So Now I Review Short Fiction
by Cameron N. Coulter
Posted on June 1, 2018 thoughts
The Skiffy & Fanty Show is a science fiction and fantasy podcast network, mostly focused on prose fiction but with some regular coverage of movies as well. The show also runs a blog filled with reviews of recent genre publications. Skiffy & Fanty is a great place to find interesting interviews, discussions, and reviews.
And now, I’ve joined the team! I’m writing a monthly short fiction review column for the Skiffy & Fanty blog. My first three reviews are already up.
Since falling down the SF rabbit hole a few years ago, I’ve been looking for ways to build community with fellow SF nerds.
This has been tough.
None of my friends have the same passionate interest in literary SF that I do, and for the last few years, I’ve been moving around a lot and working jobs with weird hours, which has prevented me from connecting with local communities. Mostly, I’ve fed my desire for SF community by vicariously listening to The Coode Street Podcast, Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The Skiffy and Fanty Show. More recently, I’ve also been looking for ways to do some labor for the community, to get involved and give back.
Then, back in January, I noticed that Skiffy & Fanty was looking for more contributors to their blog. I knew I should apply. Writing reviews for Skiffy and Fanty would be a great way to fulfill both goals: finding community, and getting involved and giving back. Suddenly, it seemed that the last year and a half of book blogging I’d done actually had a purpose: I had experience writing about SF literature, and I had a portfolio of work I could point to.
Now What Exactly?
I’m reviewing short fiction, at the pace of one review per month. In my reviews, I’m trying to be mostly positive and minimally critical. Short stories are super subjective, and I’m new to this; no one needs me to be negative. (More on this in the next section.) Also, the short story market for SF is massive, so I’m trying to do what I think is most useful for me to do: shout out my favorite stories, encourage folks to go read them, and offer my thoughts on those stories. To couch it in “Skiffy and Fanty” speak, I’m going to squee about and signal boost my favorite stories, and in particular, I’m trying to highlight stories by new writers and writers with marginal identities.
In the interests of transparency, here’s my method. First, I read all the original fiction in my favorite genre magazines. Then, I branch out and read as much short fiction from across the field as I can each month. Then, I go back and reread the stories that I might want to review: those are the stories that I enjoyed the most, that I found the most interesting, and that are by new writers or writers with marginal identities. Lastly, I write about them!
Again, in the interests of transparency, I want to name some of my favorite magazines, short fiction writers, novelists, and themes. (This is not an exclusive list!) If our favorites overlap, then hopefully my reviews can help point you to some stories that you’ll enjoy. If you don’t like my favorites, that’s fine—my reviews might not be for you.
Favorite magazines: Uncanny Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Escape Pod.
Favorite short fiction writers: A. Merc Rustad, Bogi Takács, Ken Liu, Carrie Vaughn
Favorite novelists: Ursula K. Le Guin, Ann Leckie, James S.A. Corey
Favorite themes: (1) Feminism! I love feminist stories, especially stories that include and center QUILTBAG folks. (2) Religion! I love invented and actual religions, I love worldbuilding that pays attention to religion, and I love stories that feature people of faith (especially liberal people of faith!). (3) Community! I love stories that feature intentional communities and stories that rethink the heteronormative nuclear family as the base unit of society. (4) The Commons and Free Culture! If a story is influenced by David Bollier, Lawrence Lessig, or Richard Stallman, I’ll probably like it.
Three things I’ve read (and loved!) recently that engage these themes are: (1) Capricious Issue 9: Gender Diverse Pronouns (QUILTBAG feminism); (2) “Graveyard Girls on Paper Phoenix Wings” by Andrea Tang (religion with QUILTBAG feminism); and (3) “Where Would You Be Now?” by Carrie Vaughn (community with QUILTBAG feminism).
Identity, Labor, and Sustainability
I will try my best to ground my reviews in the language of opinion. That means focusing on how I react to each piece rather than saying any given piece of short fiction is “objectively” good or bad. I’m not going to recommend the “best” stories in any given month, just my favorites. I’m not covering the whole field, and I’m not trying to. I make no pretenses to providing objective, critical, authoritative reviews.
