This was supposed to be a post about Worldbuilding, economics (and possibly The Rock’s abs) because I’m a GIANT NERD, but that’s all going to have to wait.
Why? Because Nick Harkaway tweeted this question yesterday:
Today’s fleeting conundrum: would you rather read a banal writer on a remarkable life, or a remarkable writer on a banal one?
— Nick Harkaway (@Harkaway) March 25, 2014
It’s a really interesting question, partly because, as Nick acknowledged about 4 seconds later, it breaks down under scrutiny, like a Viennetta in a staring match with Superman. After all, if a writer can think up and fully communicate a remarkable life, is it fair to call her writing banal? And equally, isn’t revealing the remarkable in the banality of everyday existence precisely one of the things we expect remarkable writers to do?
the viennetta of post-modernism
So the terms are subjective and unstable, and the whole question is clearly as slippery as a catfish in a lube tank, but before we throw up our hands at the sheer Gauloise-smoking postmodernity of it all, let’s take a closer look at those terms.
‘Banal’ carries a bit of a value judgement, but stripped of that, it conveys everyday, quotidian, familiar.
‘Remarkable’ is precisely the opposite. Things invite remark because they aren’t normal, they are unfamiliar. They are strange.
When you get down to it, what Nick’s question seems to be driving at is the tension between the familiar and the alien; between what we know, and what we have to speculate about; between recognition and estrangement,
Between the True and the New*.
Sam Sykes and Simon Spanton, were chatting about this on Twitter the other day, and I stuck my oar in too, despite not having alliterative ‘s’s in my name. Where I think we got to is that all fiction sits somewhere on a spectrum between pure familiarity and pure estrangement, and all fiction needs to combine the two in various creative ways.
China Miéville’s Xenians are, for example pretty estranging, but the scarab-headed Khepri from Perdido St. Station wouldn’t be parseable at all if we weren’t already familiar with what a scarab was. Equally, even mainstream master of the mimetic McEwan (mmmm) has to deliver some new and surprising perspective on familiar life, or else what would be the point of writing about it at all?
When you think about it this way, both the remarkable and the banal in Nick’s diad are necessary. They’re making the text what it is. If you’ve got a really gobsmackingly strange story to tell, maybe an unvarnished workaday style is what you decide you need to convey the tale effectively. Equally any story about the remarkable in the mundane relies for its power on an act of revelation, of surprising you about things so familiar you don’t even see them. You simply couldn’t have that effect if the subject matter was remarkable at first glance.
The “banal”, as Nick puts it here, is playing the role of ‘‘a repository of dull virtues in time of trouble, someone to carry the can, speak truth and own up in class” as er… Nick puts it elsewhere. The Banal is doing the legwork, it’s the Remarkable’s straight man, its sidekick, the reliable doctor to the Remarkable’s deerstalker-wearing opium fiend.
Still, what I think is really interesting in Nick’s original question isn’t even the Banal vs Remarkable bit, but rather the question itself, ‘Would you rather…?’
What do you prefer, as a reader? What kind of reader are you?
Because let’s not forget, it’s a two-stage reaction, this literary chemistry. The reader’s mind does as much work mediating the word as the writer’s does mediating the world. Ultimately, if a story is estranging, it’s because it’s new to the reader, and if it’s true it’s because it feels true to us.
So what kind of stories do you prefer? Is your particular readerly poison immersing yourself in the bizarre and the extraordinary, and finding the ways it relates to the world you know, or is it in discovering the breathtaking in every day life?
Or both? There’s always both. Both is even better.
*(Bear in mind, this is only an experiential tension, not an existential one. There certainly are propositions that are both true and new – the whole endeavour of science is dedicated to finding out what they are – but for a story to feel true when we’re reading it, it must be because it’s triggered a sense of recognition in us, so it has to be, in some mediated way, familiar.)