State of the Short Story



A while back a small, regional magazine—one of those slicks largely filled with real estate ads—asked me for some quotes about the contemporary short story market. You hate to start a piece with the single most clichéd quote from Dickens' entire oeuvre, but I found it hard to avoid, and so I sprung it on the reporter with only a small twinge of guilt: well, you know—the best of times, the worst of times. The writer interviewing me paused for a long moment, and then asked, "Well, which is it?" Leaving aside the fact that she seemed to have missed the whole point of my pithy use of the quotation, it seemed a fair question, and one that was reasonably challenging in terms of a response.

Like Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, you can make a good case for both. On the one hand, the paying short story market has virtually vanished. As Matthew Bruccoli points out in his introduction to The Great Gatsby, in the 1930s writers like Scott Fitzgerald made more money for one story published in mainstream magazines like The Saturday Evening Post than an average teacher made in a year in the south. Granted, we haven't always paid teachers what they're worth down here, but the point is still valid: the twenties and thirties were the golden age of short fiction. Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" was published in Esquire; Faulkner's stories that would make up The Unvanquished were published in Saturday Evening Post. Even by the fifties Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea was originally published in Life. And I haven't even touched upon Black Mask or the science fiction and fantasy pulps, which numbered in the several hundreds from the twenties through the fifties.

But then there was radio arriving in the twenties, and going strong by the thirties. And then came television, and slowly the market eroded.

Then, not so many years ago, short fiction seemed to enter a renaissance—you had a few slicks still paying serious money for literary short stories (Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, GQ, and so on), a sizeable number of up and coming small magazines, and writers like Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Tama Janowitz, Bobbie Anne Mason, Amy Hempel, and Andre Dubus made their reputations with collections of stories rather than novels.

But television marched on in its assault on our leisure time and attention spans. Cable expanded four channels to twenty, eighty, hundreds. Then it went digital. The slicks have largely quit carrying short fiction; when they publish it, the stories are typically by famous, established writers who are usually hawking their new novels. Publishing houses were bought out by gigantic, market-driven corporations, and the debut collections of short stories that used to pepper the fiction shelves of bookstores seemed to become almost extinct.

So, the worst of times? Sure. But—

but at the same time more short fiction is published now than ever before, at least in literary venues. The genre has continued to thrive in the same place it has for most of the past century, though—the small magazines. Many of these—but by no means all—are linked with universities and creative writing programs (and, most importantly, those programs' budgets). A quick browse of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses website (http://www.clmp.org/index.html) shows how diverse and vital the small, literary, and largely non-paying print magazine scene is. The big houses seem to largely eschew short story collections by less famous authors, but this has worked to the benefit of the small presses such as BOA, Copper Canyon, Graywolf, Livingston, and Sarabande, to name a few; similarly, university presses are publishing more creative work than previously.

And then there's web and electronic publishing. Like most of us I love the physical aspects of reading: the weight of the book in your hands, the smell of its pages (so different from hardback to paperback, from old to new), the texture of its cover, the small whisk of sound made when you turn a page. Perched before a monitor or balancing a laptop on your knees doesn't compare, to my way of seeing things. Still, it's important to remember the world of letters has always been fluid. Papyrus got hard to find, so you wrote on parchment. Parchment was super expensive, so for day to day work you wrote on wax. Wax was cumbersome, so someone had to invent paper. Copying by hand is tedious, so let's develop a printing press. In the beginning there was the word, and the word always finds a new path to trickle along, a new course to follow.

Short fiction flourishes on the web. And not just literary fiction: the science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery short story markets—which have suffered even more than the literary side of the street—are all over the place, thriving like kudzu in south Georgia.

Web publishing isn't without its problems, of course. Surely some sites give into the temptation of publishing the sophomore journal poems of the editor's cousin's spouse in order to make the cousin happy. And somewhere out there is doubtless a website dedicated to favorite greeting card poems (ah, the wonders of the net—just found it: http://www.poemsource.com/) or one dedicated to gay Nazis (don't ask). But you also have Blackbird, The King's English, The Barcelona Review, and for that matter Slate and Salon (and storySouth).

Pay is still hard to come by, of course. But if you're doing this to get rich, you're going to be unhappy for much of your life, and would be well-advised to focus on the Hollywood film industry. The chance of success there is even slimmer but there's no question about whether you're in it for the money or not.

Finally, due to multiple requests, a very brief reading list of some great short story writers and collections:

Amy Hempel: Collected Stories
Ron Carlson: A Kind of Flying, or At the Jim Bridger
Alice Munro: pretty much everything. A nice starting place is Vintage Munro
Raymond Carver: Cathedral or Where I'm Calling From
Jill McCorkle: Final Vinyl Days or Creatures of Habit
David Foster Wallace: Oblivion
George Singleton: The Half-Mammals of Dixie and These People are Us
Bobbie Ann Mason: Feather Crowns, Shiloh
George Saunders: Civil War Land in Bad Decline
and of course:
Hemingway, In Our Time, Men Without Women, Winner Take Nothing
and Flannery O'Connor, Collected Stories