Culture and fiction

I’ve been pondering this on the Steampunk side for a few days now, and have started playing compare and contrast with Paganism. What is the relationship between a culture and the fiction about it? The vast majority of fiction featuring Pagans is written by non-pagans and owes more to Buffy the Vampire Slayer than to Gerald Gardner.

Fiction written from within a culture can tend to want to affirm it, highlight its good points, celebrate and promote. This is natural. Whatever cultures we feel kinship with – be they spiritual, social or political, we want to portray in a good light. I’ve been round this one, writing about Paganism. The way we are, the way I want us to be, the way that makes for a good story – they don’t overlap as much as they might. The essence of story, is conflict. In a lovely world where everything is splendid, there aren’t as many tales to tell. Give me corruption and evil deeds, villains to fight, trials to overcome and I can make a more engaging sort of tale. The land of loveliness is not a land of stories. Perfection is an awful lot like stasis.

On the Pagan front, issues like the predators who want to sexually initiate pretty young witches, the swindlers, the power crazed, self important and the downright loopy – a tiny minority, but so laden with plot potential. But if I write about them, will people who read it take that as a representation of the Pagan community as a whole? Would that be responsible? I suspect if we did a count up, I’d turn out to have given more page time to Christian characters than Druids. There’s an odd irony there. But if we don’t write from the inside, the only story representations of Druids, or Pagans are going to be the startling things that show up in paranormal romances.

On the Steampunk side, I’m drawn to all the things I perhaps shouldn’t be. It’s not the splendid innovation and lovely manners that draw me, it’s the places of dysfunction, the historical colonialism, sexism, class prejudice and widespread oppression in many forms. I’m not so much on the inside of Steampunk as a community, which may make it easier to play with the dark stuff, but at the same time, is this what Steampunks want to read? The social culture of Steampunk is inherently celebratory, playful and quite upbeat.  There is an inevitable clash between the culture, and the fiction. Do Pagans want to read about how actual modern Pagan life really is? At a guess, no. I suspect most Pagans would prefer something a tad escapist, whilst wanting something a bit more realistic than Sabrina the teenage witch.

It’s much easier to write stories about a group of people, than for them. Celebrating something in fiction, can make for rather bland, insipid tales. The best way to celebrate is by throwing the good stuff into relief against a backdrop of terrible darkness. Sure, you can have ‘all the nasty people who disagree with us’ as your backdrop of darkness, but that gets tired really quickly and the ‘we’re so lovely and oppressed’ stories can get samey. Black and white tones do not make for a good story. Shades of grey are where it’s at, full of complexity and uncertainty.

I don’t have a clever punch line, or a cunning plan. To be honest, I’m scratching my head over this one. I’ve never read a contemporary fiction that seemed like real life Paganism to me. (Any suggestions?) I dislike fiction written by non-pagans about Pagans, for the greater part. There are a few Pagan authors whose fiction I like, but they aren’t doing contemporary Pagan life. Steampunk, I am getting my toes in the water, trying to see what comes from the inside, and what comes from the outside, what is good, what is liked, how it works.

Is there something about the nature of story that makes it far more comfortable to have them be about some other people, somewhere else, another time? Do we read to escape, or are we looking for reflections?

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

8 responses to “Culture and fiction

  • Alex Jones

    I love your writings. I am of the personal opinion that writing that is close to concrete reality as you can make it has a greater appeal to the public, stories that they can identify with.

  • Graeme K Talboys

    Actual modern pagan life is fairly humdrum and rarely provides the kind of physical and emotional conflict that drives fiction. There are tales that could be told, deriving from genuine real life conflict within the Druid and wider pagan community, but they are probably no more gripping than any other sort of office politics. Where paganism comes up against wider society has been used, but pagans are more often than not portrayed so inaccurately it is laughable. I have been consulted several times by researchers for fictional TV programmes that feature pagans and seen everything I said ignored because that would have destroyed the story (no, really, pagans don’t eat babies). I think those of us who are pagan and who write fiction must simply portray paganism as honestly as possible if and when it is pertinent to the story we are telling.

  • Jason Drew

    I like to read historical fiction, but fiction that is as close to what really could have happened as possible. I tend not to enjoy fantasy so much, perhaps because my head is full of that already.

    As for the pagan’s real world, well, there are some very entertaining and extraordinary characters I’ve met in real life. For pagans and non pagans alike the extraordinary is often found in real paganism. I don’t always need battles and turmoil to be solved by heros in my fiction, I want to be entertained, with beauty, wonder, laughter, cleverness or even stupidity. I want to feel proud or maybe relaxed, adventurous or satisfied. I want to feel like I’m at an extended pagan camp, moot, or conference; I know loads of interesting stuff goes on and is said that I don’t normally get to hear, but I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when it happened.

    I love a good well researched and well written viking fight with all the gory bits. A good example is Bernard Cornwell’s The Warrior Chronicles about a Saxon who was raised by a kind Danish warrior to understand and appreciate Danish warrior ways. Great history fiction teaches history, and it helps people to feel what it must have been like for people who had to fight them, or fight as them; but I also like the kinder things in Bernard’s tales such as his lead characters kindness to horses.

    Richard Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is based in the real life story of people struggling to live in the American midwest of the 1920s moving onto California later in the book, this book contains lots of nasty goings on; but I love the book for the inclusion in every other chapter of a depiction of the natural landscape around doing what it is doing, being what it is being, just getting on with being beautiful nature – passages describing the sounds of the wind and the colours of the desert, the vast skies and descriptions of the non human life just getting on with its own stories with (seemingly) not a care in the world for the human characters woes. These passages are for me the reason I love the book. I’m not sure if the interspersion of human life in every other chapter adds to the appreciation of Nature or gets in the way but it is the passages about the non human that really gives me joy. Is a sandstorm a struggle or maybe an excitement, or is it something extraordinarily peaceful to imagine from an armchair? What of a burning sun or moving sand dunes? To an animist pagan these depictions are, or can be, just as intriguing as human stories if well done.

    Going back to the question of real life paganism:

    How about asking some of the more extraordinary pagans you know what they might like to do if only they had the time to do it – in your book they really could. Change their name if you like or get their permission, but your next book might give them the ideas they’re secretly missing to begin their next series of pagan workshops. Oh dear, what have I started.

  • Erik

    I’ve never read a contemporary fiction that seemed like real life Paganism to me.

    Have you read Rosemary Edghill’s “Bast” mysteries? “Speak Daggers to Her”, “Book of Moons” and “The Bowl of Night”… they’re the closest I’ve seen to what I think you mean by this.

  • Jennifer Tavernier

    Write your truth! I recall many steampunk villions. I don’t see enough real pagan writes (aside from the “Ge, I think it’s like this”‘ from non-pagans, and I do think there is conflict there – (witnessing some of the blog wars that from time to time flare.- I think it’s a very fertile field for delving in… And steampunk druid, go for it! Already one has instant conflict with nature organic vs constructs. I find that field wide open and could be fascinating. I would write what you see – be true, and all will be appreciated! If not, you’ll hear, but Write TRUE for you!

  • LB

    Try the works of Neil Gaiman, especially the “Sandman” or “American Gods”. He creates stories in a world where magic and the Gods are as real as every other aspect. His themes run from fairy tales to the darkest of human behaviour and much else between. While not an official Pagan, he certainly writes with the sensibilities of one.

    Thank you for a lovely blog !

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