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Posts Tagged ‘literature’

It is pretty commonly accepted nowadays that parents want their kids to experience a wide variety of activities, like soccer, ballet, kick-boxing, etc. (and even reading), but they also don’t want their kids exposed to any type of danger, or even unpleasantness. Kids are growing up with more allergies, for example, and it’s theorized that it’s because they’re not allowed to get dirty. It seems reasonable to me, but I don’t know the science.

What I do know is books. I’ve been an avid reader since I learned how. My house had a lot of books in it (although not as many as I have now), and no one ever told me what I could or couldn’t read. I tried reading House of the Seven Gables way too early, for example, and gave up after a few pages, but nobody told me I couldn’t read it. (Note: Must read House of the Seven Gables sometime.) This extended even to those (few) books that contained racy material. My parents knew they were there (they had bought them, after all), but nothing was forbidden. And although I skimmed a few tomes to find the juicy parts, I wasn’t permanently scarred. (I didn’t write Fifty Shades of Grey, for example.) The point is, my parents trusted me to make my own decisions about what to read. (Maybe they thought I should read less and play outside more, but that’s another subject.)

Apparently, however, you no longer have to trust your kids. In fact, it is now possible to feed them adult literature without the adult parts. Why you would want to do this is a mystery to me.

Let’s say that you want your kids to read classic literature, like, say, Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote what was, for the 16th century, some pretty bawdy stuff. Do you take that out? “No,” you say, because your child won’t understand the subtext anyway. To which I ask, “Then why is he reading it?” If you don’t allow for the full experience, warts and all, the child will not benefit. You don’t read great literature to learn to read; you learn to read to read great literature.

The first rule of fiction is “Take out anything that doesn’t count.” In other words, only include what’s necessary. This is more applicable to short fiction than to novels (and some very famous authors have thrown the rule out of the window right around the half-way point of their seven-book series), but the rule is still the rule. There are’t many hard-and-fast rules in writing, but this is one of them.

The corollary to this rule is that anything the writer left in, he intended to leave in. He intended that you should read it. That includes swear words. My stories, as a self-serving example, tend to have few swear words. But I have written at least one story where the viewpoint character spouts the F-word almost continuously. Why? Because he’s an F-ing serial killer, and a lousy excuse for a human being, and that’s how he talks. If you remove those words, you take something away from my story–and not what I want you to take away from it.

Life is messy. Literature is life imbued with order. But that order was invested in this world by the author, the author who is trying to tell a story, and make a point thereby. You mess with the story, you mess with the point.

Life is messy. You can throw a bubble around your child, but bubbles burst. Literature can be messy, too, but it’s a contained space where a child can dabble in the world’s dirt before going out into it.

After all, you wouldn’t want your kid to be allergic to literature, would you?

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If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might have gotten the impression that I think writing is hard work. That is probably because I think writing is, in fact, hard work. (Although conversely, I think anyone can do it. You may not be able to do it at a professional level, but you can do it. Believe me, most pro’s have trouble believing they can write at a professional level.)

On the other hand, I have recently had an epiphany: Maybe writing isn’t quite so hard as I was lead (or was leading myself) to believe.

See, here’s the thing. Everybody wants to write stories that mean something, that resonate with people, that go beyond the surface enjoyment and say something profound about the human condition. Writers are supposed to cut open their metaphorical veins and writing in their own blood. Unless your writing comes straight from your soul, it isn’t True. And if it isn’t True, it isn’t worth doing.

Well, that’s a hell of a thing. No wonder people think they can’t write. The same people who say it has to be True are the people who say there are all kinds of writing, and none of them is wrong. I guess some are just more “right” than others.

But if you want to stop someone from writing (and I mean anyone, not just newbies or wannabes, neither of which is meant to be pejorative), simply tell him that he has to write Shakespeare or forget it. Tell him, “If it ain’t Hemingway, it ain’t worth writing.” Then see how far that guy gets. I can tell you, from personal experience, that he won’t get far.

I just returned from a mystery con, where I am told (unfortunately I wasn’t in the room) that Sue Grafton said she doesn’t try to include social commentary in her stories; if it finds its way in, great, but she doesn’t go seeking it out. Well, I don’t know about you, but I figure Sue knows how to write a book and pursue a career, and yes, talk about the human condition. Maybe the secret to success (or at least to writing) is to write your story and not worry about whether it’s going to resolve global poverty. Because not only will it probably not do that, if that’s what you set out to do, your story will suck. If you can write it at all.

