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March 2017

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criminal minds boom

you know you'll never read that book again because the ending's just too hard to take

I disagree with Jay, but his post on "genre as a shield" is interesting. I dunno: I would say "maybe it's a guy thing," except I think Chaz is still a guy, and here I am fifty pages into The River of the World and it's quite thoroughly gutwrenching, thanks[footnote 1]. (Far more difficult to read than, say, the last John Irving book I waded through.)

I think the flaw in Jay's argument is the conflation of "confessional" with "bloodletting."

One can let quite a lot of blood without showing in clinical detail the weapon that made the wound. In particular, I would say that there is an artistic covenant in which it is the duty of the artist to get the blood on the page. And get it on the page in a manner where it can infect the viewer or reader, rather than seeming exhibitionist (which is alienating). (There is a place for the confrontational knife, and there is a place for the subtle knife, as it were. But if you're just standing there hacking at yourself going "Look at me! Look at me!" ...well, okay, it might have been a horrific kind of art when Iggy Pop did it, but even he seems to think it was a bad drugged out idea these days.) 

In other words, if you're doing anything more than writing pulp entertainment, it's your job to get down past the facile and into the twisty turny tensing and moving muscle, to expose those fibers with the edge of the knife and maybe fray them a little.

If you do it carelessly, it's shock value, grotesquerie. (Pass the broken bottles.) If you do it right, though, you're exposing how the human machine works under stress, and that's kind of amazing. Kind of like an Elizabethan executioner getting the heart out of the hanged, drawn, and quartered victim, and aloft while it's still beating. To stretch for a really, really grotesque kind of metaphor.

If we pull back from that, it's a failure of courage.

And whether that's an important failure is an interesting question. Because in one regard, it's just art. It's just art. It's the sound of one brain wanking. It's not as important as a single human life, is it?

Or is it?

Is the contents of the thousand or so books or I can see from my chair worth a human life? I would say no, sitting here. But then, one of those books is the Poetic Eddas, and another is the Pelican Shakespeare, and another one is The Last Unicorn. Is the idea of the collected works of William Shakespeare important? The existence of any edition of those works, anywhere? Like Van Gogh's sunflowers... what is that worth?

In four centuries, how much enlightenment and comfort and catharsis have those stories and poem delivered? There's an edition of Aristophanes over there somewhere. Fahrenheit 451. There, let's make the irony manifest.

Is a book a life?

I can't answer that. But it's one of the questions that Fahrenheit 451 asks, isn't it?

Does Fahrenheit 451 in any way insulate you from the power of its contents? How about 1984?

I don't think so. I think emotional distancing is a failing of genre work, not a feature. And while there are a certain number of readers who may prefer not to be challenged in that way, who may prefer that insulation and distance, and a certain number of writers may not be willing to dig hard enough to get to the honest grief and joy... I don't think it's of necessity something that genre fiction has to do.

There is that ongoing issue, where speculative fiction is in tension, our pulp roots at war with our literary sensibilities. That tension produces, to me, some of the most interesting work out there. In fact, it kind of defines the modern genre, for me.

I know for a fact that I can't read The Last Unicorn in public, because my emotional response to the book is so strong. It kicks me right in the squids, and its powerfully human and, I think, emotional in a lot of raw and revelatory ways. Vonnegut does it too, at his best. Any veneer of speculative fiction doesn't change the aching power of a true story told well. When Frodo (spoilers at the spoiler) at the end of The Lord of the Rings, it hurts. And it hurts because we all know what war does to the people who fight it, and that those wounds never can be healed. The fact that Tolkein makes it a manifest retreat into the distance in addition to a metaphorical one increases its impact, I think, concretizes it, makes the hurt patent.

So I think to say that genre insulates one from bloodletting is dishonest; it's seeking an excuse not to dig after that vein a little deeper. I'm an Ellis Peters fan, and I used to be an Elizabeth George fan, though I've lost interest as she's slid into self-indulgent angst. [The hacking was more interesting when Iggy did it, and it was still a bad idea.]

