Literary criticism

Death of the Short Story?

By: G. D. McFetridge

short fiction

The other day I was at a coffee shop with a fellow writer and we were discussing the state of American literature. She looked thoughtfully over her double espresso and asked me what sort of writing I thought paid the best.

I don’t know … let me think,” I said, and after pausing, added, “The screenplay?”

Nope, it’s the ransom note.”

She grinned and I chuckled and shook my head. But the irony behind his little joke wasn’t lost on me, so I had to come up with an intelligent rejoinder.

All right, considering that short stories, monetary speaking, are basically a dead end, can you enlighten me as to why so many people are writing them? Aside from a gaggle of academics and literary purists, who really cares about the art form of short fiction?”

Write a great short story and it might get turned into a screenplay,” she said. “Broke Back Mountain comes to mind.”

I’m not sure that’s a great story but your point is well taken nonetheless. Although the odds of something like that happening are what? About the same as winning the lottery?”

My friend made a silly face and I finished my cappuccino. The desire for literary tête-à-tête had left both of us. However, it sparked some questions inside my head and I eventually arrived at least at one conclusion. Unlike the bygone days when writers such as Hemingway or F. Scot made good money on short fiction, the current atmosphere is exceedingly bleak. For example, I feel very lucky to get a couple hundred dollars for a story; in fact, let’s be honest, considering the number of manuscripts flooding the average commercial magazine or well-known academic journal, I feel lucky just to get a story published.

But this begs the question as to why anyone in such a flooded marketplace bothers writing short stories in the first place. In my own behalf, all I can do is ask for the clemency of the court. I was exceedingly naïve those many years ago when I decided to be a novelist, and as the rejections piled up—along with literary agents and self-help pundits advising writers to build a publishing résumé in short fiction—I turned my attention to the short story.

So let’s have a closer look at the current state of literary affairs. The majestic and grand exulted wizard of dime-store scary fiction, Stephen King, in his introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2007, informs us that in America, commercially speaking, that the short story is alive but not doing very well. He goes on to conclude: “The current condition is stable, but apt to deteriorate in the years ahead.”

For my part, having read the stories in this collection—the so-called cream of the crop—short fiction isn’t just ailing, it’s terminally ill. Not to pick on Stephen King, the biggest selling author in the history of the known universe, but it does seem a little odd that the old hack-master himself was chosen to judge the literary merits of stories for this collection, an art form most critics would suggest he is no master of—in the strictest sense of the word. From my own endeavors as an aspiring writer, I had seen this trend five years before Mr. King offered his insightful diagnosis, and I believe I have uncovered some interesting possibilities explaining why short fiction is a dying art form.

After perusing the Contributors’ Notes in the 2007 collection,a curious fact jumped out at me. Of the twenty stories included in this dubious onslaught, seventeen of the authors were MFA graduates, literature professors, or both, and not a single writer appeared to be from a non-academic background. Certainly none were what I would call rock-solid working-class, based on their blurbs and brief autobiographies; although suffice to say, it is an inequity I have found true of most major literary magazines and yearly anthologies.

What does this suggest? One possibility is that sans graduate-level literary training, people are simply incapable of mastering the techniques and skills necessary to produce excellent fiction—assuming we grant the monotone twaddle of the 2007 assemblage such superlative status. Another possibility might be that the verbal intelligence required for high-level writing is something only possessed by those residing at the extreme high-end of the bell curve, and that naturally those individuals tend to garner such things as advanced degrees and professorial appointments. Although, as a side note, and in interesting contrast to the current atmosphere of academically driven fiction, this trend was by no means always the case. Tendered for your consideration is a list of celebrated and in some cases, great writers from the 19th and 20th centuries who held no advanced literary diplomas:

William Faulkner, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Katherine Ann Porter, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scot Fitzgerald, J. D. Salinger, Ray Bradbury, Kerouac, Bukowski, Mary Shelley, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky … and the list goes on and on.

One of the sure signs of the pre-mortem condition of short fiction is demonstrated by The Atlantic Monthly. Traditionally a setting for some of America’s finest fiction, The Atlantic some time ago cut back from monthly story inclusion to a single story per year. Another indicator is the fact that short-story collections rarely make bestseller lists, and even when it appears they do, it is advisable to look closely at the fine print of the claim.

During the 1920s and 30s, when the likes of Hemingway, F. Scot Fitzgerald and others were making names for themselves and doing well selling short fiction, there wasn’t such a wide range of competition. No television—that’s the big one—and the movie industry was in its infancy; there was no computer technology, no Internet, little recorded music, no CDs, DVDs, etc. In 1925, people in search of entertainment read a book or magazine, went to the theater, listened to live music or watched silent films. Reading, as a pastime, held a sizable market share of entertainment’s then less extravagant menu, and I have no doubt that all modern forms of amusement have cut deeply into territory once enjoyed by literature. Nonetheless, even as late as the 1950s and 60s, short fiction was alive and well; witness for example writers such as J. D. Salinger, Flannery O’Conner, or even Ray Bradbury.

