Sarah Dessen & the Internet’s new literary feud

Sarah Dessen
Sarah Dessen
(Larry D. Moore, CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Last week a dust-up swirled on Twitter that grew to a Category 5 hurricane. Young Adult author Sarah Dessen learned her name was mentioned in a small-town university newspaper. The article was a feature piece on the university’s successful campus-wide reading program. One of the program’s student committee members—a junior at the time—told the newspaper

“She’s fine for teen girls,” the 2017 Northern graduate said. “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

(Although I share the student’s last name and my father hails from the same state as the university, I’m not related to the student. Trust me: There are a lot of Nelsons in South Dakota.)

Miffed, Sarah Dessen took her disgruntlement to her Twitter account, where she shared with her over 268,000 followers:

Authors are real people. We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.

What ensued is a now-familiar pattern on the Internet: mob outrage followed by mob backlash followed by apologies followed by meta-analysis of what transpired (which includes this post, I suppose).

In the initial burst of Twitter outrage, the student’s remarks were construed as demeaning YA fiction, demeaning teenage girls, internalized misogyny, promoting abuse toward women, and worse. Her social media accounts were tracked down and she was hounded offline. She was even snubbed by other big-name authors she may have read and possibly admired. One of them attacked her by name in the newspaper’s comment section.

The authors’ attacks were amplified a thousand-fold by their supportive followers on Twitter, which only served to energize the authors’ continued denunciations and self-righteousness. Remember, most of the authors involved write YA, a genre whose subject matter centers around solitary young people being kicked around by those in power.

The backlash probably started on Twitter, but picked up strength when online commentary outlets voiced their incredulous disbelief at the mob mentality. The backdraft circled onto Dessen and her prominent supporters, leading them to delete their old tweets and issue apologies.

(This narrative is better covered by places like Vulture and Slate. For the gory blow-by-blow details, I suggest starting there.)

The story has more or less died down now. The media outlets have updated their reports to include these apologies. The door is closing on the story. Time to move on.

The transitive logic underpinning the entire affair is remarkable. A single college student opined that books by a certain author are not suitable for a college-level reading program. From a single paragraph in a tiny university’s newspaper (current enrollment: 3,622) sprang a hornet’s nest of vicious conclusions. The logic magnified an innocuous criticism of a single YA author to an attack on all YA fiction and its readers. Thus, the logic went, if you’re a reader of YA fiction, it’s a personal attack on you. From there the maelstrom spiraled off into more sinister territory.

It’s confirmed: One’s tastes and reading habits may now interpreted as a systematic attack on the underprivileged and powerless. Before the incident faded off, there were tweets (now deleted) declaring the college student wielded more power than Dessen—after all, the student was on a committee. Imagine if she had dared to write a bad Amazon review.

The muted blandness of the authors’ apologies are no match to the heights of the original vitriol or the depths of the condescension. Some of the apologies read like the calculated boilerplate of a publicist or press agent. Some suggest the problem is not with the authors’ own attitudes or sensitivities, but that the college student wasn’t more powerful. I could spend another thousand words attempting to reconstruct how the hell our culture reached this point. And yet, here we are.

Would these authors have trained the same level of indignation on a professional critic with, say, the New York Times or USA Today? I doubt it. There’s a lot at stake there. A lone reader in a flyover state? (“People have strange and inflated ideas about their taste level.”) Different story.

“For the man led a mob”

What’s at play here is the rise of the superauthor: Bestselling novelists who also maintain major media platforms—interactive web sites, message boards, podcasts, and social media feeds with hundreds of thousands of followers. They’re not merely authors, they’re brands. Many of these YA superauthors have crafted an online persona of a confidant and sympathizing mentor. You don’t merely read their books, you hear from them everyday. You see their vacation photos and hear about their pets. You share their ups and downs in the real world.

Utilizing the tidal hydropower of the platform to take down critics is a new twist. G. K. Chesterton noted Dickens could not be ignored or dismissed “for the man led a mob.” Imagine if Dickens had Twitter.

Literary feuds are the stuff of legend, but they almost always involve authors, editors, and/or professional critics. We’re now seeing a new-style of literary feud in the Internet Age: author versus reader. This won’t be the last time writers hit back at reader criticism with the support of the multitudes behind them.

Judy Blume
Judy Blume

(This is not so far-fetched. In private channels, I’ve witnessed writers outraged over a bad Amazon review asking other writers what they know about the reader. I’ve never seen the anger escape those private channels, though.)

Successful YA writers are often adored by their fans for bringing magic and solace to a gray, heartless world. Classic YA writers like Judy Blume have shined a much-needed beacon for generations of young people who are struggling and desperate. Of course she’s adored. (I read Judy Blume when I was young. I thought she was wonderful too.)

But I simply cannot imagine Judy Blume engaging with the behavior on display last week. She’s a human being, a real person with quirks and faults, but she puts readers first—not only her readers, but readers of all stripes. Would Judy Blume have responded “I love you” to someone who posted worldwide “Fuck that fucking bitch” about a college-aged reader? I don’t see it.

Readers of any taste are comrades-in-arms with authors—this is doubly true in an age of Netflix, video games, and big-budget film. Fiction is increasingly perceived as losing relevance, if not irrelevant entirely. Of course negative reviews sting (I’ve suffered them too) but I hope I’ll never take for granted the grace of a reader devoting their time and energy to read my work. The college student’s remarks demonstrate she’s a passionate reader. It’s too bad none of the authors involved noticed that before launching their crusade.

That’s why I can’t let go of this line from Dessen’s original message:

Authors are real people.

As are readers.

Mystery’s 90/10 rule

Detective (hans van den berg, CC BY 2.0)

If there’s one trope of the mystery that stands out among all other types of stories—perhaps the single element that defines the mystery—it’s the solution being announced at the conclusion.

Almost all story leads the reader to a suspenseful ending. The mystery is unique in that the main character is responsible for explaining the prior events back to the reader in such a way as to make sense of them all. There are plenty of poorly-written books that open with a great dump of exposition to get the reader up to speed. Mystery has pretty much cornered the market on stories ending with an exposition dump.

This leads to mystery readers’ inevitable slaying of a story: “I knew who did it before I reached the end.” Usually this is put at some great insult or shut-down of the writer.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess most mystery writers don’t cringe when a reader claims to have solved the whodunnnit before the last page. Why?

