My Fiction Site

In the right sidebar are clickable images of the covers of my novels, which will take you to their Amazon listings. Other posts will link to available free works – mostly shorter ones – and assorted thoughts on the writing of fiction.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Grand Unification Curse

     There have been several large-scale, powerful, and highly observable trends in fiction this past half-century. Paradoxically, the most conspicuous ones have been in the speculative genres: fantasy, science fiction, and horror. I say “paradoxically” because those genres are commonly conceived of as where a writer goes to do something offbeat and innovative.

     The channels into which spec-fic writers mainly funnel themselves are well known:

  • Fantasy has divided into two paths:
    • Traditional (also called medieval or “high” fantasy)
    • Contemporary (also called urban fantasy)
  • Science fiction has also divided itself in two:
    • Technologically oriented (also called hard SF)
    • Sociologically oriented (also called soft SF)
  • Horror’s divisions are much the same:
    • Traditional: i.e., it employs the traditional monsters: vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghouls.
    • Non-traditional: i.e., it employs contemporary motifs such as serial killers.

     There are sub-subvarieties within the subvarieties – e.g., vampire as good guy vs. vampire as bad guy, or zombie horror vs. zombie humor – but those too are “deeply grooved,” such that little discernible deviation occurs within them.

     This seems to me to be a marketing phenomenon. When one particular channel attracts a large following, whether due to a breakthrough novel or a hot new writer, other writers flock toward it in the hope of “getting in on the action.” It might be amplified by the great difficulty of actual innovation, but that’s a subject for another time and another screed.

     However, there’s another trend that unites all these pathways. It strikes me as a dangerous one, for reasons that will shortly become apparent: the trend toward coercing one’s works into a grand unification around a single “future history” or “alternate history.”

     I don’t know who was first to promulgate the notion of a “future history.” I first encountered the idea in Robert A. Heinlein’s early stories, including the ones in The Past Through Tomorrow, Orphans Of The Sky, and Methuselah’s Children. It is notable that while Heinlein continued to develop the characters and themes in those early stories, he also explored several other threads of development that had no relation to them. Nevertheless, he was among the earliest writers to adopt the future history approach to science fiction.

     Big ideas tend to be attractors. The notion of a consistent grand-unified history proved to be one such. These days, a great many speculative-fiction writers go to great difficulty to fit everything they write into that kind of vision. As with the spec-fic subvarieties enumerated earlier, this has had a depressing effect on actual imagination.

     I’m not trying to be critical here; I’ve felt the impulse myself. Indeed, I’ve been encouraged in that direction by my readers. But I’ve tentatively decided that it’s a pull I should resist...and perhaps that others should resist for the same reasons.

     Among other things, an active imagination dislikes to be bounded or blindered. If you’re fortunate enough to possess such an imagination, you know the delight that comes from having it surprise you with an idea you’d never previously entertained. But when it presents you with such an idea, straining to force it into a previously determined paradigm is at best a dubious use of the gift.

     This came to mind this morning when my very own backbrain awarded me a fresh idea for an SF story. After I’d marveled over the uniqueness of it for a few minutes, I sat down to write it out so I wouldn’t forget it...and as I was writing it out, I started to ponder how I could fit it into the established “future history” of my Spooner Federation series.

     A subconscious alarm bell went off at that point, and thank God for it.

     Genuinely fresh ideas deserve to be treated as fresh ideas: not as suffixes to older, already-exploited ideas, however popular they might have been. It’s not because they’re “rare.” As Isaac Asimov has told us, ideas are all around us; all a writer needs to do is observe his own surroundings with an open and receptive mind, and he’ll have more story ideas than we can exploit in a normal lifetime.

     This is a plea of two kinds. I’ve wearied of never-ending series founded on a single set of characters in a consistent setting. I’ve formed the habit of automatically turning aside from any fiction offering that purports to be a volume in a series. But beyond that, I’ve encountered a number of ideas that deserved to be treated with more respect by their originators: ideas that would have been excellent foundations for stand-alone stories, but which the originator forced, Procrustes-like, to fit into a “future history” or “alternate history” structure for which they were not suited.

