Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The standards of literature, the uneven success of the contemporary short story, and the hurricanes of tech change

Several recent posts at other litblog sites have focused either on the question of what standards in literature are (and whether these standards can be upheld by a self-perceived elite) or on the importance of short fiction. The two types of posts have been largely unrelated; however, it seems to me there is something of a linkage in the sense that the enthusiasm some bloggers (such as Steven Beattie, Chad Pelley and Dan Wickett) express about the form of the short story is itself a backhanded declaration of faith in the ability of print publications -- in this case, publishing houses that put out collections of short fiction by individual authors -- to serve as accurate arbiters of what is best.

Whether this faith is justified is a question I don't know the answer to. But I do find that it is almost impossible to enter into this discourse with anything resembling a knowledgeable attitude for the simple reason that almost none of these collections are available to me (I live in South Korea), and, even if they were, I simply wouldn't have the money to buy them. They are -- and this will be a topic for a later post -- overpriced. And, given my past experience with the print short fiction form, I have felt burned enough times already by mediocre collections that I do not really want to repeat the experience in order to "be sure" I'm not missing out on a great piece of work.

Print short story collections have always been a staple of small press literary publishing; but they have rarely been big sellers. This lack of commercial success tends to create a vicious circle in which the collections are published, receive very little notice, and then languish in a twilight zone that isn't quite obscurity but is not very far removed from it. Critics such as those mentioned above try to combat the cycle by paying more attention to short story collections. And maybe these recent campaigns will ultimately pay off. However, for the time being, story collections have very small audiences. And one result of all this is that it is very difficult to have interesting discussions about particular short stories (not collections) by contemporary writers because the short stories are essentially isolated from an audience big enough to establish the kind of critical mass that's necessary for this kind of dialogue to arise organically.

A major part of the problem, it seems to me, is that technology has passed the short story by. Philip Marchand once accurately remarked that "TV killed the short story". As a concise explanation for what happened to short fiction and its place within the larger culture, this pretty sums up the idea that technological change did not kill the short story so much as marginalized it.

As far as I can tell, the short story as a print collection is a form that, for a variety of material reasons, will continue to have small audiences with its readership being disconnected. Experimenting with some of my own work, I've tried to re-think the short story and the way in which it can be published not only in print but also online as a type of narrative that is suited to the internet's technological strengths. Part one of such an experiment is below:

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