Magician Eric Mead describes a bit of inside baseball for his craft:

…if a magician shows somebody a trick and ninety percent of that trick fools them but there is a little ten percent sliver over here that does not fool them, the average person will say that the trick did not fool them even though they can’t explain ninety percent of it.

…if that same magician shows that same trick to his fellow conjurers, it only takes that ten percent sliver for them to admit that they were fooled.

The same could be said for mystery writers and their craft. The problem of penning a mystery novel isn’t managing to befuddle the reader to the point of utter despair before they reach the last page. If you want to experience such confusion, try Gertude Stein’s Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, a novella one reviewer notes “since it’s more or less impossible to work out who any of the characters are, up to and including the person whose blood is on the dining-room floor…then it can only be called a detective novel in the loosest sense conceivable.”

For almost every other mystery book written, fooling the reader is kind of a side quest for the novelist. Even in an Agatha Christie book where six shady suspects roam the English country house, the reader has a better than fifteen percent chance of simply guessing the murder by yanking a name from a hat. And when a reader claims to have deduced the murderer before the final chapter, I would ask in return, can you fully explain the who’s, what’s, where’s, and when’s of the crime? Or are you merely working on a hunch, one that may have to do with meta-analysis of the book? (“The writer keeps making this character seem innocent. I bet they’re the one.”) Or did you suspect the character at one point in the story, fleetingly, before moving on to other suspicions, and later told yourself you’d figured it out? Be honest here.

This is Eric Mead’s 90%, the part of the mystery other novelists don’t fret over when reading someone else’s work.

The 10% most readers overlook but keeps other novelists up at nights? Writing a novel that readers will pick up in the first place; writing a novel that will carry readers to the last page; filling pages with knockdown dialogue, tight scenes, and wonderful prose; and the perennial dream, writing a novel people are still talking about fifty years later. This is the sliver novelists concern themselves with when admiring (or critiquing) another mystery writer’s work. This 10% does require storytelling sleight of hand, and when it’s working it’s all-but-invisible to the reader.

From Chimpan-A to Chimpanzee: The Swiftian genius of Planet of the Apes

A guilty pleasure of mine is Planet of the Apes. I’m speaking of the original movie, not the 1970s sequels, not the remakes, not the one with the Golden Gate Bridge and not the one with Mark Wahlberg. I am a fan of the 1968 film that launched them all, the Charlton Heston vehicle spawning over fifty years of sequels, reboots, “re-imaginings,” TV shows, and comic books. The others have little draw for me. It’s the original I return to time and again.

The first Planet of the Apes is campy, riveting, preachy, and provocative— Franklin J. Schaffner’s sci-fi classic is the very definition of middle-brow entertainment in that it pleases the senses while challenging the mind. The film has only grown on me over the years. I’ve come to appreciate its complexities and contradictions, even as its flaws have become more apparent as well.

Although I find it difficult to believe any person in the industrialized world today is not a little familiar with Planet of the Apes and its shocking ending, let me open by saying: Spoilers follow.

Seriously: If you’ve not watched the original 1968 film, do not continue reading. The ending is simply that stunning. I hate to think I would spoil it for anyone.

Background of the Apes

It’s often said Planet of the Apes is the rare instance of the film being better than the book. I’m not so certain, although I’m convinced the film’s narrative impact is the stronger of the two. A better description, I think, is that the novel and film are different approaches to the same source material, much as the gospels of Mark and Luke are thought to draw upon common material from an earlier source known to scholars as Q.

Pierre Boulle’s epistolary La Planète des singes regards a space traveler named Ulysee who finds himself stranded on a planet circling the distant star Betelgeuse. There he discovers a modern ape civilization who enjoy all the trappings of 20th century man. The simians smoke tobacco, drive cars, shop for clothes, take walks in parks. The humans on this planet are mute, savage, and hunted for trophy. To the apes the narrator is a freak, this human who can talk and reason and claims to have fallen from the sky.

English translation of La Planète des singes (1963), Pierre Boulle.

The Q Document for Boulle’s lean novel would seem to be Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in particular Gulliver’s final voyage to the land of Houyhnhnms. Swift’s race of intelligent speaking horses administer an orderly and rational society on their island. They are plagued by the Yahoos, mute and savage humans who rape and kill with abandon. The Houyhnhnms shocking final solution for this plague are what today we would call genocide: Their Assembly votes to exterminate the Yahoos. The apes on Boulle’s planet seem to be building toward a similar resolution.

In Bright Eyes, Ape City: Examining the Planet of the Apes Mythos, a recent critical examination of all things Ape, contributor Stephen R. Bissette reveals a number of antecedents to Boulle’s concept of apes running a world, including the popular 1904 French short story “Le Gorilloide et Autres Contes de L’Avenir.” This story and its author, Edmond Haraucourt, were so popular in the first half of the 20th century, Bissette notes “it is impossible to read ‘Le Gorilloide’ for the first time and not be rocked by the realization that Pierre Boulle had to have read this story, or at least heard of it. … This is the Holy Grail for Apes devotees.” Bissette goes on to catalog an entire corpus of ape-world stories antedating Boulle’s novel, from science-fiction shorts to comic books.

These earlier ape-world stories would seem to dilute the originality of Boulle’s novel. From Bissette’s capsule summary, none of these earlier authors seemed to have the same ambition as Boulle, making La Planète des singes a kind of sui generis in the intersection of science fiction and “social fantasy,” as Boulle himself called it.

While I can’t offer any direct literary evidence Boulle was working out of Swift’s mode of satire, it seems rather obvious he was. The other stories listed in Bright Eyes, Ape City make much of apes running a planet; Boulle made much about a man being treated as an animal because he is an animal, which corresponds neatly with Swift’s dark worldview.

Like Gulliver, Boulle’s protagonist Ulysee is a wide-eyed narrator brimming with wonder and curiosity. The common device of animals with human-like qualities allows both books to hold a polished mirror up to man’s violence, avarice, and ignorance, to pare it down and show our vice for what it is. Ulysee and Gulliver adapt to the animals’ ways, even going so far as to adopt their language, culture, and mannerisms. Both animal societies are generally better-run than man’s, although Boulle and Swift are smart enough to give their respective animal races blind spots. For Boulle’s apes, it’s unquestioned faith; for Swift’s horses, excessive pride.

“I shot an arrow into the air”

Rod Serling, 1959.

Shortly after publication of Boulle’s novel, Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame was tapped to write a big-screen adaptation. Serling obviously kept the device of a planet run by apes—how could he not?—as well as Ulysee’s crueler treatment at the hands of the apes. He also carried forward the main ape characters, scientists Zira and Cornelius and Dr. Zaius, the authoritarian keeper of ape law. Beyond that, Serling jettisoned most of Boulle’s novel in favor of a darker, more cynical story.

