The EngLit gaze

• April 16th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Story-telling

Many years ago, I went through a phase of writing down all my dreams.  I quickly got much better at remembering them, to the point where writing down a night’s dreams could take an hour or more and was becoming quite a chore.   And then a weird thing happened: I began to dream about writing down my dreams.   After a long and complicated dream, I would write it down, feel relieved that the chore was done, and then wake to find that not only did I have to write down the initial dream, but the bit about writing it down as well.   The act of writing about the dreams, I realised, had changed the character of the dreams themselves, and I abandoned the  project.

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In this short article, I included the following quote from a book review by Rachel Cusk:

How does the novel become new again? One way is by its movement into fields of life not yet documented.

I’ve not read any of Rachel Cusk’s books, or anything by Jonathan Lethem who she was reviewing, but when I read this I was immediately struck by her notion that the purpose of a novel was to ‘document’ areas of life.  It seemed to me an odd word and an odd conception of the function of fiction, and yet I felt I’d seen the same idea expressed in various ways many times before.  And the more I thought about it, the more it struck me what a recent conception of literature that is.  As I said in the article, it’s difficult to imagine that Shakespeare was trying to document anything, for instance.

Since writing the article, I’ve asked myself another question.  Document for whom?   Who is that looks at novels and works of literature as documentary records of their times?  And the answer, it seemed to me, was academic students of literature.   Of course if you study Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, or Virginia Woolf as an academic exercise, you inevitably read their work as, in part, a record of the times in which they were written, whether or not written with that intention.

EngLit as an academic subject is relatively recent, but many writers now, and particularly writers who aspire to write literature, have themselves studied it.   Even if they haven’t studied it, writers who want to be admired and taken seriously are surely aware of its gaze, aware that in the long run, literature academics are often the ones who determine which works continue to be read and contine to be seen as important.   And perhaps that makes ambitious writers crave the  approval of that particular set of eyes? ‘If those people want to read works of literature as documentary records,’ they perhaps at some level think, ‘then documentary records are what we must write.’

Or it might equally be: ‘If stylistic intervention is what impresses them, then stylistic innovation is what I’ll give them’.   My point here isn’t so much about the specific notion of literature as contemporary record, as about the way in which (as with my dreams) external observation of a process alters the character of the process itself.   Literary academics enjoy intertextuality, for instance (the way one text refers to, and plays with, other texts), and I’ve certainly come across works of fiction that played with intertextuality in such an arch and knowing way that it reminded me of a child trying to impress grown ups.

My hunch is, though, that in the long-run, the great books – the ones that students of literature end up finding interesting in the future – actually won’t turn out to be the ones that played too much to that particular gallery.   After all, whether intentionally or not, any book is a document of its times and any book includes resonances, shadows and borrowings from other works, so, with or without self-conscious gallery-playing, there will always be things for the literary studies people to explore.  And the great books of the past were written without having to consider that particular gaze.

“An academic-led literature is a gentrified suburb,” wrote the Australian poet, Les Murray, and I’m inclined to agree with him.   Gentrified suburbs tend to be pretty and nice to live in, but, with their self-consciousness, their inhibitions, their niggling social anxiety, no one would call them the most exciting places on Earth.

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Some thoughts on world-building

• April 2nd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Story-telling

Some thoughts on world-building here (guest post on Suvudu site).

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Dreams and stories

• February 22nd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Story-telling

A story written in a dream is one thing, but of course dreams themselves are stories, protypical stories that everyone weaves for themselves in the night, whether or not they think of themselves as story tellers.

Like good stories dreams are constructed of disparate elements and have many layers, bringing things together that in the ‘real’ world may not seem close, but which are connected in some way at the level of meaning.  And in dreams, as in stories, things of the mind may transformed into tangible objects out there in the world.   Once I spent a day walking in woods with a friend, during which I pretended to carefree, though all the time a big secret was burdening my mind.  As I sank into sleep that night I found myself back in the woods, and saw a brontosaurus tiptoeing delicately through the trees: the abstract ideas of bigness and secrecy succinctly captured in concrete form.

