Be My Victim: Paul Tremblay on The State of the Short Story

In my last column, Laird Barron commented, albeit briefly, on the marginalization of the short story. The subject seemed to interest readers, so this time around my guest, Paul Tremblay, and I will discuss the current state of the short story and perhaps a bit of history as to how we got to this point.


Paul Tremblay has been an editor/co-editor for Chizine, Fantasy Magazine and a handful of anthologies. He is an accomplished short story author with a number of award nominations under his belt and is the author of two short fiction collections: Compositions for the Young and Old and, his latest, In the Mean Time. He is also the author of the novels The Little Sleep and No Sleep till Wonderland.

To make this easy on folks, we’re going to use the terms “short story” or “short fiction” to mean anything that isn’t novel length. So novelettes and novellas will also be covered, even if they aren’t identified as such. M’kay?

Let’s set to commence:

Lee Thomas: Growing up, my preference in fiction was always for novels. I liked immersing myself in a world and hanging with characters for days on end, rather than being introduced to them one minute and saying goodbye to them the next. Only later in my reading – when Barker hit me upside the head with his Books of Blood – did I begin to appreciate the possibilities of the short story. How about you?

Paul Tremblay:I never grew up. I mean, growing up, I wasn’t much of a reader, which is a source of anxiety and lack of self-esteem. I forever wish that I had started writing and reading sooner than I did. Anyway, and coincidentally enough, I just penned an essay for Beatrice.com and their “Selling-Shorts” section. I won’t rehash the whole thing, but it’s about the short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, that changed my life. Changed me–like Michael Landon into the Teenage Werewolf!–from happy-go-lucky math major into a wanton reader. Shortly after taking my first college lit course and reading Oates and Flannery O’Connor, my at-the-time girlfriend (now wife) bought me Stephen King’s The Stand to read. Then I went and read the rest of his books. Clive Barker and his Books of Blood soon followed. I spent two solid years in graduate school (yeah, still mathematics) reading all the horror fiction I could in my spare time. I don’t recall ever thinking that I had a bias for short fiction over the long form, but when I look back on those two years, many of the books that still stick out in my memory are short fiction collections: Barker’s, King’s Night Shift, Joyce Carol Oates’s Haunted.

Clearly, there’s more folks out there than just us who were bowled over by Barker’s Books of Blood, “In the Hills, the Cities,” in particular. And I like how you put it: the possibilities of the short story. I think that’s the appeal to me as both a writer and a reader. The short story allows for more ambiguity, and perhaps, the form (when done well) allows for the reader to fill in some of those possibilities her/himself. Sometimes you don’t need a two hour movie when a single photograph will tell the whole story; or tell a bunch of stories, right? Right.

LT: You are correct, sir. What strikes me as interesting is that culturally, we’re seeing diminishing attention spans, yet the short story – perfect for a quick hit of fiction – has not become the form of choice for readers. Quite the opposite seems to be true, if we look to New York publishing for examples. Novels with astronomical word counts, and an all but mandatory decree that all books be part of a larger series, are prevalent, whereas the popularity of short story collections and anthologies has dwindled. Do you have an opinion as to why this might be?

PT: Everything you say is true, at least it is from my point of view. Anecdotally speaking, I had no designs on writing a follow-up to my first novel The Little Sleep, but the publisher wanted one. Perhaps the long novels and/or series, despite the length do cater to shorter attention spans. The reader has to do less work in keeping up with the character(s) they already know so well and it only becomes a matter of following their favorites along a simple Hollywoodesque, or even video game kind of plot line. I’m being simplistic, of course. And bitter!

Oddly enough, though, just within the past few years, the genre anthology (or the reprint anthology) has seen a resurgence. John Joseph Adam’s reprint anthologies in particular have done and continue to do quite well. Sure his Living Dead zombie antho was the best selling of the bunch but his apocalyptic, vampire, and Star Trek anthologies have sold very well, too. Kathy Sedia’s Running with the Pack sold well for Prime Books, as have some of their other anthologies.

But at the same time, those aren’t New York published anthologies, are they?

NYC publishers have definitely seemed to shy away from the genre single author collection, which in some ways is ironic given the history of the horror genre, the genre of the campfire-tale, right?, and its roots in short fiction: Poe, Lovecraft, Jackson, Matheson, and so many more. I mean, horror readers will still read short fiction, I think. Maybe. Anyway, NYC, yeah, they don’t do horror collections anymore, but they still put out quite a few general lit single author collections. Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (which is a dark, dark book, fyi) was a pretty big seller in ’09, especially considering it was a hardcover short fic collection from a new author.

