On Monday, my friend Mike told me to read “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” by Bud Sparhawk in the Jan-Feb 2019 issue of Analog. Three days later I’m still thinking about it. Mike warned me that Rocket Stack Rank (RSR) had not liked it. I read the story and found it moving. I assumed RSR had only given it 3-stars, but when I checked, “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” had just 1-star.
What were the magic ingredients in “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” that made Mike and I resonate with the story but were missed by Rocket Stack Rank? My routine way of selecting the latest short science fiction to read is to check RSR and go after the 5-star stories. This means I wouldn’t have read “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” on my own. I’m grateful to Mike recommended the story because the story worked on me and pushed my emotional buttons.
Several reviewers have dismissed this story as sentimental. Are Mike and I emotional saps who are suckers for stories that make our eyes water? I don’t know about Mike, but I am. Does that make “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” a 5-star story in my heart? Well, not quite.
I don’t want to rate stories, but I do want to promote them. Let’s face it, the short story is a dying art form, but one I admire. To be upfront and honest, I want you to buy science fiction magazines and read more short stories because I want the market to thrive and not go extinct. But what’s the best way to do this? Rocket Stack Rank has its system which I use and recommend, but it’s not perfect. If you learn their system I believe it’s reliable for rating stories by its standards.
However, if you don’t normally read science fiction short stories, you won’t become a fan if you try a couple and don’t like them. It helps to have a pusher to get you hooked. There are all kinds of stories for all kinds of readers. That makes it hard for us story pushers to get people to read a particular story.
If I review a story I have to carefully point out what works for me in a way that is understandable to you. If we can’t find a common wavelength to communicate on, there’s no reason for you to try the stories I push, or even read what I write.
So why exactly did I like “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” by Bud Sparhawk?
- The story is about an old man, David, losing his memory. I’m an old guy worried about losing my memory.
- The old guy is a science fiction writer who reads his own stories having forgotten he wrote them. I can already rewatch a Perry Mason I saw two months ago and not remember the plot.
- Sparhawk proposed a gadget he calls a memory-aid (think hearing aid) that helps with short-term and long-term memory. Great idea for SF short story.
- The story conflict deals with the old man’s children, Bill and Gwen, trying to decide if they should spend their own savings for a memory-aid for their aging father. Tough call.
- The story makes me wonder what would I do in the same situation, either for an older person or for myself.
- The story makes me fantasize how I would have told the same story differently.
Sparhawk’s story moved me, but I thought it had problems. Storytelling problems often make me stop reading. But sometimes they make me obsess over the story – like now. Often I like the idea but not the execution. I actually love stories I want to rewrite using my own personal insights because I believe the writer came up with a wonderful situation.
The main flaw of “The Fading Pages of a Short Story,” which could have been an editor’s tweaking, is making David 98. Who would consider spending the price of a house to get a memory-aid for a 98-year-old man? If he had been 68, then the decision would have been realistic and heartwrenching. It would have also fixed some secondary problems. If David is 98, Bill and Gwen should be in their 60s or 70s. They should be old enough to have their own memory problems. But in the story, Gwen still has kids at home. Clues suggest the story takes place in the 2030s, and David began writing at the beginning of the century, which would make him around 70. That doesn’t work. I can’t but wonder if 98 was a printing mistake.
But there were other little problems that made me pause my reading and think. David says he relies on speed-dialing. That’s an archaic phrase now and will be even more so in the 2030s. You just “call” people with smartphones, but we do rely on them to remember phone numbers. But this problem is an interesting writing problem to contemplate. I still call the refrigerator an “icebox” because that’s what my dad called it, and that was an old fashioned term when he learned it in the 1920s and 1930s. So an old man in the 2030s might still use the phrase “speed dial.” In other words, sometimes what I think of as flaws in the stories might be features.
There were a number of other aspects to the story that made me pause too, but they aren’t really important to why the story moved me. Being moved is the key ingredient. If I had not read the Rocket Stack Rank review I would never have thought about the flaws in this story. I would have finished it with a wonderful sense of existential suffering. A rewarding kind of pain that comes from good stories. Faulker said great fiction is about the heart in conflict with itself.
“The Fading Pages of a Short Story” is a slight story that made me feel something deeply in myself. That’s the magic ingredient to any short story. As someone who wants to write short stories, Sparhawk’s story gave me a lot to think about. But mostly, it made me fear for the future, tear up, and ache. My memories are slipping away and I know what that means, so I identified with David and I felt for him. When I was younger, this story would have meant nothing to me.
