Friday, May 30, 2008

A Beast Worth Knowing

Good writing means addressing serious themes conscientiously, with sober thought and clear phrasing. It need not be grim. Even the gallows humor of Vonnegut has a light touch and can make us laugh aloud just as the absurdist paranoia and madcap insanity of Thomas Pynchon evoke smiles and nods while making weighty points.

What is not good writing? Any words that evade truth, duck important issues, and obscure realities. Work that coddles readers or offers half truths, lies, diversion, and misdirection.

Politics make for bad writing.

Any axe-grinding, special pleading, or bias tilts writing toward the bad.

Lecturing, teaching, or professing bloats writing into being bad, or worse.

True believers write badly. So do the faithful and the gullible.

Good writing favors the cynical because they tend to think for themselves. They reject received wisdom, which is all bad writing. They know that a fact marks the place where thought stopped. They investigate further and question more. They end up disliked, too, because few want the truth.

You can’t handle the truth, as a famous actor once said in a popular movie.

And most don’t. Most choose escapism. Genre fiction offers lots of it.

Not all genre fiction is escapist, though. Philip K. Dick wrote serious fiction in popular form. He brought philosophy to science fiction. What is human? What is reality? How can we know? Those were his questions.

Yes, most genre fiction asks general questions. Horror wonders about death, Romance thinks about love, and Fantasy considers dreams and other worlds even as Mysteries ponder law and order. But most genre fiction evades heavy wrestling. It would rather cop out with a happy ending, or zigzag past all the ugly facts as it rushes toward a selective conclusion.

This is why most genre fiction fails the good writing test. Academics to one side -- they are untrustworthy because their careers depend on promoting their ideas -- fiction is assessed almost always by what it means to readers, especially across generations. A story that continues to speak to people decades or centuries after it was written has some serious human relevance.

By contrast, there is nothing wrong with pure escapism. We all need respite. Enjoyable daydreams escaped into for awhile help keep us sane, or at least balanced and functioning. And yes, pure escapism can be good writing, too. The vital themes need not be absent, nor truths flinched from, for a story to offer an appealing nonreality to contemplate.

Good writing and good prose are distinct things. Excellent sentence, paragraph, and scene construction can be present but put to bad purposes, such as thwarting a confrontation with a major human theme, or deceiving readers with false logic. Some of the absolute worst writing is written well at prose level, even as it lacks the heart and soul of writing that should last.

If we recognize ourselves in writing, it will be startling, hard to take, and sometimes unnerving. Mirrors and voice recordings, film and other ways of seeing ourselves as others do unsettle us, especially when we first come upon them.

Yet a soft focus can not only blur details, but flatter. Such an indirect, wheedling portrait might entice. It might show us as a hero, a demigod, even a paragon. It might make us feel smarter, stronger, or braver; more beautiful, more desirable, or more amazing.

Such lies may cajole, and fool us into thinking this or that bit of writing must be good, it makes us feel so elevated and fine. And yet, it will be a lie.

Beauty And The Beast is about the contrast between a virgin bride’s innocent view of husband, love, and marriage, and its harsher, harder, stronger reality. That it ends with reconciliation and accommodation brings maturity into the mix.

Good writing is a beast, but one well worth knowing.

When we’re young and silly we want comforted, validated, and reinforced in our prejudices. If we manage to mature we realize that, while nice, such things don’t help but harm and hinder us from engaging life in a complete and fulfilling way. Sadly, society allows many of us to remain immature and in mental and emotional hiding. We are even, via advertising, encouraged to remain eternal youths.

Such is a corrosive lie, one only the beast of clear thought and earnest grappling with the core of the human experience can vanquish. Birth, death, pain, love, war, peace, the very conundrum of existence is the stuff of humanity, and that’s what good writing addresses in as honest a way as possible.

Anything less is betrayal.

Good writing is a beast worth knowing well because it is, ultimately, us.

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Happy Endings: More Than A Cancer?

We've all seen them. We've all, in fact, experienced them. They come out of nowhere to ambush, to attack, and to crush. A story hooks us. We begin reading. We become involved with character and incident. We're moving along briskly and, wham, everything works out all right. And for a moment, thought stops.

That is the danger and joy of a happy ending, the stoppage of thinking. Why would anyone do such a thing to an innocent, gullible, and trusting reader? Why abuse someone who has set aside skepticism, suspended disbelief, and bought into details labeled Verisimilitude, of all things?

First of all, it's a convenient place to end a story. It leaves the reader smiling, if it works. It also leaves a positive impression in the mind of the reader toward that writer. Hey, he, she, or it made me feel good. I'd go back to that again.

Cancerous hopes and foolish denial, obviously.

