Taking the Literary Hit
Okay, so there was a discussion on one of my threads when a dichotomy broke out.
You all know these dichotomies—they’re not even arguments, because no one is listening to each other, they’re just giving their two-cents, their IMO’s, and, even better, their IMHO’S with a subtext of YODMD’s. (In My Honest Opinion Your Opinion Don’t Mean Diddly.)
In this case, the dichotomy was about third person omniscient point of view, and whether or not “head hopping” is a cardinal sin.
I have to admit it—these sorts of things set my inner English teacher free of her Victorian corset and make her want to do a flapper dance on stage without underwear.
When I first wrote Vulnerable, I varied the points of view by chapter. Two of the viewpoints were from first person and the last viewpoint—the chapters narrated by an 1800 year old pansexual elf—were narrated from third person limited omniscient.
Back in those days I frequented the amazon.com boards, and was often surprised when people said this was a technique used by people who didn’t know how to write, because otherwise other people would do it.
Other people had done it—William Faulkner and James Joyce to name the two I was familiar with. But then, like I said, this was back in the day when I was still teaching, and one of the odd egocentricities of the teaching community is that all teachers everywhere like to assume that people were paying attention during their classes.
Uhm, not so much, no.
So, at the risk of sounding like Ranty McRant McSelf-Important Douchecanoe, I’m going to talk about some of the most constantly misunderstood writing stylistics. These stylistic choices, while highly subjective to individual taste, are often given a rather haughty—and subjective—ruling as being “wrong” or “poor writing” or “sloppy.” Essentially, these are things that critics in our genre will denounce as wrong, and writers will assume are wrong, but that are, in fact, viewed in different light according to genre, sub-genre, writing tradition, even trope. These are things that, outside of our rather insulated community of genre fiction, are not necessarily bad at all. In fact, some of them are, at worst, quaintly outdated, like a ‘20’s style cloche--but like the cloche that doesn’t mean they don’t serve a function, even if it’s merely to keep our ears warm!
So here we go—stylistic fallacies, the Ranty McRant Douchemonkey list:
Fallacy: “Head hopping” is automatically the sign of a sloppy writer.
Fact: Third person unlimited omniscient point of view is a common narrative voice. While, for the purpose of shorter stories or other narrative needs, the romance community has tended to use third person limited omniscient to tighten our focus on individual characters, it’s not the only way to go. While it’s more commonly seen in cast-of-thousands work like historical fiction or fantasy, third person unlimited omniscient—i.e. “head hopping” – is the POV of choice in many successful romance franchises. Example? In our genre, there’s the Cut & Run series, originally by Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux. In romance as a whole, there’s the hugely popular In Death series by J.D. Robb—in the same scene we’ll hear from Eve, we’ll hear form Roarke, and we’ll hear from Peabody and McNab as well. It’s not a weakness folks, it’s a hugely successful choice!
Fallacy: Writing fantasy or urban fantasy is easier than contemporary because everything is made up.
Fact: Writing fantasy or urban fantasy is way the hell harder because in order to create a fantasy world, the writer needs to first create a frickin’ fantasy world. This means that the rules of the world—while fantastic—must be completely consistent or the belief in the world falls apart. J.R.R. Tolkien was the first author to notice this officially and then to lead by example, and brother, his example. His world building is more extensive and more fact intensive than a lot of historical textbooks—and even better, it’s expandable and historically influenced because he used his linguistics and mythology knowledge to make “Middle Earth” a lot like an early version of our earth. There was nothing “easy” about that accomplishment, and when one of us writes anything with a fantasy setting—even my teeny little 9,000 word story about angels—we have to, at bare minimum, implant some rules for our fantasy world or it will fall apart. This isn’t easy, we’re not being lazy, and, in fact, much like reading fiction is more difficult than reading non-fiction, (and therefore a more valuable skill) writing fantasy takes considerably more skill than writing contemporary. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
Fallacy: Fantasy or science fiction writing is frivolous because it’s not “real”.
