In a publishing industry that is increasingly raising the minimum word count for novels, and in an age where such novels are considered the peak of an author's accomplishment, I will add my voice to the few who wish to bring back shorter fiction.
Before I explain why, let me just lay a little groundwork.
The Rising Minimum Word Count
In past decades, a novel used to be shorter--perhaps 40,000 or 60,000 words, with a few prolific authors producing epic works far beyond that. Today, minimum word counts must be 70,000 to 100,000+ or publishers won't even look at a manuscript.
If all this "word count" jargon confuses you, just think of it this way: A book will probably have 300 to 500 words on each page, depending on the font size and spacing, so a 200 page paperback would probably contain about 65,000 words. (See WordsToPages.com to see where I'm getting my numbers from.)
Now, I understand that economies of scale have a part to play, and that the accessibility and inexpensive cost of e-books are throwing a curveball into the print industry, but I am also saddened to see more emphasis placed on word count than on quality, regardless of length. I am also disappointed that such a powerful force in the fiction world--the short story--is being overlooked.
The Power of the Short Story
Most people of my generation are too young to remember "pulp fiction," but that fiction made a large impact on previous generations. Cheap paperback anthologies of short stories opened new worlds to hungry audiences, and helped to popularize the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural fiction.
Today, the same short stories that fired our parents' and grandparents' imaginations are relegated to periodicals or to niche projects like "The Writers of the Future" anthologies. They are no longer part of public consumption, and I think we've lost a lot because of that.
In the novel, some amount of "fluff" is tolerable, fluff like meandering dialogue, short rabbit trails that add interest but not much information, and side characters whose presence affects the story minimally. Unfortunately, in some modern novels, the fluff claims the entire story, and I have been astounded at the number of authors who receive top ratings for stories with more wordiness than substance.
For the short story, fluff is anathema. Every word must count, every scene must have a specific purpose, every line of dialogue must be precise in its contribution to the story. Whereas a novel is allowed to be slightly rotund, the short story must be compact and lean. To sum up, the short story necessitates powerful writing.
For the reader, the short story is easily consumable, and also "safer." I will not buy a novel unread, unless I have previous experience with the author. A novel is a commitment of time and money. However, I might buy a short story unread because, if I don't like it, I haven't lost much by time or money. And if I do like it--I've just become a fan. Short stories are a win-win for the reader.
The Benefit of the Short Story for the Writer
Once I wrote my first novel, every story thereafter had to be a novel. The occasional short story was considered "second-rate work" in comparison to my epic sagas. Then I encountered the power of the short story, in Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Writers of the Future (Note to Christian readers: Read with discernment), and so many more. I challenged myself to write a novella (17,500 words or less, according to the WotF criteria) and I fell in love with the experience.
Short stories, in comparison to novels, are harder to write but they are over more quickly. This lets my overactive writer's brain leap to the next project, rather than allowing one story to detain me for months.
Furthermore, you have to get to the root of your story, trim every excess away, and condense an entire world into a few pages. This takes real talent, as the story itself--not the word count--becomes the defining factor in its marketability. No writer has exercised his true potential until he has mastered the short story.
Why is such a fantastic genre--one so fundamental to the early days of the publishing industry and one so beneficial to reader and writer alike--treated with such indifference? I may be only one voice, but I'm proud to raise it and say, "Bring back the short story!"