Variables (I, II, III)

NOTE: Because I've been putting this off since the blog began due to length, I'm going to periodically update this essay. You can tell how far I am by whether I add a numeral to the title. When I finish, I'll take down the numerals. Oh, and have a happy turkey day.

I. Too Many Variables

I recently went to a convention and tried to spread the idea of this new genre meme: Mundane (which we are blogging about here). Telling the authors that Geoff Ryman was involved bought me a few extra seconds, but not much more.

It was just too difficult to put into sound bites, and the sound bites I came up with were misleading without further explanations. One author patiently listened as I explained, and Greg Bear actually offered cogent advice (his knowing me may in part account for his helpfulness but he is also a genuinely swell fellow). To the other authors, I need to be fair. It's a paradigm shift. Scientists and the rest of us all struggle with having the way we view the world changed (more on this later). But in this case, the shift is absolutely essential to the livelihood of our planet.

Niall Harrison correctly notes that Geoff Ryman's Air (the first chapter is "Have Not Have" originally published in F&SF and now online at Infinity Plus) is quintessentially Mundane in theme.

Because of the number of variables involved, I won't explain Mundane here, but allow you to explore for yourself the tip of the iceberg of a new paradigm in SF that's unravelling on the site and on the blog (I'll try to notify changes at the site on the blog. I have much more content to add).

As you will see by examining Frank's reviews against mine, even readers aware of the paradigm shift will weigh shared variables differently. It's complex, true, but I trust the majority of the world can handle a little complexity.

II. Formula 409 (Title inspired by Daniel Green's statement "doesn't the very notion of 'genre' require a degree of repetition of established formulae?")

Perhaps because I'm trained in science as well as literature, I can see that everything breaks down into its parts, its variables--to be rebuilt by observers into a glorious whole, an edifice that may scrape the sky or sprawlingly hug the earth.

Scientists recently reported in Science magazine that Nicaraguan children, who were creating their own language (deaf children have been working out a new sign language over the last few generations), first began signing something they saw as a whole, creating signs for both object and action, i.e. the ball rolled down. As the language evolved and progressed, the signs were broken into more basic units to help clarify meaning.

Mechanics also learn by breaking engines down and putting them together. What human being doesn't?

And so, too, can fiction be broken down and understood. In essence all fiction is formula. I can probably wager my book collection safely that it wasn't a math major who coined the meaning behind the term "formulaic" but someone who not only had little understanding of formulas but loathed them, spreading the new coinage to those also ignorant of the ways of formula. Formula have great flexibility. Formulas are sleek, saying much in little space: There are many implications in the little and simple formula, E=mc2. Formulas allow for hundreds of uses. It always amazes me that we can calculate where a ball will fall if we know the angle and speed at which it was thrown (minus wind resistance and direction).

Formulas are beautiful things, designed with enough flexibility to demonstrate how the world works in various circumstances. Why not use them?

III. Caveats to Interpretation

I like average bloke readers--they love the text for itself--although sometimes I get discouraged when they malign folk for finding meanings deeper than the surface. I suspect Frost acted innocent of literary doings because he didn't want to scare off readers as University of Kansas professor Jonathan Mayhew (thanks to Green for pointing this out) writes, "just knowing it's a poem makes people think 'I won't understand it,' even if it is the most accessible text possible." The first order of business for any writer is to make the text enjoyable at the average bloke level, but literature can be wonderfully so much more.

I like English professors. They find so many clever manipulations of text. They do the language proud. An English graduate student (I was one temporarily and may join the rat race again) once told me how he'd been taught to read. I hadn't been brainwashed at the time and may have rolled my eyes. But that doesn't mean my mind is/was closed. I recently purchased Thomas C. Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor and have found some useful items among some common professorial disinformations.

How can a professor be wrong or spread disinformation? Mostly, they look for larger patterns first. "Everything is a symbol of something, it seems, until proven otherwise." Guilty until proven innocent, in other words. We don't build a case based on evidence but make the assumptions first. Foster's book is even built upon this idea in the way it presents its units as recognizing large clusters, instead of building from its constituent atoms. Although I do like his caveat at the end--"until proven otherwise"--the statement has lead to numerous false positives--interpretations where there ought to be none. Since I taught myself to read without sanctioned indoctrination (which means there's hope for those average blokes who don't yet know how to read more deeply), it would seem I'd be the one more likely to be wrong. Foster may find deeper meanings before I might, but if you look at the parts first and allow them to tell you what it's about, you'll have greater accuracy. Let's look at a for-example, again from Mayhew:

Of course there are difficult texts, and even "hidden meanings." The problem is when even a simple text has to be read in an allegorical mode. You know, those plums in the ice-box have to be about sex, or death.... There is a time to be more literal-minded, or to have the sensitivity to know when an object in the poem is not a "symbol" of something else.

