Well, I suppose I’d better write something, lest I fulfill the prediction that I (only half-seriously) made in my first ever post: that this blog would die an imminent and unremarkable death. I don’t want that. My legions of slavering fans certainly don’t want that. So I’m here, not to save the day, but at least to say some words about a subject with which I am most excellently acquainted.
Myself, of course.
Well, not just myself. Obviously I always talk about myself to some degree. Today is special, though! Today I’ll be writing to you, dear reader, about my own personal project. That’s right. I’m currently working on a book. It’s not the first time I’ve ever conceived of writing a book. It’s possibly not my best idea so far, and almost certainly not the best I’ll ever have. But I am determined to make it the first book I ever complete, and trust me–I am bound and determined to finish this one.
Talking about my book should provide a pretty substantial source of blog posts, which is of course the real reason I’m doing it. I have to keep up the veneer of activity somehow. But I suppose in the meantime it could also afford me the opportunity to talk about different aspects of storytelling that are going on in my own narrative.
I’ll talk about subversion of common fantasy tropes, and why those tropes exist in the first place. I’ll talk about the difficulties of switching points of view, and the pitfalls of inactive protagonists. And I’ll finish off every post with a wordcount. My goal is 75,000 words by the start of September, and I almost certainly won’t be making it. Hurrah!
But today, to kick us off, I would first like to talk about the reasons for which stories are written. And the reason I’m writing my own story. There are, perhaps surprisingly, differing views on this. Some believe that the theme or message of the piece is the primary measuring-stick of its value. Others believe that literary complexity determines a book’s worth. For me, however, a story should, first and foremost, entertain. Let’s get into this a little deeper, then.
I know a fellow. He’s an old man: the step-grandfather of my beautiful girlfriend, in fact. He was once an English professor, and his library consists only of books written before 1960, none of which could ever be called anything other than “a classic” or, at the very least, “fine literature.” He spits on modern books and authors which don’t aspire to his perceived zenith of literary sophistication. Not literally, as far as I know, but if anyone’s the sort to furtively open the pages of the latest Dan Brown novel in the back of the bookstore and plant a wad of saliva inside, it’s him.
Girlfriend’s step-grandfather–we’ll call him Arthur–is of the impression that, more than anything, the thematic substance and subtext of a book determine its value. If you don’t understand what I mean, let me give you an example that should clear things right up. He claims to have liked both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, two books renowned for being impossibly difficult to read, and certainly impossible to actually enjoy. In fact, it’s not all that unlikely that the books’ author, “James Joyce,” is nothing more than a front for a government agency tasked with uncovering the whereabouts of alien beings that look exactly like us, but don’t understand entertainment.
Arthur shuns entertainment. He even scoffs at things such as The Count of Monte Cristo for being worthless “romances,” despite the fact that The Count is a classic, thoroughly riveting tale of revenge. Who the hell doesn’t like a good revenge story? Arthur, and other alien replicants like him, is the answer. For Arthur, ill-defined mysterious qualities of questionable literary merit easily trump such paltry things as accessibility and entertainment value when it comes to the important aspects of a book. Relatable characters and a page-turning plot? No, thank you. I’d much prefer dense allegory and a touch of allusion in my book.
Then there’s another friend, whom I know from school. We’ll call him… I don’t know–Rasputin. Why not. Now Rasputin reads things for the message. He listens to music for the message. Everything has to have a message. If a book isn’t making some profound statement on the state of our fucked-up society, then it’s no good for him. All art seems only to be worth a moment of his time if it challenges authority, or subtly (or overtly, whatever) discusses the shambles that is our crumbled paradise of a world.
If my tone hasn’t tipped you off yet, I’ll condense my thoughts here: I find both of these men to be a bit silly.
Yes, that’s right. Silly bastards, the both of them. Now don’t get me wrong. Much of the best literature of our age strove to accomplish something. That’s one of the reasons that both sci-fi and fantasy are so valuable–they have the capacity to criticize our world indirectly, in such a way that the issues and arguments can be shed with new light. Just ask Kurt Vonnegut if speculative fiction can be used to say something about our own world and times.
Similarly, I’m quite fond of a lot of what is erroneously named “literary fiction,” especially of the fantasy and science fiction variety. Kurt Vonnegut, again, would have something to say about the thematic quality of his work. He’d probably say that it had none, actually, but that’s part of his genius. Ray Bradbury, for God’s sake. The man wrote Fahrenheit 451, in my opinion the best of the dystopian future novels you’re told to read in high school. Gene Wolfe, a modern master of the genre. Of course, Arthur scoffed at a book of Gene Wolfe’s and refused to read it on principle. But if you wish to read a dense, multi-layered, ambiguous, altogether literary sort of book, read Gene’s The Book of the New Sun. It’s absolutely badass.
Anyway, as I was saying. I think that these qualities are important to the overall value of literature. But my comically caricatured friends Arthur and Rasputin don’t seem to understand that stories exist for one reason primarily. Entertainment.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I don’t advise you to start work now on your novelization of Jersey Shore, or begin writing your next piece of Twilight fanfiction. Please, for the love of God, don’t. Entertainment does not mean dumbed-down schlock.
But aren’t things allowed to exist primarily for the purposes of entertainment? Are we too hip and self-aware to enjoy things, and relate to characters, and stay up late even though we have work tomorrow because the book is just too damn good? I don’t want to always sit down with a mug of tea and work my way through a classic stream-of-consciousness turd of a book. Sometimes I just want to be riveted, you know? Sometimes I want to be made to feel as much as I want to be made to think. You get me?
I mean, Harry Potter’s good, isn’t it? It speaks to people of all ages. It has relatively simply drawn, relatable characters that carry the reader through the story. It’s a page-turner, certainly. And yes, the later books were good, when the whole thing became a parallel for Nazi-era Germany and the main characters were reduced to a scrabbling band of embittered, aimless revolutionaries. Trust me, I love that kind of shit. But wasn’t the series better at the start? You know it was. It was good because it had whimsy, and charm, and it was… fun to read.
I’m not writing a Harry Potter type of book. Children probably shouldn’t read the end product of my personal writing adventure, as I’m sure the content of this blog has told you. And my book has a theme, and it has, if only slightly, some intended literary merit. But I don’t ever want to forget the feeling that your first great book can give you, forcing you to lose sleep and miss meals and resent your parents for daring to pull you away from the pages. And I don’t ever want to write a book that has no chance of giving someone that amazing experience. Because that’s why stories exist. They’re powerful things, stories. And authors can do many great things with them. But in my opinion, none of those things will ever be greater than keeping someone so overwhelmingly entertained that they just can’t put the damn thing down.
Until next time.
Oh. The word count, yes. I’ll try to make this a repeat feature until the book is finished. We stand currently at 29,704 words, just 45,296 away from our goal. Wish me luck on the rest. And, as always…