If you’re gonna make a speech in your novel, you should just make a speech!

url_quotThe_Junglequot_By_Upton_Sinclair-s312x475-108352-580John Scalzi recently linked to his review of Atlas Shrugged, which made me think of my own post about the book (which is, incidentally, my favorite novel).

And that made me remember my major criticism of the book, which is that the final third of the book is pretty superfluous. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but the book is about a heroic corporate executive who struggles to keep her railway afloat even as the United States implements increasingly authoritarian collectivist policies. About two thirds of the way through the book, though, she discovers that all her fellow industrialists (who’ve been disappearing throughout the book) are holed up in a secret colony in Colorado where they’re waiting for the United States to collapse (after which they’ll come out of the canyon and create a better and freer USA). Anyway, Dagny decides to leave the canyon because she can’t accept that her train system needs to be destroyed, and then a whole bunch of other stuff happens and she regrets her decision, etc, etc.

However, everything that happens in the book after she decides to leave the secret colony is, both from a plot and a thematic standpoint, entirely superfluous. She’s already made her decision. She’s heard what the other industrialists are planning, and she agrees with it, but she’s not willing to make the sacrifices that the plan will demand. And from the moment she goes back to her desk and tries to run the railroad, we know that she is doomed. We know that there is no way for a person like her to operate within the system that Rand has created.

The problem with the book is that it doesn’t trust its readers to understand that Dagny has made the wrong choice. And that while her choice was laudable, it was also sentimental and blind and fearfful. Instead, it needs to spend hundreds of pages maneuvering everything into place so that she’s converted, even though everything that happens has a sense of inevitability to it. Oh, and it also needs to give room for its hero to make a 50 page speech about Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

It’s silly. If you’re going to write a novel to support an idea, then write the novel. And trust that your characters and your plots have enacted it. Another novel that’s crippled in the same way is The Jungle. Upton Sinclair wanted to write a novel about how industrial society is destroying poor immigrant families, so he wrote an absolutely beautiful and heart-breaking novel. And then, after the family has fallen to pieces, the novel goes completely off the rails and the main hero becomes a socialist and we spend dozens of pages listening to speeches.

I think the desire here is to leave the audience with both: a) a sense of hope; and b) a call to future action. It’s not enough to convince them that the problem is real; you also need to convince them that your solution is the right one.

And I think that’s great.

People all the time will say something like, “Don’t write a novel to sell an agenda.” Which is obviously incorrect. There’ve been tons of people who’ve written novels in service of ideas and agendas. Personally, I’m even a big fan of putting a huge explication into the novel. I think that if you have something you’re trying to say, then it’s a moral necessity to actually come out and say it. All I’m saying is that if you’re going to do it, then you shouldn’t let it ruin the plot and character arc of your book.

If you want to include a long explication of your philosophy in your novel, there’s a very easy mechanism for doing it. You just include an essay-length addendum. Tolstoy has an absolutely fascinating 30,000 word epilogue in War And Peace where he tries to make some nonsensical point about God and God’s plan for the Earth (Napoleon is involved somehow too). Admittedly, no one reads it, but anyone who wants to read it can do so (I read and loved it). And, more importantly, he didn’t pervert the structure of his novel in order to include it! He didn’t figure out a way to turn Prince Bezubhov into a mystic who was revealed these secrets on a mountain somewhere. No. He just ended Bezubhov’s story in an apropriately tragic fashion…and then he stepped out from behind the curtain and explained himself. (George Bernard Shaw was also famous for doing this in the prefaces to his plays).

Twitter is the only social network which punishes you for following a person you’re interested in

In an offhand comment on his blog today, John Scalzi wrote: “Weird to think some of you [i.e. his blog readers] don’t follow me on Twitter, but there you go.”

Which interested me, since I am one of those people: I’m an avid reader of Scalzi’s blog, but I unfollowed him on Twitter several months ago.

And it was for a simple reason: I don’t follow anyone who isn’t following me back.

For a long time, I assumed that this was the policy of most authors, but I was talking about it to someone at AWP, and he seemed to think there was something shameful about this stance, so maybe not everyone acts this way.

But I think that the design of Twitter encourages my way of thinking. Whenever you look at a user, their number of followers is prominently displayed next to the number of people that they follow, which provides a very clear and intuitive glimpse of whether they are more of a listener or a broadcaster. If they’re the former, then they’re a consumer: a set of ears. But if they’re the latter, then they’re obviously a person whom people listen to.

Something like this mechanic is necessary, since Twitter needs a way to signal that someone is a spammer: people who accrued tens of thousands of followers by following tens of thousands of people. (Although another alternative would be to limit the total number of accounts that you’re allowed to follow.)

But it sets up a weird incentive for someone like me. Whenever I follow someone who isn’t following me back, I tip myself further into the “listener” and farther from the “broadcaster” category. Which doesn’t feel good. Twitter is the only social network in which your social status is reduced if you follow other peoples’ work.

