Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Rules of Engagement

with 7 comments

First, let me post the names and authors of the series I was talking about yesterday, since I’ve managed to beat a copy of each out of Matt.

The dragons at the Napoleonic Wars are, as someone mentioned, from the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik.

The witches at the American Revolution are from a series that seems to be called  Traitor to the Crown, by  C.C. Finlay.

Matt loves them, and if they’re what floats your boat, have fun.  The very idea of them makes my eyes glaze over.

Robert wrote me an e-mail in which he suggested that the books I wanted were still out there, except that what I actually wanted was books like that (multigenerational sagas, for instance) with politics–that what I was really looking for was more Allen Drury.

I’ve thought about it, and I’m pretty sure he’s wrong.  I not only didn’t mention Drury yesterday, I didn’t even thnk of him.  I like Drury’s novels a lot, but I tend to think of them as part of a category called “political novels.”  And the old mainstream novels might have politics in them–although some of them, like Peyton Place and The Chapman  Report didn’t–but they weren’t usually about politics.

Nor do  I agree with  John that Jane  Austen presents as “alternative universe.”   She presents anything but.  Her people are people, just like us.  History has nfolded in her novels just as it has in the world in which we live.  All that is different is that her characters live in a stage of technological development we have already passed through, and their customs are different than ours.  They’re still ordinary, everyday human beings living ordinary everyday human lives, ones we might live ourselves.  They are us.

So what do I want from a novel, that I could get from some of the old popular novels, and that I don’t get now?

Well, the rules, if I got to write them, would be as follows:

1)  NO elements of the supernatural.   None.  Zero.  Zilch.  I don’t want magic, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, or zombies.  I don’t want angels or demons, either.

2) NO sentient beings that do not in fact exist on this planet as it is, or was.  No dragons.  No elves.  No space aliens.

3)  NO predetermined narrative arc.  The multigenerational sagas out there at the  moment are almost all actually romance novels in multigenerational form.   But when I start a book, I don’t want to know before I start how the story will go, or how it will end.  I want it to be possible that the cruel, distant master of the house is in fact cruel and distant, and not necessarily hiding a lot of wounds that will not heal until our heroine comes along to teach him to trust again. 

Somebody said I really loved these books, but I didn’t, actually–I liked some of them, but I loved none of them the way I loved Hemingway at that time of my life.

But let me reference a book that I did like, very much, even though I knew even at the time that it was badly written and a litte thin: Lloyd C. Douglas’s Magnificent Obsession.

If Douglas were writing now, he’d probably be called a “Christian” author.  His most famous book is an historical novel called The Robe, which  follows the life of the  Roman soldier who is supposed to have won  Christ’s robe in a game of dice right before the Crucifixion.

Magnificent Obsession is a book about a man, a local rich boy in a small community, who has done nothing with his life and looks like he’s going to do nothing for the rest of it.  He went to medical school but dropped out, and now all he does is drink too much and drive too fast.  One night, engaged in both, he causes a car crash that kills the little town’s most prominent doctor.

In the wake of the doctor’s death, his wife and daughter discover something inexplicable:  the man has left no money at all.  None.  He has no debts.  He hasn’t been gambling.  He hasn’t been keeping a mistress or buying fancy cars or any of that.  He just hasn’t put anything away.

And in time, it becomes clear why this is the case–not only has the doctor been givin his services for free much of th e time, but he’s been giving everything he has made away to people in need, just because they ask him. 

The novel is then about the young man’s search to figure out what the doctor was doing and why and, later, to follow the same philosophy of life himself. 

They made a movie of this, with Rock Hudson, which I’ve seen several times, and I’ve got no idea whether or not the little plot set up I’ve given really gives any sense of the tone and nature of the thing. 

But anyway, here we have it:  the story of ordinary people living in the ordinary world, but their lives are really extraordinary, and not because they have magic or get special wisdom from aliens.  In fact, the story of that young man’s life would be far less compelling if magic existed in that fictional universe, because it would decrease the level of risk he has to take to go in the direction he goes.

Or take The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maughaum.   In the wake of Sixties silliness about Buddhism, I might find it difficult to take seriously if I read it for the first time these days.  But that, too, is the story of an ordinary young man in the ordinary real world who takes very real risks to live differently from the people around him.   I suppose you can say there’s some politics involved in this–the stock market crash and the  Great  Depression occur about a third of the way through the plot, so political events are mentioned–but it is in no way a political novel.

I truly love The Razor’s Edge, by the way, and for many years I sat down every Christmas and reread it and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, possibly the greatest Gothic novel of all time.  

But my point the other day was not that I liked this stuff and missed it, but that I found the present state of enthusiasm for magic and the supernatural a little–I don’t know what.

Do we really feel so despairing of our ability to solve our problems that we want to return to fairy tales and fairly Godmothers?  Witches and wizards do not exist in our world, and magical thinking doesn’t tend to get our jobs done or our problems solved. 

What has happened to us, as a culture, that has made us so enormously enamored of the supernatural in all its guises, when only forty years ago that sort of thing wasn’t even on the radar?

