In the ongoing conversation about the future of literature, novelty is a rare thing. For at least forty years, American novelists and critics have been worrying about the fate of the novel – and of reading itself – and though the finer points of the argument have changed, the basic contours have stayed remarkably constant. Electronic mass media poses a threat – or at least a serious challenge – to literature; the novel functions as a kind of coal miner’s canary, a bellwether for the health of the culture at large.
I’m sympathetic to the need to assert some kind of narrative control over the technological revolution, but I had assumed the stance of a weary spectator at the “death of the novel” when, in the fall of 2007, a diagnostic shift piqued my interest. Suddenly, it seemed, it was the short story that was ailing. Witness Stephen King’s introduction to the Best American Short Stories anthology:
[American short fiction,] if not quite dead on the page… [has become] airless, somehow, and self-referring… show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open.”
Or witness the introduction to the second issue of the literary quarterly Canteen, which took issue with King’s assessment. Or witness another excellent lit-mag, One Story, whose “Save the Short Story” direct mailings reached me alongside pleas from Planned Parenthood to save reproductive rights and from the ACLU to save civil liberties.
Though the hue and cry seems abrupt, the conditions for the short story’s endangerment have been developing for a quarter century. Once-reliable “general interest” venues like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post have disappeared from newsstands. The New Yorker long ago ended its practice of running several stories per issue. Esquire has drifted away from the stringent editorial commitments of Gordon Lish. Harper’s confines itself, more or less, to a stable of old hands. The Atlantic recently cut its monthly fiction offerings altogether, in favor of a single annual “fiction issue” (part of a series of missteps that included putting Christopher Hitchens on the masthead and spending 30 back-of-the-book editorial pages helping people with too much money figure out how to spend it.) In 2007, fewer than 100 short-stories were published in the traditional general-interest outlets.
At the level of the little magazine, the current trend seems to be toward ever-more print outlets with ever-smaller circulations… good for building the C.V.s of aspiring writer-academics, but bad for generating consensus around work of surpassing distinction. And the economics of running a print magazine outside the institutional shelter of the academy are inhospitable to longevity, as we can see from the recent folding of the print editions of Grand Street, Pindeldyboz, Ballyhoo, and numerous others. Websites such as failbetter.com have begun to fill the gaps, but it will be some time before online publication supplants print as a commonly accepted arbiter of the good and the beautiful.
Not surprisingly, things get even grimmer when we turn to the publishing houses. I won’t claim that my own inability to sell a collection of short stories is attributable to anything other than their own shortcomings, but I will note how many complimentary rejection notices from publishers tend to end with phrases like “…but you know how hard it is to market book of short stories” or “of course, a novel would be more marketable.” It is nearly impossible to imagine a word-drunk ephebe moving to New York to become a short-story writer, as so many New Yorker contributors did at mid-century. Given the prospects for remuneration, you’d be better served to move to wherever the cost of living was cheapest – North Dakota or Guatemala.
Interestingly, however, the transformation of the literary marketplace has not dampened the supply of short stories. If anything, the opposite. In the aisles of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Book Fair last weekend, I passed literally thousands of aspiring novelists looking to publish their short stories. It became obvious that my preliminary sketch of distribution mechanisms for the short story had failed to account for a technology even more important than the Internet: the photocopier.
The photocopier is the single indispensable technology for the rise of the graduate creative writing program – there are now more than 350 – and the graduate creative writing program is without question the single biggest contributor to the boom in short story production. The pedagogical staple of M.F.A. programs is still the workshop, and the workshop requires complete, coherent, and (above all) short bits of fiction that can be photocopied and distributed to eight or 10 classmates. Chapters of novels, shorn of context, are difficult to work with. Stories on the short side – 3,000 to 5,000 words – are best, if one wants to avoid pissing off one’s peers. The ideal workshop story can be digested in a week, returned to the writer with comments, and improved. How? Through the application of a certain set of principles of what the short story should be. We call these principles, collectively, “craft.” In the fiction workshop, “craft” is king, simply because it’s teachable. Thus writing teachers, themselves former M.F.A. students, tend to talk about Chekhov and Flannery O’Connor as if it were their formal balance, rather than their deep strangeness, that brings their stories to life.
Think about the numbers: 350 fiction programs. 3,000 new graduates per year. Each taking let’s say four workshops, each of which requires three submissions. That’s 36,000 short stories for each graduating class of writers, who have worked to convince each other that the top 1% of short stories – those that come closest to generating workshop consensus – may be published in a literary magazine. A literary magazine whose readership may largely comprise writers looking for a place to publish their short stories. “Guarded self-consciousness” starts to look like a mathematical inevitability. Perversely, then, the greatest danger to the short story may be the very institution that’s sustaining it.
Yet, even if the foregoing manages to capture something true, I’ve neglected all the factors that guarantee that the short story will survive in the 21st century… and even thrive. First, there is the durable insanity of writers, which a proper education channels, rather than cures. To be sure, some workshop students are angling for literary celebrity, and others rightly see graduate school as a comfortable alternative to a desk job. But my own experience suggests that a significant fraction of M.F.A. candidates write short stories because, like Chekhov and O’Connor, they are helpless not to. These are the writers I want to read.
Second, there is the competitive pressure on editors to create venues for the short story that stand out in a crowded marketplace. In addition to the upstart publications mentioned above, recent years have seen the advent of such forums as McSweeney’s, Zoetrope: All Story, The Oxford American, 9th Letter, A Public Space, Black Clock, and NOON… This is not to mention the continued excellence of Conjunctions, Witness, Callaloo, ZYZZYVA, and The Paris Review, to name a few.
Finally, the very shortness of the short story ensures its necessity in our new century. Like the sonnet, it is both a form and a discipline, but the short story also offers its acolytes remarkable freedom. Because the reader absorbs it in a single sitting, it has the capacity, like Seamus Heaney’s swans, to “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” And for the writer, there is the possibility that anything may happen on the page, in a way that there isn’t, quite, in a novel. I think of my favorite living practitioners of the short story – David Means, Edward P. Jones, Diane Williams, and Deborah Eisenberg (about whom I’ll be writing later this week) – and I remember a series of surprises, like colored scarves drawn from the sleeves of magicians. That is, I see cause for celebration.
Perhaps “saving” the short story simply means to read it, devotedly, and to write it, when called, and otherwise to let the market sort itself out. We could do worse than to follow the example of Henry James – no short-story slouch himself – who wrote, “We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”