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Spec fiction shorts vs. mainstream

Elizabeth Bear has a great post up in the new issue of Clarkesworld: "Another Word: Dear Speculative Fiction, I’m Glad We Had This Talk" I couldn't agree with Bear's insights more!

Which leads me to a post I've been wanting to make for a while:

Lately I've taken to reading mainstream stories, acquiring several years' worth of The Best American Short Stories. Each year has a different editor, and while each volume reflects each editor's individual taste, overall I've been enjoying these stories immensely. My fave is BASS 2010 edited by Richard Russo.

While I wouldn't categorize these stories as light--this is modern serious short fiction from the best markets--many of these stories have something that's seriously missing in our field: irony, quirkiness, the ability to illuminate life's perplexities and tragedies with humorous insight. What surprised me most was that more than a few stories have a counter-culture theme. They're a tad bawdy, occasionally irreverent. They're not stifled by the political correctness that's overtaken so much short fiction in SF/F. My kinda stuff.

Rebecca Makkai's "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship" tells the story of a literary professor who after teaching Coleridge's poem "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" accidently shoots an albatross and her life goes downhill quickly. A story of a professor victimized by the literature she teaches.

Brendan Mathews' "Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer" is a passionate tale about a circus clown hopelessly in love with the girl on the high trapeze who only has eyes for the arrogant lion tamer. The style is elevated and beautiful without ever being pompous or stiff.

In BASS 2007 (edited by Stephen King believe it or not), is a story by Richard Russo called "Horseman." It's available online HERE if you'd like to read it. Basically it's a story of a young woman who pours herself into her writing so hard she loses the ability to feel. A distinguished critic voices his concerns during her grad days and tells her that he can teach her very little. She has a lively intellect and genuine curiosity and she works hard. She reads carefully, synthesizes well, and knows how to marshal her evidence. Yet the big thing she needs is for some people the most elusive.

"This elusive thing?" she asked. "I won't succeed until I find it?"

"Oh, you'll succeed just fine," he told her, waving that concern aside. "You'll just never be any good."


For the past few weeks that I've been reading this series, I found myself alive with the possibility of short fiction again. Now, I don't want to be a mainstream writer--I really like the wild inventiveness that only speculative fiction can offer. But when I go back to reading speculative short fiction after reading these wiser, more three-dimensional stories, I find myself sighing. Even the stories in our Best of Anthos seem, for the most part, inferior, lacking in feeling. While spec fiction is probably the hardest to write, it seems that as a field we're lacking the tools to write meaningful stories. And so much of it nowadays is grim and dark to the point that I just don't care.

As Bear says in her marvelous essay: "But sometimes lately, spending time with you is like having my face pressed down into a trough of human misery until the bubbles stop."

I really hope the next generation of SF/F writers will take note of this. I'm not speaking as a writer here but as a reader. A reader looking for something to read that's imaginative and heartfelt, something inventive and witty. Something that doesn't suck all the life out of the room.



( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 2nd, 2012 07:38 am (UTC)
A good post! Personally I enjoy grim and dark, whether in mainstream or SFF. But I certainly agree that *feelings* are the most important thing any artist can evoke.

A lot of SFF story writers make it dark because they're "supposed" to, rather than because that's how they really feel.
May. 2nd, 2012 11:10 am (UTC)
Thanks, Peadar! Yeah, a lot of this, as with most things in life, is personal taste. I do like a bit of grim and dark stuff, just prefer A Clockwork Orange (for its black humor) over something that all bleakness and where no one ever smile. In ACO Alex smiles a lot, albeit in a sinister way.

A lot of SFF story writers make it dark because they're "supposed" to, rather than because that's how they really feel.

Hum, never that about that before. In an unrelated way that reminds me of a man who asks a street painter if he calls what he was doing art. The artist says, "I paint what I feel, man." To which the guy, grimacing at the canvas, says, "Haven't been feeling very well, have ya?" Ha!

Edited at 2012-05-02 11:11 am (UTC)
May. 2nd, 2012 11:46 am (UTC)
ha ha, yeah. Maybe I don't feel well either :)

But yes, the shadows are all the deeper for a bit of light. I too loved the humor in ACO...
May. 2nd, 2012 11:50 am (UTC)
Oh, I'm betting you feel just fine. You're one of the most clever/funny writers I know.
May. 2nd, 2012 11:51 am (UTC)
You need to say that a bit louder -- I don't think they heard you ;p

May. 2nd, 2012 10:31 pm (UTC)
What you said. The stories I grew up reading, and wanting to write, are not the stories that are being sold in SFF these days, alas.
May. 3rd, 2012 01:09 am (UTC)
Well, while the novel market is healthy, short fiction keeps shrinking and shrinking. Remember when one editor was making buttons that said: "Repeat after me. Short fiction is not dead." If they need to make a button then it probably has one foot in the grave. The reason might very well be that this stuff isn't fun to read any more.
May. 3rd, 2012 04:16 pm (UTC)
I agree. That's mostly why I don't read genre shorts anymore. It's all much of a muchness, it seems. There are exceptions, of course.
May. 3rd, 2012 04:19 pm (UTC)
I know! Let's put on a show. Mickey and Judy, you're good at singing, and Doris is a whiz at sewing. Suzie will help you with that, I'm sure. And Elmo and Harry said the school band would be willing to help out.

Maybe that's the problem with my short stories. My cultural references are way out of date. And whenever I consider putting on my own "show," I think it's time someone locks me in a room somewhere until the fever passes.
May. 3rd, 2012 04:54 pm (UTC)
Yeah, nowadays everyone wants to be an Author with a capital A. Like it's an entitlement or something. I've gotten tired of "new" voices. I want to read master storytellers so I can learn how to someday become one!

Oh, and we can use my Uncle Billy's barn to perform our show in. It'll hold a good 150 people if we cram 'em all in. At a buck a head we put a small dent in my Uncle Billy's back taxes so they don't take the farm away. ;-)
May. 3rd, 2012 05:50 pm (UTC)
I was confident you'd get my cultural reference. Not that I'm saying you're old or anything.
May. 4th, 2012 01:02 am (UTC)
Ah yes, a simpler time a la Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Though Laverne and Shirley did it about every third show, you know to raise Carmine's rent or get Lenny or Sqiggy a vasectomy.
May. 2nd, 2012 11:53 pm (UTC)
So true. I'm not all that fond of reading about dystopias, or writing them, and they seem to have taken over.
May. 3rd, 2012 01:10 am (UTC)
Change could be around the corner, though I wouldn't hold my breath.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


Marshall Payne
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