Thoughts and thought-wrangling on fanfic

Lately I have been reading a truly copious quantity of fanfic, and not many actual books.  Mind you, plenty of fanfic winds up book-length, or even series-length, so that’s not what distinguishes it from “actual” books.  Quotes point to my internal debate over whether or not to write about fanfic here, which I’ve been having for a while now.  Well, I say I’ve been having a debate – I’ve been waffling about it mentally without ever pinning down and organizing my thoughts.  Really, what it comes down to is the little voice in my brain listing off reasons why fanfic doesn’t count versus the rest of my brain saying those reasons don’t actually hold up.

  1. Fanfic isn’t published.  Well, not traditionally, no, but what counts as “publishing” is expanding and growing more flexible all the time.  Loads of people have begun self-publishing e-books, and entire books have even been posted online in serialized form before going to print in more traditional format.  Once upon a time, before the internet, books used to be published chapter by chapter in magazines and the like, which people today would probably consider a bit weird.  So the fact that fanfic isn’t published in a particular way doesn’t seem like a good reason to brush it off.
  2. Fanfic isn’t book-length.  Touched on this one already, and no, a lot of it isn’t – but then, some of it is.  Also, other stories aren’t required to attain a certain word-length before anyone pays attention to them; that’s where the words “flash fiction,” “short story,” “novelette,” and “novella” come from.
  3. Fanfic isn’t creative; it just re-uses other people’s characters, settings, etc.  Sure, but so does basically everything else ever written.  I’ve never heard of an author saying, “I create all my works in a vacuum, without any influence or inspiration from anything or anyone else that makes its way into my stories, ever.”  Most of them say the exact opposite.  And sure, the little voice in my head can pitch a fit about how fanfic is more directly and obviously derivative than most of literature, and I suppose that’s probably true, in general.  But not entirely.  I have read more works than I can readily name which are deliberate retellings of someone else’s characters and stories.  I just finished reading a whole anthology of short stories called Rags and Bones in which the entire point was for authors to take a story that they loved or that deeply impacted them, boil it down to its essence, and then re-write it.  It can even be done from, and become, what the canon has elevated to “great literature” – Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, anyone?  No one tells those authors their works don’t count because they drew on another author’s work to create them.
  4. Fanfic is just bad!  This is the last (least rational) redoubt of the little voice in my head.  Frankly, I think it’s just an urban legend, a la “D&D will turn your kids freaky and evil.”  I mean, I’m sure there’s terrible fanfic out there.  But there’s also really good fanfic out there.  And the fact that absolutely terrible works exist in the world of traditionally-published books does not, again, render all other works in that world worthless.  I mean, wow, there are some absolutely terrible books out there, and I question how they ever managed to get published, but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the other books out there.  Fanfic doesn’t have to be universally good to be worth talking about.

So maybe, at some point, I will write about fanfic here.  Hm, maybe Luminosity

Delan the Mislaid: an adventure with ambition

A while back I was looking for more books by an author I like, Laurie J. Marks, and discovered that she’d written a book that had resonated with me as a kid: Delan the Mislaid.  I’d forgotten the name and couldn’t find it again, so I was delighted to rediscover it, and to learn that it has sequels.  Unfortunately, since she wrote it in 1989, it’s been out of print for quite a while and my beloved local library doesn’t have it in regular circulation.  Eventually, I decided to just buy it used.  I haven’t gotten its sequels yet, though, because sometimes books we love in childhood don’t really hold up in adulthood.

I wouldn’t say this one didn’t hold up.  But boy, there was a lot I didn’t remember about it, and a lot I couldn’t appreciate or critique when I read it as a child.  The part that I remember, the part that really struck me, happens maybe a quarter of the way into the book.  The main character, Delan, thinks he’s some sort of deformed freak and then discovers he’s actually an immature member of a race of winged people, a caterpillar who was waiting to turn into a butterfly.*  The rest of the plot has to do with him being captured and used as part of a plot to destroy his people, learning more about his heritage, etc.  It’s all fairly ordinary as these things go, though still plenty enjoyable.

