The Short Story Problem

What happened to the short story? I’ve been frustrated with the lack of real analysis this subject receives, despite the fact that both writers and literary critics have been bemoaning the loss of this medium since at least the mid 90s.

Short stories have declined in popularity, and I think part of the problem is that everyone is quick to blame readers and, to a lesser extent, publishers. Missing from most debates on the subject is any suggestion that short story writers could possibly have anything to do with this phenomenon. While a decade working in retail gives me a horrible gut reaction to the phrase, “The customer is always right!!!1one!” it must be acknowledged that anyone creating a product has to stop and consider the wants of the consumer.

Saying that everyone is just too lazy and stupid to properly appreciate short stories is not constructive, but almost every essay I’ve seen on the subject seems to accept this as a foregone conclusion. Stephen King is one of the few writers I’ve seen confront writers on this issue, rather than blame the readers:

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.

Excerpt from What Ails the Short Story by Stephen King

The rise of the internet age has created an upswing the demand for short media. Individual songs outsell albums by a staggering margin. Anyone hawking blogging advice will admonish their readers to make blog posts as short as possible, and to cut topics into bite-sized pieces; as much as that frustrates me, most pro bloggers have the site stats to prove that their most-read and most-linked-to posts are the low-content bullet point type. Traditional publishers and authors bemoan the fact that Kindle seems to be flooding the market with much shorter novels than have been traditionally popular, and that people seem to prefer them.

That last one especially stands out to me. If people are reading shorter novels in record numbers, why hasn’t the short story market seen any improvement whatsoever? Short story markets shrink ever more as novellas and novelettes continue to be the darlings of Kindle sales. This suggests that people do want to read shorter fiction, but the short stories they have read failed to inspire their interest. I want to see more writers and critics focus on what works in short stories, what doesn’t, and how to get people more invested in them.

Here are a few problems I’ve noticed in my various attempts to get back into reading short stories over the years:

Problem #1: Over-reliance on the twist and/or ironic ending.

You know how we all got sick of M. Night Shyamalan’s twist endings after about two movies? And how Tales From The Crypt stories often seemed to involve some jerk getting his comeuppance directly because of events he set into motion? This one stems from the fact that plot-driven short stories don’t have much time to weave together multiple plot threads and resolve them in a satisfying manner. It might work for a while, but obviously once people have read more than a few short stories, it starts to feel less satisfying. That’s why we generally prefer movies and novels that use the traditional rising action-climax-denouement model.

Problem #2: Creative writing teachers have too much influence over modern short story writers.

“Explore the five senses” is advice all too often given to students in creative writing classes, resulting in the baffling practice of wasting limited space with descriptions of how everything smells, tastes, and feels. Has anyone ever sat down to a story and wished to read a detailed account of how it tastes, feels, and smells to take an ice cube out of glass of iced tea and rub it over one’s skin? I know I sure haven’t, but that doesn’t stop a multitude of writers from injecting such random minutiae into a story format where every sentence must justify its existence.

This practice should be limited to times when it brings depth to a pivotal moment; a parent holding their newborn for the first time, someone in a hospital overwhelmed by sensory input as they wait for test results, etc. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a short story is only a few thousand words long, if that. If a writer is trying too hard to paint a picture for the reader, there isn’t much room left for a story.

Problem #3: No room to explore the culture or story setting? Just make everything weird.

This one is a cornerstone of speculative fiction short stories. When in doubt, just make the first few paragraphs describe a world or character so weird that the reader (supposedly…) will be instantly curious. Like the twist ending, this method doesn’t hold up to repeated use. It also runs the risk of holding the reader at a distance instead of giving them something to relate to.

Problem #4: Can’t think of a story that can be set up in the space confines of a short medium? Skip the story and have people just stand around and think about stuff.

Modern literary fiction. The genre that solves every problem associated with writing in the same manner: Make a ‘story’ with no direction of any kind, without taking a position on any sort of moral issue, avoid interesting conflicts that have consequences for the main character, and smugly inform any detractor that the whole point was symbolism. Remember, anything resembling something so base as a plot is low brow and juvenile.

Clearly this is a limited selection of problems with modern short stories, but I think it’s an import step in moving the discussion towards acknowledging what is going wrong on the writers’ side.

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