The other day I was at a coffee shop with a fellow writer and we were discussing the current state of American literature, short fiction in particular. She looked at me over her cappuccino and asked what sort of writing I thought paid best.
I sipped my double espresso and thought for a moment. “My best guess is … I’d have to say it’s the screenplay.”
As good comedians do, she paused before the punchline. “Nope, it’s the ransom note.”
I chuckled and she grinned, but the irony behind the joke wasn’t lost on me and I wanted to come up with a relevant if not clever response. I pulled thoughtfully at my chin.
“What I don’t get is why so many people are writing short stories. There’s no money in it. Writers don’t get laid bragging about how many publications they have, and as far as I can tell, other than moth-eaten academics and littérateurs, the average American doesn’t even read short fiction.”
“Write a great short story and it might become a movie,” she offered. “Broke Back Mountain comes to mind.”
“I’m not sure that qualifies as a great story. But the bottom line is, unless you’re hooked up with someone who can pull strings, the odds of that happening are about the same as winning the state lottery.”
She shrugged and glanced at her wristwatch. I finished my expresso. The desire for literary tête-à-tête had deserted us both, although our conversation had got me thinking about a couple things.
Back in the literary good old days, writers such as Hemingway or F. Scot Fitzgerald earned good money writing short fiction. Believe it or not, F. Scot made more money cranking out stories for glossy magazines than he made from his novels. “The Great Gatsby,” for example, sold poorly.
In contrast, in today’s short-fiction flea market, the average minor-league writer feels mighty lucky to get a hundred bucks for a story, and more often than not settles for zero pay (the prevalent practice among academic journals) under the expectation of gaining valuable exposure. Exposure you say … exposure to what? Maybe a famous literary agent will discover you or your story will be so powerful and moving that a groundswell of readers will demand more of your work. If you believe that, I have a bridge in San Francisco I want to sell you. My sarcasm aside, the odds of “being discovered” are abysmally dismal. So don’t hold your breath.
As long as we are on the subject, let me briefly share my experiences regarding the challenge of gaining exposure. I became serious about writing short fiction about fifteen years ago, but it took almost five years and hundreds submissions (and I mean hundreds) until I finally placed a story in a reputable though relatively obscure academic journal in Tennessee. It seems my writing skills were on the rise because the gates slowly opened and within five or so years I had somewhere around a dozen publications in middleweight academic journals, including universities in Canada and Great Briton.
To date my résumé includes nearly two dozen academic publications, from California to New York, Florida to Idaho, and about double that number counting online publications. The point of this is to point out that of these published works only one drew any attention from anybody in the pantheon of publishers or literary agents. My story Little Man, published in “The Long Story,” in Massachusetts in 2014, caught the eye of a well-established literary agent in New York City. He sent an email and said he was very impressed. When we talked on the phone he asked if I had written any novels.
“Six,” I said, “although the first four were practice.”
He chuckled and enthusiastically offered to read some sample chapters. I told him I’d rather submit a short-story collection. He informed me that major book publishers currently weren’t interested in short fiction unless the author already had a successful novel. This of course begs the question as to why anyone would bother building a short story résumé—or if it would make any difference to begin with. The way to advance oneself as a writer is by writing a novel and having the luck and connections to get it published and promoted. Skip the short stories; short story collections don’t sell. Never mind that the skills necessary to write short fiction do not necessarily carry over to the art of writing a novel, and vice versa.
If you’re wondering what became of my opportunity with the literary agent, I sent in 50 pages of what I figured was my most polished and publishable novel. Turned out he didn’t even read the submission; it was handed off to the agency’s apprentice, a dogmatic young woman (no doubt a recent MFA grad) who dismissed the work with all the jargon-type buzz phrases and nitpicking common to the trade. I didn’t need a short-story résumé to get a generic rejection. For chrissake, I could have gotten that all by myself.
