2.10.2005

Modus Operandi

"You will find most books worth reading are worth reading twice."
-- John Morely

BBC recently attributed to Oscar Wilde the quote, "If a book isn't worth reading twice it isn't worth reading once," though this site claims Scooter(?) said it. Famous, infamous, or unfamous--whoever said it said wisely.

"[A]ll aspects of a film are based on formal, structural principles, and meaning as well as emotion is always communicated by structure.... Meaning or emotion does not exist without a form to communicate it. We never simply 'know' something."
--Robert Kolker, Film, Form and Culture

"Break up the larger story into its components, make sure you understand the exact function of each component (a story is like a machine with numerous gears: it should contain no gear that doesn't turn something) and after each component has been carefully set in place, step back and have a look at the whole."
--John Gardner

On our local public radio came a musician who spoke of teaching the next generation of musicians. Her rationale was that (I wish I had the direct quote) if you teach them, they will understand the form and be able to pass it on. The interest now infused in Language poetry may be due in large part to Ron Silliman's blog (his work can be found here).

All of this quoting is simply pointing the direction of this blog. I used to feel it important to be coyly speechless about art as Robert Frost or Robert Altman, but wouldn't it be better to explain art so that more could participate? The more who can participate, the higher the odds are that the arts will be funded for the future. Mystical, elitist attitudes about art and understanding it bore me, so I plan to dig deeper into texts (probably no deeper than I dug into "Wakefield," etc.). This means I'll be spoiling plots and sleight-of-hand, but would the story be worth reading if talking about it ruined it? (Maybe particularly well-crafted plot-driven stories, in which case I'll be as indirect and coyly phrased as possible.)

Jeff Vandermeer recently blogged one of his best commentaries on Haruki Murakamis. He asks, "Are there books we under-appreciate through no fault of the author's, but because our own imaginations as readers are not up to the task?" Maybe essays of more depth will help us get to a place where can appreciate them as opposed to reading good art because it's somehow mystically good for us. Spinach is too, but would you eat everything you were told was good for you if you didn't know how? If we aren't able to explain what we say we appreciate, do we truly appreciate it?

Where no Trekkie has gone before

Jed Hartman pointed out new Star Trek episodes online.

2.08.2005

Links

Gwenda Bond points out Stephen King's 12 tips for being a writer.

Rue D notes the wild stories homeless children of Miami tell.

Alan DeNiro had two interesting blogs: one on scrapping what doesn't seem to be working, another criticizing criticism. In the latter, I'm less interested in the speculating of motives but the approach: "The problem is that he really doesn't have any clue what Language poetry is, and never defines it; it's something rather specific." This kind of reacting positively or negatively without defining what you love or find wrong is symptomatic throughout the literary spectrum of discourse. DeNiro's implied advice is a page from a book I hope to follow in the future of this blog.

I'll read it more thoroughly later, but the Richard Tayson article does define language poetry as "a lack of narrative, a rejection of closure, an emphasis on textuality, and extreme attention to the material physicality of the shape and sound of words (or even letters) at the expense of...," etc.

My take on Language Poetry will be months down the road, but while I admire the new approach to language, I'm not convinced of its purported political purposes (hence, months down the road). DeNiro makes fun of Tayson's view of Whitman through hacker-speak: "Whitman is so 1337." I had to look up "1337" which is supposed to be short for "elite" although DeNiro may have had another definition in mind. (Explore the Urban Dictionary--very cool). Whitman, however, was the opposite of elite. He tried to embrace all of the culture at once--the broad sweep of his lines and the wide scope of his lens: from the technology of locomotives to nature's blade of grass to bear-hugging all of the nation's inhabitants in simple language. He sought to bring poetic language further towards the common man. In this sense, Language poetry does not follow the Whitman tradition as it estranges the language from the common man (which does not necessarily connote it is not poetry). The only way to test the Whitman supposition for certain is to take Whitman and language poetry on the streets and do a blind, randomized taste-test.

Zadie Smith on Writing

"I think the writer’s responsibility is to tell the truth. The aim is to try and tell the truth — any kind of truth. It can be a very tiny truth. Truth means not that you read the book and think, "Ah, yes, I make a cup of tea exactly that way." It’s not that. It has to be truth without generalization, without cliche, and without simplification."

The interview is somewhat antagonistic, but there are a few other interesting ideas after the ice is broken.

I also thought these two separate interviews came up with an interesting contrast. From Random House:

Q. When you write the beginning of a novel, do you already have the ending in your head or does it only become clear after journeying with the characters?

