How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Politics, Art, and the Practice of Writing: A Conversation with Orson Scott Card

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Who is Orson Scott Card? Until recently most people knew him as the author of Ender’s Game, a beloved modern science fiction classic. Prolific and highly decorated, Card has written in nearly every genre, from video game scripts to comic books to movie novelizations. Of late, however, Card’s opposition to gay marriage has led to widespread media excoriation and intense scrutiny of his politics, revisiting issues that have dogged him in the past.

In an effort to nuance current coverage of Card, I chose to ask him questions about writing and his identity as a writer. He provided detailed answers by e-mail — what follows is an edited version of his replies.

(My own discussion of the gay marriage controversy is here.)

1. The practice of writing

The Millions: What does your workspace look like?

Orson Scott Card: I’m in an attic room, with walls that quickly turn into slanting ceiling. Very little room for art on the walls, but books completely lining the walls up to where the ceiling starts. These are my research books — history, daily life, archeology, language, reference works. A few old things that I never use but haven’t had time to purge — old software disks that no machine could read now, outdated almanacs.

My desk is against the north gable. From my window I can see the top of the neighbor’s house, the tops of trees, the sky. Nothing too distracting. Doesn’t matter — the computers have plenty of distractions. Both the desktop in front of me and the laptop on a table behind me have constantly changing wallpaper that cycles through thousands of images I’ve collected over the years. My private art gallery.

All around me are stacked CDs I mean to rip one of these days, to join the thousands of MP3s already on my computer. (My first hard drive had ten megabytes — if MP3s had existed then, my computer would have held exactly two songs, plus the software to play them.) Art books and magazines I mean to scan. Old bits of hardware. Books I intend to review. And notes about things I need to do Right Now (some of them two or three years old). Chaos. But I can get to the keyboard, the mouse, the screen. I can work.

TM: What are the main problems with creative writing education today? How do you address those problems at your writing “boot camp”?

OSC: Such a long, long list. Pre-college creative writing seems to be a sort of group therapy — gush out your feelings and nobody can criticize them because you’re being “creative.” Nobody teaches you the bones of the language. Nobody teaches you forms. Imagine trying to learn to play violin if no one taught you pitch and fingering, if you never practiced. But that’s what we do to children.

Then they get to college, where the ones whose native language abilities survived the uselessness of primary and secondary education begin to think they might become writers. Then they become the captives of the elitists, who teach them to write in such a way that their work can only have meaning to those who do not so much read as decode. Their symbols are obvious because they’re the only thing going on. They “shock” their readers — but only if their readers are still living in 1915. They learn to be “experimental” in exactly the way the Modernists were experimental. They are all style, no substance; all code, no message. I hear them doing their readings and it makes me sad, because some of them really are talented, but if they ever get an audience, it will be because they did not follow what they were taught by their writing teachers.

Specifics? First person present tense — a convention that makes sense in French, which hates its preterite, but none in English, where our real present is present progressive: Not “I pick up the envelope from the table” but “I am picking up the envelope from the table.” Who could bear to read a story, let alone a novel, in the true present tense of natural spoken English? So we get stories written in this artificial, impossible voice. The voice we use for jokes and anecdotes — “A guy walks into a bar, see” — but not the voice we use for truth — “No, he really did.” As soon as we want to be believed, we move to the past tense. But our most pretentious fiction is in the language of jokes.

Regular readers generally know they’re being excluded when present tense is used for narrative. It’s a shibboleth for the overeducated, the true believers.

The sad thing is that because young readers don’t yet recognize the shibboleths, overtaught but underskilled writers of YA fiction often get away with first person present tense. It worked for Hunger Games because the story was so powerful; but the choice hampered the sequels. It’s simply not a natural narrative choice in English; most writers confess that they are faking it because they use pluperfect for the narrative past when the past of present-tense narrative is the simple preterite or present perfect.

TM: In your How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy you talk at length about the “wise reader.” In brief: What characterizes the wise reader and how can writers find one to critique their work?

OSC: I warn my writing students not to submit their work to English majors, who are likely to be true believers in the anti-communication school of literature, unless they plan to do the opposite of whatever such readers suggest. Nor should they keep showing their work to the same writing group — after a year, you’ve learned everything they have to teach you, and you have nothing of value left to offer them.