The big question is who does the short story–as a form–appeal to? Who reads them? Besides us, right? And by us I mean writers. There’s compelling evidence to suggest that the short story is where today’s writers do their training or their apprenticeship. The speculative fiction community has a vibrant short fiction readership so it seems, but how much of that readership is of other writers or trying-to-be writers? When I was slush reading for Chizine and Fantasy Magazine, I can’t tell you how many cover letters I got that mentioned “graduate of Clarion pick-a-direction” and other workshops. Hell, even this math-teaching-schmoe taught a workshop at Emerson College (it was a lot of fun, I must say). I don’t have an MFA, but it seems like many of those writers are learning how to write primarily in the form of short fiction. Interesting article on slate.com about how MFA programs use short fiction.

LT: While it’s true The Living Dead (I & II) et. al., aren’t New York published, New York is paying attention as exemplified by projects like The New Dead, edited by Christopher Golden. If it sells, the big publishers are on it. And it should be pointed out that Ellen Datlow has published and continues to publish exceptional anthologies through New York houses. That noted, the glory days of short horror fiction – commercially, not aesthetically – are done, at least for the time being, which is a shame when you consider the striking new talents who work primarily in that form: Laird Barron, John Langan, Nathan Ballingrud, Livia Llewellyn etc.

For now, I’d like to get back to the idea of attention spans – or reader investment. We have discussed the ambiguity often inherent in the short form, which requires readers to not only invest their time and imagination in the story, but also invest beyond the reading. Ambiguity requires consideration. Further, every new story starts the reader at zero: they don’t know the characters, the setting, the world they are stepping into. They may not like it, and reading takes effort, so there is a natural hesitance to head down an unknown path. I think culturally, we’ve become increasingly artistically intolerant. With iTunes, Netflix, On-Demand, we don’t have to hear, see or experience anything we don’t pretty much know we’re going to like going in. Now it seems to be, “I like this. I want this. Give me more of this, and don’t distract me with crap I might not like.” Obviously, having a taste for a particular kind of music or writing isn’t new, but now technology has caught up, and I think as entertainment consumers we’re being trained to near-complete artistic myopia.

PT: I think I’m in Devil’s Advocate mode….muhahahaha! When were the glory days of horror short fiction commercially, though? It seems to me the odds of starting a career based on short fiction success primarily haven’t changed a whole heck of a lot. Definitely not a whole lot better, but I don’t think a whole lot worse either. The avenues to publication certainly have changed, and granted they’re not NYC publishers, but plenty of larger indies do publish genre short fiction, and some of them do it quite well. Recently, Laird Barron and Kelly Link have managed to establish important careers without having published a single novel.

The publishing industry is in a state of flux (to be kind), but in a sense, it’s an opportunity for indie publishers who don’t have the crushing overhead of the bigs, to swoop in, publish vibrant fiction, and pick up readers. I think we’re seeing that already with Night Shade, Prime, Dzanc Books, and Chizine, to name a handful.

Sorry, I got sidetracked. Anyway, back to the short attention span, right? Mine or in general? Heh.

I agree that reading a short fiction collection/anthology can be more difficult (or, cause the reader to expend more effort) than reading a novel. And you make a compelling argument/case about technology’s effect on attention span/entertainment consumption habits. On the whole I agree with you. There’s no doubt the instant gratification culture and the technology that allows it, is changing all modes of entertainment. However, I think the social history of human kind has always suffered from a near-complete artistic myopia. Down through the centuries, artists (and other revolutionary thinkers) always have had to work extra hard get their controversial and progressive ideas heard/noticed. So I don’t think we can lay that blame of cultural artistic-myopia solely on technology. I do agree, particularly in the United States, that the myopia ain’t getting any better. I think a big part of the problem is the sheer volume of information, misinformation, and choices we have now. What books/news/blogs/magazines do we choose to read out of the thousands upon thousands of titles and websites at our fingertips? Even to people who want to identify themselves as well read, cutting the wheat from the chaff is becoming overwhelming. More times than not, we’ll–as you said–stick with what’s comfortable, knowable, and/or we’ll let someone else tell us what to read instead of doing our own digging, deciding, exploring, etc.

