The Books of Our Lives

All of us want to write something that matters.

I don’t know a single person who wakes up in the morning and says “I’m going to write an urban fantasy, just like all the other urban fantasies.”

Over the years of knowing a lot of writers, I’ve heard them talk about “this cool idea” more than once. I’ve never – okay, once, but that writer still isn’t published – heard the “cool idea” being something like “It will illuminate the injustice inherent in the human condition.”

In fact, when writers get together, either online, at cons, or in the case of my family at the dinner table, what we get is something like this “I was thinking of writing a story in this parallel world where street lights are sentient” then come details of characters, the beginning and usually something like “And then they find out they’re aliens.”

Does the street light world reflect the alien illumination cast by an invasive culture? Search me. (Use gloves.) That’s not how writers work. It simply isn’t.

Or rather, it’s not how genre writers work. For all I know there are people who DO sit around (probably in trendy coffee shops) saying something like “Zenith, my friend, I just ache to write a book about the heartbreak of psoriasis. ACHE I tell you!” However, those aren’t the sort of people I’d talk to, and I suspect they’re not the sort of people who write books, you know, with words in them. They just drink coffee and cry into their berets.

So, what point am I trying to make here?

My friend Mike Kabongo, who for his sins is a literary agent, did a post on this subject. I suspect – though he doesn’t say it – he did a post on this subject, because editors want to publish “significant” books and so he has to sell them to publishers as such.

I don’t envy him his job. In the past I’ve had to sell books to agents (who refused to send them out otherwise) as mind-changing, different, paradigm exploding. For science fiction that’s even more interesting because you can’t say “it’s a space opera and the twist is really in the plot, where it’s revealed that…” For fifteen years no agents would send out my science fiction because “you don’t have any brilliant new scientific idea.”

Okay – deep breath – it’s not that we want to write forgettable books, but most of us don’t get books in a form that we know what the “message” is. I’d argue when books come in that form they tend to end up as screeds and very boring. Beyond that, Mike makes a cogent argument that very few books, ever, change a person’s mind, and that they’re more likely to do so when the person is very young.

Heck, even Heinlein didn’t change my mind on anything with one book. He had a profound influence on my beliefs over time, but each of his books I read just for fun. Yes, they had a central idea. Yes, sometimes I even saw it. But while reading I didn’t care, I just knew it was a rip-roaring adventure I enjoyed. In re-reading I might pick up on the other ideas. And I reread him a lot, because it was a rip roaring adventure I enjoyed. (And my favorite Heinleins don’t have a “breakthrough science idea.” I’m sure other people had done alien mind-controlling invaders and sentient computers before he did.)

The second and more important thing is what I call “publishers thinking they’re Universities.” I.e. they think they can claim critical respectability and significance for genre by claiming the high ground of “message.” But that’s not how it works. Oh, a few of our number will make it over the hill – Umberto Ecco, who not coincidentally, is a philology professor and a few others – but most of the time the moment someone gets to that summit they’re not considered genre. Genre can’t be made respectable, because if it’s respectable it ceases being genre.

So, what to do? I don’t know. It’s one of those cases where it seems to me the publishers want something completely different from what the public wants. And the public doesn’t like the slow-message-laden, “serious” works that get the most push (hence the fall in circulation across the board.)

What do you guys think? Do you want each book you read to “blow your mind”? And do you want it to be in a life altering sort of way or just “Oh, I liked that” and “I never thought of magical jelly fish before”?

*Crossposted at Mad Genius Club.*

9 thoughts on “The Books of Our Lives

  1. The problem with “message books” is that the author “forgets” the story telling.

    I don’t need/want somebody preaching at me.

    I want somebody to tell me a story.

  2. I was raised in the “call Western Union” tradition. My mental image of myself is of a Dark Ages bard, with wit and a little wisdom, spinning a yarn for my supper, to while away the hours of the night around a flickering fire, and perhaps — MAYBE — push back the darkness a bit.

    Starting out from the premise of the enlightenment of the benighted being our task is to mistake the nature of things. A category error, if you will.

    Remember Bobby the H’s dictum — never forget you’re competing for beer money.


  3. At the end of my day, all I want to say of the fiction I read is “That was freaky cool.”

    How I hate * significance*. And attempts to reform my troglodytic way of thinking.

  4. Mark,
    Beer Money or A Chicken Dinner. That’s what I aim my readers to give up for me. If they also take some interesting stuff to mull on afterwards, great, but I actually prefer the “delayed drop” — i.e. three days later, it comes back to haunt them. Or a year. Or ten.

  5. Kali,

    Let alone that if you can SPOT the attempts they’re freaking clumsy. And yes, I know what you mean and I HATE them too. They’re responsible for my giving more books more flying lessons than any other crime of ommission or commission.

  6. Shoot, I’m closing fast on sixty and have sufficient accretion of info, data, facts, experience, opinion and onery-ness that the likelihood of ANY book changing my mind on anything is on a par with knocking me over with a feather. I don’t read for mind-altering; back in my insufficiently misspent youth I employed a sufficient variety of pharmaceuticals to that purpose to scant effect to convince me a mind is a difficult thing to change.

    What I look for in a book (beside a rollicking good story) is at most some interesting insights, memorable characters and mebbe a good phrase or two (e.g., you keep using that word; I do not theenk it means what you think it means.)

    OTOH, when my daughter was yet young enough to let us choose books for her (family read alouds in car) we read several of RAH’s juveniles and I was amused to note the embedded elements (e.g., Mr. Kiku as a defense of bureaucrats in The Star Beast.)

  7. RES
    Bizarrely, I only notice that stuff in Heinlein now, when I’m LISTENING to his books while exercising/cleaning. He skewered flufy headed academics so well in Citizen of The Galaxy. Then there’s the fact that Red Planet is The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress in miniature and for a younger audience, as it were.

    Of course everytime I listen to/read the man it makes me feel more incompetent….

    1. This does bring up a bunny trail regarding the differences in reading and listening to a book. I find reading a more immersive experience, while listening tends to leave me more able to observe and note the … mechanics? sideshows? … of the story-telling. And sometimes the mode provides vastly different experiences of a book; until I heard Zelazny’s reading of Nine Princes In Amber I had not considered it as a hard-boiled detective story, a la Chandler…

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