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The Plight of Short Fiction

I ran into an acquaintance today at the grocery store (clichéd, I know; you could never write that scene into good fiction) who had seen some of the recent reviews of my book. His comment? "You'll be rolling in the dough soon, right?" Um, yeah. This is clearly not somebody who understands the state of the current publishing industry in this country. When it comes to money-making books, a collection of literary short stories is pretty much on the bottom of the heap. This has me thinking today about why, exactly, that is. Truly, it seems to me that short fiction fits the modern American lifestyle almost better than anything. Don't we have shorter attention spans? Hasn't the television industry shortened the length of the average television scene and commercial because of our complete inability to stick with one thing for too long? At a time when blogging has gained massive momentum and handwritten letters have become all but obscure in the face of email, one would think the popularity of other short forms of written communication would follow suit.

Who among us hasn't complained that we don't have time to read as much as we like? A good friend of mine recently admitted that she hardly reads at all anymore, because as soon as she's sucked into a good book, she ignores everything else in her life and things just pile up. It seems to me that the short story is the perfect form for this frenzied new American lifestyle. Stick a collection of stories in your bag and you can whip it out when you have ten minutes in the waiting room at the dentist's office, or read just one quick story before bed. It's less of a commitment, certainly, than a novel; or, at least, a commitment of a different kind. You can put down a collection between stories and pick it up a few days later without worrying about forgetting something vital to the book in those lost days.

Maybe that's part of the problem, though. Yesterday, I mentioned my tendency to stay up all night reading a good book. I have to admit that although I love the short story form almost more than any other, I don't think I've ever stayed up all night with a collection of stories. Once a story comes to a resolution, it's easy for me to put it down and pick it up again the next morning. But there's something intense and magical about those nights with a good novel that you just can't put down even though you're so tired it's hard to read through your blurry eyes.

Too, part of the problem might be the nature of modern short stories themselves. I have to admit I winced when I read Peter Manseau's blog post last month as he summarized Tom Wolfe's "assertion that American fiction had been poisoned by the standing waters of MFA programs, where, he said, all manner of writing diseases were bred." I winced for two reasons: 1) I am a graduate of an MFA program myself, and 2) there is probably some truth in what he says. Fiction writing workshops have become, out of convenience, almost entirely about the short story. It's far easier to workshop multiple short stories a term than novel excerpts. I taught a creative writing workshop at ASU with Jay Boyer that has forever changed my notion of the short story. When we sat down to work out the syllabus, Dr. Boyer listed more novels than short stories. I had never been in a writing workshop in which the reading list including anything other than short fiction. What I learned in teaching that class is that it is impossible to write a good short story without being intimately acquainted with its opposite: the novel. Short fiction is as much about exclusion as inclusion, as much about what you don't include as what you do. This is the genius of a really good short story, the thing that makes short fiction among the most powerful of literary forms. Unfortunately, many stories written today don't seem to take this into account. Too many short stories do feel like the result of a pat formula learned in an MFA workshop.

Some of the modern short story collections I most admire: A Kind of Flying (Ron Carlson), Elbow Room (James Alan McPherson), The Necessary Grace to Fall (Gina Ochsner), Friend of My Youth (Alice Munro), and A Stranger In This World (Kevin Canty).

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Prisoner Pear: Stories from the Lake
    New Trade Paper $16.95
  2. A Kind of Flying: Selected Stories Sale Trade Paper $8.98
  3. Elbow Room: Stories New Mass Market $7.99
  4. The Necessary Grace to Fall... Used Hardcover $7.50
  5. Friend of My Youth
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  6. A Stranger in This World: Stories... Used Trade Paper $5.95
  7. The Prisoner Pear: Stories from the Lake
    New Trade Paper $16.95

Elissa Minor Rust is the author of The Prisoner Pear: Stories from the Lake

6 Responses to "The Plight of Short Fiction"

    Mike January 11th, 2006 at 1:56 pm

    You make an excellent point, Elissa. Your argument is sound, but it all comes down to a matter of taste. I prefer to be drawn in by a novel. Similarly, I prefer to escape into a two-hour long movie as opposed to a shorter television show that also has commercial interruptions.

    cb January 11th, 2006 at 5:25 pm

    at last! someone recognizes publicly the genius of ron carlson!

    Frank January 11th, 2006 at 6:06 pm

    You simply have to stay ahead of the trends. Find ways to shorten the already short attention span. Before each short story, pull out key words that for a sort of (say ummm .. a Saduku-like)puzzle that has the reader figuring some element of the short story before it even starts. This is truly the modern blog-like way. To read fast is a skill, to skim with a purpose is pure gift. Reach for the stars and hope for that proverbial bag of chips at the end of the rainbow. Book sales will go up and America will once again regain its literary thirst. (perhaps regain is a bit of an overstatement)

    Brian January 13th, 2006 at 12:48 pm

    I don't think it's a shortened attention span that has people no longer reading short fiction. People have railed against what Michael Chabon called ???the contemporary, quotidian, plotless moment-of-truth story." There is a limited audience for this story, and with Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore-wannabes poking around for the types of stories their professors told them were worthy in english lit classes, that's not going to change.

    Somewhere along the line, the crystal pure perfect sentence became the benchmark over a good tale well told, bumps and all. Blaming the reader does nothing to change this.

    Suzi January 6th, 2007 at 6:52 pm

    I think that people don't read short stories for several reasons.

    First, people may never have read a fun short story in their lives. What they get in school is literature and most literature, in my experience anyway, is depressing. Who wants to be depressed? So, if they've never enjoyed reading a short story, they won't look for short stories to enjoy.

    Second, short stories are much harder to write well. There is less room for error, less leeway in the importance of each word/line/paragraph.

    Third, short stories are very dense. They're not like a sitcom, where the embibee already knows the characters and the relationships of each person, with one or two new walk-ins permitted in the show. Instead, the embibee of a short story has to winnow out relationship information from tiny snippets like "my frog grandmother." Okay, that lady didn't like that grandmother. Or maybe she did and the grandmother taught her all about frogs... Short stories may be short, but they are not simple. And for entertainment, simple is better.

    Teaching College English » Why folks don’t read short stories July 17th, 2008 at 8:03 pm

    [...] Elissa Minor Rust wrote about short fiction and why people don’t read it. [...]

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