Shorthand: Classic and Predictable
by Don Webb
Sometimes readers bandy terms about as though everybody understood them. The words may be commonplace and innocuous, such as “good” and “bad.” Or they may be slang terms, such as “cool” or whatever its opposite happens to be this week.
Such terms tell us something — we can’t always be sure what — about the person using them, but they tell us little or nothing about what we have in common. And at Bewildering Stories what we have in common is prose and poetry.
What is a “classic”?
The term “classic” is generally understood as favorable. As one of our Review Editors puts it, “a high level of excellence or at least a very good example of the genre.” The definition is useful to the extent that it means something more than “good,” namely “outstanding” or “exceptionally noteworthy.”
I tend to take “classic” literally, as something one might read in “class.” After all, schools have only a limited amount of time; that’s why the most highly regarded examples of literature — the “classics” — are on reading lists. And Bewildering Stories has translations of some works that are widely recognized as classics in the traditional sense.
But is that where it ends? I tend to use “classic” a little more loosely, to refer to a work that can serve as a model that does at least one thing well.
For example, I think “Experiment Failed” can be cited as a classic. Not for being a horror story; the genre is not to everyone’s taste. Nor for its prose style or structure; any readers can mentally or literally rewrite the story in a way that suits them better. Rather, it provides an object lesson in characterization.
One can argue that it resembles — consciously or not — some of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote procedural thrillers in the style of his time. Poe deconstructs the horror — sometimes in advance — by showing how and why an individual might perpetrate it.
Should everyone then rush out and imitate Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, or H. P. Lovecraft, let alone Emily M. Peters? Not at all. Why produce a knock-off when anybody can have the real thing?
Imitation can be useful, but only to the extent that it helps writers find their own voice. If a “classic” does at least one thing well, it offers an opportunity. When we’re stuck in writing a story of our own, a “classic” is any work that may give us a helpful hint or even an inspiration we can turn to our advantage.
What is “predictable”?
“Predictable” is a word that is used so often that it’s almost... predictable. Very often we’re left with “predictable” and that’s all, that’s it.
Is “predictable” good or bad? It’s as though someone said simply, “Electricity.” Okay, if I plug in a lamp, will I get light or blow a fuse? Tell me what you’re talking about; otherwise I, for one, won’t know.
Here’s how I see it. Suspense is probably the most overrated quality in fiction. At best it may consist of narrative logic, which propels the reader from one sentence or paragraph or chapter to the next. But even so, the reader can usually surmise accurately where the story is going. And if you reread anything or have a summary in advance, everything is “spoiled.” Where’s the suspense then? Value suspense at your peril; it usually means missing the point.
“Predictable” can mean “bad.” For example, suppose we got a submission that amounted to:
“This morning I woke up and decided to kill myself. I walked down to the harbor and felt sorry for myself, just to make sure. Then I pulled out a revolver and bang, I’m dead.”
We would not accept such a story, because it leaves no one alive to tell the tale. But it’s also trivial; it’s a story about a story. Why should the narrator feel sorry for himself? And should we believe him just because he says so?
At best, “predictable” is neither good nor bad. Some of the “classics” of world literature telegraph in advance how the story is going to unfold:
“Oh, and by the way, Adam and Eve, don’t eat the fruit from that tree or you’ll be sorreee!”
The Deity can be forgiven for inexperience; any parent of young children could tell him that the minute he turns his back those children will be out munching apples and chatting with serpents.
“Don’t look now, Oedipus, but at the rate you’re going, you’ll kill your father and marry your mother.”
Any parent of headstrong teenagers knows how Oedipus will react: “You think you know everything, Oracle. Well, I’ll show you. I’ll run away and kill and marry whom I please.”
In this issue (548), we have two stories of very different structures. Shaun Hayes’ “Mrs. Carmichael’s Best” unfolds “predictably,” but so what?
The story telegraphs almost from the beginning that the old lady is mad as hell that her pies aren’t winning prizes and she’s not going to take it anymore. As our welcome message says, the story unfolds with the inexorable implacability of a Greek tragedy. All that’s left at the end is the payoff: will Mrs. Carmichael get a chance to gloat before she’s hauled away as a terrorist?
In Sherri Cook Woosley’s “Two Sides of a Triangle,” the ending can go in any number of ways. At the beginning we expect that Myrtle will eventually meet the Other Woman, the mistress of Myrtle’s late husband, Joe. We may expect a cat fight, but Myrtle’s famous soup — which she, herself, hates — intervenes, and it is the key to understanding not only the two women but Joe as well.
Could “Mrs. Carmichael’s Best” be given the almost O. Henry twist of “Two Sides of a Triangle”? Or vice-versa, could “Two Sides of a Triangle” be structured as a foreordained Greek tragedy? It’s very hard to see how in either case.
And it’s very hard to see how “predictable” or “unpredictable” makes any difference. Rather, what does the story say, and how does the structure fit the story? Might a different structure be more suitable? That’s interesting; tell us what it would be.
Copyright © 2013 by Don Webb for Bewildering Stories