Tag Archives: literature

Self vs Community: Where Does Art Come From?

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A friend of mine – code-named Artemis – is currently living in Japan. She recently had a conversation with Dr. Nick about Japanese culture, which he relayed to me and which I found so interesting that I went back to the source. This blog post is from both of us.

The conversation started with the idea that, unlike Western culture, Japanese society is wholly geared towards people behaving as members of a community rather than as individuals. This prompted me to ask the question “where does their art come from?”.

The Tale of Genji - reputedly the world's first 'modern' novel

The Tale of Genji – reputedly the world’s first ‘modern’ novel, dated early 11th Century

THE ARTIST

Everwalker: In the West, it’s a fundamental principle that creativity is an expression of self. Unique experiences of the world, presented from an individual’s need to express. If the very idea of individuality is distanced from a culture, what drives its artists to create and from what perspective can they frame their creations?

Artemis: Japanese art is less an expression of individuality and more an expression of oneself within tradition. The artist acknowledges and uses the traditional forms of style, plus that of the master who taught them, in order to create something new. It’s why there’s the stereotype of the apprentice having to wait years to pick up a paintbrush: this ensures they know exactly what to do and how to execute the style perfectly. The result is part of the whole history of that kind of art, and the artist is accountable to every other practitioner. saying ‘here’s what I belong to’. If the style is poorly executed it doesn`t just reflect badly on the artist, but on the master who taught them too, and the master is the one who will take responsibility for their apprentice`s mistakes.

Everwalker: So rather than saying ‘here’s what I think’, the artist is saying ‘here’s what I belong to’.

Artemis: There are some people credited with producing new things, closer to individuality, but they are almost always greatly respected masters in their traditional style before they can get away with that kind of blatant self-expression. The twist on this is that the Japanese tend to be better at developing variations on a theme, because they have this deep acknowledgement of history and traditional style. That knowledge enables them to give their own spin to old stories, creating a simultaneous feeling of familiarity and freshness – invaluable for drawing in an audience.

THE HERO

Everwalker: So if Japanese stories stem from the importance of community, what about the protagonist? Where does that leave the individual at the heart of it all? Such a difference in cultural approaches means a fundamental change to the heroic figure we recognise in the West.

Artemis: Japanese heroes are never alone. They might be the chosen one but they have supportive relationships with equally strong characters, and these are vital to their success. Heroes who become isolated in Japanese literature tend to fail or become evil. This is because they lack companions to provide advice, help and a conscience. The team succeeds together or fails together, but the hero without a team is only an individual, and thus destined to fail.

Everwalker: There is an element of this in Western storytelling, of course. From the Argonauts to the Fellowship of the Ring, our heroes have had back-up. But it’s not a given, and it’s extremely rare to find a party with no single clear lead. The only one that currently spring to mind is the Avengers (although that’s because they are a party of six protagonists being made to work together, and the tensions that result is a major feature of the first film).

I’m not going to fall into the trap of comparing the political values of the different cultures, but I do want to take a quick look at the philosophical things we could usefully learn. Modern Western society seems, on the whole, to have a real struggle with identity. By placing so much emphasis on the idea of the individual, it has lost a sense of communal identity. From that loss (and I’m theorising wildly here) comes a feeling of loneliness at the individual level. We are cut off from our communities because we no longer know who or what they are.

If we take our lessons from artistic rolemodels, perhaps it’s time to update our Western heroes with some traditional Japanese values.

You heard me, guys. Time to fit into society.

You heard me, guys. Time to fit into society. Good luck.

Genre Fiction vs Literary Fiction: A Professor’s View

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Last night I went to a university open day (well, evening, I guess) to see about doing an MA in Creative Writing. Pretty much all my writing technique is self-taught out of craft books and making mistakes. When I started work on my current novel project, which has a more ambitious narrative set-up than I’m used to, I ran pretty hard into the limit of my skills. So I figured it was about time I got me some proper learnin’.

