Did you know that James Joyce’s Ulysses is a (relatively) modern tale inspired by Ancient Greek Mythology? Well, even if you did know that, this video has something for you.
Given this video series has focussed on literature and books made into movies more than popular fiction, I knew that one of my favourite genres wouldn’t get a mention. The vigilante hero/anti-hero traces its origins back to the Ancient Greek Myths as well. The most obvious versions are The Wanderer or Knight Errant which draw upon themes and ideas from heroes like Perseus. This early creation underpins later takes on the hero. And thus, Jack Reacher could be slaying gorgons and saving royals.
Interestingly, the Knight Errant is also prevalent in literature not influenced by Ancient Greek Mythology. So it is possible that convergent ideas are at work.
Ancient Greek Mythology has worked its way into modern pop culture so deeply that it would be an almost Sisyphean task to compile every way it’s manifested!
It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, a eight-part* series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis
This month’s It’s Lit! covers everyone’s favourite topic: food.
If it isn’t your favourite topic, just give yourself 48 hours without it and see if that changes your mind.
I’ve always found food scenes in books to fall into two categories: needless exposition, or important showing (Oliver Twist is a great example of this). While the video discusses the latter, it is all too common that the former is what we read most.
While I was watching the video I was reminded of something I read last year. The discussion of bread in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, particularly around the hard bread that needed to be soaked, was something that Karl Marx wrote about in Das Kapital. The hard bread was actually due to deliberate contamination to make cheap bread that workers could afford, knowing full well that it was bad for them to eat, and the employers knowing full well that the workers couldn’t afford to eat properly (keeping them hungry so they would work).
A great way to remind us future people of how society used to run.*
Food varies wildly from place to place and from culture to culture; since humans are such sensory creatures, using words to evoke the experience of eating is an excellent way to bring a text to life.
It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis.
*Let’s be honest, society would quite happily go back to those conditions, and in some areas of the world, it still is operating in that way.
Biologists are gathering evidence of green algae (pictured here in Kuwait) becoming carbohydrate-rich but less nutritious, due to increased carbon dioxide levels. As science fiction becomes science fact, new forms of storytelling are emerging. Raed Qutena
I count myself lucky. Weird, I know, in this day and age when all around us the natural and political world is going to hell in a handbasket. But that, in fact, may be part of it.
Back when I started writing, realism had such a stranglehold on publishing that there was little room for speculative writers and readers. (I didn’t know that’s what I was until I read it in a reader’s report for my first novel. And even then I didn’t know what it was, until I realised that it was what I read, and had always been reading; what I wrote, and wanted to write.) Outside of the convention rooms, that is, which were packed with less-literary-leaning science-fiction and fantasy producers and consumers.
Realism was the rule, even for those writing non-realist stories, such as popular crime and commercial romance. Perhaps this dominance was because of a culture heavily influenced by an Anglo-Saxon heritage. Richard Lea has written in The Guardian of “non-fiction” as a construct of English literature, arguing other cultures do not distinguish so obsessively between stories on the basis of whether or not they are “real”.
Regardless of the reason, this conception of literary fiction has been widely accepted – leading self-described “weird fiction” novelist China Miéville to identify the Booker as a genre prize for specifically realist literary fiction; a category he calls “litfic”. The best writers Australia is famous for producing aren’t only a product of this environment, but also role models who perpetuate it: Tim Winton and Helen Garner write similarly realistically, albeit generally fiction for one and non-fiction for the other.
Today, realism remains the most popular literary mode. Our education system trains us to appreciate literatures of verisimilitude; or, rather, literature we identify as “real”, charting interior landscapes and emotional journeys that generally represent a quite particular version of middle-class life. It’s one that may not have much in common these days with many people’s experiences – middle-class, Anglo or otherwise – or even our exterior world(s).
Like other kinds of biases, realism has been normalised, but there is now a growing recognition – a re-evaluation – of different kinds of “un-real” storytelling: “speculative” fiction, so-called for its obviously invented and inventive aspects.
a much larger collective conviction about who’s entitled to tell stories, what stories are worth telling, and who among the storytellers gets taken seriously … not only in terms of race and gender, but in terms of what has long been labelled “genre” fiction.
