The Ear-Body Problem: The Failures of Cory Doctorow’s “In Real Life” Exemplify Common Storytelling Delusions and Fallacies.

 

tumblr_m5d5yvWF8k1qhttpto1_1280

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.

Advertisements

Boodlepax vs the Robot Conveniences (comic book rough draft)

Boodlepax vs the Robot Conveniences 8

Here is a rough draft of a comic book I wrote for #30DaysofSummerStories. Since this is the official part 20 of the 30/day 20 of 30, I’m obliged by rules (entirely imposed by myself) to share it. So please enjoy.

Boodlepax vs the Robot Conveniences

ONE

Panel 1 (full page): Boodlepax (a tiny, monstrous creature who looks like a horned barn own with big, wide, sympathetic, frightened, monstrously scaled eyes; no mouth; arms that seemed made a dozen connected squeaky balls with tiny, barely functional claws at the tip of each) stands at the bottom center as if posing for a school photo. To his left/our right is a full body picture of a disinterested, handsome dude present only to demonstrate that Boodlepax is only shin high.

Caption 1:                   Boodlepax was born a Living Nightmare. His favorite dreaming boy abandoned him long ago which made him very sad. He has worked most of his adult life as a Hell Torturer. Hell liked to employ needy monsters of any type. Stereotyping didn’t bother Hell. But Boodlepax loved humanity and never wished any harm on anyone. He was mostly very kind and wanted to uplift humanity. He decided to be a super hero. He was very tiny compared to humans and had no powers. The right mix of guilt and good intentions can turn anyone into a super hero.

Caption 2 (with an arrow): Actual size of Boodlepax compared to normals.

TWO

Panel 1: Boodlepax in his school picture pose but now with a cape.

Caption 1:                   Boodlepax started with a cape. He presented himself to the world as if the cape’s presence alone would draw superhoic necessities to him. Nobody noticed. Nothing much happened. He needed a villain.

Panel 2: Boodlepax surrounded by the Robots Conveniences (standard robots of any type).

Caption 2:                   He noticed a lot of humanity purchasing Robot Conveniences at the Robot Store which seemed to be enslaving their will and attention. He decided to destroy the Robot Conveniences.

Panel 3: Boodlepax holding a giant wrench and facing a single robot.

Panel 4: Boodlepax in the aftermath of having hit a Robot Convenience to no effect except the vibrating wrench causing Boodlepax to vibrate comically.

THREE

Panel 1: Boodlepax staring at the robot with a sword lodged in it (implying Boodlepax was responsible for the stabbing).

Panel 2: The same set up except the robot now has a second sword lodged in it.

Panel 3: Boodlepax holds a .45.

Panel 4: We see the aftermath of Boodlepax having fired the .45 to no effect except the trails of Boodlepax comically flying backwards from the gun’s force.

FOUR

Panel 1: Boodlepax in his school picture pose next to a giant blue rabbit. Proportions indicate that the rabbit is much, much bigger than a human being.

Caption 1:                   Boodlepax decided to employ a junior sidekick, a giant nautical rabbit called Ingypoo. His history as Living Nightmare and Hell Torturer meant he knew a lot of interesting monsters.

Ingypoo:                      I am a super hero! You shall call me Tuba Toothpaste! Tremble before me! O ye lowly masses!

Boodlepax:                  Please stop. Just follow my lead.

Caption 2: Ingypoo struggled to understand humanity and human languages. Boodlepax wanted to tell him that Tuba Toothpaste was a terrible super hero name. Just call yourself Ingypoo. Be yourself and the world would love you. These are lessons he would one day teach everyone.

FIVE

Panel 1 (full page): Boodlepax and Ingypoo standing before a street full of humans with their Robot Conveniences.

Boodlepax:                  Just beat up all these robots for me.

Ingypoo:                      Will do, boss.

SIX

Panel 1: (full page): Boodlepax and Ingypoo in the same positions, but now the whole page is red, implying Ingypoo has painted the world red in obliterating the bodies of all the present humans.

Caption 1:                   Ingypoo had a bit too much enthusiasm for super hero work and no compunction against blowing human bodies to bits and pieces.

Ingypoo:                      Everybody’s dead, boss. What next?

Boodlepax:                  Oh. Well. That’s not good. How bout we stop being superheroes now.

SEVEN

Panel 1: Boodlepax sitting on his bed staring into the distance.

Caption 1:                   A few days later.

Panel 2: The same shot of Boodlepax. Ingypoo now appears to his left/our right.

Ingypoo:                      Hey there, guy.

Panel 3: The same shot.

Ingypoo:                      So guess what I found out. Remember how I killed a ton of people the other day? Turns out those robots they bought were suicide robots. It’s this scam so they can kill themselves and still get insurance money. So I did all kindsa good for the world. Like a super hero. Right?

EIGHT

Panel 1: Same shot.

Ingypoo:                      Okay. Bye. Buddy. Partner. Boss. Call me? Yes? No? Okay, seriously, bye now.

Panel 2: Boodlepax, alone again.

Panel 3: Same shot as Panel 1, Ingypoo present again.

Ingypoo:                      Did I forget to mention I can bring people back to life? I’m, like, very magical. I’m talking insanely magical. All those people I killed, I can totally bring them back to life if you’d like. Just let me know. Yes? No? I’ll take your silence as a yes. Boom. Done.

NINE

Panel 1-9: Various slaughtered and rabbit-exploded humans pulling together, waking, coming back to life, etc.

TEN

Panel 1: A crate labeled “Robot Conveniences: Suicide Model. Return. Damaged.”

Panel 2: A wider shot of a human standing next to this crate.

Panel 3: The same human, head bowed, hands in pockets, walking along past disinterested crowds.

ELEVEN

Panel 1 (full page): The same human staring at a sunset.

TWELVE

Panel 1: The same as panel 3 from page TEN, anonymous human walking alone in a crowd, head bowed.

Panel 2: The same human stands before Boodlepax on the crowded street. They stare at each other a moment.

Panel 3: Boodlepax walking in the crowd the opposite direction, mirroring the anonymous human but traveling to the left of the panel. He is now alone.

Panel 4: The same crowd, no Boodlepax

Panel 5: Ingypoo bounces in as if following Boodlepax. He is chained to something off panel to the right.

Panel 6: Ingypoo bounces to the left again, revealing that he is hauling a tank even bigger than he is.

Panel 7: The bouncing progresses, now with only the tank visible.

Panel 8: Now only the crowd.