Because the movie’s credits list Michael Wilson before Serling, there was a long-running question of how much of the movie emerged from the TV writer’s pen. Wilson’s silver screen credits includes such monuments as Lawrence of Arabia, Boulle’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, and A Place in the Sun. Some wondered if Serling’s contributions had been overplayed compared to this seasoned Hollywood writer.

A 1998 issue of Creative Screenwriter settled the question by examining Serling’s early scripts. They show Serling definitely shaped the novel into what the movie finally resembled, including his concept of the stunning final moment, one of the most shocking endings in Hollywood history.

Serling also carried forward Boulle’s concept of apes living in a modern world much like our own. The final movies’ apes inhabit mud huts on the edge of a desert. They make do with horseback travel and wooden carts and dirt roads. This change was apparently due to studio budget restrictions, and Michael Wilson’s revisions accorded this limitation. Wilson or another writer (probably John T. Kelley) also “punched up” Serling’s dialogue, yielding several groan-inducing aphorisms (“I never met an ape I didn’t like”, “human see, human do”) and the teenage ape Lucius who preposterously carpet-bombs the last act of the film with anachronistic counterculture lingo. Leaving both “improvements” on the cutting room floor would have done much to polish the final film.

Still, the artistic compromise of a pre-industrial ape society fortuitously contributed to rather than detracted from Serling’s vision. In the film the apes maintain an austere, Quakerish social structure. They live close to the field, close to the well, and close to their scripture. Zira’s and Cornelius’ claim of discovering a man who can talk doesn’t merely fly in the face of scientific thinking (as in Boulle’s novel), but against religious orthodoxy, adding an Inherit the Wind subtext that supercharges the movie’s stakes.

Planet of the Apes: Visionaries by Dana Gould & Chad Lewis. This graphic novel adapts Rod Serling’s original screenplay. The cover illustrates apes living in a modern rather than pre-industrial society.

As with the original novel, Gulliver’s Travels seems to be a source for the film version, and not merely the device of man trapped in an animal society. Swift’s misanthropy is far stronger in Serling’s vision than Boulle’s. Rod Serling’s nicotine-addled gaze and his penchant for purple dialogue mean the script affords more time for damning philosophizing than Boulle’s work. When the Houyhynms vote to destroy the Yahoos, it’s not a stretch to think Swift is advocating for the destruction of the human race. This level of misanthropy is nowhere to be found in Boulle’s work; Serling’s script is marinated in it.

The vehicle for Serling’s misanthropy is Taylor (Charlton Heston), a red-blooded cigar-chomping astronaut who replaces Boulle’s wide-eyed French explorer. Unlike Ulysee and Gulliver, Taylor never lowers himself to the ape’s level—or, perhaps, he never rises to their stature. Considering the European background of Swift and Boulle, perhaps Serling’s choice of an hardheaded “cowboy” astronaut is indicative of Serling’s American-ness. Or, maybe Serling was making a kind of statement about the hubris of his countrymen. America was deep in the Vietnam War by this point. American exceptionalism was being questioned from all sides.

“I leave the 20th century with no regrets”

Although critics knock the movie as pretentious action-adventure fare, the film’s sensitive opening doesn’t line up with such dismissive claims. Staring out a spaceship’s viewport at an expanse of stars, astronaut Taylor notes that due to Einstein’s relativity hundreds of years have passed on Earth although the crew has only been traveling for six months of ship time. Speaking into a black box recorder, the cynical Taylor announces “I leave the 20th century with no regrets.”

Then he admits

“Seen from out here, everything seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely.”

Before slipping into extended stasis for the final leg of their journey, Taylor offers the listener of his voice recorder—whomever it may be—his final thoughts:

“Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox that sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?”

Serling’s script opens not with high action or tense drama. It doesn’t even open with the inciting incident, a bang to set the story into motion. Taylor’s admission before falling into hypersleep sounds like a confession from a man not in the habit of making confessions.

Charlton Heston, from a promotional still for Planet of the Apes (1968)

After the opening credits, the crew awakens to discover they’ve crash-landed on a desolate planet. Taylor’s vigorous misanthropy immediately fills the screen. He taunts the others for holding any faith in the survival of America or even civilization. He declares mankind all-but-extinct, and with the only female crew member dead, its destruction now seems assured. He boasts how satisfied he is to leave Earth behind, and wonders if the remaining crew will last a week on this daunting new planet.

It’s Taylor’s private admission to the black box—”It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely”—that reveals his confident cynicism is to some degree a facade. Not coincidentally, packed inside those two sentences is a concise foreshadowing of the film’s conclusion.

“I’ve always feared man”

Taylor, one of the last examples of “that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox,” is hunted and captured by apes. He’s subjected daily to humiliations fit for a laboratory animal: Stored in a cage, rewarded with food, washed down from a hose (a movie visual sickeningly similar to a strategy police used in the 1960s on peaceful civil rights protestors), and given a mate to encourage breeding. The threat of castration and lobotomization looms in the background (the latter a trendy topic in a decade preoccupied with the treatment of mental illness). Charlton Heston turns in a rather physical performance as he’s stripped naked, manacled, chained, gagged, and paraded through streets on a leash. Due to a throat injury he literally has no voice against his captors. When he regains his voice—the campy “Take your stinkin’ paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”—he discovers he still has no say in this society of apes who regard him as an ignorant freak of nature.

Taylor’s hatred of man isn’t challenged by the apes or ape society, it’s reinforced. As with the lands Gulliver travels to, evidence of man’s failings abound on this so-called backwards planet. The apes don’t kill each other. They seem to have no war or famine or deprivation to speak of. While not perfect, they seem to have built a more egalitarian society than the world Taylor left behind. And yet Taylor can’t help but see himself as their equal. Soon his human ego leads him to believe he’s their superior. This shift is so subtle and smooth the viewer doesn’t even sense it.

Serling is a cruel god to his creation. Its not ironic enough for misanthropic Taylor to entertain notions of equality with the apes. Serling forces Taylor to defend mankind as intelligent and rational while standing naked and unwashed before a tribunal of jeering dismissive apes. When Taylor visits an archeological dig proving man ruled the planet before the apes, his defense seems all the more credible. Headstrong Taylor makes much hay over his victory.

