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Posts Tagged ‘thinkiness’

The Literary Line

A discussion over on Catherynne Valente’s livejournal has me thinking about what distinguishes literary fiction with genre (i.e. speculative) elements from genre fiction as such.

People approach this in a lot of different ways, of course. There’s value in saying, if it has a genre element — ghosts, vampires, time-travel — then it’s genre, and enough with all this waffling. (Margaret Atwood, I’m looking at you.) Otherwise this notion of “speculation” loses all real meaning. There’s also value in saying the real line lies in shelving: it’s all about what publisher will pick you up, what audience they think they can market you to. That, more than the actual content of your book, determines which camp you belong in. This ends up being a fairly accurate descriptor of how society creates the divide, after all.

But I do think there is something within the stories that separates Is Genre from Contains Genre. Some people say it has to do with the centrality of the genre conceit: if you could pull out that thread and still have a coherent story fabric, what you have isn’t really science fiction or fantasy. This almost but not quite hits the mark I’m looking at, and I can give a good example of how.

I mostly enjoyed the movie Stranger Than Fiction. If you haven’t seen it, this is a story about a man who suddenly starts hearing a woman’s voice narrating everything he’s doing in his life. He comes to discover that the woman in question is a writer, and what she’s writing is a novel about his life — a novel in which he’s going to die.

This is not just genre but as central as you get. Pull out that thread, and you have no story left at all. But in the end, I felt dissatisfied with the film, and my dissatisfaction grew directly out of the fact that I wanted it to be a genre story, and I don’t think it was.

What made it not genre, for me, was its utter lack of interest in the cause of its own conceit. Why had this strange connection happened? Did the writer’s imagination create that man, summon him into reality, or did she somehow tap into the life of a pre-existing individual? Did her work control or merely reflect him? Stranger Than Fiction doesn’t care. What it cares about is the moral question of that connection: once the writer discovers her character exists outside of her head, what will she choose to do with her story? She insists the death she has planned for him — a meaningless, random demise; I think he’s supposed to be knocked down by a bus — is a powerful ending, the one the story has to have. Which I found to be an interesting nod toward the conventions of literary fiction in general, the notion that an ending where somebody dies is somehow more meaningful than one where the person lives.

The moral question is an engaging one, certainly. But it wasn’t enough for me. I want not only to think about the ethical ramifications of our fascination with watching characters suffer and die, but also the metaphysics of how a writer might be confronted with her own protagonist. Otherwise — in strange contravention of mainstream opinion — the story feels shallow to me. Its own world feels like a painted backdrop, rather than a reality.

Which brings me around to the division I like best, where narrative content is concerned: genres as conversations. Stranger Than Fiction is talking to litfic, not specfic. It’s debating this whole notion that telling a story about some schlub who wanders through his life and then gets knocked over by a bus is inherently better than telling a story about that schlub living, which is very much a litfic kind of issue. If it were a genre story, the conversation would address the matter of causation. Is her typewriter magical? Is that man some kind of tulpa, called into existence by the power of her thought? Is this some intervention on God’s part, or a weird experiment conducted by aliens? The moral relationship between author and character could still figure into it, but the manner of that figuring would be shaped by the cause.

It isn’t that a genre story absolutely has to explore the causes of its own science fictional or fantastical elements. Not every narrative needs to be about its own foundations. But Stranger Than Fiction‘s complete disinterest in its own fantasy was a clear signal, at least to me, that its conversational partners are not mine. This is also what annoys sf/f readers when a litfic writer decides to write a book with (say) time travel in it: in most cases it’s painfully obvious that the writer is ignorant of the long-standing conversation on that subject. As a result, you get novels where the author seems to think they’re the first person to discover the grandfather paradox or branching realities or whatever, and their community celebrates it as this awesome new thing, while the specfic community yawns at the sight of Yet More Old Hat.

Who’s involved in the conversation? Which writers and works is a story responding to, agreeing with, counteracting, poking fun at? It isn’t just a litfic/specfic divide; I suspect, for example, that you can use the same principle to sort urban fantasy from paranormal romance. And it’s probably a rare story indeed that can talk with equal facility to more than one community at a time, however much the basic content of the narrative may look like a hybrid of two worlds.

For me, that’s where the line really lies. Sometimes it’s useful to say “if it contains genre, it is genre,” and sometimes it’s useful to look at where a work is shelved, but ultimately, it comes down to the conversation.

gathering fodder

My recent SF Novelists posts, and a related series of posts by Kate Elliott and Ken Scholes over on Babel Clash, have turned up several male writers saying they’re nervous about writing female characters because they’re worried they’ll get it wrong. And I point at the second my posts I just linked as proof that I don’t think it’s so hard — but I’ve realized that’s a bit disingenuous. There are ways writers (male and female alike) screw it up. They just aren’t the ones people seem to be worrying about when they say “but I don’t know how to write women!”

