Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Six Blind Men Painting an Elephant

Matt Cheney AKA the Mumpsimus has a new post which examines the Dark Cabal's contention that the younger generation is writing pretty stories with very little substance. (My paraphrasing.) In a reflection of the synchronicity that seems to be at work in the genre all the time, this is something I've been thinking about in relation to my own work.

A couple of the short stories that I'm working on right now (the elephants is one, yes. Remember, a pachyderm's gestation period is twenty-two months. Don't rush me) involve a lot of research and planning, which is atypical of most of the short fiction I've written to this point. Many of the short stories I've sold in the last couple of years were written rather quickly, without little or no agonizing over anything except where to send them. Some of them were little experiments, written in a couple of days, as much for the fun as for any higher ideal. (And what's wrong with that?) But recently I've been writing longer stories, taking more time with them, agonizing a little more. This is not to say that I'm disavowing anything I've written before--not the published stuff, anyway. (Well, maybe the one.) It just means that, more than just being aware that there's room for me to improve, that I feel like I'm getting an idea of where that room is. For me, the work of becoming a better writer is like painting a wall blindfolded; I usually don't know I've missed a spot unless someone else points it out, and even then there's no guarantee I'm going to cover it on the next pass. Right now I'm feeling like the thing to do is to put on several coats, and try a few different colors.

If I understand what the Dark Cabalist (this one calls him- or herself Onyx) is getting at (and I'm not certain I do), then he or she is calling for more thoughtfulness and complexity in our stories. Onyx wants us to "Push a little harder" and I'm not going to say we shouldn't. Of course we should. But I don't see a negative in some of what is singled out in the post. For instance, the fact that themes of sexuality and self-actualization are still being explored by the younger generation. Well, yeah. Why shouldn't we write about the central preoccupations of sex and death and identity? Granted, we should write well about them, and perhaps that's Onyx's beef, but it's a bit unclear.

In some ways Onyx's point seems to be that we should eschew thematic pithiness, and I can't say I disagree. I personally tend to subscribe to the idea that Ben espouses at the bottom of this post, where he talks about Keats's Negative Capability--essentially, that the purpose of art is not to solve problems (by, for instance, drawing pithy conclusions and tying stories up neatly with them), but to explore them. No less a philosopher than Bruce Lee said that an intelligent mind is nourished by the search for answers, and not by conclusions. Maybe it's the postmodernist in me, but this is always my approach to my fiction; it might mean one thing, or it might mean another. I suspect that my coverage isn't all I would like it to be--the trouble with painting blindfolded is sometimes you don't realize when the paint's run out--but that's the goal.

My point--and I had one when I started this post--is that while I'm still writing the smaller, experimental pieces, lately I've been pressuring myself to write bigger, experimental pieces. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or not. I'm aware that there's a part of me that thinks these stories are in some sense more "important," and that seems like part of a recipe for self-sabotage to me. I couldn't even say what it means, truthfully. I hope that it means simply I'm becoming a better writer and that these stories are going to be better than what I was able to write a year or six months ago, and that I may have a better chance for success with them.

Meh. Apologies for the self-indulgence. I'd intended to comment on some of what Cheney says, which I think is (as usual) very insightful and smart, so go read that. I'll be over here Googling myself.


Blogger David Moles said...

I think Onyx is bored with those questions and wants people to write stories about stuff it isn't bored with. Which is understandable. And there is an argument to be made, I suppose, that if you're doing something that's been done before, and you're not doing it better than it's been done before, reading your version of it might not be the best use of the reader's time.

Hopefully what the cabal wants will be made clear in time, so we can decide we're already doing it, whether we should be doing it, whether we should refuse as a matter of principle to do it, or whether we should crush it under the steel drums of our steamrollers and then set fire to the remains (always a crowd-pleaser).

In the mean time, I'm taking bets on how long they last. :)

4:34 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

And there is an argument to be made, I suppose, that if you're doing something that's been done before, and you're not doing it better than it's been done before, reading your version of it might not be the best use of the reader's time.

I think this has to be the crux. Because if you're bored with sex and identity and death it's not the fault of the topic, but the fault of the writer. I dunno. Perhaps, as Cheney says, we are all putting too much thought into the cabal's stuff, since at bottom much of it is rather muddy and rambling. Which, come to think of it, makes it ripe for a visit from Big Pete.

4:49 PM  

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