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Tag: fiction as wish fulfillment

Flash fiction story: “The 45th President of the United States and I Went to a Petting Zoo”

“The 45th President of the United States and I Went to a Petting Zoo,” by Grant Gerald Miller

Appeared in (b)OINK, October 13th, 2017

513 words

A bizarre and charming fantasy. I like the stilted repetition of “the 45th President” and its refusal to actually say the guy’s name.

“The 45th President slowly mouthed the world animal. Animals, I said. They’re called animals. You’re supposed to pet them.”

Edited to add: It has been confirmed that the president can, in fact, identify several different animals.

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Novel: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

Published in 1962 by Viking Press

160 pages in the Penguin Classics Deluxe paperback

!!!

This book feels like the purest and most beautifully executed piece of wish fulfillment I’ve ever read. (The thing that comes closest to it is The Talented Mr. Ripley.) When I say wish fulfillment, I guess I mean that Merricat never has to grow up, never has to learn her lesson. Constance never has to grow up either, and after the brief temptation of adulthood passes, she returns happily (?) and with relief to the safety of Merricat’s little world. They win. They triumph. And the twistedness of their triumph is a pleasure in itself, which is only enhanced by the cruelty of the outside world—it’s as though Merricat’s madness is a reaction to that cruelty (though of course it needs no justification beyond itself) and a taunt to throw back against the taunts of the hostile neighbors.

Short story: “Returned”

“Returned,” by Kat Howard

Appeared in Nightmare Magazine, issue 28, January 2015

2427 words

A neat twist on a familiar myth.

On fan-facilitating modularity

“While Homestuck is not ‘formulaic’ in the sense that we use the term (predictable and dull because it follows a familiar story formula), there is an element of ‘formula’ in its structure, a sort of algorithm that governs things, that I think encourages readers with certain obsessive tendencies.

“This is what I mean. There are four kids who each have a musical talent, a strange guardian, a screenname, a weapon specialty, and unique hobbies. There are twelve trolls who each have Zodiac signs as well as the other traits. There are four ‘agents’ with their own specific traits that recur, and then you have the Felt, who each have a power and a color and … everything is regimented, compartmentalized. Characters are unique, but you can array them on a spreadsheet. The act of ‘prototyping,’ a plot-important action in the story, has its own specific rules that can be codified and numbered. There are processes. On a structural level, there’s a certain fascinating mathematic to it. And to a certain kind of fan, that is appealing on a level that is independent of the comic’s quality.

“Of course, the thing about having these divisions is that you can A) draw divisions (Favorites, and also separately ones you can identify with) and B) cycle through an infinite number of possible romantic permutations … if you’re into that sort of thing, which some fans certainly are.

“Manga and anime might not be like Homestuck in its method of storytelling, but they frequently utilize this sort of calculation. This is why Fruits Basket had its array of calendar animals, and why Death Note had its specific list of rules that drove the machinations of its dual (and dueling) protagonists. Tetsuya Nomura reached the exact same audiences with ‘Organization XIII’ in the Kingdom Hearts series.”

—an essay titled “Homestuck for Dummies” (Wayback page), by Michael Peterson, quoted via this

Another selling point for this type of modularity is that it invites the audience to come up with their own variants. Fans even have names for formula-made self-insertion characters: trollsonas, ponysonas, gemsonas. And even as the formula becomes familiar and ordinary, it still somehow emphasizes the uniqueness and specialness of each individual. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic invites its audience to have their own special-sounding names and colors and symbols. Steven Universe invites its audience to have their own gem names and colors and body types and weapons.

Notably, both those shows focus on female characters. There’s a longstanding tendency in our culture to treat girls’ and women’s fantasies as sillier and less interesting than those of boys and men—self-insert fantasies especially. And it seems like female fantasies tend to revolve more around personal identity and beauty than around actions (whether this tendency is innate or cultural, I will refrain from speculating). So fan-facilitating character modularity is especially welcoming to the female part of the audience. (It’s worth noting that while Homestuck is far from true gender parity, it makes a point of having a 1:1 male:female ratio in most character groups, in keeping with the formula.)

Short story: “Dear Owner of This 1972 Ford Crew Cab Pickup”

“Dear Owner of This 1972 Ford Crew Cab Pickup,” by Desirina Boskovich

Appeared in Nightmare Magazine, 2014; also here on Dread Central

2525 words

The author points out in this interview that the protagonist isn’t wholly sympathetic, and that the antagonist deserves more sympathy than she gives him. She quotes a trite but perhaps absolutely true saying: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” And yet how difficult I found it, reading this story, to see anything beyond the protagonist’s suffering and the antagonist’s callousness—how difficult not to want the story to end the way it did, in horror and catharsis and oblivion. Fiction can make us feel invincible, but it can also remind us how weak and corruptible we really are.

I think the story could be comfortably placed in crime rather than horror, but the good thing about calling it horror is that the reader doesn’t know what kind of horror to expect.

Short story: “Starter House”

“Starter House,” by Jason Palmer

Appeared in the Drabblecast, episode 362, June 14th, 2015

Maybe 4,000 words?—not sure

A slight story, because the family and their complacence and their cruelty are all so repellent. But fun, because their ending feels so well deserved.

