‘Like the Song’

One million or more short story readers can’t be wrong.

According to Paul Vidich, cofounder and publisher of Storyville, there are between 500,000 and 1.5 million American adults who are “frequent readers of short stories.”

You can read about how Vidich comes to this number in this piece in The Millions, “Publish or Perish: The Short Story.”

Vidich argues that short story writing is alive and well today, noting that some 2 million American adults (annually?) publish creative writing, and there are 150,000 creative writing MFA students who have graduated in the last 20 years — “all of whom learn to write and read short stories.”

But, he argues, at the same time:

Short story reading has declined. With few exceptions (The New Yorker is one), mass circulation general interest magazines no longer publish short stories. And, editors and agents blanche at the prospect of debut story collections, and often publish an author’s collection only with the promise of a follow-on novel. The popular wisdom – and commercial reality – is that story collections don’t sell

(See my blog post: “Keep it Short“)
What gives? Vidich attributes the decline to the decline in mass market magazine readership.

Magazines’ sales decline began in during the 1960s when consumers shifted their entertainment and news interest to television, but the decline recently accelerated with the explosive growth of online and mobile real-time access to news and information. The story, which was popularized by new printing and distribution technologies, has slowly become a victim of the displacement of those technologies.

He concludes that web connected devices like iPad and iPhone can help bring the short story back as a well-read art form. I hope he’s right. Says Vidich:

Like the song, the short story is perfectly suited for mobile consumption. The iPhone and iPad and other tablets are with their owner all the time, and a story on these devices can be read on a treadmill, in a bank line, on an airplane, wherever the user has a few minutes and wants to be transported to the magical place stories can create.

Keep It Short

Why is it that short stories, and short story collections, are not as popular as novels, memoirs, creative nonfiction, or just about any other writing form?

This may be an odd first topic for a debut short story writer to address in his first blog post. But it’s something I’ve given a great deal of thought. I mean, even before the advent of Twitter, this was short attention span nation, right? Wouldn’t people flock to a form that can be read, start to finish, at one sitting? On a bus, or a subway, or waiting in an airport security line?

I should confess off the top that my evidence for the unpopularity of short stories is anecdotal. Publishers have told me that selling just a few thousand copies of a short story collection would by most standards be considered excellent. Every literary agent I’ve ever met has told me that short story collections don’t sell. It’s great that you’re writing stories, they say, over and over, but have you written a novel?

I’ll address how I came to write short stories in another post. For now, I’ll just say that after awhile, this line of inquiry gets exasperating. So much so that in one meeting, when the umpteenth agent asked if I was working on a novel, I said yes, as a matter of fact I was – and promptly made one up, on the spot. Continue reading