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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

did I get any on you?

More on the issue of aesthetics in genre fiction--or, as one commenter on the last post insisted--beauty.

But first, a glimpse of the way my brain works. (To your scattered thought process go--)

The first thing I read this morning was a review of The Privilege of the Sword by Bookslut's self-described "Genre Floozy," Adrienne Martini, possibly my least-favorite genre reviewer. (She liked the book; I also liked it. My issue is not with her critical faculties. My issue with her reviews is that they always have this not-so-vague air of Puritan guilt about them, as if she's lowering herself in reading genre, and she needs to distance herself from any suspicion she might, you know, actually be drawn to that filth.) (Now that I've ensured myself fifteen years of bad reviews from Ms. Martin, I-should-stay-in-print-so-long, moving on--)

Anyway, the relevant paragraph from the review:

The plot -- a young girl is sold to her crazy, jet-black sheep of an uncle in order to be trained as a swordsperson, which is something that is just not done in this nebulous place and time -- has a well-stoked engine that keeps it humming along, which is weird given that Kushner’s prose is rich with embroidered details that should slow the pace down. It’s only later, though, that you realize how much is coded into this text because the read itself is brisk.

Now, ellen_kushner is, in my only rarely humble opinion, one of the best prose stylists in the genre. Some of this is my personal preference, of course--her writing is crisp, lovely, charismatic, trenchant, and often laugh-out-loud funny when it's not heartbreakingly poignant--and sometimes both at once. She's one of two writers I won't read in public, because I tend to embarrass easily, and simultaneously giggling and sniffling on the bus is too much for my composure. (The other one is Peter S. Beagle.)

But what caught my eye about that paragraph was the implied dichotomy--that rich prose is necessarily inimical to plot. Now, I won't deny that they are not always found hand in hand. But, given my own experience as a writer, I suspect this is because most of us find one easier to do than the other, and we learn pretty early in this business to play to our strengths. We won't please everyone; the trick to surviving as a fictioneer is to find one's audience (those persons who are in sympathy to what one is good at or what one is interested in talking about) and satisfy their expectations and desires.

Also, it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that writing is too hard to do well. It's a juggling act, and a balancing act, and one is working with limited space and resources (and there's the necessity of maintaining pacing), and every decision one makes, as a writer, means that several other possibilities can no longer be explored. And then, of course, there is the issue that this thing is not easy. (It's also the only thing I've ever done that gets harder the better I get at it, because while my skills grow, my awareness of everything I need to accomplish with those skills grows faster.)

Which brings us to the issue of aesthetics. Can science fiction be beautifully written? Can beautifully written stories cook along at a high rate of speed? Can one maintain a literary and a pulp sensibility simultaneously, in other words? (If one's really ambitious, can one get an eloquent sense of character in there, too?)

Damn straight. I refer you to the abovementioned The Privilege of the Sword and to Peter Beagle's work. To the work of Peter Watts, who writes a kind of terse, accelerating prose that I find absolutely breathtaking. Neil Gaiman at his best manages a lovely balancing act of style and tension and depth.

I'm reading a book by Martin Cruz Smith right now, Stallion Gate. I find that while I usually like Smith's work (He's most famous for Gorky Park) this book is leaving me cold. It's beautifully written and beautifully characterized and the world he's building--Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, through the eyes of an Indian sergeant assigned to project security--is lovingly and complexly evoked, and there are wonderful dichotomies and collisions between the world of the local Native Americans and the world of the government scientists and the world of the Army.

But good lord, could something happen now please? The novel is arranged in a series of vignettes, from which a pattern emerges, but the problem is that the novel breaks tension constantly. There's no through line, or if there is, it's a drunkard's-walk. And while I understand why Smith is doing this--it's a way to show what he wants to show, and evoke the scattered landscape of ideologies he's working from--I find it detracts from the book.

I would like, in other words, less of a meditation, and more of a narrative.

Continuing the earlier discussion of writing and compulsion, there's another dichotomy of craft ideology there. jay_lake talks in comments about an ethos that implies that slow=good, when constructing prose, and that he has issues with that, as well. I tend to agree: everybody's process varies here, and we all tend to privilege our own way of doing things. That's a self-defense mechanism, frankly. We need to validate our own process as writers.

