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. Ben E says

    Jeff – this isn’t a comment on the blog entry, but rather a strange experience while reading it:
    Halfway through the seventh paragraph I had vivid recollection of moments in a dream where I was hanging out at your and Ann’s house. Well, my dream of your house – having never met in person, or visited the country you reside in makes it a bit hard. But I can clearly picture the lounge, the paint and handle on a drawer, the kitchen chairs, a plush red bean bag. There’s fragments of conversation there as well.
    I can now remember having the dream at least a year ago, but it only bubbled through to my consciousness now. Isn’t the human mind a funny thing?

  2. says

    I don’t think the problem’s writing for the actually existing adolescent so much as writing for a misty pink vision of our own inner adolescent seen through twenty or thirty years of nostalgic fog.

  3. says

    If you’re arguing that the short fiction scene is currently “broken” then I’d agree with you.

    I think that the quality levels vary hugely from story to story and from issue to issue. The last issue of Interzone, for example, had one great intelligent and subtle story and one story that really could have done with a few rewrites as it was not ready for publication (and indeed might never have been).

    However, if you look at the critical response to that last issue of Interzone you won’t find much consensus as to which were the good stories and which were the uninteresting, derivative, unoriginal and pants ones.

    I suspect that what is different between now and the old days is the lack of coherent aesthetic communities. If you look at the big SF zines you’ll frequently find them associated with movements or at least communities. Obviously I’m thinking of stuff like Cheap Truths and New Worlds but those were very much house organs for SF communities.

    Now there are still SF communities but they’re hopelessly scattered and the magazines lack the editorial boldness to go for a particular style so they try and please everyone and therefore not only pleasing no one but also giving off an impression that, whatever your tastes, there’s a hell of a lot of shit out there that you have to wade through.

  4. says

    For my dollar, I think this is a reaction to the content industry’s commoditization of entertainment. What gets published most readily is lowest-common-denominator swill, because that’s what sells to the most people and because that’s easier to quantify – to turn into a bottom line metric. Possibly writers are responding to vanilla editorial requirements because they simply want to eat.

    So that’s what I think you’re arguing against Jeff, writers who accept a career catering to an established market rather than accepting the risk and uphill effort to carve out a new one. Put the blame on Wall Street, and let the everyday writers enjoy their cigars and rich chocolate. While they can.

    Maybe I’m a Pollyanna but my faith in human creativity suggests that the wheel will continue to turn and we’ll again see plenty of short fiction that raises the short hairs. (I’ve lived long enough to see this happen a couple of times.) A few brave souls are in fact working in that direction today. ;-) Too few though, for sure.

  5. says

    Although this isn’t SF, I’ve had a similar reaction this week as I finished reading the latest “Best American Nonrequired Reading.” What I found there was Big Stories About Things That Really Matter (c) – troubled marriages, immigrants and their various challenges, blah blah blah….and the thing that I was thinking as I read this was “Wow, this is incredibly sturdy and workmanlike but ultimately uninspired and dull.”
    As ostensibly focused on Important Things as these stories were, there was sort of an air of self-righteous personal indulgence, and an insistence in yoking the skeleton of the short story to today’s social issues, rendering the art facile and surface deep – like it really didn’t matter how crappy the stories were as long as they were “on message.”

  6. says

    More on that:
    Where does the responsibility lie? Are the writers not challenging themselves? The editors not strict enough? The Writer’s Circles and Workshops all broken and mediocre?

    I was reading some stuff recently (some new mags I won’t name by name cause that’s mean- although doesn’t that make me part of the problem?) and just realized that a lot of stories that are out there are, as you say, good. Not great. Not brain opening. Not fuck me that’s awesome.

    Should writers stop writing works when they realize they aren’t pushing far enough? I’m starting to think yes, yes- that should be the case. We should always be pushing and shoving and brain blasted.

    I’m thinking now of the opening story to the latest PostScripts. I can’t remember the name of it (cobwebs? maybe?) and how until the ending it was just a mediocre story. And yet the Fix called it great. I didn’t see greatness. I saw maybe a hint of it at the end (where they talked of men in shadows, and crayons and all this great stuff).

    With that said- is there any work lately you would consider great?

