Is my observation correct? If there is a correlation, what might be the causation?
Some possible answers:
- Suspension of disbelief is hard to sustain in longer works of genre fiction which necessitates both a talented writer and a willing reader.
- In terms of fantasy and horror, maybe it has something to do with the human psyche. It could be related to how we tend to only remember short snippets of dreams. So, this mght imply that the imagination works most effectively when highly focused.
- Maybe it has to do with technique. The loose and limited narrative structure that a short story allows may give more freedom for the imagination.
- It could be as simple as it being the tradition of the genres. Each generation of writers take their inspiration from and thus emulate the writers that came before them. The earliest imaginative stories were short and have been influential.
- Another possbility has to do with the expectations of publishers and readers. The genres have often had a special relationship with anthologies and magazines. Partly, this is because the genres have never been big money-makers. Short fiction is what sold, and publishing magazines is cheaper than publishing a book. If an author wrote enough short stories, they might be able to eke out a living. A short story has a quicker return in terms of making money than spending a long time writing a novel.
(2) Horror is somewhat unique amongst the genres. In some ways its the most respectable of the genres and someways its the least. The earliest horror writers such as Poe aren’t even kept in the genre section, and even many of the fantasy writers that make it into the mainstream are often of a darker persuasion. Horror seems to attact more literary writers than many of the genres, but simultaneously horror is the least popular of the genres in that its almost always the smallest section. Horror gets isolated by itself wheras Sci-Fi and Fantasy usually get mixed together.
Horror has always had a close relationship with philosophy, and it often seems that horror writers can be more loose with their narrative structure than the other genres. In many horror stories, not much happens at all narrative-wise… it can be rather cerebral where your stuck in a characters head and everything is subjective.
(3) I enjoy authors that have distinctive personalities and voices. The two examples that come to mind are William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, but to a lesser degree Kafka and Hesse fit in this category for me. As for WSB and PKD, here ar some of the traits they share:
- They both wrote fiction and nonfiction, and they often mixed the two together.
- As such, they often mixed autobiography into their fiction even to the extent of creating characters that essentially represented themselves.
- Along with this, because of their dstinctive personalities, they were both admired by other writers who also used them as characters in their stories.
- They use repeating themes and chracter types across all of their work.
WSB and PKD are flawed writers (and flawed human beings), but still their writings compel me to a greater extent than do the writings of supposedly better writers. Their is a humanity to their writing in that they both were interested in people and were great observers. Also, you coud tell how much they simply enjoyed telling a good story.
Despite their similarities, they were very different in manyways. For one, WSB travelled widely and PKD hated to travel. One other thing is that WSB was way more cynical, but probably the better writer of the two. PKD was a hopeless optimistic and more overtly spiritual. For sure, they both had their own versions of despair even though they might’ve dealt with it differently.
I sense that they represent different sides of my own personality. I don’t think they ever met even though they probably had some common acquaintances. In my mind I try to imagine what they would be like if they had met eachother.
I’m not sure if they’d even like eachother. They’d both probaly think the other one was crazy. WSB would be more confident and aloof, and PKD would be more nervous and talkative. If they ever became relaxed enough around eachother, they would probably start swapping weird anecdotes, and neither of them would be sure if the other one was telling the truth or merely telling a good story.
My friend reads a lot of horror fiction. I’ve never been all that attracted to horror even though it crosses over with the fantasy genre which is something I read quite a bit. However, because of my friend, I’ve learned a lot about horror and begun to read some. He enjoys reading many of the small press horror writers which actually are some of the better horror writers from what I understand. For instance, my friend says that a number of horror writers consider Ligotti to be one of the best living horror writers and yet Ligotti is practically unknown.
Anyways, my friend and I talk about fiction all of the time. We share some of the same favorite writers (such as William S. Burroughs and Barry Yourgrau), but usually we’re reading entirely different authors. In particular, this past year or so, my friend has read hardly nothing else besides horror. So, even though I’ve read only a smattering of horror, I’ve listened to my friend read quotes from and give synopsis of hundreds of horror stories.
