The Short Story Is Dead! Long Live The Short Story!

The short story as a form has been ‘dying’ for at least as long as the publishing industry has.  An article can’t mention it without saying it is “moribund” or in “rude health”.  People either devour them, or ignore them.  But what is it about the humble short that divides opinion so?

Short stories have had a huge impact on popular culture.  Some of the greatest writers, such as Edgar Allen Poe, practiced the form exclusively.  Others, including Anton Chekhov, Luis Borges, Stephen King, Franz Kafka, William Trevor and Kurt Vonnegut count their shorter pieces as some of their finest work.

Many famous movies have been adapted from short stories.  Memento, was originally a short story by the director’s brother Jonathan Nolan.  Others include Eyes Wide Shut, The Body Snatcher, A Christmas Carol, Zorro, Stand By Me, Brokeback Mountain, Total Recall, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Birds, The Fly, The Invisible Man, Minority Report, The Third Man, Million Dollar Baby, The Illusionist and I, Robot.

Quite an eclectic list.  And maybe that tells us something about the short story.  The form, loosely defined as anything below 10,000 words (but usually a lot less), allows writers to experiment, write outside their genres, try something new.  You can gamble, because if the story ends up not working, you have only wasted a few days rather than a few months.

So why all the naysayers?

One of the traditional paths to success for an aspiring novelist was to have a short story published in one of the top magazines (Harpers, The Atlantic, The New Yorker) or one of the top literary journals (such as Glimmer Train or Tin House).  This publishing credit would be enough to attract the attention of a top agent, and the healthy pay-check would be more than enough to survive for a while you wrote more.

And while this still is a valid way to break into the industry, the readership for short fiction seems to have fallen away.  Some literary magazines complain that they have more writers submitting than people reading, and pay rates have fallen too.

Today, professional rates are considered $0.05 a word or higher (but not much higher).  For a 2,000 word short story, that’s $100.  Even if you were prolific enough to churn out a story a week, edit it, submit it to a professional market and get it published, you couldn’t possibly live off it.

Short story collections don’t sell nearly as well as novels, and agents and publishers aren’t going to be interested in them unless you already have a name, or your stories have been published in the very top publications (and even then it’s a struggle).

This hasn’t stopped some people thinking there is a market out there for short stories that remains untapped.  The thinking is seductive: people have shorter attention spans these days, and people consume the written word in radically different ways.

With smartphones and tablets and netbooks, people are gravitating towards shorter pieces, and with all the distractions from other, flashier forms of entertainment (sports, television, internet), it can be a struggle to put aside an hour or two, find somewhere quiet, and read a book.

Others look at what happened to the music industry.  While album sales have plummeted, singles have rocketed.  And while the analogy between book/album and short story/single is a difficult one to make, maybe there is something in this.

A short story can be read in twenty minutes (or less).  It can be read on a phone without hurting your eyes, and it can be read while you’re waiting for the bus or on your lunch break.  And you don’t have to invest as much in the story, so there is less risk for the reader if they don’t like it.

And they are fun to write too. My first novel was historical fiction, and the one I am working on at the moment is too (as are the next two planned after that), but my short stories are hard to classify in terms of genre.  I suppose they are mainstream, but there is something off about them, something not quite right, that you can’t put your finger on.  And the story I am editing right now, is my first science fiction piece, but again, not quite.

For me, short stories are a release. I don’t have to spend two hours in the black hole that is Wikipedia trying to calculate how long it takes to ride 20 miles on horseback (less than 2 hours at a canter, depending on terrain) or to find out what mode of transport New Orleans policemen used in 1891 (horse-drawn cars); I just write, and it’s liberating.

There are constraints to the form though.  You only have a limited amount of space, and even less time to hook the reader, but this can make for powerful work.  One of Hemingway’s most famous stories was only six words long. For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.

Nothing more needs to be said.