a short fiction debate

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.

0 Responses to “a short fiction debate”

  1. dsgood

    Patricia C. Wrede has said very unkind things about the “start with short fiction” advice (in the Usenet group rec.arts.sf.composition.) Quick and dirty synopsis: Pat Wrede tried writing short stories first. They didn’t sell, and sometimes came back with comments like “This is the first chapter of a novel” or “This is a novel synopsis.”

    She sold the first novel she wrote. Has sold every novel since then. She finally figured out methods of writing short stories which worked for her, and started selling them — but not all of them.

    • Marie Brennan

      It works for the people it works for. The problem comes when people decide that means it works for everybody.

      • nihilistic_kid

        Indeed. I brought this up on the SFWA LJ community and was screeched at by someone who kept saying that OF COURSE you have to start with short stories and he knows this is so because he tells his students this all the time and if you write short stories that’s how you LEARN to write a publishable novel and who am I to say otherwise etc etc.

        Then, I pointed out that he never even sold a novel, so he really shouldn’t be giving advice on using short stories to sell novels (either as a matter of reputation or ability) and then he really started whining.

        • Marie Brennan

          <lol> Oh yeah — it’s even better coming from someone who writes only the short side of the equation. ‘Cause they’re not partisan, no, not at all.

          I write both now, and I say: if I’d tried to force myself into short stories to begin with, god only knows if I would have even enjoyed what I was doing enough to survive the years of slogging. But you can learn to craft good sentences and characters and the like just as easily by writing in large chunks as smaller ones.

          Of course, I say that while in the middle of teaching a spec fic creative writing class where I’m requiring them to write short fiction. But I didn’t tell them it was because that’s how you learn; I told them it was so we could critique complete works, instead of fragments of longer things.

  2. tessagratton

    I have a mantra: It’s ok to suck at writing short stories. You are still a Good Writer. It’s ok to suck at writing short stories. You are still a Good Writer. Rinse and repeat. I think I’ll add your post to my repertoire of Ways To Deal With Anti-Short Funk.

    • Marie Brennan

      I always tell people that I wrote two competent novels, one of which was Doppelganger, before I wrote a single short story that didn’t stink on ice.

  3. kythiaranos

    I’ve bought (and borrowed from the library) substantially more short fiction in the past couple of years. My main reason was to try to educate myself in the writing of short stories, since poetry and novels seem to come more easily to me. Generally I don’t go looking for new writers in short fiction–I pick anthologies or magazines with authors I already know I enjoy, or names I recognize from LJ. And I’m writing (and selling) more short fiction, but I don’t expect it to make me famous. For me, it’s a way to learn the craft in a form I can finish and polish more quickly than a novel. Sometimes it’s nice to not have to wait four or five years for results.

    • Marie Brennan

      Well, I think the point those people are trying to make is, while you may not pick up the anthos or magazines in search of somebody new, if you read a story you like by a stranger, you may look for more of what they’ve done.

      Which happens sometimes, sure. But I don’t think it’s how “the majority of readers” operate anymore.

      I like short fiction for the quick payoff, too. It took me several years to sell any of that, either, but the story itself can be completed much more rapidly.

      • kythiaranos

        I don’t know that I’ve ever picked up a writer’s novel because of a short story I read, but it may happen someday. I guess I just prefer the more immersive nature of novels–if I like a writer’s voice or characters or story, I’m happy to spend that time with them, so that’s what I look for in the store.

        As for writing short fiction, I’ve come to love the way it expands my writer’s toolkit–for whatever reason, the lessons and critiques and advice seem so much clearer when I’m working on short fiction. Maybe because I have to have the beginning and end so much closer together.

        BTW, I’m excited to get my contrib’s copy of Clockwork Phoenix so I can read your story.