Putting happy endings on things only encourages worse foolishness further on. A happy ending is like icing on a burn victim; tasty, but not very therapeutic.

Consider, instead, the kind of ending that undercuts expectations, leads you up to the edge and pushes you over the cliff, and leaves you mulling over what you've just finished reading. Imagine, if you can, actually thinking about a story over and over, long after you cease scanning the words it was delivered in. And, if you dare, think about learning something not just from a story -- we're not speaking of lecturing, hectoring, or vectoring here -- but from your own insights and thought processes, as prompted by the story.

Synergy rules.

A happy ending rounds things off and gives you nothing to make your eyes snap open later that night, as you realize something breathtaking. A happy ending kills any chance of echoes, ramifications, and consequences. Reading happy endings is safer than playpens, cushier than cribs. They coddle the reader, weakening reading skills and eliminating any need for thinking skills.

As a writer of dark stories that disturb, unsettle, and poke, I know I must often thwart expectations, and I know this is interpreted often as disappointing the reader. Instead of a stroke, my caress became a slap. Instead of a reassurance, my words sowed seeds of doubt and worry.

Sometimes, readers, like virgins, don't get it. They miss the point completely and mistake my stories for spavined, crippled half-tales. Where's the third act? Is that it? What's that mean?

Their questions reveal a refusal, or inability, to think past The End.

And that's because they've grown up with happy endings. They've grown up to believe a story will always come out okay in the end. That fiction is a comfort.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but that raises another issue about happy endings: They don't like the truth much. They prefer easy lies. They prefer delusions, propaganda, and nonsense to anything like real, pointed truths.

So next time you're confronted with a happy ending, ask yourself why you're not angry about being treated with such contempt? Are you a child who needs protected from anything harsh or upsetting?

And if it's one of my endings, and you think it's happy, ask yourself what irony you're missing. Ask yourself if maybe this is too good to be true and, if so, does that itself hint at an opposite or inverted ending, unstated so you can think of it yourself?

If you can, of course. If you're not dying of happy endings.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Get Out While You Can

Before Lester Del Rey observed how the three volumes of J. R. R. Tolkien’s huge novel The Lord of the Rings was selling to the 1960s turned-on, tuned-out generation;

before Del Rey coined the term “trilogy” to triple sales and lock in readers eager for more Tolkienesque stuff;

before Del Rey’s success at all this created the market category of high fantasy;

before Terry Carr’s selecting and editing of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, with their wraparound Gervasio Gallardo covers and their resurrection of obscure books;

before we needed to distinguish between High Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, and Dark Fantasy;

before writers learned to bloat their derivative medieval daydreams into three-book contracts;

before Terry Brooks shamelessly pastiched Tolkien and so many others shamelessly but more subtly did the same;

before all that, Fantasy was escapism.

The Prisoner of Zenda; The Lord of the Rings; The Strange High House in the Mist; House On the Borderlands; King Solomon’s Mines; The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath; The Well At the World’s End; The Worm Ouroborous; The Charwoman’s Shadow; The King of Elfland’s Daughter; and so many other books existed as nothing but places for world-weary minds to escape into.

None carried any particular message. None meant anything. Each existed solely for the pleasure of existing. Writers enjoyed creating them, readers loved escaping into them.

Many became private retreats for the few who knew of them. Terry Carr speaks of this in some of his Ballantine introductions. Even Tolkien, before the 1960’s revival, had been a well-kept secret for the cognoscenti.

Of course, there were always those too brainwashed, too constipated in thought, and too determined to destroy anything as pure as escapism for its own sake. These were the C. S. Lewis types, who loaded their work with lessons, allegorical parallels, and heavy-handed meanings. To them, pure escapism stood as an affront to their utilitarian literalism. If a book did not teach us something or in some way elevate us according to approved dogmatic yardsticks, it was a useless thing and probably a temptation to the sin of idleness.

These sick folks brought High Fantasy low and indoctrinated entire schools of people into thinking of escapist reading as a waste of time. During the Pulp Era reading escapist fare was so reviled it was said to rot kids’ minds. Science fiction was equated with, and often considered worse in ways, than pornography.

If you think I overstate this, read some history.

Now we have movies so no one has to bother trying to read. Sure, some still do, clinging to outmoded fiction delivery platforms, but the majority prefer movies. And my how movies have discovered and embraced Fantasy.

Every sort of fantasy, from super heroes to eerie meditations on little girls in Nazi-occupied Spain, from scary stuff to space voyages, from archaeological adventures to dreamy vampirism and beyond can be found in movies.

