The Short on Short Stories

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Jackie Hemond

Traditional modern short stories were published in the early 1800s in the United States. Shortly afterward, in 1821, The Saturday Evening Post appeared, one of the most widely circulated magazines. The great demand for short stories in the 1920s insured high prices paid to writers. F. Scott Fitzgerald sold short stories to magazines to pay off his many debts. He received the equivalent of $50,000 for each story placed in The Saturday Evening Post. Short stories also appeared in pulp magazines which flourished from 1896 to the 1950s. Despite being considered low-brow, some sold one million copies per issue. In the 1940s, the popularity of The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reflected the continued demand for short fiction. However, during World War II, short fiction magazines declined in popularity due to paper shortages and competition from comic books, radio, television and the paperback novel.

Today, there is a renaissance in short stories. Writer Sam Baker points to short story authors who are literary prize winners: Lydia Davis won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013; Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013; and George Saunders won numerous awards for Tenth of December: Stories. Big-time publishers are once again producing short story collections reversing yet another decline in short story publishing in the early 2000s due to small profit margins, lack of interest and the internet. And now, short stories are perfect fits for our technology-induced short attention span. The internet has become a goldmine of quality and not-so-good quality short fiction in online magazines and apps like Hooked and many others.

Very short fiction, making its first appearance in the 1980s, is growing. It can range in length from sudden, (two pages) to flash (one page) to micro, (less than half a page), or shorter, like a Tweet. Respected writers such as Lydia Davis and Ernest Hemingway have written this type of short fiction, although his was written for a bet. Still, Hemingway’s piece, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn” is considered a short fiction classic.

And now, there are short story vending machines. Invented by Short Edition, a French publishing company, the Short Story Dispenser prints a free one-, two-, or five-minute story on rolls of paper, like sales receipts. Twenty of the 150 machines are in the United States, four in public libraries: Akron-Summit County, Ohio; Philadelphia; Columbia, South Carolina; and Wichita, Kansas. Many more are promised.

Note: I sent this column in before the news that remediation of the pcbs will take place later than planned. The news is disappointing, but not devastating, especially in light of national and world events. Still, the library should serve as an example – actions have consequences. Now it is important for us to work together and finish the job completely and well.

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