I’m not much for rubrics, those pesky little university-endorsed things that supposedly make grading papers objective so that when Suzie the Freshman visits the Dean to complain about her under-inflated grade, you’ve got something to back you up.

[As always, those looking to be stimulated by seizure-inducing animated GIFs of random celebrities are encouraged to try a different website. I hear Sesame Street’s is quite colourful.]

I’ve never been much for grading writing, either. My favourite grad-school professor limited our syntax papers to two double-spaced pages because he said, and I quote, “Most people can’t get from the first to the last word in a sentence without losing their minds.” He didn’t want to read twenty pages of shit, and when I started teaching, I understood what he was talking about.

But I digress.

It turns out I do have a sort of rubric, even if it lives in my head. It’s a simple one, and starts with a single question:

Is this good?

Now we have talk about what “good” means.

When I’m reading flash fiction slush (which, by the way, I like a lot more than reading frosh comp five-paragraph essays on sleep-inducing topics like ‘The Dangers of Cell Phone Usage’ or ‘Why Carbonated Drinks are Bad for You’), I have a list of questions running in my head. Here are a few:

  1. Does this resonate with me?
  2. Is this memorable?
  3. Do I ‘get it?’
  4. Has this concept been played out before?
  5. How original is the form?

I’d like to expand on each of these. Ready? Let’s go.

Does this resonate with me?

Okay, sure, super-subjective, I know. Really what I’m looking for is whether the piece resonates at all and whether it will to a broad enough audience. Does it say something about the human condition? Does it tackle issues most people can relate to in some way (relationships, sex, death, fear, love, the blues, life choices, to name a few)? Does it make me stop and think That could be me or someone I know? Does it trigger an emotion?

In the spirit of show-don’t-tell, here’s an example of a piece that resonated like a well-tuned Guarneri del Gesù. I found it in Saturday Night Reader‘s Fall 2015 print volume. The story, “Peasholme Park” by Mark Rookyard, is also online (note: SNR’s content is now via paid subscription).

The story resonated in the way Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” resonates with pretty much every human being who’s listened to it. It speaks volumes about father-son relationships, love, and loss–all in under a thousand words. I actually spent an hour talking about Rookyard’s piece last night over drinks. An hour.

Read it, if you can.

Is this memorable?

For me, the best stories (or books, or characters, or movies, or scenes, or lines) are the ones that last. “My dear, I don’t give a damn” comes to mind. Or Marlon Brando screaming for Stella outside of a seedy flat in New Orleans. Or that Mark Helprin short story “Katrina, Katrin'” that I read when I was fourteen years old.

When I read, I’m not only in it for the moment–I want something I can take away with me, preferably for the rest of my life. That’s what I mean by memorable. Here’s another example:

Heard of “The Lottery,” that little piece by Shirley Jackson published in 1948? Sure you have. You probably read it in high school, along with the rest of the American population. If you’re a writer, you’ve read it again since. If you’re not a writer, you still remember it–you’ll remember it once senility finally sets in.

Do I ‘get it?’

Let’s face it, for a story to be enjoyable, I need–at the very least–to understand it. Preferably without having to research Lovecraft’s entire bloody corpus of work first. I need to get the words from the context and laugh or cry or cringe without the benefit of psychotropic drugs or a glossary. [Exception: Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, in which case both hallucinogens and glossaries are perfectly fine reading/watching companions]

In other words, I don’t want the freaking Emperor’s new clothes.

I don’t always get something on the first go-around, and that’s perfectly fine–there’s something to the idea of asking your reader to do a bit of work. Here’s a fine example of a piece I had to read a few times before it made sense to me:

Sylvia Heike’s winning entry, “Goodbye, Sunshine,” in The Molotov Cocktail’s Flash Fury contest. I still go back to it, and find a lovely new layer to enjoy every time. Pin-straight-forward? No. Gettable? Hell, yeah.

Has this concept been played out before?

Ah, vampires. No one seems to love vamps like I do. A ton of flash fiction/short story markets won’t even look at them. They make literary agents cringe. They’re dead.

In a lot of cases, I’ll agree (except to say they’re technically un-dead). Same goes for zombies, werewolves, paranormal romantic triangles, and dystopian worlds in which Some Poor Girl Has to Fight for her Life and Freedom. All played out.

Unless, of course, you do what Aeryn Rudel did in his story “Night Games,” available on Devilfish Review‘s site.

I love this piece. And I know bugger all about baseball. If you’re like me, don’t worry–Aeryn does a fantastic job of weaving in the technical ins and outs (hehe) of the game. It’s fresh, it’s fun, and it’s damn good writing. Old concept? Yes. New spin? Absolutely.

How original is the form?

When I read, I’m not necessarily looking for a clever format–straight prose is fine, if it’s solid and if there’s a good story and if the writer knows the difference between ‘breath’ and ‘breathe.’ But I’ll look more closely at a piece that departs from traditional form, that plays around, that takes risks with style–as long as it doesn’t ring my form-seeking-content bells.

Why? Good question. Mostly because experimental writing is fun, particularly if it does something clever with language. I am a linguist, after all.

One of the first bits of flash fiction I read (and one I will never, ever forget) was Ani King’s “Conjugate ‘to be’, using complete sentences” in Freeze Frame Fiction. It made me start thinking about all the different things I could do, all the new and strange ways I could tell a story. The only thing I don’t like about “Conjugate ‘to be'” is that I didn’t write it.

Read it NOW, if you have a few moments.

There you have it. My reading rubric, or at least part of it. Sure, I look at grammar and spelling and story and character. But who wants to read a blog rant about lousy grammar?

Oh, and by the way, here’s a note to Suzie:

I didn’t need a rubric. Your writing stank.

3 thoughts on “A Reader’s Rubric

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