Okay, let's see if I can figure out how to use this quote function:
Thanks for your responses; they were very cogent and well-thought out. As you might expect, though, I still disagree with most of them.
To begin with: you said that my question about art as illusion was answered by your remarks about context and relevance. But I really don't see that that's true. What I was suggesting was that context and relevance were part of the illusion a story casts.
As you note, making a simple decision about your characters' profession suggests an awful lot about them. But extrapolating from 'dentists' to 'upper middle class, well educated' is similar to extrapolating from 'wizard' to 'older man, knows many secrets'. In either case, there's a pre-existing context. And if you want to do something different you have to establish how you've modified your context. The point is that in both cases you're working to establish an illusion, a context, that'll satisfy the reader; one which won't disrupt the willing suspesion of disbelief.
(I'm still not sure I understand what you mean by relevance; or, at least, what I do understand I suspect I disagree with. But I'll deal with that later.)
As I said, I value the ability of literature to transmit knowledge and wisdom. I do not, however, value the ability of entertainment to encourage superstition and folly.
This is a tricky point. I agree literature transmits wisdom. But I find it often transmits most when it's at its most foolish. I don't believe that a theocratic world-empire is the ideal form of government -- except when I'm reading Dante, who does believe this, and makes his case so eloquently and beautifully it'd be churlish not
to believe it. Until my eyes leave his words.
The point I want to make here is that the wisdom the best literature transmits is usually something subtler than what its writer intended. And that considering the question of whether literature transmits foolish ideas is ... well, let's say 'irrelevant to the question of whether it succeeds as art.' Is Wagner's work anti-semitic? Even many people who say 'yes' still accept those works as great artistic achievements.
Are Dante and Milton 'superstitious' when they write Christian works attempting to justify God to Man? Well, maybe, maybe not, but I don't care to describe either of them as foolish just because I'm not Chrsitian. I think it's wrong to try to pit our own ideas of how the world works against the ideas held by the writer of a story -- except, and this is the tricky bit, where those ideas are so defective as to impair the story itself. The point I was hoping to make is that a metaphysical point-of-view may be presented in a story either because it works for the story or
because it's something the writer earnestly believes; but that from the reader's perspective it doesn't matter what the case is, so long as the metaphysic in question serves the tale.
In the long run, I don't think you really answered the question I posed. That was: if realism is superior to fantasy, what happens when somebody writes a story about a wizard that he or she claims is literally true? A blanket dismissal of such writers as fools or superstitious strikes me as insufficient; not because it's necessarily wrong, just because it says nothing about the work they may produce.
The overall point I'm making is that the line between reality and fantasy is, if not blurred, at least drawn in a different spot by different people. More on this later.
It is quite possible to write a realistic story that portrays a belief in the supernatural in an unbiased or advocative way. It is not so easy, however, to write a fantasy story that encourages skepticism and a rational, scientific viewpoint.
I'm actually not entirely sure about this. There's a whole sub-genre of fantasy that deals with situations where 'the magic goes away', usually as science, the scientific viewpoint, or industrialisation arrive on the scene. There are writers like M. John Harrison (who I haven't read, but have read of), who write fantasy in which the fantasy world must be rejected and the mundane real world must be chosen precisely because it is
real. I will concur that most fantasy doesn't do this, but I don't see why it's necessarily more difficult to write than any others. It's juust that most fantasy writers are, I suspect, uninterested in writing these stories.
This is, of course, the problem with trying to argue that any given thing is 'more difficult' in a literary context. Different writers have different abilities and different inclinations. Which may make this argument moot. But hey, it's fun while it lasts ...
And I think there's a certain amount of dishonesty in an author who writes fantasy as a way of expressing their own beliefs in the supernatural. They seek to have it both ways-- they are asking the skeptical reader to 'suspend their disbelief' for the duration of the story, while at the same time encouraging the credulous reader to believe they are glimpsing a fantastic realm that actually exists.[QUOTE]
I don't know that that's dishonest so much as self-contradictory. In fact, I don't really understand what you're getting at in this example. You mean the way C.S. Lewis supposedly encoded Christian ideas into his Narnia stories? Is there a writer that you're thinking of who does this? It seems to me that it's up to the reader to decide what they want, which was my point -- whatever the author thinks of his work, it's really the reader who has the final verdict.
[QUOTE]Literary signifigance can come in these forms-- 1) A source of knowledge and wisdom about the world. 2) An expression of a purely abstract idea. 3) An exercise in pure form. Of these three qualities, realism has a distinct advantage in evoking #1, because it refers directly to the real world and doesn't have to do so indirectly. For #2 it doesn't have any particular advantage over fantasy. For #3 it has some advantage because the power of context allows for a more succinct, elegant expression.
