What ails the short story?

Stephen King takes a crack at this now seemingly perennial question. I totally agree with this part:
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.
By the way, anyone still read Stephen King? I believe the latest novel of his I read was The Tommyknockers. I don't remember much about it. I wonder if in more recent years his own writing has gotten an upgrade similar to his literary credibility. I did like his book about writing. I did not like the "death-by-cellphone" excerpt of Cell that I read a few years back in Entertainment Weekly at the Deadwood during a Simpsons commercial break.


Pete said...

I've never been paid for the short stories I've published, but I have been paid--consistently- for writing about short stories. Extrapolate that, and I think you have some part of the problem. If there's a problem.

I'd take King's point further and say that the entire concern about the form is about markets. The form wouldn't be "dying" if it were pulling in money.

But I actually look forward, in a way, to a further decommercialization of the form. I get jealous of the poets sometime, what with their low expectations and easy--almost content--resignation. They understand something we don't. And whatever the occasional overindulgences of modern poetry may be, one thing's clear: it's not dead.

Grendel said...

You would think there couldn't possibly be a more perfect literary form for our age: short, sweet, has an arc, tension, characters, plot, takes about as long to read as a sit-com episode, perfect way to escape, etc., etc. Snazzy, well-funded places to read them pop up all the time (McSweeney's, The Believer, etc.). The quality of work available in the form is nothing less than stunning. Really, truly, WTF?

Why doesn't it pull in the money?

Is it because people don't want the story to end after half an hour? After all, a sit-com continues next week with the same characters. Maybe short stories should really be published as serials?

Grendel said...

And why is it that when David Milch does that in Deadwood (36 episodes), it's genius -- but you hardly ever see it in literary fiction? It's not like it's not part of the tradition. Look at the Sherlock Holmes series, and Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, and Fitzgerald's 17 stories starring Pat Hobby that he published in Esquire (which, if you haven't read them, are darned funny). Someone should bring back the serial-story idea. If you could get people hooked, you might indeed bring in the bucks.

Vampiro said...

I'm a huge fan of serial stories, and I've been dying for years to think of a way to bring back the form. It all stems from my early love of comic books, which I still sometimes read merely for the thrill of that neverending story, always building and doubling back on itself.

But when I look at recent attempts to revive the serial as a literary form, attempts made by heavyweights, including Mr. King himself (The Green Mile) and Mr. Chabon in the NYTimes magazine, it would appear that even these efforts fail miserably. Maybe television has simply taken over the form. The best TV shows are all serial in the sense of extended storyline (Examples: Sopranos, Deadwood, BSG, Friday Night Lights, Lost). I can't think of any prose examples of the serial form that have had any real popularity (or been very good). Can anyone name successful examples? (I think the Green Mile succeeded as a novel only when the 6 parts were finally published in one volume. I never read it or saw the movie. I've heard that the Chabon piece, which is being published as a book sometime soon, was "cringe-inducing.")

The fact that the short story is dead as a popular form seems to have been decided years ago. I suspect it's a commitment issue. Are you really going to commit to getting to know these characters deeply and care about their situation when they are going to disappear in 20 pages? Never to be seen again? Maybe we will, but not the average reader. It's nice to get lost in something for a longer period of time; returning several times to people and places that begin to feel familiar. At least a novel takes a few days. You feel like, emotionally, you are getting your money's worth. I suspect that movie sequels are successful for related reasons, not just because the studio wants to pump out an already tested commercial franchise.

I agree with Pete, though, that the commercial death of the story isn't entirely a bad thing for it's health. Maybe if we sit back and let it die, the form will get revived and the pendulum will swing back.

Out of curiosity. Besides the biggies (New Yorker, Harpers, etc), does anyone here ever buy and read literary magazines for pleasure? I'm not sure I've every really purchased one without the intent of checking it as a market to sell to. I've read many and enjoyed them, but I'm not sure I've ever been motivated to buy one for any other reason than research.