“Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?”

The good guy/bad guy myth: Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?” is one of the most interesting essays on narrative and fiction I’ve ever read, and while I, like most of you, am familiar with the tendency of good guys and bad guys in fiction, I wasn’t cognizant of the way pure good and pure evil as fundamental characterizations only really proliferated around 1700.

In other words, I didn’t notice the narrative water in which I swim. Yet now I can’t stop thinking about a lot of narrative in the terms described.

A while ago, I read most of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and found it boring, perhaps in part because the characters didn’t seem to stand for anything beyond themselves, and they didn’t seem to want anything greater than themselves in any given moment. Yet for most of human civilization, that kind of story may have been more common than many modern stories.

Still, I wonder if we should be even more skeptical of good versus evil stories than I would’ve thought we should be prior to reading this essay.

 

Links: James Wood, news and fiction, sexuality and narrative, the paperback, bars and babysitting

* James Wood: “On Not Going Home.”

* “Is the News Replacing Literature?” Unlikely, but high-quality analysis of the news often has a literary quality. But quantity still has a quality all its own and writing 800 words, 8,000 words, and 80,000 words are all very different beasts and having written pieces of all three lengths I can say that what works at one length won’t at another.

I’m also fond of saying that not-very-good nonfiction can still be useful while not-very-good fiction rarely is.

* Someone on Reddit “capture[s] the vagaries of sexual consent through a series of personal stories;” many people have such stories but few share them widely, for obvious reasons. See also “The power of conventional narratives and the great lie.”

* The tooth fairy and the traditionality of modernity.

* “How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read;” ebooks are now doing something analogous.

* Smartphone sales growth slows, presumably for obvious reasons: when I first got one I used it for the same stuff everyone else does: maps, looking up random stuff, sending/receiving naked pictures, listening to music, and maybe one or two other things. With the model I have now I do basically the same stuff, as well as find Citi Bike locations and coffee shops. The new version does some of those things slightly better / faster, but were it not a business expense I doubt I’d bother.

* “Bars are too loud and cafes too quiet.” Mostly, bars are too loud.

* “My bad baby sitters year;” mostly a lost world, especially when it comes to finding forbidden objects / photos.

Counterpoint to the sex-plot post: Jenny Diski on The Sexual Life of Catherine M.

It’s intellectually important to acknowledge being wrong and to look for ways you can be wrong and yet very few people do this or do it honestly. I probably don’t do it honestly either, but I will still post a long quote that somewhat contravenes my recent essay “The sex plot: a discussion for novelists and readers:”

the great open space of sexuality permits all the possibilities of abjection, power, narcissism, pleasure-seeking, dour determination, creativity and mechanisation. It would be very hard to devote such a great deal of life and thought, time and effort to it as Millet does without getting it all pretty much confused. Everyday pornography is linear in order to keep a single idea afloat in an ocean of polymorphous potential. Sexuality gets out of hand, it runs rampant with meaning unless you keep to a very firm remit. The sexual story can transform from pumpkin to princess to swan with injured wing and back again in the blink of a thought. It is a nothing, an empty arena, that might be everything. And everything is more than we can cope with. The obsessive, fetishistic, single account that pornography provides is what keeps sexuality within bounds. Here is the danger of writing the sexual life: you lose the boundaries unless you steadfastly restrict yourself to the detail. At times Millet seems to be attempting to do this, but again and again, like a painter who writes explanatory notes over her picture, she tries to explicate, to flesh out the doing with her intellect, and then the sexual life is shown up for the kaleidoscopic and random playground of ideas it is.

That’s from Jenny Diski’s 2002 review of The Sexual Life of Catherine M; if sexuality is “a great open space” that “permits all the possibilities of objection, power, narcissism” and so forth then sex plots really can or should propel a lot of fiction. Diski’s view (I believe she is speaking for herself here and not describing the memoir in question) is not necessarily incompatible with the essay but certainly it feels different, especially with the way she says that “sexuality gets out of hand, it runs rampant with meaning.”

A subject or person or feeling that “runs rampant with meaning” could be one surprisingly complete definition of art, which may also encourage “the kaleidoscopic and random playground of ideas” that nonetheless must be somehow restricted if a work of art is going to take any form at all. Art without some form does not exist, like a platonically perfect work of art that never goes further than conception. Execution is everything.

Still, I’m not sure that sexuality can really get “out of hand” and run “rampant with meaning,” at least in terms of the physical act itself, because there are a limited number of physical acts and, in practical terms, a limited number of partners and configurations. Contrast this with, say, science: there doesn’t appear to be any obvious limits to the things that people want or the weirdness of the present universe. That doesn’t mean that sexuality doesn’t usually interact with other parts of life, but in the modern Western world I’m not sure that sexuality and relationships need to be the primary focus of so many novels.

