One thing that has been getting my (admittedly easily gotten) goat lately is the perennial lament that short fiction has lost its audience because perverse writers and editors insist on being all post-modern and counter-culture and everything. If only, the argument goes, writers went back to crafting charming and traditional stories like the ones that used to be published in The Saturday Evening Post, everyone would read stories! The Average American would sit down and enjoy a short story of an evening, and would maybe even read aloud to Junior who would thereafter cease his gang activity, etc.
Gosh, such baloney.
So, what did happen to the ubiquitous "traditional" short story, if it wasn't murdered by John Barth and Robert Coover? Here's my theory: it didn't go anywhere; it just changed its medium. We humans have an almost endless appetite for stories -- for the conflict/drama/resolution thing. We still do; most of us just don't get our satisfaction from short stories anymore. We get it from television and movies -- actually, mostly television. In this theory, television corresponds to short stories and movies to novels. The reason novels have fared better is because it's hard to get people to sit in a movie seat for fifteen hours.
Anyway, speaking as a reader, there are more than enough short stories out there to fill my needs. Alice Munro alone almost does it. I forgot to go to bed last night because I was so enthralled by Margaret Atwood's latest collection. There's this Australian guy named Tim Winton whose book I just got -- very, very old fashioned traditional stories, almost Cheevery. Every week the NYer brings a story to my mailbox, usually not to my taste, but hey, I'm picky. Oh yeah, and every year there's Best American, O. Henry, New Stories from the South, etc., plus Harpers, Esquire, Playboy, and numberless literary mags who generally err on the side of boring, but who offer endless pickings, anyway.
The literary short story is doing fine. Fine, I tell you!
Because popular culture has shifted away from the written word somewhat (not entirely, of course, as Mssrs Grisham and Crichton will be happy to tell you), the short story has been freed from the burden of popular entertainment. It's different now, but not necessarily worse. There's some crazy stuff out there (nothing as crazy as Gertrude Stein, though) but if you look, you'll find plenty to like. Unless, of course, you're a writer longing for the romantic days when you could make a living pounding out stories for the slicks. Wasn't that an awfully brief interlude, though?
Cultures change, and a culture's art changes with it. It's constantly fresh and new. And thank Mother Nature for that.