So, there’s a blog post about writing and plotting that I keep not finishing in no small part because I keep going on digressions that quickly turn into fractal rabbit holes and the next thing I know I’m writing about something so unrelated to the original subject that even when I stop and re-read the string of digressions I have a hard time understanding how I got there.
I decided that this particular digression was worth it’s own post. And maybe if I get the rant out of my system I’ll have one less digression to avoid in the other post.
I have mentioned many times how my mom, who is a both a science fiction and murder mystery fan, would read aloud to me from whatever book she had checked out of the library for herself and picked up at the used bookstore when I was a small child. From a very early age, therefore, I heard a lot of Agatha Christie murder mysteries, and a lot of Andre Norton sci fi and fantasy, and so forth.
Because of the Christies, I have always had a great fondness for murder mysteries, police procedurals, and the like. Which means that I usually watch at least the first episode of any new series in that vein, to see if it might become my new obsession.
But I also have a few pet peeves, and one of them is the serial killer. Some series seem to decide to throw in a serial killer when other plotlines in the series are fizzling out. Some series can’t seem to go a month without throwing in a serial killer plot.
Why do I almost always dislike serial killers in these shows? First of all, fictional serial killers are almost always portrayed as super geniuses who have been getting away with it because no one can keep up with the blazing brilliance. That doesn’t match reality, at all. Most serial killers range from borderline intellectual functioning /(well below average intelligence/) to just a bit above average intelligence.
The reasons that most serial killers manage to rack up sometimes mind-boggling numbers of murders before they get caught are much more mundane. According to FBI statistics, on average only 58% of murder investigations result in an identification of a perpetrator. In a number of cities, that percentage is lower, less that 50%. So the odds are already pretty good that a serial killer will get away with it for a while.
Another big reason is that a lot of serial killers target strangers. There is no social connection between the killer and their victims. Police investigations always focus at the beginning on people who knew the victim. One reason they do this is because it’s easy, once you know who the victim is, to compile a list of neighbors, relatives, and co-workers. Then you got investigate all of them.
The second reason that police investigations always focus on people who knew the victim well first is a kind of confirmation bias. To explain in, I’m going to go on a planned digression.
Several years ago the place I was employed at at the time experienced a number of workplace thefts. Thousands of dollars in hard drives alone was walking out the door somehow. They brought in a consultant to give us all pointers in how to secure our work areas and so forth. This consultant turned out to be one of these guys who is really good at sounding like an expert but not really that bright. And he had apparently never given his presentation to a room full of computer engineers and other kinds of math nerds before. Early in the presentation he had a slide that included a statistic that at most 5% of the perpetrators of workplace theft are ever caught. Sometime later in the presentation he said, "Nine times out of ten the workplace thief turns out to be an employee."
A zillion hands shot up. "But you just said that only 5% are caught, that means the 95 times out of 100 we don’t know who the thief is. At best, you can only so that 4 times out of 100 the perpetrator turns out to be an employee."
It became really painful to watch, because the guy didn’t understand the flaw in the statistics. At all.
That example applies to the cliches that a number of police believe about murders. "It’s also the boyfriend!" or "It’s almost always someone who knew the victim well." Those beliefs are the a result at looking at that 58% or less of the murders that are "solved." I put solved in quotes because the FBI statistics don’t require an actual conviction to designate a murder case as having been cleared, and they don’t take into account the growing number of wrongful convictions that are being discovered through testing of DNA evidence that wasn’t tested at the time.
The important thing is that if we accept the 58% number as a rough estimate of how many murders get solved, that means we have absolutely no idea how many of the unsolved murders were committed by someone the victim knew. At best, it seems that a little over half time someone is charged, it’s usually someone the victim knew. That that’s 51% of the 58% solved, which is less than 30% of all the murders.
Meanwhile the serial killer has gone back to their normal life and never gets looked at by the cops.
A third reason that a lot of serial killers get away with it a lot is not just that thereis no prior known social connection between the killer and the victim, is that a significant number of serial killers target people in various marginalized communities. It’s not just that a number of police don’t think the victims are worth the time and effort (though that is a factor), but that other prejudices and facts of systemic bigotry makes a lot of potential evidence essentially invisible.
The most famous example of this is one of Jeffery Dahmer’s victim. The young man was clearly injured, had escaped the clutches of the cannibal Dahmer, and was begging for help. Except he spoke almost no english. The police who found him handed him back over to the cannibal, because Dahmer was a white guy who spoke well, and he convinced the cops that the young asian man was simply his boyfriend and they had had a lovers spat.
Another example are some of the known victims of Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur. They were closeted gay men, several of them either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. They led double-lives which meant that for those that were reported missing, the families simply didn’t know a lot about their lives. At least one victim was never reported missing because his family feared deportation.