Not disappeared, just traveling:

I hate these kinds of posts, but here goes: I haven’t disappeared. I’ve just been traveling, first to New York then to the International Society for the Study of Narrative’s conference (hence “How to keep your customers happy on planes“). Said conference demanded a paper, which I’ve spent all my literary energies on that paper, rather than the usual blog posts, and academic tomes are dense and time-consuming, which cuts into “normal” reading time.

In other words: blah, blah, blah; normal posting to resume shortly.

The sprawling narrative and Ta-Nehisi Coates' reading of Middlemarch

In “Into the Canon: ‘Middlemarch,’” Ta-Nehisi Coates says he’s halfway through the novel and that “Eliot’s rather omnivorous employment of voice and excerpt is bracing.” He gives an example and then says: “I wonder if young writers, today, are attempting this sort of sprawling narrative. I’m not particularly well-read–especially in the area of modern fiction.”

My answer: sometimes, but rarely. Two contemporary examples that work come to mind: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell* and Cryptonomicon. Neither is quite the same as each other or two Middlemarch, but great works of art are supposed to be singular, and both contemporary novels are long, have many moments of weird narrative (in which it’s hard to tell who speaks), and are highly detailed. Perhaps overly detailed.

In Encounter, Milan Kundera says, correctly, that “Almost all great modern artists mean to do away with ‘filler,’ do away with whatever comes from habit, whatever keeps them from getting directly and exclusively at the essential (the essential: the thing the artist himself, and only he, is able to say).” Coates is responding to the contrast between the modern tendency to cut “filler” and get at “the essential;” I think consciously about doing both when I write, and the “filler” often bothers me about 19th C novels—but then I suppose his point about voice is that voice can make filler into the essential, at least for some readers. I tend not to be one of them, but I can make exceptions—as I do for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Cryptonomicon, and as I don’t for the late, tedious novels of Henry James.


* I’m reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell at the moment, and, while it’s hard to give an example of the novel’s vastness (do we really need the level of detail we get in the Spanish campaign sections? and what is “need?”), I would note this description of Jonathan Strange following the apparent death of his wife:

[Jonathan’s] words and his face were what all his friends remembered — with this difference: that the man behind them seemed only to be acting a part while his thoughts and his heart were somewhere else entirely. He looked at them from behind the sarcastic smile and none of them knew what he was thinking. He was more like a magician than ever before. It was very curious and no one knew what to make of it, but in some ways he was more like Norrell.

There are a couple of traits similar to the “sprawling” narratives Coates mentions: most of the time we’re listening, as we are here, to a straightforward third-person omniscient narrator, and we’re not motivated to think this observation comes from a particular character’s point of view. Notice how “no one knew what to make of it:” how does the narrator know what everyone thinks, in order to say that “no one knew?”

This kind of pronouncement is uncommon in contemporary novels, or at least the contemporary novels I read. Perhaps more importantly, the quote above could easily be omitted, and Strange’s behavior left to the reader to interpret, without authorial comment. We should be able to infer Strange’s change in character and manner from the way he acts, but Clarke chooses (or, in her mock-19th Century idiom, “chuses”) to give it to us—as she tells us a few sentences later that “They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.” It’s lovely to know they ate “gravy made with the fat of a green goose,” whatever that means, but I’m not sure how desperately we need to know.

In most books such details would be irritating; in this one they’re mostly charming. Call it the book’s magic.

For a similar example in Cryptonomicon, see the famous Cap’n Crunch scene, a portion of which is at the link.

The sprawling narrative and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ reading of Middlemarch

In “Into the Canon: ‘Middlemarch,’” Ta-Nehisi Coates says he’s halfway through the novel and that “Eliot’s rather omnivorous employment of voice and excerpt is bracing.” He gives an example and then says: “I wonder if young writers, today, are attempting this sort of sprawling narrative. I’m not particularly well-read–especially in the area of modern fiction.”

My answer: sometimes, but rarely. Two contemporary examples that work come to mind: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell* and Cryptonomicon. Neither is quite the same as each other or two Middlemarch, but great works of art are supposed to be singular, and both contemporary novels are long, have many moments of weird narrative (in which it’s hard to tell who speaks), and are highly detailed. Perhaps overly detailed.

