A Brief History of the Short Story

There’s something you should know. The short story was very nearly drowned in the tub as an infant. As literary forms go, the short story is very young. Certainly its roots go back centuries — we can see it gestating in the Canterbury Tales, in fairy tales and in poems of a middling length. Arguably, even the conversational traditions of the anecdote, the joke and the parable, can be seen as precursors of the form. But the short story as we know it sprang into full-fledged existence as recently as the 1820s. It appeared, unheralded, to fill a sudden need created by the invention of the “gift book.”

There’s something you should know. The short story was very nearly drowned in the tub as an infant. As literary forms go, the short story is very young. Certainly its roots go back centuries — we can see it gestating in the Canterbury Tales, in fairy tales and in poems of a middling length. Arguably, even the conversational traditions of the anecdote, the joke and the parable, can be seen as precursors of the form. But the short story as we know it sprang into full-fledged existence as recently as the 1820s. It appeared, unheralded, to fill a sudden need created by the invention of the “gift book.”

Gift books were annual collections of poems, artwork and literary criticism, aimed primarily at an audience of upper-class women in England and North America. Seeking additional ways to fill the pages of these popular publications, editors began soliciting submissions of short pieces of prose to accompany artwork already purchased (rather the opposite of the way it is usually done these days). In so doing, they created the first paying market for short fiction. All modern literary magazines can trace their pedigree back to these gift books. In 1837, Nathaniel Hawthorne collected a number of stories that he had written for the gift book market and published them to great critical acclaim as Twice Told Tales. And with that, short stories had arrived.

Two hundred years may seem quite a long time, but consider that the novel dates back to at least 1605 (the year Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote was published) and you get a better idea of the short story’s relative youth. Over its entire lifetime, the fate of the form has been inextricably tied to that of magazines. In the early 20th century, literacy in the United States and Canada became near universal for the first time and, as a direct result, magazine sales boomed. On the erudite front, there were publications like The English Review and The Southwest Review, but there were also the decidedly lower brow Argosy and Adventure. This was the era of the pulp magazine and it brought with it the birth of genre literature.

Horror stories, detective stories and most especially science fiction evolved in short stories, cut their teeth in the magazines. It is no surprise that the beginning of the Golden Age of Science Fiction is identified most strongly not with a novel but with the publication of a magazine (the July 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, to be precise). Most of the formative novels of early- and mid-20th century science fiction were more like grown-up short stories in form than like other contemporary novels. In fact, some of the most famous science fiction novels — including Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, A.E. Van Vogt’s The Silkie, Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky and Ray Bradbury’s The Martial Chronicles — were fix-ups (a term for a novel created by stitching a series of previously published short stories together). It wasn’t until quite recently, around the 1984 publication of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the 1985 publication of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, that the two parallel traditions of the science fiction novel and the modern literary novel began to collide.

And yet, despite the fact that in its brief history the short story had brought into existence entire genres and traditions of literature, it came perilously close to death. In the 1950s, owning a television suddenly became within reach of the average North American family. The half-an-hour-less-commercials format of shows like I Love Lucy, Dragnet and The Honeymooners targeted the same entertainment niche as the magazine. Over the decades that followed, the circulation numbers of almost all magazines that ran short fiction saw a steady decline. The novel soldiered on, but the state of the short story became so dire that in 2007 Stephen King opened his piece “What Ails the Short Story” for the New York Times Book Review thus:

“The American short story is alive and well. Do you like the sound of that? Me too. I only wish it were actually true.”

So much can happen in four years. 2007 was the year that eBook readers burst onto the scene and, while the rise of the online magazine was already underway, it has stepped up considerably in the years since. More importantly, in 2007 television was still clinging to its cultural sovereignty, but it has since been firmly supplanted by the Internet. At the turn of the millennium, there was much ink spilled over the decline in the amount of reading people were doing, but the truth is that many of us are reading more than ever, we just aren’t doing it on paper. When reading on a screen rather than the page, there are new considerations. A narrative of a few thousand words can be easily read, enjoyed and digested while sitting before a monitor; a novella, far less so. This is an environment practically designed for the literary form Edgar Allan Poe defined as a tale that “can be read in one sitting.” Further, eBook readers are allowing publishers to easily make shorter works available at a reasonable price, without having to worry that a book’s spine be thick enough to hold its own on a bookstore shelf.

Video, of course, is quite at home online, but the real meat of the Internet has always been text. Preferably text that limits itself to a screen or two in length. As long as the Internet holds its throne as the defining medium of our time, the short story will be ascendant. It is true however that the form is undoubtedly being influenced and changed by the demands of its new homes. Personally, I’m thrilled to be taking part in that continued evolution, thrilled just to be present for the renaissance of the form that shaped science fiction, thrilled to be able to say unequivocally: “The short story is alive and well.”

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