Publish or Perish: The Short Story

“The Short Story is Not Dead.”  This headline appeared in The Nervous Breakdown in January above an essay written by my friend Alex Chee in which he discussed the ways that technology was making the short story more accessible, and specifically, accessible on his iPhone.  The assertion of the negative – not dead – seemed to me an odd way for the copy editor to introduce an article on good news for short story reading.  I wondered what he meant by the possible ‘death’ of the story.  I find that when someone asserts that a thing (the story), or an idea (God), is not dead, they usually mean that a nostalgic version of the thing has lapsed and not been replaced by something comparably satisfying.

What has changed with the story?  Not the writing.  Short story writing is alive and well.  The evidence:  Three of five of the New York Times’ notable works of fiction in 2010 are short fiction collections (counting Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad).  And consider all the print and online journals that survive on paid contest submissions, which is evidence of the large number of writers who aspire to be published authors.  The human impulse to tell stories has not diminished.

What then?  Short story reading has declined.  With few exceptions (The New Yorker is one), mass circulation general interest magazines no longer publish short stories.  And, editors and agents blanche at the prospect of debut story collections, and often publish an author’s collection only with the promise of a follow-on novel.  The popular wisdom – and commercial reality – is that story collections don’t sell.

What to make of this conundrum?  Is today’s short fiction not as good?  Hardly.  Why aren’t readers holding up their part of the bargain?  The answer, let me suggest, is related to how readers are given the opportunity to read – distribution, in commercial terms.  The short story became one of the great 20th century art forms when inexpensive publishing technology gave rise to mass market general interest magazines.  Oral story telling is a deeply human tradition, but it was only with the blitzkrieg of 19th century mass publishing that the written short story became a specific art form.  Magazines served up stories as snacks for readers, and did so with relish.

The Saturday Evening Post, and other widely circulated magazines, provided outlets for stories by writers with now-household names, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton,   There were more than 25 mass market magazines in the 1920s and 1930s that published one short story each week.  When Life magazine published Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in 1952, that issue sold 5.3 million copies.

Stories in magazines could be read in one sitting.  And, story collections became the publishing industry’s way to capitalize on already popular works when they were repackaged in compilations.  Poe’s, Chekhov’s, Hawthorne’s, Gallant’s, Updike’s, and Cheever’s great stories all first appeared in periodicals.  Only later in books.

The decline in short story reading is, I suggest, linked to the precipitous decline in mass market magazine readership. Magazines’ sales decline began in during the 1960s when consumers shifted their entertainment and news interest to television, but the decline recently accelerated with the explosive growth of online and mobile real-time access to news and information. The story, which was popularized by new printing and distribution technologies, has slowly become a victim of the displacement of those technologies.  To be sure, stories themselves also suffer from the crushing competition for consumer’s attention posed by TV, video games, and the Internet.  But, without mass market distribution outlets, readers entertain themselves in other ways.

Literary journals continue to publish stories, but they come out seasonally, or occasionally, and the months’ long gap between issues doesn’t serve a creature of time-worn habit, accustomed to weekly soap operas, weekly television dramas, or the weekly story in The New Yorker.  Consumers like predictable engagement.  There are hundreds of online literary journals that publish bi-weekly, or monthly.  Many — and there are a great many for readers to discover — are better suited to launch new voices than to publish top authors.  And the seductive distractions of Facebook and Twitter make literary reading on a computer a difficult act of will. What’s a reader to do? Technology gave rise to the flowering of the short story, contributed to its decline, and technology will, in my opinion, again solve the problem of connecting readers and stories.

Like the song, the short story is perfectly suited for mobile consumption.  The iPhone and iPad and other tablets are with their owner all the time, and a story on these devices can be read on a treadmill, in a bank line, on an airplane, wherever the user has a few minutes and wants to be transported to the magical place stories can create.  Poe’s definition of the short story remains as true today as when he wrote it: “a story is a thing that can be read in one sitting.”  If he were writing today he might rephrase it: “…in one hour on the tread mill.”

So, how many Americans actually read short stories?  How large is the market?  There are no accurate answers to the question, but there are ways of approximating the number who read, which of course, is reduced by the fact that many people who might like to read stories don’t know where to find them.  A few facts:

9 million adult Americans annually read more than 50 works of fiction (NEA study, 2008).

2 million adult American publish personal creative writing (NEA study, 2002; writers are usually also readers.)

1.1 million: the subscription rate base for The New Yorker in 2009

150,000: the graduates of creative writing MFA programs in the past 20 years (all of whom learn to write and read short stories).

50,000-100,000: the estimated annual sales of The Pushcart Prize collections of stories (my estimate).

These population snapshots overlap, of course, but suggest that there are 500,000-to-1.5 million American adults who are frequent readers of short stories.

Stories are meant to be read one at a time, savored individually, taken in, and reflected upon.  Collections are ways of repackaging known works.  Publishing executives today don’t expect collections to sell (because they haven’t in the past), so they aren’t marketed, and this cycle of low expectations and insufficient care creates a self-fulfilling outcome: collections don’t sell.

Web connected devices, like the iPad and the iPhone, can connect readers of short fiction with the best writing in the market.  Mobile and web technologies reduce friction in markets.  Storytelling is a deep human need, and readers of stories are entertained and instructed by clever plots, sympathetic characters, and artful writing.  Words create imaginary worlds that provide readers with an experience that is similar to, but different from, the worlds of movies and television.  Technology provides a new way to connect story tellers and fans.  We’re all ears.

(Image: 732 – Power Grid – Pattern image from zooboing’s photostream)