158. Stories as feel-good therapy

What are stories for? According to a provocative book by Angus Fletcher, they are technologies invented (or discovered) to help us deal with life experience. They are psychotherapeutic tools.

Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature reviews the blueprints for literary technologies that Fletcher claims can be scientifically  shown to alleviate grief. trauma, loneliness, anxiety, numbness, depression, pessimism, and ennui, while sparking creativity, courage, love, empathy, hope, joy, and positive change. He argues that they can be found throughout literature from ancient Chinese lyrics to Shakespeare’s plays.

His aim is to subvert centuries of literary scholarship, asking not “what is this story about” but rather “what are its effects on us”.  You might say, at the risk of anti-intellectualism, narrative are not to be studied but experienced.

He gives each of these technologies an annoying name. For example, the Hurt Delay (giving us distance on trauma), with which he explores Sophocles’ Oedipus; and the Almighty Heart (instilling courage), with which he explores Homer’s Iliad. He explores the neurobiology of fear and courage through the origins of fear in the amygdala, and the neuropharmacological response in the counterbalancing releases of adrenaline and oxytocin.

I have to first acknowledge that it is beautifully and engagingly written. And to applaud his sentiment that stories are there to be enjoyed. And then I have to confess to a strong distaste for its underlying framework.

The distaste isn’t that of a literary scholar. Granted, Fletcher takes immense liberties with the context of the works he cites and of their authors’ probable intents. He claims, for example, that Shakespeare’s Hamlet stages a play about a king murdered by his brother as a tribute to his dead father. Generations of literature students have known that the play’s purpose is so that Hamlet can observe his uncle’s reaction and gauge his guilt for the murder.

He may well also be accused of playing fast and loose with the chronology of literary creation. But these sins would be easily forgivable if they serve to expose a deeper reality.

Nor is my distaste for the neurobiological exploration of narrative. Any thing in the universe is a potential object for scientific investigation. Though I’m not always persuaded by Fletcher’s piecing together of the neuronal circuitry.

No, my distaste comes from elsewhere. It relates to an approach that is simultaneously totalizing and reductionist. The vogue for totalizing explanations of narrative passed in the 1950s. Northrop Frye https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatomy_of_Criticism created a taxonomy of literature. Fraser https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Bough, and then later Joseph Campbell, claimed to find universal underlying stories across all times and all cultures—the hero with a thousand faces https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hero_with_a_Thousand_Faces, which then gave rise to mechanical “Hero’s Quest” template for story-writing.

These were ideas of their time, when the world, and consequently scholarship, were in the grip of totalizing systems. They were superceded by ideas of a later time, which emphasised context and cultural diversity. I make no claim that the earlier ideas were wrong and the modern fashion right. Merely that they are more to my taste. I’m not even sure it’s possible to prove literary criticism ideas right or wrong.

What concerns me about Fletcher’s reprise of an earlier era’s concerns is that it is forced to strip stories of their specificity. And that specificity is the source of their delight. The one-sentence summary “The spoiled Emma’s pride makes her prejudiced against Mr. Darcy, though they eventually realize they’re perfect for each other” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/one-sentence-guides-to-16_b_98480 tells the reader little about whether they’ll enjoy Pride and Prejudice. The specificity of the story-telling is everything.

Stories are produced by cultures, not neurons, as Laura Miller observes in a critical essay on the book https://slate.com/culture/2021/03/wonderworks-angus-fletcher-review.html.  She notes that culture determines “who in a society is permitted to read and write, who (if anyone) pays the author for her work, how the work is circulated, what its audience expects of it, etc.” She accuses Fletcher of a “calculating utilitarianism” which reduces literature and reading to a feel-good therapy. His enterprise rests on the totalising universalism that argues that human beings face relatively unchanging problems created by the way our brains work and that a set of enterprising literary entrepreneurs have been steadily inventing solutions to these problems.

