The Sky is Falling – Not

Or: “Rumors of the short story’s death are greatly exaggerated.” 

It’s obvious to even the casual observer that the print sf/f magazines are holding on by the skin of their metaphorical teeth, but as I’ve pointed out before, that’s been true for a long time. When I was starting out as a wannabee, the Ted White Fantastic Stories was my holy grail, and it probably never had a circulation greater than 20,000. It’s fair to say that the situation is not getting any better. Are the current print magazines tenable long term? Probably not, and I’m not happy about that, but people who should know better constantly confuse the decline of the traditional magazines with the death of short science fiction and fantasy. Which is equating a particular delivery system with the product, to use the cold capitalist designation. Or to put it another way, a lot like saying the death of the stagecoach meant people could no longer travel.

Magazine circulations are declining in general. This is not confined to the fiction magazines. This is across the board. There are a lot of reasons for this: time, competition, distribution…. I’m sure you can think of your own. If you love a magazine that still appears in physical paper form, subscribe. Heck, if there’s an online magazine that deserves support, do your bit there, too; it’s all good. Regardless, the short story form will be around. Maybe book publishers will sponsor them to draw attention to their book lines, as Prime did once and Tor is sort of doing. Maybe they’ll go to NPR fundraising models like Strange Horizons. The point is that venues will remain, and people will write short stories to fill them. For that matter, people will write stories solely to collect them in books, and self-publish if they have to. There may or may not be any money in it, but other than Howard Waldrop, almost no one has made any kind of living off short fiction for half a century or better. Hasn’t slowed things down in the least.

The reason is simple. People tell stories. That’s what we do. And until someone invents a true full-immersion VR (don’t hold your breath) there’s simply no other medium that can do what narrative fiction does: puts you in another time and place. Makes you see through another’s eyes. Lets you see through another’s eyes. Lets you feel, taste, smell the world of the story, experience it in every sense of the word, not simply observe. Reminds you of things you didn’t realize you knew. Tells you things you never knew. We’re a species of storytellers, and story listeners. That’s not going to change. The short story form itself will be around simply because not every story is an epic, but every good story is important in its own way. They’re part of what we are.

Does that sound a little self-satisfied? Arrogant? So be it. I think it’s true. While I may now mourn Realms of Fantasy just as I still mourn Fantastic, Galaxy, SF Age, et too many ceteras, I know the short story will go on. I’m not the least bit worried.

A little more problematic is the notion that only short story writers actually read short stories these days, that there are no actual readers any more. Kinda like poetry. Which to me rings false immediately because I read poetry. Not in any organized or systematic way, but I do it. And I am not now and never will be a poet. Yes, of course short story writers read short stories. It’s part of the job to study a form you’re trying to master, and the writer who did not start out as a reader is a rare bird indeed. Yet even a cursory examination of the premise that there are no readers proves it simply isn’t true. Even a quick informal poll in an online f/sf discussion board showed that writers were at most about %25 of the readership. Granted, that was a self-selected sample, but telling for all that. The readership is and will remain fragmented, simply because there are so many competing mediums, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It many not be enough to sustain short story writers commercially, but this is nothing new.

As someone who loves the short story form I suppose I should get all worked up about its so-called death. I would if I believed it for even a moment, but it just ain’t so. All the rest of it, as the zen Master Yogi Berra once said, is just déjà vu all over again.

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4 thoughts on “The Sky is Falling – Not

  1. Richard, the myth of the death of the short story is just as believable as the myth of the death of the printed book! People still want to share stories, seldom epics. People still want to touch and hold and write in the margins of their reading matter. A Kindle Fire just don’t satisfy!

    • It’s true enough–print isn’t going away, any more than the short story is, and there is something about holding the book in your hands. That said, if I have to travel and want to take my library with me, a Kindle is a lot more practical than a steamer trunk…or several.

  2. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 1/25/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  3. The other day I ran into a middle-aged man who told me he pretty much only reads short stories these days–no time for novels–and bemoaned the current styles. He was longing for the pulpy stuff of yore…so I pointed him toward some of the lesser-known online markets.

    That’s the issue–I think getting the word out to potential readers is the challenge.

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