Year of Mysteries, Part 5: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

I’ve put off writing about this book, because I was left pretty conflicted on how to feel about it. As a mystery, it was deeply unsatisfying. But as a novel, it scratched some itches I didn’t know I had.

The book drew me in quickly. It starts with the death of a boy. It looks like an accident of falling off a roof. But Smilla’s Inuit heritage allows her to read other signs in the snow. Plus, it comes to light that the boy was deathly afraid of heights and would never play on the roof.

It turns into a classic small girl against big machine of the police/government. The book beautifully weaves in a bunch of language for different types of snow, and we start to see how someone could be attuned to signs in the snow.

One particularly enlightening scene was a description of how jumping would leave certain snow impressions depending on the direction of the jump. I started to believe she had “real” signs of foul play from the snow instead of just some abstract “feeling.”

The book uses a lot of politics of opposing forces like Greenland/Denmark, Inuit/European, and Tradition/Science. It worked as a literary device to make the reader empathize with Smilla feeling like an “other” in the world. My guess is these were real-world politics and not just invented as a device.

The translator did a great job. The prose had an almost Proustian quality to it. He would do deep dives on mundane things, and it somehow felt interesting and relevant. Other isolated sentences were strange and wonderful and humorous at the same time.

Here’s one of my favorites:

Bertrand Russel wrote that pure mathematics is the field in which we don’t know what we’re talking about or to what extent what we say is true or false.

That’s the way I feel about cooking.

At some point near the middle, this book totally loses its focus. It goes off in strange directions, and we lose sight of the original mystery. One might say the mysterious death at the beginning is the “inciting incident” of the novel, but it is not the focus of the novel.

I won’t reveal the ending except to say that although we get a definitive answer to who/why the boy was killed, the ending leaves it ambiguous as to whether the killer is caught and/or killed himself. This worked in the context of the novel as a general book about ambiguities and life, but it didn’t work as a conclusive ending to a murder mystery.

We veer so far off course of any intentional investigation by the end that learning the truth feels almost accidental. I think this is the source of dissatisfaction. It’s like the information happened to the main character rather than the main character bringing about the information through her deliberate actions.

Once I resigned myself to the fact that I was reading something different from what I thought it would be, I was able to settle in and enjoy it on its own terms. The book is well worth reading as an intriguing work of literature dealing with interesting linguistics. It is probably not for a fan of traditional mystery novels.

If you want to follow along, the next book in The Year of Mysteries series will be A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne.

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Why It Works: Primer

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

Time travel sucks as a genre. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Yes, the whole genre.

Everyone knows about the grandfather paradox: if you travel back in time and kill your grandfather before he conceives with your grandmother, there would be no you to go back in time and kill him.

But many people misinterpret the paradox as being about specific inconsistencies you can trace, when in fact it’s more of a chaos theory issue: the tiniest change of the past could radically change the “present” in unforeseeable ways.

This could happen if the person goes to the past and doesn’t even physically interact with anyone. Merely being seen by a person could alter their day, which leads to change after change after change…

Pretty much every book or movie I’ve seen with time travel has been terrible. It either ignores this problem, has the problem but tries to explain it in an unsatisfactory way, or it succeeds in explaining it but destroys the story in the process.

I honestly believe no one should ever write a time travel story, because it’s going to be a disaster no matter how hard you try. It’s not worth the effort. If I ran an SF magazine, my first rule of submissions would be: no time travel stories (rule 2 would be: no first-contact stories).

But then we wouldn’t have Primer, which actually kind of works. Let’s look at why.

The first thing is that when the main characters go back in time, it’s accidental. This is very important in not creating a causal loop. If your character has to go back in time to change something to save the world, then when they succeed, there will be no reason for them to go back. Hence, the paradoxical loop. Making the initial travel accidental is an interesting way to solve that problem.

The second thing is the physicality. There’s something strange about old-school time travel (think The Time Machine), where a person and/or machine materializes out of nowhere in the past. This doesn’t seem like a problem until you think about it a lot. If the machine wasn’t there in the past, what does it mean that it suddenly is? This is a much deeper philosophical issue than people give it credit for.

Primer brilliantly fixes this problem by making the machine a box that you have to turn on at the time you want to travel back to. So if you turn on the box right now, you can’t use it to travel back before that time. You get in the box at the future time and travel back without running into the physicality problem. You are physically in the box the whole time you’re traveling back.

