Monday, December 17, 2007

Balance

So much of the writing craft is about balance, how much to tell the reader. There are many aspects of this balance: how many hints, how deep the info--too much and you give away the surprise, or you kill your suspense. I have been struggling with this very issue in the sequel to Seaborn, but I'm thinking of another aspect of balance.


How much do you write for the present, an audience of today but not tomorrow? How much history, cultural depth do you--or should you--fill your pages with? It's a question for genre, historic, contemporary, all kinds of lit--even purely made up worlds. Although there are differences with the last because a reader cannot know your world without you. Unlike our world--this world--21st Century Earth--where I can have two characters talking about a tyrant's downfall and have one say, "He'll most likely end up like Hitler."--and leave it at that. I don't need to explain. There are facts a storyteller can assume a reader will know, but it is that assumption that is the balance we have to deal with: can you assume that all audiences will know? Is the best bet to pick your audience and write to their level of understanding--their current level of understanding at this point in time?


3 o'clock this morning, Antisthenes by way of Aristotle got me thinking about this, because Ari assumed his audience would always know certain facts. In the Politics [around 1284a] there's a great line that goes something like, "...it's like the response from the lions in the parable of Antisthenes when the hares came before the assembly demanding equality." That's it. Aristotle didn't think it necessary to include the lion's response--not when every freakin' kid in the agora knew. But 2400 years later, not every freakin' kid is familiar with Antisthenes' work.


I'm going to spend some thought on this because it's definitely worth keeping in mind when mentioning historic events, cultural references, popular works, Buffy, Harry, Scotty, Freddy, Elmo--will you're readers two millennia away understand you without footnotes? Do they need to? Do all writers write for a certain time, a century, an era, but no more--beyond which they need analysts and historians rooting through the news and Net garbage to find out what the hell you were talking about?

Oh yeah. The lions asked the hares, "Where are your claws and teeth?"

.

21 comments:

Tia Nevitt said...

Interesting points. Even reading something written in the early part of the 20th century--say, The Great Gatsby--can require footnotes. Writing to the future can be risky--how do you know your work will survive?

Your post reminds me of a great quote by Ben Franklin:

"If you would not be forgotten,
as soon as you are dead and rotten,
either write things worth reading,
or do things worth the writing."

By the way, I'm REALLY looking forward to reading Seaborn.

Chris Howard said...

Hi, Tia! I can't wait to get you a copy of Seaborn--all depending on everyone's busy schedules, Paula and every Juno author ahead of me in the queue. I can't wait to see it on the shelves.

Great Gatsby's a perfect example. When I was wrapping up the post, I put in "era"--that it's definitely possible--or maybe the norm--for an author to write for a time, a place, a cultural setting, like the '20s. With "era" I was thinking that every day there are fewer people who went through the Depression, and have a reference for what happened, what it was like to live through it. And how does an author get back to that, capture that context in the future when there will be no one left who was actually there? Maybe that's the future of historic fiction: you sort of step into the context machine, get your head backfilled with everything you need to know to be a part of some specific era--and then you go and read the book. Ought to make editing even more interesting than it already is!

Chris Howard said...

Forgot...I love the Ben Franklin quote! 2008 New Years resolution: try to do both, things worth reading, things worth writing.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

This reminds me of James Joyce's Ulysses...everything happening on that specific day in Dublin. He even went on a massive research to make sure he had that day down right...with all the weird little things..posters, newspapers, et al. He did it, he said, to provoke future readers of his book. -C

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Hi Tia:

The other question is: how do you know your future will even exist? It could be pretty obsolete ...kinda like all those novels where the US has one population demographic. Might be pretty different in the future. -C

Tia Nevitt said...

Carole, as usual, you bring up great points!

You've read Ulysses??? I admire you! I tried to, good little Irish girl that I am! I attempted to read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but could endure it no more within about 30 pages of the ending. I never picked up another James Joyce novel.

Chris Howard said...

Ulysses is a good one, Carole. I was thinking of coming out of the other end of Les Misérables with the feeling that if I were somehow transported back to early 19th Century France, I could fit right in--or I would at least know which way's up. Hugo manages to pack so much of the period, the culture, architecture, philosophy, politics into the story that it's almost as if you've been there, experienced it. But then again, does anyone write books like these anymore?