I think it’s important that I take this approach for several reasons. One, short fiction is super subjective. Two, I’m a relative newcomer to the field. Three, there’s so much short genre fiction being published that there’s no way I can even pretend to cover it all. (And if I tried to cover it all, there’s no way that’d be sustainable.) Four, there are some serious cultural politics at play in short SF reviewing, and I’m entering with significant privilege. (Simply put, I’m a white cishet man.) In April, Rose Lemberg wrote in a fantastic Twitter thread:
Of ALL the reviewers who highlight their favorite/standout work, it is telling that only white men get asked to provide more critical reviews. […] There is an underlying problem with our field, that people expect and even DEMAND a certain kind of authority (and criticizing gaze is definitely an expression of authority) from white men. […] I want to break the underlying assumption that only one demographic should offer an unbiased critical view.
You should really read Lemberg’s full thread. You should also read Bogi Takács’ related thread on the cultural politics of critical/negative reviews. Charles Paysuer has also written insightfully about “objectivity” in short fiction reviewing.
So yeah, short SF reviewing has diversity issues, and as someone with significant privilege, I think it’s important that I work to ground my reviews in the language of opinion.
Relatedly, in a thread posted last November, Bogi Takács wrote:
The reason SFF reviewing and especially short SFF reviewing has diversity issues is very similar to the general state of publishing - It is very frequently unpaid. A lot of the people who can afford to do it thus tend not to be marginalized.
That’s true! Case in point: me! I can afford to write unpaid monthly reviews. This is why I’ve made the choice to intentionally highlight work by new writers and writers with marginal identities. I’m trying to counter the diversity issues inherent to the field, which is especially important for me to do, given my cultural positionality.
Relatedly, I’m also conscious about the unpaid labor I’m doing in writing these reviews. On Twitter and across the web, I’ve seen writers warn other writers against undervaluing themselves and doing too much unpaid/free labor. That definitely makes sense, and it’s caused me to reflect on my own relationship with this form of unpaid labor. I don’t have any real misgivings about it. I have the time for it, it benefits the community, and it benefits me: writing for Skiffy and Fanty is helping connect me with the SF community and gain experience writing about SF literature. (Also, it’s not like anybody is profiting off my labor here either.)
More interesting than the mere fact that I am doing some form of unpaid labor are questions of sustainability, endurance, and burnout. No, writing one monthly column is not causing me to burn out, but it has caused me to think more about productivity and sustainability. How productive do I want to be? What exactly do I want to produce? What does a healthy, enjoyable, and sustainable pace look like? I’m someone who knows my own limits very well, and it’s important to me to abide by them. Often, I’ll at look other writers’ outputs and be simply confounded as to how they do it all. And then I’ll see them post about how burned out they are, and I’ll think, Oh. That’s how they do it all. Okay, I’ll pass. I’m happy here in my slow zone.
I just find this all interesting, because I’m already aware of how reviewing short fiction has affected my productivity. In just these last three months, I haven’t blogged as much or read as many novels as I used to. It’s a fair trade off: less blogging, less books, more short fiction, more experience writing about SF lit, more engagement with other SF geeks. But I imagine these questions only get more challenging and balancing it all only becomes more difficult as times goes on.
Going forward, I’ll still try to periodically post about what I’m reading, but instead of writing relatively detailed posts about what I’ve read each month, I’m going to focus more on writing good short fiction reviews for Skiffy and Fanty. My blog posts about reading will be fewer and shorter. Perhaps I’ll find other interesting things to blog about. (I currently have a couple essay ideas percolating on the sidelines of my mind.)
Anyway, now I review short fiction, and those are my thoughts on it. I welcome feedback and advice! Let me know if you like my reviews or if/when I’ve said something problematic. You can tweet me @camncoulter or email me at moc.retluocnc@mac. See you in the future.