In 1874, a twenty-four-year-old government clerk called Guy de Maupassant, depressed and maddened by his boring work and philistine colleagues at the Naval Ministry in Paris, was desperate to embark on a new career. Thankfully, his father paid him a small allowance, and his job at the ministry left him plenty of spare time. He spent most of his money and leisure time boating on the Seine, fencing, shooting, picnicking with friends, and visiting prostitutes.
Recently, he had also been devoting some of his energy to writing. He was intending to enter a play in a competition run by the Gaîté theater and had been impressed by a “very remarkable” story written by one of his friends which had been serialized in the popular daily newspaper Paris-Journal. He sent the installments to his mother, who had always hoped to see Guy become a writer. In the accompanying letter, which he wrote on ministry paper, he asked his mother to “find me some good subjects for short stories. I’ll be able to work on them a little at the Ministry…and then I’ll try to get them published in some newspaper or other.”
It was just about possible at that time for a talented and prolific writer to earn a living as a storyteller. There had never been so many literary magazines. Some, such as La Vie littéraire, published nothing but short stories. Daily newspapers had been serializing novels since the late 1830s, and were now sold at newsstands instead of being available only to subscribers, which meant that fiction writers had a potential audience of many thousands. In Le Siècle, Le Temps, Le Figaro, and Le Petit Journal, highbrow literature rubbed shoulders with political reports and society gossip. They published scenes and anecdotes of modern life as a condiment to the serious news.
Aesthetes affected to despise this “commercialization” of literature, but very few works of the mid- to late nineteenth century that are still read today were never tainted by newsprint. Many of Baudelaire’s experimental prose poems—including the poem (“Le Chien et le flacon”) in which he likened the reading public to a dog who prefers the smell of excrement to that of “delicate perfumes”—first appeared in mass-circulation newspapers in the 1860s. Some long passages of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which came to be seen as a rejection of vulgar accessibility, had first appeared on the front page of Le Figaro.
From young Maupassant’s practical point of view, short stories were not only more marketable than full-length novels, they were also less likely to interfere with other, more pleasurable pursuits. He had seen a family friend toiling away at a long novel, and he knew what an exhausting and dispiriting activity it could be. The novelist was Gustave Flaubert, already famous as the author of Madame Bovary, Salammbô, and L’Éducation sentimentale. According to Maupassant, Flaubert sat at his desk for hours, staring at the paper with a …