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Monday, August 19, 2013

 

Opening Line: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

This site is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of Opening Line posts can be found here.

My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder.

To take on the Victorian novel is no small challenge for a modern author. Nowadays we like to think of ourselves as liberated from the fusty formality of the Victorian age, with its apocryphal covered piano legs and its improving moral pap, but if we look at the actual history, we see something else. It was in the Victorian era that recreation became serious business, giving us laws that created mandatory holidays and railroads that gave us places to holiday in, and with leisure time on the rise and capitalism's machines a-whir, an explosion of amusements followed on.

There was a switch from locally-generated activities and community-based entertainments to increasingly officialised ones: national cricket and football leagues, public swimming baths, dance clubs, museums, exhibitions, arcade games, ticket-only entertainment events - the repertoire of public recreations to which we still adhere. Visual spectacles took on a new primacy. Like us, the Victorians loved staring at things with their mouths open.*
It was the Victorian era that gave us Grand Guignol and, in Britain itself, the 'Sensation Dramas' like The Colleen Bawn (1860), with its elaborate trap doors and wavering gauze and dramatic stage mechanics - or what we in our enlightened times would call 'special effects.' It was the Victorians who invented the magic lanterns that prefigure home televisions and the cinematograph, giving us the movies we still watch today. And the visual gadgets did not produce decorous tales, either; consider this 1895 offering of Edison's across the Atlantic, The Execution of Mary Stuart:



The Victorians may not have given us skirts for furniture, but they did give us the splatter film. And of course, they gave us something else, something to which every novelist owes a debt. They gave us the modern bestseller.

What do we know of the 'Victorian novel'? Even those who know Dickens only through his film adaptations, and to whom the names 'Wilkie Collins' and 'Mary Elizabeth Braddon' mean little, have some sense of what the great hotcake-seller books of the era involved. They involved grand, complicated plots with twists and coincidences and tangled family trees. They involved journeys through high and low life with reflections on the nature of society, sometimes radical, sometimes conservative and sometimes both at once, but they were always broad in their sweep. They involved spectacular villainy and eventual punishment. They involved falls and restoration. They involved shameless shocks and grand dramas and, as the phrase of the era had it, they involved 'sensation'. They were gripping but smart, personal but political, thrilling but comforting. They gave you your money's worth. They were big books.

They made a market into which we all now pour ourselves ... and they created a mold that only the boldest of followers tries to fill.

Enter Sarah Waters.

Fingersmith is Waters's third novel and the last, to date, of her three Victorian settings. 'The lesbian Victorian novel' is a marketer's dream: an easy soundbite that immediately catches the ear. In interviews, Waters herself shows the balance you'd expect from so poised a writer:

I'm writing with a clear lesbian agenda in the novels. It's right there at the heart of the books. And it's both at the heart of the books and yet it's also incidental, because that's how it is in my life, and that's how it is, really, for most lesbian and gay people, isn't it? It's sort of just there in your life. So I feel it makes absolute sense to call me a lesbian writer, but at the same time I'm just a writer ... I'm just writing stuff that interests me and feels important to me...

And somehow, the concept is charmingly fitting: what did sensation novels do, after all, if not look at the underbelly of life, peer into the dark corners, whisper of the unspoken? Homosexuality, though, was a step too far for most of them - or at least explicit homosexuality; as my Gender Studies supervisor remarked to me, 'When I read David Copperfield as a child, I was always very clear on who the real romance was between' - and the happy coincidence of Waters's natural interests and the appropriate sense of update that 'lesbian Victorians' brings to the field makes for some deservedly popular novels. It's a cool concept to sell, but it wouldn't sell if Waters wasn't good. And good she certainly is.

Fingersmith is the longest and most ambitious of her Victorian threesome, so to speak, more elaborately plotted than the picaresque romp of Tipping the Velvet, larger in scale than the bleak intrigue of Affinity, with a series of plot twists that leave the reader reeling in bewildered admiration. (And yes, I'm going to talk about them, so if you want to be surprised, read the book before you finish this essay. Really, do read it; you'll enjoy the heck out of it.) With the task she sets herself, there are certain things she has to do to make it work. The language needs to have an authentic period feel while remaining lucid enough for the reader to understand it without either losing interest or losing track. Every sentence needs to be both gripping and easy to follow: with so many strange events on their way, there is not an inch of room for minterpretation. It needs to be detailed and matter-of-fact: this is a book that rereading reveals to be rife with dramatic irony, but Waters plays fair and the clues are hiding in plain sight, remarked upon so incidentally that they don't stand out from all the background detail. And dramatic irony is strongly present in this opening line.

Linguistically, it's extremely simple: no word over two syllables, no phrase over three words, the plainest of all declarations - a character's name. Yet at the same time, there's a clear tension of time going on: the narrator's name may have been Susan Trinder once, but evidently it's something different now. 'Those days' have passed, that's what we know at once: we are reading a novel of a life lived in eras, not in a smooth continuum, and between one era and another, the narrator's very identity has been called into question. That's a lot of drama to pack into a small space.

There's another aspect to 'those days' that only becomes clear in retrospect, and in fact, it's central to the novel's theme. Fingersmith is the story of two changeling girls, the illegitimate daughter of a persecuted aristocrat hidden in a thieves' den and the child of a crooked baby farmer swapped into her ladylike, exploited place, and here, Waters doesn't just imitate the Victorian novel. She takes it on.

Nature versus nurture was a question familiar to the Victorians, and their novels reflect it. Though one can't simplify too much and it varies from writer to writer - Wilkie Collins, for instance, was firmly against the stain of illegitimacy and heroised the black cousin over the white in Armadale - there's a running thread of 'blood will tell'. Dickens, most famously, wrote novels in which natural virtue survived low circumstances and social mobility proved problematic at best; his later novels are subtler, but there's some justice in John Carey's swingeing description of Oliver Twist's impervious naivete in the face of baby farming, workhouse abuse and thieves' education as 'a hymn to the purity of the middle-class soul.'** While the popular novels didn't have an exclusively middle-class audience, family relationships are a central element to the Victorian novel - or at least to 'the Victorian novel' as modern readers understand the term - the question of a spiritual family resemblance, even without knowing who your family may be, makes for some interesting dramatic ironies. And it's dramatic irony on which so much of the Victorian novel rests. Sometimes the conclusion can be heart-warming: Rose Maylie, who loves Oliver Twist when he's just a friendless waif, turns out to be his aunt. Sometimes heritage can be risen above: Ozias Midwinter's agonies of conscience show him all the way through Armadale to be a better man than his murderous father, and despite his fears, he is positioned as Allan's protector, not his destroyer. Family connections may be many things, but what they aren't is irrelevant. Family, in the Victorian novel, isn't just circumstance: we inherit destinies and dispositions as well as faces and features.

Waters, on the other hand, takes the opposite line. Oliver Twist is an acknowledged progenitor - one of Susan Trinder's earliest memories is of being frightened by a stage version and fearing that Bill Sykes will come and get her - and in many ways, the story is an inversion of Dickens's concept. Susan, raised in the Borough, is a Borough girl through and through, genteel antecedents or not. Her speech is like that of the people who raised her, and so are her values: while she has more compunction about the meaner kinds of thievery than her foster-mother Mrs Sucksby, she herself says early on that this is largely because Mrs Sucksby protected her from being taken 'on the prig' and treated her with unusual kindness. That Mrs Sucksby did all this for cynical motives, planning to imprison Sue in a madhouse and retrieve her own daughter Maud along with Sue's fortune - that to her 'mother', she was not a daughter to be cossetted but an asset to be guarded until it could be cashed in - Sue does not learn until right at the end of the book. But while the knowledge shakes her, it doesn't change who she fundamentally is. She doesn't become aristocratic on learning that her real name is Susan Lilly; she is a poor girl raised among thieves but sheltered - in many ways, more sheltered than Maud, more used to kindness and less used to pain - and her guiding principle, above all else, is loyalty. She doesn't quite lose her warm memories of Mrs Sucksby; she stays fond of the simple-minded Dainty; she falls all the deeper in love with Maud when she realises that it's Maud who's done the most to protect her.