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Hi Tia:

I can't say I fully read it. I had a James Joyce class with my favorite professor, Michael O'Loughlin, back when I was in Purchase. One can get away with a lot with a favorite professor. I spent all my four years in college taking lit classes and most of the classes from him. I even studied Finnegan's Wake and the Mabinogion with him. So I can make my way through Ulysses and Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a young man. But that's because he was ALWAYS talking about them. He pretty much taught me everything about writing, God rest his soul. And Ulysses gave me two of my favorite literary lines: "I'm almosting it" AND "The future will not be what it has always been."

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Oh Chris, your mention of Les Miserables got me thinking about political correctness. Consider are we going to make past characters politically incorrect or not? In HIS time, Kipling WAS probably politically correct. All that white man's burden thing. Albert Schweitzer was also politically correct in his time. Caring for the little Africans who couldn't care for themselves.

That's the essence of political correctness, isn't it? To be politically correct in one's own time? Or will we use the term "politically correct" as a kind of time-universal term...perfect in whatever time, space, or quadrant one lives.

And also: what if some past writer is unpolitically correct in his own time but politically correct in ours? Or what if there's a little bit of political correctness and a little bit of unpolitical correctness.

Just rambling, I know. But I always like Les Mis and Hugo put a lotta stuff in that book which would be considered both politically incorrect for his time, and other things that are politically incorrect for our time. As I said, just thinking.-C

Chris Howard said...

Right, does a writer try to conform to the correctness of the time in which he or she writes--or to the historic time? As you pont out, big differences. We could do a whole post on the ideas you bring up, Carole.

I know Hugo was well known for stirring things up, and spent 15 years in exile on the isle of Guernsey. That's where he wrote Toilers of the Sea (One of my favorites).

Just wondering something...Going back to Tia's Ben Franklin quote, if we writers all do things worth writing (as well as writing things worth reading), is there some way we can swing some quiet writing time in Guernsey--or some other coastal get-away? And more importantly can we get all expenses paid? Maybe publishers should have to foot the bill for their exiled writers...hmmmm. Paula?

Sylvia Kelso said...

V. interesting and useful post, CH. The original title on your blog made me laugh, though off a totally different tangent, since I've just selected for publication in our local journal, LiNQ, a story called "A Matter of Balance" - a nifty magic realist piece where a woman under huge stress in the office begins by envisaging a tight-rope walker above a huge chasm - and gets so involved that she goes into a kind of autistic trance - and while everybody is kerfuffling in the office she vanishes into the act of keeping the tight-rope walker upright, leaving only a pair of footmarks burnt into the office couch...
In fact, I figure most of writing is about balance, as Chris says, though there are a lot of other aspects, and most of them I find I solve by reference to what I call gut-feelings - which are either the right-brain itself - the holistic, smarter side, imho, which sees the grand design and does most of my writing work - or the chakra behind your solar plexus, whatever that commands (and if there is one) because when I talk about how you get the "gut- feeling," I always find myself thumping that.
But it's not just, who do you write for, now or the future? It's, in particular, where do I end this sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Ie. the overall play and balance of stop and start, tension and release, that's going to make what you write work overall.
What Chris is talking about is to me a version of style, on one hand, and allusion, on the other. If you are writing a "contemp-orary" you have the choice of using a lot of unexplained detail - but the price you pay is the risk of needing footnotes in 10 years' time. Same with allusions. You still have a choice of using Greek or Latin ones, but nobody nowadays will pick them up unless you can somehow internally gloss.
The same dilemma pertains with a view to future readers, or, indeed, if you're currently writing fantasy, the smart/dumb debate. There are people writing now who won't use "unusual" words because "the reader won't under-stand." Well, fine, but at what level of runderstanding do you stop? Will you limit yourself to Dick and Dora English on the off-chance someone with a low reading level will be put off your book, or will you exploit as many resources of our incredibly rich language as you can?

In fact, I think you just have to go with what you feel right for you, and the work, and for now, and let the future take its chance. A hundred years, and if your work's still around it will need footnotes whoever you are. Even the greatest writers, eg. Shakespeare, suffering from losing contemporaneity. There's stuff in Shakespeare that wd. have been immediate and vivid and "right" to the Elizabethan plebs. Nowadays, you need half a concordance to make sense of it.
Otoh, you can gloss stuff from other periods in more or less unobtrusive ways, in the text. Writing a sort-of mystery/time-travel book about the local goldfield, I had the perfect situation, with a character from now, and a character from then. She had to have the past explained, he had to have the present explained. The nowadays readers got a huge giggle out of his reaction to a washing machine - but in the future, perhaps, readers will be able to use both glosses, so to speak.
But it's inevitable that allusions we take for granted, like Aristotle and the hares, will go out of common understanding. A hundred years ago you cd. rely on most educated male readers having some Greek or Latin. Fifty years ago, you cd. rely on having a Shakespeare quote recognised without assistance. Now ... You're more likely, in general, to get recognition for a Tolkien quote.

