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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 20, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Sci-Fi Dictionary, Cryptic Crosswords, American Novels

Science fiction writers make up words.

We have to. Since our job consists of thinking up ideas and machines that don't exist in the real, contemporary world, but might come to exist, we need to have labels for those inventions.

And the labels need to be usable as words. This is for a very practical reason: Many of the things we make up are going to be used over and over in the story (or stories) in which we introduce them. If we give them hideous, unpronounceable names, the reader will stumble over them every time.

Imagine if Karel Capek had called his mechanical men "Umphrablski" instead of "robots." (Don't look it up -- I just threw down nearly-random letters for the alternate word.)

It is a rare mark of success when a writer's coinage gets picked up and used in our regular language. Harriet Beecher Stowe might not love the use it is put to, since it indicates a gross misreading of her original character, but "Uncle Tom" has certainly entered the language and stayed.

Science fiction writers are more likely to make up words that get used in specialized settings. Glovelike controls for machines that mimic the hand motions are called "waldoes," a tribute to Heinlein's story "Waldo"; "hyperdrives" do not, to our knowledge, exist, but we have a word for them that, thanks to Star Trek.

Usually, our coinages don't penetrate the general culture, but we do give each other a hats-off now and then by picking up another sci-fi writer's word and running with it. I did that when I used Ursula K. LeGuin's coinage "ansible" for a machine with a similar function in my Ender series. (Because readers often see the word first in my work, I'm sometimes given credit for coining it, though of course I didn't and always correct the mistake.)

Now there's a dictionary of words from science fiction and the culture of sci-fi readers, critics, and writers: Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, edited by Jeff Prucher.

I already knew most of the words in the book, of course, because they're part of the language I used during the years when I was actively taking part in the sci-fi culture.

But just like politicians who check the index of books about Washington to see if they're there, I naturally scanned the whole book to see if any of my coinages made it in. Their standard seems to be that two different writers have to use a term before it's considered to be anything other than a nonce word.

I was disappointed to discover that a word I thought I made up -- xenocide -- had in fact been used earlier, though in works I never read. So I did invent it -- but so did somebody else. Not really a surprise -- it's rather an obvious coinage.

Of course "ansible" was there, with LeGuin as the coiner and me as a later user of the word -- but I'm proud to share that space with her.

And, to my surprise, two other words -- also obvious coinages -- listed my work as the earliest source: braintape as "a recording of the entire contents of a person's mind," and vid as "a video program or recording ... often pl. as the vids."

What's really annoying is the citation of me as the author of a term I dislike. In giving examples of the syllable "-verse," taken from "universe," as an affix to other words or names, they included the word Enderverse from the subtitle of my story collection First Meetings.

The thing is, I hate that word. I didn't coin that word. And yet because it's on the title of a book of mine, my name is attached as if I made it up.

What makes most of these new words work is that, like most good coinages, they use existing pieces of language in such a way as to make the meaning of the new term instantly obvious.

The new word has to be pronounceable, which is why "scientifiction" did not catch on and "science fiction" did -- nobody knows which syllable should get the stress in the first (and earlier) term.

Most important, though, is the fact that we have to need the word before it will become part of the language. For good or ill, most of the things we sci-fi writers make up never become part of our daily lives, and therefore never gain currency in our common tongue.

*

Cryptic crossword puzzles aren't for everybody. I know this because my wife treats them like vampires -- put garlic on them or ram a stake through their heart to keep them from accidentally afflicting her with their horrible, meaningless clues.

Because it's the clues that make them so weird (and, for people like me, fun!). Ordinary crosswords give you straightforward clues -- a seven-letter word with the clue "French roof style" yields "Mansard."

But the cryptic clue might be "Male's half-fervent roof style." How in the world do you make sense of that?

For fans of cryptic crosswords (otherwise called "British style"), this would be easy. First, each clue divides into two (unmarked) parts. One is usually a definition, the other a wordplay. (Sometimes, if a word has two meanings, both sides are definitions, and sometimes the whole clue is both wordplay and definition.)

In this clue, the definition half is "roof style."

