So that time-dishonored topic of self-insert characters has rolled around on the Birdie App again, and I had Opinions:
“I suspect this scorn for authorial “self-insert” has leached into the water supply from the early psychologists and New Critics, who liked to tout the “objectivity” of high art as against art that draws on personal narrative, i.e., what women were doing at the time.
This got mixed in with the whole "Mary Sue" Disk Horse and cemented "self-insert characters" as a benchmark sign of bad writing.
It's bullshit at the root. As better people than I have pointed out, it's easy to seem "objective" when your POV is already dominant enough to be widely understood.
But the point of creating stories is to speak to some truth. Everyone with a functioning human instrument can do that; it's just that our culture wants to pretend that only some of us are worth hearing stories from.
I once wrote half a million words centering on what I called a "Mary Sue on purpose" — but my so-called "self-insert" character quickly took on a life of her own, which is as it should be.
I’m not writing any overtly self-modelled characters right now, but I reserve the right to if I goddamn want. So there.”
This is a topic Erica and I revisit occasionally: how we make characters out of our own soul-stuff, how we spin a creation from the ephemera of our minds. All characters are, as I quoted above, made of the author in one way or another — modelled, acted out, mimed, wept out of our own tears. You can’t “insert” anything into a story of your making, even a simulacrum of your own self for metacommentary’s sake.
Yet there are these hidden rules of criticism like bear traps in the path, that the reader is obliged to guess what parts of your story are biographical, and your job is to make the guessing very difficult. But, as it turns out, it’s always pretty easy to guess — wrong.
Oh, certainly, a better-written story is seamless in its elements, and nothing feels manufactured or out of place. But: the rules are a lie. You don’t have to guess the author’s biography, and there are no prizes for guessing right. Cynicism is not the opposite of naivety; the trajectory away from naivety goes in an entirely different direction.
I find it kind of telling that an author like John Scalzi, who is a Notorious Feminist Patsy Ally, is being tagged here for “bad” writing that is associated with the “bad” writing of women. We all know that women can’t come up with fiction that isn’t based on their own meretricious lives, amirite? But it’s different when F. Scott Fitzgerald does it.
Which is not to say that we don’t occasionally run across a story in which the id of the author is painfully obvious. It’s just that I don’t think that kind of discernment is useful as a critical apparatus — or at least, not as a primary driver of criticism. In that sense, the project of the New Critics was a worthwhile project. It’s just that they started out with a lot of begged questions, and that doesn’t do the reading public any favors.
We need a new new criticism, for these factionalist times.
It’s almost inevitable that at some point in a project, a writer shakes out the Evil Author cap, dons it, and puts a character to torture or to death. I’ve known and read plenty of Evil Authors through the years, and claimed the label myself on occasion: usually it’s with a slight deprecating laugh, like when disclaiming one’s internet search history. How long does it take a stab wound to close? Asking for a friend.
Was it readers who first started the Evil Author moniker, or did writers start calling themselves that in reflexive self-defense? Impossible to say, but that in itself underlines that Evil Authorship is usually conceived in terms of the relationship between writers and their readers. (“You killed Major Blue! How could you??”) In an age in which readers have almost immediate access to authors on social media and via email (and authors use those media to seek new readers), this dynamic is often the opposite of abstract and hypothetical. It’s a prominent feature of a very real landscape; but it isn’t exactly anything new.
All this is by way of saying that I hadn’t given much thought to the matter for a while. Then I ran across a tweet thread that gave me to think:
(Once again catching up on old topics now that my site is back up. NB: some database capabilities remain offline until the site is migrated to the big server being set up by my web host. If you have a subscription it should then be restored. When I’m in my new server home I hope to implement some expansions. If this blog is Relevant to Your Interests, perhaps you’d like to subscribe to a regular newsletter. I toyed with starting one but then 2020 happened. Anyway, back to the topic.)
What’s it really like to kill a character? What is that process? I have heard some testimony from other writers, but ultimately I can only speak for myself. When I conceived the story that would become Ryswyck some years ago, some structural framework was immediately apparent, and none of it really surprised me because I knew what kind of story I like to tell myself.
