Today on Amazing Stories, I explore how fantasy navigates its epic/local tensions with noir, and how both noir and fantasy use wainscot structures.
Please stop by and take a look: Crossroads: Tripping the Noir Fantastic
Today on Amazing Stories, I explore how fantasy navigates its epic/local tensions with noir, and how both noir and fantasy use wainscot structures.
Please stop by and take a look: Crossroads: Tripping the Noir Fantastic
Hi, my name is Chris, and I like complex stories (this is the point where a chorus of “Hi, Chris!” wouldn’t go amiss 😉).
For the last century, we’ve been trained by television and cinema – much more constrained narrative mediums than prose – to laud the straightforward. And while there are good reasons for simplicity’s commercial popularity, I think it’s a shame that it has become our default mode of storytelling.
I think it is odd that in our culture, I find myself defensive of my appreciation for complicated storytelling. I like intricate plots, multiple perspective characters, rich language, and complex narrative structures. When I read, such complexities mark the difference between breakfast and dinner. Both are important meals, and both can and should be enjoyed. But one begs to be fast and the other lingered over.
Simple stories can be incredibly satisfying, but they are constructed to be swiftly captivating and directly processed. They are my literary breakfast. But more complicated stories are structurally incapable of such swift ingestion. They take more time to prepare, to enjoy, and to digest. Neither is inherently better than the other, just as pancakes and bacon aren’t inherently better than spaghetti carbonara. But each can achieve certain artistic effects that the other cannot.
First, I want to make it clear that I love simple stories. They are elegant, efficient, and enjoyable. Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury – all wrote simple, straightforward stories. Yet those simple stories remain incredibly powerful works of art.
Simple doesn’t mean bad, nor does it mean easy. It means uncomplicated, straightforward. A story is simple if it follows one perspective, if it features a single core plot with one or more sub-plots tracked alongside the core story. Simple stories use language that is utilitarian (serving to forward plot, setting, and characterization), as opposed to artistic (where the language and rhetorical structure serve to forward theme independently or in opposition to the plot, characters, or setting).
By this definition, most commercial stories are simple. Pick up just about any commercial thriller, or any best-selling SF/F novel, and you’ll find a simple story within its covers. Most popular mainstream literary novels are likewise simple, however beautiful their prose or highlighted their characters. There is (however much I might grumble about it) a correlation between a story’s simplicity and its sales potential. And I think a story’s accessibility lies at the heart of that relationship.
Simple stories are a narrative train: the author’s job is to put our wheels on the tracks, and then to let us go. They have their one primary line, and the story sticks to it. Their settings, language, characters, and sub-plots are only useful inasmuch as they push the train forward or slow it down. As a result, the reader doesn’t need to expend a large amount of work to get into a story or to follow it through to its conclusion. This speed of captivation is the primary strength of simple stories: their directness heightens their narrative momentum.
Contemporary YA and romance are probably the genres which have sharpened this method to a razor’s edge. Accessibility, and in particular the speed with which the reader is locked onto the narrative track, are paramount for both genres. I’ve heard proponents of this type of storytelling (the Professor in particular) argue that such simple stories work because they get out of their own way.
There’s a lot to be said for such an approach, as it has given us such enjoyable (and meaningful) rides as The Hunger Games (the first novel in the trilogy – the latter two got more complicated), the Harry Potter series, any of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, most of John Scalzi’s novels, Saladin Ahmed’s wonderful Throne of the Crescent Moon, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, etc.
To understand them – at least at the superficial level – requires literacy and little consideration outside of the text itself. While some simple stories can be very deep and powerful (think The Great Gatsby or Dandelion Wine), they don’t require us to hold a great many characters, settings, or relationships in our heads when we read them. In other words, they ask less (often much less) effort of us than a book by Umberto Eco, William Faulkner, Victor Hugo, Tim Powers, Ursula K. Le Guin, Christopher Priest, or John Crowley.
Their accessibility grants them a significant commercial advantage, of course, because a great many readers don’t want to work that hard at the reading experience (if I had to read Proust every day, I’d go mad). From an artistic standpoint, their straightforward structures allow them to apply a finely-tuned focus to the themes and issues they wish to explore. By focusing on a simple, core story, its themes are brought into sharper relief. Sometimes, that’s what we want.
