Monday, August 4, 2014

Storytelling and Sludge

When storytellers tell you how great stories are, are they any different from any producer enthusing about their product? Why don't we give storytellers the same amused skepticism we give to someone selling a blender?

Here's a related question. Some right wing genre writers (Sad Puppies and that lot) will tell you that right wing science fiction and fantasy has the best stories. They may not always be subtle, they may not always have the most elegant writing, or the most thought-through politics, but they've got the best stories. What if it's true?

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Eric S. Raymond has a genuinely-trying-to-be-balanced-and-thoughtful post about how science fiction is a bit better when it's written by fanatically right wing asshats. Real "Cursed Coloncornuthaum: -4 Charisma" types, according to the post, "can't lose," and are destined to inherit the canon, or at least the people's hearts. More-or-less. Raymond calls these guys the Evil League (nowadays I guess they might be called Puppies), and he calls everyone else the Rabbits.

It's obviously a whole heap of embleer hraka, but I wonder if there are whiffs of truth, to do with (a) "colonization by English majors" (but save that for another time) and (b) storytelling?
Pick up a Rabbit property like Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2014 and you’ll read large numbers of exquisitely crafted little numbers about nothing much. The likes of Correia, on the other hand, churn out primitive prose, simplistic plotting, at best serviceable characterization – and vastly more ability to engage the average reader.
I do sometimes have a sense that storytelling is more difficult if your politics aren't solidly conservative or reactionary. It means you face a slightly denser cloud of trade-offs to navigate through. Trade-offs between your political conscience and your viscerally gripping plot, I mean. With time and ingenuity and energy and Promethean artifice, you can probably still wiggle your way through without making any trade-offs. But betimes fuck wiggling. And/or: maybe you'll just pick a strategy that seduces the reader on some other level than plot, maybe you'll become a stylist or a wit?

Or to put it bluntly.

Revolutionary stories are harder to tell than reactionary ones.

Is that too blunt? Is it nuts? To me, it sounds like a pretty modest conclusion to draw from the pretty widely-accepted principle that there is such a thing as ideology. That is: culture has a certain slow current in it, a kind of sludgy, slushy flow that -- overall, and in the long run-off -- tends to support wealth, privilege and power, and to betray, bewilder, atomise, marginalise and recuperate everything and everyone else.

Maybe that's why I've never been too sure about fetishizing stories as such, something which seems widespread in a lot of fantasy writing in particular. "Stories: aren't they totally fuckable?" "Hey you people who have self-selected as a constituency who like stories, you know what I think is really important? Do you want to know. Stories."

"We make meaning out of stories -- that's what humans do," claims Mike R. Underwood.

Authors I like -- Borges, Calvino, Živković, Pratchett, Pullman, me -- are guilty of this kind of faux folk pro-narrative populism. Constantly turning round to you with curly hair and huskily whispering, "The dream outlasts the dreamer, the story outlasts its teller!" with twinkles pulsing in their dead imaginative eyes.

Isn't the story-sludge, in its natural state, economically regressive, ecologically unsound, and a bit bigoted? Shouldn't the attitude to stories be a bit more, "Stories are here to stay, so we might as well make the best of them!" *grins* *falls dead with exhaustion*

(Neil Gaiman, to be fair, signed my Lane with "HI JOE [sic]! IT IS THE DISINGENUOUS CHAUVINISM OF THE CULTURAL PRODUCER TO PERMIT THE IMPLICATION THAT *ANY* STORY WILL DO TO PROPAGATE UNCHALLENGED XNG" while several people waited, but he should be more vocal about that stuff! (If it ever turned out that wasn't true: we owe it to each other to tell stories, Neil Gaiman)).

But say you were only interested in gratifying, escapist, and (probably) forgettable genre storytelling. Say you didn't want to be Evil League of Evil or Rabbit exactly, but to be somewhere in the middle, or to rise about the distinction, or sink below it, or something.

