The Triumph of Competence

UPDATE: A related post here as follow up, and one on the best short fiction. Please note that no, I am not dissing folktales. No, I am not dissing your favorite color or your childhood pet. Nor am I indulging in nostalgia. Please be assured that I love you and you are special and I wish you all the best…
Jeff

There has been much talk recently about the death of short fiction, or the lack of interest in short fiction–generally in the context of “genre”–and I’d like to suggest, hypothetically, that perhaps ideas of comfort, class, and politeness come into play. I have been reading countless stories over the past couple of years and, despite finding some excellent material, I have at various times felt as if something was wrong that I couldn’t quite articulate, some elusive sense of being in danger. Not danger in the fiction, but a danger to fiction.

Sometimes when this happens it is entirely personal and selfish, related to my own writing: I have repeated myself or have come close to being rote, in process, in technique, in content–an issue separate of the relative success or failure of the fiction in question–and I’m projecting. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I feel that my general apathy when reading a lot of fantasy short fiction today comes from finding in it a profoundly disturbing, if sturdy, middle class professionalism. The magazines and anthologies are dominated by what I’d call centrist fiction that simply drowns in competence. It’s good–it’s just not great. It’s clever–it’s just not trying to do more, or it does reach for more, but in familiar ways.

As I thought about this further, I visualized an endless churning sound as thousands of writers typed and handwrote the first drafts of stories destined from conception to be good enough. Good enough for publication. Good enough to pass muster. Good enough to earn an appreciative nod. It was a depressing thought.

I kept coming back to words like rough and wild and pushing and punk and visionary. Words for what I was reading were more like twee, comfortable, recycled, reasonable, well-rounded, whimsical, unoriginal, well-behaved, and fuzzy.

Maybe it’s always been this way. Or maybe I just haven’t been looking in the right places.

I was reading through an old batch of Interzones and New Worlds while Ann and I selected stories for the New Weird anthology, and I thought I caught a glimpse of something different. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps it’s a myopic nostalgia for some golden age that never existed, even though I only came to IZ and NW as an adult, but just bear with me for the sake of argument.

What I seemed to find in those old magazines sometimes overreached, or crashed into and sank on the rocks of evangelical experimentalism…but, at its best, that fiction was altogether more adult than much of what I’ve read recently. It seemed sharper and more balanced between intellect and emotion. There was ample intelligence behind it, sometimes a cruel and frightening intelligence. It was often bracing, unexpected, and jagged.

It also seemed to take the self-determination of its characters more seriously and had things to say about and to observe about adult relationships that I’m just not sure I see in short fantasy fiction much any more. Hard choices, hard made.

Now, I know this comparison is blatantly unfair to some extent. I’m talking about impressions. I’m not naming names. I may just be expressing my own restlessness. (I may have eaten something that disagreed with me.)

But what I’m getting at is this: that it’s just possible that, for whatever reason–perhaps the co-opting of counterculture by all-powerful pop culture, or the rise of delightful but ultimately destructive TV and movie influences, or the proliferation of editors as interested in gathering the same old “names” as publishing excellent anthologies, or a magazine culture rooted in a paradigm thirty years out of date, or perhaps because space aliens have eaten our brains–a lot of today’s fiction is soft, too vapid, without the requisite intellect behind it, with too many stories that don’t go far enough, and too few stories that come from the margins, the fringes, the places that lie outside of suburban, middle-class America or England or wherever. (I have nothing against retold fairy tales, for example, and write them myself, but can you imagine the gaping hole if no one “retold” another fairy tale for the next thirty years?)

Perhaps also there is too much comfort in our own lives, too many distractions in the form of easy, relatively cheap technology that contribute to this softness–make it easy for us to be satisfied with what we’ve done: content, content, content. Happy with the well-rounded sentences, the fulfilling character arc, the recursive plot. Patting ourselves on the back for miracles never earned, epiphanies bartered for with trinkets and trifles. Thrilled just to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I’m sure many would say it’s the same as it ever was, or, more likely, that we live in a golden age of cross pollination, and that we should be happy to have so many great writers working today. (Although the issue isn’t great writers, but great stories.) Most people in the field have a stake in supporting this idea–that this is the moment, and this, and this, and the next. Can you imagine if most of the reviews of stories and novels were mixed or indifferent or negative? Yet more than ninety-eight percent of all fiction published in 2007 will be forgotten within two to five years. How is this possible when reviewers tell us every year that so much great material has been published every year? And why is there never a year when a year’s best anthology announces there was only enough good fiction to put out a 30,000 or 50,000-word edition? (The International Horror Guild suggested something similar to this with regard to fiction anthologies a year ago, by not nominating any, and caused an uproar only slightly less heroic than if they’d advocated shoving babies onto spikes.)

So I’m not sure this is a golden age. I’m not sure that the field isn’t oddly familiar and similar, that the differences aren’t more like the sometimes facile differences between Republicans and Democrats, and that, in fact, most of us are telling the same story, all the time, everywhere.

