On Speculative Forms

We’ve been talking a lot about genre as we gear up to open our themed issue of antilang. – Succinct Speculations – for submissions. But what about form? “SpecFic” is a bit of a misnomer – it suggests that speculative writing is always fiction, and that’s obviously not true.

Speculative writing is no alien to poetry. In fact, Canada’s “magazine of the fantastic,” On Spec, devotes an entire section to the form. Antilangers (as we fondly call our past contributors) Amy LeBlanc & Taylor Skaalrud have employed the gothic and the supernatural into their poetry submissions for our flash writing contests on Patreon. And Erin Emily Ann Vance has published her wonderful witchy poems with us in antilang. no. 1 & 2 and many other mags.

Another form that synchronizes splendidly with speculative writing is comics, such as Crash & Burn by Calgary-based creators Finn Lucullan & Kate Larking. And there’s always the obvious examples of superhero comics. We haven’t received any comics submissions for any of our previous issues, but we’d really love to see some this time around as the form facilitates a blending of genres, styles, and artistic/literary modes.

portrait-of-max-ernst-1939.jpg!large
Leonora Carrington’s “Portrait of Max Ernst” (1939), a visual embodiment of SpecNF (Fair Use, wikiart.org)

But what of creative non-fiction? Is there such a thing as speculative non-fic? We feel that yes, there is, and furthermore there are multiple ways one could achieve this apparent paradox. A few years back, Edmonton-based novelist and short story writer Jacqueline Baker wrote The Broken Hours, a literary ghost story about the finals days of horror icon / huge racist H.P. Lovecraft’s life. While the book is marketed as a novel, it is deeply research-based and draws heavily from Lovecraft’s personal letters found in archives. It becomes a sort of biography blended with historical fiction and supernatural horror; plus, Jacqueline told us at a recent conference that she loves the idea of speculative non-fiction, so there!

Another style of SpecNF can be found in Numenera, a table-top role-playing game by Monte Cook Games. This narrative-driven science-fantasy RPG is set in the distant future, and most of the core rulebook Discovery reads more like a very interesting encyclopedia than an instruction manual. While non-fiction suggests that the writing’s topic should be ‘real’ (whatever that means), we feel that SpecNF is as much about style and presentation. Besides, who’s to say these worlds aren’t real, floating over or alongside our own, or that they won’t become real, some day?

On Blind Review: Or, The Problem of Pretend Objectivity

Anyone who submits to lit mags should be familiar with the term ‘blind review.’ This is usually accompanied with directions to remove your name and identifying info from all pages of your submission, except for the cover letter (which should be in a separate document). This way only the editor that receives the incoming submissions has access to the names/identities associated with the submitted pieces (and, ideally, the mag has a high volume of submissions, so the editor that does see names couldn’t possibly be bothered to remember them anyway). That editor then sends the works along to section editors/readers and they are reviewed without bias toward gender, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or any other label or minority identifier that someone could judge the author for.

In a perfect world, that’s all well and good, and certainly the intent behind blind review has its merits, but in practice, this allows terrible people to be published. You might think, “But, if their work is good, doesn’t it deserve publication?” To which we cite Kate Leth:

We think this says it all, but to clarify, in every artistic community there are abusers who get away with having a platform for their work because of the fallacy of ‘artistic merit.’ (No need to name them here, but we’re sure we can all name a few actors or musicians who fit this description). The world of Can Lit and writing globally is not immune. We believe in encouraging emerging writers, and so we also believe that these writers have the potential to become even better than the so-called greats who get published despite their personal failings and the harm they cause their communities. Obviously, we strive to publish good writing, but we do so without allowing shitty people into our community.

