Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Wilderness of Mirrors

First and before I go into this post, I want to make it clear that I don’t believe in writing-with-a-message. I am in full agreement with whoever said “if you want to send a message, use western union.” Since everything became infused with “message” which somehow always comes down to politics and since everything local became political, (it never was the other way around. Or at least they never believed it.) they’ve done their best to politicize that most localized of personal events – the thoughts in your head. Which are supposed to be worthwhile and useful and... socially relevant.

The obvious problem with “message literature” is that it requires the message to be open and obvious. It also requires it to be in full accord with the visions of the gatekeepers. In fact, message-literature only invaded the field when the publishers and editors themselves started believing literature should send messages. Since, of course, most of the artists doing message-art nowadays view themselves as counter cultural, there’s a delicious irony there. It’s just that it hurts when I laugh.

However, I also want to point out that of course every piece of REAL art HAS a message (or several). The message might be as simple as “I’ve got a serious Jones for Greco-Roman tradition” (which in itself was fraught with all sorts of subtexts for the culture of the Renaissance, including the implicit assumption that the human body was beautiful) or as complex as “this is how humans grow up, with a foot in reality and one in myth.” (I’m thinking of The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents – though many other books fit this “message.”)

Art creation, at least in my experience, happens somewhere halfway between the conscious and the subconscious, in a war between who we think we are and who we really are, what we think reality is and what reality really is. It is from that tension that real art is born. (I did not consciously put any “message” in Darkship Thieves, but all sorts of people are finding message in it, anyway. And even I can see all sorts of messages in it, in retrospect. Things that shape the artist try to leak through.)

While this does not invalidate self-consciously-aimed messages against whatever the current regime/society is, or stories that echo recent events and TWIST to make you see the artist’s point of view, to my mind art only happens when the subconscious adds yet something else, so the whole book has a deep resonance and doesn’t have that quality of learned-and-regurgitated accepted truth. (For instance, Ursula LeGuinn’s The Left Hand Of Darkness was aimed – I’m fairly sure – as a blunt argument on the nature of sex and gender, but what actually emerged echoes with deeper resonances of the subconscious which I’m sure she (or anyone) could neither have planned nor put in.)

But even when “messages” become art despite themselves few consciously aimed messages remain art after being vetted for ideological purity by gatekeepers. At least, I don’t think so.

Which is why an establishment that requires “message” or an establishment that requires any type of conformity – an establishment that has become concentrated and holds all the power of the purse, in fact – tends to produce very bad art... or good art ONLY despite itself. It also tends to produce a “reaction” art that is vibrant and full of energy... and held at bay as long as possible.

This is perhaps easiest to see in the French nineteenth century where art was encouraged and promoted by the State.

I recently took a course that echoed the methods they used to learn at the time – notably drawing from the cast (a plaster cast of a classical statue). I found it useful, but of course I wasn’t forced to spend year after year doing just this. I wasn’t forced to believe that only classical or biblical themes were acceptable and that color was a dangerous tempting demon. And I didn’t draw the cast over and over again for years, till I learned to see people like that, in the “correct” proportions and NOT as they really were.

Most of all, though, it became a competition of virtuosity. Using the permitted methods, themes and forms, artists vied with each other to make each painting more complex and “difficult.” One expression of this was the paintings with multitudes of people and animals, which given the fact they had to draw from life (or stuffed. Er... animals. Not people. I think.) because they couldn’t otherwise record images, became very difficult indeed. (It was usually done in stages, of course.)

It occurred to me, recently, that a lot of science fiction and fantasy and even mystery have become like that. “And now, for my next feat, I will attempt a completely alien world where the aliens communicate only through their salivary glands!” Okay, that’s exaggerating, but I’ve seen stuff that “reaches” almost as much. There certainly is fantasy set in almost every time period, striving to remain both believable/true to history AND magical. And there are mysteries using every profession under the sun as detectives.

