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October 20th, 2007

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.