Crossing boundaries

Inverted Commas 11: Genres

There seems to be something about the human race that makes it crave Rules. Or maybe it’s a quirk of the human brain that it gets frightened if it’s allowed too much exercise.

Diana Wynne Jones is talking about Rules. In particular about Rules for Fantasy and what Children should be allowed to read (‘A Talk About Rules’ in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, 2012).

She then comes round to Genre: “Genre has been around as a convenient idea for a long time,” she writes.

I prefer to think of it as a notion mostly developed in the 1920s, whereby publishers and reviewers could point people at the kind of thing each person liked to read. It was a useful system of tagging stuff. They sorted books into Detective, Thriller, Children’s, Ghost, Horror, and so on. And naturally they went on to do the same with the newer things like SF and Fantasy. Everyone in, say, the seventies knew what Genre was.

Unfortunately, as she points out, once writers began believing in Genre it became a Rule. One which stated that each Genre has absolute boundaries which Must Not Be Crossed — or else readers will be confused and won’t read any fiction that crosses those boundaries.

Potentially this could result in “a fair old disaster for all kinds of writing,” she suggests, meaning that “almost no one can write anything original at all. But the Rules say that if you write the same book all the time, that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s Genre.”

In the years since 1995, when DWJ gave this talk in Boston to the New England Science Fiction Association, readers fortunately are a little less constrained by arbitrary rules on genre, especially as mainstream literature has happily strayed across the boundaries by utilising time travel, or employing magical realism, or introducing elements of horror, thriller or whatever into their narratives.

But there are still diehard conservative fans who take a rigid approach to what is Right and Proper in whatever Genre they are currently world authorities on. You come across these angry voices in social media, or when they’re writing opinion columns for literary supplements.

Surely, she argues, the reader should take each story on its own merits, not on whether it fits a template, or slots into a pigeonhole, or suits a straitjacket. Shouldn’t we see the story first and not the label?

And what you see should be a magnificent, whirling, imaginative mess of notions, ideas, wild hypotheses, new insights, strange action, and bizarre adventures. And the frame that holds this mess is a story […] The story is the important thing.

It’s like that argument about different races, when in fact, biologically speaking, there is only one race — the human race.

Individuals are hybrids, each with their own story to tell; and, just as humans all have their own unique genetic code, the stories we tell don’t have to confirm to one genre let alone be clones of one another.

An ideal state

Amgueddfa Cymru, Caerdydd

Inverted Commas 10: Ideal City

1. Steal Nothing, whether it be an abstract idea or another life.
2. Examine Everything.
3. Pay a Fair Price.

These are the laws of the city state in the Valley of the Golden Cloud, from Michael Moorcock’s fantasy The War Hound and the World’s Pain (1981). The city guard who announces this adds,

“And remember, to lie is to steal another soul’s freedom of action, or some fragment of it. Here a liar and a thief are the same thing.”

As Captain Ulrich von Bek suggests, these laws sound excellent, even ideal, to which his companion Sedenko adds, “And simple.”

Yet, as the guard rejoins, they sometimes require complex interpretation. Which then leads von Bek to muse that it had been many years since he’d been able to believe in absolute justice, and some weeks since he’d believed in justice of any kind. He’s been living through the Thirty Years War after all — and we seem to be living through an equally tumultuous period of modern history, with similar concerns about justice.

Continue reading “An ideal state”

Once-upon-a-time realms

Inverted commas 9: Imaginary Worlds

Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea.
— from the foreword of Ursula Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea (2001)

The late Ursula Le Guin knew all about fantastic realms. She created several, including the abiding world of Earthsea, that archipelago of islands amidst a boundless ocean.

In her foreword to the collection of short stories about this world she took a tilt at what she called commodified fantasy which, she asserted, “takes no risks: it invents nothing, but invents and trivialises.” We’re well aware of that derivative impulse that somehow diminishes what it feeds on: we see it constantly in never-ending book franchises, films, TV series, video games and assorted spin-offs: it’s a desperate experience to watch as they dilute the originals, before squeezing every last drop of merchandising out of them.

But she is optimistic about the capacity of the imagination to mount rearguard actions whenever needed, to defend against insidious exploitation whether of the commercial or intellectual kind:

The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.

Continue reading “Once-upon-a-time realms”

Things that make a man

Winter thing: Preseli snowman, West Wales

Inverted Commas 8: Wintersmith

With a little over a month to go to a miserable Brexit, I thought I’d quote this skipping rhyme from Terry Pratchett’s fantasy Wintersmith to illustrate my belief that for some people you can provide the ingredients that make up a human but they may still lack the essentials that would make them truly humane.

These are the Things that Make a Man

“Iron enough to make a nail,
Lime enough to paint a wall,
Water enough to drown a dog,
Sulphur enough to stop the fleas,
Potash enough to wash a shirt,
Gold enough to buy a bean,
Silver enough to coat a pin,
Lead enough to ballast a bird,
Phosphor enough to light the town,
Poison enough to kill a cow,

Strength enough to build a home,
Time enough to hold a child,
Love enough to break a heart.”

Here’s the related track from folk rock band Steeleye Span, from their 2013 Wintersmith album which was inspired by Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching novels:

Continue reading “Things that make a man”

A book inside me

Inverted Commas 7: Call to Adventure

I opened a book and in I strode
Now nobody can find me.
I’ve left my chair, my house, my road,
My town and my world behind me.

Julia Donaldson’s 2004 poem ‘I Opened a Book’ — now a common meme on a social media site near you — is one that must appeal to bibliophiles everywhere. True booklovers well know that particular magic that comes from not only having hold of a book but of turning the door-like front cover and immersing oneself in the words (and maybe also the images) on each page.

