Because PIL had it right

I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I am, essentially, a person that wavers between the frivolous and the downright irate (and even the source of my irritation is essentially frivolous, when you get right down to it). I realise this because a week ago I made the decision to stop being lazy, and part of this was making a list of all those things that I keep meaning to blog about without ever getting around too it. It’s a big list, too – over the last couple of years I’ve had a lot of ideas pass through that have captured my imagination and had me thinking “hell, yeah, I really should say something about that.” The net result of this is a half-dozen files on my computer which contain the beginning, and even the middle of posts, but never really catch the feeling of being something I’d put up on the interwebs.

So today I’m giving in and being frivolously ranty about two things that have annoyed me of late. I can do angry ranting; John Lydon had it right when he talked about anger and energy. Have at it:

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Frothing Rant One: I Am Not a Dear Reader

Over the last couple of days I’ve read a bunch of stuff – essays, blog posts, comments, whatever – that choose to believe that I am a dear reader. I know this, because they address me as such, just as they address every other person that stumbles across their prose. It’s right there in black and white: As you know, Dear Reader, blah blah blah. And godsfuckit, I get angry every time it happens. Most of the time I’ll stop reading right there; I’m not a dear reader. Nor am I a gentle reader, which may seem like the logical alternative to the phrase. What I am, when you get right down to it, is a bloody hostile reader full of piss, rage and vinegar. If, as a writer, you’ve made any kind of assumption that I’m on your side then I’m afraid you’re dreadfully mistaken.

Instead, big ol’ bitter meany that I am, I tend to start at the direct opposite of the spectrum from the kind of folks who use phrases like Dear Reader. I assume hostility and a willingness to put things down, a lack of sympathy on the reader’s part that says “engage me*, you bastard, or I’m walking off and reading one of the hundreds of other books/blogs on my list of things to do before I die.”

I’d like to say this has been startling revelation to me, but it basically confirms something that I’ve suspected for a long while – I’m not on the authors side, and I suspect this is so for the vast majority of readers.  This isn’t to say we don’t want to see the book succeed – heck, why start reading if that’s the case – but I have no problems walking off if it doesn’t do *something* to keep us there after the first few pages.

*engagement being, of course, very different to entertainment.

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Frothing Rant Two: Why I Hate Frame Stories  Self-Help Books

I mentioned my growing use (and anxiety about) of frame stories in current drafts last week, which prompted my old compadre villainous_mog to ask the following question on the LJ feed: “If I ask what a framing story is, will it provoke a hate-fueled rant of stabby words?” I tried to answer to question there, but as predicted there was a rant associated (albeit one devoid of hate and stabby words). Fortunately, thanks to the wikipedia entry, there is a short answer to be given on the matter: it’s basically a technique in which the opening of the narrative sets the stage for digressions into sub-narratives contained within the frame; in essence, a means of telling stories within a story. The most immediate fictive example that comes to mind is Neil Gaiman’s story October in the Chair, or collections like 1001 Arabian Nights and Canterbury Tales; cinematic examples would be films like The Princess Bride or Big Fish.

The problem with all those examples is, of course, that they don’t suck*. They’re examples of frame stories done right, or at least frame-stories forgiven for being frame-stories by virtue of historical importance. I’m wracking my brain trying to think of some examples that don’t suck outright, but it’s hard to do – partially, I think, because a smart editor isn’t going to put a crappy frame-story tale out into the world and partly because a frame story that goes wrong is far easier to disregard and ignore than a simple bad story.

Actually, no, I take that back – I can think of two widely-read examples that do suck, although it’s primarily because their use of the framing technique is particularly insidious rather than ineffective. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both come from the field of self-help; the first is Who Moved My Cheese and the second is a book called The One Minute Millionaire. I’ve been subjected to both of these – the former through job-search training many years ago, which may well have marked the official point that I gave up on employment services having anything worthwhile to teach me, and the second through an ex-girlfriend who believed heavily in self-help (not that I don’t, to be honest, but I believe strongly in discriminating and being critical of what you’re taking in).

The reason these two books strike me as insidious reflects the real reason I tend to have problems with frame stories. In Who Moved My Cheese the story primarily revolves one character telling another, whose down on his luck, the story of mice and little human beings trapped in a maze. The story is, of course, a metaphoric parable and it aids the down-on-his-luck story-tellee considerably, revolutionizing his life and sending him out into the world a different man. The reason this is evil is because the narrative is basically manipulative – the frame-story sets you up to believe that the advice you’re getting in the parable is actually useful because there’s someone right there, in the story, being transformed by it.

Bad self-help books love this technique because it’s easy to be drawn in by it, and because you can manipulate the reading and interpretation of your work. Smart readers will call you on your bullshit, obviously (and if you want to see this in action, I direct you to an old post by John Scalzi, who attacks the foibles of the text with considerable more aplomb than I do). My memory of the One Minute Millionaire is considerably less detailed than the first book – primarily because it’s longer, but also because there wasn’t anyone locking me in a room for two hours with the expectation that it’d take that long to finish reading a sixty-page book** – but I took an immediate dislike to the way it used a similar technique to make an argument about getting rich that flew in the face of my even my basic understanding of economic theory and the way the world works.

This does illustrate my basic concern with frame-stories though – it’s a technique that makes it very easy to guide meaning, but also to add the illusion of depth or meaning to a story that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Part of the seductive allure of the frame is that you can make things seem important even when they’re not, or make things work by adding in a particular reaction to something. That’s why I tend to look at it like a warning sign when I find myself writing frames for my stories – like my tendency towards fractured, fragment-driven narratives it’s a familiar technique that I fall back on rather heavily when I’m not sure how to make things work. This doesn’t always mean that I’m going to look askance at every story using said techniques, but I’m going to sit down and ask myself some serious questions about why I’m using it and whether it’s the best way to go.

In sitting down to write this I started wondering what it takes for me to enjoy a frame-story, and basically I think it’s a technique that’s at its best when there is a definite and meaningful tension between the two (or more) stories being told. In the aforementioned Big Fish, for example, the stories are driving the narrative within the larger frame, making overt changes that the primary protagonist wants to resist. It works because there’s a real resistance there – the real story we’re being told is about the relationship between the protagonist and his dead father, which is constantly informed by the tall-tales his father told. Interestingly, I think October in the Chair works because it goes in the opposite direction – the complete absence of a meaningful connection between frame-story and framed-story invites the reader in, basically triggering the sensawanda that drives most Gaiman fans to seek out his work and then enjoy the possible links they come up with (that said: I think it also works because I enjoy the frame story more than the framed one, which I’ve often skipped on re-reading). In a bad frame story the frame is at the service of the inner story, enhancing it; in a good one, the inner stories are there to enhance the outer.

*actually, if I’m honest, I could live without the outer frame story in The Princess Bride movie. And I could live without the framed story in October in the Chair, since the frame is generally the place where the really fantastical stuff happens and the story that’s being told has a strange disconnection from it.
**I was sufficiently bored that I read Who Moved My Cheese a couple of times, hoping like hell that I was missing something that’d make it worth the time. There wasn’t.

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