So my story, Unarmed Men, has been rejected for publication by a prominent (I assume) fantasy magazine. The form letter says that the following may or may not be reasons for the rejection: old ideas, poor grammar/composition, or a failure to "stand out."

Since there's nothing wrong with the grammar/composition, it's not an old idea (at worse, it may bear a kinship to The Prisoner episode Living in Harmony, even an allegorical sympathy but a kinship is hardly a photocopy), and those who've read it have not described it as run of the mill. Why was it rejected, then?

I won't indulge any woe-is-me blather, because while I've submitted stories in the past that, in hindsight, were not my best work and were understandably rejected, I've come along way since then with stories like Unarmed Men. It could just be that the story wasn't their speed. It's not, strictly speaking, a fantasy, although it is clearly not realistic. As an allegory, it takes on decidedly surreal qualities. Or, maybe the fact that the assistant editor mentioned errors in formatting the manuscript (it's apparently important to indent the first line of paragraphs and not have extra lines between paragraphs) means that they didn't read it. Unsanctioned formatting as a means of weeding out one of hundreds of stories received - one less to read.

I might reformat the story and send it again. Perhaps I'll see if there's another publication more suitable, although Unarmed Men really is hard to classify - western? science fiction? fantasy? It's an allegorical western.

But I confess that getting something published is the most unpleasant part of being a writer, especially given how subjective editors are in choosing pieces to publish and hard it is to get meaningful feedback on why a piece was not published. That's the way it goes, though. If at first you don't succeed, try and try again.


nihilism and the horror genre - part 3

To wrap up my posts on nihilism and the horror genre, I’ll answer a rather obvious question: what does any of that have to with (my) writing? To begin with, I want to deal with the impression that I’m dismissing an entire genre. I am, of course, but on the plus side I’m always open to being surprised. That’s why I’m enjoying writing book reviews for Morbid Outlook, because many of the books I’ve received are horror-themed and give me an opportunity to challenge my normal reading tastes. (In fact, I just finished reading Clive Barker’s new book, Mister B. Gone, and – surprise of surprises –I liked it!) But what about actually writing a horror story?

As it happens, I am thinking about writing a “horror” story. But for me to think it worthwhile writing, it has to adhere to the following guidelines.
  • Put villains under the same moral scrutiny as the heroes. We examine how heroes hold up, or fail, under duress…but how do villains hold up when perpetrating their villainy?
  • Just as there shouldn’t be unstoppable good guys – that’s boring drama – there shouldn’t be unstoppable bad guys. Unless Ma Nature is involved, villains shouldn’t be indestructible.
  • No violence for the sake of violence. Also, no grotesqueries for the sake of grotesqueries. It’s easy to come up with twisted stuff, and if it isn’t, the Marquis de Sade, Hentai, or anything involving the Nazis and other genocidal maniacs will provide enough material. But it’s all exploitation if it comes without a good story and worthwhile characters to give it a meaningful context. Rule: never spill a bucket of blood when a pinprick will do.
  • Don’t manipulate readers. Just don’t do it.
So far, I’ve figured out, but not developed, the two main characters (the heroine and a science-loving goth) and the general structure of the plot (ghost story, mystery). All I say about the plot is that it’s a take-off on the film “The Messengers,” which is itself a take-off on just about every haunted house story every told. My approach will be more along the lines of science-fiction than fantasy, however. Still left to figure out is the nature of the haunting and the motivations behind it, whether or not to bring in another concept that could make the story be part of a larger series, and what other characters are necessary to tell the story.

I still have some work to do before I get to writing it, not to mention other stories to write. Before all of that, however, I just finished another science-fiction story I need to polish and prep to send out into the world.


nihilism and the horror genre - part 2

In regards to the graphic novel underlying the just-released movie “20 Days of Night” director David Slade says in an interview with SCI FI WIRE, “It's actually a hard, bleak, nihilistic story.”

Nihilistic - a word I’ve often come across in the description of films that don’t have happy “Hollywood” endings, that is, stories in which good fails to triumph over evil. Sometimes the word is just used in an imprecise, colloquial way. “I'd have flagged it as pointless if it had not been so nihilistic,” writes an IMDB user about that French horror film Inside. “It's not like the recent "torture movies" of late, which tends to have some kind of happy ending.” Sometimes, the word is better used, like in this discussion of Chinatown. (My take on Chinatown: Polanski’s nihilism has all the dishonesty that comes with the arbitrary in terms of plot but ultimately director-controlled flight path of a bullet.)

However, the philosopher in me bristles at the misunderstanding of the term, an abuse that cheaply equates nihilism with the active destruction of values and sometimes even celebrates that destruction. There’s a paradox involved in this petty bourgeois kind of nihilism, though. To explain, it helps to understand what nihilism as a philosophical position is. The entry on nihilism in Wikipedia is a useful primer (given how long it’s been since I took philosophy classes, I certainly found it useful, at least, and close to what I remember).

