When is a Short Story Too Long?

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I’ve always been fond of Edgar Allen Poe’s description of the short story as a work of fiction that can be read in a single sitting. I like that Poe defines the short story form largely by focusing on the reader’s interaction with the text, and I like that he places a time limit on this interaction—a single sitting.

I think most readers would agree that they begin a short story with the understanding that, barring any outside interruptions, they won’t need a bookmark to get to the end. For editors, however, the idea that a short story should be read in a single sitting raises an important question: How long are readers willing to sit with a story? Half an hour? An hour? Three hours?

Like most literary journals, IR places a word limit on fiction as part of our submissions guidelines. We accept stories of up to 8,000 words, which is probably an average word limit, relative to other American journals of our size. You’ll find journals that cap their stories at 5,000 or 6,000 words, and you’ll find some journals that will accept stories as long as 10,000 words. Journals without word limits in their submission guidelines for fiction are, in my experience, extremely rare.

Editors place word limits on fiction submissions partly as a matter of practicality. Longer stories obviously take more time to read, and few journals have staffs large enough to handle slush piles filled with stories that ask readers to sit with them for an hour or more. More importantly, longer stories take up more space in the journal, space that could otherwise be devoted to work from several other authors.

For me, the word limit in our submissions guidelines also serves as my imperfect estimation of our readers’ attention spans. I’m sure there are some IR readers who would be glad if we doubled that word limit, and I’m sure there are some who would like to see that word limit cut in half. But I hope that the stories we publish fall within the attention spans of most or our readers. I’d hate to think that some of our stories might go unread because they’re too long for our readers’ tastes.

I should acknowledge, though, that my estimation of our readers’ attention spans is based heavily on the length of the stories I read in other journals, since I assume that many of the journals I read share a readership with IR. As I mentioned above, there seems to be a general consensus among literary journals in America that their readers’ attention spans max out at 10,000 words.

Lately, I’ve wondered if readers agree with this consensus.

 

8 Responses to “When is a Short Story Too Long?”

  1. Matthew G. Miller

    Several factors figure into the calculus of how long I’m willing to sit with a piece and read. (I’ve been reading mostly nonfiction lately, but literary nonfiction. I think the rules of thumb apply here also.)

    * On my dumb phone (not yet upgraded to smart), I’ll read tweets of 140 characters. I’ll read texts of three “pages” but I feel I should switch media if the message spills into the fourth, say at about 500 characters or a hundred words. She better be developing a story or making a case to keep me screenful after screenful.

    * I’m a fan of fiction (#vss) and narrative nonfiction (#cnftweet) on Twitter. I used to read all the Fifty-Five Fictions (55 words or fewer) I could, but after Steve Moss published a couple of books, and the rise of Twitter, I haven’t heard much lately from that genre.

    * I can stand e-mailed comments of five or six paragraphs, unless the sender spends the first by clearing her throat with empty introductions. I might not make it to her second.

    * After dinner, I can concentrate on a few hundred words, maybe a thousand. But my son is playing a first-person shooter in his room, my partner is watching Hulu downstairs, they’re both in and through the living room getting popcorn or ice cream. At that time, it’s hard to concentrate on anything more thoughtful than YouTube videos of cats.

    * Once they’re in bed, and a cat is napping on my lap, I can settle in for a few thousand words — provided the work day wasn’t too strenuous and I don’t nod off. I’m better in the morning after they have gone to school and work … provided I don’t have to jump into the car myself.

    * I often won’t read past the jump line on a front page newspaper article unless the article has particular import to me. Besides the one mainstream media publication, I have two alternative newspapers in town, and I look at them both. The Seattle Weekly is more pedantic and I can’t get much beyond the nut graf. I’ll read whole articles about nothing in The Stranger because the writing voice is rife with attitude.

    * Some book authors keep me awake better than others. Jon Krakauer, Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Perry. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Most any article in The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harpers, Mother Jones, Wired. Oh, fiction: John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. The first half of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Even, or especially, Stephen King’s 11/22/63.

    * Narrative — character, setting, scene, dialogue — will keep me in my chair longer than description and exposition alone will. Alternating between the two — narration with cut scenes of exposition — will hold me even longer.

    * A topic well-researched, thoroughly reported, knowledgeably explained, realistically described will hold my interest. If I have to bring too much to the table myself — most poetry in my opinion, and a lot of stories of Flannery O’Connor for some reason — I can’t read even a single page. (Who are these people? Why are they doing what they are doing? What am I supposed to think of them?) But if it’s a setting I already know, or a story that contains within itself all it needs, I will stay with it at greater length.

