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.
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