What Killed the Short Story?
A brief history of the rise and fall of short fiction
Before radio, TV and the internet, short stories writers were literary rock stars. The reading public clamored for the variety and brevity that short fiction magazines delivered. Of course, back then, books were out of reach for most people.
Nowadays, the best known authors are almost exclusively commercial novelists - ones who shift millions of copies. It’s not surprising that publishers are encouraging short-story writers to join the novel gravy train.
Yes, the short-fiction community is still active, but it’s much of the readership is other writers. The short story has never been less popular.
This post takes a look at the history of the modern short story.
Let’s start at the beginning.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the world was industrialising fast.
A higher percentage of the population became literate, but books were still considered luxury items.
A new form of prose began to appear almost simultaneously in the UK, Germany, France, and the US.
Stories of between two and ten thousand words could be read aloud to families or groups. Housed in periodicals and magazines, they could be produced cheaply by mechanised printing presses. This was the first ever fiction written for the masses.
People were hungry for stories, and whereas theatres provided raucous entertainment and longer narrative arcs, short fiction became the prime method to expose a ‘single effect’.
The first instance of a modern short story is a hotly debated topic. Early examples of successful writers include E.F. Hoffman, Nikolai Gogol, Washington Irving, Walter Scott, the Brothers Grimm, Nathaniel Hawthorn, and Honoré de Balzac. They produced influential works which laid the foundation of the form. Edgar Allen Poe (who coined the phrase ‘single effect’) soon followed and in turn, influenced those who read his work. The fact that so many writers simultaneously produced such stunning work, shows that this narrative form already existed. All that was needed for it to come to the fore was new printing technology, and higher literacy rates.
The Glory Years (1860—1960)
The prevalent writers of the day produced short stories along with longer works. Dickens, Stevenson, Twain, de Maupassant, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and countless others balanced commercial and critical success as the form developed in the nineteenth century.
In the UK, magazines such as Punch and The Strand grew to massive circulations. Soon, short stories were growing in popularity in the East and the New World. From India to Brazil, writers produced short stories to encapsulate daily life and provide plot-based entertainment.
And then came Anton Chekhov.
A literary savant who died young, Chekhov turned the idea of the short story on its head. In Chekhovian stories, little happens in term of action. A deeper, more subtle form of character exploration and rich description leaves the reader to answer the most important question - what is the story about?
Since Chekhov (actively writing 1884-1906), the most heralded short stories have followed his narrative structure.
However, over the next half century, there were many developments and new styles of writing: the semi-biographical stories of Katherine Mansfield, DH Lawrence and Flannery O’Connor, the metaphysical explorations of Borges, Calvino and Nabokov, and the popular societal tales of PG Wodehouse, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
In the mid twentieth century, the number of great writers undoubtedly increased. Yet, the shift of readership to other narrative forms had already begun.
The Downfall (1960-2000)
The magazines which were the vehicles delivering short stories to the greater population continued to thrive (New Yorker, Playboy, The Atlantic), but by the 1960s two key factors had changed the type of stories we paid attention to.
The growth of television. While radio stories focused on live action plays, TV from the mid 20th century onward shifted our focus away the ‘single effect’ and towards serial formats. To get eyeballs on the adverts between shows, audiences needed to be familiar with the stories, and watch them grow over longer periods. Investing in one-offs did not work for TV networks.
The growth of the novel. My theory about why the popularity of the novel exploded, is that cinema had long delivered impactful ‘major’ event stories. The form was visual, and due to the ticketed nature of sales, had to deliver complete and satisfying tales in 90 minutes. Novel writers increasingly turned to the three-act structure of cinema to make their work well-rounded and impactful.
Similar to Chekhov’s transformation of the short story, this cinematic form of novel now dominates most fiction books written. Of course, new themes were explored, and the world discovered dangerous and exciting new novel writers. Yet, underneath it all, publishers kept a tight focus on producing more success, and that meant more of the same.
The Post-Internet World (2000—)
What about the internet? Hasn’t that changed everything?
People have less time and shorter attention spans, so short fiction should be perfect, right?
While there are thousands more publishing opportunities, the fragmentation of media has killed off the very magazines that paid fiction writers a good living. The New Yorker is perhaps the only well-known print magazine that still champions the form.
Short story writers are equally unable to break into book shops. Nowadays, you don’t see short story collections in stores and there are virtually none in libraries. We have fallen victim to our own echo chamber.
Our brains are trained at school and by the media to understand the novel-structure story to the point that we now consider it the only acceptable form of story. Think about a meandering artistic French movie or a short film festival. Not very popular, are they? Did you study short stories in English Lit class? I didn’t.
There are, however, many positives that the digital transformation has brought to short fiction, namely increased diversity of narrative and avant-garde storytelling.
When Cat Person went viral in 2017, the short story received unprecedented attention. Disappointingly, it didn’t spark a real revival of public interest. People merely read the story as a piece of creative non-fiction (which it essentially is).
Another heartwarming development is that of Short Edition’s story dispensers, found in fairs, public spaces and train stations. We still want to hold stories and pass them to others.
The short story is waiting for a new vehicle which will propel it back into public consciousness. Perhaps it will be audio and podcasts, or maybe something not yet discovered.
Until we find the right mediums to deliver short stories, we’ll be stuck re-watching the hero’s journey with each Marvel movie released (currently about one a week in my estimation).
Short stories require us to pay close attention, to expand the narrative experience, and to ask questions.
I hope that in the future, short stories don’t go from ‘endangered species’ to ‘extinct’.
History of the Short Story
Two of my short stories were published in April.
1. A teenager with a birth defect becomes the fifth generation to sustain the family restaurant in the heart of Jaipur.
The Boy with a Hole in His Heart featured on the internet’s oldest short story site, Fiction on the Web.
2. A series of incriminating letters uncover political scandal in 1920s Oaxaca, Mexico.
The Murder of Itzel Villafranca: Documents Implicating the Attorney General of The Republic of Mexico was published in the historical short-fiction magazine, Sundial.
Finally, there will be a special announcement regarding my forthcoming novella, Fifteen Brief Moments in Time, on 30th May.
TV - Season 3 of Atlanta - A powerfully weird show in short-story format
Movie: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - a six pack of Coen Brothers Wild West shorts available on Netflix.
Classic Short Story: The Two Drovers by Walter Scott (1827) - Often credited as the first British modern short story.
Collection: A Sportsman’s Sketches by Ivan Turgenev - Marvelous rural vignette’s of nineteenth century Russia.
Magazine: Short Fiction Journal - A stellar British mag that’s publishes cutting-edge work and has been around since 2006.
Podcast: BBC Short Story - A well produced and varied lineup, including the shortlistees for the yearly BBC Short Story Prize.
If you enjoyed this publication, please consider sharing it friends, colleagues, or anyone who does (or should) enjoy short fiction.