Alec Austin (alecaustin) wrote,
Alec Austin

Some Thoughts on Reviews, Comprehensiveness, and 'best' short stories

So let's talk a little bit about short fiction reviews, the rhetoric of 'best', and stuff like that.

Neil Clarke had an editorial recently in which he argued that short fiction reviews don't have much value - his proxy for 'value' being whether they drive readership, in terms of measurable impact on incoming web traffic. With some exceptions - he stipulates that reviews on high-traffic sites, Amazon, and reviews that focused on a single story instead of multiples can be significant - individual recommendations ("read this!") on twitter or other social media appear to motivate reading more than your average review.

This reminded me of something I've been thinking about lately, which is that I think it is unreasonable for any individual to attempt to read and review all or even most of the short fiction being published in the field right now.

I think this for several reasons, the first of which is holy shit have you seen how many stories are out there? Even if you ignore anthologies - which you'd have to, there are only so many hours in the day - there are literally dozens of professional-quality markets publishing short science fiction and fantasy at present. I have my favorites; if you read short fiction at all, you probably have yours; and there isn't necessarily any overlap between them.

This brings me to my second reason, which is that "the field" of SFF is probably better understood as several overlapping fields, which each share (some of) their readers. If a reader's taste is not notably catholic, and they try to read "everything", even for fairly curated values of everything, they are going to be reading a lot of stories that they don't like, not because the story fails to do what it sets out to do, but because they are not the audience for that story, or the story next to it, or basically anything published in those three magazines over there ever.

(As a brief illustration of these divisions within a single magazine, consider that Brad Torgersen, davidlevine, and mrissa - as well as your humble correspondent - are all multiply published in Analog. There are significant generational, rhetorical, and political fault lines you can draw there, which I feel produce highly diverse aesthetic results. Remember, this is within one magazine, and the subgenre of hard SF. I would argue that the field as a whole is even more fractured.)

Returning to our reader of "everything", not only is reading lots of things they don't like probably going to make them cranky and resentful, but it's not particularly fair to the venues or authors whose work will end up being held to standards they were never trying to meet in the first place. Yes, this Chinese-inflected military SF story *is* a remarkably bad science-fantasy romp. What a useful and actionable observation, hypothetical reviewer!

Furthermore, anyone who sets themselves such an overwhelming task is likely to become frustrated, burn out, and/or develop a jaded palette (or, slightly more generously, neophilia) along the way-- and when they do, one can expect it to spill over into their evaluations. How it does will vary: perhaps a rant about how X group with Y politics is doing Z to ruin [genre]; perhaps highly capricious recommendations and recommendation criteria; perhaps something else entirely. Point being, based on both thought experiments and recent evidence, reviewing "everything" doesn't seem like a particularly healthy behavior for people to adopt.

But how will we know which stories are the absolute best of the year, an interlocutor might cry? Well, if your standard is which of the thousands of published stories you would enjoy or admire or appreciate the most if you read them, you probably won't, and that's fine. "Best", when applied to fiction (or anything else without rigorous, unambiguous evaluation criteria) is an inherently contingent claim. The frequency with which it pops up in hashtags, award names, and anthology titles just speaks to our society's desire for rankings, lists, and certainty. The claim of bestness has rhetorical force and marketing value, but when we let the tyranny of total orderings prevent us from recommending good things to our friends, or nominating works we enjoyed for awards because they might not reach some imagined bar of quality... that too is unhealthy, I think. There's a whole literature on maximizers versus satisficers that's relevant here.

The field has grown a lot since it was - I'm told - feasible for a serious reader to be familiar with all the stories published in a year. This is a gift. Read however many stories you want, wherever you want. Don't read stories you don't want to, and don't finish stories you don't want to. Recommend and share things you like, and as mrissa says here, don't sweat whether something will be your absolute favorite or just in your top 27 at some later date. I mean, what a failure state. 27 favorites! Oh, the humanity!

I feel like I'm about to start repeating myself, so why don't we just leave it at that.
Tags: reviews, rhetoric, short stories

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