My husband and I had a disagreement the other day on a topic that surprised me. He made the comment that a particular story which won some awards a few years ago shouldn’t have, because it was, as far as he was concerned, a piece of fan fiction, rather than an original tale. I thought it was going to turn into a much more spirited debate, because I have rather strong feelings on the subject. But I barely got a few sentences of my first point out, when he smiled, shrugged, and said, “Okay, I see your point. But I still don’t think the story deserved an award.” And I laughed and replied, “Maybe it didn’t, but that’s a different point than saying it should never have been considered for one.” And he said, “Yeah, I guess.”
And that was it.
Which wasn’t much of a debate. And I have to admit, I was a little disappointed that we wrapped that topic up so quickly, because I think it’s one that deserves more consideration. Which means I’m going to blog about it. Lucky you!
Fan fiction, according to Professor Rebecca Black, “is writing in which fans use media narratives and pop cultural icons as inspiration for creating their own texts.” A lot of people look down on fan fiction, characterizing it as not real writing, often arguing that it is just retelling existing stories, rather than someone telling their own. My first disagreement on that is that all human story telling can be characterized as retelling of existing narratives. Humans have been telling each other stories for tens of thousands of years, and there is no such thing as a wholly original story idea, any longer… Read More…
Sometimes it feels as if my whole life consists of defending why I like something. When I was a kid, I was frequently called up to justify why I preferred reading books to playing with other kids my age. Even the notion that reading was educational wasn’t enough to satisfy some people (many of them teachers). And heaven forfend that I should mention how many times “playing” with kids my age actually meant being bullied, harassed, and ridiculed non-stop! As I got older, the kind of books I liked became the issue. “Reading too much make-believe is unhealthy!1” or “Aren’t you a little old to believe in all the space hooey?2”Of course, it wasn’t just the science fiction and fantasy that set people off. If I was caught reading a book about science fact, or the hardcover of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House my grandma bought me at a library sale, or my well-worn paperback of Homer’s The Iliad, it was more proof that I was an “over-educated freak4.”
When I finally escaped to college and met people who valued reading over sports, I thought that I had left all of that behind. Oh, how naive I was! According to these literati wannabes, my tastes were quite low brow. How could I possible understand the meaning of serious art and literature if I actually enjoyed Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or The White Dragon or Harpist in the Wind or Midnight at the Well of Souls? Or even worse, I watched television!?
It’s easy to dismiss those latter examples as either snobbery or hipster-ism. Except I can be just as guilty of judging other people for liking things that I don’t.
Who am I kidding? I have been incredibly worse about this. When I think a particular book or series or movie or what-have-you is not just unlikeable, but very badly made, it will completely boggle my mind when someone I know actually likes it. And I seem to be absolutely incapable of hiding my incredulity. I frequently have to remind myself that sometimes what I think of as one of a particular work’s mediocre-but-not-awful parts might be someone else’s fiction kink. And by fiction kink I mean, it’s something they like or identify with so much that it can be a redeeming quality. Such a redeeming quality makes the parts some of us see as glaring shortcomings, merely a small price to pay to get the other thing.
Goodness knows I have my own favorite books, series, and movies that I know are flawed, but I enjoy them anyway because they contain a particular character dynamic, or a type of plot line, or use a particular combination of mythic tropes which appeal to me. I try to make the distinction between something that I don’t like for reasons of taste as opposed to something I don’t like for reasons of actual quality. It is a subjective judgement, but not an impossible one.
I got tired of finding myself having to defend my preferred reading material. Eventually, I was saved by Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy, the Russian author of such great classic novels as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I have to confess that I tried to read War and Peace at least a couple of times, and just failed to plough all the way through it. And failing to get through it was one of the things that made me wonder if those people who said my tastes were too low brow to understand great works of art were correct. But then, when a similar sort of discussion happened in one of my college literature classes, the instructor5 quoted a bit from Tolstoy’s nonfiction book, What is Art? I think it was this passage:
Not long after that, I found a copy of the book in the library, which I wound up checking out and reading. There are a lot of Tolstoy’s arguments in the book which I don’t agree with. He had adopted, by the time he wrote it, a rather radical form of Christian anarchy. So he critiqued a lot of specific examples of art as being immoral in content—more often because he thought it promoted capitalism and classism than the sorts of things that get the modern religious right up in arms. He dissed Shakespeare and Dickens, for instance (though with a lot of caveats in Dickens’ case, since much of Dickens’ later work was critical of the dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution).
The assertion that art may be good art and at the same time incomprehensible to a great number of people is extremely unjust, and its consequences are ruinous to art itself…it is the same as saying some kind of food is good but most people can’t eat it.
Despite those parts of his thesis with which I still disagree, his arguments in favor of accessibility and sincerity in art helped me figure out that those literati wannabes had mistaken obscurity for superiority. They’ve fallen victim to the notion that if “ordinary” people enjoy something, it cannot possibly be high quality. If you define art by its difficulty to be comprehended, you’ve completely misunderstood what art is. That doesn’t mean that art can’t be challenging, but there is a difference between a piece that requires thought, afterthought, and re-visiting to tease out all the layers of meaning and something which hides its meaninglessness under layers of pretension.
Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
The way I usually try to sum up Tolstoy’s notion is: Art happens when the heart of the artist touches the heart of the audience, and the audience responds. The audience doesn’t have to like it; a piece of art that evokes intense dislike must be doing something right, or you wouldn’t feel so strongly about it. But art should never leave you unmoved.
1. The exact words said both to me (and later to my parents at a parent-teacher conference) by my seventh grade social studies teacher. He was not that only one who said things to that general effect.
2. The exact words said to me by a minister3 of another church who caught me reading during afternoon free time on a rainy day at Bible camp. Again, he was not the only person by any means to make similar comments about my penchant for both science fiction and science fact, particularly NASA.
3. Of course, this was the same preacher who thought it was funny, when teasing or disagreeing with a boy (he never would do such a thing to a girl, oh no!), to grab your pinkie, twist it into a stress position, and keep you there not only until you agreed with whatever he was trying to make you say, but that you cried sufficiently that he thought you had learned your lesson.
4. The favorite phrase one of my uncles like to use to describe me.
5. Several instructors quoted Tolstoy at me around this time. Another literature profession quoted the famous line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” but he completely misunderstood it. On the other hand, one of my mathematics professors quoted the exact same line, and then explained how the line was the perfect example of an important statistics concept. The concept is sometimes referred to as the Anna Karenina principle in honor of the Tolstoy novel from which the line comes. One way to think of the principle is this: in any system, there are a large number of ways that a given process can fail, and the only way to achieve success is to avoid every single possible failure. A successful outcome depends on every single requirement being met, whereas a single shortcoming in only one requirement can cause failure of the entire endeavor.
I find myself reading about consent a lot. Having grown up in a culture which socializes guys not to take “no” for an answer, while socializing girls not to make trouble and always put other people’s wants and comforts first, it’s no wonder a lot of people don’t seem to understand consent in that context. Then there’s the whole Harper Lee and her “new” book situation. Is she healthy and aware enough to give informed consent? Does she actually know what’s going on, or is she a victim of the younger lawyers from who sister’s old firm who have taken over her estate now that her sister has died?
When I had read that her home state had initiated an investigation because of the reports of coercion, and that the state had determined that she had given her consent freely, I was mollified. I also rationalized it by comparing it to volumes I own of posthumously published material from Arthur Conan Doyle and from J.R.R. Tolkien. Those early drafts (heavily annotated by experts) and small one-offs originally created for a limited audience are fascinating and very educational, particularly from a writers’ point of view. If I can own those and enjoy them, do I have a right to condemn anyone who purchases this “new” book?
Of course, there is a difference. Tolkien and Conan Doyle have been dead for decades, these things have the notes and commentary making it clear that they are drafts or incomplete works. They aren’t being represented as something the author thought was a finished product. They’re clearly an exercise is the academic study of the work of those writers, and intended to illuminate the other works of the author.
But now I read that the investigation that looked into Harper Lee’s case did not include any medical personnel. No part of the investigation seemed to focus on whether she still possesses the capacity to give informed consent. That changes things a lot.
I do like one local book reviewers’ take on it: he read the new book, says the first chapter is amazing and you can understand why instead of outright rejecting it, the editor asked her to write a different story without the flashbacks to the narrator’s childhood, but rather to tell a story about the protagonist as a child. And then as you get into the rest of the book, the fact that this is a first draft of a first novel by a novice author is clear. And, he says, you can see why, with the help of an agent and the editor, it took her about a dozen rewrites of that second version of the book to arrive at To Kill A Mockingbird.
His conclusion: don’t buy the new book, “it’s a trap!” Instead, he advises you to read (or re-read) To Kill A Mockingbird. You can read all of his reasons why here: When Was the Last Time You Read To Kill a Mockingbird? Do You Remember How Funny It Is?
One other reason: there is absolutely no doubt that at the time Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird that she thought it was complete, that she was ready for it to publish, and that she knew what she was doing.
It’s also, if my very vague memories of reading it in my early teens, a very good book. Which I intend to re-read soon!
This time I’m looking at the nominees for Best Novella. This category is awarded for a science fiction or fantasy story of between 17,500 and 40,000 words. Click to see what I thought… Read More…
I don’t want to give anything away, but one reason it’s been a few weeks since I posted any more reviews was because the next categories were at least as difficult to slough through…
The awards are supposed to be about the artistic merits of the nominated pieces, right?
The WorldCon committee hosting each year’s awards traditionally assembles packets of either electronic copies of the nominated works, or excerpts (whichever the publisher will allow) to send to all voters. The Hugo Packets have not been sent out yet (but may show up any moment) so I’ve been locating the short stories that are available on-line to read (Much thanks to the Adventures in Reading blog for gathering all the links in one place; I wish I’d found this list much earlier). Other folks have been posting reviews as they read the stories.
So in this post, I write a short review of each of the short stories available on-line… Read More…
When we don’t like something that a friend likes a great deal, they may be surprised—even shocked. I know I’m often surprised when I share a book or movie or series that I think is the coolest thing I’ve experienced in years with a friend and they can’t stand it. How can they not see how amazing it is? I ask. And sometimes I ask far too emphatically and make them feel defensive.
