The Disappearing Short Story

People don’t read as much as they used. Jordan Barber observes the downfall of the short story–an underrated medium that should thrive in our busy lifestyle but remains largely ignored.

The short story genre is in a bit of a crisis. I’m talking about the much-documented decline of its popularity over the past 50 years. This plunge is multifaceted: short stories are now unprofitable, infrequently published, and unpopular with the general public. At one point in time, magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly prominently featured short stories, often serving as a platform for future authorial success. The 1952 issue of Life magazine that contained the first publication of The Old Man and the Sea sold 5.3 million copies.

As Ann Patchett notes in The Best American Short Stories 2006, “The short story is in need of a scandal.” I doubt a short story or novella could possibly create such as stir now as Hemingway’s novella did 50-some years ago, but it’s not like the production of short stories has diminished. If anything, it has increased. With the advent of the internet, there are new ways to publicize the medium, many of them free. More short stories at a lower cost. So what gives? If I give a fat kid more Twinkies, he should eat more of them, right?

Maybe. Or maybe that fat kid got on Atkins. Maybe he’s moved on. Maybe Twinkies and short stories are vintage artifacts.

The argument that modernity has sapped our literary intelligence is probably valid here: TV,YouTube, and videogames are all entertainment replacements for the short story. I read somewhere (and I’m sorry to say I cannot recall where) that most inventions today are entertainment-based. Even if I can’t fall back on statistics, the success of the iPod ought to be compelling enough evidence. There’s more stuff competing with traditional forms of entertainment. The short story has fallen to the back of the line.

Short stories, if widely read, would reinforce themselves as factors of association. Like the way we excitedly recite lyrics when we hear songs we know, reading the same literature as someone else is enriching and satisfying. If more people read short stories, the genre would reemerge as a potent medium, in the same way alternative music has created a cohesive culture centered on a shared auditory experience. But in reality, short stories have exhibited the opposite behavior, a crumbling associational relationship. Fewer people read them, which makes fewer people want to read them because they have no one to share the story with. There’s no common experience.

This is all too unfortunate, because I think Americans could use short stories more than ever now. Political scientist Robert Putnam argues in his book Bowling Alone that we’ve become a society trending towards isolation, and that “we Americans need to reconnect with one another.” It seems that short stories have fallen victim to the same movement. It would be a breath of fresh air to be able to recite similar lines of poetry. Not for the sake of pompousness, but rather for a confirmation of affiliation. It seems silly that literary activity has been shoved into classrooms, especially because short stories are typically about a single, ordinary feeling or event.

Whether we know it or not, we now have so much time on our hands to read a short story. They can be read while waiting for the meatloaf to bake or while waiting in the doctor’s office. As Ann Patchett notes, “They are just the right size for reading between rounds of golf.” We think of short stories as a solitary experience–and indeed they are–but our interpretation shouldn’t be. It should be a joint practice. We can share it together. Sadly, the closest thing today might be reciting lines of Family Guy amongst each other.

It’s possible that people confront short stories in the same way that they confront novels: with horrendous fear of authorial purpose that frightens timid readers away. I don’t think short stories convey that same sense of terrifying importance. One of my favorite short stories is “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” by Flannery O’Connor. It’s about two silly girls who like to mock God and are curious about freak shows. There’s a lot to it, but you could just read it like that. The opening line goes like this:

All weekend the two girls were calling each other Temple One and Temple Two, shaking with laughter and getting so red and hot that they were positively ugly, particularly Joanna who had spots on her face anyway.

Isn’t that funny? I guess the Temple joke won’t make sense until you read the rest of it. If you knew the rest of the story, then it’d be funnier. Then we could talk about how funny it is.

Jordan Barber is proud that the internet allows him to criticize, admonish, and irritate people from his own living room. And though this immense power only comes to the few, he promises to wield his hammer of judgment with a standoffish, thoughtful outlook.