The problem with short stories, both in reading them and trying to get them published, is that they’re so subjective. As they say about Beauty, Story and Character are also in the eye of the beholder.
This collection of short stories comes from 2004 and I picked it up at the last MileHiCon. The last collection I read from Gardner Dozois kept me spellbound, through my vacation in Maui, no less. That collection had been put together in 2006 and I still remember most of the stories, if not the names of the authors. This collection… did not affect me in the same way.
I read in the evenings before bed and I usually look forward to that time. I usually have to put down the book reluctantly so I get enough sleep. Not this time. I had to force myself to pick up the book when I was in one of the (longer) short stories (I won’t go into which ones felt like a grind). After I finished the collection, with relief, I immediately turned to the table of contents to look over the stories and pick out my favorites.
Guess what? With two exceptions, I couldn’t even remember the stories—not their protagonists, world, environments, moods, or what I’d experienced while reading them—I was totally blank. The exceptions? I remembered The Fluted Girl, by Paulo Bacigalupi, because his dystopian worlds (not my favorite, because they’re so dark) are always memorable and at least the story was about someone interesting doing something interesting. I also remembered Flashmen, by Terry Dowling, perhaps because the characters had quite a bit of backstory and the dialogue and mood were gritty—although the “grand revelation” was weak and made the premise fizzle out.
Remember, this is just my opinion and that’s my point. Obviously, since this collection stated it was “Winner of the 2003 Locus Award for Best Anthology,” others must have really liked it.
What Makes Us Remember Stories?
Just in case I was entering senile dementia and forgetting things, I opened the 2006 collection that I enjoyed and looked at the table of contents. Before my eye scanned the page, I remembered the title and author of “Little Faces,” by Vonda McIntyre (of course, that’s hardly fair, because it was nominated for the Nebulas—perhaps even won, although I can’t remember!) Then, as I started reading the titles, I remembered almost all of them so fondly I wanted to read the volume again. Now that’s the reaction I want, as both reader and writer, from a short story.
Now… how does one get that reaction? I don’t know. I’m not sure even the great (and I’m not being facetious) Mr. Dozois knows. Editors like him have to be able to reliably recognize great stories for the readers of their periodicals, and Mr. Dozois has the reputation of being picky (getting published by The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is very difficult, according to the acceptance statistics on Duotrope).
My Final Caveat
I have to make the point that I’m definitely out of touch with the short story market. That’s why I don’t try to sell short stories (and I roll my eyes when somebody asks me why I don’t try to “boost” my profile by “just selling some short stories,” like it’s as easy as whipping up a batch of cookies!) That’s also why I was so delighted with the 2006 Collection from Dozois. I don’t think I’d read a short story magazine cover-to-cover, let alone an anthology cover-to-cover, since…. the 1980s.
In the past decades, I’ve stopped enjoying SF/Fantasy short stories—at least the ones that get published on the internet and even in print. I’m not alone. My long-time boyfriend in the late 1980s suggested I stop my subscriptions to Analog and Asimov’s, particularly if I was getting them for him. “I just don’t get them any more,” he complained. But perhaps he just wasn’t a hard-core reader of SF/F.
My husband also enjoyed SF short stories when I first met him in the early 90s. I loaned him many copies of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. But after we were married in 2006 and I suggested a subscription, he confessed he didn’t enjoy them much any more. “Now it’s lucky if I like even one of the stories,” he said.
That was my response to a Realms of Fantasy issue I bought a couple years ago. I suppose it’s not fair to judge a magazine by one issue—but it’s fair to say that one issue isn’t enough to generate a subscription from me. In that case, I have to really enjoy at least 2 to 3 issues, and I’ve got to get the impetus to at least pick up several issues, right? Likewise, I’ve got to have the impetus to visit the short story web sites more than once a year, right?
Now you see why I don’t bother to write traditional short stories, at least the ones reviewed by Locus and published on today’s web sites and magazines. If I don’t read them any more, what hope would there be of trying to write one? Now you see why I desperately want to know why most ballyhooed short stories fall short with me. What makes a short story resonate with a reader (me)?