Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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Further thoughts on the City Pentalogy

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I have finally, after thirty-something years, finished* Per Anders Fogelström’s “City Pentalogy” (cf. excursion in [1]). My feelings remain mixed, and I would rate book one considerably above the others. A particular problem with the later books is that the author’s attention is divided over more and more individuals, making it hard to build sympathy, vest interest, develop insight into characters, or even keep track of who is who—reading book five, I had to make use of the included family trees again and again. The average** year might cover a dozen pages. This can work when, as in book one, there is a clear focus on a single character. By book five, the attention is split*** over possibly two dozen characters, who then might average half-a-page per year… In the end, Henning, the protagonist of the first book, is the only character that I truly clicked with, that truly felt “real”, even if a few others came close. (See e.g. [2] for earlier discussions of sympathy and identification.)

*Even now, somewhat incompletely: The second book is still missing, implying that I have not yet gone through the whole series in one sequence, and that I am left with a sense of incompleteness this time too. (Obviously, many claims made here must be taken with a reservation for the contents and quality of the missing book.) To boot, this led to a pause of several weeks between my finishing book one and starting on book three. Still, I have now definitely read all five books at one time or another.

**The division is very uneven. Some years have not a single page or share a chapter with several other years. Others have several chapters on their own.

***However, as with the years, the split is very uneven. The overall page count is likely “won” by Henning’s daughter Emilie, who features in all five books, from birth to death, and is something of a focus character in books three and four, and the parts of five before her death. Some others, e.g. his great-grand-son Henning (“the second”), who inherits the focus in book five, might also rival Henning (“the first”). (Note that I use “focus” quite loosely.)

For my own writings, this is a warning not to introduce too many core characters: Not only might this lead to too little time per head, but it might also make the reader see them as a fungible dime-a-dozen characters, whose fortunes and misfortunes can be shrugged off. (Note the contrast to the ensemble take in [2].)

I also suspect that Fogelström wrote book one with a greater dedication than the later books, later often trying to fill a quota of pages. (In all fairness, the total page count might be around 1500, in my edition.) A contrast with my own writings, after all of three weeks, is that I currently have a number of key scenes that I plan and partially write, with what might amount to filler* between them.** In the “City”, there appears to be few or no key scenes, but still a lot of text that feels like filler.

*Which is not to say that this filler will be boring, pointless, or irrelevant to the story—just that it will not be “key”.

**Whether my own take will be fruitful or continue in that manner, I cannot yet tell. However, I do note that e.g “The Lord of the Rings”, which I have also re-read in parallel, seems to follow a similar pattern of key scenes and filler. (And I suspect that a part of Tolkien’s popularity goes back to the great number of scenes that can be considered “key” or else “highly memorable”.)

Similarly, Fogelström might have been too unfocused in general topic: Is this a family saga, a history of Stockholm*, a description of working-class life, a documentation of Swedish politics, … Trying to do all of these is not necessarily an error, but when we combine it with the above abundance of characters and the low page count per year, it becomes a problem—the more so, because the focus is continually widened, increasingly addressing a global situation.**

*While a prior knowledge of Stockholm is not necessary to understand the books, it will likely increase enjoyment considerably—especially, for those who once could recognize events, buildings, developments, whatnots, from their own experience. (The latter group is far smaller, and covers a smaller portion of the time line, today than when the books were written, in the 1960s. I, e.g., was born in 1975, and only moved to Stockholm in 1994.)

**This is almost certainly a deliberate choice. The fifth book is titled “Stad i världen” (“City in the world”; or, possibly, “City surrounded by the world” or “City as part of the world”, going more by implication.)

As a final negative, much of the language is fragmented in a manner that reduces readability, introduces ambiguity, or becomes outright annoying. This includes both heavy use of the full-stop where e.g. a comma would have been expected and a tendency to drop subjects. For instance, a paragraph of the fifth book reads:*

*With reservations for mistyping. The passage is found close to the end of the chapter “Nära Stillhetens hav”. The page was picked at random. This is the whole paragraph.

Förr skulle han ha varit skamsen över det. Inte nu. Kände snarast saknad, smärta. För sent, för gammal för henne.

Translation:

Once* he would have been ashamed** of it. Not now. Felt rather longing***, pain. Too late, too old for her.

*“In the past” would be more literal, but is awkward for the four-letter “Förr”.

**The English “ashamed” might be a little stronger than “skamsen”.

***I cannot think of a truly good English match for “saknad”. Contextually, “absence” might be better. More literally, it indicates a feeling or state of missing something/someone. Cf. e.g. “Jag saknar dig”/“I miss you”. (Note that a re-write to accommodate such language differences would ruin the example.)

