Sunday, November 25, 2012

Does Bad Writing Exist?

Two-buck Chuck: You get what you pay for

Her gaunt six-foot frame resembled an Erector Set  construction of joints and limbs. Overhanging her precarious body was a jaundiced face whose skin resembled a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes. ~ Deception Point by Dan Brown

Until recently, it seemed so obvious to me that writing came in a variety of qualities that I assumed everyone agreed. Some novels are written well, and some are not. Pulitzers and Bookers are handed out for “good writing,” and just as that exists, so does “bad writing.” It’s like wine: you’ve got your two-buck Chuck on the one end, your Domaine Drouhin on the other. People have their individual tastes, but the rankings are generally accepted, as is the notion that some wines are objectively better than others.

I’ve discovered a populist line of thinking that pushes back against this, and insists that unlike wine, writing cannot be judged in any objective way. Instead, novels are like cilantro. One person loves it, another hates it, it’s only a matter of personal taste. Nobody can say cilantro is “bad.” It is merely “liked” or “disliked.” It’s subjective, and there’s no debate to be had.

While I was first wrestling around with this idea, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in fiction was awarded to exactly nobody. That’s right: the Pulitzer board announced that none of the finalists (who were David Foster Wallace, Denis Johnson, and Karen Russell) would receive the award. Novelist Michael Cunningham was one of the jurors, who were responsible for selecting the finalists. He was not on the board, he merely helped winnow the field. After the no-prize announcement — which shocked the jurors as much as anyone else — Cunningham wrote an op-ed piece for the New York times, describing the winnowing process and mulling over the vagaries of ranking something as subjective as art. “First, and probably most obvious, the members of any jury are possessed of particular tastes and opinions, and, however they may strive for it, absolute objectivity is impossible,” he writes. Their Pulitzer jury may simply have picked books that board hated, he explains; it could have gone another way with a different jury. Cunningham goes on to say this:

Utter objectivity, however, is not only impossible when judging literature, it’s not exactly desirable. Fiction involves trace elements of magic; it works for reasons we can explain and also for reasons we can’t. If novels or short-story collections could be weighed strictly in terms of their components (fully developed characters, check; original voice, check; solidly crafted structure, check; serious theme, check) they might satisfy, but they would fail to enchant. A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate.

So utter objectivity is impossible, but is any objectivity possible? I can’t shake the conviction that writing runs along some observable continuum of quality. We may quibble over the details, but some novels are clearly better written than others, aren’t they? If there’s no such thing as quality, I could set your proverbial hundred monkeys typing, and the result would be no better or worse than Proust or Poe. It’s all in the same sea of subjectivity. I don’t think too many people would agree with that.

Hipster Kitty
First, let me get one thing out of the way. While I do think some writing can be judged as “bad,” I don’t base that judgment on the novel’s sales. I say this because I’ve been accused of simply hating things that are popular, like I’m some sort of literary hipster. I like George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, both mega-bestsellers. Both writers are, while not literary, certainly capable. They know their craft; they avoid the pitfalls of bad writing. I do find it puzzling that some books with actively terrible writing are popular. Two-buck Chuck is popular, too, but at least you can get drunk off it. The popularity of cheap alcohol is less mysterious to me than the popularity of crappy writing. What do people get out of bad books? Is it elitist of me merely to ask that question?

Second, I wonder if those who believe bad writing does not exist feel the same way about other arts: dance, theater, sculpture, painting. I am clueless about classical music. I accept the judgment, from those who have studied it, that some compositions are clearly excellent, and others less so. This doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy a “bad” piece, but I allow that it may be derivative, or flawed in some other way. Just as it takes training to be a good artist, it takes training to appreciate art. You have to know what to look for.

Training is key. Art is not like peewee soccer: you shouldn’t get a trophy just for showing up. Some people are better at their crafts than others, almost always because they’ve worked their asses off. Effort should be recognized and rewarded. Just as you can see the painstaking labor Picasso put into mastering his craft, you can see the labor Michael Chabon puts into his. You can see Barbara Kingsolver’s craft improve dramatically from 1988’s The Bean Trees to 1998’s The Poisonwood Bible. The woman was working.

