Biographical hazards and characterization ramble

Last night as I was casting aside a library book with great prejudice (people: if anyone tells you that Thor was the king of the Norse gods–as a casual aside in a work of purported nonfiction, no less!–regard whatever else they say as suspect, because they do not know what they do not know), Mark suggested that this was the wrong approach because if I don’t finish books, I don’t blog about them to warn people. And it’s true, this is the tradeoff I make for not wanting to be unfair about books I don’t finish: I don’t warn you in advance that they are unfinishable. I’ve seen a couple of low-rated books on my mother-in-law’s Good Reads because of this and felt mildly guilty. It still feels like the right balance, but occasionally I make the “why I quit reading your book” posts to talk about general issues.

This one is with biographies. In order to write a biography of any length, it’s easiest to find the subject interesting, or you will be screamingly bored with your book. A good biographer understands the difference between “interesting,” “likeable,” and “sympathetic.” You’ll see the difference between interesting and likeable extremely clearly if you read corrective biographies, which are easiest to find about recent politicians: some historian or political scientist will get fed up with their sense that everything about Politician X is better referred to as St. X, and will write up a biography that corrects that view. Mostly these people have to be interested in X, or at least in X’s effects on the world, in order to do it at all–but sympathy and liking are definitely not required. (Good examples of this include Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy.) But outside politics, corrective bios are rarer, and the real pitfall is for the biographer to buy into their subject’s shtick. If your subject says, “I am the greatest musician of my generation!”, that’s an interesting window on your subject’s views, or at least on how your subject has tried to present them to the world. But for you to decide that this means your subject is the greatest musician of a generation–or more–is short-sighted and silly. And you should at least have some notion of who you are implicitly downgrading and why if you choose to accept the greatest musician notion.

The interesting/likeable/sympathetic split seems to come up with fictional characters, because a great many readers use the phrase, “I didn’t like any of the characters,” or, “I didn’t like this character,” pretty much interchangeably among these options. And I think the only one that’s really necessary for all readers is interesting. Some people really do want to read only about characters they’d be willing to have dinner with; some people really do want to read only about characters whose aims are compatible with their own. But some people don’t, in both of those cases, whereas nobody says, “This person is so boring to me, give me another hundred thousand words about them!”

One of the places this can go badly awry is if you need to kill off a major character. This can shift the balance of interesting/likeable/sympathetic in disastrous ways, because there will almost always be readers for whom Dead Guy A was the only one who fit the bill–they were reading for A. This is not a reason not to kill characters, but it’s certainly a reason to pay attention to what things people might like in your writing and why.

Last weekend a bunch of us were talking about bands that had broken up or carried on under the same name but without the exact group of people as before, and it looked to me like one of the most successful modes of carrying on is to not just replace the person who has left, but to add multiple people with slightly different (often overlapping) skills. Two of the places this has worked well for me are in the TV shows House and early seasons of MI5 (Spooks in the UK). One of the places it has not worked well despite my liking the show quite a bit is Criminal Minds. CM has a habit of replacing people demographically: Young Brunette Woman, Middle-Aged Dark-Haired Man, even a run at a substitution in the category of Young Blonde Woman. This encouraged me to compare directly or to scornfully refer to the replacement early on as The Fake [Character Name], whereas having a less direct substitution just shifts the dynamic overall.

Late seasons of MI5 have not succeeded nearly so well with this, I should say. The show is a bit infamous for being willing to kill or otherwise get rid of characters who would be pivotal in other shows–you really cannot count on any one character being around for the next episode. Early on, they were very good at fast characterization, giving me a quick hook to hang my caring on. Like many readers/viewers, I wanted to keep caring about a show I liked, so hey, look, it’s an older lady coming back to spy some more, and look at her doing the following things, hurrah! Ditto for various other characters. But by the time it got around to Tariq, it became clear that I wanted to like the character (young Near Eastern-British hacker nerd spy!) more than I was actually being given very much of the character to like. He was filling a role, and the other new S9/S10 spies even more so. I have three episodes left, and it’s begun to look a lot more like, “We need somebody to do such-and-such! You’re a warm body, and such-and-such is exciting! Go do such-and-such!” So if you’re going to substitute in a new bass player and keyboardist for your old bass player, you need to write pretty cool solos for bass and keys. Or at least let them improvise.