(Well, those plums really are about sex, at some level, but that is not their meaning. It's more like an overtone that's "there" without being there.)

He started out okay, but erased his credibility with the parenthetical. Take a look at the poem he's referring to: "This Is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams.

Presumably, the fruit--the plums--are the delicious "fruits" of the female anatomy, right? Look at the language:

you were probably
for breakfast

So the narrator has taken the fruits that the woman cannot now enjoy for breakfast? A highly dubious maybe (not being a woman, I may not be aware of the lengths that women go to for breakfast). The only deeper meaning here is the emotional context, which such a Freudian interpretation overlooks: he's teasing her but in a manner that is loving, that speaks of a long relationship that bears such teasing, and that loves the addressee for putting up with such teasing. It's not just the poetic language that makes the poem genius but the underlying emotional content in its tone.

Because a professor of mine had once suggested that the texts we were reading had more than one purpose without telling us how to get at such different purposes, I looked at the units of language. Where else could a bumpkin guess to look? So I pulled out a multi-colored pen circled the different parts in different colors: one for character, one for setting, one for plot. Separated, the parts conveyed more clearly what the author was up to. Once you learn the parts, you can employ Foster's larger units. Otherwise, you're liable to have works that attempt to parrot the larger units, faking deeper meaning. (Writers have faked deeper meaning with language, to be sure--as I've heard writers brag about--but if you can read the smaller units carefully, you won't be fooled.)

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Flipper to Create Peace in Middle East, Next

Boing Boing points to heroic dolphins who save swimmers from villanous shark who later claimed he'd only wanted a wing. A U.N. meeting off the coast of Sicily unveiled plans for dolphins to sequester carbon and avert global warming. Kofi Annan was reported to have gotten a charley horse from all the bobbing, but he said he needed to get back in shape, anyway.

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Space Constraint III & MFA

Simon Owens of the blog with blissfully brief insights, Lit Haven, [LJ feed] pointed out this essay from storySouth on short shorts. The author, Jason Sanford, more or less said what I said here with more force (although I didn't think Stern's short was the most successful of that collection--perhaps it was the best available online).

As often happens when the MFA is held up as a sign deteriorating quality in fiction, Sanford strikes a few true chords but simplifies the case against MFA programs. Madison Smartt Bell and others have given good defenses of the MFA. Some writers claim to help young writers find their own voices (memory fails to cough up where I read that).

Bell thought that MFA writers in his experience often had many original voices but the problem came when a writer tried to incorporate all criticisms. (My own experience revising critiqued stories is that often the critiquer--no matter how specific--doesn't always know exactly what the problem is or at least the best way to solve it and maintain the artist's vision. If they say something should be shaded darker, maybe another area should be lighter. So turning the criticism to different angles may resolve voice problems, as well as tossing out illegitimate critiques (although those, too, may have grain of truth in them if you're will to ponder around the diatribes). Karen Joy Fowler had similar advice succinctly put: If they say your story should be longer, maybe it should be shorter or vice versa.)

I would take issue with his implied statement that short shorts are easier to write. It may take less time to put the first draft down, but to get the words right can take seven years--at least for some.

On the other hand, if "Hills Like White Elephants" were scribbled on a cocktail napkin to pay off a beer tab, should we care? Does the gestation period matter?

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Matt Peckham reviews games

I'm not a gamer, really. I've never been good at anything that requires true three dimensions like Zaxxon, which I sucked at. But after reading Matt's fiction for a few workshops, I follow his reviews and enjoy his little fictionally powered embellishments.

On Doom 3:

"little or poor character development (unless you count escalating emotional hysteria)"

On Rome: Total War:

"The central Roman Velite group is about to be baptized in flaming arrows...."

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Movies without real characters

The Incredibles were incredible. That's all I really need to say. It's one of those rare movies I want to see again--not because of any admirable art or craft, but just because they told the story so compellingly. Almost every line and scene seems fresh (though no doubt it's had a precursor elsewhere). Advice: go with duct tape if you must attend with someone who wants to tell you what happens next. If you need a story teaser, then: the superheroes of the world get sued into hiding.