This might be acceptable as a single occurrence of deep introspection, but similar formulations are quite common, often in trivial situations. I would argue that e.g. the following is stronger, while grammatically sounder and still somewhat in the same style:

Once he would have been ashamed. Now he felt longing, pain. It was too late; he was too old for her.

Respectively:

Förr skulle han ha varit skamsen över det. Nu kände han saknad, smärta. Det var för sent; han var för gammal för henne.

Among more neutral items, many of which surprise me in the works of a Left-leaning author:*

*However, there are also many clearly pro-Left statements that give the impression of being Fogelström’s own opinions.

  1. Much of the books deal with changes: changes to the city, changes to life, changes to working conditions, changes to technology, …, but also changes to attitudes and maturity. Notably, there are repeated references to attitude differences that more-or-less match what many* say about the “millennials” today, e.g. that they are too soft, have it too easy, are too lazy, are too immature, … Indeed, Henning came to Stockholm, alone, at 15 (give or take) and had to fend for himself and take adult responsibility from day one—and he was a working orphan** even before that. In book five, we have persons in their twenties going to university, teens getting into trouble because of “too much” spare time,*** someone turning 18 and immediately driving a car, …

    *To some degree, I do too. However, I see a wider problem over a hundred or more years that too many of any generation take their current life-style for granted and fail to understand how much harder members of prior generations had it (on average). Ditto in comparisons with less fortunate countries. I see this view validated by the books.

    **Unless I misremember. It is conceivable that he was “just” estranged or otherwise unable to draw on parental support. (This part of his life is only known through later references and have not remained very clearly with me.)

    ***Here and elsewhere, unless the opposite is clear, I relate my impression from/of the books and the author’s attitude, without necessarily agreeing or claiming that the books are realistic.

  2. The issue of too much spare time could also be seen as part of another pattern: the division of the subjects into ambitious hard-workers and “no goods”*. Every generation appeared to have several of these, who tried to get by on crime, begging, borrowed money, and/or prostitution; who felt that having fun was more important than planning ahead; or similar. They invariably (?) fared poorly in life and died young or young-ish.

    *My ad-hoc term. The books have no equivalent term.

    At least one character (almost certainly someone in the Berg family) even had extensive thoughts on how the “no good” life-style was something to be proud of—better to beg or steal than to work. (As opposed to the typical Leftist explanation that those who beg or steal have been driven to the edge of society by need, misfortune, “discrimination”, …)

    On a lesser scale, there is some division between the competent hard-workers and those who are incompetent or lazy (while still actually being employed).

  3. As a special case, there is a large proportion of women who are (too their own detriment) promiscuous or outright prostitutes. There are also several cases, not limited to women, of too calculating marriages that end in unhappiness. Consider e.g. Klara and Annika, who are room-mates with Henning (and several others) early in the first book: Klara prostitutes herself, grows into an alcoholic, ages prematurely, and dies in her late thirties (?). Annika dedicates herself to finding a rich husband. She succeeds, but her marriage is not happy and she remains childless (except for an adoption). Their similarities and differences is one of the stronger points of the first book.

    An interesting variation is the case of Tyra, a later promiscuous woman who dies at forty and spends most of her life in poverty with a considerably older “no good”. She appears to be genuinely dedicated to her husband and (likely, my memory is vague) to her children, while lacking in judgment. A similar dedication is not a given among other spouses and parents, even when hard-working and intelligent.

  4. These areas are over-lapping with the influence on own success (cf. [1]), which is unusual for Leftist material. While it is rare for the poor to become rich, the lowest-of-the-low almost always have themselves to blame: Those who are lazy and irresponsible mostly descend in life; those industrious and responsible mostly, barring the odd stroke of bad luck, ascend.* Similarly, competence plays a role for success. One character, likely Leftist activist/politician Gunnar, even explicitly considers how equality (implied: of outcome) appeared impossible, and how even equal opportunities seemed to lead to differences in outcome.

    *Henning, who arguably worked himself to death, might be seen as strong counter-example, but even he had a broadly upwards tendency before his sickness. I suspect, however, that Fogelström’s goals in the first book were more strongly focused on showing the horrible 19th-century conditions and later drifted, be it because of an own change of priorities or the great societal improvements that did take place. (Note that the books cover roughly twenty years each, implying that the conditions change considerably between every “first page”. With book two missing, I have a forty year gap between two of the first pages…)

  5. Considerable space is spent on conflicts within the Leftist movements, notably Social-Democrats vs. Communists and Communist faction A vs. Communist faction B. This plays in well with a text that I have in long planning (do not hold your breath) concerning the “First they came …” concept with regard to the Left, the great abuse of “Fascist” to include anyone not of the right Leftist sub-sect, and similar. Indeed, these books are just one of many places where I have encountered variations of “Social-Fascist” to refer to Social-Democrats.* Or consider the well-documented condemnation of e.g. Trotskyists as Fascists, this problem area being an important inspiration for “Animal Farm”.

