July 2016 Editor’s Choice, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Amal El-Mohtar. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

“Blindness” by Dimitra Nikolaidu

“Blindness” caught my attention this month with its spare, Eastern European feel and its refreshing take on the beauty-oriented dystopia—its combination of the subtle and the grotesque.  While the core concept is ground that’s been covered in decades of genre fiction, “Blindness” feels hushed, urgent, and entirely fresh.  This month, I’d like to talk about how the small nuances of a piece can entirely make a difference to its reception, and how the perspective of a narrative can matter most.

The first strength “Blindness” has is its worldbuilding and prose. There’s a subtly suggested oppressiveness evoked by a very few details: the flower-faced women, the grey buildings packed close together, Plato’s grandmother’s blindness.  While its spare style is occasionally uneven, there’s great detail work done subtly and mostly by implication: Plato’s two broken fingers, badly healed, imply a great deal more violence simultaneous with illustrating his shuddering desire to forget that violence, and naming the constructed, official face “the bone flower” opens up entire worlds of potential awfulness.  The tone readers are left with is a grey, ominous landscape full of foreboding—and a tension that makes the stakes Plato and his allies are facing feel very immediate and real.

That nuance and subtlety recurs in the mystery’s solution, in the kind of art—homespun, humble, traditionally women’s art—that leads Plato to the key that might topple the regime.  It’s precisely the kinds of art that a regime that privileges certain kinds of beauty would overlook: a tapestry on a wall, a painting in a cave.  It makes the idea that they’ve yet to find that painting plausible, and stacked against a regime that’s made women faceless, it’s a bold statement delivered with a surprisingly soft touch.

The real strength in “Blindness” is seeing all those small details add up into significant plot developments.  Yellow’s betrayal is a surprise that isn’t quite surprising in all the right ways, as Plato’s addled memory combines with enough hints of subtle espionage to make the ways Yellow’s misled him fall into place.  There is perhaps, though, a balance to be struck in the scene where she’s misleading him, however, as Yellow and Plato’s debate on Wilde and beauty and history slows the story down, and perhaps feels a bit too much like an airing of the idea that inspired the story from beyond the fourth wall.  While it sets up her betrayal, and while I think it’s a good choice to create the solid distinction between how blunting the small irony hidden there—that Wilde did not have a wife he’d have cared about—there’s room there to perhaps tighten the scene and pick up the pace, ensuring that the story keeps moving even through the dump of ideas.

Overall, that’s the only point of suggestion I’d have for this piece: integrating its backstory and worldbuilding a little more tidily into the stream of the present-day narrative.  While the state of the Underground and his grandmother’s history with the floods are necessary pieces of the story, the paragraphs in which they’re presented stick out as the story stops to present the necessary data.  Incorporated more subtly, they’ll match the rest of the piece and maintain that organic, coherent feel.

I do want to turn some attention to the matter of which perspective a story is told from.  There’s a comment in a member review on this piece suggesting that Plato would function better as a woman, and that he already reads like a woman, mostly due to his possession and expression of emotions in internal narration. I’d like to take a minute to dispute that suggested point of craft: there’s a great narrative advantage to having Plato function on the outside of the system of facelessness that’s consumed his mother, grandmother, and allies.  “Blindness” would be a very different piece if narrated—and if Plato’s quest was undertaken—from inside that system, without a face, instead of outside it as someone who actualizes as a complete human being, and the major payoff of the story, the moment where he recognizes Manya’s full and complete and beautiful humanity in the portrait with her real face, would be utterly undermined, thus destroying the effectiveness of the story’s ending.

What makes “Blindness” work, really work, is Plato’s inherent recognition of the women in his life as human—a recognition that’s so fundamental he doesn’t even consider it, already understanding that women’s agency isn’t men’s decision—and the shock of empathy when he finds a way to validate that, like a key to a lock.  It is a visceral moment, when the man on the wall becomes a woman.  That moment—and Plato’s grandmother’s continuing disbelief that Manya would ever champion the bone flowers—make it believable to me, as a reader, that Manya-the-symbol could start a revolution, once anyone can recognize the difference between joy on her face and pain.

With that in mind, I’d caution members when giving—and receiving—feedback that one of the major components of characterization is the skill of seeing people as individuals, and writing characters who are individuals; it is always appropriate to be suspicious of feedback which states all members of a group do X, or none of them do.  There is always an individual who is an exception to that conjured rule, and if your character is that individual, it’s more worthwhile to spend one’s character-building time in making their choice to do X coherent and consistent with their full, three-dimensional personality.  Complexity makes for the most effective characterization, so long as those complex traits are recognizable as being part of the same unbroken personality.

Overall, “Blindness” is a stellar example of the way a fairly well-traveled concept—the dystopia based on looks—can be reinvented, reimagined, and delivered entirely new, with intensely worthwhile things to say in an engaging world.  And that’s largely because of who tells that story, despite not being at the centre of it or having the most skin in the game.  It’s Plato’s perspective that made this an interesting, haunted read for me, and it’s his perspective that brings, I think, something new to the subgenre.

Best of luck with the piece, and thanks for the read!

–Leah Bobet
Author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (October 2015)

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