  7. says

    I feel the same way actually Matt… there’s a set of “issues” that get turned over and over but they’re largely the same idea expressed repeatedly. When was the last time you saw a work of fiction vigorously defend the Neocon war on terror? when was the last time you saw a work of fiction suggest that actually, if you stop stressing about your relationship you’ll probably be okay in the long run.

    Not that either of these things are true but then at least there’d be some kind of dialogue. Too much art is a monologue addressed to people who are only half interested and composed of ideas that matter only to the person expressing them.

    Writing seems to increasingly flow from a lifestyle choice or an act of identity politics and not out of a desire to engage with anything real.

  8. says

    How can you write anything without having social issues creep into the work? Unless you are cloistered away from everything, politics and the problems of the day SHOULD find their way into your fiction, through the subconscious at least. I don’t want to read something where the author is flogging me over the head with a story that was never created as anything but a soapbox, but I also think that the core issues of current culture are going to be driving certain themes in any modern writers work, whether they realize it or not. From a sociological standpoint, the fiction we are producing right now ought to be an insight into the problems we face everyday, how we view those problems, and where our culture is heading in the future as a result.

  9. says

    Over here via Moles — and this post (and the previous one on the subject you wrote when BAF came out) reflects exactly how I feel. I’d rather read a story that’s flawed and out of its mind than one that’s clean and sanded. That’s what I love about reading “classic” SF — these people break fundamental fiction rules, sometimes not wisely, but write with such abandon that it’s exhilarating to read. The middling, self-satisfied stories that I read make me legitimately angry, at this point. I don’t understand why people want to do something as draining, time-consuming, and (from many points of view) pointless as writing fiction and turn out such passionless, dishonest work. So many of these stories tell just enough that neither the author nor the audience is uncomfortable. Why? I mean, honestly? It makes no sense.

    And I have to say, I don’t think ‘workshops” or “the adolescent” are to blame. Bad workshops, maybe, where everyone asks only for “good enough” — actually, I’ve been in workshops like that, and they’re existentially terrifying, because you watch an echo chamber at work. But good workshops can be a total wake-up call for a mediocre piece, especially if the workshop knows the writer well. And adolescents are very demanding readers. Yes, they enjoy tripe in greater numbers than most adults ( I have students quoting Epic Movie at me, for christsakes), but they also have minds more open for innovation and passion. They crave entertainment, yes, but they detest mere competence even more than enlightened adults.

    Honestly? I think editors could ask more from their writers, and primarily, writers could ask more of themselves. I suspect a lot of people write much more than they read, so perhaps they don’t even know what there is to reach for — or what’s we’re already drowning in. The other thing is the “wordcount” or “sale” mentality. Clarion was an incredible and artistically fulfilling experience for me, but one of the harmful things we left with was the idea that publishing was the goal, ie if you’re publishing, you’re succeeding. Clearly, we should be expecting more of each other and ourselves.

  10. says

    Meghan–Nice comment! I agree on just about everything you say. Re the adolescent, I think David fleshed out more what I was thinking about there. I don’t mean teenage readers but the nostalgia he speaks about in his post. I.e., we’re writing for some hazy, half-remembered, half-assed teen we never were. That’s not at all clear in my post.

    I don’t think I mentioned workshops above. I’ve always been suspicious of workshops, but my recent experience teaching at Clarion was wonderful, and my opinions on that subject have changed substantially over the years.

    JeffV

  11. says

    Ennis –
    SF particularly has always been useful for asking questions about today’s issues, and I don’t mean to suggest that a perfect form of escapism is a superior goal. However, it seems that sometimes writers appear to think that just because their story is about Today’s Big Issue it should excuse them of other accusations, such as whether their piece is any good or if it’s boring as sh*t.
    What’s especially frustrating to me is that some of these writers I talk about basically take a slice-of-life narrative about their parent’s divorce or something and then try to redeem it by tacking on some kind of twee zen koan of an ending, like that’s supposed to infuse what’s basically a tedious and self-indulgent journal entry with a kind of symbolic magic.

  12. says

    hnh, I’ll agree with Jonathan re: act of identity politics. It gets tiring, extremely so. Thing is, what makes me tired is not the issue, or the agreement of on a standpoint, what gets to me is the identical layering and rendering of thoughts on the same issue and topic.
    And that stretches a bit beyond what Jonathan was getting at probably.

    An example of what sums up a few things for me quite well:

    Reading Lois Tilton’s review of Strange Horisons recently made me pause and consider (and here I have to ask the same question Paul did* – why are we tiptoeing around Naming Names? Are we that scared of offending the fragile egos of others? or is that indicative of how little criticism genre writers and markets are willing to take? where’s the dialogue re: short fiction as anything more than a generality? why don’t we talk specifics)
    back to point, and I quote:

    “I can’t work up a lot of enthusiasm for Yet Another abuse story narrated by a child listening to the sound of slaps from the dark sanctuary of her bedroom.”

    think about that – abuse is a pretty damn serious issue. We should write about it, certainly.
    I read this story. Thought it pretty decent.
    But I have to agree with Lois Tilton – the presentation itself is becoming by rote.
    It’s a worrying thought that apathy and a feeling of “oh, no, not another one!” will set in when reading a story about a subject which is, by its very nature, important and deserving of attention.

    Too many stories feels by the numbers. It’s good, yes, but I want more. I want the impression that the writer is striving for greatness, for ambition, for vision, hell just striving for more. And I’m not getting it.
    I’m getting clean. neat. clever. comfort zones. sterile. emulate, not create.
    sameness of thought re: execution and method and timing of delivery.

    *I do happen to like and read Strange Horizons. I dislike feeling I can’t point to specific examples when I need to, and in this case it serves a purpose. But for whatever reason, using an example can also be seen as a disapproval/ disparaging of the market itself. So, just in case and to clarify a bit, I do like the market and this wasn’t a bad story. It was just ok.

    Where does the responsibility lie?

    Everyone, probably.

    Having said all that, here’s a question:

    Will people recognize greatness when they see it? Do editors respond to what they wish/ are conditioned to see, or what they have never seen before? Do readers?
    I have a huge distrust of any writer claiming to have done something groundbreaking, new or provocative. That tends to be something we assign after the event, not before it happens.
    Just don’t know if it’s possible for writers to be able to measure their own work and see sparks of something extraordinary while it happens.

    Still, would we as readers (and those who are editors and publishers) recognize something extraordinary when we see it?
    We, all of us, are conditioned to come to a story with pre-assumed notions of what it’s supposed to be and how story is meant/ intended to be conducted. And when it isn’t, very often our immediate reaction is “I don’t like it.”
    But that deviation right there is where story turns from good and becomes great. Or utter shite of course.

    So, yeah, I do wonder whether we will recognize greatness when we see it? or will it come after it has been accidentally allowed to wander into publication and we have had time to digest it?

    According to reviews – we see greatness several hundred times a month.
    Now, that’s not possible. If it is, we need to invent a new word for “great” or maybe scales of greatness. Cause it would seem that we – anyone who gets a story pubbed at a mag that gets reviewed – is great by default. You have to work to suck.

    Last thought from the cricket world:

    When Gary Sobers was asked whether Brian Lara was a great player he said, “He can be great, but he’s not there yet. Is he a genius? Then we would have to invent a new word for Don Bradman.”

  13. says

    Great post, David. I’m going to respond more a little later, but I thought this need responding too right now:

    ————-
    I have a huge distrust of any writer claiming to have done something groundbreaking, new or provocative. That tends to be something we assign after the event, not before it happens.
    Just don’t know if it’s possible for writers to be able to measure their own work and see sparks of something extraordinary while it happens.
    ————-

    Right- but the question isn’t “can they tell greatness”, but rather “can they tell mediocrity”, and I would have to say that yes, I think writers know when they aren’t going full cylinder. When they are holding back, pulling their punches. I think writers have to challange themselves not to do it by rote- to see these things and push beyond it. Challenge themselves, for fucks sake.

  14. says

    Hey Jeff — glad you liked my comment. I know you didn’t mention workshops, but several of your commentors did, so I guess I was going for the one stone many birds approach…

  15. Alice McGovern says

    Writing is (can be) exploration, as this newcomer to the act of writing has discovered, beautiful, difficult, exhilarating exploration. (Potentially) A deep exploration into our lives, our world, our creativities, our selves. Very personal journeys but which others can often relate to.
    It is accompanied by an investigation into, and a development of, the means, the tools by which we might articulate and express all of this.

