Words I don’t like #2

There are some words that I think of as typical creative writing words and have never liked. Words that, to me, say, ‘Hey look at me, I’m writing!’ I’ve never liked the word ‘heft’, for instance, as in ‘he felt the heft of it in his hand.’  It means ‘weight’ doesn’t it?  Why not just say ‘weight’?  No one says ‘heft’ in ordinary speech.

Another one, very unfairly, is ‘grin’, used as a more interesting alternative to ‘smile’.  A perfectly ordinary word, I know, and I do choose it occasionally if I find I’ve used ‘smile’ too often, but I really don’t like it and put ‘smile’ wherever possible.  ‘Grin’ feels to me, for some reason, like one of those words you fall back on in desperation when you’re trying to bring alive a character on the page who doesn’t even feel alive in your head.

What SF is good for

There is a lovely review of Mother of Eden here.   The reviewer, Kevin Elliot, writes ‘”Mother of Eden” is a prime example of how science fiction can handle issues which might pose problems for other genres.’

Well, I’m not the one to say whether Mother of Eden is a prime example of that or not, but I completely agree with him that science fiction is the ideal medium for exploring certain kinds of issue.  As I have said elsewhere, science fiction differs from conventional realist fiction in that, while the latter holds the world constant but makes up characters and situations, science fiction makes up the world as well.  This means that, while realist fiction is rich in potential for thought experiments about human psychology and human relationships, science fiction offers additional options for thought experiments about society, social structures and social change.  The Eden books, for better or worse, are one such experiment.

The realist author takes the existing world (present or past) as given, in other words, but engages in the game of ‘what if’ with characters and their interactions, while  SF writers can also engage in ‘what if’ games in relation to the world as a whole.  In the case of Eden, I asked myself, ‘what if society evolved all over again from two individuals.’

I’m talking about potential here.  Not all science fiction carries out such experiments – the SF pack of playing cards can be used for many different games – and, of course, when it does, it doesn’t necessarily do it  well.  But this is true also of the realist pack of cards.

Long and cut, or short and add?

I’ll be at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki next week, and I’ve been asked to take part in a panel on ‘Write Long and Cut, or Write Short and Add? (Is it better to write as much as possible and then edit out, or vice versa?)’.  If you’re at the con, I hope I’ll see you there!  In the meantime, here are a few thoughts:

I’ve been doing a bit of drawing lately (one of my  recent efforts is below) and one of the things I’ve learnt about that is that you need to be careful to get the basics right before you commit too much to the detail.   If you are drawing a face for example, no amount of detail will make the picture look like its subject if the overall shape is wrong.  The temptation is to get too engrossed in, say, the shadows around the eyes, only to realise later on that the eyes are too close together, and that at least one of them will need to be rubbed out completely and drawn all over again.

When writing fiction, there is a similar danger of over-committing to detail at too early a stage.  This can result in beautifully crafted scenes which turn out not to fit in, but which you are reluctant to cut because you like them and have committed a lot of time to them: a lot more time can be wasted trying to make the book fit the scene rather than vice versa.

A big difference between drawing from life and writing fiction, though, is that there is no external object to act as a guide: you are not trying to reproduce something in front of you, but rather you are tapping into your knowledge, experience, and subconscious to create a new object that didn’t previously exist.  Quite often, the overall shape may actually emerge out of details.

My novel Daughter of Eden, for instance, only came alive for me when I decided to tell the whole thing from the point of view of Angie Redlantern, and for that to happen, I first needed to bring Angie alive for myself by working over scenes told in her voice.  Similarly, early drafts of The Holy Machine felt to me they were missing a certain something until I worked out how to write the opening pages. In both cases it was the detail of the voice, and how that voice described its world, that were the key to the entire book.  I could have drafted out all the plot outlines I liked, but without knowing how the story was to be told, they wouldn’t have come to anything.

So it is a matter of writing something that vaguely resembles the story that I want to write, or the beginning of that story, and then working and reworking the material until it starts to feel lively. I always start a writing day by revising what I wrote on the previous day, and not infrequently I will go right back to the beginning and revise everything I’ve written so far before carrying on.  It’s slow, but it seems to be necessary in order to dig myself down into the story.

