Shrimp Barbarians (I Blame Melville)

15 April 2002

So. We had a decent experience at the church we went to yesterday morning, and when the designated Nice Old Lady asked if we wanted her to send us the information about becoming members, we said sure. Send us the information. We still have some questions, but it looks like this may be the best we can do in the area. I'm a little alarmed by the day-glo blue eyes in the massive stained-glass Jesus -- actually, I'm alarmed by the existence of the massive stained-glass Jesus. But it doesn't have to be a deal-breaker. We're not that picky, at least not at this point. We'll see, though. There are several important things we don't know about this church yet.

Made a pan of fudge in the early afternoon--ohhhh yeah. Ever since Jen (Jenny, Lab-Partner Jen, Southern Jen -- there are too many Jens!) came out here, I feel like this baking goddess whenever I make fudge, because she was so impressed. It's not that hard, but Jen was impressed, so now I'm just a little more impressed myself. As it turned out, Ken brought doughnuts and everyone who had something else sweet was interested in moose bars (whose name changes daily), so nobody in the writing group had my fudge, but I'm quite all right with that. It'll keep, and if Evan wants some, he can have some. (We're going over to Evan's tonight. It's not just that he's specially privileged.)

I enjoyed last night's writers' group, and Alec and Zed stayed afterwards for exactly the right amount of time: short enough that I never thought, "dang, I'd wish they'd leave," even when they left, and long enough that we talked of many good books and other interesting things. And I learned a new ethnic slur, or rather an old ethnic slur, that was alarmingly funny: evidently the Chinese called the Japanese "Shrimp Barbarians," implying that their heads were full of...well, you get the general idea. It's good to have other geeky writer-types around for this kind of thing.

It was kind of a shrimpy day, actually, because while we were out on our walk, Timprov and I were talking about fiction studio prof, Quentin (who was not a shrimpy guy at all, be patient with the connections here). Quentin was talking about a story he tried to write a dozen times -- he'd found an interesting fact about a species of shrimp (yesterday I was sure it was shrimp, and now I fear it might be turtles). And he kept trying to work it in as a metaphor in this story -- "'But don't you see?' she said. 'We're all like the shrimp.'" And then he said he realized he was beating the reader with shrimp (or turtles, I'm really not sure now, could have been crabs), and that it wasn't that great a metaphor for human existence, and he just scrapped the story. Which sounds to me like a pretty good decision.

This came up because I was reading Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever, and the first six stories seemed to be trying to use their research to tell me something meaningful about human existence, rather than letting their research contribute quietly to a good story that might have something meaningful about human existence around the edges. The last two stories, "The Marburg Sisters" and the title story, reversed that trend, and on the strength of them I would probably pick up another Andrea Barrett collection. And I think part of the problem is that most writers who don't think of themselves as genre writers aren't really sure what to do with research. Or else they're sure and I just don't like what they're sure of. Frankly, I blame Melville, because Melville did the two things I hate the most in heavily researched books, and most other writers confine themselves to one or the other.

The first thing I hate the most in heavily researched books is the heavy-handed metaphor. I know a ton about this stuff, and now it'll all be deeply meaningful! If it isn't meaningful, I'll make it be meaningful! It'll justify my thirst for trivia! Wrong-o. (Although well-used detail kind of does justify that thirst, as we were discussing last night.) And the second thing I hate is the research infodump. Everyone who writes has heard of this one: everything you research for background (or make up, in the case of more purely imagined worlds) makes it into the finished product in some form. Heaven forbid that the reader should not know about this fascinating species of kelp!

Melville did both of them, and is famous for it. And while people almost all recognize his excesses, following them in miniature is not all that much better. When you write in a genre (usually I mean one of "my" genres, but I think historical fiction, Westerns, mysteries etc. come up here, too), you often have to do a decent amount of research just to Get It Right. You know that the story will fall apart for some readers if the plot hinges on the murderer having to stop to pay the toll on the wrong side of the Golden Gate Bridge, or the heroine using a technology that didn't reach her country for another fifty years, or the angular momentum of the spaceship being totally neglected as they try to get it back on course. And you know that there are enough such details that they can't all be metaphors for life. ("'But don't you see?' she said. 'The tollbooth has to be on the north side. It represents the cold winds of stagnation and bureaucracy.' He sighed. 'And we, we are like the motorists, pausing as we seek warmer climes, less empty than the beautiful, overpriced neighborhoods of Marin -- overpriced in a spiritual sense, of course -- to pay tribute to the greater social forces that grip us all. Now. Where's that corpse gone?'") Sometimes you still beat the reader with a message stick anyway, but it's rarer that the message stick and the research dump are one and the same. Which is good, because that's a particularly nasty combination.

Ah well. I'm going back to The Red and the Black for awhile, until I decide it's time for a change again. And so far there has been no infodump at all to this book, so. So indeed.

Oh, one more thing: Zak's entry talked about influences on writing. (That's an attempt at being a more permanent link there, so you might not be able to get at it until Zak puts up a new entry. If you're reading this in the early part of today, the one I'm talking about will be here.) He says, "See, while I agree that it's important to know what the major themes and devices are, I don't think it's good to read voraciously. I think it dulls the edge of what's possible by introducing too much second guessing -- is what I'm doing new, or just a retread of author x, am I writing this because it's interesting or because I've read it so many times it's stuck in my head, do I need to include this element because everyone else has, etc."

Frankly, I read more voraciously than just about anyone else I know, and I can't say that any of that has ever crossed my mind. Ever. I never, ever sit down and say, "Oh, I'm writing a story about Mars, well, I should probably include the environmental aspects because KSR did, and there should be a fungus because Benford had one of those, and...." It's totally foreign to me, and honestly, I can't say I've ever run into anyone who thought that way and was actually writing otherwise. I know at least one person who says he second guesses too much because he's read too much, but frankly I think that's a great big excuse for not writing.

And then he says, "So while I think it's good for people to be well read in their field, I don't feel any need to apply that to myself. I feel fully confident to pull things out of the lint trap in the bottom of my psyche and put them into mildly novel configurations." Frankly, I'm not sure what the one has to do with the other. Did I manage to imply that reading in the genre and being able to determine how much or how little you were going to let other writers influence you meant that you shouldn't pull stuff out of the bottom of your psyche and stick it together? If so, can someone (Zak, you'd be a good choice) explain to me how that works?

On a not entirely related note, someone wrote in the Salon letters today that "A writer writes to explore his feelings." Heh. Forgive the analogy here, Mom, but to me, that's like going into sex thinking, "I'm going to do this to have an orgasm!" It might work out that way, but don't expect that that'll automatically make it fun for the other person involved. Exploring your feelings can be part of the writing process -- a pleasant or unpleasant part, depending. But it's not the goal of the writing process. It's the goal of a visit to a shrink. If you're writing for publication, the goal of the writing process is to communicate something -- which is quite different from exploring your feelings, though the two can be related. I think most of the fiction that I dislike the most has been from writers who are purely exploring their own feelings, not any ideas about anything external. I'm not saying that you should write every page thinking about The Reader. I'm just saying that if you expect someone else to enter into things, you should be aware that solipsism is not the best way to go.

Much of that is arguable, of course, and if you'd like to argue it with me, feel free to e-mail me. As always.

My condolences to those of you who have to pay more taxes yet today.

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