Writing Fiction in Turbulent Times

Ever since Donald Trump was elected POTUS, politics have been distracting writers from writing. Granted that Trump would make such an awesome fictional character that it’s a shame that he is real, politics  should not distract a fiction writer from the business of creating stories. A time of political turmoil is a great time for the creation of fiction. Some very good literature was written when the world around the author was literally falling apart. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, for example, was inspired by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The book was not written until 1982 and not published until a French translation came out in 1984, but it was very much the child of the Prague Spring.

The authors of great works of literature in turbulent times often had considerable balls. Bertolt Brecht wrote the play Fear and Misery of the Third Reich in 1938 when it could have easily gotten him killed.

If you have seen epic China movies like Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, you would be a little bit familiar with the tumultuous history of modern China. The Xinhai Revolution of 1911 ended China’s imperial rule (though the emperor continued to reign) and created for the first time the democratic Beiyang government composed of a president, a vice president and a house of parliament.  But idealism soon gave way to infighting and power play, while hopes for an actual election became more and more distant as strongmen replaced political theorists as interim presidents. And, as a result of the Treaty of Versailles after WWI, the Shangdong territory occupied by the Germans was handed over to Japan. Protests erupted around the country, unrest bred factionalism, and factionalism begat bloodshed. Although the territory was eventually returned to China in 1922, the damage was done. The Beiyang government started a slow descent into disintegration and national chaos. In the middle of all this, in 1921, when China was a train wreck in slow motion, Lu Xun published The True Story of Ah Q. Not only was the book a scathing criticism of just about everyone alive, it also broke tradition by being the first book ever to be published in vernacular Chinese. Unfortunately, it is a book that does not translate for other cultures very well. The introduction, in which the author agonizes over how to title the book, is a satire of Chinese intellectualism of the era that was unable to do anything outside the traditional box. Oddly enough, this satirical novella, that probably angered a whole spectrum of people from ivory-tower-intellectuals to semi-literate masses, was praised by none other than Mao Zedong. That does not mean that Lu Xun was hiding under the umbrella of authority. He was fluent in Japanese and he argued face to face with occupying Japanese brass during the height of WWII.

And if you want to talk about ballsy writers in turbulent times, you cannot avoid talking about Soviet dissidents. It’s pretty hard to understand what was so horrible about Doctor Zhivago that it was refused publication by the Soviet government. (After all, it was a pretty boring movie, right?) Yet Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize winning epic could not be published until it was smuggled out to Italy and translated into Italian. But it is not at all difficult to understand why The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was banned. It is a clearly anti-Soviet book published in the West in 1973 and it was circulated among Russians under the communist regime through underground self-publishing called samizdat. This book not only required balls to write, it took balls to read.

In North America, the Civil War inspired Gone With the Wind, but that was written in another generation. The Great Depression inspired Grapes of Wrath, which helped Steinbeck win the Nobel Prize, but has a slight taint of plagiarism about it. But among the host of great books inspired by the Great Depression, I would have to introduce The Big Money by John Dos Passos (1936) if only because it is so relevant to the materialism and avarice of the Age of Trump.

I have to mention a couple of Japanese books of course, and Japan has never had any shortage of political turmoil or defiant literature. In the 20th century alone, Japan experienced two attempted coups, two constitutions, two world wars, two economic booms, two economic busts, and two nukes. And books about every one of them. There is a long line of people who nearly or actually got themselves killed for running their mouths or wielding their pens, but among them, I have to say, Osamu Dazai really stands out. He spent most of the pre-war and mid-war period mocking the WWII militarist government and its supporters, then spent the post-war period mocking the newly minted pacifists and leftists who were too cowardly to come out during the war. After the war he wrote his seminal No Longer Human which probably inspired more suicides than any other printed matter in the history of mankind. But if you have ever seen the movie Grave of the Fireflies (which incidentally was based on another piece of literature inspired by times of turmoil), you might have a hint as to what the firebombing of Tokyo during WWII was like. The U.S. Air Force was unable to strike Japanese military installations because they were too well fortified and required direct hits to take out, which meant that American bombers would have to fly lower, within range of the accurate Japanese anti-aircraft fire. So they changed tactics and built large, high-flying bombers that could fly high above the range of Japanese guns and fighters and focused on soft targets that could be destroyed by incendiary bombs. The repeated fire bombings of Tokyo between November 1944 and August 1945 killed over 100 thousand people and displaced over a million, and remains the biggest concentrated bombing of a civilian city in history. And smack in the middle of this ten-month fire bombing campaign in April 1945, Dazai published, in Tokyo, the bizarre  short story Chikusei. This was not an obvious criticism of the government or a comment on the state of the world, but an absurdist dreamscape story a la Lewis Carroll in which a ne’er-do-well intellectual, half dreaming, turns into a crow. It reads like an Aesop parable on the futility of human ambition, pride, idealism, and despair, then suddenly takes a cork screw twist at the end and lands in resignation and acceptance of mediocrity like Salieri in Amadeus. A very strange story to write while surrounded by death and destruction.

