Perversity in Fiction

Some people believe that all stories were basically written by Greek times. Some truly original plot elements are added every century or so. A vampire, a private detective, a space alien, a dystopian future, a nuclear apocalypse, selective amnesia, or virtual reality are all very original plot elements that had been added to our literary lexicon over the centuries.

Just as Bram Stoker can be credited for popularizing the vampire as an element of fiction, Vladimir Nabokov can be credited for introducing the predatory  pedophile into the public consciousness. Other forms of psychotic criminals were eventually introduced into literature, thanks to which we are now very familiar with people who do bad things, not because they have a rational motive, but because they have something very wrong with their minds. Before the introduction of psychotic villains, almost all villains in literature had rational motives. They wanted revenge, or money, or power, or sexual conquest, or just wanted to bolster their ego. Psychotic villains do bad things because they are sick in the head.

Little attention has been paid, however, to the characters in between. Not everybody is always rational. Not every irrational person is psychotic. They are basically normal human beings in almost every way, but act in ways counter to their own interests or desires. I think Poe should be credited with introducing perversity as a cause for evil deeds. It is an intriguing concept. People who kill what they most dearly love, push away what they most desire, and act hatefully when they want to show affection, can ring true when told well, but is difficult to navigate into a satisfying resolution of a story. It is much easier to describe somebody who kills out of jealousy or vengeance, or from pure psychosis.

In real life, we see perversity in people all the time. In a social experiment a high school girl filmed her school mates responding to being called beautiful. Most students responded with a shy smile and honest appreciation. One girl responded by saying “I’ll cut you in the face!” (1:40). It was an unexpected, but a raw and honest response. People become defensive when they have trouble responding with an expression of pleasure. Sometimes they lash out. They are everywhere in real life. But even in real life, these days, we rationalize it by attributing these behaviors to rational reasons like “She was having a bad day”.

In recent fiction, perversity rarely takes center stage. It is a minor condiment to spice up some scenes, not the main meat of the story. It is not the monster in the soul that turn characters into villains. It is the facet of human nature that is the most neglected in modern fiction. It was not always this way. Camus’s The Stranger was centered around an inexplicable murder motivated, according to the main character, by the sun. We do not see many of those any more.

What does that tell us about the stories we tell today? There is more material out there teaching writers how to write than ever before. I can find more advice on how to formulate a story in a few hours on the internet than I could in all my bookshop hopping and library scrounging of all my teenage years. But they mostly teach you to be clear about the motivations and explicit about what the protagonist wants. They tell you to “show don’t tell” thereby implying that the emotions should be those that can be shown. How do you show the emotions of the girl who responds “I’ll cut you in the face!” when told that she is beautiful? All you can show is a teenage girl who will react with threats of violence at a simple compliment. But those are the people who make good fiction. They need to be told not shown.

Here is Poe’s account of the killing of the black cat:

Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart — one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself — to offer violence to its own nature — to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only — that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree; — hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; — hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; — hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin — a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it — if such a thing were possible — even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.

Almost all telling and little showing, this would be unconventional writing today. But, all the same, this is great story telling. We may be missing out on a very important element of fiction as well as overlooking a major ingredient of human nature. Perhaps we need more perversity in our fiction.




When It’s Gotta Be William Shatner.

Blake Snyder wrote in his iconic script writing manual Save The Cat that a script should be written so that any number of actors in Hollywood can play every part. He recounts the story of how he once wrote a wonderful script but gave up on it because the only actor who could have played the lead character was Tim Allen, meaning that if Tim Allen was not available, the script was toast.

Casting is a fickle thing. In the production of the original Star Wars: Episode IV, George Lucas’s first choice for the actor to play Han Solo was Christopher Walken. When he was not available, he tried Nick Nolte. Then he approached Al Pacino. Followed by Burt Reynolds, Richard Dreyfus, James Caan, Kurt Russel, Sylvester Stallone, James Woods, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Steve Martin. He only settled on Harrison Ford, an unknown actor at the time, as a last resort. When Lucas was casting Raiders of the Lost Ark, the role of Indy Jones was offered to Tim Matheson, Peter Coyote, John Shea, and Tom Selleck. They almost settled on Selleck, but the other audition he entered, Magnum PI for CBS, was picked up. Due to scheduling conflicts, Selleck turned down the risky movie venture. (Because Raiders was filmed in Europe, far from Union regulations, and because the filming of Magnum PI was delayed for six months, it turned out that Selleck could have done both roles without conflict.) Less than six weeks before filming started, Lucas reluctantly gave the part to Harrison Ford.

Casting a movie is such a juggling act that if a script is tailored to a certain actor, it would be doomed to fail because nobody wants to take on a project with such narrow prospects from the start. Then again, a movie script, at least in Hollywood, is re-written at least half a dozen times by half a dozen re-writers before it is filmed. If a story that best suits one actor had been cast by another, somebody will tailor it to fit the actor. So it should not be a complete loss. Still, the likelihood of a success will be a lot smaller, especially at the stage of selling the script.

Writing a novel is very different. You can cast anyone you want in your imagination. The reader will cast whoever they like. If you are having trouble creating a character, you can cast, for example, Daffy Duck as one of your characters and nobody will be the wiser. Especially if you are writing a very different kind of story. A political thriller, say.

If you are writing a teen vampire story, but you got the personality of one character from Criminal Minds and another character from Batman and another one from Die Hard, nobody would know as long as you attach different names and different looks to them.

Somehow, that does not apply to scripts, according to Blake Snyder. The potential buyer of the script will always ask “Who will play this character?” and “Who is the intended audience?”

Admittedly, I know nothing about the movie business and Blake Snyder was legendary for selling his scripts, so he must know a lot more than me. But somehow, I don’t buy it. Ian Fleming wrote the James Bond series with David Niven in mind. That did not stop the producers from casting Sean Connery.

The other day, I was discussing a short story I was writing for the Screen Craft Short Story Contest with my son. Although I have been writing stories since long before he was born, he is much less an amateur than me. He teaches story writing. And he nailed it when he said “This story needs William Shatner.” I took his advice and introduced the character Shatner played in the movie Show Time. No doubt Shatner will be the actor best suited to play the part, but I am sure any number of Hollywood actors could imitate him. Introducing a character who so obviously resembles a specific actor might kill my chances for winning the contest, but it sure helps my story.

Earthquakes and Literature

We had a terrific earthquake here in Oita last night. I was on duty at our new earthquake proof hospital building so not so much as a single pen stand fell over. The whole building has humongous shock absorbers built into the foundation. But some of our nurses came in this morning reporting of bookshelves falling over and dishes flying out of the cupboards in their homes. A clerk told me that the roofing slates of houses in his neighborhood rained off the roofs. My house, fortunately, was safe and the damage was minimal: A few broken dishes and a single stone dislodging from the stone wall.

The frequency of earthquakes is one of the main reasons you do not see many stone buildings in Japan. Almost all of the ancient temples of Kyoto are constructed of wood, even though they are modeled closely after the stone and brick temples of China. Not only are they constructed of wood, but the truly traditional construction does not even use nails to hold the wood together, opting for a more flexible structure. Some of the buildings have survived for centuries.

Some scholars have proposed that the frequency of earthquakes not only influenced our architecture but also our philosophy, art, and literature. Meteorology does influence literature somewhat. The ubiquitous fog in England, the sun in Italy, the cold in Russia, the humidity in the Deep South, all act as backdrops and often shape the mood and outlook of the literature of the respective areas to different degrees.

Japan, until quite late in its history, maintained elements of the hunter gatherer society. Activities like digging for clams and gathering bracken sprouts in the springtime, hunting for chestnuts and propagule in the fall, live on as social events. Many Shinto rituals trace their origins to thanks giving ceremony for the fruits of the land. As such, seasonal changes in the weather tend to make their way into literature.

The Japanese obsession with transience probably owes a great deal to the frequent earthquakes. If it happened less frequently, you could blame it on the wrath of God, or call it God’s test. But it just happens too often for that. Nobody in England ever said that the fog was God’s retribution for the sinful mortals, and nobody in Russia looked for divine reasons why the snow was falling. Some things just are. In Japan, every once in a while, inexplicably and without reason, things just crash to the ground. And there is nothing to do but to pick up the pieces and start over. That unspoken reality sinks into our psyche by osmosis and shapes the way we think to a certain extent.

If you read Haruki Murakami or Banana Yoshimoto, you get the feeling that the characters are perpetually living in temporary shelters and picking up the pieces from unspoken disasters. There is a certain self-deprecating stoicism about the way they trudge through their lives. The clean, orderly, aesthetic Japanese society stands back to back with the fatalism nurtured by an environment where things just sometimes fly out of shelves and disintegrate. What can you do about it? That’s life.

There are few works of fiction directly about earthquakes that I am aware of. Haruki Murakami has written a series of shot stories about people affected by the Hanshin Earthquake. Teru Miyamoto, whose Takibi no Owari was already a work in progress when the earthquake hit, said his work was strongly influenced by the events that followed. But all told there is a surprising dearth of fiction relating to earthquakes per se. Kamo-no-Chomei wrote of the Genreki Earthquake of 1185, “As time passes people will stop talking about it.”

Japanese culture is not what it used to be. We watch the same Marvel movies and fuss over the same health food fads as everyone else in the first world. But we are still reminded, sometimes, of a small part of our culture through the intermittent reinforcement of corporal education: The ground starts shaking.

Hunting and Writing

Legendary surgeon George Crile Sr. went on a safari in the 1930s. He enjoyed his first safari so much that decided to go on a more elaborate safari, one with a scientific twist, on his second trip. It is recounted by his wife in the book Skyways to a Jungle Laboratory: An African Adventure. It was perhaps the last age in which there actually was anything romantic about such excursions. The trip was dangerous. The four-engine boat-plane they hoped to cross the Mediterranean on has recently been lost in a fire, so they took a three-engine boat-plane, which in turn was not available for the return trip because it had crashed in the duration of the safari. They went hunting on foot, a hundred porters carrying their luggage and instruments, tracking animals over the savanna without the help of motor vehicles. When they killed, the knelt on the ground and shot without cover at a rhinoceros charging straight at them (as opposed to shooting from inside of jeeps ready to run from danger, pedal to the metal, should anything go wrong). Crile even had the reserve to calmly let his wife take the last shot when a wounded, and clearly enraged, rhinoceros burst through the tall grass and thundered toward them. Perhaps in the future, hunters will go on a battle of wits with revived velociraptors in paleobotanical jungles, and that will put a little bit of nobility back in the art of hunting. Until then, swatting cockroaches in the kitchen would have more utility.

Kate Braverman wrote “Writing is like hunting. There are brutally cold afternoons with nothing in sight, only the wind and your breaking heart. Then the moment when you bag something big. The entire process is beyond intoxicating.” She was not the only person who likened writing to hunting. Hemingway seemed to feel this way too. A more recent blogger said basically the same thing.

I can understand the sentiment, but I also understand the sentiment of people who have compared writing to sailing, mountain climbing, and flying by night. But mostly, writing is like writing.

It will never impress anyone to talk about why writing is NOT like hunting, sailing, solo mountain climbing, or midnight aircraft piloting. Writing is a sedentary activity and we only romanticize it by comparing it to life-threatening outdoorsy pastimes.

I am not a hunter, but I have done some sailing and taken part in sporadic dangerous activities. I understand that writing is like all those adventures at a metaphorical level, but I also understand that there are some crucial differences. When you are out in the wild, and one with nature, most of the pleasure is derived from the fact that your mind tunes out. You are not thinking when you are fighting against the elements to keep your boat right-side-up. When the sky finally clears and you know you made it and your eyes soak in the sunset, your mind is a perfect blank and that is the point of being immersed in nature. You have your core self rubbing against the raw coarseness of the environment with no intellectual barrier in between. You are naked in the wild.