Primer also solves the problem of interacting with the world by isolating themselves so that they only interact with the world once. This means they aren’t changing the past. They’re living it out for the first time the time they travel back.

But here’s the most important reason Primer succeeds. It is way too confusing to ever know if they’ve run into a paradox. It succeeds because there’s always more to figure out on subsequent viewings.

This sounds like cheating: make your story so confusing that no one knows if there’s a problem. It sounds like bad writing.

But let’s put it in comparison to every other time travel story where it’s immediately obvious that it all falls apart for philosophical and paradoxical reasons. I’d rather be left with the fun journey of trying to piece it together than a pile of unsatisfying nonsense.

If you’ve read a book that handles time travel well, I’d like to hear about it. Despite being a pet peeve of mine, I still masochistically seek them out in hopes of being proved wrong someday.

On Doubts and Taste in Books

Doubt is a good thing when you’re a writer. It’s an important part of everyone’s journey. I don’t want to speak in absolutes, but if you’ve never doubted the greatness of your work, then it’s probably not very good. You probably haven’t grown much as a writer.

Doubt comes in waves. It happens a lot early on, but as you write and publish more and more, you come to have a bit more confidence in your own style and taste. You begin to see the common pitfalls in other new writers without even trying. This internalization means you mostly aren’t making those mistakes anymore.

Doubt starts to come from other places. Maybe you aren’t getting the sales you would like. Maybe a negative review resonates with you. Maybe you read a book on writing, and you realize there’s a big mistake you’re making that you never noticed before. You start to wonder what other mistakes you’re making.

I have a new source of doubt, and it is coming from the strangest place: reading. I used to love reading. I would devour books. I’d be completely transported to another place, no matter the book or genre. I couldn’t get enough.

It makes sense that as my understanding of story grew, I’d start to not like some poorly constructed novels. It makes sense that novels with sloppy prose would fall away. It makes sense that I’d get more discerning in my taste along several dimensions.

What worries me is that I basically don’t like anything I read anymore. I just can’t get into any book. I currently read 60-80 books a year (it sounds like a lot, but that’s one book a week plus some audiobooks while running or traveling).

The scary part is that it’s not like I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel. I’ve chosen all 23 books I’ve read this year from “best of” lists or from direct recommendations.

I got into Mystic River in late January, but since then, I haven’t really gotten into any book I’ve read. Oathbringer has a 4.65/5 rating on Goodreads after 42,500 reviews. The book is basically unreadable to me. It’s too slow. It has too many unnecessary details. It’s the type of self-indulgent thing popular writers can only get away with after they hit a certain level of fame (think Stephen King). It only got published in that form because people are afraid to tell Sanderson to cut it down.

I won’t call out every problem with every book I’ve read this year. The point is that I’m really worried that I’ve developed my taste and style in a way that doesn’t match the vast majority of people. These are my doubts. Maybe it’s not that all these popular people are writing bad books; maybe it’s my own writing that’s bad.

I can think of a few other explanations.

First, maybe it’s burnout. There’s not much more to this theory. Maybe 80 books a year is too much. If I just take a break and reset, I’ll find myself getting lost in some good books again.

Second, maybe writing changes the way you read. I still love writing. I really get into my own books as I’m writing them. There might just be something about the active nature of producing a story that makes passively consuming one inherently less interesting.

Third, maybe I actually am on a bad streak. As they say, 90% of everything is crap. If we take that to be a fact, then there’s a high probability of long streaks of crap. Of course, what does this even mean? There are “objectively good” books that people hate and “objectively bad” books that people love.

Fourth, my taste is not marketable, which makes it hard to naturally run across the types of books that will truly engage me. I don’t have the patience for the experimental literary stuff that I did in my youth. So the literary scene tends to disappoint me. But the commercial fiction scene tends to be too sloppy for my taste.

My latest book, Specter of the Spheres, tries to straddle this line. It’s high-concept, metaphorical, and has a complicated construction like a literary novel. But it’s wrapped in a fantasy quest and even some sci-fi elements. I’ve learned that this is usually called “slipstream,” and I haven’t read anything in that genre for a long time.

But maybe my doubts have some truth to them. Maybe I need to spend some time re-calibrating what I think is good. I don’t even know where to start with this, though, because I can’t find books out there that I like to read anymore.