    *Without giving any signs that Fogelström, himself, would see such an equivalence. He merely reports a historical propaganda/defamation use.

As an aside: Many characters have great similarities between generations. I am not certain, e.g., whether this is a result of laziness when creating characters, whether something almost inevitable, or whether the author has deliberately pushed similarities. The latter might be to prove a point about types of humans recurring, to see how the “same” character fares in different times, to illustrate how some characteristics can run in families (if so, because of nature or nurture?), or similar.

Excursion on prior reading:
I can now date my second attempt (cf. [1]) a little more precisely: I found an accompanying note from my mother, dated “100122”, i.e. January 22nd, 2010. The books will have arrived a little later. (This makes the occasion my 35th birthday, on the 19th of the same month, which indeed made me slightly older than Henning at his death.) I found the note somewhere in the first half of the forth book, likely implying that this is where my reading ended. However, I also found an old (unrelated) receipt very early in the fifth book, which could imply that I had actually finished the fourth book, and got held up in the fifth (or, e.g., that I just had put the receipt there temporarily to clear a desk).

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Written by michaeleriksson

August 21, 2019 at 10:29 pm

Useless guides on writing

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For natural reasons, I have looked into various writing guides lately. Almost all have one thing in common–they are proof that the author is not qualified to write on the topic… (Often reducing my skepticism to the claim, “those who can do, do; those who cannot, teach”, in the process.)

Consider William Zinsser and his “On Writing Well” (specifically, the “30th anniversary edition”): The introduction begins with one of the worst “anti-hooks” (cf. parts of [1]) that I have ever seen—a discussion of an only tangentially relevant photograph. This is followed by a paragraph on how visitors are drawn to the photograph, followed by a paragraph on how writing has gone electronic but the photograph remains relevant (in the opinion of the author). What follows then, I do not know, because I decided to skip the rest of the introduction…

Now, does the story about the photograph have a valid and valuable point? It probably does, but this point could be made much better by actually getting to that point! (Which might be that writing is ultimately about the writer, or ultimately a human activity, or similar.) Even what might be valid about the photograph could be condensed to three sentences instead of three paragraphs.

The first regular chapter does contain a few good points and an interesting contrast between two authors, one who writes as a “vocation” (Zinsser) and one as an “avocation” (a “Dr. Brock”). However, this chapter, too, starts with an anti-hook: irrelevant background on how the two came to form a panel and discuss their writing with a group of students. I almost skipped ahead another chapter then and there. This type of writing might, barely, be acceptable in fiction, but not in a non-fiction work where the reader actually reads with the purpose of learning. (If I had seen these two anti-hooks in fiction, I might instead have complained about the blandness of the writing—the excuse that they would simultaneously serve as good examples of fiction does not hold.*)

*Obviously, the standards for writing fiction and non-fiction are different, and so are the purposes of fiction and non-fiction. It would be conceivable that these writing guides are poor, because an author who is good at fiction does not have the skills to write non-fiction. However, these anti-hooks would only very rarely make good fiction either—be they by Zinsser or someone else.

I persevered, going through such irrelevancies as the color of Dr. Brocks’ jacket…, and found material that a better writer would have condensed into no more than half the space—likely less.

Chapter two, admittedly, begins with a reasonable introduction: “Clutter is the disease of American writing.” (and an equally reasonable and relevant continued first paragraph).* Even Strunk (“Omit needless words.”) might have approved.

*I might have objected to the common misuse of “America” to refer to the United States of America, the likely unnecessary U.S. restriction, or questioned whether the rest of the paragraph was needed. I definitely have problems with the hypocrisy of his complaint in light of his own writing… (Notwithstanding my own wordiness—this is a point that I am far from mastering.)

But: A few pages later, I encountered the outrageously ignorant PC claim that use of “he” for “the writer” and “the reader” would be sexist… Note: not “outdated”, not “offensive to some groups”, not “contrary to modern norms”—but “sexist”! I am skeptical enough ([2]) to the relevance of the alternative motivations, but the use of “sexist” is inexcusable and entirely out of line, making implications about the intentions and mindset of others that are pure speculation—and usually wrong.

