Wednesday, September 22, 2010

More Pretentionism: On A Critique

This was the prep drawing for a print, and when I ran across it the other day I thought it was worth showing. I adore drawing imaginary animals just for that moment when you look down at the paper and get a faint whiff of life. This wasn't done with a brush, by the way. I used the graphics program Expressions. I get the feeling that the new Illustrator pretty much makes Expressions pointless...

The print was strongly influenced by Japanese brocade prints, and it would have been good if the sleeping Allosaurus hadn't looked dead, and I'd given half a fucking second's effort into drawing some ground cover, a few fucking ferns for chrissakes, how much work is that.


So I got a little het up during my writer's group meeting on Monday, and it provoked some thoughts. I really should get to bed and try and get a couple of hours of drone time in, but I'm thinking too hard for that.

The Monday night group has recently undergone a sea-change. One of our members, Deborah, has had a cough for a while that's kept her away. The result of this has been fascinating, if not to my tastes.

Because all of a sudden the group is a triangle. And triangles are awkward shapes for social groups because it is so easy for it to turn into a two-against-one dynamic. And some of us get a little defensive under such circumstances, and by some of us, I mean me.

Now, before I go into this, I need to state this up-front. I work with these writers for good reasons, and I get good and useful criticisms from them every single week, and have done so for years. But they both have particular biases, they are both quite literally-minded, and neither is artsy-fartsy or responsive to the kinds of fantastic and visionary elements that are at the roots of my creative process.

Deborah gets me in a way the other two don't, so when she's in the room we can kinda acknowledge what's going on when art gets trampled by craft.

They were critiquing the first act 0f the current draft of the novel. It is considerably changed from the last draft, and vastly improved. And I need to get this done. I need to get it out and get on to the next one. So at this stage of the game, I am just asking to have my hand held. I am being honest about this -- right now I am wanting to hear, 'yes, write the next act and send the fucker to an agent.'

You can see where this is going. Honestly, I can't recommend being in a room with me when I'm a little defensive. Ordinary person gets a little defensive, that's maybe three, four pounds of defensive. I dish out ten pounds, twelve pounds easy and that's nothing compared to when I'm really defensive. I've had to do a lot of defense in my life, so I'm good at it.

The first critique came from someone who has only with this draft become aware that the lead character is mentally ill. This is not something I can blame entirely on her. One thing I'm becoming more and more aware of is that my greatest weakness as a writer is that I do not...

Oh, Jesus. This is the kind of thing you're not supposed to talk about. But they brought it up. They used the term, 'too smart.' Repeatedly. In the discussion of more than one issue. But fuck it. I'm dealing with a subject restricted by the bounds placed on ordinary mortals, I speak of the Mighty Oaf. I am too big, too strong, and too smart. My shoulders are wider than an airline seat, I can't use garlic presses because they break in my hands, and the target audience for my fiction is Sherlock fucking Holmes because nine-tenths of what I write is implied. Make that thirty-nine fortieths.

And the result has been that the last draft of the novel was an entirely different experience for everyone who read it. And everyone except for maybe two or three folks I can think of only got a fraction of what was going on.

If they all got the same fraction it would have told me something. They all got a different fraction. Everything I put in, somebody got except for some of the obscure scientific stuff. And Linda got some of that, like the way time shifts affected the frequency of light so the lead character was seeing into the infrared and ultraviolet at times. But until now, she never noticed that Matt was nuts. And she doesn't like it. She thought this was a funny book, and now it's got this whole edgy, disturbing quality to it that gets on her nerves.

See, she had already decided she liked the book. So when this comes up, she's reacting as though I took her book away. So she actually told me that she thinks the book would be more popular if I took that element out.

I think some kind of stinking froth actually shot out of my ears at that point. The origin of the novel came when I wrote what was intended to be a classic ghost story very much in the M.R. James mold about a haunted garage band. I arbitrarily set it in the Santa Cruz around 'eighty-three, 'eighty-four, and used myself as the chatty M.R. James-style narrator.

When I was told the supernatural elements worked, and the realistic elements worked, but they didn't work together, I set about fixing things and the work grew in size. When I realized that my narrator was based on myself during a time when I slept two or three hours a night because my flying saucer experience left me with terrible nightmares, I realized I might have a protagonist rather than a narrator.

My mental illness is the core of the book, one of the primary structural poles. The fantastic elements of the book exist because if I wrote what happened literally, it would be a weak skeptic's version of Communion, and it would suck. But one of the root virtues of this work is that it attempts to deal honestly with mental illness. So that crit was easily deflected.

Then when they asked me what the mechanics of the fantasy element were, what the rules were, that's when they said I needed to dumb it down. The words 'dumb it down' were spoken.

I also disagreed with this criticism. I do understand that people are beguiled by images of a comprehensible world, and that by presenting an only-partially comprehensible story, one that feels as if it makes sense even if you can't figure out how, I'm automatically dismissing a certain portion of my potential audience. But -- here I betray that heralded intellectual snobbery -- I think I like my potential audience better without them.

Then came the criticism that the book just seemed to wander at first. That the protagonist doesn't seem purposeful. Now, this one got to me. Because while I was hearing phrases like, 'he needs to be the hero in every scene,' that immediately set off my hack alert, I also knew that there was something wrong in the work that I hadn't noticed.

That phrase 'hack alert' probably needs comment. I believe that all novels are literary, and that literary fiction is a particular genre rather than a description of what is best in fiction. I also believe that much of the fiction published as literary fiction actually is superior to much other fiction in many ways, and that the critical standards to which it adheres may be effectively applied to most, if not all, other fiction.

