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August 13, 2005

Story for beginners
Posted by Patrick at 09:23 AM * 404 comments

In a generally positive review of Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, New York Times reviewer Michael Knight complains that Link is “a hard writer to put your finger on”:

Take “Some Zombie Contingency Plans.” It’s about a recently released convict who drives around the suburbs looking for parties to crash because he’s lonely. There are zombies here, but are they real? The premise is fresh and the characters (the con, the girl whose party he crashes, her little brother who sleeps under the bed) are likable and Link puts a metafictional twist on the narrative voice (“This is a story about being lost in the woods,” she says), but the story doesn’t quite come together, and those zombies—are they supposed to be a metaphor?

Freshly back from Worldcon and full of the wine of skiffy goodness, SF writer Scott Westerfeld shoots flames from the top of his head:

Argh. Are those not of the Tribe really so dim-witted? Are our skiffy reading protocols really so hard to understand?

Allow me to explain, Mr. Non-sf-Reading Reviewer Man. Sure, zombies can “be a metaphor.” They can represent the oppressed, as in Land of the Dead, or humanity’s feral nature, as in 28 Days. Or racial politics or fear of contagion or even the consumer unconscious (Night of the Living Dead, Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead). We could play this game all night.

But really, zombies are not “supposed to be metaphors.” They’re supposed to be friggin’ zombies. They follow the Zombie Rules: they rise from death to eat the flesh of the living, they shuffle in slow pursuit (or should, anyway), and most important, they multiply exponentially. They bring civilization down, taking all but the most resourceful, lucky and well-armed among us, whom they save for last. They make us the hunted; all of us.

That’s the stuff zombies are supposed to do. Yes, they make excellent symbols, and metaphors, and have kick-ass mythopoeic resonance to boot. But their main job is to follow genre conventions, to play with and expand the Zombie Rules, to make us begin to see the world as a place colored by our own zombie contingency plans. […]

Stories are the original virtual reality device; their internal rules spread out into reality around us like a bite-transmitted virus, slowly but inexorably consuming its flesh. They don’t just stand around “being metaphors” whose sole purpose is to represent things in the real world; they eat the real world.

This is the best expression I’ve seen lately of the gap between people who get fantastic fiction and people who don’t. It’s almost a secular version of Flannery O’Connor’s answer to someone who praised the “symbolism” of the Mass: “If it’s just a symbol, then the hell with it.” Greg Bear’s Blood Music isn’t an allegory about Overmind, it’s a story about humanity being literally transformed, by material means, into a new kind of life. Of course any work of fiction with more substance than a Kleenex can support a reading that teases out metaphors and symbolic resonances, but it’s critical to SF and fantasy that the fantastic elements are, first and foremost, real.

(You can read Kelly Link’s earlier collection Stranger Things Happen for free here. Then check out Magic for Beginners, which is worth it for the title piece alone, a story that illustrates Westerfeld’s final point above with amazing grace.)

Comments on Story for beginners:
#1 ::: Vassilissa ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 10:58 AM:

Some people can't deal with fantasy. I don't know why. They're occasionally the same people who can't deal with reality if it's outside their sphere of experience, in which case I suppose what they want is a fiction less strange than truth.

Like a holiday resort, maybe.

It's the people who don't like fantasy or fantastic elements who *aren't* like that that I find trickier to understand, the ones for whom it isn't xenophobia but some sort of principle about facts, except that they draw the line somewhere I wouldn't draw it, and I don't get their criteria.

#2 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 10:59 AM:

I've notticed that reviewers that are used to dealing with the transparency of Serious Fiction have trouble accepting the reality of metaphores in genre fiction. These are the same people who are baffled, just baffled, that Harry Potter is so popular among adults as well as children. It's as if they can't grasp a story unlss the author tells them the theme outright.

#3 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 11:16 AM:

I've noticed that reviewers that are used to dealing with the transparency of Serious Fiction have trouble accepting the reality of metaphors in genre fiction.

I dunno. I don't read that much Serious Fiction, but a good chunk of what I do read doesn't exactly count as "transparent." If you look through the Serious Fiction section at your local big-box store, you'll find plenty of well-reviewed novels featuring ghosts, and angels, and mystical occurances, and narrative structures so convoluted as to make Kelly Link's stories look like a shopping list.

I'd prefer to just say that some reviewers are boneheads, and leave it at that.

#4 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 11:35 AM:

Geez. You'd think a NYT reviewer could at least judge a book by its cover. Didn't the Gothgirl with Ferret give him the tiniest clue?

#5 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 11:49 AM:

There seems to be a desire to keep fantasy at a safe distance by treating it as metaphoric.

Ummmmm...does that make sense?

#6 ::: Mris ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 11:55 AM:

I got into a rather heated argument a few months back with someone who was insisting that Tooth and Claw was good because "it isn't really about dragons." I said that it was too really about dragons, and that it would have been a much worse novel if it had not been really about dragons. "But I mean, really about dragons," said the other person. And I said yes, really about dragons. It didn't matter how many kinds of typographical emphasis she attempted to vocalize: Tooth and Claw is about dragons.

It also does other things, but if every little thing in it was a metaphor for man's inhumanity to radishes or some damn thing, it would suck.

#7 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 12:27 PM:

When I'm in a particularly bitchy mood, I tend to suspect that the sort of reader/reviewer who has trouble understanding that zombies in sf and fantasy are meant to be actual, real, materially present zombies in addition to whatever freight of meaning and metaphor they may be dragging in their shuffling wake is the sort of reader who is unwilling to step backwards toward childhood long enough to play a wholehearted game of Let's Pretend.

When I'm feeling even bitchier than that, I tend to suspect that the people who worry most about being forced to relinquish their Grownup Society Membership Cards are the very ones who are the least secure in their possession of same.

#8 ::: Jacob Lefton ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 12:46 PM:

Hehe... Sometimes, a zombie is just a zombie.

... and sometimes IT WANTS TO EAT YOUR BRAINS!!

#9 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 01:29 PM:

John Clute and Gary Wolfe gave a great Intersection panel on the paradigm shift (in the precise Kuhnian sense) underway in Science Fiction. It involves precisely this change in the protocol of reading Science Fiction, in terms of literal versus metaphoric, historical versus ahistorical, ironic versus straight, and in whether or not one believes in progress and the Enlightenment program. I found their brilliant presentation to be deeply disturbing, so much so that I subsequently dreamed of follow-up questions beyond those that I actually asked, and the panelists dreamed replies.

#10 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 01:31 PM:

I'd say all fiction is something like metaphor. Why then doubly emphasize the level of abstraction? To say that dragons are a metaphor of something already metaphoric? There's something very odd in the reasoning there.

#11 ::: Madeline Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 02:15 PM:

I'm a huge fan of Diana Wynne Jones, and try to push her books onto anyone I meet who hasn't heard of her. I lent "Fire and Hemlock" to a friend, and looked forward to hearing the inevitable rapturous response. But she frowned as she returned my book, and said that she thought the magical stuff hadn't really worked as a way of explaining the parents' divorce. I thought she was just a lone oddbod, but I see now that this is a fairly common thing.

#12 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 02:15 PM:
But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both.

J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

It seems to me possible that this split between the zombie entirely metaphorical and the zombie leaving tooth-scrapes on the green bone of your skull is much the same thing as Beowulf's dragon and a great many other ancestors in disbelief.

I think it has something to do with the incantory power of the adjective -- do you trust that you shall know what is, and what is not, of material possibility, or do you maintain so well as you are able the map as the territory of the material, and seek not to stray?

#13 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 02:28 PM:

But it doesn't fit into the Little Genre Boxes!

And let's face it, an awful lot of lit'rary types simply don't want to dabble in what they consider to be inferior forms of literature. Confronted with a speculative fiction story or novel they enjoyed, they dub the fantastical elements 'metaphorical', or simply call the work hard to categorize. Mustn't admit one actually liked ess-ef, darling.

#14 ::: Metal Fatigue ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 02:34 PM:

It looks to me like the Revolution of the 12th Century, turned backwards and inside-out. Knight and his ilk seem distressed at the idea of something being real within an imagined world that is not also real within ours, which could be taken as a sort of inverted Platonism: "I've never seen a shadow that shape, so there cannot possibly exist an object that would cast such a shadow; don't waste my time telling stories about it." Meanwhile, we Aristotelians stand around scratching our heads and wondering why Those People can't follow a simple statement in the language of modal logic.

#15 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 02:51 PM:

I don't think that readers who don't get what fantasy is doing are defensive, or distressed about genre, or snobby, or anything: I think they're unversed in the conventions of the genre and unused to the sensations that fantasy readers enjoy.

I think it's probably dangerous to impute more than that to those readers, in the same way that it is dangerous to read fantasy with nonfantasy eyes.

#16 ::: Vassilissa ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 03:02 PM:

I've got one: only one person on my LJ friends-list (that I know of) did not like Batman Begins. She's a fan, and she was feeling a bit left out of the squee exploding right across LJ because of it. And she and I talked about it, and it turned out that what she liked about the other Batman movies (her introduction to Batman - she's not up on the comics) was the irony, the camp. And that that's an essential part of the fun for her.

And the lack of irony was what I and a lot of other people *did* like about Batman Begins. It took the story seriously. It was still funny, and it still acknowledged how much crack the whole idea is on, but it didn't keep turning around and winking. It was prepared to let the story stand on its own. I found myself quoting W.S. Gilbert at her and saying "The essence of the burlesque is absolute seriousness."

Anyway, my point is: I think irony functioned for my friend the way metaphor may for Michael Knight or anyone else who won't let zombies be zombies: a set of tongs for handling the story. Or a snorkel and mask so you don't have to be completely submerged in story.

Why people want those tools, I don't know - I should think it'd vary from person to person. Debra Doyle's point about childhood would be one reason; I think another might be fear - imagination and zombies are scary.

#17 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 04:43 PM:

Madeline: The parents get divorced? (I will carefully not wonder what my having missed it says about me. I am, after all, the Episcopalian child who didn't know Narnia was an allegory until well into high school.)

#18 ::: Mina W ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 04:50 PM:

Ok - This is relevant to some things I was thinking about recently, and I want to run some of it by you. I wrote an introduction for my book club about fantasy recently. I wanted to give them an idea of the mindset that a F & SF reader brings with them to the experience. I've been reading science fiction and fantasy since before I was born, but have no background in literary criticism, so I could be all wet or reinventing the red pencil.

"In my view, a fantasy stands or falls on the authors' ability to set the scene. As with science fiction, this is much more important to fantasy than to contemporary literature, where our expectations establish most of the background for the author."

"the world-building itself: creating a complete and self-consistent universe, in which contradictions to our contemporary expectations of how the world works have an explanation known to the author, if not yet to the reader."

"What makes a book live, however, are the characters. Do they live in my mind afterwards like out-of-town friends and relatives? Do I desperately want to visit them again soon? .... [or] two weeks after reading the book are they completely forgotten?
And are the characters people I'd want to know, or duck into the nearest alley to avoid? ..... is the world one I'd want to visit?"

"In reading fantasy, the classic attitude of the reader is supposed to be 'suspension of disbelief'. We don't stop believing in the law of gravity, but for the length of the book, we accept the worldview, and the 'fantastic premise' of the author. That's why they have to be so complete,well-worked out, and internally consistent. After we finish the fiction, we may remember and enjoy an expanded view of the universe, if the writer is good. But we don't stop believing in in the law of gravity,or evolution, or start believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden, or spiritualism, or satanists, or codes in great works of art.
Well one hopes that adults would have better sense.Perhaps it's harder for readers of mainstream fiction, supposedly set in the real world, to keep the difference straight. Read fantasy, learn to separate it from the real world, stay sane."

[What I can't get is 'magical realism': Isabelle Allende, Carlos Castenada. I want my fantasy separate from reality, not all confused with it. I don't know what I'm supposed to believe in that stuff.]

#19 ::: Janni ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 04:56 PM:

(shrug) I get fantasy, love fantasy, deal with fantasy just fine, and choose it over most other reading when give a choice -- and I think of it as largely metaphor, too.

#20 ::: Janni ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 05:00 PM:

(given, not give. tyops r us)

#21 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 05:38 PM:

Is "metaphor" quite the right word to use to describe the problem?

The problem seems tio have a lot to do with what Tolkien had to say about the difference between applicability and allegory. You can take the idea of the zombie and apply it to some features of modern life, but that doesn't make the plot an allegory or the zombie a metaphor.

I still haven't worked out what Magic Realism is. It may just be a label for some part of a story that we agree not to examine closely, such as a Naval Captain escaping the French in the disguise of a dancing bear.

I wonder if they'd call Kill Bill magic realism?

#22 ::: Jackmormon ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 05:59 PM:

Dave,
I'd say that the word isn't "metaphor" but "vehicle." The two words go together because the vehicle (zombies) can be separated from its more ambiguous metaphorical content (consumerism etc.). SF, Fantasy, Fiction Speculative (the more usual translation for Fiction Scientifique), whatever, tends to liberate the vehicles from referentiality and let them out to play. And eat people.

#23 ::: cija ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 06:42 PM:

But it doesn't fit into the Little Genre Boxes!

Except, that was what the reviewer was praising it for. (I don't see that the observation that Link is a "hard writer to put your finger on" is in any way a complaint.) And people have been brushing that off as backhanded praise, proof that he Didn't Get It and that well-known genre tropes are new to him, and claiming that yes, it does fit perfectly well into the fantasy box, and yes, the zombies are real material brain-eating zombies. (Even though zombies don't appear in unambiguous material form in the story in question, as they do in The Hortlak - never mind that.)


Confronted with a speculative fiction story or novel they enjoyed, they dub the fantastical elements 'metaphorical', or simply call the work hard to categorize. Mustn't admit one actually liked ess-ef, darling.


As it happens, the reviewer didn't say the zombies were metaphorical. He didn't say it wasn't a fantasy story or wasn't a horror story. He didn't say he didn't like fantasy or SF or anything else. He said he _didn't get it._ He said he _didn't know._

It's really great that admitting in print that you don't quite get something but like it anyway inspires such a terrific sense of superiority in everyone who does get it, and by great I actually mean problematic and off-putting.

I adore Kelly Link's work. Kelly Link is smarter than me, and it shows in every line she writes. Sometimes I think I understand her stories perfectly, sometimes I think my not understanding all of it is part of the point, and sometimes there are parts that remain persistently obscure in spite of many attentive readings. I don't know if there are "real zombies," whatever that may mean, in "Some Zombie Contingency Plans." This may make me a careless reader. It doesn't actually have a bearing on my ability to 'get' fantastic fiction.

I do, however, agree with everything in the original post that was not about that particular reviewer.

#24 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 06:48 PM:

Come on, folks. We all know that Michael Knight can't keep his hair combed without William Daniels's voice coming from the car radio.

Whoops, wrong metaphorical irruption.

#25 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 07:01 PM:

I think magic realism is partly to blame for this problem. In magic realism, the Angel who falls to earth and is kept in the chicken shed by the callous humans is a symbol, and the point of the story is that (in my reading, anyway) (1) humans suck and (2) we no longer are impressed or inspired by miracles. The business of magic realism is to take extraordinary creatures or events and drag them into the harsh light of the ordinary world, so that reality may be examined with the aid of these particular symbols.

The business of fantasy, on the other hand, is to take ordinary personalities and events and place them in an extraordinary world. Readers who are accustomed to magic realism will recognize their favorite symbols, and be confused by any story which uses those elements in a literal way. But, you know, too bad for them; we got here first.

#26 ::: Janni ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 07:27 PM:

SF, Fantasy, Fiction Speculative (the more usual translation for Fiction Scientifique), whatever, tends to liberate the vehicles from referentiality and let them out to play. And eat people.

So why can't they come out to play (and eat people) and also be referential?

In a fantasy (unlike, perhaps, magic realism) the world and the things in it are real. But that doesn't mean they're not also metaphors.

I mean, most of us don't take any fantasy we read as literal. It's a way to explore various things that we couldn't explore in a literal setting, and see how people react and cope and live when put there.

We don't (okay, I don't) write about zombies because we think "hey, wouldn't zombies be cool?" I write about zombies (would write about zombies, if I did) because I think "hey, wouldn't it be cool to see how human beings cope with zombies?"

But (to simplify hugely) whatever insights I get about how humans cope with zombies are interesting in large part because I take those insights back with me to this world, where there aren't zombies. The zombies represent certain types of things that humans have to cope with. In that sense, they're metaphorical.

The fact that I also enjoy watching the zombie chew the scenery--and the fact that in the context of the story, I'm not supposed to doubt that they're actually present--doesn't change this.

#27 ::: cija ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 08:02 PM:

Janni: On the one hand, what you like to read, and what you write, are as fantastic as any other kind of fantasy, and I agree that the genre does not exclude and is enriched by work whose purpose is to comment on the human condition and to provide new and startling angles from which to view said condition. On the other hand -

I mean, most of us don't take any fantasy we read as literal. It's a way to explore various things that we couldn't explore in a literal setting, and see how people react and cope and live when put there.

-unless I'm misunderstanding what you mean by literal, I have to say, yes, most of us certainly do. I read & write fantasy for the beautiful, the strange, and uncanny, and when these things are deployed, ultimately, merely to cast light on yet another facet of human nature, it makes me tired. I actually do prefer my fantasy to have people in it, but the people do not need to be the point. They can be the device, the excuse for the greater point, just as zombies may be for you.

As I quoted not long ago in another discussion:

"I suddenly looked round on my career and thought, 'Good God, I've been understanding the human heart all these decades.' Bother the human heart, I'm tired of the human heart. I want to write about something entirely different."

--Silvia Townsend Warner


#28 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 08:22 PM:

Mary Dell, you're wrong about Magic Realism, on both counts -- first, that the magic in magic realism isn't real, and second, that the Magic Realism genre is to blame for people who are not used to reading the fantasy genre not getting its conventions and assumptions.

In Magic Realism the magic is real. The world is bursting with magical things. The realism is that the world in the stories is the real world -- this is not an alternate reality in which there is magic: there is magic in this world, right here. Yes, things express other things and have a symbolic life, but that's a characteristic of fiction in general and does not detract from the realness of the magical things.

On the other point -- Magic Realism is what, forty years old? Fifty, maybe? And there's been a culture gap between sf readers and non-sf readers for longer than that.

It's not, I don't think, as big a deal as all that, anyway. There's lots of things to read, and lots of readers, and lots of common ground to be found, without everybody being converted to and coached in the fantasy convention.

#29 ::: Matt P ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 08:27 PM:

Vassilissa:I think irony functioned for my friend the way metaphor may for Michael Knight or anyone else who won't let zombies be zombies: a set of tongs for handling the story. Or a snorkel and mask so you don't have to be completely submerged in story.

If I may offer an alternative perspective: For some of us, the irony and the metaphor and the assorted not-story bits are what we enjoy chewing on. Just as Jack Spratt and his wife had vastly different criteria for judging the quality of a steak, so do (let's call us) story-positive and story-neutral people have differient criteria by which we evaluate a work of fiction.

Speaking solely for myself, the story element, no matter how cracking, rarely satisfies. Nifty non-story bits attached to an unstriking story, though, can really prod my pleasure centers. Metaphor'n'such, at least for me, isn't a security blanket or a reassuring tether to reality, it's the prize in the Cracker Jacks.

(Two food analogies in two paragraphs? Must be time for dinner.)

Also, like cija I fail to see the dismissiveness or lack of understanding in Knight's review, but I've yet to read the book in question.

#30 ::: Georgia ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 08:50 PM:

I read Stranger Things Happen, which I bought because of the title and just fell in love with the author. Thanks for mentioning Magic for Beginners, I'm already trying to get it. Incidentally, I don't find the writer "hard to put your finger on" at all - are there really people out there who don't get fantasy?

Living so far, the internet is a blessing in finding new books to read.

#31 ::: C.E. Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 10:10 PM:

TexAnne, I didn't know Narnia was allegory until I was in college and read it on Usenet. I was stunned. You're not alone. :)

-Catie

#32 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2005, 10:59 PM:

I haven't read the Kelly Link story, yet. But I have an immediate negative reaction to the idea that if a story has zombies in it, their main purpose must be "to follow genre conventions, to play with and expand the Zombie Rules." That might be the point of *some* stories that have zombies in them. But other stories might want them in there for some other reason:

"Honor among zombies."
"Zombie! But it sure can dance."
"Zombies! Just like me/ CNN News/ that panel audience."

Or something else without a primary focus on Zombie Rules.

I agree with the other point: that zombies in a story are more likely to achieve their narrative purpose if they're "real" (vivid and plausible to the reader). A zombie screen extra that walks on and gives speeches about zombitude is probably going to be an unsuccessful narrative device.

This comment in the discussion thread at Coalescent's Livejournal may be pertinent:

"So I'd say that Michael Knight does get it, in a way. And in a way, Scott Westerfield doesn't. Yes, zombies in 'Some Zombie Contingency Plans' are plain old literal zombies. But that's not the only thing they are. They are metaphors too. Not as well as being literal zombies, but in direct contradiction to that reading. The literal and metaphorical readings are incompatible and both present at the same time. Fucking wonderful."

So yeah, I'd say that Knight's confusion constitutes getting it, in some sense. What he hasn't grasped is how to properly appreciate that sense of confusion and uncertainty."

One of my beefs with a number of BTVS episodes is that they don't give me a consistent sense of whether vampires (excepting Angel and Spike) are a catastrophic event or actually characters with plausible motivations. I get a sense of arbitrariness about writers manipulating events to evoke viewer emotions. But, it may be the case that, like Knight, I'm unable to appreciate the sense of confusion and uncertainty.

#33 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 12:07 AM:

Um, Lenny, you and that LJ commenter might want to actually read Westerfield's essay, or even just the bits PNH quoted up there. Those bits about how zombies are both metaphors and literal story objects. I mean, how many times does somebody have to say "Yes, they make excellent symbols, and metaphors, and have kick-ass mythopoeic resonance to boot" before people will notice that he's saying "Yes, they make excellent symbols, and metaphors, and have kick-ass mythopoeic resonance to boot"?

#34 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 12:10 AM:

The copy of Westerfield's The Risen Empire which has been languishing in the middle of my to-read stack for several months has just popped to the top.

#35 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 12:18 AM:

Lucy, what I find striking about Knight's comments is the unwillingness to read what's on the page, as it's written. Children have no problem with this, far as I know, but adults? Link writes about zombies. For the purpose of the story, why not? Zombies don't exist? True, I think. But no fictional character exists. Why allow Link her imagined reality when those are human characters, but deny that reality when those are non-human? What's the reasoning?

#36 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 12:56 AM:

I deconstructed a zombie and all I got were these dusty bandages.

#37 ::: cija ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 01:07 AM:

Avram - the problem is that Westerfeld's essay is inspiring and full of truths, but startlingly, it attaches those truths to a sloppy and ungenerous reading of the review, and it is hard for me to see what they are supposed to have to do with it. Knight did not say, gosh, what do zombies mean, what are they an archetype of, what do they symbolize in general. He asked what "those zombies" are supposed to be - a metaphor, or what - the particular zombies in "Some Zombie Contingency Plans." The fact that he did not ask the same question about the zombies in "The Hortlak" (or the witches in "Catskin") ought to be a huge screaming clue to the fact that he's not the kind of idiot Westerfeld patronizes him for being.

Not being certain of how to interpret a very wonderful and rather ambiguous story does not mean that you "see the operations of language and storytelling in, quite frankly, a sophomoric English-class sort of way." I know what he means, but this is a really bad example of it. You can't generalize a specific, reasonable point about a specific story into a reading-protocols declaration that way. And his assumption that because it's a dim-witted review he can assume that it's written by a non sf-reader - How would he know?

(Of course, I have no real idea who Michael Knight is. Maybe his reading preferences are known. But not from this review, they're not.)

#38 ::: Andrew W ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 01:20 AM:

Mary Dell wrote: Readers who are accustomed to magic realism will recognize their favorite symbols, and be confused by any story which uses those elements in a literal way. But, you know, too bad for them; we got here first.

-------

You go, girl!

#39 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 02:02 AM:

"Life is like a metaphor."
"No, life is a simile!"

#40 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 02:19 AM:

Avram, the sentence in Westerfeld's text that follows what you quoted says: But their main job is to follow genre conventions, to play with and expand the Zombie Rules, to make us begin to see the world as a place colored by our own zombie contingency plans. That's the statement I'm questioning: that the main job of a trope in a story is to follow or play with established genre protocols for the trope.

If you want to read the main point of Scott Westerfeld's statement as: zombies in a story are no good as a metaphorical device unless the reader sees them as being real; and then the metaphorical value can also be real -- I have no argument with that.

The important point, to me, in Geneva Melzac's comment is: The literal and metaphorical readings are incompatible and both present at the same time. [....] So yeah, I'd say that Knight's confusion constitutes getting it, in some sense. What he hasn't grasped is how to properly appreciate that sense of confusion and uncertainty.

She offers an explanation for the critic's confusion that sounds plausible to me (as someone who hasn't yet read the story).

Geneva Melzac's observation also makes me wonder whether the BTVS script writers were deliberately trying to contrast literal and metaphorical readings for their stories. I've always seen a lot of their plotting as arbitrary -- designed to push buttons in viewers at the expense of poetic consistency in the story. But maybe, like Knight, I'm just not appreciating the contradictory ambiance of confusion.

This thread has started me thinking about the use of zombies and vampires in stories as characters versus their use as catastrophic forces. They're used both ways. The inanimate becomes animated. Why? What's the point? Horror? Metaphor? Comedy?

#41 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 02:51 AM:

Folks, I just talked to Patience, and her smile's starting to turn into rictus.

#42 ::: Mina W ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 03:08 AM:

Maybe all fiction should be viewed as inventing a new universe, with different laws. It's just that some writers are much less imaginative than others, or much less honest in making their worldview explicit.

What would be some of the alternative assumptions of various mainstream writers?
-nothing is more important than money
-everyone is out for what they can get
-sex with strangers is exciting, with a familiar partner, not
-science is bunk

Too depressing to go on. But it would be interesting to look at the implicit assumptions in the books we read.

And I would like to hold all writers to a standard of honesty; similarly to the way mystery writers are expected to put in all the clues, so the reader has a chance to solve the puzzle, let all writers make explicit their assumptions about how the world works.[Well, I guess unless the point is deliberate ambiguity.]

Of course, in order to do that, they have to figure them out first. I'll bet lots of writers don't have a clue to most of their preconceptions, since they apply them to the world around themselves, as well as to their writing. So there's a big advantage to being a fantasy or science fiction writer - you have to explicitly create a self-consistent worldview. The unexamined novel is not worth reading? Maybe that's why some of us enjoy this type of writing so much - we enjoy the novelty of understanding what's going on.

#43 ::: Vassilissa ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 05:42 AM:

Matt P: thank you, that's very helpful. For me it's character rather than story that I need most, but it still works. And explains my friend.

#44 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 08:24 AM:

Disclaimer: I haven't yet read "Some Zombie Contigency Plans" but I've read Stranger Things Happen and other Link stories. I think it's quite fair for a reviewer to bring up the question of metaphoric meaning when Link's stories can be so explicitly meta-fictional. Not that all her stories are: "The Specialist's Hat" and "The Faery Handbag" can be read as straight narratives. But, in, say, "Travels with the Snow Queen" or "The Girl Detective," the meta-fictional level cannot be ignored. Knight even recognizes this in his review, and says -- as I admit I have done myself -- "uh, I don't quite get this story. " It should be no sin to admit that you don't fully get a Kelly Link (Gene Wolfe, John Crowley...) story.

Re The Risen Empire: Scott Westerfeld is a man who knows zombies.

#45 ::: Mark D. ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 09:12 AM:

Episcopal is the adjective. Episcopalian is the noun.

No blame to TexAnne, 49 out of 50 writers get this wrong. It's totally counterintuitive.

*button release*

#46 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 09:57 AM:

Having finally gotten around to reading the original review, add me to the list of people who don't quite see what the fuss is about. That didn't strike me as a condescending or dismissive review at all.

It's ultimately sort of inconclusive, but you know what? I don't understand what the hell happened at the end of "Stone Animals," either, and I've been reading SF for years.

#47 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 10:20 AM:

More coherent comments. Here's the context of the Knight fragment:

KELLY LINK'S new collection of stories, ''Magic for Beginners,'' is a potent blend of horror and magic realism and postmodern absurdism, but it's also not any of those things exactly -- she's a hard writer to put your finger on.
I don't think this is at all "complaining" that she's hard to put your finger on; it's being pretty fair that her work doesn't fall into our preconceived notions of genre. She's not any of those things exactly. She is hard to put your finger on. (And I think Knight agrees with me that that's a good thing.)

Turning to Scott Westerfeld's reaction, I wonder how much it's informed by people asking if the risen dead in "The Risen Empire" are metaphoric. They are, of course, for the emergence of a persistent monied overclass in our society, but they're also pretty cool risen-from-the-dead zombies that rule an empire and fight space battles. I can imagine that perhaps he's gotten tired of fielding this question, and so is oversensitive to the issue of zombie metaphordom.

#48 ::: Cassandra ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 10:50 AM:

Mary, I don't think the angel is just a symbol: it's hard to keep pure metaphor confined to the chicken shed.

#49 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 11:58 AM:

Can you identify a scifi movie from the 1950's, I believe? The movie was shown during an episode of Science Fiction Theater / Sammy Terry during the 1960's.

The movie is identified as a black / white film, in an outdoor, secluded area, mainly rocky area. There were two young teen couples driving to this area and one male encounters, unknowingly, a different dimension. He walked into this darkened area (different dimension). The area around his eyes became blackened and he became "Zombie like". The others could not
figure out what was wrong with him. The tv screen obviously showed a lighter / darker split were this "different dimension started. I'm thinking the movie may have been called "4th Dimension". It might have been a Twilight Zone segment, but don't think so. Pretty sure it was one of those low budget scifi's of the 50's.

-- Glen Akles

#50 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 01:29 PM:

Andrew W: I am accustomed to Magic Realism, and I've read what some of its practitioners have to say about what they're doing, and they do insist on the reality of the magic in their realism.

I'm also accustomed to fantasy, and as far as I can tell the big differences between the two are antecedents and worldview, and what world we're viewing.

#51 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 01:45 PM:

It should be no sin to admit that you don't fully get a Kelly Link (Gene Wolfe, John Crowley...) story.

Speaking as probably the only person in the world who thought "Water off a Black Dog's Back" sucked, I'd agree. I don't think anybody is complaining the reviewer found some of the stories shifty or hard to understand; it's that tone of blaming the stories for being, like, difficult that is peeve-inducing, as if "I didn't get it" is always the writer's fault.

#52 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 04:12 PM:

Chad Orzel: "Having finally gotten around to reading the original review, add me to the list of people who don't quite see what the fuss is about. That didn't strike me as a condescending or dismissive review at all."

Having just now read this whole thread in one go, I want to ask you what you're talking about. When did the subject (or "fuss", as you so generously characterize the conversation) become whether Knight's review was "condescending or dismissive"? Feel free to use the "find" function of your browser in compiling evidence for your characterization.

#53 ::: Marie Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 04:33 PM:

Mythago, I'm with you, and with this review; about half the stories in Stranger Things Happen worked for me, while about half of them left me totally unmoved (often for reasons like the ones the reviewer describes). "Like Water off a Black Dog's Back" was one of the ones I simply got nothing out of.

#54 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 04:57 PM:

All I've read of magical realism is One Hundred Years of Solitude (which, as I understand it, is the one magical realism story to read if you're reading only one), and it seemed to me that the main difference from the fantasy I'm used to was not literalism but systematism. The kind of fantasy I'm used to -- the stuff that shows up on the same shelves as science fiction in most bookstores, the stuff people talk about at SF cons, I currently think of it as the fantasy branch of Nerd Lit -- has magical creatures and events that are designed to withstand the examination of rationalists used to extrapolating a coherent picture of a fictional world.

In magical realism, the fantasy elements are more random, more tied into emotions and abstract notions of justice, less distant from their folk origins, less amenable to having a role-playing game made of them.

Uh-oh. Now I'm suffering the impulse to tie this into Gamist-Simulationist-Narritivist RPG theory ('cause you could probably work up a Narritivist rules set for magical realism), but that way lies madness.

#55 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 05:47 PM:

I had a dream about zombies last night. First thing I thought was, "Oh shit, not again..."

#56 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 06:02 PM:

Hm. "This is the best expression I’ve seen lately of the gap between people who get fantastic fiction and people who don’t."

But Patrick, does Knight really have to get it. To my mind, if a story never leaves you, if you can't forget it, then the writer got you. And that's a good review. For all of Knight's slightly patronizing grappling with "what is it," in the end, as he says, "But even when I didn't know what to make of her stories, I couldn't put them out of my mind. That sort of resonance, that lingering, haunting effect, is the product of real magic, and Kelly Link is no doubt a sorceress to be reckoned with."

I'd go out to the bar and by everyone a round if I got that review!

#57 ::: Marie Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 06:12 PM:

Avram -- don't do that. Please. I'd have to bust out my academic hat and set off on my Standard Rant on GNS. And that just wouldn't be pretty. ^_^

#58 ::: Madeline Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 06:44 PM:

TexAnne: Don't they get divorced? I last read "Fire and Hemlock" a couple of hundred books ago, so my memory is a little hazy.

With the Narnia books, I did notice, when I was a child, that Aslan was supposed to be God. But I fairly quickly decided that Aslan was much better and more interesting than the God who appeared in my Children's Illustrated Bible (he was a talking lion, and a lamb too! he did magic! they could see him! he was fun! he was a talking lion! he was a talking lion!) and continued to read the series as if there was no subtext at all. The allegory aspect of it neither enhanced nor detracted from my enjoyment of the books: that's one of the reasons why they're so good.

#59 ::: Janni ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 06:45 PM:

cija says:

-unless I'm misunderstanding what you mean by literal, I have to say, yes, most of us certainly do. I read & write fantasy for the beautiful, the strange, and uncanny,

I read fantasy for all of this too, actually. But it's not the only thing I'm reading for.

and when these things are deployed, ultimately, merely to cast light on yet another facet of human nature, it makes me tired.

Hmm... I'd question the merely--human nature is actually interesting stuff--but I'd also question the implied "only." A story can be beautiful, strange, and uncanny, and also cast light on how human beings interact with the beautiful, the strange, and the uncanny, and on how we interact with beautiful, strange, uncanny things in our world.

These things are not exclusive. I can immerse myself in a fantasy story and take things back from there to my world, and even expect to do so.

I actually do prefer my fantasy to have people in it, but the people do not need to be the point. They can be the device, the excuse for the greater point, just as zombies may be for you.

Interesting. For me, if the people fail to convince, if the ways in which they're changed by the story aren't convincing and compelling--then there's no point. When genre work fails for me (and I read mostly genre work--I'm not coming at this from a literary background) it often fails because the author cared more about about the cool ideas of the story than about how some sentient being interacted for them.

#60 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 07:11 PM:

Between Chad Orzel and John Farrell, I'm once again getting that sense that I'm typing in an alternate universe from them. Over here on Earth-1, I was pretty sure this discussion hadn't actually been primarily about whether Michael Knight's review was nice enough to Kelly Link or not.

I dunno, maybe if I'd referred to Knight's review as "generally positive" in the first sentence of my post, I could have forestalled their confusion. Oh, wait.

#61 ::: JessieSS ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 07:36 PM:

Avram wrote: "The kind of fantasy I'm used to -- the stuff that shows up on the same shelves as science fiction in most bookstores, the stuff people talk about at SF cons, I currently think of it as the fantasy branch of Nerd Lit -- has magical creatures and events that are designed to withstand the examination of rationalists used to extrapolating a coherent picture of a fictional world.

I wonder if part of the issue is that this is what the zombies-are-metaphor crowd recognizes as fantasy. Stories like the ones Kelly Link writes don't fit into that model and therefore "must" be some other kind of literature. A great deal of fantasy is being written these days that's deliberately evading a rationalist approach, that isn't producing "a coherent picture of a fictional world".

But what does that have to do with whether it's literal? You can have a literal zombie that touches down in the story just long enough to do the work you need from it--dance really well, say--and not explain. That doesn't mean it's a metaphor.

#62 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 07:39 PM:

The specific words "condescending" and "dismissive" haven't been used to describe the review, but I don't think that's an entirely unfair summary of, for example, the review mythago is thinking of in this comment:

But it doesn't fit into the Little Genre Boxes!

And let's face it, an awful lot of lit'rary types simply don't want to dabble in what they consider to be inferior forms of literature. Confronted with a speculative fiction story or novel they enjoyed, they dub the fantastical elements 'metaphorical', or simply call the work hard to categorize. Mustn't admit one actually liked ess-ef, darling.

That sort of approach to a genre book is certainly bad. It's not how I read the review that kicked this off, though, and that's the attitude I was responding to. That comment is the most extreme example I saw in a quick skim back through the discussion, but there are similar sentiments being expressed throughout the comment thread.

