The Story — Endangered Literary Form?

When I proposed the idea of my collection of short stories — Viewpoints Critical — my editor observed that, first, I wouldn’t get and/or make nearly as much from the collection as I would from even my worst-selling book and, second, that collections were invariably a very hard sell for a publisher. For the record, despite some outstanding reviews of Viewpoints Critical, he was right.

But all that got me to thinking. Why is this so? Why are people more willing to buy long novels than collections of stories? Why are the sales of fiction magazines, both in the F&SF genre and elsewhere, continually declining? Now, some enthusiasts of on-line short fiction publication cite costs as a reason, and given paper and distribution costs, I wouldn’t dispute costs as a contributing factor, but circulation was declining before the cost increases became as significant as they are now.

In the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald was paid as much for a single short story in a popular magazine as the annual earnings of an average lawyer. Even a half-century before Fitzgerald, short story writers could sometimes actually live off their earnings [if poorly]. Today, it’s physically and financially impossible for a short-story writer to support himself or herself, even at the poverty level, on earnings from short fiction sales alone.

It’s been asserted that part of the problem is that paperback books made reading novel length works far cheaper, and that the rise of paperbacks corresponded with the decline of fiction magazines and even of magazines that weren’t exclusively devoted to fiction. It’s more than that. “Women’s magazines” used to print more fiction. Some that used to provide short fiction now print little or no fiction at all.

Beside, theoretically, paperback books already provide story collections and anthologies of better quality to readers, and far more cheaply than would be possible by subscribing to a number of magazines, but readers aren’t buying all that many collections or anthologies, and it’s certainly not a matter of cost.

Could it be that a short story requires a different kind of reading skill, one that is in decline in English-speaking populations? Or does writing shorter fiction well require a creative skill that is in short-supply among modern authors? Both… or some of each?

Or is it that a nation and a world that has come to value size and “more is better” in everything from food to transport automatically equates a thick book with satisfaction and has difficulty appreciating smaller “gems” of writing?

Whatever it is… one thing is clear. You won’t make anything close to a living just by writing short stories… even if you win lots of awards and praise… and even if you can find a publisher who will publish them as a collection.