Anyone Still Reading Short Stories?

Reading & Writing

4413540066_5200cdccbe_z

I’m on vacation with my Kindle, with around seventy books currently unread on it, and have found that I continue to read a lot of short stories. I’ve always loved them, from the early days of the Pan Books of Horror, and still write new ones whenever someone offers me an interesting commission.

Here are some of the collections on my Kindle at the moment:

World of Wodehouse (stories and articles)

Mrs Midnight  & Other Stories – Reggie Oliver

Tales & Fantasies – Robert Louis Stevenson

Edgar Allen Poe – Collected Tales

The Complete Father Brown Mysteries – GK Chesteron

The Weird – Jeff and Ann Vandemeer (huge superb collection)

Worming The Harpy and other Bitter Pills – Rhys Hughes

Collected Ghost Stories – MR James

The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Stories – Rudyard Kipling

Saki – Complete Short Stories (I could read them forever)

Seven Basic Plots – Why We Tell Stories – Christopher Booker

Hauntings and Horors – EF Benson

Present at a Hanging & Other Stories – Ambrose Pierce

Short Stories – W Somerset Maugham

The Mammoth Book of Modern Ghost Stories – Ed. Peter Haining

English Fairy Tales – Joseph Jacobs

Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime & Other Stories – Oscar Wilde

Complete Original Stories – Guy de Maupassant

Ghostly Tales – Sheridan le Fanu

But there’s a real problem – very few new writers are getting mainstream publishers anymore. I was lucky enough to start at the time that Clive Barker’s Books of Blood transformed the market and encouraged readers to rediscover the pleasures of short horror fiction. The Books of Blood had been delivered as one big collection but were carved into six volumes by a smart editor.

Over the years, the market for short stories has shrunk drastically. My last big collection, ‘Red Gloves’, appeared to a relatively silent critical reception – my first collection was reviewed in twenty-plus newspapers. But I know from my own experiences as a reviewer that it’s impossible to cover even a tiny fraction of the books that come out. I’d be happy for the national press to drop book reviews altogether and rely on online reviews, but small print houses can’t afford to send out review copies to them, and a book like ‘Red Gloves’ was expensive to produce.

Some of my 150+ short stories have appeared in France, but hardly any have come out in the US, although when odd stories surface I get some wonderful responses from writers I greatly admire, like Harlan Ellison, who sent me a signed edition of his own collected stories.

The question is; what can we do about this? I’d like to get new writers published, and I’d like to have more short story collections of my own into print (I’ve already published enough individual stories lately to create a new collection). A high profile editor or a clever hook for the collection would help – but do readers actually have an aversion to the format?

TV companies certainly don’t like the short story format, because they think they’ll get no viewer loyalty from such a series. Later this year I’ll put in some serious time on the problem. Meanwhile, your thoughts on how to get people reading short stories again will be most welcome.

39 comments on “Anyone Still Reading Short Stories?”

  1. Patrick says:

    The one thing I really like about the Kindle is that it can help to bring back the short novella or the short story. For 99 cents you can immerse yourself into a short story, and if you like it, that’s good. If you despise it, you’re only out 99 cents. You can move on to something different. And occasionally the stuff will be offered for free! Plus, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine is Kindle-available and there’s plenty of fine stories published that way. 🙂

  2. keith page says:

    Anyone remember the tv version of Saki’s stories?

  3. Ken Murray says:

    If I remember correctly one of the most effective mediums for short stories was the magazine. However this type of media appears to be on the way out. Perhaps some kind of kindle-cast could be a way to ‘re-kindle’ (sorry) interest in the format?

  4. Alan Morgan says:

    Short stories are excellent for younger readers, though this is somewhat an aside I admit. Kids in reading-houses plough through Roald Dahl and then a few years later are more comfortable in picking up his works for older readers (those which later were filmed as Tales Of The Unexpected). Short stories certainly work well in genre fiction, but I’ve a great fondness for Alexei Sayle’s volumes also.

    Collections are extremely good for learning about different authors. Come for the ones you know, go on with the others you meet.

    How to make them more popular? Publish a volume of mum porn based on handsome serial killers winning a tele talent contest, with the Templar cross on the cover. Maybe.

