Writing: Plotters and pantsers in other walks of life, and Commedia dell’Arte

Standard

To plot, or not to plot?

You know about the eternal feud friendly debates between plotters and pantsers, right?  Plotters make a plot outline or at least know how a story will end before they write it.  (Seat-of-the)-pantsers don’t, saying they need the spontaneity to make characters come to life.

I have a book on management called Maestro: A surprising story about leading by listening.  It’s a story of an executive learning how to manage from a great orchestra conductor.  Partly, it’s about how the leader communicates a grand vision without micro-managing and in a way that allows the input of the players to influence the vision.

I just saw the title of another book, Organizational Jazz: Extraordinary performance through extraordinary leadership.  Presumably this is about an executive learning how to manage from a jazz band.  Presumably, this executive will not learn how to communicate a grand vision to his team, but how to train his team to work improvisationally.

It struck me that symphony orchestras are plotters, and jazz bands are pantsers.  (And, apparently, executives can be plotters or pantsers, too.)

This is a significant clue–that an entire genre of music may lend itself to either plotting or pantsing.

Computer programmers can also be plotters or pantsers.  A plotter makes a complete requirements specification, then does a top-down design.  Now, a coding pantser doesn’t just sit down and start writing code at the beginning, stop when she reaches the end, and try to compile it.  (Well, I started out writing code that way, and now I’ve written enough code that sometimes I can do it that way, but only to show off.)  A code pantser might not write down a list of requirements, but might instead start coding up little object classes that he’s pretty sure he’s going to need, in a bottom-up approach.  A code-pantser will probably use an incremental design, first developing the simplest version of the program that can run, maybe with lots of functionality dummied or stubbed.

People in other occupations can also probably be plotters or pantsers.  Parents, military leaders, and pickup artists can all plan what they’re going to do in detail, or wing it.  I don’t know, but I’m going to guess that not only are different people more inclined toward one approach or the other, but also one approach or the other is better for different kinds of kids, battles, and women.

 

Commedia dell’Arte

For an example closer to writing, consider live theater.  A performance can rely on plotting or pantsing actors.  Shakespeare wrote down every word for every actor.  At the same time, the most-popular performances on the continent were Italian Commedia dell’Arte. These were improvisational plays (usually comedies) in which the actors would, without the aide of a writer, construct by mere permutation one variation on a standard plot structure using a standard cast of characters, maybe rehearse it once, then jump on stage and improvise.

In a basic commedia scenario, there is an initial conflict between the older generation and the younger generation about the choice of a marital partner.  Through machinations of the old and the young, carried out by their servants, the conflict is eliminated, predominantly through the actions of the servants.  Additional complications occur through the middle of the plot, but all is eventually settled, ends happily, and the young people get married.

–Dina Ternullo,  Characters & Scenarios of Early Commedia dell’Arte (2016, The Compleat Anachronist #172), p. 33

Typically, the story would involve two noble houses, and at least one young man and young woman from opposite houses who fall in love over the objections of both houses’ patriarchs (C&SoECdA p. 38).  (The story would not involve love between people of the same gender or of different social classes.)

CdA operated in a time when the Italian Church and state were simultaneously weak and at odds with each other, and could be played off each other to avoid censorship and control.  The Church still forbade women to perform on stage, but the commedians just did it anyway, and this–having beautiful women perform in public–was one of their main appeals.  The improvisation was partly to evade censorship. The authorities couldn’t censor a script that didn’t exist.

The character of these two types of plays are radically different.  A Shakespeare play is tightly controlled; the actors, even in a farce, walk naturally and act somewhat like real people.  CdA, on the other hand, resembles a Keystone Kops show: rapid, out-of-control farce.  The pace is faster.  The actors exaggerate every line and every action wildly, stomping about on stage, shouting and being as emotional as possible.  The stomping and shouting of Commedia actors was one of the regular background noises at Pennsic.

The reason Shakespeare comedies are so bad is that Shakespeare was trying to adapt the Commedia for the English stage, as shown by the fact that many (most?) of his comedies are commedia scenarios using commedia characters, often set in an Italian city-state.  Commedia troupes were very popular, but weren’t allowed to perform in England because they used female actors.

According to Characters & Scenarios of Early Commedia dell’ArteTwelfth Night, which I think I’ve mentioned two or five times is a terrible play, was based on a 1532 commedia erudita (early Commedia dell’Arte) named Gli inganniti.  But the plot of a Commedia is farcical, and only goes over right with a farcical, pantser performance, not with naturalistic acting and Shakespearian elevated speech.  Shakespeare was possibly the worst possible playwright to try to adapt the Commedia.

On the other hand, changing a Commedia plot into a tragedy gave him Romeo and Juliet.

So a big part of the answer to “Plot or pants?” is probably, “Depends what you want to write.” I mean, obviously you want to plot a mystery novel. But some styles of story probably benefit from coming off the cuff. Say, a wacky absurdist comedy like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which Douglas Adams wrote like a fanfiction, writing each episode after broadcasting the previous one.

(Okay, that’s a lame and obvious conclusion. Mostly I wanted to tell you about Commedia dell’Arte.)

Advertisements

Review of the Iliad

Standard

Western civilization began with the ancient Greeks, and the ancient Greeks agreed unanimously that their religion, ethics, and poetry began with The Iliad. So that’s where my review of Western literature will begin.

The Greeks would have said “Homer”, and they would have meant the person who wrote at least The Iliad and The Odyssey. I haven’t done any stylometrics on ancient Greek, but even supposing it were meaningful to talk about the “person” who wrote either, I don’t think it’s useful to group the Iliad and the Odyssey together. The Iliad is a civilization-founding work of philosophy. The Odyssey is a boy’s adventure tale, not meriting special attention. It is more fun to read, though.

I remembered the Iliad as a surprisingly gutsy story for one so old, that took a tough look at the morality of war, duty, honor, and love. Then I read a plot summary of it, and realized I was remembering Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida instead.

When I read the thing itself, I initially hated it. All I saw was a badly-written story with revolting values praised to the heavens so old people who’d gone to Oxbridge could pretend to be the arbiters of taste. But over time, I saw its importance in Western history, and some of the genius behind it. The analysis I’ll present here is unique; nobody’s come to these conclusions before. But I don’t think they’re difficult. People are just stupid when they elevate something to the level of a scripture. It makes it impossible to see it for itself anymore.

Rating the Iliad as a 21st century American is a little silly. The Iliad is the exemplar of the values and aesthetics of its time. By reading it, we can learn how much humanity has changed in 2800 years, and how much it’s stayed the same. We can ask whether great literature is timeless or transient. So the Iliad is important.

What it isn’t, though, is a good read for a modern person. It turns out great literature isn’t timeless after all.

Did I read the whole thing? Absolutely not. I got halfway through before turning to condensed versions and the Cliffs Notes.

There are spoilers here. But come on. You’ve had 2,800 years to read it.

Which Iliad?

I tried Alexander Pope’s 1720 translation, which reads like a ghastly nursery rhyme:

The Greeks in shouts their joint assent declare,
The priest to reverence, and release the fair.
Not so Atrides; he, with kingly pride,
Repulsed the sacred sire, and thus replied:

Chapman’s 1598 translation is longer (230,000 words!), and only marginally better:

Achilles’ baneful wrath resound, O Goddess, that imposed
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls losed

Los-ed? Seriously?

