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Douglas Lain
Posted on Wednesday, June 15, 2005 - 08:39 pm:   

What would you say if I told you that writing fiction is never done merely to entertain, that a story can't be about just a few characters and their little problems, but rather it is always either a denial or an affirmation of the whole damned pie? What if I claimed that writing fiction is always a political activity, an activity that has some role to play in the changing of the social order? What if I told you that every time you put pen to paper you were choosing sides?

Would you hold it against me?
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al duncan
Posted on Thursday, June 16, 2005 - 02:47 am:   

The intent can be just to entertain, but every story has a subtext and every subtext is political. I think that, as with the surrealism thread, you'll get arguments about the extent of the actual effect of the discourse -- unintentionally negative or intentionally positive -- especially relative to direct actions. But to my mind, an assumption that any effect is *only* ever going to be minimal can be considered complacency, and abrogation of control over that effect when (or if, maybe?) the default politics is likely to be reactionary can be considered complicity.
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Nels
Posted on Thursday, June 16, 2005 - 02:53 am:   

>"Would you hold it against me"?

Only if you asked nicely, big boy.
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Night Shade Books
Posted on Thursday, June 16, 2005 - 04:41 am:   

I would say that it's amazing that someone with a job, a writing career, and a lot of children has that much free time to spend pondering naval lint.
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Alistair Rennie
Posted on Thursday, June 16, 2005 - 04:57 am:   

Every act of writing fiction is an endorsement or repudiation of the underlying ideals of the social order, no doubt about it.

A work of fiction that attempts to set itself apart from any political context is simply a passive endorsement or affirmation of the political context it emerges from.

Aside from that, I'd say that, for reasons Al gives above, all fiction is political (whether the intent is there or not); and would further add that the best fiction is invariably subversive, often full of contempt for the presiding social or political order or, at least, highly suspicious of its aims and ends.

Well, that's my colours nailed to the mast. Now where's my dinner...

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AliceB
Posted on Thursday, June 16, 2005 - 06:33 am:   

I'd say (nicely): So what? I doesn't change how anything is/will be written, nor the way people think of books, since people think of them that way anyway.

It's a bit like saying that the atmosphere has oxygen in it--a useful fact, granted, but no big revelation, and it doesn't affect how we conduct our day to day lives.

Best,
Alice
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Steven Francis Murphy
Posted on Thursday, June 16, 2005 - 12:10 pm:   

No, Doug. I wouldn't hold it against you. But which takes precedence? The Characterization/Story or your political message.

A lot of literature these days (Americans are especially guilty, regardless of their ideology) is nothing more than a political op-ed disguised as a story. The political message comes first and overwhelms the story.

My response, when I read this type of thing, is that if I wanted to read about politics, I'd get a political science or history book, which usually addresses any given issue more effectively than some Mary Sue Preacher Story.

Having said that, I'll repeat what I said on this topic over at Asimov's.

It IS possible to write a story that has a political message that does not overwhelm the primary mission of storytelling.

To me, the primary mission is to entertain me. Again, if I want education, or to be preached at, I can get that from non-fiction sources.

If you want a recent example of a science fiction story that addresses a political issue without thumping readers on the head/preaching, one need look no further than Mike Jasper's Wannoshay stories. There are others, but Mike's always comes to mind first.

Further, what about stories like Greg Egan's Reasons to Be Cheerful? As political as Egan can be, you can read this particular story over and over again and not find a stitch of politics per se.

There are additional examples of fiction that isn't political.

So, I won't hold it against you Doug, but I do disagree with you.

There is more to scribbling down a story than just preaching a particular political message.

Least there'd better be. If not, then writing fiction in the United States is a lost cause.

Respects,
S. F. Murphy
http://sfmurphy.journalspace.com
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Douglas Lain
Posted on Thursday, June 16, 2005 - 02:56 pm:   

Jason: I do a lot of navel gazing at the day job.

AliceB: If the atmosphere is getting polluted it's a good idea to remember why you need to breathe, or what it is you want.

SFMurphy: Thank you! I'll be responding in another post. I'll probably quote a bunch of horseshit and use the term Avant Garde.

Alistair: I believe your dinner is in the microwave.