A. Yes, I need to know what the end of the story is before I begin a novel. By the time I start to write the novel I don't want to still be inventing the story; I want to be thinking only about the language or the next sentence, and the sentence after that. The process of imagining a whole story takes a year or eighteen months. I always begin with who the characters are and how and when their paths cross and recross.


From Masterpiece Theatre:

White Teeth is such a vivacious, anarchic story. Did you know how it was going to end when you started it?

No, I don't think so. I just finished a short story and I don't always know the ending when I start. I know it up to the middle, and the rest of it is a bit like pedaling downhill. If you don't get panicked it's fine.


The ideas are not completely contradictory, but one wonders if it has to do with the interviewing technique--if the interviewer/ee feel at ease.

2.06.2005

25% off book at Borders coupon (through Thursday 2/10/5)

2.02.2005

Eating their Dust

Two of my Clarion classmates have made a huge splash this year already:

Stephen Woodworth's second novel, With Red Hands, debuted at #25 on the NY Times bestseller list. His first, Through Violet Eyes, made it into three book clubs: Doubleday, Literary Guild, and SFBC (as a Featured Alternate).

Margo Lanagan won an Aurealis award for her collection, Black Juice, four stories of which were recommended by Locus.

Our instructor, Gwyneth Jones, is a finalist for the Philip K. Dick award.

(And here I get excited when I finish writing a whole scene.)

Woo-Hoo! I'm rich!

Finally, after all the Paypal phishing scams [if you don't know what phishing is, read this now] via Australians and Europeans (according to the links of their redirect websites, that is), I'm finally getting the promise of money in return for the theft of my identity. It's not quite as kooky as the story about the deposed African ruler with a pot of gold in his backyard that he needs my money to dig up, but it must do the trick. (At least this scam gives the thread of a story. It has an official term: 4-1-9.)

Subject: Attn: Bequest Beneficiary
From: "Law Office"



ATTENTION:

Sir

NOTIFICATION OF BEQUEST .

This is sequel to your non response of our earlier letter to you on behalf of the Trustees and Executors to the Will of late of Hon Engr.Billy Scotts(KSM),I wish to notify you that you were listed as a beneficiary to the bequest of the sum of Five Million One Hundred Thousand US Dollars in the codicil and last testament of the deceased. The late Engr. Billy Scotts until his death was a former Managing Director and pioneer staff of a big construction company Julius Berger BV in the Netherlands. He was a very dedicated Sufis and a great philanthropist during his life time.


Late Hon. Billy Scotts died on 9th February 2004 at the age of 68,He was buried on the 23rd of February. Late Hon. Billy Scotts even though he was an American living and working in Holland as a foreigner he requested before his death that he be buried here in his words, "I regard here as My home and the people as my people". He said that this token is to support your ministry and help to the less- privileged. I hereby request that you forward any proof of identities of yours, your current telephone and fax numbers and your forwarding address to enable us file necessary documents at the High Court of Justice probate division for the release of this bequest of money.

Congratulations.

Yours faithfully,

Dr. Van De Groot

PS
For the purpose of confidentiality, please send your
response to : lawoffice63@netscape.net

2.01.2005

New Aimee Bender tale

Lit Haven just published a new Aimee Bender tale called "Night."

1.31.2005

House of Flying Daggers

After some discussion with my movie-watching companion, I thought I would be a lone voice of dissent, but it appears a number of critics were unsatisfied with their movie experience while I, on the whole, was.

The movie opens with a song and dance, intimating the extensive choreography to follow. After the blind Mei is nearly raped for turning on a young man while dancing, Mei must perform an echo dance to halt execution. Laws of gravity are defied to set us up for more of these small breaks in reality (also, daggers stop spinning to reorient themselves), but the choregraphies grow visually more aesthetic as the film progresses.

The film's plot reverses the Robin Hood story, as Robin Hood steals from the rich to give to the poor and infiltrates the enemy. Here, the enemy plans to infiltrate the House of Flying Daggers, with plenty of plot twists along the way. The story does transform into something of a Shakespearean love-triange tragedy that ends up on a sappy note (a critic or two complained of the love story, but they need to watch a character more carefully throughout). Some of the ludicrous reality breaks are eventually explained away (a character does something that indicates all the charcter has needed done was a farce), so wait patiently. But someone appears to die, arises after a lengthy period of time so that lovers can die in each others' arms. There were probably other, more convincing ways of achieving this effect.

