Editor’s Choice Award January 2019, 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 Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Shrinking by Taliyah St. James

“Shrinking” caught my attention this month through its incredible thematic work, its emotional intelligence, and the way it puts a persistent genre trope through the kind of intersectional examination that creates stakes, investment, and impact. So this month, I’d like to talk about how multifaceted takes on a theme and wider context make our characters’ choices meaningful, and why we can get more character connection out of specific, richly-characterized protagonists than more loosely-drawn blanker slates.

The core idea of “Shrinking” is one many genre readers have seen: a dystopian, financially oppressive future where poorer people sell their very feelings to the rich to survive. It’s in the thoughtful, multifaceted, deliberate, and deft execution of that idea—the specific story “Shrinking” builds upon that idea—that it absolutely shines. The thematic idea it’s working with—poverty, what different versions of poverty are on a nuanced and systemic level—is woven through every paragraph.

On the plot level, “Shrinking” is a story about a woman, historically and in terms of class location better off than her partner, who walks to a feelings-selling clinic and chooses her old lifestyle over her relationship. On the barest level of plotting analysis, it’s a straight line. But on the thematic level, that walk and that choice comment on and reflect an infinite, rich, horrific, detailed context—and become more than they are, because of what “Shrinking” loads into that choice.

“Shrinking” is a story about poverty, privilege, and class, and it situates every single character in that framework immediately through the work of little details. So many offhand comments show how Aimee’s more affluent assumptions and habits persist: leaving the water running, resenting the house for not regulating it for her, not remembering the names of her neighbours, the secret-splurge manicures, legitimately not understanding Mrs. Washington’s reaction to her before they all get screened by security and Aimee, light-skinned, walks right through, thinking poverty is not having the latest phone. And bigger ones, too, like Aimee’s family considering her lifestyle a “phase” and the refrain of “it’s expensive to be poor”. Everything builds that context on multiple levels, subtle or explicit; every detail feeds, in a way that feels organic, into the river that is its main thematic idea.

The advice of “show, don’t tell” is a bit of a cliché at this point, and it’s been worked over in many ways, but “Shrinking” does an incredible job at showing—demonstrating—who Aimee is, where she’s from, and how she fits or doesn’t fit her current environment and relationships. It allows readers to pick up on how her actions and attitudes align with what she’s saying—or, more importantly, where they don’t, and lets the author communicate important information about this character, this world, our world through those disjuncts. Aimee doesn’t always understand these gradations, but readers can—which creates a tension and interest in the scenes where she’s just in transit, because the conflict between Aimee’s perspective and the narrative’s is a source of readerly fuel.

But the context widens further: Depicting Aimee as a nuanced, complicated person occupying only one position in the bucket of positions that all qualify as “poor”—and depicting other positions in John and Mrs. Washington—does an incredible amount of narrative work. The conflict that drives the story—her love for John versus the gap between their assumed normals that she isn’t really willing to bridge—is brought through at the same time the story’s thematic core comments on how poverty functions structurally in our world, now, today, at the same time as the worldbuilding avoids didacticism or flattening by showing multiple versions of similarly grouped experiences. And this happens at the same time that every detail contributes to Aimee’s characterization, making her a round, complex person—a very specific person, living a very specific experience.

One of the failure modes of dystopia is, I think, the flat landscape: a simplified world where X is good and Y is bad, and one situation fits all—when life is not ever like that. In reading “Shrinking”, I think this piece is a good example of how, while seeing oneself and one’s own situation in a story can be a good connection point for readers—and lead to the temptation to draw characters who are as assumed-generic as possible so readers can project themselves onto that character—empathy or emotional recoil over another’s specific situation, recognizing not the circumstances that caused it but the feelings of love and trappedness and misunderstanding and resentment that are part of it, can be an even better connector. It hooks readers into the space where, for this person, in this moment, everything is this choice. It illuminates spectacularly for the reader how they feel.

So by the time readers reach the explanation of the procedure—the stereotypically technical explanation, near the end—the action has been weighted with so much social and emotional significance that it’s no longer about what it’s about. How the Shrink works itself becomes a symbol of the conflict Aimee feels between her assumptions and expectations and what is legitimately a real, pure love; it’s the culmination of every piece of context the story has offered us so far about what Aimee and John’s life is, the structural barriers of poverty, race, assumption, social censure, personal shame, desire, and mid-belonging she lives in. It’s not even close to a flat choice. So that explanation—the stereotypical explanation of how the Shrink works—becomes the narrative equivalent of the slow click of a rollercoaster going up the hill, ready to drop.

When it drops like inevitability, the impact is terrific.

There are at least a thousand more words I could write on why “Shrinking” functions so very well, how deftly it handles its material, how the very idea Shrinking hinges upon—of running out of money, so making yourself smaller to fit—rings brutally true and familiar. It’s an incredibly well-crafted piece of work, one I think is ready to go to editors, and I very much look forward to seeing it in print.

Best luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)

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