Most such critiquers are like doctors who walk into the patient’s room, and without asking a question, glance at the sufferer and prescribe something in Latin and then move on.

The wise reader, on the other hand, prescribes nothing — ever. The wise reader merely reports to the writer on the experience of reading, which boils down to three questions: So what? Oh yeah? Huh?

When the wise reader catches her mind wandering, thinking about something else, she puts a line in the margin at the point in the text where she noticed she was thinking of something else. It means she lost interest — so what?

When the wise reader finds herself doubting — oh, would he really do that? — then she puts another mark in the margin. It means she cannot suspend her disbelief at this point — oh yeah?

When the wise reader finds herself confused, having to read a paragraph again, or look back through the text to see how she missed some fact now taken for granted (when did that happen?), then there is a flaw in clarity of narrative. Huh?

These boil down to belief, concern, and clarity — or, to help readers of the Pauline epistles remember it, faith, hope, and clarity. And the greatest of these, as Paul said, is clarity.

The wise reader then points out these marginal marks to the writer and says, Here I didn’t believe; there I was confused; in this spot I found I was thinking of grocery shopping. It is the writer’s job to figure out what in the text caused these poor responses, and then to figure out how to fix the problems. Foolish writers argue with the wise reader, pointing out how it’s perfectly clear, or this really happened once so it’s definitely believable, or how can you not care! Such writers don’t deserve a wise reader. The good writer thanks the wise reader and then reinvents the story so belief and concern are not lost, and edits the language so that the narrative is perfectly clear and never, never, never confusing.

2. The meaning of your work

TM: Some readers have understood the Ender saga and the Homecoming saga as “feminist.” Would you agree with that characterization?

OSC: As the child of a working mother, I thought of myself as feminist until the word took on a narrow political meaning that bore no relation to the reality of the human species. I have no program of “feminism,” though I do treat my female and male characters as equally human and equally interesting.

TM: In Xenocide, the godspoken on Path are actually victims of government genetic modification meant to control them. When I was young, I read this as a powerful critique of the origins of religious belief. Was that your intention? Are doubt and self-reflective questioning an important part of faith?

OSC: No one has any answers until they’ve asked the questions. No one knows anything until they have taken into account their own needs and drives and hungers, and those of the culture around them. What people often miss in Xenocide is that the young heroine responds to the drives built into her genes in order to control her by becoming obsessively and perfectly obedient to them. Not everyone responds that way. Even when we are genetically modified (and we all are; it simply is nature rather than government that usually does the modifying), our self is distinguished by what we choose to do about our drives and impulses, our weaknesses and strengths.

There is no human being without religion. I am amused by those who consider themselves post-religious, who sneer at religions or religious people. All they are really saying is, “What you believe is ‘religion’; what I believe is truth.” This is the way all fanatics think. And see how they behave, trying to silence those who don’t share their unbelief! We live in an age of inquisitions and puritanism, and the inquisitors and puritans all believe themselves to be “above” religion even as they try to enforce their ignorant faith using the power of the state.

All knowledge that we believe so firmly that we act upon it is faith, and almost none of it is based on our personal experience. We believe what others have told us, and consider “sane” those who agree with the people we agree with. I have watched with amusement, then sadness, as “education” has become indoctrination; as students are taught that conformity to a set of received ideas is the same as being “smart,” and nonconformity is “stupidity.” Yet it is those who receive these “smart” ideas without question who are most stupid. This kind of stupidity is common in religious communities; it is equally common in universities. So many idiotic ideas are believed without question — and without evidence — while anyone who questions them is ridiculed, their arguments answered with character assassination.

So yes, Xenocide is a critique of unquestioning faith — but not of “religion” as it is normally spoken of. Since “religion” is an artifact of all human communities, and there are no human beings without it, I am no more anti-religious than I am anti-oxygen. I only suggest that perhaps we will do better if we earn our beliefs by rigorous examination of our beliefs and a constant process of holding our belief in abeyance, acting on that which we believe to be true, but always ready to change our minds when better information is available.

TM: You have written that “good artists do their best to sustain that which is good though their art, and call for the correction of that which is destructive of happiness.” Can you give examples of how your work tries to accomplish that mission?

