Genre-specific tropes, authorial intent, review reflections

When I was young and already a booklover, I remember being confounded by how much my teachers seemed to read into the “deeper” meanings of books, finding things that seemed hidden and at times far-fetched (at least to my young and naive reading abilities). I asked my mother, “Did the writers really mean for their books to say all these things or are we just making them up?”

My Mum, who knew everything then, of course, and still may know everything now, told me something to the effect of: “A story speaks to each person in a different way. A good story should speak to many people on many different levels at the same time.”

Don’t you wish you had a Mum like mine? (She had earned a degree to be a literature teacher in Vietnam before Saigon fell and she had to step on a boat and get out of there. Now she does real estate and taxes.) I took this as gospel forever on, but I was thinking of it recently and I realized my Mum didn’t directly answer my original question which had asked “did the writers mean to do it”. Probably because she’s sneaky and was really telling me that authorial intent didn’t matter.

The book is the book. I’m a believer of that. It keeps me wonderfully mute during critique sessions. A story is a conversation between writer and reader of which the writer only gets to hear one side. The reader gets to hear both sides, but not the writer’s response. It’s a lopsided dialogue.

The only time authorial intent matters is, well to the author in her private reflections of whether her thoughts got across to the reader, and while having a round of margaritas and she gets to talking about her books to whoever will listen.

Confession: I do read reviews. I read every single one I can get my hands on to try to catch a glimpse of the other side of that dialogue. I know wiser people than me say not to read reviews as they can mess with your head, but if my head isn’t messed with and stirred around, then I’m not thinking and growing.

I’m not looking to know if I’m good or bad, or if readers liked it or didn’t like it. (Well, on one level I am. I can be self-indulgent and needy. Please tell me you love me. Please?) As someone who has set out trying to infuse Asian wuxia stories into mainstream mass market fiction, I want to know if the execution is succeeding.

When I write, I feel I’m speaking two languages. Not Chinese and English. I don’t speak Chinese. I mean two storytelling languages complete with two different foundations of archetypes, tropes, plots, expectations. In my heart, I don’t just write mainstream historical romances that happen to be set in China and happen to have Chinese characters. That’s not what makes my romances Asian. It’s the treatment of deep culture that makes the stories and characters Asian (I discussed my thoughts in a guest blog about Surface culture vs. Deep culture). And, as a storyteller, it’s the choice of using certain Asian wuxia tropes.

Of course, I do feel there is overlap between these two storytelling and cultural foundations. Otherwise there would be no conversation to be had or stories to be written that could speak to both sides.

But I can never hide behind these explanations. 1) Because authorial intent doesn’t matter unless I’ve talked you into having a margarita with me 2) Because my goal is to speak to a mainstream mass market audience (which of course includes many Asians within it).

The purpose of this lengthy setup and disclaimer was to prepare for doing something authors are “not supposed to do.” I’m going to come suspiciously close to publicly responding to some recent thought provoking reviews of my latest release, The Dragon and the Pearl, such as the ones from Dear Author, Wendy the Super Librarian and Bookaholics book club. My only justification may be that my response won’t actually give any answers. It’s my effort to reflect and organize my thoughts on the storytelling choices I make around culture and tropes that may not be common choices within mass market romance fiction. More importantly, it’s to reflect upon the execution of said choices within my stories.

All of these reviews, some with higher overall grades than others, expressed dissatisfaction with the ending of The Dragon and the Pearl, which was wrapped up with how a specific secondary character, Lao Sou, was handled. Lao Sou is the “trickster” lord of a mysterious assassin clan. At this point, a few wuxia eyes might be lighting up with recognition at this story element. (Not to relegate this trope to only wuxia, my eyes similarly lit up at the portrayal of the crime lord Lazarus in Joanna Bourne’s Spymaster series. There’s a deeply embedded reason I *heart* Joanna Bourne. Aside from the gorgeous prose and vivid characters and mouth-watering descriptions…)

I was recently reading this thoughtful blog post about “The prevalence of US tropes in fiction” by science fiction and fantasy author Aliette de Bodard. Also this lighthearted look at wuxia tropes in Eve Shi’s “The truth according to wuxia“. I do not rail against US or western tropes in mass market fiction because it is what it is and we need a common storytelling language with which to communicate. But this blog did make me think that when you hit against tropes and story expectations, it is in a way like hitting a cultural barrier. Can such barriers be crossed? It is my job to do so as a person who has set out to write wuxia-inspired romances to a mass market audience.