The wordplay portion is where the fun begins. You have to recognize that all punctuation is meaningless -- it's there to distract you. "Male's" therefore becomes "man's" -- only you delete the apostrophe.

"Half-fervent" means you take half of a word that's a rough synonym for fervent -- in this case, "ardent," and stick it on the end. The first half of "ardent" is "ard." Thus "mans" plus "ard" makes "mansard."

I thought that sounded way too complicated when I first started working with cryptic crosswords, but since then I've come to regard them as much more fun (usually) than the regular ones.

It's possible for a puzzlewright to go too far, making cryptic clues absurdly difficult, and that's not fun. Thus not all cryptics are created equal.

That's why 101 Cryptic Crosswords from the New Yorker, edited by Fraser Simpson, is so good.

The New Yorker cryptics are always in an 8x10 grid, with no black squares -- every square is a letter that must be filled in. (Heavy bars separate words in the same line and letters that aren't part of crossing words.)

Because the puzzles are so small and so many letters are crossed by other words, you can work them relatively quickly. They're great mental exercise for times when you have only a few minutes to spend.

You really do get used to taking apart the clues and solving them. And because each clue contains two ways to reach the solution, you can be sure you have the correct word before you ever write it into the grid. The result? A crossword you can work in ink!

*

This past semester I taught a course on the Contemporary American Novel at Southern Virginia University. Ordinarily, a course with that title would offer only the coolest of postmodern literary fiction -- Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, for instance, and probably the novelists, like Pynchon, that the postmodernists always cite as being part of their movement even though they wrote before the movement became self-aware.

I have enjoyed works of DeLillo and, much more, Wallace, and there are other writers now labeled "postmodern" whom I greatly admire (like Donald Barthelme and Samuel Beckett).

But these works are only relevant to the tiny minority of Americans who (a) read novels and (b) believed what their English professors told them.

There is a much larger group of readers who constitute the real "American literary community." These are the people who read, not to be impressed, but for the sheer joy of stories -- for the feelings that fiction can arouse or for the ideas it can offer.

This is the real American literary culture -- the people who read for the content of the fiction and not its manner of presentation; the readers who allow themselves to be changed by what they read, rather than analyzing it and keeping it at arm's length.

Some might argue that an English professor's job is to teach students to appreciate rarefied literature.

I don't think so. I think that when English professors prescribe what fiction ought to be, they are the enemies of art and should be devoutly ignored by writers. Literature does not take place at the university -- it takes place in the constant interaction between writers and readers.

Literature professors (and other critics) are observers and commentators; the moment they begin to prescribe what should be written and declare vast reaches of literature not to be literature at all, they have actually admitted themselves to be irrelevant to the real literature of their age.

It's like the snooty people in Shakespeare's day who thought that only poetry was real literature, and epic poetry was the highest form. The result was Faerie Queen, which is wonderful but not very influential on later writers -- not a seminal work, but rather a derivative dead end.

The most vital literature of the age was being written for the groundlings in the playhouses and for the people who paid tiny amounts for one-sheet printed sonnets and songs. It is Shakespeare, along with Jonson, Marlowe, and other playwrights and sonneteers whom we remember now as the greatest writers of their age.

So when I developed my list of writers and books, I wanted my students to come to an understanding of the literature that actually matters to American readers -- the literature that stands on its own, not relying on English professors to prepare an audience to receive and understand their work.

There were some genres I felt confident in ignoring. Westerns, once vital, are now effectively dead for the broader American audience -- Larry McMurtry being the lone exception, Louis L'Amour being dead. The "woman's romance" genre with the "clinch" covers is almost completely editor-controlled and has devolved into a kind of pornography; it is not part of the literary conversation among writers and readers.

But that still leaves us with the Young Adult Fiction, Chick Lit, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Mystery, Legal Thrillers, Military Thrillers, Horror, and Literary Fiction categories to examine in order to gain a reasonable understanding of what is going on in contemporary American fiction.

I came up with a list of seminal writers in each genre -- the ones that other writers emulate or imitate -- and then chose exemplary books from each.

