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Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Narrative capital

I've had some requests to expand on what I mean by 'narrative capital', so here we go.

'Narrative capital' is a phrase originally used by my husband, which I've nicked because it's so extremely useful. I've defined it elsewhere on the blog thus:

What the writer accrues by setting up situations, tensions, threats and other build-ups. If the author decides on a shocking climax that blows everything wide open, they will be spending the narrative capital they've saved - having the warring couple suddenly acknowledge their love, for instance. The more capital saved, the better the climax - but you can't spend the same capital twice, and if you try to have a climax bigger than your capital can buy, the audience feels robbed.

But such things are always easier to understand with examples, so I'm going to use some. Let's start with an example of well-deployed narrative capital: one of the most gripping classic novels on the shelf, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice is, as Carol Shields remarked in her excellent biography of Austen, a book that we find ourselves reading in breathless suspense even when we know what's going to happen next. The accumulation of suspense and stakes in the plot are so powerful that it's become more or less the template for at least half of modern romance novels. If anyone built up some narrative capital there - capital that's kept an entire genre and industry afloat for centuries - it was Jane Austen.

So, how is it done? What exactly does she accrue? The fact is that in terms of narrative capital it's done fast and efficiently, throughout the book, and with a - pun intended - economy that is truly remarkable. 

Consider, for instance, the first chapter, almost entirely dialogue between Mr and Mrs Bennet. In it, she establishes several important factors. First: the Bennet family is financially precarious, and if the girls cannot establish good marriages their futures will be bleak. Second: there is a new tenant in the neighbourhood who might be the way out of this predicament for one of them. Third: neither of the Bennet parents is going to be much of an asset in this possible quest. Mrs Bennet is a public embarrassment who may (and does) put off eligible suitors, and Mr Bennet is detached and whimsical and unlikely to provide the useful protection and guidance young women need from a father in this world (which he doesn't). And there's a useful corollary to this element, too: being unhelpful as they are, particularly Mrs Bennet, the Bennet home is a place that young women of sensitivity and self-respect would wish to leave for a better, more 'rational' place. (This is what I mean by 'economy'. A single fact serves several ends at once.) Fourth: that one of the sisters, Elizabeth, is more intelligent than the others, and will probably be the heroine. 

That's a lot of set-up for a first chapter. 

When I was teaching myself to write, I discovered a useful rule for short stories: if, by the end of the first page, there were not at least one or two incidents or moments that suggested new scenes to write, the piece needed to be abandoned. Check out this early short story of mine, 'Plain Useless', for instance: I found, by the end of the first page, that I had in hand a setting my heroine wanted to join and a man she wanted a relationship with who she could only be in if she did join it, but a heroine herself who had no qualifications to participate in this new world - and also the implication that these characters would eventually have a child, who thematically speaking would need to come to a new resolution with the same problem. Okay, that was enough to go on. It took me some time to work out exactly how to resolve all these issues - I remember swimming up and down in a quiet pool, racking my brains for an ending - but the point was, by the end of the first page (which in handwriting was about three or four paragraphs), I knew I could continue without struggling for ideas on how. I had accumulated some narrative capital. 

If we go back to Austen, we see the same thing. Straight away we have established a home that it is both financially and emotionally necessary to escape, a possible way out, and that the necessity of leaving is also a reason why it may be difficult to do so. There's a sense of unfairness, of Catch-22, to the Bennet girls' plight: if they didn't need to get out so badly, it would probably be easier for them to do so. From there in her first chapter, Austen has plenty of story to tell.

But she doesn't stop racking up narrative capital there. Establishing the older sisters as the heroines and the younger sisters as a further liability - an established point that will later explode into the plot with Lydia's elopement - she takes them to a ball. Bingley and Jane hit it off: this establishes a certain amount of narrative capital, but only enough to depend on external obstacles to keep it interesting. Instead, we see one of the most famous and imitated moments in fiction: Darcy's rejection of Elizabeth. 

Capital is stored up mightily in this moment. First, we see the character of Darcy: superior in wealth, intelligence and good looks to Bingley, the man on whom, a chapter ago, we were pinning all our hopes. Suddenly the stakes rise. At the same time, there is the mismatch between himself and his environment: he sneers and resists, establishing both a necessary future moment for his character - he will have to learn he was wrong to do so - and a tension between himself and every other player. When he contemptuously refuses to dance with Elizabeth (which in Georgian ballroom etiquette, depending as it does on numbers to make anything work, is an appallingly rude thing to do, more or less a public declaration that you'd rather inconvenience everybody else in the room than dance with that girl), the central point of the narrative is established in a flash. Darcy is at once desirable and out of reach; Elizabeth is at once in need of and offended by him. This tension between the characters will drive plots down the generations.

Were Austen to resolve the book by clearing up this misunderstanding, it would be rather a waste: there's plenty enough to keep us interested, but not quite enough to buy a really exciting conclusion. Instead, what she does is invest her narrative capital like a whizz: she introduces Wickham into the mix. Attractive, so a sexual disturbance; penniless, so a marital no-no ... and with a grudge against Darcy.

Look, at this point, at what we have set up in opposition. A home Elizabeth must escape. A family that unwittingly blocks her exit. A man we want her to marry. A set of circumstances that make neither her nor him willing to oblige us. A rival man who has an apparent history with Darcy ... but is that history all that it appears?

That is a vast amount of narrative capital. At this point, it's ready to spend. But instead, Austen dangles it before us like a miser's will by having Darcy propose to Elizabeth, spending the capital residing in having his feelings for her unknown but immediately getting it back by having her reject him so sharply she can believe those feelings extinguished. She spends a little more by having him tell her by letter the true history of himself and Wickham, but again instantly creates more by having Elizabeth bound to silence about it, meaning that now the tension is not between our hopes and her knowledge, but between her knowledge and everyone else's expectations. 

And so it goes on. Pride and Prejudice works so brilliantly because it builds and builds the stakes, playing out a little tension here and spending a little capital there, but always spending to invest, to buy further tension, right up until the very end. Further intimacies buy further obstacles: the chance to know Mr Darcy better, for instance, also brings with it the knowledge of his egregious aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh, enough to chill any marital hopes - and whose final confrontation with Elizabeth is a masterpiece of wise spending, allowing Elizabeth to both glimpse a romantic hope while conveying one to her lover, while also giving her the chance to assert herself, thematically, against the privileges of wealth and the judgement of society that have been shadowing her whole life. This scene is as much of a climax, if not more so, than any scene between Darcy and Elizabeth themselves, precisely because it does so many things at once: the capital of uncertainty is spent in buying not only a hope of marriage but a chance to give the personification of privilege a good piece of our minds. 

Well, hopefully you see how it works. Narrative capital, basically, is the promise of further story down the line, be it revelation or resolution. If it isn't spent, the story feels unresolved; if it isn't earned, the story feels false.

But it's always helpful to have a counter-example, so let's talk about a poor use as well. 

A while ago I spoke on a panel for the British Association of Science Fiction, and another guest there, the novelist Nick Harkaway, also made a speech. In it, he referred to what he called 'Gladiator moments', which he defined as 'moments of unearned emotion'. He was talking about the scene in Gladiator where Maximus (Russell Crowe), having just made a big showing in the Roman arena for the first time, finds himself facing his nemesis in the form of Joaquin Phoenix's corrupt emperor Commodus: Maximus is masked, Commodus demands to see his face ... and Maximus unmasks and makes a big speech about how he's 'father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my revenge.' 

And honestly, despite the drama of the speech, it's a bit of a let-down. Because wouldn't it have been more exciting to have Commodus unaware of who Maximus was for a while before we got to this confrontation? Wouldn't it have lent - pun intended - some drama if we'd had scenes where Commodus supports the masked fighter, unaware that he's plotting Commodus's downfall? Wouldn't it have been a more emotional scene if Maximus was able, not just to tell Commodus that he hated him, but to take weeks or months of Commodus's support and throw them in his face? And while it brings about the problem that Commodus can't kill a popular gladiator even if the man's his declared enemy, wouldn't it have made even that situation more tense if Commodus knew that Maximus wasn't just popular with the Roman plebeians, but acknowledged by himself to those same plebeians as a former protege? Wouldn't that make it even harder for Commodus to kill Maximus without looking bad, and make him look even stupider to his people? 

Wouldn't it? Because all of those things could have been bought with the narrative capital of 'emperor unknowingly favours his enemy'. It's a great piece of capital - or could have been, if it hadn't been squandered. 

Now, I know a story about that. One of the scriptwriters was William Nicholson, whom I heard speak at a college dinner (we both went to Christ's College Cambridge, a friend of mine was another speaker that evening). Addressing the assembled, Nicholson - a very pleasant and polite man - identified himself as the author of this scene, which was, according to him, written and shot on the same day. Crowe, he said, had been objecting all along, and when presented with the new scene declared that it was 'shit' and that he wouldn't do it. After much wheedling, the director persuaded him to at least try it on camera and see how it went. Crowe made the speech, the director called cut and said, 'Russell, that was great! I don't know why you said you didn't want to do it.' To which Crowe snapped, 'I'm the greatest actor in the world. I can make shit sound good.'

Now, if this story is true - and that, I cannot confirm, I'm only repeating what Nicholson said - I can say nothing for Crowe's manners, but while the point was not nicely made, there is a point in there nonetheless. Actors can make bad lines sound good; I don't know if Crowe is the best actor in the world (he's got some stiff competition, let's put it that way), but certainly, 'making shit sound good' is a big part of the job description. And while 'it's shit' is not a very precise criticism, he wasn't entirely wrong that the scene had a problem. It wasn't that the speech itself was bad; it was that it was in the wrong place. If this story is accurate, it was most likely a problem created by too many writers and too tight a schedule, a situation where one writer could only change a scene when was really needed to be changed was the structure. It was a 'Gladiator moment'. 

It was a moment in which narrative capital was blown when it should have been invested. It had only been earned a few minutes ago, it could have bought a lot of nail-biting suspense, and instead it was used immediately to buy a speech that would have been more dramatic, more weighty, more valuable, if it had had time to earn some - pun intended - interest. 

Money may be a dry-sounding way of talking about fiction's emotional impact, but there's more to it than it seems. The recent book Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber theorises that contrary to popular assumption, the barter system does not predate money, but that in fact barter is a post-money system, a system used by people who understand the concept of money but don't have access to currency and are substituting goods or services. Prior to money, Graeber suggests, what people relied on instead was a culture of interconnected favours. If you have a chicken and your neighbours are hungry, you let them have some of the eggs. Maybe next year they'll help fix your roof, or maybe another set of neighbours will, knowing you're the kind of person who shares eggs and may support them if they run into lean times later. The original currency, according to Graeber, is not money, but obligation and expectation. She did this for him, I should do this for her. I did this for you, you should do this for me. Memory and anticipation.

And what drives fiction if not memory and anticipation? We begin with no memory, like a newcomer to the village. The author begins at once to oblige us, to stack up anticipation. Past a certain point, those remembered anticipations lend weight to what we are being given. We look back at what has happened, we look forward to what we expect will happen, we appreciate the gift of surprise and the satisfaction of a finally resolved promise. 

Authorial promises only hold good within the book itself, of course; if an author fails to deliver within the book, we can't exactly send the boys round their house demanding they pay up. The only penalty they incur - or should incur, anyway - is the loss of our interest. A book is a self-contained economy. But within that economy, memory and anticipation are the currency. The narrative capital. And how an author accumulates and spends that narrative capital determine how much of their attention the reader will - pun intended - invest. 

There's a reason why I keep saying 'pun intended' here, and it's not because I'm trying to be funny. It's the same reason I talk about 'narrative capital.' So many of our metaphors for emotional engagement are financial. And it's not because we run on money. It's because, fundamentally, money runs on emotion - and so does fiction. Money is itself one of the greatest fictions of modern society, an agreed-upon and utterly imaginary value attached to pieces of paper and metal. So, too, do we attach an utterly imaginary value to pieces of paper and ink. But if you're handling either, you need to have some sense of economy ... otherwise there's something broken, something broke, about the whole - pun intended - business. 

Sunday, July 08, 2012


Seriously, does anyone talk about 'daddy porn'?

No they don't. Or at least, not outside the actual porn industry, where it refers to the people in the porn, not the people consuming it. I googled it, you see, and that's what the early hits were: a lot of porn for gay men containing older performers. Or at least, that's what it seemed to be based on the titles: I didn't watch any of it, for you see, I am a mummy, and at the time of typing this, I am sharing the computer. I'm on blogger in one window, my son is watching Alphablocks in another. I have nothing against my son watching porn later in life, gay or not, but twenty-two months seems a bit young, so I confined myself to a basic search.

But you know what I get when I do a basic search on 'mummy porn'? A whole lot of articles about Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James's mega-selling sadomasochistic Twilight knockoff.

Now, I haven't actually read the book. I've heard it's badly-written, but I also have an ethical objection to buying it: it was derived (very closely indeed) from a long piece of Twilight fan fiction. While the fan fiction itself was evidently different enough from Stephenie Meyer's vampire blockbuster that, given a few name changes, it was legally publishable, it was written within the fan community - a community that explicitly relies on the principle that one does not make money from one's fan fiction to maintain a precarious legal status. In other words, James got a lot of solid support from a community that depends for its existence on being unable to sell its writing, and then turned around and sold hers - and now actually is what copyright laws exist to prevent derivative work from being, which is a competitor to the original author. I have no idea what Meyer thinks of this - it's perfectly possible she thinks, 'Hey, I'm rich enough' - but the precedent it sets is a very worrying one for writers like me who are not in the position to think, 'Hey, I'm rich enough.' In effect, James is establishing, both to aspiring knockers-off and to publishers, that there's gold in them thar hills - that it is both legal and profitable to take an original piece of published fiction, write a derivative work, change the license plates, and then sell it as a competitor to the original piece. Meyer might be able to absorb it, but not all writers of original fiction are in that position. Actually most of us aren't: writing is a notoriously precarious way to make a living. And there's reason to suspect that some publishers are taking the precedent seriously.

So I have a deep objection to the book: I'm no fan of fan fiction, but I think it violates fan community ethics, and it certainly seems like bad news for those of us writers who do not enjoy Meyer's wild commercial success.

But at the same time, I find myself instinctively defensive when I keep hearing it described as 'mummy porn'. And that's because, as much as I object to repurposed knockoffs, I object to sexism as well.

There is, it seems, something ludicrous about a work of fiction being tremendously popular with women. Ian Fleming is just a classic pulp author, despite the fact that if you're a woman he definitely ain't writing for you ... but when large numbers of women buy a book, its news, despite the fact that most novel-buying is generally done by women anyway. And - this is what gets me - there seems to be a need for categories.

The virgin-whore dichotomy is, alas, alive and well, so I can hardly dismiss it, but it at least has the merit of being a well-recognised stereotype. Say 'virgin-whore', and people will, if nothing else, know what you're talking about. But there's another stereotype against women that's equally virulent, but less recognised. I'm talking about the maiden-mother dichotomy.

To be clear: in this context, a 'maiden' does not necessarily mean a virgin. It's a division based on stages of life rather than sexual experience: the young or youngish woman who is not a parent, and the woman with children - or, in the case of a publishing phenomenon, a woman who is simply of the age where she might have had children, say, thirty-five upwards. You might say that a maiden is a woman at the beginning to middle of her most fertile years, and a mother is a woman at the upper end or beyond them. Motherhood is commonly used to demarcate - even with a book like Twilight, where it actually seems to be popular with women of all ages, not two distinct categories. There's some kind of compulsion to divide us into two camps.

Now, I'm the first to acknowledge that motherhood - actual motherhood, having a child to raise rather than just having one's thirty-fifth birthday - is a major experience, and that women who are mothers tend to see certain things differently from women who aren't. But the thing is, it seems that in popular culture there's something ridiculous about both options. Maidenhood is actually a superior state in the eyes of some feminists - not usually consciously, but because a maiden is free to pursue her career without having to make the bargains and choices that come with balancing the rights of the self against a society that still expects most childrearing work to be done by the woman, while doing little to change its basic models of work and life since the days when families could afford to live on one income and having a stay-at-home mother was a financial possibility. Mothers have to make compromises between the public and the private spheres that in a just society we would not have to make, and non-mother women can often look askance at us for them. But when it comes to buying books, we're only slightly more ludicrous than maidens.

There are basically two ways to be a woman consuming a popular media product. Under a certain age, you're a squealing fangirl, unselfconscious and unbridled and probably subject to bad influences ('What kind of lessons is this book teaching our daughters!?') Over that age, you're a mummy: nobody much cares what you read because nobody much cares what you think, and the idea that you might consume for erotic purposes is rather funny.

And is this applied to men? Not so much. Men's sexual interest is acknowledged, but it's treated less as a semi-funny, semi-threatening marvel and more as a market force that must be catered to. There is, for instance, the tradition of 'something for the dads' in children's television: the perky young female presenter with a pretty face and figure - but I wouldn't call it equivalent. Such a presenter doesn't get cast unless she's also a good children's entertainer, which is no mean skill, and the entire piece she's appearing in isn't defined by its sex appeal. That's a term that I'm actually inclined to see as giving women the short end of the stick again by reducing an actress's role to her visual charms. You could argue that the 'dads' are somewhat treated as deadbeats, in that it's expected that they need to see some crumpet if they're going to sit through a children's TV show with any degree of patience, but you could equally argue that it's implied that childcare is something dads deserve a sexual reward for while for mums it's a reward in itself, which is only true if you think men are entitled to be deadbeats and women aren't. Women, of course, are equally inclined to cast a glad eye over an attractive presenter, but when that gets discussed, it's less with an air of matter-of-fact industry requirements and more with a silly-season snigger. (Wow, women take a sexual interest when you cast handsome male performers! This must - and I'm quoting the article here - 'must end and end now.')

Apparently being a mummy makes your sexuality slightly ridiculous ... which suggests a certain naivete about what motherhood actually involves, because (Hon, you can't read this, right? Good. Look, it's Raa Raa the noisy lion!) the one thing you can say for almost certain about a mother is that she is a woman who has had sex. I mean, it's theoretically possible that a woman might adopt a child or conceive through artificial insemination without ever having had intercourse with anyone, and if she did there's no reason why she wouldn't be as good a mother as any, but really, the majority of of mummies are mummies because they shagged someone. Sit in an antenatal class sometime and you come up against an interesting reflection: a really significant proportion of human lives were created by accident - not just in brief relationships that result in single mothers toiling away under the opprobrium of society like the under-appreciated heroes they are, but in marriages and long-term partnerships that didn't quite expect this pregnancy: that are happy enough now it's here, but who really created it with nothing else on their minds than some lively, naked fun. And even the planned babies were probably not created in the spirit of dreary duty: a couple undergoing fertility treatment may be obliged to have sex at times convenient to their medical appointments rather than their desires, but the fact that they're trying to conceive a child at all suggests that sexual attraction to each other has been a major part of their relationship ... and in many couples the decision to conceive a child involves less temperature-taking and calendar-watching and more a spirit of, 'Whee, lots of sex ahoy!'

