Two Problems

I’m really looking forward to Balticon, not the least reason being I’m taking a writing seminar with Sarah Pinsker.  She’s a thoughtful writer and critiquer (if that’s a word) and she’s got several stories out that I love. Her workshop is specifically about writing literary SF short stories. 

The workshop participants are supposed to bring with them “two problems” to share and discuss.  In the interest of having a coherent set of ideas when I show up, I wrote them down early. I’m pasting them in below. Reader, if you have any comments, please add them below! I’ll try to make a follow-up post afterwards if the discussion yields insights.

1.) How can I ‘set the table’ so that genre readers will be able to recognize and appreciate metaphor?

I wrote a story where a POV character’s significant other broke up with her, and then later had a romantic relationship with an alien.  I tried to illustrate how this made the POV character feel.  I think that SF readers I had were so credulous and immediately curious about the details of the alien, that they ignored the possibility that the alien was there to show how this experience of seeing an old lover take up with someone new made the POV character feel.

Finally, exasperated, I added this paragraph to the story:

“Probably it’s a more common feeling than I imagined then — that your former girlfriend’s new lover is alien, incomprehensible, her feelings absolutely inexplicable. Maybe everyone has felt this way.”

I feel like this kind of ‘signposting’ adulterates the work, but if I didn’t lead genre readers by the hand to this, many wouldn’t consider it, where it might be the very first thing a crit partner at your local MFA program would say.  

A lot of spec fiction readers, hearing about an alien, immediately say, “Cool! What planet are they from?  How do they eat?” Do you, the writer, just abandon these readers, or try to drag them along? This is a classic problem with trying to span literary and speculative audiences. There are surely a lot of literary writers now exploiting spec fiction tropes for the freedom and expressiveness they can offer. 

I want to add that the handwringing that we hear now about “why do we have so much dystopia in SF” is probably related to this.  Writers always are trying to express how they feel. The state of speculative fiction can be understood to be a barometer of national mood, I believe.

2.) Middles, endings, and manipulations – 

Here’s a tweet from someone attending a fiction seminar given by Claire Keegan.  Claire is a short story writer whose work I admire a lot – it’s tough-minded, beautiful in an austere way, extremely sharp in its details.  

“Chekov had such a light touch but always nailed the detail.  Dont worry about PLOT.  A middle & end: hugely arrogant thing[s] in short stories.”  Claire Keegan, transcribed and tweeted by June Caldwell, Irish Writers’ Centre, November 21, 2015.

There are a whole series of tweets from the same seminar, here.

Is Ms. Keegan trolling writers here? I feel like this tweet is a clue to a whole different mode of fiction-writing than (most of) what’s going on in genre fiction.  I don’t think a lot of stories by Hemmingway or O’Connor are going to agree well with this tweet.  But maybe I can begin to see what she’s getting at – that story-writing should or could be more reportorial than manipulative.  SF stories are in general hugely manipulative of their readers. They remind me of billiard tables specially laid out for trick shots – these setups are never going to occur naturally.

There’s also the old story that for many years the New Yorker would consistently edit stories it was to print by simply removing the final paragraph from them.  I don’t know how true that is, but I’ve heard it more than once. 

A parallel to this is a bit I heard in a Kelly Link say in a podcast (“The Drunken Odyssey with John King, Episode 187- Kelly Link!”)  She said that her stories don’t have just one thing going on in them, because life never happens one thing at a time.  This speaks to a kind of naturalism in writing, and honest observation. It agrees with my own philosophy about story writing, but I would say it’s quite different from what the corpus of SF stories generally does.