greygirlbeast (greygirlbeast) wrote,

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This Only Song I Know. (Part 1.5 or contd. or whatever)

Lately, the things that I've been saying here have been drawing a little more attention and flak in other online journals than I'm accustomed to my entries attracting. It seems to have begun with my entry of July 24th and the remarks I made about a Kirkus reviewer describing Anansi Boys as "self-indulgent," then continued with my remarks on August 7th regarding the value of Entertainment Weekly book reviews and yesterday's response to readers who complain about "unlikable" characters in my books. I have no wish to become involved in some sort of interblog flamewar, but there are some things I'd like to say. To wit, a response to comments made by Catherine M. Morrison (chance88088), who has incorrectly identified herself as the primary inspiration for what I wrote yesterday (and be aware that there may be spoilers):

And since Ms. Kiernan seems to be responding to my comment in Gwenda's blog where I said I didn't care for Murder of Angels because I found the characters unlikable and the writing self-indulgent, I might as well define what I mean by unlikable because she is missing the boat on what I mean by that too. When I find a character unlikable it generally means that reading them is a chore - usually it means the characters are whiny or self-pitying or boring or something else that makes me want to gouge my eyes out and I have no connection to them at all. And if there is no empathetic resonance with a character, I am not going to care what happens to them.

The attempt to define "likable" is appreciated, though, having read it, I'm pretty sure that I haven't "missed the boat." To begin with, as I have said many times before, I do not believe that a novel should be easy. I believe the reader has the same responsibility to work at the story and the characters and to work at them just as hard as the writer has. I do not write pabulum or pudding. I don't even write oatmeal. It isn't meant for easy ingestion or digestion. I wouldn't have chosen the word "chore," but it's not entirely inappropriate. I do expect my readers to exert themselves, and if that's not the sort of reading experience you're after, then my books aren't intended for you. Now, as to the matter of characters being "whiny or self-pitying or boring," well, again we run up against issues of subjectivity and the difficulty of defining terms, especially with "boring." I can hardly imagine anyone would find Niki or Daria, Walter or Archer dull, but I can hardly imagine a lot of things that people do every single day, so this should come as no surprise. Are they whiny? It's a criticism that has been leveled at my characters many times before. I've been looking back over the first two or three chapters of the novel, and I'm hard pressed to describe either Niki or Daria (or Marvin or much of anyone else — except perhaps one of the kids at Stonington Cemetery) as whiny.

Are they "self-pitying"? This is a more problematic criticism and not necessarily one that I wish to dismiss. Yes, I would expect that both Daria and Niki are feeling somewhat sorry for themselves. Likewise, Walter and Archer Day. But let's stick with Niki for the moment. Niki has been branded a psychotic and has become a virtual prisoner in her home, and she's well aware that Daria, whom she loves deeply, is slipping away from her. She lives with terrible memories of the experiences that have led to her diagnosis as schizophrenic. For years, her thoughts have been disregarded as delusional. She knows that her partner is cheating on her. And as the novel opens, the horrors from her past have begun to intrude more directly upon her present. So, yeah, I'd imagine that some part of Niki is feeling a little self-pity. Is that a problem? In a society that promotes self-love, isn't it a little one-sided not to recognize the validity of self-pity? I mean, if I can love myself, doesn't it stand to reason that I can also feel sorry for myself, and if my self-love is valid, then can my self-pity not be equally valid? I would say so. I would even say that, in this light, some degree of self-pity (or self-empathy) is quite desirable. I suppose that one might say that Niki's self-pity is an entirely negative emotion if it were to lead her only to inaction.

But it doesn't. Niki not only confronts Daria, she sets about trying to return to the source of her trauma in order to confront her fears. In Chapter Two ("Wolves We All Can See"), Niki Ky is at last taking charge of her life again, wresting that control from the people who have taken it from her, and setting off on a personal journey that, from my point of view, would require almost unimaginable courage. She believes she's preparing to face monsters, both real and metaphorical, and I would say that part of her motivation arises from recognizing how badly she's been treated by those who either mistakenly believe they're acting in her best interest or who have come to see her as an inconvenience and an embarrassment. Niki Ky may feel self-pity, but she most assuredly isn't wallowing in it. Now, does this make Niki "unlikable"? I can't say, as "likability" is highly subjective and not something a writer should be thinking about (much less worrying about) while writing a novel. In short, whether or not a novel's characters are "likable" is a moot issue as regards the worth of any novel. Novelists are not here to serve up likable characters. Okay. Enough of that. Let's talk about self-indulgence for a moment. Ms. Morrison writes:

Ms. Kiernan does something I particularly dislike when framing her argument. She basically says "If X means Y, it's silly for a critic to complain about Y because it's intrinsic to the nature of writing fiction." (Where X is self-indulgent and Y is "pursuing ones interests".) Except critics clearly don't mean Y when they call a writer self-indulgent. And she knows it. (Because if they were using it to mean what she says it does it shouldn't bother her at all because she's set up a value neutral definition. But it does, so she's clearly pulling a cheat.)

To start with, I have to correct this by stating that my original argument would have defined X as "fiction writing" and Y not as "pursuing ones interests," but as "an inherently self-indulgent act." Of course, I might be splitting hairs here, as writing fiction probably means that one is indulging oneself by pursuing his or her interest in writing fiction. And yes, I do claim that profound self-indulgence is intrinsic to writing, and also to reading, fiction. And, moreover, yes, I would say that it's silly for a critic to object to self-indulgence in fiction, as I have stated the act is necessarily self-indulgent. As I see it, to do so is rather like critiquing a tuna by complaining that it has gills. Have I pulled a "cheat"? No, because I emphatically do not know what a critic means by self-indulgent, unless that critic has bothered to define the term, and, in my experience, they rarely do. So long as the term remains undefined and I am left only with my belief that X (fiction) entails Y (self-indulgence), I am being perfectly honest. I suspect that "when they call a writer self-indulgent" they mean very many things, and often one critic means a thing that contradicts what another critic means. This seems rather obvious. I have come to know something of what Ms. Morrison means by the term. For example, she insists that Tolkien's appendices to The Lord of the Rings are an example of self-indulgence. I wonder what she makes of The Silmarillion, which Tolkien cared about so much more than LotR. Anyway, in the end, as with the word "likable," I find that the term "self-indulgent" is of no particular utility when discussing fiction. It's a sloppy short cut used by reviewers who either aren't sure what they mean or can't be bothered to say what they mean. I kind of suspect it most often means, "this doesn't interest me as much as it interests the author." I also refer you to Matt Cheney, who has some interesting things to say on this subject.

I've had enough of this for one afternoon. I should have been indulging my self-interests and writing. I might have at least managed some rambling nonsense here about Kid Night, blueberry muffins, the sticky weather, feathered Chinese tyrannosaurids, and Final Fantasy X-2. More's the pity.
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