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15 August, 2007

The Fiction Mirror

It's actually an interesting question, what one can tell about a person from the stories they tell and the way they tell them. And I think a lot of the things that certain types of literary analysis go into miss much of the point.

There are a couple of things that can with reasonable reliability be derived from a text about the author:

1) The author cannot write something that does not fit within their imagination. If the author cannot conceive of something as a possibility, it will not appear in the text.

1a) These limitations of conception are sometimes cultural. I forget which of the discussions of Athena I've seen kicking around the blogs in the past few days this came up in, but there's a bit in the Odyssey where She takes the form of a young man to provide someone advice, and apparently there was a discussion about how horribly sexist it was that She needed to take male form -- and the pointing out that in that culture and in that time period a female form would not have been listened to didn't make a difference. People are aware of that bit of cultural blindness now, more or less.

For one that people aren't so much aware of, try this one: How many movies are there where "Which person will get chosen in this love triangle" is an essential part of the plot? Especially where both potential parties are loved and loving, distinguished primarily by 'socially acceptable' and 'socially marginal'? (Where I come from, we call this YAFMA: Yet Another Monogamy Accident.)

1b) These limitations of conception are sometimes personal.

Sometimes this is a simple lack of experience, and something that can be corrected with research or even 'consciousness-raising' -- for an example of this, I'd point at John Scalzi's piece "Being Poor". Someone who simply does not think to consider the effect of, say, ethnicity or sex or orientation on their characters is probably dealing with some level of cultural blindness on a personal level, and as they become more aware of these issues may well start doing this differently. (I commented recently that I have been deliberately working on illuminating different ethnicities in my own fiction, because that's a place that I'm less well examined than I would prefer.)

Sometimes this is a more complicated to articulate "I don't think that way; I can't figure out how to understand that." There are plenty of people whose cognitive processes are opaque to me; I can make models of how they work that may in fact be reasonably accurate, but which I do not put a great deal of trust in, because they're sketchy things based in, "Okay, if I posit that this is the case, what would make sense?" I keep the people who are this level of alien to me as minor characters, people who are sufficiently unexamined in the course of the story that the flaws in my modelling how they work are unlikely to come up. I know that such people exist, but I can't explore them in any depth, because I know I'd hit the limit of my understanding mightily quickly.

I know people who can't read C. J. Cherryh -- who is one of my favorite authors -- because they simply cannot penetrate her prose. They don't think that way. I do think that way; I don't always express that way because constant exposure to other language frames shifts my default sentence processing a bit more towards 'comprehensible' than she writes. I read enough of her, though, and I wind up with glorious tangles of verbiage with peculiar punctuation, like I think. I don't hold it against people that they can't read Cherryh because her mind is too alien; one of my current criteria for killfiling people on usenet is "I could not render this person plausibly in fiction."

2) It may be possible to get some understanding of issues that an author is wrestling with by looking for generalities in a broad body of work. A single work will have a number of themes and images to explore (and I think very few authors consciously work to a theme; I know one multiply-published woman who has said that she learns what the themes of her works are when someone tells her in an interview); when one considers a variety of pieces, it is possible to tell which of these are persistent across works and thus likely to be specifically illuminating of the author. This may be a political position, an issue the person wants to explore, something about their background that makes an indelible mark on their view of the world, whatever else, but it is really only discernible from study of a variety of works, especially in multiple genres if those are available.

To any literary critics reading this in the future in which I'm published: the underlying universal theme in my fiction is the experience of the outsider looking in. Please acknowledge this in your thesis. Also, The Devil's Dance is about the madness of grief. That's all I know about themes.

3) Writing will reflect the author's unexamined axioms and perspectives. Taken to an extreme, this will generate cliches -- how many movies have the black sidekick killed off at their climax again? (How many cliches are there in the phrase 'black sidekick killed off at the climax', for that matter?) This is not unrelated to questions of blindness, but is not the same thing. Someone who, for example, is aware at one level that issues of racism are important to consider in the world may nonetheless write a story in which all the characters are white, because that's what they know. Someone whose sole experience with religion is conservative Christianity is unlikely to write a plausible polytheism. And so on. And people will argue about what that means, too -- Scalzi (again) notes that he puts very few ethnic markers in his books, so while he knows how much of the population is of a variety of ethnicities, the cues in the text itself are very thin. Other people note that this opens the text to interpretation as 'all these characters are white'. (He also has a character who is completely sex-unspecified, I believe.) So that doesn't resolve the question of whether these are adequately examined axioms interpreted in a particular way or not.

4) In the ideal sense, writing will not betray the author. Fiction is a mirror we hold up to the world, and it reflects ourselves as we wish to be or as we fear we are. It illuminates us, expresses our beliefs, and is part of the iterative process of culture propagating into the next generation. What stories we tell about ourselves, our world, the people we imagine, contain some level of truth.

Truth is a complicated, slippery thing, and it exists in the nexus between the text and the reader as much as it does in the author's creation of the text, which is why this gets even more fiddly than unexamined axioms. What a person may pull out of a text can vary so greatly vary from what was put in (even taking into account the unexamined and invisible) that it is unrecognisable. And the, "Oh, this is an excellent allusion to a myth the author had never actually heard of" sort of thing is a richness to a work as it wends its fractal way in the world, not a betrayal.

I'm finding it hard to articulate what I mean by 'betray the author'. I can say ... I want to say, "Go read 'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas' and think about what it means, what it illustrates -- what meaning Le Guin would shudder and deny if someone thanked her for presenting it." But Omelas is illustrative, explicitly sketching an idea and inviting a response, and fiction doesn't have to be didactic to do this. But maybe going to Omelas for a while and looking in the wretched basement room would reveal something. I don't know.

It goes into responsibility -- to write the dystopic aspects of reality in a manner that makes it possible to recognise them as dystopic, to make the principles I believe in seem plausible even if I'm not writing something set where they are implemented. To not undercut myself as I shape the world by writing the reality I want to see out of existence with implausibility and the ability to twist it into something corrupt. I may not be writing to express a truth, but I still need to write such that I do not deny it.

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