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 Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
“Hitler’s Lips” caught my attention this month with its smart, multilayered dive into social trust and how we see each other as people, not categories. This is a refreshingly humane story, one that observes all kinds of social lines incisively without lashing out at them or falling into sentimentality. More importantly, it does a great job at choosing tools that reflect the story it wants to tell: ones that refract and reflect its themes. So this month, I’d like to talk about how we align our tools with our idea—and how to diagnose the gaps between them.
There’s a lot going on in “Hitler’s Lips”: grief, social ostracism and intimidation on multiple levels, a pandemic in progress—and underpinning them all, how people carry the weight. What makes all that fit into a few thousand words is a keen awareness of structure and how each question can tie into—and play off—each other in a way that feels seamless.
One of the most useful questions I have for thinking about structure is: Does form follow function? Or in other words, are we using tools, structures, word choices, POVs, and worlds with the same attributes as the central idea we want to express? Do the stories we’re telling and the ways we tell those stories have something in common? Readers might not be able to pick out every feature of those common points, but will notice those resonances in a way that feels like good story.
When “Hitler’s Lips” is at its strongest, it’s meeting that question well. As a story about people being more complex, organic, and multilayered than demographics, categories, and shallow assumptions capture, it’s powerful when its techniques reflect that idea: complex, multilayered themes, a non-linear timeline, and actively leveraging and subverting expectations about what a story named for Hitler might do.
The most notable place this works is in the story’s skillful imagery. When Lisa sees Gerald through expectations, she’s looking for swastikas, seeing light like “sepia-toned photographs”, and assuming that Gerald’s lurking and lonely. The language is more than a little loaded and dehumanizing in those moments—and in some wonderfully expressive, inventive, and specific ways: the “obese couch” and panic that smells like raw pork.
This tendency works on the larger scale too: the description of Lisa’s suburban childhood neighbourhood “where the chrome flagpoles beside front doors and the polished metal of cars gave off a hateful glare,” does possibly the most work in the whole piece. It’s a space described in angles and bunkers, red, white, and blue, and imbues the space itself with an unending, oppressive rigidity. It’s very clear how much Lisa feels dehumanized by this environment: how bright, harsh, and unforgiving it is.
But when “Hitler’s Lips” gently strips those expectations back to let the actual people in the room emerge, the language follows it: the all-too-organic description of Gerald’s hands and the deliberately ambiguity Lisa peppers her memory with. There are a few images that follow this progression explicitly: from Gerald’s mask blurring him into an age range instead of an age to Lisa parsing his emotions through it, to the realization that it has been off, and he hasn’t flinched from her naked face. Aside from establishing the very real feeling of front-line jobs during COVID, this creates an active thematic progression through using the same visual in different ways.
Another great example, in this case, is “white-coated professional free of pain”, a phrase that’s blurring the meaning of those first words rather expertly. It evokes both the white coat of a doctor—the literal description—and the idea of a thin coating of whiteness itself, one that ostensibly protects her from harm. Those two words do twice as much work in the same space, and the experience of reading them both ways at once opens the door for a feeling of non-rigidity, ambiguity, context.
What makes this work isn’t just the objective quality of the metaphors and word choice, it’s how those choices change to reflect Lisa’s emotional progress through the story from archetypes and stereotypes—”Dragon Lady Meets Hitler”—to two human beings candidly working the question of how to cope. It’s a shape that resonates with the idea it’s carrying, and that’s what makes it powerful.
Likewise, the places where “Hitler’s Lips” could be strengthened are places where ideas aren’t tied into that progression and structure, where form isn’t quite following function yet. And notably, to my eye, the scenes between when Gerald has his indigestion attack and Lisa’s leaving the house.
This ranges from small thoughts to larger ones. For example, Lisa’s thought about milky eyes and lactose intolerance is one that I’m not sure adds enough, considering the immediacy of the situation—a person in possibly life-threatening pain. It’s a riff on the idea of intolerance, but not one that ties in or pays off, and it’s a new idea introduced right as that idea’s about to change. Because of where it is, the sum total for me was to see it as a distraction, pulling away from the idea that people are the most important thing in a dangerous situation.
That question of danger also can potentially be handled more structurally. Because Gerald’s not in as much danger as Lisa thinks—which highlights that same central themes of assumptions being fatal—there’s a little possible backlash from readers. We’ve been told there’s danger, and then it’s been pulled back just as easily, and this has a chance of damaging readers’ trust in the story.
I don’t think it’s fatal, but I would look carefully at ways to handle that that don’t just have Lisa berating herself as stupid and closing the issue. The symptoms she sees are reasonable symptoms; she has reasons for reacting in the ways she does, and all they need to do is be surfaced well.
There are ways, I think, to tie that incident and her reaction more tightly into her history with the CPR class, her mother’s drowning, her still-fresh grief for her father, the way her brother can’t quite handle the shape of that loss and falls back into childishness. This is less about having more of that information—it’s all there—but just organizing it more mindfully in that part of the story. This is an important moment—important enough that it’s the title of the story—and handling it with more depth and richness, instead of falling back into scripts and shorthands (that she’s stupid) might be a path to making that mini-crisis not feel like a source of tension that was immediately walked back, but like a revelatory piece of character work, and a turning point in the plot.
Finally, as Lisa’s leaving, there are structurally also two emotional payoffs: one where Gerald says that he’d find a way to deal with things if it meant living, and the second around changing his name. From here, they feel like two alternate variations of the same structural scene: Gerald offers Lisa a piece of experience about being strong, taking care of yourself, and perspective that changes how she thinks about her own life. They’re fulfilling, ultimately, the same function.
I’d suggest either choosing between those ways of expressing the structural scene, or combining them in a way that makes them one conversation in one space. It’s a chance to take that little bit of repetition out, and concentrate the impact both of them would have into one space.
The second major place I might suggest for polish is in carrying Lisa’s revelation through structurally. She gains an understanding about being whole, about treating people as they are rather than checkboxes, that there is no such thing as “an accurate census of everyone”, but when she returns to the Census office she’s still thinking of her coworker as “a Nigerian woman”. The form’s not following the function here, in how she thinks of people, and that’s a small contradiction that I think can be worked.
All in all, what “Hitler’s Lips” has to say for itself is beautiful and necessary: Loss was inevitable. You had to not be reduced by it. Stay whole or try to be so again. It’s a thought that deserves the best framing possible, and I think this one’s almost there. By extending the thinking it’s already using—making the tools match the goals—this has a chance of being wonderfully elegant, and doing some real good for readers.
Thanks for the read, and best of luck!
— Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)