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Creating a Fictional World

Two articles caught my eye in Saturday’s Guardian Review.

The cover piece was by Naomi Alderman and discussed feminist Science Fiction with reference to its warning nature and the threat recent political events present to the potential of women being treated on an equal basis with men. Of particular interest here was the revelation to me of part of the background to Ursula Le Guin’s childhood where her parents had taken in the last survivor of the Native American Yani people about whom Le Guin’s mother wrote a book. The implication is that exposure to other ways of thinking than what otherwise surrounded her opened up perspectives which Le Guin was able to transform into her fiction. Margaret Atwood too spent parts of her childhood outside the comforts of civilisation, while Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr) travelled in Africa as a child coming into contact with various groups. Alderman uses the example of her own novel The Power to illustrate that the nature of a utopia/dystopia is dependent on viewpoint.

Further on there was an odd piece by Scarlett Thomas on her conversion to the delights and magic of children’s fiction.

What got me here was the sentence, “But it turns out that creating a fictional world is a very complex act” in a “who knew?” context.

Well, duh. Only every Science Fiction or fantasy writer who ever tried it.

Behind the sentence’s remarkable blindness presumably stood Thomas’s previous implicit view that such creators are not real writers and anything fantastical does not warrant serious attention.

Still, it seems she’s got over that now.

The Colour of Television

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

What do you make of the above sentence?*

Pyrotechnic? Emblematic? Iconic? Redolent of a new sensibility? A clarion call for the new digital age?

Or did it perhaps elicit a bemused, “Eh, what? Come again?”

It is of course the first sentence of William Gibson’s Neuromancer which thrust cyberpunk onto the novel-reading SF public all those years ago now and to which I alluded in my review of Tony Ballantyne’s Dream Paris.

Many saw it as the perfect embodiment of the new style of SF Gibson was promulgating. Yet to me it’s not quite in the league of the wake up calls that “Come on and hear!” or “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock!” were in musical terms. It’s not as pithy for a start. And when you begin to parse it any meaning it might contain slips away.

The sentence has been taken to mean descriptive of an oppressive, lowering sky, deep grey, I assume. (The colour of battleships, painted for action?)

Its first six words are unexceptional. But what, pray, is the colour of television?
I have no difficulty visualising the colour of a (or the) television (which word is still in the back of my mind suffixed by “set”.) Nowadays they’re nearly all black but back when Neuromancer came out in 1984, they could be all sorts, white, blue, pink, yellow. Some even had wood on them; or if it was plasticky, what I used to call pseud wood.

But television, with no defining article, is an abstract noun. Used in this way the word usually means the industry which produces the programmes it displays, not the apparatus they are shown on. And how can an abstract noun have colour? (Another possibility would be the band called Television, also fairly abstract, but that is spelled with a capital T.) It’s not even the apparatus’s screen that could be implied. Nowadays they’re uniformly blackish when the set is switched off; back in the day they were a deep olive green colour. That would be a sky too odd even for Science Fiction – except perhaps off Earth (which this sky wasn’t.)

Then there is that “dead channel”. I don’t suppose the young things these days know what that could possibly look like, when is a channel ever dead now? But then if the channel wasn’t broadcasting (the only possible interpretation of “dead”) the screen wasn’t even a uniform colour. It was spitty and specky, flecked with black and white, displaying what physicists call white noise; not a particular coherent signal as it was designed to do, but any signal – and every signal – picked up in the absence of a modulated transmission. Have you ever seen a flecked, spitty, specky sky? I haven’t. Not then, not now.

That sentence destroyed Neuromancer for me. From that point on I could not trust the author or what he attempted to describe. (I know about unreliable narrators but this was of a different order, it was in the omniscient third person for a start.) I didn’t have quite the same negative response to Gibson’s next novels Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive but still couldn’t really warm to him.

Ballantyne gave us, “The sky was the colour of an unpolished euphonium, tuned to a dead key,” which makes a bit more sense, but only a bit, and he did have the grace to come back to it at the end.

*For myself I think the sky was the colour of an author, straining, unsuccessfully, for effect.

Menippean Satire

It seems that what Adam Roberts writes (see here my review of his 2015 novel The Thing Itself where I commented on his approach) is Menippean satire.

According to a review of that same Roberts book in Strange Horizons this kind of satire deals “less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.” (I quote using the USian spelling.)

I can see it – especially in regard to his 2014 novel, Bête. Whether or not the practice of Menippean satire is a good thing will depend very much on the reader. I’m not averse to the odd bit of abstruseness myself in my reading but I tend to err more on the side of emotional connection.

Only Six Plots?

