The Power of Cultural Artifacts, or Why Comic Books are Awesome

When critiquing or analyzing a work of art – paintings, films, literature, whatever – there are almost limitless angles to take. I learned as much during my college classes on literary critical theories. Formalist, structuralist, deconstructionist, multiculturalist, feminist, marxist, mythic/archetypical…it was like a bizarre alternate universe where religion took the form of literary criticism.

Not that I’m really disparaging it, of course. I found it quite useful to examine works through different lenses, as long as there was moderation rather than fanatically touting the One True Way of Critical Theory. Yet as varied as the theories are, they do contain a sort of unifying aim – to determine whether a piece of art is worthy. Worthy is a vague concept, but it generally has to do with what theme or feeling the product conveys, along with a judgement of the quality of that portrayal. What does it do, and does it do it well? For example, in feminist criticism, this could be specified as how women and gender relationships are portrayed, and how effectively. It plays out in various ways, but there’s usually that underlying sense of judgment.

That’s a nice template for approaching analysis of something. However, there’s another way of approaching it that sets aside all judgments, all notions of quality. It doesn’t seek to answer the question of whether the art should have been made, or whether it was made well or poorly. There is the art; it was made. Now let’s study it purely as a cultural artifact.

This viewpoint works best for old things. How do we study Beowulf? As a masterpiece of Old English literature? Well…kind of. We study it at least partly because there’s very little else to study from that era. We don’t worry about whether it was “good” or “well-written” or other subjective concerns; we just want to know what it tells us about Anglo-Saxon poetry as well as their language, customs and culture. It probably was at least more popular than other epic poems, explaining why it was preserved better than others, and that’s really the only consideration that matters after all these centuries. Why was it popular? Why did it resonate so well with its listeners? What was its original presentation like, chanted with accompanying harp thrums by a scop in a mead-hall?

I’ve been thinking of this lately because my husband and I are watching a documentary about comic books, and it largely uses this cultural-artifact viewpoint. Sure, some would argue that comics are cheap, pulpy, low-quality entertainment, something children should grow out of in favor of more high-minded adult art; not worth serious consideration. Regardless, their popularity cannot be denied; their influence from and on pop culture is undeniable. So instead of turning up our noses at it, why not examine it? Why not look at how pre-war American children found something so thrilling about an all-powerful do-gooder like Superman? At how World War II inspired the creation of Captain America, how the counter-culture movements of the 60s and 70s brought about weird loner heroes like geeky Peter Parker and the Hulk and the X-Men? It’s fascinating stuff, a history lesson reflected in the technicolor pages of comic books.

I’ve seen fretful essays on the recent popularity of comic book movies that basically call them a portentous sign of the downfall of intelligent society. What could it mean that we’re so obsessed with these childish stories, they moan, while touting cerebral art-house pictures that no one’s ever heard of. Popularity is by no means a guarantee of quality (though, to outright dismiss something that’s popular on the assumption that the masses lack the discernment to ever like something good, is the height of snobbery). But whether something is well-made or not, it’s worth examining, as a product of its time if nothing else. Do I think comic book movies are flawless cinema? Far from it. Much of their content is absurd fantasy, with many an unnecessary crowd-pleasing explosion. But I enjoy them, and I’m clearly not the only one. Why is that? The possible answers are fascinating.

We’ve always enjoyed stories of gods and heroes. Sometimes they’re fueled by magic and mythos. Sometimes they’re fueled by nuclear radiation, or genetic mutation, or some alien power. They take different forms, but they always say something important about the time they came from as well as timeless human qualities. Maybe there were Anglo-Saxon intellectuals who thought Beowulf was childish nonsense. Would they cringe to see the poem included in practically every English literature course’s curriculum? The thought makes me ridiculously happy, as does the idea that a thousand years from now, The Amazing Spiderman might be a staple among courses on 20th century American literature.

