by Jacob Brower, Editor-in-Chief
Maybe six months or so ago, my dad bought a Kindle with his credit card points. While my own personal reading tastes tend toward the paper-and-ink variety, I have to admit that my father’s increased reading habits have helped me to see the value of e-readers in keeping our little art alive, or even expanding its reach. My dad, a self-proclaimed hater of reading throughout high school and college, until he met my mother, had still—in my memory—never strayed too far away from his rather light suspense novels and, on the other hand, incredibly dense civil war histories. But the acquisition of his Kindle has brought my father out of the worlds of Robert Ludlum and Shelby Foote and into a wider array of reading choices. With a Kindle he can download, for free no less, selected works by lesser known mystery writers he might like to try, as well as—and more importantly to me, at least—public domain works by famous dead authors. As soon as he figured out how it all worked, he searched around online for a list of the “100 Best Novels of the 20th Century” and got to work. Still, it came as quite the surprise when my dad told me he’d begun reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, an academic behemoth so intimidating I’ve yet to attempt it. And I say that while also considering Infinite Jest my very favorite book. Along the way, my dad also came to enjoy authors as wide ranging as Jeffrey Eugenides (whose entire oeuvre was quickly devoured) and Willa Cather, Zadie Smith and Dostoevsky. Lolita and the previously mentioned Infinite Jest are also on his reading list.
Anyway, my point isn’t to declare e-readers the savior of fiction as we know it, though I do think the device has its merits. What occurred to me, and my father, as we sat and discussed his newfound taste, at age fifty-six, in literary fiction, is that all it might take to popularize literary writers (and reading itself, by extension) among a broader audience is accessibility. Encouragement. Because of fiction’s economic model, the books that get heavily advertised are those by writers like James Patterson, with his awkward TV commercials, Jodi Picoult, with her legion of fans, and—perhaps sadly—EL James, with the mainstream success of her erotic fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to start an argument here about the merits of literary vs. commercial writing, or whether one writer is more deserving of success than another—frankly, I don’t care. What seems obvious, though, is that people—being the social creatures we are, often incapable of making our own decisions—read what we are told to read or see other people reading. Maybe, if we’re hipsters, we read what we’ve heard is cool and obscure, to impress people with the breadth of our taste. Aggressive marketing wins readers, and readers win more readers. It seems incredibly simple, and I’m wondering why no one talks about it too much. Maybe my complete lack of knowledge about the intricacies of the publishing business mean I’m wrong, but honestly I think it has more to do with the comfortable, expected culture of writing, reading, and publishing. We’ve all become entrenched in our camps, too happy with the status quo to wonder if there’s a better way to do things. And I don’t mean some huge revolution, just some modest rethinking.
The assumption that lofty literary goals and the desire for quickly consumable entertainment are mutually exclusive is predicated on the economic strategies of publishers, who see only novels (and often only beach fiction) as financially viable for mass publication and aggressive marketing, but also on the attitudes of literary writers and readers, who—I believe—cling to the false dichotomy of literary v. commercial mostly as a way to believe they—we—are smarter and have tastes that set us apart. Taking a step back into reality, it actually looks to me as if the difference is that we’re encouraged to have these tastes, to try these writers and their stories, while the average reader is never given a hint of their existence. And whose fault is that? The writers’, the readers’, or the publishers’? If my dad—who, like so many reading Americans, has a bachelor’s degree but no real academic background in literature—could choose with his own free will to read Ulysses, I can’t see any real argument convincing me other average, educated Americans wouldn’t be willing to dip their toes into literary fiction. And what better entry point than the short story?
Take any introductory course to journalism, mass media, what-have-you, and you’ll be informed about the American public’s short attention span and general inability to pay attention to anything longer than a few hundred words. The dissemination strategies of all major media outlets illustrate this perfectly: newspapers rely on opening sentences that provide the reader with enough information to skip the actual article; television relies on sensationalism and sound-bites; and radio talk shows entertain their necessarily passive audience with inane arguments, fear-mongering, and pseudo-debates. All these forms of media rely on brief reports of some sort or another to keep readers, watchers, and listeners engaged enough to keep buying, subscribing, or tuning in. Why, then, is the novel pretty much the only medium of choice for popular, widely-read fiction?
In one of our increasingly common discussions of fiction, which had turned to short fiction and its apparent lack of popularity, my dad agreed: it seems ludicrous that our short attention spanned American readers are encouraged only to read novels. A short story can do a lot of things thanks to its unique form, and a writer can have unabashedly literary goals without having to worry overmuch about whether or not his or her reader is going to stop reading; it’s only a short story—they’ll power through it. Nothing against the novel—it should and probably always will be popular—but it’s a mystery to me how people don’t hold the same expectation for the short story: what an accessible world of fiction for the busy reader! What a convenient entry into literary fiction! There’s great appeal in bite-sized media, fiction included, and what proof’s better than my dad heading out to get the last few Best American short story collections after our conversation? But still, the short story remains relatively obscure in terms of popular fiction; it’s a writer’s medium, or an academic’s.
