(MIS)ADVENTURES IN (MIS)CASTING: VISUALISING CHARACTERS

I start reading Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009) by the recent Nobel Prize co-winner Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk, and I am dismayed to realize that the first-person narrator I have visualized for about fifteen minutes as an old man is an old woman. Her name is mentioned at the very end of the first chapter when my neurons have already made the effort of seeing this person as a man, for I must ‘see’ who is speaking; for a few more pages ‘she’ is still ‘he’ in my mind until the wrong image is corrected, with an ugly jolt.

Tokarczuk, the author, has seemingly forgotten that she is writing a novel, not making a film, and has taken for granted that her readers will understand her first-person speaker is a woman. But, why should we? Because we have read the blurb on the back cover? Seen the trailer for the film adaptation by Agnieszka Holland? I grow quite annoyed and end up finding many other flaws that make me intensely dislike this totally overhyped novel by this totally overrated Nobel. [SPOILERS ALERT] If you want to narrate a crime story in which the first person speaker is the criminal you need to do it upfront in an American Psycho in-your-face confessional style, not trying to build up any kind of suspenseful mystery, for God’s sake! [END OF SPOILERS]

My other adventure is casting is more satisfying. My ex-student Laura Pallarés sends me a copy of her first novel Pájaros en la piel, the story of the very intriguing relationship between a young Catalan woman in her early twenties, Júlia, and her Swedish father, Joseph. He and Júlia’s late mother had met when both were seventeen but Joseph ignores that their brief summer romance had resulted in a daughter. When he seeks Júlia out the scant age difference makes it hard for them to bond as father and daughter, as they seem to be more comfortable being friends although of an uncomfortably close kind.

Júlia, the author says, looks like Lily Collins, though this English actress is about ten years older. I imagine Júlia, rather, as Catalan actress Laia Costa, currently thirty-five, in a more youthful version (both Costa and Collins are pretty brunettes with interesting eyebrows and lively eyes). If I see her as Collins, then I’ll need to think of Júlia as an English-speaking girl, which is confusing. Joseph, a cosmopolitan artist, is given a Spanish best friend which justifies why he speaks the language so well. Knowing that he is Swedish, blond and blue-eyed, he is easy to cast: he looks like Alexander Skarsgård who, aged forty-three, could really play Joseph in a possible Netflix adaptation (I wish there is one!). Here’s the funny thing: Laura tells me she was not thinking of any specific actor for Joseph but it seems other readers have told her about casting Skarsgård in the role. Well, it was either him or Eurovision Song Contest winner Måns Zelmerlöw (aged thirty-four) for I cannot think of other Swedish men…

‘Why cast actors in roles in fiction at all?’, you may be wondering. And my reply is, ‘why do you ask? Don’t you do it as well?’ I do not know when this habit of mine started but I assume it is widely shared, and made necessary by what I have often commented about here: the diminishing amount of description in contemporary fiction. Novels offer today less information about characters than screenplays with authors supposing, I insist, that readers have not a mental theatre in the sense of the stage theatre but a mental theatre in the American sense of the word, that is to say, a mental cinema. I don’t have one and so I find myself increasingly struggling with visualization.

If failing to see space is bad enough, imagine what it is like not to see characters, either… Hence the constant casting (or even checking the IMDB.com credits before I start reading a novel in case there is already an adaptation). Not that you need a long description to present a character, mind you. This is for instance Long John Silver’s presentation in R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island: “I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow—a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white”. That’s him, no need to go fishing about for the perfect cast. Why, I wonder, is this gone?

This week I have put myself through another kind of trouble regarding the visualization of characters consisting of completely changing an image in a second reading. I am currently working on Iain M. Banks’s non-Culture novel The Algebraist for an article on masculinity in SF and, so, I needed to look again at the human protagonist Fassin Taak. When I say look I really mean look. When I first read the novel a few years ago I did it with no pencil in hand, just for fun, and I let myself go. Fassin is a sort of cultural anthropologist with an alien species known as the Dwellers, who live in gas giants like Jupiter. You might think that visualizing the Dwellers, who look “like a pair of large, webbed, fringed cartwheels connected by a short, thick axle with particularly bulbous outer hubs onto each of which had been fastened a giant spider crab” might have driven me crazy but no, I think I get the idea. Fassin has driven me crazy precisely because he is human and supposedly easier to visualize.

The name Fassin Taak gives no clues whatsoever: Fassin is a French surname, as far as Google tells me, and Taak appears to be a Dutch word for ‘talk’. I have found no men called ‘Fassin’ in real life as a first name so no help there. The only description Banks volunteers, and just in passing, is that Fassin has brown curly hair (no length or thickness noted) and light brown skin. He is two metres tall, looks a decade younger than his forty-five ‘body years’ and is handsome, though at the end of his rough adventure he looks older and somehow emaciated. For reasons unknown to me I saw Fassin as a colleague in another UAB Department initially, perhaps because this guy seems very keen on his scholarly pursuits and so does Fassin. This time, however, I decided to really focus and look at Fassin in the face.

A comment by the narrator suggests that the human civilization to which Fassin belongs is the result of alien abductions of Central American, Middle East and Chinese individuals (or just of their DNA) around the fourth millennium before Christ. Together with the light brown skin this indicates that Fassin is NOT white though the curly hair suggested to me that he must be of Middle East descend. This led me to Antonio Banderas because I had been re-reading Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead and Banderas played the Arab protagonist in the adaptation, The 13th Warrior. However, I was a bit scandalized to see Banderas rather than a proper Arab actor play that role and I Googled the words ‘handsome Arab man’ to check other possibilities for Fassin.

