Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Called Out by Chance

Chance, in response to my last post, said:
I'd be more interested in the discussion you are trying to start if you added some substance of what you liked about The Sparrow and the Ted Chiang story and how they are similar, and for the ones you don't like and what you think the critical differences between the two groups are. "Cool" is a pretty meaningless term without context.

It's a good point. So let me see if I can make my subtext a little more explicit.

The division that I'm looking at is between stories about -- for want of better terms -- special effects and therapy.

By special effects, I mean literary devices that tend to call attention to themselves. That could be the eyeball-kicks I was talking about earlier where something really visually strange or engaging is presented -- Terry Dowling's Flashmen is packed with those. That could also be a showy literary style like David Foster Wallace. Or even a depth of erudition and research that becomes the central attribute of the story. I'm thinking of Stephenson's recent work.

By therapy, I mean touchy-feely emotional stories that keep the literary devices that make them effective as near invisible as possible. My examples are Chiang's The Story of Your Life and Russel's The Sparrow. Both of them certainly have some craft-y aspects. Chiang especially uses grammar to explain and deepen the story he's telling. But those stories (and Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang, and, to go back to my last post, Jim Kelly's The Best Christmas Ever) are ones I remember as stories, with the form that carried the stories less important than the characters and the details of them (the mutiliated hands and fence-perching turtles of The Sparrow, for instance) representative of something internal to the characters.

I think that, especially when an author is fiercely talented, it's easy to get caught up in the explorations of the form that special-effect stories lend themsleves to. But I don't like it any more than I'd like working in a Bauhaus designed factory. Yes, David Foster Wallace can create hypertextual work on a page. Yes, China Meiville can imagine worlds as evocative as Bosch. Yes, Neal Stephenson knows more than I do. A lot more.

The stories that appeal to me as a reader can incorporate any of those elements. All of them. But in the service of a story that touches me emotionally. Given the choice between a story that explicates an aspect of quantum physics in rigorous detail (or is so cram-packed with incredibly beautiful sentences that it's busting at the seams) and one that reminds me what it would feel like to experience a first kiss (or the loss of a child), I have a preference.

This isn't a moral choice on my part. I don't think my preference is the right one for all people for all time. It's an aesthetic preference. And it's going to inform everything I say on this blog.


Blogger David Moles said...

See, "therapy" sounds, to me, like what Onyx was talking about w.r.t. stories "about things I already knew." (Sounds suspiciously like Mundane SF, I think.)

Whereas, for me, the hallmark of a Maureen McHugh story is that it's about something you only thought you knew, and makes you look at it in a way you've never looked at it before; and the hallmark of a Ted Chiang story is that it quietly but permanently unscrews the top of your head by making you think about something you never would have thought of.

When I think about "cool", that's the sort of thing I'm thinking about. I think we're all past the point where the mere mention of a zombie clown or a cannibal zeppelin is enough to get you a permanent place on the shelf.

(I'll pass on The Sparrow, since I didn't quite ever see what the fuss was about, and was thoroughly disappointed by Children of God.)

6:36 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

(And, because I can't resist:

The Younger Polemicist put on a tape of Handel played by a Japanese koto orchestra, knowing that his visitor would be unable to cope with anything more modern. “Let’s face it, you don’t even read Asimov’s magazine. You hadn’t heard of the Humanist Faction, till I told you about it. You probably even like some of their stuff.” He sneered contemptuously. “Deeply meaningful mood pieces evoking insight into the human condition — that’s what your ‘new wave’ was all about back in ’68, wasn’t it?“

— “Phaedrus”, Cheap Truth #16)

6:45 PM  
Blogger Onyx said...

I think what Safe Light is talking about is one aspect of pushing the boundaries. (I also think "The Story of Your Life" is in my top ten list of best stories ever.) What I want is for a story to do something beyond my expectations. The problem may be that as a writer, my expectations are extreme. Like a basketball player watching other basketball players, or a chef tasting someone's cooking.

I like some of Bruce Sterling's work because of the eyeball kicks. Sterling's work is not therapy, it is often economic. (He's deadly facsinated by ways of exchange and the multinational nature of money and value.) I think the zombie clown can be really good--if there is something more than just the zombie clown. (Which I'm pretty sure is David's point.) I really liked David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest even though it has not ending (I think its a mortally flawed novel.) I liked the way an entire subplot was told in footnotes. I liked the way Wallace knew a lot about AA and about recovery. I thought he at times did show me what Safe Light calls therapy. I'm not recommending the book, per se. It's 2.8 pounds of fucking small print and as I said, I think it's mortally wounded.

I want a story to do something. Tim Pratt and David Moles, you're right, you are young writers. But you don't want to end up like me, embittered and middle-aged and whining about the Nebulas, do you?

(And by the way, thanks all of you for coming and joining the conversation. And I'm sorry we didn't allow anonymous comments. Sheer oversite on our part. Blogger buries all that stuff deep in settings.)

6:55 PM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

Heh! I love the quote! (I'll defend myself from the Younger Polemicist by espousing a deep love of plot and fear of mood peices some other time.)

And I loved The Sparrow and deeply disliked Children of God. I'm still a little angry about that one.