What was absolutely not ordinary that I didn’t remember is that Delan’s entire race is hermaphroditic and given to non-monogamous, non-binary relationships.  Delan isn’t actually male, or at least, isn’t only male.  It’s probably not surprising that I didn’t remember it; as a kid I didn’t have the mental framework to understand it, so my brain must have just skipped over it.

Now, it’s probably the most fascinating thing about the book to me.  Along with my reaction to it.  It was tremendously difficult for me to remember that all Aeyries were hermaphroditic.  Something in my head kept wanting to assign genders to them.  Delan was male; Eia, his first crush/love, was female; Gein, one of his first friends, was male; his long-lost parent was female; and so on.  This undoubtedly says as much (or more) about me as it does about the book itself.  At the same time, I couldn’t help comparing the handling of gender Delan the Mislaid to how it’s done in Ancillary Justice, in which all of the characters must have some kind of gender, but in which I never felt the need to assign one.  I wish Delan the Mislaid had been able to accomplish the same thing.  On reflection, though, that isn’t really fair and might not even be possible.  Ancillary Justice accomplishes what it does in part because of my (and presumably many other readers’) need to assign gender and assumption that by default people are male.  It deliberately disorients those learned biases by referring to everyone as “she.”  That isn’t really an option for Delan the Mislaid, however.  One race (Walkers, the human analogue) does have two genders and distinguishes between them in speech using gendered pronouns.  The Aeyries have effectively one gender and use their own set of pronouns: id, idre, ids (she, her, hers/he, him, his).  The book couldn’t make the distinctions it wants to by confusing and eliding gender.  Since the Aeyrie pronouns were basically nonsense syllables to me, though, I didn’t register them properly as a designation of the Aeyries’ unique gender.  In fact, whenever “id” was used, I had the persistent impression that someone named id was acting or speaking.  It was disorienting, but in a way that took away from the story rather than improving it for me.  I can’t immediately think of a better solution, though, and it might well work better for others than it did for me.  Still, I wish I’d gotten better immersion in that regard.

On the other hand, sometimes it really, really worked.  I remember one particular line of Gein’s: “It must be very strange to grow up in a society with two sexes.  To be forbidden to love someone because by some accident both of you can lay eggs, or cannot lay eggs.  What a strange and arbitrary notion!”  That line hit me like a lightning bolt, a sudden blinding shift in perspective.  It’s basically impossible to live in the society I do and not be aware of controversy around queer people and relationships.  Even for people who don’t take issue with them, they are still A Thing, separate from non-queer people and relationships.  It’s like race: some white people can claim not to see it, but pretending the distinctions aren’t there doesn’t make them go away.  They’re still here, even if we work to change that.  But for Gein, the world isn’t like that.  All relationships with all people are valid, and drawing distinctions between them seems random and bizarre to him.  For just a moment, I could see a world like that.  It would be like arbitrarily declaring that, say, each relationship must consist of exactly one person who was double-jointed and one person who was not double-jointed.  It would be nonsensical, proclaiming who could be in relationships simply because they were or were not physically capable of one thing or another.  Thinking of it in those terms makes the whole issue look different.  While I often wished the book did a better job normalizing various forms of queerness for me, I’m glad it tried, and I’m delighted for the moments it succeeded.

On that front, I’m still sorting out how I feel about the race/gender combined dynamics in the book.  As I said, not only are the Aeyries hermaphroditic, they’re also given to non-(human-)traditional relationships.  Forming long-term three-way relationships is common, and monogamous relationships are rare.  Plus, the Aeyries are much more casual about sex in general than Walkers, our human analogue in the book.  On the one hand, my initial reaction is that this is an interesting reversal of what’s normally privileged.  Aeyries are set up as the “special” race, fount of technology and culture and even hinted at being more intelligent than Walkers.  And for Delan, the perspective character, of course, they’re salvation from a life as a misfit outcast.  They’re even literally above the Walkers, since they can fly.  And because the Aeyries themselves are privileged, so is their queerness.  Which, on the one hand, is a positive reversal of what’s often denigrated in real life and is great for that.

