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Interiors, Not By Woody Allen: A Vulcan Concerto

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I don’t know why I am always so surprised that what I write is taken in ways that would never have occurred to me.  It’s not as if it doesn’t happen often enough.  It happens continuously. 

But every time it happens, there I am, anywhere from nonplussed to flabbergasted.

Today I am mostly on the nonplussed side, because looking at this particular misunderstanding, I’m convinced that I should have anticipated it.

So let me clear up the central mistake–when I say I am interested interiority in a novel, I don’t mean I want to know how characters feel.

I want to know how they think.

Feeling is all right as far as it goes, and sometimes you have to know how people feel if you are going to understand how they think.

But feeling always seemed to me to be mostly chemical and untrustworthy. 

Feeling can sometimes be the result of the way we think, but it is more often the result of hormones gone wild, or a lack of sleep, or Scrooge’s bit of underdone potato.

The way people feel is not a very good guide to what they will do.  The way people think very often is, and what is more, very often provides some explanation of why.

I am not saying that people don’t often hide their real motives from themselves.  Of course they do, all the time.  But part of knowing how people (characters) think is seeing that attempt at concealment from the self.

I think how people think is interesting in and of itself, beyond any other aspect of a story.  How people think–people I don’t know, people I do know but don’t understand–is what I look for in the fiction I read.

I think one of my problems with science fiction (and some fantasy) landscapes and settings is that they make me distrust the characters as people–some of the characters are not supposed to be people.

Yes, of course, I know that some science fiction writers call characters Romulans and then have them behave exactly and think exactly as people would in the same circumstances or from the same bakbrounds.

There is just a part of me that can never get past the idea that, if I’m dealing with a Romulan, then the thought processes are possibly true for Romulans, but not necessarily for anybody else.

What people seem to want these days is less emotions (although there are entire genres devoted to nothing else) as mindlessness.

We me out characters in the most superficial way, and then we get events! adventures! people running around doing stuff that faster and faster!

This seems to be standard operating procedure in movies of all kinds, not just in one particular genre or another, and some genre movies can be among the few that try to escape brainlessness.

Into that last category, I’d put both the most recent Star Trek movie and the first one.  There are actual issues that people are thinking about.  Every once in a while, the people who are thinking about them talk about them.

Part of the problem is that movies are the preeminent art form of our era, and movies are not a wonderful medium for exploring how people think. 

In fact, I would go farther than that.  I would say that there is a limit to how much interiority a movie can display before it becomes a very bad movie indeed.  What’s more, the more it works at displaying interiority the less credible the interiority it displays seems to be.

At the end of a viewing of Interiors or Notes on a Scandal, I’m not left with the conviction that I’ve learned something new and important about human beings.

I feel instead that I’ve been subjected to two hours of pretentious idiocy about the kind of people I’d block from my friends list on Facebook. 

This is true even in cases where I am aware that, if something had been done to make the movie watchable, there might have been something worthy of being scene.

I give you Judi Dench’s character in Notes on a Scandal, who would have made a first rate murderer in any decent fair play, and who is a character type I’ve always found completely baffling when I’ve come across it in real life.

But movies are just not the place for really laying out the thought processes of human beings.  When they are done well, they appeal to the emotions at best, and sometimes to less than that. 

There are a whole lot of movies (and television shows) out there that are the artistic equivalent of roller coaster rides.  The idea is to make the viewer dizzy with the up and down and around and backwards, dizzy with the thrill itself divorced from every other consideration.

At this point, the usual thing is to blame the lack of interiority in novels these days on the Evil Media Corporations that bought up publishers and tried to get books to get the kind of profit percentages they could flog out of movies and TV.

Goodness only knows that major publishers these days produce a mind numbing array of throwaway literature, books that strive mightily to reproduce the mindless action of the worst sort of movie thriller.

I think it is also true that books are never going to bring in the 17% return on investment that media conglomerates have come to expect from their other ventures.

Even in the golden days of American literacy, publishing companies were lucky to get 6%, and the most common return was closer to 3%.

No matter how painful it may be to admit it, the simple fact is that the reading of books is now and always has been a minority taste. 

Catering to it can be profitable, but only if you’re very careful to keep your expenses under control.

The problem with corporations isn’t that they’re Evil, but that they are inevitably Bureaucracies.  Bureaucracies always and inevitably metastasize.  The more people you’re keeping on the payroll, the more money you have to make to cover your costs. 

And at a certain tipping point, you’re suddenly in the position of needing more money to operate than you can sanely expect to earn from any source at all.

But I think the bottom line here is not any of that, although none of it helps.

I think that people want different things from their novels, and especially from their mystery novels, now than they did in the time of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers.

Every time I teach 102, I try to explain to my students between life in the premodern and the modern world.

To people before the period we call the Enlightenment, reality looked a lot like chaos.  Very little was predictable.  People died young for no reason anybody could really pin down.  Wars started for what seemed like no particular reason on the spur of the moment, or arrived with hordes of horsemen from regions only rumored before the event. Crimes were often committed with impunity, both because the nobility weren’t held accountable when they sinned against people of lower status than themselves, and because it was often difficult to catch the perpetrators in a world without police departments or serious forensics. 

