Saturday, October 30, 2010
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
A brief aside about Sherlock Holmes
I was chatting on the Slacktivist blog recently (much recommended, blogger and community both), and it being a digressive sort of place, the subject of Sherlock Holmes came up. I put in a penn'orth, and a nice commenter asked if she could either paste it on her blog or link to it on mine. Well, she's welcome to do either, but since it seemed to be a well-liked comment, I thought I'd put it here anyway.
The subject that came up was the issue of Sherlock Holmes's famous lack of interest in Girls. Romance is a common subplot in many kinds of genre fiction, detective stories included; heck, I wrote a detective novel and included a romance of sorts myself. The Sherlock Holmes stories, however, keep romance notably absent. Watson has a romance in the second novel, The Sign of the Four, then quietly marries, settles down, gets widowed, sometimes mentions a wife again after that (consistency being ... well, I'll mention that later) and that's about it. Holmes, on the other hand, shows pretty much no interest in the fairer sex. Some readers interpret this as homosexuality, others as asexuality. My take is, it's a matter of writing convenience - and that trying to read too much into it, or indeed into many things in the Holmes stories, will probably lead you up a blind alley.
This was my comment:
I'd say that trying to characterise Sherlock Holmes too closely based on single incidents or stories seems a bit Forth-Bridge-painting. Arthur Conan Doyle himself wasn't particularly concerned with consistency and sometimes contradicted himself (I believe, for instance, Watson's bullet wound was sometimes in his leg and sometimes in his shoulder). It wasn't a coherent structure, it was a loose-woven bunch of short stories knocked out by an author who wasn't particularly attached to his creation and seemed to approach them on a one-at-a-time basis. Perhaps ironically for stories about a rigorous detective with a keen eye for detail, an impressionistic sense of them is probably truer to their spirit than a rigorous assembly of details. [End of comment]
It's my experience that readers will often want to know about romance. A lot of the questions I get about my first novel (spoiler alert) are about what will happen to the heroine and her boyfriend, a question I left open at the end of the novel. I left the question open deliberately, and if I ever did write a sequel (which I really don't think I will) then I'd incline not to reunite them: I think I could get a more interesting story that way. But readers usually want to hear that they will get back together. We usually want romance in our lives, so it's not surprising that we often want it in our fiction.
But if you want to write fiction about something else, particularly genre fiction, and you don't want to put romance in it, that readerly desire can be a nuisance. Conan Doyle was notably casual about what happened to his creation - famously, when the American actor William Gillette asked if he'd mind a love interest being introduced into a play adaptation of the Holmes stories, Conan Doyle cabled back crisply, 'Marry him, murder him, do what you like with him.' - but writing romance in those stories evidently didn't interest him.
I wonder, too, if another reason was that it might have put a crimp on Holmes's eccentricities - which surely were one of the more fun things to write. The stories rest on the strong assumption that domestic order is a female province; in 'The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle', for instance, Holmes deduces that a man's wife no longer loves him because:
This hat has not been brushed for weeks. When I see you, my dear Watson, with a week's accumulation of dust upon your hat, and when your wife allows you to go out in such a state, I shall fear that you also have been unfortunate enough to lose your wife's affection.
Holmes's tendency to keep tobacco in a slipper and shoot 'a patriotic V.R.' into the wall of his flat and lie around taking cocaine and fill the air with smoke and run chemical experiments at home and spend his morning hours trying to impale pig carcasses and so on - all the lively details that make him such an enjoyable character - are, in a Victorian era, essentially the qualities of a bachelor. A wife would not put up with such behaviour - or if she did, would be an unusual enough personality that she would risk upstaging him. The absence of a wife allows Conan Doyle free rein with Holmes and his little ways, as well as the convenient freedom to pursue his cases at all hours, go in and out in disguise, and generally pursue the plot unimpeded.