There's definitely a sweet-spot where your writing can sort of surf that story-sludge, so that your plot can deniably benefit from the fumes and spray of various pervasive stereotypes and fetishes -- you know, an ordinary girl with an extraordinary talent, or love at first sight, or a femme fatale, or a manic pixie dream girl, or a virgin, or a tart with a heart, or a butch chick who scrubs up chic, or a gritty underdog (triumphant), a knowingly retro damsel (in distress, subversible), an angry babymomma, a Meet Cute, a wicked CEO of a bad apple multinational corporation, a crooked politician (unmasked), a maverick detective (results), a plot voucher (elfin, redeemed), an already seven-foot stoic warrior-woman scowlingly consenting to wear heels, an exquisitely crafted little number, an uncle tom, a shrill do-gooder, a level head and a lantern jaw, a tonto, a jaleface minstrel, a complex relationship with dad, a svengali (with a Past, mind), some inscrutably slitted eyes, short grief, scars that make you interesting, Fate, bootstraps (own), bikini (chainmail), a savage (noble AF), a guido, a non-specific ethnic (kooky), an unflinching mercenary, a Latin (passionate), a Latin (proundly grandoise), revenge, revenge, the streets, the Real World, revenge, revenge, a hotbed mosque, ambient women, a shrill holier-than-thou hypocrite, Faery-bankrolled largesse for my dawgs, an amputation (inspiring, eventually), bros, a monocultural alien species, a perfectable humanity, an incorrigibly expansionist alien species (corriged the Hard Way), an Everyman confused by the confusingness of it all finally finding the answer ... in his heart, some hot, increasingly-consensual sex, a Chosen One, a sex cure, a deeply flawed anti-hero, a just law, an unjust law, a wicked utopian, a deus ex neckbeard, the feelgood uniqueness of humans, a tainted individual redeemed by suicidal sacrifice, a make-over, nest defence, a totalising trauma explaining all behaviour, an orc, a haranguing mother-in-law, slavery as a sign of how exotic this setting is, a swineherd king, a thieves' guild, no unfamiliar ideologies, a lone inventor, a fat stupid gullible US tourist, a far future society terribly knowledgeable about (a small part of) 21st century society, the-bright-side-of-massacred-families-is-vigilante-dads, the incompetence of professional armies vs. ragtag pluck, a convenient suicide, a terrorist "refugee", good vs. evil, royal blood, a loopy hippy, being forced alas to commit genocide so that a magnitude more souls may be saved, vengeance, vengeance, a sniper, a tribesman's childlike wonder, a rich and pampered activist, some Darwin-made-me-badass shtick, all our nerves a-thrill to the harsh babble of the animate towelhead, the swelling relief of the pet running barking through the rubble and corpses, a natural genius, anybody who is steely in any way whatsoever, first contact as divine revelation, anybody who is simply evil, the lovely importance of ancestors, a crone, if-you-die-in-the-game-(/flamewar)-you-die-for-real, torture comeuppance, a human shield, twins (destined), a you-look-so-fetching-in-that-haze-of-gunsmoke-and-Stockholm-Syndrome romance, a HIDEOUSLY UGLY nurse see what I did there?, everything being a game, stories making us what we are, reneging your debt being evil, androgyny being untrustworthy, fat being evil, bureaucracy being evil, bureaucracy being myopic and counterproductive, darkness being evil, complexity being evil, ugliness being evil, the cheer of the street urchin wits-o-phage, deformity being evil, violence the solution, violence the solution, violence the solution, the pluck of lightly Americanised Tory heartlands the solution, an ultraviolent rape revenge the solution, swarms being evil, the pitilessness of the gnome moneylender, the stop-at-nothing nuclear defence of the nuclear family, or indeed just of your home, or some other ingot of ultra-compressed narrativium -- without actually slipping under the sludge, without actually being off-puttingly and distractingly offensive, not even to a readership of hearts of gold and eyes of steel.

Maybe -- I think -- it can be OK to do that.

(And/or to do other kinds of compromise. You can weigh one thing against of another, you can sort-of-cancel-out some dodgy indulgey technique you've used with some seriously vital political clarity somewhere in the same story).

But I think that, as fans and critics, we should try to acknowledge and appreciate the cunning of any gripping tale which doesn't rely on the standard-issue fetters and clamps to do all its gripping for it. The structures of storytelling are endlessly pliable to principled wit. And I also think that, more trickily, we should give credit to the tale that has permitted itself to contort into some weird, counterintuitive, and less-than-gripping shape, because of its fidelity to a principle of political resistance.

But above all, being alert to the semi-translucent, unpredictable play of political struggles within science fiction and fantasy means also means acknowledging that those struggles aren't ultimately decided in the cultural sphere at all.

It is easiest to get that point if you go up on your haunches, prick your ears and twitch your nose at the breeze. Even if we do sometimes run up against what feel like fixed, non-negotiable structures within storytelling -- against rules of (licked) thumb about what turns pages, about what readers care about and what they don't, about what gets pulses racing and what doesn't -- well, who wants to pander to power? It is an Evil League of Evil move to fixate and fawn on such structures, to mistake the rules of a game for the Rules of Life, to mistake the ball of a gag for the Sunrise on a Final Horizon of all Norms.

Battle songs are not written for Goodreads stars. Not mainly anyway. People whose lives are shaped by the desire for social justice and the hope of social justice -- I think this is usually true -- have other shit going on in those lives than writing science fiction and fantasy. They have other people's lives going on in their lives, for starters. And because whatever science fiction and fantasy they do write is neither the totality nor the centre of their political consciousness -- even better, their political agency -- it is rich and free, and it participates in the fullness of life, all its perpetual battle, passion, savvy, injury, hilarity, philosophy, acuity, solidarity, comprehension, emergence, tenderness, realism and optimism. How could it not?

