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April 13, 2005

Kelly Jane on Short Stories

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

If attention spans are growing shorter yet the appetite for fiction is remaining constant, then why aren't people reading more short fiction? Kelly Jane Torrance ponders this question as well as others in a good article for DoubleThink.

I also enjoyed an observation-plus-musing from one of the commenters on Kelly Jane's piece. It goes like this:

Part of the problem, I believe, is that there are fewer and fewer people reading, period -- but especially fewer who are reading so-called "literary" fiction. I work part-time in a municipal library and rarely does anyone under the age of 40 come in to borrow a book; most of our readers are in their fifties, sixties and seventies. The teens and twentysomethings who come in do so to use the Internet (and they're not accessing sites that feature writing). And the readers who come in are not looking to borrow "serious" fiction or poetry. It's romances and legal thrillers and pop nonfiction.

In short, I see the demise of the short story as just an early symptom of the demise of recreational reading. In a generation, I'm not sure that anyone will be reading for enjoyment -- and if people do read, it probably won't be a traditional print book.

I'm afraid I agree with this commenter: I can't see much reason to think that books -- or even reading-for-enjoyment in the way we currently understand the activity -- will play much of a role in the culture in 50 or 100 years. Can you?



posted by Michael at April 13, 2005


First to the question of short fiction (my knowledge runs mostly to fantasy and science fiction; I don't know how well it generalizes):

Short fiction doesn't make much money for its authors, especially compared to the time required to write it (one of the most prestigious venues in fantasy and science fiction is "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction" -- F&SF, which advertises paying a minimum of $0.05/word, for example). Novel-length fiction (or non-fiction) is a much better investment of time. The only thing driving any author to write short is a desire to break in to the field, and the odds against that are extraordinarily high.

Also, long is fashionable, in part for economic reasons. I can buy two issues of F&SF for about the same price as one 1000-page doorstop. It's super-sized fiction, and popular for much the same reasons as super-sized meals -- if a little is good, a lot must be better.

And the doorstop is likely to be written by an author that I know that I've liked in the past, quite probably from a series of books whose theme I have enjoyed. Short fiction tends to be presented in a sort of grab-bag fashion. Even if each piece is a perfectly formed gem of literary excellence, sometimes I'm not interested in a diamond, emerald, or sapphire; only a ruby will do. By analogy, a collection of short fiction is often (usually?) like a collection of short films that includes a western, a tear-jerker, a hard-boiled crime drama, and a romance. While any one of these could be exactly what I'm looking for, it's unlikely that all of them will be what I'm looking for at any given time.

On the issue of what (or whether) "we" will be reading in 50-100 years:

With all the usual disclaimers about how it's impossible to tell, I think I disagree with your position. Oh, I don't think our children and grandchildren will read the same sorts of books we read, just as we don't read what our grandparents read. After all, "War and Peace" was once thought to be improbably long*. I do think that long-form written fiction (probably using a completely different delivery method than that used for most books now) will still be a viable industry.

It will also be, as it has always been, a minority interest. (Most people do not now, did not in the past, and will not in the future, read fiction regularly for pleasure.)


*Amazon reports the Penguin Classics edition of "War and Peace" is 1472 pages long. By comparison, the 10th book in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series is 864 pages long and the story is nowhere near done.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 13, 2005 8:43 PM

I read primarily literary fiction (and occasionally read short fiction, most recently David Foster Wallace's Oblivion, as well as the annual O. Henry Award winners), but I hardly ever enter a library, despite access to a university system. Perhaps there's an (income-, education-, or age-related) selection bias here, as I prefer to own my books.

Of course, I also live less than a quarter-mile from an enormous Borders, too, and couldn't tell you if asked where the closest public library is located.

Posted by: Michael on April 13, 2005 10:42 PM

Public libraries in some communities are not particularly user-friendly. Hours are not always convenient for working people, and at the risk of sounding a little snobbish some libraries tend to attract a less-than-desirable element.

