“The Cool Stuff Theory” is a piece of thinking about reading and writing in general, put forth by author Steven Brust. Not many people are as familiar with Mr. Brust as I think should be, but, nonetheless, Brust’s theory on books is quite an effective one, which, as an avid reader myself, I quite agree with. But what is the Cool Stuff Theory, actually? Well, I’ll let Brust’s words do the talking:
“The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature is as follows: All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ‘em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ‘em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool.
The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.”
This theory pretty much holds true, at least in my experience.
I like Classical and Medieval history, and all the trappings of society that come with it. I love complex politics. I love senates, knights, clerical institutions, long-standing mercenary companies, and so forth. I also enjoy the technology of the period. The phalanx, the maniple, the jumbled, hectic nature of Medieval armies. I love the clothing, especially women’s clothing from the time.
Also armor, Medieval armor is especially, in my mind, one of the coolest things ever created.
I enjoy Roman and Medieval theories on medicine. I find emerging religions, and religious war, very intriguing. But, most importantly, I like exploring the idea of the singular ruler. Whether they be a king/queen, and emperor/empress, a powerful senatorial figure, or some other kind of person with great power, it never ceases to draw me in. I like to see the psychological effects of power, whether it be the “good man” turning into a conqueror, or the distasteful character becoming a great ruler simply because they have no qualms doing what they must. I also like magic, but more than just for the flashy powers. I like seeing the side-effects, cultural impact, and downsides of magic. Also, the weird and mysterious creatures that don’t dwell in our own world, like dragons, elves, dwarfs, unicorns, and all that jazz.
This interest translates into my choices of books perfectly. I’m a self-admitted Fantasy nut, with everything from “Dragonlance” to “A Song of Ice and Fire” to “Shadows of the Apt” (a highly-recommended read, in my mind). The time-period equivalents generally run the gauntlet from the 8th Century to the early Renaissance in Italy, and the technology keeps my interest. Lots of knights in not-so-shining armor, devious merchants, grizzled mercenary veterans of many conflicts and whatnot. Even my historical fiction choices are usually set during the Roman Republic/Empire. What takes up my more modern space usually consists of alternate history (Harry Turtledove’s books on the post-Civil War in which the Confederacy won are quite the page-turners), or Fantasy set during the modern day (Lilith Saintcrow is a guilty pleasure of mine…).
I also like strong women. This is usually one of my make-or-break categories for a book. If you have a woman running around who’s a pushover and really only serves as someone’s plaything: great! Just don’t pretend she’s something she’s not. If you have a woman who’s a powerful and confident (also competent) leader of nations, please don’t let me down by having her flip-flop between strength and being emotional beholden to what a good friend of mine once called “hysterical-vagina syndrome” (basically a spoiled thirteen-year-old princess in a fully-grown woman’s body, is what he’s saying…I think that’s what he’s saying at least). In other words, I like authors who treat women with the same dignity as the men in their books. Wide ranges of interests, emotions, and driving goals are acceptable, encouraged, and perfectly reasonable. I just hate when you get someone who is a powerful and professional figure in her role, but all of a sudden loses her mind, goes bananas, and throws caution to the wind to indulge in some strangely sexist and “gender-expected” passions (looking at you on this one, “Dragonlance”‘s Princess Laurana…)
I hate golden-boy chosen-one special-child characters. Don’t even get me started on those.
*cough* Harry Potter *cough*
In any case, books do serve as a vessel for whatever the author thinks is “cool”, and you can tell what kind of “cool” things an author likes once you get through two or three of their works. I think that’s why Glen Cook’s writing clicks with me so well. We seem to be on exactly the same page with our interests. He also shares my love of a world with an enormously long and realistically complex, complicated, and horribly muddled historical past. On the other hand, I cannot stand Suzanne Collins. “Catching Fire” has some of the laziest writing I’ve ever seen, and that’s coming from someone who actually read all of the “Twilight” books (your gasps and condolences are appreciated). Her characters also just annoy me. Our opinion of what is “cool” and “interesting” are just way too off base for me to agree that anything she puts out qualifies as either.
But, it all just comes down to personal opinion. Many people like many different things, especially different things from me. I’m part of a literary minority, for the most part. Proof of that is that no “Black Company” book has ever been a “best-selling” novel (at least not to my knowledge), because that is some really good stuff. Books I like win awards, but rarely ever find the “we want to make a show/movie about this” level (good on you, George Martin, good on you). And that’s okay. My brother likes stories that focus on personal relationships and that take place in the modern day, and that’s just as valid as “cool” as my love of Roman battlefield tactics.
I think writing stuff you think is “cool” is very important. If you’re emotionally invested in something to that degree, it’s probably what you’re going to want to write about. It’ll be inspired writing. Why should you’re audience care about senate politics when you yourself think that complex politics are boring and uninteresting? An author’s world is one that we create where the institutions and needs of the world reflect and emphasize what we want to mention and go into detail on. Most won’t try to shoehorn something in just because they think the book needs it even though the author has no interest in it whatsoever.
The moral of the story here, I think, is this: Read cool stuff, write cool stuff, and pass by what you don’t think is cool. That cool stuff is meant for someone else.