Ecstasy as the Deepest Level of Aesthetic Purity: The 7 Levels of Aesthetic Subordination

Seven Levels of Narrative Subordination

The discussion of value of a particular narrative too often misidentifies rhetoric or realism as the sole factor placing a text at a high (or the highest) level of quality; realism, in particular, has this false association with narrative purity, and rhetoric in narrative has the mistaken association of intellectual engagement as a necessary component of artistic value. This is a narrow perspective born from the notion that rationality has a greater value than emotional/visceral reaction. A more significant problem with this perspective is that it displaces value from the text or the work of art itself. The text has no intrinsic value, only its capacity to represent something else: so-called reality, a philosophical concept, a social condition, a sociological perspective, etc.

This is the aesthetic problem of subordination which art in the twentieth century strove to and should have eliminated. William Carlos Williams and the Abstract Expressionists should have, finally and completely, highlighted the falsity in the notion that subordination is superior to aesthetic purity.

Alas, critics seem resistant to accepting what Williams should have taught the world, slow to accept that thousands of years of traditional Western concepts of artistic value have been upside down this whole time (something that Eastern concepts of artistic value have acknowledged for just as long). This is partly because there are so few systematic ways to analyze a text given the elimination of subordination. Understandably. How do you rationally analyze something that is at its core irrational? When writers say (as so many writers do) that they have no rational purpose or intention in writing a narrative other than to explore a character’s tapestry of emotions, how then do critics take that irrational but perfectly valid claim and honor it without forcing rational analysis in places it doesn’t necessarily belong?

This is why I keep attempting to make something systematic, hence the Seven Levels of Narrative Subordination.

A more effective way to approach a work of art which has greater potential to give the irrational core its due weight is to look at the various levels on the spectrum between aesthetic purity and subordination. Considering this as a spectrum better highlights the value at both ends (since critical analysis has been stuck at one of the spectrum for too long).  By “aesthetic purity,” I just mean acknowledging the text based on its own value without subordinating the value to something outside of it. The most aesthetically pure is the least subordinated; the most subordinated is the most rational/cerebral but also furthest removed from its aesthetic core, that which gives it stimulant (visceral/emotional) value.

A spectrum, however, is not the most accurate way to consider these levels since each element in the scale builds on the next, so a work of art must start with that pure, irrational core as a condition of being a work of art. Thus, one could argue the higher levels have greater value in their relative complexity. What I have identified as the “Rhetorical” level, the highest level of subordination, most likely contains the other six levels as well, thus allowing the possibility of argument for the superiority of this type of text. However, as this level is farthest removed from the aesthetic core, it is least likely to be enjoyable, beautiful, viscerally stimulating, etc. Also, this complexity is not a necessary condition of the Rhetorical level, and containing each of the previous six levels is likewise not a necessary condition. For example, most children’s narratives are Rhetorical without necessarily being complex and without necessarily containing all seven levels within them.

Also, to clarify, I focus on levels  narrative subordination particularly because the first two levels (“Ecstatic” and “Paratactic”) work well with any type of art, but the other five apply best to narrative. For example, considering the rule systems relevant to each level is a way to understand its level of subordination, a consideration that is less helpful for non-narrative art. As a more specific example, the “Mythological” level functions based on its own internal rule system, a concept that is very useful in understanding narratives but not as useful in understanding visual art. Rule systems in narratives are an important aesthetic consideration since violation of a perceived rule system may seem like a flaw. To say this is an intrinsic or universal flaw is false, but it is important for a writer to recognize that the reader is likely to perceive this as a flaw. For example, a story on the Mythological level may include imaginary creatures who must adhere to an internal rule system without necessarily adhering to the rules of the so-called real world. A violation of this internal rule system may seem like a flaw no matter how beautiful the text may be at its core. Likewise, what I identify as a Rhetorical story must adhere consistently to the premises of the argument, and failure to do so may seem like a flaw even if the story itself is beautiful and adheres to internal rules irrelevant to the argument.

Here are the seven levels:

1)Ecstatic: The direct, visceral, irrational experience that eliminates the barrier between self and other.

  • Rule System: No rule system.
  • Subordination: No distance between the work itself and the experience of the reader/viewer.
  • Analytical strategy: As this is the most irrational level based purely on individual experience, the easiest element to access and analyze is individual emotional/visceral reaction.
  • In brief: As the narrative or artistic experience requires the elimination of the barrier between self and other, this is the most basic and purest level of an artwork or narrative, and each subsequent level must contain this at its core. This level could be called “Absurd” as absurd narratives are the most characteristic examples and least likely to contain one of the other levels as well, and it’s provocative to say that all narratives must be absurd at their core, but that word contains so much baggage it may be counter-productive. Most philosophical treatments of absurdity as a concept are Rhetorical in nature, not truly and purely absurd. The Ecstatic level is the level of pure artistic absurdity where philosophy is irrelevant and unnecessary (in other words, absurdity certainly isn’t a problem to be solved). To clarify, narratives or artistic works can function on other levels, and often with more purely absurd texts critics attempt to impose order and meaning on them (the need to impose unnecessary order and meaning on things is a common and often intense desire); however, since absurdity/ecstasy is at the core of all successful narratives and art works, meaning and order are more incidental factors than necessary components. There is resistance to recognizing this as the core of all art, arguably, for two reasons: 1) artifice appears impure; 2) pleasure for its own sake engenders discomfort and seems like a frivolous, indulgent, gratuitous, or self-serving moral violation. The answer to both of these objections/misconceptions is in the nature of ecstatic engagement: it eliminates the barrier between self and other. It is artifice (and all art is artifice to a degree) only in that it has no necessary relationship with physical reality and exists primarily in the interaction between self and other free of barriers. Tangible/physical/material reality is only more pure than this if you believe science is the only authentic mechanism for discovering truth. That is a valid position to hold, but it is hardly helpful in creating or understanding art. This connects likewise with the notion that ecstasy is mere frivolity or self-pleasing immorality, but empathy (elimination of the barrier between self and other) should be the root of morality, arguably, and is the root of morality in many religions, from the “Love your neighbor as yourself” of Jesus to the compassionate non-duality of Buddha. To feel the pain and joy of another can only be immoral frivolity if your moral system is devoid of empathy as an essential component. Again, this is a valid position but hardly relevant to art.
  • Favorite Examples: Incidences by Daniil Kharms, Amedée by Eugene Ionesco, “Sorrows of a Family Man” by Franz Kafka, etc. Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” is essential reading in understanding the one-to-one interaction of the ecstatic text and the irrelevance of universality.

2)Paratactic: The juxtaposition of viscerally stimulating but seemingly unrelated images without a rational, directly stated, or necessary connection.