So anyway, having set the stage with a little literary chinwag, let’s move on and have a closer look at the current state of fictional affairs. Not too long ago I came across an anthology of short fiction at the local library’s free books stand—the one’s even the library doesn’t want. The grand exulted wizard of dime-store scary fiction, Stephen King, in his introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2007, informed us that from a commercial standpoint/analysis, the short story was alive but not doing very well. He went on to conclude: “The current condition is stable, but apt to deteriorate in the years ahead.”
Well … it’s been just about ten years and it looks like the grand wizard was right; although for the sake of perspective, having read the stories in that particular collection—the so-called cream of the crop—short fiction wasn’t just ailing in 2007, it was terminally ill. Not to pick on Stephen King, biggest selling author in the history of the known universe, but it seems odd that the old hack-master was chosen to affirm the literary merits of short stories, an art form over which most critics/pundits would deny his mastery. Make no mistake, as an aspiring writer, I’d noticed the decline of short fiction long before SK offered his weighty diagnosis … but who hadn’t?
To begin the eulogy of this dying if not mummified art form, let’s begin with this observation. After perusing the Contributors’ Notes in the 2007 collection, a curious fact jumped out at me. Of the twenty stories included in this onslaught of mediocrity, seventeen of the authors were MFA graduates, literature professors, or both, and not a single writer appeared to be from a non-academic background. Certainly none was what I would call working-class, based on their blurbs and biographies; suffice to say, however, this is an inequity I’ve found true of most major literary magazines and anthologies.
What does this suggest? One possibility is that sans graduate-level literary training, people are simply incapable of mastering the techniques and skills necessary to produce excellent fiction—assuming we grant the monotone twaddle of the 2007 assemblage such superlative status. Another possibility might be that the verbal intelligence required for high-level writing is something only possessed by those residing at the extreme high-end of the infamous bell curve, and that naturally those individuals tend to garner such things as advanced degrees and professorial appointments. Although, as a side note, and in interesting contrast to the current atmosphere of academically driven fiction, this trend was by no means always the case. Tendered for your consideration is a list of celebrated and in some cases, great writers from the 19th and 20th centuries who held no advanced literary diplomas: Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Katherine Ann Porter, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scot Fitzgerald, J. D. Salinger, Ray Bradbury, Kerouac, Bukowski, Mary Shelley, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky … and the list goes on.
During the 1920s and 30s, when the likes of Hemingway, F. Scot Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and others were making names for themselves and doing well selling short fiction, there wasn’t such a wide range of competition. No television—that’s the big one—and the movie industry was in its infancy; there was no computer technology, no Internet and recorded music was limited, no CDs, DVDs, etc. In 1925, people in search of entertainment read a book or magazine, went to the theater, listened to live music or watched silent films. Reading, as a pastime, held a sizable market share of entertainment’s then less extravagant menu, and I have no doubt that all modern forms of amusement have cut deeply into territory once enjoyed by literature.
Nevertheless, as late as the 1960s or 70s, short fiction was alive and well; witness for example writers such as J. D. Salinger, Flannery O’Conner, Vonnegut or even Ray Bradbury.
Another factor may have to do with money. I’ve read about writers paid generously for their short fiction. Popular magazines of the 1920s and 30s and even the 40s were willing to shell out hundreds, sometimes thousands to grace their publications with literary heavyweights. Adjusted for inflation (as much as 10-12 times today’s money) it is clear that a good living was available through the art of short fiction. I haven’t personally researched this but I’ve read it enough times to believe it is true; F. Scot wasn’t the only writer of that era who made the bulk of his income writing for glossy magazines.
Nowadays I can’t think of any writer who makes big money from periodicals; therefore, why writers in general—particularly those lower on the food chain—continue to produce truckloads of short fiction baffles me. Where’s the motive?
