Six impossible things

Conjecture, trip report, and some other stuff

I’m back home at last, after a solid week without a decent internet connection (hence the lack of a post last Wednesday. My apologies).

Conjecture was great fun; I recommend it to the attention of anyone in the San Diego area around this time next year. The hotel was a big of a maze, and their internet was “undergoing upgrading” and therefore wildly unreliable, but the staff was very nice and the convention space worked really well, I thought.

Among the standout moments were the Chowder Hour in the consuite, the joint Star Wars Reading (in which voice actor Mark Biagi and I, with some helpful volunteers from the audience, did a joint reading from the Star Wars novelizations, with Mark doing the voices and me reading the narration), the Iron Hack event (in which four of us composed a story on the fly, incorporating various people, places, and objects suggested by the audience, including Conan the Librarian, the Ark of the Covenant, William Gladstone, and Captain Nemo’s Hideout, among other things), and the Enchanted Tea, to which everyone was encouraged to come in Regency costume (I really must get around to making myself something more suitable to wear to such an event).

Following the convention, we had a long and very wiggly drive home, with stops at White Sands National Monument (where I was pleased to discover Green Glass Sea, Ellen Klages’ excellent YA about Los Alamos and the development of the first atomic bomb, on sale in the gift shop) and Carlsbad Caverns, where we got to walk around the cave and then stayed to watch the bats come out. Dad allowed as how White Sands was a lot more interesting now than it was when he was 18 and thought it was just a lot of sand and kind of boring.

One of the things I did during part of the drive was listen to the first part of a batch of recorded lectures I purchased recently. As many of you know, I never took any English, Literature, or Creative Writing classes after I got out of high school. I was a Biology major, and while my college required a certain number of distribution credits, English was in the same group as History, so I filled mine in with classes in the history of places that my high school didn’t cover, like China and India. I figured that reading books was something I’d do anyway, but I’d have a lot harder time figuring out what the best history texts were without a bit more background.

On the whole, I’ve never been sorry I made that choice, though I have often wished I hadn’t needed to make it. It would have been so much nicer to have had enough time to take both sets of courses… Anyway, after years of complaining about what I missed, I finally decided to take advantage of the availability of lectures on tape and the internet to fill in a bit of what I missed.

So I’m now about halfway through a lecture series that’s about twelve hours of what I’d call an overview of English Literature and the way college-level classes look at it. It’s been enlightening on a number of accounts, mostly in understanding how academics, who are by and large not themselves creative writers, view fiction, and how it is and isn’t helpful to people who actually want to write the stuff.

For starters, the first three lectures are mainly about authors and their relationship with readers. It’s very clear from the references and terminology that the lecturer is throwing around that this is considered a normal, maybe even fundamental, aspect of thinking about literature. He even poses (but does not answer) the question: How much does the reader need to know about an author in order to appreciate their work properly?

Now, I can see that sometimes it is useful to know things about an author, specifically when a) the author makes a habit of including in-jokes and references in his/her work that no one unfamiliar with his/her life can get, and b) when the book was written far enough in the past that it takes a certain amount of historical knowledge to understand it because things that were common knowledge at the time no longer are.

But does knowing stuff about the author really make a difference to a reader’s enjoyment of a book? If so, why don’t all books come with an authorial biography before or after, in order to enhance every reader’s experience? Oh, a lot of folks are interested in what their favorite authors are like, and want to meet them or read their blogs or send fanmail/email to express their appreciation, but that’s not quite the same thing. The “favorite author” part – reading and liking the books – comes first, and the interest in the author derives from that. Also, there are far more people who just read the books and don’t much worry about what the author is like.

It’s a tricky question, because I have noticed that for a lot of folks, knowing the author does change their judgement of a work…but not predictably. For some, knowing the actual author makes them less critical and more tolerant of flaws that would have them tossing a stranger’s book in the discard pile; for others, knowing the author makes them pickier and more inclined to object to minor problems they’d never notice in a random library book.

For myself, I don’t write novels in order to “create a relationship with my readers.” I write to tell stories, and it’s the stories that matter, not me. Thinking too hard about “the audience” is absolutely deadly when I’m writing. It’s a distraction I don’t need.