But that does not even come close to the utter absurdity of Shichiro Fukazawa, the novelist, guitarist, and Elvis impersonator, known for the celebrated novel The Ballad of Narayama (introduced to the West in the French translation La Ballade de Narayama) published in 1956, which was twice adapted into motion pictures both of which were critically acclaimed. Not to give anything away, the story is about a remote village in samurai era Japan where tradition dictated that senior citizens of certain age must be abandoned in the mountains so their impoverished families could save on the food. The story is about the conflict of a poor farmer man who is compelled by custom to throw his aged mother away. Still with me? Four years later in 1960, times were very turbulent around the world. It was the year the U2 was shot down over Russia, and John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon did the first televised presidential debate. It was the year before the Bay of Pigs and Yuri Gagarin’s space flight. It was also the year in which the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan was ratified, insuring that American post-war occupation forces will remain on Japanese soil indefinitely and that American soldiers will remain outside the jurisdiction of Japanese law. Given that hundreds of rapes, assaults, and murders by U.S. servicemen were reported yearly, and the Japanese police were powerless to do anything about it, the ratification of the treaty was not a popular decision. Tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets. Hundreds of protesters and policemen were injured. Tear gas and Molotov cocktails flew across over the streets. Politicians resigned, government was in disarray, and the future looked uncertain. In the middle of that commotion, Fukazawa published Furyu Mutan, a narrative of a surreal dream in which a mob beheads the emperor, the empress, the crown prince and the crown princess. This was only a decade and a half after soldiers flew off on kamikaze missions in the name of the emperor. The shit storm this short story raised was so intense, the publisher retracted the story and never published it again. It eventually began circulating on the internet in digital form several decades later.

Speaking of the ’60s, there is a horde of books inspired by the Vietnam War. But there is also some books available in English written by Vietnamese authors to widen your perspective. But it wasn’t just the battle grounds in the jungle, but the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, antiwar protests, minority activism, the arrival of counterculture, and the largely unacknowledged influence of the ubiquitous flickering cathode-ray-tube television screen that influenced the literature of the era. The witch’s brew gave birth to the quasi-literature of New Journalism epitomized by Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test, and Gonzo Journalism of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

All these books have one thing in common which is that they never would have been born if the world was not such a mess. So don’t get distracted by the politics around you. This is exactly the perfect time to be working on your masterpiece.

The Exponential Curve

According to legend, movie stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck jump started their careers by co-authoring the script for Good Will Hunting as young unknown actors and peddled it around Hollywood until they found an interested studio.

In reality, the story is a little different. Matt Damon had already appeared in 11 feature films in the 10 year preceding Good Will Hunting, and Ben Affleck had appeared in 8 films and 8 TV shows. Both had been getting acting jobs since high school, Affleck making his debut in a Burger King commercial.

We get so blinded by news stories of over-night successes that we forget almost all successful careers are exponential trajectories. They bump along scraping the runway for a very long time, then barely lifting off the surface coasting parallel to the ground a few feet in the air until almost the end of the runway,  then across the grassy field at low altitude hardly clearing the one-story rooftops outside the fence. But then, with a yank of the joystick, they climb almost vertically up into the stratosphere.

We have all seen the exponential curve in practice. Remember the classmate who claimed that he aced the exams with only three days of study? He wasn’t actually lying, he was just talking about the last three days of his exponential curve. Same thing with physical training that seem to get you zero results for the first three months.

Almost all efforts take the course of an exponential curve. A. S. Byatt published her first novel after producing a series of short stories for literary magazines. Those short stories, now mostly forgotten, had to collect mountains of rejection notices before they were published. Then, with a track record of published works under her belt, she was ready to start submitting novels, which in turn collected rejection notices until one, The Shadow of The Sun, was finally published in 1964. She kept writing novels and published three more until she produced Possessioon in 1990 which won the Booker Prize. Today, Dame Antonia Susan Duffy, DBE, is a serious contender for the Nobel Prize.

All careers start by bumping along on the gravel runway. If you give up there, you will never leave the ground. If Ben Affleck had given up after the Burger King commercial, or before that at the school play level, he never would have gotten his two Academy Awards.

You just have to keep believing that the little progress you are making today will make a difference later when your career really starts picking up in that exponential curve. It is not just a matter of getting a lucky break or a chance discovery. It is the little victories you managed to pile up that tip the scales at some point when it reaches critical mass. Until then, you just have to keep tossing pebbles.

 

Asking the Big Question

Some genres just keep coming back. Vampires come and go. Zombies come and go. Space aliens come and go. Dystopian futures come and go. But they always come back. The reason is that these stories are about fears. And every generation has its own fears and anxieties. Every time the vampires come back, they reflect the fears of a new generation.

Every once in a decade or so, a writer will come out to represent the genre for a generation. Anne Rice did that for vampires and became the queen of the vampire genre. (Whether Stephanie Meyer overtook the throne is debatable.) Rice’s stories were about alienated people, with strong homo-erotic undertones. They were embraced by the LGBT community (then still known as the gay community) as allegorical symbols of alienation and social isolation. An unspoken element is that they were also being read by straight people who were spooked by the sudden visibility of gay people in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Stephanie Meyer fused the vampire genre with the “young adult” genre, which was a smashing success with her predominantly young readership, but did not sit well with the older generation of genre writers like Stephen King and Anne Rice. She also infused her stories with a totally new set of fears and anxieties, this time a kind of political divide that polarized the gentrified and progressive Cullens from the reactionary and race-supremacist trackers. And of course even the culturally assimilating Cullens draw the line when it comes to cross-racial romance, thereby expressing the limitations and hypocrisies of progressiveness. Thus introducing a new set of conflicts for readers to identify with.

Eventually there will be another queen of the vampire genre who will speak to a new generation of readers who will have a different set of fears and anxieties. The one thing she will not do is replicate classic vampire novels of the past. Hard core vampire fans still prefer “The Librarian” over “Twilight”. But a resurrected classic is never the voice of the next generation. Even if you are a “genre” writer (or perhaps more so because of it) you must ask big questions like “What are the dominant fears and anxieties of the coming age?” Asking big questions and thinking about them seriously comes with the territory of being a writer. Even when you are writing a YA vampire story.