The Rise and Fall of Short Stories

In my post The Poirot Short Stories Are Interesting I said:

To some degree this is just a historical curiosity. I think that the market for short stories is never coming back. It’s moved into television and the streaming that is replacing television. It’s interesting to look at short stories, though, since they were so influential in the early development of the mystery genre.

I should clarify that there is still a market for short stories; it’s merely a small one in comparison to the market for novels. I should probably add that the market for novels is not huge, in comparison to the market for other forms of entertainment, but I don’t think that it ever really was all that large. On the plus side, that also means that it is less likely to shrink considerably as times change. (It is always the biggest things which are the most volatile, in this world.)

To understand the history of short stories is largely to understand the history of technology relating to the distribution of images. I’m only going to give the barest sketch of the relevant part of history, in part because I haven’t done any deep research into the subject yet and do not know enough to give more than this sketch. But even this bare sketch will show how dependent on certain aspects of overall technology the short story was, and therefore why it is a market that isn’t coming back.

Prior to the invention of the printing press, writing had to be copied out by hand, which was a laborious and therefore expensive process. As a result, it was popular to do this writing on very high quality (read: durable) materials, such as velum. Paper came into Europe during the late middle ages, but its advantage for being able to be made cheaply wasn’t very important so long as it was still expensive to copy things. (Technically there were hand presses that predated the printing press, but they were only about ten times as efficient as the printing press, so we can neglect them here.) With the advent of the printing press, it suddenly became much cheaper to make books, at which point there became a real purpose to trying to make other aspects of bookmaking cheaper. To reduce the cost of something from (to make up numbers) $500 to $495 is not very significant, but to reduce its cost from $20 to $15 is. This is why you tend to get two main price points on goods: very cheap, and very expensive. In the former, one economizes on everything, in the latter, one uses the best of everything. There isn’t much point in paying top dollar for something that will be ruined by one cheap ingredient. (Due to psychology there is often a third price point in the middle because people don’t want to feel like they’re cheaping out nor being wasteful, but that’s a discussion for a different day.)

Once printing was becoming cheap, two things happened: people started working on making it even cheaper, and new markets opened up because it was now economically viable to make things to sell to people who won’t pay more than a relatively small amount for them. Thus, in a commercial sense, were born newspapers. I’m concentrating on English-speaking history here, so for practical purposes we’re talking about the 1700s.

Advances in being able to make things cheaply create markets, which in turn take time to develop thus increasing demand and putting more money into satisfying these markets. Roughly by the early 1800s we’re seeing the market for newspapers growing tremendously, and as a result there becomes a need for material to fill these newspapers. News at this time still travels slowly and newspapers (and worse yet, TV news) haven’t yet utterly destroyed people’s sense of proportion, so the newspapers often sell on the strength of various kinds of arts that they include, such as poetry, in some cases sermons, and works of narrative fiction. Of course, you can’t print very much of a story on a newspaper that might only be one large sheet of paper, so the stories have to be short. I believe it’s not also long before it’s discovered that if you break the story up over several issues, customers are more likely to buy all of the issues necessary to read the story.

We’re now in, roughly, the mid 1800s. Newspapers are popular, but still fairly small. They are primarily of interest for their works of art and sports scores, but their ability to convey fiction is limited by their size. Other ways to get fiction for entertainment include novels, going to a play, and having a friend or family member tell you a story while you sit next to a fireplace. (The fireplace is not, strictly speaking, necessary.) You can also listen to local gossip, though there is the danger there that occasionally bits of it might be true. Novels are quite expensive, still, since after buying the novel you have to pay someone to bind it for you. Plays are not cheap, and unless you’re fairly rich and in London, there is not much of a variety in plays available at any given time, at least in comparison with one’s ability to watch them and remember their plots.

