Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

About The Story

with 3 comments

So, sometimes last week, operating on less than 4 hours of sleep, I posted a little snit that then got everybody to land on me, at which point I posted a longer thing that seems to have convinced some of you that I am denigrating what you like in reading material and declaring all science fiction and fantasy to be worthless.

But I did neither of those things.  I just explained what I liked, period, and what I preferred, period, and why I read. 

And, given the amount of text I got saying that what I’m looking for is “travelogues,” my guess is that most of you didn’t get it anyway.

But I do want to clarify something, and so I will.

And that is why I react so strongly when people go, “nothing matters as long as it’s got a good STORY.”

I don’t care that your eighth grade English teacher put you down for wanting plot instead of Seriousness, or whatever it was.

What I do care about is this:  that line–as long as it’s got a good STORY–is the bottom line excuse for every kind of sloppy, badly written, badly edited, inadequately researched piece of crap in existence.

Writer got all his historical dates wrong and had Napoleon fighting Alexander the Great–not on purpose, not as alternative history, but because he didn’t bother to look it up and his editor didn’t care?

Doesn’t matter.  It’s a good STORY.

Got every street in Paris mismarked (wrong one-ways, for instance) and placed in the wrong quatiers? 

Doesn’t matter.  It’s a good STORY.

Can’t recognize a gerund with a GPS and a native guide?  Think Helsinki is one of Dante’s levels of Hell?  Convinced Brussels is in Vietnam? 

What does it matter?  It’s a good STORY.

I am not talking here about a few mistakes.  We all make mistakes. I make a lot of them.

I’m talking about a wholesale, cavalier disregard for anything resembling factual accuracy, even when it really, really matters. 

And, for that matter, a wholesale, cavalier disregard for anything resembling decent writing, which always really, really matters. 

I do understand that some people not only don’t care, but sometimes prefer it, if a book is written in a string of cliches (as dirty as dishwater, fast as a speeding bullet, to the very fiber of her being), but I do. 

Let’s take, for instance, a movie a few years back, the name of which now escapes me.

In it, Denzel Washington plays a man whose child is being refused a transplant because the family does not have insurance.  Denzel righteously invades the hospital and holds everybody hostage until his son is given the care he needs to live.

Want to know what’s wrong with that?

I don’t know what the situation is like now, but back when that movie was made, you could not be refused a place on the transplant list, or a transplant, for inability to pay.

Want to know how I know that?  I was married to a man on the transplant list.  I got the complete rundown from the Harvard Medical School, which included the fact that “insured or not” was not one of the criteria for getting that operation.

In fact, it was illegal even to consider that as a criterion.

But, hey, what the heck?  Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

And story is all that matters, right?

No.  Wrong.

For better or for worse, I never seem to hear that defense–it’s a good story!–except in cases where the writer has produced something truly embarrassing.  Decently written books (with good stories!) that have a few mistakes in them, or that are badly written in one way or another, are not defended this way. 

People seem perfectly capable of rolling their eyes about the racism in Gone With The Wind or the clunky language in Atlas Shrugged without jumping up defensively to declare that none of it matters since they’re good STORIES.

There are, of course, other people, who honestly don’t care if they read a book set in the reign of King John where the army is using howitzers–and for them, the declaration (I don’t care about any of that–it’s a good story!) is a defense against the assumption that they are, merely by the fact that they’re adult, actually supposed to know something.

These are the same people who are likely to declare that they read “for entertainment” and therefore just put down any book that expects them to learn something or that contains material they might actually have to think about.

And I dare any one of you to try to twist that last paragraph into an assertion of support for “modernism” or “literary novels.” 

That’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about, say, third person multiple viewpoint–that’s too hard!  I’m not going to do all that work!

Or the idea that a character might have a point of view that isn’t that of the author.

Or the fact that the book might use a vocabulary larger than the approved list for Young Readers that got handed to Dr. Seuss.

I don’t like most fantasy and science fiction because I can’t get interested in the settings.  There are still lots of excellent fantasy and science fiction novels.

But they’re not great novels because they’ve got a good STORY.

They’ve got to have a whole lot else.

Going off to read silliness for the day.

Written by janeh

December 3rd, 2011 at 10:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'About The Story'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'About The Story'.

  1. Perhaps I should have defined my terms a little bit better, and we wouldn’t be going around this mulberry bush again.

    Story alone, meaning mindless action, doesn’t do it for me either. For any book to be considered to have a good “story”, for me, it must include well-drawn characters, true to life dialog, and descriptions adequate to create a sense of the place and time the author is writing about. Good writing, in the exact terms Jane talks about, is essential. But, I don’t discriminate as to whether the setting is today, tomorrow or yesterday, though I rarely read historical fiction. Well, okay, Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January and other historical novels. She does try for a modicum of historical accuracy, among the fictionalization.

    A story without characterization and a sense of place isn’t a story to me, and when I said Jane was eliminating good stories due to their future or fantastic settings, I meant she was eliminating compelling characters and fully realized settings, not just swash and buckle.

    I will admit to a low taste for movies where things blow up, and sometimes really *bad* TV (Manimal comes to mind). Sometimes I read books I consider mental candy-floss, but I’d never characterize those as “good stories.” But mostly, I’ve read SF in order TO learn something, not to avoid it. You’d be surprised the number of things I’ve come up with, amazing my friends and colleagues, that have come out of SF stories first, then followed up with research & learning.

    Does this help at all? I don’t urge anyone to read “nothing but story” meaning action, mindless or otherwise, or plot without substance. But not to read SF or fantasy because the location can’t be visited seems… I don’t know. Wasteful. There are so many great characters and settings out there that just don’t happen to be places one can actually get to. There are so many books I consider great *writing* regardless of where they’re shelved.