So no, we don’t blind review. We leave names and bios on our submissions so that we (and our guest editors) can see who wrote the work submitted. How does this impact our review process? Well, we have some people we will always reject because we know, through whisper networks, that they have abused their positions of power, exploited and crutched on their ‘renown,’ or made people of certain groups feel uncomfortable (at best) and caused serious mental/physical harm (at worst). This doesn’t mean you have to hold the exact same values as us to get published in antilang. or soundbite, but it does mean that you have to genuinely believe all humans are deserving of human rights, respect, and dignity. That seems like a low bar, but apparently it’s not. We also extend this beyond social justice concerns to encompass issues specific to lit mags, for example, plagiarism. If someone has plagiarised in the past, we don’t accept their work, even if it is an original piece. Yes, people can change, but we don’t have to forgive and forget.

But how do we know if someone is a shitty person? To be honest, we can usually tell from the cover letter or the piece itself, but we also do a quick google search of our short listed submitters. Does this mean you spend more time researching submitters than on reviewing their work (AKA, on your job)? No, because most of our submitters are amazing people! We can tell from their cover letters, their bios, their pieces, that they care about people! Many of our submitters mention their activist work in their letter and treat all their characters with dignity (even if they are not great people in the text—there is a quality about the writing that shows its a comment on an individual, not an entire group of people). And we love this—we love that our submitters (at least, the overwhelming majority) are compassionate and considerate.

On Canadian Content: By the Artists

In our last post on CanCon, we talked a lot about numbers, requirements, and how to reach them; now we’d like to look more closely at what makes something “CanCon.” Canadian radio requirements follow the MAPL system—yes, as in “maple,” we aren’t joking and we couldn’t make this up—to determine if a song/band meets CanCon standards. MAPL stands for music, artist, performance, and lyrics. To be considered CanCon, two of those four factors must be Canadian. But the standards in literature are far more fuzzy, and Canada has a long history of ‘borrowing’ and ‘claiming’ authors from abroad as its own.

For example, postmodern prairie poet and novelist Robert Kroetsch wrote and published all of his early books while living, studying, and teaching in the United States despite the texts’ overtly Canadian content. By contrast, French Canadian Nicole Brossard’s novel Le désert mauve (Mauve Desert) is set in the U.S. and nearly all of the characters are American yet it’s a canonical Quebecois novel. Science fiction trailblazer William Gibson first came to Canada from the U.S. as a draft-dodger but has been adopted as one of the fathers of our speculative fiction tradition. Alix Ohlin was born in Montreal and now lives and teaches in Vancouver, but most of her education, writing, and publishing happened in the U.S. And the list goes on and on, with each of these grey zone cases being adopted or sometimes even assertively claimed as part of Canadian literature.

The question then becomes “what makes something CanCon?” especially when we aren’t dealing with a famous author that people have ruled on. Some of our contributors live abroad but write about Canada, others live, study, and write in Canada but aren’t citizens (and some are in the process of becoming citizens). We would love to consider all those people as “Canadian writers” in the same vein as Canadian writers have always been claimed, but we don’t want to hurt our chances for funding that would allow us to pay contributors or help cover operational costs.

So, how do we decide what ‘counts’ as CanCon and how we can best—literally—count our CanCon for grant applications? We have decided to go with a fairly clear understanding of “Canadian”—someone who has citizenship or permanent residency (the latter being an immigrant granted permission to live in Canada indefinitely without citizenship). We decided that permanent residents will be considered ‘Canadian’ for us because we aren’t in charge of voting stations—we’re a non-profit literary hub trying to build community—and to us this means celebrating a diversity of views and experiences, including those of immigrants who help create the mosaic that Canada boasts it is.

In our previous post on CanCon we asked our readers to let us know how they would like us to count the amount of CanCon in our issues (by page, contributor, piece, etc.) on Facebook and Patreon. We received arguments in favour of each way of counting, but having then considered who counts as ‘Canadian,’ we decided that we will be counting our CanCon by contributor. This will make our jobs easier when putting together our issues because we won’t have to do complicated math to balance page numbers (i.e., ‘if we take this 5 page international submission, then we need 25 Canadian pages before we can take another international’). Counting contributors also makes counting soundbite easier, especially as we are considering the combined total of our contributors from both publications together (the grants ask for our CanCon by project, and we consider The ALP one project).

