An agenda ain’t nothing but a to-do list

I haven’t played a video game since 1991, but I’m tickled by the concept of a horrible goose with a to-do list.

So my weekend was fairly productive on the housework and acquiring-new-shoes-for-the-conference fronts, but not so much on writing or blogging. Or changing the cat litter, but one can’t do everything. But one thing I have done recently is start going through Pat Wrede’s blog on writing; there’s some really good stuff there, and it’s given me a lot to think about.

For one thing, Wrede put me on to Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, a writer’s guide which she updated for the 21st century — ULG was lively-minded right to the end. I want to be Pat Cadigan when I grow up, and I want to be Ursula Le Guin when I grow old. Anyway, Steering the Craft is (naturally!) full of sensible advice and actual writing exercises that look salutary for a writer to do. (I mean, I haven’t done any of them yet, but they do look useful.)

For another thing, reading a blog that has a long archive is like leafing through a time capsule of the changing zeitgeist. I found a post where everyone on a panel (including Pat) was shocked when someone said brazenly that a novel should have an agenda, at least so much as to say a moral point of view. Seanan McGuire, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor: these authors have since then articulated even more firmly that if your very existence as a writer is itself a political act, then of course you should embrace writing stories with a specific moral point of view. After all, any story that appears to be agenda-less actually has an invisible agenda that is congruent with the predominant cultural point of view. It has plausible deniability, or at least an unthreatening premise.

I think that argument is true in the specific sense in which the new writers are using it. And I think they’ve been successful enough in changing the conversation that it’s now about whether new speculative fiction can be called “high concept” if it is not challenging to the predominant cultural point of view. And that’s a good thing, in my view. I’ve read some great books in the last five years thanks to those efforts.

But that’s not what I want to get at today. I want to talk about what writing with an “agenda” is like from the writer’s point of view. Like, how does a writer actually pursue a moral point of view in a story they are writing?

In my experience, the first question is what kind of story you want to tell yourself. You have to want to tell yourself this story, or it’s no fun. I can see where writers can become sad and bitter, if the stories they want to tell themselves are stories that other people are indifferent to, or disapprove of. When I find myself sinking into a mood like that, my self-prescription is to read other people’s books, preferably ones I haven’t read already. If it lightens my mood, that’s enough; if it enriches my perspective, that’s even better. Whatever gets me back — or onward — to a place where my story is fun.

Mind you, no matter how viral your story turns out to be, any story with a specific moral point of view isn’t going to be for everyone — like Hendrick’s Gin, which puts that legend in scrolling script on every bottle: It Is Not For Everyone. (Then they came up with another infusion that’s even more Not For Everyone than the original, which might be a bridge too far, but I haven’t tasted it yet, so I withhold judgment. And anyway I doubt Hendrick’s is complaining about their sales volume. But I digress.)

Example: back in the day when I was a floating library assistant (insofar as a Geo Storm hatchback could be said to float around Tulsa County library to library), I had a conversation with a branch librarian that appalled me to my core. We were talking about displaying favorite books, and she started gushing about Thomas Hardy. “I mean, the way he writes, it’s just the way life is!” she said. Now, I had had to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles for my Victorian survey class, and to me it was the epitome of everything I hated in a story: a hapless protagonist whose every effort to get out of a tar pit only mires them in further, a dim view of human capacity, a cynical view of God and/or spiritual enrichment, and a narrating voice that can well afford to stand afar off, aloof if not sneering altogether.

I can’t remember if I actually bit my tongue or if I answered her out loud: “God, I hope not!”

Nowadays, if (God forbid) I should ever be forced to teach Tess to a class of unsuspecting undergraduates, I would pair it with T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Yes, double the misery, I know. But reading the Boyle book showed me something I hadn’t picked up about Tess, even in a university setting: which is that Hardy was doing all those things on purpose, not because he was a miserable man with a miserable point of view, but because he wanted to subject his readership to a scathing parable about their complacent condemnation of the marginalized people among them. I don’t know any Victorian middle-class snobs; but I do know plenty of white liberals. I get the value of these novels as parables — and there’s something to be said for a book’s power if it could make me react so strongly 100 years later.

But. I still don’t want to tell myself a story like this. Hardy and Boyle obviously found some fun in it; but I think in large part it’s because they could afford to. You have to be placed just so if you want to afflict the comfortable without also comforting the afflicted.

And that brings me to the point I wanted to make. So often when people take against the idea of writing with an “agenda,” the complaint is that the book is too “preachy.” But I say: show me a person who thinks a story can’t present a moral point of view without turning into (ugh) a sermon — and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t heard a good sermon. It’s not their fault; good preaching is hard to find, generally speaking. I’m lucky: I gained a lay preaching license because I had some truly gifted mentors. I learned that a sermon combines the art of academic argument with the art of storytelling. A good sermon does five things: 1) it is about one topic and has a beginning, a middle, and an end; 2) it does not read things into its text but draws them out; 3) it is relevant for the people it is addressed to; 4) it gives the listener something to chew on on more than one level — intellectual, emotional, spiritual, imaginative, or all of these; and finally 5) it’s given by someone who knows when to be confrontational and when not. It’s a delicate art.

Like writing a novel.

So what kind of story do I want to tell myself? What sermon do I need to hear? I want a story with eucatastrophe built into it, obviously; with characters who are innocent as doves or cunning as snakes or both together; where everyone is essential to the resolution of the crisis, or at least significant in it; where people get along with the others or find a way to work with those they don’t; where suffering isn’t a cheapskate play for meaning; where heroes don’t punch down; whose plot doesn’t take for granted the punishment of women for laying claim to significance; where friendship is a driving force; where agency rather than fate is the moral imperative; where redemption is earned and grace bestowed, instead of the other way around.

Now that sounds an awful lot like an arduous checklist, but when I’m making up a story, I don’t proceed by ticking boxes. It’s more like I’m hanging on the refrigerator door figuring out what to make for dinner. Ooh, I have an onion, I could make this; won’t make that till I buy some lemons. But of course I’m the one who stocked the fridge in the first place.

There’s a lot of work between that moment and the moment I have people over. But then there will be wine. Or gin.

All the news that’s fit to print

Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

It’s been rather busy chez moi, as my work has just concluded their fall conference here in town. A lot of rolling out of bed at Oh My God It’s Early, putting on actualfax makeup, and tooling downtown in my nice work clothes in the pre-dawn, then dragging back to trip over the kitty at sundown. It’s a lot of work, but it is fun to see our members at these things. One conference down, one more to go before the year’s end.

Meanwhile, I decided to move on from storyboarding to actual work on the sequel to Ryswyck, which I’m calling The Lantern Tower. I have the first chapter finished and the second chapter started. When I’m working on a project, there’s sort of a breathing rhythm between my efforts to nail down an outline of the plot with lists of scenes and sketches of dialogue, and points at which I have to just start writing to draw down the pressure and provoke more insight. I’ll probably write until I hit a sticking place, let it percolate, and turn back to editing Household Lights, which I hope to get out next spring. It’s not really multitasking; it’s sequence tasking. I loathe multitasking both as a concept and as a requirement: I mean, does anybody really thrive on doing five things at once with equal quality? Don’t tell me if you do.

Anyway, some things about The Lantern Tower. I’ll be introducing two new viewpoint characters and changing POVs on a couple of others. I’ve already got some scenes sketched, and have organized the movements into roughly five short acts. And boy am I glad I siphoned off the opening sequence for Household Lights — that first chapter was a hell of a lot easier to write without dragging that weight.

There’ll be fencing, both literal and metaphorical, court intrigue, spycraft, love, hate, kissing, fightin’ words, secrets, reluctant partnerships, a dash of hurt/comfort, and of course beloved enemies. I wouldn’t tell myself a story without that!

So that’s the state of the state. Now, I must sally forth to get some goodies for the concert my church is hosting. Carry on, as you were, &c.

