The short story is the only literary form to have remained largely untouched by modernism. Its big brother, the novel, suffered a crisis of identity during and after the great age of fictional experiment that began, say, with the late work of Henry James and came babbling to a stop with Finnegans Wake. In the half-century that has passed since the appearance of Joyce’s calamitous masterpiece, the novel has become increasingly self-conscious and uneasy (not always to ill effect, it should be said). Meanwhile, the short story has continued an unbroken narrative, speaking in its quiet way its unemphatic verities. Even Borges, if we accept as short stories the brief fictions of magic realities and strange science on which his fame rests, was more a medieval savant and necromancer than one of Pound’s makers of the new. Reflective in manner, unperturbed in tone, the short story is perhaps the last form in which humanism finds its true voice, that humanism which at the close of this savage century we are being forced, with many regrets and misgivings, to relinquish.
That the short story has survived at all testifies to the subtle strengths of the form and, even more so, to the tenacity of its practitioners. In its heyday, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it could provide a decent living for a professional writer. Henry James made very little money from his novels. At the height of his career he told the best-selling Edith Wharton that with the royalties from his previous novel he had managed to buy a wheelbarrow in which to transport his guests’ luggage from the railway station, and with the proceeds from his next he hoped to be able to have the vehicle repainted. He depended heavily on the handsome fees paid by magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly with their large and eager middle-class audiences.
After World War II, consumption, if not production, of the short story went into steep decline, owing perhaps to an unspoken conviction among readers, and many writers, that the vast upheavals of the times required the muscularities of the novel if they were to be dealt with at all adequately. High-paying popular magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post went out of business, while others began to concentrate on, and therefore encourage, the “new” journalism, which seemed, for a while, so much more authentic and expressive of the times than mere fiction. The small literary magazines, nurseries for budding writers, had tiny circulations when they did not fold. Book publishers became wary of bringing out books of short stories, acknowledging that readers would not buy them.
One magazine continued, and continues, to offer a wide audience—and a decent fee—to the short-story writer. Exactly half of the stories collected in William Trevor’s After Rain appeared first in The New Yorker, as did seventeen of the twenty-eight stories contained in Alice Munro’s selected stories—and of the last sixteen pieces in this chronologically arranged …