The short story is dying. An art form relegated to undergraduate literature seminars, products churned out by endless MFA candidates, the literary short story holds little appeal for the average modern reader; it lacks commercial viability. The short story is dying – or is it?
The publishing industry is widely accepted to be facing a pivotal evolutionary moment. Whether the advent of the electronic book spells the doom of the written word any more than the audio book, the printing press, or the development of writing itself, history will have to determine. What seems more certain is that the means of conveying written language to the public is in flux. Literary magazines, long the bastions of the more condensed varieties of fiction, the rarefied homes of great literature, are particularly vulnerable. It is possible that a majority of the populace would rather watch videos of feline antics for free on the computer than seek out and pay for a quarterly periodical, particularly one not readily available at the local big-box store. After all, don’t we get all of the written information we need from Twitter and Facebook?
However, it is just this Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, micro-second attention span that may save the short story. So-called “flash” or “micro” fiction, stories generally 2,000 words or fewer, is surging in popularity. Literary magazines are developing an internet presence; in fact, web-only publications are becoming commonplace. Narrative, an internet-based literary mecca, recently announced a pending iPhone app, and developed a submission category for correspondingly short works. For a populace over-committed by time-saving, multi-tasking devices, works of literature that can be held in the palm of one’s hand may be the answer.
Unfortunately, the greatest risk to the survival of the literary short story lies in the form’s greatest strength. All of the complaints come down to this: discussions of length, of marketability, of theme are merely fronts. The problem is not the length, it is the difficulty. Ours is a society ill-at-ease with discomfort. We don’t need to suffer; there’s a pill, a gadget, or an app for that. Yet, the human condition is, at its core, an extremely uncomfortable one. Good literature reflects and causes us to reflect upon that condition. The short story, at its best, is a distillation, a concentration of all that is true to humanity; it is a form that is sometimes difficult to bear. And, yet, to bear this, to read these truths brings us to a better understanding of ourselves.
The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories represent the English-language acme of this format. Founded in 1918 by friends of the late, iconic storyteller, William Sydney Porter (known by his famous pen name of O. Henry), the O. Henry Prize was formed with the intent to “strengthen the art of the short story and to stimulate younger authors.” Twenty prize stories are selected by the series editor from literary journal submissions throughout the United States and Canada. Journals submit issues in their entirety, and the only criteria are that the stories must be originally written in English and must be published in the U.S. or Canada within the last calendar year. The 20 stories are read by jurors who are blinded to authorship and author nationality. Each juror selects a favorite story and writes an essay about that selection. In 2009, the collection became the PEN/O. Henry Prize stories. The PEN American Center is, according to the press release, “the U.S. branch of the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization.” Past PEN presidents have included such literary luminaries as Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Salman Rushdie.