Have some taste

In which I try to define serious art and alienate Firely and Megadeth fans

My quest as a writer, and to a larger extent as a reviewer, reader, and participant in aesthetic culture, is mostly consumed with figuring out what distinguishes one work from another in terms of a very hard-to-define quality. Whether I am socializing around music, science, or science fiction, there are certain qualities that distinguish one fan from another and the reflection of those qualities in the works that we socialize around. There is some criterion by which I look at music, movies, television shows, short stories, and novels, that reflects its quality better than anything else, yet this criterion is not specifically related to execution of the story or music.  It’s often not a matter of skill, but of choices made by the artist of what to talk about, or what to take seriously.  It’s very hard to place, but I think I have arrived at calling it “taste.”

Definitions drive me crazy. I got really pissed off at my college philosophy teacher (not professor, I think he was a graduate student) because he wouldn’t define evil for me. He wanted to talk about evil all the time, and a large portion of the class focused on evil, but all he would say when I asked him to define evil was “I think we can all agree that Hitler was evil.” Sure, but we couldn’t all agree on whether abortion was evil, which I suppose was why we were still in class and he still had a job. I had just come from declaring a major in mathematics and I wanted rock-hard definitions, but often the most difficult, interesting, or useful criteria are very hard to define and best sought through examples.

But before I get to alienating everyone by pointing out artists who I think have no taste, let me clarify with two rules.

  1. Taste is not subjective. I looked up “what is good taste” on Google (a fount of useful information! #sarcasm) and right away came up with the answer that “it means you have the same taste in music as the person who said you have good taste in music.” That is nonsense. Agreement isn’t the best criterion, but just as we can all agree that Hitler was evil, we can mostly agree that Madonna was superior to Britney Spears. You may not like Lady Gaga, but I’ll bet you agree she is easier to take seriously as an artist than Katy Perry. Taste is related to qualities that are subjective, like preferences with respect to genre and style, but it is not the same as genre or style, or quality of execution. There is bad music in every genre, and there is good music in most. 
  2. Taste is not ethical. Taste is an aesthetic choice, not about right or wrong. I don’t think there’s anything ethically wrong with having bad taste, nor do I think it reflects on a person’s moral character.  If you want to like Firefly, that is up to you (but I probably won’t try to have any serious discussions with you).
  3. There’s a difference between bad taste and in poor taste. Plenty of works are done by people with no taste, but that doesn’t mean they’re offensive. I am artistically offended by Firefly, but it’s not offensive in the sense that sandals with socks are offensive.

Now that I’ve gotten rid of those pesky Firefly devotees, let me give you a more in-depth example of what I mean by taste. And just so you know that this is not about me having good taste, and you liking Phish, I will discuss below why having good taste can be redemptive, and why all artists should therefore strive for it.

I first heard heavy metal music when I was a kid in the eighties, but in 1986 I heard of the sub-genre of speed metal, of which there were two great bands, Metallica and Megadeth (there were two other groups that dominated the genre, Anthrax and Slayer, who I will only briefly mention because I only briefly listened to them). In 1989 I heard what many of you will remember as the watershed moment in the breakout of speed metal from an underground, mostly European subgenre to a mainstream, if still scary, type of music in heavy rotation on MTV.

Metallica’s video for “One” was a huge hit that paved the way for the coming grunge wave two years later, and consider why: subject matter. MTV in 1989 was a wasteland of what we now call “hair metal,” and bad pop music that no one remembers. I mean I really can’t remember any of the pop music, but I remember at least the aesthetic of the hair metal, which no one would consider “metal” today. A few weeks ago I watched Wayne’s World with my boys, and I love that movie, but if you want to remember what music was like before Nirvana and Metallica’s Black Album, watch that movie. It’s totally forgettable, and only a few bands on the soundtrack made it through to 1992.

