A few months a discussion in a University of Iowa writing MOOC caught my attention. I didn’t contribute, because I was late to the exchange, and anyway, I felt a bit like an anthropologist, observing people around the world express their ideas about what they were learning.
This particular discussion was about how cultures might have different expectations as to what a story was or required. What interested me were the assumptions about what stories required in ‘western culture’.
My classmates assumed stories always included:
- A protagonist who must have a goal.
- A main character who must aspire to goodness.
- A plot where the point is overcoming something for the greater good.
Somewhat surprised, I looked for counter arguments and a couple of texts were listed as not possessing these attributes, but there was no examination of these ideas. As is the way of online discussions, they meander, and perhaps an opportunity was missed. I read on and learned from my colleagues that stories from ‘other cultures’ were in contrast more likely to be:
- More interior.
- More focused on the collective or community.
- More reliant on the use of proverbs.
These ideas/biases/insights were so oddly specific that I never responded. I only write about it now because when I came across my notes these comments still stood out. Those taking part were people with at least a fleeting interest in writing (given they are attempting a MOOC on creative writing) and yet some had very rigid expectations of what stories should do or deliver. I understand I am speaking from my own biases about writing and writers…but even if I am judging these ideas, or the rigidity of them, I am more interested at how they were arrived at. Sadly though, the discussion did not delve into self-reflection.
For a long time, I didn’t have an angle on what I felt, but then, I told myself (without conviction) that what we seek is often near at hand, I remembered Borges’ story Averroes Search. In this short fiction, Borges has the philosopher translating Aristotle’s Poetics but since Averroes never saw a play, or theatre, he doesn’t realise Aristotle is writing about performance rather than literature, even with close likenesses with children play-acting and a traveller’s description of a play close by. The narrator then notes his version of Averroes is as doomed as Averroes efforts to understand Greek drama, because he too is relying on second-hand, translated sources.
My conclusion in all of this is the feeling I was left with: I feel as far removed from my former MOOC colleagues as Averroes from Aristotle, or Borges from Averroes.
Then I consider if these insights could be applicable to reader expectations? Should my characters chart courses and set their intentions with goodness in mind? Would that get my stories published? Is my thinking and writing suffering from my own specific and rigid ideas? How can I tell? Is it the fact I write and send things out and there is rejection piled upon rejection, for years? Even if a story is ‘elegantly written’ it’s still not accepted. So in this story, I’m not the writer certain of her poetics. I’m not Aristotle advocating for catharsis. I’m not Borges, imagining the past, but I am Borges’ Averroes, a faded facsimile of a real writer, working but unaware of reader wants, but guessing and failing nonetheless, because I don’t know what else to do.
Then I reread Borges’ story and hope my opinion of my writing and this life is wrong, because to be free of an erroneous opinion…one must at some time have professed it.
To misquote Borges:
I felt, on the last page, that my story was a symbol of the person I had been as I was writing it, and that in order to write that story I had to be that person, and that in order to be that person I had to write that story, and so on, ad infinitum…and just when I stop believing in her, I disappeared…