What Ever Happened to the Short Story? | Commentary

When I was a teenager, I thought that it would be a grand thing indeed–the ultimate validation–to publish a novel or to have a play or screenplay produced. Now I know better. Almost all the novels, plays, and films that actually get produced are cliched, formulaic, trashy, lowbrow junk, and one has only to imagine Leo Tolstoy trying to find a publisher, today, for War and Peace to see that quality and success are not synonymous. Moby Dick? Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? The Grapes of Wrath? As I Lay Dying? Not a chance that those would be published today. There are lots of educated, sophisticated people today, and there’s good evidence that people are smarter, in general, than ever before (Google “The Flynn Effect”). But very few people read now, and this is true even of people who, on paper, appear to have been educated.

I’m a HUGE fan of short stories. I’ve written more than a hundred of them, and many have been published, here and there, over the years. I’ve earned my living as a writer all my life, though mostly of nonfiction, which is easier to sell. However, the short story is doubtless my favorite medium to work in because it exists at a confluence of poetry, fiction, and drama; because it is a challenging medium, given its brevity; and because it is adaptable–one can do varied and interesting things with it.

Unfortunately, almost no one routinely reads short stories anymore, and I’ve pretty much given up on seeking publishers for my short fiction. It’s too time-consuming, and I would rather spend that time actually writing. I did recently write a series of about 40 or so short stories for an online reading program for middle-school kids. The pay was TERRIBLE, but the editors were cheerful and open-minded and at least there would be, for those stories, an actual, if captive, audience.

In the 20th century, most writers of novels earned their day-to-day livings by churning out short stories for magazines. Novels made their reputations, but short stories were popular and paid the bills. Now, very few print magazines carry short fiction, and the few online magazines that carry short fiction rarely pay. Why has this happened? Well, I think it’s because most people, today, though they are functionally literate, simply don’t read quickly and easily. Written words are no longer, for many, a TRANSPARENT MEDIUM–one that disappears as they are transported, during their reading, into the world of the tale. To many adults in the US today, reading something as long as a short story (!!!!) is a chore, a labor, a task, not a source of wonder, excitement, revelation, titillation, validation, or some other variety of pleasure. The prospect of reading a short story is not, to such people, a promise of delight. Hell, the U.S. recently elected its first illiterate President, and millions of Americans are fine with that.

That the popularity of the short story is in free fall breaks my heart, for a truly great short story–something like Stephen Vincent Benét’s “By the Waters of Babylon” or Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Ambrose Bierce’s “Chickamauga” or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”–has far more resonance and depth, to a good reader, than almost any movie can have. I was overjoyed when, recently, a short story–Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person”–actually achieved viral status. But I think that that was a fluke. The story happened to echo the experiences of millions of young women because it was about the main character’s acquiescing, against her better judgment, in having awkward, bad sex with a young man. It was, as people say now, “relatable.”

Btw, the average movie script has only about the same number of words as a long short story does (7,500-20,000) and is FAR MORE reliant on stereotypes and formulas than is well-crafted short fiction. There’s no shortage of books and online instructional programs that can teach you the formula for a Hollywood movie–exactly what has to be happening, minute by minute. I used to teach this formula in my film classes. Hollywood movies, today, tend to be as formulaic as, say, a Diet Coke produced on an assembly line. I fully expect that, in the near future, they will be written not by people but by algorithms–something predicted, btw, back in 1948, in George Orwell’s 1984. Stereotypes and formulas sell to those who don’t want to have to be bothered to think and imagine and to confront the unknown, who look, in their entertainments, not to be challenged and enlightened but, rather, to be made comfortably numb.

About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
This entry was posted in Film, Short Stories, Teaching Literature and Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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