It’s not an entirely silly question to ask.

Written by janeh

June 7th, 2009 at 9:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Rules of Engagement'

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  1. I used to watch The Robe on TV every Easter – and knew the “Great Obsession’ plot, although I don’t think I read it.

    Maybe the changes in both belief and views of human nature have influenced public taste. As someone said, if people don’t believe in religion, they won’t believe in nothing, they’ll believe in anything. So perhaps some people are looking for something they used to get out of religion – something beyond daily life, which can get rather tedious at times. There’s always been something else – not just the Bible, but Grendel and the sirens and all kinds of other beings that were exciting to read or hear about.

    Maybe the recent expansion of fantasy over science fiction is partly related to public views of science, as someone mentioned earlier.

    And maybe the whole idea of the ordinary individual struggling against his nature, or fate, or bad luck, or political catastrophes seem rather passe now. Many people seem to think that if you do everything right, nothing bad will happen to you – just notice how many people, when hearing of a friend dying of a particularly nasty disease or in an accident immediately try to find out what the unfortunate deceased did ‘wrong’. What did he eat? Did he normally speed? There are a lot of accidents at that corner; the traffic department isn’t to blame. And if they can pinpoint something, well, *THEY* don’t eat trans fats or drive fats, they’ll live forever! It’s a different mind-set from that of people who look to see how others respond to disaster – so-and-so faced death bravely. The closest equivalent I can think of to the ‘Magnificent Obsession’ idea of facing up to what you did, or what happened to you, and dealing with it, is the public attitudes of some of these people who campaign to have others help them commit suicide without any legal fall-out. And they aren’t dealing with their illnesses, they’re destroying the illness and themselves as well.

    People don’t seem to think that some options, the ones of responding to tragedy with unusual strength and grace, exist any more. Going to the local media, now, that’s what you should do. Tell everyone about your problems. It’s a very passive approach to life.


    7 Jun 09 at 10:23 am

  2. I think that’s part of it, Cheryl. People DO want to be able to point at a reason why things happen, so when they don’t know the reason, or when things seem to be random, they look for something to blame it on.

    So and so’s got cancer? But he exercised all the time and ate right! That kind of thing.

    Now, I don’t think that cancer necessarily is random, it’s just that we don’t know what causes it most of the time. But people want something concrete that they can point to.

    I think some of what makes these books popular is simple escapism, which has been discussed here before with respect to fiction. I don’t mind alternate history stories, and in fact I like some of them quite a lot. But I agree with Robert (I think it was Robert) when he said that at least they have a specific point where things changed, and there aren’t any odd stuff like dragons and elves.

    If Matt or others like them, then what the heck, it’s not harming anything. But I can’t say that I’d seek them out. Maybe it’s just the popularity of the whole fantasy genre right now, and these authors have just found a new twist.

    Jane, I gather you don’t see Facebook? Cathy F posted a comment her son made the other day – he brought her a copy of Plato’s Euthyphro and said, “You’ve got to read this. Socrates totally owns Euthyphro!”

    So at least someone is engaging with the Canon.


    7 Jun 09 at 1:03 pm

  3. My usual objection to lumping SF and fantasy. How soon we will meet intelligent extraterrestrials I do not know, but so far, most of our science fiction writers have failed as prophets by being too conservative. Certainly the younger of this circle will live to see things they can now scarcely imagine. To speculate on this and the possible consequences is not to take refuge in the supernatural. Supernatural is precisely what faster transportation, improved communications, more powerful weapons and ramped-up manufacturing AREN’T. Yet they will affect our lives enormously. As a setting, of course, every story should be placed in the setting which most enhances the story. Sometimes that’s a long way from 2008 America.

    But the point about the demise of the “mainstream” novel–if one excepts “literary” fiction–is well taken. The latest copyright on the Bookcase of Exile for something undeniably “mainstream” as Jane uses it is 1970–John Ball’s LAST PLANE OUT. Could some of this be the change in bookstores and related marketing techniques? Instead of hundreds of salesmen talking individually to thousands of bookstore owners with clerks expected to know the books, a much smaller number of “marketing” people try to sell books in enormous quantities to buyers from about a dozen chains whose clerks will know nothing, and they may sell better by readily-comprehensible categories. Another of my rare “mainstreams” is Agnes Sleigh Turnbull’s MANY A GREEN ISLE, in which an English professor in a small liberal arts school digs himself into a pit by being an honest forthright man, and trying to do his best by his family. There is courtship and marriage in it, but it’s not a romance. Today, it would probably be marketed as one–and that might easily cause an editor to push it in that direction. (The editor would probably insert at least three sex scenes, too.)

