Friday, March 28, 2008

Metafiction


Self-Portrait (detail),
Rembrant van Rijn,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Wikipedia lists about twenty forms of metafiction, but the type or trope that annoys me is the novel about a novelist.

Strikes me as too often as a case of write what you know taken to the artful, self-conscious excess that uncomfortably resembles Mary Sue-ism.

A writer (or a reporter) as a character's background occupation, on the other hand, does not impact my molars to quite the same degree.

In those cases, the actual practice/performance of their profession -- except in general terms -- is irrelevant to the story line and frequently appears as an explanation of why the character is at a certain place at a certain time, interested in a certain topic, or to justify their personal habits.

Thrillers sometimes portray journalists in pursuit of a hot story; romance sometimes present hermits as authors.

Need a nosy, mobile character, make him a reporter. Need an attractive and reclusive stranger in the Hebrides, make him a writer.

Mysteries with murder week-ends almost always have a writer to round out the list of suspects -- which is a little twee, now that I think of it.

Oddly enough, stories featuring radio or television performers don't irritate me at all.

I wonder if my reaction has something to do with the suspension of disbelief, is merely a reaction to a suspicion of self-aggrandizement, or a belief that the writer should remain invisible when penning his prose.

I don't roll my shoulders uncomfortably when a former soldier writes a novel that includes sword play, or an ex-cop writes violence.

I've seen novels.stories damned because the actions and/or language portrayed did not fit the reference /cultural knowledge of a particular critic.

In spite of the plain fact that, for example, all military units or PFs or any other micro culture do not function the same way, and do change over time.

So I have to ask, how fussy are you about the presence in a novel of an occupation in which you have had experience?



50 comments:

StarvingWriteNow said...

Well, I've had a lot of "job experience" so I don't get too offended when I see any of my former jobs in a book. That being said, I think the whole writer stereotype-- whether it be Mr. Corduroy Blazer and Pipe or the Mysterious One at the End of the Street or the Flamboyant Fruitcake About Town-- is out there to make writing seem more glamorous. The real description of a writer, hovering over his/her keyboard in their living room or office, coffee cup nearby, etc etc... is too boring for literature.

I'm not sure where I was going with this comment. ~sigh~ I need to start writing again so I'll start making sense again!

Bernita said...

You make excellent sense, WriteNow.
They do tend to focus on the mystique or on the "glamour" of the extra-curricular aspect of writing.

BernardL said...

I confess I've read Stephen King's many writer characters without even thinking about it. You make a good point. When I read his novel 'Christine', about a possessed old car, I did pay more attention to the auto shop details. :)

James Goodman-Horror Writer said...

Hmm, it doesn't really bother me as long as they keep the facts straight. If they have a job I know nothing about, then I just trust the author has done their research and take the characters actions on faith. If I'm reading about something I'm quite knowledgable on and catch a mistake, then it kicks me out of the story if only for a moment.

Bernita said...

It's just a personal prejudice on my part, Bernard.

James, I think failures of logic bother me more than failures of fact.

bookfraud said...

since everything i've ever done professionally is been in writing or reporting, it doesn't bother me. i always felt that some writers go for a newspaper reporter protagonist because she or he is always gathering information, and relieves the writer of having to present it a more complicated fashion (ditto for private detectives).

the novel about the novelist was once a fresh idea, but it's been ground into the ground (ditto for the book-within-a-book, though margaret atwood did an expert job with it in "the blind assassin." but everything that canadian does is gold).

my brief against metafiction is that it too often becomes a story about the story (a la john barth or donald barthelme), and it becomes intellectual navel gazing.

that's the long-winded answer.

writtenwyrdd said...

How fussy am I? Well, it depends. Certainly technology changes dramatically, but the inner workings of beaurocracy still function as an adjunct of human culture and human hard-wiring. So when you have cops allowing crime scene techs (techs, not scientists like Grissom on CSI keeps stating) doing police investigation and the interpretation of evidence, I want to scream. Because in real life, I have yet to hear this happens. I will always say it might; but I doubt it, haven't experienced it nor heard of it happening anyplace. And I happen to know for certain that federal officers are trained to do what you see the CSI techs do on tv. So that bugs the crap out of me.

