You can find a lot of writing advice about grammar, and a lot of advice about style, but very little advice about meaning. Style may be the hardest thing to master, but meaning is the thing least-often mastered. I’m going to explain what I mean by taking a collection of urban fantasy stories by modern masters, and saying which stories I think have meaning and which don’t, and why.
Fiction is about people. Mainstream fiction is nothing but character studies; genres are characters plus something else. A mystery isn’t about a mystery; it’s about a detective: Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poroit, Monk, Sam Spade, Mma Precious Ramotswe—they’re all outlandish, fascinating characters, and most readers remember them long after they’ve forgotten what the mystery was. Horror is about emotion, and life, and our true fears. Comedy is about character, as any stand-up comedian can tell you. And romance—well, it’s about romance.
But fantasy and science fiction are funny.
As a writer, you’ll be told that all stories, even science fiction stories about sentient wristwatches and fantasies about animals, must really be about the emotions of early 21st-century humans. I believe this less than almost any other author, but I break this rule less than most genre authors.
Most authors don’t think they’re breaking this rule when I think they are. That’s because they have a different opinion of what “about” means. They think that “about X” means “the story contains X”. I think that “about” means “the story makes me feel X or think about X”.
I might write a story where someone drives a car, flies a kite, and whittles a carving. That wouldn’t mean the story was about driving, kites, or whittling. In the same way, just because a story has people in it doesn’t make it about people. Suppose a monster in a horror story chases two people, and they run away, and one of them makes it and the other doesn’t. What is the story about?
If the story makes me feel their horror, then the story is about that fear. But what if it doesn’t? What’s it about then?
Nothing. The story isn’t about anything to me, because it doesn’t make me feel and it doesn’t make me think. It doesn’t matter how many zombies and beheadings it has, it isn’t about anything. It just has stuff in it. Like cars, kites, and beheadings.
The funny thing about fantasy and science fiction is that it’s especially easy to unwittingly write a story that isn’t about anything. You can flash dragons and unicorns or ray guns in front of the reader, and hope that each time you do that, it tugs on the emotions that each of those things were connected to by the real stories about dragons and unicorns and ray guns that your readers read in the past. You can pile so many of these trappings on that you don’t notice your story isn’t about anything.
You can even become famous and win awards doing that. Literary types these days are keenly attuned to style. All the stories in this book are written with a mastery of style that makes me salivate with hunger and lust. But style doesn’t create meaning. Some of these stories have meaning. Some don’t. Hopefully, telling you which of these stories I think are about something, and which aren’t, will explain what I mean.
Stories that are about something
“A Bird That Whistles”, Emma Bull
This story is about a faerie (the old, dangerous kind) who loves to play the fiddle. His love for the fiddle brings him into close contact with humans, and he can’t help but observe and be puzzled by love and friendship. The viewpoint character loves a woman, and she loves the faerie, and the faerie loves no one and doesn’t know how. He starts getting friendly with the viewpoint character, because they share a love of music. But this closeness seems to frighten him. So he has sex with the woman and leaves, breaking everyone else’s hearts, and doesn’t care. Years later, he returns. He thinks he’s after the music. But it’s through music, not love or sex, that he can understand friendship. I’m not sure, but I think the story is about what love and friendship are, why we love the wrong people, the unfairness of life, and/or the power of music.
“The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories”, Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman writes a hopefully-fictitious story about himself, going to Hollywood to write a screenplay. Everything happens in a haze, with a continually-changing cast of studio executives whose titles and real authority are never clear, none of whom ever read any of the scripts or summaries that he writes for them. Story decisions are made by the executive’s assistants. Meanwhile, he forms a kind of friendship with an old hotel employee, who likes to talk about the movie folks who used to stay there back in the day, back fifty and sixty years ago, and the grandness of character they had.
The story is about a lot of things. Mostly, what people value, and what they give up for it. The old man who cleans the pool is the only man in Los Angeles not trying to play the game. Neil tries to play the game, but finds himself distracted by the germ of a story, a real story that he can write down and tell to people without butchering it for ignorant executives whose only reason for mangling the story is to prove that they’re somebodies. The virtuous, contented old man dies and Neil leaves, and the Los Angeles game goes on. It’s a little simplistic and moralistic, and I don’t understand why the old big movie stars are being held up as anything different from today’s big movie stars. But Neil’s choice to leave isn’t easy, so the story is still about something.
“Hit”, Bruce McAllister
God hires a hit-man to kill a vampire who’s the son of the Devil. In exchange, God will forgive him everything. Or at least that’s what the angel offering the deal claims. The problem is that the old vampire wants to change his ways and become good. Our guy just has to kill the old vampire before he can repent, so that God doesn’t have to take him in, but doesn’t have to kill him Himself. Something about maintaining the balance. It sounds a little fishy.
But, why not condemn an ancient vampire to Hell to save your own soul? Am I right? ‘Course I’m right.
Except that it ain’t right.
The story has some mystery, and some tension, and some violence. But it’s about this hit man and how he feels about what he does, and about selfishness, love, right and wrong, and grace. It’s a hell of a story.
“The Bible Repairman”, Tim Powers
Torrez has a special kind of soul—one that he broke himself. This makes him valuable to the witch-doctors who can use pieces of his broken soul or vials of his blood for their magic. His soul is doomed to hell anyway, so he might as well sell it off bit-by-bit, until he loses his mind.
But he has stopped. He’s trying to hang on to what he has left of his soul and his mind. Then someone comes to him with a plea for help, a chance to save a real live girl. He brings as a gift the stolen soul of Torrez’ own little girl. This gift does not have its intended effect, as Torrez is more interested in reconnecting with the ghost of his daughter than in doing the job. But he can’t reconnect; the ghost is just a ghost, empty and selfish, not worth saving. And he feels he, too, is empty and not worth saving, and he goes to his death to save the stranger’s daughter.
This is a puzzling story, but it makes you think. It is about selfishness, relationships, duty, and identity.
Stories that might be about something
Then we have the stories that are like modern art: You know that they might be too deep for you to understand, or they might be con-jobs, and you can’t tell which.
“Make a Joyful Noise”, Charles de Lint
Zia and her sister are crow spirits, or something like that. They are ancient and powerful and witless and generally well-intentioned, if not overly concerned about mortals. Zia helps the ghost of a boy resolve his issues with his mother and move on, to whatever comes next.
There are stories within this story. The boy’s story is about how children can fail to understand their parents’ love, and how parents can fail to express it. I have a suspicion the story about Zia might be about something too, though I can’t tell what.
“On the Road to New Egypt”, Jeffrey Ford
You know Loki, the Norse trickster god? Imagine a world where Satan is Loki. Imagine Jesus is also Loki. Imagine Jesus makes a bet with Satan for shits and giggles, and offers your soul as the stakes. What’s that story about?
Maybe it’s about how religious people take themselves way too seriously, and whoever the forces are behind this world, they’re probably jerks. Maybe it’s about how Good and Evil, saints and demons, have a lot more in common with each other than with ordinary folk. Or maybe it’s just the result of too many drugs.
“Julie’s Unicorn”, Peter S. Beagle
Julie finds a unicorn in a 500-year old tapestry, captive to a knight and a maiden. She feels so sorry for it that she calls on her grandmother’s magic and lets it out of the tapestry. But it remains tiny, and she finds herself its custodian.
The unicorn wants something. She and her ex-lover, who was involved by chance, puzzle out that the unicorn is looking for a monk, who must be in the tapestry. They return it to the tapestry, but into the care of the monk, almost hidden in one corner.
Like many Peter Beagle stories, it’s hard to say what the story is about, but I have the feeling that it’s about something.
“Companions to the Moon”, Charles de Lint
A woman thinks her husband is cheating on her. She follows him, and discovers he has a secret life as a prince of Faerie. The old, dangerous kind. Now that she knows, he must leave her.
Maybe the story is about trust? It would have been an indictment of the woman, if it had been written 400 years ago. But the modern author is, if anything, accusing the man of keeping secrets. Maybe it’s about how you can know someone for years, and suddenly find a side of them that you never knew existed.
“On the Far Site of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks”, Joe Lansdale
A nasty, vicious, vulgar criminal is chased by a slightly-less-nasty bounty hunter, in a world where zombies are a commodity. He captures the criminal, then they’re both captured by some weird religious cult that wants to kill them. They agree to work together until they escape. They do. Then they kill each other. The end.
Maybe this story is about how even the most vile, selfish people can have a code of honor. I don’t know. It’s well-written, but I don’t know if there’s anything more to it than an adventure story with a couple of revolting yet fascinating protagonists fighting zombies and dominatrix nuns.
Stories that aren’t about anything
Finally, sadly, we have the stories that aren’t about anything. They have plots and witches and stuff, and they may combine them in new ways, but they don’t touch on anything deep or controversial, they don’t suck you in and make you identify with a character, and they don’t introduce any new genre trappings novel enough for that to be interesting on its own.
“A Haunted House of Her Own”, Kelley Armstrong
In this story, Nathan and his wife Tanya buy a “haunted” house in order to renovate it and charge tourists high prices for staying there. But the townsfolk believe the stories about the house, and Nathan finds increasingly-convincing evidence that the haunting is real. He finally dies in a construction accident. The townsfolk assume it was the ghost. We then discover the whole thing was a scheme of Tanya’s to kill her husband.
So what? We can’t feel Nathan’s fears, at least not after finishing, because we find out that his fears were the wrong ones. We can’t feel anything for Tanya. And there is nothing very interesting about a scheme to kill a husband by blaming it on a ghost. I’m not saying it’s about nothing because there was no ghost. I’m saying it’s about nothing because the author thought that having spooky events and a plot and a twist made it a horror story.
“She’s My Witch”, Norman Partridge
Boy and girl are lovers. They take revenge on the school bullies. Who murdered him. He’s dead, you see. She’s the witch who revived him. They plan to go back to school. The end.
“Kitty’s Zombie New Year”, Carrie Vaugn
Kitty’s new year’s party is crashed—by a zombie. Not a brain-eating zombie, but the real thing, a woman whose ex-lover damaged her brain with drugs he ordered on the internet, hoping to stop her from leaving him. The zombie confronts him, kind of. His crime is exposed. The police take him away. The end.
You could say this story was about love, and what you might do to keep it. But it isn’t, because it doesn’t make you think about those things. Maybe he loved her? But the reader never thinks, “Gee, I see his point. I see how, in the same situation, I might do that.” The reader never sympathizes with him, and can’t very well identify with the zombie. The whole horror/zombie/supernatural angle was just a really long, convoluted way of saying “He abused his woman to make her stay,” and the reader condemns him and approves as the police take him away.
“Boobs”, Suzy McKee Charnas
A woman is taunted by male school bullies who want her body. She becomes a werewolf. She pretends to be willing to have sex with them, then eats them. She enjoys it. The end.
“The White Man”, Thomas M. Disch
A little girl from Africa is taught by a lunatic that white people are vampires. Jesus was the first vampire. She knows about vampires from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Eventually, she kills a white man, who may or may not have been a vampire. The innocent? man’s death only strengthens the community’s belief in vampires, since the death was a thing that happened. The end.
If anything, the story is about how stupid people are, and how insane beliefs can seem perfectly reasonable. Mostly, though, it was a “What the hell?” story. Why did the white man in the story put creepy vaguely-racist messages in his window? What was the point of having the girl’s school exploit her to hand-write scam letters?
“Gestella”, Susan Patwick
A woman is a werewolf. She marries a man who only wants her for her body. She grows old as quickly as a dog. After a few years with him, she is old. He takes her to the pound to get rid of her. The end.
The story is supposed to be about how sad it is that some men don’t value women when they get old. Yes, that’s sad. But I couldn’t identify with her, since it was obvious almost from page one that her husband didn’t love her. When you find yourself screaming repeatedly at a character, “Don’t go into that basement!”, it makes you more aware that they are not you, and destroys identification. Then the story can’t be about feeling what they’re feeling.
The story could have been about why she stayed with him when he was a jerk, or why she didn’t realize that he was a jerk. But it never explains why she doesn’t go back to where she came from, or when she realizes why his affection for her is diminishing.
So we’re left with the story trying to be about the fact that some people are jerks. But I already knew that. A story where a jerk behaves exactly as you expect him to behave isn’t about the fact that some people are jerks, like a story where a fire hydrant works as expected isn’t about fire hydrants.
If it’s about anything, I’d say it’s about the tragic, hopeless situation all women are in, because men love them only for their beauty, which fades quickly, and there aren’t any other options or possibilities for love. But, whoops, that’s false in at least five ways.
You might notice I listed only five stories by women, and four of them are stories where either a man kills his woman or a woman kills her man, and I put all of those in the “not about anything” category. Maybe I don’t appreciate these stories because I’m a man, and I just don’t relate to these stories the same way. Maybe emotional rapport is more important, and justification less-important, in women’s fiction. I don’t know. I just call ’em as I see ’em.
(1. The secret to modern art, BTW, is that you’re not supposed to look at a single piece and evaluate it. You’re supposed to look at an artist’s entire career and see it as a philosophical argument, and decide whether you agree. Post-modern art is similar, except that instead of a philosophical argument, it’s a sociological argument.)