Maud, too, remains what she was raised to be: a strange, fierce, uncomfortable girl, the product of a ghastly childhood, capable of deep loves and deep hates and hard to subdue. Maud, Mrs Sucksby's daughter, has been raised by her 'uncle' - in reality Sue's uncle - as an amanuensis for his Universal Bibliography of Priapus and Venus (based, Waters acknowledges, on the work of Henry Spencer Ashbee). Maud has been beaten into bitter submission, living her life among works of pornography that mean nothing to her except a collection of fonts and frontispieces until Sue draws her desire; returned to her natural mother, she feels no tenderness for Mrs Sucksby at all. She notes that there's some resemblance in their faces, and it's not unreasonable to imagine that her tough-mindedness and intelligence are traits she got from her mother, but it stirs no sense of kinship. Maud feels herself to be entirely shaped by experience; of her childhood, she says, 'I am an amiable child, I think, made wilful by restraint'; looking at her uncle's bookplate design, she says, 'Sometimes ... I suppose such a plate must be pasted upon my own flesh - that I have been ticketed, and noted and shelved - so nearly do I resemble one of my uncle's books.' Left without means, she eventually supports herself by writing the pornography she was raised to catalogue, saying only, 'I find I am good at it.' Her education becomes her livelihood, and her heart remains unfilial.

The disrupter of experience, in Fingersmith, is not nature but more experience, and it's not family relationships but sexual attraction that begins to break the patterns imposed upon Sue and Maud. Surrounded by 'villains' of one kind or another, each is enticed into a scheme to betray the other, both ignorant of the enticer's real motives; neither is innocent in the literal sense, but both are innocent of the machinations of all around them. Each is, as Sue would say, 'a pigeon'. They are manipulated according to plan, but the plan does not include the possibility that they should feel anything for each other. They are, in the feminist sense, objects who through desire transform themselves into subjects: positioned to be acted upon, their love for each other closes an unforeseen gap and throws everything out of order. The 'unnatural' romance between them becomes the most natural human relationship in the book; the only one between major characters that is based on spontaneous feeling and, despite all the lies, the only one based on really seeing the other person: seeing the small details of her reactions and habits and passing moments of selfhood. Sue and Maud see each other clearly through a welter of misdirection, and spend the rest of the book re-learning how to trust that initial instinct that drew them together.

And in this odd romance, everything in each girl's life is a misdirection, right down to her name. Maud is lied to when she's told her name is Maud Lilly: her name is Maud Sucksby, though she never uses it. Susan's name, with which we begin, is even more fraught. Technically, her name is Susan Lilly, though even that is a little tentative: Lilly is the surname of her mother, and the name of her illegitimate father is never known. Going to Briar to trick Maud, she carries the name Susan Smith, and imprisoned in a madhouse, mistaken for Maud and fearful of incriminating herself, she insists at first that this is her real name. There are moments in the middle of the twists where it seems possible that she might really be Susan Sucksby. 'Susan Trinder', though, is a complete fiction. Mrs Sucksby has raised her with the tale that her real mother was hanged for 'murdering a miser over his plate'; the story is elaborate and full of details, and Sue finds it entirely convincing. (Though again, in post-Victorian style, she feels no particular emotion for this supposed mother: 'How,' she asks, 'could I be sorry, for someone I never knew?') The truth is, there was never a Trinder woman before Sue; the name can only have been plucked from the air as something likely-seeming. Add all this together, and Sue hardly has a surname at all. When she says, 'My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder,' that's really the best she can do. It sounds, at first reading, like promising drama, but it contains all the loss and confusion of her life.

The choice is a suitable one. 'Trinder' is a real surname with proper working-class roots - roots Sue doesn't actually have, of course - but at the same time, it's an unusual one, likely to be unfamiliar to many readers. The effect matches that blurring of reality that dominates the plot: it sounds at once real and unreal, to real to be true. It has the same sort of sound as 'prig' (meaning steal), the same clipped, staccato quality you'd hear in an accent that calls the police 'the blues' and describes the pronunciation of 'gentleman' 'as if the word were a fish and we had filleted it: Ge'mun'. You can hear it said in a Borough voice. Names in Fingersmith are all authentic, but they're also a little outlandish-sounding: John Vroom, Mrs Sucksby, Mr Ibbs, Mrs Cakebread, Maud Lilly. It's a nod to the Victorian tradition again, with its Quilps and Pecksniffs and Betteredges and Verinders, and Trinder sounds like the kind of name you'd expect a thieving girl to have. Actually the name derives from an old word for 'spinner', but if someone told you Victorian criminals called it 'trinding' to file the crest off stolen metal or substitute glass stones for real ones, you probably wouldn't be surprised. 'Susan Trinder' sounds perfectly plausible, and no stranger than anybody else's name. And that's the trouble with it, of course: it is plausible. It's plausible enough to mislead its bearer into a madhouse.

It's interesting, too, the slight note of formality in the opening. People don't actually call her Susan, as she immediately acknowledges in the next sentence: 'People called me 'Sue.' 'Sue Trinder' sounds consistent, 'Sue Lilly' a bit peculiar, but 'Susan' is a public name, an official one. I've said that nurture wins over nature in this book and that Sue retains some loyalty to her childhood, but there's also a note of distance about it, a slight caution about claiming it fully. 'Susan Trinder' was her full name, so she thought, but it's not as if we'd assume that 'Sue' was a shortening of anything else in this context; if she said, 'My name, in those days, was Sue Trinder', it wouldn't be inaccurate. What it does, though, is subtly disclaim the entire name, not just the surname. 'Susan' and 'Trinder' are opposites: 'Susan' was her name, but not what people called her, while 'Trinder' is what people called her, but wasn't her name. By setting the two in tension, this disclaimed identity feels a little unstable from the outset, as if it's become overheated and can only be handled with tongs. In the following 'People called me Sue' we hear the awkward balance between the two: it's at once the blunt statements of an uneducated girl and the careful precision of a girl whose very name is charged with lies.

The same applies to the cadence. 'My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder' is rather soft on the ear, the internal assonance of 'name' and 'days' drawn out by the comma that follows each of them, the setting much gentler than the sharp Ss and Ts and Ds of 'Susan Trinder'. Like so much else in the book, you can hear it two ways: it could be the elegiac grace of nostalgia, or it could be the jerky hesitance of a speaker not sure how to begin. It is, in other words, a deeply ambivalent sentence: an actress could perform it a number of different ways without straining the text. Sue shifts in tone according to the reader's interpretation, and the reader's interpretation shifts dramatically depending on whether we're encountering this book for the first time or the second.

What we begin with, in fact, is a nameless narrator for whom names are the starting point of a story. The book opens with a series of details about Sue's childhood, all with the feeling of background, and then Sue suddenly breaks off and addresses us: 'You are waiting for me to start my story. Perhaps I was waiting, then. But my story had already started - I was only like you, and didn't know it.' Sue tells us right in the opening sentence where the key to the mystery lies: her name. It was Susan Trinder - only it wasn't, and that's where her story begins.

Waters, in other words, begins the story at the beginning of the story, but until we know how it ends, we don't see why it's the beginning. It's a brilliant sleight of hand. The deceptions are indicated a little more clearly in the two sentences that begin Maud's narrative - 'The start, I think I know too well. It is the first of my mistakes.' - which befits its place in the story after the first major twist. Too, it has Maud's angry note in the writing; lady or not, Maud is a more aggressive character than Sue. Essentially, though, she is saying the same thing: I was wrong about myself, my self, all my life.

Waters tells us a tale with twist upon twist and revelation upon revelation, glimpses into high life and low, playing money at the root of evil and galloping through grand dramas and family complications in true Victorian style. What's modern about her, though, is her focus on how a character's inner life becomes shaped to her circumstances.

