Friday, September 15, 2006

Why Don't They Just Talk to Each Other

I can't count the number of times I've heard, "Why don't they just talk to each other" as a criticism of romance novels where the focus is on interpersonal conflict rather than some external disaster that throws people together. I've always liked those stories, because they seem more realistic to me. People just don't talk to each other, sad but true, and so misunderstandings happen all the time.

A few days ago, I heard a variation on the theme. A close writing buddy of mine says, "Remember how I said..." then continues with a snippet from her own writing. "Then why did I write this:" and it's a character thinking about how he doesn't quite trust this woman so won't tell her everything.

Here's my answer:

Because it's true to the character and the situation. Sure, if everyone was honest with everyone, life would be a better place, but really that's not reality, even fictional reality. You go with your gut, you go with what you know, and even if someone tells you the truth, if the apparent facts contradict, you're more likely to go with the "facts."

I was reading a science site recently,, and it had an article about how people really do decide what someone is like at the first impression, no matter how brief (People Judge in the Blink of an Eye: Click Here). Anyway, this ties into the topic because I think people make a lot of assumptions, rightly or wrongly, and even the bald truth can be hard pressed to overcome those impressions. To make things more complex, since both people involved in an exchange do the same thing, the truth is lost in a morass of impression and assumption.

According to the article, it's a defense mechanism left over from earlier times. So when you see a big man coming down the street toward you and you're a young woman, your senses go on alert. Doesn't matter if he doesn't care that you exist, you've identified him as a danger.

I think it's that aspect the romance novels tie into. Now I'm not saying they all do so well. Sure, you can have a book where the characters are given every opportunity to explain and choose not to for no good reason, but those shouldn't be used to judge the subgenre.

What if something or someone would be put at risk by the information? What if trust was something that had been repeatedly condemned or squashed? What if the crucial information was someone else's story to tell?

There are a lot of reasons we keep secrets, valid reasons. Some are matters of trust, either how much we trust the other person or how much someone else trusts us to keep their secret. Some are to avoid embarrassment, to protect a job, a spouse, even a pet. Some are inconveniences where if the truth is known something will have to change. I'm sure there are billions of reasons why two people would not be totally honest and that's ignoring all the reasons related to inaccurate first impressions. Each and every reason is valid fodder for a writer, especially one exploring a romantic relationship.

Romance is about love and trust, but all that doesn't come in a vacuum or at the first glance. A romance novel (or romance thread in another genre novel) is about the time before that love and trust is earned, that time when two people are still exploring this strange and unique (to them at least) emotion that has sprung between them. Would you be completely honest on your first date? Would you be comfortable if your date started spilling family secrets, explaining how long he or she wet the bed or sucked their thumbs?

Somehow I didn't think so ;).

We don't live in a world that rewards honesty. Look around you and there are billions of examples where people get ahead, get away with something, or even find something wonderful because they were less than completely honest. Honesty is scary both for the giver and the receiver. It's giving something of yourself away and taking responsibility for something of someone else. The whole social trend about the "three little words" comes because of vulnerability. In this world, people who are vulnerable get kicked. Not always, but enough times to train us to hold a little back.

Yes, that's a depressing view of the world, but I think an accurate one.

And here comes my theme on romances (didn't even realize it would come down to this). The reason these romances, the ones where misunderstanding or miscommunication forms the heart (pun intended ;)) of the conflict, work so well for me is not so much that they never talk to each other and explain away the problems but that they do eventually work their way through to communication and success despite the misunderstandings.

Whether it's how much to pay for dry cleaning or who is supposed to call whom, misunderstandings fill our lives. To teach through fiction that, if you try hard enough, any misunderstanding can be overcome is a wondrous thing. It gives me hope and encourages me to take the risk and make myself vulnerable in the hopes that things get better with the air clear and any misunderstandings resolved.

So yeah, why don't they just talk to each other? Well, maybe they, and we, should :).

Friday, September 08, 2006

Self-Censorship and the Reader/Listener's 50%

I hope no one came here looking for answers. I certainly don't have any, but I wanted to comment on something that has come up in several conversations of late, both those where I am a participant and where I am an observer. And today, I found myself doing the same thing.

