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‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ by Sofia Samatar – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club

with 9 comments

‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ was originally published at Strange Horizons

One of the odd things about SF short fiction – and one of the reasons for this feature – is that so much of it is published but so little is written about it. And when short fiction is written about, it is usually in the listings format that goes for comprehensive coverage of as many stories as possible over analysis of individual stories. As an example, here is how ‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ (a story which was voted the best of 2013 by readers of Strange Horizons and was subsequently shortlisted for the BSFA Award) was described by the two biggest short fiction reviewing venues when it was first published:

“Told in short back-and-forth sections, this one is a typical SH story about love and commitment, with the selkie tale standing in as a metaphor.”

Lois Tilton’s short fiction column for Locus Online.

“Sofia Somatar’s storytelling style owes a debt to Kelly Link’s magic realism, but lacks that author’s emotional wallop. A quick read that gets a little lost in its own naval gazing and one non sequitur too many, but your mileage may vary depending on your taste for quirk.”

Jared L Mills reviewing for Tangent Online

It is hard to write about short fiction. It is particularly hard to write about short short fiction (‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ is 3,000, a thousand less than ‘Saga’s Children). But surely if it is so central to our genre, we need to collectively get a lot better at it? (I’m including myself in this.)

So, a selkie is a mythical creature that looks like seal in the water but once on land, having shed its skin, appears to be a human. There is something inherently a bit naff about selkies, something Samatar gestures at with her title, and Tilton is right that here they function primarily as a metaphor (you wouldn’t have to squint too hard to read this as an entirely realist story).

The sentiment of the title is voiced by the narrator in the opening paragraph: “I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.” It is a great opening, immediately capturing the protagonist’s voice whilst also flagging the irony and metafictionality of the story. She’s eighteen, trying to understand her mother’s sudden disappearance on top of already trying to understand herself.

This second half of the story is reflected in the lovely relationship she forms with fellow waitress Mona, something that might be a burgeoning romance or might be platonic intimacy: “I’ve never kissed Mona. I’ve thought about it a lot, but I keep deciding it’s not time. It’s not that I think she’d freak out or anything. It’s not even that I’m afraid she wouldn’t kiss me back. It’s worse: I’m afraid she’d kiss me back, but not mean it.” If, like Mills, you can read any of this stuff without getting walloped by emotion then perhaps you need re-calibrating.

Equally, it is hard to spot the supposed navel-gazing and non sequitars. This is an extremely cleverly and precisely composed story; each short paragraph overlapping and amplifying the themes of the others, fluidly and without attracting attention. I guess this is part of the trouble with reviewing such fiction: if you take it apart, will it still work? The beauty of the story certainly isn’t broken by examination but I’m not sure it can be spoken either.

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Written by Martin

14 February 2014 at 16:29

9 Responses

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  1. Yes! This :)

    Thoraiya

    15 February 2014 at 04:43

  2. I wonder if part of the reason for the paucity of short fiction reviews and reviewers might be the small audience for such writing, coupled with the investment of time and effort necessary versus reviewing a novel. Also most short fiction is reviewed by magazine or anthology in my experience, and wordcount limits demand extreme brevity per story.

    friendlygun

    15 February 2014 at 13:39

  3. I wonder if part of the reason for the paucity of short fiction reviews and reviewers might be the small audience for such writing,

    That’s the thing that puzzles me though, why is the audience so small? There are thousands of writers and dozens of awards but little int he way of conversation. Are they only people interested writers themselves and are they only interested in critique rather than criticism?

    I’ve just started reading A Tale For Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and near the beginning she quotes Book Of Laughter And Forgetting by Milan Kundera: “Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.” Obviously he is describing something different but it did suddenly put me in mind of the SF short fiction scene.

    Martin

    16 February 2014 at 08:39

  4. I don’t know! So all of the following is pure conjecture.

    Years ago I reviewed for The Fix and it did seem that a lot of those reviewing were also writers, but there were also people like me who just wanted to review and write criticism of the short form.

    I’m not sure why The Fix folded but I would guess it was to do with a lack of readers. Unless things have changed a lot in recent years far fewer people read short fiction than novels, and when it comes to people interested in criticism of short fiction that’s a subset of a subset.

    I wonder if the timings involved are also part of the problem: novels tend to live on in the mind longer than most short stories, if only because readers spend more time with them. If you don’t read a short story and writing on the same within a relatively small window I’m not sure if it would work. That could just be me projecting, though, as I have a truly terrible memory.

    In the past I would periodically review magazines and short stories on NFI and as I recall there wasn’t much in the way of a response (nor was there on The Fix) except where the author of the story spotted the review and decided to respond. Not that I claim to have written anything hugely insightful; part of the reason comments rarely appeared was probably that what I was writing was substandard. That aside, part of the reason I almost entirely stopped writing about books and music for three years and switched to games was that all of a sudden I *was* having conversations off the back of what I was writing.

    Your anthology review projects are a good format for criticism of short stories in that there is both consistency between posts but enough space allocated to each story for you to get your arms in its guts. Perhaps people don’t tend to read short story criticism because the overwhelming majority of it comes down to anthology, collection or magazine reviews where each story gets a two or three sentence plot summary and, if you’re lucky, a sentence or two explaining why the critic thinks it’s good or bad.

    What are your thoughts?

    friendlygun

    17 February 2014 at 17:49

  5. […] are no use to me. The first is ‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ by Sophia Samatar which I’ve already written about. The second is ‘If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love’ by Rachel Swirsky which contains no […]

  6. […] ‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons) – more here […]

  7. […] ‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ by Sofia Samatar […]

    Spun | Everything Is Nice

    30 April 2014 at 10:44

  8. […] a good review of it on Martin Petto’s blog, actually. I pretty much agree with […]

  9. […] ‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ by Sofia Samatar – Sofia Samatar is a very good writer. (New […]

    Six | Everything Is Nice

    31 October 2014 at 08:48


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