SFF in Conversation

Short Stories and Short Attention Spans: SFF in Conversation with Kij Johnson, Elizabeth Bear & Karin Tidbeck

Today we are happy to be hosting a round table discussion that took place last year at Icecon about short stories, featuring Kij Johnson, Elizabeth Bear & Karin Tidbeck and moderated by Einar Leif Nielsen.

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What is the status of the short story today? It seems in this information age that most of us are almost drowning in content. Whether it is on the internet, on a tablet or a smartphone. Our social media is bombarded with articles that are either posted by like-minded people or advertisements directly targeted at our online behavior. In this age of endless click bait, we can hardly be bothered to read a 500-word article, but still the novel is king. Why is it that the short story hasn’t made a comeback in this age of short attention spans or is its popularity actually on the rise? I was lucky enough to get to interview three great short story authors, Elizabeth Bear, Kij Johnsons and Karin Tidbeck, and ask them about the status and the future of the short story.

Elizabeth Bear is a science fiction and fantasy writer and has published more than 70 works of short fiction and 28 novels since her first publication in 2000. She won the John W Campbell award in 2005 and won a Hugo award in 2008 for her short story Tideline and in 2009 for her novelette Shoggoths in Bloom. Her latest novel is Karen Memory, which was published by Tor Books in 2015.

Kij Johnson has sold to dozens of short stories to markets including Amazing Stories, Analog, Asimov’s, Duelist Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Realms of Fantasy. She made her debut in 1987 and is both a Nebula and Hugo award winner. Her novels include two volumes of the Heian trilogy Love/War/Death. She’s also co-written a novel with Greg Cox and has a short story collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees published by Small Beer Press. Her novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is nominated for a Nebula Award this year.

Karin Tidbeck is originally from Stockholm, Sweden. She lives and works in Malmö as a writer. She debuted in 2010 with the Swedish short story collection Vem är Arvid Pekon. Her English debut, the 2012 collection Jagannath, was awarded the Crawford Award 2013 and shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award. Karin has had experience from both the Swedish and English language short fiction. Her novel debut, Amatka, will be out in English in 2017.

All three attended Icecon, a science fiction and fantasy convention that was held in Reykjavik Iceland in the last weekend of October in 2016, where Tidebeck and Bear were the guests of honor.

ELF: So, what do you consider to be the status of the short story today.

KJ: When I started writing, which was in the 80’s, there were five, what we would have called, big magazines. Two of which were Omni and Playboy. You would start in the little magazines where you got a quarter cent a word and then if you got good enough you’d [get published by] the medium or the big magazines. … Somewhere in there most would sort of stall out, hit their skill level and not necessarily make the next step. Then the internet happened … [and now] there are a million ways to get your stories published and we are no longer dominated by the [so called] gatekeepers … You can write and make a pile of money on a single short story, if you sell it to the right markets online or in print. You can publish on paper, online, on audiobook or you can self-publish a story as a YouTube video. I mean the opportunities are so much greater now and the limitations are so much fewer.

EB: I think short stories are transitional right now, when I started reading science fiction, which was some decades ago, … short stories were still very much a part of the genre conversation and then they dropped off in readership in the 80’s and 90’s. It had become a bit of a club scene were writers were talking to writers … rather than targeting people who read science fiction recreationally. I feel that is shifting back right now, with Kindles and eBook shorts. Because there are people who will cheerfully plot out 99 cents for a 10.000-word novelette and read it over the course of their commute. [Short stories] have become so portable that you can read on your phone, on your e-reader or your tablet or whatever it is that you have. I think the instant gratification makes easier for people to access them.

KT: I actually [think] the short story is doing pretty well. Because with new technology people can read short stories on their apps, on their way to work and at least in Sweden you can buy short stories separately and in packages, both as single pamphlets and for apps on your phone.

ELF: But do you think there are opportunities for short fiction in new media, online or in apps, that are not being explored?

KT: I’m not very good with technology so I’m not sure what kind of possibilities there are, but it seems that online magazines are doing fairly well. … [I]f I’m going to compare it to Sweden, when I started publishing it was tremendously difficult to publish short stories in Swedish because there were like three magazines or three magazines that published science fiction and fantasy and they had circulation of 500 copies. So, I switched to English were the market is enormous in comparison. What I think might be next or what I’m hoping might be next is interactive short fiction. That would be cool. Because I grew up with Lone Wolf, the choose your own adventure books.

KJ: Ever since the beginning people have been trying to figure out how to monetize the internet. …[T]here’s all these different strategies and nobody has quite has figured one out. So, my answer is, there have been a lot of tries and some have done well and some have done poorly. … [P]eople have tried a short story a day, the classic magazine, an audio magazine where every piece is read out load, subscription formats or advertising based or Wiki magazines, were people self-post and self-regulate and things get voted up or down. So, I don’t really know. I mean every niche has been played with and every combination of niches has been played with, but that doesn’t mean that just because one person has done their [very specific science fiction story], that there isn’t room for yours too.

ELF: Attention spans appear to be getting shorter and we are presented with more content online and in smartphones, why do you think that long form and especially multi volume series are more popular then short fiction?

