Saturday, June 07, 2003

The Riddle

At the moment I am supposed to be writing the next instalment of my fantasy series. It's now at Part 4, or page 320, whichever seems more impressively long. The Gift, which came out last year in Australia and will be published in the UK next May, was the first, and No 2, The Riddle, has split like an amoeba into two parts, after it became very clear that the book I was initially proposing was about 900 pages long. So it is now The Riddle and The Crow.

It's the first time that I have ever written anything with the idea that I would like lots of people to read and like it. Writing The Gift was not interesting merely for that, although I found that it threw into relief the fact that my other writings are not motivated by that impulse; I have never much worried about the issue of publication, figuring it would take care of itself, or not. Which is not to say that I write so that people will dislike my work; it is more that there are other reasons. (A friend asked John Ashbery once if he really "wrote not be read", as was posited by her teacher of contemporary poetics, and he said, "well, I always hope that people will like my poems..." - I always hope that people will like my poems, but that is not why I write them). I would not have written The Gift if I had not known it would be published, and if I did not hope to make some money from it, and I certainly do not write poetry for publication or money.

But I am being a little simplistic in dividing between "exterior" and "interior" motives; nothing is that clear. Perhaps I ought to distinguish between writing which uses widely recognisable tropes and conventions, and writing which uses less widely recognisable approaches. It is perhaps a difference in emphasis: I am writing the fantasy series in the hope that it will be popular, and so am writing it in a style which I understand to be popularly understood, with a strong narrative focus, and with attractive characters. But I could not write it if I could not invest it with my own personal desires.

It's been interesting, and somewhat liberating, to write a long work which is working with recognised, generic tropes - clear, descriptive prose, a strong narrative, empathetic characters, archetypal mythic narratives, and so on. Liberating, because I can attach my egoistic impulses to this work - why, I'm even getting fanmail - and thus release my other work even further from my own vanities. (In theory, anyway.) Liberating because this work exists in another literary world than poetry, which gives all my work different perspectives; sometimes the world of poetry seems very stifling and repressive, and full of aggression. And also for more profound reasons which are more difficult to articulate. Although I think of the fantasy writing as a different activity, I don't think of it as less worthy, or take it less seriously. And writing it has returned me to some early feelings which have reminded me why I write in the first place. Modern fantasy stems from an ancient desire, the desire to make myths, and its genealogy goes back to the Odyssey and even further back to Gilgamesh. It's challenging trying to handle such large metaphors, and attempting to work in an epic mode. Fantasy offers another way of understanding the world, in the freedom of storymaking which bears a different responsibility to the world as it is; my only actual responsibility is to make this alternative world real, and I have taken Tolkien's advice on secondary reality in his famous lecture Tree and Leaf to do this: the stone, the stars, the bread must be all absolutely credible and recognisable to nurture that willing suspension of disbelief, although I have consciously extended that necessity for credibility to the emotional lives of my characters. I have found that writing fantasy in fact requires an absolute attention to realism, much more than most other writing. I feel other responsibilities too, to do with the conservative ideologies of the actual tropes with which I've chosen to work, the conventional binaries of Good and Evil, and my deep suspicion of these binaries. I have always believed that conventional tropes are uniquely open to subversion, and in part these books are an exercise to see how these generic tropes can be subverted. But that is another issue; I am yet to see whether my ideas will work or not.

What effect this huge investment in this kind of prose will have on my other work is something I don't know yet; I do know that I am not worried. Even when I was writing poetic prose and expressing my interest in doing more, there were concerned friends who were worried that I was being unfaithful to poetry and "wasting" my "gift". But that seems a very parsimonious way of approaching life. I am looking forward to finishing the next two novels, which I am supposed to by the end of October, because suddenly a whole lot of empty time and mind will open up, and I do not know what I will find there.

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