There are a lot of other myths about serial killers that almost always are used in these shows, but this evil genius myth is particularly irritating to me. Now, I get it. If the writers’ wrote a serial killer case truthfully, the cops wouldn’t arrest anyone and not get to be shown as heroes. That’s not as fun a story to write.
One easy solution to that problem, in my opinion, is not to write about serial killers at all. Find other ways to put your characters into difficult situations. There are millions of other possibilities. Give them a try.
A group of friends and I have been having a weekly movie night during quarantine. Each of us have nominated some movies, we put them into a rotation in a shared spreadsheet, and each Sunday night we all cue up the movie to stream or otherwise watch together and we text each other comments while we watch, then talk about it afterward. This last Sunday the movie was The Thomas Crown Affair /(the 1999 remake/).
There were at least two of us in the group old enough that we remember watching the 1968 version starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. So while we were contrasting the newer version versus our recollection of the original, a young friend in the group mentioned that the 1960 version of Ocean’s Eleven was awful compared to the newer version. I started to get affronted, but fortunately before I typed anything my second thoughts pointed out that I haven’t watched the old version since I was about fourteen years old.
And I honestly couldn’t say whether I would agree with 14-year-old me about the merits of the movie.
So, since it was available to stream for free on one of the services I subscribe to, I watch the 1960 version of Ocean’s Eleven that night.
Short review: I still really enjoyed it. However, I completely understood why younger viewers would not enjoy it at all. It was a great reminder that no creative work stands in isolation.
More detailed review: One of the film’s greatest weaknesses is that there is virtually no character development. As more than one contemporary review pointed out, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop — also known as the Rat Pack — aren’t playing fictional characters unique to this movie, but rather just playing the personas that each had become associated with over the course of several movies and other performances over the years before the release of this film.
Cesar Romero–who was never considered part of the Rat Pack–is essentially playing the same character he played in a large number of movies before this. And much less famous members of the cast (Richard Benedict, Norman Fell, Hank Henry, Robert Foul,, Richard Conte, and Henry Silva to name a few) were all playing a type of character that they were frequently cast as. So for a vast portion of the 1960 audience of the film, the script didn’t have to do any work to establish the characters—the audience knew what to expect when they saw the actor walk into frame.
A further example of this is the recurring gag during the first half of the movie. For no apparent reason, Sinatra’s Danny Ocean keeps doing or prompting others to do things that greatly upset the mastermind of the operation, Mr. Acebos /(played by Akim Tamiroff/). Nothing about this sub-plot ever contributes to the end of the film, let alone moving forward any part of the plot. Tamiroff was an exceedingly well regarded actor who had been nominated for an Oscar a few times in his early career, but by the late fifties he was often cast in roles like this one of a easily excitably, overly worried character. His main role in those sorts of files was the be the easily wound up character who was unnecessarily worried about the ability of the main character to do whatever he was supposed to do for the plot.
Slight digression at this point, Tamiroff was an Armenian-American who was never able to shed his accent, and thus enjoyed a 60-some year career in Ho0llywood being cast as virtually every ethnicity except Armenian. The character he played in 1940′ The Great McGinty is often cited as the inspiration of the character of Boris Badenoff in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.
Another big shortcoming of the movie for modern audiences is the heist itself. The way that Danny Ocean’s eleven comrades go about stealing millions in cash from five casinos simultaneously is not even slightly as intricate or clever as the plots of later caper films such as The Hot Rock or either version of The Thomas Crown Affair or even any single episode of the television series Leverage.
But, to defend the movie (which made a tidy profit for the studios at the time), one doesn’t have to ignore all of those deficits. Rather, one should ask what sort of story was it trying to tell?
First, even though it usually presented as a stand-alone movie, that wasn’t at all how the movie executives (nor most of the audience) perceived it. If you were a studio making movies at that time, you didn’t cast Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawford, et al, to portray a new and unique character. You cast them to play a particular type of character they had become famous for. Similarly, if you were an audience member going to the theatre to see this film, you were expecting those actors to deliver a certain kind of entertainment.
Second–and possibly most important–this film is not part of the modern genre of caper film. The title itself foreshadows the ending. Early in the film Sammy Davis, Jr. sings a song called "Ee Oh Eleven." The song is about a person who is trying to claw their way out of a less than advantaged background, and almost reaches financial success, but life is a crap-shoot, and the character rolls an eleven, losing everything he had amassed. And that is the clue that was meant to tell audiences what was coming. The title appears to refer to Danny Ocean and his ten army buddies who, as a gang of eleven, are going to do the impossible. But the eleven in the title actually refers to that moment in a game of Craps where the person rolling the dice rolls an eleven and loses everything.
