GWS Click Bait Controversy: Is the Internet Killing the Traditional Short Story?


Can we be honest?  Most writers like attention and enjoy being part of a dedicated literary community.  I am certainly one of these writers.  The GWS Click Bait Controversy is designed to bring attention to an important issue that impacts us all.  (And to GWS.)  The provocative title is designed to make you click.  (I thought about photoshopping a picture of Thomas Hardy on a date with Kim Kardashian to get your attention.)

You have likely read Nicholas Carr’s excellent 2008 Atlantic article, “Is Google Making us Stupid?”  If you haven’t, go check it out right now.  Mr. Carr describes one of the biggest problems of our increasingly digital lives: we’re losing the ability to read long works of fiction and nonfiction.  We’re skimming and scrolling to find the important parts so we can-oops, I got a text.  What was I saying?

Carr illustrates, in a calm and convincing manner, how our brains are being shaped by the media we consume.  Has this always happened?  Yes.  Is it necessarily a bad thing?  Yes and no.  We live in a fantastic time; virtually the whole of human knowledge is available at our fingertips, but we’re increasingly ignoring depth and breath, content to wade in the shallow waters of the shiny and superficial.

How does this relate to fiction?  I’m not THAT old, but I’m also no spring chicken.  I remember the days before literary journals accepted electronic submissions; I did my time at the post office, explaining what an SASE is and why I didn’t seal the manila envelope before I brought it to the counter.  This may only be my perception, but I do believe that flash fiction has seen an amazing increase in popularity in the twenty (geez, twenty!) years since the Internet entered our daily lives.  There are countless online literary journals, most of them excellent, of course.  These journals often feature stories whose word counts are far lower than those seen in the grand paper journals we know and love: The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Tin House…you know, all of those awesome journals that seed Best American each year.

Why are short short stories so popular now?  There are lots of reasons:

  1. The best of them demonstrate powerful narrative economy.  They feature a beginning, middle and end…all in 400 words.  The characters manage to be far more realistic and human than really should be possible in so little page space.
  2. The form appeals to our “busy” lives.  As the wonderful SmokeLong Quarterly points out, their stories can be read in the time it takes to have a smoke.
  3. Reading on a screen (computer or smartphone) is just not as appealing as reading an old-fashioned paper page.  No matter what some undergrads claim, it’s just not realistic to read Les Miserables on a phone.  Short shorts don’t tax our attention span or eyeballs.
  4. Short shorts take less time to write than “conventional” short stories.  (That’s usually the case, anyway.)  A writer who is struggling with a fifteen-page manuscript might find it easier to pump out one that is two pages instead.
  5. Short shorts require lower levels of the stuff that makes up a narrative.  Die Hard just wouldn’t work as a short short.  (Unless you’re making a parody.)  Justifiably, audiences don’t expect a long, sweeping narrative when they click on a five-inch-long story.
  6. Online literary journals, by virtue of the medium, make it easier to transform a short story into a work of art through typography, layout and all of those other graphic design skills demonstrated so ably by Paper Darts.

What’s the problem, you might ask.  Who cares whether short shorts are becoming increasingly prominent?  Well, this little essay is click bait, right?  I’m trying to get people involved in a discussion, so I need to propose an argument that might be slightly controversial.  (Or I need to change the title to “Justin Bieber dating Jane Austen? OMGLOL!?”)

So while I love (and write) short shorts as much as I care for any medium of human expression, we may need to confront some of the problems with the form of the short short.

Crummy clickbait sites are only in it for the clicks.  If you look at the US Magazine web site, you’ll find each article is 100 words of boring with several pictures.  And eight million links surround the boring.  Sadly, this format is taking over “news.”  It’s now possible to feel as though you “read the paper” if you clicked through the AP articles Huffpo borrowed.  (The Onion‘s Click Hole offshoot does a wonderful job of lampooning these non-news news sources.)

Short shorts, like the vast majority of 100-word clickbait “articles,” simply can’t offer the same powerful and immersive reading experience as that of a longer work. 

As I made clear in my (extremely long) essay on the work of T.C. Boyle, his “The Love of My Life” is one of my favorite short stories ever.  This story is 7500 words long.  Sure, you could write a 500-word story that serves the same themes and evokes a similar feeling, but it’s inescapably true that Mr. Boyle’s story is so powerful, at least in part, because of the length and detail of the story.

Now, you might follow the advice of Polonius and point out that “brevity is the soul of wit.”  I’ll point out that performances of Hamlet can last up to five hours.  The Dane’s great tragedy simply can’t be expressed in five minutes.

The increasing popularity of short shorts conditions writers to create miniature narratives that offer reduced opportunities for detailed plot and characterization.

As Carr affirms, the media that we consume shapes our cognitive function.  He (and we) are more likely to skim when we read online because we’ve been reading and skimming online articles for so long.  The proliferation of short shorts, it seems, could condition writers to turn from the “traditional” story in favor of what they spend more of their time reading.

Carr also points out that reading novels and longer pieces enhances our ability to understand and confront complicated situations.  Could reading short shorts hinder our ability to create complicated characters and narratives?  I love (most of) my short shorts, but I would be lying if I said that my short shorts are as powerful and meaningful as my longer work.  (Your mileage may vary, of course.)

These are certainly not new concerns, of course.  The transition from cuneiform to papyrus must have inspired thinkers to lament that the old ways were disappearing.  Does TV rot your brain?  Nah, I’m not that much of an extremist; I am primarily urging a balanced media diet and an acknowledgement that we can’t turn further away from the kind of stories that meant so much to us before the Internet became ubiquitous.  The important thing is that we remain conscious with respect to how the media we consume shapes our tastes and the work we produce.

Writing short shorts often (not always) requires less skill and attention on the part of the writer, preventing the writer from acquiring the skills necessary to maintain a vast narrative over a much larger number of pages.

This point definitely comes with a big ol’ caveat: I agree that it often takes an awful lot of skill to cram a whole narrative into a small number of words.  We have the famous example from Hemingway (possibly):

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Those six words pack a big wallop, don’t they?

Still, the law of diminishing returns catches up with short narratives.  Think of the piece of my own that I linked a couple paragraphs ago.  So many questions are left unanswered!  What are the reasons?  I’m not the world’s best writer and I was working with a very small canvas.

If artists spend too much time working on a small canvas, how can they hope to give the world a Sistine Chapel ceiling or even a “Guernica?”

So…what is the solution?  What am I urging people to do?

Well, the same inherent lack of self-esteem that prevented me from being too provocative with this essay also ensures that my dictates are wishy-washy.

Let’s discuss these issues!  Whether you do so in the comments of this piece or elsewhere, share ideas that will help us restore the short story to the place of societal prominence it once held.

Let’s put more emphasis on longer short stories!  Editors should be more willing to accept longer pieces and readers should justify this leap of faith by scrolling all the way through those stories!

Most of all, we need to exercise our brains and ensure that we don’t fall prey to the phenomenon that Carr discussed in his Atlantic article.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a future in which literary works become shorter and less complex in some ways.

But what do you think?