Sex, Violence, Death, Toil: A Brief Primer on Fiction Writing, Prt.5 [Coda]

Those that wish to shift any power structure will need to pervade not just in the military, the media and the legislation-complex but also in the arts.

– A Brief Primer on Fiction Writing, Part. 4

In the previous installment of this series I briskly documented the strange case of the self-styled “Leftist Fight Club,” created by the organization, Knights of Socialism (no, really, that’s what they call themselves) of the University of Central Florida. The group was inspired by the film Fight Club which was, in turn, inspired by the fictional novel of the same name by freelance journalist and transgressive novelist, Chuck Palahniuk. I illustrated this organization due to how starkly it showed the way in which art can work as a model for human action (outside of a momentary shaping of consciousness – that is to say, that which moves well beyond merely evoking a, “Ah, that’s cool.”). But it is far from a isolated incident.

Art as a model for human action.  (continued)

Casting our attention back in time to the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte we can see the power of dynamic art to sway the minds and hearts of men by the numerous cartoons which were printed by the British to defame him after that once venerable sovereignty had set its sights upon the newly founded French Empire.

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The Plumb-Pudding In Danger, by James Gillray. The pictured-above is the most famous of the Napoleonic Cartoons & features the Emperor himself [right] seated across from British Prime Minister, William Pitt [left].
Such ridiculous caricatures upset the Emperor nearly as much as it amused its target demographics. In fact, the artwork so perturbed Napoleon (who as a master statesman knew well enough the import of “optics”) that he attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince the British newspapers to suppress them which only further inflamed the pre-war tensions between the two countries and invariably contributed to Britain’s ultimate decision to topple the new, and seemingly ever-expanding, French regime. The British, however, were not the only one’s utilizing art to their political ends, for Napoleon himself commissioned numerous paintings of himself, typically highly romanticized, after each of his successful battles to the effect that every battle was garnished in a aura of sacrality. The most popular of these numerous portraits, Napoleon Crossing The Alps, is still endlessly reproduced today.

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Napoleon Crossing The Alps by Jacques-Louis David

But let us return to our central concern, writing, and flash forth to 1909, Paris.

Le Figuro has just published a most shocking text upon the front page of their magazine.

Antonio-Sant_Elia-Housing-with-external-lifts-and-connection-systems-to-different-street-levels-from-La-Città-Nuova-1914-1005x1024
“Housing with external lifts and connection systems to different street levels”, from La Città Nuova, by Futurist Architect, Antonio Sant’Elia

The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.

The text, penned by the avante-garde Alexandrian-Italian poet, F.T. Marinetti,  venerate the arrival of the machinic age and establish, “-war as the world’s only hygiene-,” and “-scorn for woman-,” as well as a whole host of revolutionary political aspirations which were as negatory and violet as they were prescient and constructive. The document would go on to spawn the socio-political art movement known as Futurism (not to be confused with Futurology – someone who is interested in prospective technology, a term which, today, is often used interchangeably with what we shall call lowercase ‘futurism’). The Futurists in their near 40 year reign, lead by Marinetti, aided in the creation of Fascism, guided the rise of Mussolini, championed both World Wars (and fought in them), pioneered the arts with the creation of noise music and free word poetry and inspired three of the most well known modern art movements, Dada, Vorticism and Surrealism – all three of which, in turn, continue in their own subtle ways, to influence art to this very day.

The reason futurism was so successful is that, despite it’s chaotic veneer, it, rather uniquely, was expressly designed and consciously, methodically implemented into every sphere of life. There were futurist theories on war, aesthetics,  dance, music, politics (they advocated for women’s suffrage and sexual liberation for the express purpose of destabilizing society). They even had futurist cook books. But more than all of the ephermera, Futurism was a philosophy of life, wherein one strove ever to extend and glorify, not just one’s self, but the whole of the world even at the cost of its selfsame destruction. It was the endless, ceaseless, remorseless, ripping away of all that which was stultified and corrosive and hurling oneself at the world with, as Marinetti put it, “-ardor, splendor, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.”

 

All this from a five page short-story/manifesto written by a relatively unknown, non-native-born poet.

Remember that when next you doubt the efficacy of your penmanship.

Lift up your heads!

Erect on the summit of the world, once again we hurl defiance to the stars!

-ending verse of the Futurist Manifesto

Sex, Violence, Death, Toil: A Brief Primer on Fiction Writing, Prt.4

 

Art as a directional model for human action.

All human endeavors bespeak of ourselves; such is the case with fiction, which gives form and function to the nebulous, scattered and fevered energy of the brain’s wild imaginings which roil up from from the instinctual chasm. 

