Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Short fiction vs. novels

I think Kelly pretty much covered the topic. But I am going to repeat at greater length.

At one point -- the glory days of the pulpzines -- American SF was pretty much all short. There was close to no market for novel length science fiction. When novels were published, they were often collections of linked short stories that had been published in the magazines. The original Foundation books are an example.

There was a transitional period when short fiction markets -- the remaining magazines and original anthologies -- were still fairly numerous and strong. The theory then was, you began by writing short fiction and established a reputation which would make it easier to sell novels. The book editors knew who you were.

A good example might be William Gibson, who published a series of stunning short stories in Omni, and then went on to write Neuromancer.

At this point, four pro-magazine markets remain, and there are a number of good small magazine or semi-prozine markets in print and on line. There are even a few original anthologies. However, the market for short fiction is not huge, and the readership is also not huge. One of the things I noticed when I paid attention to the Nebula nomination process was -- the competition was always strongest in the novel class. This (I think) was because more people had actually read novels and so could nominate them. It seemed pretty clear to me that most members of SFWA were not reading short fiction.

It's possible that editors still read short fiction, even if they are buying novels. But the field has shifted from being mostly short fiction to being mostly novels; and -- like Kelly -- I am not at all sure that short fiction is the way to break in anymore.

If you enjoy writing short stories, you might as well write them. You will develop your skills and maybe make some sales, and the publishing credits may help when you are looking for an agent. But I don't think they are a necessary stage.

Having said that, I will add that there are successful novelists who continue to publish short stories, I assume because they like writing them. And there are SF writers with good reputations who are still known mostly for their short fiction. For some reason the names that come into my mind are all men: James Patrick Kelly, John Kessell, Michael Swanwick. Wait a minute, Kelly Link!

I think Kessell and Kelly have written novels, but I don't know for sure. Swanwich won a Nebula for one of his novels. But I know him best as a very prolific short story writer.

And Kelly Link has managed to get one heck of a reputation with two short story collections, both published by her own press, if I'm remembering correctly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have to say that for me reading your (Eleanor's) short fiction in an anthology led to reading the novels, much faster than I probably would have gotten around to it. Actually, first it was hearing you read aloud a short story at Marscon that made me hit my head and go 'oh, that's why everyone always says to read her stuff.'

Shorts (and now audio files of them) allow a taste of a person's work without having to really commit to reading a whole book - I find it specifically useful for finding good reads by writers whose work isn't easy to describe in a blurb. Or who don't fit in the subgenres I'm more ready to just go ahead and read everything in.

Like, flipping through your novels in the library I had trouble getting a sense for them. In the short you read, it was the language and the slow and subtle way things developed into something surprisingly fascinating that ended up being the hook. After that, I trusted that a longer work would have that same quality. (Sure, reviews can convey that too - like, reviews of Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses easily convinced me to take the dive on that slow and subtle novel.)