storytelling, the old fashioned way

Languagehat has a story about a plaza in Morocco where storytellers carry on the tradition of telling epic folk tales to a crowd.

This always reminds me of the villages in Austria where oral storytelling is so important, and such a rich experience. It’s this kind of storytelling, a give and take between teller and audience, that can never be captured on a page or even on a screen. In this country, the communities that still tell stories in this way function mostly below general notice. You’d be most likely to come across this phenomenon in inner city neighborhoods or in very small, rural towns, especially in the south. And if you’re reading this, the storytelling you’d hear would not be in the variety of English you speak.

There are people in this country who are dedicated to maintaining and nurturing the art of oral storytelling. You don’t have to look very far to find them.

But really what all of this brings to mind is the tyranny of the written word.

anachronistic heroes

Following the discussion at LanguageHat on anachronisms in historical fiction, particularly in terms of language, this interesting comment was posted by aldiboronti:

…with people we cheerfully accept, nay demand, that, the heroes and heroines of popular fiction, no matter what period it is set in, are fully equipped with 21st century mindsets. Only the villains are permitted to share the prevailing opinions of their times.

There is certainly some truth to this, although my first reservation has to do with the idea that this sin is committed in popular fiction. It seems to me that the tendency to this kind of anachronism shows up in all kinds of fiction in all genres, including what might be considered more literary (and yes, I am sidestepping the very fraught issue of popular/literary for the moment; I’ve certainly posted enough about it in the past, for example, here and here). The first such example that came to mind is the Victorian poet Ash in Byatt’s novel Possession. I find him not typical of his time or background, but if he had been, the central conflict of the story would have been nullified, and I like to story the way it is. But aldiboronti’s observation is an important one in a more general way because it gets to the heart of the matter when talking about language anachronisms.

The reason I might hesitate to put an eighteenth century term for African slaves into the mouth of a hero is, of course, because I don’t want him to be prejudiced, and neither do my readers. If he’s going to be an admirable character, he can’t believe (as most of his contemporaries did) that African natives and their descendents were cowardly, sullen, dishonest, “remorseless of tyrants to men and animals when invested with authority. Promiscuous, licentious and dissolute, incapable of love or affection.” I apologize right now for not being able to provide the citation for this quote, which comes from the late eighteenth century. As soon as I track it down in my notes, I’ll post a follow up. Unless somebody beats me to it here.

Is it possible to write a character who lives in London in (say) 1790, who believes these things about Africans, and who is acceptable to readers as a protagonist? Probably only if, over the course of the novel, he or she changes and comes to be more open minded. Most readers will not tolerate anything else, maybe because most writers are not capable of writing such a character in a way that transcends the shock value of having that character really be typical of the times.

Having said that, I’d like to point out that there were prominent examples of men who not only rejected the negative evaluation of Africans, but who wrote about it eloquently and who worked against slavery. Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) was one such person, active in the abolitionist movement in England. He wrote of Phyllis Wheatly and Ignatius Sancho that such accomplished individuals would be nothing unusual “if the minds of the Africans were unbroken by slavery; if they had the same expectations in life as other people, and the same opportunities of improvement, they would be equal, in all the various branches of science ….inferiority of their capacities is wholly malevolent and false.”

So the writer of historical fiction has only a few choices. Sidestep the problem by never having the protagonist (a) encounter anyone of another race or (b) talk about the news of the times (the morally ambiguous don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach); cast the progatonist not such much as an anachronism but as one of the rare individuals of his or her time and place, ala Clarkson; find a way to write a protagonist who confronts current sensibilities but in such a way that the modern reader is willing to accept it.

Let me point out, just to be clear, that this difficulty extends far beyond the matter of slavery. For most of known history men in general and many women have not been supportive of women’s rights; religious freedom was considered a bad idea; labor practices were atrocious; and the list goes on.

race, characterization, and historical fiction

Today LanguageHat pointed the many readers who visit that weblog to my posts about language anachronisms in historical fiction; as a result, a slew of people have stopped by with interesting things to say. As I’m not sure you’ll find those comments, hidden away as they are, I’m making a point of pulling them into the light. But first LanguageHat’s take on the anachronism quandry (I’m going to keep on eye on this post, as it seems that it might be the start of an interesting discussion):

Personally, I would be willing to write off readers who couldn’t handle “the eighteenth century terms for natives of Africa”; if their sensibilities are that tender, they shouldn’t be reading about the past (and shouldn’t go visit most of the world). But I recognize that that’s an extremist position, and as a straight white male American I’m doubtless less susceptible to the power of disparaging language than most.

