MIND MELD: What Purpose Does Short Fiction Serve?
I’m an avid fan of short fiction for many reasons, so a Mind Meld question about short fiction seemed to be in order. Trying to skirt around the futility of the “short fiction is dying” rhetoric (though learning something about that in the process) I asked a handful of Editors, some of them authors as well, to comment on the purpose of short fiction. The responses reaffirm my belief that short fiction can be every bit as entertaining – if not more so – than novel length stories…
Here are the responses…feel free to chime in.
For readers, short fiction provides a lot more stuff to READ–and it’s still where the majority of readers find new writers whose work they enjoy. It’s easier to invest a half-hour or less in reading something by a writer you may end up not liking than it is to invest days reading a novel. Cheaper, too. If a reader finds a writer he really responds to, whether in a magazine or in a Best of the Year collection, the first thing they usually do is to go out and look more work by that author; SF is a very name-oriented field. Eventually, they may end up ordering novels by those writers, if they have novels–but it was short fiction that set the hook. For writers, short fiction is still the easiest way to break into print, especially in an era where many publishing houses no longer read their slush piles at all, turning novel manuscripts around in the mail room without any editor ever getting a look at them. Because the turnover is high, short fiction markets, whether e-zines or traditional print magazines, need to be continually finding good new writers, which means that they actually have to READ their slush piles, as opposed to just “dealing with” them. Even today, the best way to break in and establish a professional reputation is to write and sell lots of strong short fiction. The book editors keep an eye on what’s happening in the short-story market, and once a buzz begins to generate among short-fiction readers about the work of a particular author, they frequently then swoop in and offer that writer novel contracts–which may make them too busy to write short fiction, which is why you need the constant turnover. (There are writers who continue to make time to write short fiction even when they could be making more money writing novels, though, simply because they LOVE writing it.) Charles Stross is a good example. He wrote several novels that he was totally unable to sell, but after he started selling a lot of short fiction to markets like Asimov’s and Interzone, and it started generating a lot of buzz among readers, novel editors swooped down on him, and he’s not only sold a number of novels since, he’s retroactively sold many of the ones he’d written before and was unable to sell.
It’s also easier to get away with radical experimentation in short fiction than it is in the novel market, too, which is one reason why some writers continue to write it even after they’re established enough to sell novels instead. It’s a lot less risky, and expensive, for a magazine editor to take a chance publishing an experimental story in a magazine, where if the audience doesn’t like it, they’ve still got five or six other stories to read and not feel cheated, than it is to publish an experimental novel, where there’s a LOT more money at risk if it should fail.
Since these arguments apply just as well to the online world as they do to the print world, I don’t see any of this changing dramatically anytime soon.
I’ve said this many times and will continue to say that short fiction remains the best breeding ground for new writers because the form provides a smaller canvas with which to perfect their craft. Honing one’s writing by writing short stories is an excellent education in discipline and experimentation. In science fiction and in horror, even more, the short form (up to and including the novella) is the heart of the genre. I see a steady influx of new writers who are experimenting with voice and style and I see more established writers maturing into brilliance. This thrills me.
Publishing short fiction is still the quickest way to recognition for a terrific short story writer. If you write and publish several excellent short stories and come to the attention of editors and publishers (and readers and award committees) they’ll be clamoring after you to write that novel. It was like that for William Gibson in the early 80s and it’s still like that for writers like Kelly Link, Laird Barron, Margo Lanagan, and a few others. But the caveat of course, is that each story must count– hacking them out won’t do it.
I don’t understand why more readers don’t embrace the short story as something they can read in this super fast era of “no time no time”. Also, an anthology or magazine is the best “sampler” for readers to get a feel for what kind of writing and writers whose work they enjoy.
I personally prefer short supernatural horror fiction to novel length because for this non-believer, it’s far more difficult to suspend disbelief in the supernatural through the course of a whole novel, while I can do so through the duration of a short story. Also, I find many supernatural novels lose their way — possibly because of the juggling act the author must perform.