Still, if you haven't seen this, like your love and violence liberally mixed, and prefer battles of choreography to battles of bedlam, this is a must-see.
Jonathan Strahan seeks what you think the past century+ fantasy stories have been.

1.26.2005

SF Movie to Watch

"In Triple M's system of governance, humans are assigned a market value that rises and falls based on how much regulated sex they have."

Hal Hartley sure knows how to intrigue with one sentence of description (Wired).

1.25.2005

Scamming the Scammers, Character Maintenance

February Wired

It'll be made available online soon enough, but this issue lists possible recipes to be made aboard a human mission to Mars based on the foods they will be growing.

Donnie Darko, director's cut is forthcoming, as is the 1982 anime, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, directed by Hayao Miyazaki of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke fame.

It is no longer hip to write or dictate books. Now, if you want to hang out with the cool kids, you have to blog your book. Have Wired writers, Bruce Sterling or Cory Doctorow, been updated on the wired-tired-expired cool-meter? Other stylishnesses include putting on your shirt without putting your head and arms through the normal openings first and making a backpack out of pantyhose.

Consistency: Round-Up--Last Post

I predicted that the difference in perception would hinge on science and, lo, it did. I suspect, while it's nothing to wake Sigmund Freud from his slumber to analyze, we all have hidden or buried philosophies supporting our views, but it's difficult to speculate what, without getting to know all the characters better.

Jeff Vandermeer offers his view on character consistency.

Daniel Green has a few interesting posts on the purpose of literature: Love the text for the text only (kind of New Critic in tone--though I may be oversimplifying, yet it's hard to tell from just this) and similarly, more thoughtfully if not as forcefully wrought, reality in literature. These may in some ways be seen as challenging this view of character consistency. However, it is tiresome defending the plasticity of science from those who see it as rigidly black/white. Look at human beings. Are they built from nature? (Yes.) Are they simple? (No.) I'm all for reading the text as a text, but as they are written by human beings, they cannot escape being influenced by the culture of human beings. I'll talk a wee bit more about science when discussing Cheney's possible difficulty with the idea as presented.

Hal Duncan, who is said to have a first novel forthcoming from Tor UK, joined in the fun. The more the merrier. Unfortunately, he read Matt's commentary first and assumed I was enforcing some kind of stereotyping of characters: "A character study of a fascist might attempt to make that character 'consistent' by showing them as a psychopath." But later, in the comment section, after reading "Wakefield" and my take, he seems to see better this view of character consistency. After all, one can still be consistent with one's self even if he isn't rational, i.e. a character doesn't know why he almost OD'd on pills. It gives the character an imperative to understand himself. For whatever reason, we cannot see ourselves without distortion, so we readers have to, as Salman Rushdie said, step out of the frame and examine the picture. If our character who OD'd chose not to examine his actions, his narrative could simulate another kind of foolish Wakefield, living moment to moment, thinking only of where he'll place the next foot, never considering that the next step may lead to his demise--so that the doomed man's consistently not living the examined life.

I can also imagine someone desperate to break the rule, writing out a whole melee of characters who develop one characterization then suddenly develop a wholly different personality for no reason. At best, you could come up with an idea story, neglecting character, and at best distancing (and at worst alienating) your readers from the material. It'd be a novel experiment but limited in scope, ability, and interest.

***

Recap of the story

I responded to Gwenda Bond's no-rules rule by saying that there are rules, they're just not anal-retentive ones. Matt reponded by turning my rule of internal character consistency into something rigid and inflexible and by giving some examples that break (not bend--most rules can be bent) the rule. I replied that science isn't rigid at all but describes the wide range of earth's complexity and after dissecting Wakefield, found the character well motivated and consistent to himself. At first Matt bought my reply, but then decided he's still not convinced after I said that it is not society's norm for character but the character's norm which is bound by its genes and changing environment.

(Side note: Again, it is not what society defines oddness of behavior but what is odd for that character. Alan DeNiro points out Coyote as breaking the rule when in fact Coyote is so consistent, he's an archetype.)

***

Keeping it between the ditches

This is always chancy, but I'm going to speculate that what may be bothering Matt is that he doesn't consider himself at the whim of genes and environment. Maybe he thinks I'm suggesting we have no free will. I'm not. Consider genes and environment as ditches on one's wide road. The genes ditch is normally not very steep, but the environment one can be. The environment ditch might crossover and force you to drive into the gene ditch, i.e. you might never want to kill someone, but you might be goaded into doing so. However, for some, the gene ditch will be too steep and they'd rather die than kill.

