Am I really limited to writing about The Beatles and Dylan???

Extended Play anthology cover

“But the real flaw lies in the story’s continual explicit references to specific songs. You can perhaps get away with this if you’re writing about well-known canonical material like Dylan or the Beatles [sic], but name-checking four Evanescence album tracks within the space of a page as a means of describing a train of emotional thought runs the risk of losing the reader’s engagement unless they’re as equally obsessed with the band as the character is, of course,” quote from Paul Raven reviewing in “Strange Horizons”

It’s 2007 and, as the above reviewer suggests, am I really limited to writing about Bob Dylan or The Beatles if I want to write stories or poems that touch on rock music?

The story Paul Raven refers to is “First and Last and Always” included in “Extended Play” published by Elastic Press

“First and Last and Always” has been described as a story of “heartbreak and record collecting” and asks if we ever really get over our first love or merely adjust to its absence. Here, the section the reviewer writes-off as “name-checking four Evanescence album tracks” (even though she’s watching a live show!):-

“…Voices joined in with Amy Lee’s vocals.

My mind’s eye saw Oliver as I had last seen him: neck at an impossible angle, body slumped but stiff, chair kicked to one side, feet not touching the floor. It was an image I’d never lose. My heart skipped a beat. I grabbed the barrier, rode the rush of anxiety. But the panic attack didn’t come.

The crowd had got louder, joining in the chorus of “Going Under”. I didn’t join in but it gave me a focus. The crowd’s singing and arm-waving seemed to give the song a faster tempo and an urgency not in the studio versions. Finally, ready to join in, I was too late.

The collective mood mellowed with the quieter “Taking Over Me”. This was the song I’d add to my map: love lost, mourned, regained. I felt a chill on the back of my neck. I turned to look back. Three rows behind and about twenty people to my right, a tall, dark-haired man was looking in my direction, then got lost in the movement of the crowd. I shrugged: it probably wasn’t me he was looking at.

I focused on the stage. I sensed, rather than heard, the band launch into “Everybody’s Fool”. I remembered my ring and how alive Oliver had seemed when he gave it to me, the eagerness he had when he slid it on my finger. Why had he thrown that away? Wasn’t it strong enough to prevent him from being overwhelmed enough to take his own life? I felt tears well and pinched my ring finger. I didn’t care if I tore flesh, I was determined not to give in.

The cover of Korn’s “Thoughtless” always turned my thoughts to Ciaran and the usual how the hell did I ever get involved? I knew it was pointless, the past can’t be changed, but that doesn’t stop the mind running through a thousand what if permutations.

As strings swirled and surged through “My Last Breath”, my palms became clammy. My heart fluttered into a faster beat. I went light-headed, even though I hadn’t had a drink. I grabbed the crowd barrier as my knees weakened. My eyes caught the snaking movement of a wire as I bowed my head. I focused solely on that. All I could do was wait for it to pass….”

So, do I really have to stick to Dylan and The Beatles or should reviewers move on with the times and accept that it’s OK to write about today’s bands?  And has no one else out there really heard of Evanescence?? Thoughts welcomed…

By the way “Extended Play” won the Best Anthology Award at the British Fantasy Society’s FantasyCon last weekend.

Advertisements

9 Responses to “Am I really limited to writing about The Beatles and Dylan???”

  1. Niall Says:

    I can guarantee that Paul’s heard of Evanescence; his point, I think, is that people’s taste in music tends to be a very personal sort of connection (it certainly is for me); and I think he felt that the quoted scene lent too strongly on an assumed recognition of the music, rather than being self-contained and *showing* the reader why the music was having such a powerful effect. He’s not saying you can only use Dylan as a reference point — indeed, I think he’s sceptical about the idea of relying on references like that to do emotional work *at all* — he’s saying that Dylan’s going to be a more accessible reference point for a larger number of people. Or put it another way: in thirty years, people are still going to get a Dylan reference, but are they going to get an Evanescence reference?

