Musings on Stories

Musings on Stories

There's been some drama on twitter - and what else is new - involving how well a writer should know the canon and deep roots of one's culture, especially related to the genre an author chooses to write in.

I'll preface this: I'm not a writer.

First, Alexander Hellene's substack : Prerequisites.

There's actually a lot to unpack here, but in many ways, the post hinges around this :

A writer DOES have an obligation to understand the canon. You don’t have to like every single author in it. You don’t have to imitate them. But you should understand them and draw what you can from them, either by taking what you like, or writing the opposite of what you don’t.

Much of what leads up to this point is a musically rooted discussion that shows this by example - if you want to be in a metal band, it's important that you understand what metal is as a genre, and more importantly isn't. To know that, you don't have to listen to every metal band in existence, but you should be familiar with the bands that capture the feeling and tone and mood you're looking for, and what influenced them.

Sure, you can do a metal reggaeton, but to make it work, you have to understand what is fundamentally metal, what is reggaeton, and how to mix them so that it clearly both, and doesn't sound like a half-baked attempt to play a series of notes that don't fit the needed tone.

A lot of cross-genre covers don't work, at least nowhere near as well as the original did. Those attempts often fail because they don't understand what makes the original work, and how to map it to the other genre.

Metalheads may like jazz. Metalheads also like metal bands that play violins and celtic pipes on stage. But if they go to a metal concert, they want something that is recognizably metal, not acoustic jazz, country, or folk - unless it is obviously rooted in metal. And they'll be pissed if they get a gospel choir show when they were expecting crunchy power chords.

Further, it's it's not just about you (and your story) and your current audience - but also your audience in the future, including audiences that will never read the work or watch the film, but will feel the impact.

Art is a conversation with the past and using your cultural heritage to inform the future. You stand on the shoulders of giants before you, as those giants stood on the shoulders of those before them, all the way back to the source. If you are not a part of this conversation, what values and traditions are you transmitting? Stuff you just made up? What foundation do those things have? Probably something you learned from someone else. Or are you just reinventing the wheel, reverse-engineering something that had been figured out centuries ago?

Cultures aren't born in a vacuum. They have roots and assumptions, imprinted in early childhood before we are aware that we are aware by how those around us behave and the assumptions they carry. We pass those on in turn, or don't. These cultural behaviors and assumptions - and some work better than others - grow out of the need to build some degree of functioning society out of the people and personalities inhabiting them, with the resources at hand, and the instincts, emotions, and personality quirks inherent to the population.

A huge part of our common culture now believes that we can remake the substance of a thing by renaming it, playing games with perceptual word magic, to conflate things as the same that aren't, or at least to convince and shame people into acting as if they are. While our perception of the truth may be faulty or inaccurate, they believe that it is all a lie, and can be remade by relabeling. That we can sever ourselves from the labels and ideas of the past and make ourselves into something new, presumably better, because every failing is one of the mind and thought, and not at all inherent to our nature and instincts. Whether it's "dead white men" or the "four olds", it's outdated, and can be remade by tearing it down, and erecting new scaffolding - and that we are a blank slate such that we can erect the scaffolding of our choosing to make ourselves over into the new model man.

To those of us who now, and through most of history, believe that objective reality and truth do exist, no matter how imperfectly understood, no matter to what degree we can bend it by acts of will and physical effort, they are the enemy. In their desire to cut us off from our path, from any "truth" but that reality can be remade at a whim, we need to recognize and pass forward that which we love.

A canon matters. The question, as with anything, is who decides what is in the canon? Here’s a useful metric: If you’re a Westerner, anyone who says that “dead white European males need to be expunged from the canon” is your enemy, and you can bet nearly anything that what they’re telling you not to read or consider a part of the broader canon is the canon you should be paying attention to, and anything they are telling you to pay attention to is likely pure trash.

It's in part about the deep and tribal knowledge. Things often unspoken and undocumented. Much like losing the skillsets and deep knowledge of a manufacturing process when a plant is shut down to be offshored, the same can happen to a degree with culture - and may be violently suppressed in part because those of us rooted in different times will still exist to say nay.

Alexandru Constantin also touches on canon, in response to the drama, and in part expanding on Alexander's post.

I am a firm believer in The Great Conversation. Every work a writer puts out is part of a greater discussion between the writers of the past, his contemporaries, and the writers that will arrive in the future. This belief is not just a literary conceit but a spiritual, religious, and philosophical truth I accept with my whole being. I come to this understanding through my foundational faith in Orthodox Christianity and my high modernist conservative aesthetics in the vein of Roger Scruton and Edmund Burke. We are part of an intellectual tradition where every work of art, literature, music, and architecture is a building block in the greater monument of Western Civilization, and it is our duty and responsibility to engage with the past to protect it for our future generations. God gave us the gift of reason and subcreation and we must be cognizant of that fact and realize that every time one picks up a pen, a paintbrush, or sits at a keyboard, you are doing so with the weight of everyone that has come before you and engaging in an artistic and spiritual tradition that goes back to creation.

