Before I go on about short stories, I should tell you I’m a proud product of the internet age. The truth is I’ve never done serious work as a writer without having one foot rooted in a digital space. You should know this at the outset, because context is crucial. I want you to understand where I come from, and understand the internet is as much a part of my life, and the literary work that stems from my life, as the language I speak or the life circumstances that shaped me.
Now I’m well aware there was a literary landscape that predates the internet, a big wide world I never had the chance to experience as a writer. If I’m being honest, it seems like it must’ve been a pretty difficult landscape to traverse. Maybe I’m just spoiled by search engines and social media, but when I imagine trying to network and get writing published without the internet to assist me, I nearly break into a panicked sweat. It’s simply an alien world to me, one that was perhaps a bit quieter, but also with far less open doors. It was also a space in which the short story was a more prominent feature of the landscape, and in my opinion the mode has declined as we shifted away from it, into a post-internet age.
Obviously short stories still exist. They’re being written all the time, and written well. The market is there, and it remains a relatively large one. My point is simply that this market is not what it once was. As such, publishing opportunities for writers operating in that mode have become smaller as well. And I’d say to some degree that the interest of readers has followed suit. It seems to me to have become a slightly niche space, one that I feel will only become more niche as readers grow more comfortable experiencing texts through screens and the internet. Ultimately, I believe less people are reading short stories today because we have taught ourselves to read differently.
The strongest evidence of this would be the huge rise in flash fiction and prose poetry over the last ten years or so. There has always been a bit of confusion about where the flash fiction mode ends and the short story begins. My preferred definition of flash fiction is “a piece of prose approximating a thousand words or less in length,” and I have found the submission guidelines to most of the lit mags I keep up with favor a similar word or page count. Meaning that by and large lit mags are skewing more towards flash fiction over longer, more traditional short stories.
This might be a false conclusion drawn from the fact that I’m looking almost exclusively at online publications. But the fact remains that the majority of today’s publishing opportunities exist first and foremost on the internet. Most exist without any print component at all. And when it comes to writing online, the rule seems to be: the shorter the better.
As you work, imagine “tl;dr” plastered in neon across the sky.
But is this trend towards brevity really a surprise? If the majority of contemporary lit mags exist in a predominantly online context, then they exist in a bustling, online ecosystem, one in which they find themselves in constant struggle for their readers’ attention; not just against every other lit mag with a working url, but the entire internet at large.
An example: as I sit here writing this essay I have nineteen different tabs open on my browser. Two of those tabs, coincidentally, are open to literary magazines. The other seventeen run the gamut from news to social media to two different wikipedia articles and the shopping cart of an online retailer. I’m telling you this so you understand that literature no longer exists in a vacuum. It is no longer contained exclusively between covers of a book you open and close, but rather one window of many, which you skip between at will. It is still art, yes. It is beautiful and important, without question. But literature is also a form of information. It is words and ideas, but through the internet, it is also bits and bytes. Ones and zeros. It is electricity flowing from our fingers up to our eyes and tumbling backward to our brains. And when we find ourselves in such a context, flitting so easily between multiple competing streams of information, we can’t help but seek out texts that accommodate this heightened movement. The words must come lighter, faster. They beg to be made weightless. As such, we see the subsequent blossoming of online poetry circles, the dawning of an era of flash fiction, writing trends that lead away from longer short fiction. And I believe it has been this gradual shift, our slide into an increasingly digital sphere, which has made it difficult for the short story to find footing in the midst of such noise.
I don’t want you to think I’m saying there is no longer a place in the world for larger texts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every day there are people, myself included, who love to curl up with a good book; to disconnect from the world, the constant prodding of the internet, tune out all updates and notifications, and simply sit in silence with a text. Traditional short stories are a vital part of that. This can be seen in the popularity of novel-sized story collections by a single author, one of many ways in which traditional short story form is being repurposed. In fact, I’d say that the most common way to experience short stories is through such anthologies. I’ve read at least four in the past few months, and enjoyed each one.
There are also sites like Medium, and other social media based publishing platforms, where a clean, device friendly presentation, and the inclusion of an estimated reading time in the by line allow the reader to enjoy longer texts with less prodding from their attention span.
There are publishers like sci-fi juggernaut Tor.com, who have begun publishing individual short stories from their magazine in the Amazon Kindle store.
Finally there are magazines like One Story, who, as their name suggests, publishes only one story per issue. They do so once every three weeks, releasing both digitally and in print. The presentation is simple and effective, a bound text that fits in a plain white envelope to be mailed to the recipient. It sits nicely in the hand, and does not demand too much time of the reader’s time. Consistently delivering only one story at a time ensures the work is strong, and is not so much that it overwhelms the reader. One Story has found an ingenious way to honor the tradition of the short story, while cutting away so much of the dead weight that can inhibit the form when anthologized en masse in traditional literary magazines. It is proof that a reduction in quantity of text doesn’t mean loss of quality, and provides an example of the kind of publishing innovations that will keep the short story mode thriving as we discover new ways of engaging with literature.
Bob Schofield is an American writer of British, Chinese, Pakistani, and Egyptian descent. He currently lives in the Netherlands. He is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable June, Man Bites Cloud, and Moon Facts. He likes what words and pictures do. He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.