While this might seem like a logical post-modernistic affliction, the result of everything having been said, I don’t believe that’s the case. After all, every creature, by nature, has something new to say – as new and individual as his journey. The thing is that OVERTLY all these books HAVE to say exactly the same thing. That’s why, to keep the artist motivated, they are set in such varying places and have such varying stratagems. They have to distinguish themselves, somehow, but the industry that banned a still-vigorously-selling John Norman AND still brags about it, will not let heretical messages flourish (not that I personally could ever understand WHY Gor should flourish, but then I don’t understand the popularity of its polar opposite type of series, one of which, at least, started a whole subgenre of fantastic literature.)

So in this multiplying wilderness of form and virtuosity, symbolism flourishes too – to get less approved-of messages through the gatekeepers – and as in the nineteenth century painting field, in France, it is sometimes so obscure that only the author “gets” it fully.

The problem with this, as the problem with most French art of the time when the monetary rewards went to those who followed the “correct” form and fashion, is that it’s become a dialogue amid the artists. We might find it fascinating, but the public has largely tuned out. Because art that echoes the establishment is never very exciting. (Gag – Soviet art. Gag.)

So, where do we go from here?

Well, fortunately technology is likely to lend a hand by removing control from a handful of gatekeepers residing in a square mile of terrain or so. But even without technology it would probably have happened – albeit not so fast – since it is part of the cycles of how art “dies” and is reborn.

Note, in favor of my thesis that Baen – which is not in that square mile – publishes a lot of old science fiction and fantasy memes (that’s a topic for another post. In SF/F there is a certain need to ‘reincarnate’ certain types of stories, for new generations) there isn’t a proliferation of the “and now, still more difficult” type of books. Writers write largely for their public, not other writers or the gatekeepers – a lesson I think more and more midlisters are learning in the stuff they put out on their own.

This is very exciting, of course – a fun and terrible time to be alive and writing, the very definition of “interesting times.” And they’ll only get more interesting.

I look forward to writing without trying to aim messages or disguise messages or in general self-consciously head off my subconscious from forbidden subjects and opinions.

I look forward to freedom and an engaged reading public again.

Am I wrong? Is there no great hunger for stuff where the message doesn’t clobber you over the head? Should I just start thinking of a science fiction about aliens who communicate with their salivary glands?

*crossposted at According To Hoyt*


Mike said...

If you write about the droolers, please make sure you include the spit-and-polish troops, okay? But let's avoid the romance -- I hate to think about the message that would be left with kissing. They were salivary glands passing in the night...

Brendan said...

As much as I like watching art shows, it always worries me a bit that I need someone to explain to me why a certain piece of art is great. Surely if a piece of art of any sort is great what it is saying and the skill behind it will be accessible to all, not just the critics, academics and fellow artists.

MataPam said...

I suspect that without the usual gatekeepers, we'll run all over the place, and hopefully each find a readership.

I mean, some people _like_ messages, other people like drool.

It will probably be horribly messy for awhile, but no doubt the serious writers will bend their story telling toward one of the busier clumps of types, and add their stamp to it and pull it about.

Or in Sarah's case, all major clumps . . .

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I don't even know what to answer to that. You win.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Art that requires explanation has failed at a fundamental level. Leonardo DaVinci doesn't need explanation. Even his casual sketches floor you. Science might need explanation. Art is supposed to speak to the... instinctive part of you, the one that doesn't rely on thought. At least that's my feeling. Thought can come in afterwards, but it shouldn't NEED to.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Actually that's one of the promises of epublishing. Because we need a lot less UNITS sold, when we get more per unit, we could write for say a group of 2k and be perfectly happy.

Suppose there are 2k people who adore my work -- I'm not sure there are, at least that adore it enough, but let's assume there are and that I can reach them, okay -- Say I offer a 'subscribe to Sarah' program for $20 a year. This is reasonable, sort of what you'd get for a mag. I promise some minimum output, like a novel and ten short stories for that money. However, I also promise you get first look at a week's unedited output -- so you might get bits of other novels under progress. An essay on my cats' amorous relationships or how I'm suddenly struck by the word "dampen". Again, I don't know if there are two thousand people who'd pay for that, or that I can find them. But if I did, that would add up to 40k a year, which is at least a "living wage" and much more than I make per book. Not even counting the fact that I can now take this output, edit it, and sell it in electronic format to people who don't subscribe, at one fell swoop managing both to make more money and to attract more potential subscribers. There is lots of room for that sort of thing. (And, yeah, the model above is something I have contemplated and might yet try out.)

