How to Read “Selfless”

by James Patrick Kelly

 

too much me

If, as I suspect, you are a frequent reader of Asimov’s, you probably know that I write a column there called “On The Net.” Ostensibly it’s about my continuing hunt for interesting websites about science and science fiction, although I occasionally stray into the more remote precincts of popular culture. In the course of my explorations, I often share information about my life as a writer. In fact, I sometimes worry that I’ve overshared. Thus some (many?) of you may know more about Jim Kelly than you ever wanted to! So, with Sheila and Emily’s permission, I’m going to skip the interview. Email me if you want to know how I got into this biz, or who has influenced me or what I’m working on now. I guarantee a prompt reply!

 


“Selfless,” in particular, lends itself to dramatic reading because of its oddball point of view.


 

print v audio

Instead I want to discuss my new novelette, “Selfless” in its two current incarnations, print in the magazine and audio on the website. Depending on how you arrived at this blog, you may already know that I recorded the novelette for Asimov’s here at the fabulous, high-tech James Patrick Kelly Studios (my walk in closet). I’ve had a happy and productive side career as a narrator, although most of it has been as a reader of my own fiction. And as an audiobook aficionado, I listen to much more fiction than I read. While I believe that my narrating of “Selfless” maps closely onto the print experience of it, there are important differences. I hesitate to recommend one over the other, but I do think that it would be an interesting experiment to try both of them. But to conduct such an experiment, you’ll have to decide which to start with. Audio then print? Print then audio? (See my answer below) As a writer, I believe in the purity and simplicity of print, free of performance and personality. But although I can’t remember exactly how any sentence of the story sounded in my head as I typed it, I can tell you that listening to “Selfless” is the closest you can get to my experience of writing this novelette.

 

Gardner

Alas, it is sometimes the case that a writer is not the best performer of his own work. And I have no doubt that some (many?) might say that I am far too boisterous a narrator for their taste. I’ve made the joke at public readings that having a live audience sends me into a Shatner-like frenzy, complete with all the pregnant pauses and offbeat pacing and voice modulation that characterize Bill at his histrionic best. But playing to a microphone is different than filling a crowded room with my voice, and, with “Selfless,” I tried to make everything smaller when I felt Captain Kirk nudging me. I do think there is value in adding emphasis in performance that does not exist in print.

One of the writers and editors who helped shape my career was our own Gardner Dozois, who was my pal before he became editor of Asimov’s and who helped inspire many of the stories I’ve published there. Those who were fortunate to have met Gardner in person know that he had some wonderfully idiosyncratic speech patterns. Perhaps the most notable was that you could hear italics in his sentences, especially when he was telling a joke or was excited. Gardner always got what I was trying to do in fiction. We even workshopped together; the very first story he bought of mine was one he had previously critiqued. When I reviewed the galley proofs of the first couple of stories he bought, I noticed that he had added italics here and there. Now I believe in the judicious use of italics, so I let these pass at first. While I didn’t think they were necessary, they added an emphasis that I could readily accept. Besides, he was the editor. But when he persisted, I started changing them all back. I asked Sheila about this, and finally spoke to Gardner and he stopped. In fact, for years afterward, I ruthlessly expunged most italics in my own rewrites, even in stories I sold elsewhere. But now, when I read stories aloud, I regularly use my voice to italicize key words in important sentences. Is that cheating? Am I pointing through performance at things I particularly want the reader to pay attention to? Maybe, but I’m pretty sure I have Gardner’s permission to do it.

 

POVs

“Selfless,” in particular, lends itself to dramatic reading because of its oddball point of view. I’m going to get technical here, but that’s because I’ve always loved playing with POV. As you no doubt know, POV comes in a variety of flavors, each offering its own mix of challenge and opportunity. There’s first person, the “I” point of view, as in “I gulped with fear as the tyrannosaur bore down upon me. At the last minute, I hurled myself off the path into the underbrush, frantic that now I might never finish the last novel of my decalogy. The tyrannosaur spun to renew its attack.” There are various third person POVs, but the most common is third person limited: “Jim gulped with fear as the tyrannosaur bore down upon him. At the last minute, he hurled himself off the path into the underbrush, frantic that now he might never finish the last novel of his decalogy. The tyrannosaur spun to renew its attack.” Note that here the writer still has access to Jim’s thoughts, but only Jim’s. A third person omniscient might look like this: “Jim gulped with fear as the tyrannosaur bore down upon him. At the last minute, he hurled himself off the path into the underbrush, frantic that now he might never finish the last novel of his decalogy. The tyrannosaur spun for another attack, furious at having missed its writerly snack.” In an omniscient POV, the writer can enter the mind of any of the characters, and can even think like a dinosaur. And then there’s cinematic POV, where the writer has access to nobody’s thoughts and feelings and can only describe observable action: “The tyrannosaur bore down upon Jim. At the last minute, he hurled himself off the path into the underbrush. The tyrannosaur spun to renew its attack.”

 

seconds

Second person is rhetorically tricky, because it’s not immediately apparent who the writer means “you” to be. It could be the reader, as in, “You watched in horror as the tyrannosaur bore down upon Jim. At the last minute, he hurled himself off the path into the underbrush. The tyrannosaur spun to renew its attack.”   It could be the protagonist, as in “You gulped with fear as the tyrannosaur bore down upon you. At the last minute, you hurled yourself off the path into the underbrush, frantic that now you might never finish that last novel of your decalogy. The tyrannosaur spun to renew its attack.” Wait, why is the narrator telling the protagonist what the protagonist obviously knows is happening? Good question, and this is one reason why second person POV is rare. In “Selfless” I have used an even more obscure variety of second person POV, one in which the narrator is telling himself his story. This is because I sometimes narrate to myself in this way. Like if I stumble carrying coffee to the breakfast table and some slops onto the floor. “Nice move, you idiot,” I have said to myself – sometimes even aloud! Or if I make a particularly difficult bank shot in pool. “Way to go, dude!” Maybe you do this too? No? Well, we writers live inside our heads, that’s for sure. But I chose this narrator-telling-himself-the-story technique as a way of highlighting the philosophical issues in the story. Is the narrator-self Joseph’s missing “real” self? Or is it just another self in the recursive hall of self-mirrors that he feels so lost in?

 

answer

What, you expect me to answer that? Hey, I just write ’em! You’re going to have to figure ’em out for yourself.

But since I think I understand how someone might narrate their own experience to themselves because I do it myself on occasion, I’m leaning toward the opinion that in this case, the audio version just might be the right place to start.

Oh dear, now that I’ve reread what I just wrote, I realize that once again this is way too much me. Sorry, Emily! Next time I’ll just do the interview!

 

One thought on “How to Read “Selfless””

  1. How interesting. I noticed that Gardner was fond of italics in his introductions to stories—and not always necessary italics, I thought. I’m pleased that it’s not just me! Funnily enough, I can’t say that I noticed this in his own fiction.

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