The way it is

 

English in Asian Airports

Alfie lived at home with his mum, his dad, his sister … and a troop of monkeys. For some reason, no-one could see the monkeys except Alfie. That was just the way it was.

I shouldn’t let a children’s book make me angry. The intended audience don’t care about bad writing, or poor storytelling, though they might not find a book interesting for reasons we might describe as weak structure.

But I am not a child. And the above extract, the opening to No More Monkeys, by Joshua George and Barbara Bakos, makes my blood boil. It’s quite impressive, actually: the sheer badness contained within 33 words. And that they dared to put these words right at the beginning of the book. The publishers have some serious brass neck.

No more monkeys

Shall we start to unpick it? First off: we don’t need ‘at home’ in the first line. Of course he lives at home. He can’t live anywhere else, can he? I’d concede the words might be taken as shorthand for ‘in an ordinary house and not in an igloo or on the moon or in a moon-igloo’ if it wasn’t a picture book. But it is. The ordinariness of the residence is simple to establish.

But that’s not the problem. That is a forgivable error. I don’t demand perfection in children’s books (though maybe I should): I can write that off as part of the voice and the rhythm of the story.

What I can’t forgive are the three little words that open the second sentence.

For some reason.

Let me translate: ‘For some reason’ means ‘the author hasn’t bothered to think about this.’ ‘The author has no respect for his reader.’ ‘It’s too much effort to come up with a real explanation.’

For some reason. Let me tell you, if you ever find yourself writing ‘for some reason’ in your work; or if you have things ‘just the way they’ve always been’, then you’re letting your readers down.

It’s a close cousin to that old beta-reader feedback: if a reader says ‘I didn’t understand this,’ it’s not not good enough to say ‘well that’s because of this complex set of subtleties, and therefore I dismiss your point.’ It doesn’t matter if you’ve considered it if you’ve not explained it.

This doesn’t mean that you have to go into every little thing that underpins your worldbuilding, or even that you have to consider every little variable of, say, the currency system in your world. But anything integral to the plot has to have an explanation. How you communicate that is a different issue.

I find this particular example really galling because it’s so unnecessary. The author could have put ‘The monkeys were invisible to everyone but Alfie’ – no reason is necessary. Or ‘The monkeys would only show themselves to Alfie and were really good at hiding when anyone else was around.’ That one’s nice because it conjures up a clear mental image that the writer and artist could play with. Bonus!

That’s just with two minutes’ thought. You can think of more alternatives yourself. Think of it as a little writing free exercise. You’re welcome.

Error number three: that final sentence. ‘That was just the way it was.’ My god this is horrible. You know what this means? This is the writer saying ‘I know the last sentence wasn’t good enough. Let me just reinforce my laziness by doubling down. No, you’re not allowed to be curious. That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change. Ask no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.’

It’s bad.

It’s the sort of thing you see in books all the time. One of my problems with The Time-Traveller’s Wife is the way the author casually dismisses all possibility of change. It’s been a while since I read it, but there is a point where the narrator says something like ‘it was predestined. There was no way to change the future.’ I nearly screamed. Why? Why is it predestined? Why can’t you change things? Wouldn’t you try? Wouldn’t you at least make the effort?

At the very least, if you don’t know why something happens, keep quiet about it. Shut your bloody trap and let us keep the illusion that you know what you’re talking about.

Right. Rant over. I’m off to take my blood-pressure medication; hopefully I’ll have something more interesting to write about next week.

As you were.

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Death to the Editorium!

Egyptian mourning

Sad news! The Editorium is no more. It has ceased to be. It has shuffled off this mortal coil. It is an ex-Editorium.

Yes, I am moving house – moving across counties, no less. So far I have left my phone in IKEA and had to dash back 100 miles for forgotten things. Idiocy is no respecter of location.

The Editorium is dead. But fear not! For, like royalty, no Editorium can die without another rising to take its place.

All hail the Editorium! I shall shortly be tipper-tapping away in a room of one’s own: in the meantime, let’s all raise a glass to the place where I wrote all those thousands of words.

I will, at least. And you’re free to join me.

cheers__by_natoli-d9b782h

Image stolen from natoli.deviantart.com

Everyday jargonism

Kenning

Last week I talked about Stephen Fry’s The Liar and how it described a world from which I felt alienated. Now it’s time to elaborate on that in yet another book-based ramble. We can but hope that at least one of you will find it interesting.

