Stephen King, fresh off of editing the Year's Best Short Stories 2007 (well probably not), wrote an essay for the New York Times about "What Ails the Short Story".

I must admit I've never been terribly fond of King. I think he's a bit heavy handed, and I thought that On Writing was disgusting. But that's just me. Interesting then that we should both be on the same side of this argument.

The short story as a form is in trouble, and I think that the lack of good publication venues with good audiences is a big problem, but it's only part of the picture. Other factors that I'd consider:

  • Mainstream short story conventions tend toward the experimental, which precludes a lot of audience, because we are taught how to read experimental texts. For good or ill.
  • Short stories also tend to be pretty conceptual (and this includes Science Fiction, alas), and conceptual work is also pretty hard to read, and not what I'd call classically fun. Interesting? Yes. Thought provoking? Yes. Important? Yes. Enjoyable? Only sometimes if you're lucky.
  • It's hard to read short stories before bed. I suspect that most people do their fiction reading before they go to bed as "winding down" short stories can be read quickly, but are hard to get into when you're tired.
  • A lot of people who would have, in previous times, written short stories are writing other things: novels, blogs, etc. This isn't a bad thing, so much as a "media and art change" fact.
  • The novel has gotten shorter. Whereas once 100k words was sort of the bare-minimum for a novel length work, we're seeing more novels in the 60k-80k range. This is still a bunch longer than the short story, but there has to be some compression effect downstream.
  • Short fiction seems to be the best/only way to teach people how to write fiction. It's not a huge commitment to a project, you can play around with ideas and techniques without wasting months of your time. I think we should give fiction writers who want to write novels or poetry the opportunity and encouragement to train for that separately.

Having said that, I think that podcasting represents a great hope for the short story. I find short stories pretty hard to read in most cases [1], but when they're read to me, I often find that I can really enjoy the stories and get into them. EscapePod is a great example of this [2]. And while I think the 365Tomorrows project is brilliance, I can pretty much only absorb these stories only in the podcast form, Voices of Tomorrow, and there is of course The Voice of Free Planet X, which is great fun.

This also forces us to consider the difference between literary and science fiction short stories. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm not sure that other than the New Yorker, Playboy, Harpers, and the Atlantic Monthly, there are literary short story publications that pay authors. Not that the SF markets pay all that well, but I think that's worth something. SF pubs have to pay their authors in order to be taken seriously [3], and some of the most respect literature-literary markets, don't. Thus is in better shape, I think: Escape Pod is a huge force in this, but in the last decade I think we've seen an increase in pro-level markets: Jim Baen's Universe, Orson Scott Card's IGMS, and Strange Horizon's are--I hope--a signal of good things to come. Maybe.

Despite podcasts and new markets; despite my loyalties to the science fiction community/movement/genre, I still don't really want to read short fiction. So in the end I think I have to agree with Mr. King. The short story is in trouble, particularly the literary short story.

[1]There are cases when I will (and do) gladly read short fiction: when I'm really interested in an author, or in the concept that they're writing about, but I tend to think of short fiction reading in the same way that I think about reading essays and monographs.
[2]Steve, sorry, I've been behind. I just saw that you bought another Nancy Kress Story, and I'm pretty excited about this. Woo!
[3]SFWA can be pretty boneheaded some/most of the time, but insofar as they function as a labor union for SF writers, I kinda like them, and that side of their influence.