Weekly Writing Roundup (End of July 2022)

I have spent FAR too much time this week reading AITA and BestofRedditorUpdate posts.

The funniest/light heartediest is by far (whoa whole thing cut and pasted – bonus points for the ‘can’t waits’ at the end)

Speaking of awesome – Sandman is out this week, I’ve been waiting for this for what seems ‘Endless’ (get it?). Although with a definite sense of anxiety. I’ve actually become very open minded with adaptions lately (I even watched a few episodes of The Watch without barfing) but I feel like Gaiman’s Sandman does not deserve a bad TV show, and being somewhat more niche I don’t think its going to get 20 reboots every decade.

Anyways point is – from the trailer the show looks absolutely killer, and I’m excited. I will of course review on here so if you’re not interested this is fair warning.

On that note – what you do you think is worse, a bad adaptation OR a good series going bad?

In more writerly focussed resources I found Alyssa Matestic’s channel, above you can see a review of the Querying Trench right now. To be honest I haven’t thought about querying for years or really tried too hard to keep tabs on publishing as my main focus is having some material worth publishing before I worry about how to go about it.

It’s kinda funny, I don’t know if other writers have gone through the same experience, but when I first started writing novels in the dark nostalgic ages of the late 00s I of course believed that my first manuscript was going to sell and be the best and most especially lead me to not needing to work fulltime anymore. So I had been all over Query Shark and other such sites and learnt quite a bit about query letters. Absolutely still useful information to have stored away but not something I’ve been too worried about most of the time.

Speaking of, feels like #pitchmad literally came and went without me ever actually taking a crack at the slightly alternative pathway to traditional publishing. Hmmm wonder what’s next PitchTok? (sounds potentially problematic)

Once again we have an r/writing poster who wants to write but doesn’t like reading, post kinda blew up a bit though. Funnily what was a bit different about this OP is they genuinely liked writing and simply also genuinely didn’t enjoy reading, they were perfectly open to studying texts and learning they just didn’t have a general enjoyment. This is a bit different to the stunted individuals who want to know how to git gud at writing without having to read.

Over to r/books an interesting thread on books at people enjoyed at first but came to loathe later on. I have to confess I haven’t really had this experience with books so much, but it’s definitely something I get with movies quite often. My goto example is the Original Suicide Squad movie, at the time I enjoyed watching the movie and thought it had some pretty funny gags “ya ruining date-night bats”. It was only every-single-time I gave the movie even an once of reflection I’d be like ‘wait a minute the whole purpose of the squad was senseless’ ‘what did croc actually contribute under-water’ ‘Why is Harley Quinn so pro-child murder?”

Quest for Glory Book

So in case you’re not aware of my nostalgia tripping for Sierra games and most especially Quest For Glory, something amazing is brewing in this area where the Coles and helpers are putting together a book about the original games and will be looking at crowdfunding publication.

It’s pretty high on my list of things to look forward to 😀

Review: Piranesi

How many times can I misspell a book title within one review?

First up, I luuuurve Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but I will say Paranesi is quite a different work. First obvious thing is Paranesi is quite a bit shorter, and reads closer to a novella or short story than a tome.

Explaining the story for a review is a little difficult! We follow Paranesi, a foggy narrator living in a mysterious world of birds, statues and ever changing tides. As the story progresses we gradually learn more about the world, and eventually start to get hints about the ‘real world’ and what is really going on.

I confess at first I worried the story might be too complex or subtle for me, as there are many mystery messages and interesting allusions, but even though the book begins with a lot of questions and still has some intrigue by the end, its not a chore to follow.

Paranesi is definitely an acquired taste, I actually thought the closest influence was HP Lovecraft, the book is highly original and recommended for those who want something a bit different.

SPOILER FILLED ANALYSIS

While shrouded for much of the book it’s later revealed that Piranesi is a journalist/writer who had been investigating a small group of occultists who believed they could travel between worlds. In part of his investigation ‘Piranesi’ is tricked into entering this other world full of statues and is gaslit and manipulated by ‘the other’ to basically run errands in this other place.

