Saturday, November 27, 2010

Worldview and story approach

I know I'm the only one obsessed with this, LOL. But I'm exploring the issue of how worldview-- comprehensive attitude, values, and viewpoints on the author's part-- influences the voice, and in fact is a part of the voice.

Now this comes to me because, as I've said before, I'm trying to get more of an understanding of the 2008 economic crisis, just for the heck of it-- or rather because I think it's emblematic of so much of what TODAY is, and everyone just breathed a sigh of relief that the worst didn't happen, and has moved on to other problems. It's like we gave a disaster and not only did no one come, no one even read the notice in the newspaper.

One book was about the HP "spying" scandal, and it's very narrow in scope, focusing very tightly on the boardmembers-- not on the company or the industry that might have caused the level of suspicion that leads to industrial spying. There was almost no discussion of the context, of what this all meant.

The narrowness of scope, I think, says something about the worldview. That is, the author just isn't interested in the big picture, in, say, indicting capitalism or big business. He's also not interested in exploring how the computer industry works, or the rivalries that have shaped it. He doesn't think of the issue as being the extension of historic forces, or the inevitable if regrettable result of the American culture, or even a sign of our decadent materialism or our readiness to innovate. In the "person-focused" scope, the worldview is that it's the people who matter, and they matter because of their position, not because of anything they do or cause.

Anyway, I keep reading books, trying to find someone, anyone, who has an important insight as to how this happened and what it means. Alas, this quest is hampered by the fact that most of the books are written by journalists or bankers, and neither of those professions seems to reward deep insight. And let's face it-- you can hardly expect a bracing critique of capitalism or even finance from those whose paychecks depend on Wall Street being Wall Street.

But I do think that it's more than self-interest that means so many of these books end up being insightless-- long on "what happened," and short on "why". I think it might be our worldview that makes us choose one profession over another, one interest over another. And that worldview is going to affect how we view a situation or present it or explore it.

One way to understand worldview is to do exactly this, to read a bunch of books about the same subject. It works better with non-fiction, probably, because the reality observed presumably doesn't change, so differences are usually attributable to the author's particular viewpoint-- what he/she chooses to discuss, and how. But it can work in fiction too, when there are several books that treat the same subject differently.

Example: The Middle Ages in Europe. Bernard Cornwell has a very different approach than Ken Follett. They're both interested in how cultures dealt with the transition brought by advances in engineering and technology, and how these affected the move towards individualism that would be the central attitude in the Renaissance.

However, Cornwell chooses to look at men at war, and the technology he deals with is the technology of weaponry and military strategy. Follett is much more interested in "ordinary people" deeply involved in the feudal and religious society, and his technology is about building of cathedrals-- a massive task, sure, but very much in the middle of the medieval world. Cornwell's characters are on the outside, in their own culture (military), where Follett's characters live in their corner of the wider world. Cornwell's characters are trying to conquer, where Follett's characters are trying to build (a cathedral). Both of these were actually quite important activities in the Middle Ages, a time of strife and construction. So they each prefer a "realistic" presentation, and this leads to minute and careful accuracy in description. Let's just say, neither of them are likely to introduce zombies into the landscape for some new kind of conflict.

However, what they choose to be realistic about reflects something about their worldview, I think. What? Well, I think part of it might be about whether they look more closely at individuals or groups, individual action or systems, whether there's more emphasis on how the people affect the culture, or how the culture affects the people.

The worldviews of both the authors, then, is focused on as much as possible (within fiction) accurately reflecting the real life of the characters in their Middle-Ages world. This reflects, I think, a worldview that privileges accuracy and realism, that the best historical fiction is that which most reflects history.

