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Friday, June 12, 2015

Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro talk about genre

Today is a day that is tinged a little with grey.

The husband of a friend passed away early in the morning. I have never met him before. yet I cannot shake away the feeling of melancholy. Their child is very young. So was he.

At night, I received news of screen legend Sir Christopher Lee's passing. He was 93. He had spent more than half a century giving us iconic roles like Count Dracula, and Saruman.

A few weeks earlier, a friend dear to my heart lost her older sister too. When I was with her in Singapore, I struggled to find words to tell her. She looked strong, we laughed through the day, but I wished that was enough to help her momentarily forget her pain.

Recent events are constantly reminding me about the impermanence of life. I do not know what to do, except to just live the moment, I guess.

Just now I had the pleasure of reading a nice article on The New Statesman featuring two literary giants, Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro, talking about the complications of genres, politics of storytelling, and the like.

In an article filled with wonderful quotes, I'm going to highlight a few that I really liked.

Neil Gaiman on escapism:

I remember as a boy reading an essay by C S Lewis in which he writes about the way that people use the term “escapism” – the way literature is looked down on when it’s being used as escapism – and Lewis says that this is very strange, because actually there’s only one class of people who don’t like escape, and that’s jailers: people who want to keep you where you are. I’ve never had anything against escapist literature, because I figure that escape is a good thing: going to a different place, learning things, and coming back with tools you might not have known.

Kazuo Ishiguro's interesting thought on the stigma against fantasy.

I would like to see things breaking down a lot more. I suppose my essential position is that I’m against any kind of imagination police, whether they’re coming from marketing reasons or from class snobbery.

But maybe the stigma against fantasy is something much wider than in the fiction world. Since industrial times began, it’s sort of true to say that children have been allowed a sanctioned world where fantasy and imagination is deemed to be fine, in fact, almost desirable. But then when they get to a certain age, they have to start getting prepared to be units of the labour force. And so, society has to start getting the fantasy element out of the children, so that they can become factory workers, soldiers, white-collar workers, whatever, because it’s seen to be not useful to the overall economic enterprise to have children growing up maintaining that fantasy element. You don’t want people who are too dreamy or who are imagining things: you want them to accept this is the nitty-gritty of real life, that they’ve just got to get on with it.

I’m not suggesting we’re necessarily being manipulated by some sinister government or anything; it’s just there in society. Parents will naturally discourage children once they get to a certain age from continuing with the fantasy element in their lives; schools will, too. It becomes taboo in the society at large.

Maybe the reason it’s been loosening up, and the stigma is going away to some extent in the last 25 years or so, is that the nature of our capitalist enterprise has changed. We’re no longer factory workers, white-collar workers, soldiers, and so on. And with the advent of blue-sky thinking, the new tech industries that have led the way in the last two decades seem to require some kind of imagination. Perhaps people are beginning to think there is some economic use in actually allowing us to indulge in what was once deemed childish fantasy. I sound like some sort of Seventies sociology professor, but I feel there’s something in this.

Which was confirmed by Neil Gaiman during a visit in China.

"You know, I was in China in 2007, and it was the first ever state-sponsored, Party-approved science-fiction convention. They brought in some people from the west and I was one of them, and I was talking to a number of the older science-fiction writers in China, who told me about how science fiction was not just looked down on, but seen as suspicious and counter-revolutionary, because you could write a story set in a giant ant colony in the future, when people were becoming ants, but nobody was quite sure: was this really a commentary on the state? As such, it was very, very dodgy.

I took aside one of the Party organisers, and said, “OK. Why are you now in 2007 endorsing a science-fiction convention?” And his reply was that the Party had been concerned that while China historically has been a culture of magical and radical invention, right now, they weren’t inventing things. They were making things incredibly well but they weren’t inventing. And they’d gone to America and interviewed the people at Google and Apple and Microsoft, and talked to the inventors, and discovered that in each case, when young, they’d read science fiction. That was why the Chinese had decided that they were going to officially now approve of science fiction and fantasy."

Gaiman on how the beauty of storytelling makes up for our limited lifespan.

The human lifespan seems incredibly short and frustrating, and for me, one of the best things about being a reader, let alone a writer, is being able to read ancient Greek stories, ancient Egyptian stories, Norse stories – to be able to feel like one is getting the long view. Stories are long-lived organisms. They’re bigger and older than we are. And the frustrating thing about having 60 years or 80 years or, if medical science gets fancy, 120 years, is that actually 1,000 years would be really interesting. You want to step back and go, “Where do you get this view?” and where we get it from is passing on stories, and handing down knowledge and experience.

You sit there reading Pepys, and just for a minute, you kind of get to be 350, 400 years older than you are. I’ve always loved the idea of making things longer, changing perspective. And part of looking at things in the long term is also, I think, in a weird way, worry about the future.

Ishiguro on the difference between personal and societal memories. Something I myself have gotten quite intrigued by.

Recently I’ve been interested in the difference between personal memory and societal memory, and I’m tempted almost to personify these two things. A society, a nation, goes on and on, for centuries: it can turn Nazi for a while and cause mayhem. But then the next generation comes along and says, you know, “We’re not going to make that mistake again.” Whereas an individual who happens to live through the Nazi era in Germany, that’s his whole life.

