Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smok...

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smoking cigar. Español: Sigmund Freud, fundador del psicoanálisis, fumando. Česky: Zakladatel psychoanalýzy Sigmund Freud kouří doutník. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In reading and writing, who owes what to whom, I wonder.

Does the author owe it to the reader, to pander to their preconceived ideas and ideals?  Or is it the duty of the reader to put those notions aside at the door and open their mind to the text before them?  Perhaps both?

In a perfect world, to me, there would be no genre.  It’s a sticky thing.  It’s a useful tool, somewhat, for knowing what themes and tropes — what tools and building blocks — were used to create the story, but at the same time it can be a detrimental thing as readers may flock to a book thinking it’s something it isn’t, or scorn it for the same reason and all because of which shelf in the store it’s on, or which cute little sticker the library put on the spine.

In some ways, I do think authors owe a little to the reader.  I think, for example, that an author should not write a book that has signs of being built on fantasy themes and tropes, then call the short stocky things with beards and axes ‘elves’.  Most certainly she could do this.  It’s her world and story after all!  B’God write your story, not what someone else tells you it ought to be; but, and this is important, make a little concession to the reader by introducing that the short stocky bearded things are elves.  It comes down to description.  Don’t take for granted that your reader will decide that an elf is short stocky and bearded with an axe penchant.  However, if your elves are tall willowy and fae, then you need only say ‘elf’, because you’ve hit the natural assumptions.

The reader, however, owes the author a bit of slack.  Tropes, stereotypes, genre conventions, and so forth can only take us so far — we can only combine those in so many ways before we’ve run out of stories, unless we tinker and tamper with them.  We need to sometimes have dwarves that love trees, elves who love axes, and dragons who dance ballet.  We need redheads with the temperament of Mother Theresa, and blondes who’re super-geniuses.  We need sex-crazed Bible-thumpers, and professional companions who’ve taken vows of chastity.

Some notions, too, aren’t … natural.  These are personal notions.  This is nudity does not equal sex.  ‘He stood before her, admiring her nude form …’ can be the start of a sex scene or the start of a session in a photography studio.  Even if he’s naked as well.  And gay does not equal horny.  It means happy or homosexual.  ‘Jillian admired Ariel’s full, round breasts as she shifted her grip on the tattoo gun and …’ isn’t going to start a sex scene, Ariel is getting a tattoo from Jillian, who happens to admire women.

When we enjoy fiction created by another, we should consider that this person does not think as we think, do as we do, know as we know.  The fiction creator should ask himself, what is my audience going to absolutely know?

If you’re Michael Bay, agreeing to make the Transformers movie, you know your audience knows there ought to be giant robots, and they ought to fight; strangely some of the critics turned out to not know this … but that’s just proof that you’ll never please everyone.  If you’re Professor Tolkien, you know your audience does not know what a hobbit is.  Thus, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’ is going to be met with confusion; thus you continue further on with ‘What is a hobbit?  Well, I suppose they do need …’

As the reader however, you must maintain something of an open mind.  Allow the author that chance to explain to you what is a hobbit.  Also, give the author the benefit of the doubt as to just what a cigar is.  As Freud said, ‘sometimes [it] is just a cigar’, but as George Carlin stated ‘sometimes it’s a big brown dick’.  As writers we should be sure to give context to when it is which; a metaphor, after all, is lost if one is not given enough clues to know to look for and thus see it.

The nudity equals sex thing especially gets to me.  I find it a fascinating modern concept.  Once upon a time, people gathered to swim — even in some of the most conservative periods of the previous couple of centuries (not all, mind, I’m not a revisionist historian, I accept that normal was relative to time and place as much in 1763 as in 1996) — in nought but what God gave them.  Because that is how one swam, it wasn’t sex.  In some periods women and men swam together unashamedly, others they were to keep separate, and still more they could not even share the water in the first place.  But to say that two people were naked together could just as likely, more so in those days, speak to the reader that bathing/swimming was to ensue, or that some misadventure had just transpired.  Today, it means sex.  What puzzles me is that people will read sex even when there isn’t any.

Ed Greenwood has stated that his character Storm, is often naked as a place-holder for having sex due to the constraints of the TSR editors — he has also said that, sometimes, she was simply naked; also, if he had never said that, many would never have once suspected that a single sex scene was intended between the pages of any of those stories.  But many an author has no reason to have this.  If a character gets undressed it’s due to weather or other circumstance.

