"Do not ask how was it that the former days were better than these? For you do not inquire wisely concerning this"I have been noticing over at Absolute Write and over the Internet in various forums and agent blogs, the revival of the short story discussion. I originally wrote about seeing something on this topic, in my post, Reality Of The Market & Some Inner Honesty, but I am going to return to this topic now for a few minutes.
In the good old days it seemed that authors had it easy selling the short story. Hundreds of magazines existed to handle the flow, and many great and famous authors certainly got their start or gave their careers much needed impetus by selling to this market. From Jack London to O. Henry to John Cheever to Asimov to Isaac Bashevis Singer all started with the short story in their genre. Believe it or not, in the good ole' days some authors actually made a living out of pouring their hearts into short stories and selling them. Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Timequake how he did this very thing for a few years before Television destroyed the short story market.
Then it was blamed on Television. Today we blame it on the Internet. Whatever we blame it on it is remains true that there are only a handful of journals left willing to publish and cater to the short story market. Short story collections or anthologies are worse than difficult to sell. Anthologies are usually impossible to put together, and collections will usually not be touched by a publisher - unless you have managed to publish quite a few short stories in the dwindling number of print magazines with a good reputation left to publish short stories.
It is the old catch-22. We look back in nostalgia upon the day when the short story was a respected and welcome means of entertainment. It certainly is on television. Take a look at the hundreds of movies and HBO broadcasts and Hallmark features begun by buying rights to a short story.
But getting them published? No agent will handle one short story at a time. And that is exactly how it should be. Even if you got paid $1000 for each short story, the agent would go broke with all the copying, phone calls and time it demands. If you are a published novelist - your agent may do you a favor by handling some short stories. But don't expect your agent to go out on a limb to sell them or to put it on top of their list - unless your stuff sells like King and Grisham. Just ain't gonna happen.
So what happened to the good ole' days? Is it really true that people do not want to read short stories? Or is it true that publishers simply do not want to publish them? Or is it because agents simply don't make money off the singular story and thus short story writers became discouraged and selling to the Paris Review and New Yorker is beyond hope. What happened to the short story? Where are the good ole' days?
Well it would be wise to first mention that famous verse from Ecclesiastes (7:10) here, "Do not ask how was it that the former days were better than these? For you do not inquire wisely concerning this".
With all that being said, and with now insurance that the Bible won't come back to bite my tushy here, personally, and of course because I write short stories, and more importantly enjoy writing them and reading them, I think the answer is a combination of many factors. And I personally think that these factors will not bear themselves out in the long run. In other words, I think and of course hope, we will see a rebirth of the short story genre and its respectability.
Agents cannot afford to handle the single short story. Indeed, a short story collection is incredibly difficult to sell. The print magazines that are prestigious in publishing short stories are really very few and far between. You can count them on your fingers. Why is this so? Not sure. With the plethora of Glossy Mags out there I do not see why a few magazines devoted to the publications of short stories and literature in all its forms would not make it. But then again I am not a publisher and do not understand the business of publishing.
But I think the real reason for the death of the short story, lies with writers themselves. Simply put, most writers dream of breaking in with that incredible novel. Now I am not saying this is a bad dream, and I am not saying it is wrong, but writers themselves have denuded and desensitized the short story to such an extent where it is considered a "bastard" brother to the "real thing". I have seen among many writers the attitude of almost, "well if you cannot really write, the short story market is for you." Condescending. Stupid. And mostly coming from writers who have never published and full of themselves.
Yet there is a grain of truth in all that is said. A real grain of truth. The market buys the novel. The publishers publish the novel. People want to read a story, a long story, in which they go from chapter to chapter. They do not usually want the short story or novella. Why? I have no clue. Simply because I love the short story, and I know that it takes as much talent as writing one short story as it does to write a book.
Yet we face the reality. Short stories will not a career make in most cases. Sometimes, rarely a writer gets lucky and breaks the mold. It is something I wished for in my collection, "Ancient Tales, Modern Legends" for a long time. But I know the odds. I am well aware that without an agent who "believes" in it and without a publisher who understands the viability of the short story book market it is a lost cause.
So from time to time I see the discussion on short stories begin again. From time to time I see new writers break in. From time to time I see the question asked, "Whatever really happened to the short story market?"
I don't really know what happened to the market. We can blame a lot of it on Television and the Internet - but then again the fault lies deep within our own selves as writers and not out there. Until we begin to take short story writing seriously once again, and not think of it as a stepping-stone to becoming a great novelist, until we look upon each short story as being as important as the novel we write - we sure as hell are not going to convince anyone else that short stories are a valid, viable and vibrant way to write and to read.