Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Psychology of Literature Your Novel Is Not A Sandwich

(Yes, to those who've asked previously- that is me. Or was. I've lost some hair.)
NOTE: This post is rife with spoilers for my upcoming book, used for the sake of example. 
I personally don't give a fuck about spoilers, but some people seem to, so I thought I'd warn you. 
Only really, really small. So this is a vision test, too. Did you pass?   

  Let's get right to it. I am going to deftly demonstrate to you that a novel is not, in fact, a sandwich. As this stands in glaring conflict with everything you have come to know since the point of your birth, this is going to take some work. So bear with me, please.
    All literary conventions show us intrinsic myths about how we perceive ourselves and the world. The centrality of a protagonist or groups of protagonists we can identify with, the need for a plot that moves coherently forward, these things are based both on how we are trained to conceive of narrative, and it is how also how we expect or want it to be. They do not, in fact, strictly follow the pattern laid out by life. Rather, it is a narrative structurer imposed upon life. Art is the lie that tells the truth, after all. Even the sense of time, place, and gender afforded by the language that a story is written in encodes the limitations of the thoughts that can be expressed within that language.
Take “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall...” Even this snippet of a nursery rhyme reveals how much languages can differ from one another. In English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we say “sat” rather than “sit.” In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can't) change the verb to mark tense.
In Russian, you would have to mark tense and also gender, changing the verb if Mrs. Dumpty did the sitting. You would also have to decide if the sitting event was completed or not. If our ovoid hero sat on the wall for the entire time he was meant to, it would be a different form of the verb than if, say, he had a great fall. In Turkish, you would have to include in the verb how you acquired this information. For example, if you saw the chubby fellow on the wall with your own eyes, you'd use one form of the verb, but if you had simply read or heard about it, you'd use a different form.
Do English, Indonesian, Russian and Turkish speakers end up attending to, understanding, and remembering their experiences differently simply because they speak different languages? (Boroditsky, “Lost In Translation,” The Wall Street Journal)
    These points may seem dully self apparent to some of you, but think about the conventions of fiction literature: not only different genres but also different literary movements. For instance, the so called post-modern desire to attack or change linearity or the self within a piece: also a psychological orientation. What is post-modernism but a hall of mirrors, a boundary which could not be traversed? Many tried to use the bricolage of all times, all cultures to create a new, open narrative but found themselves bounded, all the same, within the confines of what they were. What they know.
    As an author, thankfully, we can embrace these limitations, or at least choose them with greater freedom than ever before. We needn't escape ourselves, but we do need to be aware of relationships between consciousness, experience, and culture to be a writer. Or so I have come to realize. However, we must also learn the mystical art of making a living in an industry built from paper-thin profits, and it wouldn't hurt to be able to reverse engineer a tank and create an irrigation system out of branches and vines while you're at it.

    The publishing world has moved far away from the position of post-modernism, seeking as always to find a safe, dark place where it can grow, unchallenged. (In my imagination, the publishing industry has just transformed into Shelob.) The menu is ostensibly based on what people are buying, and people buy off the menu because it is menu we are trained to pick from.
    Genre fiction does not rule in sales just because of its ease, but because it primarily serves to provide a kind of predictability, a kind of preselected experience, which we find lacking in life. It is comfort food in all times, but we need it most in times when the most well-adapted learn that hiding in fantasy can be a survival technique. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, etc are intrinsically “Special.” We are not. At the least, we believe we are not, and we seek to be. How any stories depend on some variant of this principle? The narratives of pop culture further simplify and centralize the desire for an ego to be gratified in its uniqueness, to be recognized and rewarded. To stand out, to have meaning conferred from the outside. This too is the opiate of consumerism, value granted not from within but without. (And any amount of self-congratulation falls pretty flat when your stomach is empty.)
     Certainly it would seem odd to us to have a story full of protagonists who accomplish fairly little, a story arranged in no particular order which begins somewhere around chapter 3 and ends at chapter 6, right before it seems it just might go somewhere. (Heart failure. Poor guy.) But this might be a more accurate portrayal of many of our lives.
    Of course, this approach too could be analyzed as the need for banality to structure experience. All attempts at rendering story, or of obscuring all the parts that we think of as story, belies an underlying intent. John Cage's 4'22" of silence still attempts to make a statement. As I said previously about myth and the arts, it is impossible for a piece of art or literature to be spoken of, even if the actual piece is a blank page, without a myth or narrative forming around that empty space. Perhaps the narrative is simply “the man has gone stark raving mad, clearly.” But then that is the story, and for all we know the artist could play that up and his relatives could make millions long after his impoverished body is interned under some unmarked grave. (This is part of what we've been playing with in “the world's first Gonzomentary series,” Clark.)

