The fine art of self-indulgence
I was chatting with an acquaintance last night, when I was indulging myself by taking a night off from Worldwired, and the concept of the Valid Literary Excuse came up in passing. And that set me off on a tear. Or a tangent. Or something.
Now, Steve (you remember Steve) is wont to say that writing a book is (and I'm misquoting him badly here) just getting enough cool shit and pretty sentences in the same place at the same time. We will henceforth refer to this as the Cool Shit theory of literature. And he's right, more or less, in that I don't believe any writer can do a really fine job of writing a book that isn't about Shit the writer finds Cool. We may do a professional job. Even a craftsmanlike one.
But if it ain't cool, it ain't, you know, cool. And writing is such a marathon activity that the shit really needs to be cool to hold your interest eight hours a day, seven days a week, for three or four or eight months.
So that's one kind of writerly self-indulgence, perhaps--the art of finding Cool Shit to write about. And making it seem cool to your readers, too.
On the other hand, it's distinctly possibly for a writer to become too invested in his Cool Shit, and not make it cool to the reader, because the very coolness is enough for the writer, but the reader need to be made to understand WHY the shit is cool. Unless he's of the narrow population segment who will by default find that particular subset of stuff cool.
(Case in point: this weblog. It's cool shit to me because it's exclusively composed of shit I found cool, or me me me me me me me and I, of course, am any myself's favourite topic. But other people who wander by will presumably either stay because they find the same shit cool that I do, or because I make the stuff interesting to them. Or because they're scared of me. I've heard that too. If they do not find the weblog interesting, they won't stay.)
So there's the first level of literary self-indulgence. Self-indulgence for self-indulgence's sake, in its three flavors: things that might actually interest the reader, if they're handled well (I spent an awful lot of the last book of pegkerr's I read going "no shit? Really?!" about her research, which was the coolest thing ever) and self-indulgence for the sake of being utter self-indulgence. For example, I can stick a character in one of my books who looks exactly like Peter, and nobody will ever know it except for people who know Peter. And Peter's a really interesting-looking dude, so, you know, the people who don't know Peter will have an interesting-looking character in their heads, at least.
Now, if I had characters who looked like Peter and like Steve, I would have two really interesting-looking dudes, and--
--but I digress.
And that's a 'cookie,' by the way. Or an 'easter egg.' Or a Tuckerism. We have many terms, because we do this sort of stuff a lot. Because, you know, it keeps us amused. Which is very important long about page three hundred....
Then again, I can do what China Miéville did in The Scar, and stick in a passing reference to an ancient mystic book, and I can name the author something that sounds like, oh, "Mark Helprin", and that's another kind of self-indulgence, and one that the reader who happens to share that same cultural referent will get.
Okay. And those are all self-indulgences that do not require a VLE (Valid Literary Excuse.) You can, in fact, do them just because they're cool. It's okay. You're allowed, as long as they don't get so thick on the ground that the book sinks under the weight of the Tuckerisms. They're also happy for the writer in my genres, because, frankly, one of the biggest chores I have as a science fiction writer is naming things. I mean holy damn hell. Everything needs a name. Corporations, space ships, orbital platforms, people, virtual reality devices, things what ain't been invented yet--
Thank god I have a lot of friends whose descendents apparently became physicists and engineers, and got things named after them, or I'd be sunk.
Now, there's a category on the other end of the self-indulgence scale, which are things that are cool, but also serve a necessary literary purpose. We call these Actual Literary Techniques.
You have to have them. You'd have to do them even if they weren't cool, so their shinyness merely distracts the reader from the fact that they're also functional. It's the difference between go-faster stripes, for example, and the chrome bumper on a fifty-seven Chevy.
The go faster stripes look nice, but they don't affect your car's handling in any way. (They may help you pick up chicks, I suppose, but that's takng the metaphor a little too far.)
The bumper's actually earning its keep, even though it's pretty.
An example of the ooo-that's-both-charming-and-useful school of writing is Anthony Burgess' use of invented slang in A Clockwork Orange, or Shakespeare's lovely little trick of having Romeo and Juliet complete each others' sonnets. Not only is this shiny and show-offy and "Damn, that's clever!" but it also accomplishes things storywise that couldn't be accomplished otherwise. Those are Actual Literary Techniques.
Advice, unsolicited, feel free to ignore, one each: Use them wisely and in moderation, and always use the simplest one that will accomplish your purpose, because otherwise you will look like you are showing off rather than telling a story. If you really need to tell a story in second-person, for example, you should understand why second person is a better choice for that story than first. Likewise present tense, or fragmented POV, or stream-of-consciousness, or whatever.
Always use the simplest effective technique. It's a story, not an embroidery sampler.
or, to elucidate: Never use a ten thousand dollar laser-guided, computer-assisted drill press when a hand drill will do. Otherwise, we will mock you the way we mock that guy on the New Yankee Workshop show on PBS.
Of course, sometimes the complicated technique will be the simplest effective technique. Then by all means, get in there and get dirty, chum.
And then in the middle we have this other thing. Which I like to call the Valid Literary Excuse.
The VLE comes in when you have something that's Cool Shit, and you know it's Cool Shit, but you also have a sneaking suspicion that you're putting it in the story just because it's cool shit. Or possibly even constructing an entire story as an excuse to use it, because this shit is just so cool that it has to go in a story. Dude.
Therefor, you must construct a VLE, so that the Cool Shit does indeed serve a structural purpose in the story, as opposed to being gingerbread hung on the front and painted shocking pink. So, for strictly hypothetical example, if I had this short story that's essentially a piece of fanfiction, and slashy fanfiction at that, but I wanted to give it a chance to go out into the world and find its audience, because I happened to be unreasonably attached to it--
--what I would have to do would be to turn it into a real story. Which is to say, I'd have to file off enough of the serial numbers to be on the right side of the copyright and parody lines, while still making it recognizable enough to work, and I'd have to find a VLE for it to be a commentary on whatever I was commenting on, and then I'd need to find a thematic reason that the source material I was commenting on related to whatever external and societal elements the story wanted to be about.
And then I'd have to find a VLE for the characters to smooch, because, as we mentioned, it's (hypothetically) slashy no-longer fanfiction.
So, say, I wanted to use the Cold War and ideals of global cooperation as a commentary on the current mess (wasn't the world so much nicer when we could point at the Iron Curtain and claim the bad guys lived behind it, in the Land of Mordor where the Shadows Lie?), I might wind up with a story that uses a lot of 1960's tropes... and wind up getting my ass sued by the Bond people. Nevermind. *g*
But assuming I didn't yadda yadda Bond people, I might wind up looking at the damned hypothetical thing after I was done with all this excuse-seeking, and realize it was actually a pretty damned good piece of hypothetical writing, and be pretty happy with it, and set about trying to find it a home.
And if I did find it a home, I might end up with something like this. Or maybe like Larry Niven's infamous essay, "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex," if I had a tremendously cool fanfictiony idea and decided I'd probably, you know, get my ass sued if I tried to use it in a story. So I'd write it as a literary critique instead.
But it's a fine, fine line, that line between self-indulgence, and Cool Shit. And it takes quite a while to get a handle on the process of using the VLE to turn self-indulgence into Cool Shit. I think, in some ways, that's the issue of craft that's dominating the curve of my learning process right now. Which hopefully means that, having identified it as the current tool in my toolbox my subconscious is most convinced I need to learn to use, I'll be able to get the hell off this plateau and get some damned writing done.
And you're right: this entire essay is nothing but an excuse to pimp Ben's story, and talk about how weird and wonderful the writerly process is.
Now, that's self-indulgence.