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Short fiction is once again in crisis. After an era when the Internet seemed to be helping a lot of short stories find a bigger audience, the same thing is now happening to short stories that are happening to a lot of other content: the invisible hand is raising a big middle finger. Among other things, Twitter is getting to be much less useful in helping to spread the word about short stories worth reading, and Amazon just announced that it's ending its Kindle subscription program from magazines, depriving magazine publishers of a pretty significant slice of income.
I love short stories, both as a writer and as a reader. But I've been on a short fiction hiatus for the past few years, purely because the money is usually not that great and a lot of short fiction seems to slip through the cracks without getting a lot much attention. And that was before the current claw back.
For those who want to read more about what's going on, this recent newsletter by Andrew Liptak has a good interview and overview. But below are some extremely seat-of-the-pants ideas for how short stories could be big once again.
Note: I'm spitballing here, so please feel free to let me know if I'm way off base or missing something obvious.
We could all just shout about them more.
When I make time to look at short stories and shout on social media about the ones I love, I always feel way happier than when I'm doomscrolling and looking at upsetting stuff on the internet. And I could see it becoming trendy for people to read short stories and freak out about them -- look at what happened a couple years ago with sea shanties! I hope some resourceful influencer with millions of followers will randomly decide to start championing SFF short fiction online.
Also, we could all make a concerted effort to subscribe to more publications, or support them financially. You could even subscribe and receive a nice printed object in the mail, if you get one of the big print digests (Asimov's, Analog, or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.) (I also highly recommend subscribing to Locus, which reviews a ton of short fiction and keeps you up to date on the field generally.) I've been subscribed for a long time to Fiyah, which sends me a nice PDF of each issue via email that I can read offline. Even without Kindle subscriptions, most online publications have a way to subscribe and get updates.
When you think about the most famous science fiction novels of all time, chances are a lot of them were originally published as short stories or novellas in the big science fiction magazines. Some of these "fix-ups" consisted of separate short stories that were later woven together into a coherent narrative, while others started as a single short story or novella that was expanded to novel-length by adding some new material. Either way, it used to be that if you wanted to know what the next big thing was in science fiction novels, you needed to read the big print magazines, where everything showed up first.
For some reason, science fiction publishing has abandoned the idea of fix-ups, though I'm sure they still happen occasionally. I've had conversations about this with editors and other folks in publishing, and they've all seemed to agree that fix-ups had gone out of fashion. This made me sad --- because apart from anything else, it's a lot lower risk for an author to try and write something bizarre and challenging as a short story first and see how people react to it, before trying to turn it into a novel, with all the intensive labor that implies. And it seems like it ought to be an easy way to build buzz for a forthcoming novel: if people saw the short story and really loved it, they'd be more excited to read the longer version whenever it came out. Plus, I love novels that have an episodic structure or visit lots of different places, so the notion of a novel made out of a group of previously published short stories really scratches that itch. On the other hand, I can see how sometimes you could end up with something where you can still see the seams where the different stories start and end, and it might just be too episodic. Or maybe something that was great as a novelette could get padded out with a lot of extraneous junk to make it a novel. Like anything else, the fix-up has some potential downsides.
Still, I love fix ups, both as a reader and as someone who would like to write them. And I think if book publishers were willing to entertain more of them, it would provide an incidental boost to short fiction publishers.
Some tech biz!
There have been some attempts to create apps that let you discover short fiction, like Great Jones Street a few years ago. And there are definitely some wonderful podcasts that produce audio versions of short stories, sometimes with incredible sound design. Like, I'm still especially fond of this audio adaptation of my short story "I'll Have You Know."