As for moi, I have trouble writing for a supposed ideal reader of even the fantasy genre here and now, ie. someone who might get all the generic twists and new variations. I don't think I can try to pre-guess what will work for readers in 200 years time. Maybe, as a general rule, pick your audience level of reading and cultural awareness for now (or let your editor pick it, heh) and here, if not in environmental issues, heaven forbid, let the future look after itself.

Chris Howard said...

Hey, Sylvia! I have an Amazon.com box on my desk with The Moving Water inside. It just showed up. I always think of Thomson/Gale as a giant business and academic pub, didn't even know they had imprints that did genre. Very cool.

I can't say that I really think about an audience--present or future--while I'm writing, but afterward, when editing, re-reading, I can put myself in someone else's shoes and try to see what they would see in the story, and that sometimes tells me what to change, what to leave in, what works, what doesn't. All comes back to balance.

I think you're right, this is really writing:

>It's, in particular, where do I end this sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Ie. the overall play and balance of stop and start, tension and release, that's going to make what you write work overall.

I was going to give this whole set of ideas some more thought, but I haven't really, too busy. So, without much thought, I'll say...uh, write,

Maybe it isn't so much a problem to solve, as it is just something to keep an eye on while writing. Or, folding in your political correctness line of thought, Carole, maybe this can even become the challenge for a modern author: try to write a very real, historically accurate, but entirely sympathetic character in an age with different values, different beliefs, incomplete understanding of the world, say, an upstanding Englishman living and working in the Caribbean in the 18th Century. I think this was one of your points, Carole: I don't care how gentle and compassionate a man this character might be, if we went back a few hundred years with him and our current sentiments, we'd be appalled at some of this compassionate gentleman's behavior--behavior in his own mind that he'd think entirely appropriate, even kind.

A lot to think about. For now, I'm inclined to leave it at Sylvia's,

>Maybe, as a general rule, pick your audience level of reading and cultural awareness for now... let the future look after itself

CaroleMcDonnell said...

I got to thinking about the importance of stuff...especially as future generations stop understanding certain aspects of a novel. For instance, kids nowadays will probably never truly understand why Anna Karenina felt she had to commit suicide. They just won't. Class issues, sexual mores, even the idea that love can make people get all upset and actually die! No kid nowadays is that romantic.

And I think of how history and the proximity of history changes our understanding of a work of art. Consider Hamlet. In our age we get all worked up about Hamlet freaking out about his mom and his uncle. All sorts of silliness about Freud and family issues which were probably not in Shakespeare's mind at all. But back in the day, listeners would no doubt have connected it to Henry VIII's wife to Catherine of Aragon..and the way he got a divorce by saying she was originally his brother's wife.

Another thing that changes about futures is the common myth of a people. The stuff everyone knows, understands clearly, and believes. The world is so split and so multi-cosmopolitan now. On the one hand, I probably could have made a Bible reference back in the day and all westerners would know the story and understand the allusion. Now, the folks in the west have few common allusions...except the ones that the media gives them. Reality TV and movies seem to be the common myth.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

I got to thinking about the importance of stuff...especially as future generations stop understanding certain aspects of a novel. For instance, kids nowadays will probably never truly understand why Anna Karenina felt she had to commit suicide. They just won't. Class issues, sexual mores, even the idea that love can make people get all upset and actually die! No kid nowadays is that romantic.

And I think of how history and the proximity of history changes our understanding of a work of art. Consider Hamlet. In our age we get all worked up about Hamlet freaking out about his mom and his uncle. All sorts of silliness about Freud and family issues which were probably not in Shakespeare's mind at all. But back in the day, listeners would no doubt have connected it to Henry VIII's wife to Catherine of Aragon..and the way he got a divorce by saying she was originally his brother's wife.

Another thing that changes about futures is the common myth of a people. The stuff everyone knows, understands clearly, and believes. The world is so split and so multi-cosmopolitan now. On the one hand, I probably could have made a Bible reference back in the day and all westerners would know the story and understand the allusion. Now, the folks in the west have few common allusions...except the ones that the media gives them. Reality TV and movies seem to be the common myth.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

The world is getting so dumb, though. And less inclined to... Enough said.

