Narrative, Resonance and Genre

One thing I was often told when I was starting out as a writer was that story trumped everything, that a good story would always resonate because good stories were universal.

Now, I’m always suspicious of any sentence that includes “universal”, because all too often what we take for universal is just assumptions so ingrained in our cultural background we don’t question them anymore. Accordingly, I thought about this a bit.

Stories do have a strong common basis–the proof of that is that most writing workshops give the same kind of advice to beginning writers (“show, don’t tell”, “start fast”…): that would seem to imply that the building blocks of stories are the same, and put together in roughly the same order and with the same logic.

Or are they?

Let’s take a common one: pace. Novels are meant to grab the reader’s interest right off the bat, and that means a hook, followed by a fast enough pace and a focused narration.

By those standards, Les Misérables is a dismal failure. A somewhat interesting opening (Jean Valjean walking into Digne), is then followed by one of the worst cases of authorial exposition, as Victor Hugo rambles on and on about a drowning man in the sea and what this means to the story. It’s very pretty language with strong imagery–but it’s dead weight, the sort of thing we’re all advised to cut from our drafts. Once might not be so bad, but this same scheme is reproduced several times over the course of the novel: the author steps in and “interrupts” the narration at crucial moments–not, of course, to mention that the story jumps all over the place, touching on the lives of several characters and meandering through to Jean Valjean’s final redemption.

Or take The Three Musketeers. Its opening is lackadaisical, following D’Artagnan’s entrance into Tarbes–onto a vague glimpse of Milady and Rochefort, and then D’Artagnan’s introduction to M. de Tréville. The story itself doesn’t pick up for three or four chapters–and then again, it stalls as often as it stops.

And yet Les Misérables was a tremendously successful novel: a bestseller at the time. So was The Three Musketeers. There is, of course, a cultural explanation to that: those novels were published as serials in a time where there were far fewer distractions–but equally, there is a cultural explanation to why we want novels to be fast and focused: our attention spans have decreased with the introduction of many new media (TV, movies, and the internet) in addition to a more hectic pace of life, and what was once a longish pleasurable pause to read has become moments sandwiched between other distractions.

What about another one? Let’s look at point of view. Third person limited is a relatively recent development: novels such as the ones I cite above are written in omniscient, often with the narrator intervening in a more or less explicit fashion. The intervention of the narrator is even more explicit in Chinese novels and short stories such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Stories to Warn the World, where there is an explicit commentary (which often doesn’t make it into the English translation) by the compiler explaining the story’s theme, the morality of characters and foreshadowing various elements of the ending. Chinese novels also feature a multiplicity of named characters, in direct contradiction of the modern impulse that a named character has to be important to the narration–again, our attention span and memories for names aren’t the same from one place to another.

So far so good: the form of the narration has changed over the time periods and over the various countries. But those are just form arguments: the delivery of the story, if you will, as opposed to its underlying essence. Surely that is universal?

Well…

Take lovers in Chinese movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers. They tend not to end happily ever after–in fact, it’s a rare movie when one of them doesn’t end up dead. Most Hollywood movies take the opposite approach: it’s rare for couples to be undone. The reason is the fundamentally different approaches to love in both cultures: American (and Western/Christian) culture takes love as the basis for the family and sees it as a positive value; whereas the Chinese, who have always be wary of intense feelings, see it as potentially destructive and thus a negative thing. Love can cause a man to betray his duty (which is seen as a bad thing in China, not always so in the West), and the Chinese see lovers as going against the established order of the world.

Similarly, take the ending of Hero. The main character, who caused the tyrannical Emperor to realise the true nature of loyalty and ambitions, walks out of the palace–and is hit by a rain of arrows. Most Westerners are outraged by this ending: the Western trope is that heroes who rise up against an oppressive empire are justified in their fight (Robin Hood, the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars), whether they are successful or not. The Chinese attitude is that rising against the Emperor is a very serious treason: the heroes might be justified, but they can’t be forgiven for forgetting their place in the world (the one exception to this is the heroes who end up founding a new dynasty, because the fact that they’re victorious means their rebellion was sanctioned by Heaven). Though many of the heroes of Outlaws of the Marsh are justified in taking arms against the government, ultimately, they must be punished for violating Heaven’s laws and going up against the established order.

