Looking for proof of life in that American institution, the short story, can seem like a fool’s errand. Few magazines publish short stories. Few Americans read them – you won’t find any collections in the New York Times bestseller lists. Even those in the short story business don’t seem to want to talk about the short story.
I called the headquarters of a number of America’s best-regarded short story contests and discovered a curious indifference. Sure, they will tell you the names of their famous guest judges. They will reel off statistics about how many entries they receive and how much they pay out in prizes. But just try to engage them in a discussion of the literary form for which they are the standard-bearers.
“I don’t read the stories,” confesses Krista Halverson, managing editor at Zoetrope , a well-known literary magazine that sponsors an annual short story contest. Reaching the offices of the Boston Review , I told editorial assistant Brad Plumer that I’d like to talk to someone about the decline of the short story and their own short story contest. Well, he said, “our office is pretty tiny.”
How did we get to where even staffers at literary magazines seem unwilling to stand up for the short story?
The short story is pretty much an American invention. Its first master, Edgar Allan Poe credited the American magazine with creating the new literary form. Notes Jack Clemens, an associate editor at Writer’s Digest : “Before America, a short tale was not known as a short story. Collections of stories were not really published [elsewhere], at least not with the popularity that came in the United States.”
Well into the last century, short stories continued to be the meat of American magazines, highbrow and lowbrow, special interest and general. They included works of every genre, from lurid detective yarns to science fiction to belles-lettres.
The best-known general interest fiction publisher was the Saturday Evening Post . (It still exists, but as a medical journal.) Not that long ago, many other magazines routinely published fiction. Take, for example, a list of publications whose stories won O. Henry Awards, the top prize given out annually to a small handful of short stories, from 1919 to 2000. Mademoiselle ranked seventh (with 43), beating Esquire (36), despite not having published any award-winning stories since 1975. The fashion mag Harper’s Bazaar (51) came in fifth for its stories going up to only 1964, placing one ahead of the famous (and defunct) Story (44). Redbook (28) beat Scribner’s (21) and the Paris Review (16) . Even Cosmopolitan , now famed for its monthly instruction on attaining the perfect orgasm, published seven O. Henry winners.
These, of course, weren’t trashy tales of Manolo Blahniked single women deciding between Richard, who has a house in the Hamptons, and Tad, who prefers Martha’s Vineyard. Mademoiselle published William Faulkner, Truman Capote, and Ray Bradbury. (Perhaps you’ve heard of them.) Harper’s Bazaar published John Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, and Patricia Highsmith. (Imagine one of Highsmith’s gruesome tales being published alongside the Gucci ads today.) Booth Tarkington was published by McCall’s , Ladies Home Journal , and, yes, Cosmo .
“What kind of man reads Playboy ?” an ad for the magazine once asked. The answer was a man who liked to read. Alongside airbrushed nubiles, one found fiction by Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, and Italo Calvino. Could the “readers” of Maxim even pronounce such names?
Maud Newton, a Brooklyn writer and editor who runs her own eponymous website, questions the supposed financial wisdom that stopped women’s magazines from being the “formidable players” in short fiction they once were. “When Mademoiselle stopped publishing short fiction in the nineties, the move was seen as a capitulation to the financial realities of publishing.” she says. “But discontinuing fiction didn’t help Mademoiselle , as we know. It ceased publication in 2001 after a long decline.”
Today short fiction is confined to an elegant ghetto: the New Yorker , the Atlantic Monthly , and Harper’s . There still exist many literary magazines, but these publish seldom and have few subscribers.
Moreover, outlets like the New Yorker publish mostly established names – John Updike, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, etc. – regardless of whether they are past their sell-by dates. Some joke theNew Yorker would publish a grocery list if it had Updike’s name on it.
The Contest Con
So where can a newcomer get his start? Perhaps through one of America’s hundreds of short story contests.
Jonathan Safran Foer, for example, made a big splash two years ago with the publication of his ambitious and strange novel Everything Is Illuminated . But he had earlier come to notice when he placed third in Zoetrope ‘s All-Story 2000 contest.