By the end of the tale Piranesi doesn’t fully recover his old persona and doesn’t fully want to leave the Other World. It’s never quite explained what that other world is, however its revealed that the statues are all of real people, suggesting the world was perhaps a collective subconscious, shared dream, or oddly when I first started reading the book I thought it might be the very beginning or very end of the universe.

I haven’t Googled the deeper meanings or rather when I did I saw a lot of metaphoric analysis which is going to be awesome to enjoy. I won’t try and summarize it all here as I feel its a bit beyond me – but indeed, very much enjoyed.

Review: Shadow and Bone

I’m probably either 10 years too late for this review, or 1-2 years if latching onto the Netflix release

So first off this is going to sound like one of those weirdly negative reviews where people might be like ‘did you actually like this book’ – hopefully I can explain.

I’ve been aware of Shadow and Bone for a while but didn’t feel the need to read, until a friend recommended. I was pleasantly surprised.

Overall the tale is fairly cliche and tropey BUT I feel this was done well. Generally what I noticed is whenever something a bit tropey came up the pacing of the novel was quick enough that I never felt bogged down in it.

To explain the trope accusation, we have orphans the MC is a surprise chosen one who goes from rags to ‘riches’ love triangles, hard to access power which (why is this such a trope) seems to basically be a generalizes glowy power.

Also this might just be my person nitpick but some of the world-building was really just relegated to tweaked spellings and odd names for things – the most egregious example being referring to a “Kaptain” in dialogue and then literally referring to Captain in the narration. I’m not sure if it was a typo or just kinda lazy writing to make it seem like a ‘world.’

Anyway as I said it probably sounds like I’m being super negative, the story is actually exciting, intriguing, and the magic stuff was a tonne of fun. I wouldn’t necessarily pick this book up if you wanted something mind blowingly new or different, but if you just wanted a solid fantasy adventure then this is the book.

Weekly Writing Round-up (July 2022)

Funny how quickly a weekly commitment comes around

How’s everyone’s side hustles going?
https://www.reddit.com/r/books/comments/w4d7ud/anyone_feel_like_death_of_the_author_has_become/

I didn’t have much to add to this commentary – just that the title made me laugh a lot. I have Posted on the topic before, but the short version is that I do think works can take on a life of their own, but author’s perspective is an interesting and valid interpretation to consider. After all you don’t want to end up being someone who misunderstands Rage Against the Machine:

Link

This quietly understated issue – while I’ve often said that not all plot holes are created equal there is an ironic truth to the fact that mo’ story you get done the mo’ problems or potential problems arise. It’s usually more of an editing problem (which for me means a never actually fix problem).

Just a timely reminder to anyone reading this that there are any number of writerly scams out there. “Publishers” that defer all costs to the author OR ask authors for payments are one of them. Unfortunately its probably quite a lucrative market, in that there are many young (in age and author years) folk out there who may not have simply heard of the scam and/or many an author just excited to get a bite from a publisher and figure that putting their own cash forward is just a worthwhile.

For anyone wondering how the scam works – basically in genuine traditional publishing a Publisher will purchase your book, and cover all costs of distributing the thing in the hopes of making some money off of your work. The publisher may do more or less of each element depending on what kind of deal etc and the most they’ll expect of the author is to do some promoting (of your own work mind) which is totally reasonable.

Self-publishing is basically taking on all costs and work yourself.

Scam Publishing, often called “Vanity Publishing” and in the case above “Author-Invested” basically tricks authors into thinking that the publisher will do all the things of a typical publisher but basically charge the author for them. What they really do is just provide a service to do the mechanical part of printing and binding your book, and usually just dump however many you paid for on the author. This is why they’re called “Vanity” because you can legitimately use them if you literally just want some physical copies of your book and you can wave them at friends (that said I’m not sure I’d trust them even do to that).

The real trick though is making it seem like traditional publishes, only provides costs for editors and printing presses, etc. When in fact the real merit of traditional publishes is distribution, an ongoing royalties relationship and invaluable contacts. Even if you thought it was worth paying various costs yourself to get a book in hand, you almost definitely could just look at those services yourself for less cost and probably less head and heartache.

It’s a bit like fraud education courses that just assign reading material from legit courses. You might be fooled into thinking they are helping by directing you to said sources, but the cost of using them is way higher than just putting some effort into finding those sources yourself.

