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Monday, September 17, 2007


Author versus reality

I had an interesting discussion with a friend the other day about film sequels. The gist was this: I'd seen the Alien movies (at least, some of them; I'm not sure how many there are nowadays, but I've certainly seen the first two), and she hadn't, but I remarked that the characterisation of Ripley, the heroine, seemed very different in James Cameron's sequel from the characterisation in Ridley Scott's original. Though played by the same actress, they seemed to me to be basically different people: the first movie's reserved, private, by-the-book strategist did not much resemble the second movie's confrontational, improvise-on-the-fly leader figure.

Consider, for example, the scene in Alien where Ripley confronts Ash: he's broken quarantine against her express orders and let a contaminated person into the ship, which has angered her for two good reasons: one, she outranks him so he should do what she says, meaning he's failed to respect her, and two, she thinks (correctly) that he's endangered everyone's life. She is, in other words, extremely provoked, and you can feel the tension and dislike in her performance. But the scene is very restrained: she never raises her voice, or speaks aggressively; it's one of those angry-polite scenes you get between two people who are entirely at odds but dislike confrontation. Compare that with the second film's short-temperedness: 'Did IQs drop sharply when I was away?' she demands in a frustrating meeting. 'They can bill me!' she snaps when someone points out she's proposing blowing up an expensive installation. The rulebook is out the window, and so are manners: this is someone who takes the short route and is quite happy to shout if need be. The scenes between Ripley and Burke, in fact, resemble nothing so much as a confrontation between an angry director who's determined to get it right and a parsimonious producer who's trying to pull rank on behalf of the money-men, a situation of which, based on what I've heard about James Cameron, the director is probably a multiple veteran.

So what's the way to respond to this? My friend remarked that, if she were to see both films, she'd consider Cameron's Ripley a further exploration of the character, and that any differences should be seen as reactions to the strains of the previous film. I had an entirely opposite reaction: they're two different characters. They're the work of different writers and different directors, and while they have the same name and are played by the same actress, essentially they're different heroines from different stories.

Which brings us to the topic of the day: how to handle the unreality of stories, and the effect that authorial presence has on them.

Stories aren't real, and even the most cunningly-told story in the world is, not to mince words, a total pack of lies. Yet at the same time, they are how we hear about truth in the real world: people tell us things that have really happened. There's a disconnect between the two that writers jimmy their way into: presenting utter fabrications with the air of honest historians, they can convince you of all sorts of rubbish. The only thing they have with which to pull off this con trick is their ability to sound believable - which is, basically, talent.

But here's the thing. Talent isn't a measurable quality like water, present in various writers to various levels, like a row of partially-filled jugs sitting on a table. Talent is unique; every talent is different. What an author has to work with is their own sensibility, their own understanding of truth, because you have to understand something in order to be able to imitate it. Nobody understands absolute, Platonic truth; instead, truth is always an interpretation, a way of seeing things. A writer uses their own feeling for truth, their own sense of what truth is shaped like, what texture it should be, what sort of sound it should make if you tap it, and out of that, work out when the story sounds ready to be told.

It's for this reason that, to my mind, stories about 'the same' characters told by different authors are just not convincing as continuations. Show James Cameron Ridley Scott's picture of what truth looks like, and he'd just blink at it, wondering what it was. The same applies vice versa: the way people tell stories is the closest they can get to representing their sensation of truth, but you can only tell the same story if you have exactly that same sensation. And you won't, because your sensibility will be slightly different. Continued stories may be reasonably harmonious with each other, close enough that they don't jar if you don't squint at them too closely, but they'll never be exactly matched.

