Girl Reporter

The Fountain Award carries a prize of $1000, given annually to a speculative short story of exceptional literary quality. The award is judged by a select jury, and chosen from work nominated by magazine and anthology editors.

Juried short fiction awards are a good thing, and awards with actual prize money are a good thing, so the Fountain Award is more or less a good thing; and I only say ‘more or less’ because of the reflexive cringe that I get from the phrase ‘speculative literature’. I agree with, for example, Sherwood Smith, in that I think ‘literary’ is so loaded that its deployment almost always does more harm than good. And in this specific case it seems redundant: surely the award could just be given to a speculative short story of exceptional quality?

The previous two winners, “The Specialist” by Alison Smith and “The Annals of Eelin-Ok” by Jeffrey Ford, are both worthy— neither was my favourite story of its year, but both are strong choices, and defensible choices as award-winners. This year I find myself somewhat baffled. “Girl Reporter” by Stephanie Harrell has a straightforward conceit: meet the woman behind the hero. Names are never named, but it’s clear that the titular narrator is Lois Lane, and that the proto-hero she strikes up a relationship with is, or becomes, Superman. Except that this version of Superman is a lunkhead, given to talking about himself in Duffman-like third person pronouncements, and lacking the strong moral sense of the hero we’re familiar with. He saves the girl, if she’s blonde; and it doesn’t occur to him until prodded to divert the satellite that’s hurtling down on the city. He wants a better image, but lacks the imagination to come up with one for himself, perhaps because all he wants is the image, rather than to genuinely change. So he asks the girl reporter to help, and because she’s fallen for him, against her better judgement she obliges. Soon enough she realises that creating a hero might be as troublesome as creating a monster. Some way further down the line, our hero writes his autobiography, Flights of Justice, which it’s implied is the version of the Superman story we all know, and among other things it misrepresents the girl reporter. Now she wants to set the record straight.

The story doesnt do a lot for me, but it’s taken me a while to pin down why. Technically it’s fine, or better than fine: well-paced, frequently clever, with a distinctive and complex voice. It’s an easy read, but asks questions about how we construct identities for ourselves and others that are worth asking. All it lacks, it seems, is that ineffable something: soul.

Partly this is personal preference. I’m wary of re-imaginings of existing stories at the best of times (please, no more Lovecraft crossover fanfic), and the more so when they seem designed, in part, to make a political point, however necessary that point may be. But even taking “Girl Reporter” on its own terms, it doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly interesting or challenging re-imagining. An examination of the ‘helplessness’ of the comic-book heroine is a big, easy target, as is Superman. Which is not to say they shouldn’t be targeted—I’ve no particular attachment to the character—but that fact is we all already know he’s a bit of a lunkhead, and the psychology of the type has been dissected and parodied pretty extensively (and not least by comics themselves, from Watchmen to The Authority). “Girl Reporter” does what it does with wit, but what it does is not particularly new—certainly not in the way that, say, “The Annals of Eelin-Ok” made the fairy story new.

But more than that, I find myself frustrated by the ending, when we suddenly come to this:

As for me, you’ll want to know my diagnosis. Superhero-envy, textbook case. Every gal knows, never fall for someone who can leave the earth, who can fly, who is not bound to the laws of physics you’re bound to. All of my investigative abilities have led to this little revelation. I didn’t just fall for him, I wanted to be him, and under those moon blue nights he was the one who could fly, streak away, leaving me on the cracked cement sidewalk with my trench coat and scoop.

I’m not sure whether this is intended as a twist, exactly, but assuming we take it seriously (which I think we are meant to do; there’s plenty of self-diagnosis elsewhere in the story, but this seems like something more), however I read it, it leaves me cold. I can come up with two possible interpretations of this paragraph, neither of which I much care for.

The first is that the girl reporter has a genuine psychological disorder, and that the story we’ve just read therefore cannot be trusted. This seems to me to weaken the story quite significantly: I didn’t particularly like the narrator to start with—it seems to me she’d be right at home at a party for media luvvies; give me Smallville‘s take on Lois, one of the few things the later seasons of that show have got right, any day—but if you’re going to write her story, surely you should follow it through to its logical end. Undermining her removes the sting of the story’s critique.

The second interpretation, which occurred to me after a second reading, is that the girl reporter doesn’t have a disorder, but has been diagnosed with one as a result of her actions, either deliberately or conveniently, to discredit her in the eyes of her potential readers, but not in the eyes of us, Stephanie Harrell’s readers. This would be a neat trick, if it worked; unfortunately it doesn’t quite. It’s too extreme to sustain my suspension of disbelief.

Because, in the end, “Girl Reporter” is a conservative story. It is too neat, too comfortable; nowhere does it contain the sort of fantastic dazzle that characterised Ford’s story last year, or that can be found in a number of the stories listed by the SLF as honorable mentions—particularly Darryl Gregory’s “Second Person, Present Tense”, M. Rickert’s “Anyway”, and Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror”. It’s enough to make you look again at that ‘literary’ caveat, and wonder whether it’s not just an empty adjective; whether, if it comes down to it, the Fountain Award will go to style over structure, technique over imagination. Probably, especially after looking at the list of judges, this is just my bafflement speaking, because in reality the winner should combine all those qualities, inseperably; but there is still a similar coolly respectable polish to all the winners so far, I think, and that’s something of a shame. I can’t help hoping next year’s winner has explosions (or is even an all-out epic).