I’ve come to have more respect for the horror genre. Because it deals with human suffering in such a direct fashion, its heavily influenced by philosophical and religious ideas. Interestingly, horror has attracted a number of writers of the Catholic persuasion. Horror writers for sure have been influenced by the ideas of Catholocism: original sin, fallen world, demonology, etc.
I pretty much appreciate any imaginative fiction partly because imaginative fiction tends to be fiction of profound ideas. Philip K. Dick is one of the writers of profound ideas, but he is somewhat opposite from horror writers. PKD used Science fiction for his plots even though his stories were often more fundamentally fantasy. The closest that PKD came to horror would’ve been A Scanner Darkly. That book could be made into horror with only minor changes.
I was discussing with my friend the differences between the genres. I was thinking about how its rare for writers to combine horror and science fiction, and when they do its usually through the mediation of fantasy. Fantasy crosses over easily with both horror and science fiction maybe because fantasy is a more general category.
I’m reading Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson right now. I started it quite a while back but became distracted by other books. I decided to finish it now as its a direct influence on Google Earth and other virtual worlds. It has some similarities to PKD: the average hero and the interspersing of philosophical discussion. But its a bit more hard sci-fi than PKD tended towards.
Hard sci-fi often goes for these massive multiperspective epic narratives. This is quite different from horror. Horror is more likely to go for the small scale and single perspective. Horror writing often creates a sense of isolation and claustrophobia through an extreme subjective narrative voice. This disallows one to see outside of the character and thus magnifies the emotional impact.
Ligotti believes you need the subjective perspective of a single human to register the horror. A horror story can’t be portrayed from the perspective of the monster. The monster portrayed can never touch upon the imagination in the same way as a monster left as a mystery. This is why Lovecraft stories too often make terrible movies because monsters in movies can come off as simply ridiculous. Horror is a profound emotion that isn’t fundamentally about blood and guts. Slasher movies aren’t the most horrific stories.
Besides the claustrophobia of subjectivity, the other technique is intimacy. Almost everyone remembers sitting around a campfire or in a tent sharing ghost stories. This is often recreated in horror stories. Poe used this technique, for instance, in The Telltale Heart. The main character in that story is telling the story in what seems to be a confession. This intimacy creates sympathy all the while throwing one off with questions of the narrator’s reliability. Part of the horror is how the narrator tries to make sense what happened or else tries to rationalize what he did.
How this is different from science fiction is that with sf there is much more action by and interaction between characters. SF characters may spend pages explaining some idea but they don’t tend to tell the story. The narrator’s voice is more likely to be less identified with the subjective perspective or at least not a single subjective perspective.
This is intriguing in what it says about human nature. Science fiction tends towards the optimistic by taking on the big picture. Horror tends towards the pessimistic by confining it to the small view.
The reason I’m writing about this movie is because it reminds me of the tropes site. A show like Stargate is filled with tropes. For instance, the characters are largely stereotypes. I don’t mean to say that this show is worse than most shows. Actually, its an enjoyable show, but the stereotypes do annoy me. I don’t empathize with the Stargate characters to the extent that I empathize with the characters in Star Trek: Next Generation.
Genre shows are often filled with cliche’s and predictable plots, but there are some very good genre shows. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show that uses tropes but manages to bring new life to them. And then there are shows like Dead Like Me which step outside of the typical tropes of a genre.
What I was wondering about is why people enjoy tropes, and furthermore why people enjoy tropes used in unoriginal ways. Creating original stories and characters is challenging, but that can’t explain the vast amount of copycat shows. I suspect that most people enjoy shows because it gives them an escape from their normal lives. Life is mostly unpredictable and so people turn to shows with a desire for the predictable.
A novelist on the pleasure of reading stories that don’t bore; rising up from the supermarket racks
By Lev Grossman (The Wall Street Journal)
A good story is a dirty secret that we all share. It’s what makes guilty pleasures so pleasurable, but it’s also what makes them so guilty. A juicy tale reeks of crass commercialism and cheap thrills. We crave such entertainments, but we despise them. Plot makes perverts of us all.
