"Something has gone wrong of late with short-story writers. Something has happened to them; and what that something is, still more why it is, are worth considering, short stories being now, as they have long been, the most widely consumed single item on the American literary menu."
These sentiments, jaw-breaking syntax aside, were not wrestled from the pages of a rebellious quarterly or from a mischievous Web site. They appeared in the June 1941 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, in an essay titled "The American Short Story."
The author, Edith Mirrielees, supported her indictment with a number of familiar charges: "slatternliness in the use of words, slapdashness in the shaping of sentences ... stories infected by the implausible, the unprepared for, the contradictory"; no gift for humor, a shortage of gusto, and the absence of substance.
Mirrielees's most surprising charge, however, was that the principal culprits were editors who, in a mad rush to publish short fiction, increasingly took on work of little merit. The writers who profited from this market bonanza were "highly paid and highly touted." "Grown rich, grown oracular," they were "everywhere in evidence."
Sixty-four years later some writers are no doubt overpaid, though they might well ask, "compared with whom?" And are not their riches, after all, a modest percentage of what readers pay to buy their books? Where, then, is the problem? And if bad writers are becoming prosperous while better writers starve, can the fault be held to lie with editors paralyzed by market pressures?
In the world of the short story the answer is surely no; but much has changed since 1941. Only a handful of popular magazines pay more than a few dollars for fiction, and many quarterlies or other "little" magazines offer only a free copy or two. Hardly any writer, surely, writes short stories as a means to great wealth. Yet the form flourishes; never before in history have so many short-story collections been in print. Magazines of one sort or another publish more stories each year than ever before. The editors of at least a few of the quarterlies are being paid a living wage, and at least a few edit full-time. Fueling this industry are more than 300 graduate writing programs (did any exist in 1941? more than one or two?) that provide instruction in the craft of the short story and often employ writers who could not survive if their income came only from the work they most value.
Interviews: "How Did Your Life Turn Out?" (November 25, 1998)
An interview with Ethan Canin, who believes the only story worth writing is the history of a human being.
Interviews: "Bringing Life to Life" (December 14, 2001)
A conversation with Alice Munro, whose stories are fueled by her fascination with the way people portray their own lives.
Possibly this says less about the vibrancy of the written word than about an economy productive enough to absorb the loss from the work force of a few thousand writers-in-training. The industry has, of course, produced brilliant successes—writers whose mastery of the form has brought them respect, popularity, and even relative prosperity (Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Ethan Canin, and Grace Paley come to mind) though none of them has ever written a novel.
In the face of all this productivity a question remains: How good is the work being published in the several hundred periodicals that regularly offer fiction to their readers? One reply will be: How do we judge? The form has proved so elastic that even experienced and discerning critics have a hard time deciding what a story is or ought to be—and thus on what basis to decide whether it is successful. With uncertainty about form has come a suspension of familiar ground rules. Is "realism" what is real? Or is it the effect of what is real in a world of magical happenings? Do characters have to be people? Why not imagine that the walls are speaking to us—or unborn infants, or oceangoing rafts, or perhaps a prickly armoire? Sensibilities, after all, are everywhere.