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Seek the Gnarl

Monday, February 16th, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

A rather entertaining comment on the cross-posted version of my last week’s entry takes up the subject of women’s roller derby skating in relation to the woman warrior.

Venturing onto another tributary of the Great River that is the topic of realism, a few years back I heard Rudy Rucker give a pretty interesting GoH talk at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. The talk was called called “Seek the Gnarl,” and the pdf file can be found here. (Wow, his site is blocked by the UAE government! I wonder whether it’s for “offense against religion” or “hacking and malicious codes”…)

Basically, Rucker’s talk was about predictability and lack of it in fiction, and how fiction should strive–in plot, character, setting, and so on–for the complex beauty of chaotic structures like flowing water or tree bark. Those structures are what he calls gnarl. Too much unpredictability and we don’t feel the aesthetic satisfactions of pattern; too much predictability and it’s flat and boring.

A lot of genre readers might take issue with where he puts realism in his various tables–might feel that the problem with a lot of mimetic fiction is that it’s too boring and predictable. (I’d argue RR is talking about realism as a literary technique rather than as a marketing category, and that he means certain specific things by “mimetic realism” not necessarily found in so-called mainstream fiction, but that’s a rather long digression.)

When I heard the talk, I didn’t feel the concept of gnarl was completely adequate to describe the mix of familiarity and surprise possessed by really satisfying fiction. I’ve always liked Kenneth Burke on “the arousal and satisfaction of expectations” in fiction, and what I find interesting about that concept is the way that as readers we can be so completely satisfied by something utterly unexpected. We love surprises and reversals, obstacles appearing at unexpected times or in unexpected ways, a different reality suddenly ghosting into solidity out of what have now been proved to be mere appearances. The maguffin is a fake, the villain is your father, the first-person narrator is the one who dunit. But the satisfaction arises out of the feeling that a pattern, an arc, has been completed–it’s just one we couldn’t at first perceive. We’re outraged by surprise if it we can’t fit it into an aesthetic whole. So the most satisfying “arousal and satisfaction of expectations” comes from complex flows and overlays of pattern–competing patterns that combine in unpredictable ways, or unfold and transform one into another. In other words, we’re back to gnarl.

(The last few paragraphs are taken from an from old and longer LJ post of mine.)

3 Comments »

  1. […] Black Gate has a new blog post by Judith Berman about expectation and satisfaction, which I think is perilously close to my own […]

    Pingback by Short Story Today « Threat Quality Press - February 17, 2009 11:04 am

  2. One of the ways fantasy plays the gnarly game, I think, is the ways the structures of language can operate meaningfully (or with apparent meaning) even with unreal referents: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Trying to decode stuff like that creates a fractal spray of images in the mind. Or maybe this just means I need more sleep rather furiously at the moment.

    Comment by James Enge - February 18, 2009 1:58 am

  3. Some people write late at night because that is when their censor-slash-editor turns off.

    But I think this is right. The brain naturally works through association and connotation as well as through straightforward denotative meaning.

    Comment by Judith Berman - February 23, 2009 1:52 am


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