Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Not In Our Stars

“It may be that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors.”
– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal”

On an afternoon I’m supposed to be writing, I get up and walk around. I fidget. It happens when something isn’t coming out right.
I’m in a library. Books surround me. There are times when this can feel oppressive to a writer with a work in progress. So many books. Why add to the noise of language? What will one more work add to this vast outpouring of story?
There are other times when the shelves and shelves of books feel like a resource. I have an army of allies. At the right moment, you can hear the books whispering to you. Some of them are whispering answers. Some of them are trying to help you finish your story.
You take from a random shelf a random book and turn to a random page. Except it isn’t a random choice – you have been pulled by some uncanny magnetism to the right book at the right page at the right moment.
Or it could be truly random. Outside the framework of causalities real and imagined, most everything is.
This time I reach for David Gerrold’s book on science fiction writing, Worlds of Wonder, because I don’t have a copy of it at home (well, I do, but it’s from the Columbia library, which means it one day has to return to their shelves).
The “random” page I turn to is under the chapter title “Transformation” (page 101) and addresses the matter of fictional characters, specifically protagonists, and ways to think about the problem of change that most every fictional protagonist has to face.
The whole matter of characters in fiction has been on my mind a lot. Science fiction has always been perceived as having problems with the creation of vivid characters. For much of its history, the criticism has been valid, with many and varied notable exceptions.
The criticism remains valid. I had been reading through the most recent “Best of” anthology for science fiction, looking for stories I wanted to assign to my students for class reading. I found many great stories with many wonderful characters, but I also waded through pages and pages of depictions of empty people, dead inside, psychologically opaque, mechanisms suffering “hardware issues.”
It wasn’t that these characters weren’t interesting in their deadness, so to speak, but that this same kind of character kept on showing up again and again and again until it sounded to my reader’s ear like a pianist banging on the same key over and over.
Today, we have better writers, better schooled in both sciences and arts, and the ones who pursue short fiction are rarely burdened with the necessity to hammer out one story after another to make a living. There is no living to be made from writing short stories. So why should all these protagonists be so similar? Why do so many of them seem to be simply going through the motions?
I have an interest in this question as a teacher. I want my students to be the writers who will break this contemporary convention. But I also have an interest as a writer myself. Have I fallen into the same morass? Or will I, eventually? Is there something I can keep in mind so that I can maintain my own standard that places character at the core of any successful story?
At the outset, Gerrold tells us, The transformation of the character is the reason you’re telling the story.” The story can go no further without it. It’s the reason for everything included in the story and the reason why the story is about this character, not someone else.
In boldface: “Transformation is the reinvention of the self by the Self.” The problem, or nemesis, or obstacle, the character faces is not so much what prevents the transformation, it is the self, or “Self” defining the obstacle as insurmountable, at least by the character. Gerrold describes the character as saying, “I can’t handle this,” then continues, “By choosing to make this situation the problem, the hero creates himself as the source of the problem. Until he recognizes his own authorship of the dilemma, he cannot create himself as the source of the resolution.”
Forgive me if my summary makes this idea seem too convoluted. The simple version, best as I can manage it, is: “The real conflict of the story is not between the character and the external obstacle, but the character in conflict with him/her/it/they self.”
Which reminded me a lot of William Faulkner, in his Nobel lecture: “… the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
An obvious, and fitting, connection.
What it also reminded me of was this passage I encountered in Louis H. Sullivan’s The Autobiography of an Idea, his last great statement to beliefs in art, and nature, and its reflection in his architectural work, published the year of his death in 1924. Sullivan writes of himself in the third person, which can be a tad annoying for twenty-first century readers, but bear with him here. He describes the moment when his aesthetics all clicked together for him:

He had worked out a theory that every problem contains and suggests its own solution. That a postulate which does not contain and suggest its own solution is not in any sense a problem, but a misstatement of fact or an incomplete one. … he had reached the advanced position that if one wished to solve the problem of man's nature, he must seek the solution within man himself. ...

