What Are You Going to Do, Bleed On Me?

There's been a lot of talk on the Interwebs about the state of the short story, especially since Stephen King's introduction to "The Best American Short Stories 2007" anthology, in which he observes that the short story is a dying art. People have objected to this assertion (from King and others), but most of the objections come off specious and empty. For instance, a recent blog post on Galley Cat called "The Short Story is Doing Fine" says

Quick, somebody tell Alice Munro she doesn't have a valid career. She's up in Canada; you can swing by George Saunders's house on the way and break the news to him as well. I'll stay here in New York and let Amy Hempel and Deborah Eisenberg know it's time for them to move on.

I can see the whiny, no-doubt-anonymous objection now: "Yeah, but if those last four weren't creative writing professors..." But if we started saying you couldn't be "successful" as a writer unless all you did to make money was write—well, let's just say the ranks of successful writers would be a lot less interesting.

Granted, measures of success are different among different people, but Alice Munro's "career" is not writing short stories. Her career is teaching creative writing. Writing short stories is at best her vocation and at worst her hobby.

Or consider this reaction in the Quarterly Conversation. First, evidence of the short stories' decline is attempted to be reframed so that it's actually a good thing, as in, "maybe just writing for other writers is all we want". Then, arguments are made for the supposed health of the form that are bafflingly poor, the worst of which is this quote from Alexander Chee:

"I have modest blog traffic at best for my blog, Koreanish: 150 to 300 hits per day. But that means in a week my blog is read by at least a 1,000 people. Many small literary magazines hope to sell a 1,000 issues per print run."

Anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of websites knows that 1,000 hits a week is not anything like 1,000 readers, and for the author to not even point that out just reinforces the utter desperation lurking behind the whole thing, peering out between the sentences. PLEASE believe me the short story is FINE! PLEASE!

Finally, the author says, "Writers, like everyone else, will continue to need day jobs or sugar daddies." which has so many levels of wrong I don't know where to start. Not only do lots of people most emphatically not need a day job, but lots of writers don't need day jobs. TV and movie writers, for instance, make quite excellent livings. And you know, people who write TV and movies and don't make a living at it don't get to be called professionals. Aspiring professionals, maybe.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (a decrepit and anachronistic organization if ever there was one) defines a professional short story publication as three cents a word, a laughable figure which hasn't changed in decades. As for "literary" short fiction, the number of publications which pay decent rates for it can be counted on the fingers of one hand -- The New Yorker, Harpers, Playboy, Esquire, and once a year the Atlantic Monthly. Did I forget anyone? On the other hand there are an ever increasing abundance of "literary magazines" with circulations in three or even two digits, published by universities or the equivalent of two guys in a garage. Nothing wrong with that, per se, but it's incredibly obvious that today having a "career" in writing short fiction and reaching out to a large audience on a regular basis simply isn't possible.

Let's be clear: I like short stories and I both read and write them. But we wouldn't need a Save the Short Story campaign if it wasn't in trouble. Let us not play pretend, let us not close our eyes and stick our fingers in our ears and make believe the art form that once provided an income for a multitude of professionals isn't becoming (or hasn't become) irrelevant to the population at large. The short story is not a healthy art form, but rather a once mighty appendage of the greater literary body that's been gradually severed off and reduced until all that remains is a single lonely ligament, desperately clinging for all its worth.

I don't want it to be this way. I want the short story to be widely read, and I too have hopes for the potential of the Internet and for the future of iPod and Kindle-type devices to allow people to read short stories easily and thus reinvigorate the form. But pretending that there's nothing wrong with the short story is not helping. It is, in fact, counter-productive, akin to the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, insisting he's fine and ready to fight after having his arms and legs chopped off. ("What are you going to do, bleed on me?") And that's just kind of laughable.

Comments

writers, blood

"Granted, measures of success are different among different people, but Alice Munro's "career" is not writing short stories. Her career is teaching creative writing. Writing short stories is at best her vocation and at worst her hobby."

Dude, you are soooooooooooooooo wrong. (Oh, hey, wait a minute! "So" can't function alone as a grammatically correct intensifier!)