Why It Works: The Lord of the Rings

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

Corruption.

The ring corrupts everyone.

Quite early on, we learn that Frodo, our hero, is not immune to the corrupting effects. This becomes one of the greatest sources of tension. Will Frodo be able to destroy the ring when the time comes?

A common misconception about the hero’s journey fantasy writers make early in their career is that they set up an impossible task, and then through the course of the novel, the hero grows and can suddenly overcome the task. This will leave the reader feeling cheated.

The impossible task can’t do the work of creating tension and then turn out not to be impossible at the end of the novel. Imagine if after all the buildup of The Lord of the RingsFrodo stands at the Cracks of Doom and tosses the ring in like Rose at the end of Titanic.

We might not be talking about the books today.

What makes the climax of The Lord of the Rings so good is that Frodo is corrupted. He doesn’t magically succeed over the impossible. He doesn’t throw the ring in. He puts it on his finger with the intention of not destroying it. Frodo succumbs to the corruption, because it’s impossible for him not to.

The first time you read or see that, your reaction should be, “No. What? That’s not how this is supposed to go.”

But it’s the only way it could go. We know that at some deep level. The only way the ring gets destroyed is through its absolute corrupting effects. The ring gets destroyed by accident. If any living being managed to do it through sheer willpower, we’d have to rethink the entire plot. We’d be forced to think: well, I guess the ring wasn’t that powerful after all.

Keep this in mind the next time you’re plotting a book. If something has an absolute attached to it, then it must be an absolute. The hero can’t magically rise above it. Use the absolute to your advantage. What happens if your hero actually succumbs to it? This could be an opportunity for a dramatic and harrowing plot twist right at the climax.

Year of Mystery Novels, Part 4: The Big Sleep

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The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler is probably my least favorite mystery novel of the year so far.

Let’s start with the good. Chandler’s style of writing is amazing. It’s full of sentences that contribute to the noir atmosphere. One of my favorite examples is: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” It obviously makes no sense as a description, but it says so much about the attitude and psychology of the main character, Philip Marlowe.

Paying attention to the little things pays off. For example, when Marlowe enters a used bookshop early on, he asks for a highly specific book. I thought this was the author filling the book with needless detail, a boring bad habit of some writers. But in actuality, it’s a book that doesn’t exist, so the fact that the used bookseller didn’t know this showed they were a fraud. This payoff only comes to readers paying attention to this type of thing.

So I thought the writing style and layering in of small details that pay off were excellent. In fact, maybe the best of all the mystery novels I’ve read this year.

The problem is that I had a very hard time picking the book up when I stopped reading it for a session. I just wasn’t invested in the plot or characters. I think this had to do with the fact that this “hardboiled” subgenre is a slower burn. It’s more about gradually exposing a much larger situation. This means the tension comes from the context you’re given rather than an immediate threat or mystery or suspects.

I don’t even have to reveal too much of the plot to discuss what felt off. I think a lot of the character actions were unmotivated. People are murdered, but I found myself thinking: really? Over that? I know they were “criminals,” and by that I mean “producing pornography” and “being homosexual,” but it’s not like they were mob bosses hardened to murder. It was too extreme for the context.

Everything in the plot felt more like convenience than truly motivated action. I get that we have to look at it through the lens of the time. “Revenge porn” is bad enough today, having naked pictures loose of the daughter of a high-ranking person back in the 20’s could destroy that person. I get that.

But I never really felt the danger or tension or potential catastrophes from the way the novel was told. It was like a big puzzle, and each piece had been placed there for the purpose of completing the puzzle and not as a truly motivated plot point.

Maybe I’m the only one that felt that way, because this is a pretty universally praised book. One of the cool things about it was that you see basically every hardboiled detective trope in this book, as it was the first of its kind.

I think I’m going to take a brief break and then come back with something modern. It hasn’t occurred to me before now that people might want to read along with me. I’ll be doing Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg. I’ve heard it might upset the “purists,” but I’m trying to get a variety over the course of the year.

Year of Mystery Novels, Part 2: Mystic River

For my second mystery novel of the year, I decided to do Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I know this was a really famous movie when it came out, but somehow I went into this not knowing anything about the plot or mystery at all. I highly recommend this to anyone who can manage it.