*Clears throats and adopts lecturing stance*

I’m pretty well grounded in genre fiction: that big, wide tent that covers not only SFF but crime, thrillers, spy novels and horror and, to a lesser extent, LBGT stories. I don’t know so much about literary fiction and, save for inevitable overlap, ‘popular’ fiction such as that produced by Dan Brown and James Patterson. This is another way of saying that I know the ‘rules’ (or tropes) of some forms of fiction but not others.

Knowing the rules is another way of saying that I understand the jargon. I know the shape of a crime story: I understand the differences between a police procedural and a noir thriller. I can instinctively – instinct being another word for experience – tell the difference between epic fantasy and grimdark. Each genre and subgenre has its own shape and structure.

My snobbery is that I have developed a mistrust of literary fiction. I see it as elitist and, to be honest, I’m just not sure what it actually is. Thus I have written off the McEwan’s and Amis’ of the world as being about English professors who attended fee-paying schools before spending three hundred pages agonising over whether or not they should boink their students.

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Martin Amis & Ian McEwan; an image taken from a joint 2014 interview

Which brings us back to The Liar. I felt excluded from this novel – especially in the first half of it – because it described a world I didn’t understand. It was hard for me to feel empathy with its characters because I’ve never known anyone like them. The jargon passed me by, the jokes too ‘in’ to welcome me.

And that got me thinking: this must be what other people feel like all the time.

Literary fictioneers don’t understand genre¹. They feel excluded. All that talk of elves and dwarfs and magic: it’s just another way to determine the in-crowd. It’s easy to pour scorn on something you don’t understand, to say ‘oh, it’s just escapism’ because they can’t imagine that might actually be a metaphor.

Similarly, I don’t get the subtleties of the romance genre. I know a little about the way Mills & Boon, in particular, are written to a formula but I don’t get the subtleties that distinguishes a potboiler from a beloved classic.

But these are little things. Some groups are excluded from the world of books altogether. Which leads us neatly on to Lionel Shriver.

“…literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling.”

Ms Shriver has courted fresh controversy with her complaints against the move for diversity within the publishing world. She worries that welcoming minority groups (especially if it’s a sort of quota system of positive discrimination) into fiction will be detrimental to quality. Why this should be isn’t immediately clear: it implies that the aforementioned gay transgender dropout is incapable of writing quality prose. It overlooks the great advantage that she herself received as a graduate of a private school and all that that implies.

[I last wrote about her views here. Spoiler: I disagreed with her then, too.]

First of all, it’s worth noting that a big reason why literary fiction is what it is because white middle-class men ran publishing for at least a century (and still do, though possibly to a lesser extent). Naturally they gravitated towards books they understood, that spoke to them: that were written in the jargon of their daily lives. Thus the ideal of ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ was to a great extent homogenised, one great circle-jerk of self-congratulatory smuggery.

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So it’s no wonder that minority groups see reading as not for them. When people feel that you’re not allowed to wear trainers in a bookshop², just how off-putting is it for BAME readers to be expected to wade through books with not a single character with a name like theirs?

No wonder ‘working class’ people don’t read when the books they like – the romances, the thrillers, the Dan Browns and James Pattersons³ – are derided as ‘silly’ or ‘simplistic’ or ‘unworthy’. Why should they bother? It’s not that books are uncool; it’s that they’re ridiculed for the books they’re drawn to.

[And this can go right back into childhood. So many girls’ stories are about princesses and boys have only ogres to model themselves upon. I’m not sure if it’s available to watch now, but if you get the chance I’d really recommend this documentary for more on the harm we do children through the small sins of stereotyping gender]

I like myself

People like to see themselves in the books they read. There has to be something they can grasp; some aspect of the character or their world they can relate to. That can be as simple as having a woman as a significant character, or someone not born with a silver spoon in their mouth, or as complex as a world with suspiciously familiar nation-states (or planets) in constant turmoil and warfare. Knowledge and experience all count here.

All this might make you think that I’m railing against The Liar and books of that ilk, but I’m not. What I’m doing is coming to terms with my own shortcomings. People who went to public school absolutely deserve to be served by the stories they read – but so do the rest of us, especially those who are typically unrepresented.

