Over the last few decades, the short story has been the subject of a fierce medical dispute. Observers have gathered to ask, like Ishmael of the Leviathan in Moby-Dick; “Will He Perish?” Certainly, twenty-first century readers looking for short fiction in the UK and USA are less likely to find it in any substantial quantities in the larger bookshop chains or within the pages of mainstream printed periodicals than formerly. As Ruth Franklin has noted of the American short story in a recent article for Prospect magazine: “ten years ago…[it] was in serious decline… one by one, magazines that published fiction decided to stop or cut back: GQ, Esquire, even the Atlantic” (Franklin 86). Critics have been quick to pronounce upon its incipient mortality, offering diagnoses that have pointed to a hazardous cocktail of factors. Among the reasons listed, market pressures against outlets stocking short story collections, the decline of printed mass-market periodicals, lack of media interest in major short story prizes, global political anxiety leading to calls for more copy to be given over to journalistic content, and a popular perception that it constitutes merely a juvenile finger exercise for the more rigorous work of the novel have found strong advocates, especially among editors, publishers and book retailers.
Like the dead parrot in the Monty Python Sketch? Despite proclamations of the its demise the genre of the short story has been revived in recent years [Image by Andrew Becraft under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]
Like the dead parrot in the famous Monty Python sketch, others have been just as emphatic in testifying to its continued vitality. For these critics, the rise of e-readers and digital-download platforms like Kindle Singles, as well as new forms of short fiction emerging out of digital culture (twitter fiction, flash fiction, the short short story) have been a bolt of revivifying electricity into the genre’s ailing frame. Whether or not these claims are true, they have more than a whiff of the kind of technological utopianism that the novelist and short story writer Ewan Morrison has recently called “dot-communism” (Morrison qtd Higgins, n. pag.); a term that sarcastically implies a link between new left-wing idealism about the collectivist possibilities of internet fiction and the capitalist frenzy over technology that created the disastrous late nineteen-nineties dot-com bubble.
In this article I am less interested in making claims about the short story’s constitutional health as I am in looking at how the form is operating within the contemporary literary marketplace. Viewed from the perspective of the larger hard-copy book retailers the short story would appear to be declining, but this should not be read as a sign of the end of the form as a whole. In fact, such a claim is absurd. Literary genres do not die like an organism would, because they were never coherent or whole enough to stand independently in the first place. Forms are porous and affected by changing social conditions. They transmogrify constantly as they share with one another through complex networks of exchange. To borrow Deleuze and Guattarri’s famous metaphor, they are a “literary machine [that] can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work” (Deleuze and Guattari 5). Crucially though, they can just as easily be plugged into other “machines” to serve different purposes.
When developing a generic approach to the short story it is important to take account of this adaptive quality. Indeed, through all the many variations taken by the form across the ages, “generic discontinuity” (Jameson 144) has been one its more persistent features. Variously described as a descendant of oral storytelling, poetry, theatre, the novel, as Western and Eastern, modernist and romantic, or as very new or very old, what has consistently upset hardline formalists is the short story’s systematic instability. As Kasia Boddy has recently argued, the short story is a chameleonic form that is especially conditioned by its paratexts: “where we read the story shapes the expectations we bring to our reading of it, and thus the effect it has on us” (Boddy 117). To read a short story on an e-reader, for example, does not offer one the same experience as purchasing it as part of a hard-copy anthology, or encountering it in a general-interest magazine. Indeed, as I will argue in the rest of this essay, the form is peculiarly sensitive to social change and can be used as a barometer of how reading practices are affected by what Raymond Williams called the emergent, dominant, and residual forms of capitalist production.
A chamelonic form: the short story is peculiarly sensitive to social change in reading and production practices [Image by Nathan Rupert under a CC-BY-NC-ND license]
In order to explore how the short story is adapting to these changing conditions I will consider the form in light of recent critical work in the burgeoning area of “print culture”, an interdisciplinary mode of inquiry comprising literary criticism, cultural studies, social and material history and communication studies. “Print culture”, or sometimes “the history of the book” is concerned with how one’s interpretation of a text is motivated by the technological aspects of reading. Going further than Gerard Genette’s interest in paratext, or “the liminal devices that control how a reader perceives the text… front and back covers, jacket blurbs, indexes, footnotes, tables of contents, etc” (Finkelstein and McCleery 22), print culture considers how the work of a text is shaped by wider social forces, including industrial processes of distribution and networks of affective exchange. In other words, print culture considers what books look like, where they are bought, and how they make us feel as an influence on the character of the text. Also included in this is how the dominance of certain kinds of reading technology has affected critical accounts of its literary history. I will now outline some examples of how the form is operating within the context of the two different types of printed artifact that have been traditional vehicles for its consumption: “the book” and “the seasonal periodical or annual”.
