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BLACKWELL ON WRITING: The Long and the Very Short of It

By Elise Blackwell

While the fortunes of full-length short-story collections have fallen (again), the short story itself thrives, particularly online, where shorter is better and even shorter is often even better.

When I was finishing graduate school, a common route to a fiction writing career was to work on 15- to-20-page short stories during the M.F.A. years, place a few in good journals, and then sell the collection as part of a two-book deal with the promise that the second book would be a novel that was already underway.  Across the intervening years, short story collections have ebbed and thrived, with death and rebirth declared in turn—and with novels almost always an easier sell.

This is largely perception, of course, and career storyists such as Alice Munro, Stuart Dybek, and Lydia Davis have published across market ups and downs. Yet perception is often reality for the young writers: During Dark Ages it’s hard to get an agent or editor to even look at a collection. Even writers solicited by an agent who saw one of their stories in a magazine are told “novels only.” Small and independent presses once provided a fair number of homes for single-authored collections, but these days few can afford the financial risk. For many as-yet-unpublished writers trying to place collections, the sole option is to enter contests with substantial entry fees and long odds.

The latest collection reanimation was just a few years ago, and the anecdotal picture looked rosy indeed. A short story collection won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 and in the couple of years before and after that strong (and well-reviewed) collections were published by a mix of masters and journeymen: Brad Watson’s Aliens in the Prime of their Lives, Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, Donald Ray Pollack’s Knock ‘Em Stiff, Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, Kevin Brockmeier’s The View from the Seventh Layer, and so on. Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned made a noticeable splash. There were also some great collections, some by debut authors, published in 2011. (At least one of these started life as an M.F.A. thesis; I know because I directed it when I taught at Boise State.)

Folks are still arguing about it, but my take is that this latest renaissance is ending—at least in the minds of the literary agents who might sell story collections and the editors who might buy them, which is who matters most to those hawking collections. Whether those happy few years represent a spike in a long-term downward trend or just another turn of the wheel will have to be answered by those with high-level data-analysis skills and access to accurate sales numbers.

Whatever the future of story collections, though, most young writers earn their first publishing credits with stories, often using these to establish a record that will help convince an agent or editor to take on their first book (be it collection or novel). And individual story publication is alive and well, supported in part by the journal subscriptions and contest entry fees of the many writers who write them.

This is true even of print publication, but it’s clear that the Internet makes it possible to reach more readers and often with substantially lower overhead. Those who might not sit down for several hours with a collection are often pleased to read a single story online or to subscribe to a story a week on their phone. While many long short stories are still published online (sometimes as printable PDF’s but often for screen reading), it’s no surprise that the digital shift favors short reads. The terrific online literary journal Five Chapters offers a full story a week—but doled out in five short installments every Monday through Friday.

Most notable has been an explosion in the publication of very short fiction. Anthologies of flash fiction have been around since at least the 1980s, but the self-proclaimed oldest magazine dedicated exclusively to flash fiction—Vestal Review—started up only in 2000. (A print publication with significant online content, it insists that each story it publishes have a cohesive plot—something absent in much flash fiction.) A decade later there were dozens, plus hundreds of online and print publications publishing at least some very brief fiction.

The short short story is usually defined as a story under 1,500 words, or under 1,000, and flash fiction as stories under 500 words. Often, though, the terms are used interchangeably. Sudden fiction is sometimes used as a synonym for flash fiction but at others used to describe the conditions of production: stories meant not only to be read quickly but that were also written quickly. Microfiction and postcard fiction tend to describe even shorter works. There are, for instance, contests for 50-word stories and a Web site devoted to stories that are exactly 55 words long. (And let’s not forget the Twitter story.)

Whatever the term, these short works range from prose poems to fully plotted narratives—and there are a lot of them online. Because the form lends itself easily to the punch line final sentence, because many aspiring writers assume it is easier to write short than long, and because it takes no great editorial expertise to launch an online journal, more than a few of them are dreadful. Many, though, are brilliant, delivering a sharp emotional, intellectual, or aesthetic blow.

Those interested in sampling some of the flash fiction out there should start with Wigleafs “Top 50,” a list that links to stories in a wide range of other sites publishing significant amounts of flash fiction. Among the very best is Smokelong Quarterly, which publishes short shorts by a mix of established and emerging writers, many with academic ties. They publish original artwork with each story as well as interviews with each author, treating flash fiction as a serious literary form.

For the young writer, having a story posted online is likely not as satisfying (and certainly not as career  furthering) as holding a bound collection of her stories in her hands, so I hope I’m wrong about the near-term prospects of collections and that editors will continue to publish them when they find stories they love. But I’m glad to observe that the story itself is alive and well as a form.

 

The author of four novels, Elise Blackwell directs the M.F.A. program at the University of South Carolina.

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