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Easily Distracted By Shiny Things
Meanderings from the City of the Red Castle
So there's this thing that happens when you write - unless you're the… 
5th-Feb-2007 01:24 pm
So there's this thing that happens when you write - unless you're the type of writer who has everything planned out so thoroughly before you start typing, I suppose, but I suspect it still jumps up at people who write that way, just less often.

Steven Brust describes it here: in essence, it goes like this. You're typing, thinking you know where at least this scene or paragraph is going, then you type a sentence that follows on what was said before it...

... and you stop and stare at the sentence a while. Because while it says exactly what you thought it was saying, it also says something else. I had that happen late in part three of Raising the Storm; Gaitann asks Carl a question he's wanted to ask from practically the start, gets his answer... and Carl says four words, which were supposed to be minor backstory, a quick explanation.

Then I stared at the words and I thought, "It's not that easy. He's wrong. He believes he's telling the truth, but that's not what happened." (Of course, that could just about be a summary of the entirety of Carl.)

It was kind of exhilarating, actually, because that happened on a rewrite, when I thought I knew the story I was choosing to tell, and I thought I knew all the changes I was going to make.

Let's just say it isn't so much a good thing when you do it while you're talking about yourself. I'm all for self knowledge, but it's not always comfortable.

Just sayin'.


Decided to start Charles de Lint's Spirits in the Wires yesterday; the Dragon Waiting is still beign read, but I'm finding some parts of it so heartbreaking or so wrenching that it's ahrd to read more than one section at a time -- and other times, it's so puzzling how it all fits together that I have to stop to figure out all the implications of what I just read. Then in the next section, some of those things I thought I got get flipped again anyhow.

The Dragon Waiting is *really* good. But it will never be an easy read.

Charles de Lint got picked over some others because it's the opposite, to me, a light read. Easy going; I don't tend to find I have to think. Almost the opposite, I sometimes have to shut off my critical faculties and just go with it.

I used to think Charles De Lint was a nuanced writer, and he opened up vistas... er, not so much anymore. Some of his stories I still think highly of, but... I have to take a while between his books, especially the Newford books.

I thought it was the supersaturation of magic. But someone commented on his artists, and how they're all special... and that clicked for me rather too well.

Here's the thing. Charles de Lint writes about street people because he feels they're too often ignored and marginalized. Fair enough; a good thing, you'd think. He writes about artists just barely making their way but doing what they love to get by (Or at worst having a waitressing job).

Except. All his street people are animal people, or unicorns in disguise. Or people down on their luck for just a little while; he makes passing mentions of alcoholism, but it's rarely seen in all its nastiness. And they all seem to be able to see the magic in the world. It's a good thing not to paint every street person as a nobody, but he's tipped it too far the other way. It's a good thing to try and signal to someone caught on the street that yes, you're somebody and somebody worthwhile, yes you can get out. Yes, there are people who will help you. You can get back to normal.

Except that he paints normal as the most unappealing thing to be. His normal? A small studio apartment, a part time bookstore job. Staying connected to the street. Growing your artistic career.

And yet nobody seems to have it so bad. Okay, not nobody; he does have his share of child abuse tragedies, and a very small handful even don't come out the other side. But compared to the reality, it's a minuscule proportion. He's this close to glorifying being broke and starving, or addicted. Few of his street people die of overdose or freeze to death or get stupidly killed without some *other* explanation, some secret magic involved.

Everyone in a Charles de Lint book does art, and not for a hobby. And all of them live the bohemian artist lifestyle. Not the lifestyle of the poseurs - he has those too, and they're always bad people who don't like the real artists - but the hand-to-mouth existance of people who refuse to take a job that's more than part time or entry level, and never outside of the food industry or the small craft store.

What does this say to a street person, really? If you can't play guitar or paint or put words together, you have nowhere to go?

What it does actually is turn the world backwards, and not in a healthy way. There's an aboslute disdain for anyone and everyone who isn't living this borderline life. People who aren't artists, support for artists (independant bookstore owners or the like), street folk, or otherwise outre never see magic.

Nobody in a Charles de Lint book has a desk job. None of his writers or painters or editors of small magazines ever decide to do data entry or tech support to get by. Nobody owns a house unless it's a house so out of the ordinary it goes right back to being a home for struggling artists. Nobody decides to take the job slicing bread for $8 an hour for 40 hours a week. Nobody who writes or paints takes years to make a sale, or has years between sales. Nobody opts for the accounting degree or goes into civil service.

Nobody's artistic side is expressed in a handful of sewing projects or needlepoint, or cooking inventive things for your spouse and kids (Does anyone in any of the books have a spouse, or kids they haven't adopted off the street, preferably while a street person themselves?). Or writing only in a private journal for yourself. Nope, if you have talent, you must use it to make a living. Otherwise you aren't interesting or wortwhile.

Otherwise, you're invisible.

He's not just elevated the artist and the street person to centre stage. That would be a good read. he's made them special. And then, to make it worse, he's *eliminated* everyone else. We aren't just not important to the story, or on the margins of it. We're not there. Nobody that isn't like is special main characters even exists.

