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Digital age brings revival of the short story
Story collections are experiencing a resurgence, driven by a proliferation of digital options that offer new creative opportunities, exposure and revenue
The New York Times
The Internet may be disrupting much of the book industry, but for short-story writers it has been a good thing.
Story collections, an often underappreciated literary cousin of novels, are experiencing a resurgence, driven by a proliferation of digital options that offer new creative opportunities, exposure and revenue.
Already 2013 is seeing an unusually rich offering of short-story collections, including George Saunders’ “Tenth of December,” which arrived in January with a media splash normally reserved for Hollywood movies and moved quickly onto the best-seller lists. Many of the current and forthcoming collections are not from authors like Saunders who have always preferred short stories, but from best-selling novelists like Tom Perrotta, who are returning to the form.
Recent and imminent releases include “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell, whose 2011 novel “Swamplandia” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; “Damage Control,” a first collection by Amber Dermont, whose novel “The Starboard Sea” was a best-seller in 2012; and another first-story collection, “We Live in Water,” by Spokane native Jess Walter, just off his best-selling novel “Beautiful Ruins.”
Top of the trend
“It is the culmination of a trend we have seen building for five years,” said Cal Morgan, editorial director of Harper Perennial Originals, who until last year ran a blog called Fifty-Two Stories devoted to short fiction. “The Internet has made people a lot more open to reading story forms that are different from the novel, and you see a generation of writers very engaged in experimentation.”
In recent decades, the traditional outlets for individual short stories have dwindled, with literary magazines closing or shrinking. But the Internet has created an insatiable maw to feed.
Amazon, for instance, created its Kindle Singles program in 2011 for publishing short fiction and nonfiction brief enough to be read in less than two hours. Although the list price is usually modest, a dollar or two, authors keep up to 70 percent of the royalties — welcome revenue for fledgling authors and a potentially big payoff for well-known writers.
In addition, a group of smaller, Internet publishers such as Byliner is snapping up short fiction and gaining traction as distributors of stories. And the shorter format, writers say, is a good fit for the small screens that people are increasingly using to read.
“The single-serving quality of a short narrative is the perfect art form for the digital age,” said Dermont, whose collection is due out next month. “Stories are models of concision, can be read in one sitting and are infinitely downloadable and easily consumed on screens.”
Short stories are also perfect for the digital age, she added, because readers “want to connect and want that connection to be intense and to move on.” That is, after all, what a short story is all about.
Morgan said that years of editing short fiction for his blog showed him that digital communication was influencing writers who are just coming of age.
“The generation of writers out of college in the last few years has been raised to engage with words like no generation before,” he said. “Our generation was raised on passive media like television and telephones; this generation has been engaged in writing to each other in text messages on a 24-hour basis. I think it has made them bolder and tighter.”
Perrotta, best-selling author of “Election” and “Little Children,” edited “The Best American Short Stories of 2012.” While sifting through entries, he also noticed a change in short fiction from the previous generation, although he said he was not sure that technology played a part.
“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.”
He was intrigued enough that he became determined to finish his first short-story collection in nearly two decades, “Nine Inches,” which will be published in September.
Other collections from prominent writers that are being published this year include “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Ron Rash, “The Fun Parts” by Sam Lipsyte, “The Miniature Wife” by Manuel Gonzales and “A Guide to Being Born” by Ramona Ausubel.
Whetting the appetite
For well-known authors such as Stephen King and Lee Child, both of whom have sold short stories or novellas through the Kindle Singles program, even small prices can add up to big money. For less-established authors, the singles format means getting exposure by offering readers a sampling at an appealing price.
Dermont, for example, is selling “A Splendid Wife,” from her coming collection, on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites for 99 cents. The idea is to whet the appetite of potential buyers of the whole collection.
That ability to sell stories piecemeal is a big draw of short-story collections for authors. In most cases, at least some of the stories have already been for sale. For instance, all but one of the short stories in Saunders’ “Tenth of December” had been published earlier, many in The New Yorker, but that does not appear to have hurt sales for the collection, which is No. 5 on The New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list.
Andy Ward, the editor who acquired the book for Random House, said that when he bumps into colleagues they say Saunders’ sales are giving them encouragement. “This give us a lot of hope,” he said. “People say people don’t want to read short fiction, but this seems to be working out really well.”