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How Strong Is Brevity’s Pull?

PUBLISHED: April 10, 2009

In a recent piece in the New York Times, A.O. Scott praised the current state of the American short story, citing the recently and widely acclaimed biographies of John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, and Donald Barthelme as demonstrating that these writers’ short works triumphed over the maximalist aesthetics of 1990s fiction. Scott’s piece rests too much on a simple binary—is the short story “dead” or not? (he assumes that the novel already is, but why are we so often worried about what form or movement might, from one day to the next, be deemed living or otherwise?)—but he does raise some good points. Besides the enduring influence of the three previously mentioned writers, he mentions the lauded debut of Wells Tower, with his short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. He also concocts an interesting scenario for what may be the future utility and commercial potential of short stories:

The new, post-print literary media are certainly amenable to brevity. The blog post and the tweet may be ephemeral rather than lapidary, but the culture in which they thrive is fed by a craving for more narrative and a demand for pith. And just as the iPod has killed the album, so the Kindle might, in time, spur a revival of the short story. If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention? Why wouldn’t you collect dozens, or hundreds, into a personal anthology, a playlist of humor, pathos, mystery and surprise?

It’s an intriguing idea, a veiled business proposal that might make some old-school types gag, but Scott may be correct that the short story will be the “single” of the digital age. Just as a catchy single can launch a pop musician to the top of the charts, so might a bestselling short on the Kindle market have similar promotional power for a new writer. (But here, too, Scott engages in some excessive reductionism: the iPod didn’t kill the album—it was record labels’ overpricing of CDs and vehemently luddite attitudes towards technology. Similarly, blog posts and tweets thrive not just because of a craving for narrative or pith; pitifully short attention spans, the near compulsive drive to multi-task, and the cultural celebration of narcissism contribute just as much, if not more.)

Until that time though, the short-story-collection-as-debut-work has, I think, more commercial potential than Scott allows. As he accurately writes, “a young writer who turns up at the office of an editor or literary agent with a volume of stories is all but guaranteed a chilly, pitying welcome,” yet besides Wells Tower (whose book, as of this writing, is ranked a very respectable #377 on Amazon), in recent years we’ve seen a small horde of writers have commercial and critical success with short story debuts. Last year there was Nam Le’s The Boat, which won a couple of awards, sold well, and received tremendous praise. And consider some others of the past decade or so: Junot Diaz (Drown), Aleksandar Hemon (The Question of Bruno), Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies), Uwem Akpan (Say You’re One of Them), and Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders). All received an enviable combination of accolades, good reviews, and sales.

So while future short story writers may look forward to a democratization of publishing and possible remuneration through selling individual stories on the Kindle, for now, there are plenty of good writers coming through the pipeline. It only takes a longer view of things to realize that though our digital trends may be ephemeral, our cultural ones, especially the longing for a good story, need not be.

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