I know it’s old news now about Murdaland having to shut down operations, and while it wasn’t unexpected due to how tough it is to get a literary magazine off the ground and running profitably, it’s still sad to see such a well-intentioned crime fiction magazine fail, and I salute the staff at Murdaland for their efforts.
One of the things that struck me about all this is a comment Hard Case Crime publisher, Charles Ardai made in a discussion on Sarah Weinman’s blog about Murdaland's demise:
“To a first approximation, people don't read short stories anymore. This is why magazines of short stories are universally seeing their circulation figures dwindle. I started my career at EQMM and AHMM and care enormously about and for them -- they're an important part of our history and it would be a tragedy if they went away. But I'm afraid they will, just because the generation of people who read short stories for pleasure is going away.”
I don’t know how true this is, I’m sure Charles Ardai has some insight into this, and I’m sure the editors of these magazines and others could provide more insight. I can’t tell you what an understatement Charles’s statement is about what a loss it would be if EQMM and AHMM went away, both for crime fiction readers and writers. As a kid I grew up reading both magazines, as well as Alfred Hitchcock short story collections, and as a crime fiction writer, these are the magazines we aspire to be published in. As publisher of Hardluck Stories, I can tell you that these are the two magazines that far and away set the benchmark for quality in short crime fiction. It’s chic these days for some writers to dismiss these magazines as being staid or too cozy (these comments usually made by people who haven’t bothered reading either of these magazines), and nothing could be further from the truth. Both of these magazines publish a wide-range of stories, and some can be very dark, although usually in subtle and clever ways. My story Closing Time which AHMM published, is as dark as anything ever published on Hardluck. With the classic reprints, foreign language translations, return of Black Mask, writers like Tom Piccirilli, Bill Pronzini and Loren Estleman, there’s plenty of darkness in these pages, and a tremendous amount of talent.
So if short story readers are dwindling, what’s the reason? It’s certainly not the quality, the stories from AHMM, EQMM, as well as the guerrilla pulp magazine, Out of the Gutter, and crime fiction web-zine extraordinaire, Thuglit, have never been better. Here are my theories:
1) Younger readers are choosing graphic novels over short fiction. When I was a kid I read comic books (actually had a pretty good collection with Spiderman #4-#13, among others) and there were a few good more adult magazines, like Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, but these were nothing like the graphic novels available today. The ones today are more literate, more adult, and much better quality, and I think they’re causing a lot of young readers to bypass short stories—instead making the jump more directly to novels.
2) The overwhelming amount of reading material available. As well as this being a great period for new crime fiction, readers today have this amazing backlog of 80 years or so of great crime fiction available, and with POD and other publishing enterprises, more and more of it readily available.
So are things really this bleak for short crime fiction? I don’t know, I hope not. There’s a beauty and succinctness to short stories, and I challenge any crime fiction reader to read Jim Thompson’s “Forever After” or Dashiell Hammett’s “The Gutting of Couffignal”, and not see these as gems to be treasured. The loss would be equally immeasurable to writers—short stories provide a great training ground, as well as a challenging and rewarding form. So how to get more people reading? No idea.