Talking about Italian style in imaginative fiction, last week I was part of a debate about what makes Italian genre fiction Italian.
Me and the other authors currently published by Acheron Books were asked to propose a four points guideline, a best practices hit list.
An interesting challenge.
Being the sort of contrary guy I am, I started by pointing out that I do not believe there’s a set of Italian guidelines that differ drastically from, say, Chinese guidelines, Indian guidelines or Canadian guidelines.
What the reader is ultimately interested in is a good story, and good stories do not follow provincial guidelines.
This said, where I to single out four points that, as an Italian, I strive to keep in mind when writing, well, here’s the list, somewhat expanded to explain each point as best as I can…
a) use our historical memory to define our identity
Wow, sounds so serious.
But really, it all boils down to knowing where we stand, and having an idea of how we came here.
I do historical fantasy, so history is part of my package – often what could be called Italian history.
The Ministry of Thunder features an Italian protagonist – who is what he is because of the country he grew in, its politics, its history, and who finds himself where he stands because of some very real historical facts.
The Aculeo & Amunet stories are looser, because they deal with ancient history – but then again, both Aculeo and Amunet are what they are because of the history of their world, of their respective cultures.
And now I’m doing the Leo Martin stories (after two years of planning, drafting and scrapping stories and ideas), that feature a country-less character… but again, the history of this place, of post-war Europe, of the Mediterranean area, is part of the package, and informs the actions and choices of all the characters.
b) remember that out there 90% of our historical memory is unknown, so we’ll have to provide the reader with some pointers.
Which brings up the dreaded infodump, or the expository lump… which is silly.
Fact is, if I am talking to you about something you don’t know – and when I’m writing genre fiction this is often the case – there will come a moment when I’ll have to tell you where you stand and what’s going on.
In historical fiction, you need a time frame, in adventure fiction you need geographical references, in a science fiction story you’ll get science.
If, as per point a, I’m using the backstory of my own culture as a tool to shape the characters, getting some informations on said culture and its history will help you appreciate the way in which my characters are shaped.
The idea is to help the reader get into the world, while making it a fun experience.
Or, to quote Kim Stanley Robinson
I say, what’s interesting is whatever you can make interesting. And the world is interesting beyond our silly stage business. So “exposition” creeps in. What is it anyway? It’s just another kind of narrative. One thing I believe: it’s all narrative. Once you get out of the phone book anyway, it’s all narrative.
Exactly, so sue me.
c) keep an eye on the classic elements of the genre you are writing in.
Which once again means trying to maintain a sense of history – this time history of the genre.
Which does not mean name-checking authors of the past (even if it can be fun, and I do it quite often), but rather know that certain dynamics are inescapable, and must be taken into account.
There are clichés, tropes, mandatory situations.
The readers expect them, and they give us a feel of the genre.
And it can be fun, trying new angles to tackle classical situations.
Because we should also…
d) change the rules to take into account current sensibilities
Which to me is, incidentally, the essence of what they call New Pulp: the ability to build on the past of the genre while shaping it into something closer to our current sensibilities, our needs, our concerns. Making old-fashioned fun significant.
So maybe the lady in distress will turn out to be the real swashbuckler, and she’ll save the day – it’s not that strange.
Or maybe the heroes will give a damn about something more than their immediate survival, or treasure, or having a good time (Amunet has this unnerving habit of worrying about the welfare of other women, for instance), or they will take choices that are not considered “usual” in the pulp canon, or in adventure narrative, or in historical fantasy.
Because even if it is historical fantasy, it needs to speak to us, here, now1.
And this is, I guess, more or less it.
As I said, I don’t think there’s anything inherently Italian in these four rules – it’s just something I think is hovering at the back of my mind, when I’m writing.
- which, I realize, is a whole different can of worms I’m opening, and I’ll probably discuss it in one of my future posts. ↩