He has ignored all the specificity and cultural diversity that created the epic poetry of the classical and pre-classical eras. These epics were about gods, about fate, about heroism. He has ignored all the factors that had to come into existence before stories could be about individual people and their feelings. Laura Ashe https://www.historytoday.com/miscellanies/invention-fiction, for example, argues that for fiction, as we know it today in the West, to come into existence, we had first to develop the notion that individuals and their feelings mattered. She writes:

“In Old English poetry, to be an individual, cut off from these collective bonds, is to be lost. More than this, there is no attention to an inner life that can be meaningfully distinguished from exterior action. Will the warrior make good on his boasts in the mead hall? Only in action is a man’s value known; intention is nothing.”

 What changed, she argues is a set of economic, political and theological conditions in twelfth century England that permitted a literature in which The Romance could flourish. “This,” she says “is the literary paradigm which gives us the novel: access to the unknowable inner lives of others, moving through a world in which their interior experience is as significant as their exterior action.”

This is not to ignore the fact that in other places and at other times, writers have explored the theme of love, its joys and its sadness. But let us not forget that literary forms are inventions that partake of their cultures. Many story traditions in Asia are still indifferent to the idea of a “protagonist” and the changes he or she undergoes. Rather, stories are about the unfolding of circumstances.

There are many other cultural variations in story-telling. For example, while the normal Western story is composed of three parts (beginning, middle or climax, end or resolution) some Asian cultures have a four-part form, known as Kishōtenketsu in Japanese. The structure here is beginning, middle, twist, end. All of this specificity and cultural detail is irrelevant to Fletcher’s project. And, the acid test is whether, as a writer, it equips me to write better stories or, as a reader, to gain more enjoyment. The answer to both is no

156. Stories and the discovery of the individual hero

Stories are about individuals, the challenges they face, and how they cope. There’s a protagonist (which come from the Greek for first struggler) and an antagonist (which means opposing struggler). Right?

Wrong. Or, at least, it’s right for contemporary Western literature, but not true of all places and all times. It wasn’t always so in the West either. Different cultures use very different ideas of the individual.

That idea seems so natural to us that it’s hard to imagine an alternative. But, in fact, we invented the individual only quite recently.

What Guatemalan refugees can teach us about the self

As a way of explaining this odd suggestion, let me tell you a true story. I used to be involved with aid projects in Latin America. One of the projects we supported was psychotherapy for indigenous women fleeing the civil war in Guatemala. The therapists, who were from North America, would say to the women “tell me about yourself.” The women would describe their villages, and where the maize fields were, and their community, and so on. And the therapist would say, “Yes, but tell me about you.” And the women would look puzzled and say “But I just did.”

The therapists and the refugee women had different understandings of what a self was. Obviously, if we can have different understandings view of the self, there will be correspondingly different forms of story-making.

Is Antigone a heroine?

Let’s take, for example, the ancient Greek story of Antigone, famously dramatized by Sophocles. The events of the play follow an unsuccessful invasion of Thebes by Polynices to oust his brother from the throne. Both brothers are killed in the battle. Their uncle, Creon, ascends the throne, and decrees that no burial rites should be performed for Polynices. Antigone, sibling to the brothers, defies the order, arguing that the religious duty to honour the dead overrides human law. Creon orders her buried alive.

What does this story mean? It depends on whether you are an ancient Greek. Berthold Brecht staged a performance in 1948, when the crimes of the Second World War were still raw in memory. He set it in a Berlin air raid shelter. Brecht’s Antigone is a heroine, standing up to the cruelty and tyranny of Creon.

But this is not how Sophocles understood her, as Kenan Malik argues. Though Antigone is championing religious duty, Creon defends the safety of the people. Antigone is guilty of what the Greeks knew as hubris, overweening pride that sets the individual above the law. Her unswerving confidence that she is right causes her to go too far. For Sophocles, this was her tragedy. For the Greeks, heroes embody the best values of the community. They do not stand against the community.

The Greeks were more like the Guatemalan refugees in this than like the therapists. In the more communitarian cultures of Asia, stories today still often focus less on changes in the protagonist than on the unfolding of events.

The change in thinking in the West was quite recent. Malik argues that, until the sixteenth century, most Europeans would have readily understood Sophocles’ original intention. The individual had no meaning, except as a member of a community. It is a person’s actions rather than their thoughts or intentions, which are important.

