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bear by san

March 2017

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bear by san

the fine art of mediocrity

agamisu has a great post here about networking, the publishing industry, and whether it matters who you know. Read the friendly comments.

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

.

Comments

My mother used to teach an Anthropology and Science Fiction class. But it was more than fifteen years ago. Significantly more. I think it was at SUNY Binghamton, though it could have been during her brief stay in Kentucky.
And I bet a pony it was better than the one we took.

The instructor showed up to about 50% of the classes.
I am tempted to say that The Crying of Lot 49 is the only book that ever got away with not ending, but that probably overstates it.
But since 'The Crying of Lot 49' is probably the coolest book this side of 'The Man Who Was Thursday', go for it.

- Tom

Just in case you obsess on typography like I do...

The easy path to diacriticals in HTML (as opposed to remembering explicit code numbers or going hunting for a character map from which to copy-paste) is to know the patterns they use for named character entities: an e with a grave accent (è) is è, a y with an umlaut (ÿ) is &l;yuml;, so Nevèrÿon is Nevèrÿon. The patterns are always consistent, e.g. äëïöü is äëïöü, but they’re not sufficiently whimsical to let you spell “Spinal Tap” with an &numl;.

Re: Just in case you obsess on typography like I do...

I know. But that's not a cure for laziness.
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 like when everything is perfectly in tune and overtones float over your head.
Yep. That.

I wish I knew what you mean about Left Hand ...

... but so far as I can tell the backcover blurb lies VILELY, because in the first chapter-and-a-half (as far as i've ever managed to go) there's no sign I can find of the Neat Engrossing Cool Gender Stuff And Worldbuilding that the blurb promises me. It's all icy distant 'pretty' prose about nothing I care about.

Dammit.

Maybe I need to pull a Cyteen with it and pretend some other page is the first page, but if so, I don't know which page to pick.

The only non-YA Le Guin I have EVER enjoyed, to date, is Always Coming Home, which I adore to little pieces. We were forced to read The Disposessed for class, and I wish to God I could have found anything redeeming in it, but I didn't.

Re: I wish I knew what you mean about Left Hand ...

Then you need to read the first chapter and a half more carefully, because it's in there. Both in Genly's comments during his conversation with Estraven (paraphrased: "I have said "he," so I must say "man") and in the bit of legend.

It's subtle... but it's in there. And by about page 35 of the ACE paperback edition, it's right in your face.

Read slower, is my advice.
This is an interesting reaction for me to read since "Magic for Beginners" totally didn't work for me. Link drew me completely into the world, made me care about the characters and the show, and then completely left me hanging. I found it more frustrating than enjoyable despite the neat bits.

I've read books without narrative conclusions that work for me, but I think it's very risky. I have to be engrossed in the theme, in the substrate, and have the thematic conclusion capture my attention. Otherwise, the missing narrative conclusion throws me and disappoints me and then any unpacking of the thematic conclusion that I do feels like a consolation prize, an attempt to derive some enjoyment from an ending that mostly just disappointed me.
I'm not a rereader in general, but I find that Link stories have to be read at least twice (and preferably more) before they really start to Make Sense.

I _adore_ her work. And I usually get something out of it on the first read, usually enjoy it very much. But it's a few reads and some simmering in the backbrain down the road that the real awesomeness comes out of left field and sits down beside me and asks if I want a beer.

(Of course, there are people who the stories will just plain not work for, and that's fine.)
I wish I had something interesting to reply with, but as usual I don't. But thanks for putting this out there, because it makes me think, which your little musings like this often always do.

So, thanks.

And welcome back.

*waves in the general direction of Hartford*
Wow...what an entry. I'm still way in the "just what am I doing" phase of fiction-writing, which has come hot on the heels of the "I think I know what I'm doing phase" of journalistic-type freelancing.

The two are quite different.

And you come along with this post, and open up a lot of doors, which leads me to a fast question--how often do you talk about your works-in-progress with other people? I'm kind of on the fence, where if you gave it to people, you could at least know if you're doing well, but if you don't, you can at least focus on the story until you're ready to reveal it.

Chris
If it's any consolation, two year ago this post wouldn;t have made any sense to me.

I *have* to discuss my wips with people. Otherwise, I can't figure them out. I'm one of those people who only understands something once she starts to explain it.
I agree about the hothousing effect of people who won't let you slack. (drat them.)

Also, yeah about the thematic hooks. It doesn't work on readers who are focused on narrative arc, because there *is* no narrative arc. So you get critiques like "this story doesn't go anywhere."

And of course, it doesn't go anywhere on that level so that you can see where it does go more plainly. It's liek a Koan.