I’d like to concentrate my thoughts on two themes and one trope prevalent in the resolution of The Dragon and the Pearl. The themes are the preservation of harmony, or more specifically in this case social order, and the importance of family to promote harmony. Though these themes are not unique to Asian stories, I believe they are prevalent ones. The one trope is the unexpected master/mentor. The murderous villain with a heart.

Now let me just say upfront (1000 words into this post) that there are two reasons for the ineffectiveness of such themes and tropes. 1) I suck and didn’t execute it successfully 2) Different cultural and storytelling expectations create a barrier. Of the two reasons, I overwhelmingly prefer the first one as an explanation. The reason being that’s the only one I have any control over.

I’m very aware of the WTFery of the endings of Chinese movies where no one wins. I’m using movie examples as they have had better mainstream penetration than wuxia stories and people are more likely to be familiar with them.

Three cases in point:

  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • House of Flying Daggers
  • Hero with Jet Li

I think it’s a mainstream Western expectation that the good guys win and the bad guys should get their comeuppance. This is not a bad thing. I’m a lover of wuxia and Chinese tragic endings and I still had my moments of “WTF!!!” when I watch these movies. The reactions I hear from many of my Caucasian friends was that the movies were awesome and beautiful, but the ending was totally confusing. *egads* My sister still insists the ending of Crouching Tiger was perfectly suited for the character arc whereas I think it was thrown in there to be an oh-so-deep “wuxia ending”. On one hand, I think Chinese culture and storytelling is much more open to mystery. Things should be unknowable as life is unknowable. You ask questions of Buddhists and Taoists about life, the universe, and everything and you get what sounds like more questions.

On the other hand, they’re not being confusing just for the sake of it. There are different themes and values at play here. There is no good. There is no evil. There is harmony and disorder. I think this is easiest to see in the resolution of HERO. Jet Li, the hero, has spent the entire movie with the singular purpose of killing one man: a tyrannical warlord who has consumed kingdoms and cultures in bloodthirsty and ruthless wars before declaring himself emperor. But at the end, Jet Li realizes this man’s vision was to unite the empire and create an ideal of “Our Land” where there was none before. It would be a greater wrong to throw the empire into chaos and so Jet Li stands down and sacrifices himself.  (Yeah, total nationalistic Chinese message there too, but my analysis of harmony and social order does hold).

Warlord Li Tao in The Dragon and the Pearl has similar values. His honor system is built around the preservation of order.

The problem with listening to these two storytelling traditions in my head is I can’t help the ones that speak to me when I’m trying to plot. They feel so right. Sometimes they come from the western side and sometimes they come from the Asian side. The character of Lao Sou came from the Asian side. Li Tao has always killed for personal gain (the need for money or food) or for duty. Lao Sou has killed politically for what he believes in — a social order.

Now here comes the part that I realize in retrospect seemed obvious to me, but starts to hit upon a hard cultural barrier. What’s the only thing that could resolve these hardened killers? Why, the need for harmony and family, of course!

Obvious, right? *head desk*

I know we say “Family is very important to Asian culture.” Well, duh. Family is important to every culture.

No, I mean family is very important to Asian culture. Extending your family line. Without it, your spirit languors after death. No one honors you or feeds your ghost. No one remembers you. Without a family you are nothing. I don’t know how to express it because everything I’m saying sounds true of any culture. I can’t tell you this, I can only try to show you. I can try to show you with how hardened warlords and assassins and cynical courtesans all want this more than anything. Enough to reform them.  It’s the only way for them to find internal harmony.