Maybe it is, in fact, just a change in my own tastes, or the rise of the power of the adolescent–who, exactly, are we writing for these days?–or the cop-out that the world is too terrible or complex now for most writers or readers to engage it head-on in short fiction.

But my gut tells me that, regardless, we need more of a punk aesthetic, and the courage–because it does take courage these days–to continually renew our faith in fiction as art and not as product. To know that words matter, and that characters in our stories matter in the sense that if we’re going to commit to writing fiction in the first place then we need to commit all the way, whether we think we’re writing literature or “only” entertainment. The problem isn’t, as some have said, that we don’t have enough stories that try to entertain, but that too much of our entertainment isn’t good enough. “Art” and “entertainment” are not intrinsically at odds, except when put into conflict by those with an agenda or a general misunderstanding of fiction.

Perversely, though, thinking about all of this makes me want to write, even as I know the solution to my issues with the state of short fiction might be fewer stories in the world, not more.

It makes me want to write something bold and different. It makes me want my reach to always exceed my grasp. Because, for every writer, there is always another story, and it doesn’t have to be even close to the one you told before.

Comments

  1. says

    Jeff:

    I think we’re talking at cross purposes on some of this. I also think writers should write–makes sense to me–but you also have to have enough open venues, enough different opportunities, so that the good stuff, the great stuff, can get out there. And I think David De Beer was right when he talked about would we always recognize something great if we saw it. I think we don’t sometimes, and for that reason, again, we need as many open venues as possible. Nothing wrong in stating that opinion.

    As I said in that post about anthos, talking about getting uptight about stuff, I mostly hoped it would influence would-be editors coming up through the ranks. There’s no Anthology Police out there gonna bust somebody if they don’t have an open reading period. I also indicated that there were times that anthos needed to be closed. I’m not sitting here making a list in my little black book and frowning. And I’m submitting to closed anthologies. I’m just making an argument for having more open ones, is all. I don’t know why that should be such a big deal.

    As for ruining the day, you’re the one who came bustin’ up into this place not even commenting on my post but on my reaction to a paragraph from someone else’s comment.

    Re this: “but in reality no manner of textual pyrotechnics, grammatical bamboozelment, gritty darkness and cutting edge politics in fiction is going to guarantee a good story.” Those are your words, not mine. I didn’t indicate a story had to have any of that crap in it to be great.

    Re this: “But when you, the King of Hype bemonas the hype as the downfall of fiction, I have to laugh.” I’m not sure there’s a straight parallel here. There’s a difference between promoting a book and editing a year’s best anthology, for example. There’s a difference between plugging my work on a blog and writing a critical essay. Am I creating the downfall of fiction by saying I liked Cisco’s The Traitor on this blog? I don’t think so. I’m not tearing down what I create by my actions, in other words.

    You know I like your fiction, dude. I just wrote a fucking appreciation of it for the Capclave program book. Geez. But, no, I don’t like every story you pull out of your ass. I don’t even like every story I pull out of my own ass.

    Yes–absolutely, more writing. But posting this short essay didn’t take any time away from writing fiction.

    JeffV

  2. jeff ford says

    Jeff: I’m not negating the usefulness of the discussion, I’m engaging in it. Why, if my point is not in agreement, is that not engaging in the discussion?

  3. says

    Jeff:

    Now you’re responding to my response to Blue Tyson? Which isn’t actually aimed at you, or at anyone. I was saying it with regard to my short apparently piece o’ crap essay above.

    I think I also did point to one specific in the comments field–too many stories in which the fantasy element actually fucks up the development of the story.

    JV

    JeffV

  4. says

    Off-line, Mistah Ford suggests, possibly, don’t wanna put words in his mouth, that I’m casting aspersions on everybody in the field while holding up my own work as a paragon of virtue. Not true. These are issues I’m thinking about when I’m writing my own fiction. And I assume everyone is trying to write the best story they can. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about these kinds of things, especially since, again, I’m not the only one apparently feeling this way.

    JeffV

  5. jeff ford says

    Jeff: You are putting words in my mouth. But whatever… I’m sure my points will be misconstrued. That’s the nature of the beast. You guys are in luck. I gotta go to work now, so I return you to the agreement track of this discussion.

  6. says

    bloody hell this thing has grown since yesterday!
    there’s a lot of stuff I want to add to and talk about but I don’t know where to start. Lessee:

    Jeff Ford:

    vague proclamations and generalized discussions. Well, I too would like for these discussions to move onto more specifics, or attempt to. I don’t really view this as a proclamation, more a theoretical possibility. Thing is, starting off with the vague and the general, as annoying as it is, can help eventually to zoom in on the specific.
    tbh, I would not necessarily support a general philosophy/ theory of fiction to come from this. What i would hope, though, is that each writer will forge their own individual theories and think more on what they are doing and how they approach and convey subject matter when writing.
    The most basic question you could ask any writer is: “What kind of writer are you?”
    To which near everyone answers by rote:
    I write sci-fi/ fantasy/ romance, etc.

