December 31, 2012

2012 Year-End Stats (and Prizes!)

Many thanks to everyone who followed NYSC in this first year of its existence. A special thanks to my guest blogger, Dominicus, who contributed the reviews for the sci-fi issue plus "Member / Guest." I'm looking forward to a new year of interesting and challenging stories to critique. If you have any suggestions for improving the blog, please feel free to leave them in the comments or send me an email.

One change has already appeared with the last critique of the year ("Shirley Temple Three"). I have introduced a new rating—Strong—leading to a four-point system (Weak, Satisfactory, Strong, Outstanding). For the sake of consistency, I have completed a revision of all previous critiques, resulting in an upgrade of five Satisfactory stories:

and a downgrade of three Outstanding stories:

I've indicated the changes with strikethroughs in the relevant critiques and updated the labels to reflect the new ratings. Unfortunately the polls on those stories cannot be reopened, so the results reflect the three-point system in place at the time of closing.

On all critiques I've deleted the label that previously occupied the #3 slot—the geographical region of the author's nationality—which proved to be of limited value. Nationality by country is still tracked in the #2 slot, as before. I've moved gender to the #3 slot and filled the #4 slot with a new category that reflects the total number of stories the author has published in TNY (001 representing the début). Finally, I've added a label (#10) to track year of publication. I may continue tinkering with the labels to improve scope, efficiency, and search functionality.

Taking all these changes into account, I'd like to end the year by sharing some statistics that I hope you will find interesting. Feel free to explore categories on your own by clicking on the labels in the footer of each critique (there's a key in the sidebar along with instructions for multi-label searching).

2012 Statistics

  • Number of TNY stories published: 50
  • Number of TNY authors published: 42
  • Number of stories by authors published more than once: 
  • Boyle, T. Coraghessan (2) 
  • Díaz, Junot (3)
  • Lethem, Jonathan (2)
  • McGuane, Thomas (2)
  • Meloy, Maile (2)
  • Munro, Alice (2)
  • Nelson, Antonya (2)
  • Number of stories by male authors: 34
  • Number of stories by female authors: 16
  • Number of stories by début TNY authors: 12
  • Number of stories by U.S. authors: 35
  • Number of stories by authors of other nationalities: 
  • Canada (2)
  • Chile (1)
  • China (1)
  • Ireland (2)
  • Israel (2)
  • Pakistan (1)
  • Switzerland (1)
  • U.K. (4)
  • U.S.S.R. (1)
  • Number of first-person stories: 14
  • Number of second-person stories: 4
  • Number of third-person stories: 31
  • Number of multi-person stories: 1
  • Number of stories appearing in English translation: 5
  • Number of short-length stories (≤2500 words): 5
  • Number of medium-length stories (2501-5000 words): 13
  • Number of long stories (5001-7500 words): 21
  • Number of extra-long stories (≥7501 words): 11
  • Shortest story: "Thank You for the Light"
  • Longest story: "Citizen Conn"
  • Number of free stories: 18
  • Number of firewalled stories: 32


  • Number of stories critiqued on this blog: 50
  • Number of stories critiqued by Criticus: 45
  • Number of stories critiqued by Dominicus: 5
  • Number of stories rated Weak: 13
  • Number of stories rated Satisfactory: 23 (28 before rating change)
  • Number of stories rated Strong (new rating): 9
  • Number of stories rated Outstanding: 5 (8 before rating change)
  • Most popular critique (based on page views): "The Semplica-Girl Diaries"
  • Least popular critique (based on page views): "Appreciation"
  • Dominicus's favorite story: "The Cheater's Guide to Love"
  • Criticus's favorite story, also known as the Criticus Award, entitling the bearer to perpetual fame and exactly zero in cash proceeds (drum roll, please):
Congratulations to Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and Kevin Barry on these extraordinary stories.

And your favorite? Be sure to let us know in the comments. Meanwhile…

Happy New Year to all!

Keep reading in 2013 for the latest scoop on TNY fiction!

December 24, 2012

"Shirley Temple Three"

By Thomas Pierce
~7000 words

A woman is asked by her son to care for a dwarf-sized woolly mammoth.

Louise Baker is the woman, more affectionately known as Mawmaw, and her son Tommy is the host of an Atlanta-based TV show called "Back from Extinction." The show's producers somehow clone specimens of extinct species for the amazement of modern audiences before sending them off to the Back from Extinction Zoo, where they live out the remainder of their anachronistic existence. Except sometimes complications happen, like when two clones are created instead of one and Tommy agrees to help the attractive zookeeper save one from euthanasia (there are laws about this, apparently), which means that Shirley Temple (the unfortunate beast's pet name) ends up a safe distance from Atlanta—in Mawmaw's backyard. Suffice it to say that the woolly in woolly mammoth does not mix well with the Georgia heat, leading to challenges in Mawmaw's relationship with Shirley Temple as well as her son.

