Also known as "the hummus essay". I wrote this as part of a list discussion about the relative merits of different kinds of stories, many years ago.
written March 19, 1999
Slash fiction is like a banquet. It's wonderful. A big, pot-luck banquet. There's everything from appetizers to mashed potatoes to curries to stews to green-bean casserole to peanut-butter sandwiches (apologies to the UK fen who just cringed <g>) to fifteen different kinds of pasta to cookies to cheesecake to soup to bread to couscous to smoked salmon to black forest cake to tuna salad to BLTs to.... you name it. Wonderful food. Some of the dishes are just basic, hearty comfort-food; others are exotic and heavily spiced; others are spiced so delicately you can't even tell why you're reacting to it the way you are, you just know it's wonderful; others are sweet and smooth and hit that sugar craving perfectly. People who come to this banquet are welcome to just wander around the table and eat, or to bring their own favorite dish (i.e., write a story and put it on the "table" for others to enjoy). And the way the banquet works is that when you come upon a dish, it's whole and pristine, and you can simply dig in and enjoy. The dish never runs out, and the next person to happen upon it also finds a whole and pristine dish that they can enjoy thoroughly. It's magic. But it's only ever perfectly fresh for you the first time you taste it; if the cook isn't very, very skilled, it's going to start getting stale as you go back for seconds and thirds and fourths, even though it stays fresh for people who've never tried it.
And for a long time, this banquet was sort of hidden away. People came, and enjoyed. Those who decided to contribute maybe started out on appetizers, but soon moved on to bringing other dishes as well. So the table kept expanding, as people kept adding more dishes. Some of the earlier dishes got pushed back into the shadows, but people remembered them, and talked about them, and newcomers eventually found their way back there to try them.
Then a while ago, the doors to the banquet hall were thrown open, and people at the banquet looked out and smiled and said, "hey, come on in and enjoy! And if any of you can cook, great! Bring your favorite dish, we'd love to try it. If not, feel free to just eat whatever you want -- we love having diners as well as cooks." And people came to the banquet and enjoyed. And a lot of them wanted to contribute, because they were having such a wonderful time. So they decided on an appetizer, but because they weren't really sure of their cooking ability yet, they went out and got a tub of store-bought lemon-garlic hummus and some pita bread, and that's what they brought. People were pleased; hummus is good! So there were all these little bowls of hummus, all with the exact same ingredients mixed in the exact same way, taking up more and more of the banquet table. And every time new people walked into the banquet hall, they'd see a table full of bowls of lemon-garlic hummus, and think "oh, it's a lemon-garlic hummus banquet! I can do that!" and they'd go buy the same hummus and put it in a bowl and put it on the table. But one of the problems with these bowls of hummus is that every person basically got to take just one triangle of pita bread and dip it, because the bowls were so small.
The banquet table kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger, but it was getting harder and harder to see the variety of things available, because of all those pretty much identical small bowls of lemon-garlic hummus.
Now, lemon-garlic hummus is wonderful stuff. And there are times when it's exactly what you want. But it's hard to eat lemon-garlic hummus for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and feel satisfied. You can feel full, but you probably won't feel satisfied. Especially at one bite a bowl -- and the very nature of this particular hummus made it go stale very quickly after that first bite. So people who were used to a varied banquet, with lots of different choices, started feeling unsatisfied with all the hummus, and said so. But people who were used to just being able to get at the hummus tried to hush them -- if you start complaining about hummus, people will stop bringing it! And then there will be nothing to eat! And because everyone was feeling full-but-slightly-unsatisfied, every time someone brought another bowl of hummus a great cheer went up -- maybe this would fill that final corner up, so the diners would be satisfied.
And all those people who brought store-bought identical hummus glowed with pleasure at their reception -- not surprisingly -- and vowed to keep buying the same thing. Why risk learning to make it yourself, to make something original -- or, god forbid, to make a different dish altogether -- when clearly people are overjoyed at the thought of the standard lemon-garlic hummus? Why even bother making a different kind of hummus?
And people who hadn't quite dared contribute yet looked at all those glowing people, and listened to the cheers, and decided that store-bought lemon-garlic hummus was the way to go, and determined to bring some to the banquet, so they'd get cheered, too.
So the banquet table starts growing at practically exponential rates, with an ever-increasing share of new dishes being small bowls of lemon-garlic hummus, because this cycle (new diner hears cheers and sees hummus; new diner-turned-cook brings hummus; new cook gets cheered; newer diner hears cheers and sees hummus) keeps building on itself, because those banquet-hall doors are still wide open, and word is travelling about the banquet.
And at some point the new diners realize there's more on the table than bowls of lemon-garlic hummus, and go off to investigate. The cook who spent huge amounts of time carefully judging the mix of tastes and textures and colors and presentation watches, pleased, as someone takes a few bites. Then gapes as the diner says, "but where's the lemon-garlic hummus? This is a hummus banquet!" It doesn't matter what's in the dish; it doesn't even matter that there's lemon and garlic in the dish. It doesn't taste like the hummus, so it's no good.