Fact: When I was in college I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which a society programmed “super soldiers” and then watched in horror as the discarded soldiers came back demanding civil rights. The captain’s response to this dilemma?
He walked away and let the society face the consequences of their own callousness.
The premise of the episode was a thinly veiled reference to the crisis of Viet Nam veterans who had been neglected and relegated to homelessness by a government that had moved on, and as Picard looked with disdain at the “haves” being threatened by their self-created “have-nots” and then walked away, for a moment I was flabbergasted.
How had the writers of the show gotten away with that?
Well, it was easy. There was this polite fiction of “fiction” between the events of the episode and the real life events the episode mirrored. Quite frankly, it hurt less to watch those events unfold in the context of a science fiction setting than it did to see it in the eyes of the homeless guy I passed every day on the bus on my way to school.
That is the gift of fantasy and science fiction—that space to not only examine the human condition but to comment—often scathingly—upon it. That moment is just a tiny example of the changes in our world that we owe to that “fictional space” because the truth is, fantasy and science fiction have done more to influence and help us understand our society than any other genre including so-called factual reporting. The examples are endless—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Star Trek, Thomas Moore’s Utopia, 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, Gulliver’s Travels, Anthem—oh hell—just start with this list and go on from there. My point is, these works aren’t any the less resonant with the human condition because the writers went out of their way to build a fictional world in which to explore real human failings.
Fallacy: Any mention of mythological characters is fan fiction and therefore plagiarism.
Fact A: Fan fiction is only plagiarism if you attempt to pass it off as your own work.
Fact B: Yes, if I wrote about Tony Stark and Iron Man and tried to get money for that, yes, it would be illegal unless I was working for Marvel. (Or is it D.C.? Jesus, that’s a blind spot!)
Fact C: If I wrote about Thor and Loki (as I did!) as their mythological characters and not from their comic book canon, that is not fan fiction, that is simply writing mythology. It is, in fact, how the works of Homer, Ovid, Virgil and Shakespeare came to be. Not that I (or anybody else who has done this) thinks we’re all Homer and shit, but seriously—if you’re going to accuse someone of plagiarism, get it right!
Fallacy: A bad grammarian is, by definition, a bad storyteller.
Fact: A modest, little known book defining the rules of English grammar emerged in 1586. I’m not sure if Shakespeare ever read it. Hell, I’m not sure if Johnson (the scholar’s playwright) or Marlowe ever read it. I know it wasn’t around for all of the works that influenced them, and if Homer had seen it, he probably would have used it for kindling because all his literature was passed on by oral tradition. Way the hell back when mankind first started to tell stories by the fire and write them on cave walls, I would lay the family fortune (all fifty-six dollars) on the fact that while Og was watching his buddy Uk telling the story about the mammoth hunt, not once did he stand up and say, “Uk, buddy, good story, but the dramatic tension would have been heightened by a semi-colon there at the end!”
Yes, to some extent, grammar is important because if our rules of communication are somewhat standardized we can get our point across much more effectively. A split infinitive sounds like the nitpicking of a pompous douchepickle until someone tells you they were writing Derek and Stiles foot-fetish porn on a bus and you ask them if the bus driver was surprised. “No, no—I was on the bus, writing Derek and Stiles foot-fetish porn--they were on a photo shoot. Sorry! Split infinitive!” See? There? Yes, grammar was important. But when someone went out of their way to criticize the use of the word “bicep” as inaccurate, when, in fact, bicep has been worming it’s way into acceptable use since the thirties (the muscle group is, in fact, the “biceps”) well, in fact, that’s just an example of the rapid shifting of language norms, especially apparent in the age of disposable communication and social media. There are some grammar rules that are fading from fashion, and unless it’s the sort of thing that makes Og sit up and go, “No! Uk, you said you caught a mammoth not a space alien you big fat liar!” sometimes it’s better to just chill out and appreciate the fact that English as a language was created to accommodate rapid shifts in rhythm and expansion of concepts and verbiage.