Here’s the joke: all men appearing under that heading were as light-skinned as Banderas, who looks totally white to me. Not Alexander Skarsgård white but white enough (a bit darker than me but Spanish white nonetheless). Anyway, I found a photo of a gorgeous Arab man with a nice beard and lovely green eyes and he has become my new Fassin Taak. I have no idea who this Arab man is and I totally avoided checking him up in case he is a celebrity but he has done me a great service of being the perfect Fassin Taak. When I saw a couple of illustrations by Banks’s readers I positively guffawed… MY Fassin Taak, with his love of hard partying and his ability to cry his green eyes out whenever he is struck by emotion is the real thing. At some points he looked a bit too much like green-eyed bullfighter Cayetano Rivera but I got rid of that and Fassin is now for good and for ever a Middle-East guy with shoulder length curly hair of soft locks, dark lips, bright green eyes and suitably light brown skin. Now the problem is that I have no idea what he is wearing, not what his cyborgian light gascraft looks like. Deep sigh…

Banks is no better and no worse than many other writers in describing characters. In fact, he is quite good if you consider how many alien species he describes in his books. The problem with him and any other writer coming after the Modernist revolution and the eruption of film is that they have stopped caring for physical description. In a world obsessed with racial issues like ours, this neglect of description is a real mess, for readers must be told which skin tone each character is but writers feel somehow embarrassed to go into that kind of detail. The result is that the first-person speaker may be a black woman but if we are not told we see by Pavlovian default a white man simply because we are used to that kind of character dominating fiction. I’ll be very happy to be contradicted in this by any of you (if anyone is reading me). Funnily, 19th century writers, who were on the whole very fond of description, did use illustrations to accompany their work but in our extremely visual time using illustration for fiction is a total taboo, except of course for children’s fiction.

I know I am repeating arguments already presented here, and I hope I am not boring my reader but it’s funny how in the middle of this tremendous crisis on identity politics and representation, character description occupies so little room. I don’t think at all that describing character better infringes on readers’ rights to imagine as they wish. I really think that writers are not fulfilling their part of the pact and helping us readers to share what they have imagined for their own sake as much as for ours. So, please, use more description!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

SUPPOSING REASEARCH MATTERS: A BAD AND A GOOD EXAMPLE OF LITERARY INVESTIGATION

The mood has changed so much this weekend that I must think somebody is crazy: either the scientists asking for as much prudence as possible until the Covid-19 vaccine arrives (most likely 2022), or my fellow citizens who have taken to the streets disregarding all precautions as if this nightmare were already over. The latter, I should think. My crystal balls tells me that in two or three weeks we’ll be back in square one, with panicky calls to the emergency services and overcrowded hospitals again. If I were a doctor or a nurse I would be seething with frustration, anger, and disappointment and would scream during the daily 20:00 celebration of their heroism. What a mockery!

I’m writing this preliminary note because I no longer know which direction to take: are we still fighting for the survival of the species and nothing else matters?, or are we already on the road towards business as usual to save the economy? I’ll let my reader take their pick. For those of pessimistic inclinations, I strongly recommend the devastating article by Antonio Turiel “La tormenta negra”, which describes all you fear to know about the next oil crisis (https://ctxt.es/es/20200401/Politica/32045/Antonio-Turiel-petroleo-tormenta-negra-crisis-energetica.htm). For the rest, go on reading…

Supposing research still matters in this world, I’d like to discuss an example of bad literary criticism and an instance of great literary investigation. In a world now gone if somebody published a controversial article a polemic would follow with replies and counter-replies ad nauseam. Today, this is not worth the effort because so much is published and because, let’s be honest, you never know who you might offend. I have, therefore, decided not to name the author or the title of the bad article to which I’ll refer (though, of course, nothing is hard to find anymore). In contrast, I’m very pleased to reference the good article on which I’ll comment next: “‘I’ve learned I need to treat my characters like people’: Varieties of Agency and Interaction in Writers’ Experiences of their Characters”, by John Foxwell, Ben Alderson-Day, Charles Fernyhough, and Angela Woods, Consciousness and Cognition 79 (March 2020): 1-14, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2020.102901.

The bad article analyses Hareton in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, defending the thesis that he is an idiot in the clinical sense of the term. To begin with, I was mightily surprised to see the word used formally but Wikipedia teaches me that even though ‘idiot’ is not used in British psychology, in the United States it is still used in legislation, with amendments in diverse state legislations as recent as 2007 or 2008. The author of the article on Hareton uses ‘idiot’ in the sense of someone with an intellectual disability even though Merriam-Webster, an American source, claims that “The clinical applications” of idiot, imbecile, and moron “is now a thing of the past, and we hope no one reading this would be so callous as to try to resurrect their use” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/moron-idiot-imbecile-offensive-history).

The article I am discussing, published by an outstanding A-list American journal of literary criticism, uses a nice trick to avoid political incorrectness: it reads Hareton by measuring his characterization against 19th century conceptions of idiocy. The author is not simply calling Hareton an idiot, then, but suggesting that this is how the original readers would have understood his ungainly appearance and brutish behaviour. In fact, the author uses a Disability Studies perspective so that they can also criticize how persons with an intellectual impairment were callously classified as idiots in the not too distant past. I have nothing against this line of argumentation, for prejudice needs to be exposed and the appalling wrongness of earlier psychology also denounced. The problem is that Hareton is not at all an idiot, nor would original readers have mistaken him for one. The Literature of the past surely has other examples of persons with an intellectual disability worth exploring.

That Hareton is not mentally impaired in any way is very easy to establish: he responds quickly to the young Catherine’s literacy programme, which the lad himself suggests (once he returns the books he has stolen from her). When Catherine understands that he wants to be educated she proceeds, and this is the first step in their joint undermining of Heathcliff’s patriarchal rule. In the process, Hareton’s good looks and warm feelings resurface, having been buried under the thick layer of illiteracy that Heathcliff imposes on his foster son. If you recall, basically he wants to avenge himself by humiliating the son of his main enemy, his foster brother Hindley. When this man dies, Hareton becomes Heathcliff’s adoptive son. The author of the article, thus, misses what any Victorian reader would understand: Hareton looks and acts like any other person of the time who had received no education whatsoever and was subjected to much abuse from harsh parents. In fact, if one pays attention, there are frequent comments about how handsome the lad is despite Heathcliff’s efforts to destroy him physically and psychologically. No reader who reaches the end of the novel should doubt that Catherine has fallen in love with an attractive, warm-hearted, loyal man who is, besides, willing to learn from her (and teach her in return about nature).

