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Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Everyone's a novelist when they're confused

In the previous post, I discussed the ways in which readers can leap to the false conclusion that a writer is mentally ill because of some failure in the writer's talent or execution - which is never a good idea, mental illness being horribly misunderstood at the best of times and thus something one should be careful speculating about unless one is pretty sure one knows what one's talking about.

There is, however, an interesting flip-side of this. It's a subject I've glanced at in other posts and have been considering for some time, and it has to do with one of the most important concepts in writing, for which I have faute de mieux had to coin the horrible word metaphorisation.

By metaphorisation, I mean the act of expressing an emotion or state of being in metaphorical and representative terms rather than literal ones. Let's take an imaginary example to illustrate the point. Jane Smith grew up in a family where she seemed to get blamed for a lot of things she didn't do, mostly because her pestilential younger sister was good at throwing tantrums at the appropriate moment. Discovering a literary talent, Jane Smith writes a novel in which, let's say, the housekeeper of a country mansion is falsely accused of murder, and when evidence finally emerges to clear her name it turns out that the real killer is the daughter of the Baron, such a general pet of the county that the poor housekeeper is sent away with a question-mark still over her reputation because the family will never hold the girl fully responsible for her actions.

You can see the connections, right? The lower-status woman ends up bearing the brunt of the younger one's misdeeds in a way that's never fully addressed by the givers of justice. Some writers do this maliciously, taking fictional revenge on their real-life enemies, and that's not very gracious, but plenty of writers may do it unconsciously, to express confusion or guilt or gratitude, simply because their lives have made it easy for them to identify with people in certain situations.

It's probably not wise to speculate too much on the connections between a writer's personal life and their fiction unless you know them personally. My husband has some interesting theories about how my life experiences tie in to my fiction in a way that, in the interests of privacy, I'm not going to disclose, but I am going to quote his appropriate phrase for the subject: 'emotional autobiography'. Some stories can be the history of how you felt in a particular situation that bear absolutely no resemblance to that situation in terms of events. Instead, the events are bent into the shape of a story that fits around those emotions. This is drama.

Safer ground, probably, is considering the reader's perspective. There was an interesting discussion I joined on the website MetaFilter last week following an article in the New Yorker about the popularity of dystopias in Young Adult fiction, in which the opening speculation was that dystopias appeal to teenagers because their arbitrary rules and brutal status distinctions resemble high school. Now, I'm a bit sceptical of that as an over-arching theory; to begin with, from everything I can gather American high schools are a distinct beast with their own rules and rituals that may bear a certain resemblance to schools in other countries but aren't a universal experience, and yet teens in other countries also read dystopias. My secondary school memories aren't of pep squads and gym class horrors at all, but I still enjoy a good dystopia; I think that dystopias speak to a broader sense of adolescence than a merely local one.

What I ended up saying was (search for Kit W if you want to see it in context):

I think one reason dystopias often work for teens is that teens are often passionate moralists who tend to experience the world in extreme terms even if their lives aren't hellish. The easiest way to write about extreme emotion is to - the word I always end up using is 'metaphorise', which is truly horrible and if anybody knows an alternative please tell me and save me from it - but basically to render in metaphorical colours, not just the specific details of a particular issue but the sheer intensity of the feeling itself. Fiction creates situations where the strong feelings are tied to events dramatic enough to justify them. It's one of the great escapist satisfactions of reading: not escaping into a more comfortable world, but escaping into a world where you have good, unchallengeable reasons for feeling the way you do.

Not the only escape, of course. Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch talks about how football was a similar escape in his depressed teens: What I needed more than anything was a place where unfocused unhappiness could thrive ... I had the blues, and when I watched my team I could unwrap them and let them breathe a little. Seeking out definite if vicarious reasons for emotions that have complex and sometimes mysterious causes is, I think, quite a common release mechanism.

... and later, making a comparison between dystopias and Gothic fiction, two great staples of adolescence, that "dystopias and Gothic novels both inhabit a world of looming, narrowly-avoided disasters, and periods of trial that test your endurance to its limits - which is pretty much what adolescence is, a lot of the time."