It’s easier, more pleasant, and less controversial to point out excellent writing. But if good writing exists, it makes sense that bad writing also exists. Many novels are written with little effort and no attempt to master the craft. We can call it “bad writing” because that’s what it is. We shouldn’t be called elitist for acknowledging this truth. Much is chalked up to talent, but what really matters is effort. Good writers have poured blood, sweat, and tears into their work. Conversely, most bad writing is the result of laziness: the writer hasn’t bothered to master the craft. Bad writers who are successful often are producing the literary version two-buck Chuck: they crank out content because there’s a market for it, not because they take any joy in craftsmanship. I suspect some writers do put effort into it but have a tin ear for language, which is more unfortunate. You hate to see hard work fall flat, but some people just don’t have the chops: true for so many areas of life. Most success comes from tens of thousands of hours of practice, but there is something to be said for natural abilities.

I've hesitated to come up with examples of “bad writing,” since people get passionately defensive about the writers they like, but I'm going to refer back to my opening quote: Dan Brown is the Charles Shaw of the literary world. Look at that quote. Does the man even know what “precarious” means? Of the many ways writing can go wrong, flouting your lack of vocabulary has got to be in the top ten. We all make mistakes, but Brown is consistently bad. Not only does English seem a foreign tongue to him, but he has this awkward habit of overdescribing in the most laughable way. From The Lost Symbol: He was sitting all alone in the enormous cabin of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet as it bounced its way through turbulence. In the background, the dual Pratt & Whitney engines hummed evenly.” From The Da Vinci Code: Yanking his Manurhin MR-93 revolver from his shoulder holster, the captain dashed out of the office.” Yes. Pawing through my 1979 copy of Strunk & White, Third Edition,  McMillan Publishing Company, 866 Third Avenue, New York, New York, I found something about not overwhelming the reader with pointless trivia. Brown seems unfamiliar with the concept. Bad. Writing.

I hope I’ve made the case that good writing does objectively exist, and is achievable not through magic or the wave of a critic’s wand but primarily through effort. The “frisson” that Cunningham talks about may be impossible to pinpoint, but quality writing does contain certain elements that can be enumerated. Bad writing does, too. I intend to expand on what these are next time, but for now I want to turn it over to you, dear readers: Does bad writing exist? Does good? What do you think the elements are that define either one?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Let Freedom Ring...I Think

The other night my telephone rang. I glanced up at the clock and saw it was after ten o'clock. This told me two things: It wasn't a telemarketer, because they finish up by nine o'clock according to federal law, and that meant it was something important relating to a family or a friend. I looked at the caller id, and sure enough, it was my best friend from back home. I snatched up the phone, a thousand different scenarios playing through my head. Was her son in a car accident? Was her marriage in jeopardy? Did her daughter get sick and was now in the hospital?

None of the above.

Her brother had called her asking her opinion about what she thought if he signed the online petition for Texas seceding from The United States. Obviously expecting something completely different, I was speechless for a moment.

I don't know if any of you have ever hopped on over to We the People to check out what's going on in the American petitioning arena, but if you haven't recently been by, it might be worth your time to stop in and check out all the states demanding secession from The United States Union. (Oh, and there's a couple petitions in there wanting to preserve The United States and others asking for the legalization of  marijuana, to allow 4x4 vehicles on recreational lands, and the Twinkie initiative — which is linked to this story, in case you're interested.)

A couple of months ago, Sister Stephanie attacked the issue of free speech in the U.S. Now, I know many outside of the U.S. are aware of our freedom of speech over here, but how many even know what the freedom of petitioning is all about or why it's even an important issue in the first place? Hang onto your seats. I'm going to give you a short history lesson in petitioning.