I really should have started the year with this one, because it blew me away. It could very well end up being one of my favorite books I read this year. It also clarified for me what I didn’t like about The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Mystic River has incredible depth to it. The atmosphere of the neighborhood plays a big role. Each of the characters have a history with the others. In the first few pages, we get a horrific scene that carries on thirty years later to create guilt and pain between two of the main characters.

The characters are all deeply flawed, and one of the best parts of the novel is to see how small mistakes can escalate quickly into terrible, life-changing moments through perfectly understandable overreactions.

This is what the Sherlock Holmes novel was missing. Mystic River is first and foremost a novel with subplots and tension and a bunch of moving parts contributing to the plot. The Holmes novel was a mystery first and maybe character study next. The “novel” part was more an afterthought.

Let’s move on from these vague descriptions to some of the takeaway lessons. There will obviously be spoilers from here on out.

It takes 150 pages to get to the discovery of the dead body. Before this happens, Lehane carefully sets up a bunch of scenarios. It’s unclear which, if any, will turn into the main mystery of the novel.

The way he does this is to give us points of view of people tangential to the potential crimes. The opening chapter is from the point of view of a childhood friend of a kid that is abducted. Next we get the wife of a man who comes home with blood all over him.

This sets up a bunch of scenarios, all of which pique the interest of the reader even if they end up not being the main crime. It’s rather clever, because the book doesn’t turn so much on figuring who did it. Instead, we want to figure out how each of these scenarios are related. It’s a much more engaging way to let the mystery unfold.

Another thing this book does well is to show the grieving of the families involved. In a more classical mystery telling we are so focused on the detective and clues that this human and emotional component totally disappears.

I won’t spoil the actual ending, but I will say that it is nice to have the crime be so believable. I don’t like when it turns out to be a complete sociopath or someone who can only be described as “pure evil.” Turn on the news. People die at the hands of others for really mundane reasons. And, wow, the final reveal in this book will leave the most coldhearted person shaken.

The pacing and tension were done really well for all the the above reasons. My only complaint is my standard one. This is clearly “commercial fiction” with how sloppy the prose style is. The first fifty pages took some effort to plod through.

Without hunting for the truly egregious sentences, here’s one on a random early page:

He’d [Sean’s father] planned the back porch here, something he and his friends threw up one blistering summer when Sean was five, and he came down here when he wanted peace and quiet, and sometimes when he was angry, Sean knew, angry at Sean or Sean’s mother or his job.

This is very typical. The sentences are fine, except at the end they get needlessly confusing and wordy. Lehane tends to use pronouns a touch too long without reminding us who it is referring to. He also conflates point of view (like in this one it’s hard to tell if Sean’s father or Sean is supposed to be the viewpoint).

Overall, I think the biggest takeaway from this novel is to keep the mystery active with scenarios and character actions. It creates a more compelling read than when information is revealed through the discovery of clues.

My 2018 Reading List

Two years ago I started to use a theme for my year of reading. This was an attempt to focus on one form or style for study. I did a year of giant novels and then a year of short fiction. This year I wanted to challenge myself to read something I have almost no familiarity with.

This will be The Year of Mystery Novels. I came to the realization that I’d never read any mystery novel, maybe ever. I haven’t even read classics like Sherlock Holmes or anything by Agatha ChristieYikes!

Sure, I’ve read the Dresden Files, but those are urban fantasy with mystery elements. I’ve read plenty of novels that have mysteries in them, but the mystery novel itself is different. It stands or falls on the ability to keep the reader surprised, guessing, and intrigued about a mystery.

This is an ability all novelists could use to up their writing. So, this year, I want to explore what makes a mystery novel work. My goal is to read ten, and these are the ones I’ve come up with so far:

  1. Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  3. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  4. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  5. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  6. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
  7. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg
  8. A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Bern

I need two more, so if you love mysteries and see something missing, let me know. I’m also not locked in to any of these. I tried to get a huge range from classic procedural to modern paranormal to experimental to literary.

As for the rest of my reading, I usually shoot for 52 books a year. That’s one book a week. It’s enough that I have to keep reading to do it, but it’s not stressful if I miss a few days for illness or travel or something.

Other than mysteries, I want to read about ten books written in 2018. At the end of last year, I realized I dropped the ball on current literature. I will also shoot for about ten nonfiction books. That leaves twelve books that I’ll probably fill in on a whim. I’m in the middle of a few fantasy series, so it will mostly be those (Malazan, The Stormlight Archives, The Wheel of Time, Dresden Files).

