounds expectations about the horror of bodily disintegration. The ominous angel of death in the story ‘Dying’ turns out to be a true wit. The surreal is transformed by the blessing of love in the heart-warming story ‘He Refused to Name It’.

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Short stories are often disappointing, and this collection is no exception. What a pity that so much strength and force has been put into a book that lacks a plan and presents too many inconclusive pieces.

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When Shirley Hazzard was invited to give the 1984 Boyer Lectures, it was an astonishing break in tradition. Her twenty-three predecessors included only one woman, Dame Roma Mitchell, a supreme court justice who was later governor of South Australia. Except for architect and writer Robin Boyd, and poet and Bulletin editor Douglas Stewart, Hazzard was the only creative artist on the list. All her predecessors were well known for their public contributions to Australian life.

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Self-evidently, the short story demands precision. The term ‘short story’ more than likely brings to mind the magazine-length sprint or the rapidly delivered epiphany. John Updike was a master of this demanding form. In his Olinger and Tarbox tales, characters are assembled quickly and sent to their fate with little delay. Never cursory, this was writing performed under haiku-like restraint. In the short stories of Wendy James and Tom Cho, we are presented with similarly brief and precise tales of two different Australian landscapes: one as small as a kitchen, the other as capacious as an arena. Why She Loves Him is James’s first story collection after two well-received novels. For the most part, the stories are quiet and domestic affairs. Her characters are frequently repressed and restrained, filled with rage that is rarely given voice. If the short fiction of some novelists feels too constrained, James’s evocation of despair is perfectly suited to these short bursts.

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Welcome again to Morris Lurie’s global village: Melbourne, Paris, New York, London, Tangier, Tel Aviv, Melbourne again, London. Lurie is one of our most reliable entertainers, but he is also, in the recesses of his stories, a chronicler of inner loneliness. The round world for him is signposted with stories; as one of his characters says, ‘everything is a story, or a prelude to a story, or the aftermath of one.’ The sheer variety of narrative incidents and locales in this collection is, as usual with him, impressive in itself. His characters play hard with experience in those bright or familiar places, a Tangier of easy living and surprising acquaintances, a London of the sixties fierce with contrasts. Yet finally they are always partly detached from it all and able to set themselves free, curiously able to resume the role of spectator of life. Many of Lurie’s characters give the initially disconcerting impression of possessing that ultimate detachment of a certain kind of writer, even when, as is usually the case, they are not actually cast as a writer or artist.

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In perhaps the most tender story in this textured, interconnected collection, an adolescent son spends the summer sunbathing in the backyard and sneaking glances at the paperboy while his working-class, stay-at-home father, who reads detective fiction and likes to ‘figure things out before the endings’, gently attempts to make it known to his son that he can tell him anything.

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The novelist’s art is wide ranging; he is concerned with a multitude of things that comprise the fabric of his book. The short story writer, however, is concerned with one thing that implies many, since singularity and intensity are the essence of his art. The best short story writers depend on a marked personal attitude and this is the distinguishing characteristic of David Martin’s second collection of stories whose common denominator is his compassionate understanding of the problems of New Australians.

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From a clutch of novels including the award-winning Camille’s Bread (1996), Amanda Lohrey has now turned to shorter literary forms, notably two Quarterly Essays (2002, 2006), a novella (Vertigo, 2008) and this new collection of short stories. At the 2009 Sydney Writers’ Festival she publicly confessed her new leaning, arguing the benefits of genres more easily completed by both writer and reader and less likely to produce guilt if cast aside unfinished.

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There is a lot of work still to be done on the place of the yarn in our culture. Has its pre-eminence to do with the roving outback life, with traditions of taciturnity, with an inability to cope with the size of our land? Or has it more to do with the rapid urbanisation of this country and a need to celebrate and protect myths, an abiding sense of nostalgia? Or are there more pragmatic, economic reasons – the dearth of publishing houses, the lack of a landed gentry, the impossibility of survival as a full-time writer? Whatever the cause – and speculation is interesting – there can be little argument about the fact that the yarn has a central place in our literature, whether firmly embedded in a longer novel as in Such is Life and The Wort Papers, or staring at us from literary magazines or collections of short stories.

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Stephanie Johnson writes short stories and writes mainly about women. It’s as though there’s a specific genre in current writing that ties together these two kinds of writing, for women writing about other women in short prose pieces make up a distinct category that includes almost all of the familiar names of women writing in Australia now. These women writers include migrants who have made their homes in Australia and write from that position. Johnson, for instance, is a New Zealander.

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