If any given writer has their own narrative preoccupations, mine have been apparent for a while. I’ve always been fascinated with the dynamics of forgiveness — what it’s really like to deal with a wrong done you by someone who matters; what it’s really like to be that person who did the wrong; what it’s like when the person who wronged you isn’t sorry, or doesn’t know enough to be sorry, or is committed to other priorities. What kind of things actually happen in the mind and heart when trying to cope with a wrong. What that might mean for the restoration of human dignity to people who were robbed of it.
Still, although I’d tortured plenty of characters in the service of my preoccupying narrative, I hadn’t killed any that I recall. Yet as the proto-structure of Ryswyck emerged, the death of a particular character was there from the beginning, and the real question in my mind was whether I would actually use his POV in the story. (He insisted.) The day I wrote the scene in which he was killed, I felt tired and drained, but mainly from hard work. Emotionally I felt firmly satisfied: I thought the scene was solid, and the story still what I wanted to tell.
No, it was killing a different character altogether that gave me trepidation. Here was an ordinary, likable supporting character, bluff, sensible, inoffensive. And one afternoon, between the writing of one early chapter and the next, I realized there was a storyline in which he was not only killed but tortured first. The more I thought about it the more it made horrible sense: how he matched up to a foil character, how he could act as a catalyst for the endgame, how thematically appropriate his end would be, how parabolic not just for my future readers but for the other characters. I was going to do it.
I did the same work: laid the same foreshadowing, traced the same thematic touches, made sure that an appearance from my foil character in the narrative was followed by him being onstage, or vice versa. When I wrote the scene in which he was killed, I felt all the same tired satisfaction at good work well done. But I also IMed my betas: “I need a drink.”
Another tweet I can’t currently find has crossed my ken recently, something to the effect that instead of asking writers why they built a non-sexist fantasy world, why we don’t ask other writers why they built a sexist one. And fair play to that; we don’t want to give sexist tropes a pass. But it’s hard for me to imagine a non-sexist fantasy world not being remarkable: because it is remarkable when compared with ours. Of all the genres of storytelling, SFF is the most specifically parabolic; from “The Cold Equations” to Ancillary Justice, from The Blazing World to Frankenstein to The Inheritance Trilogy, when we tell these stories we are all but explicitly measuring the moral curve between the world of that story and our own.
A parable isn’t deterred by the prospect of unsettling its audience. In fact, it would happily afflict the comfortable as well as comfort the afflicted. This is so deeply embedded in our understanding of the genre that in order to get away with using sexist and racist tropes these days, the writers of them try to re-identify who the afflicted and the comfortable in our world actually are. That the worlds are to be thrown side by side is never in question. The only question is what the ambition of the author is. What effect on our world are they aiming for?
I suppose that’s why, although I killed a lot of characters in Ryswyck, I was never less disposed to plume myself with the Evil Author epithet. An Evil Author might aim to make readers howl, but she isn’t out to mend the world with her song. I was out to imbue my characters with the power to bear witness, in life and death alike. Not to mention tell a cracking good story.
But I still probably need to disclaim my internet search history.
Further to my last post, Gretchen McCulloch’s book got me thinking about the history of my own experiences getting on the internet. I’ve been threatening for a while to do posts about the lexicon of Fandom Olds, but McCulloch’s book made me realize that for this era when the internet is new, the time at which you got on it is itself an artifact worth examining — worth, even, recording for the benefit of people who study these things.
When John Keats died in 1821, he wrote his own epitaph which his friends duly inscribed on his gravestone: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. It was a reference to his perception of the fame and immortality he had achieved in his short life. Ironically, of course, Keats’s name and work turned out to be far more durable than his perception: people thought enough of his poetry to canonize it, thought enough of his letters to save and collect them, thought enough of his life to write biographies of it, and 200 years later you can take a class at nearly any university covering Keats as a subject in himself, or together with his set, or as an indispensable part of a survey of the Romantic literary period.
But in our own era — with the rise of the internet and the informal writing we use to navigate it — our usernames are writ in ether, and that can be a bug or a feature depending on when we joined the online world.
