Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Three

The first branch of Bibliarch that I visited didn't seem to have any more copies of The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories for sale, so I had to pick up a copy of the first issue from one of the local magazine stands. The anthology did come out a few months ago, though, so I suppose that I should have expected supplies to be a bit sparse now. It did only cost me a hundred pesos, at least.

I mention Philippine Genre Stories here because of two reasons: The first is that the publication has just secured the rights to one of my short stories, which is set to appear in their next issue. (This should open my work up to further criticism, if nothing else.) The second is that the digest has shown itself to be quite open to comments and critique -- even to the point of posting e-mail addresses for each of its featured authors -- and I'd like to make a contribution to such efforts. Specifically speaking, I'll be posting a review of both the publication and its contents within a few days.

I am, of course, not new to literary critique. I've both given and taken honest opinions on the written word, honed my skills through a number of discussions on prose and expression, and previously noted my thoughts on the Fully Booked contest winners right here on this blog. Setting all that aside for a moment, however, I will point out that I paid for my copy of the digest with my own money, and am reading it on my own time. This should at least qualify me to give an opinion on the publication, regardless of how people may wish to receive it.

I will, however, discuss what I look for in a good piece of fiction. Everybody follows their own line of logic when doing critiques, I suppose: Any person's critique is therefore a good critique as long as it is consistent with his or her own literary beliefs. In my case, my thoughts follow a certain "chronological" theme in that I feel that I must be satisfied with a short story along the three aspects of past, present and future. This allows me to form an initial "gut instinct" for further analysis.

I get the feeling that nobody out there has understood a single word I've said yet, so I'll explain. Whenever I read a story, I usually ask myself all of three essential questions:

The "Past" Aspect: Have I seen this before?
Despite the presence of a slight traditionalist streak, I'm a big believer in innovation. This, I feel, is particularly important when it comes to Speculative Fiction and other similar experimental genres. I want to reward new concepts, settings and directions, as opposed to supporting tired old backgrounds and plot threads that merely get used over and over again.

This is, incidentally, why most short fiction of a high-fantasy nature tends to leave me unimpressed. A lot of fantasy writers seem to be perpetually stuck in worlds composed of elves, dwarves and orcs where nubile young women wear armor made from silly string and young farmboys realize their destiny to save the universe. This is also why my eyes tend to glaze over at any overuse of technical terms in science-fiction pieces, at any plot thread that revolves around breaking any of Asimov's three laws of robotics, and at any post-apocalyptic scenario where Mel Gibson's Mad Max could easily turn up and chew the scenery.

All this is, of course, quite subjective. Whatever I see as tired and overused may be seen by another person as completely original, and I figure that that's perfectly all right as long as we can all make our own distinctions.

Copies and homages (as well as plagiarism) do fall under this category, in case you were wondering about those. If I read something that immediately reminds me of something else I've read before, I usually check whatever references I can find before saying anything. If the work does make an effort to be original in other parts, then I judge it according to those remaining vestiges. (This was, in fact, the logic I used when noting the passages in "A Song for Vargas", back during the Fully Booked awards.) All writers are readers too, after all, and some of them will want to make mention of their favorites. I figure that it's just a question of separating the two before settling on a final opinion.

The "Present" Aspect: Is this catching my eye?
The worst thing I feel a story can do, I suppose, is put me to sleep.

A story is supposed to be able to grab your attention, propel you through fifteen-odd pages of random sentences, and then give you a gentle feeling of satisfaction once you put down the book. This is as much a matter of style and creativity as well as skill and execution; You want the reader to genuinely immerse himself in the literary experience, not feel like a rat trapped in a never-ending maze.

I'll even go as far as to state that a lot of pseudo-philosophical settings and lecture-stories fall into this trap. It's not that I reject them outright, mind you, but these works tend to be short on story and long on personal essay. Either the characters are extremely stereotypical, or the exposition is lacking, or the ending is trite. Stories of this nature make you want to put the book down right there, and then go out and do something else.

Again, this is also quite subjective. Whatever puts me to sleep may just as easily be a heart-gripping read for anyone else. The distinction lies in exactly where our respective thresholds are; I'm afraid to say that mine isn't very high when it comes to this sort of thing. It really depends on who you are, I suppose.