What, then, is the cause of the misreading in the article I have mentioned? Two causes: one is the misguided desire to expand the field of Disability Studies to works which have no disabled character; the other is that we are scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to producing new readings of the classics, as my friend Esther Pujolràs tells me. The author of the article knows that the happy ending disproves the thesis, and even acknowledges that there might be no evidence of idiocy in the text, but the article has been accepted by peer reviewers who have seen no problem in publishing a piece which is plainly wrong. I am 100% sure that this has to do with the use of Disability Studies as the theoretical frame, though I must add that I have seen other articles cheekily warning that there is no evidence for the thesis presented. I was taught that this is mere speculation but it seems that the rules have changed. The other question, the depletion of new things to say about the classics, is visible in the thick stream of research that deals with minor aspects. It is, logically, hard to approach a classic like Wuthering Heights from a truly new perspective and so attention is paid to smaller elements missed by previous research. A result of this is that 21st century bibliography looks like an analysis of single leaves on trees rather than of the forest. Another problem is that there is so much bibliography that any new author has hardly room to develop a thesis among so many obligatory references to predecessors. I am not saying that no new work about the classics should be published; what I am saying is that many other authors, works, and aspects of literary criticism are waiting for someone to pay attention to them.

The article by Foxwell et al. is a very good example of this. Finally someone has thought of asking authors how they imagine their characters and here are the first results. The authors present evidence collected with a questionnaire sent to the authors who presented work at the Edinburgh Literature Festival (in 2014 and 2018). 181 replied (mostly women, mostly British) and from their replies the first tentative sketch of the imaginative process behind writing characters has emerged. Foxwell and his colleagues wanted to investigate a phenomenon which I have often mentioned here: writers claim that characters take decisions in the process of building a piece of fiction, often taking it in directions unanticipated by the author. The questionnaire was designed to have writers be more specific about their relationship with their own characters: are they like the imaginary friends of childhood?, is hearing their voices a sort of hallucinatory experience?, are characters’ voices different from the author’s own inner speech?

Although the results are not homogeneous, a general conclusion is that writers imagine characters and then they give them a voice in ways that recall how we suppose a person we know would react in certain circumstances. Of course, this is a very superficial summary of the many aspects concerning the topic which the article analyses. Read it and you will see how amazing the statements from the writers are. Here is an example: initially, the characters “feel under my control and then at that certain point when they feel completely real, it’s becomes a matter of me following them, hoping to steer” (10). The bibliography, full of articles on diverse forms of hallucinatory madness, indirectly hints that somehow the researchers were worried to discover that the authors of fiction actually suffer from some kind of mental disorder. They very carefully point out throughout the discussion of results that all authors know that their characters are mental constructions and that the voices they hear and the conversations they have are perfectly normal manifestations. Normal for a fiction author, I should add. I remain mystified by how it feels to have your imagination colonized by the presence of other people. The article describes quite well what happens in the mind of a fiction writer at work but it cannot say why it happens.

I am not a big fan of the strict, formalist language in which Foxwell and his colleagues write, and which is habitual in cognitive and linguistic analysis. Here is an example: “Those writers whose characters were fully distinct from their inner speech were significantly likely to report dialoguing as themselves with the character (χ2 = 22.19, df = 6, p < 0.001), to feel like they were observing their characters (χ2 = 32.15, df = 2, p < 0.001), and to experience their characters as possessing full agency (χ2 = 28.29, df = 6, p < 0.001)” (9). In fact, I’m quite sorry that there is no room for discussing how the imagination works in literary criticism, from which living writers are mostly absent. There should be, I think, a middle point between the interview and the statistical analysis, but it seems nobody is really interested, perhaps even few authors (see my post of 13 January, “The Elusive Matter of the Imagination: Too Frail to Touch?”). Tellingly, many writers declined the invitation to participate in the survey, refusing to explore in detail mental processes that are personal and delicate. As the researches stress, imagining characters is “a specific aspect of inner experience for which no established vocabulary exists” (13).

I’ll end by suggesting that perhaps that vocabulary does not exist because writing fiction is play and connecting adults with play is always complicated. I do not mean by this that the task carried out by fiction writers is easy child’s play but that dreaming up characters has a playful aspect. We take fiction too seriously to accept that it is a complex game and in the end we have no idea about how it works. If we could resurrect Emily Brontë, everyone would want to know how she imagined and spoke to her characters, so why not ask the living authors surrounding us? Obviously, they have plenty to say.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE ELUSIVE MATTER OF THE IMAGINATION: TOO FRAIL TO TOUCH?

This post is going to sound a bit cloak-and-dagger since I have decided not to name the author whose opinions I’ll discuss here, in order to respect ‘their’ privacy. The art of sending emails to persons one has not met is a delicate one and in this case it has failed me totally, for which I’m very sorry indeed. I read during the Christmas break a most beautiful volume on creative writing aimed at budding authors interested in fantasy, science fiction, and gothic. By beautiful I mean that the volume has an amazing design, with plenty of illustrations, but also that the content is a gem, for it has contributions by an exciting list of authors and insights by the volume coordinator into the practice of writing fiction which must be eye-openers for all of us, teachers of Literature.

For a long time now, I have been taking any chances that come my way to ask writers about the technical aspects of their craft which, I think, we are overlooking in our obsession with identity matters and, generally speaking, content rather than writing in narrative. Author Richard K. Morgan posted in his website my interview with him about his novel Black Man and someone sent in a positive comment calling it a ‘making of’ style document. From that I got the idea of actually using this concept and I asked my good friend Carme Torras to let me interview her on her novel Enxarxats. She was extremely patient and gracious with my many questions. The resulting interview has been made available this week as a bonus feature of the e-book edition of her novel. Of course, a ‘making of interview’ needs to be read after the novel it explores has been read, since it is full of spoilers. I think of it as the kind of information that many readers are curious about just as spectators are curious about how movies are made. The idea is going beyond ‘where did you get your inspiration for the novel from?’ that journalists ask in promotional interviews and into much deeper waters.

