Does anyone read short stories anymore?
This is a question many new writers have to deal with these days.
The paid markets for short stories, while never large, has been dwindling steadily since the 1950s. Pretty much at the same time that TV took hold of the public imagination.
The hour we spend watching a TV show is about the same time we used to take reading a short story in a magazine or book. But for the majority of us, TV shows are much more compelling - what with all those visuals - and I would hazard that even most writers prefer watching a good TV show to sitting in silence consuming a short story, no matter how great it might be.
The real question is, if there's no real demand for written short stories anymore, why should writers continue to write them?
My old English teacher had a simple answer: it's how writers learn to write novels.
Even today, the demand for new novels is steady. It's never really dwindled since its 'invention' as a popular art form over 150 years ago. Yes, there were long written works before that, but the novel - as an illustrative mechanism for examining the human condition from an individual point of view - is a fairly modern invention. But it is one that continues to hold a fascination to many readers.
My English teacher - Mr Plowright was his name - also had another theory.
That short stories are actually much harder to write than novels. Because of the discipline involved. The need for succinctness and clarity - and most of all, the sense of symmetry necessary for a good short story to work.
You see, short stories are not mere pieces of prose that end after, say, 5000 words. The short story needs more. Theme, premise, form, moral, point - any and all of these things need to be incorporated into a short story in order for it work successfully.
The writer needs to be able to figuratively take a 'snapshot' of life - usually one that has profound significance or at least speculative value - and show that snapshot without too much rhetoric, exposition or distraction.
And ironically, it's writing novels that makes writing short stories a little easier.
To me, this is why 'big name' writers get their short works published more often than new writers. Not simply because the editor needs a big name of the cover to sell the magazine or compilation - though that must be a consideration of course. But more because long time writers and novelists tend to understand the short story genre better than their aspiring peers.
So. Why do I write short stories?
For three main reasons.
1. As a way to get to get my name out there.
Although the marketplace for short stories is small, it's filled with lovers of fiction writing, in almost all genres. Editors in this field are often supportive of new writers. Plus, they can also be influential and have important contacts in the literary world.
2. The short story is a great way to hone your skills as a writer.
Many new writers get stuck editing their novels - to the extent that they may never finish them. Editing and polishing a short story, while no less taxing, is at least a shorter term activity. Cutting down and rewriting a short story to perfection is a very good learning experience for any writer who takes their work seriously.
3. It's fun.
Creating an entire world of characters and scenarios with a 'point' feels great - especially when the first flush of creativity hits you. I usually take about a week over writing the first draft of a short story - and that week can feel like a magical adventure into the unknown. Editing and polishing that story may take years. But that's another boon. You can keep perfecting a short story over time - to get exactly the feel you want for it.
Short stories will always have a special place in my heart.
Certain authors have proved to me that the short story is a worthy art form. Writers like Somerset Maugham, Philip K Dick, Stephen King, MR James, Ray Bradbury, even Jonathan and Faye Kellerman appear to have an innate understanding of the short fiction form that, to me, transcends time, art and fashion.
To some, the short story is dead.
But I say: long live the short story!