I have read more short stories in the past month than I ever have before. As a first-time submissions editor for Shenandoah, with full access to the hundreds of submissions for the next issue, I have discovered that judging fiction is a weird business. It is also impossible to do alone.
On my first day reading submissions, I wondered how I would be able to separate the publishable stories from those that were not. Professor Smith said that, cyberspace being theoretically infinite, we could choose to publish all of them if we wanted to, but, of course, that would diminish the prestige of the magazine. So we have to be selective. That we receive more good stories than we can accept, though, is what makes the task of selecting a few for publication challenging. A lot of the time there are no discernible, objective criteria that I can base a judgment on, and I end up justifying my approval of a story by saying, “I know this is good. You can just tell.” If I attempt to explain how I know, I say things like, “The sentence structure is good and diversified. The narrator has a unique and mature voice. The story moves well. It is exciting, etc.”
But none of these qualities are necessary or sufficient for defining a good story. Even if Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard To Find” were submitted to Shenandoah and I had never read it or been told that it is an “ingenious” short story, it probably would not be an immediately recognizable work of brilliant fiction. I think what generates a lot of the appeal for famous works of fiction is not solely an objective evaluation of their intrinsic quality, but also that we are taught to recognize them as works of genius. When enough people surrounding you believe a short story is good, you will begin second-guessing whatever previous doubts you had about it.
It may be impossible to come up with any universal checklist of qualities that make a good short story. But without even a vague awareness of what those qualities could be the short story selection process is nothing more than subjective, which is why having two evaluators is better than having one. However, if there is anyone justified in providing criteria for a good short story, it is Edgar Allan Poe, whom many regard as the founder of the short story. He laid out three criteria that he thought all short stories should fulfill: (1) the story has unity of impression—it makes a single impression on the reader, concentrating on a (2) moment of crisis. Every short story must have one and only one moment of crisis. (3) Finally, the story must have symmetry of design, i.e. the crisis must be central and pivotal in the plot.
Thankfully, Poe is not an intern for Shenandoah. His criteria may be a good platform for creating a short story, but they certainly are not necessary for a quality short story. Also thankfully, (and to the submitters’ relief) I am not alone in reviewing the hundreds of short stories Shenandoah receives. Judging the quality of a story, and whether it is fit for publication in Shenandoah, is definitely a team effort.
- Miles Abell