Uselessness in Short Fiction
The short story today is under a peculiar sort of threat. I am not talking about the threat of dwindling readership or diminishing financial rewards—those disappointments exist, but thus far they have not adversely affected the quality of stories themselves. (If anything, the oft-quoted threat of workshop overkill does more to injure the vitality of the form than puny payments or scarce leaders.) Rather, the danger to the continuing evolution and excitement of the literary short story lies in a less expected quarter: its usefulness.
The short story is handy in a number of unseemly ways. Being short, it can be used in high schools to introduce lackadaisical students to prose fiction. Similarly, its length is conducive to introductory creative-writing classes, so that college students who want to write fiction find themselves willy-nilly writing short stories. Both these approaches view the short story as a junior novel, an apprentice work and perforce simpler to create or analyze than the longer form. If an apprentice writer is lucky, he or she can massage a group of stories into something a publisher might call a novel, and thus make the form more palatable to a presumably averse reader. In the nonacademic world, the commercial handiness of the short story is evident in the string of Absolut vodka ads featuring stories by such notables as John Irving and Julia Alvarez—the idea being, in what the vodka company's spokesperson calls “an entertaining way to reach a potential target audience,” that the short story is a pleasurable vehicle for “product placement.” The stories all mention Absolut, but they are not always identified as ads, and in some cases their typeface matches the magazine's editorial font.