The professor I spoke to was quite helpful, in a not-helpful kind of way. He explained that the course was only for literary fiction, which he defined as ‘books that fulfil no expectations and which demand their readers are intellectually or emotionally involved in telling the story’. Now, I totally take the point about expectations. There are certain things – nebulous, optional things – which genre readers assume will be in a SF&F book. But the idea that genre readers aren’t required to put in to the storytelling process? I actually found that pretty patronising.

He went on to say that literary fiction is about people – not good guys and bad guys, but flawed and realistic people. It’s true that SF&F hasn’t always been great at complex characterisation but it’s something the genre has definitely improved at over the last decade. Locke Lamora, FitzChivalry Farseer, Kvothe, Tyrion Lannister – these are all seriously flawed, complex, interesting characters. When I pointed out that genre can be a way to look at difficult issues without emotion blinding people (religion being an excellent example), he looked surprised at the idea. That was pretty much the point when I decided his course wasn’t for me.

But there was one final point he made, before I left. Literary fiction is the stuff that everyone holds in high regard… and nobody reads. One of his most successful pupils has just published her second book, and it’s won an impressive array of awards. It’s also sold less than 20,000 copies.

Sometimes I feel like genre fiction is regarded as the Cinderella of the literary world. But at least we have readers. Intelligent, emotionally involved, hungry readers who will buy our books and care about our stories, and create fanfiction of their own as a result. Sod the snootiness of the literary elite – the genre audience is the one worth writing for.

One Tale, Many Voices: using stories to build a community

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Following on from my guest post for Mr. Knighton, and the thing about creative ownership earlier this week, I wanted to explore the idea of communities based on storytelling a bit further. It is, after all, the fundamental reason that we tell stories – to communicate to an audience. So understanding how that works is an important foundation to storytelling in general.

The role of oral tradition

You too could be Brad Pitt

You too could be Brad Pitt

Before literacy was commonplace, storytelling was done via oral tradition. A bard (or whatever they called themselves at that time and place) spoke to an audience, passing on tales via listening and memory. It was a moment of communal gathering and shared experience, and that dates back a very long time indeed. For a recent example, though, the kids’ cargo cult in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is good.

The Homeric Epics were originally formed from aural traditions, with a specific underlying purpose relating to building a community spirit. At the time, the Greeks existed in independent city states that frequently warred between themselves. But a greater threat existed round the continent in the shape of the Persians – a unified empire with an ambitious king and an impressive army. By sharing stories of a similarly unified Greece who defeated a legendary Eastern opponent (in this case, Troy), it was hoped that a sense of a national community would be instilled despite the more recent history of inter-city wars.

Granted, that’s a fairly extreme example of using stories to build a sense of community, but it makes the point. A shared tradition of stories, told to a gathered audience, serves to strengthen the bonds between them.

Oral versus written history

As Western culture moved from oral to written tradition, storytelling began to move from a group activity to an individual one. It also began to segregate the audience by education and class. The sense of community that had been engendered by oral storytelling underwent a fundamental change. It also meant that story structure itself underwent a change.

Oral tradition has a number of significant traits which exist to help the narrator remember the entire tale. Repeated phrases, lists of names, stock scenes – these all were a standard feature of memorised stories. With written texts, however, none of that is strictly necessary and so the style of narration shifted. The focus now was on entertainment via words alone, rather than performance.

For a long time, it also meant that different types of stories were recorded. Given the segregation by class and education, texts catered to the tastes of those who could read and afford to buy the written word. Anything that was interesting only to poor communities – rather than rich individuals – was left unrecorded. So not only was oral tradition under siege, its replacement did nothing for those that it had primarily helped.

