Narrativity!

WHEREAS I have an inexhaustible appetite for sitting around with people and talking about the craft of writing, and
WHEREAS It turns out I’m not the only one with this peculiarity, and
WHEREAS That’s a good thing, because it’s hard to have these conversations by myself, and
WHEREAS I am obviously insane,

THEREFORE Be it resolved that, god help me, we’re launching a convention. Small, craft-oriented, single-track programming, here in Minneapolis, July 12-14 of this year. I’m doing the programming, Jane Hawkner is onboard for the web site, Liz Vogel is running the thing. Take a look, see if you want to make it there, or even help us make the thing a go. And, if you’re so inclined, help spread the word about this gobbler.  Also, let me know if there are any obvious errors on the web site, or anything missing that ought to be there.  Thanks!

Here’s a link to the location and other relevant information.

Another Way We Commodify Art

This is, in many ways, an especially difficult time to be an artist. That, by itself, makes it important not only to continue creating, but to carefully consider some of the things that make it difficult, and how to respond to them.

There are a number of issues related to the current trend of scolding, boycotting, and gathering hate against any comedian, writer, actor, or artist who has been accused of being sexually inappropriate. But there is one piece of it in particular that’s been nagging at me.

I heard it most clearly expressed in response to a comrade’s post about Ezra Pound.  The post pointed out that Pound was virulently antisemitic, essentially a fascist, and yet a brilliant poet, whose work could reach the sublime, could deeply affect lives. It is a profound contradiction, and yet, there it is.  In the comments to this observation was a remark to the effect of, “There are plenty of other poets.”

I’ve heard this same thing a number of times in a number of forms, and it keeps eating at me: In order to hold this opinion, one most consider art a commodity. “Well, heck, there’s plenty of tomato sauce out there, why should I buy from a reactionary like Hunt? There are plenty of poets out there, why should I read a reactionary like Pound?”  It disturbs me that the answer isn’t obvious: because Pound is giving us something we can’t get from anyone else.   The things I’ve taken from Patrick O’Brien are entirely different from what I’ve taken from either C. S. Forester or Jane Austen; my life has been enriched by all three, and my understanding of human personality has been enriched by at least two of them.

And here’s another thing: What would happen if it were revealed that, for example, Shakespeare had done certain things, or had certain personality traits, that were foul and disgusting? Would that mean those who understood the world better, those who understood what it means to be human more deeply through his work would have those experiences wiped away? Or, let me put it in more concrete terms related to our own field: has the recent controversy about Joss Wheton destroyed the sense of power, the feeling of, “I can do anything I chose to!” that so many girls took from “Buffy”?

This post is not attempting to argue that individuals, by virtue of being artists, ought not to be held responsible for their actions. What I am asking you to consider are the consequences of treating works of art (in the broadest sense) as interchangeable commodities. As that idea spreads, what does it do to those trying to create art, trying to find a way to express in images and in moments something lasting, powerful, revelatory? Those who profit from art (in the narrow, scientific sense of profit), will of course always judge art by its bottom line. Do creators of artistic works really want to accept that method? Do you honestly think the world will be better if we start looking at books, at film, at comedy, as simply “product?”  And yet, “Why would I read Ezra Pound?  There are plenty of other poets” does exactly that.

I understand and sympathize with those who feel, “This person is slimy and disgusting and I’m not comfortable giving him my money.” We live in a society in which wealth is accepted as the final arbiter of quality, and none of us live outside of that society, so it is impossible to be unaffected by it. It is natural to see “giving the person money” as an important aspect of how we address art and artists. But maybe it isn’t the most important aspect? Maybe in your intense desire to “punish” someone who has done, or been accused of doing, something reprehensible, you are contributing to making this a society in which art, instead of a means to uplift us all, becomes just another product, of no more significance than a can of tomato sauce? If this attitude spreads among those who read, can those who write be immune? I do not believe so.

You say you cannot separate the art from the artist.  Maybe it’s worth trying a little harder.  I agree with art critic David Walsh: “To become whole, human beings require the truth about the world, and about themselves, that art offers.”  I am asking you to consider what will happen if these things become unimportant compared to our opinion of the personality of the creator. I beg to submit that this will be, in the long run, terribly destructive to art and artists.

 

Truth as a Vehicle for Enhancing Fiction, Fiction as a Vehicle for Discovering Truth

(Speech, with minor edits, delivered at Philcon, Saturday November 17. 2018)

First of all, thank you to the committee for inviting me here. It is an honor and a pleasure. And while I’m required to say something like that out of courtesy, as it happens, I also mean it. While I do use words to lie for a living, a subject we’ll be coming back to, I do so in order to lay truth before the reader. So please believe me when I say that being here really is a pleasure, and an honor.

