Reading the comic “In Real Life” by Cory Doctorow and “Anda’s Game,” the story on which the comic is based, I’m reminded constantly of the Fallacy of Composition – the misconception that something true for one part is true for the whole – on multiple levels, from the plot which seems to apply the Fallacy of Composition to real world problems to the clichéd story which follows beat by beat the clichés within a genre I call the Workshopped Story. I make no claims here that Doctorow legitimately came from the workshopping system, but this story so thoroughly exemplifies the clichés of stories born from that system, the connection is irresistible.
Doctorow actually evokes the Fallacy of Composition directly elsewhere when explaining how science fiction diagnoses social problems (whether or not that’s a valid claim about science fiction is an argument for another day, but to narrowly isolate the function of science fiction to this highly cerebral, emotionally-stripped endpoint valuation hints at many of the other problems with “In Real Life”). In presentations with his partner in creating the “In Real Life” comic, the artist Jen Wang (and I’m not heaping any blame here on Wang, despite her role in essentially co-writing the comic, because she compensates for story failures with lovely art), Doctorow says an ear doctor can look in a patient’s ear and understand, based on this limited information, a lot of facts about the body as a whole. His point is that the sci-fi writer, in the diagnosis business, need not explore the whole society if one piece of technology is a sufficient metonymy, but the Fallacy of Composition comes in when assuming every other part of the body works the same way as the ear, to use ear ache medicine to treat migraines, for example.
This Ear-Body Problem is intrinsic to the workshopping system. If something works well with Hemingway, it must work well with all kinds of writing everywhere else on the much more complicated spectrum. If something doesn’t work within the Hemmingway model, it must be a malignant anomalous growth to be excised, like a bodiless ear that suddenly grows an eyeball and the doctor trained in ears-are-the-only-body-parts philosophy interprets this eyeball as a cancerous tumor. More relevant in the creation of the Workshopped Story genre are the three cliché pillars: “write what you know,” “find your voice,” and “show, don’t tell.” These are not problems in and of themselves, just as a body still needs an ear, but the problem that leads to cliché, boring, lifeless, ugly, lazy stories within this genre is assuming that these clichés are all there is to storytelling.
Keep in mind, to avoid the Fallacy of Composition myself, I intend this as an object lesson for some intrinsic misconceptions about storytelling and not as a critique of “In Real Life”/“Anda’s Game” necessarily, so to say, “‘In Real Life’ is a boring panoply of clichés that undermines its aesthetic value in at least three different ways, not least of which is sentiment drowning in didacticism,” etc., and you could disagree with me, and that would be fine. We’d both be right. Maybe the Workshopped Story genre is your favorite. To assume everyone feels the same way I do about a story would be wrong and hypocritically undermine my point.
However, the story is stunningly infused with Fallacy of Composition on nearly every level. The whole plot of the story is based on this fallacy. What works in Arizona must work in China as well (the settings are different in the comic and the short story, so I’ll use the settings of the comic for simplicity’s sake and because “In Real Life” is an offensive title, but in reference prose ugliness, I’m talking just about the story). Here’s the Fallacy of Composition as plot (spoilers): Anda encounters exploited Chinese workers while inside of this virtual world, she assumes the same sort of strike that works in Arizona will work in China, it doesn’t work, and she learns lessons about making assumptions – except in the end what works in Arizona actually does work in China, everything ends happily despite her presumptiveness, and the Fallacy of Composition is apparently the mechanism for worldwide salvation.
More importantly, the story seems so irresistibly demonstrative of two of the deeply flawed clichés that so thoroughly infect creative writing education – specifically “Write what you know” and “Find your voice” – its failure shows the failure of this system. (The third pillar of workshop cliché, “Show, don’t tell,” hardly seems relevant here, as Doctorow seems to ignore it needlessly.*)
The creation of art involves optimization of stimulation, and for storytelling that is optimization of empathetic stimulation. Far more important than rules of any kind, this involves recognition of various seemingly paradoxical factors pulling against each other – including the Threshold of Familiarity, situating story elements between the overly familiar and overly unfamiliar, as I will discuss momentarily. Writers determine this subjectively given recognition of these mechanisms and optimize stimulation through a complicated array of techniques. In the workshop system, this complexity somehow turns into “write what you know” and “find your voice” because these clichés have worked enough times to seem like absolute rules – the ear medicine did seem to cure the migraine. This technique substitutes factors like accuracy of voice for any other aesthetic value. I call this trick the Framing Effect. Take anything – beautiful, interesting, or otherwise (and often it’s otherwise) – and frame it in uncanny displacement of the object, action, etc., and this endows the story element with some measure of stimulation. This is a light shift into the stimulating middle ground of the Familiarity Threshold away from the too familiar end of the spectrum. It’s one of the easiest ways to trigger stimulation, so if you tell susceptible, unexperienced writers that this is such an important technique in storytelling, you will get a lot of false positives – so many false positives that it births a (boring, lazy) genre.
