Sunday, 20 April 2014

Death and Resurrection of the Short Story

What do George Sanders (Folio Prize, 2014), Alice Munro (Nobel, 2013) and Lydia Davis (Man Booker International Prize 2013) have in common? They're all short story specialists. In the informative and interesting The Short Story is Dead! Long Live the Short Story! published on the Thresholds site, Chris Power of the Guardian points out that many articles and reviews in the wake of these successes (and before) start by charting the decline of the short story then suggest a book or movement that's going to save it.

The irresistible rise of the short story (Sam Baker, The Telegraph) is rather like that, and I recall reading some similar US articles. See for example the New York Times' Good Fit for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories and Clifford Garstang's response. Charles May's why some short story writers don't want to write novels is worth a read too. The points they make are that

  • Novelists new and established are now producing collections
  • Specialists like George Saunders are gaining respect
  • The way that the internet killed the music album has helped people accept the short story (Kindle Singles).

But then Salon published Sorry, the short story boom is bogus. See also Charles E. May's comments.

Chris Power writes that "People often hark back to the days of the Saturday Evening Post, when F.Scott Fitzgerald might earn $4,000 a story (around $60,000 today)" and quotes Robert McCrum - "After a period of prosperity and tranquillity for British fiction  that ran for about a generation (circa 1980 to 2007), writers are now being confronted  with the hardship of literary artists through the ages".

When did the reading public turn against the short story? HE Bates in 1941 wrote "the reading public, not only in Britain and America, but also on the continent, shows no disposition to revise its age-­old prejudice against reading short stories in volume form."

McCrum aligns himself with the latter 2 quotes, looking upon any periods of short-story popularity as blips. He goes on to say that "Of the many writers producing short stories today, ... most will work hard for a small readership and very little money. This will be what happens because this, outside of the 1920s and ’30s, is what has always happened". He views the "Golden Age" view as unhelpful, making it seem that short stories are in decline. He suggests that some reviewers "don’t normally read short­‐story collections and therefore interpret their personal awakening to what the form can offer (their epiphany, so to speak) as a more general uptick of engagement". He doesn't think that short-stories are more suited to modern reading styles (novels are easier to read interruptedly - stories are more like poems than novels in that way), nor does he think that the idea of seeing a short story as a short novel helps - it blurs an important distinction.

I think I agree with all his main points, though it depends rather how one defines "short story". Factors that he doesn't mention (though they don't affect his main argument) include the rise of Flash and segregated-genre fiction, the popularity of episodic TV series, and the tendency for story collections to be disguised as novels ("Welcome to the Goon Squad", etc), all of which help to weaken the mainstream short story. I suppose that one could take the poetry and short-story parallel further. Both, in their more literary forms were (and will be) only of minority interest, generating sales only sporadically, and budding off more popular, (often disowned) offspring (rap; SF). Supposed saviours of the forms (T.S.Eliot, etc) may gain temporary fame, but soon fall back into their niche. That said, the borders are porous, and although examplars may be mentioned more than they're read, their influence may be more general.

In 2002 "fewer than 25 books of short stories were produced by mainstream UK publishers. And two thirds were by writers from abroad" (Debbie Taylor, Mslexia, Spring 2003). The situation then wasn't as dire as it sounds because small presses were producing books. That said, I've seen few signs of "recovery" in the UK since then. The National short story award doesn't help a whole lot - no trickle-down. I'm glad that Salt is producing a Best British Stories anthology each year, and that Flash is making inroads (e.g. there's a Bridport prize for it). And let's not forget that "The People's Friend" continues publishing "a short story for every day of the week". On the contents page each story's given an adjective - romantic, feel-good, family, atmospheric, heart-warming, inspiring, upbeat, emotional, period, light-hearted, etc.


  1. I find I tend to shy away from short story collections these days because they’re harder to review than novels. I own plenty and in the past I’ve usually picked them up because they’re generally thinner than novels. The book I’ve just finished is actually only a short story, a single short story 13,500 words long. More books should be that length in my opinion. I do wish more famous writers would bring out short story collections. They’d sell because of the name on the cover but they’d also promote interest in the form. As far as genre writers go I’ve always thought science fiction was best suited to both the novella and the short story. Puzzles the hell out of me all these publishers looking for mammoth epics. There’s really no need. It’s the literary equivalent of bloatware.

    1. People seem to like losing themselves in epics, or meeting familiar characters in a series of books. I'm looking forward to June's London short story festival, which might provoke some interest.