Reading and Writing; More Tribes

11 April 2002

Well. One of my friends and I have had a little exchange on what he has labeled "SF Credentials." As usual, I'm not claiming to represent his viewpoint in any way unless I explicitly state things like "he seemed concerned about X," not by what I say nor by the opposite of it. But the issue seems to boil down to: is it important for people who write SF to read SF? And I would say yes, yes, unequivocally yes. And I'll tell you why.

I read a pile of slush this winter, people. I don't do it as often as some people do -- I wouldn't generally identify myself as an editor. But I have been one, and probably will be again this year. And I can tell you that the second worst rejection letter to write is the one where the author has decent prose and okay characters and the plot is fine and all that -- it's just all been done before, and better. I'm not talking about something like "human overcomes xenophobia" -- that's a pretty large category of story, lots of room in there. Or even if an author takes a familiar story and twists it. I can see, for example, that it might be interesting if someone retold Hamlet set on a space station, or in Iowa, or in the Old West. But I'm not sure it would be interesting if someone retold Hamlet set in medieval Denmark...with the prince as the main character...and in a straight Elizabethan tragedy style of play...and so on, down to the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the poisoned foil, etc. That's what we're looking at here: reinventions of the SF wheel. Very specific, very direct reinventions of various SF wheels.

And frankly, I think that I give these writers the benefit of the doubt when I assume that they haven't read widely in the genre. Because the other option is that they have, and they consciously sat down and said, "Hmm, perhaps I should rip off Childhood's End, maybe this editor won't notice." It's not about demanding the reading list of any prospective authors. It's about ending up with carbon copy stories one way or another.

Can we start with the idea that it's better not to write a book that is virtually identical to one that's already on the market? I think we can...if not, please, e-mail me, I'd love to hear your perspective. Let's try another one that I hope we can agree on: I think it's better to do this unwittingly than on purpose. Morally speaking. Once you have no acquaintance with the person, so that their moral character is not in question, I don't think it makes a bit of difference. I don't want to read a book that's virtually identical to Childhood's End regardless of whether the author knew it or not.

I don't expect people to have read as much speculative fiction as I have. I really, truly don't. I know that I read fast and I read a lot. I also know that there are people out there who have read more spec fic than I have and might catch me out if I was doing something many, many have done before without knowing it.

But that's the key right there: without knowing it. If you haven't read anything in the genre you're trying to write in, you are deliberately not knowing who you might be exactly like. You are unable to choose not to read as if you were derivative of Tolkien, for example, if you haven't read Tolkien. It may turn out that you aren't, but it's not a choice you can make if you're ignorant. Sure, there's a line to walk between being influenced by someone and being derivative of that person, and some people like to walk the line more closely than I do. Some people deliberately choose to do something that they might call an homage and I would call a ripoff. But if you blindfold yourself, I haven't seen any evidence that you're less likely to cross the line, and I have seen evidence that you're more likely. Either way, you are out of control of it. Which seems like a bad idea all around.

What's worse, it's almost impossible not to be exposed to some science fiction in this culture. But the exposure one gets more or less accidentally is in filmed science fiction, which is at the very least different than written SF, and quite frankly often worse, or at least possessed of less breadth in its most commonly seen incarnations. (Yes, I'll stick by that one: possessed of less breadth. Go ahead. Send me arguments about it.)

I've heard people say things like "it's not exactly rocket science." Well, no, it's not. It's something entirely different, but that doesn't mean you don't make your life a lot easier if you study your field. Many people in our culture have gotten hung up on art as self-expression -- which it is -- and assumed from there that anyone who suggests that you learn from other people is being snotty and getting in the way of your unique artistic vision. Doing work in the arts doesn't mean that it isn't work, and it doesn't mean that it's not a good idea to educate yourself in what you're trying to do. The first person it's likely to help is you. Just as in physics, nobody is going to care if you reinvent the Millikan Oil Drop Experiment, but you're going to be very disappointed if you deal with an entire thesis-length work trying to deal with this strange new thing only to find that nobody cares because it's already been done before. And in fiction, it's often easy to add a subplot or change a character's reaction or something, anything -- much easier, in fact, than sending around a manuscript that will turn out to be unpublishable. Much easier than rewriting a novel from scratch.

