John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright

Listen to your Mother, Mr. Sawyer!

As an exercise in hubris, nothing is funnier than a midlist author telling a toplist author how to write. Nonetheless, as a public service, and to gratify an impulse to venture an opinion where and when none is called-for, I offer the following:

Read here for an interview by the perfectly cromulent author John Scalzi of the author Robert Sawyer, one of the giants in the field. 

 Normally, I would tell any would-be author to follow Robert Sawyer's advice on writing. But at one place he advises something which (1) I myself do and (2) has harmed my writing. Therefore I would like to warn people away from it. He is the quote:

SCALZI: Share a piece of advice you’ve been given about writing.

SAWYER: This was the most important of all, and I was lucky enough to get it early on. My friend Terence M. Green – who went on to be a two-time World Fantasy Award finalist, although he himself was just starting out when he told me this in 1986 – said, after reading one of my manuscripts, “Rob, you’ve got to stop worrying about what your mother will think if she reads your work.”

Like a lot of writers, I’d been pulling my punches: my characters were saying “darn” instead of – and, look, here I am pulling back again – the F-word. And people who should have been having sex in a detailed scene that was crucial to the story (as, for instance, the first Neanderthal/Homo sapiens coupling in my Humans is, or the sex between the rejuvenated now-physically 25-year-old man and his still physically 87-year-old wife in Rollback is) were instead getting it on off-screen in my early works. You have to be willing to lay yourself bare, lay your characters bare, and tell the truth. If you start worrying about what people who know you will say – or worry that people who don’t know you will think that you’re writing autobiography – you’re cheating your readers.

Okay, first, I really, really do not want to read about the sex between the people in 25-year-old and the 87-year-old bodies, not in any detail, not if the description is involving any descriptions of any bodily fluids of any kind.

 Second, this is a trap, and I speak as an author who has fallen into it.

 In my latest and greatest book, I have a character with a potty mouth, who speaks the way he speaks because it was authentic to the character and because I write with no concern for public opinion. I simply did not think my Mother or anyone I knew would read my books: she is not a science fiction fan. I have a teenage-or-twentysomething character who is suffering from hormonal overdose because that is the way I think teenager-or-twentysomethings act. I have a number of cheesecake scenes because I like cheesecake—Oh la la and viva la difference. I have a character who is a monstrous pervert, in addition to being a monstrous monster.

 Well, it harmed the book. I was shocked when I read an online review written by some fifteen year old schoolgirl: I am hoping she is innocent enough not to have noticed what kind of thing she was exposed to. I don't want kids to read this stuff.

 The other thing that happened, which I did not expect, is that some readers simply misread the book—which is to say that your humble author was not clear enough. The main plot point that drives the action is that the characters are adults who are being kept past their age of majority in an orphanage by bad guys who have destroyed all record of the age of their charges. If you look at the clues in the book, you can figure out that the youngest must be at least eighteen, the oldest over twenty-three. But the bad guys tell the twenty-one year old, for example, that she is sixteen, and so some readers are creeped out when grown men roll a lusty eye at her, because she is 'underage.' Well, sorry, that was not the author's meaning. (Indeed, if the orphans had still been underage, there would have been no plot, because they would have been below the age of majority and therefore would have had no right to leave the orphanage, and no conspiracy needed to imprison them.) I just did not expect readers to believe the lies of the Bad Guys: when my main character is told she is sixteen, the reader is supposed to wonder why the Bad Guy thinks he can get away with such an outrageous lie. This is the character who can solve fourth-dimensional geometry equations in her head, not something most sixteen year olds have studied. I should have had him tell her she was twelve, to make it clear.

 But let us not get off topic.

 "You have to be willing to lay yourself bare, lay your characters bare, and tell the truth"—fine. Good advice. Follow it. But it is merely a lie that being honest means being crude, graphically sexual, impolite, offensive, creepy or nauseating. When someone wants to write filth, the idea that they are "just being honest" is the excuse he uses.

 Stick with Darn It. Or, if you are writing science fiction, you can say Gorram, or Frell, Frack, Tanj, Taxes, or even Noy Jitat! Those are shiny words. Lily, cobber?

 Have you ever watched in movie aboard an airplane, where they dub over cleaner swearwords for PG and PG-13 films, and actually paused and thought: "Gee, this film would be better, more of an artistic masterpiece, if only they had fucktified it up with more crapocetic Anglo-Saxon words! Why isn't the hero swearing up a blue streak?" –? Perhaps you have. I have not. When the four-letter words are missing, I do not miss them.