There are all kinds of stories in the world, great, good, bad; high-handed, high-and-mighty, and highly-overrated. But there’s only one kind of story in you, and that’s your story. The one that you love, the one you want to write. After that there may be another, and another, but they should all be yours. And if your story isn’t Shakespeare, then just remember that Shakespeare wrote for the money. Edgar Allan Poe wrote for the money. And Charles Dickens wrote those hugely long novels because he got paid by the word. None of them thought he was writing for the ages. Sure, we get Christmas off because Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” and started a movement, but mostly he wanted to get paid for it.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. So I for one plan to stop worrying about writing stories that will change people’s lives, and worry more about writing stories people will read.

I’m like Shakespeare and Poe and Dickens. I want to get paid, too.

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Everyone is a product of his times. We are not bound by them, but we are shaped by them, and in general we reflect the current mores and contemporary beliefs (at some point along a very long spectrum). This is no more or less true of writers, but it is more noticeable because most writers are fortunate enough to have their work survive them, and in a few cases, it survives them for decades or even centuries. Sometimes, that examination shows flaws, flaws that often stem as much from the times as from the individual.

I’m brought to this point by this blog essay on The Racism of H.P. Lovecraft. (I have a collection of Lovecraft stories, but I haven’t read them in many years, so I don’t recall if I’ve ever noted issues cited.) The author touches on the question: Should we continue to read these stories that would not be publishable today?

The most famous example, of course, is not Lovecraft, but Huckleberry Finn, which even those who decry its racism are hard-pressed to deny is a classic. The remedy, since the book can hardly be banned or even belittled, has been to censor it. And the counter-response is, “You can’t. It is what it is. It’s a product of its time.”

Of course it is. That’s what makes it a classic. You can’t understand what Twain was saying by blocking out the bits you don’t like. The fact that he writes against racism by using what we now consider horribly racist terms is an integral part of the book; you cannot understand the message without understanding the times, and you cannot understand the times without seeing the book as written. The medium is the message.

But what of other books, the not-classics? Does Huck Finn get a waiver? No, being the best of example of a bad pattern doesn’t get you out of detention. Yet the same principle holds for the “lesser works.” I read a lot of pulp novels from the 1930s. They’re light, they’re fun, and sometimes they’re racist. Because that’s when they were written. I don’t excuse them for it; I cringe, and I keep on reading them, because I still enjoy the stories (so long as the problem isn’t endemic) and because ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. I could stop, throw the books into trash (can’t take them to the library, can I?), but it won’t make a difference. They were written 80 years ago. The authors are dead. I’d like to think (even though I know it isn’t true) that those attitudes are dead, too.

But they’re not. And if we toss out those books, or censor the offensive parts, we forget, we allow ourselves to forget, that casual racism was just that, casual. As in, it was a part of life. As if destroying the evidence will erase the crime.

Those who forget the lessons of history are bound to repeat them. If you want to be honest about today, you have understand something about yesterday, especially its sins.

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Way back in the Stone Age, when I was young and there was no Internet, some friends of mine opined that the easiest kind of fiction to write would be SF, because “you don’t need any characterization.” In other words, a wild idea and some action would be enough. As I recall, I didn’t have any objection to this, probably because it reflected my writing style at the time.

To my credit, I learned later that this was completely wrong. Upon reflection, however, it’s easy to see where my friends got this idea. Science fiction has always been the literature of “What if?”–“What if Martians invaded the Earth the way the British invaded India?” “What if a boy won a spacesuit in a contest?” “What if teenagers were pitted against each other to the death for the amusement of the elite?”*

That’s always been science fiction’s foundation, its basic building block. It’s time we changed it.

Because the central conceit of SF isn’t–or shouldn’t be–“What if?” but “What would happen to people if?” Of course, good SF covers that question already. Good fiction is about people, not things or even ideas. But I propose that SF is hamstrung by the old conceit, the idea that SF is about ideas, and only ideas. It’s part of what put us in a literary ghetto, and even with the recent successes on TV and in movies, we’re not much closer to moving uptown than we were 20 years ago. Our neighborhood is bigger, but it’s still not considered gentrified.

There are, of course, and always have been, those few who “transcend” the genre and move to “literary respectability.” There are even more, nowadays, who write SF but who never see the “science fiction” section of Barnes & Noble. (Let’s see… The Time Traveller’s Wife, The Handmaid’s Tale…) For the most part, though, we are pigeon-holed, and while this makes it easier for our fans to find us, it makes it harder to win new fans.

I’d like to see SF (and fantasy) writers take steps to raise the profile of our field. Don’t let the masses think of SF as rocket ships and dragons and aliens, but rather how people deal with rocket ships and dragons and aliens. Take SF from being the “literature of ideas” to “the literature of ideas affecting people.”

SF is gaining acceptance with a wider audience than ever before. It’s time we presented ourselves as deserving of that acceptance.

*I realize that, by the most rigorous definition, this is not actually a science fictional reference, but it is a useful one.

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