Tina K. Russell

February 3, 2009

Learning the Tropes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 7:15 pm

What Do You Mean, It’s Not Didactic? – Television Tropes & Idioms
Right, so you’re looking through the library and come across a copy of Moby Dick. First published in 1851? Wow, if it’s still being published after more than 150 years, it must be good! You’ve heard a lot of good things about this novel, so you eagerly check it out and head home.

Later, you open it up and discover there’s a preface. Might as well read that to get an idea of the context it was written, and so maybe enjoy it even more. You start reading, and naturally the preface begins by summarizing the plot… wait, why are you annoyed? You weren’t planning on reading it for the story, were you? This isn’t just literature, it’s a work of True Art! In the minds of Really Clever Literary Critics, the true worth of a book, movie, or TV series is not in telling an engrossing story with interesting characters, but in allowing people to write long, complex, deep essays on the true meaning of the subject matter, whatever they think that may be. Once the critics have done this sort of analysis, they can objectively declare these works as True Art: it doesn’t matter how much you personally like or dislike these works so long as you understand the deeper meaning behind them. Only ignorant fools don’t understand. Such an attitude may be expressed in several ways:

You can even get away with Completely Missing The Point if you’re a Really Serious Critic who wants to reveal all sorts of Family Unfriendly Aesops inside a work, whether or not they have anything to do with the actual characters or plot. Goodness forbid that the author(s) wanted you to do so. How long will it be before high school/college students are forced to write long-winded essays about the philosophical and socio-religious undertones of Harry Potter? (Answer: Already happened.)

Note that having the plot given away becomes less and less of an issue the older the subject is. Most people who haven’t read, for example, Moby Dick will still be familiar with key plot points due to Popcultural Osmosis. See It Was His Sled.

See also True Art Is Angsty, True Art Is Incomprehensible.

Good God, this website is brilliant! It’s already sucked away hours of my life. It’s a complete listing of clichés that have appeared in (despite the site’s title) every fictional work, ever. All are named, identified, and catalogued. It feels like a certain consumer comeuppance. And, as such tropes are not necessarily bad (as the site eagerly points out), it’s like revealing that the emperor has no clothes—and hey, the emporer’s not that bad looking. He could be Mr. September on the Vainly Deceptive Heads of State swimsuit calendar. (I hope there’s a trope entry for what I just did, going too far on an allusion. You know, like instead of going out on a limb, you’ve staked out a tree for a week as part of an anti-logging public protest, only to find that the threatened tree you needed to protect is a couple meters over and already chopped down. It distracts from the text.)

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May 8, 2008

Like lilies, glistening after a protracted steam bath, she picked up the thimble with the gentleness of a spring breeze and the grace of a novice plumber

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:22 pm

This Wikipedia article will probably be edited down in due time, because it goes entirely too far in depth into a book I’ve never heard of. However, I must say, this book sounds awesome. For instance, here are its “Ten Rules for Serious Writers”:

A Reader’s Manifesto – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

1. Be Writerly: If your writing is too natural, then there is no way it is scholarly.

2. Sprawl: Content doesn’t matter, it’s all about size. Critics are impressed by big books, so brevity should be dismissed.

3. Equivocate: If it doesn’t make sense, there can always be a good excuse. Truth can always be distorted as long as it makes the writer sound good. For example, the plot isn’t important because the lack of plot is what’s important.

4. Mystify: If people think that your writing is smarter than their writing, then they will respect your writing. If you sound smart (and definitely if you are published) then you must possess a brilliant mind.

5. Keep Sentences Long: If the sentence is not long and boring, then it is definitely not literature.

6. Repeat yourself: Repetition of words is important. If you don’t mention your subject enough times, then the reader may not know what you are talking about. You may also use synonyms to show that you know how to use a thesaurus, and thus, must be an intelligent writer.

7. Pile on the Imagery: Your writerly credentials will bloom to greatness if your ability to tie together multiple similes and metaphors like the wooden pieces of a Lincoln log set, never disintegrate from the fiery visage of the sun. The more literary devices that you can throw together, the better the writing .

8. Archaize: If thine style of writing reflects an age long gone, and a world unfamiliar to the modern reader, than thou art indeed a master of the quill and the ink. This is very similar to rule number four, except you must write as if you are stuck in the past, rather than stuck in a dictionary.