(But then you can ask, Was the desire not to kill drilled in by society (environment) or one's natural inclination? The question, however, is irrelevant to this discussion.)

***

Nature as author

Nature does a lot of experimenting with life. Consider them first drafts, the vast majority of which get tossed in the trash. But those lucky success stories succeed for a reason. Something in the environment was conducive to its existence. Science magazine recently reviewed a book that did nothing more than explain the design of teeth. There may be much randomness involved in creating life but its existence is allowed to succeed for a reason.

***

Final Ethical Consideration

What's my buried philosophy? I worry that we may allow characters to become unknowable, so that we cease attempting to understand: be it understanding selves or the other. Certainly we have enough people fighting wars because the other is unknowable.

Links

Weird Trailers for Forthcoming Movies

From Crispin Glover

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman's Mirrormask

(links via Rue D and Boing Boing)

***

Cheryl Morgan is the transom for rectifying of wrongs done to Tolkien. I already shared my thoughts on this though I've been meaning to put out a statement on the strength of Moorcock's argument (by the way, the article's title wasn't mine and perhaps set the wrong tone).

1.23.2005

Hawthorne's "Wakefield"

Hawthorne is morally a hard man, which doesn't mean he's cruel or unfair but perhaps a little harsh. His words are whips to ne'er-do-wells, but finishing "Wakefield" and finding aspects of his descriptions that closely mirrored my experience with depression, I only now realized that these harsh words weren't against other people but himself. There's no way he could have captured depression without knowing himself (especially in his day, when medical responses to melancholia or hysteria were the equivalent blood-letting for patients who needed blood: locking them away--medicine in my experience still has some distance to travel to fully grapple with the subject). Hawthorne isn't castigating what he hasn't felt firsthand. Let's briefly peer into his life before lifting the lid on "Wakefield" (my apologies to the New Critics, but blame Malcolm Cowley's introduction to The Portable Hawthorne for validating my ideas).

Hawthorne's father died when Nathaniel was only four. At nine, a foot injury kept him confined to the house. Depression is a disease of hopelessness so deep it's not worth trying. For some, this may come through a number of tragedies or losses. Consider if you had an accident that prevented you from acting for two years. Would you be eager to step out and take risks? Might you not withdraw?

Cowley writes:

Another paradox is also connected with his solitude and self-absorption. Hawthorne was reserved to the point of being secretive about his private life [I'll emphasize this in the Wakefield text below], and yet he spoke more about himself with greater honesty, than any other American of his generation.... [M]ost of his stories... are full of anguished confessions....

Mr. Bullfrog's [a character from "The Vision of the Fountain"] predicament was like the one in which Hawthorne had involved himself during his Salem years: in a sense he was married to his own image, for which--if his tales are a trustworthy guide--he felt an attachment that was physical as well as moral. Moreover his self-absorption had come to have a sinister meaning for him.... [H]e had wandered alone into the forest of his mind and had suddenly found himself in the midst of a witches' sabbath.

Hawthorne had descended into a sort of underworld, as many great artists do at some stage of their lives. For various reasons--sometimes a moral fault, sometimes a physical infirmity or a violation of accepted standards--they are cut off from other human beings, left face to face with themselves, and given an unbearable sense of their own separateness.... a prison that had no visible bars.... Eventually he came to resemble one of his own characters, Gervayse Hastings of "The Christmas Banquet," who considered himself the unhappiest of men [One might consider one's self the unhappiest of men in a stiff-upper-lip culture that frowned upon not readily visible conditions, allowing between one in five to one in three other like-sufferers to go unnoticed]. "You will not understand it," Hastings told his rivals in misery. "None have understood it--not even those who experience the like...."

Sophia made [Hawthorne] an admirable wife, cheerful in their early hardships, respectful of his daily need for solitude, always regarding him as the sun around which she returned.... The fact is that his life turned outwards after 1842 ["Wakefield" was written in 1835] and... he cured himself of his self-centeredness, became active in his world.


These experiences mirror much of the tale in "Wakefield" (note--albeit minor and perhaps only coincidental--how each character mentioned has the same two syllables and inflection: Wakefield, Hawthorne, Hastings, Bullfrog). Had Hawthorne been more aware of the constellation of symptoms, the character might have been more carefully motivated although he is well enough motivated even if those motivations are somewhat obscure to Wakefield himself. It may also be that other readers notice aspects unfamilar to my experience. What's important is that Hawthorne catalogued the reality [or nature] he was aquainted with--no matter how little sense it made. Still, fully cognizant or not, Hawthorne would have undoubtedly been just as harsh for sins committed against others.

