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It’s Their Party

Sometimes the universe seems to nudge you in the direction it wants you to go. And sometimes the universe gets downright pushy.

Lately, I’ve written a string of blog posts about the treatment of classic literary characters, some after the authors’ passing, and some while the author’s still alive, but maybe not as on top of things as before. And now, I’ve been sent an article about what may be the most horrible re-imagining yet: A dystopian version of Little Women. “The series will follow the March sisters as they ‘band together in order to survive the dystopic streets of Philadelphia and unravel a conspiracy that stretches far beyond anything they have ever imagined — all while trying not to kill each other in the process.’

Really? You couldn’t just write your own novel, or at least change the characters’ names? I mean, you can call this what you want, but it ain’t Little Women, never will be, and nobody will ever think so. I’ve got news for you: fans of the books will not watch the show. What’s the point of calling it Little Women when the people who would be attracted by the title will almost universally boycott it as a blasphemous travesty? You want to modernize Little Women? Why not write Little Women and Zombies, the true story of five generations of Alcott fans rising from the dead and hunting you down?*

*Please note–this is not a suggestion. There are already enough revenge-seeking zombie Jane Austen fans shambling around.

It’s All a Facade

As I said in a recent post, I am leery of believing that Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s “new novel,” was anything she actually wanted published. On the other hand, irrespective of the legitimacy of the book’s commercial origins, it does serve a purpose: It illustrates just how books come to be written.

Without reiterating the entire process, suffice it to say that Ms. Lee worked through several drafts of To Kill a Mockingbird, of which Watchman was one. In fact, it took 2-3 years for her to get it right. And that’s important, because a lot of people don’t know how art comes to be created; they think it simply flows from the writer’s brain through her pen to the page and goes off to the publisher. The problem is that this persuades people who might otherwise try to write a book (or story) that they shouldn’t, because “it won’t be good enough.” The truth is that almost nobody is good enough the first time out. (Asimov claimed he was; Ben Jonson said: “I recollect that the comedians said in honour of Shakespeare that in his writings he never erased a line. Would to God he had erased a thousand.”)

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, recommends “shitty first drafts”: Just write anything at all, because nobody is ever going to read it but you anyway, so who cares if it’s any good? I’ve tried to apply this advice, but even now (after years of practice) I feel the right side of my brain trying to horn in on the creative process, and I can’t always keep it at bay. I try to limit its influence to those situations where the awkwardness is obvious and easily remedied; even then it interrupts my flow.

But if Go Set a Watchman‘s origin is understood, if the idea that great art is not always–or generally–exalted or even readable at the first go-round, then it will have performed a service. After all, if To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t good enough the first time, why should anyone else expect better?

Heaven knows writing a coherent novel is frightfully difficult, and writing a publishable one is, if you look strictly at numbers, almost impossible. Why put any more obstacles in your own path? The truth is that a good novel is as much a product of soul as of craft, and the former is the hardest part. The rest? The rest you can edit and revise and re-work to your heart’s content. Because like a movie, it’s all a facade; your reader never sees what’s behind the curtain.

Birthday Give-away

In honor of my birthday, all of my novels on Smashwords are free today. You can see them by clicking the links on this page. Read one! Read all! And if you think spreading the word would be a good birthday present, I wouldn’t argue with that…

Fair warning: This is about that Hugo mess. I won’t be offended if you decide to read Scalzi instead.

I am a Depressed Doggie. I would call myself a sad puppy, but there are connotations I don’t want to invoke. Besides, the Sad Puppies are the root of the problem. Them and their Hugo ballot. Because you know what? For all that they want to “save” SFF, and for all that they champion real science fiction, the good old stuff of rocketships and blasters and alien invasions and fun stuff…

…their taste stinks.

Okay, maybe that’s too harsh. In most categories (disclosure, I read only the novella, novelette, and short story categories), I was able to read all the way through nearly all of the selections. And most of what I read (all the way through) was competent. Not surprising, since it had all been published, sometimes by top-flight markets into which I would love to break. But it wasn’t Hugo-worthy.

I’ve had some discussions with friends about what exactly makes a story “Hugo-worthy,” and the results have been mixed. In the end, I know it when I see it. To draw on a personal example, my first story in Daily Science Fiction, “Grinpa,” received a very nice review from Diabolical Plots. In fact, it was their only Recommended story that month. In explaining his choice, the editor said, “I should point out a recommended qualification is a story that makes me go ‘Wow!’ after I read it.” That’s how I feel about the Hugos. If a story didn’t make me go “wow,” it’s just not special enough to merit an award as “the best.”

And only one story out of everything I read even approached a “wow.” Frankly, in another year, I wouldn’t have voted for that one, but I felt like I had to vote for something. Because in every other fiction category I voted No Award. And after this one story, I voted No Award in that category, too.

How sad is that?

I know that the Puppies claim they had no agenda but to promote under-appreciated authors, but really? Maybe they’re under-appreciated for a reason. Most of the stories (though not all) were readable, even good, but that doesn’t make them great. Good doesn’t win awards; great does. I published a story that was eligible last year. It was readable; it was good…I think it was equal to most of what the Puppies put on the ballot. But that’s the problem: it was equal to most of what the Puppies put on the ballot. It was good, and readable, but not great. Not great enough for a Hugo.

That’s not easy to admit. But it does make me a better writer.

A Hugo-worthy writer? We’ll have to wait and see.

It’s Her Party

Life imitates art. You’d think it would be the other way around, but… A few days back, I posted a blog about authors’ works being vulnerable to drastic changes after they die, and would that be a good thing? And now along comes the Go Set a Watchman controversy, which covers the same bases, except that the author is still alive.

