Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, May 29, 2009

How A Book Gets Published

It's all true, of course. Every word of it.


So Bob Millington, formerly of PHUK, has set up another webzine thingy, and thought it might be interesting to chat with meself in a wee interview thingamabob. I make no claims to deliver on said interestingness, but hey, tis here if yer curious.

As you were.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What is Literary Fiction?

The question of the week over on OF Blog of the Fallen is: What is literary fiction… “how you would define it, what examples you would cite, and your relationship with that term”?

My own response refers to the previous question on “otherness” and the notion of abjection I applied to it in my own post on the topic. Literary fiction is, I think, the X defined by the abjection of “genre fiction”. I’ve skirted around this idea previously, in the first few sections of this essay, for example, but I think it’s worthwhile explicating exactly what I mean in more precise terms.

Briefly then “literary fiction” is, on a literal level, almost a tautology — as redundant as if we were to say “textual texts”. I say “almost” because not all fiction is written and so not all fiction is, strictly speaking, “of or pertaining to literature” in terms of letters, signs inscribed in ink on a page. However, leaving aside the exceptions to the rule — oral recitations, anecdotal fabrications, narratives performed without a script (e.g. ballet), and purely graphic narratives — when we talk of fiction we generally do mean written narratives. “Literary fiction”, in common usage, is not set in opposition to “cinematic fiction” (movies) or “dramatic fiction” (plays, operas, ballets) or “graphic fiction” (comics, picture-books), but in opposition to “genre fiction”. And yet this other term is also something of a tautology. Every fiction sits in some familial relationship to other fictions. Every fiction is in a tradition of aesthetic forms. Every fiction is in some genre or other, whether it be that of the Harlequin romance, the Victorian Realist novel, the bildungsroman, the picaresque, the fairy tale, the club story, or simply the novel. Understand genre as comparable with race, tribe, nationality, membership of a family, of a genera, and the term “genre fiction” would become meaningless were it not so revealing.

The distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is the product of definition-by-exclusion. One group of fictions have been actively distinguished and segregated out on the basis of common points of difference. I’ll come to the specifics of those groups and their markers of difference in a moment; for now the important poin is that they have been rendered "other" via an act of discrimination. All fictions are of-a-genre but only those of certain genres are segregated out as being “genre”. This is precisely comparable with the process of racial discrimination in which the reality that all people are literally coloured — their skin being of some visible shade rather than entirely translucent — is disregarded in order to segregate out those of certain colours as being “coloured”. As in many such acts of definition-by-exclusion, the purpose is to define the other as not-X (not-literary fiction, not-white people), to exclude those qualities from X (literary fiction, white people), with the aim of consolidating X (literary fiction, white people) as a stable system.

What is going on is that boundaries of aesthetic normativity are being established by which less common but nevertheless natural features of fiction are deemed essentially non-normative -- abnormal, unusual. As these aesthetic boundaries build into nomological systems, these features are held to infringe the laws of normality, which in this case manifest as prescriptive standards of quality. They acquire a quality of strangeness, are seen as transgressions of what is natural in fiction, of what is right in terms of “good” fiction. This is not perhaps surprising given that the identifying markers-of-difference are essentially what I have referred to as quirks — units of strangeness considered as the disruption of suspension-of-disbelief.

Without going into the full details of the theory, there is a suspension-of-disbelief (a sense that the events “could have happened”) during the reading process that can be disrupted by shifts in subjunctivity level and modality. In layman’s terms, “shifts in subjunctivity level and modality” simply means any event that contradicts our sense of the laws of normality with a temporal, metaphysical or logical impossibility or profound improbability (creating a sense that the events “could not have happened”) and/or with an affectively-valuated possibility (where we have a deep sense that the events we are reading “should” or “should not”, “must” or “must not” happen.) These quirks are the defining feature of strange fiction as I’ve attempted to set out my analysis of it in this lengthy series of blog posts. By definition, they render that fiction “sensationalist” in so far as all such strange fiction is defined by its disruption of suspension-of-disbelief, its aim of invoking a profound affective engagement to the extent of incredulity.

Contrary to the simultaneously narrow and fuzzy definitions of the “fantastic” or the “speculative” this notion of the “strange” allows for a more precise analysis of the different flavours of quirk possible in fiction (nova, chimerae, errata, suturae, etc.) and crucially recognises that the underlying technique is present throughout literature — in the exotica of traveller’s tales, in the arcana of mystery fiction, in the quirks of fiction throughout the ages. The absurd in comedy and the abject in tragedy can both be considered as strange-fictional features. Even the melodramatic can be considered strange to some extent — breaching the laws of normality in a way that both is and isn’t a break from mimesis (and pointing us perhaps to a more complex sense of what “mimesis” means). As particular approaches to the use of these features become the fundamental qualities by which we decide on what genre a work of fiction is situated in, the theory also allows us to see, however, how these qualities become the markers of difference by which one group of fiction is ultimately segregated out as “genre”.