At this point, I could no longer take the author seriously, and threw the book away.

Similar problems appear to be quite common in this type of literature.

A particular annoyance is the “expert” who has his mind set solely on the writing of best-sellers, with no regard for other purposes of writing. True: I would love for my writing to earn me an early retirement (and I am not above writing a “pot-boiler”). However: That is not why I write… I write in the hope to develop myself further, to reach some degree of competence as a writer, and to, possibly, leave something behind that will be considered a strong literary accomplishment.*** In the choice between the success and accomplishment of, respectively, Stephanie Meyer and Kafka, I would take Kafka any day.* And: how many of these “experts” have actually written a best-seller (in fiction) of their own?** Indeed, comparing likely scenarios, my best bet to lead a comfortable life with early retirement would be to continue my career as an IT consultant.

*Where I go by Kafka’s success during his life time. What followed later, was of little use to him… (And it is hard to name worthwhile “serious” authors that have had few readers, and have been read by me, and will be recognized by the typical reader of this text.)

**I have personally read only one book on writing by someone who qualifies—Stephen King’s “On Writing”. While this book is quite weird, it has also, so far, been the most useful.

***Also see some texts on the same attitude from my pre-fiction days, e.g. [3], [4].

Written by michaeleriksson

August 15, 2019 at 1:00 am

The struggling author

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Almost ten days ago, I became a professional author, and I soon jokingly referred to myself as a struggling author.

This joke has turned out to be depressingly true, if not in the more common has-trouble-to-make-ends-meet sense: I have really struggled with the transition.

This in several regards, including:

  1. The trouble with switching from my sabbatical and its great freedom to a more structured schedule. True, I likely used to spend about a full work-week per week doing things like studying, reading, writing blog posts, etc., with an eye on personal development, rather than (just) fun. True, my new schedule* is not that straining and still allows much more freedom than a desk-job. Still, the switch has been surprisingly hard, both with the needed extra self-discipline** and the restrictions on choice.

    *Currently, I have four hours a day set aside to plan/research/write, one hour to read specifically about writing, and a handful of hours to read literature that I believe to be helpful for my development (also see excursion). The proportions will likely shift away from reading as I develop my skills.

    **I know from experience that once I start to postpone tasks until tomorrow, things can slide very fast. This might be acceptable for a hobby, but would be disastrous for a professional career. I simply must take a different attitude than during my sabbatical.

  2. I had great early problems using my time productively, to find out what I all needed and wanted to do and how to approach it. For instance, with most of my past (non-fiction) writing, I have just had an idea, mulled it over for a while, started to write, and the let the process take over. This has not worked at all—in part, because the book I have in my mind is has a lot of pieces that do not yet fit together. Indeed, I have so far written very little text, because the planning has taken over. While this is likely a good thing (at this stage), it leads to the next issue.*

    *I know that there is a school of “just sit down and write”. While I do not say that this is a bad idea, it does not fit who I am today and the comparatively complex book I am currently working on. However, I promise not to postpone the actual writing ad eternam and I do realize that planning beyond a certain point will not be productive.

  3. What I had planned in my head during my sabbatical simply does not work: The pieces, again, do not yet fit together. I have too little of a clue what will happen beyond a certain point. The characters are too shallow. The overall rules of the universe are not yet clear. Etc. (Of course, all these are things that could make anything written too early “wrong” as things clarify.)

    On the bright side, I have made great progress and am actually starting to understand what I want to write. (Whereas I just believed that I understood it ten days ago.)

  4. My understanding of writing fiction has altered dramatically. Being specific is hard, but the analogy of having read about cold water and the jumping into it shows the general idea. While it can be safely assumed that my understanding will continue to change over the years, this time has been humbling. In particular, I had not quite understood how much there is going on behind the scenes of a text. I have encountered advice about prose, motivation, character, …, in various forms since I was a teenager, but actually trying to write a non-trivial text contemplating such aspects is something different.

    This in part through writing (a first draft of) a short-story* in parallel to planning the book, which has been a very valuable learning experience. However, it has also shown me how long the distance to mastery still is.

    *While comparatively short, it is much more “intellectually ambitious” than the small exercise and experiment stories I have written in the past.

  5. I have had various annoying and unexpected problems of other kinds, e.g. an unexpected computer crash* when I had really delved into my short-story or in that I have tried to use an external keyboard, which has had weird side-effects. (Specifically, killing the middle-button on my mouse and the Umlaut-generation on the keyboards. I still do not know what has gone wrong, despite hours spent trouble-shooting.)

    *They are very rare with me, but when they do happen, it is always at a particular inconvenient time. Moreover, with various passwords, encryption, user accounts, …, it can take a while before I am up-and-running again, which kills motivation.

Nevertheless, I remain with my decision: I might not have known how cold the water would be (at least not during the early days), but I did know that it would take years to get where I want to be, and I do know the difference between doing something as a hobby and doing it professionally—-the one is fun, the other is work. I also take comfort in sayings like “Aller Anfang ist schwer”* and “Alla är vi barn i början”**.

*German: Every beginning is hard. (More literally, possibly, “Everything’s beginning […]”.)

**Swedish: We are all children in the beginning.

A caveat to others, however: My situation is special. I have the luxury of having a few years worth of living expenses saved up and my decision to go pro was partially motivated by the wish to learn how to write fiction, in that I knew that being a pro would be helpful in a different manner from just dilly-dallying as an amateur with a dozen other interests. Most others should learn how to write well first and go pro later (if at all). Certainly, quitting a job the one week and concluding that writing will not work out the next (understatement of the year) is not a good career move.

Excursion on future updates:
Do not expect overly many. Between fiction and my (other) blogging, I will likely prefer to not burden my fingers with additional blog posts. Moreover, I intend to seek anonymous publishing, implying that sharing book-specific details might be a bad idea.

Excursion on reading:
An incidental, if possibly temporary, change is that I read in a very different manner at the moment. In the past, it was mostly a matter of entertainment; now, I often actively think about various aspects of the text, notably what works well, what does not, and respectively why. (Including formulations, structure, plot, …)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 10, 2019 at 2:19 am

Sabbatical over, going pro

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With the end of July, I am officially terminating my sabbatical to become a professional author of fiction. If and when I will be a good, published, and/or money-earning author—that is yet to be seen.

As for now, I have a number of ideas for books and short-stories, one of which I have been planning in my head for some time. While the planning stage is not yet finished, I will gradually start to generate text—should I make a mess of it, well, Rome was not built in a day and even Steinbeck’s first effort was poor. (Cf. a footnote in an older text.)

The road to this point, has been long: I have casually toyed with the idea since I was a teenager, possibly even earlier, and I fell in love with one particular book-idea at some point in the winter 2017/2018. This idea first made me consider writing books seriously (but I will save it for a time when my skills have improved considerably). During my sabbatical, starting in April 2018, I have grown the conviction that I need to go professional to have a reasonable chance at achieving something, as well as spent considerable time improving my understanding of fiction, writing, what it might take, etc.—including through a more active/conscious reading of fiction, reading about fiction, experimenting with small test stories, and writing about related topics (cf. a number of earlier texts).

I am a few months behind plan for three reasons: a shyness in pulling the trigger, great problems with finding an official source of information on the bureaucracy side,* and the disturbances through renovation works in my house that have made work hard and often forced me to spend a significant portion of the day outside my apartment (cf. several earlier texts; the last period has, knock on wood, been considerably better).

*Including options for health insurance, whom I need to tell about my plans, and similar. I have a text in planning to discuss this in more detail. Short story: plausible sounding information source A insists that I should ask implausible source B who points to source C, who ignores my specific questions in favor of a few PDF files that I had already downloaded and read on my own.

My other writings will likely be scaled back a fair bit as a consequence,* and I will likely focus on the neglected “Sweden visits” texts in the short term.

*Especially compared with this July, which has set a record—partially, because I wanted to get a few texts out of the way.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 31, 2019 at 12:51 am

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Paul Carpenter’s further adventures / Follow-up: Identification and sympathy in fiction

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As a brief follow-up to an earlier text and its addendum:

I have by now finished re-reading the two* sequels of “The Portable Door”, and find myself a bit disappointed: I read a number of Holt’s books around the time when I encountered “The Portable Door”, and found most of them low quality—funny, imaginative, and good for a one-off read to keep me entertained on a train, yes; Pratchett-level and strong candidates for re-readings, no. (I briefly visited his Wikipedia page, and he appears to be high on quantity, which might explain the quality.) “The Portable Door” was an exception, a level or two above the others. The first sequel, “In Your Dreams” kept quality up reasonably, but was a little too exaggerated in places (a common fault with Holt). The second, “Earth, Air, Fire and Custard”**, was back to his more typical level, including pushing the Paul-dying-and-meeting-Mr-Dao joke too far, having custard*** as a fifth element, having an entire dimension made of custard, and fiddling with time-lines and in-book continuity in a manner that did not make much sense. To boot, the third book appears to close the lid on a series that could otherwise have been continued for another few books, had he been more dedicated to quality—I would have enjoyed seeing Paul’s (now terminated) career at J. W. Wells unfold.

