Monday, April 23, 2012

Why do we need damaged protagonists?

One of the first pieces of advice you get when you start to write is that your protagonist cannot be too perfect. You need someone to whom people can relate, someone who has obstacles to overcome: most famously, Superman is bedeviled both by kryptonite and his attachment to Lois Lane; Matthew Scudder is an alcoholic; Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, etc.

This truism came to mind this week when I finished two excellent mysteries, The Janissary Tree and The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. At one level, you would be hard pressed to find two more different books. The Janissary Tree offers a lush, detailed portrait of 19th century Istanbul, and the ongoing conflict within the Ottoman Empire over whether to westernize, or maintain the traditions that had served the Empire so well for so long. Mystic Arts is a terse, brutal, profane, and very funny journey through the heart of Los Angeles, from the Santa Monica, to Hollywood, to the industrial wasteland of the Port of Los Angeles.

What the books have in common, however, is a damaged protagonist. For Yashim, the sleuth from The Janissary Tree, the damage is physical. He is a eunuch. In contrast, Mystic Arts’s Web Gilmore is physically whole, but he has suffered wounds of his own as the witness to a terrible act of violence. As I thought about these two men, I realized that despite the their differences – they are separated by time, culture, and religion – they have been affected in similar ways by their injuries. Yashim’s and Web’s wounds simultaneously ripped them out of the world they had known and thrust them into an entirely new existence.

Yashim’s castration pulled him from a more conventional life, and robbed him of many dreams he might have harbored. Although we only catch glimpses of his past, it becomes clear that it took him many years to overcome the rage he felt at his fate. He has no family, and no Turkish friends, save a similarly castrated prostitute. He is – as one character comments – a free lance. At the same time, however, Yashim’s castration ushers him into a position of power within the Ottoman government. Because he can be trusted not to father children, he is allowed access to the walled world of the Sultan’s court. Because of this, he is often sought out to perform politically delicate tasks, and government officials trust him to handle their affairs discreetly.

While Web is physically in tact, he is far less healthy than Yashim. A brutal and random death has driven him out of his life as a teacher, and he now spends every waking hour trying to alienate the one friend that he has left. But the violence he has witnessed also carries Web into the business of crime scene clean-up. (These are the folks who clean up the hazardous and bloody mess left behind when we exit this life violently.) Eventually Web discovers that the very experience that drove him out of teaching has allowed him to find not just a new job, but also a new basis for friendship. He and his co-workers all have seen death, too much death, at close range and this becomes a bond strong enough to overcome his obvious and deliberate misanthropy.

Of course this journey, as a protagonist follows the path from the disintegration of an old self to the creation of a new one, is no new thing. And it is only now that I see similar trends in my own work, as Bridget Hodgson (my protagonist) attempts to cope with the blows that life has dealt her, and does so by rethinking the meaning of family.

But it also seems to me that there is one very good reason why this story resonates so strongly with us: this is the nature of our own existence. We may not suffer the way that Yashim and Web have, but we do suffer. Whether it is by death, divorce, disease, or the myriad daily failures that are a part of life, we are constantly being ripped, screaming, out of our old existence and thrust into a new one. We read these stories because we want to know how to find our way in the strange new worlds that are always before us. If men like Yashim and Web can do this – and they have suffered far worse than we have – it gives us hope that we can do the same.

Monday, April 2, 2012

History Today complains that history is too popular.

In an article that can only be described as bizarre, Paul Lay complains that "Last week, for the first time, the number of historical novels sent to History Today for review outnumbered ‘real’ history books." Not only is there too much historical fiction, Lay doesn't like most of it:

The vast majority [of historical novels], however, are awful. And, despite the excellence of authors such as Leon Garfield, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo, so are most of the historical novels aimed at the children’s market.

As a writer of history and historical fiction, I'm at a bit of a loss for a coherent response. My first question would be what Lay means by "awful." If he means poorly written, then the smarty-pants in me would respond that reading "real" history is hardly a solution.

The crux of his complaint seems to come at the end of the piece:
There’s no great harm in reading historical novels, nor writing them, but if anyone wishes to understand history, in all its complexity, they should read ‘real’ history and then they should write it. 
The mistake here is the the questionable assumption that people read historical fiction in order to understand history. While that might one goal for readers, I would argue that to be entertained, challenged, or intrigued, are equally important, if not more-so. (Were that not the case, then why bother with the "fiction" part of "historical fiction"?) And, though I wish it were not the case, "real" history with its infinite interpretations, and equally infinite shades of gray, does not always lend itself to fiction.

I am not, of course, defending bad history even in a fictional context. The past is not "Like Now, but with Hats." But given the desperate financial challenges faced by the humanities, isn't the enduring interest in the past a good thing? 

One might also wonder if "less" historical fiction would mean - as Lay seems to think - "better" historical fiction. It does not seem unreasonable to think that fewer books would also mean fewer good books. And it is certainly true that a smaller market for historical fiction would hurt authors such as Hilary Mantel just as much as the hacks. And who would want that?