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Ursula Le Guin and the Fantasy/Science Fiction Genre

Ursula le GuinLast month, one of the greats of literature, Ursula Le Guin, died at her home in Oregon at the age of 88. I pointedly describe her as ‘one of the greats of literature’, because too often – as she herself would argue – we equate great literature with realism and relegate fantasy and science fiction to a lower form of fiction. Yet, the fantasy and science fiction genres have produced some of the greatest novels of our time. Where would we be without Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, and many, many others, including, of course, Ursula Le Guin?

In 2016, Le Guin said in an interview with the Guardian: ‘Realism is a genre – a very rich one, that gave us and continues to give us lots of great fiction, but by making that one genre the standard of quality, by limiting literature to it, we were leaving too much serious writing out of serious consideration. Too many imaginative babies were going out with the bathwater. Too many critics and teachers ignored – were ignorant of – any kind of fiction but realism.’

I agree. Why is it that fantasy and science fiction are so denigrated – and for those who enjoy them, a ‘guilty pleasure’? When J. R. R. Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings, most of his friends laughed at him writing adult fiction about hobbits, elves, wizards and dwarves, believing this kind of fiction should be limited to children’s fiction – and as such, of little importance (wrong on both counts, I think!). Only his best friend, C. S. Lewis, encouraged him and believed in what he was doing. Thank goodness. In fact, if it wasn’t for Lewis, we may never have had Lord of the Rings.

Read this quote from The Return of the King, and I defy you not to be moved by its imagery and simplistic beauty:

And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

In this epic trilogy, Tolkien explores some of the most profound human emotions and conditions: friendship and companionship, courage, despair and hope, the achievement of goals against all odds, and by exploring them outside of the usual realistic setting, we get to experience them on a deeper and more meaningful level.

A novel about these things set in a realistic world may be a great novel, but it will feel more mundane, and not quite as inspiring. We may not have to fight orcs or travel through dangerous terrain in our every-day lives, but symbolically we often do have to find the courage to face dark times and find friends and companions to see us through those dark times. Applying Tolkienesque symbolism to those feelings can help us feel more inspired.

Fantasy allows the writer to express ideas or explore situations that may not exist in our world but are nevertheless important in stretching our imaginations and challenging rigid outlooks. By taking us into a different set of social norms and behaviours, we can view our own social restrictions in an objective way, which inspires us to step outside of those norms to visualise a possible future.
For example, in Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness she explores a world in which all the people in it are androgynous. By using this setting, she is able to comment on how sex and gender impact on society, the nature of equality and relationships. Written in the 1960s, it was an important work that was part of the process in changing perceptions about men and women.

It is also beautifully written. There are many passages that explore beliefs, gender, relationships, philosophy, and so on, but this is one of my favourites:

To be an atheist is to maintain God. His existence or his non existence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof. Thus proof is a word not often used among the Handdarata, who have chosen not to treat God as a fact, subject either to proof or to belief: and they have broken the circle, and go free.

To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.
There are also some beautiful passages that describe the relationship between the central character and the exile he journeys with in the last chapters of the book.

But it was from the difference between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch. We left it at that. I do not know if we were right.

It is a profound novel. When I finished it, I was left almost breathless with the sense that I had read something incredibly important and life changing. As all good novels should, it raised questions, challenged perceptions and enriched my view of my own world via this fantasy world.

I first read Le Guin when I was a teenager and my brother bought me a copy of The Wizard of Earthsea, which I absolutely loved. I read The Left Hand of Darkness about two years ago. I now intend to read more.

While I read a wide range of genres, very few novels have the power to strongly move or inspire me as much as those in the fantasy, supernatural or science fiction genres – from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Dracula. If I analyse that, I think it is because we are able to experience the events, characters and themes in a purer way than the realistic novel because we are not bound by the ties of the every-day mundane.

It’s about time that we took the stigma of male geekdom out of the fantasy and science fiction genres. They are for all of us – written and read by men and women who wish to enrich and make a difference in the world of the real.

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What Makes a Page-Turner a Page-Turner?

page-turnerThe page-turner is a subject on my mind recently because I have just finished reading Douglas Kennedy’s Temptation, and, as usual whenever I read a Douglas Kennedy book, I just kept wanting to carry on reading – just another page… just another page…

Kennedy does not write in a very specific genre, although you might call them psychological thrillers, and each story is very different.  However, they all deal with the trials and tribulations of being human, and in most of the novels I have read, he takes his main character to the depths of hell, and back again.  When you pick up a Douglas Kennedy novel you know you are in for a real roller coaster ride.

Interested in exactly what it is that makes the reader keep wanting to turn every page, even though they probably have other things to do, I have put down my thoughts on the subject, and identified eight important elements for the page-turner.