So I agree that a fantasy is as capable of evoking the abstract idea of a wizard just as well as a realistic story evoking the abstract idea of an unhappy marriage.
Great! Unfortunately, I have to take issue with the separation of significance into three areas. What I was trying to suggest was that abstract ideas might themselves represent, or be used in representing, 'a source of knowledge and wisdom about the world'. I think most significant wisdom from storytelling is produced in this way -- stories establish their abstract ideas, then explore them, manipulate them, or contrast them in order to bring out their meanings.
So, having said that, I suppose I disagree with your argument that realism has an advantage in producing 'knowledge and wisdom'. I certainly disagree with the suggestion that wisdom has an advantage in exercises of pure form; in fact, much of the history of literature suggests just the opposite -- Homer, Vergil, Spenser, certainly there's no lack of fantasy-based examples of pure form. There have been stylists working in realism, of course, but it's far from clear that realistic fiction is an easy mesh with pure form. If anything, I'd suggest that 'pure form' doesn't really mesh with the bounds of realism; pure
form is almost inevitably going to shade over into fantasy at some point or other.
And even when the scenario [of an unhappy divorce] was not based on any fact or experience, the reader may well decide that it rings true, if the author has, in general, good instincts about character and the human condition.
Right! Well said! That was what I was trying to get at. Now, if the scenario of a divorce may be made to feel real even without the actual experience of a divorce, why not a scenario involving a wizard or other fantastical element? If, as you say, the author has good instincts about the human condition.
I don't agree that a story has to be equally appealing to all readers in order to be a good story. If that were true, there would be no good stories. I don't think there's any inherent conflict between a work echoing our personal experiences and also transcending them. And it seems far-fetched to assume that experience with a troubled marriage is 'special knowledge' that a signifigant portion of the readership would not have.
Well, I didn't want to imply that a work has to succeed to all readers. Only that a work must play upon the emotions common to all of us. If you don't like the term 'special knowledge', then please replace it with 'specific knowledge'. What I meant was that if one has to have been through a troubled marriage to understand a story about failed marriage, that story clearly isn't communicating the experience of a failed marriage to a general audience. It is of course true that great literature may say different things to people at different ages of their lives, but those different things are based upon a general store of experience and wisdom, not specific incidents in life.
Let me put it this way: I was in a creative writing class where a woman wrote a story about an upper-class family of Scots ancestry. It didn't go over well with the rest of the class, who thought the family she wrote about were too unsympathetic, too reserved, too cold. But I liked it, because a part of my family tree is
upper-class and of Scots descent -- and I thought she'd pretty accurately nailed what people of that background were like. The teacher's overall assessment, with which I agreed, was that she had to rework the story, knowing that she had the basics right, in order to make it clearer to people who did not have the specific knowledge that I did.
All of this is to say that if a reader has something in their background that helps them relate to a story, great. But a writer can't count on that. A story about divorce shouldn't be judged on whether people who've been divorced like it; it should be judged on whether people who haven't been divorced can relate to it. Whether the writer has made the basic emotional connection with his or her readers. Whether the emotions, and wisdom, in the story come across because due to the skill of the writer rather than the background of the reader.
Having said all that: you note that there's no "inherent conflict between a work echoing our personal experiences and also transcending them." I thoroughly agree with this. This is what I think fantasy does: transcend our personal experiences. As a never-married 29-year-old, who has seen none of his friends going through divorce, stories about these subjects are just about as fantastic to me as stories about wizards.
If I can elaborate on this point: whenever I read a story, I have to make such a tremendous imaginative leap that the question of whether the story is fantastic or realistic harldy matters. Trying to think myself into the place of another human individual is radical enough. The question of whether the individual inhabits the world I do, or the world that used to be, or a world that never was, or a world that might be, is essentially trivial.
When I read American Splendor
, I have to empathise with a man of a different generation, different social background, different educational background, different nationality and culture -- heck, I even have to get around the instinct that screams that there should be a 'u' in 'splendour' (Canadian spelling, you know). Superficially, it looks like I'd have an easier time identifying with, say, Chester Brown; he's only thirteen years older than I am, according to his autobio works, and he grew up in Montréal, as I did. But then, that thirteen years tells. And he grew up in Chateauguay, while I grew up in Westmount, an entirely different neighbourhood. (In fact, there's little in The Playboy
or I Never Liked You
to mark the books out as Canadian or Montréal-based. Context, in other words, is omitted if not deliberately suppressed.)