On the other hand…a lot of things.  My thoughts are many, and my feelings are complicated.  Having a “special” race at all is deeply problematic for reasons that need no explanation.  On the other hand, is their “specialness” error or intent?  Maybe part of it is just my leftover childhood identification with a character who feels like a freak and then finds out there’s someplace he fits (better, anyway), so of course it feels fantastic and magical.  Plus, the book does show that while the Aeyries are perceived as special, some of that perception is inaccurate.  Walkers think the Aeyries believe themselves better because they hold themselves physically apart from other races, wear luxury fabrics, trade at high cost for their technological innovations, etc.  But when Delan talks to Aeyries for the first time, he hears other explanations for these facts: Aeyries stay separate because Walkers in general dislike or even hate them and are capable of harming them easily, so the Aeyries keep away to avoid being attacked; they wear luxury fabrics because they’re the only cloth light enough and warm enough to fly in; they trade at a high cost for their tech because it’s basically all they have.  They’re at an extreme physical disadvantage in farming because they’re built to fly, so they’re used to getting food from gathering, but Walkers accuse them of stealing and attack them.  Because of that, they live on the edge of starvation and have to carefully monitor their birthrate to ensure they won’t have more mouths than they can feed.  And individuals clearly exhibit plenty of negative traits, including their own xenophobia, pride, stubbornness, etc.  Some of this seems a little too pat to me, but with a grain of salt and the knowledge that this was Marks’ first published novel, I can accept it.  Mostly.

So maybe the problem isn’t so much that Aeyries are presented as “special” without nuance, as that Walkers are presented as bad without nuance.  The Walkers are, mostly, a faceless mass of unthinking bigots.  At one point, some of them are hunting Delan, and he says to one of them, “[Name], I helped you get rid of the pests in your garden just a few months ago.  I’m a person just like you.”  The guy basically just stares at him, which seems to underscore both the Walkers’ general lack of individuation and their seeming dullness.  There are a few who’ve made a community with some Aeyries, but it’s clear that most people of both races view this community as peculiar at best, definitely an exception to all rules.  Even then, only one Walker in the community is actually a named character with any amount of development.  She’s great and all, but she’s not enough.  The main villain, Teksan, is a Walker sorcerer, and he’s just plain Evil with a capital Evil.  Sadistic, frothingly bigoted, power-hungry, the whole bit.  And let’s not forget that the Walkers are the race that made our perspective character’s entire childhood a living hell.  Sure, his perspective is undoubtedly biased, but his is the perspective we have as readers.  That’s a structural decision that has consequences.  Similarly, Walker magic is presented as inherently evil.  It’s powered by pain, requires the infliction of pain to accomplish anything, and involves effects like enslaving people with insubstantial ropes of despair and conjuring horrible flesh-melting monsters.  By contrast, the book states repeatedly that “Aeyrie magic begins where Walker magic ends.”  What exactly Aeyrie magic is, how it works, what it does (aside from scrying), and so on aren’t really clear, but it is very definitely Not That Awful Thing that the Other Guys do.

So yeah, all together I do think the book presents Aeyries as better than Walkers.  Not deliberately, maybe, but even if it was just a clumsy mistake that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a problem.  Plus, the codification of racial differences in sexual mores makes me uneasy.  In real life, that often gets nasty very quickly, with a privileged group declaring an oppressed one debased or the like.  Of course, this isn’t real life, and the book at least tries to mix up oppressor and oppressed.  Both groups feel arbitrarily mistreated by the other, and the group the reader is inclined to side with and privilege corresponds with the group that’s underprivileged in real life, at least in terms of gender and sexuality.  And in those terms, at least, the privilege is less toxic precisely because it’s directly opposed to the direction of real life privilege.  I can imagine that for a queer child, this would be an even better escape into a world where suddenly who they are is right, not freakish.

