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Short Fiction Conversation

Since Stephen King wrote about the state of short fiction a couple of weeks ago, it seems that there has been a constant conversation turning around about if he's right, or wrong, if short fiction is doing well, or it isn't, if it's dead yet, if it's not.

The latest in this debate has involved Jeff VanderMeer talking about how mediocre the majority of short fiction is now, and how the writing in the 70s pushed more boundaries, and was more adult, and something he could get behind more; and there's Elizabeth Bear (matociquala), talking about how such a view compares the work that survived that period, which is not the whole field from then, with an entire field now, and that doesn't really make for such a fair comparison. Also, writers these days are "Working their butts off, sweating blood, taking things apart and putting them together repeatedly, doing multiple drafts and a good deal of hard thinking, fussing over every sentence, putting their blood and sweat and painful hard-earned experience into every character detail--broken hearts, and broken bones. talking about how writers are trying hard," so it's unfair to say that the work as a whole is mediocre cause that implies that they're not trying hard enough.

'Cause, y'know, they are.

They're working really, really hard.

It's not their fault if they're boring. They're working really, really hard. Respect them for trying.

Anyhow, outside how much that statement of Bear's makes me laugh--for I'm a cynical bit of a cunt, really, and that doesn't make for any kind of defense to me--both have valid points. VanderMeer's dissatisfaction with what he reads now is fair enough, and Bear's complaint that he's comparing things wrongly is, likewise, more than fair. Unfortunately, to me, both opinions also reveal the flaws in what, I think, has stopped short fiction from reaching a larger audience, and even being healthier, should you want to say that (for some people, the two go together). Me, the last doesn't bother me much: there always has been and always will be more than enough short fiction produced to suit my needs. In truth, there is already brilliant short fiction being produced, and I'm not reading it, either because I haven't had time to read it yet, or it hasn't been translated. But Bear does hit one of the very valid problems in short fiction, at least to me, when she says that it is read by a mostly insular group, a large portion of which are made up of writers, wannabe and profession and all kinds of flavours. It's always struck me as odd, given that I share this view, that this is the case--in the world we're living in, you'd think short pieces of fiction would be valued more, and large, Bible sized books frowned upon for the time they consume.

But it struck me, as I was reading both the Bear and VanderMeer opinions, that within their remarks, sat what I consider one of the reasons short fiction doesn't reach further audiences, and that is in how we talk about it. I've watched people in this scene scramble over children's television like Dr Who, scream fucking murder at bad episodes of Lost, rub themselves over superhero comics, burn the ones with stains,, and actively praise and condemn directors and stars of movies, all without one concern that the people involved in that might read their opinion... but when it comes to short fiction, and indeed, long fiction, the conversation is with the positive, and as soon as it hits the negative, statements like VanderMeer saying, "I'm not naming names," and Bear's, "But they're trying really hard," are the usual, and reveal the closed in, club like scene of the writing world, in which authors worry about hurting the feelings of the fragile flowers around them. How, for example, with such statements being said, fiction can get a little more punk, a little rougher, and a little wild, I have no idea. Indeed, with authors themselves saying, "Well, I'm not going to point fingers, even though some people try real hard," is it any wonder that the majority of the work is often considered mediocre, tasteless, and plain?

There is a culture to these things, I find, and one only has to look at the culture to see the cause of an end product.

Of course, this is not the whole thing. Probably there's no real reason why short fiction isn't as popular as some would like it these days and, like I said, I can personally find enough fiction to suit myself, so I've got no complaints. In fact, I have tons of fiction I own but haven't read. If it helps you, I'm sure some of it might be shit.
But still.

That was my thought while reading those posts, for better or worse.

Comments

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box_in_the_box
Oct. 20th, 2007 10:59 am (UTC)
Thank you. I've reposted this (with attribution and a link) on my own message board.
bluetyson
Oct. 20th, 2007 11:47 am (UTC)
You have a point on your forum, too. I have definitely heard more than one comics editor say 'if no one is complaining, bagging it, or saying it is good on a forum, it is a dead in the water series/book or whatever.
(no subject) - benpeek - Oct. 20th, 2007 02:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
bluetyson
Oct. 20th, 2007 11:32 am (UTC)
Think we could get the Celibate Rifles to be short story critics?

:)

(I doubt we'd get King, who of course wouldn't be worried about losing money by saying something was bad).

You have a point though, in that in a set-up discussion (like ASiF) you get avoidance of even 'who are your favorite writers'.

Even at the new Fix thing, no obvious sign/summary of good/bad/indifferent for the casual browser. Even reading some the overall opinion of the publication can lean to the indiscernable.