Young Adult

Robert Cormier, I Am the Cheese

David Lubar, Hidden Talents

Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak

Louis Sachar, Holes

Why did I use four young-adult novels? First, the novels are short -- it doesn't take as much time to read them. Second, "young adult" is an age category, not a subject matter, so each of these novels does double duty. I Am the Cheese is arguably a thriller, a mystery, or a psychological novel; Hidden Talents is also science fiction and Holes is fantasy; and Speak is also chick lit.

Fantasy

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

This is certainly not what most people mean by "fantasy." And I could make a very good case for The Princess Bride to be considered a literary novel that uses fantasy tropes in an obviously ironic way. But the fantasy tropes are there!

But since we also have Holes and two other novels (the McCrumb and the King) that contain strong fantasy elements, and since heroic fantasy uses many of the same techniques as science fiction, which is also represented, and because the major works of fantasy are sprawling multi-volume works that would consume an inordinate percentage of my students' reading time, I did not include them.

Literary

John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany

Richard Russo, Nobody's Fool

Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups

I think that Irving's best novel is The World According to Garp; I used Owen Meany for the course because it is structurally more productive for class analysis and because it is something like a last gasp for what once was a vital American genre: The religious novel.

Lloyd Douglas (The Robe) and Taylor Caldwell (Dear and Glorious Physician) once ruled the bestseller lists that way Stephen King and John Grisham do today, only with Christian novels and affirmed and explored the roots of Christian faith.

Those days are gone -- when the Bible is touched on, it tends to be destructively or anachronistically, as with The Red Tent. Even Owen Meany, while purporting to be religious, is vicious in its treatment of organized religion. I thought that was an important thing for the class to experience and try to understand.

Meanwhile, Tyler and Russo are, in my view, the finest "literary" writers working today. Their books are about a subject matter, about American life; the postmodernists are generally showing us how clever they are, and the subject matter is usually secondary (though, as I said, there are works of Wallace and DeLillo that I have enjoyed and admired).

Mystery

Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress

Sharyn McCrumb, If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O

It almost hurt to have so few mysteries in this class. Writers like Connelly, Crais, Grafton, Lehane, Maron, and Parker are arguably doing a better job of writing about contemporary American life than all but a handful of literary writers.

I narrowed my list down to include Mosley and McCrumb because they both did double duty. Mosley's mysteries are also historicals and they deal with the experience of blacks in urban America. McCrumb's Appalachian mysteries show the lives of the rural poor and include folk beliefs that hark back to the roots of American life.

In other words, they aren't just mysteries, they are directly concerned with important aspects of American life that are generally outside the experience of my students.

Chick Lit

Lauren Weisberger, The Devil Wears Prada

Adriana Trigiani, Big Stone Gap

Jane Stanton Hitchcock, Social Crimes

Olive Ann Burns, Cold Sassy Tree

Prada is practically a definition of the genre of Chick Lit. This is perhaps the most fascinating and, in my view, important of the categories we studied, because (a) women are a large majority of book buyers in America, so the books that female readers think of as "theirs" are particularly significant, and (b) unlike the editor-driven Women's Romance category, Chick Lit is entirely driven by the conversation among readers and writers.

Thus it is not necessarily formulaic, though, as with all genres, there are important elements that most books in the category share.

Big Stone Gap departs from the strict Chick-Lit definition by having a small-town rather than urban setting. Social Crimes is definitely urban, but the heroine is not a young single woman on the make (though she was, when the full story began), and the story has something of a thriller structure.

Cold Sassy Tree is actually a historical, and follows a different literary tradition: It is experienced through the viewpoint of a young boy. Yet the audience is largely female, and story is absolutely about the love life of a young woman. In class discussion I actually linked it with the McCrumb, because they share memories of an older American society that does not fit well with modern sensibilities.

Science Fiction

Octavia Butler, Dawn

The choice of Butler was obvious: She was simply the best sci-fi writer of the eighties and nineties. I could have chosen novels of hers that speak more directly about contemporary American society, but I wanted to show the science fiction genre with absolute clarity, distinct from the others.

