Well, I admittedly bashed Lisa Goldstein’s short story “Reader’s Guide” in my review of the F&SF July 2008 issue. However, after so many bloggers raved about it, I went back and gave the story another look.
Turns out, they were right, I was wrong – it is in fact a very charming piece of fiction. Though the format threw me off initially, I gave up too soon in my first time reading it. The narrator of the tale works in a vast library – a library that contains, presumably, all stories ever conceived or written. Her job is that of a shelver – to place stories in the shelves where they belong – but she takes on the additional task of writing “reader’s guides” for the stories she encounters that still need some work. The guides, in fact, are suggestions to the writer on how the story might be re-worked to make it better.
Too many stories that the narrator encounters are mediocre, or just plain bad. Too often are the same essential storylines duplicated without any real improvements. She writes, “There are infinite ways of telling a tale, but only rarely do all the elements coalesce, only rarely is everything perfect, the characters engaging, the setting sharply drawn, the action compelling.”
The narrator focuses on one story that she encounters, “Winter Swan” by Mary Bainbridge. “Winter Swan is one of those wretched stories – boring, poorly constructed, filled with easy choices and sloppy writing and false emotion.” Eventually the narrator comes to both pity and admire Mary Bainbridge; pity her, for signs that she lacks some of the experience that a writer truly needs, and admire her, for the fact that she perseveres. That’s what writing’s all about, right? Perseverance.
In the end the narrator is promoted by the “Lord of Story” to a new position – that of a muse, who will work to help struggling writers find just the right story to tell.
Even now, the format of “Reader’s Guide” by Lisa Goldstein seems a bit difficult to follow. Yet I find the narrator charming, and her pointed commentary on some of the bad stories she encounters is well-taken. So it turns out, this story is worth the read.
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