Forms of Communication

10 July 2002

My grandpa still doesn't have cancer. Usually this is not such an announcement, but he had a checkup today after last year's incident, and he's doing well. Yay, absence of cancer! This language makes it hard to cheer for a negative, but we need to. This is good.

Also, yay, medical science! Hundred years ago, we'd all have been out of luck with this. Third separate place he got cancer. Third time surgery has corrected the problem with no recurrence so far. A hundred years ago, once would have been enough. I really love living in the future, and not always for fairly trivial, dishwasher-and-contact-lens reasons.

As if the All-Star Game needed to be lamer, they let it end in a tie. Lame, lame, lame. But having a Milwaukee crowd chant, "Bud must go!", well, I gotta tell you that makes me smile. And even giggle a little bit.

The chat last night was good, but kind of chaotic. It was moderated, but there were lots of us on the panel, so lots of viewpoints. Which is good and bad. The comment that disturbs me most in retrospect is one whose source I don't remember. We were talking a bit about short stories and why they're less popular. (My basic take on it was that they're vastly underpromoted. Short story collections could be marketed as kind of the fast food of fiction -- take it on the train, read it on your lunch hour, you can have a quick, complete "snack" when you don't have time to sit down and luxuriate in a novel. But they're not marketed much of any way at all. It's a shame.) Someone pointed out that most short fiction markets weren't doing much to appeal to the crowd that was buying a lot of stuff like Ender's Game, military SF, and so on. And someone else basically said that it was a hard choice, whether to appeal to people by dumbing the genre down or cheapening it to the pulp level.

That was really disturbing.

The prevalence of the dichotomy between writing something someone might want to read and writing something "good" really frightens me. I talked about it a bit a couple of days ago, with the stylistic stuff -- the Philip K. Dick quote. "'Important' is a rule from another game that I am not playing." If you write "good, important" fiction, and nobody in the world wants to read it, what's your achievement there? If you have a supposedly perfect communication and nobody to communicate with, how proud can you really be?

I don't believe that the quality of the fiction varies directly with the size of the audience. I don't believe that the best-selling book is necessarily the best book. But when you near a point where everybody who wants to read a subgenre also wants to write in that subgenre and tries, that looks like a very bad sign to me. (Lots of people who read speculative fiction want to write it. Few of them make more than a cursory attempt at it.) You can't make a good story just by stringing together sentences that are so pretty that they make other writers drool. Non-writers know it, and they won't put up with it. But sometimes the very things that help us out -- writers' groups and talking to other writers about work -- can steer us in the direction of wanting to cater to them, to the exclusion of the casual reader.

If I have something to say to other genre writers, guess what? I'm going to WorldCon. I can say it there. If other writers are my sole audience, I am just plain out of luck, and I'm probably doing something wrong. Doctors don't set out to only cure other doctors. Librarians don't set out to only find books that other librarians want. Engineers design systems for other people who are not engineers. And if writers only write for other writers, we are dead in the water.

And, frankly, we should be. I don't feel like I should have to say this, much less repeat it, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing books that people want to read. Commercial success, even on the small scale, doesn't automatically make you a grand artiste, but it also doesn't automatically make you a hack. The inverse of this, of course, is that there is nothing particularly grand about writing books that only a handful of people will appreciate. There's nothing wrong with it, either, but it doesn't give you any kind of moral or artistic high ground.

People who are not writers are not around just to have art shoved down their throats for their own good. Sometimes they can be taught to like a better quality of work. But sometimes they can teach us something, too, if we just listen. Really. I promise.

I think of myself as a pretty direct communicator. I think the above is an example of that: aside from avoiding a particular graphic and meaningful but off-color analogy that my mom doesn't want to see and you might not, either, I pretty much said what I meant. (Go ahead and ask me on e-mail, if you're curious about that.) For a chick, especially, I think I'm direct. I will say "Do you think I'm pretty?" when I mean "Do you think I'm pretty?" and "Does this make my butt look big?" when I mean "Does this make my butt look big?" It's a good code, that one.

But sometimes direct communication is pretty culturally dependent. In fact, some of the things that guys complain are indirect are pretty explicit if you speak the right language, in this case American Female. I was talking about this with Robert and Columbine about this awhile ago, when Columbine wrote an entry about it, and rather than the classic big-butt example, as above, there was the example of a man and a woman on a car trip. The woman said, "Are you thirsty? Would you like to stop?" and the man was not thirsty and so did not stop, and the woman was upset that he had been inconsiderate. Robert's take on this was approximately that, "I'm thirsty. Let's stop." was four words, and if the woman couldn't manage to say them, it was her own fault if she was thirsty. But if she'd been talking to another woman, I think that would have counted as roughly the same thing. It would have been pretty clear communication, in accordance with the rules used. It's like using formal vs. personal "you"s in languages like French and Finnish -- some things are only supposed to be phrased as suggestions or points of concern and not as requests. And saying that it's dumb or uncommunicative misses the point that it communicates quite clearly in the appropriate circumstances.

