I keep reading about the Renaissance of the short story. As noted in a recent (ish) Guardian article https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/12/short-story-cat-person-tom-hanks-jojo-moyes this is a recurring theme in popular newspaper and trade writing.
Chris Power, its author, seemed quite upbeat about the situation and his criticism of the perennial comeback kid status, came from the apparent belief that there is no problem and we should just learn to love the short story for itself.
There was a hint that things in the truncated narrative form garden may not be all roses however. The figures that prompt headlines about a resurgence are frequently based on celebrity forays into the genre or attempts to boost its popularity via national prize competitions. Within the last few days, the winner of the 2018 BBC Short Story Prize was announced, and congratulations to Ingrid Persaud for her win. While these things are fine at a consciousness raising level, do they tell us much about the general state of the short story and its place in the general reading public’s heart? Regrettably I doubt it.
Power notes the genre is always going to be second place to the novel. I wonder if this is true. There felt like a time when the short story was king, or queen. Maybe it was me and my short attention span as a teenager, but for every novel I read I read bucket loads of short stories by De Maupassant, Conan Doyle, Saki, Ray Bradbury and a host of others. I look at the massive volume of short, very short, flash and micro fiction on the net and in social media platforms, and can’t believe that the genre is less popular than the novel in our truncated attention span, time poor culture. But, ah yes the but!
Monetisation (what a horrible word!) is a very different thing. Modern media, eg Youtubers have a bit of a chance with patreon, advertising clicks etc, but written word producers are struggling. Fiction writing has a massive infrastructure set up to produce cash and to act as quality assurance gatekeepers. Some parts of this equation may work better than others. But the model is under attack and nowhere more vigorously from the producers of short fiction in all its forms. Traditional publishing models for short fiction work best on book anthologies (which don’t sell well) or monthly/quarterly magazines. The free to access assault is killing or largely has killed paid outlets for short story writers.
Magazines, women’s or dedicated short story, used to provide a ready market for aspiring short story authors in which to hone their skills. For a whole variety of reasons – only some of which are internet related – these avenues are almost dead. The women’s magazine market has dramatically truncated its consumption of short stories or excised them completely from their pages. And when did you last see a short story magazine on the shelves of a local, or indeed national, newsagent?
Increasing numbers of the remaining niche magazine publishers are now charging a fee to even bother reading submissions. I may be old fashioned but I like the view that writing flows from the author to publisher (maybe via an agent) to the paying public and money flows in reverse along the same channel.
The BBC competition while great publicity for those running it (In association with Cambridge University) is most decidedly not aimed at providing a practical outlet for those starting to write or looking to make their way in the writing world. You have to be a recognised published author to take part. You are already a success.
So celebrity authors and the established writers enjoy the benefits of the perennial recrudescence of the short story. Meanwhile future Edgar Allan Poes, Mark Twains or Hemingways are swilling around in a morass of fan fiction, wondering whether it is worth funding a publisher who can’t sell enough magazines to make it pay, to read their work.
I wonder if there is a future for the paid writing of short stories. And if not, how do we find quality short fiction to read, and where do we place it to be read?