3.23.2004

What Makes a Great Story?

I prefer reviews that are willing to let a text move them into deeper areas of thought about life or fiction in general or a genre of fiction.

Wayne Edwards has done just that in his Flesh & Blood review for issue 14. He writes:

"I think the difference between good stories and great ones are the small things, things that register on an almost unconscious level."

I couldn't agree more. It seems this is the ultimate task of the author--to seek those little things: from commas to scenery to dialogue to literary connections to... a plethora of writerly concerns.

(A Three-Paragraph Aside: While I buy his general comment, I'm not sure if I buy his specific scenario, in which "picking a random door" differs from "picking a door at random." The former he says is impossible, which doesn't seem to match Merriam-Webster's assessment of the term as an adjective: "chosen at random[, i.e.] 'read random passages from the book'."

The book Edwards chose to review may be as sloppy as he claims, and this was just something that lodged in his craw, instead. But there's definitely a danger in reading things as a stickler for grammar, especially in fiction where writers get a little more experimental in their play.

I'm done discussing Edwards' review, but that's why I love it when reviewer's are unafraid to make statements on the art as they see it: it gets me to thinking!)

Let's take this passage for instance:

"Hang up [the phone] hard, whacked unwitting his elbow, swore and snatched the coffee. Lukewarm, he drank it anyway."*

This stream-of-consciousness style would upset a strict grammarian, but let's consider he or she had read this far. Obviously, the reader would have to fill in the pronoun in the first sentence; but the second sentence, with "Lukewarm" modifying the subject instead of the object, makes sense only at a verbal or consciousness level since it does not follow grammar rules.

But there's another, major problem with reading it in too strict a manner. As Karen Joy Fowler told us at Clarion, assume that the author meant to do what he did. It's possible it's a mistake, but then it's possible that it's exactly what the author wanted you to notice. Too often our genre's better authors are confronted by readers who did not allow the author other possibilities. In this example, Koja may have meant both (via the immediate conscious inference) the coffee and (via a subconscious inference) the protagonist. Can such things be?

Unfortunately, in this case, not much is gained by assuming the author meant anything more than the immediate conscious' inference to the coffee.

But this is exactly the sort of ingenius turn that makes reading a pleasurable, sly and intelligent act that allows careful readers to be complicit in the story's unfolding and to, therefore, remember it. It's what Derrida called "play." Words can have more than one meaning (which does not take away any other potential meaning). It's this sort of act the raises a good story over a great one in my estimation--continual play of character, plot, theme, and/or words.

*From Kathe Koja's "Leavings" in Thomas F. Monteleone's Borderlands 3 and again in Stephen Jones & Ramsey Campbell's The Best New Horror: Volume Five.

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