For the sake of pragmatism, in referring to “The Book” I have chosen to focus here on a comparatively stable and unified form of bound, printed material traded on the marketplace through general retailers as a commodity (the woody-papery thing rather than the mere text as it appears on an e-reader). The text of “the book” is largely preserved as a fixed entity by means of literary copyright laws, which define the work as the combined property of the author and publisher. Among books, the most popular form for the transmission of literary fiction in the twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries has been the octavo, a book that is around eight or nine inches high vertically and four or five inches horizontally. Among octavos, the biggest-selling sub-category is the usually referred to as the “mass-market paperback”. In order to access this market, short stories have usually either been collected as the work of a single author or in anthologies of “the best short stories”, in which the work of new or lesser-known authors commonly appears alongside more established names.
If market sales are anything to go by, it is true to say that the short story collection seldom fares as well as “the novel”. Indeed, “the novel” as a form has benefitted significantly in the twentieth century from modern techniques of mass production and circulation as well as the standardization of the octavo as the dominant reading technology. Most e-readers designed for the consumption of the novel mimic the size and dimensions of the octavo book, which can be held in one’s hands for a substantial period of time without discomfort. This technological fact allows for the possibility of an immersive, focused type of close reading that has benefitted the long-form novel with its sub-plots, recurring motifs and extended temporal frame. Unlike an unbound newspaper or pamphlet (which is cheap enough to be divided up between readers and sections handed around) or a massive folio (only readable when placed upon a large surface) an octavo is the preserve of the single, solitary user, and transforms literary consumption into an act that can create the conditions necessary for a privatized bourgeois contemplation and reflection.
The octavo book has benefitted from modern techniques of mass production and circulation [Image by Diego DeNichola under a CC-BY-ND license]
Additionally, as China Miéville has recently argued, in Britain there has been a certain stabilization of the genre of the “literary fiction” novel, which owes much to a technocratic alliance between the press, the publishers and the prize-giving bodies. This stable approach to genre and form is codified in the entry criteria for the Man Booker prize, which stipulates that only a “full-length novel … is eligible” and that “such a book must be a unified and substantial body of work”. Combining this demand for thematic unity with the physical form of the octavo (shaped as it is for the private consumption of a bourgeois subject) allows us to develop a picture of the ideal reader of literary fiction as a middle-class, educated individual with liberal humanist values. Since the Booker also often serves as a measure of literary or artistic value within the context of the popular literary marketplace, this official exclusion of any prose form that does not easily meet requirements of subsequent mass-market sales is loaded with troubling assumptions about writers and readers.
If we use prizes like the Booker as measures of canonicity, then the idea that a book of literary fiction must be “unified and substantial” in order to be saleable works against the short story form, which when published in mass-market paperback octavos has commonly been forced to take on the shape of “the short story sequence”; that is, works that are linked by similarities of content, perspective or unifying theme. What has often motivated mass-market octavo buyers (and consequently retailers’ decisions about what to stock) is the desire for consistency: a stable understanding of authorial and textual coherence that is made possible through literary copyright laws and aesthetic or genre conventions.
In the middle of the twentieth century the short story writer and critic Frank O’Connor developed a theory of the short story that reflected the emergence of “the book” as the dominant technology for the consumption of fiction. O’Connor stated of the short story that “it began, and continues to function, as a private art intended to satisfy the standards of the individual, solitary, critical reader (O'Connor 14). At the very moment in which O’Connor was writing, as Kasia Boddy has shown, the short story was beginning to be taught in universities according to the edicts of the New Criticism, which placed emphasis on consistency and coherence of a literary text as a measure of its quality. To this claim I would add that from a market perspective, the nascence of the New Criticism coincided with a standardization of the technology of the book in most markets in the shape of the comparatively cheap octavo paperback. I adduce that the dimensions of this form of book in some ways made possible the kinds of pedagogical practice and critical close reading espoused by figures such as Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, F.R. Leavis and O’Connor.
A novel or a short story collection? Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad demonstrates the continuing influence of the octavo [Image by Matthew Allard under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]
The persistence of the octavo has implications for the way that the short story is consumed and critically understood. Recently though, authors have begun to innovate new forms of writing that work with technical and financial requirements of the mass-market octavo form, whilst also finding interesting uses for the short story. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from The Goon Squad (2010) is an especially fine example. Egan’s book is at once a novel and a short story collection that can be read cover to cover in its entirety (as one would expect to read a novel) or as autonomous sections. The form of the work is intelligently connected with its broader themes and aesthetics, which are concerned with how memory can become fractured by time and drug abuse. The success of this novel (huge sales, A Pulitzer Prize and National Critics’ Circle Award) potentially points to a future convergence of the short story and the novel that can only benefit the short story in its continued attempt to gain access the hallowed double whammy of critical esteem and market success.