In a way, Twitter is a zero-sum game. Every time you follow someone, you add to their social status and reduce your own.

A bigger person wouldn’t care how they were perceived: they would just go ahead and follow all the people whose tweets they enjoy. And I think that is what most people do. I mean, not everybody can maintain a positive followed-by to follower-of ratio (although, since most Twitter accounts are pretty passive or defunct, it is possible for a majority of active twitter accounts to maintain a positive ratio).

But that’s not me. I do care. So my policy is to not follow anyone who doesn’t follow me. Which is not to say that someone like John Scalzi ought to follow my Twitter account. He has tens of thousands of followers, and he obviously needs to limit his feed to the ones that he actually wants to talk to. But my policy remains. While I would not be uninterested in reading Scalzi’s tweets, I refuse to sacrifice even an iota of my social status in order to gain the privilege of doing so.

 

I summarize blog entries on: the quality of writing in chicklit novels; Scalzi’s Redshirts; and David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself

Ugh, okay guys. I had all kinds of things to say about the writing in chick lit novels. And I was gonna talk about how Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed has an amazing premise (it’s told from the point of view of a woman who’s sleeping with her best friend’s fiance) but very thin writing, while Bridget Jones’ Diary has a very stock premise (it is basically copying the plot of Pride and Prejudice), but very information-dense writing–it’s full of all these wonderful snippets and tidbits about middle-class life in Britain.

But instead, I am just going to summarize those thoughts in one paragraph. Because I’m kind of going crazy here. So much stuff to do before I can move! I already gave myself a break on the quality of my reading, but now I think I’m gonna have to give myself a break on the quality of my blogging too.

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I was also gonna write a post on John Scalzi’s Redshirts. I’ll summarize that post too, although I’ll spare you another paragraph written in the subjunctive.

Like every other aspiring writer in the world, I absolutely adore Scalzi’s blog. It’s so light and entertaining and, sometimes, surprisingly informative. You never feel bad after reading Scalzi’s blog. But, years ago, I read Scalzi’s debut novel The Old Man’s War, and was not nearly as impressed. I couldn’t really see what was good about it. The writing felt thin, and the setting and plot felt very generic. After finishing it, I never again felt tempted to pick up another of his novels.

Until I clicked through to the Redshirts excerpt on Tor.com. There was something about the first chapter that clicked with me. The writing felt frothy and light (almost like a novel-length version of his blog). And the book came out at a perfect time for me. And when I was looking around for some more light reading, Redshirts seemed perfect.

But it was kind of a rocky road for me. The writing felt a little uneven. Scalzi even gives characters really similar names (which feels like a total rookie mistake). He has one main character named Dahl and one named Duvall. And he has one main character named Hester and one named Hanson. And when they splashed out with the big reveal about what was going on (i.e. why all the redshirts on this starship kept dying), I seriously groaned. It felt so silly and trivial.

But I was wrong. Scalzi completely blew through the silliness. He rode his incredibly silly premise into the ground and then he stood atop its body and raised his arms in triumph. I absolutely loved the place where this book went. And I loved how the resolution was so simple and friendly. When his main characters explained the situation to the supposed antagonists, they were just like, “Welp, that makes a lot of sense…why don’t I just help you with that?” It was absolutely wonderful.

And then there were the Codas. Because the novel is so short, Scalzi included three short-stories that take place in the same universe and comment directly upon the events of the novel. And at least two of them take this premise into a really emotional and serious place. Maybe, on their own, they might not have been too interesting, but they were exactly the right counterweight to the silliness of the main text.

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            Finally, I was going to write a post about David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself. Anyone who’s ever read my short stories knows that I have a positive obsession with doubling and cloning and self-replication. This novel is the king of self-replication stories. It’s about a man who travels through time, doubling back on himself dozens and dozens of times and eventually sleeping with himself (yes, it is a classic of gay speculative fiction). There is so much that is good about this book. Even the time travel mechanics seem to have been very well thought-out (though I mostly ignored them). At its core, this novel is about one of the questions that SF is superb at asking, “What should a person do with his (or her) life?” The protag’s time travel belt strips away all the obstacles that normally complicate this question, and the resulting story is rigorous and awesome.

But that isn’t what my blog post was gonna be about. My blog post was gonna be about how I’d wanted to read this book for years (uhh, of course I did…it’s about a man who has sex with himself), but was never able to get ahold of it. It was close to being out of print, and none of my local libraries had a copy. But this most recent time, I discovered that it was available on Amazon for just $2.99! Jesus. Even if I’d bought it as a trade paperback, it’d have cost at least $12.00. At $2.99, this was a fantastic bargain, and I bought it without a moment of second-guessing.

I love how nothing will ever again go out of print.