Every time writers begin moaning about publisher's repudiation of the short story form, someone trots out a seemingly common sense argument: that our shortened attention span, created by electronic devices of all ilks, should make reader seek short stories more, not less.
The argument goes that short stories can be read in one sitting, in five to fifteen minutes. Perfect for a commute or for a brief dip into a fictional world at the pool. Easy to get in, easy to get out. This seems to make perfect sense.
However, I've always been suspicious of this argument. If true, then why aren't short stories selling in higher quantities? I felt something was being overlooked in the rhetorical equation.
Over at the Rumpus, in a wonderfully titled post "More Crappy News for Short Story Writers" by Seth Fisher, it starts with a letter from an editor explaining why these collections aren't selling:
"I have no confidence in being able to place a collection at this time in the world of publishing. Publishers don’t like to publish short story collections in general unless they are VERY high concept or by someone very strange or very famous or Indian. In the current climate, it is harder to publish even those. Some of the authors I represent have story collections I have not been able to talk their loyal publishers into publishing. I can’t in good conscience encourage you to send them to me. It will just make both of us feel bad. I am very sorry. If you write another novel, I will gladly read it."
But the comments section helps explain why collections are actually worse for our shortened attention spans. Maida argues that:
"In fact, the short attention span issue is one reason readers might prefer novels. Once they are into a novel and familiar with the characters, they can pick it up and read it in five minute increments, while commuting, etc. A standard-length short story often requires a one-shot dedication of fifteen to twenty minutes, which many readers can’t seem to muster."
And Lincoln adds:
"Short story collections actually take more attention because each story is a new world that the reader is entering whereas a novel is one world… perhaps the analogy to the current age is something like a TV series. A TV series may go on for a long time, as a novel can, but it is easy to jump in and out."
I think commenters have put their finger on the true issue. Somehow, short stories require more concentration, to jump in and out of new characters and scenarios every ten minutes. That, combined with a number of other factors, like publishers not knowing how to market short story collections (which is why ethnic collections sell so well — they can market them all as Cuban or Indian or Pakistani), all contribute to a black hole of short-story-collection marketability.