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Fighting Form

Does length really matter?

Clare Howdle

Is it time to give up on the novel? Are the days of 1,000 page tomes numbered? Clare Howdle explores whether short fiction is perfectly fashioned for today’s fast-paced landscape or if our fixation with form is too fractious by far...

According to a 2018 study by Microsoft, the average human now has an attention span of eight seconds. A sharp drop from the 12 second average in 2000 and if research is to be believed, a situation that is only getting worse as our collective attention span continues to shorten 88% year-on-year. With the fast-paced digital world at our finger tips whenever we want it, the content avalanche swamping us with sparkly ‘slebby listicles to draw our eye and a thousand experiences compacted down to a snap and a flick or two in a coffee break, it’s no wonder. We’re evolving into creatures that can’t stick with anything for longer than it takes for a goldfish to change the subject.

It’s a criticism often thrown at the generation coming up; a flighty, difficult crowd by all accounts. Although writer Simon Rich is quick to jump to the Y/Z’s defence. “There’s a tendency to accuse millennials of having shorter attention spans,” he said in an interview with The Telegraph in 2014. “I just think we have better stuff to look at. Of course, everyone had long attention spans when their only option was to listen to Homer recite his epic poem.” So could it be active choice, not depreciating ability that’s driving decline in staying power? More on that later. Either way this narrative doesn’t seem to bode well for the 1,000 page novel that takes an age to read. But perhaps a silver lining can be seen around the dropping attention span cloud?

“There’s a tendency to accuse millennials of having shorter attention spans. I just think we have better stuff to look at.”
Simon Rich, the Telegraph, 2014

Make mine short

In the last few years, short fiction seems to have become more popular. Or has “come of age.” Or “experienced a renaissance.” Or has “perhaps never been more alive.” However you describe it (and there have been a lot of commentators offering a lot of variations on theme), flash, novellas and short stories are garnering more traction more broadly, beyond the dedicated circles committed to championing them. “In a novella, nothing is a distraction, there is no filler and if you read it in one sitting, which you can, you become immersed in the world of the book from the beginning to end,” author Tara Deal told The Writer magazine in 2017. Sounds perfect for readers permanently at risk of distraction. In 2018, independent publisher Fairlight launched its Fairlight Moderns series, five debut authors telling compelling stories from around the world in pocket-sized novellas. The collection did incredibly well for the publishing house with impressive uptake and sales. So much so, that this year Fairlight launched its second novella collection. “The industry response has been fantastic,” says founder and CEO Louise Boland, “at first the bigger bookshops were a little uncertain but now they can really see the appeal. A novel needs to take the reader with them on quite a long journey and maintain their interest throughout, whereas a novella, when done right, feels like it is just the perfect length. When there’s such competition for all our time as readers, it’s lovely to grab a bit of fiction in a smaller, bite-sized chunk.”

Short stories have their advocates too. “The best of them cut to the heart and soul of a narrative and work on the page whether you are a solitary reader or listening in an audience,” says Cathy Galvin, one of the original founders of The Sunday Times Short Story Award and founder of an organisation for short story excellence, The Word Factory. “Short stories are classy, which is why the New Yorker continues to publish them. Today, they are regarded as the place where writers learn their craft: most writers would tell you how hard that really is. A great story can be more difficult to achieve than a novel or outstanding poem.” Galvin’s a fan, although she is also keen to point out that the increased interest in short stories from the mainstream media has been a direct result of a dedicated handful of individuals working hard to support, showcase and publish short story talent for decades – establishing and running the BBC Short Story Award, the Sunday Times Short Story Award and setting up respected journals, gatherings and presses including The Stinging Fly, Salt Publishing and the Small Wonders festival to name just a few.

So from flourishing ecosystem to mainstream prevalence, short fiction is booming? The numbers would seem to concur.  In 2017, Almost 50% more short story collections were sold than in the previous year. It was the best year for short stories since 2010. Booksellers continue to reporting a healthy popularity for short fiction and publishers are putting more love into their presentation and promotion. From the beautifully jacketed Faber Stories, to the clean, sharp Penguin Moderns series, single stories, as well as collections and anthologies are claiming more space on the book shelves of shops and homes alike.

If writing for the reader today, could short be the best way to cut it? Might ours be a land where novels just won’t do for the attention-lax, time poor and choosy? Where short fiction is more likely to hold readers tight for the brief spell they’re with you before they bob off and go about their day? “Whenever I imagine somebody reading my stories, I imagine them reading it on a computer screen, surrounded by other windows with the sports scores and pornography, with music blaring in the background,” Simon Rich continues in his Telegraph interview. “That makes me try to get to my hooks as fast and cleanly as possible because I don’t want to lose them. The only thing at the front of my brain when I’m writing is, ‘How can I make sure they keep reading this?’”

“When there’s such competition for all our time as readers, it’s lovely to grab a bit of fiction in a smaller, bite-sized chunk.”
Louise Boland, Publisher at Fairlight

According to much criticism on the subject, short stories often take singular viewpoints, or focus on individual emotions or themes, which are much easier to connect with quickly. In effect, they can create a more concentrated, total experience to draw us in, fast. Whether it’s modern masters like George Saunders demonstrating this skill so adeptly, in all his sharp, surreal, visionary glory, while giving mainstream profile to the form, (his 2006 collection In Persuasion Nation was pulled out from the shelves to be recommended read on Audible at the time of writing), or the viral flurry around Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker story ‘Cat Person’ in late 2017, there’s plenty to reinforce the notion that there are more people out there connecting with short fiction than ever.

