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Posts Tagged ‘thinkiness’

The King of Our Age

A while back my husband and I got into a conversation about the iconic writers of different eras — the people where, if you can remember a single person who wrote in that time period, they’re the one you think of. Chaucer. Shakespeare. Austen. Dickens.

This led, of course, to us debating who from the current era might be That Writer two hundred years from now. It’s a mug’s game, of course, trying to predict who’s going to last; the field of literature is littered with names who were expected to be classics for the ages, many of whom are now utterly forgotten. But a mug’s game can still be fun to play, especially when you’re making idle conversation over dinner. 🙂

The way I see it, the author in question is likely to exhibit some combination of four qualities:

  1. They’re popular (though not necessarily critically acclaimed just yet),
  2. They’re at least moderately prolific (no one-book wonders here),
  3. They’re working in a genre/medium/field that is especially characteristic of their era, and
  4. Their work reflects the social issues of their time.

(Notice I say nothing about quality in there. I do think that quality matters, but I also think our ability to judge what qualifies as quality, from the perspective of later generations, is deeply suspect.)

I said to my husband that I fully expect the writer of our age — defining “our age” as the late twentieth to early twenty-first century — to be someone in the field of speculative fiction, i.e. science fiction, fantasy, and/or supernatural horror. There has undeniably been a boom in that mode of storytelling in the last few decades; I suspect that, as a result, those works may be remembered for longer than many of the quietly mimetic tales of literary fiction. (In fact, if I’m being honest with myself, I suspect that the Writer of Our Age is more likely to be a movie director — Spielberg’s a good candidate — than anybody in prose fiction.)

Popular, prolific, working in spec fic, reflecting the social issues of our era . . . .

My money’s on Stephen King.

He’s already acquired a veneer of respectability that he sure as hell didn’t have a couple of decades ago. His works are being taught in college courses. He caters — I mean the word in a non-derogatory sense — to a broad audience, and generally writes about very ordinary blue-collar types, in a way that can be read as social commentary, whether it was intended as such or not. There are other authors who may be remembered, as much for their impact on the field as on their works (J.K. Rowling for the YA boom, George R.R. Martin for being the most famous epic fantasist since Tolkien, etc), but I don’t expect their work to be read much outside of specialized circles a hundred years from now. They’re probably the Christopher Marlowes of our era, doing some pioneering work, but generally only read by people who are exploring that genre in greater depth.

I’m curious whether other people agree with my assessment, though. Are there other authors you think are more likely to be remembered in the long term? If so, who and why?

The Value of Travel

I originally posted this as a reply to John Scalzi here, but it occurred to me that it was something that might be of interest to my local audience — especially since I’m posting all these photos from trips I’ve taken. 🙂

In discussing his own feelings about travel, Scalzi said:

The fact of the matter is I’m not hugely motivated by travel. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy it when I do it, nor that there are not places I would like to visit, but the fact of the matter is that for me, given the choice between visiting places and visiting people, I tend to want to visit people — a fact that means that my destinations are less about the locale than the company. I’d rather go to Spokane than Venice, in other words, if Spokane has people I like in it, and all Venice has is a bunch of buildings which are cool but which I will be able to see better in pictures.

To which I said:

I like seeing people, sure — but the second half of the comment is boggling to me, because it’s so radically different from my own view, in two respects.

First of all, seeing is only part of the experience. Looking at a picture is flat, whereas being there is a full-body surround-sound sensory experience. There’s sound, smell, the feeling of space or lack thereof, the process of walking through. Highgate Cemetery was more than its headstones; it was the blustery autumn day with the wind rushing through the trees raining leaves down on us and the tip of my nose going cold. Point Lobos is more than the cypresses; it’s the smell of the cypresses and the feel of the dirt under my feet and the distant barking of the sea lions. Furthermore, pictures will never show me even everything from the visual channel: they may show me the nave of the church, but usually not the ceiling, nor the floor with its worn grave slabs. They will show me the garden, but not the autumn leaf caught in the spider web between two trees. I would have to look at hundreds of pictures from Malbork Castle to capture what I saw there. (Heck, I took hundreds of pictures there!)