However, the most potent factor in making “write what you know” work is the easy way in which it triggers empathy. Triggering empathy is the core of the work of fiction writing, and the easiest way to do this is to focus on voice accuracy. If you use your own voice accurately and you are a human (a method as effortless as using the Framing Effect), empathy is an automatic result. This does not require the writer to give the character anything interesting to do an is even less likely to lead to any genuinely stimulating dangers (why submit yourself to any dangers). If you use the accurate voice of another (slightly harder), empathy is still an automatic result. Accuracy in this case is just a method, not a solitary value. It get results because it is designed that way, but that’s such a narrow sliver of the spectrum limiting what stories are.
Doctorow to his credit at least avoids the most effortless method of voice creation and accurately channels the voice of a twelve year old girl (presumably), but he undermines the potential value of his sole aesthetic stimulator monumentally in at least three ways:
1) He subordinates empathy and all other aesthetic values to politics and lesson learning. The most massive violation the story’s aesthetic is the most obvious. The deadliest storytelling tendency (if a character’s life is important) is to moralize or politicize, but politics seems more important to Cory Doctorow than storytelling anyway. I could tell him, “Your story was ugly, sloppy, and boring,” but he’d likely be more concerned about whether or not I got the message about exploitation. To make a story didactic is to remove a story to its farthest degree away from its empathic aesthetic core. It becomes a cerebral exercise, not an emotional stimulator. This tendency contradicts the barrier-destruction necessary for empathetic stimulation and instead creates a barrier of condescension since the writer presumes he is teaching us something we don’t already know. For most potent effect in the business of triggering empathy, a character should be able to live outside of the author’s overt conscious control. Overt conscious control undermines stimulation because it is offputtingly condescending and manipulative, triggering instead a resistance to manipulation. I hope most writers know this already. My purpose is to use “In Real Life” to exemplify common delusions, but I haven’t encountered many fiction writers who still believe, like Doctorow, political commentary is the primary purpose of fiction. Plenty of critics still maintain that the purpose of fiction is to teach lessons, advance political positions or communicate meaning with emotion as a secondary effect but cerebral argument and teaching us what we don’t know is the more legitimate business of the critic, so this difference in perception is understandable. In my experience, no serious fiction writers whose business is emotional stimulation would favor didacticism over emotional honesty – except Cory Doctorow apparently.
2) Every moment is a cliché. A lot of time is spent in discussions of creative writing in why so-called literature is superior to so-called genre because genre is clichéd, but why is cliché so bad? Considering the Familiarity Threshold, in order to optimize stimulation, a story element shouldn’t be too familiar (as determined by each individual writer/reader) or too unfamiliar. This is the root of the assumption that genre must be inferior to literature since the name implies genre is generic, overly familiar. However the Workshopped Story born from the “write what you know”/”find your voice” clichés – which itself was presumably born from superior so-called literature – is arguably far more generic than the sci-fi and fantasy dismissively called generic. More accurately, the generic elements in so-called genre are essentially shorthand for elements for which stimulation is unnecessary but they provide a framework for more thorough exploration of the possibilities of the imagination. Also, they function as mechanisms for interesting characters to do interesting things within an otherwise predictable framework. The new technology turning evil may be unsurprising in a sci-fi story, but the imaginative quality of the evil technology and the characters fighting it make or break the story. Fantasy characters going on a quest is unsurprising, but the quality of the characters and the imaginative originality of the creatures the heroes encounter can make or break the fantasy story. The core of a good story is human acting free of overt conscious control of the author, but this human doesn’t have to be a literal human, and these activities don’t have to be realistic activities. Some people find the lack of realistic activity and literal humanity off putting and a barrier to empathy, but that is how taste works. There is no universal superiority or inferiority implicit in that. The Workshopped Story genre comes in a smaller number of varieties than the dozens of dozens of sci-fi and fantasy stories possible – I count around three or four versions. Here is a popular standard story structure: a character within an entirely normal setting has some vague past trauma which leads to present insecurity, the character encounters something new and mildly challenging to make him or her question assumptions, conflict is purely internal and revealed through show-don’t-tell Hemmingwayish icebergs, the character has some mild epiphany leading a mild emotional change, and essentially nothing happens externally. Beat by beat, this is far more predictable than most sci-fi. Part of the problem with Cory Doctorow is that he self-defines a science fiction writer, and defines sci-fi so narrowly/poorly as predicting the present, revealing significant social problems in our world today, giving no value to what I would considered the much more important value of sci-fi: character and imagination. “In Real Life” is devoid of imagination and laid out in predictable beat-by-beat paint-by-number progression of the Workshopped Story genre. It does contain some superficial sci fi and fantasy elements: the game Anda plays seems like science fiction though it is very a common sort of game familiar to anyone of a certain age, and those unfamiliar with this type of game may score more stimulation on the familiarity spectrum. However, in the short story, the game squanders the imaginative possibilities of this sci-fi framework by just making the game a Star Wars type – monsters are even called Chewbaccas. In the comic, the game is more fantasy-based, but still devoid of imaginative elements. We get a tiger, and that’s about it – not even a very interesting-looking tiger. From a purely subjective perspective, I would have forgiven a lot about this story if the monsters had been interest. I love monsters that much. Give the tiger two heads. Give the tiger horns. Give the tiger a sweater, anything beyond the blandly normal. I’m not a gamer, but I’ve seen the monster designs in games, and they are impressively imaginative. I have difficulty accepting that any game would leave a tiger as a plain, unadorned tiger. The story seems so dedicated to the Workshopped Story genre in which realism is absolutely necessary that putting effort into imagination might have betrayed the genre, yet it still betrays realism by making the game far blander than any real game would be.
3) Doctorow undermines any sense of legitimate risk at every turn. Risk is not an absolute necessity of storytelling as long as the writer compensates for releasing the potential tension by providing some other stimulator, beautiful imagery, euphonious prose, complicated characters whose complete lack of motivation makes them interesting, anything. Just look at Samuel Beckett for great stripped of morality, risk, motivation, forward progression, change – the story teller’s standard tools for stimulation but he compensates for this void of risk with beautiful language and amazing characters. Most writers short of Beckett’s genius should understand risk as an essential tool. Risk is often mild in the Workshopped Story genre, but a well-made story need not ramp up risk to ridiculous levels. It need not be the standard mortal danger of fantasy or sci fi. Or take for example another standard story with the workshopped genre: the character dealing with a much more extreme experiences like rape, abortion, coming out of the closet. A good writer can turn much more mundane risks into high tension: losing a friend can feel life ending. But what risk does Anda face? She makes reference to mild bother of males in gaming which she solves mildly by entering the blandly named virtual world occupied only by girls – mild problem solved mildly. The problem structurally in optimizing these mild risks the massive displacement intrinsic in the virtual reality gimmick. There is a lot of mortal danger and killing with in the game, but this is never elevated to legitimate sense of risk. This sort of virtual world second tier removal can still work quite well. I happened to read this at the same time I was watching Sword Art Online which is so much better at stimulating despite being set in a virtual world, “In Real Life” might have seemed unfairly lazy in contrast, but Doctorow even strips the risk from the story elements he clearly cares more about: the plight of the gold famers in China. Anda befriends a gold famer in the game, she feels bad for him, but what does she ever risk? She barely knows Raymond, and we barely know Raymond. Furthermore, Raymond’s problem is that his job sucks, he works too long, and he can’t get insurance for his back pain. That’s unfortunate, exploitation is wrong no doubt, but beyond that, so what? Not to sound heartless but based purely on what Doctorow gives us, waitresses I’ve known in the U.S. have it just as bad. This is not to say that real Chinese workers have a better life than American waitresses, but Doctorow’s workers hardly seem to have a worse life. Doctorow failed to convince me otherwise. If he only cares about political awareness and not about storytelling, his storytelling weakness has failed him on both fronts. Anda then hears about her father striking which seems in the story portrays a risk free political action. Anda then decides she should condescendingly inform Raymond that unionizing is a thing. She does some light research, convinces him to organize and make demands of his bosses, and he gets fired. Finally, we get risk. This poor guy we barely knew at least had a job, but now he has no job and medical problems. Anda, despite not really knowing this guy, ruins his life through her condescending presumptions. Finally, Doctorow seems like he knows how stories work. But then in the biggest are-you-kidding-me moment for me, the other workers unionize in Raymond’s honor, and we’re left assuming Anda’s twelve-year old wisdom has saved them. Raymond gets a new job elsewhere, so happiness for everyone. Even giving Doctorow the benefit of the doubt, if this is what happens when a writer values lesson-learning over all other values, perhaps there is some legitimate value in the lesson, perhaps a moral we cause to tell us what we ought to do and ought not to do, but what is that lesson? What is that moral? Twelve year olds really can teach Chinese people how to better their lives by unionizing? If you ruin someone’s life when he buys into your condescension, don’t worry, he’ll be fine? Even by the standards of didacticism and realism, this is a failure.
This story reminds me so much of the stereotypes of millennials who have been so sheltered from danger they have a warped any sense of what danger means, but at the same time they have access to all the information in the world, and this has caused a swelling of know-it-all tendencies coupled with the moral righteousness devoid of the wisdom that comes with legitimate risk. No wonder a bland Workshopped Story genre is so popular with this generation. I pray this is only a stereotype since stereotyping is another species of the Fallacy of Composition, so let’s just get of the Fallacy of Composition entirely. I pray instead that storytelling in the future is born from the more substantial value of pure irrational empathy.
*I fear Doctorow demonstrates why creative writing educators should teach students “Show, don’t tell.” In my own writing, I recognize “Show, don’t tell” and choose to ignore it because it is not a universal rule, but ignoring it should be worth a beautiful sentence or practical story advancement in the end. As the extraordinarily sloppy following line demonstrates, editors/writing teachers seemingly neglected to drill in “Show, don’t tell” (or the problems with passive voice and verbs in participle form and so many other issues): “The kids in the sweatshops were being exploited by grownups, too. It was why their situation was so impossible: the adults who were supposed to be taking care of them were exploiting them.” I certainly don’t think “Show, don’t tell” should be an absolute rule, but there is value for beginning writers to understand how this works, perhaps at least recognition that statement of obvious abstractions is both condescending and devoid of beauty.