Friday, August 9, 2013

A Plea for Proportionality in Fiction

Since I was writing about fiction and stories in my last post, and since I have something to add on the subject, I may as well continue on the same theme. Obviously my mind is running that way.

For most of my adult life, and indeed well back into my teens, I have harboured a certain assumption about stories which nobody else seems to share, but that which seems reasonable enough to me. The assumption is that there should be some sort of proportionality involved in the choice of subjects and motifs for stories. The world of stories-- of all the stories being told at one time-- should, in some manner, be a reflection of the real world.

This is an example of what I mean. I find myself irritated at the amount of thrillers and fantastic tales in which the literal end of the world is at stake. Imminent apocalypse is a very rare thing. As far as we know, and apart from all the possible close encounters with asteroids which we may have survived over the last few billion years, it has only really happened twice; in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and the incident in 1983 where one Stanislav Petrov refused to panic when a Soviet radar malfunction made it look as though an American nuclear missile had been fired at Russia. The end of the world as we know it doesn't really come along very often, and it seems a device grossly overused in books and movies and comics.

Now, you may say that such a reaction is ridiculously literal-minded, that humanity has always been haunted by apocalyptic visions and that it is inevitable our stories would draw on them. And I acknowledge this. I do accept that having only two End-of-the-World stories, to correspond with the couple of times the thing actually happened, would be ridiculously restrictive. I don't object to twenty. I don't object to two hundred. I don't even object to two thousand. But when the thing becomes as common as the common cold, I can't help feeling that Armageddon has been rather devalued.

Besides-- it's such a cheap source of drama, when you think about it. Why do we always have to ramp everything up to the max? I remember the late and great film critic Roger Ebert, in a review of the French film The Chorus, complaining that the mysterious music teacher turns out to be The World's Greatest Conductor. "I would have been better pleased if he had merely been a Really Great Conductor", he wrote. I agree. There is nothing really imaginative about superlatives. I think they rather show a lack of imagination than an abundance of it.

Similarly, it bothers me that the same scenarios and settings and social circles are so remorselessly overused by story-tellers, rather than drawing on the vast reservoir of actual human experience. Now, I realize that some themes are simply more dramatic than others, and will therefore tend to appear more often. Murder is a very dramatic situation and it is inevitable that it will be over-represented in fiction. But do we really need a whole industry of murder mystery novels, and of crime novels in general? Why should directors and authors flatter themselves on finding a new "twist" for the crime genre? Why not just "twist" out of the tiresome genre and onto the vast tracts of human experience that don't involve Detective Inspectors or DNA tests?

What about the fantastic, you say? If our stories are going to reflect reality more closely, should we simply leave out the fantastic?

I don't think so. First of all, many people (myself included) do believe in ghosts and other supernatural occurences, and the world is full of claims of actual ghosts, doppelgangers, poltergeists, and so forth. To this extent, having a myriad of supernatural tales does not contradict my principle of proportionality in fiction.

Besides, the fantastic element in fantastic tales is accepted as fantastic. The question of probability does not come into it because it is accepted that it is, not only improbable, but not necessarily possible at all. I simply wish that the non-fantastic element in fantastic tales would not show an excessive concentration upon the superlative, the global, the exclusive. Why does every science-fiction story have to be about a world conflict, and feature Presidents and billionaire business-men and Nobel-winning scientists? Can't we have a swords-and-sorcery tale entirely confined to one obscure village, far from palaces and castles?

Viewed from this perspective, I think the disdain that is so often heaped upon "chick-lit" is unfair. I am not a reader of chick-lit, but, to my mind, it is has this advantage over more "manly" fiction such as thriller novels and spy novels (which usually enjoy more critical cachet)-- that it draws upon universal experience. Chick-lit is mostly about romance and family and working life, and those are experiences common to most people. In the same way, "TV movie" is a term of disparagement, but why should it be? Why is a housewife battling with alcoholism or the life of a wheelchair-bound college student a less worthy theme than scientists battling to stop a pandemic from bringing about the one millionth End of the World?


  1. Hi M,

    unrelated to this post, but I note with pleasure that you and I both have a contribution in the letter's page of today's Irish Times.

    Well done!


  2. Good stuff! Actually they printed my letter twice! It appeared last week, but not on the web version through some glitch, so that might be why they thought they hadn't published it.

    Of course I agree with your argument about evidence and abortion, but one feels a sense of despair about this. It seems to me that, in the recent abortion debate, all the evidence and argument was on the pro-life side, but it made no difference. I'm not just saying this because I'm pro-life. You can hold a view while accepting that there are powerful arguments or evidence on the other side. But this simply wasn't the case in the abortion debate. The people supporting legalisation just kept making the same fallacious points over and over.

  3. (Actually, last week my letter appeared in the print version but not the web version, today it is the opposite-- I just checked the library copy. How odd!)

  4. I guess they just wanted to restore balance to the universe! A pity they aren't equally in favour of balance when it comes to certain agenda items.