These conversations always happened as the other kids were filing into the classroom, taking their seats, getting out their books, and so on. And usually they all just ignored what I and the teacher were talking about. Until one day when one young woman walked up to us and declared in a rather loud voice. “My mom says that people who read all the time are freaks who don’t understand the real world because they spend all their time in those imaginary places!”
It seemed as if the entire room went silent and that everyone was looking at us.
I started to stammer out something, but the teacher said, “It’s not nice to call someone a freak.” And then he told us to both take our seats.
She was hardly the first person to criticize my reading habits. Adults had often felt the need to weigh in and tell my parents that they shouldn’t let me read science fiction and fantasy, especially. Many thought all the fantasy was satanic, and the science fiction was equally suspect because scientists believe in evolution. There were also many who just thought that how much time I spend reading was the problem, regardless of the subject matter. There are a variety of reasons why non-readers distrust books. It’s not just the evangelical fundamentalists, who tend to classify everything in the world into the two categories of pro-Jesus and pro-Satan who misunderstand what the realm of sf/f is about.
A few weeks back I wrote about the older professional sf author who dismissed the three recent award-winning novels (which he admits he has never read) of a black woman because “psychic powers to control the earth and earthquakes had already been done in the fifties.” Besides being a dick-ish comment, it’s a bog standard gatekeeping argument.
Gatekeeping is an insidious system of exclusion intent on denigrating, dismissing, and erasing anyone who doesn’t conform to the cishet white male (often English-speaking) yardstick. This particular argument has two prongs: the first is the implication that a person is ignorant of the past of the genre, the second is the notion that a great science fiction story must introduce a new idea in order to be great. Science fiction has been defined as the literature of ideas, after all.
I have several objections to this entire line of reasoning.
First, almost none of the works that are usually authoritatively held forth as “great” science fiction actually introduced a new idea. For example, The Stars My Destination was a novel by Alfred Bester published in 1956 and frequently named in various polls as the greatest science fiction novel of all time. Here’s the thing: The Stars My Destination is basically a re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo (published more than 100 years earlier). Oh, yes, there are interplanetary space ships and human colonies on the asteroids and various planets of the solar system (standard sf ideas for at least two decades at that point), and the main character (who in this case is definitely not a hero) developed the spontaneous ability to teleport simply by thinking about it. Even then, the notion of teleportation had been used in science fiction and fantasy stories since the 1870s (that’s right, when Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States).
None of the ideas in The Stars My Destination were new, so why do so many science fiction fans and pros consider it a great sf novel? This gets us to my next objection: because a novel isn’t just about a single idea. A novel is a complete story with multiple characters and sub-plots. It’s about the synthesis of narrative, characterization, world-building, actions, reactions, and consequences. It’s the way Bester took many elements the reader was already familiar with, combined them, contrasted them, and wove a compelling tale out of them.
Science fiction is the literature of ideas in the sense that ideas are things we examine and re-examine. We toy with them, dissect them, expand them, redefine them, deconstruct (which is different than dissection) them, reassemble them, combine them with other ideas, and so forth. And it isn’t a competition (even though we have awards and sometimes argue about the relative merits of different works), it’s a conversation. Subsequent tales that use ideas others have used before should be understood in the context of the give-and-take of a conversation. One story looked at one aspect of the idea, other stories imagine different aspects, or ask us to reconsider the assumptions of the previous viewpoints.
It isn’t about settling on one and only one notion of reality. It is about possibilities. It should not be about narrowing the possibilities, but rather expanding the mind.
If wanting more possibilities makes me a freak, then I’ll proudly take the label.
There is something very relaxing about making a cup of tea, then sitting down with a book (or my Kindle or the iBook app on my iPad) and reading. It was especially nice to do that out on the veranda when the weather was warmer. I still go out there with a mug of tea, but I wind up drinking the tea faster because it’s getting cold (and I’m chilled). So I come back inside once the tea is done. Besides, now that we get frequent visitors to the bird feeder, I feel guilty being out there and scaring the little guys off.
I do sometimes sit in front of the window and watch them. Which means I don’t always get much reading done. But it’s all good.
It has only been a few weeks since I changed the format of my Friday round up of links, and I have to say that the much shorter list has made Thursday night feel much more relaxing. I wish that I had been self-aware to realize that the old long form version was such a stressful chore, but that’s okay.
