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Month: November 2021

Contemporary novels from the past

Posted in Setting

The novel is an excellent way of absorbing the feel of another culture, whether from another place or from another time. We read many an historical novel set in a past distant from the author (Walter Scott, Dumas, etc.) with great pleasure, without thinking too much about the author's subtle translation for us from the usages of his chosen period for our modern interpretation (and when that author is himself at some distance in time or place from us, this takes on almost a meta flavor).

I myself am very fond of the ancient versions of this — Homer and the much older Trojan War, the monk who transcribed Beowulf, the Icelandic sagas. Still, I don't lose sight of the fact that the forms in which these things survive are written down long after the actual events or invention and, if not explicitly interpreted for the envisioned audience, are nonetheless necessarily viewed through the assumptions of those who have preserved them or retold them.

Writers of adult contemporary fiction? Well, not so much. Unless they are set in an exotic location or exotic demographic, they expect their audience to understand the culture that they share with the author. And, so, they often waste no breath on explaining the things that everyone knows. They just get on with the story.

Still, time does pass, and the settings of such books do grow distant and unknown from their latest readers. Part of the appeal of these works for modern readers lies in their matter-of-fact portrayal of a different time in the ancestry of the current culture.

The picture above shows a camping trip in 1920. There was quite a fashion for these in the early years of the family automobile. Farmers from the mid-West could now take their families safely and conveniently on a multi-week vacation, participating in one of the luxuries that was previously unaffordable for them, educating the mind by seeing other places, and glorying in the exercise and fresh air that are everyone's right.

How do I, specifically, know this? Why, I read about it, in Gene Stratton-Porter's 1925 novel: The Keeper of the Bees.

Writing with no end in sight

Posted in A Writer's Desk

An article about an older woman writing old women characters caught my attention today.

I'm not yet all that old (67) but there's lots of Alzheimer's in my family (and no long lives) and I can get a bit gloomy guessing how long I have to function adequately (and yes, as in the referenced article, I've acquired my last puppy, too — nothing but older dogs from now on). Despite that, I've started what is intended to be quite a long fantasy series (finishing the 3rd book now before starting to release the first 3). I'm keeping in mind the fate of long-running detective series where the hero gets too old too quickly, and beginning it with a prequel where my hero is 15 (then 20, by book 2).

It's a challenge. My explicit model (not for the story or setting, but for the slowly developing age of the hero and a long series) is C. J. Cherryh's “Foreigner” series: 1st book: 2004, 21st book: 2021, and still going. (Cherryh had already written dozens of books in SFF by then.) One of her major secondary characters is yet another old woman, soon to die at this point in the long story, and she is just as complex and functional (in her way) as anyone could want.

I find that when writing a standalone novel or a short series you can put just about any characters you want into the mix, but when planning a long series, you have to be more cautious about the “team” that constitutes the core — many of them are going to be with you for a long time, and you can't just kill them off, one per book, when you get tired of them, nor can you just accumulate the individual series book's new characters into the team promiscuously without that getting out of hand. You have to give the reader's view into your world a particular continuing focus to make things effective, and characters they can remember from book to book.

But an author's age/health does enter into series planning. I'm glad I had not yet begun releasing the first two books, because a health crisis interrupted everything for a year and a half (all better now), and makes me wary of the “book per year” minimal requirement. On the other hand, a shorter series (3 or 4 book, say) tends to have an overall series arc (like a fantasy quest) that you really need to complete, while a long series often ends without an overall arc — just the evergrowing weight of a team's long life with some sort of satisfying action at the end of each book. If the series ends prematurely with the author's life, less harm is done. So, I plan to keep plugging away on this new series and, with any luck, I'll live forever and start another long series or two afterwards.

Humans are story-telling animals

Posted in Characters

The popularity of Jordan Peterson for his intended audience is an interesting phenomenon.

