I am told there was a time where a sci-fi/fantasy fan could reasonably keep up with the vast majority of what was being published in a given year. I wasn’t reading in those days (mostly on account of not being alive), so I can’t speak to the truth or falsity of that claim. But if those days ever existed, they are long gone. There are more genre novels coming out each year than anyone can reasonably read, and sifting through the chaos to find books you’re likely to enjoy is a major undertaking. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools to help. Frustrating though they may be, review aggregation sites exist, there are plenty of bloggers and bookish communities happy to share recommendations, and the publishers themselves will pitch the books they expect their audience to like for as long as you’ll let them.
If you’re a fan of short fiction (and I am), the available content is even more dizzying, and the tools for sifting even more limited. A veritable army of genre magazines—81 in the last survey I could find—is supplemented by themed anthologies and more than a few stories published by non-genre outlets (case in point: my 2023 Hugo nominating ballot included short stories from Lolwe and Vice). But people generally aren’t reviewing short stories on Goodreads or Amazon, and I can count the number of people I know who regularly review short genre fiction in blogs or magazines on two hands (surely, more exist than I know about, but it remains a small world).
So how do you find the good short stories? It’s a very difficult question! Not least because “good” is subjective. In 2023, I used five strategies in concert: (1) read three magazines cover-to-cover each issue, (2) regularly read short fiction reviews, subsequently reading the stories that sound most interesting, (3) read any anthology that seems particularly compelling, (4) participate in a short fiction book club, and (5) engage with other short fiction readers and authors on social media, subsequently reading any especially intriguing recommendations I get.
Oh yes, and track everything on a spreadsheet to see what’s working and what isn’t. I rate everything on a 20-point scale, making special note of stories rated 17 or higher, which will go onto my annual favorites list and into the pool of stories I’d consider for award nominations.
2023 Strategies and Stats
So how did it go? Well, excluding flash fiction (I always seem to rate flash fiction very low), I read 363 stories from January 1 to December 28, 2023. I rated them on average 15.0, and gave ratings of 17+ to 18.2%. Two of my three regular magazines, Clarkesworld and GigaNotoSaurus exceeded those benchmarks, with ratings of 15.0 or higher and 17+ rates of over 20%. So did The Digital Aesthete, the only themed anthology I read cover-to-cover in 2023.
On the other hand, the grab bag of everything else I read that was published in 2023 also exceeded those numbers. Throwing out magazines, anthologies, and collections read cover-to-cover, I rated the remaining stories at 15.3 and gave scores of 17+ to 21.8% of them. The sample sizes for each individual magazine was low, so the leaders had just three appearances on my favorites list (Tordotcom, on seven reads) and two appearances (Apex Magazine, on four reads). Of course, the positive reviews in small samples should come as no surprise—I’m more likely to enjoy stories with both a good review and a premise that grabs my attention than I am a story that I read solely because Neil Clarke or LaShawn Wanak decided to publish it (even given that those editors have been publishing some of my favorite work over the last couple years).
For similar reasons, I had great success reading the recommendations of prominent short story reviewers. I understand that I’m not going to like horror as much as A.C. Wise or Maria Haskins, or stories of queer self-discovery as much as Charles Payseur, or YA as much as Alex Brown. So I pick and choose which recommendations to follow, and I end up liking a lot of what I read. This year, I read at least ten recommended stories from seven different reviewers, with six of them entering my spreadsheet with average ratings of 15.3 or higher, and five (not a subset of the six) with over 20% rated 17+. My best source for big hits was A.C. Wise, whose recommendations I took 29 times and rated 17+ nine times (31.0%). Overall, I rated stories that came with at least one recommendation a full half-point higher than those that came with none, and I rated them 17+ at a rate of 23.6%, compared to just 15.6% for stories for which I hadn’t seen recommendations. (And yet, of the four stories that were recommended by at least three different reviewers, I didn’t really love any of them. Go figure).
