Against the Attention Economy: Short Stories Are Not Quick Literary Fixes
Brandon Taylor, in Praise of Slow Reading
There comes a moment in almost every literary discussion when the topic turns to the impact of technology—typically smartphones, but also social media, Netflix, and new media’s pivot to video—on the literary landscape. Much is made of the attention economy, the fight for those increasingly rare archipelagos of undivided focus and concentration, and we fret in quiet, bemused voices over the erosion of common culture, our increasing distance from one another, as if the lack of a pool of shared references were an indication of some critical failing in the architecture of our civilization. There is an adoption of the language of illness: the proliferation of images, attention spans atrophy, concentration weakens, an epidemic of social anxiety, we binge television shows, we’re addicted to our devices. It’s as if our very culture were waging some sort of biological warfare on us, or as if we’d been transported into a Ben Marcus novel.
In my first undergraduate fiction workshop, I remember my teacher saying, with a kind of amused flip of the hand that short fiction was due for a big resurgence because weren’t attention spans shrinking at that very moment? I remember hearing from other writing friends at parties that with attention spans and binge watching being what they were, there should be an uptick in short fiction consumption, as if the computation were so easy, so obvious to them.
But the short story boom never came. Instead, we’ve seen the mainstream venues for literary short fiction dry up. Often, the only contact the general reading public has with short fiction is in The New Yorker. Prestige publications remain in the form of The Paris Review, Tin House, Zyzzyva, Granta, Harper’s, and The Literary Review. But if you were to pull a random person off the street and ask them about the last short story they read, I imagine you’d receive, at first, a confused silence, and then maybe a title by Hemingway or Flannery O’Connor. “Hills Like White Elephants” or “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” What I hear these days is a kind of shellacked amusement. Editors and writers who repeat, in the beat after and following a soft laugh, “Wow, I’m surprised we aren’t reading more short fiction. Attention spans!”
Or, you find in publications and websites like The Washington Post, Book Riot, Bustle, Hello Giggles and elsewhere articles and headlines like “Story collections to read on your commute” or “Books to read if you’re short on time” Or “Make it Quick: 14 Upcoming Collections to Watch For.” What I find most remarkable about this sort of positioning is how nakedly consumerist it is. There seems to be an idea that people, with those shortened attention spans of theirs, want quick and easy reads! If short stories are going to compete with Netflix, then we better make sure that people know that short stories can be read quickly! While on the train or on a plane or a boat. Short stories make ideal travel literature because as we all know, travel is the best time to be reading. Travel isn’t a series of interruptions separated by brief, tumultuous rest. No. Travel is a smooth, even surface of unbroken time! Why not make the most of it with a short, pithy piece of great writing?
Except short stories are not aphorisms. Short stories are not the chocolate sampler hurriedly purchased as a last-minute gift idea. The expedience of a short story is certainly a feature in the way that feathers are a feature of a bird. It’s a brute fact. A detail. A rung on the ladder of a dichotomous key. It’s not synecdoche. You don’t get the whole just because you’ve grasped a part. It’s frustrating to encounter such headlines because it’s obvious that they are an attempt to boil down the short story to its most commercially viable rudiments.
A short story is a personal matter—the very act of trying to be pragmatic about short fiction is almost to miss the point, which perhaps explains why people get it wrong so often.
Every piece of art has two lives: the life it lives in our capitalist market place, as capital, as commerce, as goods delivered, and its own interior life, the inward sweep and expanse of its voyages, which may even be beyond the artist who’s made the art. Book reviews are not literary criticism. Book reviews attempt to make manifest the virtues of a piece of art in such a way that it can be accessed by as broad or narrow an audience as exists for that art. Literary criticism seeks to delineate and contextualize the interior life of a work of literature such that we are able to grasp and interrogate its deeper concerns.
The commercial arm of the publishing industry makes great (and sometimes not so great) use of book reviews because the average customer reads reviews, not texts of literary criticism. What then is the subject of a book review? Plot, style, voice, structure, beats, rhythms, and the feelings of the reviewer. The modern book review adopts the tone of your smartest, funniest friend, the one whose opinion you trust because they’re tapped into some greater, deeper well of knowledge. The modern book review is complimentary, fair, perhaps kinder than it is mean, understanding, patient but not easy, firm, but not harsh—the modern book review is like watching an amateur appraiser turn over the items at an antique road show, handling all of the dusty trinkets found in attics and dug up out of basements with an expression of measured, affable curiosity. We read reviews for the same reason we’re drawn to such shows, because there’s always the chance that the appraiser’s face will take on a glow of surprise, a flicker of epiphany, a genuine and true find.
It seems to me that such a system is only ever able to discuss short fiction or collections of short fiction by their most broad, general features. It’s true that by their very nature, every book review is reductive, boiling a book down to its rudiments, its most basic and easily categorized residues. It’s the tone of the confidential, the anecdote. It’s difficult, then, to talk about short fiction in quite the same way because the short story is an elliptical form. It tells as much by saying as by not saying. There is as much revealed in the silences, pauses, and omissions as in the thrust of plot. How does one tell a story about what didn’t happen in a way that will make someone want to read it? That is the domain of the short story. Whispers. Caught shadows. The unbearable swell of the imponderables. Life at its most remote, the craggy divide between people. How does one discuss short fiction when short fiction is about the very material of life which is hardest to discuss in the form that is emergent from that material?
