Saturday, February 15, 2014

Where Have All the Short Story Writers Gone?

Once upon a time short story writers could make very good money. In the days before movie theaters and television, magazines like The Saturday Evening Post offered some of the best entertainment around. And they paid well to get these marquis writers on their covers. Around a century ago the highest paid of these scribes was a writer named Jack London. During the Roaring Twenties F. Scott Fitzgerald earned in a week what most people made in a year, simply with his typewriter.

I began writing short stories in high school. I'd like to believe they were very good stories, I suspect that the caliber of the ideas exceed the writer's ability to execute skillfully. Much like my drawings, the stories were original, even if handled clumsily. One of these, for example, was a story told from the point of view of a stick of chewing gum. It have alienation and despair, longing, suffering and satisfaction.

It wasn't till the eighties that I took seriously my efforts as a writer. I attended writers conferences and participated in a few writers groups. And, among other things, I wrote stories.

Like many fledgling writers two decades ago, I paid attention to the publications that published short story writers. The list of literary publications seemed tiresomely lengthy and it was as much work to find a honme for your story as it was to craft it. But there was always the hope of getting a story into one of the many magazines that included a short story in each issue: Esquire, Playboy, The Atlantic, Harper's...

At the Robert Wright Writers Conference I attended in 1985 (Mankato State University) I learned to my dismay that most of the magazines publishing writers have already filled their slots for the next ten years. That is, the big name writers who will increase sales by having their names on the cover are the ones who already have assignments. Stephen King, William F. Buckley Jr., etc.

In short, your best bet was to do the tedious business of finding publications by means of the Fiction Writers Digest or a place like The Loft in Minneapolis where all there literary mags are assembled in one place for your perusal.

So it was that when the Internet came along, I placed my stories in cyberspace because I wanted to share my work. The work I wanted to be doing was creating, writing. Not studying markets. Not figuring out how to write a letter that someone would notice in the midst of ten thousand other such inquiries.

To my delight, I discovered an audience. Somewhere in the mid-90's a Croatian poetry group asked permission to translate my story Duel of the Poets into Croatian as a centerpiece for their site. A Russian publication asked to translate one of my stories into their mother tongue, and a fellow in France asked to translate my story Terrorists Preying into French.

Two of my daughter's stories were later published as well--in California and New Zealand--after I posted them on my website. The Internet quickly demonstrated its power to change the playing field.

Those early tremors were exciting on one level, but there have been consequences. According to Ted Genoways' article in Mother Jones publications that once existed to showcase emerging literary talent have been folding. Other publications that once had at least one short story feature have ceased from the practice. Is fiction dead? No. But will writing fiction get you paid? That's a different game. And like performing in a band or making art, doesn't it really down to motivations? Why do we do the things we do?

The reality is that there seems to be more opportunity for writers than ever. That's why one million books were published last year instead of the 50,000 books of 1985.

One stat that sticks with me from that writers conference was that of the 50,000 books published only 2,000 were fiction. But don't let the lack of competition get your hopes up. Most of those would end up as remainders in dollar stores. My guess is that of the one million today, if that ratio holds there were 40,000 volumes of fiction produced last year. With the advent of Print On Demand,

One hundred years ago there were no television sets. No movie theaters. No radios. The Saturday Evening Post was your entertainment. Or making music Saturday night in the barn. Yet despite the multifarious means of getting distracted these days there's still a vast portion of the population that seems deliriously happy to do nothing more than curl up with a good book.

And if you like short stories, as many readers still do, I hope you'll find a way to curl up with some of mine. Unremembered Histories is my first in print. I'd be honored if you tell me what you think.

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