Certain fictional states express certain emotional states, and offer catharsis in the sense of justification. Nobody tells Winston Smith he's overreacting. Having one's emotions ignored or invalidated is a mundane humiliation, but it's also a psychologically profound one; being social animals we seek connection with others, and being told your feelings aren't legitimate is a serious rejection - and whatever our age or dispositions, rejection always bites deep. A world in which we can play out our emotions without fear of their legitimacy being rejected is, in many ways, a deeper escape than a world in which our problems don't exist.

The escape can be a moral one or it can be a release from morality. The science fiction writer John Kessel's famous essay on Orson Scott Card, Creating the Innocent Killer, comes to mind here. Commenting on Card's hugely successful novel Ender's Game (which, in case anyone wants to discuss it in the comments, I should state here at the outset I haven't read), Kessel makes a convincing case that the book's structure contrives situations to justify the typical fantasies of an unhappy teenager. Card, quoted in the essay, more or less explicitly identifies the book as emotional autobiography: "Ender's childhood is based, albeit loosely, on my own; his relationship with [his brother and sister] is based, not on my actual relationship with my older brother and sister, but rather on the way I conceived those relationships to be when I was Ender's age." Considering that the older brother of the novel, at least, is monstrously abusive, this is the kind of revelation that strikes me as somewhat unseemly coming from a writer - how does Card's older brother feel about being so identified in the public eye, I wonder? - but the revelation remains, and in linking it with his own memories of being a bullied child, Kessel remarks:

I would suggest that the methods of evasion that I have delineated in the text, and their congruency with the psychology of adolescence, offer an explanation for the novel’s deep and broad popularity ... This, I fear, is the appeal of Ender’s Game: it models this scenario precisely and absolves the child of any doubt that his actions in response to such treatment are questionable. It offers revenge without guilt. If you ever as a child felt unloved, if you ever feared that at some level you might deserve any abuse you suffered, Ender’s story tells you that you do not. In your soul, you are good. You are specially gifted, and better than anyone else ... God, how I would have loved this book in seventh grade!

Kessel considers the morality of Ender's Game 'stunted' and irresponsible, but he's clear on its catnip appeal: it metaphorises. It creates situations in which a bullied child's burning wish for vengeance, combined with a sense of outraged innocence, are fulfilled by the creation of situations extreme enough that the emotions have a good, concrete cause. Find an audience who know how that feels, and you're made.

In more delicate hands, metaphorisation can become a tool within the fiction itself. Pan's Labyrinth, for example, layers the fairytale world of a young girl's imagination against the sordid horrors of the Spanish Civil War, finding its dark heart in her brutal stepfather, the Fascist Captain Vidal, who cuts a swathe of murder and torture through the people around him in his resolution to stamp out the maquis. Ofelia, our little heroine, goes through a series of magical trials which may or may not be real - and each of them finds its parallel in a scene or line in the world around her. Creeping away from the appointed dinner where the Fascists feast while planning to cut rations for the Spanish people, Ofelia confronts a monstrous toad under a magical tree, asking it, "Aren't you ashamed to sit here growing fat while the tree dies?" (Paraphrase from memory, sorry.) As Ofelia narrowly escapes death at the hands of a monster who wakes and pursues her when she breaks the apparently arbitrary order not to eat anything from its table, a doctor faces the furious Vidal having given a merciful overdose to, rather than extending the life of, a prisoner Vidal has been torturing to death for information, saying with helpless dignity, "To obey, just like that, for obedience's sake ... without questioning ... that's something only people like you can do." (Only to be shot for his act of mercy.) The graceful balance of the plot lies in between the vividness of Ofelia's visions and their deep roots in the reality of the story: these are not visions for their own sake, but also poetic metaphors for what is at stake. What the movie itself metaphorises out of Guillermo del Toro's own life, if anything, it's not my place to say, but it stands as a beautiful if harrowing example of metaphorisation played out over several layers within the confines of a story.

We do this in creating works of art, if we happen to have the ability to create works of art. But here's the thing: we also do it - not just artists - when talking about ourselves.

In the interests of privacy again, I won't go into details, but in the past I've spent a certain amount of time listening to people with various mental disorders talk about their problems. In this case the problems were not just disorders of affect like depression, but disorders of thought - people with paranoid schizophrenia talking about how this group or that was plotting against them, people with mental disabilities who weren't always very clear about the difference between their own thoughts and external reality: people, in short, who told me things that were not, in any literal sense of the world, true. Nice people; decent people; good people - but people who were, psychologically speaking, profoundly mixed up.