That process can be seen historically in the emergence of Realist genres that expunge quirks of all but the subtlest varieties, as that aesthetic strategy of rationalist literature (i.e. focusing on social observation and commentary) defines itself in opposition to those genres that most markedly exploit strangeness. Beginning with Don Quixote, the novel begins to distinguish itself from the romance antagonistically. From writers like Fielding and Richardson up to the Victorian period, we see a gradual definition-by-exclusion that consolidates the concept of “the novel” by segregating out the Gothic Romances and the “Adventure” and “Mystery” stories of literary variety journals like the Strand. The term “sensation novels” emerges as a profoundly apt encapsulation of the qualities of strangeness this process of abjection is locked onto (and one that is a precursor of “genre fiction” and comparable with “coloured people” in its disregard for the sensationalist content of writers like Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Emily Brontë and countless others in the canon). From dime novels and penny dreadfuls through to the pulp boom of the early 20th century which gave us the modern commercial genres of Western, Crime, Romance, Science Fiction and so on, that process continues, with all these genres being defined as “pulp fiction” which by now is intrinsically in contradistinction to “literary fiction”. The switching of the term “genre” for “pulp” could arguably be seen as a point of completion, the point at which the “sensationalism” of strange fiction has been rendered wholly abject.

A key point of the notion of abjection is that the abject is or was essentially a part of us in some profound sense. Julia Kristeva exemplifies it in psychological terms with our reactions to bodily fluids and matter that has been separated or excreted — blood, faeces, etc.. I would argue that the recognition of self-in-the-other is a profound intensifier of the negative reaction, that there is in fact a large degree of projection in abjection, hence the familiarity aspect to Freud’s notion of the uncanny, and its figuration in the doppelganger. The abjection of genre fiction in order to consolidate literary fiction as a stable system is neurotically driven in part, it seems to me, by a denial of the essential role that strangeness plays in all literature. That which we call literary fiction does not in fact — cannot — truly expunge the strange. Literary fiction is no more free of the strangeness that is abjected as “being genre” than white people are free of the epidermal tonality that is abjected as “being coloured”. To use a metaphor pertinent to Kristeva’s root notion of abjection, literary fiction is in a state of horror at its own lifeblood, the very stuff that renders it dynamic, renders it of interest by challenging our suspension-of-disbelief. That which most deliberately seeks to, and successfully manages to, expunge the strange only succeeds in rendering itself bloodless and therefore dead.

This is not to say that we should revile the fiction that is labelled literary fiction, that may even be written intentionally as literary fiction. Given the importance of strangeness in terms of narrative dynamics, even with the cultural neurosis of the context of creation, these works usually succeed only in repressing the strange. This may lead to bourgeois banality or it may lead to works of very subtle and sensitive dynamics, interesting precisely because of the extent to which they are subdued. We should be aware of the sometimes ill-considered hostilities that emerge from a history of abjection, the knee-jerk antipathy to the “enemy”, the complementary attempt to abject from “genre fiction” that which we, in turn, identify by markers-of-difference as “literary fiction” (the most common such markers being the low-level structural complexities that many readers of the abjected genres of strange fiction themselves abject as “style”). We should be aware of the extent to which similar processes of abjection have taken place and continue to take place within the strange fiction genres, most markedly in the attempt to consolidate science fiction as the X defined by the abjection of fantasy. We should be aware of the extent to which, as these genres have matured over the decades, as they have striven for greater quality and credibility, they have ironically accepted the terms of the discourse by which they are deemed abject, echoing the artificial dichotomy of “sensational” and “intellectual”, even echoing the aesthetic normativities born of the definition-by-exclusion in phrases like “literary sf” or “literary fantasy”. Personally, I know I have used, and will doubtless use again, such terms as conventional shorthand for the attempt to integrate the techniques of mimesis that mark out the Naturalist and Realist genres, and to achieve greater depth in terms of character and theme through the more complex low-level structures some call “style” and/or the more complex high-level structures that many call “experimental”; but that shorthand is… problematic in the critical discourse, I think. It suggests a value-system that privileges ultimately trite works written by the middle-classes for the middle-classes, works which may well achieve gravitas at the expense of vigour.

If “literary” is defined by the abjection of the strange, the sensationalist, well, I want my fiction to be shameless of its blood, sweat and tears.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Return From Imaginales

Je suis retourné! Je voudrais ne pas parler Anglais -- c'est une langue des bêtes, j'ai décidé -- mais... ah, mais... mon Français est toujours très les mauvais. Désolé, mes amis, désolé.

