essays

Maybe we should talk about empathy?

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To what extent can we say that, in confronting the Otherness of Nature, humanity is confronting its own essence, the negative core of its own being? Speculatively, this is obviously true, since nature appears as a threatening Otherness only from the standpoint of a subject who perceives itself as opposed to nature: in the threatening negativity of nature, the subject receives back the mirror-image of its own negative relationship towards nature. –Zizek, Living in the End Times

Barely a video or article is produced that is critical of our ways of life, our over-consumption, the lack of political action on climate change, or resource depletion, without somebody piping up with the mantra of ‘yes, that’s all well and good, but maybe we should talk about overpopulation?’ Read the rest of this entry »

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A critical issue in fantasy?

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I have been dancing around the idea of reflexive authorship in the fantasy genre, calling for conscious, empathic work. This rarely happens in isolation, and I would argue that strong critical voices are vital, perhaps necessary, to fostering that reflexivity in the genre.

If fantasy is to maintain any sort of standing as a subversive literature, there must be critical foundations to build and break. We must demand, as readers and writers, for critical voices, to foster our own reflexivity, and advance the conversation. There is no point becoming involved in a circular conversation—the best you can do is recite the known lines in unison. You must shift the conversation, intercept it, subvert it. Read the rest of this entry »

Shattering the fantastical mirror

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Writing about escapism, I asked in a roundabout way how we might escape in fantasy, when the fantastic is the accepted structural norm. When fantasy is no longer an escape in and of itself, but a paltry reflection of ideology, what then is the route of escape from what is purportedly already an escape?

Well, psychoanalysis has a response—and it deals with the fantasy under which we live, not those we write.*

Read the rest of this entry »

Escapism and the genre wheel

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I want to continue this exploration of genre and how it functions as both a flavour of writing, and as a structural concept that informs both the subject of a piece of work or writing, and how it creates boundaries for that—what do those boundaries mean, and how do they inform us about the ideologies under which the writer strains? I’m exploring this not because I have a grand idea to organise these thoughts, but to help in finding one.

Generalising excessively, we can think about three broad genres of literature that are often considered to have at least some connection: fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. Of course, like so many other aspects, these bleed into one another, the boundaries are blurred, etc., but at their most basic, every reader has some broad concept of them as distinct. We can think of them as proto-genre. Each has become, in a way, a caricature, a defining structural characteristic, rather than an adjective that describes an event, or a theme, or an intrusion.

Each to some degree functions as a form of escapism—and also as a set of boundaries. But I think the most curious, and somehow defining, aspect is how they create escape by pushing against boundaries. Horror confronts fears, sci-fi seeks utopias (of course, I generalise), but fantasy is a more pure escapism, by virtue of creating a new set of boundaries.

Why? What do we need escaping from? Those are the questions that fantasy as a genre should probe. It is the safe dream that can drift away on gossamer threads on waking. Read the rest of this entry »

Fantasy as the unconscious dreamworld

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Fantasy, or the fantastic, can be read as a projection of our ideals, of our dreamlike ideologies. If we focus on fantasy literature, it raises interesting notions about why so often that limitless creative space (limitless by its very nature, the fantastic) is so often constrained by tolkienesque, mediaeval derivative settings.

Is it simply that we have romanticised that setting, or that time period? Is that a limitation of our dreaming? I would contend it is revealing of limitations we impose upon ourselves.

We often talk about fantasy in some ways reflecting the world we live in (let’s call it the real world, for simplicity) – and that notion of reflection, of mirroring, is crucial. It is interesting then to consider what values are reflected in the creation of a setting, or a culture, or a storyline, that are not done consciously. We must necessarily, and subconsciously, write in our own prejudices, our own judgments about the world’s limitations. Rather than simply treating fantasy as that mirror on the real world, it should be treated as a lens. In this way, we can better appreciate the limitations, our own prevailing ideologies that we unknowingly include. And by doing that, we can push back against them, as part of the very act of writing. Is that not a special power of any art?