  • Rule system: No rule system.
  • Subordination: No element is necessarily subordinated to another, by definition, but images can relate to elements or concepts outside of the text itself.
  • Analytical strategy: Determine the images that create a visceral response in juxtaposition. Do not look for a rational connection but a purely irrational resonance. If you find a rational connection, especially where one element is subordinated to the other, this likely qualifies as the Representational level and muddies the aesthetic purity with overt rationality.
  • In brief: The line between the Ecstatic and Paratactic level are blurred since both levels function quite similarly. However, the Paratactic differentiates from the Ecstatic in that images can relate to concepts or a so-called reality outside of the text. For example, a William Carlos Williams poem might relate a “red wheelbarrow” and “white chickens” without stating how they connect (a classic, basic example of parataxis), but understanding of this parataxis might relate to the reader’s own experience or concept of farming or poverty without necessarily subordinating the images to the concepts or experiences. The text, however, becomes one step away from the pure ecstatic experience in this outward-stretching web. Another example: a text might contain multiple blue objects, and the reader may yearn to find some rational connection between these blue objects. However, the yearning for connection (a type of visceral stimulation vital for this level) is far more important than an actual, rational connection, and the reader may think of traditional associations of blue and the Virgin Mary without necessarily subordinating the text to Christian concepts. In other words, the color blue does not necessarily make the text about (“about” generally implying a level of subordination) the Virgin Mary or Christianity simply because of the presence of blue, but this irrational connection could add visceral value to the text. If the weight of history aids in arguing the importance of parataxis, subordinating a text to abstractions may be the traditional Western way of understanding a narrative (thus the taken-for-granted superior position), but parataxis is the traditional Eastern way of understanding imagery in multiple art forms.

3)Mythological: This narrative level functions based on its own internal rule system.

  • Rule system: Internal rule system set by the author, genre, narrative conventions, etc.
  • Subordination: A concept of order is grafted on the irrational/visceral elements of the text, but this rule system is essentially arbitrary; it may relate to rule systems in reality/outside of the text, but this is not necessary.
  • Analytical strategy: Identify the internal rule system and how the text fulfills or violates this rule system; recognize the relationship between the imposed order and the irrational, visceral core. For example, if a character has imposed a system of order on the absurd universe, does he/she violate this imposed order, or does the universe violate/fulfill this order in some way?
  • In brief: I call this level “mythological,” not because it has a relationship to myth criticism (as most of that sort of criticism functions on the Representational or Rhetorical level) or any narrative identified as myth (which is only one of many other types of stories on the Mythological level) but because it comes from the same impulse as myth making: to impose order on the disorderly whether or not that order has any rational relationship with scientifically measurable reality. Myths, likewise, must conform only to their own ordered system and not necessarily to any system outside of themselves. I would go further and say most narratives, by the nature of being a narrative, are intrinsically mythological if they have any sense of order or conform to any rule system. The most obvious place to see this is in so-called “genre” fiction – a vampire story follows the well-established vampire rules or sets its own but follows those consistently. However, internal rule systems are as relevant to a so-called “literary” work as they are to a so-called “genre” work. The terms “literary” and “genre” are grossly inaccurate and sloppily applied in most cases, but considering their relationship with internal rule systems clarifies their basic difference more accurately: a “genre” work conforms to rule systems within its own type and a “literary” work establishes its own, supposedly (and a “literary” work becomes “genre” when it follows the rule system established by the “literary” type). However, the most egregiously applied term associated with this level is “escapism” – escapism is indeed one of the effects of works which remain more purely within the Mythological level, but this one effect is hardly its most significant value. “Escapism,” especially in its pejorative sense, inverts the value system placing so-called reality above the narrative experience. The narrative experience can as easily be considered a greater level of reality. The relationship between the mythological and the realistic level is incidental – so-called reality fills in the gaps left by mythology but is far from a necessary condition of mythology.

4)Psychological: A separation between the purer aesthetic levels and reality by attributing the contrast to an internal/external split.

  • Rule system: Two separate rule systems, internal and external. The internal rule system may function the same as the Ecstatic, Paratactic, or Mythological level, but the subordination implies that the external rule system functions the same as the Realistic level.
  • Subordination: The non-realistic or seemingly disorderly elements are subordinated to external reality because they are attributed to psychological reflections of external factors.
  • Analytical strategy: Identify the internal and external elements in the story and determine how one reflects the other; for example, how does a non-real element reflect some more realistic element within a character’s world or something psychologically significant to the character?
  • In brief: This is the transition between irrational and rational levels because it acknowledges the value of both sides. However, this dilutes the aesthetic power of the Ecstatic core because it is subordinated to so-called reality. This is not necessarily limited to psychoanalytical criticism or rules of psychology, psychoanalysis, etc. though this can be enlightening method for approaching texts on this level. Most forms of criticism hover in the Representational level, but the Psychological level can resonate in both directions as long as it remains rooted in this two-level contrast between internal and external forces. For example, elements can function by internal rules, thus making it a Mythological narrative, but function simultaneously on the Representational level if elements stand in for abstract concepts. If this resonance takes place on two levels – for example, Mythological elements take place inside a character’s mind while Representational elements are outside of the character’s mind – and the internal elements are subordinate to the external elements, this narrative exists on the Psychological level.

5)Realistic: The narrative exists to depict something in the real (material, tangible, physical) world.

  • Rule system: The narrative must follow the rules of the scientifically measurable, so-called real world.
  • Subordination: The narrative is subordinated to the real world outside of it.
  • Analytical strategy: Focus on the accuracy of the narrative within the context of the real world. For example, an element inaccurate to material existence, scientifically established rule systems, or social conventions becomes a flaw.
  • In brief: While works within the genre called “Realism” are often depicted as purer forms for their elimination of imaginative elements, they are aesthetically impure because of their dependence on a material, tangible, physical reality outside of the texts. Any consideration of the text’s basis in reality displaces value from the text and places value in elements only incidental to the text’s core Ecstatic value. This is not applicable only to texts based on real events or texts in which events are depicted as being real. More important at this level is recognition of a narrative as being dependent on reality and valuation of the accuracy of this depiction of reality. However, if a text functions to reflect some universal concept (like the “human condition,” etc.) or has non-realistic elements which stand in for universal concepts, it is more likely Representational, a step further in subordination.

6)Representational: The narrative stands in for some abstract concept such as philosophy, sociological perspective/condition, or universalized concept of humanity.

