My Kind of Story

After consuming 2,000-3,000 books over the last half-century you’d think I’d know exactly what kind of books I love to read, but I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve been living on the trial and error method up to now.  Before recent revelations, if I didn’t like a book it was a bad book, or a boring book, or if I wanted to be generous I could claim I wasn’t in the right mood for that book or whine that the book covered a topic out of my territory.  If I loved a book, it was brilliant, insightful, well written, heartfelt, and perfect for me.  What if I’m wrong?  What if why I love or hate a story has nothing to do with those factors?  What if it has nothing to do with genre?  What if it has nothing to do with favorite writers?  What if the books I love the most, the ones I read the fastest are due to a particular writing formula?

Recently I selected The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon for my June book in the 1% Well-Read challenge, but that book rubbed me the wrong way.  Since the Pynchon book was about the 1960s I thought I’d try a different book about the same time period and see how another author handled the subject.  I quickly found, Drop City by T. C. Boyle, also covered in the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  Both books open in California, but the Pynchon book came out in 1966 and appeared to be about 1964, and the Boyle book was published in 2003 and was about 1970.  Drop City rubbed me the right way.

So, with two books about Californian counter-culture, why did one soar and the other crash and burn?  You’d think the book written in the middle of the 1960s would feel more authentic, but actually the book written in 2003 hit an emotional bull’s eye with my old memories of the times.  Well, for one thing, Pynchon was born in 1937, and Boyle was born in 1948, and I was born in 1951.  In fact, the Pynchon book reminded me of another book from 1966, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Farina, also born in 1937.  I had the same kind of trouble with the Farina book, and for many of the same reasons I didn’t like the Pynchon novel.  Both of those books felt overly intellectual and writerly, whereas the Boyle book felt like it was just a straight-forward tale about real people.

This first clue leads me to think I need to read writers who are like me in some way, because obviously I can’t always read writers my own age.  I like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, but they definitely aren’t like me, and I don’t resonate with them emotionally.  I admire their stories greatly, but I don’t have a personal bond with them like I do with modern stories.  I don’t think it’s time that keeps us apart, but their storytelling techniques.

Great Expectations is one of my all time favorite books, but that’s more for abstract reasons, and I greatly admire it for creative and intellectual reasons.  I’ve got to admit that I preferred the narrative of The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) by Michel Faber (1960), a novel set in Dickens’ time over straight Dickens storytelling.  Modern writers have developed skills to get their readers closer to their characters.  I don’t know is this is an illusion, and modern historical fiction is more appealing because the historical characters are just more modern themselves, or if Jane Austen used modern writing techniques we’d feel even closer to her two hundred year old characters.

My all time favorite books are books written by Robert A. Heinlein in the 1950s.  I also have a strong affinity for Jack Kerouac and his books from the 1950s.  These books I’ve read and reread.  Some of my more recent favorites are The Life of Pi, The Lovely Bones, Harry Potter series, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, His Dark Materials, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Secret Live of Bees, Middlesex, The Wonder Boys, Positively 4th Street, Nobody’s Fool, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Poisonwood Bible, The Glass Castle, Truth and Beauty, The Sparrow, Cloud Atlas, The Memory of Running, The Time Traveler’s Wife, A Woman of the Iron People, Bellwether, and so on.

Maybe here’s enough clues to solve the puzzle.  I think the books I cozy up to the fastest are first person narratives, or stories told in very limited third person.  I don’t like intellectual authors, especially those who use third person omniscient to expound about life and reality.  What I’m discovering is my kind of stories are about people, told in a very straight forward manner, and I greatly prefer the voice of the character over the voice of the author.  Not only that, but I’m pretty hung-up on wanting the story to unfold in a linear fashion.

I’m starting to wonder:  What if my kind of story depends on how the story is told rather than what it’s about?  When I was in elementary school and begun getting into books I loved biographies and autobiographies first.  Very linear people stories.  If you examine the book list above, all the stories are focused on people and the narrator tells the story by sticking close to the main character’s POV.  I liked Drop City better than The Crying of Lot 49 because Boyle got closer to his characters, but it wasn’t a super great book to me because he didn’t get close enough and there were too many of them.

