New Worlds: Literary Storytelling

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Since these essays are crafted with an eye toward science fiction and fantasy, I should specify at the outset that I don’t mean “literary storytelling” in the sense of modern mimetic literature. I simply mean “stories that are written down.” (And specifically prose that is written down; we still aren’t tackling poetry yet.) Which is a category with two distinct watersheds in it: first the creation of written literature in the first place, with the advent of writing systems, and then the sudden boom that went with the invention of the printing press.

Both of those watersheds are things we’ve discussed before, in Year Two, but I mention them again here because the nature of literature changes in response to them, in form and content. Written text doesn’t need the kinds of repetition you find in oral stories; in fact, when writing and copying are laborious and expensive tasks, that repetition is unnecessary extra work. And when printing makes texts accessible to the general public, you see a wild swing in subject matter, because then it isn’t just a field for elites.

What do we even mean when we say “literature,” though? In theory I’m trying to talk about material written for entertainment, rather than non-fiction texts. Except the boundary between those things isn’t nearly so clear we try to make it nowadays. Ancient literature is a wild place, where a perfectly sober-seeming treatise on geography will at one moment be telling you about the chief exports of a city and then a moment later describe the one-legged people who live in the mountains nearby. The Greek writer Herodotus is often called the “Father of History,” due to having written the first systematically researched and organized work of history — at least in the West; I’m not sure about elsewhere — but his work also includes legends and other elements with no discernible basis in fact. His work makes for very entertaining reading, and he almost certainly meant for it to. Dry, sober objectivity was not the goal.

You can also look at this from the other direction, with a narrative form all of us are familiar with: the novel. Who wrote the first novel? Well, it depends on how you want to define that term. Some people say the first novels in the modern sense were written in the 18th century. Others point to Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605), at least for the European tradition; two of the most classic Chinese novels, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin (also called Outlaws of the Marsh), date back to the fourteenth century. Some people award the title to The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, an eleventh-century Japanese work. But if you take the term “novel” in its broadest sense — a long narrative in prose (however you choose to define “long”) — then arguably it goes back something like two thousand years.

But let’s backtrack a moment to that word “romance.” Nowadays it evokes a specific genre focused on romantic relationships, but it also has an older meaning — one which contrasts with “novel.” In this view, a novel is supposed to be a realistic depiction of society, a la what we call literary fiction today. And not just realistic in the sense of not including magic or speculative technology: it’s supposed to focus on ordinary events, the sort of thing that might happen in a normal person’s life. A thriller in which a housewife winds up saving the leader of her country, even if it contains no speculative elements, would be considered a romance in that older sense, because the events it depicts are so unusual.

The division between these things is a convention, and one that tells you a lot about the society that’s interested in enforcing it, especially if they hold one up as superior to the other. But that’s true of all our genre divisions . . . and of all our narrative conventions.

Everything about how we write our stories is a convention. Genres? Length? Subject matter? Point of view? Dialogue? It’s all stylized, and if you look back at the history of literature, you can watch those things changing. The Victorians wrote some truly enormous novels, both of the grindingly realistic and excessively sentimental variety. In the “pulp” era of the early twentieth century, many novels were so short we’d probably class them as novellas today. Omniscient perspective used to be the default; then that all but died in favor of third-person limited, and right now we’ve got a boom in first-person narratives. Techniques that were so ordinary you didn’t even notice them, like infodumps or the constant use of said-bookisms (replacing “said” with verbs like “shouted” or “queried” or the perennially embarrasing “ejaculated”), are now considered hallmarks of bad writing.

What’s acceptable to write or read about changes, too. More puritanical cultures often decry anything which seems to be “mere entertainment,” including fiction of basically every kind. A rigidly religious society like the actual Puritans might limit themselves to scripture and perhaps related texts like collected sermons, but this doesn’t only happen in a religious context; an authoritarian state might permit only educational nonfiction on useful subjects like agriculture, or state-approved histories. Within fiction itself, sexual matters have often been the target of anti-obscenity laws, on the principle that reading “filth” will make society more degenerate. But one can’t help noting that such laws might ban some morally degrading texts, while letting through others that degrade in different ways, e.g. through racism.

Which brings us, finally, to the fact that even how we read changes over time. Right now there’s an ongoing struggle over how to deal with older texts, many of which don’t reflect the values of our current age. What’s the best way to handle that? Does depiction of a thing equate to approval or promotion of a thing? How do we include or not include the author’s intent in our understanding of a text, or the cultural context in which that text was produced? These questions and the answers we provide for them are conventions, too: products of our own society and the concerns we’re grappling with at this present moment. Decades or centuries from now the situation will be different, just as it’s different right now in the U.S. from what it looks like in Spain or Japan, and Spain now is different from what it was in 1605, Japan from what it was in 1021, Greece from what it was in Herodotus’ day.

But we’ll still want stories. That part, I doubt will ever change.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Literary Storytelling — 3 Comments

  1. That struggle has gone on a long time, probably since the first novel was circulated hand to hand. I was reading something written in the early 1700s the other day, which stressed how it was perfectly acceptable to read “polite literature.” That was a category, or genre, or keyword, what-have-you, “polite literature.”

    • As opposed to the impolite kind, which forgets to say “please” and “thank you” and never apologizes when it rams into you in the streets. 🙂

      It’s particularly interesting to watch realism go in and out of fashion over the ages.

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