Well, I sent the author I will not name an email praising the volume I had just read to high heavens. I described my ‘making of’ approach, and expressed my frustration that there are no volumes from writers exploring in more depth where the capacity to fantasise comes from, and why authors are divided into realists and fantasists. I do not mean following Freudian or neurobiological methodologies but as a matter of sitting down and considering the sources of the strange daydreaming which is the foundation of their work. I must say that the author in question does offer a notable amount of reflection on how the technical problems attached to writing specific scenes are handled but not about why fantastic storytelling is a skill that only a minority of human beings possess. In short, there is in the volume plenty of great advice once you know what kind of fantastic story you want to tell but no interest in examining why and how the authors of fantastic fiction come up with their singular plots. As a reader I would like to know, for it seems to me that departing from the mundane to risk narrating the imaginary takes a lot of courage. Coming up with Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy is far easier than making Victor Frankenstein and his creature plausible, if you get my drift.

Alas!, my email message did not go down well. I was told by the author that if the imagination is dissected (original wording) it might resist being summoned up. My mission, this person told me, cannot help anyone to produce better writing because authors should never compromise the organic construction that novels are and readers should be satisfied with the immersive experience of reading. What needs to be discussed, I was lectured on, is not the imagination but the technique and the conscious impulses it transforms into good narrative. I replied that I totally disagreed, and thanked this person for the time used in replying to my email. I come to the conclusion that I have ruffled feathers already ruffled most likely by a pro-Freudian academic, hence the emphasis on the conscious impulses.

What I would have explained if the chance had arisen is that that is precisely what I am interested in: how authors go from ‘I have this crazy idea, who knows where it comes from?’ to ‘now, this is the structure I need to tell the story’. I very much respect the mystery of the imagination, hence my interest in it, but if you think about it I am simply following what William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge did in the famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads, or Mary Shelley in the preface to the second edition of Frankenstein. I firmly think that many authors and many readers would welcome the chance to have ‘making of interviews’ accessible, and many academics would be keen to produce them. The imagination cannot be such a frail flower that its bloom is lost at the merest touch, excuse the corny metaphor.

So, now that I have let steam off, let me tell you about a few constants in fantastic authors’ declarations about their craft that scholarly work is not addressing at all, either from a formalist or a political perspective:

1. (my favourite): the best writing feels as if you’re a medium channelling a story that tells itself (a constant from Tolkien to Gaiman, etc). This is often followed by a disquieting ‘as if’: as if the stories come from a parallel universe authors tap into. You may invoke Jung at this point but that still would not explain why only some persons are gifted with that ability to connect with this suspected multiverse.

2. the authors of the fantastic (fantasy, sf, gothic) tend to be far more prolific than realist authors. This has nothing to do with lower quality standards but with the potency of their imaginations. Many speak of being happiest if left alone with their fantasy world and of writing every single day of the year, as if (another ‘as if’) losing touch with their inner storytelling sources would cause withdrawal syndrome.

3. most authors in this genre are ‘travellers’ rather than ‘planners’: they usually start their journey when a scene or a character command it, and sometimes work without knowing how the novel will end though they prefer knowing in advance. Authors who have it all planned down to the last comma and just fill in the dots are frowned upon. Writing is understood as a process of self-discovery: ‘Fancy what my mind has come up with!’ would approximate the feeling I am trying to describe, which is (I think) the root of the pleasure in (fantastic) writing.

4. this does not mean that the writing is not subjected to plenty of revision, including the throwing away of whole intermediate versions; I will name again the matter of plausibility: if making characters and situations convincing in realist fiction is hard enough, try to imagine what it is to give credibility to what simply does not exist in real life. Many authors note that a major frustration is how the final result, no matter how good, can never approach the mental impression produced by the original daydreaming.

5. characters are, obviously, the key to this process. Two ‘mysteries’ about characters (in all kinds of fiction): what do authors mean when they say that characters make autonomous decisions? And, this is a caveat: in order to be a storyteller you really must be interested in people, for without a set of solid characters you cannot engage your reader’s interest. In fact, a constant complaint against contemporary fiction of any kind is that characterization is weak, or that protagonists are not likeable people –at worst, both. I would add the matter of description. In the novel which I have just read (Colson Whitehead’s zombie tale Zone One) we learn that the male protagonist is black only in the last 35 pages. We never know his name and he goes by the nickname Mark Spitz (a white American star swimmer of the 1970s). This has wreaked havoc with my visualization of the story for I could see in all detail the zombies chomping on their poor victims but not the person I was supposed to sympathise with. On the other hand, I was much surprised by author David Weber’s declaration that he didn’t choose a woman as the protagonist of his Honorverse, the space opera series about Honor Harrington: “I didn’t set out to do it because I thought that it was especially politically sensitive on my part or because I thought it was likely to strike a chord with female readership or be a financial success. It was just the way that the character first presented herself” (https://www.wildviolet.net/live_steel/david_weber.html). Fair enough, and I’m sure Weber does not want to know where Honor comes from but, still, he can be asked about specific aspects of her characterization as a military hero with no risk to his imagination.

6. dramatized scenes are the backbone of novels – this is obvious, isn’t it?, but do we really see novels in this way? In essence, then, a novelist is that little kid with a figurine in each hand voicing each invented character in turn against the background of a plot that grows as their interaction expands. Narrative is a lot like puppetry, then. I find, however, that while the narrator’s voice interests many scholars, the construction of scenes and dialogue is not a major source of interest. This may get worse because conversation is dying out, pushed to the sides by the constant use of social media. In science fiction novels set in the future people still communicate face to face, which suggests that authors do not think that social media will gobble up dialogue – but maybe that’s the wrong representation of the future…

In the volume I so much admire but will not mention there is a strange moment. An author reports a conversation with a friend who is a neurologist and who claims she has no imagination whatsoever and could never tell a story. The author cannot understand this deficiency and somehow thinks that the friend is wrong about her own lack of storytelling abilities. Some teachers of Literature are also narrators but most of us lack the ability to tell a story, which is why we are in awe of those who can perform the feat (well, of the best ones whose work we love). What the email I got reveals, though, is that not at all authors enjoy our interest in their craft and even see us as a danger because of our insistence on offering ‘clinical’ analysis. This makes me feel quite nervous, to be honest, concerning what we are doing in our research. I thought I was working to send the message that the fantastic is one of the best creations of the human mind but perhaps I am the middle-person writers and readers can do without, thank you very much. I hope not…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHAT AN UGLY IMAGINATION IS ABOUT (TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF MY OWN IDEAS)

I am currently a member of the Ministry-funded research project led by Dr. Helena González of the University of Barcelona, Parias y tránsfugas modernas: género y exclusión en la cultura popular del s.XXI (https://www.ub.edu/adhuc/es/proyectos-investigacion/transfugas-y-parias-modernas-genero-y-exclusion-cultura-popular-del-s-xxi). We had a seminar last week, which opened with my presentation of six characters that, in my view, are either outcasts (‘parias’) or dissidents (‘tránsfugas’), or both. They are Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy The Hunger Games, Djan Seriy Anaplian in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novel Matter, Emiko in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Birha in the short story “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue” by Vandana Singh, Breq in Ann Leckie’s trilogy Ancillary Justice and Essun (a.k.a. Syenite and Damaya) in N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy The Broken Earth.

The research group should eventually produce a database with entries for about 100 female characters, and others for theoretical aspects, and I have volunteered to be the Guinea pig (oops!) in charge of writing the first six entries. So, I was trying to explain to the audience in the room that although I am very much interested in expanding my work on Banks and Singh (I have already written about Collins), I will not touch the novels by Leckie and Jemisin because I find their imagination ‘ugly’ (‘fea’). I have nothing against Bacigalupi but others have already written about Emiko, to my entire satisfaction.

I used ‘ugly’ in that informal way one uses intending to amuse the audience but I was the one amused when the presenter, my good friend Isabel Clúa, suggested that I should turn the label ‘ugly imagination’ into a fully theorized concept. This is the task I have given myself this week, not an easy one. Another very good friend in the audience, Felicity Hand, asked me why I was mixing my negative personal impression of the authors with my dislike of their works, and whether I would do the same with Shakespeare: I don’t like what goes on in Macbeth, therefore, I would never have dinner with its author. I replied, quite confusedly, that I knew I was being obnoxious but that what I have against Leckie and Jemisin is how they had forced me to endure not for one but for three novels their extremely unpleasant stories, with no relief whatsoever. In contrast, I said, Banks would treat his readers to some clever Scottish humour whenever he noticed he was going too far with any violence or cruelty. My admired Vandana Singh aims in all her stories not only for literary excellence but for engaging the mind and all senses in plots that are, simply, beautiful though by no means silly or sentimental.

Obviously, all that was improvised and I have been asking myself for the last few days what I mean exactly by accusing some writers of having an ugly imagination. I don’t think I know yet but I’m making an effort here to think hard.

Let me begin with one example. In Jemisin’s trilogy there is a human species whose flesh is of stone. They are called, not too imaginatively, the Stone Eaters (guess what they feed on?). The author herself explains that these living sculptures are “me playing around with the idea of mythological creatures” (https://nkjemisin.com/2015/08/creating-races/), which should be fine except that whereas the people of the Stillness, where her tale is located, “have heard many tales about stone eaters (…) the reader doesn’t have that bank of cultural capital to borrow against”. The Stone Eaters are, however, quite real also in the context of the novels, which means that they are doubly scary: for the characters in the tale, who see the monsters of legend become living persons among them whom they must accept, and for the readers, who do not catch until very late in the trilogy what is going on. “Without the cushioning effect of folklore, the creatures” Jemisin grants, “become too alien and frightening, or pitiful, to embrace as fellow people. I’ve seen other writers manage it, though, so here’s my chance to see if I can do as well”.

My reply is that ‘no, you don’t quite manage it’, for (spoilers ahead) the feeding habits of the Stone Eaters may be fine for monsters but not for characters that carry the weight of the whole story as narrators. Faced with the scene of Essun’s former lover Alabaster becoming stone and a major character/narrator eating his arm, I jumped off the sofa and almost threw the book out of the window. What kind of ugly imagination (well, sick person) would come up with this concept? Same about Leckie and what her girl Breq really is (you find out!). I realise that I still haven’t explained myself, though: Banks is also much capable of offering some truly distressing stuff (think of Zakalwe, if you can without hyperventilating, or of the digital hell which an alien civilization builds) but one knows all the time that we are not supposed to sympathize. Jemisin asks me to accept as a cool character someone who simply horrifies me and the same applies to Leckie. I do not mean that Hoa and Breq are evil or villainous in any way, poor things; what I mean is that the villainy that made them what they are is not sufficiently characterized as ‘Other’ in relation to them, or alternatively that they are too ‘Other’ for me to welcome them as my nexus with the text. There is something awfully cold in the way their tale is told so that the massive destruction from which they both emerge overwhelms any ability I may have to connect with these two and care for them, knowing besides they’re not even human.

Still not there, I know, but I may be getting closer.

By qualifying some writers’ imagination as ugly I don’t mean that I only like pretty tales. Perhaps I can explain myself better if I refer to what horror cinema used to mean to me. Like everyone who enjoys a well-told horror tale, I accepted the pact by which I would agree to put up with some measure of terror caused by the monster until some kind of order was restored by the hero. Progressively, though, horror filmmakers came up with the idea that the pact should be broken, terror maximized, and no final return to order allowed, on the grounds that this is more realistic. There have always been gothic stories with a sting at the end, hinting that the vampire will return once more, or that the creature is not quite dead. However, when I stumbled upon the slasher film Hostel (2005) I just opted out of the pact. That is a most salient example, I think, of the purely ugly imagination that has swallowed whole what many of us used to like in horror cinema –reality is ugly enough for me to enjoy the full panoply of what then emerged as body horror, nor do I need any tales in which there is no relief and no way out. It is fine to avoid ex-machina solutions and be done with villains that spin long justifications rather that kill their foe, but I still loathe the type of storytelling that is relentless in its assumption that the whole world is a monster, and only the silly victims killed one by one have failed to notice this. I no longer watch horror movies for, following my theorizing of the concept, I can no longer put up with their extremely ugly imagination.