But there’s a trade-off inherent to this simplicity. Some artistic endeavors demand more work of the audience. Their accessibility (and so their sales) may suffer as a result, but artistically they can manage certain tricks that simpler fare cannot.
Marcus Aurelius once wrote “Be content to seem what you really are,” and I think that’s damn fine advice for the written word. It is incredibly difficult to communicate true complexity or philosophical ambiguity in a simple story. Simple stories can communicate depth, emotions, philosophical meaning, morality – almost the entire spectrum of thought and emotion. But complexity is not depth, and uncertainty is not ambiguity. Effectively exploring either complexity or ambiguity as themes in a work perforce complicates its structure.
To roll with the train metaphor from earlier, content (plot, characters, setting, etc.) is one of the story’s two rails. Of the two, it is the easiest to notice because it’s what we consume when we read the story. But the second rail – theme – runs alongside the content, and so long as they run parallel the story can roll ahead. Should their relationship diverge, should the theme veer off at a tangent, the story comes off the rails and we end up with a big mess.
If complexity and its kissing cousin ambiguity are some of the themes we wish to explore, then the content must in some fashion convey that complexity or ambiguity. If it fails in this, then the theme’s exploration becomes stillborn and our artistic endeavor falls along with it.
Consider Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (which I discuss at greater length here). Judged solely by the length of the series, or by the page count of each volume, one might judge it similar to Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson’s Wheel of Time epic. But it is absolutely different, and it is its exploration of historical, individual, and cultural complexity which set it apart.
The series is an artistic success because its content is so aligned with its themes. Where most door-stopper fantasies stick to a limited number of perspective characters with complex histories and relationships, Erikson’s number in the tens (if not hundreds ultimately – I lost count after the first several books). As each of these perspective characters has their own individual motivations, their own personal histories, their own personality traits, the resulting epic balloons into a messy, complicated, glorious work of imagination.
This is both its greatest strength, and its greatest weakness. Because its content (its characters, its plot, its settings, etc.) personify its theme of complexity, the story itself becomes incredibly complex. For its exploration of theme? Mission accomplished. But this raises the fence of accessibility quite high: it takes a significant effort to follow the complex weave of characters, plots, motivations, and betrayals, and many readers just won’t be willing to make that investment.
A similar marriage of content and theme can be found in Gene Wolfe’s writing. If we look at his works that focus on ambiguity, in particular his novels Peace, There Are Doors, and Latro in the Mist, we find that the thematic ambiguity Wolfe explores is likewise expressed in the content, and in particular in the perspective character’s own relationship to truth and reality.
In the case of Peace (which – perhaps appropriately – on some days is my favorite Wolfe novel, and others days is not), the complexity of the content and ambiguity of the entire novel is further developed through the non-linear presentation of events as recounted by the story’s narrator. In this, Wolfe plainly took a page out of Dostoyevsky’s playbook (and perhaps unsurprisingly, Notes From Underground is my favorite Dostoyevsky novel), but the consequence of Wolfe’s artistic choice is to make the story even more difficult to follow.
I think that both Erikson and Wolfe made the right choices in their respective (and extremely different) works. By unifying the content of their stories with the themes they were exploring, they were able to construct more cohesive, and more satisfying stories. It would have been impossible, I believe, to explore their themes of complexity and ambiguity without the corresponding complexity in content.
Of course, not all stories – and not all complex stories – explore themes of complexity or ambiguity. Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Both are complex stories: Tolkien features an extensive cast of characters, and expects the reader to follow multiple parallel storylines through the series. Burgess, on the other hand, writes a simple story in terms of plot and characters, but plays with language in a very interesting way. Could the same have been done without such complexity? Absolutely not.
In Tolkien’s case, the foundation of his epic’s artistic success lies in its narrative structure. Diana Wynne Jones puts it far better than I ever could in her essay “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings” (recently collected in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing), but the balancing of disparate movements within LOTR is one of the reasons why the entire story resonates with readers so strongly. Had Tolkien only followed Frodo’s journey, or had he chosen to present Frodo’s story and Aragorn’s story sequentially rather than interspersed, the result would have been far simpler and far less effective.
