What makes interesting fiction: Stephenson edition

In his Salon interview,* Neal Stephenson says this about “the broader vision of what science fiction is about:”

[Science] Fiction [is fiction] that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.” If it’s got that, then science fiction people will embrace it and bring it into the big-tent view of science fiction. That’s really the role that science fiction has come to play in literature right now. In arty lit, it’s become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se.

The implied vacuousness of “arty lit” is clear and, more depressingly, accurate. It’s something a lot of people who like to read but who don’t care much for a lot of contemporary lit fic feel but don’t always articulate. It’s a tendency I’ve been been noticing in one form or another for years. It helps to account for why nonfiction may be winning the perceived quality race. A lot of highly praised fiction is, at bottom, boring, and about boring people.

Many self-consciously literary novelists and critics don’t seem to mind. So lit-fic books accumulate blurbs that make them sound like the next coming of Shakespeare when they’re actually about dull people leading dull lives, but with interesting language that is supposed to elevate dull people above their surroundings. Sometimes this works (Raymond Carver, Ulysses). More often it doesn’t, or, even if it works, who cares? Murder mysteries are popular for many reasons, but one may be that there’s automatically at stake. Per Megan McArdle:

Eventually I decided the truth is this: We watch so many crime dramas because there are no big stakes in middle-class American life. The criminal underworld is one place where decisions actually matter — and can be shown to matter, dramatically”).

Science fiction also tends to focus on encounters with aliens, threats to the human race, jarring technology changes, and so forth. The stakes are high. Literary fiction writers might want to take some cues from Stephenson and, strangely enough, TV.**

* Collected in Some Remarks, which is a way of collecting previously published pieces in one convenient place and turning them into money.

** Stephenson is also fond of novels with plot:

What I’m doing here is writing novels, and novels — never mind what anyone else might tell you — novels are pop entertainment, and they have to tell a story and they have to engage the emotions. There are a few basic tricks they use to do that. One is to tell a good yarn and the other is to make you feel empathy for the characters involved in the doings of that yarn, but you’ve got to have that yarn. That’s what I seize on first. That’s what gives me confidence that I’ve got a pony I can ride. Characters tend to come out of that, and ideas — I don’t know where they come from. The yarn that got me going on “Quicksilver” was Newton pursuing and prosecuting an archvillain in London at the same time as the dispute with Leibniz is at its peak.

The past is no fun and self-publishing is the worst: Ted Heller and solipsism

Those of you who are thinking about publishing your own books or already have—and I know you’re out there—should read Ted Heller’s “The future is no fun: Self-publishing is the worst” for a couple reasons, the most important being that it highlights the way self-publishing is probably not a path to fame and fortune for most of us. But Heller should also highlight that, for most of us, conventional publishing wasn’t a path to fame and fortune either.

He writes that he conventionally published three books between 2001 and 2011, then found that he couldn’t get a publisher for his fourth, West of Babylon. If he’d begun publishing in 1991 and had the same experience in 2001, that would’ve been it: self-publishing didn’t exist in a practical form, and now it does, which means his book at least has a chance.

It’s also clear that Heller is doing it wrong. He writes about sending review copies to newspapers and magazines (“I do everything I possibly can in about four or five paragraphs to inspire interest in whomever the email is sent to”), but that’s like me wanting to become a gigolo for female clients: the world just doesn’t work that way. Me wanting the world to work that way isn’t going to make the world work that way either. Newspapers and magazines barely review conventionally published books any more, and self-published books are explicitly forbidden by most of them; to the extent newspapers and magazines write about such books, it’s after they’ve become best-sellers (like 50 Shades of Grey).

Heller appears to have few personal connections with anyone at newspapers or magazines (“When I finally found contact information for someone at the show I’d been on, they did email me back [. . .] to politely tell me that they would not be having me back onto their show”), which means he’s wasting his time by sending out random P.R. e-mails. I know this. Why doesn’t he?

