So I’ve noticed it’s been awhile since I had anything much to say.
But what to talk about? The Duck Dynasty guy? What’s his name? Phil Robertson? Never met him, a few people at work have mentioned the show. Never watched it, don’t give a rat’s arse what some old guy from backwoods Louisiana had to say about homosexuality — unless it was “hurrah, gays fucking rock!” it isn’t going to surprise me one bit. A little quick research he didn’t advocate killing, jailing, or otherwise doing something totally dick-bag to anyone; fuck it.
The Hugos? They weren’t too recent, and what is there to say? Congratulations to the folks who won, whoever they were. I don’t really follow the Hugos; just a few authors I like have a neat habit of winning them.
Writing advice? Nah, 99% of writing advice is bullshit. The remaining 1% comes down to Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules.
I think I’m going to talk about reading.
Reading is easy enough, right? Well, you’d think so, anyway.
Thing is, people do weird things when they read. First, they sometimes get a bit egotistical. They seem to think that the author was writing to please them, personally, and get upset when something in the book upsets them or their sensibilities. Why? What has the author done to you? Did the author put a gun to your head and say buy it? Oh, sure, be disappointed if you bought a book you aren’t enjoying! I’m not saying we can’t not like what we read. I don’t like Starship Troopers, it’s boring — at least the first page is, and I can’t get past that.
I mean like some of the criticisms of Song of Ice and Fire, George R R Martin‘s lovely bit of work. “The people are just too young! Never mind historical verisimilitude, you should have made them older to fit modern sensibilities better” and things that amount to the author should have changed the ages of the characters just to be more in line with modern thought?! Two words: fuck that! In this setting a fifteen year old is Lord of Winterfell. Why? Because that’s how it works when you’re 15, your father dies, and you’re the eldest. That’d be the case today! The difference is that today it doesn’t really mean anything that isn’t mostly ceremonial. I’m sorry, but a thirteen year old fighting in a battle … it happened, and happens. Just because you live somewhere cosy and warm with no troubles except that the girl at Starbucks screwed up your latte order doesn’t mean everyone is or ever has been so lucky.
When we read we should let the author tell us what the world we’re reading about is like. Maybe we don’t like that world. Return the book, if you can, swap it for something else at the second-hand shop if not. I don’t like the world of Xanth, so I don’t read Piers Anthony‘s biggest work. I don’t complain about a world constructed of puns — except when I’m making fun of him and his setting with my friends; what? just because I’m an author doesn’t mean I’m not human, but it does mean I’m not going to go making a critical essay or a negative book review about it.
When we read, too, we should read. All of it.
This is a little harder to get specific examples for, but I’ll try to work by a constructed analogy. Let’s say we’re talking about the setting that a lot of my and Shannon‘s work centres around: Sweytz. Sweytz has no laws about nudity, you can strut down the street in your skin and no one bats an eye unless they love or loathe what they see; same as if you were dressed. Too, bathing is something that is readily accepted as a social activity — some homes have a large, jacuzzi-like, centrally located tub. Just because a couple, trio, quartet, or what have you, all decide to climb into this tub together naked doesn’t mean a damned thing is going on but some chit-chat and washing one another’s backs. On Sweytz nudity is not a euphemism for sex. So when a couple of twelve year olds come back from a date together, and climb into a bath — it’s not hanky-panky unless you’re told it is. Now, this hasn’t been clearly established in anything published until just now — this post — but believe me, Shannon and I wouldn’t have such a thing without a little tip of the hat to our Terran readers; we’ll tell you this is normal and platonic, we just might not say it directly. To pull into something a little more contemporary, we’d establish things like nudist parents or hippie family. We’ll give you clues that this is normal. They won’t be subtle, just just won’t be “They came home from the holos and Courtney suggested she and AnĵerÏs should relax in the bath, but it wasn’t anything sexual; on Sweytz this is just something people do together.” I know, some authors would, but give us some credit for integrity here.