The problem here is resonance. For a story to resonate means that it strikes a spark in the reader’s mind–and that in turns means that it speaks to the values and cultural mores embedded there. It may reinforce them or contradict them, but either way it’s playing against this background. In different places and different times, there have been different moral values: for instance, criminal responsibility is sometimes individual (as it is today), or extended to the entire family (in Ancient China, where the approach is that the family should have been able to control its members). Human sacrifice to the gods is valued and voluntary (among the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas), or an unspeakable horror (in modern Christian sensibilities, or in Ancient China). War is a manly activity (in Ancient Greece) or a massacre (Europe post WWI). All those mean a different resonance for a story dealing with those topics: for instance, a man who executes an entire family for a crime in a contemporary novel is going to be seen as a villain (because it’s an excess), whereas the same thing would have been perfectly normal in Ancient China.

This means that some stories are going to work much better than others, depending on what they portray and what the readers expect.

Genre itself is also set against moral mores and cultural expectations: for instance, the division between SF, and fantasy in the West (roughly and to simplify, SF has scientific plausibility, fantasy has magic spells) does not quite work the same in countries where religious belief or some form of spirituality is much more widespread and concomitant with science. If you believe God (or gods) is (are) real, then it would make sense to put them in an SF story. The prevalent strict separation between SF and fantasy–the basis of which is a non-existent or at any rate a non-intervening god–might not work in cultures that have other modes of thought.[1]

Similarly, the crime novel of today is essentially a puzzle story (set against a more or less taut deadline depending on whether you have a thriller, a procedural or a cozy), and I would argue that it takes its roots in the same scientific approach that gave rise to science: it’s no coincidence that the flowering of science is also that of the detective stories. A crime in a crime novel, like an experiment, is something meant to be picked apart, deconstructed according to certain laws, and explained from beginning to end. If you take the same kind of subject matter elsewhere, this isn’t the case: detective stories in Ancient China start out by revealing who the culprit is, and the book is akin to a chess match between the magistrate (trying to catch the criminal within the confines of the law, though resorting to trickery is perfectly accepted) and the criminal trying to evade punishment for their actions.

Fine, fine, you’ll say–but surely there are stories that are successful everywhere: stories that resonate worldwide, authors that are translated in multiple languages and bestsellers in all of them. I’ll grant that there seem to be–but also that I am extremely wary of that kind of observation. See, by and large, I can’t help but notice that (save for the occasional exception) those “universal” stories are all American: they’re series such as Lost, authors such as Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer. To me, this reads more like American cultural domination than universal story: it’s not so much the presence of a universal component, as the uniformisation of culture through economic domination.

But I’ve rambled on enough, and that is a subject for another article.[2]

What about you? Have you read novels from other cultures (whether they be genre or not)? Have you noticed idiosyncracies and differences?


[1]Science is not absolute; for starters, we’re always questioning the discovers that have come before: Newton certainly couldn’t have imagined general relativity, any more than the physicists of the early 19th Century could have envisioned quantum mechanics or string theory. And science is, at its heart, based on a couple of axioms that we take on faith–the fact that we can predict how an experiment will work doesn’t mean we’ve got the right explanation: we might have just hit on something that works every time. Also, a lot of the current belief in science is akin to religious belief: most people believe what science says is true without having a clear idea of the underlying principles.

[2]In case you’re interested by non-Western SF vs US domination, I did write that other article: it’s called “The View from the Other Side”, in the current (Sept. 2010) issue of Asimov’s.

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  1. 1. Hallel Rosenberg

    Well THE most universal BOOK of them all is the Bible.
    I’d say one of the reasons for that (other than obvious religious propaganda) is the fact that it’s all written in actions (similar to playwriting..) – so the amount of interpretations of themes in it, is close to infinite, especially considering it’s length.

  2. 2. LJCohen

    The Millennium Trilogy books (Dragon Tattoo, et al) have been worldwide phenomena, despite not being American exports. In the Steig books, I’ve noticed a huge cast of named characters, multiple digressions, and insertion of omniscient narration. Not at all an ‘American’ style thriller, but it hasn’t stopped a gazillion people from reading them. :)

    Loved your point about our assumptions of ‘universal’ being rooted in tunnel vision about our own cultures. Spot on.

  3. 3. Brian Dolton

    As someone who adores “Hero” (more than “Crouching Tiger…”, though that’s excellent as well) your points are well taken. It was criticised in many reviews in the West because it was seen as being a veiled political screed in support of the current Chinese regime, whereas in fact it simply reflects the general attitude of Chinese culture towards “rightful” (i.e. mandate of Heaven) authority.

    As someone who writes cognate-Chinese fantasy, I have to try and walk a variety of thin lines between reality, expectation, and what I am actually trying to say in my own work. It’s an awkward balancing act and no doubt there will be readers for whom it doesn’t work.