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Note 1: "... fetishizing of stories as such ..." Maybe the point is that the idea of a story is itself so rigorously recuperated, so ferociously defended in its ideological function, that all this feels faintly like the the wrong kind of sacrilege -- it feels kind of wrong to make that short step from (a) the idea that we are immersed in ideology to (b) the idea that the story form itself has picked a side. "In the enemy language it is necessary to lie" (Sean Bonney, Letter on Poetics (After Rimbaud)). You can take that idea in at least two ways: as a recommendation of tactics, and/or as a warning, that when the voices that are the most brutally silenced somehow struggle through to tell their stories, what they say isn't quite true. Not quite true because it is forced into story form. (Although cf. "with time and ingenuity and yadda yadda" q.v.).

Note 2: "... these battles aren't decided in the cultural sphere ..." -- that's the dialectic nature of ideology critique, I guess? Ideology critique is the interplay of (a) a ruthless examination of how our reality is constructed through culture, institutions, norms, mores, language, habitus; and (b) praxis, that is, getting stuck in wherever the will to struggle is getting diverted into the virtual, the abstract, the disconnectedly cultural, and orienting it to where it can do real good.

Note 3: "Eric S. Raymond has a ..." Dull disclosure plus hmm: I haven't read anything by these Evil League of Evil people yet. The drift of this post, translated into the vocab which inspired it: Rabbit fiction is probably much better than Evil League fiction, but even if it isn't (and maybe I will find out it isn't), by definition it doesn't matter in the least; even if the Rabbits were total roadkill fiction-wise, who wouldn't want to be a Rabbit? The way Raymond characterises Evil, it sounds like they needlessly restrict their revels to one cramped, lukewarm, strictly-defined bathtub. I have read a lil: dipped into the Hugo nominated Correia and Vox Day and want to give the former a proper read eventually, and there's a John C. Wright staring at me right now from the shelf . . . and possibly a Hoyt on the Kindle . . . I tend to really enjoy Neal Asher, but he's probably not evil enough. I always loved Heinlein as a kid, especially Job. Hmm.

Note 4: "Revolutionary stories are harder to tell than reactionary ones." This is broad-brush stuff, so perhaps it's not worth trying to make this discrimination, but . . . Thesis: revolutionary stories are harder to tell than progressive stories. Progressive stories are harder to tell than reactionary stories. Reactionary stories are harder to tell than conservative stories. Conservative stories are the easiest of all stories to tell.

Note 5: I wonder if story-sludge is at all similar to what Terry Pratchett's wizards called narrativium.

Note 6: Gaimain and/or Pratchett: “Hell may have all the best composers, but heaven has all the best choreographers.”


  1. Thanks for this. One thing that interests me is the way that our unconscious is filled with the conservative versions of storytelling, and is ready to deploy them in the first instance. The clichéd plot, the stereotypical character, the obvious twist - each is lying in wait because we've absorbed them so much. You might find this little piece I wrote a while ago interesting:

  2. Ha, yeah that's really interesting. "Will this writer's block never end? I shall go wandering in these here childhood woods wherein I wandered freely when I was a -- oh my God! Inspiration, a bolt from from the blue nowhere, and they have leapt fully-formed into my mind: an Asian American nerd, with a passionate Latin BFF! And a normal white person!" #blessed #thankyoumuses ... Also when writers' humblebraggart terminology about their process infuses characters with a kind of agency ("unruly," "doing what they want," etc.), as if that were necessarily a sign of the deep rich truth of the character. It could be, but it could equally be, "Author Amazed at Stubbornness & Sass of Fictional Angry African American Woman Character He is Writing: 'She's incredible -- she's such a strong, unique voice -- no matter what I try to do, she just takes over the scene, doing stuff SHE wants to do like overbearingly putting down her man, or yelling stuff in front of her house with her hand on her hip. Her noncompliance swells my masterwork.'"

  3. (& I like how you avoid the false dilemma between (a) we must struggle for totally uncontaminated progressive discourse and (b) oh obviously that's impossible so why bother at all).

  4. Yes, that's a dilemma well worth avoiding. And once we avoid it, we can open up all the difficult questions, such as how do we represent oppression without asking the reader (or viewer) to vicariously participate in it (to 'feel the thrill' of the power)? One traditional answer is that we must tightly control the point of view (I've argue that before, such as in an article on representations of violence against women in film: But lately I've come to think it's more complicated than that, because POV is already conditioned by the character's place in the social set-up and narrative structure. I.e. the reader already has an attitude to the character and their story (as villain, as 'falling' as 'ascending' (zero to hero), etc), and so it seems to me possible to use an oppressor/villain's point of view in a way which doesn't ask the reader to vicariously participate in their actions. At least that's what I tried in my recent novel, though some argue that I failed. Of course reactionaries or conservatives never have to ask these questions at all. They can simple concentrate on maximising the 'effect'.