Second, the most memorable part to me is usually the bit I wouldn’t have thought to go looking for if I weren’t there. The first time I went to Japan, my sister and I went to see the famous temple of Ginkakuji, which I loved — but I loved even better the tiny shrine off to the left outside Ginkakuji, whose name I still don’t know. Or when I was in Winchester, and she and I walked to St. Cross outside of town; we went for the porter’s dole (old medieval tradition: even now — or at least in 1998 — if you walk up to the gate and ask for the dole, they will give you bread and water), but stayed for the courtyard with the enormous tree and the most amazingly plush grass I have ever flung myself full-length in. I can look at pictures of famous buildings in Venice, but I’m unlikely to see pictures of the stuff I wouldn’t think to look for.

I write all of this in the full awareness that I have been extremely fortunate in my travel opportunities. My father’s work has often taken him abroad, so he has a giant pile of frequent flyer miles, and both in childhood and now I’ve been able to afford trips to other countries: British Virgin Islands, Costa Rica, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Israel, Japan, India, Poland, Greece, Italy, Turkey, France, the Bahamas. It’s created a positive feedback loop: these trips have led me to really enjoy travel and the different experiences I have when I go places, so as a result I arrange more trips when I can. As a replacement, pictures don’t even begin to cut it.

Not part of my comment to Scalzi, but I will add two further observations:

1) Clearly I do see value in pictures, though, or I wouldn’t take so damn many of them. 😛

2) What it says about my sociability that I am liable to travel to places rather than to people is left as an exercise for the reader.

Automated Processes

This is apropos of my recent post on cooking vs. driving. It seemed easier to make a new post than to respond individually to the multiple people who made related points. 🙂

When I talked about the “attention” either task requires, what I’m really referring to is the extent to which certain processes are automated or not. If you think back to when you first started driving, changing lanes involved something like the following steps:

  1. Look for a suitable gap
  2. Put on turn signal
  3. Check blind spot
  4. Move into gap
  5. End turn signal

(Or some variant thereof.)

Once you’ve been driving for a while, though, the process of changing lanes looks something more like this:

  1. Change lanes

All the smaller steps that go into the act are sufficiently automated that you don’t have to think about them, not to the degree that you did before.

(more…)

a thought on racebending and genderbending

Which is to say, casting female performers for characters who are canonically male, or actors of color for characters who are canonically white.

Look at Hollywood. Look at TV. Look at how frequently they remake or reboot or sequelize existing narrative properties (for a host of reasons, not all of them terrible, but we won’t get into that here). For crying out loud, we’ve got three separate Sherlock Holmes franchises in progress right now.

If you don’t turn Starbuck female — if you don’t cast Lucy Liu as Watson — if you don’t make Idris Elba Heimdall — if you don’t break the mold of those existing texts in ways that will let in under-represented groups — then your opportunities for having those groups on the screen in the first place drop substantially. You’re basically left making them minor new characters, or else cracking the story open to stick in a major new minority character (and people will complain about that, too). Because all those stories we keep retelling? They’re mostly about straight white guys. And the stories that are new, the ones that aren’t being retold from one or more previous texts, can’t pick up all the slack on their own. You make Perry White black, or you make a Superman movie with no black people in it above the level of tertiary character.

Which isn’t automatically a problem when it’s one movie. But it isn’t one movie: it’s a whole mass of them. Including most of our blockbusters.

So either we chuck out the old stuff wholesale (and as a folklorist, I entirely understand why we don’t do that), or we rewrite it to suit our times. (And as a folklorist, I entirely understand that too — and I cheer it on. Go, folk process, go!)

This entry was also posted at http://swan-tower.dreamwidth.org/594044.html. Comment here or there.

screw subtlety

I’m running another role-playing game right now, and several times of late I’ve found myself saying the same thing:

“Screw subtlety.”

It happens because I’ll be planning some kind of plot, and chasing my own tail trying to figure out how to introduce a new element without making the player-characters suspicious. This is difficult when the PCs are being run by players — people very familiar with narrative conventions. When I told one of them the prospective fiancée for his nobleman was a meek, sheltered girl, his reply was “Gamer brain calls bullshit. I expect she has twenty-five skeletons and four fresh corpses in her closet.”

