Onomatopoeia, Mimesis and Children’s Literature

goh-goh

Someone in a children’s writing forum crowdsourced recently: What does a waterfall sound like?

They were after an onomatopoeic sound. Some replied ‘trickle’. Others said ‘trickle’ is no good at all for a waterfall, as ‘trickle’ suggests a piddling amount of water.

I don’t know what they decided, but I thought of my years learning Japanese. Japanese most definitely has the perfect word to describe the sound of a waterfall: “goh-goh”.

That explains the wonderful and also one of the lesser-known, extremely challenging aspects of learning Japanese non-natively: Everyday Japanese language bursts forth with onomatopoeia, and not just onomatopoeia, either: mimesis in general.

ONOMATOPOEIA AND MIMESIS: THE DIFFERENCE

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Body Language Beats In Fiction

body language beat

Body language beats* in fiction are like stage directions. They serve various purposes in fiction:

  1. Varying the pace of the dialogue
  2. Tracking your character’s emotions
  3. Allowing the reader to keep track of who’s saying what, without over-reliance upon ‘he said/she said’.
*Don’t confuse this meaning of ‘beat’ with what theatre folk mean when they say beat — brief pauses in the action. Theatre peeps use the term ‘stage business’ when talking about these kind of beats.

There are other kinds of beats, for example brief snippets of interior monologue.

Body language beats can be handled badly. Continue reading “Body Language Beats In Fiction”

Gothic Horror And Children’s Books

Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. This refers to a type of story with a combination of horror, death and romance. The characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural features such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.

When romance is the main focus it’s called gothic romance. Dark paranormal romance is the new gothic romance.

See also: What’s behind the wide appeal of all the horrible, brooding YA  boyfriends?

A Short History Of Gothic Horror

gothic horror

Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” It originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. Only in the late 1790s did “Gothic” take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman. 

The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The height of the Gothic period is closely aligned with Romanticism (1764-1840).

The word Gothic also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.

When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Cultural codes were still writing marriage as a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is actually depression. Women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But the Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.

Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location.

These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame. Even in children’s literature, villains are more complex. They are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. The innocent victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral weakness, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victim-y’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair.

Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel the evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.

Continue reading “Gothic Horror And Children’s Books”

A Brief Taxonomy Of Book Titles

Here’s a secret: many, many, many titles are changed once a publisher gets hold of them. In fact, every single one of my book titles has changed, if you can believe it.

from Alison Winn Scotch, writer

Well, I will admit to thinking that if Marketing truly had their way, the title for every book would be an artless string of words broadcasting its selling appeal. The Hunger Games would be called ACTION PACKED DYSTOPIAN LOVE TRIANGLE.

– from Boxcars, Books and a Blog

taxonomy book title

Continue reading “A Brief Taxonomy Of Book Titles”

Stream of Consciousness vs. Interior Monologue

Two Men Contemplating The Moon by Caspar David Friedrich makes me think one of them is telling the other a solioquy, or some other old-fashioned narrative device.
Two Men Contemplating The Moon by Caspar David Friedrich makes me think one of them is telling the other a solioquy, or some other old-fashioned narrative device.

Interior Monologue Narrative Technique

  • Interior monologue is a stylised way of thinking out loud. (Technically: thinking ‘on the page’.)
  • Some people call it ‘internal’ monologue. This is the same thing.
  • Unlike stream-of-consciousness, an interior monologue can be integrated into a third-person narrative. The viewpoint character’s thoughts are woven into description, using the author’s own language.
  • This is the essential difference between interior monologue and straight narrative:
  • Straight Narrative = the narrator talking (You know ‘the narrator’ — that made-up character who sounds like the author — but please don’t mistake authors for narrators – not all authors are crazy axe-wielding, mentally unstable murderers, unlike many of their narrators.)
  • Interior Monologue = a character talking/thinking, using words specific to that character, making assumptions, mistaken judgements, conclusions RIGHT FOR THAT CHARACTER.
  • If interior monologue is done well, you won’t even notice it’s happening.

Stream of Consciousness Narrative Technique

  • Like interior monologue, stream-of-consciousness is another stylised way of thinking out loud.
  • It is the 19th and early 20th century version of what has become ‘free indirect style/speech’. (A style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech.)
  • Stream-of-consciousness tends to read more like a pure soliloquy. (A famous soliloquy is Shakespeare’s To be or not to be.)
  • There’s a lot of interior monologue in stream-of-consciousness but the difference is, there’s no punctuation to mark it out as such.
  • The terms ‘stream-of-consciousness’ and ‘interior monologue’ are used interchangeably by some — but stream-of-consciousness refers more often to a first person narrative which mimics the jumble of thoughts, emotions and memories passing through a character’s mind. (That said, interior monologue is not necessarily written in first person.)
  • Stream-of-consciousness tends to be less ordered than interior monologue. That’s because consciousness has no beginning and no end — thoughts flit quite randomly from one thing to another.
  • Stream of consciousness is a regular feature of The Psychological Novel.

Neo-Regionalism And Realism In Literature

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck, a well-known example of neo-regionalism.
The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck, a well-known example of neo-regionalism.

REGIONALISM

“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect, the extremist form of the backwoods South-Western dialects; the ordinary “Pike-Country” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last”

— Huckleberry Finn

Regionalism is an largely American term which refers to texts that concentrate heavily on specific, unique features of a certain region including dialect, customs, tradition, topography, history, and characters. Regionalist writers include Mark Twain and Kate Chopin (The Awakening, 1899), Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird), Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner. Features of regionalist works: Continue reading “Neo-Regionalism And Realism In Literature”

Cowboys, Westerns and Lonesome Dove

Here’s the premise of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove: Two Texas Rangers decide to move cattle from the south to Montana running into many problems along the way.