The point of all of that? Leave your preconceptions, your expectations at the door. Some you should bring with you. I mean, if we write a fantasy and we mention a troll, it probably shouldn’t be tiny, beautiful, and have gossamer wings — that’s a fairy. A troll ought to be big, ugly, and preferably stupid. That’s called a trope. That’s a building block that helps us communicate some things to you — tropes are the universal gimmes that we ought to tread on carefully, and with some thought to how we’ll easy our readers into our derivations therefrom.
Now, as writers, some preconceptions aren’t exactly tropes, but we should tip our hat to them as well. This would be things like the expectation that a black open lesbian in 1950s Mississippi isn’t likely to be Mayor, or the CEO of a major company. Shit, she’ll be lucky to live to see sunset. That’s not a trope, that’s simple reality. But, just to bring things back around to our Sweytzian communal baths, just as you and I could share a hot tub, clothed or nude, without it being or leading to sex … you see? One is an expectation based on historical fact, a reality; the other is based on some weird and ephemeral hangup, one that didn’t exist an hundred years ago and may not exist an hundred years hence. I could probably come up with others … how about a religious character, never mind the religion, who is a brilliant and renowned scientist? How about an honourable character who passes away quietly in her sleep at the ripe age of 112 surrounded by a large and loving family and having never once harmed a single living soul?
It’s a game of remembering: just because you are tall and have a beard doesn’t mean you’re Abraham Lincoln. Yes, agreed, in fiction, the tall bearded guy in a top-hat standing at the bar in 1861 may very well be Abraham Lincoln; a character might say:
“Hey, Jim! C’mere! Izzat the President over yonder by the bar, talking to Frankie?” Just then the man turned his head and his dark complexion and half-missing nose came into view. “Aw, nah, it’s jes that ole nigger Jessie tole us strolled inter town yesterday.”
Otherwise, if there isn’t an unavoidable and undeniable correlation between two things; best leave them out or leave them in only based on what the text tells you.
Symbolism! When we read, yes, we might see homages, symbols, etc. Some are tucked away and hidden, some are unintentional, some are blatant. Thing is, despite what Literature classes tell us, not every work has symbolism in it — and accidental symbolism is often just as much in the imagination of the reader as really present; if we didn’t put it there on purpose … it’s debatable whether or not it really exists. But let’s save discussions of applicability for another day. Truly, it’s safest to assume that most nouns in a story made up by the author get explained; otherwise it’s best to assume it’s something with an accepted definition. I wish I were kidding, but people actually thought GRRM got ‘citadel‘ and ‘dire wolves‘ from [insert, apparently, the only fantasy story they’d ever read here]. And as for looking for symbolism a little too desperately: here (
warning; I don’t recommend reading that if you value your sanity or IQ).
It goes on. Still. Reading is hard. We have to watch for symbolism to better understand the story — because it might be there, and it might be important, or even just a clever easter egg (not really symbolish, more an homage, but Trebor of house Jordan of the Tor, anyone?); but we shouldn’t look too hard or we go mad as the hippogriff symbolism proves. We shouldn’t walk into a book a clean slate, no tabla rosa here, but we should still keep an open mind and let the author tell her story, not the story you’re dreaming up as you go from your own experiences. And we should let the setting be the setting that the setting is; if we don’t like it we should put the book down and find something else to read.
Brash? Rude? Don’t I want everyone to read an enjoy my books?
Maybe. Probably. It’d be cool, but it ain’t gonna happen; it’s impossible to please everyone. I know people will read Stolen Time and hate it just because Georgia and Serena are fianceés — as in, both are women, and they’re engaged to be wed. They’ll take issue that Georgia is 15. They’ll take issue that someone says ‘fuck’ or they’ll dislike that Georgia and Serena are both fair skinned blondes. So, no, if someone doesn’t dig Universal Nexus, Stolen Time, or whatever, I sincerely hope they’ll just put the book down, and move on to something else — it’s why I’m such a firm believer in the downloadable ebook samples.
UPDATE: it turns out that the hippogriff symbolism essay I linked is not THE hippogriff symbolism essay. My bad. Apparently Google, likely in the interest of the preservation of humanity, is preventing me from locating the correct link. Still, the one linked seems weird enough we’ll go with that.