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Friday, February 29, 2008

Has Short Fiction Gone the Way of the Old Fashioned Movie Star?

One commenter on LROD has suggested the following: "short fiction stopped speaking for a wide audience in the 60s and 70s as postmodern and meta-fiction writers carved smaller and smaller niches in the genre." Something about this comment struck me as undeniably true. And yet also incredibly sad. Another anonymous commenter agreed and added the following thought: "The same change that made Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and Doris Day all fade out. The same change that killed the tiki bar and cocktail lounges and dining out in fine attire. The same change that threw out everything traditional, ie the counterculture.The baby boomers embraced it, academia thrived off it .... but nobody wanted post-modern meta-fiction in their Cosmo, and the old fashions and styles were suddenly unhip and marginalized.Marginalized, unhip.... but not dead."

What about short stories existing in the form of collected works or as linked narratives in a collection? Do these still count as stories? Or just last gasp rarities as the genre dies? Let's discuss.


Steve said...

Unless you credit meta-fiction and post-modern story writers with the invention and propagation of mass-media--i.e. radio, tv, movies and internet(s)-- I think you're going to have a hard time sticking them with the killing of literary short stories.

In fact, these forms of story writing (the post-modern, which I utterly me old-fashioned) are more likely a *response* to a loss of audience.

Consider it from an ecological standpoint--as when a species is about to go extinct. In the process of adapting to an environmental disruption or change, you see a lot of weird variations in form.

Anonymous said...

They changed the mores, the audience left.

A whole generation has grown up without literature.

Writer's Digest still sells a Novelist's and Short Story Market handbook, but read the listings. Pays two copies on acceptance. Pays three to five cents a word, Pays $10 a page, come on. Nobody in the world can make it a profession to sell stories to those markets they list. Not even F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Anonymous said...

first, i'm going to respectfully disagree with steve above (since i'm the one who made the post-modern and meta-fiction comment in the first place).

i agree that the rise of mass media coincided with the decline of the short story as a widely read form. but i think that post-modernism and meta-fiction did not come as a response to that, but were part of the trend in arts to micro-conceptualize: look at the visual arts, symphonic composition, dance, and even architecture. you had artists whose main audience was other artists. and if it wasn't "new," it wasn't worth doing -- thus, modern audiences generally hating modern symphonic music (elliot carter, anyone?) because it sounds awful to an untrained ear.

ditto for fiction. a celebrated story like john barth's "life story" is a meditation on writing for other writers. a mass public can only read so much of that.

that said, there are tons of great writers who traffic in traditional narrative forms who aren't getting their short stories read. i can say from person experience that if you can link a collection of short stories around a common theme, the chances of getting that published rise exponentially. vincent lam's "bloodletting & miraculous cures" a recent example.

in other words, if you can package stories as a proto-novel, you have a much bigger chance of selling a lot of copies.

sorry about the long post. this is a fab site.

Anonymous said...

LROD, I would say, "Yes!!"

I can't even remember the last time I read a "new" short story that could be placed into the same class (figuratively and literally) as your movie stars example. It would be considered hopelessly out of touch. Too highfalutin. Tuxedos are out, t-shirts are in. Yet. Those old stories appeal to me more than these new ones.

But to get to your point, I would have to say yes and agree that "marginalized" is the word. Writers have to do more and more work to reach a smaller and smaller audience. If you look around the audience is composed only of other writers (and their teachers).

When was the last time everyone at the office had seen or heard about the same short story??? You'd be lucky if they all had heard of the same author.

rmellis said...

I agree with Steve. Meta fiction -- and literary fiction of other kinds -- came along in order to do something TV, radio, and movies couldn't do.

That Saturday Evening Post audience -- do you really think they'd pick up that magazine and read those stories NOW? No, they wouldn't. TV tells those particular kinds of stories much more appealingly.

Literature has had to go beyond the simple twenty-minute tale with charm and humor and a nice tidy ending.

But you know... if a reader likes those stories, she can just go to the library and read back issues. We can also rent Casablanca. But why keep doing that same old thing? Why not try something new?

Anonymous said...

"Do you really think they'd pick up that magazine and read those stories NOW? No, they wouldn't."

Might want to write to Scribners and tell them to take those books out of print since nobody reads them.

"TV tells those particular kinds of stories much more appealingly."

Hmm. I know that "Hills Like White Elephants" and several Hemingway stories were adapted to TV. PBS ran a Thomas Wolfe adaptation once in the '70s. A Fitzgerald story is now a 2008 movie. TV (and Hollywood) have done Poe, Chekov, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Marquand, O'Hara, James Jones, and so on, so... ah but wait, all of these were published as stories first. (Not to get on a tangent, but when was the last film or TV show whose story was bought from a short story in a tiny modern literary journal?)

