Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Upstart Crows

More often than not, when a run of narrative seems to have exceeded its use-by date, the culprit is either some aspect of doubt or a close relative of doubt.

In the early stages of narrative, the reader expects characters to be strong, confident.  the new kid on the block, who is set to go up against these strong, confident sorts, isn't so sure.  We know all along not to worry, because some of the conventions of story go back to the times before written language, where story was an oral tradition.  

However long ago those times were, the human condition has not moved far enough away from its early associations with doubt, with the built-in desire of the young to take on their parents and authorities.  Nor has the assumed power of the ruling classes been portrayed as anything less than a benevolent arrogance.

Yet somehow, when we see such clashes of power and testing, we understand and in large measure root for the young, the untried, perhaps even untrained.

Up to this time, you'd been comfortable with the concept of two basic types of story, the coming-of-age or hero's journey story, and the stranger in town.  You'd not given sufficient weight to the generational battle, the young wishing to show they can do with some grace and originality what their elders do as a matter of fact.

In the same way the sense of entitlement and power send signals of arrogance and despicable behavior through us, causing us to root for the young upstarts.  You use the term with intent, recalling the original upstart you rooted for even before you realized you were rooting for him.

Over four hundred years ago, a young Englishman from the countryside went to London with the same intent as many a writer or actor going to New York or Los Angeles.  His goal was to establish himself as a literary poet to the extent where some wealthy noble might endow his career, whereupon he could continue to write the verse that had begun to earn him a name.

You refer, of course, to William Shakespeare, who, in 1592, before his theatrical output began, had caught the attention and scorn of a critic, Robert Greene, who published a pamphlet, "A Groat's Worth of Wit," in which he took on Shakespeare for daring to think he could step out of his class and use tools of poetry and drama beyond his ability to understand them.

"Yes, trust them not,"  Greene wrote of Shakespeare and his actor/playwright friends, because they were not of the in circle who, Greene argued, could write literary verse.  "for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie."

Well, we all know how that battle and many others of its kind ended.  And we know of the dramas, novels, and short stories in which young persons ached to prove their worth.  Even today, we consider ourselves able to discern the talented youths in our midst, applauding them as they make their mark and, if the writer is as good as, say, Zadie Smith, leave their mark on us.  

We reflect upon our own performance when we were the age of the current crop of upstarts, wishing we were some fraction in our own youth of these remarkable upstarts are now.

This, too, is a memorable human trope.  Whatever age now claims us, we doubt we were as accomplished at their age as they are now, and so the generation gap enfolds us, causes us to see ourselves as individuals rather than types.

Doubt does some profound things to us, makes us question at all times our confidence, dares us to focus, to perform, to come forth with the best articulation of our vision possible.

You know individuals who seemed to have no thought to be anything but confident about their abilities.  You also know individuals who overcame severe plagues of doubt in order to forge the necessary confidence that allows them to step forth to tell stories.  These men and women seem to you to be the more grounded, more willing and able to withstand the consequences of risk their talents and discipline impose upon them.

Doubt has been the crucible for the writer, for the character, and, to keep the matter on a personal basis, the reader.  You have often doubted you were "ready" for a wide variety of authors, taking them on well before you felt comfortable doing so, suffering the consequences of a sort of literary bigotry in which, because you did not understand yourself, you did not have a chance of understanding these remarkable upstarts, these William Shakespeares, these George Eliots, Virginia Woolfs, Thomas Hardys, William Faulkners.

Even when you were able to work your way through some of these, thinking you had at least a handle on their importance, you doubted your ability to get full measure from them.  Well and good; you return again, and sometimes again and again.  There is no saying you had to get them all right now, first time through.  That is, there is no such saying in you; your teachers who had to heed curriculum requirements had it as another matter.

Tee hee.  You cannot help wondering how many of them had to go back for seconds or thirds or fourths and fifths.

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