In 1988, psychologist Martin Seligman and Harold Zullow set out to predict the outcomes of thirty-three senate races, two American presidential primaries, and the presidential election. They didn't poll the populace. They didn't examine the voting records of the candidates. They didn't parse the economic climate. They didn't pool expert opinion. They didn't look at previous election victories. They didn't consider the grand socio-historical forces at work. They didn't analyze exit-poll data. They did none of these things and yet were able to correctly predict the outcomes of the presidential primaries and the presidential race. They were able to predict the senate races with 86% accuracy. So how did Seligman, a self-confessed admirer of Asimov's Foundation trilogy, pull off this psycho-historical feat? Seligman and Zullow content-analyzed the candidates' major and minor speeches, interviews, autobiographies, and every other self-reported text they could lay their hands on. This analysis combined with their theory that Americans vote for the more optimistic candidate enabled them to call the elections with astonishing accuracy. Goebbels' Big Truth is this: Narratives have power. As Eileen Gunn says in her succinct foreword to Narrative Power: "The right narrative in politics can win an election, gather a mob, destroy an enemy, start a war" (p. 2).
In this collection of essays, edited by L. Timmel Duchamp, narrative power is examined from sixteen different perspectives. The volume's subtitle—Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles—explains why its essays linger in the mind. Its writers have skin in the game. Many of their insights have that bittersweet flavor peculiar to autobiographical accounts. Some of the essays are reprints, but most originated from a Wiscon 2009 panel session. This might explain the informal, leaning-towards-the-microphone quality of the writing. All the essays are worth a second read and an individual response. They are grouped into three sections: "Narrative and History" (five essays), "Narrative Politics" (seven essays), and "Narrative and Writing Fiction" (four essays).
The first section contain essays by Carolyn Gilman, L. Timmel Duchamp, Ellen Kittell, and Rebecca Wanzo. Duchamp's essay, "Lost in the Archives: A Shattered Romance", is rooted in her experience as a young Renaissance scholar in the archives at the Palazzo degli Uffizi. In the course of her research, Duchamp came across the story of a fourteenth century Italian woman, Mona Jacopa, brutally beaten and raped by one Bartolomeo Donati. The story of Mona Jacopa and other "ordinary" people like her—the square pegs in square holes—does not have a place in standard historical narratives. David Hackett Fischer's magnificent opus Historians' Fallacies discusses some 112 narrative fallacies, but even he overlooks the chronic under-sampling of micro-narratives in historical texts (though to be fair, his "fallacy of elitism" does address the issue tangentially). Duchamp makes an impassioned case for micro-histories, tracing the origins of the movement, its theoretical issues, and its use in adding depth to the historical past. The essay's rich, sensual imagery evokes, as movies like Under The Tuscan Sun also do, what the Germans call Fernweh—farsickness, that strange homesickness-for-a-place-that's-not-your-home feeling. I will leave the reader to find out if Mona Jacopa survived the brutal beating. However, it's clear from Duchamp's haunted parsing of the notary's account that Bartolomeo Donati was able to reach across six hundred years and leave a mark on Duchamp as well.
Mona Jacopa was surely more than a rape victim. But she exists today, so to speak, because of that nightmare tangle with Donati. It illustrates a special problem with the way we narrate the histories of women. Ellen Kittell's essay ("Patriarchal Imperialism and the Narrative of Women's History") makes the point that all too often women's histories are narrated as the history of adjustments to men, as the history of adversarial struggles. I found Kittell's essay persuasive but also troubling, because it's guilty, in a small way, of what it finds guilty. Kittell traces her own ideas to an adversarial struggle; a male colleague ("old white guy" p. 45) simply couldn't comprehend her conflict-free work in his mind until she provided a historiographical debate for him to mount. Kittell's essay also reveals a small irony: she's bloody good at adversarial argumentation. She's good at talking smack. So her essay does read at times like a lion's claw-tapping meditation on the virtues of vegetarianism. But jokes aside, the sheer ambition of Kittell's project makes her part of the tradition of female scholars like Lynn Margulis, Martha Nussbaum, Barbara McClintock, Joan Robinson, and Deirdre McCloskey. It is a tradition that exemplifies the best in scholarship precisely when it is at its most heretical.
