What Ever Happened To The Short Story?

sherlock_holmesThe short story was once the grandame of the fiction world. Writers like Arthur Conan Doyle made their fortunes off the short story. Writers like Dickens turned out a lot of short stories to supplement their serial income (and the serial was itself, in effect, a short-storyisation of the novel). Nowadays, the short story is a bare flicker in the background of the landscape of the novel. Writers produce the occasional book of collected tales, but only after writing the stories in drips and drabs over years. No sane editor commissions a collection of short stories from scratch and expects to make real money. So what happened?

The decline of the short story seems undeniable. Once great bastions of the short tale, such as Asimov’s or Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine are now relatively minor players in the publishing landscape. Plenty of magazine titles have struggled or vanished entirely. Modern writers who are known for their skill with short stories either produce novels as well (such as Ursula Le Guin) or they are largely considered excellent literary writers in rather a narrow silo and have a day job, often as an academic (Tobias Wolfe comes to mind).

This seems an odd thing because reading a short story is quite a different experience to reading a novel. A good short story can thrill and excite like a roller coaster, or it can focus on a moment of drama in a realistically drawn slice of life at such depth that no novel could ever manage without driving the reader to insanity. I think it was Neil Gaiman who said that writing a novel is like climbing a mountain but writing a short story is like climbing a tree. Going up a tree takes finesse, skill and not everyone who can climb is a good tree climber. Climbing a mountain is largely a question of putting one foot in front of the other. That highlights the difference between these two arts to me. The short story is an arena of agile brevity… the novel, not so much.

Could this fundamental difference be the source of the decline of the short story? Is it that people’s tastes have so radically changed? I’m not so sure, or rather I’m not sure this is exactly the explanation.

My feeling is that it has something more to do with the proliferation of other forms of entertainment, TV, games and on-demand in-home movies. I suspect but cannot prove that a huge part of the appeal of the short story in its heyday was that it was quick to read and relatively easy to access at a mental level. You could rely on a quick beginning, middle and end if the tale was well told. In the (sometimes few) moments between work and sleep, an exhausted mind much more easily reads or listens to a short story than a novel. I have found in the past when I was working until about 10.30pm and getting up at 5.30am the next day to do more work that all my reading switched to short stories. I don’t know if that is just my own experience or a more general one, but I think the short story is better than the novel for relieving high stress when the mind is exhausted. The problem for the short story now is that we now have other better means of relieving high stress when the mind is exhausted. A casual game of matching objects, an online magazine, a first-person shooter, or even just binging on a couple episodes of a favourite TV show take less mental investment but give the same or similar relief from the world’s harsh realities.

So why then has the novel persisted? Well, the novel is a different beast. It is a longer, slower experience and plays a long game. There is nothing quite like reading fiction for experiencing someone else’s thoughts in your own head – it is a form of empathy by entertainment that has not yet been replaced by any other form of pastime.

This isn’t to say that the short story is doomed to dwindle away to nothing. A good short story is still a challenge to write, and a writer can learn a lot by taking a couple years to write only or mostly short stories. There will always be some people who want the immersive empathic experience of written fiction but prefer it to be in small chunks rather than a long and winding tale. It isn’t a lost art, and it won’t be lost, and who knows, it might come back? Tastes and mores change. That said, you wouldn’t catch me betting the future of a publishing company on a successful short story collection… for now, those days of glorious short story sales are gone.

 

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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