Everyday jargonism

Kenning

Last week I talked about Stephen Fry’s The Liar and how it described a world from which I felt alienated. Now it’s time to elaborate on that in yet another book-based ramble. We can but hope that at least one of you will find it interesting.

*Clears throats and adopts lecturing stance*

I’m pretty well grounded in genre fiction: that big, wide tent that covers not only SFF but crime, thrillers, spy novels and horror and, to a lesser extent, LBGT stories. I don’t know so much about literary fiction and, save for inevitable overlap, ‘popular’ fiction such as that produced by Dan Brown and James Patterson. This is another way of saying that I know the ‘rules’ (or tropes) of some forms of fiction but not others.

Knowing the rules is another way of saying that I understand the jargon. I know the shape of a crime story: I understand the differences between a police procedural and a noir thriller. I can instinctively – instinct being another word for experience – tell the difference between epic fantasy and grimdark. Each genre and subgenre has its own shape and structure.

My snobbery is that I have developed a mistrust of literary fiction. I see it as elitist and, to be honest, I’m just not sure what it actually is. Thus I have written off the McEwan’s and Amis’ of the world as being about English professors who attended fee-paying schools before spending three hundred pages agonising over whether or not they should boink their students.

Martin-Amis-and-Ian-McEwan-Mark-Vessey_medium

Martin Amis & Ian McEwan; an image taken from a joint 2014 interview

Which brings us back to The Liar. I felt excluded from this novel – especially in the first half of it – because it described a world I didn’t understand. It was hard for me to feel empathy with its characters because I’ve never known anyone like them. The jargon passed me by, the jokes too ‘in’ to welcome me.

And that got me thinking: this must be what other people feel like all the time.

Literary fictioneers don’t understand genre¹. They feel excluded. All that talk of elves and dwarfs and magic: it’s just another way to determine the in-crowd. It’s easy to pour scorn on something you don’t understand, to say ‘oh, it’s just escapism’ because they can’t imagine that might actually be a metaphor.

Similarly, I don’t get the subtleties of the romance genre. I know a little about the way Mills & Boon, in particular, are written to a formula but I don’t get the subtleties that distinguishes a potboiler from a beloved classic.

But these are little things. Some groups are excluded from the world of books altogether. Which leads us neatly on to Lionel Shriver.

“…literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling.”

Ms Shriver has courted fresh controversy with her complaints against the move for diversity within the publishing world. She worries that welcoming minority groups (especially if it’s a sort of quota system of positive discrimination) into fiction will be detrimental to quality. Why this should be isn’t immediately clear: it implies that the aforementioned gay transgender dropout is incapable of writing quality prose. It overlooks the great advantage that she herself received as a graduate of a private school and all that that implies.

[I last wrote about her views here. Spoiler: I disagreed with her then, too.]

First of all, it’s worth noting that a big reason why literary fiction is what it is because white middle-class men ran publishing for at least a century (and still do, though possibly to a lesser extent). Naturally they gravitated towards books they understood, that spoke to them: that were written in the jargon of their daily lives. Thus the ideal of ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ was to a great extent homogenised, one great circle-jerk of self-congratulatory smuggery.

Nonprofit-communication-is-overflowing-with-jargon.jpg

So it’s no wonder that minority groups see reading as not for them. When people feel that you’re not allowed to wear trainers in a bookshop², just how off-putting is it for BAME readers to be expected to wade through books with not a single character with a name like theirs?

No wonder ‘working class’ people don’t read when the books they like – the romances, the thrillers, the Dan Browns and James Pattersons³ – are derided as ‘silly’ or ‘simplistic’ or ‘unworthy’. Why should they bother? It’s not that books are uncool; it’s that they’re ridiculed for the books they’re drawn to.

[And this can go right back into childhood. So many girls’ stories are about princesses and boys have only ogres to model themselves upon. I’m not sure if it’s available to watch now, but if you get the chance I’d really recommend this documentary for more on the harm we do children through the small sins of stereotyping gender]

I like myself

People like to see themselves in the books they read. There has to be something they can grasp; some aspect of the character or their world they can relate to. That can be as simple as having a woman as a significant character, or someone not born with a silver spoon in their mouth, or as complex as a world with suspiciously familiar nation-states (or planets) in constant turmoil and warfare. Knowledge and experience all count here.

