Stephen King, the much derided and occasionally respected writer, opined on the problems in short story land for The New York Times. He’s the editor of this year’s Best American Short Stories edition and consequently had the pleasure, duty, or job of going through hundreds of them. I’m wondering if my general dislike for short stories is more a problem with the way they are currently produced:
Instead, let us consider what the bottom shelf [of the bookstore magazine rack] does to writers who still care, sometimes passionately, about the short story. What happens when he or she realizes that his or her audience is shrinking almost daily? Well, if the writer is worth his or her salt, he or she continues on nevertheless, because it’s what God or genetics (possibly they are the same) has decreed, or out of sheer stubbornness, or maybe because it’s such a kick to spin tales. Possibly a combination. And all that’s good.
What’s not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next (think “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad, or “Big Blonde,” by Dorothy Parker). It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.
Last year, I read scores of stories that felt … not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers. The chief reason for all this, I think, is that bottom shelf. It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ. If the stories felt airless, why not? When circulation falters, the air in the room gets stale.
I’m a bit late in posting the link, but the sentiments about the problems with the short story are ones I appreciate and I doubt the general trends will go away anytime soon. Still, King’s essay might not apply to me: I’ve always disliked short stories because I’m only getting into them when they end. There are some exceptions—Woody Allen, James Thurber, and T.C. Boyle come to mind—but even someone as intellectually wonderful as Flannery O’Connor doesn’t make me really want to read to read, as opposed to reading to admire her technique. As a side note, I’ll be applying to graduate schools soon, and one reason I’m trying for USC is because Boyle teaches there. My Dad took me to hear him speak in Seattle when I was 14 or 15, sparking the initial interest in author appearances that continues today through this site.