I am beginning to sound like one of those snowflake students who demand from lecturers trigger warnings for even the minutest conflict in the stories they must read for class (Glasgow University, it seems, is now giving modern language students trigger warnings… for fairy tales!). This is not where I am going. What worries me is the admiration that the ugly imagination is garnering in our times: the trilogies by Jemisin and Leckie have earned many major awards in the SF field, and so has Chinese SF star writer Liu Cixin, possessor of an even colder ugly imagination (at least in The Three Body Problem). I won’t even mention Game of Thrones –oh, I did! Concepts such as ‘awe’, ‘sense of wonder’, ‘enchantment’ have abandoned fantasy and SF, which means that they are now nowhere to be found. I stand corrected: they are still perceptible in some children’s film and fiction, though not everywhere. I had the same impression of ugliness in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials regarding what villainess Mrs. Coulter does to children, not so much because she is a very cruel person but because she is hero Lyra’s mother. Again: too close for comfort, not Other enough.

So, to sum up, and leaving plenty of room for further speculation: in the tales arising from an ugly imagination there is too little distance between the persons we are supposed to sympathize with, and the Other. Terrible things happen in many of our favourite stories but no matter how close hero and villain get (Harry and Voldemort, Katniss and Alma Coin) there is some margin for hope. Imagine Harry living for decades in the Dark Lord’s regime, or Katniss having to face Coin’s renewal of the Hunger Games, and I think we get closer in this way to what I mean by ugly imagination. If, as happens in Jemisin’s and Leckie’s tales, this hope appears after an overwhelming deluge of terrible events, then it is of no effect. Many readers enjoy this deferral of expectations, just like many readers enjoy watching The Handmaid’s Tale on TV, but not me, I’d rather be told a hopeful, though not a silly, tale.

Now back to reading Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, of which more next week. To be continued…

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REVISITING FRANKENSTEIN: A FEW NOTES ON DOMESTICITY, THE CYBORG AND THE POST-HUMAN

I will soon start teaching Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and although the best time to revisit this classic was last year–the bicentennial anniversary of its original publication–2019 is also a good moment to re-read it, for it is the year when Ridley Scott set his masterpiece, Blade Runner (1982). Both novel and film are closely connected, since Blade Runner, though based on Philip K. Dick’s bizarre SF novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1969) is one of the myriad texts descended from Frankenstein. Mary Shelley was the first to ask, in earnest, ‘what if science could generate powerful monsters that could escape human control?’ and this is a question that frames Dick’s and Scott’s work. And our year 2019.

I have recently reviewed an article by a young researcher in which I found some confusion regarding the use of the concepts ‘post-human’ and ‘cyborg’, and I’ll use Frankenstein to clarify them, and then to proceed with some comments. Before I forget: I’m using the Oxford World’s Classic edition (the 2008 reprint) with my students but I was aghast to see that the prologue and the bibliography are the work of one Prof. M.K. Joseph who died in 1981. I immediately e-mailed the Literature editor at Oxford UP to suggest that they commission a new introduction by someone who truly understands how Mary Shelley’s mistresspiece connects with current, urgent issues, and, generally, with our science-fictional present. We’ll see if they answer.

Brian Aldiss famously celebrated in Billion Year Spree (1973) Mary Shelley as the mother of science fiction, stressing in passing that the Gothic narrative mode is one of the foundations of sf, at least of its more technophobic branch. Re-reading the novel now, at the beginning of 2019, and possibly for the fifth or sixth time (I lose track), a few things strike me as singular. One is that Mary’s tale is a frontal attack against male ambition but not necessarily a feminist text; the other is that she understood long before we had a name for it, what the post-human is.

The feminist question is obvious enough: Victor’s horrific ordeal is framed by the letters that explorer Robert Walton sends to his sister Margaret so that we see how useless men’s pursuit of glory, honour and fame is. The alternative lifestyle which Mary recommends is, nevertheless, one of sedate domesticity, in which women occupy a traditional position as dutiful, pre-Victorian angels in the house.

Margaret, the addressee of the letters by Captain Walton that frame Victor’s and the monster’s testimonials, stands for married bliss in safety and domesticity. So does Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s adoptive sister, and doomed wife as the monster’s victim; as such, she is the embodiment of the dangers that men bring into the peace of the hearth but also of total submission. Mary, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the woman who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), among which she placed education in a central position, never mentions Elizabeth’s right to attend university, as Victor and his friend Henry do. She is raised to be Victor’s wife and no event in the awful tragedy that unfolds diverts her from this path, even though she could have been much better company for Victor if only she had some inkling of his overambitious scientific pursuits. Mary Shelley simply offers no critique of the patriarchal script written for Elizabeth by his adoptive parents and by Victor himself, even though the author is adamant that there is something very wrong in men’s extra-domestic pursuit of glory and, using Barbara Ehrenright’s phrase, their ‘flight from commitment’.

I partly agree with Mary’s critique of the male sacrifice of domesticity–possibly what she endured as Percy Shelley’s wife–because it is often based on total selfishness. At the same time, I fail to see in which ways the world would be a better place if the many self-driven individuals (mostly men but also many women) had limited themselves to raising families. There must be a middle ground.

Reading David Grann’s excellent non-fiction account of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s suicidal search for the lost City of Z (the title of the book), I often thought that male wanderlust must be evidence of ingrained insanity. Yet, so many women also feel the drive to fulfil their ambitions even against all reason that it cannot simply be a matter of gender but something else that makes domesticity secondary. Why someone with small, dependent children would volunteer to travel to Mars, and possibly never return, baffles me, not so much because of the need to fulfil the dream but because of the aspiration to combine ambition and family. This is not, of course, Walton’s and Frankenstein’s situation, and perhaps what Mary Shelley was saying is that excessive ambition is incompatible with family life, and even with life. But, is this right? If she was imagining some low-key, pastoral idyll, as an alternative, she does not explain. At the same time, most often the likes of Victor are managing to create man-made horrors while keeping jobs and family well balanced, a possibility Mary does not contemplate, believing as she does that scientific discovery is a kind of youthful brain fever that overtakes everything else in the single individual’s life. Again: there must be a middle-ground.