    One note on your “chess match” analogy – this is exactly how at least one VERY successful US TV series operated – Columbo. Every episode started with showing you the murder, and the person responsible, and the rest of the episode was basically devoted to showing how the apparently bumbling, apparently amiable detective (Peter Falk) found and used the criminal’s psychological weakness (most commonly, simply annoying the criminal into making a mistake). And there are still some crime/mystery/thriller novels that do reveal the villain at the start, but they are comparatively few and far between (though again they can be very successful – I think of Thomas Harris here).

  4. 4. Megs - Scattered Bits

    Nothing resonates universally. Everybody has a different and unique perspective. Even in America, some people find resonance with a story and others feel nothing at all. I’m always wary of ANYTHING that says universal: story universals, cultural universals (that’s a laugh), moral universals, even language universals. There are always exceptions and differences.

    It makes me think of how when I studied Deaf culture, I learned that a lot of people THINK certain things are the same between their hearing culture and the corresponding culture, but when you actually investigate, both sides view it differently and don’t even realize it. :sighs:

    I just don’t believe in universals, unless it’s a discussion about the universal laws of physics or something like that. Even then though, there are places they don’t apply. Nothing is universal.

  5. 5. Aliette de Bodard

    Hallel: I’m also wary of the “universality” of the Bible, which seems to have a lot to do with historical reasons (sacred text for three religions, of which two went on to found major empires–and in the case of the West, to colonise a lot of places).

    LJCohen: I also thought of the Millenium trilogy, which has been a tremendous success here in France as well–it bucks the trend of having bestsellers come from the US. Sometimes, something just takes off like that, and I’m still not sure why. There’s probably marketing involved in it, and probably something in it that speaks to enough people (though I, personally, didn’t much like the books at all…). My best explanation right now is that those have a greater potential to resonate against a variety of cultures–which doesn’t mean they’d resonate against all cultures in the world. And in any case, there’s few of those around (especially in the US, where translated fiction is really rare).

    Brian: you can tell I haven’t watched enough TV :) Columbo would definitely be a good example of an unconventional crime mystery–as you say, those do exist, but they’re not the norm. (and I clearly need to watch some of them).

    Megs: yup, don’t believe in those either. Well, except the bit about being born and dying, which seem to be pretty much universal. The laws of physics are… problematic because they’re our corrent cognate, but they’re only true because we haven’t found exceptions to them yet.

  6. 6. Victoria Dixon

    Excellent article. I’d have to point out that “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is actually fairly universal. It’s the reason I found you, btw. I have a google search on it. :) I think its universality is based on the ideal behind courage and self-sacrifice. Those are themes throughout that novel and they work well in any culture. It helps the novel’s so long you can read a chapter or two and enjoy that minute part without having to read other sections that may not carry as great an emotional impact for you.

    BTW, you mentioned Outlaws of the Marsh and I wanted to ad a caveat. I have not read the entire novel yet, but I believe that in history many of the outlaws were pardoned and brought into a successful campaign against foreigners later in the Song Dynasty.

  7. 7. Aliette de Bodard

    Thanks, Victoria! Three Kingdoms is a great novel, but by today’s standards the morality is a bit iffy… The heroes abandon their wives with not much justification, and they do deeds that are outright questionable (Guan Pin sacrifying the murderers of his father on the family altars after a long implied period of torture, for instance).

    It’s been a long while since I read Outlaws of the Marsh: I seem to recall there are a bunch of versions, one of which condemns the bandits in no uncertain terms. The version I read did end pretty stickily, with the leader poisoning his companions and being assassinated himself–and a lot of the other heroes dying of various causes (wounds and illnesses). I might be wrong on this, but I unfortunately don’t have the text to hand…

  8. 8. Kari Sperring

    Thank you for an excellent article.
    I’ve more or less entirely given up on films from the USA because they often assume a universality that I do not recognise, about family, about relations to wealth, about social structure, about what is and is not acceptable. All of which makes me feel both uncomfortable and invisible, in certain ways. I do wonder if this is partly down to the whole Joseph Campbell prescription, which I find both western-centric and stifling. But then, I’m trained as a mediaevalist, I work with cultures that are Other simply through the passage of time, so maybe this is just down to the way I watch things.

