[writing|process] Old home week at Wordos, “The Stars Do Not Lie”

Yesterday, Lisa Costello and I drove the 100+ miles down to Eugene, OR to attend a Wordos meeting, with a dinner preceding. This was the first Wordos meeting I’ve been to in years, though for the first half of the last decade I was an almost weekly attendee. It was great good fun to see some old friends there, as well as meet a few new ones. And it was a very strange experience to hear my Nebula- and Hugo-nominated novella “The Stars Do Not Lie” be discussed in critical terms.

One of the points several people made was that the story would have taken a real beating at the critique table. The first two paragraphs are so dense and strange that they violate a number of the classic Turkey City lexicon rules. Yet those first two paragraphs neatly encapsulate one of the basic themes of the story, and foreshadow much of the plot. In other words, they work in spite of themselves and the rules we try to follow.

It was also interesting to hear people talk about my intentions for this-and-that, and how I crafted the contrasting voice for the two mutually antagonistic protagonists, and so forth. To my mind, one of the oddities of literary criticism (as opposed to critique) is the imputing of motives to the author. I can remember back in high school hearing English teachers say things like, “What Faulkner is doing here is emphasizing [some cultural trope]”, and thinking, No, what Faulkner is doing here is telling a damned story. It’s the readers who find those other things.

Over three decades later, it turns out I was right. That discussion really made me reflect once more on the concept of unconscious competence. When I wrote “The Stars Do Not Lie”, I was just telling a damned story. I was generally aware of what I was doing — I’m not blind to my own thinking, after all — but I never sat there and said to myself, “Gee, how shall I emphasize the dynamic of faith in conflict with reason in this scene?” I never said to myself, “Oh, this fits into the conversation-that-is-genre going back to Lord of Light and Universe.”

Those sorts things are true, in the sense that they are very clearly present in the text, but Fred put them there, not me. At least not my conscious, self-aware self.

All in all, it would have been a fascinating experience in almost any context, but all the more so among the friends and writers who played a powerful and very material role in launching my career.

After that discussion we had about a thirty-minute impromptu Q&A on the craft and business of writing, which was kind of fun, too. Like world’s shortest writing workshop or something. And again, as I said to Lisa, a decade and a half ago I was at the other end of that exact same table, asking those kinds of questions. Quite weird to be talking to my past self. Giving back by paying forward. Plus it was a lot of fun.

My thanks to the Wordos for inviting us down and hosting us.

10 thoughts on “[writing|process] Old home week at Wordos, “The Stars Do Not Lie”

  1. Jake Kerr says:

    Literary criticism is more complex than you indicate in the above, Jay. In fact, I daresay that pretty much every major theory of literary criticism is counter to your description of it focusing on “authorial intent.”

    I went to Kenyon College, where the English department was built by John Crowe Ransom, the leading evangelist of New Criticism, and it was a big part of my education. New Criticism is antithetical to interpreting authorial intent. I think it is fair to say that New Criticism was the dominant method of literary critique in the 20th century.

    The latter part of the century brought in things like deconstructionism on one side and reader-response on the other, but both of those also pretty much disregard authorial intent.

    John Green attended Kenyon a few years after I did, and in his 7 minute Crash Course on Literature you can see him channeling the ghost of John Crow Ransom when he rants about how authorial intent doesn’t matter when you read. Check it out, it’s lots of fun: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSYw502dJNY


    1. Jay says:

      Good think for me I’ve never believed authorial intent counted for much of anything!

  2. Jake Kerr says:

    Oh, and because it’s always fun for writers to compare how they do things differently:

    “‘Gee, how shall I emphasize the dynamic of faith in conflict with reason in this scene?’ I never said to myself, ‘Oh, this fits into the conversation-that-is-genre going back to Lord of Light and Universe.”

    What you don’t do is exactly what I DO do. In fact, I rather enjoyed reading reactions to my story “The Old Equations” that said, “The wife is a total bitch,” when I consciously created her character around multiple iterations of the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief.

    Anyway, I thought you’d find it interesting that at least one other author spends a significant amount of time on stuff like that.

    1. Jay says:

      I’d be amazed if some authors didn’t do exactly that. I just don’t. 😉

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