Saturday, October 3, 2015

Quick Thoughts - The Hungry and the Full

So occasionally I see posts up about the state of short SFF. I see complaints and warnings and, for the most part, I think "huh, okay." I see things about how people don't read short SFF. Which is...well, I read about as much short SFF as is humanly possible and I know, I know, I also write and review so I'm not like a casual reader of short SFF and where are those guys anyway? I mean, come on, SFF novels get tons of casual readers, so the same should be true for short SFF, right? Right?

Now I'm going to say a few things that are going to be controversial. One is: I think that people, given the choice, gravitate more toward novels than short fiction. In general, because novels offer more pay off, because novels offer the larger landscape to explore, the greater depth. Now, I love short SFF, but I love SFF novels as well. And I hear that short SFF needs to do more to attract novel readers. But...

Second controversial thing: the reason we don't see a huge overlap between casual SFF novel readers and casual short SFF readers is because casual SFF novel readers are full. They are sated. Really, look at how many science fiction and fantasy novels are out every year. That make no real attempt to be "literary" or anything like that. Not like the Puppies had to try had to find a slew of novels to promote. A reader wanting "fun SFF stories" (regardless of how much I dislike that description) need only walk into a box book store to find dozens. An entire section of books geared just for them, to their tastes. What cause have they to seek out short SFF? Why should they bother when their needs are being met?

Now, if I wanted to go into a big box bookstore and looked around I'd find a lot of books I might enjoy. But I will likely not find the books that make me the most excited. That might be starting to change. Maybe now I can find one or two. But I'd be better off turning elsewhere, because I'm hungry for stories. Where do I turn? Third controversial thing: short SFF seems disproportionately "literary" or "diverse" or "whatever-the-fuck-you're-complaint-is" because within short SFF that's exactly what is wanted. Because short SFF is where the hungry go to be fed. It's where people who are turned off by most of what they see at the novel level of SFF go to find things that maybe, maybe provide some representation and voice and presence.

Is there an abundance of publications of short SFF? Maybe. Some days it seems that way and some day it seems so far from the truth that it's not funny. But I hate, hate, the call to pull short SFF in a more "mainstream" direction. Not only is that not what most short SFF readers seem to want, but it's not what most mainstream SFF readers want. They could honestly mostly not be assed to seek out short fiction. They'll wait for Gaiman's next collection. They'll wait for the god damn book. Because they are so full and secure in their fullness that they are basically guaranteed a book for their favorite author. Seeking out short SFF would be to garnish their steak and potatoes. For the rest of us? Short SFF is more like our bread, and there's really no steak to be seen.

Might there be a market correction at some point? Maybe. It's possible that there will come a time when the people who have flocked to short SFF to find the stories that aren't getting published as novels, or in collections at the big Houses, will finally be fed. There are more novels from short SFF authors that are considered "too literary" and "too diverse." I don't necessarily think that such a time is right around the corner. I see a lot of people who don't otherwise have a lot of power, who might not have a lot of funds, still hungry for stories, and finding it in short SFF is still their best bet. So I imagine we will continue to see new projects, and that some will fail, and some will stay. I imagine there will be corrections, but as long as there are those hungry not getting fed by novels, they will find their way to short SFF, which is, by and large, ready to welcome them with something to eat, something to read.

So yeah, this is why when things happen to denigrate short SFF, especially by "SFF fans," I get a bit angry. Like they can't stand that there is a place the hungry can go to read what they want. That they want more garnishes, even if they aren't going to eat them. Like someone seeing a vegetarian table at a buffet and wanting to shit on it because they don't like it. When they have an entire buffet of other things. When they can eat from that table as well and maybe like the food. That the mere existence of something catering to someone else is offensive. And it's...well, it's just pretty awful. That's what the Puppies were. To which I always want to say, it's not that these people are unwelcome in short SFF, it's that they don't want to be there. They want their steak and potatoes and bacon-wrapped sausages. And they get them. Maybe they could not shit all over what to some is the only food available to them.

Anyway, metaphor's probably long dead, so I'll stop. But there it is. Thanks for reading!

All the best,

Charles Payseur


  1. You have a lot of good points here - but isn't the complaint from people like the editor at Clarkesworld that in fact there are *not* loads of people out there coming to short SFF to be fed? As you point out, you're out of the ordinary. And you are an author yourself, which fits in with his argument that these magazines are mainly read by authors and not by fans.

    This has been going on for years. I remember lively discussions about it on the first internet writers' forum I ever joined, and even then we ended up admitting that none of us knew anyone who subscribed to the magazines we submitted to.

    1. I'm not sure that Clarkesworld was saying that there aren't loads of people reading SFF. And I don't think that Clarkesworld was saying that most short SFF readers are writers. They've said on Twitter that the data doesn't support that idea. There's anecdotal evidence, yes, but from what they claim their data is on readers v. submissions, writers are not their main audience. I think that Clarkesworld was making a point about business models. But I think some people did come out to criticize the nature of short SFF readership in the wake of Clarkesworld's comments. I personally think that most people are out of the ordinary for reading short SFF. I think that's part the nature of short SFF, that it appeals because it, too, is rather out of the ordinary. And I do know people who read short SFF and are not writers, or who have no serious aspirations to write and get published. There are people on Goodreads, there are people all over. It's not just writers spending money on short SFF.

    2. You're right - I must have seen that about mainly writers reading them someplace else. Your comments got me thinking about how writing short fiction is different from writing novels - very productive!