In a novel, you can get away with a higher degree of subtlety, because you control your characters’ thoughts. They don’t know they’re in a story (not unless you’re writing something very metafictional), so they won’t reflect on things the same way a player will. And while the same thing is theoretically true of a PC, any time you ask the player to ignore something that’s obvious to them out-of-character, you create a disjunct. Sometimes this can be fun, but other times it’s frustrating, because they have to role-play their character being blind to an idea they can see. Looping back around to novels, again, the same thing can be true of a reader — but since the reader isn’t actively participating in the story, the frustration is usually less severe. If you write your characters well, the reader will go along for the ride, blind spots and all.

So this is why I keep saying “screw subtlety.” Rather than bending over backwards attempting to make something not suspicious, embrace the suspicion! Why yes, this is weird; you have every reason to give it the side-eye. Knowing that up front doesn’t tell you what’s really going on. You’ll have to work to get the rest.

Doing that is surprisingly liberating. I think it’s a cousin to the notion of “burning plot” — making the cool stuff happen now, and letting it generate more cool stuff later, rather than trying to save it and have the lead-up be flat and boring as a result. Instead of making plot out of the characters figuring out there’s something weird with X, let them know that from the start, and move on from there. It doesn’t work in all situations or for all kinds of stories, but where it does, the result can be a lot of energy and momentum.

Which is why this is something I try to keep in mind for novels as well as games. Am I better off trying to come up with a plausible cover story for a given narrative element, or should I just let it show its face to the world?

This entry was also posted at http://swan-tower.dreamwidth.org/593817.html. Comment here or there.

I don’t have to work on anything right now, so I’m procrastinating with a meme

Several of my fanfic-writing friends have been doing a meme wherein they post the first lines of their last twenty-one fics. Because I don’t feel like doing anything more mentally taxing right now than faffing around on the computer listening to music, and also because that’s a lie and Anthropologist Brain is having thinky thoughts but doesn’t mind listening to music while faffing around collating stuff, I’m going to do this twice: once with fanfic, and then once with my original short stories. I want to see how they compare.

Fanfic first!

three conversations at once

I have other things I should be doing, but wshaffer made a very good point in the comments to my last post, so I’m back for another round. And at this point I’ve made a tag for the grimdark discussion, because I’ve said enough that you might want to be able to track it all down.

To quote wshaffer:

The thing that strikes me about the grimdark discussion is that there are multiple different-but-interlocking conversations going on at once. One is an argument about whether “realism” is grounds for granting a work a higher degree of artistic merit. Another is an argument about to what extent realism actually requires focusing on the darker and more unpleasant aspects of life. And the third is: supposing that we grant that the historical prevalence of misogyny and rape requires that they be addressed in realistic fiction, are there ways of portraying them that do no themselves reinforce misogyny and rape culture?

I love things like this, because they simultaneously clear up a bunch of confusion in my head, and make it possible to see things I couldn’t before. Let’s take her questions one at a time.

(more…)

gritty vs. grimdark

Yeah, I’m still thinking about this topic. Partly because of Cora Buhlert’s recent roundup. The digression onto Deathstalker mostly went over my head, since I haven’t read it, but she brings up a number of good points and also links to several posts I hadn’t seen. (Though I use the term “post” generously. I have to say, when the only response you make to this debate is “meh” followed by links to people who already agree with you, you might as well not bother. All you’re doing is patting yourself on the back in public.)

So I’m thinking about our terminology — “gritty” and “grimdark” and so on. What do we mean by “grit,” anyway? The abrasive parts of life, I guess; the stuff that’s hard and unpleasant. Logistics and consequences and that sort of thing, the little stony details that other books might gloss over. It’s adjacent to, or maybe our new replacement for, “low fantasy” — the stories in which magic is relatively rare, and characters have to do things the hard way, just like us. Hence laying claim to the term “realism”: those kinds of details that can ground a story in reality.

But that isn’t the same thing as “grimdark,” is it? That describes a mood, and you can just as easily tell a story in which everything is horrible and doomed without those little details as with. (As indeed some authors do.) Hence, of course, the counter-arguments that grimdark fantasy is just as selective in its “realism” as lighter fare: if you’re writing about a war and all the women are threatened with sexual violence but none of the men are, then you’re cherry-picking your grit.