Donc... I shall return to writing in boring old English, though perhaps with the ocassional "merde!" thrown in just so I can practice that impossible French "r" sound in my head. Anyways, I don't have to time to write a big-ass blog entry on all the cool shit that happened at Imaginales yet, cause I'm currently looking at a pile of emails waiting to be answered. In the meantime... regardez! C'est moi sous forme de poulpe, dessiné près le illustrateur formidable, mon ami nouveau, Zariel!. C'est magnifique!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What is Otherness?

Over on OF Blog of the Fallen, Larry asks a "simple question": could you please define what the term "otherness" means to you and to the world around you?

On a basic level, "otherness" to me is just the quality of being other, not part of oneself, not part of a group one is a member of, or simply not that -- or not part of that -- which is the subject of attention. It is what is foreign, alien, alterior, alternative to a particular X... it's not-X.

On a deeper level, however, the necessary act of definition-by-exclusion as "other" creates a relationship to an agent, constitutes an action by an agent on that "other", such that "otherness" entails having been actively distinguished and segregated out (from self, group or subject) on the basis of one or more points of difference (perhaps arbitrary, perhaps common to "other others"). Hence the verb-form of "othering" as an act of discrimination. The "other" here is not just alien but alienated, excluded from X, quite possibly with the aim of consolidating X as a stable system.

Digging deeper still, emergent consistencies between arbitrary acts of definition-by-exclusion serve to establish boundaries of normativity (of self, group, subject) by which less common but nevertheless natural things (types of behaviour, people, whatever) are deemed essentially non-normative -- abnormal, unusual. As these boundaries become nomological systems the "other" acquires a quality -- in psychological terms -- of being considered essentially unnatural. Beings or events which infringe (or which we suspect of infringing) the laws of normality acquire a quality of strangeness I'd relate to Todorov's fantastique and Freud's uncanny. "Otherness" in that respect may be a projected quality of transgression.

Since ultimately all things we can practically identify as "other" must be as much part of the big system of the cosmos as us (else, we can't practically identify them), the act of definition-by-exclusion is, I think, comparable to Kristeva's idea of abjection. It can be seen as a rejection of that which is or was at one time, in some deeper sense, part of us. (Hence the "familiar" part of Freud's foreign-yet-familiar uncanny. Hence the figuration of the "other" in the form of doppelganger or shadow.)

Ultimately, "otherness" means, for me, the abject. In terms of "a quality of life that sometimes authors attempt to express in fiction", as in "writing the other", it's the experience of abjection as a social process I'd be trying to represent, what it is to suffer the effects of that definition-by-exclusion. In one of its most extreme examples you can see that in the Mandingo trope, the way black men have been rendered abject, subject to a very specific form of discrimination which treats them as symbols, spectres loaded with all the brutality of "base passion" considered expunged by civilisation.

"Otherness" is having to live with that.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Anna Tambour blogs, with no small sense of bitter irony on the Eureka prize for “ethics in science” (awarded by the Australian Catholic University) going to… “a book in which [Professor Garrett Cullity] argues that the altruistic model of restricting one's life to aid another is flawed and that it is not morally wrong to live a life of rich personal fulfillment.”

M. John Harrison on what should really constitute the fantasy canon: ”The car industry offers fantasies of success, escape &, especially, competence (ninety percent of drivers rate themselves in the top ten percent of driving ability). The cosmetic & fashion industries offer the fantasy of perfectibility. The sports industry sells a fantasy of activity to people who rarely leave their cars or their sofas unless it’s to go to bed. From the iconography of Nationalism to the publicly managed death of a Reality TV star, cultural psychodramas have always been fantasies–some orchestrated, some spontaneous, most a mixture of both. All these elements are interlocked. You don’t have to be a theorist to recognise that. You only have to have lived in the 20th & 21st Centuries.”

Nick Mamatas is not snarky-as-fuck about the new Star Trek movie.

And lastly, I got a spike in my hits recently from my BSG post being linked in this forum discussion on sf writers’ responses to the BSG finale. As forum discussions go, this one’s actually remained substantive enough and with enough recognition that other viewers’ perspectives are valid that it doesn’t at all make me want to slam my head against a wall while reading it. Hell, there’s only one Inarticulacy Argument (IIRC) (you know, where anyone who uses “big” words is clearly doing so “just to look clever”,) and as the thread moves on to the New Caprica arc, I find myself kinda wanting to weigh in. But thankfully maintaining my self-control.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Star Dreck

Stolen from Chris Roberson:

Trekkies Bash New Star Trek Film As 'Fun, Watchable'

I have absolutely no intention of seeing this movie -- well, until I can see it for absolutely free, that is -- but I am so getting the popcorn in for the quacklash. (And, yes, I did just make up the word "quacklash"; it's meaning should, I think, be self-evident.)

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Imaginales 2009 Schedule

Where all my panels and interviews were focused on the first day or so of Utopiales, it looks like my schedule for Imaginales 2009 is mainly focused towards the end — on the Sunday. I’m guessing there will be signing events or something similar over the rest of the con, right enough, and you’ll know where to find me when I’m free (i.e. where the booze is at / where the smoking’s at). In case you’re interested in my panel pontifications though, here’s what I’ve got scheduled as it stands:

Dimanche 17 mai

11 h 00 - Magic Mirror / Café littéraire
Et Dieu dans tout ça ? Foi, (in)tolérance et fanatisme…
(Babelfishy “translation”: And God in all this? Faith, (in)tolerance and fanaticism)
Avec Pierre Bordage, Hal Duncan, Andreas Eschbach, Maïa Mazaurette

The subject’s fairly self-explanatory, and I think we all know where I stand on this. I think we all also know what state I’m likely to be in at 11.00 on Sunday morning. A shambling, sweary figure of debauchery, attacking religion with a blithe disregard for potential offence. Bring the kids! It’ll be Sunday-School-tastic!

16 h 00 - Magic Mirror / Café littéraire
Quand l’imaginaire s’empare des mythologies… aux racines de l’humanité ?
(Babelfishy “translation”: When the imaginary one seizes mythology… with the roots of humanity?)
Avec édouard Brasey, Fabien Clavel, Hal Duncan, Marianne Leconte

Not entirely sure that Babelfish is doing its job here. May just be a general discussion on the uses of mythology in imaginative fiction — in the context of Imaginales I’m assuming l’imaginaire is intended as a genre term in the mode of “the fantastic” — but the “roots of humanity” might indicate a specific angle, no? Like “roots” as in prehistorical foundations or “roots” as in psychological deep structure. Either of which would be interesting.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Genius in a Bottle

An email from South African writer, Colin Meier points me to his blog on a lecture by Elizabeth Gilbert, a lecture that’s entertainingly witty and food for thought in terms of content. Gilbert talks about her own experience of success and the fear of burn out that goes with it. It’s an extension of Second Album Syndrome, to some extent, I think. When your faith in a work, particularly an early work, is validated by others proclaiming it to be the dog’s bollocks, how do you deal with the fear that your One Great Work may be done and dusted, that maybe it’s all downhill from here?

With a wry self-deprecating humour that stops her from coming across as self-aggrandising, GIlbert roots the trope of the tortured artist in this, asks if maybe this is a cause for all those suicides and self-destructions. If we writers have a reputation for being alcoholic manic depressives bent on self-destruction, she suggests, maybe it’s because the current notion of “genius” places a burden of responsibility on the writer that’s too much for any psyche to handle. If your last (or even first) work was proclaimed a masterpiece, and you then find yourself utterly panicked at the prospect of forty-odd years trying to measure up to that, maybe the problem is that you’re making it about ego. Maybe the Greeks and Romans had the right idea in fobbing that responsibility off onto an outside force. To them, the artist themself wasn’t the “genius”; the “genius” or “daemon” was a tutelory spirit, an exteriorised personal muse that the writer just played scribe to. If shit went well, you could pass the credit on to them, not let fame and fortune inflate your ego. If shit went badly, you could blame your capricious daemon for being a lame-ass motherfucker, leaving you high and dry. Either way, she suggests, maybe it’s healthier to adopt that conceit, divorce yourself from the work.

Colin takes issue with much of what she has to say, and his skepticism is fair enough, but I have to admit I dont find her thesis quite so wacky; I kind of get where she’s coming from even if I’m not 100% behind all of it. When Gilbert contrasts the Classical notion of genius with the Romantic notion, is she really saying that all this turmoil is just about writers buying into a message perpetuated by modern society? When she relates this angst to the Western Enlightenment is she honestly suggesting that this cultural change is at the root of creative anxiety in general? Well, I don’t know. I think she might be overestimating the importance of Romanticism, underestimating the extent to which previous generations of artists still got serious kudos… and the neuroses that go with it. Yes, the Romantic individualism which puts the “poetic genius” on a pedestal is a fairly recent development, but acclaim is not so new. On the other hand, the aspect of celebrity might well be a bit more pronounced in media-saturated modernity.

But leaving aside the historical reality, is Gilbert right to source the angst of the artist in this idea of individual genius, and is her solution even remotely sensible in any way? Where Colin disagrees with the ideas that “(a) all artists are "tortured" and, (b) that any distance from your own work can be safe,” I’m not sure that’s exactly what she’s saying. Or at least that she’s being essentialist and absolute about it. Let’s take those two points one by one.

