Posts Tagged ‘literature’

This is a difficult post to write. I’ve tried several openings, but they all point toward an apology, and that’s not what I’m aiming for. On the other hand, I’m not looking to posit any excuses, either. I am what I am, and my work is what it is.

I write fiction. And there is violence in my fiction. The question is, does that violence, along with all of the other written, televised, sung, animated, and filmed fictional violence that permeates our society, make the creators thereof liable for the real violence that threatens to overwhelm us?

I don’t know. Plainly it has an effect; when I used to play video games, I knew I needed a break when I could feel my aggression levels rising. Fortunately, for me, as soon as I turned off the game I was fine. I am not an aggressive person, let alone a violent one.

But my fiction is violent. Fictionally speaking, I’ve killed off a lot of people. How do I reconcile those actions with my real-life views?

To me, fictional violence is like nudity in art. When is it Art, as opposed to pornography? The short answer is that it depends on the intent, whether to educate (or at least entertain) as opposed to arouse. (Further than that, I will not venture on the subject.) And I believe the same is true of violence. I use violence to tell a larger story; my novels are not about violence, although violence occurs. I try to use violence as a tool in telling stories of romanticized justice, not to romanticize violence (although I agree the line can be thin). My characters try to use their brains as much as their fists, and frankly, I would not find them interesting otherwise. When I do kill off characters, I try to make it serve the larger story. I am not writing slasher movies. It’s kind of like the difference between chess and checkers, applied leverage versus brute force annihilation. There is also the fact that most of my stories take place either in fantasy worlds or another time, giving them a sense of lowered reality, like a fairy tale.

I am fully aware, however, that a reader could take what I have written and pervert it in his own mind to some end which I would find abhorrent. There is nothing I can do about that. The Beatles did not write “Helter Skelter” thinking it would inspire a madman to kill, and no one blames them that it did.

Nor, it must be noted, does violence in fiction mean that only violence may be taken from fiction. Harry Potter has a great deal of violence, much of it perpetrated against children, but the charitable achievements of J.K. Rowling’s fans are admirable.

In the end, I believe only the intent of the artist can be judged (and that’s difficult enough). For me, it comes down to this: I write violence for the sake of stories, not stories for the sake of violence.





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I just saw a list of the “Twenty Core SF Books Every True SF Fan Should Have On Their Shelves.” I have no problem with people publishing such lists, and I have no problem with this list in particular, particularly with the fact that all of the listed works are by women.* It’s one person’s opinion, and we all know such lists are not meant to be taken seriously, but as a springboard for discussion–the kind of intellectual discussion which seems all to lacking these days, both in SF and in the world in general.

The problem with such lists, actually, is that they appear to stand for the proposition that you can make up a definitive list of must-read books of any stripe. Let’s disregard that literature is far too wide and deep for any real short catalog–there are so many classic novels out there; I submit that if you were to list the 500 books any “real” fan must have in his library, you would still get vigorous pushback about the books you left out. I guarantee it, in fact.

And the reason is that reading is a matter of taste. I’m not talking “literature” vs. “beach reads,” I’m talking about personal preferences. I have read a good portion of the books on that list, most I’ve heard of, and a couple were completely new to me. I can tell you that the books I’d heard of but not read, I will probably never read. Yet I’ve been an SF fan for decades, and I’ll bet I’ve read good books that someone else who sees that list has not, and never will. (Again, we’re not talking about how you define “worthy” literature.)

So if I love Asimov and you won’t touch it, and you adore Lem and I can’t get through one book, which is us is the true fan? All things being equal, we both are. We just enjoy different parts of the same fandom. It’s true that things evolve, and certainly, as N. K. Jamison said recently, SF has evolved.

But nobody ever said we had to evolve the same way. That’s a very science-fictional concept, by the way –in fact, I would say it’s true science fiction.


*I do have a problem with the grammar, but that’s an argument I don’t want to get into here.


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If there’s anything we can count on in today’s world, it is that if you dare to put any sort of opinion forward on the Internet, a million people will attack you for it. Amazon apparently feels it is big enough to stand the hit, and it is publishing various lists of 100 Books You Should Read in Your Lifetime, categorized by genre. Today it’s science fiction and fantasy’s turn. Well, to take my inspiration from the Bard (who better?), I come not to praise Amazon nor to bury them. I just want to nit-pick a little bit.