This trope is a favorite in Jin Yong movies. The most evil of masters, who may seem power hungry and self-serving, want nothing more than to adopt a son or worthy pupil. It may seem like they just want to have a “mini Dr. Evil”, but it goes beyond that. In Legend of the Condor Heroes (movie version), evil madwoman Mei Chaofeng takes Yang Kang as a pupil. Though he feels no love for her and is selfishly using her, she sincerely treats him as a surrogate son and defends him. Also, despite her killing spree and thirst for knowledge and power, the one thing she wants more than anything is to be forgiven by her master, who is her surrogate father. In Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, the hero’s foster father, or I suppose godfather might be a closer translation since his parents are alive, is also a murderous, power hungry man. He’s about to kill the hero’s real father when the sound of hero being born stops him. From there, this evil man adopts the hero as his son and eventually that thread of good leads to his redemption.

None of this was meant to be a convincing argument, just to explain the trope of the “evil” or shady mentor with a heart.

So all of this leaves me with the questions that I keep asking myself as an author. Does the ending of The Dragon and the Pearl not work for some readers because I didn’t execute it satisfactorily? Yes. The answer is always yes.

Could cultural expectations and tropes have been a barrier to successful execution? Meaning, was I setting myself for failure with these plot choices long before the execution. Maybe.

The turning of two hardened killers: Li Tao and his shady father figure, Lao Sou, by the quiet need for internal harmony and family rather than by redeeming themselves with a big, heroic display. A neat, satisfying twist or anti-climactic WTFery?

I think my best answer to myself is the same one I came up with to explain my rejection letters. “The writing isn’t good enough…yet.”

Because I think all cultural barriers and tropes aside, it can be done. “Luke…I am your father.”

11 Comments

  1. JohnD
    Oct 08, 2011 @ 02:16:25

    So, in what way is The Dragon and the Pearl related to wuxia? Who is the xia character(s) in the novel? The xia are outside of the social order, which is why Han Feizi listed them as one of the five vermin, along with Confucians, and is the reason why they were only written about in the official histories by Sima Qian and Ban Gu, and then never again after that.

    What you fail to mention in this article is that the characters in wuxia novels are not part of the social order; they’re “others”, so how does your harmony/disorder thing carry over to that? Also, there are many examples of good and bad characters in both Chinese literature and history (Sui Yangdi, Gao Qiu, and Qin Hui are a few examples), so to say that there is no good and there is no evil is just wrong. Who would be sympathetic towards Yan Poxi or Pan Jinlian?

    I also find it odd that you’re using movies to represent literary tropes. You said you did it because readers would be more familiar with those movies (you never actually mentioned House of Flying Daggers aside from including it in the list, though), yet then you point to Legends of the Condor Heroes, which won’t be familiar to most readers, yet still you cite a film adaptation instead of the novel (which is available in English translation, translated by fans, here: http://members.cox.net/foxs/loch.html).

    It’s a shame you didn’t use more examples from literature, because you could have introduced your readers to the wealth of English translations of wuxia novels that are out there.

    For those interested, there is a big list of available works in English translation here: http://www.spcnet.tv/forums/showthread.php?6435-Readme-Forum-Guidelines-and-Translations-Links

  2. Stephanie Draven
    Oct 12, 2011 @ 10:24:30

    Really interesting post. I know nothing about wuxia but I’m fascinated at what you’re trying to do here.