Holmes sometimes views women with condescension and sometimes with admiration - or more specifically, he tends to react to them on an individual basis, only occasionally generalises about them (the idea that a woman will try to rescue that which she values most when her house is on fire crops up in 'A Scandal in Bohemia', for instance, though I'm not sure what he thinks a man would do), but shows no particular interest in The Sex. On the whole, though, he ignores them. And part of this is because, in an era where educated and professional women were a rarity, intellectual companionship was largely a male business, and a man with no particular sexual interest in women was a man absent the major reason to interest himself in what any given woman thought or felt. Watson is written a normal heterosexual man of his era, and shows an attitude to women best described as gallantry: he refrains from exploitation (only proposing to his wife when it's clear he isn't doing it for money, for instance), notices beauty with an admiring rather than a predatory eye, doesn't assume women are stupid but seems to have a certain protective attitude nonetheless. Holmes likewise is prepared to be protective and has no time for men who mistreat women (consider 'The Speckled Band', where he's blithely unconcerned at having driven a poisonous snake to bite a man who physically abuses his own stepdaughter), but it's more a matter of principle than interest. Hired, he becomes a temporary brother; discharged, he goes back to his previous habits. Sisters aren't allowed to nag you about how to tidy up your room, and in a world where women are charged with the keeping of convention, bachelordom is the comfortable province of non-conformity.
Some serial writers like to show their characters developing over time and some like to keep them constant. Conan Doyle was of the latter variety, a convenient position for a writer who evidently didn't feel it worth the hassle of checking back over previous work to see if it was consistent. The Holmes stories are actually not that repetitive except in the structure of crime/resolution - the curtain rises on our heroes doing really quite a wide range of things - and Holmes's erratic habits and catholic tastes allowed Conan Doyle to keep things various without having to show his detective changing much over time. In fact, immunity to outside influence is one of Holmes's character traits: he's written as a self-created man who deliberately forgets things that don't suit his goals (I believe it's in A Study in Scarlet where he declares an intention to forget that the sun goes round the earth): showing him changing as life goes on would undermine one of his foundational traits. Again, the presence of a wife - and, in a world without much in the way of reliable contraception, the subsequent question of children - would interfere with Holmes's self-sufficient constancy.
"Who drags the fiery artist down? / Who keeps the pioneer in town? / Who hates to let the seaman roam? / It is the wife, it is the home," as Clarence Day Jr had it, and bad luck to the sexist bum. But Holmes is a creation of crusty bachelorhood in that tradition: when women were expected to be limited in scope and intellect, they would also be a plot inconvenience. Holmes has a home, but the absence of women allows to keep it in volatile disarray and leave it whenever he chooses. Introduce a wife, and we'd be looking at an entirely different character.
Of course, wives aren't the only option in the real world, but they are in this particular fiction. A mistress would be less of a disruption to the merry chaos of Baker Street, but would be an offence to Victorian propriety, and prostitutes are right outside the realm of the mentionable. Unrequited love is a possibility, but despite his eccentricities Holmes is eligible - a financially independent gentleman of good character and abilites - so too much in the way of refusal, apart from the dispatchful Ms Adler, would (especially in an era where marriage was supposed to be women's main aim, and to refuse a man would tend to imply either a preferred rival or something seriously wrong with him) undermine the crucial character detail of competence. (In 'Charles Augustus Milverton', for instance, Holmes courts a housemaid to get information: it's simply assumed that so competent a man can gain the affections of a woman if he chooses to try.) Non-connubial romance, never mind sex, would be remarkable enough in this setting that it would, again, pull focus from the main point of the stories, which is the detection.
So I don't think that characterising Holmes as gay, asexual or really anything else quite gets the point. He's simply the protagonist of detective fiction in a world where women had few rights and were more easily ignorable.
You know my methods, Watson, and women would get in their way.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
What's your gibberish?
In the last post, I felt the need to communicate in gibberish. Describing David Lynch's Dune, this is what I said:
Characters stride from scene to scene declaiming gibberish with a sense of mythic urgency; most of what I could hear in the dialogue seemed to be cries of 'I am the fantiple wekazork!' or 'I shall teach you the ways of the nafbargese momtuggers!' or something similarly incomprehensible; having read the book many years ago I had a vague idea of what they were talking about, but the fact remained that in two hours I seemed to be watching about ten years pass in which the zimfrangers fought the mafnabbis over the crucial issue of penwalladddding, and they all took it really, really seriously, for reasons that nobody was going to explain.