    3 Dec 11 at 2:33 pm

  2. Would it help if we called it narrative drive? (Just kidding.)

    OK, that was good for much rumination over lunch and a long walk. (Of course, the lunch was at Chick-fil-a, so I suppose rumination was in order.)
    I agree with reservations—lots of reservations. A story is not sufficient, but I regard it as necessary. For me, the three-legged stool is story, character and setting. I think for Jane it’s setting, character and style—and I believe there are still some four-legged “setting, character, plot and style” chairs available at the used metaphor mart. But without a story, I sit by the side of the literary road kicking some gleaming modernist vignette and crying like a Pakled “It doesn’t GO!” and cursing the English Lit critic who sold me the thing, while people go past me shouting “get a three-decker!”

    So now I have to define “story.” Call it a series of described events leading to a conclusion which follows from the earlier events and (with luck) makes sense of them. So Kipling’s “Wayside Comedy” is a story, while Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” is not and all the various soap operas which go on until a comet strikes the earth, the ship strikes an iceberg or the volcano explodes are not satisfactory stories. (Yes, you can tell a perfectly good story about a comet striking the earth. You do it by making that the setting and not the climactic event. It’s a matter of balance.)

    Note there is a difference between having a story and having a compelling story. That last “what happens NOW?” category are the stories with “narrative drive” I understand. But a story can be adequate without that.

    Defects. If a story has flat, uninteresting characters, I’m not sure any amount of plot can save the situation, which is why I never finished the “Foundation” Trilogy, and have no volume of Asimov on my shelves.

    Factual errors are an interesting point: one of those things where education actually works or can work against enjoyment. I often re-read Walter Wager’s DESIGNATED HITTER, which has scenes set in DC, London, Stockholm and Athens. The DC scenes seemed plausible and I’ve lived there. I’ve vacationed in London and nothing struck me as out of place. But he could have gotten away with murder in Athens and Stockholm—ruining the enjoyment of people who knew the territory better, but not disturbing me in the slightest.

    There are immense numbers of “historical” novels—usually romances—I can’t read because I know too much. I’m continually thinking something can or can’t be done when the author thinks otherwise. I’m actually much better off with a high fantasy novel where knowing who the King of England was and what the laws were in a particular year doesn’t get in the way.

    The high fantasy novelist has to invent everything and be consistent. The historical or contemporary novelist–or the modern urban fantasy writer–is piggy-backing off my knowledge of the real historical world, and when she gets it wrong I’m unforgiving. When I don’t know what is or isn’t true or possible, I don’t have any way to read intelligently. I might as well be strapped into a “fun ride.”

    But it is worth distinguishing between annoying errors—historical character given a title he won’t receive for years; paperback books on shelves before the paperback was invented—and real plot-killers. I once read a “historical” romance in which our hero was wandering around 1803 France disguised as a wounded soldier from the Emperor Napoleon’s endless wars. That First Consul Bonaparte wouldn’t be crowned the Emperor Napoleon until late 1804 was an annoyance. That there had been no fighting on the Continent since 1800 was a plot-killer.

    And it’s a constant menace to the historical novelist and science fiction writer. There are aspects of Leigh Brackett’s Mars and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman Britain which have been swept away by research, though both were honest efforts at the time. And if I could explain why I will accept in them mistaken facts I would not accept in someone writing in 2010, I’d know something about myself, and maybe something about literature. Any suggestions?

    I have certainly used “it’s a good story” as a shorthand for “I cared about the people and found the sequence of events compelling.” I could not use it for a book with flat characters, an internally inconsistent tale or one in which what the author was telling me continually conflicted with what I already knew–because, for me, those wouldn’t be good stories. They couldn’t be.

    Enjoy the silliness.


    3 Dec 11 at 2:46 pm

  3. Didn’t say, and maybe should have. There’s an important difference between fiction in which being bright and well-informed helps, and fiction in which being bright and well-informed hinders.

    I was re-reading Georgette Heyer’s A CIVIL CONTRACT a while back. There’s a scene in which our hero is sitting in a club–White’s?–waiting for news of the 1815 campaign. Sir Robert Wilson is explaining to various members how Wellington has surely come to grief. Wilson hasn’t come into the story before. He’s a real person. And I found myself thinking ‘well, of course Wilson would say that: he’s a “slippery fellow” always second-guessing his military superiors. He’s been on bad terms with Wellington ever since Sir Arthur took the Lusitanian Legion away from him years ago, and the club’s full of Whigs anyway.’ Heyer had made one allusion to the politics of the club some time back, but all she gave of Wilson was the name and action. She left him as a treat for well-informed readers, which means I could enjoy the book now in ways I couldn’t have 45 years ago when I hadn’t heard of the man.

    For contrast, Eileen Dreyer has two Regencies out and presumably a third coming set just post-Waterloo and involving a plot by arch-conservatives to assassinate Wellington. (It works just about as well as contemporary libertarians scheming to assassinate Ron Paul.) Stephenie Laurens has I think four volumes in which turbanned middle-eastern assassins wander the post-Waterloo French and British countryside without provoking official reaction. (She seemed ignorant of the HEIC in the India sections. Maybe she never heard of Lord Lieutenants and Yeomanry either.) Both sets would read better if I knew less, which is a dreadful thing to say about a book.

    And it’s a distinction your “who cares: it’s a great story” person doesn’t seem to appreciate.


    3 Dec 11 at 3:24 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 865 access attempts in the last 7 days.