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Interviews - Questions For A Research Paper

Questions For A Research Paper
Submitted by Yoda Patta (1997)


Question
In one of your writing lessons, you stated that "I can tell you right now, this story is dead in the water because of this most common and most awful of openings. This is the standard "she drove through the snow, tears flowing down her cheeks, thinking through the events of the past few days" opening that wrecks story after story." This really was a wake up call for me, because I had always perceived this to be the PERFECT beginning. My question is, is this an "always" case, or can this sort of thing be used in an effective and "live" manner as opposed to dull, common and dead? If yes, how?

OSC Answers
As with all rules, there are exceptions. But with this particular rule, the exceptions are rare and I would urge writers who are attracted to this structure to simply avoid it. Actually, this grew out of the old "in medias res" principle derived from Greek tragedy. But Greek tragedy generally followed the unities, and so any action that began before the day of the climax had to be summarized. In fiction we are untroubled by the rigid rules of the unities (though in fact we are still bound by them in that we must compensate for all violations of unity of time, place, and theme -- but that's another topic), and therefore are free to avoid the endless "rememberings" and flashbacks and other expository devices that are required when you don't take the story in time order.

The rare exceptions come when the early events are not intrinsically interesting, and so you must artificially introduce tension into them by opening with some powerful event that will happen later, so that we know that the quotidian events we're reading about now will lead to something important. But "Her hands gripped the wheel as she drove through the snow, thinking about the events of the past weeks" is NOT such a case -- it is the opposite. In THIS case, the author is starting with a dull moment -- driving and thinking -- and then "remembering" the interesting moments, thereby making them more distant and filtered and dulled down by being summarized.

In other words, it's just not worth it. Avoid the in medias res opening unless you can think of no other way.


Question
What is your perception of a human being's duty to his or her: . . . and to what extent?

Question
To what extent is a human being a part of a larger group, and to what extent is he or she a free and separate individual?

OSC Answers
2 & 3 are really the same question, which is, in my terminology: What is the balance between the need for community and the need for liberty? In America right now, we treat the need for individual liberty as an absolute -- but of course it is not, and when we weaken the duties the individual owes the community, we weaken the community; and, ironically, it is only from community that we GAIN our identity and, in the end, our liberty.

This is why: All primates need a community in order to have a breeding pool and to share the burden of child-rearing. In baboons and chimps and gorillas, these practical needs are obvious because they are not clouded by verbiage designed to hide our motives from ourselves. The trouble is, alpha males tend to monopolize the females, giving far fewer males the opportunity to breed (except by kidnapping and rape, as chimpanzee life shows). Baboons, who are arguably the most communitarian of the primates (and, not just coincidentally, the most successful primate besides human beings, since they are found in far more habitats and far greater numbers than any of the great apes), have found another way. Alpha male behavior -- displaying, fighting, intimidating others -- is counterproductive in baboon society, because males who have not befriended babies and therefore their mothers are ganged-up on when they try to assert themselves with an unwilling female. The community acts as a group to restrain alpha male behavior. And at the heart of this is the protection of the female and her family from the predatory male.

That's how we humans work, too -- when our communities work at all. We define flagrant alpha male behavior as criminal or low-class, and through physical restraint (police; vigilantism) or social restraint (shunning; firing; sneering; mocking) those who do not keep those tendencies in check are effectively cut off from reproductive opportunities and from positions of respect in the society. Only compliant males and females may rise to positions of leadership and respect. (Which is why the "forgiveness" of unrestrained-alpha-male Bill Clinton without removing him from office was such a devastatingly anti-communitarian, uncivilized thing to do.)