Team America is tough to criticize since they are out to make fun of everyone who wants to get involved in the current mess we're in. The puppets are a great gag to hang the story on. Kim Jong-il takes the biggest hit--I hope, undeservedly so, though we've got to have a scapegoat, no?--but he gives the funniest moments:

"Hans Bricks! Oh no! Oh, herro, great to see you again, Hans...."

"Let me see your whole palace or else."

"Or else what?"

"Or else we will be very very angry with you, and we will write you a letter telling you how angry we are."

"Okay. I'll show you, Hans. You ready? Stand a little to your left. A little more...."

What's funny in a sadly humourous way is that one group may not get the ridicule inherent in the flashy suits and theme song and the hokey Americana scenes--or maybe I sell them short (they probably wouldn't attend, anyway, once they heard the South Park folk had created the movie). If you think only one person or group is to blame for the problems of the world, you probably fall into one of the three groups ridiculed and won't enjoy the movie.

Polar Express had great illustration and North Pole-mechanized imagination--if you loved the original, you'll revel in the movie that embellishes further into the imagination with a little more story--but it's difficult to hang a story on a tale that never really had one to begin with. Unlike The Incredibles, although some of the movements are incredibly life-like, the shoulders, hands, and mouths don't capture much of real movement. Otherwise, they've made real strides in CGI. Go to bask in the imagination and recapture some of that old Santa/kid spirit--if you ever had it. Or take your kids. They won't notice the lack of story but soak up the spirit--that is, for me anyway, most of the Christmas tales I loved as a kid never had a proper story, either.

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Planned Obsolescence

The Book Guys talk with Mark Bauerlein of the National Endowment for the Arts about the recent survey of reading habits in the US.

It's dismal news all around, but it gets worse. Wired magazine brags about the school of tomorrow: "Media Center: The library is designed less for books and more for interaction--online and in meatspace. Bookshelves of wheels, overstuffed chairs, and Wi-Fi create a coffeehouse vibe." Woo hoo. The library is no longer a library but a media center--if that name change doesn't tell the whole story, I don't know what does.

Book Guys mourn how the videotape is replacing the essay in some schools. This is not the primary problem, however. The primary problem is when we become incapable of dissecting what people are truly telling us (which mostly involves the how of telling--see below). We can peer beyond the flashy advertisement world we live in--yes, even Wired is designed for our eye-catching age. Unless we can peer beyond words, see them, and break them down in front of our eyes, we will become victims of all the master word-wielders. (Surely there's a story idea there.)

As we read less, how will we know which few books to stock in our shrinking library (but hey, we can push the books around on wheels--how cool is that)? Can we blame declining reading rates entirely on computer games? Can we blame ourselves? Laura Miller at the NY Times suggests maybe it's true. Putting aside Matthew Cheney's eloquent rebuke of popularity for the moment, Miller points out that all the National Book Award nominees "[hang their collective] hat on sidestepping readerly expectations."

Miller goes on to point out that two aren't even novels but "dispensed in fragments reminiscent of prose poems. One good thing about prose poems is that they aren't very long, and one good thing about novels is that, while long, they aren't prose poems."

But her most potent point, which some writers and many writer-wanna-bees may bemoan, is that "[m]ost of us, if forced to choose, will pick a strong story over perfect writing.... Readers, as a rule, care more about what an author writes; other writers are often more impressed with how. Beautiful sentences, formal experiments and infinitely delicate evocations of emotional states abound in these five books, but those woebegone souls in search of a good story will have to keep looking, elsewhere."

Don't get me wrong. I am crucially concerned with the how--the how affects the what, without doubt. But I worry that we've put way so much emphasis on the how that we've forgotten the what. To paraphrase, the Buggles: did writers kill the literary star?

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SF on Radio BBC 7

During the weekdays last week, BBC broadcast Stephen Baxter's Voyage dramatized--well done apart from a heavy-handed social message--which you can listen to here temporarily. They announced Terry Pratchett for next week.

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Space Constraint, part deux: The Other Hand

I am inordinately fond of short shorts and am dismayed when writers don't take it as seriously as other forms. You can say much in just a line or two. Ezra Pound, in explaining "In a Station of the Metro," wrote, "A Chinaman said long ago that if a man can’t say what he has to say in twelve lines he had better keep quiet." Some ideas deserve a larger canvas, but some small ideas use inordinately large canvases.

I recall Howard Waldrop once told us: If you think you have a novel idea, it's a novella. If you think you have a novella, it's a novelette. If you think you have novelette, it's a short story. If you think you have a short story, don't write it.