I don’t know if we’re listening at the same doors, or peeking over the same shoulders, but when the death of short fiction in science fiction is discussed it almost always applies to the business of short fiction: the health of the professional magazines like Asimov’s and F&SF; the pay rates for stories; the audience reach of various markets. And there’s a lot to be said about that. I think you could make a fairly coherent argument that, even if it’s not dying, the short fiction market is a lot less vigorous than we’d like it to be.
The art of short fiction, though, is in fine and robust health. I think that over the past thirty years or so we’ve achieved a general level of competence that rules out the sort of pulpy, purple horrors that sat at the bottom of the market in the 1930s, and the best of the work being published today can stand proudly alongside the best short science fiction that’s ever been published.
None of that, of course, answers your question: what purpose does short fiction serve for readers and writers? I’m tempted to say that it doesn’t have to serve a purpose. It’s art. And, as Picasso said, the ‘purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls’, and isn’t that enough?
The answer I suspect you want, though, is this. Short fiction is important to writers because it provides a vital laboratory where they can experiment with new ideas and techniques; where they can learn their craft as storytellers before moving on to longer work. It’s easy, tempting, and far from inaccurate, to say that a short story takes less time to create, and so provides an easier vehicle for such experimentation. Of course, it’s more than that. Short fiction is an art form, an end in itself.
And for readers? Well, it’s something similar. A lot of the great ideas in the field started in short fiction. If you want to read the best, get the purest Sfnal fix, it’s often to be found in short fiction. Also, it’s a great way to sample a bunch of new writers, get a feel for them before committing to novels. I think what I like best about it is that it’s often much more intense, page by page, than longer work. At its best it’s the purest form of science fiction, and that’s why I love it.
At the most basic level, quality is its own justification. In the case of short stories, they require a combination of art and mechanics, a discipline that is no more or less difficult than the novel, but is a totally different discipline, as important to the field of literature as poetry, novels, plays, or any other identifiable type of writing. Never forget: science fiction is a field that has perhaps produced two or three great novels, but has demonstrably produced upwards of 30 great short stories. It would be criminal if they had never been written, or if they were to be lost to the field.
Short fiction serves several purposes in my mind. It introduces the reader to new writers, it allows the writer freedom to try something different, and it often gives new writers a place to break into the scene.
I know that several of my favorite authors I discovered first through their short fiction. For me, the time commitment of a novel is almost stifling. I typically find myself with 15 – 20 minutes chunks of time in which to read. It’s nearly impossible to read a novel this way. However, short fiction fills this gap quite nicely. I can still remember the first time I read Joe R. Lansdale, Karen Joy Fowler, Jeffrey Ford, Liz Williams, Jeff VanderMeer, Hal Duncan, and many others. Each of these writers I read first through short fiction and then later through their novels. In addition to the time commitment, there is often less financial commitment to obtaining short fiction over novels. If I have the choice of reading a novel from ONE writer I don’t know and an anthology with DOZENS of writers I don’t know, I’ll always choose the anthology over the novel.
It may be a misconception of mine, but I always feel that an author can take chances in a short story that can’t be taken in a novel. If one wanted to write in the second person, that might get annoying in a novel, but could work well in a shorter piece. A science fiction writer could try her hand at fantasy. A fantasy writer could try some mystery. Even if the piece isn’t published, the writer could try some things different from their normal work. Certainly not every writer does this, but the medium is there should a writer wish to take the opportunity to try something different from the type of writing they cut their teeth on.
Lastly, there are many writers whose first publication is in short fiction. Who knows what might have happened if these writers had not met with success with their short fiction? To tout myself a little, there are a number of writers I published before they had a novel come out, including: Sandra MacDonald, Jay Lake, Chris Roberson, and Hal Duncan. I also know that I’ve given a few people their first publication. I have a poem coming up later this year that made me stop and say ‘wow’ out loud. It’s just stunning. It’s the first thing she’s ever submitted anywhere. I know that writing short fiction isn’t for everyone. There are some people who just can’t do it. There are others who have difficulty writing novels. I think there are more opportunities for new and unknown authors in the short fiction markets.
For my money, I’d rather read a short story over a novel any day. The idea of reading short fiction excites me.