I plunged ahead with Samuel Butler’s 1898 translation. It doesn’t try to versify; it renders it as prose. The words seemed stronger and easier to read. All three translations changed the names of the Greek gods into their Roman equivalents, which I found irritating and, frankly, disrespectful. Supposedly the Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, Martin Hammond, and Rodney Merrill translations are much better, but they cost money. Oddly, for the most renowned story in Western literature, I had a hard time finding a pirated copy. There are free online versions by Ian Johnston and Anthony Kline (2009).

(Pirates are probably all reading the Odyssey.)

I eventually found Robert Fagles’ 1990 translation, which is free verse. It has a poetic feel like Butler’s, with meter and consonance, without grasping at weak words to fill in the meter, or falling into sing-song whine as Chapman and Pope do.

If you really want to try reading the thing, try the abridged Ian Johnston (pdf here.) It’s only 50,000 words, and this sucker is at least 150,000 words otherwise.

Judging the Iliad in 2018: The Aesthetics

Reading the Iliad in 2018 demands an answer to the question of whether there is a timeless, objective “good” for literature. This story was valued far above all others throughout ancient Greece–it was heresy to say otherwise–and was the most-popular candidate for greatest work of fiction of all time at least until the 19th century, and maybe until James Joyce’s Ulysses. [1] Since that claim has been made, I’ll evaluate The Iliad aesthetically first.

It’s easy to point out that the Iliad is formulaic, unstructured, and about 5 times as long as it ought to be, but this is a feature, not a bug. The text we see may be more like the source code to the Iliad than like what most ancient Greeks heard. A bard would memorize the whole thing, then tell each audience just the parts he thought they’d be most-interested in, or that they had time for. That’s why it’s so formulaic and unstructured. It’s modular: you can skip paragraphs or whole chapters without missing much. This makes the Iliad a bad model for written fiction. Oral poetry can be tailored by a good bard to a specific audience, but in return it gives up the power of a complex, dramatic, thematically-unified structure.

The Good

There are many poetic lines. But I can’t tell how much is the poetry of Homer, and how much that of the translator. I like this translation by Fagle:

Like the generation of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.

But Butler’s translation is trite and obvious:

Men come and go as leaves year by year upon the trees. Those of autumn the wind sheds upon the ground, but when spring returns the forest buds forth with fresh vines. Even so is it with the generations of mankind, the new spring up as the old are passing away.

Which was Homer?

Here Stanley Lombardo’s translation has poetry:

“Who could blame either the Trojans or the Greeks
For suffering so long for a woman like this.
Her eyes are not human.
Whatever she is, let her go back with the ships.” (III, 164-167)

where Fagles’ translation has none:

Who on earth could blame them? Ah, no wonder
the men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered
years of agony all for her. for such a woman.
Beauty, terrible beauty!
A deathless goddess–so she strikes our eyes!
But still,
ravishing as she is, let her go home in the long ships.

Homer uses powerful, clean language, full of quick metaphors, similes, and bits of physical detail. He maintains a heroic style but seldom falls into purple prose. This comes across best in the prose translations:

Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.

Now and then he adds little details that make me think, yeah, this guy might have fought in a war.

With these words she put heart and soul into them all, while Minerva sprang to the side of the son of Tydeus, whom she found near his chariot and horses, cooling the wound that Pandarus had given him. For the sweat caused by the hand that bore the weight of his shield irritated the hurt: his arm was weary with pain, and he was lifting up the strap to wipe away the blood.

But there are few instances like this–so few that, I know from experience, he could have gotten all of them by talking to a few guys in a bar. And there are other instances where those little details are clearly fabricated:

Antilochus rushed towards him and struck him on the temples with his sword, whereon he fell head first from the chariot to the ground. There he stood for a while with his head and shoulders buried deep in the dust–for he had fallen on sandy soil–till his horses kicked him and laid him flat on the ground, as Antilochus lashed them and drove them off to the host of the Achaeans.

The work from later times which it resembles most in style (AFAIK) is Beowulf, but it’s surprisingly similar, even in 18th and 19th-century translations, to American fiction post-Hemingway: strong verbs, few adverbs, and a nearly-neutral external viewpoint that, more than most literature after it, shows instead of telling. The bard comments on the courage and strength of the characters, but reviewers don’t notice that he’s usually silent on the larger moral questions. Is Achilles’ rage justified? When does pride become a vice? This is a key question everywhere, but Homer doesn’t answer it. Men and gods argue, and don’t agree. Western writers failed to learn “show, don’t tell” from Homer for 2,700 years, despite chanting all the while that writers must only imitate Homer. People are stupid.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, in a 1766 essay, “Laokoon”, explains why (in his opinion) paintings of Homer’s scenes are boring: Homer describes things with actions and histories, not images. When he wants to describe Agamemnon’s armor, he doesn’t pause the action to describe it; he has Agamemnon put it on, piece by piece. When he wants to describe the bow of Pandarus, he describes how it was made. He would rather describe the history than the appearance of people and things. All those swords whose histories Tolkien describes so lovingly–that’s straight from Homer. And the histories tell you more important things about them than a description would.

He renders few authorial opinions other than whether a man was courageous, wise, generous, or of noble or divine descent. He doesn’t say whether the war, or Achilles’ pride, or Zeus’ lies, are moral or immoral. He has other characters comment on these things, but when one god accuses Achilles of pride, another speaks in his defense, and Homer doesn’t say which is right. Most interpreters don’t seem to notice this, reading their own prejudices into Homer. My reading is that Homer was saying that even the gods can’t agree what’s wrong and what’s right, so forget about it and do whatever brings you personal honor.

The poetry in the original Greek is supposedly really special. Here’s a New Yorker article describing how Homer supposedly used stress patterns to imitate the sounds of a raging sea.

 

The Bad

The Iliad is often praised for the distinctness of its characters. I don’t see it. The major characters differ in wisdom, restraint, cleverness, and bravery, but all have the same values and the same tiresome heroic cast, and all but Hector are narcissistic and brutal.

Homer repeats sentences and entire paragraphs frequently. I imagined at first he was going for some hypnotic effect, like the chorus of a song. But I can’t see it, given the great differences in repetition length, spacing, and similarity of context. It seems to me the bard was just being lazy. Some of this repetition just needs a pass from an editor:

The earth groaned beneath them as when the lord of thunder is angry and lashes the land about Typhoeus among the Arimi, where they say Typhoeus lies. Even so did the earth groan beneath them as they sped over the plain.

The dramatic structure is also repetitive. A well-constructed story has a dramatic arc, driven by the decisions of the key characters, with rising action, a climax, and a reversal hinging on some realization related to the theme. There is an identifiable climax in the Iliad, when Achilles finally decides to fight, but before it are 100,000 words of formulaic repetition: One side is about to win the war. Some god interferes and turns the tide. Repeat. I can’t even count how many times this happened. The characters wash up and down the battlefield with the regularity of tides, at the whims of the gods.

