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Start of a Long Weekend

with 7 comments

So, here I am.  The day is beautiful.  The pollen count is virtually nil. 

And, for once, I’ve gotten what feels like serious work done.   At least, it’s work I’m pretty sure I’m not going to have to change tomorrow.

Considering what things have been like around here during these revisions, that’s not a small thing.

I’ve now reached the point, however, where if I do anything more, I’m going to start messing things up.

Mostly what I have been thinking about is those bad books–the ones we can or cannot say are objectively bad, or objectively good, although I still think it’s easier to put a finger on the bad.

But what about Bad books–Bad with a capital B, books that are in some way morally wrong, or socially dangerous.

I’ve spent enough time around the kind of people who–like me–tend towards Free Speech and Free Press absolutism to know that the usual argument for the uninhibited right to say or publish anything at all, no matter what, is:  no girl was ever ruined by a book.

I forget who said that–Clarence Darrow?–but it comes down to saying that we should all have freedom of speech and publication because such speech and publication doesn’t really have consequences anyway, and because this is especially true of fiction.

It’s an argument that’s always bothered me, because it seems to assume that the only reason we should have a right to speak and publish is because it doesn’t matter anyway.  It has no consequences.

This seems to me to be demonstrably untrue–although not untrue in the way people who want to censor think it is.

I don’t think, for instance, that Mortal Kombat or Natural Born Killers can or does cause teen-agers to run out and imitate the action.  It is probably the case that, given somebody who is already predisposed, playing video games or watching movies or reading fiction might give concrete expression for future action.

On the other hand, I think that such people, completely deprived of any fictional enactment of the things they want to do, would figure out specific ways to get them done anyway.

What I think fiction does do is a lot more subtle and a lot more insidious. 

I think fiction can make the impossible look possible.

Let me see if I can find a way to put this that makes sense.

Back when I was in college, there were several novels that came out purporting to show the shape of things to come.  One was called Walden Two, and it was written by the behaviorist pscyhologist B.F. Skinner.

In this novel, children who have been raised from birth in a completely controlled environment now live in a paradise where there is no jealousy, no ambition, no greed–Communism with sex, more or less. 

And it seems perfectly plausible.  Skinner wasn’t a great writer of fiction, but he wasn’t a bad one.

Novels and movies teach us things about human behavior, but a good enough writer can make behavior sound plausible that is not true to the real world at all.

I’m not talking, here, about behavior that is “realistic” in the way that, say, Jane Austen is realistic and Stephen King is not.

I can say that fiction can present behavior that is simply not true to human functioning and make it seem as if it were real.

In the real world, the strong prey on the weak whether they’ve been preyed on themselves or not.  In lots of fiction, the strong prey on the weak only because they’ve been preyed out, and they can be fixed by learning the truth about themselves.

Think for a moment about Patient Griselda, the abused wife of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, who by meekly accepting her husband’s endless beatings and bowing to his will, eventually shamed her into treating her well.

There are hundreds of thousands of women on this earth who buy that particular fiction.  It’s been made plausible in hundreds of stories throughout the course of time.

And it’s a lie.

Fiction is the art of telling lies. 

Good fiction is the art of telling lies well.

Only great fiction is the art of telling the truth.

I don’t really know where I’m going with any of this. 

But here it is.

Written by janeh

July 2nd, 2011 at 10:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Start of a Long Weekend'

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  1. I think I see where you’re headed–or at least what you’re saying. If the defense of free speech is that it doesn’t make any difference what we say or write, it’s a justification of censorship–because what’s said and written does make a difference. CAPITAL and MEIN KAMPF, ATLAS SHRUGGED and THE CRISIS, UTOPIA and LOOKING BACKWARD kill at one remove, but they kill for all of that.
    In GAUDY NIGHT Lord Peter Wimsey observes that “the first thing a principle does is kill someone.” The higher the issues a book is concerned with, and the better it makes its case, the more dangerous that book is. Lots of girls have been ruined by books–usually cheap romances. People are buried in mass graves or put to sea in ships and the ships sunk because of exceptionally high-minded non-fiction.

    Apart from freedom as a good thing in itself, the argument for free speech is, I think, the argument from humility. We need free speech because we can’t tell truth at a glance. We have to examine things from every angle and over a very long time, and we can be wrong for generations. Looking back, we seem to have censored the books now lauded as right about as often as the ones now condemmed as wrong–which should, but usually doesn’t, make us a little less certain in our present judgments.