As to whether to ‘write long and cut, or write short and add’ I don’t have a straightforward answer.   What I’ve noticed is that, as a piece of writing develops, my sense of the centre of gravity of the piece gradually changes and I start to notice what I think of as expansion points and contraction points. In early drafts of the first half of Daughter of Eden, the story was told from multiple viewpoints like the other Eden books and Angie was simply one of several main characters.   As I worked and reworked it, I decided Angie was to be at the centre of it, and that all the foregrounded characters were going to be women (Angie, Mary, Trueheart, Starlight and Gaia), while the stereotypically ‘male’ story of war and fighting would be pushed some way back into the mix.

So expansion points are places in the text which seemed of relatively minor importance to start with but are now more important, perhaps to the point where they now feel like the story. In some cases, material which was little more than a connector between two scenes, can turn out to be more important than the scenes themselves. One set of expansion points in Daughter of Eden concerned the Davidfolk’s rituals around circles and the idea of homecoming. That stuff was just a detail at first, one of those things you put in to make a scene a bit more concrete, but it became absolutely crucial to the overall shape of the book, and so I expanded and developed all that, not only by including more detail (the circles, the song, the dots on the foreheads of guards…), but by incorporating those ideas and beliefs into Angie’s thinking.

Contraction points, on the other hand, are places in the text whose importance, or necessity, has diminished over time, so that they need cutting back, or cutting out entirely.  In the case of Daughter of Eden this included scenes seen from the viewpoint of male characters, some of which I cut altogether, while others were shortened and retold as observed by Angie, or reconstructed by Angie thirdhand from stories told by others, or relayed by Angie from scenes that Starlight participated in and told her about.

So I suppose my conclusion from all this is, write what you can, and be prepared both to expand and cut.

Roman Emperor Philip the Arab, drawn from a bust at the Museum of Classical Archaelogy, Cambridge

Writing Daughter of Eden

A couple of events are lined up now to mark the publication of Daughter of Eden in October (Oct 6th: London, Oct 25th: Birmingham.)  I’ve already written two more books to follow it: the first a collection of new short stories (non-SF for a change), the second a new novel, set in North America in a hundred years time.  Right now, though, I’m really looking to seeing the final Eden book out there.

It seems to be a pattern with me that I faff around with a novel for several months, struggling to find my way into it.  And then suddenly something will click, and the novel kind of writes itself.   The faffing generally involves a lot of pacing around, eating stuff from the fridge, frittering time on the internet, and spending whole days writing stuff that I know in the evening I won’t be keeping.  But I haven’t yet found a reliable way of short-circuiting it.

The turning point for Daughter of Eden was when I decided to abandon the alternating narrator approach used in the other two Eden books, and have one character tell the whole story, relying on hearsay for events she wasn’t present at.  The sole narrator, and main protagonist is Angie Redlantern, who appeared at the beginning of Mother of Eden as Starlight Brooking’s best friend.   Daughter of Eden centres on Angie’s own adventures after the departure of Starlight.

Once I’d made my mind up to settle down behind Angie’s eyes, the story really started to flow.  Angie is a very different kind of protagonist from John Redlantern in Dark Eden, or Starlight in Mother of Eden, and I enjoyed seeing Eden from her perspective.  She is a much quieter, more unassuming, gentler figure, her confidence set back by growing up with what people in her part of Eden call a ‘batface’ (i.e. cleft palate/harelip).  At the beginning of the book she is living a very humble life: a ‘low person’ , as the Davidfolk call it, right down at the bottom of the pecking order.  The big things happen to other people.

But suddenly, she finds herself dealing with huge, cataclysmic events: more cataclysmic than anything in the other two books.  I enjoyed watching her grow, while human society on Eden turned itself inside out all around her.

