Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Longing for the Shorts

"Oh, neat," the Chapters cashier said when I set down the latest issues of Analog and Asimov's. "I didn't even know we carried these." It's slightly paraphrased, since it's been a couple of months, but it's also a slight problem. Short story magazines were once the crucibles of writing in general, and science fiction in particular was first launched from the prewar pulps. Short stories were how many new writers entered the community. It wasn't until the 1970s that the balance started to tip in favor of using one's first novel to break down the clubhouse door.

I can't help but wonder if a lot of that is due to what's happened to the short story magazines themselves. Sure, old stalwarts like the Big Three are still chugging along, but with a fraction of the regular subscribers they had only thirty years ago - according to the PS Form 3256 in the January/February 2012 issue of Analog, its average paid circulation per month over the last year was 29,105, down from 83,000 in 1990 and 104,000 in 1980. Clearly, something is happening. My own theory goes back to that Chapters cashier - that a big part of it is a simple lack of awareness, that a lot of people just don't realize these things even exist.

I mean, for the longest time I didn't. When I was twelve, the Golden Age of science fiction, the only magazine I read was Nintendo Power. In retrospect, now that I've started adding issues from that time period to my collection, my twelve-year-old self wouldn't have had any trouble grasping the content. As it is, the earliest possible date I've been able to establish for encountering a science fiction magazine was the January 2001 issue of Asimov's - and even then I only realized it when the opening chapters of Allen Steele's Coyote had a niggling familiarity to them. It wasn't until 2003 that I found a place that I actually knew to sell them - the Trent University Bookstore. Even then it wasn't until around 2006 that I really started getting into them.

I have since worked to remedy that.

Now that I'm a regular reader of them, my lack of access to them earlier in life is something I regret, in the sense of "what could have been." What things would have been like if my horizons could have been broadened so early, to know that there were things beyond Star Trek and Star Wars and whatever novels I had at the time. The big problem was, and is, availability. My high school library didn't carry them; the Barrie Public Library, to my knowledge, didn't carry them; back in the 1990s, there might not have been anyone selling in them in a place as podunk as Barrie - and when no one sells something, in the pre-web age it was easy to not realize such things existed at all.

So it goes back to people like the cashier, who could find these magazines interesting but honestly have no idea they are around. It's hardly a surprise - the only places I know in Metro Vancouver to find them are Chapters stores and that one magazine store on West 4th in Kits. It's a shame, because I feel there's still a vital niche that short stories can occupy, particularly with the recent rise of e-readers. With the recent successes of the electronic magazines Lightspeed and Redstone, among many others, the medium is far from dead yet. What it still needs, most of all, is to be recognized by its potential audience.

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