Well, that is a bit melodramatic. Good storytelling is far from being limited to ”crass commercialism and cheap thrills”. People simply enjoy good storytelling whether or not it’s considered high art by academics. But it’s no secret, dirty or otherwise. I do understand the point he is making. For any ‘intellectually respectable’ person, maybe good storytelling has been somewhat of a dirty secret… but I’ve never considered intellectuals who can’t think for themselves as ‘respectable’.
It’s not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to storyline. Sure, it’s something to do with high and low and genres and the canon and such. But what exactly?
Unfortunately, Mr. Grossman only manages a partial answer. There are some truly great analyes about the relationship between high and low genres, but you’ll have to look elsewhere. That said, I did appreciate this article. His pointing out the enjoyment of plot does touch upon something quite significant. And I agree Modernism represented a pivotal era. Writers, especially in America, were seeking a distinctive voice. They didn’t just want to write entertainments but to offer some semblance of reality. However, what the modernists didn’t realize is that ‘realism’ is just another genre with rules.
I think that not only some of the most popular but some of the best fiction of the last 50 yrs has come out of the genres. Mr. Grossman is correct that many people turn to fiction written for the young (which often equates to genres) for the simple reason that genre writers know how to tell a good story. At the same time, the most innovative writing has come from genre writers and mainstream writers experimenting with genre.
If you look at recent genre writing, it’s as much about breaking rules as following them. Genre writers are less confined than mainstream realism writers in both what they can write about and how they can write about it. Mr. Grossman points out that modernist writers invoked realism as their ideal, but what they forgot is that imagination is a part of human reality… or, to put it another way, subjectivity isn’t a mere extension of objectivity. Genre writers are more open to the mixing of realism and imagination which is why genre writers often come closer to the reality of genuine human experience.
I’ve found the fantasy genre inspires many authors with a basic love of storytelling. Fantasy is rooted in the first stories we heard as children. We read in order to have someone help us imagine something different than our normal experience. Even so-called realistic fiction portrays people and event outside of our normal experience and helps us understand them. There is no such thing as purely realstic fiction because imaginaton is always invoked when a story is told.
I think that the freedom allowed by genre fiction gives authors the opportunity to think outside of the box. When not constrained by the rules of realism, authors can more easily capture the subtle and complex aspects of reality.
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A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like
By Motoko Rich (The New York Times)
Lorrie McNeill gives her middle school students a wide choice of reading in Jonesboro, Ga. More Photos >
But fans of the reading workshop say that assigning books leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts. Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading.
If a kid learns to hate reading, then trying to teach them difficult texts is rather pointless.
Critics of the approach say that reading as a group generally leads to more meaningful insights, and they question whether teachers can really keep up with a roomful of children reading different books. Even more important, they say, is the loss of a common body of knowledge based on the literary classics — often difficult books that children are unlikely to choose for themselves.
Many kids simply won’t read a book or will just read the cliff notes. You have to first to encourage them to want to read because you can’t force anyone to anything. I remember as a kid writing a book report about a book I never read and the teacher even gave me a good grade for it. I did have some decent English teachers, but I must admit that I had to learn my love of reading on my own. I’m just glad that no teacher taught me to hate reading.
Every child (and adult) natualy loves stories. It takes great effort to destroy that love. Many adults learned to not enjoy reading fiction and have only regained their enjoyment of reading through books such as the Harry Potter series.
Though research on the academic effects of choice has been limited, some studies have shown that giving students modest options can enhance educational results. In 11 studies conducted with third, fourth and fifth graders over the past 10 years, John T. Guthrie, now a retired professor of literacy at the University of Maryland, found that giving children limited choices from a classroom collection of books on a topic helped improve performance on standardized reading comprehension tests.
This is so obviously true. Even without the research, it just commonsense that giving kids some choice engages them in the learning process. Once the kids are engaged, the teacher can then guide that learning process.
Most experts say that teachers do not have to choose between one approach or the other and that they can incorporate the best of both methods: reading some novels as a group while also giving students opportunities to select their own books.
Duh! This isn’t a new concept. You have to meet kids where they’re at and go from there. Also, kids are different… have different past education, have different levels of reading comprehension, have different learning styles. The goal is to get kids to learn and a teacher should do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal. Some kids learn best when given more freedom to explore for themselves and some kids learn best when told what to do. Some kids only need the merest enocouargement and some kids need direct guidance. Whatever method is necessary, the primary goal is to teach a love of learning and kids are born with a desire to learn. If a teacher can establish a love of learning (i.e., not destroy the child’s natural curiosity), a kid will carry that with them for the rest of their life.
Filed under: Entertainment | Tagged: A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like, education, fiction, genre, Good Books Don't Have to Be Hard, Lev Grossman, literary canon, Modernism, Modernists, Motoko Rich, plot, storytelling | Leave a Comment »
I was just having a discussion with my friend. We were talking about horror writing and what defines it.
Neither of us enjoys slasher horror which I equate to violence porn, and for the most part violent movies tend not to be very scary to me. Most violent horror flicks seem superficial and predictable. There are many other types of horror writing besides. There is your traditional supernatural story where a normal person encounters some strange phenomena often in some place that is old and dark. That kind of horror has been done well by some authors, but its failing is that it externalizes horror.
The real horror is the experience of horror itself, the horror that can’t be easily categorized. The extreme version of this has been called metaphysical horror or atmospheric horror. It goes beyond mere psychological horror. This horror is neither internal nor external. What makes it deeply horrifying is that the lines are blurred. The most famous representative of metaphysical/atmospheric horror is Lovecraft.
This type of horror relates to a blog I wrote previously: Zen Great Doubt, Existentialist Angst, and Gnostic Longing. I was responding to a comment in a thread about spirituality. The commenter goes by the name Jim and this is what he said:
In Victor Hori’s book on the Rinazi Koans, Victor interprets the Great Doubt (the death of meaning?) as a kind of “samadhi,” and what follows it (in which meaning is reconstituted?) as kensho or satori . . . . I’ve heard “Great Doubt” likened to Jaspers’ notion of the “Grenzsituation” or “boundary situation,” a condition or situation through which a person can neither escape nor transcend. Jaspers describes it as a cul-de-sac where the person can neither go forward nor backward forcing the person back on her own resources so that she experiences existential “Existenz.”
Hakuin (1689 – 1769), said of his own “Great Doubt” that “It was as though I were frozen solid in the midst of an ice sheet extending tens of thousands of miles. I could neither go forward nor retreat.“
Hakuin says that great doubt is like hanging over an abyss: “we have no where to go (really) but down – eventually we must all let go and jump – it is supposedly that act which propels us to the next level – to enlightenment. What would bring us to this point – where we are willing to give up the self? Does the fall into the abyss always result in enlightenment? How would we know? What do we have to give up or suspend to make such a leap?”
I responded with this…
The following is a quote of Eric G. Wilson from his book The Melancholy Android. Wilson, in speaking about Hans Jonas’ book The Gnostic Religion, has this to say(p. 68):
The greatest task of the fallen anthropos is not to work through his anxiety, alenation, and confusion. It is to keep his melancholia acute. His sadness corresponds to his readiness for gnosis. But the world conspires against his dejection, offering him either the brief comforts of matter or the more lasting solaces of soul. Hedonism seduces in the first case; orthodox religion in the second. The Gnostic must defend against the wretched contentment of these modes and hold open his wounds of the spirit. Malcontented with outward forms, he turns inward to his hidden spark. The spark, trapped and stifled, faintly flares, repeating in each flicker the homeward call.
And, in speaking about Martin Heidegger’s(Hans Jonas’ teacher) book Being and Time, writes:
For Heidegger. the only hope for authenticity — a secular, psychological equivalent of gnosis — is anxiety. Heideggerean angst, like Gnostic longing, performs a double function. On the one hand, it constitutes the basic mood through which one comes to understand one’s own authenticity; on the other, it forms the aggravating condition from which one flees to the collective. Heideggerean anxiety is directed toward the “nothing” of being in the world without the help of the mass. This condition descends when all familiar ideas fall away and one feels as if one hovers in an unfamiliar abyss. This unfocused floating can push the sufferer in one of two ways — either cravenly back to the lotus doses of the mass or courageously into possibilities for being. If one chooses the former path, one can never return to the ignorant bliss of the collective but spends long days neurotically attempting to repress the unsettling sense that existence is a sham. However, if one embraces the latter way, one undergoes an uncanny experience: insight into the relaionship between individual being and the Being of all beings.