        • Marie Brennan

          I, too, favor the immersive nature of novels; it’s a rare short story I find half so fascinating as a book. But somewhere in there I learned to enjoy playing in the smaller sandbox, so there you go.

          for whatever reason, the lessons and critiques and advice seem so much clearer when I’m working on short fiction

          This is the kind of thing I imagine the responders at SF Signal meant about it being a learning ground, and I think it can be true. But for me — and maybe for you — it wasn’t like that until my mind was ready for it. Until I “got” how to write short fiction, I didn’t feel like I was learning much of anything from it. Once I did, though, it certainly helped me learn things for novel-writing, just as novel-writing helped get me to the point where I could write short in the first place.

          • kythiaranos

            The best thing I ever did, in terms of learning to write better, was to take an editorial position. After a year and a half of reading slush, and making the same comments in rejections as other editors had made to me, things became a lot clearer.

            I still have a lot to learn, but I feel less like I’m hitting my head against a brick wall now, at least.

          • Marie Brennan

            I have heard many times that this is useful.

            It isn’t enough to persuade me to volunteer, though. <g>

  4. ellen_datlow

    Yes, Bryn if you write excellent short stories you will be recognized quicker than if you write one novel and it takes a minimum of one year for it to sell, go through production, and be published. (and more likely 2-3 years from finishing the novel to publication).

    Of course not everyone can (or should write short stories). But for those who are good at it, that’s the route to go. The question we were asked was about SHORT FICTION and that’s exactly what most of us were responding to. As you obviously disagree about almost everything we said, why don’t you suggest a mindmeld forum about what’s so gfeat about novels?

    • Marie Brennan

      I think you’re reading more offensiveness into my points than I intended to put there. I’m not out to valorize what’s so great about novels above short stories, just to discuss the points raised about short stories, and the manner in which they were raised — because I think the manner is very important.

      Let me try approaching it from a different angle.

      Some of the responses can, I think, be agreed upon as logical fact. Short stories are an appropriate venue for experimental work because the outlay of effort on the part of the writer and investment on the part of the editor are much smaller. If people end up not liking my Mesoamerican fantasy story, nobody’s out tens of thousands of dollars, and nobody’s career is in the trash. Or, to pick a different example — I don’t know if my second-person story is the one John Klima was thinking of, but God knows I had no inclination to try that on a larger scale. Two thousand words of it was all I had in me.

      Others are freely acknowledged to be personal opinion. For some readers, short fiction offers the perfect bite-sized experience. For others, it’s too small; they prefer the immersion that novels provide. That’s a “your mileage may vary” kind of thing, and I’ve never personally seen anybody be made to feel that they’re Doing It Wrong if they’d rather read a novel.

      But it’s intensely irritating for people who are not naturally inclined to short fiction to be told they should try that before they try a novel, that they should build a reputation with short stories before they should try to sell a novel, that they’re Doing It Wrong. And that happens all the time: witness the comments here about Pat Wrede and the poster on SFWA, plus my own experience, plus any number of other anecdotes we could pile up. That attitude is prescriptive in a way that the things I mention above are not; it gets presented as universal law in a way that the others do not.

      Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have taken as much exception to your phrasing if yours hadn’t been the second comment on that page, right after Gardner’s. But I see a big difference between how he presented his points, and how John Klima did down-page; the first implies “this is the One True Way” (whether that’s how Gardner actually thinks of it or not), whereas the second says “here’s some of the benefits it can have.” And I do think the presentation matters, because of the aforementioned irritation for people who just don’t grok short stories, and would be better served spending those 2-3 years working on novels.

      For those who are good at it, absolutely, that’s the route they should go. I just don’t want the Received Wisdom to be that everybody should do it, and that’s the impression I got off the start of that mind meld.

      • ellen_datlow

        Ah. I’m sorry I was being a little sensitive with my response :-).

        I agree with a LOT of what you say. Even though I’m not a writer I do realize that not everyone is a natural short story writer (although perhaps it’s my love of the short form that makes me WANT everyone to be able to write wonderful short stories).

