The motto of this blog is: Writing is hard.
Reading is on the hard side, too, frankly, so let's cut the reader a little slack here and there, give him some rungs to climb up on when we can. Give him a narrative to cling to, maybe, or some surfacy stuff. make it accessible where we can. Still.
Still, sometimes you can't. Emily Dickinson says "Tell the truth, but tell it slant," (punctuation mine) and Ursula LeGuin says that the business of the novelist is to tell in words the things that cannot be told in words. And that's the problem, isn't it? There are things that can only be glimpsed from the corner of the eye. And when a story captures them, and somebody asks you to explain what it's about... well, you can't. Unless it's one of those rare stories that manages both that television-stone effect of showing what lies behind it, but also a traditional narrative.
Digression (but an important one): (A relevant digression???)Here's something I've learned from reading fanfic:
Most readers really are reading for a framework on which to hang their own internal narrative. Something upon which to project the emotional responses they want to have, that they find satisfying. They need a net in which to catch their squid, in other words.
They build a good parts version in their heads. And they project their story onto the scaffolding that the writer provides. This is why formulaic thrillers and category romance sells so very well; because it is predictable.
Fanfiction writers have a term for this, borrowed from the porn industry. They call it a bulletproof kink. It's not necessarily a sexual thing; my bulletproof kink is bittersweet endings, sacrifice, and death-or-glory stands. (See: the end of Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry for a type example. Or Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place. The glory can be a very small and personal glory. It still works for me.)
Anyway, as a reader, one must tackle building that good parts version in one's head in a different way when confronted by a Kelly Link story than by a traditional pulp story. Because there's this stuff that I love--the LeGuin, etc--that's just opaque to a lot of people.
I love its introspection, and the way it reflects light around the inside of my head. That's what I need to have a good story that satisfies me.
(As an aside: as a writer or a critic, one eventually loses the ability to construct that good parts version... because one starts looking at the whole machine. (Consider: famous Connie Willis quote about sacrificing the ability to be surprised as the cost of becoming a writer.)
Once you know how magic tricks work, you stop looking at the trick and start watching the technique.)
Anyway, back to the Good Parts thing. I'm thinking about this because I just read both Century Rain, and "The Faery Handbag," and Kelly Link is a genius, again. This is a television stone story. But it's not a traditional narrative. The Left Hand of Darkness is both, but it's not an accessible narrative, particularly. (Well, it's perfectly accessible if one comes at it from a lit background; not so much for the habitual reader of pulp. Something Matt Cheney and Jeff VanderMeer discuss this week, essay linked below.)
Something I realized reading Century Rain is that, much as I loved the book, there were whole long chunks of it that seemed transplanted from another novel. Not a bad novel, mind you. But a different novel. And this is something I see endlessly in SF (more than fantasy) where I swear the last third of whatever book I'm reading belonged to the first two thirds of a different book. Century Rain is not by any means a particularly egregious example of this, and frankly, it's so prevalent in science fiction that it's almost weird for me to find a book that doesn't have that head-too-big-for-its-shoulders problem.
Specifically, there are places in Century Rain where I can see Reynolds following the scriptwriter advice to complicate, complicate, raise the stakes, ratchet up the tension, tighten the clock--
--and I don't think the book needs it. Actually, in a lot of places, I think the ACTION! detracts from what's really interesting and well-done about the book.
Like Anya, I have a theory. But it's not bunnies.
The theory is this.
Science fiction has become a chimera. And I mean that in a pair of ways. One, chimerical in that it's an animal that doesn't exist, really. SF is dying, SF has evolved into the mainstream, SF is being colonized by these impenetrable lit'ry types (the New Wave has been over for twenty years; can we stop complaining about it now?), SF is whatever I'm pointing at when I say, "Science fiction."
Two, it's chimerical in that it's a collection of different animals. The pulp roots, the "literature of ideas," the Noir of Cyberpunk, the literary values of the New Wave, the grafted-on wings of the Weird and the scorpion sting of the detective genre stuck on the end somewhere. It's seventeen beasties trying to be one.
And that's what I love about it. I love my genre, and its tentacles. But that frustrates some people who require more firmness in their taxonomy for comfort's sake.
...but it also leads to weirdnesses. Like this phenomenon of the bits of book that don't match. Because as writers, we have these pulp influences. Whether we recognize them or not. And our editors are pretty sure that the core audience for SFF does like explosions. And girls in bikinis. And rayguns. (ooo. rayguns.) And tentacled horrors from beyond space and time.
And we writers like them too. But we're not always so very good at integrating them with our Deep Philosophical Constructs. And we run up against a problem, because SFF is also a genre that privileges not just Newness and Ideas, but the Appearance of Newness and Ideas. Which means we as writers and editors tend to foreground anything that looks shiny or ground-breaking in the first half of the book, and then blow up a few planets in the back half (I like to call SFF the Literature Of Testing To Destruction, because we are the people who break stuff--worlds, the laws of physics, societies--and don't put them back pretty [contrast: Blood Music with Prey] at the end of the book, tucked in safe, reset. )
And then around these two disparate (and in some cases mutually contradictory) demands--the thinky bit and the 'splody bit, as I like to call them--we have to fit other bits. We have to tell a story. With characters. And a theme. And all three of those things (plot, characters, theme) need what is usually termed an "arc," although I also like the term "argument." (In the essayist's sense, not in the relationship sense, though sometimes fists go through walls, what can I say?)
And then, on top of that, we're expected to have an at least passable prose style and be able to come up with a few witticisms and some Cool Stuff. And if we can swing a veil of literary merit, so much the better.
And we have to do all that and still remember to juggle and blow stuff up, and pay sufficient homage to our pulp roots to keep A Certain Segment of the fandom (the ones who are still talking about "The Cold Equations," but, strangely, not so much "Light of Other Days") happy in between their pronouncements that SF is Ded.
Hey, this shit ain't easy.
In a moment of synchronicity, I was planning on writing about this before I read this comment of Jeff VanderMeer's and this essay of Matt Cheney's: There is a secret lost continent full of ordinary people, and I must go there. I have some ideas that might be useful to them, and some prose I know they will find accessible.