This January, I'm taking an online writing class taught by Mary Robinette Kowal, with seven other writers-in-training. (Sounds better than "wannabe writers," doesn't it?) Kowal writes mostly speculative fiction: she won a Hugo Award for a science fiction story in 2011; and her big novel series (right now) is historical fantasy that started from the premise of "Jane Austen with magic."
So it was understood that the people who signed up for this class would be mostly interested in speculative fiction of one sort of another. That's a pretty good description of me, at any rate.
But after a recent experience in class, I was reminded of the postmodern/science fiction divide. Put another way, if people expect speculation, surreality will be difficult to process. It's another example of how reading protocols/expectations have to be met. (See James Gunn, "The Protocols of Science Fiction.") Looked at another way, the experience was another reminder to kill one's darlings when they no longer work.
Apologies to my darlings
Our first homework assignment was to take a transcript of Nixon and Kissinger and change the context without changing the words. Mary wrote about this on her blog a while ago, so you can go see that there, where she gives examples of transposing the dialogue to s.f. and fantasy.
I didn't want to make this another s.f. or fantasy war story because that didn't seem challenging enough. (Although, that's not really the point of this exercise. The point is to work dialogue and context in such a way that we understand the characters--what they say and why they say it. In that way, it's a lot like that acting exercise where the actors get told some secret motivation that they can't reveal directly: How do you demonstrate, subtextually, that you really feel X when you're saying Y?)
So I made this dialogue into a surreal baseball comedy, a sort of Producers situation, with an overbearing and violent rich owner (the Nixon lines, the Zero Mostel role) and a nebbishy number-cruncher (the Kissinger lines, the Gene Wilder role). And it amused me in how over-the-top it was--statisticians being treated like performing monkeys actually devolved into monkey-like behavior, the rich person blacking out and attacking his underling constantly, papers flying everywhere.
And it failed miserably in class. People commented that it didn't seem realistic, which I enthusiastically agreed with, but I think was meant as a criticism. The caricature of the autist mathematician elicited guesses that he was a robot. And when the readers weren't sure what was real, even metaphors turned into stumbling blocks. (Which is a problem with lots of language in speculative fiction. When you said "her world exploded," did you mean "her assumptions were thoroughly overturned" or "her planet literally exploded"?)
You'd think I would know this by now--especially after teaching composition for many years where this was a central lesson--but you have to pay attention to your audience. Or as William Gibson says in Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition, you have to observe the protocol.
If you opened up a New Yorker with a story by Woody Allen or George Saunders, you might approach those authors with some flexibility about realism: both use a lot of humor, wordplay, exaggeration, unreality. But when they were first starting out, how did they get across that what they were writing was meant as surreal humor? Oh, that's a good idea for a blog post tomorrow.