In other words, chosen by that author with an uncanny penchant for finding “other words” that live forever, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves. …”
Or, as Gerrold states it, “The moment in which the hero recognizes, ‘I’m the problem – ” he also recognizes the corollary: “—therefore I’m the solution!” His commitment becomes ‘I can handle this. I will handle this.’”
Story structures can vary. In a “realistic” story, the problems may not be so apparent. In a science fiction story, the science-fictional concept may serve to define the internal conflict. The concrete representation is external and tangible, but the solution is internal – is personal, even if the subject is personhood itself, as it can so often be in contemporary sf.
It may seem overly self-reflective to say that the character’s plight echoes the plight of the author in writing a story. The solution is to found in the problem itself; if the problem is within the author’s imagination, so is the solution.
Let’s throw this in, just for the hell of it, a little something I picked up in a faculty seminar when novelist Nami Moon was teaching at my school. Conflicts can be divided into two groups: “Chronic conflict” (long term, over the course of the character’s life), “Acute conflict” (the immediate situation which spurs the problem within the story).
There’s a distinction here that’s useful in most any kind of fiction, but may work with exceptional success in a science fiction story. The science-fictional problem in the story reflects what has long-dogged the central character, in fact, defines that character.
Science fiction can and very often does explore the concrete representations of emotional and metaphorical hopes and fears – we fear change; we need change; we fear the “other”; we are the “other.”
What makes the form so thrilling and interesting that it can expand upon these basic emotional dichotomies to limitless dimensions. We have more than one universe to play with.

It’s just important that, in making these stories memorable and resonant, that we remember where to seek the solutions to their immense and wondrous problems.


Saturday, August 11, 2018

Insist on Your Cup of Stars


When human beings, or even dinosaurs, fail to deliver consolation in times of doubt, uncertainty, and maybe even a little despair, there are always libraries.
For instance …
This afternoon, I needed to get out of the house. It’s been a bad week, in some ways. Not so bad in others. One part of me wanted to just sit at home, lie on the bed, and contemplate my misfortune. Luckily, I recognized that doing so never solved anything. I have a lot of work to do – work that I want to avoid, and still have to some degree.
And, of course, I have writing to do as well, which I don’t want to avoid, but I had a hard time working myself to get any done. I’m in the dumps.
My fall class at Columbia was canceled.
And this time, I can’t really blame the administration, the department, or anyone but the students. They just didn’t sign up.
Not enough of them. Just nine, I think. And I thank those nine for signing up. And I also apologize that now there won’t be a course for them to take.
But when you get ready to put on a show, so to speak, and no one comes, you can’t help feeling bad. Feeling like a failure. Or an outcast. I have some experience in feeling like an outcast.
And when you feel like an outcast, it’s very difficult to motivate yourself to soldier on and produce new work. Even if you’ve had some relative success, all you can remember are the failures, the empty rooms, the silence.
So, sitting in the library, I started writing, then looked around. Who needs any more stories? I’m surrounded by five thousand books. Who needs to read anything by me? What the hell do I know? I think science fiction will not only save literature, but maybe save the world. How dumb can you get? If readers don’t want Tiptree, Delany, Sturgeon, Lafferty, on and on and on, who the hell wants me?
Well, this is no good, I thought. I got up and started checking out the shelves, looking for something to read to remind me what good words look like when put together. Good sentences. Good storytelling. I also wanted to see what books I have loved are still hogging shelf space. On previous scans of the shelves, I’d discovered a number of my favorites had been “disappeared” to make more space. Catalog searches proved they were gone. Kaput. Outta here.
But I did find this: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson.
Memory is the ultimate censor, but if I recall correctly, Jackson’s novel was the first “grownup” novel I read, excluding books by Wells and Stevenson, which some considered “kid stuff” (the Wells novels were in editions specifically marketed to children).
I had also included the novel in a list of books that made a great impression on me or were favorites. I had read Hill House in many years. I retained my very first copy of it in my library, but handle it with care, afraid it might turn to dust if I finger through it too rapidly.
Did it still retain its power?
I took the edition off the shelf, flipped it open, and started reading at a random page. It’s early in the novel: Eleanor’s car trip to Hill House. It’s a section that fascinated me when I first read it as a kid and which still fascinates me. You would think a boy, especially a boy living in Chicago, in Garfield Ridge – a place of mediocre little schools and mean-spirited, mediocre little minds, a paradise for the venal and the superficial – would be bored by all this. “Come on! Let’s get to the house! Let’s get to all the haunted stuff!”
But no. I didn’t know who Eleanor was, but somehow I detected a kindred spirit in her. She didn’t feel at home at home. She is wandering, heading off to Hill House, daydreaming along the way.
She stops at a “country restaurant” and notices the family at another table, the only other customers at that time of day: parents, a young boy and a little girl.