On The Astounding Analog Companion, Bud Sparhawk writes “The Bane and Pleasure of Writing” where he mentions having PSS (premature-submission-syndrome). I believe “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” would have gotten more stars with Rocket Stack Rank if he had baked it in the oven longer. Below that linked essay is a Q&A with Sparhawk where he talks about writing “The Fading Pages of a Short Story.” And below that is a bit of biography with his photo. Bud Sparhawk is 81, so he knows something about getting old. He’s also been a regular contributor to Analog for decades.
James Wallace Harris, February 20, 2019
4 thoughts on “What Are The Magic Ingredients That Make Me Love a Short Story?”
Sorry to comment so late, but I just now ran across this one.
I’m very happy that you usually like the stories I recommend; I’m glad that works for you most of the time.
At 60, I’ll admit that I at least know the fear of losing my memory, and whenever I struggle to remember a name or a word, I always worry that it’s a symptom of something. I’ve been told, though, that forgetting your car keys isn’t something to worry about–it’s when you forget what your car keys are for!
Anyway, I reread the story just now, and I’m afraid I still feel the same way about it. The reason this one got 1 star is that it’s riddled with sentences that fall flat because they tell the reader things the reader neither needs nor wants to know and which call attention to the narrator at the expense of the story. E.g.
“Bill drove up from Atlanta once a month and always spent a day or two with family.” (Unnecessary)
“They both had learned at an early age that nobody ever touched anything in their father’s library.” (Already conveyed through dialogue.)
“His little sister must still resent him for moving away shortly after their mother died.” (Unnecessary)
There’s nothing actually wrong with these sentences, but, in context, they hit a wrong note because (as I said) they draw attention to the narrator and away from the story. Authors are constantly urged to “show don’t tell,” and this story is a good illustration of why.
I’m also aware that some readers aren’t bothered by it, although I think everyone appreciates a story that does it right. For me, though, this is something that’s so important there’s no excuse for a magazine to get it wrong.
When I give a one-star review that generally means I blame the editor more than the author, and this is all the sort of stuff a good editor is supposed to fix. In this case, I think nearly all of the narrative problems could have been fixed purely by deleting text with no need to put something else in. The other problems (e.g the ages of the characters) also look like symptoms of a lack of editorial attention, but by themselves they wouldn’t have stopped me from giving it a 3 or higher.
Sparhawk often does a great job writing a moving story. I loved his “Footprints in the Snow” enough to give it five stars. “Fading Pages” really took me by surprise. I agree that it could have been a much better story; I think his editors really let him down.
Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the story, even if I didn’t. Thanks again for following Rocket Stack Rank.
I’ll need to remember “The reason this one got 1 star is that it’s riddled with sentences that fall flat because they tell the reader things the reader neither needs nor wants to know and which call attention to the narrator at the expense of the story” when I write anything. That’s good advice.
Editors should fix those kinds of problems, but I don’t get the feeling they do that kind of work anymore. Especially at Analog.
Analog has always been willing to overlook bad writing for a cool concept. Clarkesworld is the same way, although they have different ideas of “cool.” Uncanny will do it for a strong message story. Most of them will overlook terrible problems in translated stories or even just stories by overseas authors.
Probably the saddest is when they overlook problems in stories by once-famous authors. I don’t know if those people have just lost it over time or if they really depended on a good editor and fall down where there’s little or no support.
That said, only a few percent of stories in the 10 magazines I read have that kind of problem. I recommend against about a quarter of all stories I read (two-star reviews), but those are because I couldn’t suspend disbelief for them. The one-star reviews (for bad writing) are pretty rare.
Getting narration right is tricky. It’s like an NP-Complete problem: it’s easy to tell whether it works or not, but it’s the very devil to do it right yourself. I’m convinced that the reason editors say they can reject 95+% of stories based on the first page or two is bad narration.
My brother was trying to write a novel few years back, and he asked me to look at his draft. At the time, I hadn’t studied writing, but I’d mark certain sentences and paragraphs with “yuk!” At the time, I told him they were mostly places where it seemed that the novel had stopped and now I was reading an ad expressing the author’s opinion.
C.J. Cherryh once told me that she didn’t believe in “show-don’t-tell.” I told her she had that luxury, because I’d read everything she ever published, and I’d never seen a false note in her work ever. Perhaps it’s like how a fish isn’t aware of water. I sure envy that ability, though.