And the cook who brought a small dish (hummus-sized) of onion dip or tahini or caviar or pigs-in-a-blanket or sorbet or trifle watches people ignore her bowl, assuming that it must be more lemon-garlic hummus, because everything that size is lemon-garlic hummus.
And the cook who made her own lemon-garlic hummus watches people greet another 'cook' with the same enthusiasm, even though the other person's hummus was not only store-bought, but was left on the counter for a week and still has plastic wrap on the top of it, so people have to dig down through the plastic to get to the bad hummus. And she starts to wonder why she bothered to make hers by hand, if week-old spoiled hummus is just as popular. And to think that it certainly wouldn't be worth learning to make anything more complicated.
And the cook who started out with store-bought lemon-garlic hummus, and then tried homemade hummus, and then started making all sorts of different things, one day decides to bring some soup. She grows herbs in a kitchen garden, and boils bones for stock, and carefully chooses just the right vegetables -- picking them because of their taste and their color and their texture -- and over the course of several days of this, makes a wonderful soup. She seasons it delicately with her home-grown fresh-picked herbs, simmers it just long enough, and has several friends over to taste it at various stages to make sure it's going okay, and when it's finally ready, she brings it to the banquet. And people cheer, and tell her what a wonderful cook she is, and she glows. And then the door opens again, and another cook walks in. This cook had originally joined the banquet as the same time as the soup cook, and the soup cook smiles in anticipation, waiting to see the new dish. And the crowd cheers, and tells the other cook what a great cook she is -- and the soup cook looks into the newcomer's bowl, to see store-bought lemon-garlic hummus. And she looks around at the crowd, and realizes that to them, her days and days and days of painstaking effort and care are the equivalent of a stroll down to the corner market on a sunny day to pick up a tub of lemon-garlic hummus. And she wonders why in god's name she even bothered.
So with every cycle, we wind up with more and more identical hummus on the table. There are already other dishes, true, and people are still bringing other dishes, but it's getting to the point where no one dares to say that stew or lasagne or a peanut-butter sandwich makes a better dinner than a bite of store-bought lemon-garlic hummus. Because if you say that, 'cooks' might get ticked off and stop bringing said hummus -- and we can't allow that to happen, because so many diners are afraid that without hummus there'd be nothing to eat. And no one stops to think that the people who are making the other dishes, the meals, are getting discouraged about putting in any effort, because it seems that no one cares about anything except store-bought lemon-garlic hummus. And no one stops to notice that diners are left hungry all the time, that they're starving in the midst of plenty because you just can't live on lemon-garlic hummus.
Lemon-garlic hummus is really really good. But I don't want to live on it. And if I'm going to eat it, I think homemade is better than store-bought. And I honestly think that the banquet would be better with less identical hummus on the table -- with more diners and fewer incompetent cooks. I'd like to be able to get at the wonderful homemade dishes lurking around, without having to go through all the identical appetizers. I'd like it if the good cooks didn't get discouraged by all the people cheering on people who bring spoiled hummus. I'd like the people who bring store-bought hummus to think of it as an appetizer, and to try their hands at real cooking -- or at least at making their own hummus, or onion dip, or tahini.
Why is that a terrible thing to say???
Why is it awful to say I'd rather read a carefully crafted story than one that was typed up as fast as possible with no real thought involved? Why is it so bad to admit that I don't want to read a story that the author herself didn't care enough about to re-read for glaring typos? (I'm not even talking spelling errors here; I'm talking about things like words that got run together because she didn't hit the space bar hard enough or something.) Why is it so terrible to say that I get tired of reading the same short derivative sex scene over and over and over again?
I am not saying, "if you can't write a 300k perfectly crafted piece of poetry in prose, don't write". I'm not even saying, "if you can't be bothered to care about your story, don't post it". Write whatever you want, post whatever you want.
Let me repeat that. Write whatever you want. Post whatever you want.
I'm saying, "I don't want to read stories that don't meet my criteria for stories I want to read." I'm saying, "I wish there were more stories that met my criteria; these are my most basic criteria."
I'm saying that I prefer hummus to be an appetizer, and that I don't want it to be my only sustenance. I'm saying that I prefer hummus to not be spoiled when I eat it.
If people are offended by the fact that I don't like every story that has ever been written, my apologies. If people are offended by the fact that I can spell and have a solid grasp of grammar and prefer stories that have decent spelling and grammar, my apologies. If people are offended that I have an opinion that doesn't match theirs, my apologies. If people are offended that I believe some people write better than other people, my apologies. If people are offended that I have certain basic criteria for stories that I want to read, and that I'm willing to say that out loud, my apologies.
But I'd still rather have hummus for an appetizer and homemade stew for dinner. And if I'm going to have hummus for an appetizer, I'd rather have good hummus.
So, my apologies.