(To be fair, I have an allergy to "fans are slans" in all its many guises, so I may be too quick to read that attitude into other comments, in much the same way that I think other are too quick to condemn mainstream critics reviewing SF.)

#63 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 08:15 PM:

Well, I have an allergy to SF triumphalism, too; also to the odious practice of representing the "literary" tendency with lisping abbreviations like "lit'rary" or "lit'ry", the plain message of which is that being "literary" is contemptibly effete and epicene and worse. If I never again see that particular device deployed in an otherwise interesting conversation it'll be too soon.

However, I think you're being a touch quick to read the whole conversation as a big Trash Michael Knight session. When I talk about "the gap between people who get fantastic fiction and people who don’t", I assure you that I'm not consigning "people who don't" to the outer darkness. I'm a lot more interested in figuring out the mechanics of the misunderstanding than I am in playing Yay For Our Side. Excuse me for not policing every instance of pro-SF chauvinism in the thread, but I still think your trivialization of an actually rather wide-ranging and constructive discussion as merely "fuss" is pretty insulting. Yes, really.

#64 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 08:20 PM:

I understand, that, Patrick. But my question is, does he have to "get fantastic fiction" in general to appreciate it? And if so, why? What's so special about fantastic fiction?

If it sucks, it sucks for the same reason mainstream fiction sucks: poor execution, cliche-ridden prose, etc.

If it rocks--if it grabs you and makes you remember it, I'm thinking that's also for the reason the best mainstream fiction does. There is a case to be made for tiresome critics not "getting it" about SF, I do appreciate that. I'm just not convinced that Mr. Knight is the best example.

Harold Bloom and Edmund Wilson come more to mind (for what it's worth).

#65 ::: cija ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 08:34 PM:

Patrick: I didn't think people were perceiving the review as condescending and dismissive, but rather that they were being condescending and dismissive of it themselves:

(Some people can't deal with fantasy...It's as if they can't grasp a story unless the author tells them the theme outright... You'd think a NYT reviewer could at least judge a book by its cover... Mustn't admit one actually liked ess-ef, darling... Knight and his ilk seem distressed at the idea of something being real within an imagined world that is not also real within ours. (quoted from several different people.)

Obviously this is not the whole of the discussion, and I don't claim that it is. It's just the part that bothers me. As JessieSS touched on, the "zombies-as-metaphor crowd" includes plenty of sf readers.

I didn't have any difficulty understanding that you (and Westerfeld) knew it was a positive review; I just thought that you characterized its tone, and the reviewer's powers of understanding, unfairly, most particularly in the assumption that we can tell from that review that its writer isn't a sf reader or doesn't get the fantastic. I realize that your main point was elsewhere.

Janni:

I read fantasy for all of this too, actually.

Then I probably did misunderstand your comment about metaphor and literalism. Or perhaps I've assumed a too restrictive idea of what is meant by metaphor here - when people talk about symbolism in fantasy, for instance, I tend to think they've got it backwards: fantasy archetypes are what other things in the real world are symbolic of. As long as we agree that things mean themselves, I'll readily admit that they mean other things too. (How vague of me.)

I can immerse myself in a fantasy story and take things back from there to my world, and even expect to do so.


Well, yes... I guess. I think maybe it's not so much a question of different approaches to fantasy as different approaches to reading altogether. (Or maybe I just can't cope with language that implies a useful purpose for literature, which is my own seething ball of issues. Since it's not as if I don't think literature is useful.) Which is not to insult your approach at all. All I can really say is that I don't read books for just one thing either, or the same thing every time & I didn't mean to imply that I did. Again, this is very vague. (I like vague books, too.)

#66 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 08:45 PM:

"I didn't have any difficulty understanding that you (and Westerfeld) knew it was a positive review; I just thought that you characterized its tone, and the reviewer's powers of understanding, unfairly"

Not to put too fine a point on it, fuck you. On what basis do you accuse me of any such characterization?

#67 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 08:47 PM:

However, I think you're being a touch quick to read the whole conversation as a big Trash Michael Knight session. When I talk about "the gap between people who get fantastic fiction and people who don’t", I assure you that I'm not consigning "people who don't" to the outer darkness. I'm a lot more interested in figuring out the mechanics of the misunderstanding than I am in playing Yay For Our Side.

In my mind, I was responding to the Trash Michael Knight (or Literary Critics In General) parts, and not so much the rest of it. That failed to be adequately conveyed through what I wrote (specifically, the word "fuss")-- I guess the MT-Telepathy plugin hasn't arrived yet...

On looking at the review, I'm not clear to what degree there is a real misunderstanding, though, at least on Knight's part. At the risk of forfeiting my "Get It" card, my own reaction to some of the stories was not all that different from what he describes (or, at least, from what I read in what he wrote). So I would take more polite issue with the whole concept.

I'll try to say something more coherent, or at least more detailed later, but I need to not be at the computer for a while first.

#68 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 09:00 PM:

John Clute and Gary Wolfe's Intersection panel on the paradigm shift in Science Fiction and Fantasy had examples -- I can't recall if Kelly Link was one -- but they agreed in this respect with Patrick: SF triumphalism is obsolete.

They suggested that, just as one cannot today read E. E. "Doc" Smith without reacting to its Engineering triumphalism, sexism, imperialism, and subliterary language, so also one cannot read "literally" the Heinlein juveniles. But Heinlein is a definition canonical author. So we're in deep.

They explained why "straight" remakes of Heinlein juveniles are necessarily failures (although I think that they thus under-rate John Varley's recent novels). They put forth a sophisticated counterexample: Jay Lake's "Rocket Science." See the Clute review on Sci Fi Weekly (I'm having trouble getting the hotlink) which has to be read BOTH straight and ironically. Clute also had a recent Kelly Link review which clearly "got it" and was in the context of his new meta-theory.

In my dream, I asked: "if what you say is true, then you've put yourselves out of business, because in the new paradigm, the very terminology of the old is incommeasurable, and iconic works are excluded from the universe of discourse, while anomalous works from the old system are now canonical."

In the dream, Clute agreed, but quoted Shelley "... unacknowledged legislators..."

In reality, I spoke with both Big Name SF Critics about their premise. "How then," I asked, "can we deal with the new paradigm?"

"Because," Clute said, Literature is superior to Science, as Literature can embrace contradictions, keeping two incompatible paradigms in mind simultaneously

I am not satisfied with his valorization of Literature. It produces a critical paradox in the case of Science Fiction, where (I believe) neither the science nor the literature can be taken without the flavoring of the other.

Kelly Link, and Susanna Clarke, and Gene Wolfe, and Charles Stross, and others, seem to be writing some Fantasy that is written, and to be read, from the other side of the paradigm shift.

#69 ::: cija ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 09:00 PM:

Not to put too fine a point on it, fuck you. On what basis do you accuse me of any such characterization?

You said Knight "complains" etcetera. I said upthread somewhere that I didn't think it was a complaint at all. And then when you described Scott Westerfeld's essay as "the best expression I’ve seen lately of the gap between people who get fantastic fiction and people who don’t," I thought that the reviewer was supposed to be an example of a person who doesn't get it.

That's all.

It was not intended as an accusation. I thought you misread Knight; I've evidently misread you. I didn't think that was a rude thing to say, and I was not being deliberately rude.

I apologize for giving offense. If this is a case of what I thought was a mild tone coming out as rampant bitchery, I'm sorry. If it's to do with the content of what I wrote, please let me know so that I can not do it again.

#70 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 09:11 PM:

Yes, and I also characterized Scott Westerfeld as "shooting flames from the top of his head".

I regard the synaptic gap between people who get genre fantasy/SF protocols and those who don't as an interesting thing. I regard with sympathetic amusement our own subcultural immune response to such expressions. (I note that Scott himself displays a sense of humor about his own flammiferousness, over in the comments to the post to which I linked.) I don't know how much more I could have done to avert the variety of put-down you and Chad Orzel are evidently determined to accomplish. If you're trying to convince me that there's no percentage in being sympathetic to multiple points of view on these issues, you're doing a good job.

#71 ::: Michael Falcon-Gates ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 09:12 PM:

Goodness, it's hot. Eighty-eight degrees out there. That matches the record for this date. Hot, hot, hot.

#72 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 09:17 PM:

Okay. Everybody's going to slow down and play nice while I figure out what happened to this formerly pleasant and interesting thread. Now:

(breathe in)

Benefit of the doubt.

(breathe out)

Good.

(breathe in again, slowly)

Statements, not motives.

(and ... out)

(now do it again)

Appropriate latitude of interpretation.

(and again)

Good manners are better than gold.

(Good. Continue deep-breathing exercises until serenity is achieved.)

#73 ::: cija ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 09:24 PM:

I know it's not an insult to say that somebody doesn't get fantasy. I thought you were being somewhat inaccurate, not mean or humorless - I'm not oblivious to tone, or to other people's tone, at least. That was the extent of my disagreement with your post.

Right now all I'm trying to convince you of is that I'm not being obnoxious on purpose, and I'm clearly doing a very bad job of it. Again, I apologize.

#74 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 10:25 PM:

Chad has uncharacteristically misinterpreted Patrick's position. Cija has also misinterpreted it, in her case somewhat less uncharacteristically. Avram is spot-on. And I see Jonathan Vos Post has a new ISP address.

I need to think a while before essaying an explanation of where I think the discussion went astray. I thought Patrick's original post was clear and straightforward, but explaining what happened in the subsequent thread seems dauntingly intricate.

While I'm mulling this over, can anyone who undertakes to further characterize Patrick's critical position please recall that before he achieved a measure of conventional respectability working for a science fiction publishing house, he was a literary criticism reference series editor? He's not unfamiliar with the standard run of critical approaches and errors.

#75 ::: cija ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 10:56 PM:

Cija has also misinterpreted it, in her case somewhat less uncharacteristically.

If I am known for my misinterpretations, I suppose it is a good thing for me to be aware of, and I'll try to work on it. That, and being more polite. With respect to this discussion, I apologize for my contributions to its derailment. I hope that my previous apologies didn't come off as justifications.

The only other thing I want to say is that I posted my inflammatory comment before seeing Patrick's comment above it. If I had read that first, I would not have posted anything to try to further explain what had already been clarified. I'm stopping, now.

#76 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 10:58 PM:

Mark wrote:

Episcopal is the adjective. Episcopalian is the noun.

No blame to TexAnne, 49 out of 50 writers get this wrong. It's totally counterintuitive.

Check again; Episocopalian, like most Modern English words ending in an -ian suffix is both noun and adjective.

And yeah, I bet TexAnne, who knows English lifted the -ian suffix from Old French, and likely is also aware of the Latin cognate suffix -ianus, knows that Episcopalian is both noun and adjective.

And I'm now going to go look up what the heck Magic Realism is, because I know I should know, and I haven't a clue.

#77 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2005, 11:37 PM:

Lisa: instead of, or in addition to, looking it up, here's some titles and authors that are pretty well self-explanatory:

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude and probably Love in the Time of Cholera but I haven't read that one

Isabel Allende (niece to Salvador Allende), The House of the Spirits, The Infinite Plan (which is less fun than the other)

Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees, and probably The Poisonwood Bible but I haven't had it in my hand yet -- I need to nag my stepmom for it

Rodolfo Anaya, Bless Me Ultima

Laura Esquivel, LIke Water for Chocolate

There's a Peruvian and an Argentinan I want to reference but it's dinner time. I'll come back to it if you like.

#78 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 12:04 AM:

Episcopalian is the noun. Episcopal is the adjective. Pepsi-Cola is the anagram.

#79 ::: Moi ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 12:07 AM:

I need to think a while before essaying an explanation of where I think the discussion went astray.

I thought it went astray right here:

Not to put too fine a point on it, fuck you. On what basis do you accuse me of any such characterization?

That was really beyond the pale. Especially since the person who was told "fuck you" apologized three times after that, with no response.

Good manners are better than gold.

Indeed.

#80 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 12:14 AM:

Some various definitions of magical realism

"Magical Realism--We recognize the world, although now--not only because we have emerged from a dream--we look on it with new eyes. We are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world, that celebrates the mundane. This new world of objects is still alien to the current idea of Realism. It employs various techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquility of simple and ingenuous things. This [art offers a] calm admiration of the magic of being, of the discovery that things already have their own faces, [this] means that the ground in which the most diverse ideas in the world can take root has been reconquered--albeit in new ways. For the new art it is a question of representing before our eyes, in an intuitive way, the fact, the interior figure, of the exterior world. (Franz Roh, Magic Realism: Post-Expressionism (1925).Magical Realism. Ed. L. P. Zamora and W. B. Faris. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. p. 15-32.)...."

Hmmmm. "celebrates the mundane," as in the Mundane SF Manifesto?

See also:

The Magical Realism Page, by Evelyn C. Leeper

"... Gene Wolfe's definition: 'Magical Realism is Fantasy written in Spanish.'"

"John Clute and John Grant have a broader category--fabulation--which includes Absurdist SF, Fictionality, Magical Realism, Slipstream, and Surfiction. In Clute's words: 'a Fabulation is any story which challenges the two main assumptions of genre SF: that the world can be seen; and that it can be told.'"

There are some good book lists on this page, and comments by folks such as Suzy Charnas and Nancy Lebovitz.


#81 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 01:03 AM:

I don't know if Avram is right about systematism being one of the distinguishing elements that lets us seperate genre fantasy from magic realism. But I can see how it might.

If part of magic realism is a combination of magic with the real world, this could explain why elves in Minneapolis aren't magic realism.

Not that systematism is limited to any one genre. It is, after all, a key aspect of the classic style of puzzle-solving murder mystery.

#82 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 02:49 AM:

No, Jonathan, "celebrating the mundane" has nothign to do with the Mundane Manifesto, but you knew that. It's mundane as in everyday, oridnary, quotidian. It's magic in the chicken coop and kitchen and street.

I'm assuming "systematism" in this case means systems of magic, with rules and conventions. I'd agree that Magic Realism is not about that. The magic in Magic Realism is untamed, wild, unpredictable, uncontrollable: it bursts out of and grows rankly within the everyday.

But Magic Realism isn't the only kind of fantasy that does that. The thing that really sets it apart is its own history.

#83 ::: cd ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 04:48 AM:

Marie: please enlighten me! Feel free to do so in email, if you don't want to derail this thread even further.

#84 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 07:34 AM:

Chad has uncharacteristically misinterpreted Patrick's position.

I'm not sure how uncharacteristic it really is, as I manage to do something roughly equivalent every couple of months... I managed to stay out of the "Crooked Timbre" thread, so I guess I was due.

At this point, I'm thoroughly confused as to who isn't getting what (other than that I'm obviously not getting the intended point). If the point is just to praise Scott Westerfeld's description of "the gap between people who get fantastic fiction and people who don’t," completely independent of which camp Michael Knight and his review fall into, I didn't get that from what was written. In particular, Westerfeld seems to believe that Knight is one of those who don't get it, and putting the review quote and his comments together in the original post suggests some agreement with that position. The "generally positive" line didn't really change my reading, as I've read lots of comments of the form "The review is generally positive, but on this specific point, the reviewer is dumber than a sack of wet mice..."

And I don't agree that the review in question is an example of Mr. Knight not getting fantastic fiction, certainly not to the degree that Scott Westerfeld appears to. (I should note that I haven't read the comments over at his site, so I don't know if he's said anything further.) As I've said a couple of times, his written reaction is close to my own.

(Though both Knight and Westerfeld are worried about the wrong story-- "The Hortlak" is the story with the confusing actual zombies, while "Some Zombie Contingency Plans" doesn't have any real zombies in it, just a bunch of talk about zombies.)

If the point is just to praise Westerfeld's description, leaving the Knight piece that it refers to completely aside, well, I don't have any problem with that. It's a nice bit of writing about stories.

If the point isn't either to agree with Westerfeld about Knight, or to praise Westerfeld independent of Knight, then I'm just hopelessly lost. This is what I get for trying to learn group theory out of a book.

Can we at least all agree to condemn puppy-blood-drinking Republicans?

#85 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 09:21 AM:

We do indeed condemn puppy-blood drinking Republicans. <volokh>Not that we're saying all Republicans drink puppy blood</volokh>, but a cursory web search shows that such practices are not unknown among the rank and file, if not often mentioned in mixed company. When will the Republican leadership face up to its obligation to clearly repudiate puppy-blood drinking once and for all? America deserves answers.

The point was to look at the gap between people who (imho) get fantastic fiction and people who don't. I don't think, and never said, that people who don't are "dumber than a sack of wet mice." I don't get modern dance, but I don't feel particularly stupid about this fact, nor do I think the people who do enjoy it are somehow faking it. I think there's something they understand, some language they've learned, that I don't know about. It's not a moral issue or an issue of relative intelligence. It may, like many such things, be an issue of sensibility, which is interesting in and of itself.

I have many faults, including a tendency to pop off when I feel like things I didn't say are being repeatedly attributed to me. I shouldn't have snarled at cija and I apologize to her (I think I have the gender right; further apologies if not). Frankly, my temperature started going up at when Chad dropped the "I don't quite see what the fuss is about" trope into what had been up until then an interesting and multivalent discussion. I hate that gambit; to me, it comes off as a dose of rhetorical toxin that can be inserted into any conversation in which people are being lively, animated, earnest, or otherwise engaged. Every conversation worth having is a species of "fuss." It's incredibly easy to make people feel embarrassed about having been enthusiastic about something, and "I don't see what the fuss is about" is an effective tool with which to accomplish that task and shut a conversation down.

No, I don't think this is something Chad was actually trying to do, and yeah, I overreacted. Chad is a first-class good guy, and sometimes I'm a volatile asshole. I'm post-morteming the event, not arguing that my every reaction was smart or proportionate.

#86 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 09:37 AM:

"We do indeed condemn puppy-blood drinking Republicans. Not that we're saying all Republicans drink puppy blood..."

Whew. For a second, I was getting worried there.

:D


#87 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 09:53 AM:

What Is Magical Realism, Really?
by Bruce Holland Rogers

"Magical realism is not speculative and does not conduct thought experiments. Instead, it tells its stories from the perspective of people who live in our world and experience a different reality from the one we call objective. If there is a ghost in a story of magical realism, the ghost is not a fantasy element but a manifestation of the reality of people who believe in and have 'real' experiences of ghosts."

Lucy Kemnitzer:

"No, Jonathan, 'celebrating the mundane' has nothign to do with the Mundane Manifesto, but you knew that."

Thanks, Lucy. I thought that I knew that, but as I get older, I realize each year that what I thought I knew is riddled with outcropings of misunderstanding and ignorance. And what if we underestimate what we know that we don't know? Science Fiction, Fantasy, Magic Realism, Horror ... these all get at that inkling.

"It's mundane as in everyday, oridnary, quotidian. It's magic in the chicken coop and kitchen and street."

Of course, some Magical Realism that I've read is set in places such as prison or bordello, which are just over the horizon of my everyday, but taken as Realism as they are quotidian to many people I meet every day.

At first I suspected magic in our chicken coop; yet finally figured out that raccoons were opening the latches.

Patrick:

I suspect, and would be happy to have this either confirmed or disconfirmed, that if you were commissioned to be in the Rock group playing for a Modern Dance troupe, that much would be revealed unto you, that can only be learned through participation.

That's my impression from Feynman telling me about being commissioned to write and perform percussion for a ballet, even though he insisted that he knew nothing of dance. Similarly, as Secretary of Euterpe Opera Theatre, I was involved in a baroque concert with baroque dance, although I insisted that I knew nothing of baroque dance. It took me to an alternate world where Baroque substituted for Regency dancing at SF cons.

"Popping off" and "snarling" indicate to me that this thread includes matters dear to your heart, where it is appropriate to be emotional.

#88 ::: JessieSS ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 10:39 AM:

JvP quoted thus: "If there is a ghost in a story of magical realism, the ghost is not a fantasy element but a manifestation of the reality of people who believe in and have 'real' experiences of ghosts."

It seems like it'd be productive, then, to distinguish between "'real' experiences of ghosts" and literal, actual zombies. Or elves. Whatever. "Anyone can tell" the difference between a traditional fantasy novel and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, right? But I haven't figured out yet how we can describe that distinction without backing off on "of course our zombies are literally real". Or, on the other hand, why people on the other side of the fence draw their line to include magical realism. I'd like to, though; this kind of breakdown of categories is always where the good questions are.

#89 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 11:13 AM:

It seems to me that much of the gulf between "magic realism" and traditional genre fantasy is exactly analogous to the synaptic gap that Patrick mentioned separating genre readers from non-genre readers.

Each genre uses a different set of story conventions, brings a different set of reader expectations to the table, has a different symbol table, and draws on an entirely distinct set of precursors.

No genre fantasy can be written, or read, without implicit (knowingly or not) reference to the thousands of genre fantasy stories that came before. And so with magic realism, but the stories that MR draws upon are not the same, and so the stories have very different meanings.

And just for one tiny but important detail: magic realism stories are often "realism" in the sense of the quotidian, of daily life. They are rarely about Quests to the Far Kingdom to Defeat the Dark Lord. Likewise, genre fantasies are very rarely about having to raise your kids while you work enough to buy food while worry about the magic lima bean plant in the garden.

And to bring this all full circle: Kelly Link is a hard writer to put one's finger on -- urr, sorry, I mean her work is hard to put one's finger on -- because she doesn't draw so cleanly from the genre fantasy (or horror, or magic realism) tradition, and so it's hard to know which protocol to use to understand her stories. I think of myself as a fairly sophisticated reader of genre fiction, but I acknowledge that my toolset is not broad enough to parse her work. My take on Knight's review is that this is the point he was trying to make.

I agree with Patrick that there's a synaptic gap, but I think the gap in question is not between fantasy readers and non-fantasy readers, it's between, well, most people and Kelly Link. (I think this is a good thing, and maybe this has something to do with "slipstream" but I'm not sure.)

#90 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 11:28 AM:

(Advance request for mercy for the following bit of self-quoting, O Contentious Ones! And don't look too unkindly on the metaphors I cranked out on the spur of the moment.)

Reviewing Stranger Things Happen back in Locus #486,I said the darker stuff in there is worth reading even if it might produce "mental aches and bruises", but Link's real forte is "gathering great heaps of fantastic material (myths, fairy tales, legends), dumping them into the dreamstuff like some kind of psychic yeast, and seeing what develops." That's still what I like best about her work.

#91 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 11:52 AM:

Jessie, it's not a question of whether the zombies are literally real, it's more a question of whether the author believes in (or is writing as if he believes in) the existence of zombies in the real world.

And there's more to it than that, of course. One can (depending on one's attitude towards defining sub-genres and schools of writing) say that magical realism is the product of a particular group of authors working at a particular time, and that nothing written by anyone else at any other time is properly magical realism, though it can be said to be like magical realism. Sort of like how no current painter can be a Pre-Raphaelite, no matter how much he paints like a Pre-Raphaelite.

#92 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 11:55 AM:

Madeline: I too read Fire and Hemlock several hundred books ago, so I guess we'll both have to reread it and then compare notes. (Gee, what a hardship.)

Lisa, Teresa, Mark: Suppose I rephrase. "I'm the cradle Episcopalian." Or "je suis l'enfant épiscopalienne." It's probably my French adjective endings interfering with my English. Disconcerting, to be sure, but for a French teacher not such a horrible fate. Or I could just stand by my native-speaker intuition; "Episcopalian child" sounds right and "Episcopal child" doesn't. Or I could bow out of the discussion because my natural contentiousness is aggravated by the impending start of the semester, and I'm famous for not playing well with others at this time of year. Or I could agree that Teresa and Mark are right, because I just this second remembered that my mother always got on me when I was a kid for just this mistake. (sigh)

#93 ::: Mark D. ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 12:28 PM:

TA - Pas grave. I'm touchy about usage, like your mom. Lisa is, of course, technically correct (as is the AHD), but too often we read "Episcopalian Church" or other barbarisms and, well....

Enjoy your semester!

#94 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 12:54 PM:

See below for another reading-in-metaphors-that-might-not-fit review, this being of the Iron Giant.

http://www.brothersjudd.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/reviews.detail/book_id/205/Iron%20Giant.htm

(It is an interesting obscure fact that the animated movie The Iron Giant is based on a children's book by Ted Hughes, of all people.)

#95 ::: cija ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 02:23 PM:

I shouldn't have snarled at cija and I apologize to her (I think I have the gender right; further apologies if not).

You do, and thank you.

#96 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 02:43 PM:

'Episcopal' is always an adjective. It is either part of a name ("Episcopal Church") or refers to the duties of a bishop...in this second sense, Roman Catholic Bishops have episcopal duties. With the capital 'E', however, as far as I know it refers strictly to the sonamed church or portions thereof, down to the individual: Episcopal Church, Episcopal Diocese, Episcopal priest.

'Episcopalian' is always a noun. Its form is adjectival because it refers to the characteristics of members of the Episcopal Church. As a noun it means such a member; but like all nouns in English, especially names, it can be used attributively if it refers to the way the members typically behave: "After the motet, the congregation sat in Episcopalian silence."

To give a minimal pair, "We attended an Episcopalian brunch" means we went to brunch with a bunch of Episcopal parishioners, whereas "We attended an episcopal brunch" means we went to brunch with a number of bishops, who may or may not be Episcopal bishops. "We attended an Episcopal brunch" should be corrected, either by decapitalizing (I so want to write 'decapitating'!) the 'E', or by adding '-ian' to the end of the key word.

#97 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 02:46 PM:

"Episcopalian child" sounds right and "Episcopal child" doesn't.

Hey, there's nothing wrong with 'Episcopal child'. It just means a child who's a bishop!

Or perhaps the child OF a bishop, but that would be stretching a bit.

#98 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 03:43 PM:

Mris: Real dragons. If they weren't solidly real dragons with parsons who have the right to eat the eyes of the dead it wouldn't have been worth doing.

Avram: I sometimes think it's useful to think of post-Tolkien genre fantasy, the stuff that's amenable to having a RPG made out of it, as realist magicism. It's magic, but it's real enough to bite, it has an ecology of magic. In magic realism, and also in things like some Sean Stewart, the numinous things happen because the world ought to work like that. Someone cries when making wedding cake, and everyone who eats the cake cries. It isn't remarkable, it would be remarkable if it didn't happen, if it didn't happen you'd have to say "Everyone should have cried..." It isn't literalising metaphor, it's doing a different thing. I think this is really interesting. I think post-Tolkien genre fantasy is largely really detailed feigned histories, and it appeals to people who like doing that and reading about that. But fantasy in the broadest sense, as I said in my review of _Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell_ (brilliant book, so glad it won a Hugo), is about approaching the numinous. There are a whole pile of interesting ways of doing that.

#99 ::: JessieSS ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 04:23 PM:

Jo, thank you! "Because the world ought to work like that" is a really helpful way of addressing the questions I was blundering around with. It's very hard for me to justify these distinctions on the basis of content, what actually happens, and "the author writes as though they believe in what they're writing" wasn't quite working for me either, for this problem anyway. But motivation or causality, that seems right. A little like sympathetic magic, really. (And Sean Stewart is one of the people who I've always thought _is_ writing magical realism in genre fantasy.)

Perhaps that's why there's this weird functional/effective overlap between the literalism we're talking about and the metaphor that people want it to be. It aligns so precisely that we need a different kind of suspension of disbelief, one that allows for, I don't know, a little more of the pathetic fallacy. Seriously: don't we tend to reject the storm that comes in the middle of the fight?

#100 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 04:34 PM:

Xopher: no, a child bishop (and how's that for a noun used appositively) would be an episcopal child. And thanks. Neepery is so much more fun than writing syllabi.

#101 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 04:47 PM:

So, for future reference, given that Patrick's comment has not been disemvowelled: "Not to put too fine a point on it, fuck you" is now to be considered a polite response?

I see Patrick apologised for it, later. Which is nice. But it would be nicer if Teresa would disemvowel Patrick's comment.

#102 ::: Mina W ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 04:47 PM:

Alex Cohen said Each genre uses a different set of story conventions, brings a different set of reader expectations to the table

Those 'reader expectations' are part of what seem to me to be so hard for a reader coming in from outside the genre tradition to get - partly because they're part of our implicit assumptions about the world, so it's hard for us to state them for someone.

The ones that come to mind for me:
-alternate worlds may exist
-faster-than-light travel may be possible
-time travel may be possible
-there are more things in the universe than are dreamt of in our philosophy, Horatio
-the world changes faster than anyone could have imagined 50 years ago, even science fiction writers
-there have to be other intelligent creatures out there somewhere. In here, sometimes we wonder.

Others?

#103 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 05:06 PM:

Yonmei, are you questioning my unlimited and arbitrary use of power? And do you imagine that you have never been the recipient of mercy in Making Light's threads?

#104 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 05:41 PM:

TexAnne, ooo, quite right, quite right. I stand corrected. My favorite chain of attributive nouns, as I'm sure I've said here before, is "White House press briefing room podium sound equipment." Six attributive nouns in a row (counting 'White House' as one word, since it's a proper noun...these days).

And let me just say whh, Ynm gt pt frml in hr plc. ll hl Trs, whs rgn s jst nd gnrs! :-)

#105 ::: Janni ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 06:03 PM:

cija says:

Then I probably did misunderstand your comment about metaphor and literalism. Or perhaps I've assumed a too restrictive idea of what is meant by metaphor here

And I suspect I'm using a broader definition of metaphor than many of the folks here, though I didn't realize it at first.

IOW and as you're saying, as so often happens, somewhere between our different uses of the language we're probably actually saying the same thing ...

#106 ::: TChem ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 06:14 PM:

Mina W said : "Those 'reader expectations' are part of what seem to me to be so hard for a reader coming in from outside the genre tradition to get - partly because they're part of our implicit assumptions about the world, so it's hard for us to state them for someone."

I think that's exactly right, although the assumptions I miss are more sophisiticated. I don't read a lot of SF, but I've been handed a lot of books by friends who do. Most of the time I don't get very far, and I think it's because I get hung up on the details of worldbuilding that are part of the SF reader's Lego set. It certainly doesn't have to do with my thinking the aliens are metaphorical--metaphor eludes me unless someone tells me about it.

A friend who reads lots of genre might say: "Oh, the writer decided to use X method to describe artificial gravity on space stations, which usually leads to situations Y and Z." Meanwhile, the mention of real-sounding physics has flipped on my Work Switch (I'm an engineering grad student), and I can't get any farther without knowing what a double-anti-neutrino IS. So maybe one for your list is "You won't be tested on this."

#107 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 06:15 PM:

Teresa: Yonmei, are you questioning my unlimited and arbitrary use of power?

Why, yes, I am.

And do you imagine that you have never been the recipient of mercy in Making Light's threads?

Isn't disemvowelling a really atrociously rude comment a form of mercy, then? "Nt t pt t fn pnt n t, fck y" mercifully prevents Patrick and you from being embarrassed by such a rude comment from a moderator to a polite commenter, and mercifully prevents other people from having to read it.

#108 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 06:32 PM:

TChem:

"You won't be tested on this."

As I was driving my son onto his university campus today, he quoted a line, which he'd heard from a classmate, which amused him:

"Just because it doesn't exist doesn't mean it can't be on the final exam."

His resolutely elitist clique at school (Early Entrance Program) has license-plate holders embossed with the slogan (I kid you not): "We're Better Than You."

#109 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 06:34 PM:

Well, no, lots of us can read disemvowelled words. I can read rot-13 and hex, still.

#110 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 06:39 PM:

Xopher, if ever I meet you, the beers are on me.

#111 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 08:37 PM:

A good example of the kind of reader/writer expectation that I'm talking about is Chekhov's Law (a gun on the mantel in the first act must be fired by the third). Fantasy and science fiction (and mystery and romance) and pretty much any identifiable genre has dozens of these unwritten "rules." Sometimes they become cliche: in every episode of The Rockford Files, Jim gets knocked out. Campbell's Hero's Journey is a set of these expectation/rules: the hero must at first turn down the invitation to adventure ("I can't go to Alderaan; my uncle needs me.")

A century ago, otherworld fantasies more or less had to start with a character dreaming, or some explanation of how an earthbound character could get to this new world (E.R. Eddison, Edgar Rice Burroughs). Thankfully we've grown out of that, but only because a generation or two of readers have learned the convention that you can start a story in a completely foreign world.

#112 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 10:11 PM:

". . . you can start a story in a completely foreign world."

It can even have its advantages.

It wouldn't mean as much now, but the dropped-in-the-deep-end technique that "Cordwainer Smith" used in "Scanners Live in Vain" and other stories was just wonderful. Literally wonderful.

#113 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 10:26 PM:

Splash of Magical Realism in this Sunday's Los Angeles Times Book Review section:

'Bone People,' fishing and a search for 'Bait'
By Neil Hanson

"THE trek to novelist Keri Hulme's home crosses one of the most remote, wild and beautiful parts of New Zealand's South Island.... Hulme's first novel, 'The Bone People,' winner of the 1985 Booker Prize... Hulme's house is a boat-like construction of native wood, hunkered down into the dunes. The huge windows facing the ocean flood the interior with light and provide spectacular views of the land- and seascapes that inspire her. 'I can obviously write elsewhere but this is — the Maori expression is turangawaewae-ngakau — one of the standing places of my heart.'"

"She built it with her Booker Prize winnings. The unknown Hulme had been the rank outsider in an international field of literary heavyweights, and while those who loved her book did so with a passion, there was no middle ground; the rest absolutely hated it. She became one of the most controversial winners in the history of the Booker."

"'The Bone People,' reissued by Louisiana State University with a new preface by Hulme, revolves around three troubled central characters — a misanthropic artist, an abused child and a drunken, violent woodcarver — whose lives become entangled on the South Island beaches of New Zealand. Hulme's mix of prose and poetry and her use of Maori myth and language (Hulme is of Maori descent) repelled as many readers as it entranced. But what made her win most controversial was that enough jurors favored a newcomer over literary giants such as Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing and Peter Carey."

"In the beginning, Hulme's novel was almost stillborn. A succession of publishers rejected it, one declaring: 'Ms. Hulme certainly can write, unfortunately we don't understand what she is writing about.' That letter still hangs on her wall...."

#114 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 11:10 PM:

TexAnne - I'll buy the potato skins. Or shots. Or whatever; something!

I like you too. There, how's that? :-)

#115 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2005, 11:56 PM:
Teresa: Yonmei, are you questioning my unlimited and arbitrary use of power?

Yonmei: Why, yes, I am.

Sorry, no use; it's unlimited and arbitrary. How much thought have you given your position?
Teresa: And do you imagine that you have never been the recipient of mercy in Making Light's threads?

Yonmei: Isn't disemvowelling a really atrociously rude comment a form of mercy, then? "Nt t pt t fn pnt n t, fck y" mercifully prevents Patrick and you from being embarrassed by such a rude comment from a moderator to a polite commenter, and mercifully prevents other people from having to read it.

Yonmei, I fear you've missed the point of my question. You've been extended considerable tolerance yourself on past occasions. At the time, one of the uses I made of my unlimited and arbitrary power was to politely disregard e-mails asking why your behavior didn't warrant suppression.

It will always be difficult to make arguments based on the assumption that the speaker has a better grasp of the local rules than I do. Even Patrick and Yog tread cautiously in the neighborhood of that topic. Mind, I'm not saying it's impossible to make such arguments stick. It's just that they're likelier to prosper when made by someone who has less often vexed local customs and sentiments.

Patrick is not the moderator. I am.

Patrick can deal with his own embarrassment. In fact, he's been doing so. Personally, I find it's a good rule of thumb to avoid asking on whose behalf some hypothetical embarrassment is being felt, unless I'm absolutely certain that I want to hear the answer.

#116 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2005, 03:26 AM:

Patrick wrote:

> Not to put too fine a point on it, fuck you. On what basis do you accuse me of any such characterization?

I've only read halfway through this gigantic thread so far, so maybe there's a happy ending, but this is really weird - a fight with only one side fighting.

#117 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2005, 04:18 AM:

Sorry, no use; it's unlimited and arbitrary. How much thought have you given your position?

Let's see: sitting in a chair in my own home, reading Making Light on my own computer: long-time lurker, occasional commenter, for quite some time now. *shrug* I enjoy reading Making Light, mostly: the only way you could prevent me from enjoying it would be for you to decide that random outbursts of abusive language to polite commentators were perfectly acceptable behavior: for the most part, you prevent that by disemvowelling such comments. That you have decided instead to endorse Patrick's comment is, well, arbitrary, and unpleasant. Injustice is always annoying: and yesterday was not a good day to annoy me.

Jonathan Vos Post: I adore The Bone People - strangely so, for me, since I usually don't enjoy Booker Prize novels. But that book lives in my heart and my mind.

Though the reviewer makes one odd small mistake: Joe isn't a woodcarver. Though he does carve wood, but then he also plays darts and goes fishing. Part of the frustration of Joe's life is that he wanted to be a priest, but ended up meeting a woman he wanted to marry: he wanted to be a teacher, but he ended up a factory worker, because he couldn't support his wife and children on a teacher's salary.