It’s formulaic on a fine scale as well. Each battle is merely a string of individual fights, and each fight gives a name, a city of origin, a parentage, a brief history, and an entrance wound for the loser. Piling up hundreds of deaths of walk-ons adds horror, but not weight. It’s like the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan”: numbing, but not grieving. Here’s a typical passage:

First, Ajax son of Telamon, tower of strength to the Achaeans, broke a phalanx of the Trojans, and came to the assistance of his comrades by killing Acamas son of Eussorus, the best man among the Thracians, being both brave and of great stature. The spear struck the projecting peak of his helmet: its bronze point then went through his forehead into the brain, and darkness veiled his eyes.

Then Diomed killed Axylus son of Teuthranus, a rich man who lived in the strong city of Arisbe, and was beloved by all men; for he had a house by the roadside, and entertained every one who passed; howbeit not one of his guests stood before him to save his life, and Diomed killed both him and his squire Calesius, who was then his charioteer–so the pair passed beneath the earth.

Euryalus killed Dresus and Opheltius, and then went in pursuit of Aesepus and Pedasus, whom the naiad nymph Abarbarea had borne to noble Bucolion. Bucolion was eldest son to Laomedon, but he was a bastard. While tending his sheep he had converse with the nymph, and she conceived twin sons; these the son of Mecisteus now slew, and he stripped the armour from their shoulders. Polypoetes then killed Astyalus, Ulysses Pidytes of Percote, and Teucer Aretaon. Ablerus fell by the spear of Nestor’s son Antilochus, and Agamemnon, king of men, killed Elatus who dwelt in Pedasus by the banks of the river Satnioeis. Leitus killed Phylacus as he was flying, and Eurypylus slew Melanthus.

Butler’s translation is 153,000 words long. About 40,000 of those words are variations of the above. (I estimated using random samples.) Pick a hero; make up a name for a victim, a few facts about his history, and an entry and exit wound. Repeat. This is the inventiveness that Alexander Pope calls “the greatest invention of any writer whatever” by “the greatest writer that ever touched the hearts of men by the power of song.”

Heroes spout great monologues in the middle of heated battle, digressing like Tristram Shandy:

When they were close up to one another Diomed of the loud war-cry was the first to speak. “Who, my good sir,” said he, “who are you among men? I have never seen you in battle until now, but you are daring beyond all others if you abide my onset. Woe to those fathers whose sons face my might. If, however, you are one of the immortals and have come down from heaven, I will not fight you; for even valiant Lycurgus, son of Dryas, did not live long when he took to fighting with the gods. He it was that drove the nursing women who were in charge of frenzied Bacchus through the land of Nysa, and they flung their thyrsi on the ground as murderous Lycurgus beat them with his oxgoad. Bacchus himself plunged terror-stricken into the sea, and Thetis took him to her bosom to comfort him, for he was scared by the fury with which the man reviled him. Thereon the gods who live at ease were angry with Lycurgus and the son of Saturn struck him blind, nor did he live much longer after he had become hateful to the immortals. Therefore I will not fight with the blessed gods; but if you are of them that eat the fruit of the ground, draw near and meet your doom.”

(Glaucus’ reply is three times as long.)

And here’s where the Iliad really falls down: Even after we recognize that Homer’s themes are repugnant to us, his characters unsympathetic, his plot unbelievable, what still draws people to the Iliad is the action. But the action is not that good.

Homer’s description through actions and histories rather than images may have been a virtue made of necessity: he’s a wiz at describing the sound and the feel of things, but seems unable to visualize anything. Maybe he really was blind. We have no idea what Troy looks like, how big it is, how high its walls are, or how close to the sea it is. About halfway into the Iliad we learn it’s near a bay with a sandy beach, and that’s it for description. We have no idea what the land they’re fighting on looks like or how large it is. In battle, we seldom have any idea where anyone is standing. Each duel seems to take place in its own separate misty no-man’s land, with endless room around it for chases on foot and in chariots [2]. So there is no larger tension about the ebb and flow of the battle. It is a grinding recital of who killed whom, and what their lineages were.

A battle, like a story, has structure. It changes over time. The changing tides of battle can be managed as a dramatic arc, to provide suspense. Homer can’t do that, because he hasn’t visualized any of the fights, and so can’t say how they come together to make a battle. There are no causal relations between the elements. There are no tactics, no logistics, no terrain, no real planning, no cavalry charges or infantry maneuvers, no successful use of phalanxes [3], no shifting front lines, no confusion. So there is no dramatic structure to the battles or to the war. We simply watch people being killed until some random events changes the tide at the last moment.

So the bulk of the Iliad is a series of formulaic events, strung together without causal connection, interspersed with irrelevant monologues, which progress in one direction until some random event turns things around and moves them in the other direction. This is not the structure of a good book; it’s the structure of a daytime soap opera.

 

Judging the Iliad in 2018: The Ethics

You wanna talk about oppression? This is a world in which murder, rape, and theft aren’t just good, they’re the greatest good. A man is esteemed according to how many men he’s murdered, how many beautiful women he’s raped, and how much stuff he’s stolen.

The Iliad is about a bunch of guys fighting over who gets to rape whom. The Greeks have come to Troy to stop Paris raping Helen. Apollo fights the Greeks because Agamemnon won’t stop raping his priest’s daughter Chryses. Agamemnon has to give up Chryses, so he takes Briseis instead, whom Achilles had wanted to rape, and Achilles stomps off in a huff and prays to his mother Thetis to help the Trojans kill his fellow Greeks. Women are literally trophies; they give them away as awards at sports competitions. Whenever I find some 19th-century Victorian scholar who would have been shocked to see a woman’s ankle in public go on about the Iliad containing all of the ethics needed for civilization, I consider it a vindication of Freud. Throughout history, the more sexually repressed England was, the more its men loved the Iliad.

Homer doesn’t angst over the cycle of violence, either. One of the few places where the narrator expresses a moral opinion is in upholding the obligation for revenge:

Then Menelaus of the loud war-cry took Adrestus alive, for his horses ran into a tamarisk bush, as they were flying wildly over the plain, and broke the pole from the car; they went on towards the city along with the others in full flight, but Adrestus rolled out, and fell in the dust flat on his face by the wheel of his chariot; Menelaus came up to him spear in hand, but Adrestus caught him by the knees begging for his life. “Take me alive,” he cried, “son of Atreus, and you shall have a full ransom for me: my father is rich and has much treasure of gold, bronze, and wrought iron laid by in his house. From this store he will give you a large ransom should he hear of my being alive and at the ships of the Achaeans.”

Thus did he plead, and Menelaus was for yielding and giving him to a squire to take to the ships of the Achaeans, but Agamemnon came running up to him and rebuked him. “My good Menelaus,” said he, “this is no time for giving quarter. Has, then, your house fared so well at the hands of the Trojans? Let us not spare a single one of them–not even the child unborn and in its mother’s womb; let not a man of them be left alive, but let all in Ilius perish, unheeded and forgotten.”

Thus did he speak, and his brother was persuaded by him, for his words were just. Menelaus, therefore, thrust Adrestus from him, whereon King Agamemnon struck him in the flank, and he fell: then the son of Atreus planted his foot upon his breast to draw his spear from the body.

The Iliad’s ethics are grotesque by our standards, but were appropriate for Homer’s times (the Greek Dark Ages), and for the centuries after when Greece fought Persia. They needed a reputation for ruthlessness against their enemies, and they needed brave fighting men at any cost, even that of reducing half of their population to commodities. This is why great literature is not timeless.