While I was looking things up about the film to make sure I remembered all the details of its release and so forth correctly, I happened upon a quote from a contemporary review of the movie: "In the end, it is just an amoral tale told for laughs."
I think the reviewer who wrote the line thought that it was a scathing rebuke of the film. But when I read the line, my thought was, "Yeah? So?" Because an amoral tale simply told for laughs sounds like a quite wonderful way to spend an evening. We don’t usually come to stories and other works of art hoping for a deeply profound life-changing exploration of a erudite philosophical question.
We just want something that makes us laugh and feel entertained. And there is nothing wrong with that.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that the most recent Friday Five was an almost unreadable mess. The reason is kind of a funny (infuriating) story.
I logged out of my work computer on Friday evening sometime around 6pm, as I often do, then switched to my Macbook Pro to start working on the usual Friday Five post. As usual I started by going through my list of bookmarked news stories for a bit to get an idea of which ones I definitely wanted to include.
I took a break to sort laundry and discuss dinner plans with my husband. Then I took the laundry down to the laundry room and got it started, came back up, assembled a burrito from the massive pile of burrito fixin’s my husband had made for our lunch and scarfed it down. Then I swapped the laundry from the washers to the dryers, and sat back down to actually type up the Friday Five in HTML in a text editor.
Around 9pm Pacific Time, while I was in the middle of working on the Friday Five Wordpess.com killed the Classic Editor (in the background; I didn’t find out until I was finished typing and went to set up metatags and such), which is what I was used to using… And even though the new Block Editor has a Block that is called "Classic" if you put HTML in there, it publishes it the way that last Friday’s post turned out.
Between working on the post, dinner, and dealing with the laundry, by the time I was ready to publish the post, it was my usual bedtime, and the editor I was using disappeared. I don’t want to explain all the hoops I had to go through to salvage my HTML code which suddenly just vanished, and then try to get the web site to let me publish it. I just reached a point where I said, "Screw it! The HTML publishes fine of Dreamwidth, but you can click on the links at WordPress and they work; it just looks horrible." And I went to bed.
Here’s the thing: I’m old. I’ve been publishing stuff to the web since the 1990s, but I really started in the late 1980s writing help files for a small software company in SGML, which is an ancestor of both HTML and XML. So I type HTML tags really fast. It’s all muscle memory. I don’t think "less-than sign space a space href equals sign quotation mark" to type the beginning of a hyperlink referenece, I just think "link" and my fingers type out
<a href=" almost faster than I can say the word "link" out loud.
In part that’s because I learned to type on old manual typewriters before the advent of electric typewriters or personal computers, so I type at about 105 words per minute on modern keyboards. It’s just a thing.
The new WordPress editor does offer a Markdown block element, and if I type Markdown in to that, it works fine. The problem on Friday was that I already had the entire post ready to go in HTML, and retyping the whole thing in Markdown would have taken more time. There ought to be an option with any Web publishing tool to publish HTML. But stupidity, apparently, reigns.
Some folks will ask why I haven’t been typing the Friday Five posts in Markdown before this, because "everyone uses Markdown now" and the whole point of Markdown is that it is fewer keystrokes than HTML and the raw text is even easier for a human who doesn’t know anything about coding or the Web to parse. I know! A few years ago I was pulled aside at work to help with a side project one of the vice presidents was working on, and they wanted to do the help in Markdown. I reviewed John Gruber’s web page of the syntax, opened up my favorite plain text editor, and I wrote help in Markdown. Because the help was fairly simple there wasn’t much of a learning curve. And while, yeah, Markdown is a lot fewer keystrokes, that one project wasn’t enough to get Markdown into muscle memory. I have to think about the Markdown syntax, as simple as it is, to write this blog post.
I know HTML well enough that I don’t have to think to type it. And yes, that means that right now I still can type
<a href=" as fast or nearly as fast as I can think, "Uh, let’s see, the link text goes in the square brackets while the link goes in ordinary parenthesis, I think?"
It won’t be long before I’m not pausing to remember what to type for the less often used things, but it’s a new habit I need to learn. And like most humans I am lazy. I’d rather keep using the thing I already know than to get as good at the new thing as I already am with the old thing.
So this is that part where you imagine me as Grandpa Simpson shouting at a cloud.
But writing this post has been good practice for the next Friday Five.
Usually either just before the end of October or at the very beginning of November, I make a post about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I mentioned on Twitter a few times this year, but, well, between being in a slow rolling apocalypse, trying to be cheerful for Halloween, and keeping an eye on the election, I never got around to saying anything here. In case you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is:
…each year on November 1, hundreds of thousands of people around the world begin to write, determined to end the month with 50,000 words of a brand-new novel. You may know this mass creative explosion by the name National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo
The basic idea is that you commit to writing 50,000 words of either a brand new novel, or to continue one started previously, or to revise one started previously. People who sign up for accounts can join regional forums, set up NaNoWriMo buddies to encourage (or compete with) each other, attend in-person or virtual write-ins, and so forth. It can be a lot of fun, particularly if you jump in with the notion that you’re just trying to get the first draft—no matter who bad it is—down so that you can edit and rewrite later.