Plus, yes, he gets drunk. But so does Kerewin, and indeed so does his son. Each of them has at least one scene of happy drunkenness.

#118 ::: Paul Clarke ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2005, 05:22 AM:

It is an interesting obscure fact that the animated movie The Iron Giant is based on a children's book by Ted Hughes, of all people

All Brits are aware of this, because they read the book in class while in primary school (I may be over-generalising from a sample of one here). I see from the review that the book ended with world peace - I'd completely forgotten that, while remembering all the more violent bits.

#119 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2005, 06:33 AM:

All Brits are aware of this, because they read the book in class while in primary school

We read it in class in my primary school, too, so unless we went to the same primary school, that's a sample of two...

It was a genuine jolt when I was a teenager to discover that the author of "The Thought Fox" was the same person who wrote The Iron Man and How The Whale Became.

#120 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2005, 09:18 AM:

Steve, one so seldom sees a one-sided fight.

Yonmei: Oh look, you dropped your gauntlet. Might want to pick that up. Wouldn't want to lose it.

I know you're big on the healing power of annoyance, but is it possible in spite of that to get you to reconsider your own rhetorical stance and language? For instance (or rather, the most recent instances), I am not going to discuss this in terms of my "endorsing" anything I don't disemvowel. Sorry. Nice try. Knock that off. I'm also not going to discuss this in terms of "random bursts of abusive language," because that's not what happened.

Have you noticed that the actual participants in the quarrel have been settling it out in normal fashion?

"...yesterday was not a good day to annoy me."
Don't even start. On that day, I was in the first wretched throes of a nasty head cold. Furthermore, I have no reason to believe that of all the people reading and commenting on this thread, you and I were the ones having the worst day.

I don't know about your mom, but my mom taught me that when you've got something going on that makes you feel unusually irritable, the responsibility for making allowances for it lies with you, not with the people around you.

#121 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2005, 09:43 PM:

You had *cubicles* at the pool?!

#122 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2005, 11:04 PM:

Teresa Nielsen Hayden wrote:

> Steve, one so seldom sees a one-sided fight.

I disagree, but there's probably nothing to be gained from starting a meta-fight about it.

Striving for on-topicness, I just bought the Datlow/Link/Grant _Year's Best Horror_ yesterday, and note that it contains 'Zora and the Zombie' by Andy Duncan and 'Hunting Meth Zombies in the Great Nebraskan Wasteland' by John Farris.

Not having read it yet, I can't say whether they are literal, metaphorical, literal-metaphorical, or metaphorical-literal.

I wish I'd come into this thread much earlier, or that I had more time to type, or that I had a magic flying pony or something, as I've been inarticulately worrying over the literal/metaphorical thing is sf and fantasy for quite a while, and I need to talk about it, without having any idea of what I want to say.

Perhaps it's just that I fear that either one devalues the other - that is to say, that real dragons make for bad metaphors and metaphorical dragons produce poor quality flame. And yet I appreciate authors like - well, Kelly Link - who can sow a bit of extra confusion.

And am I the only one who feels that none of the events in _The Iron Dragon's Daughter_ happened 'for real', at any level? From interviews I've read, I don't think that's what Swanwick intended, but it's what I get from it.

#123 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2005, 11:33 PM:

Steve: you know those pictures where you look at it and it's a woman's face and you look at it again and it's a grinning skull? Or the Baby's Blocks quilt where the direction and concavity of the blocks keeps reversing on you?

Well, there you are. You look at it one way, and it's a metaphor. You look at in another way, and it's literal. You can hold both in your mind at the same time, but you can't see both at the same time.

I think, anyway, tonight.

The same dragon can do both in the same story, but a reader is likely to be attending to one or another at any particular moment.

And, still, I think the thing that makes it genre is that the author's intent is focussed on the literal, and the metaphorical is just icing on the cake.

Speaking of metaphors -- have I mixed too many? Did I overbeat and make the cake come out all flat?

#124 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2005, 11:35 PM:

Marilee: You had *cubicles* at the pool?!

It's that danged wireless internet again!

#125 ::: Mina W ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 01:02 AM:

Lucy - an interesting thing I noticed about the Baby's Blocks quilt illusion: the baby's blocks which are the most confusing are those sewn without a consistent [illusion of] direction of illumination.

Long ago in a biological illustration class, we were taught that the source of light conventionally comes from the top left of the page. None of us had heard of that - but our eyes seem to know it. If you have a photo of a textured surface [sand dollar, quilt, lunar surface?] which you persist in seeing concave instead of convex, and you rotate the page until the texture snaps into the correct view - I find it does so when the light is coming from the top left of the page. So our eyes know this convention of where the light 'should' be coming from, even when we don't.

Somehow this seems to me to be a metaphor for metaphor too. Or maybe for those readers' assumptions?

#126 ::: Mina W ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 02:33 AM:

TChem - I like "You won't be tested on this".

My younger brother is a physics professor, he and his wife met at Cal Tech. She stopped reading an SF writer I enjoy because there was too much technical description for her taste. He said "Well, there is a lot of technical description.... of course it's all wrong. Internally consistent though."

I love that great throwaway line.

Have to admit that I just ignore a lot of that technical description, and concentrate on the story and characters.

I didn't realise until earlier on this thread how much different people read for different things. For me it's character first, and story, and interesting [humorous & insightful] dialog and descriptions. But that concept explains a lot of the books people hand me and tell me I must read, they're so wonderful, and I can't get through the first chapter. [usually not SFF]

#127 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 02:36 AM:

Returning to the topic, if that is allowed...

Thinking it over, I think it's fascinating that most children find fantasy acceptable, but many reject it as adults. I suppose it is part of adult self-definition; developing a sense of how much one fantasy is willing to tolerate, even in imagination, and every person seems to draw the line differently.

#128 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 04:00 AM:

Teresa: Have you noticed that the actual participants in the quarrel have been settling it out in normal fashion?

Normal fashion for this blog, you mean? That is: after Patrick insults Cija, Cija apologizes three times over for offending Patrick, you make a snide remark to Cija (apparently about an interchange from April 2004), Patrick finally apologizes to Cija, and you refrain from disemvowelling the original offensive comment from Patrick. And yes, I guess that is normal for this blog, and it is settled, if by "settled" you mean Cija is probably gone from it another year or so.

On that day, I was in the first wretched throes of a nasty head cold.

I'm so sorry. That must have been so much worse than my own past week.

Marilee - yes, cubicles! It's one of the bathhouses built back at the end of the 19th century that's still in use, though primarily as a swimming-pool/gym now, rather than as a place where people without bathrooms in their own homes could go to take a bath. It's been in continuous use, with pauses for renovation, for over a hundred years.

#129 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 07:44 AM:

I'm so sorry. That must have been so much worse than my own past week.

Baldur's cold gold tears, Yonmei, if that qualifies as a bad week your life has been unusually blessed.

Cattle die; kinsmen die; all things come in time to die, friend or beast or work of man.

When you admit anything to your heart, you admit also the obligation to maintain your self-rule in the face of the death of that thing.

One also undertakes to notice when other people are moved by pain, and to make allowances.

Patrick is intermittently intemperate. You can decide that Patrick is an uncouth man, or you can decide that Patrick's pain management isn't always good enough to meet his pain management needs, and respond accordingly.

Unless you want to arrogate some purported perfect probity to yourself, you may wish to note the symmetry of the situation between your conduct and Patrick's.

#130 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 07:47 AM:

Randolph --

That only works if 'fantasy' is an agreed-upon thing.

I think what we're seeing is that fantasy is not an agreed upon thing.

Everyone lives in the world their mind constructs, but all these worlds are not arranged alike. Children are learning how to do the arranging, and it should not be surprising if some of the end results don't have the space that 'deliberately fantastical narrative for purposes of entertainment' fits into.

#131 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 09:38 AM:

Yonmei, have you noticed that Making Light incorporates Patrick's blog Electrolite these days? And that it was Patrick who posted the article which initiated this comment thread?

You are seriously challenging Teresa to moderate Patrick's language in his own blog?

#132 ::: Lenore Jean Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 09:45 AM:

May I say I truly admire how seldom this blog's comments degenerate into insults? I was pleased to see Patrick's instance of temper followed by his apology. It happens so seldom here that it was shocking, but the responses were so calm that the flames were doused.

Yonmei, I'm so sorry about your cat. Please let this fight go, and tell us about her/him.

ljjones[at]ix.netcom.com

#133 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 10:14 AM:

"Yonmei, I'm so sorry about your cat. Please let this fight go, and tell us about her/him."

No, please don't. I'm far more interested in reading about zombies and metaphors and Kelly Link, not to mention the divide betweeen people who "get" fantasy/sci-fi and people who "don't," than in a cat.

Patrick: I don't know if this will help get at your interest in the mechanism of misunderstanding, but I may be one of the sorts of readers you wonder about. I don't know exactly what "magical realism" is, but I will say this; I read fantasy and science fiction but probably am not a fan. I've read only enough Tolkien to know I dislike it, and won't watch the movies again any time soon. I read Asimov's "I, Robot," and thought it was okay, mostly. I don't like what people seem to call the "hard" stuff in anything. I don't like series (mostly. With the notable exception of Discworld), I don't like swords and wizards and epics and Orcs. I don't like Wheels of Time. I think Ender is lame. To me, rings to rule them are plot coupons and if I want to read a travelogue, I'll pick up Bill Bryson.

I like "Neverwhere," and "A Child Across the Sky," and "Trader." I like the books that take place mostly in the world I know, but there's a tweak, or at least that depart, somehow, from the world I know (i.e., start out in London before encountering London Below).

I could submit myself as an experiment, perhaps, because if there's a mechanism underlying, I'm probably one of the people who don't "get" things. There's a lot I don't "get".

#134 ::: MD² ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 12:21 PM:

After reading the whole thread, I don't know anymore if I'm one of those who get SF or not... which is probably good.

I always thought of Magical Realism as a form of fantasy where the only on-going fiction happens to be realism. Magic does exist, but people can't really make anything out of it, trapped in their own little collective fiction. I now have memories of Gabriel García Márquez's story The Saint, when Zavattini declares the miracle wouldn't make a good film, as no one would believe it...

TexAnne: as far as I knew, "épiscopalienne" wasn't proper french. Had to go back full of doubts to my old Litré, which only lists "épiscopal". It appears a Google search will give results though, but then "épiscopalienne" seems to be used mainly by Canadians, as a synonym of "anglicane", so I guess it must be some sort of regional variation.
The word "épiscopalienne" does sound strange to my ear.

#135 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 12:24 PM:

Was "Big Fish" supposed to be a Magical Realist movie?

#136 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 01:02 PM:

"Yonmei, I'm so sorry about your cat. Please let this fight go, and tell us about her/him."

No, please don't. I'm far more interested in reading about zombies and metaphors and Kelly Link, not to mention the divide betweeen people who "get" fantasy/sci-fi and people who "don't," than in a cat.

Sorry, but, however much I may disagree with Yonmei's current approach to this topic, this remark feels wrong to me.

We are talking about a pet, no doubt a close companion, which has just passed away. This isn't pet gossip Yonmei was invited to share. It was grief. The invitation to share is an expression of sympathy - it may be accepted or not - some people keep their grief to themselves -- but it shouldn't be dismissed.

I'm with the "Let the fight go, and tell us more about your pet", on the Open Thread, if not here.

On topic:
I'm big on "metaphor made real" approach to fantasy tropes -- things which have metaphoric meanings which are ALSO solid real objects or people. I think they're more powerful as metaphor if they're also real brain-eating zombies, or real dragons with parsons who eat the eyes of the dead. I think a zombie who was only a metaphor without a real presence would have no power over me on the metaphoric level: it would be a word, and it could be easily substituted with "banana", or "bunny", and it would make no difference.

#137 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 01:07 PM:

JVP: I'd argue that "Big Fish" is not magical realism, and my reason would be that it's fiction. I.e., as I understood it (and to the degree that pretty much anyone ever understands Burton), the stories had all been relayed by an unreliable narrator. He told tall tales. He made up stories. Yes, there were werewolves and witches with a magical eye in the stories, but, well, do you believe Finney was telling the truth? Because I didn't. I thought it was a movie about the joy of telling stories. Spoiler (rot13ed):
Jura Ovyyl Pehqhc gryyf Wnpx Svaarl gur fgbel bs Svaarl'f qrngu, naq Svaarl zrgnzbecubfrf vagb gur svfu, vg'f fgvyy cynvayl nccnerag gung Svaarl cnffrf dhvrgyl njnl va gur ubfcvgny ebbz. Gb zl rlrf, gung obgu artngrq gur gehgu bs gur erfg bs gur zbivr ohg nyfb erirnyrq vgf sha; va rssrpg, Ohegba jnf fnlvat, "lrf, vg'f snapvshy. Ab, guvf arire ernyyl unccrarq. Ohg vfa'g vg arng, naljnl?"

If the movie *had not* used that "twist," however, yeah, I'd think that was a good example of "magical realism."

I don't know that I can define what "magical realism," actually is. I can suspend my disbelief for stories like "Neverwhere" and "Labyrinth" because they begin in and contain elements of a reality with which I am familiar and in which I live and breathe. This is, perhaps, why I "get" "Labyrinth" but don't love "The Dark Crystal" as much. Would I consider the former "magical realism" and the other "fantasy"? Nah. But I love "Labyrinth," whereas "The Dark Crystal" is interesting.

#138 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 01:07 PM:

'Was "Big Fish" supposed to be a Magical Realist movie?'

Kinda-sorta. Tame magical realism for whitebread America.

_Big Fish_ had its moments, but at the end I felt like taking a good hot shower with insulin soap.

#139 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 01:13 PM:

Lenora: you slipped, and I realize I owe Yonmei an apology--

I'm sorry I was flippant about the loss of your pet. I got wrapped up on-topic and commented insensitively. I notice you've blogged about the loss, and I hope you'll share your experience of grief in the Open Threads, and I hope that it all helps through your mourning.

#140 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 01:17 PM:

A procedural point, not meant to revive any squabbles.

Niall wrote: "Yonmei, have you noticed that Making Light incorporates Patrick's blog Electrolite these days? And that it was Patrick who posted the article which initiated this comment thread?"

In fact Teresa is the moderator of these comment sections, merger or no merger. She has as much latitude with what I post here as she has with anyone else. (I should perhaps edit the templates to clarify this.)

#141 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 01:23 PM:

Will: I'm sorry I was flippant about the loss of your pet.

Absolutely no offense taken. FWIW, I agree with you. I've written about my cat on my own journal: I wouldn't write about her here, and indeed am rather sorry I linked to my journal from here at all.

#142 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 02:13 PM:

Steve:

I wish I'd come into this thread much earlier, or that I had more time to type, or that I had a magic flying pony or something, as I've been inarticulately worrying over the literal/metaphorical thing is sf and fantasy for quite a while, and I need to talk about it, without having any idea of what I want to say.

Perhaps it's just that I fear that either one devalues the other - that is to say, that real dragons make for bad metaphors and metaphorical dragons produce poor quality flame. And yet I appreciate authors like - well, Kelly Link - who can sow a bit of extra confusion.This topic is not exhausted, nor is it likely to run dry in the foreseeable future. The interplay between familiar metaphor and strange reality is one of the engines of our genre, and a fair bit of Patrick's earlier vexation was having such a promising discussion of it go astray. Please feel free to continue.

A recommendation: I'm trying to remember whether it's Samuel R. Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw or Starboard Wine that has the great essay on concretized metaphor in SF. Perhaps someone else here will remember. They're both collections of critical essays, entirely worth reading if you're interested in how the genre gets its effects and makes meaning happen. The illusion-casting competition in Emma Bull's The War for the Oaks can also be read as an essay on the subject.

Onward. The most basic reason the genre's handling of metaphoric or otherwise figurative languge is different from the mainstream's is that in science fiction and fantasy, such language can misfire badly. Phrases like "her world exploded" or "she turned on her left side" or "the man she married proved to be a beast" might turn out to be literally true. Since readers are confused and distressed when they can't tell whether "she was a magnificent creature" means "statuesque blonde" or "thirteen feet tall, with bright pink fur," it's best to avoid the careless everyday use of metaphors.

However, avoiding unwanted literalizations isn't the only thing we do with metaphor. Concrete meaning and metaphoric meaning can be combined: a finicky but potentially powerful technique. They just can't be mixed indiscriminately at all levels.

Proverbially, the worst possible alternate ending in English literature would be, "Frodo awoke. It had all been a dream." LOTR works because it's all meant to be taken as real. If you go through the text, you'll find that Tolkien's characters use very few ornamental or expository figures of speech, and the narrative voice scarcely uses any. When they do occur, they're generally used for purposes of summary, or to describe something that's not susceptible to concrete description, or as a substitute for terms that would have unwanted connotations. (You could write a short book just on his use of shadow.)

Middle-Earth and its narrative are alike made of real things, concretely described. Since Tolkien's language isn't constantly pointing beyond the text* (unless it's to other texts of his own devising: a special case), his readers are prompted to locate meaning in the concrete entities that inhabit the text, rather than looking through the text and beyond the text for the intended meaning.

This isn't Tolkien's only trick, but it's one of his better ones. It's why his objects and people and landscapes can be at once so solid and so numinous: they have real presence.**

If science fiction's concretized metaphors aren't the same technique (you could argue it either way), they come out of a closely related bag of tricks. Jonathan Lethem uses them. Ken MacLeod uses them and plays with them and tosses them in the air so they fall down and hit him on on the head. But it's possible that the single best use of concretized metaphor is Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days."

I've explained enough here. I'm not going to take on explaining "Light of Other Days." Just go read it, if you haven't already.

__________________

Footnotes:

*How figures of speech point beyond the text: When I'm teaching, I say that the story you have in mind to tell is like a complex colored image overlaid with a sheet of tracing paper, and the version you do tell is the simpler and more abstract rendering of the picture you draw on the overlay. Using figures of speech is like cutting little images out of magazine ads and pasting them into your rendering to take the place of some part of the picture. If there's some bit of the picture that can't be rendered any other way, or if there's some image that can be set next to part of the rendering to illustrate its nature, the substitution may be justified; but it's almost always better to render what's there, because the pasted-in bit is never going to look 100% like it's part of your picture. What you want your viewers to see is the picture itself. What they'll see instead is a piece of paper that has your picture drawn on it and some cut-out bits of magazine ads pasted into that drawing: still recognizably art, but a very different effect.

**I am steadfastly restraining myself from putting forth the claim that this explains the perennial recurrence of Superfluous Capitalization in fantasy. If I weren't being so restrained, I'd explain that the Superfluous Capitalization of all sorts of Common Nouns in fantasy is a attempt to reassign and relocate numinous mana.

Illustration: Suppose we lived in a world in which I was commonly referred to as Editor Nielsen Hayden, but if you were asked what Joe Lieberman does for a living, you'd say "Oh, he's a senator." See the difference? Caps have mana. Or possibly vril.

This leads me back to my old observation that the only difference between "consecrated wafer" (which isn't capitalized) and "the Host" (which is capitalized) is transubstantiation; wherefore we may know that Superfluous Capitalization is a Sign that Real Presence is lurking somewhere nearby.

#143 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 02:51 PM:

I've never been accustomed to thinking critically about sf&f. I just know that I like it. (And one of the reasons I like it is that it is different from real life, metaphors, non-metaphors and all.)

Somebody once made a statement about the difference between things that are real and things that are true. That would be my take on the subject.

But it just occurred to me that the same ground must get covered in discussions of fairy tales, which have been around for a lot longer than skiffy. When a woman agrees to marry a white bear, is that a "real" white bear, or what?

#144 ::: Michelle K ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 03:07 PM:

But it just occurred to me that the same ground must get covered in discussions of fairy tales, which have been around for a lot longer than skiffy. When a woman agrees to marry a white bear, is that a "real" white bear, or what?

Speaking for myself only, I always read folk and fairy tales literally as written. If they say that she marries a bear, then that's precisely what I imagine: nice ceremony, preacher, bear in a nice bow tie or some other appropriate bear formal wear.

My brain has no problem accepting that or any other fantastic element. Not that I think that a woman could actually marry a bear, I'm just good at suspending disbelief for fantasy. Less good in fiction that is supposed to follow reality and fails.

However, I never ever see metaphor in anything I read. Ever. So that might account for it.

#145 ::: JessieSS ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 03:38 PM:

Well, if you go back far enough to early myths, they're explanations of real things, no? I would hazard a guess--anthropology is not my field--that they were meant as literal explanations in the same way that we produce scientific theories now, except with a lot more of the "it should happen that way" aspect.

Look at the Renaissance for a lot of wacky science theory that obeys the same motivational rules as, for instance, magical realism. Some people--Mary Gentle comes to mind--have played some very elegant games with literalizing those beliefs. (And she says a few things about it in a article which could do without the first page or two of apology. Among other things, she says a science fiction novel based on Hermetic science means that "the reader is continually disoriented", and I think that's something a lot of good sf&f tries to do: take away something we rely on, so that we have to actually think about what's going on.)

#146 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 04:08 PM:

Not all myths are explanations of "real" things. "Thunder and lightning are caused by Thor throwing his hammer Mjolnir" sounds like an example of such, but that is not actually a myth. "One time Thor's hammer got stolen, and Loki helped get it back" is a myth - an actual story. And what natural phenonenon could that story explain?

On the Mary Gentle article - I like her books quite a bit, but she sounds awfully pretentious there.

It is somewhat cheering, if entirely megalomaniac, to say that I write with an intention of reforming the field of science fiction.

Yes, it is. You're a pretty good writer, but not that good.

#147 ::: MD² ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 04:08 PM:

Can't remember where I read that a mythology was nothing but truth to the people who produced it, and a set of nice allegorical stories for all the others. Probably in some Roland Barthes.
Very interesting tool anyway.

Wouldn't put "Big Fish" in magical realism, for the same reasons as Will Entrekin, who put it better than I can.

#148 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 04:45 PM:

Myth serves a lot of different functions. But to the audience that first enjoyed them, the myths served the purposes now served by "Die Hard," "Ernest Goes To Jail," "Jacob's Ladder," "Finding Nemo," "March of the Penguins," the WWE, poetry slams, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, "Roseanne," "The Daily Show," "Spongebob Squarepants," and "Sesame Street." And the entire Discovery Planet network.

I think we forget often that myths were popular culture in their first incarnations, not classical.

#149 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 05:53 PM:

General Announcement: If you're following the metaphors and science fiction discussion, you don't have to read this message.

Teresa: On that day, I was in the first wretched throes of a nasty head cold.

Yonmei: I'm so sorry. That must have been so much worse than my own past week.

This is over the line. Yonmei, you've gotten it wrong again, yet I know you're not that stupid. I am unwillingly starting to believe that you're being rude on purpose.

What I said was not that I was having a worse day or week than you were. I said that of all the participants here, odds are that neither you nor I were in line for the uncoveted Worst Week trophy.

I was being polite. Here's a blunter version: you don't know the state of my heart, this week, or this month; neither do you know Patrick's; neither, with a handful of possible exceptions, do you know all the joys and sorrows of the other people here.

Your cat died. I'm sorry. Cats always die, and it always hurts when they do. I respect your cat. I respect your grief. But by god, woman, you're certainly getting your money's worth out of it; and that, I find unseemly.

What kind of a wildly fortunate or deeply oblivious life have you led, that you're certain that losing a pet guarantees that you're having a worse week than anyone else you encounter? There are people here with terminal illnesses, of both the fast and slow varieties, and others who are seeing loved ones through same. Right off the top of my head, I could name you a dozen Making Light readers who year in and year out suffer from painful, chronic, and disabling conditions. And I can guarantee you that you're not the only reader who's suffered a recent bereavement. (I'm leaving out fires, floods, and catastrophic storms, because people who've been through them tend to go offline for a while.)

Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. Everyone has their griefs. Some cope by talking about them; others do it by not talking about them. But no one is obliged to make a public parade their griefs in order to demonstrate that they deserve civil treatment from you.

#150 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 06:47 PM:

Will, I think Discworld is really satire, set in fantasy because it gives him more room to move.

JVP, Big Fish wasn't magic realism. It was a set of fairy tales from a father to a son.

#151 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 07:51 PM:

Will, I went through a bout of saying I didn't much care for most fantasy until I discovered a vast swath of urban fantasy, which is the label I tend to slap on things like Neverwhere (which I also really enjoyed). So I'm not sure if that means you don't "get it" or if your tastes just don't run to, say, epic fantasy or sword and sorcery.

I mean, it's kind of hard sometimes to tell the difference between "I just don't care for this" and "I don't get it". I got really bored with big sweeping epic grand fantasy, but I don't think it's because I didn't grok it... but I might be missing something. Dunno.

#152 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 08:03 PM:

Marilee: Will, I think Discworld is really satire, set in fantasy because it gives him more room to move.

I think the Discworld series has evolved in this direction, with the earlier books being more lighthearted and the later ones more driven by social commentary. That said, as a recent Discworld convert, I like the later ones better and check the copyright date to set my expectations before reading. I'm in the middle of Jingo right now and finding it all too topical.

#153 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 08:14 PM:

Marilee:

"Big Fish wasn't magic realism. It was a set of fairy tales from a father to a son."

Well, yes. But the final scenes, on two levels, in terms of the son's final story told back to his father, and in terms of who is at the funeral (he said, carefully avoiding spoliers) provide the nuance that led me to ask the question.

I mostly agree with you about Discworld as "really satire, set in fantasy because it gives [Terry Pratchett] more room to move," except for the effort that he makes to provide consistency, structure, and almost axiomatic interrelationships between magical objects, beings, and processes. In some sense, he seems to be simultaneously critiquing and participating in the "Fantasy with rivets" program.

Not all satire is so carefully thought through. It is one thing to demolish a system; quite another to hint at an alternative, or joke that one is hinting.

#154 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 08:41 PM:

Going back to the original topic again... while I loved most of Stranger Things Happen including the many calculated ambiguities as to the fantastic concrete vs. metaphor vs. unreliable narrator, I still haven't read Link's new collection.

However, it belatedly struck me that the original reviewer's reaction to the zombie story is a lot like mine was to 'Most Of My Friends Are Two-thirds Water'. In that particular story I couldn't tell whether I was expected to take the hypothetical alien transformations as real real, "real", neurotic delusions or what, and ultimately I think it left me emotionally disengaged from the story, to the point that I'd pretty much forgotten it until recently. The reason I reread it is that I have recently seen other people rave about how it's one of the best and creepiest stories they've read, so... I don't know what moral to draw here. Chacun a son gout? Even reading lots of scifi won't save you?

Perhaps it might mean that when a writer deliberately sets out to blur the lines between the fantastic, the mundane, the narrator's delusions, concretized metaphor, the readers' reactions to the result may be less consistent across readers and more highly individualized.

#155 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 10:01 PM:

I've loved magic realism ever since I was introduced to it in high school Spanish class, mainly via a book of short stories by Cortázar (and notoriously "La Noche Boca Arriba"). But I haven't had the best handle on its context and history. I'm not too good at the Lit Crit thing, English degree notwithstanding. I identify magic realism, wrongly or rightly, by the feeling its fictional worlds give me. So when I try to define it, I end up more describing its symptoms.

The main identifying symptom being that in magic realism, the intrusion of magic into reality is not the point and is treated as ordinary by all the characters. The protagonists don't say, "OMG this man with WINGS fell out of the sky! Am I hallucinating or something?" They just go, "Ok, fine, man with wings, but look, I'm busy here, I have to sweep all the crabs out of the kitchen. Look, can you think of a way to make money off the old geezer?"

Which differs from urban fantasy, in that UF protags are more likely to say "OMG man with wings!"

I'm fond of both because they don't put magic away into other worlds I can't visit, but rather posit magic in my world, which is in sore need of it. Magic realism more so, because its treatment of magic implies that it might happen at any old time, rather than just once if the stars are aligned and you happen to live in the right place.

Way off-base? OK, but a hack's approach? How's it sound to y'all?

And am I really and truly out in left field if I then conclude that Maitland's Three Times Table is British magic realism?

#156 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2005, 11:32 PM:

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little:

"... The main identifying symptom being that in magic realism, the intrusion of magic into reality is not the point and is treated as ordinary by all the characters."

One can either take this as a marker for the genre or, if I may be perverse for a moment, that Magical Realism is Science Fiction set in an alternate universe where human nature is different, in terms of curiousity, or approach to identifying lawfulness in the cosmos.

In that case, it is parallel to the genre of pornography, which (as has been discussed somewhere in an earlier thread) is Science Fiction set in an alternate universe where human nature is different, in terms of willingness to please strangers, lack of incest taboo, nature of orgasm, refractory period, deficiency of STDs, and other aspects.

#157 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 01:37 AM:

Wow, Jonathan, that's just... yeah. (Pornography?) OK!

No, seriously, I think I see what you mean. I'd hate to say that magic realism involves a human nature that lacks curiosity--that seems to take away what magic is already in people to begin with. But a human nature that has a different approach to "lawlessness," that works for me.

I'm reminded of the White Wolf role-playing game "Mage: The Ascension" in which your characters have to be careful casting spells for fear of accruing paradox points. It's safer to perform "coincidental" magic which can easily be explained away by bystanders, rather than "blatant" magic which violates the dominant paradigm and confuses or shocks witnesses. One might say that in magic realism, there is no dominant paradigm to be violated, or if there is, it's neutral to the ideas of fantasy elements, so the appearance of the very old man with enormous wings garners no paradox.

#158 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 08:23 AM:

Magic realism doesn't lack curiosity; it lacks surprise.

KILLICK! Where's the ship?!?

#159 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 09:29 AM:

Wikipedia defines "magical realism" as a literary genre in which magical elements appear in an otherwise realistic setting. I'm inclined to (mostly) agree with that, though I would expand the definition to include stories in which characters from realistic settings encounter fantastic settings. Namely because I'm inclined to disagree with Nicole's distinction based on character reactions. To me, an "otherwise realistic setting" would be one in which characters would react with some surprise to our exemplary man with wings. Characters' unrealistic nonreaction would negate the realistic setting (for me, as a reader, at least). Characters in a realistic setting would have at least some reaction to the sudden appearance of a man with wings, even if said reaction was, simply, "Okay, how can I make money off him," (which, to me, perhaps cynically, is actually not an unrealistic reaction).

There should be a literary term for the magical realistic equivalent to science fiction. Like, Cory Doctorow, "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom"-- science fiction. "Jurassic Park"-- not.

Tina: I agree with your point about "getting it" versus "not getting it". I was only using those terms because I inferred that Patrick meant them in a different sense than "understanding" versus "not understanding." Obviously correct me if I'm wrong, Patrick, but I don't think that you would say I don't understand Tolkien if I told you I didn't like it (which is why I took the slightly different meaning). I understand what "Lord of the Rings" is about, both superficially and at slightly greater depth. If it interested me, I'm sure I could explore the use of symbolism and metaphor in it. I think it's a marvelously detailed and fabulously imagined world, absolutely, and know that Tolkien was a genius-level linguist.

So I understand it. I just don't like it.

To say something more on topic about literalism v. metaphor... I wish I could remember the exact context and statement. I can't. It's fuzzy. But I remember reading that someone asked Hemingway about birds that appeared in one of his stories, and how they were symbolic of blahblahblah, and Hemingway's reaction was, basically, dude, they're birds.

A better remembered anecdote is a discussion between Ezra Pound and (I think) William Carlos Williams' father. Pound had written a poem about "jewels" ("gems") on a shelf, and Williams' father was trying to get at what Pound meant by the word.
Finally, Pound exclaimed, "They're books!"
And Williams' father replied, "Well, then, why didn't you just *say* that?"

I'll admit, I'm biased when it comes to this, however. Like Teresa noted, "real dragons make for bad metaphors, and metaphorical dragons produce poor quality flame"; when I read or write, I want real dragons first. For me, as a reader, yes, I understand that a cigar is sometimes more than just a cigar, but I want it to be a cigar *first*.

#160 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 09:36 AM:

Nicole: I identify magic realism, wrongly or rightly, by the feeling its fictional worlds give me. So when I try to define it, I end up more describing its symptoms.

This debate has been reminding me of something, and Nicole's remark made it click. I once audited a course on 19th-century poetry, and during the section on Baudelaire, I asked the (intelligent and articulate) professor how one knows when something is a prose poem, as opposed to a piece of poetic prose. He looked at me as though my nose were green, and said "But it's a poem!" And that's all I could get out of him. I think describing the symptoms might in fact be the best possible explanation.

Graydon: Doesn't really explain "OMG ill-looking doctor marries amoral beauty," but it clears up that little matter of everybody liking Jagiello.

#161 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 09:55 AM:

Teresa: I disagree about figures of speech!

You're right that they can be done badly. One of my worst suspensions of disbelief ever came during a description of someone's head melting after contact with holy water, and the line "her eyes rolled back in her head" was, in this description, nevertheless meant to be taken non-literally.

But just because it can be done badly, doesn't mean it can't be done well. Delany is an absolute master of doing it well. They're part of the toolkit, and I think it would be madness to abandon them.

I think there's this thing, this space, which is hard to talk about, between the reader and the text, and there are ways the text can reach into that space and indicate directions of approaching it. Figures of speech reach into it, yes, but not like something tacked on from a magazine. The thing that does that is when you use real history and real references, especially when people do it to songs and movies and expect them to resonate, because that's like weaving a huge stone into the cloth, it distorts everything because it has gravity. I think those things are like jokes, it has to work whether or not the reader sees that there's anything there to get.

But figures of speech can often just be used directly, double-edged: "I honed my knife until it was as sharp as a zenkla's toe," is actually a piece of worldbuilding, reaching out but doing it in a particular way, setting up for you to expect a sharp-toed zenkla to wander into the story sooner or later.

Now I am someone who once got stuck for three entire days and had a whole newsgroup trying to help me out with the issue of "to what I could compare a boar the size of an elephant, when my narrator knows not elephants". The answer, which wasn't so great, was city gate, which worked for my narrator and thus let me get on to the next bloody sentence, but which didn't necessarily work for the modern reader, who hasn't seen sub-Roman city gates. (The one at Deva/Chester is still there.) Why couldn't I, someone asked, just say the thing was very big, twice, three, four times the size of a normal boar? The reason I couldn't is because the voice of the story, in this case a character voice, but not inevitably, absolutely required at that point of description, to nail down the thing by comparing it to something. People do that.

Sometimes you can just say something with nouns and verbs, like lining up bright little rocks. Yes, Tolkien was brilliant at that. Other times the voice of the story requires the leap, the comparison, the hesitation, the poetic comparison. My examples keep coming out as similes because they're easier, but in actual writing it'll be metaphor as often as not, and it isn't reaching out of the story and it isn't pasting something on, it's integral to getting the words down in the right order.

#162 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 10:51 AM:

Metaphor: a parallelogram in the space of ideas.

"A is to B as C is to D" locates four points in the Ideocosm (the space of all possible ideas). Sometimes, in literature, one of these points is implicit.

"A is to B" is a vector, with tail at A and head at B (I note that metaphors occur in Mathematics). The vector has a direction; it points in a particular way.

"C is to D" is a vector.

"A is to B... AS... C is to D" tells us that those two vectors are parallel.

When one says "figure of speech," one may analyze the laws of figure (Geometry), as well as the laws of speech.

No actual polygons were injured in the writing of this PARAble.

#163 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 11:24 AM:

I can't say more (and will say even less in my review for the October Locus), but the forthcoming "Discworld" book titled THUD! includes something like metaphysics as metaphor. *Some* elements of the fantasy Pratchett mocked so beautifully in the early books are turning into useful tools for him now.

#164 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 11:57 AM:

I'm still not sure I agree that real dragons make poor metaphor. Poorly written dragons surely do, orf course, dragons who are not explored as character or cataclysm or whatever they do in terms of the story, but just put in without sufficient thought.

But then, I believe a character can be a character, elegantly described and multi-dimensional, complicated and aggravating, and still carry the weight of a metaphor or a symbol. The places where they do things that seem at first irrelevant to and/or in opposition to the meaning, are explorations of the metaphor as surely as the places the character follows it.

#165 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 12:28 PM:

JvP: Yes, and hard sf is set in a universe where human beings explain things to each other all the time, and murder mysteries are from the universe where death is never random or motivated by petty concerns.

For me, magical realism is fantasy written in an alternate universe where not eveybody in the world is a late-20th century western culture middle-class science geek.

#166 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 12:32 PM:

Jo, I'm pretty sure that Teresa was talking about those off-the-shelf figures of speech you get at the store, not about kit-bashing your own out of whatever your fictional world has sitting in its cupboard.

#167 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 12:34 PM:

Avram: Exactly!

#168 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 04:28 PM:

Avram: Really? People use ready made ones? Though they do get worn down again in time.

I remember once cutting my foot unexpectedly and deeply, and thinking as the blood washed down between my toes: "It really is terribly red. As red as, as red as... redder than anything except more blood." Likewise, when I have a character cut themselves in a low-tech world, I don't say the blood "pumps out", even if it is arterial, because hey, no pumps.