My pet peeve aside--which is mostly focused on crime tv shows-- I will give benefit of the doubt for minor stuff, not being omniscient or god's gift to any particular field.

Writers as characters? Sometimes it's too twee as you say, but sometimes it works. I think the reason I don't get overjoyed at seeing this device is that it seems way too easy. We all are tempted, no doubt, but unless one can justify the need for that job to advance the plot, I say make the character a nosy busybody or have a different job.

writtenwyrdd said...

"And I happen to know for certain that federal officers are trained to do what you see the CSI techs do on tv."

Let me clarify: I'm speaking about basic evidence collecting, not the lab processing.

spyscribbler said...

Norman Mailer wrote a novel about Norman Mailer. I could'nt even bear to try it.

I confess I get a little annoyed at what I call artsy-schmartsy inspiration. Yeah, even I feel passion, but the majority of musicians, writers, and artists I know have both feet on the ground and are shrewd business thinkers.

It's not fair of me to think that, though, because I have my moments, too.

Bernita said...

Book, that may be the basis of my discontent - it's so bloody over-done and self-indulgent.

Perhaps that's why I prefer CSI Sun Glasses to the Vegas show, Written. Kane et al are cops first as I understand it.

"artsy-schmartsy inspiration" - becomes a bit of a gloss, ie. a stereotype of the "artist," and hence an excuse for some improbably motivations at times, Natasha.

writtenwyrdd said...

Nah, the Miami crew are CSI doing police investigative work-- which doesn't ever happen in the real world, so far as I'm aware. But the show producers *have* left the distinction as to whether Horatio & crew are cops or crime scene investigators somewhat vague except in the series title (which should be an indicator).

Bernita said...

I go by the fact he's Lt. Kane and has police authority

Price of Silence said...

I worked for a press called Fiction Collective Two for five years and came across all kinds of stuff there. Plot was less important than "play," and pushing the envelope was key. I even heard one author say that people should just stop publishing psychological novels because there were obsolete. I think that comment was silly, but I do have a soft spot in my heart for books that are a little unusual.

blogless_troll said...

My first reaction to a writer MC is always skepticism. I can get over it if the story doesn't have much to do with the MC being a writer, but then I think why not give the MC a different profession. Reporter MCs don't bother me though.

I too prefer CSI: Sun Glasses. But that's because I like to try to imagine what H is always staring at in the distance.

Robyn said...

The only problem I have with professions is the fact that these small business owners, portrayed as borderline obsessive about their businesses, always seem to have an incredibly capable assistant that can take over at a moment's notice so she can go investigate/get kidnapped/screw the hero or whatever, yet that assistant never minds being left by him or herself in the shop for hours or weeks at a time.

Yeah, that's so gonna happen.

Dave F. said...

The novel about a novel. For me, it all depends on the execution of the story. If the outer novel is used as a framework to tell the story, then fine. FOr examples, I would give the movie version of Stand By Me (again from King) and the frame of Cameron's film TItanic (told from the actual footage of the wreck at the bottom of the sea) (although not a writer, is a magnificent frame.

I hated Misery. Stupid, awful plot. Idiots for characters.

The Shining works as both book and movie. Yes, the crazy father is a writer.

I didn't like the 13th Tale by Sutterfield because the writer's life became too much of the story and I thought it boring.

And that "Adaptation" nonsense was nonsense. Perhaps because I'm a twin and the idea didn't work. I'd rather read the collected philosophical humor of Howard Stern.

One last mention - Sunset Boulevard - was about a dead writer.

As for your last question:
The only time I let science intrude on a good book is when they do something so outrageously unscientific that I lose my belief in the story.
I get the giggles when a scientist or chemical engineer is not a chubby, out of shape nerd. But I don't let it bother the story.

raine said...

I don't think it bothered me until someone pointed it out to me one day. Then I started noticing, lol, and paying particular attention to how they were depicted.
Doesn't bode well for the reporter in my current wip. :-/

writtenwyrdd said...