Probably more than a few have looked at rottentomatoes.com or something like that.

and

There are good episodes of Lost? :)
benpeek
Oct. 20th, 2007 02:15 pm (UTC)
who're the celibate rifles?

yeah, i've noticed the ASif discussions go that way. australia is, of course, king and queen of the no names award. we love it all.

i haven't watched lost since season one.
(no subject) - bluetyson - Oct. 20th, 2007 02:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - benpeek - Oct. 20th, 2007 02:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
barthanderson
Oct. 20th, 2007 12:51 pm (UTC)
I'm puzzled that all these posts, Bear's, Vandermeer's, and yours, too, sorta smear "short fiction" and "short genre fiction" together. Are y'all talking about the state of the short story, at any given moment in these discussions? Or the state of the short story? The two really can't be conflated. The reason people don't read genre fiction is an entirely different matter from why people don't read short fiction.

Why don't people read short stories? Outside sf/f/h, the short story tends to be challenging for the contemporary reader, I think. And I don't mean "experimental." I mean the short story has always been a subtle form, historically speaking. Submerged. Full of implication and significant detail. I think a proper short story registers as confusing to the majority of today's readers who've come to expect stories where all holes are filled in for them over the course of a big fat book.

As for the state of the genre, I think there's plenty of evidence that there's an exciting core of great short story writers working the sf/f/h edge right now, who are writing honest to God short stories and doing it well. I bet if you put your mind to it you could get quite a list going.
matociquala
Oct. 20th, 2007 01:16 pm (UTC)
I'm *only* talking about genre fiction. As a clarification.
benpeek
Oct. 20th, 2007 02:06 pm (UTC)
everything got smeared together early on. me, since i actually think all short fiction could do with a larger audience, i'm happy to mix and mash.

as for the challenge, i actually tend to disagree. a lot of people grow up on the short form--kids books, kids collections, comics, half hour tv shows, short stories in school. i don't buy it being a challenge to read for them, but maybe i'm wrong.

anyhow, like i said, i got no problem with the work being produced. enough of it out there for me to read. but, that said, the conversation epople have about work, the way we all converse about fiction, i reckon it could do with change. or so i think at midnight tonight.
(no subject) - barthanderson - Oct. 20th, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - benpeek - Oct. 20th, 2007 11:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - girliejones - Oct. 21st, 2007 01:42 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - benpeek - Oct. 21st, 2007 02:40 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - girliejones - Oct. 21st, 2007 02:45 am (UTC) - Expand
matociquala
Oct. 20th, 2007 01:16 pm (UTC)

"Respect them for trying" is not what I'm saying at all, Ben, and I think if you recheck my post you'll see that that's a projection.


What I'm saying is, it doesn't matter how hard you push: it doesn't ensure that you will ever write anything worthy of being called great.

Not that that absolves anybody from trying until blood forms in their eyeballs.

Quit bitching about how everybody is a hack and write, you damned hack. ;-)
girliejones
Oct. 20th, 2007 01:27 pm (UTC)
I agree with Ben that how hard you try is irrelevent. I've seen work that was written in a day and one draft that's more brilliant and boundary pushing than 19 drafted bloody sweaty teared work.

But I think you have a very valid point - most of everything is going to be mediocre, that's kinda the definition of medicore.
(no subject) - black13 - Oct. 20th, 2007 01:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - black13 - Oct. 20th, 2007 03:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - girliejones - Oct. 21st, 2007 01:40 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - benpeek - Oct. 20th, 2007 01:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - matociquala - Oct. 20th, 2007 02:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - benpeek - Oct. 20th, 2007 02:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - matociquala - Oct. 20th, 2007 02:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bluetyson - Oct. 20th, 2007 02:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - matociquala - Oct. 20th, 2007 02:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bluetyson - Oct. 20th, 2007 02:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
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black13
Oct. 20th, 2007 01:49 pm (UTC)
Sturgeon's Law.

Plus, my problem with short fiction is, it usually comes in packages that combine the good, the mediocre and the goldarned awful. As a reader, I don't like the idea of spending time and money on an anthology or a magazine that contains at best 50% of material that I might enjoy in one way or another.

And, as you say, there's more than enough stuff out there that I will enjoy, I give the stuff that's too iffy a wider pass.
benpeek
Oct. 20th, 2007 02:18 pm (UTC)
see, i don't mind that with the packages. i fiure i'm not going to like everything, so why not try? and if you want to risk the real interesting, you have to risk the real awful... or so i think at times.
(no subject) - bluetyson - Oct. 20th, 2007 02:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - benpeek - Oct. 20th, 2007 02:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - black13 - Oct. 20th, 2007 03:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
bluetyson
Oct. 20th, 2007 02:34 pm (UTC)
The flipside of this of course is that if you buy a novel that is goddamned awful, the whole thing is then a waste of space, trees, time and money. Well, you can stop reading it, of course as far as the time thing goes.

