If the novel ever dies, did the short story do it?
The percentage of people who read novels for pleasure is miserably low. I know that’s not you, or you wouldn’t be here. But it ought to be better. We all know that. An Associated Press/Ipsos poll in 2007 (subscription required) reported one quarter of the population doesn’t read anything at all. And based on my experience with road traffic where I live, that includes stops signs. Reading fiction is in even more trouble. The NEA found in 2008 that half the population won’t read a novel for pleasure unless their school or work requires it of them. And that was supposed to be good news, because it was an increase over the previous survey in 2002.
The easy explanation is to blame the readers. Instead of reading, they watch movies or play video games or buzz around on the Internet, but I wonder if that’s right.
I’d like to propose a hypothesis for part of the problem. The short story is choking the modern novel. And not in the way you might think.
Here’s how it’s happening. Lots of people are trying to get published, some good, most not so good. But everybody is trying. So slushpiles are a big problem. Editors and agents decide they need a way to vet new novel writers without actually bothering to read all that stuff piling up in the office, most of which will indeed be pretty dreary. So they look to see if a prospective new writer has a track record with short stories. That would suggest some degree of acceptance by the editorial community already, and would also suggest that the writer has a platform, that sine qua non without which you can’t sell a book, because publishers aren’t interested in doing marketing anymore. They expect the writer to do it. Now, if the prospective writer has already proven successful with short fiction and can bring along a ready-made readership, then the publisher regards the writer as more likely to make them some money, and the new novelist gets a chance on the shelf.
But are good short story writers especially good novelists? There’s no doubting the two arts are different. Novels are not just long strings of short stories tied together as chapters, despite the fact that a lot of writers these days write novels that way. The whole business of pacing, plotting, characterization, setting, and everything else should be handled quite differently between the two. It’s no coincidence that Poe, brilliant with the short story, never cranked out a successful novel-length work. Same thing with H.P.Lovecraft. I once heard an editor of the New Yorker magazine–I can’t remember his name, so I can’t find a link, but he was being interviewed on NPR about 2006 or 2007–go on record saying that short story writers aren’t necessarily good novelists, and the other way round as well, if I recall correctly. Among my own favorites, Arthur Clarke comes to mind–great short stories, indifferent novelist. He wrote plenty of them, but they’re just not as stellar as his subject matter: they’re episodic, rambling things more often than not, just the sort of thing you’d get if you strung a series of good and loosely related short stories together.
So generally, the whole idea of the short story is simply too different when compared to the novel for anyone to expect that the skill-set for one ought to serve as training for the other, yet modern publishers use them to that end, and this may mean that, since short stories are used to vet novelists, as a general rule, only novelists who first excel at writing short stories will get published. Is that good for novels?
This effect is not like the law of gravity. There are plenty of exceptions, I know. J.S LeFanu, P.G. Wodehouse certainly, maybe Hawthorne, and no doubt many others. I don’t want to get flamed with your defense of your favorite writer who you think can do it all–there is no doubt many of them can. It’s just a tendency. Tobacco is supposed to be bad for you–though most smokers will never get sick from the habit–yet when you consider the population as a whole, the habit has a tendency to reduce the overall health.
So we’re just talking about trends. Is the novel landscape as good as it has ever been? Do you really think so? And if you don’t, has the practice of using success with the short story as a gateway to publishing novels had the effect of reducing the quality of the novel?
And one last thought. Now, thanks to the Internet, the mainstream publishers are, at least in theory, no longer the gatekeepers they used to be. What does this mean for future fiction? Can we hope the quality might go up if readers, instead of editors, are making the cuts? Or maybe you think it will go down?