I think that one bothers me because it shows a kind of issue that goes beyond fiction.  That’s a social sickness in our own culture.  We’ve gone from believing that two characters in a book swimming together nude is a euphemistic sex scene, to believing that two people discovered together swimming nude are doing so to have sex.

It causes panic in the streets, CPA and the police are called if a mother attempts to develop film upon which she’d snapped a cute picture of her child in the bath — something that once upon a time was considered perfectly natural thing to want to do, and something to embarrass them with in a decade or so when her young beaus started showing up to take her out.  If a father catches his son naked with another boy ‘Oh my God!  They’re gay!’

We carry this into our reading.  Once upon a time, I would not have had to have anything more in the narrative of Love or Lust‘s second chapter but to say

Sally joined her new friend in the warm waters, eager to help revive the poor dear from the stresses of the encounter with Darrien.

Yvette showed Sally how to massage the arms, temple, chest, and side of the tiny form to seemingly wipe away the memory and the tears.  As the music began the two were lulled to a nap.

True, the real scene is, essentially, that, but my point is that it’s all I’d have had to say.  There’d have been no build up.  To put it into perspective, in the era of the later portions of the Little House series Laura is being taken out for rides in the country of a Sunday afternoon.  Pa and Ma trusted Almanzo, and they trusted Laura.  Simply put, the two had plenty  of opportunity to ensure that, once more, a blushing bride accomplished in 7 months, what takes 9 for cow or countess.  Certainly that expression means that, sometimes, that trust was misplaced — or was it?  She was a blushing bride in a slightly too tight dress, after all, so perhaps the trust was less misplaced and perhaps a bit overextended?  Or was it even that?  Maybe part of that trust was that, should such activity take place, and should it lead to a child, that the young man would marry the young woman without Pa needing to have a few words while holding a shotgun.  Certainly more than a few young gentlemen never even needed Pa’s words sans the shotgun — he came forward and proposed.  Oh, sure, sometimes those marriages weren’t so great — but that’s a risk no matter how you decide who to marry.  Give me a break, I’m a romance writer, we like (or at least I like) ‘and they lived happily ever after’.

It’s not just sex and nudity.  I just think that’sthe strangest one.  In the beginning half of the 20th century our good friend Mr Robert A Heinlein wrote a line that wowed, awed, stunned, and amazed:  ‘The door irised open.’

He’s acknowledging that people have a preconceived notion how a door works and looks — he also explained it no further, thus showing that the preconceived notion in the story is that they work and look this way.

This is the give and take between author and reader at it’s finest.  It is.  On his side, Heinlein acknowledged that the reader would not think of iris, thus he did not simply say ‘the door opened’.  For the reader’s part, they accepted (or were meant to, and as I understand it did back then — not so much now, but that’s a discussion for another time) that it was as unimportant to the story, the characters, and the moment than if we were to say ‘the door swung shut’ — the purpose of saying ‘irised’ was much as ‘swung’ a little extra description, a sharper image of the scene.

One curiosity I’ve found with regards to notions is a mode of thought I find most often in my American friends, though it isn’t exclusive there:  My experiences are what is perfectly normal and the way that it always works.  No, of course no one has said that sentence outright … at least no one I’ve met.  Rather it’s the mentality they seem wont to approach life with.  Take a conversation that happened when I showed a few friends my blurb for Love or Lust

It’s a week before her freshman year when Lauren Conners is thinking, for what feels like the billionth time, of breaking up with her boyfriend of the past couple of years. In a seeming answer to her fervent prayers for guidance she looks up into the hypnotic eyes of the quiet little Washington town’s exotic, dark, and alluring new addition.

That paragraph really tripped one gentleman up.  He just could not fathom the idea of a fourteen year old who’d been dating anyone for a couple of years.  And it wasn’t ‘oh what a novel idea’ it was ‘this is just horribly unrealistic’ (not the exact quote, but I can’t recall his words precisely, but that’s pretty close).  A mutual friend and I just stared for a moment.  We could understand, because we’d known of the idea of people not being allowed to date till they’re 14/15/16/35, but we also knew plenty of kids who’d been dating in one form or another … well, in my case, as far back as 7 or 8 years old.  Because, like with nudity, dating doesn’t have to mean sex.  It floored me, and worried me somewhat — was my experience so unusual?  So I asked around, and no … a lot of people were rather surprised by his reaction.  Some understood, but not how he could think it unrealistic — just that depending what state you’re standing in, it might be more or less normal.