In Encounter, Milan Kundera says, correctly, that “Almost all great modern artists mean to do away with ‘filler,’ do away with whatever comes from habit, whatever keeps them from getting directly and exclusively at the essential (the essential: the thing the artist himself, and only he, is able to say).” Coates is responding to the contrast between the modern tendency to cut “filler” and get at “the essential;” I think consciously about doing both when I write, and the “filler” often bothers me about 19th C novels—but then I suppose his point about voice is that voice can make filler into the essential, at least for some readers. I tend not to be one of them, but I can make exceptions—as I do for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Cryptonomicon, and as I don’t for the late, tedious novels of Henry James.


* I’m reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell at the moment, and, while it’s hard to give an example of the novel’s vastness (do we really need the level of detail we get in the Spanish campaign sections? and what is “need?”), I would note this description of Jonathan Strange following the apparent death of his wife:

[Jonathan’s] words and his face were what all his friends remembered — with this difference: that the man behind them seemed only to be acting a part while his thoughts and his heart were somewhere else entirely. He looked at them from behind the sarcastic smile and none of them knew what he was thinking. He was more like a magician than ever before. It was very curious and no one knew what to make of it, but in some ways he was more like Norrell.

There are a couple of traits similar to the “sprawling” narratives Coates mentions: most of the time we’re listening, as we are here, to a straightforward third-person omniscient narrator, and we’re not motivated to think this observation comes from a particular character’s point of view. Notice how “no one knew what to make of it:” how does the narrator know what everyone thinks, in order to say that “no one knew?”

This kind of pronouncement is uncommon in contemporary novels, or at least the contemporary novels I read. Perhaps more importantly, the quote above could easily be omitted, and Strange’s behavior left to the reader to interpret, without authorial comment. We should be able to infer Strange’s change in character and manner from the way he acts, but Clarke chooses (or, in her mock-19th Century idiom, “chuses”) to give it to us—as she tells us a few sentences later that “They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.” It’s lovely to know they ate “gravy made with the fat of a green goose,” whatever that means, but I’m not sure how desperately we need to know.

In most books such details would be irritating; in this one they’re mostly charming. Call it the book’s magic.

For a similar example in Cryptonomicon, see the famous Cap’n Crunch scene, a portion of which is at the link.

What's wrong with Harry Potter? Sophistication.

In The Atlantic, David Thier describes How the ‘Harry Potter’ Movies Succeeded Where the Books Failed. I haven’t seen all the movies or read all the books, so I can’t comment on their relative merit, but notice this in Their’s post:

The basic story in Harry Potter is an old one, and a good one. The boy of destiny is plucked from ordinary circumstances and becomes incredulous when he’s told the truth behind his real identity. Some training, trials, and a crisis of self-confidence later, he emerges as the true hero ready to defeat ultimate evil.

In real life, it seems like the problem isn’t often defeating ultimate evil: it’s identifying ultimate evil. Or recognizing that ultimate evil doesn’t exist very often, and more often there are banal evils, or inadvertent evils, or people just trying to get along but harming others as they do, or working in favor of malign self-interest, or some variation on these themes. Adult literature tends to recognize this. Children’s literature seldom does. Even The Lord of the Rings spends a lot of time trying to decide how to respond and who should wield power. Harry Potter seldom does that, from what I can recall: Harry is destined from birth. I don’t appear destined from birth to do much of anything; neither does anyone else (more on that below).

Robin Hanson says something similar to the preceding paragraph in “Beware Morality Porn:”

[. . .] movies usually focus more on whether characters have the strength of will to do what is obviously right than on whether they have the wisdom to discern what is right. And movie characters rarely have to choose between the praise of associates and doing the right thing – key associates usually support doing the right thing.

He uses Lord of the Rings as an example, although I don’t think it’s as appropriate as some others. The book version of The Lord of the Rings makes a point of showing how Aragorn, Gandalf, and other “good” characters work to limit their own power and define what the “right” thing is, beyond the defeat of Sauron. In the past, the Elves and Númenóreans repeatedly treated with Sauron, to their detriment. It’s not completely obvious what the “right” thing to do is: in the “Council of Elrond” chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring, proposals about using the Ring against Sauron are debated. It’s true that, by the time we get to The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s pretty clear Sauron’s the bad guy, but only because of past book-time experiences with him.

As mentioned above, I think movies and books have a larger problem (and one that, if I recall correctly, Harry Potter does address to some extent): virtually no one is “destined” to do anything. People who accomplish major deeds often just have the right combination of circumstances, luck, tenacity, and ability. Arguably only the last two are influenced by the person themselves. Taken together, the problems with pre-destiny and automatic right/wrong might go under the header of “sophistication.” More sophisticated novels (or movies) will tend to recognize and/or deal with these problems. Less sophisticated novels (or movies) won’t.


If you’re interested in Harry Potter, A.S. Byatt’s “Harry Potter and the Childish Adult” is worth reading.

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