The point is, everybody inhabits a different world. It takes quite an intellectual effort to put yourself in the place of a character in a story, regardless of how close to you they may be, or how much of your world-view they may share. As I say, whether the world is fantastic or realistic, the determining factor to me is the quality of the writing.
But I think the intent of what I was saying is that a description in a realistic story of the New York Stock exchange must 'ring true' but it must also be congruent with what is factually known about the exchange.
I'm not sure. I think there's a certain level of permissable inaccuracy. The story's more important than the question of correct detail. Not every writer is going to be James Joyce (thank God), struggling to nail down every happening and sight in Dublin during a certain specific day. To continue with Chester Brown, he himself admits to changing the facts of history in Louis Riel
. It's what he feels he has to do, and if he has to, well, then, he has to. If somebody sets a story in the NYSE and has to change some details to make the story work, then that's what they've got to do. This is why you can't rely on fictional stories for factual information on the real world. (You want a real kick, check out the differences between Shakespeare's history plays and actual history.)
So, basically, the above is why I disagree with your assessment that "proximity to what we're trying to portray is entirely relevant to our ability to portray it in a meaningful way." The standard for fantasy is there, just as the standard is there for the depiction of an unhappy marriage: in the mind of the reader. The standards may be different, formed from different experiences, but they do both exist.
My remark was a response to Madget's statement, 'the proximity to our own reality a piece of fiction offers is entirely irrelevent to determining its quality or value, at least to my mind. ' To concede that there are two standards, as you apparently have done, is to concede that Madget is wrong, that proximity is relevant. That's not to say that proximity is the sole determining factor, which I have not suggested. But it is relevant, unquestionably.
Yeah, I made a hash in my response there, responding to a second point of yours I didn't bother to quote: "Of course, since there are no sorcerers, there is no standard except entertainment value for deciding whether the author has succeeded in capturing the wizard persona. The author portraying the unhappy marriage, on the other hand, is working against a standard of truth." What I meant to say, then, was that 'the standard of truth' is there for fantasy, just as that same standard is there for the portrayal of an unhappy marriage.
And I will expand on that here: The standard in both cases is not literal truth, but the emotional or intuitive truth sensed by the reader. 'Sensed' is probably too sober and too passive a word. 'Revealed', in the sense of a religious revelation, may be more like it. Emily Dickenson once said something like 'When I feel that the top of my head has been blown off -- that
is poetry.' And that's what I'm trying to say: when a story does that, that's a good story, never mind whether the means were realistic or fantastic. Both of these means may produce that sensation of revealed truth, and neither, that I can see, has any particular advantage in causing it.
I don't believe I suggested that the imaginative burden of realistic writing was greater. Rather, Madget's initial comment suggested that fantasy requires imagination and realism doesn't. To the contrary, I think both do.
This we definitely agree on, then.
I'm just guessing here, but I would expect that the fantasy author has more opportunities to take short cuts. Say for example his quasi-Native Americans exist in the far future on another planet-- how relevant would a knowledge of Earth history be to writing such a tale? Of course one can hypothesize that the realistic author might have similar opportunities to skip their homework; I just think on balance they would not be able to get away with it as often.
I suspect that this is really a case-by-case question. My experience -- I've written a children's story based in Norse myth which I'm trying to sell (any publishers out there?) and a play based extensively on local history -- is that whatever I write I quickly pile up more information than I'm ever going to use, but every bit of it is helpful in suggesting the tone of the story I'm writing. Of course, that's just me; I'd expect this also to vary with the individual writer. In any event, what I meant when I spoke in my original post about 'perception of the world' had little to do with research or factual details -- more to do with general worldview and perception of human emotion, without which no story will amount to much.
(And I do think knowing earth history would be vitally important to your hypothetical science-fiction writer. To begin with, his characters would likely know their own history. Maybe even more important, a knowledge of history allows one to play around with resonant parallels of all kinds in the creation of the future world, creating a greater sense of depth and continuity, and to avoid unintended errors.)
Now, when I asked why fantasy writers can't create their own context, you wrote:
They can, but it's a lot more work. Most fantasy, though, borrows context from realism. A rustic setting, for instance, is basically similar regardless of whether it's a fantasy or a real story.
I don't concur with this, because the point I was trying to make in my original post (without being terribly clear about it, I admit) was that every story must create its own context. A realistic writer has to adequately replicate the reality around him or her, in such a way as to enhance the themes of the story. A fantasy writer has to create a context that will enhance the themes of a story. I think both are difficult to manage. That's what makes writing difficult.
As you point out, fantasy inevitably must touch upon the real at some point. This connects, I think, to my argument that the two things ultimately blend into each other. Any work will have its romantic elements, which may be overt fantasy or may only tend in that direction, as well as its more realistic aspects. More on that later.
