A few days ago I went to browse in the large Waterstones of a town I was visiting. I had just reviewed some Chinese short stories (earlier post), I thought I might find another stimulating collection. Huge shelves of fiction faced me, but not even one for short stories; worse, there were only seven different titles. At least this included the recent Munro, although this was on the counter rather than displayed on one of the tables where the rushed shopper might think ‘Yes, Munro’s latest, must have these stories.’ Amongst the thousands of titles for fiction, only 7 for short stories seemed amazing. There were more titles for knitting.
On Amazon, the original search for short stories brings up over 3,000 titles, but the number of literary and contemporary collections appears to be only in the hundreds. Even then, scanning through, I found children’s titles, single stories of 6 pages and erotica among these.
In my local library there is no separate section for short stories, and there are only five on its entire list. The city library has more, but there is no shelf-full. Short stories are placed besides poetry which, to my surprise, filled most of the shelf.
I prefer writing novels – so much more scope for developing a character and his/her fortunes. Nevertheless, I have written many short stories with difficulty. I greatly admire those writers who show a key moment in a character’s life, or address an emotional issue succinctly yet memorably. I’ve reviewed two collections of short stories on this site, picked for their unusualness. I am sure I shall review more, but finding new collections is not made easy by either availability or by marketing.
It may be that in the U.S. and elsewhere, short stories sell better but in the U.K genre fiction and celebrity memoirs dominate. It seems odd that short fiction is not first choice when time demands are believed greater in the current economic climate. We don’t write letters, we text in condensed format or tweet in 140 characters. Our TV dramas appear to assume a maximum of two minutes before the character and scene must be changed. It would be logical to expect short fiction to sell better than long. Sales of misery memoirs, for instance, must take four times as long to read as a short story, if not to absorb. Even undemanding stories must have lost favour in that most magazines have largely dropped their short story features.
Why are short stories so sparsely treated? They seem very rarely taken on by U.K publishers unless written by an already very successful author, and that not often. They probably make little money for publishers, and this means they have failed to attract an audience.
Is it possible that insufficient attention has been paid to the covers of such collections?
In the main, they tend to be in plain colours with only a contrasting stripe or emboldened fonts to arrest the gaze. It doesn’t. Short story collections have some sort of theme. If none is suggested by the author, such as revenge or love or fear, there is always the style, culture, time or the place in which or about which they are written. A good graphic designer or illustrator can surely encapsulate some image or design to attract the book browser? The only volume I have seen recently where this has happened is Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill, and that is modest.
Children’s short stories still sell well. Parents would rather read something bite-sized than embark on a novel. Children are assumed to want something which doesn’t daunt by size – despite their love of huge Harry Potter novels . Note that children’s short stories have illustrations on the covers. Publishers must have concluded that plain covers would be far more off-putting for sales than size. Are we adults so different?
I do love an eye-cataching cover. Therefore my own forthcoming volume of short stories (Me-Time Tales – tea-breaks for mature women and curious men) is unashamedly bright with its theme of self-indulgence evident.