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Readercon panel: "The Beginnings of Stories and the Endings They Promise"


Michael A. Burstein (M), John Clute, Debra Doyle, Geary Gravel, China Miéville, Delia Sherman

There are, perhaps, three kinds of beginnings to stories: those that promise no ending, those that promise an ending which is later delivered, and those that promise a different ending than the one provided. Are these, in fact, three fundamentally different types of stories? What are the different types of promises a beginning can make? The first line of Pride and Prejudice ("It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife") or the last line of the first chapter of The Book of the New Sun ("It was in this fashion that I began the long journey by which I have backed into the throne") make promises about the content of the ending, but many beginnings merely promise the form of the ending ("there will be a twist of some sort").

My first panel of the con, so my hands were fresh and fast, and I had time shortly after to review my notes against my memory.

What was said at "The Beginnings of Stories and the Endings They Promise"

Opening question: are there really the three different types of beginnings as in the description?

As in a prior panel, Burstein went up and down the panel with the questions.

Miéville: It's a generalization — which makes one immediately think of exceptions, so it's a brave person who says yes.

There's a distinction between content and form. The content of an ending is much more contingent & uninteresting than the promise of a form, that is, this will take a narrative form (plot triangle). You see this a lot in any book/film that announces it has a twist: if it takes seriously the content, that book/film is a self-hating piece of art. Why do they announce they have a twist? For comfort. [*] He thinks the promise of narrative that it will resolve is a dangerous thing

He doesn't think he can engage concretely with question, because at the formal level: beginnings imply endings, but that's dangerous.

[*] Ed note: cf. the ever-popular debate about warnings for fanfic.

Clute: It's the rare and uninteresting story whose first sentence doesn't mean more as you read into the story—the most interesting first line is one that allows to you read and understand it several times. He didn't think that was encompassed by any of these options. Hook beginnings are technically very interesting & sometimes very attractive, but they unless can be reread—John Macdonald was a master at giving the whole story in the opening in terms of the emotional texture, or a metaphor of the truth of the story the whole way through.

He was surprised by the Wolfe example in the panel description, because the first sentence ("It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.") is the great example, much better than one listed. It's difficult to understand initially—but after you read all 4 volumes! (Laughter from the audience.)

Or, another example: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard," from The Good Soldier. If you don't think the book is going to promise more than that, you've already decided it's not a very interesting book.

Sherman: Burstein asked her, does the ending promise the beginning? Well, for her, the beginning is what's rewritten most (to get them to match up, I think).

The question doesn't cover the atmospheric beginning, which promises only the feel of what you're going to read; fantasy especially does this. Maybe SF does it less?

Doyle: One of the things a beginning can do is let you know what general rules apply. For instance, thrillers sometimes start with gratuitous violence, just so the reader knows that this is a book where people die! (They can't say they weren't warned.)

When you reach the end, you should be able to look back at beginning and see that you got there in at least an emotionally consistent way. You may not realize it at the beginning, but you shouldn't be standing there at the end of the book and saying, how did I get there?

Gravel: He had a different answer to the question, about the comfort of an ending. He knows several people whose first act on picking up a book is to read the last sentence. He used to think that was perverse, but now he thinks that they do it to reassure themselves that it's worth reading the book because it will have an ending (other than "and then they woke up"). He thinks they don't retain the endings, other than that they exist.

Someone, possibly Sherman, said that she was one of those people, and she did it because she can't bear suspense.

Clute: he's not likely to read a novel that can't end properly; if the author can't write a final paragraph, the author's in trouble.

Gravel: He thinks it has to do with being an active reader, not being dragged along; the book won't be ruined because you're still seeing the whole thing unfold.

Also, re: Doyle's comment: on glancing through openings before the con, it seemed like SF tried to have it both ways a lot, with a very cosmic and tone-setting quote before the first line, which is "and then it blew up!" It's two beginnings.

Burstein: he remembers reading something "First Beginning" and "Second Beginning" as headers.