Contrast that with, say, Ellis Peters' long series of medieval histories. Peters also has a focus on characters rather than systems or processes or cultures. But while her handling of the medieval world is detailed and sure, her disinterest in "realism" rather than "believability" is shown in her choice of character and story type. After all, while the Middle Ages was famously brutal, probably there weren't actually quite as many interesting murders in one small city even so. And Brother Cadfael reflects far more the time he was created (the 1960s) than the time he supposedly inhabits (the 12th Century)-- he is a peace-loving, scientific minded hippie, really. Now this is not to diss these mysteries, which are wonderful. (I love them far, far more than the Cornwell and Follett books, which I suspect reflects MY worldview. :) Point is, Peters isn't really interested in faithfully replicating history-in-fiction. She is interested most in how humans interact, how small societies work, how people compromise their individualities in order to live in communities. While her stories are deeply imbedded in their time (the British Civil War -- the second one, Maude v. Stephen-- is going on throughout most of the series), they could be moved to another time with some modifications and work just fine. Her worldview is not a historical one, but a psychological/sociological one. She thinks the basic elements of humanity haven't changed that much, that young people will always fall in love, that old men will always think they know most everything, that people want to be liked, that the ones who prefer to be feared will end up with the power.

In fact, that's sort of my worldview too, and that's why, no doubt, I re-read these books constantly. I think probably the author whose worldview matches with yours is probably the one you love. :)

Okay, so anyway, by examining several books that are about the same topic, you can get a better idea of how worldview affects how the author presents the book. This has a parallel, btw, in the study of history. History, like fiction, has such a huge scope, so many possibilities for exploration, that most historians have to decide on an approach or worldview. These aren't mutually exclusive, but historians do tend to have an inherent focus, I think. I learned this when I worked at the state historical society, where one of my colleagues was fascinated with people (we were writing the history of newspapers in the state, and she loved finding out that one editor had moved in 1854 from the Madison Democrat to the Bloomington Herald). Another was obsessed with old systems, like how trains were scheduled.

There are many of these historical approaches, but I think the ones we novelists would recognize are:
The great man approach (focusing on Napoleon, say, the major figures who affected the event)
The everyman approach (finding how events affected the regular people in a society)
The systems approach (looking at how groups and governments changed things and responded to change)
The social evolution approach (societies are evolving, and history is the story of how a society evolves)

What intrigues me is how so many of these business books are relentlessly person-focused. It's weird, because it's like the "great man" approach in that these CEOs and stocktraders are presented as being worthy of the most minute description (this one was a valedictorian, that one skis at Aspen, this one drives a sports car). These are the men (always men :) who create and fuel the economy, smarter (and richer, but deserving) than the rest of us. Somehow in their biographies must be some answer to ... well, what? What happened? No, because usually the books that go into such exhaustive detail about where these titans of finance holiday accept without much question that none of these guys had any idea what was coming. The collapse of the industry is presented as something like the tsunami, an unexpected and devastating event. This might seem paradoxical, that these men were so clueless and helpless, and yet somehow are worthy of the Great Man treatment.

Now I would think that an exploration of systems (how the regulatory system failed, say, or how the marketing of mortgages to those who couldn't afford them came to be so essential to the economy) would probably get us closer to "what happened". That's the sort of book the economist Paul Krugman wrote, long on substance, short on sizzle. While this probably isn't any more fascinating than "This CEO went to Princeton, was Jamie Dimon's assistant at Citibank, and favored English tailoring and was ever known for his ascots," it has the virtue of stressing and finding causation as a worldview. "There is a reason this happened!" means "We can prevent it happening again!" So it's an oddly optimistic worldview, emphasizing the power of human-made structures to affect even the most complex situations.

But others might think that everything is socio-cultural, that what's interesting is exploring how a culture or society changes, how the culture beliefs and values cause something to happen. That's sort of what Michael Lewis does in his article about how Iceland's cod fishermen got bored with fishing and turned to currency trading, thereby bankrupting the country. What people are featured are usually presented as representatives of a certain group (bored cod fishermen); the culture is the star, and how people interact with the culture is shown to be central.