I’ve been doing it for years, sometimes working on one book, sometimes several. I find posting daily word counts and encouraging others to get their word counts up, et cetera, a good way to make myself focus on a project.
I started working on my project shortly after midnight on Halloween. Since I also had Monday off from work, I managed to get a nice amount of writing done the first two days. Then, between a busy work day and watching election returns, I essentially got nothing written yesterday. So I need to try to make up for that tonight.
In what might have been a strategic error, of my novels in progress that needed work, I decided to work on the one full of political intrigue. I may decide to set that aside and grab one of the others. Because a book where the bad guy is a necromancer with mystical allies might be a better way to keep me from fretting about our future as a nation than the book where competing heirs to a throne are maneuvering and plotting against one another, you know?
One of the troublesome tropes under discussion was that Old Canard, Bury Your Gays. If you aren’t familiar, the trope refers to the fact that often in fiction, queer characters are killed off and written out of series far more often than non-queers. I wrote about this a few years ago (Invisible or tragically dead… reflections on representation) in a year where over the course of the first 80 days of that TV season, 22% of all the queer regular or recurring characters across all network shows had been killed. And I pointed out that if the same rate of “anyone could die” actually applied across all of the casts of network shows regardless of orientation, that that would mean 2.5 characters being killed every single night of prime time television, and would mean that each season shows would have to replace more than 94% of their casts.
Many people have rightfully pointed out that a major contributor to the problem is that so many series, movies, novels, et cetera have at most one queer character (and rarely a pair of queer characters). In those cases that means that the only representation a show has of nonheterosexual people is erased by one character death. And even in those rare cases where there is a second queer character, since the second character is almost always in some sort of relationship with the first, that means that the sole queer representative left in the series is now an example of the equally bigoted/stereotypical Tragic Backstory Gay.
The lack of adequate representation is only part of the problem. Another very big part of the problem is that many writers think that queer characters are only suitable for queer plotlines, and so once the series has dealt with an incident of homophobia and an relative/friend learning to truly accept and support the queer character, that there is absolutely nothing else one can write for the character so they are now dead weight. But there are folks—most of them members of the queer community or allies—who genuinely think that the lack of realistic numbers of queer characters is the only reason Bury Your Gays is a problem. And unfortunately this causes other problems.
The discussion that I saw this week illustrated this well. One person was explaining what Bury Your Gays means, and went on to express their personal opinion that because they have read or watched so many queer characters get killed off so many times that they just don’t want to ever watch or read such a storyline again.
And people got very angry about that assertion. “How dare you say that I can never kill a queer character in my story!” “How dare you demand representation but also special treatment!” And so on.
Which is absolutely not what the person said.
Let’s switch topics for a minute. I was physically and emotionally abused by my father as a child. For that reason, I find it very difficult to sit through storylines involving abusing characters in stories I read or watch. This means that sometimes I stop watching a series or I put down a book never to pick it up again. I experienced a lot of that in real life and would rather spend my free time (which is what the reading of novels and watching of series or movies is, my free time) on other things. Similarly, many years ago a particular series I and friends were reading seemed to be obsessed with rape (and the gleeful humiliation and torment of vulnerable characters in general) as a plot engine. I decided that I didn’t need anymore of those kinds of scenes in my imagination, and I stopped reading the series (and when the editor of said series later became the author of an international best-selling fantasy series that similarly pruriently reveled in rape and torture, I swore off that, too).
In neither case am I saying that no one has the right to write such stories. Nor am I saying that people who want to read them should be legally banned from doing so. I’m just saying that I am done that that. I don’t want to read that. I exercise my right to choose what I read and watch and will go read and watch something else.
That doesn’t mean that I am weak. It doesn’t mean that I’m fragile. It doesn’t mean that there is something wrong or immature about me. I am making a choice and stating a preference. That’s all.
And yes, I’m generally in sympathy with the commenter who said she’d rather not read any more deaths of queer characters. For 59 years I have read stories in which if gay people like me were included at all we were the depraved villains or the tragic victims. And if I could go another 59 years of life and never, ever read or watch another story in which that happens, I would be happy (and not just because it would be cool to live to be 118 years old).
