The Renaissance of Short Fiction

The New York Times has an article about the renaissance of the short story due to the rise of digital reading. Since this is the books section of the New York Times, the focus is of course on literary short fiction, usually published in single author collections or as Kindle Singles. Lee Child and Stephen King are mentioned in passing, while the fact that short fiction continued to thrive in the SF, fantasy and horror genres is omitted entirely.

Instead, there is a lot of theorizing about how technological changes have influenced both the writing and the consumption of short fiction. I don’t really buy the alleged technological influence on writing (growing up writing text messages does not necessarily make you a better writer), though I have said before (for example in this interview) that e-books and short fiction are a match made in heaven, because the length restrictions of print publishing no longer apply in e-publishing. Besides, short stories are ideal to read during your commute or lunch break. And it’s great that the New York Times has acknowledged the trend, even though they missed most of it.

But what really struck me about the New York Times article was this quote by Tom Perrotta, who is not just a well known writer but also edits the current edition of The Best American Short Stories. While sifting through submissions, Mr. Perrotta made the following observation:

“I felt like the story form has started to loosen up some,” he said. “And I was intrigued by the fact that a number of the stories felt novelistic — they were not 20 pages, but 40, and had shifting points of view and complicated structures.”

Congratulations! Tom Perrotta has just discovered the existence of novellas. And yes, I am stunned that an author of Mr Perrotta’s reputation apparently has never heard of novellas or novelettes before and that he believes that short fiction cannot have shifting POVs and complicated structures. You don’t even have to go to novella or novelette length stories to get multiple POVs. For example, Honeypot, Loot and The Kiss of the Executioner’s Blade all have more than one POV and none of them is longer than 4000 words, i.e. firmly in short story territory. As for complicated structures, short fiction is actually ideal for experiments in structure, voice and form. I also wonder what gave Tom Perrotta the impression that one cannot have multiple POVs or complicated structures in short fiction. It’s probably received wisdom that was peddled in university creative writing programs or included in the submission guidelines of The New Yorker (Do they actually have submission guidelines? I have to confess I never checked*) in the 1980s.

For a completely different approach to writing short fiction, the SFWA website has a neat article by James D. McDonald comparing writing a short story to baking a pie. There’s a recipe for an actual pie, too.

Now I feel that the pie metaphor is somewhat overextended and that there are very few stories that are completely beyond salvaging, though salvaging a story that does not work can require an almost complete rewrite. But I do like the idea of literary comfort food ingredients.

*Turns out The New Yorker has very vague submission guidelines, though they do accept email submissions, which puts them ahead of several genre magazines.

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4 Responses to The Renaissance of Short Fiction

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