Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Semester Approaches

(notes toward more stuff I’ve been thinking about sf and teaching and maybe even living)

One should write fiction carefully and consciously to someone, as one writes a letter; and the selection of that someone is the single most important skill that a writer can develop.
— Theodore Sturgeon
Everybody writes to somebody.
Or they should.
I know a few carloads of writers who say they write only for themselves, and I would never doubt them. But I didn’t say anything about who they write for – I said “write to.”
Writing, so I have been told, is a form of communication. Communication implies that there’s a sender and a receiver. “Rhetoric must be a bridge, a road,” Borges wrote; “too often it is a wall, an obstacle.”
Who is receiving what we write?
If we’re writing science fiction, is there a science fiction reader to whom we’re writing? Who is that person? What is that person like? Are they like us? Should they be?
I believe these questions may be at the heart with what is going on in the field these days. Many people have many assumptions about what’s good, what’s bad; things ain’t like they used to be; a candy bar used to be twenty-five cents; you shouldn’t be eating candy bars anyway; if it’s sci-fi, why are there no robots?; why are there only robots?; I ordered a halibut and you brought me beef jerky; if I go to Mars who’s going to mow my lawn?; why is everybody else always wrong and only I am right? Huh? How about that?
I had an argument – no, let’s call it a disagreement – with the late and much-missed David G. Hartwell. He used to say, most directly in his book, Age of Wonders, that readers have to learn how to read science fiction, which was one of the expressed intentions of that volume. Reading science fiction is different from reading other kinds of fiction. Many readers don’t know how to do it – like going from automatic to stick shift. “Written science fiction, like cooking, mathematics, or rock ’n’ roll, is a whole bunch of things that some people can understand or do and some not … Just because someone can read does not mean that he necessarily can read SF, just as the ability to write arabic numerals and add and subtract doesn’t mean you necessarily can or want to perform long division.”
Me? I insisted that every book teaches its reader how to read it. Some do so better than others, but each novel or collection has to work its own specific magic. If I read a book about how to read regency romances, I doubt if it would do me any good. Same with westerns, or private eye novels, or police procedurals. One kind of story may appeal to a reader more than another, but every book has to teach its readers how it should be read.
Were it otherwise, that strange and alluring abyss known as fandom would have the greatest sway over what is written and what is sold as science fiction. And yet there are a number of books that have sold far and wide beyond fandom’s fuzzy corridors and are recognized by all but the most adamant protesters as science fiction.
How can that be?
I am one of those writers who often hears from readers, “I usually don’t like science fiction, but I like your stories.”
On the other hand, I’ve heard this from fans: “You wrote some kind of thing, didn’t you?”
So it goes.
I don’t know why this is. Obviously, there are many voices speaking to many readers. Some are more readily received by the more vocal members of the sf community. Others, not so much. And the differences between the “some” and the “others” are not always reflected in book sales. Readers of science fiction outnumber science fiction “fans.”
Science fiction media is pervasive. We are constantly told we now live in a science fiction universe. Terms from popular science fiction media have entered everyday vernacular. For those of us who create science fiction to be read or listened to, this may not always be a blessing, but it seems that at least in some respects a wider audience has already met us half way. It is no longer 1984 (when Hartwell’s book came out).
Who is our audience? Who are we writing to?
In a world (as the movie trailers tell us) of growing diversity, even in the midst of devastating setbacks, cultures are communicating with other cultures with greater facility. Or at least they can – we can, if we choose. We don’t have to presume our readers all come from similar backgrounds.
I used to get grief from my short story writing students all the time whenever I asked them to give me more detail and description. Now, we’re not necessarily talking about science fiction stories, or fantasy stories, or historical fiction. “Why do I have to put all that stuff in? Everybody knows what I’m talking about.” In a classroom, on a high school or junior college campus, with a roomful of students who live within a few miles of each other, that may be so – may be so. Even within what seems to be a fairly homogenous culture, there are degrees of variance that will make voices and points of view unique.
Some writers seem to communicate to an inner circle of the initiated. Perhaps Joyce was the best example of that with Finnegan’s Wake. You have to know the territory, so to speak, or you’re lost in a stormy sea of references. Other writers try to reach outside the circle and draw you in. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The reading does not require a preliminary initiation but is the initiation itself. I would think that we now live in a time where we, as both readers and writers, require the latter more than the former, which is not to exclude the former, but if we intend to increase diversity, the inner circle must necessarily expand.
Every writer gives us a new world to explore. Even when they write about a place we know, they give us a new picture of the place, or they make the place anew. Be aware that every reader comes to your book a stranger, and it is only common courtesy to make a stranger welcome.
We don’t need to explain everything – explain nothing, in fact. But give us enough of a picture to distinguish your worlds and your characters from all the others. That’s partly done by craft, and partly done by voice. But it’s also partly accomplished by address – not what you are writing but to whom you are writing; not writing to an audience, but to an individual.
When you write a story, science-fictional or otherwise, give a thought to whom you would most like to tell this story: in a letter, or an email, or face to face, sharing a couple of coffees in the same café where you sit and type away at your device. Choose a person and tell your story to that person.
When you first discovered reading and books, what kind of stuff were you looking for? What kind of reader were you?
Were you looking for yourself in the books you chose? Or were you looking for the self you wanted to be?
Or, perhaps, you were looking for anyone but yourself, and anywhere but the “here” you occupied at the time.
Who was that person  who searched so diligently, maybe even so desperately, for whatever it was they were looking for?
Maybe that’s the person you need to write to.
As the person you are now, write to that person you were, the one who so loved stories and poems and books about rockets and dinosaurs and zeppelins or whatever it is you loved. Write to them as if they are still searching, still waiting.
          Because they are still waiting.