Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Ack Factor

with 14 comments

So, there I am, looking at the comments to yesterday’s post, and flabbergasted once again at how so many people read not what’s actually written, but what they expect to hear.

I’m also flabbergasted by some of the assertions, especially the one about how, if a writer wants to take in a broad and sweeping canvas and address large issues, he must focus on government enterprises because–well, I don’t know why because.

But let’s start with the particulars.

First, I SAID NOTHING about either “the contemporary middle class” OR “angst.” 

I was talking about ordinary people making decisions in their everyday lives, and that is the actuality of every novel Dickens ever wrote.  Dickens contains a lot of things, but I can’t think of a single instance of angst. 

Besides that, Dickens does not focus on the middle class alone.  He presents characters (and the way in which they make private decisions in their private lives) from most walks of life. 

And later on in this post, I’m going to point out that Dickens does indeed spend ALL his time (except for the novellas) writing novels that having sweeping scope–and not one of them concentrates on government employees on government missions.

Second, I said NOTHING derogating SF.  All I said was that ALL THE SF GIVEN TO ME TO READ (with one exception) has been of this same type–government employees on government missions.

For thirty years.

Please excuse me for thinking that this might indicate a trend.

My guess is that I’ve read a hell of a lot more SF than most of you here have read contemporary literary fiction, and yet most of you are perfectly comfortable declaring that all contemporary literary fiction consists of stories about angst-ridden upper middle class snots fretting about their extramarital affairs.

And yet the last two such novels I read concerned a story about what happens when the Iberian peninsula breaks off from the rest of the European continent and goes floating around in the ocean on its own (The Stone Raft) and what happens in Lisbon when a mysterious disease makes 90% of the population inexplicably and mysteriously blind (Blindness).

When I mention this kind of thing, I get–but that’s science fiction, not contemporary literary fiction!

But contemporary literary fiction it is, and nobody is angsting over extramarital affairs.

And, by the way, your contempt for what you call “contemporary literary fiction” is clear and out front, while I made NO DEROGATORY COMMENT AT ALL about SF.

All I said was:  this is what the things I’ve been given to read have been like, and that’s why I’m not as interested in them as I am in other things.

Third, Cheryl says, and others of you imply, that you would never be interested in reading a novel that concentrated on the individual everyday decisions of a shopkeeper.

The fact is–you read them all the time.

That description covers virtually every Golden Age fair play mystery, virtually all of Stephen King and Charles Dickens, and, in fact, most of the novels ever written.

Some of them certainly have angst–Hamlet has angst, it’s going to show up once in a while–but I’ve never noticed it to be a particularly prominent aspect in most of them.

So, what kind of novels was I talking about?

All of Jane Austen.  All of Dickens.  Most of Stephen King (I haven’t read the Dark Tower series, so with that I don’t know).  Trollope’s Barchester series.  Vanity Fair.  Gone With The Wind.  All of Balzac.  All of Agatha Christie except the spy stories during the war.   All of the Brontes.  All of Henry James and Edith Wharton.  Most of Dorothy L. Sayers, John Dickson Carr, and Erle Stanley Gardner.

I could go on like this, but I’d be eating up a lot of space.

This should not be surprising, though, because this is what the novel was originally designed to do–to give voice to the emerging important “middle class,” in the sense of “people who are not the aristocracy.”

Fourth, it is definitely NOT true that novels of “larger scope” require their plots to be about government employees on government missions.

Margaret Mitchell could have written a novel set in the American Civil War that focused on the soldiers fighting–soldiers (government employees) on a government mission (the war).  Instead, she wrote a novel about a woman left behind and the way she made small decisions about private problems and how that series of decisions added up to the reality of Scarlett O’Hara’s character and how that character was Scarlett O’Hara’s destiny.

Stephen King could have written a novel about state-sponsored scientific workers (government employees) and the military (more government employees) first causing a worldwide epidemic and then trying to fix it (a government mission).  Instead, he wrote a novel about a group of very ordinary individual people and the small choices they made that added up to reclaiming (or not) civilization.

And those were good choices to make.  Those choices made those novels large in scope, precisely because they concentrated on the everyday choices of ordinary people.

I didn’t invent that line about “character is destiny,” but it’s a good one, and it’s true.

As far as I’m concerned, a first rate novel is one that illustrates just that–that character is destiny, that deciding on Thursday to put your thumb on the scale and cheat your customer out of  $1.48 on her hamburger order will end later (as a result of a long list of such choices) in your embezzling from your new employer or murdering your husband for his insurance or giving false witness that sends an innocent man to jail.

I think that is, in fact, the way the world works.

Written by janeh

May 24th, 2012 at 10:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

14 Responses to 'The Ack Factor'

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  1. I didn’t say anything this time about modern literature, although I often have before. I do have to admit that I don’t find the shopkeeper story of much interest unless there’s more to it – an interesting character or a good mystery plot or even an alien invasion. I think this is because I live an ordinary life, so does just about everyone I know, and from the outside they can appear too familiar to be interesting.

    But, in a drastic change of direction – I have just discovered that there is something called the ‘avoidable death rate’. Apparently the Canadian one is improving.


    Isn’t that a fascinating concept? Someone comes up with a, what’s the word, not proxy.. I forget the word, but it’s a quite normal statistical thing to combine various factors to make others to use in models. The developer can decide which causes of death to put in and take out, and, of course, at which point death is no longer avoidable (75 years old, apparently). And they aggregate data – I wonder do they allow for the fact that not everyone has a genetic makeup that makes 75 a normal lifespan, or that causes of death might not be all categorized the same way world-wide? Then they can used the numbers to lobby for ‘timely and effective health care and policy interventions’ to reduce the death rate – which of course, to begin with, is defined as those ‘Deaths that can be avoided by preventing disease and injury’. Isn’t it beautifully circular?