Modern, but not entirely modern. Oliver Twist was a very early work for Dickens, and he wasn't always that simplistic. The Dickensian brother of Susan and Maud is probably not Oliver Twist but Pip, conflicted and regretful and dangerously malleable in unscrupulous hands. The Victorian novel wasn't merely a case of shocks and spills; psychology and emotion were straining through it, and in Fingersmith, Waters was developing as much as she was subverting. More than most Victorian characters, her narrators discuss the effects of their childhood on themselves, but their basic theme - the relationship between an individual and the society in which they find themselves - is a lesson she learns as much as teaches. In this dark and convoluted story, she manages to be both classical and deviant, all without distracting the reader for a minute from the breathless intricacies of her storytelling.

Fingersmith is a profoundly educated book, but it's not, in the dry sense of the word, an 'educational' book. Waters's knowledge of her subject is naturalised until we are immersed in our strange circumstances just as much as Sue and Maud are in theirs. Nothing is flaunted; we are merely entertained. But the closer we listen to that entertaining voice, the more echoes whisper to and fro through its speech. The opening line of Fingersmith isn't a challenge to read; it's engaging, arresting, readable, combining classic and modern in a gripping new alloy. We read it for fun, but if we reread it, the deadpan subtlety is remarkable. To begin with a life at the beginning of a life is truly Victorian - but in true postmodern style - and so very appropriately for a story all about the dangers of myths and misinterpretations - how you read the sentence is far more complicated than the sentence itself.


*Inventing the Victorians, Matthew Sweet, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 1988
**The Violent Effigy, John Carey, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 1973 and 1991

Comments:
Well, I feel prescient now! And this was a lovely analysis.

As I said in a previous thread, I read this book recently, and by chance right after Wilkie Collins and No Name. I believe that Fingersmith is usually compared to The Woman In White, what with all the mixed identities in the asylums, but No Name is also a clear ancestor.

Both novels feature pairs of young women of dubious claims to identity, and with no claims to independent financial or social standing. Collins clearly has a lot of sympathy for the injustice of the Vanstone sisters' predicament, and the reader has a lot of sympathy for Magdalen's efforts, scandalous though they may be, to exact what should be due to her. She shows considerable agency and ingenuity in the attempt; Captain Wragge may lend assistance and professional expertise, but Magdalen's in charge. But in the end, all her efforts fail and fall short, and she owes her final happiness to a man-- to two men, in fact: Captain Kirke, who falls in love with her at first sight, and her cousin George Bartram, who falls in love with her sister Nora. Magdalen's rightful position is as Kirke's wife and George's sister-in-law: her face is her fortune, not her determination or her lost inheritance.

Susan and Maud, on the other hand, begin as pawns, and know to some extent that they're pawns. But Sue is trusting and Maud is desperate; against all odds they find each other, and in the end, they take ownership of themselves, objects who through desire transform themselves into subjects, in a complete reversal of Magdalen's "happy ending" which goes entirely the other way.

The truth is, there was never a Trinder woman before Sue; the name can only have been plucked from the air as something likely-seeming. Add all this together, and Sue hardly has a surname at all.

You could perhaps say that in a patrilineal and patriarchal system, no woman has a surname of her own. "My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder." But many women are known by more than one name during the course of their lives, remembering the period before their marriage, or a previous marriage, as "in those days, I was somebody else." And the maternal line isn't memorialized in the surname; most girls carry a different name than the one their mothers were born with, emphasizing one history while marginalizing another. Sue's story, and Magdalen's, are extreme examples, but maybe related to the endless arguments over what name a woman will be known by, and what name does she have a right to.

And now I have to go read Armadale, which I've never gotten around to.

I'd never heard the name of Trinder before, and it does work perfectly here. I always liked, though, Trollope's choice of "Palliser" for his Duke-of-Everything family. As an occupational name, it means a maker of fences, or palisades, which sounds quite humble and hard-working, a odd pairing with the regal "Plantagenet." But "Planty Pall" always was a bit uneasy about his ducal state, and the Palliser family is always aware of what the proper boundaries are-- just ask the former Glencora McCluskie!

 
You could perhaps say that in a patrilineal and patriarchal system, no woman has a surname of her own.

Indeed. It's interesting how Waters manages to hint that whatever the reason for 'Susan Trinder' no longer being her name, marriage isn't it.

We might assume it if we're familiar with Waters as a 'lesbian author', but then again, it's not as if being gay precludes marriage, and indeed, Maud does go through the ceremony of a marriage in the course of the story.

It's more, I think, the influence of 'in those days'. If you change your name through marriage, it's not a shift from certain 'days' to others; it's a definite event, and most people would think of it in terms of 'My name, before I married', or 'My name, when I was still single'. However you phrase it, changing a name through marriage is a single, definite moment with a clear dividing line between one and another. 'Those days', though, is much less defined; days are taken together with the vague indicative 'those'. The sense is that 'those days' were defined by the life that was lived in them rather than by anything as legalistic as marital status.

I think the other big hint that it isn't marriage is the comma after 'name'. 'My name in those days was Susan Trinder' might conceivably be the voice of a married woman, because the punctuation is crisp and economical and doesn't cast 'those days' into their own cadenced pause. 'My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder,' though, makes 'in those days' sound like a qualification, as if Sue is somehow correcting herself. The punctuation marks 'those days' out as separate from the rest of the sentence, and by implication, there has been some separation between those days and the speaker.

Interesting, the effect a simple comma can have.
 
Interesting, indeed. (As I keep trying to tell my husband when I proofread his stuff: those little symbols are not just for decoration!)

But it is another way that Sarah Waters both develops and subverts, as you put it, her literary ancestors. Almost every Victorian novel (well, that I can think of right now) ends with a marriage. You may get your occasional stubborn spinster like Lily Dale, or your unhappy marriage coming apart, but there'll be at least one conventional happy couple. Not in this book-- nobody ends up married. Although I guess that Maud is technically a widow.

Rather like Magdalen Vanstone, in fact, who went through a form of marriage with her cousin, also named Vanstone-- but she did it under the assumed name of Susan Bygrave; talk about your significant names, and I'm beginning to think that you never know, with these Susans. Anyway, her only legal right to any name at all is through a fraudulent marriage, until she's rescued by a genuine marriage. That's not going to happen with Susan once-Trinder, maybe-Lilly, or whoever she'll be in her next phase.


 
Although at the same time, it does confirm the Victorian tradition of ending in a marriage in that it ends with the union of the two romantic leads. Not in marriage, of course, because that's not possible in the era (heck, it's only just about possible now), but it does end when they find each other.

You could even say that it ends with Maud creating an equivalent to a 'proposal' to Sue: she's been writing erotica that's based on her fantasies of Sue, and concludes by reading them to her. That's a rather neat public-yet-secret inscription of their union, as if Maud is making a declaration akin to a marriage vow, only one that no one but she and Sue can actually interpret. Their love dares speak its name, but characteristically for gay Victorians, does it in code.

There's also a shadow marriage certificate in Marianne Lilly's will, you might argue: a legal document binds the two girls together in their babyhood. It's concealed from both, and the final climax comes when the illiterate Sue gets someone to read it aloud to her: the revelation is not that it's possible for the lovers to marry as in conventional Victorian fiction, but that both their connection to each other and their love for each other are already there.

So it sort of does end with a marriage, or at least, a union. The union is done through the Victorian device of wills and fortune, and the modern device of sexual recognition, and both concealed and exposed at once. 'Will you do me the honour of paradoxically reinscribing AND destablizing hegemonic discourse with me?', as Sydney proposes to Mo in Dykes To Watch Out For.*

And in a move that's probably wildly exciting to readers of more metafictional tastes than myself, reading is very often the act that closes the gap. Maud and 'Gentleman' can trick Sue because Sue can't read; books imprison Maud; Sue only learns the truth through getting someone to read her letter; the final union is of Maud rather brilliantly reconciling the two extremes of illiteracy and being imprisoned as a collector - being shut out of books and shut in by books - by creating books that speak of their spontaneous, natural feelings for each other, the only spontaneity in the story, and bringing Sue in both as character and audience, both object and subject, gazer and gazee. Personally I'm not of the taste that thinks books are better when they talk about books than when they talk about life, but it's a rather beautiful and elegant handling of the motif, making for a satisfying narrative as well as thematic conclusion.


