Senses and the Message Stick

15 March 2001

I'm reading Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses, in little snippets when I'm taking a break from working. And oh. This is the kind of nonfiction book I would love to be able to write someday. In case you don't know her work, Ackerman is a poet and science writer. She doesn't write science fiction poetry (I don't think...I've never been too sure what the definition of that is), but she does let the world of science affect the world she lives in. Which strikes me as only realistic, of course, but she acknowledges those effects and when they're beautiful and when not so much. Balance.

So in this book -- which I have just barely started -- she's messing around with the senses. She has a section for each one, and in addition to outlining the scientific theories of how they work, she's thrown in some beautiful writing about them, her own and other people's, and lots of historical anecdotes related directly to the sense at hand. And her prose style makes this not at all an anthology, but rather a holistic unit for each sense.

Bliss. How do you get to do this? How do you say to some editor, "Hey, I want to write about the senses? I've got this great bit about Napoleon and Josephine under the 'smell' category?" and have the editor say, "Sure, we'll buy that"? I love nonfiction authors who ramble, who actually connect diverse things. (This does not count people like James Burke, who find coincidences about dozens of things until they can loop back to where they started. Bleah. I'm looking for genuine similarities.) But it's precisely the type of nonfiction books that I find the most interesting that are also the hardest to classify. How do they do it? I really do want to know. I want to play this game, too!

Classification is a nasty, nasty thing sometimes. Last night, while we were waiting for Mark's plane to arrive (on time!), Timprov and I were talking about the difference between a YA speculative novel and an adult speculative novel. I've come to the conclusion that while there are some substantial differences in language and structure between children's books and adult books, the only differences that are essential for YAs are that: 1) they're supposed to be shorter, and 2) they're supposed to have more muted sex, violence, and "bad" words.

I can come up with other differences, but they don't really hold constant. YAs, for example, tend to have young protagonists. That's fine -- but so do a lot of books that are primarily for grown-ups. The coming of age story is a classic one, and it's explored again and again in fantasy. (Perhaps too often. But that's a digression of another color.) YAs also tend to hit people over the head with a message stick -- although not all of them do. Mine try not to, with the result that one of my readers said that she thought they were good books but weren't great because they left her with no great truths to think about. I had to wonder whether my truths were not great enough for her, or whether she just didn't get them. And there's really no good way to ask that. (Except, I suppose, to put it in my journal in case she starts reading it.) I wish I could say that this is in contrast to grown-up speculative fiction, but the message stick gets overused there, too. What is it about us that we're willing to put up with being bashed about the head with such gems as, "Prejudice is BAD!"?

I think Steve Brust did the message stick satire best with a song on his album, "A Rose for Iconoclastes." (Really cool album, by the way, and if you share my vice of listening to folk music, you should seek it out.) There's a song called "War Is Bad," and the chorus goes: "War is bad, peace is good; never use plastic if you can use wood. Be kind to strangers, give good jobs to vets; recycle glass bottles, spay/neuter your pets." In one of the verses, he sings, "I'll tell all my friends and won't they be surprised?" Yeah. Big Message Bad.

Of course, it could be that I'm just a sucker for an album that contains the line, "That Satan, he's such a kidder." And that's just my favorite of the song that's on now.

In case you were wondering, I am still sick, yes. I think (I hope) that I hit my maximal illness last night when we got home from the airport. Now I'm mostly bone-weary and achy. Oh, and you know those big-eyed little kids paintings? If you have some tacky relatives who don't have Velvet Elvises or Velvet Last Suppers or Dogs Playing Poker, they have some of these. If you have really tacky relatives, they may have some combination of them. (I am pleased to say that none of my relatives are that tacky, to my knowledge.) But anyway: take my main page photo and enlarge the eyes by about a factor of ten. That's how I look and feel right now. This is an improvement. I'm working today. (Mostly on the Chinese thing so far, but I'll be getting around to the novel any minute now.) I'm trying to take it easy. I'm very bad at that. I expect to be better tomorrow. Really.

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