What is the piece of writing advice that has helped you most, personally?

Not going to lie – don’t have any comments for this – just one of those generally helpful threads – more focussed on good writing habits (which I probably do need to pay attention to).

Turning to a Fantasy Specific Post:

Link

This is such an interesting topic – a lot of people worry about specific rules, when really the challenge is understanding your own work and how it all fits together. For example, in Lord of the Rings there is a lot of exposition about the One Ring, and the odd explanation about magic, and this very much fits with the style of the book(s). Other stories have slow discovery phases, and as the OP mentions they want to just explain briefly how things work.

All of these things can work, but basically you just don’t want to clash, a fast paced exciting action heavy fantasy story is probably not going to do well with Gandalf taking up half a chapter explaining the history of Middle-Earth, but that might be the perfect story to have some sort of short exposition.

My thoughts are to always keep the interaction of character and reader in mind, you don’t want to upset either and what will keep the story running as planned.

Finally something Deep and Meaningful

To be honest as a psychologist and writer I’d probably say “ackshully neither really”

Its an interesting post – writers are kinda tasked with revealing something significant about human nature, but to their advantage they don’t have any lousy restrictions like ethics, peer-review, or scientific consensus to deal with. And there is a kind of survivor bias with literature – in the sense that if books get human nature wrong no-one will probably mind if they pen a great story nonetheless and/or if what the book is saying is liked by people as deep and meaningful.

Whereas psychologists don’t necessarily have a deep understanding of human nature, what we have is a scientific perspective, which is really only as deep as the evidence allows, while the stereotype is a (coke-fused) grey-haired shaman sitting next to a couch who knows all about what it means to be human, the reality is more like a person who knows this and that and usually more about what isn’t legit in psychology.

Anyway my practise of drawing clients with my psychology registration but just reading them my own writing has not taken off so I guess the discussion continues.

That is the week that was – take care team and link me into any great sources for next round-up!

Weekly Writing Round-up

This week NZ has been cold AF – but hope people everywhere around the world are taking care:

I assume they mean of the book

Fairly quiet this week, but a few topics of interest:

LINK

The above post about evil authors. I think I’ve discussed this on the blog before but its always a topic worth updating. Generally speaking I don’t research authors much, and most of the time I’m probably going to be oblivious to personal controversy. If I do become aware of something for me the main judgement is just how bad is it – would addressing it in a review suffice or am I literally supporting a Nazi if I buy the book?

The linked post is more about support through purchase but the other common question is whether is OK to simply like or enjoy a book from an evil author. My stance on this is that artwork can be separated from artist. Probably the worst offender in my liked works is I LOVE HP Lovecraft’s works but MY GOSH the man was despicably racist.

Aren’t Writers Group a Contradiction

This is a familiar topic and one that I always feel the need to comment on. OP asks aren’t writer’s groups going to be a hot-bed of plagiarism??

To be fair I think in 2022 where online writing is much more prolific and Fanfiction (IMHO) has grown from a cringey niche to a valid and widely enjoyed genre, the internet is a risky place for copying especially in freely posted and shared forums. The most embarrassing scenario (wish I saved the link) was a poster saying they’d been outright plagiarized and it looked like they even had proof…

Until it became apparent they’d posted their word on Wattpad and well within Terms of Service another website had posted their work fully accredited to the original author.

Back to the original post, typically people are going to groups to get their ego’s stroked for their own ideas not steal others, and I think most writers at this point know that ideas are not the valuable part of stories, nonetheless the fear persists.

Does Flowery Prose Make Better Writing

Last one from Reddit, always asking the real questions. Flowery Prose is a funny one because most advice givers will suggest not to go there, but this is usually in the interests of getting a newbie author’s book over the line with an agent and publisher and erring on the side of plain-speak prose.

Flowery prose is I guess also inherently more risky in the same way elaborate gymnastic routines are – there is the potential for more points, but also more points to mess up.

Fight Scene Tropes

Over on youtube we have Jenna Moreci with a really funny takedown of Fight Scene Tropes. Jenna is a published author with a tonne of writing resources which are both hilarious and educative. I totally agreed with #1 which (spoiler alert) is Heroes deciding that not killing the villain is ‘good’ – just don’t worry about the 6,000 henchmen who where slaughtered on the way. It’s about the Journey.