More on the idea of stories being very long-lived beings. How stories adapt and survive as society changes around them.

My favourite example of a story that mutates is “Cinderella”. The story may well have begun in China, where actually they care a lot more about foot size than they do in the west. But it reaches France, and you have a story about a girl whose dead mother gives her these fancy fur slippers, fur being “vair”, but somewhere in the retelling the V-A-I-R becomes V-E-R-R-E, and they become glass slippers. The homonym happens, and now you have glass slippers, which make no sense. You didn’t really have the technology in medieval France to make glass slippers; wearing them would be stupid, they would cut your feet, they would break. Yet, suddenly, you have an image that that story then coagulates around. And now “Cinderella” just spreads and spreads – it has a huge advantage over all the other stories about girls who are sort of dirty and sit by the fire and magic things happen to them. “Cinderella” is the one that survived.

And finally, this exchange between them (KI = Kazuo Ishiguro, NG = Neil Gaiman) about fan fiction and stories evolving through the passing of time.

KI Is fan fiction today an example of stories starting to mutate? Now you have this phenomenon, which involves both professional writers – P D James writing a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, or Sebastian Faulks writing another James Bond – and amateurs making up things around their favourite books, and writing prequels and sequels.

NG It’s not a new phenomenon. I love the fact that, you know, in the early versions of King Lear, the story had a happy ending. Shakespeare turned it into a tragedy, and through the 18th and 19th centuries they kept trying to give it a happy ending again. But people kept going back to the one that Shakespeare created. You could definitely view Shakespeare as fan fiction, in his own way. I’ve only ever written, as far as I know, one book that did the thing that happens when people online get hold of it and start writing their own fiction, which was Good Omens, which I did with Terry Pratchett. It’s a 100,000-word book; there’s probably a million words of fiction out there by now, written by people who were inspired by characters in the book.

KI What do you feel about that?

NG Mostly I feel happy about it. But I think the happiest and proudest of people would have been, in those terms, the Stan Lees and the Jack Kirbys, the people who created characters in comics. Kirby was the artist, but also the creating, driving force behind the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, the X-Men, in the early Sixties. These guys created characters about whom people are forever inventing, spinning off, and there’s something very wonderful about that.

KI Yes, there is. I’m often asked what my attitude is to film, theatrical, radio adaptations of my novels. It’s very nice to have my story go out there, and if it’s in a different form, I want the thing to mutate slightly. I don’t want it to be an exact translation of my novel. I want it to be slightly different, because in a very vain kind of way, as a storyteller, I want my story to become like public property, so that it gains the status where people feel they can actually change it around and use it to express different things.

NG Yes, the moment that you have a live actor portraying a character, something exciting is happening; it’s different, and if it’s really happening in front of you live, then, again, you’re seeing something that’s new.

So I do love it when people grab my stuff and take it and do things with it. I love copyright – I love the fact that I can feed myself and feed my children with the stuff I make up. On the other hand, copyright length right now is life plus 75 years, and I don’t know that I want to be in control of what I’ve created for 75 years after I’ve died! I don’t know that I want to be feeding my great-grandchildren. I feel like they should be able to look after themselves, and not necessarily put limits on what I’ve created, if there’s something that would do better in the cultural dialogue.

It's heartening to see both Gaiman and Ishiguro being so open to watching the mutation of their own stories. I think that's the way most creators should treat fan fiction, really. Why not marvel at how others change your original creation and contribute something to the cultural dialogue?

Until today, one of the most-read posts of this site is Justin's rebuttal against fantasy novelist Robin Hobb's stance against fan fiction in a guest post (Justin has since became a novelist of his own). Her rant against fan fiction (since retracted, that post in this site is probably the only place where you can find the original rant in its entirety) were very ugly attempts to demonize the act of writing fan fiction. Petty, reactionary, and narrow-minded. Somehow, fan fiction was also an argument I got into with a group of writers from a mailing list. Both of these happened ten years ago. But I guess these debates too, will continue to mutate and shift as the world around them changes. Maybe that's why I still keep this blog.

I still think the published writers were being elitists. (HMPH!) No, I jest, they can think whatever they want. 10 years have passed, I have directed numerous short films, TV works, a feature film, and had even more as producer, I think I'm as legitimate a storyteller now as they were then, just that my stories are told with images, my platforms are cinema, television and sometimes the internet. I still cannot understand their inability to accept fan fiction. Or why the creator and consumer have to maintain a one-way relationship. Nevertheless, I wish them well, Tina Morgan, Donna Royston, Jasmine Brennan. I also wish Robin Hobb well.

Back to Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman. I'm posting a few videos in honour of the two. I haven't read any Ishiguro books since NEVER LET ME GO (which I read 9 years ago and wrote about here) nor anything by Gaiman since American Gods (which I had a lot of problems with that I posted here too, but I won't link to it since I'm honouring him). But somehow, through a stroke of coincidence, I have been reading Gaiman's journal again in the last few days. I would love to check out BURIED GIANT when I can.