Monday, February 25, 2013

The Power of the Word to Create

Staff devotions at school #1 this morning got me thinking, and not just about spiritual things. The basic message was this: 

To speak is to create.

I love that. To put something into words is to invent something new, to breathe life into something that has never before existed in quite that way, if at all. My favorite part of language has always been its infinite capacity for generation. There is no need to ever say the same sentence twice, and very rarely do we repeat ourselves verbatim without doing it on purpose. An idea requires words to be fully formed and communicable. Whatever we say is the unique product of our minds, whether it be a carefully planned speech, a presentation at a meeting, or just a conversation with a friend. The things we write, whether they be test essays, grocery lists, or novels, belong to us. No one else could have written them in quite the same way as we have done. But sometimes the things we create would have been better left formless and void.

Can anybody identify what book I'm reading? 
There is also power in the things we do not say, because those are things we have allowed to remain intangible, unexpressed, unreal. Sometimes that choice is wise; sometimes it's hurtful. Particularly in this age of insta-global communication, I think we often speak when we ought to remain silent, to the detriment of ourselves and others. We create what should not have existed.

The chaplain this morning posed these questions: Do your words bring food to the hungry and healing to the hurting? Do your words support the weak? Do your words create life, or do they cause death?

It got me thinking, not only in terms of my interactions with the people I encounter on a daily basis, but also in terms of what I write and how I portray myself. Do the things I write or say contribute in some way to filling the hungry ache in someone's soul? Some lovely writers contribute portions of their royalties to literally feed the hungry, but I've chosen to interpret the issue more metaphorically since the full amount of my daily royalties could maybe, almost, manage to buy one person a meal at McDonald's. So do I feed the hungry with my words? I certainly hope so. When I write, my goal is not to make a million bucks. It's not to show off. It's not to gain fame and acclaim. It's so that someone will read whatever I write and have a slightly brighter day because of it. People suffer from a variety of hungers, but I hope my words will feed at least one of them. I cannot heal all my readers' hurts, but I want my words to provide at least a little relief from the pain of life and bring back a little of the joy. It doesn't need to be dramatic for me to have succeeded; I'll settle for knowing that what I wrote made someone smile.

Do my words support the weak? Well, they try. It's one of the things I love about the QUILTBAG genre, and why I get annoyed by people who refuse to read anything that's "not my kink"; the things I write and the things I read show support, however implicitly, for a group of people all too often marginalized or discriminated against. (That being said, I recognize the reader's right to spend time and money on whatever s/he enjoys. I just hope that there's still an element of support for all people of the entire spectrum, and not just support for the sexy.) 

Do my words create life, or do they cause death? Oh, there are so many ways in which a word can kill. But there are also so many ways that a writer can create life with words. I hope never to say something, verbally or in writing, that makes someone die a little. I undoubtedly fail at this, since I am human. But it is my goal to keep my mouth shut against those snide or thoughtless remarks that wound unnecessarily.

This question has also got me thinking about a story. Might I have read something in which this idea of speaking things into existence/not speaking things to keep them from existing is a key component, or is that just something in the back of my head clamoring to be written? Anybody have any idea?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why Fluff Isn't Just For Dessert

It's a beautiful snowy weekend here, which I'm spending with The Cold That Just Won't Die, a few new books, and my Sandy Relief auction story, which has been languishing in the exposition for a few weeks and needs a bit of a kick in the rear. Now that I'm not scrambling madly to get exams and papers graded in time for first semester report cards to go out, I'm looking forward to finishing it up. It's going to be fairly short (10-12k, I'm guessing), quite sweet, and a little bit sci-fi, which is also getting me excited to tackle the space cowboys/rustlers/pirates I promised to write for Samantha Derr this summer. Reading this article earlier in the week also got my brain spinning (slugs that have hermaphroditic sex and then discard their penises entirely? So fascinating)... but at the moment, Evan and Sean are first in line for my authorial attention.

CC photo courtesy of St0rmz
On to my real topic of the day: so-called "fluff" fiction. This is something near and dear to my heart, as there is nothing I would rather read or write. (Be warned: that means this post is going to be long!) But it comes with a bit of a reputation. Just the term "fluff" implies that it has no substance, that it's some sort of uninteresting but mildly useful polyester pillow stuffing at best and and a cavity-inducing, calorie-laden bit of sugar at worst. (My best friend refers to it as "brain candy".) And I don't know what it's like for you, but in the circles in which I live, people talk about "fluff" in fiction with condescension or in shame-filled whispers as if it's something that belongs only in the territory of the unattractive, uneducated, and unattached, and even there ought to be hidden beneath one's mattress. Even a ridiculous and offensive term like "mommy porn" often comes across as a more acceptable choice than "fluff". There seems to be a pervasive attitude that perhaps a single girl might understandably want to read about a happy couple in love, and an ugly girl might want to fantasize about what it would be like to be pretty, but every smart girl--even the single, ugly ones--know better than to think any of that fluff and nonsense is worth their time.

