On short fiction

Interview April 2004 by Kelly Jane Torrance.

K.T: There seem to be fewer and fewer venues to publish short stories. Women’s magazines, for example, used to publish stories, and most of them don’t any more. Venues like the Saturday Evening Post no longer exist. Why is this the case? Are people just less interested in reading short fiction?

G.H.: I think this has been the case for over fifty years, and the reason is TV. Mass-magazine-market short fiction was, whether literary or “commercial,” pretty journalistic, in the sense that it was published for its pertinence to the current lifestyles—or wished-for lifestyles—of the middle-class readership of the day. In that sense, it was doing the same thing the nonfiction articles were doing.

K.T.: Novels seem to be more marketable, publishable.

G.H.: They are.

K.T.: How many first-time authors are able to publish short story collections?

G.H.: Small publishers still publish short fiction, and more lately big ones will, since they have often bought the rights to the novel they hope will follow and have done this so the small press doesn’t get the jump on the fine new author by doing the same.

K.T.: Have you felt more pressure to publish novels?

G.H.: Absolutely.

K.T.: In a way, this seems odd. This is supposedly the “MTV Generation,” with short attention spans. You’d think this would make short stories more popular, not less.

G.H.: No, TV and the Internet have easily consumed those short time spans that formerly might have been devoted to reading short stories. It’s easier to watch a half hour TV show than to read a short story.

The strength of novels is that nothing else enables you to submerge yourself in an imagined world over several days, or even weeks, and to be able to enter and leave that world according to your own schedule and even to carry the thing (the book) around with you, if you want. This audience control of access plus the portability give novels a big advantage over soap operas, which also offer submersion over time. When technology comes up with something with the access and portability of novels that doesn’t require the effort of reading, it will replace the novel. Meanwhile all mass literary hope rests with the novel.

K.T.: What is the quality of short fiction now? Is it mostly MFA students writing short stories, and do many have a student quality to them?

G.H.: Yes, it’s largely originating in the writing workshops, but this means it’s not slick in that O’Hara-Parker-Cheever-Salinger-etc. way, but generally younger, serious/literary, and not so necessarily urban. The latest fashion is trailer-trash short fiction. more generally, there has been over the past twenty years, I think, a movement away from the epiphany story to something rougher and more autobiographically raw, i.e., toward autobiographical nonfiction. Also of course toward fiction by members of ethnic minorities. This was Frank O’Connor’s argument in The Lonely Voice: short fiction is about people at the margins; the novel addresses the mainstream middle class.

K.T.: People have argued that a smaller market means tough competition and the stories that are published are thus of a better quality. Do you think there’s anything to this?

G.H.: Good story collections continue to be published. Fewer, so the mean level is higher, yes. But really it is striking that most fiction writers feel they need to move on to novels, so there are virtually no short story writers doing anything as ambitious and complex as Alice Munro was doing even twenty years ago. It feels like a 20-30-year-old’s form, a beginning writer’s form, a way for a young writer to announce their voice, their arrival, and it’s become that as a result of the form losing its cultural niche.

K.T.: Do you have any experience with short story contests? I’m interested in the fact that most of these charge an entry fee. Do you see any problems with that? Also, I heard a rumor that Esquire actually didn’t award a prize in its contest a few years ago because they didn’t think any entry deserved to win.

G.H.: Yes, I’ve judged them. The fee is so the magazine can continue publishing. I have no problem with such fees. Good for Esquire.