Thursday, March 17, 2005

The true history of the short story

Continued from yesterday. Today we deal with the true history of the short story -- the short story, that is, as read and enjoyed by the man in the street, or the woman looking down on him from the top deck of the Clapham omnibus.

In summary: the short story began, for all practical purposes, about the beginning of the nineteenth century. As more and more people became able to read, and as the print media became cheaper, the short story grew in popularity. It reached its peak readership from perhaps 1880 to 1920. Thereafter the short story lost ground: first to cinema, then radio, recorded sound, television, and today 515 different forms of entertainment.

Details follow. But first, a little background.

Over the years, I have come to the view that the ‘official’ histories of the arts often tell us only half the story. Or less.

Suppose you were to go to the library and find a book called British Theatre Since 1950, or something similar. This book would almost certainly be written by an academic or a professional critic; and in terms of the year 1955, to take one at random, our official history would faithfully record that this was the year in which an ‘important’ and ‘influential’ play called Waiting for Godot was premiered.

Which is true. But what this scholarly book is unlikely to mention is that 1955 also saw the first nights of such popular plays as The Reluctant Debutante and Sailor Beware. Also open for business in 1955 were The Mousetrap (which is still running), Separate Tables, and Dry Rot. These were all long-running successes, attracting big audiences.

And why are these popular productions not mentioned in our official history? Because they are not ‘important’, that’s why. To academic historians they were ‘mere entertainment’ – just mindless pap for gormless morons. But that is not, as you may have gathered, my own view.

I readily accept that plays such as Waiting for Godot and Look Back in Anger, which appeared in 1956, were written about at length, both at the time, and since, by people who might reasonably be called intellectuals: members of the intelligentsia (if you are prepared to stretch the meaning of the word ‘intelligent’). But what reason is there for supposing that plays which are appreciated by intellectuals are more ‘important’ and ‘better theatre’ than those which entertain a more middlebrow audience?

No reason whatever, in my view. I know of no rational argument which convinces me that plays that are enjoyed and discussed by intellectuals are any better than plays which entertain a middlebrow audience. As far as I am concerned, they are not ‘better’ either morally, technically, emotionally, or in terms of any other criterion. They are not better at all – they are just different. They are different kinds of plays, which appeal to different kinds of audiences; these audiences approach the plays with different frames of reference and different sets of expectations.

What is true of the theatre is also true of the short story. In yesterday’s post, I gave you a brief rundown of the ‘official’ history of this form of fiction. But, as in the theatre, there is another history, the true history, which runs in parallel. It is a history of the short story as it has been read and enjoyed by the average person in the street.

Such a reader is not highly educated and has not travelled the world, and is not, thank you very much, at all interested in symbolism, stream-of-consciousness techniques, or having to work out what the hell is going on from a minimalist description. Such a person wants a story told in plain English, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And in my opinion it is no sort of crime for a reader to want to have things explained clearly.

I shall now provide a history of such short stories, though like yesterday’s history it will be a much condensed version of the facts.

What we have to remember, and what is so easy to forget, is that, in the nineteenth century, magazines and books did not have much competition. There was live theatre, of course, but that was only available in towns. And there were certainly no radio programmes, no television sitcoms, or films.

Compulsory schooling in England was introduced in 1870. This meant that more people were learning to read, and, as printing technology also improved, the short story and the novel were widely disseminated, widely read, and highly prized.

It should never be forgotten that the most famous fictional character of the entire nineteenth century, Sherlock Holmes, has his existence mainly in the form of short stories; to be precise, there are four Holmes novels, and five major collections of short stories. When the stories first appeared, in magazines such as The Strand, sales of the magazine markedly increased.

Conan Doyle, however, is not often mentioned with much enthusiasm in the official literary histories. Anthony Burgess, for example, in his 1984 essay on the short story in English, refers to Doyle’s ‘triumphant success’. But then he goes on to tell us that he (Burgess) has ‘never been satisfied that... the stories of Conan Doyle are literature, in the sense that Shakespeare is literature.’ So there. That puts Sherlock in his place.

