Stereotypes & Assumptions

I’m not a deep thinker or writer, despite my background, education, and training.  This may seem odd from someone with a PhD in an arts/humanities field given the reputations of said fields.  We’re expected to be thinking and writing deep, meaningful, philosophical things.

That’s not me.

Maybe that comes from being the grandkid of working class families.  Maybe it comes from my Polish lineage (though we have Copernicus and John Paul II, so maybe not entirely).

I think this is the big reason I rejected doing literary theory in grad school.  Most of the things we read and discussed were doing pure theory, theory for the sake of theory.  People like Roland Barthes, Toril Moi, and Stanley Fish who were totally divorced from texts, just developing theory to further theory drove me crazy.  Meanwhile, I embraced, halfheartedly because theory was required, New Historicism, in short studying a text’s historical context or the historical context in which it was and is received.  It seemed, and still does, the most practical of the theories out there.

I remember being in a graduate level Shakespeare course, during my MA.  We were reading Othello and a fellow student asked, “Why is Othello so obsessed with his reputation?”  As I recall, a few theories were posited, some “I don’t knows” floated around.  Then I spoke up (and I usually didn’t talk much in class), saying, “Othello’s a mercenary, the commander of a company of mercenaries.  His reputation is literally his life.  It’s how he gets jobs for himself and his men.  That would be important enough, but he’s also a Moor, a Black Muslim, working in Catholic Italy.  That makes his reputation at least twice as important as it is for other mercenary captains.”  To me, this seemed obvious.  From the looks I got, it seemed to be a revelation to many others in the class.  It’s not a deep, philosophical interpretation, but a practical, historically important one, I think.

During a decade as a student in higher ed, I concluded that  students sometimes forget about the practical side of critical thinking and get too caught up in some skewed sense of how they think they should be responding and thinking, trying to “sound college”.  The problem is that “sounding college” is built on a stereotype, maybe an idealization, possibly fueled by pop culture (especially movies), in which the faculty are almost invariably the enemy who need to be appeased and outwitted (often by presenting convoluted responses, answers, and thoughts that really make no sense in the light of day).  Often, we just want a straight response that seems likely (at least I do).

Was Shakespeare using Othello as a commentary on hyper-masculinity?  I don’t know.  Possibly.  It’s perfectly valid for modern audiences to read the character that way.  But, I think, for an audience that was being reminded of the War of the Roses, had survived the Spanish Armada, was dealing with the Succession Question, and had the Vatican & Papists fomenting insurrection . . . I suspect they’d understand Othello’s obsession with reputation as part and parcel of being a mercenary captain and an outsider by faith and appearance.

Maybe that all means I’m not a deep enough or philosophical enough thinker for this field or academia.  I don’t know.  Maybe the stereotype & expectation are just false.

People, Point of View, and Tenses, Oh My

Due to a side editing project that I was doing, before determining that the project was not ready for outside editing, I’ve been considering point of view, tense, and person.

 As I said last week, I’ve discovered that I really hate third person present.

 It’s jarring and painful.

 So, let’s break this down:

 1st Person — A useful narrative mode, it can feel like the narrator is sitting down speaking with the audience. I’ve found this perspective commonly used in paranormal romance (Allyson James), urban fantasy (Ilona Andrews, Jim Butcher), and a fair bit of YA novels (Veronica Roth, Suzanne Collins).

 2nd Person — A strange narrative mode, but one people have tried with varying degrees of success or failure to employ. The few examples I’ve glanced at seem to be a mix of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person rather than being entirely 2nd person. It’s always seemed better, to me, when limited to directions or helping people remember things.

 3rd Person — Probably the most common written narrative form that’s been used for millennia. It’s a good, solid form, and easily my favorite to write fiction in. For non-fiction, it helps preserve a degree of objectivity and formality for the writer.

 Past — Probably the most common verb tense for narratives, and one that’s been used for millennia. All the events already happened, nice and easy. Past also allows for use of all other tenses as needed for thoughts, dialogue, and other purposes.