Another factor may have to do with money. I’ve read about writers paid generously for their short fiction because popular magazines of the 1920s and 30s and even the 40s were willing to shell out hundreds and sometimes thousands to grace their publications with literary heavyweights. Adjusted for inflation (perhaps as much as 10 times, maybe more) it is clear that a good living was available through the art of short fiction. I haven’t personally researched this but I’ve read it enough times to believe it is true, that F. Scot made the bulk of his income writing for glossy magazines. Nowadays I can’t think of any writer who makes big money from periodicals; therefore, why writers—particularly those lower on the food chain— continue to produce truckloads of short fiction baffles me. I don’t see how doing one thing leads to obtaining another. Where’s the motive?

Maybe it’s a positive trend that people write for reasons other than money or for the commercial limelight; yet on the other hand, there is another aspect in all this that is not necessarily altruistic. In the academic world there’s an old saying: Publish or perish. It certainly applies to the sciences and I suspect it applies in literature as well. As a budding professor eager to ascend the academic ladder, publishing is desirable if not crucial; consequently, the motivation, albeit money or in some secondary sense prestige, is primarily focused on a proviso having less to do with the quality or integrity of the art form and more to do with achieving a desired end. Put another way, the end is more important than the means. Competition in an open marketplace is not necessarily part of the equation, and although some might say that the litany of literary magazines and the awards and anthologies they spin off is a competitive, free-market environment, I think the assumption is naïve.

People in business, academia, and other walks in life, often refer to a well-worn word: Networking. And it comes as no surprise that a fair percentage of individuals who attend prestigious universities do so not solely for the education, but for academic status and the social and professional networking possibilities. Something made clear by the contributors’ notes mentioned earlier, and the plethora of academics dominating them, is that—put in the vernacular—there be some serious networking going down out there.

In the intellectual community of professors, literary magazine editors, and the publishers and professionals ascended from their ranks, the temptation for mutual back scratching and a club-type atmosphere appears prevalent. So what does this lead to?

I am fond of an analogy I once cooked up in an attempt to explain to a friend how I had suffered the difficulties of breaking into the bewildering realm of published literature. It went something like this: It’s like being a black man in Selma, Alabama, in 1950, trying to get a membership to the all-white country club … brother it ain’t about the golf game!

If the modern short story is indeed a dying art form, the voice dying along with it is monopolized by a very narrow band of our population and culture. It is the voice of a large herd of academically trained writers nurtured in the green pastures of colleges and universities. The previously mentioned 2007 collection of the so-called best of American short stories, as far as my tastes are concerned, was a dull and wearisome reading experience. And in some cases the word irksome came to mind. It seemed much of the writing had been generated by variations on a single voice, with a cookie-cutter sameness, and if I randomly pasted together paragraphs, a reader would obviously notice changes in storyline or subject, but not experience much transformation in style. And in this way, regarding topic or plot, the differences may have varied in one sense and yet remained engendered by a narrow perspective on life. Among the golden boys and girls of academia, people who have spent years in the ivory towers of higher education, I wonder how many of them have actually experienced a broad spectrum of human life. Who among them has spent a decade or more working in a coal mine or oil refinery, worked years in a factory or on a farm, been in the military or fought in a war, known poverty, been stuck washing dishes, digging ditches, been a construction or postal worker, had trouble with the law, suffered drug addiction, walked on the dark side of life, crime, barroom brawls, hard drinking? How many among them have seen life from a perspective other than privileged? Of course there are exceptions, but I’m convinced that the general rule stands. When it comes to six or seven years, or perhaps longer, enrolled in expensive prestigious universities, there are not many who can afford the experience unless they’ve arrived from the ranks of the moneyed fortunate. Remember the Bob Dylan line from Like a Rolling Stone, when he said: “Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people … thinking that they got it made.” Truth is, they do.

One of the problems in our great country is that something like one percent of the population has about thirty-seven percent of the net wealth; we are no longer a government by and for the people, but a government by and for the rich. This creates imbalance, and in a parallel sense the same applies to literature, even beyond our discussion of the short story. Literature does not for the most part arise from the people, or their culture or mores in the largest sense; it is by and for the benefit of the privileged. That isn’t to say that pulp or popular fiction isn’t tailored to appeal to specific markets, of course it is, yet the deeper implication resides elsewhere. It has to do with promotion and marketing. Madison Avenue is built in part on the theory that a clever campaign can sell refrigerators to Eskimos.

