Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Another Thought About Writing

Here are two things that very few people should ever attempt in novels: genius characters and descriptions of sex. Someone who is not a genius cannot write genius. I think that if I were a writer I might - might - be able to write a side character who was a genius by describing as exactly as possible the two geniuses I've known in my life. (What's that, Pete? Oh, sorry. Three. Three geniuses. Thanks, Pete.) I don't know that I could write that character as saying very much, but I could describe how s/he sat while watching TV or eating steak. But I would never - in a million years! - attempt to write, a) a first-person novel about a genius, or b) a novel where one of the main, speaking characters is a genius. This is one of my major criticisms of The Di Vinci Code: there wasn't a single "puzzle" in that book that was in the least bit difficult to solve. And yet the characters - one of whom is a genius cryptographer, the best in France!, and another of whom is a genius "symbologist" ::grumblegnashhiss&spit:: - were totally mystified! Here is the deal, Authors Of The World: if you are not a genius (and please, seek outside verification on this, and not from your mother), and you can figure out the solution to a puzzle you have created, then Q.E.D., it does not take a genius to figure it out. And it's insulting to your reader to imply as much!

And the sex thing... I cannot think of a single book in which I've read a really detailed sex scene and thought, "Man, now this is art!" But I can think of plenty of times when I've thought, "Man, now this is embarrassing!" Here are the books that spring immediately to mind where this phenomenon is concerned: Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M. Auel (and any of the sequels, for that matter; I've heard Plans of Passage is essentially pornography, but I couldn't even make it through The Mammoth Hunters); and The Mists of Avalon, Marion Bradley (and any of the sequels or prequels). If you have read a truly beautifully written sex scene in a book, please suggest it! But if tongues swirl anatomy in moist detail or ladies that are just deep enough for their lovers' giant johnsons, I will seriously question your taste.


The book I'm currently reading (The Historian) violates both of these precepts (or "fiats," if you prefer). There are no puzzles, but the side characters make very prosaic observations about things historical and the main character frequently comments on how he is "astounded" by the "quickness" of someone's mind, the "breadth" of their "intellect," or their "genius." And while one reference to a sex scene is very tasteful - more like a movie montage of provocative images - the other is a pseudo-sex scene (in that sex doesn't actually result) and involves "adolescent fumbling" and an "ugly white brassier." I mean really! It just leads me to believe that the author has never actually had sex and has never seen a movie with a rating higher than PG-13. And that makes it embarrassing, the way fan fiction is embarrassing. It's like a window into how she wishes her 16-year old life had been, or how her first time with her True Love had been/would be. And I don't need that window, because it's not an autobiography; it's a work of fiction with sci-fi/fantasy overtones that seriously stretches the limits of my suspension of disbelief.

Anyway, The Historian is like 600 pages long, I'm on page 444 and I've just been tearing through it (because the story is more interesting than the writing is bad/embarrassing, even if it's a stretch) so I've been thinking about this a lot. I have a high tolerance for crap: I read all but one of the Ender's Game sequels. (If that offends you, I... wait, no. I don't apologize. If that offends you, you enjoy bad novels. Sorry, but I'm pretty sure this is empirical truth. Okay, okay... Ender's Shadow wasn't so bad. Geez!) And I read a ton of Star Wars novels and a lot of fantasy novels, and let's face it, many of the latter are soft core for geeky adolescent girls. "I am a witch who rides a unicorn - don't fondle my heaving boozums, Mister Night Elf! Oh, your tumescent manhood - I mean elfhood - is too much for me! Make me a woman, sexy mythical creature! Take me now, before my unicorn gores you!"


Joseph said...

I think that your point can be generalized to the broader "Don't tell me what to think, asshole" rule of writing. That being, if your character is supposed to have some sort of behavioral attribute (intelligence, wittiness, what-have-you), that damn well better come across in your writing. I'm not just going to take the author's word for it.

It also bugs me that "genius" in books (and pop-culture in general) is broadly defined as "can solve puzzles". I've met a few people that would probably qualify as geniuses -- and sure, they're probably better at little logic games than most -- but they're geniuses because of their amazing skill at their field of choice, not because they can figure out how to open up a little combination lock, or whatever. I suppose that's a fairly vague point, but it bugs me anyway.

Eric said...

Oh I get it, the answer was APPLE, despite the fact that that story was apocryphal and I should know better. It's all so obvious now.

Frankly, I could do with more pulpy middle-school style sex scenes in books. At least it keeps me reading. And how could you go this whole post without using 'turgid'?

Sydney said...

Joseph, I totally agree with you! This book was very similar in that obvious, minor "leaps" of logic were treated as brilliant analyses and discussed as though learning is essentially collecting puzzle pieces and then fitting them together, and the ability to take one puzzle piece from a shelf and another from a drawer and see that they fit! well, that's genius. Forgive the Harry Potter reference, but I think Dumbledore is one of the best written "geniuses" I've read. And you're right: Rowling never tells you what to think! She never says, "Also, he's the smartest, best, most genius amazing wizard ever!" She has the kids say things like, "I heard my folks say he's the greatest wizard whats ever lived." And other kids say, "I heard my mum say he's barmy!" But ultimately it's that he always knows what to do, is always one step ahead, and never says, "I told you so."

Eric - did you suffer through the "DaVinci Code"? Here are some other anagrams of "Mona Lisa" that I think would have make the book more interesting:

No Salami - Imagine: an Opus Dei Deli!
Lama Ions - No, the Holy Grail wasn't some dumb skellington, but rather mystical ions from the Himalayas that the Sharper Image can use to groom your cat!
A Man's Oil - Tee hee! That sounds dirty!
Anal Is Om - Also from an Eastern Tradition.
La Maison - Yes, the Holy Grain is a whole house! You know the secret!
Masa Loin - Instructions for nirvana.
Masa Lion - Instructions for a fun buffet centerpiece. You see, the Bible really is practical!
So Manila! - Yes, DaVinci really wanted you to know that the lady he was painting had recently returned from the Philippines and was acting "So Manila!" but he also didn't want to lose his commission. He should have thought of that before he decided to work on it for years and years and then die before it was finished!

What? Too soon?

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

hmmm, I'm nearly done with D.H.Lawrence's "Lady Chatterly's Lover" which is known its for graphic sexual nature and I think it does describe some sex scenes well. I mean, I think it describes lovers well --as they lay around naked and laugh and talk, for instance-- and DH Lawrence knows when to dispence with the details of sex scenes and leave things to the reader's imagination. That said, it is also very graphic in parts but I think it's those parts that drive home the book's message about how lust for money and industrialization have killed our ability to love each other, physically, emotionally or otherwise. It's a sexually graphic book, but hardly a happy romance.

Sydney said...

I have to say that I was totally disappointed with Lady Chatterly's Lover. It was one of the many "great" or "classic" books I read in France (because I had no TV and actually took the time to get past the "old timey language" barrier). I was all psyched because it was a "naughty" book and had been banned and I was gonna see what all the fuss was about. At first I was thrilled to learn where "the bitch goddess success" came from. But the more I read, the more disappointed I was that this was the book so scandalous it was still banned in some (probably Southern) libraries. I mean, missionary position, Mr. Lawrence? Seriously? I'm sure he'd be all like, "I know! Can you believe how up tight everyone was back then?"

But you're right - and I had forgotten this! - those sex scenes were well and tastefully written. They weren't as scandalous as I had expected - which was disappointing, because banned books should always at least be worth banning, in my opinion. But it was well written and had it not gained a reputation as a "naughty" book it probably would be one of those things they make you read in Senior English so you can talk about "metaphor" and "this modern world."