Online Zines, Best American Mystery Stories, and the Future of Short Crime Fiction

I’ve discussed here on a number of occasions my concern with the increasingly isolated short crime fiction community and the false claims of a short story renaissance. A few Facebook posts recently reminded me of one particularly  depressing moment from last year that I think needs further discussion.

When I was in Milwaukee for Murder and Mayhem in Muskego, I popped into the local Barnes and Noble and found a copy of the most recent Best American Mystery Stories collection. I have bought the anthology every year since 2003 and it is likely the single most influential publication on my current writing and reading interests. It opened me up to so much more than the mainstream crime fiction I’d been reading since junior high and introduced me to a community from which I’ve made a number of close friends. It was also a major factor in legitimizing online crime fiction.  So every year I buy a copy and gleefully flip to the table of contents and to the listing of notable stories to see how many online stories made the cut. And last year, for the first time since I’ve been buying the anthology, there wasn’t a single online crime fiction story in the anthology or in the notable story listings.

My first thought was that there weren’t any stories selected from online crime zines because there weren’t any stories submitted by online crime zines. I’d noticed two trends that I thought played into that. First, the online zines had been moving almost exclusively toward flash fiction and second, these new crime fiction editors seemed content to publish only for a small group of readers that was mostly made up of other writers. contributors to one zine were editors at another and so on. I saw the same 10-15 names pop up in almost every crime zine as either a contributor or editor.

My thoughts about the first point were validated when Otto Penzler announced the line up for his flash fiction anthology and I saw a number of the more popular crime zines represented. But from what I’ve read and heard, most of those stories were found by Otto and his readers not from submissions from the editors or writers from those zines. I don’t know if it’s just that these editors don’t know things like BAMS or the StorySouth Million Writers Award exist, or if they genuinely have no interest in expanding their reach and content beyond a very narrowly drawn crime fiction niche.

Chad Eagleton pointed out in the comments on one of my previous posts that we have yet to see an online publication that offers the full variety of crime fiction styles like the big two print publication do. There are a number of valid concerns regarding Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines, but the lack of variety is not one of them. Both magazines have published more noir and dark crime fiction stories than these other magazines have published traditional or light crime stories.

But maybe I’m just an old man pining for the old days and readers and writers don’t care about stretching themselves or expanding their audience. I love being part of the mystery community and for the most part I have no qualms about how it operates, but I think short crime fiction is an area of high potential that has been woefully neglected and is need of new energy, new readers, and new ideas. And when the next edition of BAMS comes out, I hope to see the fruit of that new energy legitimized on it’s storied pages.

For stories published in 2013, send a hard copy to:

Otto Penzler
Best American Mystery Stories
58 Warren Street
New York NY 10007