Which gets me thinking on the subject of gibberish in general.
You see, quite a while ago I was chatting online and the subject of anime came up. Now, my knowledge of anime is limited to being an admirer of Hayao Miyazaki's films (which I'd recommend to anyone who hasn't seen them; I'd start with My Neighbour Totoro, because it's just lovely), so while I'm sure there's plenty of good stuff out there, I can sympathise with people whose main feeling towards it is a resounding 'Huh?'
The conversation had covered the view that it's silly to reject anime as a whole because it's so varied, and I was defending the confused. So when someone said (apropos of a different strand of the debate):
Now, if you don't like shoujo, or magical girl, or mecha shows, I'd actually mostly agree (well, shoujo's pretty wide-ranging in topic, so I'm mixed on that one). The only mecha show I've ever liked is Evangelion, and that one's only nominally mecha.
I put my oar in thus:
See, what I heard was: Now, if you don't like obdinglings, or banana spanners, or prondacious wasps, I'd agree; though the only pericrancible fupdigle I've ever liked was Sudafrint, which was only nominally fascipretal. Faced with such a complicated starting system, I sympathise with people who shy off. 'I don't like anime' may translate as 'I doubt I'll like anime enough to make it worth bending my screaming brain around all the doornobbles and supercharged nazopoots.'
The ins and outs of anime aside, what strikes me is that the gibberish in both extracts have a certain quality in common. You might say they seem to come from a common language.
And this gets me to wondering. How does it work with invented words?
A Calvin and Hobbes cartoon I've long delighted in features Calvin answering a question in his 'own words'; since he doesn't know the answer, he takes the 'own words' bit literally, and writes:
Yakka foob mog. Grug pubbawup zink wattoom gazork. Chumble spuzz.
Now, again the words seem to come from a common language. But it's not the same common language that my nonsense words do. Bill Watterson and I both speak English, but when we gibber, we sing from different countries.
Invented words are a long-established element of literature, and contribute greatly to its texture. I've blogged in the past about the issue of inventing character names, where I pointed out that in mass-market fantasy, there can be a tendency to give all the characters mellifluous names that sound, not just as if the characters in that book come from the same language group (which ain't English, despite their speaking it), but that they come from the same language group as the characters in lots of other mass-market fantasy books as well. English speakers, at least, have a fondness for certain phonemes - Ls and Rs, names ending in vowels for women, soft-sounding stuff - and tend to apply them when they want their character names and places to sound romantic. (I'd be fascinated to know if the same phenomenon applies in other languages, and if so, whether the same phonemes are popular.)
This is mostly absent-minded writing, but as I pointed out there, you can get linguistic consistency in made-up words. Michel Faber's Under the Skin, for instance, features words like 'vodsel' and 'mussanta' and a protagonist called 'Isserly': no dipthongs, lots of S-sounds. The words come from the same language; it's just a language we intuit from the few words we get.
You can go to some extremes with this - most famously, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange features 'nadsat' language: the narrator tells you the whole story in a futuristic argot that the reader has to work out from context as they go along. Alex's slang is again consistent, mostly because Burgess drew on an actual other language to create the words: he mostly took Slavic words and Anglicised them. Burgess claimed to have written the novel in three weeks, so the method may have had a time-saving origin, but there's no denying it's an effective way of making the slang sound convincing.
Under the Skin and A Clockwork Orange, though, are both serious books, and as such their neologisms need to invoke some kind of character context. Isserly comes from a harsh society an ugly surroundings: the hissing, flat-vowelled quality of her language has a stretched-thin unsentimentalism that invokes her bleak background. Alex's jovial Slavicisms mixed in with Cockney rhyming slang and regular English strike an anarchic, rootless note that jangles against his almost accidental clash with power: his cheerful disloyalty runs hard up against the rigor of the state, and it begins in language before it unfolds into plot. There are reasons, necessities even, that account for the tone of the inventions.
Making up nonsense words for comic effect, though, gives you a wide range. There's no necessity at all except to amuse someone, if only yourself.
