From an outsider’s point of view, science fiction and fantasy fiction are the literary equivalent of the “Song That Never Ends,” the recursive little ditty that kids like to sing on a long car trip in order to drive their parents insane.
This is the genre that can never let a story go. Scan the shelves of the section — and this isn’t even the special section most major bookstores devote to series such as Star Trek/Star Wars and Bionicles — and half of the titles will have subtitles like “Book 9 in the Shards of Treacle series.” J.R.R. Tolkien’s books seem to go on and on, my friends, as does Robert Jordan’s 11-book-long Wheel of Time. Winds of Dune, released a few weeks ago, continues to explore Frank Herbert’s Dune universe, despite Herbert’s death in 1986. Science fiction and fantasy, when painted with large brush strokes, is the genre that loves a big, fat book that is epic in tone and scale.
But the genre was born from the pulp magazines in the late 1920s, which were all about sharp shorts and serial stories. They are the progenitors of today’s multi-book sprawl. Ninety years later, these bite-sized nuggets of fantastic ideas continue to be the form’s beating heart. Short stories (and novellas and novelettes, which are longer short forms) are still being published in magazines, anthologies, and online.
“There are a lot of genre readers who take the position that the magazines and short stories are really the core of the field,” Gordon Van Gelder, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction says by phone. “That’s not entirely true, of course, but there are a lot of readers who feel that way. If you took away the digests, there’d still be more to read than anyone can keep up with, but a lot of people would feel that the core of the genre was gone.
“Even through the ’60s, most professional writers would try to serialize their novels first and then take it to the book market,” he continues. “About the time that Dune hit the best-seller list, the tail no longer wagged the dog. The book market began to just boom for science fiction and vastly outpaced the magazine market.”
The short-story market has never really recovered. Van Gelder has been with Fantasy and Science Fiction since 1997, and while the short form has remained artistically strong during his tenure, “in terms of the business, it’s gotten worse,” he says. “No two ways about it.”
Anthology editor Jonathan Strahan sees the same dichotomy in the speculative-fiction short-fiction market. “In artistic terms, I think short stories are flourishing,” he says in an email. “There are something like 10,000 new fantasy and science-fiction short stories published each year. In amongst that torrent are some of the best and brightest stories the field has seen. Yes, they’re harder to find, but writers are experimenting, creating, re-inventing, and along the way, creating amazing work.
“In business terms, though, the short story is in trouble,” Strahan continues. “The market is contracting. Print magazines sales are falling. Online publication has yet to deliver income to writers reliably. It’s becoming harder to afford to spend time writing short stories.”
Despite the difficulty of making money from short works, writers can’t seem to stay away from the form. Strahan’s Eclipse anthologies have featured pieces from Karen Joy Fowler (The Jane Austen Book Club), Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn), and Maureen F. McHugh (China Mountain Zhang), as well as other writers best known for novel-length work. Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula LeGuin honed their skills working small.
“One of the interesting qualities of SF is that a short story can be just as conceptually ‘big’ as a novel,” says Robert Charles Wilson, who writes on both sides of the word-count fence, in an email interview. His novel Spin, which starts a longer series of books, won a Hugo award in 2006.
“Short stories are also a proving ground for new approaches and new ideas,” Wilson continues. “They’ve been called ‘the garage rock of science fiction.’ The magazines have traditionally been like one of those grungy clubs in the entertainment district of any big city: a place where new acts can find an audience and where you might encounter at intimate quarters some geeky band that, in a year or two, will be filling stadiums.”
Elizabeth Bear, who has won two Hugos for her short work as well as critical praise for her novels, takes the metaphor further. “The one thing the short-fiction scene is doing really, really well right now is hot-housing new talent,” she says in an email interview. “It’s a club scene (in the Minneapolis music circa 1983 sort of way, not in the scary men in chest rugs and polyester kind of way) in which writers can try out new tricks, hone their craft, play with stunt writing, bounce ideas off each other, and get nearly instant responses.
“Short stories at their best are perfect, pellucid little devices which grant an insight or an emotional jolt,” she continues. “Short stories are all about the concentrated essence of whatever they are, while novels are far more about the journey and the scenery along the way. A novel is a road trip. A short story is a kiss.”
But it’s hard to say how much longer the heart of the genre can continue beating. The magazines are hemorrhaging readers, and online publications can’t make any money — one of the biggest, Jim Baen’s Universe, just announced it will turn off its light in April 2010. Most of the multi-book series make serious cash for their publishers, which is how they’ve come to eat up so much shelf space. Yet genre writers will always want to play in the short-fiction world because of its inherent challenges, Strahan thinks.
“Will print magazines folding kill the short story? No. Not at all,” Strahan says. “Writers want to write short fiction, and they’re going to keep finding ways to get them to readers. Writers seem willing to keep writing, even in the face of comparative commercial indifference.”
Wilson concurs, convinced that both genre readers and writers will always want that one perfect kiss. “As a fiction-delivery system, the short story may seem a little dated — more at home in Victorian parlors or Depression-era newsstands than it is in the age of text-messaging and internet porn,” Wilson says. “Nowadays only dedicated readers seek out short stories. But the dedicated readers are often amply rewarded.”
One day, perhaps the day we’re all forced to read stories only on Twitter, science-fiction and fantasy short fiction will return to their previous place of genre glory. Until then, those who seek out short work will continue to find it a refreshing change from the “Song That Never Ends.” •
This story originally appeared in Baltimore City Paper.