So in 1989, music was mostly fluff, and then Metallica came out with a video about a young man who’s had his arms and legs blown off by a landmine and can only communicate by nodding his head in morse code. The video incorporated footage from the film Johnny Got His Gun starring Jason Robards, and was over seven minutes long, something usually reserved for re-airings of “Thriller.” And it was pure speed metal.  “One” is not a power ballad, it’s not even “Fade to Black,” which is a power ballad. “One” builds up to a thundering bridge with heavily-distorted layered power chords over a double bass roll that extends into over three minutes (the length of a typical video at the time) of thrashing guitar solos while we watch the subject of the video begging to die. “Kill me,” he nods. “Please kill me.”

A lot of people took the easiest message, which was anti-war, and I’m not denying that it is, as much of Metallica’s music was broadly anti-war, but not from a liberal/hippy perspective that war is evil because of moral relativism. Metallica wasn’t above moral relativism, but the deeper philosophical issue that they brought up in this video was of a man trapped in his own body: what is communication? What does it mean to relate to another human being? Can you do that without speaking? What would you ask for if you were in that situation? We take it for granted that everyone wants to go on living, but woul dyou want to if you were locked in your body with no way out? I was ten years old, and Metallica–a frickin’ heavy metal band–got me thinking about these questions.

Yes, Metallica, who weren’t above mooning the audience and whose lead singer had “Eet fuk” written on his BC Rich guitar, got young people thinking. They also got me interested in literature, including the Bible. I’m not the only one. I was substitute teaching in Wellesley, Massachussetts a few years back, and the high school put on a production of “Johnny Got His Gun.” Walking back from the auditorium, I heard a couple of teachers saying what a good performance it was.  “Have you read the book?” asked the guy on the right. “No, but I’ve seen that Metallica video” was the response.

Metallica introduces young people to the literary wonders of the Old Testament.

Yes, they were mooning the audience (that was the drummer, of course), and swilling beer, and throwing their hair all over the place, but only the most superficial of fans didn’t ask what those songs were about. Especially with a video like “One” where the meaning was obvious, people were eager to find out more about what the lyrics were about (which can’t be separated effectively from the music as a whole, see below about Megadeth).

Let’s remember this was 1989 and if eighty percent of the people in that crowd weren’t regular church-goers at the time of the concert, they were as little kids. They knew the story of Exodus. In the crowd-participation-focused bridge of “Creeping Death,” when the crowd is shouting “Die! Die! Die! Motherfucker!” even I have faith that most people know what they’re shouting about, and it’s really deep stuff, at the very least it’s something from classic literature. And all of Metallica’s material in the 1980s was of this caliber: they wrote songs about the death penalty, and the rape of lady justice, and suicide, and war, and nuclear war, and drug addiction, and war, H.P. Lovecraft, and insanity, and war, religious hypocrisy, and The Bible (of all things).

And that brings me to “The Four Horsemen,” another Biblically-themed song. As you can guess, it’s about the apocalypse, death, famine, pestilence, and time. And it kicks ass. For those of you who don’t know the story, upon getting a record contract Metallica replaced their lead guitarist Dave Mustaine, the writer of many of the songs on their first album, with Kirk Hammett, who is still with the band after eighty-seven years. Rhythm guitarist James Hetfield took over as the major writer of lyrics and, with drummer Lars Ulrich’s help, gave us all the deep themes I mention above. Before “The Four Horsemen” was rewritten, it was called “The Mechanics,” and it was about … car mechanics. A friend of mine surprised me in high school with an elusive demo of this song before it acquired its Biblical subject matter, and it was incredibly stupid to listen to. The positively dumb subject matter completely eroded the song’s ass-kicking qualities by interrupting the mood with superficial values and immature lyrics. It was no better than AC/DC, when most of us held Metallica to be the artistic equal of Richard Wagner (the composer, not the guitarist). 

This brings me to Megadeth: when Mustaine was fired by Metallica, he quickly formed another band, which was held by many to be second only to Metallica. The reason they were second to Metallica ought to be clear from Megadeth’s poor choices of subject matter. Dave Mustaine had no taste. Let’s take “Wake Up Dead” as an example.

Megadeth: this song is about … what? Wait, is that guy wearing a Metallica T-shirt?