    And all of us writers exploring and developing simultaneously, but we’re all at different stages.
    Thus, one man’s shiny, new, hard-earned, exciting discovery might be another man’s drab old hat.

    And all of us writers with our unique perspectives and filters and experiences and understandings and abilities.
    Thus one man’s delicious meat is another man’s foul poison / grandfather clock / pet armadillo.

    Am i embracing diversity in terms of ability, of attitude, of drive, of competence, even?
    Totally. We’ve all got to explore, no matter where we find ourselves. It’s what makes life fun. And i can’t stand the bullying of elitism.

    Does this have any relevance to this post?
    I don’t know, does it?
    Am i off track?

    I like Dave Larsen’s faith in human creativity to redeem any impending ‘crises’

    JeffV, i love your dedication to your craft and i think you’re a great talent.

  16. says

    Alice-
    He’s not talking about stages here, he’s talking about published fiction. And fiction published in well paying, professional venues. Shouldn’t they be pushing themselves harder? Trying harder? Why should anyone be satisfied with simplicity?

    Don’t look at it from writer’s point of view. Look at it as a reader. We can’t be forgiving, we can’t just read and let things go. Writing and reading should be dangerous acts, and I had forgotten that until recently (and was damn close to just throwing in the towel because everything I wrote felt dried stale and boring and then I threw it away and did stuff that excited me- and the next day I see this post and its odd, like worlds smashing together because this was exactly what I thought- yet had not articulated yet).

    What we need is another pro paying venture that accepts only stuff that is dark and deadly dangerous. Like New Worlds.

  17. says

    There’s a real danger in the marketplace, because of commercial pressures, that anthos and mags can allow themselves to get caught up in the search for “names” to help sell their product. This also applies to year’s best anthologies, to some extent. You can understand the need, but it has to be balanced with other considerations. And I do feel that the current atmosphere in genre has swung much too far toward the wrong end of the pendulum.

    JeffV

  18. says

    Oh I agree- the sad thing is that names sell. I’ve done some editing (outside of GrendelSong recently) and noticed that names were the most important thing. Which is sad.

  19. says

    Whither the fire, eh?

    Setting aside the fact that most wild types wouldn’t want to put in the long hours of chair-sitting necessary for writing fiction, what does it mean if things are bland? Either the writers aren’t out there, or if they are, they aren’t being allowed through the door.

    Well, I know for a fact that the writers are out there since I’ve worked with some of them. Savoy Books have been flying the post-NW flag for thirty years now, to the general indifference of the sf/fantasy world, which is why most people still say “Savoy who?”. (I don’t include you in that, Jeff.) David Britton’s three Lord Horror novels are fearsomely imaginative, visceral and–yes–dangerous, but when have they been reviewed or mentioned by any of the genre mags? I just designed Lucy Swan’s debut novel for Savoy, The Adventures of Little Lou, which continues the Lord Horror mythos from her own perspective. You won’t find a more “punky” book this year but genre magazines and Year’s Best books would hate it for its excessive violence, misanthropy, racism (yes, that) and generally bad attitude. Lucy Swan is a tremendously inventive and witty writer but she wouldn’t be allowed in any of the magazines, or even small press publishing houses. Her writing would be dismissed as “bad” when what that would really mean would be “We can’t publish this because we disapprove of it. If we did publish it, people would disapprove of us.”

    New Worlds received plenty of disapproval from the sf world but ignored it. When NW was active, William Burroughs was held up as one of the figureheads of aspiration for many of the writers there, Ballard especially who wrote the first piece about Burroughs in NW. How many sf/f writers today read Burroughs or writers like him? How many read *anything* outside a narrow range of genre fiction? How many read only fiction?

    How about a moratorium on endless politeness and self-congratulation? How about giving up on all the awards and conventions and writing blurbs for each other’s books? (When did you last hear a genre writer refuse an award or the offer of a guest appearance at a convention?) How about disbanding all those fantasy and sf societies and cosy cliques? How about really giving those nitwit Amazon commenters something to complain about, all those twats that say they “can’t identify with the characters in Viriconium?” How about some bad manners? How about it?

    You can’t build a fire when the kindling is damp.

