Monday, November 29, 2010

On Writing

My regularly scheduled musings on parenthood will return tomorrow.

Newsweek this week had a short article on David Foster Wallace, the brilliant author of Infinite Jest who committed suicide in September, 2008.  I had a chance to hear Wallace speak in 2001, when I was a student at Kenyon College.  Though I have read very little of his work (so far), I credit the experience of hearing him speak as helping me to craft my philosophy of fiction writing.

Wallace spoke sometime in the spring of that year, when I was taking a fiction writing seminar with my favorite English professor.  I don't remember any of what Wallace read, except for the short story Incarnations of Burned Children, which I will warn you is very difficult to read.  It's a micro-short story about two parents dealing with a child who has been scalded.  It's terribly disturbing.  After the reading, Wallace invited anyone who wanted to come to grab a beer with him at the local pub.  It never even occurred to me to go.  If I'd known what a literary icon he was/would be/is now, I still doubt I could have overcome my shyness to go along.  But I wish I had.

The next day in my fiction class, my professor talked about the short story that so disturbed me.  Though my professor clearly had a great deal of respect for Wallace and thought he was a fantastic writer, he was also bothered by the story.  He called it "pornographic."  It titillated, with no deeper meaning or message.  That word pornographic stuck with me.  First, I had never realized the word could be used to mean anything other than its traditional definition.  Second, the idea that a short story had to have a *reason* for doing something horrific to a character--a baby--was new to me.  Since authors are the gods of their own worlds, don't they have the right to do anything they want to their own characters?  That word pornographic made it clear that they didn't--not without sacrificing something important to the art of storytelling.

A few years after this, I saw the film Stranger Than Fiction.  (It's really odd that Will Ferrell rubs shoulders with David Foster Wallace in the creation of my writing philosophy).  This is a hilarious movie about a man who finds that he is actually a character in Emma Thompson's book--and that all of her books end in tragedy.  One of the things I love about this film is the fact that everyone tries to do the ethical thing at the end.  Including the writer, who when she realizes her character is a living, breathing human being, finds that she feels she owes him something.  She doesn't have the right to hurt a character for no reason.

I've been thinking about all these things for several years now.  While I was teaching, I developed an enthusiasm for a fairly trashy, prolific romance novelist who shall remain nameless here to save me embarrassment.  Her books went down easy, always had a happy ending, required absolutely no cognitive effort from me, and helped me to escape from a day of surly teens and stacks of grading.  However, I started finding myself really annoyed at this author for her treatment of minor characters.  In one book in particular, a character is introduced simply to be raped and murdered by the bad guy.  The victim served no other function.  But to make her real, the author mentioned how she was widowed and that her daughter took her to lunch once a week.  I got to the promised happy ending of that novel, but I was not appeased.  I was supremely pissed off.  Why the hell did this writer create this very nice woman who is trying to enjoy her retirement without her husband, just to kill her off in a really terrible way?  It was pornographic.

I was in a bad mood about that character--who was in the novel for approximately 15 of 450 or so pages--for a week.  It made me realize that an author has to have a damn good reason for putting a character through such hell.  This author's reason was simply to scare me or to convince me that the bad guy was evil.  That reason was just not good enough.  I stopped reading that author.  (I also think this helped shore up the erosion of my brain cells, but it's too soon to know for sure).

In some ways, I think of writing as a living, breathing organism.  I may create it, but it exists on its own.  So I owe something to these creations.  Just as any parent owes something to her children.  I don't have the right to hurt characters, break rules, twist conventions or ignore realism because it helps me out as an author.  Any of those things may be done if there is sufficient reason for them, but not until then.  Otherwise, I'd be writing pornography or pulp.  I'd be writing for myself, rather than for my characters.  (Just as another favorite "lite" author wrote herself into a popular fiction series, thereby jumping the shark for me.  She did it for herself, not because it was the right thing for her story, characters or readers. Boy did that one put me in a bad mood, too.)

All of these realizations make it MUCH harder for me to write fiction.  Considering my interest in the horror genre, it makes it that much more difficult to write my beloved spooky stories.  But I know that it will make me a better writer.  It will help me to write genre fiction that transcends genre--because I'm true to the characters and the story, rather than just trying to titillate the reader, or write myself out of a jam, or stroke my own ego.  I just hope this philosophy will help me to write stories that people will want to read.  Because like it or not, pornography sells.


  1. I just realized that my phrasing makes it sound like the prolific romance novelist is trashy. I'm sure she's a very nice woman. I mean that her novels are trashy. And I'm too tired right now to figure out an edit, so here we are.

  2. I remember you telling me once that you put these said trashy novels on your Kindle so people didn't see the sultry book covers. Loves it!