This Letter from Tolkien on LitHub

Turns out we’ve been saying his name wrong its Toll-Kien. But also of interest talking about inspirations for Middle-Earth and his quote “there is no invention in the void”

Apparently Medium is ‘Over’

I don’t really keep up enough to have much of an opinion, I usually read the odd article on Medium and apparently its various changes over the years have kept professional content creators up a night. To be Honest its a shame to see the internet continue its trend towards the ‘Big’ Social Medias but I’m not really sure what is/could be done.

That’s my round up for this week.

Any topics you want me to blog about?

Any book/movie/show/doco recommendations?

Kia Ora

Review: The Grapes of Wrath

Possible as far from Ayn Rand as I could get

So continuing my trend towards classics my next victim was The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck.

Set in the US during the Great Depression Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family as they leave the farm that’s just been pulled from under them, and try to find work in California.

There’s an interesting narrative twist to this book which I haven’t really seen before, each chapter has a kind of interlude where Steinbeck riffs on the state of the country and general happenings without focussing on any main characters. I actually sometimes enjoyed these poetic and powerful interludes more than the MC’s story! This style created a strong sense of what was happening broadly while also creating an impeding sense of dread – in many respects the ‘Villain’ of this story is poverty and politics and misfortune.

As to the characters story its very much a challenging tale about the trials of sudden poverty, culture shock from travelling between state lines and the quickly changing pace of the world during this pivotal. Characters don’t so much go through arcs but rather represent different ways the situation effects them.

The prose is painfully detailed, but which I mean its not bad – but Steinbeck’s writing creates a vivid impression of what is happening, and while the pacing is slow because of it I always felt like I was ‘in’ this story.

One caution for this book is that not having a traditional structure don’t expect a happy or unhappy ending, as a story it very much ‘is what it is’

While I don’t want to “spoil” (A 50+ year old book) the very ending is quite, um, different. I haven’t Googled what it means but if you are keen for something a little different then Grapes of Wrath’s final words are that!

SPOILERS (I’ve Googled it now)

For those wondering what I’m talking about in the final sequence the Joad family are in a desperate situation trying to support a birth all while their makeshift camp is flooding. The baby is born stillbirth, and the family decide to flee the flood. They made their way to an empty barn in a random field, and find an old man and his son. The old man is borderline dead from starvation, and after the Joad family settled in the recently given birth mother provides some breastmilk for the starving old man.

And the book ends.

While it was very surprising I guess a which research shows its not that hard to interpret. Steinbeck himself said it was the ‘final nail’ in describing how bad the Dustbowl/Depression was. The act represents the extremity of desperation for people during that time.

There is however also a tiny (strange) flair of hope in the action, that people are willing to go so far to help others, bearing in mind the starving man was literally just met moments ago. The story is littered with examples of people in need helping people in need.

Just an aside it’s interesting that the book presents young Tom Joad as the main character, when introduced he’s returning from prison for killing a man in self-defence. A common tension in the story is that being on parole he shouldn’t be crossing state-lines and as the story becomes more tense he finds himself again on the wrong side of the law after assaulting a police officer again in a form of self-defence. We last see Tom as his Ma gives him some food and money as he hides out in the wilderness. We aren’t told the effects of the flood on him, whether he ever gets caught by the police or what.

Really ‘Ma’ the matriarch is the MC of the story, as she pulls together the family and is involved in all the other characters struggles, Tom takes a backseat through most of the story although is ever present as Ma’s favourite. Even though his character’s fate is unknown, his belief system is explicit that he will take up the cause of worker’s rights wherever it takes him.

Phew – heavy read.

On Writing: The Rule of Threes

“Little Rabbit Foo Foo, I’ll give you Three Chances to Change” (Little Rabbit Foo Foo)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Basic_Plots#The_Rule_of_Three

I’ve been thinking about this literary device/trend/trope/rule/archetype since reading Booker’s Seven Basic Plots – because it intrigues me how this is in no way really a ‘rule’ and yet seems to pop up everywhere despite that.

