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This week’s Mind Meld question was suggested by James K. Thanks, James!
We asked our panelists this question:
Here’s what they said…
I’d have to say Neil Gaiman and Rod Serling.
Neil Gaiman because he brings a texture and richness without it ever seeming forced or contrived, and his characters are quirky without becoming caricatures. (Perhaps like an acrobat he only makes it look easy and there’s a huge amount of time and conscious technique behind the façade, but damn, he does it well.) And the late Rod Serling because he was such a prolific writer and so able to look at the most mundane situations and see the fantastic.
I imagine Michael Swanwick sitting at his type writer cackling like a mad scientist when he writes. And it is a type writer in my imagination, his furious fingers banging out the letters on clacking keys. He makes writing appear so effortless that I almost forget that which I know better, which is that achieving his level of mastery requires years of hard work. Or not. Maybe these compelling visions leap from his brain unbidden. He showed me his dream diary once (yes, he had such a thing) and it was like staring into a font of creation, a churning anti-abyss.
Robert Silverberg has always had a clean, precise, and engaging style that communicates what he wants in exactly the right amount of words, never more never less. It’s hard to articulate, but his prose flows past my eyes at precisely the speed I read. Every Silverberg offering is a joy to read.
John Scalzi might be a contemporary, science fictional Mark Twain in the way his books make you feel you are sitting around with friends in a circle, possibly at a camp fire, possible in a comfortable drawing room. Do people still have drawing rooms? They aren’t for drawing are they? They must be for listening to Scalzi’s tall tales.
James Enge writes like I imagine Doctor Who would sound if it had only ever been a book series and never a TV show. He has nailed that wonderful quality of being able to lace humor and horror, pathos and bathos, the absurd and the sublime, the mundane and the weird. He can make you laugh, make you cry, make you retch, and make you laugh again in the span of a page, a paragraph. I love swimming in his sea of words.
I’d say that being a ‘natural storyteller’, that is making the audience feel that they’ve hardly glimpsed the architecture of a story, but instead have had what feels like a natural experience, is very, very hard work. The hard work goes into hiding the hard work.
The absolute master of this is probably Kurt Vonnegut: not a word out of place; a tone of voice that’s like someone speaking gently into your ear. To write so few words takes enormous effort. This craft is a nation the borders on the more modern state of the bestseller, the country of airport novels, of authors who are keen that the reader shouldn’t have to work too hard on prose. Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein were the masters of that in their day, and two recent books that achieve that seek to bring that ‘natural storyteller’ feel into the modern era are Heaven’s Shadow by Michael Cassutt and David Goyer (a very exciting attempt to do a J.J. Abrams style modernisation on the style of Arthur C. Clarke) and This is not a Game by Walter Jon Williams. The condition of being a ‘natural storyteller’ is, I think, what most writers seek. It’s often a career-long search, and not many find it.
My first reaction to this question is that I have no clear idea what a “natural story teller” is, although I admit it calls up pleasant images of a grizzled old coot in trapper furs regaling a campfire circle with blatant lies. I suspect the term has gained so much currency from blurbs and promotional materials and even the occasional review that it sounds as though it has some sort of consensus definition, but I doubt that’s the case. It’s probably simply shorthand for writers whose work we find congenial, fluid, fairly easy to apprehend, and compelling at the fundamental what-happens-next level of story.
If that’s what it is (and at least that’s what I’m working from here), I’ll start by claiming that a fluid, “natural” storyteller is not always necessarily a good writer, and a good writer is not necessarily a natural storyteller. Danielle Steel or Dan Brown can keep you turning pages, but the ease with which those books flow through your system like colonoscopy preparations doesn’t necessarily make them worth revisiting later. Ulysses or Anathem or Dhalgren may be heavier lifting, but can repay the effort several times over.
Skilled, effortless storytelling in this sense may be a talent, but it isn’t necessarily a virtue, and it’s as subject to misuse as any other talent. By way of examples (and to name names, which is really what the question asked), let me offer two contrasting examples of SF writers whose work I’ve heard praised for its natural storytelling sense: Orson Scott Card and Connie Willis. There’s not a lot in common between them other than their ability to spin compelling tales with ingratiating characters.
Card is certainly a skilled storyteller in this most obvious sense of the term, yet his talent and his stories are increasingly put to use in the service of viewpoints that I once viewed as distasteful, and are fast moving toward repugnant. Willis, whose sane, humanistic views I find much more amenable, doesn’t make much of an effort to openly flog those views in her stories, and the result, at least over the last several years, has been better stories.
Or, to complicate matters further, let’s consider Tim Powers. Reading a Powers novel is pretty generally a delight–this guy seems like a natural storyteller, right? — but once you realize how much intricate, agonizing work he may put into a novel over a period of years, you have to wonder how “natural” it all is.
The point is, we the readers are in the position of trying to identify a “natural storyteller” on the basis of end products that may in fact be the results of painstaking and painful drafts, revisions, rewrites, and restarts, sometimes with the assistance of wise agents or editors or writing group colleagues. There may indeed be “natural storytellers” in the SF field, and I’m sure there are, but as readers we don’t really have much of a clue as to who they are and how they work. All we get is the story.
When people use the term “natural storyteller” what they really mean is that the author in question is not a very good writer and they can’t explain his or her success and/or appeal. It’s a sop, mealy-mouthed praise aimed at someone who doesn’t deserve it but manages to shift units at an enviable rate. Science fiction has — and has had — more than its fair share of such writers. Their prose is bland and clumsy, their characters are paper-thin stereotypes, and their world-building consists of little more than the world in which they live plus a handful of inelegantly-coined neologisms. And yet their stories sell, their novels get published, people read their books. Some of them even appear on lists of “classic” or “best” sf novels.
Writing is about telling stories — yes, even non-fiction or journalism. A writer who cannot tell a story is, by definition, not a writer. But good writing is so much more than just that. It is: prose which evokes mood or place, or both; characters which feel like real, living people; a world — or an entire universe — broad and deep enough to hold far more than just the story and everyone who appears in it. It is not just the right words in the right order, it is also the imagery those words. Good prose should impress the reader.
When we as genre fans venerate those “natural storytellers”, those bad writers, when we insist that the qualities they display are what we consider to be important in writing, when we claim that, as a result, the genre should not, and cannot, be judged by the same rules as other modes of fiction… then we’re only making ourselves look very foolish. We’re telling people that not only do we know science fiction is a genre characterised by bad writing, but we’re so stupid and contrary we actually think bad writing should be admired.
So, please, let’s have no no “natural storytellers” in science fiction. Let’s have good writers and bad writers, good books and bad books. And let’s not base those opinions on our childhood memories of said books, let’s be adult about them. After all, it’s long past time science fiction grew up.