Communal storytelling today

Fear of the unknown, helplessness and loss of identity

Fear of the unknown, helplessness and loss of identity

We’re now, according to Walter Ong, in the age of secondary orality – a time in which oral storytelling is consciously reliant on written material. I’ve talked about this a little bit before when I covered the Gutenberg Parenthesis, but it’s important here because Tom Pettitt’s conclusion is all about the growing online community in which stories are told by secondary orality to a community that is no longer confined by geography. The community has, essentially, become worldwide (it’s also been called the global village and is a fairly hefty sociology subject).

…rapid communication with large groups of people in a speed that would resemble oral storytelling, without having to share the same physical space with your audience.   ~ Secondary Orality in Microblogging, Liliana Bounegrou

Because the stories being told are written they can be referred back to, cited and built upon. The Slender Man myth is the best modern example I know of a community-created and told story, developed through secondary orality. It links into key fears that are shared by a community, highlights them as a concern and binds the community together against those fears. We’ve almost come full circle.

As a roleplayer, of course, communal storytelling is a fairly major part of my life. I regularly get to see the power of stories bringing people together in a tight-knit community that relies on shared narrated experiences for bonding. I have to say that seeing it in action – all those lives and imaginations working together to create something communal – is actually quite powerful. The uninitiated might only see geeks in funny clothes waving rubber swords around but there’s a very real kind of magic going on beneath the surface.

That’s not all, folks

As evidenced by the littering of links, particularly in the last part, this is a huge subject and one which I’m not properly equipped to explore. I know almost nothing about sociology or anthropology, both of which are major factors in the function of storytelling. But it is something I find fascinating so, if any of you know more, please do share. I’d really like to learn.

Lessons from Lysistrata: Passivity in Modern Heroines

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What matters that I was born a woman, if I can cure your misfortunes? I pay my share of tolls and taxes, by giving men to the State. But you, you miserable greybeards, you contribute nothing to the public charges; on the contrary, you have wasted the treasure of our forefathers, as it was called, the treasure amassed in the days of the Persian Wars. You pay nothing at all in return; and into the bargain you endanger our lives and liberties by your mistakes. Have you one word to say for yourselves?   ~ Lysistrata, Aristophanes

You might be forgiven for assuming that, as gender equality has progressed, so too has the strength and dominant behaviour of our literary heroines. This ties a little into what I was talking about last week and, since then, I’ve done a bit of thinking on the subject. I’ve concluded that such an assumption is very frequently false, and Joss Whedon is awesome.

Classical Heroines

We think of the ancient civilisations as entirely male-dominated, with Cleopatra and Hatshepsut as blips on the general radar. From the literary perspective (this is not a history blog), that’s not the case. Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata; Sophocles wrote Antigone; Euripides wrote Medea – all three are incredibly strong female leads who take a stand against the patriarchal system and dominance of men in order to do what they believe is right.

In the mid-400s BC there were dominant women being portrayed in a public forum, and largely in a positive light. (Yes, Medea killed her children but until that point in the play she comes across as the wronged party.) The system was a patriarchy but these literary heroines were neither passive nor submissive within it. More importantly, it was the patriarchy which created these characters and enabled them to be publicized. It publicly informed society of the possibility of such a gender role, and an argument can be made to suggest it endorsed that behaviour.

Modern Heroines

Whilst gender equality has come a long way since then, we still live in a patriarchy and it naturally informs much of our unconscious thought. When I was discussing this subject with the raptor and a friend, we tried to come up with some modern equivalents for Lysistrata et al. I’m sorry to say that we weren’t able to come up with a very long list.

Bear in mind that what I’m looking for in these heroines is not just agency – it’s dominance. Katniss Everdeen is a strong character but she submits to the system. The revolution largely happens around her, in fact, and she is a symbol of it because she’s manipulated to be. Storm from X-Men is a strong character but she goes where she’s ordered and, frankly, isn’t that interesting when compared to the rest of the team. Phoenix has her powers repressed by Professor X and then manipulated by Magneto. Hermione Granger, whilst an excellent contender, is not a protagonist – she’s a foil for Harry. In the end we were only able to think of three names: Buffy Summers, Zoe Washburn and River Tam.