Which goes to show not only the need for brevity but also what Waldrop thinks of too much brevity. For too long, the subgenre of the genre has been home to the bad joke, devaluing what could have held much promise, which is to say neither that we don't need humor nor that anyone's to blame except a busy writing schedule allowing little extra time to make a short short significant. To find a gem among the old Asimov 100 Great... or Microcosmic Tales takes a lot of hunting. Amazing Stories seems to have discontinued their 1000 word game after three issues. Just as well though I hope it doesn't discourage the genre.

On the other hand, Eileen Gunn takes the genre seriously--both in Infinite Matrix and in her own two examples from her Stable Strategies collection.

Even lit-folk don't always take the genre seriously. Jerome Stern's Microfiction anthology has one diamond among few other gems. In less than 250 words, Rick DeMarinis' "Your Fears Are Justified" packs a wallop with three well-characterized characters:

In the Clinic City hospital I have to share a room with a heart patient. "What are you here for?" he asks. "Brain tumor," I say. He perks up, interested. "How's your ticker?" he says. His wife, large and phlegmatic, visits twice a day. The whisper. "You're terminal?" she asks, coyly. It's as if she's asked me about the weather in Des Moines. "Not that I know of," I say. "Brain tumor," her husbands whisperes, nudgeing her. They exchange loving glances. I know what they are thinking.... They want my heart.

Other stories worth studying from Microfiction:

Molly Giles' "The Poet's Husband" has a nice, resonant moment. Robert Shuster's "Eclipsed" captures a potent, child emotion we never lose. Pamela Painter paints the picture of a ham against marital discord's aftermath in "The New Year." Virgil Suarez's "Anti-Cain" shows how much politics can be stuffed in a tiny space. Joanne Avallon's "All This" is amazingly compact in time yet discursive yet delivering one imagistic blow to tell a lasting truth that isn't new but one we pretend to forget (not unlike Ron Wallace's "Worry" though the impact wasn't as thorough).

Stories (though that term does not always apply) worth reading:

Roberto Fernandez's "Wrong Channel" has good humor. Fred Chappell's "Painted Devils" shows machismo at full throttle. Natalia Rachel Singer employs lyric language. Tom Fleming's "Conception" and Stuart Dybek's "Flu" have a nice touch. Jamie Granger tells the old tale of "Stone Belly Girl" as does Betsy Kemper tell her own age-old injustice in "This Is How I Remember It." Ursula Hegi varies the theme on Sylvia Plath's life. In Russel Edson's "The Bridge," the male character speaks of looking for a sign that may already be there. Padgett Powell regrets "A Gentleman's C."

What I like about Stern's Microfiction is that most of the stories make an attempt that, like Peggy McNally's "Waiting," while it may not resonate for me no matter how I look at it, it must resonate for someone, one can tell, just by the way it's set up.

Finally, James Kelman sums up the feeling of telling a hard story to tell:

Ach, I dont want to tell this story....

Obviously the story has to get told....

Mmm, aye.... I don't want to tell it.

But you've got to tell it. Unless... if it's no story at all.

Oh, aye, christ it's a story, dont worry about that.

What often unites the better works is capturing poignant emotional moments that radiate meaning deeper than they seem they should. Before sending out prose, ask if it's a story, and if it is, what's it about? What words will carry the reader beyond the page?

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Boston edited poetry at The Pedestal

Bruce Boston edited the current poetry issue of The Pedestal. The best appears to be Lincoln Michel's discursive piece which has nice lyrical moments throughout. The best line that stuck out in my first reading was Charlee Jacob's "souls in a slow winter's march."

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Space Constraint: What We All Can Learn from "What We All Can Learn from Popular Fiction"

That's the title of an article in the ultra-short do-it-yourself magazine, Bottom Line.

The magazine itself is actually worth having if you don't want to wade through fat nonfiction books just to find what you need to know. The article writers are usually highly qualified in their respective fields.

That said, I think Gary Hoppenstand, PhD, overstates his case a bit, touting bestsellers for their intrinsic values. For example, in the lone science fiction writer category, he writes of Michael Crichton, "Crichton's novels force readers to confront problems created by technological progress. Jurassic Park dealt with cloning...."

But maybe that isn't overstating so much as stating to an audience which may not appreciate the finer points of fiction. Maybe a tax lawyer would find articles on tax shelter also necessarily oversimplified due to the space constraints. Maybe Hoppenstand's cases might have carried more weight if he had the room to explain what he meant.

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