gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Where Gillian becomes Arbitrary and Categorical

I keep on running across people who define themselves or who define others in simple terms and then whose opinion gets taken up and followed and becomes a kind of accepted wisdom. If I were to say "I am a genius and totally awesomely famous" and I had the right kind of voice, then it might well be accepted by a particular group that, of course, I'm right. Then everything I write and do will be judged on my apparent genius and known fame*.

This is interesting and annoying and frustrating** - I'm going to comment on each in reverse order, so I end on a happy note. Also on many footnotes. Our lives need more footnotes***.

1. Frustrating - when our apparent knowledge about someone obscures us to what they're actually doing. One example keeps hitting me over the head this week. The apparent knowledge about Margaret Atwood is her response (not the only response she has given, just the one that has developed resonance in my communities) to whether she is an SF writer or not. If she's not giving a response in terms of genre in that particular instance, she's not, and yet I've heard her criticised time after time for not describing herself as an SF writer or her novels as SF novels****. I find this frustrating because it means that a bunch of people aren't looking at her writing, but the definition of its genre as given by particular journalists and critics. Genre readers don't have to like her writing, but it would be helpful if they disliked it for what it is, rather than on the basis of accepted wisdom. Me? I think she's an awesome writer who lacks a quite particular genre sensitivity. I shall call this "Speculation fever" since I've recently observed this phenomenon when it hits SF writers and critics who want to fit Atwood into their understanding of genre and can't, or those who want her to proudly claim SF creds*****.

2. Annoying - when a writer uses their understanding of a subject to create a backdrop for a novel and then claims special knowledge of the subject when, in fact, their use of it has been worrying in the extreme from the point of view of specialists. We're not just talking about Medieval potatoes, here, we're talking about writers who design their historians without any understanding of an historian's toolbox****** and who will claim wild levels of understanding in public when, in fact, their research is significantly out of date and potentially misleading. This becomes more than annoying when they contradict themselves in their own novel and make daft assumptions that amount to "Everyone in the Middle Ages is rather stupid compared to us" and "Historians are less bright than scientists." I think I shall call these the "Greater Than Thou" writers - ie they communicate a belief (often unintentionally, I hope) that they are greater than almost anyone. It's not the errors that are the problem (stories are stories), it's the loss of understanding that enters in when wider claims of credibility and accuracy underlie how we interpret those tales.

3. When all this is in the past, it becomes interesting. More than interesting. It becomes a facet of historiography. Genre in its wider sense. History. Narrative. Tales that tell us more about the people who write than they do about the worlds brought to life by the writing. What's worrying in a modern writer is fascinating when it's Geoffrey of Monmouth. I shall call this "Historiographer's brain" - because that's what it is. And it's why I'm writing this blog post. I need to switch off my historiographer's brain and get back to researching my novel.

Now I need coffee.

*let me say right here, that I have no problem at all with you all according me genius and fame. None whatsoever. Just to make it quite clear.

**not that you all think I'm world famous and a genius, because patently you don't and I'm not, but that if I had the right sort of personality and declarative capacity, that you may well believe it on my say-so. I refuse to give examples of this, because I'm digging enough deep holes for myself with this post as it is.

*** my footnotes today are mostly concerning the status of the Knights Templar in regional France in 1305. I really don't need much information, but the type of information I need is surprisingly hard to find. This is partly because of the destruction of the Templar materials in the 16th century, and partly because 1305 is too close to 1307 and most studies get involved in trials and scandal and forget daily lives two years before. On this matter, however, I'm not yet defeated. When I go to France I shall investigate the Montpellier bookshops and see if I can find me a nice study of Pezenas that includes the Templar Commanderie. If there is none, then I shall investigate in Pezenas and ask difficult questions there in my strangely nineteenth century French. And, of course, I shall continue battering down the doors of libraries. All this for but a few paragraphs of novel! It may amount to two pages in toto.

**** for the record, I describe Life Through Cellophane as suburban fantasy. No-one else does. It's been called everything from cafe latte horror to feminist fantasy to literary fiction. I don't much care. All I care about it is that the readers who will enjoy it find it and that the readers who won't, make up their own mind and aren't too rude to me about it. It's not a matter of rocket ships (Atwood) or mirrors on the wall and Sleeping Beauty metaphors (me - but no-one has called LtC a suburban fairy tale) - it's that the writer doesn't always see the book in the same light as the reader. And that, really, the book is what matters.

*****I need to find the interview where she does just this. The one that tends to be ignored. I've completely lost all reference to it. BTW, this mini-rant comes to you by virtue of the justifiable complaints about the BBC overlooking SF in its World Book Night coverage. The initial reaction to the BBC's moment of idiocy left out most female writers and significantly mauled Atwood. It was not done with malice. That's the problem with these assumptions. They live inside us, waiting to emerge, monstrous in their incarnations...Um, not really. The people involved in that BBC program have a problem with recognising SF and Britain as a whole has a problem recognising women who write SF and some writers (and readers) get tangled over Atwood.

****** obviously I'm speaking to the subjects where I can perceive the problems most clearly. Deep down, once an historiographer always an historiographer (like being a Queen of Narnia, although in historiography terms I'm probably Susan) and, of course, I'm still a Medievalist, most protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.
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