Daughter cover

Mother of Eden Q & A

Here’s a short Q & A that the US publishers (Broadway) did with me for Mother of Eden:

 
1. The protagonist of Mother of Eden is a headstrong, determined young woman named Starlight Brooking, who brings about huge changes in society around her throughout the course of the novel, ending up as a truly revolutionary figure. Did you make a conscious decision to have a female protagonist? What is the role of female characters in science fiction in general, and has that changed over the years?

I guess as a writer, one tends to default to viewpoint characters who are a bit like yourself. Well, I know that’s true of me anyway, and so I make a conscious effort to try and develop main characters who are different. John Redlantern, in Dark Eden, while male, was unlike me in that he is very much a doer: someone who must be constantly on the go in order to feel alive. (This really isn’t me at all! I’m very good at doing nothing!)

Given that the protagonists of all my novels, and the majority of my short stories, had been men, I decided that it was about time I wrote a novel with a female main protagonist. In fact Starlight is female and a doer. (She’s also less than half my age, but this is common for my characters. I don’t seem to have done with that time of life!)

I like Starlight as a character. Others will have to judge of course, but, apart from that first little conscious effort of choosing a female protagonist, I didn’t find it hard to write from her perspective. Then again, I have three sisters (no brothers), two daughters, a mother, a wife, women friends, and I have worked most of life in a profession which is 85% women. If I’ve being paying attention at all, I really ought to be able to describe things from a women’s perspective!

As the book developed, it became increasingly about women too. As in Dark Eden, the story is told by a number of different people and, at one point I thought of having only women as viewpoint characters. In the end, although most of the viewpoint characters are women (Starlight, Glitterfish, Julie, Quietstream, Lucy…), I did include two men: the gentle Greenstone, and the brutal Snowleopard.

I am sure that most of the science fiction I read growing up in the seventies was (a) written by men, and (b) had men as main characters, with women mainly present as objects of love and desire. I think SF has moved on from that, thank goodness. However it does strike me that we are still better in SF at writing about tough male and female protagonists acting in stereotypically “masculine” ways, than we are at writing about people (men or women), who are gentle and nurturing in stereotypically “feminine” ways. I think that’s something to think about. After all, we need nurses and teachers at least as much as we need soldiers and atomic scientists, and I would say a good deal more so.*

2. Mother of Eden has so much to say, as Dark Eden did, about how civilizations develop and the sacrifices we make in the process. Did you start with certain issues that you wanted to address, or did those come naturally as you wrote the novel?

Well, both. I think the content of this book flowed naturally from Dark Eden, and some basic themes were certainly there in my mind from the beginning. But new themes and ideas emerged as I went along.

In Dark Eden, I showed a society that was becoming increasingly dominated by men, and increasingly controlled by violence. I knew from the beginning I wanted to think about how that developed. In Mother of Eden, the followers of David and the followers of John have created two hierarchical, militarized and male-dominated societies (a description which, of course, would still fit most of the societies on Earth today). However in both societies, there persists a folk memory of the time when the whole human community of Eden was a single family in which the central figure was a woman. (I think this is also true for most of us on Earth today: most of us grew up in an environment in which a woman was the dominant figure, our primary source of nourishment and comfort and safety, insofar as we had these things at all). Even in these male-dominated societies, it seemed to me, women still had immense power, and men, afraid of this power, had tried to channel and control it in various ways to make it serve their purposes. Gela’s ring, which Starlight puts on her finger, became a focal point for a lot of my thinking about this.

Something that emerged as a theme as I went along was power more generally. Not just men’s power and women’s power, but power itself: what it is, where it comes from, what you have to do to get it.

Another theme, that was of course present in Dark Eden also, is our relationship with the past. Now of course, the story of Dark Eden is itself the past, and we have two different societies whose enmity is based on their different takes on the meaning of those events, much as (for example) the enmity between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in the world today is a continuation of a quarrel that goes back to the eighth century.

As to the sacrifices we make in order to progress, yes this remains a big theme in this book. I am struck by the idea that every human society is a kind of compromise. To get one thing, we have to give up another. There is always a price for everything, it seems to me. This means that if you want easy answers, or comforting messages about how one day everything will all be wonderful, then I’m not the person to come to! I guess if I had an easy answer, I wouldn’t be writing novels!