The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel, Jonathan Cape, London 2009, p 307
 
'Will you do me the honour of paradoxically reinscribing AND destablizing hegemonic discourse with me?',

Hah.

as Sydney proposes to Mo in Dykes To Watch Out For.*
I really am going to have to catch up with that one.

And in a move that's probably wildly exciting to readers of more metafictional tastes than myself, reading is very often the act that closes the gap.
I hadn't thought of it like that-- I don't always recognize metafiction when it bites me because I'm too busy reading-- but of course you're right.

And now I'm reminded of another Victorian heroine who was "shut in by books." Dorothea Brooke during her life as Mrs Casaubon attempts to devote herself to the "Key to All Mythologies," a work as impossible to be completed as the Uncle Lilly's "Encyclopedia of Venus," and which she doesn't have the education to assess at its true inadequacy. Even after Casaubon's death when she's in despair over Will Ladislaw, she attempts to go on with that kind of study: Was there not the geography of Asia Minor, in which her slackness had often been rebuked by Mr. Casaubon...this morning she might make herself sure that Paphlogonia was not on the Levantine coast, and fix her total darkness about the Chalybees firmly on the shores of the Euxine. A futile and depressing endeavor, abandoned forever as soon as Ladislaw arrives. And I have the impression that the geography of Asia Minor or anywhere else is not going to be relevant to her life as Mrs. Ladislaw. Reading was, in the end, no help to Dorothea with any of her spontaneous and natural feelings.


Personally I'm not of the taste that thinks books are better when they talk about books than when they talk about life

... I see your point, but I'm not sure I can always make the distinction. Sometimes, life seems to be mostly books.

This is NOT a demand, or even a request-- I think I've had my share of requests, and thank you-- but on the subject of the overlap of life and art, I was wondering if you've read A.S. Byatt, and were planning anything on Possession or The Children/s Book.
 
Oh, don't feel bad about making requests! It's not as if you're going to cyber-stalk me if I don't oblige; frankly it gives me ideas. It was your talk of Fingersmith in the last thread that got me thinking of things to say. The only problem is when it exposes gaps in my education, as in this case where, rather lamentably, I haven't read any A.S. Byatt. I really ought to remedy that, but with books to write and a child to raise, I fear it may be some time before I get the chance to read her with due attention...

Dorothea Brooke - there's an interesting point of contrast there. Maud is shut in by literal books, books as physical objects; her education is all about the technical aspects of production and kept so guarded from anything that might be expected to stir her sexuality that she can read the content aloud with no emotion at all. Christopher Lilly is a force of anti-sexuality, 'the lust of the bookman' drying out any more ordinary lusts; his lust has a very specific and concrete focus.

Mr Casaubon, on the other hand, is a much more diffuse kind of prison, a prison of negation. Dorothea can't get a straight answer out of him about which Roman antiquities he prefers because he can only think of them in terms of 'the opinion of the cognoscenti'; his mind is defined as 'ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither'; he says 'Yes' 'with that peculiar pitch of voice which makes the word half a negative'; he responds to her caresses with 'unfailing propriety' and awkward withdrawal. Likewise, his 'Key to All Mythologies' is an endless non-event; where Christopher Lilly works tirelessly and makes Maud do the same, and is evidently productive even if his task is endless, Mr Casuabon frustrates Dorothea and troubles himself by endless procrastination and an inability to think in more than vague terms. Where Christopher Lilly is a ruthlessly completist scholar, Mr Casuabon is a failed scholar precisely because his knowledge is incomplete: his scope is international but his reading isn't, and so his plan has already been surpassed in Germany without his knowledge.

He's less of an uncomplicated villain than Christopher Lilly as well, of course, but I'd say they stood for opposite kinds of imprisonment. I'm thinking of Lovelace's 'To Althea, from Prison':

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.


Christopher Lilly is a prison of stone walls and iron bars. Mr Casuabon is a prison of a capacity for love and soul that never manage to take flight.
 
(continued...)

And in that sense, their bookishness is likewise opposite. Christopher Lilly is all about the tangible reality of books, not their meaning. Mr Casuabon is endlessly searching for the meaning of books, to the point where he fades from tangible reality. The one is a bad reader because he's too concrete, and the other because he's too abstract; neither of them grasp what a novelist would consider to be the heart of books, which is their vibration in harmony with feeling and experience.
 
Thank you, Kit, that's a lovely way to put it.

And now I probably should go off and think some more about fiction, and metafiction. It's easy enough to say I like what I like, but now I'm wondering why I like some variations on the theme more than others. Why is it, that I loved Among Others and The Secret Country, but found Redshirts only mildly amusing and The Magicians frequently annoying; I nodded knowingly when Terry Pratchett talked about "Narrativium" as the main constituting element of Discworld, before diving right back into the story, but I never quite understood the fuss over The Princess Bride or The Neverending Story; I laughed at The Eyre Affair but gave up in disgust on John Dies At the End-- okay, that one is obvious. Still, I shall have to think about this.

And now I see that all my examples are from fantasy and S/F, which I believe you're only mildly interested in. Is that simply because I've read so much of it, or does the genre tend that way naturally? Are genre readers and writers more likely to be the ones who feel they've "had their lives saved by books," as Jo Walton put it, and therefore like writing and reading books about books?

Anyway, thanks for your insights. Because when real life is difficult, as it so often likes to be, well, there's always books.
 
That's an interesting question. I can think of several possibilities:

1. SFF is by its nature a concept-y kind of writing; playing with the concept of storytelling doesn't seem too much of a reach.

2. SFF is by its nature a story of unreal things; questioning the reality of the story doesn't seem a big reach either.

3. Metafiction is, at least in recent times, often political: Brecht's characters turning and addressing the audience, for instance. Unusually, SFF has a lot of readers and some writers who are kind of 'political' about their genre; as Gerard Jones says in Men of Tomorrow, 'A real debate raged through [American science fiction magazine] fandom in the early 1930s as to whether the fan was simply a person of specific tastes or "a superior order of human," marked as a higher rung on the evolutionary ladder by "his vast imagination and openness to possibility."' The issue of SFF readership being an identity rather than just a taste is a long-established part of its history. There is a difference, though: where Brecht or Dario Fo might use metafiction to accuse their audience, it seems to me that a lot of SFF writers use metafiction to compliment them, but there is, at least, an air of politics in both cases. Metafiction implicates the reader, and when there's a subculture based on the consumption of a certain genre, that genre being prone to metafiction doesn't seem that surprising: reading the genre is often, in itself, a subcultural act.

4. I think a big appeal of SFF is that it allows the reader to immerse themselves in an imaginary world. A friend of mine who's a big SFF fan says she likes metafiction because it adds to the sense of immersion; not only does she feel involved in the story as a reader, but as a co-conspirator with the author.

Of course, SFF isn't the only modern genre that does it. Historical fiction of a certain kind is another; I've mentioned John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman before, and Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White also comes to mind. And again, there's an element of politicking there, as both are novels that repudiate and chastise many of the values of the era they depict. (Victorian in both cases, we note.)

On the whole, I'd say that metafiction tends to turn up when authors have a point to make or an axe to grind. But perhaps SFF is, as you say, more likely to be a ground axe in and of itself.

But then, as you also say, SFF isn't really something I'm an expert reader of; I just write books that seem to come out that way, and as you can see from this series, most of my favourite books don't fall under that heading. hapax, you reading this? I'd be interested to hear your perspective...
 