I know Megadeth tried, with Peace Sells…but Who’s Buying? and so on, but they couldn’t pull it off. Whereas Metallica were accused of being the alcoholic, devil-worshipping aggressive fantasy of post-pubescent boys, Megadeth actually was, and not much more. You could say that Megadeth effected an aesthetic, whereas Metallica’s songs were actually deep, and there’s an element of execution in that: notice how Dave Mustaine doesn’t really sing, he sort of groans and croaks until the next guitar solo. I don’t believe they really mean it, the same way the people on Firefly looked like they were taking part in a big joke. Megadeth did an impression of writing songs about deep topics, and Metallica actually pulled it off. Even when Metallica decided to be a hard rock band instead of a heavy metal band, they were still writing about heavy topics.

And this is the distinguishing characteristic of good taste that I’ve been able to extract so far: art done with good taste touches on themes that are central to the human condition, or it at least asks questions that are relevant to universal human experience. Heavy metal music, to be done in good taste, cannot simply thrash; literature and drama cannot simply be people running for their lives. It has to ask questions or talk about subjects that everyone understands or can think about, and do it in a serious way, even when surrounded by jokes (as on Twin Peaks, even in Shakespeare). It cannot be a joke. Even comedy done in good taste, like Seinfeld, is done in a certain way that is sincere.

Bad literature and drama often tries hard, but doesn’t quite make it. Some don’t even try. I think Game of Thrones tries to have good taste, but it doesn’t. Vikings, with just as much sex and violence, on the other hand, is done in a way that I can take it seriously, and that redeems it.

Another rock band I listened to an awful lot of was The Grateful Dead, who I can’t decide were a good band or not. They were good at times and they really sucked at other times. After reading Phil Lesh’s memoir of the band, it became clear that they were often stressed out, intoxicated, and complacent, not willing to do what they should have done with the band: they made most of their money through touring and weren’t willing to look for other ways to make their income. This may have led to them having more bad nights than other bands, since they simply had more nights. People who toured with them tell me that every third night or so they were amazing, and so listening to tapes of their shows is a little misleading, but what’s clear to me is that through it all, despite all their laziness, they were never artistically lazy. In other words, especially through their songwriting and their choice of songs to play, they redeemed themselves. Even when they were having an off night, they were playing good songs that were approached from the right place.

Robert Jordan is another example: he was at his best in The Great Hunt, The Shadow Rising, and Lord of Chaos, but even at his worst, he didn’t degenerate into just telling stories about magic, or sex, or naked women, although there was a lot of that. His Conan books are not great, his Conan has more to do with Schwarzenegger than Robert E. Howard, but he is still approaching it from a sincere place. Robert Jordan had good taste and it showed.


Fantasy Maps

Just a quick note: after viewing a nice tutorial, I was able to come up with a nice map for The Last Omen, the novel I just finished revising.  Here’s the map and then you can watch the video yourself:


A Wrinkle in Time

Should you go see the new adaptation of the classic book? Maybe…

Here is my Goodreads review (follow me on Goodreads), or scroll down for what I thought of the film.

A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why ask me? This book is a classic that goes beyond all internet reviews. School librarians and teachers will forever be recommending this book, and with good reason. If you’re going to read it as an adult, don’t expect too much, but kids will remember it forever. I just read it to my children and we went to see the movie. It’s a cerebral, magical, wonder-filled book that is great for children from 8-12. I highly recommend it for reading aloud or reading solo. The kids loved it. It’s imaginative and adventurous, with plenty of laughs and cries. The thing I liked most about it was reading a children’s book that quotes Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, and Cervantes in their original languages. That’s the kind of book I want to read to my kids. Continue reading “A Wrinkle in Time”

Let’s Get Serious!

In which I alienate Phish fans

What is it that makes readers connect? Sincerity and honesty. The kind of sincerity I’m talking about might be called being “serious” but as Alan Watts pointed out, the word “serious” has a sort of dry unfunniness about it, and that isn’t what I’m getting at. Fantasy literature in particular has this problem, much less than it used to, that it’s hard to take seriously a book about wizards and dragons. Ursula LeGuin seems to have eventually convinced everyone to take such books seriously, but not without plenty of books getting written to convince people otherwise. Wizards and dragons sound like childish topics, until you read Gene Wolfe, Stephen R. Donaldson, or dare I say Robert Jordan?