So I'm wondering: what is it? Do certain phonemes have funny bones, as it were? Is it bathos, the lurch and stumble of inappropriate sounds pushed together? Is it an echo of other words put in a funny context? If I were a linguist, I might know.
And so I'm asking: what does your nonsense language sound like? Gibber at me, please.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
The Gizz principle
The other day I sat down with my baby and read to him. Sometimes I read him stuff that I happened to be reading at the time, by way of entertaining us both - Alison Bechdel, P.G. Wodehouse and Satan's Silence have all made the list lately - figuring that as he doesn't speak English, one book is much like another to him, that the interest is mostly in hearing my voice and grammar in action, so I might as well pick something I'm enjoying anyway. But it occurred to me that he might also enjoy hearing rhythm and rhyme, so I got my Dr Seuss books down off the shelf. And as I read them, I remembered why I'd always loved them ... and how, in their way, they express something important about fantastical fiction.
Here's an extract from Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?:
And oh! Just suppose
That little couplet has delighted me for a long time. I think the best word for it is insouciance - and it's something that writers of non-realistic fiction will have some kind of position on.
Like Twain's humourous frog, dissecting insouciance tends to kill it, but since I'm basing a post on it, I should explain what I love so much about that vignette. It's the word 'Gizz'.
When it comes to Dr Seuss, we're in a world of wild, improvised fantasy. Strange creatures abound, situations bloom out of nowhere, bizarre moments come and go - and they come and go without explanation. There may be a wocket in your pocket, but except for a cheery illustration, he has no interest in defining what a wocket is. It's just there: the narrator seems familiar with it, so he presents it to us and carries on talking. Harry's Gizz affects his shadow somehow, but exactly how? We don't know, and the narrative rattles on without explaining, because it doesn't really matter.
And to me, that's how it should be. After all, there's no such thing as a shadowless person. No explanation, however well drawn-out, will cover it. Because, you see - and I hate to say it of a revered children's author, but truth will out - Dr Seuss is lying. There is no Harry Haddow; there are no people who can't make any shadows. It's all invented. So presenting the Gizz as the explanation, without explaining what a Gizz is, is a bold and charming solution ... and in fact, it's even the most logical one. No explanation will account for a phenomenon that doesn't and can't exist, so not even trying is, as well as the wittiest solution, the most honest.
When it comes to putting something non-realistic in a story, there's always going to have to be some suspension of disbelief. The question is, how much explaining away do you need to do before you can consider disbelief reasonably suspended? Different authors answer the question differently, and different readers make different demands.
Now, the demands are partly a matter of taste, and also partly a matter of habit. A friend of mine, for instance, has a friend who complained that he didn't like The Time Traveler's Wife because it made no sense: if somebody disappeared and came back later in time, he ought to land in a different country because the earth would have rotated in the meantime. Now, from a writer's point of view, that's an idea that might yield some interesting results if you wanted to go that way, but I can't help feeling that it's not an entirely reasonable reason to reject an entire novel. There's a perfectly good explanation why Audrey Niffenegger didn't bother with the rotation of the earth. First, unless you make it a central concern of the story, having your time traveller pop up all over the map, and possibly underwater or in the middle of a mountain somewhere, every time he comes back in time would be a massive plot inconvenience. But the second is more important: it isn't that kind of book. While I haven't read it, I understand it to be more a love story than anything else - which is to say, the central concern of the story is the relationship between the characters. The mechanics of time travel aren't relevant to that. You just have to suspend your disbelief.
And the thing is, why shouldn't you? Time travel isn't real. It's a magical trope intended to help the story along; magic is always a narrative fait accompli. The person objecting that Niffenegger had got the mechanics of time travel wrong did not, it seemed, particularly notice that the concept of time travel itself violates the laws of physics; time travel is a familiar trope, and so was acceptable because it had the weight of habit behind it. But in fact, if you're doing something magical, any explanation of its mechanics is going to be as false as any other, or as simply ignoring them. Why doesn't Niffenegger's time traveller get inconvenienced by the turning of the earth? Because his Gizz relocates him.
This isn't to say that fiction shouldn't be internally consistent. It should, unless it'd be better if it isn't. But internally consistent doesn't have to mean fully explained. However much you explain, eventually you're going to hit a Gizz.