I’ve mentioned that I began questioning how much effort was going into the process because the number of people reading the round up had gone way down. What I didn’t mention was the timeline. If I look at the stats on my blog, I can point to a very specific time when the readership dropped: the first Friday after the Inauguration. They didn’t drop all the way to the recent lows right away, but the drop off was noticeable.
Now, long before then, the round up had always included a stories about unpleasant topics. And I dare say the ratio of bad news to good news was about the same. But I totally understand how exhausting it is to be reminded about this bad stuff since there is now so much of it, and it’s hurting everyone, and it feels as if there’s nothing we can do about.
So, that’s another motive for the change: I don’t want to contribute to other people’s sense of exhaustion or hopelessness, and I don’t need to wear myself out, either.
This doesn’t mean I’m not still reading as much news as before. Nor does it mean that I’ll stop calling my congresscritters and adding my voice to the throng. I’m just not spending as much time aggregating the news for other people.
There are other habits I’m trying to get into to try to limit how often I’m having to think about unpleasant topics. That’s part of the reason there is a lot less activity from me on Twitter, for instance. I still find reading my friends, acquaintances, et al on Twitter useful, I’m just limiting how much time I spend on it.
I’m behind on my writing goals (NaNoWriMo notwithstanding; there are things that I meant to have done before November that I didn’t get done). But there’s a lot of stuff going on, and I just have to accept that some of my energy is going to go into other things. And some of those other things are about taking care of myself and my husband.
Like curling up with a good book and a nice warm cup of tea.
One of those things we’re doing this week specifically along that line is we are not going to drive down to see family for Thanksgiving. I don’t need the stress of the drive each way. Neither of us needs the stress of constantly biting our tongues around my Trump-voting, Bible-thumping relatives. It will do wonders for the blood pressures of several of my relatives, too, truth be told.
Which means that instead of figuring out what dishes I can make in advance and transport down there, we’re doing a whole dinner! So far it’s just the two of us; which will be fine. And since I love talking about food, here’s our current menu:
- Relish tray (many many olives, pickles, pickled carrots, pickled green beans, pickled asparagus so far…)
- Turkey (my hubby found a 10-pound one, so not too big!)
- Green bean casserole
- Creamy sweet potatoes
- Sweet potato pie
There will likely be other things added before we’re done.
Also, the official cocktail of our holiday will be a Spicy Manhattan. Based on the recipe suggested at Central Market, this weekend, but after trying it, I have to change it so:
2 oz of your favorite bourbon or rye
1.5 oz of sweet vermouth
Several dashes of orange bitters
Tillen Farms Fire & Spice Organic Maraschino Cherries
Chill your glasses. In a cocktail shaker with ice, mix the vermouth and bourbon, stir at least 45 seconds. Shake a generous number of dashes of bitters into the cocktail glass, strain the contents of the shaker into the glass (turn the glass while he do so to mix the bitters better). Garnish with two of the spicy cherries.
Cheers! And happy holidays!
(Also, feel free to leave your menu or your favorite holiday food in the comments!)
In the post, she quoted a college professor who was once shocked that she read footnotes. “No one reads footnotes!” the professor claimed4.
The professor could not be more wrong6.Lots of people read footnotes. I have been doing a running gag on various blogs over the years where I would do posts several days in a row, each one with more footnotes than the day before, culminating in a blog post which consisted of a single word with a whole bunch of footnotes78. My footnotes often have footnotes of their own9. And sometimes the footnote of a footnote has more footnotes10. My point is that whenever I have done this, I get several favorable comments, often from people I didn’t know were reading my blog. And not just generic comments, but comments that clearly indicate the person tried to follow all the nesting structure.
Terry Pratchett published a whole book riddled with footnotes, in part because he had been known to throw footnotes in some of his fantasy novels, the footnotes frequently being the location of the funniest jokes in the book. In the early portion of my college career, I and some friends were involved in creating a bunch of faux adventure books where footnotes abounded11. We took delight in constructing footnotes that took up more of the page than the story text. We took even more delight in constructing footnotes that ran on for several pages. We had footnotes that had their own footnotes occasionally, though this was slightly less common than what I do now, because we were doing all of this on typewriters15—not with word processors.
The award-winning fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke makes good use of footnotes throughout, to give another example.
Footnotes are great. They are fun to construct19, fun to read, and serve a valuable role of allowing the author to digress in a way that gives the reader a bit more control over when they follow the writer down a rabbit hole20.