Most importantly the greater forces of evil are actively engaged in the erasure of the past. We live in a time of disillusionment and disenchantment, the 20th century severed us from our rich cultural and spiritual history and the 21st century is well on the way to atomizing us into a hive of consumerism, force-feeding us synthetic syrup of pornographic funkpopified entertainment, devoid of spiritual beauty and truth. All around us the enemy is toppling statues of our ancestors, defacing great works of art, and destroying the intellectual institutions and traditions of the past. We don’t go a week without some freakish blue-haired professor, reeking of cat piss, attacking the great writers of the past and calls for the removal of Old Dead White Men, or some greasy anemic degenerate part of the nihilistic death cult desecrating our cultural heritage in a museum.

So yes, I not only believe that everyone should be familiar with the Canon, both the greater Western one and the many genre classics, I think that it is our imperative duty, because our enemies are closer and closer to achieving their goals. I fear that one day, in the not-too-distant future, we will have to become like the months of the early Middle Age who protected the great works during the Roman collapse.

In addressing the arguments made for why it doesn't matter if we know the canon:

One analogy both Katie and David used in their video was the tree. She correctly pointed out that one does not need to see the roots of the tree to know it’s a tree. I agree, one does not need to know anything about the tree to enjoy its fruit. Who am I to deny a man that joy, after all, I wouldn’t judge a hungry man for eating, candy is still sustenance when one is starving. The birds and beasts eat from the trees without knowing their roots. But, we are not birds and beasts, we are men, and we have been tasked with being gardeners. How much greater is the fulfillment if you do understand the roots, the soil, the land, and the weather? You are no longer a consumer but a participant in the life of the tree, and most importantly a steward.

Another argument addressed is that of "only academics care"

Another strain of insidious argument presented is the one that art and beauty are subjective, the rejection of the very idea of a literary and artistic Canon. The idea is that reading the great works of the past is just an exercise for academics and that the common reader doesn’t need to know the great works of the past to enjoy contemporary pieces. This of course is a monstrous idea firmly rooted in progressive post-modernism. It is shockingly illustrative of the fact that the anti-traditionalist progressives are culturally dominant and that their ideas are being championed by a group that identifies itself as nominally conservative. How insane is it that conservative writers and critics are advocating the position that one doesn’t have to read the classics and one does not have to understand the foundational works of literature and its genres? From my philosophical position, it is hard to not slide into the aggressive stance taken by Jeffro because while they might not be the enemy they are taking positions right out of the enemy's playbook.

If I may add - go read letters from common soldiers home during the civil war. the sheer expressiveness, even of those who have had little opportunity to read beyond the bible, is breathtaking.

More importantly - for the gifts the internet has provided in terms of access to knowledge and to far-flung friends, it has also destroyed the bonds of common cultural touchstones, one of a piece with how we abuse and torment language and constantly redefine what "is" with new pronouns/etc., so that we waste time finding even a common understanding to have a human conversation. A canon, a relatively stable vocabulary of ideas and terms that people are aware of is more than just a way to more efficiently write stories without having to waste time explaining everything, it makes it easier to communicate with people overall.

Which brings me to the story itself - and and a plague upon storytelling that having a deep and broad understanding of canon resists.

No, it's not the endless epic series that never can draw to a close. Aside - as much as I loathe GRRM's writing, and GoT in book or series format, the ending of the show, as bad as it was, was at least an ending. Yes, stories with consequence and stakes are good, but in practice, so few have done it reasonably well, and there's a lot to be said for the sitcom / STNG format of a stable of known characters at a crossroads.

It's the self-referentialism.

Look, I get it. Any story set in the present day, or something remotely like it, has to include or reference concepts that have long been around. Take power armor, or various tropes re: faster than light travel. Pretending these concepts are new and haven't existed in the fiction of that world as at least ideas is nonsensical as well.

No - it's when the story almost exclusively references recent in-genre tropes of the last few decades, and effectively all the references are to genre standard tropes, with little referenced outside of them (we're getting to the point where even greek myth as a standard outside referent is fading out... and outside of a few holdouts, forget Christianity).

People who've never read Dunsany, Haggard, Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson are copying the stories of the people those greats inspired, or the people who copied the people who copied the people...

If for no other reason than you want to add something truly new to a genre, or different, you should have familiarity with something completely different that has elements you can beg borrow or steal. It's recognized that a lot of SF has borrowed elements of detective mysteries or westerns, but how many of those have simply borrowed the tropes distilled in shows and movies rather than going back as far as the pulps, or better yet, reading up on actual history? Even in a genre story, not every character in it is into the genre. The more experiences you have with the world as a whole, direct or via reading, the more depth you can add to each and every character and setting.

It is one of the few things that I think the Literary Fiction scene gets right - the willingness to find interesting characters and events from the past and build stories around them - even as I loathe the actual mode and tone of storytelling, and the Zinn-like perspective that ruins any interest I may have had.

The more tools you have, and the better you understand your roots, the better will be the results of your craft and practice, no matter what you try to write.