According to the United States Courts, this is how they sum up an American's Right to Petition:
"The First Amendment includes a provision that says that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the right of the people . . . to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Although there do not appear to be any Supreme Court cases that precisely define the contours of this provision of the First Amendment, it reminds individuals that, in a democracy, it is the Government's job to redress the legitimate grievances of its citizens.
The judiciary redresses grievances whenever it determines that constitutional or other legal rights have been infringed upon, and then attempts to remedy the situation. The Congress redresses grievances when it changes bad laws. The Executive Branch redresses grievances when its administrative agencies change inefficient regulations. When the President pardons someone who has been justly convicted, but for whom extenuating circumstances exist, he also may be redressing grievances. Thus, although there is no definitive interpretation of this clause of the First Amendment, it seems that each branch of government has specific means available to it to redress the grievances of the citizenry."
This might not seem like much to some people, after all it almost sounds like it gives U.S. citizens the legal right to whine when we aren't getting our way. But, think about it for a minute. The U.S. wouldn't be The United States if we didn't have the right for our voices to be heard. Before we broke free from Great Britain in the 1700s, we were a very oppressed nation. We weren't allowed to speak out against a king who ruled us from clear across the ocean — our pleas for change went unheeded. We weren't allowed to levy our own taxes, but instead we had to put up with what King George wanted in order to fill his own coffers, without so much as a careless glance at those struggling to survive on a continent he really knew nothing about. It's no wonder that the founding fathers of this United States wrote into the First Amendment of the Constitution the right for us to send our list of grievances to the government. The people wanted to be heard, plain and simple.

Perhaps you're wondering how this petition thing works. According to NPR in a recent article, "People From 20 States Ask to Secede on White House Website," twenty different states (as of this writing, more than twenty states have added petitions) are asking for the right to "peacefully" withdraw from the United States of America in order to form their own individual countries (or in some cases, join forces with other secession states or create entirely new states, like the city of Austin seceding from Texas or the State of Jefferson created from carved out portions of northern California and Oregon). In order to even have a chance at the President looking at such petitions, they must garner at least 25,000 signatures. Texas is leading the pack with over 113,000 signatures and growing. And the list of states runs the gamut, from Maine to Missouri and from Virginia to Colorado. Most of the secession demands are pretty general and clearly written.

For example, here is what Illinois states:

As the founding fathers of the United States of America made clear in the Declaration of Independence in 1776: 
"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." 
"...Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and institute new Government..."
But there are few petitions also circulating demanding that certain states remain part of the United States.

Here is North Carolina's pledge:
We ask the President to affirm that the quiet strength of this great nation lies in a patient and powerful unity that transcends and transforms our differences and does not waiver in the face of impetuous and petulant indifference to the rule of law.
We pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. We do not support secession.
We the people of North Carolina will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We ask the President to recognize our commitment to the endurance of our extraordinary union.
I don't know about you, but I find all of this fascinating! Current events are what shape and mold the world in which we live. I'm aware that most of the signatures on the secession petitions are from those highly disgruntled over the presidential election results. I'm also aware of the fact that all of these petitions are a crapshoot. I mean, really, will they actually secede? Considering what happened back in the 1860s, my hope is that we all learned a lesson or two then and that secession is not only a daunting task, but a very expensive one at that, both in money and lives. But here's my question: Since some of these petitions are well over the 25,000 signature mark, will the President of The United States even consider looking at them? I don't know, but that's the whole idea behind the Right to Petition as put forth by the U.S. Constitution, a wonderful legal document that the founding fathers had drawn up for this very reason. 

Seceded Southern states, 1861

But why is any of this even important? Sometimes, as writers, we struggle with shaping a story. One thing I used to love about the Law and Order television franchise is that the shows always claimed that the storylines were "ripped from today's headlines." Stuff like modern states threatening to secede is fodder for a writer's mill. I absolutely love American history and it's the one staple found in all of my novels. With this twist of events, think of the possibilities! Those of you who love alternate realities, well, here you go. Those of you who love history, well, here you go. Those of you who love contemporary literature, well, here you go. Whether you agree or disagree with any of these petitions is completely up to you. But, personally, I love seeing what's on other people's minds, ridiculous or not! I mean, hey, who isn't going to miss yummy Twinkies, so why not start a petition?