     The “grand-unified history” series has its attractions. Among others, if such a series starts out well, the reader may reasonably assume that further readable and entertaining stories will be available to him, soon if not immediately. But lately that’s gotten to be a less reliable assumption. Many of us are hungry for freshness, for intriguing departures from what we’ve already read. The “grand-unified history” series doesn’t promise that; indeed, it’s an unbelievable promise in the nature of the thing.

     I could go on, but that fresh SF idea I mentioned a few paragraphs ago is beckoning to me. I simply have to see what I can do with it. Later, Gentle Readers. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018


     My praise of John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising series triggered an interesting exchange with a Gentle Reader:

     GR: You enjoyed that? [Imagine a tone of distasteful stupefaction]
     FWP: Very much. Why?
     GR: It’s nothing at all like what you write.
     FWP: That’s true, but what of it?
     GR: I just can’t see anything in it that’
     FWP: You know, I can’t name even one book by someone else that’s at all close to the sort of dreck I turn out. Contemporary fantasies about an alternate Creation story? A weird Shire-like county in the middle of New York that breeds geniuses and millennial heroes? An anarchist extraterrestrial colony that runs afoul of a planetary Overmind? Christian-flavored erotica about divinely appointed priestesses of fleshly desire? Where have you ever seen anything like that, except from me?
     GR: That’s not the point. Ringo’s stuff just seems so far from your sensibility.
     FWP: But Tom Kratman’s novels aren’t? I like those a lot too, remember?
     GR: It’s just not how I think of you.
     FWP: Would it reassure you to hear me rant about novels I dislike?
     GR: Not really.

     I like competently done military fiction, whether situated in “our” world or in some science-fictional setting. But then, I like a lot of other kinds of fiction, too. I have wide tastes in all the arts, which has caused people to wonder about me for a long time: “How can someone who enjoys X like Y as well?”

     I think it stems from readers’ preconceptions.

     I write so much, and always from a libertarian-conservative Catholic Christian perspective, that I must seem pretty strongly “characterized.” But that’s an effect that arises from knowing me through only one facet: what I write. I wouldn’t doubt that other writers are perceived just as narrowly, on the grounds of what they write.

     As I’ve met a few of them, including some of the more popular ones, I can assure you all that we’re a goodly distance from our characters. We haven’t shared their adventures, either. And without naming names, I shall tell you about those who make really vivid contrasts with their fictions.

     There was one who wrote marvelous adventure fiction. “Man’s man” stuff. Before we met I envisioned him to be a real Indiana Jones type: broad shoulders, chiseled features, and a rock-hard physique. He turned out to be quite ordinary in appearance. His speech was a dual surprise: very diffident and guarded, and in a high tenor at that.

     There was another whose specialty was humor, in several genres. I assumed he had to be a convivial, life of the party sort. I could hardly imagine him without a smile. Yet he never cracked a smile in all the hours I spent in his company. When I learned about his marital history, it made a lot of sense, but only then.

     There was a third whose stories were the oddest things I’d ever encountered. His breadth of imagination made me wonder if I had any business writing at all. I hardly expected him to be the reserved, totally buttoned-down individual he proved to be. (He attended a science fiction convention in a suit and tie, and carried a briefcase wherever he went.)

     Those three have all passed away, so I’m reasonably confident they won’t mind my employing them here as examples.

     Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec cautioned us against imagining an artist from nothing but an acquaintance with his work: “The work is always so much more than the man.” That’s true some of the time, at least, but the reverse is frequently true as well. Many an artist is unwilling to present anything but his art to public scrutiny. The phenomenon of the celebrity-artist, whose movements the cameras follow and whose pronouncements on anything and everything are reported by the media, is a relatively recent development. Then again, so is the phenomenon of celebrity itself.

     If you attend fans’ conventions or writers’ conferences, you’re likely to experience the same sort of contrast between “people you know” and their real-life instantiations, who stubbornly diverge from your imaginings. It’s to be expected. We’re just not what you think. That’s a large part of why I avoid such gatherings as a matter of policy; I’d rather not be compared to the larger-than-life figures that fill the pages of my books. I would be found wanting, and badly wanting at that.