Year of Short Fiction Roundup

The year of short fiction is over, so I thought I’d post my final thoughts on it. Here’s a list of what I read with links to each post:

  1. Daisy Miller by Henry James
  2. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  3. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck
  4. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  5. The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft
  6. Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
  7. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  8. Tenth of December by George Saunders

I planned on doing at least two more than this, including Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (mostly because I hated Arrival and felt a little bad about not reading the story it’s based on first). Unfortunately, I tend to read by picking up whatever I see at the moment I need a book, and so I got derailed at some point by not committing to my list.

If this collection of short fiction seems to be lacking the standard “greats,” it’s because I intentionally didn’t re-read stuff I knew I loved (like Dubliners or Kafka, etc). I actually got so far ahead of my reading goal of 52 books for the year that I went crazy the other way and added a few 1000 pagers (the second Stormlight Archive book [much better], the second Wheel of Time book [a little better], and the entire rest of the Dark Tower series [each gets worse]).

I did a good job of keeping the mix of novellas and short stories even (four of each). Breakfast at Tiffany’s was by far the best novella of the ones I read. It’s heartbreaking and subtle and the characterization is very deep for how short it is. That novella is a masterclass in great writing and was exactly the type of thing I hoped to encounter by doing this.

I think Interpreter of Maladies was the best short story collection, though Tenth of December is a close second. Saunders experimented a lot more than Lahiri, and I came to a realization that short stories were the perfect medium for experimentation. Some of his stories didn’t work for me, but that was okay, because they were short.

I have to say that I’m a little embarrassed I never picked up the Lahiri collection before now. It’s been on my radar for at least a decade. Those stories taught me that short fiction can have the same gut punch of emotion that great longer fiction often has.

I’ve always had the impression that a key component of generating emotion in the reader is to have them spend a lot of time with the characters to develop empathy. Lahiri gets reader empathy for her characters in a very small space. A lot can be learned by studying this collection.

I’ve had a sinking feeling for a while now that I like short fiction better. This year has confirmed it.

In my opinion, the novella is the perfect medium for storytelling. Most novels ought to be novellas, but for marketing reasons and social/career pressure, people take their novella-length idea and make it a novel. This means there’s often too much description, dragging the narrative. There’s often a soggy middle, where some artificial barriers stall the characters and the story along with it.

The novella (to clarify, I mean around 30,000-50,000 words) fixes all these problems. It gives one plenty of space to develop the story and characters, have the action rise and fall in a satisfying way, and still layer in description and worldbuilding. I often end up despising novels that have great premises and great writing, but they refuse to end. Maybe it’s just me, and the internet age has finally taken its toll.

Last year, I ended up not liking almost any of the “giant novels” I read. This year, I genuinely liked all the short fiction. We can come back to this idea in a week when I do the best books of the year post (spoiler: if the book was 80,000+ words, I probably didn’t like it).

Now you may be thinking, why did I have a “sinking feeling” about this revelation? Answer: I want to primarily write short fiction, since that’s what I like. But short fiction has a much smaller reader base (especially in sci-fi/fantasy). This shouldn’t be the case, but it is!

I even get it. If you’re a casual reader, it’s easier to make a single purchase and live in a giant novel for a few months. If you’re an avid reader, it’s more cost efficient to buy larger books so you aren’t making three book purchases a week.

But I think it would be good if more writers in the genre embraced shorter fiction.

Sci-fi is almost always at its best when exploring one interesting idea. Sci-fi writers often have way more cool ideas than they can write novels for. So why not do a short story collection where each idea gets a story? This is what made The Twilight Zone so great. This way no one has to suffer through a whole novel conceived from this idea. If it’s longer, do a novella. One should only write a novel if one’s story arc actually calls for it.

This used to be more common. Many of the great works in the genre were novellas: Foundation, Rendezvous with Rama, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451Even The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy didn’t break 50,000 words. Even Samuel R. Delany started with novellas.

Unfortunately, we’re in an age of the ten-volume space opera and 10,000-page epic fantasy series.

Literature is for the Other

I’ve decided to end my silence by responding to a recent Tor article by Liz Bourke entitled Sleeps With Monsters: On the Question of Quality.