The proper end of love is death

According to a fascinating essay by Laura Ashe, modern Western fiction could only come into being when it became culturally meaningful and interesting to wonder what was going on in someone else’s head. She argues that it was the development of the troubadours’ tales of courtly love that spearheaded this change in the twelfth century.

Though love has always been a feature of stories throughout ages and cultures, the idea of romantic love, which sprang from the troubadour tradition, is distinctly different. Before this, in great love tales such as Tristan and Isolde, love was a devastating destructive force.. There is no room for the modern idea of the protagonist who has a desire and struggles to achieve it. So a “happy ever after” ending is not available. Love is independent of the wills of the lovers, is incompatible with everyday life, and its proper end is death. Even in the sixteenth century, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet embodies this older understanding of love.

It took the historical uproar of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the rise of mercantile and industrial capitalism to create a world in which modern Western fiction, particularly the novel, could exist. A world which created the ideas that individuals matter, and that they can have agency outside of fate and social station.

Why does any of this matter?

This little romp through a couple of thousand years of Western history tells us how important culture is. What we can imagine depends on the resources our culture gives us. People in Sophocles’ day were probably much the same as they are now. There simply hasn’t been enough time for evolution to have made us biologically different to the ancient Greeks. And people in London or Los Angeles have pretty much the same dreams as people in Lagos or Lima. But all of us live in worlds shaped by the societies we live in. The ancient Greeks lived in a world shaped by fate. The power today of possessive individualism is probably more marked in Los Angeles than in Lima. As they say in Southern Africa, “Motho ke motho ka batho” (people become people through other people).

We can, perhaps, investigate through different stories different ways of being people.

154. Truth, Lies, and Stories

We’ve all heard about stories within stories. But how about stories without (in the sense of outside) stories? I was prompted to consider this when I looked through the reviews of my novel, The Tears of Boabdil. On the surface, this is a story of an undercover cop, Vince, attempting to penetrate a suspected jihadi cell, and manipulating a target into a sexual relationship. It works as a thriller and as an (abusive) romance. And I wrote it so that it could be read that way. What struck me was that the majority of my reviewers gave it this reading.

There is also another possible reading: namely, that the thriller is simply a container for an exploration of what we mean by truth and lies.

The novel suggests that everything Vince believes he knows, including himself, is a  story. The cop lives-out a cover-story. As his sanity fractures, the rules of his story world begin to permeate his real world. And that was what I was what really interested me in writing it. There are many clues and motifs that lead the reader to this question. But the narrative about truth, lies and stories isn’t told directly—it’s a conclusion the reader has to assemble in their own minds. I believe that reading is an active process involving both the reader and the writer, rather than the passive consumption of a story.

Beyond these two layers of the narrative, there are probably others, partially hidden to me, at least when I was writing it.

There’s a moral conclusion. Vince pays a price, a terrible price, for his deception. And his lover’s/victim’s life is devastated. No work of fiction can escape this moral (or ideological, if you will) dimension. Every story is built on a framework of beliefs about right and wrong. In comedy, the story is driven by characters mistaking each other’s intentions. In tragedy, characters struggle unsuccessfully against wickedness or with flaws in their own nature.

Perhaps there’s another layer, too. In rendering Vince’s mental collapse, I drew on mythology. He is increasingly beset by figures who represent his mother and his father.

The mother manifests as Ishtar, a Mesopotamian goddess, and the father as Malachi, who shares much in common with the ancient hero, Gilgamesh. These may not be simply decorative flourishes added by the author. I may be telling myself something about myself. I say this because I have again turned to mythology to render a major character in the novel I’m working on now. Mythological reference is powerful, not least because it imports through recognizable characters a cargo of other narratives. Perhaps I am drawn to the liminal deities of mythology because they allow me to say something about transgression across the borders between good and evil. Perhaps, I am exploring the idea that goodness is not quite as good as we like to believe, and evil not quite as evil. It is probably no accident that the other mythological character in The Tears of Boabdil is a trickster figure that often manifests as a crow. The lover/victim at one point says “Goodness is a solid whereas evil is a liquid. You need a little evil in you to weather the edges off the goodness, otherwise it cuts the heart.”

So, yes, stories carry fragments of other stories, other meanings, that invite the reader to put the pieces together in new patterns.