3. Mother of Eden takes place 200 years after the events of Dark Eden. How did you decide which changes would have taken place in that time? How has the language changed as the inhabitants of Eden have lived there over the decades?

The decisions you make when writing a book of this kind are always a compromise between realism and what works for the story. I did not make major additional changes to the language, over and above those made in Dark Eden, because I didn’t want to make things too difficult for the reader, but I tried to give some sense of the fact that geographical dispersal has meant that people in Eden no longer speak a single dialect but several different ones which would, in the fullness of time, become separate and mutually incomprehensible languages. I also tried to show how new words would have to be reinvented when old words had been lost. In Dark Eden, having lost the words “sea” and “ocean”, but having retained the word “pool”, John and his followers give the name Worldpool to the large body of water they found on the far side of Snowy Dark. In Mother of Eden, the institution of marriage having been forgotten, new words have had to be invented as something like marriage has re-emerged in both of the main societies. Likewise, since the word “servant” ceased to exist in the relatively egalitarian early days, new words have had to be found to describe people who perform that kind of function in the new near-feudal hierarchies that have emerged.

In relation to society more generally, I just tried to think of the way the dynamic at the end of Dark Eden would lead: an expanding population, enormous new territories, competing leaders and ideas…

4. On a related note, can you describe your process of world-building? How did you go about creating the world of Eden—and even beyond that, imbuing it with a sense of history and tradition? I was struck by how the characters act when they go to Veeklehouse, the same way we might act about seeing a monument today. What’s the process of taking a basic human reaction like that and translating it to a totally foreign environment?

Well of course, that’s an old theme in SF: estrangement, things from the present seen in a new light in the completely different context of the future… And it’s a universal human experience too, isn’t it? Human bodies and minds come and go, but our artifacts may continue for hundreds or thousands of years, as a kind of ghostly reminder that things were not always like this, and won’t always be like this in the future. I live in Cambridge, for instance, in the part of England known as East Anglia and every week or so I walk my dogs along the top of a dyke built a millennium and a half ago to protect the Kingdom of the East Angles against invaders from the West. You can’t know the names of the people who built it, or what was going through their minds as they worked. That’s all gone for good. Yet the dyke remains stubbornly there.

My world-building takes as it starting point my thoughts about the world I actually find myself in and the dynamic that led it to be that way. One thing I try to avoid is going for continual novelty. I don’t want to overload my world with wonders. Of course, I take all kinds of liberties, and yet I want my worlds to feel like worlds and not like theme parks.

5. You’ve written before on the distinctions between literary fiction and science fiction, or “genre fiction” as a whole—including a piece last year for The Atlantic. Why do you think it’s so important to debunk these stereotypes?

Well, my motive is basically selfish. I don’t want people thinking that my stuff is ‘just science fiction’ and therefore not worth taking seriously. I can’t judge the merits of my own work, but I do know it deals with the same range of issues and concerns as any other branch of fiction, and I’d like that to be recognized.

As I’ve said many times before, all fiction involves making stuff up –making up characters, making up situations– in order to be able to explore aspects of life that might otherwise be impossible to reach. (After all, imagination is needed just to put yourself into the head of a person other than yourself.) Science fiction’s one defining feature is that, as well as inventing characters and situations, it also invents worlds that are in some way different from the one we actually know. It’s just another strategy that can used to generate stories, one among many, and I refuse to believe that the mere presence or otherwise of this strategy is reliable indicator of the quality or seriousness of a book. SF can be brilliant, good, bad and terrible, but then so can love stories, or war stories, or stories set in the past…

*More extended thoughts on this theme can be found here in a post I called ‘An unsung Einstein’.

Machina ex machina

A week or two ago, I heard a radio interview from the streets of a town in Wales, taking soundings of local views about the current UK elections.  All politicians were as bad as each other, was the opinion of one man, not very original in itself, but he then rather startlingly went on to propose (quite seriously as far as I could tell) that we get rid of the lot of them and replace them with a computer.