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Now, I really REALLY hope that we’re just having a mind-blank and missing out reams of names. But it worries me that three relatively well-read people can’t come up with better than this. Have we really not improved our popular literary portrayal of heroines in the last 2400 years, despite massive social reform and the evolution of storytelling? What does this say about what we, as a society, subconsciously expect of a woman’s role?

Commentators, tell me it ain’t so!

 

I Need A Hero: The Evolution of the Protagonist

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Brace yourselves, people. I’m going to try and get both philosophical and political.

Literary Development

220px-Heroesjourney.svgThe development of the lead figure that we recognise today as the ‘hero’ is quite well documented, at least in technical terms. Popular opinion puts it in Greece, when the conceits of tragic theatre moved from a declaimer plus chorus to the arrival of an actual character being portrayed on stage by an actor (traditionally said to be Thespis). Things developed from there, with Aeschylus including a second and then a third speaking character in the play, and lo – the idea of a protagonist was born.

Well, not quite. Yes, the word ‘protagonist’ is a Greek one and literally means ‘one who plays the first part’. But it didn’t start in the 6th Century BC. Way before then, people were writing tales with leading heroes in them – the eponymous figure in the Persian Epic of Gilgames, Rama in the Indian Ramayana, and all the wealth of Egyptian and Chinese mythology, to name just a few.

The idea of a hero – a central figure in the story – has been around for a very, very long time. In all that time, down the ages and in different cultures, how has he changed? Different times and people need different things from their heroes, and uphold very different values. By our modern lights, Gilgames was obnoxiously arrogant, Achilles was a brutal spoiled brat, Romeo was (let’s be honest) a bit of a moron, and Biggles was racist. Our ideas of what constitutes a hero have had to evolve with social development.

Political & Social Influence

That’s the reactive approach. What about the proactive, when the role of the protagonist has been deliberately altered to make a statement? Before the New Testament, the idea of the messiah included fiery invective and warrior-like leadership. Not something the Romans would have tolerated in the 1st Century AD – it would probably have led to genocide. Instead the population is presented with a very different kind of hero, one suited to the times. I’m not going to go into whether Jesus was a literary, historical or divine figure. The point is that the deliberate inversion of the expected role of the hero informed the behaviour of the populace, and thus shaped history.

The hero they need or the hero they deserve? Batman knew the difference.

The hero they need or the hero they deserve? Batman knew the difference.

Sometimes the protagonist represents the vox populi; sometimes it influences it. In the latter case, it’s almost always political. The smart politicians use them as a way in with the voters; the really smart ones use them to change society. This isn’t new. It isn’t even new to this side of the year 0 A.D. Achilles was used to make a point about acceptable behaviour in modern Greek society (the point basically boils down to ‘we’re not demi-gods any more, don’t be dicks’). Greek plays were used either by politicians to sway popular opinion, or against them to unseat them from power.

The protagonist is a powerful weapon. They are the figures we identify with, believe in and want to emulate. That brings me back to how they have naturally evolved, as what we believe in and identify with has changed. A hero in the Classical sword-fighting, city-state against city-state world is necessarily different to a hero in WW2, and both are different to modern-day heroism. Courage and patriotism are no longer the highest qualities it’s possible to possess – you need to include some multicultural sensitivity in there.

The Heroic Monomyth

In the 1920s and onwards, Carl Jung began building his concept of Jungian archetypes. This bought into the idea that heroes are instantly identifiable figures to the human psyche, but separated out different types. The differences were necessary to speak to subsections of the audience – different cultures, classes and so on. Different protagonists are needed for different stories. This separation seems pretty obvious to us now. So obvious, in fact, that we miss a fundamental underlying point.