It’s one thing when a single friend is disappointed that we don’t like something they’ve shared with us. It’s quite another when it seems the entire world thinks some book is one of the greatest novels ever written, but you think it’s mediocre at best. You wind up feeling more than just defensive. Especially when the people going on about how good it is are writers whose work you love, or teachers that you admire. You wonder if something is wrong with you. Did you miss something when you read it? Are you not quite discerning enough to recognize its nuances? Are you simply not smart enough to understand it?
Sure, we all understand that people have differing tastes. But when a specific book evokes labels like “great” and “a classic” from the sorts of people who should be good at spotting greatness, we expect to at least be able to recognize why the other people liked it more than we did. Part of the problem is, of course, that significant doesn’t always also mean engaging.
For instance, I was in middle school and high school in the 1970s, when The Catcher in the Rye was one of the most-banned books in the U.S. I read and listened to a lot of arguments about why it should or shouldn’t be banned, including descriptions of the subject matter of the novel, with debates about what it meant. When it first came to my attention, I remember trying to find a copy in both the school’s library and my local library, and coming up empty handed. The book had been described so vehemently as immoral by a teacher who happened to be the husband of one of the librarians at the public library, I decided not to put in an inter-library loan request. I didn’t want to deal with awkward questions. Being anti-censorship from a young age, this left me with the feeling that someday, when I was no longer trapped in the boonies, I would read the book for myself.
I didn’t actually get around to reading it until my mid-twenties. I was a bit underwhelmed. It isn’t a badly written book, by any means, but I’d been led to expect something mind-blowingly good and life-changing. I found it fell far short in both respects. Maybe the subject matter and style, which had been innovative and edgy when it was published in 1951 was simply too quaint by the mid-80s. Or maybe I had read too many books and stories and seen too many movies and plays that had been influenced by it.
The “Tales of Passing Time” blog posted a great description of the phenomenon:
A classic novel isn’t good because it’s a classic, rather it is a classic because it was important to the development of the art. And that certainly doesn’t mean that any given person, on any given day, will enjoy reading it. It means that, as a writer, I should be aware of what the classic novel changed in the historical progression of novel story telling. Some classics are pretty terrible, even unreadable, but they are still important.
I would rephrase that just slightly: sometimes a classic novel isn’t called a classic because it was good, but rather because it had a significant influence on the development of the art.
Sometimes a novel was the first one to introduce a particular idea, and that idea was mind-blowing and life-changing. It was so life-changing, that hundreds of novels since have taken the idea and developed it in different ways; each author putting their own spin on it. The idea becomes part of the fabric of literature after that, so that a reader born decades later will have encountered that once mind-blowing notion hundreds or even thousands of times. By which point, if we read the original, which might have contained no redeeming qualities other than this one idea, it feels derivative of all this other stuff we’ve experienced. We may intellectually know that the “classic” inspired all the other instances or variants of the idea we encountered. Emotionally, however, it strikes us the other way around, because we have already internalized the once mind-blowing idea.
The fact that the idea has become ubiquitous is a testament to the significance of the classic in question to literature and the culture in general. It doesn’t mean that everyone is going to love it’s original package.
Many Waters is a sequel to that book, and it is the first one where Sandy and Denys take center stage.
Before I get into my review of Many Waters, I want to share one amusing personal incident: by the time I was in the fourth grade we had moved several times. For example, I had spent part of third grade not only in three different school districts, but each was in a different state. Part way through fourth grade we moved yet again. At the new school, we were assigned to read A Wrinkle in Time, and then give a book report. My report came back with a low grade in part because I had supposedly misspelled Murry, the last name of the family. I had to show the teacher in my own copy of the book (since the school copies had been taken back already and passed on to the other fourth grade classroom) that Murry is how it is spelled in the book. It didn’t occur to me until years later that this meant the teacher probably had never read the book himself. So on what basis was he grading everyone’s book reports?
So, what did I think of this book? … Read More…
When I wrote that response to the ex-MFA writer’s diatribe about writing students (Wading through the elitist BS), my first draft had a lot of snarky comments which I deleted lest I muddy my own point. They also betrayed a bit of my own form of elitism. For instance, in the original article the writer listed several books (in addition to The Great Gatsby) that he believed one must have read, enjoyed, and wanted to read more of in order to be a “serious reader.” All of the books he mentioned by name are ones I most often hear about from the sort of supercilious swanker who is constantly looking for a reason to hold other people’s intellects in disdain… Read More…
One of my favorite news sites posted an article by Ryan Boudinot, an ex-MFA (Master of Fine Arts) teacher, about writing students. The article is an incredibly good example of both clickbait and elitist BS. And the writing blogs have reacted in a manner which is just increasing the traffic to the article, making it likely the site will put up more of the same. If you haven’t seen it, yet, here’s a link using the excellent Donotlink.com service: Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One – The Stranger, which will get you to the article without increasing its search stats.
A lot of people have posted rebuttals, I provide regular links to some of the best at the end of this post. The point I most disagree with is Boudinot’s definition of “serious reader.” Read More…