Short Stories Are Out of Style
- By Tara Laskowski
- April 22, 2019
Did you get the memo?
“If your tastes skew more toward fiction, consider short stories. While there aren’t many modern writers who do more than dabble with the form, lots of the greats of the last century wrote a ridiculous number.”
Oh, how I wish I lived in the Golden Age where this long-gone artform called the “short story” existed! Oh, how wonderful it would be to see great writers take this art seriously, to maybe even compile their stories into books that could be printed and read one after the other!
It was terribly difficult recently when I was talking to my 7-year-old son about writing, and I said, “The short story is succinct and tantalizing.” He looked at me in confusion, as though about to burst into a torrent of frustrated tears, and said, in a sweet but panicked voice, “Mommy, I don’t understand those words. What is a ‘short story’?”
I had to explain to him that many, many, many years ago, before our time, there were writers who wrote stories that were short, sometimes only a few pages. And that, sadly, no one did that anymore, except in rare instances where they got very drunk, found themselves in a room with no windows for a very long period, and messed around just to pass the time.
It’s sad to think today of poor, misguided Kelly Link, who has wasted so much of her life publishing three short-story collections and editing even more story anthologies. Surely it was just a gesture of pity that the MacArthur Foundation threw a fellowship (aka “Genius” Grant) her way to make her feel better about trying to revitalize such an antiquated writing technique. Or Nafissa Thompson-Spires, whose collection Heads of the Colored People just won the PEN/Open Book Award.
It’s a shame that Carmen Maria Machado wasted her time dabbling with stories for her 2017 book, Her Body and Other Parties, because it only won her the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, the Bard Fiction Prize, the American Booksellers Association's Indies Choice Book Awards, the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association's Book of the Year, the Brooklyn Public Library Literature Prize, the Bisexual Book Award for Fiction, and the Crawford Award. But not a Pulitzer.
And, please, let’s not mention writers like Joyce Carol Oates, Stuart Dybek, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Lauren Groff, and Elizabeth Strout, who have all found success with short-story collections and awards. (SHH! If you start spreading that word, we might have LEGIONS of writers sign up for MFA programs and start writing stories of their own.)
And the writers who DO bother to waste their time dabbling with these silly things never get paid anything for them, either. Just ask Kristen Roupenian, whose New Yorker story, “Cat Person,” went viral for only a few days, and when she landed a book deal because of that, it was only for seven figures. Had she written it in the more common “novel” form, would it have gotten eight figures? We can only speculate — and pity her that loss.
I’ve wasted my time for the last nine years editing a flash-fiction journal, publishing stories that are 1,000 words or fewer. Honestly, you could sneeze and produce something more valuable than that. When the New York Times article I quoted above was brought to our attention, our editorial staff was astonished to discover that, many years ago, writers took what we do every day MUCH more seriously.
“Did you see?” asked our submissions editor, Virgie Townsend. “Nobody writes short stories anymore!”
“I bet there are still one or two living in caves somewhere,” said my co-editor, Christopher Allen. “We will find scrolls.”
“Maybe they can explain to us the obsolete techniques of these teeny, tiny things that are NEITHER POETRY NOR NOVELS,” added Helen Rye, who only won a measly £1,000 in the Bath Flash Fiction Award for one of her “dabbly” short stories. “If you can imagine such a thing.”
So, should you come across one of these archaic “short stories” when trying to find something to read, take a deep breath. Examine it for its novelty. Take your time with it, relish in the words and the description. Maybe even enjoy it.
Because it might not be around forever.
Tara Laskowski is the author of two (gasp!) short-story collections, Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons and Bystanders, the latter of which won the Balcones Fiction Prize. Despite the fact that her debut novel, One Night Gone, is releasing in October 2019, she believes the short story is still very much a thriving, plentiful artform. Find her on Twitter at @TaraLWrites.