152. Knowing what and how to write

This is an open response to Sue Hampton’s blog post “For the First Time in 15 Years I Don’t Know What or How to Write. She explores the dilemma of how to write truthfully and meaningfully in this era of climate catastrophe and the Black Lives Matter movement

Sue, your blog post moved me profoundly. That made me think, and think about my own writing. I would have posted this reply on your blog, but I couldn’t find a comment function.

Your analysis was fearless. I think you share your dilemma with Mao Tse Tung. He wrote poetry, as well as being the father of modern communist China. To his chagrin, he wrote what he considered bourgeois poetry. Like you, he wanted his writing to serve his cause. You write “This is a context so overwhelming that to write as if the crisis isn’t happening, like the billionaire press, seems to me immoral.” Mao finally decided that he was a man formed in the old China and that he could write in no other way. The next generation, he thought, would write the poetry of the new China.

Great moments of history don’t necessarily lead to great works of literature because we are in the middle of them. A considered understanding of what they mean may have to belong to the next generation. If you’re in the middle of a great war, all you can see is the “Naming of the Parts”.

As our ancestors emerged from the First World War, the so-called “Spanish Flu” killed millions more than the guns and the mud of the trenches. And yet, we had forgotten all about that last global pandemic until we faced our own, a hundred years later. My grandparents who had been through those times never once mentioned the Great Flu, though they talked a lot about the Great War.  

Perhaps the lesson is we are always passing through great moments of history, though we don’t necessarily see this. The nineteenth century, for example, was extraordinarily turbulent with the social devastation of the industrial revolution, the struggles for the abolition of slavery, for labour rights, for women’s enfranchisement. Some, but not all, of that colours the work of writers like Dickens. And before that, upheaval stretches back through wars, revolutions, pandemics. Shakespeare, for example, wrote merrily through the Black Death.

If we look through that lens, Shakespeare’s pandemic is present throughout his writing  (“a plague on both your houses”) though none of it is explicitly about the plague.

Coming back to our times, we can’t help being rooted in the past that formed us, like Mao, even as our feet us march forward into the future. But we can never be the children of that future. We can’t write about that future, because we haven’t seen it.  Of course, writers do imagine the future. But the future each age imagines always looks remarkably like its present. The future imagined in the science fiction I grew up was really the Cold War of a present dominated by the threat of nuclear annihilation and the ideological contention of two great blocs.

We can’t even write fully about the present, because we don’t fully understand it. Only when it becomes the past, and historians have picked over its bones, will writers have the tools and the distance to grapple with it.

But everything we write is suffused by the liquor of the present and the future it threatens or promises. Whatever we write about, even pulp romance, will steam with what is cooking underneath. I think of it a bit like Leibnitz’s monads, or like a hologram, in which the shadow of the whole is present in every part of a thing.

I fear writing activist literature. This is not because I think “art” is a higher truth. I believe every work of fiction is inescapably political, each with its unstated and unacknowledged moral calculus about who should be praised and who should be blamed. I fear writing activist literature because of the likelihood that it will be bad literature and, also therefore, bad activism.

But I do recognize that everything I write is suffused with the ideas of right and wrong, relevance and irrelevance, that have been shaped by my society, my upbringing and my activism. In writing my novel, The Tears of Boabdil, I grappled with some of the issues you mention in your post.

All the characters, bar two,  are of British Asian Muslim heritage. This is not my heritage, and so writing these characters caused me some effort and considerable research. The novel deals with issues of truth and lies, of necessity and abuse, of goodness and wickedness. It’s not intended to be a comfortable or comforting read, but to raise questions about freedom and security. I’m sure it’s shaped by being a man, being white, being non-Muslim, and by being born into an era whose fears and hopes were rather different from today.  But it is nonetheless, I think, a book suffused with today’s issues without necessarily being about them.

The novel I’m working on is, in some ways, informed by the ecological crisis without (probably) ever being about it. It’s about boundaries and about our illusion that we can create zones within which we’re “safe”. Perhaps, I hope, the readers will come away with a changed understanding of today’s lexicon of “safety” and “tipping points”.