Anyway, I'll wear my coolio hat and teacher's hat at the same time. Munro has a very comfortable life -- when she's not being given tongue-baths by Canadian media or having her life misconstrued by well-intentioned American commentators who *think* they know The Quiet Giant to the North. She's financially successful. Has been for a long time. I don't know any dollar figures, but I've never heard of her teaching to put food on the table, and one reason might be that her collections -- books as bookish in their packaging and royalties as any novel -- are on loadsa Cdn university reading lists.

But I take your point. Most writers writing short stories are doing it as a kind of calling. (What did Robt. Stone say recently? That writing is service? He was talking about lit writing generally, but he could have had the short story writer particularly in mind.) You're right on the money when you point out that it's not only wrong, but glaringly wrong, to imply there's a serious chance of making a living from short stories. Munro is the exception that proves the rule.

But since you also comment on the possibility of new technology leading, hopefully, to a reinvigoration of the form, why not discuss a rethinking of the form, too? The Internet lends itself very easily to combining images and text. And since you mention movie and TV writers, why not discuss the increasing cultural significance of the screenplay as a vehicle of narrative? It's terse, it's to the point, and (and this is the key thing) it works. It keys into people's imaginations. Yet it doesn't have to be produced in a filmed/taped version in order to succeed in telling a story. In other words, because the internet allows writers to create stories that are -- through a combination of image and text -- more "filmic", they, also, can stop fighting by bleeding, and make use of the swords available to mass culture.

2 points in the First Quarter, or Capitalism Doesn't Lie

I see Stephen King’s point: Less people read short fiction now than did 50 years ago, even 30 years ago, even 15 years ago. In the contest, I give this argument 2 points, but I still have some questions. For one, no one talks about the writing process.

Writing used to be hard. That is, the physical process of writing things—pencil, pen, and typewriter—used to cause a lot of heartache. Like when Truman Capote wrote. Most of the pain about writing is gone now. Anyone with Word 2007 can write a novel, send it to Publish America, and therefore is a published author. Now you can have all the glamour and none of the suck. So the craft has suffered a lot of hobbyists. This started when desktop computers hit the market. Now for a little extra money I can buy Adobe Creative Suite 3 and make an even better novel or literary journal—without anyone’s help. I can send it to a printer in China or India. Sociologists call this “the democratization of technology.”

Take a look at sites like Writing.com, or the proliferation of blogs. Is all this “trash” writing better or worse than literary writing? Every time you press “publish” on a blog you’re an author publishing something new. Is that a scary thought or an empowering one?

“Doesn’t Stephen King just sit around all day and get paid to make stuff up? I could do that, too,” a freshman in college says. It’s sophomoric, but it does happen. People in writing courses and movie making classes have this outlook, sometimes. I’m not saying it’s right, but I’ve taught short fiction writing and I’ve made films, and it does happen. True writers know what it means to write stories, but those who don’t sometimes turn out decent stuff.

Second, with the hobbyists came the pretenders, those starving bohemians who believe, rightly or wrongly, that writing must fail to be successful. Personally I see them as a pack of moron hyenas. They believe in the dignity of artists, of Art’s higher power, and in special clubs for those who have read Milton’s Paradise Lost over 5 times. So true artists get mixed up with pretenders: Shamans & Charlatans, or Storytellers & Charlatans, if you prefer.

The snobby attitude affected by some university professors hurts writing on all counts. Imagining he is defending his Ivory Tower from the peasantry, Harold Bloom lobbies to keep out Stephen King and J.K. Rowling—seemingly unaware that they are what he studies. Who do you think Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Lev Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote for? The list of people’s writers is endless and guess what? SK and JR—not to mention Dan Brown—are going to be studied in hundreds of years when all of us are dead. Harold Bloom says the age of great literature and art is over because he’s old, isn’t he? Of course I would say an age is ending at the end of my life. Probably he’s not to be blamed. I’m sure he’s a decent guy, if wrong.

Speaking of universities, there is another problem. If language is a mirror to reflect our true selves (this is kind of Lacan- or Bakhtin-type thinking) then what happens now in university workshops, where most of our writers are trained? All the stories in workshops and lit. journals are now reflecting each other—the dreaded “workshop effect.” Oh, boy, that’s a whole new blank space on the map. Just as with Zoloft and SSRIs messing up the human brain, we won’t know how the workshop effect has messed up American writing for a good long time.