Once one commits to understanding one’s connection to Being, one never rests but realizes that the profoundities of this origin are beyond comprehension. However, one also knows that this perpetual insecurity will lead to deeper intimacy with the abyss and a greater care for individual being and other beings. As we have seen, Heidegger in “What Is Metaphysis?” likens this chronic melancholia to a “bewildered sort of calm… a cheerfulness and gentleness of creative longing.”
That last section would seem to contradict the experience of horror. There is an odd kind of optimism offered by this existentialist vision. Thomas Ligotti, however, has a different take on this which offers no such optimism, but I’ll have to go into more detail about that in another blog. I do have a possible explanation from another writer about what leads to horror. In the Collapse journal in which Ligotti’s ideas can be found, there is an essay by George J. Sieg. He argues that horror writing is the most self-referential, the most self-conscious of all the genres. Whereas the typical spiritual aspirant is seeking to escape the self in one way or another, the experience of horror is a descent into the claustrophobia of the self.
It isn’t accidental that horror stories often have a protagonist trying to understand or feeling compelled by curiosity. Such a person feels unable or unwilling to simply accept the mystery. There is some urge within that isn’t content with idling in the sunlight. Let me give one element of Ligotti’s thought. He writes of the spiritual and comes to a conclusion of the self that isn’t dissimilar to Eastern perspectives, but even so this offers no solace for him. The average spiritual person embraces the mystery because they assume its somehow trustworthy. It’s not that the vision of horror denies all goodness in any direct fashion. Rather, the vision of horror simply offers no certainties at all… at its best it doesn’t even offer the certainty of evil in its orthodox meaning.
I should add that I’m not a big fan of horror as a general category. However, I love anything with imagination which often includes horror and its cousin dark fantasy. I’m somewhat of a fan of supernatural stories, whether the supernatural is overt or implied. To me, I’m drawn to anything that touches me deeply and some horror writing is capable of this. This element is hard to pin down. I’ve read some Poe. I enjoy his work, but I can’t say that it has a profound impact on me. The best horror causes a mood that lingers for days or even weeks, and I’m not entirely sure why some fiction has this impact on me and other fiction doesn’t. Along with Poe, my assessment might be similar for Thomas Ligotti. Both are awesome writers, but somehow they don’t quite fully touch upon my emotional core. However, my readings of both are limited and so my assessment could change with further reading. Quentin S. Crisp may be more of my kind of writer, but I’d have to read more of him as well.
These writers (Poe, Ligotti, and Crisp) are mostly short story writers. For whatever reason, short stories tend not to impact me in the way as a novel can. The short story writer that gives me the clearest sense of profound horror is Kafka. My friend is more of a reader of short stories and they seem to have more of an impact for him. The three writers I’ve mentioned are some of his favorites. It is important to note that many of the best horror writers tend towards short stories. This is particularly true of metaphysical horror because it’s hard to sustain over a long narrative. A key element of much metaphysical horror fiction is that it doesn’t confine itself to typical narrative structures. Ligotti mentions that he is most interested in conveying the horror itself which transcends normal human experience, but he realized that a story needed a human protagonist to register that horror. This attempt to get as close as possible to the experience of horror doesn’t lend itself to long involved narratives. Partly, it would be difficult to accomplish. But more importantly it would be too psychologically taxing on the average reader. Metaphysical horror gains its potency by being imbibed in small doses.
As for novels, those that have formed my sense of horror are the following: Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly… and I might add Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolffor its dark existentialism. None of these novels are normally considered horror, but they resonate with some dread insight about reality and human nature. The only one of them that has any overt supernaturalism is The Last Temptation of Christ. I like metaphysical horror, but maybe I seek more emphasis on the subjective experience than someone like Ligotti. I need not only a protagonist to register the horror but I further need a protagonist that I identify with to such an extent that I lose myself in that character’s world. Of these novels, the two that have haunted my psyche the most are Jude the Obscure and A Scanner Darkly. A highschool English teacher had me read the former and I have never recovered since. As for the latter, even though I’ve been familiar with the PKD’s work for many years, I only read A Scanner Darkly after having seen the movie version. PKD is an uneven writer, but his psychological and metaphysical insight is second to none. In this book, he convinces me of the reality of his character in a way few other books have done.
