Friday, July 27, 2012

Fringe, Fantasy, and Fable

"I'm very much afraid I didn't mean anything but nonsense. Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means. So, whatever good meanings are in the book, I'm glad to accept as the meaning of the book."

-Lewis Carroll

One of the late-night showcases last weekend was hosted by Tim Mooney. After I’d performed my set, rather than interviewing me, he elected to interview the audience, asking “What the hell was *that* about?” He collected answers– both sincere and snarky – then asked me to point to the correct interpretation. Doing my best to keep a straight face, I asserted the most ridiculous one – something to do with air conditioners – to be my explicit authorial intent.

The story I was performing was “The Girl Who Was Frightened of Nothing,” and, like most of my fantasy stories, it usually receives the same response: at least a handful of audience members coming up to me afterwards and asking “What the hell was *that* about?” which I typically deflect with a joke. When I don’t answer, they’ll start presenting theories, watching my face closely to see if their thesis is right: if they figured it out.

I get that that can be frustrating for an audience: to have the sense that I somehow wrote this code that I’m smugly concealing from them. But my reticence has more to do with the fact that there’s a pretty fundamental difference between how they view the stories, and how I do.

Tolkien expressed a profound dislike – which I share – for allegory: for the Aesop’s-Fables style, one-to-one connections that break stories down into clear, obvious lessons (e.g. ideas like: “The One Ring represents nuclear power!” and “Saruman represents industrialization!” – and in fact, I find myself wondering if so many people don’t continue to regard the Lord of the Rings as being a childish and simplistic work because they’re trying to break it down into childish and simplistic terms).

The hope – at least for me – when I write fantasy isn’t to create a single obvious analogy; it’s to build an internally consistent world in which *multiple* parallels can be found – and in which those parallels can then balance and comment on each other in unique ways. Tolkien termed this phenomenon “applicability”, and in my view it’s one of the things that fantasy is extraordinarily good at.

(That’s not to say that I’m in the camp that believes that all interpretations are equally correct, or that authorial intent wholly ceases to be relevant – to cite one example among many, I remember one of my script readers suggesting that The Rise of General Arthur was intended to be an expression of love for the Obama administration, which I distanced myself from pretty quickly.)

I’m fond of puzzle plays, shows that require thought and reflection and analysis. Not because I believe that these kinds of shows are in any way superior – but because for me, they’re more *fun*. I tend to find work that lays everything out on the surface tedious.

(Of course, in order to be able to engage with shows that way, they can’t be haphazardly constructed – it’s only satisfying for me if I have the sense that the writer put more time and thought into the story than I did.)

So, yes, I have some very clear ideas and intentions in the way that my fantasy stories are constructed, in the images that I use, in the recurring words and phrases – but knowing that process isn’t some kind of Rosetta Stone that unlocks the hidden meaning. So I apologize if I seem at all glib or dismissive. My ambition is to craft worlds and characters of sufficient complexity that they have more to say than a single thesis sentence – and any answers that I give will necessarily narrow the possibilities of those stories, which I’m loathe to do.