Besides handling the problems of alpha maleness, communities are able to provide other vital services: Public memory, so that we can learn verbally from previous generations and don't have to keep reinventing the wheel; division of labor, so that only a portion of the community has to spend its time on subsistence, freeing some and eventually all to have large blocks of time for amusement and other pursuits; public defense, so that communities may survive the onslaughts of predatory rival communities; and public works, so that projects that benefit all can be accomplished together (which is what taxes are all about). Many things we take for granted exist ONLY because the community enforces strict rules that allow them to exist. For instance: Property, so that what belongs to you continues to belong to you even if you walk away from it for a while. Family, so that you don't have to constantly watch to keep someone from kidnapping your mate and/or your children. Money, a fictional item that has value only because everyone agrees to pretend that it does (and in hyperinflation, it is devastating when people stop agreeing!). Honor for any trait other than ruthless use of physical force, for it is only in the context of community that intellectual or artistic or even athletic prowess have value.

In exchange for all these values (and many more), we agree to abide by various rules, all of which intrude on our personal liberty. We agree not to take things that belong to other people. We agree not to rape or kill or even injure others physically. We agree to take money and give people things in exchange for it, even though the money of itself has no use or value. We agree to respect those that the community deems respectable, even if we think the community is wrong. We agree to stop at red lights and stop signs. We agree to pay large portions of our income as taxes to support the division of labor and the creation of public works. In short, we give up enormous reaches of our personal liberty. The reason most of these rules don't feel terribly oppressive, even when they are (for instance, we agree to letting Bill Gates's money have, dollar for dollar, the same purchasing power as the dollars of a pensioner, even though there is no way that his contribution to the community is even remotely worth the money he has), is because everyone agrees to the rules so universally that it does not occur to us that it could be otherwise; or, when there is disagreement, we see the obvious value of abiding by the rules and insisting that others do likewise ( we recognize that unless we respect Bill Gates's dollars, our own will not have value).

The only times we feel the community rules as violations of our personal liberty are:

  1. When the rule does not work (i.e., hyperinflation; or when tax collectors demand cash in a time when there is no cash; etc.)
  2. When the rule is new or newly extended, or given outrageous new penalties.
  3. When prestigious persons tell us (and we believe them) that we ought to have the right to do things that the rules forbid AND we already have a natural inclination to do those things.

It is the third case -- the storytelling function -- where writers are actually more powerful than politicians. America's move toward the abolition of rules of sexual behavior began with writers (or poets, or lyricists) who repeatedly told stories which were much admired in which the rules were either flouted or denigrated. Joyce and Lawrence broke rules; "Philadelphia Story" and the songs of Cole Porter ridiculed them. Fiction writers like Freud and Jung, masking their mythmaking as science, though of course it was actually more like the pronouncements of prophets, thereby claimed more authority for their pronouncements that sexual behavior rules somehow led to the great evil of "repression" (though no one has yet been able to show how anyone is harmed by "repressing" their sexual desires and confining them to socially appropriate expression).

That claim of authority by Freud and Jung is, in fact, right at the heart of the matter of God in the community. Setting aside the issue of whether God actually exists and actually gives commandments (though I believe he does both), within human communities the claim of divine authority for laws that are very hard to obey -- like laws concerning sexual behavior -- gives them greater authority to control behavior even when no one else can see. The claim that God had died was actually an effort -- a successful one -- to remove the authority of God as the supporter of rules of sexual behavior (though he is conveniently invoked by the very same people in support of rules they do like). Science now serves, in our society, the God-function: Science is invoked, usually by false prophets (i.e., people who are not scientists or whose statements do not arise from scientific process), in support of every rule that these people want to enforce, and against every rule they want to tear down.

All of this functions according to natural laws. When the members of a community cease to support it by their obedience, the community ceases to exist. Puritanism is thus always self-defeating in the end, because a too-rigid insistence on onerous, mindless, or counter-productive rules always results in either revolt or dissolution or evaporation of a community. But at the same time, assimilationism and/or libertarianism are also ultimately fatal to a community, because when a community 'adapts' its rules to coincide with those of a neighboring or surrounding community (i.e., when Catholics erase the differences between them and the surrounding protestants or atheists), then there is no further reason to claim membership in that community; or when a community throws out rules that are necessary for survival (and rules regulating sexual behavior are vital to the survival of communities that pretend to the power of life and death, like nations and churches), then members of the community, facing the chaos, uncertainty, unhappiness, or suffering that result, either institute even tighter rules than before OR leave the community en masse to seek a community where the rules are maintained.

