A Dirge for Brevity

It ain’t like it used to be guys and gals.  And thank God for it.  Because what used to be sucked. Cell phones, the internet, cars, air conditioning.  Go back a hundred years and you’re not going to find any of that stuff readily available.  So let me be the first to say that I’m glad and thankful to live when I live.  I honestly can’t think of a better time or a better place in all of history.

However, as a writer, there is a tiny part of me that pines for the days of fifty years ago, when it was still possible to spot that dying and elusive beast known as the short story in its natural habitat.  And these days ain’t like those days at all.  I recently read a bit Stephen King did about the short story not really being dead, and how there were plenty of authors still writing and selling them, but what he really meant was that he was still writing and selling them, which he can do, because, you know, he’s Stephen King.

Not that I have anything against him for it.  I love the short story form.  I write short stories as often as I can, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed every second of it.

But the short story is dead.  Don’t believe me?  Then consider this: science fiction writer Robert Silverberg got his start writing short fiction at a rate of a million words a year.  And he sold it.  I doubt even Stephen King could find a market for that much short fiction today.  Back in the day, almost every magazine on the rack had short stories published in it.  I heard an interview once with Kurt Vonnegut where he talked about selling short stories to Cosmopolitan for crying out loud.  I can only imagine what kind of story it would have been, but it must have been better the crap they foist off on people these days.

About the only place you can find the short story form these days is bundled together in an anthology and even those are becoming more and more scarce.  Aside from Stephen King, the last single author short story anthology that I remember seeing and buying was T. C. Boyle’s The Human Fly and Other Stories, and that was off of a remaindered rack years ago.

But you know what?  I still write the things.  I harbor no illusions that I’m going to get one of them published anywhere, but I do it…well because I want to.  I love short stories.  I love writing them.  I love reading them.  Why?  Because I remember how powerfully I was affected by those stories back in high school.  Stories, like “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” and “Microcosmic God,” and “Grownups,” and a whole host of others impacted me in a way that no long fiction book ever has.

I don’t know what has happened to the short story.  Given the short attention span of our culture, I should think the form would have flourished.  But it hasn’t.

Instead it’s crumpled off in some dark forgotten corner of the library stacks bleeding out its last.  May it rest in peace.

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5 responses to “A Dirge for Brevity

  1. Excellent food for thought (and thanks for the link!). 🙂

  2. I agree with your observation, but to Short Story’s clinging on (perhaps like a mortally wounded person, but still): in the past year I have only purchased short story collections from new authors, and they are not at all in short supply. as a matter of argument, I would say that short stories (including flash fiction) is making a very strong comeback.

    You mention my next point: our society as a whole doesn’t want to be held up reading a whole novel. I know that’s a blanket statement – but I think you’ll allow me the underlying truth in it. Flash fiction is the flagship of that idea: a story of no more than 500 words has created such a draw for readers that whole books are published with one page stories (I think here of “The Girl on the Fridge” by Etgar Keret, published in 2008 in the US).

    Furthermore, newer writers seem to be only making a dent in the bookseller’s world by writing short story collections, and the majority of them with swimming results (Deborah Willis or Lydia Peelle). You do have a point that I haven’t yet seen another collection come out by either (though I know they exist somewhere), but there are hundreds lined up to take their place.

    I think what is lacking now is the continuing publication of a few authors in the short story form. Instead we have one or two short story collections published by many more new authors, which perhaps don’t gain traction but still contribute to the collective voice of the art.

    Ok – I apologize if this came off as a rant. It would speak to the quality of your post, however, so if anything I hope you take it as a compliment. You’ve made an astute observation and certainly brought out a vein of thought in me.

    Thanks for posting, I’m glad I came across your blog.

    • It doesn’t bother me at all that I inspired you to speak your mind.
      Your comment was insightful and generally correct. For the sake of rhetoric, I did overstate my case a bit. There truly are authors out there still writing short stories and there are still some publications that carry those stories. But my larger point was that as a mainstream form of story telling, the short story is virtually non-existent. Stephen King is really the only author out there that gets any kind of widespread attention for his stuff, and publishers in general shy away from publishing anthologies. Take for instance the recent release of Ryan North’s book The Machine of Death, which was a collection of really great stories supported by a guy with a huge built in following and yet he couldn’t get any traditional publishing houses to touch with a ten foot pole because “anthologies don’t sell.” Eventually he self published the collection and though his vast following was able to turn it into an inspiring success.
      But in general, but publishers are right. Short story collections just aren’t on most people’s radar as a form of literary entertainment. That was the point of the post.
      Thank you so much for your comment. Your thoughts were both insightful and interesting. I hope you’ll continue to read and let me know what you think.

  3. When writers I really, really like publish a short story collection, I buy it and usually try unsuccessfully to pace myself reading it to make it last.
    The last collection of short stories I bought was by Elizabeth Berg. I like most of the stories in it.

  4. You have a point. I like writing flash fiction. It’s so short that I can write four or five in one day. However, I would rather publish them online and if not, self publish it online. I don’t see a lot of magazines publishing a collection of short stories nowadays. So, needless to say, short story isn’t part of our culture.

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