Not so fast.
What if the recognition that comes your way is for writing some of the most descriptively awful, tortured-metaphor, laugh-out-loud-funny sex scenes ever committed to print— then how would you feel?
Such is the position two 2019 novelists find themselves in: Didier Decoin and John Harvey. Britain’s “most dreaded literary prize”—the Bad Sex Award—was, err . . . awarded . . . to these two gentlemen for the creation of grammatical hydra-headed monsters of such overwrought metaphor, mangled syntax, and ” wait . . . what?!” disorienting narrative description that awed judges truly could not decide upon a winner between the Gallic or the Anglo-Saxon contestants. They co-share the prize.
Readers in search of saucer-eyed, hand-to-mouth diversion may peruse this link for further details: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/dec/02/bad-sex-award-twosome-prize-goes-to-didier-decoin-and-john-harvey
Once you’re done reading the article, however, let’s regather here and discuss. Have you ever written a sex scene in your fiction? How did it turn out? What is your opinion of sex scenes in fiction, generally? Are they necessary? (Let’s exclude, for purposes of this discussion, “one-handed books”—explicit erotic fiction primarily targeted at cisgender men: “I never believed this could happen to me: I hawked my wad of chewing tobacco onto the macadam, took a swig of whiskey from my flask, slung my reflector vest away, and stripping down to my tightly bunched gray underwear waded into the writhing, moaning mass of naked women softly trilling my name: Ebenezer, Ebenezer . . .”)
David Foster Wallace once notoriously dismissed John Updike as “just a penis with a thesaurus”. Are there writers you think take things an explicit passage too far? Perhaps offend by tone, subject matter, and/or authorial voice? Obsessive “sex focus”?
On the other hand, do you think there is something to be said for writers who dare to write against the grain of “contemptible bourgeois morality” and Puritanical prudishness? Are there writers you think handle sexual passages well? Do you regard titillation and/or sexual arousal as a legitimate aim of literary or genre literature? (After all, we applaud the writers who best evoke the senses when they write, so why should sex—an essential part of the human condition and a most poignant and transfixing experiential phenomena—remain “off-stage” in literature?)
I very much enjoyed your post, Victor. And as Curtis noted, one could easily compose a twelve-page essay in response. I’ll keep my remarks confined to a few loosely related thoughts which flitted through my own consciousness as I read your blog post.
First off, this question of “writing to raise consciousness”—quibbling definitions aside, I take your meaning—and, in the main, applaud the intent—whilst wincing from such a baldly stated, motivating aesthetic principle of overt didacticism and moral uplift. Though John Gardner has remarked “true art is by its nature moral” (italics his in On Moral Fiction; Basic Books, Inc.; 1978) Vladimir Nabokov tells us that there are “. . . three points of view from which a writer can be considered: He may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three . . . but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.”
Regarding your observation that “authors often write to get readers to think about a particular issue” I can only exclaim, indeed! I oftentimes write to think more deeply about a particular issue or to explore a theme; I think all serious writers are more interested in theme than plot. (Excepting hacks, eh? I confess to a firmly held prejudice here: I think writers of lesser talent, ability and ambition are all-consumed by plot; whereas writers of greater stature–that is to say writers of deeper thought, broader emotion and depth of feeling–are spurred to action, epiphany and insight by an exploration of theme.)
Now please understand that I do respect your approach to the craft; I honor and salute the thoughtful deliberateness and intentionality with which you interweave spiritual values into your work. (No ironic quote marks around that phrase; no tiresome inquiry into the epistemological and ontological qualities you mean to evoke by such usage. I’m willing to roll with phrases like “planetary consciousness” in this instance.) It strikes me that you are consciously writing in a long and noble moral tradition, one that hearkens back to the Axial Age. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axial_Age )
My own encounters with writers such as Viktor Frankl, Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, Thich Nhat Hanh and Albert Einstein have inculcated in me a fierce unapologetic humanism which rejects any and all ideological verities which seek to elevate autocratic thinking and institutions over the individual. As regards writers of fiction who have left a similarly profound mark I would point to such exemplars of excellence as Hemingway, Steinbeck, John Irving, Pat Conroy, Toni Morrison, et. al. (Far too many to enumerate here. I believe all writers with something to say eschew dogma and cant in favor of that “great honesty and probity of a priest of God” that Hemingway fingered as the requisite criteria of character and vitalism that informs and animates all lasting literary work.)
