Taking apart mythologies

If we all put our queer shoulders to the wheel

“Are you conscious of directing the reader to think in a certain way when you write?

It’s very tricky because people are different and people have different responses to fiction. But it’s impossible to direct and I think it wouldn’t be a good thing if you could do it. Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. And I think that all fiction should be open-ended. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms. And therefore it’s impossible to quantify what the reaction should be.

(…)

Do you make an effort to write differently when you are bringing male characters into your work?

One of the things that people always say about women writers is that the male characters lack credibility. So when I was a girl I made a conscious effort to make the male characters as credible as I possibly could and to write sometimes in the first person, male. It still didn’t stop people criticising the writing. I suppose I do what I tell writing students: I occasionally get a young man sidling up to me and saying that he was very nervous about writing even the character of a woman, about making female characters, these days, because he thinks that we’re all going to stand around hitting him with our handbags. And I say, this is perfectly correct, ‘yes indeed. This is what will happen to you.’ But what you must do if you want to create a really credible woman is just imagine what you yourself would do in a particular set of circumstances and that’s what she’ll do. Except things like pissing against walls. We tend not to put that in nowadays. One of my students wanted to write about a pregnant woman and I said ‘have you ever felt seasick?’ and he said ‘well, yes’. And I said ‘well, there you go.’ If you start off everyday, except when you were lying down, seasick, you’d start realising what it’s like. Obviously I try and exercise empathy with every person I’m writing about. It’s part of the task to understand things.

(…)

Do you feel that in the current political climate it is important that writers are more overt in their politics?

Yes, I suppose I do. There’s a line in a poem of my youth, a poem by Alan Ginsberg called Howl in which he issues this dreadful warning: ‘America, I am putting my queer shoulder to the wheel’. But that sense of weighty responsibility with which some writers approach this fills me with a kind of wild terror. I don’t think art is as important as all that and I don’t think you can do all that much with fiction. It does seem to me that artists, far from being the unconscious legislators of mankind, tend to be parasitic upon those in productive labour. And therefore we really have a big responsibility to deliver the goods. I mean most people would prefer to be artists than to work for Ford in Dagenham after all. Therefore there is a responsibility to deliver the goods, to cheer people up by suggesting that possibly there is hope. I feel that if we all put our queer shoulders to the wheel together, it may be possible to move it an inch, a quarter of an inch, a centimetre, shake it. But it’s very difficult knowing where to start because a certain kind of bland quietism seems to have taken over the intelligentsia.”

Angela Carter, Interview for Marxism Today’s “Left Alive”


There is something classy about invoking myth

“RC I wanted to ask you about mythology in general and its place in your work. Reviewers and critics frequently stress the presence of mythological and fabulist elements in your fiction. Yet, you have said, “Myths deal in false universals to dull the pain of particular circumstances.” Do you think this critical emphasis is misplaced?

AC Yes, but I understand how it’s happened—there is something classy about invoking myth, it implies you’ve got a college education, people like to spot myths, it makes them feel good. That’s fine. I am interested in the way people make sense, or try to make sense, of their experience and mythology is part of that, after all. I’m a Freudian, in that sense, and some others, too. But I see my business, the nature of my work, as taking apart mythologies, in order to find out what basic, human stuff they are made of in the first place.”

Angela Carter, interviewed by Rosemary Carroll for BOMB Magazine, October 1st, 1986


The fiction of asking “what if?”

“AK: What is your definition of speculative fiction, and do you consider yourself part of such a tradition?

AC: Well, I have had some following in science fiction. I didn’t read a lot of science fiction when I was younger, but there was a whole group of science fiction writers in Britain in the sixties, who really were doing very extraordinary things with the genre. They weren’t writing about bug-eyed monsters and space at all. One of them, J. G. Ballard, coined this phrase, “inner space.” I was quite profoundly affected by them. They are all still working, and Ballard is, I suppose, the most important. Michael Moorcock has written more books than anyone else in the history of the world, two shelves. It seemed to me, after reading these writers a lot, that they were writing about ideas, and that was basically what I was trying to do.

Speculative fiction really means that, the fiction of speculation, the fiction of asking “what if?” It’s a system of continuing inquiry. In a way all fiction starts off with “what if,” but some “what ifs” are more specific. One kind of novel starts off with “What if I found out that my mother has an affair with a man that I thought was my uncle?” That’s presupposing a different kind of novel from the one that starts off with “What if I found out my boyfriend had just changed sex?” If you read the New York Times Book Review a lot, you soon come to the conclusion that our culture takes more seriously the first kind of fiction, which is a shame in some ways. By the second “what if’ you would actually end up asking much more penetrating questions. If you were half way good at writing fiction, you’d end up asking yourself and asking the reader actually much more complicated questions about what we expect from human relationships and what we expect from gender.”

Angela Carter, interviewed by Anna Katsavos, in “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1994, Vol. 14.3


Calculated to give offence

“DP: You were telling me earlier how some of your books, New Eve in particular, had trouble finding a publisher. Don’t you think this is partly because people were simply offended? The more traditional gentleman-publishers might be deeply offended that here is a young woman novelist writing rather what might be in their eyes rather brutal books?

AC: I’m sure that was true of New Eve, actually. Yes – New Eve was in fact calculated to give offence. That’s my feminist novel – though none of my sisters liked the book. But it is my feminist statement. That’s sort of bio-SF, isn’t it? Metabiological…”

Angela Carter, Interview by David Pringle in August 10th, 1979


Tiresias strikes two snakes with a stick, and is transformed into a woman by Hera. Engraving by Johann Ulrich Kraus c. 1690. Taken from Die Verwandlungen des Ovidii (The Metamorphoses of Ovid).

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