Stephen Simmons said...

I'd subscribe fer twenny bucks. Just based on DST, it'd be worth it.

I actually did read the first few Gor books. If you can manage to shunt the ick off to the side and read around it, the plots through the first five books are nothing short of brilliant. I didn't finish the sixth, and dropped the series at that point without looking back, because he broke the character in order to write himself out of a corner.

I think a lot of people mistake much of what Heinlein used to write as being "message" of some sort -- typically message they vehemently disagree with -- and think that what they're doing now is some form of retaliatory "setting things to rights". Strangely, the "messages" *I* get from Heinlein never seem to be the same ones other people get from the same books ... (like Starship Troopers, where I see the message being the fact that Johnny Rico's race didn't matter at all, and isn't even mentioned until the very end, NOT anything about the government ...)

Heinlein wrote in his predictions for the second half of the twentieth century that the most important emerging job would be "synthesist". Someone who could sift through the exponentially-expanding mountans of human knowledge and make some sort of sense out of it all. That is also about to become VERY true in the realm of connecting readers to writers and vice-versa. The tipping point in publishing models that we are all pondering whether we're at or past or approaching ... don't bog me down in trivial details, we're close enough to it for government work. The floodgates are busting open, and the water is coming through/over/around the dam. The question is, how do you make the other six billion people out there AWARE that you offer that subscription service, so they can decide for themselves whether they want it or not? And how do we, as readers, differentiate DST or Dragon's Ring from amongst the tens of thousans of other new offerings that will appear in the next year, with the gatekeepers overrun?

Kate Paulk said...

What I've noticed is that strongly held personal beliefs leak into the story in ways that a) the author doesn't control and usually doesn't see happening, b) can enrich a story, or weaken it, and c) aren't necessarily what the author thinks they believe.

The first point is pretty obvious, the second one... well, there's at least one reasonably popular author out there who has no ability to understand why anyone would be hostile to her heroes - with the result that she's at her best when she keeps her antagonists to shadowy menaces that are defeated in the second-last chapter. As soon as she brings the evil character(s) on-screen, so to speak, they become caricatures. (YMMV - this is the opinion of the woman whose mind has a direct hotline to Evil Bastard Central). The third... well, I've learned some interesting things about myself from rereading older pieces. Not always good things, but interesting things.

On the publishing and gatekeeping side of things, with the entire bloody industry doing its best to commit Pratchettian suicide, it's definitely an interesting time to be in the field. For "surfing the tsunami" values of interesting. I do think that what emerges will be an improvement on the stale, incestuous establishment that's dominating the traditional industry. There'll be absolutely everything for a while, as an explosion of experiments unfold in real time, then things will consolidate to a new norm which will hopefully last a while before fossilizing into something that needs to be killed in order to change it.

That's how life works. It's a rare organization that can escape those dynamics.

Synova said...

This brings to mind the music that plays at work, which I'd otherwise not ever listen to, and how often I end up thinking that one song or another is all about the singer showing off. It's like, wow, you can do that with your voice! Which is interesting once, and forever after that is annoying or headache inducing.

Sing a song I can sing along.

Stephen Simmons said...

Synova, just consider the ultimate irony: an intrumental-only elevator-musak rendition of "Sing a Song". Which my daughter pointed out to me when we heard it in the store a while back ...

Kate - have you, by any chance, read "The Legacy of Hierot", by Niven, Pournelle and Barnes? What I see happening around me in the publishing industry here reminds me of that book in VERY distressing ways ...
(*** spoiler alert for those who have not read the book ***)
The ecology of the world colonized by the cold-sleep, nearly-as-fast-as-light colony-ship turns out to have a hostie predator the pre-colonization survey missed: a stable ecology based on a life-form that morphs from non-sentient fish-children (which the adult eats) to a near-sentient amphibious killer. The humans, not understanding the ecology until it's too late, exterminate the adults ...

