The Lonely Reader (Part One)

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Guest post by Greg Schutz

 

“I have always wondered why short stories aren’t more popular in this country,” muses Barbara Kingsolver in her introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2001. “We Americans are such busy people you’d think we’d jump at the chance to have our literary wisdom served in doses that fit handily between taking the trash to the curb and waiting for the carpool…But we don’t.”
The last decade seems to have done little to shed light on the situation. If anything, Kingsolver’s basic question–why, in an age of truncated attention spans, aren’t similarly truncated narratives more widely read?–is being asked more stridently nowadays than ever.
Discussions of such questions often have a distinctly capitalist flavor. The short story’s readership is parsed and weighed in language more suited to descriptions of a summer blockbuster’s audience or an infomercial product’s market. In this context, talk about the short story’s popularity is just colloquial shorthand for its market share. Isn’t there a market here? these questions are really asking. Isn’t there a demand for brevity that the short story supplies?


It should come as little surprise, then, that efforts to broaden the short story’s readership often take the form of marketing initiatives. The Atlantic has begun delivering stories directly to subscribers’ Kindles. Online venues like Electric Literature are combining short stories with streaming video. Commentators bemoan the staid, conservative layouts of crotchety old university quarterlies such as the Michigan Quarterly Review or the Sewanee Review while praising the more colorful, hipper pages of journals like Tin House and McSweeney’s–without pronouncing judgment on the journals’ content.

 

It’s true, of course, that packaging counts for something–I can tell you from experience that a new issue of Tin House or McSweeney’s can be a visceral thrill to hold in one’s hands–but the underlying assumption beneath these efforts seems to be that a large untapped market for the short story is already out there (all those busy Americans “waiting for the carpool”), just waiting to be reached–visually excited or electronically enticed into reading. My contention is that this is simply not the case.
So, why aren’t short stories more popular in this country? Why aren’t copies of Ploughshares and The Southern Review stacked in dentists’ waiting rooms? Isn’t “A Worn Path” the perfect read for a morning’s subway commute?
The problem here is not with the short story itself, but with the questions being raised about it. Asking questions like these at face value binds the speaker to a limited–and fundamentally flawed–definition of the short story.
* * *
Americans are busy. Stories are short. Let’s set aside, for the purposes of this post, the question of whether our general busy-ness makes us somehow less receptive to long-form narratives (although wouldn’t the success of such television shows as The Sopranos or The Wire–not to mention the brisk sales of lengthy novels from 2666 to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows–debunk this idea?) and more receptive to shorter forms. Even if one grants this, it still does not follow that Americans ought to “jump at the chance” to read short stories. Not unless you distinguish the short story from the novel–our other prime dispenser of “literary wisdom”–solely by virtue of length.
Let me ask you a question. If you want to hear a knock-knock joke, and I recite “The Red Wheelbarrow,” are you going to have gotten what you wanted? Are you, to borrow the vocabulary of commerce, going to leave a satisfied customer?
Stories are not tiny novels, and novels are not enormous stories. Length is only part of the equation; the short story is not only short.
* * *
Next week: If the short story is not only short, what else is it? As a way of investigating the relationship between the short story’s form and its content, I’ll be looking at Frank O’Connor’s seminal study of the short story, The Lonely Voice. What does a definition of the short story that depends not at all upon length look like?
This is Greg’s fifth post for Get Behind the Plough.

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