It not being my place to contradict them, all I could really do was listen and try to sympathise. And I quickly came to the conclusion that what these people were literally telling me was not the point. I wasn't sure exactly how much they believed their own words; some of them took the action that would be appropriate if their stories were true (at great cost to their own wellbeing); others acted in ways that suggested they believed their fictions on some level but not on the level of taking a decision to do something about it. I wasn't qualified and it wasn't my business anyway to decide what they literally thought. But what I believed was this: on some level, they were trying to tell me how they felt. They were just going about it in a roundabout way.

The brain is a rationalising organ, and one that resists accepting the possibility of its own malfunction. A doctor friend of mine once met a man with no short-term memory who spent his time on the ward trying to sell everybody watches: he couldn't remember being told why he was in hospital, so his brain concluded that since he didn't feel sick, he must be there to sell things to the staff and patients. When things don't seem to make sense, often we find our brains supplying explanations unbidden. Incorrect explanations, if there's something afflicting us, but convincing ones nonetheless.

So I stopped trying to make sense of what my confused friends were saying. Disagreeing with them would only be processed as a sign that I was with the enemy anyway. Instead, I took to translating in my own mind. "People are bugging my house" became "I don't feel safe in my own home." "My mother has people following me when I go to work" became "No matter how independent I become, I never feel free of my family problems." "My colleagues keep stopping me from getting dates with the girls who flirt with me" became "I'm sexually frustrated and other people seem better at finding romance than me". And so on. (These are fictional examples to protect identity, but the kind of thing I heard.) Once I stopped asking myself exactly how much they believed their own stories, making some kind of emotional connection with these people wasn't very difficult. It was an amateur perspective, and might not have been a very useful one from a professional (though I'm under the impression that Jung, at least, argued that the content of a patient's delusion was worth listening to for its symbolic content), but that was the way I went, and the way I'd still go if some confused person tried to tell me about what was wrong. I stopped assuming they were the reporters of their own lives, and started assuming they were the novelists of their own feelings.

It would seem I'm not alone in this. Amy Tan, in The Opposite of Fate, gives a moving description of her mother's gradual recession into Alzheimer's disease, and how her mother became incapable of remembering simple information and prone to muddle up the incidents of her own life. Tan describes her mother, a lifelong sufferer from depression and believer in ghosts and fate, as always prone to magical thinking:

Looking back, I'm convinced it was also my mother who affected my imagination to such a degree that I now hear and see things that others do not. I see connections in coincidences, ironies in lies, and truths in contradictions, all sorts of things that others do not.

But as her mother lost more and more of her memory to the disease, Tan also describes learning to speak to her in terms of emotional rather than literal truths:

I now knew the answers to my mother's impossible questions. "When you coming home?" was a common one because I was often away on book tours. If I gave her an actual date, she woudl ask five minutes later, "When you coming home?"

"We're almost home," I would say over the phone, no matter how long Lou and I would be gone. "Because we've missed you so much. We love you so much we can't wait to come home and see you. You are the most important person to us in the whole world." And she would stop asking. That was all she needed to know.

Likewise, when her mother told a confused story of Amy being present the day she met Amy's father, Tan recalls, "Instead of being saddened by her delusion, I was choked with happiness. She had placed me in her memory of one of the best days of her life." Listening like a novelist, in fact, rather than like a fact-checker, Tan was able to hear the emotional truth - you are a blessing to me - in the literal mistake.

This kind of metaphorisation - which I suppose is another way of saying poetic truth - is not, I suspect, confined to novelists and the mentally ill/disabled. (A conjunction that, let me say in advance, will not make you big and clever if you crack jokes about it. Let's not make fun of mentally ill people, eh?) I'm suspicious, for example, of people who choose to tell anecdotes and jokes which always have someone else as the butt: what's being metaphorised here except the statement 'I'm superior'? The stories we select to retell can serve the same function as the stories we invent, and I'd speculate that dreams might serve a similar function as well.