Consider the film’s opening once more. In his voice recorder Taylor’s questions—”Does man still make war on his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?”—are obviously not questions at all. Taylor believes man is incapable of changing his basic nature. After crash-landing on the ape planet, Taylor mocks the notion mankind might have survived the five thousand-year span. His attitude is one of good riddance: “I leave the 20th century with no regrets.” Yet by the third act, this man is sneering down on the apes and declaring man was better, stronger, and most importantly, first.

With Taylor’s hubris reaching a crescendo, he twists out this admission from Dr. Zaius:

“I’ve always feared man. From the evidence, his wisdom must have walked hand-in-hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him. Even himself.”

At this point, Taylor has won. He’s gained his freedom as well as an admission of man’s superiority from the ape’s top authority. If movie ended with Taylor riding his horse into the horizon, satisfied and free, it would have been a tidy, if unsatisfying, ending.

Discovering the Statue of Liberty is the door slamming shut on Taylor. Cowering on the beach naked as Adam, he realizes

“I’m back. I’m home. All the time it was—”

Taylor’s character arc is one of the cruelest, most severe punishments I’ve ever experienced in film or literature. Gulliver leaves the island of the Houyhnhnms unable to stand the sight or smell of other humans, but his change is orders of magnitude less than Taylor’s crushing defeat at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Taylor’s misanthropy has been scooped out of his black heart and fed back to him in a dog’s bowl.

In the first act, one of the surviving astronauts attempts to plant a tiny American flag in the dirt of their newly-discovered planet. Taylor roars in laughter at the absurd futility. In the final scene, another American symbol towers over him in ruins, with Taylor on the beach like a meager, limp flag planted in the sand. He’s the object of amusement now, and his climb from misanthropist to philanthropist has collapsed and crushed him whole.

Twenty Writers: Kurt Vonnegut’s Bokononism in Cat’s Cradle

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on this series as well as a list of other books and authors


Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Scholars elevate Slaughterhouse-Five as Kurt Vonnegut’s greatest literary achievement. Readers gravitate toward the warm embrace of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. For me, Vonnegut’s masterpiece is Cat’s Cradle. It belongs on the shelf beside 1984 and Invisible Man as one of the great novels of the 20th century.

Yet it’s a crime to call Cat’s Cradle a novel when it’s so much more. It’s not so much a work of fiction as Vonnegut laying down brick-by-brick his idiosyncratic worldview. It’s a worldview he spent a lifetime attempting to communicate to his readership. I say “attempt” because I’m unsure Vonnegut will ever truly be widely understood. Scholars and readers will be decoding his work three hundred years from now…assuming there’s any life left on this planet.

Most summaries of Cat’s Cradle will home in on topics like nuclear annihilation, existentialism, the role of Big Science in postwar America, and postmodernism and metafiction. The book orbits around all those topics of course, but it’s primary concern is a fictional religion called Bokononism, possibly the only legitimate secular religion ever invented. Make no mistake: Vonnegut’s phony Bokononism is the heart of Cat’s Cradle. You can hear its theology beating on every page.

“Secular religion” comes off sounding pretentious and self-consciously contradictory. My “legitimate” qualifier does little to shore up my praise for Vonnegut’s work. I choose these words carefully.

For context, secular religions were a booming cottage industry in mid-twentieth century America. 1950s and 1960s America is often viewed (or derided) as orderly, pious, and gray. Look again; freshly-minted religions based on pseudo-psychiatry and pseudoscience flourished in the 1950s among the upper-middle- and upper-classes seeking release from restrictive Judeo-Christian morality. A decade later, their teenage children would likewise search for escape from their dreary petite bourgeois existence among the raft of America’s invented religions.

Consider Unitarian Universalism. Founded in 1961, it espouses “no shared creed” among its adherents and draws upon Western and Eastern religions of all stripes for guidance. Eckankar (1965) states its religion’s name means “co-worker with God” and teaches its adherents how to achieve out-of-body experiences.

More sinister additions to America’s theologically-loose religions are Scientology (1952), Synanon (1958), Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple (1955), The Process Church of the Final Judgment (1966), even Charles Manson’s Family—the list of so-called New Religions in post-World War II America is staggering.

(Yes, many of these so-called secular religions dabble with a higher power, but on closer inspection the theology is window-dressing for more earthly philosophies. For example, The Church of Satan does not believe in a supernatural Satan.)

Kurt Vonnegut, 1972.

This is the zeitgeist Vonnegut was writing into when he produced Cat’s Cradle in 1963. While he’s properly regarded as a satirist, his faux religion in Cat’s Cradle is not a literary device for poking fun at God or devotion. It should not be considered a parody-religion like The Church of the SubGenius or that Spaghetti Monster joke. The humorous tenets and terminology of Bokononism are laid-out with absolute dead-pan conviction—an earnest joke, the first open-source religion with the source code being Cat’s Cradle itself and the sacred communion being laughter. Vonnegut expected no one to convert to his religion, but it’s apparent he hoped his readers would at least take its teachings to heart. If they didn’t—well, so it goes.

The contradiction of Bokononism is not that it’s a secular religion. The contradiction is that it was proposed by an atheist who distrusted scientists as much as he distrusted clergy, a man who found consolation in, of all things, religion. The final sentence of Cat’s Cradle is the final sentence of the Books of Bokonon: “If I was a younger man, I would write a book about human stupidity.” Vonnegut did just that.

Call me Jonah

Cat’s Cradle opens with the narrator (“Call me Jonah”) at work on a non-fiction book called The Day the World Ended. It’s to be a collection of interviews with various famous people discussing what they were doing the day America dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. In the course of making inquiries he’s introduced to the family of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, an absentminded scientist who worked on the A-bomb project. From there the narrator’s life begins to spin in crazy directions as he finds himself caught up in Caribbean politics, Big Science, a new form of water, and, of course, Bokononism, Vonnegut’s secular religion.

Big Science is represented in Cat’s Cradle by the research arm of the General Forge and Foundry Company, a stand-in for General Electric. There the narrator is introduced to one of Dr. Hoenikker’s lesser-known scientific discoveries: Ice-Nine, the most famous fictional device to emerge from Cat’s Cradle.

(Vonnegut briefly worked for GE in the 1950s. The character of Dr. Felix Hoenikker is based on a scientist employed there, Dr. Irving Langmuir, who died before the book was written.)

