The short of it

The short story,once edged out by marketing,could be reborn thanks to technology

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published:October 18, 2013 2:24 am

The short story,once edged out by marketing,could be reborn thanks to technology

New writers often cut their teeth on short stories,under the mistaken assumption that being shorter,they are easier to write than novels. And then,with quivering hands,they offer their debut collection to their agent. Who pushes it right back,flings down some notes to cover the coffee and scuttles off in alarm,saying,“Come back when you have a novel. Publishers don’t want short stories.” Wonder what sort of marketing wisdom is being thrust on new writers now,after Alice Munro got the Nobel for her short stories. The citation explicitly says so.

When was the last time a writer loved primarily for short fiction got the Nobel? Maybe it was Isaac Bashevis Singer,35 years ago. Many writers who have authored remarkable short fiction have got the Nobel in recent years — Herta Müller and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio,for instance — but it was for their novels. The Booker Prize is just as format-obsessed,rewarding only novelists. Alice Munro did get the Man Booker in 2009,but it was the international flavour,which has more latitude. Across the Atlantic,the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is genre-agnostic. That’s admirably broad-minded since it was originally called the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel,and rewarded only novelists between the end of the Great War (1918) and the end of the colonial era,marked by the independence of the Indian subcontinent (1947). Had it not liberalised,we would not have cheered on Jhumpa Lahiri as a sprinter today. Only US novelists,the long distance runners,would have been taken seriously.

Numerous explanations have been offered for the rise and fall — and rise again — of the short story. The technological one is compelling and maps formats to modes of distribution,the channels by which literary products reach the readership. The modern short story emerged as a genre in the 19th century,driven by the innovation of cheap printing and mill-produced paper. They powered the proliferation of periodicals which went beyond plain news and plain sensationalism,the extremes of the spectrum within which media has traditionally operated,now known as hard news and infotainment. The genre began to slide into decline a century later,when marketing took the lead in publishing.

Marketing generally favours brands. They are easier to set rolling,roll on by sheer momentum and their products can be replicated almost indefinitely. In publishing,the imprint used to be the brand. Today,it is the author. Push out a Robert Ludlum and he will be reeling in the catch even a decade after his death.

But what if the publisher’s asset is a short story writer? Consider Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar”,one of the crispest short stories ever written. Dating back to the early 20th century,its three or four pages of text have been reinterpreted for a century — the latest version,a BBC4 broadcast,aired in 2007. There have been successful chamber opera adaptations,including one by Richard Adams,author of Watership Down. A 1981 film adaptation took a Bafta and was nominated for an Oscar. But the collection in which the story had appeared in 1911,The Chronicles of Clovis,may not have been published at all today,because its highlight is a story only a few pages long. How do you market that?

Marketing also loves prizes,which offer very cheap publicity via massive media coverage. If someone bothered to plot the proliferation of literary prizes against time,they would get a steep curve,something like the explosive growth of a viral infection. Prizes need to be for something demonstrably substantial. Four or five pages looks like flimsy grounds for an award. Over 300 pages feels heftier. And that is the length of the average novel,the basic format of publishing. Coincidence,or what?

So what happens when a new short story writer is told to buzz off and come back with a novel? The writer goes and expands one of the stories into a useless,shapeless,bloated,bladder-like thing. The agent or publisher says,“Sure,I can run with this,” because the format feels right. It goes on a list,is feted in well-libated book releases,is longlisted for some desperate prize and sinks without a trace. And then publishers complain that it’s a high-risk business.

The decline of the short story — and its possible rebirth — is a curiosity,transacted purely by the market and technology. Writers and readers,the producers and consumers of books,were cut out from the deal. As communications technology diversifies and new modes of transmission of culture develop,other formats will be affected. Who knows,the novel,the cornerstone of the publishing industry,could take the next hit. Something shorter,which can be read on a handheld while in traffic or waiting for a meeting,has a future in the present. Ironically,that sounds very much like the short story.

pratik.kanjilal@expressindia.com

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