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Thursday, May 8, 2014

On Reading part 2: Reading Protocols, or I can't believe you don't read / think / see the world like I do

Will Self's interest in the serious novel and Chuck Windig's retort also sparked this half of the essay--from a different slant of light.

Upon request, I collected links to my online writings, often experimental back then (some good, some so-so), and bumped into old reviews of earlier stories.  I found one review angrily (why angry?) slammed me regarding a story whose style/structure I borrowed from Paul Auster and Charles Dickens.  Mostly the insinuated complaint was that I made them think in ways they weren't accustomed to.  I've since realized SF isn't a genre for difficult stories and books.  Look at Philip K. Dick's and Harlan Ellison's reaction to Samuel Delany's Dhalgren (Wikipedia):
"By contrast, fellow writers such as Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison hated the novel. When the book appeared, Ellison in the L. A. Times (Sunday, February 23, 1975, p. 64) wrote: 'I must be honest. I gave up after 361 pages. I could not permit myself to be gulled or bored any further.' In an interview 27 years later, he said: 'When Dhalgren came out, I thought it was awful, still do ... I ... threw it against a wall.' Dick called Dhalgren 'a terrible book' that 'should have been marketed as trash. ... I just started reading it and said this is the worst trash I've ever read. And I threw it away.' "
Why did they react angrily?  It wasn't a game they wanted to play.  Unfortunately, that's what people do.  They trash things they don't like reading.  Some people dislike SF.  I quit dating someone who said, "So you like reading SF?" and laughed (not that that was the only reason, but a constellation of similar symptoms*).

Each book, each genre plays its own games.  You have to be versed in the game, familiarize yourself to the rules.  Delany speaks of SF reading protocols [summarized here--Heloise Merlin, very sharp gal whoever she is].  So, too, do James Gunn and Jo Walton.

But it confuses people as well.   H. P. Lovecraft's 1927 essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” trashes Henry James because he doesn't focus on what Lovecraft does--the singular lens of fear.  I find James a more rewarding experience in terms of style, character, and thought, but your mileage may be different.  Maybe fear is your only criterion for evaluating literature.

Here's the Scratch Interview with Jonathan Franzen by Manjula Martin [registration required].  Not a Franzen hater myself (I don't know why people hate him and don't care), I found this curious:
"MM: Define 'serious novel.' 
"JF: Read the first five pages. Count clichés. If you find one, the buzzer goes off: it’s not a serious novel. A serious novelist notices clichés and eliminates them. The serious novelist doesn’t write 'quiet as a mouse' or paint the world in clichéd moral terms. You could almost just substitute the adjective 'cliché-free' for 'serious.' "
So Franzen's singular lens is the cliché.  Clichés are not admirable, of course, but literary artists have used them, sometimes purposefully.**  Here's Aaron Sorkin, Academy and Emmy-award winning American screenwriter, producer, and playwright who reused a few lines.  (Even better is this Slate parody with Josh Charles and Amy Schumer .)

Here's Junot Diaz's complaint of his MFA experience and Karin Gillespie, a self-professed Chick-Lit writer, on hers.  Again they both seek people who write what they're interested in.  No shame in that.  But neither should what they do be the only reading/writing protocol that exists.  It surprises me why more readers and writers haven't glommed on to this.  Anyway, I am glad Diaz has created an MFA program for what he sees as the proper lens for literature.  The more lenses, the merrier.  Find what fits for you, but do try on different lenses.  See what it looks like inside someone else's spectacles.

Side notes on the cliché:

* a cliché from medicine applied to different circumstances.

**Like word choice, clichés can lend a character a certain voice, depending on the type deployed.  No character or person is cliché-free unless you were able to write and revise everything you said before you said it.  Not that a cliché  should be any writer's first choice, but that there may be legitimate reason to use one, sparingly.  However, I can imagine some writers/readers where this is the only point of writing--being cliché-free.  Someday, technology will uncover just how many phrases writers have borrowed from other writers.  It may be higher than we suppose.  Maybe we'll be able to quantify the tolerable number of cliches--or the uses of a phrase which makes it a cliché, or how those clichés are deployed.***

*** I'll give examples of how clichés used well in the article, " 'A Dozen of Everything' by Marion Zimmer Bradley (or cliches can characterize)" clichés also used by Penelope Fitzgerald, Booker Prize winner, and Garry Wills, Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle winner, who probably consider themselves serious).

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