  5. Philip Jackson says:

    Funnily enough, although I very rarely read short stories, I’m currently reading Angela Carter’s collection, The Bloody Chamber. It’s absolutely brilliant, and it’s slight in terms of page count only – it certainly isn’t a book which can be rushed. I’d agree that a short story can be a fine introduction into an author’s works – I’m all for reading more Angela Carter now. I guess my only reservation is that with so much to read, and often so little time in which to read, careful choices have to be made, and I usually prefer to immerse myself in novels rather than short story collections. Mr Chris, I’ve read a number of your short stories (and jolly good they were too), but given a preference, I would always choose one of your novels instead. I dont’ suppose that really pushes the debate forward very much does it?!?!

  6. andrea yang says:

    I work in a U.S. public library and the short story collections do not circulate. We have them pulled out in their own shelving area near fiction but they just do not move….sad fact.

  7. andrea yang says:

    3 cheers for Colbert for promoting the short story format. You need to get an invite….

    Stephen Colbert (StephenAtHome) on Twitter

    2h · Stephen Colbert ‏@StephenAtHome. TONIGHT: My guest is short story virtuoso George Saunders. Though weirdly, he’s actually average height.

  8. andrea yang says:

    3 cheers for Colbert for promoting the short story format. You need to get an invite….

    Stephen Colbert (StephenAtHome) on Twitter

    2h · Stephen Colbert ‏@StephenAtHome. TONIGHT: My guest is short story virtuoso George Saunders. Though weirdly, he’s actually average height.

  9. Sam Tomaino says:

    I love short stories and review then for http://www.sfrevu.com every month. PS Publishing has allowed me access to many of their collections and I’ve review the issues of Postscripts. I do have a pdf of Red Gloves and promise to review it one of these months. Usually, it’s all I can do to keep up with the current new stories in the magazines, both print and online.
    Some of my favorite all-time short fiction includes “How the Fear Departed from the Long Gallery” by E.F. Benson, “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber, “Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle, “Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw, “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Imp of the Perverse” both by Edgar Allan Poe, “Ike at the Mike” and “The Ugly Chickens” both by Howard Waldrop, “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury”, “The Cats of Ulthar” by H.P. Lovecraft, “Pigeons from Hell” by Robert E. Howard, “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin and “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore (as Lewis Padgett).
    Top Favorite is “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

  10. Sooz says:

    Kindle may indeed be a way forward. John Scalzi is currently publishing a book in 13 episodes via Kindle – effectively, 13 short stories (The Human Division). I do hope this happens. I also mourn the passing of short-story magazines, though I do a bit by buying Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF, and occasional anthologies.

  11. Vivienne Cox says:

    The problem I have with a book of short stories is that I seem to get a sort of mental indigestion. Short stories are of their nature succinct, packed with action, character and detail: it is too easy to keep on reading, as if working through a box of chocolates, with the same overload outcome.

    I do remember the Saki stories on TV and that they were absolutely perfect little jewels – the length translates beautifully. I think the period details were spot on too.

  12. J. Folgard says:

    I love short stories -preferably in collections. It’s a nice change of pace from the full-length novel, and it allows me to read lesser-known stories from favorite writers, and ‘sampling’ new ones. It was through Stephen Jones’ Mammoth Books that I found out about your more recent work, and Maxim Jakubowski’s annual compilation is a perennial favorite. In fact, most of my crime reading is on short story format, it leaves out much of the ‘fat’ I tend to find tedious in many crime novels (though never in Bryan & May, mind!). Several good SF websites routinely feature short stories, like Tor, IO9 or Lightspeed, and I discovered DeadGoodBooks thanks to you, too. As some work weeks allow for precious little reading time, I love them for it!

  13. Helen Martin says:

    I just finished a collection of true railway crime stories and yes, the temptation is to carry on. Speaking of which, I have a collection of subway short stories that contains one by admin. Somehow I’m not drawn to the next story unless I can say that wasn’t so bad, maybe the next one won’t be terrifying either. It partly depends if the basis of the collection is something that interests you. (If a person doesn’t like horror why would they read crime stories, real or fiction?)

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, and Saki, H.H. Munro, the answer to a question in grade 8 lit that I couldn’t remember through three exams. I never came across any more of his work afterward but have never forgotten the concluding sentence of the short story in our book: Romance at short notice was her specialty.

