Writing again

The puzzle of style

My hackles go up when people I will call Serious Reviewers base their assessment of a book’s quality on style. In the last week alone, I’ve read the phrases, “amateurish style,” “lacked style,” and “pretentious style” in multiple reviews. The market spectrum ranged from YA, through SF, to literary fiction. The market penetration ranged from indie unknown to mega-blockbuster bestseller.

I’m left with the impression that when Serious Reviewers don’t feel like building defenses for their dislike of a book, they default to assaulting style. They’re like debaters who stoop to ad hominem attacks when they run out of logical arguments? (gratuitous ad hominem example: “Oh, yeah? You can list ten factors indicating climate change? Well, your socks are stupid, so you don’t know anything.”)

 The refusal to engage on point irks me, but a more troubling issue lurks under my surface annoyance. Style is a a fluid element in communication, just as words are fluid elements of language. Styles and words fall in an out of fashion, so is it fair to state unequivocably that a style is good or bad?

No, it isn’t. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” That’s a quote. Rev up the search engine of your choice, if you want an attribution. When the foundation for all that’s wrong with a written work is that it is not the Right Style, the reviewer is basically saying, “I am disguising my legitimate emotional response behind intellectual trappings, because feels aren’t legit. I must box them up in pretty thinks.”

Did I say, “basically?” Oh, yes, I did! Evil adverb on the loose! Also, exclamation points! And Slang! And starting a sentence with a conjunction!

There. All my writing can now be dismissed on multiple style points. Lazy writer. Bad style–or not, depending on venue, audience, and reader expectations. Some people hate Hemingway. (me) Some people think his style is the cat’s pajamas. Why the heck is that a positive idiom, by the way? Fodder for a different post. Moving on. Style is to writing what clothes are to modesty. Necessary in principle, but a source of endless variation in practice and acceptance.

That’s my point. Style is in the eye of the beholder, so criticizing style is personal rather than professional. If someone likes fast sports cars, a motorcycle might be considered short two wheels, and horses would be right out, as a form of transportation. If you love horses, on the other hand, a Ferrari is no substitute for something with a whinny and a tail.

Whether a style suits its story or not is an equally problematic issue. I’ve seen plenty of mealy-worded versions of: “It was an interesting idea, but the wording was too simplistic for the subject matter.” My personal favorite pins down the far end of that spectrum: “The author used too many words.”

 How the story gets told, that’s the author’s choice. Like it or don’t, that’s valid. It’s not pertinent to the quality of the work, but it’s valid. Downgrading an assessment of a book’s intrinsic worth based on a visceral response? Not valid. Not cool. Don’t throw out the comments, “It’s a kid’s book,” or “It reads like a romance,” as if they were legitimate evaluations. They aren’t.

Cats. Pajamas. Now there’s style.

Writing again

Lead pipes? We can top that.

Like many others I know, I went though an End Of The Human Race reading obsession at one point in my life. I plowed through novels and stories by the dozens. (I’m thankful that zombie writing was at its nadir during that period. I never would’ve torn free of that subgenre.)

Most of the apocalypse tales, whether they took an optimistic spin on the idea or a depressing one, had some elements in common. They were all about giant cataclysms and giant creatures, explosions and eruptions, global contagions and global collapses.  Big events, big moments, plenty of drama. Opportunities for angst and introspection abounded.

None of them are really about The End. They’re about how people face it.  Whether we overcome it. Add in the morality factor, and toss in the answers to philosophical questions like: do we deserve to survive? Can we change in time to survive? Can we adapt to a new world order? Will we be crushed by the weight of our own sins?

Most stories give these big sweeping themes a lot of dramatic visuals and violent content. Things that catch the eye, and capture the imagination. Even quieter classics like “On The Beach” are full of tension and emotion. There is intense conflict at the personal level. When the World Ends, we know it.

I don’t think that’s how it’s going to happen. The story that made the most impact on me was one that took a very different approach to the topic.

First one species of fish disappears overnight. Then a type of plant. Then a vitamin ceases to exist. Something like that.  Each time, the reaction provokes a flurry of concern, a rash of investigation, and then a collective shrug of resignation: we’ll have to live without it. We can make do. It wasn’t that important.  Until it is. Until it’s over. Until everyone dies. Game over.

That presentation of humanity’s likely response to true disaster still resonates decades later, long after I’ve forgotten the actual plot. The world slowly, inexorably crumbles around the protagonists without the significance of each event being understood until too late.  (Full disclaimer:  I’m certain that was NOT an accurate synopsis. What stuck with me were the ideas, not the details. )

Some days when I look at the news, I see the downfall of Civilization as We Know It. It isn’t the rumblings of war that worry me most. (They worry me, plenty, but not most.) It isn’t even the leakage of radioactive waste or the earthquakes from fracking, or the lack of oversight on critical biological research. Nope. It’s the microbeads and the pig farms, the artificial colors and the unregulated transport of tar sands oil, the BPAs and the undiscovered toxins of tomorrow.

I predict that future generations will look at our use of microbeads and our tolerance for environmental contamination the way we look at the insanity of Romans using lead pipes to carry their water when they knew the metal was poisonous. Yes, they knew. Yes, we know that what we’re doing is bad. We’re still doing it, because reasons. We are choking and poisoning ourselves and the whole world with our own waste, and it’s normal.

Cultural blindness is deadly, and seen from a distance, inconceivably short-sighted. Perspective is everything. I’m an optimist. I think the human race will be around to look back and marvel at its own idiocy.

