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Who Killed the Short Story?

lalesh aldarwish / via Pexels

A young Ernest Hemingway lunches in Manhattan with several writer friends, either at Luchow’s or at The Algonquin. Somehow, some way — whether instigated by Hemingway himself, or as a challenge by one of his friends — a bet is made: each writer bets $10 that Ernie can’t pen a six-word novel. So what does Ernie do?

Ernie whips out his handy dandy pen, then reaches for a cocktail napkin. He begins writing, and, when finished, passes the napkin along. Which reads: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Whether or not the words are Ernie’s and Ernie’s alone, it doesn’t matter at this moment — he collects his winnings and continues on his path to literary stardom. What he doesn’t know at this moment is that for decades to follow, these six words will not only be awed upon, taught at universities worldwide, spark debate, or serve as the basis for websites and hashtags, but that it will play a pivotal role in the death of the short story.

The Identity of the Short Story

Forget word count. Forget theme and plot and setting and any other term used to describe literally any type of writing. To discover the short story’s identity — to glimpse its soul — is to dissect its past.

But where do we begin? Can we nod to our Neanderthal ancestry and say that their grunts were the first oral anecdotes? Can we point to cave paintings in Spain and France and claim that those could qualify as short stories?

Yes, we certainly can. Neither are to be ignored. But let’s not start there. Where we’ll start instead is with what William Boyd points to as the birth of the modern short story:

“The short story had always existed as an informal oral tradition, but until the mass middle-class literacy of the 19th century arrived in the west, and the magazine and periodical market was invented to service the new reading public’s desires and preferences, there had been no real publishing forum for a piece of short fiction in the five to 50-page range.”

In other words, the modern short story came about for one reason: it simply could. More than that, though, as you can parse from Boyd’s quote, industrialization was changing the way that people found, read, and digested stories — not only were they becoming more readily available, but they were becoming more representative of the common person’s evolving schedule. Work was to be done. Progress was to be made.

Faster. And Faster. And Faster yet.

So from this emerged what we now know as the short story — the first of which, it has been argued, was Walter Scott’s “The Two Drovers,” published in 1827 — something Edgar Allen Poe excitedly defined after reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales as something peculiarly different than the novel, something that achieves “…a sense of the fullest satisfaction” and “…can be read at one sitting.”

“Work was to be done. Progress was to be made.”

Like any other art form powerful enough to remain, the short story evolved from there, with authors like Melville, Poe, and Turgenev (among many, many others) stretching and twisting their works in new ways, into new shapes, into an art form with not just merit, but an art form with increasing mass appeal.

And then in swooped Anton Chekhov.

The Father of the Short Story

What I find most interesting about the life of Anton Chekhov — one of six Chekhov children — is how he turned to writing early on in order to financially bail out his family. His father, Pavel, was a grocer who, after overextending his finances and declaring bankruptcy in 1876, forced his family to flee to Moscow.

Left behind in Taganrog was Anton, who was already paying his own way through university. It was there, and then, when his father — whom Anton would later refer to as a despot and a liar — could no longer support the family, that Anton — in addition to his classwork, his role as a private tutor, and his odd job of catching and selling goldfinches — began selling written work to newspapers, sending everything he could spare to Moscow.

It didn’t end there, however. By 1882, while attending medical school in Moscow, Anton had assumed full financial responsibility for his family. How? By becoming “a satirical chronicler of Russian street life”. Even once he became a physician (1884), his writing served as his primary source of income.

Photograph courtesy Archivio GGB / Contrasto / Redux / via The New Yorker

Chekhov was that good. He was talented enough to live a life entirely outside of writing — one with those “street people”, one with the sick and dying — and once his writing not only served as income but became the primary focus of his time, he began truly unleashing that talent upon the world, in the form of plays, and in the form of short stories.

And the man that would become widely known as the father of the short story was, of course — as any person who pushes for something new, and unique, is — met with resistance. Cases in point:

“…the effect on the reader of Chekhov’s tales was repulsion at the gallery of human waste represented by his fickle, spineless, drifting people.”

-E.J. Dillon

“…uniformly drab…sea of mud with wretched human creatures caught in it helplessly.”

-Anna Akhmatova

“Chekhov’s characters were repugnant, and that Chekhov reveled in stripping the last rags of dignity from the human soul.”

-R.E.C. Long

“Questions without answers, answers without questions, stories with no beginning or end, plots with no denouement… Mr. Chekhov should turn on his work lamp in his study to light up these half-lit characters and dispel the gloom that conceals their silhouettes and contours.”

-N.K. Mikhailovsky

These quotes are harsh, yes, of course, but they’re also — at least now, over a century later — making absolutely clear which rules Chekhov rebelled against with his writing. Back to Boyd:

“By abandoning the manipulated beginning-middle-and-end plot, by refusing to judge his characters, by not striving for a climax or seeking neat narrative resolution, Chekhov made his stories appear agonisingly, almost unbearably lifelike.”