Which brings us to the inertia of identity. Our identity as human beings exists only in the context of community. We are nobody till somebody knows us, and the way they know us is by defining us in communitarian terms. Democrat (or not-Democrat), Catholic (or Jew or Muslim or atheist), doctor (or ditchdigger or ...) ... you get the picture. Even individual traits take on the whole baggage of community stories concerning the group defined by those traits (you know how redheads are; I wouldn't trust a man who dips his bread in olive oil instead of using honest margarine; that haircut and that clothing are a guarantee that that kid has no intention of working hard on his job). Our identity is the net sum of the communities we belong to plus the communities we vehemently don't belong to (i.e., I'm a non-smoker, a non-drinker, and a confirmed non-Lexus-driver). Even though our individuality runs deeper than this, in fact this is almost all that most people ever know about us. It IS our identity.

So when a community fails us, it is a wrenching process to change identities -- and often we become quite angry and spiteful toward the community that we have quit. No one hates smoking like a former smoker; no one sermonizes against adultery like an adulterer who knows the horrible results of what he has done.

What does an individual owe to God, church, state, or all the other communities and sources of community authority? Exactly as much as the individual believes he owes. But the less he believes he owes, the less power that community has over him (except when it uses brute force); and a community that loses the obedience of its members simply does not exist. (Where is the Know-nothing party? Where are the Puritan ministers?)


Question
When you read Elaine Radford's accusations of you placing Hitler as Ender, were you personally offended (I definitely would be) by her "insolence"? How do you draw the line between professionalism and personal matters in what you do?

OSC Answers
I was not so much offended as annoyed at the prospect of reading endless references to her stupid, logic-free, and mean-spirited personal attack on me -- references, in fact, like your own. Radford's reading of Ender's Game was absurd, but because she wrote it, I still have to answer questions about it. It didn't hurt my feelings, because no intelligent person who has actually read Ender's Game can give it a moment's credence. But it wastes my time and smears my reputation.


Question
How do you feel about your fans writing "fanfiction" using characters that are already established by you (e.g, Ender, Valetine, etc.)?

OSC Answers
I'm flattered; and then, if they try to publish it (including on the net) except in very restricted circumstances, I will sue, because if I do NOT act vigorously to protect my copyright, I will lose that copyright -- and that is the only inheritance I have to leave my family. So fan fiction, while flattering, is also an attack on my means of livelihood. It is also a poor substitute for the writers' inventing their own characters and situations. It does not help them as writers; it can easily harm me; and those who care about my stories and characters know that what I write is "real" and has authority, and what fans write is not and does not. So it's all pointless. I'd prefer simply to ignore it when it happens, but the way copyright law functions, I am told that I cannot ignore it. So there it is.


Question
Do you believe in the goodness of humankind (as opposed to, say, Thomas Hobbes' view that all humans are evil)? Do you believe that we all have a certain level of evil inside of us? If so, how do you view the difference(s) between those who are "good" and those who are "bad?"

OSC Answers
In my experience, every person has every motivation. And this life is about figuring out which kinds of motivations a person will choose to follow. Those of us who do not steal are not honest because we've never thought of taking things that don't belong to us. We've simply chosen not to act on those desires. Every human being has an animal nature that yearns for pleasure; every human being has a spiritual nature that yearns for the love of God; every human being has pride that yearns for respect; every human being has a need to belong to something larger than himself. Which needs will predominate? It is that set of choices that defines our moral nature. If we were all by nature evil, there would be no goodness in the world; if we were all by nature good, there would be no evil. Obviously, then, you cannot make a truthful statement that says ALL humans are by nature either good OR evil.

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