Last night I was with Kate Forsyth and Matt Finch at the NSW Writers’ Centre talking about monsters. This post will be a bit of an overlap between what was said then and some extra things I wanted to throw out there for writers and readers of children’s and YA literature on how academia views the novels you write/read, how gaming constructs narrative and more on zombies, because they are awesome.
Being an Academic
There’s usually a fair gap between academia and the actual artists (Apart from my two lovely panelists!). Artists accuse academics of reading things into their work that they didn’t actually put there, academics will try to locate artists work in the greater sense of social/cultural identity. So I’ll give a quick rundown of some of the more general things academics say about children’s and YA authors in particular.
All writing is ideological. Whether you intend it or not, a lot of scholars see writing as something that reflects, reenacts or rejects society in some way. The way you present what a child is, is ideologically based. As Kate said, our construction of childhood is entirely modern and not at all how past, future, or even other present societies view childhood! As an example, you’ve no doubt seen the rise of the ‘tween’ in the past decade or so. This is not something that goes against our entire history of being. It is something created, but all our categories and definitions are (changing definitions/words in the dictionary are another excellent example, language is a living thing).
In writing a story, scholars say, you are positioning the reader into a particular view. If writing a realist novel (recently, I read Junk by Melvin Burgess, so that can be my example), you don’t really expect the reader to come out of reading it thinking drugs are totally awesome and they should go out and try them now. Not just for ethical, moral and legal reasons, but you use certain words, certain strategies of writing and of course plot to try to align the reader. In fantasy, you may not expect someone to think The Dark Lord is awesome and they should totes go join a gang of evil peeps now! Readers, of course, will take from the work what they will (and you can’t stop that! Everyone brings their own experiences to a text).
What you intend, as much as how you use narrative strategies to position one character as “good” or the hero, and another as bad, is important and from this, an ‘ideal reader’ or ‘subject position’ is created – as far as what I believe and the academics I follow, the authors intentions are not literally able to be read in the text, it is only through narrative strategies that we ascertain this subject position. What you don’t intend, to the academic, doesn’t matter as much as your story. I used the example last night of how there are quite a few dystopias around the idea (or ideological positioning) of technology as something that is cutting us off from nature. While you may just be intending just to write a good story about a world falling apart, there are criticisms (as you would expect in reviews anyway) that maybe this intensely negative view of technology is actually teaching children to fear the future.
Being a writer, you are given great power. Childhood and adolescence is considered a time when we are forming our idea of what our identity is and where we fit in society. Some academics say that it is even the role of fiction – Children’s literature is for affirming the self and personal power, but YA lit is for inducting the adolescent into society, our structures and institutions. It comes at a time in their lives (assuming the ideal reader – I’m an adult and I read YA!) when their sense of self is malleable and adapting to the new information they are drinking in, and that doesn’t have to come only from non-fiction.
- Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. New York: Longman. 1992.
- Trites, Roberta S. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. Iowa: University of Iowa Press. 2000.
- McCallum, Robyn. Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction. New York: Routledge. 1999
- Applebaum, Noga. Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young People. New York: Routledge. 2010.
- James, Kathryn. Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature. New York: Routledge. 2009
I have somewhere about 500 or so books … I think. Haven’t sat down and catalogued them all for a while. But with games, I generally go back to the same two (the others are more seasonal playing), World of Warcraft and The Sims, and they are very different in terms of storytelling.
World of Warcraft is a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game with two factions that hate each other – The Alliance (your typical European humanoids, humans, night elves, dwarves, gnomes, werewolves (called worgen)) and the Horde (your traditional villains, orcs, trolls, tauren (which are half-cow, half-human), undead, blood elves and goblins). There is an overarching storyline, following on from the other Warcraft games, where the Orcs invaded Azeroth through a Dark Portal and the humans defended their land, but at one point, the creation of the Portals between worlds actually tore the Orcs homeworld asunder and they were isolated from their people. Each race has their own story of how they came to be (e.g. Blood Elves are elves that got addicted to fel or demonic energies) and there are also quests in the game which contain mini-stories.
While you play as a Hero (for whatever faction), essentially you don’t have any control over the storyline or influence. While there are numerous options with what you can do each day (crafting, dungeons, exploring, farming, pet battling, playing Player vs Player), you can’t change the storyline. Even if you might agree with the big villain of the expansion (there’s always at least one big villain), you cannot change the outcome and probably, if you raid, you will have to kill them anyway. You can manipulate your own perception of your character, even if you don’t role play specifically, choosing clothes, companion pets (which don’t fight with you in battle, but are more like little pokemon), titles (such as Elder, Noble, Kingslayer, etc).
The Sims on the other hand, is more a sandbox game. You don’t have to do anything, nothing is set in stone and there’s no path to follow. A few pre-made families have their own background story and personalities, but anything that happens is up to you. You can only control one family at a time, and you can guide them to their dreams of becoming a CEO, or build a wall around their pool and forcibly kill them. The Sims doesn’t use English either, it’s an invented language called Simlish, so you can even make up what they are saying.