My attention has recently been drawn to this website which refers to research in which – albeit limited – data analysis reveals there are only 6 plots (or emotional arcs) into which most works of fiction fit.

Insights of this sort are not entirely new. Others have had similar thoughts.

This clip of Kurt Vonnegut talking about the shapes of different stories is delightful.

Kurt Vonnegut: The Shapes of Stories

Blameless? I Don’t Think So

In an article in Friday’s Guardian, Nicholas Tucker put forward the thesis that “naughty” words could be got away with in more innocent days.

The trigger for this was the change of name of one of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons from Titty to Tatty in a new BBC adaptation of the books, Titty being of course too (err…) tittersome for these days.

He mentions the innocent use in bygone times of “intercourse,” “screw”, “ejaculate” and, in the case of Dr Seuss, “Boners.”

However, the quotation he gives for his next example “cock” – as in a fairground giant cockerel which a maiden aunt of Just William mounts on a merry-go-round – undermines his thesis as the text goes on to say, “It seemed to give her a joy that all her blameless life had so far failed to produce.”

For what is the purpose of that word “blameless”? It seems to me to be present precisely to signal exactly that knowledge which Tucker claims to be absent. Otherwise why include it? If the point was the one Tucker is making then the phrasing, “a joy that all her life so far had failed to produce,” would make it far more effectively, and poignantly.

Tucker then uses the same word to describe Just William’s author, Richmal Crompton, saying she was a blameless ex-classics teacher. But are not the classics – of which she therefore must have had extensive knowledge – full of instances of sexual mayhem? (The Rape of the Sabine Women for one. In case this may be thought to be an egregious example unlikely to be mentioned in school, this incident was one of those encountered by the good lady in her Latin class.)

Tucker says a similar fairground cockerel also appears in an Angela Thirkell story and adduces for her innocence of any double entendre that she was a distinctly snobbish granddaughter of the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. As if artists (and particularly the pre-Raphaelites) were entirely free of sexual knowledge and/or shenanigans. Moreover a glance at Thirkell’s life story might suggest rather a lack of innocence.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, 128 p + ix p introduction by Candia McWilliam.

Spark is another important Scots writer with whom the 2014 challenge has given me the impetus to catch up. My only familiarity with her work up to now has been a BBC TV adaptation of The Girls of Slender Means, plus the TV and film versions of this title, all from way back. Candia McWilliam’s introduction to this Penguin Modern Classics edition describes Spark as “the greatest living Scots writer of prose.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie cover

I must say I found reading this to be an odd experience. There was just something about the writing style that didn’t sit well with me. Three times in the first few pages and intermittently thereafter we are told that Rose Stanley is famous for sex (or sex appeal), we are also frequently told that Monica Douglas is good at Mathematics. Yet we are never shown these traits, either via dialogue or in any other way, we simply have to take the narration’s word for it. Frequently, too, mention is made of things that will happen later than the immediate moment of the text as the narrative slips forwards from events in the 1930s to post war and backwards again.

Now; foreshadowing is fine, essential even, but this is not foreshadowing, it is relating. McWilliam sees this “proleptic1 use of time” as a strength. I found it irritating. (In this respect The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has something in common with the first line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.) It is as if the novel is a life recalled. Yet the narrative adopts multiple third person viewpoints, its events are not seen from one character’s perspective; or, rather, some events in it could not have been observed by a single narrator.

Miss Jean Brodie herself, teacher at Marcia Blaine School for Girls, is egregiously self-centred, demagogue rather than pedagogue, neglecting the wider needs of her pupils to indulge in reminiscences of her fallen fiancé, her tastes in art and her leanings towards the fascisti, brooking no contradiction: Leonardo is not the greatest Italian painter; that is Giotto, “he is my favourite.” Her contention, in a later conversation with Sandy Stranger, that she loved art teacher Teddy Lloyd, married to someone else, is not, however, borne out by her actions, which, some descriptions of her interactions with her pupils apart, are always given us at one remove. Her famous catch-phrases, “la crème de la crème,” “I am in my prime,” are there to be sure, but after the first third or so the book concerns itself more with her chosen girls (known as the Brodie Set,) particularly Sandy. At the end I felt, perhaps due to the shadows cast by the TV and film versions I have seen, Brodie was actually more of an absence than a presence. The nature of the final betrayal of Miss Brodie was also problematic for me. No doubt she was a dangerous woman (not least, dangerous to men) but there were plenty of people in Britain in 1938 – even in 1940! – who would not have held Miss Brodie’s political attractions against her.

