A few weeks ago the most recent edition of Postscripts -- which includes my story "Pillar of Salt" -- was reviewed by Locus Online. And my story, well, it did not fare well. At all. In fact, the reviewer pretty much hated it:
The employees in the post office of a small Pennsylvania town all know about the mysterious letters addressed to a Jonas Cotton that just appear in a letter carrier’s bag. And any carrier who opens one soon drops dead. Now Raymond, an aging, failed postal worker newly arrived in that town, is given the accursed route and, of course, finds one of the letters.
This is a difficult, distasteful story to read because the characters are such dismal, hopeless people. The story is told from the point of view of Raymond’s wife, who doesn’t particularly love or respect him — and we see no reason she should. It is so obvious from the beginning that Raymond is doomed, and that we will not care what happens to him, nor will anyone else including his wife. The only question is what she will then do, what will happen to her, but it is unlikely that anyone will care about her fate, no more than her husband’s. A pointless tale.
Actually, had I received this kind of review years ago, I would have been very depressed, but now it's like the proverbial water off the proverbial back of the proverbial duck. Granted, as writers we always want our work to be enjoyed and liked (and those who say they don't care, that they only write for themselves and nobody else, are liars), but it's a fact you can't get everyone to like everything you write. Sure, it stings, but you move on. As is the case with everything else in publishing, you hope for the best but expect the worse, so when a rejection or a not-so-great review comes along, you shrug and work on the next story.
But the thing that really stuck out to me was that very last sentence, those three words: A pointless tale. Clearly the reviewer (from what I can tell) felt the story was pointless enough that it didn't have to be written, let alone published. I even mentioned this to my wife, and she said, "But almost all of your stories are pointless." After a lengthy silence, I asked what exactly that was supposed to mean. "Well," she said, "it's not like your stories have morals or anything. They're just stories." And this, of course, got me thinking.
Do stories have to have points? Not necessarily morals, but a point that author is trying to make? Or can they just be stories for the sake of being stories? I know when I sit down to write a story, it's because something -- an image, a character, even a scene or title -- has infested itself in my mind that I have no choice but to write about it. I don't sit down and think I'm going to write a story about _____, because when you do that as an author I think it takes away from the actual storytelling ... if that makes sense. Or rather: you the author tells the story instead of letting the story tell itself.
I hate trying to classify works of fiction -- yes, this coming from the Hint Fiction guy -- but I guess the majority of the stuff I publish (in terms of short fiction, at least) would be considered slice-of-life. Fair assessment? Sometimes the stories may bring across bigger meanings to the reader, but I don't try to set out to do that. I just try to let the story do what it wants to do.
I talked to a past teacher about this recently and he said that, in his opinion, good fiction does not necessarily have to have a point or moral but should relate some kind of truth, be it of the world or human nature or something. I guess I can see that. But again, I can't see myself sitting down to write a story and telling myself that I'm going to relate some kind of truth. Those types of story, in my mind at least, come across as too forced, and oftentimes the reader can tell at once.
But that's just me. What about you?