We can be quite sure that in the nineteenth century, and ever since, there has been a constant flow of fiction aimed at middlebrow or lowbrow readers. In the twentieth century, it became known as pulp fiction – so called because the magazines which published it were printed on the cheapest possible paper.

In the 1930s, popular fiction magazines often appeared weekly, and they were endlessly demanding of product, particularly in the United States. I see from my file of notes that I once read a book called Pulpwood Editor, by Harold Brainerd Hersey. It was published in 1937 so is probably unobtainable now (though you could try abebooks), but it was a marvellous autobiography by a man who edited pulp magazines. He had a number of extraordinary stories about writers who, in some cases, apparently churned out a million words a year.

Some British writers were also amazingly productive. Consider, for example, the career of Charles Hamilton, who is perhaps best known for writing the Billy Bunter stories under the pen-name Frank Richards. Hamilton used around thirty pseudonyms, and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most prolific writer; he is credited with a lifetime total of 70 million words.

When I was a lad, in the 1940s and 1950s, there were still many boys’ comics, as they were known, which appeared weekly and regularly featured the same characters in short-story format (not pictures). The Rover, Champion, Wizard, and others, were famous for the exploits of such heroes as Wilson, the wonder athlete, Rockfist Rogan, the ace pilot who was also a boxer, Alf Tupper, the athlete known as the Tough of the Track, and dozens more.

A similar situation could be found in the magazines which were read by women – titles such as Woman’s Weekly, Woman, Woman’s Own, and so forth. Throughout my lifetime, all these magazines for women (and more like them) have been printing several short stories a week, and achieving circulations which are currently above half a million copies in each case.

Do the people who write stories for these women’s magazines ever get a mention in the official histories? Do they heck. Why not? Because they are writing for an audience which is mainly working class or middle class, of average intelligence or less, average education, largely unsophisticated, and of course, female. Such an audience simply does not count – indeed it barely exists – in the eyes of our official literary historians. The intelligentsia assume that anything which is enjoyed by readers of such modest abilities must, by definition, be absolute rubbish.

I do not accept this view myself, and I suspect that anyone who tries to write for the lowbrow market will soon discover that the job is by no means as easy as it seems.

Exactly the same state of affairs exists if we go up a notch on the intellectual scale. In the first half of the twentieth century, by far the most famous and financially successful short-story writer was Somerset Maugham. He wrote hundreds of stories, and some of them were made into films, such as Quartet in 1948 and Trio in 1959. Another of his stories, Rain, was filmed several times, most famously as Miss Sadie Thompson, with Rita Hayworth in the lead.

Maugham was a middlebrow writer to his core; almost anyone could read and enjoy what he wrote. And how is Maugham treated by our official historians? He barely rates a mention, naturally, and when he is mentioned he is sneered at. Here is Anthony Burgess once again, from the essay referred to above: ‘The first thing I wrote... was one of those cheating kind of short stories which Somerset Maugham indulged in: not a word of invention at all, but the mere recounting of an anecdote.’

Later in the same text, Burgess has another go: ‘With some shame, I have to mention the name of William Somerset Maugham, the most successful practitioner of the short story we’ve ever had in England.’ (Success is equated with shame.) Maugham, according to Burgess, was just repeating stories that he had heard on his travels in the Far East.

Maugham himself seems to have got the message about what the literary elite thought of him. In his autobiography he says: ‘It is a misfortune for me that the telling of a story just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favour with the intelligentsia.’

Burgess, and the other commentators who grudgingly mention Maugham’s name solely in order to denigrate his achievements, seem to me to be offering a less than fair assessment. Whatever else may be said, Maugham was a man who communicated successfully with a wide audience.

