If F. Scott Fitzgerald was alive today and writing, his income would be roughly half a million dollars a year. In his prime writing days, Fitzgerald was pulling in well over ten thousand dollars a year on short stories alone. That amount of money in 1920 is equivalent to over 120 thousand dollars a year today. He made a hefty sum of money during his short-lived, brilliant, yet tumultuous career, and even though he is best known for what is often called The Great American Novel, The Great Gatsby, he was a prolific short story writer. The Saturday Evening Post paid him four grand a story during the height of his prolific career, almost exactly fifty grand a year today with inflation. To put that in perspective, each short story that he penned for the magazine earned him more money than the average American makes per year. Short stories were widely read, regarded, and there were a lot of venues that were paying good money for quality short forms of prose.
Are there any writers making fifty grand per short story, today? Absolutely not. In fact, it would be hard pressed to find many writers who specialize in short stories that make fifty grand a year, and perhaps even throughout a lifetime of short story publications. Even novelists have trouble making a decent living in a society that is dominated by visual and interactive media for means of entertainment. A short story writer today is almost like a mythical unicorn, an anomaly, an artist writing for the love of a fledgling form of writing. Short stories that are consumed today by large masses usually only appear in The New Yorker, one of the only major outlets that still publishes short stories for fairly substantial amounts of money. Getting a short story published in the most lauded magazine in America is much harder than getting a novel published. In fact, most stories that appear in the magazine are by established writers that either have a forthcoming novel or are in-between novels. Each story almost always is solicited by an agent even though The New Yorker accepts unsolicited stories. The chances of seeing your story in the pages of your weekly copy of The New Yorker is slim to none.
With print magazines constantly on the sharp decline in prevalence and fewer and fewer accepting fiction, most literary journals are found online, and even the most respected venues pay just a couple hundred dollars per story, or even nothing at all. The only other natural recourse for the modern day short story writer is to put together a collection of stories for book form. The problem with that, is if you have not been published in a magazine like The New Yorker, getting a publishing house, or even an agent to take on a collection of stories is very difficult. But getting in The New Yorker requires an agent, right? This is the vicious reality that writers of short prose live in today. Achieving publication with a collection of stories is an accomplishment in its own right, but how about sales to go along with it? As the amount of people reading has declined, the amount of individuals reading and purchasing short story collections has drastically reduced.
With that being said, writers who have been to a university have undoubtedly experienced the workshop environment, a place where novel excerpts are often frowned upon in favor of a complete story, as in a short story. There is a conundrum here as writers are often taught to start with short stories, but do not stick with them, because novels are the only form of fiction that has room to exist in today's literary landscape. What about the writers who fall in love with the short story as a medium and continue to pursue it? Do these writers matter? Despite popular opinion, short story writers are a rare breed of talent that is quite different than their fellow talented peers producing novels.
While there have been many writers in the modern era who have achieved commercial and prize accoladed success from both story collections and novels, not many have achieved widespread success exclusively from short stories. Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for her debut collection Interpreter of Maladies and has since evolved into a successful novelist. David Foster Wallace was best known for a novel as physically massive as its success, Infinite Jest, but his short story collections were arguably as impressive in their own right. Alice Munro is perhaps the most successful short story writer of all time. She won the Nobel Prize in 2013 for being a "master of the contemporary short story." Steven Millhauser won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for Martin Dressler, but in the past decade he has exclusively published short story collections, including his excellent new collection, Voices in the Night. While not exactly writing in the modern era, Raymond Carver contributed to the revitalization of the short story in the 1980s. He never published a novel but is still widely read today in universities across America. His writing left a lasting impact and influenced many writers of the short form to continue to write what they loved. Without him it is unlikely that we would have even a small portion of the masters of the short story that we have today.
No more proof is needed to say that the short story is still alive and important today, when arguably the greatest writer of his generation is solely dedicated to the short story. A man who in just the second week 2013 was dubbed by The New York Times as the writer who penned "the best book you'll read this year." That book was Tenth of December written by the undeniably brilliant force that is George Saunders. Saunders has garnered fans such as Jonathan Franzen, Thomas Pynchon, and on the heels of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Wallace referred to Saunders as "the most exciting writer in America." If the merit of the short story is questioned, reading just one page of a Saunders story silences that with tremendous force. Describing a Saunders story, which usually seem laced with a bit of science fiction, post apocalyptic themes, while all the while remaining almost eerily realistic, is a difficult task. His stories shock, they make you laugh while you are simultaneously wiping away tears, and comment on society in a way that most modern writers are incapable of doing with in their own work.
What Saunders and other writers of the modern short story have done is innovate the form, bringing it to a new level that has essentially made the market harder to get into. Yes, he has set the bar very high for what can be accomplished in fifteen to twenty pages of prose. It is quite remarkable to think that within one collection, Saunders is capable of putting together roughly a dozen fully realized stories that are each some of the best fiction that is available today.
Short stories bring more pressure, because like poets, each paragraph, sentence, and word is more important than they would be inside a large novel. Short stories are precise with their delivery, they must capture the attention of the reader extraordinarily quickly, and tell a full tale from beginning to end in roughly a half hour of reading. Short stories will likely never be as widely read as novels, but they do matter to those who are paying attention. For those who attempt to become short story writers, there is a benchmark that has been set by the greats who have been able to achieve success even with the shriveled up market. In a way, the decrease of profitable venues for short story writer has made these writers enhance their craft in order to succeed and remain relevant. It really is a double edged sword, because even though there are less writers willing to write short stories because of the fear of not being able to break into the market, the ones that have taken on the challenge are producing some of the finest short stories of all time. Less creates more for short story writers. Yes, short stories matter, perhaps more than ever, as the finite supply of widely appreciated short story writers continues to dazzle us with excellent prose for as long as us readers are smart enough to pay attention.