The question becomes, how do you get readers to accept the Gizz? There are two methods, and writers often combine the two. The first is sleight of hand: the writer entertains the reader enough, holds their attention enough, that they don't particularly notice it. The second is the brass neck method: plonk a Gizz in front of them, don't explain it, and say 'Take it or leave it'. If done with enough style, many a reader will take it, knowing that it's a ticket to a fun ride. Sometimes showing the Gizz early is the stylish thing to do.
I was thinking about this the other day when David Lynch's Dune was shown on television. I was vaguely aware that the movie was not a critical success, to put it mildly, and indeed as I watched it I could completely understand why. Characters stride from scene to scene declaiming gibberish with a sense of mythic urgency; most of what I could hear in the dialogue seemed to be cries of 'I am the fantiple wekazork!' or 'I shall teach you the ways of the nafbargese momtuggers!' or something similarly incomprehensible; having read the book many years ago I had a vague idea of what they were talking about, but the fact remained that in two hours I seemed to be watching about ten years pass in which the zimfrangers fought the mafnabbis over the crucial issue of penwalladddding, and they all took it really, really seriously, for reasons that nobody was going to explain.
So I watched it, undergoing the sensation of watching a truly terrible film. And then, five minutes after it finished, I discovered I rather loved it.
I mean, I could see why it wasn't a success. Mostly, it was a question of the wrong man for the wrong project: David Lynch is an artist who delights in taking the familiar and rendering it strange. Science fiction like Dune is set in a world that's utterly strange to the viewer, and conventionally is best handled by someone who can take the strange and render it familiar, or if not familiar, at least coherent. Putting a lover of strange style in charge of a film about a strange place meant the artistic equivalent of listening to a speech in a foreign language: foreignness overwhelmed everything to the point of deep confusion.
And yet in that confusing babble, there were so many wild leaps of imagination, so many visual excesses, so much stuff that was just new and interesting, that the incoherence didn't seem to matter. There was more imagination there than in ten ordinary science fiction films that made sense; asking for clarity was missing what was there.
Which is to say, I was eventually charmed enough that I started hearing the whirr of the Gizz. Why was Kyle MacLachlan the leader of a new movement? There was something special about his Gizz. What were all these weird religions? They invoked the power of Gizz. Why did those people appear to live in massive boxes? They needed them to protect their Gizzes. And why not? Any science fiction film is going to show you a world which doesn't exist and demand you accept certain falsehoods anyway; why not just enjoy Lynch's grubby brilliance and shrug everything else off?
This is very much a matter of taste. Science fiction, not unnaturally, attracts a certain proportion of reader-viewers who are interested in science, and a scientific mind is one that's interested in explanations. For such people, presumably, an intricate explanation is a pleasing object in itself even if it's not actually true.
I'm much more at the other end of the scale; a phrase from David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day occurs: Ask my mother how the radio worked and her answer was simple: "Turn it on and pull out the goddamn antenna." It's notable that if you try to explain an abstract principle to me, my brain goes to screensaver extremely quickly even if I'm trying to concentrate - but on the other hand, if you give me a concrete example, I can infer the abstract principle behind it immediately. And the art of fiction, or at least fiction I like, is nothing if not the creation of examples to convey concepts: that's what all those writing teachers mean when they say 'Show don't tell.' A teacher of mine, for instance, used to give the example that 'Jane was obsessive about hygiene' is much less interesting than 'Jane flossed her teeth until her gums bled': the former is the abstract expression of that side of her character, the latter a concrete situation that conveys the principle by example.
Which is why, I think, I get the Gizz. To me, ideas are expressed in concrete forms, be they examples or metaphors. A Gizz is an example of a non-existent principle - but because I infer principles from examples, I can infer what the non-existent principle is, or at least its broad general outlines, by having a look at whatever Gizz was plonked down in front of me. To me, that's what fiction is: being presented with a set of not-actually-true incidents that illustrate - and thus create - a particular mood, time and place.
