That is, a debate about short fiction, not a short debate about fiction.
Jay Lake linked today to a “Mind Meld” up at SF Signal, where they had a number of people weigh in on the purpose of short fiction. The responses were thought provoking, both in the “yes, what she said” and “what crack are you smoking?” kind of way.
It starts with Gardner Dozois, whose answer reminds me of nothing so much as the “interviews” football players give after games, where they spout off the standard talking points: just focused on the game, gave 110%, couldn’t have done it without the rest of the team, etc. I’ve seen his answer again and again — but I’ve also seen things calling into question the validity of that answer, on a small or large scale. “[Short fiction is] still where the majority of readers find new writers whose work they enjoy” — really? Then why aren’t the subscription numbers higher? Or to put it differently, how are all those thousands of people who don’t read short fiction finding all the new authors busting out today — especially when many of those new authors don’t write short fiction in the first place? “For writers, short fiction is still the easiest way to break into print” — I’ve seen this one debated all over the place. Break into print, sure, given the many semi-pro and for-the-love markets out there, but there’s been evidence to suggest you have better odds of selling your first novel than getting a story into, say, Asimov’s. Ultimately it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, and finding equivalent metrics for both is harder than you think. “Even today, the best way to break in and establish a professional reputation is to write and sell lots of strong short fiction” — best? According to what measurement? It isn’t best if short fiction isn’t your natural forte, and one solid novel will establish your professional reputation pretty quickly. Sure, editors may offer novel contracts to really well-known short story writers, but they also offer them on a regular basis to people who have never sold a short story in their lives. The days when “build a rep with short fiction, then try a novel” was the standard path to a career are gone, by most evaluations I’ve seen.
Ellen Datlow repeats some of the same points, but usually with a phrasing that makes the fallacies more obvious: “Publishing short fiction is still the quickest way to recognition for a terrific short story writer.” That’s very nearly a tautology: be awesome, and people will recognize your awesomeness. Publishing a novel is the quickest way to recognition for a terrific novelist, too. She also brings up the one that always annoyed me, before I learned to write short stories: “short fiction remains the best breeding ground for new writers because the form provides a smaller canvas with which to perfect their craft.” Sure — if a smaller canvas is your thing. But if it isn’t, then you’ll be stunting your chances of development by trying to force yourself into a smaller box. And writing short fiction won’t teach you to write a novel; at their best, the two forms influence each other, teaching lessons to carry across the divide, but as Jane Yolen pithily puts it down-page: “First, what short fiction is NOT. It’s not training-wheel fiction. Authors don’t practice on short fiction, nor do readers. It is a singular writing and reading experience.” (Mike Resnick hits the same point.) I think the standard advice does a disservice to those who are naturally inclined toward longer lengths — as I myself was, for many years.
But the responses further along contained some thoughts I found very apt. First of all, as several people pointed out — Jonathan Strahan, Andrew Hedgecock, Rich Horton — the question of vitality or lack thereof needs to be split into two parts, artistic and economic. The short story market is not thriving financially. But artistically? Absolutely. I think there’s no question that our genre has matured a great deal, to the point where we’re now positioned to try all kinds of boundary-pushing experiments. And that is a way in which short fiction can be like training wheels: I wholeheartedly agree with the many people who said that it’s the perfect venue for trying out something new, whether it’s a different genre, a new setting, or an unusual voice. (Case in point: “A Mask of Flesh.” I can get away with a Mesoamerican short story much more easily than a Mesoamerican novel.)
Short fiction has a valorized position in our field, especially in SF (as opposed to fantasy). I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it gets up my nose when people then take that too far. It’s the difference between John Klima’s response and Gardner Dozois’; John presents it as “here’s what I like about it,” from which I can generalize that other people share his opinion, whereas Gardner presents it more as some kind of universal truth. But it’s not a truth for me, or for many of the writers I know, who didn’t follow the Standard Path to Success — which suggests it’s not half so standard as advertised.
Regardless, though — an interesting set of answers, and worth reading through if you’re at all involved in the field.