I've been having some of that circumstantial disconnect stuff lately, but not on a male-female issue. Nope. It's that I live in California. (Yep, it's another I Live In California entry, lucky you.) I find that California tends to have the volume cranked up to 11. Most people here don't get upset and indignant, they get Upset And Indignant. They don't feel happy, they feel Happy. They aren't politically involved, they're Politically Involved. It's the land of capitalization out here. And sometimes being a Midwesterner is like trying to talk in a normal voice at a dance club. It's hard to get heard. (Note my utter lack of bias: my way is the normal way, theirs is blaring and loud.)

It's not that nobody gives a damn out here, it's that they have to be told, "I am feeling this now, and I need you to give a damn." Then, okay, here we go, they know what to do now, and they Give A Damn. Well, okay, we can deal with that. But it gives me a better understanding for how other women feel with men, because sometimes I really need not to do that. I need to speak quietly. I need to have things read on that level. And needing that of Californians is like expecting them to speak Finnish: some of them can do it, but it's just not a reasonable expectation under the circumstances. They don't come from a background where the same cues are present.

It's not that Midwesterners are uncommunicative. It's really, really not that. It's that California is, by comparison, a very spoken culture, a very overt culture. The signals are largely verbal or very, very blatant. You will see women with classically dykey hair and demeanor, holding hands with their girlfriends, but they have to have pink triangles on their T-shirts, too, just in case you missed it. I'm not telling them to put on different shirts. I'm just saying that perhaps the message had already been conveyed before they emblazoned their breasts with their sexual geometry.

Or, here, let's take another example. I was talking to C.J. on Monday, and he asked how I was doing. I said, "Oh, 'bout the same." And I knew that, given that we're quite close and both come from Upper Midwestern/largely ScanAm backgrounds, he could read that, even though I hadn't recently given him an update. With just about anybody out here, I would consider that uncommunicative if I didn't elaborate upon it. But the tone, the inflections, and the previous sets of information combined to make it an informative statement. And it was kind of a relief not to have to go through an entire song and dance just to say what I had already said, because he could hear that I'd said it.

I wonder if it isn't that California is largely a recent immigrant culture. There are very few native Californians, and of that group, very few of them had parents who were native Californians. And when you have people showing up from all sorts of different cultures, both inside and outside the U.S., you need to default to more words so that you're not expecting people to play by rules that you're not telling them. It's really only fair. And if you have a high enough percentage of people who are immigrants from somewhere else, I'd bet that the percentage of communication that's verbal, direct, and overt goes way up. In this case, the percentage has been high enough that it seems like it's just basic to how native Californians communicate, too.

I wonder if anyone has studied this. I'd like to see comparisons for things like urban booms and colonies vs. the home countries. Anybody know of anything like this?

I was thinking about it last night, and while I was thinking, Annalina started yelling at her brother. Anna is my little neighbor sweetheart, somewhere in the 1-2-year-old range, and I wasn't sure, before, whether she spoke Pashtu or was just largely babbling. Now I know. Because without even seeing this child, I could not only hear that there was linguistic content to her sounds, I could hear that it was "Big brother, I am mad at you!" content (and not just "I'm mad" -- I didn't see or hear her brother until later). Frankly, I thought that was really awesome, being able to distinguish between babble and language when it was a language I don't know at all. The brain is a nifty thing.

Well, I did good work on the Not The Moose Book yesterday. A lot of it. As I've told you all before, I write non-sequentially. But I now have 100 pages in sequence. (I'm closing in upon 400 pages total.) Actually, I passed up the 100 pages in sequence mark yesterday and went right on to 120 pages in sequence. I didn't write 20 pages. But I wrote a lot. And it was good, and I had to make myself stop and go away from the computer, because I was going to kill my back if I didn't, and I thought my brain needed a break. Well, my brain disagreed. I sat down to do a nice freewrite before I read some more of Hunter's Death, and I ended up writing a page worth of novel notes. Which is fine and good, and I'll use them, and I'm glad of them, it's just...well, I was supposed to be giving myself a mental break. Still, though, if I'm keeping the "free" in freewriting, I suppose I'd better just deal with having days when my brain freely goes to my work.

It's good work. So.

People were talking at the chat last night about padding novels and how publishers encourage writers to do it. And that's really too bad, but I don't think it's any reason to be negative about long novels, any more than cutting a novel to the bone would be a reason to be negative about short novels. I'm not padding this thing. In some ways, I tend to draft anti-padded and then have to flesh things out a bit in the revisions. And it's still going to be a huge book, and I guess I'm glad that I'm writing in an era when I have the freedom to have ideas that are that huge.

I also came up with Marissa's First Law of Historical Writing, and it is: make your major characters blatantly anomalous. That way their quirks and eccentricities are quirks and eccentricities and not bad history. Of course, if too many of your characters are anomalous, it's hardly an historical novel any more in any meaningful way. But one or two freaks will do just fine.

I hope.

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