… The light from the stream below touched the ceiling and the polished tables and glanced along the little girl’s curls, and the little girl’s mother said calmly, “She wants her cup of stars.”
Indeed, yes, Eleanor thought; indeed, so do I; a cup of stars, of course.
“Her little cup,” the mother was explaining, smiling apologetically at the waitress, who was thunderstruck at the thought that the mill’s good country milk was not rich enough for the little girl. “It has stars in the bottom, and she always drinks her milk from it at home. She calls it her cup of stars because she can see the stars while she drinks her milk.” The waitress nodded, unconvinced, and the mother told the little girl, “You’ll have your milk from your cup of stars tonight when we get home. But just for now, just to be a very good little girl, will you take a little milk from the glass?”
Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile, and shook her head stubbornly at the glass. Brave girl, Eleanor thought; wise, brave girl.
“You’re spoiling her,” the father said. “She ought not to be allowed these whims.”
“Just this once,” the mother said. She put down the glass of milk and touched the little girl gently on the hand. “Eat your ice cream,” she said.
When they left, the little girl waved good-by to Eleanor, and Eleanor waved back, sitting in joyful loneliness to finish her coffee while the gray stream tumbled along below her. …

This is an incredible moment that a lesser author would have probably cut in an early draft – “No, let’s get to the action. Let’s not dawdle.” Or an editor would have made the same suggestion. “No one wants to read about country restaurants! Hell, let’s get this show on the road!”
But the show is on the road. The show is Eleanor. And in this little moment we get the answer to the question I keep asking students and fellow writers when I read their work, and so often – so very, very often – they cannot answer with even faint success: “Why the hell should I care what happens to this person?”
Eleanor wants her cup of stars.
We all want our cup of stars.
Eleanor knows. She was trapped into being like everyone else, at least on the outside. You concede your cup of stars and for the rest of your life you struggle to get it back. Eleanor and the little girl exchange this wisdom silently, and it is not simply Eleanor imparting wisdom to the little girl – she isn’t. The little girl is imparting as much to Eleanor as Eleanor is warning the little girl.
I don’t pretend to know what great literature is. I believe, perhaps wrongly, that I know good storytelling, and good writing, and how to bring a notion across to its most powerful effect. And this is certainly great storytelling, great writing – a brief moment, a stop on the road to destiny that tells us almost everything we need to know about Eleanor while revealing a startling awareness of our own secret dreams.

There’s a lot of talk these days, especially among folks of my generation, about whether books we read when we were young “stand up” today. Maybe they have a point, because a lot of what they read (me too) was a lot of crap. Earnest crap. Exciting crap. But … crap.
But then I think: stand up? To whom? Who has appointed these arthritic bozos the Grand Jury of Literature? They were stupid enough to read and love the crap in their youth. I should take their judgments seriously now?
Perhaps it makes one feel cool and wise now to eviscerate the giants of our youth, to call “Fraud!” and “Foul!” on former heroes. Perhaps that’s an exercise everyone needs to perform to understand how the world changes and how we change within that world.
But perhaps a few moments should be spent not in judging how the works we read in youth stand up for us, but how well we stand up against the works we read.
Have we kept our cup of stars?
I went back to my reading table and scribbled out a few more pages of words, most of which I will probably cross out and try to come up with better ones, reminding myself of something I’ve been telling myself a lot: All great stories are love stories. All great stories are about loneliness. These two sentences are not mutually exclusive.

Writing is never easy, but the only way you get it done is to keep going through the tangle of uncertainty and fear and emptiness. Take a break, enjoy your coffee, but at the end of road, Hill House awaits.