I also believe that genre fiction is not only too accepting of lower literary standards, but that its tropes and traditions allow people to 'construct' works (D&D, I blame you for a lot of suck), and that such construction is inferior to genuine acts of creation.

So while I'm not ever going to dismiss fiction on the basis of genre, I'm also conscious of the element of commercialism in most fiction. But that includes what is labeled as noncommercialism.

Here is a key Pretentionist concept.

Truly noncommercial art is made public despite the will of the artist, and the vast majority of it will never be seen. And in most cases, it will be more interesting from the perspective of pathology than aesthetics, and there will be a distasteful exploitative taint to its display.

'Noncommercial' work created with the idea of display in mind is created in the context of a commercial environment that allows support of the artist. And these environments inevitably specify the nature of the 'noncommercial' work they are willing to support.

Even art that manages to avoid interacting with commercial interests still takes place in the marketplace. We live in the marketplace.


That said, there is a very interesting dance that I find myself doing. As I've written before, part of the reason for this blog is that I don't want to be a noncommercial writer. My big aesthetic realization is that what I truly value is the experience that someone has in response to my work.

So there are obvious things I have to do in order to make my work readable. And there are obvious things I have to do in order to make my work worthwhile for me. For instance, while I love a good plot? I read tons of stuff that's basically plotless. If people didn't want plot, I'd write the occasional plot-0riented short story just to prove I could, but a whole novel's worth of plot? No way I'd bother if I didn't have to. Writing insane visionary passages? Sorry, folks. That's why I read, so that's why I write. You'll have to live with them.

But there is a weird zone where things are not clear-cut. I have made specific visual descriptions in the novel because I knew they would be easy to film. Those scenes are easy for the reader to visualize, because they use a familiar visual vocabulary. This is both a commercial and an aesthetic decision, and as an artist I stand by it.

Now. Back to the novel. The issue that came up that really hit a nerve was the idea that the lead character needed to have more of a sense of fate or destiny or purpose to him.

Now, this is something that has been the big problem all along. This has been my big focus on this rewrite. So when I heard this, I felt like I'd gotten a crack from a bat right across the back of my head. Of course, the dude saying it prefaced it with, "This seems ninety-eight per cent there and I would have read through all this just for the writing," but that wasn't important to me. I already had the good news.

The way the criticism was stated made things difficult for me. Al works from a basis in principles, while I'm a 'disagree with principles because they're too much like rules, take them apart with the intention of destroying them, find much virtue and reluctantly incorporate them,' kind of guy. So hearing statements like, "Matt has to be The Hero all the way through," and, "Matt has to be The Fixer in every scene," set me off.

But I knew there was something to what he was saying, and I couldn't see how to deal with it. And if I dealt with it through the application of principles rather than through an organic process of creation, it would damage the work. So I wouldn't do that. But his statements made it clear to me that there was a flaw in the work that I wasn't seeing.

When I learned art, there was no one I could find who taught perspective in a rigorous fashion. So I took a couple of courses in the architecture department. When I wanted to study plot, the only person who was able to actually teach me anything is a writer who's become marooned in SF/Fantasy. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, he's a strong and worthy writer in and out of the field, and it is likely I will succumb to the same fate.) Most of what I know about composition I learned from art I hated and landscape gardening. Here's another Pretentionist nugget.

Current training in the arts ignores many practical aspects of craft. A dedicated artist would do well to design their own course of education, and be willing to go outside the realm of the so-called fine arts to complete it.

And in this case, the solutions Al was presenting me were from the world of writing instruction. Most writing instruction books are intended to enable people to construct potboilers. But they were revealing something wrong with what I've written, and my intuition was that this was important. If Al was right and I had ninety-eight per cent of the novel, well. I was missing the important two per cent.

I could fix the visible problem by applying the rules. But the visible problem, Matt's seeming lack of purposeful movement, was the result of something deeper.

Now, the structure of Matt's story is one of someone who feels completely at a loss in life, who winds up at the end being strong and purposeful. This initial sense of drift is important. It's part of the story. But this is something that has been done before, and I've used other techniques to compensate for it, and goddamn it.

If it was right, it wouldn't feel wrong.

So I've been going nuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuts.

And then it finally hit me. I was reading the first few pages, and I realized that Matt had a tremendously emotional experience that drives the entire fucking plot happen in the second paragraph, and I never say or show how he feels about it. I have him perform extreme acts motivated by that moment, and I never tell the reader how that moment influenced him.

And I realized that while there were passages where I intentionally let the reader in on his thoughts, my technique has been to hide as much as possible. This is partially because of the first issue I mentioned -- one of the symptoms of the mental illness I've shackled my poor protagonist with is self-pity and compulsive internal verbal abuse. I've tried to indicate that stuff without showing it to a degree that becomes unpleasant for the reader. (Which is why Linda's complaints about Matt's mental illness are driving me nuts -- I had literally seventy or so pages of that kind of stuff that she read without issue in the last draft.)

But -- I haven't systematically considered the issue of what the reader knows of the protagonists emotional state. It's purely been a case-by-case issue.

And that's the thing with principles. When Al and Linda were strongly encouraging me to go through the work and make sure that Matt was the hero in each scene he appeared in, I felt as if Satan himself had appeared in my studio and said, "Come to the hack side. We've got all the readers!"

I knew that if I did that, it would throw off the balance of the scenes where Matt's role as the hero of the story simply is not the issue. It would make the work more readable, more appealing, and less worthy. But if I hadn't been made to consider the issue, I would not have recognized a serious flaw in my work, and one that applies to much more than this one instance.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. I've never had a critique that didn't teach me something, and sometimes the real pissers are the ones that do the work.

Mektoub.