One can carry this too far. There's a line somewhere between damascene and china where the implicit figure becomes just another noun. I think I may have my settings on this one set higher than average, because I've started avoiding the word "creature" except when I don't mind having the subtext of "created thing".

#169 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 04:48 PM:

Jo,

There's a famous one from Pablo Neruda I bet you know:

and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children's blood.
#170 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 05:02 PM:

Jo: I may be misunderstanding the sentiment there, but you're not saying that arterial blood does not pump, right? Because it does. I was premed and nearly a doctor, and double-checked with my mother, a laboratory technician; if you nick an artery, the blood doesn't just seep out, or even run freely. It pumps out of the wound like semen from a weak orgasm, in tiny, timid spurts.

#171 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 05:18 PM:

Will, If I'm reading correctly, she's saying that "pumps" as we know them didn't exist in that setting, so that whatever they might compare the pulsing/spurting movement of arterial blood to, it wouldn't be to a "pump"...

Jo, of course, can clarify if I'm wrong.

#172 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 05:30 PM:

At this point someone should probably step up to the figurative lectern and riff on

Posable action figures of speech, which can fit into many situations but have trouble holding onto most things

"Precious Freakin' Moments(tm)" figures of speech, of which "I wuv you this much, let me count the ways" is a relatively nontoxic example

Hummel figures of speech, still popular in certain categories of romance, fantasy, romantic fantasy, and tales of the World Wars in central Europe, especially ones where people sing

Lissajou figures of speech, which seem to wander all over the place but always end up right back where they started

And, of course figures of speech that don't add up, or at the very least do not add to 100% due to synecdoche

. . . but there's another wandering theme, of the idea that "this subgenre takes place in the alternate world where people act like they do in this subgenre," which is to other schools of criticism what the Free Soil Correspondence University of Box 1, Pony Croup, IN is to (say) Magdalene College; it admits all purely on their own terms and merits, if any, and measures the work only against itself.

At last we see that, for instance, Allen Drury's novels take place in a sociopolitical environment where the people and machineries in high places are, you know, just like that; that the later fiction of James Michener occupies a reality where history is far more interesting than any of the people who stand around watching it trundle by, and where Bret Easton Ellis is . . . uh, well, isn't "is" its own verb of being?

This is a step forward, not into a larger universe, but into a whole lot of teensy-weensy universes. Time to cease to judge, and begin to catalog.

#173 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 08:02 PM:

Lucy Kemnitzer wrote:

(face and vase illusion)
> Well, there you are. You look at it one way, and it's a metaphor. You look at in another way, and it's literal. You can hold both in your mind at the same time, but you can't see both at the same time.

That's a good answer - neat and logical, but I'm still inclined to scuff my feet and mumble inarticulately. There are still times when I look at an SFnal element in a story and think "well what are *you* doing here?".

> And, still, I think the thing that makes it genre is that the author's intent is focussed on the literal, and the metaphorical is just icing on the cake.

Though I think it gets fiddlier when authors are referring back to the genre they're writing in as well - thinking here of the SFnal triumphalism which is alternately evoked and beaten with a stick in M. John Harrison's _Light_.

> Speaking of metaphors -- have I mixed too many? Did I overbeat and make the cake come out all flat?

What type of cake is this? If it's carrot cake or zuchini loaf or something, I'll take it as a metaphor. If it's passionfruit sponge though, I think I'd rather eat it.

#174 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 10:35 PM:

Teresa Nielsen Hayden wrote:

> This topic is not exhausted, nor is it likely to run dry in the foreseeable future. The interplay between familiar metaphor and strange reality is one of the engines of our genre,

And yet one I only noticed a couple of years ago. It's been staring at me ever since.

> and a fair bit of Patrick's earlier vexation was having such a promising discussion of it go astray.

Though I didn't think it had gone astray myself, I understand the feeling of seeing a conversation wrenched away from an interesting direction.

> A recommendation: I'm trying to remember whether it's Samuel R. Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw or Starboard Wine that has the great essay on concretized metaphor in SF.

Sounds good. I'm always up for reading good SF criticism, and maybe he'll annoy me less than John Clute. I actually respect Clute's judgement, but I do wish he'd stop trying to write all clever like.

Digressing: I went into Space Age Books many years ago to buy a friend a copy of 'Heinlein in Dimension' for his birthday. I said to the shop guy "Do you have any criticism of Heinlein" and he replied "Yeah - I think he's bloody awful."

boom boom

> Onward. The most basic reason the genre's handling of metaphoric or otherwise figurative languge is different from the mainstream's is that in science fiction and fantasy, such language can misfire badly. Phrases like "her world exploded"

I don't buy that. Such confusions are possible, but I think vanishingly rare. They can make for good comedy, but I've had very few occasions when I really had to wonder what happened when someone turned into a driveway.

When you get away from the sentence by sentence level and start wondering about the literalness of larger story elements, that's when the real potential for confusion and ambiguity starts. And in contrast to what I said earlier, maybe I enjoy that. On even numbered days anyway.


> Proverbially, the worst possible alternate ending in English literature would be, "Frodo awoke. It had all been a dream." LOTR works because it's all meant to be taken as real.

Agreed, and tangentially: is this the topic for a making Light contest - how best to ruin a classic book in the smallest number of words.

> If science fiction's concretized metaphors aren't the same technique (you could argue it either way), they come out of a closely related bag of tricks. Jonathan Lethem uses them.

I love Lethem, especially Amnesia Moon, but 'The Hardened Criminals' made me want to enact some cruel and unusual punishment on him. I felt like I'd been knocked over by the Giant Metaphor Truck and then it had reversed over me for good measure.

I'll forgive him only because he wrote "The Insipid Profession of Jonathan Hornebom", a story which requires an appreciation of Max Ernst, Robert Heinlein and Surf Music to function properly.

> I've explained enough here. I'm not going to take on explaining "Light of Other Days." Just go read it, if you haven't already.

I have read it, but back when I was just a puppy - I should probably revisit it. My personal favourite would be Bruce Sterling's 'Mozart in Mirrorshades' - unless I'm drifting off into another literary device. It could happen.

#175 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2005, 10:41 PM:

adamsj wrote:
Jo,

> There's a famous one from Pablo Neruda I bet you know:

and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children's blood.

I've always been impressed by the chutzpah of the lyrics to Do Re Mi's 'Happiest Place in Town':


"The sky is crying
and its tears fall down like rain"

Very much like rain, yes.

#176 ::: Moi ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2005, 05:13 AM:

This is awfully late to the party, but I remember my parents buying and reading Ted Hughes children's books to me, The Iron Man among them. More of my British friends know of his writing for children and nonfiction writing about poetry, due to books like Poetry in the Making and his BBC programs, I think, while my American friends tend to encounter him in poetry survey course ("The Thought-Fox" and so on) (usually as "Sylvia Plath's husband"). It seems always a bit of a shock for both audiences when they read work intended for the other.

#177 ::: Avery ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2005, 11:55 AM:

Others?

When you close your refrigerator door the light collapses into an indeterminate quantum state until you open it again.

#178 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2005, 12:51 PM:

I once bridled at a review I had that started: "Although this novel uses unhuman characters in an unreal world..." (words to the effect that the reviewer got the point anyway: the story was about the corroding effects of envy. She thought.)

I humbly offer this as an example of what Patrick is talking about. For that reviewer, the fact that the characters were not of the human species and the world was not Earth were strikes against the story; tedious obstacles that had to be overcome to get to what the story really was about. She seemed to be asking what was wrong with writing the same story without fantasy trappings like those.

I couldn't answer other than by saying that it then wouldn't have been the same story. Suggestions, anyone?

#179 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2005, 01:37 PM:

Lenora: thanks for the clarification, I get what Jo was saying now. But it now makes me wonder: doesn't irrigation include pumps in its implementation? How far back go pumps go, Jo?

On the "get"/"not get" gap: This thread has prompted me to think about this a lot in the past week, for a number of reasons. In recent years, I've found myself bridging out and reading stories I might not've read when I was younger, opening myself up to possibilities and, hopefully, more complex stories. Also, I've recently been considering MFA programs in writing, so I've been looking at a lot of different books by a lot of different writers on faculty. I must admit I'm so far unimpressed save a few exceptions.

It's funny Bret Easton Ellis has come up recently, and even in the Making Light sidebar there, because my boss lent me *American Psycho* several months ago, and I recently picked up *Glamorama*. While I haven't really gotten to the latter yet, I read the former over about a week. And found I liked it. Not a great deal, but more than I'd expected to.
But tying this in, I also, shortly thereafter, read Teresa's review of *American Psycho*, as I picked up *Making Book* not long ago (and enjoyed it quite a lot, Teresa. It prompted me to submit a novel to Tor, in fact, because I enjoyed it so much).

I don't know how familiar other people here are with the review, but it's not a good one. Well. I mean, it is: it's a *great*, very negative review. Every point it raises is valid, and I actually agree with a lot of it. It made me see a couple of things I hadn't noticed when I'd read the story, even.

In spite of this, I still like it. I like it because I read Men's Health and GQ and Esquire and a bunch of others, and I lived in Manhattan for several years, and, well, I knew people like that. Not that tried to eat women, mind you, but people who were solely concerned about materialistic issues. I don't know if it has any bearing that I saw the movie first (we'll never know if I would've finished it if I hadn't seen Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman); it may well. I could perfectly hear Christian Bale's voice narrating the book in my head. Again, this might have made a difference. Bateman does list things in minute detail, to the point of both obsession/compulsion and, yes, tedium, but...

I "got" it.

This is not to say, Teresa, that didn't understand the book, because it's obvious you did, and wrote a very cogent review of it. But I think this gives an example of what Patrick is trying to get at when he mentions the "get"/"not get" disconnect. I "got" *American Psycho*, whereas Teresa "didn't get" it.

#180 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2005, 02:19 PM:

Dave Luckett:

I don't know if this helps, but the reviewer seems to be saying, "Why did he bother to make up all this stuff about non-human beings and alien worlds, when he could have written a perfectly good story about the corrosive effects of envy on Catherine Morland who lives in Fullerton, England."

Or, "How does all this imaginary stuff enhance the story?" I guess that's the question.

I like the imaginary stuff. If I wanted to observe something that resembles real life as closely as possible, I'd look out the freakin' window.

But perhaps it could be argued that one only has so much time and energy to devote to any piece of writing, and if you spend too much time on the special effects (dragons/zombies/twin suns etc.), you won't be able to do such a good job on basics like plot and characterization.

#181 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2005, 04:39 PM:

A common mistake about setting and "special effects" is that they get substituted for all the other story goodies, when, in fact, setting and special effects should directly influence and be influenced by *everything* about how the story goes, from what makes the plot feasible to why the characters act as they do.

The best stories are those that use their elements in union, not in competition. (Anbd boy can you tell I've absorbed too much of Charlie Petit's theory...)

#182 ::: Mina W ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2005, 04:57 PM:

Laura:

To continue your line of thought about"how does all this imaginary stuff enhance the story?" - Besides making it accessible to those of us who hate to "just look out the window" at all that's worst about modern life, the thing I remember from my introduction to SF is the outsiders' point of view.

I grew up on the science fiction of the 50s [a stack of old Astoundings out of the attic the summer I turned 10]. And I'm sure there was a lot in those stories that I didn't get. But what I did see at the time, that wasn't available in other things that I read, especially the kids' classics of the time, was that point of view that allowed authors of the conformist 50s to make comments on their society. Some of my favorites were the sociological science fiction, where that was the point - alternate arrangements of society.

Obviously F&SF have come a long way since then, and some mainstream fiction tries to use the outsiders' point of view to examine our society, but it just can't get as far out. [Or maybe it can if written by real outsiders - the mentally ill, for instance?]

I would argue that in a good story the fantasy or science fiction elements should not be just special effects [and I don't think you said they were], but the mainspring of the story... in a society which has invented watches. I wonder if movies don't lead non-genre readers and reviewers to think it's all only special effects.

In modern science fiction, I appreciate the chances the author has to explore the ethical implications of technology, including pointing out that if we don't face them ahead of time legally, we'll be learning from all the gory horrors possible afterwards. For instance, lawmakers should all be reading Lois McMaster Bujold on cloning - and it's all part of great stories.

Will - by the way, lots of irrigation systems were gravity flow. Think of aqueducts. Here in the gold mining foothills the old ditches/aqueducts are still in use.

#183 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2005, 06:13 PM:

Time for Classic Quote Theater:

"A science fiction story is a story of a human problem, with a human solution, that would not have happened without its scientific content." (Ted Sturgeon)

The same construction can apply with "fantastic" being substituted for "scientific."

I'd add that the variant element does not have to be the origin of the situation (as in the sort of stories where an inexhaustible source of macaroni and cheese tilts the balance of world power), but can involve a good old-fashioned source of conflict to which the possible responses have changed because of the variant.

And -- I think Ted would agree with this -- "human problem/solution" doesn't mean that the events of the story happen to human beings, or even posthuman beingoids, but that the situation can resonate with the human experience, if any, of the reader. By the time the story's over, it ought to be understandable why the protagonist ultimately chose to spreeb the aikondu deemishly, even if the reader, faced with the same situation, might not have gillyhaied. The Utterly Incomprehensible Alien story is certainly a possibility, and has been done very well . . . uh, once.* (When they show up in the slush, "truly alien aliens" inevitably translates as "I needed totally BEMf*ck behavior to make my plot work.")

*"The Dance of the Changer and the Three" by Terry Carr, but you probably knew that.

#184 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2005, 06:23 PM:

I found it difficult to decide which thread to post this in: it's a letter by Roger Ebert to the producers of a movie called *Chaos*, and I think it's relevant to discussion both here and in the "Patrick McLuhan" thread:

http://www.suntimes.com/output/movies/cst-nws-ebert19.html

"But perhaps it could be argued that one only has so much time and energy to devote to any piece of writing, and if you spend too much time on the special effects (dragons/zombies/twin suns etc.), you won't be able to do such a good job on basics like plot and characterization."

And to further tie this to the other thread, Laura, I wish you had sat down with George Lucas circa 1992, before he destroyed his own myth.

#185 ::: JdB ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2005, 07:06 PM:

I like that quote a lot, John M. Ford.

This discussion is interesting, even though I don't read a whole lot of speculative fiction. Maybe that's why I really can't understand why real dragons make bad metaphors, and vice-versa. I was arguing about this from the other direction, kind of, about Mary Timony; critics are always groaning about the "airy-fairy unicorn stuff" in her lyrics ("I am the goblin and the mangled hawk") and I say, "why isn't a unicorn as good a metaphor as any of the usual nonsense people write about in song lyrics?" Likewise, I don't see why a zombie can't mean a host of things and still eat people's brains.

I *can* see why rigid this-means-that "metaphors" are lame. THE DRAGON IS PREDATORY CAPITALISM! In that case I agree with Virginia Woolf that "Directly I am told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me." This kind of thing is what ruined Giles Goat-Boy for me, for example. But I think, all kinds of ambiguous meanings can get attached to anything in a story without compromising its realness, if it's done well.

So, um, I hope y'all keep on talking about this stuff. I'm really enjoying it.

#186 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 09:08 AM:

Will: While there are certainly things that's true of, I don't think it's a universal truth, or if it is I don't think it's about time so much as what the writer cares about. If the writer cares more about the world than the plot, the plot will suffer. But if you make a writer who cares more about the world than the plot write in this world, you won't get a better story and you might not get a story at all. The stories that are there are the stories people want to write, after all.

I wrote a novel where the characters are all dragons and I don't think it detracted from plot and character at all, because the plot arose entirely from the fact that the characters were dragons. There wouldn't have been a story if they'd been people, or at least, it would have been a different story and one not worth retelling. Tooth and Claw works by keeping creepiness and charm in a very precise balance.

I started with the idea "what if the conventions of Victorian novels were biological reality for dragons" and that is literalising a metaphor. It's literalising metaphor all the way down to bedrock. What it isn't is an allegory.

I think this is the essential thing about all this, and I only saw it now when I started looking at my actual experience of actually doing it. The word metaphor threw me off all through, but in fact this is about expectations of allegory. Metaphorical things give you other dimensions on the real things. Things can be real and metaphorical at the same time. In allegory, the things are there for the sake of their alternate meanings, they "reality" of them within the story is a shadow compared to their alternate "reality" in the allegory. Allegorical characters exist only to point up their other meaning. That's why Lewis denied that Aslan is allegory, and also indeed why Aslan isn't, why he works despite everything. He's a real lion and a metaphorical Jesus but not an allegory.

And I think that's why the original reviewer was having trouble with Link's zombies. In allegories, things come out to their meanings as neatly as in a game of patience, and Link's zombies were refusing to do that because they are in fact real zombies within their reality as well as whatever they were doing there metaphorically, and they weren't allegorical at all.

Tolkien was quite precisely right about allegory.

#187 ::: Sean Bosker ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 11:51 AM:

I’m also interested in the difference between genre and literary fiction. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

Labels: I use the term ‘literary’ only because I think that mainstream doesn’t really apply, even though I consider much genre fiction to be quite literary. A friend of mine refuses to call literary fiction anything but ‘mimetic’ fiction. It’s not a bad idea, but nobody knows what that means until you explain it and that tends to derail discussion while we hash out semantics and labels.

Prestige: genre fiction, particularly SF&F is seen by some folks as being escapist at best, and puerile at worst. I love SF&F, and I love literary fiction. I have trouble drawing distinctions between the two that apply in every case, but I do know that when I tell a new acquaintance that I write and read science fiction, I usually brace myself for a wince.

Sometimes I feel like the stigma attached to SF&F is one reason why the SF&F community is so open, earnest, and wonderful. There isn’t much showing off, and we don’t do this just to get laid. What little rock star cache that writers enjoy in mainstream culture is not reserved for writers and fans of SF&F.

Difficulty: No pain, no gain. There are some works of literary fiction that I read because they’re good for me. They put fiber in my literary diet. They are not a pleasurable read, but they are very rewarding in other ways. Moby Dick was one of these books. As was Vanity Fair. I enjoyed them, but time did not fly by as I read them. I never ignored a pot I’d put on to boil so that I could see what happened next. Maybe it’s our Puritan roots, but I have a feeling that anything that’s really fun and not hard work is instantly devalued in our culture. It seems like in SF&F, the main purpose of the author is to entertain the reader, and this comes at a cost to its prestige.

Personally, I love this goal. I wish it were the primary concern of every author. But some folks seem to think that when an author tries to entertain his reader, he’s pandering.

Ambition: I’ve tried to find a difference in ambition between the two, not of quality, but of type, and I can’t come up with a theory that fits at all. Intuitively, I feel like there is a difference, but nothing I posit bears out under any scrutiny. For example, I wanted to say that literary writers tend to investigate aspects of the human condition through their characters, whereas SF&F writers do so through the worlds that they create. The worlds themselves are almost a character. That said, Bonfire of the Vanities, or it’s predecessor, Vanity Fair, did both, as did China Mountain Zhang.

Like others, I am very interested in the difference between these two genres, but apart from the way they’re treated by our society at large, it’s hard for me to define either.

#188 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 02:36 PM:

Hrm. I have bias against "literary" simplely because a lot of crap stories get put in front of you as "excellent examples"

Literary is the genre of dead grandma's and broken relationships.

SF is the genre that deals with people in the what if.

The difference between people who read them is simply this: (to paraphrase OSC)

Jon went to his seed village.

The SF reader says Okay, then continues to read. The non-SF reader stops and then proceeds to freak out: OMG what is a seed village, why is he going there, does he have to go there. Never do they just continue to the next sentance to find out.


As for Westerfield's blog: He just came back from an SF leaning con.

Anyone who attends SF leaning cons (fan, writing, gaming or otherwise) knows that everyone should have a Zombie contingency plan. The fact the Mr Knight doesn't and doesn't understand that should be frightening but comforting as well.

I mean really, the zombies are going to eat him first.

#189 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 03:41 PM:

I would substitute "realism" for "literary" in the discussions above. Literary quality is pretty much orthogonal to genre; it's not like writing poorly gets you dropped out of "mainstream" as a genre.

My stab at defining the boundaries, for what little it's worth...

If the events in your story are limited strictly to what can happen in our present-day world with currently known technology and scientific laws - i.e. the mundane, all the stuff one takes for granted without thinking about - it is "realistic fiction".

This definition means that some technology-focused stories which would have been taken as science fiction if written 10 years ago are now "realistic" fiction, e.g. novels of manners. That does seem to be the way criticism accepts it, from my observation.

"Disaster fiction" is a subgenre (or disreputable cousin) of realism in which it is known that the events of the story could happen but usually don't, and we usually avoid thinking about them.

Stories which include limited eruptions of the fantastic into the mundane, even where these eruptions drive the story and are essential to it, are accepted as "magical realism" provided the fantastic is not too pervasive or too systematized. In magic realism there is not a requirement for the fantastic elements to be accepted as concrete; they may be purely allegoric or metaphoric, or may seem to have a concrete existence of their own. I don't think that's determinate for the genre.

Where the fantastic elements are pervasive or systemic, are portrayed as being equally concrete as the mundane elements and demand to be accepted as such, then the story is "fantasy". (This comes close to Mike's twist on Sturgeon's definition of SF above.)

I would argue that if a story about an angel falling from the sky and kept in a chicken coop were to include a detailed depiction of the society of the angels, wherein such things occasionally happened, or if the economy of the region was shown as dependent on angels falling from the sky - in other words if this event were part of a pervasive system of fantastic events - then I think it would have been taken purely as fantasy. (And, I suspect, Marquez would probably be much less known in the English-speaking world.)

Allegory has already been thrashed to within an inch of its life, so I'll let it sneak out quietly.

Horror as a genre is allowed to cross these boundaries freely, which is sort of interesting. There is horror which - if it wasn't centered on "icky stuff happening" - would be clearly taken as fantasy, and there is other horror which is clear realism. I'm not sure why horror gets the hall pass.

One interesting point that occurred to me while writing this - part of the culture gap with the 'Left Behind' series is that to their primary readership of literalist Christians, they are realistic novels (disaster subgenre) while to those like me they are fantasy, and not very interesting fantasy at that.

A further musing: Zombies are automatically "horror" and may also be either science-fictional or supernatural (fantastic), so there's a further genre-crossing element in the story. Is a zombie the ultimate transgressive story element - magical realism, fantasy, SF, horror, or allegory? Pity the mainstream reviewer who must choose one or be forever skewered.

It's worth remembering that these genre distinctions did not always exist - nobody identified Swift's satires as "fantasy" and therefore outside the canon.

#190 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 04:39 PM:

Michelle, I think you're being unecessarily hard on non-sf readers. I don't think non-sf readers would normally "freak out" at any individual sentence. The thing is, they aren't engaged by the same kinds of things, and they don't find the same kinds of questions intriguing, and they don't find the same kinds of conventions to be comprehensible scaffolding for the story being built.

sarcasm setoff:
This is a different distinction and allows for the just so-faint, remote, unlikely possibility that non-sf readers just might be able to be competent readers in their own right once in a while.

#191 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 05:42 PM:

Lucy,

Perhaps, and while I know many non-SF readers, my bias stems from college where literary is the end all be all regardless of anything.

All in all my opinion is mine, and yours is yours. Both are valid and true in some sense.

I think any situation where any one must stop and glom on to one instance in an insane atempt to understand beyond understanding a freak out. Having sat through many a creative writing course where the professor would stop on words in simular vein as "seed village" and scream those phrases in context time after time has jaded me.

Perhaps if this had been an isolated incident I would have not developed this bias. However having it happen in multiple classes, with multiple professors at multiple schools tends to piss one off.

This usually stops the person before we actually get into the story at all btw.

#192 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 05:43 PM:

I suspect some folks here would benefit from an exercise I've trained myself in from time to time: you are allowed to praise the options you like, but only in terms of what you like about them. You are not allowed to generalize or denigrate about the options you dislike or don't understand.

This is obviously not sufficient for a rigorous critical theory or anything. But then mostly this kind of conversation isn't about that anyway. And what I find is that the more I focus on the pleasures of a thing, the more room I leave in my thought and emotion to discover new pleasures in places I hadn't expected to find them. Defining by negatives usually leaves me feeling more negative, more inclined to circle the wagons and rule things out.

I recommend it as a thing to try, at least. It's surprisingly hard work to really cut out the negatives even for a while, but rewarding.

#193 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 06:05 PM:

Michelle,

When you say

I have bias against "literary" simplely because a lot of crap stories get put in front of you as "excellent examples"

do you mean to suggest that SF is any different?

#194 ::: Mike ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 06:38 PM:

I can't believe I've missed all of the delicious fighting. It's the fault of this damned medication I've been put on that makes me happy.

For a while I was on risperdal, which seemed to modularize time. Distress didn't "stack up" for me, and food tasted wonderful. Just scrambled eggs on toast rocked my world. Unfortunately the drug blurred my vision. I couldn't show up at my new job and use that as an excuse to collect a paycheck without doing any work.

Instead I was switched to abilify, which doesn't make me feel any different, but my therapist assures me has made me more tolerable.

For feeling different, credit goes to the zoloft which has kicked in after several weeks. Food isn't delicious -- I am. Like good leftover turkey after thanksgiving. I'm going to stop now before I try to make some point about celebrating the fragility of life by publishing my social security number.

#195 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 06:39 PM:

Lucy: Michelle, I think you're being unecessarily hard on non-sf readers. I don't think non-sf readers would normally "freak out" at any individual sentence. The thing is, they aren't engaged by the same kinds of things, and they don't find the same kinds of questions intriguing,

Exactly.
As noted above, the tendency to tout the specialness of SF by means of constant denigrating references to mainstream literature is one of the things about SF fandom that really drives me up the wall.

I mean, do romance readers do this same sort of thing? Are they getting together in long blog comment threads and attributing their lack of critical respect to the literary establishment's fear of girl cooties?

#196 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 06:42 PM:

adamsj:

No I am not. There is a lot of crap SF out there too.

There are well written pieces with crap stories all over the place. The same goes for badly written crap with good stories.

My college experience has cemented my mind against those that would maintain that thinks are crap because of fantastical elements though.

There are good dead grandmother and broken relationship stories out there. You wouldn't always know it by attending college.

Note: My definition comes from the examples of literary stories I have read.

#197 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 07:50 PM:

Do romance readers do this same sort of thing?

A by no means exhaustive reading of journals such as Romantic Times indicates that some of them certainly do (along with denigrating other genres). Same in the mystery/detective small press. And just to be double super secret difficult, the "literary community" (here imagine me pointing to it so you know who I mean) disagrees a lot about what the Actually Good Stuff is. Noisily and acrimoniously. Sometimes in complete sentences.

Nobody enjoys being told that what they like reading (or watching, or listening to) is junk, even if the consumer is entirely aware that a lot of the stuff under the label is junk. There isn't a single art form that hasn't at times been judged by its bad examples, and since this isn't a logic-based attack there are no logical defenses (which is surely a reason the attack remains so popular). That leaves two obvious responses: to point out the bad examples of whatever the critic has held up as "better," or to try and point out the good qualities of one's preferred form. Both these approaches will inevitably fail with the initial critic because that wasn't what the criticism was about.

It's necessary -- if and when it's desirable to conduct a defense -- either to find ground where the fight can be conducted, or to conduct it in a different fashion. With "fringe" arts -- and I am saying this as carefully as I possibly can -- it is important to remember that an insurgency wins the fight by not losing, but it does not win the war until it builds something permanent on the ground the other side vacated.

#198 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 08:18 PM:

Two responses at once:

Officially, I'm dissertating on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, comparing it to other roughly contemporary stories in Welsh (mabinogi Pwyll) and Irish (various echtra about otherworld adventures), and Middle English (like Tam Lin and Thomas of Erceldoune and relatives).

What I'm really doing is explaining how Fantasy works to medievalists who don't read fantasy and fairy folklore, and suggesting that this is how those tales might have been read in the fifteenth century. My "true" topic, has, since I realized it in terms of contemporary genres, made me feel slightly guilty, as if I were somehow cheating, or getting away with something.

Now on the "other" romance genre . . .

Chad asked Do romance readers do this same sort of thing?

Sure they do! They have names (including Mary Sue) for various character traits, among them TSTL (Too Stupid to Live), and motifs (The Big Misunderstanding) and sophisticated understandings about the romance genre's underpinnings and assumptions--and, by the way, are just as fond of genre specific parodies and the like as SF fans.

The curious might take a look at All About Romance a romance community site built around reviews and commentary, but don't miss the various parodies etc. Another site with sharp analysis is the SF and Romance cross-over site Romantic Science Fiction and Fantasy. A good example of a genre-specific blog is Smart Bitches Trashy Books.

#199 ::: Sean Bosker ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 08:36 PM:

I'm really enjoying this thread.

Lisa, your post, referring to Teresa's essay, brings up another interesting aspect to fantasy. For some reason, if a fantasy story is a legend, or has some other cultural context, that makes it OK for people who would normally not get fantasy.

I wonder if it still works for them in the same way that fantasy works for people who get fantasy. If I were a brain scientist, I'd love to hook up a fantasy fan and watch his brain while he reads his favorite story, and then hook up a medievalist's brain while he reads his favorite legend.

I wonder if genres tickle a different part of the brain. It's absurd, I know, but there is something going on for genre fans that seems to be distinct from what mainstream readers experience.

I love genre fiction, but I do often feel a difference between mainstream, literary fiction and genre fiction, most of the time.

Maybe I'm bigenre, Michelle is fantasy, and her professors were mainstream. I'd love to see some kind of Kinsey scale based on this, since the differences in taste seem inexplicable.

When I explain to people with mainstream literary tastes that a certain book they like, say "The Life of Pi" is also fantasy, they get a queasy look on their face, the same as when I tell a super-straight guy that those long, slow pans up and down Stallone's greased up and shirtless body are homoerotic.

#200 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 08:39 PM:

Sure they do! They have names (including Mary Sue) for various character traits, among them TSTL (Too Stupid to Live), and motifs (The Big Misunderstanding) and sophisticated understandings about the romance genre's underpinnings and assumptions--and, by the way, are just as fond of genre specific parodies and the like as SF fans.

I didn't mean genre-specific literary analysis-- I meant carping about how critics who don't approve of the genre simply aren't sophisticated enough to understand the finer nuances of, um, whatever it is in romance fiction that has nuances. I don't read the stuff myself-- can't risk catching the girl cooties, y'know.

(That's a joke. Please don't hurt me.)

Dr. Mike has also answered in the affirmative. I'm not sure if this makes me feel better or worse about the SF version.

I think the real source of my annoyance at the SF version is that when I hear people suggesting that literary critics are all narrow-minded Puritans who just hate anything that's not depressing, I hear an echo of myself at age 14 or so, and I want to swat me upside the head for being such a dork. The person doing the talking in the here and now might not mean "They don't like SF because they're not smart, like me," but the 14-year-old me did, and he was a twit.

#201 ::: JdB ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 09:48 PM:

Jo Walton, yes, that's what I meant, allegory. "The things are there for the sake of their alternate meanings"--exactly. That drives me up the wall and I can certainly see why SF fans would find it irritating to have all SF assumed to be so. So was I just confused by the terms? Is this what people meant by "metaphor"?

Michelle, I am not much of an SF or fantasy reader, and I think you are being pretty unfair to us "mundanes". There are books of every sort which ask you to accept something before it is fully explained, even "dead grandmother and failed relationship" books I read in college.

#202 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 09:51 PM:

I don't know...

I know this: that half-way through 'Great Expectations' after 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' 'The Catcher in the Rye' and 'Lord of the Flies' (which, I was told by my English teacher, is fantasy, and therefore I ought to like it) I gave up on "literary"* fiction for twenty years. 'Pickwick Papers' and 'A Christmas Carol' allowed me to forgive Charles Dickens. Nothing will ever persuade me to forgive Hardy or Golding. Stuff it, life's too short.

*'literary' in this context means "worthy texts preferred by my English teachers".

#203 ::: Sean Bosker ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 10:25 PM:

Dave, I'm scoring you a 0. There's no judgment in that.

Sean's Kinsey scale of fiction orientation.

0 - exclusively genre. (Only reads books that start with a map.)

1 - predominantly genre, incidentally mainstream. (Has thumbed a copy of Moby Dick, liked the opening line.)

2 - predominantly genre, but more than incidentally mainstream. (Read a New Yorker short story once, when drunk. Never told anyone.)

3 - equally genre and mainstream (Quotes Tolkien and Roth indiscriminately.)

4 - predominantly mainstream, but more than incidentally genre (Sticks with the New York Times Bestseller list, saw The Lord of The Rings trilogy twice.)

5 - predominantly mainstream, incidentally heterosexual (Longstanding member of Oprah’s book club. Saw the first Matrix, liked it until informed that was science fiction.)


6 - exclusively homosexual (Only reads Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners.)

#204 ::: Sean Bosker ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 10:27 PM:

Oh...my...oops.

6 should read: exlusively mainstream.

That's what happens when I cut and paste Kinsey.

#205 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 10:34 PM:

Dave,

I commented sympathetically on your distaste for rock music (I suspect distaste is more accurate than dislike), but right here I am drawing the line.

If you are unwilling to read the poetry of Thomas Hardy because you didn't care for his prose, well, that's your problem, and your loss, but it's also carrying a grudge too goddam far.

#206 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 11:02 PM:

Sean wrote:

For some reason, if a fantasy story is a legend, or has some other cultural context, that makes it OK for people who would normally not get fantasy.

I wonder if it still works for them in the same way that fantasy works for people who get fantasy.

I don't think so, at least not in terms of much of what I'm reading about stories, that, while medieval, have otherworld beings (fairies, Síd, elves, what have you). Even the academics who realize that yes, the abductee is specifically identified as having been "taken" by a "fairy", then go to great lengths to explain that she wasn't really taken by a fairy -- she was insane.

They still attempt to rationalize the story, to make it "fit" or "remove the mask of metaphor" rather than being willing to trust the story/author/poet to take them somewhere and show them stuff.

#207 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2005, 11:24 PM:

Funny thing about tastes. I've been reading a lot of Dickens lately because I've been companion to a retired English teacher with primary progressive aphasia and she has shelves full of books I haven't gotten around to yet, including a lot of Dickens I didn't read in my last go-round many long years ago. I've been loving it. But -- I couldn't stand The Pickwick Papers then or now.

Currently rereading Bleak House.

Hardy's another favorite of mine, but I think I read his books sort of differently from other people. I think I hear him sobbing and yelling at his characters, saying, "Stop it! Stop it! You don't have to! You can just live a decent life, but you're refusing to!"

I think so because of Far from the Madding Crowd in which the characters do get a clue and end up, consequently, kind of all right, after many mistakes and much suffering.

Also, his landscapes and his descriptions of rural work and the rural working class are just A number one double plus excellent.

#208 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 02:15 AM:

Graydon writes, "Children are learning how to do the arranging, and it should not be surprising if some of the end results don't have the space that 'deliberately fantastical narrative for purposes of entertainment' fits into."

I think we are in general agreement. What strikes me, though, is that all fiction may reasonably be characterized as "deliberately fantastical narrative for purposes of entertainment", so I think it's fair to say that most people do have that space; it just seems to be very narrow in some people. I know a lot of sf and fantasy fans who find fiction focused primarily on human relations in current times boring, but the majority are willing to at least allow that it is what it is. The reverse, though, is not the case; there seem to be a lot of readers who simply aren't willing to allow anything beyond that focus on human relations, or only allow it when carefully contained. What strikes me is how much like a rejection of change this appears; there were many people in, say, 1950 who were not even willing to entertain the possibility that space travel was going to be a major influence on human lives in the next two decades and they were wrong.

I don't want to argue for the superiority of the focus of some books over others. I think that's fruitless and changes over time; we tell ourselves different stories as we need to hear them. But the simple refusal to admit what is on the page seems to me limiting.

I think I hear the ghost of Claude Degler snickering. Gulp!

#209 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 04:16 AM:

Lucy: I've always wanted to talk to somebody who actually enjoyed Hardy's novels, rather than reading them as a sort of sacrificial rite de passage - "Look, I'm a serious student of literature, I've read Thomas Hardy," somewhat as the priests of Cybele could say, "Look, I'm really religious, I've cut my own genitals off."

You say: I think I hear him sobbing and yelling at his characters, saying, "Stop it! Stop it! You don't have to! You can just live a decent life, but you're refusing to!

So, would it be true to say that in the novels of Thomas Hardy (with the exception of "Far from the Madding Crowd") the characters suffer because they (or others) have done something bad, but these sufferings are perpetuated and exacerbated because they try to do something about it, when any sensible person would realise that it's always safer to do nothing?

If that were true - and please note, I am not saying it is, or that you said as much - I think I might have found the reason why I despise the man's prose work, quite apart from what strikes me as his unbearable lugubriousness and that his characters appear to be helpless pawns, not human beings. There's something about that model of narrative that makes my knuckles itch.

adamsj: I stand corrected on Hardy's verse, though that wasn't what I was talking about. I agree, some of it is rather pleasant. It's not enough for me to forgive him, though.