Burgess’ story is much simpler, in terms of its narrative perspective, its plot structure, and its characters. But it is far more complicated in terms of how language is used, and in particular in the ways that Burgess employs neology. Burgess’ nadsat – an amalgamated argot of Russian and English – introduces complexity into the otherwise simple novel. Doing so in 1962 – at the height of the Cold War – explicitly focused contemporary readers’ attention on the cultural implications of this choice. Similarly, this use of language enables Burgess to surreptitiously slip the slang and its values into the reader’s mind – particularly when the reader is intended (per the author’s own declarations) to reject the violence and pornographic content of the book. Such a dichotomy would have been impossible to create without such complex linguistic play.
As I said, I love complicated stories. But sometimes I feel like they are a dying breed. Commercial considerations being what they are, I understand why. There are few complicated stories on the bestseller lists (although thankfully they still show up on award rosters often enough). Editors are pressured to acquire commercial titles, and that usually translates into easily-accessible titles.
The failure mode for complex works is far worse than the failure mode for simple fare. Even mediocre simple fare is likely to at least satisfy some of its less discerning readers. Complicated fiction, however, becomes indecipherable or (worse) uninteresting when it fails to live up to its ambition.
Thankfully, there are plenty of authors out there who still strive for complexity and the creative opportunities it affords them. Authors like Lavie Tidhar, Terry Bisson, Madeline Ashby, Ian McDonald (in his non-YA fiction), and Samuel Delany are all creating ambitious, complex, multi-layered novels. And even where I might not care for a particular story, I applaud their ambition in their writing and their editors’ courage in acquiring their complex stories.
As of this morning, Amazing Stories is officially out of its beta test. If you enjoy reading this blog, then I strongly encourage you to stop by www.amazingstoriesmag.com and check out the insightful, fascinating discussions that are happening over on the Amazing Stories blog.
One of the reasons why I’m really excited about Amazing Stories is that I’ve committed to writing a weekly Crossroads column exploring the relationship between speculative fiction and other genres. Here’s how it’ll work: every month, I’ll pick a different genre. And then every Thursday throughout that month, I’ll explore how that genre interacts with speculative fiction, how they feed off of each other and inform each other.
As of right now, the first two of my Crossroads posts are already available. The third will be out this Thursday. In January, I’m exploring the relationship between noir and speculative fiction, and so far this months’ posts are:
|Crossroads: Where Genres Meet in the Night||My inaugural post at Amazing Stories, where I explain what Crossroads is all about and what the year’s schedule will look like.|
|Crossroads: What Is Noir, Anyway?||This post takes a close look at what characteristics make a story noir, and introduces some of the tensions that exist between the noir aesthetic and speculative fiction.|
|Crossroads: A Genre Darkly (available: January 24th, 2013)||Coming up this Thursday, I take a deep dive into the close relationship between science fiction and noir, exploring how science fiction incorporates noir plot structures and style into its toolkit.|
Next week, I’ll be taking a similar deep dive into the even greater challenge of unifying noir and fantasy. I hope you stop by Amazing Stories, and I hope that you enjoy my Crossroads column! I’d love it if you could swing by and join in the conversation.
Today’s post will be relatively short, but let me start by asking a question: when was the last time you read a book aloud to another adult?
Around Christmas time, I picked up a copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, which is an excellent collection of much of her non-fiction about writing. I could (and plan to) write an entire blog post just on the subject of that book, but instead I wanted to spend a little time discussing an interesting experiment that my wife and I have engaged in.
Most of us, when we read out loud do so with children. Of course, this can be great fun (even if the kids insist on hearing the same story time and time again), but it is a completely different experience from reading to adults. A public reading is a different beast entirely, mainly due to its performance nature. But for the past several weeks, my wife and I have been reading the essays in Jones’ Reflections to each other, and this personal, private experience has been quite eye-opening on many levels.