Rawson’s latest book, From the Wreck, intertwines the story of her ancestor George Hills, who was shipwrecked off the coast of South Australia and survived eight days at sea, with the tale of a shape-shifting alien seeking refuge on Earth. In an Australian first, it was long-listed for the Miles Franklin, our most prestigious literary award, after having won the niche Aurealis Award for Speculative Fiction.
The Aurealis awards were established in 1995 by the publishers of Australia’s longest-running, small-press science-fiction and fantasy magazine of the same name. As well as recognising the achievements of Australian science-fiction, fantasy and horror writers, they were designed to distinguish between those speculative subgenres.
Last year, five of the six finalists for the Aurealis awards were published, promoted and shelved as literary fiction.
A broad church
Perhaps what counts as speculative fiction is also changing. The term is certainly not new; it was first used in an 1889 review, but came into more common usage after genre author Robert Heinlein’s 1947 essay On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.
Whereas science fiction generally engages with technological developments and their potential consequences, speculative fiction is a far broader, vaguer term. It can be seen as an offshoot of the popular science-fiction genre, or a more neutral umbrella category that simply describes all non-realist forms, including fantasy and fairytales – from the epic of Gilgamesh through to The Handmaid’s Tale.
While critic James Wood argues that “everything flows from the real … it is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy, dream and so on”, others, such as author Doris Lessing, believe that everything flows from the fantastic; that all fiction has always been speculative. I am not as interested in which came first (or which has more cultural, or commercial, value) as I am in the fact that speculative fiction – “spec-fic” – seems to be gaining literary respectability.
(Next step, surely, mainstream popularity! After all, millions of moviegoers and television viewers have binge-watched the rise of fantastic forms, and audiences are well versed in unreal onscreen worlds.)
One reason for this new interest in an old but evolving form has been well articulated by author and critic James Bradley: climate change. Writers, and publishers, are embracing speculative fiction as an apt form to interrogate what it means to be human, to be humane, in the current climate – and to engage with ideas of posthumanism too.
These are the sorts of existential questions that have historically driven realist literature.
According to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet Report, 60% of the world’s wildlife disappeared between 1970 and 2012. The year 2016 was declared the hottest on record, echoing the previous year and the one before that. People under 30 have never experienced a month in which average temperatures are below the long-term mean. Hurricanes register on the Richter scale and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has added a colour to temperature maps as the heat keeps on climbing.
There is an infographic doing the rounds on Facebook that shows sister countries with comparable climates to (warming) regions of Australia. But it doesn’t reflect the real issue. Associate Professor Michael Kearney, Research Fellow in Biosciences at the University of Melbourne, points out that no-one anywhere in the world has any experience of our current CO2 levels. The changed environment is, he says – using a word that is particularly appropriate for my argument – a “novel” situation.
Elsewhere, biologists are gathering evidence of algae that carbon dioxide has made carbohydrate-rich but less nutritious. So the plankton that rely on them to survive might eat more and more and yet still starve.
Fiction focused on the inner lives of a limited cross-section of people no longer seems the best literary form to reflect, or reflect on, our brave new outer world – if, indeed, it ever was.
Whether it’s a creative response to catastrophic climate change, or an empathic, philosophical attempt to express cultural, economic, neurological – or even species – diversification, the recognition works such as Rawson’s are receiving surely shows we have left Modernism behind and entered the era of Anthropocene literature.
And her book is not alone. Other wild titles achieving similar success include Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace, shortlisted for the Aurealis, the Stella prize and the Norma K. Hemming award – given to mark excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class or disability in a speculative fiction work.
Kneen’s book connects five stories spanning a century, navigating themes of sexuality – including erotic explorations of transgression and transmutation – against the backdrop of a changing ocean.
Earlier, more realist but still speculative titles (from 2015) include Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us and Bradley’s Clade. These novels fit better with Miéville’s description of “litfic”, employing realistic literary techniques that would not be out of place in Winton’s books, but they have been called “cli-fi” for the way they put climate change squarely at the forefront of their stories (though their authors tend to resist such generic categorisation).