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8 Responses to “Girl Reporter”

  1. Graham Says:

    I think we’re broadly in agreement, though that makes a dull comment. The word “literary” is incredibly loaded with unexamined and restrictive assumptions about what constitutes quality; superhero revisionism is not particularly a new sf gambit; and despite the slickness of its voice, I don’t really think “The Girl Reporter” adds much to the tradition. Where we disagree is about the ending: I read “diagnosis” as clearly being figurative. It also marked (for me) a rather clunky shift into the author doing Ending Cadences – I guess you heard that clunk, too. It was certainly a story that felt very *now*, very real-year-2005, in the knowingness of its voice – but not, as I say, in its content; voice can only get you so far.

  2. Niall Says:

    I read “diagnosis” as clearly being figurative.

    Yeah, I started thinking about this again a while after I posted. I think you may be right that I misinterpreted a gearshift.

  3. Ted Says:

    Going off on a tangent: can you describe what “fantastic dazzle” you found in “Second Person, Present Tense”?

  4. Niall Says:

    Ted – fair question. What I liked about that story is the way it uses sf as a lens. Growing up, becoming your own person, is a universal experience, and the story intensifies and extends the feelings it causes–at times, almost unbearably, I thought. Plus, the idea of Zen gives me that cool-idea buzz. I was also impressed by Gregory’s control over his material; I think it’s a story that could very easily have become heavy-handed, particularly given that Terry is rebelling against religious parents, but stays on the right side of the line.

    Against that, it’s not as nuanced a voice as ‘Girl Reporter’, and you could argue that Gregory doesn’t do as much with the central idea as he might have done. Neither of those things bothered me, though.

  5. Ted Says:

    I thought it was a well-executed story about a teenager trying to establish her identity, but I didn’t think it was particularly science fictional (except insofar as it was an amnesia story, and amnesia is always kind of science fictional). The cause of the amnesia could have been a bump on the head; it really had nothing to do with the discussion about the delay between brain activity and conscious intention.

  6. Graham Says:

    Ted, I’m interested that you say “Amnesia is always kind of science fictional”. I find the reverse: sf tends to be about finding the world to be ultimately explicable, and amnesia fiction often leaves you still in the fog: think of Christopher Priest’s books, or Steve Erickson’s, for instance, or Dhalgren – all with very different affects from what one would normally think of sf, because of what’s been irrecoverably forgotten. (I’m also thinking a great deal of the work collected in Jonathan Lethem’s Vintage Book of Amnesia here: Lethem, and the works he collects, repeatedly make the point about how far amnesia-as-depicted-in-fiction is from how amnesia-in-the-world actually works.)

  7. Ted Says:

    I misspoke; I should have said, “except insofar as amnesia is science fictional.” I agree that amnesia can be used in many different ways that aren’t sfnal at all, but there are some uses that I do associate with SF, such as Dickian investigations of identity and reality. I also think that a movie like Memento attracted SF fans — despite the lack of any speculative element — because of the way it suggested that the protagonist’s memories were a soluble puzzle (whether or not that ultimately turned out to be the case).

    I agree that amnesia-in-fiction often bears no resemblance to amnesia-in-reality, but I think that good SF can be built on scenarios that are philosophically interesting even if neurologically inaccurate. I doubt there’s much scientific basis for the implants featured in Greg Egan’s “Axiomatic,” but I don’t mind, because the underlying inquiry into the material basis of consciousness remains interesting and, I’d argue, fundamentally sfnal.

    By the same token, I don’t mind if there’s no scientific basis for a drug that — as in “Second Person, Present Tense” — extends the delay between brain activity and conscious intention. But I’d have preferred it if the story had investigated the implications of such a hypothetical drug, rather than having it cause simple amnesia. (As I recall, the story says the drug normally produces no visible changes in behavior. If so, it might have made more sense if an overdose caused the creation of what philosophers call “zombies” — beings that act as if they are conscious, but have no conscious experience.)

  8. Niall Says:

    Ted: I don’t think the sf element was as redundant as you do; for instance, I thought the dissociation of self gave Therese’s suicide a nice twist, literally killing her mind without killing her body. But I’d have to read the story again to put a coherent defence together.

    I do agree with you that there’s an interesting association between amnesia and sf, which I think is down to the fact that sf foregrounds the relationship between the self and the world. A lot of sf protagonists have a very strong sense of identity; when you start messing with that, you can get some interesting effects.

    In my head, there’s an interesting compare/contrast to be done between “Second Person, Present Tense” and “The Other Grace” by Holly Phillips. The latter is the “straight” equivalent of Gregory’s story, in that there really isn’t a sfnal device behind the amnesia. But it has an odd sfnal quality, which I attribute partly to the fact that the protagonist is new to the world, looking at it as an outsider. (Some similarities with the style of Pattern Recognition there, come to think of it.)


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