What makes an alley gory? What it leads to, of course.

At the most excellent Kitschies event last month, both Lauren Beukes and Patrick Ness said that one of the things they liked most about writing fiction was allegory, a good meaty allegory to get their teeth into.

(see what I did there)

Now, I, (like Tolkien) have a ‘cordial dislike’ of allegory, but give that two of my fave writers are so enamoured of it a reasonable question is, am I right to?

First – definitions. My internet dictionary tells me allegory is:

‘A symbolic narrative, the figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.’

As I’ve always understood it, where allegory diverges from simple metaphor is in extension and precision. Allegory, for me, is the narrow one-to-one mapping of a fictional entity onto a real world correllary such that you can say that when the author was writing about ‘x’ she was really talking about ‘y’. *

It’s that ‘really’ that trips me up. It’s the burr in my sock, the stone in my shoe. It rubs me the wrong way. It just feels vaguely… dismissive, of the fictional universe in the story, of the narrative you’ve asked the reader to invest in, it dismisses it with a hand-wave.

What’s more, and this may just be me, but when I’m reading a story and it becomes apparent that it’s allegorical, my brain starts to translate. Like an electrical pulse sliding down a well-worn neural pathway, it skips straight from the words on the page to the allegorical meaning spending ever less and less time immersed in the fictional bit. It’s a bit like someone who’s gotten really good at reading french as a second language seeing the word ‘singe’ and getting a mental image of a monkey without running it through their native tongue first.

‘So what?’ you might say. And you’d have a point, except that I (obviously) am pretty invested in the idea that fictional bit is important, both for its own sake and for meditating on whatever real-world issues it’s concerned with. If it weren’t, you might as well just write journalism instead.

Lauren Beukes actually put this the best I’ve ever heard it last year at the British Library when she said that the distance created by (science) fiction could ‘bring back the human’, bringing our emotions back off the bench when issue fatigue has set in. (There is a risk I’m paraphrasing here, it was a year ago). Fiction can derive a lot of power from real-world resonance, but that distance is key, and under the weight of an allegory, it can have a tendency to collapse.

From my point of view, there’s something of the tightrope in using fiction to meditate one the real world, and allegory falls down one side of it.

* This may not be a definition either Ms Beukes or Mr Ness recognize, and I certainly don’t mean to impute that they’re defending or enamoured with this kind of allegory. I have no idea, it was just their mention of it that got me thinking.

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