We Like Short Shorts
Those of you who read my blog on a regular basis know I have a penchant for shorts. Although my days of wearing them are long gone, I do love both reading and writing them. I’m not sure when this affinity developed. Perhaps while I was an English undergrad and completely bombarded with reading assignments that covered more the breadth than the depth of the literary canon. It was certainly during this time that I found myself drawn to the writings of early 21st-century authors who plied their trade in the form of the literary short.
Three of my favorites spring to mind – Hemingway, Fitzgerald and, of course, Mrs. P; all of whom made beaucoup bucks from writing shorts for the popular magazine market of the time. They literally couldn’t write fast enough! But, lately I’ve been questioning whether they’d have been as critically and/or financially successful if they’d found themselves writing in a different era. Say, today? Would their voices have been lost in the crowd of the thousands of budding writers staking their claim to immortality via an ISP and free blog address?
I happened upon an excellent article on the New Stateman’s website by Chris Power, where he expertly dissects the fate of the short story over the last century or so. In Survival of the smallest: the contested history of the English short story, he quips that “…when it comes to short stories fake news is ubiquitous.”
While there has always been a literary faction lamenting the death of the short story, other influencers argue that a short story renaissance is upon us, for numerous reasons. One could certainly put forth a solid argument in favor of the short based upon current societal assumptions (with or without merit):
People don’t have the time to read a novel
People’s attention span is dwindling (see social media use for reference)
People spend way more hours working and less time enjoying R & R, therefore short stories are better suited to today’s lifestyle
The list goes on. On its surface, this argument certainly seems legitimate. But there are two essential flaws. One is economic, and one is aesthetic; both are key to deconstructing it.
As Powers mentions in his article, like most things in life you simply have to follow the money trail. There’s a reason there aren’t dozens of short story collections on the New York Times or Amazon Best-Seller lists. They just don’t sell like their novel-length counterparts. Publishers like printing what they know they can sell. And short story anthologies just don’t cut it.
But it’s the aesthetic that I think is more important here, which Powers also touches on in his article. While novelists typically cover every detail of their plot and package it up nicely at the end, short story writers work at leaving things out. Great short story writers are masters at it. Look at Hemingway’s work! (Read Hills Like White Elephants if you haven’t already – it’s what’s left unsaid that speaks volumes.)
And that's exactly what I love about the short story. At their best, they're messy, with ragged edges. Kind of like life, if you ask me!