Few literary endeavours lend their names to an era. For many critics – then and now – The Yellow Book defined the 1890s, a decade whose influence persisted well into the twentieth century, through formal, thematic and discursive innovations that anticipated modernism. (The journal's influence is registered in several essays in this History; yet it is also worthy of a separate treatment, to convey a sense of its formative role in the development of the modern short story.) While art editor Aubrey Beardsley's striking line-block illustrations remain as noteworthy as they were once notorious, the short-lived quarterly made its most lasting literary contributions through its promotion of the short story, a genre its authors redesigned to exploit and to expand the divide between the aesthetic and the commercial. Today, even the most specialized scholar of the Victorian period would be hard pressed to name any one of the stories published in The Yellow Book's thirteen volumes from April 1894 to July 1897; but its association with the form has put beyond question its influence on not only the short story, but also literary magazines and the creative culture they sought to transform.
No history of the short story seems to be complete without some mention of The Yellow Book. Before short story collections emerged in the 1890s, the short story form was shaped in and by its periodical environments. Because a ‘short story is always printed as part of a larger whole, either a collection of short stories or a magazine, which is a collection of various kinds of texts’, as Mary Louise Pratt observes, ‘individual short stories are usually read as part of a larger reading experience’. From its inception the enemy of philistinism, The Yellow Book made an unlikely environment for cultivating such a popular, yet minor and ephemeral form. It was one that ‘for much of the nineteenth century attracted little critical attention’, with the result that, Harold Orel reasons, ‘many Victorian authors regarded it with suspicion, as a diversion from more profitable novels and plays; even when prospering periodicals paid them decent wages for short stories that pleased readers, authors usually neglected to collect them and reprint them in hard covers’. Before long, the three-decker novel had run its course: readers and writers were looking for something new.