My wife and I are both readers. I read for pleasure, and she reads for both enjoyment and work (as a children’s book editor, it goes with the territory). We both have read many of the same books, and we enjoy many of the same authors (though our tastes vary widely). Being an autodidact, I’ve learned most of what I know by having read it somewhere. So reading non-fiction, especially about writing or literature, is nothing new. Because for many years I traveled extensively, I also have listened to quite a fair share of non-fiction audiobooks. But none have been close to the sheer joy of reading and having Reflections read to me.
The first major difference between reading a book to myself and having it read to me goes to the way in which I process information. I read very quickly, and I tend to integrate and internalize what I have read quickly. As a result, I pay scant attention to the construction of an author’s rhetorical argument. Instead, I wish to focus on their point. But having Reflections read aloud to me instead focuses my attention not just on what is being said, but equally on how it is said.
Whether this is good or not, I can’t say. But it is different. It gives me a better sense of how Jones constructs her arguments, for how she frames them. The act of reading them aloud focuses my attention on the sequence of her thoughts, which is itself an important point of information. On the face of it, this experience is not so different from that of listening to an audiobook.
When I listen to an audiobook, I too focus more on the sequence and rhetoric, on the way in which sentences are constructed. But an audiobook is not interactive. It forces me to listen at the reader’s pace, and prevents interpretative digressions or discussions. The facility to pause reading and crack a joke, or stop and discuss a point that Jones just made, fundamentally deepens the meaning and insight that I can get from a book.
Being such book people, we often discuss books we have read, are reading, or will read. But when we consume a book in parallel – when one of us reads it out loud to the other – it aligns our singular reading experiences in an interesting way. And this, in turn, opens interesting avenues for discussion. If we had read her essay on the narrative structure of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings separately, I think our resulting discussion of its ideas would have been very different. Perhaps no less interesting, but qualitatively different.
From a writing standpoint, reading her non-fiction essays out loud really draws attention to the way that she constructs her sentences and paragraphs. Many of us like to think of ourselves as auditory writers. I know I think of myself that way: I love how words sound, and as I write I think about how they will sound together. Diana Wynne Jones – even in her non-fiction – clearly constructed her sentences with their assonance and rhythms in mind. Which just adds yet another dimension to the whole experience, one which I don’t think one can get from reading non-fiction silently.
This isn’t so much a critical discussion of the book (that I’ve got planned for next week), but rather this is just a couple of interesting observations about the experience of reading Diana Wynne Jones’ non-fiction aloud. It’s been an interesting and incredibly enjoyable experience, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether that experience carries through to other non-fiction authors. Have any of you tried it? If so, what has that experience been like for you?
At first glance, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained are fairly dissimilar. One is the tale of a beleaguered young man who is put on the path to a quest by an older, bearded wise man. The other has a dragon.
Jokes aside, both movies have come in for some criticism, though Django Unchained has gotten far less criticism than I think it deserves. Fans of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (myself included) were fairly incensed by the liberties The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey took with its source material. And some folks have been grumbling about Django Unchained on grounds of race, representation, and its indulgent depiction of violence (though why anyone would have expected anything else from Tarantino, I have no idea). But these criticisms (deserved or not) are not what I took away from the two films. Instead, I think that both movies – especially when taken together – can show us something interesting about the way that pacing stems from the story’s narrative structure and its presentation.
Tolkien purposefully kept The Hobbit short, simple, and very focused. This choice is exceedingly clear when we compare it to The Lord of the Rings, which features an epic scope and scale. The Hobbit – thematically and artistically – was never designed to be a big story, and its narrative structure is therefore constrained.
When Tolkien first wrote the book, and when his editor first edited it, they determined how best to communicate the narrative and its themes to the reader. They had to decide which information to include, what sequences to portray and which to leave “off-camera”. These are not – as Jackson’s The Hobbit would suggest – idle choices. They are the foundational choices any decent creator makes, sometimes intuitively and sometimes painstakingly, but always integral to the narrative.