I was reading The Atlantic Monthly (May 2003 and yes, I'm that behind on my reading ;)) and I ran across a fact that was new to me. I did not know (or remember) that the Talmud said all faithful (of any religion) had a place in Paradise. Now I was going to muse on the interconnection with this and the rigid rules regarding parentage to be considered an Orthodox Jew (my husband is Jewish, but according to the strict interpretations, my children are not because Judaism passes through the mother), but I decided not to. Why? Because raising religious questions as philosophical ponders can lead to those questions expanding and creating religious, as opposed to philosophical, debate. Something this blog isn't designed to address for all it might prove interesting :).

You'll just have to imagine what avenues I would have explored, because I've already decided on self-censorship.

In one of the conversations I mentioned before, a decision similar to mine--though on a word, not topic basis--was declared politically correct and therefore shunnable. Okay, ignoring the whole contradiction that exists in the concept of shunning tied to meeting acceptable social norms ;), the question here revolves around the choice to batter convention by deliberately ignoring it as opposed to compromising linguistic integrity by giving in...or does it?

Words have power. People have known that for centuries. Just think of the consequences of calling someone a Nazi, a communist, a terrorist. All of those words have a specific meaning...and a social one. The difference in the reaction of readers to describing a character as from a community that works together to support all the members and saying the character is a communist can be extreme depending on where the reader background sits. Are they equivalent? Well, the underpinning of the communist philosophy is just that: a community where every member shares the fruits of labor so the whole thrives. And how many people call (or accuse) the Israeli kibbutz system communist? And on the other end of the spectrum, if the word used is commune, it brings up images of hippies smoking things they oughtn't and lazing around all day.

Is choosing your words with a thought to the reader an act of political correctness to the detriment of your work? Is it every writer/speaker's job to redefine these terms in the hearts of their listeners so they can once again be used without emotional baggage?

To me, it comes down to self-censorship, but I don't find that a bad thing at all.

We have a rule in our family, the type of rule that requires reminders. It is "appropriate dinnertime conversation." That tag phrase is a reminder to self-censor discussions of maulings, gross things, detailed surgery, the showing of unhealed wounds, or what have you while we are attempting to consume our meal. I'm the primary reason. I have a vivid imagination and have difficulty curtailing it long enough to consume food. I became a vegetarian for 7+ years for no other reason than that I couldn't sit down to a meat meal without seeing the animal it came from, and not being raised on a farm, the food with a face concept really turned me off.

My family has agreed to censor themselves in the interest of me not starving to death. They know that while they hear just the words, my listener 50% comes in surround sound and full sensory. It's one of my strengths as a writer and my struggles as a human.

To get to the point, finally ;), their intent in talking about these things is to share interesting happenings, something they learned, something they did, etc. Their intent was never to make me too sick to eat. Just as if I were to use the term communist or commune to describe my characters' living style, my intent would not be to bring McCarthyism to the fore or a return of the flower children.

My take on this (and sure it can be called PC) is that intent doesn't matter. If I know in advance that the word I'm choosing is loaded with other meanings that will distract the reader/listener from my own purpose, assuming I'm not using the term to educate, not to self-censor, not to choose a term that won't pull the reader from my work, seems foolish.

How does this choice (word, sentence, topic, reference, whatever) advance your purpose? If it doesn't for whatever reason, I say change it. There are lots of words and oddly enough many mean the same thing (English is crazy :)). I'd never consider it PC in a derogatory way because my purpose is to communicate what I want to say. With the reader/listener 50% that's hard enough without using terms or topics that I can tell in advance will lead people off on other paths and away from what I'm trying to show them.

So, am I ultimately kowtowing to the masses? Have I lost my perspective and so will produce only bland vanilla works from now on? Or is maybe communication more important than playing the game of telephone where each person puts there own interpretation on my words until the meaning is lost in the babble? (Yes, my bias shows, but I'm still fascinated in different perspectives and you never might change my mind :).)

And just to make my point about words, though it was intended as a joke, I said I'd made the error code for something even more explicit. The response? "I thought explicit was a bad thing :P."