Monday, August 6, 2018

With These Hands (and a few other parts thrown in)

As a kid, I was very big on hand-scripting first drafts. In part, it was because notebooks were a lot more portable than typewriters (even portable typewriters) in those days. Another part was because I wasn’t a particularly good typist (I’m still not, but much better than I was). Not that I had particularly good penmanship, either. The choice between typescripts and handscripts was pretty much the choice between scribble over scrubble.
As a young adult, I continued to do a lot of my early-draft work in spiral-bound notebooks. Again, it was the portability. It must have also appealed to me that even though it was a notebook, it was still a book. The covers were thin, but it still felt like a book.
That was when I did a lot of writing, but I hadn’t yet learned, to some extent, how to be a writer.  I still had visions of pages upon pages with nary a scribble or a cross-out. The words came out freely and unhindered – too bad the majority of them were crap.
This is not to say, also, that I didn’t type. I typed up a storm, in spite of being the worst typist in the universe. I think I was in the fifth or sixth grade when I received my first typewriter for Christmas. It was a machine that printed all caps. I was forty years ahead of the times if I was planning to write comments on social media posts. Everything I produced looked like it came off a broken teletype machine. Luckily, my mom had a 1949 Royal Portable typewriter – or what passed as “portable” when dinosaurs ruled the earth. But I put that old Royal to work. When I was in eighth grade and home with some sort of terrible sickness for a week and a half, I used the time to write a book about the movies. Yes. I wrote a book. Not a long one, but a book nonetheless. Not only did I type the whole thing, I typed it with two (2) carbons(!!!).
And yet – I was a lousy typist. A typist of necessity, not of talent. I didn’t type well, but I typed a lot. That’s how you “got it done” back then.
That is still how you get it done, though the keyboard is no longer fixed to a physically mechanical device in quite the same way. Your fingers move over the letters that make the words (and the punctuation) in the same way, and you press down in the same way, though maybe not so hard.
I know writers who never hand-script a thing. If it weren’t for keyboards, they wouldn’t be writers. And I need to add that most of those writers are prolific. Not only do they get it done, they a get a lot of it done.
And that’s fine with me. Every writer has to find what works best. Some have a proscribed methodology. Others work within the confines of a continuous riot. There is order and there is chaos and there’s a lot of room in between. There is an order in chaos as well and, conversely, a chaos in order.
With that in mind, I’d like to suggest to some of you who are still working out what works best for you, that you try an intermingling of both.
Usually, one works at hand-script first, then transfers or transcribes what was written by hand to the keyboard. That’s supposed to be the natural progression of things.
Recently, though, when I worked on the novel, and then on “The Man Who Put the Bomp,” I kept switching back and forth, typing up what I had scribbled, then scribbling what I had typed down. The process was born of necessity. I very often had to work on these projects while in transit, or in spare moments before heading into an office. I didn’t have a laptop computer handy, but I still needed to get work done. Some folks have notebook computers. All I had was the notebook. And a pen. And, very often, a printout of what I had typed up the day before, or a week before, or whenever.