Posted by: Peter on April 13, 2005 11:31 PM

Doug -- You're right, there are a lot of incentives that work against short fiction. Still, wouldn't you think that readers would demand it? But I've never fully understood the desire some people seem to have to sink into a novel for weeks on end myself -- my own appetite for longform prose fiction is fairly limited. I think one important element is one you're raising, which is the American love of getting a lot for your money. Publishers tell me that Americans buy bulk: they want a fat book, a lot of paper, basically, when they spend their dough. (All you can eat, I guess is the comparison.) At the same time, they want to move through the book at a good clip. Result: you'll notice a lot of bestseller-wannabe type novels that have lots of paper, but also lots of white space: short chapters, big margins. That way you can read what looks like a 400 page novel lickety split (because it's really a 200 page novel). Americans, eh? I wish there were some way to get them used to the idea of paying a little more for quality, which might mean getting more pleasure if somewhat less bulk. New Urbanism instead of big-barn suburbia. And maybe short fiction instead of overstuffed blockbusters.

Michael, Peter -- I haven't used a library myself in years. Amazon and the good physical bookstores (and the fact that as a middle-aged guy I've got a slightly larger budget than I did as a just-graduated kid in my 20s) mean that it's easier to buy books. I wonder how many kids today ever develop the habit of visiting the library. Come to think of it, I wonder what will become of libraries in 20 or 50 years. Still, from what I've seen, it seems pretty clear that younger people view books in a very different light than older people do -- they're one media option among many.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 14, 2005 12:07 AM

Hmmm, do people really read less today than, say, 40 years ago? Is that an established fact, or just a suspicion? 40 years ago I was a fixture at my excellent local library in Birmingham, Michigan; but today in California, at least one of my daughters is never without a book. I guess that makes my personal experience sort of a wash. However, it is clear that my family has moved from checking out library books to buying them at Barnes and Noble or on Amazon. Partly that is a function of more money (in my childhood, buying a book you could rent for free from a library would have been like spitting on the flag), but it also seems a function of the generally low level of intellectual infrastructure in L.A. (bad schools, crummy public libraries.) Although I guess it also reflects the increased role of electronic media, including the Internet. But does that mean that reading has evolved, or diminished?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 14, 2005 1:29 AM

For me, the library has one big advantage over Amazon et al: it is free. And a minor advantage is that my apartment doesn't fill up with books that I have no place to store.

The "people aren't going to read anymore" conversation has come up on this blog before, and I have the same reaction now that I've always had: people have never really read that much. Only a small fraction of the population was ever into reading "literary fiction" and I really doubt that that number has changed. Its just that (1) the audience for literary fiction appears so much smaller now that there are so many more bigger audiences for other stuff out there and (2) "literary fiction" no longer has the same kind of cultural importance it once did. I think this second point may be the big one driving the gloom and doom theories of "reader death": "lit fic" was always aimed at an elite, but, in the past, the rest of the culture was supposed to pay attention or at least pay homage to something that they it would never understand or enjoy. The culture at large was supposed to embrace the idea of "lit fic" even if most people never actually read any of it. Another factor is that "lit fic" writers once had greater prestige, which they've lost for a number of reasons.

But, speaking purely anecdotally, me and my two brothers, and 5 out of 10 of our cousins all read literary fiction on a fairly regular basis. However, out of my parents' generation, only 1 out of 10 of my uncles and aunts has ever read "lit fic", and, as far as I know, none of my grandparents (or their siblings) ever read the stuff either (the taste of these older folks running towards mysteries and spy thrillers).

Posted by: J.W. Hastings on April 14, 2005 8:31 AM

Library Journal

Book Buying Survey [of public libraries] 2005--The Turnaround
By Barbara Hoffert -- 2/15/2005

Our annual survey shows budgets are up and fiction is surging.

[. . .]

The rise of fiction
So what are the new neighbors (and, for that matter, longtime residents) actually reading? The answer is fiction, fiction, and more fiction, which for the first time since this survey was initiated squeezed ahead of nonfiction in its share of public library budgets. Just two years ago, fiction claimed 38 percent of the budget; last year, its share jumped to 45 percent; now it accounts for 52 percent. The public library, the one-time entertainment center that with the age of technology became the community's information center, has become the place to meet all these needs.

One reason for fiction's success is that libraries have focused so sharply on popular materials, and fiction is what patrons want to read. It's certainly no surprise that the top fiction in public libraries mirrors the best sellers lists. The popularity of genre fiction also continues unabated, with Christian fiction the runaway favorite in terms of increased interest (it was claimed by three-quarters of LJ's respondents compared with 60 percent for mystery).

But more literary titles do well, too, often propelled by book clubs. Just as the clubs lifted Yann Martel's Life of Pi to the forefront three years ago, so they have lifted Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner (see "Hot Reads in Libraries," below). In the end, the fiction is as varied as the population being served. Offering three unusual titles--Robert Rankin's The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse, Chitra Divakaruni's Queen of Dreams, and Shannon Holmes's B-More Careful--as surprise hits in his library, Mark Anderson, Morris County Library, NJ, observes that "each fits a niche for fiction readers with various tastes."

[. . .]

[The full report can be found here: ]


A list of "The Most Borrowed Books" can be found here:

Posted by: Dave Lull on April 14, 2005 9:04 AM

What about magazines?

A trip to the bookstore shows there must be a huge market for the shorter pieces found in magazines. In my smallish town, you can find four magazines devoted to ferrets, of all things.

Posted by: beloml on April 14, 2005 9:49 AM

Huh. And here we just debuted a literary journal on our community college campus, and I just talked the campus bookstore this morning into selling it for $4.99 and am about to go out and hawk it to local bookstores as well.

Oh well, it's a labor of love...

Posted by: susan on April 14, 2005 11:30 AM

Michael: "But I've never fully understood the desire some people seem to have to sink into a novel for weeks on end myself...."

At the end of a good book, I've often been left wanting more. I think big books, and even more series of books with the same characters, are an answer to this. Of course, there is a real question as to whether you will actually enjoy getting more as much as being left wanting more (the sequel problem).

It happens that I often like series fiction when done well; there can be benefits to familiarity with setting and characters. I think the popularity of series fiction in a wide variety of genres argues pretty convincingly that this is a common attitude.

Michael: "That way you can read what looks like a 400 page novel lickety split (because it's really a 200 page novel)."

As someone who has layed out at least 20,000 pages of text and pictures, I tend to notice this when it happens in a book I'm reading. And I have noticed it happening occasionally. Often enough, in fact, that I'll look for it and usually avoid it as deceitful. In at least some cases, it looks more to me like a deadline problem on the part of the author rather than a calculated attempt to spread the butter over too much bread, though.

But I don't think it's the only trend. The "Wheel of Time" series that I mentioned above is certainly not using white space for padding. I think it has about 20 major viewpoint characters and at least a dozen major plotlines, yet it remains popular. (It's at least one step beyond what I'm willing to tolerate, though; too much like work.)

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 14, 2005 11:59 AM

FvB -- As far as I know, reading patterns are hard to make out in any hard-and-fast way. But impressionistically, it seems clear that browing-and-grazing-style reading is much more the standard thing these days than plowing-through-the-words is, and it seems clear that young people buy many more browsing-and-grazing-style books than they do traditional-type books. They seem to love flipping around inside stuff, whether a book or a magazine or the web. What's clearly changed is that books are no longer anything special to most young kids. Books used to be at the center of the culture. These days they're just one media option among many. Suits me, by the way. The one thing I notice that I've never read anything semi-serious about is the way many older people (as in 60 and up) really settle in at the end of the day with a book, often a mystery or a biography or a favorite author. It's just the kind of thing many people that age do, coming out of the book-centric world they do. Younger people show no sign of developing those habits. Instead they seem to bounce among many different media. Many exceptions (including your daughter) allowed for, of course.

JW -- Free is good, at least if you're a consumer (and not a producer). Smart musings about the role of lit-fic, by the way. And, as far as I'm concerned, I'm OK with the de-throning of lit-fict. Despite the fact that I like some of it, an awful of it stinks (IMHO), and the obsessive attention paid to it detracts from mucho excellent writing in many other catetories. Sales-wise, the fact is also that the book biz generally is flat, and has been for a number of years now. No one seems to be able to figure out a way to get the biz out of its doldrums. Younger people seem not to be in the habit of reading any kind of fiction. Their pattern seems to be to buy books-you-can-use (travel, joke, browsing-and-grazing stuff) almost as commodities, and occasionally to read the one novel everyone else is reading, herd-behavior style. But the general habit of reading fiction (for most people, that'd be crime or romance, and not lit-fict) is something most young people have never developed. The standard thing at the end of the day doesn't seem to be to plop down with a mystery; it seems to be to plop down in front of the tube. I'm not sure you're right that most people never read much, btw, although if you're thinking of lit-fic reading you're certainly right. But for older generations (my parents and older), reading books was central to the culture for a long time. There weren't all that many other options ...

Dave -- Excellent, thanks. Interesting to think of the librarian's life these days, not that I know anything about it. What with superstores, the web, etc: what role are they serving? How do they see their futures? Interesting as well to think about the kind of demographic they encounter and deal with too ...

Beloml -- The explosion of magazines is amazing, isn't it? I ran across two titles devoted to Pilates, an exercise system. Two! Who knew. I ran across a couple of bellydancing magazines too. I love magazine-length writing myself. As far as I'm concerned, most nonfiction books should be long magazine pieces -- I'm not sure how many subjects and projects I think really deserve epic booklength treatment. But even magazines are becoming more browse-and-graze productions than they used to be. Somebody told me that many of the mainstream mags have about half the number of words they once did, and twice the acreage devoted to visuals. The general assumption these days is that people will spend about a half hour on an issue of a magazine and no more. I guess we're all rushing off somewhere else these days. I'd love to see brainscan studies done of what's going on in the brain when people read traditionally vs. when they browse-and-graze. I bet the activity (brainwaves, lobes, electricity, whatever) is quite different.

Susan -- Love counts for a lot!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 14, 2005 12:04 PM

People also spend less hours watching the television, for the simple reason everyone has more opportunities to spend his spare time nowadays, but hasn't gotten more time to do so.

To echo the rhyming Dutch phrase: time is priority [prioritime]

No, the book has a long evolution behind it to become an extremely efficient information carrier or a paper escape capsule. That will not die out soon.

On the other hand, on reason for switching to electronic paper books for me would be that I probably could read them in bed without disturbing my partner. If they would have a backlight.

In the end, the book is only a transport mechanism.

Posted by: ijsbrand on April 14, 2005 3:55 PM

Hope I didn't give you the wrong impression, MvB -- I'm a tender stripling of only 22 years. My income as a graduate student sometimes feels painfully limited, but I'd still rather buy books than clothes. And of course that way I can foist off the good ones on people who "can never find anything" to read.

Most of my friends don't even own televisions (although I use TiVo myself, and Playstation, and this nifty laptop, too,) -- but, again, that might be a selection issue, as I suggested before.

Posted by: Michael on April 14, 2005 7:17 PM

Michael, if you haven't read it before, there's an excellent Francis Morrone piece on libraries here:

Also, if you're an architecture buff and live in the Village, of course you know where the library is! The Jefferson Market Courthouse (since 1967)!

Posted by: herbert o'rourke on April 14, 2005 11:21 PM

I, too, think that few people have ever read literary fiction. Near-universal education and literacy in the 1st world has just increased the number of people who could read such works, but don't.

Or, as put so elegantly by John Thorpe in Austen's Northanger Abbey:

Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do.

Posted by: C.S. Froning on April 16, 2005 12:12 PM

I'm in my '20s and am frequently at the library, and see about the same mix of age-groups there as on the streets. And I have given up having sterotypes about the sorts of people who read books - I know too many 6'2" male engineering students who suddenly turn up with Angela's Ashes or such-what.

I think there is a difference in that the world of literature is way too large for anyone but my grandmother to keep up with all of it now. Or even to touch on the major highlights. There are just too many good books around.

As for short-fiction - my distaste for short-fiction has always puzzled me. I like short mystery stories, or short funny stories, but otherwise the story has to be very, very short. I ploughed through War & Peace and Gone With The Wind - but 10 pages of Katherine Mansfield is 8 pages too many.

Posted by: Tracy on April 26, 2005 4:20 AM

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