Sadly, this includes the stern lesson-plan fantasies of True Believers. Hoping to attract and exploit the Family Values crowd, some film makers have opted either to load their movies with messages or to film books -- remember those? -- written to persuade. Pure escapism is once again being sneered at, the scoffers accusing movies that are nothing but breathtaking and amazing and fun of being wastes of time.

These creeps want us to learn things even in fantasy movies. Worse, they want us to learn specific things, their things. It’s indoctrination they’re peddling. And they disguise it as escapism, using the images and language of High Fantasy to cover up the clutching hands waiting to grab you when no one’s looking.

Get out while you can.

Find out which movies are pure escapism and avoid the others. Best way to figure it out is, of course, to read, but if you can’t rouse yourself to such extremes at least listen to people talk about movies. The ones they say you “should” see; the ones they say are “family friendly” and “perfect for kids”; the ones they say their church approves; the ones deballed and decapitated to the point that pop idols “star” in them; the ones that arouse no controversy; the ones that church groups congregate to see; the ones the talking heads and drone dolls on TV titter about; all those and ones like them should be avoided like the modern plague they are.

Support indie films. That means independent. Meaning not dependent on or from a major studio’s marketing division.

Support fringe films and controversial movies. Go to the ones the critics universally pan. You can be sure a media massed against a movie is trying to sink a movie that might make you think or feel; they can’t tolerate that, so you should seek it out.

Get out while you can means escape the programming box.

This very urge to break free from society’s constraints is the source of those High Fantasy escapist novels of long ago. It remains the spark for quirky, individualistic, and wonderful movies today.

Anyone lacking the urge to escape the cattle pens and shipping boxes is already dead meat.

The rest of you: RUN.

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prompted by:

Thursday, May 15, 2008

As Heads Is Tails

Story goes that the devil is always just a man in each generation, with no supernatural powers but in a unique position to influence things toward death, destruction, and decay. Always there is such a man.

You listening Dick? George? Gordon? Try harder, boys.

Worse, the dualists state that the creator is mad, or was usurped by madness, and the created corrupt, so that what we think of as fine in this world, such as the church, is really foul; as heads is tails, our materialism is faith inverted. Instead of this world we need to make the unseen, untouchable world our goal.

Or so they say. Trouble is, if you’ve ever dealt with unseen entities, you know they lie and laugh about it. So focusing on the invisible, and listening to discarnate voices, is never a good idea. Things just never work out well for those who do that.

And prayer won’t help, either. The god of light cannot affect the god of things, and vice versa. If gods there be. How could we, mere mortals, limited and filtered, tell a god from, say, an advanced extraterrestrial being or a drug delusion?

These and other thoughts are considered by most forbidden knowledge. These are notions kept apart from general discourse, criminals in isolation cells, walled in and forgotten as much as possible, victims of a societal oubliette.

Now build a story to protect yourself from all this. Those stories we call religions.

Finding it hard to buy what those stories sell? Have some faith, they say. Faith is the ability to ignore facts. They’re telling you to stop thinking and repress curiosity. Don’t learn, just obey. No questions, only answers.

Humanoid primates have a lot of faith as they squint from their rain-soaked trees or smoky caves. No one wants truth. We want to be told what to do, how to feel, and have our thoughts dictated by dogma and tradition. We cling to labels and ignore contents. We prefer made-up maps to walked-on terrain. We do nothing and hope things will all work out.

Hope is charity’s abusive spouse, and best left home.

But what if forbidden knowledge and taboo thinking are the only keys to the cage? What if escape is only possible if we change?

Can we change enough to get out?

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Get Serious

If you write serious fiction you must use accepted literary forms and elements or no one will like or take it seriously.

Serious fiction is not allowed to have genre elements. No spaceships, no zombies, and no detectives. No wizards, no vampires, and no castles. Any of these lets them dismiss it as genre. By this they mean write-by-number fill-in-the-blank rearrange standard shapes hack work.

Unfair? Life.

Thing is, genre never was as simplistic as they say, and literary fiction never was as free from jigsaw puzzlery as they claim.

Writing is as serious as the effect it has. You think "mere" escapism has no effect? Have you looked around lately?

So even basic entertainment suffices to count for something. Add a serious theme to a comic book and it becomes a graphic novel. Subtract expected elements from literary fiction and it becomes meaningless.

When will criticism mature into considering each work on its own merits? When will writing and effect balance with content and tone?

Think hard but keep the writing easy to read. That way everyone might find handle enough to take a point or two away with them.

You learn all this if you write serious fiction using genre elements. And you learn, too, how to ignore the morons and get on with it.

Rules are for anyone dumb enough to obey them. Write what you want the way you want. If you never publish, it's the world's loss.

The cure for style is to write for others' standards. The cure for that is to find your own standards.