Sean: Well, I would agree that many of the books I read have maps to start with. That's because they're history, and history starts with geography. The maps, however, are maps of real places, whether in the past or present. I'm not quite sure whether your "0" score means that you think I read only genre fiction. If that were the case, you'd be wrong. If it means that you deplore my tastes, such is life. I'm sorry you think I have no judgement. Could that be because my tastes are different from yours, or do you have some other reason?

#210 ::: riley ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 06:00 AM:

...The Narnia books are an allegory?


...I feel so stupid now. I can't believe I didn't catch that. Although, the last time I read those books was eight years ago, when I was eleven...

#211 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 06:22 AM:

Clifton:

I think the reason horror gets the hall pass, as you say, is because the line between horror and (insert other genre here) is only crossed via intent or focus of a story. That is to say, what really makes horror horror, IMO, is that there is some authorial intent to creep the living shit out of you. So you can have fantasy that is also horror, science fiction that is also horror, thrillers that are also horror, and so forth.

I principally write horror in the sense that I want you to come away from most of my stories wondering if you should leave the light on when you go to bed. But in terms of what other genre one could call it absent that element, most of what I write involves supernatural elements: magic, psychic powers, ghosts and spirits, places that are aware and sentient, shapeshifters and other arcane creatures. In other words, it's pretty much fantasy. (On the other hand, you could also call some of it occult/supernatural mystery, but this just goes back to my belief that genre labels are a matter of opinion.) Hell, my first book has a happy ending -- which isn't very horrific -- and it doesn't lack for funny moments, but it has scenes that did, in fact, creep out my beta readers.

Unfortunately, the same fluidity of genre boundary works against horror, in my experience, because what happens is a lot of really good horror ends up being called something else, and people seem to get into their heads that 'horror' means 'blood, gore, zombies and vampires', and nothing else. I think that's related to the original topic in a round-about way...

Side note: Just where did the phrase 'creep the living shit out of you' originate, anyhow? I mean, first off, since when are feces alive?

This is the sort of question that keeps me up at night. I need a better reference library. Or some drugs.

#212 ::: Sean Bosker ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 08:22 AM:

Dave!
I do NOT deplore your tastes, nor was I intending to criticize. The point I was trying to make was that some people are into genre but not "literature", and that some people are into "literature" but not genre, and that they seem to look down on the other.

In the spirit of this thread, I was trying to catalogue the different amounts of "not getting" each other's tastes, but I honestly was not trying to put you down. I read fantasy, I like books with maps of fake places in the front. I also like so-called literary fiction, except from the New Yorker, which I can't stand.

I was trying to make light of this yawning chasm between the two affinities for genre and literary fiction by comparing them to the continuum of human sexual orientation and all the misunderstanding and mistrust that has engendered, pardon the pun.

#213 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 08:49 AM:

Randolph --

What's on the page is ink.

All the words, always, are in some thinking creature's head.

And yes, you can categorize all fiction as deliberately fantastical. (There's a whole genre of the 'tall tale', for instance, that plays off of this.)

But that doesn't mean anyone else is obliged to use that taxonomy; part of the point I was trying to make was that the available taxonomies are diverse, and arrived at by poorly understood means.

#214 ::: dagny ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 09:34 AM:

Hello, everyone. I'm dagny. Normally, I just sit back and read these discussions, but this one is too good to pass up. I hope it's all right if I jump in here. If not, I apologize for barging in. I have two things I'd like to add:
1) In the Sims 2: University, English majors take a class called "Using Bizarre Metaphors: Life is Feeding Baked Alaska to Zombies."
2) I like Thomas Hardy, too. To me, his characters end tragically not because they deserve it, but because the world they live in is too close-minded to allow them to be happy with the choices they've made. I think it's a criticism of the society, not of the behaviors or the characters themselves.
Sorry if I've veered too far off-topic.

#215 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 09:38 AM:

I know this: that half-way through 'Great Expectations' after 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' 'The Catcher in the Rye' and 'Lord of the Flies' (which, I was told by my English teacher, is fantasy, and therefore I ought to like it) I gave up on "literary"* fiction for twenty years. 'Pickwick Papers' and 'A Christmas Carol' allowed me to forgive Charles Dickens. Nothing will ever persuade me to forgive Hardy or Golding. Stuff it, life's too short.

I started to say something like "But that's like refusing to listen to rock music because you didn't like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones..." and then I remembered who I was typing to.

So, let's try instead "That's like refusing to listen to Classical music because you didn't like Beethoven." Or, somewhat more accurately, "That's like refusing to listen to Classical music because you didn't like the way it was used in A Clockwork Orange."

What you've got there is a subset of mainstream literature, selected to serve a specific didactic purpose. It's by no means representative of everything that goes on outside the "Genre Fiction" shelves at your local bookstore.

I'm not a huge reader of mainstream fiction, but looking at the shelves in my office, I can see the following authors from the mainstream section: Jorge Luis Borges, Christopher Buckley, Italo Calvino, Michael Chabon, Robertson Davies, Don DeLillo, Charles Dickens, Umberto Eco, Dave Eggers, Richard Grant, A. M. Homes, Nick Hornby,, James Hynes, Patrick O'Brian, Tim O'Brien, Ben Okri, Tom Perrotta, Thomas Pynchon, Tom Stoppard, David Foster Wallace, and Irvine Welsh.

(And that's leaving out some mainstream novels by people who are (at least arguably) genre authors: Iain Banks, Jonathan Carroll, Bradley Denton, Jonathan Lethem. And also authors who are arguably genre writers, but marketed in the "mainstream" section, like Jasper Fforde and Christopher Moore.)

That spans a pretty big range, and the overlap with your list is pretty darn small. Writing off that whole range of stuff (along with people like Twain, who's over on the paperback shelves) on the basis of a few bad experiences in literature classes is exactly as foolish as dismissing all fantasy as crap on the basis of reading a Terry Brooks novel during an airport layover.

But then, I've never understood the visceral hatred some people have for Lord of the Flies (it's horrendously unsubtle, but it was hardly in the same soul-crushing class as The Scarlet Letter), and I actually like The Great Gatsby, so I may just be a bad person to ask about this topic.

#216 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 09:48 AM:

On a more positive note, I've been meaning to say something nice about Clifton Royston's comment above:

Stories which include limited eruptions of the fantastic into the mundane, even where these eruptions drive the story and are essential to it, are accepted as "magical realism" provided the fantastic is not too pervasive or too systematized. In magic realism there is not a requirement for the fantastic elements to be accepted as concrete; they may be purely allegoric or metaphoric, or may seem to have a concrete existence of their own. I don't think that's determinate for the genre.

I like this. It fits fairly well with a couple of comments made on the subject at Readercon: John Crowley suggested that nothing drawing on an established mythological system could really count as "magic realism" (by way of excluding his own Little, Big for using Faerie). And somebody else (Jonathan Lethem, maybe) said that the defining characteristic of magic realism is that the magical stuff just sort of happens, and nobody in the story really tries to explain it or control it.

The latter criterion probably tips Lisa Goldstein's Tourists (one of my favorite edge-case novels) over into the explicit fantay category, but it does as good a job of capturing the feel that I associate with the subgenre as anything else I've heard.

#217 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 09:52 AM:

Dave,

There's something else to consider. Dickens hasn't changed much in the last twenty years. You, on the other hand, have probably chnaged a whole lot.

Why not give Great Expectations another shot? If you like it this time around, then perhaps the fault lies not in our books but in ourselves.

#218 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 10:12 AM:

Uh, well, I kind of liked The Scarlet Letter when I read it again several years after freshman college English (that was the second time for it as assigned reading). Dickens I don't mind, or Austen - if it's an edition with footnotes to explain the period-specific stuff - but I didn't like Lord of the Flies or 1984 or Animal Farm enough to want to read anything else by those authors. Tess of the Durbervilles was gloomy, but not bad, but I don't really feel a need to read more of Hardy. (Haven't tried Thackeray yet.) And I'm ot all that fond of Tolkien and Lewis either.

Maybe part of the problem with these is that you get feelings about the story involved with whatever else is going on at the time, and these are books that for some reason are supposed to be suitable for 16-to-20-year-olds to read. Younger, and you'd miss most of the stuff going on; older, you'd have enough experience to just shrug off things.

#219 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 10:24 AM:

Maybe part of the problem with these is that you get feelings about the story involved with whatever else is going on at the time, and these are books that for some reason are supposed to be suitable for 16-to-20-year-olds to read.

I think that's part of it; I became an English major in College, but not for a love of English inspired by high school. My level of loathing and disgust rose until I quit after my junior year. I know there are high school English teachers out there who do amazing things, and there students are fortunate. I don't think like any of the novels I first read for English class.

#220 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 10:43 AM:

Lisa,

I think in two years of high school English, we read exactly one novel, The Mill on the Floss, which I will admit to not particularly enjoying, or even remembering.

Right now, of course, some local wingers are trying to make the high school in my town yank dozens of books from the library, so I suppose it all evens out.

#221 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 10:43 AM:

Chad, did you notice the asterisk and footnote in my post, the one that you were replying to? I was talking specifically about those texts that I had pushed at me as "literary" texts in high school. I could have added the ones in University, too, as they included "Ulysses", "As I Lay Dying", "Sons and Lovers", "A Farewell to Arms" and "Heart of Darkness".

It never occurred to me that "Gulliver's Travels", "Tristram Shandy", "The Woman in White", "Pride and Prejudice", "The General", "The Dear Departed" and many others could be regarded as literary. They were fun to read, and I had somehow picked up the notion that literary works had to be grim, doleful accounts of the useless struggle of ineffectual little people against their inevitable and dire fate. Looking at the list of texts I read for what was called English Literature, I can't imagine how I got that impression. Honestly.

#222 ::: Sean Bosker ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 10:49 AM:

Lisa, I think you'll really love this essay.

It sums of some of what is wrong with literature and academia in a really funny way. Regarding your colleagues who must "remove the mask of metaphor" I don't think they do that solely with myths and legends.

I can't count how many lectures I sat through while we examined the imagery an author used and then decoded it. One professor claimed that the image of a shadow of the brim of a hat moving across a windowpane was actually an attack on Christianity, since the window panes of that era would have been defined by a cross, and the shadow would have resembled a knife. My experience of reading is so far from that type of...um...investigation.

#223 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 11:01 AM:

I'm clearly not spending enough time here to be timely in my comments.

Way back there, Mike Ford commented that Terry Carr's "The Dance of the Changer and the Three" was the only example of "real aliens" well realized.

Am I alone in thinking that story is exactly the same kind of Zen parable as Zelazny's "A Rose for Ecclesiastes"?

#224 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 11:27 AM:

Dave, no, the premise of Hardy isn't that you're better off doing nothing because everything you do is doomed to fail -- it's that people make horrific mistakes and then keep bashing themselves against the same wall out of stubbornness and because of societal ick. He loves his characters, even when they are really awful, and wishes they would wake up and do the right thing -- but he's impelled to write realistically from his observations, and his observations are gloomy. He's called a fatalist, but I think he's not the kind of fatalist who embraces miserable fate: I think he fels that addressing fate is struggling with it.

Like the blues. Yes, i have it. Hardy is the Robert Johnson of nineteenth century literature. Which makes Dickens what? I don't know.

Because Dickens looks at the same social conditions (only mostly urban instead of mostly rural, but still mostly proletarian) and a lot of the same personal stupidity, but most of his protagonists and a plurality of his sidekicks get better and live through it all to get at least adequate endings. Hardy's characters are the anmtagonists and some of the background characters in Dickens stories.

I wonder if being a generation later in the industrial revolution contributes to Hardy's les sanguine outlook?

Anyway, they both love their characters and the landscapes they live in. Some later writers who I can't think of at the moment seem to feel superior to their characters or even to despise them, which engages me less.

#225 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 12:31 PM:

Dave,

Rather than arguing the merits of Hemingway and Faulkner or suggesting Lawrence's poetry, what I'd like to know is what class you were in where you got Ulysses pushed at you.

#226 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 03:28 PM:

On horror getting a cross-genre hall pass: During the opening ceremonies of Word Horror '04, it was said that "If Science Fiction is the literature of wonder, Horror is the literature of fear." Which made me realize that a lot of the fantasy-elemens-in-real-world-settings stories I've written might well be considered horror. At least, it opened me up to the possibility that Horror is not just the literature of zombies, B-movie monstors, and gore.

In Michelle's defense, I have totally met people who stop reading speculative fiction at the first unfamiliar term, or who read an urban fantasy as necessarily having an unreliable narrator because of course these weird things don't really happen. Obviously it's unfair to say that the only reason some people might not read speculative fiction is because they "don't get it." But the people who "don't get it" are out there.

Example: I brought a short-short to the writing group I attend. In it, a Home Depot worker tells a small child that if the child returns at midnight, one of the on-display doors in the door department will open onto a different world. One critiquer, a journal and memoir writer, interpreted the story as being about a child molestor. Doors don't really open onto other worlds; obviously the employee was luring the child back to be preyed upon. (Of course, this interpretation occurred to several workshop participants, indicating an ambiguity problem I needed to fix. But the "find a real-world interpretation because obviously the fantasy element can't be taken literally" reasoning--if indeed I'm not misunderstanding her--was hers alone.)

In later discussion, once she began considering the fantasy element as literal, she objected that the child in the story was too young to be sent into another world where he might be in over his head, and opined that I should make him be a pre-teen and not an eight-year-old. She also was of the opinion that young children in otherworld fantasies always won out because they had magic items at their disposal; at that age, they couldn't be expected to win out on wit, courage, loyalty, etc.

This totally flabbergasted me. I've read the Narnia books, and Diane Duane's wizard books, and Pat O'Shea's Hounds of the Morrigan, and of course the Harry Potter books; those authors didn't seem to worry that sending five, eight, eleven-year-olds into mortal mythological peril was irresponsible or unbelievable. And yes the kids had intrinsic character traits that allowed them to triumph over adversity; it wasn't just down to being lucky enough to be given magic wands and silver arrows and diamond cordials (although that helps).

So while I wouldn't overgeneralize about it, I have to vouch for the existence of people who "don't get" fantastic fiction. It's not an intelligence thing; it's a paradigm thing. It's down to which suspensions of disbelief come the most naturally to a given reader, I guess.

#227 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 08:51 PM:

adamsj: The first year (I think you'd say freshman) unit in the modern novel, offered at dear ol' UWA, my alma mater, from which I graduated (twelve years later) with the scungiest degree in Medieval History ever awarded, not so much a qualification as a request to quit the premises, as I'd taken up quite enough of their time already.

#228 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 09:53 PM:

Dave,

I'm taken aback that someone, somewhere thinks Ulysses is fodder for freshman English.

Anyway, I think I just got a degree somewhat like yours, except that mine took a lot longer.

#229 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2005, 10:46 PM:

"I'm taken aback that someone, somewhere thinks Ulysses is fodder for freshman English."

I'm picturing John Houseman as an English 101 teacher:

"You come here with heads full of mush, and if you survive," (slams down copy of Ulysses "you leave thinking like writers."

#230 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 08:31 AM:

In Michelle's defense, I have totally met people who stop reading speculative fiction at the first unfamiliar term, or who read an urban fantasy as necessarily having an unreliable narrator because of course these weird things don't really happen. Obviously it's unfair to say that the only reason some people might not read speculative fiction is because they "don't get it." But the people who "don't get it" are out there.

See, the problem I have with this is that I think the "reading protocols" side of things is overemphasized at the expense of simple differences in interests. In the examples you cite, I think the reactions you describe could stem as much from a lack of interest in the type of story being told as anything else.

To pick a couple of examples from within SF, Kate's willing to forgive the terrible astrophysics in Firefly, but gets hung up on little plot details in Cowboy Bebop, while I'm just the reverse. The difference is in our feelings about the type of story being told. I'm willing to forgive the occasional bit of dopey plotting because I like the look and style of Cowboy Bebop, but it's not Kate's type of story, so she's less forgiving of little inconsistencies.

Or, on the fantasy side, Kate's happy with the explanation that Caradhras is quasi-sentient in The Fellowship of the Ring, while I think the characters had the misfortune to be written by an Englishman who was more concerned with symbolism than reality-- only a complete moron attempts to cross a high mountain pass in January. She's happier with the work as a whole than I am, so she's more willing to forgive the dumb bits, while I'm irritated by a number of aspects of the work, and as a result tend to get hung up on the stupid bits. The same sort of thing happens with Harry Potter.

If I like the premise or the characters, I'm willing to forgive a lot. If I'm engaged in the story, I'll happily say "Well, we're in the Kidsbookoverse, so of course an eight-year-old can save the world." If the characters and premise aren't really to my taste, I'll start picking holes in it, and the eight-year-old savior of the world might very well be a place to start.

I think a lot of the reactions to SF that fans tend to attribute to "not getting it" in the sense of being unable to deduce what's going on, or unwilling to accept the fantastic element are really the result of a taste mismatch. Those same readers might be perfectly willing to accept something equally fanciful in a different type of story-- world-spanning diabolical conspiracies in a thriller, for example.

#231 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 09:07 AM:

I don't know, Chad.

I was on a Trollope mailing list for a while, in which there was much debate about footnotes. I hate footnotes with a passion. If they're there, I can't ignore them in case they are information, but I'd much rather they weren't there, especially when they say things like: "carriage(1) A horse-drawn coach used by the upper classes as transportation." Anyway, on the list, I said I could figure out what a carriage was from context, and lots and lots of people said they couldn't, that they sat puzzled as to what a "fly" was and couldn't enjoy the story without the structure of footnotes. (I specifically compared it to reading SF, and one of the pro-footnotes moderators said "But in SF, everything is explained in the order you need to understand it..." ) These people liked Trollope, they really were engaged, but they really needed the footnotes and I really didn't, and if that isn't Delany-type reading protocols I don't know what it is.

#232 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 10:16 AM:

I'm not saying that the "reading protocols" stuff is total garbage, just that it's overused. A lot of things are put in the "just don't get it" category that really belong elsewhere.

For example, listen to some hard SF fans talking about a novel that doesn't live up to their scientific standards. They tend to say a lot of things that are awfully similar to things that are said by non-genre readers-- mostly of the form "That's stupid" or "That could never happen."

This isn't a case of unfamiliarity with the genre conventions or "reading protocols," it's a taste mismatch. But the end result looks awfully similar to what is often pointed out as a difference between genre and non-genre reading styles.

#233 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 11:52 AM:

adamsj -

My first year English survey course started with Caedmon's hymn, in the original. (Early Old English devotional poetry, if you're not familiar with it.)

The prof read it aloud and then handed it out on photocopied sheets -- a regularized text version; the first time he did this, it was reportedly a manuscript facsimile -- for the class to collectively participate in translating.

English profs have been known to have issues with people regarding their courses as fluff.

#234 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 12:08 PM:

Hrm...

I'm a 3 according to that list. I read everything. I adore Hardy. In a simular, contemporary vein I hated Fall on Your Knees. I read everything because I know gems can be found everywhere. Though a professor once told me my reading tastes were too unrefined to be trust worthy. (Same prof from the class example below).

I would disagree reading proticals are over used. Perhaps not clearly defined and particular to the reader. Literary types (I'm just not going to give that up) that I have delt with seem to have the stop knee jerk reaction to every SF novel they come across.

Dave: Yes there are other "literary" novels that ask you to suspend disbelief but they do so in the context of metaphor and because there were told it is not SF. Metamorphosis is one example that I've had this arguement for, watching some one deny this has any fantastical elements is a riot. To be fair, Chad there are fantasy readers that get hung up on how one is riding the horse, how a castle is defended and the description of battle scenes as well.

Example: I sat through a class where a writer was torn apart because the professor couldn't figure out where and when the story took place. It took place in a cabin, in the woods. The characters were snowed in for the winter. The story was about something (not literally) magical that happens when they are trapped there. It had elements of native american mythology. In end the professor decided it was fantasy and therefore not worth his time. Yet, a story in which a vampire meets some one from when he was still human was highly metaphorical and character based. He was really pleased by that story even though it was nothing more than a what if fantasy. Later the writer of the first story and I got together to compare notes. The words "Too Much Fantasy" were written all over her paper. The words "Why use the word vampire continously for some-one who enjoys the night life?" were written on mine. Apparently he missed the whole literal bloodsucking stereotype. I still believe to this day that the other girl had the superior story. Now this could be a fantasy fan not liking one story over another, except the rule in this class was NO GENRE.

"You come here with heads full of mush, and if you survive," (slams down copy of Ulysses "you leave thinking like writers."

I love this. I have long introduced myself as a survivor of the CSU creative writing program.

Sean B. My favorite symbolism in college was Yellow. The trick was to guess what the professor thought yellow ment cause it was different in every class but very very important regardless.

Another example was Shakespeare. In the last Shakespeare class I took, I did miserably for the first few papers. Then we realized that nothing mattered to this professor but the plight of women in Shakespeare. So I started writing papers about how x female character was wronged by x male character in every play we covered. Got an A.

Sometimes I wonder if an English degree is setup for a person to learn how to BS people. I love that letter to Yale too. Confused by this very same thing in my lit crit classes I looked up rhetoric in the dictionary. Don't know why it didn't occur to me before. My lit crit prof was prone to long ums then a pause before continuing a sentance.

And on a whole different note: I went on a date with a guy on Sunday who told me he grew out of reading and fantasy games entirely. Then he went on to tell me how he plays World of Warcraft everyday. Though I find nothing wrong with video games I did find this amusing.


#235 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 01:33 PM:

In my late teens, my mother (she who believed that reading science fiction would rot my mind, ruin my morals, and lead me into hanging around with disreputable people)(and she was right, thank heavens!) once told me she'd tried to read one of the SF books on the shelves in my bedroom, to try and understand why I liked it so much.

But she couldn't make sense out of it. She simply couldn't figure out what was going on in what she read.

Since the shelves included some books like Aldiss' Barefoot In The Head, I asked if she remembered which book she'd picked.

"No," she replied. "But it had a spaceship on the cover," she added helpfully.

#236 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 01:53 PM:

I hate stories where they explain everything in the order you need to understand it! In fact I hate stories where they explain anything.

Well, not hate. Like much less than I like stories where you figure things out, spend a lot of time being confused or quite confident you know what's going on -- but you're wrong, and when you realize it the whole story turns inside out in your head.

This type of fiction annoys hell out of some people, and it's exactly the kind I intend to write, when I finally get off my duff (or rather sit down ON my duff) and start writing it. Which will be real soon now.

#237 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 03:24 PM:

"You come here with a head full of slush, and we teach you to write it."

#238 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 03:58 PM:

Graydon,

That's about where we started, too, but that was a sophomore-level Intro to BritLit. I took it that Dave's course was a freshman-level survey not intended for majors.

Michelle,

I'm ignorant--which one is your CSU? I'm also fortunate, I guess, because none of my English teachers were like that. A couple weren't ideal--I'm thinking of a particular course in mythology which, okay, sucked and another in contemporary drama I dropped early--but overall they were good readers and helpful teachers. (I was picky about who I took classes from--isn't everyone?)

#239 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 05:23 PM:

Adam,

Colorado. It was actually worse in other areas at UNC but the writing profs at CSU take the cake. The profs in most other areas of the English world at CSU were fantastic.

The example above came from upper level CSU courses. At that point your choice was generally one of 3 profs. I had two. The third, well we had are differences in an outside of school senario.

#240 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 05:25 PM:

Gah...that should be we had our

#241 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 06:04 PM:

"No," she replied. "But it had a spaceship on the cover," she added helpfully.

Not even reading the title? Wow.

#242 ::: JdB ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 06:28 PM:

So, a question about 'reading protocols'. I often like to read with a dictionary handy, so that if I'm reading Nabokov and he talks about "frass", I can look it up to see what frass is. ("Debris or excrement produced by insects.") Am I like the footnote-loving Trollope fans, or not?

In any case, I just don't feel like only genre fiction makes this kind of demand on the reader. Just off the top of my head, the first chapter of The Sound and the Fury is at best extremely baffling until you read later chapters. And yes, many people freak out about this, but it's got nothing to do with whether they read science fiction or not.

#243 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 07:07 PM:

Coming back in belatedly:

Jo Walton's observation that soem people in the discussion seemed to be using Metaphor to mean allegory also explains why I was so befuddled that people could be so adamant that a well written X could nto also carry the weight of (some) metaphorical layers. Yes, absolutely, they can't be real and allegory and do both well simultaneously.

As to literalized metaphors (Her world exploded, etc) - it seems to me that this isn't an SF reading protocol issue, as the ONLY place I've seen metaphorical language used in such a way that you can't tell from context whether her world exploded literally or figuratively is in certain branches of slapstick comedy. Specifically, the Muppet Show.

Xopher: I hate having things overexplained, I hate being condescended to, and I just finished a book which thought that it needed to footnote an English translation for a country's motto "Pieté, Justice, Liberté", and the spelling of cashmire, which puts me firmly in the Jo Walton camp of Not wanting footnotes (Of course, the same book had several "As you know Bobs" that couldn't have been more obvious if the characters talking were a maid and a butler, one of whom was actually named Bob, so the authors were really going over the top on explainign everything as hard as they could). I don't mind books where I have to figure out a lot from context. I'm not sure I have the guts or the stamina, however, to say I never want *anything* explained. There are days I like books where I don't have to think out an explanation myself, be that because they act enough like the real world -- or an already established alternate world -- or because the author was especially good at sneaking in explanation. I just don't want things explained in a way that doesn't fit the characters, or the setting, or talks down to *me* in explaining itself.

#244 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 08:41 PM:

JdB:
So, a question about 'reading protocols'. I often like to read with a dictionary handy, so that if I'm reading Nabokov and he talks about "frass", I can look it up to see what frass is. ("Debris or excrement produced by insects.") Am I like the footnote-loving Trollope fans, or not?

I think there are people who prefer to look up unknown words, and there are people who find it annoying to look up unknown words. I'm solidly in the latter category-- in fact, there are a fair number of words that I won't use myself, because I only sort-of know what they mean, from having encountered them lots of times in novels. That vague defined-from-context sense of a meaning doesn't always equate to being able to use it correctly in a new sentence, though, and I've sometimes been wrong as to the subtler connotations.

(In typical fashion, of course, I can't think of any examples right now, but there are a bunch of things that I type from time to time, only to delete because I'm not completely confident in my understanding of the full meaning.

In any case, I just don't feel like only genre fiction makes this kind of demand on the reader. Just off the top of my head, the first chapter of The Sound and the Fury is at best extremely baffling until you read later chapters. And yes, many people freak out about this, but it's got nothing to do with whether they read science fiction or not.

Exactly.
I don't think that there's actually that much difference between the typical SF novel and a mainstream work that begins in the middle of the action (which isn't exactly rare). The confusion may go on a little longer in an SF novel, but it's a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference in most cases. The reader still has to deal with an unknown person in an unfamiliar situation for unclear reasons, and have faith that it will all make sense in the end.

#245 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 09:07 PM:

One thing that a lot of sf fans don't realize, I think, is how they sound when they explain what they like about their stories. This is particular true of "hard sf uber alles" fans, but we all get it from time to time. What we talk about it is often everything but what makes it a story: a world-building conceit, a plot gimmick, and so on. Someone who appreciates narrative, characterization, usage and such is entirely justified in responding to a lot of this, "So why not read an essay about it?" When there is an answer, we do well to incorporate it earlier on; when the answer is "um, dunno", we do well to seek out more good essayists.

I am, by the way not using "we" in a "but I really mean you" sense. This is a problem I have, and I noticed it in myself before I noticed it in others. I've mostly but by no means entirely gotten over it.

#246 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 09:51 PM:

Jo:

In re footnotes: would you consider Jack Vance's novels to be the exception that justifies the rule?

As far as I'm concerned, Vance is the exemplar for integrating footnotes into stories as an enjoyable narrative enhancement. Whoever wrote this Wikipedia entry apparently agrees with me.

#247 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2005, 11:04 PM:

Lenora Rose - if the author sneaks it in, I can't notice it and be bothered by it, so it doesn't count. I like that sort of thing, though I must say I prefer to have to figure it out for myself. But if they give enough clues, does that count as explaining?

I'd say no. The "as you know, Bob" things are the ones I really hate.

#248 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 02:34 AM:

I'm guessing that reading protocal versus interest is a chicken-and-egg thing. Does a reader tend not to suspend disbelief re: fantasy elments, and thus is uninterested in fantasy? Or is a reader uninterested in fantasy, and thus less willing to suspend disbelief for it?

In the case of my fellow workshopper, I got the impression that it simply didn't occur to her to think in fantasy terms. But I don't doubt that for many others it may work the other way 'round. Survey enough readers, and I suspect we'll find points all over the spectrum lighting up.

(I'm also suspecting that "suspension of disbelief" is an overridden hobby-horse of mine. I've begun thinking in those terms even as concerns some readers' aversions to present tense or second person--"this isn't actually happening to me/right now, so the narration in second person/present tense feels weird"--and I know that's a whacked-out way of looking at it.)

#249 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 06:08 AM:

Actually, Nicole, that's precisely why I don't usually care for 2nd-person fiction (unless it's interactive fiction, where it's standard and I'm used to it). I have run across too many examples of it where "You [foo]" makes me just stop and go, "But wait. I couldn't possibly foo!" And at that point I rarely can get back into the frame of mind where I'm enjoying the story, because it nags at me.

[Which didn't stop me from writing a story in second person a couple months ago. It does work for me sometimes.]

#250 ::: Harry Connolly ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 03:32 PM:

Maybe it's just me, but I never read second person as referring to me, the reader, specifically.

/topic creep

#251 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 04:12 PM:

Going way back to Sean and Michelle (sorry. Busy weekend. Kilt fitting and... well, my dog Ludo didn't wake up Saturday. He was 3)...

I don't think that the difference between "literary" and "mainstream" and "fantasy" is that easy to define, and I certainly can't agree that "a lot of crap stories get put in front of you as "excellent examples"

Literary is the genre of dead grandma's and broken relationships.

SF is the genre that deals with people in the what if."

Several big examples I can think of: "The Lovely Bones," by Alice Sebold, "The Time-Traveler's Wife," by Audrey Niffenegger, and "The Confessions of Max Tivoli," by Andrew Sean Greer. All are arguably "literary," all have elements of fantasy. None are about dead grandmas and broken relationships (they're about a girl who is raped and murdered and her family's grief, the effect of time-travel on a romantic relationship, and a man who ages backward, respectively [and all are worth reading. Excellent books]).

All stories are "what ifs". What if a guy got obsessed with a whale? What if a raven came to visit?

"Lucy: Michelle, I think you're being unecessarily hard on non-sf readers. I don't think non-sf readers would normally "freak out" at any individual sentence. The thing is, they aren't engaged by the same kinds of things, and they don't find the same kinds of questions intriguing,

Exactly.
As noted above, the tendency to tout the specialness of SF by means of constant denigrating references to mainstream literature is one of the things about SF fandom that really drives me up the wall."

I'll be the first to say that I'm a non-SF reader. I've really never been a huge fan of science fiction. I don't freak out; I just don't like stories about space ships (of course I understand there's more to science fiction than space ships. This statement is more along the lines of "I don't grok what you grok" than "science fiction is bad").
You know what throws me off? Names with apostrophes. Far away planets. Space settlements. Fantasy, too. Swords and rings and such.

But I like Harry Potter. I'm weird.

I once had a feminist teacher in a college creative writing workshop. She mentored me, to a degree. It was obvious that she was steeped in "Pride and Prejudice" and "Jane Eyre." She was Irish and red-headed and spoke her mind bluntly. I learned a lot from her, not least of which was that not everyone is going to like what I've writtent, but that doesn't mean it's bad.
In a class of personal memoirs, essays about Tiger Woods, and sophomore poetry, I handed in two chapters of a werewolf novel for my final project.
"Quite a splendid piece of horror fiction."
She was one of the few people I know who didn't shut down when she encountered the unfamiliar.

I, unfortunately, don't have that ability. I'll fully admit to it. I don't know why I love "Harry Potter" but hate "Lord of the Rings". But I do. Certain elements just work for me as a reader, and certain ones don't.

#252 ::: Michelle K ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 04:15 PM:

Here's a positive vote for footnotes, but that's almost entirely because of "Good Omens" and Discworld.

#253 ::: Janet Croft ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 05:16 PM:

Footnotes? Don't forget the Flashman series!

#254 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 05:58 PM:

I like footnotes for Michelle K's reasons.

This just reminded me of this discussion:
"She set herself tasks of thinking when she left on a walk, small tasks such as: What counts as mundane? If mundane just means "Of, pertaining to, or typical of this world" how is it that over the years the mundane has become allied with the trivial?"
-"Oh Pure and Radiant Heart," by Lydia Millet

#255 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 06:10 PM:

Also in the Plus column of footnote usage: Carla Speed McNeil's Finder.

- Though they're really properly endnotes, and they're not marked in the, er, "text." So they don't distract you while you read (and you can appreciate Finder without them), but they give you an excuse to reread with further illumination. Well done.

#256 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 06:19 PM:

Will: I agree with your examples actually. (Lovely Bones made me cry, sigh)

But I'll disagree that I'm touting the specialness of SF. My problem is with supposed literary types who dismiss all SF because it is SF and then are blind to SF elements in their some of their examples.

Another example, Beloved. She spontanously combusts at the end (for lack of a better term). She's a ghost (or not, she might be just some random stranger with no memory on which the mother projects her loss unto)

The fantastical elements are there as well. Were they ever discussed in any class I had to read this book for. Yes, in high school. In college is was never touched.

Incidently, I didn't like the book. Oh I think it is a good book and enjoyable to some but for me the story was awful.

#257 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2005, 08:09 PM:

Michelle: You don't have to like Beloved, and you don't have to like however it was discussed in your high school class.

I adore it, and everything Toni Morrison ever wrote. And she does, as you say, illustrate the presence of fantastical elements in literary fiction. But the book doesn't read like fantasy to me: it reads like magic realism. I guess because Beloved herself just kind of happens, growing out of the passions of the mother.

And the only reason it matters is for purposes of thinking about it.

#258 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 10:14 AM:

I guess because Beloved herself just kind of happens, growing out of the passions of the mother.

That's why I don't like it. She does then she just goes away. Makes the mother/daughter relationship seem flipant to me.

And having said that I love some of Morrison's other books.

Magical Realism. I'm not going to touch that.

#259 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 10:40 AM:

"But I'll disagree that I'm touting the specialness of SF. My problem is with supposed literary types who dismiss all SF because it is SF and then are blind to SF elements in their some of their examples."

Oh, I didn't mean that I had inferred you were touting the specialness of SF. I don't know that I had inferred anything besides that you were saying you don't like what many people seem to call "literary" fiction.

"Lovely Bones" made me cry, too. So did "The Time-Traveler's Wife" (still the last great book I read, but I have high hopes for "Anansi Boys"). And I certainly recognize the fantasy/sf elements, respectively, in each. In my world of reading, however, when I like books, they transcend genre and become simply "good". I talk about them differently, and recommend them indiscriminantly.

I won't touch "Beloved." I did, once. I even read twenty or so pages.

Incidentally, if anyone is interested, Salon has a review of both "Magic for Beginners" and "Lunar Park" today, in its end-of-summer, hot-fiction feature:
http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2005/08/24/wtr/index.html

You can read it free if you watch the day pass. I think it's worth it, not just for those two reviews, both of which I thought were pretty well presented. Briefly mentions zombies, too, but doesn't wonder whether they're the sort you write about or the sort you run away from, which is probably best.

#260 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 02:43 PM:

I don't think anyone mentioning their annoycance with footnotes is talking about *clever* footnotes. I'm all for Pratchett or Clarke or Finley footnotes, and for footnotes in non-fiction.

We're talking about things that explain that a fly is a kind of carriage, or that Mr. Clean is a product mascot that looks like a bald man.

#261 ::: Jim Henry ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2005, 03:12 PM:

Dave Luckett:

If you didn't like 'Great Expectations' but did like 'The Pickwick Papers', you might want to read Dickens' other early novels and stop whenever you get to the point where you don't like them anymore. Specifically, I suspect you might like 'Nicholas Nickleby', 'Oliver Twist', 'Barnaby Rudge', 'Martin Chuzzlewit' and parts of 'The Old Curiosity Shop'. 'Bleak House' and 'A Tale of Two Cities' are more like 'Great Expectations', and 'David Copperfield' is somewhere in between. I've enjoyed all of his books that I've read, though 'Great Expectations' and 'A Tale of Two Cities' rather less than the others.

#262 ::: Michelle K ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2005, 10:32 AM:

Lenora,

Maybe I'm lucky, because I don't think I've ever picked up one of those types of books. So the good ones are the only ones I've come across.

#263 ::: Tiger Spot ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2005, 05:57 PM:

I've had student editions of Shakespeare plays and various bits of poetry with explanatory footnotes. I found them either helpful, mildly interesting, or ignorable, depending on whether they were defining a word / explaining a reference I didn't know, giving further information about something I understood, or defining something I knew already. However, I am capable of ignoring unnecessary footnotes, which not everyone is.