A. Are all writers tortured by angst? Of course not. There are a lot of different types of writer. You’ve got full time writers who depend on it for a living. You’ve got part time writers who squeeze it into their free hours. You’ve got professionals and amateurs, either of which can have a relatively driven or easygoing approach. You’ve got hacks who churn out product they don’t take seriously. You’ve got hobbyists who footer at it for the fun. You’ve got drunks and burn-outs and recluses. You’ve got contented spouses who treat it as a day job. You’ve got all manner of individual approaches. There’s no doubt many for whom it’s an unhealthily over-riding vocational compulsion with a deep personal investment, but I don’t think Gilbert is being essentialist here in assuming that stereotypical image of the (capital-A) Auteur.

I think she is interrogating the stereotype for the grain of truth in it however, and correctly identifying a reality of how it can be. And as someone who did the whole “take a decade to write your magnum opus as your fucking debut novel” thing and had it given the whole Next Big Thing treatment, I kind of identify with the particular angst she talks about — including the wry detachment with which she approaches those neurotic fears. You don’t have to take it as an absolute truth of What It Is To Be A Writer. But personally, yeah, I find Gilbert’s description all too recognisable.

B. If you have a “safe” distance from your work, does that mean your work is “safe” and that you’re therefore, as Colin puts it, “not doing it right”? OK, to be honest… well… my own personal ethos as regards writing is very much that it shouldn’t be cosy, but I think it’s wrong to apply that prescriptively, to judge others for not measuring up to my desire for writing made with “blood, sweat and tears”. Yes, I prefer writing that’s the literary equivalent of Iggy Pop carving his chest open with a broken drumstick, but I’m not going to damn another writer for providing the literary equivalent of easy listening to the market that desires it. Every book should be judged on the standards it selects for itself, many of which are entirely dependent on idiom, some of which are entirely idiosyncratic consequences of an individual aesthetic purpose. I may reserve the right to cruelly mock the pitifully unambitious, the trite and banal, but it’s each to their own at the end of the day.

More to the point, if you want to create fiction that’s challenging to write and to read, fiction that might actually hurt in some ways because it gets under your skin, the willingness to go further than is quite comfortable may be dependant on a capacity to be ruthless, to view that work with the same cold detachment one would bring to a cadaver awaiting autopsy. The more personal the material from which that fiction is constructed, the more a “safe” distance, in psychological terms, may allow the writer to really get to grips with that material. Looking at it from the other angle, exteriorising the creative daimon could be seen as an imaginative mechanism for giving it free rein to treat you — your thoughts and memories, dreams and delusions, fears and desires — as no more than cold dead meat to be dissected on its slab, reconstructed into a monstrous collage formed from the flesh of your identity. That sort of divorce of work and self may lead to a process and product that’s far from “safe” in the sense of being unchallenging, unambitious, but it might, I think, be safer in Gilbert’s terms — armouring the writer against stresses of fame and blame that are extraneous but insistent.

To try and unravel what exactly those stresses are, what exactly it is Gilbert is talking about then:

There’s a rapture that comes with the experience of writing, when the words are flowing sweet and clear, when you’re sitting there at the laptop, tapping at the keys and it’s coming out good. Even without anybody telling you, you know that you’re producing good shit here, real good shit, shit-hot shit. (Note: You may be completely wrong here, especially if you’re a novice.) There’s also the excruciating dread that comes when that flow stops, when you find yourself dragging your way through a mire of dreck, kack and just plain shite. It doesn’t matter what anybody says, you know that this crud is worthless. (Note: Again, you may be completely wrong here, especially if you’re a novice.) Anyway, both of those experiences can be good things, cause the faith is pretty useful for keeping you producing and the doubt is pretty useful for challenging you to improve the product.

If you don’t find the right balance between these two forces, however, that can be a problem. At the GSFWC, I’ve seen the beginners who’re immune to critique because they’re blinded by their own faith, and I’ve seen the beginners who can’t handle critique at all because the doubt is crippling. Some writers, I guess, carry on with those mindsets, never really learn to be objective about their work; but they get better with practice anyway, so it’s all good. There is one approach that exploits the two in opposition though, using the faith to conquer baseless doubt, using the doubt to puncture false faith. Get past the delusional flattery and carping, flense the ego’s self-validating blather (positive and negative), and you should end up with a fairly objective view of your own work. Approach it with the cool detachment you’d bring to a critique of another’s work and you should be able to judge it by the standards it selects for itself. From that point on the carrot and stick of faith and doubt both drive you onward, in a perversely, paradoxically antagonistic feedback loop. The more confident you become, the more critical you can be; the more critical you are, the more justified your confidence. This is what I’d be referring to if I talked about “finding your voice”.

Now if you carry on in this mode for a good long while and never get the break that brings your work to the public it’s aimed at, I can see where you might lose that balance — because the ego is always looking for ways to Fuck You Up. It’ll try and break out of its harness by persuading you that you’re not getting the rewards you deserve, damn it. Or it’ll crumble into a small ball of despairing conviction that you were never really worth shit after all. Actually, if you’re the type that plays the two against each other, you might occilate wildly between the two states. Add the self-medication of drink, and hey presto: the alcoholic manic depressive! The trope of the tortured artist, romanticising the “poetic sensibility”, conflating genius and madness, often presents this instability as inspirational, the very source of creativity. It’s not art that leads to anguish but the other way around. But however much we might be writing as an attempt to figurate an otherwise inarticulable awareness of our own fucked-upness (and to thereby comprehend and control it), the full reality may be less simple. Van Gogh’s paintings, which seem so archetypally inspired, which we imagine to have been painted in a frenzy of genius, were actually created in the calm periods between his extreme mood swings, not when the madness came upon him, not when it was unleashed onto the canvass, but when he had achieved some temporary respite of psychological equilibrium.

Now suppose you chart your passage successfully through the Scylla and Charybdis of obscurity, sail on without being dragged off-course into bitterness or despair. Then one day you get the Big Break. You may be better prepared by years of practice playing faith and doubt off against each other, but alternatively you may just have found a way to maintain a delicate balance of these opposing forces by pitting them against each other at high intensity, in the most strained tension. That breathtaking ambition others see in your work? Maybe the only way you could even imagine tackling your Grand Enterprise was with a confidence bordering on messianic delusion counterweighted by a criticality that damned it as the utmost folly — in short, with a psyche strung tighter than the tension between God and Lucifer if they met in a Harold Pinter play. And now? You still have Scylla on one side, Charybdis on the other, but now there’s countless other hands grasping for the wheel, dragging it this way and that unpredictably while you try to compensate without overcorrecting.

It’s hard enough to keep the ups and downs of ego in check when they’re just inside your head, even harder when it’s a chorus of voices, half revering, half reviling, when their high notes and low notes are echoing in your heart, resonating in your guts. It’s rapturous applause on the opening night, and hatchet-job reviews in the papers the next morning. What it is, of course, is ego. Ego on serious Grade A drugs, to be precise, by turns adrift in an ocean of pure bliss and screaming at the horrors coming from the corners. Glowing reviews and scathing reviews are the good trips and bad trips of the writerly success story. One moment you’re jacked up on the opiates of opinions, making love with your ego a la Ziggy Stardust, the next you’re coming down with a crash, cursing that artificial high, that goddamn lie, that adulation, that attention that’s so tempting, so damn tasty it just leaves you craving more but deeply worried just how far you’d go to get it, if you’d sell yourself for it, become a whore. It’s a double-bind. It you have the slightest bit of nous, you know that buying into the bullshit is a Bad Thing, that the path of pride leads to your Anne Rice ”You don't understand the genius that is me!!!” Amazon rant malarky. So you fight this with a stubborn insistence that you’re not all that, a wary scrutiny of your own attitude for any hints of posturing. But if you have even the slightest bit of nous, you know the flipside accusations of “pretentiousness” or “self-indulgence” are equally corrosive, need to be dismissed with resolute conviction or they’ll eat away at all the confidence your writing’s founded on. You might not actually carve "FOR REAL" in your forearm as a fuck-off to those critics a la Richey James Edwards, but that’s not too far from the attitude you need to counter the suspicions of shallow imposture you’re using to counter the praise.

This is hardly the Spanish Inquisition, relatively speaking. It’s not that we should pity the poor writer for having to suffer the torment of — ye gods — people reacting to their work. Having a little perspective goes a long way towards not imploding and Gilbert's wry humour is, I suspect, one way of regaining objectivity by seeing your own fucked-upness with a certain detachment -- irony as a way of keeping yourself sane. But not taking it all too seriously is difficult, cause you can't really deny the importance that you attach to the art itself. You don't actually want to deny the writing, pretend that it's just paltry scribblings of no import in real terms. On some level that would be a betrayal. So you’re left with the reality that on a purely practical level, the very validation the ego craves (positive and negative) may be the last thing it needs — or at least the last thing the writer needs. Under the fierce heat of the limelight, wholly unexpected levels of energy being pumped into the system, the writer who was quite functional in obscurity may suddenly find the homeostasis that their work depends on destabilising, turning into a motherfucking hurricane. When the tension becomes a paralysing double-bind, all you can do is kill of that inner Ziggy, literally or symbolically. Symbolically is, of course, a better option. Really all you're trying to do is flense the positive and negative blather of the ego, the bullshit that's about you rather than the writing. The whole daemon conceit is just a strategy for separating the two out, a mechanism for dealing with intense reactions to the work without them allowing them to affect your sense of self-worth in a way that interferes with the writing.

This is where I don’t really have a problem with her essentially figurative model of the writing process being spiritualist nonsense if you take it literally, imagining strange etheral forces sprinkling inspiration as “fairy juice”. Where Colin asks, “Are we to offer sacrifices to the Genius In The Walls when we have writer's block?” my answer is, “Maybe it’s not such a bad idea.”