And that's cool. Validating one's own process is necessary, because the world exists to make artists feel like they suck. We *need* to stick up for ourselves. So there are those who spend months crafting a short story, and who feel that that is the system that works for them--and those who write four pages a day, every day, even if it feels like drek.

One thing I have noticed is that the multiply-published writers who write more slowly seem, in my limited and subjective anecdotal experience, to come to the table with a better sense of prose, to publish earlier in their careers, and to write quirkier stories. But those are gross generalities; it just seems that those particular cards (in the "the first one is free" theory of development as a writer) seem to go with a more meandering and meticulous writing process. This is not a dichtomy; it is a pattern, possibly entirely subjective.

For me, I came in writing good characters and okay plots, but my prose style didn't develop until I'd written well over three million words. If I were doing the hundred-words-a-day plan, I never would have grown a voice. Thematic depth arrived about the same time the prose did. (For those of you who are willing to admit of thematic depth in my work, anyway.)

Anyway, it's a similar false dichotomy, discussed here to illuminate how silly I think choosing up sides can be. We need all these skills to write well. And yet, there are those aesthetics--plot, prose, prose, plot--at war. But when confronted with a novel that is more narrative than meditation, I am also often obscurely disappointed. It feels shallow to me, and I keep looking for the undercurrents.

In any case, what all this pondering leads me to is the realization that there is a perception in genre that that pretty stuff--beauty of language, craftsmanship, metaphor--somehow distracts from the serious business of getting the metal to fly. And I find that I can't agree with that, that I delight in the good prose as much as in the strong narratives--and that the lack of one can destroy my enjoyment of the other. There's an aesthetic in SFF (more SF than fantasy) of "transparent" prose, where "transparent" is an vaguely defined term subject to a great deal of argument. (Often it means workmanlike (which I find anything *but* transparent, personally) and sometimes it means craftsmanlike.)

If you ever want to fluster a hard SF writer, by the way, praise his or her prose style or narrative voice. *g* They blink at you like you just grew a third head.

And I tend to differ. I think the ideal goal is to do everything well, and the realistic compromise is to do it all to the best of one's ability. We're none of us perfect, I suspect, but more of us could manage not to settle.


Nice post, Bear. You said something really important to me:

If I were doing the hundred-words-a-day plan, I never would have grown a voice

This is my core argument with the slow=good crowd. How the hell can a writer grow a voice if they don't write a lot? "A lot" is subjective, as is "fast", but to tell a writer "you're writing too fast" is a lot like telling a kid "you read too much" (and boy did I hear a lot of that when I was young, along with "you think too much" and "you ask too many questions"). Revision can be wonderful, the best part of the process sometimes, but for the majority, and I'm willing to go out on a limb and say the vast majority, of writers, voice comes in the first draft. The hardest part about revision is not polishing the voice back out.

Write fast, write slow, whatever the hell works for you. But if if a writer doesn't write a lot, they won't grow a voice. And if they focus on revision pace every MBA program in the world, they;re a lot more likely to write average prose than you are to write stunning prose.

Getting back off my horse now...backing slowly away from the topic...oh, look, I have to board an airplane soon!

Yanno, something else about my process? That endless revision thing doesn't work for me. What I learn writing any given story has to go into the *next* story.

I cannot bring my old stories and novels up to the standard of my new ones. I've revised Blood & Iron something like twelve times, and four of those were major revisions--almost complete rewrites.

It will never be as good as the two books I wrote last year, and, in fact, I am incapable of making it as good. They were, in fact, better novels in first draft than B&I is now, a dozen versions later.
Another fascinating dissection of the form. I don't really have anything to bring to the discussion other than a vague fear that my own writing is conforming to all the worst aspects of what you talk about. And I won't know until I'm better at writing than I am now. If ever.