Heller doesn’t have a blog, as far as I can tell. He doesn’t say that he scraped the e-mails of everyone he’s ever corresponded with and sent a quick e-mail blast about his book. He apparently hasn’t been collecting the e-mail addresses of his readers. The price for West of Babylon —$8—is too high. It should be $3 – $5. The book sounds at best mildly appealing. Though the topic–has-been, 60-year-old rockers—makes me want to look elsewhere, it could be pulled off. Still, based on the description, I wonder: what’s at stake? Do I care about whether these guys can “pull the tour off?”

The Salon piece also makes Heller sounds like. . . I’m look for a euphemism but none come to mind. . . an asshole:

If there is one positive thing about this self-publishing business it is this: You separate the wheat from the chaff among your friends and acquaintances. Who is willing to lend a hand and who cannot wait to abandon you? Who will nudge someone they know and get your book to them and who just won’t even acknowledge your desperation or is laughing at you behind your back? Some people have been remarkable, others’ names are now forever etched onto my Eternal Personal Shit List.

Look, if your friend doesn’t like your book, it doesn’t mean shit, other than that your friend doesn’t like your book. I’m neutral towards 60% of the books I read, actively dislike 30%, and find 10% magical. Playing the straight odds, when a friend publishes a book, there’s a 90% shot that I’ll be neutral towards or dislike their book. The probability of me liking their book is probably lower, because the vast majority of books I read are books I choose.

When I start self-publishing, I doubt all my friends will like what I write. Which is okay. Having cancer and seeing who supports you and who doesn’t separates “the wheat from the chaff among your friends and acquaintances.” Publishing a book that you friends don’t love is hardly a reason to be “forever etched onto my Eternal Personal Shit List.”

Let’s examine the upside for a moment. Heller has a real chance to get his book in front of readers, which he wouldn’t have had ten years ago. He’s playing a game with low odds of success. Thousands of other writers, and maybe hundreds of thousands, are in the same game. But he’s living in a time when it’s possible to get in the game, and that itself is still something to celebrate.

EDIT: I should add that, based on what I’ve read, most writers at most major publishing houses get very little real marketing / PR help. The ones who do are the lucky exceptions. Throwing a stone into the ocean of literature and having it sink to the bottom is normal. Throwing a stone into the ocean of literature and having it turn into a cruise ship is not.

How should teenage characters speak? Engaging Janet Reid, Gossip Girl, and 90210

In a query letter critique, Janet Reid says:

If you’re writing a 14-year old character, you need to know how they talk: “Threatening us with violence” sounds like a sociologist; “told us he’d mess us up” sounds like what the kids on my corner say to each other.

This might be true in many instances, but I’m reminded of something this Salon.com review of “Gossip Girl” and “90210” says:

Where Blair and Serena’s lines snap, crackle and pop with wit and cleverness, the soggy stars of “90210” stumble over one cliché after another. “Awkward!” Annie blurts at Ethan after they encounter Ethan’s ex Naomi, then Annie does her best impression of the cynical teenage eye roll, as Ethan mutters, “Good times!” Oof.

But every scene is filled with such teen-bot tripe: “Whatever works for you.” “Helloo-ooo?” “Shut up!” “Me and Ethan? Not so much.” Maybe real teens sound like that, but real teens are repellent and worthless, remember? Plus, nothing’s worse than shoving such drivel into the mouths of a bunch of airbrushed anorexics and overgrown child actors.”90210’s” Annie has more in common with Broadway’s Annie than a real human being. Putting teen lingo in her mouth is like dressing a cat in a little nurse outfit. It’s sort of cute at first, but then it just gets sad.

