Shorts In A Bind

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Charles McGrath opens his review of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories with a paradox: that the short story is all but dead as a commercial medium and at the same time is the one form that gets taught to aspiring writers. But his survey of what sounds like a distinctly un-minimalist collection leads to a more important oddity—that in the absence of a short story market, the writers in the anthology have returned to seemingly market-friendly forms:

These and similar stories are so energetic, so filled with invention, that they seem almost hyperactive; they also seem to assume a reader whose taste and interests have been formed by television and by the movies as much as by literature. Yet in their gimmickiness and occasional luridness, their jokiness, their quickness of pace, their way of developing a single clever idea, there's something old-fashioned about them too—a trace of the pulp magazines, say, or of some of H. G. Wells's tales.

For most of the last century, short-story writers in English—or the great ones anyway; writers like Hemingway, O'Hara, Salinger, Cheever—were busy dismantling the Victorian machinery of the story, dispensing with surprise endings, for example, and eventually with beginnings too, and even with plot itself, to create a kind of story that was deeper, quieter, moodier: the kind of story that on the evidence of this anthology, many of these "new" writers don't quite trust anymore.

Whole review (free reg. req.) here. There still seems to be a portion of experimental writing here, my favorite example being from Joe Wendroth's story "Letters to Wendy's": "It is rare for a baby to be so bad that it is sentenced to be hanged, and even rarer for the sentence to be carried out, and yet, when a baby is hung, what a pleasant surprise it is for the passer-by."

But it's not much of a surprise that newer writers are in a hurry to dispense with Chekhovian epiphany stories, which for several decades now have been as hidebound and predictable as the narrative stories they displaced. When I come across a one-joke story, I always remind myself, "At least it's got one joke." Still, it's doubtful that this kind of development will mean much in the face of such a tiny mainstream market for short fiction. An old OpEd headline from The Onion (which I'm paraphrasing because it doesn't seem to be in the archives anymore) said it all:

"My Short Fiction Will Give Meaning To A Confused World."

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  1. This topic sounds a false alarm similar to the one about Cornel West.

    Goddess is in her heaven. All is not bad down below.

  2. It was TV that killed the short story market, I tell you. It was quick, and brutal. I saw it with my own eyes…

  3. Michael Chabon makes a similar point about the need for short stories beyond the “character has an epiphany” sort in his introduction to “McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales.”

    If anything has helped kill the short story form, it is the elitist atmosphere that condemns or ignores any story that has, you know, a plot. It is no accident that the only short-story magazines you can still find in bookstores are the science-fiction and detective magazines.

  4. Unfortunately, those magazines pay practically nothing, and in many cases literally nothing. The literary short fiction journals, of which there is a bumper crop, have similar pay scales.

    The proliferation of mopey epiphany stories in general interest magazines helped create the general impression that a story with a plot isn’t worth the effort, and probably caused many readers to tune out of the whole form. But the real problem is that there just isn’t a very big audience for short stories. The creative and consumptive energies that used to surround short stories now go into other forms. It’s a case of the free market working the way it should: There aren’t many buyers for the product, so the producers went away.

    Which doesn’t mean there isn’t a small market failure somewhere in here. I suspect there is a market for stories that wouldn’t fit into a science fiction magazine (no use to you if you don’t like the genre), the New Yorker (only one story a week, if that, and usually of a pretty fine-tuned demographic appeal) or Granta (who cares?). The story about the slacker Vikings mentioned in the review sounds like it could be broadly appealing. So although I can’t really endorse what they’ve actually produced, I wish the best of luck to Dave Eggers, Francis Coppola, and the others who are trying to revive the short fiction market.

  5. Now if they could just work on poetry …

  6. Chekhovian epiphany stories, which for several decades now have been as hidebound and predictable as the narrative stories they displaced.

    I think you mean that they were poorly written. Chekhov still reads just fine, and some epiphany writers, such as Peter Taylor, turned out superb stories until very recently. There was just a glut of mediocre stories in the same guise beneath them, and you (apparently) got mired in it. Put the blame where it belongs – on the authors – and not on the form itself.

  7. Writing is like making love to my cat – extremely furry.

    That’s the best I could come up with. Sorry.

    pop goes lethal

    reject aesthetic relativism

  8. I’ll be right back, I just have to dash off a letter to Granta, after all, someone most have forgotten to tell them the art form they publish in is dead. And then a note to my fav writer these days, David Foster Wallace, who after writing the incredibly long and sprawling (and laced with the comic abuse of footnotes), wrote a short story book that actually sold. I must write them both, after all, they apparently didn’t know that their medium is dead. How un-civilized of them.

    Well. Hmm…perhaps…KILL THE GATEKEEPERS WHO PRONOUNCE ART FORMS DEAD. Ahem…Oh, sorry about that…back to your regular (and vinilla) programing….

  9. The short story isn’t dead it just evolved. Movies and TV shows are just short stories and in genre fiction like Science Fiction there remains a vibrant market.

    I think that the short story as “serious literature” died because the writers, editors and critics evolved into a parochial subculture that could not relate to the experiences of the general reading public. They began to compete with one another on the basis of style and began ignoring the telling of the basic human experience that ultimately makes for a good story.

  10. Take my advice. Screw the short stories and buy Choice and This Is Burning Man, conveniently advertised on your right.

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