Mary Sue, Heroes, and Protagonists

July 22nd, 2006

Discussing Mary Sue characters seems to bring out anxieties–as if a writer is somehow doing something wrong by writing stories featuring characters with aspects that are always attributed to Mary Sues, such as beauty, ability, smarts, etc. Not true! We come to genre because we like heroic stories, or least I know I do. So I’m coming at the subject from the comparison angle. These are not even remotely critical tools so much as thought experiments–ideas to think about when we evaluate that story we’ve just written, or are contemplating writing. Or evaluating a book that might have worked, or almost worked, or definitely didn’t work for us because of the main character.
So for purposes of thought (or discussion) here’s the distinction that I see:

Protagonist. This is the main character. The main character might not have any saving graces, or only an attribute (Madame Bovary is beautiful, but there’s little to admire in her else, and she doesn’t come to a heroic end, but what the 19th C considered a “deserving” one); the protagonist can meander through a story rising or sinking or just plain going nowhere. You’re not guaranteed any resolution at all with a protagonist as the lead. The guys forever waiting for Godot are great examples of protagonists. Any story in which the main characters appear to be constrained to helplessness, repulsiveness and pointlessness might be said to contain protagonists.  Anti-heroes are sometimes also protagonists.
Hero. The hero may or may not have gifts–ability, brains, beauty, powers–but will have to fight to achieve success, or will die heroically. Winston Smith is a hero. So is Frodo. Neither of these “wins” in any sense, but when we finish the books they belong to, we think about their heroic battles. They did make a difference to those around them. The hero is challenged, has weak moments, changes. The hero does not walk confidently through the story always on the high moral ground, he or she has to reach for the right choice, fight for it, perhaps even struggle forward, always in doubt. But at the end there is resolution, the hero has grown, and has made a difference in his or her world.
Mary Sue. Never leaves the moral high ground–he or she is perfect all the way through. Dangers might come along, but the right power or the right tool comes just when it’s needed. Mary Sue is never really shaken, and thus, never grows. How can perfection grow? Instead, she accretes more and more power, attention, whatever, but inside she’s basically the same as when she started. Acorna, at least in the first book, is a classic example. Beautiful, kind, powerful, she moved sedately through her first story (I never read any of the others) collecting a posse and powers with the confident serenity of one who was born perfect and needs no challenge or change.

Of course there are books where it seems the lead partakes of qualities of all three. One could say that Lymond begins as a protagonist, and afterward veers between hero and Mary Sue: he always has the long view in mind, triumphs over every adversity, though there are costs–heroic costs–though otherwise he’s got all the attributes of Mary Sue: beauty, grace, smarts, talent, and a subcontinent-wide posse who talks about him endlessly, considering every move he makes. Flashman could be called a protagonist-hero, though satiric characters don’t comfortably fit into any model but that of satire.

39 Responses to “Mary Sue, Heroes, and Protagonists”

  1. Muneravenon 23 Jul 2006 at 12:53 pm

    Sherwood Smith says “What some call “literary” fiction is replete with hapless characters with no attractive qualities who are guaranteed to fumble through the story and out the other end having learned little, experienced only defeat, and end up in the void of pointlessness.”

    “Madame Bovary” is a cool book because it asks a really interesting question about heroic, or romantic fiction: What happens when a young woman tries to live her life according to the romantic notions she has gleaned from the romanticized, heroic stories she has been raised on?

    It seems to me that there is value in inspiring people to be the heroes of their own stories, to be sure. But I think there is also value in looking honestly at the way things are and at how people really live. Art has more than one function. Inspirational art is wonderful, but so is art that forces one to ask hard questions and to confront reality, however unpleasant it might be. Literary fiction aspires to tell the truth about the real world, or at least one person’s real world, however unpleasant the truth might be.

    Flaubert posits that trying to apply romantic, heroic notions to ordinary life without thinking things through results in tragedy. I have to say that I see people like Emma Bovary every day. The only real differences: 1. They expect their lives to be like their favorite TV shows rather than like their favorite romantic novels, and 2. They have credit cards they use to live above their means instead of cash and letters of credit, and 3. They resort to alcoholism, meth, crack, compulsive gambling, or other forms of self-destruction rather than fistfuls of arsenic.