That's genre fiction too, and it follows the genre conventions of the murder mystery--but you know, the emotion is honest, even revelatory.

I think it's a mistake for us as genre writers to back away, and to justify that backing away. If it doesn't hurt, in other words, we're doing it wrong.



[footnote 1] Another thing I like about Chaz's books is how humane they are. Not in the sense of being kind, but in the sense of being compassionate. He's not kind to his characters, but he does understand them, and that makes a difference in how I percieve them. I can deal with all kinds of horrible things in narrative if they're approached in the right way (and this book is full of horrible things, oh yes. Shiny and dark and wonderful horrible things, with full emotional connection.)

Also, he's very subtle and tricky in his characterization and his reveals. I will be swiping some of his techniques. I could learn from that.

.

Comments

Bingo. Nicholas Fisk's A Rag, A Bone, and a Hank of Hair is one which has haunted me ever since I read it as a teenager. And Passage, by Connie Willis. I've wanted to re-read that one ever since I read the last words on the last page. And yet... I've not had the emotional courage to pick it up again. Genre can be a great way of skimming the surface of things. It can be the best Boys' Own adventure ever, and that's fine. There's a place and a time for it. But it can also provide a new way of digging in the knife, with absolute, brutal honesty.

Thanks for posting - it's very thought-provoking.
Beloved. Oy, that's a book.

I've been thinking a lot about the fetishization of art lately (it's a theme in Carnival, too) and why we do it and whether there's any validity in it. I mean, other than giving my life purpose and meaning.

*g*

And yeah. And the real trick is, while you're in there cutting away, to make the process so fascinating, and demonstrate so many wonders, that no-one can look away.
"And the real trick is, while you're in there cutting away, to make the process so fascinating, and demonstrate so many wonders, that no-one can look away."

Exactly! Like with Micheal Kearney in Light. *shudders*
YES.

still it's the artist/audience interface that counts. And the factorals where there are four billion literates and a half billion (?) books...

The books you mention dont haunt me, but one wry Jack Vancian comment, one Edward Ellsberg (who?) engineering note will bug me for years.. There is a scene in a very bad book where some college kid sits on a kitchen counter with his feet in the sink, eating pickles dissing the government in youthful joy and ignorant valor.

I know that is one of the saddest scenes i have ever read. It's the Nazi government he is cussing out, and i know he will grow up to be the author.

I know he spent that winter in Stalingrad. If i didnt, there is nothing in that scene worth a single throat lump.

Audience/author.
Yep.
Yanno, a huge percentage of stuff published isn't steeped in blood, not in this sense. I do think the genuine emotion is critical, and even humorous stuff can be deep and chilling (some Pratchett strikes me this way), but there are so many other ways in.

Though in point of fact we're probably in much closer agreement than would be obvious from the recent posts.

Just sayin'...
*g* Probably the vast majority of readers would rather have something that doesn't require that kind of nakedness. A huge percentage of stuff published isn't what I would consider art.

Hell, I wouldn't consider anything I publish art.

But I'm trying.

And one man's profoundly moving is another man's pretentious self-display.

And I never said that the blood on the page has to be chilling--I also used the words "joy" and "humane." The Beagle book isn't chilling at all. But it's honest, lord, it's honest.

.

p.s.

Though in point of fact we're probably in much closer agreement than would be obvious from the recent posts.

You think? Because I gotta say, I disagree with your most recent post almost as thoroughly as I do with the Mundane SF manifesto....

Re: p.s.

Well, yes, I do think, though I'm not going to try to convince you. :D

Re: p.s.

*snrch*

I should note--I'm not saying it's not possible to make gobs of money writing facile, easily digestible commercial fiction. (Of course it is.)

I'm saying that facile, easily digested commercial fiction is not a necessary product of using science fiction tropes, nor are they, honestly, a particularly good excuse.

Re: p.s.

Darn it, you're going to make me write an exegesis on my own post, aren't you.

Good thing I like you so much.

Re: p.s.

You could always just choose to ignore me.

