Saturday, July 11, 2015

Quick Thoughts - A Spreadsheet is Worth a Thousand Words (or more like 1400, but still....)

I might like statistics. Spreadsheets. Data. Anyone looking at my profile picture here might realize that, but I do want to make sure it’s quite clear. Part of my joy in reviewing is that it provides me with data. Number of stories reviewed. Word counts. Publication months. Names of publications. There is a lot to sort by and it’s interesting to see everything stacked up and placed into neat rows. I imagine that this will help a great deal when the time comes to figure out what is a novelette, what a short story, and what a novella. Now, I’m pretty sure there is still some work to do in the spreadsheet, but I have the rough number for the first half of the year and I want to do a little light analysis.

So first and foremost, I’ve read and reviewed about 371 stories. About 60 poems. A number of nonfiction pieces as well. I haven’t really tallied that right now but I imagine it’s lower than my poetry total so yeah. The SFWA defines short stories as anything under 7500 words, in which case I’ve read 337 short stories. Novelettes are apparently 7500-17500, in which case I’ve read 32 novelettes. Novellas are 17500-40000 words, in which case I’ve read 2 novellas. Which means that I read very few novella-length works. For my purposes, then, I’ll make my own categorical titles. I’m going to break things down as Flash Fiction (under 1500), short stories (1500-7500 words), and long short stories (anything over 7500). With those definition in mind, I’ve read/reviewed 66 flash fiction, 271 short stories, and 34 long short stories. Which makes a bit more sense to my personal reading habits.

There is a part of me here that wants to say a word on the recent controversy surrounding the movement to eliminate the novelette category. I am unsure exactly what to feel about it. I want to say that I resist it, but I think more I resist trying to shift the award away from short fiction and to novel-length (or longer) works. I am under no illusion that saga or whatever would be an accurate reflection of craft. Already there is pretty rampant gatekeeping when it comes to science fiction and what is considered "hard" or "soft" and what should even be considered science fiction or fantasy. I’m thinking if people look demographically at those works that would qualify for saga, that things would swing incredibly far toward straight and white and cis male. Because that’s what tends to get most popular in order to be picked up for saga-length series. Not without exception, and not necessarily with any sort of outright malice, but as the Supreme Court itself weighed in when it comes to racist housing practices, racist intent doesn’t have to be present as long as the data shows a disproportionate harm. And I think that popular culture in general shows disproportionate harm to non straight, white, cis men. And as short fiction, which is probably the most even when it comes to diversity of voices, is still weighed toward white, straight, cis men, moving up to the tiers where more money and popularity and power is involved (as is the case with the saga suggestion) would seem to be much, much worse.

[ASIDE: So I kind of really don't like people who make the argument that things that are popular are somehow good because look, look how popular they are. I think of a certain series that has become a television series taking place in a "medieval" setting, how people leap to defend it from people pointing out how problematic it is. And yet those same people waste no time jumping on 50 Shades or Twilight and use bad writing or problematic elements in those works as a way to try and shame fans. Except 50 Shades is much more popular. Twilight was much more popular. Those works get disproportionate grief because they are popular among people who are deemed lesser (in this case, mostly women). Those works have to be pushed into other categories that don't include the "true" spec works. Twilight is YA, so doesn't count. Or is romance. Or something. Its readers are stupid, whereas readers of "true" spec are smart. But numbers don't lie. If it was a popularity contest, it would be Twilight that would win the awards. Not that I want that to happen. But I do think that people saying "well, sales equals popular equals relevant equals should be winning awards" are willfully blind to their prejudices when it comes to what they want to "count" for these awards. They don't want to think that, if things were based on sales alone, that probably most of the awards would go to paranormal romances (because vampires and werewolves and hunters and such are spec. Be real, those are SFF stories) or YA spec. Redrawing the lines of genre to try and game the system in your favor is simple gerrymandering. It's immoral and sucks in politics and it is no less shitty when it comes to speculative fiction. END ASIDE]

So, ahem, I don’t think the course to take is to take awards away from short fiction. If I was to draw the lines myself, I think I would draw them more like I have above, which would end up merging novelettes and novellas and creating the flash fiction category. Numerically I would guess this would play out, because there are many publications that publish flash and less that concentrate on novelette or longer work. Of course, I don’t read Asimov’s or Fantasy and Science Fiction or Analog, which are three very large publications that do publish in quantity the longer work. But then, there’s also Daily Science Fiction that I don’t read very often and comes out with flash fiction every day. So… I guess what I’m saying is that for me, it makes more sense, if we can have only three short fiction categories (and I don’t think there should be less than three by any means, and a compromise could just be to break the short story category into two for 0-1500 and 1500-7500 and have four categories) that maybe it should reflect the rise of flash fiction, which I think does require a different kind of craft to do well.

Anyway, tracking stories from month to month, it seems that I read about 62 stories a month, which average just about 4200 words each. May was a terrible month for reading for me (for a number of personal reasons) with only 50 stories read, while June (thanks almost entirely to Lightspeed) topped the list with 70 stories. The shortest story I read was 142 words long, while the longest was 22548 words. Median story length was 3700 (or 3691, so close enough). January had the longest average story length with just over 5000 words, while February had the shortest average story length with 3700 words. For those not wanting to do math, that means the total words read (in fiction) for the first six months of the year was 1550371 words. I did not bother to try and separate by genre. My thoughts on genre are probably fairly obvious, so we’ll just say I think it would be a pointless exercise. I’ve reviewed stories from 24 different publications, though, many of them over multiple issues. And I think I've been generally positive toward what I've read. Which means I've liked most of what I read. So I'm doing something right with what I choose to review.

So where does that leave me? Well, it gives me something to go by for roughly what I might be looking at for the rest of the year, though I assume I might trend down a little because it's been harder to find time to read/review compared to early in the year. I'll also be able to track what publications my Monthly Round choices are going to be coming from as I refine the spreadsheet, which might give me an idea of which publications, authors, lengths, etc. I'm most drawn to. Interesting! Anyway, I think I've bored everyone enough with my obsession for spreadsheets. Thanks for reading!

All the best,

Charles Payseur

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