How about the cyborg and the post-human? The monster that Victor creates is NOT a cyborg, for a cyborg is a creature, or person, whose body combines organic and inorganic materials. Donna Haraway had read sufficient science fiction when she wrote her famous 1985 tract ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’ to understand this, but it seems to me that very often students and scholars who use the word cyborg do not really know what they’re talking about, and simply assume that the word refers to any artificial creation.

Victor’s monster is artificial because he is not woman-born but he is 100% organic. Frankenstein discovers first the principle of life, ‘the capacity of bestowing animation’, and decides next to build a superhuman body–if that body is functional, then he will apply himself to re-animating ordinary human corpses. Since preparing ‘a frame’ is difficult because of ‘its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins’ he decides to work at a larger scale: ‘As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet [2.40 m] in height, and proportionably large’. Mary wrote before DNA was known, and before the first transplant of a human organ was ever attempted, and we need to read this part of Victor’s research as a necessarily preposterous tale; yet, the main point is that he is not using magic but science.

Once the creature is made–and in its manufacture 20-year-old Victor is amazingly successful–Frankenstein is appalled to see that he is an ugly thing: ‘His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips’. Nobody has really managed to give an accurate pictorial representation of the monster, who does not look at all like the bolts-and-nuts version of Boris Karloff. Yet, I always say that Victor’s problem is that while he is a great anatomist and a wonderful surgeon, he is a disaster as an artist. A failure, if you wish, as a plastic surgeon. Had be been able to combine the features selected harmoniously, we would have a very different tale of celebrity, as everyone admires a beautiful being. As for his being a giant, well, being 7 feet tall is the foundation of Pau Gasol’s celebrity… The monster would be a highly valuable basketball player today!

Something that I missed in previous readings is how often the monster refers to ordinary human beings as another species, and also to himself. I am always correcting my students when they refer to the human race for we are a species (Homo Sapiens) and not a race, and I was surprised to see that the monster is well aware of this crucial difference. The name Homo Sapiens was coined by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 but this was long before any thought of evolution was contemplated by Charles Darwin (1809-1882); many have commented on Mary’s allusion to Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus (1731-1802) as the scientist whose discoveries in connection to electricity may have inspired Frankenstein’s use of an engine to ignite the spark of life. Yet, to me, the monster’s awareness of species difference is far more exciting.

When he demands en Eve from his maker, the creature argues: ‘I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create’ (my italics). Of course, I’m cheating a little bit, for Mary mixes ‘species’ and ‘race’ indiscriminately and, thus, Victor decides to destroy the female creature he is working on afraid that ‘a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror’. He is horrified to see himself as the ‘pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race’. My point, though, is equally valid: Frankenstein is the earliest text to posit the possible replacement of Homo Sapiens with a man-made superior human species, that is to say, with a post-human species.

The difference between the cyborg and the post-human is, then, easy enough to understand: the cyborg has inorganic material in their body and cannot pass on any modification of this kind to their offspring; in contrast, the post-human is a different human species that will breed other individuals of the same species, and might wipe out Homo Sapiens if competing for the same environmental resources. As the Neanderthal disappeared, so might we, with the difference that this might happen out of our own mad shattering of the frontiers of science, if we go just one step too far and modify the human genome. Of course, neither Mary nor Victor knew about all this, but their ignorance is irrelevant (also an anachronism): the monster is a monster because we are terrified of the possibility that other humans might push us out. Victor, it must be recalled, manufactures not just someone who is big but also someone who is strong, extremely resistant to heat and cold, with an enhanced muscular capacity and, in short, far better equipped than Homo Sapiens to live on a radically post-human Earth.

The other novel I am teaching this semester is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), published five years before Frankenstein. Indeed, Austen died in 1817, while Mary Shelley was busy writing her novel, as a young mother of the boy William. I never cease to be amazed that English Literature could accommodate in the same period styles in fabulation so thoroughly different. And I wonder what would have happened if Elizabeth Bennet instead of Elizabeth Lavenza had fallen in love with Victor Frankenstein, rather than Fitzwilliam Darcy. Or if Darcy had kept a secret lab at Pemberley. Possibly, some kind of literary short-circuit!

How lucky we are, then, that we can enjoy both Mary Shelley and Jane Austen.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A WRITER THINKS ABOUT HIS CRAFT: GEORGE SAUNDERS

Today I am reading in detail here an article recently published by American writer George Saunders (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Saunders). He specializes in short fiction, children’s fiction and the essay and is not, therefore, a novelist, the type of writers I most commonly read. I have only read one book by him, Pastoralia (2000), a collection said to be among his best work. He has won plenty of awards in the last twenty-odd years, among them the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story (2013). He is since 2014 a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. All in all, then, a sophisticated kind of literary writer.

The article is “George Saunders: What Writers Really Do When They Write” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write) and has a subtitle that names to “A series of instincts, thousands of tiny adjustments, hundreds of drafts…”, which is the gist indeed of the piece. The complete article runs to almost 4000 words and I certainly recommend that you read all of them.

Saunders narrates first how the seed for his latest book, Lincoln in the Bardo, which happens to be his first novel, was planted in his mind twenty years ago. Lesson number one: fiction very often arises from an image suggested by one particular experience in the author’s life, which, while personal (it does happen to him or her) need not be auto-biographical, in the sense of dealing with the author’s own life. Saunders visited the crypt where Lincoln’s son was buried and was told that the grief-stricken President often visited it: “An image spontaneously leapt into my mind –a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà”. In 2012 Saunders felt finally ready to tackle the topic and write his first novel. Second lesson: inspirational images may live on for many years in the fiction writer’s mind until they demand to be brought forth. Saunders denies as “some version of the intentional fallacy” that “art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same”. As he warns us, “The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully”. He tries, nonetheless.

