Reading and Writing “Unsafe” Fiction

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These days, grown men wear bicycle helmets. No one old enough to leave the house goes without a cell phone, and “insurance” can come with every item you purchase.  When someone wants to criticize you, they most often do it through two firewalls, three levels of encryption, and under a pseudonym. And whether it’s within the walls of a school where “bully” is a more feared word than “gun,” or 9,000 miles outside our borders, where our government spends billions to protect us from threats that may or may not even exist, things in 2012 have gotten pretty safe. It’s the inevitable cultural backlash from September 11, 2001 anxiety.

For creators and consumers of fiction, at least, things may be a little too safe. There was a time, only 200 years ago, when this was not at all the case–you wouldn’t dare admit, in decent company, to reading novels. They were’t good for you, because they weren’t true. But in 2012, all true, all plausible, nothing harmful. Like organic vegetables. Watch TV tonight: if someone is murdered, don’t worry. A dozen geniuses in bulletproof labcoats will expend every last resource of technology to ensure the killer spontaneously reveals himself before that 9th commercial break. So don’t worry–go buy something, tomorrow–and meanwhile, eat something.

There’s a lot of advice, in the new era of self-publishing, about writing what’s marketable (talk about fearsome words.) In sifting through the dozens and dozens of articles, one often encounters the encouragement to “create a backlist”–the idea being that, once readers trust you, know what they’re getting, they’ll likely return to draw from the well of your other works. As if the writing of several books could–or should– be done on a production-line basis. And yet, seminars even exist about how to author and self-publish an e-book in a month, a week, even a weekend.

Obviously, the kind of work produced under such severe time- and motive-constraints will have several quantifiable features: gimmicky (at best,) formulaic, cliche-ridden, dialogue as padding rather than in support of a tenable plot or serious character development. In a word, SAFE. Like the latest adolescent horror movie: no real surprises, but enough tricks (the “boo” shot, the flip-ending) and treats (naked breasts, or gratuitous gore, whichever you like) to keep you from asking for a refund.

Sure, literary history is full of examples of legitimate authors resorting to hack writing to keep body and soul together. Louisa May Alcott is a favorite example of mine, churning out much “sensational” fiction to support a large family, because her father couldn’t or wouldn’t, and in the end working herself literally to death. So I won’t go so far as to say there’s anything fundamentally wrong with mainstream fiction, television, and movies. They make money, and we all enjoy them at the odd time.

However, for those of us seeking to consume something better–moreover, seeking to create something better–can any of us be spared to write unsafely? What do I even mean by that?

Here are a few criteria. The unsafe fiction:

–attempts to use a vocabulary of more than 8,000 discrete words, including strong verbs and less-familiar synonyms

–employs sentence variety, and departs from the standard subject-verb-object (who did what to whom?) construction regularly, which requires more reader concentration

–does not overly rely on dialogue when narrative is called for

–invents a premise that is neither post-apocalyptic nor involves vampires (or similarly outworn devices)
–eschews the exploitation of human fears and perversity that defines 90% of American television programs (the culture of cop shows and freak shows)

–bothers to develop plausible backstories and motivations for its characters

–pays attention to relevant details while resisting the inclusion of irrelevant ones

–does not overtly or covertly support the culture’s dominant ideologies (consumer capitalism, cuthroat competition, uncritical jingoism, and adolescent individualism)–in addition to practicing casual and active sexism, which is very popular, or paying mere lip service against racism and homophobia–also very trendy right now

–occasionally experiments with its prose or concepts (to the extent that nothing is really new, what I mean here is that the author tries something unfamiliar to them, and which actually could fail)

–does not attempt to be all things to all people–that is, some readers might actually hate it. Ah, commercial volatility. Now we’re getting somewhere!

But don’t take my word for it. Come up with your own criteria.

C’mon, writers, teachers, bloggers–it’s October. What’s really scary? (If you think the answer is “wasting your time,” don’t forget what’s also looming, and that’s reading season). Try something that is not a sure thing. Knock on the old, crazy lady’s door. It’s not as if there’s a very fine line between what’s sensible and what’s utterly reckless, though our cultural parents would love us to believe that. There’s a whole, long limb on that tree outside your window. The wind may have picked up, and the clouds threaten rain. But winter is not here, yet.

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