But I keep thinking lately: What if there was some kind of recommendation engine for short fiction? Such a thing wouldn't even need to host or reprint the stories, it could just send you to individual publishers via some kind of rudimentary browser interface. I'm specifically thinking of a Pandora-type system that could say: "You liked this story by Isabel Yap, so maybe you would also like this story by John Wiswell?" In other words, you mark what stories you like, and it finds more stories that are in the same wheelhouse in terms of tone, subject matter, style, genre, etc. A lot of this might be achieved through user-generated tags or user recommendations, but there might need to be an Algorithm in the mix too.
I think there could be some privacy concerns with such an app for sure, but they might be outweighed but making it easier to find stories you love, which I sometimes find a little time-consuming. Even within a particular publication, I sometimes love one story and bounce off the next. If such an app worked decently well and didn't try to steal my identity, I'd be using it a lot. Also, it could look for audio versions of the same stories if you prefer to listen.
This sounds really basic, but... there are so many great books of short stories coming out in themed anthologies, "year's best" anthologies, and single-author collections. I feel like I've seen more incredible books of short stories come out lately than in a long time --- and some of the anthologies that I'm seeing are delightfully quirky. Like, I'm a big fan of the "Bikes in Space" series of anthologies of "feminist bicycle science fiction," so much so that I contributed a story to the trans volume, Trans Galactic Bike Ride.
If there was more of a culture of sharing and celebrating books of short fiction --- which look nice on your bookshelf and have a longer shelf life than magazines usually --- this could have a knock-on effect helping other places that publish short fiction.
This is something I talked about a lot in the introduction to my short story collection Even Greater Mistakes (shameless plug alert!). I am always happy to see short stories show up on coffee bag labels, in pamphlets on public transit, scrawled on bathroom walls, or in the middle of a publication that mostly includes serious non-fiction pieces about politics and culture. I feel like we could be doing more to leverage the ability of short stories to show up in surprising places and suck us in with their narrative power.
Seriously. When Francis Ford Coppola founded the short fiction magazine Zoetrope All-Story in 1997, he wrote this amazing essay in the first issue (which I wish I could find online.) Basically, Coppola said that short stories make better movies than novels do --- as witnessed by the huge number of great movies based on short stories out there. (Including some of Philip K. Dick's short fiction, and Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life.") Coppola explicitly founded Zoetrope to find more material that could inspire film adaptations in future but --- and this is important --- I'm pretty sure the magazine's publishing contract did not buy film rights. Anyway, some smart Hollywood person could start a short fiction publication that specifically looks for stories that are cinematic, or could lead to great films, and it might get a lot of attention.
Mostly, though, I want to conclude by bringing you back to point #1: We should all be reading and celebrating more short fiction! This is something we all have the power to do already.
I've finally been catching up on the show Vida, a Starz TV show about Mexican-Americans in East Los Angeles dealing with gentrification and politics, featuring a ton of queer characters and tangled relationships. My friend Jenée LaMarque directed a ton of the episodes, and the show is visually stunning and brilliant -- but the writing is also incredible. The characters make some truly terrible decisions at times, but they remain captivating and intelligible throughout. The first two seasons are on Hulu, and then you might need to buy access to the third and final season somewhere else. It's well worth mainlining.
See the top of this newsletter --- I'm ramping up promotion for Promises Stronger Than Darkness, the third book of my Unstoppable trilogy. It's queerer and more exciting and scarier and sweeter and funnier than the first two books, and I feel super happy with how it wraps things up. I can't wait for you to read it, and it's available for preorder now. Plus if you pre-order from Folio Books, I will sign and personalize and draw a picture of a cat doing the job of your choice -- and both Folio and I will donate to the TGI Justice Project.
I'm just working on the script for the fifth and final issue of the miniseries I'm writing, New Mutants: Lethal Legion. After the heaviness and scariness of New Mutants #31-33, I wanted to do something more fun, and this comic has some of the most over-the-top gonzo hijinks I've ever come up with. It's ridiculously silly, but also has a tender heart: at its core, there's an examination of trauma and healing and how to support people in our lives who are dealing with some shit.
Check out this amazing variant cover by Nao Fuji: