The pundit class may be inexhaustibly devoted to the spit-warm take that we should sympathize with and seek to mollify these anti-public-health sadopopulist wombat cubes with weeping sores where their empathy should be. But I’m well past exhausted and cracked the needle on the annoyance knob long ago.
Never mind if it’s possible to make these anti-vaxxing, anti-masking, pestilence-spreading, mass-murder-policy-platforming corkbrains crumbled in the bottom of a jug of thirty-cent wine feel like the rest of us don’t look down on them. They’re like that dude in Christy who bullied the title character and then she nursed him through typhoid fever, only to have him snarf down some hardboiled eggs and perforate his weakened bowel when her back was turned. Very tragic, but it’s not his name on the cover of the book.
Nope. It is not our obligation to prove a goddamned thing — not about vaccines, not about COVID, not about Tromp and his cupcake coupsters, nada, zip, zilch. You, Greg Abbott; you, you obnoxious shouter at staff in a Walmart; you, you Facebook swastika-jockey projection-artist; you are the ones with the burden of proof.
YOU prove that you’re not a heaving pile of mass-murdering maggot-brains whose motto, like Hell’s in Paradise Lost, is “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” YOU prove your good faith to US, and maybe you’ll be able to step foot out of your house without getting booed to Ultima Thule and back for the rest of your life.
Or, of course, we might be nice. But we don’t have to be.
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.
You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.
I’ve been salty lately, and not just about other people’s books. It seems like every few days something pops up on my dash or my feed or some other place repeating sententiously that if your novel has more than 120k words in it, it is suffering from bloat, needs restructuring, and you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s good. Meanwhile, my book club is fixing to read The Stand. I cut my observant-writer’s teeth on novels by Richard Adams and Dorothy Dunnett. My copy of Gaudy Night has a crack in the spine. The best meditation I’ve read on death and grieving in fiction form is a brick by Connie Willis called Passage. And just as my classmates long ago were damaging their spines by carrying Stephen King’s tomes in their backpacks, folks are doing the same thing today with George R.R. Martin. What, as it were, the fuck?
I mean, I get it from the reader’s point of view. C.S. Lewis’s dictum, “You can never get a large enough cup of tea or a thick enough book to satisfy me,” never resonated with me, but that was for a very specific reason and it had everything to do with spoons. Even neurotypical people are being robbed of executive function spoons by this crazy society, and they all ask themselves what’s wrong with them that they can’t keep up in a culture that will literally feed children to the burning maw of the capitalism volcano god. My avoidance of long books is mainly about spoons. It is not about a book being good or otherwise.
But yes, I’ve mouthed the sneers too. “Does A Game of Thrones really need to be a thousand pages long?” Well, I haven’t read it, so I don’t actually know, do I? You can fit three of Book One in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and we fans all gave that burgeoning book length a dubious side-eye. But ultimately we didn’t complain, because if we liked it, we wanted more of it. Every book I’ve read that needed editing, needed it on grounds other than word count. Word count is tangential, even ephemeral, to the real symptoms of a problem. It’s like we have a fatphobia of books.
A friend who, on hearing Ryswyck‘s word count, suggested I break the book up into its constituent acts and engineer its release as a series, started backtracking at the look on my face before I’d even measured to myself my own reaction. No, I didn’t research the prevailing commercial parameters of selling a manuscript to a publisher. I wrote to the parameters of the form I’d been reading all my life. The form I’d imitated and written papers on and dissected and absorbed. To me, a three-act story with a gradual build of tension leading to a sharp change in momentum at the end of Act Two was completely goddamn bog-standard. And it completely boggled my mind, and still boggles my mind, that I would have to remove two-thirds of its words to even get it looked at.
When I was a callow freshman in college, I finished an essay with a flourish that it didn’t take many years for me to cringe at in memory. The subject was gender politics, and my grand ambition was something like, “to add my note to the chorus in hopes it will bring the whole to harmony.” And I disavowed that sentiment as soon as I recognized how blithely unknowing it was.
But not really. Even in years when survival was my only conscious goal, when I suspected myself of every form of abominableness under God’s blue sky, when I wrote no words or crap words or the wrong words, when I abandoned and picked up again and abandoned again two novel projects, my disavowed ambition hunkered down, abiding.
Middle-aged me has compassion for callow me, now. And she may have been blithe and grandiose and unwitting how complex the world and the word really are, but she wasn’t wrong. A difficult situation needs an ambition to match.
I mean, it’s not like I didn’t launch this website and engineer this independent author business on the express premise that I intended it to contribute to tikkun olam, to the mending of the world. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know I was doing things the hard way. But for me, there is no such thing as the easy way. There’s no universe in which I take a glossy photo, and pump out bestsellers and effortlessly draw a streaming comet trail of admirers. But any universe I’m in is one in which I tell all the stories I know, of joy and generosity and mutual vindication. That’s all I can do, no matter how complex it is, no matter how impossible it seems, no matter how uphill it is for me to gain readers. And as I’ve observed lately, there are far worse things than obscurity.
But there are times when the only thing to say is: “Fuck it. Pass the salt.”
Look, we’ve been over this. I have been over this, in this blog, which is not even my political venue of choice. This blog is supposed to be a place for my own benign commentary on writing, my own and other people’s; remember “benign commentary?” To me it’s like one of those spiders you fit into the center of a 45 record so you could play it on a 78 turntable. I don’t know how to “benign commentary” anymore. All I know is I have to find a way to be in this world so that the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer won’t be ashamed of me in that cloud of witnesses that unwarrantably swells now day by day.
To be quite honest: I don’t fucking know why it is not self-evident to everyone that Black faces are the Image of God — i.e. fully representative of humanity at its pinnacle, as any other human would be; and possessed of the right to exist untrammeled, as any other human would be. If you feel the urge to quibble with that, to say it doesn’t apply to the hellscape we’re living in, you must not think it’s self-evident and I refer you back to the beginning of this paragraph. The rest of this writing assumes that self-evidency.
But to be even more honest: it’s not quite true. I have an idea why it’s not self-evident to a startlingly large percentage of my fellow white folks. Because here’s another truth: treating people badly makes us hate them more. We think it’s the other way around. We think that hurting or kicking or insulting or mistreating someone discharges hate and ill-will towards them, that if we can act upon that anger and ill-will then we will be rid of its corrosive effects. We will have closure if we can punish just the right amount. We will be able to think well of someone once they have accepted whatever we wish to heap upon their head.
The hardest sin to forgive another person is the sin committed by ourselves against them.
And we white people know damn good and well that we have committed a vast cataract of sins against people of color who ought to be our fellow citizens. Collectively and individually we have committed them. With mens rea and without. And just as I can’t shop for basic groceries without giving my dollars to some gross corporation, I can’t live my life without benefiting, right now, from the practical effects of that cataract of sins.
Other people are saying better than I what can and should be done about structural racism. What I have to say here is about relational racism. I don’t have jack to say to my fellow white people about what our grandfathers did or didn’t do. They did it, or they didn’t do it; who cares. I’m talking about what happens in your and my everyday life, when someone, Black or not, calls you out for something you did or said. How can you, how can I, bear what seems like an attack on our stable self-identity as a nice person who is not A Racist??
I came up with this metaphor in a less fraught hour, so it may or may not play. I think of racism as I think about ticks. Anybody can get a tick on them, anybody. In a bad tick year, you don’t even have to go into the woods; sometimes, you don’t even have to leave the house, especially if a pet or person brings them in.
Ticks are just ticks. They are just pests. But it doesn’t pay to be complacent about them, because: they also carry diseases.
So when someone says, “You have a tick on you,” do you say: “I most certainly do not! I am not the kind of person who gets ticks on them. I never even go to the woods. How dare you!” Well, do you?
Historically speaking, when I’ve been told I have a tick on me, what I do is: I whimper piteously and beg them to take it off, and dispose of it so I don’t have to look at it.
But here’s the thing. Nobody is obligated to pick off your tick. You would hardly collar some random member of the public, drop your drawers, and ask them to remove a tick from your posterior. No, you ask a trusted friend or family member to take care of this intimate task. And even they are allowed to say, “Ugh, no thanks. Ask someone else.”
A day may come when you and nobody but you is available to remove the tick. And you may feel very sorry for yourself in the process. But that’s between you and yourself. Open your private bullet journal and commemorate the occasion:
Today, 2 June 2020: I removed a tick by myself. It sucked, but the tick is gone. Yay!
Tomorrow, 3 June 2020: make appointment with doctor to make sure I’m not infected.
People who do not attend to their ticks can get so infected that they no longer think they are sick, and eventually become a public health hazard.
Apparently quite a lot of people have decided to become a public health hazard. I guess they thought the coronavirus was fucking lonely or something.
This little trip down analogy lane has been half facetious, but I’m serious about one thing. If it matters to someone you don’t even know that you put on a mask, then it matters to someone you don’t even know if you check for the ticks of racism.
Because when it comes to bad tick years, this is Annus Horribilis.
Now that the pandemic has roused the sleeping proletariat at least so far as to slap at the snooze button and miss, I’ve been thinking about professionalism in the modern age.
I was already thinking about it a little bit since watching (and re-watching) a Netflix documentary about the music mogul Clive Davis — which is really quite fascinating as a rich vein of artifacts in our cultural history. The documentary follows not just Davis’s career, but several careers of artists he’s worked with over the years; but to me the most interesting on a personal level was the career of Barry Manilow.
Now, people snicker behind their hands about Barry Manilow, and I admit I’m not a fan. But here’s the story: Manilow put out a record on a small label and it didn’t sell. Davis recruited him for Arista Records and put together a songwriter shop to compose him some hit singles. Then Manilow streaked to the top of the charts! But as his career progressed, he pushed back on singing songs he didn’t write himself, and worked out a compromise with Davis about the makeup of his albums.
It seems to me that there are some parallels between the music business and the book business. As Davis points out, you need a “continuity of hits” to remind people that you’re there and get them to take interest in the rest of your work. A similar pressure seems to be weighing on authors to be massively prolific so they can continue to meet their publisher’s ROI goals. And content outlets like Kindle Unlimited have turned books into a commodity that can be sold in bulk — and who knows how much of that money the author sees. I’m guessing it’s not much.
I didn’t know these things about the publishing industry when I was making my decisions what to do with Ryswyck. I plunged into the world of aspiring authors on Twitter and in writers’ and agents’ lists and forums; entered a few contests; wrote a few pitches. There was a pervading atmosphere of assembly-line marketing, and a tacit assumption that the apex goal of a writer’s schematic was to be accepted by an agent and publishing house and thus accorded the status of Professional Author.
I still feel the pull of that forlorn attraction. But even so, this seemed (and still seems) to me to be entirely backwards. As I saw it, the entire point of being a published author was to get the book I wrote into the world. I didn’t write a book as a means to obtain Pro Author status. I wasn’t interested in producing an upmarket, high-concept, trendsetting property of 110k words or less. I wanted to sell Ryswyck, which is (if I understand those buzzwords correctly) none of those things.
The disappointment was brief and acute. But I got up and dusted myself off, and shook out my Project Manager hat, and started making spreadsheets for all the things an independent author needs to do. And, as it turns out, really the signal difference between an independent author and a traditionally-published one is indeed that marker of status. My trad-pub author friends either have day jobs or families to support them; they do a great deal of their own marketing; their advances are designed to clear overhead and little more than that. Only the highest-grossing authors really make a living doing this; everybody else makes their living by doing “this” and some other stuff, including busting their hump to make appearances at cons and land speaking gigs.
So what makes a professional? In the modern age, we tend to judge it by the Olympic definition: a professional gets paid to compete, and an amateur pays for the privilege. But not all Olympic events are equal, and the more artistic ones suffer by this definition. Michael Jordan can play on the Dream Team and then go back to his highly-visible salaried position on a professional baskeball team; figure skaters, once they turn pro, are hardly heard from again unless they become commentators or you find yourself with tickets to an ice show. If I asked a 20-year-old who Kristi Yamaguchi is, would they know?
Our remaining tickets at the Symphony were cancelled due to the pandemic. Luckily, enough philanthropists have underwritten the losses that the professional musicians did not immediately lose their jobs. But: they’re still professionals…even if…they’re not getting paid. The performing arts are heavily subsidized by philanthropists; the publishing industry is heavily subsidized by the day jobs of their authors. And I doubt they buy their authors group health insurance either, but that’s a whole other ball of wax.
What makes a professional? Besides the Olympic definition, there’s the class theory definition: a professional is someone who completed an education or training course and has been certificated by the profession’s constituent authority. A tradesperson…sells goods or labor for their income. But very often they also have to get certified — I mean, you’re not going to hire an uncertified electrician for your house remodel. When I worked as a library paraprofessional — that is, a person with two degrees neither of which was a Library Science degree — I often thought that the market had become overprofessionalized. But now I think it’s the opposite: no one is a professional anymore; we are all in a trade. We all sell our labor and our goods for our living, only some (many) of us need some kind of certification to do so.
I don’t have the chops to go into how this is both levelling and massively difficult if not impossible in late-stage capitalism. Suffice it to say that while the publishing industry makes a good (if ruthless) business model, it makes a very poor guild.
If there’s a conclusion to be drawn from this, I don’t yet know what it is. Except that I think it’s high time we artists set about to rethink the definition of our professionalism and stop overlooking how much we subsidize our own careers. If these chin-stroking plutocrats admire feudalism so much, wait till they have a real guild to deal with.
Last night, looking for something to watch while eating dinner, I saw that Netflix had added The Natural to its list of Acclaimed Movies from The Past. I remembered liking the movie a lot as a kid, so I started it up.
My memory of this movie was pretty patchy. Like, Robert Redford got hurt somehow — maybe it had something to do with war? — and that made him an underdog, and there was some kind of sinister money plot, and at the end he hits an amazing home run and starts bleeding and manages to run the bases before he dies. Maybe?
The rewatch didn’t do this movie any favors. To start with, it’s little Roy Hobbs and his nobly poor farmer dad, and nobody else except the well-off farm girl Iris hanging around in worship. Where is Roy’s mom? No mom? Okay, maybe they’re just trying to keep this story succinct. Roy’s dad dies and lightning strikes the tree he died under. So Little Roy makes The Perfect Bat from the wood. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is earnestly aping Aaron Copland, which along with the Model T tells you that it’s the Olden Times, i.e., the early 20th century.
Roy Hobbs brands his bat WONDERBOY. So far what this movie seems to be missing is symbolism.
So cut to a few years later when Roy is off to make his fortune, but first he stops to have a midnight barn tryst with Iris. Then he gets on the train with…some dude who’s agenting him. A mysterious Woman in Black is on the platform. Some baseball insiders are in the dining car musing over a newspaper story that two sports greats have been mysteriously shot with silver bullets. I wonder if this will have any bearing on the story!
Roy and his agent get into a dick-wagging contest at a local fair with the baseball insiders, and Roy strikes out the legendary batsman. Back on the train (that was the longest half-hour water stop I ever heard of), the Woman in Black approaches Roy alone and draws him out so far as to say he intends to be The Best That Ever Was.
At their destination, the Woman in Black invites Roy to visit her in her hotel room, and he goes. She gets him to say again that he intends to be The Best, and then she lowers a black lace veil and shoots him.
TITLE CARD: 16 YEARS LATER
Roy shows up at the dugout of a washed-up team in New York with a scout’s contract, and Wilford Brimley, pissed off at getting sent an Old Dude, refuses to play him. But eventually he has to, and discovers that he is The Best. Suddenly the team becomes good. The co-owner tries to bribe Roy to suck so that he can buy out the team from Wilford Brimley, and Roy nobly refuses.
Meanwhile this whole time, Roy refuses to let on a) where he’s from, b) why he didn’t keep playing ball after high school, and c) what the hell he’s been doing with himself for 16 years. We know he didn’t go home because there’s a scene where a lonely Iris goes into a diner and sees a newspaper article about this sudden phenomenon. No matter how many times people ask him, he deflects the questions.
Then Roy’s rival on the team crashes through a wall trying to catch a fly in right field, and somehow this kills him? Which leaves Roy a clear path to Wilford Brimley’s daughter and a place on the starting lineup.
This is the halfway point of the film. I skimmed the cursor through the rest to see if there were some hope of a sensible plot, and I didn’t. So I noped out.
I can’t remember how Roy suffered the relapse of his wound in the side. Maybe the Woman in Black, annoyed at having failed to eliminate a Paragon of Masculinity, comes back for another try?
No doubt there was some kind of reveal when everybody finds out Roy’s Tragic Past, but it can’t be any less ridiculous than the build-up. Roy is too ashamed to admit to being the victim of a random malicious misfortune…why? Roy didn’t wind up back home…why? No newspaper article connected the dots with the other silver bullets…why? Roy’s agent mysteriously disappears at the point of the shooting…why?
It’s like Roy takes a 16-year hiatus for Doylist reasons, and his creators, the perpetrators of this plot, write it this way for Watsonian reasons.
I guess having your masculinity perforated is a fate worse than obscurity.
I must not have noticed the absurd misogyny of this plot when I was a kid because it read like randomness to me. After all, the potential is great. Robert Redford! as a baseball hero! facing incredible odds! in a dashing 1930s knickerbocker uniform! This could be great!
But you were failed hard, Roy Hobbs. No mom, no home community (highly improbable, WTF), no arc of team camaraderie, no war angst, no Great Depression angst, no best male friend, not even an honorable rival. Nope, just a lot of inept men and unfathomable femme fatales, a drab backdrop for the luminous Natural. If this were football there’d be flags all over the field. Illegal Succubus, Intentional Incomplete Use of Wilford Brimley (like, The Firm made better use of him, WTAF), Improbable Wounding, Running Out the Play Clock…I can’t even.
So, file this one under Beware Movies You Enjoyed As A Kid.
ETA: I went over to Wikipedia and read the rest of the plot summary. Oh my God, it only got more egregious from there. Two succubi and a Penelope. Oh, and Roy doesn’t actually die in the end; he lives to sire a line of Naturals while his loving long-lost Iris looks on. Well, at least the next generation has a mom. Baby steps?
Probably one of the pitfalls of visiting a writer’s blog — certainly one of the temptations of writing one — is the tendency to talk about craft in the form of dispensing advice, as if anyone asked for it. Pat Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold — people do ask for advice from the likes of them, so it makes sense for them to share advice with their whole audience.
Yours truly has rarely been asked for writing advice. (Not even from my students…well, especially not from my students, let’s be real.) Strangely, I find this somewhat of an obstacle to dispensing any.
However… Some years ago I picked up a great little book by Stephen Fry — an instruction manual for writing poetry called The Ode Less Traveled, which is the sort of cuteness that only Stephen Fry could get away with. The most memorable thing I took from the book is his introductory argument, which is that if you can learn to tie your own fishing flies, or paint with oils, or roller-skate, then you can learn to write poetry. The jargon of writing is one of the perks of learning an arcane pastime, much as we like to use it instead as a class marker, and so no one should be intimidated by the terms and forms and trickinesses of producing one’s own genuwyne home-made art. I agree.
So, I don’t object to rules as such — I’m both a teacher (by training) and a democrat (by temper), after all. But, like any fly-tyer ready to throw down in the Letters section of Fly-Tyers Monthly Magazine,* I do get annoyed by the writing advice of other people.
This morning I was ranting musing to myself along the old commute, on the subject of realizing and writing characters. I run across a lot of really screwy advice about writing characters, in writing blogs and on readers’ and reviewers’ community websites. (Less so in books, as the advice in that case really does need to be solicited in order for the publisher to get any kind of an ROI.) A lot of it seems to view the writer as a sort of Doctor Frankenstein rummaging through corpses for the Very Best Parts. The fledgling writer is advised to determine their character’s birthday, their favorite color, their worst childhood nightmare, their first pet/kiss/car/whatever. This, presumably, will add up to an imaginary meat suit that the writer can then climb into and animate upon the page.
But the problem with complaining about a rule that says You Should Do This is that one then seems to be saying You Should NOT Do This, and that’s not how it is at all. I’ve sketched some pretty deep filigree in the backgrounds of my characters. Only I called it things like Having Fun, or Telling Myself A Story No One Else Will Know About (except my longsuffering friends to whom I natter in chat windows). By all means figure out your character’s birthday. But ignore those people who earnestly tell you it will be the making of the actual story you are trying to write.
Still worse, in my view, are critiques of character-writing that prescribe balancing them, like a chemical equation, or in one case, a food pyramid. Give them more faults, make them eat more spinach, let them have an inner conflict or a thwarted desire or a terminal case of Cute Metaphors.
Bah! Ranty Morning Commute Me advises you to pitch the lot in the garbage. Characterization is not about balance, even when it is totally about balance. Characterization is about trajectory.
At the beginning of a story or often even a scene, your character — the character you are forming with and in yourself, the character you hopefully already like — starts in a place, physically, mentally, geographically, emotionally. At the end of the story, or scene, they are somewhere else. A good trajectory can be harmonious with other characters’ trajectories, or discordant. It can be thematically complex or it can be simple. But above all it ought to be noticeable.
A too-perfect character, perhaps, has nowhere to go but down yet doesn’t go down. A too-miserable character plods along their flat line. A character might be indecisive by nature, but their trajectory is entirely another matter. This is a story, not an oscillation.
Yet even with this I hesitate to offer hard-and-fast advice. I get annoyed with these little rules because they seem to take no notice of the gestalt of writing, the prolific chaos of gestating characters and their story and their surroundings and the stakes of their success or failure. I think these rules are silly because they aren’t designed to make people aware of this holistic picture. But, if they do that for someone…then they do. My first day of fencing I was taught to kick a penny across the floor. It was two years before I had a lesson in executing a flèche. The holistic approach isn’t necessarily Lesson One.
Still, I could do with about 100% less cute metaphors, stratagems, and Excel sheets in my writerly viewfinder. Mind your trajectories and never mind about that shadowy figure known as The Reader. The writer is always Reader One. Worry about Reader Two second.
Or as Chaucer says, take the wheat and let the chaff be still.
* I made all of this up. But if there really is such a magazine, I bet dollars to donuts there’s a flame war going on in there.
A few days ago I discovered that making a new year’s resolution to “see friends more often” is a thing. Like, I dismissed it when I found it in the NYT crossword, but then I saw it cropping up on actual lists of people’s goals for the new year. And that inspired me to rant on Twitter.
And yeah, I know, nobody wants even friends randomly showing up at their house for undefined socializing, but that’s wrapped up in the whole cycle of overscheduled burnout that seems to have ramped up in the last ten years in particular. My friend calls me: “Is this a fencing night? Can we go have dinner?” And half the time, yes, it is a fencing night, and I miss fencing practice too often as it is, and I have friends there too, and so I say “How about Tuesday?”
This past summer I experimented with doing a bullet journal. I admit, playing with colored pens is fun, and it was nice to have my sticky-note to-do lists in one little Moleskine notebook. But then I got sick and had that whole ER rodeo thing, and lost interest. And the sheer executive functioning nightmare of earning a living plus managing a household plus connecting with my people — because none of that happens without significant effort — makes me think that something needs dismantling somewhere.