What does this mean? It means we’re going to start asking our submitters to declare if they are Canadian citizens or permanent residents in their cover letters. We will never share your personal information with anyone, but you will become a statistic (either part of our 80% CanCon or our 20% international). But don’t worry—we’re already looking into globalisation grants that don’t have such strict regulations on CanCon (however, we need to have existed for a longer time to qualify for those, so, until then we will play by the funding rules and count our CanCon contributors).

On Why You Hear “Yes” Before You Hear “No”

We all know how lit mags work: you send something in, and the longer you go without hearing anything, the longer they are taking to decide if they want your work (so, if you hear “no” just before the issue comes out, well, then at least you can take comfort knowing that your piece made the editors’ long-list). On the flip side, if you get a “no” within a month of submitting, then you know they really didn’t like it. Either way, with a “no” it’s rare to receive any type of feedback (so if you do get an encouraging note about your work, celebrate!)

By contrast, when we read submissions to The ALP, we categorise each piece and then go through work we’ve flagged for our issues (antilang. and soundbite). We do the edits for these pieces (the ones we accept for publication) before we send out our rejections. We also adhere to a tight schedule—we give ourselves around a month to edit and send out our acceptances and to put together both publications.

Because of this quick turn-around, things can get a bit awkward—sometimes we’re still sending out rejections after the issue has launched online. However, we post on our social media accounts (@antilangmag) when we have completed all our acceptances. So, if you haven’t heard back from us by then, you’ll be receiving a “no” with feedback.

Do we edit or give feedback on every submission? No. We are a publisher that prioritises editing, but we are not a free editing service. When people send us work that is not even close to being polished (obvious first drafts, an abundance of clichés or abstractions, etc.), then we send a generic “no thanks.”

For our “no with feedback” submissions, we put comments in the body of an email and typically address the strongest element of your work (the spark we see in it!) and any major issues. We do accept work that requires edits, but usually we don’t accept work that requires structural changes (i.e. switching the tense or perspective, rearranging scenes, or other edits that would take substantial time). So, our feedback will not be line edits, but rather comments and questions about the construction of the piece. These are pieces we feel are so close to being what we want, but need some sort of change that would take longer than our one-month deadline to incorporate (but that’s just us—a lot of these pieces do get scooped up by other lit mags that focus on elements outside of concision).

At The ALP, we do things differently. We know good work doesn’t emerge from a vacuum—while you sit down and physically write by yourself, the rewriting and editing are often done by sharing your work with trusted readers and editors. We want to highlight this communal element that is inherent to the writing process (and often overlooked).

On Canadian Content: By the Numbers

If you’ve ever listened to a Canadian radio station, you probably noticed an over-abundance of Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, and the ever-berated Nickelback. This is because most stations in Canada are required to play at least 40% Canadian content (or as we lovingly call it: CanCon), and there are similar rules for Canadian periodicals. If you want to be supported by the Canadian Periodical Fund, as The ALP does (because we’re in this double bind of having no money yet wanting to pay our contributors), then a certain percentage of your content needs to be Canadian. This number varies somewhat from one grant to another, but for lit mags it’s often as high as 80%.math-1500720_960_720

We’ll jump into the hot mess of “what makes something Canadian?” in Part 2 of this mini blog series, but the big question, for now, is “how do we calculate that 80%?” This might seem like it has a straightforward answer, but many of the grant applications let you decide how you calculate your CanCon so long as the calculation is clearly explained and justified. So, do you go by number of pages, number of contributors, or number of contributions? This distinction can drastically swing the final number since many poets submit numerous short pieces that get published together while prose writers tend to take up more pages but usually only have a single entry. Consider Jessica Mehta’s two poems on the first two pages of antilang. no. 2 in contrast with Michaela Stephen’s five-page single story: who is contributing ‘more’ content to the magazine? And how problematic is it to imply, through the criteria we choose, that a one-page poem has the same content ‘value’ as a five-page story or, from the opposite approach, that a story has five times the ‘value’ as a poem? These issues get even more flustered when dealing with soundbite, which doesn’t have pages but could be considered in terms of time or number of pieces. And, though we consider these as distinct entities, or sister-publications, do they actually count as such, or should we be accounting for the total amount of CanCon published by the entire organisation?

