The short story; it’s pint-size, it’s punchy, it’s poignant.
It’s also vastly underappreciated. It is acutely difficult to find short story collections in bookshops; they rarely command the same profits or marketing as full-length novels do. There are nowhere near as many events or awards dedicated to the short story, nor are you likely to hear someone refer to a really famous author as “the one that wrote the really popular anthology of short stories.”
If you search for “how many short stories are published each year,” your top results are divided into two categories. One is how to publish your short stories, with some blogs dedicated to how to pump out as many short stories as possible for a high return in royalties. The other type of content you’ll find is a range of articles that are all highlighting the precarious position of the short story. Whilst some sources indicate that the short story is enjoying a new lease of life with the rise of e-books (the short story is perfect for a commute) most sources are indicating it is a struggling medium, with a very limited audience.
The figure of blame for causing the short story’s downfall is publishers; if short stories are considered to be less commercially successful than other publications, publishers are going to invest in massive novels that attain huge followings, guarantee follow up novels and have the promise of film and TV adaptations. Another nail in the short story coffin is the decrease of the literary or general interest magazine; one of the prominent publishers of short stories. The late 19th century saw a boom in short stories, and many famous 20th century writers (Poe, Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Woolf etc.) enjoyed great successes from their short stories.
The decline of short stories should be of a genuine worry to anyone interested in literature. Whilst (in general terms) novels are normally doors into entire story-worlds, short stories are like a gap in the curtains, providing a quick glance through the window. Normally self-contained, they provide a brief glance into a specific theme or topic. The short story is able to say so much more than a novel by saying much less. They are microcosms of outside society but you rarely meet all the characters involved. People are named, mentioned, described, but due to space constraints you just don’t meet the entire cast.
Spatial limits force short stories to either be extremely focused, extremely abstracted, or allegorical. They become intense bursts which leave the reader feeling like they’ve encountered an episode in a greater arc they cannot access or fully understand. Whilst literary theory often dictates that there is no wider storyworld outside what the reader encounters, short stories have so many leads, hints and inferences, readers cannot help but believe there is more to the story.
A first stepping stone in a writing career is also often the short story; which is easier to manage than an epic novel. They provide a playing ground, or a sand pit, for the writer to create scenarios, explore relationships and try out new literary methods. The short story is the medium which children first encounter literature through, and is often the first genre they try to create.
I am completely enamoured by the short story, and just how effectively it can hit a reader with a deluge of thoughts, questions and emotions. I also recently discovered at a Faber & Faber social event that short stories are also a great bridge between reader and writer; they are perfect for readings. Whilst hearing a writer read a section of their novel can be moving (hearing John Niven reading aloud the epic multi-tasking wanking scene which Straight White Male opens on is one of the funniest things I’ve experienced in my life so far) ultimately the reader is faced with an awareness of its limits.
A short story is of an appropriate length for a writer to read aloud, and communicate directly to their audience the stresses and important aspects of their works. A short story read by the author is almost an insight into the author themselves, all within an easy to digest timeframe that still leaves questions lingering on.
The short story may be dwarfed by big thick novels, but its power lies in its simplicity, its succinctness. Whole worlds can be made, discovered and destroyed in the time it takes for the average tube journey, yet the impact will linger with a reader all day, and that is not a power the publishing world should ignore.