If the goal is just to maximize the percentage of reads that I end up loving, the most effective strategy appears to be sifting through reviews for stories that catch my eye and reading those. But of my 12 favorite stories published in 2023, just six came with recommendations from one of the review columnists I follow. One more (“Over Moonlit Clouds” by Coda Audeguy-Pegon) was a social media recommendation, but my three favorite stories from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and two of my top five from Clarkesworld weren’t singled out by any of the columnists at Locus or Tordotcom or any of my follows on Twitter or Bluesky. And my favorite find from the relatively recent backlist (“The Falling” by MV Melcer) hadn’t made any recommended reading lists that I saw after its publication in 2021. If I’m relying entirely on the grapevine for story recommendations, I’m missing a lot of tremendous fiction.
It’s this fear of missing out that made me take up the project of reading magazines cover-to-cover in the first place. I don’t want to miss something I find stunning just because the one or two reviewers I know who even tried it didn’t find it to their taste. Unfortunately, I’m afraid there’s no way to avoid missing some excellent stories. There’s just too much good fiction out there, and there’s no set of reviewers that’s going to cover all of it and recommend everything that’s to my taste (I’m not sure there’s any set at all that will do the former, and the only one who will do the latter is me—I’m working with a sterling 100% record of loving the stories on my own favorites list).
Two magazines in particular typify the problem for me: Apex Magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The former has provided multiple entries on my favorites list two years running, despite me only reading it a handful of times each year. But the editors just like horror and flash (recall: I don’t) far too much for me to commit to cover-to-cover readings, even though they also publish some of my favorite things in the genre. The latter was the third magazine on my 2023 cover-to-cover project and was by far the most frustrating. Even if I were to skip all the flash, I’d be left with an average rating of 14.6 and a 17+ rate of just 10.6%. Compared to the rest of my reading, there were far too few hits and too much that I didn’t like. And yet, when I look at the list of nine exceptional short stories that are making me angry that I only have five Hugo nominating slots, three of them are from F&SF. I may not have liked their median story as much as other outlets, but at their best, they were jaw-dropping.
With those kinds of reactions, these seem like just the sorts of magazines that would be ideal for reading sporadically—not committing to read cover-to-cover, but instead dipping in whenever I see a story that looks especially interesting. And that’s essentially what I do with Apex, though just four reads in 2023 indicates I may not dip in often enough. With F&SF, reading any given story requires a full annual subscription, and even if I’m willing to pay the $37 to be able to dip in every now and again, it’s hard to know exactly where to dip. After all, none of my three favorites this year were singled-out by the F&SF reviewer in Locus—it’s not like there’s an objective list of all the best ones.
Moving Forward in 2024
Ultimately, this is good problem to have. While it may be hard to avoid missing out on something good, it’s not hard to find some excellent stories to read. Picking out a few reviewers to follow or magazines that seem aligned to your taste are pretty reliable aids to a good reading experience. Beyond that? Well, there’s a recurring theme here: there’s a ton of good short fiction out there, and nobody’s going to be able to read it all.
Personally, I’m going to keep reading a couple magazines in full, partially because I’ve been really happy with the stories Clarke and Wanak have published the last two years and partly because I want to read in such a way that has a positive impact on the genre. I love short SFF and want to see more of it, so I want to support at least a couple places with paid subscriptions, and I want to be a resource for other readers looking to find good stories.
Unfortunately, even though I’ve loved the best of the best at F&SF (and Asimov’s, albeit without having read the latter for a full year), I haven’t found myself consistently enjoying those magazines to the level that makes me excited to be a regular for either in 2024. Instead, I think I may try to more regularly try some of the magazines outside my cover-to-cover reading. Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Strange Horizons have all put things on my favorites list this year. Lightspeed and Uncanny regularly publish excellent fiction. I can dip into Asimov’s and Analog when they publish their Reader Poll finalists. There are plenty of others.
Of course, I don’t read nearly enough to tackle all of those in full. But I can do a better job of finding a middle ground between cover-to-cover reading and just sporadically following stories that get recommended on social media. I’m not sure exactly what that middle ground ought to look like, but I have an idea I’d like to try: read the first paragraphs of each story in a handful of publications, using my first impression to supplement the grapevine in finding tales that deserve a further look. While my regular magazine reviews may get smaller in 2024, keep an eye out for the first lines project—I’m excited to see how it goes.
This is all a very long way of saying that there are lots of ways to find good short fiction. I don’t have a good strategy for finding all the good short fiction, but the strategies I applied in 2023 led to a phenomenal reading year, and I’m looking forward to continuing with my favorites and adding a couple other ideas in 2024. Happy reading!