kateelliott, meanwhile, blogs about stumbling blocks; things that are just no-go for a particular reader.
(One thing I think is really cool about livejournal is that it opens up these sorts of industry discussions to people who are serving their apprenticeship, and I suspect both new writers and older ones benefit from that transparency. There is no great publishing conspiracy; just a lot of people doing their jobs and talking shop with their friends.)
I'm reading (re-reading, really, but it's been fifteen years or so--remember that terrible Anthropology and Science Fiction class, ladegard?) The Left Hand of Darkness. God, what a gorgeous book.
"The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words."
--Ursula K. LeGuin, introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness
Yeah. What she said. That's it exactly; that's why novelists have to work by indirection and illusion, why we have to work in the understory and the subtext as well as the text. Work by example and show-don't-tell. We have to demonstrate because--if we have any ambition at all--what we need to say isn't easy to say. The language is not adequate to the concepts.
Theme is a nebulous thing. It can be illuminated. The attention can be directed toward it. But one can only ever glimpse it from the corner of one's eye; when one tries to get it squarely in view, it vanishes like a stalked deer. Theme is truculent and wary, and if you try to come at it square the best you can hope for is pedantry.
Which is why the business of the novelist is to raise questions, not offer answers. We irritate, and the reader grows the pearl.
The story is too big to fit in the words.
I have a complex response to reading, say, Delany, Link, Lafferty. I adore what they do. But it's often so inimical to my own skills and my sense of the way fiction works that I find myself in the corner, blinking and shaking my head and trying to understand where the punch that just sprawled me on the mat might have come from.
It works, this stuff. I can't deny that it works. I can even see how it works, sometimes--or at least how pieces of it work, even if I can't quite feel the outline of the whole. I know it works because my own sense of thematic completion tells me it works--and that the scope and the arc and the closure and the catharsis and the denouement of the story are thematic, not narrative) but actually getting my own stories to work that way...
...it doesn't happen. I'm not a linear writer (I'm inductive rather than deductive, and in addition to not being able to structure like Kelly Link, I couldn't structure like Connie Willis if you offered me a five-book contract and a creme-filled doughnut) but I am a narrative one. My themes tuck in under the narrative. My arguments occur in the background. It's perfectly possible to read one of my books and never see the argument happening at all.
I wish I could do that--that art, of getting the theme to sort of loft itself up there, airy and bright, without the superstructure of a narrative to support it... it's like suspension bridges built of spiderwebs. That you can drive a truck over. Man, that shit is schweet.
It's even more interesting to me as a writer because for me, thematic resolution is more important than narrative resolution... but I can't walk away from a story with the narrative unresolved. I can swing a lady and the tiger ending--but that's a hard narrative hang, and intentional one, like the gorgeous and glorious end of Roger Zelazny's Jack of Shadows-- that last sentence, and the interrupted plunge. Finish it yourself.
You go ahead and tell me how it ends.
That I can do. But that's a resolution. But I couldn't end a story the way pameladean ends The Secret Country or the way Delany ends Tales of Neveryon (insert diacritical marks here.)
My brain doesn't work that way.
OTOH, I thought Hammered had an ending--enough to justify the break in the narrative, anyway--and I seem to run about 50/50 with readers on that. But the people who hated it wanted to pull out my toenails for it. Which, I guess, in some respect is good. Signifies reader involvement. We like that.
I do have some preferences--I prefer open-ended books to really tidy ones. I like the sense that the world goes on. I love the hint of the new story, the next story beginning. The sensation of a pause between heartbeats. But that's all narrative stuff.
But these other things--the stories that hang on their theme--just drift on air, glistening, and all that holds them up is bootstrap levitation. They happen in the interstices. Around the edges of the narrative.
They happen in spite of the narrative.
Bad litfic is the result, I think, of auctorial misunderstanding (or inability) to create this kind of spiderweb engineering that is a quality of a certain type of good literary fiction. (litfic, in the current discussion, equals genre mainstream lit; literary fiction = literature. terms defined; carry on) To wit, that a story doesn't need a concrete narrative or a traditional arc to be effective if the thematic resolution is sufficiently telling. (See: Adaptation, "Magic for Beginners," "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.")
When it works, you feel it like a bell tolling in your chest.
When it doesn't, you roll your eyes and promise yourself that you're not reading college lit magazines any more. Because if that thematic arc falters, and there's no narrative holding it up, all you have left are a bunch of pretty words.
I'm aware, painfully, of my own limits as a writer. I'm capable of strong narrative and characterization to drive a story, and I'm getting better at threading a fairly complex thematic dialogue through that narrative. I can write a pretty sentence when the spirit moves me, and a plain one when the narrative demands. I can hook paragraphs together. I think, in my less humble moments, that I've earned my journeyman's boots at this writing gig and I may even be getting pretty good at it.
But man, I look with awe upon the Laffertys of the world. That stuff is extreme.
Which is why it's a little disingenuous of me to say that I want to be good at everything. Because I do--I want to master thematic and narrative arc. I want to plot and characterize. I want literary sensibility and fantastic writing and I want accessibility too.
But treading that middle ground is actually playing to my strengths. I'm too much a fence-straddler to commit to any of the extremes.
ETA: Matthew Cheney talked about just this thing with regard to Mieville last year.
"I forgot what a king is, forgot that the king in his own eyes is Karhide, forgot what patriotism is and that he is, of necessity, the perfect patriot."
--Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness