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.”