This drives me absolutely, bat-shit crazy.

There are so many unkind, false, and problematic things about that approach toward fiction--and toward life, and other people--that I want to stand up on my soapbox for a moment and explain why I think "fluff" belongs in a literary diet right alongside the beans and Brussels sprouts. I won't presume to speak for the world; plenty of people have plenty of differing reasons for reading what they do, most of which boil down to "it's what I like." I will, however, speak toward the characteristics I possess that seem to make people think I shouldn't read "fluff", and which I think are the very same reasons why I must.

Before addressing these characteristics, there is the question of what, exactly, constitutes "fluff": is it truly a literary piece without substance, or is it just a derogatory nickname for something that doesn't grapple with Nobel prize-winning issues? As far as I can tell, depending on who is awarding the name, a piece may qualify as fluff if it includes any or all of the following:

  1. a happy ending
  2. characters who have lived relatively average lives, free of abuse, rape, torture, getting shot, scientific experimentation, etc.
  3. a romance as its central plot line
  4. a central conflict which lacks sufficient angst or drama to please the reader
  5. not enough explicit, on-page sex to qualify as erotica

I'm sure there are other qualifiers missing from this list, but these are a few that immediately stand out to me. What I don't understand is why these qualities automatically make for less nutritive reading than their "substantive" counterparts, and why these stories should be treated with such disdain. (ETA: this post was not actually inspired by the usual "literary fiction hates genre fiction" argument, but by a few reviews of m/m works by m/m authors and readers. Just so we're clear as to where i'm seeing the disdain.) Perhaps it is simply that these things are ordinary, everyday things that surround us everywhere we look, and so they seem too common to be the topic of a good story, too obvious to teach a lesson, too easy to provide a struggle worth the reader's investment, too universal to build empathy. Personally, I think that is exactly why we need these kinds of stories: they are examples of real life when it turns out well, and that's something we all need to understand deep in that place where we store the lessons we learn from reading.

CC photo courtesy of andrewmalone
So here are the reasons I hear about why I shouldn't like fluff, and the reasons why I think that's a big ol' bunch of baloney:

A. I am happily married.

This one comes from an unspoken assumption that reading romance is a search for something we're not getting from our own real lives. That's why it's perhaps just a teeny bit okay for a single woman to read romance, or for a dissatisfied, middle-aged housewife who's been stuck at home with the kids for the last fifteen years and feels frumpy and fat and unsexy all the time. But for a thirty-one-year-old married woman who's still relatively attractive and still very much in love with her husband? The interest is baffling. The other half of this objection is the assumption that there is something akin to emotional or sexual infidelity in reading about another couple's romance, particularly if there's explicit sex involved. Therefore, I must be looking for something I'm not getting from my own marriage. Worse, I'm actively harming my marriage by reading it.

This assumption makes me sad. First, it means I'm hesitant to tell people what I read and write because of what it may cause them to think about the state of my marriage and/or my own commitment to it. Second, it reinforces the idea that it is always better to be in a relationship than not, because it implies that real life romance is better than fictional romance is better than singlehood. Third, I think this reveals a deep insecurity about trust within committed relationships. Why doesn't anyone worry about a married woman reading about the terrible, disintegrating marriages in much of modern fiction? Because no sane woman wants to leave her own marriage for one that's worse. Why do people worry about a married woman reading about happy, successful relationships? Because there's nothing crazy about wanting a marriage better than the one she already has. The sad part is assuming that wanting a better marriage is going to lead to infidelity or divorce instead of improving the relationship she already has.