  15. Chris Lancaster says:

    I always find it surprising that short stories aren’t more popular in the modern age. With attention spans seemingly shortening by the day, and increasing pressure on people’s time, the chance to read a fully contained tale in 10 or 15 minutes should surely be more popular.

    What has disappointed me since joining the Kindle brigade is the relative lack of magazines publishing short fiction that are available for the Kindle. Some writers also don’t help themselves. One of my favourite authors is Stephen Baxter, who writes stunning SF short fiction. His stories appear in a variety of anthologies and SF magazines, but the author’s website is rarely updated, and never has details of forthcoming short stories by Baxter, either in magazines or anthologies. Even as a big fan, I resent having to trawl the Internet to see if he has any new stories published anywhere. I find this amazing, to be honest – I can’t imagine why one would spend so much time writing, but make do little effort to bring it to readers’ attention.

    Perhaps I am being unfair in singling one author out; there are, of course, many authors (including one obvious one!) who do all they can to publicise their short fiction. If only all did the same, the format may be more successful.

  16. Kate Riedel says:

    A couple of years ago, on a 50-cent table outside a junk shop, I came across the Evening Standard Second Book of Strange Stories and loved it — early 1900s, short stories from the well-known such as Agatha Christie, Somerset Maugham, and an absolutely delightful one by the author of the “Freddie the Pig” series (whose name escapes me at the moment) to the totally obscure. I liked it so much I ordered the first one online. Loved that too. And once again found myself, like Miniver Cheevy, mourning the fact that I was born too late. As a kid I wanted to write stories that would be published in The Saturday Evening Post and similar magazines. Long before I was an adult, those markets were gone. I have managed a respectable list of short fantasy story publications, and have even occasionally been well-reviewed, but I recently found myself saying to someone, “I used to be a writer…” Writers write to be read, and the markets, especially for short stories, are dwindling fast — sometimes I wonder if genre short story magazines are only bought by writers who want to be published in them. And what they pay usually isn’t enough to — oh, I don’t know, buy a book? And yet short stories have had such wonderful spin-offs — think of the old Alfred Hitchcock series, a treasure trove of short stories turned into mini-masterpieces of TV drama. I don’t know if there is a solution to the waning of short story showcases — the internet has made self-publishing more respectable than it used to be but, speaking as both a writer and a reader, I prefer the services of a good editor when it comes to either publishing or finding something to read.
    Gone on way longer than I intended to…
    By the way, Just finished reading Bryant and May and the Invisible Code — difficult to get ahold of in Canada, for some reason. Great to have the gang back. I want more.

  17. Chandon Bleackley says:

    I would have thought that the recent growth in the use of devices like Kindles and ipads would have led to the publication of more short stories. Not everyone has time the time or the attention span to read whole novels, and reading a short story can be just as satisfying. There is no reason that short stories could not be as popular as they were in the mid 20th Century, when writers like Maugham or Zweig could build their reputations by writing lots of them.

    I do not work in publishing, so am no sure exactly how the business works, but surely one solution would be to get a publisher to produce some kind of e-collection of stories (perhaps based on a theme or genre) which could then be sold cheaply on line? If something was particularly popular, then it could be published in paper form as well.

  18. M.E. Hydra says:

    I think modern fiction writers might have lost the art of putting the story into a short story. A lot of the short fiction I come across is usually very clever, superbly written and yet strangely soulless. There isn’t any meat or guts to them. I admire the quality of the writing, but the stories don’t move me on any kind of visceral level. I noticed this when reading the recent stories up on Jeff Vandermeer’s Weird Fiction Review. The only one that gave me chills was “The Night Wire” and that was published in the ’60s. Modern writers also lean too hard on the Just Another Crazy Person PoV or Insert Own Ending/Interpretation/Plot tropes, which are starting to become as tiresome as ghost stories must have been during their heyday. Also, stuff actually happened in the older stories. Nowadays it seems more about style and cleverness, rather than delivering solid thrills to an audience. I wonder if horror in particular might have become dislocated from its audience – too much writing to please other writers rather than trying to entice general readers back. Maybe the general readers just aren’t interested and it’s a lost cause.

