Stephen King on the Short Story

On April 12, 2011, The Atlantic published “Stephen King on the Creative Process, the State of Fiction, and More.”  I found his comments on the state of the short story extremely interesting:

JP: More generally, are you still as pessimistic about the short story as you seemed to be in that New York Times essay that you wrote

SK: Ah well

JP: Or was that like a cranky moment?

SK: Well it wasn’t really a cranky moment. I mean, it’s a question of who reads them. And I’ve got a perspective of being a short-story reader going back to when I was 8 or 9 years old. At that time there were magazines all over the place. There were so many magazines publishing short fiction that nobody could keep up with it. They were just this open mouth going “Feed me! Feed me!” The pulps alone, the 15- and 20-cent pulps, published like 400 stories a month, and that’s not even counting the so-called “slicks” — Cosmopolitan, American Mercury. All those magazine published short fiction. And it started to dry up. And now you can number literally on two hands the number of magazines that are not little presses that publish short fiction. And I’ve always felt like I wanted to write for a wide audience. And I think that that’s an honorable thing to want to do and I also think it’s an honorable thing to say, “I’ve got something that will only appeal to a small slice of the audience”. And there are little magazines that publish in that sense – but a lot of the people who read those magazines are only reading them to see what they publish so that they can publish their own stories.

JP: Right.

So you know what they’re talking about, here is an excerpt from the September 30, 2007 New York Times essay by Stephen King

What’s not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next (think “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad, or “Big Blonde,” by Dorothy Parker). It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.

King wrote the New York Times essay because he was guest editor of Best American Short Stories that year. In fact, King broke with the usual process (of reading pre-screened selections submitted to him by the other editor) and went crazy reading hundreds, if not thousands, of short stories to ensure he was exhaustively surveying the landscape.

Also, King’s credentials as a short story writer are impeccable. He’s written hundreds of them, published them for money, he’s had fantastic movies made of his short stories (Stand by Me, for instance), he’s read thousands of short stories by others, so if you’re thinking ‘well, what does he know’ the answer is: a lot.

So when I went back and thought about what he said I found myself feeling guilty about going to many of the journals I’ve read because I wanted to understand what kinds of stories they publish. (I don’t know how I was going to figure it out without reading the stories they published, but perhaps that is besides King’s point.)

And while I do read some journals regularly because I enjoy them, more frequently I have an ulterior motive. As a writer, I don’t think this is inherently bad – but it is bad if that constitutes the majority (entirety?) of the audience for that journal.

Then there is the money thing to consider. Short story writers don’t make any. King is right again, there probably used to be a much larger paying market out there (before my time) and now there isn’t.

But I still want to get my stories published, and so I submit them without expecting any payment. Does that make me bad? I don’t think so – but it is bad if that constitutes the majority of short story writers, a large unpaid group of people producing their works of art for free and handing them out to the public for free.

I don’t have an answer to King’s comments except to say, yes Mr. King, you are right. I submit my stories without expectation of recompense, and I will keep doing it as long as I love the short story form and enjoy writing stories. I hope some of those stories will be worthy of being read years from now, not just this month when they happened to come out online. Whether or not there will be a collective internet memory for them remains to be seen.

Also, Mr. King, you’re (probably) right that the audience for short stories is other writers. I don’t know what to do about that either.

I’m glad Stephen King made the comments he did, because it should push the short story writing/reading/publishing collective conscience to get up off its intellectual high-minded arse and get a real, paying job.

Unfortunately, that probably means becoming a novelist.

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9 Responses

  1. I have been thinking about this same thing all week. I love short stories and find that they are much easier to write for me. (I have a short attention span) But no one wants to publish them. It sucks. I feel like if I were to become a novelist just to get paid, the quality of my work would suffer. Stupid catch-22…

    • Well, if you haven’t found a home for your short stories yet, keep trying. You will eventually be able to get them published if they are well written pieces.

      I was being a big snarky in my final comment about becoming a novelist because it’s probably much harder to get a book published than it is to get a short story published. Also, most novelists (especially literary novelists) are mid-list at best, and they aren’t bringing home big bank either.

      I didn’t discuss it in this post because it is off-topic, but there is a possibility that electronic publishing and micro-payments could revitalize publishing. It does already seem to be happening for novelists. Maybe we short story writers will follow suit?

  2. I’m trying to remember the last time I read short stories, or a short story collection, just because I wanted to enjoy it as a reader. Sadly, it may have been when I was in my teens. I loved Alfred Hitchcock’s scary story collection that my parents had on their bookshelf, and then I ordered some through the book club at school.
    Lately? For the same reasons you and King cite; to read what the magazine publishes. College classes managed to get me interested enough to buy J.D. Salinger’s “Nine Stories”, but alas, have I read it? Hmmmm….
    I’ve always had that “I’ll never make it as a short story writer” thing in the back of my head also jumbled up with “I’ll never be taken seriously as a writer unless I can craft great short stories”. In some ways in recent years, I feel as though short story writing and getting published in literary journals is the required rite of passage for the literary novelist.
    So I suppose the short story serves it’s function, but that alone is a sad commentary. Shouldn’t the short story be the entity that grabs you and stays with you years later the way “Cathedrals” by Raymond Carver or “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman does? Or for that matter, one of my favorites: “Stand by Me” by Stephen King”.

    • I’ve written about it elsewhere on the blog, but I am always on the hunt for short story collections in bookstores. They are very hard to find (see my blog posts about the Strand, or my post about Farley’s Bookstore in New Hope, or Seattle’s Wonderful Bookstores, for example.)

      In this past year I’ve bought more than a half dozen short story collections, and I usually buy the Best American Short Stories each year. I typically read selectively, skimming the first few paragraphs to see if a story grabs me, and if it does I settle in for the ride.

      As regular readers of my blog also know, I’m reading from the fire hose, er, Slush Pile that is, for one online journal. (See my blog post on me being a Slushpile Volunteer). From that experience, I must read dozens of stories a month and that includes the good, the bad, and the bizarre.

      All this reading DOES HELP ME when I’m writing, and I can stress enough how important reading the work of other writers is for your own process. Ahem. I will step off my soapbox now.

      Thanks for listening. :-)

  3. Additional comment on your reply to the other commenter (anyone confused yet?). YES – epublishing! I do believe it will help the short story writer greatly. I have actually (ok, ok not read, but I do have an enormous TBR read list!) purchased some short story collections from new writers that I’ve come across in various blogs or groups. And I did buy them because I, the reader, wanted to read them. So – with the edevices, recent flurry of interest in flash fiction and so on – there is hope!

    • If you wouldn’t mind Wren, can you share some of the links where you found the short story collections you could buy via Kindle/other e-reader?

      I’d like to encourage people to take advantage of buying such compilations.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • I’ve made a few recent purchases of short story collections by Scott Nicholson:

        He is an indie horror/mystery writer, ala Stephen King, and he does a fantastic job of self- marketing. The above link is to his horror collection entitled “Flowers” which I bought and enjoyed. It’s only .99 cents, and contains an award winning story that was published in a lit journal. This link will also lead you to several of his other short story collections and novels.

  4. [...] 8-10 pages online, so I’m not sure how large the audience is for these long stories either. (Stephen King’s comments about the state of the short story still ring in my [...]

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