Whither the Short Story?
Lydia Jenkins has declared that the literary magazine is dead. Likewise, Jean Thompson recently opined that, due to the considerable commentary resulting from Stephen King’s distress call that the short story cannot be dead. Ms. Jenkins suggests that we do not need any more literary magazines, because they are condemned to endless in-jokes and other conceits, but this characterization only serves to cloud her perception. (For example, can a quality magazine like The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction really fall inside this rubric?) Likewise, what Ms. Thompson fails to realize is that a vociferous array of comments are, by no means, reflective of the situation as King described it — namely, literary magazines arranged in bookstores “along the lowest shelf,” where either literary die-hards or self-immolating hunchbacks collecting disability are inclined to stoop.
Neither Jenkins nor Thompson address the real problem. Short stories are simply no longer part of the general population’s reading diet — at least not in magazine form. Gone are the days where people read magazines to become lost in stories. (And pardon the longass digression, but I also believe that this has something to do with the regrettable paucity of exciting radio dramas along the lines of Quiet, Please. As far as I am concerned, there is something extremely sad about the United States failing to subsidize or encourage radio drama, while the form continues to flourish with public and private monies in Canada and the United Kingdom. I have made more feverish quests than I can count, but unless someone can direct me to a podcast that is on the level of a Mutual or NBC Blue radio drama and that is not merely a recording of an author reading their work, along the lines of Escape Pod or an audio book, not even the great podcasting revolution has offered anything worthwhile. As for audio books, having revisited the form recently out of personal and professional interests, I can likewise assure you that the majority of readers hired for these safe ‘n’ sane outings have been trained to read work without zest or dramatic gusto. The Take No Chances motto, which one expects from the latest family film released by Disney, holds true for this quite promising medium. Rather criminally, the audio books industry made $871 million in 2005 on this soporific racket.)
Michael Chabon made two efforts to revisit this golden era with his two guest-edited McSweeney’s volumes. And while these were certainly fun and welcome diversions, the grand revelation was that the majority of writers, by way of not having reading the magazines of the 1930s and the 1940s, are simply not trained to entertain in the manner that those who wrote for Collier’s and Esquire back in those days did.
Magazines now serve to promulgate news, celebrity gossip, and those Cosmopolitan questionnaires in which I always seem to end up “prepared to entice your man in bed.” (On the latter point, don’t ask me why this ends up happening to me. I merely fill in the bubbles.)
I am not trying to sound elitist here. Nor am I suggesting that any of these developments are bad or represent the end of civilization. Reading, contra the alarmism raised a few years ago by the NEA, is far from dead. Any casual glance inside a subway will reveal no shortage of people who are reading. But if they are reading fiction, they are reading books, not magazines.
So where does this leave the short story (or, for that matter, the radio drama)? Well, I think recent steps taken by Esquire fiction editor Tom Chiarella, in which twice as many short stories are being published this year compared to last year, are a start. If the short story is to survive among the general publication, and this may very well be the key to the ongoing health of literary journals and short stories, it is now up to the general interest magazine to save it by including exemplars of the form within its pages. For that is where the magazines are likely to be stocked in bookstores. Or perhaps the time has come to offer more short story collections in the form of books. (Interestingly, the Chabon-edited McSweeney’s collections were marketed this way. I’d be extremely curious about their Bookscan figures. The fact that a third volume did not arrive may attest to poor sales.)
But practically speaking, if you want to save the short story as a whole and if you want it to be more than merely the niche markets it currently serves, you’re going to have to get the general population reading short fiction. And this means creating magazines, exclusively devoted to fiction that entertains as well as enlightens, that the public will buy. Even if this means a profusion of penny dreadfuls. Is such a thing possible? I think so. But only if markets can be successfully created and only if the writers writing today understand that narrative is just as important as MFA haberdashery.
What we need to do is train a generation of readers and possibly a generation of listeners. That 25% of the general population listens to audio books is an encouraging sign. But what if the audio books became more dramatic, along the lines of a radio drama? And what if these radio dramas (or podcasts) were tied, as the great drama X Minus 1 was, to a major magazine? (X Minus 1 had a close association with the late Galaxy Magazine. People listening to the program could then go to the magazine where they might find similar stories that would excite them. I have no firm figures on the effect the radio program may have had on sales. Perhaps one of Horace Gold’s descendants might wish to weigh in.)
If the short story were truly important in the United States, then someone would step in and find a way in which to reach the great American public. What we have instead are a bunch of embittered MFAs and people who have become tired of reading McSweeney’s, when it’s really King who’s on the money here. While I’ll always enjoy and appreciate short stories, I simply won’t be convinced that they matter to the populace at large until I see subway commuters replacing their mass market paperbacks with fiction magazines, or until I don’t have to stoop down in the bookstore to get the latest issue of ZYZZYVA.