What writer didn’t get a guilty chill, reading Stephen King’s introduction to the latest edition of Best American Short Stories? What editor didn’t feel the fight-or-flight instinct flare up and assume the defensive pose (head cocked, cigarette pointed) we all fall back on when someone’s cut us close to the bone? By my count, King’s comments were the topic of conversation at 72 blogs, including those of such venerable journals as Ploughshares, the Sycamore Review, the Kenyon Review, and One Story. When The New York Times reprinted the article, it logged 164 reader responses in one day on its website, some of them quite extensive and well-argued, most of them boiling down to “the truth hurts.”
Mortician’s smock still dripping with blood, King in his introduction delivered an autopsy on the American short story from the privileged perspective of someone who has just read hundreds of them while hunting down the best. Turns out: the news is not good.
Among many possible causes of death (the corpse being too mangled to say for sure what killed it) King identifies: “Writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines . . . not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn’t real reading. . . . It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.”
My palms got clammy as if Mr. King, a scary-looking guy, was scratching at my window screen. I read a lot of literary journals, partly to get a sense of what to send them.
The crux of his overall argument is this: audiences are shrinking; literary journals are poised at the brink of irrelevance because they’ve grown too expensive and too poorly distributed to appeal to anyone but writers; the stories themselves are “airless,” “show-offy,” “self-referring,” “self-important,” and “self-conscious.” Although there’s evidence to support all these claims, King tries to tie them all together to prop up his thesis that the short story is “ailing,” which feels like a stretch. What’s definitely true is this: the traditional infrastructure that has linked short stories and audiences is undergoing a massive transformation. But death throes sounds melodramatic, and a little gleeful.
Maribeth Batcha is the publisher of One Story, a radical revision of the whole idea of what a literary journal can be. In the space of six years, it’s become one of the most formidable markets for any writer peddling stories. As the title indicates, they publish one story at a time, every three weeks, in a cute-but-inexpensive format that begs to be passed on to friends.
“I think King had some good points about the changes in distribution channels,” Batcha said, “and how young writers sometimes feel like they’re only talking to other writers and to editors—but I think one of the things we’re really excited about at One Story is that we feel like we’re really talking to readers and building a community of readers.
“It’s a hard time to sell literary fiction. Whether that’s a problem with the establishment or other factors is hard to say. When we get our stories into the hands of readers, they’re really excited. But doing that costs a lot of money and is not easy. We started One Story with the idea that there are a lot of readers out there, and the journal format can be intimidating. So taking that away would make short stories more accessible.”
Although Batcha is optimistic about the number of readers One Story reaches, for King the scariest part of the whole equation is the dwindling number of readers, which for him calls into question the whole act of writing stories. He writes that “It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience of readers-for-pure-pleasure. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse on Saturday night.”
It could be a fifties sci-fi film: The Incredible Shrinking Audience. And like the stories of extraterrestrial abductions, it could be true, and lots of people passionately believe that it’s true, but there’s no way of knowing for sure, and the conversation remains rhetorical. If, as King points out, literary journals have become too expensive and inaccessible to the vast majority of people, does it logically follow that no one cares about the short stories inside them? If really good scotch costs too much money, or isn’t sold anywhere in your Wal-Mart town, does that mean you prefer the cheap stuff?
Perversely, for writers the idea that “only other writers read literary journals” is part of their appeal. It’s why we keep submitting: we want our peers and heroes to know us. A successful writing career is largely about building an audience—a critical mass of people who know your name and value your work. If I place a story in the Chicago Review, lots of writers and editors will read it—and if it’s good, they’ll remember my name and give my story a second glance when it lands on their desks. For editors, the system works, in its microcosm sort of way. Subscription forms—and submissions—from writers they admire make it clear to editors that their work has relevance in the world of letters. I suspect that’s one of the reasons we’ve seen so few established litmags make an effort to turn their websites into something more than pretty informational pamphlets. The bigger picture—of fewer readers and an oversaturated publishing industry—registers like global warming. The response is something along the lines of “Gee, that sucks, wish I could do something about it.”
