Clockwork Phoenix 4
Nominated for a Nebula Award: Short Story
This is a difficult story to evaluate because its very format is going to be divisive enough to throw readers off of the story being told. "Selected Program Notes" is what the title suggests - notes from the program of an art exhibit. The story is told through those notes. It begins with a painting Latimer did in 1978 and proceeds chronologically until the last painting in the exhibit from 2025.
Rachel Swirsky, in her overview of the year's best stories, has this to say.
As someone who took many years of art lessons and a very little bit of art history, I am a total sucker for stories that are told through the lens of art criticism. I thought this story did a really striking and intelligent job of it. I won't lie; the strength of the story lies in the format; it will strike people for whom it doesn't work as a gimmick story, I expect, and that's not unreasonable. But the gimmick has the strength of being one that is wholly integrated with the narrative in an intelligent way. Plus, I like it.
The format here is key, with individual entries for thirteen paintings and each entry has "discussion questions". But the format is only giving glimpses of what might be occurring in the artist's life, and the reader is left to piece things together more than might normally be required in a more conventional story. Inferences are made about how Latimer connects to certain subjects of her paintings and what aspects of the art mean.
Swirsky writes that the story worked for her, that it hit buttons that she has for this sort of story. While I am not the opposite, and I don't necessarily find "Selected Program Notes" to be a gimmick story, nor did it work for me. The lack of a center of the story to grasp on to and work through here is a negative and while re-reading the story does draw out different details and interesting and potentially important, it just didn't work for the sort of reader I am. I can say, though, that this is not entirely due to the format because I have read similarly formatted stories that I have been able to engage with. This, sadly, is not one of them.