Just catching up -- it's been a long week of remodelling, and no prospect of getting my bathroom back any time soon. :-(

Which has more to do with metafiction than it seems at first glance.

Metafiction, it seems to me, is an affectation peculiar to genre; science fiction / fantasy of course, but also historical fiction (as you note), romance (too many romance novels about romance novelists to count), mystery (ditto), horror (think of King's DARK TOWER series), I can't think of any meta-westerns off the top of my head but I'm sure they're out there (I wonder if TRUE GRIT would count?)

And that's because genre writing is, in many ways, a remodeling project. When I read the blogs of genre writers and genre fans, there is an acute recognition of the "foundation" -- as it were, the ur-Romance or ur-Fantasy (the "true myth" that Tolkien saw himself trying not so much to create as to reveal)-- and a consciousness that to a certain extent the various subgenres and tropes and standard elements (plotlines, character arcs, settings, et al.) could be ordered out of a catalogue and mixed-and-matched with varying degrees of artistry and craft, producing voila! -- a designer story.

(Which is why I think that so-called "cross genre fiction" is just a variant of metafiction).

/continued/
 
All of which makes it sound like I don't like meta-fiction, which is untrue. I like it very much, in fact; it appeals to my (not always accepted)understanding of Story as having in some way an independent existence, linked but not necessarily contingent upon the Story-Teller (a thesis that depends upon rather idiosyncratic theological and cosmological preconceptions, which aren't really relevant right now.)

But has to do with the concept of metafiction; the execution can be anything from transformative to entertaining to "meh" to wall-banging. Which it will be has less to do *for* *me* with the authors' skills than whether or not they have anything interesting to SAY about "Story." Far too often I see meta-fiction as a cheap device to look "cool" and "deep", or worse (as in a book I'm currently reading for review) as a deus ex machina to get the author out of a plot trap (Kit, does "Bobby-in-the-shower" translate across the Atlantic?) Or, gawdhelpus, they are the author flattering him or her self; I can't think of a single instance in which the author writes herself into the book as a character which isn't disastrous.

On the most basic level, there's the simple acknowledgment of "hey, here we are in a genre Story." This, I think, is where most "cross-genre" and "mash-up" type books start. Which is an old joke, true, but that doesn't mean it can't still be a GOOD joke. And yes, there is a comfort of the explicit acknowledgement of shared cultural touchstones, the "these are My Tribe" effect. I don't think there's anything wrong with that; there's a reason people talk about fandoms as "home" and "family", and it's often because they feel alienated from more obvious sources.

But, well, comfort and in-jokes only go so far. At a certain point, they become either empty flattery, or worse, exclusion and contempt of those who DON'T get the joke. (Part of my rant about Jim Hines's latest series is that I think he crosses that line.)

So to be really interesting, meta-fiction has to say something about what Story "does", what it "means", beyond "hey, there it is!" AMONG OTHERS does that well, I think, as does some of Pratchett's later works. Actually, I think Grossman's MAGICIANS does too, although I find what he has to say so viscerally, um, WRONG that I can't enjoy them at all (although I can respect them.)

And I guess I'd lump into this the wide literary category of "response" novels (e.g., THE WIDE SARGASSO SEA and maybe(?) FINGERSMITH, from your analysis; I haven't read it for so long I honestly can't say). It seems to me that they are a way for the author to say, "Yes, I've tried on this Story, and it's beautiful and makes me look good; but it's too tight *here*, it pinches me *there*, I can't walk or talk or even breathe properly..."

And now this metaphor is running away from me.
 
SFF is by its nature a story of unreal things; questioning the reality of the story doesn't seem a big reach either.

And it's not a big reach to accept the reality o a capital-S Story in the same way the story asks you to accept unicorns or starships.

A friend of mine who's a big SFF fan says she likes metafiction because it adds to the sense of immersion; not only does she feel involved in the story as a reader, but as a co-conspirator with the author.

Yes, it's all very nice and cosy when you're getting along with the author. When you're not, you end up screaming, "Not in my name!"

genre writing is, in many ways, a remodeling project.
It's a continuous remodeling project, isn't it? Like the Winchester House, constant construction and addition and decoration, all built up on itself. And like the Winchester House, built on a "floating foundation" which makes it somewhat collapse-proof when the earthquakes start... okay, this metaphor is getting away from me!

If fantasy is "concretized metaphor," to use a Gaiman-ism, maybe metafiction is "concretized fantasy."

And getting more concrete as time goes by. To take some examples from children's literature, I'm thinking of the differences between an E. Nesbit with her magical adventures based on general story-telling motifs, and the specifically bookish magic of an Edward Eager, to the magical books of a Cornelia Funke. From stories, to books as containers of stories, to books as powerful objects in themselves.

As for Jim C. Hines, I've read Libriomancer and liked the idea better than the execution. Also, there was the Lena Issue, so I haven't read the sequel yet. Do you rant about it somewhere?
 
Many interesting things! I'm going to have to reply in sections, Blogger being what it is.

Metafiction, it seems to me, is an affectation peculiar to genre

I wouldn't say that - or at least, I wouldn't say that literary fiction doesn't employ it. You can call The French Lieutenant's Woman 'historical fiction', in that it's set in the past, but that's a bit of a simple application of the term and you certainly couldn't call Fowles a genre writer. Or take Tom Robbins's Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, in which Robbins regularly refers to 'the author of this book' and enters as a character towards the end; that's not a genre work, unless you classify 'psychedelic fiction' as a genre. Popular with genre, sure, but not peculiar to it, surely.


it appeals to my (not always accepted)understanding of Story as having in some way an independent existence, linked but not necessarily contingent upon the Story-Teller (a thesis that depends upon rather idiosyncratic theological and cosmological preconceptions, which aren't really relevant right now.)

Now reading that, an interesting idea occurred to me. You've said before that you see 'Story' as having an independent existence, which is a belief totally contra to how I see it. I think there are certain narrative 'shapes' that harmonise with the natural rhythms of our brains, but I don't see 'Story' as independent - and more than that, it's a question that I have a kind of allergy too; it feels very much like the wrong way to look at it. (Wrong for me, that is.)

And reading that, I remembered that I'm an agnostic and you're a Christian. I've had the odd gnostic experience, but neither at the time nor afterwards did it occur to me to define whether or not they had any 'independent existence' outside my own brain - again, because it felt like the wrong way to look at it. Like pinning down a butterfly rather than letting it fly. They occurred in a place where independent reality was simply not the point.

Which is to say, I'm temperamentally agnostic to the core, and I write from that agnostic place. Agnosticism is, to me, where mysticism lies, and writing is a mystery of its own. But you, on the other hand, are a believer, and in a cosmology that does have an independent existence outside you, which suggests ... well, different wiring, I guess. Different instinctive cosmologies, which we apply to art as well as religion. Appropriately enough, since there's a considerable overlap between the two, and in a way, I'd say that art more or less is my religion. But we seem to apply the same instinctive metaphysics to both: for you, an independent force, and to me, a place of neither belief nor disbelief.

Does any of that ring a bell?
 
Kit, does "Bobby-in-the-shower" translate across the Atlantic?

Means nothing to me! Explain? :-)


On the most basic level, there's the simple acknowledgment of "hey, here we are in a genre Story." This, I think, is where most "cross-genre" and "mash-up" type books start. Which is an old joke, true, but that doesn't mean it can't still be a GOOD joke. And yes, there is a comfort of the explicit acknowledgement of shared cultural touchstones, the "these are My Tribe" effect. I don't think there's anything wrong with that; there's a reason people talk about fandoms as "home" and "family", and it's often because they feel alienated from more obvious sources.

Though this can also be done to produce discomfort. For instance: last year I saw a production of The Master and Margarita at the National Theatre. It was dynamic and wild and brilliant, a truly wonderful piece of theatre, and one of the elements of wildness was that they were aggressive in refusing to treat it as purely a piece of history.