What are your thoughts concerning these petitions? Do you think any of them have a snowball's chance in you-know-where of ever gracing the desk of the President? Do you ever use current events to shape your own storytelling? Are you going to miss Twinkies and Ding Dongs?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Storytelling vs. Fiction Writing

After a lifelong affair with storytelling, becoming a professional storyteller was one of the highlights of my librarian career. At the time, I naively thought that being good at my craft (as I was told I was) meant I could put my stories on paper and instantly become a novelist. Think again! There is a huge difference between writing and storytelling. As the cliché goes, writers are made, storytellers are born. But like Yours Truly, you may be a fantastic tale-spinner and yet lack all the skills that makes a good novelist.

Family lore asserts that I was involved in storytelling way before I learn how to read. I used to memorize fairytales and then create my own version which I would retell to family, servants, pets and whatever captive audience I could get hold off. It was a form of oral fanfiction. As I grew old, my storytelling experiences went underground, until I found myself in Library School.

There I learned that storytelling was a crucial skill for good Children’s Librarians.  There I heard about the great Augusta Braxton Baker and other pioneer storytellers/librarians. I also got to meet and watch real storytellers performing their magic.  One of the landmarks of those wonderful years was a chance to do library programs in which I polished my old art and went through marvelous experiences that plied me with anecdotes to dine on for decades.

Augusta Braxton Baker

Technique vs. Drama
Encouraged by my storytelling success, I decided that I had the skills to become a true novelist. This crass mistake derived from my confusion between the terms “storytelling” and “story writing.” The first is all about voice, words, atmosphere, vigorous action, drama and wonder. The second is all about method, prose, rules and in-depth characterization. 

Popular commercial writers like to think of themselves as “storytellers,” consequently they rely more on dynamic action and dramatic mood than on literary technique. Their lack of fine writing skills is what their foes will bring up when attacking their work. On the other hand, think of Henry James’s novels, very little happens in them, but you can’t deny his masterful prose or his powerful characters.

The majority of fairy tales were originally found within storytellers repertoires. But when early folklorists shuffled those narratives from the oral realm to a written page, the tales underwent drastic modifications. Early versions of well known tales contained disturbing elements such as Sleeping Beauty being raped by the prince or Rapunzel having twins out of wedlock (something they forgot in the Disneysque version called “Tangled”.) Language had to be cleaned up and the whole text had to undergo a refining process. Each story found that transcription to paper meant to be bound by literary technique and conventions.

No twins for this Rapunzel!

Rules vs. Spontaneity
Storytelling is linked to an old traditional activity known as oral narrative. It goes back to cavemen telling tales around the camp fire. Most cultures will have some form of traditional storyteller, from the Irish “seancaid” to the Jewish “maggid.” In the past, storytellers have been seen as shamans, healers, keepers of tradition, even as intermediaries between the sacred and the profane. Such is the strength that comes from spinning a tale.

Telling a story, even to an adult audience, is a dynamic-spontaneous activity. You can’t go back to polish a draft or edit mistakes. What comes from your mouth is what your audience gets. It’s like acting in a play, if you goof you get booed. If you forget your character name, or skip a major moment, your audience will know and will let you know. And worse than being pelted with tomatoes, like actors of old did, is to lose your listeners’ attention. It is the equivalent of losing their respect.

You have to prepare in advance for predictable disasters. So you said “Princess Alice” instead of “Princess Alexandra”? Then you quickly explain that Alice is Alexandra’s evil twin who, in fact, is working wit Dark Forces to take over her sister’s throne. I know it sounds far-fetched, but believe me, it does work. I have tried it. Did I say the storyteller is an actor? A stand up comedian might be a better description.

Is your audience yawning and staring at the clock? Wake them up with some unexpected plot twist. In Romana, the Jewish-Italian version of Snow White, the heroine does not find shelter with benevolent dwarves; she ends up at the lair of seven ruthless thieves! I often imagine this twist must have come about as a desperate storyteller attempted to get his audience’s attention back with a “Hey, guess what? Romana has just been caught by the most dangerous gang in the entire Italian peninsula. Yes, seven hardened criminals, and there she is, hanging from a tree branch, wondering if she should climb down and take her chances with these strapping lusty outlaws.”