 The standards of clean language rise and fall, and at the current day we are in the middle of a trough. Anything written to be 'normal' by our current (diseased) standards will be unacceptable in one generation, or whenever the cultural pendulum swings back. Anything written according to an older and cleaner standard, will be able to be read with pleasure by any generation.

 There is a process going on in this country analogous to the "dumbing down" we see in public schools. Let us call it "filthing down." Sometimes with malice aforethought, and sometimes without malice aforethought, authors and playwrights set about to coarsen the public.

 Here is how it works. Some of it is unintentional. You say "Badass" a few dozen times, and by the 144 th repeat of the word, you no longer realize you are saying a word women and children should not hear.

 Some of it is intentional. Women, driven insane with the modern fashion to be as unfeminine as possible as quickly as possible, now go out of their way to talk like sailors and drill-sergeants. It's not pretty. Some of it is intentional and zealous. Sexual perversion becomes not merely a mental or moral disorder, but a Noble Cause to be trumpeted and spread, and every effort is made to make it seem normal.

 Some of it is actually called for. When Rhett leaves Scarlet at the end of GONE WITH THE WIND, I think he really should swear there, even though the audience of the day was shocked. The scene was meant to be shocking. "Frankly my dear, I don't give a darn." Just does not make the cut. The problem is, that seven decades later, the damn swearword appears in every damned place whenever some damned fool wants to swear, dammit, and I have no word to use when I want to refer to those souls who are cast into the Inferno because the Wrath of God has determined their fate, and it is not salvation nor purgatory.

 Well, if you live in such an environment, it all starts to seem normal to you, and the people with standards seem as odd as Martians, and their objections seem either exaggerated, arbitrary, or, worse, reactionary—as if they are not loyal to the Noble Cause. 

 The filthing down operates on a ratchet. To go from refined to coarse is easy; all it takes is a relaxation of standards. To go from coarse to refined is work. And it is work that will be opposed.

 Where the Standard of having no standards is flown, the troops will rally. The egotism and the loyalty of the pro-Filthers is engaged. Normal people, right guys, are actually offended even by an abstract discussion of whether we should have standards or not. People who would never say the word 'niggardly', people who call a Negro from France 'A French African-American' (I wonder what they call a Sioux living in French Africa?), will lecture you in vexed outrage merely for suggesting that words relating to the scatological, theological, or reproductive indelicacies ought not be placed into the public discourse. They think you are being too sensitive. They think that being polite is an aggressive insult.

 Those who are loyal to neither camp, but merely wish the status quo to rest undisturbed, will side with the pro-Filth faction, because, once it seems normal, the objections of the anti-Filth faction seem arbitrary.

 So far, dear readers, not one person has complimented me for my Sawyerly indifference to public standards and my unflinching artistic honesty in portraying the character's potty mouth as exactly as the muse presented it to me. I have, on the other hand, run across more than one reviewer whose opinions I deeply respect who speak with reluctant distaste about the creepiness of some of my scenes. It hinders their enjoyment of the book. Such scenes are a distraction from what I meant the point of the book to be: I shot myself in the foot with my so-called bold artistic honesty.

 Meanwhile, I could not finish reading either OLYMPOS by Simmons nor THE SYSTEM OF THE WORLD by Stephenson nor PERDIDO STREET STATION by My Evil (or whatever his name is—I assume he is Scott Evil's brother) merely because the bad language was too distasteful to me.

 My reading time is limited; I do not enjoy reading swearwords, and I do not owe it to the author to put up with their particular verbal peculiarities: I buy books to entertain me, not them. The burden is on them to please my book-buying tastes; the burden is not on the public to have its tastes alter to suit the Artiste. The author is the employee of the book-buying public, and authors who think they have a higher and finer mission in life, authors like David Lindsay, tend to die in poverty and obscurity like David Lindsay.  Never heard of him? He was an author who was greater in creative genius than any other science fiction author, but he thought he had a mission.

 Clarke, Asimov and A.E. van Vogt were somehow able to write award-winning books without dipping deeply into the septic tank area of their vocabulary. Even Heinlein could do it, when he was writing juveniles.

 Pull your punches, Mr. Sawyer, gosh darn it! I pick up your books for the ideas and for the science fiction sense-of-wonder, not to have my ear dragged into the gutter where the cool people live.


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  • Dr Strange!

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  • Peace on Mars, Good Will Toward Puppies

    Mr. George RR Martin expresses hope that the coming Hugo season will not be characterized by rancor: So in the spirit of the season, I am going to…

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