Endnotes, unless they are exclusively the type in scientific papers that are just reference to another work, irritate me because I usually do like to read footnotes at the time I read that bit of the book and I don't like flipping back and forth looking for them.

#264 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2005, 08:01 PM:

Jim Henry: Oh, I have. I said I'd forgiven him. Mind you, I stopped at "Hard Times", exactly as you recommend.

But I ask you, what is the value of teaching literature using material that the student actively resists to the point of text-deafness and rejection? The approach recommended by you and other sensible people here is not to do that: in effect, to desist when resistance appears, and to try something else.

My English teachers were not prepared to do that. In fairness to them, I don't suppose they actually had a choice. They had a curriculum to teach. But there was something more, something beyond mere prescription. In senior year in secondary school, and at University (the first time around) it became obvious that they were as deaf to the texts that I read as I was to those they they read. That is, they were insisting that I validate their perceptions (by writing what they regarded as correct analysis of their texts) while dismissing my perceptions of text - and the texts themselves - as worthless.

As a result, I am completely unable to face the task of reading Hemingway or Faulkner or Hardy ever again. Worse, when reading any text, at the first faint intimation of the qualities that I perceive and resist in those authors - lugubriousness, fatalism, despair, the belittlement of human achievement - I become furiously resistant to it. It's rather like the immune system response.

That is to say, the texts I was forced to read in school and literature courses at University have rendered me blind to the redeeming qualities of any text that shares some of their characteristics, and closed permanently to me whole areas of reading. That experience formed my tastes, I suppose. But is that what they intended, those worthy scholars?

#265 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 12:36 AM:

You know, Dave, at some point it does become the student's responsibility to get something out of the class, especially in college, where the student has a certain amount of self-selection power.

I've told students that they don't need to like any particular piece of literature, they need to understand things about it and have an opinion about it that they can express in comprehensible and respectable ways (I tend to teach the least literate students in high school when I teach). And when they ask "why are we reading this one?" I say it's because the curriculum committee had good reason to believe that the work in question had a lot to offer them, and that the work had frequently been meaningful and enjoyable for students in their position and condition. You can't please everyone every time.

#266 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 02:13 AM:

Lucy Kemnitzer: There we must differ. I would indignantly deny that there is any responsibilty on the reader - student or no - to get something out of any given work of fiction, whether in a literature class or under any other circumstances.

There is for me only one answer to the question "why are we reading this one?" where "this one" is a piece of fiction. That reason is "because we enjoy it."

Of course, there are many sources of enjoyment, including ones that baffle me. No matter; tastes differ. And I would agree that one should try new things with an open mind. But there must be enjoyment, whatever its source, or else reading the text is useless, and forcing that act is worse.

So, for me, I'm afraid that you do have to like a particular piece of fiction, or else there is no point in reading it. None. Zero. Nada.

#267 ::: Brooke C. ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 06:53 AM:

Delurking for the first time just to weigh in on the footnotes debate.

An otherwise maddening class on The 18th Century Novel was redeemed for me by the inclusion of "Castle Rackrent," with its hysterical mock-anthropological "Glossary." I will always love that book for being the single shining star of that quarter. *

Fully on board with the Pratchett enthusiasts, and I can't believe no one's mentioned "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" yet.

On the other hand, I stumbled across Le Fanu's "Uncle Silas," and despite it having absolutely everything I'd ever wanted in a gothic novel I was nearly derailed by the lousy footnotes. On the third page, the narrator told me that her father was a Swedenborgian. I looked for a footnote, couldn't find one, shrugged and went on. But as it was gradually borne in upon me that, whatever the hell a Swedenborgian was, it was important to the plot, characters, and major themes, I kept checking every note. Nope. Discussion of disparate spelling of one word between first and third editions; recommendations of scholarly essays on the proto-whatsit of the whatever, and an entry that read (I swear): "Jonah: Old Testament prophet, swallowed by whale." But obviously every casual reader knows the history and tenets of Swedenborgianism. Thank god for Google.

My point being, I guess, that footnotes are lovely when they add something to the rest of the text, whether it be wit, parallel narrative, or just basic comprehensiblity. And they are evil when they only serve to distract and frustrate the reader. It's the very sophisticated rule of Things Should Be There For A Reason.

*It wasn't even that all the other books were that bad. All right, some of them were. ::shudder:: But I signed up for the class because I loved Defoe, and we did two of his novels. A snippy or maundering prof can teach you to hate almost anything. Two days of excruciatingly vague, inarticulate lecture on the devastating symbolic brilliance of the end of "Roxana"... I reread the last chapter five times and then actually went to the bookstore to see if my edition was missing several pages in which the climax was, like, resolved in any fashion. No such luck. I've forgiven Mr. Defoe, figuring that, hey, he was inventing the form as he went; plus he's been dead over two hundred years, so what are you going to do? But I will never lose the desire to bat that Ph. d upside the head with my Penguin paperback.

#268 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 10:09 AM:

Brooke C:

That's the kind of footnote that I want. (There is a footnote in the Penguin edition of Emma, explaining a three-shilling piece (in relation to Mrs Croft's blistered heel) which explains how much a three-shilling piece was worth, but defines its size only as 'slightly larger than a half-crown'. Which leaves me wondering just exactly how big these coins are, and why Penguin can't figure out that giving the diameters would be very helpful to readers who have never met either coin.

(Swedenborgians are some odd philosophical group who just happened to be responsible for Wayfarer's Chapel in Palos Verdes, CA.)

#269 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 11:43 AM:

I won't disagree that the Swedenborgians (who are still about) are "odd," but hardly less so than them, and those blokes, and not a patch on you know who. Emanuel Swedenborg was a talented scientist (given his era, natural philosopher) and engineer who started having complex transcendent visions (which may have been schizophrenic in origin), and believed, among many other things, that humanity existed simultaneously on a physical and spiritual plane. He was influential -- not necessarily in the sense of conversion -- on a great number of people, including Emerson and Borges (those great contemporaries). A fantasy novel set in a Swedenborgian cosmos (possibly involving the man himself, just to keep a few more celestial spheres in the air) would be a very interesting thing, and I wonder if someone hasn't already done it. Me, I'm busy this weekend.

#270 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 11:54 AM:

Dave: school isn't recreation. In school you are supposed to be learning and practising the civilized arts: including forming an intelligible opinion and expressing it in a coherent way, with developed, logical, and supported arguments for it.

Honestly, for that purpose it's almost more useful not to like what's under discussion. Then you have something to say, something to explore, a position to defend. In my experience, hating the book under discussion can inspire the best thinking and writing.

I'm not one of those people who likes to blame the students for the teaching, but I'm a little disturbed that you seem to have said the student has no responsibility towards the material.

In general, I think readers have some responsibility for their own comprehension and experience. Some. Of course they aren't responsible for the writing being good or bad. But if you don't try to engage, it makes no difference what the writer did.

None of this is saying that you have to like everything, or that you have to get everything, or that you have to read everything. But it's just not always the writer's fault if you don't.

And the number of books you have to read for school is pretty low if you don't go on to some kind of literature study in college -- it's not really that onerous.

#271 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 12:32 PM:

I would agree that one should try new things with an open mind.

Dave, are you really saying you can get nothing at all ever out of a text you don't enjoy? You've never learned a thing or been able to make a useful critical extrapolation from a text you wanted to throw across the room? Never?

I've certainly had texts I disliked and didn't learn anything from and couldn't discuss critically. But A) I was seventeen, and therefore very immature about how I dealt with the fact. I blame me for getting nothng out of one particular book, because I was being wilful. And B) I also had the other kind, the kind you don't like, but can find things to talk about.

Of course, I've had those teachers who are very good at sucking the life out of a text. There's also something draining about making you analyse a text as you're reading it, chapter by chapter, with the class.

I couldn't get up any interest in Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel when we studied it. Too much talk about how everything was a symbol - oddly enough, that book and that talk of symbolism is also the reason I ended up with an instictive dislike of peonies.

Fortunately, I was in a high school program at the time where books form one year could and did carry over to the final year exam. So I reread it before the exam, just to get it back in my head enough to B.S. about. No enthusiasm, just a sense of duty.

Wonderful book. And that was a (usually) good teacher.

#272 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 01:20 PM:

Lenora Rose: My belief is that high school teachers in general are too impressed by symbolism and spend too much time on it.

That being said, you got to read Margaret Laurence in high school? Cool. I didn't find her till my third pass at college.

Can I guess? Did you go to school in western Canada?

#273 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 01:59 PM:

Dave Luckett: So, for me, I'm afraid that you do have to like a particular piece of fiction, or else there is no point in reading it. None. Zero. Nada.

I couldn't disagree more, at least in an educational context. (I do agree when it comes to recreational reading.) As a student, I read lots of things that I wouldn't have read on my own, some of which I hated (Jane Eyre and Washington Square come to mind) but learned from. There were also books that I learned to love midway through, such as The Scarlet Letter.

In short, school is about learning and learning isn't always fun but it should be rewarding.

Lucy Kemintzer: And the number of books you have to read for school is pretty low if you don't go on to some kind of literature study in college -- it's not really that onerous.

Umm, not the schools I went to. OK, my high school was an outlier (Bronx Science) and they did plop me into honors English with no warning, but even in junior high we had a pretty long reading list including atypical 9th grade fare like Siddhartha. And this was in a public school in a working-class neigborhood in Brooklyn.

#274 ::: Mina W ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 02:16 PM:

In my book club we find that the best discussions often come when one or most of us didn't like the book. In fact, the club was started when one of us [whose mother has been in the same book club for 25 years] wanted to talk about a particular book she had read. We were relieved to discover that didn't mean she liked it [a literary-style book with great reviews and prizes], since most of us were baffled that anyone could.

That book reminded me of a favorite critical quote from an Amanda Cross book:
"He can't write?"
"On the contrary, he writes with some felicity. He can't think."

#275 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 04:22 PM:

Lucy Kemnitzer: Winnipeg, MB. There are very few authors whose works I sought out voluntarily after being made to read them in High School or first year university. She was one of two I can recall, and the other was a playwright.

(I'm still getting over a bad encounter with the wrong Garcia Marquez book - In Evil Hour - so that while I've read at least two short stories of his of rather fine quality, I've had a hard time talking myself into approaching the novels. Maybe when the main city library - and the only non-pitiful branch remotely close to both my home and work - reopens...)

#276 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 06:04 PM:

I had in mind 'odd' as in 'different' or 'unusual' - I don't know any Swedenborgians, AFAIK. I have heard of Swedenborg, at least!

Some stories are very well written, but Not Much Fun ('The Screwfly Solution' is the first that comes to my mind). I try not to confuse the writing style with the story or the effect, not always successfully. (Someday I'll have to try Moby Dick again, with the idea I recently met in another story, that the whale is the main character.)

#277 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 07:04 PM:

Chapter 1: Yargh, a Giant Looming Me

Call me Dik'Mo. Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely, but it was before Grunt*clicketyclick*whistle*grunt*whoooooo*Peggy Sue topped the charts -- having few or no amphipods in my gullet, but a bellyful of those "Oo, aren't we large" blue buggers, I thought I would swim about a little and meat-hammer any boats I came across into shrimp bordellos. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.

#278 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 07:21 PM:

You should also pay attention the the fact that Moby-Dick is full of 19th century humor. Nobody ever talks about Melville as a comic genius, and they should. The whole sequence of Queequeg coming to bed is classic. The whale penis scene is also particularly amusing.

#279 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 08:31 PM:

I've had occasion to write footnotes. It's freepin' hard. I'm not trying to excuse the people who neglected to explain Swedenborgians, or who failed to give the diameter of a coin, mind you. But here's the thing. You establish the text first, which includes looking up all the arcana. By the time you're ready to write the notes, it's hard to remember what you knew before you started the project. The upside is that you get to put in all the really cool stuff, like why medieval epics always say that helmets are green, or you can be the first. person. evar. to describe the illuminations and their captions. (That was my favorite part.)

#280 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 09:38 PM:

I did say, you know, that the sources of enjoyment - that is, what readers may find rewarding about fiction texts - were many, including sources that baffle me.

But there is a monster in the idea that fiction - fiction, by Ymir - is to be read not for enjoyment, but for some other reason. We live among the most literate population that has ever existed, but the proportion of regular readers of fiction within it is headed down, and has been so for generations. Not fast, maybe, but persistently.

And I put it down to this, partly: that generations of English teachers have forced students to read fiction that they don't like. Worse, they have taught that enjoying fiction is not only not required, but almost irrelevant.

Wrong. Wrongwrongwrongwrongwrongwrong. Goddam it, is there a word that means "so wrong it makes the sphincter contract, the eyes dilate, and the hairs on the back of the neck stand up"?

Lucy, if schools are for "learning and practising the civilized arts: including forming an intelligible opinion and expressing it in a coherent way, with developed, logical, and supported arguments for it" (and I wouldn't disagree) then it must follow that the texts used for this purpose should themselves be "intelligible", "coherent", and feature "developed, logical, and supported arguments". Fiction is not necessarily marked by any of those things, and never by the last.

So use texts in history, or politics, or philosophy, or sociology, or anthropology. Good texts in those disciplines have those features. Fiction doesn't, because fiction has no purpose other than to entertain. None. None. None. Never. Not ever.

Fiction, damn and blast it all, is fiction. It doesn't teach anything, other than what some writer thought, or might have thought, or appears to have thought, or tried to give the impression of having thought, or some such, depending on how far you want to venture down the funfair hall of distorting mirrors that is a fiction-writer's mind.

It doesn't prove anything. It has no authority. It is not privileged. The insights and ideas said to be found in fiction are somebody's opinion of somebody else's (implied) opinion, and both opinions are founded on sand. Writers of fiction as a class are not richer in wisdom or knowledge of how to live than anybody else - if anything, on average they're poorer. They have nothing to teach (other than possibly "how to write fiction"), and it must follow that as a class they cannot be read for the purpose of general education.

Larry Brennan: You imply that there is a distinction between "educational" and "recreational" fiction reading. I, in turn, cannot disagree more. There is no such distinction. Fiction does not educate anybody in anything. All fiction reading is recreational, though what you find recreational might be (more likely, must be) different to what I find so. But that does not privilege your recreational tastes, and it does not entitle you, or anybody else, to force me to read fiction that I don't find enjoyable. Not under any circumstances, including the classroom.

Not now. Not in High School. Not ever.

#281 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 10:21 PM:

Fiction doesn't, because fiction has no purpose other than to entertain. None. None. None. Never. Not ever.

Fiction, damn and blast it all, is fiction. It doesn't teach anything...

Dave, this may be true for you. I can't say. It's definitely false for me as a reader. I think fiction does teach. Fiction can be True.

I feel like we're reliving the rock music debate. If you don't learn anything from fiction, that's fine for you. But please don't insist that your experience is a global truth.

#282 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2005, 11:37 PM:

Dave Luckett: Fiction does not educate anybody in anything. All fiction reading is recreational...

Dave - I can only say two things.

First, chill out before you hurt yourself.

Second, if you've never learned anything from reading fiction, I feel truly sorry for you. I've learned all sorts of things from fiction. For instance:

* How Elizabethans dispensed propaganda and entertained both the elites and the unlettered (courtesy of Mr. Shakespeare)
* A specultive view of what this nanotech stuff all about (thanks to Greg Bear)
* What it might be like to be an outsider in Japan (via Haruki Murakami and Natsuo Kirino)
* What life as a Nebraska homesteader was like (see My Antonia and others by Willa Cather)
and much, much more.

It's not like learning in a math class - you can't do proofs and demonstrate internal consistency. But you get a bunch of hypotheses you can test and insight into how other people thought and lived. If I didn't learn from fiction, I'd stop reading.

#283 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 12:09 AM:

Alex, I submit that fiction is not only not true, but that there is no saying what might be true about it. Or True, either. That, I submit, is not an opinion or a taste, but a statement of fact.

The most it might teach you is what the writer thinks about something, but even that has to be very qualified. Is it what the writer thinks, or is it what you think s/he thinks, or is it what you think s/he is trying to give you the impression that s/he thinks...? And so on.

You can agree or disagree with your perceptions of what the writer thinks, but the pursuit of truth in this is nugatory. You are chasing a shadow, cast by a fickle, shifting, and uncertain light. What you see might be a shadow on the wall of Plato's cave, but it might not be. It is probably your own shadow. And whatever it is, it isn't True.

(True, fiction might teach you something about how to write, or not write, fiction. I conceded that already, but I don't think that's what we're talking about.)

So the error that you see in me is your projection. It is you who assumes that your perceptions are the true perceptions, not I. I am not prepared to allow my perceptions of the rightness of the ideas I perceive in a fiction text to take on the status of Truth, capital T. You are. In my opinion - and here we move into the realms of opinion - you are wrong to do so.

There is a common thread running between the two topics, though. In both cases, fiction and rock music, the tastes of others were enforced upon me. I rebelled and am still in rebellion.

#284 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 12:41 AM:

And economics is True? Or psychology? Or physics? Or even mathematics?

Dave, you seem to be assuming the existence of Truth with the zeal of the truly converted. And Godel proved that's not a reasonable assumption. Proved it with the tools of mathematics.

The best fiction is no more nor less true than any textbook you can point to. It's just teaching a different kind of lesson than most textbooks.

Looking back a long ways, to the Magic Realism discussion -- my own life has had major elements of magic realism in it. Teresa and Patrick published one of them. I live in a magic realist world. The simplest example -- once I was driving across the San Mateo Bridge. I looked up, and saw a pterodactyl. "Hm -- a pterodactyl," I thought. "Don't see many of those these days." (Beat) "A pterodactyl?!?!?" Turned out to be an airplane going into SFO.

But I knew, and accepted, that it was a pterodactyl at first.

Some of the other examples are not so easily explained.

#285 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 01:23 AM:

Dave, no, fiction doesn't do the teaching. Teachers and fellow students do the teaching. Students learn.

And no, fiction isn't always all about entertainment. And entertainment isn't one thing. When the nice fellow and I discuss what films to see, I say that he goes to the movies to be transported and I go to be transformed. He says that's not it. But I'm entertained when I read fiction that contains insights about culture and human development, or just has a whole lot of historical tidbits or thrilling little references. And some people are entertained when they read fiction that has instructions for manual or mechanical tasks embedded in it. And some people are when they read fiction that has deep spiritual philosophy in it (I might be, in the case of a particular story, but it would probably be for other reasons).


You keep complaining about other people forcing their tastes on you, and yet, your absolutism is so great that you keep saying, in words even if not intent, that everybody should do what you do, like what you like, and not offer ever to other people the things that you don't like.

Last: go back and look at what I said that you quoted. I said that students need to learn to develop coherent arguments about their opinions, to back them up, and to express them. I said that we use fiction as material for this work. This offends you for some reason? I can't see what's wrong with it.

I'm sorry that everybody seems to have been so mean and boring to you growing up. It could have been, if not fun, at least bearable.

#286 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 01:27 AM:

Tom -- I have had experiences like that too. Including the hard to explain ones. Since I am an utter materialist, and completely lacking in spirituality, I accept that those magic things that happen are just strangenesses. Sometimes I'm curious, and sometimes I just cherish them. Some of them make their way into what I write. Some make a difference, like the nearly quadruple 360 degree rainbow the nice fellow and I found one day over the Pogonip when we were miserable and bleak and really needed something beautiful and strange. But that's not magic, that one -- it's physics.

#287 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 01:49 AM:

Larry, First, chill out before you hurt yourself.

Certainly. I'll try, though I must admit to a certain passion on this subject. I'll also try not to err on the side of frigid condescension. Both are, I'm sure you would agree, unhelpful.

You say you learned these things from fiction:

* How Elizabethans dispensed propaganda and entertained both the elites and the unlettered (courtesy of Mr. Shakespeare)

If you learned this, you have learned from fiction something about writing fiction, which I have already conceded is a possibility. I beg leave to doubt that you have actually learned how to entertain like Shakespeare, though. No offence. I trust that you would not want to dispense propaganda at all, of any vintage, and I wonder what makes you think you know how to do it, or learned that skill from reading Shakespeare.

* A specultive view of what this nanotech stuff all about (thanks to Greg Bear)

You have learned, perhaps, what Greg Bear's opinion on this nanotech stuff is, or perhaps you have learned the opinion he needs you to have so that he can sell you the narrative, or perhaps you have learned an opinion that he wishes to examine, or maybe subvert, or...

And it's a speculative view of one of these. That is, it's a shadow of a shadow of something that may not be there at all. And you say that this is learning something?

* What it might be like to be an outsider in Japan (via Haruki Murakami and Natsuo Kirino)

Exactly. You have learned what it might be like, in the opinion of these authors, or in the opinion that they have chosen to make known to you, or in the opinion that they think works best with their narrative, or in the opinion that you perceive that they have or might have. Have you actually learned what it is like to be an outsider in Japan? Clearly, no. You concede that when you use the word "might". Can you learn that, from a work of fiction? Also no.

* What life as a Nebraska homesteader was like (see My Antonia and others by Willa Cather)

Again, you learned about Willa Cather's opinions about life as a Nebraska homesteader. They are valuable opinions, but tell me, is she right to say that Nebraska has the world's most beautiful wildflowers? Is the relationship between people and trees really as she describes it? Does she explore the economic relationship between the homesteaders and the railroads in any detail? What's her treatment of the anomie and bereavement of the Native Americans deprived of their lands by the homesteaders?

Of course she doesn't have to consider these questions. She's not writing a history and economic appraisal of the settlement of the Great Plains. She's writing fiction, and she's doing it from the limited perspective of a Nebraskan homesteader. That is to say, you can't learn anything from her fiction but her opinions written from that perspective, and that's putting it at maximum.

It's fiction. It doesn't actually tell you what life for a Nebraskan homesteader was like. It gives you a selected, probably idealised, sample of what Willa Cather thought it was like, blended into narrative. You can't tell which of her insights, ideas and opinions are true, even from her own perspective. You trust it, and think you have learned something from it, at your peril.

#288 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 02:06 AM:

I would agree that one should try new things with an open mind.

The more you've been saying in this topic, Dave Luckett, the more I think you could only have typed *that* sentence with deliberate, self-aware, irony or an absolute lack of awareness of the tone and attitude of the rest of your words.

I Half agree with your latest point. Yes, fiction reading should be done for pleasure at bare minimum. Yes, teachers who pretend entertainment/enjoyment of fiction is irrelevant are off their rocker. (All my teachers but one seemed to sincerely enjoy the books they plied on us, and to think we should at least try the book and see in our turn. I think one of them in particular was semi-secretly disappointed when we didn't all fall in love with the same ones she did.)

That this is the only purpose, ever, and that nothing can be learned from fiction (except maybe writing fiction) -- I disagree, but others have put it more cogently, so I'll leave it at that.

Your point of view on the purpose of reading fiction may well be valid -- for you. We do not dispute it may be true -- for you. Now please concede that other people may make statements that are valid even when they disagree with your personal experience?

(Sorry for the crumpiness, that's as much the hour as it is your posts, though each certainly exacerbates the other... .)

And on a lighter note:

John M. Ford, this particular habit of yours of rewriting classics seems to have led me to buy two of your books even though I intended to save up money and not buy any more books anytime soon. Dammit.

Please *don't* stop, though my bank account does not thank you.

#289 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 02:44 AM:

Dave - everything that's written about anything expresses an opinion. Hell, even math texts express an opinion, usually of the form, "Hey, I think you should be manipulating symbols this way and not some other way."

Sure, Cather wasn't writing history, but she expresses the veiws of someone who was there. Most historians who write about the European settlement of the American West weren't there, but they're still expressing an opinion, most often about whether it was a good thing or not and whether or not it went well for some particular population. A good reader thinks about the viewpoint that they author is putting forward, and understands that pretty much everything is biased and incomplete. That doesn't mean that there's nothing to be learned.

I maintain that reading fiction, aside from being entertaining (which it undoubtedly should be) can also be enlightening.

I'm not sure what it is you think you're rebelling against, but if it makes you happy, good for you. But you should stop and think about the people you're interacting with. Your views are your own, and you are fully entitled to them. They do not, however represent any sort of objective reality. Instead they influence how others perceive what you have to say.

#290 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 03:28 AM:

Lucy:no, fiction doesn't do the teaching.

I'm sorry, I mis-spoke. Nothing can be taught or learned from fiction, except perhaps about how to write fiction. This is because fiction has no authority, and is not privileged. Better?

And no, fiction isn't always all about entertainment. And entertainment isn't one thing.

I don't know what fiction is all about, and I suspect that nobody does. But the plain fact is that if it isn't enjoyed, it will inevitably be resisted, and therefore coercion is not only futile, it is counterproductive.

And I don't know how many times I have to repeat that the sources of enjoyment are many, that they include some that I cannot understand, but that I accept that tastes differ. I regret, Lucy, that I can't put it any plainer, and I regret further that you can't seem to hear me saying it.

I said that students need to learn to develop coherent arguments about their opinions, to back them up, and to express them. I said that we use fiction as material for this work. This offends you for some reason? I can't see what's wrong with it.

You do not only "use" fiction. According to your statement upthread you prescribe specific texts and require that they be read. I much regret that you can't see what's wrong with that. Why do you believe that reading these texts should be enforced?

The thing I find hilarious about this discussion is that here I am arguing against authoritarian prescription of fiction texts, defending the idea that the individual is entitled to his or her tastes (whether you or I or anybody shares them or not) and insisting that fiction is not privileged, but is on the contrary unreliable by definition, and I'm the one being accused of absolutism.

#291 ::: Sharon Mock ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 03:42 AM:

The only purpose of fiction is to entertain in much the same way as the only purpose of sex is to provide pleasure.

(And I have a very strong suspicion that I may regret posting this in the strong light of day.)

#292 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 04:37 AM:

Larry, Tom. I'm not saying you can't learn anything from any text. I'm saying that you can't learn anything from fiction, because while you can argue the extent to which texts in history, or economics, or physics are truthful, you know that the specific characteristic of fiction is that it isn't true. You are acting as though witnesses whose testimony can be cross-checked and who are at least trying to tell the truth are the same as a witness whose story not only cannot be checked, but has stepped into the box vowing that the testimony given will certainly not be the truth.

But if nothing can be learned from fiction, its only purpose is to enjoyed. Fortunately, that is alone sufficient.

I am glad to see that Larry thinks that fiction should be entertaining. I wonder if he's prepared to go just that little bit further, and say that it shouldn't be read by anyone who doesn't find it so. It seems to me to follow: if it should entertain the reader, but doesn't, it has failed for that reader.

I'm also saying that it's a bad idea to force any fiction on anyone, because the act of coercion creates resistance that produces rejection in many cases. Nobody should be forced to read fiction they don't enjoy. Nobody who doesn't enjoy any fiction should be forced to read any fiction.

I'm sorry that these ideas offend you, or Lenora Rose. I can't for the life of me understand why. I also can't understand how you all seem to have gotten the notion that I wish to enforce my tastes in fiction on others. On the contrary, I wish to have nobody's tastes in fiction enforced on anyone, me included. If anyone can point out any place where I appeared to advocate forcing my tastes on others, would they please do so, so that I may unsay it?

#293 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 07:05 AM:

Dave, do you not see that "You can't learn anything from fiction" is what psychologists call a "normative statement" -- that you're saying what others can and can't do with a specific type of information?

Do you not see that others here are saying "I have learned things from fiction", speaking from their own personal experience?

Do you not see that perhaps, those of us who have learned things from fiction, in our own personal experience and in our own personal judgment, might find your universal statements a bit dismissive and off-putting?

You-personally-Dave, not a you-generically someone-out-there, are saying that my experience, and the experience of others I love and trust on this blog, in finding fiction useful for learning, is a lie. I don't like being called a liar when I'm speaking of my own experience. And that's why some of us are responding to you strongly.

We don't like being called liars.

#294 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 08:08 AM:

Dave,

I'm giving up on this conversation because you don't work hard enough as a reader to have an interesting opinion. I'm not just talking about your slovenly ways with a book, either. When you tell us that one cannot learn from a book, you both sound like an incompetent creative writing teacher attempting to tell us why didacticism is bad in literature and are flat wrong on the facts.

Oh, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez showed me, in Love in the Time of Cholera, how to keep my home cool in the summer. It was a minor didactic bonus--I read the book for other reasons.

#295 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 08:48 AM:

Dave, I'll add one more comment and then give up.

You say that "fiction isn't privileged" but of course no text is privileged unless you are a Biblical fundamentalist. Non-fiction books can be wrong, or even lie. For learning facts, ostenisibly fictive texts can be just as useful, helpful, or even as true as ostensibly non-fictive texts.

Read all twenty of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books, and tell me that you have learned nothing about the mechanics of sailing. (That's not rhetorical: I'd really prefer that you read all twenty books before responding.) You can claim that O'Brian might be wrong about the details, but so might any book. If you're going to claim that, I'd prefer that you cite a specific reference and back up your claim that he was wrong with evidence. I, however, have learned my shrouds from my stays, my mizzens from my maintopgallants. Facts. Learned. From fiction.

But no, I suspect that you will continue to insist that your experience is necessarily global and applies to all humans, even in the face of disagreement from every other person in the conversation. Bah. Life's too short.

#296 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 09:26 AM:

Now, in the Sympathy for the Devil department: It's exactly right that believing what you read gets you into loads of trouble. The reason I wasted so much of my time on crank ideas was because I accepted their premises (i.e., what I read, in both fiction and non-fiction) and their factual statements (in non-fiction). Had I been more careful, my life would have been different.

That's not about fiction. That's about reading. And, I guess, about being a math guy after all.

#297 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 09:40 AM:

If you learn only what Willa Cather has to say about her experience as a homesteader, that is significant learning.

By reading fiction, you learn how fiction is constructed, at the very least. I suspect that people who send in all that awful slush probably didn't read enough fiction.

One thing that you can't deny, Dave, is that people who read a lot of fiction - which is really the only thing people read HUGE quantities of - learn to spell better. It is a fact that visual spellers (i.e. people who spell by visualizing the correctly-spelled word, rather than by "sounding it out") spell better; it is a fact that people who read more are more likely to be visual spellers, and to spell well even among visual spellers (because they see more correctly-spelled words).

And the moral learning of fiction is, IMO, undeniable. I'd love to do a study where two large groups of high school students read different books; one would read the Vorkosigan series, the other would read...well, something else. Maybe random books. I'd hypothesize that the Vorkosigan group would be more ethical five years later. I have no data to support this; that's why I want to do the study!

#298 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 09:56 AM:

Really, the idea that literature is not didactic and should not have moral content is a rather modern concept. If you'd suggested such an idea to Virgil or Homer, I expect they'd've gutted you.

Or am I thinking of Tom Clancy?

#299 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 10:06 AM:

What I learned from fiction: how to use my imagination effectively and coherently, and not just randomly.

But that's just me. I suspect Xopher is right about the advantages for spelling (and also grammar and punctuation), but again, that's me.

Also, Dave, is it possible that American "rock" = Australian "pop music", which would include what you call rock and a lot of other sub-genres and styles? I've noticed we tend to lump things into the "rock" category, perhaps courtesy of the way our radio stations program things.

#300 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 10:25 AM:

Fiction shows the reader how to see the world through someone else's perceptions.

We may or may not agree with the new mindset, but in the act of reading our horizons become that nuch broader.

#301 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 10:57 AM:

Really, the idea that literature is not didactic and' should not have moral content is a rather modern concept'

the argument against moral content in fiction always makes me think of the lincoln-douglas debates, there was one where lincoln observed that Douglas was willing to say anything on the subject of slavery except that which people were really interested in, that being whether it was right or wrong (excuse a very poorly remembered paraphrasing.)

Certainly not every work of art needs to take a moral stance, but that morality is removed from art is, I have always felt, the sentiment of the amoral - they want to talk about everything except that which everyone is really interested in.

#302 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 11:13 AM:

bryan, I'd've never thought of that example. I was thinking of two things in particular: this and this. (If you can't learn something from Laclos, you're a very lucky person.)

(For Dave, from the second link: "The novel as a genre was in the process of establishing its literary legitimacy in eighteenth-century France. A regularly employed tactic was the claim that the text was authentic, not fiction, therefore not a lie. Readers could gainfully employ their time learning about human experience and social dangers from supposedly true documents.")

#303 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 12:05 PM:

PUCK: This is magnificent--and it is true! It never happened; yet it is still true. What magic art is this?

[and, later:]

AUBERON: We thank you, Shaper. But this diversion, although pleasant, is not true. Things never happened thus.

DREAM: Oh, but it is true. Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.

--The Sandman, "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

#304 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 12:15 PM:

Dave, this is the last thing I'm going to say to you. In order to have a common conversation, one must have a common subject, right? -- I'm not generally prescriptive about things. I like to let kids pretty much do as they like. But if you have thirty kids in a room and five of them at the most have read the same book and twelve of them, not having an assignment, have read nothing, how are you going to have a discussion? It's not practical. -- Sometimes you do tell them, go find something to read, choose it yourself, and sometimes you say, pick off this list, and sometimes you say get something of this genre, or by this author, or from this place and time -- but sometimes you say "now we're all going to read Julius Caesar" and then you come in one day and you say "Well, how about that Iago, huh?"
Which is something you can't do if you didn't tell them all to read Julius Caesar.
Somebody in the class is going to say "Man, that Iagoi is wicked bad," and somebody's going to say, "No, somebody's got to do something when you get a tyrant like Caesar," and somebody else is going to say "Shakespeare's crap, and this is dishonest pap," and there you go. Yes, somebody's going to resent the whole thing, and grow up to tell the world how mean you were to make them read Shakespeare, and somebody's going to just not do it at all and give you nothing to point to and say they can get a grade with that, and somebody's going to draw penises in the book and somebody's going to tear out pages to do lines with.

But, mostly what's going to happen is that most of the kids in that room are going to say at least one thing about Julkius Caesar and most of them are going to write a couplke-few things about something they think about -- some of them things you told them to think and write about, and some of them things they dreamed up on their own.

And for some of those kids, that time in their life is the only time that anybody is going to take their intellect seriously, and that's a valuable thing right there, I think.
(My students would sometimes say "Chill out, don't take it so seriously," and I would say, "It's my job to take you seriously.If I don't take you seriously, who will?")

#305 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 02:18 PM:

Lucy, if you were to assign your students Julius Caesar and then ask "How about that Iago, then?" expect a buch of blank stares.

Iago was the villain in a very different play, featuring the line "Out, out damned spot!" causing chuckles in American junior high schools probably since there have been junior high schools.

I'm guessing you were wiping the sleep from your eyes while typing. ;-)

#306 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 02:31 PM:

Iago was the villain in a very different play, featuring the line "Out, out damned spot!"

Actually, a different play even than that one.

#307 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 02:52 PM:

D'oh! Guess I'm still sleepy, too.

#308 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 03:10 PM:

my favorite clueless about Iago moment has to be Alan Simpson quoting "Who steals my purse steals trash" in defense of Clarence Thomas.

#309 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 03:39 PM:

Sorry, I was dithering about which play to use as an example and we're really lucky I didn't write Mercutio in place of Cassius. I stammer a lot, too.

#310 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 04:40 PM:

Tom W: I now understand that you reject my argument that fiction, by its very nature, is not a source of learning (by which I mean finding truths and insights about received reality), and that you strongly believe the converse. I am sorry to have angered you by advancing it. I respectfully deny having called you or anyone else a liar, or implying it, or thinking it, then or now. I think that you are mistaken, no more.

Lucy: Perhaps it would help if I freely confess that I have no clue at all about how to motivate readers, other than to wring my hands and bleat something along the lines of, "well, this one is fun," and that I would be completely nonplussed by a rejoinder to the effect that it isn't. If you can motivate readers in some other way, you have my sincere admiration. And I think we would both deplore the tendency not to read at all. I can only repeat that although I have no idea how to motivate reading, I am as certain as I can be that coercion doesn't work, either.

Alex: as it happens, I have read all the Aubrey-Maturin novels. I didn't learn anything about early 19c warships from them, not even such details as the names of the various ropes. Where I didn't already know such things, I was content to make them intelligible from context, and to get on with the story.

Perhaps I might have learned more from O'Brien - some sea terms, anyway - if I had not already read Masefield's "Sea Life in Nelson's Time", Lawrence's "The Ships of Nelson's Navy", several biographies of Nelson, and numerous works on the history of the period. If I had learned more from O'Brien, though, I would not have trusted it for a moment without corroboration from non-fiction texts that had a commitment to factual truth. And I did not learn from O'Brien what life was like in Nelson's navy, or in Regency England. I learned his opinions on those subjects, and for the nonce was prepared to believe them as the price of my entertainment; but what was far more important was that I was richly entertained.

adamsj: Well, you've seen right through me. What was it that gave me away?

Xopher: Regrettably, I'm afraid I must differ. Anybody who reads a lot of passably-edited text of any kind learns to spell. I read a lot of middlebrow history. Others read essays, business reports, newspapers, magazines or professional journals, and all confer the same benefits. I will concede that fiction may teach spelling, though I would think it a little odd if anyone were to give that as a reason for reading it. Fiction may, as I have already conceded, teach the reader how to write, or not write, fiction.