Actually, this is an interesting point: Who needed brave fighting men at any cost? Answer: The men did. If we look at tribal societies, conflicts between neighbors were usually over territory or over women. “Territory”, however, really meant “the territory of a group of males”, in the same way that it does for birds. Females were always welcome. You could argue that tribes, cities, and civilizations were things men built to keep other men from stealing their women. That is, in fact, what the Iliad is about: the Greeks trying and repeatedly failing to achieve civilization-level cooperation in order to stop the Trojans from stealing their women (Helen).

The result, though, was to value fighting men so highly that civilization wasn’t a very good deal for women. Maybe they would have been better off without it if it weren’t for the tendency of men to kill the babies of the women they captured.

In fact, the main ethical take-away I get from the Iliad is that there are way too many of these damn men. They’re pests, like swarms of flies. They are just getting in the way, building walls around cities, standing outside of cities, preventing people from farming, making other men lay down their hoes and pick up swords, and eventually killing or raping everybody. And then they write non-ironic literature glorifying doing all that stuff.

If the birth ratio were, say, 4 women to 1 man, things would be just about perfect [4]. We have the technology to make this happen today. I say, go for it. Kickstarter, anyone?

The historical position of the Iliad, right at the beginning of Greek civilization, and its focus on the construction of a civilization as a method to maintain access to women, highlights the importance of sex to civilization. Society is, at root, how we decide who gets to have sex with whom. Men deny that society tries to control women. Women deny their sexual power over men. Hence we argue and argue and ignore the fundamental issues.

 

Judging the Iliad in 2018: The Philosophy

Okay. Now that I’ve got that out of my system: the Iliad is important as philosophy, not as … fiction. I was going to say “literature”, but the Iliad literally defined what literature was: a triad of fiction, philosophy, and ethics.

There are several really interesting things about the Iliad. The first is that it’s the Greek national story, but the Greeks are all assholes. The only admirable, likable character is Hector, son of King Priam and the leader of the Trojan warriors. He even gets a cute scene playing with his baby son. (By contrast, the leader of the Greeks, Agamemnon, sacrificed his daughter to Artemis so the fleet could have winds to sail to Troy.)

The second is that the Iliad is usually interpreted as a condemnation of the pride (“hubris”) of Achilles, but the text doesn’t support that. I looked for it, and it isn’t there, except in the first line in Chapman’s translation, which I suspect is Chapman’s own interpretation [5]. Achilles is very, very proud, but he is also very, very great, and the text explicitly says that great men should act proud, demand respect and submission from their inferiors, and not tolerate insults.

The plot resembles 20th-century absurdist theater. The characters are all nearly helpless. Agamemnon is a shitty “king” [6] who no one likes. He’s greedy, ungrateful, disliked, impetuous, murderous, deceptive, foolish, and has kept the Greeks here to fight a pointless war that isn’t worth the trouble even if they win. The smart thing to do would either be to go home, or to work out a deal or compromise with the Trojans, and the Greeks try to do both. Nothing ever works. The Greeks should be able to walk right over the Trojans, but they cause themselves more problems than the Trojans do, and if some stupid Greek doesn’t mess things up, some god does. They are stuck on Troy’s shores like Estragon and Vladimir are stuck waiting for Godot, and the first half of the plot, for all its deaths, is about as consequential as the first half of Waiting for Godot. Neither side wants to fight, and neither side wants Helen–most of the Greeks don’t care, and most of the Trojans would like to throw either Paris or her over the walls–yet they keep fighting and fighting.

And Homer is weirdly okay with that. He’s like, That’s just how the world is. That guy over there is just like you, and he doesn’t want to fight, and you don’t want to fight, but you gotta fight, and one of you has to die.

The most-important odd thing about the Iliad is that its heroes have no morality. When I say “morality”, I mean “a code of behavior which demands actions from a person which do not benefit that person sufficiently to be worth her while.” We’re so used to morality that we see it everywhere, but it isn’t in the Iliad. If a hero does something brave, or shows mercy to an enemy, it’s because he expects to get something from it. He isn’t doing it for the sake of his nation (he doesn’t have one) or even his tribe, and certainly not for his god (unless he hopes to get something from his god). (Maybe for his brother, but loyalty doesn’t feature prominently in the Iliad.) The things that appear to be exceptions to this amorality, I’ll argue, are what the Iliad is about.

The Iliad is the foundational story of Greek civilization because its question is how to build a civilization. It posits a world in which men are selfish, war is inevitable, reason and kindness are helpless, and morality–what’s that? The Greeks and the Trojans must fight, and one side must die. To live, a side needs many great warriors to work together.

And there’s the rub. The Greeks have come together for this great collective deed, the siege of Troy, and they’ve got the manpower and the talent, but not the organizational skills. To be a great warrior, a man must be proud, violent, and high-spirited, but when you bring hundreds of proud, violent, high-spirited men together, they fight each other. To defeat the Trojans, many Greeks must die, but the treasures to be won aren’t rationally worth the risk to the individuals fighting. The puzzle the Iliad poses in the persons of Achilles and Hector is, How do we train selfish men to be violent killers, and then convince them not to fight each other, but to die for their nation?

The answer is clever. You might call it evil, but let’s remember that it worked. Remember the Greeks were not Christians. They weren’t trying to convince men to win treasures in heaven, or to fight because it was the Right Thing to Do. The Greeks had gods who were assholes. They had no transcendental realm or God governing right and wrong. They were basically Nietzschians.

This is a hard thing for Christians to grasp. They think morality has to be dictated or revealed by some transcendent being. The Greeks did not believe that. They had what Christians would consider an unspiritual worldview. Their gods were not transcendent beings. They were just big frat boys. Zeus said how things would go down, and you’d be foolish to oppose him, but that didn’t make him right or just. Humans had to choose what to do on their own. Prometheus was a hero for defying the gods.

So the Iliad invented self-interested, libertarian, civic virtue.

Achilles is sitting in his tent, and warriors come and try to persuade him to join the fight. He knows [7] that if he fights, he will die but win everlasting glory, while if he does not fight, he will return home and live to old age [8]. So why should he fight?

Hector is behind the walls of Troy, and faced with growing discontent from the Trojans, who want him to hand over Helen to the Greeks. He wants to hand over Helen to the Greeks instead of fighting. If he fights, he and his family will die. Homer devoted scenes to showing how much Hector loves his family. So why should he fight?

They should fight, the Iliad argues (though not directly), because life is overrated. Life is an endless cycle of flailing about helplessly in a universe that doesn’t care. Life is being the plaything of the gods. The best thing for you, personally, is to win glory for yourself; that’s more valuable than more of this life stuff. It doesn’t last anyway.

This was a very interesting pivot point in the history of the West. This was a point where the West could have veered left like everybody else, but veered right instead. The obvious choice was for Homer to say that a man should fight for his people because he loves them and he loves his family and wants to defend them. The obvious choice would be to say civilization should be based on morality.

Homer didn’t do that. He said civilization should be based on selfishness.

And that’s when Western civilization was created.

On that hypothesis, the Greeks built a civilization of nation-states, each defended by amoral, basically irreligious warriors, who were willing to give their lives for their state for selfish reasons. And then it was this small civilization, in which men were encouraged and expected to do great deeds to seek their own glory, that almost immediately had the greatest, most intense burst of artistic and intellectual creativity and inventiveness in the world’s history.