Let's put Hawthorne's life in the background while we analyze Wakefield.

The very title indicates a need for waking from an inward, mental slumber--asleep in the field when one ought to be working. The next thing to notice is that we are actually quite distant from the protagonist of Wakefield. The narrator sits in the parlor with us pontificating judgement over a pipe of tobacco. We get to hear of the clear tenor of his disapproval in no uncertain terms: "[N]one of us would perpetrate such a folly."

So who is Wakefield? (All bold emphases mine.)

He was now in the meridian of life; his matrimonial affections, never violent, were sobered into a calm, habitual sentiment; of all husbands, he was likely to be the most constant, because a certain sluggishness [note all these references to laziness which is how depression can appear to the uninitiated outsider; but in this story, it's also a laziness of mind not to think about the final effects of one's actions] would keep his heart at rest, wherever it might be placed. He was intellectual, but not actively so; his mind occupied itself in long and lazy musings, that ended to no purpose, or had not vigor to attain it; his thoughts were seldom so energetic as to seize hold of words. Imagination [that is, imagination to know how his actions would affect his wife], in the proper meaning of the term, made no part of Wakefield's gifts. With a cold but not depraved nor wandering heart, and a mind never feverish with riotous thoughts, nor perplexed with originality [what this indicates is more of the same, yet it isn't the normal cruelty that motivates Wakefield but a lack of imagination to see that far ahead to the inevitable effect; but also by not making Wakefield cruel, Hawthorne swivels his finger to his reader: you're not cruel, no, but neither is he: are you anticipating the effects of your actions?], who could have anticipated that our friend would entitle himself to a foremost place among the doers of eccentric deeds?


What did Wakefield do?

The man, under pretence of going a journey, took lodgings in the next street to his own house, and there, unheard of by his wife or friends, and without the shadow of a reason [that he knew of] for such self-banishment, dwelt upwards of twenty years. During that period, he beheld his home every day, and frequently the forlorn Mrs. Wakefield. And after so great a gap in his matrimonial felicity--when his death was reckoned certain, his estate settled, his name dismissed from memory, and his wife, long, long ago, resigned to her autumnal widowhood--he entered the door one evening, quietly, as from a day's absence, and became a loving spouse till death.


What motivates Wakefield to leave his wife?

Had his acquaintances been asked, who was the man in London the surest to perform nothing today which should be remembered on the morrow [do we need any other motivator than to be remembered? The other adjectives describe what Hawthorne's narrator feels about this], they would have thought of Wakefield. Only the wife of his bosom might have hesitated. She, without having analyzed his character, was partly aware of a quiet selfishness, that had rusted into his inactive mind; of a peculiar sort of vanity, the most uneasy attribute about him; of a disposition to craft which had seldom produced more positive effects than the keeping of petty secrets, hardly worth revealing [see note in Cowley's quote at the top]; and, lastly, of what she called a little strangeness, sometimes, in the good man. This latter quality is indefinable, and perhaps non-existent.


Matthew Cheney infers from the last quality mentioned, strangeness: "The wife may think she knows her husband, but the narrator has doubts." But if you take another look, you'll see it is just the "latter quality [that] is indefinable, and perhaps non-existent," which is rather generous of Hawthorne's narrator: The quality of strangeness (in nature?) is perhaps non-existent. So-called oddities of behavior may be normal or consistent with that creature.

Wakefield's motivations are all short-sighted, so he has motivations--he may not be aware of them, which is one-half of his crime, the other half being not thinking about future consequences. Hawthorne's narrator even speaks of Wakefield's short-sighted motivations: "Such are his loose and rambling modes of thought that he has taken this very singular step with the consciousness of a purpose, indeed, but without being able to define it sufficiently for his own contemplation." Each step of the way, Wakefield makes new decisions (based on motivations) such as buying a wig to disguise himself from his wife: "After the initial conception, and the stirring up of the man's sluggish temperament to put it in practice, the whole matter evolves itself in a natural train."

He's blithely unaware of what effects his motivations are causing others: "his harmless love of mystery.... almost resolved to perplex his good lady by a whole week's absence." Some effects on his wife? She "make[s his visage] strange and awful: as, for instance, if she imagines him in a coffin," etc.

Wakefield "[l]ittle knowest thou thine own insignificance in the great world!" King James Bible language, no less. He thinks himself so significant--which is his vanity, his foolishness--that his absence will increase his value: "[H]ow the little sphere of creatures and circumstances, in which he was a central object, will be affected by his removal."