LOL Robyn! What would really happen is that the underpaid and unappreciated employee would take advantage, dip into the till, give five-fingered discounts to friends, back door discounts to him/herself or just screw things up to a fare-thee-well. Not that you don't get honest and trusty employees; but the smart small business owner supervises and shows up at work. (Family with a business has taught me a lot about that angle.)

Lisa said...

I don't mind writers incorporating their actual job experience into a novel when it is pertinent. I've grown pretty bored with the campus novel -- protags who, like the authors are college professors and usually novelists. I used to enjoy them, but I've started to view them as a little too solipsistic. If I'm completely honest, I think my disdain of the campus novel is also rooted in a certain envy for the "clever clogs" academics who are able to write critically acclaimed literary novels, but who have never had a life outside academia.

Bernita said...

Price, I really prefer plot.

Blogless, probably "we never close."

Fascinating how uncomplicated job desertion can be, Robyn!

Dave, I remember you taking umbrage about a messy lab.

Always gave me a mild twitch, though I didn't know the name for my condition, Raine.Since it's you doing the writing, I imagine your reporter will fair just fine.

Which probably explains, Lisa, why they write literary novels.

Carla said...

Not at all, unless there's something absolutely ridiculous, like a doctor qualifying in six months, or a drug being prescribed for completely the wrong disease.

The Anti-Wife said...

If I know something about the profession, I can forgive minor mistakes characters might make in performing their duties. When it's obvious the author knows nothing about the profession, it ruins their credibility and pulls me right out of the story.

Bernita said...

Carla, you're the ideal reader.

There are general conditions that should be met, AW, such as Carla's examples above, I agree.

Dave F. said...

Yes, but we were invited to comment on that text.

I can see all the holes in sci-fi and technical stuff and I let it be. It's when I can't find the faults or the author tells a story compelling enough to hold my attention beyond the faults that I enjoy it even more.

Charles Gramlich said...

I haven't given this a lot of thought but I don't think writers as characters or protagonists really bother me much. I'd probably be more likely to react negatively to teachers as protagonists, which does reflect my day to day life and job.

Bernita said...

So those things really don't disturb you much, Dave.

Charles have you read Modesitt's alternate universe Ghost series? The MC is a teaching prof.

December/Stacia said...

I've actually had on my blog topic list for months the subject of books about writers. I think Stephen King is the only one who I'll put up with doing it. If I have to read one more erotic romance where the heroine is an erotic romance writer (but of course nobody knows!), or a romance in general where the heroine is a romance writer, I'll puke.

Other occupations don't bug me, except on occasion. But the writer-heroine drives me batty.

Dave F. said...

The last movie I paid money to watch was "Ratatouille." The kids fare with the cute anthropomorphic rats helping the loser chef gain fame and fortune. This was the first movie in a long time that I just couldn't get beyond my fear and revulsion of RATS to enjoy the movie. Not that the movie isn't fun, it is. Not that the rats aren't cute, they are. You want me to scream and yell and shriek like a little girl - bring a rat into my house. Of course, prepay your funeral, before you do it.

The movie version of The Illusionist was just on cable and I want to buy the book. Great story and I don't care how he did it.

I just read Gaiman's "Odd and the Frost Giants" and the little boy in me loved it. Read it to your kids or grandchildren. Such a nice, gentle fantasy.

I want a book to take me away to some strange land and entertain me. Same with a movie. I do think of the science but I put it aside.

calderwoodbooks said...

That's a no brainer - if I've had experience with the job, then I'm picky about how it's presented in a book I'm one of those tedious realists that needs everything to be 'right'.

Sam

Bernita said...

"I'll puke."
December? Move over.

Dave, you're another ideal reader. You never forget that it's fiction to entertain.

I'm not nearly as fussy, Sam. I don't expect my experience to be universal, though the writer might have to work harder in some cases to suspend my disbelief.

pjd said...

I'll never forget sitting in a movie theater full of tech industry pros for the first showing of Jurassic Park. More than a collective snicker erupted when the girl sat down at a computer and said, "Wait... this is Unix! I know this!" And of course it looked like no Unix any of us had ever seen.

