Monday, December 10, 2007

Best of the Year

It's that time of year again -- snow falls, Christmas decorations go up, and editors weigh in, one by one, with their "best of the year" anthology choices. Rich Horton has just picked my "Art of War," which appeared in THE NEW SPACE OPERA, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. I am flattered -- and bemused. I like this story, but I much prefer "Fountain of Age" or "By Fools Like Me" or "Safeguard" among my own work from 2007. So why "Art of War"?

It's impossible to say, of course, except by Rich Horton, who hasn't (at least, not to me). But the bemusement started me questioning along an old mental track: What makes a story good? This led to a slightly different question: What are people looking for when they read? Different people, obviously must be looking for different things, so here's a varied list of what readers might want from their reading choices:

-- ideas new to them

-- a different way of looking at the world

-- a confirmation that the way they look at the world is indeed correct, and shared

-- to live a while in a different, more interesting world where things work out better than they often do here (I think romance readers usually want this)

-- to identify with characters stronger or more capable or more heroic than life lets us be

-- to observe -- but not necessarily identify with -- characters struggling with real human issues

-- to escape people struggling with real human issues

-- for the pleasures of language: the readable and artful prose, the unexpected word in the unexpected place, the phrase that perfectly captures a situation or sight

There can be more than one right answer. However, one story cannot hit all the answers. And editors, like everybody else, put varying emphases on different answers. You'd think this would lead writers to stop trying to second-guess why some stories are chosen for "Bests" and others are not. But, of course, it stops none of us at all.


bluesman miike Lindner said...

Aw, c'mon, Nancy. Let's lather up and shave with Occam here.

Dey wuz =paid off!=


none said...

I think I look for different things at different times. I read SF for new ideas, and different ways of looking at the world, yes, but also for situations and solutions that don't revolve exclusively around relationships and having affairs.

I also take pleasure in good writing, but it has to be writing about something--there has to be plot, something to drive the narrative forward.

One of my favourite reads recently was Sarah Waters' Affinity. Beautiful writing, and a character who was easy to identify with. A strong narrative. And hope denied. Not the most cheerful stuff! But I loved it.

Ann Wilkes said...

How about this one: Make me laugh. I read a great definition of what makes something funny. Someone in a virtual world was explaining "funny" to an AI construct. I think it was in Realtime Interrupt by James P. Hogan. It's all about the unexpected. The unexpected can make us laugh or not, but it isn't boring. :)

Nancy Kress said...

Yes, you're right -- I forgot laughter as a reason for reading.

Nancy Kress said...

Yes, you're right -- I forgot laughter as a reason for reading.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Little Blues likes stories that make him feel happy inside.

If you love sf, you have an affection for space opera. If not, you're posing.

But...hmmmm... what would be a space =operetta=?

Ann Wilkes said...

I think I just got one published. :) It's a novella that's space opera material published on its own. Silly SF, if you will. The world needs more silly just about now.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Damn good and damn right, Ann! Brava for you! But please tell me more. I--I've never admitted this to anyone. Not even my closest friends. Please don't laugh at me! But...I LOVE SPACE OPERA! There! I said it, and I'm glad I did. Doc Smith's SKYLARK series? Oh, my. The final battle between the forces of Civilization (read:our type of oxygen-breathing folks) and the wretched Chlorans? And who comes to the rescue in the last extremity? Why, isn't it Richard Seaton's arch-enemy, Dr. Marc C. "Blackie" DuQuesne? Classic its very finest.

But again, please tell me more about your latest sale!

Ann Wilkes said...

Skylark?? Never heard of it. I like Firefly, Dr. Who, Torchwood and what's the one with the Transutopian cruiser affectionately called the Tulip? Oh, it's Starhunter. Love it! And I brought my towel to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie. Read more about my novella on my blog:

And on this page of my website is the back of the book blurb:
It's called Awesome Lavratt. Mindcontrol, passion and adventure on a galactic scale. All puns intended. ;)

I think it would make a great series. But of course I would. ;)

Steven Francis Murphy said...

What do I look for?

I look for a story to generate resonance in me, something that speaks to me. I look for characters I can at least vaguely identify with. I need at least one of those.

I prefer a story to be entertaining (thou shalt not bore me to death). I prefer not to be preached at when it comes to politics (something American SF writers seem especially prone toward these days). If I wanted a poli-sci lecture, I'd get a non-fiction book.

I want a story to surprise me. I should not be able to predict the ending within the first paragraph or page. If I can predict it, the item goes back on the shelf unread.

What defines best? I don't always know.

But for my two cents, the Best Story of the Year for me was Rachel Swirsky's Heartstrung, which appeared in Interzone Issue 210. It was a case of the porridge being the right temperature, the bed being the right softness, and so forth.

S. F. Murphy