So I’d like some help gathering fodder for more posts on the topic, this time looking at the common pitfalls. (And how to avoid them, but really, 90% of that is noticing the pit before you fall into it.) I’m thinking of things like Women in Refrigerators and the Madonna-Whore complex. What other things can you add to the list?

Two lies

One pattern of thinking is that everything was better back in the Good Old Days — a point in time that continually shifts according to the perspective of the observer. For much of Europe’s history, it was the Garden of Eden; a modern American might put it in the 1950s. Whenever it was, it was better that now, and we are continually falling from that idyll.

Another pattern is the gospel of progress. We’re getting better all the time. We’re continually climbing from the pit of our unenlightened past, improving on what went before, heading for the stars. Tomorrow will be brighter than yesterday was, and the day after that, brighter still.

The former is more or less a conservative paradigm; the latter is a liberal one (or perhaps it would be better to say progressive.) Taken in their pure form, both are lies.

Because human history isn’t linear. It squiggles and loops and goes in three directions at once. There was a fluorescence of female intellectualism in eighteenth-century London that withered in the nineteenth, but less than we have now; New Kingdom Egyptian metallurgy and sculpture made medieval Europeans look like enthusiastic but not terribly bright seven-year-olds, but their realism doesn’t match Michaelangelo; Minoans had better plumbing than Renaissance Italy, but no hot showers. And the problem is that buying into either lie blinds you to important things: the injustices hidden beneath the happy mask of Leave It to Beaver, the risk of those injustices coming back again in the future. Or new ones. It isn’t just two steps forward, one step back — maybe five steps back and three to the side and then do a backflip and end up facing a different direction entirely.

And yet it’s so tempting. It’s a lot easier to hold onto the notion of a line than an n-dimensional Gordian Knot with multiple strings whose number changes every time you look at them.

I know that I tend toward the liberal pattern of thinking. There’s a lot of truth in it, especially if you pick a certain set of strings and decide those are how you’re going to measure progress. Of course, there’s truth in the conservative pattern, too — especially if you pick different strings. But the more I read of history, the more it all dissolves. (Of course this post is brought to you by my research. I figure the eighteenth-century intellectuals gave it away, if nothing else.) History is really damn complicated, and it really is going in all directions at once. And no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to keep all its twists in my head, never be able to grasp the whole of it.

But I can think about which strings I’m picking, and which ones the person I’m reading has picked. And I can try not to make my own patterns too neat.

Time to talk bad guys

Normally I write my SF Novelists posts well in advance, and just set them up to go live when the sixteenth rolls around. This one’s of a more recent vintage: it took me until yesterday to decide I wanted to spend this month talking about villains and antagonists. Go, read, comment over there.

You can’t be both good and strong

Mary Robinette Kowal’s column over at AMC this week takes a hard look at good queens in fantasy film. The gist of it is, you can’t be both good and powerful: if you’re good, you’re a child and/or tiny and/or sick and/or married to someone else who’s holding the reins. If you’re powerful, you’re evil.

(Before somebody else points it out: yes, I think she missteps a bit with Galadriel; sure, Celeborn’s around, but even if you’re looking solely at the movie, it’s pretty obvious that Galadriel’s much more central and important than her husband is. And if you know the books, he’s her appendage, not the other way around.)

I think the situation’s much better in novels, if only because the data set’s so much bigger. But still, I think the underlying structure that produces the result Kowal describes isn’t entirely gone: “women with power” is a concept our culture as a whole still isn’t quite comfortable with. (See: the response to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.) That idea’s scary, and scary =/= good.

An interesting column. I’ve been enjoying reading them each week, but this is the first one that’s really made me go “hmmmm.”

awesomeness and fair use

Most of you have probably seen this, as it’s been posted from here to Siberia, but:

I first saw it on sartorias‘ journal, and there’s been an interesting little debate over there. We can all agree, I think, that putting the little assertion on the video that it constitutes fair use means precisely jack; it wouldn’t do any good in court. Having said that — is this fair use?

Well, we can’t decide that, any more than the vidder can; the only thing that can really establish an answer (so far as I’m aware) is a court case. But I think it is. I saw commentators over on sartorias‘ LJ breaking the two halves apart, talking about how the vid definitely parodies Twilight but plays its Buffy scenes fairly straight. IANA IP expert, but I don’t think that’s the way to view it. The question is the purpose of the work as a whole, not its constituent parts. And I’d say, in my opinion, that the vid in its entirety does indeed pass that test.