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Steven Francis Murphy
Posted on Thursday, June 16, 2005 - 05:18 pm:   

Doug,

I didn't think you could quote "horseshit," . . .

Oh, I guess you can put the word in quotes.

You quote it, I'll read it. Doesn't mean I'll agree or not, but I'll at least read it.

But who is this Avante Garde chick and why do you have to bring her into it?

Respects,
S. F. Murphy
http://sfmurphy.journalspace.com
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gary gibson
Posted on Friday, June 17, 2005 - 03:08 am:   

Used to know a guy came to our writer's circle who always bigged up the important of the subtextual message in any piece of fiction: he believed he should never start on any story until he had a well-defined underlying social critique in it, preferably one that reflected his own strongly Marxist outlook. During a period of perhaps, say, ten years, I think he produced maybe one short story I can recall seeing at that writer's group. It was full of social critique, I suspect, but I do remember he had forgotten to actually make the story itself any good. Last I heard, he had a nervous breakdown, took off all his clothes in the middle of a park and ran around screaming, and then the men in white coats came to take him away. He's much better now.

Personally, I think it's true that the best fiction always has something to say, on some level. I personally can't get enthusiastic about anything I write unless I think there's some underlying core of meaning in there, on some level. However, as interesting as this discussion is, it could do with some examples: airy philosophising is one thing, but if we're talking about fiction that reflects something meaningful in terms of the real world that exists beyond the mere narrative, shouldn't we get specific? Or have I stumbled upon a secret cabal of mundane sf-ists? Mundane sf, after all, calls for the addressing of viable futures and issues that genuinely reflect our lives, etc etc.

"Every act of writing fiction is an endorsement or repudiation of the underlying ideals of the social order, no doubt about it." I know what you're getting at, but let's start citing stuff. I know The Master and Margarita is all about Soviet Moscow. I know what 1984 is really about. But _every_ act of writing fiction? Or do you mean that a piece of fiction that doesn't challenge the social order, that exists solely as a piece of entertainment, is by default supporting the status quo, and is therefore inherently conservative?

It's at times like this it's worth remembering the genuine power of the written word. We're lucky, where most of us live, to be able to go into bookshops and, more or less, read what we like, and go home and write something. Other parts of the world, and some others until quite recently, that wasn't necessarily a given. In some respects (the more I think about it) I'm not even sure it is _now_.

And if we're going to get subtextual, fine: like somebody said, we all know that's important, it's kind of 'in the air'. But what are we going to do about it, in terms of something like sf or fantasy? I'd love to sit down and write a searingly politically trenchant piece of observation that utilises sf in order to bring a concept hammering home, but frankly, like the guy who managed to write one story every ten years, the idea often arrives long before the message, and getting them to fit together sometimes takes a lot of hammering and sawing.
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Alistair
Posted on Friday, June 17, 2005 - 07:42 am:   

Interesting stuff, Gary, and well put.

As regards your comment:

"Or do you mean that a piece of fiction that doesn't challenge the social order, that exists solely as a piece of entertainment, is by default supporting the status quo, and is therefore inherently conservative?"

I would say, yes, exactly, that's what I mean, although I'd maybe substitute "conservative" with "conforming to the status quo", whatever it happens to be.

But I'd go a stage further. Not only would I say that fiction that doesn't challenge the social order is supporting the status quo, I'd say it *is* the status quo, or at least that it's a significant part of the cultural mainstream that, in turn, is part of the status quo.

Broadly speaking, I would also argue that sci-fi and fantasy, above all, are the genres where the status quo is challenged more readily than anywhere else (apart from explicitly politically or socially motivated texts--like, say, those of James Kelman).

Which leads me also to an important point: I'd argue that a work of fiction doesn't have to depict or refer to politics openly (if at all) in order to have political significance. The implication is there in the ethos or absence of ethos that the book conveys in its fictional world.

For examples, I'd say choose almost anything at random from sci-fi and fantasty, and you will find that they are almost always strongly challenging or exposing the notions, assumptions or ideals upon which the dominant social order is based, or at least they will make us think about them.