On the whole I'd consider it a human trait to tell stories that create, through artifice and contrivance, situations in which our feelings become natural and reasonable. Novelists do it more publicly because their stories get read, people suffering delusions do it more publicly when they start sharing their delusions with others, but we're a rationalising species. It's an interesting concept to bear in mind when considering an author or a reader's motivations, anyway.

Fascinating! I've run across the metaphorisation in writing (mainly among fellow amateur writers and have even recognized it in my own stuff at times). However, I've never considered how the same process might take place in every day conversation.
I stopped assuming they were the reporters of their own lives, and started assuming they were the novelists of their own feelings.

Kit -- I would give my eye teeth to write a single sentence like that.

As for your suspicion about the stories that some people tell that show others in a bad light -- I have known people who are incapable of telling any joke that does not involve demeaning others. They do it in a laughing way so that the others cannot complain without facing the charge that they have no sense of humour but I have long suspected something such as you suggest about their inner psychological motivations.
Regarding possible alternatives to 'metaphorisation': I've seen the term 'literalised metaphor' used in some sf criticism for something not unlike 'metaphorisation'. On the other hand, the way in which the metaphorical elements are made concrete in sf and fantasy tends to be a bit more physical (for want of a better word) than the sort of more general emotional reification that you're treating here, so I'm not sure whether it'd work as an alternative.
I don't care for 'literalised metaphor' myself; it seems to undermine the whole concept of the metaphor to put it with the world 'literal'. Nothing is literally true in a work of fiction, and I like metaphors to remain shifting and flexible rather than nailing them down.
I stopped assuming they were the reporters of their own lives, and started assuming they were the novelists of their own feelings.
Yes, that is a great line.

Creeping away from the appointed dinner where the Fascists feast while planning to cut rations for the Spanish people, Ofelia confronts a monstrous toad under a magical tree, asking it, "Aren't you ashamed to sit here growing fat while the tree dies?"
An apposite example of Marianne Moore's famous definition of poetic truth: imaginary gardens with real toads in them.

So we were talking about JK Rowling over on Slacktivist. We know from her own comments that she suffered from depression, and that it felt to her like all the color and joy had had been sucked out of her life. That's exactly the way she writes about her "dementors," isn't it? I don't like "literalized metaphor" either, so what would you call that kind of fantasy/sf metaphorization method? Personified metaphor? Incarnated metaphor? Explicit metaphor? Thunderingly obvious metaphor?

Whatever, would you call that a difference of kind, or just of execution, from the type of metaphorization that you're talking about here?
"I don't like "literalized metaphor" either, so what would you call that kind of fantasy/sf metaphorization method? Personified metaphor? Incarnated metaphor? Explicit metaphor? Thunderingly obvious metaphor?"

Reified metaphor, maybe? I'm thinking of the 'fallacy of misplaced concreteness' in philosophy, where an abstract concept or simplification is treated as an actually existing thing. So the toad under the tree is in part a metaphor for facism that's treated as something that can be physically interacted with inside the bounds of the story; it's reified into an object or a person that can be active or acted on within the narrative.
test, please ignore
This was an interesting time for me to come across this post. I just finished reading "The White Mare" by Jules Watson. Early in the book, I was really struck by the descriptions of the dread the heroine felt at having a man in her bed and in her house (she's facing an arranged marriage with a stranger at the time). Being happily single and happiest living alone myself, I really connected with that--but when the author "excused" the heroine's feelings by revealing that she'd been raped in the past, I felt cheated. My feeling was that, well, my feelings don't *need* some dramatic excuse, that they're perfectly legitimate as they are, and I resented what I perceived as the implication that there must be something wrong with a woman, some terrible trauma in her past, for her to feel that way.

Not sure if this type of wish-fulfillment just doesn't work for me, or if this episode wouldn't count as wish-fulfillment for anyone. But it's an interesting concept and I think I'll examine my reactions to these sorts of things further in the future.
The easiest way to write about extreme emotion is to - the word I always end up using is 'metaphorise', which is truly horrible and if anybody knows an alternative please tell me and save me from it - but basically to render in metaphorical colours, not just the specific details of a particular issue but the sheer intensity of the feeling itself.

Might use some variation of Eliot's term 'objective correlative'?

/ houseboatonstyx /

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