    But that’s not really answering the question is it? that’s what kind of story you write, the milieu in which you play and the genre within which you write. It does not answer the question of what kind of writer are you?
    (generic you)
    The answer to that question could vary from:
    “I want to create myth”
    “I want to make people laugh and smile”
    “I want to explore the fundamental question of what it means to be human”

    I have my doubts whether this has ever been different, but beyond writers wanting to be writers, I am missing the specific of what they wish to be. This kind of discussion does help, I believe. It helps writers to sit down and wonder what exactly it is that they are doing; it helps to make them sit down and wonder about the nature and potential of short stories, it’s strenghts and limitations.
    I don’t look to Jeff V to provide me with the gospel (even though I do agree with him on a number of issues), I look to him to start this discussion. If someone like myself talks, who listens? But if Jeff or yourself opens this kind of discussion, people pay attention. They take notice, it opens dialogue.
    And yes, the voice of dissension is every bit as important as the agreeing nods.
    We have enough gospel, especially in the SF field, we need more open dialogue. And the ideal is as good a place to start as any. Why aim for less? It would be a sad day when all writers simply sat back and said, “Well it sure does sound nice, but really, it’s not possible so why bother?”
    Inevitably, reaching for the ideal will result in failure, will meet and clash with the real and what is and is not possible. But there is no growth, no movement if the boundaries are never pushed and no one seeks to expand the limits of what is believed possible.
    Alan Moore pushed comics in ways no one thought possible and has exerted an influence on the medium like no one else. He did it, because he spend a great deal of time thinking about the medium and never stopped wanting more from it. And, sadly, he has probably made the right decision in retiring from the field to lessen his own impact and give comics a chance to find its own voice again, to stand on their own feet and not always look to him to gauge what is possible and how things should be done.

    And no, I don’t think writers consciously do not try and write the best they can. What happens, I believe, is that it becomes largely a matter of by-rote work. By the numbers. Churn out more material.

    “in reality no manner of textual pyrotechnics, grammatical bamboozelment, gritty darkness and cutting edge politics in fiction is going to guarantee a good story.”

    that’s a good caution to note, and this is the danger that can result when writers take phrases like “push yourselves” wrongly.
    Best way to summarize it might be:
    there’s a difference between playing with language and raping language;
    there’s a difference between being stylistically creative (so long as it serves a purpose) and engaging in self-indulgent, pointless wankery;
    an Important Theme or Relevant Topic does not automatically equal a great story;
    a great story can be deceptively simple.

    Dark and gritty isn’t the hallmark of important and great stories either. Look at john Irving and Kurt Vonnegut. For my money, they are both great writers, unique in what they do.
    Both of them applied humor to themes and issues are not funny, that normally make people have heart attacks (incest, rape, abuse, the Holocaust, etc).
    And yet, they make it work. Not all the time, no, but enough times.
    No one made me sit and consider the stances on abortion with as much thought as Irving did. An important issue, delivered with gentleness and humor and without rhetoric and soapboxing.
    Neither of them read to me as dark, gritty writers. But the one thing neither of them did (and do, in Iriving’s case) is to shy away from the dark and somber.
    They sought and found ways to present it and made people pay attention.
    Both of them at face value are rather simplistic. Still, the timing to make you laugh one moment and rock you into sobriety the next – that kind of timing and conscious intent is neither easy nor accidental.
    Vonnegut; Bradbury; Irving; Douglas Adams – no one else can write they way they did and do because no one can replicate that exact mindset and approach to both subject matter and fiction.

    I’ll go out on a limb and say the majority of writers today (and probably since forever) can be mimicked and with ease after some careful study. The symbols, themes and manner of presentation are familiar, easy (notso much) to duplicate in writing, but to duplicate in thought process.
    The emphasis, to me, lies in duplicate in thought process.

    Paul:

    “but rather “can they tell mediocrity”
    I actually hadn’t thought about it like that. From a writing pov, this might be the important one.
    I’m going to have to agree on holding back. I think every writer does this, sooner or later. As to the why of it – eh, who know?
    maybe fear?
    when you go all out and really invest yourself and put everything into a story adn push not just yourself but the story itself as far as it can go – well, it hits a lot harder when you fail, doesn’t it?
    it becomes more a failure of self than a simple failure of this specific story.
    Also, it means baring yourself mind and soul, and that’s a scary thought at the end of the day. Better to keep that distance between self and paper, even if you don’t realize you’re doing it.
    it’s all about self-preservation, I think.
    The volatile nature of the market probably doesn’t help either. There’s always this invisible pressure to write submit write submit write submit!!
    And…the rewards both for yourself and from others may be longer and harder in coming.
    Writing “safe” is easier, both to do as well as being rewarded for it.
    Here, I can only speak for myself, but the first year I wrote safe, and more than half my sales were from that year.
    ’06 and ’07, I tried to do more, to push myself and the stories I write more, to do what we always say we should – write stories in the manner in which you believe it should be written. The rewards have not exactly justified the attempt. Maybe overly ambitious too, considering how much I still have to learn about simple basics. What I have ended up doing is being all over the place. That’s beyond frustrating, to try something and see it not work. Erratic from scene to scene has become my middle name.
    And this is the point where you need honesty, both from self and others. Self honesty is maybe the hardest of all, and I am fortunate that I have found people who were truthful and blunt when it was needed, to point out specifically what is and is not working and why.
    (Thank you, JeffV)
    Point is, it’s flippin hard to write a decent story. Trying to push yourself every single time and firing with every single story can burn a writer completely.
    The little I’ve managed so far has made me realize, “ok, I can do this. But is it enough? is this where I want to be or do I want more?”
    this is a choice everyone has to make for themselves and choose the way in which they will do it.