Fallacy: Comedy is less important fiction than drama
Fact: Just because it doesn’t make you cry doesn’t mean it says less important shit about the human condition. Besides the fact that part of our business in life is celebrating, there’s also the fact that one of our most effective tools for social criticism is humor. Literature—any literature—that gives us a reason to celebrate is important, and anything that can criticize society without starting a war should get our eternal gratitude. People don’t take stand-up comedians all that serious either, but you bet your ass Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock, Dennis Leary, George Carlin and a whole host of others have left a more indelible imprint on our psyche and our world than all the treacly very-important-after-school-specials combined.
Fallacy: If it’s a romance, it has to end happily.
Fact: The King Arthur stories were the first “romances” translated into English (or what passed for English at the time) and the thing that differentiated these stories from the epic poems and tragedies that had been “literature” until then was that, in spite of the importance of the subject matter—the rise and fall of kingdoms, the master concepts of good versus evil and men living to the morals of a just (and Christian) God—these heroes had a personal agenda. King Arthur was a great king—but he sucked as a husband. Lancelot was indeed the most gentle and honorable knight that ever lived—just don’t leave him around your wife for long periods of time. Gwenivere was loyal to her king, like a good queen should be—but she was not necessarily faithful to her husband. These stories ended horribly for almost everyone involved. Nobody had a happy ever after in the King Arthur legends. What made the legends romance is that matters of the heart were real, and they were important--in fact, they were just as important as the rise and fall of kingdoms. What matters is that they had hope for mankind, and the heart of mankind, even if these players didn’t necessarily fulfill that hope in its entirety. It doesn’t matter who’s standing at the end—it just matters who had hopes that love would be waiting afterward.
And oh, I could go on, but honestly, I’m running late and I’m running long-winded, and I’m seriously in danger of becoming the self-grandiose lecturing douche-monkey of my worst nightmares so I’m going to end the list here.
“But Amy!” you all earnestly implore, (if I haven’t lost you at “douche-monkey”) “What shall we do if we agree with you, and write that socially relevant third-person omniscient fantasy romance epic with the artfully placed commas and the tragic ending! Won’t people still say bad things about what we’ve written? Won’t they still cite the fallacy without knowing the fact?”
To which I reply, “Uhm, yeah. Sorry about that.”
See, my little self-grandiose lecturing douche-monkey rant isn’t going to change the way critics read our work. It’s not going to automatically expand the reading base and literary knowledge of all writers outside their own genres. It’s not even going to convince people that I’m right, even if I want back to each of my little points and wrote the college thesis I’ve been dreaming about for years. There is one thing and one thing only knowing the fact and the fallacy is going to do for us as writers:
It’s going to prepare us for the hit.
I frequently tell new writers not to break the rules until they know the rules. Knowing which of these assumptions are real and which ones aren’t helps us write with integrity. This knowledge has given me creative license to do things like incorporate Thor and Loki into a contemporary story, or write a first person fairy tale narrative about an abused wood-worker and believe that it transcends the stigma placed on fantasy. It allowed me to write an epic romantic fantasy in third-person omniscient and not feel like I was cheating anything when I showed other character’s points of view. This knowledge lets me play with words like “douche-pickle” and ignore my editor’s warnings about ambiguity at my own peril. I know I may get critically burned for it, but I also know that I’m following a longstanding literary tradition, and no literary innovations are made without risk.
So yeah—sometimes it’s worth it to follow the fallacies. It guarantees that your work will get sold, more often than not. It makes you comfortable that you have written to please your audience, and damn, that’s something we all want to do, isn’t it?
But if you’re aware of the facts and aware of the fallacies, if you ever want to, say, break trope and write that book where the hero cheats, or, even worse, murders his deadly enemy in cold blood, or the fantasy that “head hops” as necessitated by the narrative, then you know if it’s worth it to take the critical flack.
The more you know, the stronger your stance behind your work, and the better braced you are to take the hit.
And to maybe swing back with a story that’s beyond the limits of critical expectations. Sometimes, it’s worth the risk.