In other words, Chekhov — and I would argue that his past had something to do with this, the time spent with commoners, with the sick and the dying — understood not only the power of omittance, but that sometimes life’s events don’t have a clear-cut starting point, or even a discernible plot, for that matter. He understood that white space, whether it be figurative or literal, could say just as much as the paragraphs preceding it, particularly when exploring themes as dark and rooted in reality as hopelessness and helplessness.

Which went against all precedents previously set, and, like any sort of rebellion, took time to catch. Almost two decades after Chekhov’s death (from tuberculosis, in 1904), it did, though, and his earliest adopters — shaped by the movement rather than by the man — would come to be known as the writers that drove the golden age of short stories.

The Golden Age of Short Stories

This brief economics lesson starts with a definition of supply and demand: “the amount of a commodity, product, or service available and the desire of buyers for it, considered as factors regulating its price.”

Now, take a look at the following graphs as representation of supply and demand:

See in the center graph where the supply line intersects the demand line? See how it’s labeled “Equilibrium”? When supply and demand intersect here it means that the allocation of goods is at its most efficient because the amount of goods being supplied is exactly the same as the amount of goods being demanded. Which is what businesses strive for in order to achieve long-term success.

Hardly anything operates at equilibrium, though. Governments can’t stand still. Technological advances occur. Competition sprouts. Fluctuations in population and workforce occur. Progress happens and it makes graphical lines flimsy, renders economic law inapplicable. Excess supply. Or excess demand.

Case in point: the United States, 1890 to 1920, stretch of time looked back upon as the golden age of the short story. But why — why then? The beginning of that answer actually lies in population.

Due to the fact that from 1865 to 1913, the U.S. grew to become the world’s leading industrial nation, this surge makes sense. Opportunity was here, in the leading industrial nation of the world. Jobs were here. And not just jobs — good jobs! Jobs with double the wages in a place with plenty of inexpensive land to own!

So, supply met demand. People came, in bunches. From 1865 to 1918, in fact, 27.5 million immigrants arrived in the United States, and in many cases could easily find work as unskilled laborers within a factory setting.

And, to accommodate growth, to keep those opportunities seemingly never-ending, the focus of industry became efficiency. To move faster. And faster. And faster.

See: 1869, when the First Transcontinental Railroad opened, reducing a trip from New York City to San Francisco from six months to six days; see: 1903, when the Wright Brothers took flight, and then to 1909 — the same year that Henry Ford’s Model T can be purchased for the first time, for $825 (equivalent to $21,700 today) — when the world’s first commercial airline was founded.

See all of it. Step onto one of those early airplanes and look down below. Look at the steam coming from the train weaving through those mountains. Notice how dense the roads have become with Model T black.

You’re sitting. They’re sitting. Everyone is sitting, and they’re getting not just to where they need to go, but where they want to go, and they’re doing so as quickly as they ever thought was possible.

The advances that took place throughout this time gave to the literate middle class surges in two of their most precious resources: time, and money. And so in an era before films, before video games, before TV shows, what does one do for leisure? You read, and — harkening Poe’s statement — you want to be satisfied by something you can digest in one sitting so that you can move on to life’s next event without qualm. You demand top-notch short stories from magazines determined to circulate to the booming population.

And short stories — having nearly a century to grow, to breathe, to draw inspiration and be shaped to fit the contemporary society — met that demand. Beyond Joseph Conrad, beyond James Joyce, beyond Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, more than any other short story writer of the time, met that demand. It’s he that most reaped the benefits of the groundwork Chekhov laid — in style, sure, to a degree, more so in the fact that Fitzgerald was able to accrue much more than Chekhov’s living off of selling his short stories.

via The Huffington Post

$4,000 — that’s how much the Saturday Evening Post paid F. Scott Fitzgerald per short story by 1929. That equates to roughly $54,000 per story today.

Crazy, right? I mean, imagine writing a 5,000-word story and receiving $10.80 per word. Compare that to today’s landscape, where a short story writer is lucky to receive $0.05 per word. Compare $54,000 to $250 for that same story.

Then, ask yourself: what the hell happened to the short story?

How the Short Story Died

Hop on over to the Poets & Writers website and join me on this path. From the Poets & Writers homepage, click “Tools for Writers” on the blue navigation bar covering the width of your screen. Once there, click “Lit Mags” on the secondary navigation bar, between “Contests” and “Small Presses” in the darker shade of blue. Now, scroll down until you see the page navigation, where you can click “next >” or “last >>”.

If you’re seeing what I’m seeing, there are 1,107 results, meaning there are 1,107 literary magazines currently looking for submissions. But let’s break that down a bit further.

Scroll back up to the navigation bars. Find the dropdowns of “Genre,” “Subgenre” and “Items/Page”. Good. Now, look below that, to the blue hyperlink that says, “More Filter Options”. Click that. Two more dropdowns should appear: “Format” and “Payment”. Click payment, select “Cash,” then click “Filter”.

