Monday, August 17, 2009

Psst! Agents and Publishers, Short Story Collections Aren't Poison

As I've said before, it's high time that publishers and agents stopped perpetuating the myth that there isn't an audience for short story collections. Two interviews I saw on the Web last week (via Twitter links) addressed this truism. First, this from an interview with Petina Gappah (An Elegy for Easterly) on the Short Review Web site:
I did not have a collection in mind at all, especially because very early on in my writing career, someone pretty high up in publishing had told me that there was no interest in story collections. So I wrote stories as a way of flexing my writing muscle, and to find my "voice," with no thought of collecting them in a single volume, until my agent . . . suggested putting them together in a single manuscript. I was stunned when Faber offered to publish them. This went against all that I had heard about publishers' loathing of short stories.
And James Lasdun addressed similar concerns in an interview he did for the Edinburgh Festival Guide, billed as "A Strident Defence of the Short Story":
Over the years James Lasdun has turned his pen to novels, screenplays, travel writing, journalism and poetry, but short stories are his current medium of choice, having recently published his third collection, It's Beginning to Hurt. Lasdun suggests that the short story should have great appeal ‘because it’s short, it’s quick and people have limited time and short attention spans. One would think it would fit right into the habits of mind that people have in this era.’ He offers a few hypotheses as to why it remains as the novel’s lesser-seen younger sibling. ‘I think there’s a feeling that this is an insider’s game, that it’s an artsy type of writing, and if you’re not part of that world then you might just be wasting your time and money and why not go out and get a novel by some novelist that you know and love?’
There was also a provocative post on the Rumpus last week, as well as one on the One Story blog.

The fact is, some short story collections have sold very well in the last year or two. Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge has been on the New York Times trade paperback list for 16 weeks. And, Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth was number one on the hardcover fiction list last year and is having a substantial run (18 weeks so far) on the trade paperback list. Stephen King's Just After Sunset also hit the best-seller list last year. Wells Towers' Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, made some extended best-seller lists a few months ago. The Best American Short Stories routinely sells more than 100,000 copies a year. And I'm sure Science Fiction and Horror collections and anthologies, which are often overlooked in these discussions, draw a very solid audience. They're certainly staples of these genres and worth reading.

I know, Strout won the Pulitzer Prize--but I'd bet her collection has sold better than many novels that have won the same award. Oh, and Jhumpa Lahiri is a perpetual best-seller--but the book that put her on the map was another short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (also a Pulitzer winner). When all is said and done, her two short story collections have probably sold as well as her novel, The Namesake, which had the advantage of being made into a film. Of course, Stephen King is Stephen King--I have nothing to counter that, of course.

The point is, story collections aren't poison, and agents and publishers should stop treating them as such. Collections by established writers with strong followings will still sell. And debut collections probably perform no worse than debut novels. Story collections that get support from publishers and reviewers (as in Towers' case), have a chance to find an audience. In addition, I have no doubt that the digital age is going to be a boon to the short story, as shortness becomes a greater advantage.

I could go on and on and on (and no doubt will). But the bottom line is: Writers should keep writing stories. And agents and publishers should stop repeating empty truisms and get behind short story collections instead of offering resistance.