Last Sunday, as I walked into the Borders where my SCBWI critique group meets, I spotted a winner in the discount racks near the entrance: The Best American Short Stories of 2007 was marked down to $3.99. This was a no brainer with the added bonus of featuring Stephen King as editor.
I bought the book without even checking the contents, so I was delighted when I got home and found a story by John Barth called, “Toga Party,” about a group of sixty and seventy-year-olds in a posh retirement neighborhood who all receive invitations to one of those parties, “like that crazy Animal House movie from whenever.” The story begins humorously but doesn’t end that way. In a similar vein, Stephen King’s comments on the state of the American short story begin humorously but don’t end that way.
King wrote about going into a large bookstore in Florida in search of that month’s stories to read. The first thing he saw was a table upfront with titles by James Patterson, Danielle Steel, and himself. Disposable stuff, but it pays the rent he says, “because money talks and bullshit walks.” He continues: “Bullshit- in this case that would be me – walks past the bestsellers, past trade paperbacks with titles like ‘Who Stole My Chicken?,’ ‘The Get-Rich Secret,’ and’Be a Big Cheese Now,’ past the mysteries, past the auto repair manuals, past the remaindered coffee-table books.” He finds the magazine wall, next to the children’s reading area.
King says he found The New Yorker and Harper’s without much effort, but had to search the floor-level racks to find the stash of magazines, like the Kenyon Review, that feature short stories:
“So think of me crawling along the floor of this big chain store’s magazine section with my ass in the air and my nose to the carpet in order to secure that month’s budget of short stories, and then ask yourself what’s wrong with this picture. A better question – if you’re someone who cares about fiction, that is – what could possibly be right with it?”
With an ever dwindling audience, some writers who still care about short stories keep on working, but too often, King notes, their audience is simply other writers who read,“not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells…and this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next…There’s something yucky about it.”
King then says he read “scores of stories that felt…airless, somehow, and self-referring…show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self conscious rather than gloriously open, and – worst of all – written for editors and teachers rather than for readers (emphasis added).
There we have in a nutshell what I have been trying to put my finger on lately. The last time I went to a large bookstore to browse for books, I went to the mystery section and found the number of rows had been cut in half. Tough luck for those who like to read and write mysteries – the marketing department, which is after all, just trying to survive – has decided you are not cost effective.
No need for me to belabor the point anymore, it is what it is, but reading King’s editorial notes made me glance at all I have posted here about ebooks. I certainly never set out to be their champion, in fact I started out somewhat skeptical. My ideas have changed 180 degrees. When half the mysteries and most short stories can disappear for reasons that have nothing to do with quality, who can argue with writers who look at a new way to get their books read?
Last week a writer in London asked me to review her ebook after reading this blog and noting that YA fantasy is “my thing.” Now that I have finished my blog-break, it’s time for me to get back to her work, and with renewed appreciation for her and all the other authors willing to take a chance with a new way to do what storytellers have always done – tell their stories.