    24 May 12 at 12:43 pm

  2. To the best of my recollection, all yesterday’s comments reflected both that day’s blog post and your previous writing on the subject. I have been previously berated for NOT considering your posts in the context of your other writings, and those really are the only two options.

    There is little point in mentioning science fiction stories involving, say, reporters, students, physicians, publicans and store managers because all these and more were characters in science fiction stories I know you to have received or to have read in the period in which you informed us that ALL the SF you received involved Important People doing Important Things. Certainly stories of war and revolution are more likely to involve government agents, though Margaret Mitchell, Jerry Pournelle and H. G. Wells hae shown that they need not predominate–and, to rephrase my previous opening paragraph, there is no point in going to the extra effort required of a good science fiction story if the characters and events fit equally well in a contemporary setting.

    As for who exactly is “one of us” I wore a uniform from age 19 to age 44–Air National Guard and light infantry and heavy mech Army–and spent five years and change in the basement of the Pentagon. I find David Drake’s tank crews and Bujold’s Impsec (AKA “Cockroach Central”) more familiar than Victorian governesses and Dickensian slums.

    And speaking of Dickens: if I read him again it will be for pay–cash in advance, and no petty sum. There are some writing styles that not even being paid by the word will excuse.


    24 May 12 at 4:13 pm

  3. FWIW, I didn’t say Important People doing Important things

    I said goverment employees on government missions.

    Can there be other characters in the story? Sure.

    The pt is focus. Star Trek stories are about gov employees on gov missions, even if one of those missions entangle them with the sheepherders of Kron.


    24 May 12 at 4:29 pm

  4. “The characters are almost always either Somebody Important, or Somebody Official, and the stories almost always take place in Extraodinary Circumstances”


    24 May 12 at 6:49 pm

  5. And? Somebody Official is not the same as Somebody Important–but both of them will bw government employees.


    24 May 12 at 6:58 pm

  6. Cheryl: “Isn’t it beautifully circular?”

    LOL. The end always justifies the means in these best of all possible scientific worlds, eg epidemiology and climate “science”.


    24 May 12 at 7:07 pm

  7. If the difference between Important People doing Important Things and Somebody Important in Extraordinary Circumstances is critical, I’ll concede the point–but you’ll have to explain to me what the critical difference is.


    24 May 12 at 8:10 pm

  8. Not Somebody Important–Somebody Official. A second Lietenant sent in with an occupying force to help subdue Mars after a civil war is Somebody Official, but he’s not particularly important. His CO may be, but he’s not. A third level bureaucrat sent to canvas some neighborhoods for an interplanetary census is Somebody Official, but not somebody important.

    But the CO, the lieutenant and the bureaucrat are all government employees on government missions.


    24 May 12 at 8:24 pm

  9. Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy, about a beggar-boy who discovers his real family. Neither important nor official.

    Plus all his other juveniles, about Boy Scouts, farmers, regular kids. Nobody important.

    Every Barbara Hambly, pretty much. Larry Niven & Footfall, which is a little bit about government reaction to an alien invasion, but mostly about the effects and reactions of regular people to same. The story is NOT about the gov’t. John Varley & his Mars series. Three generations of a family of hotel-keepers. Harry Harrison, Deathworld & his Stainless Steel Rat, criminals who keep government at a distance at all costs.

    I wonder who does your recommending. ;)

    Many of these authors I read & re-read faithfully. Trust me, its’ not the government elements or actions that draw me back.


    24 May 12 at 9:34 pm

  10. So your objection is to someone employed by the government, and not to somebody important employed by the government, or even a big government or corporation lurking in the backgroud. I think I get it, slthough I don’t agree and it’s taken me a while to get this far, probably because I was a government employee (well, at second hand, so to speak), maybe still am at third hand, and know so many people like me who are either employed by a government or by a government-funded institution of some kind that I have a mild interest in fictional characters from that kind of background or even carrying out – or reacting against – their missions. Government employees are just people, after all.


    25 May 12 at 6:54 am

  11. I didn’t even object to it.

    I just noticed it.

    Books, movied, short stories–30 years, three of four dozen things, and with ONE exception, it was all gov emplyees on gov missions.

    Gov employees may be people, but they’re not the only people. And gov projects aren’t the only projects humaan beings engage it.

    The one exception, by the way, was Footfall.


    25 May 12 at 7:45 am

  12. I never read that. I read some Niven, no Pournelle. I went in a lot for the softer stuff – a little Heinlien, especially the early books for young people, Andre Norton, some Azimov, assorted short stories from the little magazines they used to have, Cherryh, Bujold, McCaffery, even Lackey until I got tired of misunderstood teenagers. I didn’t notice any preponderance of government officials, but then, I was looking for an interesting adventure story with interesting characters, and didn’t much care or notice the government/private side of things.

    Some of the biggest blockbusters do have government missions – I saw ‘The Avengers’ this week, which was pretty much the lightweight but entertaining fare I expected. And the special effects, with 3D on IMAX, were fabulous!

    It certainly had an incompetant and corrupt government behind the scenes, though, which was essential if you are going to require superheros to save humanity.


    25 May 12 at 8:36 am

  13. I wish I knew more about the collapse of the Roman Empire in England. I can’t help thinking that the author of the following article is stretching an analogy until it snaps.



    25 May 12 at 11:14 am

  14. This is strange. How did FOOTFALL make the “no government” list, and not OATH OF FEALTY–or, for that matter, LUCIFER’S HAMMER? If anything, I’d have done it the other way around.


    25 May 12 at 3:25 pm

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