Well, a single example might tend to confuse more than illuminate, but here goes. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina climaxes with Anna in an acutely anxious state of mind that leads her to throw herself under the wheels of a moving train. Shortly before this happens, Tolstoy portrays her interior monolog. It's an intense experience that helps us to understand how somebody could bring themselves to commit suicide.
Of course, Tolstoy isn't a mind reader, and presumably has never suffered the wounded pride of a rejected mistress. But the entire novel is so credible, that we accept Tolstoy's authority to present this scene. But if the novel had contained fantasy elements, it would have completely destroyed that credibility.
I apologise for misunderstanding what you meant by 'knowledge and wisdom'. But ... are Hamlet's or Macbeth's soliloquies undercut by the fantasy elements in their stories? If Anna Karenina presents us with knowledge and wisdom, what about Hamlet and Macbeth? Or Prospero?
I suggested that you were pitting good realistic writing against bad fantasy writing, and you disagreed:
That's not my intent, and I don't think you've done a good job of supporting that. I was responding to two scenarios suggested by Madget-- the unhappy marriage versus the magician and the barbarian. If one seems to be drawing from a higher level than the other, blame him.
I accept the archetypes, but I was responding to a statement in an earlier post where you said
Take the example Madget mentioned about the magician and the barbarian. Both characters are inherently wish-fulfillments. The magician can suspend the laws of nature and bend reality to his will. The barbarian embodies physical strength and a release from civilized social conventions.
In working with these archetypes, the author must either exploit them for their simplistic, escapist value; or critique them by a reversal of the circumstances, as in Don Quixote. But a work rooted in conventional formula can almost never escape those formula.
What I meant was that I see no reason why an author "must" be restricted to the two uses of the archetypes that you suggest. Is Prospero exploited for "simplistic, escapist value"? I would suggest not; I would suggest that Faust was not (in Goethe, if not in Marlowe, and probably not there, either); I would suggest that even Gandalf and Merlin don't comfortably fit with "simplistic, escapist value" -- both are too complex, too dark, for that label to fit. So, in presuming that these archetypes are inevitably going to produce simplistic work, it seemed to me that you were pitting bad (simplistic) fantasy against realistic work of a higher standard.
(Having said all that, though, it now occurs to me that Don Quixote is not exactly chopped liver, from a literary point of view. If fantasy consistently created works of the caliber of Don Quixote, isn't that a valuable tradition right there?)
In re: the pizza thing --
My intent was to criticize the simplistic equivalencing of things that are far different and not truly equal, not to suggest that all fantasy is pizza.
But, Joe, my point -- and I think Madget's -- was that 'stories involving unhappy marriages' and 'stories involving wizards' are effectively equal. Neither element implicitly elevates or implicitly denigrates the story that will be told. In both cases, the likely determinant of the quality of the story will be the talent level of the writer involved. You disagree, as we see in the next quote:
I think it does make a difference whether a work has a 'true to life' intent or a 'portraying the impossible' intent; furthermore, I think it's fairly easy to discern what it's intent is in most cases. I've given solid reasons why I think the 'true to life' intent is more likely to have meaning and value beyond mere entertainment. Can you give solid reasons why they are exactly equal?
I can cite instances of fantastic work as successful (or more successful) than any I can think of in the vein of realistic fiction, and then suggest reasons why they may be successful. I think that's all either of us can do; as you may gather, the reasons you put forward for the superiority of realism aren't as solid for me as they are for you. And the reason, frankly, is precisely because so much fantastic work has succeeded so well.
I'm afraid I've not read the Dickens works you cited. What I have read of Dickens is pretty realistic-- except of course for 'A Chrismas Carol.' I agree that a mixture of fantasy can enhance a work, as in Metamorphosis and Hamlet.
Well, as far as the Dickens examples go -- they're not 'explicitly' fantasy, in that there's no supernatural explanation put forward for them. Dickens even tried to argue that spontaneous combustion was a perfectly natural phenomenon, to widespread disbelief. My point was that they're romantic elements, so broad as to be unbelievable in a totally realistic work.
Most people who read Dickens are attracted to his caricatures -- like that evil dwarf I mentioned. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, more grasping and petty than may readily be believed. Urchins more innocent and heart-touching than we find in reality. Characters so much more themselves, so much more larger-than-life, than we find in reality. That's what Dickens is all about. The perfect mixture of romanticism and realism.
As far as this "mixture of fantasy" -- I can't let that go by unremarked. If a work has fantasy elements in it, it's a fantasy. Hamlet isn't part ghost-story and part something else. It is what it is, and that is a story that largely depends on the intervention of a ghost. Attempts to stage the story without the ghost have been, so far as I know, invariably unconvincing.
