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.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Messaging Versus Entertaining

Sarah Hoyt notes the hazard in trading entertainment value for a socially approved message:

[A] story that relies on “right think” to justify its right to exist might not bother with less glamorous bits of craft such as making sure your reasoning makes sense throughout, or that you have established the character’s traits to evoke an emotional response from the reader and catharsis at the end of the story....[I]ntroduce a minority character, be it racial, sexual or religious, in one of the approved “categories” and the readership, which are “fans” of social justice will immediately imbue that “victim character” with all the characteristics of noble victims ever penned since Jean Jacques Rousseau rode the noble savage into the sunset.

Because of that, “message writing” will always be inferior to “entertainment writing” when viewed in the dispassionate cold light of day....

But there is more moral peril to “message writing” because of the very mode of thought it encourages amid its practitioners; a mode of thought best described as “seeing oppressors under every bed.”

Sarah's target in the above-cited essay is the "social-justice writing" crowd that seems to be entrenched beyond all possibility of removal at the conventional publishing houses I usually call Pub World. Both her points are valid, but it's the second one that has enduring importance.

When your culture screams that you're a victim, you're far more likely to accept that that's what you are, unalterably. When a culture tells an entire demographic that it's a victim-group, that group is likely to exhibit all the most unfortunate features of such groups throughout history. The worst of those features is the "victim's" tendency to define himself in relation to his "oppressors."

The case of a true victim class, the enslaved Negroes of pre-Civil-War America, is most illustrative. The Negro slave defined his entire existence relative to that of his owner. He had no choice in the matter, for his owner dictated the conditions of every moment of his life. Even once the slaves were emancipated, the former slave tended to view his cone of possibilities from the vantage point of his prior enslavement. That persistence of outlook gave rise to the tenant farming / "sharecropping" economy that flourished in the South for some years after the war.

In contrast, members of the ersatz victim classes of today voluntarily adopt such a perspective. Some of them do so insincerely: i.e., in pursuit of advantages available to officially recognized, legally privileged groups. Some do so for reasons deriving from their personal circumstances, for there are still social pockets in America where the great majority exhibits disdain for members of certain minorities and treats them unfairly. But a great many, perhaps most, do so because the culture in which they're immersed tells them loudly and multifariously that they're oppressed.

The culture, be it ever remembered, swaddles all of us at every instant of our lives. It's embedded in our journalism, our entertainment, our commercial and social conventions, our prevailing modes of dress and conduct, and our habits of speech. Though it cannot dictate with godlike force, it can condition us, cause us to look away from certain possibilities, and refuse to admit that certain alternatives to "the way things are" even exist.

Culture, like motivation, is a field-like force. It presses all of us in the same direction.

“A mechanical process can reverse a bit at random, but motivation acts like a field — the elements won’t change unless the field does.” — James Tiptree, “Faithful To Thee, Terra, In Our Fashion”

Some will resist the urgings of culture, and some of those will be successful. But the pressure will still be there.

One of the best reasons for conservatives to reclaim the American culture is that it's probably the only way, short of mass bloodshed, to put an end to the cult of victimism that pervades today's legal and political environment. The proliferation of self-nominated victim-groups has become absurd. Everyone seems to want to be classified as a victim of some sort, and why not? There are legal privileges to be had. There are social accommodations for victims, all the way from support groups and twelve-step programs to victims-only movie nights, dating websites, and fetish clubs. (Watch out for that "Fifty Shades" stuff; there's no telling what could follow it into your neighborhood.) Companies large and small chafe under de facto hiring quotas designed to mollify victim groups -- and once hired, many such victims demand and receive special accommodations. If we omit government itself, there's no more noxious influence on our social order.

A reclaimed culture that emphasizes individualism and self-determination is the winning counterforce to the victimist tide:

  • A journalistic culture that refuses to treat crimes differently according to the races, sexes, and creeds of the perpetrators;
  • An entertainment culture that refrains from valorizing characters because of their group membership;
  • A commercial culture that ignores group membership and recognizes only performance;
  • Social conventions that recognize race, sex, and creed without privileging particular ones;
  • True tolerance of freely chosen "roles," especially traditional masculinity and femininity;
  • A lexicon and a diction that are indifferent to the assumed sensitivities of various groups.

