storySouth Million Writers Award, 2011
I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on this year's fiction. I particularly wanted to point people to the stories I enjoyed--either so they can go vote for their favorite, or just so they can go peruse some fine online reading.
Of course, if people have the time, you can't go wrong reading all ten!
My favorite, hands down, was "Cancer Party" by Nicola Mason, which originally appeared in BLACKBIRD. A witty, subtle, and cynical story told in second person from the perspective of a group of thirty-something friends, one of whom has recently been diagnosed with cancer. The story smartly eludes cliche and sentimentality, revealing some of the harder, stranger edges around mortality and middle age. It pulls some of the humor-in-absurdity of Pahlaniuk, and combines it with intelligent observations of an ensemble cast's humanity that reminds me very much of Sondheim's "Company." This was a great find, and easily places among my favorite short stories from the past year.
"Arthur Arellano" by Viet Thanh Nguyen (NARRATIVE) presents an interesting character portrait of a man who finds himself with little to recommend his life as he enters late middle age. He deals with problems with his health, his family, and his marriage, eventually realizing that even the parts of his life he thought were going well were premised on lies. The relationships, characters, and situational premises are intriguing, and the Arthur himself is well-drawn and understandable. The tone moves from a sort of witty detachment to a more saturated scenic presentation, and overall, I felt the story could have done with more grounding of both characters and settings. I also wasn't entirely convinced by the ending--it felt like the right ending, but perhaps not as well set-up as it could have been. But there was interesting stuff here to read and consider.
I also enjoyed "The Incorrupt Body of Carlo Russo," (ECLECTICA) although perhaps not enough to consider it award-worthy. In brief, intense vignettes, the story chronicles the life and death of the titular Carlo Russo, along with the discovery of his incorrupt body. The lush writing and specific detailing of place and peculiar incidents were enough to make me interested in the reading, and mostly satisfied by it, but I would have been happier with more character development to give me a stronger sense of investment in the outcome. The title and the first section rob the piece of suspense... which isn't necessarily a problem, but it would have been nice if the lack of suspense had been replaced by another strong driver for moving me through the story. Also, I felt that the story looked away from its ending a bit, rather than exploiting its potential to go somewhere more interesting. But this was definitely an interesting read and I liked the vignette format.
I like Amal El-Mohtar's Nebula-nominated "The Green Book" (APEX)--in which a book that records a dead woman's consciousness provides the medium for a love affair--but I don't like it quite as much as other people seem to. The story is an involving read, with a clear and satisfying story structure, and some nice spec ideas--but I don't see it as particularly transcending that structure to reach for anything more profound. It felt, to me, like a well-done example of a kind of speculative fiction story I've read a number of times. That's not a bad thing, by any means; I like reading those stories which is why I continue to do so. But it's not usually what I'm looking for when I go to select a "best of." I suspect from other people's reactions that they had a strong involvement with the characters as specifically characterized individuals which I just didn't have.
Neither of the other two stories on this ballot originally published in speculative fiction markets particularly ring my bell--"Arvies" by Adam Troy-Castro (LIGHTSPEED), also Nebula-nominated, is a parody of anti-choice politics that felt both too heavy-handed and too long for me. I don't mind political didacticism to a point, but I felt like that point was about 1/4 of the story's length, after which I wasn't really getting anything new from the metaphor. Yes, it is creepy that anti-choice politics care more about fetuses than born women; yes, the metaphor is a clever way of showing that; yes, the writing was well-drawn. But I didn't get much more from it than that.
"Elegy for a Young Elk" by Hannu Rajaniemi (SUBTERRANEAN) was one of those stories I just failed to get into. I suspect an aversion to something about the exposition which sometimes gives me a kind of FATAL INABILITY TO READ 0000 OUT OF CHEESE error. I hope I get a chance to read his novel someday soon, though.
I didn't have much reaction to the other stories on the ballot, positive or negative, except for "Hell Dogs" by Daphne Buter which made me angry in that "WHAT. WHY. WHY WOULD THEY EVEN PUT THIS IN A MUSEUM. GIVE ME BACK THE TWO MINUTES I SPENT READING THIS SO I CAN SPEND THEM BEING INDIGNANT INSTEAD." spluttery way that's probably not indicative of much other than me + the story = not a match made in OKCupid.
So, that's about it. If you've got time, definitely go read "Cancer Party" because it rocks so many socks. Also, the other stories are out there, too, looking doe-eyed at you, hoping you'll pick them up and give them a rifle.
And maybe vote if you want to.
Thanks to Jason Sanford for putting in the time and energy to create a forum for talking about online fiction.