Jim McCoy said...

Writing with a message...

Ya know, I'm a grad student. I read stacks of books (almost $600.00 worth THIS SEMESTER) for school every one of which has a message. THEY are supposed to. THEY are works of scholarly history. But I read fiction to relax...


Don't get me wrong. Reading a book like Tom Kratman's A State of Disobedience can definitely teach you a thing or two about the author's POV on certain subjects, but it's really an action novel with some politics thrown in.

Hell, even the Daring Finds Mysteries by >ahem< Elise Hyatt could be seen as having a pro-animal and pro-family message. I don't think it's necessarily intentional, but it's there.

I just don't like writers who beat me over the head with things. Look, I love to read. I'll buy one book from just about anybody if I get a recommendation (and sometimes just if it has a cool cover) but if you overdo the message, it's the ONLY one I'm going to buy.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Well... it's an experiment I might yet make. Baby doesn't need new shoes as I have no babies right now, but "older baby" might need medical school fees. (Grin.) And for what was arguably my most fertile and fastest-evolving period I wrote a short story A WEEk.

As for what distinguishes Dave and I? Well, duh, we're super-awesome. Actually I think it's part of building a core readership who then (hopefully) evangelize. Judging by the number of people I introduced to Pratchett, this CAN work, but it's slow. So, for now, I got nothing.

As for Heinlein and message, see what Jim says on the bottom. (Not on the bottom of Jim. Don't even try upending him. On the bottom of the PAGE) Heinlein had messages, but they were in the middle of STORIES. It's not like the entire book is aimed at hitting you over the head with something. It's just that you can't be opinionated and not have it leak. And most people don't mind that. I RESENT only the "feeling" of a throat clearing and an old-maidenly voice going "The moral of the story is..."

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


One of the things that truly amazes me is how religious I am. No, seriously, when I read my stuff, I'm almost as obsessed with G-d as Leonard Cohen is. Weird. Mind you, it's religion that offend most belief systems, but it's like a dance...

One of the things I realized early on is that for the gatekeepers to TRULY love me, I'd not only need to suppress my beliefs on the page, I'd need to subvert them. And I decided that for someone who isn't sure she has a soul, I sure am picky about selling it. I JUST couldn't do it and look at myself in the mirror. C'est la vie. You lay your bet and you pays your price.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Actually that's how I felt about literature "mashups". One of the things I couldn't understand is WHY publishers thought this was wonderful and the thing of the future. The first time, sure. It would be amusing. (Though I confess, not having read p & p and zombies I don't know if it holds one's interest all the way THROUGH.) BUT after that it would be "Oh, yawn. Another?" This is why I was so offended so many people decided Sword and Blood was a mashup. (It's not, it uses none of Dumas text.) I mean, it's a parallel universe where the vampires have conquered almost all of Europe. The musketeers are used as though they'd been real people. I grant you it's a beg, but I've seen them used as real people by writers from romance to SF. (And arguably they were, though not exactly the SAME.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I feel EXACTLY the same way. There are a couple of mystery writers I'll never read again because they would stop to LECTURE me. Also, you always knew who the villain was, since it was their pet dislike. Ew. My pet dislike is "messages".
Of course Heinlein had "messages" -- how else would he have "raised" me, but they were embedded in a FUN story, not larded over me with a trowel.

Dave Freer said...

Amen Sister! I got the message, perfectly! (and because you're preaching to the chior, I loved it). Heh. OKay I was taking the mickey, but seriously I think you're right. Especially about the salivary glands. I mean, something truly avante garde and different would have... I dunno... A conservative Christian hero? A society ruled by women, failing and repressive? Primitive cultures exploiting the crap out of the 'caring' first world? No one ever dares write those sort of stories. THAT would be pushing the limit.

