The Rise of Short Stories

Pause and Reflect On Short Stories

by V. Jolene Miller

In today’s hectic world, few things give time for pause and reflection. Though some might say tragedy, illness, and new love are reason enough, dare I suggest, short stories make it on that list? 

Many believe short stories are on the rise because of a reduced attention span. In a world of social media scrolling and information bombarding us at a high speed, why wouldn’t something short and sweet hit the spot as delightfully as an ice cream sundae on a hot summer day? After all, we can TiVo our favorite television shows to watch whenever we have spare time and, in the process, fast forward the commercials so that an hour long episode is easily pared down to fourteen point six minutes, leaving us breathless and satiated before we move on to the next activity. 

In Brandon Taylor’s December 16, 2017 LitHub article titled “Against the Attention Economy: Short Stories Are Not Quick Literary Fixes”, I agree with his sentiment: 

“ … I take exception to the idea of a short story as a kind of quick read. I read books of stories slowly, because each story requires a different negotiation. You can’t get all of a story on a single pass.”

For me, this has proved true in all my short story reading endeavors. It was true when I read Jo-Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth, Amy Hempel’s Tumble Home, Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking, and Ron Carlson’s A Kind of Flying. In fact, I have yet to read a collection of short stories and find Taylor’s sentiment to be untrue. 

So which is it? Short attention spans require short stories over novels and other long literary works? Or do we, in this period of fast paced living, require short stories to allow us to pause and soak up the storyline?

The elements of a short story, much less a collection of them, are magical in a sense. Stripped away are the purple prose of longer pieces. Gone are the switchbacks of the novel where multiple characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, might frolic in intricate twists and turns. Replaced instead with succinctness that comes with the selection of the utmost perfect verb, noun, and piece of punctuation. Metaphors and allegories balance and contend with one another, each a whipsaw to the crux of the story. 

Still the question remains. Is the short story coming back? Rising to the top? Outdoing its archrival the novel? And if so, why? If the start of this literary trend took place back in 2013 when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in literature for her collection, Dear Life, what’s helped short fiction stay on the upward curve? Even if the so-called shortened attention span is partly to blame, is there more to it than that?

Low residency MFA programs have cropped up across the country over the last few decades as literary artists enroll in order to enrich their creative skillset amid the rigors of adulting. Have kids? A career? A partner? But still have a desire to be the next J.K. Rowling, Amy Tan, or Kristin Hannah? Or perhaps you’re interested in the YA market and have your sights set on becoming the next Jodi Piccoult? Though there’s still a great debate as to whether you need an MFA or just a whole bucket of luck and a serious work ethic (and perhaps a napkin?), MFA programs are competitive and compelling as they strain to scoop up the best and brightest literary potentials. 

There, among the scholarly and creative geniuses, students cut their teeth on reading outside their genre, rubbing elbows with some of the great literary icons, and writing short stories. It’s where, I, at forty, was introduced to Gloria Naylor and Ernest Hemingway after decades of reading commercial fiction and staunchly refusing to immerse myself in short stories because, in my mind, it just wasn’t possible to cram a beginning, middle, and end into so few pages. How, exactly, was it possible for a “quick read” to let me escape from life’s reality? Could I begin to sink into a fantasyland rich with characters, plot twists, and thought provoking verbiage contained in less than two hundred pages? How? I wasn’t sure. Yet they were there, weaving their storylines and using eloquent phrasing in The Women of Brewster Place and “Hills Like White Elephants”, leaving me better for the experience and hanging still on the thoughtful word choice long after Mattie Michael and Etta Mae Johnson were gone and long after that train left the station in Spain. 

They got under my skin, those short stories. Burrowed their way into my bloodstream and, like an addict, left me craving more. I was (am) haunted by the characters, their tales. And like a good MFA student, I took my shiny new degree and collection of award winning linked short stories and headed down the literary road in search of publication. My stops along the way? Traditional publishers and literary agents. 

It was at their doorsteps that I pitched and queried, lobbying for their stamp of approval on my collection. Rejections followed. Some with constructive criticism, all with apologetic well wishes. In the end, my goal of traditional publication was thwarted despite my education and literary journey, and I resorted to the (somewhat) taboo path of self publication. It was there among other wordsmith hopefuls that I found my place. My niche setting that both welcomed me and allowed me to be myself without regard to my trad-publication foibles. It’s where I unearthed a hidden gem of information about short stories and those self-published authors. 

The self-published have taken the book world by storm. Identifying as independent authors, these bookish enthusiasts are educating themselves on the gamut of getting the written word into the hands of potential readers. Everything from writing, editing, cover design, and marketing, indie authors are on the rise. One of their stepping stones? The short story. 

Perhaps they’ve entered a flash fiction contest (and won) or dabbled in writing a novelette after receiving resources like a subscription to Poets & Writers Magazine or a copy of James Scott Bell’s book How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career from supportive friends and family. Then, like any well intentioned student, the indie author applies the knowledge gleaned, summons up whatever courage she’s been blessed or born with, and hits ‘submit’. 

Not on an entry form or a magazine submission portal. Not on the email button for some notable literary agent; but on her own work via an avenue like KDP or Draft2Digital, two of the giants in the self-publishing industry. Just like that, her short solo or collection of themed short stories is real. No longer a hope or a wish, no longer a pipe dream waiting for the approval of someone else. Instead, she’s decided it’s good enough for the eyes of the world. 

Now that she’s out there, no matter how small the corner she stands on, this newly minted author has to garner followers and somehow tow the line of her new endeavor. After all, she might just have a novel in her blood waiting to bleed onto a handful of blank pages. Through a flurry of self-teaching, writers groups, and blogs about writing, she finds her way to venues such as BookFunnel and MailChimp where she learns about a new term: reader magnet. 

She polishes those short stories she’s crafted and as time allows, while chipping away at that behemoth of a novel, she writes a few more. In her MailChimp newsletter, she offers a single short story in her welcome letter. On BookFunnel, she offers her short story collection for a song as a teaser to her upcoming release. In between chapters, she puts together another dozen short stories, perhaps releases a novella. Her novel may not be ready yet. She may not be able to quit her day job. But she’s out there, putting pen to paper, and jotting down the lives of characters who live inside her. 

Are short stories a rising trend? Have Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway paved the way for the indie author? Or are people so caught up in quick reads that fit neatly into their busy schedules that lengthier tombs are relegated to the past, when times were simpler and books were created for leisure reading on the back deck with the sun beating down on you? 

The only way to truly answer this question is to crack open a collection and decide for yourself. Pick up a copy of The Best Short Story Collection of 2019, or The Moths and Other Stories by Helena Maria Veramontes, or continue reading in this edition of Shelf Unbound to learn about some debut indie authors who’ve recently published their own collections of short stories. Then, ask yourself, are short stories on the rise or a cherished, secret gem that requires unearthing by the most curious of readers?

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Article originally Published in the February/March 2020 Issue “Short Stories”

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