Repeat after me: not all books are written with me in mind and that’s okay.

Publishing has for too long been an Old Boys’ Club. Literary fiction is unduly represented in awards and the status it’s accorded is, in my view, unmerited.

Everyone deserves good books. If you want your writing to read a wide audience (which is not that same as more readers; there’s a reason why genre conventions exist in book covers) it might be worth looking at what you’re doing to exclude potential readers, and what you can do to embrace more people.

Oh and Lionel Shriver can just, please, go away.

***

¹Massive generalisation for the purposes of illustrative effect. I’m sure there’s a Classical term for the way I’m using it but the internet has let me down. Hyperbole is the closest I can get.

²This is taken from a conversation on Twitter initiated by Joanne Harris on 28/05/18 with regard to the struggles of UK chain WHSmiths. Her initial statements are thus:

While it may not be the coolest shop on the High Street, research suggests that WH Smith, and not Waterstone’s, is the place where most working-class people buy books. If we care at all about promoting literacy, we should at least be aware of this.

All the replies from well-meaning, middle-class people saying; “Yes, but it needs to stop selling cheap chocolate and tat” may have missed my point. Some people may like cheap chocolate. They may like the fact that WH Smith provides a nonthreatening, familiar environment.

Research strongly suggests that readers from certain backgrounds are less likely to go into Waterstone’s because it looks expensive and intimidating to them. WH Smiths, with its “cheap chocolate and tat”, looks more welcoming. They buy their books there instead.

But I’m also drawing from the responses to this conversation. I personally have no facts & figures, sorry.

³Like Footnote no.1 this is a massive, crude oversimplification. I don’t think that the ‘working class’ only read blockbusters, and that blockbusters are only read by the working class. Hell, I’m not even sure who the working class are anymore. Please don’t hate me. I’m just trying to make a point

 

The darling books of May

Bookstairs.jpg

Photo from this Buzzfeed article

In the absence of anything more interesting to ramble about, I’ve decided to share a few quick thoughts about last month’s reading; not so much a review, more a quick recap of sentiments that might – yes – might just include the odd recommendation. All these are listed in my book log if you want an at-a-glance account of those listed below.

Belle Sauvage

So, without further ado, let me begin with La Belle Sauvage, the first in the new (planned) trilogy of Philip Pullman. Of course I am somewhat biased because my daughter’s named after the lead character in the His Dark Materials series. But this was, in anything, better that the latter. The writing was just a little clearer, a little cleaner, and the main character is a delight.

The only negative I have is that the whole novel reads like an adventure – except for one small episode two-thirds of the way through where fantasy intrudes. Of course I know the series is a fantasy, but after the mood being resolutely realistic thereunto, it jars – especially as we have no real sense of resolution.

Freakonomics

Freakonomics (Stephen Dubner & Steven Levitt) is another book I am well and truly behind the times with. It’s economics with a hand grenade, and whilst it’s fascinating and paradigm-shifting, I have slight reservations about some of the preconceptions the authors introduce into their findings: the value of exam results in determining success and failure, for example. Still, anything that makes you think is precious.

The Honours.jpg

You might by now be sick of my new obsession with Tim Clare: I promise I’ll stop going on about him shortly – just not before I rave again about his novel The Honours. It’s not only the best book I’ve read this month, It’s also my favourite so far this year. I can’t say too much about it because I think anything I can tell you will detract from the pleasure.

Part of the joy in the novel is determining whether we’re dealing with a coming-of-age story, an upstairs-downstairs tale of the aristocracy, a spy thriller or a fantasy. So I’m not going to spoil that for you; don’t read the blurb, don’t read reviews, just start on page one and go from there.

Lock In.jpg

John Scalzi’s Lock In is entirely different; resolutely sci-fi and highlighted by the wonderful writing that makes Scalzi a joy to read. If anyone wants to learn how to write fast-paced stories that you just fly through then study Scalzi. This isn’t his best, though, not because there’s anything wrong with it but because nothing’s really stayed with me. Fun but ultimately forgettable.

