A Passage to India, & not stopping when the plot ends

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The plot in A Passage to India involves a Muslim Indian accused of assaulting an Englishwoman in the Marabar Caves. When the plot was wrapped up on page 257, I looked at the last page, and wondered why the book went on to page 362. I tried to guess what the next hundred pages were for, but couldn’t. I guessed, though, that it would have to do with the principles in my earlier post “The story isn’t over when the plot is“, which it did.

In retrospect, it seems obvious: The plot is about a conflict between the English rulers and their Indian subjects, but the story is about a friendship between the Englishman Fielding and a Muslim Indian, Aziz. The plot’s central question is resolved in a court room, but the story’s central question is whether an Englishman and an Indian can be friends. The plot shows the two men going to great efforts for each other’s sake, and one imagines on seeing its resolution that they must be fast friends forever afterwards. But the story’s claim is that this is impossible: The forces of Empire, and British society, and religion and race, which are vast and omnipresent, forbid it; struggling against them is quite beyond the capacities of humans, who seldom know why they do what they do, and make out better when they follow their feelings and the herd than when they try to act reasonably.

So the final hundred pages have the structure of a short story, which one can almost imagine existing independently of the novel preceding it. The two men begin it as friends, but disagreements, misunderstandings, and racial characteristics (Forster cannot seem to decide whether these are real or imagined) divide them. The key misunderstanding is cleared up, but the hate Aziz temporarily had for Fielding has already pushed him into a new state of mind from which he cannot return to loving Fielding, and they part knowing they will only drift further apart. The final paragraphs:

Aziz in an awful rage danced this way and that, not knowing what to do, and cried: “Down with the English anyhow. That’s certain. Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say. We may hate one another, but we hate you most. If I don’t make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it’s fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then “–he rode against him furiously– “and then,” he concluded, half kissing him, “you and I shall be friends.”

“Why can’t we be friends now?” said the other, holding him affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.”

But the horses didn’t want it–they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”

It still puzzles me why the last 100 pages begins with a long description of a Hindu religious ceremony, which neither Fielding nor Aziz attend. My best guess is that, in a novel which pits the English Empire against India, and an Englishman against an Indian, it would be too easy to imagine that the Indian represents India. Forster repeats several times that no one can represent India, as a Muslim Indian understands the Hindu who lives next door to him less than a Scot can understand a Transylvanian. The purpose of the temple scene may be to remind us that Aziz is just one Indian, and to refute the view that Fielding the ex-Christian and Aziz the Muslim would each have that humans are important, singular, and somehow exempt from the rules that limit the actions of all other things.

(There is an extreme continuity error at one of the climaxes of the book: Two characters go out onto a lake in a rowboat and collide with another boat carrying idols that are a key part of the city’s biggest Hindu ceremony. When they fall in the water, two other main characters who were definitely not in the boat fall into the water with them, and their impossible presence adds nothing to the story. Forster seems to have vacillated at his climax between whether his viewpoint character’s boat was running into the boat containing the idols, or the boat containing the other two characters, and written it as being both simultaneously. This nonsensical scene presents a sticky problem for the translator or editor publishing a new edition after the author’s death.)

Philip Roth on the Importance of Knowing What People Fantasize About, and of Hating Things

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From his Paris Review interview. Emphasis is mine.

INTERVIEWER: What about England, where you spend part of each year? Is that a possible source of fiction?

ROTH: Ask me twenty years from now. That’s about how long it took Isaac Singer to get enough of Poland out of his system—and to let enough of America in—to begin, little by little, as a writer, to see and depict his upper-Broadway cafeterias. If you don’t know the fantasy life of a country, it’s hard to write fiction about it that isn’t just description of the decor, human and otherwise. Little things trickle through when I see the country dreaming out loud—in the theater, at an election, during the Falklands crisis, but I know nothing really about what means what to people here. It’s very hard for me to understand who people are, even when they tell me, and I don’t even know if that’s because of who they are or because of me. I don’t know who is impersonating what, if I’m necessarily seeing the real thing or just a fabrication, nor can I easily see where the two overlap. My perceptions are clouded by the fact that I speak the language. I believe I know what’s being said, you see, even if I don’t. Worst of all, I don’t hate anything here. What a relief it is to have no culture-grievances, not to have to hear the sound of one’s voice taking positions and having opinions and recounting all that’s wrong! What bliss—but for the writing that’s no asset. Nothing drives me crazy here, and a writer has to be driven crazy to help him to see. A writer needs his poisons. The antidote to his poisons is often a book.

The Story Isn’t Over When You Wrap Up The Plot

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Novelist Tony Earley always says, “A story is about a thing and another thing.” So it’s your job to plan your stories so that you give your reader the satisfaction of getting closure from one “thing,” the most obvious thing, but keep the mystery of the other “things” intact.

A good example of this can be found in Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” the short story about a homeless Spokane Indian’s circular attempts to raise $1000 to redeem his grandmother’s powwow regalia from a pawn shop. The shop owner would like to give it back, but he paid $1000 for it himself. So he gives the homeless man five dollars as seed money and 24 hours to raise the rest of the cash.

In the first paragraph, Alexi gives the reader notice and sets up the ending of his story:

One day you have a home and the next you don’t, but I’m not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless, because it’s my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.

