UPDATE: A related post here as follow up, and one on the best short fiction. Please note that no, I am not dissing folktales. No, I am not dissing your favorite color or your childhood pet. Nor am I indulging in nostalgia. Please be assured that I love you and you are special and I wish you all the best…
There has been much talk recently about the death of short fiction, or the lack of interest in short fiction–generally in the context of “genre”–and I’d like to suggest, hypothetically, that perhaps ideas of comfort, class, and politeness come into play. I have been reading countless stories over the past couple of years and, despite finding some excellent material, I have at various times felt as if something was wrong that I couldn’t quite articulate, some elusive sense of being in danger. Not danger in the fiction, but a danger to fiction.
Sometimes when this happens it is entirely personal and selfish, related to my own writing: I have repeated myself or have come close to being rote, in process, in technique, in content–an issue separate of the relative success or failure of the fiction in question–and I’m projecting. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I feel that my general apathy when reading a lot of fantasy short fiction today comes from finding in it a profoundly disturbing, if sturdy, middle class professionalism. The magazines and anthologies are dominated by what I’d call centrist fiction that simply drowns in competence. It’s good–it’s just not great. It’s clever–it’s just not trying to do more, or it does reach for more, but in familiar ways.
As I thought about this further, I visualized an endless churning sound as thousands of writers typed and handwrote the first drafts of stories destined from conception to be good enough. Good enough for publication. Good enough to pass muster. Good enough to earn an appreciative nod. It was a depressing thought.
I kept coming back to words like rough and wild and pushing and punk and visionary. Words for what I was reading were more like twee, comfortable, recycled, reasonable, well-rounded, whimsical, unoriginal, well-behaved, and fuzzy.
Maybe it’s always been this way. Or maybe I just haven’t been looking in the right places.
I was reading through an old batch of Interzones and New Worlds while Ann and I selected stories for the New Weird anthology, and I thought I caught a glimpse of something different. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps it’s a myopic nostalgia for some golden age that never existed, even though I only came to IZ and NW as an adult, but just bear with me for the sake of argument.
What I seemed to find in those old magazines sometimes overreached, or crashed into and sank on the rocks of evangelical experimentalism…but, at its best, that fiction was altogether more adult than much of what I’ve read recently. It seemed sharper and more balanced between intellect and emotion. There was ample intelligence behind it, sometimes a cruel and frightening intelligence. It was often bracing, unexpected, and jagged.
It also seemed to take the self-determination of its characters more seriously and had things to say about and to observe about adult relationships that I’m just not sure I see in short fantasy fiction much any more. Hard choices, hard made.
Now, I know this comparison is blatantly unfair to some extent. I’m talking about impressions. I’m not naming names. I may just be expressing my own restlessness. (I may have eaten something that disagreed with me.)
But what I’m getting at is this: that it’s just possible that, for whatever reason–perhaps the co-opting of counterculture by all-powerful pop culture, or the rise of delightful but ultimately destructive TV and movie influences, or the proliferation of editors as interested in gathering the same old “names” as publishing excellent anthologies, or a magazine culture rooted in a paradigm thirty years out of date, or perhaps because space aliens have eaten our brains–a lot of today’s fiction is soft, too vapid, without the requisite intellect behind it, with too many stories that don’t go far enough, and too few stories that come from the margins, the fringes, the places that lie outside of suburban, middle-class America or England or wherever. (I have nothing against retold fairy tales, for example, and write them myself, but can you imagine the gaping hole if no one “retold” another fairy tale for the next thirty years?)
Perhaps also there is too much comfort in our own lives, too many distractions in the form of easy, relatively cheap technology that contribute to this softness–make it easy for us to be satisfied with what we’ve done: content, content, content. Happy with the well-rounded sentences, the fulfilling character arc, the recursive plot. Patting ourselves on the back for miracles never earned, epiphanies bartered for with trinkets and trifles. Thrilled just to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I’m sure many would say it’s the same as it ever was, or, more likely, that we live in a golden age of cross pollination, and that we should be happy to have so many great writers working today. (Although the issue isn’t great writers, but great stories.) Most people in the field have a stake in supporting this idea–that this is the moment, and this, and this, and the next. Can you imagine if most of the reviews of stories and novels were mixed or indifferent or negative? Yet more than ninety-eight percent of all fiction published in 2007 will be forgotten within two to five years. How is this possible when reviewers tell us every year that so much great material has been published every year? And why is there never a year when a year’s best anthology announces there was only enough good fiction to put out a 30,000 or 50,000-word edition? (The International Horror Guild suggested something similar to this with regard to fiction anthologies a year ago, by not nominating any, and caused an uproar only slightly less heroic than if they’d advocated shoving babies onto spikes.)
So I’m not sure this is a golden age. I’m not sure that the field isn’t oddly familiar and similar, that the differences aren’t more like the sometimes facile differences between Republicans and Democrats, and that, in fact, most of us are telling the same story, all the time, everywhere.
Maybe it is, in fact, just a change in my own tastes, or the rise of the power of the adolescent–who, exactly, are we writing for these days?–or the cop-out that the world is too terrible or complex now for most writers or readers to engage it head-on in short fiction.
But my gut tells me that, regardless, we need more of a punk aesthetic, and the courage–because it does take courage these days–to continually renew our faith in fiction as art and not as product. To know that words matter, and that characters in our stories matter in the sense that if we’re going to commit to writing fiction in the first place then we need to commit all the way, whether we think we’re writing literature or “only” entertainment. The problem isn’t, as some have said, that we don’t have enough stories that try to entertain, but that too much of our entertainment isn’t good enough. “Art” and “entertainment” are not intrinsically at odds, except when put into conflict by those with an agenda or a general misunderstanding of fiction.
Perversely, though, thinking about all of this makes me want to write, even as I know the solution to my issues with the state of short fiction might be fewer stories in the world, not more.
It makes me want to write something bold and different. It makes me want my reach to always exceed my grasp. Because, for every writer, there is always another story, and it doesn’t have to be even close to the one you told before.