6:57 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

Actually, I'm kind of enjoying the contrast between signed and pseudonymous now. I think it gives one side an unfair advantage; I just can't figure out which side.

7:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(For the purposes of this comment, I'm going to consider the Dark Cabalists Fundamentalists, even though they're not. They're almost certainly literary humanists. But this latest post has some elements of Fundamentalism to it. I.e., an adherence to one truth.)

To say that "effects" or "technique" should be used (or are most effective used) in the service of creating stories with an emotional impact is pretty basic. Yes. Yes, that's true. An emotional impact would be nice. (Although hopefully there are a lot of other things going on in the story as well...)

However, the fact is, one reader's "eyeball kicks" (one of the most superficial, useless, and disturbingly "workshoppy" terms I've ever heard--sorry, but talking about fiction using such terminology, a shorthand that simultaneously makes generalizations while only scraping the surface, is not useful) are another reader's emotionally laden effects, whether self-conscious or not. To claim otherwise--that there's some kind of *absolute* amongst readers and writers when it comes to the definition of "seamless" (i.e., non-intrusive) or self-conscious *technique*--just isn't accurate.

Jeff VanderMeer

P.S. I've heard this term "eyeball kicks" or "eye candy" used before in a workshop setting. It's a convenient way, in that setting, of saying "too much description," for example. But it's also distressingly blind as a comment when it comes to the use of resonant imagery or symbolism, or even successful stories that don't follow the normal proportion of scene to exposition. This is another reason why I feel strongly about using such workshopspeak, especially in the wider world--it debases dialogue about fiction and reduces us to the level of received ideas and cliches.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

Mr. Vandermeer:

I? A fundamentalist? Surely not. Look here where I was so careful to say:

This isn't a moral choice on my part. I don't think my preference is the right one for all people for all time. It's an aesthetic preference. And it's going to inform everything I say on this blog.

And yes, I will accept that "eyeball kick" is another one of those phrases (like cool) that is dangerous in its imprecision. I'll try to be more precise in the future, but you have to understand, I'm mostly thinking out loud here. It's not like I've practiced this all in a mirror before I started talking.

The phrase I wound up with -- explorations of the form -- is pretty cose to what I mean though. have you ever read John Berger's essay on Jacksom Pollock? He talks about what art can say when it's all about the form and not engaging with the world. That's related to what I'm struggling with here.

And it's quite possible that I'm still working through some opinions about received ideas and cliche's. I'm sure I've recieved a lot of them to be worked through. It's damn good to see you here talking about it, though. Thanks for coming.

12:01 AM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

Ooh, one other thing I forgot to mention. It may have gotten a lost in the two posts and discussions, but this actually began as a caveat -- me tryin' to describe the take I have as a way to judge my recommendations.

I'm more interested in "The Best Christmas Ever" than "Decisions" because I found TBCE is more involved with a psychological epiphany that I can relate to and than the sf-nal ideas in Decisions. Other folks may certainly fall the other way without being wrong or evil or less than the Great and Godlike me. (I mean I'm wearing a mask here, fer crissakes. How immature is that?)

And also I quite agree that some folks like some things better than others. All I can report is what works for me.

12:15 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

I love the term "eyeball kick".

From the Turkey City Lexicon:

Eyeball Kick

Vivid, telling details that create a kaleidoscopic effect of swarming visual imagery against a baroquely elaborate SF background. One ideal of cyberpunk SF was to create a "crammed prose" full of "eyeball kicks." (Attr. Rudy Rucker)

A good eyeball kick is a kind of telling detail. It's not the kind that reveals character. It is specifically a very smart, usually very visual detail that evokes that you are in the future and the future is complicated in ways you hadn't thought of but which on reflection makes sense. So Jeff, maybe the term has been used sloppily, but in the workshops I attend, its meaning is pretty sharply defined and useful.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Johnny Dark said...


10:26 AM  
Blogger Johnny Dark said...

Most preferably I want it all-- I want the neat little details and cool characters and a memorable plot. Most importantly, I want a story that makes me think, one that gives me something that I wouldn't have thought of myself but feels right. (of course, that's hard.)

With that said, I'd say that "The Best Christmas Ever" was a good enough story as I read it, but afterwards it doesn't stand out as particularly memorable. The characters didn't engage me particularly, the setting seemed rather vanilla, and the science fiction elements left me with a "so what" feeling. I liked it well enough, but couldn't say I actually loved it.

10:35 AM  
Blogger David Moles said...

Most preferably I want it all -- I want the neat little details and cool characters and a memorable plot.

I sympathize, but I'm not sure "I like good things and hate bad things" is a viable program for change.

3:43 PM  
Blogger Brickworks said...

I had to share:

"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know it is poetry. If I feel phiysically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know this is poetry. These are the only ways I know it."
--Emily Dickinson

I've always liked this quote. I now return you to the more relevant discussions.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

I'm starting to get the sinking feeling that that's as to the point as anything else we've got, Brick... :)

3:54 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

Wow. I had no idea the off-with-the-top-of-the-head metaphor had such a distinguished pedigree.

1:25 PM  

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