Black Mollies. I think the fish that died first in the story were black Mollies. Like this picture, a little.

Anyway. How many species of life disappeared from the face of the planet in the last year? Look it up, and acknowledge that it didn’t affect your life at all. Then add one little word: yet.

Not in My Backyard. Not My Problem. Too expensive. Too political. Too much trouble. None of my business. BAD for business.  Excuses, all of them. Some good, some not as good, but…balance it against the harm done, and evaluate the alternatives again.

How bad things will have to get before we realize that we’re engaging in global insanity? How bad will it have to get before the collective cry of  “enough is enough!” reaches critical volume? Will it happen at all? Will it happen before the little disasters add up to an inexorable tide of extinction?

Some days it’s hard to be an optimist.
Edit 10/3/2016  Someone wondering which SFF story had the dead black mollies in it came wandering past my little blog on their quest through the interwebz. Who’dathunkit?
So I should add here I’m pretty sure I found the name and author of the fish story here on Scifistackexchange
According to the entry there, the story is  “And Us, Too, I Guess” by George Alec Effinger (1973). It’s in the Irrational Numbers anthology, and the start of it can be read on Google Books.
Writing again

Boom goes the bad stuff.

I indulged in a minor volcanic eruption of emotional honesty a couple of days ago. The pressure had been building for a long time, and there had been rumbles, but this time I finally went kablooie, complete with poisonous online gassing and a pyroclastic cloud of ash dumped on my life partner. I feel a million pounds lighter now that it’s done.

 I’ve spent my life burying sharp spiny personality traits beneath a thick pretense of congeniality. It was the easy way to insulate myself from rejection. This blast cleared away a lifetime’s accumulated be-a-good-girl garbage. Underneath it all, I am an intelligent, sarcastic, impatient, opinionated misanthrope with a major curiosity bump, and guess what? That’s the bare face I intend to show the world fulltime now.

The reason I’m mentioning it here in my writing blog is that the explosion also exposed an unpleasant truth that I need to explore.

Over the last few months I’d become a world-class expert in the art of making excuses for friends. I felt pushy when repeated promotional requests got only grudging results. They’re overworked, I told myself. Sick. Overwhelmed by their own lives. They don’t understand how to help. As time wore on, I took the burden of inadequacy on my own shoulders: no one was helping because I didn’t deserve it. If my work was any good, friends would be excited and actively looking for ways to help me succeed.

Now I know that I was wrong. I didn’t suck. You did. You’re all great people, but some of you have been truly crappy friends supporters. (edited in the spirit of ruthless fairness.) Abysmal failures, in truth.

Yeah, I know it’s still a cruel, nasty thing to write. Negativity alienates people. Complaining is unattractive. Smart people keep their pain to themselves and soldier on with smiles on their faces. No one likes a whiner. Everyone hates bitter bitches.

Screw it. I’ve been betrayed, and this is me on betrayal and anger. Take me or leave me.  It isn’t the entitled manifesto of, “take me at my worst, or you don’t deserve my best.” Far from it. This is a case of, “I gave you my civilized best, and it wasn’t good enough for you, so fuck all’a y’all.”

That said, I’m ready to dust off the ashy debris, climb out of my wreckage and start over. If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and join me, I’ll be mightily glad for your company.

Still with me? Huh. I really wasn’t expecting that. 

 One last little request. If you’re staying the course, skip the excuses. They all go splat into one of two unflattering categories, and when you try, I feel a compulsion to eviscerate them point by point.

Category #1: I had better things to do.
     I haven’t had a chance to write a review
     Sorry, I hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet
     But I did write a review on

You couldn’t get around to reading or writing anything in the two and a half months since I published? (or in the five months since the final draft was finished?)  I call shenanigans.

You wrote one review on one book of the two you read, on one site?  Sorry, no cookie for you. Both books are listed with three major vendors and a review site. I made that data available more than once, and copy/paste makes multiple submissions simple. I should know. I do it all the time for authors I like. So of course I would’ve been happy to walk you through the steps. If you’d honestly wanted to do it.  

Oh, but wait, there’s more. Category #2: I couldn’t be bothered.

     Reviews are hard. I don’t want to do it wrong.

     But I clicked “like” on your new page .
     I do support you. I share your links/posts/pages.
     I tried to post a review, but wouldn’t let me.

Hard? Cry me a river. I had to write taglines, blurbs and author bios. It didn’t take me two months. Yes, Amazon sucks because they make you write 20 whole words. “I liked it. What more do you need to hear? Buy this book. You won’t be disappointed. That is my review.” Boom. Done. iBooks and Goodreads let you click to rate without reviewing, and people who feel passionate about authors even rate books that haven’t released yet. I swoon at the thought of all the work and ethical shadiness involved in clicking an icon on a site you already visit. (sarcasm)

That goes for Facebook too. Did you invite all your friends to like my page? I know you didn’t. Don’t lie. When it comes to shares, like Santa Claus I know who does and who doesn’t, so… thanks to four of you.

You tried to review or  but there’s no evidence? Technically inept doesn’t fly as a valid excuse when you’re using an ereader. If the process was so daunting, why did you never ask for help? Maybe you didn’t want to thrill me to the toes with the news that you were writing a review? Your pants are smoking, and there’s a distinct scent of bovine excrement in the air.

Just. Don’t. Explain. It only dredges up the bitter pain. Molten lava rises.

Okay. Rant over.

Hi, there. Good to see you. Let’s have some fun together.