He obviously didn’t read enough SF.  If we had a computer to run the country (and there’s an SF short story right there, though I’m sure it’s been done already!), someone would have to decide the parameters and priorities it would apply.  That someone, or perhaps more likely group of someones, would in turn have to be chosen in some way.  There would have to be some means of doing this, some rules about how disagreements would be resolved and different opinions reflected, some means of representing the interests of the various stakeholders and then…  Oh, hang on, we’ve reinvented politics.

Perhaps, though, this interviewee had in mind a very sophisticated computer, more sophisticated than any that now exist, which could be trusted to work out its own priorities based on pure reason, coming up with final answers to ancient questions like the correct balance to be struck between individual freedom and the needs of the community.  A bit like the one in the song Saviour Machine by David Bowie whose ‘logic stopped war, gave them food…’  (Though, in the very next line, the saviour machine ‘cried in its boredom/ “Please don’t believe in me, please disagree with me/ Life is too easy, a plague seems quite feasible now/ or maybe a war, or I may kill you all…”‘ )

I bring this up because it’s relevant to my previous post in which I discussed among other things, the origins of my Holy Machine and the way that ideas recur in different stories, partly through conscious or unconscious imitation, but also partly through a form of parallel evolution: ideas may recur simply because they come out of our common human experience.

So what makes us think of a saviour machine?

The origins of my own holy machine go back a long way to a fragment of an idea for a story that I must have had in the early eighties.  I had a mental picture of a robot, a beautiful silver humanoid machine, riding on the back of a large white horse through a forest in spring, with the sunlight dappling its skin, as it made its way through a bucolic and utopian future England.  It’s quite possible, now I think about it, that the image came from some poster or album cover, though as far as I know I made it up.

Anyway, I never completed the story, but the image of the beautiful sun-dappled robot appeared as a dream sequence (minus the horse), in my short story ‘La Macchina’ and I then recycled it in the novel, the night after George Simling first hears about the mysterious holy machine that’s preaching to crowds of converts along the Dalmatian coast.   (When he finally meets the machine itself, it’s much less beautiful than it looked in his dream.)

My original idea was of a robot saint, built to be intelligent but free from the destructive impulses we carry because our evolutionary history.   And I suppose that was pretty much what that Welsh man was thinking about when he proposed replacing politicians with a saviour machine.  I guess that’s a pretty ancient human longing, the desire for some wise and powerful external agency that will step in and free us from the brutal mess we keep making because of our biological limitations.

Sometimes it feels like we’re children, completely out of our depth, longing for a grownup to take charge.  (Even Le Guin’s anarchist utopia in The Dispossessed required an impartial computer to make it all work.)  In the past that powerful external agency would have been God.  Now, it seems, in place of a deus ex machina, we have begun to dream of a machina ex machina.

For what it’s worth, my own holy machine ended up telling people that their biology was indispensible.  Life is meaningless without the needs and longings and fears that biology has endowed us with.  Not so different from what Bowie’s machine concluded.

Originality and origins

I was fairly irritated by this comment, alleging that I had “plagiarised” Dark Eden from an out-0f-print hundred-year-old Polish science fiction novel, never published in English, and which I’ve never heard of.   If we’re going to bandy about unpleasant words like plagiarism, the word slander comes to mind!

A while back, someone sent me a slightly hostile tweet alleging that I’d lifted one of the main ideas in The Holy Machine, a female robot messiah, from the Fritz Lang film Metropolis.   Now in this case I have seen the film, back in the 1980s when it came out with a new rock soundtrack.  The only scenes I can now remember were the huge factory, and the city with its vast multi-level streams of traffic, but it’s entirely possible all the same that the idea of a robot messiah lodged somewhere in my brain and was one of the sources of Holy Machine.

But why the hostility?  It seems to be based on a somewhat off-beam notion of how writers operate and what constitutes originality.  We do not operate in a vacuum.  As we cast about for ideas we draw on what is already in our brains.  What alternative do we have?   And what is in our brains includes countless images and ideas we have read about, or seen in movies, or been told about by friends.  There is a scene in Dark Eden, for instance, where John Redlantern puts his hand on a long-lost ring.  Would I have come up with this, if I hadn’t read The Hobbit?   I very much doubt it.