  1. Engagement with Character. Unless we are talking about the kind of thriller that is completely plot-led – and for my liking, does not ultimately satisfy, the most important element is how the reader relates to the main character.  Even if you don’t particularly like the main character (e.g. Never Saw it Coming by Linwood Barclay), you must have interest in them.  They must be real in that they are neither completely perfect, or so awful that the reader doesn’t give a damn what happens to them.  They are flawed, but interesting.  How do you make a character interesting?  Give them a back story, make your reader understand how they came to be who they are, and give them needs and desires they aspire to and have not managed to acquire yet.  If the reader can relate to the main character, then the reader will want what they want, and ready to ride that emotional roller-coaster with them.  Perhaps one of the best examples is Scarlett O’Hara.  She may be a spoiled, self-centred and selfish little madam, but she fascinates us, and we love reading about her.
  2. Laying Breadcrumbs. A page-turner does not need to leap into dramatic action straight away.  In fact, in Kennedy’s Temptation, the real drama, where the proverbial manure really does hit the fan, doesn’t happen until more than half way through the book.  How on earth does he keep you avidly turning the pages until then?  Well, it is in the laying of what I call breadcrumbs.  Little clues sprinkled about in the early parts of the story that all is not well.  The main character may well be unaware of these little clues – in fact, it’s more satisfying when they are not!  You, as the reader, know something is not quite right: a shady character here, a dubious decision taken there, a strange episode that is seemingly random, but you know will come back and hit you later on.  It can be subtle; perhaps a gentle hint that a character holds some secret, or is not all that he seems.  All these little hints and clues – not always obvious – will, if the writer has done it well, give the reader a sense of unease, a feeling that something is going to happen any minute now…. so that, when the drama really starts, they will say, ‘Ah, yes – of course!  That makes complete sense now!  So how is he going to get out of this one….?’
  3. Secrets and Conflicts. This is really part of the laying of breadcrumbs I have discussed above.  Conflict is one of the most important elements of any story.  Without it, you do not, in fact have a story.  In a page-turner, conflicts are the bedrock of setting up a need in your reader to want to read on, to see whether and/or how they get resolved.  Secrets are extremely effective in keeping you turning the pages.  For example, other characters in the story have a secret that your protagonist doesn’t know about, but needs to know about.  Or, the main character has a secret which would be explosive if known.  Of course, it’s going to come out at some point, and don’t we all want to know what happens when it does?  The book I am currently reading (Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann), set in the 18th century, has just this element.  One of the main characters, a gentile, naïve young lady, is now married to someone who, unknown to her, is a cardsharp, the son of a whorehouse owner and known amongst some very shady circles in London.  Oh boy, I can’t wait for the young lady to find out just who she has married….
  4. Cliff Hangers. More obvious, this one.  We all know about the cliff hanger, also known as ‘the hook’, whether it’s the end of a chapter in a book, a scene in a film, or the end of an episode of Eastenders, that dramatic scene, or even just a last, dramatic sentence, where the characters have arrived in a tricky or even life-threatening situation, and all you want to do is read the next chapter or watch the next instalment to see how they get out of it, or how they react.  As long as the readers are engaged in the characters, this is what will make them read on.
  5. Development of Main Character. This is not just limited to page-turners; it is, I think, essential to any good story, but particularly so in a page-turner.  Why?  Because if the hero of our story is human and therefore flawed, as they should be, then we want to see them learn from their mistakes and grow and develop.  This is one of the great satisfactions of the good story.  And often it is what the character has learned that saves them in the end.  Alas though, Scarlett O’Hara learns all too late that Rhett Butler was the man for her (I read it at a tender age and was inconsolable for a week), but in the book with a happier ending, it is extremely satisfying when the protagonist has perhaps learned that all his/her problems are his own doing, or is able to put the past behind them and move forward – or whatever message it is that the writer is trying to give.  One of the reasons that we keep turning the pages is that we want to see that development, and how it happens.
  6. Keep the reader waiting. It is no good setting up a hook, or a hanging thread early in the story, only to satisfy it too soon.  That is how Kennedy manages to keep you reading all through the first half of Temptation, while he builds up the story, laying down little episodes and questions that need answering, but not answering them.  You know they will make sense, or be answered at some point, and if you just keep reading you will find out the answer. Those trails of breadcrumbs I mentioned above should be long ones.   Or, while your main character is hanging by his fingernails from the cliff (metaphorically speaking, mostly), you might move over to another set of characters and see what they’re doing.  It is such fun, as a writer, to drive your readers mad with impatience!
  7. Pace. A page-turner should not all be in the fast-lane.  Some plot-led thrillers may be, if you like that kind of thing, but an in-depth, character-led novel which is too fast, can be an exhausting and ultimately shallow experience which leaves you dissatisfied.  A fast, high action, thrilling chapter, which perhaps ends on a cliff-hanger, is often best followed by a slower-paced chapter, giving exposition or back story.  This also builds up our knowledge of the characters in the book, and makes us understand them, and makes us care whether they get out of their predicament or not.
  8. 8. High stakes.  The obvious, most extreme kind of high stakes is the life or death situation.  Either your main character’s life is in danger, or someone they love is in danger.  But, as long as the main character has been well written enough for the reader to care very much about them, the stakes don’t have to be quite as high as that.  It could be their career that is at stake (as in Temptation), or whether or not they lose/get the girl/guy, or anything else that is highly important to the main character.  The higher the stake, the closer to the end of the novel should the resolution come.