This would be an example of the reader not keeping up his end of the bargain.  I’ve given the context: Washington (a traditionally quite progressive and open minded state) and ‘fervent prayers’ (a clue that this young lady is not likely to be a member of the Boy of the Week Club).  It was his job, on the flip side, to accept that — within the context of the story — fourteen year olds might have been dating since some time in 6th or 7th grade.  It’s also an example of what I mean about the sex.  In the more conservative past, it would be seen as odd that the young lady was courting at 12-14 (barring certain eras and social classes, we could discuss that in several volumes — just stay with me here, please) but it would raise an eyebrow or seven, but they would wait to understand the rest of the context.  Certainly their objections to it would simply be ‘well, it’s not time to be finding her a husband yet’.  However, today, in this era of Boy/Girl of the Week Club and dating from some point in middle or high school and through college, which eliminates the ‘that’s no time to be finding her a husband’ now we object?!  In the era of homosexuality being a mental illness and criminal offence young Sally and Lauren sharing a bath is seen as a sweet friendship (let’s just ignore the having decided to be girlfriends from the preceding chapter for the sake of argument, shall we?); today in the era of gay marriages and a push (dare I say shift to?) acceptance it’s ‘oh my God!  I can’t believe the parents allowed, even encouraged such a thing!’

Why not?  Nothing happens, there’s no hint that something will or should happen.  Why mayn’t two friends — regardless of how long known — share a soothing tub?  Is it because Sally is !GASP! a lesbian!?  [cue dramatic chord]  Why should that matter?  I’ve known two men, one gay and attracted to the other who was not gay, to share a bed.  They slept.  No euphemism, they simply slept together.  The gay friend might have wanted there to be more, and even suggested it a few times — but, strangely enough, gay men and lesbian women seem to speak a language that includes the word ‘no’ (or nej, or nein, or geen, or 不是 …) just as doe their heterosexual counterparts.  Would it somehow be overlooked as sweet if it isn’t known, at the time of that scene, that Sally prefers the ladies?  How about if it is, but the two girls are not yet a couple?

It’s back to the iris door.  Do we accept that this is normal and move on, now that we’ve been given — in four words!  that’s what I find amazing — the pertinent information about the visual scenery and the simple fact that this is not our today and world?  Or do we clamour ‘it isn’t realistic that the door would iris!  it would mean …’ and ‘why does the door iris!?  Oh God!  I can’t continue!  He has left me hanging here wondering just what catastrophe in history destroyed the humble door hinge!  Where’s the historical dissertation regarding this change in human habit!?’

Personally?  I say the former.  Authors, drop your hints.  Don’t forget your irises; don’t forget to establish your hippies don’t forget to describe your short, axeweilding, beer swigging, hairy faced elves!  You owe it to your readers sense of understanding.  Readers, you’ve a job too!  Acceptance.  If the door irises open, just accept that it does and that history has a reason and that the reason is not important right now.  It’s one adjective, relax.  If a hippie isn’t shy about being naked with someone, or allowing her daughter to be so, then relax … she’s not your daughter.  If the elves want to grow beards and destroy the tavern in a drunken brawl then so be it … it isn’t your setting.

2 thoughts on “Notions

  1. By the by, I want to thank the individual on Goodreads who gave me one star.

    I’ve been wanting to make this post for months and couldn’t find a focal point to bring it all together.

    I have no delusions that you will see either this post or comment, but regardless — no irony, no sarcasm — I sincerely thank you.

    I’m glad you tried to read my book. I’m sorry you didn’t like it. You helped me nonetheless. Your criticism reminded me of conversations I’d had with others, and with myself, when I was writing Love or Lust and helped guide my words to express my idea regarding the reader-author contract.

    I’m sorry you couldn’t get past Yvette asking Sally to run a bath. It does rather confuse me — running a bath isn’t even joining her in it, it’s a phrase that means put water in a very large basin into which a person will go — but you would have objected a bit later when Yvette suggests Sally join. C’est la vie. At the end of the day we’re human. We all have our prejudices and notions. Me? I can’t finish Twilight with the narrator saying ‘plain’ and ‘normal’ and ‘unremarkable’ then showing the opposite. I also make absolutely sure to lock my car doors, take my stereo faceplate with me, and ensure no valuables are in sight in the cab of my truck when I’m in an area with a large yuppie population; I also eye the people around me in such neighbourhoods quite warily and suspiciously (no I’m not kidding, though I might be slightly exaggerating).


  2. Pingback: Notions [Reblog] | Shannon's Professional Blog

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