    I think Flaubert actually makes a viable argument against heroic fiction. I don’t agree with him (I won’t explain why or this post will get REALLY long). Nonetheless, I value his book immensely because it made me really think about all sorts of issues. Art, idealism versus romanticism, love . . .all sorts of ideas.

    My point is not to defend Flaubert, but to say that literary fiction has it’s own great value. In the best of all worlds I think a reader reads both heroic fiction that inspires her and literary fiction that makes her think.

    Perhaps fiction…all art… is a bit like food for us. We should consume a balanced diet of art so that we stay healthy. A little literature, a little heroic fiction, a little non-fiction on the side.

    And for dessert? A small helping of Mary Sue, I suppose. :-)

  2. Sherwood Smithon 23 Jul 2006 at 1:51 pm

    Excellent comments about Flaubert, though i too came to the same conclusion about heroic literature. It was definitely a theme: Charlotte Lennox’s A Female Quixote addressed the same issues in what I think a more entertaining way in 1752 (though she doesn’t match Flaubert’s genuis for just the right detail of ordinary life) and of course Jane Austen had a whole lot of fun with it in Northanger Abbey. I think, though, I would have admired Flaubert’s tale more if he hadn’t copped to the expected “moral” (i.e. all women who stray have to die.) Austen, with Lydia Wickham, showed that, no, they don’t always suffer retribution in death, but can go on having to make the best of things for their foolish decisions in youth.

  3. Muneravenon 24 Jul 2006 at 11:12 am

    Sherwood Smith said “I would have admired Flaubert’s tale more if he hadn’t copped to the expected “moral” (i.e. all women who stray have to die.)”

    I always saw Emma’s death as in keeping with her character, though I do agree with you that having the woman who strays die at the end is a terrible cliche.

    A question about Mary Sue characters: Do you find they pop up in ALL genres? I think they pop up the most in fantasy and science fiction because those genres have the most fan fiction, ergo the most inexperienced writers who publish their work somewhere. But surely there are mystery Mary Sue’s and thriller Mary Sue’s. And there HAS to be a lot of Mary Sueism in the effiorts of beginning romance writers.

    Also…I shall not name names, but I recently read a popular science fiction novel where the main character is a handsome, tough ex boxer with a heart of gold and not a character flaw in sight who has women fall in love with him at first meeting. This was a book by a VERY established writer who headlines conventions. I was rather shocked that nobody was screaming “Mary Sue” about that book. Does it seem to you that the epithet “Mary Sue” is lobbed far more at female writers than at the guys?

  4. Sherwood Smithon 24 Jul 2006 at 11:18 am

    I have seen Mary Sues in all forms, but of course reviewers or critics call them something else. And that includes mainstream fiction.

    They seem to be easiest to put into romances, and at least as far as i can tell hardest in mysteries because the fans start carping abuot the “perfect” sleuth who solves everything way too easily. Unless of course the book is written with tremendous style. Holmes was the classic Mary Sue, but the tales were so stylish, who cared? The reader WANTS him to always be best, smartest, and so forth. Nick in Nick and Nora again, same thing. They don’t change–they begin perfect, they end perfect–but the reader comes to the stories for that very aspect.

    Men tend to present us male Mary Sues–the guy who wins fights but can jump in bed five minutes after with none of the aches or pains normal people would have, always looks great, women all want him, blah blah.

  5. James Engeon 24 Jul 2006 at 3:17 pm

    It seems to me that Holmes started as a character with some pretty explicit flaws, but he became Mary Sueier (if you know what I mean) the longer Conan Doyle write about him.

    Two Mary Sues created by male writers occurred to me when I read the original “Mary Sue” post. In sf: David Weber’s Honor Harrington. Outside of the genre(s) of sf/f: David Copperfield (the Dickens character, not the magician, although a case could be made for that guy’s stage persona being a Mary Sue).

    Harrington is unambiguously a Mary Sue; Copperfield might be more controversial. But it seems to me the pathology of the Mary Sue character is that the writer identifies with the hero so naively and so intensely that he/she distorts the fictional universe to the advantage of his character. If this is valid, I think Copperfield qualifies as a Mary Sue: Dickens clearly sees through his eyes in a way that he doesn’t through, say, Mr. Pickwick’s or Esther’s (from Bleak House).