So: in the story, there's a scene that takes place in a theatre. In the adaptation, the actors started talking to particular audience members, and a spotlight swung over us ... and then the Devil turned and started speaking to us directly. The characters had been boasting of their fine modern technology, such as fast trains; he turned and said, 'I am not interested in trains. Nor am I interested in iPhones. Or iPad minis...' and stood there, rigid, glaring at us. I don't have the whole speech to memory, but it was a moment where the clear message was, 'Don't think you're any more modern than these characters. They thought they were modern to. And to the Devil, it's all the same.' It was profoundly uncomfortable (especially as we were sitting in the front row), and he stood for a long moment, giving us a look of no mercy ... then turned a little and said sarcastically, 'But now, let us return to the safety of the past.'

That, I would say, wasn't a sense of homecoming. It was a sense of invasion, the story getting off the stage, a forceful reminder that the threats and sins of the story were living presences in which we ourselves were implicated.

--

And it's not a big reach to accept the reality o a capital-S Story in the same way the story asks you to accept unicorns or starships.

Oh, I find it very different! To me, every story involves the same suspension of disbelief: Dorothea Brooke is no more real than the Psammead, and reading a story is entering into an imaginative creation in which internal harmony rather than resemblance to literal reality is what gives it verisimilitude. (Which is probably why I have so little care for genre as a way of classifying books.) Metafiction, though, is a discord in the internal harmony. If skilfully handled, it can produce its own kind of music (to stick with this analogy), like listening to Stravinsky rather than Bach, say: conventionally discordant, but right on its own terms. If handled clumsily, it just sounds like a bum note. But either way, it feels like a different order of acceptance. To me, anyway.
 
If fantasy is "concretized metaphor," to use a Gaiman-ism, maybe metafiction is "concretized fantasy."

Ooooh. I like that. I'm going to swirl that around in my backbrain for a while and see what happens.

I ranted about LIBRIOMANCER here. Aside from the "Lena issue" (which sent me quite round the bend), one of the things that really bugged me about the book *was* the whole "Story has an independent life" issue.

It's one thing to say that Story has an existence separate from the author and the reader. It's quite another to insist that it's the latter (the readers) that are SOLELY responsible for giving a story life, and the writer is a mere passive conduit.

(A Derrida-ish trick, incidentally, which permits the writer to avoid responsibility for the story he chooses to tell)

 
But we seem to apply the same instinctive metaphysics to both [art and religion]: for you, an independent force, and to me, a place of neither belief nor disbelief.

Does any of that ring a bell?


Yes, very much so. It isn't that I have often wondered whether my instinctive *conviction* that there is indeed God, Story, Music, Beauty, whatever "capitalized essence" you like somewhere Out There is some sort of delusion that I tell myself, a projection of my subconscious wishes and desires and narrative "brain shape" as it were. I'm perfectly open to the possibility. In fact, I think on the whole it's very probable.

It's just that if I were presented tomorrow with indisputable objective proof that there's no "there" there, I would continue to operate in the cosmos in *exactly the same fashion.*

(this is also why I consider "preaching to the choir" the ONLY appropriate venue for proselytisation. You can strengthen someone in their beliefs, help them live in a manner more consistent with their beliefs, even upon rare occasion convert from one belief to another; but I don't think it's possible to reform a truly a-theistic or a-gnostic brain into one that operates like mine. Nor should I want to try -- why on earth should I want to muck up something that is so intrinsic to the [metaphorical, but also actual] you?)

But now I've wandered a long way from books, haven't I?

 
Dragging myself back on topic:

"Bobby in the shower" refers to a very popular US television show, DALLAS, a prime time soap opera. "Bobby" was a much loved character who was killed off when the actor wanted to do something else. A couple years later, the season ("series" to you, I think) ended with the cliffhanger of his widow waking up to find Bobby taking a shower.

It turned out that the previous seasons were all a "dream" of the wife's, which made the viewers feel immensely cheated and from which the show never recovered. (It did permit for one other long-running show to riff on this moment, to make a splendid meta-joke, though)

That, I would say, wasn't a sense of homecoming. It was a sense of invasion, the story getting off the stage, a forceful reminder that the threats and sins of the story were living presences in which we ourselves were implicated.

Yes, that's one of the things I was thinking of but didn't want to get into since my comment was already long enough. That is the real genius of THE MAGICIANS, I think; it sucks the reader into that sense of tribal identification, then turns around to hold her culpable for all the implied sins of commission and omission that that particular genre narrative carries.

It's immensely uncomfortable, and I admire the way it's done. I don't *like* it, particularly, since a) I don't necessary agree with Grossman that the particular "sins" are inherent in that fantasy narrative and more importantly b) there's more than a hint of "othering" going on; the reader is encouraged to think, "Well *I* never bought into that genre, but those people who *did* are certainly awful and deluded!"

But that last reading may be more what I read into the book than is actually there.
 
@ hapax: that was a fine rant. I hadn't thought before how irritating Isaac must be to a true librarian.

The only time "it was all a dream" succeeds for me is when the dreamer is Alice and the dream is Wonderland. Anybody trying to get away with the "Bobby-in-the-shower" trick ought to think better of it.

Also irritating, its close cousin and "it was all a test." When my daughter was little, one of her favorite books was about a young man (actually, I think they were all intelligent insects, but it's the same thing) who's recruited to join a crime-fighting team and immediately given a mission to rescue a kidnapped colleague. As soon as he succeeds, he turns around to find villain, victim and heroes gathered together to congratulate him on passing his entrance exam-- and now let's go do a job that really matters. End of book.

I was outraged.

there's more than a hint of "othering" going on; the reader is encouraged to think, "Well *I* never bought into that genre, but those people who *did* are certainly awful and deluded!"

Yes, there's a lot of that kind of thing going on.

Which is less annoying, or at least more comfortable, in a critical essay than in a story that won't take its own Story seriously in one way or another, but still wants to use all the tribal "hooks" of its genre.

Quentin's whole existence seems to be saying something like, "I don't believe this Story, but I'm going to use it anyway because I have nothing to put in its place-- and it's all somebody's fault!"
 
Two-part comment just in case of Blogger:

Back on Libriomancer, hapax said
It's one thing to say that Story has an existence separate from the author and the reader. It's quite another to insist that it's the latter (the readers) that are SOLELY responsible for giving a story life, and the writer is a mere passive conduit.

(A Derrida-ish trick, incidentally, which permits the writer to avoid responsibility for the story he chooses to tell)


I mentioned Pamela Dean's "Secret Country" trilogy earlier; has anyone read it? That's an examination of the responsibilities of the author to the story. It places that responsibility squarely where it belongs, on the author, while acknowledging that the kind of commitment required of a creative artist is not a valid path for everyone.

Possibly related: I'm currently reading, off and on, Lizzie Stark's Leaving Mundania, a participant-observer description of "larping."

Larping is a hobby I have no personal experience with at all. But from Stark's description, it seems to be a combination of game-playing and improv theater without an audience, or where the audience is also the cast. The basic plots of the games are developed by a games master or plot committee, then fleshed out on the fly and according to the game rules by the players, in a real-time period that might be hours or years. In any case, the plots seem to be very much subordinated to the "experience." The point is to know, physically, viscerally, what it's like to be chased through a dark forest by a goblin, defeat your enemy in a duel, recover the magic MacGuffin, drink wine with a thief and a sorcerer (only, in most games it's grape juice because of campground alcohol rules).

A gamer is considered successful when she develops her character into something like a real human being, not necessarily when she "wins" a game. A larp event is successful if its players breathe life into a skeletal plot, enough to convince themselves anyway, and not necessarily when the story being told would succeed on its own.

So, anyway, a novel is not a larp. And I can see that it must be highly irritating to the novelist to have it talked about as if it were.
 
So, anyway, a novel is not a larp. And I can see that it must be highly irritating to the novelist to have it talked about as if it were.

And likewise, I imagine it must be very tiresome to larp with someone who insists on playing as if they were writing a novel.