Three is after all:

  • The most unstable, stable shape (I honestly can’t work out how to explain this, you’ll probably either get what I mean or just move on from my crazy ramblings)
  • The number required for a LURVE triangle
  • Minimum number of things needed to form a pattern
  • Number of statements needed to form an argument
  • Not necessarily the only, but a very easy number to instantly count, and maintain in our short term memory
  • A very tidy number to use for plot-points, the literal goldilocks of numbers

Rather than get too deep into any form of archetypal metaspiritual stuff, I thought I would just expand on some of the above points:

Stability and Instability

OK so what I meant by this point is that three makes an ideal number of moving parts to create stability and instability in your story. For example, three countries at peace/war creates an ideal setup where several different dynamic scenarios can be played out, all 3 at war, 2 allied against 1, shifting alliances, tenuous peace between all. It’s not so much that you couldn’t have more countries and indeed many stories do have more factions in a conflict, its just that 3 countries is very dynamic balance. 2 v 2 is kinda boring and evenly matched, and so on.

That’s a very specific example, you can also have dynamics between characters (see next point) different institutions, different goals of the character (think of an MC having to balance family, work, and war).

The main point which is very hard to explain because its very intuitive, is that the dynamics of three moving parts has the potential of stability, but is prone towards instability all while being not overwhelming the working memory.

Love Triangles

There probably isn’t too much to say here, I know some people find this trope cliché to the point of cringe, but the reality is the Rule of Threes very much backs up love triangles. Similar to the above thesis a love triangle works as a story trope because it defies easy resolution. I’ve read a couple of stories with other love shapes (gross) and unfortunately it tends to suck (grosser) the tension out of the situation because there is always a sense that things are going to work out.

Just a quick side note I’m not saying that stories where everyone gets matched up is bad, its just when a love triangle is a main plot tension, easy matching up is boring.

Patterns

This is an interesting one – scientifically a little dubious (need more data) the human brain is quite happy to see patterns and generally three data points is all that is needed. By pattern I meant things like: the protagonist is a jerk, or the villain is strongest in the land, or the love interest actually doesn’t like the MC whatsoever. Booker, in Seven Basic Plots, points out that in this use of ‘threes’ its actually a ‘four’ situation except the ‘fourth’ is the resolution to some story tension.

Now this isn’t saying that you need to do something three times to establish a plot point, rather its saying that three is a good number to use to establish your elements. whether its how many times the MC asks the love-interest out, attempts to defeat the Dark Lord, whatever.

Arguments?

Probably in terms of stories we’re talking about typical Three Act structures. Not much to say on this one just that sometimes stories can be broken down into premises such as: IF this (character), AND this (faces this tension), THEN this (resolution).

Three and only Three?

Really important that the ‘Rule’ of Threes really is not a rule at all, but more a very interesting literally quirk that probably has as much to do with our psychology of absorbing stories than a strong writing argument. Nonetheless I think its a really useful thing to consider especially when outlining and planning a story.

Weekly Writing Roundup

Thought I’d try something a bit different from my OTHER posts today

Just sort of a round up and few thoughts of various writing related posts I’d absorbed over the week:

This quote on r/lotrmemes https://www.reddit.com/r/lotrmemes/comments/vtgmyx/ironic/if772zt/?context=3 taken from Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories

“However good in themselves, illustrations do little good to fairy-stories. The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that it imposes one visible form. Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. Should the story say “he ate bread,” the dramatic producer or painter can only show ”a piece of bread” according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own. If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.”

What I love about this quote is it captures a key difference between visual and written mediums. Basically the idea is that in writing you spark the imagination of the reader by prompting them with some element of the thing you’re describing, whereas say on television you are showing exactly what is happening on screen.

While the gist of the comments is about how this impacts people’s impressions of TV adaptations, the thought that popped into my head is that writers have a lot of variability on how they present descriptions and actions. As in do you try to capture a general sense of something and let the reader fill in the gaps, OR do you dive deep into description and leave less specifics to the imagination? I’ve noticed that the style of description is a key difference between different works.

This Post on r/writing :It truly bothers me to see aspiring writers try to write without having read anything in their entire lifes

This is such a common online question/post, people who are either curious about how to ‘git gud’ at writing without reading, whether they can still expect to be a published author while not reading, or just how much reading they might have to suck up to pass.

