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Thread: The Death of the Short Story

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    The Death of the Short Story

    So I’m reading my Sunday paper over breakfast (home fries, sausages, and eggs, scrambled) when I come across a (positive) review of a short story collection of Tobias Wolff and the review starts out with this statement: "For those concerned about the demise of the short story..."

    Is this true? Should we be concerned? The short story has very recently become my second favorite art form (next to cinema) and I’m in the midst of discovering great short stories from all the masters past. As you might guess, I’ve got a lot of ground to cover. But I know very little about the state of this art form today.

    Is it, in fact, in demise? Naturally this idea’s not sitting well with my breakfast. Anybody have any thoughts on the matter?
    Last edited by Chester; 04-20-2008 at 10:02 PM.

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    Kafkaesque johann cruyff's Avatar
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    Yes,I'd say it is in danger of becoming extinct.I guess short stories just don't fit with certain postmodern rules of writing,i.e. today's literature can be divided into two main categories: either the book is fantasy(in which case it comes in volumes that not even Proust could've imagined),or it does have certain artistic aspirations,but then it's either a poem or an attempt that usually loses its way in many attempts to be fresh and original and ends up being a not-so-good novel with loads of intertextuality or something like that.I know many will not agree with me on this,but that's how I see postmodern literature.

    And yes,it has ruined many great things,including the short story,as one of the prime examples of great talent.Probably because 99 % of today's authors aren't very gifted writers anyway.
    Noću, u intimnom, poluglasnom razgovoru sa samim sobom, nikako ne mogu zapravo logički opravdati zašto se u posljednje vrijeme toliko uzrujavam zbog ljudske gluposti.

    Miroslav Krleža

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    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by johann cruyff View Post
    Yes,I'd say it is in danger of becoming extinct.I guess short stories just don't fit with certain postmodern rules of writing,i.e. today's literature can be divided into two main categories: either the book is fantasy(in which case it comes in volumes that not even Proust could've imagined),or it does have certain artistic aspirations,but then it's either a poem or an attempt that usually loses its way in many attempts to be fresh and original and ends up being a not-so-good novel with loads of intertextuality or something like that.I know many will not agree with me on this,but that's how I see postmodern literature.

    And yes,it has ruined many great things,including the short story,as one of the prime examples of great talent.Probably because 99 % of today's authors aren't very gifted writers anyway.
    I don't entirely agree with that statement. Postmodernism (particularly of the fictional variety) cannot be blamed for the demise of the short story.

    I personally think there is more historical-social-cultural reasons for it. Postmodernism didn't just spawn in a vacuum. There is a long history behind it.

    Television and the computer are probably more to blame. I suspect people who are looking to entertain themselves for an hour more likely turn to that instead of the short stories of the past. On a long train ride instead of a short story or magazine, you have your video IPOD or your Nintendo DS or whatever electronic device you'd like to substitute.

    The short story isn't literally dead. People still write them, they still get published. But it is a dying art form from what I hear.

    I hate to ruin your day further, but the novel is in trouble as well. For many of the same reasons. A great deal of novel sales, particularly the classics are inflated by school reading list requirements.
    "You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced, so you do not know if it tastes sweet or bitter. If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too." - Herodotus

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    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Old news. They were never as popular as people pretend. People just want more money now. If anything it is easier to become known on shorts than ever now, since there is a large devout market, and you no longer, with the advancement of technology, have to rely on local support entirely before going big. They just don't pay Dan Brown size royalties. Who cares.

    Shorts sell better than poems, but why isn't the critic complaining about that? I guess he isn't qualified to read poetry, so he needs to rant about short stories. If anything, the form that is going extinct the fastest is the essay.

    Seriously, this theory is just propagated by semi-knowledgeable writers like Stephen King, whose short stories don't sell as well as his novels. I clearly see more short story writers than ever writing today, and I know that major magazines are still running them. Even novellas still run to some extent (though they usually just go straight to paperback). To say that the short is dead is idiocy, and to say that it doesn't fit with post-modernism is also idiocy. The most famous short story writer of the past 50 years is Borges, and he is every inch post-modern.

    Lets be honest, short stories are only dead in genre literature, but they were never alive to begin with. It is hard to write a formulaic short story the same was a novel, and it is harder for a reader to escape into a short story the same was as a 7000 page fantasy saga. I think we should just talk about "reading for the sake of reading." as in, people read and try to be distracted for as long as possible. Short stories cannot do that the same way dragged out hero journeys can.

    As for this critic, I wonder if he has even heard of Borges.
    Last edited by JBI; 04-20-2008 at 03:13 PM.

