Stephen King writes the introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2007, which he edited, and which I really must get hold of. Dave Lull kindly told me that the intro was published in the New York Times, and it is eminently worth reading. Theme: Is the American short story alive? Yes. Is the American short story well? No.
Now, as it happens I don't really enjoy Mr King's novels at all. We won't go into why. But several decades ago, when Mr King was a newbie, a leading American agent told me that, even if you don't like his material, you had to admit that, by God, the man could write.
He still can. And he puts his finger very precisely on what is wrong with the modern short story, whether American or otherwise. It's pussy-whipped, that's what's wrong with it. I speak metaphorically, and I paraphrase Mr King, but that's the gist of his argument. And the pussy to whom vast numbers of modern short-story writers are beholden is the vain hope that they might actually, one day, get published in the New Yorker. As if that goal was one which any sane person would consider important! The New Yorker short story is traditionally one in which absolutely nothing happens.
The audience for short stories has shrunk to the point where most of those reading the few magazines that still publish such stories are reading them in order to find out what gets published there, in the hope that they can do the same; and thus win a fellowship, or a teaching post somewhere, or acquire reputation as a writer of sensitivity and style. Thought and care for the kind of reader who used to read the pulp magazines and now watches football or reads the tabloids is a long way from their mind.
King read some hundred of stories before making the final selection for his anthology, and many of them, he says, 'felt show-offy rather than entertaining'. They were 'written for editors and teachers rather than readers', and they read like a 'fraidy-cat's writing-school imitation of Faulkner, or some stream of consciousness about what Bob Dylan once called "the true meaning of a pear".'
This is a recipe for disaster, as is blatantly obvious to anyone who bothers to read a so-called literary magazine.
Stephen King's intro to his 2007 collection is worth reading for its wonderful, loose, easy style, if for nothing else. Look how he expresses the truth with such informal but absolutely spot-on phrases as 'fraidy-cat's writing-school imitation'.
Fortunately, all is not entirely lost. There are places where you can find some stories which set out to entertain rather than impress, if you search hard enough, but by golly you have to search. And if there is one message which comes through from Mr King, with my endorsement, it is this: don't be afraid to write the damn thing. Do it your way. For preference, give it some balls, or the female equivalent. And for all our sakes, pay no attention to any of those creative-writing people.
'Talent,' says King, 'can't help itself; it roars along in fair weather or foul, not sparing the fireworks.' So, light the blue touch-paper and step well back.
Arising out of Stephen King's essay Maud Newton acts as hostess to short-story writer Jean Thompson, who nicely summarises some of the comment which the King NYT essay produced.
And, if you have the time and patience, you might care to look back at my own earlier statement of the position which is now so eloquently expounded by Mr King. On 16 March 2005, I gave some account of the official history of the short story; and then, on 17 March 2005, I provided a true history of the short story. These two essays are, I think, on reading them again, good combative stuff. And I stand by every word.