On pornography as art/pornography as material for art

“I think pornography is a very rich medium, and I’ve studied it closely and learned quite a lot as a writer from it. Porn charges and narrows the reader’s attention in a swift, no-nonsense way, and it creates an anxious, intimate, and secretive atmosphere that I find very helpful as a way to erase the context around my characters and foreground their feelings, their psychological depths, their tastes. But I’m also always interested in subverting and counteracting porn’s effect, and the sex in my books is never merely hot. It challenges the objectification that is porn’s stock-in-trade by removing the central conceit that people having sex are in a state of supreme relaxation and self-confidence, wherein their worries and individuality are muted and beside the point. It uses hotness as a kind of decoy.”

—Dennis Cooper (x)

Alternate-reality characters and unlikely happy endings

Following up on this, a recent installment of Homestuck included something that can only be done in speculative fiction, and I want to savor it by analysis:

Dave grew up with an abusive guardian who died before Dave got the chance to come to terms with his abuse. In this scene, he finds himself face to face with Dirk, an alternate-reality version of his abuser. While Dirk has technically never done anything to Dave, he’s already acquired the behavior patterns that could lead him in the same direction.

For the first time, Dave gets to vent some of his justified anger. Dirk not only looks and feels like Dave’s guardian, he also intuitively understands his other self’s cruelty and feels partly responsible. And because he’s not that other self, Dave can eventually forgive him, learn to trust him, and even ask him for the comfort and affection he never got as a kid.

If Dave had tried to reconcile with his actual abuser to this extent, he would have likely have gotten burned again. But with Dirk, he has a chance of starting over on his own terms. They’re even the same age this time. It’s an amazing scene of catharsis and the best kind of wish fulfillment.

How would a realistic narrative do this? I suppose Dirk’s role could be filled by a twin sibling or a son. Or Dave’s guardian could suffer a traumatic brain injury that makes him effectively a new person. Or the cathartic confrontation could occur in a dream sequence or a hallucination or a story within the story. But these are only approximations of the thing we’re trying to do, a thing that Homestuck offers in its purest form.

Compare the quasi-redemption at the end of “Bullet in the Brain,” which is made possible only by messing with chronology.

On writing characters who are marginalized in a way that you aren’t

I sympathize with this advice (found via thewritingcafe.tumblr.com), but it doesn’t quite sit right with me. There are so many settings and situations where choosing not to show a character’s marginalization feels dishonest, inadequate.

I mean, it can be done, of course; it’s pretty common for men (and women) to write female characters while completely avoiding issues of sexism. But I find such portrayals somewhat unconvincing. On the other hand, it’s also common for writers to portray sexism in a way that rings completely false. Maybe male writers who do that would be better off taking this advice, at least until they understand the subject better.

There’s a truly cringe-inducing bit in Stranger in a Strange Land that seems relevant here. (The book is infamous for its sexism and homophobia generally, but never mind that for a moment.) A formerly rather prudish female character has been converted to a free love mentality. She gets a job as a nude entertainer in a club (I’m a little hazy as to why). She receives some psychic glimpses into the minds of the men looking at her, and she’s delighted and aroused by their appreciation for various parts of her body. The men lust after her, but none of them resent her; or find themselves jaded by all the bodies they’ve seen before; or mentally criticize her perceived imperfections; or project their worst experiences with other women onto her; or feel contempt for her chosen profession. For that matter, none of them are at the club to prove themselves in the eyes of other men, or their own—they’re all here because they genuinely like looking at sexy, naked women. It’s a lovely, innocent fantasy. It’s also too ridiculous to take seriously for more than a second.

Of course, in that example, Heinlein probably didn’t go wrong because he wanted to avoid depicting women’s marginalization. Presumably he just lacked awareness of it. I could come up with some fictions that deliberately avoid depicting marginalization, but they wouldn’t come off as ridiculous, just bland and subtly false.

Edit: I just realized I do have something relevant to say about Stranger. Heinlein portrays his characters’ sexual openness as healthy and moral, but he fails to portray their society’s reaction honestly, with all its sexist double standards. It would be more true to life if Gillian started out stripping for her own pleasure, then discovered how easily that sort of pleasure can be ruined by an unsafe setting or a disrespectful audience. That would be an appropriate way for Heinlein to show the marginalization of women, even though a female author might do it better.

On fiction and titillation

“I have a mad theory that I started evolving when I read a book called Hard Core by Linda Williams, a film professor in California. It was one of the first books analysing hardcore pornography as a film genre.

“She said that in order to make sense of it, you need to think of musicals, because the plot in a musical exists to stop all of the songs from happening at once, and to get you from song to song. You need the song where the heroine pines for what she does not have, you need the songs where the whole chorus is doing something rousing and upbeat, and you need the song when the lovers get together and, after all the vicissitudes, triumph.

“I thought, ‘That’s actually a way to view all literary genres,’ because there are things that people who like a genre are looking for in their fiction: the things that titillate, the things that satisfy. If it was a cowboy novel, we’d need the fight in the saloon; we’d need the bad guy to come riding into town and the good guy to be waiting for him. A novel that happens to be set in the Old West doesn’t actually need to deliver any of those things—though it would leave readers of genre cowboy fiction feeling peculiarly disappointed, because they have not got the moments of specific satisfaction.”

—Neil Gaiman (x)