LT Dude, quit messing with the flow. I have no idea which thread to pick up on. But since we’re running out of space, I guess I don’t have to pick up on any of them. Quel dommage!

Here’s the game: Top 5 anthologies or single author collections from the past 5 years. Since we’re both involved with the Shirley Jackson Awards this year, let’s not comment on any 2010 titles. Ready set… 5 Stories by Peter Straub, 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill, The Imago Sequence by Laird Barron, Lovecraft Unbound edited by Ellen Datlow, and The Haunted Heart by Jameson Currier.

PT: Sorry. I am a flow messer.

Fine I won’t name any 2010 titles, but it was a fantastic year for short story collections. So, top 5 from the last 5 eh? That’s tough. I’m going to cheat a little bit and not repeat any of yours as they were all excellent choices, and we’d have some overlap. And I also won’t name any close friends. So there.

Here’s a fresh five: Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson. Like You’d Understand Anyway by Jim Shepard, The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa, The View from the Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier, and Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. With the exception of Link, these books were not marketed as spec fic, but, if it matters, they are.

LT Many thanks, Paul! You’ve put my flow in shock but added to my to-be-read pile.


As always audience participation is encouraged. Let’s hear what you think about the short story or those folks who are working wonders in that form. I could list a couple dozen, but that would take the fun out of it for you.

Now get to work.

21 thoughts on “Be My Victim: Paul Tremblay on The State of the Short Story”

  1. I hate to start off the comments negatively, but the short story is not for me.  I think I have purchsed 1-2 short story anthologies in my life time (38 years).  I hate just getting to know the characters and they get taken away.  It feels like I did work for nothing.  I don’t have to have multiple books in a series, but at least give me a novel length story to read.

    I do not agree with the idea that the short story is good for the current short attention spans.  Other stuff immerses you quicker (video games, movies, TV, etc.) and requires less work.  If you want something quick why not just play 20 minutes of Gears of War and get past the current level, while losing some stress as you blow up aliens.  If you are going to put in the work of reading then why not read a full sized book?

  2. Great interview (and not just because you mentioned m work :-) ).

     

    But Paul, I’m glad you questioned the idea of “glory days for short horror fiction”–you’re right, they never existed. Not only that, but short fiction in general hasn’t been very commercial for decades not just recently. It’s been more than 50 years that a writer could live on the short stories she published. The New Yorker and Playboy paid enormous amounts of money for short stories and perhaps still do. Short stories were published in many of the women’s magazines and of course in some of the raunchier (for the time) men’s magazines.  But those days are long gone.

    The good news that I hear (on occasion) is that readers are buying not only novels but anthologies for their e-readers more. My Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror seems (I don’t have the figures) to be doing well on the kindle. 

    Finally, in the course of my reading for the annual Best Horror I receive many anthologies and single author collections. Yes, the preponderance are from independent (not NY) publishers, particularly the collections but I have a very large  list of just the collections I receive–and anthologies

    (I was going to post the list of collections here but hesitate because of the warning about the coding in word files)…

     

  3. Ellen,

    Thank you for the coming by.  For clarification regarding “The Glory Days:” I was actually going back to the early and mid-century for reference (though only in my head so I guess nobody else would know that).  Further, I think you’ll agree that even as late as the 70s and 80s, the number of viable professional short story markets was considerably larger than what we’re seeing today (or have seen in twenty years). Particuraly in regard to NY Publishing, we’ve seen quite a tapering off.  Please feel free to correct me if my perception of the market is off.

    And if you want to email me your list of collections, I can work the formatting and post for you.

    Thanks again.

    Lee

  4. Kudos for including the well-done anthology The New Dead edited by Christopher Golden. I also recommended Christopher Golden’s short story collection THE SECRET BACKS OF THINGS.

  5. I think culturally, we’ve become increasingly artistically intolerant.  

    I think this statement rings true, and is in need of more reflection.  I really appreciated your discussion of how the short story might be problematic today not because of length, but because many readers want comfort and consistency in their art.  They don’t want to take a chance, and don’t think they have to given the presence of the Internet and the shifts in publishing.  Of course, my thoughts immediately turn to how this affect the rise of certain genres and shifts our perception of the functions of genre :-).

    I also think that the idea of the short story as a kind of investment is a compelling one to consider.  You do have to use your imagination (and often some critical faculties) to engage a short story in a way that is not required for a novel, and which is mostly absent in most other media.  Unlike Chad, I think that it is more valuable as recreation to read a short story than play a shooter game.  Video games are specifically designed to do most of the imaginative work for you, purely for escape; short stories offer far more.