Maybe it’s a positive trend that people write for reasons other than money or for the popular limelight; yet on the other hand, there is another aspect in all this that is not necessarily altruistic. In the academic world there’s an old saying: Publish or perish. It certainly applies to the sciences and I greatly suspect it applies in literature as well. As a budding professor eager to ascend the academic ladder, publishing is desirable if not crucial; consequently, the motivation, albeit money or in some secondary sense prestige, is primarily focused on a proviso having less to do with the quality or integrity of the art form and more to do with achieving a desired end. Put another way, the end is more important than the means. Competition in an open marketplace is not necessarily part of the equation, and although some might say that the litany of literary magazines and the awards and anthologies they spin off is a competitive, free-market environment, I think the assumption is naïve.
People in business, academia, and other walks in life, often refer to a well-worn word: Networking. And it comes as no surprise that a fair percentage of individuals who attend prestigious universities do so not solely for the education, but for academic status and the social and professional networking possibilities. Something made clear by the contributors’ notes mentioned earlier, and the plethora of academics dominating them, is that—put in the vernacular—there be some serious networking going down out there, that’s how we roll!
In the intellectual community of professors, literary magazine editors, and the publishers and professionals ascended from their ranks, the temptation for mutual back scratching and a club-type atmosphere appears prevalent. So where does this lead? I am fond of an analogy I once cooked up in an attempt to explain to a friend how it felt to suffer the difficulties and indignities of trying to break into the esoteric realm of big-time literature. It went something like this: It’s like being a black man in Selma, Alabama in 1950, trying to get a membership to the all-white country club … brother it ain’t about the golf game!
You got that right … and if the modern short story is indeed a dying art form, the voice dying along with it is monopolized by a narrow crosscut of our population and culture. It is the voice of a hefty herd of academically trained writers nurtured in the green pastures of colleges and universities.
The previously mentioned 2007 collection of the so-called best of American short stories, as far as my tastes were concerned, was a dull and wearisome reading experience. In some cases the word irksome came to mind. It seemed much of the writing had been generated by variations on a single voice, with cookie-cutter sameness, and if I randomly pasted together paragraphs, a reader would obviously notice changes in storyline or subject, but not experience any real transformation in style. In this way, with regards to topic or plot, the differences may have varied in one sense and yet remained engendered by a narrow perspective on life. Among the golden boys and girls of academia, people who have spent years in the ivory towers of higher education, I wonder how many of them have actually experienced a broader spectrum of human life. Who among them has spent a decade or more working in a coal mine or oil refinery, worked years in a factory or on a farm, been in the military or fought in a war, known poverty, been stuck washing dishes, digging ditches, been a construction or postal worker, had trouble with the law, suffered drug addiction, walked on the dark side of life, crime, barroom brawls, hard drinking? How many among them have seen life from a perspective other than privileged? Of course there are exceptions, but I’m convinced that the general rule stands.
When it comes to six, seven or even eight years enrolled in prestigious universities, there aren’t many who can afford the experience unless they’ve arrived from the ranks of the moneyed fortunate. Remember the Bob Dylan line from Like a Rolling Stone, when he said: “Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people … thinking that they got it made.”
And the truth is … they do, just ask the one-percent club.
One of the problems in our great country is that something like one percent of the population has about thirty-eight percent of the wealth; we are no longer a government by and for the people but a government by and for the rich. This creates imbalance, and in a parallel sense the same applies to literature, even beyond our discussion of the short story. Literature does not for the most part arise from the people or their culture or mores in the largest sense; it is by and for the benefit of the privileged. That isn’t to say that pulp or popular fiction isn’t tailored to appeal to specific markets, of course it is, yet the deeper implication resides elsewhere.
It has to do with promotion and marketing. Madison Avenue is built in part on the theory that a clever campaign can sell refrigerators to Eskimos.