At this point, if you haven’t gotten bored of all the math questions, you might be wondering “so what? just pick the formula that makes the most sense and send in your numbers.” At The ALP we want to publish the best short writing that we receive and we feel it’s unfair that a great piece might be cut or bumped to the next issue simply because of the contributor’s nationality (the complexities of which we’ll delve into in the next post). We hate the subtext of implied value systems and hierarchies that any one of these formulas imposes. This might sound a little melodramatic, but these questions of CanCon cause us to wrestle with what give writing its value. So, when caught between the rock of grant regulations and the hard place of financial dependence, we’re going to do everything we can by the numbers to ensure the largest quantity and the greatest possible diversity of good short writing appears in our publications. And to help us with this, we want your input! What do you think would be the best solution: page count, by piece, or by contributor? Leave your input in the comments (either on our social media posts or on our blog) and join in the conversation.

Why Write?

Turn on any news program or open any social media app and the world comes in. And you realise, that right now, the world is ugly. Fascism dominates, and with it all the ugly -isms and -phobias that generate and feed on hate. When people aren’t killing or hurting each other, they’re destroying the planet. When you see all this, hopelessness becomes inevitable. The words “thoughts and prayers” ring too hollow and you don’t know what to do, what you could do, to make a difference. You aren’t a politician, you aren’t a scientist, and words feel too feeble. Why write?

At the ALP, we’ve been quiet as these tragedies continue. We’ve been hurting. And we’ve been asking ourselves: why write? Why dedicate our lives to writing?

We have two answers: beauty and empathy. We write to create something beautiful in an ugly world. To remind ourselves and others that beauty does exist. And that taking the time to notice beauty and to appreciate it enough to write it is important. This takes us back, to a time before, when we didn’t see the ugly in the world. Who didn’t start writing poetry out of love? You fall in love, that first time you have a crush on someone, so young, and you can’t help but write it. And maybe those first love poems weren’t the best poems, but they tried to capture something beautiful. So, why write? To get back to that.

But what if you didn’t start with love poems? What if you saw the ugly in the world and started writing your anger? Who didn’t, as they wrote love poems, not also write angsty poems about injustice? Even if that injustice was only your parents disallowing you to be with the one you loved, it was still felt, deep enough to write. And this brings us to empathy, because sometimes you can’t write only beauty. Sometimes you must write anger and hurt. Why? Why write? Because you feel a pain so acute that you must communicate it. In this communication we find community–other people with the same pain or other people wanting the same change. That’s what writing does: communicates.

We can’t understand the suffering of other people or the planet. Those hurts are too big. So we put it in writing. We use our craft to create characters, worlds, and we invite readers to know these people, to start to know each other. We begin to recognise others and ourselves, and we start to understand how to support each other.

So, while our mission at the ALP is to curate good. short. writing., what we mean by this is that we want to bring people together. We believe that through writing we can remember to notice beauty. And we can connect to each other, regardless of our backgrounds, to create a community of writers and readers, aware of our differences, and supportive, nonetheless.

All the speeches and rhetoric used for destruction can be turned around. We can use story and poetry and memory, delivered through well-chosen words to understand each other and to create something better.

Why write? Because it gives us hope.

On Blurring Genre: antilang.

As we start vetting pieces for antilang. no. 3 and soundbite vol. 2 (check out our call for submissions & guidelines!), we want to draw attention to an important aspect of our mandate: work that blends and blurs the lines of genre. Unlike many literary journals and magazines, the ALP’s publications aren’t divided up into genre sections. We also don’t ask you to identify the genre of your writing when you submit it. Finally, we made sure to solicit some hybrid creators for our inaugural issue to lead by example (like Geoff Pevlin’s delightful translation poems and Larissa Lai’s activist-inclined language play). As a result of these practices, we received a huge spectrum of forms and genres for antilang. no. 2 and soundbite no. 1 when we opened for general submissions.

