Readings: Fisking the Finalists of The Argentina Independent’s Short Story Competition

I didn’t read the entries in The Indy’s last short story competition. Instead, I heard them for the first time, read by their respective authors, at the fun, well-attended Book Lover’s Night, where the winner was announced. I can”t even remember which story that was. Second Story‘s bawdy performances were the highlights of the evening,but I’m not sure the people there were even aware of that, given the stultifying squareness that chartacterizes the Buenos Aires’ expat community.

I was bored silly by 4 out of 5 of the stories. And they were all under 1000 words! Only Cliff Williamson’s powerful poem worked well. But then, it’s not fair to judge writing by how it’s read out loud. Orality, or aurality, is not a necessary attribute of good fiction. I tried to pay attention to the language itself but still, I wasn’t impressed.

So, this time I’m reading them. The following critiques are being written more or less extemporaneously, ’cause, ya know, this is a blog. I’m also struggling with peripheral neuropathy in my fingers caused by the chemo treatment I’m undergoing.

October Finalist: Burial Clothes by Jimena Novaro

The mechanics of this story deadens whatever emotional impact it was supposed to have. Because the author is intent on telling rather than showing, and because this is a short story written by an amateur, some character within its narrative must tell us how to think or feel about the main character’s conflict. So we get these declarations from a character who’s not even physically present:

“Honestly, Tommy, whatever you wanted to talk about with your father, you should have done while he was alive. You want me to tell you that you weren’t a disappointment, that he loved you and he knew you loved him? Forget it. I’m not going to give you empty words. It’s over. You missed your chance. I’m sorry to be blunt, but lies aren’t going to help you right now.”

The character speaking is the soon-to-be-divorced wife of the protagonist, Tommy, who’s just come home to bury his father. So now we know pretty much everything we need to know about Tommy’s internal life. Because someone told us.

The last two lines of the story, the one that’s supposed to bring it all home, is also stripped of its power by its obviousness:

She [Tommy’s mother] bent over and kissed the top of his head. “I love you, Tomás.”

Somehow, those words were the most important words in the world.

If the author had done her work, we would already feel this, we wouldn’t have to be told.

Grade: C
Would I publish it as is? No.

October Finalist: The Business of Nautical Negotiation by Colin Docherty

This isn’t a story. It’s a précis. It’s what an author writes, for himself, so he can get a handle on the characters and the setting. Then he dramatizes it. Except, there’s no drama here. There is a promising command of language (except for the unfortunate adjective “meat-soaked” used to describe lunch.) but that’s just a hint of the possibilities of what maybe could have been a funny anecdote illustrating something unique about conducting business in Argentina. Instead, it’s dry and completely free of any dialogue or description that might have brought these characters and situations to life.

I am dreading hearing this read aloud.

Grade: D
Would I publish it as is? Hell, no.

October Finalist: Poor Little Boat by Pablo Alperin

This can either be categorized as a children’s story or as a parable, or both: A neglected, anthropomorphized female boat misses its past when it was appreciated by children and complains about it. A cricket listens and then, at the very end, offers some help. Except I don’t know what it is.

The folks at the Indy must be a lot more perceptive and clever than I am because I have no idea what the story’s final line is supposed to be saying. Regardless, for any of this to work for me it would need some lyrical language. Instead, its style is rather dull and Hemingwayesque: The night was cold. The wood creaked.

Grade: D
Would I publish it as is? No.

October Finalist: Tails by Cliff Williamson

Like Alfred Bester at his most mischievous and ironic, Williamson’s speculative story, in which a fashion designer from the future unveils his latest fashionable body modification, is the first one I’ve read that understands the effects of clever language, and uses them. There are a number of great turns of phrase here — “busty barbarians on stilts”, “Every few minutes he triggered a bigger more beautiful bomb,” and probably my favorite, “Tail touching was an icebreaking leap across a taxonomic gap.”

It’s not perfect — I don’t like the final lines because they veer off with no explanation from the genetic metaphors used throughout the story — and I don’t think the faux-news preamble is necessary since reportage is not the tone of the story anyway. Still, this is at another level all together from the previous stories.

Grade: B+
Would I publish it as is? You betcha.

October Finalist: Forget by Yada Pruksachatkun

I dunno, this isn’t bad for a short sci-fi story in the Golden Age mode. But it’s not exactly coherent, either, and some language choices grated on me — I have no idea what “grabbing fistfuls of air under closed eyelids” even means.

But, the story’s biggest problem is that it’s so rigidly conceptualized that I understood what was going to happen fairly early on. It was an inexorable progression and so the ending just sort of laid there, inert. That’s not what I want from a short story, sci-fi or not.

In conclusion, I can only say that I don’t have much faith in the taste or reading experience of whoever is judging these story competitions at the Indy. Williamson’s is the clear winner here, but since he didn’t win last time, I can only think that the taste of the expat population mirrors the Indy’s.

That only means that there’s room for alternatives. This blog is one. I can’t believe that The Indy’s competition represents the best writing in English in Buenos Aires. If so, we should all just exit our word processing apps and stick to sharing “memes on Facebook.

For two examples of stories that did not get chosen, read Sonya Kunawicz’s submission on her blog here. Despite its spare language, it’s still descriptive, more suggestive than declarative, anchored in a particular place and it goes someplace completely unexpected. I would publish this with only a tiny bit of editing — I think the piece should be broken up into even more discrete and brutal paragraphs, as fits the story.

I also submitted a story that you can read here on my cancer blog. There’s more lovely and lyrical language in a single paragraph there than in the best 3000 words of this month’s Indy competition. And I say that with a complete lack of humility.

I guess I can assume that the Indy has something against both emotion and first-person perspectives, which means they’ve basically ignored that last 15 years of fiction writing in English.

Think you can do better? Submit to me.

Featured photo by josef.stuefer, Creative Commons license.


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