The link below is to an article that looks at why men should read more fiction.
Outside observers can now easily access some of this propaganda by visiting regime-sponsored websites. These have, in turn, spawned foreign feeds like the excellent KCNA Watch media aggregator and satirical sites such as “Kim Jong Un Looking at Things.”
However, there’s another side to North Korean political messaging, one directed at the domestic population.
Difficult to access and written in a highly stylized, dogmatic prose, North Korea’s domestic propaganda is not only largely ignored abroad, but it’s also difficult for even South Koreans to understand. It includes state-sponsored Chosun Central TV broadcasts, state-produced films, and revolutionary operas and ballads.
But one of the more illuminating forms of internal propaganda is the regime’s state-produced fiction. Published in monthly literary journals, these stories are distributed by the ruling Korean Workers’ Party to select schools and offices around the country.
In an effort to make this internal propaganda more accessible to non-Koreans, I have been translating and blogging about selected works of North Korean fiction as part of my research on North Korean cultural politics.
These stories can offer outsiders revealing insights into the regime’s shifting concerns and priorities, which include a recent campaign to reinforce the legitimacy of their young leader, Kim Jong Un.
Penning tales for the regime
No other autocratic regime today has such a well-developed stable of artists and writers producing works aligned with the party’s ideological needs. The ruling Korean Workers’ Party has an extensive bureaucracy in charge of training talent, defining standards and commissioning projects in literature and other branches of the arts.
Like most professionals within North Korea, fiction writers belong to their own organization within the ruling Korean Worker’s Party: the Chosŏn Writer’s Union. The Party, therefore, has direct control over what gets written about and which themes get emphasized.
Works of fiction are published in one of a handful of monthly literary journals, the most prestigious of which is Korean Literature, produced by Chosŏn Literature and Art Union Publishing. Other journals include Children’s Literature, Youth Literature and Literary Newspaper.
Within the Chosŏn Writer’s Union, the most elite authors comprise the April 15 Literary Production Unit. This group has produced all the major works dramatizing the personal histories of the leaders, including the “Immortal History” (Pulmyŏl ŭi Yŏksa) and “Immortal Leadership” (Pulmyŏl ŭi Hyangdo) series, which constructed the official hagiography of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, respectively.
The list of authorship of new fiction about Kim Jong Un reveals many well-known names from these series, including Kim Sam Bok, Baek Bo Hŭm and Chŏng Ki Jong. Chŏng, one of North Korea’s most well-known contemporary authors, passed away in 2016, but not before penning the short story “Sky, Earth and Sea,” which details Kim Jong Un’s role in the Ŭnha and Gwangmyŏngsŏng satellite launches.
Since consumer demands and preferences are irrelevant to the creation of North Korean fiction, it cannot be evaluated as a reflection of the average North Korean’s underlying social anxieties (which is how a cultural anthropologist might study literature). Through interviews with North Korean defectors living in Seoul, I found that most North Koreans don’t spend their leisure time reading these journals for fun. Many, however, told me that they had been exposed to these stories at some point in school.
The anthropologists’ loss, however, is the political scientists’ gain. North Korean fiction offers a window into the ruling party’s priorities that’s just as informative as its official, externally directed propaganda.
Reading between the lines
Many of these stories dramatize events in the leaders’ lives. Some are morality tales that showcase characters who embody certain socialist ideals. Others reflect concerns about the geopolitical landscape – and, not surprisingly, American leaders sometimes make guest appearances.
Chŏng Ki Jong’s most famous novel, “Ryŏksa ui Taeha,” depicts President Bill Clinton cowering under blankets during the 1994 nuclear crisis. Another short story from around that time, “Maehok,” tells the story of President Jimmy Carter’s famous 1994 visit from the perspective of his wife Rosalynn, as she meets (and is smitten with) the Great Leader Kim Il Sung.
More recently, however, stories have centered on one subject: Kim Jong Un.
Kim was formally designated as successor in September 2010. Prior to that, his very existence had been virtually unknown to the general public within the country. In a country where schoolchildren ritualistically memorize idealized accounts of their leader and his ancestors, it must have been mind-boggling to see a new leader on TV that they knew almost nothing about.
The regime had to rush to put together a personal legend worthy of the grandson of the nation’s founder. The first works of fiction to mention Kim by name appeared in early 2013, over a year after he succeeded his late father as leader. In these stories, there’s a marked thematic shift, with an emphasis on youth, creativity and innovation.