Continue reading “Let’s Get Serious!”

Short stories

My novel went out to publishers some time last week, and that’s exciting, but now I’m back into a long waiting period. There’s this weird thing in writing advice where nobody talks about anything except getting an agent, so getting an agent was a strange letdown where my entire six months depended on a long drawn-out process of waiting. Now I’m getting that back in waiting to hear from publishers. I try to keep in touch with my agent, but I don’t want to bug him when there’s nothing for us to talk about. I’m now homeschooling a kid, and continuing to work on Firesage, which is going a little slow since it’s hard to find a consistent work schedule with the new adjustment.

I had decided to see if anything happened fast before I sent out any more short stories. All of them have been rejected except for one that’s been with the same market for almost three months (their time limit). That one I’m interested in, because it’s a prestigious market with a ready supply of subscribers, and only one author appears in any issue. The rest I have sent to a variety of interesting markets. My space colonization story “The Fault is not in Our Stars but Somewhere Between Jupiter and the Asteroid Belt” has gone into the black hole of Analog’s submission pile. That will take at least six months to hear back from.

I sent “Killing Montherek” to Flame Tree Press, a British publisher that is an offshoot of a fine gifts and calendars company. I felt a little weird sending it to them, as even though they are a SFWA-qualifying market, I had never heard of them and didn’t know whether they were “for real,” as in if they had good standards, or if they could really distribute their books well. I totally changed my mind the next day when I was at Books-A-Million in West Lebanon. There was a whole shelf featuring their anthologies, which were beautifully bound with fantastical Victorian-esque covers. Their shtick is to put brand-new stories from new authors alongside classics from Bram Stoker, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert E. Howard. Totally my thing.

I sent “The Harp” to Spark, which is a literary genre-fiction market. I have a hard time deciding where to send that one, since it is clearly fantasy, about sorcery, but its theme is decidedly sensual, so that rules out quite a few places that would otherwise be good for stories about sorcerors.  On the other hand, it’s not particularly kinky, more cerebral, so that rules out a lot of places that are more topical and weird.  I’m just going to keep sending these out until they stick somewhere.

I recently heard an author saying that you should only send stories to the top ten markets and trunk them if they don’t get published there.  I’m not buying that for now.  I know these stories are good, but they are not fashionable.  They are probably considered old-fashioned.  I’m not after prestige with other writers; I’m not even after the money.  I want people to be able to read these stories, and I want the opinions of good editors, not all of whom work at the top ten short story markets in SFF right now.  I am not trying to impress the top writers in the field.  Most of those markets seem very trendy to me, and unlike other people, I do not write just what those particular editors want.  So it might take longer, but I’ll see that people have a way to read them eventually.

Boskone 2017: A con worth going to

The value of professional networking at scifi conventions cannot be understated, except by talented writers…

This past weekend I went to my second scifi convention in Boston, Boskone. I had a great time and met some people I only know online or from the other convention I’ve been to, Readercon.  Most importantly, this con was really useful as a professional, and I’m definitely looking forward to going back next year. Continue reading “Boskone 2017: A con worth going to”

Reading for fun

In which I try to redeem my previous intellectual arrogance

A few weeks ago I questioned “reading for fun” in a post that started an excellent discussion with Michael McLendon and a few others on Facebook. I put forth that although Brandon Sanderson exhorted his students to always remember they are writing for entertainment, I don’t read for what I would strictly call entertainment, and I always aim to get something more serious out of reading a book. I don’t have the same expectations for movies and TV. Sounds reasonable enough and the discussion went fine without too much hair-splitting.

However, I became aware that I sounded a little like this:


Continue reading “Reading for fun”

What makes a book fun?

Are books just entertainment? Really?

I’ve been thinking lately about what constitutes good taste, why we read, and about reader preferences.  Last night I watched another of Brandon Sanderson’s short videos from a few years ago, and I encountered this opinion he gives in the first few minutes about entertainment versus meaning in books, especially fantasy.

