It’s Always Never a Good Time for Short Fiction, and Other News


On the Shelf

Georg Achen, Interior with reading woman, 1896.


  • What is a short story, and who is it for? Is it alive? Is it dead? The answer, after many centuries of heated argument, is this: no one has a fucking clue. The only consensus is that you probably shouldn’t try to write short stories unless you’re independently wealthy, and you shouldn’t try to read them unless you’re a deeply adventurous, ambiguous type. To do otherwise is to risk being poor and confused—a mere rung above the poets. Chris Power offers a survey of the form and its high points, which tend to coincide, depending on whom you ask, with its low points: “At the end of his 1941 study The Modern Short Story, H. E. Bates predicted that short fiction would be the ‘essential medium’ of the war and its aftermath. In a 1962 article he admitted his mistake, and in the preface to a 1972 reissue of The Modern Short Story he wrote: ‘My prophecy as to the ­probability of a new golden age of the short story, such as we had on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1920s and 1930s was … dismally unfulfilled’ … Yet that same year Christopher Dolley, in The Second Penguin Book of English Short Stories, noted that, ‘far from continuing its supposed decline, the short story is enjoying a revival’ … The number of magazines that paid writers for stories peaked between the 1890s and the 1930s … The short story is and will remain a minority interest. This isn’t a defeatist position: if more weight were given to the work, and less to its popularity, some valuable stability could be established.”
  • Looking at woodblock prints by Utamaro, one of the Edo period’s greats, Ian Buruma traces a history of the Japanese brothel—which so happened to be Utamaro’s most enduring subject. And his art was derived from experience: “Not only did he create extraordinary prints and paintings of female beauties, often high-class prostitutes, but he was also, it was said, a great habitué of the brothels in Edo himself. Prostitutes, even at the top end of the market, no longer have any of the glamor associated with their trade in eighteenth-century Japan, but ‘Utamaro’ is the name of a large number of massage parlors that still dot the areas where famous pleasure districts once used to be. Even in Utamaro’s time, the glamor of prostitutes was largely a fantasy promoted in guidebooks and prints … Politically oppressive, the authorities nonetheless gave license to men to indulge themselves in amusements of varying degrees of sophistication acted out in a narrow and interconnected world of brothels and Kabuki theaters. Sex, kept in bounds by rules of social etiquette, was less threatening to the authorities than political activity. (Utamaro was arrested once, not for his pornographic prints, but for depicting samurai grandees, which was forbidden.) And the roles played by the women in this world, especially the high-class ones, were hardly less stylized and artificial than those performed at the Kabuki.”

  • On Instagram, the role of the influencer is, supposedly, to broaden our horizons, capture our interests, and, ideally, get us to spend a little money. As Sarah Stodola writes, these goals can only be accomplished if the influencer is a boring, reductive person, intent on steamrolling reality to suit his or her ends: “Influencers mythologize things that are merely pleasant. Because they are not journalists, an element of fantasy can creep into their work; often, it dominates completely. Instagram does not reflect reality so much as it whisks users away from it and into a world seen, often literally, through a rose-colored lens. Instagram has become the natural home for what I’ll call teacup sensibilities—dainty, evocative of lolling afternoons, Renoir-esque … The most successful influencers understand that leaving something to the imagination, in fact, makes for a better Instagram; it heightens the longing. Travel photos with people in them do better than those without, but photos with people in them but whose faces we can’t see do best of all … Influencers aren’t bound by the limitations of reality. For them, the world can be dominated by any hue they so choose, as saturated or desaturated as their tastes dictate. They can manipulate the setting itself with impunity. The influencer fashions the world to fit into his or her individual aesthetic.”
  • Nitsuh Abebe is wrapped up in a sentence and a sentiment from Lorde’s song “Supercut”: “We are still constantly assembling sentences that are completely new to the world. This is true even in pop music: It may fixate on a very short list of teenage feelings, well-worn images and obvious rhymes, but it’s forever wrapping them in fresh gestures … The sentiment in this Lorde song, for instance, is aggressively nonnew; ditto the phrase ‘love we had and lost.’ It’s a raw-ingredients pop scenario: You sit picturing the heights of a failed love, scenes that now seem impossibly foreign, almost fictional. Years ago you might have compared them to a stack of Polaroids or a film montage—whatever technology was there to mediate between you and images of distant happiness. But Lorde puts them in a format that only got its name in 2008: the supercut, one of those fan-assembled web videos collecting, say, every time David Caruso slid on his sunglasses on CSI: Miami.”