Monday, 25 June 2018

Some passing thoughts on God

I have a fanciful target to send out 365 short story submissions this calendar year; I suspect my next posting will be an update at how I'm performing against that goal.

In trying not to scrape through the bottom of the barrel just to keep some arbitrary numbers up, I've gone back to previously published works, like my noir-ish desert-set thriller Death of a Medicine Man, which appeared in Crimson Fog in 2012, a publication so obscure I could probably pass my story off as unpublished.  If I hadn't just typed those words, of course.  Doh!

I went back to my mss and the comments the editorial team had on it.  Here's a line from that story: "Half-Moon thought for a moment, the voice of Rosemary Clooney drifting out of an open window farther down the sidewalk."

This elicited the following comment: Very weird image, until I realized he was talking about music; and response from the editor-in-chief: Agreed with Andrea. I don't know Rosemary Clooney, and our readers might not either, but a simple addition here solves the problem, I think.

I know this isn't exactly what they're saying, but there is an implication of editor as God: that the knowledge, experience, and literary & cultural references of readers should be a subset of the editors.  If the editors get the reference or joke, then so will the readers.  If they don't, then please explain for the hard of understanding.  Doesn't matter that (and this is the crucial point to me), given the milieu, Rosemary Clooney would be well known to the narrator and he wouldn't need to, or even think to, spell it out.

I'm not sure if I ever did rewrite that line, but I've always worked on the basis that readers are clever, especially en masse, much cleverer than writers.  Or editors.  I actually enjoy a clear reference that I don't get; it makes me explore, find out what the author was getting at, find out things that I didn't know.  Or when I do get it - I still have a very soft spot for Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, for the moment when the reading of the second and stranger part of Coleridge's Kubla Khan begins.  Not a tricky joke to get, granted, but it does give you the feeling of privileged access.  

I'm currently rewriting a story for James Gunn's Ad Astra (which doesn't mean that it's sold by any means), which involves an alcoholic taking refuge on a dry colony.  Offered a drink, he is surprised that the reasons for his escaping Earth are not known.  The response comes, “Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator's wife? I like to think you killed a man."

The line is, of course, from Casablanca.  I haven't credited it - but the speaker is described as an aesthete given to literary quotations - and may even cut it down to the last part to make it less on the nose and less problematic, copyright-wise.  But the point is, Rick then goes on to say that he came to Casablanca for the waters, exactly the same reason my alcoholic travels to Titan.  It a subtlety that'll be lost on ninety-nine out of a hundred readers.  But I'm writing for the one percent who will smile, their thought process echoing mine.

There is a flip-side to this, which is readers telling you your story is an allegory for man's inhumanity to man; or the politics of the Philippines; or how they're feeling right then, right there, whereas it's actually a simple story about a personality clash on a faraway planet.  I have no idea of the state of your soul, honest.  I only make the mirror, not the visions you see in it. 

Of course, we all know that the writer is God, pulling the strings, making the puppets dance, but only within the world of the story.  Outside, in the bigger, scarier real world, it's you, the reader.  And I'll continue to try to treat you are as clever as the cleverest amongst you, not on a par with the dumbest.  It's the only way I know.

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