February 19, 2013

Is this really a golden age for short stories?


The New York Times reports that short stories are “experiencing a resurgence” driven by digital sales. This is the dream, right? Stories will finally be sold à la carte in digital form, just like music, and readers will be united at last with work by authors they never would’ve found otherwise. This would mean great things for authors, readers and publishers alike.

While I don’t doubt that George Saunders is having an incredible moment in his career with The Tenth of December, and that Alice Munro received lots of critical attention for Dear Life (though this was not included in the article), and that Tom Perrotta will find a sizable market for his stories once they are published … these are distinguished writers who can harness review attention (with the help of a great publicist). Do these titles prove that readers are more amenable to buying short story collections than they have been in the past? Will they buy stories from authors who aren’t immediately recognizable? I want to know: are readers out there buying short stories who weren’t buying them before? Or are short story readers buying in bulk?

I think it’s more likely that this rise has something to do with the sales numbers Amazon released last year. The New York Times singles out Kindle Singles once again as “welcome revenue for fledgling authors and a potentially big payoff for well-known writers.” But how is this “rise” in story sales affecting other short story publishers?

I’d like to see an article about the way this trend is affecting small literary magazines. Are readers buying select stories more often than whole issues? How about One Story? Have they seen an increase in subscribers as the e-reading market expands?

Though there are a fair number of short story collections in the works this year, the rise that seems more obvious is that of the novel-in-stories. Take last week’s article in The Millions about the polyphonic novel: A Visit from the Goon Squad, Cloud Atlas, The Imperfectionists, Olive Kitteridge … These books are intertwined stories from a variety of voices, but they are marketed as novels. If single chapters from these books were available for 99 cents, would they bring in more revenue? Does publishing a book as a novel make it more likely to be considered for big awards than it might be as a short story collection?

Is this trend unique to the American marketplace, or are novels-in-stories finding an expansive audience abroad? In an article on novels-in-stories published in 2011, William Giraldi wrote for The Rumpus that American history may be too short to provide proper structure for a novel; that American writers must turn to stories to reflect how little we understand about one another:

V.S. Pritchett wrote in a preface to one of his own story collections that our “nervous and reckless age” — our Freudian age — has forced us to observe our lives and the lives of others “in fragments rather than as a solid mass,” and the best short fiction captures those nervous, reckless fragments with an accuracy a novel cannot muster.

If there’s a rise in stories — and I hope there is one — I’d like to see evidence that literary magazines are reaping the rewards, not just Kindle Singles.



Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.