OSC: I don’t consciously attempt to do any such thing. I’m not prescribing in that statement, I’m merely describing. Without any conscious thought at all, artists select the subject and the medium, the matter and the manner of their art. The very choices they make declare what they value and believe to be important. Artists are at their least effective when they try to make conscious statements through their art (they’re always free to write essays to make their case); the conscious statements are as obvious and empty and ineffective as “Rosebud,” while the unconscious statements are powerful because they are rarely noticed by the audience even as they have their effects.

Every work of art is an attempt to create a community; any artist who claims to create only for himself is a liar, unless he never showed his work to another soul. Every work of art is mostly a reflection of the artist’s culture, unconsciously passed along because the artist has never thought the world could work any other way; yet every work of art, even the most conformist, is still different from any other’s work, and so it challenges the status quo to some degree, however minuscule.

I love to work in science fiction and fantasy because we deliberately rewrite the rules of reality. Sadly, of course, even in our field we tend to converge on consensus realities, as Bruce Sterling once pointed out before he himself joined a new consensus reality. So even we keep searching for new writers to re-envision the world around our characters. Yet even in the most relentlessly conformist of the just-like-every-other-post-modernist fiction, there are glimmers of individuality — even creative writing programs can’t stamp out every vestige of it, try as they might. Whether you are openly reinventing reality, you reinvent it; whether you are deliberately championing certain cultural values, you champion at least the ones you have not yet thought to question.

I have learned to trust my unconscious mind. In my many years at this trade, I have had a chance to see what many readers have found in all my stories, and I am sometimes astonished at the personal and cultural meanings they found in them. Yet I cannot, and would not wish to, challenge their readings as long as they conform to the text

3. Art and society

TM: Last year Christopher Tolkien decried the commercialization of his father’s work, saying that it has “reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.” You are a fan (albeit with some misgivings) of Peter Jackson’s films. Do you think commercialization can have a negative impact on art? Do you fear it with your own work?

OSC: Commercialization does not erase one word of the original work. Lord of the Rings is still available in its entirety — and with wonderful commentaries by superb scholars like Tom Shippey. All adaptations and translations will leave out or overemphasize things in ways that others will resent or regret; this is true when you translate LOTR into German or Japanese, just as when you translate it into film. I once adapted LOTR (with permission) into a public reading script, three hours per volume, and performed it once at NorWesCon in Seattle and again at MythCon at Pepperdine University. Perforce I left out things that others loved; I left in things that Peter Jackson left out of the movie. I think all my choices were right and where he differed with me, he was wrong. But his movie got made and showed us many wonderful things, even though he also added several foolish things and left out what I think of as the heart of the movie. He obviously considers my view wrong.

So what? The book is still there. Let’s remember that most people don’t read books. So the commercialization brings a translation of the story to an audience that would otherwise never receive it. Some of them will go on to read the book, which they might not otherwise have done. Most will not. But in our culture, though film is the highest-prestige medium (“That story was so good they oughta make it a movie!”), the text of the novel has the highest authority. Where the two disagree, nobody will ever say that the film shows what really happened; that will only be said of the book.

All readings, all viewing, all hearings of art are edited by the listener anyway. No two members of the audience receive or remember the same work. Yet with repetition we converge on the most authoritative source, which should be, and usually is, the original. Christopher Tolkien has nothing to fear. Commercialization is a symptom of success; it does not harm anyone’s ability to receive the original.

For that matter, even the written text of LOTR is an inferior way to receive it, because readers almost invariably skim over the songs and poems which were so important to Tolkien and which show so much of his mastery of language and cultures. So for me, the supreme way of receiving LOTR is the audiobook. It gives you every word of every song and poem, right along; you cannot easily skip it. It is the most complete way to experience Tolkien’s original. Yet one might also think of the audiobook as part of the commercialization of LOTR.

Ender’s Game is an unfilmable book. Yet it is being filmed. All such translations are inadequate. But the film, if it is a good film, and regardless of its degree of faithfulness to the book, will bring new readers to the book; they will then discover the authoritative version of the story. Some will prefer the movie. So what? That group would never have read the book without having seen the movie, so Ender’s Game will have lost no part of its natural audience.

Decrying the commercialization of a successful work of art is like famous actors complaining about the annoyances of fame. The annoyances are real enough, but they are also a symptom of success. Which would you rather have? Less annoyance and less success? Or the greater success with the greater annoyance?

