Tag Archives: brian herbert

Fetishism in writing

Here’s an area for improvement by literary critics as well as authors: fetishism. Not only do authors need to rein it in, but reviewers need to start calling it out.

Fetishism occurs when the author displays a pattern of preoccupation with some otherwise normally hidden or forbidden aspect of life. There are reasons the author would not want to do that:

Privacy. Maybe W.E.B. Griffin really shouldn’t have so openly advertised his fascination with the young, virtuous, occupied-with-life virgin who suddenly presents the story’s rake with her ‘pearl of great price’ (WEB’s favorite term), then immediately drops everything else in life and now desires to play house and begin spawning infants. What does that say about him? His perception of women? I wouldn’t wish to speculate too much. However, if that were my kink, I’d sure as hell be unwilling to broadcast it on the endcaps. To give Griffin credit, he has seemingly heard the critics and taken action. (To give him discredit, he’s now mostly letting his son ride his coattails, and the son is not the author the father is. Brian Herbert, take note.)

Predictability. When I pick up a J.T. Edson western, I know for sure that I’ll get some British culture superimposed on the old American West, and that’s one thing. It’s minor, but it’s part of his approach, and kind of novel to be on the receiving side of cultural ignorance. I also know that, before a certain point in the book, two women will start a physical fight. And yes, bodices/blouses/etc. will be ripped. His women will care more for baring each others’ bouncy dairy tackle than for kicking their adversaries’ butts. Not only does it give us a not-necessarily-wanted view into what sharpens J.T.’s pencil, it’s predictable. Thus, when you come to it, unless that’s your own personal kink and the whole reason you bought the book, perhaps you just roll your eyes and scan through it, eager to get back to the story. Or, if it offends you–and I can think of women who would get real tired of reading a man’s descriptions of relatively uncommon and unrealistic female behavior–you might just stop buying the books. Once you are onto an author’s pet themes, and you can tell in advance a certain amount of what you are going to get, some of the discovery is certainly pre-done.

Boredom. The trouble with any fetish, in writing or acted out for real, is keeping it fresh. Suppose you continue writing. You’ve decided you don’t need editors. Your friend’s critique just didn’t grasp what was cool about your style, so what does she know anyway? And throughout all your writing, you keep coming back to the trope of restraint. Your reader knows, because you write your most evocative wording when you take her into the mind of someone who cannot move. The problem is not just that every reader with a sixth grade diploma knows that you’re drawing deep upon your own fantasies. The problem is: how do you keep tying them up tighter, more elaborately, to keep it interesting for the fans? There is a creeping human tendency to freshen by intensity. Your reader expects some new kink every time, and is bored with the old tired ones. If you keep going this direction, you’ll contract what I call Hamilton’s Syndrome. It may bring you wealth, but it won’t create good books.

Hamilton’s Syndrome is my newly coined term for fetishism ratcheted up to the point where it overshadows the story. When Hamilton first began the Anita Blake series, she was brilliant. An appealing heroine, edgy motif, interesting and credible internal conflict for the protagonist–a heel-wearing, Schnauzerlike tough gal seeking to hold onto her humanity and beliefs. The fetishism was always around the edges of the story, but was sustainable; at least, I thought so. Then, some seven books in, Hamilton cut her heroine loose from humanity, slipped all those anchor cables. Eventually the story became secondary; the main focus was on monster hurts and wounds and problems, all of which could only be remedied by increasingly kinky and elaborate forms of sex with Anita. I recall one book in which the initial monster sex crisis took up the first third of the volume. Oh, and lust became a physical hunger for her, the fifth food group. The story is no longer even the point; the question posed by Hamilton’s Syndrome is, how can the kink-o-meter continue to ratchet up? How long can Hamilton top herself?

In my own writing, I watch for fetishism with great care. For one thing, I am intensely private. Consider that since this blog began, I have experienced serious life and health problems involving crippling pain, trauma and serious psychological shock and distress from which it may take me years, even the rest of my life, to recover. I never shared them here. Some may have leaked through, but not on purpose. It’s not that I’m ashamed; it’s that I believe I’m here to entertain, provoke thought, educate, and otherwise be fun to read. I am not here to back up the personal issues dump truck on you, fishing for support. Were I diagnosed with terminal cancer (for the record, I am not), I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t blog about it. This blog is part of my work (which is why, with regret, I can’t post the video of some Texans eating surströmming–too crude for work). I go other places to pour out my real troubles. Even alluding to them in this paragraph is an uncommon show of vulnerability for me. Well, I don’t think many writers compartmentalize as well, and some I believe lack compartments to begin with: a filing cabinet consisting of a large heap of papers.