To writers? Short fiction serves a two-fold purpose. For the beginning writer, it’s a proving ground, a chance to get recognized. It’s very hard to break new writers in novel form, more so in SF than in fantasy, and readers tend on the whole to be conservative and read who they know. The short form is where you can make a reputation that will carry forward into your first novel; witness Charles Stross with the Accelerando stories as they appeared in Asimov’s. Or Paolo Bacigalupi, whose short fiction has accrued enough awards and nominations to significantly aid the novel he’s working on right now.
For the established writer, short fiction is the crucible of new ideas, the vanguard of the “dialogue” that is our field, where new concepts are tested, offered up to the community of SF writers, passed back and forth, hammered into shape, again witness Charles Stross’ Accelerando stories, and the way this kicked-off a wave of “Singularity” fiction. Theodore Sturgeon said SF’s role was to “ask the next question,” and the short story offers the opportunity to frame the question, offer it out, get a response, and respond to that, way before the novel that brings it to widespread attention has even found a publisher. Short fiction is the front line, the place to dare, experiment, reach, stretch, and sometimes fail. It’s vital.
For the reader – SF packs a punch at the short form length. I wish that short fiction performed better than it did on average. I am impatient with concept-light fiction, and I’d personally rather read 15 to 20 short tales, each with a separate sensawunder concept waiting to blow my mind, than wade through 16 long manuscripts for the same return. I’m also excited to see indicators that the novella may be returning to prominence in the days ahead, as I think it’s uniquely suited for SF.
Anthologies offer readers a chance to discover new authors and to explore genres they typically wouldn’t purchase a novel in-sort of a “testing the waters,” experience.
For writers, it’s a chance to take a break from novel writing and to tackle new subjects. For example, I write primarily fantasy novels, but I’ve written short stories in the science fiction, military, Western, mystery, and horror genres.
I’ve taken on everything from WWI German fighter pilots to Civil War submariners, to space station salvagers, to plague-ridden pirates. I’ve edited several anthologies for DAW Books and other publishers, and as a result of reading the stories as I went along, I acquired a new list of writers I favor…I simply have to go out and buy their latest books.
Halleluiah, that short fiction-criers to the contrary-isn’t dead!
It thrives, I think, because, like poetry, it’s a form that writers and reader’s love. Short stories need to be tightly written, need to create a satisfying plot and characters in a few words. It’s a difficult form, and, obviously, one that’s not for everyone. I made my bones as a short story writer. I learned technique and style by working and reworking short stories…and over time, my stories became longer and longer, turned into novellas and novels. A novel is a very different beast than a short story, as there is so much more room for the development of character and setting…and, of course, plot. And there are writers who gravitate toward writing short stories and writers who simply write everything long, natural novelists. So, for some writers, such as myself, writing short stories was a way to learn my craft. And I love the form, for the author must suggest an entire world, must paint real characters with a very few strokes of the brush…or pen-this metaphor really doesn’t work too well, but you get what I mean.
What do readers get out of a short story? They get a whole world wrapped up in a few minutes. They get that shiver down the spine real-quick. And then they can go on to another story, an entirely different world, plot, experience. It’s reading novels on speed…except, of course, you don’t get a novel. You can’t relax for days in the experience. You get the rush fast, and a case might be made that the short form is a more perfect ‘product’ than a novel. It must be a bit closer to poetry, in that there are very limited parameters for the writer to work within. If a novel is a vintage port, then a story by, say, O’Henry, is a straight shot of unblended whiskey.
It’s a different taste. I love long, languorous novels such as Anthony Powell’s =A Dance To the Music of Time=, and I love the deliciously potent short stories of Alfred Bester, Damon Knight, Gardner Dozois, Gene Wolfe, Elizabeth Bowen, J. G. Ballard, Thomas Disch, and I could (but mercifully won’t) go on and on.