1. This was my fault, because my first contribution to the conversation that was already going on between three of my friends was simply to exclaim, “Marginalia!”2
2. marginalia noun, plural: marginal or incidental notes; written or printed in the margin of a page.
3. And I did love it!
4. I’ve had people just as emphatically insist that no one reads, period5!
5. When I was preparing to go away to university, an uncle and a cousin were recruited by my grandmother to help me move all the stuff I had packed up that needed to go into storage in her garage that I couldn’t take with me. About the fourth box of books one of my uncles picked up he asked, “You haven’t actually read all of these, have you?” And was shocked when I told him that 1) yes, most of them more than once and, 2) I had sold about of third of my collection to a couple of used bookstores recently.
6. All right, I’m engaging in a bit of hyperbole, here. There are many things the professor could say that would be every more incorrect than this, but you get my point.
7. When I did this on LiveJournal, I put all the notes below a cut-tag, so at first glance it looked like a very short post with a bunch of small numbers in and ever-decreasing line of superscripts.
8. I am too easily amused, I know.
9. Because they often need elaborations of their own.
10. cf note #9.
11. Because sometimes just the fact that someone decided to put a footnote on some ridiculous parody of action-adventure dialog is funny before you even read the footnote12.
12. The problem with that particular technique is, that you have to make sure that whatever joke or other pay-off you deliver in said footnote is more entertaining and/or funnier than the mere existence of a footnote where no one13 would expect it.
13. At least, no sane person14.
14. But we were the sort of college students who were assembling our own hard copy books, sharing them among ourselves, and writing sequels, collaborating on sequels, et cetera. Clearly we were not entirely sane.
15. Half of my work was done on an IBM Selectric16 electric typewriter at the school, and the other half on the 1952 Remington manual typewriter17 which my grandmother had given me back when I was 11 or 12 year old.
16. I think what I miss most about those glorious machines isn’t the wonderful CLACK! CLACK of the big clicky keys and the immediate response of the motor spinning the typeball and striking the correct letter against the paper, but rather the constant vibration of the motor you felt constantly against your fingertips.
17. One friend called it ‘The Tank’ because the typewriter weighed at least fifteen pounds and most of it was built out of machine-grade steel. Another friends called it ‘The Threshing Machine’ because the clatter and clacking it made when I was on a roll (typing a bit over 60 words per minute18, which was considered screaming on the old mechanicals) reminded him of some big farm equipment.
18. My speed on modern computer keyboards is generally a bit over 105 words per minute. And I still can’t keep up with the voices in my head when I’m really into a scene in a story.
19. Even if sometimes a bit messy depending on your HTML parser.
20. Whether figuratively or not.
Similarly, you can be unhappy with a story because you feel the story is reinforcing sexist, or homophobic, or racist, or ableist myths. You can call out the problem when a story pushes that agenda. You can express your disappointment. You can organize a boycott. But again, pointing out problems in a narrative should not turn into harassment of the people involved.
In this case it was actually two hordes of idiots harassing the writer. One group were angry because they thought the writer was pushing a relationship between two characters they didn’t want together. The other group were angry because the relationship wasn’t going where it had “clearly” been implied it was going.
Readers aren’t the only ones who can be jerks. Writers can disrespect their audience; they can make mistakes, abuse the reader’s trust, they can cheat and exploit their audience. Which isn’t to say that the writer owes any reader or group of readers a specific outcome, or a particular plot resolution. But as writers we must always remember Niven’s Law for Writers: It is a sin to waste the reader’s time.
In the simplest sense that means that as writers we owe the reader our best professional effort. We tell the story as best we can. No story and no draft will ever be perfect, so we can’t get hung up on revising until it is, but we don’t turn in a half-assed effort.
I want to make a brief digression here. Most of my fiction writing and publishing has been in small press and amateur publications. Occasionally, when as an editor I have given writers aspiring to those publications feedback and requests for re-writes, a writer has pushed back. “You can’t hold me to professional standards, I’m not getting paid!” I didn’t quibble over the fact that technically, because we were giving them free copies of the publication if we used their story it meant they were getting paid, instead I said, “I’m publishing to professional readers. They pay for the privilege of reading my zine. And even though what they pay barely covers the costs of printing, and doesn’t provide any monetary compensation to you, or me, or the copy editors, or the layout specialist, the reader is still paying.” Of course they didn’t have to make re-writes if they didn’t want to. But if they didn’t, I wasn’t going to publish the story, because I wasn’t going to ask my readers to spend their time or money on a story I didn’t think was ready.