I read her as talking about a figurative conceit though, a technique of deliberate pretense, an expedient suspension of disbelief -- rather than seeing daemons as literal critters, actual metaphysical muse-imps or somesuch hippy hogwash. Rather than New Age hokum I just take this all in terms of a compartmentalised psyche with Jungian archetypes and -- potentially, I reckon -- creative projects as functionally autonomous agencies. Figuration is your forte as a writer, so why not play to your strengths? A figurative conceit is not a religious belief, but neither is it simply false and thereby pointless just because it's not literally true. There's more to figuration than analogy, where articulation A, the vehicle, can be unpacked to figuration B, the tenor. It's precisely because we can't construct an accurate articulation B, because the situation is inarticulable in purely representational language, that we model it in symbolic terms, where the true/false evaluation is kind of beside the point. It's like evaluating a novel as true or false.

As an imaginative projection then, as a useful fiction, I can see how Gilbert’s conceit might work. It's not far from my own figurative conceit which views those inspiring "daemons" as fundamentally archetypal and therefore subconscious -- parts of the individual psyche -- but also as functionally autonomous and interconnected between individuals by culture -- as, to all intents and purposes, "memetic agencies" which work at the socio-cultural level. This is not to say that I believe in airy-fairy notions of spirit, but I'm willing to pretend, as an expedient fiction, that my id and your id and all the ids coded into artworks throughout our culture form an... aesthetic-behavioural system of sorts. If I don't literally believe that it's an integrated entity per se, I'm still happy to call it Dionsyus and raise a glass to it once in a while, to talk in terms of sacrificing to the gods in order to get past problems like writer's block. Symbolic action can be a way to work through the gnarly complexities of one's subconscious innards, to prod the archetypes this way and that by enacting "rituals" of commitment. If we've all got a little bit of Jack Flash inside us, sometimes you gotta torch some shit to let that firestarter out.

Mind you, this is coming from someone who thinks it's more fun to be a little bit schizoid once in a while.

More on Prologues

[Was going to post this as a comment on the post below, but realised that you can't post links in comments]

The Wikipedia article on prologues has some snippetable details that might be pertinent here. The fact that the roots of the prologue are in Greek drama, for example, sort of makes the association between literary prologues and pre-credit sequences more tenable to me:

In Attic Greek drama, a character in the play, as very often a deity, stood forward or appeared from a machine before the action of the play began, and made from the empty stage such statements necessary for the audience to hear so that they might appreciate the ensuing drama.

This does highlight the expository backgrounding function, and it’s not at all like the pre-credit sequence. Rather, note the form of direct address to the audience by a (quasi-?)omniscient narrator from an empty stage. I think there’s a parallel here to the novelistic device of the omnisicient narrator beginning with a “dear reader” framing device, establishing equilibrium, maybe sketching in the worldscape, the origins of the protagonist, etc.. But of course we’re talking about verse, so I think this could fit with my argument that such blatant narrative framing is as much sales pitch as history lesson. Or at least should be. The pros and cons of expository prologues aren’t a new argument. Wikipedia refers to:

… the objection which criticism has often brought against the Greek prologue, as an impertinence, a useless growth prefixed to the play, and standing as a barrier between us and our enjoyment of it. The point precisely is that, to an Athenian audience, it was useful and pertinent, as supplying just what they needed to make the succeeding scenes intelligible.

To which, of course, we can respond: yes, but if you can slip it in as backstory, you can get rid of the barrier effect completely.

It was the early Greek custom to dilate in great detail on everything that had led up to the play, the latter being itself, as a rule merely the catastrophe which had inevitably to ensue on the facts related in the prologue.

Again, exposition; but a key thing to consider: the Greek concept of miasma is at play here. Equilibrium has been disrupted by some past crime that’s left a miasma — a sort of moral stain, poisoning a city or a royal line, blood in the soil itself crying out to the gods for vengeance. The effects of that disruption persist, ramifications build up, until eventually fate / nature / a god (i.e. the storyfication of reality, the projection of narrative structure onto the world) demands that it be recognised, forces engagement. In kicking off at the catastrophe stage, Greek drama (post-prologue, that is,) is cutting to the chase, starting in media res with the protagonist slamming into the ramifications of a start-point that may have occurred generations ago. The implosion of the house of Atreus in The Oresteia, for example, “begins” with the catastrophe of Clytemnestra killing Agamemnon, (for the murder of their daughter,) but for the Greeks the start-action that created the house-dooming miasma was actually Tantalus’s murder of his son Pelops two generations before. So it seems to me that early drama is reflecting modern pulp in sort of coming in at the recognition/engagement stage. (Or vice versa, really — modern pulp reflecting early drama.)

