When we think of teachable stories, we often reach deep into the rucksack of the literary past, pulling out classroom-tested stories that have worked their way into the canon. While there is obviously a ton to learn from these pieces, contemporary short story writers are also completing strong work built upon teachable literary foundations, while also finding fascinating ways to advance the form. In this space, we’ll highlight some of these more modern stories and explore a bit of what they have to teach us as we continue to do our part to push literature forward.
In “Taylor Swift” by Hugh Behm-Steinberg (published in Gulf Coast), our second-person POV narrator is in love with their next-door neighbor/best friend Tina. Since Tina’s newest obsession is with her Taylor Swift clones, you decide to buy yourself one as well. When you discover Tina having sex with her clones, your jealousy leads you to buy three more Taylors, with whom you spend weeks training kickboxing and cardio. Eventually, you bring your clones to Tina’s house, ready to wreak havoc with all your roided-out martial-arts master Taylor Swift clones, but then the opportunity you’ve been waiting for arrives, and you and Tina go to her room together and leave the Taylors behind.
A final paragraph slides in an omniscient point of view that begins exploring all the Taylor Swifts and then settles into one specific Taylor Swift, a clone with a dream of eventually being loved by the being from whom she was created, the ultimate and original Taylor Swift.
This piece is mostly in second person, and in present tense. Those are both relatively unusual choices, and they almost instantly set a tone of immediacy and a quick pace—everything in here happens at breakneck speed, from the decisions to the changes in emotions to the weeks sliding by in a blink at the very end of a sentence. The combination of those two choices pulls this away from the staid feel of traditional or literary fiction, lending a feel of something more surreal and almost closer to fanfiction than lit-fic in rhythm, tone, and sense. That’s not a negative, I hasten to add. That’s a choice, one that informs a lot of the other decisions made, from the self-insert of the reader’s eventual need to consider their own morality to the brevity of description and detail to the lack of more traditional character signifiers.
There’s something off-kilter about this entire world, about how much we do or don’t know about these people and their choices, about the ideas of ownership and possession as expressed here, about love and what we’ll do in service thereof and even what exactly it means, and that is expressed perfectly by these two slightly off-kilter POV and perspective choices.
Character as Cipher
A I said, lot of our traditional markers of character and detail are absent in this piece. We have an unnamed, ungendered, un-aged main character. There’s no exact place or time period mentioned. There’s zero mention of how the cloning works, how long it’s been around, how much it costs, how prevalent it is, how rich these people are to get to have them, whether three Taylor Swifts is a lot or is equivalent to having three…say, Pokémon.
And you see this focus on ambiguity, mixed with an almost breathless extremity, almost instantly. There is so much going on even in this opening sentence: We get four independent clauses (arguably three, but the cut from “it’s great” to the comma to the action suggests their connectedness without forcing it), an unrelated semicolon and colon, and almost no specificity—the closest specific is the Taylor Swift clone, but we don’t learn anything about it in this opening moment, nor who the narrator is, nor how they conceive of love other than it being great (and both love and great are as generic as language can get). Incredibly complicated while giving the reader almost nothing in the traditional sense seems like a recipe for failure, and as I was teaching this story the other day I remarked to my students that if I was a few hours deep into reading for The Masters Review and this story crossed my online theoretical desk at three in the morning, as stories occasionally do when I’m particularly backed up, I probably would have read that first sentence, seen its messiness and lack of specificity, and decided that it probably needed another draft or two.
And yet, style and language build enough that we can make our own assumptions on this main character. (My classes are almost always split on the gender, but everyone is one hundred percent sure they know the gender. There is rarely a student who will shrug and say they could be male or female.) Those assumptions are of course built around our own expectations and biases. The second person allows us to read this character as either an extension of ourselves or alternately reject them as anything like ourselves at all, and our choice there clearly informs how we choose to read this character’s age and gender and thought process in so many ways. That’s intentional—all we know of the character is they’re in love with Tina and willing to use Taylor Swift clones to get what they want. But this is a story about so much more than that, and as a result we’re left to fill in the gaps as to how our narrator thinks, what these actions say about them, and ultimately whether we’re willing to give them some measure of empathy for their choices or not, i.e., whether we root for them or not.