     I hope I haven’t disappointed anyone too badly.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Free Book!

     From March 2 through March 6, my science-fiction novel Which Art In Hope, the opening volume of the Spooner Federation Saga, will be a free download at Amazon. I’m trying to reignite interest in the series, so please tell your SF-reading friends about this offer.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Advances In The Art

     As I’m rather old, I have memories of pleasurable past experiences that retain a kind of glow. In some cases the glow is not really representative of the experience in any objective sense. Rather, it derives from my tastes at that time, which were...other than they are now. This is particularly striking when it comes to the science fiction I once read and enjoyed.

     Now, I read voraciously from an early age. A very early age, actually. And it does stand to reason that a child’s tastes will be less well developed – not to say immature, though the word cannot be summarily dismissed – than those of the man he will become. All the same, reacquaintance with the affections of those early years can be seriously embarrassing, even if no one else is around to witness it.

     “What’s this about,” you ask? Simply, an encounter with some old, much loved books that have left me wondering how I could have been so easily pleased, and pondering the considerable improvements in the writing we find in genre fiction today.

     (Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis. Ovid said it, I believe it, and that settles it.)

     There was once a science fiction writer, much beloved by his readers, who wrote long series of novels that vaguely prefigured the interminable series of today, except for one thing: they ended. Apparently this writer, a widely knowledgeable man who was highly accomplished in his chosen field, was able to create the conditions for an extremely long and complex plot, and foresee how it must be resolved six or seven novels down the road. Anyway, that’s what he did in his two best known series, to which many thousands of young readers thrilled in his heyday.

     I’m not going to name that writer. I don’t want to besmirch his reputation any more than necessary to make my point. But it’s possible, if you’re near to my age and have been reading SF for a comparable length of time, that you have his name in mind already. That writer deserves credit for his strengths. He was very imaginative, and took risks in scientific and technological speculation that other SF writers of his day elected to avoid. He also dared a political speculation the possibility of which few today would be willing to entertain even for the sake of an entertainment. In short, he was no lightweight or pansy.

     However, if you were to put his writing alongside recent, widely approved examples of the genre, you would be hard pressed to rule it competent, at least by contemporary standards. By those standards he committed a number of mortal sins:

  • Uncontrolled narrative viewpoint;
  • Frequent narrative intrusions not bound to a character’s viewpoint;
  • Dialogue exchanges poorly suited to the context;
  • Quite a lot of unbelievable dialogue, as in “people don’t talk that way and never have;”
  • Wildly excessive, cloyingly florid descriptive passages;
  • Habitual use of far too many adjectives and adverbs, especially in their superlative forms;
  • Exclamation points a outrance.

     He never, ever relented from those practices. They can be found throughout his major series. And in reading his books with fresh eyes, I find myself embarrassed as much for his sake as for my younger self.

     We might think of him as science fiction’s own John Galsworthy, an early Twentieth Century English writer of great renown. Galsworthy’s best known novels are soap operas about the Forsyte clan and its offshoots. They were amazingly popular; indeed, they made him one of the most popular writers in the world. He got the Nobel Prize in Literature for them. But they’re not well written, at least by the standards of our time.

     Such is the natural condition of an infant genre.

     As a genre matures, so do the skills of its practitioners. No one could get away today with writing like that of the SF writer I left unnamed above. Even the allegiants of the “Pulp Revolution” and “Pulp Revival,” movements which are demonstrating considerable vitality, don’t allow themselves such liberties and extravagances. They hew to contemporary standards and contemporary tastes.

     This is all to the good. While it’s commendable to mine past treasures for their virtues, it’s equally important to recognize their flaws and to move beyond them. SF, fantasy, and horror writers are more proficient today, in part because their readerships are more demanding. It could not have been otherwise. Our fictional forebears wrote for smaller and younger audiences that had self-selected according to their preferences for imaginative speculation. Indeed, it’s possible that many of those younger readers were thrilled by extravagance, floridity, and narrative intrusions that embellished earlier extravagances.