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The Zealot’s Bones (DM Mark) was a surprise. I picked it up on spec because I liked the cover and because that’s what libraries are for (all these books bar four were sourced from my local library) and was fully prepared to dislike it. But I didn’t. A murder mystery set in Victorian Hull scores points for originality, though at first I was a little uncertain because the story feels medieval, not nineteenth-century. But the quality of writing pulled me through. And maybe that’s what life was like for the common man: half primitive, half bang up to date. (And is the way we live now any different?) So this is a surprise recommendation from me.

Good story.jpg

The Good Story, by contrast, was a disappointment. It’s a epistolic discussion between JM Coetzee and psychologist Arabella Kurtz on the nature of psychotherapy and story. But it is, frankly, hard work; and the format – neither essay nor discussion – does it no favours, and neither does the over-literary tone invite the reader to share in their profundity. There are moments of interest and revelation but I don’t think it’s worth the effort and, if anything, serves to steer me away from Coetzee’s novels.

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The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks), on the other hand, drew me right in. This has been on my shelf for years, always deferred because I had a terrible foreboding that this would be really, really sad and I don’t like sad stories. Sorry. A personal failing, I know, but there it is.

And sad it was, but also somehow wonderful. The main character is a monster and a victim and sometimes it’s hard to share their head. But the writing pulls you along, drip-feeding you revelation. This, I feel, is a novel I’ll never forget. Sometimes I’ll wish I could, but that doesn’t stop me recommending it here.

Thornhill

Thornhill, by Pam Smy, is magical. Sold as YA, it’s two stories in one: the diary entries from a girl who lived in the Thornhill children’s home thirty or so years ago, and the ‘silent’ graphic tale of a lonely girl who discovers her story. The art (also by Smy) is wonderful and evocative, the wordlessness perfect for the tale its telling; the diary entries are haunting and tell the tale so well. I read the whole thing in a day.

Silver Locusts

I’ve read a few Ray Bradbury’s before and loved the lyricism in the prose, so The Silver Locusts – a boot-sale bargain at 20p – came as a disappointment. It’s not the writing that was disappointing, simply that the story was so completely out of date.

I can cope with the bad science (Mars having a breathable atmosphere; there being ‘Martians’); it’s the social changes that really grate. It’s not that everyone smokes – hell, every novel written in the fifties is full of cigarettes and cigars – but that, aside from a very few minor (and barely significant) characters, everyone is male. Bradbury never even considers that women might have an active part to play in the story.

Similarly, whilst I can cope with a racist character using the ‘n’-word, the description of the Jim Crow-era South went over my head. The depiction of the black population came close to the ‘noble savage’ stereotype, and an interesting idea (what happens to a land when the ‘workers’ leave en masse) got subsumed by the distance between the writing and the reading. The book is interesting, but more for the historian than the SF fan.

King of Dreams

Phew. On to The Sandman: King of Dreams. This is a companion/hagiography of Neil Gaiman’s graphic series and Kwitney’s book was a fine, fun read. There wasn’t that much to it, though, and all it really did was made me want to re-read the source material again.

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Speaking of fun reads, Sean Grigsby’s Smoke Eaters is a great little high-concept adventure. Here firemen don’t put out blazes – they fight dragons. What Grigsby does really well is convey the mundanity of life post-cataclysm (the catastrophe has passed and normal life is normal again) – and also the great wasteland that much of the planet has become.

If I have a criticism it’s that we don’t see enough of the world, and that there’s so much that’s left unexplained (where did the dragons come from?). But that just means there’s loads to look forwards to in the promised sequel.

The Liar

Finally: The Liar by Stephen Fry. This is… curious. It is good. It was a pleasure to read, and yet… it’s so damn elitist. It’s the story of a public schoolboy going on to a top university to meet over-privileged professors and their circles. I take a look at the cover-quotes and review-samples and I wonder: how many of them went to fee-paying schools?

I felt alienated. I felt angry at the arrogance of the class represented in this novel. The references and classical allusions left me on the outside looking in. It made me wonder if this is true of all novels: if every ‘target audience’ has this sort of jargon that excludes outsiders. Why shouldn’t public schoolboys have their moment too? There is a future blog-post on this, once I’ve managed to untangle my own feelings.