  3. Jeannie Lin
    Oct 13, 2011 @ 07:51:23

    @John – Well, thank you for the suggestions and links. I wasn’t aiming for a grand discussion on my use of the xia archetype in THE DRAGON AND THE PEARL, but the conflict of xia as social outsiders and the Asian ideals of harmony and social order are definitely pithy topics of conversation. As to my use of movies as illustrations, I don’t really see a problem with it as again, I wasn’t aiming to dissect these movies, just state some examples that readers of the blog might recognize. I reference Legend of the Condor Heroes and Heaven Sword, Dragon Sabre (heck, I can even qualify and say the 80s editions), the movie versions, simply because that’s the source of my inspiration.

    I applaud your efforts to make people aware of English translations of wuxia literature. I’m not the authority on wuxia literature and don’t claim to be. Neither do I have a particular agenda for pushing literature over movies or other popular media. I was just, rather self-centeredly as I admitted, talking about specific tropes in my own works and discussing my own personal inspirations. :)

  4. Jeannie Lin
    Oct 13, 2011 @ 07:52:30

    @Stephanie – I told you it would be nerdy, didn’t I? Don’t let the mass market covers fool you…we overthink everything, don’t we?

  5. JaneS
    Oct 14, 2011 @ 21:36:33

    I just finished reading The Dragon and the Pearl and just loved the book. I think that it should be in the top ten romance books of the year. It’s certainly in my top ten. There was a complexity and subtly in the writing that drew me into the characters, their lives and motivations.

    Unlike the reviewers you mentioned, I didn’t have a problem with the ending for the Lao Sou character. I think that some people see life in black and white but the truth is that it is many shades of gray. I think that you should follow your instincts and forge your own path as a writer and author.

  6. Victoria Dixon
    Oct 17, 2011 @ 06:59:23

    What a great discussion of the tropes. This is one big difficulty in blending Western and Asian literary traditions. I THINK I managed to do it by the hero not gaining what he wants, but what his country needs and at the same time suggesting that one event could happen leading to political chaos all over again. LOL
    The truth is, I asked myself what would happen if my mc had done as he promised during the historical events. My story’s conclusion was my answer. Whether or not it works by editorial standards remains to be seen.
    Really enjoyed this post!

  7. Janet Johnson
    Oct 17, 2011 @ 09:21:03

    Fascinating discussion! This is definitely something that’s hard to grasp as a Caucasian reader with all the Western tropes in my head as to what makes a good story.

    And I am currently beating my head against these tropes in real life. Not so fun. How do you express your conflicting views and gain a happy ending for all? Not always possible is what I’m afraid the answer is.

    Anyway, great post!

  8. Jeannie Lin
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 13:14:55

    @JaneS – Thank you Jane! I may have to print out your comment and frame it on my wall.:) Really though, I’m glad you enjoyed the story and I really appreciate you taking the time to stop by and say so.

    @Victoria – The hero not getting what he wants is a tough one. But I think for fantasy, with it’s sometimes grimmer outlook, this may work. However, I don’t think it has to be grim, you know? Have you read EONA? I loved it, but definitely think there was some magic wand waving to make sure the heroine got what she wanted in the end.

  9. Jeannie Lin
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 13:18:55

    @Janet – When you challenge a trope, just be prepared to be challenged yourself. But all tropes should be played with and challenged all the time. They’re more like guidelines really. :)

    I read a quote recently that said something to the effect of when a genre’s conventions are challenged, it strengthens rather than weakens that genre. I don’t remember who said it. Bugger. Someone smarter than me.

  10. Yvonne Osborne
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 21:15:40

    This is a very insightful post to which I must come back to with a wide awake brain.

    I like your ending thought on explaining those rejection letters….”the writing is not good enough. . . yet.”

    The yet is what’s important.

    If memory is correct, I recently wrote something on this very subject. But I’m very tired….

    Beautiful blog.

    I found your site via Victoria Dixon and I’m glad I did. I like the look of your blog and the content.

  11. The Villain - Dear Author
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 05:57:24

    [...] than a stern talking to. Jeannie Lin responded to this (not just my feelings but others) with a really thoughtful commentary on Western v. Eastern philosophies: I’d like to concentrate my thoughts on two themes and one [...]

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