myth, Fantasy, film, Video games, Worldbuilding, genre, and the future of interActive media
Dialogues between Henry Jenkins and Lily Alexander
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Click on any PART of the discussion to access conversations. Find below the questions from Henry Jenkins, one of the world's leading media philosophers and the Provost’s Professor at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. His questions are meant for the discussion of the book set Fictional Worlds and the emerging practices of worldbuilding on his internationally popular website henryjenkins.org in April 1-15, 2014. Professor Jenkins envisioned this dialogue as a six-part conversation, titled "Why Do Humans Tell the Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander."
You begin the book with biosemiotics. How does it relate to the art of storytelling?
You open your book with a focus on “the symbolic construction of community.” Explain this concept. What roles do stories play in shaping the life of communities?
Your book discusses genres not simply as narrative formulas or sets of storytelling conventions, but as different ways of structuring societies. Explain. To what degree do you see the genres that are central to today’s popular culture as inheriting a set of beliefs or rituals associated with more classical tales?
You are also reclaiming the concept of “ritual” to discuss our relationship as consumers to the fictions produced by mass media. In what sense is watching television a ritual practice? How do we reconcile this focus on shared cultural rituals with the concerns many raise about the (sometimes covert) motives that shape decision-making within corporate entertainment culture?
Much has been written about “the hero’s journey” as an underlying structure in contemporary storytelling -- one that is explicitly evoked by many working in the industry, from George Lucas’s open acknowledgement of the insights he drew from Joseph Campbell to the use of these concepts in many of the most widely used books on screenwriting. What do you see as the use value of “the hero’s journey” as a tool for authors in structuring contemporary stories? As a means for audiences to interpret and make sense of contemporary stories?
Many of my readers will associate myth-analysis with an approach which is timeless (ahistorical) and universal (not attentive to cultural differences). In what ways do you see your book as responding to these critiques of earlier mythic approaches to understanding contemporary media? What roles do history and cultural specificity play in your approach?
How might a reliance on mythic structures be vital in a world of transmedia stories?
Much recent writing discusses the tensions which occur between the activities of world-building and traditional forms of storytelling. What relationship are you positing between worlds and stories?
Much contemporary writing on world-building emphasizes the act of imagination involved in building worlds from scratch, but your approach would seem to focus on the ways that storytellers rely on a shared vocabulary drawn from their culture’s pasts. Would it be better to think of this process in terms of rebuilding fictional worlds?
Throughout, you draw examples across a range of different media forms, including oral stories, literary texts, films, television shows, and drama, among others. To what degree is the art of storytelling (and its classic functions) indifferent to medium? At what point does the affordances of media enter into your analysis?
A fandom is often described as a community which self-organizes around their shared engagement with a story (or storyworld). What similarities or differences would you draw between contemporary fan communities and the older forms of “symbolic communities” you write about in the book.
In the book, you argue that horror does not actually constitute a genre in the sense you are using the term here. Explain.
You ended the book with some speculations about the future of storytelling, including a discussion of the singularity as an emerging story about the “possible symbolic communities of the future.” 2014 will see the release of several new films and television shows focused on the Singularity. What roles do you think stories written by humans can play in helping us to understand the implications of what some are predicting will be a post-human world?
To sum up, your book’s title signals its focus on “fictional worlds.” How are you defining worlds and what role do fictional worlds play within the book’s argument?
Among the Questions Received from the Readers:
How did you come up with the idea of this book?
A Publisher approached me after one of my talks at MIT, highlighting a need in a "narrative encyclopedia about narrative, in the age of the game." I was offered me a contract to write this book. I did. The blind reviews of the completed manuscript came very supportive. By the time it was accepted for publication and went into production, the Publisher changed owners.
I opted-out and published the book directly with the amazon and an interactive version with the Apple, on iTunes. The manuscript was expanded into four parts-books.
Please explain a connection between fairytale and melodrama.
Both originated as part of the framework we could call the "storytelling of powerlessness," rooted in what anthropologist I.M. Lewis termed "the marginal cults of the oppressed." Over the course of history such ritual storytelling branched and developed in a variety of forms. Politics of course has influenced some of the developments. Read more about this in Fictional Worlds, book one and book four, chapters "The Family Tree of Genres," and "The Extraordinary Ordinary People."
How can we understand what catharsis is since Aristotle wrote so little about it? And even the meaning of what he wrote and what he meant, as well as the translations, are a subject of debate.
Aristotle did not invent catharsis, but a genius that he was, brought attention to this timeless phenomenon, and was the first (Western) thinker who attempted to theorize it. Whatever he said or did not say, and perhaps just implied, should be explored in the context of research on the origin of catharsis as a neurological, psycho-physiological, social and aesthetic phenomenon. I found an anthropological approach to be very enlightening and inspiring: catharsis is part of a symbolic framework we can call a symbolic code of death-rebirth, which has been always embedded in human culture and influenced it in numerous ways. Read more about this in Fictional Worlds, books one, two, three and four. Book one examines catharsis and the symbolic code of death-rebirth in the context of the Hero's Journey and action adventure genres; book two in the context of dramatic arc; book three within the realms of tragedy and mystery; and book four in the contexts of comedy and the stories of the ordinary people, like us, who have learned how to pull ourselves by the bootstraps from any disaster.
Is your book for plotters or pantsters?
I don't believe in pantsters or plotters, in a sense that it is not a writer's "character" or "destiny." There are two powerful techniques, involving tapping into one's subconscious and making conscious artistic choices. Any writer who wants to succeed should learn both, and adjust his/her working style to any combination of the two. One may start with the "flow," relying on intuition, imagination and memory. Perhaps one shouldn't stop until the generous stream of imagery slows down. Then it always helps to leave one's art alone, and step aside, to have a fresh perspective. At some point, this writer must ask himself: "Is my boat ready to sail? Is there balance, structure, and the arc?" Then s/he must look back at what was written, and adjust, move, change, find missing pieces and fill in the voids; even, or especially, when experimenting with classical structures. This is a conscious part of work, a writer's craft. I believe that the writer is the most liberated and empowered when he can move from one mode to another and back, as needed. The knowledge of fundamental laws of art allows to feel secure when sailing off again on a journey into one's subconscious. Such (trained) flexibility gives confidence and allows to work in any mode with ease. Fictional Worlds will inspire the pantster mode, stimulating imagination, with its many stories of journeys, passions and astonishing experiences. Yet, the book has a plenty of tips, lists, techniques and careful examinations of structure and montage, which a craftsman would appreciate, because they can put him in the clear-head "plotter mode" of artistic engineering. The "die-hard" pantsters will really enjoy to learn plotting, while the plotters should take it easy and relax, sometimes just "going with the a flow."
Is your book part of the field of evolutionary narratology?
I am very interested in this emerging field of inquiry, and currently working on a new book as a follow up to Fictional Worlds. However, this subject is very difficult to approach in a methodologically sound manner. It is mostly the area of hypotheses and bold guesses. Nevertheless, I think we shouldn't stop trying. For my research I see the methodological "support systems" in anthropology, but also in the studies of story form and story content. What kinds of recurrent themes emerged, and why? And how did narrative forms, formulas and genres come into being as a framework for the development of society? These are all very interesting subjects. One of the intriguing topics, which helps me to move forward with my research, is the story twists. How did it happen that they are expected, and perceived as an almost immanent trait of good storytelling?
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