Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

The untimely death of the short story

There are certain questions that refuse to go away, questions like: But why do you love me? Do aliens really exist? Did you just fart? and Is the short story dead?

There does seem to be a growing attitude that the short story is something an author moves through – a step up from the angst-ridden poems of their plooky youth – on their way to churning out the next great British/American/(enter your own country here) novel.

I wrote two-and-a-bit novels before I started on short stories – they’re hard. I’m reminded of the time I first started programming. I had a ZX Spectrum and, even with the expansion pack, you only had 48K to work with but it’s amazing what you can do when you have to. Nowadays we have memory up the kazoo: get it done and out into the marketplace. One wonders if J K Rowling’s massive tomes are a kind of literary bloatwear, not that I have anything against my fellow Scot even if she is an ‘Edinbugger’. (Cultural note: there is no love lost between ‘Weegies’ (Glaswegians) and Edinburghers (residents of Edinburgh)).

My wife reminded me of a quote by Blaise Pascal which translates, “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.” Winston Churchill similarly said, "If you want me to speak all day, I’ll begin right now. If you want me to speak for twenty minutes, it will take me a week to prepare."

I blame the marketers and their damn demographics. If you're a 'name' like Jeanette Winterson (whose short story collection, The World and Other Places, I’ve just finished re-reading) you can get away with it because it's now her name that sells the book, a bit like Picasso signing a napkin that transmogrifies into art. Besides, it's a bone to toss her fans which will still make a few quid/bucks/(enter your own country's currency here).

I own quite a few short story collections and I actively seek them out in second-hand bookshops. Maybe the short story is dead as a moneymaking literary form, but I doubt it will lie down and take it. Let’s face it, in 1992 it gave birth to a whole new form: flash fiction, at least in name. The 1997 translation of Thomas Bernhard’s, The Voice Imitator (albeit written in 1978), is a fine example – 104 stories in 104 pages – though you should also check out Margaret Atwood’s, Murder in the Dark, from 1994.

Neither, I’m afraid, has anything to top this gem by Richard Brautigan:

The Scarlatti Tilt

"It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin." That's what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver. (from The Revenge of the Lawn)

Fashions come and go. Poetry didn’t die with Byron. The Chinese poet Gu Cheng was being mobbed by fans at his readings in the 1980s. The same was true of Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. When he returned to Poland in 1981, he was mobbed by literally thousands of well-wishers, and a 150,000 volume run of his poems sold out almost overnight. And, of course, there’s Leonard Cohen – it’s easy to forget the fuss that was made over the young Canadian back in the sixties before he became even more famous for his song-writing.

Then again who would have believed a few years ago that films about pirates and very, very long books about wizards would sell, let alone rake in a profit? All we need is a figurehead, someone who can write and digs his or her heels in. One wonders how the short story would be viewed today if that’s all Ian McEwan had kept handing over to his agent?

Log on to, type in "short stories" and you’ll see that there are still loads of places out there still interested in the form. It’s not all about money.


r.t. said...

if you want to (1) be read and (2) be paid, the short story is dead

Jim Murdoch said...

Interesting site R.T. Thanks for dropping by.

zenartnothing said...

Thanks for the quotes...reminds me of many emails I have written.

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