And it’s not as if the book is totally devoted to this opposition and conflict.  The shared community does exist, even if most people of both races consider it an aberration.  It’s depicted as a happier, healthier community than either pure Walker or Aeyrie communities, in which people come together, learn from one another, and accomplish more together than they could alone.  The effective cold war between most Aeyrie and Walker communities, in contrast, is depicted as pernicious for both.  Still, it feels as if the book emphasizes immediate conflicts more than these bigger-picture concerns.  

Overall, I think Delan the Mislaid has ambitious aims and stumbles in the execution of them.  But from the synopses of the next two books, it seems the story continues to grapple with the same issues from different angles.  Since that’s exactly what I wanted to see after reading the first one, I’ll be picking them up at some point.  I’m curious to see what will happen and which of my impressions will be born out – or not.

* Later he finds out he’s a mage, and that he’s the long-lost heir of a ruler.  This is one of those parts that doesn’t hold up as well.  It was clearly a nice fantasy for a misfit kid, though.

Human and not-human

A few days ago I realized I’d never mentioned Ancillary Justice here.  It’s an excellent book, and much metaphorical ink has been spent on it – it’s won several awards.  In all, I probably don’t have much that’s new to contribute.  On the other hand, if I wanted to be the first to have any given idea about most books, I’d be doomed to perpetual disappointment.  So here is what I love about Ancillary Justice: it has a really excellent main character.  A unique idea, executed well.  

The main character is a ship’s AI.  The ship is called Justice of Toren, but the ship itself has been destroyed (a story that unwinds slowly through a series of well-executed flashbacks), and the AI remains only in a single human body who calls itself Breq.  I’m sure this sort of thing has been done before, though I haven’t personally encountered anything similar.  It’s just so well done in this book.  Toren/Breq is human and not-human at the same time, and not just because she/he/it is a ship in a human body.  Breq has very human values, unsurprisingly slanted towards qualities like service and loyalty, but s/he doesn’t express them in the same way that humans do.  Justice of Toren has emotions, but it doesn’t emote.  I felt as I read that no matter what Breq was doing, s/he always seemed calm.  The feelings that motivated his/her/its actions had to be inferred.  Toren/Breq goes on a twenty-year quest across the galaxy, which must be driven by some stupendous emotion, yet that emotion is difficult to see.  Toren itself doesn’t really seem to feel it, exactly.  It seemed calm even as it told another character it hated him, even as s/he flung itself off a bridge to save him, even as its heart raced knowing s/he was discovered and killers were coming for him/her.  At times it almost seems that the character must be in shock, because s/he’s clearly acting under the influence of powerful emotions, but doesn’t seem to truly feel them.  Breq isn’t in shock, though; s/he’s just not human.

The other major way this shows up is that Toren/Breq doesn’t care about most human distinctions.  Class, race, gender – s/he’s aware they exist, they just don’t particularly matter to it.  Obviously, they don’t apply to Breq itself, so much so that I can’t even figure out what name or pronoun to use for the character.  Breq is a pseudonym and not the right name.  On the other hand, Justice of Toren doesn’t quite fit either because the character isn’t a ship any more.  Toren/Breq isn’t an it because it’s clearly a person, but male and female are just as clearly meaningless categories to him/her.  As for other people, Toren/Breq seems to view these distinctions simply as data, information that’s important only for its importance to others.  Physical descriptions are rare in the book, though the few scraps that appear make it clear that the confluence of class, race, and beauty standards don’t match up to those in our world.  More radical, however, is the fact that the book uses only female pronouns.  In the world of the story, this is justified by the idea that the dominant language doesn’t have gender-distinguished pronouns, but for the reader, it becomes one more way to elide what are, to Toren, meaningless distinctions.  It works, too.  The categories clearly matter to human characters, but to the reader, they’re immaterial.  It’s a fascinating and surprisingly refreshing perspective, being human and not-human at the same time, looking at human society when people are defined primarily by their actions.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Romance in non-romantic fiction

This topic has been stewing around in the back of my head for a while now.  I hadn’t written about it because I really wanted to post something intelligent and thoughtful, and that seemed so difficult.  I also didn’t want to just put it off indefinitely, though, so finally I decided to jump in, even if it came out warty.  Disclaimer: this is primarily about straight romances, mostly because I’ve read a lot more of those so the patterns are more obvious to me.  There’s so much swirling around in my head even just with that that I doubt I’ll be able to fit it all in one post.  Probably I’ll just make a start on the parts that most preoccupy me today, and come back to other bits later.  

What I keep circling back to when I think about romance in non-romantic fiction is how compulsory romance seems, even in stories that aren’t about romance.  I feel as if it’s worse for women than for men – that not only is it rarer for female protagonists to have a story without romance, romance has to be a bigger part of their stories when it’s present.  Women are more defined by their relationships with men than the reverse.

For some reason this came to a head for me when I was reading Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.  I felt a little bad for being so frustrated because I very much liked the book otherwise.  Now that I think about it, in fact, it’s probably because I liked the book otherwise that I got so hung up on the compulsory romance aspect.  Particularly, I was a big fan of the main character.  She’s clever and determined and compassionate and of course she winds up in a romance with the mysterious vampire guy.

It’s not that I objected to him, specifically.  I actually liked him as a character as well.  But after reading uncountable stories in which women just always wind up having (male) love interests, I snapped a little bit.  Why does she have to have a crush on him?  Why can’t she just be clever and determined and compassionate – and be complete without a love interest?

I don’t object to characters having romantic relationships in general.  (Some of my best friends have romantic relationships!)  People have romantic relationships; therefore, characters have romantic relationships.  It would be ridiculous if they didn’t.  It’s the ubiquity of it that bothers me, especially for women.  It’s as if there’s no comprehensible way for a woman to exist without being involved with a man.

This means that books without compulsory romance (especially for women) appear like oases in the desert.  Reason number two why I absolutely adore Dealing with Dragons and always have is that the main character is a princess who doesn’t have to get married.  And it’s not just that she doesn’t get married.  She doesn’t have a crush.  She doesn’t go adventuring with a guy and realize how great he is.*  There’s only one male character with whom she might conceivably have any kind of relationship, and she’s not interested in him.  It’s not even an emphatic lack of interest – she’s not rejecting him for any reason.  She’s just not interested, and she has other things to do.  I really have no words for how amazing, how refreshing, how completely delightful that is to me.

That’s sad.

It also leads me to something else that bothers me: usually, when characters (both men and women, but again, more so with women) don’t have any sort of romantic interest, it’s an emphatic lack of interest.  That is, they actively reject the possibility for some particular reason.  A highly non-scientific survey of my bookshelf suggests that for men it’s most often that their prior (female) love interest died.  Women’s (male) love interests are usually gone in some other way.**  But the possibility that a person (especially a woman) might just not be that interested in the people around them and have other things going on is practically unheard-of.

This drives me crazy.  Like I said, it’s not as if there’s anything wrong with any specific example of having a romance or pining for a lost love.  But frankly, I’d like a little more variety in my reading.  And sure, I can go searching for it – but it’d be awfully nice if I didn’t have to search.

* This does happen in the second book – that is, she goes adventuring with a guy, realizes how great he is, and marries him.  I know it’s not unreasonable.  Expecting people to never change and develop is just as unrealistic as expecting people to always have a romantic interest.  I still found it disappointing.  On the other hand, in the third book she goes on an adventure (while pregnant!) while her husband stays home to take care of the kingdom.  Which is pretty great, and couldn’t have happened if she hadn’t gotten married.  Second book is still my least-favorite.

** This probably says something (probably lots of somethings), though I’m not sure exactly what.  Female characters being killed off to serve as motivation for male characters is a well-documented trend in a variety of media, but the reverse doesn’t seem to happen as much.  Maybe it’s a bigger deal for a man to be unable to protect his love interest, but for a woman it’s a bigger deal to not be able to hold onto hers?

Bits and pieces

Lately I’ve had a collection of minor thoughts, but nothing major.  I figured I’d throw them all together and have a grab-bag post.  Here we go!