This is what I don't understand about writers who claim they don't have time to read but do have time to write. Is it really worth the time to write an entire novel, say, that could very well seem totally derivative of someone else, when you can tack on a little time early in the process reading up and finding ways to make your novel different, if indeed it is similar to other stuff? Isn't it worth writing a little slower? If someone was saying, "I don't have time to make sure my manuscript has good grammar and spelling," wouldn't you say, "You don't have time not to?" So why is more field-specific education different?

But all of that is just for the benefit of the writer. I don't really care if you want to do it that way, although it does seem to be saying to your own entire genre "I have nothing important to learn from you." (Whereas if you read some spec fic, but slowly, you're saying, "Hold on, I'm getting there" to some authors while you learn from others.) It's when you send the story out that that changes. Why waste an editor or editorial assistant's time as well as your own? And again, why do it when you can edit some changes into a book that will make it more unique, if you know what's out there to have it judged against?

Sure, each story should be judged on its own merits. But its own merits include its relations to the outside world. We can't read each story solipsistically, forgetting that anything else exists. Most of the time we wouldn't want to. And sure, as I've said, nobody can read everything (except maybe Clute), and none of us will know of every possible related story that has been published in the field. But that doesn't mean that we should skip the major ones entirely and expect the editors to pat our heads and tell us it's all right. When I'm editing, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt that they were doing their absolute best not to reinvent the wheel or stick a bow on it and call it "wheel deluxe." I just hope that none of the people who submit stories of the wheel variety to me tell me that they haven't done anything to avoid this. It's your job to know at least something rudimentary about your market when you send your fiction out into the world, and your market doesn't just include the guidelines your editor has put out. You don't send Stan Schmidt a sword and sorcery story. You also shouldn't send anyone a story that's virtually identical to Ender's Game. Both of those are your responsibility.

And another thing: originality is not the cardinal virtue. This may be heresy in SF, but I'll say it again: not everything has to be "wholly original." Influence is not a bad thing. If someone read my YA novels and said, "Those are really good. They're not identical to [Susan Cooper's, Lloyd Alexander's, Suzy McKee Charnas'....], but I can see the influence," that would be okay. Really. I mean it. It may be that someone who has read nothing in the field find something wholly original and well-done to do, and if so, well, bravo. Just as much bravo, in fact, as if someone who had read things in the field had done so, and as I've said, I think the odds are at least as good. But I have those italics there for a reason. There are wholly original books that are utter crap, and there are derivative works, ideas that have been used before, that are utterly brilliantly done and well worth reading on their own.

What I'm saying is, you'll have a much better chance of knowing both good from bad SF and original from unoriginal SF if you learn your field. Even if the two are orthogonal.

My friend expressed some concern that this was a cliquish attitude, the idea that someone should know what's been done in a field when he/she tries to enter it. I don't think it's a particularly tough clique, for one thing, if you can read a handful of novels and/or short stories and enter it. (And in what other field could you make this accusation? "I don't think a would-be rock musician should listen to anything that's been written since 1950"? Um, no. Just, no.) And for another thing, I don't think that exclusion is entirely bad, if it's for decent reasons and/or doesn't have bad consequences. If I was saying, "No one who hasn't read the following list should even be considered for publication, no matter what their story is like," that would be wrong. If I said, "I don't want to be friends with anyone who would try writing without reading in a given genre," that would be my choice, but might close me off to people with a lot to offer in a friendship. But that doesn't mean that I should give a person who doesn't read in his/her field a pat on the back and say, "Good for you, I think that's a great idea!" when, in fact, I think it's a bad idea for everyone potentially involved, writer and editor alike.

This exclusivity thing came up when I was talking about Tribes, and another friend had precisely the reaction I feared: that exclusion was dangerous and bad. I think that exclusion is only bad when it is for bad reasons and has bad consequences. So, for example, with the Tribe analogy. Jessie, in her original (inspirational!) entry on the subject, said, "Karen and I make jokes about the Tribe of Smart-Mouthed Feminist Jewish Women Journallers (we'll add you too, Spinny, now that we know). I am so anti-religious I can't tell you, but I still have that moment of recognition when someone says, 'At our Hannukah parties,' or 'If I never drink Manischevitz again it'll be too soon,' or just throws their hands up in the air, saying, 'Oy!'" You can argue about whether being raised Jewish is a good or a bad basis for decisions about a person. (Frankly, I don't think it's bad. There is something that these folks genuinely have in common, and it's not about better or worse, it's about comfort, familiarity.) But as long as Jessie doesn't say, "I don't want to be friends with anyone who has never thrown her hands up in the air, saying, 'Oy!'", I think she's totally fine. Or as long as she doesn't say, "Nobody who has never tried Manischevitz should be able to get a job," on the nastier side. Which she doesn't.