     But we grew up. We heeded God’s commend to “be fruitful and multiply.” In the process we bequeathed portions of our reading tastes to our children. But as the audience for speculative fiction grew, and the writer’s prospects for becoming established in one of those genres expanded, it became more demanding. After all, there were other things an adult could some cases, that he had to read. His tastes became more discriminating. In the everlasting nature of things it was inevitable that he would discriminate.

     And the writers of old who had delighted us with their less disciplined but highly imaginative works were slowly but inexorably left behind.

     We hope to get better as we age. We hope general conditions will get better as time passes. In a free society, this is usually the case. But as with all other things, there is a price.

     The price is the recognition that one’s childhood loves weren’t up to the standards of today. When one elects to revisit those loves, the reverie will be mixed with considerable embarrassment: “How could I ever have thought this was great storytelling?”

     Well, perhaps that’s a bit unfair. It certainly pleased our younger selves. That’s what it was intended to do; therefore, it was a success. And perhaps the right perspective on those early genre delights, for those of us acquainted with more disciplined and refined writing, is simply to say, “That’s the way it was.” (Alternately, “Ah! Those halcyon days of yore!” If you want to confuse those who have no idea what you’re talking about, anyway.)

     (Cross-posted at Liberty's Torch.)

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Solving The Tough Problems

     Well, ho-ho-ho and I hope you’ve all had the merriest of Christmases! As a lot of my Web colleagues have apparently decided to take the Christmas season off from their various publications, and as I haven’t penned an original piece these past few days and have begun to feel a bit “backed up” because of that, I figured I might as well throw a few hundred words at this dive. You know, to see if any of them will stick. But — you knew that was coming, didn’t you? – in keeping with the spirit of the season and my generally good mood, I’ll avoid the subjects of politics and public policy. The rest of the year is sufficient for that sort of bilious crap, isn’t it?

     So let’s see: what shall I address? The weather? No, no....My health? Good God, no! Unusual egg nog recipes? I think we’ve had enough of those for a bit.

     Nope. Got to be fiction.

     If there’s a most plaintive question I get from aspiring writers, it would be this one:

“How do I get started?

     (I’ll allow that there are a lot of possible replies to that one, some more sarcastic than others, e.g.: “You want to be a writer but you have no idea what to write? Hmmm...” However, as I’m a famously sympathetic soul with a heart of purest gold who absolutely lives for the chance to help others with their deepest and least tractable problems, I try to respond constructively. Believe me, a lot of thought goes into it.)

     Most of us who are entranced by fiction and the power it has to shape men’s thinking have some central passion we can call on to direct our efforts. In the usual case, such passions become our themes: the ideas that envelop, power, and shape the stories we write. Mine are Christianity and freedom. A writer who lacks such a passion has a harder time getting started.

     Nevertheless, there are substitutes. If you can become fascinated by any kind of human problem, you can find within yourself the fuel and the material with which to write. Caveat: It must be a tough problem. No one will take much interest in a story about how hard it was for you to decide which shirt to wear to work this morning.

     But stories are not about “problems,” per se; they’re about what people do about problems. More specifically, they’re about how addressing a problem changes the people confronted by it.

     The great problems fall into a total of categories:

  • The quest for love and acceptance;
  • Threats to one’s well-being, or the well-being of one’s loves;
  • The discovery of one’s own convictions, priorities, capacities, and limitations.

     That’s right, Gentle Reader: only three. A problem worth a reader’s time will always come from one of the above categories. As they’re very broad categories, that’s not a problem for most of us.

     The process by which a chosen problem becomes a viable story involves matching that problem to a character or characters:

  1. What sort of protagonist would find the problem both important and difficult?
  2. Does the problem require an antagonist?
  3. Does the problem require other characters with whom to interact?

     The first two questions define the Marquee Characters. The third one defines the Supporting Cast.

     The above concisely outlines my personal approach to beginning a new story, whether it be a short-short or a multi-volume saga. In the usual case, an appealing protagonist has been in the back of my head for some time, waiting for a problem worthy of him. Presently a problem occurs to me that works well against his definition. I choose from among the settings I prefer, combine the three, dress with subsidiary characters and a bit of sass, toss lightly, and serve.