Selfish civic virtue was eventually diluted by morality, but the West still honors selfishness and individuality more than other civilizations. This is a large part of why the West has been so successful.


[1] Joyce meant for his book to bring in a new era of literature. Its quick victory over public opinion was the result of a careful propaganda campaign which Ezra Pound had been laying the groundwork of for years. Joyce chose for this purpose to retell a story of Homer’s, not to honor Homer but to bury him, to turn Homer on his head and declare that everything had changed, that what had been good was now bad and what had been bad was now good.

(Joyce chose an easy target; Homer had been turned on his head, one way or another, many times before: by Euripides, by the Christian church, by Shakespeare, by the Enlightenment, by the 19th-century naturalists.)

[2] The word “phalanx”, the key component of Greek warfare, appears only four times. One of them describes a march to the battle; the other three describe a lone hero easily smashing through a phalanx.

[3] There is support for this view of Dark Ages Greek war in The Warrior State: How Military Organization Structures Politics by Everett C. Dolman, page 51-55:

Battles [in 1000-800 BCE, at least 200 years after the alleged Trojan War, but during the accepted time of Homer] were exclusively characterized by groups of high-born champions facing each other in single combat, and were “fluid, free-for-all encounters in which the great aristocrats of one state dueled with those of another.” … Military rank was bestowed as a birthright, and promotion was based on noble association…. about 900 BCE the individual had almost no rights, being absorbed into a totalitarian kinship group, in a system of such groups with no state and no real idea of public authority…. The phalanx formation probably developed between 750 and 650 BCE…. The Homeric Kings, who went out before their people to challenge their equals in single combat, had no place in the phalanx… A dominant leader was, in the age of the phalanx, not a heroic warrior, but a master tactician and organizer.

This would explain why Homer doesn’t use the phalanx correctly, though not how he mentions it at all, if it hadn’t been invented when he wrote, let alone when the events took place hundreds of years before. But that could easily be a later interpolation; the earliest full manuscript of the Iliad is from the 9th century A.D.

[4] So why is the birth ratio 1:1? Very good question! It’s not like fixing that would be too complicated for evolution. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it’s group selection, more specifically the evolution of traits that enable evolution. Most selection in mammals is probably not the result of animals dying, but of males failing to breed. Producing too many males and then forcing them to fight it out over females is the most-important selection mechanism. Western monogamous societies circumvent this. This slows most evolution, but increases the force of kin selection, because a person growing up in a monogamous culture shares half her genes with her siblings, as opposed to between 1/4 and 1/2 in a polygamous culture. This means monogamous societies should, over time, produce people who are stupid and weak, but very nice to each other and cooperative. Quite a conundrum for those trying to decide which is “better”.

[5] Tip: If you’re going to translate something, don’t start at the beginning and translate as you go. Read it first. I remember the Reader’s Digest condensed edition of the Bible. The last paragraph of the Bible says, “If anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city.” They decided to leave that out.

[6] Agamemnon isn’t the king of the Greeks. He’s the warlord with the most men.

[7] We think Achilles knows! This is Homer’s most-critical screw-up. We really need to know whether Achilles knows this or not, but Achilles gives several reasons for not fighting, and it isn’t clear which is his real reason, and it isn’t clear whether he was really told this prophecy, or is making it up for his own purposes.

[8] There is a great irony in interpreting Achilles’ dilemma in light of the further history of the Greeks. It was the philosophers of Athens, not the warriors of Sparta, who brought ancient Greece the most undying fame and glory. Yet the philosophical Greece did not survive long–only about a hundred years from Euripides to Alexander the Great. The decision that faced Greece at the dawn of its golden age, had they known it, may have been the obverse of that faced by Achilles: continue to honor valor in combat above all, and survive, or dare a hundred years of free thought, and die, but with everlasting glory.

Pretentiousness comes from modern art comes from Plato

Standard

Ross James just posted a great essay, Annihilation — on Pretentiousness in Media. I feel like he’s saved me a blog post; I would’ve had to have written something similar eventually.

It’s on his Patreon site, but if I’m reading the tags right, it’s free to read. Some excerpts:

… if being entertaining was the primary objective of media, The Room would be a fantastic movie. We can say that The Room is a terrible movie while also being entertained by it, so we need to understand what other criteria we are thinking about when we call a movie ‘good’ or ‘bad’. … The danger is that when your meaning isn’t clear, when your story isn’t well delivered, the criticism doesn’t get directed at the work. …

A symptom of this is, strangely, a certain style of debate about the analysis of your movie. In a well-constructed movie, ideas about what something means are tied back to elements of the movie as evidence. [Analyzing?] Movies that fall into the pitfall of pretension — or the kind I have roughly laid out in my mind — are more about explaining what a scene had to mean by tying ideas to it. Think about the debate about the spinning top in Inception; they focus on trying to debate what scenes were actually trying to say first before they can work out what they actually meant.

In other words: If you’re spending more effort trying to figure out what the story said than you are re-evaluating your beliefs in light of what the story said, the story may be pretentious. If the story is difficult because the subject matter is difficult, that’s legit, but if it’s difficult because the author didn’t try to make it clear, or deliberately made it unclear, that’s pretentious.

(I’m okay with the spinning top in Inception, because the question left unanswered, as to whether the final world is real or not, is a question the characters are themselves asking. It’s not something you have to answer to interpret the story; it’s part of the story.)

James’ essay elaborates on this. He doesn’t, however, explain where this trend over the past century for “great” art to be pretentious came from. It’s actually deliberate.

Persian Flaws

There’s supposedly an old Persian tradition that every carpet made must have a deliberate flaw in it, because “only Allah makes things perfectly, and therefore to weave a perfect rug or carpet would be an offence to Allah.”

Hopefully you see the flaw in the reasoning: If only Allah makes things perfectly, you don’t have to worry about creating something perfect. This alleged tradition has always struck me as tremendously arrogant–an artist supposing she or he could create a perfect work.

Modern (20th-century) art and literature suffers the same arrogance. We see this first in the great stress that modern artists and modernist writers placed on reminding the viewer or reader that their art was not reality, but just a picture of reality.

Caption: “This is not a pipe”

The most-common justification for this obsession was the idea that art was a tool of the bourgoisie, used to suppress the proletariat by showing them false images of reality. Creating revolutionary consciousness required first making people aware that the paintings they looked at weren’t actually real things, and that the novels they read weren’t true life stories. You can find examples of this argument in Bertolt Brecht’s director’s notes for The Threepenny Opera (1928), in Lennard Davis’ 1987 book Resisting Novels, and an especially paranoid lunatic version of it in Theodor Adorno’s 1944 “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”.

So many modernist writers add deliberate “flaws” to their works, disruptive elements to break the reader’s immersion and keep the reader detached and at a distance.  In The Threepenny Opera, Brecht broke up the play’s continuity and immersiveness by having actors intersperse narration with raised billboards, of the type that separated scenes in silent films, by using these billboards to break dramatic tension by telling the spectator what was going to happen, and by directing the actors to act in a manner meant to break the fourth wall. “In drama, too, we should introduce footnotes and the practice of thumbing through and checking up… Thinking about the flow of the play is more important than thinking from within the flow of the play,” he wrote. “The spectator must not be misled along the path of empathy.”