Bad jigsaw

And yet. No matter how much the pieces of the puzzle look like they fit together, no amount of ramming at them with your fist will make them join up. Because, firstly, the renaissance of the short story as declared in 2017 wasn’t a renaissance. Any more than it was in 2016, or 2015 or right the way back to 2012. In (short story) author and journalist Chris Power’s Guardian feature on the subject, he counted seven different publications over five consecutive years declaring the short story’s comeback. And one publication doing it twice, about different years consecutively. “The renaissance of the short story is an old one that is rolled out year after year,” he writes, going on to explain that the spike in 2017 was more about the authors that were published (Tom Hanks and best-selling author JoJo Moyes) than interest in the form itself.

But what about those lovely looking little solo stories? And the thriving independent publishing scene for short story literary journals and magazines? And the figures outside of those authors demonstrating a bump, albeit much smaller, in short fiction sales? Surely they are indicative of an industry creating content for our times? “I find it unlikely that decreasing attention spans are driving readers towards a specific form of fiction,” Power says down the line from London. “The idea of societal forces shaping our decisions about what we read isn’t an original narrative either. In the 1940s, H.E Bates wrote a book looking at Chekhov and Maupassant and a critical study of their short stories, bemoaning the state of the short story market and hoping that after the war things might pick up again – partly because paper shortages would make short fiction more appealing for publishers to produce. That was his version of the short attention span.”

Not only does the picture being painted seem incorrect to Power, it is actually troublesome. “It doesn’t make me popular at short story events, where people justifiably want to champion the form, but it seems to me like talking about the renaissance, the rise, the resurgence, whatever you want to call it, actually gets in the way of talking about the work,” he continues. “True, there is something wonderful about a beautifully crafted short story, but it shouldn’t be the fact that it’s under 6,000 words that’s important. The moment we concentrate on the form more than the work, we’ve lost.”

Good reads

At the heart of Power’s argument is the idea that good writing is what grips people, not relief at a minimal page count. Which brings us back to Simon Rich’s point about how he makes his stories as compelling as possible, to keep readers with him. That’s not just a trait of short stories written for the digital age, that’s a trait of good writing, full stop. The sort of writing F. Scott Fitzgerald was doing in the 1920s, for which he is so famously purported to have been paid the equivalent of $50,000 a story. It’s always the figures that make that anecdote so often repeated. The incredulity that a writer could be paid more than the average American salary today, for just one piece of short fiction. What’s being left out of focus is that it wasn’t just any old short story writer. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald – considered by many to be the greatest American writer of the 20th century. His work was a draw that editors of The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and The New Yorker believed in and they showed that in dollars.

Quality wins. And if, as Rich said, there’s more quality being found, showcased and shared than ever, it’s no bad thing that readers exercise their right to choose and find the thing that works best for them, the moment that they want it. Short, medium, long, online, in print, on film, in games – storytelling is now spread across the broadest range of platforms, mediums and disciplines, written by more writers than ever. It’s a competitive literary marketplace and a competitive attention economy so even great work needs its champions, but conversely there are more spaces and ways for readers to find that great work and discover stories they love.

Sure, in Fitzgerald’s day there was less choice, but if the quality was poor and the readers weren’t buying, you can bet that The Saturday Evening Post or the New Yorker wouldn’t have paid such incredible fees. Readers go where the work compels them. Where the story grips them, where the piece – whether it’s a coffee break’s- or a month’s-worth of reading – won’t let them go. No, we won’t ever return to the hey-day of a talented writer being paid $50,000 for a story (and the declining fees writers can command for published work is a whole separate discussion), but what we do have is a landscape brimming with quality storytelling in all sorts of spaces and more choice when it comes to the type of work we want to read. Does it matter what form it takes? “Some people will look at Grief is the Thing With Feathers at 15,000 words and call it a short story, or a poem. But if Max Porter wants to call it a novel, that’s his right as far as I’m concerned,” Power continues. “Who cares that David Salzay’s All That Man Is was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, but he can be found talking about the work at short story festival. It’s an incredible book. That’s the part that counts.”

“I’ve always been hungry for reading experiences that do something to you, whether that’s over 13,000 pages of an enormous novel or 100 pages of something or a poem.”
Chris Power

Of course, just because Power argues that form shouldn’t be the focus of our discussions about the short story, doesn’t mean he is blind to the merits of it. The ‘short’ in short fiction, can bring with it definite benefits – if the story allows. “There’s something very pure about the way you encounter certain short stories,” he explains. “If you’ve read a review of a novel, you have an idea of what it’s about so you enter it kind of knowing. But even if you’ve read a review of a short story collection there’s going to be some stories in there where you’ll have no idea what they’re going to be like. That’s quite rare for any art that we buy or consume; going into it completely blind. I don’t hear it talked about very much, but there’s sort of an unknown factor that means it’s just you and the text and there’s no preconception or preamble, it’s just a pure encounter.”

It comes down to the fact that good short fiction tends to be surprising, intimate and amplifies emotional intention and imaginative possibilities. “I’ve always been hungry for reading experiences that do something to you,” Power concludes, “whether that’s doing something to you over 13,000 pages of an enormous novel or 100 pages of something or a poem, or whatever it is.”

Turns out there’s a time for Ducks, Newburyport and a time for Mrs Fox and a time for everything in between. But we already knew that really, didn’t we?


Chris Powers’ short story collection Mothers (Faber, 2018) is out now.

The Word Factory supports and showcases short story writing excellence across the UK.

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