“Repellant and worthless” is overstatement, very. The characters from “Gossip Girl” are more interesting because they don’t speak like teenagers, or like regular ones. If they did, they’d be boring (or, depending on your view, more boring than they already are). I suspect that’s why so many teen narrators are “precocious.” The alternative is dull. If you have a normal 15-year old, even 15-year olds will find them boring and insipid on the page. So you need a precocious 15-year old who adults can tolerate, and perhaps enjoy, while 15-year olds will imagine themselves to be equally witty even if they’re probably not. But your precocious 15-year-old still probably shouldn’t sound like Umberto Eco. That’s the challenge: giving a character enough of a voice and enough intelligence to make them interesting while not overwriting them. This challenge might explain why so many books starring teenagers are told from a distant, adult future recalling events from the past.

The first season of Gossip Girl, by the way, is pretty funny. I referenced it in class one day because, being a West Coaster, I had no idea what “cotillion” was until an episode featured it. That allusion elicited shock from students. Apparently I come across as a very hard core literary type. Which, of course, I am. A friend and I watched a few episodes and the last one from the second season, but it was so repetitive that we gave up.

On another note, the rest of Reid’s advice on the query letter is typically accurate. If you’ve ever wanted to try and get a literary agent or publisher to read your manuscript, take a couple hours to look through Query Shark first.

Columbine — Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen’s Columbine debunks many of the myths that help us make sense of Columbine as a disaster but that aren’t actually correct, and his book lays what seems sure to be the definitive account of both what happened and what lessons one should take.

Lies connecting the shooters with dislike for jocks, homosexuality, trench coats, violent video games, and more fall under Cullen’s research scythe. In one instance, he cites media portrays as showing that:

[Columbine] was terrorized by a band of reckless jock lords and ruled by an aristocracy of snotty rich white kids in the latest Abercrombie & Fitch line.
Some of that was true—which is to say, it was a high school. But Columbine came to embody everything noxious about adolescence in America.

In other words, the massacre quickly came to be symbolically imbued with fears and thoughts and desires regarding a range of subjects disconnected from what actually occurred. That pernicious effect isn’t just problematic because it’s wrong—it’s problematic because it fails to teach what one should learn from Columbine, like what to look for in dangerous teenagers, how to respond to such dangers, and the like. One painful moment comes early in Columbine, when a police officer named Deputy Gardner “followed protocol and did not pursue Eric inside” the school on April 20.” It seems like a minor detail, but the protocol was wrong: he should have attacked given that active shooters were inside. Today, he probably would, and Cullen details how the change in protocol occurred and its impact.

One problem with Columbine reporting is that the media and the public at large sought and still seek scapegoats. For example, in one survey Cullen cites, the parents of Klebold and Harris “dwarfed all other causes” for the massacre, “blamed by 85 percent of the population in a Gallup poll.” No wonder they hired attorneys. But the two killers lead relatively normal lives: their parents were together and nothing they did seems to have any relation to their children’s decision to murder. The parents might have responded more harshly to earlier infractions, but problems with school administrators and the like aren’t uncommon. Nothing probably would’ve helped Harris at the time if he was a psychopath. As a result, Cullen shows that searching for a single answer regarding why they acted is wrong—the question is why each acted individually, which an FBI agent named Dwayne Fuselier realized almost immediately.

What drove Harris is clearer than what drove Klebold. Harris was a psychopath, and Cullen gives a weak description of what that means on page 187 (“Psychopaths appear charming and likable, but it’s an act. They are coldhearted manipulators who will do anything for their own gain”) but makes up for it with a much stronger, fuller definition on page 242. A New Yorker article “Suffering Souls” complements Columbine by explaining what a psychopath is in greater detail.

Klebold, however, remains more enigmatic. He was depressed and apparently weak-willed, allowing him to be dominated by Harris. Depression and social problems haunted him. He’s harder to describe for that reason, and because a relatively simple diagnosis eludes him, it’s hard to say as much about him in such a short space and still convey a sense of the book.

Columbine is filled with fascinating details. Cullen observes that “Kids nearly always leak. The bigger the plot, the wider the leakage.” Klebold and Harris leaked all over the place, but too few people took them seriously, and what’s most significant is that the few who did so were ignored. The institutions that come off looking worse in this book are the Jefferson County Sheriff and Police offices, both of which are implicated in, by order of decreasing importance, information coverups, disseminating false information, and reacting slowly to the event itself. They kept avoiding information release until forced to via lawsuit, denying the families of victims knowledge about the case, out of a combination of incompetence and fear. Stories like this make “The Agitator” an important blog.