Of course, like stories, dreams often come from places which we are not consciously aware of.   Freud saw them as rising from the unconscious, and being manifestations of our forbidden desires.    I only partly buy that.   Yes they can be manifestations of desires, but in my experience dreams can also be wiser and less driven than my waking self.  Sometimes in dreams, what seem alluring temptations when I’m awake, are revealed to be drab and tawdry.  And often dreams make things clear to me that I find confusing or overwhelming in waking life.  That tiptoing brontosaurus was not a symbol of desire, but a succinct summing up of what, in essence, that day had been.

I think in waking life, time and literal space can overly dominate our thinking.  We see things stretched out across time, scattered across space, and imagine that this matrix – this grid – defines their true relationship.   But I think there’s a level of the mind that isn’t fooled by this.   It works in an entirely different kind of space, that you might call the space of likeness.   (After all, even in waking life we use the language of literal space to describe relations of likeness and difference.)

All the while, as parts of our brain beaver away at understanding causal connections within the matrix of space and time, other parts of our brain are weaving this entirely different kind of space constructed of metaphors, similes and associations.  It’s a space that disregards proximity, category, causality and scale, and it’s a big source of invention, intuition and lateral thinking.  Dreams are the purest manifestation of that alternative space, but all good stories dip into it too.  So useful is dreaming, in so many ways, that we’ve found a way of doing it in waking life.

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Dream stories

• February 21st, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Story-telling

I often have dreams in which I find new things in familiar places or unearth new events in my past. I discover an extra room in my house which I’d forgotten was there, for instance, or recall a place I once stayed where I was exceptionally happy and at home.  In the real world, I’ve kept goldfish for most of my life – why I’m not sure, but in my dreams goldfish seem to stand for plenty and abundance – and I quite often dream of fishponds that I’d forgotten I had.  These are all delicious dreams and, even when I’ve woken from them and realised that the room, or the fishpond, or the event in the past isn’t actually real, I still feel comforted.

One dream of this type that I have from time to time involves stories that I’d forgotten I’d written. It might be a short story published in some obscure magazine which has gone out of print, or a book published by a small press that’s no longer trading, but whatever narrative the dream supplies, I remember the existence of a additional story, over and above the ones I already knew about. For me my books and stories are, like my goldfish, reassuring signs of abundance and fecundity, so the discovery of stories I’d forgotten I’d written is a deeply satisfying thing.

I can never recall the stories themselves when I wake up, but I’m left with tantalising glimpses of what they were like. They’re not science fiction or fantasy, but nor are they shackled by realism and its tedious need to reproduce quotidian life. (These stories exist after all, only in dreams, and dreams disdain realism). There is just a hint in them of Arthurian romance, but by that I don’t mean that there are knights in armour in them, or archaisms, or damsels in distress. I’m just referring to the sense I took from those stories as a child of a forest, a matrix, through which a traveller could move and encounter events which aren’t linked together in a single narrative stream. I get the same sense sometimes from stained glass windows, where different stories, or different episodes of the same story, can take place simultaneously, as if in a place outside time.

My dream stories do not have plots. They aren’t dramatic. There are events in them, or at least encounters and scenes, but they manage to work, somehow, without that tiresome need to bring everything together at the end, which so often diminishes or trivialises what has gone before.  The elements in them, in other words, are not parts of a machine. They make satisfying wholes, like paintings do, rather than coming to satisfying conclusions. Stuff happens, and that is enough. The lighting is subdued and shadowy, without being glum.

I’d be curious to know if other writers have these dream stories (as opposed to dreams which become stories, which is another whole thing!)