In his intro to The Best American Short Stories 2007, guest editor Stephen King relates an excursion to his local “mega-bookstore,” where he hopes to find some short stories via the massive magazine section: “I go in,” he writes, “because it’s just about time for the new issues of Tin House and Zoetrope: All-Story, two Best American mainstays over the years. I don’t expect a new Glimmertrain, though it wouldn’t surprise me to find one.” His search is largely frustrating; he does find copies of The New Yorker and Harper’s without looking too hard, both magazines that maintain a fiction feature, often hidden in the back or in type so tiny that his “eyeballs” feel like they have been “sucked halfway out of their sockets.” A few other journals are found, but in locations so remote and inconvenient that they aren’t visible unless King gets on his knees to look. Here, he points out, their beautiful covers won’t attract anyone. At my own local bookstore, I’m hard-pressed to find any literary journals, though one thing both King and I see right upon entering is a table full of best-sellers: Danielle Steele, James Patterson, King himself. As King says about this stuff, his own work included, “Most of this stuff is disposable, but it’s right up front where it hits you in the eye as soon as you walk in, and why? Because money talks and bullshit walks.” King’s intro, while declaring the American short story unwell, stops short of offering solutions. Talent rises to the top, he says, and points toward the success of writers in the collection like TC Boyle, etc. Though the short story is ill, and its relegation to the bottom shelf discouraging to any top-notch writers who might want to attempt it post-MFA, it’s the fault of a largely uninterested public. True. But why is the public so uninterested?
Because publishers, the gatekeepers of success and sales in the writing and reading industry, make no effort to popularize or promote short fiction. You write short stories in grad school, almost certainly, and maybe a few get published—one makes it into Best American, and suddenly you’ve hit it big. Not financially speaking, but you know. You market your collection to a few agents, some publishers, but with little success. From writers I’ve talked to, this seems to be a pattern—the to-be-expected life of a post-grad school author with a book of short stories. Publishers might even love your work, especially your award winners and anthologized pieces, but they just want to know if you have a novel. Maybe your collection gets published via one of those annual writing contests, where an indie publisher invites a guest editor to pick one lucky writer’s stuff to get published as a book. But let’s be honest—these presses rarely have the means to heavily publicize your work in any way that would reach a broad, non-literary audience. (Disclaimer: I love these presses.)
Meanwhile, James Patterson’s wearing a blazer and a mock turtleneck in a black studio, making a commercial that’s going to make you feel uncomfortable during the news or your baseball game. Women’s magazines—hell, even magazines like The New Yorker—are publishing excerpted novels as short fiction, serving mostly to market the upcoming book. The bestseller lists are full of novels by authors both commercial and literary, but a short story collection peeking in is the rarest of rarities. If this all sounds like a set-up for me to declare the short story is dead, it isn’t. There’re plenty of acclaimed authors who have thus far made careers of primarily being short story writers: ZZ Packer comes to mind, as do Alice Munro and Raymond Carver, and a number of established novelists have also found success and popularity with their short fiction—Junot Diaz, George Saunders, and even Stephen King, just to name a few. I’ve found a great deal of pleasure in the shorter works of Updike and Wallace, myself. As Ben Marcus told me in a masterclass during college, many writers are having success getting their short story collections published. It’s a myth to think the short story will die or cease to exist. This is true, but I stand by my argument that, the way things are now, the short story exists as a medium primarily by and for writers and English majors (or, of course, their teachers), and rarely encountered by anyone else. And this is not only unfortunate, but also foolish.
And yet, I have the tiniest bit of entrepreneurial acumen, and I recognize why the big, important publishers do what they do. It’s all about making money. Publishers aren’t willing to take a risk: they know Patterson’s next Alex Cross novel is going to sell; they don’t have the same confidence in some baseball bildungsroman featuring a gay relationship. But look, it did! Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding made a bunch of year-end “Best Of” lists and is now a best seller. It’s literary fiction, but—gasp!—it’s also easy to read and uncomplicated: entertaining. Because the publishing industry is a business, not a charity for the arts, I can understand why it’s all about the bottom line. Taking a risk on some literary author who might sell a butt-load of books just isn’t worth it when you’ve got something else that you’re sure will. I harbor no ill-will to popular and commercially successful writers; all I’m saying is, with a little effort in the PR department, there’s plenty of room in popular fiction for the literary. But that’s why I think the short story (and, to some extent, the personal essay, poem, etc.) offers a near-perfect opportunity to hook lifetime casual readers into the world of literary fiction—it’s short, requires less time and extended attention than a novel, and can offer a wide range of ideas, plots, characters, and entertainment potential, especially in collections or journals. The short story is perfect for American readers, they just need to be given a clue where to start. And it’s perfect for those of us who’d like to see literary fiction get a little facetime with the general public. All it would take is a little attention, some encouragement from the powers-that-be: Here bookstore browser, a collection of thrilling short stories, right here on the recommended reading table! Here, girl on the train reading a Jennifer Weiner novel, try one or two of these short stories. They’re wonderful, aren’t they?
I submit to you my central, relatively uneducated, belief:
The public’s hungry for short fiction. They just don’t know it yet.