  • Rule system: The narrative may follow essentially the same rules as the Realistic level but applied universally or at least broadly to a sociological condition, or it may follow the rules or principles of a particular philosophy without necessarily making an endpoint argument.
  • Subordination: Both real and non-real elements are subordinated to universal/philosophical concepts.
  • Analytical strategy: As most criticism hovers in this or the Rhetorical level, analytical strategies are well-established elsewhere.
  • In brief: When considering narrative analysis, this and the Rhetorical level are too often considered the only relevant levels or the levels with the greatest capacity to highlight the value of a narrative – this is the limited perspective I’m attempting to correct. The concept is that a narrative has value in that it “means” something or is “about” something when this perspective separates, by several levels of subordination, the narrative from its core aesthetic value. The Representational level essentially bridges the Realistic and Rhetorical level in that realistic elements are elevated into the abstract realm by being treated as representations of universal conditions (humans aren’t humans but stand in for all of humanity, for example) or reflect one of thousands of possible philosophical perspectives without necessarily making an argument (which would qualify it as Rhetorical). The various philosophies are well-established within criticism, so I need not spend much time explaining them, but an example might be a Marxist perspective which views elements within a text as representations of class oppression, commodification, historical cycles of revolution, etc. Characters aren’t people but social forces and conditions and only have value in their capacity to represent.

7)Rhetorical: A catch all term for anything with an endpoint value based in some abstract concept, argument, lesson, etc.

  • Rule system: The narrative must consistently follow the principles of the argument or lesson.
  • Subordination: Elements within the narrative are subordinate to the argument or lesson.
  • Analytical strategy: As most criticism hovers in this or the Representational level, analytical strategies are well-established elsewhere.
  • In brief: I call this level “Rhetorical” for the sake of the catchy three R’s of rational-level narrative subordination, but this includes many types of narratives beyond the argumentative – didactic narratives, for example. The significance is that the narrative has a purpose or that the narrative is leading to a particular end. This endpoint may be open to interpretation, but the writer is proposing some rhetorical premise subject to the rules of rhetoric or a moral principle subject to the rules or designed to develop or disseminate that particular moral principle. It differs from the Representational level only in that a Representational narrative can function more purely as a portrait of an abstract or universalized concept, but the Rhetorical level further subordinates that portrait to the ultimate purpose, argument, lesson, etc.

Summary of current #TwitterFiction, Pinterest, and Facebook stories (the Too Many Bodies edition)

Here is a brief summary of the stories I’m presently firstdrafting on Twitter, Facebook, & Pinterest. They are all great, & you should love them.

Twitter

#ThisOneSummer (#TinyHotel): Angel Kamminer-Moorhead wakes up one morning to see the air is filled with thousands of tiny floating bodies seemingly frozen in time (it reminds Angel of the ecstatic moment in the middle of a bridge suicide when finality meets regret). She is staying with her family (her mother and two younger siblings) in the Glass Mountain Lodge over the summer along with the Tone family and her best friend Misery Tone. Misery only cares about expressing her disgust at everything and elevating the importance of her own secrets. Angel only wants to learn “Happiness is a Warm Gun” on her guitar alone. She secretly pretends to be a great rock star with the tiny floating bodies as her audience. She is fascinated by a wooden overlook that appears to be floating in the middle of the blue sky. She calls it The Heaven & assumes it must be very interesting & enlightening & a palliative for all that gutterally ails her.

#MolochtheLoveless (#MotLo): Moloch the Loveless believes he has a hate curse, meaning everyone must hate him to a murderous degree upon meeting him. Others claim it’s just because of his terrible personality. Moloch’s interlocutors often become so hatefilled they stab or beat Moloch to death, but the murder doesn’t stick. Moloch, who is nominally a scholar in Canaanite & Mesopotamian religion, is sponsored by a mysterious group called The Foundation who speak in multiple voices secret admonitions about the true mechanisms of the universe. They can also create chaos monsters.

#BodyanAcreBig (#BaAB)(#TinyHotel): Packer Seen & Eely Caballus are trying to dig up Eely’s father’s dead body which is surprisingly difficult considering the body is as big as an acre. Eely claims her father (Baab Caballus) was some sort of angelical creature called a Cathedral, but her mom (Pinkie Caballus) claims he was far from angelic. Packer is aiding Eely in this exhumation because he is in love with her, but Eely claims they are secretly half siblings–a perfect lie, Packer assumes, because this makes him functionally her labor slave in matters concerning their supposedly shared father. However, it turns out Eely (at least according to her selfperception) lacks the capacity to lie, a condition of her half angelical birth; her dedication to truth leads others to supplicate themselves in worship of her. But Eely wants to lie & have the complex variety of love that comes as a consequence. She finds the capacity to lie via dedication to theater. To now fill her days with the ecstasy of mendacity, she reshapes her whole world as a theater. She even builds a wooden replica high school next to her (relatively) real high school, & makes her supplicants lay in a grave that used to be the football field.

#Metacarpals (#BlueFingers) Asher Jacobson has worlds inside his ten fingers. He is the son of a scholar in Judaism who takes his family to the same river island every Summer. While graffitiing heroes & monsters (in a sanctioned manner–he’s a good kid mostly), he meets & instantly falls in love with a girl whose name might be Nelly (but is really Eely Caballus). She invites him to a theater across the river called the Crown. Asher can’t sneak out (the river island is accessible only by boats captained by snitchy fishermen), so he wishes for the river to freeze in the middle of Summer. When he gets his wished for miracle, he runs across the ice but falls in. In his near drowning/freezing, he develops swelling blue fingers. His whole firearm grows gigantic. He discovers his hand is made of opaque lapis lazuli & sees the civilizations inside each finger. As his cold & analytical father develops a containment unit for his continually swelling forearms, Asher realizes he can see the worlds inside his fingers if he keeps his eyes closed. Here are the ten worlds:

1)Left pinkie: a seemingly medieval world where the (truthfully kidnapped & plopped down) settlers wear white crusader cloth & live in stone hovels. Giant creatures called Cathedrals (because their upper halves are literal cathedrals) rise from the ground & gobble down settlers like nobody’s business. The settlers create a golem with a plaster & stone body covered in blue Hebrew flame letters. He also has a head made of a giant, head-sized pearl.

2)Left ring finger: a postapocalyptic world of obliterated cities where the Dreaming Ice on one end meets the Dreaming Sand on the other. In the middle is the Painted Nautilus, a giant shell as big as a museum with humanity’s artistic remnants stored on the inside. He has hundreds of tendrils like dangling seaweed, seven of which have special powers: 1)to impregnate; 2)to make plants grow; 3)to turanything it touches to water; 4)to meld; 5)to animate the inanimate; 6)to laserblast (because why not?); 7)to raise the dead.

3)Left middle finger: a suburban world full of angsty high school drama: Fader discovers his body descends into half shadow in a manner that mimics the moon’s phases. This makes Fader an outcast & a bigtime weirdo. When he prays for deliverance from his affliction, the literal moon (the size of a hot air balloon) craters down outside his bedroom window. It turns out that the literal moon is covered in giant mouths & travels around via prehensile tongues able extend several hundred feet. Whenever the literal moon snatches something up with his prehensile tongue & swallows it, Fader grows stronger.

