East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

A drying up of the soul

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51H8S032BHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I was doing the usual three-cards trick on my shelves, trying to slot more volumes in the same old space, and while trying to find a place for the old London Gazzeteer, I found myself with no place for Peter Ackroyd‘s Albion.
And as it happens, I sat down a while and browsed through that 500-odd pages hardback.

For those that missed it, Ackroyd’s Albion is a book about “the origins of English imagination” – that is to say, a catalog and discussion of those elements that make up the imaginary matter of Britain, that complex collection of legends, images, clichés and stories that is the basis of so much literature, music, art and what not.

Now the interesting bit is I was discussing, two nights back, with my friend Lucy among others, what we perceive as an increasing impoverishment of the imaginary matter backing what’s sold as fantasy, as horror, as science fiction.

Everything started with the string of books keeping the top of the Top 100 hostage 1, and whose plot is more or less

X is a beautiful girl nobody loves, but then she meets Y, a dark handsome stranger who happens to be a vampire/werewolf/angel/demon, everybody’s against them but they have sex nonetheless, because he’s really so sensitive, and she finds out she’s special.

A clone of a clone.
A bad copy of a bad copy of something that was not so good to begin with.
A story that purports to tap into deep-seated elements – the vampire, the role of the Chosen One, the weight of feelings, the eternal battle between Good and Evil – but actually stands on a foundation that can be written down on a post-it note.
Forget about the 500 pages of Ackroyd’s book (and those 500 pages, just for Britain).

Or would you rather a sword & sorcery story about a badass barbarian and a busty evil queen?
A story about the courage of the dauntless elven archers?
A story set inside a school of magic?

Mind you – great stories can be written starting from a trite and clichéd concept.
It might even be a fun thing to do.
But it requires work – and imagination.
Which is what’s lacking in a lot of these things.

imagination-imageThis chilling impoverishment of the imagination in the offer of course reflects on the readers – and it is probably no surprise if so many of the authors perpetrating this sort of fiction are often readers-turned-writers.
But aren’t we all? Readers-turned-writers, I mean.
But the transition is not straightforward and automatic – it’s not a matter of reading a book and then replicating it as closely as possible. It’s more something like reading one hundred books, learning from each one and then use that knowledge to tell our own story.
It requires work – reading, writing, do-it-again.

And yet it’s indisputable – at a certain level, the catalog of ideas and options is extremely small, and extremely monotonous.
The old complaint, that bad science fiction writers are those that only read science fiction, has turned into something even more dramatic – because there’s people out there writing genre fiction, and they have read only one author inside the genre, or even just one book 2.
Or maybe they saw the movie.

And reading is only one part of the equation – the pool of imaginary matter one can tap into is formed from all sorts of sources, from old granny’s tales to afternoon spent exploring the neighborhood as we were kids, from the classics we studied in school to the bad midnight movies caught on a summer night at the drive-in. Old and new songs, snippets of poetry, photographs, newspapers and magazines, history and everything else.

And all this, as I try and find a place in which to put Albion at rest, makes me wonder if it’s not a matter of the process really being broken, even more than the drying up of the sources.
If, in other words, it is not the reduced number of books and stories to which the kids are exposed, that’s killing their imagination, but rather the reduced ability to imagine, to play make-believe, to toy with reality turning it into stories.
A drying up of the soul, if you will.
Disquieting thoughts.

  1. yesterday I read one of those, currently in the Top 3 of Italian fantasy, and despite the accolades it was one of the ghastliest experiences of the last few months – bad writing, poor story, silly characters, and an absolute lack of imagination: derivative doers not even start to describe it. 
  2. well, maybe just one book and the Strunk & White – which is not making their writing any better. 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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