Monument or room?

A few weeks ago GalleyCat had an interesting article up discussing politics in fiction. It wasn’t about that directly. The point of the post is actually a rant against the science fiction reviewer at the New York Times Book Review. The complaint is that reviewer Dave Itzkoff is not up to the task of intelligent analysis of sci-fi works. John Scalzi’s works are the material in question, and GalleyCat takes issue with how Mr. Itzkoff compares them with Heinlein. The argument is that Mr. Itzkoff is unable to handle nuance. For the purposes of this post that argument is irrelevant. What caught my eye was the response that Mr. Scalzi gave on his website, a quote of which GalleyCat provided:


John Scalzi has his own response to the review, and while he’s largely thrilled at having been deemed worthy of notice in so high-profile a venue, he strongly disagrees with Itzkoff’s claim that his work “plays both sides of the fence” in terms of its politics. Instead, Scalzi suggests that putting political content into a novel can either be like building a monument or building a room:

“If you build a monument, what you’re doing is putting your politics and polemics in the center of your reader’s attention and basically making him or her deal with them on your terms. The politics aren’t accessible and aren’t debatable; as a reader you deal with them or you don’t… If you build a room, what you’re doing is inviting people in—with all their baggage, political or otherwise—and inviting them to unpack and stay awhile… As a writer, you make the points you want to make, and because you’ve let your readers bring something into the book as well, I think you’ve got a better chance of them being receptive to your points.”

This struck me as a useful and important idea. I am currently working on a novel which involves political elements (note: I believe that all writing includes political elements, I studied too much Derrida and Foucault to think otherwise, but that’s a bigger issue which would require a bigger post, and would probably shrink my audience in reverse proportion to the length of my argument, so… whatever), and have wrestled with how to keep political ideas in the book without it becoming a screed or polemic. I’m still trying pin down how to do so, but this metaphor of the room and monument is helpful in my attempts. For instance, rather than make direct attacks on political ideas or politicians I am creating proxies, stand-ins who need not be the real world target of my ideals. Also, I’m not naming specific parties, or ideologies. I am creating a scenario which the protagonist is caught in, one which is a recognizable one that we all see in the papers everyday, but it is not a carbon copy of it. I have no real-world actions or events portrayed. It is, even though it’s a “real world” setting and deals with “real world” problems, as if I’m writing something otherworldly. I’m looking at it in the same way that Bram Stoker’s Dracula can be viewed as a statement about sexuality, women and immigration in England during the late 19th century. I’m trying to make statements which invite discussion without seeming to shout down the reader’s own politics. This also allows me to raise the stakes–by not tying myself to real world people and places, by not being tied to specific instances of fact I’m finding that I’m allowing myself to follow my own arguments to their conclusions, and am raising questions against them myself.
In the end, I’m trying to build a room. Enough people are building monuments every day, on both sides of the political spectrum. We don’t need another one muddying up our pop culture.

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922 – 2007

vonnegut1.jpgI had three different topics I was prepared to write about today. Politics in fiction. Good ways to provide information without dumping on the reader. Ways to keep your writing interesting and energetic for you. As I said, I was prepared to write about any of those today. I was not prepared to write about this.
Kurt Vonnegut passed away at the age of 84.
Damn.
I don’t rank my favorite writers. It’s like ranking flavors. Is chocolate really better than a fresh strawberry? Can you compare a really good wine to a great cup of coffee and say it’s “higher” on your list. They are unrankable, each unique and individual, and authors are even more so because they shift and change through their careers. The first and last books from a long writing career may only have the author’s name in common, but one cannot invalidate or validate their career, they are a part of that author’s flavor. For these reasons I don’t rank my favorites. But still, I have favorites.
Vonnegut is a favorite. He makes me want to write, and write well. He makes me want to write better. He makes me want to write something that matters and that entertains. He makes me think, and makes me want to keep thinking about the hard things that we go through. He makes me question what an author is and what an author can do. He makes jokes when in pain and evokes the cherished hurt of every emotion that makes life worth paying attention to. He was a writer that makes me want to do so much with my writing, to join in his conversation, to recognize what I think and feel and make them something that goes beyond words and into a deeper place, a place where language pushes against experience and for just a moment, almost actually IS the thing it’s trying to describe. He was important.
I passed him on the street, twice. Once in New York. Once in Boston. I was to scared to say anything.
The world is not a better place without him.
I will miss him. I will reread his books, and will miss him more.