    As for good and great, I agree. To be a good book, it has to be plausible. The fictional people have to behave the way we understand people to behave. The conclusions of the political writer have to be supported by the facts presented and by reason from those facts. But authors can be plausible and still be wrong. The great book is plausible and right. This is why time is one of the tests. We come back in 50 or 100 years and the people still seem like real people, and the intervening years haven’t exposed the errors of the political argument. This is what makes a great book great–but it’s also why they aren’t common, and don’t usually start on the New York TIMES Best-Seller List.

    “To crooked eyes, truth may wear a wry face.” (Gandalf, but I think it’s proverbial.)


    2 Jul 11 at 3:28 pm

  2. Wait a minute, I’m confused! Robert wrote “If the defense of free speech is that it doesn’t make any difference what we say or write, it’s a justification of censorship”

    That makes no sense. If what we say or write doesn’t make any difference, then there is no point to censorship.

    I agree that what we say or write does make a difference and also agree that people in the past did a poor job of deciding what was dangerous. Perhaps censorship is counter productive – the lure of the forbidden?


    2 Jul 11 at 4:19 pm

  3. Let me try again. If the justification for free speech is that free speech has no effect, what happens to the justification when speech can be shown to have effect?
    If I said “teenagers should be given driver’s licenses because they’re as safe behind the wheel as adults” I’d be setting up safety as the sole standard for making the decision–and as soon as any statistician looked as the numbers, that standard would demand that they NOT be licensed.
    A program based on a false assumption undermines itself.


    2 Jul 11 at 4:42 pm

  4. There’s no First Amendment in Australia, more’s the pity, so we’ve had, and continue to have, various degrees of censorship throughout our history. Without deeper research I can’t say for sure but I don’t think political tracts have ever been proscribed, at least in my conscious memory, except perhaps in wartime. In my time, the censorship has tended until relatively recently to be of literature deemed to be obscene, eg Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita and the like, or the (actually or potentially) criminally libelous, eg Frank Hardy’s “Power Without Glory”.

    We had a copy of “Mein Kampf” in our house for many years from my early childhood. It belonged to my aunt who is fairly right-wing in her dotage but she was never a fascist. Major anti-censorship campaigns were a regular event during my time at Sydney University in the late 50s. I read “Ulysses”, “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” and “Lolita in the early 1960s while I was in Papua New Guinea when they were still banned in Australia.

    Jane argues that the real problem is that fiction “…is a lot more subtle and a lot more insidious…(because)…fiction can make the impossible look possible” and cites Chaucer’s Patient Griselda’s husband’s eventual capitulation as an example. I agree with that although I think I would go further. Part of the problem seems to me, particularly in our parlous times, that it’s impossible with saturation electronic media to maintain any fixed standards, that is any lines which must not be crossed, across the generations. What our generation thinks is unacceptable behaviour was perfectly normal and acceptable in previous generations, and is again in the current generation.

    A clear example of that is Nabakov’s “Lolita”. In myne idyll youf it was the then “right” which banned the book, and that for general “obscenity”, and the then “left” which campaigned for it to be cleared for publication for its considerable literary merits. Today the book is condemned by the left perhaps even more enthusiastically than by the right and hardly anybody seems to care two hoots about the literary merits. The issue today is its alleged glorification of paedophilia, that bête noire even of modern libertines.

    Jane previously mentioned Al Gore and his book/movie “An Inconvenient Truth”. There is no doubt that Gore’s book has and will no doubt continue to influence millions of people. Whether for better or for worse won’t really be known for a hundred years or more when its predictions will, or will have not, come to pass. Thus, in at least that respect, it’s probably far too early to judge by Robert’s criteria whether it is a “good” or “bad” book.

    I can’t neatly encapsulate the idea I’m trying to get across. But I know what I like and don’t like! :-)


    2 Jul 11 at 9:57 pm

  5. I know: I’m making a pain of myself. But even if he’s seen as right in a century, Gore won’t qualify for “great” as I described it. You have to go through “good” to get to great. If your facts are erroneous and your reasoning slipshod, your book is not good, and being, ultimately, on the right side of history is luck rather than judgment.

    A businessman running his inherited business into the ground may become a millionaire by winning a lottery–but he doesn’t become a successful businessman.

    Though, as they say, it is often better to be lucky than good. But it was good we were discussing.