Why do I think the happily married woman not only may, but in fact should, read fluff? Because I think she is exactly the kind of woman who is going to see in it reminders of her own marriage's success that will strengthen her commitment, and she is going to see faults she or her partner has and be looking for the solutions to them rather than ways to escape. I think people's fear of what reading romance does to a marriage comes from what reading romance can do to a woman who is looking for something she's not getting: she wants the romance, the spark, the whatever she's lost, and becomes more convinced her marriage is a mistake; she sees Hero/Heroine X and wonders why her husband can't be more like him, and she resents him a little more; she remembers the days of being Hero/Heroine Y and feels nostalgic for the days when she was wanted and pursued, and thinks about how she can get back there again. There is definitely danger in that. But the benefit of fluff for the married reader is when she sees the romance, the spark, the whatever she's lost and remembers how it felt, why it was there, what it was like, and remembers why she fell in love with her spouse; she sees Hero/Heroine X and sees her spouse somewhere in him, and she falls in love with him a little bit more all over again; she remembers the days of being Heroine Y and yes, remembers the thrill of being wanted and pursued, but also remembers all of the obstacles and misunderstandings she and her partner have already overcome and which she has no desire to ever experience again. Sometimes I read books, see the shortcomings that are causing friction in the fictional romance, and I recognize that I have the same faults. Suddenly I want to change them. Or I see my husband's faults, but through another set of eyes, and I have more sympathy and patience with them. My husband is my best friend and I love him with my whole heart, but sometimes he drives me crazy; a little fluff is usually a guaranteed way to get me to the forgiveness or apology I owe him. I truly believe that I am happier with my husband, and quite possibly more in love with him, because I have a healthy dose of fluff in my reading diet.

B. I have a career, and therefore better things to think about than that drivel.

Really? Because I happen to think my career is pretty awesome, but also pretty mentally and emotionally taxing, and when the work day is done, I haven't got the energy or the mental capacity to ponder the world's problems or to put myself through the wringer. I'd rather curl up with a cup of tea, the dog or one of the cats, and a book to help me relax, recharge, and refocus. You know what would not help me do that? Reading about pedagogical research. Reading about the intricacies of Latin grammar. Translating a particularly thorny passage of Tacitus. Those things are interesting to me, but they're also exhausting and do little to help me keep a sane perspective on the importance of work versus being a decent, well-adjusted human being. You know what will? Reading about ordinary people dealing with real problems in a positive way and getting a happy ending. Nothing about that will make me tired, stressed out, or out of touch with the living human beings in my life. It does a lot to build empathy, and although it may not create empathy with life experiences I will never have, it helps with the life I do have.

C. I'm smart and well-educated.

This is the one that I see kicking hardest against fluff reading. It's also the one that leaves me most in need of fluff. Here's the thing: cynicism is king in the world of the educated. Things which are popular must automatically be crap; things which are widely trusted are probably false and untrustworthy; things done by many people must be old-fashioned, bourgeois, and without merit. The better educated one is, the more one's loathing for anything put out by a major record label or major studio, and one's respect for anything produced independently should vary inversely with its popularity. Amanda Palmer tweeted something recently I found quite apt about how strange it is to live in a world in which being aesthetically pleasing is an artistic liability. Historical figures who have been widely admired are often presented in modern academia as terrible people and liars to boot; the government is at worst a corporately owned conspiracy and at best an irredeemable failure; things like monogamy, religion, and the consumption of animal products are for the ignorant and easily duped. There are plenty of reasons for this attitude, and cynicism is certainly warranted in many instances. But a diet of constant cynicism is neither a healthy one nor a happy one.
CC photo courtesy of CeresB

So why read fluff as an intelligent, well-educated woman? In a social context that constantly argues that the only thing that shouldn't be doubted is the need to doubt everything, fluff reminds me that are some things that ought to be trusted. When biographies seem to say that there is no such thing as a truly good and admirable person because all heroes have dirty secrets in their pasts, fluff reminds me that there are plenty of good people in this world worthy of my love and respect, even though they come with flaws and failures. Despite the academic presumption that emotions are unnecessary hindrances (a presumption all too easy for me to embrace, given my natural inclination toward distrusting my emotions and operating solely based on reason), fluff reminds me that emotions are good, and healthy, and even beneficial. And when other books try to persuade me that there are no happy endings, only temporal moments of happiness, or that I am the only thing in which I can believe or hope, or that the world is crumbling around me, fluff reminds me that I can forge my own happy ending. Love may not be enough to fix the universe, but it's an awfully good start to fixing my own life and motivating me to care about fixing all the rest.

So if you made it all the way to the end of this giant post, thanks for listening to my two cents. I love literary fiction too (I'd be a pretty terrible lit teacher if I didn't), and a diet of all fluff wouldn't be any better for you than a diet of all oranges, but I really believe that fluff is more than just an unhealthy snack. Someday, maybe it can gain a new name and take its rightful place as part of a well-rounded literary diet instead of being relegated to a single, guilty bite after dinner.