I don’t have a scientific study to back this up, but I remember when a short story was 10,000 to 20,000 words. Then it was 5,000 words if you were slacking. Then it was 1,500 words for everyone but the staff of The Paris Review. Now it’s anything over 500 words, because at 500 words it turns into a short-short. (Yes, we had to invent a category called the short-short.)
If stories are getting shorter, then… why?
— Because in spite of all doomsaying about the death of various literary forms, this is a boom time for prose. Even people who don’t think of themselves as creative types are composing emails and Facebook profiles and text messages with the speed and sloppiness of a college kid pulling an all-nighter. For those who are more self-conscious in their literary endeavors, the way to stand out is to create something short and precise and lovingly edited.
— Because the market is putting pressure on length. Paper is expensive, relative to the audience for short fiction, and online magazines are reluctant to publish long stories that might exhaust a reader’s eyes.
— Because we’re lashing out against the qualities that made the “literary lions” of the mid-twentieth century so famous. They were prolific, verbose, panoramic, and gutsy. Today we’re all about being tentative, ambivalent, defensive, and oblique. (This is a riff on a theme by Katie Roiphe.)