True about gut feelings. I so want to write certain things but the heart knows what it wants to write and I can only hope that my heart is in tune with the great world consciousness so it will write a book that many people will understand and enjoy.

Chris, sometimes you ought to see me trying to get certain folks to understand some Bible stories in the way I understand it. As Kierkegaard says, "in contemporariness." This always leads me to have way more mercy on the Biblical bad guys than other Christian folks. I think of the woman who tried to seduce Joseph (son of Jacob the Israelite patriarch) and all I can think is "this woman is a eunuch's wife, for heaven's sake! This isn't wild rampant lust. She's married to a guy who has no sexual drive." OR when I slam folks for picking on Job's wife: "Excuse me, this is a couple who have lost their children and are both grieving. Why the heck do old theologians and modern theologians pick on Job's wife for "being depressed" especially since it doesn't look as if Poor Mrs Job had anyone visiting to comfort her??? But it's hard to make people get into Kierkegaard's contemporariness with Scripture or with anything else. Folks just don't want to think. So I suspect much of the depth and greatness of all literature --yep, even the ones we are writing-- will be lost or reduced to one shining theme. Let's just hope the future literati understand our books well enough to understand that theme. -C

Sylvia Kelso said...

Can't resist picking up a couple of points from Chris's response here, firstly on CMD's about political correctness.

*maybe this can even become the challenge for a modern author: try to write a very real, historically accurate, but entirely sympathetic character in an age with different values, different beliefs, incomplete understanding of the world, say, an upstanding Englishman living and working in the Caribbean in the 18th Century."

I don't wanna sound cynical, but we can't. We can write what WE think wd be such, but our own time and our own views will inevitably slant the picture. As you go on to say, what's upstanding to him just won't be upstanding to us.
"The past is another country" is truer than we think. There are no passports for it. The past we re-create is ours, not theirs. Just run your eye down the line of different versions of some historical notable like Alexander. There is no "historically accurate" version. At least, not in fiction. There's whatever our background and sensibility finds plausible. It *feels* accurate, but it's actually verisimilitude, that's all.

Of course, there is one way out. Go for the maverick who's ahead of his time and in tune with ours. Penn or Wilberforce or Mary Wollstonecraft were all like that. These people thought like what we consider upstanding now - they just weren't upstanding then, and you'd have to allow for that. Ie, their "contemporaries" would treat them like dangerous revolutionaries. Or kooks.

But that close to our own time, you can find factions of opinion that match with ours.
Of course, getting back to Alexander's or Aristotle's time, heaven help us, is a much greater challenge. Unless there's something back there that chimes with our ideas, and you can research far enough and deep enough to latch onto that. And get far enough "into" the period - the writing, the places, the stories - to make it feel convincing, to yourself, and maybe to others as well. It's the real challenge of a historical novel, one that I actually love more than fantasy. But alas, my favourite period and character don't work in novel form. The story's just too damn BIG, and the events, at least as history preserves them, are already over the top...

Chris Howard said...

You're right, but I think there's middle ground that an author can tread. Sympathy for a younger ignorant character doing what we would forgive, with--I guess--the assumption that he'll wise up by the end of the story. I'm thinking of Jay Lake's Mainspring, a world very much like our own late 19th Century/early 20th Century--except that imperial England has retained all of her colonies, dominance of the seas--and air (cool airships). The other great power of the "Northern world" is imperial China. The world is a giant clockwork mechanism--God's work--complete with an equatorial wall topped with a brass geared track that divides the southern and north worlds, and allows our world to soar through the heavens. Hethor Jacques, a clockmaker's apprentice from New Haven, Connecticut, gets a visit from the Archangel Gabriel. Hethor's charged with finding the Key Perilous and winding up the mainspring of the world because it's winding down. There's the premise, but the reader sees the world from Hethor's untrained, unworldly eye--peopled with savages, godless heathens--not really fit to stand with proper Englishmen. He's not very understanding, but the reader follows along assuming that Hethor is going to learn that the world is not the place he had been brought up with. He has to grow, and discover that his view is backward, closed, ignorant. And all along, Lake plants the seeds that Hethor is at least open to different ideas, he has a tolerant current from the beginning, and maybe that's what makes it all work.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Hey Sylvia:

I avoid writing about the mavericks cause I fear falling into that besetting sin of politically-oriented historical writers. I think of those historical novels written in such a way as to make the reader feel smug or patronizing towards the unenlightened characters. The writer's obvious modern "intelligence" often gets in the way and I often want to knock the "we all know better now" smirk off his/her face. Even if I'm on the writer's side -- and usually I'm not cause the modern writer usually always want to show how stupid and narrowminded religious people used to be. One's modern prejudices always affects the creation of past characters of course but after a while one ends up with a majority of novels showing evil religious people persecuting the noble atheist/wicca female herbalist. That's the danger of choosing maverick characters: the modern writers' prejudices. Not that Sylvia or I or Chris would do that. But you know...the bad writers with modern axes to grind.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

yes, that's it! (My eureka moment here) Those who would probably be politically correct --and many of these have some kind of agenda of fairness which often makes them so passionate that they become intolerant of certain types of people who would be common in the historical days-- have tended to create books with the same kinds of characters.

Thus, we often end up with several typical kinds of characters in those books.

The innocent deluded person who is ready to grow and grows away from his backward indoctrination. After he becomes politically correct (for the modern reader) he bewails his former evil done in the name of God, masculinity, etc.

The mean fearful true believer in the old way who is so timid about change because his very soul depends on it.

The victimized believer who is victimized by the belief of her day and yet is a true believer and cannot free herself.

The persecuted seeker of truth who seeks truth in spite of the pressures laid upon his noble soul.

It creates a herd mind mentality where for decades all the characters in historical novels seem somewhat familiar.

The true believer who is somewhat kind and who kinda changes but decides to knowingly choose the "wrong" way because the rest of his world isn't ready for it.

I cannot tell you how many times I've encoutered these characters...in great books and in small books, in tv and in film. And frankly, after a while one gets tired of historical books that try to make history fit into our ideals.

Sylvia Kelso said...

That's what I get for wanting to pontificate while coming down off a "Five-mile Chase", to nick the title of the reel, with the new piece, still aerated but not wanting to do any more Real Work. A post that ended up saying three different things and contradicting them all.
Anyhow, Chris first, I forgot to say I posted your Everran's Bane the same day you posted about The Moving Water arriving. Dunno how long it will take to get to you, but it's on the way.

Then, the audience, yeah, when actually "in the act" I don't think about them out there either. It's my own internal checker I'm writing for. That I think is the way it shd. be. The editor shd. only come along afterwards, or you'd be like the centipede that started thinking about how he walked and ended up never walking at all... (Very straight face.)

As for writing about mavericks, CM, you don't have to be smug about their being ahead of their time etc. But if you want a real someone who did match our "progressive" views Way Back When, whoever you choose, you'll still write from your century/ time/ideology, not theirs.
You may show them clawing their way out of "old' prejudices, and possibly without patronage, but the new world you usher them into will be one that you approve. In Middlemarch, Eliot teaches Dorothea not to be an air-head, but Eliot can't imagine Dorothea, at the end, even doing what she herself did - carving out a career for herself, not as somebody else's auxiliary political hostess. That solution is only imaginable to somebody as far away as we are - or maybe into 2nd-wave feminism, anyhow.

The people who can open that wall of the imagination have fascinated me for years, because so often they are mavericks, like Russ and Delany in SF. People whose personal inclinations, including their sexuality, put them at odds with the mainstream, and they start doing something the mainstream can't, or didn't do.

As for such mavericks always stomping "believers," seems a pretty big generalisation to me. I fear, as as agnostic, questions of religion are as seldom central to my fiction as in most modern fantasy. But when, in the goldfields monster, I had to create the "past" character, I got a shock, becuase he wasn't just from the 19th C but a Catholic. A practicing Catholic. So when it came to explaining the time travel, I got a hell of a shock when his first reaction was to bring up theological problems.
If there ARE alternate worlds, and "I" exist in both - another character had prposed Everett's quantum theory to explain the time-slips - what's gonna happen come Judgement Day? Will there be duplicate me's walking round Heaven and Hell? Or - Occam's razor - will we all just be a single soul with multiple bodies? If that's the case, what happens to "me?"
It was quite a surprise, I can tell you. But I certainly didn't end up either treating him or feeling about him patronisingly.
I don't think "believers" are necessarily treated badly in historical novels, overall, though it may be the case with those you've seen.

CFN

SK

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Hi Sylvia:

Yes, it IS a generalization. And that's just the trouble. The books DO tend to generalize and stomp. Honestly. It's true.

Most writers are not particularly deep thinkers. So there's a lot of stereotypical stuff out there. Because the politically-correct mind tends to be the herd mind and the herd mind tends to stereotype. Not always. But usually.

-C