The monomyth is a theory put forward by Joseph Campbell in 1949 (although he nicked the term from James Joyce). It postulates that the figure of the hero is so fundamental to human storytelling that it exists in a recognisably similar shape throughout multiple cultures, despite those cultures and the beliefs within them being vastly different.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of wonder: forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.   ~ Joseph Cambell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

The details change – they have to, in order for the audience to fully engage with the protagonist – but the central heroic figure always fulfils the same basic function. Why is that? What is it about our psyche that needs such a role presented to us over and over and over again, in a billion different ways? Because, despite the modernisation of the protagonist and the evolution of what heroism actually means, we’re still using the same monomythic figure.

Addressing Gender

If you pull my hair, I will bitch-slap you with this frying pan.

If you pull my hair, I will bitch-slap you with this frying pan.

This blog post has contained a statistically disproportionate level of ‘he’s. There’s been plenty of studies into the role of the hero, both literary and historical, but what about the heroine? How has the female protagonist evolved over time? There’s no question that she has. From being the passive prize in the tower, or reward for great deeds, she has very slowly grown to be an agent in her own right. Having started from such different origins, does she fulfil a fundamentally different role to that of the male protagonist? Or has she become the same figure but with different curves? How has the empowering of the literary woman either impacted or been used by politics? And how far behind her male counterpart does she still lag, if at all?

I don’t know the answers to those, but I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts.

There’s a ton more stuff to talk about on this subject but I reckon I’ve rambled on long enough for one post. Here’s a good place to start reading and maybe I’ll come back to the topic at a later date.

Inspiration & Religion in Fantasy

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imgThe Lions of Al-Rassan5

I read a lot. Obviously. All writers should read as much and as often as possible. I enjoy most books and then walk away, happy that such stories are in the world. Some books – the terrible ones that I read when I have no energy for brainwork – make me feel better about my own chances of success on the basis that, if this author can get work published then I can. A few make me despair over the abuse that people will subject innocent words and paper to. And then, very rarely, there are the diamond books. The lightbulbs that illuminate my mind, chain me down until the last page is turned and then send me running for the keyboard, knowing I can’t compete with them but wanting to try anyway.

I’ve just finished reading The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kaye.  Mr. Knighton has covered this book in several blog posts and I’m not going to repeat his critical analysis here. Instead, I’m going to tell you why it was important to me, and what it means for my own work.

Religion and what it makes people do has always fascinated me. I studied Theology at A-Level, despite being an atheist. Throughout history religion has been behind many of the most momentous actions, leading people to extremes of cruelty and grace, creativity and bloodshed. It fuels our stories and mythologies, music, art, technological development and politics. And, to me, it makes no sense. To quote the wonderfully irreverent film Dogma,

To me it says that following these faiths based on mythological figures ensures the destruction of one’s inner being. Organized religion destroys who we are by inhibiting our actions, by inhibiting our decisions out of fear of some intangible parent figure who shakes a finger at us from thousands of years ago and says, “Do it… do it and I’ll fuckin’ spank you.”

At the same time, before anyone gets up in arms, I have always been quietly and respectfully jealous of those who do have faith. There is something in people that needs to believe and I’ve often felt that those who are able to meet that need, to place such trust in something utterly abstract, are happier for it. It’s a thing I wish I could do and yet don’t understand how it can be done. Hence my fascination.

Corpus is, to some poor extent, an exploration of this. It looks at what faith and religion do to people, the differences between the two, and where it can lead. To explore such themes in the real world is usually highly charged – to do so in a fantasy setting with a made-up religion allows people to be less emotional about it. In my opinion this is one of the strengths of the fantasy genre. The Lions of Al-Rassan is about the growing tension between the faiths of the Kindath, the Asharite and the Jaddite. Or, as Gavriel Kaye makes minimal attempt to disguise, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Unlike most fantasy stories, there’s absolutely no indication of whether the faiths are founded in fact. There are no Greek-myth-type gods moving behind the scenes, vindicating the belief of their followers. This is politics and fanaticism, pure and simple. It is human will, not divine, which moves the pieces and it’s wonderfully written.