More thoughts about character

In my last post I had to get my snark on about character as an ideological flashpoint. But there’s a lot more to say about character as a key to good writing, and how one actually goes about forming a fictional character.

Now, I’ve read my share of writing advice, books and articles either by writers I admire or by writers I know little about. Following Lois Bujold on Goodreads recently led me to a blog post by Patricia Wrede, which keyed into something that I’ve long thought about writing character — and that is that character, like any other element of writing, is a gestalt function.

I think writers are too often tempted to talk about characters as if they have the same kind of agency functionally as they do in the plot — or at least as if they should. But I think they’re two different things. In the plot, yes, we want our characters to do things and not always have things being done to them; we want our characters to want things rather than take on the coloring of the situation around them all the time.

But functionally speaking, characters are affected by what surrounds them and who they interact with. As a color changes its perceived hue when framed by red and when framed by blue, any character’s personality is deeply affected by who they’re surrounded with. That’s the way it should be: after all, it’s how we are in real life. It’s one reason I’ve always been frustrated with personality tests. I could test myself out as an INFP, but throw me in a room with a bunch of other INFPs and ask us to choose a place to go out to dinner — and I’ll probably be one of the first people to go OH MY GOD JUST MAKE A DECISION. I tortured myself with the Enneagram one afternoon: “I’m not purely any of these types, and if I were, I wouldn’t interact with such-and-such type like that.”

As Wrede says, we want to discern the pattern, get it settled, and move on, whether testing for personality types or inventing fictional characters. But it’s never that simple and there is no order of operations for putting together a piece of fiction. Most of my stories start with a kernel of a scene, an incomplete interaction between two characters. Developing it involves asking myself questions: how do I justify this situation? Whose presence offstage is exerting influence on it? Who is that person and what would the situation be like if they were actually present? And as I ask more of these questions and begin to answer them, the kernel situation begins to change in its turn. I realize that no amount of world-manipulation will justify this or that aspect; or I decide that what I want out of the scene has mutated; or, inevitably, the character I invented for the purposes of the situation is not going to cooperate with my plans for them.

That’s always a gratifying moment. When a character begins to resist what I want to do to them and starts taking their cue from the situation I’ve developed them in, that’s when I know that I haven’t just constructed a lifeless figure. O mortal, prophesy to the breath. And then the breath prophesies back.

All the same, technical decisions do need to be made. A character of any significance in a story needs to have a trajectory of some kind. The situation isn’t staying the same; they shouldn’t either. After all, they’re going to be part of any reason the situation changes. A character is strong and unassailable: what kind of thing would make them not so? A character is inclined to hide: what would it take to force them out of avoidance mode? A character is a caretaker personality: what about this situation would complicate and mature their sense of compassion? Say all three of these characters are in the situation together: how would the situation change depending on which of them moves first? Do I like that, or would I like it better if another character is the one to move first?

I was talking with Erica about an edit she wanted to make to her current manuscript, and we noted that depending on where the new event falls in the existing series of events, it’s going to change certain scenes where particular characters interact; it would make those scenes about something else. Could be interesting, she remarked; but do I want to sacrifice the positive things in the scenes as they exist for that? For the time that these changes are contemplated, the story is a Schrodinger’s box, with all possible scenarios coexisting until the decision collapses them. Rather apropos for a time-travel story, but it works for other things too.

For me, that’s what it means to say that character is plot. In the gestalt that is a developing story, characters push and are pushed, they pull and are pulled. The “realer” they are, the more agile they will be in the situation, the more tensile. It’s not just that a character needs to act: it’s that they need to embody a justifiable response to the situation in which they find themselves. That’s an embodiment that transcends type, as we transcend the findings of a personality test.

From there, when it gets to the point of putting words on a page, it becomes a series of decisions about how to introduce, describe, and employ the perspective of the characters I’ve developed. Would this scene say the right thing about a character if it is written from their perspective, or should I use a different POV character to show what they’re doing/feeling? Do I want to play this trope to the hilt or push back on it? How much of the character’s inner thoughts should imbue the narrative of this scene?