-Brief Primer on Fiction Writing, Part. 3

In the 1996 book Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk, a socially satirical, psychological thriller, a socially alienated, weak and emasculated corporate drone meets a bedazzling political radical. The two men strike up a bizarre friendship and eventually create a underground fight club where they are able to release their pent-up frustrations about the decline of masculinity and the vacuous wage-slavery that is their lives, by viciously beating each other until one contestant concedes defeat. The book was highly popular, so much so that three years after its publication, a film of the same name was created by David Fincher, with a screenplay by Jim Uhls; it is this iteration of the tale that most people are familiar with.

Fight Club was and still is extremely popular, as much for the acting and aesthetics as well as for the pointed and clever social commentary – it is especially popular amongst socialist radicals (which is rather ironic given that one of the principal points of the film is that radical insurrection is all very well and good until lives start being ruined and people start dying) which can be seen by the creation of the self-styled “Leftist Fight Club” for the express purpose of “Bashing the fash.” The “fash” that they are referring to are the illusory fascists that such Antifaesque organizations seem to see everywhere. The club’s only condition for entry: Don’t be a republican – for as everyone knows, all republicans are fascists.

You might here be wondering why I’m bothering to mention this seemingly trivial, though curious, affair. I mention the Palahniuk inspired Leftist Fight Club because it is the perfect modernistic example of life imitating art which is the single most powerful thing any piece of art can conceivably do. It is, I think crucial to highlight such cases when looking through the analytical lens of political outside-dissent. For those that wish to shift any power structure will need to pervade not just in the military, the media and the legislation-complex but also in the arts. That being said we will dive into a manifold sampling of those past and present instances where some work(s) have powerfully influenced the directionality of human action – Leftist Fight Club was just the tip of the iceberg.

[continued part 5]

 

Sex, Violence, Death, Toil: A Brief Primer On Fiction Writing, Prt. 2

Putting aside many of the age-old questions concerning the validity of the concept of Human Nature one can with absolute certainty say that there are Human Universals, that is, Human Generalities. Everyone who exists was born and everyone who was born will die. Everyone feels the pangs of hunger and thirst, of dread and envy, jealousy and admiration, lust and love, of purpose and purposelessness. This is so easily observable that is wholly beyond contention (“but what if we are all brains in a vat in a vast simulation?!” Some cheeky fellow will doubtless interject at some point – mischievous rogues).

The acceptance of this a priori supposition then establishes some very fertile ground for purpose in fiction. Purpose is the first and most fundamental thing any given writer should ask him or herself before proceeding with a given piece of work (indeed it is the first of things which one should ask oneself before doing anything). “Why am I doing what I am doing? Why do I write stories at all? What do I wish to convey in it’s pages?” (and it should here be noted that if one does not wish to convey anything at all then there is no point in writing to begin with, the art that is only for the self and goes not beyond might as well stay contained within the brain! What is it then but a dream?) “What is the purpose of my art?”

Naturally, only you, the reader, can answer such questions in their particulars but there are some general principals that might help us better establish and define our aims as fiction writers. First and foremost among those principals is that if a story does not speak, in some meaningful way, to any Human Universals, then it simply will not be read with any regularity – or even if it is, it certainly isn’t going to be remembered (indeed, why should it?). But it isn’t enough merely to speak to the human soul, as it were, but also to do so in a clear and cogent way, that is to say, a understandable way. It is, of course, fine enough to write for a specific audience in mind (the case of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra is here illustrative: his work was oft found difficult to interpret at best and downright incomprehensible at worst; the US literary critic, Harold Bloom described Nietzsche’s only fiction entry as “unreadable”).

Writing with a specific audience in mind is highly recommended; however, writing in such a way that no one but one’s own self and some small cadre of philologists and linguists (such would be the kind to say, Underworld is a masterpiece because despite it’s endless meandering without coming to a point, DeLillo is very good at making symbolic representations of waste-fixation as a American by-product which lays bear the soul of the post-industrial age – or some such tosh) is hardly the way to go for the simple fact that one is then, essentially writing in another language which will be totally incomprehensible to the common man and often, to the not-so-common man as well.

There is a tendency among post-modern novelists to zealously seek after originality at the expense of anything else (not all post-modern artists are guilty of this, obviously, but it is a general trend I have observed) and that anything else is generally a coherent and clear theme (again, DeLillo is a supreme example of this, he writes a lot of words but rarely says anything; there are implications, suggestions galore, but everything is tangential to something else which isn’t defined, or if so, poorly. Everything is obscured and referential, so much so that the obscure references and the inertia of his language itself become the whole point of the text – though he does, of course, have his high points).

This is a tendency to be avoid if you wish to approach art as a form of social communication (it seems lost on modern man that this was the purpose of nearly all ancient art – not the selfish, narcissistic impulse to stroke the ego that says, “Look at me! I feel something fragile and fleeting; observe it nonetheless, for such is my importance!” – but rather the communal sharing of a given societies highest ideals and aspirations for the purposes of civilizational lift).

