Jack Finney (he of Invasion of the Body Snatchers fame) once wrote a story called "I'm Scared", where an unnamed narrator describes a slew of cases collected by him over the years in which time itself seems to have become put out of joint. Finney wrote "science fiction for people who don't read science fiction" — the sort of thing that was marketed to slicks like Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post back when a person could make quite a decent living as a short-story author.
"I'm Scared" wasn't my first introduction to SF, time travel, or Finney (I'd seen Body Snatchers on TV). It was, I think, my first introduction to SF-that-is-not-SF, at least in written form. Michael Crichton, if memory serves, came after that, as did Kurt Vonnegut. It also wasn't until sometime in high school that I ran into Vonnegut's own words about SF-or-not-SF and his unease at being lumped in with it. As Frederik Pohl once mentioned, Vonnegut had visited the Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference and walked out of there with a bad taste in his mouth. "From them on," Pohl wrote, "he distanced himself from science fiction in every way he could — except in what he wrote." Read more
On my last trip to the library to pick up some stuff on hold*, I ran across a couple of books which I remembered being blurbed about at the time of their release as being written in the style of this or that type of book from decades past (e.g., The Qincunx).
I've flirted with the idea of writing books like that — something clearly modeled in the manner and spirit of a work of previous days, although of course written in the present day. The problem, as I've come to understand it, is that it is literally impossible to write such a thing.Read more
It was in a conversation about the ubiquitous The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that I brought up a homily that’s been repeated many times elsewhere: A mediocre book can often be made into an excellent film, and many of the best books — even those without terribly radical storytelling or use of language — are all but unfilmable.
I was late to the Dragon Tattoo party, I admit. I already knew the bare outlines of the story — and the backstory, which is at least as interesting as the books themselves — and was able to read the first volume equipped with that understanding. But what was good about the story, the various interlaced knots of intrigue and the ways Lisbeth Salander takes revenge on her tormentors was buried under prose so pedestrian and unabsorbing I could barely sustain an interest. Read more
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Been a while since I looked at what movies are coming down the pike, so —Read more
Back here I mentioned in passing how one of my constant bugaboos in bad writing is when we get description vs. observation. This was one of those on-the-spot coinages, where I took two words with marginally different shades of meaning and used them to imply two markedly different things.
When you describe something, you're simply looking at it and giving us external details. When you're observing something, you're doing more than looking: you're assessing, comprehending, coming to an understanding about it, and then communicating that understanding. It's the difference between "He was bored" and "He pulled out pocket lint and lined it up on his desk".
Joseph Mitchell was a master of reporting back telling details — not surprising at all, since he was a reporter, y'know. In Joe Gould's Secret, his marvelous book about New York street personality Joe Gould, Mitchell noted many things, but one detail that always stuck with me was something in the man's eating habits. It wasn't just the fact that Joe put ketchup on everything ("It's the only grub that's free", said Joe), but that he would ask for a cup of hot water, add ketchup and maybe pepper to that, and have himself a cup of ersatz tomato soup to go. Such a detail might have slid through another writer's fingers, but Mitchell's eyes and ears picked up on them faithfully.
Because we get description far more often than observation, and because observation's so hard to do reliably well (god knows I don't do it well enough), I try not to come down too hard on other people for tending towards the former. But the latter is always worth fighting that much harder for and sticking around to find.