If you have been living under a rock and know nothing about modern literature, Set a Watchman is the second book published by Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Some are saying that Ms. Lee, 89 years old and suffering the aftereffects of a stroke, was in no position to authorize publication of what turns out not to have been another novel, but merely an early draft of Mockingbird. For fifty years, while Ms. Lee’s sister was acting as her assistant/literary guardian, the author steadfastly denied she would ever write/publish another book. Now Ms. Lee’s sister has passed away (at 103!), there is a new agent, and lo and behold, the manuscript for Watchman was “found” and published.

Without taking sides (because what do I know), I can only note that it seems odd that an 89-year-old blind, deaf, and memory-impaired woman residing in assisted living (and reportedly making $3 million per year off of Mockingbird, proving that literacy is not dead), would suddenly decide after 50 years of refusal that this preliminary, rejected draft needs to see the light of day. I’m just sayin’…

And so here is an example similar to what I was talking about last week, because Watchman concerns the same characters as Mockingbird (obviously), but Atticus Finch, the hero of Mockingbird immortalized by Gregory Peck in the movie, is a completely different person now. Early reactions to his new portrayal are trending negative. Some reviews make positive points, but still regard this as an unpolished, unrealized vision. It seems likely that a major American classic, arguably the Great American Novel, has been forever tarred by the brush of an ill-advised marketing venture.

That’s if the author gave her consent. If she didn’t, then we are witnessing a crime that may stain our literary heritage forever.

Yeah, your parents tell you that “words will never hurt you,” but they lie. It’s a white lie, because they want to protect you, but it’s a lie and we all know it. Words are the most powerful weapon ever invented. The pen and the sword and all that.

In high school, I was one of those kids who sat in class and never said anything. I got good grades, but I never contributed much. My Government teacher, though, based your grade partly on classroom participation, and he made it clear you couldn’t do better than a C if you didn’t say something at least once a semester. So I did. Once a semester. You also had to do some kind of presentation. The most dreaded day on the calendar. I’ve blocked it out of my memory.

But one day the class was discussing capital punishment; the speaker labelled it “legalized murder.” I raised my hand to point out that “murder” is defined as an illegal act, so “legalized murder” was a misrepresentation (not that I spoke so well). The point was made and ignored pretty much immediately and discussion continued. So why do I remember this instance out of three years of high school experience? Because I was right, I was on point, but not simply about the definition of murder. I was trying to make a larger point that I didn’t even understand I was trying to make: words have power. Words define the debate, the debate informs opinion, opinions inform votes, and votes make policy. (I am editing my own words even as I write them, proving my point even if you can’t see it.)

I recently entered an on-line debate regarding a point of grammar. I took the position that the old rule, widely ignored for many years, was valid and breaking it was merely imprecise communication. I included a recent example that I believed supported me. I was pointedly accused of ignoring certain marginalized groups who might be “offended” by the rigorous application of the rule. I left the discussion because I while I was interested in debate, I had no taste for argument.

And yet, even this short exchange was educational. First, debating on-line is a fool’s game. It’s laughably easy for words to be misunderstood in face-to-face interactions, particularly if the subject is controversial. On line, you’re almost guaranteed to be misunderstood. Second, words matter. Even in a completely theoretical situation, the very idea that someone not even involved in the conversation (so far as one knows) could be offended can inflate into a debate and explode into an argument in the space of a few words. (One wonders what might have happened had I pursued my thesis in that Government class.)

Writers are used to reviewing and revising their work, often several times, before the public sees it. You would think that this example would inform our more mundane communications as well, at least on-line, if not act as a filter before we speak.

You would think so. But until we fully understand how powerful a weapon our words are, we are going to continue to shoot our mouths off.

I just got back from Westercon on Sunday night. It was a nice weekend, relaxing on the whole, nothing strenuous, although it tired me out regardless–more walking than I’m used to. And I’m not as young as I used to be.

And neither is anybody else. That much was painfully obvious.

I’m not being ageist here; we all get grey if we live long enough. But that should only apply to people. Institutions should be able to stay young and vibrant a lot longer, and that isn’t happening here. This Westercon had fewer than 1000 members. Back in the 80s when my young whippersnapper friends and I were putting on cons, we thought a thousand attendees was okay–for a no-name first-time convention. A Westercon was 2000+. Now it’s not.

Things have changed, obviously, beyond just the population’s aging. The Internet has reduced the need for people to gather physically to share their passion for science fiction; you can do that virtually. And SF is not the ghetto it was 35 years ago, so the need to gather is not as great. We’re not alone any more. And the younger generation gets its fix, often, more in costuming and videogaming than in books. Which is their right, and their privilege. So I’m not worried about the SF community, per se, but rather the community that has grown around SF.

Whither Westercon, by which I mean whither small conventions? It used to be you could find one within a day’s drive of Southern California pretty much any weekend; now you can’t. And when you get a Westercon now, it skews heavily over 50. The problem, of course, is that over 50 quickly becomes over 60, 70, and, well, you know the story.

Worldcons, on the other hand, are trending larger, though it’s too soon to know if it can be sustained. Ironically, the fall of the smaller con is probably good for Worldcon, and of course Worldcon has the Hugos. Worldcon will probably be okay.

The smaller con, though, is going to have to adapt or die, because if the demographics stay steady (and if they are similar elsewhere), the regional convention (at least in my region) will be dead in 20 years (in other words, before Marvel makes a stand-alone Black Widow movie). I hope that won’t happen. It will be interesting to see how SF fandom anticipates the future.

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