I have one main beef with it, and it comes as a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of literature. But before I get to that, I want to address a throwaway comment that gets at a pet peeve of mine.

She says, “Past a certain level of prose and structural competence, ‘quality’ is a nebulous concept.”

No, it’s not. This is one of those things people say that aren’t true. In the best-case scenario, she hasn’t thought very hard about this. In the worst-case scenario, it’s a rhetorical trick used to defend works of dubious quality.

If quality were as nebulous and subjective as Bourke wants us to believe, all editors may as well quit. Let’s inform the big publishers they can save millions of dollars a year. Those suggested edits won’t improve the quality of your manuscript.

Why waste time as an author even going beyond your first, rough draft? Your edits might change the words on the page, but there’s certainly no sense in which you’ve improved the writing, because, hey, quality isn’t a real thing. While we’re at it, no more literary agents. Everything in the slush pile is a masterpiece to someone.

Since this was published at Tor, let’s also inform those people at Writing Excuses that they’ve wasted twelve years of their lives teaching people the ins and outs of various aspects of the craft of writing. Because, hey, that’s like just their subjective opinion, right? Following that advice can’t improve the quality of your writing. Quality isn’t even a well-defined concept.

What about the hundreds of books on writing and writing programs across the country. Call up Robert McKee and tell him story structure is meaningless. Let’s burn our copies Strunk and White, since prose style doesn’t matter. We can save universities tons of money by canceling Freshmen Composition classes, too. Why not kill the whole English department? What’s to be learned in a literature class when all that matters is what you subjectively feel as you read. Those professors can’t add anything.

I’ve done dozens of “Examining Pro’s Prose” articles pointing out aspects of high-quality writing. I’ve also done a few “Lessons in the Fundamentals” pointing out low-quality writing.

Anyone who has consider the idea for more than a few minutes knows that quality is not a nebulous concept. The notion of “quality” is reasonably objective and fully separate from whether anyone connects with or appreciates the product. One is related to the craft of writing, the other to the art of writing.

End rant and on to the real point of this post.

Bourke writes:

I wrote a column in September about the utter shock of feeling catered to, of feeling seen, of feeling centred in books as a queer person. It was a shock that brought home to me that this is how straight white cis men can rely on feeling when they come to a narrative. After a lifetime like that, it must be disconcerting to experience narratives in which you are present but not central.

It must be alienating to come to narratives where you are an afterthought, or not there at all.

Sit with that for a minute. Just sit with it.

You can feel the smugness emanating from those words. She feels so clever, like she’s struck upon something profound. I almost feel bad that she has literature exactly backward in its importance.

More than any other art form, literature can transport you inside the soul of another person no matter how distinct their identity or experience is from your own. We read literature precisely to get the understanding and empathy that a perceived other is just as worthy of compassion and consideration as our own in-group.

It’s why I chose to be a writer.

It is such a shallow, egocentric, and frankly embarrassing admission to say an important revelation of your reading life was seeing yourself represented. Literature is for the other, not for the self.

Some of the most profound reading experiences of my life were reading James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, and getting a glimpse at what it was like being a bisexual black man in very dangerous time for both of those identities. And The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, and The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Jhumpa Lahiri and Joan Didion and Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison and and!!!

These books all made me a better person precisely because I was not represented as the main character. They gave me empathy and understanding I wouldn’t otherwise have had.

People who LARP (live action role play) have a name for this: bleed. When you inhabit someone other than yourself, those effects can be profound and lasting on your life. The narrative experience “bleeds” over to real life. This only happens when reading about people dissimilar to oneself, and it’s the most important and powerful part of great literature.

(My next novel delves into this concept considerably).

You know what wasn’t a powerful experience for me? Seeing myself as a main character in a book. I’m gay, and I can’t even tell you the first time I read a gay main character. I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower in high school, and this had a gay side character. If I had to guess my first gay main character would be from the novel At Swim, Two Boys. That is a beautiful book, but I don’t know for sure.

Do you know why this wasn’t a “shock” to me? Because I already had that experience. It was me. There wasn’t as much to learn from it. I’ve also never had trouble jumping right into the mind of a character of any sexual orientation, gender, race, etc.

I find it kind of disturbing that Bourke thinks people other than herself (namely straight white cis men) would find a book centered on a character of differing identity “disconcerting” and “alienating.” This probably says more about her than about the people her article is lambasting.