    * The key to keeping me reading, for increasing my attention span, is narrative arc — even in, especially in, nonfiction. I will read scene after scene, if each one gives me a little journey and a little reward. The scene should start by making clear the goal the protagonist wants. The scene should unfold with the attempts and frustrations but the progress the protagonist makes toward this goal. At the end of the scene, the end of the chapter, I should feel a small sense of accomplishment: the protagonist is that much closer — or, ironically, that much further from the goal if I know she will succeed in the end, as in Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, or Krakauer’s Into the Wild, or Hersey’s Hiroshima. I should feel the story is developing, going somewhere. I should be eager to keep reading, to see what happens next, as accomplished through subtle foreshadowing. And each chapter should end with the hint or a hook that will entice me to turn the page and read the next chapter.

    And as each scene has an arc, so must the book. Sympathetic characters, rich settings, simply language, self-contained stories — but it’s all about the narrative arc that will keep me reading. And reading.

    Reply
  2. Matthew G. Miller

    The question now is: when is a comment too long? I apologize for the lack of narrative arc.

    Reply
  3. Roxanne Rashedi

    Dear Joe,

    I couldn’t agree more! Some of my all time favorite short stories are actually under 6 pages. Sandra Cisneros is incredible. I don’t know how she manages to fit so much material in just 1 page. I always think of her stories when I really don’t want to cut that one sentence or chunky paragraph here and there. As a Critical Thinking & Writing Instructor, I have realized that I too encourage my students to air on the side of precision and concision, and this is not for the mere sake of being concise. I want students to really ask themselves if they’re repeating a point or delving into a topic that is irrelevant to their thesis. This is even more difficult when writing fiction, because there isn’t always a “thesis” per say and it becomes difficult to take that critical stance with one’s story/poem/play/etc and identify if the balance between showing and telling is somewhat in harmony. When do we draw that line? And how do we know when not to draw it too quick in hopes of loosing the depth of any given character?

    I don’t have an answer but I’ll keep writing, reading, and submitting! IR is one of my favorites and keeps me inspired!

    Best,
    Roxanne N. Rashedi

    Reply
  4. Anthony Martin

    For me, 8-10,000 words is a good cutoff for a short story, especially in literary magazines. I like to crawl into bed and have at one story during the day’s last thirty-minute vestige of consciousness; and I strongly prefer to finish that story. Having to bookmark a short story, as you mentioned, takes away from the reader experience and, arguably, the purpose of the medium.

    Ultimately, the answer to any word count question is rather subjective to the readers, which you touched on. That being said, I think 10,000 words strikes a good balance between voracious page-flippers and the slow pokes like me.

    Reply
  5. Abner Porzio

    “How long are readers willing to sit with a story?” I’d say between half an hour and an hour. Hiland’s blog makes me wonder how much new information/content a reader can really digest in a single sitting. Of course there are many different types and speeds of readers, but the average reader probably wants to only read seven pages. Next year, it will be six. Ezra Pound predicted in his manifesto “How to Read,” that as fiction gets more and more modern the word count will go down. So less ‘telling’ and more subtext! Are readers getting lazier or do they just subconsciously prefer elevated prose poetry? Or do they want fiction writers to get to the point and get out as fast as possible, no skirting the conflict? Average readers shouldn’t be the ones constraining the author’s word count…unless there is money involved.

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  6. Peter Witte

    From my perspective as a reader, writer, and slush-pile digger, I’d guess that most readers today want stories in print to be able to be read in under 30 minutes and no more than 60 minutes, and stories on the web to be able to be read in closer to 5 or 10 minutes, 15 tops. My preferences align with these figures. That is, unless it’s a David Foster Wallace story. I’d sit with that for many hours and I’d have no qualms with using a bookmark.

    Reply
  7. Peter Witte

    From my perspective as a reader, writer, and slush-pile digger, I’d guess that most readers today want stories in print to be able to be read in under 30 minutes and no more than 60 minutes, and stories on the web to be able to be read in closer to 5 or 10 minutes, 15 tops. My preferences align with these figures. That is, unless it’s a David Foster Wallace story. I’d sit with one of his stories for many hours and I’d have no qualms with using a bookmark.

    Reply

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