Biography does not have this benefit. Sometimes the person you find interesting is surrounded by interesting people up to a point, and then you run into the Great War or the Black Death or whatever, and suddenly everyone interesting has died and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is why I would not be a real historian if you paid me. All sorts of things happen that you cannot fix. Even Hilary Mantel can decide that somebody needs to have better lines than history might give them, but when you’re a real historian, you’re stuck.

The Long Conversation: a 4th St. con report

One of the metaphors that comes up a lot at 4th St.–that certainly came up at 4th St. a lot this year–is genre as conversation, literature in general as conversation. And we kept emphasizing how far back this stuff goes, how people have been turning over ideas about the stories they tell and how they relate to the lives they lead for Quite Some Time Now Really.

It was a 4th St. It was so good. Oh wait: I already said it was a 4th St.

Con reports are hard, as better people than I have said before, because there is so much of the conversation about the con, and conversations are about flow, they’re about relationship, and so even when you remember great lines like Bear’s, “These Dead Marshes aren’t going to cross themselves!”, they don’t fit, they don’t give the full flavor, so you end up waving your hands incoherently.

I think starting with “Idiom, Character, and World Building” was a particularly good notion, because it felt like a lot of stuff in the rest of the con built on that. As usual I know that the panelists had cool stuff they didn’t get a chance to talk to, but that’s a sign that things are going well, not poorly. My own panels–Short Fiction, Tell Don’t Show, and That’s Another Panel (this year’s theme: Swearing)–felt to me like they went really well, and again, I was always left with more stuff I could say, and felt like the other panelists and audience were too. I did not, for example, have to resort to talking about James Michener on TDS, which would have gone better before I read Space this month. I think “fantasy of discovery” is a very useful framing of the lower-violence/variant-conflict fantasy, because it does an end run around the idea that if people aren’t fighting each other, nothing happens. I think Beth’s idea that deliberately broken structure can enhance reader attention will be very useful indeed. I think–a lot of things, honestly, but I’m full of tired, so getting them to come out coherently instead of just blurting, “I FIXED MY BOOK! Well, conceptually. The actual work of fixing my book is still to come,” is hard right now.

What you’ve probably already heard before: it was a 4th St. with nearly 24 hours without power. But that was okay, for most values of okay, for most of us. There were some really charming aspects: conversing by emergency light, or in the pitch dark. Doing music in the dark. Someone in the letters to the editor was predictably grumping about how we are not Resilient And Independent Like Our Forefathers Of Yore, and honestly: this is nonsense. Even people who had not packed for a power outage and didn’t have the candles and flashlights they would have at home managed to have a perfectly lovely evening using their cell phones for flashlights and their friends’ voices for beacons. It was fine. Modern humanity is fine. (Also, honestly, I had to wonder whether the power outage served as a convenient lightning rod, so to speak, for any crankiness anyone might have brought in. Possibly there was nitpicking elsewhere, but I didn’t hear any of it, and there’s always somebody who comes in grumpy and looks for something to blame. So hey, convenient, something to blame! Or else this was just an unusually good year. But past Fourth Streets have been awesome too, so I think probably something was a factor, and this seems logical to me.)

I don’t think we could replicate the experience by just turning off the lights in the con suite, and frankly that sounds pretty creepy to me. But having it occur naturally–I forget who was referring to it as camp–I think maybe Suzanne?–but at any rate we got some of the better parts of camp as well as some of the worse. (Hot water: do want.) And it was Fourth Street, so–yeah. I got to see some of my favorite people in the world, and they got me thinking about all sorts of useful stuff that will percolate out into the rest of my year. I love this con.

(PS Tim also has a con report. I think he captured much of the flavor of things.)

4th St. swearing panel annex

I will get to my full and real 4th St. con report in a bit. But this year “That’s Another Panel” turned out to be a panel on swearing, and I realized I had more to say.