     Innocents, my most recent novel, conforms to this pattern in all particulars. Larry Sokoloff had been “sitting on the shelf” since mid-2011, when I released Shadow of a Sword. The poor guy simply screamed for a story properly mated to his character as I’d envisioned it. It took some time for me to come up with a problem he could get his teeth into.

     As I wrote the above, an important codicil to my procedure became clear in my head: The problem must be one the protagonist must change and / or grow to solve. The solution can’t be obvious and immediately applicable, nor can it be in the protagonist’s “wheelhouse.” There are some interesting implications to that codicil.

     The first implication is that the protagonist will likely be frustrated at first. Change and growth are hard. They require both acceptance of one’s “incompleteness” and the willingness to put forth effort to extend oneself. Most persons who confront such a challenge do a lot of hairsplitting, rationalizing, and general farting around to avoid facing the problem directly.

     The second implication follows from the first one: The protagonist will expend a fair amount of his time and effort dealing with matters other than the central problem. In part that will be because those matters are more easily solved by a man with his abilities, but in equal or greater measure it will be to avoid confronting the core of the problem. That provides opportunities for interaction with Supporting Cast members, and time in which he can experience the sharpening tensions and conflicts the problem presents.

     The third implication is my favorite of the bunch: A problem the protagonist cannot solve easily with his defined abilities and resources makes room for reader misdirection. It allows the writer scope for mystery, and for the development and emergence of an “unsuspected hero:” the seemingly secondary character who contributes the real solution, whether or not he’s the one to implement it.

     Quite a lot of fiction conforms to this pattern. That the pattern is so common doesn’t render it banal. It’s common because of our common human nature. That’s just the way we are. It’s also common because reality is a real bitch...just in case you haven’t noticed.

     I wrote some time ago:

     The distribution of writers attempting the e-publication channel goes something like this:
  • 90% or more: Persons who cannot write and should not try.
  • ~7%: Persons with a fair command of English, but who have no stories to tell that anyone else would want to read.
  • ~2%: Persons with a fair command of English who have stories to tell, but whose styles and preconceptions are unsuited to telling them in a winning fashion.
  • ~1%: Capable storytellers, including a significant number who could crack the “traditional” publishing channels (or who already have).

     If I may go by my experiences in reading other indie writers’ stuff, that distribution remains accurate. But that doesn’t mean that you, Gentle Reader, should consider yourself pre-assigned to one of those bins and therefore predestined either to fail laughably or to experience roaring success. If you have a story bouncing around in your head, a little time to give it, and a taste for adventure, you have little to lose by trying to write it. The opportunities to garner a readership have never been better.

     So if you’ve been tempted to try fiction but have been wondering “Where do I start?” consider the above piece my Christmas present to you. No, no, don’t thank me; just buy, read, and review one of my books. I’ll take that quite happily.

     (Cross-posted at Liberty's Torch.)

Monday, December 11, 2017

What Makes A Writer “Great?”

     In the midst of a delightful flaying of left-wing word mangling, Sarah Hoyt relates this vignette about a Facebook argument over “great” writers:

     [Her interlocutor] entered a discussion on the purpose of writing, and whether writing should/could be good when done simply for money, by saying that since all great writers never made money from their writing, it was obvious that writing for money was a bad thing.

     I countered with the names of six (considered) great writers who made fortunes from writing. He said “Ah, half a dozen out of hundreds” so I continued giving him names, as they occurred to me. It is a fact (perhaps not universally acknowledged, but a fact) that most writers we consider great made money from their writing. If they died in poverty it was because of their spectacularly bad money-management skills. Now, I’m not going to get into an argument over whether writing for money makes writing better. The sample of “writers we consider great” is contaminated by the fact that the writers have to have been widely disseminated enough to begin with for their writing to be known now and considered anything. That implies a degree of initial success, which usually brings money. It’s entirely possible that someone somewhere wrote something great that was never read except by their mother and their cat, but then those writers are not now universally acknowledged as “great.”