First, in a flurry of self-congratulation, I have to admit that I’ve read–or tried to read–a good number of the recommended books already. (Okay, 37.) Although “tried to read” is a more accurate description in several cases, I count them. Intent is important, and in almost none of those cases did I simply give up for lack of time. No, it was nearly uniformly for lack of interest. And therein lies the nit-pick.

Now, I am not going to say that every one of those books I failed to finish was bad and doesn’t belong on the list. Most of the time, they simply weren’t my cup of tea. And a couple were just too damned long. There are only so many hours in a day. I mean, I read A Song of Ice and Fire, but I gave up in the third book because the story’s just too complicated and I haven’t the time–nor can I remember each book for five years until the next comes out. But a few of these titles…yes, one or two I simply cannot hold with. And while I realize they have their defenders (I’ve had the arguments), and they certainly have the sales, I would not have put them on this list.

Three books stand out for me: Pawn of Prophecy, Perdido Street Station, and Guilty Pleasures.

I didn’t hate The Belgariad. I read the first five Eddings books straight through. They were entertaining. They just weren’t award-worthy. I thought they were derivative, stereotyped, and thoroughly run-of-the-mill. It’s on this list because it sells, and Amazon is a book-seller.

Perdido Street Station is hailed everywhere I look as a transcendent work of art, a masterpiece. Me? I finished the book, looked at the cover, and asked: “What was the point of that?” It might belong on this list, but I wouldn’t put it there.

I loved Guilty Pleasures. I bought it when it first came out, and read the next half-dozen or so like clockwork. I got some signed. Then I stopped. The story veered way off in the wrong direction, and the last I heard, it was a parody of its former self. More to the point, though, there’s nothing ground-breaking or life-changing about that first book. Again, it’s there because it sells.

Bonus title: Why The Curse of Chalon? Why not one of Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels? Not a quibble, just a question.

What would I have picked? Why, I thought you’d never ask. Off the top of my head…

Telempath, by Spider Robinson. Blew my mind. A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s been in print for over a century for a reason. And for heaven’s sake, any of a dozen novels by Tanith Lee. They’re like Pringles, except that you can’t read more than one without a break, because they are so rich.

So, there. Only three or four disagreements out of a hundred. Who says you can’t be reasonable on the Internet? Now, if you wanted to rate all the Godzilla movies…


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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.

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As authors age, and pass away, sometimes they leave behind a body of work that their families and publishers and fans want to see continue. The most famous example is probably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who is as busy now as he was a hundred years ago. (Ironic, of course, since Doyle “killed” Holmes and only reluctantly brought him back.) Star Trek, originally the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry, has continued and evolved well after his death.

Which brings us to today’s topic: the evolution of characters and concepts by other authors subsequent to the author’s passing. Who safeguards the author’s intent (if anyone)? How important is that intent? Does anyone have the right to make fundamental changes to an iconic character other than the author?

Some authors, like J.K. Rowling, take steps to make sure their intent is not thwarted; she purposely added a coda to her last book so that it would be harder for others to take her characters into unwanted directions. And some media, such as TV and film, assume that control will never lie with one creator. But let’s stick to books where the author has simply “left off,” for whatever reason.

Getting back to Holmes, because besides being famous, he allows for an obvious example. There have been spoofs and homages postulating different ideas on Holmes and Watson, but none of those were intended to be canonical, and no one took them for such. But what if an “official” continuation were undertaken under the authority of his estate? (Ignoring the fact that some of the earlier works have passed out of copyright.) What if (taking the obvious example and making no value judgements), a new, canonical, novel set forth the idea that Holmes and Watson were lovers? Does the new author (or the estate) have the right to make such a drastic change?

Yes, social mores have evolved (even Victorians were certainly aware of homosexuality (see Oscar Wilde)), and our understanding of such a relationship would be far different from the understanding of Doyle’s original reader. But would it be right? It’s unlikely that Doyle intended it, but Watson’s notebooks were sufficiently incomplete that you could probably interpolate practically anything you liked. Still, left to his own devices, the author (we can safely assume) never would have gone down that road. And you can extend this idea to most any famous book or series. (Jane Austen: “You tell them, sir!”)

