May 1st, 2008

ozarque figure

Writing science fiction; the "current fashion"; part three...

I have managed -- with this set of posts -- to create all sorts of confusion. I'm going to try to straighten some of it out without adding still more confusion.

I started out by telling you that I have a hard time following -- much less enjoying -- a lot of current science fiction... the kind that, as I perceive it, leaps all over the place in the story arc and never makes it possible for me to get well enough acquainted with the character(s) to really care what happens to them, even when I'm able to figure out what has happened to them. I have never been able to make any sense of William Gibson's Neuromancer; most of the time I don't understand what's going on in Battlestar Galactica; it's hard work, not pleasure, for me to read fiction in the comic book format. I suggested that at least in my own case this was a generation gap phenomenon, and that most younger people -- who have grown up doing things like participating in a dozen IM conversations at the same time -- don't have these problems. And I told you that I read George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" novels, books I enjoy tremendously, by dividing them into their separate point-of-view streams and reading each one of those streams straight through.

So far, so good. However, I didn't mean for you to conclude that I read all multiple-POV novels the way I read the "Song of Ice and Fire" (hereafter SIF) ones. For one thing, the SIF novels are huge and intricate and packed with detail. For another, I care so intensely about the characters in the SIF novels that I can't stand the suspense of not knowing what happens to any given one of them while I make my way through intervening chapters that tell the stories of other characters. If a novel only moves among two or three points of view, and the story arc as a whole is reasonably beginning-then-middle-then-end, I read it in the ordinary way, just as you do.

Then I introduced more murk into our discourse by wandering off into the question of whether some sf writers might be deliberately trying to make their work seem more "literary" -- first writing in a more traditional form and then going back and obscuring it because that's a way of introducing Chic and avoiding being tagged as writing "pulp fiction," the way nonfiction writers try to avoid being tagged as "popularizers." Which of course raises the question of how much conscious control writers of fiction have over their craft and how much of what they do is handled well below the level of their conscious awareness. It seems to me that we writers fall along a continuum in this respect. There are those who micromanage every smallest detail to the extent that they're able to do that -- people who deliberately choose between the spellings "gray" and "grey" for specific reasons they could easily explain if asked, for example, and who outline their work down to at least the level of the scene in advance before they write a single word of the text. There are those who claim to be seized by their characters and to do nothing more, essentially, than channel what they write. And there are writers everywhere in between those two extremes.

As a nonfiction writer I've been called a popularizer forever -- and I'm proud of it. When I write a textbook, or a book for a general audience on a nonfiction topic, my intention is to write a book that a literate high school graduate can read without having to have a prof standing by at all times to explain the mysteries. I intend to be understood, and I do it on purpose. And I suppose I do the same thing when I write fiction; I feel an obligation to write a story that can be understood without a struggle, however old-fashioned that may be. This isn't a good career move. I not only have never won a Hugo or Nebula or Tiptree or [vamp till ready] award, I've never even been nominated for any of them, so far as I know. I can't say that that doesn't bother me; like any other human being, I'd like to have more obvious evidence of the approval of my fellow human beings for what I do. But I'm stubborn; I'm just flat out not willing to give up writing with as much clarity as my skill at my craft will allow me to achieve. I sometimes feel like a failure because I'm an Awardless Writer, but I don't torment myself about it; when I read a paragraph that I've published and realize that it's murky and convoluted and hard to follow, I do torment myself about it.

It may be that the method I used for learning how to write -- writing out Wuthering Heights in longhand, every single word of it -- is the reason I turned out this way. Maybe.