Review: Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prize Longlist 2019

London’s Brick Lane is famously the heart of the city’s Bangladeshi community. It’s also part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, which has one of the smallest white populations of any local authority in the UK, and which not coincidentally (institutional racism being what it is) is also one of the most deprived local authority areas in the UK. In the foreword to this short story collection, which as its title suggests contains the 12 pieces of fiction longlisted for Brick Lane Bookshop’s Short Story Prize, Denise Jones tells us that the prize grew out of a novel bursary “for writers living in the east London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham” – once again, Hackney and Newham are some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country, with the smallest white populations.

Why, then, are these stories all so thoroughly conventional?

A quick scan down the contents page reveals a list of largely Anglo-Saxon-looking names (with a couple of exceptions – Isha Karki and Melody Razak both appear to be non-white writers); a similar skim of the authors’ bios shows a list of people with MAs and PhDs in creative writing, Clarion West alumni, academics and journalists, some of whom don’t even live in the boroughs in question. It sure doesn’t feel like this is a prize recognising work by writers not represented by the prevailing literary culture, as the rather self-congratulatory introductory materials seem to suggest.

The stories themselves bear that impression out: they are all dour, depressing things, mostly in the realist tradition (although there are some speculative stories here), that seem overwhelmingly committed to the view that modern life is irrevocably disappointing and alienating in a way that I’ve encountered primarily in mainstream literary novels. An old man attends an open house at a flat he used to share with his dead wife, and ends up locking himself in on purpose. An old woman sits in a living room turned into a beach with the partner who keeps gambling away her savings. Like, it’s true that ageing in this country is tragic because of the way family structures favour children and those at the peak of their economic productivity. But all the stories are like this, even the ones without elderly protagonists. They’re all mired in misery in a way that is not particularly revealing or insightful; they’re miserable because it’s not fashionable for literary protagonists to be uncomplicatedly happy or just complicatedly optimistic, because misery is mistaken for edginess in litfic markets. It’s a modish, empty bleakness that’s as thoroughly conventional as the demographics of the writers whose work makes up this collection.

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