Look at what people in the Middle Ages considered beautiful, and what you will find is the orderly and the proportionate.  Not only did poems rhyme, they often adhered to rigid structural patterns.  Every form of art–painting, music, drama, poetry, even the sermon–had long lists of rules that not only promised to make the end result predictable, but did.

Civilization in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was the imposition of order on a disorderly (and therefore dangerous and malicious) world.

The Enlightenment brought the reign of reason and the beginnings of society-wide order.  It even brought a lot of actual order–new ways to organize cities and societies that brought with them a rise in the safety of such places through resorts to plans for public health; schemes for laying out roads and bridges that obliterated the old cowpath configurations; reformation of legal systems to make them more consistant; a steady march against the privileges of the aristocracy; and, eventually, the beginnings of modern police forces and crime detection.

To the Enlightenment mind and its inheritors (think lots of those Victorians), disorder was still the enemy.  But where the Middle Ages saw that disorder as an evil supernatural force implanted in nature itself,  the Enlightenment saw it as man’s willful rejection of reason. 

The criminal was the criminal not because he made a pact with the devil, but because he rejected the inherent goodness of reason and order.

The good news and the bad news hit almost immediately–the new concentration on reason and order did make things better, but it also made things a little suffocating.

You could have a little more reason and order than you were able to live with.

Robert’s comment was right where it said that eras of reason and emotion trade back and forth with each other.

I just think that they trade back and forth with each other on the basis of whether most of us feel more menaced by too much order or too little of it.

The Golden Age of the mystery occurred between the two World Wars. 

We are living, these days–most of us in the US–in the Golden Age of the bureaucracy, with endless pettifogging rules for every activity imaginable, with every wrongheaded incursion into our lives and thoughts labeled as “science” which, we are assured, trumps anything like personal preference or a national Constitution.

Maybe it’s not that surprising that “people thinking” is not what we look for in our entertainment.

Written by janeh

September 22nd, 2013 at 10:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Interiors, Not By Woody Allen: A Vulcan Concerto'

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  1. Yeah, well. Clearly Kafka–or maybe Robert Howard–is the writer for the age of the bureaucrat.

    I’m going back to the SF bit. You can, of course, reject the genre for any number of reasons, but I do think you’re missing a point here. Your typical Romulan, Vulcan or Klingon is a human being with pointy ears or a corrugated forehead. They’re examples of different cultures, usually not so different from my own thinking as some of the names on the family tree.

    There are science fiction writers, though, who use the genre to look at how are evolutionary origins affect our thinking by imagining and describing how an intelligent being lacking our hypothesized tribal omnivore background–an intelligent carnivore or herbivore, for instance–might differ from us. If we write fiction to explore what we are, this in not an approach to be dismissed out of hand.

    For the rest (1) Haycraft was I think right in saying detective stories are the literature of a free democratic society, and (2) if the Great Conversation is accessible to only 10% of the population and only half of those are interested, it’s never going to be the driver of something costing in the tens or hundreds of millions to produce. (And even if they were cheap, would you watch two hours of voiceovers?)

    The money invested in books is much less, and books are more suitable for combining thought and action. Fortunately, I have laid in a good stock.


    22 Sep 13 at 1:50 pm

  2. CJ Cherryh is an example of a writer who does really good ALIEN aliens, descended from predators or vermin, or not even coming from carbon-based chemistries. These all have motivations and cultures totally different from human. They think logically enough in most cases, but their motivations and society can be totally opaque. In some cases, communication is difficult to impossible, because there isn’t even a shared reality on which to base common symbols.

    I have more to say about emotion, particularly when one side doesn’t even possess the same emotions as the other, and emotion’s relationship to both thought and action…but I’ve had this one day off in the last 3 weeks, and I’m going to go enjoy paradisical weather outside in the Big Blue Room.


    22 Sep 13 at 4:20 pm

  3. I ought to have mentioned Poul Anderson by name, and meant to. His Polesotechnic League stories in particular are filled with the products of alien evolutions.

    But there’s always a place in my heart for Doc Smith’s Nadrek of Palain VII. “Give me an alien who thinks as well as a man, but not like a man” John Campbell said, and E.E. Smith delivered. Clear Ether, Nadrek!


    22 Sep 13 at 5:35 pm

  4. Jane wrote “Robert’s comment was right where it said that eras of reason and emotion trade back and forth with each other.”

    I’ve been thinking about that along with the fact that the university students of the 1960s are now getting ready for retirement.

    Perhaps you can remember their chants. “Never trust anyone over 30” and “What do we want?” X (for some value of X) “When do we want it? NOW!”

    Talk about emotion vs reason. Their grandchildren are now university students and perhaps will react against those emotions.

    On the science fiction thread, I offer Larry Niven and his Puppeteers, Kzin, and Moties.


    22 Sep 13 at 7:46 pm

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