What of these would translate well into fiction? Well, one already has. A long article about the collapse of Bear Stearns (the first investment canary to falter in the CDO mineshaft) suggests darkly that a conspiracy was at the root of this. While the conspiracy theory worldview might not seem entirely plausible in non-fiction, it translates perfectly to fiction. Notice that the Oliver Stone Wall Street sequel bases the initiating event on just such a conspiracy (though it's not developed nearly as well, IMHO, as in the article-- note to Mr. Stone, merely announcing a conspiracy isn't enough). Is that a worldview? Yes. An author who (in reality or just when writing) thinks that disasters are the results of conspiracies is merging two common worldviews-- everything is connected, and no one can be trusted (or humans are innately bad).

This has gotten long enough! I will explore worldview and subtext in another post. Point is, anyway, that whether you recognize it or not, your worldview is a determinant of what you write and how you approach the topic, and demonstrate the assumptions you make about the world and people. How conscious of this are you? How conscious should you be?



Anne R. Allen said...

Fascinating topic. Although if anybody doesn't see the financial collapse as a result of the unrestrained greed of "free markets" isn't paying much attention. After all, Alan Greenspan himself said it proved his whole free market theory was wrong. Pretty powerful stuff to ignore, and yet it's amazing how many bankers and politicians do.

Just the way they complain about rising taxes when taxes have actually gone down. More and more people see truth as something defined by the loudest screamer.

But I suppose that looking at the big picture and basing opinions on evidence rather than manipulated emotion is part of a world view as well. Perhaps one that is quickly disappearing.

Unknown said...

I've been thinking about this a lot recently in relation to writing heuristics. For example, take the basic storytelling "rule", often told to beginning writers, that the main character has to be the one that brings about the resolution of the climax of the story. A friend of mine and I were talking about this in relation to Lord of the Rings. (spoiler alert!) Note that Frodo isn't the person to destroy the ring. He fails, and Gollum is the one to destroy it -- by accident no less. Why is this? It might have something to do with Tolkien's Catholic worldview, where the entire point is that man *can't* resist the lure of evil and power. This makes me wonder then -- how do the rules we have for what makes a good story constrain the worldviews presented in the stories?

jo v said...

Interesting, the angle you're looking at it from. The problem with books is that by the time they're published so much time has passed. My own obsession with recent economic events drives me to youtube. Not to put Greenspan down, but he's no Milton Freedman, or even Thomas Sowell. (Oops. I think the secret is out. I'm an economics junkie.) Yes, youtube has significant entries from something besides pop culture. There is good stuff out there from top economists. I encourage you to check it out.

Ali Rassi said...

Anne, yes, I almost concluded that these authors subconsciously choose this rather ineffective focus on individuals so that they won't have to discuss what's wrong with the whole system.

jo v, sounds like you have a worldview too! You like to draw your own judgments from seeing something straight on-- not when time has passed! I think that's an approach to understanding too.

Livia, that makes me think of Faulkner's The Bear, where the main character isn't the one to kill the bear, and no one "worthy" does it, but a worthless drunk hanger-on, and he does it not with a single shot but pretty much by battering him to death. What's an author saying about the "task of the quest," the "mission," when it's completed by someone unworthy? I don't know. That the task isn't the real point? What do you think?

Unknown said...

Maybe Faulkner is saying that our idea of who best can complete a task isn't always right? Turns the idea of greatness on its head. (Sorry if this is a double post. I'm not sure if my last comment got eaten or not)

Anna Geletka said...

It's interesting you bring up Ken Follett. I spent most of my time reading the thing cursing about how non-accurate the characters felt. They seemed to me to be totally modern people stuck into a medieval world.

Especially the women. Why must every single historical fiction have a spunky, rebellious proto-feminist? People are a function of their time. There were plenty of women who kicked ass in the middle ages but even these were well in line with society - and most had no such opportunities for power, rebellion, etc.

Ali Rassi said...

Livia, or maybe that the task is wrong? That it's not a heroic task?

Ali Rassi said...

Ms. Luey, well, I think I have low expectations for most male novelists to create plausible women characters. All the more reason to have more women writers and women characters, I say! Vive le femme!

lisa nelson said...

And you might be interested in this post which is a bit of a tangent, but the "just world" scale caught my attention.

Unknown said...

Alicia -- maybe it's both.

I ended up expanding on the worldview theme on my blog.