*With reservation for books that I am not yet aware of.

**I am not clear on why “water” was left out of the title (or why the comma after “Fire” is missing”). I could see an angle of wanting to keep the name short, but leaving “water” out makes it very weird, and opting for some other name entirely would have been a better solution. (Going by the contents of the book, “Custardspace” would have been a candidate, but more thought might produce a better suggestion.)

***Strictly speaking, something almost custard, but the difference is barely interesting.

A particular issue was inter-book continuity, where book 1 shows Paul (and girl-friend/colleague Sophie) hired for some set of natural talents, book 2 describes him as a multi-generation breeding project by his Uncle Ernie to combat one of the partners of J. W. Wells for the safety of humanity (resulting in said talents and, consequently, J. W. Wells’ interest), and book 3 suddenly gives co-credit to a God-like being who engineers Paul and Sophie to combat another partner… To boot, it is hinted that this being is Paul’s biological father, which would make half of Uncle Ernie’s project invalid. (You see what I mean about quality—he sometimes reaches a point where a parody of his works would be less absurd than the works themselves.)

An interesting aspect, however, is that Paul’s engineering and education to a considerably degree deliberately included loserdom and ignorance—to the point that he was artificially put to sleep during many school lessons. This book 3 issue explains e.g his ignorance of Chekhov, which I commented upon in my first text. (Because I had only read book 3 once, many years ago, I had no recollection of this. Moreover, this could not affect the identification issue for a first-time reader of book 1.)

As an aside, my addendum claim “[…] giving someone something to hope for, but with little chance, is a good way to gain sympathies […]” lacks in generality, because it only holds one view-point. Fear and danger likely works even better, e.g. when someone has the sword of Damocles hanging over his head for an extended time.* (Also good for creating suspense.) Similarly, I suspect that e.g. despair can be used decently for the same purpose.

*Most or all of these can be rephrased in terms of hope, but doing so usually misses the point. For instance, a fear that Voldemort will rise again is a more natural and stimulating angle than the hope that he will not. (In contrast, the hope that Harry will defeat him, should he rise again, will often be more natural than the fear that Harry will not.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 30, 2019 at 10:41 pm

Addendum: Identification and sympathy in fiction

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As I realized immediately after posting the previous text, I left out two important observations around Paul Carpenter.

Firstly, a reason why he comes across so negatively is what appears to be a deliberate portrayal as “loser”, for reasons of sympathy, especially with e.g. others who have trouble getting started in life. At the beginning of the first book, he has never had a serious job or girl-friend, has no higher education, has bad luck with his family*, etc.—and his prospects appear bleak in every area. The early scene with the job interview and its lead-up are clearly geared at displaying a feeling that he is out of his water.

*A possible injustice: his parents moved to the U.S. leaving him in London, poorly supported and having to forego university.

Secondly, giving someone something to hope for, but with little chance, is a good way to gain sympathies—have the reader hope with the protagonist. For instance, the early parts of the book already show him hoping for a job that he likely will not get and a girl that he likely will not get either. (But he does get both.) “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is possibly the paramount example of this with a hope for the impossible that is squashed, re-awakened, squashed, …, but ending with Charlie holding the Golden Ticket.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 25, 2019 at 11:14 pm

Identification and sympathy in fiction

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Re-reading Tom Holt’s “The Portable Door”, I ponder the benefits of having a protagonist that the reader can identify* and sympathize with—and how to best achieve them.

*In a stronger sense than a mere “I want the protagonist to succeed” or a superficial and generic “everyman” identification.

Here we have Paul Carpenter—a young man, making his first in-roads into working life and romance. So far, we have someone that most young men can readily identify with. Indeed, with minor modifications, so can many young women. Even the older generations can often look back and recognize certain situations, fears, naive mistakes, whatnot—especially, where romance is concerned.

However, over large stretches, I also find myself partially repulsed and repeatedly having thoughts like “How can he be that stupid!”—as I did even during my first reading as young-ish* man. Paul, at least by my standards, borders on being an idiot. The book is filled with examples of poor judgment, beyond what can be explained by e.g. stress and unusual situations**. To boot, he is horribly uneducated and ignorant, as exemplified by his being entirely unaware of Chekhov-the-playwright. No, I do not mean that he had failed to develop an educated opinion of Chekhov’s works,*** I mean that he genuinely had no idea that there was another Chekhov than Chekhov-from-Star-Trek … It is virtually impossible for me to truly identify with someone like that—and even having sympathies is often hard (but Paul overcame that obstacle).

