In April, I’ll be hosting a workshop on writing short stories. To prepare, I reached out to a few authors and asked them why they think short stories are still relevant and valuable in today’s age.
This is what a few of them responded…
Stories are all we have, really, to connect with each other across time and cultures and the very grave itself. The linguists call it a triadic event when two minds connect over a third thing. But look where that leads. Your mind, and that of, say, Fitzgerald’s, over that sad figure whose losing his daughter again in “Babylon Revisited.”
I’d say they’re important because of the pure immersion they give us in another world. Because of all the things we can learn about ourselves from reading them.
The short story, by contrast (to a novel), is unique in that it packs all the pleasures of long-form fiction into a savory, aromatic dish that can be ingested and enjoyed in about the same time as it takes for you to leash up your dog and go looking for adventure in the woods.
I had originally emailed Martin Slag (whose email name is Ernesto Barbieri?) to get a quote from him on the subject because he writes an unbelievably addicting blog called “Letters of Rejection” which is all about the process and experience of getting short stories rejected by Literary journals. Instead of replying by email, he told me he would answer my question in the form of a blog article, which you can read here.
One of the comments he made in the article sparked my interest and caused me to respond.
He said, “First, the short story market is not disappearing; if anything, it is expanding, at a vastly disproportionate rate to our culture’s interest in the form.”
But isn’t that a contradiction in terms? For a market to expand, there must be an equally proportionate growth in consumption as there is in production. For a market to grow, supply must be met by demand. You can have a farm that grows a million bananas each year, but if you have enough buyers for only ten thousand, that’s a market about to collapse on itself.
This leads me to question whether short stories really ARE relevant today? Was I jumping to an unsupported conclusions when I asked whether short stories were really relevant today?
Afterall, there are a number of literary journals shutting down each year due to financial struggles.
Also, short story collections don’t sell nearly as well as novels.
If you look at the Literature best-selling list on Amazon, very rarely will short story collections break the Top-100, and usually only because a really well-established author has come out with a highly-touted release.
Have short stories gone in the way of classics, therefore mostly irrelevant to young or common readers who need to be energized and excited about reading itself? Are short stories better left for a college or more intellectually mature audience?
I’m afraid that maybe I’ve assumed too much by asking WHY short stories are still relevant today.
I’ve seen that problem myself with “Amidst Traffic.” Though the collection has been met with favorable reviews and praise, the sales are so meager that it’s been difficult to call it a “marketable product.” The demand for short stories has decreased over the years, and the most popular books are usually ones that provide much action and little thought provocation.
But why? Our American culture is one that’s moving toward a shorter attention span and desiring shorter reading materials for public consumption.
The most popular blog posts are the ones that are short and to the point. Twitter and Instagram have become king in the social media world.
But then why is there no oxygen for short stories to survive financially? Why is the short story market dying?
I’m beginning to wonder whether short stories really ARE relevant from a public’s perspective. Except, I’m willing to argue that short stories ARE relevant from a writer/supporter’s perspective.
My argument is this: Short stories (the good ones), provoke the reader to think critically about the material because everything is packed in such a way that every word must have added meaning. It is BECAUSE our culture is so intellectually lazy, that more short stories are what we need!
But in a free society (which we all want, right?) it is the consumer who decides what product lives and what product dies. Authors will continue to write short stories even if there is no money to support it.
But is that enough to make them relevant?
And then there was this…
The article goes on to say that the current resurgence in the short story form could translate in future sales.
Originally, I rejoiced at this article! I was hopeful!
But as I kept reading the piece I saw that it was more speculation than journalism. Really, the NYT article provided no factual, tangible or quantitative evidence to support the case that Short Story Collections are on the rise in the market.
My concern is that even if the short story is making a comeback thanks to the internet, maybe sales won’t follow as greatly as the article might expect. After all, people who love reading articles and news on small screens (say tablets and smaller devices), are usually readers who enjoy most of what they read for free.
If, however, the market moves into the Kindle, Nook and iBook format, then there’s financial hope after all…
Until then, the Short Story Form will always be a greater exercise in joy than in profit.