    Mary Sue’s native heath is obviously the daydream, and there’s a lot of common ground between genre fiction and daydream.


  6. Sherwood Smithon 24 Jul 2006 at 3:21 pm

    Yes about Holmes becoming more of a Mary Sue.

    And definitely about Honor Harrington.

    Copperfield…i dunno, I see him as more of the standard 18th-19th C hero or heroine–they have to be morally irreproachable which enables the author to do more broad caricatures of less morally spotless people surrounding them.

  7. Katharine Kerron 24 Jul 2006 at 5:28 pm

    I saw Emma Bovary’s death in a very different light, thanks to the way her husband and his friend (can’t remember his name at the moment, it’s been years) stand chit-chatting at her bedside as she lies dying. It struck me that Flaubert’s making the point that a human life is being thrown away here like a dirty handkerchief (no kleenex in those times), not that Emma’s getting “what she deserved”. The entire book is a comment upon and against romantic fiction of the sort that drives Emma’s actions — why wouldn’t the ending be all of a piece with the rest of that comment?

    “How easy it is to die!” exclaims Emma right before she starts a long horrible death that’s not easy in the least. In a Romance with the Expected Ending, she would have coughed beautifully a couple of times and been gone. That’s what she’s expecting. It’s not what she gets. I read somewhere (years ago) that when Flaubert was writing that death scene he suffered from all the pains of the poison right along with her.

    IOW, he’s making a point, not copping out.

  8. Katharine Kerron 24 Jul 2006 at 5:50 pm

    What some call “literary” fiction is replete with hapless characters with no attractive qualities who are guaranteed to fumble through the story and out the other end having learned little, experienced only defeat, and end up in the void of pointlessness.

    Um, how about some examples? I hear this sort of thing over and over from the Very Defensive Genre Community, and mostly it’s not true. In some cases it certainly is. Ol’what’shizname in Saul Bellow’s SEIZE THE DAY comes instantly to mind, and the loathsome Rabbit in the John Updike series. But often we get characters, like in Tony Morrison’s work, who struggle mightily and are mighty attractive, too. If they are defeated in the end, the writer is making a comment on the world we live in — a comment, a critique, an analysis when the writing’s at its best, which needs to be made.

    Doestoevski, for instance, wrote about characters who may be “unattractive” but who learn deep lessons from their mistakes. Proust has a knack of creating someone who looks unattractive when first met but who redeems themselves by the end, and vice versa as well, as with the utterly shallow Duchesse. Iris Murdoch’s work is fully of quirky but intelligent people who learn a great deal in the course of the book.

    I love the genre version of heroic reads, and I write them myself, but I don’t see any reason to go around knocking literature. Besides, if you look at the truly heroic literature of the past, you get characters like Achilles, who is utterly misguided, the much more attractive Hector, who comes to a bad end in a losing cause, Aeneas, who gets dismissed as a wimp because he’s extremely religious, Roland, who dies heroically but dies nonentheless, the men of the Goddodin, who all die in a losing cause, and so on and so forth.

    True heroic literature is the grimmest of all. Its theme, even when nominally Christian, like Roland and the Gododdin, is that there is nothing in life that a man can hope for but a heroic death which, if he’s lucky, someone will remember. The hope of heaven is very distant in these works. When women appear at all, they are slaves, bad wives, or devoted wives who are doomed to be early widows (cf. Andromache.)

    Tolkien’s LotR touches on the truly heroic in his appendices, with the end of the story of Aragorn and Arwen, and perhaps Frodo’s trip to the Havens, but the books as a whole are too soft for the true heroic. Most genre is, and I especially include my own in this judgement. (Reincarnation as a theme, which I use, takes all the sting out of the heroic. )

    It’s really only literary fiction that offers hope of redemption and the eventual triumph of a life well-lived. Such triumphs are not easy to obtain, which is why a good many literary characters fail. But that doesn’t invalidate the striving.

  9. Sherwood Smithon 24 Jul 2006 at 5:56 pm

    I had Rabbit in mind when I mentioned it, also some of the short fiction we had handed out in class during the early seventies. Publications both tiny and supposedly presitgious, but that no one seemed to read.