I suspect the real 'fan-base' needed is probably around 3-5K (because there ARE expenses, good proof reading, maybe good editing, cover art) but yes, I can see writers able to earn a reasonable living off a smaller base - if the intermediates weren't taking 92% of the money for very limited added value. It's a question of FINDING the readers.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Actually, in reading Amanda's post from last Sunday (what can I say, I've been busy) I read the linked article, all about the brilliance of Borders "inventory control" system, which I suspect it's the STOOOOOOOPID "numbers in the computer determine the laydown" system. If that's true, we have Borders to thank for a system that eats its young.
See, that system would be "brilliant" and work pretty well so long as only one chain (and a relatively small one, say 1/10th the market) used it. Why? Because the books Borders is getting in are probably tested in other markets. There is the chance for "surprise" bestsellers elsewhere. It's not locked tight. So, yeah, maximazing the use of THEIR shelf space works. If they accidentally ban an author just because the laydown sucked or they were left out of the catalog, or whatever, there's still the chance of stocking him/her later after he/she becomes a success elsewhere, or when a lot of people ask for him/her. However, when the system goes "field wide" authors disappear with the resultant a) discouraging of readers from finding new authors b) breaking the spirit of new authors, who then stop writing -- which means you're ALWAYS training a new batch. (Also, once ebooks come into their own, this model collapses, since the few bestsellers you've created, will go and publish themselves.) And, of course, the publishers desperate to get on the shelves of the mega bookstores give them huge discounts. And the fewer readers aren't doing the independents any good and... For lack of a nail... etc.

Mike said...

Does that mean we aren't going to see "Battling Glands: A Tidal Wave of Drool" on the stands? What about "Spit Gets In Your Eyes," the theme song... or...

Sorry. Somehow that notion of communicating using salivary glands just amuses the heck out of me. I will cease and desist, though, because the medium is not the message in this case.

On the serious question -- when I'm reading stories, I want stories, not preaching, not getting hit over the head with message and meaning, just stories. Yes, part of the trick of fiction is that events are arranged so that there is something meaningful there -- but as you (and others) have pointed out, that meaning can be like the meaning of a sunset, a fine wine, a beautiful painting, or other inspiration, something that is far less cognitive and much more touchy-feelie-emotive. Much like teaching -- you don't want to just dictate to the students, since they don't learn that way, you want to let them find their own lessons in the thicket of the story. Which lets them sink in much deeper.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Actually my son wrote that story. It was about unicellullar pirates that communicated through secretions. It was so well done, it would take being a unicellullar pirate to appreciate it.

And on messages, you got the right of it, which is why "demanding" them and demanding they 'fit' with whatever the ethos of the gatekeepers is ends up strangling art in its crib.

Herr Oberst said...


"No one ever dares write those sort of stories."

Oh, yes, I do.



Dave Freer said...

Herr Oberst - perhaps I should have said "No major publisher will print your work..." and explain it it is an 'in'joke referring SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS, which has all of those elements and a few others, which we managed slide beneath the radar.

Herr Oberst said...

Not sure how you're defining major publisher. Baen doesn't seem to have a problem with my highly un-PC messages. Then again, it was at Jim Baen's behest that I started along that road.

That said, I do have a hard time picturing TOR, which is rather that a good choice of words?...doing so.



Dave Freer said...

Tom, I think Baen could fairly be described as the largest of the independent sf/fantasy publishers, and, to their credit, they publish things from a wider spectrum of viewpoints than anyone else. They punch a long way above their weight, and a lot of what they have done for years should have been industry models. Some of that is now being learned (usually with bad grace and no credit given).I'd also say they are serverely hampered by a distibution arrangement with one of the majors (this may have done them good, once, but I really don't think they give Baen the quality they need and deserve. If they had that, and maybe deeper pockets (chicken and egg here) they could be). While I'd like to define them as 'major' - I'd say that applies to those defined as the big 5 in the conflict with Amazon, who cover multiple genres and are often mere print aspects of media corporations. Macmillan springs to mind as a typical example.