In the latter part of the 19th century, after mass education greatly expanded the number of readers, the short story enjoyed a great vogue. In Britain, ‘literary’ writers like Joseph Conrad and Henry James produced them for fashionable magazines and ‘popular’ writers did the same for their market.
Conan Doyle’s famous character first appeared in short-story form and when, in the 1970s, Hugh Greene (Graham’s brother) put together his The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes collections, he had scores of writers and hundreds of stories to chose from.
It was the same in America. Mark Twain wrote many short stories, as did Stephen Crane and Edgar Allan Poe. Again, Greene, assembling the companion volume for Penguin, The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, could pick and choose from a big field.
Writers like E W Hornung, who created Raffles, the gentleman burglar, made their names with stories, while ‘Saki’ (H H Munro), whose work was enormously popular, wrote nothing else. Somerset Maugham published books of short stories like The Trembling of a Leaf and On a Chinese Screen in the early years of the 20th century to great success, and the three-volume collection of his stories went through innumerable editions in hardcover and paperback. D H Lawrence’s stories were and are highly praised and have been much anthologised and reprinted.
In America, Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald poured a lot of their alcohol-fuelled energy into stories and reaped big rewards. Fitzgerald was paid thousands of dollars for stories published in the ‘slicks’ – glossy-papered magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and the Atlantic Monthly. Later, John Cheever’s reputation rested mainly on his stories and Raymond Carver’s does so completely.
Crime writers, publishing in outlets like Black Mask and Dime Detective, could make a living from story-writing if they could maintain supply. Hammett and Chandler forged the hard-boiled style in the pages of the pulp magazines.
Stories continued to have a market until comparatively recent times. In Australia, Michael Wilding, Frank Moorhouse, Peter Carey, Jean Bedford and Kate Grenville, among others, all established their reputations with short fiction. Various publications contained the insert Tabloid Story (brainchild of Frank Moorhouse, Carmel Kelly and Michael Wilding) every month from 1972 to 1980; the much lamented Nation Review ran short stories every Sunday in the 1970s and Bruce Pascoe produced the soft-cover quarterly Australian Short Stories through the 1980s and 90s.
In the 1980s I was able to earn a thousand dollars or more for stories in Playboy and Penthouse and less, but still worthwhile amounts, from the National Times, Pol and the Bulletin. Like others, I was invited to contribute to ‘concept’ collections of newly commissioned stories like Expressway, Case Reopened, Cross-Town Traffic and Allen & Unwin’s Crimes for a Summer Christmas series.
But the market has dried up. Here, outstanding collections like Tim Winton’s The Turning and Nam Le’s The Boat can make the bestseller lists, but not often, and it’s the same elsewhere. A few years ago, desperate for a dollar, I told my then agent I’d published about a dozen non-genre stories in magazines like Westerly, Southerly, Quadrant, Overland and the like. ‘Would a publisher look at a collection of stories like that?’ I asked. She smiled and changed the subject.
Over the years I’ve published six collections of Cliff Hardy stories because they were to hand, having mostly been previously aired in magazines, and the publishers welcomed another volume featuring Hardy. I seldom write a Hardy story now and another collection is unlikely.
At a time when people are said to be working harder than ever before and to have shorter attention spans, you’d think the short story would be appealing to readers, but not so. I wonder why.
Newtown Review of Books recommends Spineless Wonders, a small publisher actively publishing Australian short stories, and you can visit their website here. Entries for their Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award close on 31 August, 2012.