    3 Jul 11 at 6:43 am

  6. Okay, I’m in the mood to jump on some things with both feet, preferably with heavy boots on.
    The first thing I want to jump on is B. F. Skinner’s book WALDEN TWO, and yes, I had to study Skinner back in college—BLAH!
    “…now live in a paradise where there is no jealousy, no ambition, no greed…”
    We already have such a paradise where there is no jealousy, no ambition, no greed. But it is inhabited by our dogs, not by people. (Okay, even dogs can be jealous, and even dogs can be greedy. Whatever.)
    One of the things that has always amused me about the American way of death is how funeral directors tout their expensive caskets by assuring their customers that not a single bacteria will be able to get past the seal on the casket to attack the body of the dear departed.
    Yeah, right. Got news for anyone out there who’s never had a class in biology. The bacteria are already in our bodies, and not all of the bacteria in our bodies are killed by the embalming process. Freezing our bodies will slow down the decay, but enclosing our bodies in an air-tight container will not. Out in the open or sealed in an air-tight casket, the decay starts from the inside out.
    Just so do we all have the seeds of greed and jealousy and ambition and all the other human traits in us when we are born. I’m not talking here about children being born in original sin. I’m talking about the fact that the human brain comes pre-wired in such a way that we are born human not canine.
    My older son was born competitive. He is not the least bit aggressive. But he was “born to win.” Life to him is a series of competitions, from the small to the large to the huge. All the time he was growing up, he wanted to win, no matter what the “game” was. Not only was he born with the brains to win a high percentage of the time, but he was also born lucky, which means he has won more than his fair share even of the games that rely strictly on chance rather than intelligence. (In sixth grade for example, his name was pulled out of the hat to be the Lord High Inca in the class pageant that was put on in front of the rest of the student body and a gymnasium full of parents; when the middle-school principal lost a bet with the student body, my son’s picture was in the local newspaper shaving the principal’s moustache off. And none of this surprised him or any of the people who knew him.)
    There is no environment that my older son could have been put into that would have stopped him from being competitive. If he had been born into a society that discouraged competition, he might have ended up an outcast, but he would not have stopped being competitive.
    I think one of the greatest novels ever written is MY NAME IS ASHER LEV, by Chaim Potok. It is a story of an artistic child who is born into the Hasidic Jewish community in New York City, which community actively discourages artistic endeavor. What makes this a great book, however, is not it’s depiction of the Hasidic way of life, or it’s portrayal of what it’s like to be an artist. By presenting an individual case, Potok shows us the universal truth of what it’s like to be born out of sync with one’s environment. Not only that, but Potok writes beautiful English.
    I used to refer to MY NAME IS ASHER LEV back when I gave talks about how to write. In how-to-write books and articles the beginning writer is told that to plot a novel, one needs to have action, reaction, and sequel. Something happens (action); your character processes the event, i.e. figures out its significance (reaction); your character figures out what he wants to do next (sequel). Then the sequence begins again: Action, followed by reaction, followed by sequel, followed by action, followed by reaction, followed by sequel, all the way to the end of the book.
    In talks I gave at writing seminars I used my own analogy of dominos falling over. A novel begins when the first domino falls over, which knocks over the next domino, which knocks over the next domino, etc. The author can, of course, like Tom Clancy in his early books, set up a lot of different strings of dominos falling, until at the end of the book they all converge to knock over the last domino.
    This is a pretty good way to teach aspiring novelists how to plot their books. Actual case: Many years ago I was reading the manuscript of a friend’s romance novel, and I came to a place in the story that stopped me. I asked her, “Why does the heroine run away from the sheep camp?” Her answer was, “Because I want the hero to find her bathing naked in the mountain stream.” I replied, “That’s why you, as the author, want her to run away. But why does SHE want to run away.” My friend had no answer to that. [Note: If anyone’s interested, my friend did learn how to write and had several romance novels published, although not the one with the sheep camp.]
    The thing I had to remember to tell beginning writers is that, yes, there are some good novelists who don’t follow these rules. MY NAME IS ASHER LEV was an example I used. It does not have dominos falling over. It does not have action, reaction, and sequel. The only way I could explain what Potok does is that the events in the story are like grains of sand being dropped from a master’s hand, and at the end of the book everything comes together and we realize we are looking at a beautiful sand painting.
