The Death of the Death of the Short Story

NB: Paper Cut Flophouse was a group blog that ran in the late aughts. Most posts were written by two contributors: me, using the pseudonym Roman Briton, and my friend Pompeston, the mastermind of the endeavor. This is a cross-posting of a post I originally wrote for PCFH; here’s a link to the original.

After J. David Stevens’s “The Death of the Short Story,” originally published in North American Review, collected in both Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories and Stevens’s Mexico Is Missing, the latter of which appears to be available in its entirety on the Ohio State University Web site.

Today’s short stories all seem to bear an invisible check mark, the ghastly imprimatur of the fiction factory; the very sentences are animated by some kind of vegetable consciousness: “I worked for Kristin,” they seem to say, or “Jeff thought I was fucking hilarious.” —n+1

The night I first met the short story it had just been beaten up pretty badly by a couple of these aggro publishing kids. You know the type: they had their own lit mag, they had distro and a blog, they had a tire iron and a bone to pick. What is it with these Young Turks, always needing to take a brick to the skull of one genre or another? A generation ago they nearly killed the short story and the chivalric romance in one fell swoop in a bar brawl up in Oregon somewhere. This time around, the kids tried a sucker punch, invited the story to a release party for some new anthology they’d put together, at a swank restaurant down on the Bowery, they said—except there was no anthology, no party, no restaurant, and that’s where I found it, bleeding adverbs all over my stoop.

No, the short story is not dead; it is alive, and well, and shacked up in my living room, actually, in a kind of mother-in-law apartment situation I’ve set up for it. It’s constantly hearing reports of its death, though, has been hearing them for forever—or at least since around the time Collier’s closed up shop—which, in spite of how often it’s been jumped, kicked, pummeled, and stomped, it finds perpetually surprising.

“Like Mark Twain reading his own obit,” says the story.

“Word to that,” I say.

Almost more troubling than the reports, past tense, of its recent death, are the predictions of its imminent demise. The story gets this horribly anxious look. I tell it not to worry. It’s okay. These are just death prognostications, I say—it’s not like they’re death threats! That thought usually just makes the story feel worse—what’s the difference between a prophecy and a fatwah, when you’re at the receiving end?—but it always pulls itself together quickly. That’s not naïve optimism, that’s just science, just the nature of a ruthlessly efficient little body with a spine of infinite possibility running through it.

Is it dead? No. Unwell? Hardly! But is it feeling a little apathetic, a little resigned, about all the diagnoses and prognoses it gets, the perennial baseball bats to its plots? The story shrugs.

“I meet a lot of people,” it says.

And it’s true. Some of these meetings are as long as the frequent one-night stands the story has. Or weekend-long benders. (I don’t even bother asking for it to call me to let me know it’s not coming home; I know now how resilient the story is; whether it’s off fighting a distant war, or holed up in some hotel with a hooker, a bottle, and a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing, I know it’ll be back soon.) Sometimes people only meet the story for as long as it takes for it to buy a pack of cigarettes at a deli. Or hold up a bank. Or sprout wings and fly out through the emergency roof exit of the crosstown bus. Or have a quiet epiphany—in the living room, at the county fair, over dinner—about its drunken father and the meaning of life. So many drunk, absent fathers the story has! A million damaged childhoods! So many sad mothers who had to abandon it in the dark of night on the doorstep of their local creative writing program!

And so many quiet epiphanies! It’s fun, all these crises, all these realizations; although I have to admit it gets a little exhausting, emotionally speaking, just from crying so much. We both cry a lot.

And yes, sometimes I get confused, living with the short story; sometimes it seems like it’s trying to prove something to me, or like it’s reverting to some very juvenile stage, where it wants to be smarter and more difficult than it is, where it wants to obfuscate all meaning, all sense. Where it wants to be cool.

Like last night. We were hanging out, having a mellow evening, watching some television. The story always likes to watch these great half-hour dramas you get these days—they’re its grandchildren, after all. It’s very fond. The story got this funny look.

“I worked for Kristin,” it said.

“What?” I said. “Who’s Kristin?”

The look got even funnier, like it wanted me to understand what it was talking about, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, explain it directly. The story looked the way it often does, like its compact little self was bursting at the seams with meaning.

“Jeff thought I was fucking hilarious,” it said.

“Do I know Jeff?” I asked. “Do I know these people?”

The story shut up again.

“Are these people you know from a workshop?” I said.

It waved at me, as if to say, forget it, I’m done with explaining what I’m on about for now. Then it pointed at the television. Check it out, I think is what it was telling me. This is good stuff. There was an hour-long dramatic series coming on—one of these shows with multiple, interwoven plotlines playing out over the years, bloated and baggy, but beautiful, impossible not to watch.

Then the doorbell rang.

“That’ll be the novel,” said the story. “It doesn’t have cable.”

Who am I to say no? These old genres have enough problems.

I went to get the door.