All this might make you think that I’m railing against The Liar and books of that ilk, but I’m not. What I’m doing is coming to terms with my own shortcomings. People who went to public school absolutely deserve to be served by the stories they read – but so do the rest of us, especially those who are typically unrepresented.

Repeat after me: not all books are written with me in mind and that’s okay.

Publishing has for too long been an Old Boys’ Club. Literary fiction is unduly represented in awards and the status it’s accorded is, in my view, unmerited.

Everyone deserves good books. If you want your writing to read a wide audience (which is not that same as more readers; there’s a reason why genre conventions exist in book covers) it might be worth looking at what you’re doing to exclude potential readers, and what you can do to embrace more people.

Oh and Lionel Shriver can just, please, go away.

***

¹Massive generalisation for the purposes of illustrative effect. I’m sure there’s a Classical term for the way I’m using it but the internet has let me down. Hyperbole is the closest I can get.

²This is taken from a conversation on Twitter initiated by Joanne Harris on 28/05/18 with regard to the struggles of UK chain WHSmiths. Her initial statements are thus:

While it may not be the coolest shop on the High Street, research suggests that WH Smith, and not Waterstone’s, is the place where most working-class people buy books. If we care at all about promoting literacy, we should at least be aware of this.

All the replies from well-meaning, middle-class people saying; “Yes, but it needs to stop selling cheap chocolate and tat” may have missed my point. Some people may like cheap chocolate. They may like the fact that WH Smith provides a nonthreatening, familiar environment.

Research strongly suggests that readers from certain backgrounds are less likely to go into Waterstone’s because it looks expensive and intimidating to them. WH Smiths, with its “cheap chocolate and tat”, looks more welcoming. They buy their books there instead.

But I’m also drawing from the responses to this conversation. I personally have no facts & figures, sorry.

³Like Footnote no.1 this is a massive, crude oversimplification. I don’t think that the ‘working class’ only read blockbusters, and that blockbusters are only read by the working class. Hell, I’m not even sure who the working class are anymore. Please don’t hate me. I’m just trying to make a point

 

On Chekhov’s Gun and the fantastic

Gun

I was listening to Tim Clare’s wonderful ‘Death of 1,000 Cuts’ podcast – which I recommend most heartily – and, in conversation with Nate Crowley, something came up that caught my ear. He said that Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t apply in science-fiction because we, the reader, expect things they don’t understand to be dropped into the background to help build the world.

I take it we’re all familiar with Chekhov’s Gun, the rule which states that you must “remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” It has a whole Wikipedia page of its own. That’s how important it is.

Let me just make clear that Tim’s comment was a single sentence that went without consideration – just a passing observation before the conversation went elsewhere. This is in no way a critique of him or his brain, which seems to me both beautiful and wondrous. But, as with all the best things in life, this one idle comment got me thinking: is this true? As a writer of SFF can I lay Chekhov’s Gun aside?

My initial thought is no, you can’t. But we need to dig a little deeper than that, don’t we? This blog won’t write itself, more’s the pity.

The first thing we need to think about is point-of-view. Unless we’re dealing with a fish-out-of-water tale (time-travel, say, or a primitive transported to a technologically advanced world) all the trappings of your POV-character’s world will be familiar to them. It’d be frankly weird for them to explain what a hyperspace drive is if they work with one every day.

It’d be like a character in a contemporary novel describing a television or a bookshelf: we take these items for granted. Only the extraordinary needs description.

Thus we assume that anything that the writer draws specific attention to, especially if the POV character already knows all about it, is significant.

There’s also an element of trust going on. When a writer tosses out concepts like mechs or mer-beasts or strange magicks and then moves on, we as readers have to trust the writer to tell us more if they’re of any importance. Not then and there, for that way leads straight to exposition-ville, but we trust that the writer will slip us the information under the table, as it were, as we get deeper into their world.

mech

A strange mech. As with the rest of the images in this article, I’ve no idea who made it and who owns copyright.

[As an aside, I think writers have got so much better at doing this over the years. Asimov’s The Gods Themselves is my go-to example of how not to do it: it even includes the dreaded sentence “As you know…” which is a sure sign that an exposition-bomb is about to be detonated. And TGT won awards.]