For example, the 2017 short story “Blossoming Dreams,” by Kim Il Su, depicts the young leader as a talent scout of sorts. He finds gifted young artists and architects and encourages them to participate more fully in various national construction projects. At one point he pontificates to one of his advisers about the value of youthful thinking:
“Our future as a socialist nation of culture will not be built by architects and experts alone. It will require all our citizens to become gardeners and creators adorning our country with beauty. And it is the young generation that must stand up to bring about this bright future. Lately, I hear the saying ‘everything’s getting younger,’ but isn’t that wonderful? This era is young, and our people are getting younger … ”
References to new luxuries and recreational facilities are another notable feature of recent stories. Since Kim became supreme leader, he has poured resources into developing Western-style amusements such as water parks and ski resorts.
One such site, the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground, attracted international media attention after Kim Jong Un toured the facility in 2012 on his first official photo op with his new wife. An ode to the Rungna park appeared in Literary Newspaper in October 2012, celebrating it as “the creation of heaven and earth following the leader’s path.” In “Blossoming Dreams,” Kim Jong Un’s faithful minister of architecture recalls how the young leader “suffered in the summer heat and fierce winds” when touring the site of the soon-to-be-opened theme park.
A similar prestige project is the new Changjŏn Street complex in Pyongyang, which features gleaming, high-rise apartment buildings and sports facilities.
In “Teacher,” a short story published in 2013, a family of schoolteachers is thrilled to receive notice that they have been given a spacious new apartment in the Changjŏn complex. The family is surprised to learn they made the list: It’s well known that the first apartments were supposed to go to “workers and innovators.” Later it becomes clear that Kim Jong Un personally directed that some apartments be set aside for educators as well, as part of a general priority for “cultivating the next generation.”
North Korean fiction, of course, shouldn’t be interpreted as a realistic depiction of actual conditions within the country.
But by reading between the lines, one may discern clues to the regime’s internal concerns, along with the messages it is most eager to convey to its captive domestic audience.
Meredith Shaw, Ph.D. Candidate in the Politics and International Relations, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
On a damp October day in 2006, I followed Kazuo Ishiguro and my 10-year-old daughter Grace to a back table at a bustling cafe in London for an interview. As Ishiguro answered my questions, he explained how he “auditions” his characters’ voices and personalities in his head before they appear in his fiction. He spoke candidly about a writer’s messy work.
Now he is the laureate for the Nobel Prize in literature, for what the Swedish Academy praised as his unapologetic portrayals of “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”
It’s a nod to the self-delusion that many of Ishiguro’s characters possess. One, for example, rationalizes his service to a fascist loyalist. Others see their past through the cloudy lens of trauma. If we were to peel back the warped self-deception, we might find a bottomless pit of despair.
At that interview years ago, Ishiguro talked about his characters’ painful chasms, the way they protected themselves by concealing their mistakes. But when everything seems hopeless, his characters often courageously turn to their imagination to forge a connection to life and meaning.
In doing so, they beckon readers to imagine something better, too.
When I asked Ishiguro about his 2005 dystopic novel “Never Let Me Go,” his tone shifted. He lowered his voice when he told me about the students in that novel, and how they eventually perish. But he was surprised when I said that I found the novel sorrowful.
“There is an inevitable sadness,” he admitted. “On the other hand, it’s not a bleak view of human nature.”
I could sense Ishiguro’s concern for how my daughter might take his observations about death and despair.
He continued: “The question, ‘What are we useful for?’ is the question that your daughter Grace asks, and one Tommy and Kathy ask in ‘Never Let Me Go.’ Some cold system says to Tommy and Kathy that they will be useful [to the world], and it’s the same as another system saying to Grace that someday she will be useful to the world economy.”
Human systems figure in all of Ishiguro’s novels, whether these are governments, communities or families. Often, these systems are damaged, and humans still must move through them. They try to repair them or save themselves. Ishiguro has examined many facets of what it means to live among and within countless systems.
The first-person narrators of Ishiguro’s first three novels, “A Pale View of Hills,” “An Artist of the Floating World” and “The Remains of the Day,” reflect on personal losses in the context of world events: friends and families dead from atomic bombings in Japan, unrealized romances, wrong choices and lives founded on delusion. These characters long for clarity, retribution or forgiveness.
The narrators of his next three novels are, variously, a pianist (“The Unconsoled”), a London detective (“When We Were Orphans”) and a roving hospice-type worker (“Never Let Me Go”). Whether they’re situated in Japan, Great Britain, some unnamed European city or even a medieval village, Ishiguro’s characters beguile his readers with their disclosures. His eloquent prose expresses their anguish or their repressed longings. We sense time passing darkly for these characters. We see how they face disappointments and ache for dignity.
Ishiguro explained that to probe the emotional force of his novels, we must understand that the characters are set within “an internal world [and] it’s an emotional logic that is being played out.”
In narrating their sorrows and their fruitless optimism, Ishiguro gives his readers a way to empathize with his characters’ situations.