Before I get into the meat the subject—or some other protein for you vegetarians out there—I want to preface this by saying that from here on a lot of this will be aimed mostly at writers, at people who are working on this stuff. But I believe that reading is unlike sausage and law: knowing something of how it happens, about what works and what doesn’t and why, makes reading a more rewarding experience, and so hearing about it will be interesting. If, after I get into things, you discover that you don’t agree with me, please try to snore quietly.

Historian Gordon Wood, in his outstanding work, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, traces the changes in thinking of Americans from before the signing of the Declaration of Independence to some time after the ratification of the Constitution. It was a remarkable time for thought, because whenever there are vast social upheavals, these upheavals always generate changes in people’s thinking—sometimes astonishingly broad changes in a very short time. These changes in thinking can generate further upheavals. Carried to an extreme, this results in social revolution, producing another step toward human equality, or counter-revolution, another step back from it. I don’t think I’m at risk of embarrassing myself if I point out that we’re living in such a time right now.

One of the ways in which the thinking of many Americans changed—starting with the propertied classes, mostly white and exclusively male, many of whom were slave owners—and on down to the propertyless, the poor, the toilers—was a replacement of Republicanism in favor of Democracy as a goal to strive for. That is, whatever was inscribed in the Constitution, Democracy became more and more the accepted model for society, in history books, tavern conversations, wisdom to be passed on to one’s children. In other words, a virtuous society came to be seen less as one with virtuous leaders who made the important decisions than as one with a virtuous populace who were all responsible for those decisions.

The consequences of this change, happening within a couple of generations, are vast, but there is one in particular I want to talk about. The rejection of Republicanism in favor of Democracy was reflected, not only in politics, but in the realm of thought. That is to say, Americans became suspicious of experts, and suspicious of the well-educated, and became convinced that anyone’s opinion is as good as another’s. Here we have the origin of what we’ve all noticed: a broad streak of anti-intellectualism running through American society. The downside, if you will, of democracy. And let me add, so there is no confusion, that I’m a big fan of democracy. But, the way it developed in the US, it does have that downside.

There is a lot of variety in all of this, and degrees. In the most extreme form you have politicians—I won’t name names—who attack opponents for being too smart, a tactic that works often enough that it should frighten us. Other things go along with it, such as the emphasis on personal feelings. That is, “When you make that argument, I feel bad, therefore you must be wrong.” If you listen closely, you will find exactly that method underlying a lot of political opinions you hear.

This development in the thinking of Americans has two effects I want to talk about in relation to fiction: One is a deliberate attempt to write fiction for “the people,” that is, fiction that doesn’t challenge, or at least looks like it doesn’t challenge. Fiction for the common man. The pulps, and the categories of fiction that emerged from them, such as our own fields. This is one of the things that has led to the bizarre notion that there are two sorts of fiction: literature for the elite, storytelling for the unwashed masses, which has also led to the idea, in some circles, that you can tell how good a book is by where it’s shelved in the bookstore. Others have spoken at length, and better than I could, about the effects of this stupid and artificial separation of fiction, and how it has hurt, and arguably occasionally helped, the creation of good writing. The other effect—and this, too, has had a profound effect on fiction—is a broad contempt for philosophy, the ultimate, perfect target for the anti-intellectual.

For the most part, Americans fall into two groups with regard to philosophy: those who dismiss it as being pointless navel-gazing, and those who study it, and find it fascinating, but do not see how it has any relation to day-to-day life.

I believe it not only has an effect on day-to-day life, but it most certainly has an effect on fiction in general and fantastical fiction in particular.

First of all, when speaking of philosophy, I’m talking about ontology and epistemology: the doctrine of being, and theory of knowledge. That is, is there an objective reality, and how do we know what we know. Especially the second. Or, for a handy way of telling them apart, all Christians share an ontology, all fundamentalists share an epistemology. That is, Christianity requires the belief in a world ultimately determined by a conscious, unknowable, supernatural entity; fundamentalism requires the belief that we know truth because it’s what’s written in scripture. The German materialist Feurbach said, “To theology, only what is sacred is true. To philosophy, only what holds true is sacred.”