Darth Vader and Son

You may think this only works in front of a live audience, but surprise twists are useful in all forms of storytelling, especially in book or film series that have dragged too long and are reaching the point where the reader’s patience is wearing thin. Who would have imagined that Darth Vader would turn out to be Luke Skywalker’s father? It was the most unforeseen moment of the Star War Saga and left us waiting breathlessly for “The Return of the Jedi.”  Stephanie Meyer was aware that half her fandom wouldn’t be happier with Bella choosing to be Vampire Bride instead of the Wolf Man’s Wife. Her solution was to turn Jacob into Bella’s future son-in-law and leave her readers pondering about the possible incoming “Reneesme’s Adventures in Lycanthropy.”

Followers of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire were a bit confused after Clash of Kings, the second book of the series. Not only was it more slow-paced than the previous  Game of Thrones, but Martin’s surprising killing of the apparent protagonist had left his devotees treading on thin ice. The only thing they were certain was that the one great villain of the story was Ser Jaime Lannister. How else could one describe a man who had backstabbed his king, impregnated his much-married Queen (who also was his twin sister), ambushed good Ned Stark in the street, and threw children off ramparts?

Well, in Storm of Swords, the third book in the saga, Martin did the unthinkable: he presented Jaime as a victim. By turning him into a POV character, the author granted him a chance to tell his side of past events, baffling those who thought him a monster. That changed the viewer’s perception of the character forever, transformed the Kingslayer into a sort of heroic figure, and made Storm of Swords the most read, discussed and loved book of the entire saga.

Ser Jaime Lannister from Kingslayer to tragic hero

Archetypes vs. Well-Developed Characters
But storytelling is not totally devoid of pitfalls, one of them is lack of time and space to develop multifaceted characters. Thus, storytelling has to rely on archetypes: The Charming Prince, Cinderella, talking animals, and others that just by mentioning their name have the spectators imagining looks and personalities. When telling a tale in front of a live audience you don’t have the time to give a complete biography or a full physical description therefore you to have to simplify. One of my tales started like this, “Miguelito was a very poor mouse. So poor was he that his pants lacked pockets because he lacked loose change.” Obviously, if I was writing the tale I would submit to the “show not tell” clause, and never mention the word “poor.” In storytelling you just have to.

When Isabel Allende published The House of the Spirits, critics pounced on her accusing my countrywoman of creating a bad copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Indeed, her book owed plenty to Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, but Allende imbued enough political ideology and her own family lore into the novel to establish a distance. Moreover, she had one advantage over the Colombian author, she had well-developed characters.

This may sound like anathema. Don Gabo is a literary giant, nobody surpasses him in telling stories, describing imaginary worlds, and creating a family tree spotted with intrigue and domestic drama, but his larger-than-life characters are iconic images, never flesh and blood personages. Look at his fictional women. We know that his many Renatas, Remedios and Amarantas fall in and out of love, get pregnant by the wrong man and die in childbirth, but do we know what they think? What they like to do in their spare time?

Garcia Marquez is a terrific storyteller and as such he relies on characters that are a combination of mythical figures and anecdotes. He could stand in front of a crowded theater and verbally convey his novel because it belongs to an oral storytelling tradition. Unlike him, Isabel Allende’s characters are too complex and experience too much interior drama to be put into five words. There is no way to explain briefly about mystical Clara, forced by fate to marry a man that belonged to her dead sister. And how would you verbally express the horror, pain, and humiliation of Alba as she goes through physical torture?

Meryl Streep as Clara in "The House of the Spirits"

If I had to take one book with me to a desert island, I would pick The Holy Bible. Aside from its spiritual content, it’s the best storytelling I have ever laid eyes upon. Within its covers you find everything: political trickery, supernatural events, domestic squabbles, war epics, romance and lust. We love biblical stories and their protagonists have become household names, but do we see them as real-life characters? Do we get to know their point of view? We know King David liked women and played the harp, but what was his favorite food? We know Sarah hated her husband’s concubine Hagar, but do we know if Hagar hated her back? Do we know if Hagar was happy with Abraham?