    I don’t think anyone chooses to “settle”, and writers genuinely try their hardest, but I am convinced that there is a conscious thought process behind an attempt to push the boundaries of what is and is not possible and refuse to accept limitations.
    From the general to the specific – all I’m saying here is, I know what my limitations are; I know what my dissatisfaction and enjoyment of fiction is and is not; I know what I would like to see and this is what I try to do.
    Most of us will fail and maybe fail our whole lives. That’s just the way it is.

    Much as I disagree with a lot of what the man holds dear, there is one thing Orson Scott Card said that I believe, implicitly:

    It is the nature of the writer to reach for the story that is impossible to tell and make it so.

    Too often writers don’t reach or don’t reach high enough. And readers have some fault too for blithely accepting whatever is dished up to them.

    Of course, not every single story has to reach, to push or challenge the writer and reader both. Sometimes it’s just what it needs to be.

    ~End of essay.

  7. jeff ford says

    Matt: No, I really did have to get to work, and now I’m here. Not that actuality should have anything to do with it. You are the consumate YES man.

  8. says

    David-
    maybe fear?

    no, no it is fear. Of course this comes after you find out how you write and do what you want to do and what ledges you push yourself onto. Funny, I had the opposite thing happen to me when I started writing what I liked to read, or feel like stories should read- that was when I started selling a lot. I can always tell when I’m holding back, when I’m pushing the weird aside and not letting myself be vulnerable- because I’m not selling. I’m not firing. I’m not pushing.

  9. says

    “You guys are in luck. I gotta go to work now, so I return you to the agreement track of this discussion.”

    You do know, Jeff F that with the magic of the interwebs you can come back after work or during work and still debate? In other words- why stop debating?

  10. says

    I dare say this might have been a point raised in the depths of these comments somewhere, but:

    Jeff, do you think that the New Worlds fiction covered most of the free intellectual territory in its time? It did after all decline – sales, not necessarily standards, so maybe it defeated its later-self. I was perhaps too young to appreciate this fully. But if it did, it certainly makes it more difficult for writers to actually say things in that same territory – if it has all been done before. There are only so many ways to experiment. So maybe writers are merely exploring a different area these days, perhaps a little more artistic, more abstract if not as ‘intellectually’ rigorous. That they’re stimulating in different ways. I’m trying to be optimistic here, and not resigning myself to the obvious points of commercialisation. I mean, I’m a huge fan of Viriconium, but can another writer ever rival that today? Would it have the same effect if he/she did?

    And perhaps those New Worlds stories were more wild in their context – they did indeed change things for the genre, and any such attempt would never be fighting a similar fight. Aren’t all writers children of the New Worlds generation now?

    — Mark

  11. says

    why stop debating?

    Because this would be much better settled over beer than wires. I would even furnish the beer, but I’m not sure a growler of Ueli Hell would survive intercontinental shipping.

  12. says

    No, all writers are not children of the New Worlds generation. And I do see an increasingly “commodity” aspect to fiction that is ultimately harmful. It’s just something that I try to keep in mind, in terms of not succumbing to the terminology and viewpoint of fiction as “product”, and so that’s more of an attitude than anything else.

    Re Viriconium–I like it as much as the next guy, but what writer worth his or her salt says to themselves, “Well, Viroconium’s so good that whole territory is mined out. I guess I’ll go write about talking golf clubs”?

    There’s also a difference between talking about writers and their work and talking about the apparatus and processes that surround them.

    Yes, David, this would be better discussed over beer. I think I’m fading into blather at this point.

    JeffV

  13. Ann V says

    Ass stories? Some of the best stories I’ve ever read were ass stories. And although this sounds funny, I mean this sincerely. There is something to be said for the story written in this manner. Perhaps the lack of time to ponder and mess up a story keeps it truer, I don’t know. And sometimes the writer is more inspired when writing in this manner. Yeah… I’m all for ass stories…..You guys have magical asses, after all…….