  20. says

    John, this in particular resonates with me:

    “How about a moratorium on endless politeness and self-congratulation? How about giving up on all the awards and conventions and writing blurbs for each other’s books? (When did you last hear a genre writer refuse an award or the offer of a guest appearance at a convention?) How about disbanding all those fantasy and sf societies and cosy cliques? How about really giving those nitwit Amazon commenters something to complain about, all those twats that say they “can’t identify with the characters in Viriconium?” How about some bad manners? How about it?”

  21. John says

    Hi,

    I caught this post on an rss feed, and it echoed some thoughts I’ve been having recently about why new stories aren’t exciting me either. I read a fair bit of short fiction, and I’m increasingly finding it mediocre.

    When I try to analyse why, I think it’s because I’m reading for lots of different reasons. Sometimes I read to be transported, sometimes because I fall in love with the characters, and sometimes I’m moved by the stories. But the one thing I’m not after is novelty.

    Yet in guidelines for writers, the same buzzwords crop up:

    new
    original
    new take on an old story
    different

    … not all the time, of course – but often. Actually the stories I love most could be characterised as:

    old
    classic
    familiar tropes done well
    deep

    Perhaps it’s because I haven’t read as many stories as editors and reviewers have and I’m not jaded by repetition yet. I’m still happy to read multiple novels by the same author, rather than keep looking for new ones, for example (Roger Zelazny, I’m thinking of you).

    Now recently I’ve noticed a tendency creeping into short fiction, which I can only describe as the use of quirk to give a story a fresh take. So you get ones that begin:

    “One day Fred’s cabbage spoke to him in Assyrian”, or
    “Mike’s house was lonely, so decided to move to another city.”

    Intriguing perhaps, but hardly deep. And for some reason it doesn’t seem to happen with novels. You can still get novels like they used to make them years ago. It seems unique to the short story market.

    Its for similar reasons that I prefer older films to modern Hollywood blockbusters. A recent review of “Michael Clayton” described it as the sort of film studios used to churn out with solid regularity, but in today’s market might be in line for an Oscar.

    So I wonder – in the search for new approaches, are we mining an ever thinning lode of ideas? Do we really need new takes on old tropes, or couldn’t we just have the old tropes back, well told? I wonder if we’re even barring stories from the market that would have been wonderful thirty years ago. If they were good enough then, what’s wrong with them now?

    I suggest a thought experiment where Fritz Lieber appears and writes a Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser short story with the names changed. Do you think it’d be published? Or would the slush reader’s view be that it’s all been done before?

  22. says

    I think the Grey Mouser stories would still stand out. In fact, that reminds me I’ve got to pick up the Dark Horse reprints.

    As for the issue of new approaches versus old tropes well-told, I think they can co-exist–the new approaches just have to be well-told, too. I like a classic short story as much as the next mammal, but there are stories that are best told in less conventional ways. But what does happen, I think, is that the *fantasy* element sometimes overwhelms the rest of it. Which is to say–in some fantasy stories, the fantasy element provides an excuse to not examine the characters more deeply, to not flesh out the plot more. Because the fantasy element becomes, in an odd way, the plot. I think that’s what you’re talking about with an example like “Mike’s house was lonely, so decided to move to another city.” Yeah, that’s clever, but unless it’s backed up with something solid and meaningful, it’s just another concept in search of a relationship.

    Jeff

  23. says

    “How about a moratorium on endless politeness and self-congratulation? How about giving up on all the awards and conventions and writing blurbs for each other’s books? (When did you last hear a genre writer refuse an award or the offer of a guest appearance at a convention?) How about disbanding all those fantasy and sf societies and cosy cliques? How about really giving those nitwit Amazon commenters something to complain about, all those twats that say they “can’t identify with the characters in Viriconium?” How about some bad manners? How about it?”

    -hell yeah!

    I’m going to put that on my blog, John.

  24. says

    As far as I can see, there is a lot of good work each year.

    There is never, and never will be a lot of great work, compared to what else happens and the competition in that particular year. Great being 5 star, a level above excellent.

    Year’s Best anthologies, if they were 5 star stories only, would be very skinny, certainly. So the rest is 4.5 or 4 star stories for any particular editor, presumably, that they manage to track dow/get the rights to, or whatever else. Maybe one in every several hundred stories perhaps is 5 star.