The gist of his point is this: “We are doing entertainment, that’s what it is…describing a statue as a rock is true…people are going to pick up your book for entertainment purposes, that’s why they go get it… . They are picking up that book to be entertained. Don’t forget to be fun.”

A few days ago, Sam Sykes tweeted a question getting at the same point. My reply was similar to Brian Staveley:

So Sanderson’s argument is at the most basic level, people read for the same reason they watch TV. The enjoyment readers get out of reading a book is just that: enjoyment, fun, comparable to riding a roller coaster, hearing a good pop song, or watching a thrilling car chase. If there’s no element of fun, then readers, or most readers, won’t be interested enough to catch other meaningful statements the author or screenwriter tries to “sneak in.” There will be meaningful statements about the nature of life, about different sorts of people finding commonality, about the experiences of others, and so on. Your readership will be smaller if you bash your reader or viewer over the head with a “message.” When Tolkien said his stories were about hobbits, he had a point, because he didn’t mean hobbits to represent any particular people in this world, left-of-middle-Earth.

I disagree with both Sanderson and Tolkien. Although they’re both right on some level, storytelling has to be deeper than that or else it’s unsatisfying. Furthermore, a “message” or “meaning” is entertaining, albeit in a different way, and in a more satisfying way than “pure fun” can be. I would go so far as to say it’s impossible to tell a story without a deeper meaning, as bad as Firefly happens to be.

My first problem is many readers, writers, and commentators think “meaning” is synonymous with bludgeoning the reader with a political statement. Political statements are too current to be enduring, they are divisive, and they risk conflating desire with morality. In other words, I might want lower taxes, or free health care, or for the state to sponsor performance art with marshmallows, but those are not moral concerns. Stories need to be about deeper concerns, if I decide to write a story about performance artists being persecuted by a harsh government, or oh say farmers being kicked off their land by banks and moving to California during the great depression, I risk reducing my readership. Not only reducing my readership, but making it unreadable and incomprehensible to people who disagree. They won’t get any message I want to get across because of their disagreement.

More likely, however, they won’t understand or read my story because it will be bad. Grapes of Wrath is a terrible book by a good writer. It’s preachy. This is a point where I agree with Sanderson: if you have a reader who disagrees, or sees himself as an example of what you’re railing against, you’re not just turning him off, you’re actually insulting him. That’s not cool, man.

But the problem with using that argument against having any meaning, and reducing your story to “entertainment” is political or social messages are only one, and the most limited kind, of meaning. They are inexorably linked to the time in which they are written. They are not archetypal, they are not moral dilemmas. They might make a good background for a story, but writing a story with only a political meaning is extremely limiting. But there is archetypal meaning that gets readers in the vagus nerve, and it will very rarely be political. Stories are always about life and death, birth and marriage, falling in love, falling out of love, self-redemption, maturation, and menopause.

When I read a book, and it is merely entertaining, I consider it a waste of time. Sanderson argues that readers are picking up the book to have a good time, and he’s right most of the time. As I’ve really tried to pay attention to why people read, I’ve found that many readers read for the same reason that someone might watch TV: it’s engaging, fun, and a way of seeing how clever other people can be when you’re exhausted after a day of work or school. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it does appear to be the way things are for many people. I remember turning to The Wheel of Time or other novels after days of being really exhausted and knowing I wasn’t going to get any sleep that night.

Most writers I know don’t read “just for fun.” If I spend weeks reading a book, I expect a lot more than I expect from a two-hour movie or a one-hour TV show. I expect hardly anything from most TV shows. At the very least when I read a book, I expect to learn something about someone (a fake person, but a person nonetheless). I hope to see a lot more; I hope to learn something psychologically that I can’t learn just from talking to regular humans. It’s not socially acceptable to sit down and interview people and learn the things you can learn from a book. Movies and TV shows just don’t go that far most of the time. That’s fine for them, but for a book I expect it at least to be sincere about what it means to be a human being.