Rebecca Wanzo's essay ("The Era of Lost (White) Girls") also protests an obsessive narrative focus, namely, the American media's fascination—"fetish" is probably more accurate—with lost girls; specifically, lost white girls. Wanzo makes the implicit assumption that the Lost (white) Girl narrative is not talking about lost white girls at all but is saying something about (North) Americans as a people. A deconstructive analysis then allows Wanzo to draw a sinister moral: "complex stories are effaced in favor of the comfort offered by the Lost Girl Event" (p. 73). Comfort? Yes, argues Wanzo, because it enables us to avoid discussing the other bad things, often far worse things, that could and do happen. Complex systemic problems are overlooked when we focus obsessively on versions of Little Red Riding Hood. She calls on us to pay attention to the ways—the politicized ways—in which we are made to care about incidents. I think her model is fundamentally wrong. News is not the medium to tell complex stories. Complex stories are the best way to tell complex stories. News is fundamentally a summarizing, alerting, simplifying, blurbing, myopic, confused ass. It cannot carry complex burdens in any shape or form. To expect the news media to undertake subtle analyses of complex social problems is like expecting a sensible discussion of Hegel via a round of Chinese Whispers. Just consider Wanzo's own complex essay with its references to Deleuze, semiotics, body politic, bracketing, and other hexagrams of postmodernism. If that's what it takes to understand a news trend, then we're surely doomed. Imagine the fate of this subtle analysis in the news media? On Glenn Beck? On the Today Show with Matt Lauer?
Duchamp, Kittell, and Wanzo are all considering specific ways in which narrative fail us, namely, neglect, framing, and fetishization. Carolyn Ives Gilman's essay ("Telling Reality: Why Narrative Fails Us") views narrative in an anthropological light. Her paradigmatic example is how different cultures model space and time. In the long run, narratives built on top of such models have far-reaching consequences on how cultures view innovation, weirdos, information, history, and change. Gilman's thesis—narrative shapes action—is reminiscent of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—language shapes thought—and its college-educated descendent, the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, namely: languages are different, and these differences affect perceptions in systematic ways. However, Gilman makes a strong case against relativism as a general principle. On account of epistemological relativism, she says, anthropology has "collapsed in a paralysis of self-doubt" (p. 17). The relativism she attacks, I think, is strong relativism, the view that all truth is relative to a frame of reference, and all frames of reference are equally privileged. But as anthropologist Clifford Geertz argued in his essay "Anti Anti-relativism," (Available Light, Princeton Press, 2001) to say all frames of references are relative doesn't mean some frames aren't more useful—with respect to some value frame—than others. Both Egyptian multiplication and modern multiplication get the job done, but modern methods get there faster. I enjoyed reading Gilman's bold and engaging essay. She also has the best last line of the collection.
The volume's second section, "Narrative politics," has seven essays. Lesley Hall's wonderful essay ("Beyond Madame Curie? The Invisibility of Women's Narratives in Science") asks why there are so few women scientists in fiction. Is that true? Name ten famous female scientists. Marie Curie, of course. Rosalind Franklin. There's still eight to go. Barbara McClintock. Seven. My internal googling did eventually produce a list of ten, but it was nothing close to the near-instantaneous ArchimedesEinsteinDarwinFeynmanMaxwellNewton . . . one gets for ten famous male scientists. Hall's main claim that "the relative absence of female scientists from fictional narratives reflect their relative absence from the historical narrative . . . " (p. 94) rings true. So why are women scientists absent from history? Hall discusses a variety of reasons: marginalization, lack of opportunity, self-effacement, over-extension, gender prejudice, and the failure of women scientists to build supportive networks. In addition, the stories of great female scientists as stories tend to be less dramatic than their male counterparts. Hall concludes we need achievement narratives to follow a certain pattern, say, Proppian folktales, complete with questors, villains, injunctions, and chatty donkeys. Humans need drama. Hall is not surprised therefore that much of fiction mirrors this prejudice. The typical mad scientist, for instance, is male. Dr. Evil just wouldn't work, it would seem, were he to have a vagina. Understandably, there's a gloomy aura about the essay, and the final sections of Hall's essay don't indulge in anticipations of a brave new dawn, etc. etc. She should have. Since when has history ever been destiny?