4)Left pointer finger: a world of abandoned amusement parks where teens tackle ghosty mysteries with the aid of an entity called the Ball of Owls. He’s searching for a mysterious mirror entity called the Tail of Rings responsible for the pervasiveness of ghost activity in the abandoned amusement park world.

5)Left thumb: a clean & modern city porcupined by searchlights & patrolled by a superhero called the Messianical Chalicothere who is a literal chalicothere with the superheroical capacity to shoot blue lasers from his brain out of a sigil in his forehead (because why not?) & he’s able to enslave animals & infect them with his same superheroical laser blasting condition. Thus, an army of laser-cannon-enabled forest animals patrol the city enforcing, via merciless laser slicing, their own form of justice. The people are so terrified of this chalicotherean justice, no one dares commit a crime.

6)Right thumb: a world of moors & castles & lonely wandering maidens. These lonely wandering maidens were manufactured as living dolls by Peter Porpentine who has an addiction to refusal of affection. He’s from a species of porcupines who trained themselves to shapeshift, but physical aberrations are considered mental disorders. Peter Porpentine turned his porcupine spines into vampire teeth. But unlike the cool vampires, no one is interested in being bitten by him or scared enough to run away.

7)Right pointer finger: a westworld of ghost towns separated by endless stretches of unsettled frontier. Straight Razor George Pastor patrols the interstitial wastes as if born from the desert itself. He has a massive brown burlap head — or mask or whatever — proportional to his body like a balloon to a string, with stitched on eyes & nose & mouth. His left forearm is a giant straight razor & his right forearm is a giant gun that shoots exploding fish (because why not). He can’t hardly ride his horse like a proper cowboy because he can’t hold the reins, but he’s real good at blowing stuff up. He goes from town to town searching for & obliterating robots called the Circuit Riders.

8)Right middle finger: outerspace. Neptune is a dude. Future cities orbit Neptune who is a bit of a prick, but he is a planet & he’s nice enough to let future cities orbit him, so there’s that.

9)Right ring finger: a flying carpet world where everything must fly of necessity since the world is inside a column with no ground. Buildings have to be built on the world’s walls, & the primary commerce is in objects endowed magically with flight. Ali Sard is a market thief who carries with him a sentient bag of marbles named Bobble Marmalep who, when thrown, enacts a sort of Chaos Theory in Ali’s favor. Since Bobble Marmalep is silent & immobile (& hardly even qualifies as sentient), Ali has to gather him up again after every save.

10)Right pinkie: the river island where Asher met Nelly. He must witness the narrative leading up to the ice river crash over & over hoping at least once he’ll make it to the Crown & his destiny with Nelly.

Pinterest:

#HangingViolet: the story of Evelyn Eeny, a reluctant & mostly crazy ghost hunter. In college, Evelyn & her friends Bird & Sara stay overnight in a haunted building on campus, a building where a piano teacher’s daughter (Violet) supposedly hanged herself & stuck around ghostishly to haunt folks. After having all fallen asleep, Evelyn & the others wake to find a body (a legit nonghost body) hanging in the stairwell, its lower half missing. Cut to postgraduate years & Evelyn is full on crazy. She chooses to be homeless to avoid hauntable spaces & only goes inside to do her job (she’s a ballerina & her ballerina bosses indulge this behavior because she is very, very good). While reading some newspapers from her homeless blanket, she realizes two recent news stories–a Limb Lopper on the loose & an outbreak of a new disease mimicking the symptoms of polio–might somehow be related. Since this is only a gut feeling, Evelyn goes to Bird who’s now a private detective (or just a crazy person who thinks he’s a private detective). Bird says he only takes on detective adventures in a team that must include a strongman. To find a strongman, Evelyn goes to a nunnery & meets Sister Mary Michael, a demonologist & jolly lady so jolly she decides to delight Evelyn, a Michael Jackson fan, by introducing herself as Sister Mary Michael Jackson. Sister Mary, who also happens to be brilliant, discovers one-armed copyright lawyer named Eugene Monsterpillar whose girlfriend was beheaded, just like her own piano playing father was beheaded years before. Eugene tries to distract the intrepid & mishmashed detective team by suggesting they investigate his prosthetics supplier Ken Champion. Meanwhile, Evelyn’s straight up crazy brain is spotting ghosts all over.

Facebook:

#CatchAlltheRadiantAnimalSouls (#CARAS)(#TinyHotel): Pinto Naroma discovers the existence of Radiant Animal Souls when his friend Buck tries to shoot him to death for no clear reason out alone in the woods but shoots a tiny tree frog named Pooja instead. Radiant Animal Souls are tiny invisible creatures, various types of real animals, trained by the angelical Salvation Wolves to take a bullet for their assigned protectees. After his little sister Phoebe kills herself, Pinto inherits her Radiant Animal Soul, an Eohippus named Sevastopol. Pinto is also in love with a girl named Melanie Gellar whose Radiant Animal Soul, a giant cave bear, bullies Sevastopol too much, so one day Sevastopol gets fed up, evolves into a Chalicothere, & kills the cave bear. So now that Pinto knows Radiant Animal Souls are transferable, he decides to steal a new one for Melanie. He & his dumb friends Gerald & Luke make a plan to rob Hyde Pastor who, according to rumor, has a whole collection of big cats.

#ColonyoftheHorizontalTree (#CoHT): Colony Colcolson in his younger days was in love with a girl named Melanie Gellar who supposedly died, but he knows she was actually kidnapped by the sky people. He goes on a quest to get her back & discovers a massive valley near the Kingdom of Jamal where Horizontal Trees can detach & become a flying mechanism by which a traveler can go anywhere. The traveler must collect the 13 Marmaleps, half squirrel/half rabbit creatures (who mostly look human) endowed with amazing powers & crippling psychological dysfunctions. Colony has gathered 8 of the 13 Marmaleps with the help of several friends (including Harlan Lime, an expert in tiny floating kingdoms). However, Unicorn God, the King of Jamal, has half the team in his dungeons. Now the Marmaleps & their golem army must plan a daring raid to free their friends (by poisoning the favorite food of the unicorn army: tiny floating kingdoms) & escape on the Horizontal Tree. Here are the 1st 8 Marmaleps:

*Apple Marmalep: A manic depressive record store clerk who causes others to grow or shrink depending on his mood.

*Bobble Marmalep: A megalomaniacal bag of marbles who manipulates chance & causes chaos.

*Cobblestone Marmalep: A socially anxious stormcloud (clearly in love with Colony).

*Dogpaddle Marmalep: A television-headed teleporter afflicted with randomness & poor communication skills.

*Epilepsy Marmalep: hummingbird who projects physicalized dream monsters.

*Far Marmalep: A clumsy matter manipulator who has the bad habit of blowing up planets (she claims she encountered Melanie Gellar in her travels & she’s presently being turned into a planet).