Of course, we can’t take credit for the idea. Challenges to and deconstructions of ‘traditional’ (read dominant) notions of literary genre go back as far as the traditions and genres themselves, but are especially seen in the writings of marginalized groups (i.e., those displaced/silenced by said dominating traditions). What’s interesting is that in contemporary times the challenging of genres has become subtle and fluid, particularly through blurred middle grounds and hybridity. Consider this excerpt from Robert Kroetsch’s The Hornbooks of Rita K: “When I tell you that I love you I’m trying to tell you that I love you” (97).

Now consider the closing of Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach:

I lie on the sand.
The clamshells are hard
against my back. I am no longer
cold. I am so light I could just
drift away. Close, very close, a b’gwus howls–
not quite human, not quite wolf,
but something in between.

The howl echoes off the mountains.
In the distance,
I hear the sound of a speedboat. (374)

Note the absent line breaks from Kroetsch’s “[hornbook #73],” whereas we’ve added line breaks to what was, originally, a single paragraph in Robinson’s novel. And yet, the passage from Monkey Beach seems, or feels, to read more ‘poetically’ than Kroetsch’s, whose line(s) behave like a straightforward statement or piece of dialogue. The telling poem and the novel’s imagistic end reveal the folly of commonly held beliefs about the differences between prose and poetry: that poetry is inaccessible (thanks, modernists!) and that novels are expected to deliver plot and therefore closure. Monkey Beach gives us the opposite of both: accessible concrete images and total uncertainty regarding Lisa’s fate. Hornbooks gives us a self-evident fact, a description with built-in implied plot and closure, for what more can be told on the topic?

A piece in antilang. no. 2 that brilliantly befuddles these typical expectations of genres is Melinda Jane – The Poet Mj’s “Kit” (pg. 25). While ‘clearly’ a poem at first glance, we lovingly call it a micro-novel written in verse. Not only is it broken into chapters rather than numbered or titled sections, “Kit” is a long (relative to our mandate) narrative that features all the staples of a novel: multiple characters and settings, prosaic descriptions, (indirect) dialogue, and, that slipperiest of all fiction ‘requirements,’ plot. How could the short lines full of imagery belong to a novel? How could they not?

On Putting Together Issue 2

If you’ve followed us since Issue 1, then you know that our inaugural issue was solicitation-only, and that we used that model to put established authors beside emerging writers. You already know we like work that b(l)ends genres and operates on multiple levels, according to varying types of readers. And putting together the first issue was relatively easy–we already knew so many amazing writers that we wanted to feature together.

So, what about issue 2? For the second issue (coming this September!) we opened for submissions from all over the world. We received some repeat submitters who appeared in Issue 1 (spoiler alert–they are also in issue 2), but this upcoming issue is not a repeat of what we’ve already done. We considered every submission and accepted it purely on the merit of the work, though as we did so, we made sure to push ourselves and our understandings of ‘merit.’ We read cover letters and when we were unsure of a piece, we considered it in light of what the cover letter said the piece was doing and the positionality of the author. This is important, because we are editors, but that does not mean we are infallible. We are also white and in a heterosexual relationship, and regardless of how much we strive to be allies, we are not subject to the same forms of oppression and marginalisation as many of the writers who submitted work to us are. We read your pieces, and we grew. And the magazine has also grown to encompass and support these voices.

If you have submitted work to us, then you know our policy is to help edit pieces–most of the work in our issues has received edits (though some comes to us in its best form). And in doing this editing, we opened our dialogue with our submitters. At times, we would suggest a change to be made (usually a line to be cut, because we are about concision), and the submitter would correct us, would point out the importance of including that line, even if it was, technically, a redundancy. Because although we (being university-educated as readers) could ascertain the message of a piece, the inclusion of that line opens the piece to people not as well-trained in reading. Thank you. To all our submitters who expressed concern that their pieces would not have the same, or as broad, resonance if they followed our edits, thank you. You have helped us become better editors, and we are grateful that you entrusted your work to us and had the courage to correct us. And we are so happy that so many writers–including those who corrected us–agreed with our edits. We believe every piece in Issue 2 is as strong as it can be, and that is what we strive for. Good. Short. Writing.