McCulloch divides the internet generations by adoption rather than age. Old Internet People are the early adopters, the techies and people with specialist interests who used bulletin boards, Usenet, and listservs as their platforms when they joined the internet. Full (and Semi) Internet People joined a bit later, in the late 90s and early 2000s, using blogs, LiveJournal, MySpace, GeoCities, and the like to create their web presence. The teens and young adults joining the internet now don’t remember a time when there was no internet; their first platforms were Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, or later Snapchat, Instagram, and WhatsApp.
The fact that new platforms (together with their new practical uses) are continually rising to replace the old ones means that there is a lot of digital archeology building up. Some of it can be dug — and some of it can’t.
My first job out of graduate school was a temporary gig as a library tech working in the manuscripts and special collections department of my alma mater. I was also working on a novel at the time, and I was aware that the emails and AIM chats I was exchanging with my friends about the project, not to mention the chapter files themselves, stored on a handful of 3 1/2-inch floppy disks that were maddeningly subject to random corruption, were less easy to archive than the 20th-century manuscripts and correspondence I was handling at work. I made a haphazard effort to print out a lot of these, sometimes cutting and pasting chats into Word documents, but I wasn’t very thorough, and I don’t know where that file is, and as I recall it is very thin compared to the virtual reams of communication that died with my defunct AOL and Earthlink accounts. (I should probably archive my Yahoo email account, now that I think about it; but I never think about it.)
I identify myself as one of the Full Internet People McCulloch describes, because I am by nature a late adopter of new technology and new platforms, delaying to join until a critical mass of my acquaintances have already done so. I wouldn’t have known online fandom existed, much less gone looking for it, if a graduate school friend hadn’t liked a series I recced to her well enough to find a listserv for it.
But the fact that what she found was a listserv, and the fact that most of the people I met there were early adopter types who were already versed in BBS and Usenet, already had their own websites, were getting into the brand-new craze of blogging (“Blog — it’s a web log! Geddit?”), means that everything I learned about the internet I learned from Old Internet People. I learned enough HTML to code my own GeoCities website, followed my online friends to LiveJournal and learned to use Photoshop so I could make icons, absorbed enough CSS to tinker with the theme I was using, and occasionally joined chats for multi-person discussions.
More than that, I was in continual engagement with people who were older than I was, both online and off. Most people my age were not participating in fandoms or hanging out in chatrooms; they were launching careers and starting families. If it seems weird now that one would be doing either one or the other, it was even weirder to the people I knew offline what I was doing. For my older friends — fellow members of my religious community, coworkers, friends’ parents — I was wasting vast tracts of time communicating with people that would never be proper friends, about things that were by definition ephemeral. I wrote half a million words of fanfiction when I could have been writing original work of my own.
Bearing battle scars from arguing my case against this offline disapproval, I find it incredibly odd now that the internet — and fandom with it — are ubiquitous in “real” life, as if these arguments had never happened at all. You can hear phrases like “spoiler alert!” on the radio or television, and nobody is confused. News isn’t just discussed on Twitter, it happens there. My mother is on Facebook.
It’s my lifetime — not the lifetime of my parents, and not the lifetime of young people now — that has seen the full effect of the internet as a new and massive accelerant of change. When I was a college freshman, you checked your email by going down the hall to a small room of terminals in your dorm, typed “vax1” into a command prompt on a green screen, then put in your username and password. When I was a graduate student four years later, webmail came in, and I finally had an email with an @ sign and domain name, and accessed it via a browser. Ten years later, when my brother started at the same school, my university had graduated to using a Gmail client, and he probably had built-in DSL, too.
It sounds like I’m singing the old song “when I was in school we walked uphill both ways, over broken glass!, etc.” — but that’s not what joining the internet was like then. We knew it was new. We knew it was an innovation. We built our mental ships to take those waves, and willingly charted the new reaches of online communication. And, maugre the opinions of my offline relations, my online friendships are the ones that have lasted longest: they were formed from the start to withstand physical separations and other vicissitudes that make intimacy hard in the modern era. Erica, my most longtime beta and the one who gave me McCulloch’s book, I met on that first listserv in 1998. (Or thereabouts; we didn’t really get close till after we’d both joined the LordPeter list, so the details are hazy.)
So if this were an episode of Time Team, consider this Trench 1 in my digital dig. We know what kind of site we’re on; next, we’ll see what kind of finds we get.
[Crosspost from my Tumblr blog 15 October, where I stashed these thoughts during the site hiatus.]
Today I amused myself by ficcing my own ‘verse, as I like to do sometimes when I need a little pick-me-up. The majority of my main characters live in a country that is matrilineal, for reasons which I had fun building out. (Matrilineal, I say, not matriarchal — but even a matrilineal society is so far from the current landscape I live in that there seems little difference from this vantage, as I shall soon demonstrate.) One of them is the youngest of thirteen children, whose mother is a hard-working and locally influential farmer in a rural northern district. So today’s fun involved me making up stories for myself about his eldest sister and how she went about starting her own family with the help of a cousin from the next village over.
Now, I wanted to work out just how distant of a cousin I wanted her partner to be (I quite like him, he’s a nice fellow, very decent despite having grown up in a small and rather dysfunctional community), so I grabbed a sheet of paper and started to jot down a genealogical diagram…
And then had to stop, flummoxed. You know what a genealogical diagram looks like: a line is drawn between a man and a woman to signify they are married and/or had children, and then the next tier shows the children all depending from a single bar. But for Rosemary Douglas, mother of thirteen, head of her household, that doesn’t work. In her childbearing career she made contracts for children that double as local alliances with men who could afford to commit to sworn sponsorship. All of them planned — except for her youngest. How the hell would I diagram that?
I decided — I couldn’t. I’d just have to leave the fathers out. But neither did it make much sense to just have Rosemary, with a bar below her marked with all her children’s names in birth order from left to right, with no room for the kind of detail one would want for working out genetic relationships in matters like this. How would Ilonians diagram their genealogies, then?
I wound up drawing something like a factorial: Rosemary at the center, with her sons in a segmented line down the left, and her daughters in line down the right, the elder closer in and the youngest at ends of each line. Her daughters could be diagrammed the same way: a hinterland rather than a tree, very Ilonian. To work out genetic details at need, one could write the name of the father/sponsor on the line segment between Rosemary and each child, and work back to his mother from there. You could see then how often lines would cross and avoid overentanglements.
I have no idea how actual maternal lines are diagrammed in RL. But I was sort of shocked afresh at how spatially embedded in our minds patriarchy is. I was used to thinking of a Bowen genealogical diagram as a logical reflection of how humans are, how their generations pass, universally. But it isn’t, really. It’s like how “matrimony” doesn’t mean the same as “patrimony” except with mothers: matrimony means “I have acquired a womb!” and patrimony means “I have acquired a dynasty!”
In any event, in reference to quotations I’ve seen round here about sci-fi and fantasy as the kind of imaginative activism necessary to envision a better world for ourselves, I have been doing exactly that: telling myself stories of people living complicated, imperfect, not-always-easy lives in a world I want to see emulated, for the sake of my own sanity in these times. And I’m telling you about it, in case it helps.
Recent reading — my own and others’ — has inspired me to tackle a subject that’s been simmering quietly for a while: the value of writing stories that satisfy expectations.
This has been brought to mind by my social media’s reactions to Harrow the Ninth (which I haven’t read yet), leavened by the occasional post complaining about showrunners killing people or plots off to frustrate their viewers’ expectations that bobs up in the Tumblr flotsam from time to time, and topped off by a recent mention of Gérard Genette, of all people, on my dash.
Any post I was going to make about plot and story was bound to reference C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories,” in which the most memorable passage to me was about the quality of “surprisingness” in stories being what makes them worth reading more than once. So I pulled out that essay and reread it, and was rather shocked at how unwieldy the argument was. Lewis does not, for instance, have handy access to the idea of the trope. (If he could surf TV Tropes he’d know exactly what it was all about, but half his argument was circumlocution trying to get at what the word represents in our present fora.) He seemed to think that if a story had Things Happening, explosions and travels and adventures of various sorts, it would by definition not be concerned with character development or social commentary. I had to remind myself that in 1945 Lewis has not read N.K. Jemisin or even The Old Man and the Sea. Benveniste is not in his rearview, much less Genette or Joanna Russ or René Girard or Walter Benjamin.