Someone, possibly Clute: "And readers hate them."

Second question: can even just the first sentence contain the promise of the ending? Pride and Prejudice, arguably, but what else?

Gravel: He was asked to offer some of the openings he'd reviewed for the panel.

One first sentence: "Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith." (Stranger in a Strange Land)

Another, very different, is from Cordwainer Smith's The Boy Who Bought Old Earth, which encapsulates the whole story.

Clute: when you tell the whole story like that, you move into the realm of fable.

Gravel: Smith said he was following an Asian story form that requires that the reader already know the story.

Burstein: the entertainment is in the details.

Doyle: Going back to Stranger in a Strange Land: Heinlein was a Navy man, and the difference between a sea story and a fairy tale is that a sea story begins with "No shit guys, this is the truth." In a certain way, Heinlein was announcing the genre, at least to those familiar with the distinction, because that's not his usual opening.

Sherman: but it also implies happily ever after, which isn't the case. Openings set up conventions. An example is the first performance of King Lear: at the time, everything thought it was a comedy and there would be marriages at the end, which so didn't happen. The profundity of the tragedy is partly because the audience was set up to believe it was going to be a comedy. Even if you're not really conversant with all of the conventions of comedy, you've still seen it so many times and expect it so deeply—it's not a twist, it's a betrayal (panel: "ooo"), because you're emotionally not prepared, it has nothing to do with the intellect. She used the first lie of a parent to a child as an example.

Clute: he wanted to go back to competence for a second: different openings indicate what kind of story the author claims to be competent to tell. For instance, the Cordwainer Smith opening is a high-stakes claim, to tell the whole story in the opening and still make in interesting. One of the greatest beginnings is A Christmas Carol, because it has the greatest piece of punctuation ever: "Marley was dead: to begin with." Dickens is convinced! that he can pull off that colon.

Miéville: "I'll take your colon and raise it!" With: "—to wound the autumnal city." (Dhalgren.) There are two things he likes about it, and though there's an endless debate about whether the book works, you can't divorce the book from its historical context. It says,

  1. I refuse to promise you any kind of ending with this beginning.
  2. "It does the opposite: it doesn't take much to see that with the dash, lower t, the last sentence is going to look—"

    (Either he didn't finish this sentence, or I didn't hear it properly.)

Basically, what the sentence is saying: I have the competence to completely mess with the narrative structure, not just the content but also the form of narrative itself. It's obviously not the only kind of book you want to read, but it's really admirable: it undermines the promise that will end this so that it feels like a narrative has ended. Why is it the job of a first sentence to promise an ending? It's the wrong tool; it also goes back to idea that it is a problem that we want it to do that.

Third question: which leads into the Burstein's next question, how do you set up a beginning so that the ending fulfills its promise, and do you even want to?

Miéville: you don't, but as part of a broader critical approach to the structure of narrative. Narrative is many things, and one of them is a cage. He doesn't think we can escape the cage of narrative, but it doesn't mean that it's not a problem that it is a cage. The very form of narrative is a lie, because the real world doesn't consist of stories. He referred back to what Doyle said about the setting out the rules of story: it's very right, but very craven, to be looking to be told what rules we have to follow.

Burstein then asked for responses.

Sherman: experience is chaotic, and to live from one moment to the next we need to impose order. Yes, it's a cage, but each reader needs to decide individually whether it's needed; we can't always be swinging in space.

Clute: he would modify that a bit. It does strike him that when you do indicate that you're telling a story, you have a responsibility for being competent: you're not promising to tell the story that the first sentence indicated, and it's not necessarily a narrative cage, putting the reader through the paces preordained by the beginning. The author is going to take the reader from that point through the book, not promising where.

[Ed: I am not sure that this is what Miéville meant by narrative being a cage, but we'll come back to that later.]

Doyle: it depends on whether you're looking from the inside or the outside. Is it a cage or the rebar holding up the building? Also, problems look completely different if you're wearing a critic or a writer hat when looking at them.