So I guess the question the writer faces with fetishism is at least twofold: just how far are you willing to invite random people to analyze your mind (as I have done to Hamilton…she asked for it), and how are you going to keep people from either being bored with you, or poking fun at your blatant fetish? The ‘I’m a badass bitch, screw everyone, I do it my way, if you don’t like me and my writing, go to hell’ reflex answer is, of course: “Who cares what they think? I am after all a complete badass! And I post at least three times a day on Facebook trying to convince myself of it!” Well, here’s the problem: if you are writing to get paid, people have to want to buy your book. Thus, while you can’t let yourself obsess about what everyone thinks, you cannot ignore and dismiss your reader’s preference. Yeah, if you get paid, you do care what your reader thinks–and you aren’t such a badass.

Such are the paths down which fetishism leads in writing. Have I convinced you that you really would rather not be there? I would be especially glad for commentary on this topic. Am I treating fetishism too harshly? Is there an effective, sustainable way to work it in? We’re always told to ‘be ourselves,’ and here I am challenging that to a degree. Can you counter my stance?

Current read: Sisterhood of Dune…and a bit on how *not* to write

Being one of the only people who liked all of Herbert’s Dune books, it was natural to try his kid’s prequel series with Kevin J. Anderson.

Of course, we didn’t expect it to be Frank Herbert. To his credit, the son did not try to pretend to be the father. There’s only one problem: the writing now is…very flawed. The story is okay, and I’ll read it to finish the story just because I’m nine books in, but seriously, these guys need help. A couple of examples, quoted for fair use review purposes:

—From p. 10, paperback version—

Looking down, breathing heavily, she said, “Back at the Swordmaster School of Ginaz, I slew hundreds of these things. The school still has a standing order for functional combat meks, so trainees can practice destroying them.”

The very thought soured Manford’s mood. “Ginaz has too many functional meks, in my opinion–it makes me uneasy. Thinking machines should not be kept as pets. There is no useful purpose for any sophisticated machine.”

Anari was hurt that he had criticized her fond recollection. Her voice was small. “It’s how we learned to fight them, sir.”

So what’s wrong with this picture? The red part (color added). Do not ever, please, tell me the feelings. Show them through action. This is lazy writing. It was too much work to make her sound wistful when she said the first part. It was too much work to put her second part in a hurt tone. Instead, we were simply told. This is what mediocre writing looks like. This should be shorter, more fluid and subtler. It should not insult the reader’s intelligence. It should let the reader infer and gather emotions through skillful word use in dialogue and narrative.

Here’s another ‘how to do it wrong’:

—From pp. 29-30, paperback version—

“You are going to tell me where those captives are being taken,” Vor said.

The man groaned again and gurgled something that sounded like a curse. Vor didn’t consider it an acceptable answer. He glanced up, saw the fire spreading along the roofs of the houses. “You don’t have much time to answer.”

Receiving no cooperation from the man, Vor knew what he would have to do next, and he wasn’t proud of it, but this slaver was far down on the last of people for whom he felt sympathy. He drew his long skinning knife. “You are going to tell me.”

Like it wasn’t already obvious that a gurgled curse wasn’t the answer Vor wanted. Why tell us that, as if we are stupid? And obviously, anything but an answer was continued non-cooperation. No one is so slow in the uptake that this needs to be spelled out so. Wasted words, the kind that push the covers of a book too far apart. I guess it’s easier than writing…

Okay, that was waspish, but I dislike this immensely. It is lazy, it radiates ‘phoning it in.’ If you are trying to improve your writing, this is one of the best and most important lessons you can absorb. Where humanly possible, show rather than tell. It will read smoother, cleaner and your reader will not be jarred, nor have her intelligence insulted. ‘Like your reader’ includes ‘respect your reader.’ This means that you write clean stuff that doesn’t waste her time or treat her like she isn’t smart enough to figure out a cue.

Anyone who considers him or herself in the intermediate phases of developing writing skill is welcome to rewrite either passage in comments, and I’ll be glad to make some observations. Show me how it should have been done.