As far as ontology goes, that is, the doctrine of being, or what is reality, it is possible to go through life with the attitude, “I don’t know if there’s any reality, but I’m going to act as if there is, and that has the same result.” Well, no it doesn’t, but that’s an argument for another time. I want to focus on the epistemology, and how it affects the creation and the reading of fiction.

I want to emphasize this: You have an epistemology. You have a method. Even if you’re one of those who laughs at philosophy, or makes dismissive remarks about people who believe in “isms” you still have a method by which you understand the world and determine truth. Some say, “that’s fake news,” without knowing why they believe that, some say, “check your sources,” some say, “all we can know are facts” (and most of those who say that don’t know what a fact is, but that, too, is for another time), some say, “truth is whatever makes you happy.” If you’ve never studied philosophy, all that means is, you haven’t examined your method; you haven’t tested it, given it conscious thought, and decided if it’s something you agree with.

This ignorance of and hostility to philosophy, to examining our method, has obvious consequences in the field of politics: when you say to yourself, “How can anyone think that way?” the answer is probably a poor philosophical method. And as you’re saying that about someone else, chances are I’m saying that about you because I’m kind of a snide asshole.

I would like to state clearly that I believe there is an objective reality, and that it is knowable. I believe we can know theory by making deductions from facts, and that we can then test our theories. Proof of our thinking is not found in our heads, but by the changes we make in the world. That is to say, the answer to the question, “But how do I know everything I see isn’t a virtual reality simulation” is not, “It doesn’t matter,” but rather, “you’re looking for proof in the wrong place, it isn’t in our heads.” You cannot prove the truth of your thoughts by thinking. We find our proof in the changes we, socially, collectively, have made in the world.

All of which has a profound effect on my approach to storytelling, which is, in fact, why I bring it up. It also has a profound effect on my political ideology, which I’m happy to discuss if you put a glass of whiskey in my hand, but that isn’t what I’m doing here. All of that discussion of philosophy was to point out how my approach to truth, to the nature of reality, to how we know the nature of reality, makes a huge difference in how I write fantasy. If you’re a writer, it has a profound effect on your writing, too.

Now, take that thought, and put it in your pocket; we’re going to come back to it in a minute.

You’ve all heard the comment about how writers are professional liars. Usually, we tell lies in the service of truth, which is something I’ll get to in a second, but just for fun, let’s start at the opposite end: the way we use truth in the service of our lies.

One way to consider the fantastical elements in fantastical fiction is to think of it like a bank, except that it won’t get bailed out if it goes broke. What I mean is this: you make deposits of realism and withdrawals of the fantastical, and if you try to withdraw more than you’ve put in you get an overdraft notice in the form of your book flying across the room and hitting the wall. This is especially a problem for those using an ebook.

We increase our account by injecting reality. That is, by showing something the reader knows, and describing it in such a way that the reader nods and says, “Yeah, that’s right. I’ve felt that.” If you can pull that off, you’ve built up a nice supply of trust that you can spend with stuff the reader knows isn’t true. The opposite, of course, is also the case: if you do a bad job with something the reader is familiar with, you’ve got no chance with the other stuff. As I remarked to myself when reading one story I won’t name, “Why should I believe your faster-than-light drive when you obviously don’t know how to handle a firearm?”

This brings us to the fun part, which is combining them: That is, when you take something fantastical and make it feel real. I would like to now read you a brief quote that I keep coming across on the internet: “Don’t explain how it works, explain how you use it.” – Steven Brust. There are several interesting things about that quote, starting with the fact that I never said it. It is a summary of something I said summarizing something my friend Will Shetterly said summarizing something Ursula LeGuin said, and I have no idea how I keep getting the credit for it. But I’ll take it.

Anyway, here is the point that Ms. LeGuin was getting at: you don’t convince the reader that your faster-than-light drive works by throwing a bunch of fake science out there, although that by itself can be cool if you do it well. You convince the reader of your ftl drive by showing how it feels to be pressed back into the acceleration couch, by how the lights change, what’s happening on your viewscreen when the shift comes, how the ship shakes, or whatever happens. You’re describing things that the reader has actually felt, and if you do it right, it doesn’t matter to the reader that the setting for these familiar things is impossible; that part slips right by, and the next thing you know you’re at another star system where the next set of cool things is about to happen, and the reader is right there with you. I don’t think I need to remind you of seeing the Millennium Falcon go into hyperspace the first time; those of you as old as I am remember just how cool that was, and how we instantly bought into it.

As for the explanation itself, remember that a few drops of handwavium go a long way. Too much and it reduces itself to headeskium, which, as we all know, immediately upon contact with air becomes bookthrowium.

