Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Nice

From time to time you are asked for your opinion on a matter by friends or clients in the publishing trade. Such a request came your way this week, relative to the work of an author you know and respect.  This was not the sort of consulting or assigned chore where money changes hands.  You see no point in naming names.  

Although the matter relates to individuals and personalities, you believe it to be unsettling in its widespread application to all of us who have any relationship to publishing.  By "any" relationship, you mean writers not yet established as well as a particular group of non-writers known as readers.

Most of us who write, edit, design, promote, sell, review, and teach courses related to books fall on frequent occasion into the non-writer's category known as readers.  Many of us have long since given up the standard joys known as "reading for pleasure, although, your argument maintains, we continue to achieve a significant pleasure pursuing what many of us call "close reading," which is to say reviewing minute details of text to see how a particular author was able to achieve such a remarkable effect.  

A few words here about "remarkable effect."  You believe--and you believe that most of us who indulge close reading believe--the essence of dramatic writing is the emotional presence inherent in story, an emotional presence required in every scene.  Often, these emotional presences are complex braids of complex emotions, sometimes achieving their memorable effects because they are presented as polar opposites, warring emotions, fighting with one another for prominence. 

We read with close attention to see how others have achieved the effects we seek in our own work.  In your years as a reader, writer, editor, and teacher (for that was the order in which you encountered such familiarity as you have with these aspects of story), you have consulted a wide variety of writers from various historical eras and from genres in which they have written that may not be among your favorites.  

With one or two exceptions, you can say with open sincerity that you've tried your hand at the major genera.  Even though you may prefer some to others, there is no specific genre you find trivial or beneath your dignity.  You either have now or have had friends or close acquaintances who write in the range of genera so that, were you ever called to serve again as an acquisitions editor for a general trade publisher, you would have no trouble identifying and supplying specific lists for your company's catalogue.  And you would soon know whom among your assistants to trust for consultation on genera where you felt less than current.

This is all build up to the awareness that when you sit to compose or to edit or to review or teach, you are not a nice person.  In fact, niceness is one of the first things you leave at the office threshold; it is also one of the most difficult things of all for the beginning and emerging writer to give up.  The author you reference in the opening paragraph has a respectable record of publications, although in recent years this writer has become more difficult to place with a publisher because of declining sales.

Another writer well known to you was not kept on by a publisher in spite of a unique concept for a series, forced to scan the markets for a new publisher with a fresh concept for his fiction, his ultimate landing place being with a publisher in the same building as the publisher who let him go.  Both these writers have considerable skill at their craft.  Both these writers have in common the quality you believe leads to trouble, as reflected--you suppose radiated is yet a better verb--in their respective texts.  They are both uncommonly nice.  

Niceness is a splendid quality for a person to have as an individual, but when brought to the writers' work areas, niceness is the equivalent of an agenda a publicist or propagandist brings to the work desk.  Niceness filters through the lines of text to the point where the characters, however caught up in intrigue or agenda, become nice.  They use a different set of vocabulary in their dialogue, their interior monologue, and their narrative.  They are so nice that the reader soon breaks the code to the point of knowing these characters are never going to do anything truly awful, never be torn by extreme moral questions nor forced to make Sophie's Choice-type decisions.  They are never going to lose their composure to the point of telling the Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury of the Chief Rabbi of Lodz or the Dali Lama to go fuck themselves, thus borrowing a lifetime of regret.

Somewhere around the time you were getting into the bar of The Garden of Allah on a forged ID and being served drinks, a writer told you he was going to tell you a secret that would save you a good deal of painful learning.  "Do you think,"  he asked, "that the Lone Ranger and Tonto actually liked one another?"

Your response was a surprised admission that you'd never thought otherwise, but that night is still vivid in your memory because the conversation was joined with some lively responses from other writers in the room, during the course of which at least one drink and one punch were thrown.

"The fucking Lone Ranger was all Tonto had.  He was out of the tribal loop.  If he didn't have the Lone Ranger, he'd be the Lone Tonto, which of course means Dummy in Spanish.  And the Lone Ranger?  Guy running around wearing a mask all the time, you think he's going to have a lot of friends."

This was also one of your first chances to see writers not liking one another for one or more reasons having to do with niceness.  Not all that long ago, a writer from your past thought to call you after at least twenty-five years of no contact whatsoever.  The conversation did not go well because it had two writers working on a beginning.  He finally ended the conversation by hanging up, but not before calling you an arrogant prick and your reply, "What do you mean, arrogant?"

Niceness in the story sense has nothing to do with civility or the Human Contract or even Love Thy Neighbor, but being too nice in story is another matter, more close in its relationship to not wishing to offend potential readers than demonstrating the grit and give-and-take resident in the human condition.

Writers who are too nice tend to want to explain too many things, not say things that may be taken out of context or taken as racist, sexist, manipulative, or controlling.  You want a civil conversation, invite some friends over to dinner.  You want story, invite some serious meat eaters to dinner and serve them tofu.

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