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More Ways to Be Happy, or, Why There's No Need for Hand-wringing

If our attention spans are really getting shorter, why are novels so much easier to sell? And if people really want longer works, how do we explain the explosion of shorter and shorter fiction?
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Last week one of my students complained that no one reads novels anymore. Our attention spans are getting so short, she insisted, that everyone wants smaller and smaller snippets. I'd heard similar complaints on the website I write for, Fiction Writers Review, when we discussed flash fiction and Twitter-fiction. (One commenter wailed, "I'd say this is symptomatic of the erosion of the narrative form that has accompanied the growth of electronic media. Short stories are limited enough, in my opinion, but a story in 140 characters is a joke.")

Yet just a few weeks earlier, I attended a writers' conference where everyone -- agents and writers alike -- bemoaned the difficulties of selling a short story collection. No one buys short fiction, we heard over and over. People want to stay with characters for a while. They want novels.

If our attention spans are really getting shorter, why are novels so much easier to sell? And if people really want longer works, how do we explain the explosion of shorter and shorter fiction?

The rise of anything, it seems, is always heralded as the death of something else. Microfiction is killing the novel -- or is the novel killing short fiction? Meanwhile, memoir is killing all fiction, the internet is killing print media, the Kindle is killing books, and Twitter is killing society.

But the fact is, we do not live in a zero-sum world. Short fiction and the novel, nonfiction and fiction, electronic texts and books--these are not opposites. One need not destroy the other to survive.

Let me give you an example from a completely different realm: I live in Massachusetts, where gay marriage is legal. In 2003, when it was legalized, right-wingers insisted that allowing same-sex couples to wed would be the end of marriage as an institution. And yet, six years later, the state has not imploded, and neither has marriage. Gay marriages and "opposite" marriages--to use the terminology of Miss California--coexist side by side. Put simply, in Massachusetts, as in a growing number of other states, more people who are in love can now marry.

What does this have to do with literature? It reminds us that new developments do not necessarily spell the end of old traditions. And it reminds us that open-mindedness, diversity, and tolerance are good things: more people can find ways to be happy.

The competitions between fiction and nonfiction, short and long, electronic and paper, are not battles in which there can be only one victor. After all, we exist in a world where more kinds of writing than ever are greeted with interest and enthusiasm. Mega-novels like Roberto Bolaño's 2666 are bestsellers, yet Oprah's most recent book club selection is Say You're One of Them, a short story collection by Uwem Akpan, and the most recent Pulitzer Prize winner is Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge--a collection as well. Nonfiction is a big seller, but so is fiction: see the Bestseller lists, split almost evenly between the two. And true, more people are buying titles for Kindles, but bookstores and libraries are seeing more and more demand for good old-fashioned books.

You may not be a fan of Twitter-fiction. That's okay. There are novels out there for you, big ones. Or maybe you love the challenge of the six word story. Well, you're not alone. Perhaps you worship your shiny, sleek Kindle, or perhaps you savor the feeling of paper under your fingers as you turn the page. Both options are now open to you. There's space for all of this out there. The proliferation of styles, genres, and media need not be the death knell of anything. Instead, it's a sign that our acceptance for variation and experimentation has become wider, our interests have become more diverse, and our appetites have become more omnivorous.