Size / / /

Short stories don't get the respect they deserve.

Conventional wisdom in the speculative fiction world seems to be that there are three primary uses for the short story:

  • Ensuring that the field continues to evolve. On a panel at this year's WorldCon, Gardner Dozois noted that short fiction editors can afford to buy more experimental work than book editors can; the investment is much smaller, so the loss if it doesn't pay off is much smaller. And a given magazine issue (or anthology) containing an experimental story also contains several other stories, so if a reader doesn't like one experiment there'll be others to sample.
  • Making a name for the writer. It's generally assumed that any writer who wants to make a living at writing will write short stories to get established, and then will land a book deal. Novels are where the money is, at least once your novels become popular. Few writers are prolific enough to make a living writing short stories.
  • Presenting ideas. On that same WorldCon panel, Adam Troy Castro noted that a short story can be a brief snapshot of an idea. A writer who has an odd little idea, too small for a novel, can just write a story around it and get it out of their system.

I can't deny that short fiction accomplishes all of those purposes. But for me, short fiction is more than any of those things: it's the heart of the speculative fiction field.

Many people disagree with me about the value of brevity. Most of my friends feel that the longer a book is, the better: a seven- to ten-book series is ideal, a trilogy acceptable; a thousand-page novel is better than a 600-page novel, and a 200-page novel is barely worth considering a novel. Many readers, perhaps most, want to thoroughly immerse themselves in a world, submerge in it and come up for air only when they run out of pages. If the author can keep producing more of the same, such readers feel, all the better.

I'm the opposite: I like short fiction. It comes in bite-sized pieces -- not much time commitment, not nearly as intimidating as the latest fantasy trilogy of 1200-page books. As for immersion, a good short story lets you immerse yourself briefly -- a refreshing shower rather than a long hot bath.

Then, too, more concise writing is often better writing. I like tight prose with no wasted words. (Though I also like unusual prose styles; I can forgive verbosity in the service of style.) There have been major sf novels about which I've said "Woulda been a good book if only an editor had blue-penciled about a third of it." Some people were thrilled at the restoration of Stranger in a Strange Land; me, I figure there was probably a reason those 250,000 words were cut.

I've seen some writers puzzled at the mere idea of writing a short story: how can 5000 words be long enough to build an imaginary world? I would contend that that's plenty of space in which to evoke an imaginary world, without having to fill in every detail. As evidence, you have only to look at our lead story this month, "Words of Love, Soft and Tender." Mark Rudolph has, with great economy, presented us with an entire alien race and culture. He hasn't given us the sweeping tapestry of the alien society's history and folklore; he's simply shown us the compelling story of one of the aliens.

A novel can be enormous in scope; short stories (and even novelettes) are generally a lot more focused. And I like focus. I'm interested in personal-scale stories -- even if the person is an alien. There's a grand tradition in sf -- from Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men through Ian McDonald's "The Days of Solomon Gursky" -- of cosmic-scale stories, grand epics that span the entire life of the universe; but I'm afraid such stories don't have much emotional effect on me, even as I admire their scope. For sense-of-wonder to work for me, I need it to involve individual characters I can care about, whose stories play out against an interesting backdrop; that's something that can be done as well in short fiction as in longer works.

Some writers believe that short stories are just too hard to write. In college, I took a linguistics class that doubled as a writing workshop; some of us talked about putting together an anthology of our stories. There were a couple of students who were interested but scared. "I don't think I can write a short story," they said. "It's much easier to write a novel."

It took me a while to understand that they were serious. It turned out they'd all been taught in high school English class about The Elements Of A Short Story. A short story, it seems, must take place entirely in one specific place and time; it can have no more than three characters; it must explore a specific theme. It must have Conflict (of one of the three classic types: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself). And so on and so on.

Novels, so the argument went, were easier to write because they didn't have to follow any rules. Novels could sprawl all over the place.

All of which I consider silly. Good short stories are not subject to such rules; and a sprawling novel is rarely, by my lights, a good thing. I'm willing to believe that a bad novel with no structure may be easier to write than a brilliant tightly structured short story; I can't believe that a brilliant novel is easier to write than a good short story. If nothing else, to write a brilliant novel you have to sustain the brilliance for longer.

It's true that short stories have less room for digression than novels do. But although my nonfiction writing style is (obviously) ridiculously digressive, I don't generally like digression in fiction. The chapter of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale titled "In the Drifts" is one of the funniest pieces of fiction I've ever read, but it's also a major digression from the rest of the novel -- it has nothing to do with anything else in the book. It would stand alone perfectly well as a short story in its own right; a small perfect gem.

It's also true that brevity takes work. I sometimes write long letters because it would take too long to edit them down to something concise. Carving the perfect facets of that tiny gem may require more careful detail work than, say, carving giant faces on Mount Rushmore, where small imperfections won't even be noticed. But writing and polishing a gem of a short story doesn't really take more work or even harder work than writing a Rushmore of a 1200-page novel; just a different level of attention to detail.

Fortunately for me and readers like me, there are writers who like writing short stories. And that's really what it comes down to for me as a reader, too: I read short fiction because I like it.

So I'll conclude by agreeing with the conclusion that Robert K. J. Killheffer came to in his recent editorial in Century #6: short fiction is not merely a place for writers-in-training to hone their skills. It's an art form in its own right; as Killheffer puts it, "short stories are a wonderful art, as varied and compelling as dreams."


Reader Comments

Jed Hartman is Senior Fiction Editor for Strange Horizons, but the views expressed above are not necessarily those of the fiction department.

Jed Hartman is in the process of departing from the Strange Horizons fiction department.
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