Ishiguro’s capacity for compassion was cultivated during his university gap year, when he worked with the homeless. He also studied piano and guitar and dreamed of a career in music before he detoured to the creative writing program at the University of East Anglia. He still writes musical lyrics and works with musicians as an avocation.
By his own admission, Ishiguro is a slow writer; he produces a novel every few years. In 2015, when he came to Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop to promote his latest novel, I was able to catch up with him. He remarked that he may have only a couple more books forthcoming.
“We’re not immortal,” he said. “We’re here for a limited time. There is a countdown.”
The Swedish Academy honors a laureate for a lifetime of achievement. To date, Ishiguro has published eight books as well as many short stories, television and film scripts. His career may seem disjointed when focusing on only the best-known novels, “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go.”
But few contemporary authors have dared to take as many risks as Ishiguro. The more complicated, Kafka-esque novel “The Unconsoled” is a book some critics called disappointing. A different sort of writer might have quit, but Ishiguro persisted.
Similarly, even though some readers responded coolly to “The Buried Giant,” Ishiguro had taken yet another literary leap: The highly metaphorical story is set in an early English era that predated historical records. Memory, repression of pain and the resolve to protect oneself and loved ones return as themes, but in unusual, allegorical ways.
Each novel is a singular achievement; each successive undertaking enriches a broader canvas of Ishiguro’s portraits of alienated lives.
During that 2006 London interview, I watched Ishiguro banter with my daughter during a break. They were laughing about what it means to “snarf” food, and they were picking up some biscuits and spooning melted ice cream to demonstrate. Ishiguro’s ease and humor when speaking with my child captivated me.
In spite of the sadness in his books, Ishiguro is a gracious guardian of humanity. He is a fine curator of emotions and a skilled storyteller.
We don’t know how many more books Ishiguro will publish. But we can be certain that in his literary explorations, he will remain undaunted.
Climate change – or global warming – is a term we are all familiar with. The warming of the Earth’s atmosphere due to the consumption of fossil fuels by human activity was predicted in the 19th century. It can be seen in the increase in global temperature from the industrial revolution onwards, and has been a central political issue for decades.
Climate scientists who moonlight as communicators tend to bombard their audiences with facts and figures – to convince them how rapidly our planet is warming – and scientific evidence demonstrating why we are to blame. A classic example is Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and its sequel, which are loaded with graphs and statistics. However, it is becoming ever clearer that these methods don’t work as well as we’d like. In fact, more often than not, we are preaching to the converted, and can further polarise those who accept the science from those who don’t.
One way of potentially tapping into previously unreached audiences is via cli-fi, or climate-fiction. Cli-fi explores how the world may look in the process or aftermath of dealing with climate change, and not just that caused by burning fossil fuels.
Recently, I participated as a scientist in a forum with Screen Australia, looking at how cli-fi might communicate the issues around climate change in new ways. I’m a heatwave scientist and I’d love to see a cli-fi story bringing the experience of heatwaves to light. After the forum, Screen Australia put out a call for proposals for TV series and telemovies in the cli-fi genre.
We absolutely need and should rely on peer-reviewed scientific findings for public policy, and planning to stop climate change and adapt to it. But climate scientists should not expect everyone to be as concerned as they are when they show a plot of increasing global temperatures.
Cli-fi has the potential to work in the exact opposite way, through compelling storylines, dramatic visuals, and characters. By making people care about and individually connect to climate change, it can motivate them to seek out the scientific evidence for themselves.
The term “cli-fi” was coined at the turn of the millennium, but the genre has existed for much longer. One of the earliest examples is Jules Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole, where the tilt of the Earth’s axis is altered by human endeavours (of the astronaut, not industrial kind), bringing an end to seasonal variability.
More modern examples of cli-fi take their prose from real-life contemporary issues, imagining the effects of human-caused climate change. Some pieces of cli-fi are perhaps closer to the truth than others
Could the thermohaline circulation (which carries heat around our oceans) shut down, bringing a sudden global freeze, as The Day After Tomorrow suggests? There is evidence that it will, but perhaps not as quickly as the film imagines.
Is it possible that fertility rates will be affected by climate change? The television-adapted version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale blames pollution and environmental change for a world-wide plummet in fertility, thus giving a cli-fi undertone to the whole dystopian series. While there is no scientific evidence to currently back this scenario, as a new parent, it struck a chord with me personally. The thought of a world where virtually every couple is unable to experience the joys of parenthood, particularly due to climate change, is quite distressing.
Cli-fi also underpins the highly acclaimed Mad Max movie series. In a dystopian near-future, fossil fuel resources have depleted and the social and environmental impacts are vast. Australia has become a desolate wasteland and our society has all but collapsed.
Although such a scenario will be unlikely to occur in the next couple of decades, it is not completely unrealistic. We are burning fossil fuels far faster than they are forming, with some predictions that accessible sources will run out in the next century.
And some of our famous ecosystems are already very sick thanks to climate change.
And then there is Waterworld. Yet another dystopia, where there is no ice left on Earth and sea levels have risen 7.5km above current levels. Civilisations exists only in small settlements, where inhabitants dream of the mythical “dry land”. While the movie overestimates exactly how much water is locked away in ice (sea levels can only rise by up to 60-70 metres), many major global cities would be inundated and no longer exist. And while it will take thousands, not hundreds of years for complete melting to take place, sea level rise is already posing a problem for some coastal settlements and small islands. Moreover, Arctic ice is predicted to completely melt away well before the end of this century.
Sure, the scientific evidence underpinning these storylines is embellished to say the least, But they are certainly worth deliberating over if they ignite conversations with people that mainstream science fails to reach.
The power of fiction
In the long run, cli-fi might encourage audiences to modify their everyday lives (and maybe even who they vote for) to reduce their own carbon footprint.
From personal experience, some audiences tend to disengage from climate change because of how overwhelming the issue may seem. Global temperatures are rising at a rate not seen for millions of years, and we are currently not doing enough to avoid dangerous climate change. Understandably, the scale and weight of climate change likely encourages many to bury their heads firmly in the sand.
To this audience, cli-fi also has an important message to deliver – that of hope. That it is not, or will it be ever, too late to combat human-caused climate change.
Imagining a future where green energy is accessible to everyone, where global politicians work tirelessly to rapidly reduce emissions, or where new technologies are discovered that safely and permanently remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere are absolutely worth air time. Cli-fi can act as prose for science. And on the topic of mitigating climate change, there is no such thing as too much prose.
Ever since Plato equated poetry with falsehood in the fourth century BC, the value of fiction has been in doubt. No convincing case for its value has since been made, beyond the obvious pleasures experienced by readers and audiences.
Today, fiction in the form of narratives – or, more simply, stories – permeates almost every aspect of our culture, from entertainment to law, medicine, and identity. We are also in the age of post-truth politics, where telling a demonstrably false story can be more compelling than telling the truth. Could overexposure to fiction account for the devaluation of truth that dominated the recent presidential elections, where both candidates lied and the most extravagant liar won?
Philosophers, critics, and artists have long attempted to offset the potential dangers of fiction by proposing various links between the experience of fiction and competing conceptions of truth. The tradition of defending fiction was founded by Aristotle and includes Horace, Sir Philip Sidney, Dr Johnson, and Matthew Arnold.
Since the contribution of Friedrich Schiller at the end of 18th century, the theory has been known as aesthetic education. Such theorists argue that art provides an indirect but integral education in ethics, a moral education by aesthetic means. Contemporary advocates include Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Martha Nussbaum. Of course, claims about the psychological and behavioural benefits of engaging with sophisticated and popular fictions vary wildly in strength.
The question of whether the ubiquity of narratives has devalued truth or enhanced morality prompts a further question: what exactly happens to us when we read books or watch films? There is a paucity of empirical evidence in this field.
The most frequently-quoted study on the topic was published by psychologists Evan Kidd and Emanuele Castano in 2013. They conducted five different experiments on samples of between 72 and 356 participants, each of which was divided into two groups. One read short passages of literary fiction (understood as being complex or challenging) and the other short passages of nonfiction or popular fiction.
The results indicated that participants who had read the literary fiction performed significantly better on a theory of mind test – which measures the ability to understand the mental states of others, a precondition of empathy – than those who had read either nonfiction or popular fiction.
Sounds like it backs up the aesthetic education theory, right? But the limitations of the study have been widely acknowledged, and its validity in this case is also doubtful. Literary narratives are, like their theatrical and cinematic counterparts, designed to be experienced as a whole. We cannot assume that the benefits of the literary experience will simply be the sum of the experiences of its parts. The same objection applies to the failed attempts to replicate Kidd and Castano’s findings in 2016.
If the evidence for the effects of engaging with fiction is so limited in quantity and quality, it seems prudent to seek an answer from a comparable field in which there has been more research. The obvious example is the relation between video-game violence and aggression. Video-games are designed to entertain and may or may not cause aggression in players; fictions are designed for the same purpose and may devalue truth, enhance morality, or have no secondary effect at all.
In a multiple analysis published in 1998, Karen Dill and Jody Dill claimed that there was a link between exposure to video-game violence and aggression, but advised caution on the basis of the limited quantity and quality of studies published.
Then, in a multiple analysis published 25 years later, Malte Elson and Christopher Ferguson lamented both the continued lack of standardisation and the frequency with which academics and others made controversial claims that were not supported by the data. They found that the evidence for a causal link between video-games and aggression was at best inconclusive.
Given that the research in the video-game field has been extensive, and unearthed no answers, it is hardly surprising that so little is known about the effects of experiencing fiction.