The other essays in this section are more about particular texts, or in Lance Olsen's case, ("Against Accessibility: Renewing the Difficult Imagination") about particular readers. Olsen makes the bizarre case that instead of making texts more accessible, authors should endeavor to make them more complicated. Why? Because people—Americans—are getting far too stupid for their own good. As he puts it: "the problem isn't simply that people are reading less. It is also that they are reading "easier, more naively, less rigorously" (p. 124). Indeed. Reading to comprehend! How dare they, the scurvy bastards! Olsen's argument for the decline in capacities is largely based on an eavesdropped conversation, a 2004 survey by NEA, and Curtis White's "Middle Mind," and his essay belongs to the long distinguished tradition of American scolds. The literature of imminent doom is a flourishing cottage industry. Unfortunately, the facts continue to be disappointingly cheerful. The latest survey by NEA (2009) shows an overall 7% increase in American adult reading rates with the biggest increases "among young adults, ages 18-24." Bummer. Still, at the heart of Olsen's essay is the idea that we writers make a difference. He has a graceful literary style that's a pleasure to read, and in my mind's eye, I imagined William Buckley languidly enunciating the sentences, patrician lips pursed in compassionate contempt.
Far from writing unchallenging books, a good example of the effort modern authors put into their books is provided by Wendy Walker's essay "Imagination and Prison." It includes a valuable description of how she put together her novel Blue Fire (2009). Inspired by the real-life tale of Constance Kent, Walker's Blue Fire attempts to carry its own critique. Literally. Encoded in her novel (but interestingly, not in her essay) is a counter-narrative, and though the details of its construction were interesting, I was more intrigued by her deconstructionist idea that "all texts contain its own critique, like the statute hidden in a block of marble" (p. 117). It's intriguing, because as John Bender explains in his book Imagining the Penitentiary (1989), narrative techniques not only represent consciousness in action, they also represent the developing social consciousness. For example, at the Madam Bovary obscenity trial, the prosecutor Pinard argued that Flaubert's narrative technique—free indirect discourse—made Madam Bovary's opinions indistinguishable from the author's, thus validating them indirectly. Bender points out that Bentham's Panopticon and Smith's Invisible Hand coincided with the rise of the omnipresent but invisible narrator in realist fiction. So when Walker constructs a novel that contains its own critique, it leads me to wonder if we're beginning to see the rise of a less narcissistic society, one conscious of its flaws and limitations, but secure enough to tolerate dissent.
In direct contradiction to Bender's thesis, Alan DeNiro's essay ("Reading The Best of A. E. Van Vogt") argues that SF's corpus reveals the continuing failures of its writers to grasp ongoing social change. To make his case, he refers to a particular author, Van Vogt, and a more traditional kind of encoding: the subtext. DeNiro argues that the Van Vogt's neocolonial subtext—barely subterranean at that—is symptomatic of SF's tin ear for social change. The subtext in Van Vogt's novels is Van Vogt. Van Vogt looks at Egypt and sees only a "fellah civilization." He looks at the 5,000 year old history of India and sees only the British. He looks at aliens and sees only tooth and claw. He looks at his own work and sees it as a struggle against mortality. So ferocious a visionary can see neither the glass nor the water, but only his own thirsts. Von Vogt may not be an important influence any more, but historicism—in Popper's definition, "the idea that the course of human history can be predicted by rational or any other rational methods"—continues to plague SF. If such techniques exist, then they must be necessarily secret (as Asimov foresaw) for humans adjust to expectations of the future. For example, since Seligman and Zullow's remarkable predictions, all American politcos have learned to be unfailingly optimistic, and perhaps the American public has learnt to discount such toothy cheer. James Phillips' study of the 2008 presidential primaries, using Seligman's content analysis methods, showed Obama to be the significantly less optimistic candidate in comparison with Hilary Clinton, and therefore, the expected loser.
Ironically, even as Van Vogt was mapping out his historicist ideas, Karl Popper was demonstrating the poverty of such visions. Reading DeNiro's essay, I was reminded of Duchamp's micro-histories. Classical SF and its imitators are in thrall to a defunct model of historical explanation. DeNiro sees hope in the usual places—developing countries, diaspora lit, marginalized voices—but his real call, it seems to me, is to kill our ancestors. Or, as he put it: " . . . a truly global 'post-sf' can only involve a rejection of the assumptions of Golden Age SF fandom" (p. 135).
