Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Dialogue on "The Middle Prince", Writing and Expectations

I had an interesting discussion with a fellow-writer/reader friend via SMS text (and given the length of our statements, that's hard to do using cell phones; I bow to my friend's locquaciousness and thumb dexterity) last week on dean's story, "The Middle Prince," in Philippine Genre Stories. This later turned into a dialogue on what should be expected from a writer.

Personally, I believe that as a writer-- like anything we do in life-- one must push the envelope in order to better one's self. However, something the friend said made me stop short and wonder: how much should one push? Moreover, are we also expected to fail?

Slight editing of the text messages to make it flow like a regular conversation. Hope I got this right. Also, to understand the conversation better, one has to read the said story-- which would be my plug for everyone to go buy the first issue of Philippine Genre Stories. *winkwink*

Me: Not sure bout your deconstruct comment [in a previous email] but isn’t storytelling separate from the need to attach the cultural aspect of the method, i.e. the use of fairy tales? You did say Dean had different intention in writing it?

friend: Well, from the story’s perspective, the ‘rules’ of fairy tales are important, what the prince is trying to get away from. Missing that one detail makes his final statement a bit less powerful, a bit more disingenuous. Plus ‘following the rule’ would’ve opened up some missed narrative opportunities to my mind.

friend: Dean was doing something really brave. I think it’s a writer’s obligation to convince the reader ‘this is how it went down’, but by reworking a fairy tale the way he did, talking about the ‘rules’, he opens the story up to ‘but it should’ve gone this way’. The subversion of such ‘rules’ is arguably the point, but the fact that it was a ‘small, side detail’ makes it all the more important that it be recognized.

friend: By the ‘cultural aspect’ I meant the basic commonsensical nature of fairy tales, sending one brother out at a time, for instance, while having a definitive narrative purpose, also says something about how fairy tales understand ‘how the world works’ to my mind.

friend: Did I say something about Dean’s ‘intentions’? God that was pretentious of me.

Me: My question is how much do we expect from writers? Are we storytellers, fabulists or deconstructionists? My take is that yes it was a slight subversion of fairy tale tropes. But it was also a lesson on expectations or even destiny. How much are we expected to push the envelope?

friend: Definitely. Dean’s story was the most moral of the issue 1 stories, had the most important things to say about the human condition. However, choosing the method creates its inherent set of expectations that ultimately affect the power of your message. To my mind, Dean’s lessons would have been more meaningful had the story paid attention to that detail.

friend: So to answer what to expect from writers? Basically, as much as possible: for the writer to be the best possible guide for his ideas and story. (Incidentally, I myself consciously try to subvert that fact, putting the burden of understanding on the reader more than may be typical.) As a reader, you find what works for you, try to understand what doesn’t. That’s how I approach my criticism. Maybe I just demand more from my reading than other people.

friend: Not to say that a writer should ‘spoon-feed’ the reader, something I detest, but being the ‘best guide’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘laying it all down’.

Me: Am very torn bout this question because from one end I get what you mean bout pushing the envelope for the writer. From the other end, am intimidated because so very high stakes are set.

friend: Well, that’s one of the challenges of being a writer.

Me: So you’re saying Dean’s method of transmission of the story was at fault here?

friend: The ‘method of transmission’ is a whole other set of comments entirely. In the sense of ‘middle prince’, all that talk of expectations for a writer comes into the details he chose to put in and what not to put in. In a sense, does Dean assure us he knows what he’s saying about fairy tales? Not saying he doesn’t but missing that details begs the question in my mind, given what he’s ostensibly trying to say.

Me: Am still undecided because I still think the story worked for me on one level. But I admit that a story has many levels and that I think is your point bout where it fails.

friend: Actually, thinking about the so-called ‘flaw’ that’s central to my argument, here’s a way to effectively tear it down: can you think of a fairy tale where all 3 brothers set out separately but at the same time? I can’t remember, but I suspect ‘Adarna’ may have gone that way.

friend: You might find this weird, but now I’m talking apart my own argument: fairy tales do not have a set of ‘rules’ for the actual narrative. The ‘rules of play’ for the fairy tale game are strictly moral rather than structural; ergo, there’s no such flaw in Dean’s re-working of the fairy tale.

Me: What is a fairy tale made of? What is it made for? When the first folk tellers came up with the story, did they come up with ‘structure’ or ‘moral’? Too many questions.

friend: It’s an interesting set of questions because it tells what exactly is at the bottom of human consciousness. The form or the function? Was the 1st story, the archetype of all such tales, a retelling of specific sequence of events, the meaning coming later and thus dependent on structure, or did the meaning come 1st, making each element more flexibly poised? Thinking about it that way, however, I find myself more ‘forgiving’ of what I first saw as flaws.

Me: Didn’t most fairy tales have brother princes leave separate? Including Adarna?

friend: That’s what I thought, but am wondering. Maybe there’s a precedent for what Dean did with his princes.

Me: Another thought. Since we also don’t know what dean’s exact thoughts on the matter, he may have known bout the structure of fairy tales but decided to forgo it altogether. You know what they say in writing, know the rules then break them.

friend: That would seem disingenuous in a way because if the structure is important, then the middle prince should have been trapped into that as well. The defense I’ve just now formed is this: the elements of a fairy tale are symbols whose meanings are fixed regardless of the encompassing narrative. Ergo, it doesn’t matter whether the princes leave together, only what each prince represents. That works if the things I posited as part of the subtext of the fairy tales in my first argument don’t matter.

Me: Also wasn’t it a metafictional fairy tale? Because the middle prince knew what was expected of him and was resigned to it to the point of subverting the whole storyline?

friend: Yeah, it was ‘metafictional’, which is why it’s also important to my mind, to figure out whether structure is inherent in part of the elemental nature of fairy tales.