     

  6. @ John

    I didn’t mean to suggest video games were more valuable, which I did in a roundabout way.  My mistake.  I do think short stories are more valuable (even though they are not for me), but I don’t think they will beat out any of the other short forms of entertainment. 

    Broccohli is better for you than potato chips, but potato chips are easily beating out broccohli.

  7. @Chad:

     

    Got it.  Yeah, you’re right that folks will go for the stimulation of video and its particular sort of interaction.  I’m glad you clarified that.

  8. @Chad and @John -

    My suggestion that short stories seemed like the right entertainment for the attention-span challenged only accounted for prose forms, not all entertainment media. That should have been clear, but obviously, wasn’t.

  9. Excellent coverage of the topic.

    In just about everything, it seems Americans, culturally, have become risk averse. Not only regarding entertainment choices.

    With so many expanding options available and without a guarantee or certainty of satisfaction, plus the credo that 99% of everything is crap, it’s just easier– & less expensive– to simply not get involved. To not even bother considering the options. Many independent art projects suffer because of this audience reluctance and apathy. But not me. As an art philanthropist, I make an effort to take that risk, and give unknowns a chance (although not indiscriminately). I love the exploration experience. Sure, I’ve come across a great many stories I didn’t like, which made me feel as if they wasted my time/money. But if I hadn’t assumed the risk, I also would have deprived myself of many awesome stories/writers. Art needs risk takers to flourish– in the artist and the audience.

    Growing up, I only read novels– because short stories didn’t exist for me– were not on my radar as an option. When I discovered short stories as an adult, I began increasingly appreciating the merits and possibilities. Both as a reader and an indie writer/publisher. Now I mostly read– and seek out– anthologies… for my personal library.

  10. Great interview/discussion! I think it warrants several reads to digest. And as a sidenote, since my initials are LT, henceforth I will pretend I’m interviewing people. :P

     

    Looking forward to more, Lee!

     

    Lee

  11. In collections, the small press has certainly taken up the slack.

     

    Depends on how you define “viable professional short story” markets. There are more mainstream venues open to sf/f/h even if they don’t call it that. There are a few non-NY publishers that pay me enough to edit original anthologies for them and allow me to pay a good (well, what’s considered good in fiction) rate to my contributors. The two lists I emailed you include anthologies and collections with some sf/f/h as well as “pure” horror stories.

     

  12. Thank you, Ellen.  Seems like I underestimated the current market!

     

    And for you other readers, Ellen has indeed sent along lists: one for collections, and another for anthologies. The collection list has 98 titles on it, and the anthology list has nearly 130!  It should be noted that not all of these books are professionally done, and neither Ellen nor myself is endorsing every single title.  They are comprehensive lists of what was released, not the BEST of what was released.  I’m likely to cull these down to manageable numbers and post them tomorrow for those who are interested.

     

     

  13. Absolutely!  They’re already gone.  People can wait for Best Horror of the Year #3 if they want to know what you thought.

  14. Great interview.  I’ve always had a soft spot for the short story, be it horror/spec fic or mainstream.  I think it’s King’s best form, for example (including the novella). 

    I’ve wondered if the advent of viable e-books would revive them a bit.  I know I’m a little more willing to experiment on my Kindle than I might in paper form.

  15. Here are a handful of the 98 single author collections Ellen Datlow received for 2010. Again, it should be noted that not all of these books are professionally done, and neither Ellen nor myself are endorsing these titles by listing them here – though many are quite good.  This is PART of a comprehensive list of every collection released last year, not the BEST of what was released.