Fiction is nonetheless valuable in at least one way: its falsehood. In representing undisguised untruth, fictions present what psychologists call counterfactual thinking and philosophers call possible worlds.
In watching Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, we experience a representation of what a world in which Germany had created the atomic bomb before America would look and sound like. Aside from its entertainment value in engaging audiences on sensory, imaginative, and emotional levels, the series provides a detailed example of how an America run by right-wing extremists might have looked and might look like in the future. In doing so, it highlights the significance of avoiding that possible future.
The truth value of fiction is in the various ways in which it enlightens by deviating from the truth. Undisguised fictions will continue to be of value, no matter how many fictions presidential candidates disguise as facts.
Arlene Foster, the first minister of Northern Ireland, faced calls to resign over the “RHI scandal”, a renewable energy incentive scheme which failed. Allegations of mismanagement cost the public purse almost £500m. Foster labelled the pressure for her resignation “misogynistic” and suggested that a man in a similar position might not face such opprobrium.
Doubtless, much of the language aimed at female politicians has a deeply sexist dimension, but writers were quick to point out in the New Statesman, The Belfast Telegraph and The Irish News that Foster’s own Democratic Unionist Party has an ingrained culture that fosters inequality.
There is an acute lack of female voices in Northern Irish politics, undoubtedly a legacy of decades of militarised conflict, that has left the region with the lowest amount of women of the devolved parliaments. Of the 18 MPs for the region, only two are female. But the recent appointments of Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin) and Naomi Long (Alliance) to lead their respective parties suggest things might be slowly, gradually beginning to change.
Short stories new and old
This lack of political representation is mirrored in the arts where, for years, women were anthologised and written about as exceptional cases in a literature that was overwhelmingly concerned with literary responses to violent events. In her pivotal work, The Living Stream (1994), Edna Longley detailed the distinctly male atmosphere that hangs over Irish literary coteries. But, as with the political changes noted, women’s voices are increasingly being heard in this sphere, too.
Generations of female novelists have written about Northern Ireland since its inception but have been largely ignored. This writing spans genres and all shades of political opinion since the 1920s, and has offered glimpses into lives that rarely make the evening news. Janet McNeill wrote a number of significant novels in the 1960s which capture this “in-between” period with a sharp, sympathetic eye for the dissatisfaction of some women with home and hearth. The reissuing of her novels The Small Widow, As Strangers Here and The Maiden Dinosaur show a continue appetite for and relevance of her novels.
But despite this history, 2016 was a landmark year for Northern Irish women’s fiction – short fiction, in particular. It saw the digital reissue of the vital anthology The Female Line (1985) and the publication of Sinéad Gleeson’s award-winning collection The Glass Shore, which features both classic stories and newly commissioned work from some of the north’s most vital writers. 2016 also saw new collections of stories from Lucy Caldwell (Multitudes), Jan Carson (Children’s Children) and Roisin O’Donnell (Wild Quiet).
Northern Irish fiction has often been criticised for relying on realism and not being as formally experimental as its United Kingdom or US counterparts. But recently, women have been leading the way in offering depictions of Northern Ireland that are ripe for critical speculation.
The work of Jan Carson, in particular, is marked by a playful, experimental sensibility as her writing plays with the possibilities of the short story genre. Her strange, deft prose is a much-needed counterpoint to the wealth of weighty Troubles tones. An equal tonic is Roisin O’Donnell’s magical work, which spans continents and species to continually surprise and delight. Bernie McGill’s sensual, visceral writing brings the body back into Northern Irish writing in her painful, beautiful writing.
And Lucy Caldwell has never been afraid to write about complicated topics, such as the Troubles and mental health (Where They Were Missed, 2006), missionary work and sexuality in the Middle East (The Meeting Point, 2011) and double lives (All the Beggars Riding, 2013). Her recent short fiction has seen this impulse continue, as she directly confronts the taboos of “post”-conflict Northern Irish society, such as racism, abortion and homosexuality.
Northern Irish women’s voices have been largely overlooked by critics and readers in favour of novels and short stories which centred male experiences of being perpetrators and victims of violence. But the new political moment has cleared space for new fictional representations.
Looking to the future, there are several exciting works for 2017. Following her heart-wrenching debut, Ghost Moth (2013), Michele Forbes will publish Edith and Oliver in March 2017. And the scapel-like wit of June Caldwell can be revisited in Room Little Darker, published later this year. We await new work from the women featured in The Glass Shore across genres and forms.
If all you know of Northern Ireland is the turmoil of political institutions, you could do worse than to pick up some of this fiction. For decades, Northern Irish women have been writing about their lives with bravery and skill but they have also been imagining different worlds and stretching their imaginations in the most trying of circumstances. To see these generations of women continue to resist established ways of writing and thinking has been galvanising as we seek to find stories outside of the standard narratives of truth and recovery.
