I’ve had to think about this for a couple of weeks simply because it is something worth thinking about when you are reading and this is especially true for a slush reader for a publisher.
Crossed Genres, a small publisher I read slush for, released their Long Hidden anthology. This anthology featured speculative fiction stories from people who over time have been pushed to the margins of history. It’s a ground breaking anthology simply because it features heroes we wouldn’t normally consider to be important in the larger scheme of things. It features a great array of stories from around the world.
And of course this raised a bit of controversy.
Strange Horizons published a review which touched upon the use of phonetic dialect. (that content has now been removed.) Daniel José Older, co-editor with Rose Fox, immediately jumped to the defense of the use of the phonetic dialect. There’s also been a huge discussion on this anthology about diversity. And this is a great thing.
Crossed Genres has been one of the leading independent publishers of diversity over the past few years. With such titles as Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias and Salsa Nocturina by Daniel José Older along with anthologies such as Winter Well, Fat Girl in a Strange Land, and Menial, it is easy to see that Crossed Genres isn’t afraid to tackle views that differ from the norm.
These views that aren’t as often seen in literature can be difficult to portray accurately so authors use different tools to separate the worldviews of hetro/white/male characters from other viewpoints. One of these is the use of alternative pronunciation (phonetic spellings) and unfamiliar dialects. This is a tool writers use to indicate a world not well known and done well can open up the mind of a reader. On the other hand it can be used as a disguise for poor writing.
However, this does lead my own questions. I read for 2 small press publications- Crossed Genres and Goldfish Grimm. Last year I read over 600 short stories for CG alone. Did I at any time, pass up a story because of a dialect issue or alternative voice? Am I able to determine what constitutes an accurate phonetic dialect from poor writing?
When I read slush (stories that have been submitted for a magazine or publication) I have a certain criteria that I look for.
First, is it a story? – You’d be surprised at the number of submissions that don’t have a clear beginning, middle and ending. Some stories tend to wander a bit, and that’s okay with me so long as I can follow the general plot.
Second, are the characters flat? Characters are important. It’s the one thing that a reader connects with most. You don’t have to like them, but they have to be well rounded.
Third, does something happen? While some stories have a beginning middle and ending, nothing really happens. A story has to have some sort of change or action in order to hook me.
Fourth, does it have a conclusion or does it leave you hanging? I do love a good cliffhanger, but in short stories, they don’t work out too well. While not all of the lose ends have to be tied up, the major plot line has to be addressed in some way.
If a story doesn’t have these things, I do tend to reject them. I do have exceptions such as a story having good characters, a good plot but misses the ending a bit or a story that doesn’t start out strong but finishes really well. And yes I tend to read the entire story not just a page or two.
However, there have been stories in the past with alternative dialects or written from an entirely different point of perspective. I don’t remember many, but there have been a few. And truthfully I don’t remember how I handled those.
For the most part, if I’m undecided about a story I do pass it up to the editors. That’s always been my perspective of a slush reader. However, I feel there’s a huge difference between a well written story that has phonetic devices and a story that tries to use such devices as a crutch for poor writing. There’s a fine line between them.
So how does a slush reader, or any other reader, know how this all works? Well the answer is pretty simple, at least for me. Reading more diverse stories is a great place to start. I know Carrie Cuinn has a list of Asian Authors on her blog. I’ll be looking for other lists such as these so I can at least ferret out short stories. I’m also going to purchase more books from non-American writers, particularly those from cultures I’m not familiar with.