    To be called great you have to come up with something to compete with, as you say, ‘Ill Met In Lankhmar’ or ‘Scanners Live In Vain’ or ‘Jefffy Is Five’ or ‘Border Guards’.

    Anyone who tells me that there is a lot of stuff as good as the few mentioned above, every year, is full of it, to put it politely.

    Whereas I am guessing more here the 4 star stories might be 1 in 6, or something like that, so plenty to fill ‘best’ volumes of whatever taste.

    Or, to put it another way :

    There are hundreds of good stories a year, but only a handful of great.

    The writer that can turn out heaps of 5 star stories a year, year after year doesn’t exist, and never will, going with what is available at the time.

    There are a few that can approach the 4 star average, that is about it. Smith, Tiptree, Shepard, Egan, Kress, that sort of thing.

    Presumably a writer of that talent level is more likely to produce something greater because it is less of a ‘lift’ to get to 5, whereas your 3 or 3.25 or 3.5 (which is hard to get to itself), has a much longer way to go to do so.

    As a commercial thing, for people that only read an average amount, and can get a ‘Hugo winners’ paperback or Year’s Best book or something like that every so often that is likely to be a 4 star average book, when talking about new work.

    For those people, it is probably not rational in an economic sense to get new work, as it will be inferior, in general.

    Someone that likes to read a lot and find new stuff is a different case, but that is only a small percentage.

  25. says

    Sure, scientific accuracy is not really a fiction thing. It is completely obvious that one person is only talking about what they think, and someone that loves romance stories or Agatha Christie style detectives will have a different list. Or even another SF reader will have a radically different list.

    Even acknowledged great experts say of their story choosing ‘it is just my opinion’, Gardner Dozois in his Year’s Best essay for example.

    Your feeling about something being wrong is not really a scientifically verifiable thing, either, if it comes to that, just your own personal opinion, and obviously others agree.

    Publishing in general is allergic to scientific method it seems. :) It isn’t good at it in general.

    You can get book ratings at all sorts of places, or movie ratings, but a large collection short stories? No. No-one cares enough, not the publishing/editing/writing or whoever people. You’d have to have that to have some sort of mass voting on it. E.g. 2 of 3 Year’s best editors picked this story, but after 2327 votes it only gets an ‘average’.

    However, the opinion still stands. Great stories are rare. Human writers aren’t talented enough to produce them in huge numbers. I am sure I am not the only one that has said this.

    Speaking of science though, on your professional writing talent probability distribution, most are only average or worse, when comparing to other professional type writers of course, not the rest of us 6 billion odd. The probability of human art, if you like. The same, obviously, for basketball players, movie makers, or whatever. ‘Great’ is way out on the right tail of the skill probability distribution for a given activity.

    All that was just commenting on what David was talking about, or you talking about good but not great, as in getting lots of the latter is impossible.

    ‘Great Fantasy Stories’ would be a one book a year publication? How would you agree on it? Use multiple editors? Tthen they wouldn’t all agree with what you thought was great? Neither will any readers, ever. I’ll take Lankhmar over twee or whimsical fairy stories, too.

    How would you stop garden variety work being published? Shoot/lock up/ban/drug writers and editors and publishers that did it too much? Send them to work with the space squid? :)

    If you did do that though there wouldn’t be an industry, just ‘Great Fantasy Stories’ every year. It would just be an art thing, for sure.

  26. says

    No, it’s a good post. Sorry for being abrupt in my last response.

    I think there might be more/other stuff out there, for one thing. And I think we need more and more various gatekeepers. More later.

    JV

  27. says

    Also, as I’ve said before–we live in the world as it is. But we strive for a better one. There are all kinds of arguments for why systems, processes, institutions exist the way they are. But that doesn’t mean we can’t identify the possible problems, weaknesses, or whatever, with them. And think about, and strive for, a different paradigm. Because if we do that, change does occur.

    Of course, human civilization is going to be gone in less than 200 years, so it’s all moot anyway.

    JV

  28. says

    No, striving for improvement is good, no doubt. LibraryThing for stories, or LocusList or ISFDB that was usable, with info and some sort of quality filter would be cool, for sure, as opposed to bibliography.

    Something I just thought of as you mention the nostalgia thing.

