Why Short Stories Thrive Among Crime, Horror, and Sci-Fi Fans
However, within the narrower constraints of genre literature--crime, science fiction, fantasy, and horror--the short story remains a significant presence, with regular readers numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
The two major monthly crime-fiction magazines--Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine--each publish about 10 new short stories in every issue, as does the quarterly Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine. Combined, the three have a circulation of almost 1.1 million. The most important SF periodicals--Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov's Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the recently resurrected Amazing Stories, the quarterly Aboriginal Science Fiction, and the British magazine Interzone--publish nearly 40 new novellas and short stories monthly. Combined, they have a circulation of 250,000. And while there is currently no mass-circulation horror-fiction magazine published in the States, a number of smaller periodicals, including Cemetary Dance (a bimonthly published in nearby Abingdon), offer short stories of wildly varying quality. In addition, every year sees the release of as many as a dozen short-fiction anthologies in each genre.
Fans of genre fiction have always been awash in short stories. "For readers, short stories offer entertainment without requiring the commitment that's inherent in a 600-page book," says Gordon Van Gelder, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. "Plus there's more diversity." Indeed, the first thing that strikes a reader of mystery and sci-fi magazines often is the diversity of styles and writers. An issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, for example, may feature a historical mystery, a hard-boiled thriller, and a humorous tale all in the same issue.
The importance of the short story in genre literature dates back to the genres' origins. Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story in his three C. Auguste Dupin tales, beginning with the 1841 short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced Sherlock Holmes, crime fiction's prototypical hero, in the short novel A Study in Scarlet (1887), but the great detective really came to life in the more than 35 short stories published in Strand Magazine beginning in 1891. In 1923, 18 years after the last Holmes story was published, John Carroll Daly created the first hard-boiled detective hero in a story published in the pulp magazine Black Mask (which was founded by Baltimoreans H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in 1920 to finance their literary magazine, The Smart Set). A few issues later, Dashiell Hammett introduced the Continental Op in a series of stories that firmly established a uniquely American style of hard-boiled crime fiction.
The origins of modern science fiction are similarly rooted in the short-story tradition. In the magazine Amazing Stories, founded in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback, and Astounding Science Fiction, edited in its most influential years by the legendary John W. Campbell, SF coalesced into an independent genre and enjoyed a golden age that lasted into the 1950s. Unlike crime fiction, which early in the century acquired the literary respectability and broad readership that allowed writers and publishers to take their chances on expensively produced novels, SF remained on the margins for much longer and remained driven primarily by cheaply published short stories. Even after mainstream publishing discovered SF, short fiction remained the genre's mode of invention. Fusing SF with postwar literary sensibilities, J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, and others redefined the genre in the early 1960s with stories published by the influential British publication New Worlds. And in the late '60s and early '70s, Harlan Ellison's two Dangerous Visions volumes collected the best stories by America's new-wave SF writers.
Horror has its roots in the ghost story--by its very nature a short story--and its most influential practitioners, from H.P. Lovecraft to Clive Barker, have advanced the genre primarily through short stories as well. (For many, Barker's six story collections, The Books of Blood, still stand as the high mark in horror fiction.) Many of Lovecraft's stories were originally published in the 1920s and '30s in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, the magazine in which Robert E. Howard introduced Conan the Barbarian.
The appeal of the short-story format to genre writers is obvious, Van Gelder says. "The short story format offers more flexibility than big novels, and the form allows more unity of thought than big novels do," he says. "Most of the career novelists I know--Kate Wilhelm, Dan Simmons, Peter Straub, Michael Moorcock--still turn their hand to short fiction when they can. It gives them opportunities to experiment that they don't necessarily have when working on long books."
In addition to short stories' inherent flexibility, the form also allows writers to explore details about the lives of recurring characters or settings that might otherwise get lost in a novel, Van Gelder says. Since completing his magisterial Mars trilogy, which describes the planet's colonization, sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson has penned a number of short stories that fill in details about life on the red planet.
For Analog: Science Fiction and Fact editor Stanley Schmidt, short stories continue to fulfill the same function within genre literature that they always have. "Short stories are still where most of the development of new writers and introduction of 'cutting-edge' ideas take place," Schmidt says.
While these magazines have helped sustain genre fiction, their long-term future is uncertain. Some disturbing signs have arisen in the past year. At the beginning of 2000, the magazine Science Fiction Age, founded in 1992, ceased publication, citing a severe reduction in its readership. SF Age publisher Mark Hintz has stated in published interviews his belief that the market for short-form sci-fi has gotten "progressively weaker" in the past five years. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine also closed shop this year after weathering a few years of declining subscriptions.
Although neither Van Gelder nor Schmidt are pessimistic about the future of their publications, Schmidt identifies the problem that troubles all genre magazines. "Our biggest problem is that many people who would like the magazines don't know they exist, and we don't have huge budgets to tell them. Our challenge is to find those people," he says. "They may include people who commute or travel on business and would like complete stories that can be read in a short time."
The Internet has begun to solve some of those problems by attracting new readers and keeping publishing costs low, particularly for SF magazines. The 'Net proven particularly helpful for reaching SF fans, most of whom are comfortable with computer technology. There are several Internet-only SF story sites, including Sci Fiction, part of the Sci-Fi Channel's Web site (www.scifi.com). But even the low start-up costs of online publishing cannot guarantee success. Before moving to similar duties at Sci Fiction, Ellen Datlow edited Event Horizon, an acclaimed SF Web site that shut down after two years. In a message posted to eventhorizon.com, Datlow said, "The Internet is still an emerging medium for quality publishing, and the methods of generating revenue are limited. In short, Event Horizon has not found a way to support itself."
Van Gelder says his magazine doesn't have a Web site, nor does it have plans to move in that direction. "For the near future, there will be no changes to the format of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction," he says. "The magazine's chief endeavor is to get stories from writers to readers in the best manner possible, and for now, a monthly print version is the best way we have." Looking further into the future, Van Gelder still sees a role for a print magazine. "In the long term, I do believe that there will always be a market for hard-copy versions--there's simply no better form of advertising for fiction than getting the product itself out and about."
Schmidt, whose magazine does have a limited Web presence (www.analogsf.com), sees a slightly different future for short-story magazines. "They may become all-online eventually, but I don't think that will happen soon; there are too many readers who don't want them that way," he says. "I think there will be a trend toward a mix, with magazines offering a choice of print or electronic forms; this will be made possible by the emerging print-on-demand technology." Currently, he says, Analog is experimenting with downloadable version of the magazine for Palm Pilots, to be made available through the online publisher Peanut Press. Whatever the format in which it's read, one thing is clear: Short fiction will continue to serve as the vanguard for the evolution of genre literature for some time to come.
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