Fables: Blood of Heroes:  My beloved local library did, in fact, have the tie-in novel I was unsure about reading.  Adventure, ho!  I requested it, and it arrived surprisingly quickly.  I read it even more quickly.  It’s a fun little light read, and certainly better than the tie-in novels I’ve read previously.  I’m not really surprised by that – like I said, I really like other works I’ve read by this author – but considering my earlier experiences, I’m still glad.  I tend to refer to books like this one as cotton candy reads.  They’re tasty, but not big on substance.  The game world the story is set in is generally fairly light-hearted, though, so that makes sense.  And for the record, I don’t mean cotton candy as an insult.  I read a lot of cotton candy, and so do most other people who are big readers, because often I (and other people) just want some fun entertainment.  

One of the things I like about this book in particular is that it has eight different heroes, each formed on a different stereotype (or archetype, if you like).  The book deliberately plays on the stereotypes for humor.  None of the characters is really developed past their archetype, but since the book seems to be winking at the reader, it works.  Cliches that might otherwise grate become endearing.  For me, it was like watching ghosts of other players going on their own adventure through a game I knew.  There’s a singular pleasure in watching someone else enjoy something, and I felt a little of that in this book.

Devil in the Wires: I finally finished one of the books I’d stopped in the middle of.  I am disappointed.  Like I said, I really liked the concept for this one.  It involves the various gods humans have worshipped over the millennia actually existing (in a Lovecraftian unknowable mind-breaking monster kind of way) and gaining power or sustenance or something from human worship (or human pain, or…).  Except now, human beings have found a way to trap these gods and extract the power from them.  Instead of burning coal for electricity, we burn gods.  

Cool idea, right?  Having finally finished it, though, I’ve figured out why it was such a slog for the longest time: first, I wasn’t interested in any of the characters.  It’s not even that I didn’t like them; I’ve said before that I can dislike a character and still find them interesting and want to see how their story develops.  But these didn’t interest me, to the point where I consistently confused two of them (the main character’s boss, who was on another continent, and the suspicious cop).  I thought it was just the writing style, which runs to gritty, that made them seem colorless, but even at the climax I didn’t much care about any of them.  And second, there’s a stretch in the middle where not much is happening.  Maybe there would be, if I cared about the characters.  But as it was, it dragged.  Which is disappointing, because I really wanted to like this book.  Another anecdotal data point: characters are a Big Deal when it comes to the quality and enjoyability of a book.

The Casual Vacancy: I actually read this months ago.  A friend of mine (who is now and again mentioned on this blog, namelessly) suggested that, since we often have excellent conversations about books, we should read a book together, record our conversation about it, and put it up here.  The Casual Vacancy was the book we decided on.  He’s taking a while to read it, though, so since I don’t know if or when that conversation will happen, I figured I’d toss up a few thoughts on here.

The Casual Vacancy was really painful to read at first.  It highlights the pettiness in human beings, the venial selfishness present even in positive actions, in a way that makes it impossible not to recognize those same traits in oneself.  Or at least, it did for me.  I started it immediately after finishing Grace of Kings, too, which only exacerbated the effect.  But over the course of the book, it gradually begins to feel humanizing rather than caustic.  Everyone is small and everyone screws up (often), but I found myself wishing for them to do better, rather than condemning them.  

This also made me wonder about Barry Fairbrother, the character whose death kicks off the plot of the book.  He’s simultaneously present and absent throughout the story, a looming gap whom all of the characters know but the reader does not.  At least, the characters know his public face – which is what makes me curious.  One of the things the book emphasizes constantly is the difference between people’s public faces and their private thoughts and feelings.  So I have to wonder, what lies inside Barry Fairbrother’s public face?  I have no way of knowing.

The Spell of the Sensuous: This one I actually haven’t finished reading yet, but a friend of mine recommended it to me and said she’d like to see me review it.  I was excited!  And I adored the opening.  It’s beautiful.  What I’ve read since then reads like a strangely harmonious combination of poetry, dissertation, and travelogue.  I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.