I’m so glad you’ve found a route through your maze, though of course the bull always lurks at the centre. My message, and perhaps yours, is that it’s possible to write in the midst of great events because we are probably always in the midst of great event. Whether we write about them explicitly or not, they will poke their heads up, distorting the net of our words into recognisable shapes.

151. Tartan and Treachery – a Scottish fascination with spooks

What is it about the Scots? I’m not talking about the whisky, but rather about destructive fictional spooks. There are four recent novels I know of dealing with the misdemeanours of undercover cops. Kirsten Innes’ 2020 Scabby Queen features one who is cynical and malevolent, seen largely through the lasting damage he leaves in the lives of the targets he sleeps with.

The unfortunately named Jimmy Bond in James Robertson’s 2010 And the Land Lay Still is alcoholic and disillusioned.

Khurrum Rahman’s 2018 East of Hounslow features as its protagonist a minor drug peddler dragooned by MI5 into penetrating a jihadi cell.

And then there is the emotionally damaged Vince/Zami, the central character of my 2020 The Tears of Boabdil, a police agent masquerading as a jihadi and sleeping with the sister of his targets. Of these four authors, only Rahman isn’t Scots.

Why might Scots be particularly drawn to the theme? In my case, I wanted to explore the question “what kind of person would do this?”.  Like Innes, I deal with the crime of state-sanctioned rape. Robertson’s spook is much more a device to explore the ideological battles within Scottish Nationalism and the British State’s response. There’s no obvious connection between the three.

But is the underlying commonality, perhaps, a sense of grievance, of marginalization? Or perhaps, of a lie that has been told to us? There was, once, a truth that the idea of Britain represented, at least to the inhabitants of these islands—a common destiny of Empire and a common class identity forged in the coal mines, the steel factories and the shipyards.

Photo credit © Wikimedia Commons

The Empire has gone, followed rapidly by the heavy industry that created class solidarity across the lands.  And that poses the question “who are we?” in a way that hasn’t been necessary since Walter Scott subsumed Scottishness into the Union with England by a romantic vision of a noble and brigand past.

145. The fiction of troubled times

With The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, published and sales of Camus’ The Plague surging, in troubled times is the line between fact and fiction becoming blurred?

Yari Ostovany, Missa in Angustiis http://www.yariostovany.com/paintings/missa_in_angustiis/index.html

Some may say that all times are troubled. And yes, there are always troubles, but not all times are troubled. Contrast, for example, the societies emerging from World War Two and the present.

In the US, in particular, people in the 1950s expected the economy to grow, consumer goods to be plentiful, and life to get better and better (the Cold War notwithstanding). In much of the colonised world, there were struggles and hope for independence.

Today, we are anxious about our future in the face of pandemic, climate change, threats real or imagined which trigger waves of populism, and a sense of economic decline in which many people expect life to get worse and worse.

Maybe that’s why it’s important to write, especially in troubled times, when it all seems hopeless and full of senseless strife. Writers help us make sense of what’s going on and what it means. They probe the big questions of our time. When everything is beautiful, it’s good to share stories. When everything seems to be going to hell, we really need stories.

The Indian writer Geetanjali Shree has this to say:

“I am a writer. My writing has come to a standstill. I cannot see the value of, or think of writing about anything else except this that’s going on. But I cannot write about this, for really, we know less about it now than we did till yesterday. When we felt we were on top and saw ourselves as the force of current times. Visionaries for the future. Unchallenged. Suddenly everything is challenged and everything is changing too fast around us – new tones, new colours, new voices, new visuals. Killings go on. Other atrocities too. And fiery speeches by ‘religious’ politicians

….

I just stand, like many others, caught in the ‘moment’ which will not/cannot pass me by. I cannot wait for heart and mind to emerge clear and apart before I start writing. It is like being caught in a storm which has to be dealt with right there and then. Right here and now. An inevitability, an incumbency, an immediacy. But what sense can be made of scenes whipping around in a storm? Then leave that be, but record what you see flying around, quickly, it’s urgent, even without making sense maybe, to be able to make some sense in better, easier times maybe.”