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    Really well-said. Probably the single biggest lesson of merit I learned from my anthropological training was the concept of cultural relativism: it isn’t (as people tend to assume) a matter of excusing anything, no matter how offensive to you, as “part of their culture,” but rather an exercise in trying to see why that practice exists in the first place. In other words, surrendering the assumption that your own perspective is universal. The moral judgment you make after that is a separate matter; I can see why Mesoamerican cultures practiced human sacrifice, and still be morally opposed to it. (In fact, I find it interesting that we practice a kind of human sacrifice in the U.S.: we execute criminals, at least in some states, and that is done in an attempt to prevent future evil. By contrast, Mayan and Aztec sacrifice was often to bring about future good, such as the assurance of rain.)

    So I can at least try to understand why, for example, a Chinese movie would end with the tragic fate of a pair of lovers, even if I disagree with the mindset that says their love is too dangerous to society to be permitted to continue.

  10. 10. Alma Alexander

    Beautifully said. As a cultural muddle myself (born in Eastern Europe, grew up in central and southern Africa, educated in the UK, and then living and working in several countries that fall under the banner of The Western World (including the flagship one, the USA) I think I use different parts of my mind to attach to different stories – and I am kind of capable of wading into the shallows of this culture or that one, understanding at least the basic roots of some idea or custom which might be appalling and abhorrent to another disparate part of my mindset. But it’s a balancing act, and often a hard one.

    Thanks for tackling this. It’s a complex subject and you wrote a very thoughtful and considered post on it.

  11. 11. Shveta Thakrar

    I really loved this post. It’s something I’ve had to think about a lot, since I write about Indian culture–not to mention it drives me nuts how people assume there is a such thing as a universal experience. Thank you for all the great examples of how that’s not true.

  12. 12. Aliette de Bodard

    Kari: thanks! When I started writing SF as a really green and naive writer, I remember being puzzled by the worlds that showed up in the near-future books–they seemed to repeatedly reference conceptions of family, politics, religion and race that were totally alien to me. It took me a long time to work out it was because they were referencing US culture, and a longer time to see that influence in the series we were watching and understand why they weren’t all speaking to me. Oh, and I hate Joseph Campbell.
    Marie: yup, definitely. As you say, passing moral judgment is definitely not a problem–as long as you understand first what exactly it is that you’re passing judgment on.
    Alma: I’m something of a muddle as well (though more because of descent than of movement), and I totally understand where you’re coming from. It’s definitely a hard balancing act.
    Shveta: you’re welcome! It was annoyance with the whole “universal experience” thing that got me started on this article, and I’m glad it resonates with you :)

  13. 13. katyusha

    As always, interesting post.

    @ Megs: Every rule has it’s exception (including this one, they’re just few and far between)

    The bit about the distinction between SF/fantasy brings to mind ancient literature for me–to use specific examples, Homer’s Iliad and Vergil’s Æneid. Ancient Greek literature (and Roman, but to a lesser degree) has the basic assumption that everything out of the ordinary can be traced back to the gods’ direct interference; all of the Greek heroes are descended from gods, usually within one or two generations. If they had been written now, they would be firmly placed in the “fantasy” category, but back in the day they were considered more or less historical (or, in Vergil’s case, political propaganda, but never mind that.) In Hindu tradition (and I’m a bit hazy on this, so please someone correct me if I get it wrong) most heroes are considered the reincarnation of other heroes or gods, like Krishna. Western culture tends to view this with a bit of scepticism.

    Back to what you said about different views of war (manly-man versus horrible atrocities) I would like to add that causes of war have also shifted dramatically, as have the perceptions of said causes. Modern warfare (i.e., Crusades and after) tends to have decidedly moral underpinnings (at least in the West. I’m going to be paranoid about making universal assumptions now.) However, back in the Bronze Age, it was nothing of the sort. War was more or less just an alternative form of trade, with the primary intent being slaves and loot. Soldiers were more armed bands of brigands than armies, and usually only two or three cities would be involved in any given conflict (overlord empires notwithstanding.) And even the nature of the slavery was different, because families were usually kept together rather than deliberately separated. To modern sensibilities, the thought of attacking someone just to take their gold and women seems pointless and cruel, but then it was just business as usual. I imagine that if you transplanted a Bronze Age Mycenaean king to now, he would be (a) horrified at the sheer numbers of people involved in warfare, (b) amazed by our simply leaving the survivors to deal with the hell we’ve created, and (c) perplexed why we were getting so worked up over usually minor ideological differences.

  14. 14. Tara Maya

    I think there are two different kinds of difference at issue here.

    The first is different values. I don’t think Americans misunderstood the point of Hero — they just disagreed with the moral. But story wise, there was nothing difficult or boring about the movie. On the contrary, it was beautiful and well-executed (excuse the pun).

    But there are also different literary conventions. Sometimes those might not be as effective on different audiences.