Specific terms and phrases are scattered around in all genres; from underground argot in crime novels, to historical denotations of class, to the ways and means of public schoolboys in literary fiction. These don’t bother us because we trust the writer to explain what matters. The rest is colour.

So the question we should really be asking is this: what’s the difference between Chekhov’s Gun and colour?

And the answer to that is that there shouldn’t be any. Not to the casual eye, at least.
Foreshadowing is vital: the reader must see the crucial element before it becomes significant – if not we’re in breach of Knox’s Commandments. Deus ex machina will swoop down upon us and doom will be our only friend.

Chekhov’s Gun is foreshadowing gone feral. Foreshadowing must be camouflaged; it must be indistinguishable from the background. It must be masked by that ‘colour’ we were talking about before.

Chekhov, however, hurls off his disguise and, slapping his belly to the rhythm of Waltzing Matilda, dances a naked jig before the reader.

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Be very, very glad that this is the image I’ve chosen to accompany that thought. There were alternatives…

So I respectfully disagree with Tim Clare. Chekhov’s Gun is not excusable in SFF: it’s an error in any genre. Perhaps what he’s really thinking of is jargon – there is, perhaps, a higher likelihood of made-up words in science fiction and fantasy. Let’s not forget that the word ‘orc’ is now widely known where fifty years ago it was practically unknown. ‘Orc’ is jargon that has entered modern parlance. ‘Cyberspace’ is another example, as is ‘hive mind’. Not long ago we needed these terms explaining. Now we don’t.

Characters belong to a time, a place and a culture. They have their own language (and, if you don’t believe these surround us even now, check out Dent’s Modern Tribes) and they think in those terms. We don’t need every single word explained; context will make most things clear.

Context is, as ever, everything. Abandon it at your peril.

Proof

I’ve done something that at least sounds moderately impressive this month. With malice aforethought, with eyes wide open and with a degree of trepidation, I’ve joined my first ever professional body and can now officially – and with a certain degree of self-mockery – display this badge:

sfep-badge-entry-level-member-retina

I’ve also paid to take a proofreading course, which means that my war against typos has been stepped up to new levels.

I’m doing this for a couple of reasons. One to teach myself the jargon: just as you can know the rules of grammar without knowing the terminology, proofreading can be done without training. But it has its own tics and mannerisms that it can only be of benefit to learn. This will, I hope, ultimately save me time both in my own editing and in communication with other professionals.

Technical languages like the rules of grammar (of which I am more or less entirely ignorant) are a shorthand and a pretension. You don’t need to understand dilithium crystals to make a spaceship fly, but understanding them may help you communicate with engineers.

I’m hoping that learning to proofread may help me be a better writer. If I know what the industry considers to be mistakes, if I can see what they’re looking for, the hope is that I can incorporate these ‘rules’ into my writing at an earlier stage. Or, if I’m going to break them, I can break them good and hard and with malice aforethought. And write ‘STET’* in the margin in huge letters and underline it several times.

The biggest reason for doing a proofreading course, however, is simple and obvious: I’d like to earn a little cash. Like the vast majority of writers I don’t earn money – not a penny – from my calling. I have a paid job that keeps me alive and sane, but 2017 will see me taking six months out. I need something to do. I have skills and I need to monetise them.

This sounds mercenary but it’s life, and life is sometimes cold and dark. I’ve not the temperament for teaching and writing copy for bingo sites will kill my creativity. What other options do I have? I’ve spent ten hard years on fiction writing. It’s what I know. I also need to live, and to help my family live. I also have some experience, what with all my work helping other writers with their works-in-progress.

It also keeps me locked into the world of words. Really it’s just a way of expanding what I already do: read manuscripts and give feedback. If I can pick up a few contacts through freelancing and getting my name in the world of publishing then all to the good.

My biggest worry is that I’m branching away from my true love – creative writing – and losing time from what I could be doing: writing, self-promoting and building my own career. This next year will be a crucial one for me. I am good at what I do – I have to believe that – but whether I can make a future for myself as an author remains to be seen.

Oh, and if you need any proofreading done please drop me a line. ‘Honest Rob’ is at your command; reasonable rates, satisfaction guaranteed etc etc.

 

*Apparently they don’t do this any more. I am sorely disappointed.