Sunday, March 8, 2015

Criticism on Authonomy's post about sense in fantasy and historical fiction

I often click links and wonder, "Do people actually consider, do they really, truly think about the things they write?" Often, I feel the answer is, emphatically, “no”. In particular, the article here has a bunch of stuff that - upon inspection - isn't very true. Sure, it gets repeated all the time by writers and people in the publishing industry, but like many things often repeated but rarely discussed there isn't too much truth to the author's claims. Apropos of this is this blog post on verisimilitude for fantasy and historical fiction. It is terrible.

For instance, the blog post says, "[T]he author of a fantasy novel filled with invented creatures and magic must ensure that these elements exist within coherent systems and are subject to perceivable rules."

Really? First, I'm going to mention a kind of writing that gets scant respect from the literary types but has created many of the most enduring characters and stories of the last hundred years: comic books. If you have a fast paced story with colorful characters, it appears that consistency, much less verisimilitude, is irrelevant. Superheroes are constantly developing new abilities to get out of situations in a non-stop barrage of deus ex machina. The only reason not to acknowledge this is pure snobbery, because superheroes are enduring and popular, many of their figures and stories having become bedrock culture of the 20th century (and certainly the 21st).

(One of my favorite cases in point is Batman's cowl. Sometimes it's cloth, except when he gets shot in the head when it is revealed to be a helmet. I would say, “Choose, dudes”, but the truth is that I – or, really, anyone else – doesn't much care.)

But, really, it doesn't stop there – it's in most fantasy. Lord of the Rings? Remember Gandalf coming back from the dead after fighting the Balrog? Yeah. There was nothing inherent in the logical structure of the narrative to suggest, much less state, that would happen. It had happened to no other character and was not thought to be something that could happen by any of the protagonists, yet it occurred: Gandalf came back from the dead.

One of my favorite examples about how consistency in fantasy is a bugbear is Dracula. How, exactly, did Dracula get his ship into England, again? He killed all the crew, sure, okay, he's a vampire, I get that, but what mystical authority allowed the ship to find its destination uncrewed? And why should Mina have a psychic connection to her attacker, allowing Van Helsing and the others to track Dracula? There is nothing inherent in previously existing vampire fiction known to Victorian audiences to make this credible or coherent. It was clearly something added solely for the purpose of allowing the humans to confront the undead, pure deus ex machina.

I could go into more details - almost all fantasy and sci-fi books do this to some extent - but the key point is that while our ability to notice out-of-place things is real, equally real is our ability to see patterns that we want to exist. A big part of the trick isn't to create a setting where everything is plausible within a rigidly constructed framework - you could go quite mad attempting that, though some writers can make it work - but that the writing does whatever it takes, by whatever means it takes, to get the audience to see a pattern even if it makes no sense to do so by giving them reasons to see things your way. We forgive Tolkien because we want Gandalf to return; we forgive Stoker because we want Dracula to lose. Consistency or verisimilitude does not really enter into it.

Additionally, due to the power of the Internet, and the rise of fanfic, the extent to which the audience is not only willing but actively engaged in finding patterns where none were created by authorial intent is evident. Just as we see patterns in the clouds, the complex narrative of a novel allows people to see a great many things that any given author never intended (and it is even easier with series, written or otherwise) - thus the large number of people who sexually obsess about Draco Malfoy or Snape, which J. K. Rowling finds strange and incomprehensible, or pretty much any slash or ship related to almost any media. Verisimilitude need not apply. Consistency be damned. We see what we want to see and I feel that a big part of a fiction writer's job is to seduce the audience into accepting their narrative. (This isn't news, it's simply suspension of disbelief and there are many tricks to making it work – verisimilitude is merely one and not even the best one, I think.)

The author then goes on to say, "Historical fiction also depends upon strict coherency." Nonsense. I mean, complete and utter nonsense, and a lot of that is because it's impossible to get "strict coherency".

History, because of its incomplete nature and our inability to understand the internal lives of the people who lived it, is a moving target. As a historian, at any given time, there are competing narratives of just about any historical subject.

To pick literally the first one that came to mind, the authorial intent of Machiavelli's The Prince. Is it a handbook of political ruthlessness or a cunning satire? To this day, the question is unresolved. Some find it absurd that Machiavelli, who spent the rest of his life as a staunch republican, suddenly became obsequious to tyranny, finding it more likely that The Prince was meant as an insult to the de Medici and Borgia (and, indeed, the central premise seems to be that Cesare Borgia got lucky, so I think this is a very strong argument).  Others, of course, think that Machiavelli's imprisonment broke him and, in order to secure a job, any job, he wrote a toadying manuscript (also a strong argument). Which is it? Who knows? Both positions have some merit and we can't ask the writer.

But if you were writing a story about Machiavelli, you'd likely choose one of two contradictory narratives, or create a third narrative. At any rate, you're going to run into a lot of people who think you're absolutely wrong no matter the depths of your research.

All of history is like this - it is a fluid narrative that changes as we change. From the idea that the "Dark Ages" was a time of technological regression (go ahead and google "Carolingian Renaissance" to start to find out what modern historians actually think of that idea), or the causes of the American Revolution, our perception of history is almost always controversial in some regard. There is no such thing as “strict coherency”. What makes perfect sense to you is likely to enrage someone else.

(And a living issue: primary education textbooks are being rejected because the historical narrative does not match what various school boards demand to be true. History is a minefield of conflicting beliefs and opinion, ranging from the very naive to the well-researched and intensely sophisticated but equally contradictory and exclusive.)

So, creating coherency must first ask, "Who's coherency?" Lacking an objective standard, how does that even make any damn sense? (Answer: it doesn't, but you've got to know something about historiography to realize how history is constantly, almost necessarily mired in controversy.)

(I want to emphasize that I am not suggesting that writers fail to do research. I'm not saying that a work should not have some internal consistency. I'm just saying that "strict coherency" is nonsense regarding historical research for a historical novel – that the standard is irrational.)

And . . . then I stopped reading the article, I admit, even though I was mostly through it. Why bother going on? What bothers me is the extent to which these oft-repeated maxims are unconsidered in, I think, the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. The idea that they even MIGHT be wrong is totally undiscussed (as opposed to, say, the way fans pick apart the media they love, or historians continue to search for truth in the mists of the past). Still, writers love repeating them to each other. I think we should stop and reconsider them, really think about them, and maybe even think about why we are encouraged to think this way.

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