Thinking Blogger Award

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The talented and funny Jaye Wells has awarded me with the Thinking Bloggers Award, for which I’m thankful. She was kind in her comments and made me blush. I blog mainly for myself, to find out what I think about what I think about, and to provide other writers with a window into my process and open a dialog which might benefit them, others and myself. It’s a conversation, I hope, and I enjoy it. This award means that at least part of that conversation has been appreciated by someone other than me, and that makes me very happy. Best of all, the award is not simply a cool image to add to my site (see above). It also grants the responsibility to pass the award on, to share those five sites which tickle my brain and make the internet more than simply a series of tubes.
The rules, from The Thinking Blog site:
1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote (here is an alternative silver version if gold doesn’t fit your blog).
So there it is. The rules which I pass on to the following sites, none of which needed my help in being heavily trafficked, none of which will probably even care that I’ve noticed them, but which nonetheless get me thinking and which call for me to drop by, every day, by being interesting…
The thinking blog awards go to:
Anne Mini A writer’s site with a far too prolific author, Anne Mini. For anyone who tries to put pen to paper, hers is a site to be checked out.
John Scalzi Another author, another must visit. His blog is like sitting in his livingroom and having a bull session. Pretty cool stuff.
Miss Snark For those done putting the pen to paper and ready to query query query, let me summarize Miss Snark for you: Follow the rules. If you don’t know them, check her out (and wear a cup).
Wil Wheaton More than just an actor. More than just a writer. More than just a guy who thinks he’s a geek. King of the Geeks. I kneel before him.
Toyman Smart, funny, talented. Also, possibly related to me.

eBooks.

The great ebook debate continues. I have yet to see a viable model for ebooks which didn’t look either amateurish or like no one would find the books, and it seems that there may be a reason for it. Charlie Stross has a good analysis of why the ebook market is broken. Like music piracy, a lot of the problem is that the industry is unwilling to allow for a change in how it wants consumers to consume. Charlie’s essay is long, but worth checking out.

Miranda July

Miranda July has a brilliant website up promoting her new fiction collection.
She is the filmmaker of “You and Me and Everyone We Know,” and she’s brilliant and daring and brave. In other words, she’s an artist. I wouldn’t mind hanging out with Ms. July, even just once over a cup of coffee.

YouWrite?

This article from Galley Cat, which starts out about the new Harry Potter book, ends on a note about the publisher Nigel Newton’s interest in creating a new method of marketing fiction: A YouTube for writers.
Now, I’m not against use of new media at all. In fact I’m planning on recording some of my short stories as podcasts and releasing them here, for free, for readers to take and listen to and share (anyone intersted in that sort of thing? Anyone? Hello?). What I do wonder about is the methodology. Creating a new marketplace and means of distributing books doesn’t solve the issue that publishers aren’t promoting books in a way that finds readers. Creating a huge online bazaar may or may not be the answer. I suppose if it is categorized in a sufficient way it may work, but how often do you go to YouTube, or any other video site, and browse through their categories. Isn’t it usually the case that someone sends you a link, or you do a search on a specific name or phrase and find that “will ferrell oscars song” or the “thomas pynchon simpsons” clip. How often have you found those by saying, “Hmmm… which category would that be in?” That being the case, what chance does an online bazaar of fiction have? Won’t it end up looking just like Amazon, and rely on just the same low cost word of mouth that Amazon and traditional bookstores rely on?

It’s not a race

I recently read a post from a young writer who complained she was unable to maintain the energy necessary to finish a novel. She used the word “bored” a lot in the post, and wondered if she was doomed to be a short story writer instead of a novelist (her tone, not mine… I love short stories, I write them, read them, hang them on my wall, give them to people as gifts, so please… no hate mail).
What surprised me most about her post was that she complained that on a recent Saturday she had written for about four hours and wasn’t pleased with any of what she’d written.
Four hours.
If I had four uninterrupted hours I would assume that either I was dead or my family had deserted me. Hell, I’d worry if I had twenty uninterrupted minutes.
I was thinking about this writer’s post as I finished up my morning writing on the train into Manhattan. I’ve been under the weather for about two weeks now and it’s thrown my entire life into disarray, so getting back into my habit and getting a good hour(+) of work in felt good. I put my journal away as we reached 42nd Street and the young woman’s concern about her boredom, lack of energy, and inability to finish popped into my head and I couldn’t help but feel I might know what the problem is:
This is not a dash, it’s a marathon.
As I mention this old cliche the fable of the tortoise and the hare may pop into your head, but I think a more appropriate fable is the ant and grasshopper. Some may think “gathering food ain’t like writing,” but tell that to a writer. Put in the work every day and when winter comes you’ll have your novel. It’s not about finishing it in a weekend, or a week or even during November. It’s the daily chore you long to do. It’s the habit, like a drug.
“Oh, I can quit any time.”
“Really? Then put down the pen. Put it down…”
“O-okay… see? I put it down…”
“All right, now… step away from the keyboard.”
“No.”

I used to think that if I didn’t have three or four uninterrupted hours I couldn’t get any work done. “It takes me a while to warm up,” I said. Yeah, right. Now I warm up in about half-a-sentence, and I realize that if I don’t warm up in that half-sentence or even a half-page or two or four pages it doesn’t matter. Revision is where the work takes place. The writer who is concerned about “not having the drive” to finish, or who becomes bored with her own story may simply be looking for a work ethic that doesn’t exist. She may be buring herself out by doing four hour marathon writing sessions that are like chiseling words into granite because it’s not fun. A little work every day, fun sessions where you leave on a high note and want to keep going but leave it for the next day as a great starting point, that’s how you build your novel.
I hope she doesn’t stop trying. And I hope she doesn’t beat herself up for having to learn the hard way how to do it.