Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Few More Notes On Fiction

     To Gentle Readers who’ve wondered where the usual political puffery has wandered off to: I can’t manage it at the moment. The political trends are a strange mix of Olympian highs and Stygian lows. This causes me to think of Death Valley, where the observed high temperatures (around 140 degrees Fahrenheit) and the observed low temperatures (around -20 degrees Fahrenheit) would, in some persons’ minds, mean that the average temperature there is a comfy 60 degrees. Heavy sigh. If only it were that way.

     Among the things many a fledgling writer finds challenging is the creation of a believable conflict between two characters he’s conceived to be essentially decent. The writer is torn because both characters emerged from his mind. He thinks of them as decent because he thinks of himself as decent, and he has imbued his characters with his moral and behavioral precepts. How could such persons come to blows?

     It’s not automatic, to be sure. But there is a technique for it: give them different assumptions about what has happened, and different persons or positions to defend.

     Here’s an example: Smith, a grammar school principal, has received reports from Johnny Davis’s teacher that Johnny is rude and disruptive, and that this has affected Johnny’s scholastic progress. But Mrs. Davis has heard a different story – from Johnny himself, of course. She’s heard that the teacher is prejudiced against Johnny, treats him harshly, and refuses to answer his questions about the classwork. What will happen at the scheduled meeting between Smith and Mrs. Davis? Isn’t a serious clash between them foreordained and entirely understandable, “decent” though they both are?

     Creating situations in which two (or more) characters have radically different views of the same events and enveloping context comes naturally...if you observe the way it happens in real life. And because of the partiality and defensiveness of those who narrate such occasions to others, it happens in real life more often than it should.

     One of the perils of series reading, which might not be as clear to series writers as it should be, is what can happen when one element in a series becomes unavailable.

     Most series are founded on the perpetuation of a protagonist or a small group thereof. The protagonist has a string of adventures, typically one per book, and typically of escalating seriousness. Tom Clancy’s series featuring Jack Ryan is a good example: as Ryan’s altitude in the federal government increases, so do the risks attending the crises he must navigate, until we find him at last facing the descent of a nuclear weapon toward Washington D.C. When the writer finds that he can no longer raise the stakes credibly, it’s wise to retire the character and the series.

     But in this sort of series the missing element in the middle is a problem of consequence. The reader has followed the protagonist through M of N volumes. Upon reaching for the “next” one, his hand lands on M+2. He starts to read...and discovers that he’s lost the thread of the series. Oops! Must locate volume M+1 at once! But to his chagrin, he can’t find it.

     I’ve had that experience with series from several other writers. It’s not a good thing, Gentle Reader. If you’ve had it yourself, you’ll know what I mean.

     The eBook provides a solution, inasmuch as it need never go out of print. But several writers of note have disdained to reissue their works in eBook form – or worse, have reissued only parts of series. This is unwise. It can engender a lot of ill will from reader to writer. Considering how close to effortless Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords and other eBook publishers have made the process, it’s also avoidable.

     Another version of this is the variant-priced series element. If element M+1 is available but extortionately priced, many a reader’s hackles will rise. I’ve had that experience too: the first M volumes are available for $2.99 or $3.99 each, and M+2 through N have similar prices, but M+1 is priced at $12.99 or higher. Why on Earth? I can’t imagine.

     These are entirely avoidable ways to lose readers and reader loyalty. Verbum sat sapienti, favorite series writers of mine!

     There’s a lively discussion under way at Mad Genius Club — no, I’m not a member, though I comment there now and then – concerning allowable vocabulary in fiction. It started from a set of observations by Sarah Hoyt about what makes a book “saleable.”

     I was pleased to see that most of those contributing to this little sub-discussion share my dislike of the dumbing-down trend that’s afflicted fiction. Editors at conventional publishers have adopted a conformant attitude: “Write for an eighth-grader!” the smart ones will tell you. (The less smart ones will tell you to write for a fifth-grader.) And as you can probably imagine, it drives me absolutely nuts.

     Dislike of the “vocabulary show-off,” I understand. I don’t care for the species of retromingent onager who festoons his books with a rebarbative congeries of obfuscations and anfractuosities any more than I like “literary” pretentiousness and those who luxuriate in it instead of telling actual stories. But I maintain that there have been changes as regards readers’ (and editors’) attitudes that aren't for the better.

     If you’ve read B. R. Myers’s A Reader’s Manifesto, you might recall him lamenting the disappearance of “good Mandarin writing” in the fashion of Woolf and Joyce. I feel similarly – but in this connection, I lament even more wistfully the decline in educational standards and the acceptance of that decline by just about everyone. The most important aspect of that decline, as usual, goes all but unremarked. It’s the difference between two attitudes: “I don’t know that word, so I’ll improve my vocabulary by looking it up” versus “What right does he have to use a word I don’t know?”

     Unfortunately, editors have elected to accept readers’ educational and characterological decline as unopposable. Rather than maintaining their own standards, they’ve agreed to follow the downslope toward a de facto illiteracy in which readers will tolerate only the simplest prose, thus rendering the wealth of centuries inaccessible. Present trends continuing, comic books will be soon filled with pictures alone; those irritating “word bubbles” will have softly and silently vanished away.

     I am put in mind of Lewis Carroll’s Bellman:

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land.
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

     ...and not in a good way, mind you.

     Yes, Experienced is coming along. Slowly, that is. Please be patient with me, as this book has proved as difficult to write as was Innocents, and for much the same reason. But I’ll finish it, and it will probably become available before the New Year is upon us. Until then, keep the faith. Don’t take any wooden characters.

1 comment:

daniel_day said...

Your comment about vocabulary reminds me of reading The World According to Garp. As the pages went by, I found myself increasingly irritated by something subtle in the style. Eventually I put a finger on it, that the author was avoiding any "difficult" vocabulary. Perhaps he was aiming at the 5th grade level you mentioned. I never finished the book.