Gravel: is it possible not to be in a cage at all? He's an ASL interpreter, and when telling a story in ASL, the form is required: because of the grammar of ASL, things have to occur in temporal order. Flashbacks are literally not possible. A lot of things that he has read and enjoyed, he never thinks of as a "book experience"; Dhalgren never gave him that "book experience", so he loves in a different way. For him, watching stories in ASL is sort of like that: they're not set up in what he considers an aesthetically pleasing way.

Doyle: going back to readers looking at the end: serialized fiction, which we don't see much of anymore, must've been a completely different reading experience, because you couldn't look ahead, you had to trust the ride.

Burstein: the serial experience today is limited to graphic novels.

[Ed: I think (a) TV drama (Lost, anyone?) and, closer to home, (b) multi-book series, both count. I am seriously reluctant to start a multi-book series these days, and not only for lack of time.]

Audience questions:

Q: would you say works of short fiction differ from novels in the way their beginnings and endings are written?

Miéville: you have more leeway to indulge a mood, a tone; so he feels more free to have a extremely enigmatic ending than in a novel (the kind that would make readers come at him with pitchforks). There's more room to play with the form, which he thinks is the same thing.

Doyle: she agreed. You can get away with stranger stuff, because the reader knows if the experience isn't good, at least it's over fast.

Clute: short stories have only really existed for 160 years or so, and the evolution of form and expectations has happened very fast. So by now, unless you're "simply" conveying just a genre adventure, it's very difficult to write a story without being aware of all the possibilities of every kind of beginning and end; there's an almost desperate need to make it different, because the history is so short and comprehensible. So anything goes, except that ultimately most are more comfortable when there's a sense of going from beginning to end. He thinks that comfort is the way we're shaped.

Q: one of the differences between the mainstream & SF: in mainstream stories, the ending is normalized back to the status quo, which is not always the case with SF. Maybe what Miéville is saying is that the form of a story is a form of normalizing? (I am not sure I understood this question or transcribed it accurately.)

Doyle: disagreed with the audience member's characterization. In mainstream, the changes tend to be internal, whereas external doesn't change; in SF, she thinks, it's more often the reverse.

[Ed: I don't think I know what Doyle meant by "internal" here. If it means that the characters don't change, isn't this likely to be a flaw?]

Miéville: If he's understanding the question correctly: why should stories be healing? It irritates the shit out of him.

He is deeply skeptical of the usefulness of the insistence on narrativizing trauma. More, it can be damaging—on the political level, for instance. It's fallacious to think that WMD in Iraq was just a lie: it was an attempt to define the rules of narrative. The evidence was pitiful, and he doesn't believe that the people offering it didn't know that, but they were aiming to achieve something so quickly that it didn't matter: "These are the rules of this story, and you know all know how this is going to end." It wasn't persuasion, it was laying down structure.

Doyle: once you put experience into a story, you tend to freeze it. It's very hard to replace it with a different, better, more useful story. Story-making tries to get truth out of data, which is why we want to do it and why the resulting stories are hard to change. Which is why writers need to be—not responsible, because the word makes her want to throw something, but to have some eye toward the ends the story is going to.

Clute: in psychotherapy, there's a current argument that the worst thing you can do is create a narrative.

Miéville: It's repressed for a reason!

Clute: Exactly! And narrative has own impetus, weight, burden; it shapes the way we think. Storytellers want to think it's liberating, but it cuts both ways.

Gravel: the question reminded him of a Swedish film called The Word, which in his recollection is a really gray bleak realistic film about a family on a farm that goes on and on, with a crazy brother in the background who keeps announcing he has the Word from God, which can resurrect people. And then someone dies, and the Word works! It was a really weird experience, he'd been watching a mainstream movie and suddenly it was fantasy! It was uncomfortable but also much more interesting.

Ending question from Burstein: what does the reader really expect from an ending, or what do you want the reader to expect?