In Corpus, the protagonist is a believer who is confronted with the fact that her faith is based on a number of lies. She has to work through the ramifications of that, both for her own understanding of herself and for the way society has developed as a result of those lies, and what it might mean if they were exposed. She has to choose, first between faith and religion, and then between faith and social responsibility. But I forgot something crucial, because it is something I lack. The understanding that faith drives people to move mountains, and other illogical things. I have written the trappings of religion – the temples, the music, the liturgy – but I haven’t written the heart. Thanks to Al-Rassan, I have some newly illuminated work to do.

Endings: Sacrifice, Twist & Resonance

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I have trouble with endings. Coming up with the climactic finale is fine but ensuring there’s enough of a cool-down period after is an issue for me. Endings are second only to beginnings in their challenge. You need to wrap up all the plots and sub-plots, get the tension spike and aforementioned cool-down at the right pitch, and ensure you finish with ‘resonance’.

It’s the last impression, what psychologists call the recency effect. Your audience will judge your book largely by the feeling they have most recently, namely, the end. Leave a lasting impression and you will build a readership.   ~ Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell

You can basically have either a positive ending or a negative. Positive is when the protagonist achieves their goal and negative… well, yeah. Both are obviously perfectly acceptable, but will leave the book with a very different feel. There are those – including fairly prominent authors like William F Nolan – who think positive endings are better but, with respect to Mr. Nolan, I disagree. In Gone With The Wind Scarlett doesn’t get Ashley; in Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin, Fitz dies; in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, Sandoz is crippled, disgraced and hates God. These are all good books.

There’s also the positive ending with a negative aspect, and vice versa. This is more complex and therefore has the potential to be more powerful – it also has the potential to weaken or confuse things, so treat it carefully. Casablanca has the lead sacrificing his desire for the greater good (the war effort and the morality of marriage) and gaining a friend. He loses – a negative ending – but with a positive aspect that produced one of the most famous ending lines in cinema history. That aspect of sacrifice is a very important one. It’s a climax of the reader’s emotional engagement with the protagonist, really plucking the heartstrings. Scott Bell claims that this is because the theme of sacrifice is wired into our cultural consciousness, giving up selfish priorities for the sake of community. If the finale is a battle/action situation, the protagonist sacrifices his safety; if the finale is a moral quandary or choice (as with Casablanca), the protagonist sacrifices his goal.

The +ve with -ve aspect is NOT what counts as a twist ending. Twist endings are subversions of the plot, with things coming from the side unexpectedly. Scott Bell’s suggestion for coming up with twist endings is as follows:

As you get close to the end of your first draft, come up with ten alternative endings. Take the [best] four and deepen them a little bit. Finally, choose the one that seems to work best as a twist – not an alternative ending at all, but an added surprise. Figure out how to work that into your ending, and then go back into your novel and justify it.

M Night Shyamalan has done a lot of damage to the reputation of twist endings, despite the fact that I still think Unbreakable and The Village are awesome films. Twist endings have a higher than average potential to be weak or to piss off your reader – if you don’t seed the book with signposts that make the twist plausible the reader feels cheated, and if you make those signposts obvious then the twist will be spotted before it happens which makes the ending weak. On the other hand, if you can pull it off, you will definitely create resonance.

The language you use on the final page is crucial to creating resonance. One of the most common and effective methods is to echo an important phrase that’s cropped up earlier. It serves to tie the whole book together and is something that’s already emotionally weighted for the reader. Poetic license is also okay – this is a good place to indulge in a bit of purple prose, winding down the tension and action with beautiful words. The point is to achieve something that lingers in the reader’s mind long after they’ve put the book down, whether it’s a line of dialogue or an image or an emotion. This is what brings them back to your work, what makes them recommend you to others.

It’s easy to rush writing the ending. You’re so close to finishing that you just want to get there. But if you rush, your readers will feel rushed. They won’t get the time to breathe out and relax that’s so important to proper closure. Take your time. Take as much time as you took over the beginning.

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