Well, those are my ideas.  If you have any other ideas, please let me know.  Also, do let me know of any really good page-turners you have read in the comment box.

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The Importance of Storytelling

As usual, I have been distracted and transfixed by the Wimbledon fortnight over the last few days, and there is something I hear said repeatedly, when some drama is happening, or an underdog is winning, there’s Sue Barker saying, ‘There is a story unfolding on Court No.1….’

importance of storytelling
ancient campfire storytelling(Wikipedia image, author: Margaret A. Mcintyre)

Story.  Drama.  Whether it is fact, or fiction, we love it.  All of us love to hear about something happening, or something that has happened, or something that hasn’t happened, but might happen, or something that has no possibility of happening, but is a good story anyway.  This is because we are human, and we are naturally curious, particularly about other human beings – and how else do we hear about other human beings if not through storytelling?

So, if we have factual stories, why do we need fiction?  I once heard someone say that they never read fiction, they didn’t see the point of reading something that wasn’t real.  I am convinced that person went home that night and watched Eastenders, and probably never made the ironic connection.  Whatever.  The point is that that person, and probably many others who say the same, have not understood what fiction is actually about.  It is, as any good writer will tell you, ultimately about truth.

You might argue that, if you want truth, you can read a newspaper, or a text book.  Well, that’s more to do with fact, rather than truth, and in these days of fake news, we cannot even say that it’s about fact.

However, good fiction, even if the basic plot is completely made up, has the truth of the human condition at its heart.  Whether the main characters are humans, hobbits, wizards, talking animals or aliens, they all have themes we will recognise, and that will speak to our inner being.  We can escape through fiction, whilst learning about ourselves without the pain of the actual experience.  It’s a bit like the way children learn important life skills through play.  In my experience, people who read fiction tend to be more open-minded, more informed, and generally more understanding about the human condition.

Take The Lord of the Rings, for example.  One of the reasons why this is an epic, important novel is not just because it is a great story with great characters.  It is also a story about friendship, comradeship, compassion and courage, all human themes.   When we set out with Frodo and Sam on their journey, we know in our hearts that they will return.  The reason we read is not to find out if they survive, it is to know how they survive, and what they have to learn and discover about themselves in order to survive.  This goes deep into our very subconsciousness.  We, also, are trying to survive in a difficult world.  We may not have to fight orcs, or destroy a magic ring in order to save the world, but we all of us at some point will have to find the courage to keep going when the odds are against us, discover the importance of true friendship and support, and look for the light when all is dark.

When Tolkien was writing this great epic, some of his friends thought he was mad, writing a fantasy story aimed at adults.  At the time he was writing, fantasy was looked down on as a triviality, or something only for children.  Tolkien knew better.  As an expert in ancient mythology and linguistics, he knew that he was reaching back into an older tradition of storytelling, that used legend, myth, magic and imagination to tell us the truth about ourselves.

For storytelling is also one of the most ancient of arts.  The storytellers of the ancient world were revered as people of wisdom and knowledge.  Before men learned to write, they were the first teachers, telling tales of heroism and legend.  They travelled, taking their stories throughout the world, and bringing back with them new tales from exotic places.

Stories reflect our own true selves.  This is why storytelling is so important, and no more so than in times when all about us is bad news and we struggle to come to terms with how to live in a world that seems at odds with itself.  Storytelling defines us as humans, and binds us together.  We see ourselves reflected back in the story, and we know we are not alone.

Everyone is involved in story somewhere.  If you don’t read, you probably watch films.  If you don’t watch films you probably watch TV dramas.  And even if you don’t do that, you will have heard a story in a song, seen it in a piece of art, or read a biography, or gone to the theatre or the opera.  There is no escaping it.  Story is everywhere.

So, if you are a storyteller, then remind yourself that you are carrying on a tradition that is as old as time, and that you are an important component of today’s world.  Never let anyone trivialise what you do. In my book, it’s just as important, if not more, than any of the highest paid jobs on the planet.  And it’s about time that we storytellers (whether it’s through art, music, writing or otherwise) were once again given our due respect.