I belong to an art critique group, the only writer amongst 5 to 10 visual artists on any given critique night. It’s a critique group like any writing group; people display their art work, people talk about it, suggest ways to improve, etc. We had a critique last night, and of course, true to form, I started an argument. I have many problems with workshops, the experience of them rubs me the wrong way in lots of ways, but chief among my problems is that I’m incessantly the devil’s advocate. It’s an itch, I can’t stop its rising, and when I scratch it, I make arguments.
One of the things that came up last night has come up many times in writing workshops. We were critiquing one painter’s work—a woman, Kathy, who uses stencil and silkscreen in addition to paint in her work—and another woman, Maggie, another painter, an extremely accomplished artist and art college lecturer, told Kathy that she needed to give us more, that her work was very good but it always left her, Maggie, feeling that she didn’t know her intentions, that Kathy’s work always approached understanding but always stopped short of giving us, her audience, what we needed to get inside the work, what we needed to really get the work.
Now, let me stop a moment and tell you, if you’re going to write very short fiction, and I’ll go ahead and say it now, if you’re going to write good very short fiction, this is going to happen to you. People are going to read your work and they are going to scratch their heads and they are going to say, Hmm, this is really nice, but I feel like I need more. I feel like it approaches me getting inside this world, but it stops short, I want more.
Kathy’s painting, in my opinion, does not need to give us more, which is the argument I got into with Maggie. It’s okay that it stops short of giving Maggie, and the rest of us, what we need, everything we need, to feel comfortable in its world. It’s okay if we can’t entirely orient ourselves to Kathy’s subject, her use of paint, her composition. This discomfort we feel is part of what makes Kathy’s work work, what gives it tension and mystery and interest. Resist interpretation, I told Kathy, and Maggie, and the rest.
Good very short fiction, especially when it gets really short, resists interpretation. It has to, by its very nature. There aren’t enough words in very short fiction to give us the whole world. As writers of vsf, we can only give our readers so much, so much texture, so much character, so much backstory. The form demands that we leave things out, lots of things.
This leaving out is going to frustrate some readers, it is going to make them uncomfortable. Some readers—intelligent, creative folks—will insist you give them what they need to feel oriented, to feel satisfied that they understand what you, the writer, are up to, what your intentions are. The pressure will get intense, at times. Whole rooms full of people may say the same thing: give us more. People don’t like to be left wanting, left in discomfort.
Of course, there are different kinds of leaving out. Of course. Some leaving out may be bad for your story, some leaving out might be the result of you not having control of your words, your characters. But! Leaving out is going to happen—if you write vsf. It has to. It must, by its very nature. And, in my opinion, the best vsf leaves much out. The best vsf, in my opinion, leaves the reader in a state of discomfort, a state of wanting more. The best vsf does not try to replicate what short stories do, giving us vivid settings and deep understandings of character. It can't, it's too short. The best vsf resists interpretation. Resist interpretation.
Bio: Joseph lives and writes in Baltimore, MD. His book of microfiction, Easter Rabbit, will be released from Publishing Genius Press in December 2009.
Read "12 Micros" at FRiGG
Read "3 Micros" at Lamination Colony
Read "5 Micros" at Grey Sparrow Journal