Since it was first published in 2005, the Twilight series has sold (according to Wikipedia at any rate) more than 100 million copies of its five volumes. On average, each volume will have sold 20 million or more.
Whether it deserves to have sold that kind of number of copies is neither here nor there. The point is that low-brow, low-quality fluff with the same level of literary merit as the scribblings of a small child is one of the best-selling series of the decade, while talented short story writers go unnoticed in the near-backwaters of the magazine publishing world.
Many critics argue that short stories are the most pure form of storytelling. Certainly they're tighter, better plotted and often better written than all but the highest quality of novels. Short stories don't get the padding that novels get, and that alone means that they're perhaps a higher form of literature. This may sound snobbish, but it's an opinion and I certainly think that there is more than an element of truth to be found in the arguments. I can also add that, in many ways, short stories are truer to life, more episodic by their very nature and more capable of capturing that elusive sense of real life than a novel.
I'm not trying to say that novels don't have their place. They do. And it's not often you'll read a novel and think 'this should have been a short story' in the same way you might think the often. Novels are more engrossing, connect more on an emotional level. But they don't have that purity of storytelling inherent in their nature, for my liking. (I will probably hold this opinion until my primary reading is no longer the seemingly inexhaustive list of anthologies and short fiction collections I'd like to get through, and then resort to a view of novel superiority over short stories).
Short stories do have one fundamental advantage over novels in addition to those mentioned: they're short. They're easier to fit into a train journey. You can get through more in a day, expose yourself to a greater variety of world views and opinions.
So why don't people read short fiction magazines?
Remember the statistic about Twilight? In my mind there's no contest between the quality of writing in that when it's compared to the quality of leading British science fiction magazine Interzone. The quality of the writing - and, it goes without saying, the writers - is superlative. I'm not going to say they're the greatest writers who ever put pen to paper. But I am going to say that the current sales of magazines like Interzone don't reflect this superior quality. According to Gardner Dozois in The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 23, circulation of Interzone worldwide is around 3,000 per issue.
Other SF magazines don't do particularly well, either. When reading these statistics, bear in mind that these are American magazines with access to a greater market than Interzone (or, at least, that people will have heard of over there more than Interzone). Again, these statistics come from Gardner Dozois's summation of 2009 in The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 23.
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: 15,500
Asimov's Science Fiction: 16,700
Analog Science Fiction and Fact: 25,400
All of those magazines have falling circulations, if Dozois is to be believed (and I personally would trust him on this; he knows a great deal more than me). And the question has to be raised: Why?
Perhaps the internet has something to do with it, but the quality of free fiction there generally isn't as high (there are some exceptions, notably Daily Science Fiction, but by and large free short fiction on the internet is distinctly underwhelming). Is it cost? I doubt it; a year's subscription to Interzone is slightly more than a hardback novel while giving you so much more (around 30 short stories, with interviews, comments and reviews, all contained within 6 issues).
The answer has to be lack of exposure. One barely-read blogger with a chip on his shoulder isn't going to change the minds of the masses when it comes to magazines like Interzone (mostly because they haven't heard of it and because no one reads this blog beyond a select few). But surely somewhere like Waterstones stocking a couple of issues per branch will. Or public libraries having a copy or two lying around for the consumption of whosoever will come through the door.
Unfortunately, I doubt that this will happen. So instead, I implore anyone who reads this to separate with a little of their hard-earned money to subscribe to a fiction magazine. Perhaps this is a little hypocritical, considering that I've only just subscribed to Interzone and Black Static, its horror counterpart. But I can guarantee that it's worth it. And maybe in time word will spread, and the popularity of magazines will increase again, giving the people who work hard for what they love something back from outside, from those of us who simply appreciate good SF.
We can always hope.
To visit Interzone's website, click here
To visit Asimov's website, click here
To visit F&SF, click here
To visit Analog, click here