The Open Bar proudly welcomes Seth Fried to its ever growing stable of writers who have lost bets to us and are now contractually obligated to provide a monthly feature to the blog, while also telling people that we are all really super nice and have excellent hygiene and are quite adept at making small talk at parties where we don’t know anyone besides the host.
Ladies and gentlemen, Seth Fried’s “Das Kolumne”……..
Why Do We Hate Short Stories?
Among the many difficulties facing short stories, perhaps the most significant is the fact that no one reads or enjoys them. This has always been a widely held opinion in the publishing world, but it has been elevated to the realm of fact thanks to a recent study that was conducted by the US Center for Literary Statistics. According to the study, when a sample of readers were asked whether they would rather read a novel or a short story collection, 100% of participants barfed at the mention of a short story collection. When asked whether they would rather read a short story collection or have a hardcover copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom thrown at each of their heads in such a way as to cause the corner of the book to strike them sharply in the temple, 90% of participants said they would prefer to have the novel thrown at them. The remaining 10% hastily took out their own copies of Freedom and began flagellating themselves about the temples, as if they now believed that doing so would help ward off short stories in general. To summarize the results of this study in the words of your average publishing professional, short story collections are a “tough sell.”
And while this might seem like a recent phenomenon, the fact is that this bias against short stories was already evident in the US as far back as the 18th century. Early editions of Poor Richard’s Almanack included charts that attempted to link low crop yields in a given region to the number of short stories published there. Also, despite the fact that there is no evidence to support the claim, many colonial newspapers attributed the coining of the phrase “flash fiction” to Benedict Arnold.
Early American physicians often warned pregnant women against being left alone in a room with short story collections or interacting with them in any way whatsoever. John M. Woodworth, our nation’s first Surgeon General, wrote: “If a volume of short fiction brushes against a woman’s stomach when she is with child, it is well established that the child in question will be born without a forehead. Furthermore, if she is present while so much as one line from the book is read aloud, it is generally understood that immediately upon being born her child will explode.”
It is difficult to understand how short story collections managed to attain such a nefarious reputation in the US. Though, there are a handful of unfortunate episodes that historians tend to point to in their efforts to explain this perception of short stories as evil. Contrary to popular depictions, John Wilkes Booth did not shout sic semper tyrannis after shooting Lincoln. Rather, he leapt down to the stage and began reading aloud from a Fitz Hugh Ludlow story. Booth’s biographer, Theodore Roscoe, even speculates that Booth was wanted by the law more on account of his reading Ludlow to an unwilling audience than for the assassination of Lincoln. When Union forces caught up with Booth, they set the barn he was in on fire and then shot him in the neck. Roscoe points out that at the time this was the traditional punishment for reading short stories out loud. In fact, the legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow notwithstanding, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was actually the result of Chicagoans attempting to carry out a similar punishment against a young woman who had been overheard reading some of the shorter works of Balzac to her housecat. Many literary historians also enjoy pointing out the fact that one of the only pieces of evidence in the abduction of the Lindbergh baby was a collection of stories by P.G. Wodehouse that was left in the crib. Others argue even more tenuously that the Great Depression was the result of a bet between Sherwood Anderson and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Whatever the case, it is hard to deny that the connection between these national tragedies and short fiction seem either coincidental or the result of a preexisting hatred for short stories. The only evidence that manages to suggest any firm sense of causality is several eyewitness accounts of Edgar Allen Poe lunging at and biting the editor of The Saturday Evening Post while screaming, “I am doing this because I write short stories!”
What makes our distaste for the short form even more peculiar is that it seems to be an almost exclusively American attitude. Short story writers throughout history have enjoyed much more tolerance abroad. Frank O’Connor was beloved by his community, and was frequently let out of his cage on public holidays. Anton Chekov was even permitted to practice medicine, provided he wear two pairs of gloves while examining patients. And before forcibly placing Katherine Mansfield into a box and mailing her to the South Pole, Londoners actually allowed her to say a few parting words. Granted, this sense of open-mindedness was hardly uniform. When Alfred Nobel, a lifetime supporter of the arts, realized that he had inadvertently given financial support to several short story writers, he was so riddled with guilt that he invented dynamite in order to take his own life. Nevertheless, on average short fiction has always been greeted with far more equanimity overseas.
There is most likely no one answer as to why we as Americans hate short stories. At this point in our history it is a hatred so ingrained in our collective identity as a nation that to truly understand it we would have to be able to step outside of ourselves and unlearn our whole way of life. The only thing that can be said for certain is that since this bias has existed for so long, it most likely isn’t going anywhere. After all, overcoming hundreds of years of intolerance isn’t exactly our specialty. But one could hope that perhaps over time our primal feelings of disgust for the short story as a form might eventually be replaced with a gentler attitude, something like curiosity toward the handful of strange men and women who go out of their way to create these unloved literary objects – the same combination of pity and admiration we feel whenever we see anyone laboring against so strong a current.
Seth Fried’s short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Tin House, One Story, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and Vice, and have been anthologized in The Better of McSweeney’s, Volume 2 and The Pushcart Prize XXXV: The Best of the Small Presses. His debut short story collection, The Great Frustration, was published in May 2011 by Soft Skull Press.