It’s not that I refuse to read stories where that happens. I do, even when I have been warned, sometimes. And full disclosure: in the series of fantasy novels I’m working on a lot of queer characters have bad things happen to them. In book one a canonically pansexual character appears to die (and his apparent death is quite important to the plot), though it is revealed later he survived. But as the series goes on I kill off an asexual character, a bisexual character, a genderfluid character, and (in flashback) a trans character. So as a queer author I’m doing this. But I also point out that there are a lot of other gay, lesbian, bi, pan, genderfluid, ace, and trans are in the story who don’t come to untimely ends. And as I’ve mentioned in blog posts before, I’m one of those authors who literally cries at the keyboard while writing a death scene, so I don’t take these things lightly.
So I’m saying that it is perfectly reasonable for a reader/viewer to make a decision about what kinds of stories they want to watch. And while writers get to decide what they do in their own stories—readers, viewers, and other writers are allowed to point out if we think they are portraying harmful stereotypes or perpetuating bigotry.
There was a second trope discussion where I felt attacked. People were lamenting the Gayngst trope. This is the tendency of many writers to portray all queer people as being unhappy with their lives, and specifically wishing that they weren’t gay. The people participating in this thread were unhappy with this trope because they were convinced that it is never true. One person asserted that there were no queer people anywhere who, once they got past the questioning stage and realized that they are queer, wished that they weren’t queer.
Which is where I really felt attacked. I realized that I was a gay boy at the age of eleven. Puberty hit like a freight train, as I said in that post, and finally I knew that all those people (including my father, some pastors, numerous teachers, and other adults in my life) who had bullied me for being a sissy, pussy, c*cksucker, and f*ggot had been correct.
I did not magickally become a wildly pro-gay activist at the moment of that realization.
To use the terminology of the the great James Baldwin quoted above, among the filth that I had been forcefed throughout my life up to that time was the absolute certainty that queers like me were going to spent eternity burning in Hell. And, since god is supposedly a Just Creator, we deserved it.
So, yes, I spent the next 13 years of my life frequently crying myself to sleep at night and begging god to take those feelings away.
It wasn’t until I was 24 years old that I started to believe that maybe, just maybe being queer wasn’t a curse that absolutely meant I would never know love, that I would constantly be fighting off depraved urges, and that I would ultimately deserve to be thrown into the Lake of Fire.
I was well past questioning for those years. And it wasn’t until I was 24 that I let a female friend talk me into the notion that maybe I wasn’t gay, but was actually bisexual. I would say that was the beginning of my questioning years, not when I first realized back at age eleven.
If some queer people younger than me really do immediately go from, “I don’t know why I seem to be different than what society expects me to be” to “Hey! It’s great to be queer” than I am very happy for them. I have my doubts that the transition is that instantaneous, but maybe it is.
Regardless, I know for a fact that millions of us spent a number of years mired in that self-loathing. And it isn’t just old fogies like me—earlier this year gay millennial Presidential hopeful Pete Butigeig admitted that “If you had offered me a pill to make me straight” he would have taken it.
So, while Gaynst shouldn’t be the universal portrayal of all queer people in stories and pop cultural, it’s okay to admit that some of us experienced that as part of our process of becoming who we are. And you should be able to criticize the stereotype without also erasing the queer people who experienced coming out differently than you.
It wasn’t until I was 31 years old—literally 20 years after I first realized and understood that I was a gay man—that I finally vomited up enough of that self-loathing and other filth to start walking this earth as if I had a right to be here. And the struggle of getting that point is something which should be honored, not erased.
I was a teen-ager when I attended my very first sf/f convention. It was the late 1970s, and a couple of my slightly older friends let me tag along with them when they drove to a city about an hour form the town we lived in on a Saturday, where we bought day passes and I tried to figure out what there was to actually do once there.
Until just a couple years before, I had never lived anywhere that was within driving distance of a sci fi con. I’d read about them in the pages of a fanzine (memeographed pages stapled together that came in the mail irregulalarly) that I had received for awhile, and in the intra-story comments of a couple of different anthologies I’d read.
I don’t know what I expected, but after sitting through a couple of panels, I wound up spending the rest of my day in the dealer’s room. Most of that time in a couple of the bookseller booths.
I was browsing in one such booth with several paperbacks in my hand which I intended to buy. A guy (who seemed to be about 40 years old) commented on my selection thus far, saying I had good taste. He asked me about my favorite authors and books, and we talked for a couple of minutes.
Then he asked me if I had ever read Slan. I admitted that I wasn’t familiar with it. He then asked if I had read any of the other works of A. E. van Vogt. I said that the name was familiar, and added that I owned a lot of anthologies of short stories, and may have read something of his there, but wasn’t sure.
He proceeded to lecture me, in very a condescending tone, about what a great author van Vogt was and how Slan wasn’t just great, but was a pivotal work in defining fandom itself. He then sort of tch-ed at me, turned his back on me and walked away, clearly indicating that I was not worth talking to (and probably that the time he had spent on me was a waste of time).
