I read mainly science fiction short stories, but my theories about decoding short stories apply to any genre. Lately, I have been reading science fiction from a number of time periods. I’m systematically reviewing the stories in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois which covers stories 2002-2017. I’m also reading The Great SF Stories 9 (1947) edited by Asimov and Greenberg. I’ve started reading Science Fiction Rivals of H. G. Wells edited by Alan K. Russell that covers SF in the 1890s. I just bought Best SF: 1968 edited by Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss because I want to study the science fiction of 1967.
Concurrently to reading science fiction, I’ve started reading short stories by D. H. Lawrence from the early 20th-century and bought an audiobook anthology of classic literary short stories that cover a century in scope. Because of all this short story reading, I’m beginning to notice patterns. I imagine whenever someone sits down to write a short story they have a goal in telling their story. The subtle variations of each are endless, but I think I see a taxonomy of writing targets. Many short stories begin with vague goals and then fill in with increasing details. Some of the target outlines include:
- Fictional realism
- Science Fiction
Literary writers are like realistic painters. They want to capture all the details of their subjects, whether they are writing about themselves or people they know. Marcel Proust and Jack Kerouac wrote thinly disguised stories based on their own experiences (autobiography). Hemingway and Fitzgerald liked to observe the people around them (biography). If you read any annual edition of The Best American Short Stories, the most intense stories often feel like they are based on real-life events (fictional realism) but aren’t. MFA programs teach their students the writing skills to pull this off. Finally, some literary writers love to find a great true story and turn it into fiction (retelling/reporting).
Inbetween literary writers and genre writers are humor and travel writers. Sometimes their stories are based on the truth, but often they stretch it. There’s a difference between nonfiction humor and travel writers and the fictionalized kind, although if you could read the minds of writers of the nonfiction kind you’d find they often fudged the truth with a bit of fictionalizing.
Genre writers nearly always open Microsoft Word and begin their story purely from their imaginations. For example, I just read “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander, one of the stories nominated for a Hugo award this year. Nothing in her story has ever existed in reality, it all came from Bolander’s ability to make stuff up. Bolander begins:
Once upon a time, long, long, long, long, long, long, ago, there were three raptor sisters, hatched beneath a lucky star. They lived in a wood together, they stole sheep and cattle together, and all in all, there was no tighter-knit hunting pride of matriarchal dromaeosauridae between the mountains and the sea.
Fantasy writers are bound by their Guild to create fantastic beasts. Using raptors was fun and clever. Melding a medieval fairytale about a Prince and Princess with Jurassic Park nasties is one of the reasons Bolander is up for an award, but not the only reason. Recasting Prince Charming as a doofus, creating an anti-princess Princess, while poking fun at traditional little girl fantasies, are some of the others.
My point in referencing Bollander’s story is to show the challenge of writing a fantasy short story. There’s no need for biographical or autobiographical characters, and the use of history barely exists and what is used is completely distorted.
When John Singer Sargent painted “The Misses Vickers” above he was creating a visual biography of Florence, Mabel, and Clara Vickers. When we read Henry James or Edith Wharton, we feel they are painting with words to capture 19th-century people they knew. Genre writers can base their characters, settings, and times on real people, places, and events, but they usually don’t. However, they can create characters, settings and times that feel like they were real or could be real. The reason why Game of Thrones and Harry Potter stories are so popular is they feel real.
When I read Thomas Hardy or D. H. Lawrence I feel they’re accurately describing village life in England. I expect their characters could be based on real people, and the scenes they describe could be real places. I don’t expect that from genre writers.
But here’s the thing, great writing is the accumulation of significant details. Writers can crib those details from reality, or they can make them up. It’s my theory that the best science fiction has a feeling of realness, such as Timescape by Gregory Benford, or Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, or Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel.
On the other hand, the best fantasy is realistically painted with imagined details, like Tolkien or Rowling. There is an uncanny valley effect in fantasy too, like in computer animation. A fantasy that feels somewhat real, but not quite, is disturbing. Think of all those cheap fantasy films that feel campy today. Then think about why you love Game of Thrones on HBO.
When you read a short story you’re decoding both the writer’s goal and their coding. To fairly judge a story requires decoding that goal while reading the story. Sadly, all too often it’s to crank out 7,500 words to sell at 10 cents a word. Too many writers use seat-of-their-pants plotting and grab details out of the air as fast as they type. The end product of a work of realism or imagination should still feel realistic even if the physics of the genre world is much different from ours.
I believe when a writer sits down to write a short story they have a goal in mind. As readers, we need to decipher that goal to properly appreciate the story. To judge a story we need to decide if the goal is both worthy and met. I have a problem with reading some genres, such as fantasy stories, because it’s just not my thing. However, I should not judge those genres by my tastes but by figuring out the target of the story and deciding if it was hit.
When I read fantasy stories I often feel like I went to a rock concert and classical music was played. Sometimes the classical music wins me over, and sometimes it doesn’t. I feel the world of science fiction is being replaced by fantasy, even the stories with spaceships and robots. It’s a challenge for me to read modern SF/F because of my personal interests, but I’m trying to judge these works by their own goals. I’m using this site to explore the art and nature of short stories. I was going to ignore all fantasy fiction, but that’s becoming very hard to do.
My goal is to get away from judging fiction by my personal tastes and instead work to understand how a story works by decoding its own goal.