Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Assisted Suicide of Short Stories

My second violent post in a row. I apologize, but there is something to this, I swear.

From a chart passed around by author Jon Del Arroz comes this list showing the sales of different SF subgenres. To no one's surprise, the ones focused on action and adventure are at the top of the chart. In addition to some weird listings ("Alternate History" and "Alternative History" are two different categories) this isn't all that surprising to anyone who pays attention to what mainstream people like. I'm sure if you've read this blog or similar ones you know all of this.

The worst part of this chart is how low short stories are. Despite being cut up into three categories (again, for some reason) short stories are at the rock bottom of the list and have been for a very long time. Think about it. When was the last time a big anthology came out or when have you heard of a short story that was just so amazing that you just had to run out and buy it? When was the last time you saw a big advertising campaign for an anthology? When was the last time any of the traditional publishing houses put out an anthology that set the world on fire? Unless you're the age of a Baby Boomer, you've never lived in this world. Short stories are irrelevant and dead.

But they weren't always so.

The pulp magazines, and even older sources, ran novels as serials alongside smaller pieces from short stories to novellas to novelettes. These short stories were the main form of entertainment and lasted just as long as the pulps did, up until the mid-50s before the industry imploded. Then they vanished, reserved for transgressive anthologies the public ignored and college classes focused on "subverting audience expectations" with unimaginative "clever" stories like The Lottery. Almost overnight short stories went from small slices of wonder and imagination to having to be based on twists and subversion on audience expectation to be worth reading. And they never recovered from that.

Just take a look at the recent Hugo awards for best short story. They are uniformly embarrassing when compared to anything from Weird Tales, The Argosy, or Planet Stories, and no one in the industry can puzzle out why the mainstream audience just doesn't want to read them. What do you expect when Space Raptor Butt Invasion was a nominee? That is how little anyone cared for the short fiction categories to even bother voting in them. Heck, the Dragon Award doesn't even have a short fiction category, which shows how little larger audiences know or care about the form.

The short story is dead.

But not everyone got the memo. I have reviewed on this very blog several magazines specializing in short fiction that are attempting to bring it back in a big way. Off the top of my head there's Cirsova, Red Sun Magazine, and StoryHack, as well as Superversive Press with their Astounding Frontiers and Planetary Anthology series. There is also a magazine called Broadswords and Blasters which attempt to standout by offering a modern bent to their pulp stories in contrast to the classic ideals of the former magazines. New sources of short fiction are here and they are asking attention.

Speaking of the latter magazine, they recently put up a post detailing what they wanted from their submissions, and what they ended up getting instead. This would go a long way to describing where the field is right now and why it isn't make the splash it should be. The majority of writers simply don't know what the majority of the audience wants, and they were misled about it from their writing teachers and industry professionals.

The relevant part is quoted here:

We have guidelines on our website. They detail, in what we hope is clear and concise language, what we are looking for. They can be broken down in two parts. The first is the genres we are looking for:
  • sword and sorcery;
  • westerns (Weird or otherwise);
  • horror (Cosmic, Southern Gothic, visceral, and psychological);
  • detective tales;
  • two-fisted action;
  • retro science fiction
If you can squint real hard and fit your story into one of those buckets, yeah, we’ll read it and give it due consideration. Mash-ups of the above are also great[2].
So far so good. These styles were the most popular in the pulps back in the day when short stories were king. Of course any magazine seeking to revive the form would use these as a base. This all makes perfect sense.

But the post goes on to detail what submissions they are actually receiving:

Here’s what we see too much of:
  1. Epic or high fantasy.
  2. Fantasy that is a reskin of a Dungeons and Dragons game.
  3. Engineering science-fiction where the hero can solve the problem with a calculator and wrench[3].
  4. Stories where talking about the problem somehow solves the problem.
  5. Slice of life stories that would fit better in a literary magazine. No speculative gloss at all which made both editors scratch their heads and ask “Why did they send this to us?”
  6. Urban fantasy.
  7. Allegories (religious or otherwise) where a solid chunk of the story relies on telling some sort of moral.

You can read the rest here.

And this is where we are. The first six categories were the bread and butter of pulps, and the most popular type of short story when the form was at its popularity peak. These were the most common type of tales at the time, and what went on to influence just about every form of pop culture. This should be common sense.

So why were the majority of the submissions they received in the exact opposite camp? Why were they focused on styles that either don't work in short form or were never all that popular types of fiction in the first place? Should it not have been the other way around?

Well, no. As already established, the short story form has been utterly gutted of its original purpose and tone by our betters. Let us go through each of the seven incorrect story types they were sent in.

1. Epic or High Fantasy

This form is almost exclusively a form of Tolkien worship, which is antithetical to the short story form. Tolkien was an excellent author, but he didn't write for pulp magazines nor was brevity his strong point. His most famous work is a three-volume tome, for crying out loud. High Fantasy is heavy on the details and short fiction is reliant on smaller detail and sharper action. It does not fit the short story form, and you would be hard pressed to find an Epic Fantasy short story regarded as a classic. But because this is the only form of acceptable Modern Fantasy (aside from Urban, or whatever Magical Realism is supposed to be) most writers will use this as a template. Read some Lord Dunsany or Robert E. Howard. Short Fantasy fiction is not what you think it is.

2. D&D Fantasy

This is a whole other problem in the Fantasy genre that really needs solving. There are those who think Fantasy is whatever can be done in Dungeons & Dragons and nothing else. A lot of this comes from their only real Fantasy exposure being Tolkien, his followers, or writers of Dragonlance and other such books. While there is nothing technically wrong with any of that, it does limit the scope of inspiration when nothing older than that has even remained in print and so many of our betters have lied about the quality of the stories. This is why the rediscovery of Appendix N was so important. Instead of transcribing your D&D game to a story, why not look at the inspiration of D&D and start there instead? You're guaranteed to find something better and more original.