I, too, would be interested to find whether reading the Vorkosigan stories produced more ethical behaviour. Designing the experiment would be an interesting exercise in itself, in fact.

#311 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 05:16 PM:

I had a young friend who was going into the Air Force to train as an interpreter last year. I gave him Bujold to read.

I told him to read it before he got out of boot camp. Bujold talks a lot about military honor, and when obedience is honorable and when disobedience is honorable. I thought it was good equipment for a man who was about to learn Arabic in 2004.

(he didn't end up doing any of that: he's a waiter now: but he got other uses from the book, anyways)

#312 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2005, 05:34 PM:

I wouldn't want to fly with a pilot whose only training was with a flight simulator. But I wouldn't want to fly with a pilot who'd never trained in a flight simulator, either. Why? Because the simulator allows you to get a far greater variety of experiences--an develop a corresponding repertoire of responses--than you can get from ordinary flying alone.

Saying that fiction teaches absolutely nothing, merely because it's fiction, is equivalent to saying that flight simulator training is useless because no emergency ever happens exactly the way it did in the simulator. Or that simplifying assumptions (e.g. frictionless surfaces) can teach us nothing about physics. Or that planning for the unknown future (i.e., imagination, i.e. fiction) is completely useless.

Fiction is the alzabo. We eat the stories of others. The alternative is to be limited to merely individual experience.

#313 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2005, 12:14 AM:

Tim Walters: An interesting and illuminating analogy. But analogies are suspect. What value would flight simulator training be if the trainee not only did not know the extent or the particulars in which the simulator mimicked real-world conditions, but only knew for a fact that it said in large red letters in the manual that it did not do so?

If one simplifies assumptions in physics, one knows exactly where and how and what assumptions have been simplified, and exactly in what ways these simplifications differ from observed reality, and can be certain (after sufficient critical peer review) that only those simplifications have been made, with precisely what effects. That is not the case with fiction.

The future is unknown, but fictive imagination is no guide in planning for it. If you doubt this, consider how much success the field of fiction that is dear to our hearts has had in predicting the future. And some vision of the future is often (I agree, not always) what science fiction is about.

#314 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2005, 01:00 AM:

Coming late to the party as ever, but...

Dave Luckett wrote:

> But there is a monster in the idea that fiction - fiction, by Ymir - is to be read not for enjoyment, but for some other reason.

To complicate things a bit, when does the enjoyment come? I find that with both Chris Priest and Philip Dick I don't enjoy their books at all - until I'm near the end and everything just clicks, and I retrospectively decide that I have been enjoying the book after all.

#315 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2005, 09:44 AM:

Dave, what frustrates me is that you expect reading to be different from--and easier than--other forms of learning. Look--Cantor's diagonal argument for uncountability is simple, brilliant, and beautiful. Dedekind's construction of the real number system is a long, miserable slog. They're both important. If you aren't willing to put in the work, don't expect to get the results.

Now, when you tell me that the only point to reading fiction is enjoyment, and that if a work of fiction isn't enjoyable, you won't read it, well, then, you'll never master the real numbers.

#316 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2005, 11:46 AM:

adamsj: Ah. Well, there's the problem right there. I don't admit fiction to be any form of learning.

So as not to offend anyone again, I'll put to one side my belief that this idea is logically tenable in general from definition, and will be content if it can be accepted that fiction is not a form of learning for me. (But eppur, si muove, he mumbled.)

If fiction isn't a form of learning (for me, right? Only for me) then your analogy with mathematics falls to the ground.

Or to put it another way, if fiction were mathematics, I might agree with you. But it isn't.

The charming thing about the above argument is that in effect it allows me to treat my perceptions of my own experience as infallible. Any challenge to those perceptions can be dismissed - indeed, howled down - on the grounds that the challenger unreasonably demands that I conform to his or her perceptions, and that by presuming to doubt my perceptions on logical grounds the challenger is calling me a liar. Or some such.

I suppose I should also point out that you have made the assumption that what I regard as enjoyable fiction can never be difficult, and from there leapt to the conclusion that I must be indolent. I would chastise you for that, were it not for the horrid feeling I have that you might be right.

#317 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2005, 03:02 PM:

Dave, I didn't say "fiction" was a form of learning. I said "reading" was a form of learning.

#318 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2005, 03:15 PM:

I'm perfectly willing to accept that reading fiction isn't a form of learning for you, Dave. And I'm sorry to hear it.

#319 ::: Madeline Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2005, 04:44 PM:

Three significant childhood lessons -- definitely not learnt from parents or teachers:

"Mary Jane" by Dorothy Sterling -- taught me that racism was bad.

"The Way to White Deer Park" by Colin Dann -- taught me to be kind to animals.

"The Last Battle" by C.S.Lewis -- taught me that it doesn't matter what your religion is if your intentions are good.

and so on.

#320 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2005, 05:58 PM:

To say that one cannot learn accurate details of real sailing techniques and rope names, etc, of a given era (raw facts whose accuracy is one of the things that would make or break the convincingness of a writer's fictional world and thus its enjoyability) because other aspects of the story are known to be fictional is to declare that one is unable to accurately judge the difference between the real world and fantasy.

All the worse when some non-fiction books are so dead wrong that anyone would do better to attempt to learn those facts from a fiction book by someone noted for historical accuracy and exemplary research.

True, one should not do the research for a historically-based fiction by reading fiction alone. Nor should one get a University degree in History or Science by citing only fiction examples, however well researched, but instead by doing the research of the facts oneself. But there are other kinds of lessons possible than those regarding bare facts.

And even there: I have a friend who corrected her history professor two or three times during one semester, when he would get a date or a detail wrong. If he asked her to cite a correct answrer, she usually had to flip around in the textbooks, or come back the next class -- because she'd actually known the correct information from reading George Macdonald Fraser.

Once you get into ephemerals, lessons learned that are not factual, things get even more complicated. Since one of the most basic is How should we treat the Other, reading things where we briefly become the Other (even, in many cases, a not-existing one) are often the most persuasive about which approach to take. Unless you want to argue that moral stances aren't really lessons.

Of course, there's also the way that Jesus taught most often by telling parables... but if I mention that, we'll probably fall into the question of how accurate any of the current descriptions of what He did and didn't do really are. And there'd be no recovering.

#321 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2005, 09:17 PM:

adamsj: Yes, I saw that, and thought it was an ellision, because, you know, we have only ever been talking about fiction. I thought I was clear on the point that one can learn from other reading - that is, from texts that make the substantiated truth-claim that fiction, by definition, does not.

Lenora Rose: You are clearly prepared to argue - cogently, if I may say - for your position on the status of fiction as a source of learning. That is, you are willing to subject that position to the test of objective evidence and logical deduction, and to draw from that process "global" conclusions that have general application. You would not, then, reject such conclusions (if made out) as invalidating individual perceptions of experience, and as therefore overbearing, or arrogant, or some such. Yes?

Excellent. So now we can, for the purposes of further dialogue, dispense with the damnfool notion that all perceptions of experience, by everybody, are equally valid, whether they can pass that test or not. Specifically, that involves letting go of the idea that by applying that test I am demanding "that everybody should do what (I) do, like what (I) like, and not offer ever to other people the things that (I) don't like." I am making no such demand, and there is no point to this discussion if you cannot free your mind of the idea that I am.

#322 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2005, 10:51 PM:

What value would flight simulator training be if the trainee not only did not know the extent or the particulars in which the simulator mimicked real-world conditions, but only knew for a fact that it said in large red letters in the manual that it did not do so?

Quite a bit of value. The trainee is going to be flying planes as well, so he can get a decent understanding of where the simulator differs from the real thing. Similarly, a fiction reader also has a real life, and can gain a decent understanding of fiction's relation to it.

Then, when fiction goes beyond the reader's experience, the reader can make a reasonable judgment about what is plausible and what isn't. The reader has no certainty, of course, but there's precious little certainty anywhere--certainly not in non-fiction.

Your insistence that fiction is always false on some level, while true, is insufficient to prove your point. For fiction to have no utility, it would have to predict reality no better than chance, even when the reader has the ability to compare a good deal of it to reality and assess its veracity, and even when the lesson learned from the fiction is perfectly capable of being instantiated in a fictional form with affecting its veracity (for example, a description of a love affair can be emotionally accurate even if the participants are fictional).

Instead, your position seems to be that anything learned from fiction, even if true, isn't really learned, whether it's about nautical trivia or the human condition. I completely fail to understand this. How can the addition of correct knowledge to someone's mind not be learning, no matter what the source? (I would go further and argue that the truth of the knowledge is irrelevant; anything that materially changes the reader is learning. For example, I ran across this quote today:

My father took me to Invasion of the Body Snatchers when I was like 8, and that was some real poor parenting, I can tell you that. We still talk about that one. For a year, I thought there were pods in my closet. I couldn't go to bed.

I would call that a learned response. However, I don't think this broader sense of "learn" is necessary to my case.)

The future is unknown, but fictive imagination is no guide in planning for it.

So if I have an important decision to make--say, whether to move to a new city--I shouldn't imagine what life will be like under both scenarios, but just flip a coin? Or, more charitably, you might think I should just stick to the objective facts--which city has better weather, lower crime, higher average income, etc.--but, if so, I disagree. I'm a subject, not an object, and I care about what the experience is going to be like for me, not what the numbers add up to. The facts are not to be ignored, but without my fictive imagination, they're meaningless.

If you doubt this, consider how much success the field of fiction that is dear to our hearts has had in predicting the future.

It's had excellent success. 1984 is the ultimate example--it did exactly what it was meant to do, which is give people an intuitive understanding of totalitarianism, the better to enable them to resist it. As David Brin would put it, 1984 inoculated us.

Now, if you make the criterion for predictive success something like "we will all have flying cars by 1973", then of course most SF fails miserably. If, instead, you make the criterion that the reader understands, on an emotional and intuitive level, that the future is going to be very different from the past--one of the important meta-lessons of SF--then SF has succeeded brilliantly. You could learn that on a purely intellectual level from a RAND report (although whether RAND reports would exist without the example of SF is an open question), but it would lack a crucial subjective element that allows the reader to feel it as well as know it.


#323 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2005, 10:54 PM:

instantiated in a fictional form with affecting its veracity

Um, make that "without."

#324 ::: Varia ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 01:29 AM:

Several people have at least referenced the idea of a more metaphorical truth, and as far as I can tell that discussion hasn't really gone anywhere. Dave, are you arguing that fiction is not an effective conveyor of factual truth? Or that it cannot effect insight? Or both? On the former, I disagree, but I also see it as relatively trivial. If you have not gained insight into humans--any subset of humans via any subset of the books you have read--if one brilliant piece of writing has not taught you the power of that author's vision, and that flash of understanding has never changed your relation to other humans, or your feelings about the world around you, or your understanding of how you fit into that world, what the hell have you been reading?

#325 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 02:11 AM:

Tim Walters: Nice.

So the trainee pilot in the unreliable simulator is, in your view, advantaged by getting a "decent understanding of where the simulator differs from the real thing". So he would be, if he could have that understanding. But what if he couldn't? What if all he knew was that the simulator did differ from the real thing, but he didn't know how different it was, or in what particulars, or where those differences cut in? For that is the position with fiction.

You say: "when fiction goes beyond the reader's experience, the reader can make a reasonable judgment about what is plausible and what isn't."

To the contrary, that's exactly what he can't do. If fiction goes beyond the reader's experience he can make no valid judgement at all. There is no basis for judging. At that point there is no telling whether the universe is as the fiction-writer presents it or not, and that fact arises from the very nature of fiction.

Therefore, proceeding on the premise that the universe is as presented (or even that it is not) is theoretically invalid and in practice fraught with danger. One may (should?) suspend disbelief for the nonce, and thus give the fiction its due, but it must be recognised that this not "correct knowledge" in any sense. In other words, where fiction goes beyond the reader's experience, there is nothing to be learned from it. (One might be inspired by the fiction to seek experience or knowledge elsewhere, but that's another matter.)

What if it doesn't go beyond the reader's experience, and is found to be consistent with that experience and therefore reasonably plausible? (I'll leave aside the question of whether any fiction is fully within any given reader's experience.) Well, then, the reader has learned only what he already knew, which is to say, he has not learned.

Now, to come to specifics. Love affairs. One would be most unwise to proceed on the assumption that love affairs work according to the models found in, well, much fiction. "Pride and Prejudice" for instance, or even "A Civil Campaign". Yes, by all means suspend disbelief so that you can enjoy the narrative for its own sake. But don't kid yourself that the narrative teaches you anything about what love affairs are really like. At most what it has taught you is the writer's opinion about what an imaginary love affair between two (or if you insist, more than two) imaginary people might be like under these imaginary circumstances. And maybe not even that.

"How can the addition of correct knowledge to someone's mind not be learning, no matter what the source?" Easily. It happens when this knowledge is added to the mind amongst other material that is avowedly not true, and the mind has no means of knowing (other than by previous experience) what is true and what is not, because the source of both is the same, and both are retailed by precisely the same means. In such a case all the material is of the same status, until corroborated. That is, it isn't knowledge, and what has occurred is therefore not learning.

"anything that materially changes the reader is learning". If you say that this is not necessary to your case, I won't argue it. I think it's horribly wrong, though.

"I shouldn't imagine what life will be like under both scenarios, but just flip a coin?" Ideally, neither. You won't be able to prevent yourself imagining what it will be like, but you surely are not so foolish as to think that your imaginings constitute true knowledge. If you actually wanted to know, you'd check out the references you speak of, and others. Talk to people who'd actually been there. Go there for a visit, or a vacation. Get the local papers delivered. Cross-check and validate. This information is not "just numbers", and cannot be so lightly dismissed. No, you are not just an object. As a subject you are entitled to react to information as seems right to you. But surely you should form your opinion on objective fact, not on what you imagine? And still less on what someone else has imagined?

1984. Actually came out in 1948, I believe. (I'm too lazy to seek out my copy and check. I already said that was a failing of mine.) Hadn't we (by which I mean "the Western Allies") just finished fighting a catastrophic war against several terrible totalitarian dictatorships? Wasn't Europe more or less in ruins at the time? Forgive me, but I think that those facts - boring old historical facts - might have had more to do with 'inoculating' us against totalitarian systems than any number of novels, no matter how fine, and pace David Brin.

#326 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 02:31 AM:

"Dave, are you arguing that fiction is not an effective conveyor of factual truth? Or that it cannot effect insight? Or both."

Both, Varia. And what I have been reading is all sorts of stuff. I learned what I know about human beings (and God knows, that is little enough, compared with what there is to know) by living among them, by observing them to the best of my poor ability, and by being one myself. Not from books. Especially not from fiction books.

#327 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 02:59 AM:

Madeline Kelly: "Three significant childhood lessons -- definitely not learnt from parents or teachers:

"Mary Jane" by Dorothy Sterling -- taught me that racism was bad."

Well, so it is. But suppose you had read Edgar Wallace's "Sanders of the River". That book series assumes that racism (with the usual overtones of paternalism, white man's burden and it's all for their own good) is right and natural. Would you have become a racist because of it? I think not. Most of what has been going on in Western society for the last three generations militates against it, not to mention your own good moral sense, a sense whose existence you demonstrate simply by your presence here. But if Wallace couldn't have taught you racism was right, why do you think that it was Sterling who taught you it was wrong?

"The Way to White Deer Park" by Colin Dann -- taught me to be kind to animals."

And you would have been cruel to animals but for that? Surely not.

"The Last Battle" by C.S.Lewis -- taught me that it doesn't matter what your religion is if your intentions are good."

Oh, dear, I hope not. Lewis would have been the last person on Earth to endorse the value of good intentions. He knew where they led.

#328 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 03:17 AM:

If fiction goes beyond the reader's experience he can make no valid judgement at all. There is no basis for judging.... proceeding on the premise that the universe is as presented (or even that it is not) is theoretically invalid and in practice fraught with danger.... It happens when this knowledge is added to the mind amongst other material that is avowedly not true, and the mind has no means of knowing (other than by previous experience) what is true and what is not, because the source of both is the same, and both are retailed by precisely the same means.

All knowledge has these things in common. There's nothing special about fiction in this regard.

There's no such thing as "true knowledge." All one has is what one imperfectly recalls of what comes through one's fallible senses, and all knowledge is tentative. Past performance does not guarantee future results, as they say, regardless of whether one is talking the credibility of fiction, the credibility of non-fiction, or the expectation of the sun rising in the morning.

If I read a description of the major events of the battle of Gettysburg in a seemingly reliable history book, I tentatively accept it. If I read a similar description in a seemingly reliable historical novel, I tentatively accept it. My degree of confidence is higher in the first case, but drawing a bright line and calling one "learning" and the other "non-learning" seems to me like the worst sort of essentialist nonsense. In either case, the description is now my best theory of the battle of Gettysburg--nothing more, nothing less.

(Lest I be misunderstood, I'm not saying that any belief is as valid as any other; just that differences in validity are on a continuum.)

Anyway, I agree with Varia that this is a relatively trivial question. Most of what one learns from fiction is precisely that which one can only learn from real or vicarious experience--not factual knowledge, but emotional knowledge and intuitive understanding, which is hard to trot out for examination, but no less real for that. (Madeline Kelly has some nice examples above.)

It's undeniable (I hope) that fiction, if nothing else, teaches readers to better use their imagination, and that's sufficient to prove that one can learn from fiction; and since I have, many times, had the experience of learning from fiction, and by your own arguments experience is a valid teacher, that's another sufficient proof. However, I don't see any need to surrender the notion that fiction can also give factual knowledge.

#329 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 04:02 AM:

"If I read a description of the major events of the battle of Gettysburg in a seemingly reliable history book, I tentatively accept it. If I read a similar description in a seemingly reliable historical novel, I tentatively accept it. My degree of confidence is higher in the first case..."

Good. We're getting somewhere. Why do you trust the first more than the second?

#330 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 04:52 AM:

Because a history that got the battle of Gettysburg wrong in any significant way would be incredibly lame, whereas the historical novel would only be extremely lame. So both authors have lots of incentive to be accurate, but the first slightly more so.

Of course, this is assuming that all else is equal, which is not necessarily the case. The historian might, in fact, be incredibly lame. The novel might be newer and have the benefit of modern scholarship (or older, and have the benefit of pre-post-modern thinking, or whatever).

It hardly matters, since your claim is not that the novel is less reliable than the history (which I trust no one would disagree with), but that the reliability of the novel is zero. There's no way to do this by ordinary epistemology, and as far as I can tell you're not trying to. Instead you propose what I consider a mystical notion that fiction is somehow tainted, that admitting some untruth prevents an author from telling any truth (even though an honest non-fiction writer would be bound to admit that there's no way he got everything right).

It's also worth noting that I may in fact learn more from the novel, even though the history contains more facts. If one doesn't remember something, one hasn't learned it, and it's easier to remember facts that are imbedded in a narrative. This is why even non-fiction books commonly use fictional stories to illustrate their points. Should I ignore the Alice-and-Bob stories in cryptography books? After all, Alice and Bob don't exist, so according to you their stories can have no valid purposes except entertainment. If not, why not?

I'm kind of worried that I'm starting to bore people to death (and I'm starting to feel silly talking about this while New Orleans is underwater), so if I don't reply much to whatever comes next, please don't take it personally.

#331 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 04:53 AM:

Why not just completely go back to original sources, Dave? Go read all the Civil War and Revolutionary War diaries you can find; plough through the account books of a family from the 1850s; read the first hand accounts of the Napoleonic or Punic Wars. After all, everything else has been run through someone else's filters.

Oh -- you don't read Greek, or French, and you have a hard time with the orthography of periods before spelling was standardized?

BTW, I've read an original Revolutionary War diary, and I've worked through a mid-nineteenth century account book -- and I personally have learned a lot more from fiction than from either of them. But they've given me a few good stories to tell.

I must say, though, you're really good at pushing people's buttons here. You still haven't commented on my statement that you were calling us liars, though. And I think you're continuing to do so. Until you do -- you're on my Bozofilter.

#332 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 05:23 AM:

The primary value of fiction as a learning tool as opposed to non-fiction is that a reasonably intelligent reader of fiction wiil always be aware of the non-real nature of what they read whereas even very intelligent readers of non-fiction are apt to forget the non-real nature of what they read and to accept it as having a one to one relation between the real and representation.

This is perhaps worsened in our society by the use of the term non-fiction.

In, to use a loaded term, less intelligent people this danger is magnified so that outright lies trapped out as non-fiction will be taken as factual.

So in short, Fiction presents a model of reality that because of our awareness of its nature as a model can be extemely beneficial to analysing reality itself. The modelling of reality is in no way superior in realism than in symbolism or in fantasy or what have you because these things often model very different aspects of reality.

#333 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 05:55 AM:

Tom Whitmore: "You still haven't commented on my statement that you were calling us liars, though"

This was posted by me, above, on August 28, 04.40 pm:

"Tom W: I now understand that you reject my argument that fiction, by its very nature, is not a source of learning (by which I mean finding truths and insights about received reality), and that you strongly believe the converse. I am sorry to have angered you by advancing it. I respectfully deny having called you or anyone else a liar, or implying it, or thinking it, then or now. I think that you are mistaken, no more."

Please note, I am not now calling you a liar because you said incorrectly I hadn't commented on your charge. You are merely mistaken once more.

I regret having pushed your buttons. I, too, have buttons, and several times during this discussion - notably when responding to the charge that I called you or anyone else a liar, and again when I was told that I didn't work hard enough as a reader to have an interesting opinion - I have had to remind myself that the only things controlled by buttons are machines.

#334 ::: Alter S. Reiss ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 06:16 AM:

Dave Luckett:
It never occurred to me that "Gulliver's Travels", "Tristram Shandy", "The Woman in White", "Pride and Prejudice", "The General", "The Dear Departed" and many others could be regarded as literary. They were fun to read, and I had somehow picked up the notion that literary works had to be grim, doleful accounts of the useless struggle of ineffectual little people against their inevitable and dire fate. Looking at the list of texts I read for what was called English Literature, I can't imagine how I got that impression. Honestly.

Lucy Kemnitzer:

And when they ask "why are we reading this one?" I say it's because the curriculum committee had good reason to believe that the work in question had a lot to offer them, and that the work had frequently been meaningful and enjoyable for students in their position and condition. You can't please everyone every time.

Y'know, I rather doubt that students tend to find A Separate Peace enjoyable and meaningful. I've talked to many, many people who had to read it in school, and I've found one of them who found it enjoyable, but not terribly meaningful. I'm sure there are exceptions, but it seems like the vast majority of students had negative experiences with that book.

It seems to me that books get taught in schools tend to share the following elements: they're in the canon of books taught in schools, they're reasonably easy to teach, and they illustrate some sort of point, or are set in a time and place that the curriculum wants to show that they covered. Enjoyable and meaningful, at best, can put a book in that first catagory, but it's a tangental relationship at best.

While I'm not in agreement with much else that Dave has to say, I do think that the canon of books chosen to teach in schools has caused serious damage to students as readers. Yes, occasionally having to suffer through something that you don't like is probably worth doing. On the other hand, having to suffer through several books you don't like, and one which is sort of tolerable, but not something you'd read for fun makes it far less likely that you're going to be seeking out similar experiences.

Exactly what makes a particular book suitable for that canon isn't a simple question, but there are some overall trends. For one thing, depressing books have a strong edge over upbeat books.

Googling randomly for curricula I get an 11th grade curriculum whose required fictional texts are The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire and "one or two selected Hemingway novels". Spot a trend?

Similiarly, here's another 11th grade curriculum. Rather than going through the entire list, I'll just point out that there are thirty or so books on the "Grade 11 Texts" list. Of which, a grand total of Huckleberry Finn can be classed as upbeat. There are some bright spots -- They've got a mystery and a few stories which are at least exciting if not upbeat, but on the whole, it's a pretty dismal picture.

There are other factors -- the gender and ethnicity of authors seems to play an important role in selecting them for the canon as well. And then there's the requirement that books be old. Not tremendously old, but teachers can't be expected to come up with all their material from scratch, so it's very rare to see a book that's taught below the college level that was first published in the last ten years.

Occasionally, you get a sort of fossilized attempt to show that the schools are wise to the concerns of young people today. Catcher in the Rye, I'm looking at you. Yes, it's possible that kids in the sixties felt that novel was talking to them. The sixties were fourty years ago; when I was going through school I found Catcher in the Rye as relevant and as much fun as Ethan Frome.

Moving away from what puts works in the canon, it's interesting to look at the catagories of work that are taught in schools, and which aren't. Plays are, for instance, and screenplays aren't. Despite movies and television being a far larger part of most people's lives than plays. Similarly, genre fiction tends to get shunted to the side. People complain about not getting SF in schools, but compared to, say, Romance and Mystery, there's a lot of SF being taught.

While I do believe that literature should be taught, I'm far from convinced that the manner in which it is taught does more good than harm.

#335 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 06:44 AM:

One of the problems with this forum is that occasionally I miss posts, including the one you quote, Dave. I admit to being mistaken about you not having addressed my point. And I accept the apology you quote in the spirit in which it was meant.

We are fundamentally on different sides of the issue, and neither of us is going to change the other's mind. You may have the floor as long as you like.

#336 ::: JennR ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 09:00 AM:

You know, Dave reminds me of the folk I read about in a university rhetoric class. I *wish* I still had the book, but it was about a multi-year study of the kids in a Appalachian(?) mining town.

The middle class kids (miner kids) were taught that lying was bad. Period. And all fiction was lies.

The upper class kids were taught that lying was a bad idea, but fiction was a special case, and thus allowable.

The lower class kids were taught that making up fantastical stories was a good thing, although lying about what you did was bad.

The middle class kids had the same outlook that Dave has. There is nothing to be learned from fiction as it is *all* *LIES*. They had a really hard time with *any* book that was fiction, including the primary readers like Dick and Jane. The other kids understood the difference between a made-up story and true, and were willing to read without always asking "why is the story LYING to me?"

#337 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 09:39 AM:

I had occasion this morning to look up and re-read "The Death of the Hired Man" by Robert Frost and did not expect to find it relevant to this discussion but there it is.

#338 ::: Varia ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 09:39 AM:

Both, Varia. And what I have been reading is all sorts of stuff. I learned what I know about human beings (and God knows, that is little enough, compared with what there is to know) by living among them, by observing them to the best of my poor ability, and by being one myself. Not from books. Especially not from fiction books.

Well, righty then. I think you are deliberately misconstruing mine and several other people's arguments; no one has said fiction is the sole effective purveyor of truth, little t or big, and you seem pretty bent on arguing as if it is. But you do win, in the sense that like many people I'm concluding that it's pointless to continue discussing this.

#339 ::: Madeline Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 11:21 AM:

Dave Luckett said: But suppose you had read Edgar Wallace's "Sanders of the River". That book series assumes that racism (with the usual overtones of paternalism, white man's burden and it's all for their own good) is right and natural. Would you have become a racist because of it?

It's entirely possible, yes. A lot of my family turn out to be quietly racist, and we never dealt with race issues at school. That Dorothy Sterling book opened my eyes to ideas of prejudice and injustice that I had never come across before. I read it over and over again, thinking about what happened to the protagonist, and formulating (still very strongly-held) assumptions about the way the world should be.

And you would have been cruel to animals but for that? Surely not.

Again, it's entirely possible, knowing the rest of my family. But what I meant (and stupidly didn't say) was that Colin Dann made me see animals as being equal. It wasn't a world made of people with animals trotting along in the background; it was a world where animals had as much as right as people to get on with their lives unmolested.

Oh, dear, I hope not. Lewis would have been the last person on Earth to endorse the value of good intentions. He knew where they led.

It doesn't matter what Lewis would have wanted. He failed dismally to turn me into a Christian with the Narnia books -- but I still learnt something from "The Last Battle", whether or not it was the lesson he was trying to teach.

This is an interesting, if futile, discussion. I'll try for an angle that's less personal. What do you think about Jesus using parables to teach his followers? Was he wasting his time? Have all the Christians since then learnt nothing from his stories? (I ask this as an atheist, with no intention of knocking anyone's religion. Blame C.S.Lewis for putting Christianity in my head just now.)

#340 ::: Varia ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 11:40 AM:

Ok, I lied, I'm not quite done yet. Dave, I think your argument is based on a false distinction. You said:

I learned what I know about human beings (and God knows, that is little enough, compared with what there is to know) by living among them, by observing them to the best of my poor ability, and by being one myself. Not from books. Especially not from fiction books.

This assumes that books are fundamentally different from living among people, and that's just wrong. Books, writing, telling stories, going to art shows, listening to music (yes, even rock music!) are all part of living among people and interacting with them. It's just one form of communication versus another. Reading one person's perspective on people isn't all that different than talking to one person about how they feel about people.

You talk about this as if your experience of reality contains more truth than one that is gained in any part by reading, but I think what you're doing is more akin to (e.g.) the way that I reject all untranslated French literature, since I don't speak French. But that isn't a fault in the literature, rather a lacking in the ways that I can address the world, or as Patrick said a while back and probably on another thread, he doesn't always get modern dance. And there is a way of understanding and learning that I miss out on thereby.

#341 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 12:06 PM:

Another existence proof:

Suppose Novel X contains a recipe for a Singapore Sling. I make it and enjoy it. Later I found out that the recipe is not authentic. I've still learned to make a drink that I enjoy from Novel X.

Alternatively, it could be a completely fictional drink, both name and ingredients. Suppose that it then catches on among the public, and becomes as popular as a Martini or a Cosmpolitan. What could one say other than that the world learned it from the novel?

#342 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 12:12 PM:

When I was somewhere between fourteen and sixteen (I think) I tried to read Gravity's Rainbow and gave up a third of the way through it.

Years later, after a fortuitous assignment of The Crying of Lot 49 in an English class, I went back to Gravity's Rainbow and discovered Pynchon was one of my favorite writers.

My tastes had matured--but not totally even yet, 'cause I still don't like Milton.

#343 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 12:21 PM:

Tim,

I recommend you not try this one.

(Damn, there are a lot of pirated copies out there. I can't find this as an excerpt anywhere.)

#344 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 02:57 PM:

from my experience the best one tends to get in american public schools is crappy fiction and poetry by great writers. very seldomly the good stuff.

#345 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 03:09 PM:

What I remember reading in high-school literature/ English classes:

9th and 10th grades: The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations (and in 10th grade the reader had "By the Waters of Babylon": sf!
11th grade: The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, The Red Badge of Courage, Our Town
12th grade: the Scottish play and The Mayor of Casterbridge.

I'm sure there were other books, but theyescape me now. (It had its moments: the teacher in 12th grade described Shakespeare as getting to the last act of Hamlet and finding all of his main characters were still alive; it's a tragedy, so ....)

#346 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 03:32 PM:

David: Early on you said,"Fiction doesn't, because fiction has no purpose other than to entertain. None. None. None. Never. Not ever." You said this while demanding that schools do not, never, use fiction texts students do not like.

This was when you were accused of absolutism against others. You've since retracted that and retreated into the land of "For me they don't, anyway."

Yet you still debate the examples thrown at you, even those spoken from personal experience. My last post was written to that second Dave, the one willing to debate his personal view and how it differs from that of others, and with no attempt to accuse you of being absolutist - no more, at least, than you have when debating Madeline Kelly's examples.

Yet you demanded that I acknowledge that you aren't still doing this, while simultaneously not answering anything I actually wrote.

The latter part is fine, since you did respond to other people making many of the same points, and I'm not asking you to repeat yourself.

I'm just wondering what was the point of addressing a comment to me that didn't seem to have anything to do with what I said.

#347 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 03:57 PM:

Grade 10: Lord of the Flies, Twelfth Night, Great Expectations, The Scarlet Letter. Aside from more Hawthorne, short fiction & poetry was mostly Canadian-focused.

Grade 11: 3 Essays by Emerson, A Separate Peace, The Scottish Play, The Stone Angel, Poetry started with one excerpt from Chaucer and "Twa Corbies", but mostly ended up as a Pile of Keats & Coleridge, short fiction included 3-4 Borges stories.

Grade 12: Hamlet, In Evil Hour, Heart of Darkness, some (boring) short fiction, The Mayor of Casterbridge. T.S. Eliot and more modernists. We read through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead over 2 classes but didn't really study it.

I know I had to read The Old Man and the Sea but I can't pinpoint who taught it.

Never had to read: The Crucible, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, A Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, The Red Badge of Courage, Our Town

#348 ::: Madeline Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 07:47 PM:

Lenora Rose: I was just reading up the thread a little and I see you had already made the point about Jesus teaching through parables, so I needn't have bothered. This will teach me to read the comments more thoroughly before posting. Hey-ho.

As for school texts -- I can't remember when exactly we studied them, but here's the list: "The Merchant of Venice", "King Lear", "Pride and Prejudice", "Far From the Madding Crowd", "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry", "To Kill A Mocking-Bird", "Walkabout", "Carrie's War", "The Machine-Gunners", poetry of John Donne, poetry of Ted Hughes, and probably some other things that I've forgotten.

#349 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 08:10 PM:

Lenora Rose: I didn't respond to what you wrote, because I was trying to make a deal with you.

The deal is this: that you would be prepared to consider arguments based on reasoning from evidence that fiction, by its very nature restrained from being a source of genuine insight and learning about the world, is therefore to be read only for enjoyment, and that it follows from this that nobody should be forced to read any particular example of it, if they don't enjoy it.

(Another line of argument leading to the same conclusion is that coercion engenders resistance, and is therefore not merely useless, but counterproductive. When you've got them by the balls, the thing their hearts and minds are concerned with is how to make you let go, and subsequently, how to avoid such a stuation ever occurring again. But that to one side.)

That you would respond to this argument not with some variation on "this is absolutist, and insulting to my perceptions of my own experience", (still less with accusations that I'm calling you a liar, or that I'm too lazy to read properly) but would be prepared to consider the possibility that an absolute position is arguable, even if you don't agree with it, and feel intuitively that it's wrong.

I, for my part, would be prepared to consider arguments that fiction is not like that, and that it is (or at least, can be) a source of genuine knowledge and insight into the world, despite its fundamental characteristic that it is about people, events, motivations, situations, characteristics of mind, society, physical settings and many other things that are all more or less imaginary. I would consider these arguments objectively, refute them if possible, and where I could not refute them, would allow them to change my understanding of the concept of fiction. That would, in turn, force me to rethink my whole line of reasoning.

I would want to do this, because transactions like that are the very essence of what I understand by the term "civil discourse".

Do we have a deal? And I am perfectly prepared to accept a response along the lines of, "no, because the subject bores me," or "no, because I've spent far too much time on this already," or even "no, because I don't believe that argument is of any value in changing attitudes."

#350 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 09:29 PM:

Hmm. Parables of Jesus. Let me think about them.

That they're fiction, no argument. That they're intended to be teaching tools, also no argument. That it's possible to learn through them what Jesus's opinions are on whatever their underlying subject is, well, maybe. It's at that point that I get a little cautious.

As to whether they actually teach something, I suppose it depends on whether you think the opinions of Jesus on a given subject are unimpeachable, have absolute authority, and are infallibly right: that is, that to learn his opinion is the same thing as to have genuine insight and knowledge of the world.

I say you can only think that if you are inspired by faith. I think faith in absolute authority is a very poor guide for understanding the world. I think these are opinions. They're quite often opinions I agree with, but sometimes not.

The story of Lazarus and Dives, for example, is to the effect that God punishes sinners with torment in eternal fire, so you'd better wise up and act right. Sorry, no. I won't go along with that. I can't think that many would. The Parable of the Wide and Narrow Gates indicates that most people, in fact, are going to end up in hell, and I find that even less respectable. One of the implications of both of them is that God's a monster.

The Prodigal Son teaches inter alia that stupid behaviour should be rewarded. (One of George MacDonald Fraser's most memorable moments comes in "Flashman and the Great Game" where he has a Hindu sowajah-major translate that story into Hindi for the troops from the dimbulb chaplain's dictation, with comments on the idiocy of the farmer in the story.)

Then there's the Parable of the Sower, which advises that true believers are the only ones that flourish (and the only ones that produce good results), and the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, which tells you to keep something in reserve for when it's really needed. To which I would answer, respectively, "Oh, yeah?" and "Yes, that confirms my own experience. Bit cliched, though, isn't it?" The latter also implies, metaphorically, that one should prepare for the end of the world. (Oh, I will, I will, I say, edging away and looking for the exit.)

The Good Samaritan didn't get rewarded or even thanked. His charity cost him plenty. Did Jesus think that was right? There's no way to know. The Priest and the Pharisee ignored the traveller's plight. Did Jesus therefore think that all priests and pharisees were heartless hypocrites and cowards? From his other recorded words, it would seem likely that he did. If so, he was dead wrong.

From this sampling, I think it's clear that his opinions are not necessarily insights into the real world, even when one can discern what those opinions are - and that isn't necessarily possible.