What interests me, though, are the books which I might call gritty, but not grimdark. I mentioned this a while ago, when I read Tamora Pierce’s second Beka Cooper book, Bloodhound. The central conflict in that book is counterfeiting, and Pierce is very realistic about what fake coinage can do to a kingdom. She also delves into the nuts and bolts of early police work, including police corruption . . . I’d call that grit. Of course it’s mitigated by the fact that her story is set in Tortall, which began in a decidedly less gritty manner; one of the things I noticed in the Beka Cooper books was how Pierce worked to deconstruct some of her earlier, more romantic notions, like the Court of the Rogue. But still: counterfeiting, a collapse in monetary policy, police corruption of a realistic sort, etc. Those are the kinds of details a lot of books would gloss over.

Or an example closer to home: With Fate Conspire. I was discussing it over e-mail recently, and it occurred to me that I put a lot of unpleasantness into that book. Off the cuff, it includes betrayal, slavery, slavery of children, imprisonment, torture, horrible disease, poverty, racism, terrorism, massive amounts of class privilege and the lack thereof, rape (alluded to), pollution, fecal matter, and an abundance of swearing. All of which is the kind of stuff grimdark fantasy revels in . . . yet I have not seen a single person attach that label to the novel. Nor “gritty,” for that matter, but I would argue that word, at least, should indeed apply. A great deal of that story grinds its way through the hard, unpleasant details of being lower-class in Victorian London. Realistic details, at that.

Of course, the book has a happy ending (albeit one with various price tags attached). Which makes it not grimdark — and also not gritty? Or maybe it’s that I was writing historical fiction, not the secondary-world fantasy that seems to be the locus of the term. Or, y’know, it might be that I’m a woman. One of the posts Buhlert links to is from [personal profile] matociquala, who — unusually for this debate — names some female authors as having produced gritty work, and Buhlert takes that point further. This is a highly gendered debate, not just where the sexual abuse of characters is concerned, and if we don’t acknowledge that, we’re only looking at a fraction of the issue.

I’m sort of wandering at this point, because there’s no tidy conclusion to draw. You can have grit without being grimdark, and you can be grimdark without grit, but doing either while being female is rare? Not very tidy, but something to keep in mind. I think I’d be interested in reading more gritty-but-not-grimdark fantasy, from either gender. Recommendations welcome.

This entry was also posted at http://swan-tower.dreamwidth.org/580211.html. Comment here or there.

Chickens and eggs

mrissa has posted her Minicon schedule, with a panel on which comes first: the story or the setting. To quote the description,

Which Came First

The chicken or the egg? The story or the world? Does the story you want to tell determine the setting, or does your chosen setting demand a certain kind of story to be told in it? Are there some types of stories that simply cannot be told in a particular setting? How do creators balance these seemingly opposing forces in imagining their tales?

Which has gotten me reflecting on that question and how I would answer it. Off the cuff, I thought I probably start more with the setting — hi, anthropology, yeah. But does that hold up when I actually look at the data?

(For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to keep this to novels, but I will include unpublished novels in the list. It’s probably a different ballgame if I look at short stories; that, however, would require more time than I want to devote to this right now, and a refresher course as to what the heck I’ve written.)

Cut for length; I have more novels than you guys know about.

Batman had it easy

Only just now remembering to link to it, but this months’ SF Novelists post is “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” in which I challenge the notion that so-called “gritty” fantasy is a) realistic and b) superior on account of its realism.

(Both that post and the rest of this one discuss sexual violence — quelle surprise, given the obsession gritty fantasy has with that topic — so if you don’t want to read about them, click away now.)

This is part of a much larger discussion floating around the internet right now, which I keep encountering in unexpected corners. The most recent of those is “The Rape of James Bond,” which makes a lot of good points; toward the end, McDougall talks about her own decision-making process where fictional sexual violence is concerned, and whether you agree with her decisions or not, her questions are good ones.

But the part I found the most striking was where she talked about reactions to Skyfall and the first encounter between Silva and Bond.

Cut in case you haven't seen the movie and want to avoid a spoiler.