With a widespread demand for entertainment and cheap printing to supply it, but with the size of a newspaper restricting what can go in it, the magazine is born. Larger than a newspaper and weekly or monthly, it costs more but provides more. The format allows the printing of multiple short stories in full. At the same time advertising is coming to provide much of the profit for publication. With tremendous demand there was a lot of money in them, and with magazines competing for popular stories, they paid very well. This is part of why so many novels from the late 1800s and early 1900s were first published as serializations in magazines and only later as novels—the author might make more money from the serialization than from the novel. This is also why anyone who wrote novels about a detective tended to also write short stories about them—the real money was in the short stories.

Competition from radio would only really get started in the 1890s and though very popular was, for various reasons such as transmission power, transmission distance, limited bandwidth, etc., limited in its ability to replace magazines. Once we hit the 1920s, competition from movies would get started in earnest. This was a bigger competition than radio, but it was not a very direct competition. Movies took much longer than reading a short story, you had to go to a movie theater, you couldn’t interrupt them if something came up; in short movies would not, on their own, have killed off short stories, and didn’t.

Where we start to see the decline of the short story is really with the advent of television. Television is watched in the home, is paid for entirely by advertising and so doesn’t even have the small cost of a magazine. It would take a decade or two for television to really get going but by the 1980s with dozens of channels available there was likely to be something interesting to watch. A television show takes half an hour or an hour, but they are easy to pick up if you’ve missed a bit. Since they’re free (paid for by advertising) one might as well try to see if there’s anything good to watch, when one is in the mood for entertainment. It works well when one is tired, too, since the work of imagination is largely done for you. Television can even be watched during certain kinds of chores. (Hence the “soap opera”.)

People only have so much capacity for entertainment; if they’ve already consumed hours of it on the television, the relative advantage of a magazine begins to fade. Worse for the magazine, and thus the short story, television tells the same kinds of stories. Short, fun stories that are stimulating then forgotten are what television specializes in. Basically television shows are short stories that are acted out, and thus easier to consume than written short stories.

This is not true of novels, though. Novels are far more complex and substantial. They’re meant to last, in the sense of to stick with one. Moreover, this is what those of us who read novels want from a novel. We don’t read a novel to pass a few moments in a way we’ll forget. We read novels to encounter new worlds, to spend time with interesting people, and to engage our imaginations. You can see that this is so because of how much people who love a book always say that the book was much better.

The one exception to this that I can think of proves the rule: the A&E-BBC co-production of Pride & Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle was almost as good as the novel. It was, however, a six hour miniseries.

In the end, short stories being so popular that novel writers needed to write short stories—or at the very least, serialize their novels—was largely a product of a particular stage in the development of entertainment and technology. As technology and the state of entertainment moved on, other forms of entertainment moved into the niche that had been occupied by short stories.

Video did not entirely kill the radio star and television has not entirely killed off short stories. They are still written, on occasion. There are a few magazines left, and perhaps more common are collections of short stories. There are a few genres in which short stories are a more natural fit, too—the foremost one that comes to mind is horror. It is rare for a genre to completely die off—there are even places where one can get rids in horse-drawn carriages. The thing which is gone, I think forever, is the primacy of the short story.

6 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Short Stories

    1. That’s interesting. Is this fantasy? I have heard that short story collections can do well (enough) from established authors. Do you give away any (e.g. free on a website) as advertising for your novels, btw? I’m curious how well that works in practice.

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      1. Mary

        Stand-alone short stories. As in, the reader can get all but the very shortest of my work independently, for cheaper than the collection — though the collection is cheaper than getting them all that way.

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  1. Thank you for the piece. I love a good theoretical model on how a given thing played out. The idea that short stories were displaced more than other things simply because the niche was satisfied so cleany by TV sounds convincing.

    To your point on the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice – I completely agree. I expected some other chick flick, but recieved a carefully crafted and somewhat wise film – also quite funny. My sister convinced me to read the book after, and that was solid too.

    “News at this time still travels slowly and newspapers (and worse yet, TV news) haven’t yet utterly destroyed people’s sense of proportion” – When you say sense of proportion, are you refferring to people taking daily news too seriously, or something else?

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