Some interesting food for thought, especially as I write my stories. Personally I liked the story and thought it was effective even though it didn't follow the 'basic rules' of fairy tales. But I do admit I'm not much a critical reader (given how I missed the fairy tale angle in the first place).

Does it even matter in the ultimate course of the reading/writing of the story? I thought not: if it did the job pretty well, after all.

But what is the story's "job"? What I assumed of it or how my friend understood it?

What do you think?

Edited to add: Here's dean's response to the matter. Likewise, here is sean's review of the digest.


Anonymous said...

does this so-called friend of yours have a name? i mean seriously, bit of a windbag, ain't he?

oh good god, hang on, that pretentious bastard's me!

ah well. me and my apparent thumb dexterity.

you needn't have worried so much: the fact that it 'worked' for you should've answered the question. from a writer's perspective, perhaps the question you should've been asking was 'why did it work for me? what did it do *right* for me that i can use in my own writing?--rather than worrying about what someone else thought was wrong with it.

ultimately, the tired old dog of a maxim holds true, no matter how pretentious bastards (d-oh! that's me again) try to spin it: to each his own.


Don said...

Aysus. Super loong post. Like Sean's heheh.

Anyway just take Dianne Jones' Fairytale Guide and deconstruct the story!

Lol. :D

Don said...

PS. Have you seen any copy of Neuromancer? I might be including the Sprawl Trilogy for my Cyberpunk/Philippine Politics report. Heheh

banzai cat said...

skinny: What?!? You're that guy? Geez, and I thought I was talking to a girl. ;-)

Seriously, I'm just worried that it's easy to just shrug and say 'to each his own.' I do admit that I'm sorely lacking in knowledge and critical reading such that I can't apply it to my own reading. So I feel better if I question myself every now and then.

fuhrer: Heh that's another book I have to pick up. As for the long post, blame the other guy! ;-)

P.S. Yep, I've seen copies around though not recently. Want me to get you a cheap copy?

Anonymous said...

May I?

My concerns are generally mundane, and probably easily shrugoffable (not a word, but there you go), but...

I’m sort of wondering whether (and if yes, how much) A. S. Byatt’s ‘The Story of the Eldest Princess’--and to some extent, some of the stories in ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’ and ‘Elementals’--influenced Mr Alfar’s ‘The Middle Prince.’ I don’t have a clear, easily articulable (hideous word, I know) reason for this; I’m just genuinely curious.

Also, I’m curious to find out what others think about the language--or whether it’s relevant to discuss the language at all. It’s just that while reading the story I had to stop at certain moments to figure out what statements like ‘as barren as an empty mirror frame’ and ‘expelled a fatalistic sigh’ and ‘all that mattered in the scheme of things’ meant. Also, when the word ‘sweetbread’ came up, I was wondering whether Mr Alfar really meant ‘pancreas.’

Don said...

banzai: Sure, tell me how much the copy is first, the we'll talk. I plan to go to Manila by February (hoping that by that time, the 2nd Digest will be out :D).

banzai cat said...

paul: Hey man! :-)

With regard to questions to dean, he's not taking any questions on the matter, which I actually understand. Personally, when I also submit and if it gets published, I somewhat detach myself to the story already. Something like an offspring that's gone on the bigger things.

However, I agree: language should also be a big factor in the matter. One of the main factors in any story I critique is language; however, I usually turn this off when reading fairy-tale-type stories since writers generally have to write in this almost 'non-solid' mythic style. (One writer who doesn't is Theodora Goss; see her "Pip and the Fairies" which can be found online.) To the question as to whether the writer succeeds in writing in this style is of course open to debate. Why, what's your take on the matter?

fuhrer: Heh good luck on the book run! :-D

Anonymous said...

Well, I just thought there were significant similarities between 'The Story of the Eldest Princess' and 'The Middle Prince,' and there seemed to be a couple of tiny little details in the story that seemed to be present in 'Elementals' as well, and I thought it would be grossly unfair if I said 'Middle Prince' was a 'rip-off' of 'Eldest Princess' without at least trying to make an in-good-faith attempt to know where Mr Alfar is coming from. If that makes sense. (I know, I’m trudging shaky grounds here, the intentional fallacy and la morte d’author and all that, but I could never swallow whole the structuralist/poststructuralist/new critical approach of completely disregarding authorial intention. But that’s another story.)

As for the language used in ‘Middle Prince’: I also switch on or off my language sensor depending on what I’m reading, except that Mr Alfar was evidently gunning for more than just telling what would happen next in this story. The high-church, verbal-exotica-heavy prose (shades of Angela Carter, minus the heavy-handed Freudian details) may not sit well with others, but it’s perfectly fine with me (What are words for, after all, if you can’t use them all), except that—here’s my whole point—I thought that before it could succeed as ‘art’ or whatever, it had to succeed as ‘communication’ first. And considering the number of stilted sentences (and even an instance of incorrect word choice), I thought the story could benefit from a closer edit, or even a rewrite.

So just a couple of cents’ worth, and all that.

banzai cat said...

hehe sorry for the delay paul.

With regard to the similarity of stories, I'm usually more forgiving as even with the unlimited possibilities of story ideas, I've always figured one or two I'd come up with would be similtar to one or two I haven't read before. Problem with fishing in the same well of ideas, I guess.

On the other hand, with regard to language, I usually read the prose as a reader, not a writer, and if I find that the story doesn't flow (because, as you said, stilted language, phrases instead of sentences), then it throws me out of the story completely. That's one reason why I like Kelly Link's story, her story flow via language. Fortunately, that problem didn't occur with me with dean's story so maybe it's a subjective thing?

MD Arif ansari said...