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…
Q: Despite the cries of the ever-impending death of short fiction, it’s still thriving. But what purpose does short fiction truly serve to writers and readers?
Here are the responses…feel free to chime in.
Gardner Dozois was the editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction
magazine for twenty years, and is still the editor of the annual The Year’s Best Science Fiction
anthology series. He’s the author or editor of over a hundred books, has won fifteen Hugo Awards for his editing, and two Nebula Awards and a Sidewise Award for his own writing.
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.