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.
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.
Filed under: Short Story, Small Literary Magazines, Story Submissions, Writing Tagged: | New York Times, short story, small literary magazines, Stephen King, The Atlantic, the state of the short story, writing