And yet . . . and yet . . . Is there not an element of pretension and narcissism in baldly stating to the reader that one hopes to “raise their consciousness” by one’s own writing? Is this not, perhaps, too “on-the-nose”, pseudo-Victorian (“This book lacks the essential moral uplift required of all great literature.”) and/or off-the-mark entirely as regards fiction? Is it not true that most people love being entertained and resent being educated? Returning to Nabokov’s observation that “it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer” (Salmon Rushdie, Umberto Ecco, Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Italo Calvino, et. al.) are we in danger of rending the fairy-like enchantment of the fictional dream by an all-too-obvious, overt hand orchestrating character and theme? On the other hand, does it smack of rank cowardice, evasion and duplicity to deny that one has any such intent or responsibility when we all know the profound and lasting impact well-written moral fiction (let’s embrace John Gardner’s unflinching and unapologetic term) can have on consciousness and behavior?
Questions, questions . . .
I am so very glad you raised them, Victor.
PS. I hope my respect to your approach to the craft is apparent in the words above. Your blog post is a rich one that could serve as a springboard for many future discussions; the tangential issues alone could keep us occupied for years.
Rejections. The bane of every working—or would-be working—writer. One hunkers down in front of the keyboard (or pad of paper, typewriter, tape recorder) and . . . writes . . . whatever process that active verb sums up for you. And when finished revising (You do revise, don’t you? Surely you’re not one of those rank amateurs who inflicts first drafts upon their readers? “The first draft of anything is shit.”—Ernest Hemingway. “The first draft reveals the art; revision reveals the artist.”—Michael Lee) one sends the resultant manuscript out into the world to an editor (assuming one wishes to be published, that is; not self-published) and breathlessly awaits Caesar’s verdict: thumbs-up or thumbs-down. And when that all-but-guaranteed rejection comes bouncing back . . .
There are countless articles out there that counsel the writer how to react soberly and professionally to rejection. This is not one of those articles. No indeed! Today friends and neighbors, fellow long-suffering Knights of the Quill, midnight scritch-scribblers, far-seeing farcical fantasists and quotidian-focused literary fictioneers alike we are going to allow ourselves the inestimable sublime pleasure of hooting and howling at a select group of cement-headed cretins. I mean, of course, the critical mediocrities who rejected first-rank artists and their attendant masterworks with such clueless, querulous verbal spasmings [sic] as:
- Peter J. Bentley of Bentley & Son Publishing House: “First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale? While this is a rather delightful, if somewhat esoteric, plot device, we recommend an antagonist with a more popular visage among the younger readers. For instance, could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens?”
- Moberly Luger of Peacock & Peacock Publishing: “If I may be frank — you certainly are in your prose — I found your efforts to be both tedious and offensive. You really are a man’s man, aren’t you? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you had penned this entire story locked up at the club, ink in one hand, brandy in the other. Your bombastic, dipsomaniac, where-to-now characters had me reaching for my own glass of brandy.”
- Name Omitted: “An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.”
- Name Omitted: “I haven’t the foggiest idea what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.”
- Name Omitted: “I rack my brains why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.”
Name Omitted: “…overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian … the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream … I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”
Name Omitted: “. . . you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
Name Omitted: “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”
Name Omitted: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”
answers to the above: http://mentalfloss.com/article/91169/16-famous-authors-and-their-rejections
I’ll close with one of my all-time personal favorites:
Name Omitted: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”
(speaking of Crash, by J. G. Ballard)
Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, web-surfing I.Q.-augmented transgenic pets and government-controlled robotic mites photographing this computer screen, it gives me great pleasure to usher in . . . [trumpet fanfare & rumble of kettledrums] . . . our first Co-op Writers’ Showcase!
The theme for June 2017 was: 100 Words (Maximum) Related to Numbers. A warm round of applause for all the fast-typin’, hard-thinkin’, talented scritch-scribblers who participated in this inaugural exercise. In no particular order, then:
Writer: Perry Palin
Title: Ten Words
Ten words. The note was ten awful words on a half sheet of lined paper torn from a notebook, crumpled, then smoothed and folded between the pages of a college text.
A spring wind had turned over the leaves on the trees, and then a warm rain rinsed the city dust into the street. Birds carried little things to make their nests. I remember your dark eyes, the hair on your arms, I remember the scent of you. The envelope had melted in the rain, but the message was there.
“I won’t be there Tuesday. I can’t do this anymore.”
Writer: Kris Bowes
Chapter excerpt from Beneath Ember Skies
She wandered down the hallway to room eight. Eight, she thought, how sacred and profane. Change one letter for a fight.
The room was immaculate, save the young man inside the exothermal chamber.
Eight: the only other perfect cube that’s a positive Fibonacci prime.
He looked so much smaller inside the chamber.