A random choice from me would be a book familiar to most here, I think, Jeff Vandermeer's City of Saints and Madmen, which I'm about half way through now (and, I hasten to add, enjoying thoroughly). An example from that book would be:

The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris strikes me as a fantastic parody of the tendency to manipulate the "facts" of history in order to consolidate the idea of the nation (or city) state (which, in this case, as in many "real" examples, is founded utterly on uncertainties, falsities and misconceptions, which people are then fed us givens, and which then invest the nation (or city) state with its status as an inviolable ideal which people are obligated to fight and die for in order to preserve). But what are they preserving? Something that is founded entirely on falsities and myths and misconceptions of the facts, and so on. So this text, on this level, is making the reader think about things that can be applied to the context of their own political experience, all the more pertinent in cases like now when two of the countries we're from are currently at war.

To what extent the author intends it to be read like this is completely unknown to me, but that's certainly one of the ways I interpret it, and I'm pretty certain a historian would look at it the same way. Plus the theme of anarchy and social disorder is rife throughout the novel, so far, but it's there as a theme and certainly not as a didactic free-for-all on the author's behalf. The political voice of the author is nowhere to be seen in this book, and there are no positions explicitly stated--far from it--but it's subversive in the sense that it's making the reader actually think about what's involved in the process of nation building. And that kind of thinking represents a challenge to the status quo.

And Fantasy is steeped in this kind of social dialectic, always has been. What's often referred to as first recognised fantasy novel, At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald--the story of a poverty stricken waif who undergoes or imagines his transcendence from the gloom of the social conditions he is forced to endure. His compatriot, Alasdair Gray, does a similar thing in Lanark, though the process is kind of inverted-not a transcendence but a being swallowed up by social conditions and bizarrely transformed and dehumanized by them.

And, trying to think of familiar examples, what about Moorcock's Elric figure--a symbol of the social outcast if ever there was (plus his background, coming from the previous ruling social order prior to its demise, an island stronghold, which surely reeks of parallels with the collapse of the British Empire...does it?)

In a more general sense, I'd go as far as to say that fantasy by definition draws attention to its "difference" from the real world and, in doing so, draws attention to the inadequacies of the real world against which it is juxtaposed. Where fantasy looks to abandon the real world altogether, then it could be argued that fantasy functions according to the principle of challenging the social order, not through confrontation, but through the abrogation of the political and social context from which it emerges.

But I'll leave that for another day. I can already hear a few people snoring.


One last thing, though. We shouldn't forget that entertainment and political import are by no means incompatible. City of Saints and Madmen demonstrates their compatibility to great effect. And Alasdair Gray as well.

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Alistair
Posted on Friday, June 17, 2005 - 07:50 am:   

Just to add, that because fantasy is by definition subversive, then the subversive element is intrinsic (obviously). So the guy who wrote a story once every ten years (a great story that one, by the way) could have saved himself the bother and just tried writing pure, unadulterated fantasy.

Which may well be a more difficult thing to do, however.
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AliceB
Posted on Friday, June 17, 2005 - 08:26 am:   

Hmm. "...fantasy is by definition subversive..." No. Not necessarily. Some of the first written fantasies were fairy tales, which started off with a fair amount of violence and were dark. If anything, they were stories of hope: to misquote Chesterton, everyone knew about dragons--it was knowing you could slay them that was important. No one thought of changing anything: everyone wanted pretty kings and queens, peasants and filth, all in their proper places. The tales made sure the endings put everyone there.

In the 19th century fairy tales were relegated to children and bowlderized--no more rape and incest, thank you very much. Still, those that put up with evil and were Good won out. And the status quo was very, very much endorsed--pretty kings and queens, peasants and filth, all in their proper places.

You'll quickly point out that not all fairy tales follow this rule (such as many by women of the 17th century salons), but certainly a large majority do. As fantasy literature they weren't meant to be subversive--entertaining, yes; moralistic, sometimes; hopeful, almost always.

Best,
Alice
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Minz
Posted on Friday, June 17, 2005 - 10:44 am:   

Actually, Doug, I would hold it against you, only in that you present the argument in too strong an absolute. Indeed most fiction, and indeed virtually all (maybe all?) really good fiction has some sort of deeper subtext going for it. But sometimes a cigar is only a cigar...

