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11.26.2009

The State of the Short Story in 2009

In April, A.O. Scott proudly proclaimed: "...the great American short story is still being written, and awaits readers." In the article, titled "Brevity's Pull," he praises the short fiction form and argues for its growing importance in the digital age, where the "iPod has killed the album," and where we tweet, we blog, we want anything short that will hold our attention span. Indeed, he says, "The death of the novel is yesterday's news." Scott, at the end, proposes that e-readers, such as the Kindle, will give new life to short stories, which in 2007, Stephen King called alive, yet not well.

In that article, "What Ails the Short Story," King cites plenty of examples of good short fiction (he edited The Best American Short Stories anthology that year), but explains that it is still not what sells. What sell is the Danielle Steels, the James Pattersons, the...Stephen Kings, heavily discounted hardcover novels that, he says, are disposable. The literary journals are another story. He explains that literary journals—usually the premier publication for any short story writer—is nearly dead, read only by would-be writers "copping a feel," as he puts it. He concludes: "So — American short story alive? Check. American short story well? Sorry, no, can’t say so. Current condition stable, but apt to deteriorate in the years ahead."

Six months removed from Scott's article, two years from King's—what is the state of the short story?

Many signs point to its health. Among the highlights of this year (so far) is Elizabeth Strout's collection Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Beneath its ranks are also two collections which were nominated (but did not win) the National Book Award: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin and American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, both of which garnered critical praise from the press.

But of course, these are the institutions. Those people in ivory towers who love short stories to begin with.

How is the public handling short stories in 2009?

Besides some posthumous collections (Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut and My Father's Tears by John Updike), published undoubtedly to capitalized on the authors' deaths, this year saw some major short story titles. Of course, this always includes Alice Munro, who recently published Too Much Happiness. But there were also noteworthy releases by Kazuo Ishiguro (Nocturnes), Ha Jin (A Good Fall), Jean Thompson (Do Not Deny Me), Jill McCorkle (Going Away Shoes), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (That Thing Around Your Neck) and Dennis Cooper (The Ugly Man), all of whom are already well known writers. There were however, many well-received debut collections—most from Harper Collins who really pushed the short stories this year with a literary website/journal and a series of classic reprints from the classics (among them Stephen Crane and Willa Cather). Among the debuts were Barb Johnson's More of This World or Maybe Another (which was actually an MFA thesis), Holly Goddard Jones's Girl Trouble, and Alex Burnett's My Goat Ate Its Own Legs (which Burnett calls a collection of tales, he claims to be a tale writer, not a short story writer).

Publish as much as they may, the question always come to: who is reading it or are they reading it? And the answer is always Oprah. Oprah is perhaps the single most powerful force in the publishing industry (too bad she will be gone). Anything she recommends, you buy. This year, her choice happens to be a short story collection Uwen Akpan's Say You're One of Them, bringing the African Catholic priest not only major money, but also a larger readership, exposing a reading public that was used to novels and the trite thrillers of James Patterson (again, Patterson = Coke = Chocolate, it's mathematically proven) to college educated writing. Another win for the short story came from one of publishing's biggest seller, writing his unexpected collection: Ford County by John Grisham, which of course quickly climbed the charts.

What does all of this mean? Beside the fact that John Grisham is rich (again), we are seeing perhaps a growth in audience. While literary journals are struggling, some going online only (which could kill it or make it stronger), some writers are publishing successful collections—successful in that it reaches more audience members. Among the benefits of collections is that the price is usually a little cheaper than that 600 page novel, giving readers something for lower cost—which might be a factor in why some of these sell—which of course is bad news for new and coming writers. They're new. Unless they have a novel, people will not take a chance.

New writers still must work within literary journals—and these are still low circulation. Besides McSweeneys and perhaps Tin House, which owe their success to being independent brands that hipsters ogle over (because it's the hip thing to do), literary magazines are not doing as well. For example, Pindeldyboz converted to online content only.  And as King states in his article, these magazine are hidden. 2009 brought a change with the introduction of Electric Literature, a magazine which claims to change the game by publishing in multiple avenues—through physical copies, through PDF files, through Kindle books. While it is too early to tell with Electric Literature (there have only been two issues, but one does include Lydia Davis (Lydia Davis rocks my socks)—but then that only shows you that they're newbie friendly), perhaps lit journals can learn a thing or two from McSweeneys and Electric Literature: to be cool (i.e. have white college kids love you) and be everywhere. And perhaps 2010 will see more advances in these magazines.

Overall, from a surface evaluation (what other type of evaluation do you want from me?), the short story is alive, yes. . The short story is a genre that, I think, will always be there.  But is it well? Perhaps. It is seemingly building up to something and maybe we will see it in 2010. But maybe that's just wishful thinking from a struggling writer.

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