Business Musings: Writing for the Ages
I’m having a bizarre week. I’m redesigning my website, so I don’t have time to update any of the other websites I’m responsible for, including the Women in Science Fiction project. I’m continuing to read for that, though, and am having a blast, although I’m deeply overwhelmed by the amount of material.
Next week, I’m taking a Shakespeare class, partly for a project I’m working on and partly to get my mind on other things. So I’m reading three different Shakespeare plays in prep — Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles, and Antony and Cleopatra, as well as some supplemental material that I need to finish by the middle of the week.
Dean handed me his latest novel on Sunday, and he’s doing a short story per day, starting today. (Well, starting yesterday, really.) And he’s blogging about that.
And because I’m me, I’m keeping up my leisure reading Just Because. And buying too many new books, and not writing enough, and aaaaargh!
(Excuse the meltdown. Am a tad overwhelmed. Moving on…)
So…in the middle of all this reading, I come across this quote from a wonderful essay on writing by John McPhee in the March 9, 2015, issue of The New Yorker.
The last thing I would ever suggest to young writers is that they consciously try to write for the ages. Oh, yik, disgusting. Nobody should ever be trying that. We should just be hoping that our pieces aren’t obsolete before the editor sees them.
I paused and stared at that for a moment, as a dozen thoughts crystallized in my brain.
Let me back up.
My goal with the women in science fiction anthology is a storytelling goal. So many women in sf volumes are out to make a political point, showing women’s lives or providing the missing female perspective.
I think we know that women can do damn near anything now, and in the future, we’ll be able to do even more, so showing how women do things is not my point. Nor am I trying to prove that women have a uniform perspective on anything. We are not a monolithic group, by any stretch of the imagination.
Women have been forgotten in the field by larger numbers than men. I don’t think this is deliberate discrimination: I have a hunch the phenomenon is an unconscious bias (something labeled “second-generation bias” ) When I keep hearing women who should know better say there were no almost no women in sf before the year 2000, I realized that the women who said that had found no women sf role models, because most of the women sf writers’ works were out of print.
So, I’ve been searching for marvelous stories by women, not stories about women or stories that prove a particular gender point. I’m leaning toward action-adventure stories, space opera, and a few family-oriented tales.
I have more than I can use, so I’ve been eliminating stories based on arbitrary criteria. Offensive attitudes, in particular the casual racism of the mid-Twentieth century, have eliminated more than one excellent story. I’ll recommend those stories on the website, along with a warning about the attitudes of the time, but I won’t put those stories in the book.
Scientific errors cause me more headaches, because a lot of the bad science was good science at the time. If I cut out all bad science, I get rid of Leigh Brackett’s marvelous stories about Mars and a lot of C.L. Moore. I can jump over those scientific errors with good introduction.
But the little bit of bad science that has offended me the most? The one that makes me crazy? All of those people who smoke cigarettes on their spaceships. In story after story after story, these astronauts, these families on 1000-year colonization missions, these space adventurers, pollute their air supply with nicotine.
I’ll be honest. Some of these old mistakes, which were just The Way Things Were in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, have made me a bit too cautious in my own writing. What, I’ve wondered, is in my science fiction that readers will find laughable fifty years from now? I know there’s a ton of material just like that, and I can’t anticipate it, because it’s engrained.
I’ve already encountered some of that as WMG Publishing put all of my short stories back into print over the past four years. We’ve had to label a few of the stories, written as science fiction, as alternate history because, oh my, the future has arrived and it is not what my 20-something self predicted.
Still, those cigarettes are polluting my workspace. I was slowing down, because I was worrying (not quite subconsciously) about how to keep my fiction pristine.
So, enter yesterday. (Sorry, I’ve been reading Shakespeare. Couldn’t resist.) Last night, the new cat Sir Duke and I delved deep into Antony and Cleopatra, which I have never read before. I picked up a 1963 copy of the play at Bob’s Beach Books because I didn’t want to use my 8,000 lb. Riverside Shakespeare, and I didn’t want to read a play on my iPad (formatting and font issues). The 1963 version footnotes every damn thing, expecting me not to know what words like “cuckold” mean. When I do hit a word I don’t know, it’s footnoted as well, but the damn compiler of the book guesses as to the meaning.
I mean it. He puts in two different meanings from context and adds a question mark after each. Heck, I can do that.
If I were an anal student, I suppose I would track down the words, and translations and guesses on the internet or pull out the old Riverside Shakespeare and see what they have to say.