In other modernist literature, breaking the reader’s immersion is done by breaking up and re-arranging the story in ways that confuse the reader and destroy rather than heighten drama, such as the tedious circling about the actual story, bouncing back and forth between past and future, in Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things, or the way David Mitchell split all his stories in two and inserted the pieces inside each other in his critically-acclaimed Cloud Atlas (2004).  You would be hard-pressed to find a critically-acclaimed novel from the past 20 years that told a straightforward story using a traditional structure that was meant to heighten rather than dispel drama. Chapter 1 of Annie Dillard’s 1982 Living By Fiction, “Fiction in Bits”, is about this phenomenon, as is much of “A Reader’s Manifesto” (2001).

One modernist technique for breaking immersion and creating distance is ambiguity.

Ambiguity

I’m not complaining about the kind of ambiguity where you can’t decide whether an artwork’s message is right or wrong, or the kind where the subject is difficult, or the kind where the subject is ambiguity itself. I mean ambiguity that is added to the story to obstruct your attempts to figure it out. That’s the kind of ambiguity Ross James is calling pretentious: ambiguity that makes you argue over what a work of art is trying to say, rather than about the thing it’s saying. The claim that this sort of ambiguity is good comes from modernist philosophy.

The informational content of a work of art, like the information in a sentence, comes more from how its parts are combined than from the meanings of the individual parts, e.g., “the dog bit the man” doesn’t mean the same thing as “the man bit the dog”.

But Modernism is based on ancient Platonist metaphysics, which claims that meaning exists only in the essences of individual things, not in how those things are combined. So modernists have difficulty conceiving of the information content of a representational work of art as being significant. They tend to think the significance of a representation is just the sum of the significances of the things represented. A representational work of art only shows you a collection of things you’ve seen before; therefore, it contains no new essences, and (they would argue) you can learn nothing from it.

This is why modernists imagine they could produce perfect art if they wanted to; they’re blind to the art part of a work of art, and see only the technique. They’re reverting to the medieval and ancient Greek conception of “art”, which meant about the same as our “craft” or “technical skill”. (You can read a post-modernist whining about how the Enlightenment led people to invent the artificial concept of “Art” in Larry Shiner’s 2001 The Invention of Art.)

To make a work challenging or interesting, dedicated modernists believe it must do one of these things:

– It must give us new views of essences.  This means either giving direct access to transcendental essences never perceived before, or depicting essences more truly than they have been depicted before.  Either option requires not using a realistic style. This is the primary purpose of modern art. You can find this spelled out in, for instance, various writings by Cubist painters circa ~1920, e.g. (Gleizes & Metzinger 1912 p. 195).  The description of cubism in ancient and primitive art in (Boas 1927 p. 351) gives the same explanation.

– It must use a new style or technique.

– The challenge can’t lie in the meaning of a work of art, but it can lie in the challenge of discovering that meaning. That is, art can’t lie in the interpretation of a work of art–an interpretation merely spells out what is being represented–but it can lie in the difficulty of discovering an interpretation. Nothing the artist has to say can be very interesting, but figuring out what the artist is saying–or producing your own meaning from a Rorschach-blot-like work of art–can be fun and interesting.

The Alleged Insufficiency of Language

Another theme of modern literature and philosophy is that language is incapable of communicating meaning, and actually serves to mislead people more than to enlighten them. You find this, for example, in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, in which he said that “Language disguises […] thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognized.” You also find it in Derrida’s “infinite chain of deferral of meaning” (Derrida 1967). This belief comes not from any actual failure of language, but, again, from Platonist metaphysics, which says that meaning resides in a transcendent realm which words can never reach.

In modernist literature, this sometimes results in authors trying to prove that language can’t communicate meaning by writing stories which fail to communicate clearly.

William Faulkner is a good example. Just today I heard a lecturer (David Thorburn, Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature, lecture 21, “Faulkner’s World–Our Frantic Steeplechase”) say that one of Faulkner’s themes was “the treacherous limitations of language as an instrument for describing and understanding experience.”

But Faulkner never demonstrated this legitimately, by showing a failure of language. He deliberately obscured his meaning, for instance, by using phony stream-of-consciousness in which he imagines that the interior thoughts of a mentally subnormal person, or of a child, are simply the things that person or child might say out loud if asked about his thoughts. Or, in many instances in As I Lay Dying, by again using stream-of-consciousness dishonestly, having a character’s interior monologue not say things that the character already knew–always the most crucial elements in figuring out what that character was thinking about–to give the impression that true inner experience was incommunicable.

A survey of modernist literature would turn up more instances of stories written in a deliberately obscure style specifically to prove that language is incapable of communicating meaning. I’ve given at least one example in a previous blog post, but I don’t remember what it was right now.

Conclusion: Blame Plato

So ambiguity of interpretation–what Ross James calls “pretentiousness”–came to be seen as inherently good, because people can argue over the meaning of an ambiguous work of art, and because ambiguity “proves” that language can’t communicate meaning and that we need to find a transcendent source of meaning. It’s deliberately cultivated by modernists, as a consequence of their belief that representational content is unimportant and the real (physical) world is unimportant, as a consequence of their Platonist metaphysics.


Franz Boas, 1927. Primitive Art. Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co. Page numbers reported from Dover 1955 reprint.

Bertold Brecht, 1928, transl. Eric Bentley 1949, exigesis Eric Bentley. The Threepenny Opera. First performed in Berlin. New York: Grove Press.

Lennard Davis, 1987. Resisting Novels: Ideology & Fiction. Methuen, Inc., NYC NY.

Jacques Derrida, 1967, transl. 1976. Of Grammatology. Extracts in Leitch 2010 p. 1688-1697.

Annie Dillard, 1982. Living By Fiction. NYC: Harper & Row.

Albert Gleizes & Jean Metzinger, 1912. “Cubism.” In Harrison & Wood 1992, p. 187-196.

Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, eds., 1992. Art in Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno 1944, transl. 2002. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In Dialectics of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, Stanford U. Press, 2002.

Vincent Leitch et al., eds. 2nd ed. 2010, The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. New York: Norton.

B. R. Meyers, 2001. “A Reader’s Manifesto”. The Atlantic, July/Aug 2001.

Larry Shiner, 1990. The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. U. of Chicago Press.

Near and Far–Construal and Psychological Distance

Standard

Near and Far

A current area of research in psychology called “construal-level theory” (CLT) is—I promise—relevant to literature.  It talks about a very general phenomenon called “psychological distance”.  In popular accounts, it’s called the “near / far” distinction.  Robin Hanson summarized it on Overcoming Bias.  The more-detailed review (Trope & Liberman 2010) calls these things Near and Far:

Abstraction and idealism appear to make up the dominant dimension:  Far things are more abstract and more idealized.  Distance seems to me peripheral; only near / far in space and in time relate to distance [1].