Both novels, told across time and from multiple points of view, are concerned with radically changed and catastrophically changing environments, and how the negative consequences of our one-world experiment might well – or, rather, ill – play out.
Catherine McKinnnon’s Storyland is a more recent example that similarly has a fantastic aspect. The author describes her different chapters set in different times, culminating – Cloud Atlas–like, in one futuristic episode – as “timeslips” or “time shifts” rather than time travel. Yet it has been received as speculative – and not in a pejorative way, despite how some “high-art” literary authors may feel about “low-brow” genre associations.
Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance, told The New York Times when The Buried Giant was released in 2015 that he was fearful readers would not “follow him” into Arthurian Britain. Le Guin was quick to call him out on his obvious attempt to distance himself from the fantasy category. Michel Faber, around the same time, told a Wheeler Centre audience that his Book of Strange New Things, where a missionary is sent to convert an alien race, was “not about aliens” but alienation. Of course it is the latter, but it is also about the other.
All these more-and-less-speculative fictions – these not-traditionally-realist literatures – analyse the world in a way that it is not usually analysed, to echo Tim Parks’s criterion for the best novels. Interestingly, this sounds suspiciously like science-fiction critic Darko Suvin’s famous conception of the genre as a literature of “cognitive estrangement”, which inspires readers to re-view their own world, think in new ways, and – most importantly – take appropriate action.
A new party
Perhaps better case studies of what local spec-fic is or does – when considering questions of diversity – are Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Claire Coleman’s Terra Nullius.
The first is a distinctly Aussie Handmaid’s Tale for our times, where “girls” guilty by association with some unspecified sexual scenario are drugged, abducted and held captive in a remote outback location.
The latter is another idea whose time has come: an apocalyptic act of colonisation. Not such an imagined scenario for Noongar woman Coleman. It’s a tricky plot to tell without giving away spoilers – the book opens on an alternative history, or is it a futuristic Australia? Again, the story is told through different points of view, which prioritises collective storytelling over the authority of a single voice.
“The entire purpose of writing Terra Nullius,” Coleman has said, “was to provoke empathy in people who had none.”
This connection of reading with empathy is a case Neil Gaiman made in a 2013 lecture when he told of how China’s first party-approved science-fiction and fantasy convention had come about five years earlier.
The Chinese had sent delegates to Apple and Google etc to try to work out why America was inventing the future, he said. And they had discovered that all the programmers, all the entrepreneurs, had read science fiction when they were children.
“Fiction can show you a different world,” said Gaiman. “It can take you somewhere you’ve never been.”
And when you come back, you see things differently. And you might decide to do something about that: you might change the future.
Perhaps the key to why speculative fiction is on the rise is the ways in which it is not “hard” science fiction. Rather than focusing on technology and world-building to the point of potential fetishism, as our “real” world seems to be doing, what we are reading today is a sophisticated literature engaging with contemporary cultural, social and political matters – through the lens of an “un-real” idea, which may be little more than a metaphor or errant speculation.
This month Lindsay Ellis discusses the Literary Cannon, or how books become “worthy“, in It’s Lit.
I swear that when I started posting these videos that I didn’t know the series would cover one of my pet topics. Worthiness, important books, snobbery, guilty pleasures, are all things I love to bang on about. This video feels like a worthy addition to my posts on the topic.*
Let’s explore what makes a book “important.”
Literary critics, writers, philosophers, bloggers–all have tried to tackle where and why and how an author may strike such lightning in a bottle that their works enter the pantheon of “Classical Literature”. Why this book is required reading in high school, why other books are lost to history.
It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. This all leads to a nationwide vote of America’s favourite novel. Learn More Here: https://to.pbs.org/2IXQuZE
For us readers, the answer is “Never! How could you ask such a silly question? What’s wrong with you? Do you even book, bro?” But the reality is that a significant chunk of the population have not read a book in the last year, and/or aren’t regular readers. We have to admit: some people don’t like reading.*
I have a pet hypothesis** on this. During school, mainly high school, kids start to hate reading. This is because teachers, academics, literary people, policy makers, and general busybodies, start to decree what kids should and shouldn’t be reading. As a result, kids are “forced” to read books that they aren’t interested in or that have won an award or are a “classic” or that fill a certain level of appropriate snootiness that appeases book snobs.