To get back to what we mean when we say it is a sin to waste the reader’s time, in a deeper sense that means playing fair. If there are mysteries for the reader to try to solve, you can’t withhold information. Obscure it amongst a bunch of other description? Sure. Distract the reader by dangling a red herring in the same scene? Also perfectly reasonable, but you can’t simply not show the reader vital information.
Also, don’t spring surprises on the reader merely for the sake of shock. It’s easy to think that surprises and shocks and twists are the only way to create suspense, but that’s wrong. Suspense happens when the reader cares about your character. If you create characters the reader identifies with and cares about, you can create suspense out of anything that the character cares about. You create that caring by treating the reader with respect and showing the reader the hearts of your characters.
Don’t lead the reader down a painful emotional path without giving them a pay-off. If you make the reader care about the protagonist and then allow the reader to see a horrible thing happen to the protagonist, don’t skip past the messy emotional fallout. You don’t have to show blood and gore—often graphic descriptions of violence are more boring than engaging—but show us how the bad thing affected the characters. Let the reader experience their sorrow or anger or triumph. Don’t skip that to get to the next plot twist.
When you tell a story, you are asking the reader to give you their time and attention. Make sure that the journey your tale takes them on is worth it.
“It is a little out of touch to presume that someone wants to follow your every observation and insight over the course of hundreds of pages without any sort of payoff. That’s why writing isn’t a one-way street. You have to give something back: an interesting plot, a surprise, a laugh, a moment of tenderness, a mystery for the reader to put together.” — Christopher Bollen
One thing I miss, now that smart phones are ubiquitous, is seeing what other people are reading on the bus. Seattle is a city of bibliophiles and other literary people, and for most of the 30+ years I’ve been riding public transports in Seattle, I could always count on seeing interesting books on my commute. Sometimes I might see someone reading a book I love, and I’d find myself grinning—hoping they were having as much fun with the book as I did. Other times I would see a title I had never heard of, and find it intriguing enough to look up more information on the book when I had a chance. Other times I would see someone reading a book that I despised, and I would wonder what sort of person would read that.
There are still people reading hard copy books on the bus, of course, just nowhere near as many as there used to be. Now instead of seeing a dozen books or so on my morning commute, there are a dozen or so people staring at their phones or iPads or Kindles.
Which still warms the cockles of my heart, because I love reading, no matter what form it takes.
And I’m certainly not going to give up reading (and some mornings writing) on my iPhone. Among the downsides of reading a hardcopy book on the bus is the time spent digging it out of my backpack, and then later needing to stop reading far enough before my stop to put the book away and get my pack zipped up and situated. There was also the need to decide whether to pull out my book or my notebook and a writing implement. And the frustration after I chose when I discovered I didn’t seem to be in the right headspace to concentrate on that book, or to write.
With the phone, I can slip it out, fire up a book, and start reading. If I want to make a note, or get another idea I want to write down, it’s just a couple of swipes and taps with my thumb to switch to a writing app, write it down, then get back to the book.
Of course, there is a bit of the paradox of choice that the phone amplifies. Occasionally I just can’t decide which of the many choices that are on the phone to read. Which of the several books (because I’m always in the middle of more than one) to pick up, or should I open one of my news apps and catch up on the world?
Having all those choices doesn’t usually paralyze me, but I do often dither for at least a few minutes. So maybe I’m only kidding myself when I say I get a bit more reading time in now that I’m not fumbling with getting the book out and putting it away again.
But I don’t think so. For one thing, with the phone, I can become obliviously lost in the book right up to my stop, then jump up, slip the phone into my pocket as I’m moving to the exit, and get off the bus.
It’s Banned Books Week, which as both a writer and a reader is very near and dear to my heart. I have been a long time member/supporter of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which is one of the organizations at the forefront of fighting book banning. You can support them any time, but this week there is a special offer, Humble Bundle is offering a Pay-What-You-Want Forbidden Comics Bundle. Pay minimal amount and you can download eight comics/graphic novels and an audiobook. Pay more than the current average price and you get an additional seven-plus comics (more will be added as the week goes on). These bundles are a great way to raise some money for this good cause, and you get a look at some of the kinds of comics that have been banned or challenged in various jurisdictions.