    Possibly length might play a part. The stories in Barker’s Books of Blood are long compared to anything that would be accepted by a magazine. That gave him time to let the stories unfold at their natural length, rather than having to crush them down into a shallow 3,000 word vignette.

    It reminds me of the whole ‘young boys don’t read’ notion that was exploded when JK Rowling came along. Maybe readers aren’t interested in short fiction, or maybe writers aren’t putting out stories readers want to read.

    I’ve put out four collections of short stories. At least the overheads on epublishing are so small that small publishers can do this without risking losing their shirt. Maybe kindle and the like will see a resurgence of short fiction. I hope so. I love short stories.

  19. snowy says:

    If you wil forgive my rephrasing the question slightly, what was the appeal of the short story collection? Rather than a full length novel at about the same price, or was it?

    Now that is a bit of a difficult question, I know, [well it is for me], but if people would be kind enough, could I ask what was the first/favourite collection they bought with their own money, and why they chose that rather than a novel?

    Tucked somewhere deep in the past is perhaps the answer.

  20. Sam Tomaino says:

    To Helen Martin, add “The Open Window” by Saki to my list of favorite stories. The last line you quote is one of the most lyrical in all literature.

  21. Diogenes says:

    I can’t think of many writers in short story and novel format whose work I prefer as short stories. Conan Doyle and Father Brown maybe but I find short stories in isolation a bit frustrating and unfulfilling.

  22. FabienneT says:

    I have got quite a few from your list! I personally love illustrated books, and have several “Vintage” collections of illustrated short stories. It really adds something to the book. So maybe producing beautiful books and commissioning illustrators/artists to try and add a visual element to the stories as they used to do would be a way to go? I mean, look at that Saki cover artwork! Wonderful!

  23. admin says:

    A terrific and very useful response here. I’d add that the irascible Stephen Jones has contributed so many collections to the genre (not all of them good, but hey) and has pointed me to a lot of unknown authors.

  24. Alan G says:

    Does anybody recall a horror style magazine “Fear”? It didn’t last long, I suspect that the market was a little too niche and the mag was a bit too expensive.

    But I remember being stranded at Waterloo station one night (one too much after the office) and found myself with a group of other stranded people. This before “security” issues kicked everybody out whatever the temperature outside.

    It was like a campsite. I pulled out my copy of “Fear” and read a short from it – and then the mag got passed around and others started reading out too. It got us through the night.

    And I agree with Admin – so many books on my Kindle -is there a word for being addicted to downloading onto Kindle?

    Kindleholic? Maybe not.

  25. Dan Terrell says:

    I have not found reading novels, and non-fiction work, on my Kindle to be particularly rewarding. (I am addicted to the feel of a book and the comfort of seeing stacks of books – with their bookmark fuzes sticking out – sitting around; my wife less so.)
    But I have found the Kindle to be great for short stories (and longer old, old stuff that’s either free or cheap, but mostly hard to find, for ex. early SiFi, mystery, and others). I have also used the Kindle to sample an author. And to fill out material written by an author that hasn’t been collected. There can be a lot of it.
    I have enjoyed short story collections that are integrated. For example, I have reads books of four novella-length mysteries about the same characters that follow a specific time span, such as the seasons. These can be very “novelish”, but more partitioned. The format seemed to work rather well. There is a Judge Dee collection that consists of short stories set between each of the Judge Dee novels and in an afterward the author sets out the relationship to the novels and rovides a timeline of all the Dee works – would be great for the Bryant & May epic.
    I seldom read a short story collection, particularly by a single author, straight through and rather prefer to read a few than put the book on the hold shelf; except for Red Gloves and Michael Gilbert’s great book of spy stories Game Without Rules, and later the nearly as good Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens. Short stories make terrific “pauses” between novels, or when time is short, or when I’m working on a piece and I don’t want to carry another novel and its characters, plot and sub-plots in my head.
    I would support the idea of .99 Kindle downloads, previously suggested, and Kindle collections of your early writing drawn from your early short story books, sort of sampliers, and also the original books themselves as these are now only available in used shops and gain you no income. Author backlists are rapidly being swept into e-editions by publishers.
    PS – the man who named the Kindle and the Ipad died last week. And yesterday, my wife and I celebrated 47 years of marrage and nearly 50 years of knowing each other. It actually doesn’t seem nearly that long. In fact, reading that trio of books about The Girl Who… seemed so much longer.