It wasn’t traumatizing, but I definitely felt unwelcome. I continued with my browsing and bought my books.
This was not the last time I would encounter that sort of attitude from another fan. Or from pros. And full disclosure, I’m quite certain that when I have reacted with shock upon learning that someone hasn’t read or seen something I think is fantastic (or they dislike a book or series or author that I love) I have come across like this guy.
I was reminded of this incident while I was reading a post about the topic of canon in science fiction/fantasy and someone expressed skepticism that there were any people out there trying to enforce a canon on other fans. So I put a shorter version of this anecdote (and some other examples) in a comment there. But I have more thoughts, and the comment section of another person’s blog isn’t the place to pontificate.
Now, I should pause to define what we mean by canon. The dictionary definitions that come closest to how we’re using it are: “a list of literary works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality” or “an authoritative list of books accepted as holy or sacred.”
So, for instance, if an sf/f professional on a panel or other official event at a convention insists that particular books, authors, or other works are absolute must reads, that’s pushing the notion of canon. If an author dismissively admits he hasn’t read any recent books (even award-winning ones) because based on his understanding of the summary, it’s already been done by so-and-so, that’s another form of pushing the notion of canon. Every time someone publishes a list of “The 100 Most Significant SF/F Books of All Time” or “The 25 Most Influential Books That Every SF/F Fan Must Read” that’s also pushing the canon. Particularly since most of those lists focus on a very narrow time in the history of the genre (40-70 years ago) and a particular set of authors—and usually has no more than 1 or 2 token authors who aren’t white men.
And when the host of the premiere sf/f awards ceremony spends an hour and a half telling anecdotes from that same narrow part of history and only involving a subset of that particular set of dead white male authors, that’s pushing the notion of canon. Especially when he says afterwards the reason he inflated the ceremony with all of that is because he thought modern fans didn’t know but needed to know about that group of dead white guys. Similarly, when someone asks the supposedly rhetorical question regarding the Retro Hugos, “Who else other than Campbell could anyone vote for?” that’s also pushing that canon.
Camestros Felapton recently wrote a couple of excellent posts about different concepts and meaning of canon within the genre:
One of the many excellent points he makes in there is that while it’s appropriate to acknowledge that a particular work or creator had influence on the genre, conflating that influence with timeless quality and relevance isn’t wise. Influence can be good or it can be bad. And stories that were groundbreaking and thought-provoking 90 years ago will probably not have that some effect today—in part because thousands of stories have been written since, many of which were influenced by that work.
Some of the newer works have expanded on the old ideas. Some have interrogated and revised the old ideas. Some have been written in opposition to the old ideas. While it can be interesting to know some of the older works that have influenced the newer ones, we can comprehend, understand, and love the new works without having read the older works. Sometimes reading some of the older stuff might make us appreciate or understand parts of the newer work better, but not always.
I don’t have to learn how to press cuneiform marks into wet clay tablets in order to write stories in my native language today. Just as a person doesn’t have to learn how to steer and manage a team of horses on a horse-drawn carriage in order to drive a modern car or use a modern bus.
No one has to have read the golden oldies to be a fan of (or create your own) great stories today.
Edited to add: A bunch of people wrote on this topic, including:
Cora Buhlert writes much more informatively and nicely than I do on a fannish subject: Some Thoughts on the 1945 Retro Hugo Winners.
Camestros Felaptan also commented: Canon and Campbell.
Aidan Moher has a good perspective Personal Canons: There Is No Universal Canon.
Cora later wrote more eloquantly on the same topic and included a lot links to other people writing on the same topic: Why the Retro Hugos Have Value.
I have been working on a couple of posts (on various not-related sf/f things) that keep not gelling. I was working on one such post while also starting to feel drowsy and decided it was close enough to bed time that I should just pack it in. I fell asleep really quickly. I half-expected to dream about the post I had been wrestling with. Instead I had about six dreams that were all variations of the same story. Most of the dreams weren’t about me, though I and Michael were supporting characters in one variant of the story. And while processing this (and waiting for my coffee to perk), I realized that there was a piece of writing advice I have repeated (and sometimes expounded upon) which my be useful to revisit and reconsider.
Before I jump into that, one weird digression. I saw recently on one of the social media platforms a question: When you dream is it like you are inside the story reacting to whats happening to you, or is it more like you are watching a movie about something happening to you? And I wanted to answer, “Those two choice assume that my dreams are always about me.” Because sometimes my dreams are, indeed, like an immersive experience, and other times as if I’m watching a movie or play… but I don’t always dream that I am me. And in all six of the ones that led to this post, the main character/who I was wasn’t Gene, at all. And in most of them none of the other people were anyone I know in real life.