 Present — I’ve seen various takes on use of present tense. Some say that it is increasingly common, others that it is rare. Finding consensus is probably impossible and likely depends on what genre(s) the individual is most familiar with. It can certainly make the action more immediate and reduces the variety of tenses available. However, it restricts time manipulation, diminishes suspense, can make it more difficult to create complex characters, and encourages use of trivial events. Veronica Roth (Divergent), Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games), and Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) are good examples of first person present.

 Future — I’ve never actually seen or heard of any fiction written entirely in future tense. I imagine it would be extremely difficult, at least in English, to get something like that to sound decent and to justify it.

 Omniscient — An interesting perspective that can be pulled off, when done well. Basically allows the reader to get the thoughts, feelings, and perspective of every character (or, more commonly, all the protagonists). I think this works best with a limited cast, as too many characters and perspectives tends to lead to nothing more than a jumbled mess of confusion and frustration for the reader. Obviously, it also needs to be handled just right or it becomes a complete clusterf—-.

 Limited — All the thoughts, feelings, and point of view come from one character. Probably the most common method anymore, although it can be adapted. For instance, George R.R. Martin and Rick Riordan change the perspective for every chapter, but each chapter is limited—ex. Chapter One is from Character A limited (say, Cersei or Percy Jackson, Chapter Two is Character B limited (Ned Stark or Annabeth Chase), etc.

Defining Literature

I was thinking about “literature” again today, in reference to a discussion elsewhere.  Obviously, after 17 years studying the subject, I think about it a fair amount.  To date, I’ve found “literature” is a term that becomes more difficult to define the more I study it.  Every definition I’ve tried out to date has had significant exceptions.  In some ways, I guess, defining literature is like defining art or pornography (“I can’t say what it is, but I know it when I see it”).

So far, the best I’ve come up with is: literature has layers of meaning and the potential for longevity (or already has longevity).

To rephrase in Jungian terms:
Literature draws on the collective unconscious (the source of myths and legends; e.g. the things that affect us on a very deep level regardless of culture, era, etc.).

Non-Literature draws on the collective conscious (the source of fads and cults; e.g. the passing fancies that die out after a short life).

I tend to reject the idea that “literature” must be boring or pretentious.  For example, I consider Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Lois Lowry, Harper Lee, Terry Pratchett, and C.S. Lewis to be literary (and certainly not boring or pretentious).  I defy anyone to call Shakespeare or Chaucer pretentious (the former filling his plays with bodily functions and innuendo for humor, the latter making judicious use of fart jokes), the same for E.A. Poe.

On the other hand, Stephanie Meyer, Danielle Steele, William Shatner . . . none will be remembered for their fiction 30-40 years from now, I think.

On another hand, it’s been my experience that many who set out out be “literary” come off as pretentious.

But, then again, I just don’t see why some “literary” authors out there are considered “great” (ex. Fitzgerald, Melville, Faulkner).

Introductions

So, yet another blog about writing.  And another about worldbuilding.

Great.

Lots of writers and others have been discussing both on the web and in print for a long time, so what’s the point?  Most, if not all, I’ve seen present their views or method as the only way.  Due to teaching, I try to present multiple views, methods, and explanations.  After all, what works for one person doesn’t work for everyone.  For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien and Terry Pratchett made worlds as they desired for their stories, other writers are more scientific in their worldbuilding.  Likewise, R.A. Heinlein knew the beginning and end of his novels but filled in the rest as he went along, while Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and J.K. Rowling mapped out an entire series before writing.

My goal is to present my views, my musings, on the subjects as one (or two or three) methods of many and to try to note other options as well.  Maybe more to pose questions and my ever evolving thoughts and approaches to writing and worldbuilding.

My primary purpose in creating this blog is to collect my thoughts on the subjects.  I do worldbuilding as a hobby (or compulsion) and write (and teach writing) professionally.  Along the way, I’ll probably include some links and quotes that I find helpful for both activities.