And all the reading and thinking and mind expanding requires some mental leveling up, so it’s a good thing that today is National Coffee Day: Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts & More Celebrate With Free Deals!
It used to be that I had a rough measure of how busy I’d been by looking at the pile of books beside the bed. For most of my life, going back well into childhood, there has always been a pile of books beside my bed. These are books that I intend to read soon. Sometimes the ones on top are books I am in the middle of reading. I am almost always in the middle of reading several books at the same time, which complicates things. The pile shrinks as I finish books (or, occasionally, as I get far enough into a book to realize that no, I don’t want to finish this one). And it grows whenever I go to a bookstore, or a convention, or browse piles of free books, or… well, you get the picture.
Certain things about the pile have changed over the years, of course. When I was middle school aged, for instance, much of the pile was made up of library books. The pile changed out a lot quicker, back then, as well. I went through a period of a couple of years where I read at least one entire novel nearly every day. So I would take books back to the library every few days and bring home more. In high school my pace slowed down a little bit, and a much larger proportion of the pile was paperback books, usually picked up at one of the used book stores. I did a lot of trading books back in to buy more back then. I also borrowed a lot of books from friends (and loaned a bunch).
I’d also been a member of the science fiction book club for a long time. I got suckered into it when I was about 13 years old. I say suckered mostly because I didn’t really have a concept of just how difficult it was to remember to mail back in the little card that said, “No, I don’t want the automatic selection this month.” Which I had to do most of the time if for no other reason that, as a kid, I didn’t have the money to pay for the book and the shipping. I did acquire about a shelf worth of books that way, though.
But most recently the pile by the bed has become a lot more static than it used to be. Mainly because I don’t read hardcopy books nearly as much. Most of my reading is ebooks, switching between reading on my phone or iPad. The apps do a decent job of keeping track of where I left off on the other device when I switch. It’s just so much easier, when I find myself stuck in line at the bank, let’s say, to pull out the phone and open either iBooks or the Kindle app.
It didn’t happen all at once. My gateway drug, as it were, to non-paper books was the audio book—for which I usually blame my husband. He loves to listen to audiobooks, mostly sci fi and fantasy, while he plays video games. Usually listening over the stereo in the computer room. Except in the summer, because the fans make it a little hard to hear clearly, so then he switches to headphones.
I don’t know how many times I went into the computer room to do something that should have taken 5 minutes or less, only to wind up sitting in there for a half hour or more listening to the book he was listening to. Of course, often if it was a book that we also owned in hardcopy, I’d head into the other room, find the paper book, and sit down to finish it off; because of course I can read it myself much faster than the reader can read it aloud.
Though I have to admit that the real culprits are a pair of Jims. James Marsters and Jim Butcher, to be exact. But they had some accomplices.
I was in my late thirties when, somehow, I deluded myself into the idea that signing up for a book club would be a good idea, again, so I was a member of the science fiction book club, again. At least by then you could do your ordering and/or declining to order on-line, so the number of times I got books I didn’t mean to was a lot lower. I’d been mostly declining, only buying a few books a year for quite some time. I bought my first Dresden Files books because I’d had a few friends recommend the books, (generally by expressing shock when we were discussing the short-lived TV series when they found out I’d never read the books). In early late 2007 or early 2008 the book club had a deal on a four-volume set that contained the first eight books in the series. So I bought them, and then they sat in the pile by the bed for a few months. After being laid-off from the place I’d worked at for more than 20 years, one night when I was between contract jobs, I picked up the first volume and started reading. I stayed up all night reading through the first two books. Over the course of the next week or so I read through the rest of the series.
While chatting about the series with another friend, she expressed surprise, given what a big fan I was of the character of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel the Series, that I’d never gotten the Dresden audio books. “I can have Spike read bedtime stories to me?” I asked, in disbelief. The original distributor of the audiobooks even offered a free download of the first four or five chapters of the first book!
One of the first purchases I made once I landed a job as a “regular employee,” was the audio version of the first Dresden book. Which began my pattern of reading the paper copy of the book first, then buying the audiobook and listening to it again and again…
I have noticed lately that my book buying habits have made another change. There are books I still buy in hardcopy. I am easily lured into used book booths at conventions, for instance, and almost always buy something. But generally speaking, I get annoyed for new books if I can’t find an e-book version. In the last year or so, there are books that I’ve just decided not to get because they are only available in hardcopy. If I really like a book once I’ve read it digitally, I may well buy a paper copy to cuddle up with for re-reads, but the e-book has become my preferred format.
