A couple of months after I joined the local branch of California Writers Club, I was invited to join the committee that will screen submissions for the local group’s yearly anthology. Initially I agreed to join, but now that I know more (more than I want to know) about what’s being published in the group’s anthologies, I’m afraid I’ll have to back out. I don’t know why I was asked; the head of the committee didn’t ask me a thing about my experience or taste in stories; but I had already been interviewed by another member for a new member’s profile, so perhaps the committee guy had some advance idea that I was qualified.
After a bit of back-and-forth on the subject of length limitations — this year the permitted length for short stories has been bumped up from 2,000 words to 2,500, and if you think that’s still awfully short, you’re right — the guy offered to lend me a couple of the existing anthologies. I think his idea may have been that I would be surprised at how much can be accomplished in 2,000 words.
Whereupon, I sat down and read 15 or 20 of the published stories.
It would be true, but far too simple, to say that they’re all dreadful. They’re like Tolstoy’s unhappy families: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Not that all good stories are alike, but I trust my point is clear. Each of the authors fails, but the failures are diverse. That presents a problem for the earnest blogger: What sort of underlying flaw can I tease out that may offer the reader of this space some sort of useful insight?
For a discussion of what these stories aren’t, I’d recommend Rust Hills’s wonderful little book Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular.
Hills suggests that a good writer must have originality of perception and utterance. The stories in the anthology, by contrast, deal with clichéd situations. Okay, I’ll admit that falling in love is a clichéd situation, and lots of wonderful stories have been written about it. But in the anthology stories there is little or no perception of how real people would be in these situations — what they would feel and how they would act.
With a few isolated exceptions here or there, the utterances are humdrum, if not worse. In the opening story in the 2018 anthology, a 16-year-old girl murders her abusive mother. The paragraph describing the murder is a train wreck of confused tone. Some sentences are dark and some are filled with light. I would speculate that the author may have been trying to convey both ideas in a single paragraph — that the girl is horrified by what she has done but also feels gloriously free of an impossible burden — but the way the paragraph is written is not true to the emotions of the girl at that moment. The author is jabbing at an idea, but without enough perception, either of her character’s emotions or of how her utterances will be read, to bring it off.
Hills goes on to suggest that a good short story embodies a shift in the lead character. The lead character is not quite the same at the end of the story as at the beginning, because something significant has happened in his or her life (preferably through his or her own action or inaction) to bring about a change. I don’t see such a shift in any of these stories. True, on an exterior level a girl who has murdered her mother is not the same afterward as before; her circumstances have changed. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she ought not to be quite the same person at the end of the story as at the beginning. In the story I’m mentioning here, that doesn’t happen.
The writers of these stories seem, in most cases, to have seized on the idea that a story ought to tell about something that has emotional meaning — a woman who is uncomfortable nursing her new baby, or a little girl with leukemia, or a young woman who is jilted by her boyfriend but then has an opportunity for a fresh start. (These are all actual examples from the anthology.) That’s a fine idea, but that’s all the stories give us. They’re tear-jerkers, and not very well written at that. There are no meaningful character shifts and no originality of perception or utterance.
Many of the stories are pregnant with possibilities. A good writer could start with the same idea, toss out the whole story, and write something good. But these authors consistently squandered their opportunities by failing to come to grips with the potential of their material. Beyond that, there are more than a few basic flaws of logic, failures of research, shallow characterizations, and poorly structured narratives.
One could, I suppose, defend the anthology by saying, “Well, these people are amateurs. You ought not to judge them by professional standards.” But if that is to be the guiding principle, it doesn’t matter what you put in the anthology. Just pin the submitted manuscripts to the wall and throw darts at them. The tragedy, I think, is that these writers think they’re doing good work. Nobody is coaching them on how to improve their writing.
It’s enough to make me want to start writing short stories again. But I don’t propose to confine myself to a 2,500-word limit, thank you very much.