When I listened to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao this week, I got extremely excited about the beginning when I was first learning about Oscar, and got very disappointed when the story turned away from him.  I just started Year’s Best SF 13 edited by David Hartwell, and the first story, “Baby Doll,” was a hit because of the characters, and the third story, “The Last American,” was a dud because it was all ideas and no characterization.  Intellectually I know “The Last American” is supposed to be a good story.  I can see it’s creative parts.  But it was painful for me to read because it had no character I could get behind.

I don’t think I’m seduced by every character driven story, because I’ve hated some stories with great personal writing because the POV character was too unlikable.  I love stories where the POV character have a distinctive voice, like Chi-mo in King Dork or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.  I think one of the reasons why I love the work of David Sedaris is his distinctive voice – he wouldn’t be so funny if he wasn’t so unique.

Literary writers definitely have the skills I like, but they often write about boring people.  The character details may show fantastic writing, but the personalities of the POV characters are often unappealing.  Who really cares about average alcoholic writers living in academia and getting divorced?  Well, Michael Chabon made Grady Tripp different in The Wonder Boys.

Drop City would have been a much better book to me if Boyle had followed a couple of his characters more closely.  It’s still a damn good story, but it’s movie like in that all the characters seem equal distant.  A lot of writers do this, that is, follow the techniques of the movies, jumping from character to character.  You can only get so emotionally close to an ensemble.  The Big Chill was a masterpiece of my generation, but it didn’t have the wrenching impact of Forrest Gump or Four Friends.

Other techniques I don’t like are flashbacks, convoluted plots and frames.  In the MFA classes I’ve taken, many of the student writers loved putting stories in frames, and then jumping back into flashbacks two, three and even four layers deep.  Sometimes they even use fantastic tricks to bring the modern narrator back into the past, as was done with Middlesex and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  To me, this hurts the story.  I can understand how dazzling this writing trick is intellectually, but not emotionally.

Now that I know what kind of storytelling turns me on it should help me improve my batting average finding great books to read.  On the other hand, it may not be that useful.  I often select books because other people say they are great and I want to discover what these people have discovered.  There are a lot of reasons to read Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, a book that is definitely not my kind of story.  It is instructive about the nature of the early English novel and life in the 18th century England.  Tom Jones can be a great novel but one I hate to read.  So, should I read it?

Now that I’m more aware of what I like to read, should I only gorge on my kind of stories?  If reading was only about entertainment, then yes.  If reading is about pushing yourself into unknown territory, then no.  It is interesting to know about my reading sweet tooth.  Now I just have to learn how to recognize other reading flavors and how to savor them.

Jim

Do I Embrace The Negative?

I told my friend Janis I had written what I considered a funny post called, “Retirement from Sex,” and she quickly replied, “Who’d wanna read that!”  I told my friend Marty at work about the movie Young @ Heart, a charming story about old people, and she quickly replied, “Who’d wanna see that!”  I love talking about global warming and the growing prices of gasoline, but I think I’m bumming my friends out.  My wife often tells me that I make her feel guilty.  Although I see dwelling on the negative as a way to pursue the positive, I’m starting to think I’m going to get nominated for Mr. Negative Man of the Year.

For example, when I hear the price of oil has hit a new record high, I know that it means economic devastation.  I know high oil prices are putting people in shipping and related industries out of business, that it causing food prices to skyrocket, and overall it covers the economy with a black cloud that depresses the whole population.  But I, in my weird Pollyannaish way, think, “great, this will force our society to invent new energy systems, create a green economy, and finally get us out of our dependency on buying oil from countries that want to blow us up.”   My friends see $5 a gallon gas at the pump and picture what it does to their budget.  I picture inventors all over the world getting busy and inventing new technology.  But I’m starting to realize that my friends are looking at me like I’m crazy.

While watching Young @ Heart I saw a crowd of Sisyphuses thumbing their noses at the Fates while rolling their rocks up the hill.  I figure Marty thinks about the horrors of time on the bodies of women and feels anything about getting old would be depressing.  I saw a movie that said, sure you will be old, wrinkled, hurting, diseased, dying but if you have the will you can rock on and give the grim reaper the bird when he comes to collect.

When I hear about global warming I think, “Wow, humans are powerful enough to change the whole global ecosystem, then we need to be smart enough to take responsibility for our actions.”  Sure, its a test of humanity.  We can fail, and civilization will go down the tubes, or we can transform ourselves and society and make a better world.

When I attack a book by my favorite author, like The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, it’s not because I want trash a great writer, it’s because I want to let people know that there are other Heinlein books that are much better.  There are Heinlein books that I reread every other year, and have been doing so for over forty years.  I’m trying to compare the two and see which qualities of writing make a book stand out as a classic.

I think I really freaked out my wife when I told her I wanted to give up cable TV.  Susan worships at the alter of the video icon.  And it wasn’t as if I was planning to forsake TV altogether.  I was merely wanting to cut back so I’d have more time for other hobbies, like writing science fiction.  I pointed out to her that we pay $120 a month and 95% of the time we watch ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS, shows that come to our high definition TV for free, and the other shows are easy to get with our 5 concurrent disc-out-at-a-time NetFlix subscription.

Of course, what are my alternative choices?  I could be depressed because gasoline prices are skyrocketing and pine away for $2 a gallon gas.  I could avoid any movies or social situations with old people, and pretend I won’t be ancient someday.  I could continue living like I’ve always have, and figure the problem of global warming belongs to the next generation.  I could play nice and say positive things about all books I read, as if all books were worthy of reading, each one a child you must love equally.  And I could give up any ambitions I have to be different and just accept I’ll be a couch potato addicted to TV shows the rest of my life.

I do think I see a pattern here.  I don’t think people like change.  They want to drive gas-guzzling cars until kingdom come.  They want to pretend all the conspicuous consumption they love so much doesn’t have any affect on others.  And most of all they want to feel forever young.  Well, my fantasy is to stop watching so much TV, give up reading crappy books, and learn to play the guitar so I can join a rock n’ roll band when I’m eighty-five. By then I also expect global warming will be turned around and we’ll all be using home-grown renewable energy, and the air will be clean, clear and cool.  I might be wrinkled.  My dick probably won’t work beyond peeing, and maybe not pee so well either, and I might need to truck around in a wheel chair, but I hope to play music like it’s 1965.

Jim

The Cart Before the Horse

Back in the eighth grade my English teacher loved all us brats and did her best to teach grammar.  She even saw the wisdom of forcing us wildcats to diagram sentences – a concept so useless and inane I thought at the time, that I could never imagined wanting to know or need.  Forty-five years later I finally go, “Damn, I wish I had paid attention.”

Tonight I started listening to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White on my evening walk and it made me remember all those painfully boring grammar lessons.  I wonder if I had started blogging in elementary school if I would have been a different person and actually wanted to learn what my English teacher was dishing out.

Now that I’m studying the history of physics I sure wish I had paid more attention in math class too.  Why has it taken so long to want to learn?  Now, don’t get me wrong, I wanted to learn back in 1965 – I just wanted to study science fiction, rock and roll and Estes rocketry.

I work at a College of Education and I hear a lot of talk about teaching.  I can’t believe anyone would want to be a teacher.  Lion taming would be easier.  I think my problem as a student was I had no reason to learn what they so desperately wished to shove into my noggin.  The whole system of teaching us ideas before we needed them was putting the cart before the horse.  Of course I understand they needed to stuff a certain amount of data into our brains as soon as possible but why didn’t they trick us into wanting to learn?

I’ve seen copies of my report cards for the first, second and third grades.  The big complaint was I was a daydreamer.  Jesus, what’s a little person to do when a big person is going blah, blah, blah, blah, blah for hours?  Hell, they didn’t even think I could read.  Between the third and fourth grade they even sent me to summer school to learn how to read.  I ended up in a cramped room with a few other kids and a bored old man (he could have been twenty-five or forty-five for all I knew).  He didn’t bother to teach me anything, but gave me a copy of Up Periscope, a book about submarine warfare.  Damn, I could read – all it took was something I wanted read.  I bet if you gave little boys, who hate to read. books about war and sex, they’d start reading.  Don’t underestimate the value of smut and violence on the young male mind, even second graders.

I wished I had been introduced to science and astronomy as a tiny kid.  I wish I had been introduced to boat building and plane building and car building too.  If teachers had given us projects that required me to figure things out so I’d end up asking “How do I do this?” – They could have replied, “Well kid, you need something called mathematics,” maybe I would have gotten the math bug.

I was just reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Death By Black Hole and he had a chapter about how much astronomy you could learn with a stick.  If some enterprising teacher would have taught me that when I was ten and the mathematics that went with it, maybe I would have calculated the size of the Earth on my own.  It’s one thing to tell a kid to memorize a fact and another thing to teach him how to discover the fact.  It’s hard to say, but I’ve got to wonder how different my educational years would have been.

Maybe I’m expecting too much.  The trouble with this educational pie-in-the-sky system is you have to customize it for every kid.  If one kid says he wants to build a plane and another kid says she wants to play the guitar and another says he wants to dissect a frog, how many teachers will you need?  Is it any wonder that home school kids often turn out better educated?

While walking and listening to the sage advice of William Strunk I couldn’t help but wonder if we should be encouraging little kids to blog.  Not every kid will want to, but those that do, wouldn’t it start them on the track of wanting to know how to write better?  How many activities that appeal to teens and grown-ups could be offered to kids that might inspire them to want to learn more?  I remember reading a story about a teacher that had his elementary class build a wooden boat.  Eventually that led to math and a lot of mechanical skills.

That eighth grade English teacher of mine did divert the course of my life, but maybe not in the way she expected.  She had one great trick.  She said anyone who read five books, five newspaper articles and five magazine articles and wrote a report on them each six-week grading period would get their grade raised by one letter.  That’s how I made up for not learning grammar and not having to take a C home but got to brag about a B instead.  She also had an approved reading list and Robert A. Heinlein was on it.  That little trick got me to reading hundreds of books.

Now that I’m writing for public consumption, I actually need to understand language and grammar.  Back in grade school one of the most embarrassing things around was if someone read your paper when it was handed back.  We did everything in the world not to have our words seen.  Today kids put their diaries on the world wide web – you’d think they’d be literary geniuses if they weren’t embarrassed to do that.  Today’s kids write more than ever for their peers to read.  Why hasn’t that encouraged them to write better?  I guess I just proved my assumption wrong – but maybe not.

Jim   

Fantasy Inventions 001

Philip Pullman created a wonderful fantasy invention in The Golden Compass when he imagined humans having a dæmon as an external soul to share their lives.  His Dark Materials I believe is the largest selling recent fantasy series after the Harry Potter books, so the idea must really appeal to many people.  It’s a crying shame that the recent film version of The Golden Compass didn’t do well at the box office and I wonder if it’s failure was due to the fact that the dæmon invention was too complex for the mass audience.

This morning when I woke up at 4:30 am and was deliciously drifting in and out of sleep I came up with a fantasy invention that tickles my fancy.  I wonder if it’s too complex to make a good story.  What if on our birthdays instead of celebrating them with friends we spend them with time traveling versions of ourselves from each year of our life?  Imagine a party of ninety where every person is the same person but from a different birthday along their timeline.

Think of the possibilities and ramifications of such a fantasy world.  First off we’d have to have a POV (point of view) character.  Remember we’re inventing a fictional fantasy world and not one that actually works – so things need to be logical within the narrative.  Giving the story to one POV character as he grows older, and maybe even telling the story in first person will simplify conceptualizing the fantasy invention and plotting.

We can start the story when our character is about to turn five and he goes to sleep only to find himself waking up at a new kind of birthday party were all the guests are older versions of himself.  They try not to scare him but they encourage him to do well at things that five-year-olds struggle with and they promise they will all be back for another party when he turns six.

Most people hate taking advice, but would you take advice from yourselves if you knew they knew the future?  To complicate our story I’ll have this natural tendency continue and our character will be reluctant to change.  We’ll have the kid learn over the next several birthdays that the characters who come to visit change in personality and in number.  Because on some birthdays there might be ninety people visiting but on one birthday only twenty-two show up warning him that he could die young.  Our character will learn that the group advice is good and following it has impact, but it can be conflicting coming from different aged selves.

Of course this breakthrough knowledge will come on his thirteenth birthday when our character gets surly and refuses to do any school work.  He will be shocked by his future selves and their limited number.  From then on he will try to act on his insider information.

Now that you have the idea how this fantasy invention works we can explore the philosophical and literary implications.  How often on some talk show or documentary have you seen some old guy being ask if he would change anything about his life and then hear, “I wouldn’t change a goddamn thing!”  I always find that mind-blowing.  Even if I had been immensely successful, if I got a chance to live my life over I would do it all different just because life offers us infinitely more options than we can ever experience.

On the other hand most of us aren’t wildly successful and the chance to do things over would give us the opportunity to improve our lives.  This fantasy invention would be a metaphor for that.  This idea is a variation of one of my all time favorite books and fantasy inventions:  Replay by Ken Grimwood from 1987.  Jeff Winston dies at 43 and wakes up back in his old dorm room in 1963.  He slowly realizes he gets to live his life over with the knowledge of his previous life.  You can imagine the obvious plot line here.  I mean, what would you do if you were in his place.

Jeff lives his life over, dies again and then wakes back up as his earlier self, but slightly later than before.  Again he has to relive his life, but this time he wants to do something different.  Now you see the meaning of the title.  Most people won’t be familiar with this novel but will know about the 1993 film, Groundhog Day that essentially uses the same fantasy idea with a different gimmick.

My fantasy invention is a variation of these ideas but the character only gets to live one life.  It’s philosophically about taking advice rather than learning the lessons of life through many repetitive hard knocks.  To make the story more dramatic we can have the party also grow smaller each year because no character that is younger than the POV attends.  Thus the story becomes a literary tontine.

There is a variation of this idea, but without the advice aspect, that was a biography of Ernest Hemingway.  In this fictional documentary I saw decades ago the setting was a bar filled with men of varying ages, but the viewer quickly learns that all of them are Ernest Hemingway.  The theme of this story is about how the same man disagrees with himself at varying ages.

Fantasy inventions are the wonderful aspect of fantasy writing.  The possibilities are endless.  I’m always shocked when I read a fantasy book that essentially uses a retread of an old fantasy invention.  Just how many sexy fantasy witches like Samantha Stephens does the world need, but they’re still very popular in the fantasy magazines.  I guess Heinlein should be very flattered because look how many books and video games today seem to be based on his invention of Starship Troopers.  And should I even mention Tolkien?

It’s really hard to invent a totally new fantasy invention like time travel in H. G. Wells The Time Machine.  As brilliant as it was Mark Twain had already written A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  If you follow the time travel link to Wikipedia you’ll see there were many previous works.  I think there are essentially two ways to work with a fantasy invention.  The first is to create a unique variation that is used for a philosophical statement.  The second is to create a unique variation or retread to create a fun story.  Even though Groundhog Day is a silly comedy, I think it makes a number of philosophical statements.

Now that I have my fantasy invention worked out will I write a book?  I wish, but it’s very doubtful.  I come up with these inventions all the time, thus the 001 I tagged this entry with, figuring I might write about the next 998 ideas that pop into my head.  I wish I could write a book.  I just don’t have the discipline.  I’m using this blog to practice.  You are actually listening to my piano lessons for writing, I would say.  Hope all the banging and sour notes don’t hurt you too much.  My blogs are usually around a thousand words.  To scale up to a novel I’ll need the skills to compose something 100 times that large.  For a few years I worked on short stories, but I have trouble organizing 5000-10,000 word pieces into valid fictional and essayist structures.

There is a skill involved with structuring of large wordy works.  I can barely make these blog posts coherent.  Most blogs are non-fiction.  I wonder if I should practice fiction in these posts.  That would be weird.  However, it’s one thing to take a thousand words and lay out a fantasy invention, it’s a whole other thing to scale it up to 5,000 to 15,000 thousands words of a short story or short novelette.  I wish I could.  That gives me an idea for my fantasy invention character – have him become a writer, with the older versions giving him advice on writing.  That would be a nice twist.  I could even make the story into meta-fiction and have all the future selves represent experiments in characterization.

Not bad, not bad.  Anyone like the idea?

Jim