I don’t think that’s necessarily a good or bad thing. Though given how much energy we’ve spent, over the years, trying to keep the book shelves in order, occasionally going through the lot and pulling out books we know we’ll never look at again to give away or attempt to sell, I have to admit that letting books pile up on the computer is a whole lot less work.
But it’s also the convenience of always having a whole bunch of books in my pocket that wins the day. So the pile by the bed changes much more slowly, now. I don’t think it will ever go away entirely, but it is no longer an indicator of how much reading I’ve been doing.
I know a lot of people I follow on Tumblr have already reblogged this post Seanan McGuire put up this morning, but it hits on topics I have talked about, so:
Responding to this question: kerrykhat asked: What do you do when there’s an author you absolutely adore in a short story anthology, but there’s also an author that you don’t want to give money to under any circumstances?
Well, first, I remind myself that all the authors in that anthology have already been paid, and that the majority of anthologies never earn out or make any additional revenue for the authors inside. It’s a small thing, but it salves my conscience. Beyond that…
Let’s say there are three authors whose careers I monitor. Jan, who is an absolute favorite, whom I would follow to the ends of the earth. Pat, who stepped on my foot once at a con and didn’t say sorry, and who I consequentially avoid whenever it doesn’t inconvenience me. And Robin, who actively lobbies for causes I find repugnant, and flat-out says that my friends and family are perverts and freaks of nature for loving the people that we love. Now let’s say that there’s a new anthology containing all three people.
This is a problem for me, obviously. I want to read Jan’s story. More, I know Jan makes a lot of money from anthologies, and since I want Jan to keep getting those invitations, I don’t want to pirate the story. I’m okay with giving a little money to Pat; there’s no hatred there, just mild annoyance. But what about Robin? Robin’s an asshole and a bigot and I am really uncomfortable with the idea of forking over a penny.
This is my solution, which obviously is not perfect:
I buy the anthology. And then I take an exacto knife, and excise as much of Robin’s story as I can, slicing carefully one page at a time to prevent damaging the spine. If I’m lucky, Robin’s story doesn’t share any pages with the stories around it, and I can get the damn thing completely out. And then I mail that story to the publisher of the anthology, with a letter explaining that they almost lost my money because of Robin’s presence.
I am not advocating censorship. Authors are people too, and they’re going to live their lives as they see fit. But I am saying that you have a right to live your life as you see fit, too, and that if people are going to put an author who says your life is wrong in an anthology, you have a right to comment on it.
Also: please don’t yell at authors who share an anthology with Robin, because odds are they had no input at all on who got invited. We’re all just trying to put food on the table however we can.
I think this is a great idea. I may have to go find some anthologies to buy paper copies of just for this purpose, now…
Note: I can’t take credit for the above idea. Neither should anyone conclude from my re-blogging this that she agrees or endorses anything I may have previously blogged about authors who I refuse to give money to and that I discourage other people from giving money to because of their decades of advocacy against gay rights.
My endorsement of her suggestion is simple that, an endorsement of her idea of one way to support writers you like, while still commenting on those who contribute to oppression.
Readers can be like addicts. Once they fall in love with a fictional character, they want to read more, and more, and more about the character. A good-selling series of books can set a writer for life.
But it can be something of a gilded cage.
When Arthur Conan Doyle was a struggling young physician, he found himself sitting for rather long stretches between patients. So he started writing stories during his down time, and would sell them to various magazines of the time. He soon found that he had a knack for mysteries, not always crime stories, but stories in which there was a puzzle for the characters (and the readers) to solve. One day Conan Doyle started writing a long story about an independent detective. He based this detective on one of his medical school teachers, Dr Joseph Bell.
Bell was an early advocate of what would now be called forensic diagnosis. He told his students to pay more attention to physical clues about a patient’s illness. Close observation and deduction he said, were more important that what the patient told you. To demonstrate his method, he would have people pick out strangers in a crowd or on the street, and just by looking at the person (how they were dressed, wear patterns on their clothing, the presence or absence of callouses on various portions of hands, and so forth) deduce their occupation and recent activities.
