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Metaphors for Stories. And why they matter. Part I

What is a story like? Is it a game of catch, a bullet in a gun, or a bitter sugar-coated pill? What is it? There are so many ways of thinking about a story. And how we think of it tells a lot about us. However, one must resist favouring one metaphor over another, as much of it can be reduced to a writer’s or a reader’s subjective imagination. What I’m interested in are the implications of such metaphors on storytelling.

The metaphors we use to convey what a story is or what it should be shapes how stories are made, narrated, and received.

For example, if we see stories as games, then the reader is recognized as an active agent in creating it. The responsibility of meaning making is divided more fairly between the two parties when compared to the ‘bullet in a gun’ metaphor. It resembles the idea of text as seen by Wolfgang Iser, an advocator of Reader Response criticism. He says:

Texts not only draw the reader into the action but also lead him to shade in the many outlines…so that these take on a reality of their own. But as the reader’s imagination animates these “outlines,” they, in turn, will influence the effect of the written part of the text.

The ‘game’ metaphor suggests an activity to be more performative and takes into consideration contemporary notions of ‘fan theories’ and ‘fan-fic’ which the other metaphors don’t.

The ‘bullet in a gun’ metaphor illustrates perfectly the principles of Chekhov’s gun. Anton Chekhov suggests everything that has no relevance in the story should be removed. Any unnecessary details should be avoided, and all plot points that cannot be resolved shouldn’t be introduced in the first place. This metaphor stresses upon the economy of language above all else. Adverbs and adjectives are inherently evil and a meandering subplot is necessarily a point of criticism. Stories that end with an ‘Ah ah moment” or an epiphany, closely follow this metaphor. Flash fiction also fits the criteria quite well in my opinion.

The metaphor of ‘sugar-coated pill’ also has its connotative meaning. The idea emphasizes more on the substance than the form. As Horace says, “Delight and teach”, which implies that the main purpose of art is only to make an idea or a message more palatable to the audience. Style of an author ultimately is just a ploy by the writer to entice the readers into opening up and perform certain actions or imbibe certain qualities, e.g., Aesop’s fables tell stories only to teach moral lessons. Members of the Aesthetic movement would have staunchly opposed use of such a metaphor to describe a story. Author of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov writes:

There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.

So, it’s conclusive to say that metaphors we use to describe stories deeply influence our standards of judging what makes a story ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We get different types of stories depending on how we see a story. Once this idea is understood, Le Guin’s essay ‘The Carrier Bay Theory of Fiction’ becomes easy to grasp. In my next post, I will provide a detailed analysis of the essay and some critical opinions about it.

Here is a PDF file of the essay: The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction

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Ursula Le Guin

Everyone knows I can’t stop myself from drooling over her. She is my favorite. Her books, her essays, and her philosophies. To sum all of it in a blog is impossible. So here is a quick introduction to who she is, what she has done, and why she matters.

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Ya, she has swag!

So how did I first come across her works?
It was during my BA vacations. I was binge watching Brandon Sanderson’s Youtube videos on fantasy writing. One day, in the bless’d comment section, some student had written a long-assed post about his favorite author, and why she was better than Tolkien. As I can’t find or remember the exact comment, I’ll paraphrase: ‘She takes all things good about Tolkien and makes them better. She turns Middle-earth upside down, but with dignity’. It seemed quite interesting and with nothing better to do, I lunged forward towards the Earthsea novels, eager to devour them. And as they say, the rest is history.
Many things about the novels did seem to subvert the norms of the genre especially Tolkien’s work. Dragons were neither greedy fiends that hoarded treasure, nor did they cannibalize their own kind (C. S. Lewis); they were prideful, but not evil by nature. They were wise, arrogant, and dangerous. This shift was revolutionary for her times. Her dragons were not cute ‘pets’ that were to be tamed by the hero; they weren’t reduced to fantasy dogs. When most writers were trying their best to imitate Tolkien, she swam up-stream. Her characters were not white, and the world she imagined didn’t have a medieval European backdrop. There were no dwarves, elves, and orcs in it. Moreover, one of the most striking features of Ursula’s novels was her treatment of conflicts. There were ‘villains’ who did bad things to people and their actions had the potential to destroy the world but these said characters were far from the cliched ‘pure evil’ archetype. And that is not it! What amazes me more about her work is that she rarely relied on violence to resolve problems. Her novels don’t conclude with classic duels that establish the righteous supremacy of the ‘good’ or with wars that are meant to end all wars.