*Garfield Marmalep: A narcissistic disembodied lung with gravity manipulation powers (& he claims to be the leader of the Marmaleps).

*Harbinger: A future-predicting, cynical, & manipulative golem maker who is mostly kind & caring to her subordinates (& claims to be the leader of the Marmaleps).

Liking as an Overvalued Commodity

BEAUTIFUL-pg61-817c1

Often when confronted with the pervasiveness of “liking” in the present culture, from the very small (Facebook posts that must receive a “like” as the highest measure of affirmation) to the way-too-big (valuing a presidential candidate’s “likeablity” over any other more significant virtue) I think of Willy Loman’s obsession with his sons being “well liked”–not that they are good people with fulfilling lives but that they are merely “liked” by others. It’s meant to seem to the audience like the delusional misconception of a man who never lived life well, but I worry about our culture becoming like Willy Loman; we all know how Willy Loman ended up.

In my experience, a particularly worrisome example (in that it worries me about the future of literature) was in my MFA program: a majority of our time was spent on “I like this”/”I don’t like this” conversations and on the equally useless “I don’t get”/”I don’t understand” conversations. Liking and understanding are two commodities that barely register a blip in any decent greatness measure, yet little time was spent outside this realm, and these workshops are run by people who should know better. I even had one workshop leader who took a vote on how many people liked a story. When the vote was roughly half, he proved only that the workshop was populated by human beings. In the preMFA era, great works were born from tumult and passionate resistance from groups of people with deep knowledge and love of one another, the sort of love that comes paradoxically with a concomitant measure of disdain, but throw a dozen disconnected strangers together and no wonder critique has the superficial pointlessness of a Facebook feed.

Don’t get me wrong: liking is valuable, granted, but it is a value so lacking in power and durability it requires hit after hit. It’s why the Facebook feed goes by so fast. It’s why likable novels get consumed in much larger numbers (I think of the way my wife burns through endless romance novels but she’d never profess any passionate love for them). It’s why likable songs get played on repeat. They have to be to get the same high. When the temporary buzz wears off, you hit until there’s nothing but used up husk remaining.

A more substantial and durable love is based on risking being disliked, unsettling, or displeasing. It provides the sort of high that only needs one hit to work but still we crave a constant return.

Conventional wisdom you might hear from educators is that liking lacks significance because it’s only doxa level truth, truth only valid to the individual. A wiser student seeks a truth valid to all. This is great for science and politics and rhetoric, but art (fiction included) is all doxa. It needn’t conform to any truth outside the individual. The real issue is liking is a weak stimulator and the easiest stimulator to elicit and measure and so the province of the lazy. Hence why I call it a comforting stimulator. Snuggling in a teddybear mountain might make you feel happy but the sort of happiness that preludes a nap.

I’m the last one to argue for the total elimination of likability as a consideration. It’s a nice component and perhaps a starting point of any valuable experience. You have to like someone on a first date to even contemplate marriage, but any married person knows liking is such a small component to the more complicated, sometimes hate-filled, but ultimately more rewarding experience of marriage. Likewise, if you dislike a book from the beginning, why continue reading it? But I doubt Thomas Hardy in the composition of Jude the Obscure ever said, “I better tone this down, or I’ll bum out all my readers.” He was more interested in piercing hearts and haunting readers, leaving readers with a sort of masochistic guilt of loving the emotional abuse of death and heartbreak and despair. I doubt Allen Ginsberg ever read the early drafts of Naked Lunch and said, “Sorry to break this to you, Bill, but I doubt it’ll get a thumbs up across the demographic spectrum.” Burroughs was more interested in plumbing the terrible depths of souls and exploring new possibilities of what literature could be. Likability is the last thing on his mind.

I first came to the realization of how little my reading comfort mattered after reading The Fixer by Bernard Malamud. The things that happen in the book to Yakov Bok, a falsely jailed victim of antisemitism in Tzarist Russia, are so unforgivable and horrifying that I yearned for some redemption or exoneration, soldiers swooping into save Yakov and blow away the Tzarist pricks, but the level of torture Yakov endures would require some Inglourious Basterds level revenge. When no such redemption occurred, I was left hating the book. Then I had the revelation: I love the book because it wouldn’t let me go.

Don’t take my choice of examples the wrong way: this is no Great Works Initiative argument. I’m talking about a personal experience that could happen with any type of book. Too often literature is split into oversimplified dualities — the false notion literature requires deeper devotion than superficially pleasing genre fiction, for example — that fail to capture the true complexity of the reading experience. Genre fans know well (better even) the love/hate intensity of fandom. Nerds, by definition, are more likely to describe what they love in terms of loving than liking. For example, Harry Potter fans would never claim to like the emotional torture of the mass good-guy-slaughtering that ramps up as the books progress, but it’s hard to imagine loving the books without this essential ingredient.

This became an issue in a recent book group conversation about the French graphic novel Beautiful Darkness. It’s a massively unsettling book about a dead girl rotting in the woods and the tiny creatures who once populated her body (or mind) now liberated and forced to survive in the woods. Most are unprepared, too dumb or innocent, or too prone to succumb to the worst of human nature, and most fail horrifically in this test of survival. Other members of the  reading group disliked the book for its unsettling qualities, for its lack of answers or redemption or resolution. The group groped for metaphors to explain the tiny creatures, embodied personality traits and so on, but I would consider easy conformity to such metaphors a flaw. I loved the book precisely for its unsettling qualities and its resistance to easy answers.

But this is not the sole province of indie comics; I didn’t really like the other indie comics we read (Essex County, Blankets, Daytripper) for their easy metaphors, for overly comforting endpoints (epiphany, catharsis, resolution, etc.) and characters who failed to elicit much emotion either way. The rest of the group felt the opposite on every point (hence the irrelevance of liking and complete subjectivity of value). For example, Daytripper had a gimmick that could potentially illicit discomfort (and thus passion) but the discomfort is undermined by inorganic arbitrariness and easy conformity to metaphor, leaving little to attach to but a character who may be unlikable but hardly interesting enough to illicit any emotion at all. In other words, it didn’t work for me the way it worked for plenty of others.

Likewise, the comic I nominated for the group as the greatest permutation of the form was The Infinity Gauntlet, a story so quintessentially Marvel Comicsy, all their movies are headed towards it. Marvel Comics is at its height of popularity and thus, set in too many simplistic competitions with so-called deep/serious work, is often accused of the sort of weak likability of superficial crowd pleasing. While I could argue this is rarely ever true of Marvel Comics (a long and complicated argument I’d love to have with you one day) this is certainly not true with The Infinity Gauntlet. The hero of the story is a genocidal maniac. Every conventionally heroic moment (from the conventionally heroic supposed heroes opposing the true hero) ends in death and helplessness. The bad guy/hero is so complete in his victory that when the reversal comes (because of course a reversal will come) and the conventional good guys win, it seems like the only thing that can defeat the villain is deep rooted insecurity and the inevitability of hero victory within the form, turning the villain into a tragic hero and justice into injustice. There’s little simple or superficially pleasing about it. In a great story like this, liking and disliking are flavors working with or against each other to enhance the overall greatness of the piece while more substantial commodities that risk displeasing through intensity have a greater capacity to forever haunt a reader’s life.

