I’ve been writing a review of a collection of Larry Niven’s short stories, and analysing the way in which he puts them together has led me to reflect a little on what I look for in a short. The introduction to the collection, by Jerry Pournelle, claims that SF shorts are harder to write than any other, but I don’t think this is right. I think I’m closer to Richard Ford, who writes in an introduction of his own (to the Granta Book of the American Short Story):
I’ve always liked stories which make proportionately ample rather than slender use of language, feeling as I do that exposure to a writer’s special language is a rare and consoling pleasure. I think of stories as objects made of language, not just as reports on or illustrations of life, and within that definition, a writer’s decision to represent life ‘realistically’ is only one of a number of possibilities for the use of his or her words.
I like this very much, and think it somewhat short-circuits the often heard SFnal complaint that the standards of short story criticism are routinely weighted in favour of ‘mimetic’ writers. The idea that great short story writers should have their own ‘special’ language – Ford explicitly says that this excludes writing merely functional – which they use for whatever purpose to which it is best suited is a liberating one in many ways, and puts me in mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no less, whose Holmes stories are such pulp and yet are rescued by their particular prosody. The type of story you’re writing is not what makes it hard.
What all this means for my take on Larry Niven, you must, dear reader, continue to guess for now.