Of Course Fiction is a Drug. Now . . .

In fact, it is many different sorts of drugs, producing many different effects, depending on the chemical one is consuming, and one’s own brain chemistry.  What produces euphoria in one, might produce heartbreak in another,  profound insights in a third, mere boredom in a fourth.

What all of these drugs have in common–or, at least, the subject of today’s sermon–is the time-release nature of the capsule the reader is consuming.  One might say that the reader is consuming words at a given rate; but more important is that the reader is consuming information.  Every sentence, every paragraph, every comma, is designed to control the flow of information to the reader.  And that sometimes means speeding it up, sometimes slowing it down.

Not long ago I had the insight that two of my favorite things to do as a writer are: to tell the reader things, and to not tell the reader things.  Let me expand on that a little.  When I say “tell the reader things” I mean, in particular, conveying information by the expedient of simply saying it.  “His name is Mark; he is a good friend and a jerk.”  When I speak of not telling the reader things, I mean giving the reader the information needed to form his own conclusions: “Adam spoke about Mark in notably uncomplimentary terms.  I couldn’t argue with anything he said, though it made me uncomfortable and a little sad.”

There are times for doing each of those, and one of the main factors to consider is: how fast am I dispensing information?  Am I in danger of making the reader irritated or impatient because he wants to run ahead of me?  Am I asking him to hold too much in his head without giving him time to process it all?”

Before this post gets too loaded with information long, I’ll just make one recommendation.  If you want to want to see the dispensing of information performed perfectly, delightfully, elegantly, go read Isle of the Dead by Roger Zelazny.

And that will do for now.


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26 thoughts on “Of Course Fiction is a Drug. Now . . .”

  1. Posts like this make me wicked excited about whatever you’re writing. In equal measure, scared of what you will do to us poor readers.

    (something is weird in the comment function — this text box seems to be about as long as your post, and the name & email fields have the sample text and my entries both showing (or did until I clicked on them))

  2. I read To Die in Italbar as part of an anthology, but I have yet to read Isle of the Dead. I need to get on that. Speaking of fiction though, I was wondering- what modern fiction books do you read? I’m kind of a sucker for the Dresden-type urban wizard, but I also really like Abraham’s Dagger and the Coin and Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle. I kind of just like fantasy in general.

  3. Yeah. A base reply to the article makes the fields look weird when you click in the main text box, but for some reason a reply to a reply looks OK. This is in Chrome, btw.

  4. Ah, not what usually gets put in under that kind of heading. The parallel between novels and drugs is usually an equivalence of escapism — artificial joy. My only reply to that, and Steven’s version, is simple. All hobbies are distractions and escapes, designed to give us an emotional fulfillment, be it a good book, playing shortstop, or anything else. Writing, really, isn’t any different. There’s a story in a baseball game, too: it includes triumph, suspense, success, failure, and all the other emotions of a novel.

  5. It seems like the art of not-telling has never been widely practiced. Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a superlative example – I don’t think she ever writes a single sentence directly describing Isabella Thorpe, yet she is one of the most clearly drawn characters in the book.

    I think the telling aspect tends to go over best in short stories rather than novels. There’s less room for nuance so the direct approach is almost a requirement – Frank Stockton’s stories being a favorite example of that (yes, I know they’re 120+ years old, but I don’t read many modern short stories).

    Speaking of non-fiction, I assume you’ve been reading a lot on the Civil War. Have you read McPherson’s “What They Fought For”, a series of lectures he gave in 1993? (I was going to bring this up in an earlier thread but decided I had already misstepped enough.) He later expanded it to a full book – For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. If you’ve not read these, I can recommend the first, but I haven’t read the expanded volume.

  6. Rereading Isle of the Dead sounds like a great idea. I went over to my bookshelf and it wasn’t there. It should have been, but wasn’t. No problem (I think), I bring up B&N, no electronic version and it appears to be out of print. Luckily Amazon has a used copy,–I’ll just have to wait a bit.
    Now, doing a bit more searching, it still appears that Zelazny’s books aren’t available in electronic format. This seems like a major oversight on the part of any parties involved.

  7. I’ve read For Cause and Comrades. It is brilliant. I used it as a reference in a Civil War discussion on this blog a couple of months ago. These days, my algorithm for buying Civil War books is: Does it have a quote by McPherson? If yes, buy;if no, pass.

  8. It seems extremely unlikely to me that any of that content is legal. But I would be happy to hear that for some magical reason the Amber Corporation had all electronic rights and have released them to PD.

  9. Do you really base your book buying habits on the work of one person?

    While I favor John Keenan’s analysis of whatever history he chooses to write about, it would seem terribly limiting to only select books that are either by him or are by authors who quote him. In the first case, as fascinating as his approach to history is – including topography and geography alongside strategy and personality in explaining events – it’s still only one person’s analysis, and thus needs to be complemented by other historians. In the latter case, reading only authors who have quoted Keenan would result in a lot of repetition and second hand analysis, unless I found someone who followed a quote by him with “Here is why he’s wrong.”