So no, I don’t think there’s a job I’ve fallen down on when six months goes by since the last time I go to my friend’s house. I think that six months of my chronos has stolen my kairos, and we need to mount the barricades.
Last Friday one of my book club friends died after only a week in hospice. She had been battling protean cancers for years, and they had finally grown beyond treatment. On the book club group text this week we hashed out whether to attend the visitation or the funeral, and if and when to move our winter feast. All these practical acts of scheduling, all the planning of my writing projects for the year — there’s a gap between all of that and my friend who now makes no plans and manages no schedule. I’m not sure what that means. I’m not sure if I’m sad about her death and angry about the vicissitudes of planning…or angry about her death and sad about the vicissitudes of planning. I don’t know.
But I’ll have to let it lie for now, because it’s nine-thirty and my apartment isn’t going to clean itself before the year turns.
It’s so hard to get on Twitter without being overwhelmed by Appalling Things, but I do wind up picking at the margins of current topics when my friends talk about them, and then they get into the bloodstream of my thoughts and I wind up producing a personal podcast (like a personal pan pizza, consumed by one’s self only) on my commute. Which I was doing this evening, only then the thought occurred to me: Isn’t this why you have a fucking blog? (It’s my commute, so f-bombs are a feature of the landscape.)
Why yes, yes it is.
The new generations of writers and readers have been coming up with — I suppose they’re not genres, really, but descriptive modes for stories, and the one that’s come up on my radar recently is hopepunk. At first glance it seems like it’d be right up my street, hopepunk — coined, as far as I can tell, as a counter to grimdark, which I’ve already got a canned rant about. The short version is, for the last hundred years or so, a defining feature of Serious Literature has been grimness and darkness — dis-integration of people and relationships and situations, fragmentation of narratives. Meaning reduced to incoherence as a statement of truth, co-inherence mocked and flouted by assiduously unhappy endings. Thus not only do Serious People want to make you read stories about disaster and incoherence, they also want to scold you for wanting the opposite. And who needs it, really?
So hopepunk, yeah, sounds great, let’s have some! Only…what is it?
From my perspective on the fringes of the discussion, it looks like people have a hard time identifying what is a proper example of hopepunk, one that can be agreed upon by all parties. In fact, what some people see as hopepunk, others noped out of as the epitome of grimdark. And vice versa. It’s like “postmodern,” which is, well, you know, something…a little bit more modern than modern, right? No matter how clearly set out the concept is to start with, it runs afoul in practice of a sort of subjective gestalt.
And part of the problem is that people want stories to bear witness to their pain and difficulty and disaster; and to speak too quickly of hope is to betray their testimony to a final rebuttal. To say, “but that’s not what hope means,” and try to back-and-fill the concept, just clouds the issue further.
Which is why I still prefer Tolkien’s word eucatastrophe as a descriptive mode for the stories I want. We all know what catastrophe is: everything I said about Serious Literature above. So then what is the good catastrophe? It’s a story that specifically invokes that witness to pain and difficulty and disaster, so that it can bring forth the integrated meaning and co-inherence and renewal and reversal that every situation can potentially produce. Eucatastrophe does not betray by a clap-back from outside the situation: it restores things from within the structure of its own landscape of meaning. It makes the tellers of such stories agents in their own rescue; it puts others in potential touch with a wild and painful joy. You can want it or not want it, but it’s a definite thing. You can say, “This story has a payoff, but getting there might not be worth it to you.” Or you can say, “This story doesn’t have enough of a payoff to justify the misery.” Eucatastrophe as a concept lets you say definite things about actual stories, and have a, well, coherent conversation about them. In fact, so long as the concept is in place, you hardly have to use Tolkien’s 25-cent word at all.
A word you don’t actually have to say to use: now that’s a useful word.