CLT claims that:

  1. Every object of thought has many different attributes (rows of the table) which distance can be a metaphor for.  Distance itself, of course; and distance in time is similar.  More metaphorical distances include level of familiarity (familiar = near, strange = far) and abstraction (detailed = near, abstract = far).  The distance metaphor has even been stretched to include color (red = near, blue = far) and transactional direction (buy = near, sell = far), though I’m not convinced.
  2. In all [2] experiments reported in (Trope & Liberman 2010), being shown anything from the Near column of the Near / Far table makes people think in Near terms for every other row of the table. Similarly for things from the Far column. For example, subjects asked to mark points far away from each other on a graph, and then asked how close they were to their family, reported being “farther away” socially from their families than subjects who were asked to mark points that were close together on the graph (Trope & Liberman 2010 p. 443).  Many experiments used a Stroop-effect task to show interference (longer reaction time) when the priming attribute was near (far) and the tested attribute was far (near).
  3. Therefore, near / far is, or can be regarded as, a single mode of human thought.  Perceptions of nearness of one attribute are not merely correlated with perceptions of nearness of other object attributes; they cause other attributes to be perceived as near, or to be approached or thought about (construed) in the manner one would if they were near.  Near / far is thus a mode of human thought, and while a person can be in a mode between near and far, a person cannot perceive some attributes of a mental object in far mode, while simultaneously perceiving other attributes or other mental objects in near mode.

Near and Far in Art & Culture

I claim, additionally, that Near and Far characterize not just how individuals think at a given moment, but characterize artistic movements, literary genres, and entire cultures.  These works, artists, genres, and cultures can be classed as usually endorsing or displaying either Near or Far values:

Far: The AeneidBeowulf, Chaucer’s Troilus and CriseydePilgrim’s Progress; John Milton; heroic fantasy, superhero comics; Christianity, Nazism

Near: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; Robert Frost, Raymond Chandler; realist and naturalist novels, hard-boiled detective fiction; empirical science

The history of European art, science, and culture from 1300 up until 1900 was, excepting the 18th century, one of moving gradually from Far to Near mode.  The first-person POV in fictional narrative was (I think) an invention of the 18th century, and the 20th-century dictums “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell” are both commands to write in near rather than far mode.

The novel that began Modernist literature, James Joyce’s Ulysses, is all about confusing the Near and the Far.  It takes a narrative that is very, very Far—an Archaic Greek epic poem about an idealized, overconfident, noble hero—and superimposes it on a protagonist who is very Near—an irreligious Irish Jew whose mundane, pathetic, and comical inner thoughts and bodily functions are described in more detail than anyone had ever described any character’s before.

Near and Far will be important concepts in understanding the history of art and culture.  They are so important that they were discovered independently several times before.

Using Near and Far in Writing

Ursula LeGuin wrote an essay called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” which I think is pretty awful.  She tried to pin down what made something fantasy rather than ordinary fiction with dragons and swords, and she started out right—

Let us consider Elfland as a great national park, a vast beautiful place where a person goes by himself, on foot, to get in touch with reality in a special, private, profound fashion.

The phrase “get in touch with reality“, used to talk about something that is definitively unreal, is instantly diagnostic of philosophical realism, also called Idealism.  That’s the belief that reality isn’t real, but instead some fantasy world of yours, an imagined ideal world such as Plato’s cave, is real.  Plato, Jesus, Hegel, and Heidegger are probably the most-famous Idealists.

Idealism is indeed the basis of classic heroic fantasy, although now, in the age of democracy, we’ve got hobbits as heroes.  Idealism seems to mean nearly the same thing as Far mode.

However, she goes on to say…

What is it, then, that I believe has gone wrong in the book and the passage quoted from it? I think it is the style.

Not heroism, idealistic principles, or karma in the world, as Tolkien would have said.  No; LeGuin says true fantasy is anything written in a genuine phony archaic style.

I think style is certainly not the causative or definitive feature we want to find, but it is not as useless a conclusion as it first appeared to me. For a style specifies how one approaches the objects one writes about.  Does one describe them concretely or abstractly? Does one focus on the physical details, or on purposes and meanings? Does the wording create distance or intimacy?  All the choices presented in the “Near / Far” table could be called stylistic.  A style, then, positions a text on the Near / Far continuum.

Knowing what is Near and what is Far will therefore help you keep your style more psychologically plausible, by not mixing Near and Far stylistic elements.

(Trope & Liberman 2010) mentioned some research on Near vs. Far style.  Here “dispositional” means saying someone did something because of their character, versus “situational”, which means saying someone did something because of the situation they were in.

It has been shown, for example, that personal memories of behaviors that were recalled from a third-person perspective (e.g., “try to remember your first day at school, as if you are now watching the kid you were”) rather than from a first-person perspective (“try to remember your first day at school, as if you are a kid again”) tended to use dispositional (as opposed to situational) terms (Frank & Gilovich, 1989; Nigro & Neisser, 1983). In a similar vein, Libby and Eibach (2002, Study 4) found that imagining performing an activity (e.g., rock climbing, playing drums) from a third-person perspective produced less vivid and rich reports of the activity than imagining the same activity from a first-person perspective. In terms of CLT, this means that a third-person perspective, which imposes more distance than a first-person perspective, induces a higher level of construal. Indeed, Pronin and Ross (2006) showed that taking a third person perspective rather a first-person perspective on one’s own behavior promoted attribution of the behavior to personality traits rather than to specific situational factors.  — Trope & Liberman 2010 p. 447-8

All this means that your choice of first or third person point of view should take into account the construal mode you want to invoke in your reader.  If you want to work in high fantasy, and have your reader concerned with romantic ideals and to see codes of ethics as absolute and inviolable, you should write in third person.  If you want to confront your reader with unpleasant or messy truths and shake them out of dogmatic complacency, or bring them into close empathy with a unique individual, first-person would do better. This is why Tolkien and LeGuin’s fantasies are in third person, while Glen Cook’s Black Company and Roger Zelazney’s Chronicles of Amber, both subversions of heroic fantasy, are in first person. It’s also why Raymond Chandler’s gritty, cynical detective novels are in first person.

These are not absolutes. Third person is extremely flexible.  Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is in a third person that is so close-in to the protagonist that it might as well be first-person. Hemingway’s third person is so objective and concrete, and carefully stripped of Far-mode subjective judgments and abstractions, that it probably puts the reader in Near mode rather than Far.


[1] Even many of the experiments that attempted to measure distance also measured familiarity and abstraction, as they contrasted  a nearby, well known place with a distant, unknown place which the subjects could only envision abstractly.  So we should really call this the concrete / abstract dimension.  But near / far is a more concrete way of describing it.

[2] Trope & Liberman report on about 100 experiments, and in every case the results agreed with the predictions. This is literally too good to be true.  Either the authors, the journals, or the reviewers consistently filtered out all adverse results.  One important study has been retracted for being fraudulent.


References

Yaacov Trope & Nira Liberman, 2010. Construal-Level Theory of Psychological DistancePsychological Review117(2): 440 – 463.

On Writing Comedy

Standard

I recently wrote a short story for a writer’s workshop I’m in that was meant to be funny, and that I’m told was, in fact, funny.  The thing is, it didn’t make me laugh.  I don’t think I smiled while writing it.  What was in my head while writing it was a series of calculations along the lines of “HUMANS WILL LAUGH AT THIS WITH PROBABILITY 0.57.”

Partly I felt the story didn’t have enough funny lines–look at a page from Pratchett or Douglas Adams, and you’ll see nearly every paragraph is funny.  Partly I didn’t like the flow / pacing / transitions between topics / lack of story structure.