Understandably its quite frustrating for most writers who as a group usually read a lot but I do just have to laugh sometimes. It’s kinda hard to think of any vocation or hobby that doesn’t need you to consume the medium as well as try to create. Directors not watching movies, musicians not listening to music, artists not looking at other works.

Other than just naivety, I cynically suspect that most people asking this question actually see writing as an easier or more accessible pathway to blockbuster TV show or movie franchise fame. They know of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, or perhaps are a fan of a cult Anime, but don’t think they are able to directly create TV content and think that writing some amazing books will be their path.

Other r/writing Posts of Interest: I kind of regret self-publishing my first novel

This is another interesting problem for self-published writers. I think the comments get a little distracted by the authors potentially dumb views, but more importantly its often recommended to be careful with self-publishing without adequate care, as you can sink your publishing reputation rather than boosting it.

In this case its not that the book was a disaster, it simply didn’t sell well or go anywhere (and the author was a bit worried that his political comments might put people off). On the surface poor sales might not seem a big deal, after all don’t many authors build up an audience? The issue in this case is that if you want to pursue traditional publishing a poorly selling book under doesn’t just look bad, its that the publisher might not want to back you knowing that your previously published works might be lumped into their efforts too.

It’s not so much that the agent or publisher is worried they’re going to get pulled through the muck exactly, its more just a poor look for them right from the get-go.

A well-sold or even niche or cult popularity book is a bonus that a publisher might even consider getting 2nd rights for – but something average or poor.

As a strange side note the original poster also seemed very attached to their own name, and didn’t want to consider a pen name in case they didn’t leave a legacy or something? Possibly a poor misconception, I think ultra-fans usually find out an authors real name, I don’t think there is much risk to being unknown and successful.

An Excellent Blog from Jane Friedman’s Website: 7 Questions to Design a Better Arc of Change for Your Protagonist

I confess I only read the section-titles! But I love this approach to character creation – asking guiding questions rather than a novel structure. Something I’m still working on is shaping my characters with some sort of pre-existing problem that is resolved by the story, I have a tendency to just think up some random person/alien/insect/robot that gets dumped into a story.

Finally a Trolley Problem: https://neal.fun/absurd-trolley-problems/

Those following this blog for a while have probably seen me go on about this stuff before. I love my moral quandaries, and the linked sequence does not disappoint – let me know what your decision on the clone one was…

Anyway that’s the week that was: Let me know was this a useful way to blog, do you want more content, less, give up blogging entirely?

Travelling back to 1984

“In moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy, but always against ones body.”

So as a bit of a cleanse from Atlas Shrugged I had a reread of 1984 (my birthyear coincidence or….). I haven’t read Orwell’s work since high school and it was actually pretty interesting to absorb the book as an adult and in such turbulent political times.

Summary

For such an intriguing and high impact book the plot is actually fairly simple:

Part One introduces us to Winston Smith, a relatively insightful but benign, presumably middle aged, man who explains the basic premise of the world: the telescreen monitoring, the various Ministries, how The Party manages language and history. Most importantly the existence of “thoughtcrime” and how everyone is at relentless risk of being detained by the ‘thoughtpolice.’ The main event of Part One is Winston deciding to start writing a diary – a major thoughtcrime in this world.

Part Two begins when a young woman that Winston originally thought was thoughtpolice, slips Winston a note stating that she “loves him.” Part Two largely details the pairs affair and efforts to evade detection as, you guessed it, affairs are not acceptable either. Part Two escalates up to an apparent reaching out from ‘O’Brien’ who Winston believes is a member of The Brotherhood a resistance group. However this positive change does not last long as both Winston and Julia are abruptly captured by the thoughtpolice.

Part Three, deals with the harrowing process of The Ministry of Love. Where we are effectively shown The Party’s method for breaking down a person and turning them into the ideal Citizen. We witness both the physical and psychological torture of Winston until he becomes a completely loyal and loving citizen of Big Brother.