In fact, 2007 was a good year for writers. First, J.K. Rowling was awarded Entertainer of the Year by a magazine that usually features Lindsay and Britney and, dare I say it, TomKat. Say what you want, but that woman (as EW pointed out) inspired children to lug around giant books like they were the latest technological innovation. Second, Jeff Bezos released the Amazon Kindle, a wireless reading device. I love the smell of books; however, my kids won’t. They will read on a device like this. Third, the writers in Hollywood won out after a bitter strike. My friends in Hollywood tell me that was a pretty nasty bout… But it did raise awareness of writing. Besides, Best Picture at the Academy Awards went to a movie based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy. Literature deserves some credit, don’t you think?

Every so often someone comes out and says, “The novel is dead! The short story is dead!” But then someone like Michael Chabon or Stephen King or Benjamin Percy comes along and says, “Not if I have anything to say about it.” Then they roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Evil as some people say it is, Capitalism never lies. If profits fall, a company closes down the branch that’s hemorrhaging money: period. You may do something for love, or for satisfaction; those who run lit. magazines normally do. There’s not a hell of a lot of money in it for them. But you have to keep in mind that literature isn’t dying, and the short story is not either—look at how many people (like those at One Story) are trying to keep it alive!

Who says no one reads? Wichita, Kansas can support 6 Barnes & Noble stores (they just built a new one) and 2 Borders. Not to mention local or used bookstores. And capitalism doesn’t lie. It lies about where it’s dumping waste, but never about where people spend their money. Apparently they spend their money at bookstores.

People may argue you didn't say writing was dying, just that the short story was: Fair enough. But to me it's all part of the same elephant.

So I give the “American short stories are dying!” 2 points.

But I want to see how the rest of the game plays out.

It's a War!

Great article! I think you are onto something about the Internet, iPod, Kindle, etc. - we can't look to duplicating the old great golden age where it was slick magazines. That's gone. There was no Internet back then. Now that we have it, we've got to find a way to bring back the great markets of the commercial paper magazines, but do it online. More people read online than paper, so it only makes sense. Question is, who? And how can we help? (I'm not a digital publisher, after all.)

But whoever takes it on is going to have to fight a lot of things: pressure from media for stupidity,pressure from academia for taking away their new playground which is what's happened to literature. This goes back to my subject line.

I see it as a battle between two types of writers, two types of individuals. Face it, for some people everything is fine now. This happens to be the case if you are a college prof - all the litmags are there for you, and if you teach creative writing then you're set, you just pull up New Pages and rock on with your stories. You have great benefits and make decent enough pay. All your college friends love you and read your stuff. Litmags are the English department equivalent of all those academic science journals, you know, Anti-Depressive Medication Quarterly or The North American Heart and Lung Journal or something. And the literature in litmags is the equivalent: it's academic.

But if you're a professional writer, like a freelancer or someone who writes commercial work, say a staff writer for Rolling Stone or The Village Voice or something, or you write ad copy or tech documentation, you're slaving away at writing, don't need an MFA, you're doing fine. But you're not writing fiction. And the kind of slicks that used to pay for the kind of stories you would write are not available. Someone said that you need to be paid 63 cents a word in 2008 money to make it as a writer in the heyday of American magazine fiction, the time of Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John O'Hara, Thomas Wolfe, Thomas Mann, Erskine Caldwell, Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, all the 1920s-1960s heavy hitters. Those markets are gone. That whole outlook is gone. That also means, besides the pay factor, the world won't blink if your stories gets into one of those school-sponsored little journals. So if you want to be a literary star, you have nowhere to go. (Not a star among the university types, there's plenty of those, but I mean a writer who speaks to the people, who is one of them and not some ivory tower type.) These are the people who are hurting today. The ones who want to be pro writers, churning out magazine fiction like it was before the 70s. The writers who are making out at this are the ones who went and got their MFA's and got teaching jobs - they don't have to worry about "making a living" as a writer since they've got a good post. They have plenty of litmags too. But litmags and the kind of stories they print will not appeal to average Americans, the ones who used to subscribe to The Saturday Review and The Atlantic, Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post, all those commerical magazines that always had room for fiction. Different kind of fiction. Litmags also discriminate against writers who don't have MFAs, so the "freelance writer" types are really screwed right now.

I do know one thing. For non-fiction, esp. journalism, there are more opportunities than ever on the Internet. You can write for so many sites, blogs, short articles, features, the works. But zero fiction markets have happened. I don't know why that is. I would like to see it change and I think you're right, that's going to be the answer.