Inter Alia #8: Whither the Short Story?

February 18, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 10 5 min read

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 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.”

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. I'm researching short fiction publication through McSweeney's for a PhD, and it's interesting to consider the graduate programs as an integral part of the short story process. There's a book, The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story by Andrew Levy that's broadly about this subject. I haven't started doing any research into this side of things yet, just now I'm looking at the history of how short stories have been published, from the nineteenth-century up to McSweeney's, which for my purposes is the main forum for short fiction just now….a position which will need qualified, but I'm trying to situate it in a similar role to what the New Yorker has had…it was so depressing to buy my first ever copy of the NY last year [I'm studying in the UK so I'm having to forcibly redress a lot of culture i've missed out on] and see only one short story in there. It seems such a waste. I'm not sure if people are reading short stories as much, or less, but they should be! As you say, perfect for our century. Maybe non-academics have forgotten what a short story is….

  2. Great post, Garth. I have to say that at my MFA program, people often submitted long stories (30 pages or so) without getting complaints from other students. The question of whether these were publishable never came up, perhaps because in a classroom atmosphere, the market isn't really of any importance. Margot Livesy even taught a seminar on the long story, where we read strange and exciting work by Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Joan Silber, etc.
    It wasn't until I left the program and began to work on my novel that my stories got shorter, to a magazine-preferred length, perhaps in reaction to the never ending book I'd begun…

  3. Nice post, Garth.

    I can remember hearing that the short story was dead years before I published my first story in a short-lived litmag called New Writers 33 years ago.

    I'm far from the the best short story writer in the world and I'm still trying to figure the genre out. I never wrote "workshop" stories. Yet somehow I managed to publish over 250 stories in all kinds of literary magazines, anthologies and webzines. It's never been easy to sell a collection of short stories, but it's still possible.

    People will continue to write, publish and read short stories for at least a while, I think. Yeah, there's probably not room for all those MFAs and I was lucky in that I got my MFA at a time when there were one-tenth the number of programs and students we have today. But even back in the day, very few MFA graduates really went on to publish anything. Most of today's MFAs will not publish much, either.

    I am currently teaching a lit class called The Short Story and I can tell you that non-literary community college students in Brooklyn, at least, are still interested in reading them.

  4. Interesting analysis. Two points. First, it's hard to separate a longer form from a shorter one. For example, I'm writing a cycle of stories that has a story frame but otherwise consists of unrelated stories. That's my way of serving both audiences. Just finished reading a book by Kelly Cherry which is another version of it. Come to think of it, Kundera segments his stories carefully as well, so they can be both short stories and novels.

    So while an outsider may think a MFA grad is only writing a short story, if the character is engaging, it's easy to extend it. In fact, as a grad of one such programs, I think this rush to write novels is a little foolish if you are not ready for it.

    One more point. Short stories are in heavy demand on podcasts (like Escapepod and Miette's Bedtime Story) and live storytelling events

    To summarize: people are comfortable with shorter forms, but just not via the avenues you mentioned.

  5. If you want to see a modern writer doing the old-time American Short Story, check out Think About It! 30 Short Stories by Ben King – great reviews from Writer's Digest – "a treat to read" – can't put it down, but if you do you can always start with a new story.

  6. I dunno, it seems like the short story is in BIG trouble.

    Check out this analysis of the short story in American culture, from 1920 to today:

    Listen up!

    It looks pretty dire indeed!

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