The Porpentine Sisters :oR: The Purity of Raining Rainbow Corpses

Milly Triple Sixes had a sister named Josie Porpentine though none of her friends knew she had any family at all. Milly (according to Josie’s accusations) failed to come home for Christmas ever since she dedicated her life to (fake) Satanism. Josie revealed this lack of a Christmas return embarrassingly to Milly’s whole (fakely) Satanic rock band (Raining Rainbow Corpses) during one (random) garage practice (given greater importance (by Milly) considering the impending regional band battle (Band Battle at the End of Everything)). Josie was dressed in thoroughly unSatanic business attire. She could’ve been a legitimate business lady or a librarian or a senator, displaying the sort of conformity (at least according to this first impression) Raining Rainbow Corpses was supposed to rail against, but all in all she seemed like a nice and decent lady.

The problem was (at least according to Milly) Raining Rainbow Corpses might one day have fans. If these Christmas visits became common knowledge among these (fakely) Satan-worshipping fan legions, this would ruin her reputation for bedevilment and badassery (should that reputation ever actually come to fruition).

“It’s what good people do!” was the sort of thing Josie Porpentine would say between screams with the sort of passion incongruous with her put-together demeanor (but similar to Milly’s passion in screaming about “Bastards of Corporate America” (or whatever she screamed about in her ultraSatanic screamery)).

“Fans of Satanic rock bands don’t tolerate anything to do with Christmas!” was the sort of thing (or nonsensical blather (depending on your perspective)) Milly screamed back at her sister (with unsurprising volume).

Chastity Schwartzbaum, the bassist for Raining Rainbow Corpses, told a blushing Milly, “Our hypothetical future fans will understand if you indulge in some seasonal family love.”

“No,” screamed Milly Triple Sixes (though her voice was scream-scarred from the hours of practice she mandated and finally started to show it). “This band is our only family now!”

“Don’t be offended if I fail to actually live like that, the whole family abandonment thing seems a bit icky to me,” said Chastity holding an over-big bass she was not yet used to holding. “I mean bass playing is a weekend thing for me. I love it like a Victorian novel cousin maybe.”

“Few can live up to rock purity,” said Milly in a calmer voice. “I’m no one to judge.”

Chastity’s objection was thusly shut down with only mild condescension. Besides, this conversation between Milly and Chastity only punctuated more explosive fits between the two Porpentine sisters.

By the way (because it seemed like a by-the-way sort of thing) Josie had strapped to her belly by babycarrier a robot plush with long limp dangly arms. Why would otherwise-business-like-demeanor lady carry a plush in this way (like harajuku girls)(or like a baby-less lady who lost her mind and carried dolls around as void filler)(or like–not really like anything Chastity had seen before)?

Josie said, “Your sister wants to sing in your show” (now referring to herself in third person to further the sense of incongruity?)(or perhaps there was a third Porpentine sister?)(It was fascinating how the squarest person in the room could be the most baffling.)

Milly said, “Did Doohickey tell you this herself, or is this classic Milly emotional torture time?”

“She said it’s her only Christmas wish.”

Then the robot plush piped in, “It’s my only Christmas wish.”

A few things now made more sense while a lot of things made a lot less sense. This little robot plush was called Doohickey (Chastity (at least) pieced this together) and she was the third Porpentine sister. Why Milly’s little sister looked like a robot plush was still a mystery, but it seemed rude to ask. (“It has to be a birth defect,” Chastity told herself. “What could it be other than a robot plush birth defect?”)

“Hush now, Doohickey. I got this handled,” Josie said and patted the robot plush like a pet on a belly harness.

Milly said, “I can’t let Doohickey sing in my band. That’s never something I’m ever going to allow to happen as long as I’m alive.”

Josie said, “Why? What reason could you have other than your outsized bitterness about all the world’s crimes against you? For that reason, you’d deny your sister’s one wish, the only thing she’s ever requested in her life?”

Milly (despite all her rock and roll bravado and rage that led so easily to any silent space being filled with her ragey sound no matter how senseless) failed to answer.

The Lava Sisters piped in at this point (Chastity could never tell the Lava Sisters apart (though one played drums and one played guitar, they became a unified entity while standing side by side)): “Milly has never been well acquainted with reality. She’s only so desperate because the Prophet will be at the concert.” (The Lava Sisters always seemed like transcendent entities, like doubling was only a secondary function of their deity status, so mentioning the Prophet seemed only to naturally flow from their lips.)

Josie said, “Who’s the Prophet?”

The Lava Sisters (whichever one) said, “The Prophet is only the local music critic. There’s a lot of onlys in this situation that highlight Milly’s complaint as ridiculous: 1) The Prophet is only a Milly-like self-aggrandizer; 2) it’s only a Band Battle at the End of Everything, not like a real concert any real human would respect; 3) we only got in because we paid a fee; 4) we’ll only be the first of a dozen, and real bands will be headlining. This argument is purely your variety of idiocy, Milly. Let’s let your sister sing. It’s not like she’d be much worse than you. This is a four person band after all, and that’s two votes to one.” (Chastity couldn’t tell at what point they were speaking in unison.)

Milly Triple Sixes stared at the Lava Sisters (whom she’d known since all of them were smaller than Doohickey) with all the Satanic power she could manage to force through her eyeballs: “You don’t know the Porpentines” (one of many falsehoods (presumably (since Milly was full of so many)) but something about this seemed truer than the rest). Milly then turned her Milly gaze to Chastity (the new girl (the one who knew everybody the least)) and said, “What’s your vote, Chastity? Two votes to two makes it a tie, and I’m the tie breaker as the band leader.”

Chastity opened her mouth but had nothing to say. All of it left her boggled and blank. Whatever followed and all its tragedy was now piled on Chastity Schwartzbaum.

Doohickey did sing at the Band Battle at the End of Everything. She sang “Santa Baby,” too low to even make out the words (uncertain of how microphones work or incapable of holding one properly in limp arms). The audience laughed (uncertain of the type of irony applicable in the situation). Even the Prophet laughed. Milly and Josie stood in the back, powerless against the laughter, except for Milly to mutter “Idiots” and “Assholes” too low for anyone but Josie to hear her (more certain than anyone). Chastity could read her lips from stage and knew exactly what she was saying (uncertain of whether it was for the audience or the rest of the band). She and the Lava Sisters likewise did nothing to save poor Doohickey. They barely knew music to begin with, so improvising “Santa Baby” was sapping most of their mental and emotional energy (they usually let Milly’s rage cover any deficiencies).