The Taylor Swift clones also exist as clear ciphers in this piece. Do we have empathy for them, or do we laugh at the ridiculousness of the world they inhabit? On a first read, perhaps the craziness they withstand seems to read as silliness, but the deeper you read into this story, and the more you focus on the sadness of their existence, how easily they’re thrown away and ignored and mistreated (they’re literally sleeping in crates, presumably dog crates), it’s hard not to see them in a softer, more empathetic light. Up until the final paragraph, it’s an open question as to whether these clones have consciousness, but once we do discover their ability to think and yearn and possess desires and dreams, the story turns its reflection back upon us: Were you considering the clones as beings before now? Maybe you were, but in my classes where we read this paragraph-by-paragraph, most of the class is entirely onboard with the crazy Taylor-Swift-on-Taylor-Swift fighting/loving action going on that when we stop to ask the question about whether they have free will and/or deserve to have a choice in their own existence, the question had never previously occurred to them.
In other words, how you read this story, the literal reading experience as you move through the paragraphs, hinges on what you had previously thought of those Taylor Swifts. And thus, it becomes a story about your own reading experience, and to a certain extent a question of your own morality. Were they real to you the entire time? We weren’t inside their heads, so we couldn’t know until the end how to treat them, and yet we had to choose to treat them from our first moment. Where was your interest, your empathy, and once the truth is revealed, what do you think of yourself and your choices? This process of self-reflection is only possible because the story refuses to let you inside these characters.
Reality as Absurdism; as Extremity; as Science Fiction
For all its craziness, this story is played straight. The weirdness and the hilarity that enliven this piece all come from the reader’s view of this world; to the narrator, they are simply moving forward with a clear goal in mind. Weeks of kickboxing to get revenge on a person doing something they didn’t even realize would bother you? Yeah, it sounds ridiculous when you write it like that, but our narrator is one hundred percent laser-focused in that moment. One Taylor Swift becomes three becomes an army, all of whom learn kickboxing to beat up another army of clones but don’t actually do any such thing. And of course, the idea of cloning itself, ordered up through a Tinder-like app (I’m going with Tinder because of the verb “swipe” in the first sentence, though Amazon works just as well)—the sci-fi nature, the extremity of it, the absurdism of it, is all underscored by how easily the characters take these moments, how obviously normal it is to them. This piece was written in 2015; all of these things have become ever-more commonplace in our society since that time, but we’re still a little bit away from this blasé violence colluding with modern technology in quite this easy a way. But it’s the combination of all of them that make this feel like the story exists in reality; one of these elements on its own being skewed slightly from our own would have pushed this story only to the level of farce.
The Taylor Swiftness of it All
Finally, this story is an empty shell without the idea at the center of it: the all-encompassing nature of Taylor Swift. Taylor stands for just about anything in this piece, without ever exactly standing for anything: Is this a piece that focuses on Taylor’s control of her career through the choice to have herself cloned, is this about her lack of agency because we only see her through these imitations of her, is this about the ways that we as a society literally make Taylor what we want her to be (even to the point of being able to custom-order clones that have different abilities/traits, like the one with wings), is this about the next logical step of controlling one’s own likeness, is this about celebrity in general, is it about Taylor-as-celebrity turning everything into money rather than humanity, is she victim or villain as she is cloned and multiplied and her images are made into sex slaves and singing birds in cages?
Commodity and celebrity and sexuality and femininity and power and control are all conversations that can be argued through this story, but what’s most important to note is that the story itself does not, with the exception of the final paragraph, actively address those concerns. They are layered onto the conversation around the piece, they are clearly submerged in every action the piece takes, but the characters embedded within the piece are not stopping to have all those conversations. Much like what has happened to Taylor Swift herself, all these larger discussions become flotsam in the wake of the actions taking place, so that the characters (again, like Taylor) become symbols of the conversations until their actual lives are almost secondary in importance. What matters is their functional role in the argument around these concepts, as they are stripped of both autonomy and also their own details.
I’ll leave it to your discretion to decide how much that has happened to Taylor in true reality, but I do think it’s fair to say that choosing nearly any other celebrity would have changed many elements that lay under the surface of this piece. Even those that exist in that same rarified air of cultural conversation as Taylor have their own lanes (imagine this story with Beyonce, for example, as the chosen celebrity) or create different discussions, or perhaps don’t quite as actively encourage the meta-narratives about themselves, in the same way.
There are so many ways to talk about this story—I just wrote 2,000 words on a story that’s six paragraphs long, and this often sustains a good hour of discussion in my workshop classes. I could’ve gone way longer without exhaustion all the questions of complicity and intentionality. It’s a quick read, one you could knock out in a couple of minutes, but it’s worth giving much more time than that.
by Brandon Williams