Actually meeting people at conventions and autographings and so on is fun and I certainly do enjoy it. Talking to people through this blog is also fun. But it’s not the reason I write novels, and the relationship that I have with the fans I meet here or at cons has nothing to do with how and why and what I write.

I’ll probably have more to say about this series of lectures as I work my way through the course. There are some on plot and subtext coming up that look interesting…

  1. If you need to know things about an author to understand a book, hasn’t the author failed to do their job in writing it?

  2. >But does knowing stuff about the author really make a difference to a reader’s enjoyment of a book?

    Sometimes, it does. If an author has a specific background (academic degrees, work experience, cultural background) it might tend to make the story’s background more believable to me, and make it easier for me to get into the story more quickly.

    You already mentioned knowing when a book was written – that can make a huge difference. What was considered “fantastic” in the 1940s is commonplace today. Knowing that the book was written in the 40s helps me adjust.

    Otherwise, information about the author is nice to have, but a standard cover blurb is generally sufficient.

    Mary in MN

  3. Don’t worry! The New Criticism does away with all that. Who needs the author to appreciate the book? (Though I do tend to require a good book to appreciate the author – if I don’t actually know them.)

    I’m sitting in on a very interesting class right now (for similar reasons) about lyric poetry, and I think the best thing about it is that the professors (well, one of the two) is very open about asking the MFA students in the class what they think – as people who actually write the stuff. The other professor comes out with these pronouncements that I occasionally shoot down. I’m neither fish nor fowl in that class, since I am by no means a poet, and I am by no means a literature student. I am a linguist. But that just means I have different tools and approaches to figuring out ‘what makes a verbal message a work of art?’

    Right now I’m working on the theory that a work of art is something that can ‘mean’ across time and place. I just read an article on lyric that said that poetry is like fiction, because it carries its context with it. I think that’s important. To be able to be meaningful to disparate people in disparate places you can’t be a chameleon, able to take on whatever form and meaning depending on your surroundings. You have to bring some of it with you. But you also have to leave enough openings to allow the text to be relevant to new readers.

    Some texts are only relevant to readers within a specific context, and then they die. Other texts take on new shapes in their continuing life as new readers find them and make them relevant. But it’s really hard to predict when or why something takes on new relevance, and because it has to do with random crazy cultural factors, you can never force it.

  4. I am reminded of Asimov’s account of the response he received from an academic, when he objected that none of the learned gentleman’s many postulated fancies had in fact crossed his mind: ‘and what makes you thing that _you_ know anything about it?’

    Quintessential arrogance, of course, but, as is often the case, an interesting point: people don’t often completely understand the whys and wherefores of their accomplishments.

  5. “The hotel was a big of a maze”: What a fun typo!

    ‘For myself, I don’t write novels in order to “create a relationship with my readers.”‘: And here I thought we had a special relationship: you write good stuff and I pay to read said good stuff.

    It is a toss-up as to whether it makes a difference whether I know something about the author.

    When I first heard of Andre Norton, I thought she was male. When I found out, it made no difference to what I thought of her stories.

    I would be reluctant to purchase from an author who is a jerk though even if the story were good. There are enough non-questionable authors that I can be selective. If I accidentally read a jerk’s book, I will survive.

    I am more likely to purchase books by an author that I know somewhat about, but only if the stories are good. You fall into that category because of this blog.

  6. “It’s been enlightening on a number of accounts, mostly in understanding how academics, who are by and large not themselves creative writers, view fiction, and how it is and isn’t helpful to people who actually want to write the stuff.” <— This is exactly what I learned from my English major. I decided on that major because I wanted to write … sadly, my major didn't live up to expectations really…

  7. Spoilers ahead!

    I remember reading a short story many years ago about a cricket infestation. An artist paid a man to get rid of the infestation. I think it was one painting down and another on completion.

    At the end, the man finds the artist who is living luxuriously. This is apparently the norm for artists. He asked for his payment. The artist is rather angry about this. You did not do anything. The crickets are still here.

    Punchline: Oh, my God! I have thought you said critics.

    There was another short in a similar vein involving Shakespeare.

  8. Is there a time period when “The Enchanted Forest” series will be put on ebooks? I, as well as my grandaughters, would love these. Space is an issue for use all so we all have ereaders and read all the time. Please get this series available for ereaders.

    Thank you

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