Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Short Story

English majors study a lot of things en route to a degree in English, but one somewhat odd component of the study of English is the study of English studies. (And paradoxically, perhaps only an English major would think the previous sentence is not only well-written, but clever). In other words, English majors spend a fair amount of time discussing why certain literary works are discussed. And a fair amount of time is spent debating what genres are favored by various audiences, why the genres are favored, and how that changes over time. And sometimes time is spent lamenting all of the above. In particular, the "death of poetry" is proclaimed, analyzed, and despaired over. At one time the dominant mode of literary expression and consumption, it's commonly held that now the only people who read poetry are poets.

I don't think we need to over analyze why poetry is not terribly popular in the commercial market. Poetry is not widely discussed for the same reason that paintings, sculpture, and symphonic compositions are not widely discussed. People are hard-wired to consume and discuss narratives, and most contemporary poems don't relate coherent and satisfying narratives.

Of greater interest to me is why the "short story" is not a more dominant genre in our culture, why there is not more demand for them. I'm guessing that almost everybody who has a trace of literary appreciation can cite a few memorable short stories they read during their schooldays. Given the convenience with which they can be covered in a high school curriculum, short stories still thrive in those environments. I fondly remember "The Monkey's Paw," "Contents of a Dead Man's Pocket," and selections from Bradbury, O'Henry, and Poe. One explanation is that demand is conditioned by supply--and supplying novels is more obviously lucrative than supplying a short story, perhaps even a collection of them. Also, when people are looking for a narrative they are looking to get lost in the narrative, to suspend their reality to enter another, and a full-length novel allows for a more satisfying field trip.

But on the other hand, there is much about contemporary culture that would suggest that there should be more demand for a short story. The Internet and social media are fostering a culture where short, bite-sized morsels of content are being shared, consumed, and discarded. With a proliferation of entertainment options, the less demanding of one's time, the more likely that any particular option will be chosen. Also, technology has made distribution ideal. The rise of e-readers and the ease of downloading digital units are perfect for the consumption of short stories. The iTunes store sells albums but makes the bulk of its revenue from selling short, individual songs. Wouldn't an iTunes of short stories be logical and lucrative?

But it's not just in the literary arena where it would seem that we should be poised for a golden age of short narratives. Youtube has conditioned us to watch videos for a few minutes at a time. But TV shows are actually moving away from the self-contained narrative. People now consume entire seasons of TV shows in a span of days, hooked on the serial nature of many of today's shows. But does it have to be that way? Just as most people remember specific stories from high school literary anthologies, people of a certain age can likely recall a particular Twilight Zone story that has stayed with them over the years.

So given that we demand and consume narratives, and given that we live in a culture that would seem to make the dissemination of short narratives ideal, where are the short stories? I have a theory. I think they are everywhere being consumed by everybody all the time. It's just that they are not based in fiction. I came to this realization this week when I ran across a national news story about a man who allegedly killed a woman, stole her ring, and used it to propose to his girlfriend. This story had absolutely no redeeming social value. There is nothing to be gained by becoming aware that this happened. And the same could be said every day and every week. We are fed stories about freak occurrences, about vile actions committed by villains, about cruel and unusual twists of fate, even about the heartwarming actions of unlikely heroes. And although out lives aren't overtly affected by being exposed to these narratives, they continue to pour forth.

Maybe someday they will even be studied in English classes.


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