    Although action, reaction, and sequel can create the illusion of reality in novels, this is not the way our lives actually happen. Looking back at my life, for example, I can see events that happened, words that were said, things done, things undone, choices made, decisions postponed–all the little things that added together make up my life. I cannot see a straight line of first this happened, which caused that to happen, which caused this to happen, etc. Instead I can see how everything combines to create the picture of my life—an incomplete picture because my life is not yet over.
    The Chinese have a saying, “Life is a tapestry made up of a thousand threads, from which we cannot undo even a single stitch.” This is probably a better analogy for MY NAME IS ASHER LEV. Scene by scene, Potok weaves the tapestry of Asher Lev’s life, so that at the end we can see the whole picture, and in seeing the picture of Asher Lev’s live, we can see the picture of our own lives better.
    And now I come to the second thing I’d like to jump on with both feet, which is CAN YOU FORGIVE HER, by Anthony Trollope.
    In school I never had to read anything by Trollope (I was a German major with a French minor, not an English major). But when I discovered this blog, one of the first entries I happened to read was Jane praising Trollope. Being a devoted to the 10th degree fan of Jane Haddam’s books, and having a new Kindle, and with all of Trollope’s books free as e-books, I thought, why not?
    Because years ago I watched “The Palisers” on Masterpiece Theater, I decided to start with the first book in the Paliser series, CAN YOU FORGIVE HER. I read it all… the…way…through, every tedious line of it. To say that I found it bad is inadequate. The only way this novel could be connected to the word “good” is if it were used as a good example of truly bad writing, to show aspiring writers what not to do.
    I am not talking about trivial things like the old-fashioned, omniscient-narrator point of view (Little did sweet Rosalind know, dear Reader, that she was about to step into a very deep pit.). I can read–and enjoy–stories written during the Victorian era that use this P.O.V.
    I could even forgive Trollope for having padded a short novella with enough redundancies and repetitive scenes and verbiage until he ended up with an extremely long nnovel. I wouldn’t have liked all that puffery, but I could have gotten beyond it.
    What I cannot ignore is that Trollope does not tell us anything about the human condition. His characters are paper dolls to begin with. The hero is noble, the rich widow is merry, her suitors are comical, the villain is villainous, etc. But what is worse is that they don’t change.
    Okay, at the beginning of the book the heroine thinks she is capable of managing her own life (silly woman!). At the end of the book, she has changed, i.e. she understands that every woman needs a man to manage her life. At the beginning of the book Mr. Paliser (forgot his first name) doesn’t understand that he needs to pay at least a modicum of attention to his wife. At the end of the book he understands that no matter how much he wants it, he can’t be a total workaholic. At the beginning of the book the villain is well off, greedy, self-centered, selfish, and a user of women. At the end of the book the villain is a broke, greedy, self-centered, selfish, but he has run out of women to use.
    I am underwhelmed.
    To add insult to injury, there is no wit in the entire book. What humor there is, is of the “I Love Lucy” variety, i.e. it is limited to the rich widow and her two suitors—(1) the smart but broke army officer who repeatedly out-wits (2) the rich farmer, who can only brag about his possessions (including his majestic manure pile–har-dee-har-har), and of course both suitors are manipulated in turn by the rich widow.
    Does Trollope hold up a mirror to Victorian high society? No. The society he portrays never existed. He doesn’t even come close. The mind boggles at the enormity of the task involved in even trying to describe how far off the mark he is.
    Does he show us the human condition? No.
    Does he tell a compelling story? No.
    Does he create characters that stick in our minds? No.
    Would I read another book by Trollope? No. Well… I’d have to make that conditional because I am a reader. I have to read. I have to read every day. If I couldn’t read, I would not be able to survive. I am in love with the written word. So, yes, if every book except Trollope’s disappeared from the face of the earth, and if all the magazines and blogs and cereal boxes and junk mail disappeared, then I would read another book he wrote. Or maybe I’d just slit my wrists.
    Lest any of you think I am making light of suicide, I am not. I have not had a pain-free day in the last 33 years. Since January 1990, I have been fighting a battle against long-term, treatment-resistant depression. The bad days outnumber the good days. Any day when I am only mildly depressed I count as a good day. The depression appears to be the result of faulty brain chemistry with a strongly genetic component, and has little to do with what’s going on in my life. When I am all the way down in the pit of despair, I can’t even curl up in bed and escape by sleeping because lying in bed for more than a few hours becomes too painful. The only way I can get through the worst periods is to read, and the only books I can read when I am that far down are the ones that are really, Really, REALLY well written.
    Thank you, Jane, for the many times your books have helped me through the darkest days. May you live to an extreme old age, writing a new novel every year! I will buy every one you write and read it over and over and over again.


    5 Jul 11 at 1:28 pm

  7. Sorry. Wrong word. Change ‘puffery’ to ‘puffing up.’


    5 Jul 11 at 1:35 pm

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