    But it’s perfectly true that I’m part of the problem. When I hit a bookstore, I’ll go straight through “Crime” “SF” “Fantasy” and “Romance,” then make a hard right into “History.” Then I’ll hit new and discounted books, and then I’ll leave. (There is, of course, no point in talking to a clerk.) Hard right as I came through the door is “Literature” but I’ll only go there when I’m looking for a specific title. One thing high school taught me was that Literature is to be avoided at any cost. And it perpetuates itself. I saw a review not too long back of a novel set in Stalin’s purges which looked interesting, and found in a bookstore another–REMORSE? ATONEMENT? which also looked vaguely intriguing–but I have no review system for mainstream. I have no fellow mainstream reader whose taste runs with mine. I didn’t consciously reject either novel, but neither one came home.

    As for Douglas being a Christian writer, the rule seems to be that “Christian” like “Afro-whatever” is a label stuck on writers who can’t be sold otherwise. One never sees CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, GK Chesrton or Alesander Soltzenitsyn in the “Christian” section either, nor Alexandre Dumas in “Afro-whatever.” You place the writer, not where he belongs, but where he will move the most copies. That’s how SF wound up with Kurt Vonnegut, and we can’t get rid of him.


    7 Jun 09 at 2:07 pm

  4. Jane, there was a television movie on Australian TV a few months ago in which a young woman in present day London walks through a hidden “door” and finds herself in the middle of Pride and Prejudice. Her presence fouls up the plot and the wrong characters marry. Is that enough “alternate universe” for you? :)

    Seriously. the sociey that Jane Austen describes is so different from mine that it might as well be on another planet. Yes, its historically accurate but its still very far removed from what I experience.

    You have said that your students lack a sense of history. True enough but its also true that one can think of very different societies as “alternate universes.” I find that to be a useful way of approaching history.


    7 Jun 09 at 10:14 pm

  5. Jane says: “Nor do I agree with John that Jane Austen presents as “alternative universe.” She presents anything but. Her people are people, just like us. History has nfolded in her novels just as it has in the world in which we live.”

    Alternate universe stories, and in large part, SF, also have stories about people, “just like us.” Their circumstances are different, but their motivations are very familiar. Love, greed, lust, pain, ambition, envy, honor, duty, lies, death. Just because someone desires something that only exists on another planet doesn’t make the desire less understandable.

    Elves, not so much. A delicious part of the contrast between human and non-human is holding up human needs and desires against those of the other society. Why humans make war against aliens is illuminating to why humans make war against ourselves.

    EVERY story is about people, in the end. I’m sure we’ve all read works where the characters are so badly constructed they might as well be robots, where the author understands and can convey nothing about real motivations. Or cannot write something that connects to the reader. Tom Clancy comes to mind.

    This disconnect can appear in any genre, and that certainly includes literary fiction. Some NY intellectual or Lady Who Lunches who spends all their time in self-absorbed angst is a great distance farther from a midwestern farm girl than Heinlein’s asteriod pioneers. Which story would teach that particular reader *more* about being a person that fits into her world? Which one would explore issues that apply to her and her need for adventure and discovery of her own inner strength? Because that’s what Farmer in the Sky is about. Not about the technological details of settling asteroids…it’s about learning courage, inner strength, and loyalty. How much more *human* can you get?

    Jane, if you can’t get past the details to the human story in SF or fantasy, fine. Tastes, as always, differ. But please do not believe that those of us who do read in those genres do not value the humanity of the characters, and do not connect to the qualities that are “just like us” in both human and non-human.

    We don’t read SF or fantasy to escape from stories about people just like us. We read them to discover people just like us react to radically different or sometimes frustratingly similar, circumstances. It’s just a turn of direction from reading about “how did people live and think in Jane Austen’s time?” to “how would people live and think in space?” Same deal, different temporal direction.

    Bringing in supernatural elements of vampires, dragons, etc, into the contemporary world may just be a modern form of the scary ghost story so familiar from summer camp. People like to be scared. Stephen King got rich off the desire. What if you went around a corner and there WAS A BIG SCARY AHHHHHGHGH!!!!

    There’s a reason so many movies are horror movies. Screams sell.


    7 Jun 09 at 11:01 pm

  6. Lymaree, that was brilliant. I would add that the type of sci fi stories I like are “How do we solve this problem?”

    Two books by S.M. Stirling. Peshawar Lancers which Robert mentioned. A comment wipes out European and American civilization. Perfectly plausible and reasonably good science. How do we survive the destruction of western industrial civilization?

    Island in the Sea of Time. Nantucket Island with 7000 people finds itself sent back to 1250BC. How do they survive without food from the mainland and no electricity. Premise not plausible but the response to the disaster makes sense and the people are interesting.

    Is this any different from Grapes of Warth? How do people survive the Dust Bowl and Great Depression?


    8 Jun 09 at 12:37 am

  7. I was just thinking. If Jane wanted to read some SF that was really character-driven and explored human issues of love, violence, ambition, authoritarianism, war, triumph over circumstance, and isn’t too heavy on the techno details and has ZERO supernatural elements, she could do worse than the three books of Dana Stabenow’s Star Svensdottir series. A Handful of Stars, Second Star, and Red Planet Run. If you like her mystery series’, you might enjoy these.

    Not deathless prose, but certainly written about People Just Like Us, a Few Years from Now.


    8 Jun 09 at 2:01 am

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