Why drag in Arden of Faversham when Othello is a perfectly suitable example of a troubled marriage scenario, and was in fact written by Shakespeare. You're not trying to stack the deck, are you?
Aaaagh. I knew I was forgetting something. That 'based on a real story' aspect of Arden just stuck too much in my mind, I guess.
What are we to make of the fact that Shakespeare's last play was a fantasy? Oh, I don't know-- maybe he was senile and couldn't tell the difference? Or maybe he was so out of shape he couldn't take the rigors of writing a realistic play. Or maybe he intended to write a realistic play afterwards, but he died before he finished it.
Senile? In his mid-40s? Ouch. Anyway, it is true he did collaborate on at least a couple other plays -- King Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen -- but they tend to share something of the nature of the Tempest, as well as other late plays like A Winter's Tale and Cymbeline. Pageantry, a fairy-tale atmosphere. It's a distinct movement away from realism, in any event, though, as you point out, anything might have been possible if he hadn't passed away in his early 50s ...
If Shakespeare is the standard, lets take a look at his greatest works (chosen somewhat arbitrarily by me.)
Fantasy-oriented: The Tempest; A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Realistic, but containing important fantasy scenes: Hamlet; MacBeth.
Predominently realistic: Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, Richard III, Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet. (forgive me if I've forgotten any important fantasy subplots in these-- it's been a good 20 years since I read them..)
If you'll forgive me, I'd have to say that this is indeed pretty arbitrary. Taming of the Shrew is on the list but not A Winter's Tale? Where are the Henry IV and V plays? Well, let's see what we've got.
We agree on The Tempest and Midsummer's Night Dream. But I think you're equivocating on Hamlet and Macbeth. As I said earlier, these are fantasies. They don't really work without the fantasy elements (especially Macbeth, which has some claim to being the first straight-out horror story in world literature).
The point I want to establish here is that many of Shakespeare's plays tend to bring in fantastic elements rather casually -- they're not presented as distortions of the reality of the play, though they may represent some extreme angle of that reality. A lot of the plays are based around romantic plot elements -- disguises, mistaken identities, royal babies lost in the woods and brought up by kindly peasants, all that sort of thing. This is what I meant when I talked about the mix of fantasy and reality.
So: Tempest, Midsummer's Night Dream, Hamlet, Macbeth. Add The Winter's Tale (I think it has to be called great, and if I were tetchy I'd say Cymbeline too. But I'll admit Pericles is too uneven to make the list). You forgot the fantasy elements in Julius Caesar (the whole play is filled with omens of Caesar's death, from dreams to auguries to Calpurnia's speech about graves yielding up their dead and blood raining upon the Capitol; beware the Ides of March, indeed. Plus, Caesar's ghost appears to Brutus in IV,ii and -- according to Brutus -- at some other point as well) and in Richard III (Queen Margaret's curses, which the characters themselves are horrified to see come true, and the ghosts that show up in V,v), as well as in Antony and Cleopatra (soothsayer in the second scene, supernatural music in IV,iii representing Hercules deserting Antony). So add them too.
Does it seem odd that history plays have fantasy elements? Take a look at Henry VI, part 1, where Joan la Pucelle summons up fiends. Or part 2, where a witch summons another (prophesying) fiend. As I say, hard to eliminate fantasy from these plays. Not that I'd argue that the Henry VI plays are Shakespeare's greatest. But you've got the same atmosphere of omens and prophecies in Henry IV, part 2, one of his greatest plays; and in part 1 you have a character (Glendower) claiming magic powers, though another character doubts him.
Then you get to plays like Romeo and Juliet, or even Merchant of Venice, where the working-out of the plot is fundamentally romantic. Was there really a potion available in the Renaissance which could fake death as convincingly as the one Juliet took? I dunno. The point is, it's the typical thing one finds in romance -- whether it's precisely fantasy or not, it's certainly fantastic in nature. It moves the plot in certain directions, it says certain things about the story. Ditto the casket in Merchant of Venice. Ditto the bed-trick in Measure for Measure. (Mercutio's speech in Romeo and Juliet about Queen Mab looks like another reminiscence of romance in this sense, another way the play moves into a romantic atmosphere and away from a strict realism.)
So, in the final analysis (as they say in Watchmen
) I think when we look at Shakespeare -- or Dickens -- we're looking at the fusion of the real and the fantastic. Wizards and unhappy marriages, both together. But while fantasy can include the real, how can realistic writing include fantasy?
I am now going to try and post this, and deal with everything posted after Joe's response to me in another message. Yes, there's more coming ...