Tolkien’s book focuses on a simple
man hobbit, one Bilbo Baggins. Yes, on his adventures, Bilbo stumbles into other characters’ epic (Thorin Oakenshield) and tragic (Gollum and Thorin both) journeys. But Bilbo’s narrative is neither epic nor tragic. Tolkien chose to focus on the narrow, pastoral concerns of an anachronistic, pastoral character. Through Bilbo’s perspective, Tolkien looks in on Thorin’s epic journey and Gollum’s tragedy. But – like Bilbo – we remain outside looking in. The Hobbit as a result reads like an anti-epic, specifically presenting the futility of a traditional epic structure.
This fact – apparent, I should think, to most of The Hobbit’s readers – apparently escaped Peter Jackson et al. Whether out of nostalgia for Tolkien’s (actually epic) Lord of the Rings, or a desire to stretch a short book into three movies, or simply the belief that Tolkien and his editors got it wrong, the film makers chose to reverse what may be Tolkien’s most important creative choice.
When we read The Hobbit, we are invested first in Bilbo, and only secondarily in the other characters. Jackson tries to simultaneously earn an equal investment in both Bilbo (who Martin Freeman plays amazingly), and in Thorin Oakenshield (who Richard Armitage plays woodenly). These two characters’ narrative arcs are thematically and structurally incompatible.
By cramming his “white orc” plot line into the movie, Jackson weakens the narrative structure of Bilbo’s story. It makes the film painfully schizophrenic: one half is a version of The Hobbit which stays (relatively) true to the book’s themes and structure. But the other half is taken up by a story which contributes nothing to those themes. Because the events are largely constrained by Tolkien’s original plot, there is no opportunity for either a more complex exploration nor for a subversion of Tolkien’s original themes. If that were Jackson’s conscious intent, then an adaptation is not the place for it.
Jackson has successfully developed split narrative arcs before. The Lord of the Rings – which is an epic story – features this kind of split narrative. We have plot A (Frodo/Sam/Gollum) and plot B (Aragorn et al.). But as Diana Wynne Jones discusses beautifully in “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings” (recently collected in the fantastic Reflections: On the Magic of Writing), that “split narrative” is actually a complex weave, where each strand supports, relies on, and contravenes the other. And both of those strands are epic in nature. They are compatible, and the narrative structure relies equally on their compatibility and differences.
It would be impossible to develop a deeper narrative structure around Thorin Oakenshield without rejecting either the structure or the themes of Bilbo Baggins’ arc. This puts the audience in a difficult situation: We must choose which narrative we will actually invest in. This choice plays havoc with the movie’s pacing. If I’m only invested in one half of the film, that means I spend the other half waiting to get to the good bits. One half of Peter Jackson’s movie contributes nothing to its narrative, and so tries the audience’s patience.
Tarantino’s Django Unchained has a different lineage. It doesn’t stem from a book, and so its plot is unconstrained by outside factors. An unabashed homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone, as evidenced in the main character’s name (i.e. Django is a nod towards Sergio Corbucci’s excellent classic Django), offhand references (e.g. a character “Eskimo Joe” gets mentioned, probably a nod towards an often-forgotten spaghetti western Navajo Joe), and actor cameos (e.g. Franco Nero, who played the titular character in Corbucci’s classic Django).
From a narrative standpoint, spaghetti westerns tend to explore themes of moral ambiguity and the interplay between justice and vengeance. Tarantino’s Django Unchained plainly follows in this thematic tradition, with its heroes relying on both deception and nigh-superhuman gun-slinging skills to free Django’s wife and exert justice on a rich southern slave-owner.
In general, the narrative itself is satisfying enough. It absolutely lacks the moral ambiguity or character complexity characteristic of the best spaghetti westerns, and in essence is little more than a classically-structured heroic quest (as the movie itself acknowledges). But that’s fine, and I would be happy to experience that kind of story. Unlike Jackson’s The Hobbit, Django Unchained picks one narrative and thematic structure and sticks to it. Where it ran into problems for me, however, lay in quite a few self-indulgent directorial choices that diverted attention from that narrative and easily added an unnecessary forty-five minutes to the movie.