A single flake of Ice-Nine will “teach” all water it comes in contact with how to freeze and remain frozen at room temperature. Those water molecules will, in turn, teach all liquid water they come in contact with to freeze as well, and on and on. (Ice-Nine is real; the version Vonnegut describes is not.) Dr. Hoenikker thought he was solving a practical problem of allowing Marines to cross swamps and lakes without being mired down in the mud. However, if a molecule of Ice-Nine were to make contact with, say, the Pacific Ocean, it would teach all the water in the world to freeze and bring life on this planet to an end. Perverse outcomes due to the actions of well-meaning individuals is a common theme in Vonnegut’s work (Mother Night, Jailbird), and it’s certainly a healthy component of Cat’s Cradle.

Flag of San Lorenzo

While writing his book on the end of the world, the narrator travels to the fictional island of San Lorenzo to interview one of Dr. Hoenikker’s grown children who is now second-in-command of the entire island. There the narrator is introduced to Bokononism, a religion indigenous to San Lorenzo.

By Vonnegut’s own telling the religion started as a sham. It was concocted by two shipwrecked passengers during World War I in order to control the indigenous peoples of San Lorenzo. One of the passengers, a U.S. Marine deserter, made himself the dictatorial President of San Lorenzo while the other took the role of pauper-philosopher Bokonon, who began crafting his religion from whole cloth. The chain reaction of Ice-Nine “teaching” every molecule of water it touches to become more Ice-Nine mirrors the way Bokononism spreads.

As Vonnegut later remarked:

Q: Did the study of anthropology later color your writings?

Vonnegut: It confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway. Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were. We weren’t allowed to find one culture superior to any other. We caught hell if we mentioned races much. It was highly idealistic.

Q: Almost a religion?

Vonnegut: Exactly. And the only one for me. So far.

Although Bokononism arrives late in Cat’s Cradle, the narrator has been discussing it since page one. He’s often discussing Bokononism without the reader being aware of it. The narrator’s late conversion to Bokononism has fitted him with new glasses to see anew the events of his own life and the world at large. As I said, the religion’s theology beats on every page of the book.

“Shameless lies”

While religion may be the focal point of Cat’s Cradle, the reach of this slender novel is far broader: Ice-Nine, Big Science, a fictional religion, the history of the atom bomb, the history of a fictional Caribbean nation, Cold War politics, and more. Vonnegut ably covers all this territory over the course of 127 (!) chapters, some only a few paragraphs long. My copy of Cat’s Cradle clocks in at a mere 191 pages, and that’s a pocket-sized mass market edition. Each chapter comes close to standing alone, a necklace of koans strung together in such a way to reveal greater truths.

While Vonnegut is recognized as one of the great writers of the last century, he’s not particularly well-regarded for his use of language, which is often received as plain or unadorned. I think Vonnegut’s prose is wildly underrated. Vonnegut was in possession of a finely-tuned bullshit detector. He was so attuned to honesty in writing (in his own and others’) that I believe he couldn’t bear to lard down his work for style points. His direct manner and careful choice of words is Vonnegut’s style. Anyone who attempts to imitate him, beware: it’s not a pose, it’s a way of thinking.

In Cat’s Cradle Vonnegut’s prose is at its best (yes, even better than Slaughterhouse-Five). He produces some of the most economical and expressive scenes in his entire body of work. Here the narrator examines one of the Hoenikker children’s model railroad dioramas:

And then he turned on a switch, and the far end of the basement was filled with a blinding light.

We approached the light and found that it was sunshine to a fantastic little country built on plywood, an island as perfectly rectangular as a township in Kansas. Any restless soul, any soul seeking to find what lay beyond its given boundaries, really would fall off the edge of the world.

The details were so exquisitely in scale, so cunningly textured and tinted, that it was unnecessary for me to squint in order to believe that the nation was real—the hills, the lakes, the rivers, the forests, the towns, and all else that good natives everywhere hold so dear.

And everywhere ran a spaghetti pattern of railroad tracks.

This is not Hemingwayesque tough-guy economy but the economy of describing a rather involved bit of scene and symbol with a modicum of words. (The child who built this model island would grow up and become second-in-charge of another island-in-miniature, San Lorenzo.) The language may not be impressive, but it wasn’t designed to be impressive. Vonnegut manages to describe all of Cat’s Cradle‘s intricate clockwork in a handful of pages because he’s boiled down his scenes with terse concision. The payoff is a readable, approachable book discussing a lot of big, abstract concepts.

Many paperback editions of Cat’s Cradle play up the apocalyptic science-fiction aspects of the novel without acknowledging the gallows humor and whimsical nature of Vonnegut’s world.

The succinct koan-like chapters reflect the contradictory nature of Bokononism. McCabe’s first edict upon taking power as President of San Lorenzo was a strict ban on Bokononism itself. This means, of course, everyone on the island practices Bokononism, including the President. The “dynamic tension” of absolute martial law versus an illicit but freeing religion keeps the people preoccupied. “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies” reads the first line of the Books of Bokonon, perhaps an opening sentence Vonnegut considered for Cat’s Cradle itself. This is how the book folds in on itself: the religion it describes permeates the telling of the novel rather than being a crude device to express some ideas.

While Ice-Nine is the most powerful symbol to emerge from Vonnegut’s book, the child-like language of Bokonon’s concepts are also famous. A karass is a group of people cosmically linked for some greater purpose (although they might not realize it), while a granfalloon is a false karass (like Hoosiers or Democrats). A vin-dit is a “sudden shove in the direction of Bokononism.” Perhaps the most important Bokononian concept is foma, “harmless untruths” which serve a more important goal.

“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

Let’s face it: Bokononism is a pretty thin theology compared to the rich wisdom of the Jewish midrash, the teachings of Jesus, or the scope of Buddhism. And for every surprising observation Vonnegut tosses effortlessly at the reader, he pairs it with a circus-style joke, such as the Bokononist foot fetish. Compared to the world’s major religions, an exegesis of Bokononism would not be a terribly long tract. It might not be much longer than Cat’s Cradle. And perhaps that’s the point.

Much of Bokononism centers around discovering one’s purpose in life and the people who share that purpose with you. The funny names for Bokonon’s concepts—wrang-wrang or wampeter—playfully mask deeper and more serious human dilemmas. Bokononism is concerned with ideals like happiness, acceptance, and forgiveness. It makes a point to single out those who stand in the way of those ideals, the greedy, intemperate, and spiteful. Bokonon’s theology may be as simple as this: Be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. Or, going back to Vonnegut’s anthropology studies: We are sadly far more alike than we want to believe.