Picking your side against myself for a minute, I would say that 95% of the SF I read strikes me as pretty surfacy in terms of theme and characterization.

But then there's Ted Sturgeon, demonstrating his own law. *g*

Re: p.s.

Ya. And la.

(This one's interesting, in that I seem to have struck a nerve in *myself*.)

Re: p.s.

Well, we all know how I feel about people confronted with impossible choices.

WE likes it! YAY!

*g*

Re: p.s.

Genre is a shield, or at least a heavy veil and personally, I like it that way. I can't standing most modern fiction. I don't want to read about someone's personal childhood, family angst, rape, divorce, whatever, all bald and painful and bleeding on the page. If I wanted to hear about real life personal angst, I can just pick up a phone and call a friend ---or read LJ. I'm also tired of the emphasis on style over story.

I read for entertainment and for a discussion of larger questions and ideas.

All writers throw their personal baggage into their writing; it's unavoidable. The good writers find a way to take the mess and make it art.

With genre, the personal stuff is a bit distanced, sure, and cloaked in metaphor, and that's more comfortable and interesting for all concerned.
Off-topic: Props for Gordon Lightfoot reference.
Hey, I named a shuttle after Mr. Lightfoot. I bring him props! Props!

*g*
Did you ever hear Johnny Cash's cover of that song? Johnny at a very advanced age, voice scratchy and raw, cracking and straining, but so effing honest. I believed every note he strained for. Talk about bleeding...
Yes. Johnny's last albums are among his best, really.
I have read possibly one too many (actually, one is too many) genre works in which 'depressingly downbeat' ending is clearly expected to = 'deep'. Which it don't if it hasn't been earned. In which case it probably comes over not as 'depressingly downbeat' but full of resonant inevitability. Tragedy is not 'and then suddenly everything went to hell in a handbasket'.

But on the 'confessional' vs 'genre' argument, I am reminded of something that my adored Dame Rebecca West said (I think it's an interview somewhere, I may even have the book in the house, but have no idea exactly where) along the lines of all autobiography is a lie; only the dream compells honesty. Also, someone - EM Forster? - pointed out that all, at least fictional, writing, is at base autobiographical. At least in the sense that it tells you something about the author, not necessarily what the author wants you to know (since few writers are aiming at their reader's thinking 'Is this a Pretentious Twat, or what?').

Further thought: to what extent is loosely-fictionalised autobiography now a genre in its own right?
*g*

I'm trying to master the art of the fakeout. Where it looks like it's going to hell in a handbasket, or vice versa, and then (a) pulls itself out (b) goes to hell in a different handbasket (c) transforms itself into a pyrrhic victory (d) ends up kind of like life, where experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted.
I think it's a mistake for us as genre writers to back away, and to justify that backing away. If it doesn't hurt, in other words, we're doing it wrong.

See: Jennifer Crusie, whose romance novels are always worth rereading, because she goes to the deep painful places. (Often during sex scenes!)
I've always subscribed to the old maxim, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader"--or method acting in prose. Even if we as writers are not doing a one-on-one autobiographical portrait of ourselves, I think we have to go to those places, find some resonance in ourselves that we can use to portray those places, in order to make our fiction feel more like life. I like a brainless entertainment as much as the next guy--you can't beat a literary sixpack--but I require more of books that wish me to take them seriously. Genre or no genre. And there's a great deal of "passing as serious" in literary fiction, too. If an author is going through the motions, putting in the ingredients that the author thinks are angsty literary genre conventions, but really doing a slick slip-and-slide...it's just trash. A waste of my time and money.
I'm an Ellis Peters fan

Yay!
I'm wondering if I may ask you to clarify something for me...

...When you talk about 'bloodletting', are you talking about emotional honesty in the writing? Not an honesty of events (or all fiction would wind up thinly-veiled autobiography) but an honesty of humanity? Human-ness? (the philosopher-in-training in me keeps wanting to say 'ontology' - I knew taking theology was a bad idea).

I'm not sure I have the right vocabulary for this kind of slapfight discussion. :)
The first, yes.
Thank you.