But whether long or short, great novels or short stories must, as I wrote in an introduction to one of Peter Crowther’s collections, “convey an almost vertiginous sense of detail, atmosphere, and…beingness. They gain their miraculous light, their pneuma, if you will, by the precision and clarity of style and the associated evocation of character, place, and emotion. They insinuate themselves into the reader’s deep memory and active, personal experience, leaving the reader with the sense that these stories have become part of the architecture of his own personal history. The symbolic ‘lessons’ of these stories are somehow quite unconsciously absorbed into the warp and weave of the sympathetic reader’s day-to-day life. In memory the stories feel as if they are freighted, as indeed they are, for the very best stories are vehicles loaded with archetypal templates.”
That a short story can do this surely bodes well for the form.
I wish I shared your optimism in relation to short fiction – it doesn’t feel like it’s thriving in the UK. Most of the quality short story magazines – literary and genre – I was reading 15 years ago have folded. The only thing that cheers me up is that every so often the Interzone editorial team comes across work of astonishing insight and quality from new writers. Only this week we accepted a story from a London-based writer, Nina Allen, that gave me the same kick I got from reading Robert Aickman and Jorge Luis Borges as a kid. Last summer, I got a similar revivifying jolt from Dragonfly Summer, a wonderful story by a writer called Patrick Samphire. There’s great stuff out there, but the economics of getting it to readers are increasingly challenging.
Which brings us to the problem of the purpose of the short story: it’s easy to fall into a trap of evaluating it in purely utilitarian terms relating to economics of publishing and/or the career arc of developing authors. Clearly, it does provide a low-risk opportunity for readers to encounter a new writers and new forms. And it gives writers an opportunity to hone their skills and test them out in a range of genres and styles. But the short story is more important than that. Why? Because of the virtuosos of the form who have remade and extended my world: writers like Bierce, Saki, Borges, Italo Calvino, JG Ballard, Dino Buzatti, Angela Carter, Christopher Fowler, Ian McDonald, Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton, Stephen Baxter, Cynthia Ozick, Peter Carey, Paul Di Filippo, Jay Lake, Ian Watson, Ali Smith …too many to reference. It would probably be a different list tomorrow.
Writing a great short story is a near-magical act. The maestros of the form have honed an age-old technique that draws you ineluctably into a world they’ve crafted from a hodgepodge of imagined fragments. And the best of them change the way you think forever. For many readers, Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge opens up a new way of thinking about consciousness, and introduces a whole new set of existential uncertainties. Thanks for that Ambrose. Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman and William Golding’s Pincher Martin offer richer, more comprehensive reflections on the same theme as Bierce’s tale. But it’s the Bierce piece that offers the devastating insight; it’s Bierce who brings about an instant and durable psychological transformation. I can’t think of a form that offers this transformative hit as effectively as the short story.
First, what short fiction is NOT. It’s not training-wheel fiction. Authors don’t practice on short fiction, nor do readers. It is a singular writing and reading experience. There is in the piece of short fiction a moment of time, a beating pulse of emotion, often a heartstopping last line.
But of course being short, there is rarely time to develop a secondary and tertiary plot. Usually there are fewer developed characters. This is why a number of times authors have taken a short story (Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game,” Greg Bear’s novelette “Blood Music,” Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonrider,” Vonda McIntyre’s “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand,” and even my “Cockfight,” which turned into the YA Pit Dragon Trilogy.
Thriving? In the sense that as much or more short fiction appears as ever, and that the best of it is arguably better than ever, yes. But it’s not exactly thriving economically: the top magazines are struggling to break even, and the lower tier magazines are labors of love, not money makers. And writers are paid very little, in relative terms, compared to 50 years ago, for short fiction. But it’s still of value…to readers, most obviously as a source of entertainment, as ever. And perhaps in SF short fiction can provide a more concentrated “hit” of ideation than longer fiction, which is something of value to many of us. To writers — for many writers, short fiction serves as a training ground, a way to get quicker and broader feedback on your work than is possible with novels. Some writers use their short stories as in essence advertisements for their novels. And some writers simply work better at shorter lengths. Finally, there are some stories that can only be told well in 5000 words. (Too bad 20 of those won’t pay as well as a novel, and probably take much longer to write!) This last, in the end, means short fiction will never die — as long as there are stories that are only “right” at a given length, some writers will write them.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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