The only misstep I find with Vonnegut’s religion is the (perversely) celebrated saying Bokononists utter when they commit suicide: “Now I will destroy the whole world.” While it plays into the major concerns of Cat’s Cradle, I find the self-centeredness of the statement uncharacteristic of the rest of the religion, and indeed the entire book.

In his final interview before his death, Vonnegut noted

…I don’t mock religion at all. It’s very helpful to people. … I am enormously influenced by the Sermon on the Mount.

Cat’s Cradle returns to the concept of fomas repeatedly, the “harmless lies” we tell ourselves to make us happy. If harmless lies keep us from hurting one other, then perhaps we should be lying to ourselves even more. This is the price of peace.

Postscript: “Busy, busy, busy”

I find it appropriate that the Dell pocket edition I’ve owned since junior high school contains a major typo in the front matter, apparently the result of a confused typesetter:

For Kenneth Littauer,
a man of gallantry and taste.
The Books of Bokonon, 1.5
*Harmless untruths

Nothing in this book is true.
“Live by the foma* that make you brave
and kind and healthy and happy.”

Read through it one more time. Obviously the attribution was married to the dedication and not the epigram. It’s an appropriate mistake for a remarkable little book concerned with mistakes, as well as truth, harmless lies, forgiveness, the end of the world, and most of all laughter.

Playwriting & screenwriting books every fiction writer should read

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

When I discuss fiction with other writers, I often turn the conversation to playwriting and screenwriting. (My writing friends are kind of sick of the topic.) I talk about these other genres because I believe there’s much for a fiction writer to mine from them.

Plays and film are different narrative forms than a novel or a short story, and so not all their nuances translates well. However, like comics and graphic novels, I believe the similarities outweigh the differences. What’s more, the practitioners of these other narrative arts have approached them with different assumptions and focuses than fiction writers. Different perspectives on the same art is a great way to learn more.

What I respect about plays and film are their emphases on structure. Structure is woefully under-emphasized in creative writing programs. Far too many MFA students are exiting programs without a working definition of crucial fiction elements like plot and character under their belts. Playwriting exposed me to a world where narrative structure is not treated as a necessary evil but unapologetically the primary focus.

From stage plays I explored books on screenwriting for largely the same reason: to better understand narrative structure. Scripts, both stage and film, are not assortments of characters and setting and dialogue steeped in a genre bath. Scripts are structure. The same applies to fiction, from short stories to novels.

What follows are various texts I’ve read over the years that have influenced my thinking and writing.

Playwriting

Aristotle’s Poetics: Not the dry, dusty book you might think. Aristotle was a fan of stagecraft. His Poetics are an ancient fanboy’s attempt to understand why plays make us laugh and cry, why some plays “work” while others “fail.” If nothing else, read the Poetics for Aristotle’s definitions of plot, character, and spectacle. You will walk away understanding why Aristotle thinks story should be plot-driven and not character-driven—and it will drive your MFA friends nuts.

The Playwrights Guidebook (Stuart Spencer): Spencer lays out the same elements as Aristotle but in terms more practical and less theoretical. Too often craft writers think “how-to-write” books are restrictive or push formulas with the ultimate intention of producing a blockbuster. Spencer’s more thoughtful approach breaks those expectations. If there’s one lesson to take away from Spencer, it is understanding the backbone of all playwriting, the beat, as the fundamental unit of drama (action, conflict, and event). Beats drive fiction too.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (John Patrick Shanley): A play in two acts featuring a pair of characters who are alternately in each other’s arms and at each other’s throats. Shanley’s humanist play is a model of economy and character-building. Fiction writers should look to Danny for its effective dialogue, the use of ambiguity, and creating characters through the steady accretion of detail—the naturalism of two highly protective people revealing their soft underbellies to each other.

A Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry) and Fences (August Wilson): It’s difficult for me to pick one over the other, so I list both. In some ways, each play is constructed in a by-the-book manner: Each act built of scenes, each scene made of beats, and all beats and all scenes propelling their characters forward. You can put your finger on a random page of either of these plays and discover all the elements of Great American Playwriting in action. This is why I’ve written on both plays before (here, here, and here).

Film & Television

Adventures in the Screen Trade (William Goldman): Although much of this breezy book regards the insanity that is the movie business, Goldman spends valuable pages discussing the creative decisions he made penning screenplays for such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men as well as lesser-known films like Harper and A Bridge Too Far. Most instructive is Goldman including a short story of his own and the script he developed based on it. Goldman is an accomplished novelist (he wrote The Princess Bride!) and his insights into screenwriting often “sound” like they’re coming from a fiction writer. Plus, let’s face it—reading the inside scoop behind these great 1970s films is a treat for any movie buff.

Screenplay and/or The Screenwriter’s Handbook (Syd Field): The former is “the Bible of screenwriting” and the second is the New Testament. Yes, both books focus heavily on film script specifics, but Field’s discussion of narrative structure made me re-think how the novel is constructed, so much that I’m working on a series about it.

Unlike plays, I can’t recommend hunkering down and reading any particular movie script. That may sound strange since I’m recommending books on writing them. Film scripts are so concerned with camera work, it often hampers getting to the meat of the script fiction writers should be concerned with—dialogue, conflict, scene structure, and so on.

Often it’s instructive to read plays adapted into movies, especially if the films are loyal to the source text. A good example of this is Glengarry Glen Ross, which easily features the best cast ever assembled for the play. (Trust me, I’ve seen a few productions.)

Consider watching a film as a writer instead of an audience member. Keep the remote handy so you can go back and re-watch key scenes and study their dialogue and construction. Go even further and watch a film scene with your computer open so you can transcribe their dialogue. That may sound nutty, but you will really come to appreciate the use of language in film—and your own dialogue will improve for it. Good screenwriters have a knack for naturalistic dialogue. Great screenwriters know how to build taut scenes with no dialogue at all—study No Country for Old Men for good examples.

For scripts more dialogue-heavy and less involved with the camera, look to television scripts, in particular those set before a live audience. They tend to focus on characters with well-defined motivations and situations with explosive conflict, much like plays, while writing to a different audience than theatergoers. (An old theater saying that applies to any great performance: “When someone walks on stage, it better be trouble.” Take that to heart in your fiction as well.) Unlike plays, television scripts are usually harder to locate. A used bookstore with a well-stocked Film & Television section may be your friend here.