3. Big Men with Screwdrivers

And this is where I get blacklisted. Mainstream audiences don't want Campbell's Science Fiction and there's a good argument to be made that they never did in the first place. Even if they did, there are markets for this sort of thing. Castalia House is looking for this and Superversive even welcome it, and I recommend them all the time for writers despite not caring for this style of story. Pulp magazines, however, were not built off the back of Campbell's social experiment. They go back further than that to a form of hot blooded action and romance that are designed to grip any reader with a pulse. Which is why it's important to regress further to see what exactly you're missing here that this is the only style of short fiction you can imagine. Here's a hint: Astounding Stories had an editor before Campbell. Start there.

4. Low-T Fiction

Short fiction is an adrenaline rush. It's made for people to jump in and out between other tasks they might be performing. This means they want action and problems getting solved quickly--they want to feel like something is being accomplished. If you have a story where the problem is simply talked away then the problem could not have been very serious to start with. Talking problems away is for misunderstandings, not life-ending threats. These stakes are not high enough to engage a reader. Nobody wants to read about a trip to the HR department or your son's guidance counselor. Pump up the tension and realize why people read short fiction to begin with.

5. Comfort Food Fiction

There must be some correlation between the more hedonistic and nihilistic a culture is the more it enjoys stories about people doing nothing at all and where nothing happens. Whether in anime or the written word there are writers that think audiences want to read about characters who do nothing, accomplish nothing, and at the end of the day mean nothing. But there aren't, at least not in any real large number. This audience is a small sliver. So stop foisting this style on the greater population. They want a salad, a steak, or a beer, and maybe a combination of all the above. They don't want a saltine. They don't want the same thing they can get by recounting their own daily activities. This is fantasy! Think bigger.

6. Urban Fantasy

The problem with Urban Fantasy is its kitchen sink approach to everything. You have to have werewolves and vampires and fairies and magic and you have to explain why they're all there and how they interact in a world where all of them being real makes no sense to the common man. This cannot be condensed into a small word count without resorting to inside baseball or confusing the audience. And even if it can be, they are mostly detective stories with fairy creatures. They're not that exciting a setting for a shorter piece. But this one is speculation and taste on my part. Urban Fantasy is popular in long form, but I have never seen a shorter piece that has been trotted out by fans to show how well the genre works in said arena. The world also doesn't need two Harry Dresdens. Chicago deserves some mercy.

7. Message Fiction

And this is the big one. How many children have had it beaten into their heads that short stories are for delivering important messages that mean things. Almost all of this comes from what is taught in schools and how they beat any love of reading out of their students. It's no wonder the majority of the population never touches a book after graduation when they are given propaganda as the baseline and told this is what constitutes proper reading. There's nothing saying Le Morte D'Arthur or an old Ray Cummings story can't be used to teach form other than a badly made program that is not interested in instilling a love of wonder or imagination, but on preaching messages. That was a tangent, but it's also what you get from a worthless school system whose idea of genre fiction is The Giver and then wonders why kids don't want to pick up books in their spare time. Then there is assigned material like The Lottery which is based on a twist to make you "think" and wish you never had to read anything ever again. So many people think this is what a short story is supposed to be.

And that is mainly the problem in this whole saga. Short stories were once the ideal form of quick entertainment and should be more popular than ever in this age of instant gratification. But they're not, and that's because of the bad ideas that have been planted in our heads as to what they're supposed to be. The field has been utterly wrecked and, short of a revolution, it doesn't look as if there's any way out.

But there is. As already stated, there are many magazines and individuals dedicating themselves to fixing this problem, and working overtime to accomplish this task. Maybe in a few years Short Stories and Anthologies will be up there with novels where it belongs, but at least that doesn't mean the rest of us will sit by and let it continue to fall so far.

So keep an eye out on those of us putting our work out there whether on blogs, services like Steemit, amazon, or newer magazines. I can't promise every piece will be a home-run, but it can at least get us to first base. And that's a good place to start when we've only been striking out.

Let's bring the form from its grave and allow it the life it deserves.

If you want a sample of my short story work you can find one for free by signing up to my newsletter (or buy the same story for a dollar here), or find others in anthologies at amazon here and here. I should have more info on future stories soon enough, I promise!

As for longer pieces, I have my action adventure novel that you might have missed out on. Hungry for the days where writing was shorter and to the point and there was plenty of red blooded thrills to go around? This is what you've been waiting for.


  1. How about an anthology of Urban Fantasy short stories based on an actual urban legend? Stairs in the Woods. As in over 30 of them to read and enjoy...

    1. Good one. I should have mentioned that in the post. Silver Empire has put out some fine short fiction collections.

  2. "Chicago deserves some mercy."

    No it doesn't. #DigTheMoat

  3. Short fiction is where growth comes from. Pretty much every new movement in genre fiction has come about when there was a robust market for short stories.

    The New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s was driven by stories in high dollar slick magazines like Playboy. Twenty years later the Cyberpunk movement started with Omni (and as an original literary movement, pretty much died with it.)

    I haven't done anything like an exhaustive study, but I would wager that most of the standard SF Tropes appeared first in a short story and then was adopted by novel writers.

    Writers can take chances in a short story, and readers can try out new concepts without committing to a novel-length project.

    I personally am focusing on short fiction right now, and I am seeing more new markets than I have time to write stories to submit to them. Not all of them will thrive, but I think enough will to revitalize genre fiction.

    1. This is why I am really excited about the independent movements right now, even the ones that don't interest me aesthetically. So many writers are really out there and digging in to an abandoned and mostly forgotten market.

      I certainly am interested to see where this will be a few years from now.