And Wakefild "[a]lmost repent[s] of his frolic," but does not. What motivates him not to go back home? "[H]e is rendered obstinate by a sulkiness occasionally incident to his temper, and brought on at present by the inadequate sensation which he conceives to have been produced in the bosom of Mrs. Wakefield. He will not go back until she be frightened half to death."

Again and again, Wakefield nearly leaves, "excited to something like energy of feeling [if he had used his imagination, he could have felt his wife's pain]." Later he tries wake himself up: "Wakefield! Wakefield! You are mad!" Come on. If he's aware of his crime, what's stopping him from rectifying it for twenty years?

He is "unwilling to display his full front to the world," and "an influence beyond our control lays its strong hand on every deed which we do, and weaves its consequences into an iron tissue of necessity. Wakefield is spell-bound." Are these not perfectly apt descriptions of depression? Perhaps in Hawthorne's day he saw the influence as other-worldly. Even when energy breaks the heavy spell of depression, it is too brief to be effective:

[He] throws himself upon the bed. That latent feelings of years break out; his feeble mind acquires a brief energy from their strength.... [His situation] so moulded him to himself, that, considered, in regard to his fellow-creatures and the business of life, he could be said to possess his right mind.


Here's one curious effect of time-warping that I have not heard others describe but has occured to me (albeit I was quite aware of what was happening--as incomprehensible as it continued to be):

[A]nd still he would keep saying, "I shall soon go back!"--nor reflect that he had been saying so for twenty years.

I conceive, also, that these twenty years would appear, in the retrospect, scarcely longer than the week to which Wakefield had at first limited his absence. He would look on the affair as no more than an interlude in the main business of his life. When, after a little while more, he should deem it time to reenter his parlor, his wife would clap her hands for joy, on beholding the middle-aged Mr. Wakefield. Alas, what a mistake! Would Time but await the close of our favorite follies, we should be young men, all of us, and till Doomsday.


I have risen at five in the morning to get ready for work and found myself at eight o'clock still not ready. Before, it could take me fifteen minutes. I have told people I would review their work or write them email and suddenly it would be weeks, months later and it seemed like only the other day that I'd said I'd get to it.

And this loss of time is exactly Hawthorne's conclusion:

[S]tepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.


For Wakefield, Hawthorne, and William Styron, friends and family are pulling for them. Everyone's experience of this seemingly mysterious affliction is slightly different and sometimes seemingly motiveless, but causes do often exist if we are able to find them--be it genetic defects or a series of unfortunate events.

1.22.2005

Are Stories, Reviews, and Criticism Sound and Fury?

Briefly, if there were no rules whatsoever, there would be no such thing as criticism. Cheney's blog or reviews would be entirely irrelevant, for he would have no basis upon which to make his judgements.

This might suit some writers very well until they realized it would also be impossible to describe or explain or justify what they did. Sooner or later, art will have to justify itself lest it become increasingly irrelevant.

Consistency of Character

Matt Cheney has challenged the notion that characters have to behave consistently. This is good. I enjoy it when we challenge one another.

However, some of my comments have been turned into a strawman, a simplistic version erected to be knocked down. The main problem in this debate will be one thing: science. Some folk (Matt perhaps?) think folk who trust science fool-hardy because the science folk think they have it "all figured out." But this is a major misconception. You only have to work with scientists to know that they know much, but also know that they have many more mysteries to unravel. It's possibly impossible for one human being--even if he knew every permutation of nature--to have it all figured out.

But let's take down the straw man, point by point, and see where the difference between us lies (I suspect we're not so different). Matt writes:

"[I]f you believe human beings are fundamentally understandable, predictable, and subject to whatever you define as "the laws of nature" (apparently all figured out and bereft of mystery)."

"Fundamentally understandable?" I didn't say this, but yes, if you're willing to examine nature, you can understand it, assuming we have the time and intelligence to do so (and I suspect that anyone, whose intelligence hasn't been damaged through genetic or environmental mishap, can). Do we always understand ourselves? No, not unless we carefully examine the selves and environment impinging upon them.

"Fundamentally... predictable?" I didn't say this, but mmmaybe. If you had a godlike machine that could predict every element within nature and how every gene will respond to such environmental pressures, it's theoretically possible. But by humans? A highly dubious prospect. I suspect this may have been thrown in because we like to throw things together in threes, or maybe it was thrown in to "poison the well" for those readers who like to consider themselves unpredictable.

