Amazing how circumstance has a part in our lives sometimes. My current poverty necessitates my getting most of my reading material from the local library, rather than used from the Internet as I prefer. In my most recent foray there I picked up a book of short stories and a nonfiction book, and as an afterthought grabbed this book too so I wouldn’t run out of books too quickly. You see, the library is a couple of miles from our apartment; we don’t have a car; the Yakima city bus service is unreliable and sparsely scheduled. Today, for example, I will have to walk to the library and back to return the books, as there is no bus service on Sunday. Be that as it may, the other book of short stories only took me a couple of days to read. I started the nonfiction book and it was boring and depressing and I decided not to read it. So I picked up this book.
And thus we come to the subject of what I look for in a short story. To be honest, after reading a few stories in this volume I almost tossed it aside as I did the nonfiction book. I found the first few stories mediocre. Nothing wrong with them, but they didn’t turn my key. I hadn’t read best of the year collections by these two particular editors before, and their selections were not to my taste. Stories in best of the year collections are not really the objective best; they are only the best in the opinion of the two people who read and select them. And there are other criteria they consider too.
It’s not that I demand slam-bang action from the start. I don’t mind if a story starts slowly. Consider, for example, Jack London’s “All Gold Canyon”. The first few pages are nothing but description of scenery. There’s a reason for it though; it builds slowly but relentlessly to the violence to follow. It’s impossible to define what makes a good short story. Though many have made the attempt, notably Damon Knight in “Creating Short Fiction”, it is really impossible to codify a formula. Many of the greatest stories break all the rules. A story simply has it or it hasn’t. And in the beginning it seemed to me that too many stories in this book didn’t have it, and so that’s why I almost abandoned it.
I persisted, however, and eventually found some first rate stories within. My favorite is “The War Artist” by Tony Ballantyne. For me it had everything a really good story needs: strong characterization, interesting premise, solid execution. It concerns a man who accompanies a team of soldiers into battle to paint images of the war for propaganda purposes. Photographs are too starkly real, but the war artist shades the picture to reflect emotions and ambiance. The way the writer brings out the complexity of the situation is by having the artist befriend a pretty female soldier who joined the army to get a regular salary and feed her family. At the end, as she dies of her wounds, you really get a good feel for what the military and wars in general are all about. The science fictional element is that data corruption through sabotage has caused the world to descend into chaos, but that’s almost peripheral to the human element of the story. Another story, “Thick Water” by Karen Heuler, has a rather wild, unlikely premise of some spacecraft crewmembers stranded together on a very strange world, but the ending leaves a truly bizarre, surrealistic mental snapshot in the reader’s mind. The last story, the longest in the book, “The Ice Owl” by Carolyn Ives Gilman, is a complex, satisfying story about a young woman, her tutor, her mother, and her mother’s many transient lovers, that succeeds not because of the intricate complexity of the world itself but because the human element is emphasized and accentuated at the end. Other stories I found worthy as well, and yet others I had to slog through because once I decide to read the book to the end I don’t want to skip over anything. Overall, I would say that of the various science fiction and fantasy best of the year volumes I have read in the last few years, this one is the weakest. Too many of the stories were mediocre. I guess this editorial team and I don’t share the same tastes. That’s okay. If I want to read another collection of best of the year stories, I’ll just choose one selected by someone else.
We come back, in the end, to what constitutes a good story. I wish I knew. If I did, I would be sure that all my stories have what it takes. Every time I sit down to write I try to do the best work of which I am capable. I have found out recently that’s not only true with my stories, novels and memoirs, but also the nonfiction articles I write to help pay the bills. I get paid such pitifully poor wages for those things, and yet I still try to pour the best of which I am capable into each and every one. I think, why not? It’s not like talent is a finite quantity of something. I figure, rather, that doing the best of which I am capable at whatever piece of writing I attempt is a good habit to form. It’s a state of mind, a focus, a light, a spirit. It’s something that brings me joy. Should I perform mediocre work on purpose? What would be the point? Giving my best is strengthening, not weakening. I’m sure that the writers in the collection I just read, even the ones whose works I didn’t care for, put their best into their work. It’s a matter of taste sometimes whether readers appreciate it or not. That’s why I like the new world of publishing nowadays that allows a writer to upload completed work whether an editor likes it or not. There are billions of potential readers in the world, and an editor is only one person. Or perhaps a dozen or two dozen people at the most, if you send your stories around to all possible markets. Those dozen or two people have their own peculiar tastes and proclivities, just as you do and I do. In the wonderful world of the Internet it makes no sense that they be the only gatekeepers or censors. Thank God for options.