138. Scenarios for the world after Covid

One thing is sure—we’re going to need new stories. Stories help us make sense of the world. And our world now is turned upside down in a way we haven’t seen for generations. How do we go forward from our lockdown societies?

covid street

That’s where storytelling comes in. Scenario thinking accepts we can’t predict what’s going to happen. Instead, it looks at the forces that are driving change and constructs several alternative visions of what the future might look like. This allows us to rehearse what we might do in each of these futures. It may also allow us to make better choices now.

So, I built four scenarios of where we might end up. These feature in my book, The Scheherazade Code, about the power of story-telling.

 

Drivers of change

The first step was to identify the drivers of change.

Political ·         A mixture of nationalist competition and globalist cooperation. In some countries, leaders make use of the pandemic to introduce greater measures of control and surveillance

·         An increased awareness of who we depend on and support for a new dispensation. There is growing pressure to improve the wages and conditions for agricultural workers, nurses, care workers, delivery drivers, cleaners, and retail staff. This is strongly resisted by the corporations. In the end, expectations of cheap goods provide an easy lure to accept only token changes in wages. There is a much stronger support for decent social care and welfare systems.

·         Citizens’ acceptance of a more interventionist role for the state may be enhanced, though this is counter-balanced by growing distrust and opposition to restrictions

·         The EU will be further weakened by the beggar-my-neighbour initial response, though this may be mitigated by sharing of the pain on the route to recovery

·         Geo-politically, China emerges stronger and more expansionist from the crisis. This may make the US more bellicose and Russia more adventurous

Economic ·         Short term very sharp economic decline (worse than any previous crisis). Best outcome would be a V-shaped recover with a quick rebound. Equally possible is a U-shaped recover. Since there were no major underlying problems, an L-shaped curve is unlikely

·         The long period of the “new normal” favours sectors of the economy which don’t require mass gatherings (such as home entertainment). Mass communication technologies receive a huge boost, including in education. Much more retail goes online, spurring growth in delivery and logistics systems. Much more working from home in office jobs, though the renewed emphasis on national self-reliance also boosts industrial investment in critical areas

·         In the developed world, any hint of return to austerity is unacceptable. Higher levels of national debt and taxation are accepted

·         A renewed focus on national self-reliance in key areas such as food, energy, and critical technology

·         Countries that locked down on time and engaged in testing and tracing emerge early and have a competitive advantage. The US suffers long-term decline.

Social ·         A sense of social solidarity from the pandemic persists afterwards and demand to properly reward those we depend on leads to a new social contract

·         Conversely, a growing distrust of strangers provides fertile ground for nationalism and racism

·         A sense of guilt at that the way the elderly and the poor were abandoned. But also the young, ejected from the economy in the recession, form a lost generation. Age politics grows, as the young refuse to bear the burden of recovery.

·         A sense of pride at having come through the crisis by collective effort

·         Possession and wealth are no longer the mark of status and there is less celebrity culture and more celebration of ordinary people

·         A renewed respect for expertise and wider dreams among children of becoming a scientist. An increasing understanding that “the science” is a state of enquiring mind, not a definitive yes/no answer that politicians favour.

·         An awareness of the need to take care of the future and prepare for future threats. A willingness to debate more long-term issues.

Technology ·         Rapid growth in communications and distribution technology

·         Enhanced decline of the high street with long-term closure of pubs, restaurants, cinemas and gyms

·         A resurgence of some engineering industries

·         Enhanced public-private investment in epidemic preparedness

Environment ·         Dramatically reduced carbon release during the pandemic, cleaner air and environment, rebound of the natural world.

·         The valuing of nature and the belief that collective effort lead, especially among the young, to a willingness to take on the challenge of confronting the climate crisis

Health ·         Covid 19 is not eliminated, though societies learn to coexist with it by developing better systems of health surveillance. Poorer countries remain breeding grounds for the virus.

·         Treatments will become available, lessening the threat of the virus

·         Though there are positive signs that a vaccine could be developed (say by mid-2021) lasting immunity is not characteristic of other coronaviruses

·         Lasting mental health challenges and physical health complications

 

Key uncertainties

Analysing these drivers allows identification of the key axes of uncertainty about the direction the future might take.