A Scanner Darkly doesn’t end with an entirely tragic vision, but the descent into the dark is what makes it horrific. It doesn’t matter whether or not a character loses himself entirely in madness. The horror is the loss of all sense of safety and certainty, the realization that nothing will ever be the same again. There is some kind of hope in A Scanner Darkly and that is very important. Horror necessitates a tension. Without hope, there can be no despair. The horror isn’t the despair. The horror is the descent from hope into despair. I should explain hope because I’m using it in a broad sense. I simply mean that the character is seeking some positive end. In horror, this can be a desire to understand the supernatural or a desire for wealth or even a desire to maintain comforting normalcy. In slasher horror, the tension is often between pleasure and pain. The stereotypical slasher flick has teenagers partying and having sex right before they’re attacked, tortured and murdered.
Some writers want to get to the horror as quickly as possible. They want to begin the story long after the character has already walked through the door. However, the power of a novel is that it allows a sense of normalcy to be portrayed first. This acts as the backdrop for the descent. Without this backdrop, the descent often doesn’t have as much impact. For example, Jude the Obscureis a very slow descent. The story begins with Jude’s dreams as he sets off for the big city, and then over a very long book those dreams are dashed again and again and again… and again. The descent is so slow that its almost tedious. Interestingly, the character’s lack of self-awareness is what is so mesmerizing. Jude just keeps mindlessly trudging on no matter what new obstacle presents itself. So, how does this fit into Sieg’s theory of horror? I’d say that Hardy still manages to create a claustrophobic sense of self by focusing so intensely on this one character. Hardy isn’t trying to write horror, but his existentialism is so dark and dreary that it creates a horrific vision of life.
I’ll finish with one last point. I’m a very spiritual person which might seem odd considering how cynical I can be. I share much of Ligotti’s vision of life, but I get the sense that I may be more spiritual than he is in certain ways. I may misunderstand Ligotti, but I get a sense that he is somehow content in his tragic vision. I sense that he doesn’t feel there is anything to do about our predicament. We’re just fucked.
I want to believe in something and this is core to my very sense of being. Ligotti seems to dismiss this need to believe. PKD, on the other hand, is more in line with my deeper sense of truth. What makes A Scanner Darklyso tragic is that the protagonist is so inherently good in his intentions and so sincere in his desire to understand. He is a light in a dark world and refuses to play by the rules of this world he finds himself thrown into. So many horror stories are about loners, but PKD is as much interested in relationships. Rather than nihilism or even idealistic existentialism, PKD portrays a gnostic vision. We are trapped in a dark world, but maybe just maybe genuine truth can still be found. This hope simultaneously acts as a light amidst the darkness and in contrast makes the dark appear even darker.
In case I mistakenly led anyone to think that I was saying Ligotti lacked deeper insight, I’ll leave you with a quote from his story “A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing”:
“’We should give thanks,’ the voice said to me, ‘that a poverty of knowledge has so narrowed our vision of things as to allow the possibility of feeling something about them. How could we find a pretext to react to anything if we understood… everything? None but an absent mind was ever victimized by the adventure of intense emotional feeling. And without the suspense that is generated by our benighted state–our status as beings possessed by our own bodies and the madness that goes along with them–who could take enough interest in the universal spectacle to bring forth even the feeblest yawn, let alone exhibit the more dramatic manifestations which lend such unwonted color to a world that is essentially composed of shades of gray upon a background of blackness. Hope and horror, to repeat merely two of the innumerable conditions dependent on a faulty insight, would be much the worse for an ultimate revelation that would expose their lack of necessity. At the other extreme, both our most dire and most exalted emotions are well served every time we take some ray of knowledge, isolate it from the spectrum of illumination, and then forget it completely. All our ecstasies, whether sacred or from the slime, depend on our refusal to be schooled in even the most superficial truths and our maddening will to follow the path of forgetfulness.’”