    Like you, I love classical literature–the works that have endured the test of time for a reason. But the proliferation of pointless stories about drear did appear for a while, inspired by dadaism and some of the theatre of the absurdists, though I expect most of it is forgotten now, exactly as bad genre writing is forgotten. But I do remember the toilsome act of having to read it and write papers on its symbolism and existentialism, etc etc.

    Many of the Russians’ leads were heroes, the same way Winston Smith is: he loses in the end, but that doesn’t make his heroic struggle against the Big Brother monolith the less meaningful. Ditto the Russians.

    This opposed to, say, Andry Warhol’s “Sleep” which of course was a film, but I do recall it being used as a perfect example of what to strive for in realistic fiction. The guy we watch snoring for eight hours was a protagonist, not a hero.

  10. Katharine Kerron 24 Jul 2006 at 6:09 pm

    You know, every time we have these discussions whether online or at cons or wherever, the anti-lit’ry side always boils down to “in college I had to read things I didn’t like.”

    Um, wasn’t that a long time ago now? Could there have perhaps been a point to those reading lists that we were all too young to have appreciated at the time? I remember heartily disliking TO THE LIGHTHOUSE when I was 18, then rereading it in my 30s and realizing just how callow I was at 18. :-)

    What also strikes me about all these discussions is how we’ve turned into the reverse of those teachers we disliked so much. They knocked genre. We knock literature. So there, we seem to be saying, ours is better, not just different.

    Neither are “better”. Both have a place in the world of writing. It’s not going to make the academic community any fonder of genre writing for us to spit on literary fiction Just Because.

  11. Sherwood Smithon 24 Jul 2006 at 6:13 pm

    This is true. These days, though, I don’t have to finish anything I find falling into that pattern–or any of the patterns I don’t like. (This includes horror, which is genre, or surrealism, which spreads across the spectrum.)

    I probably shouldn’t mention the old stuff, except that I had to read it all the way through. I did try to reread an Updike a few years back to find if it had “wakened” for me like so many badly taught 19th century novels had (Silas Marner a case in point) but no, if anything it read worse to me.

    But without examples, you’re right, it does sound like smackdown.

  12. Katharine Kerron 24 Jul 2006 at 6:20 pm

    Andry Warhol’s “Sleep” which of course was a film, but I do recall it being used as a perfect example of what to strive for in realistic fiction.

    Who told you that? Warhol was a rebel and a druggie who saw his every thought as Very Important and who gathered a crowd of druggie sycophants to repeat the message. He could have been a success nowhere else but in New York City, which worships celebrity, even manufactured celebrity like Warhol’s. He called his workshop The Factory, you know. At his best he was putting on the entire art world; at his worse, he believed his own publicity. He was a visual artist, not a writer.

    Existentialism grew out of the post-traumatic stress of Europe after WWII, which started there in ’39, remember. With most of Western Europe a bombed-out mess for years after the peace was signed, it’s no wonder that a kind of heroic facing-up to Nothing seemed like a reasonable response to intellectuals there. Besides, considering what had just come down, the idea of Heroic Individual who could change things by his own actions alone was pretty damn laughable. In some ways, the existentialist novelists have more in common with heroic literature than genre does.

    How is this dismissable with a few sneers?

    We need to ask, in fact, if genre “heroes” are heroic at all. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that I stack the deck in their favor so they can succeed, rather than taking the deck as dealt, which is what literary fiction does.

  13. Sherwood Smithon 24 Jul 2006 at 7:10 pm

    Yep, our prof that one year wanted his classes to be The Factory west. I don’t remember his name, or the two others; I do remember that they felt that the novel was a dying form, and that what now is called flash fiction was the way of the future. Authentic writing, it was called–how that brings me back. anyway we had to study Warhold diligently. Plot was artificial, all messages must be relevant.

    Yes, existentialism in context was pretty horrifying. But early seventies classroom seemed disengaged from historical context. We did have to write a lot about the films of luis Bunuel, who came out of the thirties’ avante garde. The best book we read during that period was Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man but almost nothing was said about its being mapped onto the Orpheus journey underground, all our papers were on the symbolism and relevance to Nixon and Vietnam. Most of the other readings were tiny presses, stuff I long since threw out. The two best plays that we read were “Next” and “Adaptation” –but our writing models were to be fixed firmly on Camus, Ionesco, Genet, Beckett, etc.