TM: You’ve long been interested in video games and have even written for some. Recently you expressed frustration with the unreflective and poorly researched blaming of violent video games for social ills. Is there any kind of art you do think is dangerous?

OSC: All art both affirms and critiques the artist’s culture and community, whether she intends either outcome or not. Art that negates the strengths of a good community is bad; but art that negates the strengths of a bad community would be good. It gets very complicated, and few people are able to agree on the goodness or badness of any long list of attributes of a culture, or their relative weight. We might say, yes, this that you attack is bad, but not as bad as that, which you do not mention. As if every artist should observe the same things, and share the same values!

Yet that is precisely what many people insist on. They are sure that art they do not like causes harm, while art they enjoy is harmless. They are always partly wrong and partly right. But which part, and to what degree?

We promote freedom of speech and expression precisely so that we can openly disagree about what our culture should be and should value. We vote by admitting certain works to our memory and insisting that our friends also read, listen to, or look at it. Works that are beloved by many have a proportionate effect on the culture; works that are loved by fewer, but with greater intensity, may have an equal or greater effect. It is impossible to measure.

A work may indeed be dangerous, but the counter is not often to censor it, it is to offer an alternative. Yet puritans of one stripe or another invariably insist on censorship. Just as the Puritans of Political Correctness ban any speech by their opponents on most American university campuses merely because they do not agree with them, so also the Puritans of anti-violence would ban videogames merely because they do not enjoy them.

In fact we have actual data about the effects of videogames; even the most harmful are relatively harmless, in terms of any direct cause and effect on real-world violence. Pornography, on the other hand, has been proven to be a rehearsal for real-world acting-out of the scripts thus depicted. Yet the very people who would ban videogames are often the ones most insistent on protecting the freedom of pornographers. Research makes no difference to them; actual facts rarely influence people’s visceral decisions.

My problem is that I understand the arguments for and against censorship. There are things that I believe damage society — pornography among them — but I’m not absolutely sure that I’m right, or that a ban, if once instituted, would be limited to what I would call “pornography.” Once we admit censorship, the definition of the thing censored will always be expanded to include unintended objects.

It is best, in a free society, if one view never absolutely prevails. In a perpetual struggle between freedom and protection, and between this and that set of values, we have our best likelihood of achieving reasonable balances. Alas that we live in a time when no group can stay in business while accepting reasonable balances. You only get donations for extreme positions.

We’d be better off if, instead of banning censorship, we constantly argued about the definitions of what is or is not censorable, with the boundary constantly shifting back and forth. It is when the boundary is moved all the way to one extreme and stays there that we are endangered.

But that is only my opinion. I might be wrong. So even in my absolutely correct moderation I am not sure that I ought to prevail…

TM: According to your website, our society is becoming less free in matters of speech, press, and religion. You also say “art which is destructive of the values of a decent society is deserving of no special privilege or protection.” Should a society interested in free speech also protect art that it considers destructive?

OSC: It’s in the definition of a “decent society” that the monster hides.

That said, I think it’s more than slightly ridiculous to put “art” on a pedestal as if it existed above the realm of ordinary commerce and conversation. Freedom of the press and of speech and of belief are vital to a free society, for political reasons. But art?

What makes the whole argument ludicrous is that the very people who would protect works that some consider obscene, are perfectly happy to ban works that they consider to be racist. Everybody seems to accept censorship — they just disagree about the list of people-never-to-be-offended. Most people who champion the use of “fuck” would crucify you for saying “nigger” — they are no more in favor of “free speech” than those who believe the reverse, or who would ban both. And those who would ban neither invariably have their own private list of forbidden words. If we did not have such a list locked away in our brains, how would Tourette’s Syndrome even be possible?

Where I find the whole argument becomes offensive is when artists demand public funding for work that is deliberately offensive to taxpayers. Take your artistic freedom as you can — but pay for it yourself. When you expect the public to pay for it with money taken by threat of force, you are demanding that your art become a sort of established religion; and to oppose public funding for your art is not censorship; it is not even like censorship. When you take money from a sponsor, you surrender your freedom; if you want the freedom to be offensive, don’t dip into the pockets of unwilling people who are not free to resist your taking.

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