    Example. In the Shahnamah, eleventh century Iranian epic, there is an episode in which the hero is challenged to 14 duels. Whichever side wins the most of the duels wins the field. Modern rules of fiction would like some suspense to be involved in this. Maybe the hero should lose a few. Or maybe he should at least doubt his ability to win them all. Or maybe we should at least not be told he wins them all before he does. But the hero wins all, has no doubts, no flaws and we are told all this in advance — but have to slug through detailed descriptions of all the fights anyway.

    Now is this is this a matter of values or literary skill? Perhaps values are at stake. Perhaps medieval Iranians preferred heros with no faults, who won every single fight, whereas Americans like to cheer on an underdog who only triumphs after enormous struggle.

    Or perhaps Ferdowsi just didn’t think that one through and would have made it more suspenseful if he’d had a good critique group or literary agent to suggest the change to him.

  15. 15. Tara Maya

    @ katyusha

    Totally agree about the Mycenaean kings.

  16. 16. Mac

    I have to seriously, seriously question the use of “Hero” as such of broad example of seriously differing cultural mindset. Before “Hero,” Zhang Zimou had directed a couple of films which were banned in mainland China for being critical of governmental policies and practices, and was prohibited from making any films at all for two years after “To Live.” His earlier film “Raise the Red Lantern” was also seen as critical, and got him a lot of flack.

    “Hero” was a radical departure in both style and content for Zhang Zimou. Many people see “Hero” as his apology to the Chinese government and a tactic to lift some of the pressure off himself. (Not that I blame him.) After choreographing a lot of the spectacle of the latest Summer Olympics in Beijing, he has now come under fire from anti-government groups for what they see as his 180-degree turn in support of the government, and has been very vocal that he is “not interested in politics.”

    I don’t think we can take this one director’s very specific political and artistic journey as truly indicative of an entire culture’s outlook. Maybe partly indicative. Maybe.

  17. 17. Mac

    As such “a” broad example. Sorry. :-)

  18. 18. Aliette de Bodard

    katyusha: definitely! The perception of war has changed quite a lot depending on where you were and when–the Crusades arguably started up a trend in the West of “just wars”, ie wars sanctioned by faith (and later morality), though you can also argue that there’s underlying economical and political causes for those as well as for WWI and WWII.
    Tara Maya: I entirely agree on the difference between moral values and presentation/narrative (literary conventions). That’s why I tried to separate the article, starting with the conventions and moving on to weightier stuff. Regarding the Shahnamah: I’d have to check, but isn’t suspense a relatively modern concept? Not knowing the ending and getting thrills from that doesn’t seem to a very old concept (most epics have rubbish sense of suspense). I think you have to wait until people deliberately seek thrills (ie have safe lives and don’t associate thrills with real, everyday threats to themselves instead of just a pleasant, vicarious rush of adrenaline). Hmm, I sense another post there :)
    Mac: I do agree with you regarding the genesis of Hero (and, to a lesser degree, House of Flying Daggers): it’s definitely a movie with an agenda. What I was trying to get at, though, is not so much authorial intent as audience reception: no matter what Zhang Yimou might have been trying to accomplish with that movie, the fact remains that it was one of the highest grossing movies in China, and it probably wouldn’t have been if the Chinese people had found the ending rubbish. I do think acceptance of endings like this complicated: you can argue that part of the reason the Chinese find endings like this acceptable and valued is the result of government propaganda, but it’s also very clearly something embedded in the Chinese psyche (though, again, centuries of heavy repression might have driven that attitude in). Three Kingdoms displays the same attitude to people who rebel against the emperor (and goes to a lot of pains justifying the behaviour of the hero Liu Bei as properly respectful of the throne). But again, Three Kingdoms has a very suspect genesis (lots of government censoring at the time, and the compiler was working with a bunch of strictures). But the fact remains that t it’s still a story that resonates very much with the Chinese. I guess that if you want to see the roots of that Chinese attitude reasonably free of government propaganda, you can go back to Confucius and the Analects, where it’s stated (or at least strongly implied) that a subject rebelling against the emperor is the same as a son rebelling against their father, and equally blame-worthy.

  19. 19. Mary

    One advantage of reading as broadly as you can is that it gives you perspective.

    Or perhaps “knocks your block off” would be a better phrasing.

  20. 20. Mac

    @ Aliette de Bodard: Ah, okay. I do see your point, yes.

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Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the upcoming Aztec fantasy Servant of the Underworld, published by Angry Robot. Her short fiction garnered her a nomination for the Campbell Award. She lives in Paris, France. Visit site.

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