1. I have no idea how I managed to get through an entire panel on swearing without commending Bon Cop, Bad Cop to everyone’s attention. I do so now. The lesson in the uses of the Quebecois swear word “tabernac” is extremely instructive and amusing. Also the rest of the movie is great fun. Go thou etc.

2. I have heard people, even one otherwise very smart person, claiming that you could tell someone’s Real True Beliefs by how they swore–specifically, this otherwise-smart person told me when I was an adolescent that you could tell that atheists really believed in Christianity deep down, because they would say things like, “God damn you,” and would find it ridiculous to say, “Donald Duck damn you.” And I said to myself, “By Jove, he might have something there!” No. No, he did not have something there, and no, the late Victorian period was not filled with a resurgence in sincere devotion to the father of the Roman gods. Swearing, like all other language and proto-linguistic kipple, is highly, highly cultural. If your secondary world characters have grown up around people who say, “Oh, Blaxnorg!” when they step on a rake, they too are likely to say, “Oh, Blaxnorg!” even if they think Blaxnorg is a sham, or even if they think he’s kind of a wimpy god and they’ll do much better with Blarzoosh. Conversely, if Blarzoosh is a forbidden god, they are not likely to swear by her aloud even if they believe with a deep and heartfelt faith.

You can make all sorts of arguments for how people swear in a secondary world fantasy. If you have imagined highly interventionist gods, people might be more careful, or they might mean different things by swearing than you do, since you do not expect Jesus Christ to appear and cart some household object off to hell simply because you were unwary enough to say, “Oh, Jesus Christ, what is this damn thing doing in the middle of the stairs? I could have broken my neck!” Or you might well be careful about your own god, who has been known to grant petitions of yours, but swear freely by a neighboring god, who never did a thing for you. My point here is: swearing and belief: it’s complicated. Do not oversimplify in your writing. Do not oversimplify in your reading.

3. The Biblical prohibitions on swearing are on blasphemy and oaths, not on vulgarity. Many modern Christian subcultures have the idea that good Christians ought not to say “shit,” but in fact that’s because of purity codes/laws, the more general idea that your body–including your mouth and/or typing fingers–should be a temple, not because anyone writing any book of the Bible anticipated modern English bodily function language and divided the poops from the shits, with the former as sheep and the latter goats. Elise mentioned swearing as making a crank call to the Almighty, and I love that metaphor. That’s more or less completely separate from purity codes, and replicating the “religious groups should have neither in their language” divide from this specific moment in our culture when imagining religious groups in a completely different universe is weird and limiting and probably oughtn’t to be done without a good reason.

Sea Change, by S. M. Wheeler

Review copy provided by Tor.

There’s a lot of discussion of grittiness swirling around fantasy and getting under my contacts lately. Wait. That metaphor ran away with me. Let me start again. So: grittiness. Yes. Sea Change has it. A lot. The example I gave to a friend in e-mail is that when someone in this book breaks a glass bottle, it shatters and gets little pieces of glass in someone’s skin, and they have to be picked out carefully. The grit here is pretty literal. There are viscerally unpleasant things going on here, and they’re neither stylized nor ritualized. S. M. Wheeler is not trying to buy anything cheaply here. She pays full price for all of it, and so do her characters.

That’s all about tone, though. As for the plot…best friends are at the center of it, not love interests, and there’s a kraken and a skinned witch and some gay bandits and complicated family relationships, and…yeah. It is full of a number of things. It is not attempting to be anything but itself. I will definitely be interested in where Wheeler goes from here, because this is the gritty/dark edge of what interests me, but some authors are worth poking the edges for.

Cool stuff: the pen edition: Part 2

I swear to you people, I do think of things other than pens. But the previous one was local handcrafted ballpoints, and this is handcrafted fountain pens and ballpoints and styluses by an old friend. Michael McIntyre just made me my own, to my specifications, as a gift, and honestly, it’s better than I even expected when we were talking about what I wanted. The draw on the nib is prompt and smooth, and the pen itself! I said I liked blue. What I got was a blue dyed box elder wood that swirls around the grains in a way that makes me think of Starry Night without attempting to copy it. It’s so pretty. There’s also a satisfyingly firm click to the magnetized cap, and every piece of it fits together just as a good fountain pen should. Highly recommended.