Ok nevermind. Can you suggest any TV shows/episodes that I should be looking at? That tell the kind of stories we've been talking about? That capture, for instance, those fantastic descriptions and emotional states in "The Camel's Back" and that will allow me to write sentences such as "Behind them formed the procession of little boys, little girls, country jakes, fat ladies, thin men, sword-swallowers, wild men of Borneo, and armless wonders, many of them well in their cups, all of them excited and happy and dazzled by the flow of light and color round them, and by the familiar faces, strangely unfamiliar under bizarre wigs and barbaric paint"?

I know that TV writing pays well. If what you say is true, it's time for a career change. And I will gladly do it. I will step away from writing short stories and focus my talents on writing for TV, if that's really where I ought to go.

"Literature has had to go beyond the simple twenty-minute tale with charm and humor and a nice tidy ending."

Yeah, I hear a lot of that nowadays. Literature is now too good for Fitzgerald, or any of these other pre-counterculture writers we're talking about here. That repulses me. I'm with those writers and I love that charm and that's the kind of thing I want to write. And I think this would be a better world, a much more civilized place to be, if more of that kind of writing were encouraged and made generally available.

"But you know... if a reader likes those stories, she can just go to the library and read back issues. We can also rent Casablanca."

Keep it in the dusty old archives, be "free" to go look if you want to be a weirdo, but whatever you do don't ever think of trying to start a revival?

"But why keep doing that same old thing? Why not try something new?"

Nobody has done this for over forty years. Almost half a century. It's as new as anything. Newer, actually. A Counter-Revolution.

I think the point of this whole debate is that by rejecting all this unreadable, unpopular pomo stuff and going back to tradition, to the classical canon, to writing stories that are nice and smart and charming and instructive, we are trying something new.

Anonymous said...

short fiction does not have much of an influence in the world. yes, it used to. no, it wasn't killed by television. something else is at play, more subtle. it's more to do with a change in people. as to what the answer is, i can't tell you.

rmellis said...

I see our difficulty here: "nice and smart and charming and instructive." I like smart, and can get with charming once in a while, but the last thing art should ever be is "nice" and "instructive."

Check out the "classical canon" whatever you mean by that. It ain't nice and instructive, either.

Oh, you know what is? Sit coms! A lesson and a hug, there you go.

Anonymous said...

Remember the Jolly Roger people? This goes back to the early McSweeney's, the pre-blog web. IIRC, they were after something similar. I don't know what became of it, besides their sites which apparently stil get huge amounts of traffic (from kids doing school reports?). Might want to hook up with them.

Anonymous said...

Nothing much to say but ... this is all really mind blowing.

Anonymous said...

I came across your blog this weekend and I have read the debate.

First of all, I believe some congratulations are in order. It is no small feat to get a media giant such as Esquire Magazine to ponder its ways and then abruptly change as quickly as they appear to have done. It was nice to read "The Crack-Up" again. Haven't thought much of that essay since I was an undergrad.

I have been pondering this debate all weekend. I read this post and the original manifesto you wrote and I have to say that it all rings very true to me. I think the comparison to the old fashion movie star is quite apt.

I hope you disenchanted writers stay as charming (and full of passion) as you are now. Believe me, I know first hand what happens to young people who want to make writing a career, and I agree that fiction has become tired and obscure. So have the magazines that ignore fiction. But, I believe that good hearted people can change the world. There is a lot in the world today, if you ask me, that has gone haywire. Ugliness abounds. A stark contrast to the grace and charm of Grant and Hepburn! I, for one, applaud any efforts to change this. I hope you do it.

Anonymous said...

The comments are as good as the entry for this one.

It sounds like a lot of writers are very disenchanted and they have no place to vent.

You know what happens when you have a lot of people like that and they get together? Trouble for the boat because it will start rocking and eventually tip over.

I like the way a few commentators defend the status quo. Thaose arguments won't hold up under duress, I'm afraid.

The short story is dead and it truly sounds like some people are desperately trying to get something new (old? :) in front of a vast audience. This will seriously piss some people off. I love it.

I'm well over with the literary submissions game, but this is quite an entertaining blog.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Wow, and Wow.

I am really digging this idea of "fiction is a relic of the past." It seems so true when you think of it! I was just thinking that literary journals cater to education, to the schools, and that is the sign of a dead art. Journals aren't for people, they're for college classes! That's what separates then and now. I think today the whole idea of "popular literature" is basically extinct.

Face it, none of the literary heroes today have the same stance or charisma or just presence as the Greats. Even as the "recent" greats such as say Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, cited in your manifesto. What poet of recent decades is as smart (and commanding, and iconic) as Allen Ginsberg? Heck, what writers make as much a scene as Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney?

I don't know the answer, but I admit you have a strong premise.