    • Undertow and Other Laments by Michael Kelly
    • Unpleasant Tales by Brendan Connell
    • All God’s Angels, Beware! By Quentin S. Crisp
    • Hellfire and Damnation by Connie Corcoran Wilson
    • The Beautiful Red by James Cooper
    • Wicked Delights by John Llewellyn Probert
    • Tales of the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong
    • The Collected Connoisseur by Mark Valentine and John Howard
    • Wait for the Thunder by Donald R. Burleson
    • Occultation by Laird Barron
    • Aliens in the Prime of their Lives by Brad Watson 
    • The Poison Eaters and Other stories by Holly Black
    • Pieces of Midnight by Gary McMahon
    • Metrophilias by Brendan Connell Better
    • The Best of Joe R. Lansdale
    • Florida Gothic Stories by Vicki Hendricks
    • The Secret Backs of Things by Christopher Golden
    • Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King Scribner
    • Johnny Halloween by Norman Partridge
    • Shirley Jackson, Library of America (Oates editor)
    • A Life on Paper: Stories by Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud
    • A Pleasure to Burn by Ray Bradbury
    • Skull Full of Kisses by Michael West
    • Long After Midnight by Ray Bradbury
    • Literary Remains by R.B. Russell
    • Pelican Cay and Others by David Case
    • The Bride Stripped Bare by Rachel Kendall
    • Cities of Night by Philip Nutman
    • Slow Sculpture by Theodore Sturgeon
    • A Hatful of Cherries by Felix Calvino
    • Make Believe by Terry Dowling
    • Futile Efforts by Tom Piccirilli
    • Last Exit for the Lost by Tim Lebbon
    • Dark Awakenings by Matt Cardin
    • The Girl With No Hands by Angela Slatter
    • The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer
  16. Here are a handful of the 130 anthologies Ellen Datlow received for 2010. Again, it should be noted that not all of these books are professionally done, and neither Ellen nor myself are endorsing these titles by listing them here – though many are quite good. This is PART of a comprehensive list of every anthology released last year, not the BEST of what was released.

    Anthologies

    • Darkness on the Edge edited by Harrison Howe
    • The Bleeding Edge ed. Wm F. Nolan & J V. Brock
    • A Girl’s Guide to Guns and Monsters ed Greenberg and Hes
    • Clockwork Phoenix 3 ed. Mike Allen
    • Black Wings edited by S. T. Joshi
    • The New Dead, edited by Christopher Golden
    • Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Dead edited by Nancy Kilpatrick
    • Son of Retro Pulp Tales ed Joe & Keith Lansdale
    • The Best of the Best New Horror ed. Stephen Jones
    • Moscow Noir ed. Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen
    • Cthulhu’s Reign ed Darrell Schweitzer
    • Darkness: two Decades of Modern Horror  ed Ellen Datlow
    • Tails of Wonder and Imagination ed. Datlow
    • Best Horror of the Year, volume 2 ed Datlow
    • Stories edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio
    • Brighton Shock edited by Stephen Jones
    • Dead Set edited by Michelle McCrary & Joe McKinney
    • Crimes by Moonlight: Mysteries from the Dark Side ed by Charlaine Harris
    • The Living Dead 2 edited by John Joseph Adams
    • Louisiana Vampires ed.  Lawrence Schimel and Martin H. Greenberg
    • Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy, Volume 3 edited by Kevin Brockmeier
    • Eight Against Reality ed. Dario Ciriello
    • Null Immortalis ed. Des Lewis
    • Best New Horror ed Stephen Jones
    • Music for Another World  ed. Mark Harding
    • Cat by Darkness ed. Chris Bartholomew
    • Death’s Excellent Vacation ed. Charlaine Harris & Toni L.P. Kelner
    • Classics Mutilated ed. Jeff Conner
    • The Company He Keeps ed. Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers
    • Where the Heart Is ed. Gary Fry
    • Never Again ed. Joel Lane and Allyson Bird
  17. Wow. You two just hijacked my Friday night, sent me off on several threads that lasted for fifteen minutes each and just added about ten books to my GoodReads and Amazon lists. So glad to head this conversation. I’m a big fan of the short story, and trying to publish far and wide (from Shivers VI to Pear Noir!) and am finishing up my MFA. So much to think about, but the bottom line is this:

    1. I want to read more.

    2. I want to write more.

    3. I want to publish more.

    4. I want to work with everyone here.

    I think it’s a very exciting time to be a writer, an editor, and a publisher. The lines between genre and lit and blending every day, and there are plenty of people at the AWP conferences that are pushing the two sides together (including many named or posting here) as well as Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, Holly Goddard Jones, Kyle Minor, Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Lindsay Hunter, Tina May Hall, and I’m just trying to keep up. It’s inspiring.

    Whether it’s called horror, neo-noir, fantasy, magical realism, science fiction, transgressive, speculative or literary, if it’s good, it’s good.

    Great article.

  18. Thank you for the interview. Short fiction collections are all I have been buying for the past year and, for some reason, I seem to like reading about short fiction as much as reading the stories themselves. I guess for me short fiction became a necessity due to time management and I think it will stay my savior for quite a few years. Someday I’ll get back to sharing my time with novels. Someday.

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