The Mystery of the Short Story

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?

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6 responses to “The Mystery of the Short Story

  1. I can see a case for short stories accompanying longer novels. Once I start a book I want to finish it, but if the book I start ends up not really floating my boat I have to either abandon ship, or slog on to the end, both of which are not great options.

    If an author put out a short story with a longer one accompanying it then I could get a taste with the short story and if I liked it, I could go back for more, but if I didn’t I would still feel good about my experience…

  2. I used to regularily read mystery and crime short stories. There was a book, and I can’t remember the title, that was like a collection of short Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes type stories. Loved them, but I also liked epic novels.
    I think the short attention span is conditioned. The more the media panders to it the more prevalent it becomes.
    I like a good book, a smart movie, something that doesn’t assume I’m stupid and caters to that stupidity by sacrificing plot and characters for explosions. Like you, I need good characters that will entice me to want to follow them, whether it’s to the store or on some adventure.
    Twitter length short stories? Give me a break. I hope that never takes off.

    • I cut my reading teeth on Sherlock Holmes when I was a kid. I think there are only two full length novels. Everything else is a series of shorts. I also used to read horror in short story form. In the UK, Penguin’s big paperback rival was called Pan (sort of the Pepsi to Penguin’s Coke) and they had a series of horror collections (The Pan Book Of Horror). I scared myself to death under the covers most nights with those books when I was 8 or 9. When I started to read SciFi at about 13 I read Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke in short story form. It’s a pity that many of the magazines where genre fiction writers first cut their teeth with short stories have since died.
      The Twitter length story thing is/was inevitable I suppose. I’m too long winded (you may have noticed). It takes me 140 characters to get started.

  3. Sorry, that should read “doesn’t assume I’m stupid”
    Stupid keyboard…

  4. Susan Sanford Blades

    To clarify, The Malahat Review’s Twitter contest is for monostiches, which are one-line poems. NOT Twitter-lenght short fiction.

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