Saunders describes next his “method” to navigate the squalls of literary creation: “I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’).” Accordingly, he reads his work, “the way a first-time reader might”, paying attention to how the needle reacts and ruthlessly editing his text: “watch the needle, adjust the prose” ad nauseam. Of course, we have a problem here already: the process of distilling what your mind produces as you write happens before edition. This is common to all kinds of writers. As I write this post, I know vaguely where I am going with my argument but I am constantly surprised by the exact shape my sentences take. Why these words and no others? Actually, what I most enjoy in writing is that kind of surprise, which is why I make an effort to write a post every week: because otherwise my brain would be inactive. In the case of fiction writers, fabulation, as I call the process of imagining stories, happens, I insist, before edition. I believe that everyone can understand Saunders’ needle for we possess one, more or less rudimentary, but not his powers to fabulate. Not even he himself.

It is true, at any rate, that a great deal of the pleasure of writing lies in rewriting, in the polishing of the sentences. Saunders enjoys in particular the impression that “the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in ‘real life’ –funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining”. If, as he says, the author/narrator is more interesting than the person, the writer, this means that writing is, like being in love, about presenting the best side of yourself. Saunders makes a very interesting claim by declaring that his method aims at “increasing the ambient intelligence of a piece of writing”, something which, “in turn, communicates a sense of respect for your reader.” I don’t know if this is mere politeness, for it seems that Saunders does believe that rewriting makes texts “less hyperbolic, sentimental, and misleading”. I find, rather, listening to many other authors, that the reader matters relatively little and that any writer works for his/herself. The highest quality writers are those with the most demanding inner reading, so to speak, and how external readers react is of relative importance to them.

Saunders does attach greater importance to the “pursuit of specificity”, to the honing down of the language so that it is both nuanced and more effective. Again, this is a rule of all good writing, in any genre, including academic prose. An artist, Saunders stresses, “tweaks that which she’s already done” and, I would add, if this is art, then artistic writing (=Literature) should encompass many more genres, including, sorry to be so tiresome, academic prose. A rule my PhD supervisor taught me is that each sentence must advance my argumentation and be fully justified. This is not really that different from Poe’s injunction to observe an “economy of style” in fiction writing, which is what Saunders also defends without naming it. His analysis of how he writes becomes, then, an analysis of how he edits his texts, which, while interesting (“But why did I make those changes? On what basis?”) is not really about the unfathomable mystery of how sentences travel originally from neuron to screen (or paper).

Saunders turns next to another mystery, “the empathetic function” which, according to him, “is accomplished via the writer’s relation both to his characters and to his readers”. Revision, he explains, “is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you” –I find this very funny because it is intended to place the reader centre-stage and be flattering but in the end it reveals only the writer’s (any writer’s) narcissism. The point, as you can see, is to raise the reader up to your level via your writing, which might be a lovely exercise in intellectual seduction but feels more self-serving than that. In this sense, I believe that popularisers (sorry, I can’t find an English equivalent of the serviceable ‘divulgador’) are the only writers who truly care about their audience, as they (we?) see writing as a form of pedagogy. I know that I sound very smug in correcting Saunders but I truly believe that literary creation would happen even without readers.

Next lesson: Saunders claims that writing a novel did not require a different method from writing short fiction, just a “slightly larger frame” and a sort of specific architecture: “it occurred to me that a mansion of sorts might be constructed from a series of connected yurts”. Again, this possibly reflects the experience of the specific case of a short fiction writer trying to write a novel for the first time, whereas habitual novelists would not describe a similar approach. In science fiction there is something quote curious, the fix-up, which is a novel made of short stories that may not have been necessarily written with a book in mind. The fix-up is, perhaps, closer than any other type of novel to the mansion made of many yurts. But, then, poor Saunders, I should not criticize him for describing what he honestly feels.

“Any work of art quickly reveals itself to be a linked system of problems”. Indeed! Again, I would say that this can be extended to any piece of writing. A PhD dissertation is, if you want to see it that way, the answer to the problem of ‘how am I supposed to write this particular thesis?’ Only when you’re done do you realize how it should have been done, which is, I know, vexing. If you wrote a second PhD dissertation, on a different topic, then leads to a different ‘system of problems’. Ergo, each piece of fiction is also the answer to the question of how it should be written, and how the problems should be faced and solved. As Saunders notes, a problem is solved when it is transformed into “an opportunity”.

Saunders’s final lesson is a that “a work of fiction can be understood as a three-beat movement: a juggler gathers bowling pins; throws them in the air; catches them.” The first phase would correspond to what I call fabulation, which Saunders describes only tangentially–which is why I feel frustrated by his text. It’s tantalizing. “Certain decisions I’d made early on forced certain actions to fulfilment”, he writes and I wish I could tell him that the vagueness of the word “certain” is exasperating –which decisions?, how did you make him?, to what degree are you aware of the process of choice? The second step, based on how “the rules of the universe created certain compulsions” is, I think, what most literary criticism explores (Hamlet sets in motion a whole chain of events by paying heed to what his dead father tells him). Yet, we know close to nothing about how the ‘bowling pins’ materialize. When his characters start behaving as if following their own decisions (a phenomenon which all writers report but on which there is no research at all), Saunders enjoys the “beautiful, mysterious experience”. The mystery is the reason why we worship fiction writers: because we don’t have access to it, it doesn’t happen to us.

Saunders ponders whether the creation of fiction is “a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system” but ultimately chooses Romantic celebration: There is “something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned”. Now, unless we, literary critics, sit by the writer as s/he writes and monitors the process as each sentence is written, there is no way we can understand the wonder of it all. Saunders gets very close in this piece to the ‘making-of’ habitual in cinema and we need to be thankful to him for the effort. This is perhaps the way we should go: invite writers to delve into the experience of writing, popularize among readers the very idea of the literary ‘making-of’. Not to destroy the ‘mystery’ but to retrieve literary creation from the intellectual fog surrounding it, and, why not?, make literary criticism a more confident art.

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