  14. says

    I think more books are being produced than ever before. More fiction exists. And there are more small presses producing challenging stuff. And there are many literary mainstream publishers using the genre as part of a literary movement. I think the fiction exists, it’s just perhaps the commercialisation of the genre at the macro level has saturated everything, and it’s perhaps not so easy to see the fiction of ‘intellectual rigour’. People need to step beyond the front of store promotions. I think I speak for the UK when I say many writers are children of the New Worlds generation, and this operates even at the commercial level – China Miéville, Hal Duncan, Alastair Reynolds etc., very intellectual fiction that owes a debt to the new wave.

  15. says

    JeffV-

    I think the whole issue regarding the quality of short fiction is mostly market conditions. Fiction writers are given the option of writing for book publishers or writing for magazine publishers. Except for the writers that are otherwise predisposed to write only short fiction, a good writer is going to seek the venue that will pay him/her the most for their hard work. So, it’s not surprising to see a decline in quality, when the best and brightest have all but abandoned the form.

    And from the other direction, publishers/editors are keeping their magazines just barely afloat, so a provocative story is not likely to increase sales, but may very well decrease them. You never hear someone say, “The stories in that magazine were so good, I got two more copies for my friends.” But you could easily hear someone say, “That story was so bad, I’m cancelling my subscription and telling my friend to do the same.” So, unless the magazine has a target audience of people who are looking to be provoked, it seems to make good economic sense to stick to the polite stories.

    But I’ll throw out one more thing for writer’s to consider. The pace of life in today’s world may be a culprit to mediocre writing as well. I once heard Kevin J. Anderson talk about what it takes to be a successful writer and his number one suggestion was to be prolific. He said this at a time when he was finishing a year in which he had written and delivered to publishers the equivalent of six novels. Now, there’s no doubt that this is a good way to make a living as a writer if you can do it, but is this a good way to make art? I think a lot of fiction, both short and long, would be better if writer’s slowed down a little and took the time to ask themselves a few basic questions like
    1) do I find this story interesting?
    2) do I care what happens to the characters?
    3) does the story evoke any emotions in me?

    I think the third is the most important. If we aren’t moved by our own writing, what chance is there that someone else will be?

  16. says

    I agree with a lot of what you say… I have read stuff this year that I’ve loved, but the vast majority is forgettable.

    Some days I get annoyed at this and think “why are people publishing this crap?!”

    Other days I’m more mellow about it and think, well… *maybe* the writer/editor/publisher really did think it was good… maybe it wasn’t about them having bad intentions… maybe they tried their best and it just didn’t do it for me… too bad….

    maybe, too, the vast majority of work *cannot* be exceptional, because that’s what exceptional *is*… work that stands out from the vast majority…

    I guess I’m becoming more zen about it as I age… maybe trying to find someone to “blame” is pointless…

    I guess the most useful reaction I can come up with is to (a) talk about and help promote work which I *do* think has something to say, and (b) try to let these things inform my own practice, to keep challenging myself to be better…

    Of course, the discussion is all good.

  17. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Can I agree with all of this without seeming contradictory?

    David–great post, and I think that’s all extremely useful extrapolation/supposition.

    JeffV

  18. says

    Hey Jee, if I can give the perspective of a new writer here. I can be completely off-base here, but here’s my take on it (most of this is a repost from my blog)

    Everywhere that I read editorial opinions I see that they want stories that will surprise them, take their breath away. Or, alternatively, I see admonishments about, “the good old days, why doesn’t anybody write them like that anymore.” Then you go to those magazines and read their submission guidelines where there is the inevitable line about, “reading the market to see what the editors like.”

    Well, this is the same thing as women’s magazines having headlines about “Drop Twenty Pounds in Twenty Days” right above, “Best New Delicious Cheesecake Recipes.” Seriously. Very big contradictions are going on here.

    When in doubt, the submission guidelines win out. We read what you’ve published, and we feed it back into the system. Your slush readers are tuned to your tastes so they feed up those stories that they know have worked before. Editors know their reading audience so they give them what worked before. Mediocrity reigns supreme.

    This isn’t the only industry suffering. My (former) day job suffered from “mining the past for ideas” and “everything looks like last year’s award winners.” Well, it’s how we were trained, how the clients respond, how art directors direct, mediocrity is process and institutionalized.

    Young writers are told to explore and do weird things. So we do, and we don’t get published. Eventually we learn by reading what has been published, by learning the ropes, by getting more competent, and those wild hair stories drop by the wayside as we move on to eventually get published. “Oh,” says the just published writer, “you liked that story. I can do more.”

    That said, as a new writer I also read things like Mr. Ford’s “Boatman’s Holiday” and it knocks me on my ass, leans over and grins saying, “Sonny boy, you want to be a writer, you gotta be able to do this,” and then shakes me down for my lunch money. Because I’m a contrary cuss, I hope to be able to return the literary favor, someday.

  19. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Yeah, I read that on your blog, and was going to excerpt it here if you didn’t post it here first.

    JV

  20. says


    Young writers are told to explore and do weird things. So we do, and we don’t get published.

    Speak for yourself. I didn’t start getting published *until* I started taking chances.

