My Fiction Site

In the right sidebar are clickable images of the covers of my novels, which will take you to their Amazon listings. Other posts will link to available free works – mostly shorter ones – and assorted thoughts on the writing of fiction.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Myth And Modern Fiction

Courtesy of Sarah Hoyt at InstaPundit comes this brief but thought-provoking piece about the importance of myth. Not some specific myth or myths, mind you, but myth as an abstract subcategory of story. It's worth your time to read it all.

Certain stories are accorded the status of myth, while others are not. The reasons are fairly easy to adduce from the myths we commonly recognize:

  • Myths feature protagonists and antagonists appreciably larger than life;
  • Mythic conflicts are large, and their stakes are extremely high;
  • Myths are free of peripheral distractions from the main event.
  • Myths are almost always morally unambiguous.

Perhaps the best one-word summation would be grandiosity. Myths are big stories. They're about big events in which big characters fight over big principles. Matters that bedevil ordinary men such as remembering to pay the gas bill on time are never mentioned. Not coincidentally, stories of mythic character are far easier to remember than others, which is why they persist through the centuries while lesser stories are forgotten.

Modern times have their candidate mythmakers, as the article mentions, but they also have a far greater number of storytellers who disdain to attempt mythic grandiosity, whether from disinclination or incapacity. That stands to reason, as among a large candidate population only a small fraction will possess the imagination, the skill, and perhaps most important of all, the character to compose a story of mythic dimensions.

This is not intended to denigrate those who produce more mundane entertainment. (It had better not be; my wife is a murder-mysteries addict. I just got her a Kindle for Mother's Day, and she immediately filled it up with murder mysteries. She loaded it with free games and crossword puzzles too, but that's a tale for another day.) Good entertainment doesn't have to be about huge conflicts over important principles; it only needs to divert the reader from his real-world cares for a while. Still, we tend to put myth-level stories "above" the others on the scale of values we use for such things.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to attempt the construction of a myth. It's obvious how easy it is to create an unintentional counterfeit of a truly classic tale; quite a number of contemporary works of fantasy are pale shadows of Tolkien. It's just as obvious -- if it isn't, it should be -- that to attempt so great a leap and fail is to fall very far indeed. It invites derision and humiliation to which writers of more modest ambition are never exposed.

Several of the elements of the Western Canon, by which I mean that group of tales that has become a hallowed foundation of our culture, are of mythic or near-mythic stature. Shakespeare's tragedies hit the mark. Le Morte d'Arthur and the Ring Cycle make the cut. Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick, reviled by innumerable high schoolers, bids for inclusion. But in the Twentieth Century we have a dearth of grandiose tales, though certainly there was no shortage of great writers and storytellers.

From roughly 1900 onward, the gage of the mythmaker passed to the outright fabulists: the men who dared to write in the speculative genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, without concern for the "unreality" of their settings and motifs. It takes some brass to work in those domains, which is consistent with the willingness to tackle grandiose stories, characters, and themes. Needless to say, not all the works in those genres deserve mythic status; indeed, the vast majority of them are utterly forgettable. But a few exhibit the degree of imagination, scope, clarity, and eloquence that suggests that a story might join the immortals. My candidates:

  • C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy
  • J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
  • Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  • Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
  • Greg Bear, The Forge of God and Anvil of Stars

A fledgling writer of SF or fantasy could do worse than to study those books closely, to steep himself in their breadth, the sharp contrasts between the contending forces, and the clear moral principles they depict in action. Yet not one of them is written in a grandiloquent or "literary" style. Like the myths we already cherish, they concentrate on story and character. Their authors trusted the power of their material, and were wise enough not to conceal it behind a wall of literary devices.

It takes more than a brilliant idea to make a candidate-myth; it takes genuine confidence.

The contemporaneous appearance of the Intercollegiate Studies article with this citation at has me wondering if the whole notion of coincidence is a divine joke:

The historic contributions of white heterosexuals are under attack again from the left. Salon has a piece genuflecting to Pulitzer Prize-winning author and MIT professor Junot Díaz, based on a New Yorker piece Díaz wrote in which he blasted MFA programs for being overwhelmingly white....

Díaz wrote in the New Yorker essay:

From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male....

Díaz pontificated to Salon:

If race or gender (or any other important social force) are not part of your interpretive logic—if they’re not part of what you consider the real—then you’re leaving out most of what has made our world our world. This is a long way of saying that it’s not the books you teach, but how you teach them....

The writer of the Salon piece, Prachi Gupta, had already championed a movement started on May 1 to push for more diversity in fiction:

It’s well known that even in 2014, America needs more diversity in, well, pretty much every field imaginable. But the same goes for realms beyond real life: Our fiction is sadly just as dominated by straight white men as the physical world is.

Mr. Dostoevsky, Mr. Tolstoy, Mr. Defoe, Mr. Swift, Mr. Stevenson, Mr. Dickens, Mr. Melville, Mr. Hawthorne, Mr. Twain, Mr. Faulkner, Mr. Hardy, Mr. London, Mr. Hemingway, Mr. Fitzgerald: sit down and shut up.

Have you sampled any of the works of the writers Diaz cites above? I have. Dear God in heaven, what a waste of prose! Obsessed with "oppression" by us eeeevil white heterosexuals. Filled with self-pity. And replete with the sense of entitlement by virtue of having been "silenced." None of them deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as even the least of Steinbeck's tales, as small-scale as those could be. Compared to any of the works of the Western Canon Diaz is so determined to demote, they're garbage.

What Diaz and his ilk are unable to see is that a worthwhile story must be more than a rant about one's own sorrows or "marginalization," regardless of whether one is justified in feeling sorry for oneself or deserving of better at others' hands. But a writer obsessed with himself is unlikely to have the vision or the confidence required to attempt a story of mythic scale.

Such writers are forgotten rather swiftly, as they deserve.

The West is in a certain sense founded on its cherished myths. Note that a myth need not tell of an event that actually occurred to be valuable. Whether there ever was a King Arthur is open to question, much less whether the story in Le Morte d'Arthur is at all historical. The Battle of Thermopylae happened, but not quite as Frank Miller or the producers of 300 tell it. To be valuable, a myth must elucidate some important value, preferably in service to an important moral principle.

In keeping with C. S. Lewis's observation that courage is the supreme human virtue:

[C]ourage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky. [C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters]'s no coincidence that our most cherished myths depict courage in action: men following a perilous course, likely to cost them greatly, because a value dearer to them than their own lives commands it of them.

Food for thought.

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