Editor's Desk: Yes, Virginia, Short Fiction is Important
Short fiction is important. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say that, but in my years as both a fan and as a professional, I’ve seen it treated like a younger sibling or supporting character when compared to novels.
It’s easy to come up with examples of this. I’ve spoken about the perceived financial value of short fiction in previous editorials. That’s just one variable that speaks volumes about a portion of the reading community and contributes to the lower pay rates for short stories. And then there’s the friends, fans, and family of authors that find themselves asking “when will you publish a novel” as if what they’ve published isn’t as important or even real work? Or why not take a look at genre literary awards such as the Hugo, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards? The award for best novel is always presented in the most prestigious position, last.
And some of you are probably thinking it’s only natural that a short fiction editor is going to believe that short stories are important. So perhaps “important” doesn’t make it clear enough. I’ll be more specific: short fiction is the heart of the genre. Yes, that important.
Your heart, just in case you’ve forgotten, pumps blood throughout your body, providing it with the oxygen and nutrients it requires to survive. It’s essential.
Short fiction, just in case you haven’t noticed, is the most common entry point for new authors and a place all authors feel more freedom to experiment with new ideas and storytelling techniques that the rest of the genre requires to keep evolving. Likewise essential.
I’ve often referred to the short fiction ecosystem as “the great churn.” Within, the best and brightest often catch the attention of those publishing novels. Once that process starts, their short fiction output begins to decrease or drops to zero. In response, opportunities are created for new authors. In some ways, it can be compared to working in a school, but instead of students graduating and moving up (which would further the second-class image for short fiction), authors are actually moving onto better paying work. And also like school, they sometimes come back to visit/send us a story. That is, if they haven’t entered that sphere of publishing that solicits away those authors with the lure of a sure sale. *shakes fist*
As much as we miss those that move away, we know that the next wave will take us somewhere new and exciting. That continual churn of the field is an essential part of short fiction and valued highly by its fans. We get a front row seat to the possible futures for the genre and the authors who will keep genre vital and moving forward. Sometimes they challenge us. Sometimes we don’t get it. Sometimes they open our eyes. Sometimes they join that pantheon of favorites we all have. Sometimes they draw the attention of new readers. Sometimes they make us scream with frustration or joy. That’s how we know the system is working. That’s how we know it’s essential.
So as I contemplated this editorial, I thought it might be fun to ask the following on Twitter:
Fill in the blank:
Short fiction is important because _______________________.
(“important” here can be important to you, to writers, to readers, to the genre, etc.)
Aside from the handful of “all fiction is important” people I expected to ignore, I was pleasantly surprised by the volume and variety of responses I received. I thought it might be fun to give you a snapshot into the general themes and categories in which the responses fell.
Short fiction is important because:
- many of us have busy lives or short attention spans and can only digest a story in those rare free moments.
- I can discover dozens of new authors and variety is the spice of life.
- every word is important and impactful. It has a focus you can’t find in a novel.
- sometimes you need a quick escape (also comes with the satisfaction of being able to finish it).
- it’s more open to new authors than any other medium, particularly international works and translations.
- you can explore a world or character without a big commitment.
- it’s where all the best ideas are explored first. It’s the laboratory.
- the people publishing novels are risk averse (demographics, themes, styles, etc.). Short fiction dares the author and reader and proves there’s an audience for these things.
- it offers a potency no novel could sustain.
- you can learn more and hone your writing skills through having to be brief. You learn to make every word count.
- so many talented writers don’t have the luxury of time to write novels.
- it gives readers both quality and quantity.
- it makes me think, challenges my beliefs and preconceptions, and opens my mind to ways other than my own.
- it often unspools in my brain, making me more creative in the process.
And perhaps most importantly . . .
- because it makes people happy.
If you participated in this little thought experiment, thank you. If not, why not take a moment and think about how you’d answer it. Maybe even share it or a story with someone you know.
Neil Clarke is the editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, Forever Magazine, and several anthologies, including the Best Science Fiction of the Year series. He is a ten-time finalist and current winner of the Hugo Award for Best Editor (Short Form), has won the Chesley Award for Best Art Director three times, and received the Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award from SFWA in 2019. His latest anthology, New Voices in Chinese Science Fiction (co-edited with Xia Jia and Regina Kanyu Wang), is now available from Clarkesworld Books. He currently lives in NJ with his wife and two sons.