And this is reverse discrimination. This is going too far the other way. This is beyond reminding people of the human face behind the struggling hand-to-mouth existance. This is glorifying the poor and writing off everyone else as unworthy. *We're* not real people. We'll never see magic. We'll always be uncomfortable around his special people, the ones born in the internet by magic or who tell *real* fortunes.

I'm a writer and an occasional artist, so why do I count myself as part of the excluded? Because I also worked 9 to 5 in offices, and talked to people who, so far as I could tell, had more interest in Brangelina or hockey pools. Because my mother is a physiotherapist, my dad a developer, my stepmother an interior decorator. My husband works doing IT, and his artistic endeavours got channelled into graphic design. I write, i'm surrounded by people with creative talents. But I'm not part of Charles de Lint's poor but artistic elite, and I don't want to be. They seem like cool people, and I don't mind reading about them at all. I could find plenty to talk about with most of them. But I still feel as if they'd always consider me a bit of an outsider. An alien. Not quite as real as they are.
5th-Feb-2007 08:36 pm (UTC)


I'm sorry. I'm not laughing at you. I'm laughing with you (you're laughing, right? please?) because this is almost exactly the learning curve I went through with de Lint's work. First the appreciation for the charm and generosity. Then, later, the slow dawning realization and, "Hooold on there, buster."

Yes to this:

He's this close to glorifying being broke and starving, or addicted...[H]e's made them special. And then...he's *eliminated* everyone else.

Very yes. There's a softness and a smugness to his street people and artists (respectively) that's unfortunately made the books nigh-on unreadable to me. Unfortunately, because I do admire and appreciate what I think he's trying to do.

It was The Blue Girl that finally did me in. I tried it because people had said it was good, but there was a pretty early on complete dismissal of the popular crowd and a character who claimed (and a sense we were supposed to believe her) that people didn't like her because she was so smart and strange. And just, no. No, thank you. I said 'generosity' above, but selective charitability isn't on.
5th-Feb-2007 10:53 pm (UTC)
Bird of Dusk started as a bit of a de Lint pastiche, in the early days of Newford, in that it's about artists and street kids in a modern but magical city, and I was trying to capture that sense of generosity. As I've grown and De Lint has moved on, it's been turning into a sort of reaction against his work; the poor people have to do some unpleasant things to stay in food, the successful artists are professionals, or have families or other obligations, or other jobs.

Selective charitability is a good way to describe it.
5th-Feb-2007 08:55 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this wonderful and eye-opening critique. I agree.
5th-Feb-2007 09:02 pm (UTC)
He used to write stories that said, "Just because you're damaged/abused/not whole doesn't mean you can't see the magic in the world." Which I think was a very good thing to write--supportive, helpful, encouraging. And then after a while, his books suddenly stopped being "Broken people are still people." and changed to something more like, "If you're not broken, you'll never understand/see/believe in magic." Which is when I had to stop reading them.

That said, I've heard Spirits in the Wires is truly horrible and that some of the more recent ones are better. But I'm still not going to read them, which makes me sad, because I loved the earlier ones so much when they came out.
5th-Feb-2007 10:56 pm (UTC)
To your first paragraph, oh, yes, that's it exactly. That's why I *like* Dreams Underfoot even though some of the stories in it are his weakest prose-wise, and felt vaguely off reading Tapping the Dream Tree.

So far Spirits in the Wires is readable if I swallow, for the moment, the point of view de Lint gave Saskia as her point of view and attitude, and not a universal truth.
5th-Feb-2007 09:25 pm (UTC)
Sent here by BuyMe, and have to say: right on.

I did like DeLint's stuff -- the Newford novels -- when I first read it; honestly, he was one of the few accessible (and at the library) urban novelists I'd read. I do have an emotional/artistic debt to him for that, in a sense, but even while reading I can remember being a bit, hrm, turned off by his representation of artists.

I mean, my sister is a starving artist, and I mean that literally. Her paintings go usually for $500 or more, but she's 33 and living in my mother's basement (though now moving in more formally with boyfriend). Even if she sells eight paintings a month -- practically unheard of -- that's hardly enough to pay for a place to live, and studio space, and food, and any kind of health insurance (which she requires), let alone the supplies for oils and brushes and cleaners and canvas and whatnot.

Yes, she could work a 9-to-5 job, but in that case, she'd manage perhaps a completed painting a month. She made the choice to try it full-time; compared to her peers, she's actually doing quite well but it's still not enough to pay for the cost of living, however low.

The economics of it all got ignored, constantly, by DeLint. I honestly, truly, positively LOATHE phantom incomes. I'm willing to forgive it if the character isn't human (vampires in big houses, fairies in massive castles), but if we're to believe this artist is bound by human laws, then the artist has got to eat, pay rent, and possibly car insurance. So spending three paragraphs describing a character's gloriously huge studio (which is all their own) and then they go home to a lovely quaint apartment that's not in a drug-infested, crime-ridden, beat-up and run-down part of town, and they don't have parents or siblings or spouse/friend footing the bill for what their art doesn't cover...

