Quit That

In an effort to identify an agent who might be interested in an urban fantasy novel I’ve written that features Mother Mary and Jesus, I subscribe to a daily email service from PublishersMarketplace. The email lists the deals of the day: sales of Fiction, Nonfiction, Mystery/Crime, Sci-fi/Fantasy, etc. The sales are described in one sentence. I have noticed a pattern. If the description of the sale begins with a long dependent clause describing the literary accolades of the author, the sale is of short stories.

The other sales—Thriller, Children’s, Young Adult, etc—focus in the limited time of the one sentence on the narrative hook. The short stories depend on the literary credentials of the author as the selling hook. This broadcasts to me the belief that people do not read short stories for pleasure; they read them for literary merit. To me, these attributes are not mutually exclusive. But listen and you will hear many, many readers’  impression of literary. “Literary” is hard. “Literary” is intellectual. One could conclude from the email that, to be bought by a publisher and sold to the public, short stories must be hard and intellectual.

The audience at my short story debut, listening because they thought the stories were fun.
The audience at my short story debut, listening because they thought the stories were fun.


I am a literary writer, though I don’t have the MFA and prize credits at the level of those whose short story collections are being listed. You might say I’m not a good enough writer to pitch my short stories to an agent and publisher. I think that’s fair. My question, though, is when did short stories become defined solely by their literary merit?

Let me be clear: there is not a Literary genre on the list. Short stories are reported under Fiction at Debut or General/Other. The same place that lists Romance, but I’ve never read a Romance description that begins with the author’s writerly credits, an obvious  option for many gifted Romance writers. Does this approach mean short stories are sold as literary because, like the steamy plot summaries of Romances, that meets the expectations of short story readers? That, in fact, the only readers of short stories are literary readers? Maybe, but it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy if you ask me.

I love short stories. I cut my reader’s teeth reading them and my writer’s teeth writing them. One of greatest desires if for MORE people to love short stories. But if you consistently describe them using the heavy credentials of the writer rather than the intriguing plots, the compelling characters, the humor (!),  you automatically lose many potential readers. As my mother would say, “Quit that.”

There, I’m finished. My short story rant for the day.

Remember: You Cain’t Do Nothing with Love

"short stories", literary merit, literary short stories, MFA, pitch to agent, pitching short stories, publishers marketplace, sales of short stories

Comments (6)

  • This is a very good point, and I had never noticed this before. It’s kind of disheartening for me thinking about getting my foot in the door and actually getting my stories published. Then again, to do that, I’d have to submit them…

  • I hadn’t noticed this pattern, either, and I also subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace. Gonna watch for that now that you’ve gotten my attention. On a related note, I can’t write short stories. Essays, yes, but not short stories. Not sure why. I gave it a try a number of years ago… and submitted several to many places. In retrospect, I could say they weren’t literary. But they probably just sucked as stories. Write on, my friend. And thanks for enlightening us!

    • There was a set of interlocking stories today, Susan, that didn’t begin with the author “credits.” But this is the exception. I’ve also noticed how many stories are sold as interlocking or linked. I think this is a product of an article I read about how hard it is to sell short story collections because, even though you’d think their “short attention span” would be appealing, each short story takes you into a new world and requires a new resetting of your suspension of disbelief. Linked or interlocking stories – more similar to novels – would offer a compromise on this energy output. Just a theory. And who needs to write short stories when you write essays so well?

  • An interesting and unfortunate trend. There are likely very many readers who would thoroughly enjoy short stories for their compact design and more straightforward storytelling. But with such lofty descriptions, many readers, especially those short on time or casual, less voracious readers can be easily turned off. It’s a disservice to everyone.

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