     Sarah has exposed a key fact: Circulation is a prerequisite. No writer we deem “great” languished in total obscurity during his working lifetime. All “great” writers were widely read, at least by the standards of their times. Wide circulation brings revenue with it. Whether it was enough revenue to live on is a separate question.

     But writers we consider hacks have also enjoyed wide circulation. Some of them had much wider readerships than any generally acknowledged “great” writer. So while circulation is necessary, it’s not sufficient. I’m sure any of my Gentle Readers could name a number of contemporary hacks who’ve sold millions of books.

     So what does it take? What are the criteria? What makes a writer great? Well, we could say that a great writer is one who has written a great book or books. (Beware the ambiguity of “great book.” We wouldn’t want to use it in the sense of the medieval writer who wrote that “I have before me a great book, for it weigheth four and a half pounds.”) But what makes a book great?

     It’s difficult to become a great writer in certain categories. Take children’s books, for instance. What writer of children’s stories, other than the late, lamented Theodore Seuss Geisel, would anyone call great? The field itself seems to minimize the possibility.

     Similarly, some of the best selling books of all time are cookbooks. But the writers of cookbooks, which they might be accorded respect as great cooks, are seldom (if ever) deemed great writers, despite the painstaking work that goes into transcribing hundreds of recipes.

     Oh, here’s another one: books of mathematical and scientific reference data. Quite a lot of books filled with nothing but logarithms and the values of the trigonometric functions have sold very well indeed. However, their “writers” don’t get a lot of mentions in critical circles. Is that “unfair” in some sense?

     Many persons would dismiss all the above categories as “not real writing.” They have a decent argument for their position. Yet quite a lot of work goes into those books. As they’re relied upon for various purposes by those who buy them, they demand accuracy and precision. That they don’t qualify for literary accolades seems rather sad.

     It appears that in pondering greatness among writers, if we want some degree of commonality about what sort of work would qualify, we must stick to fiction.

     Fiction – the telling of stories – has its own unique demands. The first of them is the toughest to meet:

There must be a story.

     Moreover, the nature of the story is rather narrowly confined. It must be about “people,” broadly defined. Its characters must confront challenges or problems of significance. And whether they succeed or fail, those characters must experience change.

     Let’s tackle the “people” part first. What constitutes “people?” Well, they must be self-aware – sentient. They must have needs and desires. They must have some degree of rational volition – the ability to think through a problem and make conscious decisions about how to solve it. And they must have limitations. That makes it easy to exclude non-rational animals, emotionless and omnipotent beings. Everyone else qualifies, at least prima facie.

     Consider in this light two fantasies: Thomas M. Disch’s The Brave Little Toaster and Richard Adams’s Watership Down. The protagonists in both books are non-human...but they function as people, quite as well as the recognizably human characters in any other novel.

     The “people” in a good story will confront important problems: not a missing sock or a cracked coffee mug; something that calls their convictions and emotions into play. The problem must be clearly drawn, at that; it can’t be something nebulous or puerile such as “finding myself.” And to solve the problem must require that the protagonist experience change: he must grow in some fashion, or learn something about life or himself that he hadn’t previously known.

     Once again, I think we’ve established prerequisites – necessary conditions – for calling a story great, without zeroing in on the defining characteristic of greatness itself. Many a good story has been told that no one, not even the storyteller’s relatives, would call great. There’s something more at work in the crafting of a truly great tale.

     We’re getting into the subjective here, so as usual, your mileage may vary.

     The emergence during the Twentieth Century of fictional styles that deviate greatly from direct narration was accompanied by a great tumult, among readers and critics both. Some of them, such as stream-of-consciousness, were eventually widely accepted. Others, such as the fragmented, difficult to follow approaches employed by Jerzy Kosinski and J. P. Donleavy, have gained only limited popularity. Curiously, in critical circles the latter command greater prestige than the former. Often a critic will deem a writer’s dramatic deviation from the norm reason enough to call him “great” even if his books don’t sell.