How often do you come across an epic fantasy in which the hero vanquishes his archenemy without violence?

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Earthsea CyThcle

However, these aspects by themselves don’t make her worth the praise she deserves. Every decent author is expected to bring something new to the bookshelf. What makes her ‘The One’ for me is her ability to balance herself on the edge of the genre. When I read her work, I never get the feeling that she writes with the purpose of ‘deconstructing’ some norms or conventions. Her fantasy ticks all the boxes that a mainstream fantasy series should, yet they are so far apart from what you expect from the genre. Her novels are familiar and fresh at the same time. They stretch the boundaries of what is possible, not from outside but from within.
And this doesn’t solely apply to her Fantasy, but also to her Sci-fi. Here is one of her quotes that shows her intention to explore new possibilities within a genre. She says:

Here we’ve got science fiction, the most flexible, adaptable broad range, imaginative, crazy form that prose fiction has ever attained and we’re going to let it be used for making toy plastic ray guns that break when you play with them and prepackaged, precooked, predigested, indigestible flavorless TV dinners and big inflated rubber balloons containing nothing but hot air? Well, I say the hell with that. (WNYC studios Interview)

Although she is widely known for her Earthsea and Hanish Cycle, it would be a sin to ignore her short stories, essays, and poems. ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omerlas’, one of her best short stories, exemplifies what one can achieve with a short story. In less than five pages or so, she is able to craft an immensely imaginative utopia and raise profound questions about our societal structures. She provides thought-provoking insights about how we as a culture perceive and seek happiness. Her other notable works that I am familiar with include her poetic rendition of the 4th-century Taoist text, Tao Te Ching and her essay ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’. (Probably, one of them will be my topic for the next post that I will write soon enough)
Her works were influential to the later generation of authors; there is no doubt about it. Neil Gaiman and David Mitchell come to mind. Neil writes, “She inspired me as a boy, and as a young man, and as a grown-up writer. I learn more from her book at every stage of life than from any other writer…” This awe towards her comes not only from her stories but also from the love and reverence she has towards the genres she writes in. She doesn’t treat speculative fiction as a means of escape or wish fulfillment (for her or for her readers) but uses it as a means of protest. Through her imaginary worlds, she addressed uncomfortable topics relating to gender, race, religion, morality, sexuality, politics, and violence.
Above all else, she cares about writing, the craft and the art of it. In her non-fiction(s) like Steering The Craft and Words Are My Matter, this becomes most evident. The voice of this gentle rabble-rouser carries much weight and significance in the increasing materialistic world that we live in. Where everything is commodified and objectified, she reminds us of the sacredness of Art and its capacity to bring change. In her acceptance speech, at the National Book Awards, she says:

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

Some interesting Links:

Ursula Le Guin’s blog http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Blog2017.html#New
Brandon Sanderson’s creative writing lectures (short playlist)

Her short story ‘The Ones who walk away from Omerlas‘ read by Skinner McLane

Here is the entire speech given by Ursula K. Le Guin at 2014 National Book Awards

Thoughts on Sense8 and why you should watch it

Sense8 was a TV show that I came across completely by accident. It was not a friend’s recommendation; I didn’t see any ads or promotional trailer on YouTube or elsewhere. What I saw was one poster…of two people looking at each other in utter disbelief with the caption ‘I am not just me. I am also a we.’