The thing about a Gizz is this: it has the structure of an explanation without the content. But it hints at content - usually by echoing things that we know are real. Harry Haddow isn't real, but we do know that if something's wrong with an organ of your body, it can cause physical incapacities. You can't turn from a beautiful young queen into a withered old apple-seller by drinking a magic potion, but medicines can have drastic effects on real people. Gizzes don't necessarily echo real-world things exactly, but they often have enough family resemblance that they seem real-ish, if not actually real. Gizzes can, in effect, game our experience of reality.
At the same time, presenting a Gizz without explanation is a tacit acknowledgement that it's not real, that it can't be explained - and if it's presented boldly, the narrative is playing with that unreality, making an obscure joke or a poetic leap with it.
The effect is to set up a tension between the sense of reality and unreality that creates an intricate reaction, not in explanations on the page but in the mind of the reader ... and because the mind is more intricate than anything it can create, often the result is a more intricate interplay than any explanation a writer could come up with. It's just that the intricacy is implicit, there but not acknowledged, to be intuited rather than directly observed.
Another element of this illusory structure is that it creates places into which, should you need them, explanations can later be inserted. When I write fantastical situations I don't map them out in detail: I settle on an impression, and the write whatever seems to fit in with it. The other day someone reading Bareback asked me a question about a detail that I hadn't addressed in the book (Bareback seems to attract such questions): well, I didn't have an answer ready, but I thought about it for a bit, felt out what would be consistent, and came up with a detailed answer. The question was asked through my husband, in fact; when I passed the answer back along, he said he loved that I'd got all this worked out - and I had to explain to him that actually I hadn't, I was improvising. But that's the thing about improvising on the Gizz principle: if the Gizz is properly placed at the beginning, even your spouse can't tell when you're pulling answers out of the air, because once they're out of the air and tucked properly in, they fit. A Gizz leaves adaptable spaces behind. And those spaces don't have to be filled: like the hollow in a guitar, they can create resonances that a fuller space wouldn't allow. But if you do want to fill them, they're flexible: a variety of explanations will do, as long as they're reasonably consistent with the structure you've established. Explanations can be pre-built formations, or they can be riffs on a theme - and in the latter case, you're probably looking at a Gizz principle somewhere in the foundations.
When you're writing something non-real, you can play with it - either humourously or seriously - by providing an ornamental explanation, or by mounting it strategically so as to obviate the need for an explanation. Either is valid - but the absence of an explanation doesn't mean the writer doesn't know what they're about. They're probably about a Gizz.
Monday, October 04, 2010
Write to the government
It's 5.45 in the morning, and I've been awake for a long time. Not because my son's keeping me up; he's sleeping perfectly peacefully in my bed. He thinks everything is fine.
Meanwhile, this is what the government is planning for his future.
He already lives in a country where no ordinary working- or middle-class person can afford a decent house. Now the government's planning a country where he won't be able to afford an education either, not unless he takes on massive student debts - even as the credit crunch just showed what happens when people carry too much debt. This is the work of politicians who benefitted from free education themselves; now they're selling off our children's hope of any kind of quality of life.
We have to do everything we can to stop this. Please, please write to everyone you can, and ask everyone you know to do the same. Here are places to start:
The Prime Minister
Your local MP
July 2006 August 2006 September 2006 October 2006 November 2006 December 2006 January 2007 February 2007 March 2007 April 2007 May 2007 June 2007 July 2007 August 2007 September 2007 October 2007 November 2007 December 2007 January 2008 February 2008 March 2008 April 2008 May 2008 June 2008 July 2008 August 2008 September 2008 October 2008 November 2008 December 2008 January 2009 February 2009 March 2009 April 2009 May 2009 June 2009 July 2009 August 2009 September 2009 October 2009 November 2009 December 2009 January 2010 February 2010 March 2010 April 2010 June 2010 July 2010 August 2010 September 2010 October 2010 November 2010 December 2010 January 2011 February 2011 March 2011 April 2011 May 2011 June 2011 July 2011 August 2011 September 2011 October 2011 November 2011 December 2011 January 2012 February 2012 March 2012 April 2012 May 2012 June 2012 July 2012 August 2012 September 2012 October 2012 November 2012 December 2012 January 2013 February 2013 March 2013 April 2013 May 2013