A brief glance into the crystal ball
Health Canada advises that crystal ball gazing is hazardous to your credibility, yet we insist on doing it anyway. Call it an addiction.
Literary journalism is particularly addicted to the crystal ball these days, as publishing is in crisis — by which I mean to say only that publishing is in perhaps slightly greater crisis than it usually is. (We are doomed. When’s lunch?) The latest example is found in the pages of the Globe & Mail, which is to say, online at the Globe & Mail — a distinction I make because it will soon become important — wherein the ever-hapless John Barber endeavours to get a read on the future of publishing.
Among Barber’s “trends to watch” is the revival of the short story, which is exemplified by … well, pretty much nothing at all, as there’s no evidence of a “revival” in progress.
What there is, in place of evidence, is a great deal of hope that the new world of electronic publishing and e-books will lead to a renewed interest in the short story. It makes sense: your e-reader doesn’t care whether you read a thick tome, or a thin one, and the disappearance of distribution costs means that you can sell single stories, instead of relying on collections or magazines to carry them. But I’m a-gonna tell you, don’t bet on that horse.
The notion that electronic media will promote the short story as a form relies on rigid ideas of form that themselves are shaped by past media. New media is as likely to change a form as to revive its popularity.
Consider the novella. (All those who whine that the short story receives no respect should consider the novella at length, and shut up.) The novella has all but disappeared, and the reason is simple: the reader, that person who (in theory, at least) buys books, tends to buy by weight, not volume. The twenty-dollar price tag on that trade paperback becomes steadily less attractive as the book grows skinnier; to the reader, buying this thing is like paying full price to watch a 30-minute movie. And so, with the exception of a few writers who specialize in the form (Jim Harrison), nobody writes novellas.
The same pressure leads novels to grow thicker. A 400-page novel is more attractive than a slim, 200-page novel, even though that 400-page novel may consist of 200 pages of novel and 200 pages of filler, word meal and editing by-product. Some readers equate the thickness of the novel with its difficulty, and therefore with their prowess as readers, which explains in part the appeal of William Vollmann. Readers like doorstops, and so there is pressure to pump air into a story to make it bigger, pressure that is created by the medium in which it is delivered — the book, with its physical heft and price tag.
Similarly, the short story is a product of media. It was created by the magazine, and the constraints on its length are created in part by the number of column inches available in an issue, and in part by the attention span of magazine readers.
We have already seen how, when liberated from the constraints of the magazine, the short story may grow. Short stories in literary magazines today are unlikely to exceed 5,000 words (at most), but when published in a collection, are often much longer. This is not to make the book thicker, one hopes; you could instead include one more story. It should be because, freed of artificial constraints on its length, that story can grow to its natural dimensions.
I believe strongly that every story has natural dimensions. Some ideas lead to novels, and others to short stories. Some lead to novellas. Too often, we try to squeeze these things into a smaller space, to fit into a magazine, or inflate them to fill the expectations of a novel. The results are not good.
A new medium in which to deliver stories, one that puts paid to artificial constraints of length, is not likely to promote the short story so much as it is likely to make the boundaries between short story, novella and novel fuzzier. We will still have short stories in our brave new world, but only as defined by some arbitrary definition that uses word count to place short stories in one bucket, and novellas in another. The notion that length defines form, in that context, begins to look silly; if, for example, a short story is under 7000 words, can you define the formal differences between a 6,999-word short story, and a 7,001-word long story?
Perhaps, in the future, we’ll stop talking about short stories and novels and begin talking only about stories, and how they are told.