This seems to be happening to me quite regularly, at the moment, actually. I was talking to desperance and shewhomust (And considering the quality of Chaz'z writing, listening to him and reading him just scares me about my own writing ability anyway... And I've got him to promise to read my book when I've finished it. Which really, really terrifies me.) yesterday and we got on to the whole Hard Fantasy and Soft Fantasy. Chaz described what he thought was wrong about Soft Fantasy and I was just thinking "Agh! Am I doing that???' I don't think I am and I if I am, it's certainly not intentional, but, bloody hell, it makes me nervous to think that I'm just gonna end up another of the long-line of easily interchangeable genre writers.

I suppose the good thing to come out of this is that it's at least making me think about what I'm doing (not that I wasn't before, but it's giving me specifics to think about) which can only help me improve, right? Right?
Yes. Well, you don't want to think yourself into paralysis.

Here's the thing.

We're all secretly terrified we're hacks. And we're all out here honestly doing the absolute best we can with what we've got. And it's never good enough for any of us.
About your reading of Stallion's Gate, I'm currently about 1/3 of the way through Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh and it has the same fragmentary narrative problem. It is like he read Phillip K. Dick and decided that the construction tools were neat but the ideas were way too far out there. It isn't helping that I can't bring myself to like any of the characters. Even worse, I can't really bring myself to dislike them. I'm not done but I am beginning to believe that this book will be 7/8ths him giving the history that explains 45 pages worth of actual story.

Now that I think of it, that is why I never finished the Baroque Cycle. The second book was hundreds and hundreds of pages of people I didn't quite like or dislike doing nothing much. The one character I was attached to, I later read, got a chapter or possibly two in the whole book.
An excellent post, and something many of us can identify with. And, too, backing oneself into a total paralysis. I did that the other day. I'd convinced myself that if I couldn't write a decent query letter, I would never get published. So I couldn't write it. I 'talked' about it with others and they convinced me of my stupidity, but I do understand exactly what you mean. We are our own worst critics. Is it good enough? Has it been done fifty times before? Is it just one glorious trope? Why on Earth should anyone, other than me, want to read it, anyway?

I do so agree with you and Jaylake about the writing, though. I don't think our personal pace matters. You push too hard you overwhelm yourself. You pick at something too long you take all the 'goodness' out of it. I adore first drafts, and I think I have found my voice, writing and re-writing over and over. Each time, something else clicks in. Am I ready yet? Who knows? That's one question I can't answer.
It's somebody else's job to reject or publish us, thank Dog.
These are shiny ideas. I am going to contemplate them.
More later... BUT, before I forget... thematic depth?

You, my dear, are a thematic black hole...
*g* Go look at all the reviews of the Jenny books that call them entertaining fluff. (or not-so-entertaining fluff, as the case may be.)

One man's theme is another man's 'splody bit.
What's working for me -- I think, I hope -- is to actively use my short stories as a site for pushing my limits as a stylist, and then to let the lessons learned there seep into my novels. The "I think, I hope" comes in because I've got a limited data set to generalize from; I haven't written many novels since I started thinking that way. In fact, I've really only written one (Warrior and Witch), and that one has all kind of other baggage weighting it down, being the first thing I wrote under contract, and therefore a source of new flavors of stress. But I revised The Waking of Angantyr after beginning to write flash, and cut over three thousand words out of the beast just by tightening bits of prose. Maintaining an intense focus on every sentence for 120K words is more than I feel capable of just now -- it slows me down, and I have to keep moving -- but the skills I train myself into with short fiction will show up over time.

I think, I hope. :-)
Yeah, I learn a lot stylistically from short fiction.

Also, I think intense style can bog a novel down. I mean, nice crisp prose is one thing, but really concetrated style becomes as exhausting to read as it is to write.

I have been going through a phase where, even at novel-length, I have had to worry at each sentence to get it right, and everything I look at seems awkward and terrible, but that seems to be lifting, and I could not be more grateful.

That first-novel-under-contract thing is so scary. So is the first-novel-written-after-one-is-in-print-and-it-sinks-in-people-are-going-to-read-this-shit.

Ah well. If it was easy it wouldn't be fun.
I didn't so much insist on beauty as shift my argument towards it. Or something like that. *reachs for more coffee*

oh, go ahead. insist.
Can science fiction be beautifully written?