The Seasonal Periodical or Annual
Commentators on the contemporary literary landscape have often used the success of the American publication Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern to prophesy the reemergence of the short story as a distinct genre within independent, high quality, engraved and illustrated periodicals with small, seasonal print runs (see, for instance, Jon McGregor’s interview for Booktrust about writing short stories). These beautiful little mélanges of essays, pictures, stories and poems can be usefully understood as the heirs to the legacy of the Victorian literary annuals and “gift books”, which recent book historians such as Meredith McGill have shown were central to the early development of the short story in the work of writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe.
Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern: the late 20th- / early 21-st-century inheritor of Victorian literary annuals and "gift books" [Image used under fair dealings provisions]
As well as being an early vehicle for the short story form, these gift books played a significant role in Victorian and early-American courtship practices. Gift-books were designed to be exchanged ritually between two parties as “tokens of affection” (34) that would either cement or “conjure female affective response[s]” (34) as a precursor to a marriage proposal or sexual activity. Their opulence and richness, as well as the diversity of their content, conferred upon them what Walter Benjamin referred to as the “aura” (Benjamin 215) peculiar to a sacred, ritual objects, allowing those that gave and received them to at least imagine that their acts of exchange were not contaminated by their relationship to the “basic conditions underlying capitalist production” (211), that is, that the (presumably male) suitor had not made but bought the book that he was presenting to his beloved. My point here is not that McSweeney’s is designed to help one navigate the tricky world of contemporary courtship. Rather, it is that its abundance, exuberance and variety function to allow the reader to imagine that its content is the preserve of a special, aesthetic realm beyond that of the mass-market paperback. Furthermore, its quarterly publication and the unique design of each issue mark its appearance as an event with special emotional resonances. Like the Victorian gift book, the periodical therefore functions at the intersection between affective and economic circuits of exchange. The periodical is “cult” in the most literal sense of being a sacred object designed to inspire devotion among fans. This emotional effect is made possible by the printed nature of the artifact, whose materiality registers a very clear and direct challenge to the more ephemeral forms of digital publishing.
The affective quality of the publication has inevitable implications for the ways in which the texts contained within it might be read and understood. Ruth Franklin has argued that a new form of short story has emerged in McSweeney’s that is distinctly different from the kind developed by such luminaries as Frank O’Connor. Instead of logical coherence, Franklin argues, a McSweeney’s story is recognizable by its “lugubrious fictional haze in which ideas and images see[m] to float free, uninhibited by structure” (86). I would argue that the form of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is a perfect carriage for this kind of expressiveness, since the periodical itself is a material testament to unabashed enthusiasm and emotional excess. However, by contrast to the more measured and stabilized work done by book reading, interpreting a McSweeney’s story as it appears in the quarterly requires one to abandon the illusion of objective close reading. To truly understand the work of a journal such as McSweeney’s demands one must to consider their emotional investment in it; self-reflexivity is required.
This article has briefly outlined just a couple of ways in which a print culture approach may be brought to bear on readings of the short story form, but it is designed with a view in mind to its own incompleteness. I invite any responses Alluvium readers may have considering both new avenues for print culture studies and the changing face of publishing in general.
CITATION: Michael J. Collins, "The Short Story: A Print Culture Reading," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 7 (2012): n. pag. Web. 9 December 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.7.04.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’] http://www.alluvium-journal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Michael-James-Collins.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Dr Michael J. Collins is Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Kent. He is a regular reviewer for the Year’s Work in English Studies and serves on the Executive Committee of The British Association for American Studies. [/author_info] [/author]
 Fascinating work is currently being done in this area, especially in my own field of nineteenth-century literature. Book historians have been interested in particular in the way that technologies of print have been implicated in the transmission of certain idea such as nationalism and romanticism, which, in their post-Enlightenment phase, often relied heavily upon reader’s conceptions of individual self-determination.
 Two chapters of O’Connor’s work appeared first in The Kenyon Review, a journal that was a major outlet for conservative New Criticism in the middle decades of the twentieth century, especially during John Crowe Ransom’s tenure as editor.
 As an aside, I did in fact marry the first person that bought me a copy of McSweeney’s, although I assure readers that this was purely a coincidence.
Anon. “Jon McGregor: Making Short Work”. Booktrust. Web, n. pag. [accessed 31 October 2012]: http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books-and-reading/interviews/95.
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Crown, Sarah. “What the Booker Prize Really Excludes.” The Guardian, 17 October, 2012 [accessed 31 October 2012]:
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Franklin, Ruth. “What a difference a decade makes.” Prospect Magazine, 14 December 2011 [accessed 31 October 2012]: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/american-short-story-21st-century-new-yorker-mcsweeneys/.
Higgins, Charlotte. "China Miéville: Writers should welcome a future where readers remix our books." The Guardian, 21 August 2012 [accessed 31 October 2012]: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/21/china-mieville-novels-books-anti-piracy.
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