Some parts of a lot of books too, Scott Lynch, are crap.

But yeah, the aim with anthologies seems to be try and find one that is 2/3 above average and only one thing you don't like with the rest ok.
(no subject) - black13 - Oct. 20th, 2007 03:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bluetyson - Oct. 20th, 2007 03:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - benpeek - Oct. 20th, 2007 11:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ninebelow - Oct. 22nd, 2007 03:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - brendanconnell.wordpress.com - Oct. 20th, 2007 02:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
benpeek
Oct. 20th, 2007 02:17 pm (UTC)
yeah, i was in my zone for that.
(no subject) - brendanconnell.wordpress.com - Oct. 20th, 2007 02:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
benpeek
Oct. 20th, 2007 02:52 pm (UTC)
i actually find, these days, i have less time for stylistically suck authors. i think it's just that i figure if you're going to do this, you ought to have a bit of something, and not be like a typewriter...

it's a cynic night. heh.

i do agree with the thinking. i've less time for work that doesn't try to say soemthing these days. i remember hearing an interview with, of all people, sean penn, years back, when he talked about films used to engage in a conversation with society, with people, and that's what he aimed to do in his films, or something like that. it's been a while. but it stuck with me--i think it's what i want from art, of all kinds.
(no subject) - lucius_t - Oct. 20th, 2007 04:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
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benpeek
Oct. 20th, 2007 11:12 pm (UTC)
As for what King or VanderMere (or even Peek or myself for that matter) have to say about the state of short fiction: personally, I try to stay away from that kind of stuff as I'm more than able to form my own opinion and, frankly, it all comes off as very pretentious and pompous.

good thing you're here at this blog, hey?

:)

i do agree about the critical voice thing. i think a lot of that comes from the fact that a lot of the spec fic critics don't have a background in it. they just sort of become critics, if you know what i mean. they pick up the job, write it, and there you go. very few have the background, academically speaking, and i find that this tends to show a lot.
ex_chrisbil
Oct. 20th, 2007 11:25 pm (UTC)
Are you all arguing the same point with different accents here? I don't know. I do, however, agree with your comments on effort. Cora Buhlert's continued the discussion here, by the way.
benpeek
Oct. 21st, 2007 02:41 am (UTC)
well, you know how these things are, man. they go round and round. i just had my five cents for this weekend free :)
(no subject) - benpeek - Oct. 21st, 2007 02:43 am (UTC) - Expand
(Anonymous)
Oct. 21st, 2007 06:38 am (UTC)
Seems to me that the general number of readers is down.

This creates a barrier for amassing success...

I have more than enough likely to be enjoyable fiction to read though.

It would be wonderful if more writers were able to handle criticism or negative comments. Ben you seem to be able too. Maybe it's just low self-esteem. :)

---factory farmer
benpeek
Oct. 21st, 2007 07:19 am (UTC)
it's all a matter of perspective, i reckon. some stranger says they don't like your work, what does it really matter? they're nobody to you. some stranger likes your work? cool. but the same thing applies. so long as you got an internal balance, i don't figure that's a prob.

but, of course, i get plenty of people saying nice things bout my fiction, so maybe i'd feel different if i had a hundred billions reviews slamming me.

probably not, though :)
ataxi
Oct. 21st, 2007 11:51 am (UTC)
If short story writers are all wrinkling their minds into impotence reflecting internally the prosaic tropes that push their work into the pages of magazines (un-read by the general population) such as the New Yorker, they've only got themselves and their career plans to blame.

It bothers me that people who write all expect to make a living out of it and modify their art itself so much to that end. I mean, why create at all if you're going to make such compromises?

Any given artform only commands a certain slice of the consumers' disposable income pie. If it ain't enough, it ain't enough. Find a job that pays and make writing a hobby. If writing's too important to be a hobby, why then whatever it pays you must be enough, and whatever you write must be more important than what it earns you.

And yeah, I know it isn't that simple. But this is still a 60-comment yabfest by a writer, featuring writers talking to other writers, about how writers ruin their work by thinking about writers and markets too much.
benpeek
Oct. 22nd, 2007 05:17 am (UTC)
i dunno that most people are talking about ruining their work or anything like that. i think, rather, they're just talking about what they read.

i'd like more money, thou :)
(no subject) - ataxi - Oct. 22nd, 2007 05:46 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - benpeek - Oct. 22nd, 2007 05:52 am (UTC) - Expand
kaolinfire
Oct. 30th, 2007 04:37 am (UTC)
Let me know if you set up a "rip them a new one" crit shop. I'll be happy to send you a PDF of GUD. Hell, I'd be happy to send you one anyway. If you were going to rip it all proper-like I'd even send you a hardcopy--I'm pretty sure I've got a couple of Issue 0 sitting "somewhere near you" in Australia.
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