Doohickey’s voice faltered like she was finally feeling the emotional effect of the laughter (a barelyfalter but the tragedy was unmistakable). She couldn’t leave the stage (legs too limp (hence why Josie carried her everywhere)) but it was Milly this time who rushed to lift her, pushed through the laughing crowd, slung Doohickey over her shoulder like a baby and walked out to the alley, angrier now at everyone than she’d ever been (Doohickey: “I liked it.” Milly: “Stop lying!”) and stomped like she could break the stones beneath her.

Chastity followed her out to the alley and tried to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t even consider the laughing.” But Milly was too fast and too monolithic a force to ever hear something so pitiful (and none of this was about Chastity anyway).

Then Josie passed Chastity, grabbed Doohickey out of Milly’s arms. Milly had no choice but to relent (she was the weaker one)(Chastity imaged a tugging that would tear the little sister’s body to pieces (but of course that wasn’t the real Milly Porpentine)(she became nothing but a crumbleheap the way Doohickey might’ve been had anyone resisted)).

Josie disappeared (as Doohickey’s little voice said “Merry Christmas” to all the new band friends she made) into whatever mysterious and purposeful life she lived.

Milly stood there (Chastity stood behind her) with nothing to say to shatter the world or the pure and silent and cold winter white around her.

The Principles of Particulate Stimulation (a Theory of How to Make and Understand Art)

I developed the system/concept I call “particulate stimulation” as, I hope, a practical tool for fiction writers – a way to understand the internal mechanisms of fiction’s interaction with the reader – but I believe these concepts are applicable to all the arts and to serious criticism as well (since I have yet to encounter a critical strategy that approaches the arts in this way).

In short, the concept rests on the notion that the primary, irreducible value in fiction (or in any experience of the arts) is in the direct stimulation of the reader (viewer, audience, etc.) that breaks down the barrier between self and other. This is an essentially irrational, gut-level act, so the irrational and the gut-level understanding of fiction (and other arts) is favored as a primary value. I call this value “primary” and “irreducible” because it is the first value to consider – whether or not it is the greatest value is up to the individual – and it is the one value that remains once other values are eliminated. If one were to ask “Is this piece of fiction (etc) good?” and “Why is it good?” one might name a large number of possible values, but if one were to say “Without this value, could this be good?” or “In the history of fiction (or art), has an example of a good work existed without this value?” and eliminate values in this manner one by one, the only one remaining would be stimulation. For example, values such as meaning, reflection of philosophical/social concepts, or universal model of behavior might be cited as a story’s source of value, but could a story be valuable without any of these? Yes, of course it could. However, could a story be valuable devoid of stimulation? Unlikely. So, in the practical sense of optimizing this irreducible value, the writer then considers them secondary. The role of meaning or social reflection, for example, becomes a secondary function to how these factors optimize stimulation.

The writer must also understand how the drive toward stimulation and the irrational breakdown in barriers between self and other meets the contradictory drive to eliminate stimulation (I simplify these forces below as “The Gut” and “The Mind”). To load a story with excessive emotions or completely irrational oddities, for example, might meet with the mind’s resistance to emotions and oddities, including the complex array of mental mechanisms designed for this resistance (such as subordination and categorization). To optimize the stimulation, the writer must strategically recognize these mechanisms for resistance and craft accordingly – to evade the gatekeepers, in other words.

This concept was designed to compensate for the massive deficiencies in my own creative writing education in which teachers would rely on superficial truisms or false universals without the capacity to explain or justify them. It was like teaching a cooking class by naming all the pots and pans but giving no clear understanding of flavors and the interaction between flavors. Following clichés like “show, don’t tell” might make a story more snappy, but why? I never got a good explanation, so I had to come up with one of my own: concrete imagery engages the gut while abstract narration engages the mind.

That being said, here is a simplified list of various factors to consider in understanding Particulate Stimulation:

Overview:

The Mind: Designed to eliminate stimulation (e.g. danger, discomfort, etc.) through:

  • Subordination (creating a hierarchy to organize the chaos)
  • Abstraction (elevation into the undying ideal)
  • Turning the irrational into symbols/metaphors
  • Categorization/Separation (favoring the safe over the dangerous)
  • Resolution of mystery

The Gut: Seeks stimulation (food, sex, mortal danger, etc.) by eliminating barriers between self and other (leading the reader to vicarious experiences):

  • Danger/fear
  • Rage
  • Desire
  • Gratification of physical needs (food, sex, etc.)
  • Unresolved mystery
  • Happy feelings (to a lesser extent)

Comfort/Discomfort: Though the mind seeks elimination of stimulation, one type of stimulation it accepts is comfort.

The Mind: Comforting stimulators:

  • Brief bursts of stimulation:
    • Conflict resolution
    • Mystery resolution
    • Fulfillment of desires
    • Epiphany
    • Catharsis (the false notion that art exists solely to eliminate stimulation)
  •  Function often as coda to end a story
  • Often mistaken as the main point of the story

The Gut: Discomforting stimulators:

  • More sustained source of stimulation throughout a story
  • A majority of the value is in optimizing discomfort
  • But also doing so without the mind rejecting the text (in its need for comfort)

Imagery:

The Mind:

  • Favors abstraction.
  • Concrete imagery is subordinate to abstract ideas.
  • Images stand in for or “mean” something

The Gut:

  • Parataxis: The juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated image without a directly stated connection.
  • Dislocation (the surrealist version of parataxis): Disconnected images dislocate the viewer/reader from the present world, create a dreamlike effect

Characters:

The Mind: A character:

  • Stands in as a universal model
  • Represents the human condition
  • Learns a lesson so we can learn a lesson
  • Leads to vicarious catharsis
  • Resolves paradoxes.

The Gut:

  • Driven by irrational desire
  • Full of unresolved paradox
  • “Negative Capability”: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”—John Keats

Repetition:

The Mind:

  • Mechanical Repetition:
    • Copies must be exact to eliminate possibility of failure/danger
    • This creates a diminishing return as stimulation reduces with each copy)

The Gut:

  • Organic Repetition:
    • Another stimulating irrational paradox: both unique and of a pattern
    • Repetition of some patterns while remaining individual (as with any living being) indicates the presence of life without overt mental control
    • The rule of threes: 2 occurrences might be coincidences and 4 verges on mechanical repetition, so 3 indicates the presence of life.
    • The most pleasing music has been historically based on a 3 part pattern