So here’s what I find a little mysterious about the short story. Why don’t more people read them? If it’s true that people no longer have time to read full-length novels (and I hear that a lot), why isn’t the short story taking over?
Fiction seems to be shrinking all around us. The Canadian literary journal The Malahat Review is currently running a competition based on Twitter length pieces. Flash fiction competitions abound. Postcard pieces, micro-fiction, the list goes on and on. And even the traditional short story is being squeezed. Here in Canada our national broadcaster, CBC, runs an annual fiction competition called Canada Writes. In previous years the word count for this competition was 2,500. This year it was just 1,500. The received wisdom is that all this shrinking down is necessary, because in this frenetic, media-rich environment, people don’t have the time (or the attention span) they used to have. The novel is dying, the wisdom says (it’s not the first time the novel has died. It has died pretty regularly since it first appeared) and we have to experiment with these new forms, because that is the only way we’ll persuade people to read in the future.
I think conventional wisdom is off its rocker. If people wanted shorter fiction they would be turning to the short story. They are not. In Canada this form of fiction is celebrated and still widely practiced, but (outside of the creative writing programs) elsewhere it is largely ignored. People don’t seem all that interested in short fiction.
Why? I have a theory about that. Short fiction takes a big investment for a small payoff. You have to enter an entirely new world with every story you pick up, immerse yourself in a new set of characters, and fall for them a little bit (at least, that’s what the writer is aiming for). That’s a lot of effort. I’ve just read the first story from Karen Russell’s short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.
Now I love Russell’s writing style. It’s quirky, funny, and at times beautiful. It crackles on the page. But (you spotted this coming, right?), whereas her book, Swamplandia! immerses you in the worlds of the weird, alligator wrestling Bigtree family, the short story which mothered that novel left me feeling a little dissatisfied. Not that the story had the wrong, or a botched, ending. It didn’t. But I was just getting warmed up when it all ended. Which is why, I guess, she wrote Swamplandia!
We love to enter new worlds. And when we fall in love with characters we want to spend time with them. Want to experience their triumphs and disasters. Having fallen in love, we don’t want them to wave us away dismissively after 25 pages. So I think the idea that we don’t have time or attention for full-length works is just hogwash. Probably planted by a marketing exec at a big publishing house.
That’s not all I have to say on this subject, but it will do for now. What do you think? Is short fiction over-due a revival? Or do you want the full-on experience of the novel to possess you for hours at a time?