Nor has he read Robert Alter, who, I note, did not have a chapter devoted to Plot or Story in The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age — in blogging about that book I had to get at those things sideways from his chapters on Structure and Character and Perspective. (So it’s possible Lewis was right about critics having a blind spot there.) Yet part of Lewis’s argument is still relevant, if we clear away the class snobbery he festooned it with: that danger (no matter what quality) and plot twists (even — or especially — if executed in an adversarial spirit toward readers’/viewers’ expectations) can be a weight against the attraction of the story’s central idea; that being able to project what will happen is not by definition a flaw in a story; that “surprisingness” in stories isn’t actually generated by surprises.
I find this borne out by both how I read and how I write. I’ve mentioned before that when I pick up a book, I give my full credulity — and the author has to work to lose it. This extends, very often, to not guessing the murderer in mysteries even when fellow readers have it worked out halfway through; I’m often not just struck by the surprisingness of a story but by actual surprise. But if I really, really liked a book, the first thing I do is turn to the first page and start reading it again. If I like it even more than that, it winds up on my bedside table, or sits open while I eat dinner.
(Oh, that reminds me — I need to put out my copy of A Memory Called Empire so I won’t forget to lend it to F.)
The plots I choose for the stories I write are sometimes flagrantly projectable. With some plot points, my feeling is that if you didn’t see that coming, either you’re as credulous a reader as I am, or else I did something wrong. Sometimes the excitement of a story depends not on not knowing what will happen, but not knowing how it will happen. That’s halfway to “surprisingness” right there. Even so, I’ve had someone comment to say they figured out a story’s punch line early on, like I was trying to hide it and failed. Uh, I…wasn’t? Good for you?
We’re so aware of tropes now, so sensitized to their particular pitfalls of laziness and bigotry, that we rec a book or film or show to someone on the grounds that it “does interesting things” with the tropes of its genre — sometimes by subverting them but sometimes also by giving them their full dimension. Tropes themselves can be spoilers: there’s another handy word not circulating in 1945. I like to avoid spoilers when I can…but it’s not the plot so much I worry about being spoiled for. It’s the quiddity of the clutch moment and all that ties into it, the thing I like to come to without preconceptions being formed.
And it’s hard to market a story with “This story has Fencing and Explosions and Submarines and Grief-fueled Sexual Interludes, but they don’t necessarily happen right away because the story is Not Entirely About That” — though in keeping with strict truth in advertising, that’s my shortest pitch for Ryswyck yet. Despite the common currency of tropes as story foundations, it’s not (yet; Netflix seems to be working on it) the thing to sell or rec stories using nothing but the tropes they contain. (Though honestly, if someone maintained a rec list or a database of titles searchable by their tropes, I confess I’d use it. TV Tropes is too haphazard and sometimes disappears up its own whatever from high atop the thing, or induces me to do so, which is why I stay away.)
But even without that, we’re living in a rich, if somewhat frangible, critical environment, where you can seek out stories based on whether you want surprisingness or merely to be surprised — and have a menu of options for each. You can squee with an Oxford don on Twitter about Doctor Who, or read elegies for Chadwick Boseman from a savvy working man, swap Old Guard gifsets on Tumblr with a scientist on the other side of the world, or start a critical revival of Charlotte M. Yonge on Facebook. We’re all hoi polloi now; and possibly, if Jack Lewis were here to observe it, he’d call that the most surprising plot twist of all.
Because Erica so much enjoyed this book for the meta of writing that so easily beguiles writers into nattering about their process (I say; beware), I thought I had better read it. I checked out the ebook at my local library and read it over the course of a few days, and gave it the standard four stars on Goodreads that I always give to books that I enjoyed and that were well-written.
