The long and the short of it (2008)

Here’s a piece I wrote for Death Ray‘s “Deep Thought” section way back in 2008 on short stories (I’ve actually being saving it for just such an eventuality as this). Originally published in DR 16, where we started publishing a short story every issue ourselves, in it I talk about short stories, why they’re important, and why they’re not as popular as they might be, plus there are comments from many writers/anthologists/short story publishers on the same topic. Some of it’s a little out of date, some details regarding publication etc have changed (I deleted a segment on Jim Baen’s Universe, as that closed in 2010, and Hub, as far as I can tell, hasn’t had a new issue since last year), but it’s mostly still relevant.

Incidentally, the short stories were quite popular in Death Ray, but the comment I most often heard was, “I don’t read them, but I’m glad that they’re there.” A telling attitude in light of the discussion below.

We live in an era of bloated books. A non-fan that wanders into the SF section of a book shop could be forgiven for thinking that the genre is sold by the kilo. As brilliant as some of these tomes are, others exhibit the worst excesses of airport potboilers, their size a response to the demand for more words per currency unit.

But it was not always so. “Short stories in magazines used to be very nearly the whole of the SF genre,” says professional fan Dave Langford. “One important early critical book, James Blish’s The Issue At Hand, is mainly about shorts and novellas. Now there’s an odd market gap between ever-longer novels in the bookshops and ever-shorter flash fiction for dwindling attention spans on the web.”

Anthologies, too, used to be a mainstay of the book industry, but not any more. Why shorts do not to sell is puzzling. Fantastical writing has always been used by writers to present outlandish or controversial concepts, and the rabbit-punch delivery of shorts adds a wallop of extra power. Many writers excel at short fiction. Author and ex-New Worlds editor Michael Moorcock tells us: “It does seem to me that some writers, especially those exploring something other than character, do best in the form but write at novel length often because it’s harder to make a living from short fiction. I can think of a number of SF writers who did their most impressive work in short stories, including Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard and M. John Harrison.”

It’s not just SF. “Ghost stories are notoriously difficult to sustain over novel length. After a short  while the reader naturally thinks, ‘Hang on, we’ve had page after page of suspense, when are we gonna see this ghost/monster/alien then?’,” says author John Whitbourn. “And, once you’ve ‘seen’ it, how many more times can you bear seeing it before familiarity breeds contempt?”

Fantasy once thrived on shorts too; that genre’s name might conjure up the image of the 12-book cycle now, but think on Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Where would Conan be without short stories?

Shorts allow writers to explore new ideas. They inspire other writers. Shorts are the sparks of the genre that set off big fires. A writer can make you think several times with a book of shorts, and some ideas simply don’t have enough juice in them for a novel. Can you imagine Ellison’s “I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream”, or Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” supporting 350 pages? Indeed, look at Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall”, much undermined by its novel length incarnation. The short is the home of the clever concept, the killer twist.

Writing shorts is also vital to a writer’s development, their length instilling discipline. “Short stories are where many of us learned our basic skills: plot, character, a beginning and an end,” says Robin Hobb.

Michael Moorcock again: “I learned to write by doing 1,500 word shorts for the likes of Tarzan Adventures, then 3,000 worders for New Worlds, then 12,000 and 15,000 novellas for Science Fantasy and the like… My first published novel Stormbringer was put together in four, 15,000 word parts, which could not have been published in anything but a fantasy/SF magazine.”

Not for nothing does Peter Crowther, editor at PS publishing and Postscripts magazine, call short stories “the lifeblood of the fantastical genre.” He goes further. “I still hear from people who begin their writing career with a full-length book, which is like saying you’re going to learn to be a carpenter, but instead of kicking off with a wooden teapot-stand for your mum you build a 20-room, three-storey clapboard house with turrets and pillared front porches. Ridiculous!”

They make good TV and movies, says Hobb, and Whitbourn might have a point when he says, “Short stories are ideally fitted to our time-poor era. Yet paradoxically, the trend is to tendon-threatening 500+ page books.”

With all this going for them, what in the name of the Cthulhu happened? You can blame the war.

Short fiction once supported a burgeoning industry. In the 19th century, rising literacy fuelled the growth of Penny Dreadful crime magazines in the UK and Dime Novels in the US, which were mainly concerned with the still wild Wild West. These were supplanted by pulp magazines in the early 20th century. Pulps were mass entertainment, and they covered everything. Printed cheaply on low-grade “pulp” paper (hence the name), hundreds of titles came out every month – they were so plentiful, unsold stock was used as ballast in ships. But paper shortages in the ’40s forced many pulps to close, never to reopen, although a few hung on until the 1960s. The end of the war also saw fierce competition from TV, later gaming, then the ‘net. Ironically, the final decline of printed short stories coincides with the rise of “geek culture” brought about by electronic media.

Author Stephen Hunt, editor of, is not optimistic about the form’s future. “[Shorts] are about as relevant to the current state of SF as a flying tentacled robot abducting a screaming bikini model from a lawn party (ah, that was real cover art). Our kids are the future, and they’re more interested in Twittering and playing EverQuest than the next silly asses’ attempt to resurrect Amazing Stories – however much old gits like me would have it otherwise. They’ll always be the small press of course, but they’re the last thudding breaths of a triceratops choking on asteroid dust, and deep down we all know it.”