  14. Erin Underwoodon 24 Jul 2006 at 7:41 pm


    You wrote:

    Neither are “better”. Both have a place in the world of writing. It’s not going to make the academic community any fonder of genre writing for us to spit on literary fiction Just Because.

    I really couldn’t agree more. This discussion comes up in my house from time to time because I am a struggling genre fiction writer and my husband is a Southern literature historian and an academic writing professor.

    One of the strongest arguments that I have found rests in works such as Frankenstein, Dracula, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan as well as the works of Edgar Allen Poe and any number of other writers whose works could fall on multiple shelves within a bookstore. These are all great works of literature and they are also great works of genre. There doesn’t need to be a distinction between genre and literature unless we choose to impose one.

    Truly, neither form is better. Literature consists of a variety of story types: historical, heroic, romance, suspense, horror, fantasy, etc. It makes no sense to cleave genre out of the literary fiction umbrella. I would argue that by doing so we risk reducing the quality and stature of genre stories.

    ….. and now I feel like I’m getting a bit too far off the topic of Mary Sue. Sorry about that.

  15. Katharine Kerron 24 Jul 2006 at 11:35 pm

    Well, Sherwood, that’s the fault of your professor, not of all literary fiction. I think that’s my point, assuming I have a valid one, that just because we all suffered through some really bad college courses, it doesn’t mean the subject matter was really bad. I had an awful prof for an Astronomy-for-humanities-people course, too, but I haven’t given up on astronomy. Why then do we always seem to blame literary fiction for the excesses in the way it was taught by some profs? (though not by others)

    . It makes no sense to cleave genre out of the literary fiction umbrella. I would argue that by doing so we risk reducing the quality and stature of genre stories

    Erin, I quite agree.

    Don’t worry about going “off topic”. This place was made for rambling . . . :-)

  16. Sherwood Smithon 25 Jul 2006 at 12:13 am

    Kit: I already agreed–I was answering the questions, not arguing. But you’re totally right. I misspoke totally. I should NOT be posting when it’s over ninety in here. My brain turns to spooge, and I get cranky and unfair.

  17. A.R.Yngveon 25 Jul 2006 at 7:13 am

    Someone mentioned that the “Mary Sue” accusation is used more often against female writers…

    Has anyone mentioned the most obvious male “Mary Sue” character in popular literature?

    James Bond.

    All women are nuts about him, he always saves the world, and he (almost) never changes.
    Maybe that’s why I now find that character so dead boring…

    I also want to make the case that Ender Wiggin (of the ENDER’S GAME novel) exhibits the typical “Mary Sue” traits — perfection from childhood, everyone’s attention is on him, he saves the world, is never proved wrong, appears to fulfil some childish daydream power-fantasy, etc. etc.

    Question: Is Columbo (of the COLUMBO TV series) a “Mary Sue” character?
    Sure, he never fails to crack a case, never changes… but he has to work hard on every case, he’s full of quirks, dresses like a bum …and drives an ugly, beat-up old car.

  18. Sherwood Smithon 25 Jul 2006 at 9:43 am

    Columbo I don’t think a Mary Sue as he;s not the cynosure of everyone’s eyes–and as you pointout, he works hard. Detectives in series do have to be able to crack the case. But while Bond does it with a flair and is perfect (as you rightly say) Columbo grubs, thinks, and frequently everyone thinks he’s an idiot.

    Ender is a genius, not a Mary Sue–his life, despite his rocketing to fame, is pretty miserable. And his own self doubts or tormenting. I don’t see him as a Mary Sue.

  19. makoiyion 25 Jul 2006 at 9:59 am

    The ‘rambling’ is just as interesting as the original post. So don’t stop it. I think it’s 90 degrees everywhere right now, so don’t worry about the heated brain, Sherwood. We are all suffering. Not writing related, but every time I think of that I think of our boys in Iraq and Afghanistan where temps frequently reach 50c, then I don’t feel so bad.

    For me this discussion brings out thoughts about ‘quality’ rather than a specific genre. I do know from my experiences on a workshop that, for me, writing spec fic has been difficult. One’s audience, especially in sci fi, is often very very astute, usually Uni educated, and don’t take no prisoners. As in fantasy, getting the setting right and not inventing electricity before its time etc, is one of the hardest things to achive. Forex, in my current wip I ‘invent’ a batlike creature. Nothing particularly unique in that, but if you knew the research I had to do on genomes… so that none of the scientists who read my story are going to laugh. Then I wanted to blow up Earth. Ha! You say, nothing unique in that, either. But do you know how difficult it is to really blow up a world? Or whether it’s even actually possible.

    That’s getting the background right, I know, it’s not mary-suism, but it’s craft, and without the craft a writer doesn’t have the confidence in her/his characters and plots. It takes craft to write literary, romance or a comic book, and, at the end of the day, it’s what the readers like, and that’s so individual. Like the prof who thought Warhol the best thing since spilt milk, and those who raved over Jonathan Strange when I couldn’t get past the first chapter. (It makes a nice chair prop tho). Someone once said to me, ‘I can’t read this story, Sue. I don’t like it.’ I wasn’t offended at all. I even smiled. There’s lots of things I don’t like, either. I even read the Da’vinci Code and thought, clever man. No matter what anyone says about it, either clever marketing or a universal appeal made it a best seller.

    The old classics, well, they were classics of their time and only a relatively small amount are still classics, and we grow and change. As our taste in food changes as we get older, so does our taste in literary masterpieces, and I include genre in that. I don’t ‘label’ a book or place in any niche other than – I enjoyed that.

  20. Charleson 25 Jul 2006 at 11:22 am

    One of my favorite characters in Fantasy is Thomas Covenant.

    After reading the Mary Sue articles here, it seems Donaldson created a Mary Sue in Covenant and then piled on every bad characteristic he could find on top of it.

    On the one hand, Covenant is definitely a Mary Sue:

    He has a power no one else has. He does not need to be trained to use his power. Donaldson accomplishes this by making Covenant the only one to have this power; hence there is no one able to train him. Also, while Covenant does not know how to use his power, in those instances where he must or die, his power appears.

    And everyone in the Land spends all of their time talking about him and trying to do things for him, and sacrificing themselves for him.

    That said, there is a second half to Covenant, which takes him beyond the Mary Sue.

    He is the most miserable bastard one could ever meet. And he does commit some vile acts of his own along the way. He’s selfish to the point where he initially decides that the Land and everything in it is merely his mind playing tricks on him. And he’s tormented by guilt stemming from his own inability to act and from the sacrifices others have been making for him. He’s sorely lacking in self-worth.

    And he suffers and changes as the story moves forward.

    Donaldson found a way to incorporate many of the Mary Sue elements into his story, though I feel he did so not because it was an easy out, but rather a device to really pile the pressure onto Covenant, to increase his burden.

  21. Sherwood Smithon 25 Jul 2006 at 11:29 am

    That’s a good observation. As pointed out above, good writers can indeed take this particular character type and do interesting things with it.

  22. Muneravenon 25 Jul 2006 at 12:47 pm

    Katherine Kerr said “Could there have perhaps been a point to those reading lists that we were all too young to have appreciated at the time? ”

    This is so very true!

    When I was in grad school I was assigned Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook.” In the introduction, Lessing herself says that, after giving a book a fair shake, if it doesn’t speak to you, you should shelve it and come back to it in a few years to see if it has something to say to you later. I thought that was very wise. And since “The Golden Notebook” didn’t speak to me then, it is sitting on my booksehelf, waiting for a second look.

    It wasn’t easy, at the time, explaining to my professor that I was simply respecting the author’s wishes by not reading the book, though. :-)

  23. Muneravenon 25 Jul 2006 at 1:02 pm

    LOL…Sherwood, I think sometimes slightly cranky posts made in hot weather just create little dust-devil -like discussions that wander around and are kind of fun.

    I truly had to read some awful literary fiction to get my graduate degree. I was okay with that, though, because it taught me what I did NOT want to do as a writer. Also I almost always got something good out of every book. I didn’t particularly enjoy Kathy Acker or Robert Coover or even Don Delillo, but it was interesting to learn why they wrote the way they did and what they were trying to do…or what they were reacting to. Post-modernism is not my cup of tea, but I am glad to know what it is.

    It’s like oysters: I’ve tried them, I didn’t like them, and now whenever someone tries to make me have some I can say with great authority “YUCK!” ;-D

  24. Sherwood Smithon 25 Jul 2006 at 1:25 pm

    I do like some of the people often named as post-modernists, although in many cases I like their essays more than their fiction. Nabokov is a great example. I love his essays, and while I can admire his fiction, I seldom am in the mood to read it.

