May 1st, 2012

Marshall Payne

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.