So, now that it’s edited, how do we put it together? Well, we start with a huge list of our submitters and their pieces on an excel spreadsheet. Then Allie writes it out by hand because she doesn’t understand technology and she highlights the names according to prose vs verse (ish–there are genre blurring pieces, so this is done by feel). We agree on a piece to start the issue–the tone we want to set. And from there we find the thematically linked pieces. For issue 2 this means the (loosely) place-based pieces. We start making lists of names with arrows to indicate different groupings of themes and which pieces flow together best and rearrange so that each grouping leads into the next intuitively. This process involves a lot of back and forth of names and titles and general confusion between the hand-written order and the master copy Jordan compiles on the computer. We found three main themes for this up coming issue: place, deconstruction of form, and intersectional feminism, with five ‘random’ pieces to round out the issue (there is a similarity to the ‘randomness,’ but we haven’t come up with the right adjective for it).

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Keep an eye open for our upcoming previews, because we’re going to start launching Issue 2 previews in the next few days!

On Our Editing Philosophy

We call ourselves editors, and we take this role seriously. We edit. We edit almost all the pieces we accept, and we edit most of the pieces we reject. This is what sets us apart from other magazines, and this is what takes most of our time.

We have already sent out all our acceptances for issue 2, but we have not yet sent out all our rejections. If you know how other magazines operate, then you know that they tend to send out rejections first, acceptances last. Obviously, we receive some submissions that require an automatic ‘no,’ but we are happy to say that this is not a majority of our submissions. Why? Because we believe in helping make writing better and in helping writers improve their craft.

So, if we edit almost everything, how do we determine what goes in the issue and what gets edits and encouragement? It comes down to the degree of edits we do. The pieces we accept need few edits–usually on the level of the line (cut a word or sentence, or reword a line, or replace a word).

The pieces we don’t accept but do edit, those are full of potential, and honestly, a lot of fun to edit. These are pieces that require more work. Often this is in the form of restructuring (reorganising the flow of the piece, ie: changing the orders of paragraphs or stanzas), or in changing the form (ie: a lineated verse piece into prose-poetry). Or, sometimes, it’s the opposite–the form and structure are great, but the content doesn’t serve it as well as it could (too many inactive verbs/gerunds/adjectives/cliches). Either way, our model is to point out what is working in a piece (so the writer knows to keep doing it!) and what needs more work to make the piece shine.

And what have the responses been so far? Positive–overwhelmingly positive. We have received only one response from someone who did not appreciate our feedback. But besides that one person, most of the writers that we rejected 1) responded to our rejection letters (an uncommon occurrence), and 2) thanked us for our work and commitment to their pieces. Hey, as long as it helps other writers improve, we’re happy to keep doing what we’re doing.

If you are one of the submitters who has not yet received a response, then don’t worry–we do respond to everyone. All our yeses are confirmed, but if you haven’t heard from us, it means we see potential and are excited about your work and will get it back to you with our suggestions for improvement. We will keep doing it our way, because we believe this is what’s best for writers and the community–we are here to support each other!

On Genre (Stories Can Be Good Short Writing Too)

It seems our contributors are also astutely aware that poems make for good short writing, since of all the submissions that we’ve now received, only one (1!) is a prose piece. And while we love pointed poems, we’d like to see some prim prose as well.

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

-Margaret Atwood

Pointed, political, immediately recognizable.

The Sweetest Little Song

You go your way
I’ll go your way too

-Leonard Cohen

Less well known, but beautiful in both its simplicity and its message.

All haiku
Are good short writing
Aren’t they?

-me right now

The genre of poetry seems inherently ideal for good short writing: haiku, sonnets, epigrams, rondeaus — they all beg to be brief and, considering they’ve been around for centuries, they’d better be good!