Above all, at least for me, is the reality of human interaction, of character, of personality. Nothing pulls me out of a story faster than the feeling, “Huh? What? Why is he doing that? That’s just stupid.” The feeling, on the other hand, of, “Hey, she’s just as smart as I am, that’s what I’d do,” pulls you deeper into the work.

Point being, reality can make your fantastical fiction work better.

So now we turn it around, because yeah, we really can can discover truth, understand reality better, through fiction, and that’s how we create fiction that hits hard, that punches, that stays with us. But now the question is, what sort of truth do we find in our made-up worlds?

I call a book successful insofar as people who read it are glad they did. But that’s only because I’ve learned that it’s easier to meet my standards if I set them low. In other words, “a good story well told,” as the saying goes, is worthwhile, but not all that challenging. We all know a story can do more than that. We’ve all read books that gave us new ideas to play with, or made us reconsider things we thought we knew.

I like to call us epiphanizers, at least in intention. What I mean is, the highest goal, the thing to shoot for, is to give the reader that moment of, “Oh my god, that’s true, and I’d never realized it.” To put it in more formal terms, it means to reveal contradictions that are concealed in everyday life.

So how do you do that? It isn’t simply a matter of standing up there and saying, “Hey, here’s this truth I’ve learned about life.” The ones who do that are called either philosophers or stand-up comedians. With a novel, it isn’t like you’re trying to find a slick or clever way to deliver some message, and concealing it in 100,000 words. If there were a shorter way to get your point across, you’d do that. Let me hit that harder: there’s an old chestnut, I don’t know where it’s from, that says “Until a writer can express the theme of his novel in a single declarative sentence, he shouldn’t set pen to paper.” I believe that if you can express your theme in a single declarative sentence, you should write that single declarative sentence, then make your novel about something interesting.

One element, maybe the most important, is: there’s no substitute for doing the work. That is, for studying, for learning, for getting a solid base on your subject. Our job as writers is to take truth and cast it as images; we hope as images that will stay with the reader. You can’t do that from a base of ignorance.

A key element of stage magic is simply that the audience can’t conceive of someone going through all of that work for such a tiny effect. I once saw a performance by Penn and Teller in which they actually built a clock with a second hand that moved maybe twenty percent fast just to increase the tension while one of them was underwater. That’s the sort of thing I mean about doing the work, about a lot of work for what seems to be a tiny effect. The first step in laying truth before the reader is a thorough understanding of what you’re writing about.

But that isn’t the only thing. Now take those remarks I made about philosophy out of your pockets and put them here. First, it’s harder to lay truth before the reader if you don’t believe there is any such thing. But beyond that, my point is fiction as exploration, as journey by the writer in an attempt to discover something true, that carries the reader along for the ride. Once you’ve done the research, the study, if you then set as a theme a question, something you honestly don’t know the answer to but are fascinated by, you can then use the book as a vehicle to explore it. If you do it right, you probably won’t come up with an answer to your question, but you’ll understand it better, and, here’s the fun part, the reader will be engaged with you at a deeper level, probably unaware of why that is.

I no longer remember the questions I was exploring with most of my books; only a few stand out that way. But there is always a question that, either I start with, or that I discover partway through. I remember that in Brokedown Palace, for example, I was exploring the relationship between creation and destruction, asking myself just how necessary is the latter to the former. Jhereg was about professionalism, and what it means. To Reign In Hell, really my only political book, was about a hesitant leadership in a revolutionary epoch. The Phoenix Guards was about just what does friendship mean? And so on.

I should add that the meaning of the book, what it is about to me, the author, becomes something else entirely as soon as it goes out into the world. The reader might discover meaning that has nothing to do with my idea of what I was looking at. The meaning a reader finds is every bit as legitimate as what I had in mind. By making this exploration, whether the reader is aware of it or not, there will be a deeper, a more profound experience for the reader. The book is more likely to remain with the reader. The images we use to carry out this examination are more likely to be images that become a part of the reader’s life, which I would have to call the victory condition of writing. This is also how you write a book that rewards re-reading, because the deeper you go deliberately, the more depth the reader will discover, even if I had intended those depths to lead to a subaquatic cave and the reader finds nothing but a giant squid.

Though not really the point, there is an additional benefit to this approach to writing: it helps keep you honest. That is, if you don’t know the answer to the question that is underlying your story, you have less worry about forcing your characters into actions that feel false and contrived.