The heart of this prescription is individualism. Your membership in a group means only that you're a member of that group: i.e., that you conform to the genus and differentia that define the group. If the group is known for certain disagreeable patterns of conduct, it's your job to demonstrate that you diverge from that pattern. This is especially important in matters of race, sex, and creed. It becomes critical when stereotypes are involved.

Something the celebrated Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, once said strikes me as apposite. A mother had written to her about worries about her teenage daughter's social circle. Apparently that group was trending in a destructive direction -- the specifics elude my memory at this time -- and Mom was worried that her daughter would succumb to "peer pressure." Martin's reply was stunning: "Tell your daughter, 'You're a peer too, so why not start some pressure in the other direction?'"

Why not, indeed?

The connection to my personal concerns is, of course, through fiction. Sarah's essay reminded me of a complaint I got from a reader about the religious connotation attached to the name of an antagonist character in one of my books. I was nonplussed. My reader was offended by the idea that a person of her faith might ever turn out to be a villain. Though I let her complaint slide off my back, it has remained with me as a reminder of the insistence activist groups have placed on being represented in some venues and being excluded from others.

Have you noticed how seldom the villain in a contemporary police or detective drama turns out to be a Negro? Yet I can't name a show in which none of the good guys are black -- possibly because I only watch television between paragraphs -- and to cap the irony, the black character is usually cast as a master of technology or some other sort of bulging brain. Impossible? No, not at all. But given what we know about academic proclivities and occupational distributions, how likely is it?

That's rankled me for quite some time. I allowed it to influence certain decisions I made in the Realm of Essences books -- in the reverse direction. Call it my contribution to re-establishing true proportionality. After that set of adventures, when I tackled the Spooner Federation saga, I resolved not to mention race at all.

That's how our fictional culture is formed. Those already in the arena have made their decisions. It's high time those of us who love freedom got in there, too. But, please: always make entertaining the reader your first priority. Don't risk boring or alienating him for "a pot of message."

Monday, February 2, 2015

Prosodies, Threnodies, And Maladies

The indie-writers movement is a thing of great internal variety. Indeed, the one thing we have in common is that we publish our own crap. However, our offerings do display some differences, statistically at least, from the drivel that Pub World puts out. In particular, Pub World fiction puts more emphasis on style than does indie fiction. Indies tend to emphasize plot and excitement.

That cleavage probably derives, at least in part, from the reason we write: the kinds of stories that thrilled us as readers have become rare among Pub World offerings. That’s certainly part of my motive power: at one point before I decided to try my hand at fiction, I felt I’d gone a whole year without encountering a hero-protagonist I could wholeheartedly admire and root for – and I read 150 to 200 novels per year.

But just as tedious is the prevalent demotion of plot in favor of just about anything else. Were it not for murder mysteries and the Clancyesque military thriller subgenre, Pub World fiction would lack plot almost completely. It’s as if Ayn Rand’s caricature of a writer from Atlas Shrugged – the one who opined that “plot is a primitive vulgarity in literature” – had taken over the publishing industry.

Ponder the sentiments of one such denigrator of plot:

Eva Brann cares.

Brann teaches at St. John's College in Annapolis, where the curriculum is driven by the classics and professors are known as tutors.

Years ago she read one of Stephen King's books. She was greatly disappointed. "It was mere plot," she says. "Everything was geared to stimulation by way of action."

Asked if she could recall the name of the King novel, she says, "It left no impression. It left no impression whatsoever." That, she says, is a characteristic of popular fiction.

"There's a pornography of sex and a pornography of the nerves," she continues. The No-Stylists, she says, are penning the latter type of porn. "Things happen -- crude, wild, exciting things. They have no human depth. They're just occurrences."