Popper had identified the poverty of historicism as "a poverty of the imagination." Andrea Hairston's essay ("Stories Are More Important than Facts" ) focuses on the role of the imagination in fiction. Stories, Hairston argues, have no responsibility to either be factual or realistic. Fictional narratives fail reality, but it's an useful failure. She uses del Toro's movie Pan's Labyrinth to illustrate how the imagination can be used celebrate and/or protest aspects of reality. I haven't watched the movie, so much of Hairston's essay was like listening to a friend who swears you-have-to-see-this-movie-coz-it's-so-FRIKKIN-awesome. The kind of resistance Hairston has in mind is the resistance to the tyranny of facts. And interestingly, sentimentality—one aspect of this resistance—is exactly what the essays of Susan Palwick ("Suspending Disbelief: Story as Political Catalyst") and Rebecca Wanzo ("Apocalyptic Empathy: a Parable of Postmodern Sentimentality") wish to celebrate.
Palwick draws her inspiration from Professor Jane Tompkins. The Duke University professor has become notorious in recent years for pushing the seditious idea that literature wants to change the world and not just yap about it. Palwick, like Dr. Tompkins, thinks that modern academia has lost faith in that belief. Maybe so. But I'm not sure literature professors ever professed such a faith. I was also taken aback by her claim that in SF, stories are marked by a belief "in the power of story itself" (p. 154). That is, the characters acquire a faith in the act of story-telling. It is this acquired belief, she argues, that allows them to do things in their story-worlds. Perhaps literature does want to change the world. The two SF stories she studies are indeed so nobly marked, but I suspect Palwick underestimates the capacity of writers not to care.
Wanzo, on the other hand, is only tangentially concerned with defending sentimentality. Her interest is in showing its use. She begins by pointing out that sentimental literature has traditionally been "concerned with liberation from oppression, self-transformation, and the relationship between feeling and politics" (p. 161). Taking the great Octavia Butler's remarkable Parable books as a paradigmatic example, she shows how its protagonist Olamina subtly reworks the utopia of liberation theology. Sentimentalist literature encourages us to feel, and traditional liberation theology sets Heaven as that state where certain feelings—for example, serenity, happiness—are permanently achieved. Olamina leverages the power sentimental texts have to inspire her people, but the heaven she promises is not an ideal state of feeling but action. Those who would dismiss sentimentalist literature as the literature of smelling salts would be well-advised to consider Wanzo's concluding words " . . . the project of producing populist texts for mass consumption cannot be left to those with unproductive or dangerous dreams and abandoned by those who truly desire revolution" (p. 176).
The third and final section, "Narrative and Writing Fiction," has essays by Samuel Delany, Nicola Griffith, Eleanor Arnason, Rachel Swirsky, and Claire Light. I will discuss them in a slightly different order, since the Delany, Swirsky and Griffith essays form a natural unit.
Delany's essay "The Life of/and Writing" frames his complex understanding of art with the help of two key ideas: reflection and repetition. Delany's first point is that when we think of art as a mirror, a reflector of life, then the various distortions—such as my distortion of the order of the essays—raise ethical as well as aesthetic questions. Some distortions are necessary, that is, unavoidable, and hence may be excused. One response is to say: yes, literature is an art of the artificial and artifice—design, intention, attention—is the prime virtue of literature. A work is aesthetically and ethically good to the extent the work is not due to accident, carelessness, inattention.
And what's the most obvious manifestation of inattention if not the cliché? A cliché for Delany, if I understand him correctly, is piece of a fossilized inattention. Delany predicts the second half of his essay will make readers uneasy, and he is right. Where things got uncomfortable for me is when he begins to discuss, using consequentialist arguments, why we should censure our clichés. He's careful to point out that he's for censuring clichés, not censoring them. Still, I found Delany's implicit support for identifying ethics with aesthetics to be problematic. The confounding of the aesthetic "good" with the ethical "good" is why books gets censored. If we are to avoid clichés because they are ethically offensive, then no matter how sophisticated that ethical principle may be, it becomes disingenuous of us to demand the aesthetic freedom to write a "Lolita" or an "American Psycho" or a "Mein Kampf." In short, the aesthetic argument against clichés needs an aesthetic basis, not an ethical one.
