Why the Short Story Doesn’t Matter and Why You Shouldn’t Care

The Lonely Reader, Part Four

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Guest post by Greg Schutz

Three weeks ago, I began this series of posts with a simple question that’s been batted around a lot lately. To paraphrase: “Why, given the novel’s continuing viability and the increasing hustle and bustle of our society, is the short story not more popular?” As I suggested then, it’s a question with capitalist undertones–a lament for the story’s lack of commercial success.

It’s also a question that misses the point of short stories by treating them as miniature novels. The differences between these two narrative forms, however, go far beyond length–as others, most notably Frank O’Connor, have argued. Last week, I attempted to encapsulate one of the key differences between stories and novels: “a novel has as much space as it needs to achieve [its] effects, whereas any short story is in a state of constant negotiation with its own onrushing end.” Stories, in other words, must invent strategies to respond to the challenge of brevity; novels, in general, do not.

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Having suggested this, I then went a little further, very roughly sketching two strategies by which stories negotiate the inherent restrictiveness of the form: excision and compression. Neither of these strategies exists as such in the novel, which has a fundamentally different relationship with its own length.

Many great short stories are like escape artists: double-jointed contortionists, they can be locked in a chest with their hands cuffed behind their backs, and still they will find room to maneuver. Endlessly inventive, they move freely within their restraints. Alice Munro’s “Friend of My Youth” begins with its narrator’s retrospective commentary on a recurring dream and ends with a brief digression about an obscure sect of Presbyterianism. Tony Earley’s “Prophet from Jupiter” accumulates and deploys recurring narrative, imagistic, and thematic touchstones, each harmonizing with the others like voices in a choir.

For me, one of the great pleasures in reading a short story is watching these maneuvers as they happen, and commenters on this series of posts seem to agree. “I read them because I love the form and I appreciate how much life can be packed into so few pages,” writes Verna Wilder. Mary Flinn adds, “The spatial limits of the form apply a vigorous spur to the imaginative problem solving of the writers, which makes us all the luckier as readers to be lost in that flashing world and satisfied by the elegance of the underpinnings.”

Mary and Verna have hit the nail on the head, I think. Readers of the short story are interested in both story and structure. They want both to get “lost in that flashing world” of the narrative and also to be “satisfied by the elegance of the [story's formal] underpinnings”; they are interested both in the lives of the characters and the author’s ability to pack those lives “into so few pages.”

Full appreciation of the short story, then, would seem to require a degree of formal intelligence; our enjoyment of a particular short story is at least partially predicated upon (1) our understanding of the particular challenge of the short-story form, and (2) our ability to read the story as a showcase for creative responses to that generic challenge.

The same cannot be said for the novel. What I mean is that one cannot define the novel as a narrative response to a single overarching challenge–or even any set of formal challenges; the novel is an amorphous form–the way one can the short story; thus, knowledge of the formal demands that underlie the composition of any novel is less important (which is, of course, far from saying unimportant) to one’s appreciation of that novel as a reader.

Why is the short story less commercially successful than the novel, shrinking attention spans or no? Here, at last, is my answer. The short story’s readership exists in a partially closed loop: they enjoy a particular story in part because of their familiarity with short stories in general, and their familiarity with short stories in general grows as they enjoy particular stories–each of which provides one possible solution to the riddle posed by the form itself.

It’s difficult to break into this loop; doing so requires a sort of literary education in the short-story form (though not necessarily the kind one receives in a classroom). Hence, as I argued in the first post of this series, there is no large, untapped market for the short story out there, waiting to be found. The story’s market share can only be grown organically, one reader at a time. This is not a model that lends itself well to commerce.

* * *

In commercial terms, in pop-cultural terms, the short story doesn’t matter. My reply, meanwhile, is that you shouldn’t care.

Why not? you ask. Isn’t the short story dying? Doesn’t it need a large influx of new readers to survive?

No, I would answer–and, consequently, no.

Allow me to defer, for a moment, to Frank O’Connor:

We have been told that the novel is dead, and I am sure that someone has said as much for the short story. I suspect that the announcement may prove a little premature . . . [T]he novel and the short story are drastic adaptations of a primitive art form to modern conditions . . . and I see no possibility of or reason for their supersession except in a general supersession of all culture by mass civilization. I suppose if this takes place, we shall all have to go into monasteries or–if mass civilization forbids–into catacombs and caves, but even there, I suspect, more than one worshiper will be found clutching a tattered copy of Pride and Prejudice or The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov.

