Friday, May 2, 2014

Short Stuff

The short story peaked as an influential art form in the 150 years between 1820 and 1970: Hawthorne, Poe, Twain, Cather, Hemingway, Bradbury, Ellison, and endless others. What killed it off? Television, I suppose, with the internet and video games adding nails to the coffin. When wishing to escape into another world for a brief time (as we so often want to do), we find it easier to reach for the remote. By “killed off” I don’t mean that short stories no longer are written. I mean they no longer have the prominent place in the marketplace and culture that they once did. Only a handful of pulp fiction magazines remain in existence. Upscale magazines with literary pretensions (e.g. The New Yorker) are few and almost entirely the domain of well-established authors. Most new short stories today by unknown or lesser known authors are found only on their own obscure web pages. I have 50 posted at Richard’s Mirror

It still is rewarding occasionally though to put down that remote and crack open a book. (“Crack open” a Kindle doesn’t sound quite right.) On some of those occasions collections of short fiction fit our time requirements perfectly. Besides, as commented Sigrid Ellis at Apex Publications, “Short fiction is important, in part, because we can meet and learn from unpleasant people without lingering too long in their company.” So too. There is one genre of short story collection that weighed especially heavily in my youthful reading and which has not vanished from my shelves to this day. I grew up on Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov, Schmitz, et al. It helped that these and other SF writers of the 1950s and 1960s really were giants in the field. If there are any doubts about this, I recommend the anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame edited by Robert Silverberg and Ben Bova. Ostensibly two-volume, but really three (“Volume 2” comes as IIa and IIb), all the stories and novellas contained in the set predate 1964, and all are superb.

There are excellent SF authors at work today as well, of course, even as the print market for their work has dwindled. (The internet being what it is, it is not a terribly onerous burden to find them.) I have my favorites but I rely on anthologies for exposure to a broader selection of authors. Collections of Nebula and Hugo Award nominees are useful. At the moment The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, which arrived a couple weeks ago from Amazon, lies open on my desk; it is as chronologically diverse as Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter (1844) and Chiang’s Exhalation (2008).

Why does SF still appeal decades after my first (some might say “age-appropriate”) introduction to it? Emily Coon comments in Ploughshares Literary Magazine, “Science fiction has nourished work from the misfits, the beautiful weirdos, and the marginalized of many stripes.” She meant it as a compliment, and indeed it is. It is well to keep in mind that those misfits include the like of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Ursula Le Guin, and JG Ballard. SF introduces us to new ideas and perspectives in ways difficult or impossible to achieve in other literary formats. Said Robert Heinlein (defensively?), “For the survival and health of the human race one crudely written science fiction story containing a single worthwhile new idea is more valuable than a bookcaseful of beautifully written non-science fiction.” Well, I don’t want to endanger the survival and health of the human race, so I’ll do my bit by continuing to dedicate at least some of my shelf space to SF.

A widely forgotten flick from 1969 based a Ray Bradbury short story collection


  1. I go through phases where I read and write a lot of short fiction. One of the great things about writing it, is the freedom it gives you. I always feel my shorter stuff comes across more dynamic and lively than my longer works. I think it is because that creative spark is still strong while I write the first draft. With my novel length material, I usually lose that spark about half way through the project, and feel like I'm rolling a bolder uphill for the second half. Sometimes I can tell when I go back and read the novel, but other times it isn't apparent.

    I can also get really weird in short fiction. It's almost like, "Hell this is short, if someone doesn't like the ending or the fact that my protagonist explodes in gooey chunklets at the end, they can just read the next one."

    With a novel I find myself not daring to go so far. Probably because I've been working with the characters for so long, I feel bad if I have to utterly liquify them. :)

    1. Writing short is harder than writing long if you have a complex tale to unfold. The 1000 page tomes so common on bookshelves may be justified on rare occasion (e.g. Michener) but more commonly are signs of bad editing. The problem is that we often have just about 100 pages of things to say – I do anyway – which is an awkward length. After trying it both ways I’ve concluded it’s better to pare the tale down to a dozen pages than pad it up to 250, even if that means (as it will) slicing out whole sections. Only once have I written a short story that I thought would work better as a novel. (“Slog” doesn’t really count since those are really four short stories put together – they just happen to share the same universe.) “The Reptile Way” over at my “Richard’s Mirror” site has so much going on in it that a lengthier treatment might work better – maybe I’ll do it someday.

      In longer pieces we often lose control to the characters anyway. Mark Twain explains that Pudd’nhead Wilson was supposed to be a minor character in a novel about the Italian twins. But Pudd’nhead kept bullying his way to the front so that Twain gave up and handed him the lead and the title. He made it up to the Twins by giving them their own short story.