More cool stuff to come as I stumble upon it.

Cool stuff: the pen edition

One of the things I wanted to do when I started keeping a blog on my own site was blog more about random stuff I have found that I like. And then a week ago today was the first Eagan farmer’s market of the year, and I had an example present itself. The farmer’s market was still in semi-pathetic late spring/early summer mode (it has been a very late spring here), sort of in the, “Do you want rhubarb? We got rhubarb. And scallions. And rhubarb. You want something else? No you don’t, how about rhubarb?” mode as far as the produce is concerned.

But! The Eagan farmer’s market does not live by produce alone, so I came home happy and laden with other nice things. And one of the people whose entire table I wanted to bring home was this guy.

You guys. The circuit board pens. They are so cool. There’s also an array of other neat pens if that’s not your thing, but the black and the green circuit board pens are so nice. They’re not fountain pens, but the ballpoint/rollerball hybrid he uses is incredibly smooth. Not at all scratchy, very well flowing. (Of course I stood there and tested the nibs. Of course I did.)

Anyway. I thought you would want to know. More cool stuff to follow.

Impending Con, and what she would do there

This coming weekend is 4th St. Fantasy convention–it’s not too late! you can still get at-the-door memberships!–and I cannot wait. I love 4th St. so much. It’s the people, and the passionate focus on story, and all the conversation. (I also like music parties. But music parties do tend to come with at least a little conversation too.) I’m hoping to finish the story I’m working on now so that I can have the newish novel stuff at the top of my head while thinking 4th St. thoughts.

Here’s what I’m doing formally this year:

Friday 5:30 PM – 7:00 PM: Short Fiction. Michael Merriam (Moderating), David Levine, Marissa Lingen, Michael D. Thomas. It can be challenging to bring worlds to life at novel length, much less in a handful of pages. What are the specific challenges of writing fantastic fiction at short lengths, and what are some ways in which short fiction’s effects and goals differ from those of novels? What strategies can be used to overcome these challenges, and how much grounding in genre protocols does a reader need to be able to unpack short- form fantasies?

Saturday 8:00 PM – 9:00 PM: Tell, Don’t Show. Emma Bull (Moderating), Steven Brust, David Levine, Marissa Lingen, Skyler White. Let’s talk about exposition! Authors like James Michener, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Francis Spufford have written novels that break all the “rules” about people hating exposition, and sometimes it’s better to just come out and tell readers things (c.f. Douglas Adams). What’s going on here, and what techniques and insights can we glean from it?

I am also hosting a lunch for people who are new to Fourth Street and want to meet people and hang out and like that. That’ll be Sunday. I have been trying to reach out to new people each 4th St., because it’s my con, and I want it to be friendly and welcoming, so when Cathy started arranging somewhat more formal stuff for welcoming new people this year, I figured I should sign up. I’ll be interested to see how it goes.

Books read, early June

Daniel Abraham, The Tyrant’s Law. I am about as big a fan of the middle book as you might hope to find, and golly, this was almost too much middle even for me. It is very, very much a chunk off the next bit, and I can see that it’s going somewhere, but it was not in any great hurry to get there. Also, for the usual “too much boyfriend, not enough roller derby,” read, “too many spiders, not enough banking.” Still intend to be going on with the series, but I persist in hoping for more banking even though I know there probably won’t be that much more.

Louisa May Alcott, The Mysterious Key and What It Opened. Kindle. I had intended to read one of Alcott’s “adult” things at some point and downloaded some to my Kindle towards that end. This was a pretty cliched Gothic with a happy ending completely out of left field. If you are not an Alcott completist or happy with any Gothic no matter how badly executed, I would leave this one be.