Sherlock Holmes was a man who used Bell’s methods to solve crimes. A Study in Scarlet was published first as part of a Christmas Special (though it has no Christmas theme) in 1887. It was republished as a standalone book the next year. Sales were good enough to justify a second edition, more expensively bound, to be produced the next year. Conan Doyle was commissioned to write a second novel, The Sign of the Four (he was republished the next year in various journals throughout the empire, often with the slightly modified title The Sign of Four), which became an even bigger hit.
Conan Doyle was commissioned to write a series of short stories starring Sherlock Holmes for The Strand magazine, and they were published monthly from June 1891 through July 1892. As he neared the end of the series of 12 tales, Conan Doyle was finding himself growing tired of Sherlock. So he planned to kill him in the twelfth tale. Conan Doyle made the mistake of mentioning this fact at a dinner party at his mother’s home. His mother was upset, not so much about her son killing the character, but she felt the way he planned for Holmes to die (mauled to death by a vicious guard dog as Holmes and Watson rescued a young woman from a particularly disturbed couple) was entirely too ignoble for such a hero. She made him promise that Holmes would not die in the story. So, Conan Doyle changed the ending of the “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.”
The stories were so popular, that people were literally lining up outside the offices of the Strand on publication day to get a copy. Holmes was not the first literary character to evoke this response. Many years earlier (1841) people had lined up in anticipation of the final chapters of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. The Strand commissioned more stories. Conan Doyle couldn’t really turn down the money, but he was getting even more tired of Holmes. So he kept completely mum about “The Final Problem,” in which Holmes is killed by Moriarty. Moriarty dies along with him.
“The Final Problem” has a lot of problems. Its internal logic is laughable (Holmes must disguise himself lest the killers find him, but he travels with Watson who is completely undisguised, and Watson booked their train, boat, and second train passages in his own name). Moriarty had never appeared in any story before this one, and there is absolutely no hint of his existence. That later prompted the producers of at least one television series that tried to follow the stories faithfully to insert Moriarty as the mastermind who supplied the plan to the robber in “The Red-Headed League,” just to get the character on the scene and in the viewers’ minds.
Conan Doyle never thought of his Holmes stories as serious literature, or of much importance. Which is why at different times he has Dr Watson refer to himself as “James” instead of “John.” In the original Moriarty story, the Professor’s first name is not mentioned, though the Professor’s brother, Colonel James Moriarty is mentioned by name. Later stories to feature Moriarty refer to him as James Moriarty. There are many other contradictions.
When Holmes was killed, the public was shocked. Some people dressed in full mourning clothes. People wrote Conan Doyle, pleading with him to bring back Holmes, and so on.
For years Conan Doyle ignored the pleas. Then, while visiting friends in the country, when one friend told about a local legend of a ghostly dog, Conan Doyle said it would make a wonderful basis of a Holmes story, but he could never write it since he’d killed Holmes. One of the other friends suggested the idea that the story could begin with Watson explaining that he had sworn never to tell this tale while certain innocent persons were alive, but now he could. So the story would be set before Holmes’ death in 1892, but could be published in 1902. And thus The Hound of the Baskervilles came to be.
The pressure to bring back Holmes increased (and the amount of money both American and British publishers were willing to offer for new Holmes stories skyrocketed), so in 1905 he relented. In “The Adventure of the Empty House” Watson is shocked (in 1894) to discover that Holmes is alive, having faked his own death in order to lure Moriarty’s confederates into mistakes so that the rest of the criminal organization can be dismantled. Thirteen stories are included along with “The Adventure of the Empty House” in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, featuring adventures that supposedly occurred after the time of Holmes’ faked death, but before the publication of his return.
Conan Doyle wrote a fourth Holmes novel, which marked the return of Moriarty, though this story is set in time before “The Final Problem.” Conan Doyle remained adamant that Moriarty’s death in “The Final Problem” was not faked. He wrote another 26 short stories about Holmes until his death in 1930.
Readers always wanted more.
So I wasn’t terribly surprised to read that the author of the Sookie Sackhouse/True Blood series is getting a lot of grief for announcing that the next novel is the finale, ending the series once and for all. I have never read the stories, nor seen the insanely popular HBO series. So I wasn’t aware that she had originally planned to kill one of the main characters and end the series in the ninth book some years ago.
