According to many literary insiders, the short story, along with the poem, has now officially flat-lined, the obituary that was written a decade ago, now soon to be published. I’m not sure that I agree exactly, but if the short story is not dead, then it is certainly prostrate on the gurney with the emergency team gathered, paddles held charged and ready.
Ted Genoways wrote a great piece in “Mother Jones” a couple of years ago regarding the imminent death of the short story. You can read it here. Genoways brings up lots of good points about the demise of the university literary quarterly, as well as the drying up of the short story market, as national magazines, such as The Atlantic, GQ, Playboy and Redbook (among many others), have moved away from publishing fiction.
Genoways also tells of Wilbur Cross, a Democrat who was remarkably elected governor of Republican dominated Connecticut in 1930, riding to victory based upon his credentials as an editor of the Yale Review. It is hard to imagine such credentials holding similar sway in an election today. Cross did not relinquish his editor’s post at Yale Review during his tenure as governor, and he remained dually employed throughout his four terms in office. When asked how he was able to perform both jobs, he replied, “By getting up early in the morning.” (Perhaps related to Trollope, see my blog-post of April 23).
Frankly, I don’t understand this. According to all studies, our attention span is now measured in micro-seconds, so it would certainly follow that entertaining fiction, especially collections of good short stories would fill a void. You’d think that people, especially young people, would be shying away from the 200,000 word novel in favor of a shorter length of work that would afford more immediate gratification – but not so apparently.
I went searching for a good volume of recently published short stories by an up and coming author who was actually selling books. To this end, I came across a book that has received quite a bit of acclaim. The Tenth of December by George Saunders met my short story criteria. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that this book is going to revive the short story, and it may in fact serve to hasten its demise. First of all, Mr. Saunders, a professor at Syracuse University, is an excellent writer. And to be quite honest, I started out liking this book, and for a short while, I was ready to have the short story moved from the gurney into ICU.
The first story in the collection, “Victory Lap” was great. It is a story about a young man who overcomes smothering parents to rescue a girl from the hands of a serial killer. After that point the remaining stories were too dark of me, and one caused me to bail after only half a dozen paragraphs. Don’t get me wrong, the stories are imaginative and were obviously crafted by a talented artist, but as I said – too dark for me. I would say forget about this book, had it not been for the final story in the collection, the story that gave the book its name: The Tenth of December.
Saunders obviously saved the best for last because this was a beautifully crafted short story. To fame it briefly, the story is about a cancer patient who goes out into the woods to commit suicide but instead finds a child in desperate need of help. So the book redeemed itself in the end.
An acquaintance of mine who has published a couple of novels tells me that he used to write short stories, but there simply isn’t enough money in it today for a professional writer trying to pay the rent. He finds that by the time he puts together a couple of good salable short stories to sell on the currently faltering fiction market, that he could be a third of the way through a longer work from which he could make more money.
So far, I think the short story is not yet dead, but how long can this literary artifact hang on is difficult to say. If you have a favorite short story author, or collection of stories, please feel free to comment. (Feel free to comment anyway.)
That’s it for me today,