When I was in school, I had more than one teacher covering English or Literature make the assertion that there are only four plots: person vs person, person vs nature, person vs themself, and person vs society. I wasn’t the only member of the class who didn’t quite buy it—when we came up with counter-examples, the teacher would find a way to shoehorn it into one of the four. In the years since I have seen it much more common for folks to list seven plots… the problem is, I’ve seen at least four variants of the list seven which don’t map to each other very well. Which is probably why other people have written books about the 20-something or 30-something fundamental dramatic situations you can build a story from. And so on.
All the dreams I had that night were variants of: being taken to meet the parents. And specifically, being taken to meet the parents who are not yet comfortable with their child being queer.
I know one reason that my sleeping brain easily cooked up six very different versions of that story is, in part, because being a queer person myself I have (in addition to having some personal experiences with the situation) listened to, read, or watched many, many, many variations of that basic situation.
And that’s the point of the Lauren Beukes quote above: what makes a story is the execution, not the plot.
Which brings me to the piece of writing advice I talked about earlier. It has been observed many times that every person is the protagonist of their own story. Therefore, it is useful for the writer to keep the motivations of all of the characters in a story in mind. If you write yourself into a corner, the advice goes, try re-writing some of your scenes from the point-of-view of another character. In a novel-length story if you find yourself needing a subplot to intercut with the main plot, a great source of sub-plots is to pick some supporting characters and ask what is going on in their lives off screen.
And that’s good advice.
But it may also help to actively invert the usual advice. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story… but also everyone is the supporting character or villain of someone else’s story. That might seem to be implied when someone advises that you re-write scenes from other character’s viewpoints to look for ways to move your plot forward, but I’m not sure we all actively think about it that way.
Especially about your hero. Sure, you know that your protagonist is the villain in your antagonist’s story… but is there anyone else who see your protagonist as an irritant, or a burden, or an obstacle… or maybe a villain, just in a different way than your antagonist does?
And in which of the supporting and otherwise background cast of your main story is your protagonist a supporting player, or even merely a superluminary? If you can’t imagine who might look at them this way, maybe you haven’t made your protagonist as well-rounded as you think?
It’s worth thinking about, at least!
I used to sometimes write April Fool’s posts. My rules were 1) that the joke couldn’t be something that would alarm people if they didn’t realize it was a joke, 2) the butt of the joke always had to be me, 3) nothing related to any disaster or illness or danger to anyone.
But even when I tried to stick to those rules, a couple of times one friend or another wouldn’t realize it was a joke right away and sometimes read something between the lines.
With the world in the middle of a deadly pandemic, with a President fond of spouting false information (and who is more concerned with the TV ratings of his press conferences than the thousands of severely ill citizens), this really isn’t a time to write parodies or satires of current events.
So, no jokes from me. No linking to any parody articles. It’s Wednesday. It happens to be the first day of the fourth month of the year. Which happens to be the day that a writing activity I often participates starts.
Therefore, I wanna talk about Camp NaNoWriMo. That’s right! It’s April, and that means an opportunity to do a writing project with the help, encouragement, and maybe even a little competition with friends near and far!
The non-profit that organizes National Novel Writing Month every November also sponsors two related events, one in April and one in July, called Camp NaNoWriMo. You set your own word count goal, can set up writing groups so you and your writing buddies can cheer each other on, and so forth.
With the goals being self-defined, one might wonder what the point is. I like having the expectation that I’ll publish my word-count (or number of words revised, or whatever) regularly. It is fun having a few people to watching and available to commiserate with, as well.
My previous forays at Camp NaNo have met with varying degree of success. This time around I mostly just need something to motivate me to work on my fiction at all. I’ve been quite bad at it. The last thing that I set out and finished was the Christmas Ghost story.
In these trying times, lots of people turn to the arts (if you’re binge watching shows on line, catching up on those audio books you’ve been meaning to get to, et cetera to get through a shelter-in-place or related ordered lockdown, you’re turning to the arts) in times of crisis. And so some of us should try to make more art, as well.
Wanna give it a whirl?
Interior: Gene’s mind, wee small hours of Saturday morning.
I’m dreaming. I’m hanging out with a friend who died not quite two years ago.
We have a lovely talk about things I’m writing now, people we both care about, things I’m worrying about.
We went for a long walk in a lovely wooded area.
We stopped to sit somewhere and look at the view. One of my favorite pencils is sitting on a table. Along with a bunch of very small slips of paper.
I start writing. I write an entire… something. A scene? A story? I’m not sure.
I look up.
I tell her it’s all finished. Then I look down, and see that all of the slips of paper covered with my writing are in a small box, but all jumbled.
“You’ll have to put them back into order,” she says.
“I can do that now,” I say. I look back up.