9. Bore: The word boring may as well be a synonym to the word scholarly. Along the lines of rule number one, you cannot write naturally, or make your words interesting. It is simply not scholarly. People are not suppose to be able to understand your writing, they are only suppose to realize that your writing is brilliant, because it just might be the cure for insomnia.

10. Play the part: Remember to be as you write, scholarly, literate, practically a god. You must understand that when you seem smart, when you seem to believe in yourself, others will do the same, because, how could someone that is so smart and so pompous be wrong?

I’m a good writer, but I’m both insecure about my ability (like any creator) and surrounded by people less talented than me. Let me say that again. I’m good at writing, but in any given room I’m likely to be around people who are better at other things than me. Writing is my thing, but I don’t network enough with other writers, so I get an inflated sense of how good my writing is because I too often talk about writing with friends who don’t write (but, I’m sure, can kick my ass at other things, like music, sports, and keys-not-forgetting). You know, I’ve never quite realized what a big problem that is for me. I guess I should join a writer’s group, or something.

Anyway, what I mean to say is that I find that list high-larious, not because I spend much time reading high-minded literary journals (I don’t, and the last time I really enjoyed a piece of fiction was when I positively devoured Nina, Adolescence a few years back, and I recommended you chow down as well sometime), but because I am, in my heart of hearts, horrified that I’ll end up in the same traps.

I mentioned, sorta, that I don’t read enough (well, not enough fiction, even though I’d like to write some of that stuff mah-self in time), but I have read enough to have cringed many times at a sentence that was grating or overly evocative (in all the wrong ways), with the most searing point of pain in my mind being that the writer must have been so proud of that part.

So, of course, I now know… if I really, really like a tiny little iota of something I’ve written, and I’m really proud of it, I may want to get rid of it. If it’s really worthwile to stay in, it’ll creep back in, I’m sure.

I didn’t just put that list up to mock pretentious writers, though I’m always up for mocking pretentiousness in general (see my previous post, “High Art”), it’s also because it’s funny because I’m afraid I might end up there. I’m terrified, as a utilitarian, of the idea of form divorced from content, or the idea of form as content, that it doesn’t matter what we’re reading, it’s that it’s hard to read and we’re busy stroking our chins contemplating how smart we are for reading such dense, bad fiction. There’s a difference between story and storytelling… storytelling is kind of like a condiment. You wouldn’t want to read a story told poorly, or in unnecessarily dense language, just as you wouldn’t want to eat a hamburger slathered with crude oil. A story told straight might be like a hamburger served plain, so it can be satisfying, but… missing something. Add ketchup and mustard in the form of good storytelling, and it brings out the flavor and creates one tasty burger-story.

Hey, I kind of like that. Damn!

Now I have to strike it.

Anyway, I had one more thing to say. (I should stop starting paragraphs with “so” and “anyway!” It’s not good writing, after all. Neither is using words like “sorta” or “mah-self.” I like to say I can get away with it because this blog is written in colloquial style. I’m more bothered by grammar mistakes that do not reveal whether or not the writer actually knows what the write way is. Anyway…) (Damn!) I do want to be the greatest writer who ever lived–feel free to chuck some dangling participles at me, to toughen me up–but this shows that I must be sure to keep my head out of the clouds and meet with diverse groups of people, to avoid close-minded echo chambers that will enhance the worst aspects of my writing.

Anyway (damn!), the point is: love your readers, they pay your bills. Even if I don’t become famous enough to hole myself up in an apartment and become a celebrated mystery for the rest of my life (though wherever he is, I’m sure J.D. Salinger has World of WarCraft), I think I’ll be happy with just one of those book-signings with twenty or so adoring fans. Well, maybe more than one. As many as I can. I’ll be a book-signing monster.

Still, you see what I mean… if you write in unnecessarily dense language, or take pride in your work being accessible only by the elite, you’re placing a cap on how many readers you will attract and handing yourself a dwindling audience. Obviously, if you enjoy what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter how many (or few) readers you have as long as you’re happy. But, if you enjoy what you’re doing, you’re probably not loading your books on purpose with confoundingly dense prose. …Unless you consider that process itself to be a Tetris-like thing of beaty, stacking blocks just right to produce a precarious but unyielding stack of figures. If you do, more power to you, just don’t expect to see me at your book signing.

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