  26. Alan G says:

    Congratulations Dan!

  27. Chris Lancaster says:

    Alan G, I can’t believe you mentioned Fear magazine. Thanks to Fear, I can truthfully say that I am a published author!

  28. james says:

    Interesting that Barker’s Books of Blood should come up. I stumbled upon them by chance when I was 20 years old and they completely blew me away. Still one of my all time favourite collections. The problem was, because Barker was only the second horror writer I’d discovered up to that point (the first being King) I assumed that everyone else would be as good. It took me years to realise this was not the case, which meant wading through tons of sub-standard rubbish before I discovered other writers in Barker’s league such as Christopher Fowler, Michael Marshall Smith, Robert Devereaux, Richard Christian Matheson and the truly incredible Charlee Jacob.

    M.E. Hydra’s point about Barker being allowed to stretch out and write his long short stories at their natural length is a good one. I can’t see how that would be possible today. Black Static is currently the only horror magazine I know of that accepts stories up to 10,000 words, but most have a maximum of half that or less. Barker’s stories had an average length of about 30 pages, roughly 12, 000 words or so. Sadly, he stopped writing short stories after Books, but luckily writers such as Admin are still releasing excellent collections like Red Gloves, and for that we should all be grateful.

  29. I love reading short stories,well done to all of you!

  30. Alan G says:

    Chris. “Fear” was a brilliant magazine and I regret lending them to a friend. I never got them back – but I suppose with his house burning he may have had other matters on his mind.

    My Margery Allingham collection went at the same time. Pattern?

    As to short story collections I’m surprised no mention of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.

  31. Bob Low says:

    Ther’s been so many insightful and interesting posts here, that I feel anything I might say has been better said by others-for what it’s worth, I love short stories, they make a good pause between reading longer stuff, as Dan said, but there are some writers whose short stories are so good, they are a pleasure to read in themselves.Sometimes I think that the short stort is dying out because it just doesn’t deliver what many people who read popular fiction for pleasure really want-literary recreations of their favourite TV shows, and films. Great short fiction requires an effort of attention amd concentration which is in inverse ratio to the length of the piece-and a really good short story should make you stop in your tracks and think for a while afterwards. This requires some patience, and time, which many readers aren’t prepared to make. The short story may go the way of poetry-it’ll still be found out there, but very much as a minority interest. However, a lot of Mr. Fowler’s recent postings here are giving me more optimism-could the Kindle save the short story, yet? The publishing world is changing so much, that anything is possible.

  32. Alan G says:

    Can anybody remind me who wrote the classic short story – it sort of went “The last man on Earth sat in his room. There was a knock on the door.”

  33. Alan G says:

    Oops – sorry to Dio.

  34. Bob Low says:

    Alan-I think that one is credited to the great Fredric Brown, mystery writer extraordinaire, who specialised in very short stories indeed, and had a penchant for wordplay. I seem to remember a paperback anthology of them with the fascinating title”Nightmares and Geezenstacks” Never did find out what a geezenstack was.

  35. snowy says:

    Yes it’s Fredric Brown, (must stick him on my list of authors to look out for again) from the story called ‘Knock’

    The ‘Geezenstacks’ was the name given by a little girl to a set of mysterious dolls.

  36. Alan G says:

    It was indeed. Thanks Bob and Snowy.

    That one still makes me shiver.

  37. Bob Low says:

    Alan-it was nice to be reminded about Fredric Brown-I must see if I can find my old copy of ”The Screaming Mimi” (he also had some great titles).

    Snowy-thanks for the Geezenstacks.

  38. Helen Martin says:

    “The Screaming Mimi” is a great title because a favourite expression when faced with eerie or upsetting things was, “That gives me the screaming mimis.” From the story or from earlier?

  39. Bob Low says:

    Helen-I think Brown was borrowing this expression for his own ends, as the book dates, I think, from the late forties, and I think this lovely expression-the screaming mimis!- is a bit older than that. Like all of Brown’s fiction, at all lengths, it’s great fun, and worth tracking down. I haven’t read it, but I think one of Brown’s other works was an attempt at a ”hard-boiled” take on Alice in Wonderland, called ”Night of the Jabberwock”. He was a true original.

Comments are closed.