One of the authors, Annie Ward, presented at a readers summit recently and one of her slides has made it to social media. It covers some key points for how educators become “book wardens” who restrict reading and undermine reading ownership and choice. Book Wardens tend to:
While I have frequently focussed on the snobbery aspect to this problem, particularly from the reading/publishing industry itself, there is more to this. Take for example “just right” books and adults. What image do we conjure up when someone mentions comic book readers? Pimply teenage boy? An obese virgin loser who still lives with his parents? You know, this guy:
The problem with that series of assumptions is that it is a form of reading snobbery. How could a comic be entertaining to anyone who isn’t a loser? Or similar statements that you’ll hear from people who have never read a comic book and battle to wrap their head around the art form.
In other words, even as adults, we are encouraging people not to read.
But don’t worry, as Dav’s second-page shows, we can all make a difference to people by encouraging them.***
*A quarter of people (24-26%) haven’t read a book recently. I’ve previously discussed the reading figures for the US, UK, and Australia and it is interesting how the figures come together. Suffice to say, reading is not a favourite hobby for most people.
**Hypothesis because a theory is something pretty solidly supported, whereas a hypothesis is a question you want to answer. Join me in my scheme to change the values that will stop the positive feedback of the colloquial usage of theory today!
***Although in fairness, the literary snobs are trying to encourage people to read. Their failing is that they think what they like should be what everyone reads. They have us talking about guilty pleasures and judging what we read by their standards rather than just letting us read stuff we enjoy.
An argument that is often raised among the head shaking admonishment brigade, is that there is a woeful level of literacy in society. The argument usually points to comments on social media as examples of falling literacy, or to emoji laden messages, or is writ large in speciously reasoned blog posts like this one.
The reality is held within these charts:
Yes, as you can see, for over 200 years the world’s literacy rate has been improving. If you go to the source article at Our World In Data you will be able to highlight the 1870-2010 trends. This shows that even quite well-educated nations have improved their literacy rates.
So what exactly are people complaining about? Well, let’s take some of the examples that are often proffered.
I recently reread a number of pulp novels from the sixties and seventies (with an occasional eighties and nineties thrown in for fun) – not literary fiction by any means, just thrillers the likes of which I grew up reading. What immediately struck me is how erudite the books were compared to modern fare. They were written at a much higher grade level than current popular fiction, because, bluntly, the average person was more literate, and the assumption was that folks wanted a little intellectual stimulation with their car chases and explosions – that words with more than a couple of syllables could be salted through a tome without fearing a slew of one star reviews written in Pidgin English bemoaning that the author was trying too hard or must have once seen a thesaurus. Source.
This is, of course, a personal opinion expressed by the blogger rather than hard data. You only have to look at the above charts to see that the average person they are referring to is actually more likely to be literate now than in the 1960’s. I think the blogger has leapt to the assertion that people are less literate now as an explanation for a style change that has occurred. Or just wants to whine about kids these days. Because what blogger doesn’t want to do that?
Now, why would a style change occur in the last 30 (or more*) years? Interestingly, some research suggested that the way we write changes the style of our writing. With the rise of word processors and computers, writers measurably changed their styles.
But has anything else has changed in that time period that could have impacted writing styles? I’m not sure if these are familiar to people or not, but television, gaming, internet, media, are all more popular now than they were 30 years ago. I.e. books now have to compete with more entertainment than ever. So stylistic changes will occur to capture and keep an audience’s attention, lest it strays from the latest literary masterpiece about a dog caring for its cat with terminal cancer to a YouTube video about how white nationalism is okay now for some reason (because of post-modern cultural marxism apparently).
Has reading and writing (literacy) actually changed much, though? It is one thing to say that people have passed the minimum standard level, but it is quite another thing to suggest high levels of literacy are being achieved by more/less people.
Studies on this were actually hard to come by. Yet there is certainly concern about reading and writing proficiency for high-school and university level students:
Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class, according to the company’s data.
Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874.Source.
Given the last sentence in that quote, it is probably more accurate to say that the standards are changing. We now expect more of our literacy because more people are schooled and meeting basic literacy standards. For example, in the USA Master’s degrees are now as common as Bachelor’s degrees were in the 1960’s. People are expecting more of education and setting different standards than were held previously.
In 1997 academic Paul Brock gave an enlightening address to educators in which he carefully recounted the ways each generation has bemoaned the falling literacy standards of the younger generation whilst laying the blame at the feet of modern educational methods.
Apparently, we’ve been doing this since literacy first became a thing back with the Sumerians some 5,000 years ago.
The problem is not that literacy standards are falling, it is that literacy demands are changing – and we are not keeping up.
Schools have their role to play, and they can up their game in order to keep up with the times. But employers must also realise that workplace literacy is their core work, not a supplementary remedial program, and plan their businesses accordingly. Source.
In other words, declining literacy standards are a perennial myth that people love to complain about. Styles have changed. Literacy demands have changed. But that doesn’t mean things are going backwards. Much like kids these days arguments, we can expect to see these same points raised again and again with no evidence to support their claims. Because if there is one thing that never gets old, it is complaining about how things are different now than the good old days.
*The blogger’s larger post talks about a change occurring in the more recent 20-30 year period, despite referencing books from the 1960-70’s. You’ll also notice more links to evidence in my post… just saying.
Recently a YouTuber discussed what makes for a good story, based upon three important pillars: pictures, feelings, and ideas. Or as he put it:
Hello and welcome to another instalment of “X lectures you on matters he himself knows nothing about”.
Like with everything that has a simple explanation (and even some complicated ones), I think the response to these sorts of posited arguments is “I think you’ll find it is a little bit more complicated than that.” But this one was funny, so points for effort.
A lot has been written on how to tell good stories. Seriously, every second creative person in history has a list of rules or advice. So here is a list of seven things that make for good stories, because seven is more than three, and it was on the first page of my Google search:
A central premise.
Strong three-dimensional characters who change over time.
A confined space — often referred to as a crucible.
A protagonist who is on some sort of quest.
An antagonist of some sort bent on stopping the hero.
An arch in everything — everything is getting better or worse.
And perhaps most important — Conflict. (Source: from Inducing Reality: The Holy Grail of Storytelling by Ken “frobber” Ramsley)
I think Ramsley’s explanation is more of a traditional checklist of things you need in your storytelling. X’s, in contrast, is a more generalist feel of where a story sits on one of those trinity diagrams. Neither, in my opinion, is right. And as a creative person, I’m now going to make a list of rules and advice….
Joking. Joking. Because I don’t think it works like that. I think that what makes a story good is the execution of the various story elements, done at the right time, finding the right audience, and being interesting enough to be remembered.
As an example, Star Wars is regarded as good, despite containing clunky dialogue, wooden acting, and passable directing. Why is it good? Because it hits all the story elements of the hero’s journey, it was one of the first space operas that hit the baby boomer generation and their kids, and had cool ideas like light sabres, space battles, The Force, and merchandising before that was really a big thing, to be remembered.
I’ve previously discussed how the luck factor of being a good story works. One example I cited was of Moby Dick and how it became good literature by accident/chance. Essentially one person dug it up, liked it, wrote favourably on it, and the rest is history. Shakespeare is in a similar boat, as his works were collected posthumously by 5 fans (750 copies, 250 surviving). These are examples of how finding the right audience is important, and how timing may not coincide with when something is made. How many other potentially good works were lost because they didn’t have an advocate who chanced upon them?
Of course, that’s just my thoughts. It’s probably more complicated than that.
Edit: When I originally posted this discussion on what makes a story good, I linked to a video by a YouTuber. Via Twitter I have learnt that this YouTuber sexually abused his former partner. Please take a moment to read her story in the links.
This isn’t behaviour any of us should condone, nor support. In this instance, I was sharing his video and promoting his profile – hence why his user name and video have been removed from this post. I was wrong to tacitly support abuse in this way. By not standing against abuse you might as well be condoning it.