gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

What words have told me recently

monissaw wanted more detail of changes in word culture I've noticed over time in my rather random reading and watching. That's the stuff of another PhD thesis (it was something I used to know a bit about for Old French, but that's another story, another country and besides, the wench is middle-aged) and far too much for a blog post. Possibly not too much for chat over drinks at Worldcon - drinks liberate us from caution over what we ought to say in a short space of time.

Anyhow, rather than leave Monissa with absolutely nothing, give she has a strong interest in writing techniques (you do, don't you, Monissa?) there's something small I can say in a small space with small energies. It's pretty obvious, I'm afraid, but then, I'm an obvious kind of person. Or I'm a literal kind of person, which makes me suppose I'm an obvious kind of person.

What works in all the types of fiction I've encountered over the last three days (80s prose fantasy, recent prose fantasy, 60s SF TV, 1930s HG Wells film, and recent anime translation) is the underlying solidity of the writing. Good writing, whether the style and tropes are current or not, is still readable. Not as immediate and not as easy to read as time passes, perhaps (rare and special books have that quality across a broader range of cultures, but 90% or more of the wordswe read just won't have that sort of cross-cultural portability) but it's still good. HG Wells' voice was instantly recognisable in the film and I wasn't surprised to find that he had done the screenplay (I came across the film by chance – it was on TV and I was watching it and I thought "Hey, HG Wells" and then I checked the TV guide). His voice was the most universal.

In other words, fine writing trumps all. Fine writing may not be instantly recognisable, though. Other things charm and attract us immediately. We take them up and think they're fine writing, when in fact they entice us using other devices (whether fine writing is a device is something I'm not up to thinking about right now). This is one reason why we look back at awards from fifty years ago and occasionally ask "How could they have liked that?"

Other enticements come out of the language and structure and ideas that hit our sense of cultural importance or self. It's an immediate hit. It can be almost druglike in its effects. My example for this when I'm teaching is Buffy. There was hip horror before Buffy. There was tongue-in-cheek horror before Buffy. But Buffy hit a precise particular cultural note and changed paradigms. It will be some years, I suspect, before we can fairly assess the underlying strength of the writing in Buffy, so strong was its immediate influence.

After fine writing and after things that touch a certain spot and shift us to a new zone, there is shock value. Shock value is even more druglike in some ways. If it isn't backed up by other elements, there are also possibly withdrawal symptoms ("How could I have enjoyed that?").

Some writers I've heard discussed mainly in terms of reader-shock include George RR Martin, Paul Haines and Kaaron Warren. Shock value is great. It gets us thinking and talking. It's like a slap of cold water in the face on a hot day. It's the wonder of terror or of newness or of the unexpected. It can be subtle or it can be sudden. George RR Martin killing certain characters is my personal shorthand to remember this.

Having shock value in ones' writing doesn't imply bad writing - it does mean that the quality of the writing may be obliterated somewhat by that cold water slap in the minds of some readers. The writer might have to work harder to prove themselves with readers who are looking for someting other than that cold slap or they might be noticed simply because of the shock and get earlier attention than they would without it. These are separate issues.

Shock in and of itself, is a one trick pony. If, knowing what's going to happen, you want to re-read a book or watch a film again five years on (when that particular shock has become commonplace because it's been used and over-used by writers), then there are other things going on beneath the surface. There are other writing techniques or values drawing you in.

Each and every piece of writing I was watching or reading thought they had something new and unexpected. From my point of view, not one of them did, but then, I don't read for shock. Shock only works for some readers.

So does emotional buttons being pressed. I'm not even going to go there today. How writers press our emotional buttons is another giant issue.

Something else that operates differently for different readers/viewers is pacing. That was the big difference in most of the pieces from the last 3 days. Dr Who is slow compared with the MZB/Norton/Lackey novel compared with the current works. This apparent slowness has been stated so often it's become a standard comment "Modern works are faster paced." I hear it far too often.

Why 'far too often'? It's not universally valid. It really hasn't been tested properly. It can be proved wrong. The HG Wells' wasn't slow-paced. It felt slow because it was focussed on a person who made everything look small, even though he was working miracles. That's HG Wells. That's why one of my favourite books is The History of Mr Polly. Big events and big ideas couched in the everyday and in small people with small lives.

This is where we come full circle. What works across time is fine writing. Everything else is fashion.

PS Let me get in quickly, before anyone points a finger. I'm still on sick leave. Of course I'm on sick leave. I still have half the medical tests to go, after all. This is the sort of thing a Gillian does with her sick leave, is all. My brain doesn’t entirely stop just because my body wants to. The doctor at the hospital did point out that this was a problem and so I'm working on solutions. Can I help it if the solutions think back at me?
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