Yeah, RIGHT.

I can suspend my disbelief for magic all the author wants. It's having to suspend my disbelief for everything else that pisses me off.
5th-Feb-2007 11:08 pm (UTC)
I know what you mean; I know a comic artist and a colorist in the city - very nice people - but they work from a very very full apartment, and the colorist has taken other jobs, plus they both do work on projects to which they don't have any attachment, and sometimes sacrifice and don't do work they'd like to do.

I do sometimes wonder if some of them get government grants, which is certianly within the realm of possibility (At least in Canada - you have to have proved yourself professional with a few real pre-grant sales, and have a specific project in mind, but that's easily within the realm for say, Jilly.) If so, he never mentions it; maybe he thinks people don't care how his characters manage. He does mention Jilly occasioanlly working as a waitress for a slow month, but last I heard, that wouldn't cover it in most cities.

I've occasionally wondered; I know he has a home -- I don't think an apartment though I can't tell -- in Ottawa and a cabin somewhere in Quebec. He's not living hand to mouth himself.

All this being said -- like you, I owe him an artistic and emotional debt, and I like his music, and as I mentioned above, I haven't hit the point of being unable to read his books completely. The older ones I actively like.
5th-Feb-2007 10:45 pm (UTC)
I didn't know Steve had an LJ.

Wow - I haven't seen him in over 15 years.
Wonder if he'd even remember me.
5th-Feb-2007 10:57 pm (UTC)
He had a weblog elsewhere that crapped out and moved to LJ while it was beign fixed. I think he continued here because he likes the comments section.

I've met him exactly once, when I drew his picture at a Folk Festival then asked him to autograph it.
5th-Feb-2007 11:39 pm (UTC)
He and I overlapped at Minnesota Ren Fest back in 90 & 91... he was old friends with a very dear friend of mine - so we hung out a few times drinking and socializing and the like.
He's a very nice, very smart, very funny guy.
5th-Feb-2007 11:54 pm (UTC)
I got a good impression of him, but I suspect he thought me a goob. I was also selling raffle tickets, whch at least gave me a reason to ahve to approach a total stranger and confirm that he was who I thought he was. {g}

This was many years back in my case, too, but more like 97-98.
5th-Feb-2007 11:08 pm (UTC)
Here via buymeaclue.

Yes. Exactly.

I do think part of is DeLint jumping the shark; his earliest stuff is unreadable formulaic, then there was a while where he pretty much had it down, and then he became all Hip and everyone started being the same character. There are a few of his short stories I will always treasure (mostly 'Saxophone Joe and the Woman in Black'). But I gave up on the new stuff years ago, and just... no. For all the reasons you said, no.
8th-Feb-2007 11:03 pm (UTC)
I'm always loathe to say someone jumped the shark, because I like to think there's a chance they'll catch on to the rut they're in and recover.

For now, however: I've read further in Spirits in the Wires, and...

... well, i think almost all basic writing advice out there would say that of the many ways to start a book, two women sitting and talking and telling each other their life stories for three full chapters isn't it.

Especially when your blurb promises that you start with a computer crash that causes people to vanish and a whole spiritual realm to go haywire.
6th-Feb-2007 02:41 am (UTC)
Here via yhlee and buymeaclue.

I think you've put into words one reason why -- though I like De Lint in small doses -- it has to be small doses.

Tangent: There's one novel I gave up reading and almost certainly won't try again: Trader. Reason: the protagonist doesn't realize he's in another body till he sees himself in a mirror. I'm mostly kinesthesia and touch oriented, rather than visual. I could believe someone not noticing body sensations as strongly as I do -- but I can't believe a character who doesn't notice them at all, and isn't paralyzed.
8th-Feb-2007 10:59 pm (UTC)
The first time I read Trader I liked it, but I didn't think hard about it. The second... it lost something. I found it utterly flat. Some of it was the specialness, some what you call the kinesthesia.

I wasn't consciously including things like that in my descriptions of characters or writing of my own for the longest time - not because I as a person didn't have such sensations but because it doesn't fit in the "use all five senses!" advice for writing descriptions, nor was it a part of the descriptions I analyzed to learn how to describe things. It's often passed up in stories, though rarely to the degree where someone in a new body/shape didn't notice.

James D. Macdonald pointed it out in his general writing advice, however, and then EBear started talking about it a lot. And I started seeing it everywhere. And I did Tai Chi just long enough to figure out a few things about centre of balance and body awareness I'd never thought about.
12th-Feb-2007 09:07 pm (UTC)
Got here via littlebutfierce and thank-you for summing-up the uneasiness I've been feeling lately with the cosiness of de Lint's Mean Streets.

Especially with Trader, it just seems a real cheat to have someone body-swap and still have the muscle memory to do a craft. It's like the phantom income mentioned above. Even if your "mind" (for a given definition of "mind") retained the knowledge of what to do, your body would need training. A friend is just recovering from a broken hand and just getting the muscle strength back is hard work. Having said that - I did find the overall resolution rather neat.
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