I hearken back to the 1960s and the Beatles, a natural force that arose with the times, but because there was huge money to be mined from the cultural tides, it didn’t take long for ambitious promoters to create Beatle clones known as the Monkeys; individually speaking, the four lads who donned Monkey costumes were true lightweights, and none had even a micron of the sort of talent that fate and the muses had endowed John and Paul with, yet that didn’t hinder the process. Advertising in the purest sense is a proclamation of excellence, a comparison demonstrating the superiority of one product over another. Propaganda, on the other hand, is deliberate deception whose intention rests on the process of indoctrination, and the frightening truth is that advertising has evolved into a form of propaganda. I’ll come back to this detour later in the discussion.
When I examine the contributors’ notes of literary magazines and anthologies, and discover that the vast majority of the work is spawned by university academics, I must ask a question: Whom are these people writing for other than themselves? Are working-class people and non-academics enthralled by the fictionalized lives and antics of literary pretty people, enamored of their constricted if not pampered perspectives on life?
I’m certainly not. Consequently it seems the short story in many cases has undergone de-evolution, academics writing for other academics, staggering forward with their assembly line, technique-driven notions about what constitutes good storytelling or superior writing. And unfortunately these ambitious folks have a strangle hold the literary scene, which is by the way devilishly proficient at excluding would-be interlopers.
If my working hypothesis is accurate, what remains is academic elitism dominating the arena of short-story publishing. No wonder the mortuary has already ordered the headstone. How could short fiction survive when it typically represents the mentality and temperament of such a small minority? Who among the vanishing middle class, or the growing working-class or poor people, wants to read about the life experiences and outlooks of professors and their protégés, and all the other happy and well-fed insiders? And even when some of these golden boys and girls attempt to don work shirts and blue jeans, which isn’t often, the writing reeks of the very frame and fiber from within which it was conceived: formulas, techniques, workshop writing-by-committee, formulas on how to be non-formulaic, thesaurus-inspired multisyllabic words and all the rest.
Should we dismiss the technical and formulated aspects of literature? Of course not, they date back to the early Greeks. But neither should we find ourselves in circumstances wherein one-sidedness and a literary totalitarianism of sorts speaks mostly of itself at the exclusion of the rest. There’s room and even some necessity for academically grown literature, yet when it becomes the mainstay, the rule and prevalent force, it invites a sterile and incestuous environment that leads to an unhealthy gene pool. To the sort of malformation and infirmity that besieges not only the short story but also literature as a whole. Add to this the ever-expanding beast known as the corporate conglomeration, with widespread extinction of small and midsize enterprise, be it family farmers, the Mom & Pop stores, or independent businesses, and what we get is the corporate imaging of America, which in my opinion is a precarious if not tragic development.
America has become top heavy—as in lead. The disparity between the super-rich and the rest of us is larger now than it was in 1929, before the great stock market crash. Moreover, grave illness often reveals itself in symptoms arising in the body’s various parts and extremities; by the same token, the corporate takeover of America through political corruption—aided by media-driven indoctrination of the citizens—has not only undermined the quality of life for average persons, it has led to an elitist brand of literature.
Does this directly indict the academic insiders that dominate short fiction? Not absolutely, but it exposes a trend that points to the greater disease as it manifests itself in specific aspects of the larger whole. Unfortunately, pointing out problems is usually easier than coming up with solutions, and I admit I don’t have any pat answers about rescuing the short story or any other form of literature. One avenue of recourse is clear insomuch as purchasing power is a lot like voting. There exists a large contingent of what I call fringe or underground publishing that is gaining a foothold in America, small literary magazines produced by rebellious and dedicated individuals offering up alternatives to corporate and academic literature. How do these fair? In some cases the fiction and/or poetry is not very good; in other cases it can be very good, and for my tastes a hell of a lot better than most of the homogenized Styrofoam that oozes forth from the ranks of the literarily privileged.
A dollar spent is a vote cast, just like politics. Are we sick of Washington insiders and all the political/corporate conspiracies destroying our great nation? Kick the SOBs out, I say, line ‘em up and horsewhip ‘em! Get their sleek muzzles out of the feeding trough. We the people demand better! And I believe that the same applies to literature. If change is not demanded it ain’t going to happen … on that I’m pretty damn clear.