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).