Yes - it can. And I would have mentioned Watts first (honestly - the sequences of Maelstrom with the mating habits of code... the dude is amazing) and also throw a Gibson in there.

beauty of language, craftsmanship, metaphor--somehow distracts from the serious business of getting the metal to fly.

And when you have it - this somehow becomes Literary-esque - as if it's somehow above and beyond the call of duty... personally I think this disbelief in the the need to use all the skills - yes, even in Science fiction, is why it's floundering behind fantasy right now.
I thought literary fiction wasn't allowed to have a plot. Isn't that why it has it's own classification ;)
Thanks Bear. Thought provoking. "I delight in the good prose as much as in the strong narratives--and that the lack of one can destroy my enjoyment of the other." and I have to agree. I personally can't get through a strong narrative if the prose doesn't support it. & yes, Ellen is a fabulous writer.

My mind has been boggled....

I've got a few Livejournals listed on my Friends list -- yours is one of them and my (college student) daughter's is another. The way Livejournal displays them on my page (which is plain vanilla) is to have a divider between dates but not between different entries.

So a few minutes ago I popped up my Livejournal, clicked Friends and found an entry of my daughter's where she was talking about tonight being Taco Night at the Ocean Mist bar (a rather large waterfront joint with loud live rock bands). Her comments about three tacos for three bucks and Cajun chicken tacos and such was followed by a line "did I get any on you" and your comments about aesthetics in genre fiction -- except, of course, I thought I was still reading my daughter's journal ("did I get any on you" is not an unreasonable line to follow a discussion of tacos)...

An allusion to Philip Jose Farmer? She is a big fan of fantasy literature (we even took a course in fantasy lit together at her college last year -- we each got an A) but I think the Riverworld series was all published before she was born and I've never seen her reading Farmer (nor, for that matter, John Donne's poetry) so I was a bit surprised at the allusion and also at her conducting a literary discussion outside of an assigned paper.

By the time I got to the next line ("The first thing I read this morning...") I had figured out that I was reading your Livejournal and not Gillian's -- but my mind was boggled for a moment there.

Re: My mind has been boggled....

We are pleased to provide your daily cognitive dissonance.
you're welcome.
Dammit, my copy of LeGuin's Steering the Craft isn't here, so I will paraphrase something she said: The point of words in poetry is to stun readers with the sheer unimaginable beauty of the words; the point of words in a prose story is to lead to the next word.

I think that a great stress has been put on style for the sake of style, beauty because the words are beautiful... which is fine, except that, first, in a novel it doesn't entirely work with the goal of leading to the next word, and second, it has caused many writers to discard beautiful prose as a tool in their arsenal of communication. Words may be pretty or functional, but not both. On most of the writers' forums I frequent, and in most of the work I read, the concept of "beautiful prose" is confined to passive-interruptive scenes... stretches of pure description, for example, or internal reflection scenes: scenes where the story stops in order for the writing to go be pretty. One hardly ever sees conciously beautiful dialogue or action sequences; the two, action and beauty, are assumed to be mutually exclusive.

(And of course beauty must be serious, which is why, despite the pure love of language and absolute mastery of metaphor displayed, you never see Terry Pratchett's writing called "beautiful". Except maybe by me. ;) )

This leads to a lot of advice against "purple prose" which is... somewhat misdirected. The problem isn't the prose; the problem is the stoppage of action which is seen as necessary for the prose. Okay, occasionally the prose -- some people, and I include myself in this, need a quota system for adjectives and semicolons -- but the two problems are conflated and bewildered to the point where they seem one and the same. And I'm not at all sure they are. I *know*, for a fact, that beautiful writing has a place in dialogue: and I'm pretty damn sure there's beautiful action scenes out there. Equally, I know there are lovely descriptive scenes that are not completely passive, in which the character continues to do, act, think, observe without compromising the beauty of the prose. But it's not something easily found these days, with the dichotomy between beauty and utility so entrenched in our thinking.

This is leading to a lot of other thoughts, like the actual nature of beauty in prose, but I'll save 'em for my own blog sometime when I'm not late for an appointment. :D
yeah yeah yeah.