  10. Miramon: I assumed it was legal because it’s been up for 2 years (so it claims; I discovered it this morning) and hasn’t been sued (or whatever) out of existence yet.

    I feared that it might not be because that’s a pretty low bar.

    I cannot find anything on the site that discusses copyright either way.

  11. I’ve tried to read some Hemingway short stories, but everyone and everything always sounds the same to me. I just now read “Hills” and while the basic dreariness of the situation comes through loud and clear, the people themselves are awfully flat and could just as easily be in that diner in “The Killers” as in a Spanish train station. I’d compare that to two sentences from Stockton which I think convey a father’s personality more successfully than Hemmingway’s whole story did for his two people:

    “Your letter asking for an augmentation of your pecuniary stipend has been received, together with a communication from your preceptor relative to your demeanor at the seminary. Permit me to say that, should I ever again peruse an epistle similar to either of these, you may confidently anticipate, on your return to my domicile, an excoriation of the cuticle which will adhere to your memory for a term of years.”

    I’ve read a number of modern short stories which are actually very good at not-telling, but they sort of stand alone. That is, I think the authors are spotty and unable to consistently keep up the quality.

  12. “Do you really base your book buying habits on the work of one person?” With recent Civil War material, yes. The last dozen or so books I’ve read that didn’t have a quote from him have all sucked; all the ones that did have a quote from him have been good. Why should I waste my time and money?

  13. Speaking of civil war books, mom promised to dig out her books on fashion from that era for me. She says she has one on officers’ uniforms! *squee*

  14. They all sucked in what way? If it’s bad prose, the author’s research has nothing to do with that. If you think it’s a bad analysis, then you can’t really know that if you’re only familiar with one person’s version; you can only know a certain author disagreed with McPherson.

    One of the marks of a true historian is breadth of interest. Everything McP. has written pertains solely or almost entirely to the Civil War, even “Crises of Nationalism” which is claimed to be about Quebecois separatists but which is mostly about the CW. He doesn’t really address any other events in world history, and so doesn’t seem like a good choice for all of a person’s attention.

  15. Usually, assertions without backing, particularly attempts to “read the minds” of generals with cherry-picked data as the only evidence. I’ve read a number of those, and they irritate me.

    And, seriously, what’s your problem? MacP is a “poor historian” in some vague, general sense that I couldn’t care less about? He is breathtakingly brilliant on the Civil War; I’m interested in the Civil War. I like breathtaking brilliant things about stuff I’m interested in. Just what is your agenda, anyway? Why is this such a big deal to you? Are you afraid I’ll flunk my mid-term, or that I won’t do a good enough job on the Civil War book I’m never going to write?

  16. I agree mind-readers tend to be hacks, but quoting from or referring to generals’ memoirs in order to explain their actions is not only perfectly valid, it permits a depth of understanding not available thought a purely objective study.

    My problem with your approach to the CW circles back to your use of the phrase “unenlightened view of history”. Presumably you feel yours is an “enlightened” approach even though you say you only want to read one man’s opinions. And opnions they are, no matter how expert the author is in that area.

    Keegan, whom I greatly admire, delves into the past of the CW generals to help explain some of their actions. McClellan had actually observed the British in action during the Crimean War, and Keegan points out it’s entirely likely M.’s idea for taking Richmond via amphibious assault stemmed from that experience. Like any good historian, he never states categorically that’s the answer, but makes the case for it by drawing parallels. But as excellent as I find his analysis to be – well presented, expertly supported, and entertainingly written – I would be silly to toss out all other books on his chosen topics, simply because he can’t cover everything, and anyone’s analysis can be augmented by other’s work.

    Adhering to only one author, one analysis or one source of any type should be anathema to the student of history (in which I have my degree, one reason I’m so serious about this). That’s my agenda, if you want to so call it – wanting to discourage people from being happy with a single source of information on any topic they’re serious about.

  17. That might have some validity if I only read books BY McP. Do you have any idea how many he’s blurbed? And every one of those I’ve read (more than a score so far) has had a great deal of value. Every one I’ve read (referring to recent stuff only) without a blurb by him has been an irritating waste of my time. My sample size is large enough to convince me that, as a casual if passionate reader of Civil War history, I have an algorithm that keeps me from wasting time, not to mention money; I can’t afford books whose only destiny is to be thrown against the wall in disgust.

    So, like, chill.

  18. I looked on my SciFi shelves and sure enough there was Isle of the Dead, buried in a sea of Amber. I started reading it and I see exactly what Steve means about dribbling out information little by little. It seems that neither my wife or I had ever read it. So one of us must have bought it and just put it aside. It cost, incidentally, $1.95 in 1969. I remember when paperbacks cost a quarter (in 1950), then went up to 35c., then a half dollar and then…

  19. So if your intention is to get the best possible handle on the truth about the Civil War, if you only look at things one person likes you’re likely to get some bias.

    But if your intention is to find things you like, and you find somebody who likes the same sort of things you do, then it makes perfect sense to follow his recommendations.

    If it was science fiction you were reading, McP would be a critic who points you to stuff you like. And that’s fine.

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