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The short story is dead (again)

March 21, 2010

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.

Image used with kind permission,
© 2009 Julia Anderson

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?

Paul thinks the world would be a better place if we could return to a simpler time when authors serialised their works in newspapers, and capes were the height of fashion…
  1. March 21, 2010 2:41 am

    Great post. I am a relatively recent convert to short fiction, both writing and reading, submerging myself in the form since starting my Creative writing course a few years ago.. Used to be I could count my short fiction collections on one hand, now I have a steadily growing bookshelf crammed with collections. As you say, the web is the perfect place for the revival of the format. Great sites like the Short Review and prizes like the Bristol and Bridport awards also help raise the profile.

    Anyone who thinks short fiction is easier to write than a novel really needs to read Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Michel Faber, Chekhov…….the list goes on. Or better still, start writing them. They’ll soon see it ain’t as easy as it appears, it’s just that great short fiction writers make it look effortless.

  2. March 21, 2010 12:51 pm

    I think it’s a great idea to have short stories available in iTunes or online stores. My problem with short story collections is that there are just some stories that I don’t enjoy and you have to weed through too much.

  3. March 21, 2010 3:17 pm

    I’m writing a serial, and there’s something really fun about it…it’s really writing by the seat of your pants. Still, I view it as being an extension of the vogue for flash fiction – you’re just writing flashes that connect to each other.

  4. March 22, 2010 12:23 am

    Great post.

    I’ve often thought this too and there’s a growing chorus of writers saying this. The iTunes model for short stores and anthologies seems so possible given the rise of the eReader.

    I hope this does come about. I think a lot of horror fits well with the short form. And I think it’s easier to get someone to read a short of yours than a whole novel so it could be a good way for writers to find new audiences.

  5. March 22, 2010 8:19 am

    are you saying capes AREN”T the hight of fashion? Darn it…..

  6. March 22, 2010 1:12 pm

    Great post. I guess you must be the original caped crusader.

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