Thursday, May 28, 2009

Grappling with Allegory

*Bing Bing!*

"In this corner, completer four freelance rpg contracts, author of countless short stories, and new online sensation, the captain of the burning zeppelin.... Maaaaaark Simmons!"

"And in this corner, as old as dirt and twice as mean, often mocked, but never ignored... Aaaaallegory!"

*Bing Bing!*

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In case you haven't noticed, I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to fantastic fiction. I have spent a lot of my life being told that it is ultimately meaningless, or at least less meaningfull than "conventional" fiction. I've come to realize that this attitude is nothing but base maturismo and has no place in my worldview, but sometimes I'm still insecure. Even though I've read fantastic novels and short stories that have changed my life, even though so-called "genre fiction" is the fastest growing segment of book publishing and television producing, I still badly want my stories to mean something.

This trips me up sometimes. When is an allegory too obvious? When does a story about a big issue become too preachy? Is it all in the details, or are some story ideas just too damned issuey and best left alone?

The wonderful folk at define allegory as "the representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form." Wikipedia lists C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and Albert Camus's The Stranger, among others (listing only a sampling of those I've read myself), as examples of literary allegory. I'd add J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings to the list, as well as many others. Tamora Pierce, for example, writes some brilliant allegories into her work, but she basically does everything right, so that's not surprising.

Some of these are better than others.

In my opinion, Lewis comes across as preachy (but fun) and Pullman as bitter and pushy (but zeppelins), whereas Tolkien's novels seem much more honest. All three writers are equally enmeshed in various views of religion, and expressing those views was a conscious goal in their creative process. How and why do these series occur so differently for me, and what can I do to be more like the latter and less like the former?

In the fine tradition of such productive posts as When Someone Asks You If You're A God, You Say..., now that I've asked the question, I'm going to bring the discussion down to the specific.

When I first started this blog, I had this idea that I was going to keep it apolitical... but I don't think it's working. In case you haven't noticed yet, I'm more than a little liberal. I'm sort of a raging leftist. In fact, I'm basically a communist. It's not my fault; I went to Oberlin. I have an idea of how the world should be and I'm going to do my damndest to make it so. Confession time: among the many issues that are near and dear to my heart (which is full of righteous indignation) is gay rights, starting with marriage equality and ending with not making more than a tenth of our population feel lousy about themselves for something that is inherent, beautiful and necessary, and extremely private. I have queer friends and I will cry at their government-recognized weddings, damnit!

In any case, I've been nursing an idea for a story for - wow - years now that's an expression of how I feel about all this. Only, every time I start to talk about it I get this queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach and a from the bowels of my brain tells me "this is hokey, this is preachy, they're all going to laugh at you!"

The long and the short of it (even writing this is hard - if I finish this paragraph it's a huge testament to my courage): a world where mankind has divided itself into three tribes - Sun, Earth, and Moon - based on sexuality, from which is also derived the varieties of magic someone can access. Set against each other by an ancient conflict, these three tribes have created a situation where everyone is miserable. Women are chattle in the Sun Tribe, men are second class citizens in Earth Tribe, the Moon Tribe survives in exile and hates everyone else, and those who reveal themselves as belonging in a different tribe than the one to which they are usually killed. Only by discovering where they really belong and leading the tribes to an overdue reunion can Our Heroes save the day (and incidentally find love and happiness). Yes, it's a fantasy world based on Aristophanes's parable of sexuality by way of "The Origin of Love" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It would probably be a YA title if I can ever find anyone to publish it. I am an enormous dork.

[I did it! I finished the paragraph! I win!]

This is clearly some very heavy stuff, but I want very badly for the story to work. At the same time, I don't want it to be preachy and heavy handed. I want the characters to be real. I want this story to be meaningful and change hearts and minds. I want to write The Stranger, not The Chronicles of Narnia.

I understand the basics - write real characters, write a deep setting, make it a matter of people and life, not "good guys" and "bad guys" - but I can't shake the feeling that this one's too big, this idea is too heavy, and in the end, Allegory is going to mop the floor with me.

*Bing Bing!*

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  • What are your favorite fantastic allegories? What made them good?
  • Where have you seen an attempt at allegory fall flat on its face? What made it bad?
  • What do you suggest I do with this problematic idea of mine (other than "write it, stupid!" - I know that already)?


The Bionic Arabist said...

A thought: I have never successfully written an allegory that was meant to be an allegory. I have, however, written things that I later realized were excellent allegories for something that had been on my mind. So, on the second draft, I just emphasized the connections a little, and poof, non-overblown allegory.

The best example of this from an actual writer I can think of is The Stolen Child. At least according to interviews with the author, he started the book because he was interested in the changeling legend (and an anthropological explanation for it). But all through the book is a remarkable allegory for the experience of feeling neither truly yourself nor truly human. Or for feeling that your life is not your life. Call it an allegory of alienation. I think you know why I might read it this way, but I don't think I'm alone in this.

The author might think that's an obvious consequence of the legend itself and of his "failure to thrive" hypothesis, but I read it as an example of stumbling on an allegory, then running with it.

Anonymous said...

The best examples of allegory are found in the Bible. I'll let you think about that for a while.

Mark said...

@ The Bionic Arabist:

Did you used to watch The Bionic Six when you were a kid? Man, I loved that show. It was better than Voltron.

That said, The Stolen Child was really good.

Unfortunately, I find everything you say incredibly disturbing. Successful allegory as purely accidental? Where does that leave me?

Actually, it's not that bad, really. After all, the story idea did come before the purpose. Or, rather, it bubbled up out of wherever it is I keep ideas all on its own. I didn't set out to write a YA novel about gay rights, the idea just kind of... happened.

So, maybe I should just write the damned thing and see what happens?

@ Anonymous:

I've got to say, I haven't the slightest clue what you mean by that.

Here's the thing: I don't think the Bible really is very good allegory. Actually, it's kind of crap. The messages are unclear and contradictory, part mythology, part biased history, and part legal code (with attendant morally illustrative tales).

Maybe it's a raised Reform Jewish thing. Maybe it's a univeristy trained bible scholar thing. Either way, I just don't get it. Explain?

Anonymous said...


I don't think it's good, I think it's the Best (first/earliest/most extreme that people have chosen to base entire systems of belief on).

David E. Teubner does an excellent example in his essay "Allegory in the Bible"

While I do not share his views 100% I feel he makes interesting points worth considering. also offers unique insights. ;)

Ben said...

Alas, I don't have any advice for you. But as a Tolkien buff, I will say that I was surprised at you including The Lord of the Rings in your list of allegories. Tolkien has explicitly denied that he wrote it as an allegory. If you see allegory in it, could it then be unintentional allegory?

(If you had said Leaf by Niggle instead of The Lord of the Rings, I wouldn't have batted an eye.)