  25. Katharine Kerron 25 Jul 2006 at 4:53 pm

    Sherwood, it’s been hot here too, and I have obviously not made it clear that I’m not aiming all these posts at you personally. These discussions have been going on for years and years, and I am frustrated by the way that Many Many Genre people trash what they call “lit’ry” fiction because they’re pissed off at some high school or college teacher. This flood of posts was my response to the on-going discussion are more than to anything you said.

    If I distressed you, my apologies. I know that you’ve read very widely and come by your opinions honestly.

    You are NOT the SF writer who once said that WUTHERING HEIGHTS was a “cop out” because Kathy should have just gotten counseling and become self-activated. Right. Back in the middle of the Victorian era in rural England. Then of course there’s Demi Moore’s version of THE SCARLET LETTER.

    I should have been more clear about the source of my frustrations. My apologies.

  26. Katharine Kerron 25 Jul 2006 at 4:58 pm

    Muneraven, I quite agree. One doesn’t have to like something to learn from it. I feel that way about caviar. Salted fish eggs. O joy. I know now I can go on wasting money of heaps of books rather than saving it for caviar. :-)

    The book I learned the most from in a negative way was IVANHOE. Do not pace medieval-theme novels as Scott did with IVANHOE. Got it!

  27. Sherwood Smithon 25 Jul 2006 at 5:10 pm

    Kit: phew! [I am trying to remember what it was like to wear clothing that was not stuck to me by runnels of sweat. It seems years, not a month, that this punishing weather has been going on]

    My own personal fave was the Regency Romance I read late in the seventies in which, on the first page, the young heroine refused to go to Almacks Hunting for an earl or a duke to marry did not actualize her personhood.

  28. Erin Underwoodon 25 Jul 2006 at 8:27 pm

    Sherwood, I completely sympathize with your weather woes. In Boston, if the weather isn’t steaming hot it’s throwing golf ball sized hail at us. I’ve never seen such a summer! I much prefer my native California wine country to the insanity of New England weather.

    Regarding literature, I took and Irish literature course last spring, which included reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. Although I now understand how that book had such an important impact on Western literature, I am not sure my brain will ever be the same. I found myself wanting to write in stream of consciousness for several weeks after that. It was, without a doubt, the most difficult book I have ever read.

  29. Sherwood Smithon 25 Jul 2006 at 8:31 pm

    Joyce can be a delicious pleasure when read with a group, especially if someone in the group can be the hypertext link, as it were. Then Joyce’s text unlocks flavor bursts of surprise. I love to listen to him read aloud, preferably by Irish voices. Ravishing.

    (I wish my French were anywhere near good enough to listen to Proust read aloud. I expect the experience would be equally ravishing.)

  30. Muneravenon 26 Jul 2006 at 12:00 pm

    Sherwood: I love Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.” It was a revelation to me that a postmodern novel could make me laugh out loud.

    Erin: I read Kerouac in college . . .”On the Road.” That book almost made me drop out of school. That whole Beat writers thing was hugely appealing to me and I just wanted to dress in black and take off across America with a typewriter, writing stream of consciousness stuff and seeing the world.

    I don’t think I’ve still quite gotten over it. :-)

    Sherwood and Katherine: I don’t know if you two ever wonder if this website is worth your time in terms of personal benefits. (I would wonder, lol.) I thought you’d like to know that I enjoy your posts here and so went looking for your books today. I’m looking forward to sampling your work. :-)

  31. Sherwood Smithon 26 Jul 2006 at 12:57 pm

    Pale Fire is definitely the Nabokov that appeals most, though it’s still on the edge of the books I reread.

    Thanks! (If you do read one of mine, i hope you enjoy it!)

  32. Erin Underwoodon 26 Jul 2006 at 1:55 pm

    Muneraven: This is a priceless image. I love it!

    That whole Beat writers thing was hugely appealing to me and I just wanted to dress in black and take off across America with a typewriter, writing stream of consciousness stuff and seeing the world.

    The professor who taught my Irish Lit class also organized a trip to Ireland (she does this with a different lit course every spring semester), which included visiting sites important to Yates, Synge, Heaney, O’Brien, Wilde, Joyce, etc. However, doing the truncated Ulysses Walk was the best! A close second was our Irish bus driver who quoted Yeats and others from memory while we drove around the countryside. The only problem is that now I want to go back to Ireland and pen my way through a novel while living along the Connemara coastline.

    I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading Sherwood’s work although I’ve got a copy of Inda on order from Amazon. I think I am Amazon’s biggest client! :-)

    I’ve been reading Katharine’s Deverry series for years and I’ve loved every book. Personally, I think her way of using the timeline is genius because it allows a reader to enter at any point in the story and not feel lost. Plus, it exemplifies the importance of the connection between the past, present, and future events. (If you do start in the middle, you should definitely go back to the first book. Otherwise you’ll miss some of the great story moments.) Over the years, I’ve been gifting the first few books of Kit’s series to my friends and nearly all of them continued reading the entire series. I have a feeling that you will really enjoy them too.

    I would also like to tell all of the DeepGenre authors that they are truly doing a wonderful service for new and struggling writers with this blog. I’ve learned more about writing here than I have learned in a long time. The shared experience and information that is posted by the DG authors and the DG community is invaluable, interesting, and downright fun to read. In addition, I think that they could cobble together a great book on “How to Write (literary) Genre Fiction.” I can see it now! They already have loads of content for chapters on Mary Sue, Hooking the Reader, Sample 13 Line Critiques, Vampires, Fantasy vs Science Fiction, Know Your Hovel, Genre Definitions, Conventions, etc…. :-)

    At the risk of getting carried away, I’ll end this post here. Cheers!

  33. Katharine Kerron 26 Jul 2006 at 6:56 pm

    Blushing furiously

    Anyone who likes my stuff will really lke Sherwood’s. I consider her the superior wordsmith.

  34. Sherwood Smithon 26 Jul 2006 at 7:19 pm

    …whereas i bow to Kit’s precedence in this matter.

    But if you are going to try our books–and Erin is right, you can start anywhere with Deverry–please do try Kate Elliott’s splendid Crown of Stars story arc.

    As well as all the works mentioned by the habitues of this salon.

  35. Molly Newmanon 26 Jul 2006 at 7:21 pm

    Does anyone else feel that perhaps genre fiction could benefit from a bit less heroism and a bit more… err… protagonism? “Mary Sue” or not, all the hell-bent-for-glory heroic types do get a bit wearying. I find it more interesting to read (and write) about characters who are thrown into situations not of their own making and who have to dig deep within themselves to find the wherewithal to survive.

    Fantasy, in particular, is so often about the Saving of the World or the Will of the Gods or some such lofty goal that the characters’ humanity tends to get steamrolled by the plot. Maybe that’s why I liked Jonathan Strange so much… the characters came alive; I couldn’t stop thinking about them; they were the literary equivalent of earworms. Bookworms?

  36. Sherwood Smithon 26 Jul 2006 at 8:29 pm

    An excellent suggestion–perhaps that is one of the things that “deep genre” writers are striving for in their work?

  37. Katharine Kerron 27 Jul 2006 at 4:01 pm

    Does anyone else feel that perhaps genre fiction could benefit from a bit less heroism and a bit more… err… protagonism?

    I certainly do. And to me that is indeed one of the marks of “deep genre”.

    Actually, please don’t start anywhere with Deverry. I planned it to be started at the beginning with DAGGERSPELL. There is a definite structure to the overall plan — it’s merely a Celtic one and rambles a bit. :-)

  38. Erin Underwoodon 27 Jul 2006 at 8:13 pm

    please don’t start anywhere with Deverry

    Kit, I apologize for this reference. I hope you weren’t too upset by it. It’s just that I started your series on The Bristling Wood because that was the Deverry book that was on the shelf at the time I was pillaging my local bookstore and it looked awfully interesting. But! I did go back and start from the beginning as soon as I was done with The Bristling Wood. :-)

  39. DeepGenre » Love Letterson 02 Sep 2006 at 5:46 am

    […] Some among us now and then may invest a character with a bit of wish fulfillment. I’m not immune to this urge, and at times I indulge it cautiously and with (I hope) restraint. At the extreme, this is called writing a “Mary Sue” story, a subject that has been discussed earlier on Deep Genre here and here by Sherwood. […]

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