It seems our contributors are also astutely aware that poems make for good short writing, since of all the submissions that we’ve now received, only one (1!) is a prose piece. And while we love pointed poems, we’d like to see some prim prose as well. So, in hopes of remedying this generic imbalance, let’s unpack an extremely pithy piece of fiction.

Whenever I’m teaching undergrads a text, no matter what length, I always get them to ask the same three questions. What does it say? What does it mean? And what does it do? And when you combine these questions and move through them cyclically you get what we call close reading.

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The piece I’m going to unpack is the “baby shoes” flash fiction often attributed to Ernest Hemingway. The are several stories behind the story, as is often the case, but the one I’ve heard is that Hemingway and some buddies were at a bar chatting about writing. One thing led to another and they decided to have a contest to see who could write the shortest short story. Hemingway obviously won because he’s Ernest Fricken Hemingway. His story was only six words long and has become a literary legend: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Ugh, gets me every time! Six words and I’m like “nope, I’m tapped out!” So let’s take a look at what’s going on in this piece.

First, what does it say? Well, it says there are some baby shoes for sale and that they’ve never been worn. Phew, one down, two to go! What does it mean? It means the baby doesn’t need the shoes… so the baby probably died. What does it do? It punches you right in the feels. Why? And this is where we wonder. This is where we’re curios. And so, this is when we go back to “what does it mean?” and read a little more closely.

“For sale: baby shoes never worn.” It’s definitely in the last two words that you get the emotion, the weight of the implications, the subtext of the dead infant. But what do the other words mean? What do shoes do rather than clothes? Clothes could be for any baby at any stage while shoes are something you buy in a specific size and in anticipation of a specific action: walking. Were it baby clothes for sale the child might have been stillborn. Shoes suggest that the baby was born, that it was alive, and that it died before being able to walk.

The difference is the implied loss of potential life vs the implied loss of an infant; a life stolen away just before it could start acting on its own. And what about the opening words? The shoes are for sale, the parents or guardians did not give them to a friend or to someone in need, because they themselves are in need. They can’t afford to be charitable, they need the money from the shoes even though the child who was supposed to wear them died quite recently.

So now back to the third question: what does the story do? It hits us where it hurts. Why? Because it draws on what a lot of people would call universal themes, like existential dread and the fear of losing a child. “Think of the children” is a common cliché and rhetorical tactic; you can’t help but think of Helen Lovejoy on The Simpsons: “Won’t somebody please think of the children!”

But what does this do? Asking the question again and again is how you get to the social implications of the text, how you connect media to culture. There are tons of different avenues you can pursue here, and some will be more productive than others, but let’s just talk through one as an example.

American literary critic Lee Edelman unpacks the “think of the children” trope in his chapter “The Future is Kid’s Stuff” from his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Edelman argues that all politics are heteronormative because, whether you’re conservative or liberal, republican or democrat, all policy is made with the future generation in mind and therefore privileges straight reproductive people.

Following Edelman’s theories, you could argue that the baby shoes story reinforces heteronormative politics by appealing to the public’s emotion through the “think of the children” cliché. Alternatively, you could argue that the story’s casual tone and classified ad format expresses a disregard for the child, both the literal one who died and the figure of the child in the cliché, and that the story is actually about money and the struggles of the lower class caused by the expectation that families will have children. Both readings are viable and largely depend on whether you read the story as impassioning or as detached.

The final question that I always ask is “So what?” After you’ve argued what something says, what it means, what it does, and what that function does, take a step back and think about the implications and consequences of your own readings and interpretations. The baby shoes story either reinforces or challenges heteronormative family structures and “think of the children” rhetoric. So what?

So, you have to decide your position on what the story does (and there are a lot more than these two options or this one topic) and you have to ask why you read it as doing that. Then ask “so what?” again. How does your position on this issue, which stems from your reading of a six word story, affect the way you think about politics, about health care, about the economy, about society’s expectations concerning sexuality and family?

This is what we call close reading. And as we all know, reading occurs after writing, so while you can’t anticipate every reading, you can see what might be done with six simple words. We hope this energizes your good short prose writing and that you send it our way!