And then there are the foundational scenes, scenes whose dialogue I’ve worked out almost from the beginning; when it comes time to actually write them down, it’s a perilous and exhilarating moment. Does it feel as right as it did in my head? We shall see.

And then there’s the fun of talking about one’s characters with beta readers. Post-structuralists be damned, it’s fun to discuss our characters as if they were real people. I’ll jump on any excuse. And I suppose that’s what I felt the need to add to my snarky blog of the other day. Characters, almost more than any other element of the art, make writing fun. And the more mimetic power you have and use, the funner it is.

And that, as Edith Ann says, is the truth.

Character and the fictional imagination: part four in a series

In the movie As Good As it Gets, a vapid receptionist asks Jack Nicholson’s novelist character gushingly, “How do you write women so well?” Nicholson replies: “I think of a man. Then I take away reason and accountability.” Given the earlier scene of him composing text, this is probably not how Melvin Udall actually conceives his characters; but the exchange does further confirm both Udall’s obnoxiousness in real life and what kind of books his novels are.

Regardless of the quality of literary art, it is character more than anything that attracts people to a book and compels them to keep reading it. This is my fourth blog post about Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, but the topic of character is only the second chapter of his book, preceded only by a discussion of the distinctions of literature itself. Of all the chapters, this is the one I am most tempted to quote in large chunks, and at the same time, it’s also the chapter I would most like to update for the 21st century, thirty years on from when he published the book.

A large part of Alter’s project is to push back against post-structuralist criticism that tends to view literary art as a closed system of arbitrarily exchangeable parts, driven in service of some ideology or other. Not only does late-20th-century criticism have no good critical tools for discussing character: it is actively hostile to the concept of character as an artistic endeavor that can be “representational” of anything like “reality.” Alter points out that to attack “character” as a naive delusion is to exhibit a different kind of naivete. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it in a different context: “The trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”

No reader, Alter says, really thinks that a character in a book is “real” in a flesh-and-blood sense; else the world would be filled with Don Quixotes attacking puppet shows thinking they are fighting a real battle. But that is not to say that the representational art of drawing character is not a thing of great power. In our current times, I would point out, vast conflicts are being waged online and in public spaces about the nature of character in fictional media. Books and films overpeopled with women who have reason and accountability, oh my! Or, in another vein, showrunners killing off minority characters and depriving fans of viable representation in the stories they love. Critical discourse is no longer just the preserve of academics writing seminar papers; the conventions and habitual biases of people making fictional characters is daily fodder for public discussion.

For that reason I think Alter is right to wish for a really good critical apparatus for talking about character as an artistic function. The nexus between the multiple layers of our common reality and the characters we find compelling is something that we should be able to talk about, both with awareness of the ideological valences and with a practiced insight into how written representational art is produced and received.

But even academics, as Alter says, can suffer from a want of training in how to both frame and discuss the subject of character. And that’s where I think the insight of actual writers can be useful. I mean, writers talking about character is not guaranteed to be useful, especially if you have a couple of dogmatic voices dominating the conversation. You would need a fairly democratized situation where a large number of writers weigh in. And in the 21st century, we have something like that: we have communities of writers of fanfiction, who not only produce “transformative” works with existing characters, but also who are able to interact more and more freely with the original creators of those characters.

“Transformative” is the word chosen by the OTW to describe legally-defensible fanwork; in ground conditions, transformative fiction is so in large part because it is performative. Are characters from the modern drama White Collar still recognizably themselves when translated to a 1920s gangster scene? You decide! But the means by which such a fiction is produced depends on an imaginative act by the author to enter in to a character and work within what they feel to be essential to that character based on their life experience and literary skill. And in that sense, any writer of fanfiction is engaging in practical literary criticism.

