Why did the short story lose its popularity?

Making a case for tales that delight and entertain

By Tamreez Inam

Published: Thu 9 Mar 2023, 5:26 PM

In modern literature, the short story occupies a very interesting place. While it seems to have lost its popularity since its heyday in the nineteenth and twentieth century, it is still an important literary form accomplishing something that the novel cannot achieve. When done well, a short story serves as a little nugget of delight or surprise and delivers the perfect escape from the mundane. It invokes the nostalgia of storytelling from our childhoods. Unlike the novel that requires commitment from the reader to find long stretches of time over a sustained period, a short story can provide a fragmentary respite or distraction even during the busiest of days.

Amongst contemporary writers, it is becoming harder to find these exquisite short stories. More often than not, reading a book of short stories can be a bit of a-hit-and-a-miss experience. Rarely ever will you find a collection where you love every single story. That's not really the case with a novel- usually when you love a novel, you pretty much love all of it.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this could be that most short stories these days are written by aspiring writers. These are writers who are still honing their craft and, in fact, turning to the short story for exactly that reason – to take it on as a short do-able project while they practice at their ‘real’ work, the great novel. But short stories are extremely difficult to pull off precisely because so much is riding on them in so few words. In a novel you have chapters to build up the characters and plot, while the humble short story must achieve the same effect within the space of a few pages. The very few short stories I have written myself, I must have gone through at least twenty drafts of each and still didn’t think that I managed to pull it off.

The places where one can find and read some of the best short fiction these days are literary journals or websites, such as The Paris Review, The New Yorker or Granta, but these are not places where the average reader turns to for their literary entertainment. It appears then that the short story has become a form that is written not so much for the general public but for other writers, and perhaps attracting publishers’ notice and literary acclaim. For this reason perhaps a lot of contemporary short stories are more focused on being experimental and on the craft, rather than moving or delighting the reader.

This still begs the question: why did the short story lose its popularity?

Firstly, it has to do with how publishing changed over the last century. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was expensive to publish long-form books, whereas magazines and newspapers were the most inexpensive and democratic mediums to get information and literature. All kinds of newspapers and magazines, not just literary magazines, would regularly solicit and publish short stories. In fact, even novels, such as Charles Dickens’ or George Eliot’s, first appeared as serialised chapters in a magazine or newspaper before they were published in the form of a book. Whether it was the Russian greats like Chekhov, the American writers like Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Flannery O’ Connor or those from the Indian subcontinent like Rabindranath Tagore, Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai, even when they wrote other literature, they were particularly revered for their short stories. One would be hard pressed to find renowned writers these days who only write short stories.

These days traditional big name publishers are reluctant to take on short story collections, particularly from debut writers, because they do not sell as well as novels. There are exceptions of course, particularly so if the writer is already famous such as Tom Hanks’ debut short story collection Uncommon Type published in 2017. Publishers are also hesitant to take on short stories because they are either ineligible to win major literary prizes, such as the Booker or the Women’s Prize for Fiction, or even when eligible, as in the case of the Pulitzer or the Nobel Prize for Literature, it is very rare for a short story collection to win. In fact, when Alice Munro, the acclaimed Canadian short story writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, she was the first writer in over a hundred years to win the Prize for short stories.

Alice Munro’s case is very revealing in how most people think of the short story as a stepping stone in their journey as writers who will ultimately write that one great novel. Despite being hailed as the master of the short story, Munro admitted that she only took to the form because her children were young and she didn’t have the time to take on a full-length novel. In an interview to the Guardian in 2003, she admitted her desire to write a novel. She said, "I'm always trying. Between every book I think, well now, it's time to get down to the serious stuff." Interestingly, Munro finally seemed to have changed her own mind after her Nobel Prize win in 2013. In an interview to CBC, she said, “I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.”

In recent times during the pandemic, the Guardian reported a renewed interest in writing and reading short stories. While it is too soon to say if we would see a dramatic shift in the place of the short story in modern literature, I do hope we will see some great new contemporary collections.

If you are looking for recommendations, I have compiled a list of 10 short story collections that are on my own reading list.

1.Saki, The Complete Stories of Saki

2.Flannery O Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find

3.Saadat Hasan Manto, Bombay Stories

4.Ismat Chughtai, Lifting the Veil

5.Attia Hosain, Pheonix Fled

6.John Cheever, Collected Stories

7.Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

8.Alice Munro, Dear Life

9.Samira Azza, Out of Time: The Collected Short Stories

10.Huma Qureshi, Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love

Tamreez is assistant programming director of Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

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