The Short Story Today: Stories vs. Novels

May 5, 2016

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Just weeks ago at AWP, an entire Los Angeles convention center was filled with writers and readers attending panels and carrying literary magazines dedicated almost entirely to the short story. In this context, the moniker, “no one reads short stories,” is ironic. But outside those walls, sadly, it’s true. As any of the conference goers would tell you: big publishers aren’t as interested in story collections because they just “don’t sell.”

In an article on story collections vs. novels, Becky Tuch, editor of The ReviewReview, addresses this imbalance by examining publishing’s bias toward the novel.

Tuch’s article concludes that because commercial magazines have less of a budget—and thus less space—for short stories, commercial readership has developed a preference for the novel. Not surprisingly though, her article quotes a number of agents and writers expressing fondness for, and even a partiality toward, short stories. Maud Newton says: “‘I personally love short story collections… Some of the best literature—and entertainment—I’ve ever read were story collections.’”

Editor-in-Chief of electricliterature.com, Lincoln Michel, who recently published the short story collection Upright Beasts, argues that the structure of major literary awards might also play a part. He asserts that that, too often, big prizes dwarf the accomplishments of storywriters and applaud novelists. Michel writes: “In theory, it is nice to have short story collections compete with novels in these awards… But in reality, they rarely win.”

There are few highlights of story collections winning major literary awards: Interpreter of Maladies won a Pulitzer in 1999 and two recent National Book Awards have gone to story collections: Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles (though it’s worth noting his novel won a Pulitzer first) and Phil Klay’s Redeployment. Another notable win was Alice Munro, who received the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature for a career focused exclusively on short fiction. Lydia Davis, too, won the Man Booker for her collected works, Can’t and Won’t. And wins aside, recent nominees have also been short story writers. Two collections were National Book Award finalists last year, and George Saunders’ Tenth of December was among the finalists in 2013. This year the Pulitzer finalists included the story collection, Get In Trouble by Kelly Link, which was as notable for being a collection of stories as it was for operating in the speculative fiction genre.

These recent awards and nominations are anemic compared to the coverage novels receive in the same categories, but it might suggest a momentum gain. Though it’s interesting to note that both Saunders and Link—two authors who up to this point were exclusively short story writers— are working on novels. Why?

Storywriter, novelist, and National Book Award finalist Charles Baxter addresses the reasoning behind his move from short stories to novels: “I started writing short stories in order to learn how to manage form—really, how to write fiction. Writing short stories taught me how to write plausible fiction. I also developed a love for the form of the short story that I’ve never really lost. Writers transition from the short story form to the novel for many reasons, including the prestige of the novel form, the commercial value of novels (they sell better), and because of the novel’s capacious form, which permits the elaboration of a social or personal history.”

Buzzfeed recently published, “18 Short Story Writers On Why They Decided to Go Long,” a rundown of notable writers and what inspired them to write novels. It’s a treat to read the various explanations, but the descriptions lack information on any pressure writers feel—especially new writers—to move beyond stories. A pressure that is very real given publishing’s preference for novels.

It is common practice for publishers to introduce writers through story collections then follow-up with a novel. So much so, that many debut writers sign two-book deals with a short story collection and the seemingly requisite novel. In Tuch’s article she cites an experience regarding a friend’s book deal: “The publishing house which would acquire his work said that they would pay him one amount for his novel. For his short story collection and his novel together, they offered him the same amount.

This treatment of story collections translates into how agents approach writers and sell books to publishers, showing special attention to storywriters who are also working on, or have completed, novels. Even in our own experience, agents approaching The Masters Review for contact information ask if our writers are working on anything longer.

So what gives? The idea that “no one reads short stories,” certainly isn’t true among the thousands of writers who love, write, and read them, but the notion exists as a negative feedback loop limiting the number of published collections and the attention they receive, at least commercially. So writers shift gears. They write novels.

There isn’t a simple solution for buoying commercial support for the short story, and I suspect those of us who love stories, who write stories, and who publish them, will continue to wonder why our friends and relatives aren’t more excited about collections, why they aren’t more available in airport bookstores.

I suspect, though, discussing and examining this commercial preference for the novel is a healthy start. Celebrating it like we are this month, and generating awareness toward the imbalance. Independent presses are picking up the slack, carving out more space for short story collections in the literary ecosystem. For example, The Guardian recently aligned with Tin House, publishing flash fiction curated by the lit mag online on Fridays, an effort that will certainly bring a larger readership to a (very) short form.

In The Paris Review, Richard Ford recalls arguments with Raymond Carver about the story versus the novel: “Forms of literature don’t compete. They don’t have to compete. We can have it all.” And I think we can too.

This month, guest writers for The Masters Review contribute in myriad ways to show support for the short story. In our publication’s tenure we’ve done our part to offer access to new and talented storywriters. Our hope is you might find something special, share it, talk about it, and bit by bit generate more interest in short fiction. If we want more stories, if we recognize more stories, there will be more opportunities for short stories to share the spotlight.

by Kim Winternheimer

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At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.



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