Many still wonder why readership of fiction—and especially short fiction, in collections and magazines—has been in decline over the past, say, two decades. Often the problem is waved away by someone grumbling ‘tv' and ‘video games' and calling the matter settled. This same person, however, probably prefers novels to short stories, and the infamous tv can't explain that. And assuming humans do love stories (an assumption I make and that does inform my writing, but for which I will not argue), blaming tv doesn't account for why people have turned to the internet and social media, when those places are a narratological wasteland—fun, sure, damn fun, but not something we go to for four-hundred page (or hour and a half long) narratives. I say all this because these observations are interestingly skewed. I also think they are caused by a misunderstanding of what the short story is.
I think many comic books, tv shows, and video games can be understood as short stories, especially in an age where we accept that these types of media can be appreciated as art. Insofar as the first two are mainly (and video games often) episodic, the analogy fails to hold, since short stories are contained. But this is not so true anymore. Like the serialized novel—a relic, and for a similar reason as the one I'm coming to—the issue, the episode, and even the video game level are becoming standalone pieces. Many graphic novels, for example, are not entire collections, but single story arcs pulled from the comic's run (often called trade paperbacks). In the modern era readers have Gaiman's Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (2009) or the nine-issue Iron Man arc Demon in a Bottle (1979) as well. Consider episodic television shows made to draw in new viewers, episodes of House or M.A.S.H., or of longer shows (Lost's "Ab Aeterno" comes to mind, and also the It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia musical episode entitled "The Nightman Cometh"). For as much as we love the short story, we have to ask if it's as moving, as funny, or as downright entertaining as these. The game Shadow of the Colossus (2005) could be a short story, as could the Halo series and the World of Warcraft expansions. Independent games like Braid have also branched into exploring time and memory, subjecting the thumbstick-controlled pixels to multiple textual interpretations, the deconstruction of the teleological linearity and inevitability of such games, such ‘stories', being one popular reading.
The suggestion, then, is that these kinds of media are drawing reader's attention away from short stories, and if we are to call a short story good we should only do so in comparison to these things. When you say a generic MFA'er has memorable characters, could you imagine them on a t-shirt or see some drunk at a bar impersonating them? Are they going to get spin-offs? Are their plots gripping, really, or is someone babysitting a dog and pondering how that makes him feel about his wife and modern society? I sometimes think about these stories the way I think about jazz. I appreciate them. I understand its history and the chops required to play it. But when I say I like a jazz song, I'm abbreviating. I like it as a jazz song. I actually like rock, for example. I can get that fuck-yeah feeling behind rock songs, play them in the car or for friends and all that. I rarely feel this way about a short story, but I have, so I can, and I'd like to do it a hell of a lot more.
I think this would happen if short stories were written with these competitors in mind. If the form is to survive (and I don't have space to say why I think it'll survive. Suffice it to say I'm writing them.) then it has to throw itself into the ring with these others and find out where it fits. We should address the more difficult and more useful question: what, after all this time, can short stories do or be that comics, tv, and video games can't? We writers need to answer this question. We need to redefine our narrative niche.