  2. emmalee1 Says:

    I don’t get a Dylan reference today and still won’t in 30 years time. You’ll find that non Dylan fans are more numerous than Dylan fans so it could be argued that targeting non Dylan fans makes more sense if you’re trying to target the largest audience possible.

    Dylan means nothing to my target audience either. Surely that’s an equally valid point: why should the critic/reviewer assume I’d want to tap into the Dylan fan audience base? Clearly I don’t, so why should I have to use his songs as reference points?

  3. Niall Says:

    You’ll find that non Dylan fans are more numerous than Dylan fans so it could be argued that targeting non Dylan fans makes more sense if you’re trying to target the largest audience possible.

    Well, yes, but by that logic you wouldn’t be putting in Evanescence references either. I strongly doubt that there are more people who’ll get an Evanescence reference than will get a Dylan reference, and even if that’s not true, there are still vastly more non-Evanescence fans than Evanescence fans. Not that there’s anything wrong with aiming for a smaller-than-the-largest-possible audience; that’s inherent in pretty much any writer’s work anyway, I think.

    I think Terry Pratchett’s concept of “white knowledge” is helpful here:

    If I put a reference in a book I try to pick one that a generally well-read (well-viewed, well-listened) person has a sporting chance of picking up; I call this “white knowledge,” the sort of stuff that fills up your brain without you really knowing where it came from. Enough people would’ve read [Fritz] Lieber, say, to pick up a generalized reference to Fafhrd, etc. and even more people would have some knowledge of Tolkien–but I wouldn’t rely on people having read a specific story.

    I like doing this kind of thing. There are a number of passages in the books which are “enhanced” if you know where the echoes are coming from but which are still, I hope, funny in their own right. (qtd. in Words from the Master pars. 228-29)

    Paul’s argument is that Dylan and the Beatles are “white knowledge” in a way that Evanescence isn’t, or isn’t yet. I’m inclined to agree with him; you’re free not to, of course.

  4. emmalee1 Says:

    I wasn’t aware I needed your permission to disagree with you. Forgive this little woman if she doesn’t thank you.

    Evanescence’s debut album “Fallen” sold 6.5 million copies. Their current album “The Open Door” had sold 4 million copies as at the end of March 2007. “The Open Door” sold four times as many copies as “Fallen” in its first week. That 4 million is rising daily. Not a target audience to be sniffed at. But whether you call it white knowledge or cultural references, Dylan’s still off the radar.

    BTW perhaps you (either as yourself or under your self-donned mantle as Paul Raven’s spokesperson) could explain why a female narrator would use songs from a male singer songwriter to identify her emotional state? Or perhaps your knowledge of Evanescence didn’t extend to acknowledging their female singer songwriter set-up?

  5. Niall Says:

    I wasn’t aware I needed your permission to disagree with you. Forgive this little woman if she doesn’t thank you.

    Woah! I apologise. (Would you prefer I wrote as though I thought you should agree with me?)

    But I didn’t say “people familiar with Evanescence” was a small target audience, or to be sniffed at; I (a) said it was smaller than “people not familiar with Evanescence”, which by the sales figures you yourself quoted is accurate, and (b) suggested that it was smaller than “people familiar with Bob Dylan”, which I still think is true.

    Ultimately, though, it’s not a question that comes down to “can” or “can’t” — nothing in the review is that absolute. The argument Paul makes is one about technique, about how to write about music. The phrase is, “name-checking four Evanescence album tracks within the space of a page as a means of describing a train of emotional thought runs the risk of losing the reader’s engagement”. I’m afraid that, to me, “name-check” seems accurate — the songs are mentioned, not evoked, and the reader can only get the full emotional impact if they’re familiar with the songs. As I argued in my previous comments, I agree with Paul in that I don’t think it’s the most effective way to write about music, but I assume it’s the approach you were aiming for, or you would have written the passage a different way. (Or do you think trying to describe music is ultimately futile? I’ve read stories that I think pull it off — the most recent being Lucius Shepard’s “Stars Seen Through Stone” in F&SF earlier this year.)