Fawlty Towers: John Cleese and Connie Booth’s sitcom regularly tops British polls as the funniest show ever, and for good reasons. While the comic acting is one-of-a-kind, the show’s writing is also superb. The first episode and “The Hotel Inspector” are heavy on wordplay and farce, with each character popping to life the moment they utter their first lines.

Blood in the margins

Previously I wrote glowingly on Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. While I gushed how thoroughly McCloud dissects the language of comics, I didn’t spend much time (if any) on how Understanding Comics has affected me as a fiction writer.

Rather than expand my review to, oh, 10,000 words or so, I’ve broken up lessons I’ve drawn from Understanding Comics into separate posts. Most of these posts will deal with narrative structure in fiction, so they might be viewed as a supplement to the series I’ve been developing on fiction treatments and outlines.

Gutters & paragraphs

I write fiction: novels, short stories, the occasional novella. My chosen art form is pure text: letters to words, words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, paragraphs to chapters.

Scott McCloud’s chosen art form synthesizes images and written language into panels and panels into pages—comics. (Most people forget comics deal with text as well as images, another reason he calls comics “the invisible art.”) Word balloons, descriptive headers, even Batman’s BLAMMO!! coordinate with pictures in cell-like frames.

This doesn’t seem terribly applicable to writing fiction. What lessons can a fiction writer possibly glean from Understanding Comics?

Comics are a sequential art. Their “motion” depends on the layout of images across a page and the order with which they’re consumed by the reader. This is not so different than a story or a novel, only that they are built with a single component, words. But like comics, that single component is laid out sequentially, with words grouped into sentences and paragraphs. It may seem like a stretch, but I say these groupings act as narrative “panels.”

If you look back at my last post, you’ll notice McCloud identified written language as the ultimate pictograph in his “Picture Plane” diagram. By his reckoning, fiction is like a comic book with all the imagery stripped out. In comics, image and language spin together like dancers on a dance floor. In fiction, language is a solo act. Words are delegated to do all the heavy lifting.

Also like comics, fiction has a narrative “clock” which may be slowed down or sped up panel-by-panel, sentence-by-sentence:


   Mary set down the phone with a sigh. “Hopefully that’s the last I’ll hear of Bob Wilkins.”
   Ten years later, while searching through a stack of oily newspapers tied and bound for recycling, Bob Wilkins discovered…

Probably the most-quoted section from McCloud’s book is the chapter “Blood in the Gutter.” Gutters are the blank space between panels (although some people question if even a space is required). For proof of McCloud’s obsession with the language of comics, look no further than his exhaustive dissection of the role of gutters in comics—the role of blank space in telling a story.

The blood in the gutter flows between seeing the axe-murderer bearing down on his victim in the left panel and “hearing” the scream across the night sky in the right panel. This closure occurs in comics as well as fiction (and in most other narrative arts too, such as film). McCloud reminds us, visually and lucidly, that narrative is a participatory act. No reader? No story, then, only ink on the page.

Closure in fiction is as complicated as it is in comics, and I can’t possibly cover all its facets here. One type of closure comics and fiction share is the use of white space (“empty space”). Take the above fiction example and add an asterisk:


   Mary set down the phone with a sigh. “Hopefully that’s the last I’ll hear of Bob Wilkins.”
*
   Ten years later, while searching through a stack of oily newspapers tied and bound for recycling, Bob Wilkins discovered…

Even though the only change between these two examples is the asterisk centered on the line, it “feels” like more time has passed in the second example.

Different publishers use different devices to mark section breaks, such as three asterisks across the page, a short line or curlicue, or no print signal at all other than extra blank space separating the two text blocks. Often the first paragraph of the new section is not indented or has some other print feature to distinguish it, such as using small caps for the first three words.

Chapter openings and other similar breaks in the story will usually employ a variation of the above. Unfortunately, my blog’s layout isn’t conducive to demonstrating these different print styles. If you’re unfamiliar with them, pick up a books from different publishers and check closely how their layout editor arranged their chapters and section breaks.

White space can indicate the passing of a span of time—but it may also indicate a shift in space:


   Mary set down the phone with a sigh. “Hopefully that’s the last I’ll hear of Bob Wilkins.”
*
   Ten miles away, while searching through a stack of oily newspapers tied and bound for recycling, Bob Wilkins discovered…

Here the asterisk indicates a change of location, leaving the reader to search out other clues to determine how much time, if any, has passed between Mary hanging up the phone and Bob sifting through the recycling. The blatant cues I’ve added here (“ten years later,” “ten miles away”) are meant to assist my examples. A more artful author could indicate the same shifts with other, more subtle textual clues.

So asterisks, line breaks, and white space can indicate changes in time and space. What other visual signals does the fiction writer have at his or her disposal?

Look at paragraphs. Paragraphs employ white space (a new line, often a leading indent) to indicate all manner of changes in fiction:

  • time
  • location
  • point-of-view
  • shift of tone and subject matter
  • change of speaker (as with dialogue)

There’s plenty of other possibilities too. And don’t think breaking up paragraphs is some mechanical rule-based process out of the creator’s control. It’s a grammarian fantasy that hard-and-fast rules exist for making paragraphs. In fiction, breaking prose into paragraphs is a somewhat subjective art. After a century of modernist and postmodernist experimentation, it’s only become more subjective. Packing paragraphs with shifting sentences is considered avant garde in some situations. Run-on sentences packed into a single paragraph are now acceptable as well. (Read the first chapter of Billy Bathgate for an example.)

If you think about it, chapters are an even more extreme form of visual signaling. Chapter breaks are miniature explosions in the novel’s stream-of-narration. Chapters give the writer a chance to make major shifts and signal big changes occurring, to take a deep breath before moving on with the tale. (Chapter breaks also give the reader a chance to bookmark and set aside the book. Every chapter the writer introduces is one more risk of losing their audience.)

Even the format of chapter breaks sends signals to the reader. Some books use numbered words (“Twelve”) and others numerals (“12”). Some books start each chapter on a new page while others do not. (I’ve noticed Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer books often fail to start chapters on new pages, contributing to the detective’s relentless pace. Alex Garland’s superb The Beach is also laid out like this, another novel with a unremitting narrator.)

Children books are notorious for chapter titles (“At the Old Sawmill”). Other books merely indicate chapters with—you guessed it—exaggerated white space at the top of the page. Even the numbering of chapters may play a significant role in the telling of a story. Chapters (and page numbers!) are numbered backwards in Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, while the chapter numbers in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time form a sequence of prime numbers because the narrator finds them pleasing.

