12/26/2010

One Word

Via Jay Lake, Daniel Abraham is having a discussion on story vs. sentence in fiction over on his Live Journal blog; Part of the discussion has been about how a story can change when the choice of words is changed.

As it happens, I can give an example where one word, being changed, changed a story:

One of my own stories, "Angel's Blood", published in Heaven Sent (ed. by Pete Crowther, DAW [US] and Signet Creed [UK] 1995).

The Big Reveal in that story came in the following sentence:

"There is war in Heaven, and God is losing."

For whatever reason (it showed up in the galleys without explanation), Crowther decided to change that to this:

"There is war in Heaven, and the angels are losing."

I think that both versions are effective stories. But they're not the same story.

- - - - -

In that same discussion, Daniel brought up the loss of accessibility to written language over time, as the language of later generations changes in usage and meaning, gaining new vocabulary as well as losing the old.  Chaucer and Shakespeare were brought up as examples (outliers?) whose work is still read today because of their sheer strength of story, rather than their now-difficult language.

Language-change is only part of that, however.  Culture as a whole changes over time.  So there's less and less overlap between the culture of Chaucer's or Shakespeare's time and that of a reader fifity or a hundred or five hundrd years removed.  The context is lost.

So, in the context (*ahem*) of reading classical literature, to better understand that literature one needs to learn at least some of the historical context.  For that, things like annotated editions are useful.  But then your understanding of that context is dependent on the understanding and style (their own word-choices) of the annotations' author.  So ideally, the author of such an annotation would be a capable historian, linguist, archaeologist, anthropologist AND author.  And even then, your own brain is getting only a second-generation xerox of that author's understanding.

So it shouldn't really be a surprise that "popular culture" is, well, popular.  There's a "common context" that the reader can share, being a resident of the same culture the author of a modern work lives in.  The context of a work of classical fiction has become an uncommon context.

I think this may be why "historical mysteries" are popular.  The context of the historical period used for the mystery may be uncommon, but the meta-elements of mystery and detective fiction are part of the "common context" an average reader will be familiar with.  That gives the reader sufficient grounding in a work to give the author a chance to present the historical and cultural context clearly enough to give the reader a grounding in that aspect as well.

Conversely, even in a modern work, context can be relative. Why is fiction from other countries rarely popular in the US? I suspect it's because the cultural context is different enough to become part of the "uncommon context" I've mentioned above. Off the top of my head, it seems that the further away from the US (or the UK) a work of fiction originates, the less likely it is to gain a readership here.

And this can even apply to modern works supposedly set in a culture common to the average reader.  Back in my early 20's, I found myself reading Roommates by Elsie Lee.  Lee was a romance writer whose readership overlapped to some extent with SF readers.  (I think I first saw her work mentioned by Juanita Coulson in YANDRO, though I may be misremembering.)  At any rate, I came across and read the book.

I'm pretty sure I was not the audience for that book.  I was a young, socially awkward, inexperienced (worrying about getting laid wasn't a big concern back then; my state of general despair was more about just getting a date!).   And when I read Roommates, I was pretty thoroughly aghastified.  The lead characters in Roommates were... "husband-hunters" is the best term I can come up with.  To become someone's wife was the #1 goal in their lives.

I didn't have the context to understand those characters, or to sympathize with them.  To me, Roommates wasn't a romance novel, it was a horror novel.

(The website where I found the cover image, Fantastic Fiction, also quoted the backcover blurb to Roommates: "They were roommates happily sharing expenses and men, secrets and strategies, until they discovered the real meaning of womanhood--and love."  And underneath that was a "Similar Works By Other Authors" section.  The work cited as similar was Oath Of Fealty, by Elizabth Moon.   Wait, what?)

1 comment:

mjlayman said...

1. "aghastified" is a great word!

2. My parents sent me to the same college they went to because it had the largest number of potential husbands (from a fundamentalist evangelical standpoint).