Thursday, 26 February 2009

What Is Prescribed: A Rant

Short Shrift

Sarah Stonich

When I told Alessandro I'd write a blog piece about the state of short fiction his reaction was, "Great, literary rants are welcome." My reaction to his reaction? Damn, didn't he just say it all? essentially suggesting that anything written on the subject would be a rant, since the state of short fiction, the publishing of short fiction and the buying and reading of short fiction is nothing if not rant-worthy.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, when I was attending Frankfurt and other international book fairs, short fiction was still promoted, the chasm between novel and short story was not so deep, and the genre was at the very least a topic for discussion. Now it seems short fiction barely merits debate.

Agents won't represent short fiction because they are convinced publishers won't buy short fiction. Publishers won't buy it because even if there is good stuff out there, agents will rarely bother reading it and typically won’t represent it unless it comes packaged with a companion novel up front for a two-book deal. So much for agents, and good luck peddling short fiction without one – at most publishing houses, a collection of short fiction has the same chance getting over the transom as the proverbial rich wanker squeezing his fat backside through the eye of a needle and into heaven.

And the readers? No one, and I mean no one has polled them or is listening to them or smartly anticipating their future in the marketplace. Publishing is so up its own arse it’s not considering the reading demographic except in the most simplistic of ways. What is backing the claim that no one reads short fiction when there isn’t any to read? Numbers are only generated for what sells, not what could sell, or should sell. For now, everyone seems to be staying the wobbly course, bent on marketing first novels by new writers. Here’s a query response that, when I opened it, made me eject chai out my nose. This is from a known NY agent recently profiled In Poets and Writers:

Dear Sarah,

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but we are not taking on any previously published or agented fiction writers. Nor do we consider short fiction.

Such a discounting of experienced writers and marginalizing of readers reveals all of what’s gone wrong in publishing. Do readers want first novels and first novels only? Really? If that’s the future, where will it leave writers, agents and publishers? The writer will publish one book, the agent will hunt down a new writer for each and every sale, and publishing houses will devolve into something akin to puppy mills.

I refuse to believe short fiction is dead for the singular reason of time, and the preciousness of time. A typical Wally Lamb novel is the weight of a doorstop and requires a month-long commitment. Time for reading is not expanding, but shrinking. The evolving – some might say devolving – (see A.G.’s blog entry below) brain is adapting to accommodate shorter and shorter messages. Diminishing attention spans react well to flash and color and novels short enough to be written on a mobile phone. So, for an industry that at its core is built upon imagination, the vast majority publishers seem to show very little themselves, and rather tend to repeat themes and copy other publishing successes with whatever gimmickry is selling at the moment, i.e. “If you liked The Ladies Tea Cake Bingeing Auxiliary, you’ll love The Anorexic Tartan Lingerie Drum Corp! if only because the covers look alike.

I implore those in publishing to look to the future and consider that in a few years, the most successful among you may well be those who buck the hollow, go-nowhere trends that are beginning to fail before our eyes. Consider this as a scenario: Rising star agents gaining reputations by finding the best and brightest authors of fiction, particularly short stories. Imagine a younger consumer reading from whatever device or screen their literature of choice is glowing from. Imagine publishers and editors who not only succeed, but build strong houses by publishing authors they nurture into real and enduring careers rather than those they splatter on a single flash-in-the-pan title.

Imagine growing numbers of fans of short fiction demanding more.

Everyone in the industry claims to love short fiction but bemoan the “fact” that it is not viable in the marketplace. Please. Stop being such pussies and make it so.

A definition of Short Shrift

*To be given short shrift is not the blessing it once was. The source of our verb shrive (shrove, shriven) and noun shrift, which have technical meanings from ecclesiastical Latin, is Classical Latin scribere, “to write.” Shrive comes from the Old English verb scrfan, “to decree, decree after judgement, impose a penance upon (a penitent), hear the confession of.” The past participle of scrfan is scrifen, our shriven. The noun shrift, “penance; absolution,” comes from Old English scrift with the same meaning, which comes from scriptus, the perfect passive participle of scribere, and means “what is written,” or, to use the Latin word, “what is prescribed.”

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