Here are two examples:
Through vivid experiential flashback and spoken dialog, Django establishes his desire to free his wife Hildy (Brünnhilde, more properly). We understand what he wants, and we identify with it. We want him to succeed. The story has us invested. Great. But from this point forward, Tarantino chooses to throw in scenes where Django imagines (hallucinates?) his wife. The action slows down for each of these moments, giving us a drawn out pause that grinds the story’s movement to a halt. No dialogue is exchanged, and Django never remarks on these moments.
How do they help the narrative?
They don’t. Django’s motivation – and his character – are sufficiently established through other moments in the film. The story has only one narrative arc, and it’s pretty straightforward. We’re not likely to forget what Django wants. So these hallucinatory interludes only distract from the narrative, bringing its forward momentum to a grinding halt.
There is a similar, though much longer sequence, lampooning the KKK (to be fair, it’s really a “proto-KKK” since the movie is set pre-Civil War) which adds little to the narrative. Taken on its own, the sequence is actually quite funny, and from a moral/ethical standpoint I am strongly favor of portraying prejudiced bigots as the idiots they are. But what does it add to the story? It is a momentary side-adventure, which does nothing to move the main narrative arc (Django’s quest for his wife) forward. And it fails to deepen our understanding of either Django or Doctor Schultz: we already know where both characters stand on slavery and race relations long before this scene. While it is a very well-composed sequence, it is didactic directorial self-indulgence. And it slows the narrative arc substantially.
Whereas Peter Jackson’s choices in The Hobbit actively broke the story’s narrative structure, Tarantino’s choices in Django Unchained merely distracted from it. But while the scope of their poor judgment may differ, their mistakes were of a kind: both confused the presentation of story with the story’s narrative.
Presentation is a technical concern. It might be prose structure, language style, camera angles, or shot composition. It is the technique – any technique – through which the narrative gets communicated. When we tell a story, regardless of medium, we have to choose how to present that story. We choose our words, our sentences, our shots. But if we lose sight of what that technique is meant to communicate, if – like Peter Jackson – we choose to present thematically and structurally incompatible components, or if – like Quentin Tarantino – we choose to present self-indulgent sequences which fail to deepen the narrative arc/themes, then we’ll be damaging our story’s pacing (and possibly breaking the story beyond repair).
In short, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained just reinforced for me that presentation should always be in service to the story. That’s what people are there to read/see/experience.
Happy new year! The kooks who made stuff up about the Mayans were wrong, the world didn’t end, and we have now rolled into 2013. I for one am happy that 2012 is over, since it was in many ways a tough year for my family, and I am looking forward to a far better 2013.
One of the developments I face in 2013 is the fact that I’ll be publishing a weekly column/blog over at Amazing Stories. With that, comes the necessity of choosing the name under which those posts will be published. Identity has always been a fraught choice for writers: whether they adopted a pen name to appeal to their audience’s higher ideals (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay writing as Publius), to prevent confusion (Winston Churchill writing as Winston S. Churchill), to increase the prospective audience of their works (Alice Sheldon writing as James Tiptree, Jr.), or to keep different facets of their life compartmentalized (Charles Dodgson writing as Lewis Carroll), each of us who picks a pen name does so for personal, often idiosyncratic reasons.
We have our professional lives, the part of our day when most of us put on respectable clothes, harden our professional smiles, and step out of our doors to interact with the world within the boundaries of our chosen profession. Then we come home, shut the door, turn the lock, put on our fluffy slippers, and reveal our private, personal selves.
We perform our daily life, both in our public roles and in private. If you think this is duplicitous, then I’m sorry, but would you go to a job interview dressed in your PJs? Of course not. We are part of a society, and that society accepts certain behaviors in certain contexts and condemns others. For most of us, our private, personal passions are reserved for exactly that: for the private spheres of our lives, to be shared with those closest to us.
The more roles we play – husband, father, friend, child, boss, volunteer, employee – the more varied our presentation. That’s only natural, only human. But today, identity has become a difficult, mutable beast. Where twenty years ago, we could leave work at the office and have our private passions at home, now social media and the 24/7 work culture has eroded those once-firm borders. The compartmentalization we all take for granted, that we all rely on, has become fluid.