R. J. Anderson, Quicksilver. Sequel to Ultraviolet. Even better due to not being set in a mental hospital. Seriously, very nearly everything about this book is a spoiler for the previous one, even though it stands alone pretty well. It would be trivially easy to use the first word of the first sentence you wanted to utter about this book and have it be a spoiler, and they’re not that old/widely read. So: non-dystopian YA SF, variety of interesting characters and relationships. (Including elderly Korean Presbys! Yay!) Recommended, but start with the first one if you think you might want to read the first one at all.

Carole Angier, The Double Bond: Primo Levi: A Biography. Grandpa’s. This was an incredibly hard book to read because of its subject matter (for those of you who don’t know Primo Levi’s work, he was a writer and chemist who survived Auschwitz and killed himself some years later). In some ways it was even harder but also more special because it’s the only book I have found so far in my grandpa’s collection in which he marked page numbers on the jacket flap. Having read those pages, I could only conclude that they were passages Grandpa found particularly moving. He would call me to share “interesting” or “funny” passages–I am still running into those, bit by bit, as I read–but not moving. That was not a type of communication about his inner life that my old Norsky Marine grandpa was much given to. So having that window was especially wonderful, and also very very difficult. I cried a couple of times. This is an exhaustive biography, and I think it will be mostly of interest to fans of Levi’s and people with special interest in Italian Jewry and its intersection with the Holocaust. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really quite well done. It’s just that it is a gigantic, legitimately depressing book, and people often want a reason to pick up one of those.

R. J. Astruc, Signs Over the Pacific and Other Stories. Discussed elsewhere. Kindle.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Sidelines: Talks and Essays. Kindle. Interesting to see how Lois’s thoughts on her work and the world have evolved, and how some things are quite constant. Fun background stuff here. Somewhat repetitive towards the end, but she warns you early on about that, so I think it’s fair play.

Junot Diaz, Drown. Short stories in the slice of life vein, very well-written, and the life they are slicing is that of a young Dominican/Dominican-American man, so it wasn’t “ho hum, yes, how like unto everything else this is” for me, the way some kinds of slice of life can be. Also I generally could see why stories began and ended where they did, which is one of the failure modes of slice of life for me. I enjoyed Oscar Wao more (more nerds and more arc), but this was worth my time.

Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark. Biography of a woman who traveled extensively in the Middle East in the early and middle parts of the 20th century and wrote about her travels. Interesting person, interesting bio. Goes in a nice set with Gertrude Bell stuff. Was probably the worst biography I read this fortnight without being at all bad.

Merrie Haskell, Handbook for Dragon Slayers. Discussed elsewhere.

T.H. Huxley, William Harvey and the Circulation of the Blood. Kindle. I just keep nibbling at Huxley’s speeches so I can do his voice for a future project. They are generally what they say on the tin–I’m just soaking up word choice here.

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies. Very immersive style, very funny, lots of Boleyns and Seymours and Cromwells. These books are so discussed at the moment that I feel a bit superfluous, but I think she does a very good job of incluing the things that want inclued for people who don’t have a course in Tudor and Stuart England under their belts.

Val McDermid, A Darker Domain. I liked this entire book except the last half-page, and I see why she did it that way, it just…meh. But the rest of it was well worth it. This one is a mystery about the disappearance of a husband/father/union man during a miners’ strike, and like the other two McDermids I’ve enjoyed and recommended, it’s a mystery along two timelines, with very vivid setting, characterization, and eye to social detail.

Marla R. Miller, Betsy Ross and the Making of America. This book was probably the big discovery of the fortnight. I’m going around raving about it to everyone. I expected very little of it. It was one of those things that made my library list on the “huh, might as well” principle. And wow. Wow. So very many interesting things about colonial and federalist America that tie in so very well with this one historical figure. Early American Quakers and their foibles and schisms! The upholstering and furniture trade! Craftswomen of the period and their working lives! The treatment and consideration of the mentally ill in this period! So! Much! Stuff! Such cool stuff. Highly recommended for fabulists who are trying to look outside the kings-and-generals model, among other things. Okay, just a taste. Both of Betsy’s parents were living when her apprenticeship papers got signed. Guess who made the arrangements? Not her dad. Not her mom. Her grandma. I ended up just loving this book.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Man on the Balcony. Depressing Swedish crime novel, check.