I don’t entirely agree with him, and contrary to what Whitbourn says, lack of time is likely to make people want bigger books, rather than shorter tales. In frantic lives, people like predictable escapism, a continuum of comfort. Series of novels give you cliffhangers, the possibility to find out what happens next; shorts don’t.

I suspect the majority of the reading public are unaware of the glories of the short. We’re herd-like creatures. People read chocking great paperbacks because it is what everyone else is doing. And people used to read short stories in pulp mags, to an extent, because that’s what everyone else used to do. We are far more ruled by custom than we think, and custom is only fashion with longevity.

Of course, custom is created by innumerable small choices, and a good part of the pulp mags’ demise, and thus the short form, can be planted at the feet of people who like to read short stories. It goes like this: In any one special interest group, there is a vocal minority. Over time, this elite sets what is “right” in the group, and this begins to restrict the subject’s appeal to the elite that defines it. If you have a declining market anyway, companies – and let us not forget, all these things are supposed to make money – tend to concentrate on this elite, as they appear to be a sure-fire revenue stream. This can be deadly as the elite naturally dwindles and is not easily replenished. It happened to comics in the early 1990s, although they recovered. It happened to roleplaying games in the late ’80s. I think it happened to short SF too. Modern SF shorts can be challenging, full of experimental imagery, weird cross-genre fusions and political point-making. The reasons for their lack of popularity are the same as why Eastenders has a bigger audience than one-off dramas screened on BBC3 and 4. Caught up by the artistic aspirations of the New Wave, the “SF elite”, I think, focused this corner of the genre on telling stories that attempted to be “significant”, so much so sometimes it feels as if adventure and entertainment have been left behind. SF has its snobs, as much as anything else. Much of what I read seems self-consciously worthy, or self-consciously weird to the point of pretension. Not that’s there’s anything wrong with this, and such a focus does produce great stories, but they do have limited appeal.

Anyway, that’s by the by. There are numerous other factors in play that mean pulp magazines are not part of our cultural outlook any more. But, and this is a big but, contrary to what some might say, short fiction is still being published, some writers still make money from it (though it is debatable if publishers do), and happily short fiction looks to be undergoing a digital renaissance. A handful of print mags still exist, but on the web podcasts, blogs, and ezines can be found that serve up a pleasing mix of story, albeit often in a wild, unimproved form. However, there are a number of professional e-publications – Jim Baen’s Universe and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show among them. Mass media might have fragmented popular culture by presenting so much choice, but there are still markets in some of those fragments, and the ultimate mass medium, the internet, allows short story writers to reach out to these markets.

“I think electronic publication is the future and the salvation of the short story,” writer and editor Mike Resnick says, “I can’t tell you which e-publications will live and which won’t, but I can tell you that some of the highest-paying short fiction markets today are all e-zines, and that as quickly as one folds you can look for three or four to take its place.”

The story of the short is a long one, and it isn’t over yet.

Good Places to Read Short Fiction

Regular sites, books and zines where the short lives on in carefully protected environments. Click on the headers for links.


The UK’s best known short story magazine, Interzone has been running for 26 years and has helped start the careers of many British SF writers. It is bi-monthly. TTA, Interzone’s publishers, also put out Black Static and Crimewave, horror and crime magazines respectively.

The Mammoth Book of…

Death Ray worships at the short-story altar of Constable & Robinson publishing, who publish several massive tomes of SF, horror and fantasy every year. Editor Gardner Dozois does a particularly fine job of scouring the world for good tales in one of the SF variant. Each has 30 of the best stories in its particular genre, more or less, and is a bargain at £9.99.

Asimov’s Science Fiction

One of a number of fiction magazines that used celebrity names as a marketing hook, Asimov’s has been running since 1977 and is one of the most well-respected SF magazines in the world. This US mag is currently published by Dell magazines. Asimov’s publishes 10 issues a year.

Analog Science Fiction and Fact

The longest running SF magazine in the world, the US Analog began life as a pulp way back in 1930 under the name Astounding Stories. It flourished under the editorship of John W. Campbell, who discovered many important writers and moulded many more. It is he who is credited with making pulp SF think about the actual future, how its science might work, rather than simply using it as a backdrop for adventure tales. Several name changes on, Analog, which carries articles on popular science too, continues to flourish. It is now also owned by Dell publishing.

Escape Pod

The best SF short story podcast on the web, Escape Pod presents mostly pre-published stories by well-known authors. It has two sister sites, Pseudopod and Pod Castle that deal with horror and fantasy. All three podcasts are weekly and free, though a discretionary donation is politely requested. Escape Pod includes wide-ranging discursive introductions, and even the occasional piece of SF themed music.


Free UK-based e-zine that publishes reviews and one short story every week, delivered to your inbox in a handy PDF. Hub showcases work from new writers. Like Escape Pod, Hub asks for donations.

Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show

Established by the writer of Ender’s Game, this e-zine features a new story set in the Ender universe each issue. It comes out roughly quarterly.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s