Not only do academic writers tend to overlook whole areas of fiction writing, but they are also likely to ignore the economic facts of life.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, magazines were a popular form of entertainment, and the stories printed within those magazines were often the feature that readers enjoyed most. As the twentieth century advanced, however, other forms of entertainment rapidly took over, and the readership of magazines declined.

The cinema, radio, television; gramophones, tape recorders, video recorders; 78s, 45s, LPs, CDs, DVDs – new sources of entertainment appeared almost year by year. As a result, the markets for short stories shrank to the point of vanishing entirely. H.E. Bates, in his book The Modern Short Story, first published in 1941, noted that even in the 1920s and ’30s it was said that the short story was unwanted, unprinted, and unread.

It was at this point that the literary magazine was invented. These subsidised, low-circulation journals exist for one reason only: to provide fodder for the great Eng. Lit. and creative-writing machines. Hence the prime requirement of anything published in such a place is that it should give any reader a sharp pain between the eyes. The more tedious the story, the better it suits the purpose of the professors, and therefore the more praise that is heaped upon it.

Back in the real world, there was, for all practical purposes, almost no commercial demand for short stories of any kind from about 1960 on. True, there were some crime and science-fiction magazines, such as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Analog; there were a few glossy magazines, such as The New Yorker and Playboy, which used occasional pieces of short fiction; and there were the women's magazines. But these were exceptions, and the likelihood that they would publish anything by a previously unknown writer was close to zero.

A few writers, mostly those who also wrote commercially successful novels, still managed to persuade their publishers to put out collections of short stories: Stephen King, Jeffrey Archer, and Maeve Binchy among them. These, of course, are again names which are ignored by the official historians of literature, because they are popular, easy to read, and therefore (it is said) valueless.

Some writers did manage to swim upstream, and make an impact primarily through their short stories, rather than by means of full-length fiction. Stanley Ellin made his mark in crime fiction; Harlan Ellison in science fiction and fantasy; Roald Dahl in mainstream fiction.

Not that any of these names was ever given any credit for his achievement by the intelligentsia. Here is Anthony Burgess on Dahl: he is ‘not a very good short-story writer, not a writer that you would study in a university course, but well known... His stories... have a point; they have a twist in the tale; something happens in them.’

Roald Dahl's stories were not the sort of thing that you would find yourelf studying in a unviersity course, precisely because they were readable and popular. But they were good enough to form the foundation of an enormously successful writing career. Twenty-five of the stories were used as the basis of a long-running television series called Tales of the Unexpected. One of Dahl’s books for children, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was chosen by readers of The Times as the most popular children’s book of all time, and was adapted into a hit movie. Dahl also wrote the script for the James Bond film, You Only Live Twice. Most of us would regard that output as the record of quite a good writer.

Today, the situation as regards the market for short stories is changing rapidly: the advent of the internet has led to the creation of new ways to reach new audiences. Dramatic changes in printing technology have also made it possible to produce books at a small fraction of the cost which would have been incurred in previous years.

These changes mean that there is now some point in writing short stories, where previously there was little point. I myself, for example, wrote a few short stories in my youth, but then never bothered to write any more for forty years, because there was almost nowhere to send them! In 2003, however, I published a book full of them: King Albert’s Words of Advice, available from at a bargain price. The only review that I have ever seen thought that they were pretty good too.

The internet, I suspect, will change the whole position as regards the short story. It will now be possible for a talented writer to make a reputation in her genre of choice in a relatively short period of time. Whether it will be possible for that writer to make any money out of the business remains to be seen.


Anonymous said...

Dear GOB,

Could you comment some time on what difference this blog has made to your ability to "get the books out"? I would be very interested in hearing...