Gravel: the reader expects to put the book down and go on to the next. My goal is that they can't without thinking about it.

Doyle: does not want the reader to leave with a sense wasted time; anything else is legit.

Sherman: satisfaction (Gravel concurred), intellectual or emotional, but the reader has to put it down with the feeling that something been completed—even if the ending implies something goes after, there was movement of some kind. But she can only speak for herself, not for The Reader.

Clute: I want to feel that this is where the author wanted me to get.

Miéville: "I don't care what readers want. I want to spend the course of the book wrestling them into the position I want, which is, 'That bastard! I can't believe that bastard did that! I love him!'"

Burstein: he aims for "the inevitable surprise."

Why my post-panel reaction was "This is why I will never read a China Miéville book" [*]

Chad and I appeared to be the only people who had serious problems with what Miéville was saying here [**], judging by subsequent comments by those in the audience. I've deliberately left this panel for last to clarify in my mind why I had such an immediate and strong reaction to Miéville's comments. The reasons fall into two categories: personal, which is to say, I don't expect anyone else to have the same reaction, and intellectual bafflement.

[*] Not that I'd been planning to before. The New Squick doesn't much interest me, and other word-of-mouth comments led me to believe his works weren't my kind of thing.

[**] Chad also went to the panel "Embracing the Uncomfortable," which Miéville was on and was in many ways a continuation of this panel. He has comments on his blog.

Let me start with the personal and get that out of the way.

  1. Miéville says he is very interested in discomfiting the reader, and he admires a book that "undermines the promise that will end this so that it feels like a narrative has ended."

    I read fiction for entertainment. One of the ways I am entertained is feeling that by feeling that something satisfying has happened. Miéville's comments make me feel like I'm supposed to feel guilty (or complacent, or otherwise wrong) for wanting to be entertained by fiction. I refuse to feel that way.

    (This is why I think Clute was thinking of "narrative cage" differently; not the promise of a particular ending, which Clute seemed to be talking about, but the promise of an ending, period.)

  2. The "wrestling [readers] into the position I want" comment. While it was said in a joking way, I don't think it was actually a joke, considering the rest of the panel.

    Personal knowledge about a writer can get in the way of my reading experience. If I interact with a writer and it turns out the writer is an asshole, I don't want to read the writer's books because I'll be distracted by looking for the assholeness leaking through. Similarly, if I know that the writer takes an adversarial position towards readers (see also Orson Scott Card's "All writers are rapists" comment), I'll be distracted by looking for the ways that the author is trying to metaphorically rape me or wrestle with me.

    Please note: I choose not to read books by authors in these categories because I can't give the books a fair shake, not because I want to punish the authors or something. Also, yes, I know that a lot of people will disagree with this. I said it was personal, and frankly I'm so far behind on my reading that I really don't mind the triage.

The bafflement is also in two pieces:

  1. "The very form of narrative is a lie, because the real world doesn't consist of stories."

     . . .

    Fiction is not the real world.

    Science fiction and fantasy are especially not the real world.

    As a result, I completely fail to understand why the contents of the real world must dictate the contents of fiction.

    (I will agree that good fiction must have some connections to the real world, if only in that it needs to be comprehensible to people whose brains have been shaped by living there. But that's a much narrower statement.)

  2. "Any work of fiction that is at all consolatory is fundamentally dishonest."

    First, Miéville wants fiction to be honest and map to the real world.

    Then he denies that honesty can include consolation.

    In the real world that I live in, there are consolatory things.

    Is Miéville genuinely asserting that nothing consolatory ever happens in the real world?

I understand that my personal reactions are idiosyncratic, but I don't think that my bafflement results from my idiosyncrasies. I'm serious, can anyone clarify these for me?

[Edit: compare yhlee's panel notes.]

I can't. Mieville baffles me also, and I really dislike his setting up "discomfiting the reader" as a goal in itself. The writer's goal should be to say something true and meaningful. Sometimes - often - this will discomfit the reader. Fine. But making that the goal turns you into a whining propagandist.