Going back and forth between keyboard and pen, I noticed something very unusual, to me at least: we write differently when we type than we do when we write with a pen, scripting out each letter by hand; also, we read differently when we engage in these processes.
It may be that each process utilizes a different part of the brain, or if not that, it uses the brain differently. Typing up scribbled notes is a different task than composing on the keyboard. Hand-writing sentences that have already been typed out applies a different kind of scrutiny to what you have written. You’re looking at the sentences in a different context – it provides you an opportunity to look over your sentences and read them with a greater distance – or if that “greater distance” phrase seems hackneyed, look at it this way: it’s a chance to read your work and separate your self from your words.
I’ve never been into this “your brain is hardwired to do this” kind of thinking. The brain precedes hard-wiring and the metaphor is, as all metaphors about the brain are, flawed. Some researchers, so I’ve read, are catching up with this insight.
They’re also becoming aware that the brain does not work in isolation.
It is tied to a nervous system that extends to the body’s extremities – hands, for example. Brain and hands work together. Brain and eyes work together. Brain and nose work together. And ears. And so on.
We read a page of your handwritten work differently. We read a screen of your prose differently. We also read a printed page of your prose in a way that puts your sentences into a different context. The writing and reading of your prose in various ways involves processes that are substantially different but not unrelated to each other. We learn from each of these processes and, with a little thought, we can use their interrelations to become better writers.
Years ago, when “right brain thinking” and “left brain thinking” were all the rage, my prof at Columbia, John Schultz, would make a point that he included in his text, Writing from Start to Finish, that this notion was an oversimplification. Early brain scans demonstrated that people who were writing used both “parts” of the brain (and a few parts not usually counted) – sending messages back and forth. “Logical” brain was as necessary as the “aesthetic” brain to create a vivid piece of writing.
And that work was done over a half century ago. Today, my guess would be that every part of the neural network – every part that can be utilized – has been observed contributing to the process. Brain, eyes, hands, fingers, feet, gut – you name it.
Over all these regions of the neuro-system, memory rules. You remember your fingers scribbling out a phrase, or tapping keys that produce figures on a page – the way you remember how to run, or ride a bike.
Which is to say: a great part of the writing process is visceral. It’s exercise. The best kind of exercise your entire nervous system can get.
Not to mention your mind.
And it doesn’t hurt your writing, either.
I’ve noticed over the years, and even now, that when I ask my students to read from something they’ve just started working on, a good half of them will pull out notebooks, filled with words they’ve placed there by hand, printed carefully or in cursive script. When I see that, my fears that the end of the world are near significantly alleviate. There is hope.
In the meantime, if you spy a writer in the library who has both a laptop and a couple of notebooks spread out before them (along with a few old books and a cup of coffee) you have found either me or an ally.


