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The long and short of the short story form

The short story is a classic for a reason – and editors say it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Here’s a look back at the form from its origins to the present, plus tips and fresh insight on where to find homes for your stories in the future.

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The art of storytelling has been around for centuries: Aesop’s fables, Greek mythology. These short stories were passed down verbally through generations until they were finally written down, and we still enjoy versions of them today. Regardless of what is happening in society or what technology we have available, we will always love stories. But there is something uniquely satisfying about the short story: Unlike longer forms, short fiction is a piece of work that can be enjoyed in a single reading session. But it’s rare to see short story collections anywhere on bestseller lists, let alone in the top position. Book clubs seem to gravitate toward memoirs and novels or the rare essay collection, and with the viral exception of Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” short stories rarely dominate literary conversations on social media or in real life. With Netflix, video games, and social media, do readers even enjoy this short form anymore? 

The short answer is yes. Which is good for writers who love the form. But just how vibrant and lucrative is the current market? Let’s begin our long dive into the short form by looking back to see how we got to where we are today. 

The origin of the form

Again, storytelling has been around for centuries, but short stories as a print form didn’t really come into their own until the late 1800s. Novels had been around for a couple centuries at this point, but books could be expensive for consumers. Magazines and journals, however, were much more affordable. The first U.S. magazines were launched in the middle of the 19th century: Scientific American (1845), which claims to be the oldest continuously published magazine in the U.S., and Harper’s Magazine (1850), which continues to publish short fiction today. Literary journals like North American Review and the Yale Review were also launched in the 19th century, as was this very magazine, which was founded in Boston in 1887 as a “monthly magazine for literary workers” and frequently covered the short story market in its pages. 

Rudyard Kipling, Washington Irving, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Katherine Mansfield, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie…all of these authors had popular stories published around the turn of the last century, and they paved the way for contemporary writers. 

In an article in Prospect magazine explaining the history of short stories, award-winning author William Boyd explains the short story grew in popularity at the turn of the 20th century and entered its “golden age.” 

“The adjective is very apt: In the early decades of the century you could become rich writing short stories, particularly in America,” Boyd writes. “Magazines proliferated, readers were eager, circulation rose, fees went up and up. In the 1920s, [F.] Scott Fitzgerald was paid $4,000 by the Saturday Evening Post for a single short story. You need to multiply by at least 20 to arrive at any idea of the value of the sum in today’s terms.” 

The turn of the century also saw the birth of “pulp magazines,” named for the cheap, wood pulp paper they were printed on. The first one, Argosy, grew a monthly circulation of 500,000 in just 10 years. More pulps came on board. They published mostly genre fiction: science fiction, mystery, fantasy, romance…and also were known for their lurid and sensational subject matter. They were seen as “low-brow” writing by the literary community, but they were popular because they could be bought for a few cents and provided great entertainment for readers. Writers were paid by the word, and a few of these magazines’ many contributors include Mary Roberts Rinehart, H.P. Lovecraft, and Isaac Asimov. 

While the ’20s and ’30s were a lucrative time for pulp and other magazines, World War II brought challenges, including paper shortages and unrest in the country. Then, in the 1950s, another threat appeared: The television became an affordable household appliance. Couple that with the rise of inexpensive mass-market paperbacks, and the glory days of the pulps ended at last.

In the mainstream

Glossy consumer magazines were also popular for publishing fiction, especially women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping and Ladies’ Home Journal, but men’s magazines published fiction as well. In his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King talks about writing short stories for men’s magazines and how it helped support his wife and kids: “From a financial point of view, two kids were probably two too many for college grads working in a laundry and the second shift at Dunkin’ Donuts. The only edge we had came courtesy of magazines like Dude, Cavalier, Adam, and Swank. By 1972…fiction was on its way out, but I was lucky enough to ride the last wave. The stories I sold to the men’s magazines between August of 1970, when I got my two-hundred-dollar check for ‘Graveyard Shift,’ and the winter of 1973-1974, were just enough to create a rough sliding margin between us and the welfare office.”

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No form’s glory days can last forever. During the 1990s, due to budget issues and readers’ shifting attention elsewhere, many magazines found it easier to attract advertisers by featuring products instead of fiction. 

But throughout all of these ups and downs, literary journals continued publishing great short stories. They were, and still are, the solid foundation for this genre, no matter if they publish in print or online. Boyd writes that even though it may have become harder than ever to earn a larger paycheck for short fiction in this country (let alone elsewhere around the world), the American short fiction market still exists: “For the taste among readers for short fiction, inculcated over the last century and a half, has never really gone away, despite the vagaries of publishing economics.”

Short story collections

Along with magazines and journals printing standalone stories, publishers – from the Big Four to the smaller presses – also consistently release short story collections. Interestingly, 2017 saw a surge in the sales of these titles, with NPD BookScan reporting that 50% more short story collections were sold than in the previous year, due in part to the popularity of Tom Hanks and Jojo Moyes’ collections that year. Some hoped this statistic meant there was a growing popularity and a renaissance of the short story form. 

But author Chris Powers argued in 2018 in The Guardian that this idea of a “short story renaissance” has been floated by publications quite frequently in recent years – and if that’s the case, a resurgence can’t be claimed given the frequency of its perceived rebirth. “Plodding through these random explosions of joy, the short story continues to exist with or without the glare of widespread attention. Each year, good collections are published; some are noticed, some are not. Most don’t sell many copies (a debut collection from one of the major publishing houses might have a print run of 3,000, with little expectation of a reprint). When a collection is fortunate enough to be reviewed, it will very often be a discussion not just about the book but also the form generally.” Powers argues that during any year, you can find terrific story collections that were published; sometimes even more than in 2017, sometimes less, but enough to suggest a healthy genre either way.

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