     My own take on this is that such stylistic “innovations” are lace edging at best, sense-clouding deviation for deviation’s sake at worst. The quality of the story being told, particularly how deeply it affects the reader, matters infinitely more than any aspect of style.

     A deeply affecting story needn’t be about world-shaking events. It can be, of course; J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy concerns events that could mean enduring freedom or a permanent descend into slavery for an entire world. But Judith Guest’s beautiful Ordinary People is equally affecting, though it limits itself to the troubles of a single family that’s lost a son in a boating accident.

     Note that the two books above tell widely different kinds of story, and are told in markedly different styles. Yet both fit my criterion for greatness: they couple to the great emotions and what evokes them.

     The great emotions are most reliably evoked by a story that illustrates a great truth about human nature. Sometimes, the central truth will be of the sort that we’re loath to admit to ourselves. That’s the case in Ordinary People, where the Jarrett family’s difficulties arise from the way Beth Jarret blames her son Conrad for her son Jordan’s death. In other cases, the central truth will be about something grander in scale that we (should) all know: the inherent goals of those who embrace evil, and the sacrifices good men must make to defeat them, as in The Lord of the Rings. But one way or another, an eternal verity – an abiding truth that’s both universal among men and inherent in our common nature – will stand at the heart of a great tale.

     A writer will sometimes be accorded greatness on the strength of a single book. Consider Margaret Mitchell and Gone With The Wind. Other writers are deemed great on the basis of a consistent level of excellence in their lifetime body of work, such as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. Then there are “split decisions” about writers such as Norman Mailer, who did produce one great book, The Naked and the Dead, and one hell of a lot of schlock. Opinions will always vary.

     The one thing that won’t vary is that people will read their stuff.

     Few writers working today will ever be called great. In part that’s because there are so many writers today, if we allow the title to anyone who’s ever emitted a Kindle eBook. But in larger measure, it’s because there’s a whole lot of detritus obscuring good storytelling in our time. It begins with emphasis on “style.” It ends with “message fiction.” In the middle are the emissions of critics, most of whom couldn’t compose a comprehensible note to their mothers, and literary prizes most commonly awarded by prize juries on the basis of personal acquaintances, commonality of style, and “politically correct” sentiments.

     Most of the garbage will get caught in the filter of time. The good stuff will be read by generations to come. Their readers will select from those survivors which books and writers are to be called great. We won’t be given a vote, except by what we choose to buy, read, and recommend to one another today.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Right, Wrong, Good, Bad, And Tastes

     “De gustibus non est disputandum.” – some Roman or other.

     “Chacun a son gout.” – some Frenchman or other.

     “Jesus, am I tired,” he says.
     “Yeah, well, that’s a helluva big secret you’ve been keeping on yourself,” Berger says.
     “So what do I do now?”
     “Well, you’ve done it, haven’t you? Revelation. She’s not perfect. Recognize her limitations.”
     “You mean, like she can’t love me.”
     “Like she can’t love you enough. Like she loves you as much as she’s able. Perspective, kiddo, remember? Maybe she’s afraid. Maybe it’s hard for her to give love.”
     “No,” he says, “it isn’t. She loves my father, I know that.” He closes his eyes. “She loved my brother, too. It’s just me.”
     “Ah, now we’re back to the old rotten-kid routine. She doesn’t love you because you’re unlovable. So where does that leave your dad? How come he loves you? Doesn’t he know what a rotten kid you are?”
     “That’s different. He feels responsible. Besides, he loves everybody.”
     “Oh, I get it, the guy’s got no taste. He loves you, but he’s wrong.”

     [Judith Guest, Ordinary People]

     Were I able to locate the CD, I’d have included in the above set of quotes a magnificently insightful statement by persuasion specialist Michael Emerling, which I shall now proceed to paraphrase: the quick road to total ineffectiveness at persuasion is to define the other guy’s convictions, preferences, and tastes as “wrong.” Indeed, that’s the quick road to total ineffectiveness at life itself.

     Those of us who sell entertainment must make our peace with the great variety of personal tastes out there. Those of us who sell fiction, even in this era of anything-goes and self-publishing that owes nothing to anyone, must be particularly alert to that diversity. It matters a hell of a lot more than race, sex, or political alignment.

