I object—isn't that a great opening for a blogpost?—to the idea that writing short sff criticism requires one to read it all, or even as much of it as possible, or that it's necessary to keep up with what's "current", because this is a road to exhaustion. The compulsive neophilia, the false urgency to "keep up"…even the mere fact that magazines are still often built around "issues" is only a nostalgic skeuomorphism! Which would matter less if the "old issues" were less disposable, and if all their contents did not become mysteriously sepia-toned at the turn of the week or the month or the quarter. But they are, and they do. Periodicals are like a metaphor for a linear model of time. There is the cresting wave of the temporary present, this month's issues, moving inexorably into the future, leaving the past behind. Except that this model is just as illusory as that linear model of time, of course. What would the sff short fiction scene look like if it it wasn't putting the temporary in contemporary?
To state the blatantly obvious, short sff is already too wide now to be read in its entirety by a single dedicated reader, even if you only look at the thin slice of the "present". The relevant xkcd is about all books written in English (which passed that point five centuries ago), but if you converted that to sff short fiction written in English I think you'd probably find that a similar point was reached somewhere between the original c. 1920 Writer's Market (I wonder how many markets it tracked?) vs. today's Duotrope (which tracks just over five thousand). Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of magazines over the decades, popping in and out of existence like virtual particles, each with multiple issues, each issue with multiple stories…
This has only become much more of a thing, like orders of magnitude more of a thing, a true Cambrian Explosion of a thing, with the arrival of online magazines (which, as far as I can tell, have also been a thing since at least the 90s but didn't really get mainstream credibility until the mid-00s). So, if there was a time that you could read all or most of it, that time has been gone for a decade at the very least, and probably much longer than that. All these worlds are not yours, except Europa. Attempt your fandoms only there.
But I digress. The point is this sort of "stick the firehose in your mouth" approach does not represent some sort of critical ideal; it's an impossible standard so attempting it (and failing) means nothing. If anything, I think this is damaging to the soft tissues in your mouth, and liable to upset the digestion. If it's impossible to read everything that's current, it's many times more impossible to read everything that is past, but the gulf between these impossibilities is uninteresting because for all practical purposes they are equally out of reach.
I do appreciate when people actually take on these impossibilities head on–I've said this before about Lois Tilton's reviews, and I see Ethan Robinson's taken to a similar firehose-drinking approach lately–but I'm not talking about these people, who are professionals of the don't-try-this-at-home variety. I'm talking to totes would-be amateur reader/critic types like myself, or possibly just to myself. Because every time someone says "there should be more short sff criticism" I see people immediately falling into the various traps of keeping up/burning out or getting their critical objectives entangled with the related but also separate goals of curation/promotion/signal-boosting or, most wastefully, with the hamster wheel of award nominations. Which all seems so unnecessary, or at least besides the point.
(I'm speaking as a reader here, not as a writer; as a writer I tend to feel like hey, all promotion is good promotion, which is another reason writers are the worst. ugh, writers)
There's nothing more dreary than "here's what I thought of this story that I would not have finished or even started if I didn't need to finish this issue for review purposes." There seems to be a innocence-to-experience pipeline from that laudable impulse of "I want to review/talk about short fiction" to increasingly tired, obligatory reviews that peter out into mere recommendation lists and fade rapidly into exhaustion and burnout. This seems so avoidable, especially for the amateur reader-critic who has no obligation to put a firehose in their mouth. Why not be willing to slow down and actually explore your taste as critic/curator? What is it that you're looking for? What truly intrigues you? Can you separate this from other things you might also be doing, such as promotion or curation or signal-boosting?
(when I find people who are willing to admit to having developed a taste, I often find myself reading their commentary regardless of whether I share that taste or not. when people commit to this kind of thinking-out-loud, it's compelling in a way that a roundup of links and shit-sandwich critiques1 can never be.)
I'd hazard that one part of the problem is that nuance in criticism requires you to say negative things, and many people are uncomfortable with navigating this interpersonal minefield and all the unexploded ordnance still lying around from the various culture wars, and the other, more insidious part is that even the thought of abandoning the urge to "keep up" brings up many different anxieties. There are so many hooks piercing the body of short fiction and constantly dragging it forward off-balance–the "issue" skeuomorphism declares last month's stories out of date in the same way that the awards treadmill declares last year's stories out of date, all of which is compounded by the sheer volume of new material being produced every week, all the subscriptions you take out to support the magazines you love, which start to pile up in your house or your reader or your phone and to build up to a kind of virtual weight in your mind, a sisyphean burden.
So why not abandon the idea of keeping up, which was never a really-real thing, and whose sole real effect seems to be to drive people away from actually-enjoying the short story? If you have to slow down in the face of the tens or hundreds of thousands of short stories we're all drowning in, then by all means do it one story at a time.
Which is where I'm coming from with the reading recommendations that I make in these posts. They come from slow-moving obsessions with particular writers, particular styles, particular moods. They come from me looking for the work that I feel some sort of kinship with as a writer. They come from me looking for work from this century that maybe we only even have at all because of that very internet-age opening up of possibilities2. It's a new age of plenty, and I'm very happy to be a part of it in my own small way as a writer, but even more than that, I'm happy to be part of it as a reader.
So these recommendations that I make, they come from treating my reading of sff short fiction as a kind of dérive. It's not a geography of the scene-at-large that I want, nor is it a map of myself-as-reader, but the intersection between the two.
Eventually I want to come back to each of these same stories that I'm recommending now and talk about them some more–this is what I mean by not treating short fiction as disposable or temporary, also–or rather, actually talking about them at all, since all I'm doing right now is giving the recommendation. But I do have stuff to say about all of them, in the sense that in making these specific recommendations I'm outlining a model of the speculative in fiction that makes sense to me. But I'm not rushing to try & articulate it, either, because I'm only starting to try and understand my own taste in fiction. I may be some time at this.
Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: "The Mongerji Letters" by Geetha Iyer in Orion: "But the polar bear you stuck in the inner envelope suggests you are keen to continue in the family trade. That first explosion of teeth and air bubbles as the creature snapped at my face—what flair! I learned to swim backwards that day, you know? It took a week to bail out the living room and pour the Arctic Ocean back into the envelope."
You know, "here are two things I liked and one thing I didn't like about this story". It's tedious, like some sort of secondary-school essay format. ↩
Before internet times, me being a short fiction reader was pretty much just wearing a paper bag over my head and reading whatever decades-old white-sff anthologies the British Council library deigned to throw at me, so this level of access to contemporary short fiction is kind of a big deal for me. ↩