The result was that while most of the books in this course explored aspects of what it means to be American, this one made us face what it means to be human. And yet ... it still revealed itself as both American and African-American.

Horror

Stephen King, The Dead Zone

I know. This novel is more sci-fi than horror. But it shows King at his best, and is typical of his work in the way it deals with American culture. If I'd used Cujo or Christine, we would have become mired in King's personal cliches and some outright silliness. Sometimes a teacher is allowed to choose his favorites.

Military

Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October

This genre is so new and so exclusively male that it seemed wise to use the novel that spawned it. Besides, Clancy's later work is either so detailed that my mostly-female class would have been nearly suicidal by the end (Red Storm Rising, for instance!), or is simply bad by his own standards (the later Jack Ryan books).

Legal Thriller

John Grisham, The Rainmaker

You can't talk about contemporary American fiction without dealing with Grisham. He didn't invent the legal thriller, but he made it a category (even if it isn't displayed that way in the bookstore).

There are categories I left out -- serial killer novels, for instance, and political thrillers -- but these are really subcategories that use techniques we would already have explored using the Mystery, Horror, and Legal Thriller novels.

I also didn't use The Christmas Box or its ilk, on the theory that precious-size books aren't really novels. (Yes, that size is really called "precious" in the publishing industry.)

In addition to these required novels, I had students read other books from a list I provided and report on them, in detail, to the class. So the students were exposed to other books by the same authors, allowing them to have a good idea of what else these writers (and a handful of others) produced.

So Cormier was also represented by The Chocolate War and Fade, Goldman by Boys and Girls Together, Russo by Mohawk, Tyler by Breathing Lessons, McCrumb by St. Dale and Bimbos of the Death Sun, Butler by Wild Seed and Parable of the Sower, King by Misery and The Stand, and Grisham by The Client. We also got a good look at In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner.

Let's say you have already read (or take it upon yourself to read) all the books my students read (or pretended to have read -- this is college, after all). Are you ready to take the final in my course?

Here's a sampling of questions my students were faced with on the final:

Referring to novels read for this course, explain decorum, the morality of the characters, the moral stance of a novel as a whole, and how these affect or are affected by American culture.

What function do genre classifications serve? What do you expect of books from particular genres? How do genres harm or benefit the reader? The author?

Protagonist/Antagonist; Hero/Villain; Good Guy/Bad Guy. Do these pairings mean the same thing? How are heroes distinguished from villains (etc.)? How does the villain's role in a novel differ from that of obstacles or complications?

Explain the function of major characters in novels (perhaps including sidekicks, henchmen, best friends/buddies, family members, foils, informers, victims).

Explain and evaluate how the authors handle the flow of exposition in two novels and how the different strategies affect the reading experience.

Explain the role of verisimilitude in realistic vs. fantastic fiction.

In the two novels in which milieu (setting, ambient culture) was most interesting/important to you, explain why the milieu affected you so and how the choice of milieu affected the story.

Contrast the effects of power over other people on those characters that have it and those that don't, using one novel that uses magical or superhuman power, and one that doesn't.

Contrast the treatment of God, faith, and/or organized religion in at least two novels read this semester.

How are families depicted in these novels? How do narrators, protagonists, and/or antagonists regard family? How do the novelists seem to regard family?

Choose one novel: To what degree is story driven by the conscious choices of the protagonist, as opposed to his/her unconscious drives and needs and the choices of others? To what degree are the protagonist's conscious choices based on love, duty, loyalty, or other at-least-partially altruistic motives (which may include guilt), as opposed to mostly-selfish motives like hunger/lust, fear/dread, pride/status-seeking, or shame?

I think these are the kinds of questions that matter most in fiction -- both in studying the techniques of the writers and in trying to understand how they reflect and change the culture from and to which they were written.

Some of you may wish you had taken my class; most of you, I suspect, are profoundly grateful that you didn't.

But I certainly loved teaching it, especially reading what my students said in class and wrote in their papers and on the final.

In fact, their answers to one of my questions actually changed my life. But I'll talk about that next week.


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