     A couple of years back I locked ‘em up with another writer – not a fictioneer, an opinion-monger – who took me to task for using the word Negro. He claimed it was offensive – that it indicated that I harbor a desire to “make black people feel bad.” A couple of years before that, a different fellow upbraided me for making Angela Farnsworth, the co-protagonist of the segment “Incantations” in my novel Chosen One, a Negro. And of course, as I’m utterly resolved to use (and promote the use of) “he-his-him” as the generic singular pronouns, I get flak regularly from militant feminists, and more recently from transgender activists as well.

     I’ve learned to shrug it off. Why worry about readers whose principal criterion for enjoyment is that their entertainment conform perfectly to their social and political opinions? They won’t be back. I have my own convictions, preferences, and tastes to appease. Why should I devalue them for the sake of some emotionally constipated militant for attitudes I’ve rejected?

     I’ve had a fair number of writing colleagues suggest to me that I’m reducing my potential sales by insisting on going my own way. They’re probably right, but what of it? I’m not a hooker. Indeed, even hookers don’t insist on pleasing everyone.

     One of the truly marvelous things about the present day is that just about anyone can find fiction that will suit his preferences down to the last comma. That immense diversity of personal tastes is just as great a blessing from the writer’s perspective. However, it does make it more difficult to talk about “right and wrong” in the crafting of fiction.

     Way, way back in the Early Obscene, when we were all swinging from tree to tree in search of a perfectly ripe banana and I still harbored a fantasy of conventional publication, I read in several publications for the terminally deluded aspiring writer that the prologue was “passé.” More specifically, these folks put forth the proposition – which for all I know was correct then and remains so today – that opening a novel with a prologue greatly increases the probability that Pub World editors would reject it.

     As the seasons changed and my hairline receded, I gradually became convinced that Pub World would never show an interest in my weird, Catholic-flavored, overtly heroic and freedom-oriented fiction. So I dismissed the advice of all those presumably well-meaning publications and did what I damned well pleased. In late 2009, when I decided at last to “go indie” and self-publish, I put forth exactly what I’d written – what I’d wanted to write. As there were quite a few readers, both in the U.S. and in other countries where English is spoken or widely taught, who’d been looking for the sort of thing I write and were greatly displeased by its absence from Pub World’s offerings, I gained a readership. Those readers didn’t seem at all put off by the prologues to Chosen One and Which Art In Hope. Maybe they hadn’t read my betters’ condemnations of such things.

     “Good and bad” in fiction have always been matters of taste. There are people who think Dhalgren is a work of genius. There are others who consider it vile trash. (I’m in the latter category.) As an engineering colleague of mine likes to say, that’s why there’s chocolate and vanilla.

     It may not be clear what I’m driving at here. (It wouldn’t be the first time, would it, Gentle Reader?) Candidly, it can be reduced to a single sentence:

The writer should write what pleases him.

     (Ah! Those contentious, sententious pronouns! They’re everywhere.)

     Your audience will self-select. Until they deign to speak to you, whether through email, Amazon reviews, social media, or what have you, you won’t know what pleased them and what didn’t. Even when they do, what matters most, unless the collection agents have massed on your lawn, are hollering at you through bullhorns, and are brandishing their battering rams, is, was, and will always be whether your fiction satisfies you.

     That having been said, I do hold that there are “better” and “worse” ways to approach description, dialogue, fictional time management, transitions between scenes and viewpoints, and so forth. I’m not bashful; I’ll readily say so to those who approach me for critiques. But the persons issuing the judgment that really matters will be those who elect to lavish their money and time on your fiction. In a world with 7.5 billion people in it, a great many will find fault with your choices...and many others will applaud. So don’t let the Constipated Ones constipate you.

     This weekend is for giving thanks. If you write, you might include in your personal list some gratitude for the independent-writer / self-publishing revolution. While it has had its costs, it has also made a great many good things possible...including, of course, this essay. Now it’s time to surf over to Amazon and find something decent to read!