Every March, Orthodox Jews are subject to one great story hour. The reading of Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther) is the highlight of the Purim Holiday. The synagogue becomes a big storytelling room. All gather to hear the rag-to-riches story of Esther, a nice Jewish girl who is taken away from her home, and after winning a harem beauty contest, becomes Queen of Persia. I love to hear how even after marrying the most powerful man in the land, Esther is still subject to palace intrigues, has to hide her Jewish identity, and strives to save her people from evil Haman.

The story ends in a colossal triumph after Esther manages to save Persia, the Jews and herself through cunning and courage. It’s Cinderella meets Joan of Arc, but do we know Esther? Do we know how she felt about her king-husband?  Is she home-sick? Where did she learn to play bedroom politics and how she went about it? Knowing the answer to all those questions would make The Book of Esther a terrific novel, but it would probably take two days to read it in the temple. Even the most pious audience would be snoring before the reading was over.

Continuity vs.  "The End" word
Whenever we think of the term “storyteller,” the name “Sherezade” comes to mind. Wrapped in her veils, the protagonist-narrator of the Arabian Nights is the teller of stories par excellence. She alone performed the prowess of spending a hundred-thousand-and one nights weaving stories to charm a king out of his psychotic misogyny. What is so compelling about her feat is the impression that Sherezade spends every hour of her existence at her craft, that her entire life is linked to the continuous act of fable-spinning. It’s only by the end of the book, after it’s disclosed that she has delivered two sons for the Sultan, that we realize that a lot more went on  in that bedchamber than just telling tales.

María Montez as Sherezade

Sherezade exemplifies one of the greatest joys of storytelling, its continuity. Unlike novel writing that is bound to arrive to the word “The End,” a tale could go on forever. A storyteller could call it a day just to retake the narrative thread the following day, or night like Sherezade did. A novelist can give up on his craft, never write another book, a great novel may never have a sequel, but storytelling is endless. You have cycles of tales connected to one single protagonist like Anansi, the Spider or Stupid Jack. That is what written series and storytelling have in common, the infinite possibilities.

Agnes Newton Keith was an American bestselling writer that wound up experiencing stranger than fiction events. In 1942, she and her small son were taken into captivity by the Japanese. For the next three years, she lived in a civilian prisoner camp, away from her husband and enduring privations, malnutrition, slave work, plus physical torture and a rape attempt. Throughout her captivity, her utmost preoccupation was the survival and well-being of George, her little boy. One way she found to keep up George’s morale was an evening storytelling session that centered on the exploits of a super hero known as Big Game Hunter “Keith of Borneo” (later joined by “Jack, the Giant-Killer”.)

Birthday card , Agnes Newton Keith sent to her husband while still in captivity

One night she realized that other children in her compound had gathered around her mosquito net to hear her story. At first, Mrs. Keith wanted to yell that this was only for George, but finally she gave in. Her daily story session became a source of pleasure and comfort for the youngsters in captivity and a way to maintain her narrative skills. She stretched Keith’s adventures as far as credibility could allow, sent him on trips around the world, personalized the stories and in every way proved the power of storytelling and the capacity for a tale to continue ad infinitum.

The Interactive Storyteller vs. The Writer in the Ivory Tower
Mrs. Keith’s anecdote illustrates another advantage that storytelling has over story writing: you get to know your audience. When we write our first bit of fiction, we write it mostly for ourselves. We are the target audience and we grow attached to that piece because we like it. Then we expose it to the criticism of family and friends. We start modifying our text to suit the audience’s needs, a process that expands as we move from acquaintances to agents and publishers. We are always running into new more demanding readers, while in the horizon looms the threat of the “real public,” a terrifying but foreign group.