These are:

Globalism             versus              Nationalism

Social change        versus              Business-As-Usual

Combining these leads to four possible futures:

 

Four futures

Post Covid Futures

Spur is a world in which the pandemic has prompted a sense of interdependence and cooperation, rebalancing values. The coronavirus response showed that rapid action is possible to decisively face challenges. There’s a renewed focus on the welfare of people and of the planet. Preparation for future pandemics us underway, as are efforts to tackle the climate crisis. Introduction of a universal basic income grant in many developed societies means nobody goes hungry, while international aid is helping to build a more equal world. This is a kinder, greener world.

Fortresses is a divided world. Walls that went up during the pandemic stay up. While there is a greater emphasis on social welfare within national boundaries, fear and distrust remain. There’s little international cooperation beyond that necessary for trade. There are only token attempts at tackling the environment crisis. This is an “I’m alright, Jack” world.

Return to Normality is, as the name suggests, a world in a hurry to return to things as they were. The welfare of capital takes precedence in efforts to get the economy restarted. The free market benefits the rich, leaving the poor behind. This is the world most like the one we left in 2019. It’s as if the pandemic never happened.

Beggar Thy Neighbour is a world based on fear. In an upsurge of new populism, autocratic rulers in many parts of the world have used the pandemic as cover for introducing tighter social control. Dissent is seen as “unpatriotic” and heavily policed. This is a devil take the hindmost world in which most of the benefits accrue to elite.

Of course, the real world may turn out to be a patchwork of all of these tendencies.

Which future will you opt to live in?

 

137. Risk and Fear. Coronavirus Narratives

coronavirus

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson locked the country down on 23 March 2020. The government communication slogan was ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. The aim of the messaging was to scare people into complying. It worked. It may have worked too well. We need to find a new way to decide on what we do and don’t do as lockdowns relax. The narrative of fear isn’t working anymore.

The fear message may have worked too well. As the country began to unlock in May, opinion surveys found that around 40% of people were scared to leave their homes. A month later, the figures had not changed much, with 41% of adults  say they did not leave their home on five or more of the previous seven days

This fear narrative became problematic in later stages. In June, when some school classes and some businesses were allowed to reopen in the UK, the government tried to reassure the public that this was now safe, so long as social distancing was maintained.

There was also intense pressure from business to reduce the social distancing guideline from two metres to one. The reasons are obvious. Most restaurants and pubs cannot operate profitably at the greater distance, but might be able to reopen with the shorter distancing. The government continued to say it was following the science. But there is no science that says two metres is safe while one is unsafe. The only guidance the scientific advisers could offer was about relative risk. Two metres is safer than one (about twice as safe), but if the rate of infection is low enough, one metre may be an acceptable risk. The right social distancing is a political, not a scientific, decision

 

A narrative of risk

Another approach was possible, but not taken. This was to focus on giving people advice about risk. People don’t readily grasp data about risk. It’s alien to our normal way of thinking. But it’s not complicated. We take calculated risks all the time. For example, we drive cars even though we know there’s a risk of dying in a car crash. That risk in the UK is, in fact around one in 20,000 per year

Here are some rough calculations of risk for coronavirus in early June 2020, compared with other risks. Reducing social distancing to 1 metre doubles the risk of infection, while wearing a facemask reduces the risk at this distance by 14.3%. At the infection level present in the middle of 2020, the risk of infection was one in 1,666, and the average risk of dying one person in 1.66 million.

Coronavirus risk

If you find an error in these calculations, please add your comment.

131. Writing through the lockdown

Lockdown isn’t totally unlike normal life for me. I get up, check e-mails, write, keep in touch with friends. Not so different from before.  I think coping with the social distancing depends a lot on a set of factors that writers probably have in spades:

  • Creating structure on your day and your week
  • The ability to enjoy isolation
  • The satisfaction that comes from accomplishing a task

My day, as I said, has structure. Though my writing group has stopped meeting, we continue to circulate drafts to each other as before once a week on Thursdays. Every Wednesday, I write a story for Friday Fictioneers.

Writing, though its product is an intensely social collaboration between author and reader, involves solitary hours communing with the keyboard. So the new isolation is much like the old isolation.