I was provoked today by yet another sneering article, this one from Stuart Schneiderman, about Peterson's use of Jungian archetypes. Schneiderman, who is rarely above a middle-brow level of blogger, enjoys opportunities to look down on popular culture from higher-status heights. His article is an example of a typical elite slur:

  • Take a concept
  • Point out that the person using it is not perfect
  • Claim that the concept is being applied well beyond its sanctioned mandate
  • Take the “all the best minds disagree” approach to wipe it away.
  • Claim superiority to all the players

Peterson has written books (both academic and popular), speaks publicly, and has upset the wokerei with his objection to modifying pronouns or pronouncements for their comfort, but his main popularity is based on a series of lectures he gives to his university students. I recommend that you look at a few of them to understand what he tells them. His primary audience is young men who don't understand why their lives are a mess, and he gives them both insight and advice for how to change that.

The “Jordan Peterson is a horrible person and, besides, his followers are all rubes” claim that Schneiderman and other elites promulgate is a distasteful manifestation of our time, where people who claim to be intellectuals or thought leaders are far more interested in status among themselves. Socially, the claim is that the audience is dumb enough to be fooled by unsanctioned teachers [and we're not that dumb], and intellectually, the claim is that the particular teaching includes a model that is not rational or moral (or woke), namely Jungian archetypes and traditional modes of behavior [and we can't talk about or believe such things].

Objections to a point of view on these grounds is both very bizarre and alas all too typical these days.

Humans are story-telling animals. All of our perceptions are based upon narratives that are shortcuts to understanding reality, in order to better survive it. We tell ourselves stories all the time, and stories are enactments of characters. Jung's insight was to explain these characters as universal human archetypes.

How could it be otherwise? We are the descendants of people who, when they saw something move in the bush ahead of them, ran away because they feared the possible tiger, not the people who paused to construct a rational analysis of the scene (and were sometimes mistaken). Speed and pre-judgments matter to us. Rational analysis is an afterthought for when we are safe, not when we are in danger.

Our first reaction to any sort of social scene is to immediately assign acquaintances to internal representations of what we know about them, and strangers to various archetypes as placeholders. It is those stand-ins for real people that we are constantly manipulating in our heads as we navigate social situations.

The point of Jungian archetypes is not that they are immutable moral principles subject to rational analysis and debate, but that they are common, perhaps universal, shortcuts to the sorts of narratives embedded in our toolset. Objecting to the concept or particular flavor of archetypes from a rational perspective is like objecting to the fragility of our foot and ankle bones from the perspective of an engineer working from newly designed structures, rather than from the perspective of a “good enough design evolved from pre-existing materials”.

Jung's usage of an insight he devoted himself to is no doubt fraught with human behavior perils on an ad hominem basis, but the insight itself is a fruitful way of looking at the way humans think using their evolutionarily-descended toolkit. After all, we can perhaps improve on morality and rationality through intent, but we can only bring to it the tools we already have. It's a good thing for Peterson to bring those tools to light so that his students can better understand why they have the psychological filters/failings they have, and to suggest functional ways of dealing with them.

Jordan Peterson himself is a man like any other and has a man's personal failings, but ad hominem arguments about him are no more relevant than they are about Carl Jung. Certainly Peterson is incontrovertibly effective for his intended audience. Like many applied remedies, it might be more fruitful to analyze why he is effective, than to deny that he could be, in principle.

If Schneiderman and others think humans can embrace rationality and ignore the older and more fundamental toolset, then they probably believe that humans can change their behavior at will. We can all be thin, and fit, and attentive, etc., just by knowing what the rational behaviors should be (for historically contingent values of “should”). Since that demonstrably doesn't work any better for adults than children, what makes them think this is how humans can actually function?

Footnote: It's not just humans who are story-telling animals. We may model “what-if” plotlines internally all the time, but it's easy to see the same thing happening with other animals such as our pets as they scheme to steal food from each other or evaluate what might happen if they misbehave. The better an animal can evaluate situations before acting, the more likely it will survive to breed.