Collage can qualify as transformative work, so far as I’m aware; you can cut up and re-use copyrighted material in order to make a larger work. Montages are the same thing, in video. So if you put together a montage which serves a distinct purpose, one not identical to that of the original material, then yes, I think it should count as fair use. It’s possible, I suppose, that a judge could say this is fair use of Twilight (since Stephanie Meyer’s purpose was not to show Edward as a creepy, socially inept stalker who deserves staking), but not of Buffy (since Joss Whedon’s purpose was, among other things, to critique certain tropes of vampire narrative). But I see this as the layperson equivalent of using, oh, Judith Butler’s theories to comment on gender issues in Twilight. You apply one thing to another thing in order to make some points about it. Why should it be different just because the thing being applied is material from a media franchise, rather than the words of an academic 99% of the country has never heard of?

Of course, it is different. One of these entities has the money and possibly the will to pursue a court case over potential infringement; the other does not. But however practical that difference may be, the concept of it annoys me.

I think things like this should be fair use. I think society benefits from the ability to play things off one another in this fashion, to engage with them directly, rather than leaving them in hermetically-sealed containers such that we can only look at them through the glass. Will this vid financially damage Buffy and those who profit from it? Probably not. Will it damage Stephenie Meyer et al? Maybe. After all, Twilight is the target of the criticism here. But a negative review can do the same thing, and can include quotes from the text to boot. I see just as much original effort in the (exceedingly well-done) editing of these video clips as I do in the composition of that review.

(Tagging this “fanfiction” because it’s a crossover narrative in vid form, but mostly because this is part and parcel of my thoughts on fanfiction, so it’s better to keep them all under the same tag.)

Writer, Trust Thyself

Here’s the other thing about doing this copy-edit:

I have to trust I got things right.

Where by “things,” I mean the historical details. At the time I wrote these scenes, I had my research fresh in my mind, with notes and books open on the desk in front of me. That? Was last year. Do I still remember everything? No. And it’s worse with this book than it was with Midnight Never Come, because in this one, the plot engages much more directly with historical events — giving me oodles of chances to screw up. I could try to look it up again, double-check everything, but the library books have been returned and that would make the copy-edit take two months anyway. I have to trust that I got the details right in the drafting and revision stages.

Having said that . . . I’ve caught a few errors. But only because something stood out: a lack of a preposition in a historical quote, which made me check to see if that was a transcription error on my part, or the actual phrasing of the original. (Answer? Both: I have two books that give the line, and they don’t match up. I chose the clearer of the two.) Or me calling a character “Lady Elizabeth,” and then wondering if that’s the proper address for someone of her rank, which made me double-check whether I was right about her not being a countess yet. (Answer? She was a countess, and I had the address wrong. Also, I erroneously referenced her father, who was dead by then. Apparently I was asleep at the research wheel when I wrote that scene.)

I can’t check everything, though. I’ll have errors that crept in during revision, during drafting, during research when I failed to look something up in the first place. And some reader, somewhere, will spot them.

But you know, I’m okay with that. (Mostly.) Because the only way to avoid it is to have my characters float through a non-specific world, where events don’t have dates and buildings don’t have floor plans and the only people with names are the ones important to the plot. But that isn’t how real people live: the world you inhabit is concrete, specific, full of detail. You know the names of the people you work with, and sometimes they have walk-on parts in the story of your life.

What will be interesting to see is what this does to my secondary-world novels, next time I try to write one. Historical fiction has forced me to pay attention to the specificity of real life; can I maintain that specificity when I’m making it all up? I hope so.

At least nobody will be able to tell me I’ve gotten it wrong. 🙂

The Three Musketeers

I think I missed the ideal window in my life for reading The Three Musketeers.

The first time I tried it, I was too young; I was confused by Gascons and pistoles and lots of other things I’d never heard of, and the plot, it does not really get around to swashing bucklers and buckling swashes until a bit further in. So I quit. This month I picked it up again, but now I’m critical enough of a reader to be annoyed by things I would have zoomed right over when I was younger.

Like, for example, the way Dumas sings paeans to his characters, most especially Athos, who aside from drinking too much is in every way a paragon of blah blah blah. He’s my favorite of the three, but jeez, Dumas lays it on with a trowel. Or, to pick something more mundane: the sheer idiocy of the main characters’ spending habits. Assuming 1625 France was anything like 1625 England, I have every faith that Dumas’ portrayal is fair — but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to bash them over the head with a bench every time they piss away a fortune and end up penniless Yet Again. Then there’s the (equally period) over-eagerness to pick fights, which I find not charming but childish. And, of course, the treatment of women, most especially Constance Bonacieux, Madame dans Réfrigérateur.

And Milady, about whom I have a great deal to say.

Since she was not what I expected.