Monday, November 12, 2007

The truth about short stories

As you will see, from the next two paragraphs, I began to write this post thinking it would be quite short. But in fact it deserves to be longer, because as I clicked on a few links I found something a bit special. I originally began as follows:

Can you stand it? I'm not sure I can. But there's yet more discussion of whither the short story over on Galleycat, with links to more stuff thereafter.

And that's all I was going to say, really. Until I casually began to look at some of the comments at the end of Larry Dark's guest post on the NBCC blog, which is linked to by Ron Hogan on Galleycat. There I found a comment by Samuel Edmonson which kind of took my breath away. Here is just part of what he says about what he, and I, regard as the literary-magazine racket.

First of all, commercial magazines pay money and for working writers such as myself it's a job, a career, we earn a living wage; the tiny literary magazines pay nothing or close to it. So to get your stories published in them, you actually have to PAY because even if you sell a story for $100 you'll never recoup the cost of postage, copies, equipment, and so on. It is impossible to run a business on it. It is not a career. You need another job (in academe, of course).

Secondly, these journals are tiny, no one reads them except for academics who are trying to get published in them. You are so completely wrong about their impact and by the weakness of your argument I suspect you know it -- these literary journals have no impact on the world at all. But as a writer, I want to be READ. I'm writing for the man on the street, not for the politically correct chair of some college's English department.

Thirdly, the academic journals strongly, strongly favor teachers and MFA graduates. Read any of these academic journals and you'll see that most of the poetry and prose is from the academics. The writing, the worldview, the ideas, the very words are all so insular -- and if you operate outside of that world, they will ignore you. They have to support their buddies. Spend a few hours to put the names and their affiliations in a spreadsheet and you'll see what I mean about connections. And if you're not only MFA-less but also politically incorrect, you might as well save your stamps because they'll never, ever touch what you've sent.

Now I don't know who Samuel Edmonson is, and Google doesn't offer much enlightenment. But one thing's for sure: he punches above his weight. What is more, he agrees with me, so naturally I admire him. See my post of 16 October, which contains links to my earlier pieces about the official and true histories of the short story.

None of which, however, really solves my problem, which is finding short stories, week in and week out, that are the kind of thing I actually want to read. I suppose the only solution is to write my own.

More comment (brief) on Mason Fiction. And there's more about Stephen King on short stories in The Smart Set; if, as I said at the beginning, you can stand it; and I for one couldn't.

36 comments:

Jim Murdoch said...

I have a slightly different reason for trying to get my short stories published and that is to draw attention to the rest of my writing especially the novels.

I'm engaged at the moment in a campaign to try and establish a web presence (even this comment is part of the mix).

I'm sending out my short stories hoping that some of the readers will investigate further. It's a gamble but it costs less than giving away dozens of review copies. I'm doing exactly the same with my poetry.

BTW you might find Jeanette Winterson's article in The Times something worth commenting on. Here's a link.

Emma P said...

I think the most talented writers will gravitate to where there is a market, not because of the money, but because they want to be read. That's why the quality of most short stories, poetry and plays seems to be declining - because the only people who read them, in general, are people who write them. And good writers don't want to stay in those backwaters.

Samuel Edmonson said...

Thanks for linking this -- was especially gratifying to me because yours is one of the few blogs I read.

Nothing's out there with my name because like Dan Conaway did Mad Max Perkins, it's just a pseudonym -- I still have to earn a living at this, yet what I'm paid to do is utter trash and the words that I've slaved over, novels and stories that I've honed for years and that I believe actually have something to say and have some refined quality about them, remain unpublished.

Another good site that chronicles the current literary situation is Literary Rejections on Display.

Akasha Savage said...

I am a writer who loves writing short stories, I have been lucky enough to have a couple of my stories published...but it has been hard to find a market as my chosen genre is horror/fantasy. Not many, if any, commercial magazines will take these on.
I have recently set up a blog so my work can get 'out there'.
www.aspirationsfromthedarkside.blogspot.com

Andy O'Hara said...

