When I posted about having sold our – storytelling – birthright for a mess of pottage, a few people rightly said that we still have a great storytelling tradition, which is historically relevant and available (mostly for free on Gutenberg [fixed spelling. I MUST remember. FIRST drink coffee, then put on glasses THEN write blog. Sigh]) in electronic as well as in traditional formats.
They are, of course, right. When I reference an historical tradition and the fact that we can’t throw away our culture, I’m implicitly if not explicitly admitting the existence of those books and even their availability.
The problem is this: while I despise people who say that Heinlein is not “accessible” for today’s kids, and while I think a thousand deaths (slow, employing a foam hammer, so I get to enjoy it) should be visited on the utter idiots who have gone around modernizing Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Adventure series –there is an “aesthetic language” of story telling – there is a way to say and do things so that they fit with the time.
Look, this is very easy to understand with painting. Let’s forget the impressionists or heaven help us the cubists. My taste froze sometime during the baroque era (Yes, of course I was alive then sonny. Prove otherwise) so cubist, abstract, it’s all funny shapes to me. Let’s look at a retrospective of medieval painting through the baroque era. Some of the medieval painting is incomprehensible to us right now, and I suspect so would a lot of baroque be to them. There are codes and ways to make the eye accept that the shapes on the canvas are tri-dimensional objects. Or not. At its worse, we end up staring at the canvas and wondering what the funny blob of color is, when it’s supposed to be a cape or something, and its essential cape-ness would be obvious to contemporaries.
There is a reason that, at some point I was scouring the nets for a good annotated version of the Torah – I still am. I have a decent/middling one – because not being a Hebrew scholar myself (I have trouble learning languages with different alphabets. Ancient Greek is giving me issues as is) I want to know where the translator made a judgement call. And I want to know what story and word-of-mouth tradition, what interpretation and what philosophy attaches to this or that verse.
My younger son at one point had four annotated versions of the Odyssey, one of them scored for the nose flute… er… I mean, one of them very odd. On our trip to NYC… three? Four? Years ago he spent his time on the plane comparing three of them and making notes. I think his seat mates thought he was a very odd child. (Which is of course wrong. For THIS FAMILY he’s perfectly normal.)
What I mean by this is that any ancient text needs anotation and explanation. No? Well, let’s forget Chaucer. Try La Mort D’Arthur. Or Shakespeare, even (which is modern, by any definition) without some modicum of learning about the time, you’ll miss a whole level of meaning.
But let’s look beyond that: Jane Austen. I love Pride and Prejudice. I love Pride and Prejudice like I love chocolate. I like Sense and Sensibility. I’m moderately fond of the rest though Mansfield’s Park morality appears twisted to modern eyes.
HOWEVER I like all sorts of “difficult” genres and I grew up reading really odd stuff. Most people reading Pride and Prejudice grow bewildered. For one, they have no clue what the character looks like. For another, Jane wasn’t – of course – writing historical fiction. She’ll call something a “well appointed drawing room” and doesn’t describe. Part of this is because her readers would have a mental image of what a well-appointed drawing room looks like. Part of it is because her narration is not that visual. Go look if you don’t believe me. I’ll wait. Back? See? She describes what is inside people, as it were, not their external appearance. Which is wonderful in many ways. It’s also a fail for modern readers,w ho want to know what they’re “looking” at.
I don’t know if it’s the influence of movies and television, or the fact that we have greater variety in our culture, but we seem to need more PHYSICAL description of setting and people to stay with a story. I’d say it’s probably a variety of both, plus the fact we’re simply used to more description.
There are a dozen of these little things, that are culture/time sensitive. That was what I was referring to in terms of needing to reinvent a tradition, because story telling has been rendered into a flat ground in the last fifty years. Not that there aren’t people practicing good traditional story telling. There are. But they’re only a few, and a whole tradition remains to be reinvented.
Will we be more or less description? Longer or shorter? More or less internal character development?
Well, we live in a scientific age, don’t we? At least our time owes much of its prosperity to science. And look we can submit things directly to the public via the internet. So… How’s about we experiment and learn?
Write a better story, and the world will beat a path to your internet account… It’s worth a try, isn’t it?