There are other examples of lies and tawdriness. Cassie Bernall died in the attack, and her parents capitalized by publishing a book called She Said Yes claiming that Bernall was shot for answering in the affirmative when asked if she was a Christian. Even when it became clear this hadn’t happened, her youth pastor, Dave McPherson, said that churches and publishers would ignore the story. He was right.

Just below the section about information leakage, Cullen says that “Oddballs are not the problem. They do not fit the profile. There is no profile.” (emphasis in original). It’s the same conclusion Malcolm Gladwell described about profiling any sort of criminal in “Dangerous Minds” for the New Yorker. The stereotypes create false leads. The only consistent finding Cullen notes is that “All the recent school shooters shared exactly one trait: 100 percent male,” although since then he says a few female shooters have appeared.

In Columbine, we learn everything about what happened, a vast amount about the aftermath, and a great deal about “why,” but also that we’ll never get to a perfect answer about why some people commit crimes like the Columbine massacre while others in similar circumstances don’t. He tries to answer the question in When kids become mass murderers for Salon.com, but even then we’re left with incompleteness (he’s also interviewed interviewed at Salon, where many of his early pieces about Columbine were published). Despite knowing all the facts, some events retain their inner mystery—perhaps explaining our collective fascination with them.

… And here he is

Two days ago I asked for an example of who championed the supposedly airless literary novel, and now Stephen Marche writes in Salon with an answer for me:*

[Alain Robbe-Grillet] was a great champion for the innovative novel, so in a way I owe him: I’m a novelist, and while I would be loath to call myself avant-garde, my first book did have marginalia all the way through and my second was a literary anthology of an invented country. But the truth is, Robbe-Grillet was a disaster for innovative novels. After him, literary innovation, experiment with form or anything mildly unconventional came to be seen as pretentious and dry, the proper domain of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys and nobody else.


English fiction in the wake of Robbe-Grillet has become a deliberately old-fashioned activity, like archery or churning your own butter. He represented, through his status as cultural icon of the avant-garde, an entire generation that turned literary experimentation into self-involved blandness.

I’ve heard of Robbe-Grillet but never read him and appear not to be alone in this. Yet I’m skeptical of a single novelist’s ability to have so great an effect on culture**, especially because literary culture still produces all kinds of novels, and, even if it didn’t, old novels are still available. In financial terms, this is one problem with being a current novelist: you still have to compete with The Great Gatsby and All the King’s Men, but Honda is not too worried about people choosing cars made in the first half of the twentieth century usurping current sales. Obviously there can be currents and trends within a literary culture, but it seems to me that literary culture and literature are so big as to give us whatever we want.

Fortunately, I wrote all this before Marche came to his conclusion:

The two strands of postwar literary fiction, the ultraradical and the willfully archaic, are both antithetical to the spirit of the novel itself, which is polyglot and unpredictable. Novels are supposed to be messy. They are written to express ideals and to make money; they steal from everything and everyone, high, middle and low, belonging to everyone and no one in the same moment. They don’t fit anyone’s conception. That’s why we love them.

Though I hate to descend into high school argot, I have to say: duh. So why does the bulk of this essay deal with questionable generalizations that Marche then throws down?

* I see no reason not to assume a causal connection.

** Except Joyce, as virtually everything written in English after him has felt his touch, whether the writer wants to feel it or not. But even Joyce had a little-known forerunner named Edouard Dujardin, who wrote Les Lauriers sont coupés. In Modernism, Peter Gay writes that “Dujardin […] later reported that his experiment sold just a few hundred copies […] But among its few readers was James Joyce, [who later] signed a copy of Ulysses to Dujardin, calling himself ‘an impenitent thief.’ “

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