Anyhoo, Fry kind of won me over in the end. I enjoyed The Liar, though it’s a hard novel for me to recommend

And that’s all. If I repeat this round-up I’m going to have to read less books; this has been a marathon. In summary:

Book of the Month: The Honours – Tim Clare
Book to Avoid: The Good Story – JM Coetzee & Arabella Kurtz
Biggest Surprise: a tie between Thornhill (Pam Smy) and The Zealot’s Bones (DM Mark)

Happy reading, y’all

On Chekhov’s Gun and the fantastic

Gun

I was listening to Tim Clare’s wonderful ‘Death of 1,000 Cuts’ podcast – which I recommend most heartily – and, in conversation with Nate Crowley, something came up that caught my ear. He said that Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t apply in science-fiction because we, the reader, expect things they don’t understand to be dropped into the background to help build the world.

I take it we’re all familiar with Chekhov’s Gun, the rule which states that you must “remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” It has a whole Wikipedia page of its own. That’s how important it is.

Let me just make clear that Tim’s comment was a single sentence that went without consideration – just a passing observation before the conversation went elsewhere. This is in no way a critique of him or his brain, which seems to me both beautiful and wondrous. But, as with all the best things in life, this one idle comment got me thinking: is this true? As a writer of SFF can I lay Chekhov’s Gun aside?

My initial thought is no, you can’t. But we need to dig a little deeper than that, don’t we? This blog won’t write itself, more’s the pity.

The first thing we need to think about is point-of-view. Unless we’re dealing with a fish-out-of-water tale (time-travel, say, or a primitive transported to a technologically advanced world) all the trappings of your POV-character’s world will be familiar to them. It’d be frankly weird for them to explain what a hyperspace drive is if they work with one every day.

It’d be like a character in a contemporary novel describing a television or a bookshelf: we take these items for granted. Only the extraordinary needs description.

Thus we assume that anything that the writer draws specific attention to, especially if the POV character already knows all about it, is significant.

There’s also an element of trust going on. When a writer tosses out concepts like mechs or mer-beasts or strange magicks and then moves on, we as readers have to trust the writer to tell us more if they’re of any importance. Not then and there, for that way leads straight to exposition-ville, but we trust that the writer will slip us the information under the table, as it were, as we get deeper into their world.

mech

A strange mech. As with the rest of the images in this article, I’ve no idea who made it and who owns copyright.

[As an aside, I think writers have got so much better at doing this over the years. Asimov’s The Gods Themselves is my go-to example of how not to do it: it even includes the dreaded sentence “As you know…” which is a sure sign that an exposition-bomb is about to be detonated. And TGT won awards.]

Specific terms and phrases are scattered around in all genres; from underground argot in crime novels, to historical denotations of class, to the ways and means of public schoolboys in literary fiction. These don’t bother us because we trust the writer to explain what matters. The rest is colour.

So the question we should really be asking is this: what’s the difference between Chekhov’s Gun and colour?

And the answer to that is that there shouldn’t be any. Not to the casual eye, at least.
Foreshadowing is vital: the reader must see the crucial element before it becomes significant – if not we’re in breach of Knox’s Commandments. Deus ex machina will swoop down upon us and doom will be our only friend.

Chekhov’s Gun is foreshadowing gone feral. Foreshadowing must be camouflaged; it must be indistinguishable from the background. It must be masked by that ‘colour’ we were talking about before.

Chekhov, however, hurls off his disguise and, slapping his belly to the rhythm of Waltzing Matilda, dances a naked jig before the reader.

Alter Mann.jpg

Be very, very glad that this is the image I’ve chosen to accompany that thought. There were alternatives…

So I respectfully disagree with Tim Clare. Chekhov’s Gun is not excusable in SFF: it’s an error in any genre. Perhaps what he’s really thinking of is jargon – there is, perhaps, a higher likelihood of made-up words in science fiction and fantasy. Let’s not forget that the word ‘orc’ is now widely known where fifty years ago it was practically unknown. ‘Orc’ is jargon that has entered modern parlance. ‘Cyberspace’ is another example, as is ‘hive mind’. Not long ago we needed these terms explaining. Now we don’t.

Characters belong to a time, a place and a culture. They have their own language (and, if you don’t believe these surround us even now, check out Dent’s Modern Tribes) and they think in those terms. We don’t need every single word explained; context will make most things clear.

Context is, as ever, everything. Abandon it at your peril.