Is the short story dead?…

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,

Mahalo,

–Ed

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12 thoughts on “Is the short story dead?…

  1. The short story is dead, yet George Saunders, Junot Diaz, and Karen Russell’s recent short story collections have sold very well and been critically acclaimed. So which one is it?

    The short story isn’t dead. Not by a long shot, despite what others might say. The lit mags that once championed the short story may be gone, but the Internet has become the home of the short story. Look around WordPress and you’ll see hundreds of online lit mags publishing thousands of short stories. So maybe the short story’s gone underground, then.

    • The Internet has, as you mentioned, hundreds of mags with probably thousands of short stories – and many of them are really good. I am not sure how that translates into money in the writer’s pocket. You make a good point though that writers like Saunders are selling lots and lots of books. I like short story collections – less commitment than to a full length novel, and if you hit a story that you don’t like you can move on. Hopefully, the naysayers are wrong and the short story will be around for a long time.

      • It doesn’t ever really translate into money, but it translates into exposure, which sometimes is worth more than gold.

        For me, I’m also a big fan of the short story, because it forces the writer to compact their story, and it’s helped me a great deal in my writing. Why the naysayers seem to want to wish the form dead is beyond me, when there are other forms that frankly need to go the way of the dodo.

  2. Those wanting a quick read still grab short story collections. Those readers liking to submerg themselves for thousands of pages read George R.R. Martin or the like. I like both so I’m not sure I agree with the doctor’s time of death.

    • Actually I just finished reading “The Best American Short Stories of 2005”. Ok, I am running behind in my reading. Great stories by various writers. I am sure there are similar collections for the years since. And don’t forget, the Doctor is often wrong!

  3. Just picked up the Saunders book from the library today and can’t wait to read it after all the hype. I don’t know anything about short story sales figures, but there will always be a place in my reading pile for short story collections….which are perfect for bathrooms, by the way, as long as the books belong to you and not the public library.

  4. I guess it probably doesn’t truly fall in the ‘short story’ genre, perhaps more in the essay world, but I always liked Robert Fulghum’s works – collections of stories from his life that always did more for lifting my spirits than the Chicken Soup works did – –
    So, to educate me, does his work classify as a collection of short stories, or are they considered essays?

    • I am not the authority on defining short story vs. essay, but to me, short stories are in all cases works of fiction, while essays, especially personal essays, are the personal experiences or thoughts of the author about actual experiences, places or events. Probably someone could define these differences better than I can. I have not read Robert Fulghum, but I did visit his website. He is the author of the very popular “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”, among lots of other books. I shall give him a read!

      • I’ve read all his works – can’t pick a favorite, but I truly believe time spent with him is time well spent. Hope his work brings you as much pleasure as it did me.

        My faves in addition to the one you mentioned are “Uh-Oh”, “It Was on Fire when I lay down on it” and “Maybe (Maybe Not)

  5. As an elementary school principal, in the inner city to boot, I witness a decline in the amount of reading done by students. We even have a contest for “best readers” who would receive a free night in a suite at the Phillies game with a good number of books read….Today’s students like to engage in things that entertain as in some kind of ‘game format
    ‘….The idea seeming to be “entertain me” in aspectacular way. To the average kid, reading is slow, subtle and unspectacular….While there still are kids whose heads can be buried in a good ‘read’…others decline in favor of something more animated…As for myself, my own reading has declined a great deal. Our current world is just so full of obligations, non-stop owrk, demands of all kinds that there doesn’t seem to be ‘discretionary’ time to pursue the printed word…regrettable.

    • “Slow, subtle and unspectacular”…hmmm…that may describe me…no wonder I like to read. I will say that the number of books that I get through in a year has decreased over the past 5 years or so. I do a fair amount of online reading and research though. Thanks for reading here!

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