Continue reading “A book inside me”

More or less imperfect

Pencil sketch by Charlotte Brontë (right), which recent research reveals is a self-portrait, alongside George Richmond’s more famous portrait

Inverted Commas 6: Imperfect characters

Though I describe imperfect characters (every character in this book will be found to be more or less imperfect, my pen refusing to draw anything in the model line) I have not undertaken to handle degraded or utterly infamous ones.

Charlotte Brontë introduces her authorial voice into Shirley (1849) a few times, including here in Chapter V. Now, Jane Austen intrudes herself rarely in her novels and that usually very briefly towards the end, in the last chapter or so. Charlotte, who (as discussed here) didn’t anyway have a high opinion of Austen, had fewer compunctions and here justifies her inclusion of flawed humans.

Child torturers, slave masters and drivers, I consign to the hands of jailers; the novelist may be excused from sullying his page with the record of their deals.

So it is that her leading actors in this novel (set around 1812 when Jane was in reality revising First Impressions as Pride and Prejudice) allude to the Napoleonic wars, politics and social unrest, unlike Miss Bennet or Lady de Burgh, Mr Darcy or Mr Bingham (Austen’s novel had first been drafted a score of years before).

And yet, imperfect though some Austen characters may be, Jane doesn’t show potential protagonists in quite so unflattering a light as Charlotte does. Robert Moore for example declares that the poor “ought to have no sympathies; it is their duty to be narrow. Poverty is necessarily selfish, contracted, grovelling, anxious…” Though Caroline Helstone appears to be more ‘in the model line’ and the epitome of the kind, generous and intelligent young woman that one may admire, she is revealed as brittle, doubting; while other females — such as Robert’s sister Hortense — are more abrasive.

And yet we thrive on imperfect characters in fiction, do we not? Without their imperfections how can they progress to happy or tragic ends, how can they grow or become corrupted, how may they achieve great things or alternatively fail to realise their potential? What is a narrative about a perfect human being but a parable or allegory, a homily to pointedly indicate our weak wills and unspiritual natures?

However, despite the author declaring that she will not ‘handle degraded or utterly infamous’ personages in Shirley we will find that there are villains sufficient to create the external tensions that drive the plot forward, unlike the difficult conversations and misunderstandings that mostly animated Austen’s novels.

Maybe the charge of imperfection that Charlotte laid at the door of her characters was a reflection of her view of herself: a probable self-portrait underlines the low opinion she had of her appearance when we compare it to the more idealised chalk drawing by George Richmond in 1850, completed five years before the author’s death.

Promises of special things

Inverted commas 5: Will Stanton’s Christmas

Christmas Eve. It was the day when the delight of Christmas really took fire in the Stanton family. Hints and glimmerings and promises of special things, which had flashed in and out of life for weeks before, now suddenly blossomed into a constant glad expectancy. The house was full of wonderful baking smells from the kitchen, in the corner of which Gwen could be found putting the final touches to the icing of the Christmas cake. Her mother had made the cake three weeks before; the Christmas pudding, three months before that.

In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973) Will Stanton’s family is preparing for the great day in their little corner of England. The conifer, grown locally, is fetched into the house:

When they carried the tree ceremonially through the front door, the twins seized it with cross-boards and screwdrivers, to give it a base. At the other end of the room Mary and Barbara sat in a rustling sea of coloured paper, cutting it into strips, red, yellow, blue, green, and gluing them into interlocked circles for paper-chains.

For them, as for many families, the decorating of the tree is left to the night before, all such ornamentation remaining until Twelfth Night when the Feast of the Epiphany (marking the visit by the Three Magi) takes place.

Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile glass Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering.

All of the foregoing sounds like many a traditional Christmas. The next day there will be the visit to the village church for the Christmas Day service. But little else is overtly religious — the tree, the yule log, the preparations for feasting, the paper chains and greenery strewn around, all smack of a pagan midwinter festival more than the advent of a deity. At the local Manor the songs remain resolutely heathen in inspiration: a traditional wassailing song, the lullaby known as the Coventry Carol, Good King Wenceslas based on a medieval Bohemian legend.

And then Will later will find himself reading lines from The Book of Gramarye, verses that at first sight appear traditional but in truth are out of time:

He that sees blowing the wild wood tree,
And peewits circling their watery glass,
Dreams about Strangers that yet may be
Dark to our eyes, Alas!

There are hints that old Welsh myths are interwoven here, in lines translated by Robert Graves from his reconstruction of the sixth-century Cad Goddeu or ‘The Battle of the Trees’, a Welsh poem from The Book of Taliesin which he included in the mythic study The White Goddess:

I have plundered the fern | Through all secrets I spie;
Old Math ap Mathonwy | Knew no more than I.

And when Will encounters Herne the Hunter in Windsor Forest, the secrets of the battle between Light and Dark will be laid bare. In The Dark is Rising the author emphasises that the time of the midwinter solstice and the Twelve Days of Christmas are a magical and significant time of year.

No doubt this is one of the reasons the Church chose this period to celebrate the advent of Christ, whose actual birthday we are never told and will have no real way of knowing: throughout the northern hemisphere there are old traditions which some of us moderns consider essentially ‘Christian’ in basis but which in fact have long been there to mark the change of season and the turning of the year, the days of darkness turning towards the light.

But of course you all knew that.


A review of The Dark is Rising will appear in due course but, in the meantime, may I wish everybody the very best of Christmases, however you celebrate it!