The Long and Short of It

A professor of mine once asked if the short story format is, as many assert, dead. Certainly an argument can be made that it has outlived its usefulness.Obsolescence, however, is another matter entirely.

Short stories originated (as with most literature) in the oral tradition and were kept short so they could be remembered and passed down in pre-literate societies. Meeting Poe’s definition of a short story as something to be consumed in a single reading, short fiction evolved into it’s own beast, heavily influenced by the Americans, French, and Russians, Chekhov in particular. At its height, the format flourished because of a handful of publications and a large literate reading class. Some were self-contained; some, like Dickens, were serial publications of novel excerpts that eventually found themselves put together in a single volume. The upside of this type of publication is that working class readers could afford the small pieces and a tome, like say Bleak House, seemed more digestible when taken a piece at a time. As with modern night time soaps, the public keeps tuning in to find out what happens next. However, these works cannot truly be considered self-contained short prose, although it shows how the interests of the public fared.

Current society seems to have three places for short stories. First, there is the classroom where professors rely on the short format for enabling students to experience a large variety of movements and styles in a limited amount of time. I will admit that roughly 85% of my short story reading has been as a student or a teacher. Then there are the handful of true short story writers who still publish anthologies of just short stories to great acclaim. Writers like Annie Proulx, Tobias Wolff, and Lorrie Moore have continued to produce short works, albeit interspersed with long format offerings.

Finally, there is the world of aspiring writers. Google short story publications and the search will blow up. While for a time it appeared the short story would flicker out of existence with the passing of writers like Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, the internet has provided a reprieve. There are literally hundreds of online and small press journals that publish short fiction. Literary, genre, flash, and even self-contained excerpts–there is a place for all of them. (Some people even publish their stories directly on their blogs, but the question of self-publication is something for another post.) From the writer’s point of view the appeal is obvious: a chance to submit work without an agent for possible publication. It’s another entry on the resume and an opportunity for more readers.

But is it? There is no question of the appeal of writing short fiction. It’s brevity lends itself to development of craft and editing skills while not crushing the writer with the weight of sustained narrative. My question is instead, who is the readership for short stories? Other writers? Students? Academics? Will there come a time when there will be no demand for the short stories we all write?

I don’t have solid answers for these questions, but I will say that I believe there will always be someone to read short stories. It will never be the dominate format or even particularly mainstream outside the classroom, but if it, along with its writers, continue to adapt, the legacy of short fiction should endure.

Take a moment and read William Boyd’s fascinating article on his take of the appeal of writing short narrative: “Brief Encounters.”

What about you, readers? Will short stories continue to be relevant? Are they relevant now? For those who write short stories, what draws you to that format?

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