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    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JBI View Post
    Lets be honest, short stories are only dead in genre literature, but they were never alive to begin with. It is hard to write a formulaic short story the same was a novel, and it is harder for a reader to escape into a short story the same was as a 7000 page fantasy saga. I think we should just talk about "reading for the sake of reading." as in, people read and try to be distracted for as long as possible. Short stories cannot do that the same way dragged out hero journeys can.
    That could be true. I happen to write genre fiction, particularly short fiction. From what I've heard the genre short fiction mags are losing subscriptions each year.

    As for this critic, I wonder if he has even heard of Borges.
    I think the critic was speaking about writers writing now. There is no denying that the short story doesn't have the popularity it once had.

    People say that poetry is dead too. It doesn't mean that people do not read older poems. It just means it generally isn't considered a viable way to produce an effective career as a writer.
    "You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced, so you do not know if it tastes sweet or bitter. If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too." - Herodotus

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    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Where is the proof? show it to me, I'm curious to see it. If you mean the F. Scott Fitzgerald type, he is quite an anomaly in the history of the genre. There are still many writers who work only in short story, the one that comes to my mind first is Alice Munro, who is very well off, and has enjoyed wide exposure.

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    Wannabe Novelist ben.!'s Avatar
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    I write lots of short stories, and I must say that when I talk to school friends on MSN, as much as they love my writing (I've created a bit of a cult following of my stories at school), they just can't find the time to read them. They have school, or some just say they don't want to spend their time reading short stories.

    But there are still three or four that are die hard fans, and will read any short story I send to them.

    I believe the short story may be dying out, yes. People just don't have the time these days. There's computers, work, travel, sleep, friends to see. Unless you have the spare time and the will to read a short story, why bother?

    I think that is the mentality of people these days. It's all school, work, sleep, play on the Xbox, see friends on weekends. That doesn't leave much time for a reading of a short story.

    It's sad, and may be true...but I don't know about the whole big adult world scale of things, I'm just speaking from school friend experiences.
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    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JBI View Post
    Where is the proof? show it to me, I'm curious to see it. If you mean the F. Scott Fitzgerald type, he is quite an anomaly in the history of the genre. There are still many writers who work only in short story, the one that comes to my mind first is Alice Munro, who is very well off, and has enjoyed wide exposure.
    Honestly I wish I had some proof. Normally I'm a huge skeptic on things like this until I see numbers. I have heard this within the Speculative fiction writing community for awhile. I've also heard vague murmurings such as the one discussed above that began this entire conversation of the short stories demise for awhile while shooting the breeze with my Grad student peers in English.

    I wish had something more substantial than that. However, some of the conversations come from editors who have an inside look at the publishing industry. All I've ever heard from that direction is that short stories are dying and short story collections in particular are hard sales because they don't sell as well as novels.

    I possibly could find hard numbers and statistics when I have a little more time. Perhaps I'll do some more research on this topic when I get the semester is over and I'll report back my findings here.
    "You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced, so you do not know if it tastes sweet or bitter. If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too." - Herodotus

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    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    It isn't the short that is dying out, I would argue, but rather, traditional means of publication. Shorts used to run in papers, and many mainstream magazines. They no longer do. That is what has changed, nothing else really. They were never more popular than novels, and shouldn't be. Like I mentioned before, poetry and essays seem to be in worse shape than short stories. I can't find any real evidence online (I don't want to run to Robarts Library to do research), but it seems to me that it is just a bunch of complainers.

    If anything the short is more alive than ever with the emergence of the Internet as a means of publishing. The only problem it is having is mediocre novelists trying to write short stories, which 99/100 times tend to suck. They wonder why they don't sell then, I guess they should stick to what they know.

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    Kafkaesque johann cruyff's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Drkshadow03 View Post
    ...I hate to ruin your day further, but the novel is in trouble as well. For many of the same reasons. A great deal of novel sales, particularly the classics are inflated by school reading list requirements.
    I may not have made my post clear enough: I think entire literature is in trouble - mostly because,again,it's either written with the purpose of making money(Stephen King,Rowling,Brown etc.) or the authors try too hard to write something original that they end up publishing crap - now,I'm not a big fan of Orhan Pamuk,but I have to admit he's one of the few decent writers left out there,simply because he writes in a way,at least to me,reminiscent of modern literature.However,each Pamuk is countered by at least one Houellebecq or Beigbedere today and yes,the novel does get into trouble.

    Also,to JBI - yes,Borges was every inch postmodern,and yes,he did write amazing short stories.Note the tense.That was,what,25 years ago?The word postmodern has changed its meaning significantly over the course of these 20 years,unfortunately.Real,talented,old-fashioned(and I mean this in the best way possible) writers like Borges are becoming extinct themselves,and of course that leads to disappearance of quality writing.So,shorts may not be dead,but they sure are slowly suffocating in the world of thrones,swords and dragons.And unless someone gives them a helping hand,soon we will be talking about the demise of real literature.
    Noću, u intimnom, poluglasnom razgovoru sa samim sobom, nikako ne mogu zapravo logički opravdati zašto se u posljednje vrijeme toliko uzrujavam zbog ljudske gluposti.