Nicola Griffith's essay ("Living Fiction and Storybook Lives"), which includes a valuable description of her creative choices in writing Slow River, also warns us about clichés. For Griffith, master narratives are "cultural clichés" (p. 202), and since master narratives represent the status quo, something she's not a fan of, the metaphor sets up the basic conclusion: "Cliché is the great reinforcer. Examine it—the person, the situation, the culture—with a clear eye and a strong prose, and the cliché melts . . . " (p. 204). I had read Delany's essay first, so there was a sense of déjà vu with Griffith's essay. But that's the thing. Repetition, which is what a cliché overdoes, has its narrative uses. So how we do we distinguish useful clichés (mantras?) from harmful ones? Neither Griffith nor Delany provide much clarification on this problem. In any event, I liked both essays for their combination of provocative ideas and warm personal detail.
Rachel Swirsky's essay ("Why We Tell the Story: The Political Nature of Narrative") is less personal in tone but equally thought-provoking. She considers the political factors that shape an author's decisions. As she puts it: " . . . narrative has a human origin, is assembled in the social, psychological, and cultural context of the writer's brain, and thus is inevitably inflected with politics" (p. 219). Swirsky is right of course that narratives may have political motivations, often unknown to the author. But it's goes too far, I think, to say " . . . no matter what choices writers make, they are acting in a political fashion" (p. 220). Isn't it more reasonable to say that no matter how writers might have made their choices, such choices may always be interpreted politically? Swirsky quotes with approval Rushdie's comment (from an essay written seven years before the fatwa), that "description is itself a political act." Yet Rushdie back-pedaled on such strong identification in his post-fatwa essays such as "In Good Faith" (1990). Walter Benjamin, in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) warned us that "the logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life." Conversely, the belief that all stories, not just some stories, have political agendas, is what leads, when this belief acquires an army, to people not being able to tell their stories.
All three essays are symptomatic of a trend to make literature larger than life, as it were. It is not enough that stories seek to entertain. They are also aesthetic theories, ethical stances, political screeds. Doubtless, some stories are all these things. But we have a growing tendency in literary criticism to make increasingly grandiose claims about the power of fiction to change the course of human affairs—Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human comes to mind—even as evidence for said power becomes increasingly scarce.
In sharp contrast to these vibrant discussions, Eleanor Arnason's essay "Narrative and Class" begins ominously—"If I try to write something that is subtle and nuanced, this essay will be far too long" (p. 210)—and then trudges towards the glue factory. Reading this essay, I got the impression of a writer who's disillusioned with both narrative's mirror and the battle-worn objects placed in front of it. In a revealing line, possibly humorous, she remarks that she began to read SF because it " . . . addressed my fears and my sense that I lived in a creepy and hostile society" (p. 212). She calls for new narratives to challenge dominant ideologies, question capitalism, fight injustice, etc., and she's both honest and frank. But the defeated, dispirited air makes everything as uninspiring as the horse Baxter's call, in Animal Farm, for more hard work.
Claire Light's essay ("Girl in Landscape"), the final one in the book, glares over the wreckage of one of her unfinished novels (Expat) and tries to understand what went wrong. Towards that end, she hauls in Lethem, Coatzee, Foster, Jesuits, Maugham, Greene, decolonization, Obama, American imperialism, her parents, sundry Japanese-American writers, and China Miéville. I loved it. My mind is the exact same bloody mess. Her novel-in-making sounds like a blast. I hope she finishes it. God help the world if she doesn't.
Dachau started out as an artist's colony. Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda and Hitler's BFF, started out as a novelist. Narratives do strange things to people and places. There is no final protection against malign narratives and the Pied Pipers of history except the steady pressure of conversation. We owe a debt of gratitude to L. Timmel Duchamp, Aqueduct Press, and the many contributors. Volumes such this keep us alert, awake. May its tribe increase.
Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software R&D worrying about things like secure distributed databases and evolutionary computation. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. His stories can be found in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, Interzone, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Shockwave, and From the Trenches. He was nominated for the 2006 Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Prize and the 2007 Million Writers Award. His YA novel The Beast with Nine Billion Feet is out now from Zubaan Books.
You must log in to post a comment.