The odd circumstance does occur every now and then, though, and it usually happens whenever I'm distracted from the story by... well, something. It could be anything, really -- a misspelled word, a missing punctuation mark, a couple of transposed pages -- all of these could easily ruin a perfectly good reading experience. While this does technically count as "catching the reader's eye", it's simply not the story that's doing the catching, and it lessens one's interest in the work proper. I try to avoid judging pieces by these unfortunate occurrences, unless the distraction is really too huge to be ignored.

The "Future" Aspect: Would I want to read this again?
The simple action of finishing a reading session will cause different reactions with different pieces. Sometimes you'll collapse against the back of the chair and mutter something about finally finishing the story. Sometimes you'll just sit there for a few moments, taking more than a few deep breaths before forming the word "Wow" with your lips.

I believe that the value of a story goes far beyond that, though. Where a good story will certainly leave an impression on you, a truly great story will make you want to sit down and re-experience that same impression once again, sometime in the near future when all the appropriate planets are aligned. These stories are good enough to make you carry pieces of them wherever you go, and those are the things that I look for. Any story that's not memorable enough to make me want to pursue it is one that has fallen short of the mark.

Yes, this is subjective; All three of these aspects are highly subjective. Critique is a question of subjectivity, in case you haven't noticed yet. My favorite short stories -- the ones I read and reread all over again -- are obviously completely different from your favorite short stories. What's more important, I feel, is that some stories must exist that leave us these impressions. Otherwise, well... why would we be reading anything in the first place?

I must mention at this point, however, that a lot of modern stories depend on carefully-laid subtlety in order to work. These stories usually incorporate a plotline twist of some sort, or construct complex lattices of characterization, or at the very least hide something that only gets revealed to the reader later on. This actually makes it far easier to judge a book by how much you want to reread it, I think. A good story should be able to transcend this ability of revelation -- it should transport you to the point where you're reading the chapters for the first time, and therefore should allow you to experience the feeling of surprise all over again. Few works have this sort of "recyclability", and it's not something that we can voluntarily stuff into every new piece of writing.

Any story that you feel you want to read again for purely personal reasons is a good story... or at least, that's how I feel about it. That's also why I stock a library of very well-worn books.


That's that, of course. I follow a lot more lessons whenever I enter into a critiqual mood, but these are the three dictates that allow me to form my initial opinions. I'll note that the past skill and reputation of the author (as well as the prestige of the publication in question) doesn't necessarily fall under any of these three aspects, and I don't think they should; Writers and editors are only about as good as their most recent work, after all.

Sharp-eyed people will most likely have noticed that these three tenets can be adapted as writing lessons as well. I suppose that this is due to the fact that I approach critiquing from both a writer's and a reader's point of view. Different people out there will obviously approach their judgement from different areas, however, and that's why we won't necessarily agree with each other. But hey, at least you get more opinions to make you think.

I'm almost done with Philippine Genre Stories' first issue, by the way. Once I'm done, I'll let you know how I think things turned out. It may be pretty, or it may be pretty ugly. Whatever the case, it'll be honest. And that's really what I want to go for, anyway.


Der Fuhrer said...

hah.lets comapre notes.

I got me copy during thePSFv2 launch. Heheh.

Sean said...

Fuhrer: Sure. I knew I should have picked my copy up earlier, though. :)

Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

"A lot of fantasy writers seem to be perpetually stuck in worlds composed of elves, dwarves and orcs where nubile young women wear armor made from silly string and young farmboys realize their destiny to save the universe." -Precisely why I find Christopher Paolini's Inheritance trilogy to be such a disappointment. I'm done with Eldest, and it was as much a letdown as Eragon (although admittedly, not as bad as the movie).

On the other hand, a story where a young Mel Gibson shows up outfitted in leather... that I could live with, postapocalyptic scenario or otherwise. :p

Sean said...

Ailee: Mad Max, yes. Mad Max clone, no. If you create a setting, then I suppose that you have a right to play around in it. Otherwise, well, there's no shortage of ideas about future scenarios, is there? :)

Der Fuhrer said...

Gah. So true. I wasn't even halfway Eragon when I gave up. No shred of originality.

Sean said...

Fuhrer: *Sigh* That's another movie added to my "Don't Watch" list, then.