There’s a lot to love about the Sims because of the freedom in storytelling. You can tell the Sim where to go and what to do, and (forcibly) influence their whole life. The Sims community is extremely inventive as well! They share stories, videos (called machinima), their families, even create self-sims to explore how they want to live their life. You can take Sims from birth to death (and even beyond death, as you can play as ghosts too!), fulfill their dreams or ruin them, and from generation to generation.
There’s nothing to say what the future of storytelling in games are, but there are some games, such as by Telltale (including the Walking Dead game) where it’s more like a choose your own adventure, you are given a world and a character and a situation, and then choices on how you act and what you say – and those decisions influence the story. This is a very particular gameplay slowly on the rise. Could gaming have an impact on how we organise novels and stories in the future?
There are two types of monsters or villains that I like best – one is the villain that believes they are doing the best thing, for society or themselves or their family; the other is the relentless enemy that you can’t stop or reason with – the zombie!
Between the panelists last night, we agreed that for us, monsters are representative. Freud believed monsters to be a symbol of repression – whether on a societal level or personal level, something that was once familiar and homely, now foreign and Other. For children’s and YA, the slaying of this monster can be hugely empowering on many levels. I rather think that monsters can also be un-embodied entities, such as a whole society. While it can be a horrendous and heartbreaking journey to defeat one enemy, imagine battling all of society for justice – the odds are not in our favour.
That is essentially what zombies are. They are seen to be many things, our fears or anxieties about race (originally when zombies were misappropriated from Haitian lore into Hollywood, it was all about showing the barbarism and danger of blacks, particularly the danger of black men/magic controlling white women), consumerism (of course, Dawn of the Dead!), and more recently, terrorism and economic crisis and refugees. These days, zombies are the conversion of a HUGE chunk of society into mindless beings that only want your flesh or brains (the eating of flesh comes from Romero, the eating of brains from Return of the Living Dead and O’Bannon – it’s not “the original zombie” at all! *insert long-winded rant here*). The history of the monster is the history of the culture itself (just as how childhood is a historical and social construction).
There are other theories of course, that monsters are a psychological universal. Derrida argued that monsters are created by the unrecognisable and the unpredictable; once it is recognised, it’s no longer a monster (perhaps an argument for evil, seducing vampires -> sparkly, vegetarian vampires?). Could go down the path of “it’s the author letting out their own subconscious fears and defeating them”. Multitudes of theories!
But monsters and villains and evil is important, particularly in children’s/YA. I mentioned last night that there is quite a bit of criticism from the academic community that it is expected that children’s/YA lit needs a happy ending, or at the very least, an ambiguous ending (of which some other scholars believes subdues the actual effect of the literature, particularly dystopia where the moral of the story is that we need to act now so we don’t lose our humanity in the future, but you’ll never see a child get the same ending as Winston from 1984). Of course, we can all think of examples where that is not true, where the character does not triumph, dies, or falls into depravity, but a positive or ambiguous outcome is the cultural expectation. For the reader to feel empowered, there usually needs to be a resolution (Kate used the example of someone literally throwing down a book that had no real ending). With ‘traditional’ (Romero) zombies, it’s particularly hard to create a happy ending because everything is just gone. Society is gone, humanity is gone, all that is left is a life spent scavenging and in hiding. A tough play for an author, if you only stick to one view of what a zombie is…
- Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture. Ed. Stephanie Boluk & Wylie Lenz. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2011.
- Triumph of the Walking Dead: Robert Kirkman’s zombie epic on page and screen. Ed James Lowder. Dallas: Banbella Books, 2011.
- Zombies are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead. Ed. Christopher M Moreman & Cory James Rushton. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2011.
- Bishop, Kyle W. American Zombie Gothic. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2010.
- Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader Ed. Marina Levina and Diem-My T. Bui. New York: Bloomsbury. 2013.
- Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human. Eds. Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro. New York: Fordham University Press. 2011.
- Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy. Eds Richard Greene and K Silem Mohammad. Chicago: Open Court Publishing. 2010.
If there is anything to take from the talk last night, it’s from what Kate said: Darkness is NECESSARY in children’s and YA literature. If you take away that, you take away the power. There’s an importance in retelling too, as Kate said ‘as a creative artist it’s our job to recreate tales, and find new ways to tell stories.’ That’s very true for monsters as well. Monsters adapt and change as society does. They fill a certain void that we need filled (yes, even the romantic ones!). As much as people cried out “Those aren’t zombies!” when Warm Bodies came out, their idea of what a zombie IS is tainted by cultural tradition (as much as we all love Romero, he didn’t invent zombies, he reinvented them!). That’s the power of the author, scriptwriter or storyteller. To tell the story that needs to be told, not what society dictates the monster or villain traditionally is and always should be.
* ❤ Lady Gaga
- Riedstrap on the importance of fantasy, and the problems of dark realism
- Me in a QandA with NSW Writers’ Centre on monsters, of course