I’ve been thinking, ever since listening to Alicia Peaker‘s amazing WORD LAB presentation about studying environmental words in fiction, about the creative writing process and DH. Specifically: the kind of surface reading that constitutes a lot of digital literary studies, and the lack of attention to things that we writers would foreground as very important to our fiction and what’s behind it, and the story we are trying to tell.
I see a lot of work about plot, about identifying percentage of dialogue spoken by gender (or just character count/number of appearances by gender), about sentiment words. In other words, an inordinate amount of attention paid to the language that addresses humans and their feelings and actions within a story, most often within a corpus of novels.
However. As I write, and as I listen to other professional or amateur writers (of which I am in the latter group) talk about writing, what comes up very often is world building. And I just read an article about the question of retelling existing stories. Other than Donald Sturgeon’s and Scott Enderle’s recent work on text reuse (in the premodern Chinese (and see paywalled article too) and Star Wars fanfic contexts respectively), I don’t see much addressing the latter, which is hugely important. Most writing, maybe all writing, does not come from scratch, sui generis out of a writer’s mind. (That’s not to even get into issues of all the rest of the people involved in both published fiction and fanfic communities, if we’re going to talk about Scott’s work for example.) We’re missing the community that surrounds writing and publishing (and fanfic is published online, even if not in a traditional model), and reception, of course. And that’s probably not a criticism that originates with me.
When it comes to the structure of fiction, though, I think we’re alarmingly not paying attention to some of the most important elements for writers, and thus what constitutes what they write. Putting authorial intent aside — for example, trying to understand what is “behind” a novel — this is also on the surface of the novel in that the world is what makes up the environment in which the story is told. Anyone could tell you that interactions with the environment, and the shape of the environment as the infrastructure of what can happen within it, are just as fundamental to a work of fiction as the ostensible “plot” and “characters.” (And, to bring up another element of good writing, there’s the question of whether you can even separate them: these two books on character arcs and crafting emotional fiction come to mind as examples of how writers are told not to consider these things even remotely in isolation.)
And then there is the question of where stories come from in the first place. I’m not just talking about straight-up adaptation, although that’s a project I’d love to somehow make work between Meiji Japanese-language fiction and 19th-century English or French novels, that we may not realize are connected even now. (Many Meiji works are either what we’d now call “plagiarism” of foreign novels, or adaptations that are subtle enough that something like Ozaki Kōyō’s Konjiki yasha was not “discovered” to have been an adaptation until very recently.) How do we understand how writers generate their stories? Where are they taking the elements from that are important to them, that influence them, that they want to retell in some manner? Are there projects I’m not aware of (aside from the two I mentioned) that are going deep not into just straight-up obvious word or phrasing reuse, but … well, structure, device, or element adaptation and reuse?
These absolutely fundamental elements of fiction writing are not, I think, something that’s been ignored in traditional literary criticism (see, for example, the term “intertextuality”) but I don’t feel like they’ve made it into digital literary projects, at least not the most well-known and -discussed projects. But if I am wrong, and there are projects on world building, environmental elements, or intertextuality that I am missing, please let me know in the comments or via email (sendmailto@ this website) so I can check them out!