There are two lessons to be learned here. The first is that news of the deaths of art forms arrives on our cultural doorstep daily; in almost every case, the rumored demise has been greatly exaggerated. (O’Connor penned these lines in 1962.) We should be cautious, then, before we declare the short story dead.

Moreover, what does it mean for an art form to be “dying”? If this simply means that its market share is small, then by all means, the short story is in bad shape. What’s worse, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for its resuscitation–not unless we break the partially closed loop that restricts short-story readership. And if we do that, of course, the short story will truly die, because in so doing we will have to invent an entirely new form to replace it.

But the second lesson we can learn from O’Connor is that the market is a poor measure of an art form’s vitality. What form could be more dead, for example, than the celebrity biography? Rather, the life of an art depends upon the “worshipers” of the form, however marginalized they may be. If the form speaks to their lives, it lives as long as they do.

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I’m not talking about timeliness here, but rather relevance. Some have asked the short story and poetry to court readers by becoming more timely, but I would reply that the story doesn’t exist to report the news, but to report, as Ezra Pound put it, “news that stays news.” Twenty-five hundred years after the Peloponnesian Wars, we still read Thucydides. His commentaries on power, politics, leadership, war, and history are not timely by any means, but they are deeply relevant–and therefore alive in the only way that, for art, truly matters.

(On this note, a quick sidebar. Jonathan Franzen has written about his efforts to write a “social novel“–to use the terms we’ve been using, a novel that reports the news. Although it seems to me that younger forms of art and media have likely usurped the reportorial role that–in a slower, analog world–the novel used to perform, I certainly wish him luck. As I see it, the novel can go ahead and tilt at that particular windmill all it wants; in fact, in order to maintain its market share, it’s probably duty-bound to try.)

* * *

I’ve written at length elsewhere about the advantages of literary fiction detaching itself from the commercial marketplace, so I won’t repeat myself too much here. Suffice to say that the short story is still being written and read by numbers enough to sustain it. Those numbers are not large, nor should they be. Much like the short lyric, the story is a desert creature, well adapted to arid climes. Too temperate an environment might, in fact, do it harm. See, for example, how the short lyric, when showered with commercial attention, devolves into gloppy sentimentality: pop lyrics or the poetry of Jewel.

If we try to steer the form toward greener commercial pastures, it may, like a horse, founder on the rich grass there. A too-comfortable art ossifies: as readership is expanded by giving readers more of what they have come to expect, form freezes into formula. The sated art grows slow, fat, boring, and increasingly popular.

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Meanwhile, I don’t want the short story to give me what I expect. No: I want it to continue to surprise me by finding thousands of idiosyncratic answers to its single inescapable formal question. I want the short story to run free, and in order to do so, it must travel light.

This is why I’m happy, as an aficionado of the short story, to resign the top of the fiction bestseller list to novels. While Nicholas Sparks, James Patterson, and Danielle Steele rake in the money, and while skilled novelists like Franzen labor mightily to bend their form of choice into a shape that will please mass culture, I’ll just open my copy of God’s Gym, or Tyrants, or The Laws of Evening, or All Aunt Hagar’s Children–or any other story collection published to small fanfare and smaller sales whose contents move and amaze me–and count myself lucky to be such a lonely reader.

This is Greg’s eighth post for Get Behind the Plough.


Images from: http://www.paperbackswap.com/Modern-Classics-Friend-Alice-Munro/book/0143055011/, http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780316199490, http://stevecotler.com/tales/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/, and http://www.abebooks.com/books/story-month-fiction-collections/best-short-stories.shtml



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2 Responses to Why the Short Story Doesn’t Matter and Why You Shouldn’t Care

  1. d_Taoist says:

