Where Have All the Short Works of Literature Gone?

The last time I walked into a chain bookstore, I searched the shelves for short story collections, novellas, poetry, one-act plays. And I naturally found almost nothing. Going to a chain bookstore is an exercise in frustration for the reader looking for shorter works of literature. Anthologies of American short stories—with the same pieces by Poe, Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Faulkner—abound. Other common items are anthologies of “the greatest poems of the English language” (none of which seem to agree—one anthology will have T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” another will offer “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a third will present “The Hollow Men”). And one-act plays—unless the reader happens to have an unending love affair for Neil Simon—are harder yet to find. Novellas are at the bottom of the totem pole. Too long to be a short story, not quite long enough to be a novel. It seems that the only way to publish a novella is to have a name (like Ian McEwan or Philip Roth) and to have your publisher dress up the novella like a novel; McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Roth’s Everyman—despite what their covers say—are really novellas in disguise. Both weigh in at about 200 pages, but the large font size and the wide margins indicate that somebody in the design department wanted these things to look like novels.

Even anthologies such as The Best American series provide, at best, a glimpse of short literature. Everything else—the collections by one author, for instance—are picked up by university presses. Granted, I’m happy that university presses are picking up the slack, but Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks are not in the practice of keeping their shelves stocked with the latest publications from the University of Michigan Press or the Susquehanna University press or anywhere else, for that matter. I am convinced that there are lots of great stories, great poems, great plays, and great novellas/short novels out there. But nobody can get them because the chain bookstores are selling the “big” things and—as a post from last week argues—mixes in literature with everything else, anyway.

And even getting a short work out in the first place is difficult. In the novella course this semester, I noticed immediately that all of the novellas we read in class were part of some other collection. Then Steve Yarbrough, one of the visiting novelists, pointed out that in European countries, a person can go into a bookstore and find novellas, printed by themselves. (Granted, this is obviously hearsay because I’m taking his word for it, but I don’t doubt that America and Europe have different literary cultures. That he is married to the Polish literary translator Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough and spends several months of each year in Krakow only makes his claim more reputable.) I don’t think this problem ends just with literature, either. People will purchase seasons of television shows and movies, but when did you last hear common people—not just film nuts—talk about short films?

And the same is true of short stories and essays and poems. Who talks about them, aside from story writers and essayists and poets? Stephen King, in his introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2007 concludes that the American short story was alive, but not well. I can hardly wonder why.

Last weekend I went to D.J. Ernst Used Bookstore in Selinsgrove, where I purchased a copy of Iris Murdoch’s “Something Special.” Yes, this is not a typo—“Something Special” is a single short story. Fifty-one wonderful pages, written in Murdoch’s smart, thoughtful, and crisp prose, this single story was published by W.W. Norton in November 2000, almost a year-and-a-half after Murdoch’s death. It was a rare pleasure to find a single story, published in hardcover by a major house. I read it the other night, and reading this book reminded me of the joy in sitting down to read something short, brilliant, and slight. And because of this, I have to wonder how Americans can meet fantastic literature. Our bookstores are not selling gems like Murdoch’s “Something Special.” And that’s something that I find terribly unsettling.

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4 comments

  1. Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain got out of the collection and published on its own after the film was made. …. And there’s a lovely novella translated from Italian called “Silk”, I think by Baricco that you may want to try.

    There’s no shortage of great short works out there but I agree that there seems to be a lack of heart in promoting them.

    I run a secondhand bookstore so will admit to an element of bias at times against the “commodity” approach of some of the chain bookstores and the lack of range/depth behind the apparently full shelves. Go to our nearest one and taking a look at the C20th poetry is a big disappointment – multiple copies of around 20 authors but no real depth – in the same shelfspace we might have 200 authors represented!

  2. It’s clear all around that the short story is dying. I was most fascinated by the eternal gripers of the rejection blog who came up with some depressing figures on this. I don’t think the situation is good right now and it will need a miraculous recovery. Can blogs do it somehow? I hope so.

    Yes, there are some collections and yes there are a lot of little journals, but – so what? Getting your story in a journal will not entail anything. It won’t mean a lot of people will read it. So what’s the point?

    Short stories are dead.

  3. Are chain bookstores refusing to stock novellas, or are publishers backing away from buying and printing them? What does this say about us as readers and consumers?
    Many literary journals publish short fiction, but chain bookstores don’t stock many journals, either.

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