Prentiss Riddle points to Bill Poser’s excellent post about the anachronistic use of Latin in Gibson’s The Passion at Language Log. Language Log is a group blog that some ten linguists (a couple of whom I knew in my former life as an academic) post to, on topics that interest them. I don’t read that blog often enough, I find, because I just noticed Geoffrey Pullum’s post about The DaVinci Code and Brown’s prose style. Something I mentioned in my review, but Pullum does a much better job of really taking Brown apart. She said gleefully.

Also on the topic of language in film, Ray at The Apothecary’s Drawer points out that by the time of Shakespeare in Love, people were speaking early modern English (this in response to a discussion on that post).

In a different matter, Aaron has pointed to some resources for people who read this blog and have trouble adjusting the font size:

Hi, I’m new to this blog — thanks to LanguageHat — but wanted to suggest a couple of links that I find helpful when trying to read smaller fonts:

1) Internet Explorer’s Text Size change doesn’t always work for Movable Type blogs so maybe give Mozilla Firefox a try. Firefox gives you the ability to increase font sizes by simply pressing “CTRL” plus “+”.

2) Thanks to the WSJ’s Walter Mossberg I just learned of Web Eyes. There’s a free trial and then it’s only $20 — his review is free and over here. It’s a toolbar you can add to Internet Explorer and it gives you the ability to read most pages like a book, and it means no more scrolling. (However, I use Firefox for websites that take forever to connect to advertisements off-site.)

historical v. political considerations

In part because of my academic background and area of specialization, I have paid a lot of attention to the evolution of the term ‘politically correct’. In the seventies it was used to describe something

“conforming to a body of liberal or radical opinion, especially. on social matters, characterized by the advocacy of approved causes or views, and often by the rejection of language, behaviour, etc., considered discriminatory or offensive…” (OED)

but it didn’t take long for the term to become so overextended. By the late eighties, to say somebody was ‘politically correct’ (usually with a sneer) was to accuse the speaker of parroting extreme liberal views without critical thought (whether or not that was true; the phrase was — and is — still used as a way to silence debate.)

For my part, I like to think that in most situations it’s just good common sense to avoid language that is exclusionary or biased — unless I’m hoping to evoke negative reactions. There’s a good chapter about these issues in a book by Deborah Cameron called Verbal Hygiene. Great book, terrible title.

So what does this have to do with writing fiction? A lot, unfortunately. First, in historical terms, it’s sometimes impossible to use the right historical lexical items because your readers — those of them who don’t know the language history, and even those who do — would find it so disturbing that they’d lose track of the story. You can have a nasty antagonist use any kind of slur and get away with it, but you can’t have a protagonist use any of the eighteenth century terms for natives of Africa without causing real problems for your reader. Nor can you simply use modern day terms, because they will stand out like proverbial sore thumbs. So what do you do?

It’s generally possible to structure dialog to evade the most problematic lexical items. Coward’s way out? Maybe. But to me this is one of those damned do/don’t things. Either you alienate your reader, or you commit anachronism. To use an example which is not quite so incendiary as most, consider the word girl.

In today’s world, a male executive who refers to his assistant as ‘his girl’ is (a) clueless (b) insensitive (c) sexist (d) deliberately provocative or (e) all of the above. “I’ll send my girl to get us coffee.” — Now there’s a sentence you’d put in the mouth of a character you don’t much like, or want your readers to like. But what if you’re talking about the year 1898? What would it mean then, in terms of how to read the character? For most readers, the answer to that question doesn’t matter, because they can’t get beyond their initial reaction.

The point (and I do have one) is that it’s hard to be historically and socially true to the language because your reader is stuck in her own time and place, and lacks the references she’d need to interpret. You’ll have to concentrate on other kinds of details to establish character, and keep a dictionary close to hand.

Another thing: Stephanie at Sillybean has pointed us to LanguageHat who points to this online database of magazines (Annual Register (1758-78), Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1843-63), Gentleman’s Magazine (1731-50), Notes and Queries (1849-69), Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1757-77), and The Builder (1843-52)) made available by Oxford. There is nothing so good as reading newspapers of the time you’re writing about to get a sense of the language.