    I have seen the reading group being mentioned as aging, so does that follow for the writing group, too, or not?

    e.g. (apart from living longer now) are the professional writers any significantly older as a group than they were say in your Moorcock New Worlds era?

    In general, I presume writers aren’t exactly your classic punk rock age bracket, because it takes a long time to get good enough, if ‘new’ and young types I see mentioned are in their thirties.

    Can still get a lot of good stories in 200 years, just need a side project for a space capsule to contain them and beam ‘em to the next galaxy. Stories might be small enough for some nifty quantum teleportation of bits, anyway, being nicely digitisable compared to the doomed bipedal mammals. :)

  29. Desirina says

    Thanks very much for posting this… I read it yesterday and have been thinking about it a lot.

  30. jeff ford says

    “How about a moratorium on endless politeness and self-congratulation? How about giving up on all the awards and conventions and writing blurbs for each other’s books? (When did you last hear a genre writer refuse an award or the offer of a guest appearance at a convention?) How about disbanding all those fantasy and sf societies and cosy cliques? How about really giving those nitwit Amazon commenters something to complain about, all those twats that say they “can’t identify with the characters in Viriconium?” How about some bad manners? How about it?”

    Jeff: I guess you won’t be going to Utopiales this year or plugging your stuff on your site here anymore. The hypocricy here almost makes me choke. Hey, you want some top notch stories? Then quit spending your time making vague proclomations and write them.

  31. says

    Jeff F:
    I thought that for a moment myself- but one can still be a hypocrit in their own actions and then say something that is right. Right?

  32. jeff ford says

    Paul: Sure. But from what Jeff’s been writing, I know what he’s looking for is honesty, and as his friend I thought that’s what I’d give him.

  33. says

    On the ‘few great stories a year’ thing. This is different for each person, so more out there in that sense, anyway, if that is what you were thinking?

  34. says

    Jeff:

    I already said my post is about the ideal world, not the actual one. I’m a freelancer who has to eat–so is Coulthart. I want to get as many gigs as possible, so long as I don’t do anything that bends me way out of shape. That doesn’t mean I’m a hypocrite any more than any of the rest of us are.

    I guess I should have gone into the specifics of what I liked the most about the Coulthart quote. I like the tone, I like the idea of being less polite, which you’ve obviously subscribed to, I don’t think getting invited to cons has anything to do with this issue, I don’t think the disbanding of various SF societies has anything to do with this issue. The whole awards thing is something I think a lot of people think about.

    I mean, the whole idea was to put forward some theories about why I haven’t been that thrilled with the short fiction I’ve been reading. I didn’t even say I was necessarily convinced about the cause, if you’ve read the whole piece. But I’m not exactly the only person who has blogged about short fiction of late, either.

    Look, if I am going to engage in self-promotion, if I am going to be active in any number of ways that have nothing to do with the fiction, really, then I have to balance that with trying to be honest. It’s vague because it’s not aimed at anyone in particular, dude. It’s about a general feeling I’ve gotten over the last couple of years. And it’s clearly struck a nerve with some people.

    JeffV

  35. jeff ford says

    Jeff: The truth is I’ve said plenty about plenty and gotten myself in hot water for it too. My problem is I just don’t care about a lot of stuff I have no control over; ie, the work of others. I’m not a critic or a reviewer. I’m not making proclomations about it. I figure everyone is doing their level best to do their best. I’m concerned about my own writing. I am invited into a lot of anthologies, because it’s perceived by readers and editors that I often deliver. I apologize for doing well. There were years and years when I didn’t, and I struggled a lot, but I don’t hold that against anyone. But have it as you like. My work aside, because if you like it, that’s fine, if you don’t, that’s fine too. I have little stake in any of this really. My problem here is that you are speaking from some kind of perceived “moral” authority that you don’t afford to others. You are vague in what you prescribe as the short story you are looking for, 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. A good story guarantees a good story. It has nothing to do with awards, blurbs, conventions, etc. It has to do with the writer writing it. I know there are a lot of writers out there who are working diligently to write good stories. Some of them are successful with certain readers and some of them are successful with others and some of them are not successful at all. I like to write a lot of different kinds of stories. I’m constantly trying to discover new ways of telling and conceiving of stories. The track record speaks for itself, or doesn’t. But when you, the King of Hype bemonas the hype as the downfall of fiction, I have to laugh. What’s wrong with me responding here? I thought you were looking for honest opinions. What issues was I supposed to speak out about? The fact that editors don’t have open anthologies. My feeling is that editors should run their anthologies the way they want to. That’s the way they were running them before I was invited into them and pulling stories out of my ass. Some of those ass stories are good ones. I also don’t have anything to do with the critical reception of my work — I leave that for others, so I take no blame when it’s perceived as successful or when it’s not. So I come back to my point, you want good stories out there? For a fiction writer, the only answer is to write the stories they want out there. After that it’s out of your hands. Oh, and calm down. Let’s not let this ruin our day.