In storytelling you have no such problems. Even if you may be awed at the prospect of meeting listeners for the first time, you’d have plenty of data on them. You will know their sexes, occupations and ages. Novelists have three abstract age groups to choose their target audience from: children, young adult or adults. In storytelling, age groups tend to be more specific.

My first story session brochures explicitly said “toddlers and pre-schoolers” and my audience were Latinos. My second storyteller job was with elementary school children and it was done in English. Even when dealing with adults, knowing in advance that you will be addressing senior citizens, middle-aged housewives, or teenage boarding school students helps you prepare tales, props and mood.

When your book hits the market you don’t know who will be buying or reading it. Whether it comes from New York Times reviewers or by readers complaining on the Amazon boards, reactions to or interpretations of a novel may shock its author. The storyteller gets to face the reaction immediately and has a chance to discuss the interpretation or even change it, because storytelling is always an interactive activity. So interactive that in some cultures the listeners actually interrupt the session with questions and even offer suggestions to improve the storytelling.

There is tremendous power in storytelling for narrator and public alike. When my mother saw the snapshots of my first story hour she was more impressed by the children’s expressions than by her daughter’s antics. “Look at their little gaping mouths!” she said. I know what it’s like to captivate an audience as well as I know what it feels to be enthralled by a fine storytelling session, or by a book that fulfills my emotional needs or by a television show that grips my attention while bringing comfort to my exhausted mind.

Modern authors tend to forget and forsake the pleasure of interacting. They cherish (sometimes with good reason) the distance that separates them from audience. A true storyteller would never sacrifice his chance to know the feedback of listeners/readers and would find a way to recognize and meet their needs.

Can you think of a novelist, or scriptwriter who combines the quality of fine fiction writing with strong storytelling skills?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Smell Discrimination

A few weeks ago, a mom in Seattle was kicked off a city bus because of the stench of her baby’s dirty diaper. The four-month pregnant woman had to walk a mile and a half with her sick child to the pediatrician’s office. (Yes, you read right. Here’s the full story.) Honestly, I doubt that the offensive diaper was the foulest smell to ever roost in that bus (let’s face it, public transportation is well-known to host the worst stenches ever known to humankind), but aside from my outrage on behalf of the mother-in-question, I started thinking about the undermined importance of our sense of smell.

A smell can attract us to a person, food and place, or it can repel us. Smell is perhaps the most evocative of senses. Have you ever smelled a perfume, oil or detergent that brought back memories of your childhood or youth? I read somewhere that “a picture may be worth a thousand words, but a scent is worth a thousand memories.”

Certain scents can be soothing, such as incense, baby powder or the smell of grass after the rain; and certain aromas can remind us that we’re hungry. Have you noticed how we associate the smell of popcorn with movies, pizza with airports and cinnamon rolls with malls?

As writers, we spend most of our efforts on visual descriptions and sounds (what and how a character says something) a little less on touch and taste, but rarely do we bother with smell. So why do we omit it? Perhaps because this sense is more subjective (some may like a particular scent but others may not), plus it’s not easy to define (how do you describe the scent of a man without mentioning a specific cologne, soap or sweat?) Sometimes you may not know what something smells like with accuracy (do you know what a sugar cane field smells like?)

Describing smells can sometimes be risky because it can give readers a very definite mental image that they may not associate positively to your character. For example, in my first novel, the protagonist’s love interest is constantly smoking (hey, it’s the 60’s!) so I have a scene where the main character recognizes his presence based on the smell of cigarette and mint. One of my beta readers was turned off by my hero because of his scent (and thought that a contemporary audience wouldn’t be attracted to a man like this) but another reader thought it was an endearing quality that he tried to cover up the scent of smoke with mints.

In Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates describes smells often and he does it in conjunction to other sensory details to give the reader a more vivid description of place.

“Then he was following her hips up a dim carpeted stairway, and then a door had clicked shut behind him and he was standing in a room that smelled of vacuum cleaning and breakfast bacon and perfume, a high, silent room where everything lay richly bathed in yellow light from windows whose blinds of split bamboo had turned the sun into fine horizontal stripes of tan and gold.”