Scroll back down to the bottom of the page, until the page navigation is again visible. You should see that the previous list of 1,107 literary magazines has been whittled down to 176 results.

Good. Now, scroll back up to the top of the page, until you can see the aforementioned dropdowns. Zero in specifically on the “Genre” dropdown. Click it, and select “Fiction”. Once more, click “Filter”.

Scroll to the bottom of the page. You should see that there are 151 results — 151 literary magazines that pay the writer “cash” for their fiction. Which equates to only 14% of literary magazines currently posting their open submission periods to Poets & Writers.

Today, you see, the market for short stories is saturated. High supply — not just of literary magazines, but of the tens of thousands of writers preparing work for those 1,107 literary magazines — being met by a low demand — readers more on the go than ever; readers with smart phones; readers that have clicked out of this very blog post due to its awkward length; readers with several social media accounts; readers with eight-second attention spans; readers that sit in offices all day, but can’t sit still for Poe’s “one sitting,” not without click-click-clicking into something else; readers that don’t need short stories to make literary immigrants of them, but only their thumbs.

“You pushed for clones. You received clones.”

Those thumbs at work: in 2011, there were 2 billion internet users; now, in 2016, there are 3.4 billion. More than 350,000 tweets are posted per minute. In that same minute, 4 million text messages are sent.

We consume this content. We create this content. A six-word novel is something most of us 318.9 million Americans (2014) compose on a daily basis. And we get to choose not just when our six-word novels go public, but how, and to whom exactly we want them to go to.

Want that six-word novel to stay private? Send it directly to your friend! Want that six-word novel to get in front of your favorite author? Tag their profile in the post!

The landscape has, in other words, changed drastically since Chekhov. Since Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and their Golden Age. But is that a bad thing? If so, who’s really to blame? Is it only the consumer that killed the short story, that made it near impossible for any writer in the modern world to make a living from the medium?

No. Not at all. At fault also is the supplier, for taking products to market that fail to stoke demand. At fault are the institutions that industrialized the short story. Looking at you, stubborn publishing houses. Looking at you, prestigious writing programs.

Looking at you, anyone that stood atop elite pedestals and for decades cornered hordes of hungry writers into classics over contemporaries, into writing more like Hemingway than any other writer, into creating narratives of academia for fellow academics being taught to write like Hemingway.

You pushed for clones. You received clones, and quickly. In effect, for the majority of the 20th century, the short story was unable to keep up with the shifts of the commercial world. And I think it’s a shame, really, how the near-one-hundred-year gap between the short story’s Golden Age and its modern day can be summarized by the masses with the names of two writers: Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver, for their styles, each of which can easily be Venn diagrammed with both Chekhov and Hemingway.

It’s a shame that it took until the 1990s for a new manifestation of the short story to emerge, one that William Boyd — at the time of his writing, in 2007 — points to as a disruptive force: the biographical story. Introduced by younger writers of the time (Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollman), Boyd says of the biographical story:

“The biographical story also includes stories that introduce real people into fiction or write fictive episodes of real lives. This can be seen as an attempt by fiction, in a world deluged by the advertising media, the documentary, journalism, and 24-hour rolling news, to colonise some of that territory, to invade the world of the real and, as a cannibal will devour the brain of his enemy to make him stronger, to make fiction all the more powerful by blurring the line between hard facts and the invented.”

Boyd observes here is that short story writers of the 1990s were attempting to supply a demand. They were chasing equilibrium. And the reason why I cite Boyd here, as well as throughout the entirety of this piece, is, yes, his writing of the short story’s past is insightful, but also that I think he was on to something. I think he knew that short stories would rebound in time, that the fumes that had been propelling the short story for so long were beginning to spark once more.

Maybe not as brightly as it did in the 1920s. Maybe not even in a way that the short story writer can sustain themselves off of their earnings. But it would glow, and it would be unique, and satisfying.

What Boyd may not have been able to foresee was just how quickly that glow would come. He may not have seen Jennifer Egan’s short story, “Black Box,” being released via Twitter over a span of nine days. He may not have seen success catch up to George Saunders, for 1996’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, for 2000’s Pastoralia, for 2013’s Tenth of December. He may not have seen Phil Klay’s story collection, Redeployment, taking home the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction (the first time a short story collection had collected the prize since 1996). He may not have seen Adam Johnson’s collection, Fortune Smiles, winning the same award in 2015.

He probably couldn’t have seen the surge of Kindle, either, the sprouting of websites like Medium, Smashwords, Scrigglr, Scribd, or any other digital space for short stories to call home. Probably couldn’t have foreseen just how much pressure these developments stack on the institutions, to compete, to adapt, to innovate, to at least make attempts to identify with the growing population and its evolving traits and interests.

Because how could he have seen all that? How could he have forecasted those waves? How could anyone have known that, together, the loyals and rebels could revive the short story? And where does the short story go from here?

Up, dear reader, and away from what it has previously been. And I think it’s time for us all to pay attention.

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