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Can the Short Story Survive?

Categories: General, Industry News & Trends.

Matt Lapata wrestles with declining readership of the short story, and what can be done to keep the genre vibrant, in the latest Glimmer Train Bulletin. Here’s a little bit of what he had to say:

If the [short story] is to survive (and I don’t have space to say why I think it’ll survive—suffice it to say I’m writing them), then it has to throw itself into the ring with these [other competitors] and find out where it fits. We should address the more difficult and more useful question: What, after all this time, can short stories do or be that comics, TV, and video games can’t? We writers need to answer this question. We need to redefine our narrative niche.

Go read the full piece, or view the entire Glimmer Train Bulletin.

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11 Responses to Can the Short Story Survive?

  1. I had a short story collection ("Sparks") I coauthored with a colleague (Simon Smithson) hit the Amazon bestseller lists, and become a hot new release over the holidays. Since then, I’ve published both stories as stand-alones on Kindle.

    And they’re doing fairly well. Seems people like paying a buck for a story, and enough people have devices with Kindle applications that they can view them easily.

    I wonder if it’s less an issue that readership for short stories is declining than readership for magazines is declining. Plenty of people still love short stories, and some even prefer them on digital reading devices with LCD screens.

  2. Hi Matt and Jane!
    Interesting questions posed in your article, Matt, and thanks for bringing them to your blog, Jane.
    Part of my childhood was spent enjoying short stories, from O’Henry to Poe and from Asimov to Phillip K. Dick, who was so prolific that Hollywood still hasn’t run out of movies based on his stories. I admired the leanness, the plot twists, and the wonder as I read. From what I have seen in Glimmer Train, Ellery Queen, and other zines, this tradition still continues.
    It is often more of a challenge for an author to write a short story with word constraints than it is to write a novel. You have to be more careful with POV, characterization, dialog, and other technical things too. I often think of classics like Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and how these authors could have benefitted from some minimalist control. For example, Melville’s first line is a famous hook–his lengthy description about the business of whaling is infamously boring.
    From the perspective of the business of writing, short stories, freebies on one’s website (I offer many on mine) or otherwise, provide valuable clues to prospective readers about whether your novels are worth their time. I think they’re much better than a review of the novel for this, in fact. After all, a review only tells a reader that someone either did or did not like your book. But if the reader grabs your short story, reads it, and likes it, he has a much stronger clue about your writing.
    I made the mistake of providing too many freebies for the above reasons. I missed the other marketing potential of short stories: by publishing short stories the author can develop a portfolio of published work that says to an agent or publisher that you are truly a writer. As a consequence, I’ve been submitting to zines and contests lately. The latter are a little trying as they invariably charge. Zines like Glimmer Train actually pay the author if accepted.
    There is also the aspect of time. An author can produce many more short stories in the time it takes to write a novel. That alone may allow one to obtain some royalty checks to help in marketing one’s novel. Some authors never write that novel–they like the steady flow of cash from their short stories.
    Again, thanks for writing on this topic. I hope some of my reasons for writing short stories work for Matt.
    r/Steve

  3. Jane, you always post the most interesting stuff. I loved Matt’s suggestion that we think about the competition. I’m starting a novel geared for boomer women, and I think we’ll want to wear tee shirts with the main character’s face and witty sayings on it, Maxine-style. At least now that is my golden ring. Thanks for hanging it within sight!

  4. Perry says:

    I think the new electronic self/indie publishing is a great place for short stories. Properly prices (no idea what that is) people will buy a short or a collection.

  5. Doug Lance says:

    Literary magazines, like Glimmer Train, are struggling. As they should. They’re decades behind the times. Just looking at their website it is quite easy to see just how far behind they really are. Most literary journals are, though. It’s not their fault.

    New magazines are springing up to fill the void. Journals like Electric Literature (http://www.electricliterature.com) or eFiction Magazine (http://www.efictionmag.com) are the new short story magazines that will keep the genre alive for many years to come.

  6. Alain Miles says:

    A few smart publishers are focusing on the short story or novella format, thinking about where the typical customers might be when they have time to read. Travelling to work – look at everyone reading on the subway! – on a lunch-break… I’m really impressed with 40kBooks, who publish content, whether fiction or challenging essays, that takes about an hour to consume (i.e. reading and thinking). Ether Books seems to have done well too, after launching a shorts site around a year ago.

    Many of us write short stories all the time – on our blogs… and this may be the issue. Readers are so used to getting short content for free, that they may not be prepared to pay, unless for really high quality material. But as a writer of both short stories and novels, free or low-cost shorts are a great way for me to introduce myself to a new reader, and to start building that long term writer-reader relationship.

  7. G. P. Ching says:

    As a flash fiction writer, I haven’t noticed the decline. In fact, I’ve witnessed an explosion of genre fiction and flash fiction e-zines across the web. What I think may have declined is readership of literary short fiction in print. IMHO I think the readership of today wants to connect with a short quickly and be swept away by the story.

  8. Scott Roche says:

    As a short story publisher I think that short stories have a definite future. The short story isn’t the only thing that has to compete with video games/cable tv/etc. Novels do too. The nice thing about them for me is, like a single song, you can take one in when you don’t feel like reading something longer. And a well written short packs a punch that a FPS game can’t compete with.

  9. Christian K says:

    Wow, I really wish there was comments on that site. Fiction readership has declined over the past two decades? Hun? What planet this guy from? More people read fiction today than at any other time in human history.

    Also for the first time people can and do buy individual short stories.

    Oh! "Matt Lapata is working on degrees in philosophy and creative writing … and his first novel." Ahh that explains it. :)

  10. Livia says:

    Short stories are doing just fine with electronic and self publishing removing length limitations, and may even grow as more people have iphons and mobile reading devices. The real question is whether literary journals can survive.

  11. Dana says:

    Play video games or go to a rock concert when you want loud music and explosions. Read and write short stories when you want something quiet and reflective.

    As long as people talk, there will always be an art of language.

    Is he suggesting "the readership of fiction" is in decline? I’d like to see his numbers.

    Has Mr. Lapata considered the deepest implications of narrative? He might start with Wikipedia: "A personal narrative process is involved in a person’s sense of personal or cultural identity; it is thought by some to be the fundamental nature of the self."

    It’s not that people "love narratives." It’s that people narrate. It is what people do.

    He is wrong that the Internet and social media are narratological wastelands. Social media is nothing but narrative.

    The short story form has been and will continue to be a pleasant way to pass the time for the people who can afford to play. I am acquainted with many people who write short stories, and it seems like there are more MFA writing programs than ever. I don’t get why he thinks the form is in trouble. His essay reads to me like he is struggling with his own interests and identity and is projecting his struggles onto the rest of us.

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