I hearken back to the Sixties and the Beatles, who were a natural force that arose with the times. But because there was huge money to be mined from the cultural tides, it didn’t take long for ambitious promoters to create Beatle clones known as the Monkeys. Individually speaking, the four lads who donned Monkey costumes were lightweights, and none had even a micron of the sort of talent that fate and the muses had endowed John and Paul with, yet that didn’t hinder the process. Advertising in the purest sense is a proclamation of excellence, a comparison demonstrating the superiority of one product over another. Propaganda, on the other hand, is deliberate deception whose intention rests on the process of indoctrination. The frightening truth of this is that advertising has transformed into propaganda. I will come back to this detour later in the discussion.

When I examine the contributors’ notes of literary magazines and anthologies, and discover that the vast majority of the work is spawned by university academics, I must ask a question: Who are these people writing for other than themselves? Are working-class people and non-academics enthralled by the lives and antics of literary pretty people, enamored of their constricted perspectives on life?

I’m certainly not. Thus it seems the short story in many cases has undergone de-evolution, academics writing for other academics, busily wallowing in their assembly-line and technique driven notions about what constitutes a good story or good writing. And unfortunately these ambitious folks have a strangle hold on the literary scene that is devilishly proficient at excluding would-be interlopers. A bit like the country club in good ol’ Selma—we don’t want no coloreds on the golf course, unless they’re caddies, and we certainly don’t want them in the clubhouse.

If my working hypothesis is accurate, what remains is academic elitism dominating the arena of short-story publishing. No wonder the mortuary has already ordered the headstone. How could short fiction survive when it typically represents the mentality and temperament of such a small minority? Who among the vanishing middleclass or the growing working-class and poor folks wants to read about the life experiences and outlooks of professors and their protégés, and all the other insiders directly or indirectly associated? And even when some of these good folks attempt to don work shirts and blue jeans, which isn’t often, the writing comes off reeking of the very frame and fiber from which it was conceived: formulas, techniques, workshop writing-by-committee, formulas on how to be non-formulaic, thesaurus-inspired multisyllabic words and all the rest.

Should we dismiss the technical and formulated aspects of literature? Of course not, they date back to the early Greeks. But neither should we find ourselves in circumstances wherein one-sidedness and a literary totalitarianism of sorts speaks mostly of itself at the exclusion of the rest. There’s room and even some necessity for academically grown literature, yet when it becomes the mainstay, the rule and prevalent force, it invites a sterile and incestuous environment that leads to an unhealthy gene pool. To the sort of malformation and infirmity that besieges not only the short story but literature as a whole. Add to this the ever-expanding beast known as the corporate conglomeration, with widespread extinction of small and midsize enterprise, be it family farmers, the Mom & Pop stores, or independent businesses, and what we get is the corporate imaging of America. Which in my opinion is a tragic and dangerous trend.

America has become top heavy. The disparity between the rich and the rest of use is larger now than it was in 1929, just before the great stock market crash. Grave illness reflects itself in symptoms arising in the body’s various parts. The corporate takeover of America through its corruption of politics and its indoctrination of the people trickles down to even the individual body parts such as literature.

Does this directly indict the academic sect who dominates short fiction? No. But it points toward a trend that is a suggestion of the greater disease as it manifests itself in symptomatic deterioration.

Pointing out problems is usually easier than coming up with solutions, and I will admit I don’t have any pat answers about rescuing the short story or for that matter any other form of literature. One avenue of recourse is clear insomuch as purchasing power is a lot like voting. Millions of people voted for old G. W. and I wonder how many now regret those votes. Bush and his handlers promoted the Iraq war and pilfered the economy through propaganda, not truth.

There is a large contingent of what I call fringe or underground publishing going on in America, small literary magazines produced by rebellious and dedicated individuals who are offering up alternatives to corporate and academic literature. How do these fair? In some cases the fiction and/or poetry is not very good; in other cases it can be very good and for my tastes a hell of a lot better than the homogenized Styrofoam that oozes forth from the ranks of the literarily privileged.

A dollar spent is a vote cast. It’s a lot like politics. Are you sick to death of Washington insiders and all the political/corporate bull that’s destroying our great nation? Kick the bastards out, line ‘em up and horsewhip ‘em! Get their sleek muzzles out of the feeding trough. We demand better! And I believe with certainty that the same applies to literature in a parallel sense. If change is not demanded it ain’t going to happen … on that I’m pretty damn clear.



1 reply »

  1. Great article. I find the greatest short stories today are written by people who do not have a MFA, particularly bad are those who teach creative writing. The greatest writers are those folks who know how to drive a bulldozer, or work on a shrimp boat, or have been hurt, or bankrupt, or been in combat. You can not write great stories by just reading and studying the craft. Look at the life Raymond Carver lived!

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