I’ve read enough books to know a chapter’s blank space (or lack of it) and the format of chapter titles plays a role, no matter how minor, in my reception of the book. If narration is a participatory act, and if you’re the kind of writer who believes every detail matters (and I think you should be that writer), then pay attention to how you employ blank space.

One temptation at this point is to suggest these white space markers are not so diverse after all—aren’t asterisks and line breaks and chapters merely for scene changes, separating the story’s structure in a less-blatant way than stage plays are marked (“Act IV Scene 2”)?

Not really. For example, a chapter may end on a cliffhanger and the next chapter pick up immediately where the last left off: same scene, same characters, same time and place. I’ve seen book chapters end with a line of dialogue and the next chapter open with another character’s reply. Writers often use chapter breaks to highlight the importance of that moment in the narrative, but they’re not a scene break per se.

This is what I mean when I say you, the writer, should pay close attention to your use of blank space. When you insert blank space in your next story—a scene ending with a second break, or starting a new chapter—ask yourself what your story gains (or, what your story loses) with the blank you’ve added.

It strikes me as fashionable these days for writers to break apart short stories into quick, MTV-like section breaks. Often each section builds a little emotion, heightens some tension, then drops off and shifts to a new scene. Try writing a short story told in one uncut narration. Try writing a short story told in one uncut scene. Try writing a short story in one paragraph.

Likewise, if you’re working on a novel. question each chapter break. Should these two sequential chapters be “glued” together? Or perhaps the first chapter should conclude earlier, or the second chapter start later?

I have a bad habit of starting a chapter in media res, that is, in the middle of the action, and a couple of paragraphs in, jump to a flashback explaining how the characters wound up in this action. Most times this indicates a poor choice of where I started the chapter. Some times I drop the flashback entirely and it’s not a problem at all. The flashback added little, and removing it only strengthened the chapter as a whole.

But the exercise itself is a questioning of blank space in my fiction. What purpose does this particular use of blank space serve? Does it add or subtract from the story?

For a real-world example of empty space in fiction, here’s a selection from Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Look how Thompson uses fictive closure to avoid the censor’s red pencil in 1952:

I jerked the jersey up over her face and tied the end in a knot. I threw her down on the bed, yanked off her sleeping shorts and tied her feet together with them.

I took off my belt and raised it over my head. …

I don’t know how long it was before I stopped, before I came to my senses.

(Those ellipses are in the original.) Welcome to fiction’s version of “blood in the gutter”—a craven act of violence committed by three periods in sequence and the white space between the paragraphs.

The New American Regionalism

Detective (hans van den berg, CC BY 2.0)

An untested opinion I’ve held for many years:

Modern mystery fiction has supplanted 19th-century American regional literature, sometimes known as “writing of local color,” as its dominant form.

Regionalism is most strongly associated with Southern writers like Kate Chopin and Joel Chandler Harris, but after the American Civil War local color writing sprung up all over the country. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wallpaper”) cataloged New England’s parochialism while Bret Harte wrote roaring tales of California’s Gold Rush. Scholars make distinctions between the terms “regional literature” and “writing of local color,” but I’ll use them interchangeably here.

Regionalism in American writing faded after the turn of the century to be replaced by a more consensus-based literature. Perhaps the twin rise of mass literacy and mass media contributed to regionalism’s fade, although it did not go extinct. Faulkner and Jean Toomer wrote well into the 20th century, and wrote using techniques that would have been foreign to the earlier regional writers, but their fiction is unmistakably grounded in regionalism.

But did regionalism truly fade away? Or was it replaced by something else?

It seems to me that mystery fiction quietly—almost subversively—filled in regionalism’s absence. Every major city in America is host to at least one major crime or detective writer, from Seattle (Aaron Elkins, G. M. Ford) to Boston (Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane) to Chicago (Sara Paretsky) to New Orleans (James Lee Burke), all representing their respective locales through their work. Name almost any place in America today and you’ll find crime writers prowling its dark corners. In the process, they’re introducing the region’s colors and textures to a national audience.

More than any other form of fiction today, mystery is concerned with setting. Science fiction has almost no restrictions when it comes to setting. Fantasy explicitly takes place elsewhere than the here and now, otherwise it’s not fantasy. Romance fiction has setting too, but its concerns are before the fireplace and in the bedroom.

Even contemporary American literature—”fiction of literary intent,” so-called hard realism—is not as connected to setting as mystery fiction. Too often stories from the small literary magazines feel as though they could take place in any city or suburb or small farm, whichever backdrop suits the characters and the emotional arcs they traverse.

Perhaps the only other form of American fiction so tied to setting is the Western, a genre that not coincidentally shares a great deal in common with the American mystery, especially the private eye genre.

I’m not saying other forms of fiction don’t possess a setting, or that they don’t concern themselves with setting. I’m saying that, for the form as a whole, mystery adopts a priority for regions—regionalism—other forms do not.

In mystery, scenes unfold on streets with grounded names and in bars with a history. A great mystery reads like a travelogue of a town, a neighborhood, or a county. The American mystery has a tradition of hewing to real-world settings, such as the streets of Nob Hill in Hammett’s stories and novels. Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” police procedurals make take place in a fictional New York City borough, but it’s the Big Apple all the same. Sue Grafton’s stand-in for Santa Barbara (“Santa Teresa”) is so Southern California, you can imagine The Eagles cutting a single about it.

This, I say, is the New American Regionalism. Mystery writers delight in bringing alive their surroundings, and by doing so they share their surroundings with their readership. Local color means local characters and local charm. Look at what stylist Elmore Leonard does so expertly in his Florida novels, capturing the multifaceted dialects and cultures of Miami. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry of local color concentrates on “the features and peculiarities of a particular locality and its inhabitants.” This fits Florida crime writing to a T, with an emphasis on the peculiarities and particulars of the genre’s always-colorful cast of characters (Leonard, Carl Hiassen, Edna Buchanan).

My first inkling of the connection between regional writing and mysteries came to me twenty-five years ago living in San Luis Obispo, California. An ever-reliable bookstore there stocked a case of local writers, including several mystery series. Perusing the back cover blurbs, it was apparent the writers had mined the peculiarities and particulars of San Luis Obispo County for all it had to offer. My cynical younger self found it ludicrous, these over-boiled private eyes and steely Lt. Detectives walking the mean streets of San Luis Obispo, a place ranked “one of the happiest cities on Earth.”

Over the years I’ve lightened up. I came to realize the mystery writers of SLO Town were merely doing what all regional writers have done in America: Explore, critique, and celebrate they places they live.