I suppose this is the exception that proves the rule, but I was made to read great swaths of early and nineteenth-century American popular fiction in my jaunt through grad school--perhaps they don't do that anymore. Many of my teachers wouldn't have dreamed of ignoring books like Susannah Rowson's "Charlotte Temple" or Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans"; they had a traditional, historical approach which demanded that one look top-to-bottom at culture. I suppose that may be lost in the rule of the multi-culti and the -ist. As I kicked the dust of academia off my heels, I don't really know.

I also think an interesting area for this series on the story would be those special people who can bridge the gap and appeal to both high and low. It's not magic, but what exactly is it?

One thing you leave out is that the universities are positively wallowing in low culture these days; that is going to make a difference, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

It's refreshing to see someone speaking out on the true nature of the demise of the short story.

Commercial short stories are thriving in women's magazines. And it's true that they're not easy to write (my attempts were met with 100% failure - though I've had a fair number of literary stories published).

I like to read and write literary short stories, but I think we need to be realistic about the short story's place in today's competitive leisure market.

Anonymous said...

How refreshing it is to read your comments, whether about the "lit-ah-rary magazines" or writers who are lauded for (as I think you put it) doing little more than creating a pain between your eyes. I get so bored reading the pompous dronings of people who were desperate to become published and then, once so, became "writaws" of intellectual merit in their own minds--if no one elses. You're a breathe of fresh air, to be sure.

Anonymous said...

I hate Jeffrey Archer's short stories. And I've gone to great lengths to make fun of him.

Anonymous said...

You had an opportunity here to make an intelligent point about popular fiction and you flubbed it -- hard. Snarky comments about literary fiction (without exception) being boring, causing head pain, being pompous and unreadable, etc., etc. are lazy, unfair, and ultimately ignorant.

The purpose of much of literary fiction is not to appeal to a mass of readers, but rather to examine, dissect, reconstruct, and push farther a particular art form. Yes, ART FORM. Short story writing, even as it was practiced in the pulpiest of mags in the 30s was, and remains, an art form. Because literary fiction's primary goal is not to appeal to the greatest number of people and to sell the greatest number of units, naturally a lot of literary fiction DOES happen to be pompous, boring and unreadable. It happens. A lot of it is also challenging and exciting, if you come to it prepared to be challenged and excited, and NOT just looking for a quick and easy entertainment fix.

Practitioners of the "high" art end of the spectrum are like theoretical physicists (to follow your own analogy), coming up with theories that don't seem to apply to anything. Practitioners of the "low" art end of the spectrum constantly use craft elements and structural innovations invented by the literary types in your hated creative writing programs. They are like designers and engineers, who take new theories and develop technology out of them. There's a place for both.

I acknowledge the tension between "high" and "low" and find the distinctions between them often ridiculous and insulting, not to mention restrictive. I agree that much of literary fiction is stupid and boring and doesn't need to be, that literary fiction could benefit from keeping in mind that the art form requires that the product be, among other things, entertaining.

But you need to acknowledge that entertainment and pleasing an audience isn't the only thing that the art form is about. Any writer who truly approaches writing with the attitude that you've expressed in these posts is going to end up being an abominably bad writer, and every reader will be able to see it.

Anonymous said...

So what's in the Wikipedia is not true. This topic is perfect for my under-development term papers.

star said...
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star said...

Many short story writers define their work through a combination of creative, personal expression and artistic integrity. As a result, many attempt to resist categorization by genre as well as definition by numbers, finding such approaches limiting and counter-intuitive to artistic form and reasoning. As a result, definitions of the short story based upon length splinter even more when the writing process is taken into consideration.

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Andrea Bowers said...

I'm a Senior Undergrad student that was bored out of her mind trying to come up with an interesting way to approach an encyclopedic article on the short story. I've read and re-read the same info a hundred times this week. It seemed like everyone said the same thing, had the same definition. Your 2 posts on the short story's history were entertaining as well as informational. You mentioned people I had not read anywhere else and had not considered as influential. It has given me a spark of inspiration that I hope I can turn into something fun for my Professor. Thanks a lot for getting the wheels turning again.