Sometimes a story has run its course. Sometimes it’s time to tell a beloved character good-bye.
Even though I sympathize with her fans, I hope Charlaine Harris is happy with how she’s ended things, and goes on to tell whatever other stories she likes.
I read this great post, “The Reading Police of the Young,” and found myself remembering the weirdly inconsistent way my reading habits were monitored when I was a kid.
For example, I remember longing to read my mom’s copy of Dune, the paperback sitting squeezed between a bunch of her Agathe Christies and Robert Heinleins. Mom had told me I wasn’t old enough after she finished it. When she realized I kept looking at the book–not reading it, not even opening it, just looking at the cover–she moved it to the small shelf in the bedroom, the one that had Dad’s books that I wasn’t allowed to read (mostly Matt Helm and James Bond books, whose sexual situations were considered pornographic back in the day, but are rather quaint and downright prudish when compared to modern prime time fare).
And so I wondered what forbidden topics were hidden within. When I finally did read it, some time in my teens, I was a bit disappointed. Not at the book, I found the story quite interesting. I was disappointed because there didn’t seem to be anything in it that should have been forbidden.
I mean, yes, it is clear that the Baron has a thing for pretty young men, but there is nothing about the way it is described that anyone could call erotic. And Herbert’s unconcealed homophobia, manifested primarily with the old cliche that the more gay a character is, the more evil they are, should have resonated quite nicely with Mom’s evangelical sensibilities.
Those evangelical sensibilities waxed and waned throughout my childhood. At one point she was encouraging me to read Asimov (both his fiction and nonfiction), Tolkein, LeGuin, and Bradbury. At another point we had the first book-burning incident–when under the influence of a new pastor, she decided that the astronomy books I’d checked out from the library were astrology books, and since astrology is the same as satanism, the books needed to be destroyed.
(I still occasionally have bad dreams that include a reenactment of my tearful explanation to the librarians about why I couldn’t bring the books back. When they called Mom to ask for the books, she harangued them for letting children check out satanic books. The library set up a special spot for my books from then on. I could check out books and read them in the library, but couldn’t take them home.)
The second book-burning had been Dad. Dad’s reasons weren’t overtly religious, my dad is the kind of atheist who is angry at god for not existing (think about that for a bit). No, he decided that I was getting bullied at school so much because I spent too much time “living in a fantasy world.” His book burning was worse because he forced me to pile up the books, pour the accellerant on, light the match, and watch it burn. With random slaps and punches because I was crying while doing it.
Then a year or so later, he bought me an encyclopedia set and told me that I was going to go to college and “make something of yourself” or else.
For the longest time I attributed those mixed messages to the ebb and flow of Dad’s alcoholism and abusive behavior. The worse Dad got, the more intense Mom’s fundamentalism got. When Dad appeared to be changing for the better, Mom loosened up and re-embraced her inner sci fi and comics fangirl.
Those were definitely major factors in the dysfunction in our family, but I wonder how much of the inconsistency was also due to their youth. My parents were both 16 years old when they married, then I was born 6 days before my dad’s 18th birthday. Current brain research indicates that the prefontal cortext (the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, foreseeing consequences, emotional modulation, et cetera) doesn’t fully develop until around the age of 25.
That couldn’t have helped.
While both of them were readers who believed in the value of education, I know both of them felt they hadn’t done as much with their own lives as they could have or ought to have. So while hope for their kids drove some of their decisions, regret played a very big role, as well. Regret drove them to push me to do better in school, which is a good goal. But regret also drove them to micromanage my behavior on all levels, which isn’t just impractical, but if they had been successful would have had the opposite of the desired effect.
We can’t learn how to do anything correctly without learning from our mistakes as well as our successes. That’s just as true for thinking and imagining as it is for basketball or playing the piano. And while there is value in studying what other people have done, it isn’t sufficient. You have to try, fail, and improve on your own. Avoiding someone else’s mistake is no guarantee you won’t make new mistakes. Trying to duplicate someone else’s success may help you find a good way to do something, but it should also lead you to new directions they couldn’t explore.
And when you are buried in your own frustrations and regrets, you’re least likely to possess the objectivitely required to identity just which if your own past actions were mistakes, and which weren’t.
Regret, in that case, becomes both the mind-killer and dream-destroyer. You can’t wallow in the regret. Face it, yes. Let it serve its purpose of motivating you to do better. But then, let go. And become the better you.