She’s standing again. In different, but still comfy clothes. “Yes, but not here,” she says. She points into the woods. “I’m going this way.” She points behind me. “You’re going that way.”
I look, and there is an ordinary road. One I sort of recognize. It looks a bit like the winding road down a hill that I used to drive on a lot when I was a teen-ager. I had three different friends who lived on the hill above the town we all attended school in, back then.
There is a car. It has one of the Lyft light things in the front. There is a driver, but I can’t really see him.
“But I don’t want to go back,” I say.
“I’m going this way,” she repeats. “You’re going that way.”
And I can see down at the bottom of the road home: my home, now. Where Michael and all of our friends are waiting.
“Oh,” I say.
And I wake up.
(My subconscious is never subtle, you know?)
But how will the reader know that they are really evil? Or, maybe shortcuts have no place in your writing
I had no trouble believing this anecdote, because I have gotten into more than one argument over the years with people (almost always cisheterosexual men) insisting that just because a character in a particular movie or television series or book raped someone, it doesn’t mean that he’s bad.
What’s most appalling about the anecdote is that a really large number of men think that kicking a puppy is ten-thousand times more evil than sexually assaulting a woman.
But on a less intense level, it’s also pathetic that a number of movies and stories without any rape at all have chosen to show the villain kicking or shooting or otherwise attacking a dog/puppy just to drive home the point that this character is really, really evil. It isn’t just dogs. In the original Terminator, for example, one of the ways the director hammers home that the titular character is a heartless killer is to show a close up of the robot callously stepping on a child’s toy, destroying it.
Puppies and toys aren’t the only kind of shorthand which lazy writers have used to indicator a character is not just a bad person, but despicably, unredeemably bad. One of the other ways that has been used a lot is queer-coding of villains. Queer-coding is where certain behaviors, mannerisms, or means of talking that hint that the character isn’t heterosexual (or possibly not cisgender). It frequently has been used with villains. People often point to villainous characters in Disney films (Jafar, Ursula, Scar) but it’s been around longer than that. Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, Rope is a frequently cited example.
And some works don’t even bother with coding. For instance, Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune, (and the sequels) explicitly depicts the most depraved and evil characters as gay. There is one character who slowly develops bisexual curiosity as she is corrupted, and then goes full queer as her moral corruption reaches its pinnacle.
Full disclosure: I didn’t even notice the correlation between queerness and evil in the Dune books (which I have loved since my early teens), until someone pointed out to me in my mid-to-late-twenties that I, a queer writer, was doing the same thing in stories I was writing at the time. It’s a pervasive culture notion, coming out of the homophobic belief that simply being non-heterosexual is a deep moral failing.
Queer-coding and overt queer-villaining still happen, but more people (and not just queer people) in the audience are willing to speak up and object when it happens. But the sort of writers/directors/et al who feel they need to hammer the depravity of their characters home seem to have switched to a new shorthand: incest.
In my review of a recent episode of Star Trek: Picard I blamed Game of Thrones for this problem. I stand by my explicit statement (as well as the implicit one) that the series (television and books) commits a huge number of literary and ethical sins, but I do have to admit that the encroachment of the incest meme as shorthand for very evil goes back further than that. In Cora Buhlert’s review of the same episode of Picard she points out the incest=villain trope goes back at least to 1974’s movie, Chinatown.
And obviously incest has been mentioned in fiction and folklore for a long time, including the Greek story of Oedipus, Arthurian legend (Mordred sometimes being depicted as the product of an incestuous tryst between Arthur and his sister or half—sister), and more than a few times in the Old Testatment. Though it is worth mentioning that one of the times it happens in the Old Testament the narrative is less than condemning of it.
But in most of those tales the incest plays out as a tragedy. Real life incest is also almost always tragic (since most often it is part of an abusive relationship). So, I’m not saying that incest should be off-limits in narrative fiction, because real human failings are fair game for your fictional works. I’m just annoyed that it seems recently that it’s being thrown in as a lazy way to show that a character is particularly twistedly evil. And it’s not necessary.
You can show the character doing evil things. Physically choking her subordinate tells me plenty about the character of the evil sister of the Hot Romulan, for instance. Sending death squads after people shows us that the character is evil. The narrative didn’t have to make them siblings for any part of the story to work. There are millions of ways you can have your villain behaving cruelly or coldly or viciously to demonstrate that they are a despicable, vile, dastardly, abominable, loathsome person.
Don’t use shorthand to indicate a character is evil. Write the story in such a way to show us the character is evil. But keep it in character, make sure that everything you show the reader also moves the plot along, and so forth. And if a reader is the sort of person who doesn’t recognize that coldly ordering someone’s death (or whatever things that happen in your story that are in character for your villain) is a bad person, maybe your story isn’t for them.