And if anything is taking the romance out of hunting, it is the fact that you no longer have that opportunity to become mindlessly naked. Maybe if you are hunting for a grizzly in the frigid mountains of Alaska things are still different. But a dentist killing a lion through a faux safari in a conservation park does not impress me as being on a soul consuming adventure. I do not like to use the word “poser”, but a man who pretends to be having an adventure when he is not, who takes the trophy of the hunt without going through the test, whose chosen medium to celebrate his depredation is Facebook, is only wielding his gun like a fop’s bow tie. Writing is not like hunting in that there are no shortcuts. Certainly it is a safe indoor activity, but it is one that can be compared to hunting only when the hunt is real. It is, like true hunting, ultimately a hunt for your own soul.


Evil Book Marketing Methods

  1. Commit Murder.
    There are some very bad ways to sell a book. Committing murder is one of them. I strain to find a good example of pure fiction written by a murderer whose sales benefited from the notoriety, but almost all confessions by deranged criminals seem to contain an element of fiction. So if you have no other option, killing people is one way to sell your books.
  2. Commit Other Crimes.
    David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam, wrote an autobiography detailing his serial killing spree and it did not sit well with a lot of people. In the 1980’s following the best selling success of of his book, several US states enacted “Son of Sam laws” which authorized the state to seize all loyalties from book profits based on criminal activity. But a few years later, Sydney Biddle Barrows, aka The Mayflower Madam, who was caught running a high-class call-girl operation for the rich and famous, published the story of her life as a high-society madam. Her lawyer argued that the Son of Sam law did not apply to her book because her crimes did not physically harm anybody. Although some people did not agree on how much harm prostitution actually delivers, the judge ruled in her favor and she kept her money. Her story was even made into a TV movie starring Candice Bergen.
  3. Write in Prison.
    Of course books like Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, Letters from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr, and Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela were written in jail. Where else would they be? But most of us are not even aware that Don Quixote, Travels of Marco Polo, and The Short Stories of O. Henry were written in prisons. I do not know what kind of writing environment they have in prisons, but a good number of high quality books have come out of them.
    But a best selling book from a prison is usually associated with violent crime. My favorite is In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbot. Abbot first entered reform school at 16, and then was in and out of various prisons, mostly in, for all of his adult life, largely for the violent crimes he committed on other inmates after he was incarcerated. He started corresponding with Norman Mailer who recognized his literary talent and campaigned  for his parole. He was a darling of the Manhattan literary scene for a brief time until he killed a man in a compulsive manslaughter and went on the lam. In spite of support from Jerzy Kosinsky and Susan Sarandon, he was sent back to prison where he eventually committed suicide. (This belongs in a long line of ill-fated people and lost causes endorsed with good intentions by Susan Sarandon. Getting her endorsement is evidently bad for your survival.)
    But he is far from the worst case of celebrity endorsed parolees.  Jack Unterweger, aka the Vienna Strangler, was an Austrian serial killer whose modus operandi involved strangling women with their own brassieres after sexually assaulting them. He published short stories, poems, plays, and an autobiography from prison which caught the attention of the literary scene, and luminaries like Elfriede Jelinek and Günter Grass campaigned for his release. Unterwerger’s books were taught in schools and broadcast on radio, he was released and worked as a journalist and hosted his own TV program, but he immediately started killing more women. He even travelled to Los Angeles for a ride-along with the LA police. Three women were killed by his modus operandi during his stay. He eventually committed suicide in prison, but due to the timing of his death, he is technically still innocent, which is a cost effective way to avoid a guilty verdict and a very convoluted way to promote your books.
  4. Get Killed.
    Wikipedia actually has an entry for a list of murdered writers. Being murdered can not only promote your book, it can immortalize it. But there is one exception. Joy Adamson, author of Born Free, wrote about a lioness which she raised in captivity and grew attached to but had to release into the wild. Her friendship with the lion is depicted beautifully and her love of African nature is clearly genuine. Her book was adapted into a movie and inspired a television series. That is why when it was reported that she died due to an attack by a lion, along with much I-told-you-so derision, she was hailed by some people as a martyr for wildlife conservation. It was something of a letdown when it was later found that she was actually murdered by a mere human being. The trick seems to be to get killed by the right killer.
  5. Get Your Book Banned.
    The list of books banned by government authorities run the alphabetical gamut from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Zhuan Falun. There is actually such a thing called Banned Books Week, which means that if your book is banned by just one obscure and insignificant Bible Belt education board, it will ensure that your book will get attention. It should go without saying that not all banned books are worthy of the animosity they inspire. What is the point in banning The Fault in Our Stars from middle school libraries when the PG-13 movie version is available on Netflix? Lady Chatterley’s Lover this is not.
    However, if you can manage to get your book banned by the proper authorities, you will be in good company.
  6. Get Marked for Death.
    The fatwa on Salmon Rushdie for publishing Satanic Verses succeeded in sending the writer into hiding, but spectacularly backfired in terms of suppressing the book. Even though the book was banned from sales in several countries, what otherwise would have remained a favorite of cafe intellectuals and salon book clubs turned into an international best seller.
    But getting yourself marked for death is a surprisingly inefficient marketing strategy. Censors threaten writers for a reason: It works. When somebody threatens to bomb bookstores unless an unknown writer’s work is taken off the shelves, most bookstores just quietly comply.
    Besides, it is so easy to get your life threatened that one more threatened writer is hardly ever noticed. A female writer in India was threatened with rape, acid attacks, attack on her child, and physical violence for writing about eating beef.
    In some parts of the world, writers getting death threats for writing the wrong thing is so common, traffic jams and rains storms get bigger news coverage. And thanks to the internet, you do not even have to travel to such places to get some angry radical to target you.
    Quick, name a targeted writer who is not Salmon Rushdie. I bet you can’t.
  7. Attack the Critic.
    Writing guru James Scott Bell says that one of 7 things that will doom your novel is to “keep a chip on your shoulder”, that is to say, to narcissisticly  believe yourself to be so good that anyone who rejects your work is an idiot and deserve to be treated as such. Some people have insulted esteemed editors by name as revenge for rejected manuscripts and the word got around to other editors, ruining their prospects. Turning against an editor or a critic is almost always bad for a writer’s career. This is not to say that there have never been some bitter and colorful feuds between writers and their critics. In fact, if you can get in a very interesting feud with a really famous person, it might be the best press you will ever get.
    There is a caveat though. Your work needs to be actually good, and your enemy should not be an 18-year-old amateur reviewer, and you definitely should not bludgeon her with wine a bottle. Although that action did gain the book some undeserved press, and may even have helped a little with the sales, an embarrassing book only becomes a bigger laughing stock when more people reads it.

The bottom line? I do not know. Does controversy really sell books? A book that offends or disagrees with some people might cause a commotion that gains attention, but it may also turn off readers. There is a reason blockbuster movies today sometimes bend over backwards trying to be politically correct. Salmon Rushdie’s book survived because it was a masterpiece worth saving. Norman Mailer could get away with physically attacking Gore Vidal because they actually had writings to feud about. Nobody ever says that the feud between Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev was a publicity stunt.

They say that it’s not what they say about you, but that they talk about you. The skeptic in me calls bullshit. The criticisms I read about Hemingway did not deter me from reading his books, reviews of Stephenie Meyer’s books did. If Meyer had a public feud with E. L. James, it may have made an interesting tabloid article, but I doubt it would have inspired me to read these authors.

(I had to add these last paragraphs because some people seemed to be thinking I was actually proposing murder as a marketing tactic. First of April, idiots. But then again, this is more tongue in cheek than an outright April fool’s joke.)

April, 1, 2016.