Really I'm a bit surprised that this is even a bone of contention. Yes, was a time we looked forward to an occasional collection of short stories in our library and the popular fiction in the weekly Saturday Evening Post.

Now, thanks to the internet, links, websites, ezines galore and mass production media, everyone is on the stage--and no one is in the audience. We're surprised at this?

As someone said, we will ALL be famous to a few people in our lifetime. Some a few more than others.

Geoff Nelder said...

Most of my shorts are aimed at sci fi / fantasy and there are dozens of markets for that genre. Within them it is possible to detect an unspoken hierarchy where a few well-known mags focus on a handful of established names. I can't blame them because those names on the cover draw buyers. However, it's not so good for unknown writers no matter how talented they are.
This is why Robert Blevins of Adventure Books of Seattle and little ole me started a brand new sci fi magazine, Escape Velocity, with a focus on providing an outlet for new (no matter what their age) writers. The problem is, though, how do you promote and market a mag with the only famous folk inside it being interviewed?

Google Escape Velocity nelder and you'll see it, and maybe sub us a story for issue #2

Geoff
apologies if duplicated as the comment security has the wobbles

Usiku (oo-SEE-koo) said...

It seems true that a narrow viewpoint exists in what is published compared to what is written. Being published and read is taking it's toll on the variety of short stories and poetry, but we still have control.

Rob said...

I love reading short stories but sometimes it is a challenge to find good ones.

Occasionally, I try my hand at writing them too and I've noticed in my web site statistics that a lot of people read online short stories during the working day, perhaps in their lunch or coffee break.

Radio was initially very unpopular with the advent of television but then came into it's own when everybody got a radio in their car.

Perhaps, for each type of media, it has to find it's niche.

Anonymous said...

There is some interesting debate about this on the AbsoluteWriters board:

on the New Yorker and Stephen King

Looks grim.

elberry said...

If you haven't already, you might enjoy reading F Scott Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby short stories. They're about a loser scriptwriter hanging round Hollywood in the 30s trying to hustle a few bucks for a day at the races & another bottle of gin. He has no talent or morality but somehow manages to stay just about afloat. Funny and short and well done.

Anonymous said...

As a student of writing with a love of short stories I already feel pressure to leave short stories behind. I'm currently researching the history and future of the short story and I can feel the pity from the tutors and other students who see me, I feel, as a lost cause.
This blog has been a great find, if somewhat depressing. I know a lot of new writers who are sending out mediocre material, short stories and poetry mainly, that gains a small credit for their cv in the hope that each new credit will notch them up the literary pole. Maybe I should look to write that historical novel after all?

Anonymous said...

elberry, the Pat Hobby stories are great. Kinda like lost classics. But that's where I agree with Edmonson and the Grumpy Old Bookman: nowadays, who publishes stuff like that? They used to be printed in Esquire, but did you ever read Esquire lately? No stories like that.

Adam Maxwell said...

I am an avid reader and writer of short stories on the internet - in fact I think that these literary magazines have become a thing of the past. The internet has created some wonderful online magazine such as McSweeneys and authors continue to try to use the new technology.

My site features short short stories, flash fiction and an iTunes featured podcast and I am always disappointed that more successful authors I admire do not make the same effort on their websites.

Perhaps if they did short fiction would be much easier to find?

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Anonymous said...

Good short stories do seem to be dying out which is a tragedy. One reason for this is, prehaps, that to write a good short story is more challenging and takes more talent than it does to write a novel. Novels require stamina but short stories and poetry require huge amounts of skill. Writer should be trying to claim back the short story. It shouldn't be about anything but a passion for the form and what it can achive-if, as a writer, you dont love writing short stories, leave them for those who do!

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sarapeyton said...

Writing is not remunerative now, for a variety of reasons discussed here and wherever literary people congregate. Even getting published for no pay has become more and more difficult.
Why write? I think we write for the same reason that cockaroaches reproduce - there is no reason, we just do.

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John Yeoman said...

Alas, this blog has become infested with spam. I have therefore not chosen to leave a comment, except to say that the short story is alive and well at Writers' Village, where a writer of talent might win £250 for a mere 3000 words of short fiction. Details at:

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