In Age of Shortness, Why Shouldn’t Fiction Be Sold by the Piece?

pubcrawl 5 In Age of Shortness, Why Shouldn’t Fiction Be Sold by the Piece?Later this month, Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey will publish a book called State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Ecco), a collection of 50 essays, each one between 3,000 and 5,000 words long: Jhumpa Lahiri wrote about Rhode Island, William Vollman wrote about California, Jonathan Franzen wrote about New York, and so forth.

The book is nearly 600 pages altogether, and carries a list price of $29.95. These are big numbers, if you’re really just curious to read what Dave Eggers has to say about Illinois and the rest of it not so much.

Would Mr. Weiland consider selling each of the essays separately? Maybe over the Internet? No, he wouldn’t!

“I think one of the pleasures of doing this kind of work is that you’re making something larger than the sum of its parts,” Mr. Weiland said in a phone interview last week, speaking from his office at The Paris Review, where he is deputy editor. “Part of the thing about being an editor and a publisher is … that you’re making selections, you’re curating. We do it because we think all the stuff we selected is really good and worth reading. To go with some a la carte model seems to sap some of the wonder and the curiosity and the strangeness of good publishing out of it.”

As for the Internet: “I’m a print guy,” Mr. Weiland said. “I will be fighting the lonely fight. I will be down there with the ink at the printing presses with the last foreman in the Western Hemisphere.”

He suggested that splitting up State by State and selling it, er, state by state, would be like selling candy from a vending machine. He meant this in the pejorative sense, which is funny because in 2001, Evelyn Waugh’s grandson, who runs a small publishing house in the U.K. called Travelman, put vending machines throughout the London tube system and sold short stories out of them for just one pound a piece. He also rigged up the Travelman Web site so that people could order little pocket editions of the stories online for £1.99.

In American publishing, there is a persistent idea that people don’t like to read short stories anymore. The consensus at the major houses seems to be that story collections don’t sell, and editors are discouraged from taking them on unless a literary agent selling a very desirable novel refuses to sign a contract unless they do. There is a shortage of explanations for why this is: All anyone seems to know is that it has always been this way, and always will be for as long as any of us are on this earth.

In other news, Americans have stopped reading books because blogs and text messaging have made them incapable of paying attention to anything longer than a few pages. Consequently, “short is in,” as Time magazine put it recently in an article about the fad of mini-lit: six-word memoirs, four-word film reviews, 12-word novels, and so forth. 

Has conventional wisdom ever been more plain in its incoherence? Considering how much everyone is supposed to like short things now, shouldn’t short stories be a growth industry, rather than a marginal niche product enjoyed only by the most dedicated readers?

The problem, of course, is that publishers and retailers insist on selling short stories in bunches as though they were grapes, thereby forfeiting any potential advantage they might have over novels if they stood alone.

Curatorial ambitions aside, what exactly is the argument against trying to sell them individually instead, and seeing if perhaps those inclinations and habits everyone likes to blame so much for the downfall of literary culture might be harnessed rather than passively lamented?