Impact

I don’t really intend to capture all the impact this story has had, mostly because its sooo broad that it could possibly fill an entire book. Published in the era following WWII 1984 was largely seen as an anti-communist work, however has continued to be applied to many different political situations, sometimes used as a cautionary tale, sometimes used as a political insult/tool against various beliefs. I’m not sure if its always been a high-school fixture, but it seems to me like this book has and will be studied in school forever.

While typically the focus is on the political system and ramifications of Big Brother and The Party, there is also considerable depth in the book examining the impact of the system on individuals and also IMO the metaphoric links between The Party ideology and individual traits.

For this post I mostly wanted to discuss somewhat random bits and pieces of 1984 that stood out to me, and piqued my interest as I re-read it.

The Character of Winston Smith

When I first read 1984 I sort of interpreted Winston as a sort of ineffectual everyman, a somewhat perceptive but not particularly outstanding MC, really just someone to show us the world.

But on rereading I sensed something a little ‘off’ about Winston, while at a lot of his criticism of others could be seen as his general frustration at their acceptance of the world as it is, there is an air of arrogance about Winston. He often derides others intelligence, and he dehumanizes his workmates saying they look like bugs etc. He also recounts a strange story about his early years. Its very ambiguous but he tells a story about how he straight up steals chocolate from his baby sister, a baby sister that he realizes is starving.

Even though Winston is anti the dystopian world he is part of, and longs to be part of The Brotherhood that rebels against The Party he also takes pride in his work in the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites newspaper articles to fit with The Party’s desires.

I’m not sure if this is a bit of a stretch but I think part of the ‘lesson’ of 1984 isn’t just about the horrors of the controlling state, but also a character critique of Winston. Despite his ire about The Party he does ultimately fall to loving Big Brother. An initial brush might interpret this as simply being a statement that ultimately any individual will fall to horrible torture, however I wondered if part of the story is that Winston’s pride and judgement, his foolishness in running head-first into what he thinks is a legit rebellion. I think part of what Orwell is saying is that Winston is the ideal candidate for making Authoritarian Dictatorships thrive – sensible, but also cruel and judgemental, and at risk of selfish foolishness.

Unreliable Narration

Except not in the way usually presented. Something infinitely confusing is that we know that The Party rewrites history, and despite the story being called 1984 Winston realizes he doesn’t even know for sure it is 1984. As well as being a shocking example of the control of information The Party its also an statement of how even the whole book could be a piece of Party propaganda, the entire book meant to shock and terrify citizens into not defying the party.

More so than that something even more confusing to me is ‘the book.’ When Winston talks to O’Brien and believes himself to finally be joining The Brotherhood he is delivered ‘the book’ which explains the operation of The Party in a surprisingly detailed description of using War as an excuse to deprive citizens of resources, and the fact that the three mega-nations keep switching sides is that there is barely any unclaimed land left, and essentially a small part of Asia just keeps getting switched between the nations. The part of all of this that is confusing is that ‘the book’ is a work delivered by The Party to would-be rebels and one has no way to ascertain whether any of it is true or again more propaganda.

For my part I think that the whole thing is just more propaganda and at the time of the story the entire world is conquered by The Party or at least is an empire so wide-spread there is no actual war. On that note:

The War and Information

I never quite clicked when first reading that the whole control of information thing of The Party isn’t to deceive citizens into supporting and mythologizing The Party and Big Brother – its essentially to disorientate and power-play citizens, almost daring them to defy The Party. It always confused me that Winston seemed to be well aware of all the manipulations of the Ministry of Truth and everyone else seemed aware of it too.

This is most glaring in a sequence during ‘Hate Week’ when the nations at war literally changed in the middle of a speech – and not in a ‘a new announcement everyone we are now at war with Oceania’ the orator literally starts mumbling and then just changes to whichever nation they are at War with. Point being is the deception is almost absurdist, its not ‘cover ups’ or misinformation so much as destruction of information. This is reflected in the overall plan for ‘Newspeak’ which is effectively to destroy language to destroy individual thought.