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This caption, also the title of the 2nd episode, was quirky enough for me to give it a try. On binge watching the first season, I have come to think that there couldn’t be a better quote to represent the show and its incredibly passionate fan base.

To put it in a single line, this show is about transcending boundaries. It oversteps physical, mentally geographical, and cultural boundaries by connecting people from wildly different backgrounds. It does this by capturing the day-to-day life of eight individuals from different cities, all with varied experiences and stories of their own. The show follows these characters as they deal with their personal problems, while the delicately unfolding a bigger plot that connects them all together.

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Netflix catalogues this show under sci-fi, probably because Sense8 propels on the idea of a human subspecies that has developed a ‘hive mind’ but other than that the show doesn’t contain any typical futuristic or fantasy elements often related to the sci-fi genre.

Whenever I try to recommend it to people I have a hard time explaining why I love Sense8 so much. Maybe it’s because it has so much to offer. One of the greatest aspects of this show lies in it being a perfect blend of different genres. There are plentiful moments where the show turns into a mushy heart-warming romance while also featuring well-choreographed fight scenes and thrilling chase sequences. It succeeds in being an intellectually serious show and offers almost philosophical insight into our world while still sprinkling moments of light-hearted, rib-tickling humor.

This show is sure to make you laugh your guts out and make you cry like a ‘little bitch’, It is going to keep you at the edge of your seat and make you think for hours once you are done watching it.

It brilliantly portrays how our lack of sympathy or our willingness to understand others can make all the difference in the world. It brings to surface the differences we share among ourselves and what makes those differences irrelevant uniting us as a single “We”

The show maintains a maxim that only through mutual trust can we survive in this world, and no matter how strong you are, or how intelligence you always face times when you need help from others. Its central theme is rather a question: ‘what does it truly mean to be human and how far do we actually act like one?

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Very few TV shows have attempted to film on multiple locations throughout the world and fewer have succeeded in doing so profitably and efficiently. Sense8 is one of them. It covers nine cities (Chicago, San Francisco, London, Berlin, Seoul, Reykjavík, Mexico City, Nairobi, and Mumbai.) in eight countries which is a feat in itself. Even full-fledged movies with decent budgets dread the logistics behind such an undertaking. What is more astounding is the fact that it is able to give us a glimpse of what each city and its culture looks like. For example, the show captures the pride parade or Dyke March in San Francisco, the Fourth of July fireworks celebration in Chicago, the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai, a real lucha libre, i.e., professional wrestling in Mexico City, etc. The show is visually powerful and will leave you with a wanderlust that is hard to shake off.

 

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Icelandic landscape ❤

 

Sense8 has a diverse cast not just culturally but also in the context of race and gender. The creators have taken great efforts to cast actors and actress, who are similar to the characters they play. For example, Jamie Clayton who plays Nomi Marks is a Trans woman in real-life, Max Reimelt was born in East Germany just as Wolfgang, the character he portrays. This voice appropriation is very helpful in developing the characters and making them stand out as real and loveable people in spite of them having some stereotypical aspects.

Every show has some downsides and there is nothing that is entirely perfect. Few drawbacks which might bother people are:

  • The show is little difficult to understand and is slow-paced, at least the first few episodes.
  • The show has nudity, and awfully lot of sex. Even a mental orgy!

 

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Ya, this happens 😉

 

  • Some circumstances and plot points are unrealistic and hard to believe.
  • If you are not an LGBT ally or conservative in that regard, you might not like the show so much as it emphasizes on those themes way too much.

To wrap up, I can say, the creators of Sense8, the Wachowskis have dreamt too big and have dared to too much. They have conceived something which is extraordinarily original, unconventional, and probably even overly ambitious. Sense8 at best, is a masterpiece of art that holds in account the tribulations of mankind, its hopes, its happiness, and an answer to life and at worst, it’s confusing highly sexualized somewhat intellectual show that tries too hard to visualise a plot which is better suited for some other medium.