  21. says

    Paul, well I do speak for myself. I’m at the point where I’m exploring more and “taking chances” with my stories, but they aren’t the wild hair stories I used to write. Of course, I’m not published, yet, so like I said, I could be very off-base here.

  22. says

    >Young writers are told to explore and do weird things. So we do, and we don’t get published.

    hmm, that’s a bit of a hard one, really. Young writers also have less control than experienced writers do. More often than not, it’s that which results in a rejection.

    I don’t think any of my rejections in the last year or so have anything to do with subject material or unusual approaches. It has everything to do with my execution, which is not good enough.

    Adding to Paul’s post a bit – young writers have nothing to lose, there are not expectations or pre-conceived ideas of what they can and cannot do. You may as well risk and go all out.

    But it still comes down to control and execution, and the more ambitious you try to be, and the further from your comfort zone you play in, the harder it becomes to do a good job.
    (maybe we should think about exploring this idea in the form of “comfort zone”, that might make more sense)

    This may sound somewhat contradictory to what has gone before, but it’s not really.
    Control and execution are the main things why young writers (and yes, this would be me too) have a hard time making consistent sales.
    Also, it’s a numbers game still – the average short story writer has, what, 10 stories circulating at any time? Markets can get between 100-300 subs per month, and they may publish maybe 2-6 per issue.
    Do the math, and that is a very high level of excellence you need to hit.
    Further, it’s also what Jay Lake calls an unfair meritocracy. Mike Resnick is more blunt – a young/ new writer cannot be as good as, s/he has to be better than a pro to get the sale.
    Sucks, but that’s the way it is.

  23. says


    But it still comes down to control and execution, and the more ambitious you try to be, and the further from your comfort zone you play in, the harder it becomes to do a good job. (maybe we should think about exploring this idea in the form of “comfort zone”, that might make more sense)

    I find that when I pushed past my comfort zone and I feel uneasy and it hurts to read it- those are the stories that sell the fastest.


    This may sound somewhat contradictory to what has gone before, but it’s not really.
    Control and execution are the main things why young writers (and yes, this would be me too) have a hard time making consistent sales.

    I’m not so sure about this. Control and execution are vague terms. I started selling regularly (monthly, actually, sometimes two or three month) when I started pushing myself. Losing control an execution. But also listening to my gut and realizing when stuff was wrong and fixing it. I think the worst enemy to a new writer is fear and lack of confidence.

  24. says

    Paul, I was standing on a soap box and shouting about how we’re all in this together. So, yeah, I should just say that young writers are told to do this and that, and then aren’t published. How those young writers respond (change or ignore advice) is all up to them.

    For me it was a process of reading, seeing what has been published, getting better at the basic skills (English and storytelling, what David de Beers talks about in his post), and maybe not trying to jump in the deep end of the pool right off the bat. I still do that last part, of course, but I’ll admit I’ve put down some of my earlier story ideas that are based on “all your tropes are wrong” ideas (such as FTL, AI, Uploading Consciousness, all those things the new mundanes movement are striking out against, or at least trying to ignore) and other “out there” ideas. Nobody wants to read those stories from the new kid. People want to know the new kid can hold his own, work inside the box, write things people want to read before they’ll accept outside of the box stuff from them.

    But continuing to learn has also forced me to drop some of those wild hair ideas. I still get them, but I don’t pursue them to final form. That doesn’t mean I’m in my “comfort zone,” as David put it. The last four stories I finished and have out are all out of my “comfort zone.” In fact, most of them really bothered me while I was writing them and they all stretched me skills of story telling.

  25. says


    Nobody wants to read those stories from the new kid. People want to know the new kid can hold his own, work inside the box, write things people want to read before they’ll accept outside of the box stuff from them.

    That is a flat out lie. Who told you that?

  26. says

    By control and execution in this case I meant mastery of the basics, more than anything else. Consistent pov use, learning to set and describe a scene properly; good language use; believable character building and dialogue; etc.
    Those who’ve worked slush would know better, but this should logically be a big reason why many stories get rejected initially.
    All of those require work, and study and takes time and practise to implement.

  27. says

    I’ve worked slush. But really, I don’t see your listing above as reasons new writer’s shouldn’t experiment. In fact, I think it’s the very reason WHY they should experiment. When you’re learning the ropes you need to push the boundaries a little, to see where they are and why they are. Nine times out of ten, I didn’t reject a story because it was “too experimental” when I edited for GS. It was because it wasn’t experimental enough.

  28. says

    Paul, that seems to be my impression from what I’ve learned of both how to develop a writing career and studying the growth of writers.

    I think here we are discussing several different concepts which is why there’s a disconnect. I really do think we agree on most things, we’re just coming at the issue from two different vectors.