In a similar vein, 1984 is often described as an ultra-controlling rule based society, but strangely there are almost no rules, simply ‘crimes’ (thoughtcrime is the most commonly cited, but also facecrime where you literally don’t have the right expression on your face) in fact the idea is not so much that there are endless rules, rather that The Party can accuse you of anything unorthodox, there is even a part where O’Brien criticizes Winston for using a couple of ‘Oldspeak’ words in an article rewrite, even though the dictionary that would have told Winston that wasn’t even published yet. It’s an intriguing paradox but actually common in authoritarian practices because obviously the idea isn’t to follow the ‘rules’ its to follow the ‘leader’ who can do whatever they like.

Who is this book criticizing anyway?

As a political insult being considered like 1984 is generally pretty bad. Funnily enough its typically been used as a criticism of leftist ideology either through being linked to Communist Regimes or (apologies for the rant) a very common attempt to link political correctness with thoughtcrime.

If you’re unfamiliar with this particularly annoying argument (it is a little old-fashioned now) but because a common progressive cause has been to remove offensive terminology, usually from various groups of people and use more acceptable terms, opponents often try to smear this by suggesting its thought control akin to 1984.

I would just like to take this chance to rebut this by pointing out that the purpose of inclusive language isn’t to manipulate thought (although bigots would feel this way because of their prejudiced thinking) but to remove harmful and disgraceful use of language. For example referring to indigenous peoples by the terms they identify with and not the labels that, usually colonists, gave them, is not an attempt to manipulate people’s thinking but to reduce the evidence based harm that labels cause (e.g. ‘othering’ people, promoting stereotypes, being used as slurs)

Back on track though – 1984 does have some heavy communist themes. The citizens call each other comrade, the lower classes are called ‘Proles’ the former society that is hated on in 1984 are referred to as the ‘capitalists’. That said there other themes and practices from other regimes that I think Orwell was riffing off. For example when mentioning capatalists, the propaganda does sound awfully true of highly classist society, people were stated in being required to tip their hat to the rich.

Also their are elements of 1984 which I think are critical of religious fundamentalism. When being tortured one of the key beliefs demanded of Winston is to believe that 2+2=5, also O’Brien tells Winston that if he wants Winston to believe O’Brien can levitate than O’Brien can. This sort of belief over reality seems almost fanatical religion to me than political.

The origin of The Party, Big Brother and such is also ambiguous, throughout the book Winston refers to invasion, revolution, and also implies that the country drifted into the state its in. ‘The Book’ suggests that Britain was absorbed into the USA either through conquest or necessity which kinda fits with the UK being renamed Airstrip One, but like everything in the book we’re unsure what to believe.

One final point in Orwell’s work is the strange nature of The Party itself. Rather than say Animal Farm where Orwell describes a situation where the ‘Pigs’ basically become ‘Human’ (e.g. that the rebel leaders effectively become the oppressors straight after rebelling against said oppressors) In 1984 The Party almost exists leaderlessly. It’s never fully revealed but the way O’Brien describes it The Party acts almost like a self-sustaining organism rather than political leadership. One almost has the sense that no-one is in charge and everyone just behaves in line with ‘NewSpeak’ and people are disappeared and everything just in line with a deranged natural selection.

There is an odd part in the book which supports this. Despite all the control and fake-news of the system there is an unusual sequence where Winston has to rewrite a prediction that The Party made about an impending invasion. According to Winston the prediction was wrong and thus the rewrite. Now, here’s what’s weird – the war and invasion are all probably fake anyway, so how did The Party make an inaccurate prediction? Either there is a genuine war going on and its unpredictable OR The Party is just a chaotic mass of people just as terrified and deluded about Big Brother as everyone else and its hard to act to keep stories straight – I’ll leave that one for you to decide.

Summing up

So 1984 remained a terrifying read especially in a “post-truth” world. It’s hard to say whether we really edge towards 1984 or some more concerning scenario but its worth studying up on this one. Personally I think that Orwell gathered all his worst nightmares and ideas about totalitarianism to craft 1984, I don’t actually think its a prediction or likely occurrence (but doesn’t mean a worse situation could arise).

Just to stir the plot further I have several questions that were not covered by the book that I would love anyone else to weigh in on:

  • Was Julia ever genuinely in love with Winston or just a trap from the start?
  • Does The Brotherhood even exist?
  • Whats scarier 1984, or Brave New World?

Anyways – would love to hear others thoughts on this classic!