It’s natural to want to continue profitable and popular series. And it’s natural to want them to evolve to fit current tastes. But as Victor Frankenstein’s example posits: Just because we can do something, does that make it a good idea?


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Blending In

I’m shopping for a new car. When we bought the last one (sometime in the Late Middle Ages), we made sure to get a green one, because we didn’t want to have the same silver model that everyone else seemed to be ordering. We wanted something that would stand out in the parking lot when we’d forgotten where we parked. This worked well, except when someone else had also bought a green car, since ours was apparently the only model available in green, so there was occasionally confusion. But we never drove off in the wrong car, so it worked out okay.

That doesn’t seem to be an option any more. Try buying a green car. I dare you. Yeah, the Minis and little cars that don’t care who laughs at them because they actually enjoy having a personality come in colors, but mostly you get black, white, and grey/silver. Most brands have five versions of those shades, and maybe one red. One brand had ten colors, including two whites, two dark blues, and two greys. I think they had a red. And a brown. Green? No. Yellow/light blue/purple? Please, you’re making me laugh.

I blame 9/11. Ever since then we’ve been cocooning, hiding from the world, not wanting to stand out. Drive a silver car. Blend with the herd.

Which leads, oddly enough, to a revelation about writing. My writing. My reading tastes were fashioned (as they usually are) as a child. And even though I spent five years at a major university reading literature, my heart was rarely in it, because I don’t like to read “literature.” The problem is that I’d like to write it; at least “literature” as understood by the SF community. (A topic for a later time.) There’s been a lot of controversy lately about awards, and what they should mean. Some of the commenters have stated for the record that they don’t care about awards. Well, I do. I’d love to win one. But that isn’t going to happen if I write silver (Age) fiction. So I’m going to be making a conscious effort to raise my reading standards, in hopes that it will raise my writing standards. We’ll see how that goes.

In the meantime, I’ll be looking for a non-silver, non-black car. Because if you don’t want to blend in, at some point you have to stand out.


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Note: This is about the Sad Puppies/Hugo flap, but I hope it’s more than that. You can skip it if you want to.

I am what some call a Social Justice Warrior (“SJW”). Not that I crusade for liberal causes; other than voting and contributing to a few, I don’t get much involved. But the Sad Puppies and their allies would call me an SJW for that alone, or because I believe awards should go to stories that are more than just popular, or for a hundred other reasons. Fine. Call me what you want. It just shows how short-sighted such labels are, because in the end, I read the same stuff you do.

The Puppies put Jim Butcher on the Hugo ballot. I love Jim Butcher’s books. Larry Correia would have been on the ballot if he hadn’t taken himself off. I enjoy his books a lot. Most of the other Puppy offerings I am unfamiliar with, but my point is made. They want books that have spaceships on the cover to be about space exploration and high heroics. Well, guess what? So do I. You want proof? Read “The Invisible City.” It’s about a guy who ends up in a (mostly) invisible city. Truth in advertising. End of plug.

But I also believe that the influx of new authors who are not white males is a good thing. The only thing wrong with saying, “F/SF is a wide field with room for all kinds of authors and stories,” is that it implies we’re still writing and reading in a ghetto. We should be saying, “Literature is a wide field with room for all kinds of authors and stories.” Instead of fighting amongst ourselves, why aren’t we fighting to break out, into the “Fiction” section of Barnes & Noble, instead of being stuck off to the side like we’re not good enough?

The problem with the “Puppy” point of view (and those fighting so hard to preserve the status quo) is that we are fighting over the last doughnut in the apartment when we live over a bakery. The Hugos are voted on by a few thousand people at best. There are billions of readers out there, most of whom couldn’t name an SF book that hadn’t been made into a movie if you offered them a suitcase full of cash.

Given the undeniably wide spectrum of SF and fantasy we write, why get into a brawl over limited resources when there’s a world out there for the taking? I mean, c’mon, if anybody knows how to conquer a planet, it’s us.

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