    When I say writing inside the box, I’m not talking about writing pablum. I’m talking about writing something that doesn’t break all the rules; no head jumping, no unique structures, etc. Those can fall under what David is talking about. I’ve seen established writers get away with them. Sure, they may be able to handle it better, but I don’t really think that’s the case. I think there is a tendency for established authors to have some wriggle room (as Dave’s comment farther up the stream said, new writers have to be “better”) because they bring an audience. Cat Valente writes some very dense stuff and uses complex structures (IMHO), but she has an audience she can bring. This also dove tails into our host’s earlier comments about closed and open anthos (although he was making the argument to have something new by opening the process, but the main argument for closed anthos is their sales capability and lack of time for slush).

    So while an editor may accept an established author playing outside the box, continuing a literary conversation, challegning structures, etc, I don’t think they’re as open to it from someone with no name behind them. Of course the easy answer to this is, “if the story is great, it doesn’t matter.” Sure. Some people, those rare geniuses, are great from the get go. The rest of us work up. Another way to look at it would be if an submitted piece is just slightly out of what is normally published by a market (darkish fantasy for a market that publishes fantasy, but not dark fantasy). Let’s say it’s a good piece, it gets up above the 9 level on a 1 to 10 (where normal slush is in the 1-2 range). Would there be a different decision process if the author would be making their first sale as compared to a BNA?

    Being in the box doesn’t mean not writing a challenging story, not stretching the skills, not reaching for the stars or swinging for the back fence, or, as I believe you’re defining it, being dangerous. It does mean that the expectations on a first writer are different from someone that is more established.

    If, as you say, as an editor you would reject a story for not being expeimental enough, would you say your experience, character, and editing choices track to other editors working in the field?

  29. JeffV says

    There are now a variety of opinions on this post, most of them from other writers. Some of them not impressed with the high level of agreement on this thread. What strikes me is that most of those who have had negative comments have said so, but not engaged in a conversation on this thread.

    Jeff

  30. says

    Nobody wants to read those stories from the new kid. People want to know the new kid can hold his own, work inside the box, write things people want to read before they’ll accept outside of the box stuff from them.

    When I read slush for the late, lamented e-zine Lenox Avenue, I found submitted stories more often failed because they were too conservative, rather than because they were too radical. They failed because they were the Same Old Thing, putting a bunch of tired old dwarves, ghosts, and axe murderers through their paces, not because they were peculiar, new, and dared the numinous.

    These stories also often had tired writing on the line level. A writer’s imagination that fails on one level, may fail on other levels as well.

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned this essay by Kelly Link, which got a good bit of attention a year ago. I think Kelly is saying something similar to what JeffV is saying (although she’s talking about workshop fiction, not published fiction).

    The only kind of critique that I worry about, in the long run, is the tendency of a workshop to sand off all the interesting edges from a writer. Workshops frequently reward writers of competent prose who can tell stories that are smaller in scope and easy to understand. A group of writers will find it easier to agree about certain kinds of stories — the kind that ought to sell to magazines, because we’ve all read exactly that kind of story in magazines — than about more ambitious stories…

    The only thing you have to offer an editor, and readers, is you. Your voice. Stories and characters and narrative twists that only you are strange enough to want to write. Take risks…. Take chances. Write stories whose characters and the endings surprise even you.

  31. says

    >of them not impressed with the high level of agreement on this thread.

    indeed; and the responses/commentary to their posts were nothing similar of course:)

  32. says

    hmm, Kelly Link is basically saying the same thing. I wonder…is it because she’s talking about unfinished stories/ stories in progress rather than ones already done and about?

    eh, the world makes little sense at the best of times.

  33. says

    John Schoffstall, “I found submitted stories more often failed because they were too conservative… the Same Old Thing, putting a bunch of tired old dwarves, ghosts, and axe murderers through their paces, not because they were peculiar…”

    This goes to my comment about, “reading the market to see what we like.” While some of us can see this as reading in a meta sense, many will look at it as feeding back similar stories. After all, the markets bought those before.

    There could be a larger discussion about what feeds into the cycle is usually what comes out, just processed. All creative endevors have this issue. The creators look and talk to each other, the discuss what’s happening, discuss trends, try to feed their minds, and out comes mostly what they’ve been eating. Some people can look at what’s out there an synthesize something new. Mostly, however, it’s a rediscovery rather than something new. Or a combination of different things in a new way.

    A question would be if you received stories that push the boundries, went somewhere new or different, but had that “tired writing” from a new author, would you be more prone to move those forward? What if that same story was from a BNA?

    Do publishing houses contract with new authors who haven’t produced a full novel before even though they have the “great idea,” or do new authors who haven’t been published before get invited to closed anthos? Isn’t that because the new author needs to show they can produce saleable work, that they can bring an audience. Isn’t this showing that you can play inside the box (again, the box isn’t an excuse for not making a story challenging, exciting, new, or “dangerous,” it’s a box that says you can write to a length, write something good, that you know the market/history/what works/how to tell a story, have the basics down to avoid that “tired writing”)?

