October 2007

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

What Won't Sell

The short story was invented in 1884. Well, no, of course it wasn’t; there had been all sorts of stories, long and short, before that, but they tended to be called things like "tales." The term "short story," or "Short-story" as it was first presented, came from the American critic Brander Matthews in an article in Saturday Review in July 1884 in which he argued that it was a distinctive literary form in its own right. Quite how the short story is distinguished from the novel in anything other than length is something I’m not going to go into here, mostly because I don’t know and believe me there are many volumes of critical texts to muddy the waters as much as you like.

I discovered this fascinating literary historical snippet in Peter Keating’s superb study of late-Victorian and Edwardian literature, The Haunted Study, where I also discovered that within a year or so of the short story being "invented" publishers were sucking their teeth and shaking their heads and muttering, "They don’t sell, you know."

Short stories don’t sell. It’s a well known fact. Every publisher I’ve ever met has told me so at one time or another. And now I find it’s a truism as old as the short story itself. But I still don’t know what it means.

Do you mean it’s literally true? Try telling that to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who built his luxurious home on the proceeds of his Sherlock Holmes stories, not the historical novels he cared so much about. Do you mean they won’t give you a living? Try telling that to Rudyard Kipling, whose short stories were the mainstay of his income. Do you mean they will do nothing for your reputation? Try telling that to Jorge Luis Borges who never wrote a piece of fiction longer than about 20 pages and is still reckoned one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

And the short story is a form that seems particularly well suited to science fiction. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps it’s a legacy of science fiction’s time in the pulps in the early to mid-twentieth century, though other pulp fictions such as crime and romance do not seem so wedded to the short story. Or maybe it’s just that the introduction and development of an idea, the bedrock of so much science fiction, fits the constraints of the short story more easily than the expanses of the novel. All I know is that anyone making a serious list of the great, trend-setting works of science fiction will almost certainly pick as many short stories as novels. Where would the literature be without Asimov’s "Nightfall," Clarke’s "The Star," Heinlein’s "The Roads Must Roll," Godwin’s "The Cold Equations" and so on and so forth? And science fiction has more than its fair share of writers who, like Borges or Kipling, have made their greatest, perhaps their sole contribution to the genre through the short story. I suspect that R.A. Lafferty’s "Narrow Valley" or "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" will weigh far heavier in the history of the genre than Arrive at Easterwine or Past Master; I’m damned sure that any of Harlan Ellison’s stories will count for more than Spider Kiss and that any Howard Waldrop story will count for more than A Dozen Tough Jobs.

Today, of course, there is evidence to support the claim that short stories don’t sell: the steady decline in sales of the sf magazines. Except that the long slow death of the sf magazine has been going on for as long as I’ve been reading science fiction, yet they have lasted far longer and sold far more than magazines in any other genre. And if the magazines are in decline, we still support monumental best of the year collections; not only that, but there’s an increasing number of them. Just a year ago I counted ten; the number has grown significantly since then. How many of them will survive more than an issue or two is, of course, an open question. But the fact that they are out there suggests that someone thinks short stories will sell well enough to support this cornucopia of anthologies. And Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror originally edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, now by Datlow with Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, have both lasted well over 20 years, and both promise, year after year, more than 250,000 words of fiction. That’s a lot of short stories. A few years ago, when there were just (just?) four best of the year volumes to consider, I counted up the number of stories published between them, plus the stories listed in the several pages of "Honourable Mentions" that both Dozois and Datlow and Windling included. The total came to not far short of 1,000.

One thousand short stories published in just 12 months! And that doesn’t include all the ones not good enough to earn an "honourable mention," or the ones that the various editors may well have missed. Someone, presumably, is reading these stories. Certainly, someone is writing them. I don’t suppose any but the misguided few are writing these stories to earn fame and fortune, but there are many other reasons why we write and read and, yes, publish short stories.

For a start, they act as an introduction: of writers to their craft, or readers to the writers. It has not taken long for Ted Chiang and Kelly Link to be recognised among the contemporary greats of science fiction on the strength of their short fiction alone. When Tor published Chiang’s collection, Stories of your Life and Others, it was a way of giving them first claim on his novel. Well, they’re still waiting for the novel, but I don’t imagine they’re seriously regretting the commercial decision to publish the stories.

Short stories also allow readers and writers alike to explore ideas or respond to situations in a way not possible in the novel. When Farah Mendlesohn wanted to protest the British government’s ill-conceived and oppressive legislation outlawing "the glorification of terrorism" she did so by producing an anthology, Glorifying Terrorism. A novel would not have worked: it takes time to write, time to produce, it would have missed the moment. But a story can be composed in the heat of the moment and an anthology can be out within months, possibly within weeks. If you are making an immediate political point, the short story has its uses.

And we must not let declining sales figures of the main sf magazines, so lovingly recounted each year by Locus and by Dozois, fool us into imagining the market is in decline. One does not necessarily imply the other. After all, those 1,000+ stories must be appearing somewhere. Some are now appearing on the web at places like Strange Horizons or Clarkesworld (and the disappearance of venues like Infinity Plus only indicates the fragility of the new medium, not further market decline), others in original anthology series (Polyphony, with six issues behind it, is probably the most substantial, possibly too substantial), and still others in new small press magazines which keep springing up. The most interesting of these, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, has now achieved a curious cross-over, with a best of collection now published by a major publisher. The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (an imaginative title if ever there was one) edited by the magazines founders, the seemingly ubiquitous Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, is pretty representative of the magazine itself. It’s not all fiction, but it is all idiosyncratic, and the ethos of the magazine has attracted a number of fine writers working at or pretty near their best (I point you in particular to the contributions by Link, Karen Joy Fowler, Jeffrey Ford, Sarah Monette, Philip Raines & Harvey Welles, Douglas Lain and John Brown). Of course, your idiosyncracy may not be the same as mine, so you might well favour other pieces in the book. All I do say is that you should read it. If nothing else it suggests that the short story is alive and well and has readers and publishers and, presumably, it does sell.