And they all lived happily ever after

I’ve been thinking for a while about happy endings.  Years ago, a friend of mine said he was annoyed at a perceived trend in books of the time to refuse purely happy endings – he felt as if there always had to be some bittersweet element, some catch.  Which made me wonder: what makes an ending “happy”?  Personal closure/happiness/success for the main character(s)?  Justice for the bad guys?  (Which of course raises the question of how one defines “justice” and “bad guys.”)  And a related question: when is (sympathetic?) character death acceptable?

The thing is, of course, that it’s almost certainly possible to think of good books, books we like, books we find satisfying, that don’t fit whatever criteria we might come up with in response to those questions.  After all, one of the fantastic things about books is how varied they are.  In fact, that same friend later told me he was a little disappointed in the ending of a book he’d otherwise liked because it felt too happy, too neat and easy.  It didn’t seem plausible to him.  Which was, in fact, part of the issue he’d had with earlier, less happy endings: he felt that because of the trend, less-happy endings were often contrived.

It made me think that maybe what makes an ending happy isn’t the right question.  Maybe a better question would be what makes an ending satisfying.  An ending doesn’t have to be happy to be satisfying; if that were so, then tragedies wouldn’t be so perennially popular.  I think satisfaction basically comes down to one thing: reader expectations.  That’s true in any kind of writing, really.  I used to tutor essay-writing (still do, occasionally), and one of the necessities of that is guiding reader expectations, using structure and language cues so that readers can anticipate what you’ll discuss next.  It’s surprisingly painful when that’s done poorly.  Fiction is a little different because part of the point is to surprise readers with plot twists they didn’t expect, but even surprises must be properly staged, or they fail as surprises.

Obviously, a perfectly predictable ending would be boring.  But still, an ending needs to fit within the general spectrum of what readers anticipate from the book, or it fails to satisfy.  Thinking back, I can recognize a few times I’ve encountered this, with relatively varied books.  Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example.  The book is dark and threatening and horrifying and as the tension ratcheted higher I became more and more convinced that when the final cataclysm came everything would be blasted beyond recognition.  And then…it wasn’t.  The cataclysm never quite came.  The protagonists got a happy ending.  Everything was all right.  I was left feeling entirely nonplussed.  

I didn’t expect quite such a calamitous ending from Daughter of the Sword.  It’s a mystery story, and, as expected, the main character solves the mystery, defeats the bad guy, and gains some respect, all excellent.  But then, as if by magic, her sister suddenly, finally recognizes her addiction problem, and her blatantly sexist boss screws up spectacularly and gets not only fired but arrested?  You are straining my credulity, and it niggles like a splinter under my skin.  

Big Bad Wolf was a similar story – a mystery, a law enforcement officer trying to solve it, an assortment of criminal opponents, familial entanglements.  It went in the opposite direction, however.  After much lead-up, including secondary successes and plenty of challenge, the main character is finally closing in on the head bad guy.  He goes in…and fails utterly.  The bad guy put up someone else as a fall guy and escapes entirely.  The main character hits a dead end and has nothing to show for his efforts.  Not only that, but the familial subplot goes against him as well.  And of course, these things happen in real life.  They even happen in books.  But this, I was convinced, was not that kind of book.  My expectations were built and nothing occurred to contradict them until the ending, upon which they were totally wrecked.  “Dissatisfied” barely begins to describe my response.

On the other hand, sometimes endings that wouldn’t ordinarily work do, because they fit the book they’re in.  I’m thinking of Grace of Kings.  Its ending was one of the things I wanted to discuss in my previous post about it, but I couldn’t find a way to shoehorn it in.  Simply put, the very end of Grace of Kings doesn’t resolve plotlines, whether happily or not.  It creates them.  I’d never seen a book that did that, let alone one where it actually worked.  And yes, Grace of Kings is meant to be the first book in a trilogy, so you could just assume it’s done that way to lead into the next book.  Say, perhaps, that it’s a cliffhanger ending, like so many other trilogies.  But it’s not.  It doesn’t end mid-plot, at some climactic moment of great uncertainty.  It ends at the narrative hook, the sign that a new plot is just about to begin.  In most books, this would be bizarre beyond words.  But in this book, it fits.  One of the major themes of the book is history, how it’s always being made, always continuing – how it never truly ends.  Thus, neither does the book.  I was delighted.

