Friday, 16 December 2016

Helen Simpson: Short Story Masterpieces of Wit and Satire

Photo: Bing Images

Helen Simpson has elevated the short story genre into an art form. Insights into female experience, marriage and motherhood inform Simpson's work.

Helen Simpson was born in Bristol in 1959, and grew up in London. She went to a girls' school, then studied English at Oxford University before moving on to research the seventeenth century, taking a PhD in Restoration Comedy. Her big break came when she won an annual writing competition, a success that propelled into her writing career. The BBC website quotes her: 

"They had an annual competition and you had to write a story of your life in 700 words and you had to interview someone. And the story of my life I made up. I first of all wrote it straight, it was so boring - basically I did homework, so I made up a life story for myself. I gave myself four or five brothers and I had dramatic divorcing parents."

As a result of her success, she became an editor for Vogue magazine for five years, and took up writing full-time as soon as she could afford to leave her job.

Simpsonian Style and Use of Language 

Her work is funny, diverse and insightful, with razor-sharp dialogue and topical themes, like sex and childbirth, couples, relationships and marriage, etc. She specialises in new fresh angles on female experience, most of which are generated from ordinary, everyday situations, for example, the biological clock or motherhood versus career.

Simpson uses language, including slang and newly-created words, with confident freedom. For example, "corny," "rubbish," "poleaxed" and "cool," are words slipped into the actual text, not just the dialogue where one would expect to find them. Amanda Thursfield says: "...she uses words you are not even sure are in the dictionary: "wealthy frondescence," ~ "marble flittermice," ~ "cerubimical lass," ~ "he mousled and tousled me.

"What the Critics say about Helen Simpson's Work

Her work is "adventurous and playful," says Isabel Armstrong, Professor of Literature at Birkbeck College, London University. Other accolades, among many, are:

"Simply tremendous....She is a witch, with the surest hand in contemporary fiction." ~ Philip Hensher, Spectator.

"Her limpid, chaste, luscious fiction describes real lives." ~ John Lanchester, Daily Telegraph.

Motherhood has long been a subscription-only sort of subject. Helen Simpson has found a way to tell it, and I hope that people beyond the constituency margins are listening." ~ Rachel Cusk, Evening Standard.

Marvelous, diverting language, and sharply drawn characters... deft and entrancing tales." ~ Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Gifted... filled with ebullient prose and humor." The Miami Herald.

Helen Simpson's Bibliography

Short story collections:

Four Bare Legs in a Bed and Other Stories, Minerva, 1990; Dear George, 1995; Hey, yeah, right, get a life, Vintage, 2001. (First published by Jonathan Cape, 2000.) In the Driver's Seat, Vintage, 2005; Constitutional, Jonathan Cape, 2005; The London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea: The Art and Pleasures of Taking Tea, Ebury, 2006; In-Flight Entertainment, Jonathan Cape, 2010.
Flesh and Grass, Pandora, 1990, appeared with Ruth Rendell's The Strawberry Tree, under the general title Unguarded Hours.


E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, 1991, for Four Legs in a Bed.
Somerset Maugham Award, 1991, for Four Legs in a Bed.
Chosen as one of Granta's twenty Best of Young British Novelists. (1993)
Society of Authors Travelling Scholarship, 2006.
Currently: Writer in Residence: "First Story."
Helen Simpson is the mother of a son and a daughter.

  • Simpson, Helen, Biographical Notes, An Anthology, New Writing, Eds: A.S. Byatt & Alan Hollinghurst, Vintage in association with The British Council, 1995.
  • Simpson, Helen, Hey, Yeah, Right, Get a Life, Vintage, 2001.
  • Simpson, Helen, In the Driver's Seat, Vintage Contemporaries, 2005.
  • Thursfield, Amanda, 2002: Excerpt from Helen Simpson Website, British Council Literature

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