  36. says

    Blue:

    I think it’s more that there’s no concrete answer, which doesn’t negate the usefulness of the discussion. My hope is mostly that people who read this who are just entering the field think about the issues brought up and the implications, and hopefully it has some effect on them. I don’t think there’s ever a downside to discussing this stuff, or to strive for something better. Avoiding complacency is a big part of continuing to grow as a writer.

    Now, the downside for *me* to have started this discussion…hopefully minimal, but you never know. But, folks, that’s what leverage is for. If you get to be half-way successful in this field, or you have an effective forum, what’s stopping you from using it?

    Jeff

  37. says

    Well, having deleted the comment Mr. Ford was responding to, his post seems like the ramblings of a madman, so I’ll repost it.

    Jeff

    I have to eat, that’s true. And, as I keep saying, we live in one world, we want to get to another. Yep, I love the Coulthart quote even as I know parts of it just can’t happen in the real world, and I don’t actually think getting invited to cons has anything to do with this issue. But the idea of being less polite and more honest, yeah, that’s something worth talking about.

    My vague pronouncements have obviously struck a nerve with a lot of people, so I don’t know that they’re so vague as to be un-useful. Even if it’s more a mental attitude

    Now let me bust your chops–you have no horse in this race, I know, or all of the horses, depending on your point of view. You live off of entitlements, because you get invited to every closed antho out there and you pull a story out of your ass for a lot of them. You’re also someone who’s pretty established in the center of genre right now, with a lot of leverage. But I never see you put your ass on the line for anything that might possibly hurt your career. Politics, no problem, but you don’t use your leverage for anything else. Now, I know what you think about stuff, and that you have strong opinions, because you tell me, but you never say it publicly. Except on my blog, apparently. That’s brave of you, all right.

    Your Friend,

    JeffV

  38. says

    ———-
    So I come back to my point, you want good stories out there? For a fiction writer, the only answer is to write the stories they want out there. After that it’s out of your hands.
    ———

    Unless you are talking as an editor or as a reader, and not as a writer. Then- well? Should people sit by and read stories that are, at best, decent? Look, shove the hype thing aside. Shove all else aside. What it boils down to is this: lately, short story magazines have been good. But not great. They have been satisfying, but not challenging.

    As a writer you can say “well, then I will write something challenging”, as an editor you can say “I will not play this game anymore, and I will accept only challenging work” but as a reader- well- what to do? Just reread old stories you like? Go out and try and find challenging fiction? But after awhile that gets hard and boring and bad, and most readers don’t have the time to comb through X number of magazines online and off to find stuff that consistently hits it out of the ball park.

  39. jeff ford says

    Blue: I do use my influence at times when I think it will be helpful, mostly in helping newer writers make connections with editors and agents and being friendly toward them when they start. I feel this is something important. I’m just not in the habit of mentioning it. Jeff knows this about me. But you know, I assume everybody is doing this. If you want to ask my opinion about something ask it. I’ve never been shy about saying what I feel.

  40. 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

  41. 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?

  42. 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

  43. 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

  44. 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.

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. 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?

  49. 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

  50. 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.

  51. 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

  52. 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…….

  53. 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.

  54. 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?

  55. 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.

  56. 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

  57. 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.

  58. 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

  59. 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.

  60. 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.

  61. 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.

  62. 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.

  63. 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.

  64. 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?

  65. 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.

  66. 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.

  67. 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?

  68. 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

  69. 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.

  70. 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:)

  71. 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.

  72. 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.

  73. 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/

  74. 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

  75. 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?

  76. 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!

  77. 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.

  78. 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 […]