        • Marie Brennan

          Now that, I have no argument with. ^_^

          I’ll admit that I deliberately worded things strongly in my original post. Tacking disclaimers and softeners onto everything would have made it even longer than it already was, and besides, people are more likely to start a dialogue by making strong claims. Witness the fact that I went to the trouble of responding to the mind meld in the first place; had everybody’s response been like John Klima’s, I would have nodded and gone on about my business, not thinking about it twice.

          For what it’s worth, I think it’s good for novelists to experiment with short stories, and short story writers to experiment with novels, and everybody to experiment with everything. I know my prose got a lot tighter when I learned to write flash; now I’ve even got a poem I’m fiddling around with, though I would NOT call myself a poet. I learn from everything I try, and take the lessons with me when I go.

  5. takrann

    As perceptive as ever. No mute swan, thee!

    Hemingway wrote once about authors (fellow novelists) he believed he could get into the boxing ring with. But old Papa Tolstoy and the like, forget it.

    Writing short fiction is an art, as is writing poetry (I actually contend that writing a good poem is perhaps a tougher proposition than writing good short fiction – in the past I have won small competitions in both, one judged by a Booker short-listed novelist and the other by Carol Anne Duffy, but as they were in-Uni competitions I have always suspected I was simply the best of a bad lot and looking back on both pieces I probably was – but that is another thread).

    I have often been told that you need to get something published, anything published to have any sort of tentative credibility in the eyes of a potential agent or editor. That to try and write a novel before you have learned the craft through the shorter form (like it is some sort of humble apprenticeship you need to go through to be considered by those with the ‘keepers of the keys’) is hubris on a major scale.

    Maybe it is, but to write a novel genre or otherwise that can be considered a credible work of art in its field, that holds together, that does not sag, that attains to a level of consistency over several hundred pages where transformational metaphor and symbolism, irony, thematic transformation, character development, maybe even multiple viewpoints, and some STYLE, God yes, please some STYLE, away with clear pane of glass prose – that’s like getting into the ring with Papa Tolstoy. And Hemingway should know because he was no mean practitioner of short fiction himself (or clear pane of glass prose that so many so often do significantly less well – less being very often not more, just less).

    How can you possibly gain experience of the craft in order to write a novel if not through short fiction? By writing the damn thing over and over until you get it right. (It’s known as making a rod for your own back!) Learning to handle several hundred pages of interconnected textual stuff, that has a whole different law of physics than the writing of short fiction, even though it is all text and would seem to be a case of microcosm and macrocosm.

    I’ll get it right, one day, if I don’t continue to drown.

    Short fiction is an often beautiful rock pool with its own little eco-system of text, but in which you can break your ankle if you don’t tread carefully and only a bloody fool can end up drowning in one. A novel is an ocean of uncharted depths and creatures in which you can be swallowed whole if you’re not careful.

    Nor am I doing short fiction down. Master of the art like Carver, Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield to name but a few. They are gods and goddess to me. There aren’t that many practitioners of short fiction out there today who can get in the boxing ring with them.

    There is too much out there, among the small press as well, getting too much internecine (I choose the word deliberately) praise. Genre needs to look at itself hard, in all its forms. It isn’t all relative. To be clear that there is a difference between idiosnycracy and originality. The former can simply obscure some bad art.

    I have read short fiction by Marissa Lingen and Alison L R Davies that in their compact selves are really rather wonderful works of art, original in vision and well-crafted. I know the latter is wrestling mightily now with a second novel and it’s a whole different patch of water. There is too much short fiction out there that frankly is a mess. That mistakes the quirky and the idiosyncratic for the original, the cloth-eared anecdotal for a pearl of literary wisdom.

    There is more than one path to publication. But even then it doesn’t necessarily mean you are any good at the craft. That’s the worst kept secret in publishing.

    On a lighter note: Ellen, it has been enchanting to hear your ‘Tales from Camden Town’, knowing the area so well!

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