That being said, Alice, fairy tales are some of the finest examples of great use of subtext. They were absolutely all about examining the audience's relationship within the larger world order, especially before their 19th Century bowdlerization. They weren't cautionary tales for kids, they were social commentary and history in the form of popular entertainment. And that was true before they were ever written down, and were merely oral traditions.

(Also, the first written fairy tales are predated by millennia by the works of folks like Ovid and Homer, the tales of Gilgamesh, Sumerian myths of Innana and Tammuz (Hi Al!), etc. In other words, fairy tales are far from the first written fantasies. Alistair was quite precise in referring to Macdonald: "often referred to as first recognised fantasy novel". I know I'm picking nits here, and I don't mean this personally in any way, but you didn't help your argument by beginning with such imprecision.)

Of course, I should now step up to the plate and offer up my own "cigar" in support of my own counterclaim to Doug's, i.e. that it's not true that "writing fiction is never done merely to entertain." Trouble is, the fiction I know and love is of a quality that it has deeper meanings. Perhaps I should cite the fiction in such fine publications as Playboy and Penthouse which are designed merely to--ahem--entertain.
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JV
Posted on Friday, June 17, 2005 - 10:53 am:   

Alistair:

Just as an aside--yes, that's entirely intentional re the Early History. And the war parallels in my new novel, Shriek, are entirely intentional, too. I personally don't like wearing politics, etc., on my sleeve, so it's usually a subplot or a subtext. I think it's more effective that way. Ambergris is an exercise in controlled anarchy, among other things.

jeffV
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AliceB
Posted on Friday, June 17, 2005 - 11:34 am:   

Minz, you are correct. Fairy tales aren't the first written fantasies (and I plead exaggeration meant to be moderated by the word "some", but that's a poor excuse)--however I'd distinguish between myths and fantasies. Myths are stories about gods, cosmology, and How Things Got To Be, as well as about people caught in their various gods' crosshairs. They claim some historical veracity within the thought-beliefs/religion of the people creating them. Fantasies, on the other hand, and fairy tales, in particular, are meant to be wholly fictional.

I wholeheartedly agree that fairy tales were social commentaries, but I wouldn't agree that they were meant to be subversive. Maybe I need to be clearer: fairy tales were a literary phenomena as well as an oral tradition. The oral fairy tales grew out of folktales--they poked fun at blown up egos, punished the greedy, gave the Good their due. Some might be subversive (I'm thinking here of the Brer Rabbit tales), a great many weren't (think Cinderella). As a literary phenomena, they took off sometime after the romances of the High Middle Ages--another kind of fantasy that clearly endorsed the status quo. These literary tales were for adults who could read, i.e. the nobility and later the wealthy bourgeois. The majority of the tales weren't interested in changing the status quo (e.g. Beauty and the Beast that was originally a parable about how a woman who marries an abusive husband should bend to him, and eventually he'll be nicer). A large proportion of the fairy tales we read now come from that literary tradition.

I guess what I'm railing at is the notion that "fantasy is subversive". Not necessarily.

Do you have an extra cigar?

Best,
Alice
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minz
Posted on Friday, June 17, 2005 - 05:36 pm:   

Ah, some fine hairs to split. (Sorry, Jason, but weekends are for navel lint--I tried to get some from the Navy, but I'm stuck with my own. :-))
Stories: Usual Subject Matter
Myths: Gods
Legends: Mortals (albeit very powerful, usually heroic ones)
Folktales: Common folks
I actually consider Fairy Tales to be somewhat separate from these other three, in that it comes from outside the usual hierarchy, but nonetheless, I consider all of these fantasy, and indeed much of the fantasy written today draws from Myths and Legends more than Fairy Tales.

And to perform Doug's dirty work for him, the original Beauty and the Beast is indeed a political beast, in that it supports the status quo, that pesky Augustinian Hierarchy, that everything will be better if the woman just remembers her place in the order of things.
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Minz
Posted on Friday, June 17, 2005 - 05:38 pm:   

And I do agree with Alice in that all fantasy is not necessarily subversive. Much of fantasy is, and most of my favorite fantasies are, but certainly not all.
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Douglas Lain
Posted on Saturday, June 18, 2005 - 12:32 pm:   

Minz: Regarding Playboy and Penthouse, I usually just look at the pictures. (Which is, no doubt, a political act itself.)