    So what does any of this have to do with anything? This all occured to me when I was asked – not once but several times in a day – what the point of Party At The World's End is. (This is one of the books I am at this moment wrapping up and looking to sell.) Not what themes does it try to convey, and in what way, etc but what point does it serve? Three or four times, one day. As I've wrapped up the writing process, it now enters the phase where you have to look over what you've done and try to figure out how you're going to frame it to publishers, the press, and try to convince them to pass that narrative along for you. So, I've been thinking about this a great deal and reading agent and publisher blogs like they're crack and I'm hooked. Obviously, this “point” thing would have to turn into a deconstruction of the purpose of this story.
    All I had was the truth, and that didn't sound very good. Every time I was asked I tried to give an honest answer, and each time I felt guilty for doing exactly what you're told not to do by agents and publishing houses: I told them the damn thing didn't have a point. It has characters and rising and falling actions and themes. It has witty banter and plenty of sex and drugs and even an underlying cosmology and mythological structure, which I hope to continue to expand upon in all the follow-up pieces I have planned. It has characters that begin “Special” and want you to join their “Special” club where you can be “Special” with them, (and explore a drug-addled orgy-a-thon.) It has, I believe, a market that can be reached with sufficient access to press and distribution. But a point? I felt flippant every time saying this but it strikes me as deeply odd that a story should have a point, any more than our lives do.
    Ah, but products do. A sandwich has a point. You could wear it as a hat but it was constructed for a reason, and people would know something was up if you started wearing a sandwich as a hat. That's not what they are for. Few would arrange bread and meat into a certain configuration and said “there, My Work is finished,” with a sense of creative accomplishment without there being a point behind that behavior. If someone did we might be more prone to look for that psychological motive behind that action. (Now I'm thinking about the “mashed potatoes” scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, just assume at this point that I've constructed a structure out of sandwich parts which I think represents my psychic connection with the aliens. The roast beef configuration over here clearly demonstrates that they'll be landing at these co-ordinates. Alright. We're on the same page now.)

    Well, similarly, a story that is meant to be sold has a point: to express certain ideas, or a certain point of view, in a manner that hopefully provides a bit of entertainment in the process. Bearing in mind that some of you are twisted fuckers and derive enjoyment from horrible, savage things. And I am quite willing to be your pusher.
    But what would be unique about my story beyond that? Doubtfully anything if I haven't revolutionized “story” (I have not), so then the point must fall to what the ideas are that I'm trying to express.
    Let's take this full circle: the form and format of an art form, literature in this case, shows things not as they are, not even as we personally wish they may be (though some try), no – to those in the process of crafting a message, they represent what various people in between the artist and you think you want to hear. Agents, film studios, publishers, etc want to get behind something they think represents an identified – codified, even – mechanism of desire. What is the point of a piece then? To satisfy their concept of your desire, represented and quantified through sales, focus groups, and so on ad nauseum. When you're framing something for them, then, it's a guessing game. You're pitching to what you think they think you want to read. That's convoluted, right? It's the kind of thing that'll trip you up worse the more you think about it.
    Formulas, genres and so on obviously work on this method, as a cost/risk value assessment, and the only way to expand them is to go straight to the source. In other words, some guy over in the corner can write a book or maybe – if they're really resourceful and have a ton of talented, reliable friends – make a movie. Or someone can pitch an idea and “crowdsource” the funds. They can do so without any consideration of the psychological desire that the piece fulfills. Or they can base it on something else, something rooted in their personal narrative.
     However, there is no solid mechanism for taking that and delivering it to people who may find value in it. You're lost in the wilderness and now you have this nice paperweight to keep you company. It's called your novel. Or album. Or film. Whatever it is, it's an albatross across your neck until you Sell It one way or another. Some people might like it but most likely they won't hear about it, and even if they do, and they're interested, ten thousand other things with larger budgets are vying for their attention Every. Waking. Second. (If you want to really experience what this is like first hand, go to Comic Con and try to push your book with a budget of $500. Make sure to get a booth right next to Marvel.)
     So, right now I'm making an attempt at the art of compromise. Which is backstory for you, but I still find myself wondering what the point of this story is. Obviously I'm no closer to that. I could start where the story itself was reborn, with a re-appraisal of its themes. I took a number of ideas embodied in myths and legends about Dionysus and Lilith and several other myths – the idea that the satisfaction of desire is immoral, that desire itself is neither moral not immoral, and that the moral is not necessarily ethical, that the Patriarchy represents order and when it comes out of balance nature must come in and bring things back into accord, and mythologically this is done through the hand of the “dark mother.” All of these were in mind when I wrote the first version of this book, and after a complete rewrite and god knows how many drafts in-between, I think I managed to capture some of those themes without hitting you over the head with any of them. In short: the protagonists are like walking ids. Got it. Pretty abstract stuff, but in conjunction with my personal experiences it wasn't hard to find the characters, and of course all of them have taken on certain elements of many people I've known. They have been abstracted, worked into an archetype, and may blend characteristics of three different people to create this new character. Basic myth-making.
     Stories need conflict, though. Easy. The idea that a “terrorist” is, in potential, simply someone who doesn't agree with me, and that the outsider and the ideological terrorist – as Robert Anton Wilson used to say, the ontological terrorist – are one and the same. There's the difference between manifesto and story.  Fiction is slow going because exposition is easy. Well. I could go on with the themes but Fuck! as I said, these are not points, purposes, but rather...well, themes.
    So then I think, “alright, scratch starting this synopsis thing from the standpoint of themes. Let's go at it from the standpoint of the process.” After all, this story was scripted off of a tight blueprint, as we were at that point working on a screenplay version. Like a bunch of stoned architects, Stackhouse and I drew up a scene list that followed logically from a simple idea, born from our theme: outsiders are identified as terrorists, marginalized, break out and improbably form an almost gypsy rock band slash travelling mad-house, around which a veritable army of outsiders and vagrant youth gather. (Using methods part Anonymous, part Greatful Dead, part Hammas, and of course there is something of the TAZ concept in there as well).
     The fictional audience in the book may as well be the intended real-life market. Marketing. This nails a central psychological need of the counter-culture, which are by their nature usually young movements: to find the Others, as has been said in counter culture lit a thousand times now. Find the Other freaks, that is. We've already explored this idea at length together in this book. The others are the other square pegs in a round hole kind of world, and to hell with the fact that the basis of this psychological need is antithetical to the ideals most American counterculture figures espouse, you know, the Anarcho-Libertarian “everyone for themselves,” “the individual is the only true authority” mentality. So invariably you get those who cluster to the “scene” as a sort of identity fashion statement, and in this story they are the first people to get mowed down.