I should also note that the discussion of short fiction as a quick patch for literary consumption in a world of deteriorating attention spans seems mostly limited to general literary fiction. Genre writers (particularly science fiction and fantasy writers, but also romance and erotica) have long seen short fiction as a revenue stream. Perhaps because genre fiction is synonymous with commercial appeal in our culture (another consequence of our reduce-and-sell attitude toward the commercialization of art), or perhaps because genre fiction is more honest about its relationship to the commercial arm of publishing as a business, but regardless, short fiction remains a steadfast and stalwart fixture in the firmament of genre fiction. The Hugo Awards and the Nebula Awards feature categories for not only short fiction but also novellas. Publishers like Tor have embraced the digital and release digital shorts. Indeed, it seems that genre has embraced the full range of literature and has found a way to modernize forms that have ceased to be commercially viable in general literary fiction.
To be fair to reviewers and to readers, it can be difficult to describe a short story in a way that makes its virtues evident to others. The task becomes more complex when one is talking about a collection of stories because there are so many different forms such a book can take. Is it a collection of linked stories that mimic the kind of arc one finds in a novel? Is it a constellation of stories with a common thematic core? Is it a selection from the works of a contemporary master? Is it a random smattering of stories governed by subterranean rhythms? Or that mysterious and aloof creature, the edited anthology? But I resist the idea that a book of stories must contain any single kernel of aboutness. That’s the joy of a book of stories, the loose, lyrical connective tissue that binds its composite pieces together. The thing that’s beautiful about a short story is how in trying to pin down one part of it, you must inevitably let another fly up. Short stories can hold tones that would be unsustainable in a novel. Short stories can hover in the extremes of life, revealing by virtue of the intensities that lurk there, strange and curious truths. A story is not a novel in miniature, but a different form altogether, with its own range of interests and concerns.
For example, the work of the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant rebuts almost every lesson I’ve ever learned in a creative writing class. She jumps in and around in time, following the heat of the story’s interest rather than familiar narrative forms; she cuts POV in the middle of scenes; she populates her stories sometimes with dozens of named characters; she spends ample time hovering in digressions; she repeats herself; she refutes herself. What Mavis is interested in is a kind of truth which is made up of all the discordant energy in life. Her stories are always slightly lop-sided. Their shapes would seem to make no sense at all, but when you fall into the rhythm of their sentences, the unerring, piercing logic (or illogic) of their course, you can’t help but be swept along. Mavis is interested in characters at odd ends, people in desperate moments and desperate situations even if they don’t yet know how desperate they are.
I think some people think of short stories as having a kind of cold, beautiful perfection. A meticulously curated interior. Something compressed to the point of hard, cutting glory. But I don’t feel that way. To me, a short story is a vast system of caves into which you can shout one note and from which emerges eerie, ghostly echoes that both converge upon and diverge from that first, perfect sound. There are days when writing a short story feels impossible, not because I can’t compress what I want to say, but because I feel as though I’ll never have enough to say in order to fill the shape of a story.
Maybe that’s why I take exception to the idea of a short story as a kind of quick read. I read books of stories slowly, because each story requires a different negotiation. You can’t get all of a story on a single pass. If you think you have, then I’d encourage you to go back and read it again and linger on the things you’ve missed. On this point, I defer, as always, to Mavis Gallant. In the introduction to her collected stories, she says the following:
There is something I keep wanting to say about reading short stories. I am doing it now, because I may never have another occasion. Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.
Not only can stories wait. They must wait. Sometimes, you read a story, and its meaning comes slowly, like the weather in certain parts of the world. The gradual accumulation of clouds and the carrying scent of moisture in the air. And then, suddenly, a bolt from the clear blue—the ringing in your ears. When you’ve understood a story, you know it, because it changes your very relationship to the world. A novel can do this too, it’s true, good novels change you. You leave a novel altered in some way. But see, a story works its way inside of you. You don’t walk out of it. You don’t get to leave. You carry it inside you. It’s beating there all the time like a second heart. A story isn’t quick. It takes time.
I’d like to mention some writers whose work in the short form I hope you’ll read when you’ve got time. Lori Ostlund’s The Bigness of the World, Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold, Danielle McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs on Other Planets, Daniel Zomparelli’s Everything Is Awful and You’re a Terrible Person, Daniel Alarcon’s The King is Always Above the People, Sara Majka’s Cities I’ve Never Lived In, and of course Carmen Maria Machado’s brilliant book Her Body and Other Parties. I was also moved by some of the stories in Daisy Johnson’s Fen, which certainly announce the arrival of a crucial new voice. I’m eagerly awaiting new volumes from Ben Marcus, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Lauren Groff. I also look forward to the debut collection from Jamel Brinkley, which is certain to be one of the most heralded books of 2018. And of course, there are many more. So many more.
Maybe save your commute for a novel. These stories are going to take a while.