One of the strengths of this story is its seemingly effortless use of free indirect discourse to place the reader in the perspective of the main character. Consider the brilliant opening paragraph:
Mawmaw’s throwing the party, and her own son is three hours late. Already he’s missed his cousin’s goshdern ceremony and the grape-juice toasts and the cake-cutting, and now he’s about to miss the couple’s mad dash to the car, too. All the tables are decorated with white flowers in beakers, since the groom is a chemist for a textile company, and in the foyer she’s put out enlarged photos from when the bride and groom were babies and total strangers to each other, and over all Mawmaw would give her reception an A-plus if not for this business with Tommy.
In just three sentences we find ourselves swept into Mawmaw's perspective, without a single use of "She thought" or "She said to herself." And it's pretty much that way for the entire story. Very impressive.

This is also an extraordinarily original piece. There are many stories that feature animals prominently, but there aren't too many premised on the resurrection of a stone-age beast that gets treated as some kind of household pet. And yet this is not just quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness. As in all good fiction, plot reveals character: in her interaction with the animal, Mawmaw demonstrates her inner decency (which is founded, it turns out, on some rather kooky religious beliefs—points for complexity!), and in his interaction with Mawmaw, Tommy reveals his utter selfishness. And in the end you can't help sympathizing for the poor woolly mammoth, caught between the two of them.

The only thing that keeps me from giving this story my highest mark is that I felt a bit cheated by the ending. Since it is ultimately a story about the relationship between mother and son, I felt like I needed a little more attention paid to that element at the end. There is a suggestion that perhaps some kind of tipping point has been reached—Mawmaw is on her fourth after-dinner cigarette despite having always limited herself to one, and she doesn't respond to Tommy's presence—but I would have liked to see the dynamic dramatized a little more richly.

"Shirley Temple Three" is a very solid TNY début. Congratulations to MFA student Thomas Pierce, and kudos to the TNY editorial board for starting and ending the year with new voices. Let's hope there will be many more of those to come in 2013!


*As of this post, I'm instituting a new rating—Strong—that will lead to a four-point system. Look for an explanation in a future post.

Reader poll: I found "Shirley Temple Three" to be ___.

December 17, 2012


By Marisa Silver
~6900 words

A preschooler's aggressive behavior triggers a chilling childhood memory in the father.

The story is told from the perspective of the father, James, and it initially appears that the focus will be his son Marco's disturbing behavior. But as James meets with Marco's teacher, debates the problem with his wife Melinda, and eventually tries to talk it over with Marco, the narrative focus gradually shifts from the present to a recurring memory, revealed in pieces, in which James is implicated in the death of a childhood friend's father.

The story has many fine qualities, first among them the way in which Silver manages the flow of information in the flashback sequences. The memory conceals something of a mystery, revealing initially only that something "happened" to James as a boy. Then we are told that there was an "accident" involving his friend Freddie: an awkward, sickly child who listens to James's dare-devil schemes with the faith of a true believer. Additional details hint at something more sinister: a funeral in which Freddie's mother gives James a look "as if she were unsure whether to comfort him or slap him"; a deer-hunting trip with Freddie and his father that ends in Freddie's humiliation; a walk along a steep ravine in which James earlier broke his arm. Only in the final paragraphs do all the puzzle pieces from the past come together and tie in to the narrative in the present.

The characterization is also very subtly done. James seems normal enough on the surface—he has a sympathetic wife, a new house, and a lucrative job—and yet there's something not quite right. He's too quick to make fun of Marco's teacher and feels "defensive rage" in her presence. He loses it at the dinner table in front of Marco and later accuses Melinda of apathy. As the extent of his involvement in the tragedy is revealed in the flashback sequences, what comes into focus is a man with a sublimated sociopathic tendency who refuses to recognize the impulse in his son. The disturbing connection between father and son, past and present, is all masterfully revealed through character.

Silver also shows us James's softer side, though perhaps less successfully: we learn that he loves to make his wife laugh, that he watches over her when she sleeps, that he was honest with her about his childhood. In the flashback we learn that, ironically, it was his attempt to prevent Freddie from shooting a group of deer that precipitated the tragedy. Such details add a layer of complexity to the main character that culminates in the final paragraph, where he sees himself through the eyes of Freddie's mother and ponders his guilt.

A final strength of this story is its powerful critique of causality. As humans we long to know why things happen, why people act the way they do, especially in relation to tragic events. "It was always a question of intention," James muses when reflecting on his childhood. And yet, as the story goes on to show, events are not always reducible to intention but are instead the result of much murkier forces, as when James
had felt his finger slide into the smooth, ear-like curve of the trigger, when he'd felt the snug rightness of his body in the world, the way he had when he'd pedalled his winged bike toward the edge of the ravine, going faster and faster until what was impossible had become possible and there was no more reason to think or doubt. And then there had been the split second when his instinct had kicked in, but it was too late.
(One quibble with that last sentence: throughout most of the story, "instinct" seems to mean the brute forces of nature that have been dulled in humans by the comforts of civilization. "We're all wild creatures, aren't we?" Mr. Connolly asks. "It's just that our whole instinct business has gone to pot." But unless I'm misreading, in the sentence cited above "instinct" seems to suggest the civilizing force itself: that which would keep James from sailing over the edge of the ravine or pulling the trigger. The usage is problematic especially because it comes at such a crucial interpretative moment.)