In the old faiths, eight meant a new beginning, resurrection from death and ascension into eternal life.
She saw a flash of her three-year-old Ray.
Circumcision committed the Holy Spirit to the newborn on the eighth day – maybe it was the other way around. Who knew anymore?
Writer: Mimi Speike
Writer: Atthys Gage
Title: Three Brutal Curses
He stood, hands dangling. The big guy took his backpack.
“Pleasure doin’ business with you, puto.”
They turned and walked. They hadn’t even frisked him.
His dad always told him: count to ten before you do something stupid. On ten, the little snubnose was in his hand. It barked three brutal curses.
One man dropped. The other scrambled away into the darkness.
Night shivered in silence. He approached the crumpled man. “I’d like a refund, please.”
He took the loco’s handgun. He took the backpack. And he walked.
Ten steps away, and nausea doubled him up like a gut punch.
Writer: Carl E. Reed
Einsatzgruppe C assembled on the parade ground at high noon in Central Ukraine. Their collective punishment: decimation for failing to capture an assigned quota of Jews.
“Sieben, acht, neun . . .” the major counted off, pacing the second row of paramilitary police standing at ramrod attention.
Sprawled on the ground in the first row: two corpses in spreading pools of blood.
“Zehn!” The major halted, raised his pistol to the head of Sgt. Schmidt.
Schmidt locked eyes with his commanding officer. “Still human,” he said. Yesterday he’d discovered two boys hiding in a crawlspace; moved on without sounding the alarm. “You lose.”
There are more books than time, yes? That is to say: given the finite spans of our lives, and the untold hours lost therein to sleep and work and divers other activities besides repetitively scanning black tick marks on a page from left-to-right, starting in the upper left corner and then working downward to the lower right—flip!—repeat; I suspect most of us have compiled long lists (mentally or written, eh?) of books we intend to get around to reading . . . someday.
I give you forthwith two works of Norman Spinrad’s I intend to peruse as soon as I scrape together the florins necessary to acquire them: The Iron Dream and Osama The Gun. Both books sound utterly amazing: compelling, provocative, psychologically and sociologically astute, courageous and unflinching in their exploration of the roots of politically motivated and culturally sanctioned violence. One gets the sense from reviews of these books that Norman Spinrad swings for the fences each time at bat. Who doesn’t admire that kind of all-in commitment from a writer?
And how did I miss these books till now?!
The Iron Dream: http://airshipdaily.com/blog/06052014-the-iron-dream
SFWA interview with Norman Spinrad: http://www.sfwa.org/2011/09/an-interview-with-norman-spinrad-anarchist/
What books are on your “must read next” list?
So you want to be a writer? Attend, then, to creative writing professor Colum McCann!
“Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody,” said Rainer Maria Rilke Letters To A Young Poet more than a century ago. “There is only one way. Go into yourself.”
“This most of all,” he says. “Ask yourself in the most silent hour of night: must I write?”
To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you had better at some stage make something happen. To hell with structure, but only if you have thought it through so thoroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed.
A first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again.
Don’t write what you know, write towards what you want to know.
You have to put in the time. If you are not there, the words will not appear. Simple as that.
A writer is not someone who thinks obsessively about writing, or talks about it, or plans it, or dissects it, or even reveres it: a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair.
Good writing will knock the living daylights out of you. Very few people talk about it, but writers have to have the stamina of world-class athletes. The exhaustion of sitting in the one place. The errors. The retrieval. The mental taxation. The dropping of the bucket down into the near-empty well over and over again.
Nabokov says that his characters are just his galley slaves – but he’s Nabokov, and he’s allowed to say things like that. Let me respectfully disagree. Your characters deserve your respect. Some reverence. Some life of their own. You must thank them for surprising you, and for ringing the doorbell of your imagination.
And always remember that what we don’t say is as important as, if not more so than, what we do. So study the silences too, and have them working on the page. You soon find out how loud the silence really is. Everything unsaid leads eventually to what is said.
Structure should grow out of character and plot, which essentially means that it grows out of language. In other words, the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. Ask yourself if it feels right to tell the story in one fell swoop, or if it should be divided into sections, or if it should have multiple voices, or even multiple styles. You stumble on through the dark, trying new things all the time.
Sometimes, in fact, you don’t find the structure until halfway through, or even when you’re close to being finished. That’s OK. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense.
Plot matters, of course it matters, but it is always subservient to language. Plot takes the backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens. And how it happens occurs in the way language captures it and the way our imaginations transfer that language into action.