Mieville is terribly allergic to anything he sees as consolatory. This, he claims, is the source of his dislike of Tolkien; that he sees LOTR as consolatory strongly suggests that he's never read it very closely.

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"If you cannot communicate the very least you could do is to shut up." - Tom Lehrer

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(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-07-12 07:24 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Note that sometimes the title tells readers what the ending will be. Richard Meredith's We All Died at Breakaway Station, for example. For someone who knows the ballad, Pamela Dean's Tam Lin.

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(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-07-12 06:31 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I think it's partly what one of the commenters on Chad's blog said: Miéville is a Marxist, he's trying to do his little bit to knock down the existing order and remake society, and shocking the bourgeois is part of that. He's coming from a position that capitalist society as it is is fundamentally wrong and corrupt, and his fiction is in part designed to critique it by analogy.

The point about consolation may not be that nothing consolatory ever happens in the real world, so much as that taking consolation from those consolatory things is morally wrong, when so many things are still broken and so many people are still suffering: that the consolation that exists in the real world is itself dishonest.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for that. There are a lot of wrong and corrupt things out there, and Miéville's books do a pretty good job of blowing them up metaphorically into horrifying grotesquerie. In the process, they're extremely imaginative and have a kind of grandeur.

That sort of masochistic tendency, though, to refuse to be consoled by anything in an imperfect world... I think a person can take it too far; you're not going to cause much constructive change to society if staring into the abyss has broken your head.

I think that Mieville has fallen into the trap of believing that if you are being Entertained or Consoled, you are not being Edified, especially not Politically (capitals intentional). The reason I do not read his fiction (besides that it all involves gigantic insects, which means that it causes an automatic phobic reaction I would have to put in a good deal of work to fight) is because it is explicitly didactic: all of his aesthetics, his entire reason for creating narratives, are meant to serve his political agenda. And that would be just fine with me, if this did not mean that said aesthetics are entirely subordinate to that agenda, as are his characters. When I read Perdido Street Station, I had heard nothing about Mieville's beliefs, and made the mistake of liking several of his characters... and got the impression at the end of the book that he was laughing at me for being so silly as to care, because they were meant to be Examples, not people. Not only did this made me feel condescended to, I think it weakens his political point: what use is didacticism if the characters to whom you are applying your theory are mere ciphers? Show me how a political structure impacts a real, live, breathing human being, or a character I can believe to be one of those, and I'll form an opinion on the political structure. But showing me how a political structure impacts an arbitrary concept makes me want to ask where the ground-rules for the concept were got, and what relation they have to reality, and could you cite your sources please, and I'm not willing to put in that much effort when I feel that an author has already been treating me with condescension.

That said, this is because I place an overwhelming importance on the existence of three-dimensional character as a means of communication of any sort of theory in a novel. Lots of people don't share that taste. I expect my boyfriend to love Mieville madly because nothing will get in the way of the philosophy, and philosophical exploration is why he reads fiction. And I don't necessarily think that Mieville is an asshole, because he is at least not handing out pamphlets, which gods know he's developed the clout to be able to get away with.

I just don't read him.

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Since I missed that panel (dunno where I was), thank you very much for the recap--I haven't read it yet, but I will settle down with it soon and see if I have anything useful to contribute.

China Mieville carried the "narrative is a lie" and "consolatory is fundamentally dishonest" along "using a single protagonist is inherently classist" themes into two other panels that I did make it to. Perhaps my brain will start working clearly enough for me to comment.

Right, Chad mentioned that last one here: http://scienceblogs.com/principles/2006/07/readercon_social_class_and_spe.php

It wasn't really relevant to what I was talking about here, but I would like to know whether, as pnh asked, that makes Homer an agent of the bourgeoisie.