    The outsiders in the story spread their contagion into the mainstream, and the lot of them wind up as target practice for federal agents and hired guns – the sacrificial blood. The very fabric of an already unstable society unravels, but the final stages of this occur in the background, as our protagonist has no further involvement with what “revolution” may follow his involvement in it. The story must attempt to follow him, though we soon see that his involvement with the story, in terms of the ongoing narrative he helped establish, is essentially over after that bloodshed. This story is in the fall, not the landing. And this is alluded to in the closing section, as the protagonist contemplates how he has “fallen his entire life” but only now is he not afraid.
     Looking back, maybe this was a futile exercise. The reason this book doesn't have a point yet is because no books have a point before they've entered the world. A book isn't how many people buy it, but rather how many people are changed in some way by it. That's up to other people. Maybe this is why the whole 'marketing strategy' stage never made much sense to me.

     You can sell a window or a mixing board or a sandwich based on what it does. I'm pretty certain my novel isn't a sandwich. But I'd like to eat with it, and I guess that's the conundrum, isn't it?


  1. You're not alone, brutha. I just write a 700-word newspaper column each week, and going into it, I underestimated the amount of irritatingly literal people out there -- ("What's the point of your column? What was that one about?") -- people who don't understand that lines exist for you to read between them...

  2. You are certainly capable of analyzing what might drive people to want to read your book (which you didn't specify, by the way -- I assume it's Fallen Nation). I imagine that writing copy involves doing the most cynical possible analysis of your potential audience and then constructing something short and not entirely false to pander to them. Lying by omission is not a problem here, since in order to get the whole story, they'll need to get the book. So, it wouldn't be completely terrible to start your copy with something vaguely cheesy, like: "In a world where counterculture is tantamount to terrorism, our hero must..."

    Though in retrospect, this is probably an old post and you've probably written a draft of copy better than what I've mentioned.

  3. Oh, the damn "In a world where..." trope, heh.

    Sure, I write copy. I do the things you do. I'm talking about the POINT of a book, and deal with this more in a slightly more recent post. It's the one with the bee and pollen on it, if you're wondering. This post was using my book as an example, which was why I didn't get too much into which book.

    (Right now, for Fallen Nation the copy is: "Fallen Nation: Party At The World’s End is a mad ride past the event horizon of sanity with a group of young, escaped mental patients that come to realize – or believe – that they are demigods. They form Babylon, a band that captures the spirit of the age as sex, drugs, and chaos reign in the final years of the American Empire." I'm sure I'll work on that with the publisher, or they'll re-write it.)

  4. That sweater is ballsy. I wish someone would knit you an adult sized version.

  5. Sweater --

    I would totally rock that shit.



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