I’ve just made the correct argument for quality diverse literature in the world. It allows people to inhabit the other and find common ground and understanding. It unites through revealing the human condition.

You know what is not a good argument for diversity in literature? To see yourself represented. That creates a useless bubble, and I’d be embarrassed if I read books for that purpose.

As a postscript, I wouldn’t make the same claims about visual media. Representation in film or tv, where you are separate from the character, and their physical traits are present all the time is a different scenario and underscores how important literature is as a distinct storytelling medium where you inhabit another person for a time.

Year of Short Fiction Part 8: Tenth of December

Today we dive into the short fiction of George Saunders.

Saunders made it in the literary world on short fiction alone. He might be the only person I know of to do this. His first novel came out earlier this year and that was twenty-one years after his first story collection (and novella). I can’t believe I’ve made it nine months through the Year of Short Fiction without getting to him. There’s so much to learn.

I once watched an interview with Saunders, and he said that some of his stories start out as 200+ page novels. Then he realizes how unnecessary most of that is. It sometimes takes years or even a decade, but eventually it gets distilled down to the important bits, only a few pages long. Most writers don’t trust their readers enough to do this. Most writers don’t want to do the work it takes to produce short fiction with this type of professional mindset.

I haven’t finished the whole collection Tenth of December yet, but I wanted to do a post on the title story. I don’t know how much longer this story started, but holy is it dense. I had to go back and read the first three paragraphs again after I finished the story for them to make sense.

We’re dropped into a character’s head with pretty much no context as to what’s going on. The descriptions are scatterbrained and keep referencing people and things that make sense to the character but not the reader. Some of the words and people are made up.

This is a character with a fully developed voice and backstory and eventually it starts to make sense, but this is exactly how you’d expect it to be inside someone’s head the first time. If it makes sense right off, you’re doing it wrong.

Anyway, it doesn’t take as much time to get your bearings as I made it sound, but everything mentioned does play a role. So we figure out that we’re in the head of a child who has gone out to play. He’s making up stories, but he’s pretending they’re real. So to the reader it’s a little disorienting as to what’s real and what’s made up.

We also realize the short, choppy, scattered sentences with bad grammar and made up slang makes sense for a child. The voice is whimsical in what details keep getting added on for effect:

They were Netherworlders. Or Nethers. They had a strange bond with him. Sometimes for whole days he would just nurse their wounds. Occasionally, for a joke, he would shoot one in the butt as it fled. Who henceforth would limp for the rest of its days. Which could be as long as an additional nine million years.

Then we change characters. The voice is unmistakably different. The sentences are more refined. It’s wiser, older, melancholy. But there’s something off. Then we realize he can’t get to certain words. Sometimes they come out as a similar sounding word that makes no sense in the context.

This man has something wrong with him. It’s obvious from the voice alone before we find out the truth. The story is so good and suspenseful and moving once it gets going that I don’t want to spoil any of that by revealing what’s wrong or what happens. I want to keep focusing on the voice, because I think that’s one of the best things we can learn from this story.

It was a miracle. That he’d got this far. Well, he’d always been strong. Once, he’d run a half-marathon with a broken foot. After his vasectomy he’d cleaned the garage, no problem.

He’d waited in the med-bed for Molly to go off to the pharmacy. That was the toughest part. Just calling out a normal goodbye.

His mind veered toward her now, and he jerked it back with a prayer: Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling.

Let. Let me do it cling.

Clean.

Cleanly.

I think this type of really close third person is amazing in short fiction. It can get tiresome in a whole novel, but here it reveals so much in so little space. It’s entirely in the character’s voice.

The stream of consciousness takes us from what he’s doing to past times he’s done difficult things. This allows us to get a sense of the character in a natural way that would be hard to work in otherwise.

I’ve already exlained the word thing, but it’s pretty amazing the first time it appears and you have to work out what’s going on. “Leg me do it cling.” I read that, and was super confused. I had to read it again thinking I’d missed something. Then I continued as the character fights to find the right words. My confusion shifted to curiosity. What in the world was going on with him that he had trouble?

This is my takeaway. This collection of stories is a masterclass in how voice isn’t just another tool of characterization. It can be an integral part of the tension and action of the story if used properly.

I highly recommend checking out these stories and reading them with this in mind.