Never has a literary genre been more zombified than the short story. It’s dead! It’s alive! Dead, alive!
Here are the latest conflicting diagnoses:
The New York Times’s Leslie Kaufman says that short stories are alive and kicking, souped up by digital delivery (“A Good Fit for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories,” Feb. 15, 2013):
Story collections, an often underappreciated literary cousin of novels, are experiencing a resurgence, driven by a proliferation of digital options that offer not only new creative opportunities but exposure and revenue as well.
…would be good news — if there were any reason at all to think it was true. Kaufman’s only evidence for this imaginary renaissance is the success of George Saunders’ story collection, “The Tenth of December,” published earlier this year and currently hovering in the middle ranks of several prominent best-seller lists. Saunders’ longtime fans (I count myself among them) have reason to celebrate this, but it really has nothing to do with “digital options.” Saunders has built a devoted following over the past 17 years, hadn’t published a book in a good while and — most important of all — was heralded in the headline of a long, radiant profile in the New York Times Magazine as producing “the best book you’ll read this year.” All of that could have happened 10, 20 or 30 years ago and produced the same result.
If you follow publishing trends, it’s worth reading both essays and judging for yourself which one makes the better case. From a creative point of view, though, I’m not sure it really matters–or that it should matter.
The alive-or-dead debate does not help writers who like to write short stories (I’m one of them) and readers who like to read them (I’m one of those too). Unless you’re writing strictly for the market–and we all need to make a living, yes we do–you can drive yourself crazy, and sap your will to work, if you pay too close attention to analyses of cultural and market trends.
Which are fascinating, yes. As I said, both the NYT and Salon articles are worth a read, especially for their attempts to get at how and where readers actually read now. (See Miller’s comment about “interstitial reading,” for instance.) Part of the writing life, though, is knowing when to look and when to look away.