This writing does not simply conform to the Troubles narrative so often replicated in fiction and film. Rather, it challenges it, sometimes directly, but often in subtle, wry acts of fictional insubordination.
Taking up a sheet of paper, he propped it against the easel. With a stick of charcoal in his hand, he flexed his muscled arm, and began to make strong, bold strokes, glancing back and forth at her all the while. She became transfixed by the way he held her in his sights, put his head down to draw, then came intently back up again, in a single movement, like a breath…
You think you’re watching me, Mr Benedict Cole, when in fact I’m watching you. She smiled inwardly.
~Enticing Benedict Cole: Eliza Redgold
There are not many literary genres as loved and loathed as romance fiction. For all its millions of female readers for hundreds of years, it’s been dismissed as sentimental, sappy and trashy, as well as mad, bad and dangerous to read. Yet romance fiction, written by women, published by women, read by women, and researched by women, remains one of the most popular and powerful genres on the planet.
I’m a romantic academic. I teach and research in gender studies. Under my pen name, Eliza Redgold, I also write romance novels, published by Harlequin (Mills and Boon).
Romance novels and I began as childhood sweethearts. I didn’t know they were a form of fairy tales, but they worked magic on me. In my twenties I flirted with romance fiction, but we drifted apart. My desire re-emerged when women’s studies, my adored discipline, fragmented in the academy.
I sought solace and attended my first romance writing conference. To my surprise, the scene was all too familiar: predominantly female participants and presenters, a collaborative leadership model, a supportive atmosphere, and lots of violet.
The rest is herstory. I progressed with my purple prose and discovered that the romance writing landscape had changed – roles and rules were being broken as women were engaged in reshaping the genre, along with a concurrent rise of “love studies” that emerged in the wake of women’s studies.
Romance brought me back to academia, full circle. In retrospect, this sounds unproblematic. In truth, the relationship between the two brought me face to face with my pride, and prejudices.
Trashing the genre and gendering the trash
Her skin rippled as his all-encompassing artist’s gaze lingered over her. “Let me just say the painting will be somewhat – revealing. It will not merely be of your face; what I have in mind will require I make a study of … your form.”
“I see.” Her stomach gave another of those mysterious lurches. “To what extent would my … form … be displayed?”
Because I call myself both a feminist and a romantic doesn’t mean they are two hearts beating as one.
Romance has represented a dilemma. Scholars including Germaine Greer have considered it a form of deception that deliberately prevented women from recognizing their oppressed and subordinate roles in patriarchal society. Tania Modleski dubbed it mass-produced fantasy.
Still, postmodernists such as Diane Elam have emphasized its subversive nature.
Val Derbyshire of Sheffield University recently argued that Mills and Boon romances deserve literary attention as feminist texts. And Anja Hirdman writes that Harlequin
seems nowadays to construct a feminine viewing position once thought not to exist at all. Harlequin narratives produce a mix of femininity, desire and power by simultaneously using the familiar formula and making it unfamiliar, by re-writing its gendered implications and by turning the gaze around.
This is not without personal and political challenges. In a Gender and Society journal article entitled Sneers and Leers, Jennifer Lois and Joanne Gregson describe how outsiders apply stigma to romance writers in two ways “by conveying blatant disapproval through “sneering” and inviting writers to display a highly sexualized self through “leering.”
Writers interpreted outsiders’ sneering as slut-shaming rhetoric and responded discursively to manage the stigma; leering, however, sent a more complicated message that was harder for writers to manage.
I spent the publication day of my first romance novel, in 2013, in a darkened room.
It wasn’t possible to pretend I wrote it by accident, mistake, in irony, or to put it down to research. There are many things a woman can fake, but you can’t fake a Mills and Boon.
But consistency, wrote Emerson, is the hobgoblin of little minds. As I lay on my bed, dichotomies and dualisms crowded in – Bad/Good, Feminism/Femininity, Sexuality/Spirituality, Naughty/Nice – forcing me to confront my own freedoms, limitations, inconsistencies and desires, in the confines of my life and the page.
In an academic context, I made no attempt to hide my double identity, but wondered (a.ka. worried) whether the reaction might be disapproval. My expectations were confounded: most were supportive. “I’ve been reading the wrong genre,” said one female colleague. I also couldn’t predict responses based on gender – while a couple of female colleagues rolled their eyes, some male colleagues proved helpful. In turn, being a romance writer has informed my work as an academic.
Why do I write romance? Today, I can better answer that question. For the pleasure of readers, and my own. To reclaim my body. To explore my emotions. To expand my mind.
