The short story is a beleaguered literary form. Although authors welcome the opportunity for brevity, concision, the chance to launch a few choice ideas in a limited space, novels are what really sell.

When writers set out to make their name, a novel tends to be the aim, not fiddling around with snatches of short fiction. Who would devote their energies to carving a statuette when it is grand statues that are really admired?

Oxford-based former academic David Constantine has spent his writing career largely spurning novels in favour of more pruned prose. “The short story is a genre in its own right, requiring at least as much ability as the novel. Most publishers are unduly fearful about the short story, I think. They want novels and they lean on writers who would most naturally write short stories to produce novels instead. Or to ‘move on’ to novels, as though to a superior form. Quite wrongly, in my view.”

Constantine has been writing short stories since he was a teenager, but his first collection was published when he was 50. He has written one novel, Davies, but is quick to point out: “It was very short.”

Full recognition of his short-story-writing talents came a few months ago, when the BBC announced he had won the National Short Story Award 2010. His tale, Tea at The Midland, which was broadcast on Radio 4, concerns a man and woman having an affair who head off for a rendezvous in a house overlooking a beach. While they gaze at the wind-swept bay, they find themselves discussing art, Odysseus and, indirectly, their doomed relationship. It is an enigmatic, finely wrought story, with a decidedly dream-like quality. Lush descriptions of the coastal scene frame spiky dialogue with philosophical undercurrents: “When we make love and I cry out for joy, I have to bear in mind that some woman somewhere is being abominably tortured,” says the woman at one point. “That’s what it would be like if all things were joined up.” James Naughtie, of Radio 4’s Today programme, who chaired the judging panel, lauded it as an “admirably-managed story… it has an air of calm in its magical imaginings”.

This is an apt description, as tone is key to Constantine’s approach. He says: “Most of my poems and stories begin in images and in a particular tone of voice. Neither in a poem nor in a story do I know in advance what the development and outcome will be. In both genres I have to listen and attend to what the possibilities are.”

Constantine, 66, was born in Salford and worked for 30 years as a university teacher of German at Durham, then The Queen’s College, Oxford. He said of the award: “I was surprised and pleased in equal measure. And I was glad for the genre and for my publishers, Comma Press. The BBC is the best possible advocate. The whole thing — the interviews, the readings, the commentaries — endorsed the genre and greatly encouraged me in it. I admired all the other stories and it was a delight to see the variety, the different ways of proceeding, the different tones, emphases and interests in the five. The anthology proves how various the short story is.”

Much of his career has been devoted to the great German poets, playwrights and authors — he has translated Hölderlin, Brecht, Goethe, Kleist, among others. How has translation fed into his own writing? “It is good for a writer,” he says. “You learn what your own language can do by coming at it freshly through the foreign.”

Now retired from academia, he writes and edits the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation with his wife, Helen (he insists that poetry is his first love). He says, charismatically as ever: “Writing is a process. I begin to discover what I should be doing in the story as I make the sentences that are telling it.”

This image of Constantine ceaselessly furrowing away persists through my interview. He said: “I published my first collection of poems when I was 37 and my first collection of stories when I was 50. But I was writing all the time. I was glad to be published, of course, but I always did write and always shall anyway.”

His lyrical style and penchant for asking big questions hint at a writer summoning the power of language to do its utmost; but he also recognises that a good yarn is a good yarn. “People enjoy short stories,” he said. “Reading or listening to them. Telling and listening to stories is a primitive and continuing human need.”

He will be in conversation with Jem Poster, former head of Oxford University’s creative writing courses, at the Oxford Literary Festival in April.