Isolation

The act of writing is immensely satisfying, creating something that never existed before. For me, each story is an act of discovery, of wrestling meaning from an initial vague intuition. I accomplish tasks every day. And, with my novel The Tears of Boadbil going into production, I get to see my work taking physical shape. Last week I returned to style proofs for page layout. I asked for a change in font size, line spacing, and some other details, including drop caps at the beginning of chapters. I love drop caps. Working on my book production, publicity and marketing gives me a way to engage with a future beyond the pandemic.

Boabdil style proofs

I know, of course, that I’m immensely privileged. I can pay my bills, there are no small children to be entertained, and we have a garden to potter around in. For many others, it is much grimmer.

For writers this is a time to be producing. You’d think now is not be the time publishers will want pandemic books. But Penguin says sales of Albert Camus’ The Plague were up 150% in February compared with the previous year and at the end of March, the number two book on Amazon’s charts was The Eyes of Darkness by Dean Koonz, about the fictional epidemic virus Wuhan-400.

couple on seashore

The impact of the virus on our lives and our societies will necessarily provoke thoughts about what matters and how we should live our lives. It’s inconceivable coming out the other side of this emergency that the answers to these questions won’t be changed. And who better to reflect on them than writers?

What’s your self-isolation recipe?

129. How does a story mean?

The meaning of a story exists outside the text. I was struck recently by the way a story can be simple but its meaning can be perplexing.

sparkler

A story is a set of events linked by causality—the kingdom withered because the king died of grief. The king was sad because the queen had died.

Meaning depends on understanding how things fit together. The meaning of an event in the story (the queen died) lies in the part it plays in the whole, what it causes (the king died).

Stories tell us what goes with what, what is important and what is unimportant, who to praise and who to blame.

But the chain of meaning also extends beyond the story. To follow it, we need to know what a king is, what marriage is, what love is. This knowledge pre-exists and lies outside the tale. Meanings are social—they depend on how a particular community understands the world. These shared references and a stock of agreed narratives allow an audience to decode the story and clad it in meaning.

So, it is possible to create a story in which the chain of linked events is clear, but the meaning is opaque because it depends on assumptions that subvert social understanding of how to code events.

An example

This is what happened with a story I wrote. It imagines a world being destroyed by a race of giants. The giants are the offspring of people and angels. A man and his grandson are chased by a giant. The grandson says the angels have warned him a great flood is coming and that he should build a boat. The old man argues the important thing is not to survive the flood but to stop it by preventing the destruction of the world.  He believes the angels’ mischief is the root cause of the problem and decides the solution lies in taming the giants and putting their great strength to work in repairing the world.

giant

Simple, right?

Yet many readers were perplexed. I wondered why. One told me he didn’t understand bad angels—angels, he felt, were good. The Noah figure, with his Old Testament resonances, who wants to build the boat is young and credulous rather than old, wise, and virtuous. This too creates what psychologists call cognitive dissonance—the discomfort caused by trying to hold two contradictory beliefs.

If we lack the key to decode the story’s meaning, the story doesn’t work for us, even if all the events and the connections between them are clear. This, I believe, is what happened with my tale.

Allegory, unreliable narrators, and allusion

The allegorical implications also perplexed readers. Did the giants represent machines, they wondered? Were the angels fallen angels? In allegory, the meanings necessarily exist outside the story itself since everything in the story is doubled by a set of mappings onto another space.

But there are other circumstances than allegory where a simple story may have an opaque meaning. An obvious example is the unreliable narrator, where not only the credibility of the narrator but also of the events is brought into question. Another is stories that make extensive reference to other stories, which may not be familiar to the audience. The use of classical allusion, once readily understandable among educated people, may be an example here.

Plot, Story, and Narrative

Here’s a simple way of thinking about this.

  • Plot is the causal sequence of a tale (the WHAT of a tale).
  • Story is the way this sequence is told (the HOW of a tale),
  • Narrative is what it means (the WHY of a tale), the interpretation of events and characters within the tale.

Note that narrative can only come into existence when a work is read or heard. The writer may have intended something, but the reader may pick up quite a different interpretation. Meaning comes in existence through an interaction between the writer and from the reader, not from the text. Both writer and reader participate in the creation of meaning.  In an important sense then, meaning must always lie outside the story itself.