After The Truth about Stories, I re-read The City of Words to once again focus my mind away from such questions as “why does milk taste funny after eating a slice of pineapple?” This marks the third time I’m writing about The City of Words on this blog. There’s just so much there to discuss.
In this case, I want to share some of Alberto Manguel’s thoughts on stories, the state, and the publishing industry, and discuss how they relate to fantastika. Manguel works from the following premise:
Language lends voice to the storytellers who try to tell us who we are; language builds out of words our reality and those who inhabit it, within and without the walls; language offers stories that lie and stories that tell the truth. Language changes with us, grows stronger or weaker with us, survives or dies with us. The economic machineries we have built requires language to appeal to its consumers, but only on a dogmatic, practical level, deliberately avoiding literature’s constant probing and interrogation. The endless sequence of readings of Gilgamesh or Don Quixote opens realms of meaning on countless subjects…all of which may at some point entail a questioning of power and call for the resolution of injustice. To sustain the run of the machineries, those in office will often attempt to curb and control this multiplicity of reading in many ways[…] This censorship…takes place in many ways, from the most dramatic to the most covert. […] In every case, its aim is to prevent the telling of true stories. (125)
A corollary can be found in Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” “We tend, as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect, or as contemptible” (The Language of the Night, 40), but that contempt comes from the phenomenon Manguel outlines above. It isn’t really contempt, as Le Guin notes, it’s fear of the multiplicity of meanings present in literature, the “opening up” of the mind to the stories of others, to empathy, and the questioning of current society that such reading entails. My only disagreement with Le Guin in her defence of fantasy literature is when she states, in another essay called “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” that “[t]he literature of the imagination…offers a world large enough to contain alternatives, and therefore offers hope” (87). It isn’t only fantasy that does this; all literature is a “literature of the imagination”, a point Manguel drives home. But dwelling on the possibility of alternatives is exactly not what the heads of our industrial society want; they want us to think there are no alternatives. Those in power, therefore, attempt to limit the realm of discourse as the surest means to control the population, if also the most difficult.
In a 1988 interview, Gene Wolfe noted the power of language and story to shape self and society:
Any writer who tries to press against the limits of prose, who’s trying to write something genuinely different from what’s come before, is constantly aware of these paradoxes about language’s power and its limitations. Because language is your medium, you become aware of the extent to which language controls and directs our thinking, the extent that we’re manipulated by words—and yet the extent to which words necessarily limit our attention and hence misrepresent the world around us.
It’s in the realm of misrepresentation, then, that we find ourselves changed. To limit the bounds of storytelling is to limit our comprehension of reality. As I noted in my review of The Truth about Stories, stories not only give us comprehension of the past but also shape the direction of the future: what we can and can’t do, the acceptable and the unacceptable, our priorities, even our memories as we sort life into narrative constructions. Change the fundamental stories of a society, and you change the direction of its development. In an industrial state structure, or any with uneven distribution of power, those among the elite necessarily want to implant their stories into the minds of those who serve them and cut away the modes of expression to the point where the populace can only tell stories those on top want told. Seldom does this entirely work thanks to the very nature of literature—and to use a literary example, we can think of the Ascians in The Book of the New Sun whose discourse is limited to a set of repeated phrases but who are still able to change the meanings of those stock phrases so as to communicate new ideas—but that doesn’t stop the elite from constantly trying.
Speaking of the book industry, though he may as well refer to any power structure at all, Manguel notes the manner in which modern societies attempt to fence in our means of storytelling:
The industry must educate us in our stupidity, because we don’t come by stupidity naturally. On the contrary, we come into the world as intelligent creatures, curious and avid for instruction. It takes immense time and effort, individually and collectively, to dull and eventually stifle our intellectual and aesthetic capabilities, our creative perception, and our use of language. (129-130)
The rich nature of language is then co-opted for what Manguel calls “dogma”—not in the religious sense, but in the sense of any phrase and story that only allows one interpretation (“drink Coca-Cola”), which doesn’t allow for exploration. And Manguel extends this limitation of language to the books we’ve written since the nineteenth century in a realm of widespread distribution but also tightly fenced boundaries:
The economic model applied since the Industrial Revolution to most technologies and most forms of commerce to produce goods at the lowest possible cost for the highest possible profit, reached in the 1900s the realm of the book. […] From the strategist of the editorial marketing departments to the buyer for the larger bookstore chains and also, perhaps less consciously aware of their responsibility, editors and creative-writing teachers, almost every member of the book industry became, to a large extent, part of a production line for the creation of artifacts for an audience not of readers (in the traditional sense) but of consumers. (128)
That is, capitalism has come to control our literature as a means to reproduce dogmas. Or tried to, since no matter how the heads of publishing companies may try, they still can’t predict with much accuracy what books will sell and which won’t when a new author’s manuscript comes to the table. While dreck with a huge marketing campaign might sell, quieter works like The Road can still show up on Oprah’s book club. This utter failure to entirely extend influence to readers’ tastes is a heartening one. Pre-modern writers and poets only needed impress one patron, and with the continued presence of editors and others in publishing (usually at the level of the small press) who still have a love of literature, the situation has only changed in scale.[*]
The very best literature is the one that changes with each reading, which offers new insights through a simple contextual shift; this is why the very best authors, such as Gene Wolfe, never have a straightforward meaning to their work, but instead an ever-expanding mesh of them. Applicability over allegory, we might say, a story that stays alive instead of remaining set in one historical moment. This is why classics are classics, since we can read them out of their time and still come to apply them to our own.
[*] Some popular authors such as Robert J. Sawyer and Orson Scott Card like to assert that the only measure of quality in literature is its saleability. Take Sawyer’s rather sneering jab: “‘all the really inventive work in the SF field appears in the semiprozines’ excuse put forth by American writers who’ve managed penny-a-word sales but can’t seem to crack a major market…[is] just a comfortable way of avoiding having to face up to their own artistic shortcomings” (“Is Canadian SF Different from American SF?: A Tale of Two Stories”, sfwriter.com). Both write what I think Manguel would call dogmatic fiction with little opportunity for exploration beneath the surface, the only difference being that they write from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Easily digested, easily discarded, and easily forgotten.