I should add that this is not an argument either for or against outlining. What I’m talking about can happen if you start out with no idea where you’re going except a vague direction, or if you’ve mapped out every detail. Either way, there is room in the book for you to ask a question you don’t know the answer to.

And underpinning all of these questions is my belief that, yes, there is an objective reality, and that the fact that we’ll never fully know it does not relieve us of the responsibility to try, and that the role of the novelist, although I might never have succeeded in this, is to discover what is true and lay it before the reader.

Thank you for your patience. I’ll now take questions on this, or on anything else except particle physics. I don’t know anything about particle physics, so don’t ask.

The World We Write About

My colleague Fonda Lee (author of Zero Boxer and Jade City, which I recommend) brought up the question on twitter of feeling conflicted about dealing with book release issues (readings, signings, &c) when, well, the world is going to Hell.  I mean, you hear about another mass shooting, and then you’re expected to go to a bookstore and talk about your fantasy novel? How can that not be weird and uncomfortable?  The thread is worth reading, if you’re interested

She got some excellent answers from various people that I can’t improve on, but it set me off in a different direction.

I’m going to repeat something I said a few years ago, in a comment on the World Socialist Web Site:  “No matter how much one tells stories of magical beasts or impossible worlds, in the end, it is always the world of here and now one is writing about. The better one understands that world, the more powerful the stories will be.”

I still agree with this, and, in fact, as the pressure-cooker of our society intensifies, I think it becomes more true. One might, of course, “inject” political and world views into one’s fiction, but that almost invariably comes across as clumsy, artificial, and gratingly didactic. The point I want to stress is that these stories we tell, whether we want them to or not, are powerfully influenced by our experience and our interpretations of that experience, and that means by the society in which we live our day-to-day lives. To be sure, the influence is often disguised and can appear in contradictory ways: sometimes an outraged rebellion against the status quo can turn out deeply normative; sometimes the cry for a return to an imaginary simpler time, reactionary in feel, can be subversive or even revolutionary in essence.

We, as writers, are observers who turn those observations from vague feelings into precise words, which, in turn, form images and make connections to the experience of the reader.  I know some writers who can capture taste, smell, touch, and express them in words that make me cry. I know some writers who observe and describe individual human interactions in a way that permits me to see many of my past experiences in a new light. Others are skilled at noticing, deducing, and illuminating the motives behind seemingly inexplicable actions.  Other are able to reveal and explain hidden social contradictions.  And so on.  And all the while they delight us with the thrills and fights and narrow escapes and wit and striking phrases for which we read adventure fiction.

What I’m getting at is this: The things that infuriate, sadden, or terrify us in our world are already there in our work. The degree to which we wish to bring them to the surface is up to us, but they are there whether we are consciously aware of them or not. When, as we write, we remind ourselves not to cheat, what we are really reminding ourselves of is that our job is to tell the truth, and the more we manage to do that the more successful (and moving) is the story.  And when we go into a bookstore to do a reading of our tale of elves and dragons and unicorns three hours after a mass shooting or Trump’s latest threat of nuclear war, it will feel strange and uncomfortable, and to some degree it should—being aware of that contradiction simply means one is a decent human being.  But it is worth remembering that our stories do not come out of nowhere, that the same world that has produced these horrors, has also produced our story, and that, dialectically, our story can have an effect on that world.

Followup On Fourth Street

Had a long talk with a good and smart friend, who conveyed to me some of the confusion over my opening at Fourth Street. She says that it could be interpreted as regretting the “good old days” when women could be freely preyed on by pros at conventions.

It is difficult to explain why I chose to use “safe spaces” and “threatened” in that talk without a long explanation which is inappropriate to this post, though I’ll happily get into it in comments if anyone wishes. I had thought that when I referred to physically safe and “no unwanted harassment” (a stupid phrase, sorry; I mean, as opposed to the more usual wanted harassment? Sheesh, Steve) that would be sufficient to make clear that I proposed no such thing.

Evidently I was wrong. And, while one can always blame the reader for failing to understand, when enough readers get it wrong, one begins to side-eye the writer.

So let me state clearly and for the record I do not support that kind of atmosphere, I do not want that kind of convention, and I deeply apologize for any pain or fear that was caused by anyone thinking I did mean that.  My fault, not yours.

ETA: It’s worth pointing out that it isn’t just a matter of reading, but that this was a speech, not presented as text, and a speech that, moreover, I deliberately opened with a shocker.  This makes more reasonable the number of people who went past the “physically safe” and “no harassment” parts.  Again, my bad.