    Miroslav Krleža

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    Something's gotta give PrinceMyshkin's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Antiquarian View Post
    I don't think so, no. More and more novel writers are writing collections of short stories as well. In the publishing world, it's become almost de riguer for novelists to write collections of short stories as well. I don't think all of them are bad, either. I think many are quite good.

    I used to hate short stories. I don't know why. I think I liked a more complex plot. Now, however, I love short stories. Read them all the time.
    In which case might I recommend to you the best of both worlds, i.e. Later, at the Bar, by Rebecca Barry, a novel in chapters each of which is a self-contained short story. I'd hate to debate whether it's "great" literature being more like a spirited gossip told by a highly intelligent, humorous, non-judgmental girl-friend!
    "You must be the change you want to see in the world." Gandhi

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    I have to disagree. If anything is not in danger, but died and was buried with nice tombstone was the romance or novel, this happened when Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake and Borges wrote their elegy with Pierre Menard. Of course, like all deaths in art, it is just a rumor and take time until people notice it.
    Neither Post-Modernistm or Modernism did anything with Short Stories because we had Kafka and Borges who showed how a short stories can aswer the need for an aethetic experience as powerful as those used in long texts.
    Also, I do not see the new technologies damaging short texts - Most of devices ask for a quick reading, small texts - and yes, sometimes people mix the change of media (books) to death of text.

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    It is true, the short story has died. No one reads any prose fiction that is of less than 20,000 words. Readers have no desire to read tightly plotted stories. No one has the skill to create tone, mood, characters, or anything in fewer than 20,000 words. Yes, the short story has died. A funeral was held, no one attended, because the short story was so unloved.

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    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Depends what you consider reading. I don't consider the person who guzzles cheap paperback romance novels a reader, nor do I consider the kid who burns through large fantasy books a reader.
    This is who wikipedia considers post-modern authors
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_postmodern_authors
    flip through them, most have written, and are writing short stories.

    There are really two distinct camps of readers. If you say the mainstream short story is dying, I may agree, but the literary short story has never been flourishing as much.

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    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JBI View Post
    Depends what you consider reading. I don't consider the person who guzzles cheap paperback romance novels a reader, nor do I consider the kid who burns through large fantasy books a reader.
    JBI, I see no reason to be snobbish about reading. As a library student I consider it important to get children reading no matter what. Period.

    I don't think there is anything wrong with reading romance novels or fantasy books. Plus it's a great way to spring board readers into Great Literature.

    I know this from experience. A fat epic fantasy series transformed me into a serious reader. I started with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series in high school, which eventually led me towards more genre-oriented literary fiction (Lord of the Flies, 1984, Brave New World), which then opened up the wider world of realist literary fiction for me. But of course it was never such a linear process. In between that I was still reading speculative fiction. In fact I still do read science fiction, fantasy, and horror to this day as well as Great Literature. My love and enjoyment of each do NOT have to come at the expense of one another. I also do NOT believe that fantasy/sci-fi need only be entertainment. There is a lot of interesting perspectives and deep themes that can be found in genre fiction.

    Not to mention there is more going on in these genres than just the stereotypical images of them, particularly within fantasy. A lot of the more recent genre writers have definitely moved closer to the literary spectrum and take their cues from Borges more than they do Isaac Asimov. I am thinking of authors like China Mieville, Jeff Vandermeer, and Jeff Ford to name a few.


    There are really two distinct camps of readers. If you say the mainstream short story is dying, I may agree, but the literary short story has never been flourishing as much.
    Interestingly enough, genre circles refer to literary short stories as "mainstream" fiction, which is in fact technically truer based off circulation and sales of both books and their short story magazines. Other than Romance, other genres like sci-fi, horror, and fantasy appeal only to a very small audience. You may be speaking of the Dan Brown, James Patterson, thriller flavor of the week phenomena. The problem is you're conflating genres.

    I'd point out first that those novels are better categorized as thrillers. Real Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror readers mostly won't find those books particularly appealing from my experience, and vice-versa, most readers of thrillers won't be able to understand those other genres.

    I think there is a delusion among many literati and readers of literature that people only write genre fiction (particularly Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror) for the money, that it's some sort of cash cow. Most of the writers in those specific genres make thirty thousand or less per a novel, especially if they are new writers. Do the math how that works out if one writes a single novel per a year or one novel every two years (far more realistic). In other words, don't quit your day job if you become a genre novelist.

    Dan Brown, Stephen King, and J. K. Rowling are the exception to this rule, not the general example.

    Science Fiction and Fantasy novels make up 10% of all books sales (I know I've actually seen these statistics).

    Romance, however, makes close to 50%. That and thrillers are the one genre that does sell extremely well.
    "You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced, so you do not know if it tastes sweet or bitter. If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too." - Herodotus

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