Why Is the Short Story Getting Shorter?

I mostly publish poetry, but when I write short stories, they hover around the 5,000-word mark. Lately, that’s been rendering them unpublishable (in a whole new way). I’m consistently seeing guidelines of under 2,000 words. I understand about flash and micro and nanofiction and all that, but why is the short story becoming so short?

I was generally taught to consider something a novella at 15,000 words. If this trend continues, where are the 2,000-5,000 word stories going to go? I’m concerned for more than personal reasons. There is definitely something to be admired in a short, satisfying piece. I have a 1,700-word story coming out June 13, 2022 in DarkWinter Literary Magazine myself (plug, plug). But there’s definitely something to be said for the longer story: the amount of detail, the character development, setting, complexity of the plot—all of these benefit from a longer length. Some of my favorite (and arguably universally considered excellent) short stories would have trouble getting published today. “Araby” comes in at 2,328 words. “A&P” at 6,077. And “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” at a whopping 7,081.

I know we all have busy lives and little time to read. But this cannot be the argument for the popularity of the under-2,000 short story. Let’s admit it: very few readers read poetry, and the vast majority of poems are less than a page long. On the other hand, some of the bestsellers of the last 20 years have been epically long. The entire Lord of the Rings series (including The Hobbit) amounts to 576,459 words. The entire Harry Potter series?1,084,170 words. (For more on this, see “Word Counts of the Most Popular Books in the World.”) Clearly, we have both the time and the ability to engage with much longer texts. So why the continued attrition of the short story?

Like I said, I don’t mean to underestimate the value of shorter fiction. My purpose is to call attention to this issue so that more editors will go back to considering longer pieces. I’d hate to see stories like the ones I mentioned above stop getting written and published. I love short stories. Think of a world without Alice Munro. Give the (longer) short story a chance!

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