Smell is also a device Yates uses to transition into characters’ memories through flashbacks or backstory.

“The smell of school in the darkness, pencils and apples and library paste, brought a sweet nostalgic pain to his eyes and he was fourteen again, and it was the year he’d lived in Chester, Pennsylvania—no, in Englewood, New Jersey—and spent all his free time in a plan for riding the rails to the West Coast.”

He even makes smell the source of conflict between two characters:

“He walked over and gave her a little hug; but his smile froze into an anxious grimace against her ear, because in bending close to her shoulder he had caught a faint whiff of  something rancid. 
In the shower, pensively soaping and scrubbing, Shep Campbell wondered what the hell it was that made her smell that way sometimes. It wasn’t that she didn’t take enough baths—he knew damn well she’d had one last night—and it didn’t have anything to do with the time of the month; he had checked that out long ago. It seemed to be a thing brought on by nerves, like a skin rash or a bad stomach; he guessed it was just that she tended to perspire more in times of tension. 
But he had to acknowledge, as he toweled himself in the steam, that it was more than just the smell of sweat. That alone, God knew, could be an exciting thing on a woman. And suddenly he was full of the time last summer when he’d held April Wheeler half drunk on the stifling, jam-packed dance floor of Vito’s Log Cabin, when her soaked dress was stuck to her back and her temple slid greasily under his cheek as they swayed to the buzz and clip of a snare drum and the moan of a saxophone. Oh, she was sweating, all right, and the smell of her was as strong and clean as lemons; it was the smell of her as much as the tall rhythmic feel of her that made his—that had made him want to—oh, Jesus. It had happened nearly a year ago, and the memory of it could still make his fingers tremble in the buttoning of his shirt.”

First edition of Revolutionary Road (1961)

And who can resist Roald Dahl’s description of a witch?
“What other things must I look for to recognize a witch?” I asked.
“Look for the nose-holes,” my grandmother said. “Witches have slightly larger nose-holes than ordinary people. The rim of each nose-hole is pink and curvy, like the rim of a certain kind of sea-shell.”
“Why do they have such big nose-holes?” I asked.
“For smelling with,” my grandmother said. “A REAL WITCH has the most amazing power of smell. She can smell out a child who is standing on the other side of the street on a pitch-black night.”
“She couldn't smell me,” I said. “I've just had a bath.”
“Oh yes she could,” my grandmother said. “The cleaner you happen to be, the more smelly you are to a witch.”
“That can't be true,” I said.
“An absolutely clean child gives off the most ghastly stench to a witch,” my grandmother said. “The dirtier you are, the less you smell.”
“But that doesn't make sense, Grandmamma.”
“Oh yes it does,” my grandmother said. “It isn't the dirt that the witch is smelling.  It is you. The smell that drives a witch mad actually comes right out of your own skin. It comes oozing out of your skin in waves, and these waves, stink-waves the witches call them, go floating through the air and hit the witch right smack in her nostrils. They send her reeling.”
“Now wait a minute, Grandmamma...”
“Don't interrupt,” she said. “The point is this, when you haven't washed for a week and your skin is covered over with dirt, then quite obviously the stink-waves cannot come oozing out nearly so strongly.”
“I shall never have a bath again.” I said.
“Just don't have one too often,” my grandmother said. “Once a month is quite enough for a sensible child.”
It was at moments like these that I loved my grandmother more than ever.
(The Witches, pg. 23-24)

Finally, smell can be used to evoke an emotion in a character (and hopefully, the reader, too) like Robert Goolrick does in A Reliable Wife.

“He sat in a chair by the darkening window. ‘After she left, after he drove my mother away, after my sister died. I would sneak over to the old house, to the villa, and climb the staircase and go into her room. I would stand in her closet and bury my nose in her dresses, breathing in my mother. She smelled like another country, a country where there was always music and dancing. A country lit by candlelight.’”

Are there any scents that evoke memories in you? Can you share an effective description of smell in a work of fiction? Do you believe there is such a thing as an offensive odor, like in the smelly diaper story? Do you think the bus driver had a right to do what she did?