A contributor’s copy* I read recently made me stop and think. This is a rare enough occurrence that I thought I’d immortalize it here.
First, some background. As a reader, the best description for me is omnivorous. From Tolkien to Dostoyevsky to Joyce, I’ve read a little bit of everything (yes, I finished Ulysses, no, I haven’t yet dared take on Finnegan’s Wake) but if you told me that my memory of a single book would be erased so I could enjoy it again, I’d choose Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Admitting to lowest-common-denominator tastes–not just science fiction but science fiction and humor–instead of citing Pliny the Elder might get me tossed off the Classically Educated editorial board** but I stand by the choice. It’s probably the book I love most in the world.
Of course, looking at a good portion of my writing, this doesn’t shine through. It can very often be dark and grim. Sometimes it takes itself very seriously.
I also like happy endings… but most of my characters, at least in my short fiction, come to endings that are anything but joyous. In fact, they are often messy, painful and protracted endings which are also untimely in the extreme. And they often don’t enjoy what comes before.
Finally, I don’t care if the fiction I read is particularly inclusive or politically activist. In fact, stories that get preachy tend to get a thumbs-down from me even if I agree with the politics. Which is why I will equally cheerfully demolish the writing of Ayn Rand or the writing of most of the current left-leaning SF genre. Both are crap, and the only people not admitting it are Rand’s fans and the people in the SF echo chamber.
Which brings me to my own writing and the book I was reading.
First, the book. It was while reading the Apex Book of World SF Volume 2 that I asked myself how I ended up participating in a project that has a very specific and very political objective: to encourage greater diversity in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres by bringing in writers from countries not usually represented in the genre. I came in as both an Argentine and a Latin American (which is weird, because at the rate I sell stories, I would have thought that Argentina was way over-represented, at least in the short fiction world, but there you have it). My story in the book is called “Eyes in the Vastness of Forever”.
It’s very definitely not the kind of book I would have picked up of my own volition. And many of the stories are clearly aimed at making the world a better, more inclusive place (not something I like to be able to identify in the fiction I read – if there’s a message, make it sneaky, not overt).
But then I realized that, far from standing out (or even just standing apart), my story fit in perfectly. Without spoiling it for anyone wishing to read it, my tale has the following in common with the rest:
- It’s written in a style that would have made the Golden Age writers denounce me as some kind of literary elitist (and my writing style is pretty straightforward compared to some in the genre). Some might simply say well-written (every single tale in this book is well-written) but my definition of well-written is more based on writing for your audience, which means that, to me, Golden Age and Pulp Fiction was perfectly well written.
- It focuses on a not-so-often seen culture.
- It respects that culture’s beliefs and shows how valuable that respect can be… or else (my stories always have an “or else” factor some of the others in the book, not so much).
- It’s strongest character is a woman.
I didn’t set out to do any of these things, of course. I just set out to write a story about Portuguese explorers in Tierra del Fuego inspired by the reports that the natives built dozens of campfires that could be seen from the sea, hence the island’s name. If you think about it, fires burning in the darkness of an unexplored land is a powerful image.
But any reader whose political or social justice leanings is specifically looking for those elements will see them and nod approvingly. They aren’t what the story is about, and they aren’t (in my opinion) an important part of the story’s message. I don’t care about those things except as far as to treat everyone decently. I’m definitely not an activist of any sort.
But what happens when a reader who HATES the modern trends in SF sees some of these same elements in a novel? This review is what happens.
Interestingly, I am about as left-leaning as, say, Genghis Khan, which means that my friends on both sides of the political spectrum have ribbed me ceaselessly for this review. But you have to respect it: it talks about what the reader SAW in the book. Not what I tried to put in there (for the record, it’s a military SF novel chock full of action and things that go boom… that just happens to have two female protagonists who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, hence making them main characters).
Isaac Asimov told a story that illuminated this phenomenon (and I paraphrase because I don’t remember it word for word): It seems he was at a talk where a critic discussed one of his books and the motivations and themes that were present. After the presentation, Asimov, it seems, went up to the critic and told him that he, the critic, had misread the work. The critic said: “What do you base your opinion on?” Asimov pulled himself up to his full height and said: “I wrote the thing.” To which the critic responded: “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything.”
I assume that pretty much ended the conversation, but the point is made. A writer’s control over the meaning of what he writes is essentially zero. Readers (and critics, unfortunately) will find that for you, and they will always find stuff that you didn’t mean to put there.
And yes… you will find yourself writing fiction that you might not have thought to read, and appearing in anthologies you would never have picked up if the publisher hadn’t sent you a copy.
Life is a funny old thing.
*For those who are unaware of what a contributor’s copy is, it’s a copy that an author receives of his work. Often, this is a periodical or book in which a story by the author is included.
**they can’t, I’m the boss. Besides, the manifesto specifically states that we’re supposed to talk about a bunch of different stuff.
Today’s post was written by Editor-in-Chief Gustavo Bondoni.