Once more unto the breeches: embracing the fight for love
He stood up and pulled her into his fierce embrace. The feel of him, the strength of his powerful arms, would be home to her now. Deep within her, she knew he would hold her like this for the rest of her life, his kiss, sure and loving; never to fade.
In a world where women’s rights are under attack, it may seem that romance novels might be slapped again with a warning label. In a sea of pink pussy hats, does purple prose have a female part?
Freedom is created when we are liberated from oppressive thought. This is the most powerful freedom of all. It allows us to create new ways of thinking, being, knowing, speaking, writing, and belonging, of loving, and new kinds of relationships. Every act of bravery encourages another, whether it’s made standing up, marching, sitting-in, or lying down.
Romance fiction invites us to constantly recreate a language of love. It is the not yet said, not yet imagined relationship between and among women and men.
How do we create this language? We try something old, something new. We write. We revise. We share our sameness, delight in our difference. We philosophize, we ponder, we laugh, we discuss, we converse, we explore. We honour our bodies; we divine our souls. We stand beside. We turn to each other.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
In solidarity. With love.
Writers, over the last decade, have been waxing lyrical about the rise of the present tense in English fiction. But this morning I read something entirely new – for me, at least. I read a manuscript written almost uniformly in the continuous tense and I found myself getting – the pun is irresistible – tense. Rather than the much-vaunted vivifying effects attributed to present tense narration, this piece of formal trickery hinted at a qualitatively different thing – the potential flattening effect of mono-tense fiction.
Historically, English language fiction, for the most part, has been written in an unobtrusive past simple tense, sometimes called the narrative tense. Odes to the past simple do not exist in writer’s style or “how to” manuals, because, when it comes to fiction, at least, past simple is relatively invisible and it’s every other tense that stands out.
Of course, the danger is that the past simple fits the reader like a comfortable old shoe. In your average past tense narrative, everything already exists, so the argument goes, in a tidy and predetermined sequence. It provides a stable point of reference from which the reader looks safely back on the story.
For this reason, present tense narration is billed as the roar of late modernity. It is the tense of real time technologies, soundbites and satellite relays. It signals an inability to find a stable place from which to speak in a complicated world in which everything has an undetermined future.
Jay McInerney’s 1980s extravaganza Bright Light, Big City is often said to have entrenched the present tense craze among the fashionable affectations of the instant gratification generation – but this is perhaps because it calls attention to its present tense by shouting it out in the second person (“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning”).
Raymond Carver produced work in the present tense back in the psychedelic seventies (“I am sitting over coffee and cigarettes at my friend Rita’s and I am telling her about it.”), as did Malcolm Bradbury. Margaret Atwood produced Surfacing, followed by Cat’s Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale.
More recently, present tense is a feature in DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little and Ian McEwan’s Saturday. It is mobilised to brilliant effect in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, creating an edgy sort of atmosphere in which anything is possible (“He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant smelling and softly lit, and undresses”). In Wolf Hall, Hillary Mantel uses it to pull the distant past over the threshold of the present, creating the present tense as the new tense du jour for the historical novel (“He turns his head sideways, his hair rests on his own vomit, the dog barks”).
In fact, it’s perfectly possible to find a surprising amount of present tense in the nineteenth century novel, including works by Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens (where it is used to create a sense that, as Inspector Bucket puts it in Bleak House, “You don’t know what I’m going to say and do, five minutes from this present time … ”).
It’s tempting to spot a steady diffusion of the present tense marking the era from the industrial revolution to the information age, and to equate this with a sense of the world speeding up. (Or alternatively, to equate the death of the author’s distant God-like omniscience with the rise of democracy.)
But there’s another way to see it, too. Any individual past-tense novel may well contain every one of the English language’s twelve tenses. In comparison, a present tense novel tends to contain only two or three.
Take Virginia Woolf, for example:
Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges. Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issed to children on a beach. What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.
Here Woolf uses past simple to frame the sentence, followed by future tense for the reported speech. The next sentence is in the past perfect (“For Lucy had her work cut out for her.”) followed by the future tense (“The doors would be taken off their hinges.”) An internal dialogue bursts into life with two short exclamatory sentences (“What a lark! What a plunge!”) before returning once again to past perfect. Indeed, as Mrs Dalloway runs on, the tenses constantly shift, conjuring up a flux of emotions.
By way of contrast, the ubiquity of the continuous past tense (typified by the use of the word “was”) in the manuscript I read this morning makes the reader feel as if you are a long way off from the action, as you are no longer talking about specific actions or events, but generalised or ongoing actions, such as actions that occur everyday. It lacks specificity. The continuous tense is always begging to be interrupted.
For garden-variety writing, the rule probably holds true: “Jesus wept” is stronger than “Jesus was weeping”, while the passive form, “the weeping was done by Jesus”, is a little ridiculous. The other problem is that sentences (like my three preceding clauses) also get longer and less economical as you need to add in additional words, very often verbs and gerunds that aren’t really doing much.