--

It places that responsibility squarely where it belongs, on the author, while acknowledging that the kind of commitment required of a creative artist is not a valid path for everyone.

Interesting. We do seem to live in an era where there's a cultural idea that unless you can express yourself through creating art of some kind, you're somehow failing. It's a performative era; 'trying to validate our life by making media out of it'*, as Jay Smooth has it.

And that's a complicated business. On the one hand, everyone is capable of artistic play, and that can be a vital and wonderful experience whatever the end result. There's a reason why those Buddhist monks make sand pictures and then sweep them up: the process has its own value detached from the outcome. On the other hand, not everybody is capable of producing art that, by the standards of art rather than personal exploration, works. And even the people who are, aren't capable of producing most kinds of art. My composer friend can't sculpt. My artist friends, on the whole, can't write. I can't compose or draw a decent picture, or even do many kinds of writing well - can't write a poem above the level of doggerel, for instance.

And so much of our psychological health, both as imaginative beings and as people who have to function in reality, depends on our ability to locate our sense of validation in a reliable place on that unpredictable continuum - of keep a relationship with something deeply tied up with our sense of self that is, by its nature, hard to control. If we place our sense of validation in other people validating our art, in the end it's going to drive us crazy, because we can't control other people. Generally, the only sane thing to do is to look for validation in the rewards we get from the process itself - which are going to be different for each of us, and different within each of us depending on how we go about it. The sense of validation, of reality I get from writing something I'm pleased with is entirely different from the sense of validation I get from playing at an art form at which I have no particular talent and do not produce objectively 'good' results, but can play with for the sake of playing.

Which is a roundabout way of addressing the issue of the author's responsibility for the text. On the one hand, the author is the author of the text; the characters don't write it - yes, some authors feel the characters 'tell them what to do', but the characters are still coming from inside the author - and a work of fiction is a human creation. But on the other hand, it's the creation of someone who has to, in some way or another, let go of their usual conscious self in order to get in touch with their imagination. The authors who feel the characters tell them what to do are simply speaking a variant of a broader experience: that you produce your best work when you hand over the steering to something other than your 'monkey mind', your chattering everyday self. You have to let your writer-brain do the writing, and the writer-brain doesn't work if you're trying to control it. It's like a nervy horse: pull on its reins and it balks.


 
Which becomes a thorny issue when it comes to the politics of writing. You really don't have much control over what gets your imagination going, and your imagination can be quite at odds with your politics. You're still responsible for choosing to tell that story, of course - it's possible to say to oneself, 'No, I need to think of another idea, because I can't write that one inoffensively' - but responsibility in the usual sense can be over-defined too. I'm thinking of, for instance, the way that SFF fans have correctly observed that it tends to be a white- and male-dominated genre and will complain that authors don't present diverse enough casts. On the face of it, that sounds fair enough - there's no reason why a male writer shouldn't include female characters, or a white writer shouldn't include characters of colour, right?

Well, wrong, actually. Sometimes. It may simply be that a man is an excellent author of male characters who has nothing against actual women, but whose imagination simply doesn't fire up when he tries to write female characters. Or the same for a white writer when it comes to non-white characters. Or a straight writer when it comes to gay characters. Perhaps they're people of limited empathy or unacknowledged prejudice, or perhaps they're aware that they can't know from the inside what it's like to be such a person and their imagination hesitates out of a conscientious fear of presuming; we can't really know. But if a writer can't write a certain kind of character well, they're better off sticking to what they can do. Better to stay silent about a group of people than to lie about them, and sometimes, those are your only choices.

We don't choose the imaginations we have. Often it seems as if the Muse is a little contrary and we don't quite get the talent we put in for, we get a different one instead. Directors who wanted to be actors; playwrights who wanted to be poets; photographers who wanted to be painters; the list goes on. And good writers' tastes aren't limited to work that resembles their own. Robert E. Howard loved Shakespeare. Angela Carter loved Anne Rice. Genre and style are not simple. We can choose, to some extent, what we write, but we can't really choose what kind of writers we are.


 
And readers who insist otherwise are missing the point. My cynical side notes that they tend to be readers who actually prefer to read writers who are the same race (or whatever) as themselves: if you're really interested in diversity, the thing to do is seek out diverse voices, read diverse writers, rather than look for the same monocultural writers to produce better from-the-outside renditions of other people. At its crudest level, that can just be a demand for a better form of tokenism. It's easier to identify with the work of someone like yourself, and easier to miss that knowledge if they hide it behind a diverse cast. But nothing's going to substitute for listening to different people writing from their different places.

(I'm thinking, for example, of the way there's been a fuss about Doctor Who choosing a new lead actor recently. Though I don't follow that show, it was impossible to miss that a lot of people were saying, 'Let's have a female doctor! Let's have a black doctor!' And sure, in principle why not, there are plenty of good actors out there who might have done a good job in the role, and there's no real reason the story - which was always very loose-woven around studio convenience - couldn't accommodate the change. But it's still asking for a different face on the same voice, which is to say, a heavily white, male writing team. If people really want a flagship show to be diverse, they should be petitioning for some diversity in the writing team; a diverse perspective would naturally follow. How many of the people who were vocal about wanting a black actor are actually seeking out the work of black writers and directors? And how many just want to stay in their comfort zone without confronting the issue of how limited that comfort zone is?

So when it comes to critics commenting on an author's responsibility - well, it's quite true that fiction is written by fiction writers, and that a fiction writer is something different from a journalist who just happens to have the inside scoop on a non-existent world - but on the other hand, there's also the issue of reader responsibility. I've seen plenty of people argue that because authors are 'intentional', it's quite reasonable to demand that every author meet some kind of diversity checklist. But authors aren't 'intentional' in that uncomplicated way. Again, it's a kind of confusion about what imagination involves, only in this case it's not so much imagining the author as a journalist bound to report the truth of what they see; it's imagining the author as a CEO who has full control over the hiring policy and could just as easily appoint one person to do the job as another. But it doesn't work that way. You have to get your imagination committed, and the imagination can be both flighty and inflexible. You have to let it do what it does - and if readers don't like the results, they're better off reading someone whose imagination they prefer.

And in that case, an author may lose sales for being unable to imagine a sufficiently diverse cast. And if that happens, that's completely fair. People read what they want to read, and if you don't want to read an overly monocultural author, then you don't have to. If it frees up some spending money for a wider diversity of authors, that's probably all to the good.

On the whole, I think authors have both more and less control than many readers think. More control, in that they are making it up, they're not just taking notes from something that's already there. And less, in that what they can make up is not infinitely variable, and in that case, the power of the reader does come in - but in the power to vote with their wallets and look for more various authors.


*http://www.illdoctrine.com/2009/07/dance_you_into_the_sunlight.html
 
(Not that I think your review was missing the point, hapax. I haven't read the book, but an author is free to decide, 'If I can't write this book without this kind of inflammatory character, I'd better write something different.' Or, indeed, an author is free to try an experiment and the reader is free to say, 'You know, I think that experiment did not produce a good result.')
 
if you're really interested in diversity, the thing to do is seek out diverse voices, read diverse writers, rather than look for the same monocultural writers to produce better from-the-outside renditions of other people.

Absolutely. I'd rather read a new Nalo Hopkinson or somebody, than a rehashed Tolkien with some of the faces colored in, so to speak. And I've lost track of Doctor Who lately, but from what I remember of the writing style, I wouldn't trust that team with a female Doctor. Better to to stick with what works for them.

But I think it's natural for people to be a little concerned when the pop-culture juggernauts are all so monocultural, it's understandable for a member of a minority group to look at what's playing at the megaplex or topping the best-seller charts and wonder why there seems to be no place in these shared experiences for someone like me?

Surely there's a difference in being interested in diversity from a position of privilege, as I guess the term would be, and interested in diversity as a member of a disadvantaged group? I can, as a white, straight, more-or-less able-bodied person, seek out the work of writers who are not those things and broaden my perspectives, but when I want the comfort of the familiar, it's there in plenty. I'm not sure that works the other way around.