Monday, July 2, 2018

Doing It Right, Maybe

Science fiction, if you’re doing it right, is reality in tight focus.
That’s the only sentence left from my first draft of this post, which for me was getting on a soapbox and complaining. (Okay, so I threw in a few more sentences once I got rolling, but I really did want to change the tone from a grumpy tirade to something more.) I looked it over and decided that complaining will get me (and you, and everybody else) nowhere. I want to do more. I want to actually understand what’s going on.
In the past couple of years, I’ve had a number of students who’ve wanted to indulge in the accoutrements of science fiction without really taking advantage of what can, potentially, be at the heart of this form. They want the smell of the burger, but not the meat – or, when it comes to science fiction, they want the rockets, ray guns and robots, but not the who, what, when, where, and why. They want to play in the dirt, but they don’t want to tell you what’s in the dirt, or where it came from, or why anyone would want to play in it in the first place. It’s a game. It’s a joke. It’s an evasion.
Escape literature is one thing. It helps define what we’re escaping from. Evasion literature is another. It altogether denies the thing we’re escaping from.
So … why? Why go for the easy stuff, other than that it’s easy? The problem I have with a literature of evasion is that it always travels on the same tracks, stops at all the same stations. It moves right on schedule. The changes are superficial. Red shirts become blue shirts. Desert planets become ocean planets. Robots become scary aliens, and vice versa. But it’s always the same trip taking us to same place. So what?
So bloody what?
A literature allegedly devoted to wonder and awe cannot run on schedule. It cannot rely on conventions. It should not settle for competency and mediocrity, even if that’s what sells. This is not to say there should be no schedules, no conventions, no competency. But somewhere, somehow, someone’s got to mess with the rules, switch the tracks, surprise us without getting us all killed. Someone has to write more than a variation to a theme, perhaps change the theme altogether. And when that theme becomes a convention, subvert that one as well.
Then again – we’re talking about young writers here. And I have to remember what was important for me as a young writer. In honesty, I have to say that nothing mattered to me more than what was called at the time “emotional expression.” I think that’s what we still call it. We want feelings to guide every element of storytelling we take on: character, setting, motivation, conflict and complications, resolution. In one sense, we’re right. Feelings are what we have to return to when we’ve labored at everything else. And labor we must, because none of this easy, especially for writers whose main influences are graphic stories, TV, and – dare I say it? – popular fiction.
I don’t want to denigrate “popular” fiction categorically. The best of what sells is usually something that transcends category, and in doing so creates its own niche. But it also narrows one’s perception as to what can be done in the field of written prose, not to mention science fiction in particular. There are books in the “unpopular” category that can do as much to widen a young writer’s perspectives as anything sitting in the racks at the airport concourse newsstand.
The problem with young writers relying so greatly on “feelings” alone is that young writers, in general, have a blurry, indistinct notion of what those feelings are. They are too busy “feeling” them to successfully render them on a page. It’s like trying to render a self-portrait without the aid of a mirror, and more – while one is in the process of doing something else, like running, or operating heavy machinery, or making a salad, or playing a video game.
It’s the process of writing, the actual work of putting the thing together word by word, that helps makes sense (every way in which that term can be used) of the raw feelings we feel so desperate to convey in our work.
When we’re young, we don’t know so much about writing – no mystery in that. We learn by doing, and the more we do, the more we learn. Or so we hope.
The truth that gets forgotten or overlooked is that when we’re young, we don’t know much about feelings, either. We know we have them, and that they shape us and direct us, but that’s not saying a lot. We can fly as passengers in a plane and know nothing of the basics of aerodynamics, either. We still get to places, though we don’t know how.
Writing is a place we can learn more about our feelings. We can examine them, test them, put them to work. We may not be conscious that this is what we’re doing, but we do it. We write to learn, whether we’re aware of it or not.
And one of the things that has most intrigued me about science fiction in particular, apart from the process of fiction-making at any level, is its natural tendency to put what we know to the test. When Philip K. Dick tried to “explain” science fiction in his speech, “How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” included in the collection I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon, he boiled it down to two questions: 1.) What is Reality? and 2.) “What constitutes an authentic human being?” – this second I place in quotes because Dick’s wording is important. Dick has perhaps oversimplified the issue and defined what science fiction is for him, though not for everyone else, but a truth hovers over his assessment. Science fiction does – or at least can – include as much metaphysics as physics, but is not necessarily about the metaphysics. It’s about us. It’s about what we believe and what we desire – and what we feel. It’s about all the things we look for and often discover when we read what’s often referred to as “realistic” fiction, but then takes that and applies an even sharper lens to this “reality.” It allows for alternatives to the status quo. It allows for glimpses into what we cannot know – the future – through what we do know, or think we know.
At its best, science fiction can do this.
Would that we do it more often, especially now, when “status quo” and conventions have become the objects of constant struggles – when science and technology may play an even more important role in shaping a world culture than even money and power. Science fiction need not be a limitation, not a simplification, of human experience, but an opportunity to expand our experience and comprehension of it.
And our feelings toward it.

If we do it right.


Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Preparing to Remember


I’ve been saying recently that until I wrote the novel that’s currently floating around to publishers (called The Va-va-va VOOM! but may end up being retitled North Side Girl), I’d never really written about the neighborhood where I grew up.
I was wrong.
I wrote two short stories. One of them was called “Neighborhood,” and the other was called “The Tigers of Wrath” (I think, I don’t have a copy around for me to confirm). I also wrote at least one poem, “Michele Constance,” and maybe a lot more in a book-length batch of poems I’d never dream of inflicting upon you, called Intensive Care Ward.
The poem wasn’t bad. I forget where it was published, but it did get into print (now I remember – it was the magazine Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff edited called Oink!). The stories were probably good, too, or better than I’ve thought they were for a long time. They were pretty much universally rejected, though they received some interesting notes from editors. They were strong stuff. They dealt with revenge and cruelty. They had a very hard edge, and there was really nowhere to place such stories at the time.
The literary magazines and journals were looking for “New Fiction,” which was fiction allegedly all about itself. It was about technique, and cleverness, and blandness, and about being above your material. It was about the authors discovering that fiction was fictional, which was about as profound as discovering that an iceberg is made of frozen water. But it was all the rage, and no one was interested in a story about how the iceberg was going to sink the ship everyone was sailing upon.
The stories were sent to dozens of places. They always came back. I consigned them to the back of my file cabinet until Northern Illinois University asked me if I wanted to contribute some of my papers. They received them, and a number of other stories I couldn’t sell, and I never thought about them again, until now.
You probably wouldn’t like them anyway. A lot of bad things happen in those stories. The language isn’t buffered. The cruelty isn’t cloaked in innuendo. The narrators are sick, though they not sociopaths. They are deeply injured, and they do terrible things. The stories do not absolve them, nor do they allow their narrators to absolve themselves. We see more than the narrators think they are revealing. One might compare them to early Nelson Algren being grafted to early Hubert Selby, Jr. The implicit message was: danger! These people are there. They have wounds we can’t even imagine how to begin to heal.
We see those same wounds today, still festering, still incurable, still unanswered in our culture. And those same wounded people, I humbly submit, are still infecting the culture (or what’s left of our culture).
In way, they were horror stories, but they did not contain the one or two things that would qualify them for the short fiction “horror” markets, so those publications had no interest in them either.
So I wrote that stuff. And it didn’t sell. I moved on and wrote other stuff, because writers don’t give up after a couple of stories. And writers don’t keep on writing the same kind of stories over and over again, do they?
Not that I was going to write that 1970s-era “New Fiction” malarkey, which is still highly praised. Much of it, though, to me reads like a package without a product – an empty container.
At least my packages always contained something, even though when the editors opened them, the contents bit them. My submissions came with return stamped envelopes, and editors were unanimously all too willing to use them.
I do, now, remember one rejection, that came from a college literary journal, and it was sent by one of the assistant editors, one of the first readers, not from any of the “big” editors – big as one can get when the circulation of the publication was no more than 250. It was like once of those comments whispered to you when no one else is looking, one of those comments that begins like, “Don’t tell anyone I said this, but …”
The rejection went on to say, I’m paraphrasing, from memory: This is really good, uncompromising, vivid … but we can never use it at our publication. We haven’t the guts. I hope this story finds a place that does.”
At that time, I was a fairly depressed kid, or young man, stuck in a dead-end job, my academic training unused and apparently unusable. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong world. It wasn’t that I missed the bus – the bus stopped running. I was built for one job – making stories. I didn’t know much about how to make them, but make them was what I had to do. Except – kids from my part of the world weren’t supposed to do those kinds of things. And the world wasn’t ready to break any rules just for me. I was going to be one of those in the multitudes of failures – one of those who may have not failed for lack of ability or determination, but for no good reason at all. Like one of those millions of soldiers in millions of battles in millions of wars – the soldiers who didn’t survive for no other reason than that the bullet went here instead of there.
Rejection slips, the personal ones  – they were these little notes slipped to me that both confirmed and negated my status in a world I chose to live in. You’re good, but it just doesn’t matter. Good we got. Millions more good writers than we’ll ever need. Sorry.
Well. What can you say? I tried to do it right, and what I got was “Sorry.”
The literary landscape faced one way. I faced another. I could try to write the stuff the literary editors liked, but … wasn’t that what my teachers taught me writers do in the “popular fiction” markets? Wasn’t that the thing we were supposed to avoid because we were real, true artists who didn’t pay attention to the beck and call of editors and readers?
So – “literature,” the light of civilization, turns out to be the same sort of marketplace that guides and guards this world with invisible hands.
Not that I’m complaining, or was complaining at the time. All I regretted was that I didn’t receive the memo sooner.
If you’re going to the market, you better bring something someone wants to buy. Eventually, I found something I could sell, and sold it.
But it wasn’t my old neighborhood. It wasn’t the people I knew. It wasn’t all I had grown up with, the things I observed, the feelings and the explicit  expression of those feelings. Nobody wanted to read that shit, so I stopped trying to sell that story – until now.

Maybe this time I’ve figured out how to tell the story. Maybe this time I will find an audience that’s ready to listen.


Monday, June 25, 2018

A Day Late, But Still to the Point …


“I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.”
– George Orwell, "Why I Write" (1946)
In 1947, he started Nineteen Eighty-Four in earnest, so this was his “another” novel, “bound to be a failure.”
Happy Birthday, George Orwell, you immortal failure, you! . . .

