I’ve had a few people call me out on my statement that Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” is simply good writing regardless of if it appeals to one’s taste or not (previous post). They said I should put my money where my mouth is and say why it is good.
Before we begin, if you haven’t read it yet and you’re going to read the rest of this post, go read it first. It’s 12 stanzas, average of 80 words per stanza. At under 1000 words most markets would count it as Flash Fiction. If you want to get straight to my argument, jump to section C.
A. The Disclaimer
This is the part where I grumble and make excuses about why I’m not the right person for this job.
First, I’m not any sort of authority. I don’t have a degree (in anything, actually, I dropped out of college). I don’t have any training as a critic. I’m not a respected authority. Hell, I’ve barely even been published. All I am is some guy with a blog who posts his opinions and reads a bunch. And I don’t even read nearly as much as I used anymore! (I blame all the new projects I’ve undertaken)
And second, as I stated before, it wasn’t my favorite story. I mean, it’s good, but there were several I liked more, none of which got on the Hugo ballot! In fact, it wasn’t even my favorite Rachel Swirsky story of that year. I feel like someone who loved it with their full soul would be much better at making this case.
B. The Googling
For that reason, I looked to see if someone else had already done this. I would like to direct your attention to these three fine posts, which do their part to explain what makes this story good.
Anaea Lay: “The only other place I can think of off-hand that has a structure like this is a lullaby and I don’t think that’s an accident. It’s an extremely popular lullaby, and by subconsciously triggering associations with it, Swirsky is immediately lulling her readers, as it were, and invoking a sense of deep, unwavering love. … the structure of the story as a series of If/then statements … Her compassion for the families of the people who nearly killed her fiancé is so relentless that it interrupts the coping mechanism she’s using to deal with that same tragedy. Reader, Rachel Swirsky just stabbed you in the guts by breaking a pattern. You have been shivved by a master.”
Jody/Bookgazing: “Her word choice also makes him sound breakable and easy to damage; a person/dinosaur that requires the greatest of care. On reflection, this description sounds a warning bell for the story’s later revelations. … When it comes, the twist is the kind of quiet reveal that will knock you down and then flower into a hundred ‘ohs’ of understanding as you re-consider the entire story. Absolutely everything looks different after that twist … While the twist provides a real gut punch it was the simplicity of Swirsky’s story that drove it deep into my heart. I suppose it might be characterised as a slightly removed tone – the way someone tells the story of an alternate reality to comfort or to keep themselves from feeling what is happening around them. Perhaps the story teller notes so many sharp details to keep from absorbing the wider consequences of what is in front of her.”
Little Redhead Reviewer: “This is not a story, this is a kaleidoscope, with each touch, each incremental move of the barrel bringing something completely different into focus, taking you somewhere else, taking you one step closer to where the narrator is, at first, afraid to go.”
C. My Own Sad Attempt At Explaining Myself
So what is it that makes this story artistically good, even if you don’t like it?
This story is written to mimic the If/Then structure of the hugely popular “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” children’s books (which incidentally first came out while I was a child, so this story hit me right in the Target Demographic. But I assume by now everyone is acquainted with them, either as someone who’s had the books read to them, or as someone who read it to youngsters of their own). It’s a chain story, were each new section is a consequence of the previous one (If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll want a glass of milk to drink with it. If you give him a glass of milk, he’ll want a mirror to avoid a milk mustache. If you give him a mirror, etc). It establishes this pattern immediately, so at the end of every page the child immediately thinks “I have to know what this crazy mouse will want as a consequence of the latest thing he got!”
First, Rachel taps into this same dynamic to keep us going from one stanza to the next. But more importantly, she evokes this childhood play structure that we’ve internalized (and as Anaea pointed out, it’s deeper than Mouse, it goes back to old timey lullabyes). And she exploits that by giving us a whimsical visual – a 5-foot, awkward T-Rex! She initially keeps the tone very much in the realm of whimsical, near-childish sing-song nonsense. He’d sing on Broadway! And all the while she’s slipping in these clues, these undertones that point to what’s coming, but we don’t notice because we’re thoroughly wrapped up in our childhoods, safe in our beds while our parents are reading us a safely child-friendly story.
So when she breaks that structure once, right in the middle, to reveal what we’re actually reading, it drops us right into cold reality. That stanza doesn’t start with an If. It is a straight-up sob, and we realize that the entire If/Then edifice is a fantasy the narrator’s using to avoid dealing with the horror of her life, and that fantasy has been momentarily pierced. The protective narrative is gone, reality is laid bare, the structure is broken, the narrator is broken, the world is broken, and everything is pain and pain and pain.
And then she returns to the If/Then structure. Begins to build that protective wall up again. Because reality is too shitty to face right now. The sing-song returns. But now that we know the truth, we see that she’s using her memories of childhood safety as a shield, and the shield doesn’t do a damn thing to make reality better. All it does is stab us repeatedly in the childhood, because Swirsky managed to evoke our childhoods so effectively and then link them to this horror. Which, you know – ಠ_ಠ But it’s damned effective writing.
II. Masterful Word Crafting
Notice that in under 1,000 words, while describing her lover almost entirely in dinosaur-related terms, and sticking with a lyrical, sing-song flow that is reminiscent of good children’s books, Swirsky managed to paint an extraordinary picture in our minds of her lover, and of their relationship. You don’t get to that point without a lot of practice and a great deal of skill.
Notice also that she slipped in all sorts of clues that created undertones that aren’t apparent at first, but that were priming us subconsciously for something bad coming up. Things that stand out like crazy in the second reading. Why does he sing unrequited love songs? Why can’t SHE marry him? The joke about “it’s best to marry someone who shares your genetic template” lets us breeze over something that should have stopped us. It’s unrequited, and she can’t marry him, because he’s basically dead. That was taken from them.
It’s a basic theme. It’s been an obsession of mankind since forever. Loving something is dangerous, it makes you vulnerable. If you love something, you can be hurt when that thing is hurt, or taken away, or murdered. Usually it’s better not to risk that. And when we do risk that, our greatest wish and fantasy is that this love be immune to the devastations of the world. That it be strong, with powerful jaws and flashing teeth that would rend any who dare harm it. The worst thing about the world is that the people we love die, and fuck all the gods for letting that be a reality. All we want is for our lover to be a dinosaur, so they/me/we won’t have to hurt.
Simply having a theme is not enough, which is why I put it at the end. Lots of stories have themes. Most of them fail to deliver them effectively, for many sundry reasons. But this particular story chose to deliver its theme through a structural laser-guided missile, and Swirsky did it right, with the help of mastery of the language.
Not all works of artistic merit have to have a strong theme, I guess? But it does help. And this one does.
D. The End
This is by no means an exhaustive list of what can make a work good. Nor are any of the three I mentioned *required* in any particular work in order to make it good. But they are ways that a story can be judged, and in all three respects this story succeeded amazingly. There are things you can dislike about it, but to say it wasn’t well-written is… wrong.
[EDIT: btw, may I recommend Vellum?]