This magazine, founded just seven years ago by director Francis Ford Coppola, might be considered proof of life in the short story genre – or proof of desperation in Hollywood. “We’re looking for stories that could be developed into film,” explains Krista Halverson. “But we’ve also had great success as a literary publication. We won a National Magazine Award in 2001.” She estimates that fewer than 10 percent of the 40 stories printed each year wind up in development.
Apparently not many writers are interested. Using a $1,000 first prize and potential Hollywood interest as bait, Zoetrope receives about 2,000 entries to its annual contest. Boston Review gets approximately 600. Brad Plumer argues, however, that people are probably reading more short fiction than ever. “From my vantage point, we get heaps upon heaps of short story submissions every month. On our website, our short story contest winner is one of the most popular pages. Looks like a rage for fiction to me,” he says. Plumer points to the increasing number of literary websites and journals, including McSweeney’s , the quarterly founded by Dave Eggers, author of the bestselling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and something of a cult figure these days.
How easy it is to forget how popular fiction (short and long) once was in America and elsewhere. “How many people followed Dostoyevsky’s serializations – or those of Dickens?” Plumer asks. And answers, “A good mass, maybe, but probably orders of magnitude smaller than the number of people who read the Atlantic Monthly or the New Yorker .” Actually, New Yorkers once thronged the docks to discover the fate of Dickens’s Little Nell, and Russians besieged the kiosks of St. Petersburg and Moscow to get the latest installments of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov .
What about the quality of the short stories submitted to these magazines’ contests? According to Zoetrope’s Halverson, they’re as good as general submissions to her magazine. Tara Blom, marketing director for Writer’s Digest ‘s competitions, says, “We have a very mixed bag of entrants. We have many people who do not follow the rules, who handwrite things, or somehow disqualify themselves immediately. If someone pays us, we’ll at least give them a read-through. But what the judges do with them, I can’t tell you.”
Some years, a Jonathan Safran Foer may be discovered; other years, the crop is a bust. In 2001, Esquire magazine went so far as to not award anyone a prize in its short story contest. “It seems incredible to me that the Esquire contest wouldn’t have turned up something publishable,” comments Jean McGarry, a widely published author and chair of Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
Others, however, applaud such austerity. “That’s a daring step and pretty severe criticism,” asserts Clemens. “It’s more than a criticism of the writers that submitted to that competition, it’s a criticism of the state of literature at that moment. It’s a way of spurring people on.”
The entrants might not see it that way, especially since virtually every contest charges a “reading fee,” usually $15 to $25. Just this April, there was grumbling on several literary websites when the Zoo Press had awarded no prizes in its short story contest for either the 2003 or 2004 contest, for which entrants paid $25 to enter. A disclaimer in the rules did make it clear that Zoo Press was not obliged to pick a winner.
Contest fees, it turns out, are the lifeblood of many small literary mags. “Each person that enters gets a year-long subscription, so you could say that the entry fee pays for the subscription, and that this is all a marketing ploy,” Boston Review ‘s Plumer admits. He adds, “Our entry fee also prevents people from sending us 90 stories each, and that can’t be undervalued.”
Prize amounts vary, usually about $1,000 for first place. Writer’s Digest , whose competition is much larger, can afford to be more generous. The grand prize winner of its writing competition, which also includes poetry and children’s fiction, receives $2,500 and a trip to either Maui or New York City to meet with editors and agents. The winner of the short story category receives $1,000, as well as books and advice.
Short Story as art for academics
Unlike Dickens and Dostoyevsky, today’s writers are not dependent on what they can earn from their pens. Many, including leading short story practitioners such as Lorrie Moore and George Saunders, teach English or creative writing in universities. It is a common complaint that university writers, while protected from starving in garrets, write for each other, as it is not financially necessary for them to impress the hoi polloi .
Lorrie Moore told Book Magazine in 2001, “As the commercial slick short story has largely died out, the stories we are left with are almost all serious art.” It might be comforting to think that while quantity has lowered, quality has risen. Clemens believes that “there are a lot of novels being published now that aren’t up to snuff. The short story market is tighter.”
Jean McGarry is not so sanguine. “Slick magazines function more like the movies and television now,” she argues. “They’re strictly for entertainment and ‘market share,’ and that includes the top magazines.”
