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.

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13 Comments

  1. I think it’s not just the case of a lack of individuals or groups with means and the balls to market and tout the short story form, but more pointedly– do people even *know* how to read short stories anymore? It sounds like a silly statement to make, but the general attitude I see (and being in the bookselling biz, it’s the frontlines of book attitudes), people think short stories are frivolous, at best, or somehow depriving them of “completely getting lost in a world” due to the shortness, at worst.

    I’m happy authors that like Junot Diaz stand up at readings and announce (paraphrasing), “I hope I never write another short story, they’re just too damn fucking hard.” More people need to be aware of the artistry involved, and of the joy of not having minutae spelled out for them in a plot.

    Let’s take a quiz: How many Edrant readers have read a) a short story or b) a short story collection or anthology in the past TWO MONTHS? And if not, why not?

  2. Warren Ellis has a short story in the Forbes issue coming out this Monday.

  3. Quiz reply: Two collections, two chapbooks, parts of BASS, and sampled from many literary journals during the last two months including from every online journal I’ve been able to find.

  4. I know a way in which to reach the great American public: websites and online story journals.

    They’re already working.

    People are more likely to log on every day than to pick up an issue of Prairie Schooner, and they’re more likely to forward a story to their friends and colleagues with one click than lending out journals.

    Now the trick is to un-ghettoize them and to get more writers to submit quality work.

  5. “I know a way in which to reach the great American public: websites and online story journals.

    They’re already working.

    People are more likely to log on every day than to pick up an issue of Prairie Schooner, and they’re more likely to forward a story to their friends and colleagues with one click than lending out journals.

    Now the trick is to un-ghettoize them and to get more writers to submit quality work.”

    Right on the money.

  6. Jeff VanderMeer October 15, 2007 at 8:36 pm

    Gee, I’ve gone to AWP the last three years and saw literally hundreds if not thousands of literary magazines, many of high quality indeed.

    JeffV

  7. Well, in the last month I’ve only read one short story collection, Roberto Bolaño’s Last Night on Earth. However, I’d been going through a serious reading drought since July. So a short story collection saved my reading life.

    Oh, and I’ve been listening to the New Yorker short story podcast this week while doing laundry.

    On a related note, there’s a new blogzine out there that reviews that reviews literary magazines. It’s called Luna Park Review which is a Bolaño reference. Though the editor’s belief that Bolaño made up the magazine Luna Park and it’s second issue appears to be mistaken.

  8. I read a short story very recently on Identity Theory. I like clicking next>next>next. I also recently read a collection by Brian Evenson, which blew my mind. I don’t want to discard short stories; there must be something to be said here about babies and their bath water.

  9. Han: yup saw that Ellis refence on his site– the world must be ending; or at least, someone at Forbes wants to mess with the paradigm of their Mag…

    It’s true–web culture is primed for the short story form, but the ‘un-ghettoize’ reference is my point: why AREN’T your friends and neighbors talking about the last story that kicked their ass? Take the ‘quiz’ out into the streets– speechify about what you love about stories– perhaps the ‘un-ghettoization’ begins with civilized discussion with those near us…

    Panda & Steven: ‘quality work’ is a slippery slope to make a stand on. ..Find out what *psychologically* is not working with most readers regarding the format– Diaz said that the short story allows for no dead chapters, let alone dead paragraphs or sentences– it’s a tightrope act; the reader is so much more unforgiving if a writer slips– is that true for you all? Is the tautness of the structure what appeals to you?

  10. The general public hasn’t read short fiction in great numbers since TV, and why should it? TV fills the niche for plot-based, short, diverting fiction quite nicely (and TV is getting better all the time). Fiction has had to move on to what only it can accomplish: something more internal and experimental. This is quite hard to do well. And unless American culture changes radically, it’s hard to imagine huge numbers of readers for any kind of short fiction, plotty-n-accessible or snooty-n-intellectual, at all.

    But so what? Though it’s often hard to find, really really good short fiction is being produced every day, and those of us who like it can get our fixes (I read short fiction constantly, have done so for twenty years). Why this marketing model that insists on foisting a “product” on an uninterested populace?

    Now, really good, really funny novels: that’s what this world has a shortage of.

  11. i agree with vladimir in that the american public needs to realize not necessarily what a short story doesn’t offer, but what it does offer.

    we can’t simply say to the public: hey, this is harder so you should enjoy it more. we’d be lying to ourselves that they even gave a damn. it’s like conceptual art: the process was hard, adore us. truth be told, unless you’re a writer, nobody cares.

    so many theories abound: that since americans are all about speed and timeliness that they should enjoy stories more due to their brevity. that they can’t get “lost” in the world due to the space constraint of a short story, etc. etc. ad infinitum.

    obviously people read less literary fiction and less short stories. why? and how can we solve it? i believe it has to do with active reading vs. passive reading. everything does count so much more and to that extent the reader has to be that much more aware of what’s going on in a short story. we’ve all read incredibly engrossing novels and at some point, whilst reading, thought to ourselves about the grocery list, whether or not a light switch was on, etc. because you can do that with a novel and still pick up what’s going on to an extent. with a story every scene and nuanced movement is so specific to the nature of the character that you can’t miss a single thing or you’ll be, in essence, assed-out.

    it sounds simplistic but people don’t want to concentrate that hard. everything in today’s society is about making things as easy as possible.

    there isn’t a real solution. not a quick fix anyway. the short story isn’t dead. literary journals aren’t dead. they had their heyday with fitzgerald pulling in $20,000 and financing his career thanks to the saturday evening post and various other mags. they lulled. then they had another resurgence in the 80s with cheever, carver, hempel, wolff, robison, moore, ford and the like. there’ll be another one. it’s all cyclic and anybody who wants to point to a ‘form’ as being dead is simply out of ideas of what to write about and trying to get attention for themselves.

    p.s. there are a slew of short story writers who write “longer” short stories that are incredibly dense and give you more than enough to get “lost” in their worlds. first on that list is alice munro. if everyone wrote like alice munro, we wouldn’t need novels.

    p.p.s. how many short stories i’ve read in the last 2 months: re-read both story collections of James Salter, Charles D’Ambrosio, the recently released collection of Ben Percy, an older collection of Ron Hansen, Barry Hannah, Lee K. Abbott, Amy Hempel, BASS and Best New American Voices, Julie Orringer, David Bezmogis, and a whole shitton of literary journals.

  12. I was so happy to see you writing about (and listening to) X Minus One and radio dramas. They still captivate me, and they do hold something secret and important for writers today. I’m not quite sure what that is yet, but this post is closer to an answer. Thanks for uncovering these new archives too.

  13. Weee, I like surveys. I read two short story collections and my regular reading of old old Paris Review issues has me reading about 4-8 short stories every month.

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