Yes there are human truths here, Teddy’s inability to paint a portrait without it becoming a representation of Jean rings very true, young minds can be susceptible to influence, but the artifice of the writing made it very hard for me to suspend my disbelief. To judge whether or not Spark is “the greatest living Scots writer of prose” I’ll need to look out for The Girls of Slender Means or others of her novels as, on this evidence, I’d have to say not. (Or am I merely saying that Leonardo is not my favourite?)

1I am not convinced Spark’s use of time in the book is anticipatory.

Ian McEwan

There’s a interesting post over on Christopher Priest’s blog about Ian McEwan‘s writing.

Reading between the lines it seems that the acclaim McEwan received at the start of his career is related to the fact that he seemed to be a promise of a wonderful future – and that among not many candidates – and that few have troubled to revise their opinion since.

What is more problematic are the inspirations for his published pieces. Originality may be difficult to achieve and all sorts of things – conscious and unconscious – bleed into any work of fiction but there certainly seem to be question marks over the decisions that go into McEwan’s writing.

Now, I’ve not read much McEwan (and what I have read did not enthuse me much.) Though I have one of his books on the tbr pile – it’s been there ten years or more – I’m now not too minded to alter that fact.

Review, the Guardian, Saturday, 16/8/14

I usually read all the stuff about fiction in the Guardian’s Saturday Review as well as some of the non-fiction reviews.

Last week’s contained three items of particular interest to me.

The cover piece, Steven Pinker’s An Anti-stickler’s Manifesto was about ten “grammar rules” he thinks it’s okay to break sometimes. He says that some of them aren’t actually rules at all and others aren’t rules in English. You may be surprised to read that by and large I agree with him. But I do believe it is important to know what the rules are. This is in order that when you break them it is for a purpose.

Then there was an article about Martin Amis. In this Amis was quoted as saying, “Prose is foremost, and ‘if the prose isn’t there, then you’re reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form.'” Secondary interests? Psychological insight is a secondary interest? Story is a secondary interest? Characterisation is a secondary interest? Is this last not what certain purveyors of genre (no names, no pack drill) are pilloried for not providing?

The final piece was an interview with George R R Martin, in London for the Science Fiction Worldcon after first appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

On Writing

(Aside:- I wrote this some time ago. No slurs on any author whose books I have read recently need be inferred.)

It is often said that a bad workman blames his tools. The implication is that when used correctly the tools will not result in a shoddy job. That may or may not be true but even a good workman cannot produce a fine product using tools that are inadequate – or perhaps blunt.

A writer’s tool is language: words, especially their meanings, and how they fit together to convey information. This applies whether that information is factual or used to create a story. Like a practitioner of any craft the writer must know his or her tools and how to use them. The best writing is almost invisible, nothing breaks the seamless appearance of the prose; it flows, each word or phrase is perfectly chosen. It cannot be a case of throwing words at each other and hoping they cohere. The odd strange word, new to the reader, isn’t a barrier, context may supply the meaning and in any event there is always the dictionary. Using a completely new word is more problematic – even if in Science Fiction it’s almost obligatory. Provided, though, its use is consistent the reader may sail gaily on, unperturbed.

However, since reading is in effect a dialogue between writer and reader not all texts mean the same to everyone. With fiction, this interdependency is crucial. Clumsy use of language creates a barrier between the story and its reception, wrenches the reader out of suspension of disbelief and interrupts the creative act in which reading consists. The trust a reader must have in the author is destroyed. Any sense of believing what is being read, that the story is in some sense a representation of the world (or in SF, a future/altered world) that the reader should care, disappears.

In the writer’s case the tools are entirely innocent. (Yes, words may change in meaning over time but in the instant they are written – and possibly for decades after – that consideration does not apply.) The orders in which they are placed, the ways they are set down, the structures they might create, are, though, entirely the writer’s responsibility. In other words a writer has a duty of care towards any reader. This is especially so if that reader has been expected to buy – or has already bought – the writer’s musings.

An intimate knowledge of how language works, of what the rules are – so that when the writer breaks them it is for a good, a necessary, purpose – is essential for written communication to be effective.

Misuse of the tools, failure to understand the nuts and bolts of language – the parts of speech, why spelling is important, what words mean, of how they fit together – interrupts that dialogue between writer and reader, erects a barrier which leads to frustration and even anger. At least in this reader.

Because, sadly, that duty of care is not always exercised.

Stir It Up

Ian Sales has been stirring it up again with the latest post over on his blog.

The thrust of his argument is that there is such a thing as good and bad writing and hence good and bad books.

It has engendered some argument.

Personally I tend to side with Ian here. If I do not have some standards by which to judge a book there would be pretty little point in me reviewing it for Interzone, for example.

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