Tuesday, December 31, 2013

ANY HERRING IS RED: Chewing Slippers for Success

(NOTE: You shed your skin/You’re one of them/That somber fool/Escape while you can/Escape while you can/You’re coming out of your shell/You’ve got a beautiful view/You’re gonna shake it off/This is the place/That you were born/It’s making a comeback/Since you’ve been gone)
An occasional reader sends a list of interesting questions, though unfortunately interlarded with personal slurs. As with any question, the answer is not what you want to hear. “This quoting from the canon has got to stop. A bunch of old, dead, white men who never wrote an email or held a smart phone say nothing about modern life and modern problems. Give me examples from new books. And speaking of new books, the ones I’ve been reading make me angry. I like genre fiction, you know, mysteries and thrillers and fantasy and romance, stuff that isn’t hoity-toity and you have to read with a pinkie sticking out, except I see a trend of fouling the plots with red herrings. You want to write about something interesting, write about the herring.”
Guilty as charged on the first statement. The reason to quote from canon is these books have outlasted the wrinkled effects of time and are common to readers pulled through general education. To make a point by quoting an obscure book by an obscure author creates a wall between the reader and the writer’s erudition.
Canon means the books that contributed to the growth of a specific culture. Western canon begins in Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian before it gets around to English. What about the eastern canon, literature of China, Japan, Korea, Africa, India, Indonesia, and every country between? These are just as important and many times tell better stories.
At the beginning of the twentieth century it was possible to read every book ever printed, as long as the presses stopped when you started to turn pages. The task took a lifetime but could be done. Today there are too many books, not counting the self-published, and the writer has to choose a foundation they can build on for his or her own work. This means the canon. Think of it as a point of departure, a place to begin and continue from. Every writer creates a private canon of the books that influenced them the most and where they return for rejuvenation. This is just as valid as the Harvard Classics, more so on account of it remains open to expansion.
Why is British food so terrible? Sausages that have to be fried long enough to drop half their weight in fat (three days), canned beans, anything with Spam, Yorkshire pudding, bread and dripping, and the certain death of trifle show an anger at what is supposed to sustain them. Add the kipper to the list of questionable edibles, a smoked herring with red interior and tasty only to those who enjoy tormenting sea life.
The “red herring” in fiction, especially genre fiction, means misdirection from the real culprit to create a false sense of suspense where there is none. One version of its origin is a kipper was used to throw hunting dogs off the scent of a rapidly receding rabbit. Many nineteenth century hunters claimed the practice was never done, but they also went after foxes so the sources are unreliable.
Agatha Christie was inordinately fond of the red herring, especially in And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express: one character is described as the evil-doer until near the end of the book when a missing clue shows the true evil-doer. The use of this plot device breaks the contract between writer and reader: the writer promises to be honest in his or her portrayal of persons and events, and the reader promises to join with the writer in finding the responsible scoundrel. An honest writer never uses a red herring to tell a story, or has kippers for breakfast or at any time. Leave them for the dogs.
Ever since the end of November you have been in and out of department stores, malls, and boutiques shopping for the right gift for Aunt Bessie, Uncle Tim, bratty nieces who deserve nothing but coal, a co-worker who owes you money, and sisters and brothers that save the ribbons for next year’s packages and think no one will notice. Make one last trip to your favorite local independent bookstore before hibernation and grab a copy of The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95) as a personal treat. You deserve every bit of friendly advice on its fresh off-white pages waiting to be thumbed. Learn about writing and publishing while sitting close to the fireplace with a hot toddy balanced on the chair arm. Skip merrily to www.indiebound.com for the closest independent bookstore so you can walk over and not worry about parking, unless it’s raining or snowing. Halfway is almost there.

NEXT: Romping with Dachshunds

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