Running contrary to the literary journal model are exciting developments that are freeing the short story from its cumbersome traditional vehicles: literary journals no one has time to hunt for or money to buy; short story collections that publishers won’t take chances on; independent bookstores dying off faster than polar bears. We can lament print journals’ decline, or we can focus on the fact that brilliant short stories will continue to be written. Bad stories have always been a lot easier to come by.
“Writers continue to write because we have to,” says Sean Meriweather, editor of the queer online literary journal Velvet Mafia. “While print media may be struggling to stay alive, and small and mid-list publishers are disappearing as costs become unmanageable, many writers have found an alternative.
“Mr. King did not need to stoop down to the bottom shelf to get those magazines once heralded for their brave new fiction; he should have gone online. . . . It would have been a lot cheaper. However long it took, he’d likely find the raw beauty that he was looking for. New writers have gone online because they know the score. Fiction isn’t dying—print is.”
Blogs and social networking sites are building communities of readers and writers at the same time as the quality of fiction published by online litmags improves. Velvet Mafia gets about 1,000 visits a day, around 100,000 reads per quarterly issue, according to Meriweather. “Each story gets approximately 8,000 to 10,000 reads per issue,” he says, “but since it’s archived it can be substantially more. This is especially true of hot authors or great titles, which are picked up by search engines.”
Print might be more prestigious, but online literary outlets, where fiction is free and fearless, are building immense audiences. Bear in mind that The Paris Review’s print run was 13,000 per issue in 2006.
A lot of the gloomy publishing prognostications come out of the generation gap. Studies point to declines in leisure reading among people under 40, but I think the younger generation isn’t reading less; it’s reading differently. Thanks to computers, young people now spend a staggering amount of time reading. It might not be Ulysses, but even things like pop culture fan fiction and celebrity gossip speculation build critical thinking skills. When I published a creative nonfiction piece about my love-hate relationship with the teeny-bopper band Fall Out Boy, I posted the article on the message board of the band’s website. Within a day, 500 people had read it—almost all of them, to judge by the site’s user demographics, adolescents. Some of them sent me hate mail, much of which, while immature, was incredibly well-argued. The readers are out there. They might not be in the places where we’re accustomed to looking (bookstores, libraries, curled up with the fiction issue of The Atlantic Monthly), but there are a lot of them, and they’re hungry for writing that’s relevant to their passions.
Tyler Meier had been involved with the Kenyon Review for seven years before becoming editor of the journal’s blog in the summer of 2007, when the Kenyon Review became one of the first established literary journals to specifically assign an editor to its blog. “Most of the recent thought over the past three-plus years at the magazine, from the Board down, has been about how to innovate. What will this magazine look like in five years? In 50? The point is trying to get what we publish to as many people as possible, and the blog is one of the bridges we’re building to help make that happen. With the intention of doing more and more online, the blog has helped increase the web presence of the magazine.”
But blogs are only a small part of the ways literary journals can create an online community of readers. “We also are looking to put more original work up on the website in the very near future (early 2008). The accessibility of the web is unparalleled, and we are seeking ways to better use that accessibility. We’re blessed with a number of high-quality submissions, but we deal with a backlog of accepted work that is keeping us from bringing pieces out like we’d want to. Doing more online will help us accept a higher volume of worthy work, and present it more quickly.”
If the audience for short stories has dwindled since the Golden Age Stephen King seems to believe in, Meier is hesitant about blaming the usual suspects (television, video games, apathetic readers). “I wouldn’t fault the audience for anything we’ve lost as much as I would question the market politics of the book industry. I think electronic publishing will loosen up those politics, because production costs will shrink. Publishers will be able to take more chances on books that won’t need to sell a high volume of copies. Of course, this all depends on a major shift toward a readership that is reading electronically. We’re tiptoeing towards it.”
