A friend of mine recently posted a discussion (presumably between her and other writers) about the value of short fiction. I read it with some interest, and I wouldn’t argue with anything she said. But I’ve been thinking about this post and its question ever since reading it. The problem I’m having is that, for me, the discussion in that post doesn’t go nearly far enough. The conversation sticks to the value of short fiction in the context of a writer’s mechanics more than anything else. They do not, however, come close to defining the value of a short story as I think of it.
You see, over the past twenty or so years I’ve come to absolutely adore short fiction. A properly conceived and executed piece of short fiction can totally take your breath away like no other form really can. At best, my line of thinking falls under point #5 in the link above, but the conversation there misses so much of what I think about that it feels like mere hand-waving to me.
I mean, would the world better off without “Flowers for Algernon” (which began life as a Hugo winning short story)? Would the world of Science Fiction be the same without Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent Harlequin!,’ said the Ticktockman,” or “I have no Mouth and I Must Scream?” Would James Tiptree, Jr. have left the same legacy without her remarkable body of short work?
The answer to these questions is an obvious and resounding “no.” And, of course, I can go on like this for a very, very long time, and, of course, I’ve only touched on the work of a few “lowly” science fiction writers–we can move freely across all genres here and find remarkable pieces of art in the short form everywhere we look. If you are so inclined, you might start with NPR’s Selected Shorts.
I suggest that the purpose of writing is to express, and the purpose of reading is to experience.
The short form provides the greatest platform there is to explore specific situations and specific elements of human nature, to focus lenses on things that matter in condensed, yet (hopefully) nuanced ways. Do we not understand life better when we pick up Neil Gaiman’s “Fragile Things?” Are we not so often moved to different ways of thinking when we pick up something by writers like Ted Chiang, Kat Howard, and Ken Liu (to name just three of what could be hundreds)? Do we not see the depths of the social positionings of those within the field of science fiction revealed (in all fashions) from their reactions to the mere existence of the recent “Women Destroy Science Fiction” issue from LightSpeed Magazine?
The short story is an art form in and of itself. As writers (above all) should value it as such. As readers we should revel in its existence. We should never for a moment doubt it for anything but the marvelous creature it can be. Would you not, after all, weep to discover a world where a vast majority of Ray Bradbury’s work had never existed?
The question itself: what is the value of a short story? is, itself specious. It is one of those dangerously faulty assertions that come from a position that suggests one actually needs to make a case for the defense, as if the burden of proof is on the short story itself rather than being self-evident for all but the close-minded to see.
The real value of short fiction, like all art I suppose, is perhaps best able to be judged through the concept of removal, by asking the questions as I’ve asked above–how would the world be different without it?
So, if you ask me “What is the value of short fiction?”
I answer this way: I thank the powers that be that we do not know, and I hope it is a value we will never have to discover.