Again, I didn't say that we had nature "all figured out." Why is a mystery so intriguing to humans? It is a narrative hook, true (this is the kind of narrative hook that Cheney prefers although he doesn't like the term hook). But why is a mystery a hook that pulls us into narratives? Because we want to fundamentally understand it, as best we can. But as I said about predicting nature, you'd have to be godlike to do so, so how could nature be without mystery to the human being, there for us to explore and understand?

The comment on "the laws of nature" relates to Barth Anderson's comment that fiction exists outside of nature. But we humans too quickly forget we are a part of nature, as if our existence or the existence of the things we create is itself a divine existence. We seem to believe that we each appeared on Earth without procreative activity wholly natural to nature which is how every other creature on Earth appeared here. Fiction is yet another natural outgrowth of every human activity, to understand ourselves and the world we live in. It's possible to use fiction as a mystery to show that we may not understand everything, but that too is an attempt at understanding the nature of our limitations.

Matt goes on to say:

"human personality is nothing more (or less) than a congregation of chemical reactions."

This unfortunately does not back up his conclusion that "people have the capacity to be not only unpredictable, but fundamentally unknowable." But maybe Matt didn't take chemistry and finds the subject a mystery. The only possible link between these two ideas is that because we have so many chemical reactions, it is difficult to predict or "know" (problematic term with its many denotations) a human being.

(I'll step over the gratuitous cow excrement.)

Matt starts to make a good case here:

"But people do fall apart. People do things that they don't, themselves, understand, and that 20 years of therapy may only been able to give them superficial stories for. People are unpredictable, bizarre, wanton, extreme, contradictory, and utterly messy. (Shoot a railroad spike through their frontal lobe and their personality will change entirely.)"

You bet people fall apart (and don't I know it firsthand). Yet if people are inconsistent as Matt contends, how can they fall apart? This line of reasoning begins to unravel. If Matt does not believe in cause-and-effect, then why does he write, "Shoot a railroad spike through their frontal lobe and their personality will change entirely"?

It's difficult to name all the causes because nature is a huge place with interactions occuring at subatomic, molecular, cellular, organ, organism, societal, world, and other cosmic levels. But as Matt's example shows, we can narrow the possible causes down to explain their effects. (However, I highly doubt that a personality will change "entirely"--major aspects of a personality seem likely to be altered.)

Matt uses the term "unpredictable" again. Every "unpredictable" character I've known--and I hung out with quite a few that desired this attribute--behaved so for a predictable reason: attention, which hopefully led to the ultimate attribute, loved. (I ought not say every unpredictable character since the unpredictableness comes from outside the character, and I've been called unpredictable and the rest, with no intention of my being so. They just didn't happen to be in my mind when I made decisions they thought unpredictable.) Same goes for the bizarre (which is probably another term for an unpredictable character) and for the wanton.

But none of these attributes make up an inconsistent character. If you say "People are," your syntax speaks of consistency. It's quite possible to be consistently "unpredictable, bizarre, wanton, extreme, contradictory, and utterly messy."

You can even have a suddenly "wanton" character. I knew gals who suddenly became wanton in college. Why should that be? Isn't that inconsistent? No. They felt constrained by the demands of their parents while living under their roof, but once free, the girls wanted to catch up with other girls who hadn't felt so constrained or wanted to be wanted/desired/loved.

Matt writes:

"the mystery prevents readers from reducing the characters to simple, unambiguous interpretations"

Again, let's not build a strawman. There's nothing simple about understanding ourselves.

"[A] story about a pedophile who suddenly and inexplicably stops being a pedophile would be fascinating, particularly if the writer had the integrity to never offer a reason for this change of behavior."

If you take a minute to ponder this statement, you'll realize its impossibility. How can a story be about something it's not about?

Matt goes on:

"Characters in the story might try out various explanations, might offer reasons and justifications and hypotheses and guesses, but none would be adequate."

Now this might work, but it is still an attempt to understand though it probably won't be about the mystery. What the story would then be about would be that we sometimes cannot fully understand objects of mystery if you cannot identify its causes (but then one might wonder if this isn't merely another strawman: i.e. the fiction truly is a construct to justify one's personal politics or beliefs and diametrically not "mysteriously real" at all).

I need to read Cheney's reference to "Wakefield" and I'll get back on topic. Conceivably, this story will convince me of Cheney's argument. I also need to exercise and work on a story. Maybe tomorrow I'll finish up the topic. In the meantime, try to see these debates as ideas worth juggling and overlook the strawmen--unfortunately, more strawmen appear to lie ahead--to see what is at the heart of what each debater asserts.