We all enjoyed the movie anyway because our expectations were properly calibrated when we entered the theater.

But I'm with you on the writer as MC, Bernita. I just find it unclever unless the fact that the MC is a writer is central to the entire premise of the story. And it had better be a good story.

Bernita said...

"our expectations were properly calibrated" - excellent way of expressing it, PJD.

Suzanne Perazzini said...

As long as they get the profession right in general terms, I'm happy because after all I am reading for a story not to pick holes in the detail. But what does annoy me heaps is in films when they have someone dance who has obviously had very little or no dance experience. I studied classical ballet for thirteen years and then went on to Spanish dancing so immediately recognize if some one has some sort of training or not. Two examples are Julie Walters in Billy Elliot and Antonio Banderas in Take the Lead. There are so many fantastic actors who have dance training. Why don't they use them?
Sorry, I have waffled a little off the topic of writers.

Scott from Oregon said...

I'm more bothered by deja vu than any one characterization.

If I've seen it before, I put it down.

Bernita said...

Film often intrudes in writer discussion, Suzanne.

You must have a hard time finding satisfactory stories, Scott.

Gabriele C. said...

Robyn and Writtenwyrd, I think you just figured out how so many epublishers managed to tank lately. :)

SzélsőFa said...

Quite much.
It either draws me in OR repels me. The latter happpens when I see MC doing things in a wrong way, that is according to my experience and belief of that particular position.

Bernita said...

Don't think we can blame it all on the "evil lieutenant" entirely, Gabriele!

Sometimes, Szelsofa,I find such anomalies have a certain fascination!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

This reminds me of the time I was stuck on my first novel. I mentioned the plot to my husband, who shrugged and said, When in doubt, through a journalist at it.

The character's name is Mallory and she's still in there, even becomes a major player in the later books.

Bernita said...

SS, think I'll have to be content with blowing something up.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

**throw a journalist at it. Sheesh.

Blowing something up works too! :)

Dave F. said...

Bernita,
Death at a Funeral (a movie) has two writers.
A naked man on LSD,
The wrong coffin,
the batty Uncle,
a gay midget on a blackmail mission,
and two writers with raging sibling rivalry.

Throw a writer at it? A gay midget writer with photos

Bernita said...

Mallory is a good name, SS,one with legs.
Or one could write the end and work backwards.

Sounds like a contrived set of characters, Dave.
I vote the gay midget as the most successful writer - if he wrote a blackmail note.

Dave F. said...

Contrived? How can you say CONTRIVED? Oh how cruel to label it contrived when you haven't even seen it. How could you possibly know it's contrived? Do British farce-comedies always come off as contrived?

Of course they do, even to the naked man threatening suicide. And guess what? The gay-blackmailing-literate midget leads them all to salvation! In the USA they would have cast him as African-American...
(or if it's a her, an exotic oriental beauty.)

(But seriously, no one does farce like Brits do farce.)

Bernita said...

Dave, carry on...

Billy said...

Actually, some of my favorite novels have had MCs who were novelists and it hasn't gotten in the way. Updike did a series of novels and stories about his fictional novelist "Beck," although people shy away from Updike's undulating syntax. King and Straub have more than their share of novelist MCs.

Bernita said...

True, Billy.
Perhaps the form is in danger of being overdone.

archer said...

I'm fussy up to a point about the lawyer stuff. Grisham and Turow get it right, but they are lawyers. Tom Wolfe isn't a lawyer, and he gets it right, and gets the flavor and the detail right, too. Of course he's been hanging out with Eddie Hayes for years but Wolfe still writes the best lawyer fiction.

Someone has to blow something basic and make a big plot point of it before I get annoyed.

Bernita said...

Yes, Archer, I agree. If they get the flavor right, other items become more food for personal amusement.

archer said...

Bernita, that is so true about flavor. I just read Cormack McCarthy's's No Country for Old Men, and the flavor of the thing is so completely convincing that I don't care whether Texas dope gangs use .9 mm pistols or sling shots.