Everybody Else: I think that what we usually think about as "political" is inadequate. The trouble is that we think about overt statements of either opposition or support, we think of platforms, positions, etc..., but these are merely the political tools given to us by the powers that be.

In order to avoide hack work fiction has to engage with the world and recreate the world in its own image.

As alwyas, I'm at work and this is shorter than I'd like. More later...
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Alistair
Posted on Sunday, June 19, 2005 - 05:02 pm:   

Thanks, JeffV. And I hope I managed to do justice to the remarakable Early History, though I suspect many others already have, and in much greater depth than me. It's a wonderful novel, and I can't wait to read the amazingly named Shriek: An Afterward!

Your saying about not liking to wear your colours on your sleeve, too, I think draws attention to something underlying this discussion. As readers, would I be right in thinking that we all have an abhorrence of didacticism in fiction? that it's something we find (regardless of whether we actually agree or not) utterly unpalatable?

Looking under the surface of the different opinions we're expressing, that one seems to be a shared one. And when you think about it, when did you last read a book that was totally, utterly spouting some kind of political bias so obviously and clearly nailing its colours to the mast? For myself, I can't think of any. Authors, as a people, as a species! are simply too universal, too much aware of the flaws in every argument to be so vulnerable, if you like, to their own passions.

Sure, they usher things in a certain direction, but it is always as ideas rather than opinions, if you know what I mean. Never didactic, always exploratory. JeffV's Saints and Madmen is a fine example of this. Think also of Kafka, that most political of writers, and of Alasdair Grey, too, like mentioned above.

AliceB, you're absolutely right. I was getting carried away with myself (being a bit didactic, actually!) in saying that all fantasy is subversive. I would still argue that fantasy, by definition, is subversive, though perhaps I'm expressing a preference rather than a reality. And we can't forget the public face, as it were, of fantasy, which tends to be very conformist. Lord of the Rings is, for better or worse, the most famous fantasy work and, without wishing to offend
anyone, it is one of the most conformist novels I've ever read (notwithstanding the obvious merits of the tale--some brilliantly written passages and so on).

Your assessment of the social function of fairy tales is also an excellent point. In response, I would argue that, in the same way that we have a public face of fantasty, perhaps there was also the public face of fairy tales, and that, underneath, or lurking around the edges, the subversive element was always there. The subversive element, for me, would be the kind of stories that were never actually consolidated as stories, the ones that remain dark rumours of strange visitations or legends that speak of terrible or forbidden things. For an example, I choose the obvious one--Vampires! There is no folk or faery tale per se that describes the story of a vampire (Dracula, of course, was written as late as the 20th century, if I remember right. Recently, though). The dark rumour, however, has been there for centuries, and has represented a very strong undercurrent of subversion which, nowadays, has become a very distinct symbol of the subversive tendency.

But, yes, what you're saying, AliceB, is a very valid argument, no doubt about it. I'm with Minz, though, in the end. And I would go further than Minz in insisting that the subversive element in fantasy is the most crucial one.

Well, enough from me. Only to say that, Douglas, absolutely. What we think of as political is far too inadequate. There's a quotation I remember hearing, but can't actually remember word for word, by Italo Calvino, when he said something along the lines of "every act is a politcal one", meaning obviously what it says. At the time I heard that, I thought-- "No! I can avoid the political! Anyone with the will can avoid the political! Art can avoid the political! Fiction can avoid the political!"

Now I realise I was utterly wrong. Avoiding the political is the dream of all dreams, but it is utterly impossible. The only solution (to end with a rallying cry) is to subvert!


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Alistair
Posted on Sunday, June 19, 2005 - 05:30 pm:   

Only to release myself from a moment of paranoia, I just wanted to say that, when I said previously this--

" which surely reeks of parallels with the collapse of the British Empire...does it?)"

--I didn't intend to sound combative, which maybe it seems. I'm genuinely unsure as to whether this is a legitimate perception or not. The "does it?" bit I mean.

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