Infinimata Press: Projects: All There On The Page Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-05-18 10:00:00-04:00 No comments

The Millions : Pitons in the Monolith: Jonathan Franzen’s Despair and the Millennials’ Dream

... this form of storytelling [novels] has a future. This isn’t because written language is somehow better than visual imagery, or because it cures isolation, or even because reading books makes you smarter than watching TV, but because words on a page, as a delivery system for images and ideas, can do things the competition can’t. I would go so far as to say that serious fiction and poetry will survive because of their relative simplicity, not in spite of it.

This is only a very slight variation on something I've said myself on and off: a book is not a movie, but vive la difference! The two achieve different things, for different reasons, and to different ends, and to say that one is somehow better than the other (or, worse yet, better "because of the way we live now" or somesuch silliness) is to miss the point.

With SF&F, slightly moreso than other kinds of fiction, there's an issue in how literary SF&F often are seen as good fodder for movies. And why not? So much of what goes on in your average SF&F book is about spectacle. Not a thing wrong with it; the book I'm writing now has more than a little of this, so I'd be the last person to decry it as a bad strategy or a bad idea.

What's tougher--and again, this is something I'm wrestling with directly, too--is to write literary SF&F that makes specific use of what's only possible on a page as opposed to a screen. The most common example I see: the movies have little time to explain concepts, but in a novel you can stop time for a chapter (or more) and digress about the way things work in your universe ... provided you don't bore the readers to tears in the process. Some readers find the theoretical mechanics of faster than light travel far more interesting than anything else that might go into a story, but I wouldn't bank on it. I am no master of this art either, but I have at least been trying to goad myself into being that much more aware of it.

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There's a galaxy of things that can be done on a page, and not done so easily elsewhere. Points of view, for instance: you can use the question of who is narrating or observing the action as a way to look that much more deeply into the goings-on. ("How is it that we are being told this story at all?") Another, quite common but very hard to do well, is to use the authorial voice itself to provide the kind of color and shading of meaning that can't be reproduced anywhere else. Kurt Vonnegut did this sort of thing constantly in his books and to great effect, which is why the film version of Slaughterhouse-five is a noble but pale imitation of the novel that inspired it. I mention that book specifically because it gets a nominal nod for being SF, even if Vonnegut himself was dismayed by the experiences he had with the SF community (both the writers and the fans), although I also have the theory he was disappointed because he received from them the same kind of mummifying adulation that neutralized so much of the reason he wrote for any audience in the first place: to act as the canary in the coalmine.

The really important things that a book can do (and which other things cannot) are not flashy. The textual experiments of Dhalgren and Barefoot in the Head and maybe also some of Alfred Bester's work are fun and sometimes enlightening, but they're — how would Brad Warner put it? — the B-sides and remixes and bonus tracks, not the album cuts. The interpolations between words that only an author can insert, the wedges of insight that can be pushed between one paragraph and the next — those can be used with a far freer hand without derailing things, and they often yield more bang for the buck than any number of typographical tricks.

I see in some works of SF&F the yielding to a temptation that I plan to talk about at length soon — the idea that the only proper way to talk about something of shattering newness is to develop a shatteringly new narrative method for it. And since so much of what SF&F loves to talk about is the bleeding edge of new, such narrative innovation seems like a natural fit for SF&F, doesn' t it? True, but only up to a point: the newness of something doesn't automatically grant it greater versatility, accuracy, or fidelity to intention. I would rather see a novel about "the new" written in a conventional way, and with the end result that its examination of the new does not come at the expense of accuracy (and in turn, truth), than one written in a daring way which ends up muddying its own waters. What we call "conventional" writing has a lot more power than we credit it with — if only we choose to see it.

Tags: Alfred Bester Brad Warner Flight of the Vajra Jonathan Franzen Kurt Vonnegut Samuel R. Delaney literature science fiction writing