There are some lines I think I would have laughed at if someone else had written them, but plenty that I don’t know if I would have ever found funny.  I was definitely not consciously writing for myself.

It was a rushed job.  I still find myself not knowing whether it’s not funny, funny but not my thing, funny and my thing but I can’t laugh at it because I wrote it, or funny and my thing but I’m suppressing that knowledge.

But that’s usually how I feel when writing comedy.  Even if something is funny at first, it stops being funny after I’ve read it 10 times.  A stand-up comedian isn’t laughing at his own material; he’s laughing at the game he’s playing with the audience.  Writing comedy is like taping a stand-up comedy routine with no audience.

I felt a little better about this when one of the speakers at the 3 Rivers Screenwriting Conference said that writing comedy was so hard because, unlike all other kinds of writing, you can’t tell from your feelings whether your comedy is any good.  Comedy shows are written in a “writer’s room,” a big room with a round table and several comedy writers throwing lines and ideas at each other.  This speaker said he had never been in a writer’s room for a comedy show where the writers were laughing.

If you write something sad, you know it’s sad if it makes you cry [1].  If you write something uplifting, it makes you feel good.  But comedy relies on surprise, and you’re not surprised after the first moment a joke occurs to you, and the joke isn’t quite right the first moment it occurs to you.  The wording is wrong, the context is wrong, and you have to fiddle with it until it can sound funny, and by then it doesn’t surprise you anymore.

Postscript:

Maybe dividing our feelings into neat categories–comedy, tragedy, romance–is a modern thing.  The separation of reason into the rational and the emotional is a thing that happened at least twice in history, first in Plato, then again in the 18th century.  The Elizabethans, like Shakespeare and the “metaphysical poets” like John Donne, united rationality and feeling in their writing.  The phrase “metaphysical poet” almost means “a poet who uses a precise, scientific metaphor to convey passionate feelings”, as in Donne’s Valediction.

This includes comedy.  Shakespeare wrote a bunch of “problem plays” which people don’t know how to deal with now, because they aren’t strictly comedy or drama.  A few years ago I wrote on this blog that Shakespeare used cheap alternations between the comic and tragic, but that’s not always right.  The gravedigger/Yorick scene in Hamlet, or maybe some scenes with Shylock in Merchant of Venice, are funny, but in an almost cruel or ironic way that we don’t write humor anymore, a way that you might need to be less “Enlightened” to appreciate.


[1]  Not me, of course.  Super villains never cry.  That’s just eye-venom leaking out.

Writer’s Block

Standard

What I mean by “writer’s block” is when someone stares at the paper / screen & can’t think of what happens next.  This should never happen.

If you’re ever reduced down to just one interesting thing that could happen next, it means you’ve written your story onto train tracks, and your story is now boring, because only one interesting thing could happen next.

If you’re down to zero interesting things, that means you didn’t stop when you had just one interesting thing.  You need to back up at least to the last point where you had to choose between two interesting things that could happen next, because everything after that point is no good.

But even focusing on what happens next is weird.  Why are you staring at the last word on your page?  What about the setting of scene two–should it move to a different location to symbolize progress from scene one?  Is the level of omniscience you gave character A in scene 3 inconsistent with her puzzlement in scene 1?  If your story isn’t finished and you don’t still have a dozen different issues to reconsider, something has gone wrong.  Either your story is too simple, or you’re an incomparable genius, or you’re not being demanding enough.  Stories don’t drip out of the pen in an ordered, final state.  It just can’t happen that you’re stuck on the last word you wrote, yet have no questions about anything that came before or will come after it.  There should always be problems throughout the story all shouting for your attention.  The particular point in the story where you last stopped writing should not be so prominent in your mind.

Why are you writing the story from start to finish?  Seriously–why would anybody do that?  Do you not know how it’s going to end?  That means you’re not writing a story, because you don’t yet have a story idea.  A scenario is not a story.  If you don’t know which direction to go in because you don’t know where you’re going, I don’t think we should dignify that with the term “writer’s block”, as if it were an aberration rather than exactly what you’d expect to happen.

The normal state of writing is not staring at the last word on the paper and wondering what could happen next, but thinking about the entire story, the entire set of possible stories, characters, and events you considered while writing it, and choosing where to strike next, what to change, and which alternative to use, to hammer the thing into one unified story.  The normal state is to have too many possibilities, not too few.

If I have a dozen scenes that need to take place then I should be able to work on them in any order.  I could have written scenes 2, 6, and 1, in that order, because those are the longest scenes, (and it’s easier to start with scenes that have some meat to them.)  Even then I might have a lot of issues up in the air:  How much should Character A know about what’s going on?  How much humor do I get from her being oblivious versus being sweetly nefarious?  Same question for Character B.  Should Character C appear in the scene related to her interests, or should Character B stand in for her?  Have I got too many people in scene 1?  I have a weak transition marked in the middle of scene 1, around a joke that doesn’t really work.  Can I punch it up and make it funnier, or rip it out?  Can I substitute a similar joke?  Can I delete the entire opening and so not need that transition?  Is scene 6 too long — it should be picking up steam as we head into the final scene, not dragging out its joke.  Etc.

My point is that even though this hypothetical story is a very short one, I could easily reel off twenty issues in the first 2,000 words demanding my attention.  Issues that any story is going to have and any writer should be thinking about.  If I were stuck, I’d start working on these 20 issues, and I guarantee that at least one of them would open up a path forward where I was stuck.  To get writer’s block, first I’d have to resolve all these issues to my satisfaction, and that never happens.

There are always dozens of issues that could go another way in a story, even when it’s “done”.  If you’re staring at the screen and don’t have even one issue demanding your attention, something went badly wrong long before you got to that point.

Most likely, the problem is either

(A) you don’t know how the story ends, or

(B) you’ve eliminated tension by closing off too many possibilities earlier in the story, or

(C) you haven’t got enough awareness of craft, technical issues, and how life works to detect the problems in what you’ve already written, and to focus your attention on what the unwritten sections of the story need to accomplish and to avoid.

Brooks & Warren, The Scope of Fiction

Standard

Remember when I plugged one of Brooks & Warren’s books about what stories do & how they work, Understanding Fiction?

Last week I discovered they published a condensed version in 1960 called The Scope of Fiction.  This is based on the 2nd (1959) edition of Understanding Fiction.  The chapter list below has stars next to the ones included in The Scope of Fiction.  Each chapter has about 2/3 of the stories given in that chapter in the bigger book.  It includes the opening commentary for each chapter, which are all slightly different than in the 3rd edition.

   1. Intentions & elements of fiction

* 2. What plot reveals

* 3. What character reveals

* 4. What theme reveals

5. The new fiction (metafiction)

6. Fiction & human experience (writers write about how they developed their stories)

7. Stories for reading (great stories without comments)

IMHO the only important stuff missing from The Scope of Fiction is chapters 1 & 6.  Chapter 1 is more basic than 2-4, so you can probably do without that, too.  Chapter 6 was in the 2nd but not the 1st edition, which had “Special Problems” and “Technical Problems & Principles in the Composition of Fiction” instead.

Best of all, right now Amazon has 34 used copies for 1 cent plus $3.99 shipping!  There are also 37 copies of the full Understanding Fiction, 3rd edition for $3.70 right now.