It would be easy to blame the decline of the short story on short attention spans, caused by the breathless amusements of MTV and unnecessary efficiencies like all the news you need to know in five minutes. But wouldn’t a trend favoring economy result in short stories being more popular? Stephen King sells millions, and any one of his later novels is heavy enough to kill a cat (in hardcover anyway).
On the contrary, says Greg Hollingshead, author and professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. “TV and the Internet have easily consumed those short timespans that formerly might have been devoted to reading short stories.” Maud Newton agrees: “It’s easier to watch a half-hour TV show than to read a short story. I’m sure the rise of TV had something to do with the demise of theSaturday Evening Post back in 1969 and has continued to affect the demand for short fiction.”
McGarry goes so far as to argue that television is the reason magazines have replaced fiction with non-fiction. “I think fiction upsets people more; it takes them out of their world; it entangles them in other lives in a very intimate way,” she says. “Readers of slick magazines may be trying to resist this. They want diversion but they don’t want to leave the safety and familiarity of their own lives and minds.”
And while short stories may be short, they are concentrated . “A reader loses himself in a novel, but can stay there for a longer time, until the novel’s world becomes familiar, comfortable,” says McGarry. “A short story takes you in, but spits you right back out again.” Hollingshead notes, “This was Frank O’Connor’s argument in The Lonely Voice : Short fiction is about people at the margins, the novel addresses the mainstream middle class.”
Vis-à-vis the novel and the Internet
Newton suggests that the sustained popularity of the novel may be a form of rebellion against the brave new multimedia world – a possibility that Hollingshead takes to the next logical step. “The strength of novels is that nothing else enables you to submerge yourself in an imagined world over several days or even weeks. And to be able to enter and leave that world according to your own schedule and even to carry the thing around with you, if you want. When technology comes up with something that can do that and that won’t require the effort of reading, it will replace the novel. Meanwhile all mass literary hope rests with the novel.”
Clemens adds that the novel isn’t merely easier to read but is easier to sell as well. “You can promote a novel by saying ‘Here’s a writer with a story to tell, here’s the story, it’s a tragic story of a woman who couldn’t get into Macy’s on opening day,’” he declares. “The short story is harder, because you’re marketing the writer’s voice.”
Even successful short story writers complain of the market forces brought on by the novel’s relative vitality. Hollingshead, one of Canada’s most highly regarded authors and winner of the Governor General’s Award for his story collection The Roaring Girl , says he “absolutely” has felt pressured to write novels instead of short stories. Indeed, the only reason many publishers buy short fiction at all is that they have bought the rights to what they hope will be the subsequent novel, according to Hollingshead. “But really it is striking that most fiction writers feel they need to move on to novels, so there are virtually no short story writers doing anything as ambitious and complex as Alice Munro was doing even 20 years ago. It feels like a beginning writer’s form, a way for a young writer to announce their voice, their arrival, and it’s become that as a result of the form losing its cultural niche.”
Again, universities might be to blame. It is difficult to complete a novel in the course of earning a Master of Fine Arts degree and even harder to critique one in progress in workshops, so most students write short stories. The rigors of academic and workshop training, more than anything else, may be why short fiction tends to be something of a young person’s game.
Many students, however, understanding the increased viability of the long form, write interconnected stories that can be sold more like a novel. Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing was a recent popular example of such “novelization.”
If the short story has a future, it may reside in new technology. “My sense with the short-story market is that it’s a matter of failure to fill demand, rather than lack of demand,” Maud Newton says. “I think the mainstream publications resist innovation and that the better stories generally are being published outside their pages. Some of the most vital short stories are published on the Internet these days.”
Newton publishes her fiction in online journals like eyeshot and storySouth . McSweeney’s regularly publishes quality stories online without the benefit of paper incarnation. The Wild West spirit of online publishing is particularly welcoming to young unestablished writers who feel like they’re sending messages in a bottle when they submit work to the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly .
The Internet, with its penchant for images and data, may seem an unlikely resuscitation device for a quiet and absorbing literary form like the short story. Yet it has done an amazing job of opening new markets for pornography and the pulp non-fiction of news and commentary. Which, plus a regular dose of quality short fiction, was the formula Hugh Hefner used to build his media empire. But that was back in the day when a mass market magazine could aim high and low at the same time, serving up both breasts and Bradbury.