This applies to things I don’t care for as well. I couldn’t stomach an analysis of Twilight as high-quality literature, but I can certainly examine it as an artifact of literature trends among teenaged girls (and some middle-aged women) in the early 21st century. What was the context of the culture in which it was written, in which it became popular, and jump-started the sub-genre of YA paranormal romance? All of these are questions you can ask without worrying whether something is “good” or not, either the book itself or the tastes of its audience. Do we bash Anglo-Saxons for liking Beowulf? Well, maybe, if we’re really bored in English class and groan, “Whoever liked this stupid stuff!?”  But generally, it doesn’t matter. It was created, it had an audience, and thanks to that, we can learn a lot about that audience and their culture and history.

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Dazzling Scintillation?

My self-confidence, writing-wise, has taken a bit of a blow lately. This isn’t too surprising when six years of querying have brought me little more than form rejections. I have to decide where to go next – should I keep querying Silver, with the same query letter that’s gotten nothing so far? It could be that the writing and the concept are fine and I just haven’t found the right match yet. Or maybe I should write a new query letter. Maybe the current one is clunky and uninspired. I’ve edited it so many times it’s hard to even guess anymore.

Or maybe this just isn’t the book to be pushing right now. I really want it to be! I feel a pang of frustration every time I read another article about the injustice of older women being ignored, undervalued and under-represented, because I want to shout to the world, “My book is full of women over the age of 40! Powerful, thoughtful, passionate, wise, and dangerous women! Women whose worth is based on a billion things other than whether men find them desirable! Mothers, daughters, politicians, peace keepers and rabble rousers!”

But that isn’t how you sell a book. Sigh.

Then I start to question my writing prowess. A lot of agents ask for the first few pages in addition to the query letter. Maybe they think the concept is all right, but as soon as they look at the first paragraph, they find it unreadable. I’ve have quite a few readers for Silver, but maybe none of them have had a critical enough eye? I know that a lot of agents, after digging through slush piles for years, become so fatigued by lousy prose that they end up getting excited only by the really dazzling, scintillating writing that was always extolled in college literature classes.

Here’s the problem on my side: dazzling prose is kind of secondary for me. In my own reading preferences, I enjoy well-crafted writing, but only to a certain point. I don’t like the kind that feels like it’s showing off; like the story is just a vehicle for the writer’s brilliant word-smithery. I prefer writing that doesn’t draw constant attention to itself, that perhaps reaches heights of breathtaking beauty when it’s appropriate for points of high emotion in the story, but usually just does the quiet, unobtrusive work of telling the story.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t like bad writing. But I feel like there’s two ends of the spectrum, with lousy, sloppy writing on one end and over-the-top poetic writing on the other. And both, for me, detract from the book. They distract, making it hard to concentrate on what I consider the ultimate point of a novel:  the story. For me, the ideal is somewhere in the middle – careful writing that gets the job done without being constantly flashy.

I’m not sure if there’s any way to truly quantify this concept. It’s ultimately a matter of personal opinion and taste. As a concrete example I’ll commit the sin, for someone who majored in English, of saying that I really, really didn’t like The Great Gatsby. I read it in my junior year of college and just could not understand what the big deal was about it. I hear people extol its brilliant writing, its lyrical imagery. All I saw was a story about a bunch of petty rich people. I couldn’t relate to it; I didn’t care what happened to any character, and all the beautiful word-smithery in the world couldn’t get me interested. On the contrary, it just seemed pretentious, showing off for no purpose. If I’d been interested in the story, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much, though I expect I still would have found it distracting. I don’t know.

I fear that this tendency is going to be a detriment to my own writing. I like to think that I have that quiet, unobtrusive style that tells the story without drawing undue attention to itself. But is it just coming across as unpolished or uninspired? I haven’t been thoughtless about it. I’ve certainly gone over Silver again and again, tweaking every sentence to try to make sure it’s fulfilling its purpose in telling the story in the clearest, cleanest, most thoughtful way I can. I’ve gone over it until it’s impossible to view it objectively. My readers have never complained that they don’t understand what’s going on or that it was hard to read. Is a book being hard to read, or “challenging” as some euphemistically put it, a compliment or an insult? I mean, I dug my way through Moby-Dick, every last page, even the chapters on whaling, and I loved it. But was that because of its abstruse qualities or in spite of them? I’m sure such a book would never get published nowadays without significant modifications. Tastes change; the conception of literary quality shifts, and it’s hopeless to try to chase it.

I’m trying to write the best books I can write. I hope that will be enough.

Writing writers who write

As a companion to my last post on my love of reading, I’d like to gush a little about my related love of writing. This one is perhaps less straightforward, because as Thomas Mann said, “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Writing, to put it dramatically, is both my passion and my torment. The more I try to understand what makes writing great, the more I see how my own writing falls short. Put that alongside the piles of form rejection letters I’ve received from literary agents (it’s only a metaphorical pile in my email inbox, of course) and you might wonder why I keep trying.

Well, first of all, much as I’d like to be a published writer, that’s not the sole or even most pressing reason that I write. I will always love writing even if no one reads my work other than a small circle of (unpaying) family and friends. Because first and foremost, I write for myself. The genesis for my ideas often comes in the form of, “Hey, why doesn’t anyone ever write this kind of story? I’d love to read something like that.” And since no one else has written it, I figure I’ll give it a try myself. Other times, I’ll read a story with an idea I liked but whose execution I didn’t agree with. So I take the idea somewhere completely different in my own work and feel much more satisfied. Not that my writing always takes the form of a negative response; not by any means. Often I read something that I love deeply and dearly, and imagine what it would be like to write something myself that resonated so deeply – either just for me, or any other reader. It inspires me, and even as I fall short, I keep trying. My books are, frankly, the kind of books I want to read. Of course it’s not quite the same to read something I’ve written, knowing all the twists and turns and developments, but it’s thrilling in a different way to know that I created it. It didn’t exist, and then I wanted it to, and now here it is.

I write for myself. This is crucial. True, it might make my work less likely to get published, if my tastes veer too sharply from the general populace. But if ever I do get published, then I’ll know it’s genuine. It comes from me, not some cheap attempt to pander or please someone else. (Having said this, it’s still just common decency to write with sensitivity. You can’t be sure of never offending anyone; indeed, inoffensive is usually a synonym for bland and meaningless. But trampling callously through sensitive issues, particularly of marginalized people, is just in bad taste.) Unfortunately, since that writing comes from me, rejection feels all too personal. My work is a part of me. To lend any credibility to the feelings and motivations of my characters, I have to empathize with them, to delve deep into my own self and pour it out into the story. So it’s a massive challenge to pull back from that and remember that if anyone, agent or editor or otherwise, doesn’t care for my book, it has very little to do with my personal self. After all, a story can be deeply heartfelt but still poorly written or sloppily plotted.

Still, I love it. I’ve been doing it almost as long as I’ve known how to write letters. Terrible copycat stories, at the start, but it was all good practice. Lots of playing around, experimenting, figuring out my strengths and weaknesses. Fan fiction. Some of it was dreadful, but some of it I’m quite proud of. Finishing my first full-length novel. Getting positive feedback from anyone, whether close to me or strangers online. I’d write even if no one else ever read my work, but oh how I thrive on reader response. How I dream of having widespread readership, not for the money (though I certainly wouldn’t turn it down) but for the knowledge that all those people across the world were getting something valuable out of my writing.

I love opening a new document in the word processor and filling the first page. Oh, I love writing first drafts. Turning blank space into something I created, something entirely from my own mind. I hate it when I get stuck on a plot point, and yet I love it, because I’ll puzzle it out in non-writing time, or just keep writing filler, and then it comes to me and it’s wonderful. I don’t do a lot of planning and plotting beforehand, because that comes to me easier while I’m in the middle of it, when I’ve immersed myself in the characters and the story and it starts to feel like it’s really happening and I’m just recording it.

