Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Writing and Repression Redux: or, Just Kill James Bond

Huh? James Bond?

Wrong genre, that.

Except that my hunch is that all genre fiction has common roots. Which lie in romance, as it happens -- originating in the fictions of second century Greece, which were highly disrespected, and which were the first extended stories (in the West, anyway) written in prose, which had to prove how disreputable and un-serious they were.

These proto-romances were always about lovers who were separated, abducted by pirates, sold into slavery, reunited at the very last moment. There was a lot of travel: the literary scholar Northrop Frye said that the chief mode of transportation in these early rudimentary romances was shipwreck.

I love this linkage of romance and travel because it also ties so neatly to those medieval quest stories, like the hunt for the Grail, which were also called romances. And because since then we've learned that if you're looking for something outside yourself you just might find it inside.

But the inside-outside quest-and-self-discovery thing is a relatively modern invention. In the Greek proto-romances, on the other hand, the lovers know they love each other from page one, so all the kidnapping, abduction, near-rape (and real rape too) are all just trials of their separation and their honor. My guess is that it isn't until Richardson's Clarissa that we get that hero writhing in his discovery of his own passion.

I've already written about how critical that moment of declaration is both to Pride and Prejudice and a generation of bodice-rippers. And my further guess is that it's that moment of discovery and disclosure that ties together any number of popular fiction genres and makes them cousins of romance.

Including BDSM, btw. I don't know if I've ever mentioned here that the Marquis de Sade was a huge fan of Samuel Richardson's, and thought he was rewriting Clarissa when he was writing Justine. Interesting, no? You can, and should, read more about that in Angela Carter's The Sadean Woman. Not to speak of my own Safe Word (w/a Molly Weatherfield). That I-have-you-in-my-power moment is so much fun to write exactly because as you write it you can feel the ground shifting -- and the fragility, the vulnerability and contingency of erotic power.

Which brings us from Richardson and Sade and Austen back around to James Bond (you did know I'd get there eventually, didn't you?) Well, anyway, to the villains in James Bond, and to an ancient Saturday Night Live skit that I've never forgotten, about a confab of villains -- sort of an evil villain consciousness-raising group, where the villains try to convince each other that the point is just to kill James Bond now, and talk later.

But they never do, do they? Because at the moment of the height of their power over James Bond (which was a naked Daniel Craig in the last one, as I'm sure I don't have to remind anybody), they have to talk. They have to brag. They have to give away everything. Which shows that they're incomplete; they're not so powerful at all.

Which has just enough family resemblance to those beloved writhing-hero-must-declare-his-passion romance scenes to be interesting.

Because who has the power in those scenes? And isn't it always the understanding of one's own incompleteness that blows the solid ground out from under a character? And if it's a romance allows for the possibility of finding completeness in the other.

In SM and in superhero/spy adventure fiction -- I'm going to go way out on a limb and say that in all the genres that are kin of romance -- it's this ambiguity of power that creates the important narrative hinges upon upon which the story turns. In SM sex (which always goes for the narrative element), the popular term for this is "power exchange". And in fact, the panel I'm going to speak on later this week at the Popular Culture Association Conference is going to be called something like Romance and Power Exchange.

But I'm thinking that "power exchange" might not be as good a term as "power slippage" or "power instability" or "power balanced on the fulcrum of its self-expression". Or whatever Colin Firth was acting so well that unfortunately he froze his face into those lines forever. (Be careful what you wish for, actors... or anybody looking for the big score.)

Still, isn't it interesting that the power slips into desire when the hunky object of desire (ie hero or villain) becomes a desiring subject through his (or her) own need to speak?

Which I guess is my question.

Along with: what do you think about any of this?

Or do you think about any of this? (With a wave to the other theory geeks out there)


Janet Mullany said...

Interesting post, as always, Pam.

Remember the bit in one of the Austen Powers movies where Seth Green tried to persuade his father the archvillain just to shoot Austen and not mess around with a complicated scenario involving sharks (which had to be sea bass because sharks were now an endangered species...). "I've got a gun in my room--I can go get it now..."

The way I see it the villain confesses all scene also serves the purpose of providing catharsis to the reader--was I right? Didn't I suspect all along, or at least from chapter five that something wasn't quite right with this character?

And that can serve as a set up to a another buildup, and what I suppose in the hero's journey would be the final test: in Casino Royale where Bond didn't realize the babe had set him up (as they tend to do; he does have a knack for picking the wrong women). So if you wondered why she remained unscathed while he was being tortured (naked! yes!) then you were on the journey, matching wits with the writer, to the next ordeal.

Kate Pearce said...

I completely agree with what you are saying, Pam, I couldn't put it any better-power exchange is definitely where its at.

Janet Mullany said...

it's interesting how reciprocal things become at that point--both submitting themselves to the unknown and with the realization that there is no return.

Pam Rosenthal said...

As to Austen Powers, Jane, well, Mike Myers got his start on SNL...

And oh goody, there's actually a use after all for The Hero's Journey, which I can never keep straight myself. Perhaps because I always think about genre fiction in terms of journeys, which is sort of like having always spoken in prose.

And I'm glad you agree, Kate, about power exchange. Now if I can only be clear about it tomorrow on the panel...

Oh, and about the last James Bond... the business of him picking the wrong woman was made especially poignant, I thought, by M being a woman.

It's funny

Tumperkin said...

What a great post, Pam. And how beautifully expressed. I loved that last sentence about when the 'hunky object of desire' becomes 'the desiring subject'. Lovely that.

I wish I could add something erudite but just find myself agreeing.

It's the 'money shot' of romance, this moment.

Pam Rosenthal said...

Hey, tumperkin, "money shot of romance" rocks. Too bad I just read your post -- too late to use it on the panel, which was today.