    I’ve enjoyed this series immensely. Greg has clearly shows a lot of thought and has brought up valid points all along. But this last entry reads a little like the struggle he describes between the short story writer and the limited size of the form. Even over a few posts, I’m not sure that the question he sets out to answer can be adequately tackled in this format. In other words, this series reads like a novel-length idea being forced into the limited size of a story. The result is that the conclusion seems forced and rushed.
    That said, I believe it is strange to argue that a lack of commercial viability allows the short story to be free and to flourish like “a desert creature, well adapted to arid climes,” which I believe is the main point of this post. Its author seems to be saying that the “temperate” environment of commercial success “might, in fact, do [the form] harm,” which to me seems silly. Short fiction doesn’t make money, which is true enough. But on the other hand, you probably don’t want to be going into it thinking your fiction is superior because no one wants to pay you for it, which is the logical conclusion of the writer’s argument. This kind of thinking reminds me of those people who think they’re not cool, and then go out of their way to flaunt their lack of coolness to the point that they become militantly anti-cool.
    While I am at it, I would also like to add a short defense of Jonathan Franzen because I feel that Greg’s characterization also suffers from a certain hastiness. I like what Franzen writes, I admit it, but I am no fanatic. I don’t even care for the social/naturalistic novel. But to argue that Franzen makes his aesthetic choices in order to sell more books seems a little facile. Isn’t it just as likely that he likes the social novel because he feels, rightly or wrongly, that the social novel is the only way to keep fiction pertinent, as he’s written in various places. I don’t agree with Franzen. I write short fiction–in the Borges, Calvino, Aimee Bender vein, and I think that writers like Salman Rushdie can bring in aspects of magic and still be pertinent.
    Again, I like a lot of what Greg says here, and I would recommend the earlier posts in the series to anyone who cares about fiction, but short story writers of the world should not dig in to their little holes and become militantly anti-commercial as Greg seems to advise. Write, create, and do everything you can to get readers interested. I’m not saying you need to sell yourself down the river or that you need to write a certain way. I am saying that you write, hopefully, to communicate with others. You have something to say and to share, and so you might as well get your stuff out there in any way you can, which, in this era, means to get out there and sell it.
    In other words, don’t accept that short fiction can’t sell. Accept that you need to be a salesman as well as a writer. That might be the simple solution to the problem Greg is writing about.

  2. Greg Schutz says:

    Thanks for posting such a thoughtful reply. It’s great (if perhaps a little intimidating) to know that people are really reading, and thinking so deeply about, these posts. If my arguments here seem undeveloped, unsupported, rushed, or just a little nonsensical, I apologize. You’re right to point out a certain hastiness in some of these posts—perhaps especially in this last one.
    That said, I’m not sure you’re giving my argument a completely fair shake here.
    For example, I never make the argument that “short fiction is superior because no one wants to pay you for it.” Your summary suggests I believe the short story’s relative lack of commercial success is a reason that it is “superior” to commercially successful fiction. But this isn’t my point at all. Rather, I argue that commercial success is beside the point when pondering literary merit or artistic vitality—that commercial success, in other words, is neither a point in favor of nor a strike against a work’s merit or a form’s vitality. And yet—my argument goes—in the case of the short story, a lack of commercial success is still being widely lamented. This means a great deal of energy is being expended on a topic that is much less important than the amount of attention it receives would suggest. With this I mind, my intention was to shift the frame of the discussion back to more fertile ground.
    In addition, nowhere do I argue that writers should “dig in to their little holes,” or imply that literary fiction should not be an attempt “to communicate with others.” Indeed, don’t I clearly seem to believe that the stories of Alice Munro, which I laud as examples of the contemporary short story form at its finest, have something important to communicate to readers? Don’t I explicitly point out Thucydides’ continued ability to communicate across a gulf of two and a half millennia? Don’t I write, “If the form speaks to their lives [i.e., the lives of its readers], it lives as long as they do”?
    (Saying this, though, I suppose I do flinch a little: what does art “communicate”? There is no answer to that question that doesn’t sound pretentious, overly facile, or at least too vague to be particularly useful or interesting—e.g. Faulkner’s “eternal verities.”)
    To reiterate, nowhere do I state that commercial success and artistic merit are mutually exclusive across all art forms (one wouldn’t have to look far to find counterexamples). However, by plumbing the differences between the short story and the novel, I do try to provide specific reasons why the short story, in its present form, may not be capable of achieving the mass commercial success that the novel, in its present form, can.
    Furthermore, although I do suggest that the short story in particular could be harmed by the marketplace, the reason for this has nothing to do with general “anti-commercialism” on my part and everything to do with the specific definition of the short story that I’ve arrived at in this series of posts: as I suggest in the final post, efforts to open the “partially closed loop” of the story’s readership must necessarily endanger the attributes of the short story, as I’ve defined it, of which I’m most fond—because these are the attributes that have led to the “partially closed loop” in the first place. In addition—and this is perhaps, upon reflection, where I sound the most hurried—I contend that a more widely read art form is not necessarily a more vital or “alive” form. For these reasons, I advocate a degree of apathy (“ . . . and Why You Shouldn’t Care”) toward questions of the short story’s commercial success.
    I hope this explanation helps to make sense of what seems to have been a confusing post. Thanks again for reading—and especially for caring enough to respond.