The only thing about this that is truly new is the fact that it is all happening on an instantaneous basis in our age of global communication, where one can send an email on Tuesday afternoon to someone in Japan who will get it a nanosecond later where it’s already Wednesday. The Aeneid, meanwhile, uses the exact same critical and literary skillsets to address the Iliad and the Odyssey, by expanding the ‘verse of the original to accommodate new viewpoint characters in service of — a national story, to be sure, but one that has the same imaginative immediacy to its audience as the original Greek texts did to those who first heard them. This is, in fact, one of the ways in which literary continuity operates.

So it really is, as Alter says, useless to think of literary texts as closed systems made up of propagandistic symbology. The perduring (I’m grateful he introduced me to that word) elements of human nature, threaded through eons of change, make the high art of literary character worth studying as a real function rather than a delusion.

I would point out, meanwhile, that the current Discourse going on in certain circles (“In my day,” she said archly, “we were honest enough to call it Wank”) is centered on the contentious axiom that Depiction is Endorsement: some people see little to choose between, say, the pedophile Humbert Humbert and Vladimir Nabokov who conceived and wrote him. People have rightly pointed out that this is mostly motivated by a desire for censorship: “I don’t want to read a story with a character like this” becomes “Nobody should ever read or write a story with a character like this.” And this contention is being shamelessly applied to writers of fanworks as well, as a criticism with teeth of the way in which a writer performs a canon character. This would be an example of a willful delusion: that a character is indistinguishable from an author such that the author is exactly as despicable as the worst character they invent.

Worse, any attempt to push back on this argument often draws scathing references to out-of-touch academics who don’t understand anything about the predatory dangers of the Real World. Given that post-structuralists were so intent on deconstructing the existence of any such thing, it appears that modern academia has been hoist by its own petard. Sad! That’s rather unfortunate, as a voice with recognized authority could be useful in such a discussion, just as the multiplicity of writers’ voices could broaden the discussion’s horizons.

Here’s an extended example of Alter’s critical skill, springing from his example of Stendhal in his discussion of character:

There is surely nothing in the structural necessities or formal requirements of the novel that could bring the writer to this moment of subtle comic illumination….If we look beyond the formal configurations of the text to the [person] that produced them, we will find scant support for a mystique of the writer as a special repository of wisdom….Between the unpredictable pattern of illumination in the work and the touching human foibles of the life, one is compelled to conclude that when fictional invention is going well, it is an activity that ‘privileges’ the writer in some uncanny way: in the incandescence of the imagination that produces good fiction, elements of knowledge and bits of perception variously collected, many of them no doubt stored subliminally in the mind of the writer, coalesce, take on revelatory form in the speech and acts of imaginary personages. It is as if the very process of writing allowed the writer to tap unguessed levels of [their] own self, to achieve a kind of nonvolitional heightening of ordinary insight, as, analogously, the process of free association in psychoanalysis is supposed to do.
Fiction, then, involves above all an imaginative intercourse between the experience of the writer, beautifully focused as it would not be elsewhere, and the experience of the reader, which is both necessary to recognize adequately what the writer has produced and capable of being deepened by what the work of fiction offers.

Now that is a not only useful but usable insight into the representational art that is fiction, and as a writer I find it relatable as a description of process. If someone were to ask me, “Now which of your characters do you most relate to?” I’d have a hard time answering. I’m not a caretaker like Speir, or calm and decisive like Douglas. I don’t have du Rau’s elegant fighting skill or sympathize with his patriarchal worldview. Barklay, my most “problematic” character, is not a transcript of my own temptations or a way for me to fulfill some wish toward exploitation. But the nature of literary art is to enter in to a character, to create and enjoy simultaneously the quiddity of their presence in the world, to work the wool of one’s own self into the thread of them where needed; it’s like knitting a sweater around one’s self. I’m not Speir, but I inhabit her. I get the fun of that private, indeterminate process of inhabiting, and I also get the fun of sharing her with the world. A friend who read Ryswyck remarked in casual conversation, “So you’ve just had these characters running around in your head the whole time I’ve known you.” Well, yeah, and now they’re running around in his head, too.

I mean, if that’s not the essence of “high fun,” nothing is.