Sunday, April 29, 2018

When We Were Respectable

A few years ago now, I attended a convention where, on several occasions and within several different contexts, I was assured that science fiction had become “respectable.” On only one occasion, though, did someone explain to me why they thought so.
“Because it makes so much money.”
Like an innocent lad from the farmlands who just fallen off the turnip truck, I found myself asking, “Really? Is that all it takes to become respectable?”
Reply: a shrug. As if to say, “And what’s wrong with money? You want a Nobel Prize or something?”
For the moment, let’s forget that I do want a Nobel Prize. That can wait. What I did was try to add up what I just heard, except that it didn’t add up.
I’m a writer, which in most places means that, by definition and demonstration, I have no money. In fact, I’m convinced (without research, so sue me) that in many languages the word “writer” can be literally defined “One who has no money.”
But … but … I write science fiction!
Where, then, is my respectability?
Has it gotten lost in the mails? Was it transferred to the wrong PayPal account? Did one of my neighbors pick it up by mistake?
And … this loss is not mine alone. I look around at my peers, and if any of them have any money, not to mention “so much” money, it’s because they’ve been doing something other than writing, much less writing science fiction.
We’re eating watered-down porridge from hand-carved wooden bowls.
One would think respectability would have a little more flavor.
But wait, there’s more.
I also teach science fiction writing. Isn’t it proof enough that if an accredited institution with an impeccable reputation would pay for an instructor in science fiction writing, science fiction has earned a degree of respectability in an austere and – dare I say it? – respectable corner of our great culture?
Wrong again.
Within the confines of the Ivory Tower, science fiction is at best the poor relation. The “help.” We’re used to attract the rubes (and their money). It can be pointed to, if needed, for “cultural relevance” (“See? We’re not trying to make you write reams of involuted gibberish with abstractions instead of characters and inventories instead of plots! See, we have classes in science fiction! We’re … we’re almost cool!”).
But if enrollments go down and money grows scarce, science fiction is shown the door. Science fiction, then, is just a “frill.”
And science fiction classes may not be attracting as many students as they have in previous years. Students today know what science fiction is: it’s rockets and rayguns and robots (the “Three Rs” of science fiction). It’s shit blowing up other shit. Who needs to take a class in that?
“You were here as an embellishment. You’re not essential to the core of our highly-esteemed program. You do not display the necessary academic rigor to remain here. We’ll call you when we need you again.”
When you hear the word “rigor,” you know “mortis” will follow almost immediately.
The great academic ship in the harbor has painted over the name “Higher Education” on its sides and stern, replacing it with “Pequod.” And, thanks to a liberal application of academic rigor, we know how that story ends.
If this is what respectability feels like, I’d never have thought to pursue it.
Wait a minute – I haven’t pursued it!
When it comes to education, there are many things more important than respectability. Like, well – like … education, maybe, for a start.
When it comes to writing fiction, especially science fiction, on the list of things I most need to pay attention to, respectability is near the bottom.
Why the hell should I care about respectability?
The obvious conclusion that links science fiction with “so much money” is – media. Big budget superhero movies. Franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek. TV series via cable or Netflix. Big money there. But I can’t help feeling that “so much money” is all about the media, not the message.
And science fiction is more about message than media. Or can be. Or should be. Sometimes it is. But again, I don’t feel comfortable in my seat. I keep fidgeting, even squirming.
So, let’s say science fiction is respected because it makes so much money. What kind of respect is that? It is the respect of a merchant toward another merchant – a more successful merchant. It’s a respect based on commerce, not creativity. Respect based upon the contents of our wallets, not the content of our character, much less the character of our content. It is concession to power via money. It is an approbation of the status quo.
This is not to say I wouldn’t be happier with a few more bucks in the bank, or more than a few. I am not denying the attributes of financial success. I just don’t want the two confused – success and respectability.
Science fiction does not require respectability as either a necessary or sufficient cause for its existence any more than it requires financial success – though I wouldn’t mind if the latter came along for the ride.

“Respect” is one thing. “Respectability” is another. Of the two, I’ll take the former, if and when it is offered. The latter, far as I’m concerned, can go hang.