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Writing about Eden

• January 11th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Story-telling

People who read Dark Eden usually comment on the language.  I included some (actually quite small small) variations from modern English by way of acknowledging the fact that language would develop differently in a community that had been isolated for that length of time: adjectives are doubled up for emphasis rather than using ‘very’, the direct article is quite often dropped…   Some people really like this, some tolerate it and some hate it, finding it maddening and childish.   (It’s meant to sound a bit childish, by the way: my idea was that the first generation on Eden would have slipped into baby talk a little, when there were only two adults in the world, just as young parents tend to slip into baby talk during the phase of life when they are preoccupied with small children.  In Eden there would be no adult world to provide a corrective.)

As I rework my second Eden novel (Mother of Eden), though, the thing about the language of Eden folk that I find most challenging is the fact that almost their only reference points are, naturally enough, inside their own world.   This creates two difficulties.  The first one is that, if we are describing an unfamiliar environment, we normally do it by the use of metaphors and similes with things we already know.   If I was describing the forest of Eden from the point of view of a visitor from Earth, for instance, I might say it bore a certain resemblance to a terrestrial forest at night that had been hung with Chinese lanterns.   But, apart from stories of Earth to which they sometimes refer (when I think I can get away with it without stretching plausibility too far!), Eden people have only Eden itself to use as a source of metaphors and similes. I have to try and describe something that is unfamiliar to the reader, either by reference to very basic things like fire and rock that exist on both Earth and Eden, or by reference to other things that are themselves unfamiliar to the reader.  It’s quite a restriction to work with, though a common one of course, both in SF and in historical fiction.

The second difficulty is that Eden people would not have retained words for which they had no use.  In Dark Eden, for instance, when John and his followers come to an ocean, they no longer have the words ‘ocean’ or ‘sea’ because the people of Eden have been living for generations in a valley surrounded by mountains.  The nearest thing they still have is the word ‘pool’ so they call their ocean ‘Worldpool’.

When the story shifts to Worldpool itself (as it does in Mother of Eden), I also have to do without words like ‘coast’, ‘bay’, ‘island’, ‘inlet’, and to find some way of referring to these things which is plausible and not too cumbersome.  Even the word ‘land’, it seemed to me, would no longer be available, because why would you ever refer to land if there was no sea?  The nearest Eden English gets to ‘land’ is ‘ground’ and this is the word they  use.

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Gravity

• December 20th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, Story-telling

Film Review GravityI see so many films and read so many books that don’t really touch me and leave no lasting trace at all, but this film really got into me.  For a long time afterwards, I kept coming back to it, turning it over in my mind.  (There’s a clip here if you didn’t see it.)

It’s a pretty rare thing, actually: a satisfying work of art.

But what was so good about it?   The effects of course are wonderful, and space is of course the obvious subject matter for a 3D film, but the plot is almost laughably simple, and, in spite of the realism of those effects, it does require you to accept some fairly chunky implausibilities.   So what made this film so special?

I think the secret lay in what in itself was a very simple and commonplace story-telling move.  Quite early on it’s established the main, and soon to be sole, protagonist, played by Sandra Bullock, has suffered a devastating loss: her own child, dead at the age of four in a freak playground accident.   This isn’t laboured particularly, but the events of the movie provide such a perfect parallel with that experience that it doesn’t have to be.  A shower of debris that no one could have expected suddenly arrives, and the space shuttle which up to now has been an island of air and warmth becomes as empty and barren as the void outside.  The only hope lies in abandoning it altogether and venturing out across the emptiness.

3D movies achieve the illusion of depth by presenting the same scene from two slightly different angles, and story-telling works like that as well.   You need more than one angle if the thing is to come alive.   Here, the story in front of us and its amazing imagery combine with the story of the woman’s past to create a really wonderful meditation on the precariousness of existence.

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The Darwinian evolution of true stories

• October 7th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, Story-telling

I very much enjoyed the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man.  It’s about a Detroit singer-songwriter called called Sixto Rodriguez who records a couple of albums which fail to sell, and moves onto other things, completely unaware that within a strange cultural bubble on another continent, young white liberalish apartheid-era South Africans have come to regard him as an iconic musical figure.

