American writers of short stories used to be regarded as less prominent than novelists. In fact, many readers would anxiously await their favorite short-story authors to embark on a novel, as they considered their short stories something of a warm-up exercise. And when that novel was born, such writers would often be referred to by the media as “debut authors.” Fortunately, that changed.
Take Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and John Updike, to name a few. All produced longer works, but their literary reputations rested on their shorter works . . . some of the most powerful American fiction produced in the second half of the 20th century. Reading such collected stories of the 1950s and 1960s, one wonders if novels were as popular. In those days, magazines were widely circulating, with short stories being notably featured.
Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, the glory of short stories began to diminish, followed by a rebirth in the last ten to 15 years. Yet very few national publications—aside from The New Yorker and several others—regularly feature short stories. While the expansiveness of such magazines and journals has waned, the short story continues to survive—and thrive, due to a host of factors.
Many readers desire brevity. Extreme examples such as blog posts and tweets can say a lot in just a few words. Though their wide acceptance may be gone tomorrow, most people will continue to get to the essence of subject matter via their Kindles, I-pods, and other vehicles. The short story has managed to find readership online, with Internet-based publications featuring such stories, as newspapers did a century ago. Still, tangible books of short story collections remain visible objects on bookshelves, coffee tables, and nightstands.
While some publishers look for manuscripts that stay within the 300 to 400-page range, excellent novels of all lengths are alive and well. Yet the great American novel, no matter how short or long, has neither replaced nor lessened the great American short story today. Outstanding stories are still being written by distinguished authors, such as Toni Morrison, Tobias Wolff, Joyce Carol Oates, Stuart Dybek, Ann Beattie, and a host of other excellent writers. And those captivating stories continue to be sought after and well-received by readers.
-Francine Pappadis Friedman
Who is your favorite short story writer? Let us know in the comments!
One thought on “Short and Sweet: The American Short Story”
One thing that helped short stories spread was the rise of paperback books, which could be cheaply produced with pulp paper in large volume. This began in the 1940s as a result of wartime paper shortages. Short stories became popular with a growing middle class who wanted to read stories about characters like themselves.