The short story is dead (again)
Prior to the 20th Century, novels were not always printed in one, large volume. Novels were serialised in newspapers, journals and other periodicals, on a weekly or monthly basis.
One need only think of the works of Dickens, Dostoyevsky or Dumas to recall that for many great authors, their work appeared sequentially over time (as an aside, this also helps to explain why so many of these novels are so long).
Alongside the authors released work sequentially were those who wrote shorter stories: HP Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle. These authors made their names not from novels, but from short stories in periodicals.
The public lapped it up. There are stories that when passenger ships arrived in New York, the crowds at dockside would be shouting to the passengers for the latest from Dickens that the passengers would have in their newspapers from London.
And then it stopped. Newspapers and periodicals stopped printing short stories. Serialised novels vanished, to be replaced by single volumes.
With rare exceptions, this is the case now. Novels are not serialised (I can only think of Stephen King’s The Green Mile as a recent example), and unless you are a well-established author like JK Rowling, short stories don’t seem to sell.
All of this fees into the delusion that the short story is somehow inferior to the novel. What nonsense. One cannot say one is inferior to the other because they are not a true comparison. It is like claiming that an orange is inferior to an apple; they are different, that is all.
Short stories require an economy of language that a novel can ignore. They have to deliver as much plot, exposition and impact as a novel, in the fraction of the space and without the luxury of time. They are simple to write, but hard to write well.
As an editor of a short story anthology I’ve seen the short story lose out on opportunities available to novels. I’ve even heard established “innovative” thinkers in publishing declare the short story to be pointless, something to be written for private pleasure only, rather than as an exercise in the craft or (imagine!) for remuneration.
Sometimes we must revisit the past in order to have ideas about the future. The short story was popular in the past; the presumed unpopularity of the genre today should not be taken as an indicator of future performance.
We live in a world where electronic devices are easily portable, connected to a digital world, and demand our attention in short bursts. Our attention spans are apparently too short for a novel – are they too short for short fiction?
When Apple launched the iTunes Music Store, the single was dead. What kind of business plan can make a profit from people buying one song at a time for just short of a dollar?
An incredibly profitable business plan that gave the music listening public what they wanted, not what the music publishing companies thought they wanted.
Currently the publishing companies tell us no-one wants to read short stories. Maybe we should consider what the readers want instead?