How Literature Plays with the Brain* had much to say about this sort of thing – the balance between harmony and dissonance as we read.  Both are important, enjoyable even.  At different times, we desire differing degrees of each.  We can be satisfied with each.  What causes dissatisfaction with a book, I think, is when it too-suddenly shifts the balance between the two.  Happiness, per se, isn’t the issue.  It’s whether we expect happiness.

* That book I was so very interested in and found so very annoying.

The great white sharks of the reading world

I just read a piece here about Scribd’s attempt at a Kindle-Unlimited-style subscription service for books and how Scribd’s lack of data, and possibly math and just plain attention, led to the service’s semi-downfall.  The article is interesting and fun – while I’m rather prone to philosophy, the nuts and bolts of the book business always intrigues* me.  However, it intrigues me in part because it’s not something I know much about, so I can’t really contribute to that discussion.

Instead, I want to talk about a line that stuck out to me, partly because it was funny and partly because it surprised me (and partly because I had to go look up some of the stuff in it): “Romance readers are the Great White Sharks of the reading world. They are the 80 in the 80/20 rule. They are the power in a power law.”

Okay, let’s be honest, comparing bookworms to great white sharks is just funny.  Thank you for that, Carolyn Jewel.  Also, it might just be that before I hit up Wikipedia I had no idea what the 80/20 rule and power law were, but something in that second part of the line (and possibly a primer from the great white shark comment) give me this sense of some immense, powerful force lurking out there, unbeknownst to most.  Maybe it’s less romantic if you know more about economics and what have you, but to me it’s a pretty cool image.  And even without the mystery of lurking in the darkness, you still get the sense of raw force, which is powerful.

And I’m going to stop geeking out over the craftsmanship of it and move on.  (Look, I’m an English nerd, you have to expect that kind of thing.**)

The author of the piece (Carolyn Jewel) says that the typical romance reader will go through four to five books a week, hence the shark comparison.  From what she says, Scribd wound up cutting nearly all the romance books from their service because people were reading them too much and costing Scribd too much money.  That surprised me.  I mean, there’s no particular reason I think romance readers wouldn’t read that much, I just didn’t know they did.  It made me curious – why is that?  I don’t really know any big romance readers (that I’m aware of), so I don’t know anyone I could ask.

Anyway, the voracity of romance readers apparently surprised Scribd, too.  Jewel suggests that it’s because they just weren’t paying attention – that since romance readers are primarily women, Scribd effectively dismissed the genre as being “for girls” rather than “real books” and didn’t put much more thought into it.  She never suggests they did it deliberately, which makes sense; many instances of prejudice aren’t deliberate.  People just don’t think about some group of people, and then something gets messed up.  (See: face-tracking software can’t see black people.)  It’s too bad Scribd handled it by wiping out their romance selection, though.  It may have been the only way to save their budget, and if so it’s understandable, but that’s a lot of disappointed readers.

But going back to Jewel’s theory on why it became a problem to begin with: I was happy to see someone else propose that some books are looked down on because of their readers.  It’s not as if I thought no one else had ever come up with the idea, but I hadn’t ever heard someone else say it.  On the other hand, I’ve already said I have my own prejudices when it comes to romance, and I have the nagging feeling that my surprise at how many books romance readers go through is the product of that.  Problematic.  Well, another day, another lesson.  I learned some interesting things, enjoyed a well-written line, and broadened my horizons a little.  Not bad for a few minutes’ reading.

* Intrigue?  “Nuts and bolts” is technically a compound subject and should thus take a plural verb, but on the other hand it’s also an idiom and thus weird.  Hm.  I mean, the obvious solution would be to just use a different expression, but where’s the fun in that?

** On a related note, the book How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish is fantastic, and if you are also an English nerd, you should absolutely read it.  Hm, maybe I should re-read it…