In essence, however, nihilism can take on various flavours:
  • the denial of all values
  • the denial of existing things (ontological)
  • the denial of truth and knowledge (epistemological)
  • the denial of ethics
Without getting into an academic discussion (and fully realizing that these few paragraphs are enough to get me into trouble), my own view is that nihilism doesn’t make sense from ontological or epistemological standpoints. But it does make sense when defined to say that life, existence, everything, does not have meaning or value. This is the abyss that terrifies; that there is neither objective meaning nor divine order to create meaning for us. Yet, clearly, the nihilist who fully embodies this nihilism would, to be consistent, actually have to be dead. When alive, however, meaninglessness is not a sustainable state. Whether it’s Will to Power, the nature of consciousness, a simple desire to live, or something else, nihilism is, in my interpretation of it, both the recognition of objective meaningless and the subjective response to overcome that meaninglessness. (Bring in the existentialists!) In other words, the nihilist’s task is to overcome his or her own nihilism – through an act of creation. It should even be said that all meaning is essentially self-created, even those meanings and values we attribute to outside entities like deities because, ultimately, those entities do not exist.

So before I drift too far afield, here’s the point. Horror movies are not truly nihilistic because – and this assumes that horror writers actually have reasons to end stories the way they do – while asserting the fallibility and weakness of good in the face of evil, they also evoke a feeling of horror and despair. In other words, the incapacity for good to triumph translates to the futility of good trying to overcome evil (because evil will win out in the end), which translates to meaninglessness, which in turn is negatively valued as something horrible, frightening, and bleak. Negative values are thus not nihilism, but a mere fatalistic reversal of positive values; petty bourgeois nihilism.

To be truly nihilistic, however, it would have to be the case that the actions of evil are just as meaningless as the actions of good. This means there is no more value to the monster’s killings than to the hero’s failures. There is as much futility to committing evil acts and resisting good as there it to committing good acts and resisting evil. The question is: why bother do anything?

To call a horror story nihilistic, then, when the genre is really about those things that frighten us is to lend it a philosophical imprimatur it doesn’t quite deserve. Sometimes, a bad ending is just a bad ending. Of course, sometimes a bad ending is just a setup for a sequel.


nihilism and the horror genre - part 1

I dislike horror fiction as a genre. With the express goal of evoking horror, it is manipulative by definition, prone to formulaic plots (e.g. evil force kills people) and even more formulaic twist endings (e.g. evil force survives - surprise!). While it’s understandable that invulnerable infallible good guys are dramatically unsatisfying, it annoys me to no end that evil characters in horror fiction are rarely held to the same standard. If it weren’t for the often gruesome and gory violence, there wouldn’t be anything about horror fiction to get particularly worked up about beyond storytelling quality, but violence and gore are intrinsic parts of the genre, except, of course, in sibling genres like ghost stories or Rod Serling-like oddities. (And yes, I do recognize that there are exceptions to the rule. I did enjoy, for example, the "Silent Hill" movie.)

Of course, the fact that we live in a violent world makes it inevitable that violence will play a part in the stories we tell. To some extent, it is necessary as storytelling helps us, within limits, process our experience of the world. But I struggle with the notion of violence as entertainment – and there’s no question that, for many fans of horror, it is the violence that seals the deal. (Read the fan comments for horror movies like the recent French Film Inside at IMDB and you’ll see what I mean. One user writes “It is a very bloody movie mostly in the 2nd half but the one thing that puts it way over the top for the main-stream crowd is how it handles a woman who is 9 months pregnant. While I won't give away the ending (that's been done already in some spoiler sections elsewhere here ) lets just say the producers definitely took a road less traveled.. hehe” Hehe? The ending involves a pair of scissors, based on the spoiler, and this user says “hehe?”)

I admit that I can’t relate to this particular point of view. And I don’t buy into the more highfalutin rationales offered for gory violence as entertainment:
  • Horror points out that evil exists in the world, that sometimes evil wins. (Really? We need horror fiction to tell us something we know by reading the news and actually living in the world? Granted, horror fiction isn’t the only genre afflicted with delusions of imparting wisdom to the masses, but it certainly has the weakest legs to stand on.)
  • Catharsis. I don’t think the Greeks achieved anything by introducing the world to the concept of catharsis, which wikipedia defines as “a sudden emotional breakdown or climax that constitutes overwhelming feelings of great sorrow, pity, laughter or any extreme change in emotion that results in the restoration, renewal and revitalization for living.” Then again, it’s entirely subjective and I admit that while catharsis isn’t something I experience often (if at all), especially with horror, other people might. But achieving catharsis doesn’t do anything about solving life’s problem. There’s no practically knowledge to be gained by it. So we watch a bleak horror film, get cathartic…and then what? We certainly don’t gain any useful knowledge in condemning or combating the evil that the metaphysics of the horror genre insists on waking us up to.
  • Fictional violence is different from real violence. By far the most sophisticated argument I’ve come across, with an easy superficial appeal, it is also one of the most disingenuous. True, no one is actually getting hurt when the violence is fictional, but that isn’t the issue. The issue is our relationship and reaction to violence. Consider – and this is threading on risky philosophical ground, I admit, for the sake of keeping things simple – that ethics aren’t real, in the sense that ethics are metaphysical and not physical. When we say, “murder is wrong,” we’re not talking about any particular instance of murder, but of a moral judgment to which we compare reality. From an ethical standpoint, then, it is the definition of violence that counts – a definition expressed just as easily through fiction as through real actions. In other words, the concept of violence is just as much the object of condemnation as the act of violence; the two are inexorably tied together. Here’s a thought experiment: If we were to see a violent film and that it was equally possible that the on-screen death was real instead of fake, what would it say about us if we entertained?
This has nothing to do, by the way, with whether or not other people are right or wrong to enjoy horror. Sometimes people just enjoy scary stories. But insofar as I’m concerned, I find that beyond deficiencies involving how horror as a genre works, violence presented as entertainment (something we willingly subject ourselves to) leaves me feeling morally queasy. I just don’t enjoy seeing people get hurt and don’t see the horror genre as a means of coping or overcoming the horrors of the world. Unless a particular piece of horror offers a window into examining and understanding horror, it typically just strikes me as exploitative.

Now that I’ve provided background on my views of horror as a genre, I can actually get to the point I’m aiming for…in my next post.


how not to summarize a novel

So the first draft of my novel has been completed for a few weeks. After my first round of edits, it’s currently out gathering feedback before another round of edits followed by walking. It’s been rather interesting discussing my novel with friends, if only because I never really discuss it. Before I ‘splain that, though, some background.

Whenever someone would ask my what my novel’s about, the conversation would inevitably go something like this:

Them: oh, you’re writing a novel? Cool. What’s it about?
Me: It’s about, well, um…yeah…okay, well…um…hmmm…tough question….it’s about this character, see? It’s not so much plot-oriented as character-oriented…
Them: (crickets chirping)

Then I tried being a bit more precise.

Them: Oh, you’re writing a novel? Cool. What’s it about?
Me: It’s about a political activist who becomes disillusioned with his activism.
Them: OK…
Me: The character’s a playwright who hates drama.
(crickets chirping)

Clearly, my attempts to convey my own excitement about my novel weren’t succeeding, which brings me back to not really discussing what my novel is about. See, it's a character study, so to talk about the novel means talking about the character. But I don’t want to spoil the book by revealing the character’s secrets. Catch-22, my friends. Catch-22.

During an IM chat in which the sound of chirping crickets became particularly oppressive, I broke down and wrote a revealing synopsis. I’m still not happy that I had to reveal the character’s name, because the whole Prince-as-a-symbol thing seems, on the surface, to be incredibly pretentious. But that’s the character, and, until I come up with something better, this is the synopsis:

His name is ‽ and he doesn’t care whether people like it or not.

He’s a playwright, yet he hates drama. Of course, whether it’s the failure of past relationships, the unwanted romantic advances of a lonely mathematical genius, on-going conflicts with his parents, the politics of his theatre school, or the ordeal of watching a friend cheat on his girlfriend, he can’t escape it.

He’s a radical activist, enflamed by Dadaist ambitions to chafe against social injustice in all its forms, but increasingly disillusioned by a world that doesn’t change for the better.

‽ is a rebel waiting for a cause worth fighting for – for a drama worth living for – but facing increased isolation as ideals confront reality, art collides with meaninglessness, and the value of friendship is a lesson yet to be learned.


Here We Go Again

My previous attempt at blogging (“The Unarmed Man,” for the two people who might remember it) ended with a whimper. The reason probably had something to do with the yawning indifference the world has towards yet another blog, but I suspect that writing about my take on pacifism – individualist pacifism – wasn’t exactly the pied piper’s tune. Perhaps it could have worked, but to provide any kind of intelligent discussion on situations like, say, the monk-led protests in Burma, requires a lot of research. Given that I have more to do in my life than blog, I simply could not do the topic the justice it needed to make the blog successful.

But here I am again in blog-land, ready to give it another go – only this time I’ve chosen a more manageable subject; my various writing endeavours (see “About Me”). Stories in progress, stories to be published, fiction, non-fiction, special articles; if I’m writing it, I’ll blog about it here. I might also blog about any other topic that catches my fancy, although I don’t plan to make this blog a navelgazapalooza.

About the title: “The Recreational Nihilist” is the name of my column for The Front Page Online. It’s also a philosophical joke that, for some reason, never ceases to amuse me. It came about during a discussion with a (former) co-worker in which, after complaining about how ineffective anti-war protests were, I mentioned how nihilistic it all made me feel. But since I wasn’t entirely devoid of hope, I could only claim to be a recreational nihilist. I’m sure it was funnier at the time. Still, there you have it.