A derisive, backhanded dismissal of one of the most gifted storytellers of our time! This Brann babe must have some chops of her own, wouldn’t you think? Yet an Amazon search turns up no fiction published under her name. Maybe she publishes under a pseudonym. At any rate, that would help her to avoid having her stories contrasted with King’s. Whatever the case, it’s plain that Miss Brann is very sad about the state of modern fiction.

I don’t write to please the Eva Branns of the world. No indie of my acquaintance does.

The point of storytelling is...well, let’s not go there, as there’s more than one answer. But the principal requirement of storytelling is to entertain the reader. Style fails to address that requirement.

One of the happy discoveries I’ve made since embarking on this adventure is that a writer’s personal style becomes distinctive as he writes, even if his sole aim is to tell a particular story, eschewing stylistic considerations of any sort.

I didn’t set out to coin a style of my own, as if I were composing a signature by which the reader would immediately know he was consuming a genuine FWP product. I had stories to tell. I told them in as straightforward a fashion as I knew how. That’s all I know how to do. But have a gander at the following email I received shortly after I self-pubbed Which Art In Hope, Chosen One, and On Broken Wings:

I greatly enjoy your op-eds, and always look forward to new ones, but your fiction blows me away. But something puzzles me. When you write about fiction writing, which I hope you'll do more of, you always seem to be running down style as a factor in good fiction. Yet you have one of the most unique styles I've come across in all my years (don't ask how many) of reading. What gives?

I read that email in a state of bewilderment. I couldn’t get a grip on what my correspondent was talking about. I just tell the stories as my characters relate them to me. If anyone was responsible for the “style,” whatever it is, of those books, it would be their protagonists, through whose eyes the story is told. I was just the typist.

I had to come back to those books much later, to read them as if they’d been written by someone else, before I could get any sense of the thing. There is a consistent character to the prose of those novels. It screams that all three were written by the same person. That’s what’s usually meant by a writer’s style. I didn’t intend any such thing...but it happened even so.

This seems to be the pattern among the indies whose works I’ve read.

So in one corner we have indie writers, happily churning out the sorts of tales they most love to read, while in the opposite corner are the writers beloved of Pub World, the majority of whom spin plot-deprived non-stories about antiheroes and victims of fate who spend most of their time lamenting their lots in life. Who’s ahead on points? Hard to say, as Pub World houses tend to keep sales figures confidential from everyone outside their orbit. But if Amazon is a gauge, there are more indie writers than ever before, and they’re producing books at a really impressive rate. Some of them are even good.

One of the recent critical “responses” to developments in contemporary fiction went like this:

    The central question driving literary aesthetics in the age of the iPad is no longer "How should novels be?" but "Why write novels at all?"...
    The scarcer or more difficult to access an aesthetic experience is—the novel very much included—the greater its ability to set us apart from those further down the social ladder. This kind of value is, in [sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's] analysis, the only real value that "refined" tastes have.
    It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary this riposte to the aesthetics of "transcendence" must have seemed 30 years ago....
    We who curate our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls understand that at least part of what we're doing publicly, "like"-ing what we like, is trying to separate ourselves from the herd....
    Writers since at least the heyday of Gore Vidal have bemoaned their audience's defection to other forms of entertainment. But pop-Bourdieuvianism deprives them of the sense of high-canonical purity with which they've traditionally consoled themselves....
    To hell with style, then; the novelist now has to confront the larger problem of what the novel is even for—assuming it’s not just another cultural widget....
    This is where "The Marriage Plot"'s titular enjambment of literature and love—those two beleaguered institutions—is so clarifying....
    This isn’t to say that, measured in terms of cultural capital or sheer entertainment, the delights to which most contemporary "literary fiction" aims to treat us aren’t an awful lot. It's just that, if the art is to endure, they won't be quite enough.

If you’re an indie writer, as I am, the above should elicit approximately the following reaction:

“What the BLEEP! is he talking about?
Did he go off his meds?”

It should also reassure you that the “critics” no longer matter to any substantial degree.

Tell your stories and let the chips fall where they may. Trust your readers to let you know whether you’re getting the job done. Mine always do.