Archives for June 2014

The purpose of fiction

Fiction can educate intellectually, but that is not its main purpose, which is to educate and regulate the sentiments. If you can wiggle it in, an argument that shows that courage is good is good, but first and foremost, what a work of fiction should do is show that courage is admirable.

Mary Catelli

Told by an idiot, No. 8

There was a time, still within living memory, when indoor plumbing was a luxury for the upper classes. Nowadays, of course, indoor plumbing is an evil conspiracy by the American cultural imperialists; but that is neither here nor there. The point is that back in the day, certain members of the English upper classes held that bathtubs were too good for the masses. It was usual to attribute this attitude to old ladies from Brighton; and the classic form of the sentiment was this:

‘What ever would be the use of giving bathtubs to coal-miners? They would only use them to keep coal in.’

This, of course, is proof positive of how evil and reactionary the old ladies from Brighton were. Not, mind you, because they believed such things; a person may believe all sorts of things, and act on those beliefs, without opprobrium. No, no, they were evil because they said them, and that just will not do. Anyway, they erred by aiming their sentiments at the downtrodden industrial proletariat, instead of venting them upon a worthy target.

So in the spirit of the old ladies from Brighton, suitably corrected and brought up to date, I should like to say a few words about this monstrous plague of self-publishing. The publishing industry, as everyone knows, was divinely ordained to be the sole curator and seller of literature to the world. By taking their business directly to readers, these self-published cads represent a terrible threat to publishers, to all that is right and noble – to Culture itself. Of course it is impossible that this threat should ever amount to anything, because the publishing industry, being divinely ordained, will obviously exist in its present form for ever and ever. But the sheer impudence of the attack is an affront to every right-thinking literary person. It is for this reason that I offer a rebuttal.

The cads defend their horrible activities on the grounds that they are giving more money and artistic control to writers. This is a feeble excuse. For what ever would be the use of giving money and artistic control to writers? They would only use them to write fan fiction.

I intended to say more, but I have an urgent deadline to meet. You see, I am under contract with a very prestigious publisher to write a brilliant and slyly referential homage to Gabriel García Márquez. Only it’s not fan fiction, because we don’t call it that when it is Literature.

   H. Smiggy McStudge

The weight of the story

Does your book suffer from a flabby middle?  Well, then it’s time to take it to the gym.  Make it do some stretches and lose that extra fat – can you tell what my New Year’s resolution is?  Yeah.

Most of the time, the flab in the middle of the book is like the flab in your middle – stuff you don’t need but are storing because your body thinks it should be a certain weight.  If you know you’re contracted to deliver eighty thousand words and you find yourself suffering from premature ending (hey, it happens to the best of us) it might suddenly seem very tempting to just start describing everything ad nauseam and with relish.  You may suddenly feel a need to explain the fashions of your world or give us a lecture on alien textiles.

Do try to resist it.

—Sarah A. Hoyt, ‘May You Write Interesting Books’ (part 5)

The logic of corporatism

Fragment of a conversation, overheard:

‘The second oddest thing about the Yintulites is that most of them volunteered to be eaten by the Imperial Dragon. You see, they were so afraid of the ordinary man-eating dragons, they could imagine no other way to protect themselves than to make friends with the Imperial Dragon. But in point of fact, the Imperial Dragon never promised to eat the other dragons, or even to eat its human servants last. It merely had power over the other dragons, because they were its offspring and its pets; and so the silly Yintulites imagined that it would use that power to benefit them.’

‘But why did they have to be eaten by any dragon? Why didn’t they just run away?’

‘That, my dear, is the first oddest thing about the Yintulites. In their minds, the best possible thing in life was to choose which dragon to be devoured by. The idea of not being eaten never occurred to them.’


A comment I left at The Passive Voice, reproduced here for possible discussion:

Look at any dysfunctional corporate culture (and I use ‘corporate’ in the broadest sense; this applies to governments, churches, and armies as well), and there are at least two things you are certain to find:

1. Systems that are inadequate because they are autonomous. Nobody can design a set of rules to cover every possible contingency, and if they ever did, someone would immediately come up with a new contingency that the rules did not cover. (Call it Gödel’s Law of Bureaucracy.) But when the system and its rules are allowed to make the decisions, when people say to sensible proposals, ‘We can’t do that because it’s against policy,’ the whole organization becomes frozen in the way of doing things that was enshrined at the time the rules were written.

2. Systems that are autonomous because people are lazy and afraid. Rocking the boat requires effort and courage; doing anything new requires effort, courage, and creativity. It’s easier and safer to just show up, put in your hours, do your job as defined by the existing rules, and collect your pay. So people hire out bits of themselves – their employable skills, narrowly defined – and leave the rest at home: not only their courage and creativity, but their enthusiasm, their best efforts, and in too many cases, their conscience as well. How many people do things at work that they know are stupid, because they are going along to get along? How many people acquiesce in doing things that are downright wrong? If they brought their whole selves to their work, they would not do these things; but they leave behind whatever part of themselves might conflict with the system and the rules, and — we see the results.

‘When the means are autonomous, they are deadly.’ —Charles Williams.