Within that bubble everyone has his records, everyone plays his music at parties, everyone knows his name, and, just as he is unaware of them, they themselves are unaware that their enthusiasm is a purely local thing and assume that he is up there with Bob Dylan, James Taylor or Joni Mitchell.   As to why he only made two records, his South African fans  believe that he committed suicide in a very spectacular way, in front of a concert audience.

Assuming it’s true that he really had no idea of his South African following, Rodriguez must have been badly ripped off.   I sometimes find out that my stories have been translated and printed without my permission in various small magazines, and that’s annoying, but I’d be very angry indeed if I discovered that my actual books were selling well in a country where I didn’t even know they’d been published.   Rodriguez, however, came over as untroubled by this side of things and seemed unwilling to express any regret at all about the life that he’d actually lived, not as a famous musician but a worker in the construction industry.

When finally put in touch with his South African fans, he was clearly pleased to have large audiences filling up concert halls for him across South Africa, but what came over was pleasure that people wanted to listen to him, rather than excitement at stardom and fame.   As a writer I know that need to be heard – I think it’s quite distinct from the  desire to be lauded – and I found this part of the film extremely moving.

But I found it interesting too to think about what this movie told us, partly intentionally and partly not, about how ‘true stories’ are made.   One ‘true story’, the lurid story about Rodrigues’ on-stage suicide, was clearly completely false – the man is alive to this day – but why did it gain currency in the first place?  A Darwinian process must surely occur in which many rumours are generated and a few take root and become accepted as true when they meet some kind of need – in this case a need to resolve a puzzle – rather as some new variant of finch might find itself occupying some as-yet unfilled niche.

The other ‘true story’ is the film itself.  I see (from Wikipedia, which will probably prevent  a story quite like this from ever happening again) that some quite important facts were missed out of it.  Rodriguez was actually also popular in Australia and he did two tours of the country in 1979 and 1981.  I can see why this wasn’t included.  Something must be left out in order to make a 2 hour movie out of a life, and to fit that life into some more universal story (in this case the one where we imagine we are alone and then find we are loved and cared about) which a movie audience will enjoy and relate to.

But justifiable though it may be, its ommission represents another manifestation of the same Darwinian process whereby stories are shaped and changed to meet the needs of their listeners and their tellers.

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Dis wata de col col

• September 30th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, Story-telling

A while ago on the radio I heard a speech by the President of Sierra Leone, announcing the end of civil war.  He began the speech in English:

‘The war is over!’

And then he said the same thing in Krio, the English-based creole which is the country’s lingua franca.

‘Wah done gone!’*

Every part of the English-speaking world has its own version of English, but in most cases these haven’t  diverged from one another so much as to become actual separate languages.   On the contrary, the prestige and utility of Standard English, with its stabilised grammar and spelling, mean that the various regional versions of the language tend to converge towards the standard form rather than flow away from it.   This has happened with the regional dialects of England, and it may well happen in Sierra Leone too.  A standardised official language is like a deep channel dug through a river delta where the waters have broken up into many small streams.

But if the channel silts up, or access to it is lost, then new streams form.  Under the Romans, Latin was a deep channel across a wide swathe of Europe, in many places completely replacing the indigenous languages.  But after the empire broke up, so did the language, splintering into countless Romance tongues, a few which became new national languages.

As the world is at the moment, I guess this sort of divergence is only likely to happen with English in a place  like Sierra Leone, where literacy and exposure to Standard English would have been comparatively low while Krio was evolving.   But it could happen in the future in any part of the English-speaking world, whether as a result of limited exposure to the main English-speaking community, a reduction in the prestige of the parent language, or a need for a separate language for purposes of group identity.  If you listen to Krio being spoken it’s a fascinating glimpse of the kinds of language that would emerge: still recognisable as part of the same family and still partly comprensible, but no more similar to standard English than Romance languages are to one another.