But its more complicated than just Writer A has an idea, Writer B steals/borrows/uses it.  A conscious influence on Holy Machine, as I’ve acknowledged before, was the movie the Stepford Wives (based on the novel by Ira Levin) which I saw in the seventies, in which a bunch of men preferred subservient robot simulacra to real women.  That undoubtedly influenced the beginning of the Holy Machine, where the isolated and socially phobic George Simling chooses a robot sex toy, rather than take the (to him terrifying) risk of actually relating to another human being.   But the Stepford wives is itself part of a tradition of stories going back to the Greek legend of Pygmalion (just as Tolkein’s accursed ring is an idea that goes back to the Norse story of Andvari’s ring), and this story surely persists because it, in its essentials, it really happens, over and over again, in the real world: men trying to shape women into their image of women should be.   In her book about her abduction and long captivity, for instance, Natascha Kampusch refers to the Pygmalion legend as a way of explaining what her captor was trying to do to her, but hers was just an extreme example of something that occurs all the time.

Sometimes ideas recur, in other words, not because one writer borrows from another, but because both writers are attempting to represent the same aspect of reality, much as certain shapes and structures recur independently in nature as a result of parallel evolution.   Often it is impossible to know whether this is what has happened, or whether there has been a more direct influence.   I genuinely don’t know, for instance, whether or not Metropolis had any direct influence on The Holy Machine.

*   *   *

When writing about Dark Eden, I’ve acknowledged several influences that I’m conscious of: in particular Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and Aldiss’ Helliconia series, as well as a couple of things from Tolkein, and the green-on-black screen of an old Amstrad computer.  When it comes to Mother of Eden, I’m less sure, but here are a few.

There is a scene during Starlight’s second crossing of Worldpool, which I am fairly sure was inspired by a moment in Jane Campion’s beautiful film, The Piano.

Certainly 3,096 Days by Natascha Kampusch (already mentioned) was an influence.  Starlight is never a captive in quite the literal sense that Kampusch was, but she finds herself a captive nevertheless.  I was really extraordinarily moved by Kampusch’s indomitable spirit, and I think this influenced my thinking about Starlight’s character, her determination to resist.

I’ve been very into Shakespeare’s history plays over the last couple of years, and have also read several books about Tudor and medieval history (these include Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, though in their case, I read them after completing the book, encouraged by the recent TV series).  I know my exposure to these various sources influenced my thinking about power, dealing as they did with a period when to fall from power, or to challenge power unsuccessfully, was typically to invite your own death.   (This is still the case, of course, in many countries today.  North Korea and our great ally, Saudi Arabia, spring to mind.)

Tolkein was an influence too, and this time a conscious one, but in a funny inverted kind of way.  Dark Eden had brought a powerful ring – Gela’s ring – into the picture, and in Mother of Eden that ring is much more prominent (Gela’s Ring was my original title for the book).  But I’m not writing fantasy.   There are two hostile camps in Mother of Eden, but neither is wholly good or wholly evil, and my ring has no inherent power, hard though this is to hold onto when you are actually in its presence:

But what was it? [Starlight asks herself at one point] What was I looking at? Didn’t you have to know what a thing was before you could really see it?…. I knew lots of stories about it like everyone did – it had been made on Earth, it had been found by John Redlantern, it had been snatched by Firehand from out of that pot of boiling water – but they were just stories, stories that had been wrapped round it, not the ring itself. So now I tried and tried, until my head ached, to push them from my mind and look at the ring itself.

It was just a thing. I could see that. Just a small small thing. When it was first made on Earth, no one could have known where it would go or what it would come to mean. But it was impossible to hold onto that, impossible to hold away the stories that had made this little object seem so big. In fact, so big had it become that it kept pulling more stories around itself, and growing bigger still…

The EngLit gaze

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.

*   *   *

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 innovation 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.

Dreams and stories

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.