Navigating these waters can be exhausting. And when a personal passion begins to shade into a professional presentation (like when, oh, I don’t know, one starts getting one’s personal, passion-driven work published) the way in which we construct our identity begins to have consequences.
When I first started writing about speculative fiction, I chose to do so semi-anonymously. I didn’t reveal my full name, and instead just opted to go by my first name of Chris. As I wrote in my first post here, I did this to keep my day job separate from my writing. My professional career, and the circles I move in to maintain and develop that career, would neither understand nor accept my creative passions. People would – out of ignorance or small-mindedness – question my professionalism, my maturity, my seriousness. Never mind that I’ve been building multinational businesses since my late teens. Too many people have difficulty accepting that many of us are complex creatures, built of myriad and wonderful parts.
This fact is tragic and painful.
But it remains a fact, and one which must be faced. I could choose to say screw it, and to wear my love of speculative fiction proudly. At this point in my professional career, and with my creative work now starting to show up in more places, I am tempted to do exactly that. But before I start publishing my work (non-fiction or fiction) under my real name, there is another factor to consider: the commercial implications of that name.
Supposedly, when Harry Turtledove first started publishing novels, his publisher told him that no one would believe a name like Turtledove (despite the fact that it is his real name). He initially adopted the pen name Turtletaub as a result.
When Jo Rowling published the first Harry Potter book, her publisher in the UK demanded that she merely use two initials to better appeal to middle-grade boys.
When Julie Woodcock publishes her romance novels, she does so under the name Angela Knight because otherwise the double entendre of her surname might harm her sales.
Pearl Zane Gray chose to publish his classic westerns as “Zane Grey” because many of his readers wouldn’t have bought a western written by a man named Pearl.
The quality of our work, the genres we publish in, and the names we publish under are the brand we develop as writers. Yes, that sounds marketing-ese, but it remains true. And in today’s writing world, we have to shoulder so much of the burden of our own marketing, our own publicity, that if we want to actually write professionally, I think it behooves us to think strategically about how we do so.
My full name is a fine name. It’s a long, Polish name, with all of the consonants, syllables and difficulties that comes with it. My mother, who came to this country as an adult in the late ’60s, insists that if she had to learn to pronounce “Smith” then everyone else should learn how to pronounce “Modzelewski”. I think she has a point.
But as a writer hoping to build a name for myself, and as a writer hoping to one day sell books, I need to consider more than just the Honor of the Family Name (for the record, I think that would be a great mainstream literary title). Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself:
How will a difficult-to-pronounce name affect word-of-mouth recommendations? How will a hard-to-spell name affect search-driven sales on Amazon? How will a tough name affect the likelihood of bloggers and online reviewers writing up my books? Will a tough name diminish booksellers’ propensity to hand-sell my titles? Will signing my super-long name on stock give me carpal tunnel syndrome?
A difficult name is not, of course, a deal-breaker for any of these concerns. An editor friend once laughed and told me “We know how to deal with those kinds of issues.” That is no doubt true, and of course these are all absolutely manageable. But there’s a way to forestall any and all of these concerns, and that is to adopt a pen name.
That’s why, to ring in the new year, I’ve decided to drop my half-maintained veneer of anonymity. Instead, I’m going to actively try to promote and develop a new identity for myself. It might be a silly strategic choice on my part, and maybe in the future it might change, but for the time being I’ve chosen to write under the name Chris Gerwel (That’s my first and middle name, in case anyone was wondering. Gerwel is my late grandfather’s name, and I’m sure my mom’ll be thrilled that I’m using it.).
The way I see it, the name is shorter and easier to spell than my “proper” surname. It remains a little unusual, which hopefully helps make it memorable. And it won’t get confused with my professional day-job world, letting me maintain – at least to some degree – a little compartmentalization between the spheres of my life.
Others might have made a different choice, and I might yet reconsider this one (I expect that either an agent or an editor might want to weigh in on such matters at some point). But as I wrap up a difficult 2012, I’m looking forward to starting 2013 with a name.
With that, I am off to celebrate the holiday with my family. Happy New Year, everybody! May your 2013 be better than all the years that came before.