The importance, therefore, of the prologue in Greek drama was very great; it sometimes almost took the place of a romance, to which, or to an episode in which, the play itself succeeded.

In other words, a little sub-narrative, a story before the story. As an example: Wikipedia credits the invention of the prologue to Euripedes and references his play Hippolytus, which does seem to me to do more than just exposition. Aphrodite comes on-stage, introduces herself and in doing so asserts her rightful place in the world (equilibrium). She then describes how she’s been insulted (disruption). But there’s a distinct narrative section that sets the players in place, and it’s all leading up to a slingshot ending:

But soft, here comes he, striding from the chase,
Our Prince Hippolytus!--I will go my ways.--
And hunters at his heels: and a loud throng
Glorying Artemis with praise and song!
Little he knows that Hell's gates opened are,
And this his last look on the great Day-star!

Aaaaaand: Roll opening credits!

OK, it’s maybe not *quite* got that cut-to-black-with-HIPPOLYTUS-appearing-in-big-block-letters vibe, but those last two lines are just blatantly portentous. The whole speech is manifestly designed to draw the audience in, swing them through the sales-spitch swirl of story and verse, and send them flying out into the play itself. And yet, it’s versified and told rather than dramatised, which makes it more like the literary prologue than the pre-credit sequence. If commercial epic fantasy were a tad more ambitious in going for less monomyth and more tragedy (cinema, ironically, being way more gutsy in movies like Spartacus or El Cid,) I could easily see Aphrodite’s narrative groundworking translated to the classic (or clichéd) prologue structure (though I could easily see it failing by just trudging its way through the details in the most turgid prose). But if I were filming one of those latter-day Hollywood Swords-and-Sandals blockbusters of Hippolytus with Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe or whomever, I could also imagine that speech as the VO of a properly dramatised pre-credit sequence.

I guess what I’m saying is I think there is an underlying technique common to the three media — play, novel and movie. Maybe the distinct differences in each media result in different paths of development, but there’s a muddle of connectedness, I think, that comes from their shared roots. Elizabethan drama takes the prologue into the realm of forewords and introductions in literary terms, completely abandoning the pretence of mimesis: “As a direct audience from one actor to the assembled audience, the functions of the prologue were to quieten and appease the audience, introduce the themes and particulars of the play they are about to hear, and beg their indulgence for any imperfections in the writing and/or performance.” But this isn’t that different from some of the “dear reader” malarkey pulled by pre-20th century writers. The prologue in literary fiction can sort of dissolve into the text, just become the framing paragraphs of authorial address that open Chapter One, maybe because writers don’t think there’s much point in trying to segregate it out with nothing more than a page turn. You can contrast that to the pre-credit sequence with music and titles coming in big and bold to divide the set-up from the kick-in, but the Greek prologue from Hipploytus above is followed on by the immediate entry of the protagonist. There’s nothing really to divide this narrative structure from the rest of the play, other than the poetic formalities of the structures of the drama themselves. But if you were staging it for a modern audience, might you not suddenly bring up the lights at that entrance, having kept them down to a spotlight on Aphrodite?

I keep being drawn back to the idea that if you strip away the notion of exposition, prologues are really about a technique of structural dynamics, but I’m finding it hard to articulate a vague intuition. Like, with Euripedes, according to Wikipedia, the prologue “takes the place of an explanatory first act.” My intuition says we should forget the “explanatory”, focus on that “first act”. This is what I’m getting at, I think, in the idea that the novelistic prologue doesn’t really function as a Chapter Zero (which could just be renumbered Chapter One), but on the scale of an act, volume or part — but one that’s been hyper-condensed. Maybe Todorov’s theoretical “stages” don’t really fit the actual structures of conventional narrative that well. If we suppose that a four-act structure might actually represent the transitions — 1) equilibrium > disruption; 2) disruption > recognition; 3) recognition > reaction; 4) reaction > resolution — maybe there’s an attempt, in the prologue, to deal with the fact that the first act could be kinda dull if it’s all large-scale or liminal ramifications in the background, building up gradually to the catastrophe. Maybe the inner editor kicks in and ruthlessly hacks that down to the bare bones of direct narrative. Listen, Euri, it says, Act One is just gonna drag like fuck. People aren’t really interested in how the problem came to be. They just want to see the shit hit the fan and the schmuck try to deal with it. Cut to the chase, man. You can get it over with in one soliloquy and then dive right into the blood and guts of the drama.

Theoretically, we might be able to scrap the first act entirely, splice the soliloquy in as backstory at some convenient point, but I can see a sort of purpose here maybe, a way of making the plunge into the action more palpable through the sudden shift in scale and focus.


I hear from my Spanish translator, Luis Gallego, that Ink is now available in that loveliest of languages, under the title Tinta:

More info here and orderability here, I believe.

As you were.