The complete isolation of the people in Dark Eden and their very limited literacy would have undoubtedly have resulted in their language diverging from Standard English.  (Their isolation is obviously far greater than that of Krio-speakers in Sierra Leone.  On the other hand, Standard English was spoken by their forebears, which is not the case with creole languages).

I tried to give a small sense of this divergence with the small variations in grammar and vocabulary that everyone notices in the book.  One of the drivers for this divergence, I thought, would be the  fact that, at the beginning, the population would have consisted of two parents and their children, which I felt would result in simplified childish forms becoming established, without a wider adult world to ‘correct’ them.  (In a similar kind of way, Afrikaans is thought to have evolved a grammar that is radically simpler than that of its parent language, when Dutch settlers found themselves speaking on a daily basis to servants and slaves with only a limited understanding of Dutch.)

Rather pleasingly, I’ve since found that the most obvious distinguishing feature of Eden English is actually present in at least one variant of English found on the planet Earth:

It is common in Guyanese Creole to repeat adjectives for emphasis (as if saying, very or extremely). For example, “Dis wata de col col” translates into “This water is very cold”. “Come now now” translates into “Come right now.”

(Wikipedia entry on Guyanese Creole.)

*This probably isn’t the correct spelling.

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On being boycotted

• July 28th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, Story-telling

A reader (John) disliked my recent post about the Trayvon Martin case, saying that my summaries are missing some key points.  ‘Ugh,’ he begins!  He says he enjoyed Dark Eden but doubts if he’ll read any of my other books, and he advises me to keep my opinions to myself:

I have never understand why athletes, public figures and those that depend on the support of a broad audience interject their political/cultural opinions into the public arena.  They just anger 50% of people who may otherwise purchase their product.

Two things about this I found a bit depressing.

Firstly, the idea that I should conceal my views on politics and culture in order to get people to ‘purchase my product’, particularly since my ‘product’ itself deals with politics and culture.  I find that a bit ‘ugh.’

Secondly, the idea that we should avoid the work of writers whose political or cultural views we disagree with.  A book that hugely impressed me when I first read it as a teenager was Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the book about a libertarian lunar society whose motto was TANSTAAFL (There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch).  I didn’t agree then, and I don’t now, with Heinlein’s Tea Partyish politics, but it didn’t stop me appreciating, and wanting to emulate, the brilliance of the world-building.

One of the first accolades I received for Dark Eden was the book being selected as the ‘Big Read’ for the Greenbelt festival, and being asked to go there and give a talk about it.  This is a Christian festival, and I made no secret of the fact that I am not a Christian, but people were still interested in what I had to say about the Eden story, even though it obviously meant very different things to them than it does to me.  And God bless them for it!

*   *   *

In fairness to John, though, when I look back at my post, I can see it is unbalanced.   Clearly there was some kind of fight or scuffle between Trayvon and the man who shot him, and I can see that, given the bizarre context of a country where it is okay to carry a gun, it is possible to argue that self-defence was a factor in the shooting.

But why not also, then, in the case of Marissa Alexander, who fired a shot which didn’t even hit anyone?  Of course I don’t know the detail of the cases, but I find it hard to imagine any additional detail that would justify a twenty year sentence in the latter case, if a complete acquittal was justified in the former.

There are many studies that show how, in predominantly white societies, the behaviour of black people is much more negatively connoted than the same behaviour by white people.  Look at this video which compares the reactions of passers-by to a young white man who appears to be stealing a bike, and then to a young black man doing exactly the same.

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Dark Eden’s gender politics

• July 1st, 2013 • Posted in All posts, Story-telling

One of the more controversial aspects of Dark Eden has been its gender politics.  See Niall Harrison here, and Abigail Nussbaum here.

I’ve put down a few thoughts about this here, in reply to a query from a reader, Amanda.  Thanks Amanda for prompting this.

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