The idea of a “secret story” is the key to the ending. While the protagonist does manage to earn money, he drinks, gambles, or gives it away. After 24 hours, the money has not been raised, but the pawnbroker gives him the regalia anyway. The last paragraph of the story is this:

Outside, I wrapped myself in my grandmother’s regalia and breathed her in. I stepped off the sidewalk and into the intersection. Pedestrians stopped. Cars stopped. The city stopped. They all watched me dance with my grandmother. I was my grandmother, dancing.

Because the regalia is given back, the story does seem to tie itself up (that would be the first “thing”), but this isn’t really about getting a stolen dress back. It’s about the struggle to regain one’s spirit — and that could be seen as the “secret” story (or the other thing) wrapped in this tall tale.

The ending that satisfies the reader, or ties things up, is never the real ending of the story. We discover that the grandmother’s regalia is returned, and yet the story continued on for a moment to put the act into context.


This sounds like good advice, though I’d say it differently. The “second thing” that ends the story and gives the context for the “first thing” shouldn’t remain a mystery. Kelby used “mystery” where he/she should have used “enigma”. The reader should see the tip of an iceberg, and may be uncertain exactly where its sunken outlines are, but still feel chilled by its bulk and nearness (or warmed, if your metaphorical iceberg is cheery). But you don’t want the reader to wonder what happened or what the second thing was.

Lord of the Rings continues on after the Ring has fallen into Mount Doom. The hobbits return and save the Shire from Saruman. I don’t remember this part, because it was boring, but you could argue that showing the Hobbits’ newfound ability to deal with aggression indicates that the story is about them. You could say that their selfless quest to save strangers led to them being able to save the Shire, and that this gave the novel a “the life you save may be your own” message.

(Peter Jackson, of course, omitted the ending from his movie, which was about Aragorn.)

Star Wars continues after the destruction of the Death Star to a painfully long awards ceremony. (Come on, how many of you fast-forward through that when re-watching it?) I think this is an overt statement that the story is about the heroes’ journey rather than about blowing up the Death Star.

The Last Unicorn has a final chapter after the plot has finished, in which Schmendrick and Molly talk about their feelings about the unicorn, and don’t talk about their feelings for each other while still giving the reader the impression that they will stay together for a long time.

I did this with my own stories and it seems I’ve been following this rule unconsciously. Deviating from it isn’t always wrong, but makes it much more likely that something is wrong with the story. Many writers deviate from it by closing with the plot tie-up rather than the resolution of the character arc. I usually deviate from it by trying to write the character arc as plot, which can succeed, but usually fails.

The “two things” theory touches on a distinction between popular fiction and “literature”. Popular works like The DaVinci Code or The Wheel of Time emphasize the “first thing”. Literary works emphasize the “second thing”. A few, like Lord of the Rings or The Last Unicorn, manage to do both.

An exercise for the reader: What is the “second thing” in Harry Potter and the X?

A Three-Second Mistake That Ruined An Entire Movie

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If you don’t understand what makes something a story, it’s possible to make a tiny change that makes it not be a story anymore. The worst example of this I’ve seen was a movie that was ruined by its last three seconds.

I don’t recall its name. It was about a man who fell for a selfish, manipulative woman. She committed a robbery/murder, collected the money, framed him for it, and left, leaving him tied up for the police.

That would be a tragic story if it were the man’s story. It can’t be the woman’s story, because she isn’t a sympathetic character, and because there is no question.

If she were a sympathetic character, we could worry whether she would succeed, but she is not.

If it were the man’s tragedy, you could ask what he might have done differently. If it were her tragedy — say she felt bad about doing it, or felt forced to do it, or was led almost inevitably to do it by the circumstances of her birth — you could ask whether those forces that led her to do it could be defeated. If she hadn’t made any money off it, you could ask why she did it.

But presented as the story of a woman who sets out to commit murder and burglary, and frame an innocent man for it by manipulating him emotionally, and gets away with it, there is no sympathy and no questions, and it is not a story.

The movie ran up to that point by playing on our sympathies for the man. I think. But by the simple mistake of following the woman as she walked away in the ending scene, rather than keeping the camera on the house where the man was tied up as she walked off-screen, they turned the final scene to her POV, turned the movie into her story, and threw everything I had felt up until that point out the window. Now it’s a movie about a protagonist who learned how to get what she wanted by murder and manipulation.

(BTW, this is one reason writers sometimes should write camera directions into their scripts.)

We’ve gone through this bit about definitions before. In my blogs, I use the word “story” to mean something more specific than “narrative”. I believe there’s some grammar or set of patterns that stories follow, and that things that don’t follow those patterns don’t get written down in books and called stories, except when someone makes a mistake. I believe the grammar and patterns have some parts that are different for different people and different cultures, but also that at some level of abstraction they are the same across most of human history. I use the word “story” to refer to narratives that follow these patterns.

If you want to use the word “story” differently, write your own blog. It won’t help the discussion here to say that “story” means any sequence of events. All that does is define away the problem.

By “story” I don’t mean the same as “good story”. We use “good” and “bad” too often to describe how well or poorly a story is executed. I want to figure out what kind of narratives can’t be made good stories no matter how much you polish them, and what kind of narratives are “stories” enough that you should bother polishing them.

The first stage of revision of a narrative is not polishing it, but figuring out how to turn it into a story. I push the characters and events around in my mind, and suddenly something clicks and I realize, Now that’s a story. That’s a thing that happens, a threshold that I cross, sometimes before even writing a word, and it’s the most important part of the whole process, and the most mysterious.

Stories With and Without Meaning: The Urban Fantasy Anthology

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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.[1]

“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.)