Sanderson’s line of reasoning also neglects that deep meaningful message are entertaining in their own way. It’s not just “boobs and explosions” (or clever people) that are entertaining. Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays, for instance, are so dripping with meaning that people forget that they were entertainment, sometimes for common people. I feel entertained when I learn about a deep truth and see it put into action, even in a pop song; it’s much more satisfying than the boobs and explosions and car chases. Those things are rather expendable. I would much rather really learn something deep than see another chase, or another trek, or just another guy solving a problem. The film version of The Martian, for instance, was not that moving because it was just a guy solving problems we knew he was going to solve. The parts about isolation and human relationships were sandwiched between very simplistic “what’s he going to do next” scenes.

Compare that to Hamlet, or even one of Shakespeare’s more simplistic plays like Romeo and Juliet. With Hamlet, “what’s he going to do next” is the basic unit of suspense, but while we’re wondering about that Hamlet grapples with life and death and all the important stuff. He goes to the core of the archetypal struggle that we all experience: “Why don’t I just give up? Why do I go on like this? I could kill my uncle, but would the end result be so different from just killing myself?” Interstellar, as opposed to The Martian, was always about human relationships at all moments of the film. The science and technical dialogue were incidental. I find that more moving. If you don’t then…I don’t know. Maybe we’re just different, and that’s fine.

(Incidentally, this is my big problem with editors or agents saying “I have to be hooked,” because what constitutes a hook is so hugely subjective. I know that what hooks me is different from what hooks people who love Firefly, so exactly what are you telling me when you say you need to be hooked?)

My last point is hardest to defend. It’s very hard to write something without a deeper meaning. Fairytales, which seem to just be funny stories, are incredibly meaningful expressions of deep archetypal truths, just like dreams. And that’s the hard part: when a story has that dreamlike quality, it is so much a better story than something that’s all about the surface of life. It may be possible to write a story without that much meaningful, but I don’t think it’s at all easy to write a good story without really digging into what’s meaningful for the characters, and thereby what’s meaningful for the reader.

I’ll close with a passage from Robert McKee (I happened to land on this passage just after watching Sanderson’s video):

Never allow yourself the luxury of thinking, “It’s just entertainment.” What, after all, is “entertainment”? Entertainment is the ritual of sitting in the dark, staring at a screen, investing tremendous concentration and energy into what one hopes will be a satisfying, meaningful emotional experience. Any film that hooks, holds, and pays off the story ritual is entertainment…., no story is innocent. All coherent tales express an idea veiled inside an emotional spell. (Story, pg 129)

Is Rogue One Fan Fiction?

In which I alienate readers by mentioning a good movie’s Big But…

I saw Rogue One last night, and it was great. I was surprised by how seriously it treated the story, and by the father-daughter connection. The ambiguity of the characters and their motives was very satisfying to watch: almost every one had conflicting motives and could have made a decision either way at every point. There were definitely good guys and bad guys, but the way they accomplished their goals was highly ambiguous and provoked a lot of moral questions. The acting was fantastic, and the production design was really cool. There were at least two very cosmopolitan cities that didn’t have the artificial sheen of Coruscant in the prequels. And of course, there were familiar characters, especially imperial characters, that I didn’t expect to see.

They broke with the typical elements that we’ve come to expect from “Star Wars movies.”  There was no crawler at the beginning, there were titles announcing the locations, and there were lots of new sorts of droids, troopers, and imperial officers and ships. The music was not John Williams, but it was satisfactory. It was loud, and distracting at some points, but the whole movie was loud and full of action. If you haven’t seen it, go and see it, and enjoy it. I really enjoyed it, BUT

Continue reading “Is Rogue One Fan Fiction?”

Writing Anti-Advice: where to get writing advice and how not to take it

Some writing advice is not for you, and some should be ignored completely

If you have just started writing fiction, then you’ll likely fall into one of two groups:

  1. People who don’t take advice and just start writing
  2. People who read up on something for a long time before beginning
  3. People who don’t readily please dichotomies

Continue reading “Writing Anti-Advice: where to get writing advice and how not to take it”