Cultural Appropriation and Racial Segregation

I have already expressed my displeasure with the movement of policing “cultural appropriation” back when there was a backlash against the Kimono Wednesday event at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Like all moralizing efforts, cultural appropriation policing is rife with contradictions and hypocrisies.

There may have once been some merit to the idea of cultural appropriation. If you wore a ceremonial Native American headdress without actually being a Native American performing a ceremony, you could be disrespectfully appropriating a culture that was not your own, at least in the eyes of people who are offended. It doesn’t hurt to be a little mindful of these things when the doctrine is not taken to an extreme, but the margin cam be razor thin.

I once traveled to Okinawa and talked to a local cab driver who told me a little about traditional Okinawan culture and how he was sometimes offended at the insensitivity of the tourists from the mainland. Private grave sites, though unusual and spectacular as they may be, should not be a place for taking photographs, for example. He also did not like hibiscus patterns used on swimsuits and hibiscus worn as hair ornaments. Hibiscus, in his view, was a flower for the dead to be solemnly offered to graves. It was insensitive, he said, that the flower be treated so frivolously. In Hawaii, however, a hibiscus worn behind a woman’s ear represents her romantic situation, vaguely like an engagement ring though not as constricting. As such it has become widely accepted as a tropical symbol of love. The hibiscus is also the national flower of Haiti, Malaysia, and South Korea. It also represents the Hindu goddess Kali. Thus I believe the Okinawan cab driver, though genuinely offended he may have been, was over reaching when he claimed ownership of the hibiscus flower and tried to dictate how its symbolism could and could not be used.

As for the Native American headdress, almost none of the feather headdresses in use in North America are traditionally made. Most employ the use of epoxies and other modern materials. The vast majority are factory-made in China. Few actual Native Americans actually possess the skill to make traditional headdresses with traditional methods. The best traditional headdress craftsmen are Japanese. The skill is being preserved by a small group of enthusiasts who were initially inspired by Hollywood Westerns.

Hollywood Westerns also influenced Japanese movies and revolutionized the samurai movie genre. Samurai movies were once derisively called “chambara”, which is a word that represents the sounds of swords clashing. Like pornography, the point of the movie was not the plot but the action. The influence of John Ford et al changed that forever. Movies about the samurai no longer climaxed in the battle between the Red Clan and the White Clan. It became a dispute over humanity in the murky middle ground between civilized rectitude and outlaw justice. This in turn influenced Hollywood Westerns by John Sturges and others, Spaghetti Westerns by Sergio Leone and others, all the way to George Lucas. But it did not end there. Terence Young threw a samurai and gunslingers in the same movie in a French-Italian-Spanish co-production Western. The influence went back to a Hollywood Western by Antoine Fuqua. And Takashi Miike took the samurai-movie-influenced Westerns, moved the stage back to Japan, and created a major mashup. That is the nature of cultural cross-pollination.

We live in an increasingly globalized world and we cannot keep foreign ideas out of our local neighborhoods. The tourists wearing swimwear splashed with hibiscus patterns are not appropriating Okinawan culture but are importing a Hawaiian one. You cannot put a lid on everything that offends you.

Except for the extreme ideologues, most people seem to agree that it is the nature of culture to mix. Overly rigid application of “cultural appropriation” to every element of culture only stifles progress and creativity. Some people have been trying to come up with a definition for “cultural appropriation” that is supposed to work.

A writer named Briahna Joy Gray recently suggested that “disrespect” and “economic exploitation” should factor in. I believe this is utter nonsense. A White man presenting a foolish performance in blackface is not “cultural appropriation” but racial mockery. And Led Zeppelin not giving credit to Delta bluesmen who wrote their songs is not “cultural appropriation” but outright plagiarism. In this context, the term “cultural appropriation” becomes an instrument for softening the truth, perhaps in the same ballpark as calling toilet paper “bathroom tissue” and impotence “a virility problem”. Led Zeppelin is not stealing, they are just culturally appropriating.

Gray goes on to cite Elvis Presley as an example of “cultural appropriation” backed by unilateral commercial gain, which is faulty reasoning on two fronts. In Presley’s day, black artists remained poor and white artists who covered them became rich, not because of “cultural appropriation” but because of racism, theft, and oppression. She also conveniently ignores that Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog, which was a sanitized and neutered version of Big Mama Thornton’s outrageously sex-themed song, would have made even less sense if it were sung by Nat King Cole. Presley was a master of musical sexuality in the way Cole was not. The fact that one singer was white and the other was black becomes irrelevant. Presley was white, but so were John Lennon, and Jerry Lee Lewis, both of whom had covered the same song with much less success. Presley owes his success primarily to Presley.

Jazz and blues, and eventually rock, began primarily as the music of African Americans, which only came into being when Africans, with their own musical traditions, came into contact with Western musical tones and musical instruments. Black music is African inspired music, not actual African music. And Black music, like jazz and blues, are a fusion of African and European traditions; a product of cultural cross-pollination. It never would have come into existence at all if cultures did not mix.

In fact there is very little justification for policing “cultural appropriation” and most examples of “justified” policing, on closer inspection, are not justified at all. The vast majority of the cases are just plain ridiculous. There was a burrito shop in Portland run by two white women that was forced to shut down on accusations of cultural appropriation. That sounds extreme as a stand alone incident, but becomes even more outrageous in light of Anthony Bourdain’s statement that the best French chefs in North America are Mexicans. Why is it cultural appropriation for white people to cook burritos, but not cultural appropriation for Mexicans to be French chefs? No pun intended, this is my beef with this issue.

My problem with making cultural appropriation extend to everything is not only that it stifles creativity, but that it normalizes white supremacism.

Why is it never wrong for an Asian or an African to wear a necktie, but wrong for a White person to wear a Zulu necklace? That is actually a trick question. A “White” person is a fiction. Anyone from Greece to Finland, from California to Vladivostok can be “White”, though almost nobody is purely genetically of European origin. “White” is not an actual race. It is a social race. And there is really no such thing as “White” culture, as one look at Albanian or Polish traditional costumes will show.

If an Asian or an African wears a necktie, he is seen as moving one step closer to “civilization”, while a White woman in a Zulu necklace is seen as moving away. A Mexican who becomes a French chef is moving up in society, whereas white women serving burritos are headed in the opposite direction. An attack on “cultural appropriation” is a reinforcement of the doctrine “White good, colored bad”.

The very concept of “cultural appropriation” is supposed to hinge on the history of domination and oppression. Non-white people have been conquering, oppressing, and enslaving each other for millennia. So if a Chinese woman wears a Japanese kimono, or a Japanese woman wears a Chinese cheongsam, why is that not cultural appropriation? Because White Domination over other races is somehow a special kind of domination. Policing cultural appropriation, which is based on the dichotomy of “white vs non-white”, reinforces this notion and serves to glorify white superiority.

The opposite of “cultural appropriation” is “racial conformism”, which is another way of saying “put the coloreds in their place”. If you object to White people wearing Zulu necklaces, what you are actually saying is “Let the Zulus wear Zulu necklaces.” The end result is racial segregation, not by physical walls, but by culture.

Opposing racism is fine. But if you oppose an ill defined notion of cultural appropriation, and focus it on the “white vs non-white” dichotomy, you are not opposing racism but enhancing it.

What does any of this have to do with writing? Fiction, like movies and music, thrives on cultural cross-pollination. Long before modern publishing, the oral folklore of yamamba, the Japanese witch creature, and baba-yaga, the Russian witch creature, shared similar stories. Krampus, the horned anthropomorphic creature of Eastern Europe, and namahage, the horned anthropomorphic creature of northern Japan, share almost exactly the same legends. Stories have traveled the world and fused and meshed for millennia, changing small elements over time to adapt to different environments. Yet recently, a writer named Catherynne Valente was accused of cultural appropriation for adopting elements of Russian folklore in a fantasy novel. I could respond to this nonsense in any number of ways, but what if I told you that those fantasy elements that segregationists seemed to object to were not Russian folklore at all, but Japanese folklore, which has its origins in Chinese folklore, which was heavily influenced by Tibetan folklore, whose origins can be traced to Hindu mythologies, which has parallels in Macedonian fairytales, which bare resemblance to Russian folklore, but can also be traced to Egyptian origins? Stories cross react over cultural boundaries. That’s the nature of it. It is unavoidable.

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Push and Knock

Some time in the eighth century, during the Tang dynasty in China, a poet named Jia Dao was riding a donkey rather absent-mindedly as he pondered his poem. The unattended donkey wandered straight into the parade of the great general and philosopher (not to mention governor of the capitol city Xi’an) Han Yu. Jia Dao was promptly arrested and brought before the general. Disrupting the general’s parade was punishable by death. When asked why he did such a thing, Jia Dao explained that he was composing a poem and could not decide if the verse should end in the word 推 (push) or the word 敲 (knock) and was not watching where he was going. He even recited his half-finished poem in both versions. Clearly, this was not a malicious criminal nor did he pose a threat to the procession and it was left to general Han Yu to decide what to do with the offender. The great governor closed his eyes in deep thought and did not speak. The parade had stopped in the middle of the city and was disrupting the traffic. It would take but a moment to chop off the poet’s head if the decision was made. One of his guards, in the end, became impatient and asked the general what his decision was. The general opened his eyes and answered “‘Knock’ is better”. And the parade finally marched off.

Ever since, the combination of the two words “push” and “knock” – 推敲 – has come to mean “to edit” or “to refine one’s writing”.

I encourage all writers to push and knock their manuscripts around. If you have just finished your first draft, it is generally a bad time to ask for opinions on your work from strangers. You are most likely not to get much validation or encouragement. Your work probably still has some elementary issues like shifting tense and POV. It will have enough grammatical, spelling, and word usage issues to take the reader out of the story. There would be obvious plot holes and the story structure probably needs work. If you are lucky, your readers will give you some constructive criticism. But they will be insufficient and may focus on the less important shortcomings and not the really important issues. Finish your second draft, and your third. Then maybe someone will be able to tell you that the sidekick character is unnecessary or that the subplot is an annoying detour. Then, slash at your darlings, cut away the deadwood, and start over. 

The internet is full of people posting bits and pieces of their unfinished draft seeking “feedback” (though what they really want is encouragement). But half-baked manuscripts only get half-baked feedback. At the most tragic, you will garner half-baked praise.

Whether you are writing a teen romance or aiming for a literary masterpiece, getting your writing right is not easy.

Consider the following example:

A) Happy families are all alike, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways.

B) Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

One of the above is the opening to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Without cheating, can you tell me which is Tolstoy’s original and why?

Here is another one:

A) It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

B) It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

This is the opening to George Orwell’s 1984. You can see that the placement of a single comma alters the impression of the line, but which one is better for the book? The author has surely racked his brain over this.

Now consider the opening line of Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins:

A) I stare down at my shoes, as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather.

B) I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather.

Just because it is a young adult sci-fi adventure does not mean that sentences are crafted thoughtlessly.

Of course some books are better written than others. Ian McEwan’s Attonement is written in such a way that every paragraph is intricately pieced together with the kind of microscopic attention paid to the construction of a multi-functional calendar watch. But that is a digression for another day.

The best time to ask for an opinion is when you have distilled your question to “A or B”. The worst question you can ask about your manuscript is “What do you think?” (a more obnoxious way to phrase it is “Feedback welcome”). Yet that is what we see all the time. People post dismembered segments of their work and ask “What do you think?” or equivalent. I am guilty of this myself from time to time. It is rarely productive, especially when the manuscript is wanting.

Work on your manuscript until the questions are clear. Should I delete the sidekick? Does this backstory help the narrative? Should I keep the subplot or delete it? Should it be “push” or “knock”, “A” or “B”? And even then, it is difficult to answer, as the above examples of Tolstoy, Orwell, and Collins should attest.  That is when input is most helpful.

So distill your manuscript. Push and knock your manuscript for all its worth until you know what questions to ask. In the end, it may save your life.

The Strange Hero’s Journey of Tim Burton’s “Batman”

Everybody on the internet seems to agree that Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is the best Batman movie ever made. There is an almost religious following devoting an immense amount of energy dissecting its greatness – or at least, what was right about it.

By contrast, there is very little inquiry into the art of Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989), which is also an excellent movie. It has received a little more attention since the opening of Michael Keaton’s “Birdman“, but even then, little attention has been paid to how it is constructed. Burton’s “Batman” was controversial when it opened. It was substantially darker in tone than any previous comic book movie. It starred Keaton, who was nobody’s idea of a hunk or a suave millionaire. It came off the heels of “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (1987) which was the disastrous ending to Christopher Reeve’s Superman franchise which left studios and audiences wondering if the world really needed another superhero movie.

Tim Burton’s take on Batman has since influenced the art and texture of animated, live action, and comic book incarnations that followed to such an extent that, seen through today’s perspective, there does not seem to be anything revolutionary or inventive about the way the movie was made. But at the time, everything about it was very original.

When it opened, it was criticized for, among other things, being more concerned with projecting strangeness and artistic texture than a story with an actual plot. In fact “plot-less” has become the term associated with the movie. Every critic seems to use it. But is “Batman” really plot-less? We were certainly captivated by Keaton’s performance as an unconventionally awkward Bruce Wayne and Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker. Our eyes were mesmerized by the noir-cum-steampunk design of Gotham city. We are so consumed by the performances and the aesthetics that we forget what the story was about.

But is there really no plot? Let’s look at how the movie is constructed. The movie opens with the robbery of a tourist family trying to find their way back to their hotel through the streets of Gotham city. The robbers get away with the loot, but they are scared, not of getting caught by the police, but of the rumors of a ghostly bat creature that is said to deliver vigilante justice to street criminals. Soon enough, the bat creature walks out of the shadows and beats the crap out of the robbers. “Do me a favor,” says the bat creature to the robber. “Tell your friends about me. I’m Batman.” Neither the tourist family nor the robbers are ever seen again. Where is the inciting incident? Where is the entry into the hero’s journey?

Enter Knox, a comical newspaper reporter (played brilliantly by Robert Wuhl), who is following the rumors of the vigilante bat, a story that nobody seems to believe. He pesters and annoys corrupt cop Lt. Eckhardt, the mayor, the police commissioner James Gordon, and the district attorney Harvey Dent asking around about the bat, to which nobody gives a straight answer. He meets with Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) a beautiful photographer also interested in the bat story. Still no inciting incident and no sign of the protagonist Bruce Wayne. (A seat marked “Bruce Wayne” at a function honoring the new district attorney is conspicuously empty.)

Harvey Dent pledges to destroy the gangster organization, which upsets the Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), the kingpin of the underworld. Jack Napier (Nicholson), Grissom’s right hand man, is an obnoxiously confident man who is secretly sleeping with Grissom’s mistress. In an exchange with Eckhardt, it is revealed that he considers himself the rightful successor to Grissom’s empire. Eckhardt rats on Napier about his affair to Grissom. Jealous Grissom sends Napier to a chemical plant ostensibly to destroy evidence of his money laundering scheme, but actually to set him up to be killed by the police. Batman appears in the scene, fights Napier, and Napier drops into a vat of acid, completely altering his outward appearance.

Does that sound a little convoluted for a first act? Let’s compare this to the cleaner structure of Star Wars: Episode IV. The story opens with an Imperial Cruiser chasing after a diplomatic ship. After a brief action sequence, Darth Vader walks out of the mist and sets the premise of the story. This is a scary world for the supporters of the Republic. Dark forces are on the march. The fate of the galaxy is in the hands of a pair of comical androids who literally fall out of the sky and appear in front of a lonely boy dreaming of adventure. That is the clear and obvious inciting incident. After a series of events, Luke Skywalker decides to leave his desert planet and go save the galaxy. End of Act One.

In Star Wars, it is Darth Vader who is making the world scary for the rebellion. In Batman, it is the Dark Knight who is making the world scary for the gangsters. In Star Wars, Luke is an orphan whose future looks bleak. In Batman, Jack Napier is a mobster whose future seems assured. The appearance of the androids is Luke’s inciting incident. The appointment of Harvey Dent is Napier’s inciting incident. Luke accepts Obi Wan’s invitation to adventure in the “break” into the Second Act of Star Wars. Napier accepts his deformed face and endorses his new identity as the Joker in the “break” into the Second Act of Batman.

There is no inciting incident for Bruce Wayne in this movie. He does not make the choice that takes us into the Second Act. He does not suffer setbacks. He is merely the Joker’s roadblock to his ambitions. It is Napier who transforms into the Joker, makes plans to take over the city, meets obstacles, suffers setbacks, tries again, suffers more setbacks, and tries again. It is Napier/Joker who makes the transformation from an overconfident henchman working in a criminal organization to “the world’s first homicidal artist”. The protagonist of the story is the Joker. Bruce Wayne is, in conventional parlance, the villain.

Just as Star Wars ends with Luke and Han Solo getting shiny blings hung over their necks, Batman ends with the city of Gotham given the Bat Signal. And yet, since the villain wins in this movie, Batman is a tragedy. But whose tragedy is it? As Batman stands atop a building admiring his Bat Signal, Vicki Vale, his very special love interest (who does not appear in the next movie) drives off in the Wayne limo alone, smiling sadly as she says that she is not at all surprised to hear that Bruce will be late in joining her. She is like Diane Keaton in the end of The Godfather, silently absorbing the voices christening Al Pacino, her husband, “Don Corleone” in the next room.

Michael Corleone in The Godfather starts from being a moral son who did not want to be a part of the family business and turns into a ruthless guardian of the organization, losing his humanity in the process. But Bruce Wayne is already nearly there at the beginning of the film. Vicki Vale almost touches what little is left of his human side, then lets it slip through her fingers. Bruce Wayne irreversibly becomes Batman. We the audience fall into the illusion that this was the story arc we had been watching. Yet the real story arc is that by destroying the Joker, Batman finally becomes truly alone.

If this movie had been released in 2017 instead of 1989, the utter devastation of the final scene might have been made more obvious. But since this was a “kid’s movie” riding on the coat tails of the last Superman installment, the ending is sugarcoated to look like a triumph of the good guy over the criminal. A closer look at the story structure, however, tells us that this is a tragedy for the Joker, for the humanity of Bruce Wayne, and for the sheeple of Gotham who, ostensibly freed from proactive wolves, are now under the protection of a heartless creature of the night.

What can us writers learn from Tim Burton’s creation? Burton takes the standard hero’s journey template and turns it on its head. That is actually a clever innovation, but it is not the thing about the movie that engages us. Unlike Star Wars, it was not the progression of story beats that suck us in. We get sucked in mostly thanks to the visuals and to the acting. A story telling innovation can become the major appeal of the movie. Memento did that. (It told the story backwards in order to let the audience experience the confusion of short-term memory loss.) But Burton’s innovation did not make the movie more memorable. The movie is memorable in spite of the creative story structure.

Perhaps, the take home lesson from Burton’s Batman is “don’t hold back”. If you have a theme to deliver, deliver it without sugar coating and without conforming to the conventions of the genre. Otherwise, people will see your story as “plot-less”.

Character Motivation

Just type “character motivation” into Google and you will find hundreds of thousands of hits, most of them having to do with how to create (or not to create) motivations for you fictional characters. Clearly, a fictional character needs some kind of motivation or the story gets nowhere. (There are some exceptions of course. In The Lady From Shanghai, it is never made clear what the main character played by Orson Wells really wants. It’s still a great movie, but the studio execs hated it and a great chunk of the film ended up on the editing room floor to be lost forever.)

You will also find out very soon that a lot of readers and viewers are tired of the old tropes that tend to become character motivations.

So before we start talking about fictional character motivations, let’s step back a moment and think about your own motivations. Why do want to write a book? You might say that you are not writing for the money, but in the back of every writer’s mind is the possibility of turning out a blockbusting best seller, a movie deal, and a millionaire status, however remote the possibility. So let’s just say, for the argument’s sake, that you are in it for the money, even just a little bit. The reality is that you will probably make more money if you invested your time and energy in a more mundane endeavor, like selling car batteries or LAN cables. There is a stable demand for car batteries and an ever growing demand for LAN cables. There is no need to create your merchandise from scratch, no need to create a synopsis or explain the concept, and no need to give a cut to the agent. You only need to find a suitable market and a vacuum in the competition. If you can dominate a sizable slice of the humongous pie, you could become a millionaire and go into early retirement.

But few, if any, people ever say that their dream for the future is to make their fortune selling car batteries or LAN cables. They want to build cars or write software applications. There seems to be a mistaken belief that the only way to win a fortune is to do something creative and sell your own creation. But in fact, if you gather a large number of non-Fortune-list millionaires, you will find that a large majority of them made their fortune selling real estate, drilling equipment, shipping containers, construction machines, and a myriad of mundane things that have little or nothing to do with creativity.

So why do you want to write? If you want to be rich, you are much more likely to become rich selling tires. But you never dream about selling tires. Why is that? Why do people dream of building the next De Lorean? Or creating the next hit app? Or making a movie? Or selling the better mouse trap?

And now that we have that little mystery cooking, let’s get back to fictional character motivation.

Why did Walter White, the protagonist of Breaking Bad, want to cook meth? Because he was dying of cancer and wanted to provide for his family, that’s why. But if that is so, why did he need to kill Gus Fring? Because he needed to survive, of course. But if that is so, why didn’t he just run? Why did he keep cooking? Why did he need to keep killing? Why did he need to become the kingpin of the drug world?

Walter White’s initial motivation was to provide for his family, but eventually his motivation changed. It was not about just money any more. It was about winning. It was about utilizing one’s talent. It was about self respect. It was about proving something.

For the same reason writers who dream about writing that best selling novel never dream of taking up a career selling car batteries, fictional characters who go after the money behave in perverse ways. At first it’s all about the money, but it’s also about the ego. And a heist that would have worked without a hitch gets ruined because somebody just couldn’t keep a reign on that ego.

In a good story, character motivations are never simple. You might think that all he wants to do is to get the girl, get the bad guy, get dad to like him, get out of his rut, or show it to the jerk. But he never has just one motivation. He has one motivation that gets side tracked by another motivation. And he would have achieved his first objective faster, safer, and with fewer setbacks if only he could keep focused on it without veering toward his second motivation. That is why the hero ditches the treasure and runs off with the girl, or the villain gloats over the protagonist instead of immediately killing him, and Walter White keeps cooking meth long after he is rich enough to support his family.

The conflict between motivation number one and motivation number two is what illuminates character development and character arcs. And this can be grasped by the realization that people are contradictory. If all you wanted to do was get rich, you don’t have to write a novel, or create software, or invent new computers, or venture into the jungle, or kill Gus Fring. Yet, perversely we do those things and it complicates matters. That is what makes a story human and interesting.

The Bedpost of Intellectualism

I just read a wonderful essay by Sasha Chapin on the effect David Foster Wallace has on aspiring writers: He makes them want to imitate his style. Wallace, though widely hailed as a once-in-a-century genius, does not really write like a genius in my view. Instead he writes cleverly, but extremely so. He draws on extensive knowledge and vast vocabulary to draw relatively simple pictures that line up to create off-kilter stories. Chapin writes that Wallace appeals to a readership who is “into being smart”. People who are snobbish about their intelligence tend to gravitate towards the works of Wallace, in the sense that people who are snobbish about wine gravitate toward obscure vintages of Romanee Conti. They are enticed by the illusion that consuming it enhances their personal worth as human beings.

Being an old bilingual reader gives you a different perspective about these things. I was raised a snobbish reader in a long line of snobbish readers who collectively believed that reading high-brow material enhanced your standing like notches on a Lothario’s bedpost. And writers like Lu Xun, Natsume Soseki, Ueda Bin, Nitobe Inazo, and Mori Ogai who peppered their prose with preposterous levels of scholarship and an overwhelming armory of pedagogy, blended seamlessly into similes and metaphors, were sought after like starlets for the philanderer’s bed.

Writers who bedazzle their readers with astute observations and tidal waves of learning are not unusual in Asian literature. Lately, Kyogoku Natsuhiko has adopted the style. He writes thousand-plus-page tomes which are basically creepy ghost stories with some cerebral detective plots written in vocabulary drawn from the past thousand years of Japanese literature and some foreign languages. Think of a cross between J. K. Rowling and Stephen King in the stylistic hybrid of Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie.

Chapin writes that he spent years in a futile effort to imitate Wallace’s style. His problem was that he was trying to fly by flapping his bare arms, and not by building an airplane.  Writing like a scholar takes actual scholarship. You cannot just try to imitate a style when the style is based on deep rooted knowledge. That would be like sticking olive leaves in a flower pot hoping it will take root.

This epidemic of the desire to imitate Wallace, which Chapin calls “Wallace Disease”, reflects how naive American readers are to true scholarship. Jessa Crispin (of Bookslut fame) recently wrote for the Guardian that she found Infinite Jest a waste of time (“Ack! Men!”) while she enjoyed Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language, but only because “it makes me feel clever for getting the jokes. It references and sends up French structuralists and post-structuralists, makes jokes about gender studies and analytical philosophy, name-drops figures like Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, and others whom I have already read.” She points out that people like Infinite Jest and The Seventh Function of Language because it fits their prefabricated tastes. She then asks “But shouldn’t art do the opposite? Shouldn’t it make us curious about other worldviews, other demographics, other ideas and ways of living? Shouldn’t it be expansive and disruptive, rather than reinforcing?

Yes, sort of, but that is not the whole story. Pedantic literature is just one style out of many. Some people just love to draw on their encyclopedic knowledge of whatever they know and insert it into their work. Hayashi Joji is a writer with an incredibly intimate knowledge of World War II military technology which he uses to map out fantasy scenarios of how Japan could have won the war against the United States in his alternate history novels. Not the stuff of high-brow literature, but an impressive flexing of scholarly muscle on display. His metaphors are clever to the extreme and his observations are sharper than a trooper’s bayonet. But that does not make it high literature, only cerebral entertainment.

Japanese readers have been celebrating pedantic intellectualism in literature since at least Sei Shonagon‘s time. If Americans would stop insisting that Latin is a dead language and look into the cultural heritage stored in it, they will find the same could be said about Europeans for at least as long. The world is full of Wallaces and Binets. People read them as indulgences: Sort of inside jokes that mark them as in-the-know, as well as oyster forks to distinguish themselves from the arrivistes. They are not expansive or disruptive. They are country clubs on a page.

Chapin writes that as a young boy he thought “one day, I was convinced, the girls who wouldn’t dream of touching my greasy teenage hair might regret that decision” when he produced evidence of his superior intellect, in his case through writing. He may not know how close he was to the mark in thinking so. Every bit of pedantic knowledge is a point you earn, or a Pokemon you collect, in the long game of amassing enough scores to gain entry into the secret club of intellectualism where the members are bonded by mutual sapio-attraction, and where the pecking order is decided by the notches on your bedpost.

Extended Metaphor

Extended metaphor is not the same thing as your ordinary metaphor. An ordinary metaphor is a simile without the word “like”. “Life is like a box of chocolates” is a simile. “Life is hell” is a metaphor. But an extended metaphor is a whole different animal all together. You can see some examples here.

For the writer, an extended metaphor is an untamed dragon whose reins are hard to control, but once mastered could grant powers of great capacity.
To show you what I mean, here is an example of what an extended metaphor can do. It is shared in a dialogue between 47-year-old Humphrey Bogart (as Philip Marlowe) and 22-year-old Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Rutledge) in the movie The Big Sleep.

Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they’re front runners or come from behind, find out what their hole card is, what makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.

The following is my favorite extended metaphor from Michael Chabon’s “Mysteries of Pittsburgh” .

“Then he asked me what my plans were for the summer, and in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less: It’s the beginning of the summer and I’m standing in the lobby of a thousand-story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless red row of monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets, to rush me straight to the zeppelin mooring at the art deco summit, where they kept the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties. I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink. I said, “I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.”

When I first read this passage, I thought it was so awesome, I just put the book down and looked at the walls for a while.
What is this metaphor about and what does it do?

First off, the imagery is vivid and clear – and yet it is surreal – like a scene from a Terry Gilliam movie. There is no such thing as a “thousand story grand hotel” or a “bank of elevators a a mile long” but the over sized hyperbole is consistent with the feeling of the endlessly rising elevator and a trip to the air ship that never seems to end. It effectively conveys the feeling of a seemingly endless summer with seemingly infinite possibilities.

And then it is vaguely sad because you travel up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets who you never actually interact with. Opportunities passed up. Summer is just a balloon bobbing in the high winds. (He uses the word “dirigible” which I hadn’t seen in decades.)

Then the dreamy sequence is brought to a shocking end with the words “snapped spine” before it is explained that it is a ” snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink” which concludes the metaphor. Dream broken.

Metaphors, at its most primitive, are instruments for explanation (big as a bear, solid as a brick) but can be used in contrast to enhance the image (devilish debonair, monstrous beauty), but an extended metaphor does not just explain or enhance what we already know.

In Chabon’s case he is explaining an emotional grasp of the summer vacation to come. It is something that cannot be seen, but something we can relate to. He presents vivid imagery to convey the feeling, but no imagery of beaches, parties, travel, or any of the things we actually expect to do during the summer. Instead he gives us the bobbing airship as a metaphor for the summer.

So what does this accomplish?

Other than the fact that it blows our minds with incredible word usage, it presents the sense of purposeless time wastefully expended like a lost weekend, and replaces that with an image we can see. And then it projects an emotion – a sort of sad wistfulness – that is not explicitly explained, but one which we can feel through the prose. Placing this metaphor in the first chapter of the book helps set the tone and atmosphere to the entire story.

The masterful part of this is that it begins with ” in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less” and then closes with ” I said, ‘I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.'”

Did he actually say either of these things? He did not say to his father “a bank of elevators a mile long” nor did he say “I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.”
These are both stand-ins for the rambling, unstructured, real conversation that came out of his mouth. The two stand-ins, however, are contrasting equivalents. They are two opposite ways of saying the same thing.

What if Chabon had written:
Then he asked me what my plans were for the summer, and in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less: “I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.”
That would be the summary of what he actually said. But it does not serve the purpose of setting the tone for the book.
All the stuff in the middle, between “I said, more or less” and “I said”, is the trailer to the movie you are about to see. It presents vivid colors, tangible emotions, and a shocking conclusion that is more or less inevitable.

So what can we learn from this?
1. An extended metaphor has a purpose. It is not just a jumble of clever words. It has a clearly defined mission to accomplish.
2. It contains colors, shapes, sizes and things that are visible.
3. It conveys emotions that is consistent with the story.
4. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
5. It can be summarized in a non-metaphoric way.

Putting all of that together in a metaphor is a tall order. Here is my poor attempt at it:

Benji was like a horse. Not a real horse, but a movie horse. The hero in a jam whistles and his loyal horse, with nobody in the saddle, comes to the rescue, kicks the bad guys, carries away the hero and his damsel, across the plains, into the sunset, and then, maybe, above the clouds, over the rainbow, sprouting Pegasus wings and a unicorn horn until happily ever after and the credits roll. Nobody remembers the name of the horse, unless it’s a question in a game show. Then the movie you watched with a lollipop in cheek is, by chance, on a late-night re-run when you are alone drinking because the wife just left, and you finally realize the horse was the real hero, and the poor animal had long since been sent to the glue factory. And you can’t recall the name. That was Benji.

It does not quite work like Chabon’s extended metaphor even though (1) it would set the tone for a larger story, (2) contains imagery you can visualize, (3) conveys an emotion (in this case sadness), (4) has a beginning, middle, and an end, (5) and can be summarized that Benji was an unappreciated, unsung hero. What’s missing here?

What is missing is the surprise factor. It does not have “a thousand story grand hotel”, “a bank of elevators a mile long”, “moguls, spies, and starlets” and “snapped spine of a lemon wedge” working in concert to project the above five things.

An extended metaphor is a dangerous thing, because it can distract the reader from the story if it is too elaborate. We want the reader to get lost in the story, to get completely absorbed in it. And yet when everything clicks, it magically transports the reader on the back of a dragon soaring across the skies.

Narrative Voice in Science Fiction

I have no pretensions at being a science-fiction writer. When I was a little boy, almost all the stories I made up had spaceships in them, but that goes to show how little I knew about the genre. Susan Sontag called science fiction a close relative of pornography. It was to me, in a way. Just as you really do not care about the plot or story when you are reading smut, I had little interest in the human aspirations and character emotions as long as there were robots and aliens that made things go bang, boom and zoom.

After I had become acquainted with George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ray Bradbury, I composed very few stories that could be characterized as science fiction. There was this one time, back in the ’80s when “portable” telephones were too large to fit in brief cases, I envisioned a pocket sized communication device through which you could read messages posted from around the world. A schoolgirl mixed up in a murder asked for help through this device and not only received vital information on how to escape, but gained millions of viewers voyeuristically following her escapades. If I had committed that story to print I would have been credited for predicting Twitter.

But the more I wrote, the more I realized that science fiction was not my medium. Science fiction was born from a need to expand our horizons when people stopped believing in ghosts, fairies, and angels. The original audience of Hamlet responded to the story differently because a lot of people actually believed in ghosts in Shakespeare’s time. Even when it was a stretch to suspend your disbelief about ghosts, there was a time when it was easier to entertain the possibility of Martians invading Earth, or dinosaurs surviving in the depths of the Amazon jungle. My idea that someday something like Twitter might be realized was in line with this genre. You create an adventure story just within the borderline of the believable, maybe even possible, sometime in the future.

But “science” in fiction is only speculation. It is a stand-in for ghosts, fairies, and angels that we do not believe in anymore. As such, these imaginary elements must engage our emotions in the way ghosts and angels used to. In short, Twitter doesn’t cut it.

True science fiction is hard to imagine, hard to compose, and hard to write. Not only is it highly dependent on how you “tell” (and not “show”) important plot points, but you must mask the “telling” in a stylistic smoke screen.

Here is a passage from Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey:

Among his kind, Moon-Watcher was almost a giant. He was nearly five feet high, and though badly undernourished weighed over a hundred pounds. His hairy, muscular body was halfway between ape and man, but his head was already much nearer to man than ape. The forehead was low, and there were ridges over the eye sockets, yet he unmistakably held in his genes the promise of humanity. As he looked out upon the hostile world of the Pleistocene, there was already something in his gaze beyond the capacity of any ape. In those dark, deep-set eyes was a dawning awareness – the first intimations of an intelligence that could not possibly fulfill itself for ages yet, and might soon be extinguished forever.

All telling and no showing, it could be the script for a Discovery Channel documentary. But it also carries an authoritative, almost Biblical, voice. You can hear it in the voice of a preacher giving a sermon, or in the tone of John F. Kennedy giving a speech.

Here is a passage from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury:

The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way as to make the girl who was moving there seem fixed to a sliding walk, letting the motion of the wind and the leaves carry her forward. Her head was half bent to watch her shoes stir the circling leaves. Her face was slender and milk-white, and in it was a kind of gentle hunger that touched over everything with tireless curiosity. It was a look, almost, of pale surprise; the dark eyes were so fixed to the world that no move escaped them. Her dress was white and it whispered. He almost thought he heard the motion of her hands as she walked, and the infinitely small sound now, the white stir of her face turning when she discovered she was a moment away from a man who stood in the middle of the pavement waiting.

Whether this is telling or showing is hard to tell, but it is exposition for certain. Current vogue is to cut exposition to a minimum, which is a rule that Bradbury, and many other science fiction writers, ignore with abandon. Unlike the Biblical, documentary intoning of Clark’s voice, Brandbury is more lyrical and more poetic and rambles through a 46-word sentence. It projects the voice of an American narrator; an old-timey Hollywood voice. Try reading a Bradbury short story after watching Vincent Price recite Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. You will see what I mean.

Frank Herbert, on the other hand, sounds vaguely Oriental:

Paul sensed his own tensions, decided to practice one of the mind-body lessons his mother had taught him. Three quick breaths triggered the responses: he fell into the floating awareness . . . focusing the consciousness . . .aortal dilation . . . avoiding the unfocused mechanism of consciousness . . . to be conscious by choice . . . blood enriched and swift-flooding the overload regions . . . one does not obtain food-safety-freedom by instinct alone . . .animal consciousness does not extend beyond the given moment nor into the idea that its victims may become extinct . . . the animal destroys and does not produce . . . animal pleasures remain close to sensation levels and avoid the perceptual . . . the human requires a background grid through which to see his universe . . . focused consciousness by choice, this forms your grid . . .bodily integrity follows nerve-blood flow according to the deepest awareness of cell needs . . . all things/cells/beings are impermanent . . . strive for flow permanence within . . .  

Is there Deepak Chopra in there somewhere? Part of this must be the reflection of 1960’s counter culture that adopted various elements from Oriental mysticism. Oddly, it seems to read best if you imagine the voice of Shakespearean actors like Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen.

Phillip K. Dick exudes a much more distinctive voice. His Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep opens with a tense dialogue that sets both the tone and the future world stage in a distilled movie-script sort of way. The first person POV narration sounds as intimate as Phillip Marlowe’s investigation monologue.

The morning air, spilling over with radioactive motes, gray and sun — beclouding, belched
about him, haunting his nose; fie sniffed involuntarily the taint of death. Well, that was too strong a description for it, he decided as he made his way to the particular plot of sod which he owned along with the unduly large apartment below. The legacy of World War Terminus had diminished in potency; those who could not survive the dust had passed into oblivion years ago, and the dust, weaker now and confronting the strong survivors, only deranged minds and genetic properties. Despite his lead codpiece the dust — undoubtedly — filtered in and at him, brought him daily, so long as he failed to emigrate, its little load of befouling filth. So far, medical checkups taken monthly confirmed him as a regular: a man who could reproduce within the tolerances set by law. Any month, however, the exam by the San Francisco Police Department doctors could reveal otherwise. Continually, new specials came into existence, created out of regulars by the omnipresent dust. The saying currently blabbed by posters, TV ads, and government junk mail, ran: “Emigrate or degenerate! The choice is yours! ” Very true, Rick thought as he opened the gate to his little pasture and approached his electric sheep. But I can’t emigrate, he said to himself. Because of my job.

Voice in science fiction is very important because you face it over long stretches of intricate exposition; not just an exposition of something you can clearly see, like that of an old manor home that appears in a Dickens novel, but an exposition of a world that nobody has seen with technologies and cultures that are not yet invented.

I have stated before that it takes time and experience to develop a voice. And that is why I do not recommend science fiction to young aspiring writers, or fantasy either for that matter. Creating a suitable voice is a daunting task.

That is not to say that there are crafty sci-fi works out there that have almost no multi-paragraph expositions and cut straight to the chase. The Hunger Games comes to mind. Books like these do not depend on heavily affected voices. They are like sharks. They survive by staying in motion. As such they require a different skill set to write. Most people do not seem to categorize “speculative fiction” like The Hunger Games as science fiction, even though they follow the same tropes.

As a matter of fact, science fiction no longer seems to be defined by spaceships, aliens, and robots that go bang, boom, and zoom. It never should have been. There once was a time when Star Wars was a representative example of science fiction, but it isn’t anymore. Science fiction is not a close relative of pornography, but of fantasy. It is a fairy tale without the fairies, but substituted by something slightly more believable. We do not need robots and aliens for that.

Writing Fiction in Turbulent Times

Ever since Donald Trump was elected POTUS, politics have been distracting writers from writing. Granted that Trump would make such an awesome fictional character that it’s a shame that he is real, politics  should not distract a fiction writer from the business of creating stories. A time of political turmoil is a great time for the creation of fiction. Some very good literature was written when the world around the author was literally falling apart. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, for example, was inspired by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The book was not written until 1982 and not published until a French translation came out in 1984, but it was very much the child of the Prague Spring.

The authors of great works of literature in turbulent times often had considerable balls. Bertolt Brecht wrote the play Fear and Misery of the Third Reich in 1938 when it could have easily gotten him killed.

If you have seen epic China movies like Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, you would be a little bit familiar with the tumultuous history of modern China. The Xinhai Revolution of 1911 ended China’s imperial rule (though the emperor continued to reign) and created for the first time the democratic Beiyang government composed of a president, a vice president and a house of parliament.  But idealism soon gave way to infighting and power play, while hopes for an actual election became more and more distant as strongmen replaced political theorists as interim presidents. And, as a result of the Treaty of Versailles after WWI, the Shangdong territory occupied by the Germans was handed over to Japan. Protests erupted around the country, unrest bred factionalism, and factionalism begat bloodshed. Although the territory was eventually returned to China in 1922, the damage was done. The Beiyang government started a slow descent into disintegration and national chaos. In the middle of all this, in 1921, when China was a train wreck in slow motion, Lu Xun published The True Story of Ah Q. Not only was the book a scathing criticism of just about everyone alive, it also broke tradition by being the first book ever to be published in vernacular Chinese. Unfortunately, it is a book that does not translate for other cultures very well. The introduction, in which the author agonizes over how to title the book, is a satire of Chinese intellectualism of the era that was unable to do anything outside the traditional box. Oddly enough, this satirical novella, that probably angered a whole spectrum of people from ivory-tower-intellectuals to semi-literate masses, was praised by none other than Mao Zedong. That does not mean that Lu Xun was hiding under the umbrella of authority. He was fluent in Japanese and he argued face to face with occupying Japanese brass during the height of WWII.

And if you want to talk about ballsy writers in turbulent times, you cannot avoid talking about Soviet dissidents. It’s pretty hard to understand what was so horrible about Doctor Zhivago that it was refused publication by the Soviet government. (After all, it was a pretty boring movie, right?) Yet Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize winning epic could not be published until it was smuggled out to Italy and translated into Italian. But it is not at all difficult to understand why The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was banned. It is a clearly anti-Soviet book published in the West in 1973 and it was circulated among Russians under the communist regime through underground self-publishing called samizdat. This book not only required balls to write, it took balls to read.

In North America, the Civil War inspired Gone With the Wind, but that was written in another generation. The Great Depression inspired Grapes of Wrath, which helped Steinbeck win the Nobel Prize, but has a slight taint of plagiarism about it. But among the host of great books inspired by the Great Depression, I would have to introduce The Big Money by John Dos Passos (1936) if only because it is so relevant to the materialism and avarice of the Age of Trump.

I have to mention a couple of Japanese books of course, and Japan has never had any shortage of political turmoil or defiant literature. In the 20th century alone, Japan experienced two attempted coups, two constitutions, two world wars, two economic booms, two economic busts, and two nukes. And books about every one of them. There is a long line of people who nearly or actually got themselves killed for running their mouths or wielding their pens, but among them, I have to say, Osamu Dazai really stands out. He spent most of the pre-war and mid-war period mocking the WWII militarist government and its supporters, then spent the post-war period mocking the newly minted pacifists and leftists who were too cowardly to come out during the war. After the war he wrote his seminal No Longer Human which probably inspired more suicides than any other printed matter in the history of mankind. But if you have ever seen the movie Grave of the Fireflies (which incidentally was based on another piece of literature inspired by times of turmoil), you might have a hint as to what the firebombing of Tokyo during WWII was like. The U.S. Air Force was unable to strike Japanese military installations because they were too well fortified and required direct hits to take out, which meant that American bombers would have to fly lower, within range of the accurate Japanese anti-aircraft fire. So they changed tactics and built large, high-flying bombers that could fly high above the range of Japanese guns and fighters and focused on soft targets that could be destroyed by incendiary bombs. The repeated fire bombings of Tokyo between November 1944 and August 1945 killed over 100 thousand people and displaced over a million, and remains the biggest concentrated bombing of a civilian city in history. And smack in the middle of this ten-month fire bombing campaign in April 1945, Dazai published, in Tokyo, the bizarre  short story Chikusei. This was not an obvious criticism of the government or a comment on the state of the world, but an absurdist dreamscape story a la Lewis Carroll in which a ne’er-do-well intellectual, half dreaming, turns into a crow. It reads like an Aesop parable on the futility of human ambition, pride, idealism, and despair, then suddenly takes a cork screw twist at the end and lands in resignation and acceptance of mediocrity like Salieri in Amadeus. A very strange story to write while surrounded by death and destruction.

But that does not even come close to the utter absurdity of Shichiro Fukazawa, the novelist, guitarist, and Elvis impersonator, known for the celebrated novel The Ballad of Narayama (introduced to the West in the French translation La Ballade de Narayama) published in 1956, which was twice adapted into motion pictures both of which were critically acclaimed. Not to give anything away, the story is about a remote village in samurai era Japan where tradition dictated that senior citizens of certain age must be abandoned in the mountains so their impoverished families could save on the food. The story is about the conflict of a poor farmer man who is compelled by custom to throw his aged mother away. Still with me? Four years later in 1960, times were very turbulent around the world. It was the year the U2 was shot down over Russia, and John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon did the first televised presidential debate. It was the year before the Bay of Pigs and Yuri Gagarin’s space flight. It was also the year in which the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan was ratified, insuring that American post-war occupation forces will remain on Japanese soil indefinitely and that American soldiers will remain outside the jurisdiction of Japanese law. Given that hundreds of rapes, assaults, and murders by U.S. servicemen were reported yearly, and the Japanese police were powerless to do anything about it, the ratification of the treaty was not a popular decision. Tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets. Hundreds of protesters and policemen were injured. Tear gas and Molotov cocktails flew across over the streets. Politicians resigned, government was in disarray, and the future looked uncertain. In the middle of that commotion, Fukazawa published Furyu Mutan, a narrative of a surreal dream in which a mob beheads the emperor, the empress, the crown prince and the crown princess. This was only a decade and a half after soldiers flew off on kamikaze missions in the name of the emperor. The shit storm this short story raised was so intense, the publisher retracted the story and never published it again. It eventually began circulating on the internet in digital form several decades later.

Speaking of the ’60s, there is a horde of books inspired by the Vietnam War. But there is also some books available in English written by Vietnamese authors to widen your perspective. But it wasn’t just the battle grounds in the jungle, but the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, antiwar protests, minority activism, the arrival of counterculture, and the largely unacknowledged influence of the ubiquitous flickering cathode-ray-tube television screen that influenced the literature of the era. The witch’s brew gave birth to the quasi-literature of New Journalism epitomized by Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test, and Gonzo Journalism of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

All these books have one thing in common which is that they never would have been born if the world was not such a mess. So don’t get distracted by the politics around you. This is exactly the perfect time to be working on your masterpiece.

The Exponential Curve

According to legend, movie stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck jump started their careers by co-authoring the script for Good Will Hunting as young unknown actors and peddled it around Hollywood until they found an interested studio.

In reality, the story is a little different. Matt Damon had already appeared in 11 feature films in the 10 year preceding Good Will Hunting, and Ben Affleck had appeared in 8 films and 8 TV shows. Both had been getting acting jobs since high school, Affleck making his debut in a Burger King commercial.

We get so blinded by news stories of over-night successes that we forget almost all successful careers are exponential trajectories. They bump along scraping the runway for a very long time, then barely lifting off the surface coasting parallel to the ground a few feet in the air until almost the end of the runway,  then across the grassy field at low altitude hardly clearing the one-story rooftops outside the fence. But then, with a yank of the joystick, they climb almost vertically up into the stratosphere.

We have all seen the exponential curve in practice. Remember the classmate who claimed that he aced the exams with only three days of study? He wasn’t actually lying, he was just talking about the last three days of his exponential curve. Same thing with physical training that seem to get you zero results for the first three months.

Almost all efforts take the course of an exponential curve. A. S. Byatt published her first novel after producing a series of short stories for literary magazines. Those short stories, now mostly forgotten, had to collect mountains of rejection notices before they were published. Then, with a track record of published works under her belt, she was ready to start submitting novels, which in turn collected rejection notices until one, The Shadow of The Sun, was finally published in 1964. She kept writing novels and published three more until she produced Possessioon in 1990 which won the Booker Prize. Today, Dame Antonia Susan Duffy, DBE, is a serious contender for the Nobel Prize.

All careers start by bumping along on the gravel runway. If you give up there, you will never leave the ground. If Ben Affleck had given up after the Burger King commercial, or before that at the school play level, he never would have gotten his two Academy Awards.

You just have to keep believing that the little progress you are making today will make a difference later when your career really starts picking up in that exponential curve. It is not just a matter of getting a lucky break or a chance discovery. It is the little victories you managed to pile up that tip the scales at some point when it reaches critical mass. Until then, you just have to keep tossing pebbles.

 

Asking the Big Question

Some genres just keep coming back. Vampires come and go. Zombies come and go. Space aliens come and go. Dystopian futures come and go. But they always come back. The reason is that these stories are about fears. And every generation has its own fears and anxieties. Every time the vampires come back, they reflect the fears of a new generation.

Every once in a decade or so, a writer will come out to represent the genre for a generation. Anne Rice did that for vampires and became the queen of the vampire genre. (Whether Stephanie Meyer overtook the throne is debatable.) Rice’s stories were about alienated people, with strong homo-erotic undertones. They were embraced by the LGBT community (then still known as the gay community) as allegorical symbols of alienation and social isolation. An unspoken element is that they were also being read by straight people who were spooked by the sudden visibility of gay people in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Stephanie Meyer fused the vampire genre with the “young adult” genre, which was a smashing success with her predominantly young readership, but did not sit well with the older generation of genre writers like Stephen King and Anne Rice. She also infused her stories with a totally new set of fears and anxieties, this time a kind of political divide that polarized the gentrified and progressive Cullens from the reactionary and race-supremacist trackers. And of course even the culturally assimilating Cullens draw the line when it comes to cross-racial romance, thereby expressing the limitations and hypocrisies of progressiveness. Thus introducing a new set of conflicts for readers to identify with.

Eventually there will be another queen of the vampire genre who will speak to a new generation of readers who will have a different set of fears and anxieties. The one thing she will not do is replicate classic vampire novels of the past. Hard core vampire fans still prefer “The Librarian” over “Twilight”. But a resurrected classic is never the voice of the next generation. Even if you are a “genre” writer (or perhaps more so because of it) you must ask big questions like “What are the dominant fears and anxieties of the coming age?” Asking big questions and thinking about them seriously comes with the territory of being a writer. Even when you are writing a YA vampire story.