I cannot either, sorry. Mieville is for me also one of those authors whose personal pronouncements have put me off his works. I used to be rather ashamed of this, since it means that I cannot judge his works honestly. I cannot tell, for instance, whether I gave up on Perdido Street Station because it was so nasty or because I knew that he was Making A Point with all the nastiness. But, well, there are a lot of other books to read.

It's not just the Making A Point that is objectionable, because an author will always have something to say through the medium of the story, whether they are conscious of it or not. But (a) I agree with you that I find his position unrealistic, in that the world is not in fact that bad a place for a lot of people and (b) it gets my hackles up instantly when an author asserts hostile and manipulative intentions towards his readers. I don't love or even like bastards, and I avoid them whenever I can.

The Lord of the Rings is one of the least consolatory pieces of fiction that I have ever read.

in that the world is not in fact that bad a place for a lot of people

"...the bastards! I'll show them!!"

(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-07-12 06:49 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Mieville's world contains nothing but ugly cities and people and monsters, except for the heroes of the revolution, of course. If you're middle-class (bourgeouise) you're ugly. Period.

I don't like his books because they're ugly, people are types, he preaches way too much, in short, there's no entertainment unless you like squick and squidge and cheap shock.

I respect his inventiveness on the monster front. But Iain M Banks does inventiveness and nastiness on a grand scale too (and his Culture,is, if I am understanding it correctly, in fact the perfect Communist state), and the effect is not remotely so nihilistic.

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Re: Ugh.

Heh. I bet neither would like being compared to the other.

I came to the panel (which I haven't written up yet) with rather a less entertainment orientation than you, I think, and perhaps consequently didn't have a problem with the things Miéville said that were OTT. He's a provocateur even more than he is a writer; it's partly his job to say shocking things and then (on the spot, even) figure out whether his shocking statements are supportable.

I don't think he is really as hardline against consolation as he comes across in your summary (and in mine, since we seem to transcribe at similar rates). But he's at a conference of readers who often struggle against their sense of self-congratulation [*], and he is explicitly trying to provoke the audience to keep them struggling on that front.

[*] Which is why there's always a panel angsting about "Are we any good at predicting the future?" or "What does SF mean, anyway?" or "Utopia: fascist?" or "Is genre relevant?"

If his fiction is discomfiting, awkward, brusque -- and I think it may be all of these, based on what little I've read of Perdido Street Station -- so too is his in-person approach to intellectual topics. Which, you know, that was why I was so surprised how polite he was: unlike several panelists, he never talked over anybody else, and seemed really to be listening to people's comments.

He was polite and did engage with things the other panelists said, yes. I personally don't have much tolerance for provocateurs--I don't think this will be much of a surprise to anyone. I have this tendency to want to engage seriously with what people say, which presupposes that they were actually being serious when they appeared to be.

I still don't understand what his objection to narrative in fiction is.

"Any work of fiction that is at all consolatory is fundamentally dishonest."

First, Miéville wants fiction to be honest and map to the real world.

Then he denies that honesty can include consolation.

In the real world that I live in, there are consolatory things.

As I understand Miéville's point of view, there shouldn't be. You should be inconsolable in the face of what reality is like, until such time as it Gets Fixed.

Is Miéville genuinely asserting that nothing consolatory ever happens in the real world?

I think he's genuinely asserting that feeling consoled is evil counterproductive escapism, and *wanting* to feel consoled, or actively seeking consolation, is even worse. Whether he really believes that, or it's just a posture, I couldn't say.

That's a couple comments to this effect, so I think it's a consensus. Thanks.

This is really interesting-- thanks for your work in posting these reports. I think Mieville is a fantastic writer, and I love his crazy, diverse, grotesque city, but I find him difficult to read because of how Things Go Wrong and characters I care about come to bad ends. I'm working my way through a re-read of PSS and have stalled out because of dread of the ending. Although for PSS you might argue that the main character is the city itself, and that's more what I read it for.

Also, I am a very shallow person, because my first reaction to your post was "But is he as hot in person as in his photos?"