Once one has acquired the knack for both clarity and purpose (and clarity of purpose) one should turn the mind’s eye to the directionality of the story itself. It matters not how far from terrestrial reality one flies upon the back of that great bird, creativity – whether you are writing about ancient dragons, or orcs, or cosmic horrors – certain human factors will always remain visible to be plucked out by the discerning no matter how phantasmal, grotesque or fantastical the setting, plot, characters or dialogue. Why is this – because you aren’t a dragon a orc or a cosmic horror, how could you possibly think as one?!

[to be continued in part. 3]

Sex, Violence, Death, Toil: A Brief Primer On Fiction Writing, Prt. 1

I like what I do. Some writers have said in print that they hated writing and it was just a chore and a burden. I certainly don’t feel that way about it. Sometimes it’s difficult. You know, you always have this image of the perfect thing which you can never achieve, but which you never stop trying to achieve. But I think … that’s your signpost and your guide. You’ll never get there, but without it you won’t get anywhere.

– Cormac McCarthy, Jun. 1, 2008

Fiction writing is often perceived, and subsequently spoken of, as if it were some magical art, some eldritch and impenetrable ability of numinous convocation which arrives and departs from the conscious mind like a furious blast of ball-lightening (which, interestingly enough, are theorized to be responsible for the numerous cases of real spontaneous combustion throughout history). Whilst reaching towards (and ultimately grasping) the numinous should be the end goal of all of the higher forms of fiction, it is a mistake to view the craft as solely the providence of arcane geniuses, as a venture which can only be undertook at the precise moment of inspiration.

Inspiration is all fine and dandy but it is wholly insufficient in and of itself to create a substantial work of art. A work of fiction which is nothing but inspirationally driven is one which is wholly impulsively driven; it is much the same as a grand and beautifully crafted ship without its rudder! It might well inspire a kind of awe but it won’t be able to move an inch and will invariably capsize in the coming storm, lost to all and every man beneath the thunderous swell of bio-hum. There is also the problem of time in relation to a work of fiction; whilst it is never wise to make haste when writing a novel or short story for the sake of speed itself there must also be reasonable timetables set forth for the writer if he or she is ever to finish the project upon which they are so arduously plying their talents. It is a highly romanticized conception of the writer as a powerfully minded yet tragically underappreciated soul which ultimately leads to nothing but stagnation. If you aren’t a genius or a consistent partaker in Ginsbergesque ritualism then it is highly unlikely that bold and evocative inspiration sufficient to carry the entirety of setting, plot, characters and theme will oft strike; this is, in no wise, a bad thing!

Contrary to the romanticized American conception of the fiction writer, he treats his work in much the same fashion as might a lumberjack or gas station clerk. He gets up early, takes notes, watches his time, writers consistently (preferably daily) and passionately and has a distinct objective in mind whilst he is doing so. That is, if he wishes to be a successful writer in the total sense of the term, meaning, successful both financially and, far more importantly, artistically. It is here I would offer some mild advice to those amongst you who aspire to write fiction in any wise (hopefully without being too boorish in so doing).

  • Purchase or borrow a note book or journal (I much prefer leather-bound journals for their superior aesthetic appeal and durability) and take notes whilst you are away from your computer (unless, that is, you still do the work on a typewriter!). This helps not only flesh out already established ideas, but also preserves new ideas that might otherwise perish in the bottomless marsh of forgetfulness
  • Don’t read whilst you write. Meaning: do not take up another work of fiction whilst you are engaging in your own work. The reason for this is simple; originality. Whilst one should most certainly shun originality for its own sake there is a tendency for the “voice” and style of more powerful and skilled writers to overtake the minds (and thus the page) of those, less versed in the craft. It is extremely important for the avid writer to read and read widely and deeply, but not at the same time he plies his trade as this threatens the authenticity of the piece.
  • Concentrate upon the theme of the story before everything else. A story, no matter how exciting the action, plot or characters will ultimately be nothing more than a mere confection of the intellect without philosophical grounding; without ideas which one wishes to build upon, expound, communicate and spread.
  • Don’t overly fret over grammar and instead focus on authenticity within the framework of the world which you are creating. That is to say, if you are writing a sentence and find it pleasing and perfectly suited to describing some situation crucial to the plot then do not there deviate to grammatical puritanism. After all, any true blunders you do make will be fixed by the editor upon the completion of the manuscript.
  • Most importantly, actually practice writing. Set a schedule and stick to it. The simplest, but hardest of “skills” for a writer to master (I include myself in this criticism!)

Now that we have that out of the way we shall turn our attention to the actual structure of a story and what it is that makes certain stories standout, that is, what makes them good. To speak not at all about any particular theme, a truly great work of art will always deal with three things: sex, violence and death. It is my opinion that any work of art which deals not at all with this omnipresent trio of human universals is not worthy of one’s time or, indeed, of really being called a work of art at all.

[to be continued in prt.2]