Elephant and Beanie
8 July 2002
Usually I have a few things to say when I open a document to write a journal entry. And I do today, I guess. I'm just not feeling well -- neither is Mark, so I'm hoping it's something we ate, so that it'll go away fast, rather than a virus. So I feel like I'm having to gather energy even to babble. The default might be flopping on the sofa with my trashy fantasy novel. I don't know for sure. Mehhhhh. (The trashy fantasy novel is Michelle West's Hunter's Death, reminding me simultaneously of why I used to read a lot of books like this and why I stopped. It's good light reading, but in some ways so amazingly typical that lots of them in a row would make my head ache.)
Regardless of what the default is, I do have an agenda for today: a few groceries from the store, mailing Jen's wedding present, finding a seamstress, and working on the Not The Moose Book. Doing a few edits to Reprogramming is I guess on the list, but not urgent for today specifically. More of a "this week" item than a "today" item.
Hmm. A few lines in Trent's Clarion journal and either Jason Lundberg's journal or Blue Jack (Bluejack? Follow the link, figure it out for yourself) kind of set me off about style. Trent was talking about writing short-shorts that "challenged the genre," and one of the other guys (sorry this is sloppy -- I don't really have the energy to go back through) was talking about the innovations he hoped to make with his next story, that had already been made by his classmates. And I just sighed.
Maybe they weren't talking about what I fear they were talking about. But my associations with comments like that are not good, especially with "challenging the genre" sorts of things. When someone says he is writing a story to challenge how the genre handles something or another, I can't help but think, what, writing a good story was too easy for you? It couldn't just be a good story, it had to be a challenge to the entire mode of writing this type of fiction?
I'm not saying that challenges are impossible or unnecessary. I'm saying that setting out to write them for the self-conscious sake of writing them doesn't sound like a very good way to come up with a good story.
So you've got several parts of a speculative story, good or bad -- you've got setting, characters, plot, theme, premise, and style. (I think stories outside the genre have these, too, but "premise" generally gets a lot less attention, or a lot less conscious and separate attention.) And you can have a decent and readable story of whatever length if you screw up some of that stuff. It's not the way to bet, however. If you think there are elements I'm lacking, please do let me know.
One of my friends has a hard time with plot. Specifically, he has a hard time with conflict. And awhile ago, we were talking about plotting stories, and he was trying to figure out how to put plot in plotless stories he already had. I was horrified. It seemed like sticking a beanie on an elephant to me: the elephant already has ears and tail and skin and heart and toenails, and, okay, so it lacks a brightly colored crest like some birds have. The beanie is not going to be a good crest substitute. It needs to be an interrelated whole. And hey--some people like birds with big ol' crests, and some people like elephants, and some people like both. But the beanied elephant market seems like it would be rather small.
So. Usually these days, when people start talking about challenges to the genre, they're talking about style. It's no longer challenging to say "Hey, we could have girls be the main characters" or "Why don't we try to tell this from the point of view of the alien's culture and psychology?" or "What if the hero had doubts about what he was doing?" Those things were once startling, different ways of handling characters inside the genre. Now they are not, and I think most of us recognize that, although the "gender switch retelling" is still probably more popular as a central conceit than it really deserves.
And when people start talking about style as something they're figuring out apart from the rest of the story, that's when I get nervous. It's not that I dislike stylistic gimmicks, although, frankly, I'm a very hard sell on them. It's also not that I think there's nothing new to be done, stylistically -- although, again, I'm a hard sell. I think that if James Joyce did something with style, it is no longer an innovation. In fact, if something has been widely done in literary fiction, I think you can assume that it is not innovative, no matter whether you stick a mythical being into it or not. So much of what people dub "experimental" or "innovative" stylistically is a rehash of the 1930s. Maybe the 1950s if we get really lucky. Some of it is older than that. Doesn't automatically make it bad. Just makes it not innovative.
Ahem. So. Right, I was nervous about style. Maybe the guys whose Clarion journals I'm reading are focusing on whole stories that I would find interesting, and maybe innovation or challenge is just their way of describing uniqueness. I hope so, and I'd certainly be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. But for me that language itself tends to carry connotations of the people who are stuck on being Young Turks, on revolution for its own sake.
We're in a genre. Of course we get ideas about what to do and what not to do from other people's stories. But I think it's important to focus on doing what we think is good, rather than not doing what we think is bad, or pointing out in our work how other people are being bad (or boring). It's important in life. It's certainly important in fiction. Am I writing in a setting lots of people have used before me? Not really, no -- there's very little 20th century-Finland-related fantasy. Am I setting out to revolutionize, innovate, or challenge Setting In The Genre? Dude, I have enough to do setting out to write this book. As Philip K. Dick said, "If the reader enjoys what I write, there you have it. If he does not enjoy it, there you have nothing. 'Important' is a rule from another game that I am not playing." And I think this is key: does that make Dick's work unimportant? Of course not.
I borrowed one of Boswell's journals from David, and we've talked a bit about how there are references to people who were considered really famous at the time and have now been almost entirely lost to the mists of history. I'm sure Pope thought The Dunciad was a great project, and I'm sure it was quite therapeutic for him. Some of it is even interesting. But mostly we're interested in it (if we are at all -- frankly, I'm not, mostly) because we're interested in Pope, not because we're interested in seeing long-forgotten poets skewered. And I think that's a lesson for writers, that we should do our thing and do it well, and then the public will put up with whatever else we want to write in perpetuity. Hmm. Perhaps not that lesson. That we should do our thing and do it well and remember that in-group references have limited value? Probably closer, yes.
Oooookay. So. I was going through an old journal last night, and I found my favorite quote of the week: "Creativity can solve any problem, sometimes even correctly." (Scott James) Yep. Remember that. I'm going to drag my sorry butt around here. Have a good day.
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