*Going by a still present label on the cover, I likely bought the book in 2004, when I was 29.

**Note a number of in-roads that most young men do not encounter, including magic, goblins, and the eponymous portable door.

***Which was requested as part of a job interview—some questions of which were unreasonably tough and of dubious relevance to Paul’s application. For the record, I do not have such an opinion either: I read one or two of his works at a very young age, and have not gotten around to reading anything more in the thirty-or-so years since. Chekhov, however, remains one of the most influential and best known authors in the history of literature, and should be known by name by anyone past high school. (In fact, I have always assumed that Chekhov-from-Star-Trek was named as a joking reference to Chekhov-the-playwright.)

To boot, he is as assertive as a wet noodle, falls in love with and fails to pursue his closest co-worker, has more luck than skill, …

Still, I found myself enjoying the book immensely, even at what must be my forth or fifth reading. (But the last previous reading might be some ten years back, which lessens their impact.) This is not only a genuinely funny book, with dashes of excitement, romance, and whatnot—it also builds an interesting world, gives a depiction of office life that most of us can recognize in that simultaneously amusing and depressing Dilbert manner, and it left me starting on the sequel just a few hours after I had finished the first book.

This brings me to three more detailed questions (and at least partial answer attempts):

  1. How import are identification and sympathies?

    Certainly, they are beneficial, and there are some works that have left me cold because I not only failed to identify with the protagonist—I outright detested him.* However, mostly they are not necessary. In the case of some works (e.g. “Clockwork Orange”), the deviation might even be a positive, because it leaves the reader with more detachment and allows the exploration of actions and situations that are strange to the reader.

    *“Catcher in the Rye” is an excellent example—especially, because I have heard others base their enjoyment on how well they could identify with Holden. (Also see item 2.)

    If in doubt, I would likely go with sympathy over identification (as a priority for authors)—it could even be argued that the point of identification is to elicit sympathies. With Paul, e.g., I could see how his incompetence and weakness could create some amount of “pity sympathy”, and I have often made the observation that a character only took off after a tragedy/misfortune/injustice, as e.g. with Spike on “Buffy” after he (temporarily) ended up in a wheel-chair, saw Angelus take over his operation, became the butt of Angelus’ and Drusilla’s jokes, whatnot. Buffy, herself, serves as an example of sympathies-over-identification: a valley-girl with super powers—nothing like me.* Vice versa, too competent, successful, happy, whatnot characters often come across negatively, as with the “Mary Sue” type.

    *However, I did see considerable parallels with her mentor Giles, at least in his early portrayals. It should also be noted that there were some aspects of Buffy and her life that became more “identifiable” (for want of a better word) as the show and the character matured—if not to the point that identification could take place.

  2. If an author goes for identification (or, to a lesser degree, sympathy), what target reader should he imagine?

    For instance, I am very considerably above average in intelligence, and I have trouble identifying with stupid characters—but what about the readers who are less intelligent? Similarly: Will the jock and the bookworm see e.g. Harry Potter* and Hermione differently? What about those who liked “Catcher in the Rye” because they could identify with Holden? Will youthful naivete work as well on older readers as on younger?** Can the teenage reader feel for the old geezer? Etc.

    *I will use the “Harry Potter” books as my main source of examples, because they are sufficiently widely read (or the films watched) that the examples are likely to be recognized.

    **As a specific example, had I read “The Portable Door” at Paul’s age (20?), I would have sympathized very strongly with his romantic incompetence, because I was very similar at that age (“that is me”). Even at the time of the original reading, I had sufficient memories of those days that I could recognize the situations and really feel for him (“that was me”). Now, however, I mostly cringe (“I cannot believe that I once was like that”). Of course, the high-school studs might have reacted negatively from the beginning.

    The solution might be found in the ensemble, in that if a reader does not click with the one character, then there is a handful of other candidates. (Also note the boy-band principle of covering the bases sufficiently that every girl of 14 will fall in love with some member.) This can to some degree be applied to individual characters too, in that they have several aspects that allow at least a partial identification, e.g. in that someone is an orphan, a Quidditch star, and a hero. A more personal example is “Dexter”, where I was originally drawn to the series through the way Dexter has to put on a mask to blend in, something that I recognize very well from my own background (although the mask is different and I have gone to far less trouble, not having the need to appear normal to avoid murder charges). In contrast, I have very little sympathy for Dexter as a serial killer.

    Barring that, it might pay to “know the audience”, but I would likely recommend to just write something that the author, himself, would like to read (or would have liked to read at the right age).