Last July I wanted to start a new novel, but I didn’t have any particular idea inspiring me. I’d written Mortal Failings over the course of less than three months, and the ridiculous swiftness, how the words just flowed out of me, was absolutely intoxicating. I wanted that feeling again. So I thought of something very simple: a shapeshifter. Then I started teasing out the idea. I actually ended up brainstorming with my daughter, because she’s read enough fantasy books by now that she could be a great sounding-board. We had some good ideas. Yet I still wasn’t quite feeling the fire burning beneath me. I started writing anyway, well aware that what we call writer’s block can usually be overcome by plain old discipline and persistence. And to my delight, a few weeks into my novel I had a dream about it. The fact that it was pervading my subconscious was a sure sign that I had really gotten into it. Well, we were out of town in August and when we got back our computer crashed and lost twenty pages that I had to rewrite, so it took significantly longer than usual to finish it. On the other hand, once I completed Mimic at the start of March, I was so immersed in the world I’d created I wanted to start right away on the sequel. I made myself wait till after sending Mimic to a few readers and doing some basic edits, but last week I’d had enough waiting. I’m now 6,000 words into Trickster. I’m so excited to be back in Issa’s world.

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My desktop; always with some kind of writing going on. Plenty of files to choose from.

I love and hate and love the challenge of finding the perfect word. I love having a thesaurus at hand, but sometimes I’ve put it away in disgust because its suggestions are absolutely useless. I love the distinction between denotation and connotation. Purple and violet mean essentially the same thing, and yet the shades of meaning make such a difference in the tone of the writing. I love the challenge of balancing long sentences with short ones, the rhythm and rhyme that blurs the line between prose and poetry. I chuckle at the false notion that you should alternate the word said with fancier terms like remarked or expostulated or averred because the real challenge is never, ever bringing awkward attention to dialogue tags: sometimes just writing the quote without unnecessary attribution, sometimes describing instead what the speaker is doing while speaking, and sometimes relying on a well-placed, ordinary said.

Writing dialogue. Oh, boy. You can’t write it exactly how people actually talk, because that’s, uh, always, you know, kind of peppered with, what do you call them, filler words, and sometimes the speaker – sometimes you stop partway and change the direction of the sentence, and sometimes you don’t even finish the, you know. So instead you have to find a balance between realistic sounding speech and polished but stilted stuff that no one would ever say. One of my challenges is that my speech is a little off the norm; more three-syllable words and such than average. I have to pare that down so all my characters don’t sound like pretentious twits. And I have to try to make them at least somewhat distinctive from each other. Oh, and the dialogue needs to accomplish something; move the scene along without bogging it down in exposition, sometimes revealing more in what isn’t said than in what is.

I love these challenges. I want to get better at them. I want to work on them. I also kind of dread it. As in most things, I have a perfectionist streak that cripples me into not trying. If I can’t get it perfect, why bother? Because that’s the only way to get better at it! Maybe never perfect, but it’s approaching perfection, slow though the rate may be, forever distant though the goal is.

Novels are my preferred medium, but that doesn’t mean I only care about my writing when I’m working on a book. I obsess over every word choice no matter what I’m writing. I re-read and revise my emails a dozen times before sending them, even to my husband when he won’t care if it’s full of errors. I’ve re-written two sentence status updates on Facebook over and over and finally decide I’ll never express it in a satisfactory way and just delete it. And blog posts, oh boy. I’ve already rewritten most of these sentences, changing words, adding or deleting phrases; and when I’ve finished the first draft I’ll pick it apart mercilessly before posting it. It’s partly because I want my words to come across clearly and cleanly, and I want to be seen as articulate and intelligent. But it’s also, as I’ve said before, for myself. I take pride in thoughtful writing. Typos make me sad. (Naturally, whenever I mention this somewhere I get plenty of smart-aleck, typo-ridden responses.) I suppose I wouldn’t be too out of place as an editor. Still, I’d much rather work with my own material. Making something out of nothing. Turning blank pages into stories.

Here’s a challenge: how do you finish a long, rambling blog post? Sometimes you find the perfect, pithy statement that sums up everything and caps it off with a touch of humor or poignancy. And sometimes you don’t.