Yes, it's an exclusive group. And it's a group that I can't ever join, because no matter how long I study the mores, they aren't mine from childhood. But I don't resent them for having it. I'm glad they have it. They can't have the Little Lutheran Girl stuff from my childhood, either. That doesn't mean that we can't have other things in common. It doesn't even mean we couldn't be in some other "Tribe" in common. It's a recognition of what is actually there, more than anything. If Jessie hadn't commented on it, if she and Karen had never joked about it, all of those traits would still be there, and the feeling that goes with them would still be there.

Some "Tribes" are less exclusive than others. But any group is by nature exclusive. A friendship will always, in some ways, exclude people who are not in it. So will a group of friends. So will a family. My family and I can send each other into absolute convulsions with words that mean nothing to other people. We have, as every family does, elements of our own private language. We try to avoid using them excessively in front of other people, to avoid flaunting the exclusivity. But it's there just the same, and I have no problem with that.

All throughout high school, Scott and I repeated to each other, "People are stupid," at regular intervals. But in some ways, I don't think people are stupid. I think that you all can tell the difference between this discussion of Tribe and someone advocating that you only interact with people who have similar backgrounds to yours in a handful of specific ways.

In some ways, I've had great fun with people out here who aren't Tribe, comparing what we meant by things. When I was in Minnesota, I told David in an e-mail that Ceej and I had sat talking in Timprov's folks' driveway in his car "like a couple of teenagers." We then had hours of entertainment (well, minutes, anyway) comparing what our associations are with teenage friends and cars. (Hint: my friends and their cars had nothing to do with the Bronx. I remember one evening in Scott's driveway discussing Canadian health care policy. Just the kind of kids we were, I guess. I don't think it's A Nebraska Thing. I'd imagine that outside my immediate group of friends, most Nebraskans don't think "teenagers" and "parked cars" equal "Canadian health care policy.")

Point of that digression being: you can recognize inclusion and exclusion in/from/of a certain group, but it doesn't have to matter in the obviously negative ways. It can be amusing and fun in its own ways.

I don't think it's bad to differentiate between people. This seems like it should be an obvious statement, but sometimes it doesn't look like it is. I believe that there is a difference between someone who knows Maxwell's Equations and someone who does not, for example. It's not a moral difference. (You can tell I have left physics, because I resisted the urge to tack on "at least, not a big one.") It's not a profound difference. But it's there. There's a difference between people who can make and understand ether jokes and those who cannot. Wander through an APS meeting and you'll see what I mean. And recognizing that that difference exists is not a bad thing.

Racism is a powerful, ugly thing. But it doesn't mean that all forms of distinguishing between people are bad, and that's what it seems like we've come to today: fear that any exclusion is the same as racism or sexism or [your least favorite -ism here]. Or worse yet, that it includes it. It doesn't. And most of the people I know who are the most adamant about this like to exclude racists, sexists, etc. from their groups of friends and, if possible, from their political associations as well.

Ah well. To sum up for today: ignorance of your field makes you unable to choose not to sound derivative, and it's not always bad to be exclusive, if you don't do it for bad reasons or have bad results.

So I got some of my errands for yesterday done, and some of my small tasks. I still need to go to the bank and the post office, and I have cookies that need to be baked. I'm going to have a very hard time not just settling on the couch and reading all day. I've been enjoying Kavalier and Clay immensely, and I have a stack of tempting library books. Sigh. What a tough life. Having to write and bake cookies. Sigh, sigh.

And translate Finnish e-mail, it seems. I had written to the Finnish assistant cultural attaché in DC to ask about the cost of living in Helsinki in 1950, since no one else seemed to know, and she wrote me back with one brief question in Finnish. I don't speak Finnish. If she has an answer for me, getting at it may be the problem in itself. Oh dear. I've found a translation URL that claims she has asked me, "Touching tällekin only?" Whatever tällekin might be. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

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