(Honestly, the star method of rating books is so two-dimensional. If only there were some way of rating books with an opaline sphere with colors for the quality of writing, colors for the emotional pull, colors for the personal impact, &c. But that’s not very useful in late-stage capitalism, is it? No, it’s five stars or bust, for book evaluation as for customer service. I hate to think I might be letting good authors down by not giving them five stars, but I can’t help using the metric the way I think best, and anyway, writers can’t be fired — or even deplatformed, as the opal orbs of their past indelible impacts would testify if only they could. )
— Clearly, I’m still under the influence of the narrative voice of Or What You Will, which is effortlessly strong, like a deep, pellucid current. How else could Walton get away with writing a book in which the entire first half has maybe one chapter devoted to the vehicle story and the rest a series of digressions about — if you do not come too close, if you do not come too close — the history of Florence, the history of the author being narrated into being by her own muse, the history of Montreal, the nature of religious experience, the evolution of a writer’s relationship to her own past art, and anything and everything the muse thinks important to enlist our participation in his project of saving Sylvia Katherine Harrison’s life. Or her soul, as the case may be, if there be a difference.
(And anyone who knows me by my fanworks knows there is no way on God’s green earth I wouldn’t notice all the references to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Anyone who’s read my fic, that is, or Virginia, who’s not here for me to talk with about this book. The moment when a loved one of the author texts her that they can’t wait to discuss a book with her, but dies before they can, gave me a pang.)
From a writer’s point of view — and for all I know, from a critic’s — this book is a narratological puzzle box, bound to give delight to those who like such things. Would people who are not writers or critics find it self-indulgent? I don’t know, but the thing I said out loud at one point was How the fuck is she getting away with this?! — so Your Mileage May Vary is not going to apply if Our Muse succeeds in getting you on a Vespa, which he probably will if you’re interested enough to pick up the book in the first place.
I am not sure the ending quite succeeded for me, after all the buildup, after all the debate between author and muse about what is real in the real world and what is real in the worlds of her invention. But then, the narrator is ultimately thinking about his own life and soul, and I can’t help centering on the author’s — and the narrator’s arc is satisfying, so far as it can be (and the fire and the rose are one).
I can’t help thinking about characters I drew up when I was in my teens and early twenties, and how, in some respects, they saved my life, by living out stories — and sometimes telling me about it — that I needed to “see” lived out, as some kind of internal healing mechanism. (In some ways, especially that way, writers are always seeking eucatastrophe.) I suppose it was while writing what’s so disparagingly called “self-insertion” fic that the germinating plant began to peel away from the cotyledon’s husk: a prolonged meta exercise like writing yourself into a media-property story teaches you exactly what wishes can be fulfilled, what parts of yourself you can save, and before very long at all the avatar I’d built was an entirely different character with a different trajectory, different preoccupations, different needs. She was a lot more heteroromantic than I am, to start with; but I didn’t know that at the time.
In any event, I didn’t do much of that with my characters in Ryswyck. The situation was the other way around; instead of saving myself (“saving” like Dante’s “salute” — greeting with true recognition which when you think about it is nearly all of what salvation is) by means of writing them, I saved myself so that they could be written. Yet the enacting that I suspect all writers do behind closed doors — weeping one’s own characters’ tears, rehearsing their cadences as if playing them upon a stage, laughing at their jokes — is still present, and does me as much good as it does them, maugre Socrates and Freud and all the dour, humorless figures who cluck their tongues from their pantheons over this process of selving as if it were invalid. I can go and kneel where prayer has been valid, if I so desire — and I can also make the valid prayer in the first place. I have never not thought so, even at my deepest depths of self-suspicion.
Because of this, I deeply appreciated the Muse making the point that people who have suffered abuse in their lives (like Sylvia, his author), or been exposed to some traumatic and humiliating event, are not, despite common wisdom, blighted people. They can know or learn how to love; they can be happy; they can pray and make art and live full lives. They can have a coherent sense of autobiography. They can co-inhere. And the best thing about this assertion is that the Muse is making it on behalf of the author who made him, is advocating for her in a way she cannot advocate for herself. And if nothing else, it is a good thing that Or What You Will exists, to reach out, grasp the reader by the collar, and insist that if you greet the author, you should greet her with true recognition.