Smart People Talk Short Stories


In a post last week titled More Crappy News for Short Story Writers, I lamented what I considered to be a lost opportunity for the big publishing houses. They could, I suggested, use similarities between good short story writing and good web copy to sell short story collections rather than deeming them a lost cause and refusing to publish them at all.

In response, a legion of accomplished writers and independent publishers — all of whom are much smarter and more qualified than me — came out of the woodwork and started commenting about the future of the short story. Below the fold, a non-exhaustive list of what some of these smart people, including Elijah Mac Jenkins of Flatmancrooked and author and editor Tania Hershman, had to say.

Elijah Mac Jenkins, Executive Director of Flatmancrooked: “The reason big publishers haven’t tried this is that they are not in the business of publishing craft and promoting literature. They are sales entities and nothing else. I mean, we all, big and small, must sell to survive. But when your company is sales-driven as opposed to sales-dependent then your hands are tied. If a sales model works, for instance, publishing a ton of vampire books one year, then you go with it. If short story collections won’t sell or are perceived to be unsalable then you don’t publish them. The point is, at the end of the day the big boys have to answer to shareholders and us small fish have to answer to our readers and authors. Thus quality wins out over quantity. I prefer my world to theirs.”

Tania Hershman: “There is SO much that can be done to promote a collection, on the Web and on cellphones etc…. Short stories lend themselves so well to being adapted into animated short films, to being given out at underground/subway stations, to being given out in the street, posted on billboards. Thank goodness for small innovative publishers like Flatmancrooked and my own publisher, Salt, who aren’t focussing on the very strange, famous or Indian, but just on great writing. Yeah, they aren’t making money, but they are performing a vital function.” (also see her blog on the topic.)

Matt Swetnam: “Could the problem be that many short stories are boring? I think it is. I think that the short story, as a form, is built around the idea of perfection: those sort stories that are most praised are those that are best crafted — each moment resonant against the next, each scene trimmed to its most basic communicating details, etc etc — and that what gets left out of this formula a lot of the time is interest. In other words, it’s possible to achieve a perfect, textbook short story that no one wants to read.”

A commenter named Maida: I am a passionate reader and writer of short stories and I’m enjoying this discussion very much. I’ve accepted that many of the serious readers of fiction I know genuinely do not enjoy reading short stories as much as they enjoy reading novels. They don’t want a box of chocolates to sample from, they want the satisfaction of a complete ten course meal. In fact, the short attention span issue is one reason readers might prefer novels. Once they are into a novel and familiar with the characters, they can pick it up and read it in five minute increments, while commuting, etc. A standard-length short story often requires a one-shot dedication of fifteen to twenty minutes, which many readers can’t seem to muster. I think that the majority of readers have a genuine resistance to the short form that big publishing houses have to deal with. I’m sad this is the case, but I don’t doubt the legitimacy of the preference among readers.

Andrew Altschul, Books Editor here at The Rumpus: “The fact is, though, that there just isn’t the manpower or imagination to put something like this into place. Editors – most of whom are still really smart, thoughtful people who love books – barely have time to edit anymore, so swamped are they with aspects of publishing that used to be other departments’ responsibilities. Publishers are fending off the demands of corporate overlords for 15% profit margins (margins in the mid-20th century heyday of publishing were 3-4%). And most of the people in publicity depts. are fresh out of college, with little experience in the industry, and no autonomy to try anything new.”

I reserve the right to agree with or argue with some or all of these people on another blog post later, but in the end, what a damn fine discussion.

Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He’s been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →