L. Rust Hills and the Death of the Short Story

Two stories worth pressing against each other. First, today’s news that L. Rust Hills, former fiction editor at Esquire, has died. Hills provided a home in Esquire‘s pages for Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and many more. But:

When he was first hired at Esquire, in 1957, the magazine’s fiction had turned away from its original lofty aspirations; once the home of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, by the late 1950s it had shifted more toward adventure stories for adventure’s sake.

That’s a detail worth noting in relation to Stephen Amidon‘s interesting recent meditation on the death of the short story in the Times (U.K.):

Even in America, the readership for short stories is undergoing a significant contraction. Fewer large-circulation magazines are publishing fiction, and those that do fail to pay enough to keep writers in the black. (The New Yorker pays a dollar a word for first-timers, which means you can’t even buy a car if you are lucky enough to place a short story there.) Lahiri notwithstanding, New York publishers are increasingly less likely to take a chance on a short-story collection.

It’d be facile to extrapolate any big statement from this—to either say that the short story is on its deathbed, or that these things are cyclical. Esquire still publishes fiction (gives it its own silo on its Web site, in fact), yet people don’t read as much as they used to; it’s complicated. But there’s little question that a book like Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth is an outlier, that by and large the short-story collection doesn’t have the prized place it did, say, 20 years ago. It may be that Lahiri is one of the few working writers today who feel the form is a destination, not a launchpad. It may be there are fewer magazine editors today who care to curate the form. Money’s probably involved, too. In any case, Amidon’s piece is worth reading as a cautionary essay—a warning that while the short story will never die, it’s at risk of becoming a niche enterprise.