The short of it

Oct 18 2013, 15:18 IST
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SummaryThe short story, once edged out by marketing, could be reborn thanks to technology

The short story, once edged out by marketing, could be reborn thanks to technology

New writers often cut their teeth on short stories, under the mistaken assumption that being shorter, they are easier to write than novels. And then, with quivering hands, they offer their debut collection to their agent. Who pushes it right back, flings down some notes to cover the coffee and scuttles off in alarm, saying, “Come back when you have a novel. Publishers don’t want short stories.” Wonder what sort of marketing wisdom is being thrust on new writers now, after Alice Munro got the Nobel for her short stories. The citation explicitly says so.

When was the last time a writer loved primarily for short fiction got the Nobel? Maybe it was Isaac Bashevis Singer, 35 years ago. Many writers who have authored remarkable short fiction have got the Nobel in recent years — Herta Müller and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, for instance — but it was for their novels. The Booker Prize is just as format-obsessed, rewarding only novelists. Alice Munro did get the Man Booker in 2009, but it was the international flavour, which has more latitude. Across the Atlantic, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is genre-agnostic. That’s admirably broad-minded since it was originally called the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, and rewarded only novelists between the end of the Great War (1918) and the end of the colonial era, marked by the independence of the Indian subcontinent (1947). Had it not liberalised, we would not have cheered on Jhumpa Lahiri as a sprinter today. Only US novelists, the long distance runners, would have been taken seriously.

Numerous explanations have been offered for the rise and fall — and rise again — of the short story. The technological one is compelling and maps formats to modes of distribution, the channels by which literary products reach the readership. The modern short story emerged as a genre in the 19th century, driven by the innovation of cheap printing and mill-produced paper. They powered the proliferation of periodicals which went beyond plain news and plain sensationalism, the extremes of the spectrum within which media has traditionally operated, now known as hard news and infotainment. The genre began to slide into decline a century later, when marketing took the lead in publishing.

Marketing generally favours brands. They are easier to set rolling, roll on by sheer momentum and their products

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