But this must be a reflexive process: in writing, we consider the values and limitations we create and imply, and work through them not as the point of the writing, but as part of the act of writing. This self-criticism should be an ongoing and necessary part of the act of writing. So breaking the stereotypes and cliches, and considering our own ideologies in writing becomes not the end goal of the work, but something integral, freeing up the end goal, wiping the smudges from the lens.

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In all spheres of human endeavour (especially creative), we should constantly try and break those boundaries we unknowingly impose, else we merely echo history and hegemony. But first we must recognise them, examine them, find their weaknesses (and their strengths). Again, I contend that fantasy provides an ideal setting in which to explore this process and carry it out.

If we don’t question our beliefs, they become self-reinforcing. They become assumptions – cliché and trope work this way. So if we don’t question why fantasy is enamoured of certain settings, we come to assume that they are a defining aspect of it.

As I have discussed previously, fantasy/the fantastic is a ripe field/genre for exploring our world and our assumptions, because it is a direct link (perhaps the most direct) to understanding our ideology. Like Freud thought dream was to conscious behaviour. This is not endorsement of the popular overgeneralisaton of Freud’s views, rather a recognition that in this convalescence between writing (the most direct form of self/auto-communication), and fantasy/genre (the most symbolically potent form of the art) we have a safe space to explore, we are not censored by ideology (rather, we are, but we can work through and around it by writing it in), just like dreams are seen as a safe space for the mind to explore emotions and actions and conceptions and fantasies that (more) conscious waking minds inhibit.

It is not that sex and death are the primal, underlying forces that drive all else, but that they are the most emotionally potent (the most intensely conditionable and the most primally feared); it is not that mediaeval settings are the most romantic and desired, but that these are the most able to directly solve the subconscious censor of our ideology, or so we think. The setting is also somewhat recognisable, relatable, and it echoes prevailing mythologies – of heroes and kings, and such. And while this creates great possibility, I feel it is also a dangerous lure – like a goldfish in a bowl, that thinks it swims in the sea.

We must always resist what comes easily, for that tells us something about our assumptions.

So not only is the content a lens on our world, the building blocks of that world are a lens through the writer. It is imperative that the writer is aware of what he or she is writing through.

Time and the space inside

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WP_20130809_004We are always looking for time and space.

People say that travel broadens the mind. For me, this is not just an expanding of horizons, of distances and numbers previously beyond awareness or comprehension; not merely of connection with ‘other’ social and cultural systems that bring about an awareness of other ways of thinking and ways of operating in the world; but of the possibility of immersion in those systems. Only immersion can beget understanding. By living the way an other lives for a time, to be challenged and fascinated by different boundaries and norms, forces you to confront your own operating assumptions, your wants and needs, relative fortunes, and supposed strangenesses. Therein lies the possibility of compassion. This is one of the romantic ideals of anthropology—to immerse and perhaps understand—and the inherent challenge of reflecting that back through familiar ways of understanding and viewing the world.

For me, the broadening occurs through the valuing of time. Time to think and reflect. And that immersion and reflection gives space, broadens the breathing space in the mind, to consider ideas and make connections.

Last time I travelled I had an idea, and over the course of a week or two, with space to reflect, that idea grew, and the story has now come to fruition. The time, freedom, and the state of mind allowed that idea to burgeon and find new connections, in ways that life at home doesn’t often allow.

Travel doesn’t broaden the mind—society and culture restrict the mind, and we should take whatever chance we get to loosen those restrictions, and to let thought branch and wander wherever it will.

R.L. Stevenson and Art’s Intent

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“…in the humblest sort of literary work, we have it in our power either to do great harm or great good.”

There are many books purporting to teach the aspirant to write; of those, I have read more than a few. Tom Bissell’s essay Writing About Writing About Writing in Magic Hours provides a good review of these, and sums them quite nicely, and I daren’t add much more than that, suffice to say that some are good, some are bad, many give advice, many give inspiration, and many merely teach a writer to write books that teach to write. On the whole, they represent an echo chamber of hollow epithets and idiosyncrasies submitted as stricture.

R.L. Stevenson’s collection Essays in the Art of Writing (available in the public domain) has struck me as one of the most important works instructing an aspiring writer in how to approach their work. Unlike many such manuals it does not purport to teach the willpower and habits that are inevitably the domain of the individual, but it makes the case for the underlying state of mind and soul that is necessary to approach the art in anything resembling a moral fashion.

The collection opens with what may be considered a craft manual, On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature. Rather than delve into specifics, he outlines the considerations a prose writer must juggle (his metaphor being juggling oranges) to avoid crafting stilted soulless prose: word choice, the patterning of elements, rhythm, and the contents and sound of phrase. And he need not give examples, because each sentence is its own perfectly resonant, artful proof. A handful of examples plucked at random:

“It is, indeed, a strange art to take these blocks, rudely conceived for the purpose of the market or the bar, and by tact of application touch them to the finest meanings and distinctions, restore to them their primal energy, wittily shift them to another issue, or make of them a drum to rouse the passions.”

“These not only knit and knot the logical texture of the style with all the dexterity and strength of prose; they not only fill up the pattern of the verse with infinite variety and sober wit; but they give us, besides, a rare and special pleasure, by the art, comparable to that of counterpoint, with which they follow at the same time, and now contrast, and now combine, the double pattern of the texture and the verse.”

“Still, the phrase is the strict analogue of the group, and successive phrases, like successive groups, must differ openly in length and rhythm.”

“The vowel demands to be repeated; the consonant demands to be repeated; and both cry aloud to be perpetually varied.”

But it is the second essay in which Stevenson’s moral self shines. The Morality of the Profession of Letters begins with a discussion of the possibility of financial reward as a writer (the more things change…this essay was published in 1881), from which beginning Stevenson states his thesis: “The salary in any business under heaven is not the only, nor indeed the first, question. That you should continue to exist is a matter for your own consideration; but that your business should be first honest, and second useful, are points in which honour and morality are concerned.”

“Literature,” he goes on, “like any other art, is singularly interesting to the artist; and, in a degree peculiar to itself among the arts, it is useful to mankind. These are the sufficient justifications for any young man or woman who adopts it as the business of his life. I shall not say much about the wages. A writer can live by his writing. If not so luxuriously as by other trades, then less luxuriously. The nature of the work he does all day will more affect his happiness than the quality of his dinner at night. Whatever be your calling, and however much it brings you in the year, you could still, you know, get more by cheating. We all suffer ourselves to be too much concerned about a little poverty; but such considerations should not move us in the choice of that which is to be the business and justification of so great a portion of our lives; and like the missionary, the patriot, or the philosopher, we should all choose that poor and brave career in which we can do the most and best for mankind.”

Directly this passage speaks to a writer, but its message applies equally to any pursuit, to any career. And this universality is the very point of the essay: that if writing is approached from fact and from honest moral intentions, then this truth to humanity will shine through. “There are two duties incumbent upon any man who enters on the business of writing: truth to the fact and a good spirit in the treatment.”

The piece argues for the power of literature to communicate—and more broadly the power of communication to change the psychology of the reader. We are so caught up in fascination with the rapid expansion of communication, so swept away in doing its work, that we have ever less time and energy (I hesitate to argue we don’t care) to critically examine how it influences our minds and behaviour.

In one word, it must always be foul to tell what is false; and it can never be safe to suppress what is true.

Stevenson’s impassioned note declares all communication as moral. There is more moral obligation incumbent on artists because they are looked to as distinct from publications by corporations whose MO is to deceive. And thus the proliferation of this ability to communicate is such a great opportunity in our society: There will always be more mere words, bland tellings; there will always be the extremes that aim to sway belief; but there is always waiting hot and ready beneath the soil some wellspring of art that can do all of that but with beauty and honest moral intent. And arising from those intentions is the value of the art. Let that moral be the impetus for all your work.

Man is imperfect; yet, in his literature, he must express himself and his own views and preferences; for to do anything else is to do a far more perilous thing than to risk being immoral: it is to be sure of being untrue. 

There are many more jewels in this trove, and it is one to which I’ll return. Stevenson’s passion is that of a reader. The wish to read artful prose, married to the moral attitudes with which a writer reveals his or her heart, necessarily creates the conditions by which literature can maintain its value.