But I’m not. I’m reading for story and context, and damn if Old Will’s work doesn’t hold up, even in the bare bones on the page. It takes a minute for the rhythm of the language to sink in, and then I’m as lost in that play as I got earlier in the summer with Leigh Brackett’s work or last night reading some P.N. Elrod.
Even thought I don’t know all of the Shakespearean references. Oh, I know a lot of them. I know the story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. I’ve read history books about it, I saw the horrid Elizabeth Taylor movie, I’ve read lots of historical fiction about it. So the historical references are familiar. Occasionally, some of the slang trips me up, and that’s when I do look at the footnotes. But mostly, the story’s clear even if all the words and references aren’t.
Shakespeare wasn’t writing for the ages. I have no idea if he expected his work to outlive him. Only a handful of writers ever have their work survive in popular form for centuries, and even then, those works must have parts explained to the modern reader.
Yet the stories in that particular form are worth listening to over and over again.
Because of writing workshops and writing classes and critique sites and just plain snark, we have made up some pretty weird rules about writing. We can’t have our references be too current for fear of dating our material. We shouldn’t violate what we know of science to write science fiction. We should abandon perfectly good fiction because of one teeny tiny mistake in the scenario.
And I think we’re losing a lot of great stories that way. In our attempt to write deathless prose, we’re writing prose that isn’t even alive. We’re censuring ourselves, and overthinking everything.
Our work will eventually be dated. Our science will be wrong. Our attitudes will be sooooo 21st century.
And yet, if our stories are good, people will still read them and enjoy them.
When actors perform Shakespeare’s plays, the actors don’t stop mid-scene to explain a bit of archaic language or a reference that good old Will assumed we knew. The actors roll right past it, hoping we’ll get it from context, and generally we do. If we don’t, we ignore it, along with the billions of other things we ignore every day, from the sounds we filter out of our usual environment to the anecdote that a friend retells for the fifty-third time.
I am probably not going to include one of the smoking-in-space stories in the women in sf book, unless that story is so kick-ass that I can’t imagine publishing the volume without it. It’s an arbitrary reason to avoid a story, but as an editor on an overwhelming project, I need some arbitrary reasons.
I will have at least one canals of Mars story, though. I love those stories, with their romance and their sense of wonder. So I’m not getting rid of stories just because the science is bad.
That would be like dismissing all of Shakespeare’s historical plays because he occasionally bends the history in service of his story. The key is the quality of the story and the storytelling.
As readers, we know that. We often read works by people with points of view we disagree with. (Or, at least, I would hope you do. I do. How else do you learn about others?) We read works of fiction riddled with factual errors. That’s why it’s called fiction, for heaven’s sake.
But as writers, we often forget how readers behave. We worry that our stories have grammatical inconsistencies or bad science or outdated ideas. We worry that we’re “making a mistake” every time we put pen to paper. I mean, every time we type a word on the typewriter. I mean, every time we tap a keyboard.
Things change. Norms change. Acceptable behaviors change. What was once bad is now good. What was once good is no longer sensible. That’s the human condition, and we can’t anticipate it.
Oh, yeah. That’s one more thing I’m doing this week. I’m finishing up the last of Fiction River: Hidden in Crime. An invited writer missed a deadline, so I got some last-minute submissions from some wonderful writers, and I’ll be reading those tomorrow. (In case you’re wondering; the deadline is past. I’m not taking any more submissions.) Hidden in Crime is all about crimes that are no longer crimes. You’d be surprised at how much the laws have changed in the past few hundred years. (Not to mention how much the U.S. changed just last week.)
We can’t anticipate this stuff. We really shouldn’t even try. We should take McPhee’s words to heart.
Let’s not write for the ages.
Let’s just tell the best stories we possibly can, in the best way we can. And maybe some day, some reader who wasn’t even born when the story was just an idea glinting in a corner of our brains will read the story, love it, and recommend it to a friend. Because that’s how fiction lives forever. Not through a lovely turn of phrase, but through a story, well told.
I started something completely different for this week’s blog, then decided it was much too heavy for the middle of summer. If you’re in the U.S., enjoy your barbecues and the local fireworks display. If you’re not in the U.S., enjoy the quiet as the Americans go a little celebration crazy.
And if you enjoyed this week’s blog or got something useful out of a recent post, please leave a tip on the way out. Thanks!
“Business Musings: Writing for the Ages,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.