    I commented in the first place because you had taken a meaning from the review that was very different from the one I took. I know the meaning you took is not what he meant — my stake here is that I’m the guy that published the review — and I’m pretty sure it’s not actually in the words he wrote.

    I’m afraid I do find this:

    explain why a female narrator would use songs from a male singer songwriter to identify her emotional state?

    A bit ridiculous. Firstly because, as noted above, Paul wasn’t suggesting you should use Dylan instead of Evanescence; he was suggesting that if you were going to use Evanescence, you needed to make the reference more than just a name-check. And secondly because, well, do you really think women never empathise with male singers, or men never empathise with women? Phrased that way, it sounds like you do. Or let me turn the question around: why couldn’t a woman identify with a male singer songwriter? I have no problem identifying with PJ Harvey and Beth Orton and, believe it or not, Alanis Morissette.

  6. emmalee1 Says:

    “in thirty years, people are still going to get a Dylan reference, but are they going to get an Evanescence reference?”

    In thirty years’ time, it’s highly probable Dylan and most of his fans will have passed on. Amy Lee will still be a singer songwriter with thirty years of building a loyal fanbase. People will be more likely to get an Evanescence rather than a Dylan reference. At least according to my crystal ball. The future is not that predictable.

    “Dylan’s going to be a more accessible reference point for a larger number of people”, “but I didn’t say ‘people familar with Evanescence’ was a small target audience”.

    Yes, you did in relative terms. Why else would you insist in my using Dylan as a wider reference point? Dylan is off radar to my target audience so using Dylan would render my story inaccessible to my target audience whilst not guaranteeing I’d render it accessible to the non target audience. Which is precisely why I shouldn’t do it.

    Since the narrator initially identifies with The Sisters of Mercy, obviously she’s not restricted to empathy along gender lines. But I find it telling that your cultural references/white knowledge were until I raised that question. Patently it’s ridiculous.

    I also find it ridiculous that I should trash the credibility of my narrator by being restricted to cultural references that she clearly would not listen to or identify with.

    No doubt you’ll insist on having the last word.

  7. Gary Couzens Says:

    I was the editor of Extended Play and this is not intended as the last word, just as a late comment as I’ve only just seen this exchange. Clearly “First and Last and Always” – and the musical references within it – worked for me, as I wouldn’t have accepted it for the anthology if it hadn’t.

    That comes from a Dylan fan – I’ve been listening to him for a quarter of a century now. I’m not an Evanescence fan – no active dislike, just haven’t listened to them so I’m open to recommendations.

    On a more general point, I deliberately intended that the anthology should deal with a wide range of music. So there is one with a classical background, another dealing with jazz, and so on. One thing I noticed during the submission period – and I commented as such at the time – was that many of the stories dealt with “credible” music. I would just as happily have published a story involving Take That if anyone had written such a story and it was good enough. Or a story about someone like my niece (twelve years old next month) who has been to see Busted (before they broke up) and McFly. No-one rose to that challenge though!

  8. emmalee1 Says:

    Hi Gary, thanks for your comment. I agree with you that although tastes in music are personal, I would not skip a story about Dylan just because I wasn’t a fan. Equally I wouldn’t rate a story good just because it mentioned Evanescence. And I’m pretty sure most people would pick up an anthology because they wanted to read the stories, not because it featured their favourite music. If all writers within “Extended Play” restricted themselves to classic, jazz, Dylan and The Beatles, it would be a narrow, restrictive anthology.

    One point that both Paul Raven and Niall missed is that the quoted section happens in the last 1000 words of a 9000 word story so by that time readers are acquainted with the narrator’s emotional state and taste in music so read the section with background knowledge.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Should Writers read reviews of their Writing? « Emma Lee’s Blog Says:

    […] unintentionally. One of my stories was described as “an extended myspace confessional albeit better written“. It was meant as a snark but his comment actually said “contemporary, modern […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: