Wednesday, September 05, 2007

the totem pole of priorities

One of the notions that the LitCritters reference because of its usefulness is the authorial totem pole of priorities. Most readers and writers use the totem pole unconsciously, but awareness of its existence is quite useful.

The totem pole is simply how elements of a text (in terms of story and discourse and beyond) are prioritized by the author. Like a real totem pole, something must be on top; there is a definite way in which each writer stacks what is important to him or her.

Elements that go on the totem pole include items that the author are concerned about, such as characterization, plot, dialogue, setting, theme, conceit/idea, agenda, structure, language/tone, slant, POV, texture, layering and so on. However, it also includes items that the author is not conscious of (or does not care much about), such as the marginalization of women, for example (in which case, these items, once revealed by analysis, are evidenced very low on the totem pole).

As readers, awareness of our own preferences totem pole-wise, is what guides us toward the kinds of texts and books we like to read or will purchase at bookstores. A reader who prioritizes plot, for instance, will gravitate toward stories that have strong plots; someone who likes world building will actively seek books that are big on setting.

As critics, teasing out the text's totem pole (which we perform on a text-pre-text basis, as discussion of an author's corpus-wide totem pole is a different matter altogether) lets us see if the text was successful in terms of what it set out to do. A story that does not appeal to a given reader might "fail" simply because the reader's totem pole and the text's do not align - this, however, is not reason to condemn the text. In fact, the enlightened critic should take care to read the text closely to understand it. There are many texts that prioritize elements other than character (characterization, to the realists as well as to the LitCritters, is very important - to some, in fact, the story is just a vehicle for the character) - it is simply wrong to turn up our noses at stories that do not prioritize what we think should be on top. By the same token, readers who prefer elements other than character (such as action, plot, didactic discourse, nationalist agenda) should be open to reading texts outside their comfort zone (such as spec fic pieces that are surrealist in nature, or prioritize the elevation of language, or, in the case of some science fiction, valorize the idea). We do not need to love what we do not love, or even like texts we do not like - but read them we must, to experience other ways of telling a story.

As writers, we need to be aware of our own totem pole of priorities. Not so we can adhere to a formula, but so that we can reflect on what is important to us when we write stories - and learn to question just why we have stacked our totem poles in a particular manner.

Many of us just write, without thinking about the totem pole. But this does not mean that there is nothing that is important to us, in terms of discourse, in terms of how we tell a story. This does not mean that we do not prioritize certain elements above others. Recognizing what is personally important to us as writers permits us to do several things: we can write to our strengths; we can work on our weaknesses; we can jumble up the authorial totem pole and try something new to us.

The totem pole is descriptive, not prescriptive. It reflects our writerly sensibilities; it should not dictate how we write. The totem pole can be shifted, altered, restructured and reset with every new piece - unless the author chooses not to, for whatever reason (it could be that the author is perfectly happy with the way things are).

Corpus-wide analysis (in which we look at the exisiting body of work of an author to see if the various stories share similar totem poles) is also interesting; and discrete blocks of stories that adhere to a particular configuration can be seen (which could be interpreted as "periods" in an author's life).

Myself, my top 5 elements on my personal writing totem pole tend to gravitate towards something like this (though I like to think I do shake it up from time to time):

character (yes, character is most important)
language/tone (second is language, how the text reads or sounds)
structure (the framework, how the text is assembled)
plot (the events, if any, in a text that help move the narrative)
conceit (the kernel of an idea)

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