    As an aside, it is not a given that an apparent good match will actually pan out. For instance, most portrayals of e.g. software developers tend to fail with me because I am a former software developer: I do not see another software developer in action—I see some acting caricature, clueless of real software development, often even of the basics of computers.

  3. What means are suitable?

    Some additions to what has already been implicitly covered:

    When you look for identification, make the protagonist a better version of the reader, the version of himself that the reader wants to be, the version that his younger self expected him to become, or similar. This because (a) most people view themselves as better than they are, (b) it is easier to mentally slip into a better version of something, (c) this opens a venue of “hopes and dreams” and “reality escape”. A particular trick is to make the hero good at something that the reader will not have encountered, where exposure to reality is a lesser threat (I would make a terrific Quidditch player and be great at magic, if someone just were to invite me to Hogwarts).

    Vice versa, when you look for sympathy, make him a lesser version, preferably one who is competent, intelligent, whatnot, but who has suffered a severe stroke of bad luck or, better, some great injustice, which has prevented the success that would otherwise have followed. However, even some personal deficits can be welcome, because it is easier to pity those that we can look down upon.

    Look for a means to get the reader into the protagonists shoes, even be it in just one aspect. For instance, as with Paul, a young person* who has problems with the opposite** sex through reasons like lack of self-esteem or the insight that said opposite also* has a very strong interest in finding partners—well that covers a major slice of the younger population, because it is a very familiar situation. Unjust treatment, again, is often a workable way, because even those who have not suffered the same treatment will almost always have (or imagined themselves to have) suffered some other major injustice—and even those who do not, can often picture themselves in the same situation, because it is not self-caused. (Harry Potter is a prime example, at various stages, including with his aunt and uncle, with Rita Skeeter, etc., but his situation might be over-the-top for an adult reader.)

    *Regardless of sex: The dual insight that many members of both sexes deal with similar problems and have a similarly strong interest in the area, is of fundamental importance to over-coming such issues.

    **I strongly suspect that the problems are lesser among homosexuals, both because they have a better understanding of the potential others, what they like and do not like, etc., and because a lack of reciprocated interest can often be written of as “is straight” instead of “does not like me, specifically”.

    Be aware* that strong opinions that deviate from the reader’s, actions that the reader would not take, and similar can be off-putting. Take particular care with politics, sexual acts, and the commitment of injustices. The latter, obviously, work both ways—they are good for the protagonist’s sympathy situation when they are committed against him, bad when they are committed by him.

    *Which is not to say that they should be avoided (especially, because keeping all the readers happy all the time would lead to extreme blandness)—just that the author should be aware of the risk and make a decision that takes the risk into consideration.

    Having someone strive for a second chance, redemption, forgiveness, or similar can be very helpful.* This too is a situation that many either know from own experience or can easily imagine themselves in. (Unlike unjust treatment, the situation is normally self-caused; however, there is always “I was mislead by others [who are to blame]”, “I am a different person now [blame the old me}”, whatnot.) Moreover, a reluctance by others to accept the attempts can be framed as an injustice.

    *But do not fall into the trap of making the enemy of yesterday the friend of tomorrow in a blanket manner. This even when it comes to popular-with-readers villains, because a good villain is a major asset.

Excursion on horror movies:
There is a stereotypical family of horror-movie reactions, e.g. “Why are you going out in the dark where the killer is?!?’, that are similar in principle to some of my reactions to some of Paul’s behaviors. Generally, horror movies contain a lot of stupid behavior that can sometimes get in the way of sympathies. For instance, if a protagonist has just managed to ambush the killer, has him on the ground, and could move in to finish the job with a baseball bat—why is the typical tactic to throw down the bat and run away, giving the killer time to recuperate? OK, if we are dealing with someone preternaturally resilient and dangerous, e.g. Michael Myers, I can see the point—but what about all those who are just someone with a knife? (Or those presumably just someone-with-a-knife, seeing that preternatural aspects are often only discovered through the course of the movie.)

Excursion on naive translations:
I recently observed that naive translations, use of synonyms, whatnot can be tricky. One of Holt’s books, likely the aforementioned sequel, contains an excellent example: One character is German and uses a lot of German words. At some point, she is (from context) supposed to say “third gear [of a car]” in German, which comes out as “drittes Pferdegeschirr”. The meaning of “Pferdegeschirr”, however, is the gear used on horses… Moreover, someone with even a basic grasp of German would not have made this mistake, because “Pferd” means “horse”. (The true translation would have bin “dritter Gang”.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 25, 2019 at 10:53 pm