    My day job is graphic design. I have design inside boxes all the time. Business cards, they’re 3.5×2 here in N. America. Why, because eveyrthing that is built around them requires that size, and it’s traditional. #10 Business envelopes, 9.5×4.125. If I want a square flap that’s going to cost my client more and I better have a damn good reason for it other than, “I’ve always wanted to do one.” At a former in-house position I had even more restrictions for the “corporate look.” Does that mean I wasn’t “creative” because I had “limits.” BS. It was harder, sure. Sometimes I was called because the powers that be believe I broke their rules, until I showed them that I was working inside their “box.” Ink on paper is another box I work inside. I now work for a printer and I’ve finally seen designs that come in that are unprintable, because the designer just didn’t understand how ink on paper works.

    Again, I am completely willing to be wrong about print publication and writing.

  34. says

    The main problem is far from aesthetic. There’s plenty of talent and technical skill around. Plus the problem with weak fiction, and art generally, extends far beyond fantasy short fiction. The problem is cultural, intellectual, economic – no realms of which are predomantly libratory or thriving in conditions remotely approaching optimal. In fact, in many ways the cultural, intellectual and economic realms – the socio-political – are barbaric or stagnant. Much fiction and other art not only reflects that but propagates it. Thus, in my view, the great need for accomplished libratory lit, liberation lit: http://liblit.org.

    I’ve written in this vein extensively, both critically and imaginatively: http://apragmaticpolicy.wordpress.com/2007/10/22/jeff-vandermeer-lamenting-the-state-of-fantasy-short-fiction/

  35. says

    Yes–this post of mine works best in combination to the one on open anthologies, etc.

    I think the biggest surprise to me is not that there was a lot of blow back on this post, but the personal attacks.

    Jeff

  36. jeff ford says

    “What strikes me is that most of those who have had negative comments have said so, but not engaged in a conversation on this thread.”
    Jeff: In your original posts to me you made it seem that you did not want me posting on your blog anymore, but here, with the above quote you seem to want me to participate. Can’t tell which, but here’s a question —
    I was wondering since you have published novels with Bantam, TOR and Pan Macmillan, none of whom read slush, if these works were triumphs of the merely competent?

  37. says

    Great stuff.

    Regarding a comment above: What gets published most readily is lowest-common-denominator swill

    Greatest Uncommon Denominator agrees. How can I get the folks here to give it a chance? Free copies of any story in any issue, as PDF. Available for sale as PDF or hardcopy to anywhere in the world (in theory). I know we won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (and on the end we’re probably not as “extreme” as some people would want), but our _target audience_ sounds a lot like the folks talking here. GUD welcomes comments, criticism–hell, even a bit of vituperation–we just want to get out there and be given a chance. And our advertising budget sucks. ;) But we’ve got some beautiful stories!

  38. says

    I’ve noticed that so much of what I read is immemorable–or, at least, it fails to resonate enough that I want to dig it up to reread years later. I can think of one short story that I’ve read that just thinking about it makes me want to go find it again… something dragon… “Linda’s Dragon” by [Google search] Brenda Cooper.

    I might admire one author’s worldbuilding skill, but not be the most fond of her character development ability; or maybe I love an author’s banter between two characters, but find her plot development a little weak or confusing. Or maybe I don’t care for the book overall but love a character or two.

    That means there are few books I ever bother to reread, and fewer that I rave about to friends. It makes me sad.

  39. says

    Punk. Lord, how I love to hear that word — particularly sans prefix — mentioned in the same breath as science fiction and fantasy. As an aesthetic, punk is indeed sorely and sadly lacking in the genres. Crude, sharp, shocking, ugly, cynical, joyful, fucked up, cocky, crass, excessive, raw: Few writers go there, and when they do, they’re ignored or marginalized.

    I understand and sympathize with the whole argument against the soft, smothering tyranny of competence. But to me, that’s a secondary issue. Competent storytelling is just a tool — one that could and should be used more often in the pursuit of the transgressive and the transformative, as much of a bludgeon as a ballpoint. To me, that’s what punk was originally about, and that’s what science fiction and fantasy have long stopped being about.

    Yeah, I’m biased. Together, punk rock and SF/F changed my life as a young adult. On my sunniest days, I’d even say that change was for the better. And although I still consume a good chunk of genre fiction being published today, short and long, I can’t help wonder: Why aren’t there more Slatterys and Mievilles out there? Where are today’s Ballards and Disches? Why isn’t SF/F fucking LOUDER?

    I was first drawn to this writing because it was made, by and large, by erratic, outspoken, risk-taking crackpots with a twisted way of looking at existence that could never be subsumed into mainstream lit. Now I see way too many genre writers spending more time parsing market trends than trying to forge their own way. You don’t need — God forbid, especially for balding folks like me — a mohawk to inject a little punk into your prose. You don’t even need to know anything about punk music or punk culture. You just need some guts. And maybe a spine.

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  1. [...] 17, 2007 Heady Stuff Posted by Mark Newton under news   Jeff VanderMeer has a few things to say about the state of fiction today. I was reading through an old batch of Interzones and New Worlds while Ann and I selected stories [...]

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