Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Is it necessary to humiliate your characters?

So I was happily reading this new and highly acclaimed novel. And then I stopped. Because, well, I had reached my limit on watching characters get physically humiliated. I won't go into detail, largely because I am squeamish. But the fact that I decided not to read any further got me wondering. Am I just squeamish? Isn't humiliation a powerful and real experience, which deserves a place in fiction just as much as any other emotion?

I would answer yes on both counts. But I sensed something else going on here, similar to what I've suspected any number of times while watching various movies and TV shows. The writer (or director) seems somehow to be gloating--if not outright enjoying the scene, at least calling attention to his or her daring in creating the scene in the first place. In other words, the characters suffer on behalf of the writer's quest for authenticity. This seems especially egregious when live actors must actually undergo the experience, or some convincing simulacrum thereof. I can't help thinking that a power game is going on, not only in the story, but in the making of the story. And I don't like it.

Maybe that sense of sadism is a natural side effect of depicting humiliation; the author is in the odd position of both creating the humiliation and sort of standing over it, watching, unable to help (because the story demands that the humiliation occur). The reader's in that position, too, because she imagines and therefore recreates the scene. I suppose this complicity can be an informative experience.

It also seems to me that the artistic depiction of humiliation (not to mention its comic counterpart in mainstream movies) is a recent trend that is only picking up speed. A humiliation scene is the equivalent of having your characters use smartphones--it shows you're contemporary. You "get" how the world works today. It's a calling card of realism.

I'm not speaking of stories about war and torture, in which humiliation has a different valence--it's acknowledged as a tool of an oppressive regime. I'm talking about "first-world" stories, garden-variety suburban tales of alienation, where this ugliness seems like an attempt to fulfill some function that the story otherwise might not manage. It's almost an insistence on the story's significance, and on the power of the author's words to stir strong feelings. Maybe suburban life *is* humiliating in a way that can only be expressed through the exaggerating airing of intensely private experiences. Anyway, it's only happening to fictional characters, right? And authors don't owe their characters any protection.

I still don't like it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

In fiction, voice is everything

I know I've said this before. But reading Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao just brought that lesson back home.

Your narrative voice not only creates the world in which your fiction operates, it defines the boundaries of that world. This doesn't just apply to what the narrator can realistically know or not know (this is especially an issue in the case of first-person narration, when the narrator is also an actor in the story). The even larger issue is what the narrator can and cannot do. And it's the nature of the voice itself that establishes those parameters.

In Wao, Diaz's narrator, Yunior, possesses a wide-ranging intellect, a powerful and outraged sense of history, a dark and hilarious sense of humor, and a command of many languages--not just English and Spanish, but academic-ese, science-fiction geek-speak, 1980s New Jersey teenager, and a bunch of others. Bakhtin would have really loved this guy.

The voice so energetic and captivating, we as readers will let Yunior take us anywhere. We'll read lengthy footnotes on the history of the Dominican Republic and long passages of what attendees at a lesser sort of workshop would criticize as summary (no, don't tell us what happened to Oscar's mother, show us!). Well, he does get around to showing eventually, but there's lots of telling first--and the telling is fascinating because of the voice. The story isn't separate from the voice; the voice is the story, and the story's requirements made the voice.

How does Diaz do it? I mean, aside from being brilliant. That helps. But as authors, we can all be more aware of what our story needs its voice to do. There is no law against summaries and histories in fiction; the law is to make them interesting--which you must do via the voice.

Now, not every narrative voice is as prominent as Yunior's; many authors take a more minimalist or transparent approach to storytelling. But those voices may not be as capacious--the straightforward, "I'm-not-really-here" narrative voice would, I think, have a harder time inserting long passages of history into a fictional narrative, because they'd come off as dry and boring. That's not to disparage the minimalist style; it doesn't seek the kind of capacity I'm talking about in the first place. But if you need greater range in your story, your voice needs greater range, too: so give it more bravado, more curiosity, more offbeat humor, more fury. The more distinctive the voice, the more places it can go.

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Friday, November 02, 2012

Dr. Who vs. Star Trek

On a 1-10 scale of science-fiction geekdom, I give myself a 5. I know not to call the genre "sci-fi," for instance. I know Margaret Atwood once said something about squids in space that didn't go over well. I once read half a Vernor Vinge novel and quite liked it, until I became unspeakably tired of it.

So I now offer these thoughts, knowing that the series in question are both so monstrously popular and intellectually picked-over that I may largely be revealing my own relative newbie-ness. Nevertheless. In the past month or so I have become completely obsessed with the new version of Dr. Who. (I never watched the old version; growing up, I knew it as just some odd thing that was apparently on from midnight till morning on the PBS station.) I've gone out of sequence, starting with the first season of Matt Smith, then going back and doing the three David Tennant seasons, and then backing up all the way to the single first season of Christopher Eccleston. (This first incarnation has been rightly judged as not great, especially in comparison to the others. But it wasn't really Eccleston's fault. They were starting an old series over, and learning as they went what worked and what didn't--for example, that the Doctor should not resemble, in the show's own words, a U-boat captain.)

So here's what I've observed. If Dr. Who is as huge, or huger, in the UK as Star Trek is here, the two series seem to reveal fundamental differences in our respective national self-perceptions. While I like most of the various iterations of Star Trek just fine, I've always found them to be fundamentally dull. That's because the characters are fundamentally dull. From Next Generation on, the human characters are not allowed to be flawed in any serious way. They may have some superficial "quirks" (like blindness or, I dunno, a nagging sense that one hasn't measured up to one's father)--but any real flaws (greed, violence) are offloaded onto other races, who are then mocked and/or fought. This whole structure seems to track with the doctrine of American exceptionalism, in which we (Americans/humans) are always the good guys, whose good intentions always, in the end, produce good results. Because we're good, nothing can really go wrong.

In contrast, might Dr. Who represent the emotional realism of a former empire? Because in this series, the "good guys," while making us love and root for them, do not always do the right thing, for various reasons. Often the right thing to do isn't clear, or it's a choice between two or more equally troubling options. Also, because Dr. Who is focused on time travel, we can discover that what appears right at one moment turns out to cause problems far down the line--as when your apparent rescue of a civilization turns its members into TV-addicted bozos hundreds of years in the future. Your attempt not to cause someone pain causes them more pain, because it turned out you weren't thinking from their perspective at all, even though you told yourself you were. Sometimes, you are just kind of a jerk, because you are tired and stressed and lonely and jealous, like everyone else is.

Perhaps it's un-American of me to prefer this viewpoint. Perhaps it's even defeatist to think that every solution you create might also create problems. But--this is crucial--this does not imply that one shouldn't bother. Knowing better than anyone how things can go wrong, the Doctor never gives up trying to save the universe, and never gives up on humanity, either. He loves humanity. In this way the show might even be more optimistic that Star Trek, because it allows for real human flaws to play a part in the story--even to be the story--while still advocating for the good fight. It's about doing your best, even while you know that time and entropy and your own failings will undo your deeds.