1.21.2005

You Do Know, Don't You?

Y'all do know that this year's short films and interviews from Sundance Film Festival is all online, don't you? I just haven't heard anyone in the small corner of the blogosphere writing about it. The site was originally designed to highlight online films but they said they didn't find enough quality to put on display. Still, cool news.

1.20.2005

Here's One Rule

Gwenda Bond points to Janni Simner who says there are no rules. There may be no anal-retentive rules (i.e. you must write stream-of-conscious, you must write in third person limited, you must not rhyme or rhythm or iambic pentameter your plays at important points of the narrative, you must write likeable characters (likeable to whom?)), but there is no game without rules of play. The rules are bendable but not scrap-able. The rules are simple in theory but not simplistic and not always simple in practice. The game for some writers is to bend the rules to different effects and try to still create a sense of wholeness.

Here's one rule I was reminded of when I listened to a creative writing classmate discuss why he/she didn't like a character because it wasn't something he/she would do. This is an example of a too-inflexible rule. True, who hasn't watched a movie of absolute idiots where, say, they wander about a haunted house with a murdering ghost chasing after them? If a character weren't too stupid to just step outside the realm of the ghost's territory, you'd have no plot.

But if you hold too fast to this rule, which is actually part of another more legitimate rule, you'll reject respectable works of literature, such as Lolita, the story of a pedopile, because you would not molest a child. But a few will and do, so how do we account for them? Truth be told, you probably have an interest in something that makes no sense to the majority of the public. Maybe you like feet or shoes or large noses. These quirks are what make you you. It's natural because it exists in nature. Nature has created some beautiful, some strange, some hideous traits in its long life. That's the nature of nature. Any trait in nature should be free game for fiction.

However, each person has a personality or rules for his life, which make him him. Those rules either include or exclude pedophilia. They may include or exclude a shoe fetish. They may include or exclude passion for fish foods. All that matters is that the character must be consistent. You cannot have a pedophile on one page and magically transform him into something else the next. You can transition or alter the character so long as it falls within the boundaries of his rules for living. Rules are encoded genetically or environmentally or both (found via twin studies). If you're going to write about living creatures we know and understand, you have to follow their rules. If they don't follow their own rules, they fall apart.

Going back to the haunted house story whose plot falls apart if the characters walk outside, you can still create a good story by forcing genetic rules upon the character(s): Maybe the character(s) are bold thrill-seekers or death-seekers. But if you have a protagonist of average intelligence and predilection for living life in safety, you'll have to come up with an external or environmental reason for him being stuck in the house: cops may be sniffing the character(s) out for murder, a living murderer has chased our protagonist inside but is afraid to go in himself.

But this isn't the only rule of the game.

1.19.2005

Buckell on Novels, Clarion Auction

Tobias Buckell weighed in on how he develops his novels.

Clarion East is having an auction to help keep it going which will start bidding on midnight January 28, with some fancy rarities and signed editions. Some odd bits include Cory Doctorow's signed, spiral-bound, 10-copy homemade galley of the forthcoming Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town; Neil Gaiman’s Preferred Limited Edition of American Gods with 12,000 new words ($200), lettered editions of A Screenplay and American Gods ($750); Geoffrey Landis' Mars Exploration Rover Official Project Memorabilia and Centennial Flight Commemorative Flag; three hours of Bruce McCallister's time for critiquing/coaching ($150); Jeff VanderMeer's limited Finnish edition (in Finnish) of The Exchange ($60) and a fragment of a new manuscript The Zamilon File; and Kate Wilhelm's 300-copy hardbound Nebula- and Locus-nominated novella, Naming the Flowers.

(Note: The Gary Myers novel/collection on auction is valued at fifty dollars according to my Arkham House Guide.)

Unconfirmed rumor has it there's another Clarion down the pipeline. Shall it be dubbed Clarion North to cover the compass? or Greenwich Mean Time?

1.18.2005

Another Reason to Read Lit Haven

Simon Owens of Lit Haven has just taken over duties of blogging paying markets from Write Hemisphere, in addition to posting micro-essays about favorite stories read on the internet transom and the occasional micro-interview (some are silly, some interesting). Explore if you have not already.

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Novels, Coupon

Sherwood Smith discusses developing novel ideas and asks other writers how they develop theirs.

She also pointed to David Levine's notes from a Dean Wesley Smith session on the novel from the novel workshop he teaches with his wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

Here's a coupon for 25% off one item at Borders or Walden.

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