KJ: There are several answers to that. But one of them has to do with the difference in the media experience, between reading on screen and reading on the page. … The print page really has optimized the reading experience for the longer work. The reader … once they have invested in the world and the characters, have gotten over the first hurdle in the story. That means reading volume two is actually going to require less energy than reading volume one. But every short story is a new volume, so if you write a collection of 12 stories every story is a hurdle. … [Also] the experience of getting a print book, costs you so much [in time or money] that you stay with it. … Then when you’ve read the book you have invested a lot more and that’s why a series becomes attractive. But in the internet experience the bar is so much lower, you drop out the minute you feel like it, purchasing [the story] consisted of you clicking a button at the bottom of a blog post, by somebody you like. … So, the bar of getting into a story is much lower and the bar is even lower because you are reading on the same device you read your news and get your email. … You are rewarded sooner in a short story but you also opt out sooner and usually you didn’t pay for it. … I think that’s part of what’s happening, so each one of them is playing to its strengths. That means paper is getting longer and online does really well with shorter lengths.

EB: Well to tell you the truth, I’m not entirely sure that “attention spans” are getting shorter. When you think about the fact that people today will binge watch television series and literally sit down and watch TV for 27 hours, to get through an entire series. … I think we are all a little focused on multitasking and switching between stuff on the internet and yet, at least to me, that isn’t productive. When I’m standing in line I’ll be flipping back and forth between Twitter and Facebook. That’s when I do that sort of thing, when I have a gap in my day… but when I’m working all that stuff has to go away because I need be able to bring all my concentration to bear on the task at hand. [So] I think we have to learn to filter more effectively.

KT: That is such a good question and one that I have thought about myself and I can’t really come up with a good answer but it does seem that people like reading these bricks, I mean long long series and I’m not actually sure why. You’d think that short stories would become more popular what with people not wanting to spend that much time reading long stories. So many authors I know, write series. I myself write very short books, extremely short books. My novel Amatka, the one that’s coming out in 2017 in English is 55.000 words. To me that was extremely long to write.

ELF: Do you think that the short story better suited for the new media, then other forms of fiction?

EB: Actually, I think so, reading from a screen is more tiring than reading from a page, although dedicated e-readers improve on that, however it seems that the number of people that will buy e-readers have done so and everybody else wants a multi-tasking device. … I do a fair amount of reading on my laptop, because I often edit on the screen and I read other people’s manuscripts on the screen. Your eyes get tired and your attention starts to wonder [when you read for long periods]. I think that a lot of people reading fiction online on websites has changed the way people paragraph – because large blocks of dense text are difficult to parse on a screen, I feel like people break stuff up more.

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Short fiction appears to fit better into the model of new media than the long form and it’s growing in popularity. The short story is stronger than it has been in decades. Alice Monroe, a short story writer, won the Nobel award for literature in 2013 and Ted Chiang’s short story The Story of Our Life, is now the major motion picture Arrival (2016). So, the short story seems to be on the rise, which is great, for all of us, whether we are fans or writers.

Einar Leif Nielsen is an Icelandic science fiction author and one of the organizers of Icecon 2016 (and the 2018). You can find him @einarleif on Twitter.

Elizabeth Bear shares a birthday with Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. This, coupled with a tendency to read the dictionary as a child, doomed her early to penury, intransigence, friendlessness, and the writing of speculative fiction. She was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and grew up in central Connecticut with the exception of two years (which she was too young to remember very well) spent in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, in the last house with electricity before the Canadian border. She’s a second-generation Swede, a third-generation Ukrainian, and a third-generation Transylvanian, with some Irish, English, Scots, Cherokee, and German thrown in for leavening. Elizabeth Bear is her real name, but not all of it. Her dogs outweigh her, and she is much beset by her cats.Bear was the recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005. She has won two Hugo Awards for her short fiction, a Sturgeon Award, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. She is the author of the acclaimed Eternal Sky series, the Edda of Burdens series, and coauthor (with Sarah Monette) of the Iskryne series. Bear lives in Brookfield, Massachusetts.

Kij Johnson: Since her first sale in 1987, Kij Johnson has sold dozens of short stories to markets including Amazing Stories, Analog, Asimov’s, Duelist Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Realms of Fantasy. She won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for the best short story of 1994 for her novelette in Asimov’s, Fox Magic. In 2001, she won the International Association for the Fantastic in the Art’s Crawford Award for best new fantasy novelist of the year. Her short story The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change was on the final ballot for the 2007 Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award, and it was a nominee for the Sturgeon and Hugo awards. In 2009, she won the World Fantasy for 26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss, which was also a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula. She won the 2010 Nebula for Spar, the 2011 Nebula for Ponies (also a finalist for the Hugo and World Fantasy). In 2012, she won both the Nebula and Hugo for The Man Who Bridged The Mist and her novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is nominated for a Nebula Award this year.

Karin Tidbeck, is a Swedish author of fantasy and weird fiction. Tidbeck debuted with the short story collection Vem är Arvid Pekon? in 2010, followed by the novel Amatka in 2012. Her first work in English, the short story collection Jagannath, was awarded the Crawford Award in 2013 and shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award. Tidbeck won a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award 2013 for her English translation of her own short story “Augusta Prima”. You can read two of her stories in English, Sing and Listen, online at Tor.com. Tidbeck is originally from Stockholm, Sweden. She lives and works in Malmö as a freelance writer, translator and creative writing teacher, and writes fiction in Swedish and English. She devotes her spare time to forteana, subversive cross-stitching and Nordic LARP.

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