Writers need to be read. If we insist on blitzing The Fancypants Review with our work, it’s because we know that its editors and readers truly care about short stories. And as these older models evolve, writers can only embrace a world where their work can be shared with infinite ease. In that respect, the Internet represents an exciting new set of structures for the distribution of great short fiction, and the creation of new communities for sharing it. Though writers may not be paid when their stories are shared digitally, as Cory Doctorow and others have pointed out, to any real artist “obscurity is a far bigger threat than piracy.” How far are we from the day when we’ll be able to beam our favorite stories, in the form of podcasts and PDFs, to phones and handheld devices, and email them to friends and loved ones with the same enthusiasm now reserved for YouTube videos? Many authors are skittish about the Internet, and few conventional literary publishers have embraced its rich possibilities.
Alexander Chee is an edgy writer, but he’s no outsider. He’s represented by one of the biggest literary agencies, he’s won awards and fellowships, he’s published a novel at one of the biggest houses (and has another on the way, from an even bigger house)—and yet he’s published stories and articles all over the Internet. He even has a blog.
“I know writers who are still thinking the web is like this new thing. I don’t know what to do with them. There’s less and less, but I remember one writer just two years ago condescendingly saying to me, ‘You have a blog?’ And I thought, ‘You have no idea . . .’
“For web magazines, I think initially, if you’re not used to the idea, it’s hard to trust that this electronic thing is ‘real.’ Is my story really published? And yet you’ll have more readers, likely, for something that’s on the web than you will for something in print on the page, when it comes to fiction. 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.”
The past ten years have seen a staggering shift in the way music happens. For decades, the paradigm was: concerts promote records; record sales make the money. Now, in a world where any album can be downloaded for free, records serve as a promotional tool for the concerts, which is where all the money is made. How will this drift change the face of fiction?
Many, including me, see a lot of positives in the digitization of art, don’t have a lot of sympathy for the RIAA when it complains about its dwindling bottom line—and laugh out loud at folks like Richard Parsons, CEO of Time Warner, who presumably had a straight face when he said “If we fail to protect and preserve our intellectual property system, the culture will atrophy. And the corporations won’t be the only ones hurt. Artists will have no incentive to create.” As if money was the reason artists create. But many writers, including Alexander Chee, see the digital paradigm shift as directly linked to other, direr developments.
“In the last 20 years, we’ve seen the rise of Limewire, the Napster thing, that ‘code revolution’ for DVDs that unlocked their content. But did anyone bother to mention how in the same time period, the richest 5% of the country became much richer than the rest of the country? Millionaires in America now still have to have dayjobs. Vietnam doesn’t even want US treasury bonds. We’re not a good investment for Vietnam. We need to wake up.
“I can’t afford to be paid less than I am now,” he continued. “I am barely making enough to pay bills, much less put money aside for retirement, and I’m doing better than many inside this literary culture. So I don’t want people just reading me for free for the rest of my career, no matter how much they think I’m amazing. If they think I’m amazing, then I think I’ve earned the quarter in my cup. I’d prefer the iTunes model over the Limewire. The big problem with the web model is too often web magazines ask writers to write for free and they don’t charge readers or have enough advertising to pay writers.”
Paying your writers is getting pretty rare across the board, in print as well as digital fiction publishing. Last week, when a short story of mine was accepted into an anthology, the editor apologized for only being able to pay me $25. I told him not to worry—it’s $25 more than I got for my last three published stories. But clearly, I, and a lot of other writers, would rather be read than paid.
Are short stories ailing—dying—dead? I’ll need to see some figures. Until someone brings me a graph with exactly how many short stories were published in 1927, and 1967, and 2007, and what percentage of those stories were truly amazing, and whether that percentage is shrinking, I’m not buying any claims that the short story itself is sick. Everything that surrounds literature is changing so fast it’s easy to project that progression onto the fiction itself, but as any student of Soviet culture can tell you, a work of art is a lot harder to kill than a person—or even an industry. For writers and editors, it’s only getting harder to make a living out of literature . . . but history has hundreds of examples of perfect short stories produced in poverty. Writers, like everyone else, will continue to need day jobs or sugar daddies. Which is sad, but has little to do with The Short Story, reports of whose death, for decades now, have been greatly exaggerated.
Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer. He lives in the Bronx with his partner of six years. His work has appeared in numerous zines, anthologies, and print and online journals. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit him at his website.
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