And also, maybe there's a difference between "this work doesn't appeal to me" and "this work isn't meant for me." I've felt that way occasionally with the works of male writers; it must be even more disconcerting to feel that a pop-culture flagship, widely beloved and often for good reasons, isn't meant for me.

So yes, the answer is to press for more diversity at the source, as it were, with the creators. But I guess I can understand the voices asking, "and what about us?"

I've seen plenty of people argue that because authors are 'intentional', it's quite reasonable to demand that every author meet some kind of diversity checklist.

Yes, I've seen that kind of thing too, and I'm not a creative writer but even I can see that that misses the point.

I've also heard the more subtly-phrased complaint that it's not so much that the lead characters are monocultural, it's that the author or director doesn't seem to know that other kinds of people exist.

There was a movie set in Baltimore a few years ago, a romantic ensemble comedy. Baltimore is a majority-black city, but the on-screen faces were overwhelmingly white. Eyebrows were raised.

Again, it's not that there aren't white people in Baltimore. Anne Tyler made a respected career out of writing novels about white Baltimore. But the visual effect of that movie seemed to contradict what anybody walking through downtown Baltimore would see.

I've seen well-meaning authors try to deal with that issue by mentioning the race, or other identifying characteristics, of even the most minor characters to flit across the page. It can get awkward. But if you don't specify, the default assumption is white, straight, able-bodied.

So, I don't know. Maybe that's just a matter of authorial technique, which some writers are better at than others.
 
And also, maybe there's a difference between "this work doesn't appeal to me" and "this work isn't meant for me."

Oh, sure. I was more talking about people for whom the work was made - which is probably why they like it in the first place - being a bit prone to go the I-love-you-you're-perfect-now-change route rather than reading around. But yeah, if you're a member of the excluded group, that's a different experience. From a female perspective, I have to say I'm always more comfortable with an all-male cast than with badly-written women. There's nothing wrong with men and I have no objection to works of art about them, and I can always go read female writers. Maybe if your tastes are specific to certain genres, you have less flexibility. I just don't think that insisting the writer play CEO is a practical solution. People have every right to wish that a piece was otherwise, but to assume that it could be made otherwise with no complex effect on the art is not realistic.


Again, it's not that there aren't white people in Baltimore. Anne Tyler made a respected career out of writing novels about white Baltimore. But the visual effect of that movie seemed to contradict what anybody walking through downtown Baltimore would see.

Yes, that does sound pretty bad. But on the other hand, I wouldn't say that was a writing issue: that sounds like a casting issue, and particularly an issue of casting extras. I don't know whether the race of the leads was essential to their characterisation or not, but there's really no reason not to say to the extras agency, 'I want two hundred people of varying ages and sexes for a street scene, and about a hundred and twenty to a hundred and thirty of them need to be African American.'*


But if you don't specify, the default assumption is white, straight, able-bodied.

I'm not so sure about that. I think it depends very much on the reader, and there's a limit to the author's responsibility there. For starters, there's more to it than directly specifying; you can, for instance, give characters non-WASP names which the reader may or not pick up, but if they don't pick it up, that's their fault for not paying attention. And it also just depends on how the reader thinks. A reader with an open mind won't pencil in such an assumption - or if they do and it's later contradicted by the text, they'll shrug and go, 'Oh well, guess that's me caught out' and accept it. Some readers assume white even when the author directly says otherwise, as witness the Hunger Games fans who objected to the casting of Amandla Stenberg in the movie even though she matched Collins's description pretty precisely. Some readers, there's really nothing you can do about them. Assumers gonna assume.

And when it comes to minor characters, it can simply be the case that the author is picturing them in a certain way, but to describe them in detail would disrupt the scene too much and end up feeling like tokenism or othering, because the only reason you're calling attention to their race, orientation or whatever is to make sure the readers know you're including non-white-straight-able-bodied characters. Certainly that's happened with me: I've pictured characters as black or whatever, and tried to indicate it subtly, but overplaying it has its own problems - as my editor (who was black) pointed out, if the author makes too big a deal of it, that's alienating to read as well.

Basically, I don't think the default assumption necessarily is anything; it depends on the reader. And really, past a certain point, I don't think the author should be considered too responsible for a reader's prejudiced assumptions.

*Based on the 2010 census as quoted in Wikipedia.


 

Incidentally, reader question. I'm working on two new posts at the moment, one about Persuasion and one about The Visit of the Royal Physician (as in that movie A Royal Affair, or sort-of-as-in). Which would you rather read first? Your pick. :-)
 
And when it comes to minor characters, it can simply be the case that the author is picturing them in a certain way, but to describe them in detail would disrupt the scene too much and end up feeling like tokenism or othering, because the only reason you're calling attention to their race, orientation or whatever is to make sure the readers know you're including non-white-straight-able-bodied characters.
I've read things where it does come off as tokenism; I guess I was wondering whether that was a matter of the writer's technique, or whether there's only so much that technique can be responsible for.

And really, past a certain point, I don't think the author should be considered too responsible for a reader's prejudiced assumptions.
Well, I can't argue with that.

---
If you're asking ME-- "Persuasion is an old favorite which it would be fun to talk about... and what an opening line... and I've never heard of the other one...

* google*
oh, that sounds interesting, and right up Kit's alley; I wonder if I could find and read a copy before she's ready with her post? No, probably not, but I could just read her analysis and then the book; spoilers are fine with me ... eh, either way will work, really... but if Persuasion comes first I've got a better chance... but whichever."
;-)
 
I guess I was wondering whether that was a matter of the writer's technique, or whether there's only so much that technique can be responsible for.

It's a complicated question, isn't it? I tend to view writing in a rather holistic way, so I reckon technique is only one element of it. There are other questions: how well conceived and realised is this character? How does this scene interweave with the novel's plot, themes and atmosphere? What kind of narrative voice are we hearing? What's the key focus of this scene? And so on. And a lot of those will have bearing on how obtrusive a character description will be.

On the whole, good ideas can compensate for poor technique better than good technique can cover bad ideas (to a minimum level of 'technique'; some writing is just hopeless no matter what the idea behind it). But at the same time, I tend to see technique as an expression of a broader aesthetic, so it needs to match everything else.

I just find technique hard to separate from everything else. Every sentence has both style and content, and 'thinking of something other than the thing itself' tends to mar one or both.

To my mind, it comes down to 'the thing itself'. Your Baltimore movie is a good example: there was a very good reason why the cast shouldn't be all-white that was quite aside from how black people are represented in other films: an all-white depiction of Baltimore is an inaccurate depiction of Baltimore. It's bad film-making. Part of 'the thing itself' was street scenes in a known city, and making those street scenes look right was part of the aesthetic whole, and it seems it was a part they fell down on.

And the same is true of racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever depictions of characters. It's not just bad politics, it's bad art: it isn't true that white people, male people, or straight people are better than everybody else, and it's an artistic failure to suggest otherwise.

I'm a big supporter of the 'l'art pour l'art' school of thought, so I tend to think that that's the best line of attack. Bigoted representations are bad art. Art that just doesn't happen to meet a diversity checklist may not be.

And the thing is, artistic merit is actually a political weapon: it's the main defence against censorship. Lady Chatterley's Lover broke down obscenity laws because it had 'literary merit': that was a legal defence, and it changed the legal landscape. The 'video nasties' scare in 1980s Britain was won by the censors, and a major reason was that so many of the films on the ban list - not all, but many - were trashy, badly-made exploitation movies that were difficult to defend on artistic grounds. Even copyright laws are affected by it: whether something is 'derivative' or 'transformative' is basically an artistic issue, and that can have legal weight.

So on the whole, I'm in favour of writers doing whatever they do best, and readers putting in the work to support diversity where they find it. That's politics. :-)
 
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