Brevity is the soul of ereading
How the rise of digital devices has given the short story a shot in the arm
New habits: there are many ways, and places, in which to read an ebook. Photograph: Will Ireland/Future Publishing via Getty Images
I was a late convert to ebooks, seduced only by necessity: the birth of a child, which made the prospect of a backlit screen that I could manipulate single-handedly in the middle of a night feed too attractive to resist. But the type of reading a sleep-deprived brain is capable of changed my reading habits too. Once a fan of the serial epic, I became a connoisseur of the short story. The form and the format in which I was receiving it became indivisible, and I was heartened to discover that I was not alone.
The publishing industry was quick to take note of the way reading habits were being reshaped by digital technology. Digital reading is an interstitial activity: we eread while doing something else – taking a bus, using the bathroom, feeding a child – and the short story is the perfect form for this new reading reality, offering concise narratives perfect for consumption in a single sitting.
Genre publishers, as is often the case, were the first to capitalise on this trend, commissioning short stories by established names. The science-fiction house Angry Robot, for example, launched its Nano Editions in 2010, bringing bite-sized futuristic fantasy to digital fans.
It wasn’t long before the big publishing houses followed suit. Penguin Specials was launched in the spring of 2011, offering essay-style musings from contemporary writers on topics as diverse as Epicurean philosophy (Reclaiming Epicurus, Luke Slattery, £1.99) and the politics of patient care (Dying for a Chat, Dr Ranjana Srivastava, £1.99).
Orhan Pamuk’s What Goes On in Our Minds When We Read a Novel (£1.99), in which he admits the “many ways to read a novel”, seems particularly pertinent to the changing relationship between readers and their books, but it is difficult to imagine his own “naive and sentimental” recollections of a lifetime of reading as having taken place anywhere but in “the orange armchair [with] the stinking ashtray beside me, the carpeted room” that he so vividly describes.
Yet Pamuk’s evocative description of the room receding as he reads is a reminder of the power of the written word to transport the reader, even in an “interstitial” context.
Companies specifically established to reflect the busy reader’s digital preferences soon began to pop up. For those with literary preferences, Byliner is the best. Although it is free to join, it operates on a subscription basis; full access to the catalogue is $9.99 a month. Members can follow writers and are alerted to any new material posted in their digital catalogue. There is also a suggestion for how long each piece will take to read, although this is perhaps taking the idea of the time-pressed reader a bit too seriously. There is some open access material, but it is the exclusive content – new stories, edited extracts from forthcoming books – that are the real draw. Byliner holds more than 300,000 stories and articles from an impressive range of contemporary writers and thinkers, from Naomi Klein to Maile Meloy.
For Margaret Atwood fans who have been waiting for the release of the final part of her MaddAdam trilogy, which is published next month, the commissioned serial Positron will be irresistible. The latest instalment, The Heart Goes Last (one hour and four minutes), is a cracker. It would also be impossible to find some of the featured work anywhere else. George Saunders’s commencement address to graduates of Syracuse University earlier this year, Advice to a Group of Shining, Energetic Young People (seven minutes), will have you wishing there was a similar tradition of valediction in Ireland.
Amazon’s Kindle Singles offer a similar breadth of prolific writers but without the commitment of subscription. As the name suggests, the Singles are readings designed for a single sitting, and, like Penguin Specials, they cross a range of genres, from the mini-memoir to the novella. It seems especially fitting to read Sam Leith’s Going Nowhere: A Life in Six Videogames (£1.49) in a digital format. It offers half a dozen short chapters in a life where technology offered the writer a refuge from reality as well as a way to reintegrate after the breakdown of his relationship.
Susan Hill, a modern master of the ghost story, meanwhile, has found a natural home in the Singles format. The beautifully produced hardback versions of novellas such as A Kind Man have struggled to repeat the success of the now-classic The Woman in Black, but she has become a top seller on the Kindle Single’s list. Crystal (99p) is a stunning story of an Irish priest in an English parish who begins to doubt his faith.
But it is not just established names who are benefitting. Amazon’s Day One digital short story offers new writers an opportunity to launch their work through the Singles imprint, although the quality is varied and most of the recommended titles are women’s genre fiction.
The new appetite for short fiction has been good news for the writer too. With literary magazines closing as the internet dominates our cultural appetites, traditional outlets for individual short stories have dwindled, but short-story collections, long thought to be unprofitable, have begun to make a resurgence. Ask Kevin Barry or Mary Costello, whose recent collections are both available in ebook editions (Dark Lies the Island, Random House, Kindle edition £5.22; The China Factory, Stinging Fly Press, Kindle edition £7.20).