Here's another angle on the same thing: you can get a similar feel for truth, even in self-contradiction, if it's the same author telling different stories. Here's my favourite example, largely because it's one of my favourite books. Antonia White's Frost in May sequence is a lightly fictionalised autobiography - which is to say, there actually is an element of truth, or reality, mixed in with the artistry. In the first book, the story is almost entirely taken from her own life, but in the second, White decided she wanted to write something more fictional, so added some events that didn't happen, and, crucially, changed everyone's names. Nanda Grey, full name Fernanda, daughter of John Grey and an unnamed mother, becomes Clara Batchelor, daughter of Claude and Isabel Batchelor. Both names are to some extent adaptations of White's own name dilemma: she was originally named Eirene Botting, a name given to her by her father Cecil Botting, which she never liked; her mother Christine called her 'Tony' as a childhood nickname, and when she became an adult, Tony adapted that nickname, added it to her mother's maiden name, and came out as Antonia White. She never completely liked the final name, feeling it something of a blank, but you can see the traces: elaborate Eirene/Fernanda shorted to a pet name; colourless White to Grey; staccato, mundane-sounding Botting to Batchelor. Here we see a reverse of the Ripley dilemma: fundamentally similar characters by the same author are cast as, in effect, different people.

Stranger still, events change and change back. Nanda in the first book is expelled from her convent school for writing a 'scandalous' novel, to the fury of her beloved father. (Actually a very naive novel in which which the characters behave as badly as a cloistered fourteen-year-old can conceive of them acting, intended to climax in a series of sensational conversions, renunciations and entries into convents and monasteries, which would have allowed for an interesting story while remaining an acceptably edifying work. Disastrously, the book is discovered and confiscated by the nuns before the uplifting ending can be written, leaving only the dens of inquity, kisses during Hungarian balls, and thrillingly elaborate dressing-gowns of the Byronic hero). The second book, The Lost Traveller, cycles back in time several months, starts with the death of Clara's grandfather, and then moves to her departure from the convent with a much less drastic reason: her family can no longer stretch to afford the fees, and, being middle class (unlike most of her aristocratic classmates), Clara will in any case have to get an education that will fit her to earn her living, an education that the convent, catering to girls who will inherit family fortunes, does not provide. The scandalous novel is not mentioned; however, in the third book, The Sugar House, reference is again made to her father's fury about the novel, the novel that its predecessor wrote out of existence.

Yet despite all these changes, there's a fundamental continuity. The reality being represented or fictionalised is White's own life and emotional perceptions, and the way the story shifts to accomodate them is simply a nuanced reflection of a complicated psyche struggling to accomodate conflicting emotions. The real girl's removal from the convent was, in fact, a situation in which both stories were true. Tony was suddenly taken away from her convent school after the nuns discovered she'd been writing a novel in. But it was complicatd by the fact that Cecil Botting wasn't honest about his motivations. He had been meaning to remove his daughter for some time, on the grounds of saving money and getting her professionally educated, and the novel she wrote only affected the timing of her removal - but when he came to take her away, he gave no inkling that money was the real reason, instead blaming the 'sink of filth and impurity' that was her first innocent attempt at fiction. It was only years later that she discovered that money was the real reason; prior to then, she entirely blamed herself and her abortive first attempt at novel-writing. (A scarifying experience that left her wrestling a lifelong writer's block.)

Frost in May, then, represents the emotional reality as it seemed to the fourteen-year-old White; the calmer, financially-motivated departure in The Lost Traveller represents the practical motivation, and if the novels don't completely integrate the two conflicting realities, that only conveys more vividly just how difficult it was for White to reconcile the two in her own mind. A fractured narrative is the ultimate expression of a fractured self: for all her talent (and White was superbly talented), the violation was so severe that nothing could piece it together, either in fiction or in life. In short, the unusually strong authorial presence strings together inconsistent storytelling.

So there you have it: sometimes, with a strong author around, inconsistent plotting can be more harmonious than consistent plotting. Funny old world, eh?

Death of the author my eye.

It's for this reason that, to my mind, stories about 'the same' characters told by different authors are just not convincing as continuations.

And why the vast majority of fanfic likewise fails so miserably. [bites back long rant on the subject]
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