Introducing Short Fiction Snapshot
By Abigail Nussbaum
25 February 2013
The seed for this project was planted at the most recent Worldcon, at a panel titled The Short Fiction Club Scene. The panelists—Escape Pod editor Mur Lafferty, author Tony Pi, Strange Horizons fiction editor Julia Rios, author and Podcastle founder Rachel Swirsky, and Asimov's editor Sheila Williams—started out by proving the panel title apt, pointing out that the people who care enough about short fiction to talk about it are usually also the people who are making it. A glance at the audience, made up mainly of authors, editors, and publishers (and one or two reviewers), seemed to confirm this. This slant towards professionalism, the panelists went on to conclude, told in the conversation that surrounds short fiction, in the criticism that exists of it, and in mechanisms by which readers are directed towards interesting work.
Being a reviewer, I naturally think that it's my field's contribution that is missing here. If we want the conversation about short fiction to be less self-contained and to involve more readers—something that I think will benefit fans and professionals alike—there needs to be a short fiction review scene that functions in much the same way that reviews of long-form works do. Despite what authors sometimes seem to think, the purpose of a review isn't—or at least not exclusively—to cheerlead for a specific work or its writer. If reviews are promoting or cheering for anything, it's the entire field. Each review is part of an enormous conversation, spanning decades. Each does its part to identify trends, tropes, and the language of the field, and to contribute to how we define and evaluate our genre. That conversation depends on books and novels for its existence, but it is also its own entity, worth participating in on its own merits (and a good review is worth reading even if you haven't read the book in question, or have no intention of doing so). That conversation, it seems to me, is missing where short fiction is concerned.
This is not to say that there aren't people eagerly discussing short fiction. Short story reviews do exist—perhaps most notably, Lois Tilton's column at Locus Online, and Rich Horton and Gardner Dozois’s columns in the print Locus, take a broad look at the field, covering nearly every story published. But the price of that breadth is that it doesn't allow for a great deal of depth—Tilton's reviews, for example, are brief, and often seem to me to be aimed at people who have already read the stories (and maybe the ones who wrote them). More in-depth are several short fiction "book clubs" that have been founded over the last few years—by Niall Harrison at Torque Control, by Karen Burnham at Locus Roundtable, and by Martin Lewis at his blog Everything is Nice. But here again the discussion format dictates that the conversation will be exclusively between those who have already read the story under discussion. (There is, as well, the question of how these clubs' selections are curated; Harrison chose his stories at semi-random, which resulted in some heated, deeply engaged conversations and some stultified ones; Burnham and Lewis discussed award-nominated stories, so the conversations in their clubs often revolved around the worthiness—or lack of same—of the stories under discussion.) In the last few years, fans and editors of short fiction such as Rachel Swirsky, K. Tempest Bradford, and Rich Horton have taken to publishing lists of stories they consider remarkable and worthy of attention, but by their nature these lists don't lend themselves to a great deal of discussion or analysis.
All of these projects serve worthy goals, but none of them provide what to my mind are the necessary building blocks of a healthy review scene—thoughtful, in-depth essays about individual stories that build a critical vocabulary and encourage conversation about it (a possible exception is a recent project launched at Tor.com by Brit Mandelo and Niall Alexander). Those essays exist, but they are usually fortuitous, the result of the right reviewer reading the right story at the right time. (And they almost always appear outside formal review venues, on personal blogs.) When I pointed out the absence of a short fiction critical scene to the Worldcon panel, however, Swirsky turned the question back on me. Why, she asked, is synchronicity such an essential component of short fiction reviewing, but not of novel reviews? And the truth is, when I assign a novel to a reviewer I assume that they'll be able to find something to say about it, so why not do the same for short stories? The answer, of course, is that most short stories—even some of the excellent ones—are too slight to support that kind of in-depth examination. But in that case, why not assign a reviewer a magazine, or an entire short fiction scene over a certain period, and let them pick the one or two stories they want to write about?
Which is how the Short Fiction Snapshot came into being. In what I hope will become a permanent feature here at Strange Horizons, we will be dedicating one review every other month to an in-depth, essay-length review of short fiction. These reviews will function much like our book reviews. They could be of stories we loved, or of stories we hated. Most of all, they will be of stories we find interesting and worth talking about at length. For our inaugural installment, I looked at stories published in the last three months of 2012, and have chosen to discuss Charlie Jane Anders's "Intestate," from Tor.com. A critical conversation won't emerge out of one column in one magazine, but I hope that this new feature will help to encourage that conversation—among other things, I'd like this feature to become its own short story book club, with readers invited to read the story and start their own discussion in the comments to the review.
The first installment of Short Fiction Snapshot can be found here. May it be the first of many.