THE DIFFICULT ART OF SELECTING SHORT STORIES (CHOOSING SF STORIES FOR MY COURSE NEXT YEAR)

Whenever I think of short stories, I think of the late Prof. Guillermina Cenoz, from whom I learned to appreciate this genre. I took an undergrad and a post-grad course on short fiction with her and, later, already as a teacher, I inherited her undergrad course. This, I have taught twice: a first edition (1999-2000) in which I taught an ambitious selection of 24 stories, all adapted for the screen; and a second edition (2004-5) in which I limited myself to just 8, all of them SF and gothic fiction also adapted for the screen (yes, I used time for the films, which I had not done the first time around). Here is the complete reading list including both courses (the film adaptation has the same title, with the exceptions mentioned in parenthesis):

Asimov, Isaac. “The Bicentennial Man”
Barker, Clive. Books of Blood, Vol. 5: “The Forbidden,” [Candyman]
Bierce, Ambrose. “An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge”
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber: “The Company of Wolves”
Conrad, Joseph. “Amy Foster” [Swept from the Sea]
Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness” [Apocalypse Now!]
Dick, Philip K. “Minority Report”
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: “A Scandal in Bohemia”
Du Maurier, Daphne. “Don’t Look Now!”
Du Maurier, Daphne. «The Birds»
Gibson, William. Burning Chrome: “Johnny Mnemmonic”
Greene, Graham. “The Basement Room” [The Fallen Idol]
Irving, Washington. Tales from the Alhambra: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” [Sleepy Hollow]
James, M.R. “Casting the Runes” [The Curse of the Demon]
Joyce, James. Dubliners: “The Dead”
King, Stephen. Different Seasons: “Apt Pupil”
Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Books: “Mowgli’s Brothers” [The Jungle Book]
Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. “Carmilla” [The Vampire Lovers]
Lovecraft, H.P. “Herbert West: Re-animator” [Reanimator]
McCullers, Carson. “The Ballad of Sad Café”
Poe, Edgar Alan. “The Fall of the House of Usher” [House of Usher]
Runyon, Damon. “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” [Guys and Dolls]
Singer, Isaac Basevis. “Yentl: The Yeshiva Singer” [Yentl]
Stern, Philip Van Doren. “The Greatest Gift” [It’s a Wonderful Life]
Stevenson, R.L. “The Body Snatcher”
Van Vogt, A.E. “Black Destroyer” [Alien]
Woolrich, Cornel. “Rear Window”

These are all stories I love and I would certainly be very happy to teach them again.

Then, in 2006 I was paid just 500 Euros, would you believe this?, to translate a collection I called Siete relatos góticos: Del papel a la pantalla. This included a commentary on each of the seven film adaptations of “The legend of Sleepy Hollow”, “An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge”, “Hoichi, the Earless” by Lafcadio Hearn, “Casting the Runes”, “Spurs” by Clarence Aaron ‘Tod’ Robbins (which inspired Freaks), “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell and “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet. The collection, by the way, is available from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116808, or you may download the Epub and Mobi files from my web at https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books). I would like very much to have time to produce a sequel called Ocho relatos, both gothic and SF, but a) I don’t particularly enjoy translating, b) this is very hard work that counts for nothing towards my research assessment exercise. Perhaps when I retire…

Why the specific interest in the short story and cinema? No particular reason. I have always been interested in film adaptation and the short story happens to be arguably the most often unacknowledged source in terms of academic interest and popularity. With one exception: the many adaptations of stories written by Philip K. Dick.

This brings me back to SF, a genre (or mode?) for which short fiction is essential, as 20th century SF grew basically out of the specialized magazines, beginning of course with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories (1926). I am not really a good short story reader, preferring instead novels. Yet, feeling curious about the function of short fiction in the development of SF and aware of the many gaps in my SF reading list, I have set out to fill this summer with all I can lay my hands on. Not randomly…

Here’s the idea: students taking my elective ‘English Prose: Considering Science Fiction’ next Spring will have to read the 5 novels I have selected. They will also be offered a selection of 40 to 50 short stories. Each student will be assigned a story and she or he will do a class presentation based on it, followed by writing a brief index card. I’ll collect the index cards and in this way we’ll produce a nice online booklet to help other SF readers locate and read the stories. If students feel like reading the 40/50 stories, they’re welcome, though this is not compulsory. I just hope they get to hear in this way about many other SF writers apart from our 5 novelists.

I started a while ago the process of choosing the stories, which is, in one word, mindboggling… I am using Hugo and Nebula lists of winners, and of short-listed authors, my own memories of stories I have read or heard about, and a wonderful website called Free Speculative Fiction Online (https://links.freesfonline.de/index.html). Even so, I despair… for I want the final list to be balanced chronologically and also in terms of nationality, gender, ethnicity… This means that I am working in two directions: selecting famous/representative texts and finding texts for famous/representative authors. I calculate that for the final 40 to 50 titles I will have to read 200. Am I complaining? No!!!!… it’s wonderful to have the excuse to do this… It was about time…

In the first edition of the short fiction course I gave students the option to submit for assessment either a paper or a short story of their own. Many tried writing a short story (I’m so sorry I didn’t keep them…) but then complained it had been much, much harder than they thought. This year, I am also planning to have my students write SF short fiction though not for assessment. Last June I was a member of the jury judging the entries to the Spanish SF short fiction contest Inspiraciència (https://www.inspiraciencia.es/ca/) and I aim at convincing my students to submit their own stories next year. I think the 800-word limit will help…

To finish, let me teach you a typical SF concept: the fix-up. What’s a ‘fix-up’? A novel made up of diverse short fiction pieces. That would explain why Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2005), one of the best-known recent fix-ups, is such a crazy, demanding book… The first piece, “Lobsters” is for now in my selection. We’ll see…

Back to reading SF short fiction, then, and loving it!

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