Published only four days before the unspeakable horror of Newtown, Connecticut, "Creatures" wins the award for uncanny timing. Its disturbed characters and nuanced portrayal of culpability are as compelling as they are unnerving.


Reader poll: I found "Creatures" to be ___.

December 10, 2012

"A Voice in the Night"

By Steven Millhauser
~7600 words

Suffering from insomnia, an aging Jewish writer recalls his childhood fixation with the biblical story of Samuel.

The third-person point of view encompasses three related narratives, each told in four interlacing parts. The first narrative is a rather conventional retelling of 1 Samuel 3, in which the young Samuel awakens three times in the night upon hearing his name called, incorrectly attributing it to the high priest Eli before realizing it is God. The second narrative takes place in Stratford, Connecticut in 1950, where a seven-year-old Jewish boy—unnamed but clearly a fictionalized version of the author—lies awake in bed on four successive nights, puzzling over the story of Samuel and what it means for his own tenuous Jewish identity. The third narrative takes place in the present, in which a writer, unable to sleep, reflects on his childhood and the events described in the first two narratives.

I did not find this story compelling. The mise-en-abîme structure, while technically flawless, feels plodding and formulaic. The first narrative adds very little to the biblical tale of Samuel and might be better handled through allusion. The second and third narratives consist of meandering reflections on the fairly commonplace topic of Jewish-American identity (see Roth, Philip). The language is unremarkable throughout. All in all, a disappointing effort from an excellent writer.


Reader poll: I found "A Voice in the Night" to be ___.

December 3, 2012


By Antonya Nelson
~5000 words

In an affluent Houston neighborhood, a recently widowed father struggles with a high-strung sixteen-year-old daughter and a precocious eleven-year-old son.

The story begins in the daughter's perspective as she frantically awaits the arrival of the family's Spanish-speaking housekeeper: Suzanne needs Bonita to iron her Dairy Queen uniform before she can leave for work. The perspective quickly shifts to the son, Danny, who watches his sister's distress with amused detachment from the breakfast table, before jumping to the father, Richard (also at the breakfast table), on whom it will settle for the remainder of the story. Bonita finally arrives along with her son Isaac, who is the same age as Danny and strongly attached to him. Isaac is ill, and Richard allows Danny to play hooky to keep him company before going off to work, only to be summoned home when Bonita reports that the boys have disappeared. The rest of the story involves the search for the boys, who are found unharmed at Bonita and Isaac's apartment across town, where Bonita's ex-husband makes and awkward appearance, and the return of Suzanne, who is in another tizzy, this time because she's lost her cell phone.

The visual quality of the details is one of the story's highlights, from the menacing characters who loiter in the streets of Bonita's neighborhood to her bleak apartment building:
Now it was a shoddy ruin, a place with broken balcony railings and pocked with a hundred ugly satellite dishes, a dry swimming pool filled with forsaken furniture and fenced off with concertina wire. Bonita's apartment was both too high for the rickety balcony to seem safe and too low to keep out a persistent climber. A breeding ground of anxiety and temptation.
And then there is Bonita, with her orange-streaked hair, impractical high heels, pink leopard-spotted bag, and barely passable English, attempting to negotiate the awkward tension in her apartment when Richard shows up to find her ex-husband repairing a sprinkler head.

The strongly crafted characters are a model of showing without telling, perfectly dramatizing the right-place-wrong-time messiness of human relationships:
Tears: they did not require translation. How convenient it would be, Richard thought, Bonita's wiry hair against his neck, her face on his shoulder, how terribly useful if they could simply wed, he minus a wife, she with her problematic ex-husband, and regroup together like a sitcom family in the fortified comfort of Richard's house across town, an arrangement that would be possible if they could just ignore that troubling enigma of love.
The messiness extends to the narrative itself: the confused initial perspective, the meandering storyline, the ghostly presence of Richard's wife, who does not acquire a name—Eve—until the final paragraphs, where it is revealed that her tragic death may not have been an accident after all. The story's cryptic title, alluded to only once in the text (it is Danny's favorite word, which Richard likes to use incorrectly), adds a final unsettling element to the mix.

"Literally" offers much to admire, including beautiful language and complex characters, but the narrative obfuscations are at times a bit overdone.

Satisfactory. Strong (modified 24 December 2012, explanation here).

Reader poll: I found "Literally" to be ___.