Monday, January 9, 2012

An Ode to the Short Form

I’m a short story nut. And I sometimes fail to understand why other people aren’t.

I mean, people used to read them. There used to be a huge market for short fiction back in the day. As a point of reference, consider the following:

F. Scott Fitzgerald sold 11 stories in 1919. For these he received $3,975. That’s $361 a pop. You might not think that’s all that impressive, but in today’s dollars it works out to be about $4,500 per story.

Between November 1923 and April 1924 he produced 11 more short stories, this time earning $17,000- or $215,000 in today’s money. That’s almost twenty grand per story! But sit tight, there’s more.

When he sold “Babylon Revisited” to the Saturday Evening Post in 1931 he pulled in an astounding $4,000, or the equivalent of almost $57,000 in our day. Again, for a single story. How did he do it? Readers galore. But sell a short story to a literary magazine nowadays and you’re lucky if you get two free copies of the publication as a reward.

So, what happened to the market? Why aren’t people reading short stories anymore? Is it the decline of mass market magazines? The advent of TV? The publishing industry’s focus on easy-to-market novels and series? Probably a little bit of all-of-the-above. But there’s got to be something else at play. After all, people still read. Not only that, our attention spans grow shorter and shorter every year. You would think short stories would thrive in an age where people consume content on smart phones while in line at the grocery store. So what else is going on here?

I think short stories have a branding problem. Stories. Aren’t those the things we tell our kids? And short. Doesn’t that mean it’s light? Easy? Mere fluff? Why would bright, serious adults spend their time with such things?

“Books,” “novels,” and “series” on the other hand, all possess a kind of weight and cachet that imbues their readers with erudition,  and culture and saavy.

Pretend for a moment that you’re sitting in a waiting room somewhere. A complete stranger walks in and asks you what you’re reading. Would you rather tell them you were reading a novel? Or that you were engrossed in “a short story?” …Exactly. You see my point.

But I don’t see why it has to be that way. When it comes right down to it, what’s not to love about short stories? You want great first lines? I give you Poe’s “The Cask of Amantillado:”

“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”

You want smack-you-in-the-face last lines? How about Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

"It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
You want fantastic dialogue? Foreshadowing? A mysterious backstory to unravel? And wide shifts in tone? You don’t need a novel! You can find all of that and more in a great little yarn like Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Banafish.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disparaging novels. I’ve read some great ones. Some I’d even call life-changing. But when I find myself contemplating something I’ve recently read, more often than not, it’s something I’ve read in a short story. Maybe it’s because short stories give you quick glimpses and relatable scenes. Maybe they engage you better by leaving more to the imagination. Maybe it’s easier to hold their bite-sized messages in our brains. Or, maybe it’s just easier for a writer to hold our focus for 15 pages than it is to do so for 300. I’m still trying to put my finger on the exact appeal.

But I think we can agree that both long and short forms serve their purpose. If a novel is a cross-country road trip, a short story is a weekend jaunt- or an overnight stay, or a night out on the town. It’s anything you want it to be, except a long slog. But that’s the other key advantage it holds. You can easily plow through just about any short story, good or bad. If it’s no good, you move on and forget it. No harm, no foul. If it’s great, it sticks with you just like a novel. But because of its length (or lack thereof) you’re never committing yourself to a literary Death March that will leave you hating a bad novel when you finish it, and feeling guilty or unfulfilled when you don’t.

To make a long story short (HA!!), the short form appears to have lost its grasp on us, despite its obvious charms. It’s a shame and a vexation. Come back tomorrow, and we’ll tell you what we’re going to do about it.

In the meantime, what are your favorite short stories?


  1. The New Yorker seems to be the last stand for the short story . . . the really good literary short story.

    My favorite 2 short stories ever:

    The Lie by T Coragghesan Boyle
    Wakefield by EL Doctorow

    Great great short stories.

  2. I never really read short stories until I started reading Fitzgerald. I agree that with our attention spans you think we would be wanting more of these shorter stories.

    Anyways, I have more favorites than I can list. But I do like Bernice Bobs Her Hair, Winter Dreams and The Diamond As Big As The Ritz.

  3. Hear, hear! I love short stories. Particularly of the ghost type.

  4. Tucker, those are both great stories that seem to take ordinary situations and then riff on a "what if" question. Love'em.

    Laurie, what collection is Bernice Bobs her Hair in? I think I have the other two you mention in Babylon Revisited and Other Stories, which is in my to-be-read pile.

    Alan, good to have you aboard. Any ghost stories you'd recommend?