So there is no reason for supposing, other than an appeal to faith, that the Parables have any more to teach than any other fiction text. They teach - sometimes - what the opinions of their maker were (and sometimes not even that), and they teach how to tell a good story - Jesus certainly could tell a good story, and one can learn by example. But that's it.

#351 ::: dagny ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 10:11 PM:

Hello all.
There are two sides to the fiction coin: authorial intent and reader response. Whether the reader learns anything from fiction is a personal matter. It is true, however, that some authors write fiction for the purpose of teaching their readers something. Parables (discussed above) are a great example. Add to that fables, morality plays, cautionary tales, and edutainment like the Magic School Bus books. All are fiction, but all were written, at least in part, to teach. Whether one should try to teach through fiction, well, that's a different argument.
If the argument is that, while you can learn what a particular author's view of the world is, that knowledge is not of any value, what of Philosophy? Isn't Philosophy just an account of how a particular person views the world?

#352 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 10:21 PM:

Fiction probably cannot teach you The Truth - but almost nothing can. Fiction can certainly teach you a truth, which is certain to contradict others; but that's the deal you get.

It's certainly true that one should not confuse the pointing finger with the moon. But to assert that the finger cannot indicate to you, however vaguely and incompletely, where the moon is - well, that's just silly.

#353 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 10:51 PM:

Remembered later: sometime in 9th-11th grades: The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Billy Budd. Liked "Bridge" (have copy), but not Billy. We read other things, but the memory isn't accessing them. Nearly forty years of reading Other Books will do that. (This week: Years of Rice and Salt)

#354 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 06:44 AM:

OK. This is stupidly long, but it's my last take on this, unless someone comes up with something new.

Analogy. As I've remarked before, analogies should be treated with caution. This is an analogy: "It's certainly true that one should not confuse the pointing finger with the moon. But to assert that the finger cannot indicate to you, however vaguely and incompletely, where the moon is - well, that's just silly."

So, fiction is like a pointing finger, and you can learn real things from it, as a pointing finger can indicate the position of the moon.

Only it's not really like that. For one thing, the act of pointing out the moon is immediately and verifiably correct (or not) in all its particulars; but more importantly, fiction provides far more information than a gesture, and its complexity falsifies the analogy.

To illustrate this, the pointing-out action has to become far more complex. It has to become a narrative. Here's one:

"There's the moon. (points) Humans first walked on it on August 29th, 1969, after getting a lift from friendly aliens. They took samples from the surface and returned to Earth, where the samples were analysed, and found to be green cheese."

Now, some of these details are objectively correct, but this is fiction, so you know that some are not. But if the moon were outside your experience, you couldn't know which details are false. You can't trust any of them.

So, how do you actually learn about the moon? Well, you'd do research. Ask people you trust. Look at some references and standard texts. Check these against each other, making sure that each makes a substantial truth-claim. Integrate and come to conclusions. If you trusted what you read in a fiction narrative, you'd be crazy.

So much for factual information. The biggie is general insights into reality, the Universe itself, the human condition.

One insight that might be derived from the narrative above is that it's reasonable for humans to voyage into space. After all, the narrative indicates that it's no big deal.

Is this idea true, in any sense? I dunno. I happen to think it is, from other knowledge and beliefs I have, but it might not be, and there's no telling. Fiction cannot teach me anything about this.

Consider the example provided earlier by Madeline Kelly. She tells us that she learned that racism is bad from "Mary Jane" by Dorothy Sterling. But I have here a letter from a Mr Virgil B B Redneck of Imbecile, GA, who tells me that he learned from Edgar Wallace's books that racism is natural, reasonable, and part of God's proper order for humankind.

Which of these opposed insights into the human condition is right, in any sense? One can't tell, from reading the fiction texts. One can only tell from other experience. The fiction texts can only tell you the opinions of their authors, and they will only do that if the authors have not performed a sort of intellectual judo habitual to fiction writers and fictionalised their opinions too - and the reader can't know whether they've done that or not, either.

Let's get a little more complex still. Here's a passage from a recent novel about Gettysburg*:

"Private Salpatrice reloaded his shotgun, hands working in feverish jerks. The guns of Hancock's batteries were still firing, an enormous bellowing so loud that no single explosion could be heard. He came up out of his hollow screaming a Rebel yell: a newborn mewling in a hurricane.

All around him men were falling fast, torn, mangled. He risked a glance upward. Cemetary Hill was justifying its grim name, wreathed in dense white smoke, vomiting death.

He came to a stone wall and leapt it, and the man running beside him abruptly spattered him with flying brains, and was flung down like a child's discarded doll. Salpatrice halted, horrified, bewildered. He was suddenly alone. There was nothing ahead but a solid wall of smoke, lit by the devil's fire of the guns. A staggering, sprinting figure emerged out of it.

Saulnier. That was Saulnier. He was coming back at a desperate run. "Depeche-toi," screamed Saulnier, a raving, tearing shriek that cut even through the massive thunder of the guns. "C'est fini partout. Sauve qui peut!" He leapt the wall and disappeared into the smoke again."

Wass this? Some of these details are accurate, but some are outright impossibilities. I leave it to the Civil War buffs among us to sort them out. The question is, is this what Gettysburg was really like?

How would I know? Is it what it might have been like? Maybe. I don't know. I certainly wouldn't trust it for a moment. Is this what warfare is like? Mmm. I rather think not, on the whole. Is warfare inhuman, horrible and disgusting? Well, I think so, and the writer would apparently concur with that, but a fiction text could just as easily give the impression that war is noble and honourable and generally great fun.

Finding the truth in this, if there is any, is impossible. You can't learn anything this way, except maybe the writer's opinions, and maybe something about how to write. (Mm. Looking at the passage again, perhaps not.)

*Oh, all right. I lied. I made it all up.

#355 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 07:33 AM:

...immediately and verifiably correct (or not) in all its particulars...

Dave, I think the fact that this is your yardstick is about 99% of the issue here.

#356 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 07:51 AM:

Yeah, I'm thinking Einstein's paper on general relativity doesn't meet this test.

#357 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 08:08 AM:

I'm thinking Dave Luckett should go read Old Prof Tolkien's scholarly essay "On Fairy Stories".

And some modern cognitive neurology, or something -- everybody lives in the story they make of their experiences. No one lives directly in facts. (Which is where Pratchett's very subtle joke about narrativium comes into things; there's a lot less of it in this world than people think there is, and a lot more of it in people than people think there is.)

And besides, the best we can do is approximate facts; some of the approximations are very good, some (universal gravitational constant, anyone?) not so good.

#358 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 08:37 AM:

By noting that pointing at the moon can be immediately verified, I am not demanding that texts meet the same standard before I will admit them as capable of being learned from. I asked only that such texts make a substantial truth-claim that could be checked against other sources.

I made that remark only to show that pointing a finger is different from providing the complex information that fiction (and, I should have said) all lengthy text does. The purpose of that was to demonstrate that the analogy was misleading.

#359 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 10:03 AM:

I asked only that such texts make a substantial truth-claim that could be checked against other sources.

But checked how? Against what sources?

You can't measure, in any objective way, the veracity of "For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so," but it's still a truth, and if the moment of revelation that happens when you connect with that text for the first time isn't "learning" then I don't know what is.

The only way to verify such a thing is by living. It's true that such a statement is "only" the opinion of an imaginary character, reflecting - or not - the prejudices of his author, but so what? The fact that the text, by being fiction, makes no claim to be a final authority gives it more weight as a means of learning such a truth. Hamlet doesn't pretend to have the last word on whether thinking affects the goodness or badness of things; it points, and lets you see for yourself.

#360 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 11:37 AM:

Dan, that's a very interesting idea. I will need some time to consider and respond.

If, as you say, you 'connect' with a text and experience that moment of apparent revelation - and I've had that experience myself, though not with that particular text - what provides it? The text itself? How? How do you suddenly know, with a hot frisson that goes to your bones, that it's true? I don't deny that you do know it, but how? Does God whisper in your ear, and tell you that this is right? I'm not being sarcastic. I mean, does He really? For I know that it can feel that way.

See, I write this stuff myself. I've had the experience of a character tapping me on the shoulder and telling me, plain as day, that he wouldn't do that; he'd do something else. With a shock I realised that he was right.

But I know that's just crazy talk. What actually happened was that my acquired experience has created critical filters operating on a subconscious level, and this was an unusually intense experience of one of them kicking in.

That is to say, what happened was not a mystic revelation. It was a manifestation of internalised knowledge and craft skills at work. I already knew what was right; the sudden shock was realisation and recognition.

Is it possible that your feeling of revelation when you find a text that says to you "this is true" is actually the same effect? You already knew this truth to the point where you'd internalised it. The text just made you consciously aware of it.

If that's what the text did, have you learned something from it or is what you learned purely from experience? Hmmm. Let me think about this.

#361 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 12:42 PM:

Ah, here we're getting somewhere.

I would assert that, yes, a new awareness of something you may already know is learning. It's just that the kind of knowledge we're talking about here is gnosis and not logos - the intuitive leap that brings clarity, the new connection between things previously unconsidered.

The ability to recognize patterns is one of the essential things about human intelligence. Fiction, as much as it does anything else, presents patterns and mutations of pattern and encourages the mind to tie them together, and to other things. No, it's not exactly a mystical experience - or, it sort of is, but it doesn't stop being magic just because you know how it's done.

Moments of revelation like this change people. I think this is usually the kind of thing that's meant by the words "This book changed my life" - often clarified as "This book changed the way I think about x." Maybe all those seeds were there in the first place, but the text was a catalyst. Interacting with it is the significant event; even if it's only showing you what you knew all along, doesn't the fact that you're now aware of knowing it mean you've learned something?

If a teacher, using the Socratic method, responds to a student's query with a series of questions that cause the student to arrive at the answer on their own - could you claim that no real teaching was done?

#362 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 02:01 PM:

Dave: I reject your "Bargain", but not for any of the reasons you suggest. I reject it because I simply did not at any time:

- Call you a liar

- Say you were lazy.

And I have already acknowledged that you have yourself retracted your initial absolutist approach.

All along I've been assuming that if you could put forward a viable point that I would consider it valid. So why make a deal about something I was already thinking?

Looking back, I did make one point you might read as a personal attack, that being my remark about not being able to distinguish reality from fantasy. This was NOT intended as a personal attack but as an objective point, and I was expecting your response to be soemthing like "Hmm. I know I Can distinguish reality from fiction, so how did I give this impression?" and to come up with a cogent, analytical reply. My phrasing was clearly bad and my awareness of this entirely absent. Let me rephrase:

"One of your arguments, taken to its extreme, appears to depend on an inability to divide reality from fantasy when they are intertwined. Since most of your point seems to depend on the difference between the two being absolute, this rather spoils the point being made."

There. I hope that's more clearly what i meant. Sorry.

That said, I note that you've just moved the target for one of your own points on another matter:

First, you protested Madeline Kelly's point that she learned that racism was bad from fiction by questioning whether she really would have been racist without that. When she pointed out that it was entirely possible given her background, you NOW argue that since neither racism nor opposition to racism can be proven to be objectively correct, and both can be found in fiction, that neither can be learned.

Are you saying that nothing can be learned that isn't factual? Are you saying that "learned behaviours" such as manners and morals, which are many, varied, and rarely identifiable as objectively or factually right are not "learned" at all?

Then what would you call the process whereby children, er, learn these things, then, er, learn about alternative possibilities, and finally choose between them?

#363 ::: OG ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 02:53 PM:

School texts:

9th grade: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar
10th: A Tale of Two Cities, The Old Man and the Sea
11th: Ethan Frome, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, and sermons of Jonathan Edwards
12th: Antigone, Chaucer, Hamlet

I remember reading Oedipus Rex in 12th, but don't recall if it was assigned or if it was simply handy, as we read Antigone out of a collection of Greek plays.

The Crucible and The Glass Menagerie were in there somewhere, but I can't recall which year. And a collection of short stories that I barely recall except for the one titled "Hands". Fortunately, that one's easy to google: Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio.

11th was dedicated to American Lit; 12th was English Lit. I came out of those two classes with an appreciation of pre-modern English literature and an absolute loathing for American literature of all eras. (Defining literature as the canon you'll find in, say, Norton's Anthology.) Asimov saved me from knee-jerk rejection of a few pre-20thC American writers, but I still don't seek them out.

I can say unreservedly that the most important educational materials I encountered as a child were comic books. Facts I could get from school, easily enough, but my first exposure to a different way of thinking was the Avengers comic featuring the Human Bombs, a story about opposition to a fantastical form of miscegenation. (An android and a human.) I recognized the people around me in the villains, you see. That story broke the filter I had been taught to see the world through and gave me my first tools to see past hatred masquerading as divine mandate.

#364 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 03:28 PM:

OG: Thanks for the reminder. I can now add Oedipus Rex to Grade 10 with certainty and Antigone tentatively to Grade 11 (Might have been 12 - once again, I'm stuck unable to recall which teacher talked about it.)

#365 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 10:30 PM:

Lenora Rose: I stand corrected. You didn't say I was calling you a liar (which was what I actually wrote, for nobody has called me a liar, and I never said anyone had), and you didn't tell me I wasn't prepared to put enough effort into what I read.

But I haven't retracted my 'absolutist' approach, or at least I haven't at the time of writing. I really do think that nobody actually learns anything other than opinion and writing skills from fiction, and that the former learning is so unreliable as to be worthless unless corroborated.

To avoid offending people who found that idea personally offensive because it questions their perceptions of their experience (though all it really does is to assume that human perceptions are fallible, which I would have thought commonplace) I was prepared to reduce it to a description only of my own experience, so I could proceed with the rest of the argument, which was to the effect that if I didn't learn anything from fiction, then fiction (for me) is something only to be read for enjoyment, and therefore that nobody is entitled to force me to read fiction I don't enjoy, not even literature teachers who are certain that it offers them something other than enjoyment.

But while I am (or I was, see below) absolutely certain that is true for me, I think I have good logical grounds for thinking that it applies to everyone.

Dan's discovery of something I haven't thought of is definitely making me think about this, and his points about gnosis vs logos and the Socratic method were well made and well taken. I think I can counter them, and substantially maintain my position, but I have the feeling that I might be forced into a retreat. Not a total withdrawal in disorder, but a retreat. We'll see.

Now, to the points you make:

Fantasy and reality are intertwined in fiction and in all text. But just because they are intertwined does not mean that there is no vital, essential difference between them. The difference between fiction and what we call non-fiction (and yes, I know that's an inadequate term. Can anyone propose another?) is that in fiction the fantasy and the reality are treated as if they were the same, but in non-fiction they are as far as possible separated and the fantasy reduced to the minimum level possible, given the subject matter.

(Where the subject matter is bridge design and construction, I would hope that the fantasy element were reduced to very, very low levels indeed. Where it is history, I have to live with some level of fantasy - but the agreement I have with the author is that it be kept as low as possible, and that it won't be treated the same as objective fact.)

The special property of fiction, then, is that it treats fantasy and reality as the same. It intertwines them inextricably together. They can't be told apart, in fiction. You have to turn to other experience to know whether what you see is real or not. This doesn't mean that there is no difference between fantasy and reality. It only means that one can't rely on fiction for insights and knowledge about reality. That is, one can't learn from it.

I was prepared to say "I doubt it" to Madeline Kelly when she told me that she'd learned antiracism from a fiction text, but then she insisted that she had. I still doubt it, because I think it's far more likely that she's a good, decent, thinking, moral person who would not hang a core belief on something as flimsy as a fiction text. So I sought to show that it was flimsy. Madeline's antiracism, I feel sure, goes far deeper, and is founded far more solidly, than on the opinions of one fiction writer. By thinking that it is so founded, she sells herself short. More - she sells the antiracism short. It is founded on reality.

Racist beliefs are fantasies that can be retailed by fiction authors as though they were real, and they can succeed as elements of fiction even though they are fantasies. Wallace was a racist writer, and far from being the only one - but here's the thing: he was a brilliant storyteller.

I am glad to see that we have people chiming in to say that they, too, found the texts they were forced to read at school sometimes had the effect that I described: of turning them away from reading a whole class of literature altogether. I think that, at least, is a real thing, not a fantasy.

#366 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 11:01 PM:

I really do think that nobody actually learns anything other than opinion and writing skills from fiction, and that the former learning is so unreliable as to be worthless unless corroborated.

I really don't want to engage in the larger debate, because I don't have the heart for it. But certainly, Dave, you would admit that by reading fiction one can learn reading skills? When I read books, especially when I did so as a child, I learned (in an incremental way, of course) how to parse increasingly complex sentences, I learned new vocabulary, I learned to process and comprehend larger issues of plot and conflict and arc, etc. Right?

#367 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 11:59 PM:

So if I make a banana breakfast according to the first chapter of Gravity's Rainbow, and my wife asks me where I learned to cook it, what exactly am I supposed to tell her?

#368 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 12:14 AM:

Tim - Clearly your so-called breakfast is a work of fiction and therefore has no calories. But, if you were to write the recipe and put it in a cookbook, then it would be real and have calories.

Hmmm - The Fiction Diet presented as a series of short stories. Sounds better than Atkins to me!

#369 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 01:30 AM:

Tim: Somebody else asked that question with reference to finding a recipe for a Singapore sling in a fiction work, making it up, and finding it delicious.

I've actually had that experience, making Black Suns from the recipe found in Cerebus the Aardvark (half bar scotch, half apricot brandy). They were wonnnnderful. And lethal. Cripes. The morning was scattered with bodies, much like the comic is.

But what if I'd tried scumble, from Pratchett's recipe? (I'd really be dead.) Or insisted that my martini must be shaken, not stirred, because Bond, James Bond, said that's how a martini should be made? (I'd be a pretentious prat.) Or attempted roast whale basted in bear grease, as enthusiastically recommended in The Incomplete Enchanter? (I'd be insane.) Or smoked heavily, because I'd seen in Marryat (or somewhere) that it was medicinal and calming to the nerves? (I'd be... mistaken.)

That's the point. If it's something new to you, and you see it in fiction, chances are that it won't work. Occasionally, true, something does work. But you can't trust it. It's fiction. If you use it as a source of knowledge or insight, don't blame me if it ends in tears. It's too unreliable to be used for that purpose.

#370 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 01:51 AM:

So, after telling us over and over that it's impossible to distinguish fact from fancy in fiction, you give us an example that shows that you don't, in fact, have the slightest trouble doing that. According to your previous argument, you should have been completely unable to decide whether to try the scumble or the Black Sun.

And you didn't answer my question. Where did I learn how to make banana breakfast? Where did you learn how to make a Black Sun?

#371 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 03:01 AM:

I couldn't (and didn't) know that Black Suns were great from reading Sim's comic. In fact, I thought they'd be horrid. I made one for a dare, and blow me down, they were great. So there you are, I'm forced to admit that I learned something.

So do you think I ought to try Prince Mick's favourite drink, on the same authority? ('Arf whiskey, 'arf codeine)? I suspect, myself, that would be pushing it. Perhaps it would be actually impossible, or vile, but I really don't know.

Exactly. I really don't know.

Where did you learn to make banana breakfast, or I a Black Sun? Well, OK. It's a fair cop. We learned it from fiction, though by chance. So I guess I have to climb down enough to allow for that.

So. It now reads, "Fiction is so unreliable a source of knowledge and insight that it should not be (not exactly 'cannot be') used for that purpose, and therefore its only true purpose is to be enjoyed..." Tadadada.

There, I thought I'd have to retreat.

#372 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 11:03 AM:

Dave: Clear and sensible reply, even if I find the premise it built on more and more unlikely. Partly because of this, the one you didn't answer:

Are you saying that nothing can be learned that isn't factual? Are you saying that "learned behaviours" such as manners and morals, which are many, varied, and rarely identifiable as objectively or factually right are not "learned" at all?

(New item: To this I add, are you saying people can't learn wrong things just because they're wrong? If told by a source you thought reliable that the Normans invaded England in 1065, and if you absorb that fact and integrate it into your thinking about English History, in exactly the same way as if it were true, is it not still "learned", even though it's wrong?)

Then what would you call the process whereby children, er, learn these things, then, er, learn about alternative possibilities, and finally choose between them?

#373 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 11:38 AM:

Another thought, Dave:

This is also regarding Madeline Kelly's example of racism (Sorry to keep using you Madeline when you're here to speak for yourself). More specifically, it's about your definition of learning.

Let's, however, stick to non-fiction in my example.

Suppose you read in a history book that the Normans invaded in 1066. This fact is, as yet, unverified by any outside source.

Now, of course, you read other histories. They all say the same thing. Which history book, then, did you learn it from? The first one in which you encountered the fact? The third that corroborated it? The most recent one in which you read the fact, because nothing before then is as well corroborated? All of them, even those read after you absorbed this information completely and therefore could be assumed to 'know' it without reading it again?

#374 ::: OG ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 12:44 PM:

I am glad to see that we have people chiming in to say that they, too, found the texts they were forced to read at school sometimes had the effect that I described: of turning them away from reading a whole class of literature altogether.

But then you ignore the rest of what I said.

In fact, here it sounds as if you're saying that those of us who credit fiction with teaching us empathy were somehow born with that empathy inside of us:

I was prepared to say "I doubt it" to Madeline Kelly when she told me that she'd learned antiracism from a fiction text, but then she insisted that she had. I still doubt it, because I think it's far more likely that she's a good, decent, thinking, moral person who would not hang a core belief on something as flimsy as a fiction text.

#375 ::: Madeline Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 02:34 PM:

Lenora Rose said: This is also regarding Madeline Kelly's example of racism (Sorry to keep using you Madeline when you're here to speak for yourself).

You carry on, Lenora. I've lost all heart for this debate. After reading a complete stranger discount my own experience of my own life I'm not really sure what else I could say.

Oh, except that my list of school texts (which should have included "Animal Farm") was obviously chosen not just for entertainment value, and not for pure literary value, but because most of those stories had something to teach us about the world. And they did.

#376 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 10:32 PM:

Lenora Rose: Well, something that is definitely untrue can't be "learned" where I mean by "learning" what I said I did: "finding truths and insights about received reality". So yes, I am saying that people can't be said to have learned something if the thing is wrong. That isn't learning. Learning can't be false, or it isn't learning.

So one learns that the Normans invaded in 1066 from the first book in which the date is given, and subsequent texts corroborate this. If one had learned from the first book that they invaded in some other year, one wouldn't have learned anything (about the date of the invasion, that is.) In fact, it would be actually worse than simple ignorance, for most purposes. It would be wrong.

What about moral insights, right behaviours? You can learn, by implication, a fiction-writer's idea of what is right and proper behaviour from a fiction text. From Heinlein, for example, one learns that men should sometimes be flogged for their own good, and I'm fairly sure that he actually thought that. But well... maybe not. Just because it says it, by implication or even outright statement, in a fiction text, doesn't mean it's true, or even that it's the writer's opinion that it's true. Who knows?

I said, a long time ago, that trying to know the writer's mind is like venturing further and further down a funfair hall of distorting mirrors. That, of course, is a figure, an analogy, following Plato's cave a bit further. No doubt there are flaws with the figure, but I would be interested to know if it is misleading.

And see what I mean about people "finding that idea personally offensive because it questions their perceptions of their experience (though all it really does is to assume that human perceptions are fallible, which I would have thought commonplace)"? Madeline, whom I would not offend for the world, finds the idea offensive because I have, in her words, "discount(ed) my own experience of my own life".

I can only offer to her an apology for having offended her. And, if she would permit, one thought: by thinking that you learned antiracism from a fiction text, are you not selling yourself, and the idea, a little short?

Alex Cohen: that's an interesting idea, too, that one learns about reading from fiction. It's undeniably true, too. Contact with something must teach you about it.

So fiction can teach you about itself. Yes, all right. I'll go along with that. That puts reading fiction into the same category of human pursuits as say, crocheting or stamp collecting. You learn these things by doing them. Just like reading fiction, they can provide huge enjoyment and give meaning and structure and social activity and mental stimulation to one's life. And they're empirically useful, too.

So how come we don't make crocheting and stamp collecting and the like compulsory in schools? Because it would be impossibly uneconomical? Well, certainly. So why has reading fiction special claims to be made compulsory? Better yet, why should specific fiction texts, those ones acceptable to a group of curriculum formulators, be made compulsory?

#377 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 10:43 PM:

So fiction can teach you about itself.

Okay, maybe there is some common ground here.

But it's not just that reading fiction helps you learn to read fiction - it helps you learn to read anything. Fiction and non-fiction share a language, right? So by reading fiction, one can learn the skill of reading. And that reading can apply to reading non-fiction, or reading letters or emails from other people, or reading the news, and on and on. (Yes, fiction by itself is not sufficient for this.)

And it's more than the simple process of turning symbols into meaning: it's reading to comprehend larger structures, detecting hidden meanings, understanding explicit and implicit conflict, etc.

That all sounds pretty useful for serving as a fulfilled citizen in a society.

#378 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 11:26 PM:

Alex, I thought you said you didn't have the heart for this argument. Or were you just sitting out for a couple of hands, so to speak?

OG. No, I am not thinking that empathy ('the power of projecting one's own personality into, and so fully understanding, the object of contemplation' according to the Shorter Oxford) is inborn. I think it is learned, but not from fiction. Fiction takes advantage of this power, but the results are, or at least can be, misleading, because fiction proposes imaginary objects of contemplation. Empathy with them can be - often is - misleading.

#379 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 01:59 AM:

So do you think I ought to try Prince Mick's favourite drink, on the same authority?

Would you try it if you read about it in a biography? I submit that your reluctance to try it has nothing to do with the source and everything to do with your ability to reason.

That puts reading fiction into the same category of human pursuits as say, crocheting or stamp collecting.

I find this far more depressing than 20,000 Thomas Hardy novels, and not because I have anything against crochet or stamp collecting. Imagination is not a luxury.

#380 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 02:10 AM:

Iw ant to go back to near the beginning of the thread when we were talking about how there are expectations and conventions that readers of f&sf have which readers who don't read a lot of it don't have. I want to share some observations from the classroom. Did I say that usually, when I'm teaching, I'm teaching the kids who enter high school with a third grade reading level?

There are some interesting things about that group as fiction readers and even as film watchers. The fictionality of things is a slippery concept for them. Put the question to them, and they can tell you the difference between fiction and reportage, and by the time they've been through my hands they can tell you what a metaphor is, at least until after the second week of June -- but there's a level on which they don't get it. They can't separate the point of view of the character from the point of view of the story, much less the point of view of the writer. Anything that happens in the story seems to them to be something that the writer is encouraging. So they tend to read "Romeo and Juliet" as an invitation to use the threat of suicide to force one's parents into allowing one to take off for Reno with one's beloved (sometimes they approve, sometimes they disapprove).

These students hate science fiction and fantasy -- except Harry Potter books and Holes (which is everybody's favorite book and you should read it if you haven't).

-- You understand this is a snapshot description, right? They don't stay like this.

#381 ::: Mina W ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 02:22 AM:

One can't rely on fiction for insights and knowledge about reality. [Dave Luckett]

Fiction can be used to conduct thought experiments. In fact, one could argue that that is the "raison d'être" for speculative fiction. And Feynman and QED have shown us that thought experiments are a reasonable way to approach understanding the reality of the universe.

The kind of thought experiments that I enjoy speculative fiction for:
-What could happen with unregulated cloning?
People being cloned in order to be killed for brain transplants.

-What could happen with well thought out legal restrictions on cloning?
A world in which the cloned person is a person with full legal rights, and a clear legal understanding of who the "parents" are, and what their parental responsibilities to the cloned person are.

What could be some benefits of cloning?
The ability to clone a persons' own organs for transplants with no rejection problems.

How we think about the results of these thought experiments is left to the reader. But clearly it is a way to approach the potential human consequences of a new technology, before finding out the hard way just how bad things can get. And surely all science fiction readers know many examples. The result is an emotional awareness of possible consequences which make them more immediate to the reader. Perhaps gnosis is the appropriate term, the intuitive leap. [Thanks Dan, for the concept]

One can choose not to learn anything from reading of any kind, fiction or nonfiction, by not thinking about it. I hear that our brains are more active when asleep than when watching television. Perhaps it's possible to read that way too.

#382 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 02:34 AM:

Tim: And you think that crochet, or stamp collecting (or gardening, which I should have added, for the sheer deviltry of it) doesn't require and foster imagination?

Actually, come to think of it, you seem to be saying more than that. You seem to be saying that fiction is the only thing that does.

#383 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 02:35 AM:

Lucy - Your students are very lucky. :-)

#384 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 02:50 AM:

Mina: Thought experiments can indeed provide insight into reality if they are rigorous and their data are all directly observable in the real world. But if they aren't - and in fiction they won't be - then the results are not thought experiments, but fantasy.

Look, I've said enough. More than enough. Too bleeding much, and I'm sure everyone's had it up to here with me. You've all given me plenty to think about, and I've also got a deadline to meet. So, with everyone's good leave, I'll shut up now.

#385 ::: Mina W ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 02:54 AM:

Lucy - That's fascinating. Do they get that difference by the time you're done with them, between characters' voice and authors' ?

One of the most interesting books I ever read was a medieval memoir. I don't remember the authors' name. She's going on pilgrimage as penance for some unnamed sin, and she's telling the story of how everyone is mean to her, and different groups of people keep kicking her out of their travelling group. It's clear that she's the most awful harridan, and those poor people were badly mistreated by her - and she hasn't any idea we can see all that in her story of how justified she was in all cases.

And one of the things I cherish about Elisabeth Peters' Victorian archaeologist series is the dissonance between what the narrator Amelia thinks the people around her are thinking and their actual reactions to her - implicit in her narrative. Though in this case, it wouldn't be nearly as much fun if you [and they] didn't love her anyway. Or to some extent, because of, her obliviousness.

But your experience may explain the people I handed one of those books to, telling them they would love it, and they didn't.

#386 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 02:58 AM:

Tim: And you think that crochet, or stamp collecting (or gardening, which I should have added, for the sheer deviltry of it) doesn't require and foster imagination?

My bad for writing it so it sounded that way. The distinction is that fiction is fundamental. A human who's never been told a story is just as deprived as a human who's never been touched, and will have a stunted imagination, just as the latter will have stunted emotions.

Crocheting and stamp collecting require and foster imagination, but they're neither necessary nor sufficient for its full development. No society has ever existed without storytelling, and none ever will, but crocheting and stamp collecting are local epiphenomena.

#387 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 03:02 AM:

Thought experiments can indeed provide insight into reality if they are rigorous and their data are all directly observable in the real world.

Thought experiments, by definition, are not directly observable in the real world. Einstein's theory of relativity is the result of him telling himself a story about what would happen if he rode on a beam of light. Learning from fiction.

#388 ::: OG ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 07:05 AM:

Dave:

No, I am not thinking that empathy ('the power of projecting one's own personality into, and so fully understanding, the object of contemplation' according to the Shorter Oxford) is inborn. I think it is learned, but not from fiction.

Where, then? I am honestly unable to come up with any other place I could have been exposed to the concept in the first nine years of my life.

Even after that, I'm at a loss to find anything other than fiction that gave me any reason to question what I was being taught by my family and their church. Once I had that most important tool in hand, I could learn more from people I encountered outside of that micro-culture, but fiction definitely taught me to question received "wisdom" in the first place.

Lucy:

They can't separate the point of view of the character from the point of view of the story, much less the point of view of the writer. Anything that happens in the story seems to them to be something that the writer is encouraging.

That explains so much about the minds of the book banning activists. And about the walls of incomprehension I've run into when trying to explain the concept of a viewpoint character.

#389 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 07:08 AM:

Well here's a bit of story for beginners, or maybe intermediate.
Two of my favorite blogs have not blogged about Katrina at all. These are Fafblog and The Poor Man. The reason why is obvious, satire, although equal to this task - requires coldness. It is impossible to be cold now. This thing inspires wrath. William Blake or Dante would have a good start on Swift I think, but only Swift could tar Bush as he deserves.

I wonder what the first words will be from the Satirists when the requisite coldness is upon them.

#390 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 07:42 AM:

bryan, as someone said on another thread, it's William S. Burroughs we need to describe this.

#391 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2005, 06:17 AM:

well fafblog finally came out with their natural disaster survival kit which seemed well suited. Rude Pundit seems to have done better with this matter then the poor man, which I guess in some way matches the call for William Burroughs since the Rude Pundit is another in that line of mixing sex with death and feces creatively school of creative writing.

#392 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2005, 10:56 AM:

Sorry for getting into this thread so late (especially since Dave Luckett has given up on it), but I've been distracted by finally getting hired as a non-temp after three years of job-hunting and by the last-minute details of setting up Foolscap. However, I couldn't let this one go by after reading it:

So use texts in history, or politics, or philosophy, or sociology, or anthropology. Good texts in those disciplines have those features. Fiction doesn't, because fiction has no purpose other than to entertain. None. None. None. Never. Not ever.

Uncle Tom's Cabin.

There had certainly been enough non-fiction accounts about "the evils of slavery" before her book, but Stowe wrote that novel to inspire rage against "the peculiar institution." Entertainment was second on the list.

On another matter:

Googling randomly for curricula I get an 11th grade curriculum whose required fictional texts are The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire and "one or two selected Hemingway novels". Spot a trend?

I think a writer in The New York Times called this "The Netflix Syndrome." New subscribers to Netflix sign up for all the classic films they've missed, and end up with six weeks of films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God, All Quiet on the Western Front, Apocalypse Now, The Bicycle Thief, In Cold Blood, The Last Laugh, Pandora's Box, The Seventh Seal, Taxi Driver, and a profound case of depression. They always forget to include Mr. Hulot's Holiday, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Duck Soup, The Bank Dick, or Yellow Submarine into the mix.

#393 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2005, 11:35 AM:

"They always forget to include Mr. Hulot's Holiday, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Duck Soup, The Bank Dick, or Yellow Submarine into the mix."

This is sort of funny because Duck Soup was on my list of first buys when I settled down in my new apt. and set up the whole entertainment center. I would skip all the rest of those 'great' movies, the Bank Dick is on my list of cheap buys. I don't seem to care for Fields as much as I did 20 years ago, which is a strange situation.

#394 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2005, 03:30 PM:

With regard to the almost uniformly depressing literature curriculum for middle and high school:

One of the joys of my unexpectedly having to homeschool my middle daughter her 7th grade year was that *I* got to make up her literature curriculum. Among many other works, I had her read Travels With Charley, which is FAR less depressing than the schools' Steinbeck choices (The Red Pony, The Pearl) and ties in nicely with history and geography as well.

#395 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2005, 04:49 PM:

Mina W: I'm betting that was The Book of Margery Kempe, and if you haven't already, you might also try the Showings of Julian of Norwich, a contemporary of hers who was a very very different kind of person. (Margery actually met Julian, and describes their meeting in her book. Julian gave her an excellent piece of advice on how to tell the voice of God from the voice of Satan.)

#396 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2005, 08:57 AM:

Bruce: Stowe may have been the first, but there are many successors; The Jungle and Native Son come immediately to mind.

I'm regretting I didn't catch up on this thread when I got home. Dave's position that fiction is personal bias is ... amusing ..., considering what goes into a lot of textbooks; my 8th grade (U.S.) history text would be considered wimpy by the Shrub's crowd, but it had an obvious Republican bias. (Under a picture of a diorama showing T. Roosevelt's chariot drawn by an assortment of enslaved citizens: "Every strong president has been accused of having a Caesar complex." Maybe the current slime would appreciate this after all.)

Lila: there's an obvious reason for a large part of the country to avoid Travels with Charley; not only is its take on politics less than reverent, it shows anti-integration ]protests[ in terms that are still chilling.

#397 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2005, 11:39 AM:

CHip: I know, that's one of the reasons I chose it. (I am a native Southerner, btw.)

#398 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2005, 12:00 PM:

lots of exhortative literature before Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Candide, 1759
Pilgrim's Progress, before 1688, but for some reason I can't find a date.
Did you know there was a children's game based on Pilgrim's Progress?

I just realized those two are kind of like bookends, aren't they? I like the Voltaire better.

#399 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2005, 12:00 PM:

and which comes first, The Rake's Progress or The Pilgrim's Progress?

#400 ::: Serge sees SPAM ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2011, 08:26 AM:

Where's Güdrun when you need her?

#401 ::: praisegod barebones still can't stomach powdered marble SPAM ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2011, 08:31 AM:

Domuz eti içeridir (may contain pork products)

#402 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2011, 10:19 PM:

Is spam a metaphor for zombies?

#403 ::: Cadbury Moose boosts the spam signal ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2012, 03:02 PM:

As dcb noted: #406 is undoubtedly spam with that username!

There appears to be nothing faster than a speeding gnome with a large mallet and a bucket of Spam-be-Gone,

#404 ::: Big Mike ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2014, 02:45 AM:

I'm guessing Scott Westerfeld never read "Some Zombie Contingency Plan". There aren't any literal Zombies in the entire story. Read the entire story, take 2 minutes to think about it, then ask yourself "What purpose does Soap have for zombies?" If you can't figure it out, re-read the final few paragraphs and it should smack you in the face.

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