So give me music then, young maestro, please. Make it occur the way nobody ever made it occur before. Stop time. Celebrate it. Demolish it. Slow the clock down so that the tick of each and every second lasts an hour or more. Take leaps into the past. Put backspin on your memory. Be in two or three places at one time. Destroy speed and position. Make just about anything happen.
Maybe in this day and age we are diseased by plot. Let’s face it, plots are good for movies, but when over-considered they tend to make books creak. So, unbloat your plot. Listen for the quiet line. Anyone can tell a big story, yes, but not everyone can whisper something beautiful in your ear.
It’s not a throwaway thing to tell you the truth. It’s not a throwaway thing, to tell you the truth.
Punctuation matters. In fact, sometimes it’s the life or death of a sentence. Hyphens. Full stops. Colons. Semicolons. Ellipses. Parentheses. They’re the containers of a sentence. They scaffold your words. Should a writer know her grammar? Yes, she should. Don’t overuse the semicolon; it is a muscular comma when used correctly. Parentheses in fiction draw far too much attention to themselves. Learn how to use the possessive correctly as in most good writer’s work. (Oops.) Never finish a sentence with an at. (Sorry.) Avoid too many ellipses, especially at the end of a passage, they’re just a little too dramatic … (See?)
Grammar changes down through the years: just ask Shakespeare or Beckett or the good folks at the New Yorker. The language of the street eventually becomes the language of the schoolhouse. It’s the difference between the prescriptive and the descriptive. So much depends, as William Carlos Williams might have said, upon the red wheelbarrow – especially if the barrow itself stands solitary at the end of the line.
Research is the bedrock of nearly all good writing, even poetry. We have to know the world beyond our own known world. We have to be able to make a leap into a life or a time or a geography that is not immediately ours. Often we will want to write out of gender, race, time. This requires deep research.
Yes, Google helps, but the world is so much deeper than Google. A search engine can’t hold a candle to all the libraries in the world where the books actually exist, live, breathe, and argue with one another. So go down to the library. Check out the catalogues. Go to the map division. Unlock the boxes of photographs. If you want to know a life different from your own, you better try to meet it at least halfway. Get out in the street.
Talk to people. Show interest. Learn how to listen. You must find the divine detail: and the more specific the detail, the better. William Gass . . . [is an] American author who says quite beautifully that a writer finds himself alone with all that might happen . . .
. . . In the end there’s only one real failure – and that’s the failure to be able to fail. Having tried is the true bravery.
Sometimes . . . you just have to have the cojones to wipe the whole slate clean. Occasionally you know – deep in your gut – that it’s not good enough. Or you’ve been chasing the wrong story. Or you’ve been waiting for another moment of inspiration.
Often the true voice is not heard until long into the story. It might be a year of work, hundreds of pages, or even more. . . But something in you knows – it just knows – that everything you have written so far has just been preparation for what you are now about to write. You have finally found your north, your east, your west. No south, no going back.
Gogol said that the last line of every story was: “And nothing would ever be the same again.” Nothing in life ever really begins in one single place, and nothing ever truly ends. But stories have at least to pretend to finish. Don’t tie it up too neatly. Don’t try too much. Often the story can end several paragraphs before, so find the place to use your red pencil. Print out several versions of the last sentence and sit with them. Read each version over and over. Go with the one that you feel to be true and a little bit mysterious. Don’t tack on the story’s meaning. Don’t moralise at the end. Don’t preach that final hallelujah. Have faith that your reader has already gone with you on a long journey. They know where they have been. They know what they have learned. They know already that life is dark. You don’t have to flood it with last-minute light.
You want the reader to remember. You want her to be changed. Or better still, to want to change.
Try, if possible, to finish in the concrete, with an action, a movement, to carry the reader forward. Never forget that a story begins long before you start it and ends long after you end it. Allow your reader to walk out from your last line and into her own imagination. Find some last-line grace. This is the true gift of writing. It is not yours anymore. It belongs in the elsewhere. It is the place you have created. Your last line is the first line for everybody else.
(The following quotes taken from the full article found here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/13/so-you-want-to-be-a-writer-colum-mccanns-tips-for-young-novelists?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Bookmarks+base&utm_term=225927&subid=22099271&CMP=EMCBKSEML3964 )
Okay, gang, we seem to be a little light on new blog posts at the moment (notwithstanding Kris’ grand-slam right out of the analytical park last time at bat here in Story Country), so I’ll throw this out there for those interested in watching, not reading, something new. PULP FICTION: The Golden Age of Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Adventure. Please comment afterward as the spirit and/or jarred (or should that be “jaded”?) intellect moves you. . . .
Heigh-ho, The Golden Age!