Jenny Uglow, A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game. I think perhaps I know too many academics. This was a quite good book on the Restoration, and I will look for more of Uglow’s work. I do recommend it to interested parties. But the central metaphor of the title…seemed tacked on at the last minute to me. It felt almost as though she wrote the book and then tried to figure out a way to make it more cohesive; or else as though she did not have the time to develop it as she had hoped. If one of my academic friends had sent me this manuscript, I would have talked to them about bringing out the central metaphor–or dropping it, because it was a fine and interesting book without it.

Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, Memoirs. Kindle. Several times reading this, I said, “Oh, honey,” out loud. Because the memoirist…does not seem to have gotten a great many visits from the self-awareness fairy. (It did not call upon Versailles or the tsar’s court all that often, so this is probably not surprising.) She was a painter from the mid-late 18th century well into the 19th century but never seems to have grasped what exactly the peasants were so ill-bred as to be annoyed about. Valuable perspective on several things, but valuable and wise are not at all the same thing here.

Mark Wolverton, A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Kindle. When you’re writing biographical material about someone who has already had a pretty definitive biography, specialization is your friend, and that’s very much the case here. Wolverton is not pretending that Bird and Sherwin didn’t write their bio, he’s building on it and elaborating on a part of Oppenheimer’s life that was fairly glossed over in their take. Nicely done. Of course, I have most of my ideas about Oppenheimer from personal conversations with one of the people Wolverton appears to have also consulted for this book, so it’s not entirely a surprise that I think so. Still, knowing who to listen to is a good trait in a biographer, or in fact in any historian. This should not be the first thing you read about J. Robert Oppenheimer, but if you have any interest in the topic it should definitely be on the list.

Marigold dust all over my fingers

My friend Peg has a post in which she is talking about All The Things, All the Many Many Things, and she says:

I fret about how everything, but everything, expands into a million marigold petals when I touch it. I want to scrape at the scale on my bathroom faucet with a toothpick, and to paint my living room myself, and to redo every inch of my yard. I plan to find the pillow for the cover that’s been made out of my wedding dress, and the upholsterer I’d hoped to ask about recovering my dining room chairs has gone out of business. I resent work for taking time away from studying.

And yes. Oh my yes. The world–my world–is full of things that want doing. Some of them want doing now. Some of the ones that want doing now are just not going to get done. But the biggest thing here is that I’m trying to keep the opportunities and leave the fretting behind. I don’t think we want to go without seeing all the things that can be better, the awesome things that can exist but don’t, all the opportunities that this kind of reaction to the world gives us. I’m just trying to let go of the component that fusses and keep the component that sees.

This is harder than it looks.

It’s not easy–but it’s easier–when I’m comparing things I have a choice about. “Work on story” vs. “have tea with friend”: I will choose some of each, and which one will depend on the day, the story, the friend, and a dozen other things. But the last few weeks there’s been a lot of “what gets removed from the list because ‘feel ill’ has replaced it?”, and that…I am even less good at that. Whenever I have a bad time with the vertigo, or a cold or what-have-you, I want to catch! up! I want to make up for the time “wasted.” And over and over again I’m being reminded that not running myself into the ground is not actually a waste.

This week Tim suggested that we should get a three-d ice printer*, and I discovered that my head is full of abstract ice sculptures. I didn’t know that about myself until he postulated this gadget, and then there they all were, cold curves that live in my brain without me even knowing it. And…I am so glad that it does that sometimes, this brain I got. Even with the fretting. So very glad.

*No, we know of no such thing being manufactured. We were talking about my need for baking (tangible, ephemeral) as a counterbalance for writing (intangible, lasting), and Timprov thought that ice sculptures might also serve the same need, and it is unwise for people of my balance abilities to use chainsaws very much. So: three-d ice printer. But really, shouldn’t there be one? Isn’t it an awesome idea?