Motherhood and sexuality are not mutually exclusive, is all I'm saying; reality suggests the latter is a direct consequence of the former. Yet all this talk of 'mummy porn' seems to carry the assumption that the vagina is a kind of council property: once you've gotten the change-of-use license from an in-hole to an out-hole signed off, the public has the right to expect you'll stick to it.

Yet when men over thirty-five consume erotica, does anyone call it 'daddy porn'? No they bloody don't.

So speaking as a mummy who did not, in fact, get her child through a visit from the stork, the term 'mummy porn' really annoys me. I just wish I could defend a better book about it.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012


Guilty pleasures and obscure quality

Taking a break from literary analysis because, well, I have a toddler and I'm knackered, I was reflecting the other day on guilty fictional pleasures.

You see, it's sort of a truism that everybody has books or films that they know they shouldn't like but kind of can't help enjoying. And hearing people say this, I always felt somewhat torn, because there's no way to say this without sounding either arrogant or depraved: I really struggle to think of things I feel bad for enjoying. I mean, I the stuff I enjoy occupies a fairly broad range up and down the brow - I love me some Toni Morrison, but I'll also curl up with a Donna Hay and not feel the least bit bad about it - but that's the point: I don't feel guilty. I just don't.

But then something occurred to me that probably should fit on the list. Have you ever seen Death Becomes Her? If not, well, I'm not sure my describing it would help. It's probably best described as a black comedy; the story revolves around two aging beauties, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, competing for the love of Bruce Willis and fighting out a lifelong rivalry with the aid of an elixir of immortality brewed up by a nubile old witch who apparently wears nothing but jewellery and lives surrounded by strapping manservants. Violence, special effects, slapstick and hysteria ensue.

And as films go, it would seem like an easy target. It's silly and overblown and freakish; it is entirely devoid of likeable characters; its portrayal of women as catfighting competitors over men and beauty is enough to put my feminism card up for review; it is, or it should be, a really dumb film. To enjoy it at all, you kind of have to go beyond camp and forsake your reason entirely.

The fact that it stars real actors is part of this: if the performances were hammy it would seem as silly as it actually is, but square off Streep and Hawn and you have the air of an epic and tragic struggle set against a background of wild, ridiculous farce. This might, of course, be one reason why I liked it as a teenager, because for all its silliness it was a story in which women's feelings and desires loudly occupied the centre stage and drove the plot, and if you're a girl you have to take what you can get. (Particularly as the fight between them isn't really over a man; it's a best-friends-worst-enemies rivalry and man-stealing is just one way it's acted out.) The talent of the actors should clash with the story, but somehow they don't ... and I'm really not sure why.

But in the end, considering why I will watch this film without shame even though I probably should be embarrassed, it came down to this: it works on its own terms. Its own terms are crazed, but if you can accept the tone and go along with the melodrama, it's actually a well-structured story. Each of the central characters has a neatly-realised arc, each gets the ending their choices have created; the plot is solidly constructed and delivered with sound timing and all the changes are set up and played through with a fair and steady hand.

So in other words, despite the manic gloss, there's some real intelligence buried in there somewhere.

And that brought me to think about something else I'd see recently: Quentin Tarantino introducing the chixploitation film Switchblade Sisters with the observation that you began by laughing at the melodrama, but found yourself caring about the characters despite yourself by the end of the film. And that's an interpretation I'd agree with - or at least, I don't tend to watch films to laugh at the camp, I just watched it because I was curious, but the solid storytelling (lifted pretty much wholesale from Othello, in this case) managed to create some real feeling and build to a satisfying conclusion.

(Plus, again, Switchblade Sisters is a film that treats a struggle between girl and girl as worth placing centre stage. You take what you can get.)

Which is leading me to wonder: is this true of other people? Is there a solid, guilt-free base to your favourite guilty pleasures?


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