DESIGNING PRINCIPLE

Detail a legendary journey while including the harsh realities of Wild-Western life to show that the ‘legends’ of the Wild West were ordinary men working in unglamorous conditions.

Pulitzer Prize winners may have a reputation for being dense and requiring much work, but if that’s the case, Lonesome Dove is an exception. This is what you’d call ‘super readable’. A page-turner. Which is just as well, because you could build a house with these bricks.

If you would like to know what it feels like to be a cattle man in the Wild West in the mid 1870s, and you don’t like the idea of getting kilt or drinking black coffee for breakfast or hoiking up black phlegm from all the dust or using your saddle for a pillow while sleeping on the hard, cold ground; if you aren’t the owner of an actual time machine, then this is the book for you. McMurtry does an excellent job of detailing the day-to-day realities of being a cowboy in the Wild West.

And few authors would be more qualified. Larry McMurtry’s own father was a cattleman, along with every one of his eight uncles. McMurtry himself obviously absorbed a lot of the dialect, grammar and vocabulary of cattlemen, putting it to good use in his Western novels.

Continue reading “Cowboys, Westerns and Lonesome Dove”

Symbolism Of The Forest In Storytelling

the hobbit full cover

Be it woods or forest, when a character enters the trees in fiction, beware! We learned this from fairytales, but is fear of the forest innate,  or taught to us via fiction?

I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.
— Henry David Thoreau

The central story quality of the forest is that it is a natural cathedral. The tall trees, with their leaves hanging over us and protecting us, seem like the oldest wise men assuring us that whatever the circumstances, it will resolve as time moves on. It is the place where contemplative people go and to which lovers sneak away.

But this intense inward gaze of the forest also has a sense of foreboding. The forest is where people get lost. It’s the hiding place of ghosts and past lives. It is where hunters stalk their prey, and their prey is often human. The forest is tamer than the jungle; the jungle will kill anything in it at any moment. The forest, when it does its frightening work, causes mental loss first. It is slower than the jungle but still deadly.

– John Truby, The Anatomy Of Story 

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The Male Gaze In Children’s Literature

Meg Elison has written a McSweeneys post about The Gaze which strikes a chord.

IF WOMEN WROTE MEN THE WAY MEN WRITE WOMEN.

cat gaze

 

At The Guardian, Lindesay Irvine (incidentally, a man) responded to this spoof gender reversal with:

Anyone who’s ever had a brush with cultural studies will be familiar with Laura Mulvey’s influential theory of the male gaze in film and fine art and photography. But I’d never quite thought the male gaze could function equally well in fiction.

Yes, of course the male gaze functions equally well in fiction.

I’m sorry to say that this gaze is just as prevalent in children’s fiction.

After chuckling at Meg Elison’s piece I made a note to blog an example from kidlit. I wasn’t actively looking for it because I have plenty of other ideas for blog posts, but it took less than a week to stumble upon an example.

Here we encounter the male gaze by the time we’re halfway down the middle of the very first page of an upper middle grade/young adult novel.

One

“Haven’t you loaded that chainsaw on yet?” Lisbeth asked.

Craig Dawson paused with one hand on the helicopter cabin door. He breathed deeply.

“I’ve been checking to make sure its tank’s empty,” he said. “You never carry anything with petrol in it, if you’re in a chopper.”

“Is that right?” Lisbeth’s voice was as cool as always. “Thanks for the lecture.”

This time, Craig breathed deeply twice. He slide the chainsaw into the main locker inside the Mongoose’s cabin, snapped the safety clips over it, then pulled the storage net tight, holding it in place.

“OK,” he announced as he straightened up. “That’s the lot.”

Lisbeth had finished stacking the supermarket bags of milk, fruit and vegetables in the Mongoose’s small locker. Now she stood with perfectly clean hands on the hips of perfectly fitted jeans, watching Craig.

Cold Comfort by David Hill, 1996, published with the support of Creative New Zealand

It’s hard to imagine the character of Craig standing in perfectly fitted jeans (unless we’re reading specifically gay fiction marketed quite differently), and if you’re wondering about the narration of Lisbeth watching Craig, well, that’s it. I didn’t cut anything pertinent off by ending the quote there. The story goes back to Craig.

Importantly, the commentary on the teenage girl’s hips comes from an unseen third person narrator. That narrator is unambiguously male. The author chooses to pull in more closely to Craig’s head than to Lisbeth and there are writerly reasons for that; the reader’s sympathies are supposed to lie with Craig, not with Lisbeth. In short, this tendency to sexualise the female body rather than the male body is partly to do with how many more books are written about boys and men. (In kidlit, across the board, it’s about 3 male characters to every 1 female.)

David Hill’s work has  been widely read (and taught) in New Zealand schools (I’ve had to teach his work myself, in a girls’ high school) and, like a couple of other big name educational authors from my home country (William Taylor is another), this is typical of the sort of narration that gets purchased by schools as class sets. It’s written from a blokey point of view with sympathies directed at the put-upon male character whose opponent is the annoying but sexually alluring female character. These characterisations are thought to engage those hard-to-reach reluctant boy readers.

(Fortunately in New Zealand reading lists have become a bit more diverse since the 1990s. This has happened in part because teachers have started to acknowledge that it’s not just boys who are failing to take up with fiction these days.)

However, when it comes to the male gaze, there’s more to it.  Continue reading “The Male Gaze In Children’s Literature”