While the short story may have gone relatively unnoticed in years past, there’s been a huge revival of the form in both critical and commercial circles alike. This year saw stellar releases from George Saunders, Jess Walter, Karen Russell (fresh off her Swamplandia! Pulitzer nomination) and many more. And that’s to say nothing of the works coming out of our neighbor to the north. Between Alice Munro’s monumental Nobel win and Lynn Coady garnering the Scotiabank Giller Prize (Canada’s top literary honor) for her short story collection, perhaps the Great American Novel is losing momentum to the Great Canadian Short Story.
But why now? Why are short stories having a cultural moment in 2013, and what is it about the form that makes it so perfect for the modern era? Perhaps in a media-saturated culture that values brevity and instant gratification, à la the 140-character limit of Twitter, we crave narratives that are compact yet complete. To a generation raised on blogs, there is something immensely satisfying about reading bite-sized tales that are just as memorable as any 500-page tome. Less is more, more so than ever.
Whether we’re reading about centuries-old vampire couples falling out of love (in Karen Russell’s stellar collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove) or visiting experimental, dystopian prisons (as in “Escape from Spiderhead,” just one of George Saunder’s entries in his masterful collection The Tenth of December) in just one sitting, we’re introduced to indelible characters, transported to entirely new universes and then released from them just as swiftly as we came. Yet, still, they linger in our minds long after we’re done turning the page. It’s a bizarre and rare scenario in which our short attention spans are not only challenged, but rewarded, through reading.
Of course, this short story resurgence coincides with emerging technology that is tailor-made for the distribution of the form. If there’s one culprit to credit for this phenomenon, it’s definitely the rise of e-readers. Take the Kindle Singles program, for instance. It started in 2011 and allows digital, short pieces to be sold for prices as low as 99 cents, thus allowing short stories to be prominently and frequently published.
The program also gives greater exposure (and sales) to up-and-coming writers; for under a dollar, readers can take a chance on a new, literary voice. And even established authors, like Stephen King, Amy Tan, Susan Orlean and Lee Child, have taken part in the program. While it’s impossible to tell if more short stories are being written now than ever before, they’re certainly selling more: over five million Kindle Singles alone have been sold since the program’s launch. Writers also get to keep over 70% of the royalties from Kindle Singles, so it’s a business model that benefits readers and authors alike. Given the numbers, it’s unlikely the trend will die down.
Long live the short form.