Gertrude Stein had a particular fascination with the continuous present tense, and the continuous past is a feature in quite a few of William Faulkner’s long recursive sentences, which can yank together half a dozen different temporal zones. But this kind of recursion, like subordination, creates complexity, and requires formidable skill. At risk of sounding like a pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing literary Luddite, mono and duo-tense novels can begin to feel a little thin.
Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival – and the responses to it – have continued an important discussion about questions of privilege and power in writing.
Shriver criticised the recent trend of calling out cultural appropriation, which she felt muzzled fiction writers. Volunteer Yen-Rong Wong was the first to blog about the speech. Memoir writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied walked out in protest at what she described as Shriver’s arrogance and later wrote about why she did so. The ensuing debate has been covered by the New York Times and The New Yorker. Shriver has since responded to her critics in an interview in Time.
Shriver defined cultural appropriation as taking knowledge, expressions or artefacts from another culture without their permission. She said it was impossible to ask for a whole minority group’s permission to write about its people. In addition, the idea that one person could speak for their minority group implied that culture was monolithic and static.
But Shriver’s definition, and her conclusion that cultural appropriation is silencing writers, is flawed. Cultural appropriation can be better understood as using another culture’s stories or artefacts devoid of context or genuine engagement.
Shriver spoke of being criticised for writing about obesity when she is not obese. She seemed to assume from this example that she is silenced from speaking about all minorities – but this fails to capture the complexity of the issue, or histories of colonisation, discrimination and intergenerational trauma.
How do you write about an experience if you have never experienced it yourself? In an article prompted by Shriver’s speech, a diverse group of Australia writers recently suggested that novelists need to personally grapple with this question.
I write on that personal level, from a position as a white, cis, able-bodied, female fiction writer, whose desires are unruly. I am still a new writer too; I am learning.
My recent novel is about a working-class Australian sex worker and petty thief, Lizzie O’Dea, a real woman whose voice is largely absent from the historical archives. Writing this novel forced me to consider my responsibilities in imagining her experiences. I also had to think about the how fiction interacts with history, a question that is particularly contentious in Australia’s national narrative.
This article is intended as part of a dialogue around how fiction writers negotiate complex power structures. This discussion has been going on for some time across fictional genres; for example, Anita Heiss has discussed how white writers can represent Indigenous characters in Australian fiction and Justine Larbalestier has considered this question in the case of Young Adult fiction.
Very few critics suggest that fiction writers limit their fiction to their own experience. Indeed, critic Nesrine Malik suggests this constrains understanding between people and the processes of empathetic engagement that can happen in writing and reading fiction.
Rather, writers in positions of privilege are encouraged to think critically about how this shapes their writing. Novelist Jim C Hines argues that engaging in a process of scrutiny actually creates better writers. Privileged writers could also consider how to support and help amplify the voices of diverse writers, who experience publishing bias and lack of access to writing opportunities.
For me, this discussion is a call to more deeply consider the power structures that shape both my own and my characters’ lives. Words — even invented ones — can, and sometimes do, cause harm and reinforce racist stereotypes.
The debate does not need to be a binary one: stealing culture on one hand, and avoiding it completely on the other. Nisi Shawl suggests fiction writers approach characters from other cultures as thoughtful tourists: ready to learn but also aware of their outsider status.
This was my experience when writing my novel; recall the quote “the past is a foreign country”. I wrote with a growing understanding that occupying the mind of a person from the 1920s was almost impossible, but that it can still be attempted to better understand women’s experiences in the past. Fictional language, often ironic and playful, has the capacity to draw attention to these difficulties.
Unresolved tensions about questions of representing others still exist in the novel. I made the decision to have Lizzie work alongside an indigenous woman, Thelma, in an effort to represent the multicultural diversity of 1920s North Queensland, which is present in the historical record. Yet, histories of sex work (see Raylene Frances’s Selling Sex ) pointed to Indigenous women having very different experience to white women.
Potentially, my privilege blinded me to aspects of Thelma’s characterisation. I was also confronted with questions of race when I considered how to represent racist dialogue and attitudes present in the archives. Fiction became a space to explore how dangerous and violent racism might be shown – without being reinforced. My path here was to express racist attitudes only in characters’ dialogue.
For me, engaging with these ideas also means reading texts from diverse viewpoints, setting diverse readings in classes, and teaching the canon with an awareness of the power structures that shape it. It means listening to thoughtful feedback, taking risks and learning from mistakes.
A writer in a privileged position might react to issues of appropriation with arrogance or anxiety. Neither are helpful for the evolution of my writing practice: instead I have found that awareness of privilege, research, and self-reflection continue to deepen my writing.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at African fiction.