If you’re trying to write a story, you could spend a lot of time studying the fundamentals of storytelling, or you could hide in a remote cabin and let the genius flow through you. At least, that’s what a certain artistic movement from the 19th century would have us believe. This week we’re talking about the Romantics, why they’re so important to speculative fiction as we know it, and why some of their bad ideas continue to hamper new writers even today.
- Lord Byron
- Mary Shelley
- John Polidori
- Edgar Allen Poe
- The Brothers Grimm
- Hans Christian Andersen
- The Princess and the Goblin
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- William Wordsworth
- Erasmus Darwin
- The Enlightenment
- French Neoclassicism
- I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Gloucester Is an Unnecessary Character
Generously transcribed by Space Pineapple. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…
Chris: Now previously, we’ve been dedicated to teaching storytelling principles, but… turns out, we were totally wrong. The best thing you can do to learn storytelling is to lock yourself in some cabin in the woods and just pour your heart out into the page. Then, if you happen to be a natural genius, you’ll write one of the great works. And if not, well, your suffering as you fail to write anything good will be very poetic, so you can take comfort.
Oren: What about if we locked ourselves in a cabin in Geneva, Switzerland, with Lord Byron and a bunch of his weirdos? Would that do the trick? Because that seems to have done a few novels.
Wes: Yeah… And the thing that bothers me about that—I mean, the whole point of that excursion was, hey, let’s all hang out and go write ghost stories and then share them with each other and give feedback. (Laughs) So, great job, you guys. I mean, it was just like a little writing group, but that’s not what we talk about when we talk about freaking romanticism.
Chris: So, if anybody has no idea what we’re talking about here, we’re talking about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which she wrote when she was in a cabin with her husband, and with Lord Byron.
Oren: Were they married yet, at that point? I think Percy Shelley might still have been married to his wife that he ran out on at that point.
Wes: I think so, yeah.
Oren: Yeah, he was not a great guy. Anyway…
Wes: No, he was horrible.
Chris: So, this time, we’re talking about Romanticism with a “big R”, though “small r” romanticism is not an inaccurate way to describe it. Obviously, one thing is named after the other. Romanticism is an art movement, you could say, in Western Europe and also the US, that peaked around 1800 to 1850—that’s when it peaked. It had influence that expanded beyond that time period, but you could say that that is the height of Romanticism. And, just to give you some context for this time period, here’s some works that came out.
Obviously, we talked about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 1818. It’s known as the first work of science fiction, or at least a lot of people call it that. I don’t know definitively what the first work is. Edgar Allen Poe, and the Gothic phase. He lived from 1809 to 1849, so his entire life was at the height of Romanticism. The brothers Grimm collected and published fairytales between 1812 and 1857. And Hans Christian Anderson—now, the brothers Grimm collected oral fairytales, and they did edit them. They didn’t change them, but they collected oral works, whereas Hans Christian Anderson actually wrote his fairytales. They’re original works by him, and he published most of those in the 1830s.
And then, shortly after that height, or at least near the Romantic period, or still kind of within Romanticism, is Alice in Wonderland, in 1865. And then The Princess and the Goblin, which is often considered the first work of modern fantasy, was in 1872. So, speculative fiction really got going in this period.
Oren: That’s also the period when Polidori wrote “The Vampyre.”
Wes: Fun fact, Polidori was with them in the cabin, and his vampire is Lord Byron. The sexy vampire is just Lord Byron, that’s all it is.
Oren: Wes, did Byron try to take credit for that story?
Wes: You know he did. You know he did.
Oren: ‘Cuz I’ve heard people say that he claims to be the author, but I don’t know that for sure.
Wes: Polidori did write it, but everybody was like, oh, that is clearly Lord Byron, sexy vampire.
Chris: The amazing thing is that, if you go to the Wikipedia page and read about Romanticism, it’ll talk about the beliefs that were part of that movement. And it’s like, wait a second, here. That’s all the things that are big problems today. People still believe those things. A lot of times when we talk about Romanticism, we talk about it having died out, but it’s—part of it went away, and a big part of it is still a huge part of literary culture today, so that’s why we’re talking about it.
Wes: We also need to mention Coleridge and Wordsworth and John Keats, because generally, Romantics were great. Long-form fiction came out of it, but a lot of the Romantics said poetry is the true Romanticism. And that is snobby, (laughs) but that was important, because we alluded to the notion that they were not about rules regarding the creation of art. They hated that. And so, the poets were very important in helping pushing creativity, because they said, we don’t need to do this heroic structure; the heroic couplet is played out. Let’s just do free forms of verse and use folk methods, like odes and verse narratives. So that was actually a big movement forward to blast poetry out of a rigid, unchanging, boring expression of general histories and stuff, at that point. There was very little creativity happening in poetry until the Romantics came over.
Oren: Apparently, one of the things that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein was a scientific poem by Erasmus Darwin. And first of all, Erasmus is the greatest name that English has ever produced. This is the grandfather of good old Charlie. And apparently, he wrote a poem about his scientific idea that dead cells could come to life, and this was one of the things that inspired Frankenstein. I find that hilarious.
Wes: It’s funny to see works coming from those centuries that are written in poetic structure. That was just the form of erudition. It’s like, if you’re learned, then you write it in poetry. It doesn’t matter what it is. Shut your mouth.
Chris: So, as much as Romanticism and the beliefs with it are today, I think, very destructive, I do think it’s worth looking at the context in which they arose, right? And you can see that—to be fair, they’re partly for a reason, even the anti-intellectualism that became part of it. First of all, this period was during industrialization and urbanization, and the effect of that can be seen, particularly that there was a lot of emphasis on nature, right? It’s kind of a reaction to that industry and that urbanization. And I’ve seen arguments that the emphasis on originality which came about in this period, about how being derivative and cliche is the worst, and you need to isolate yourself to make sure that you never see anybody else’s stories, because that’s the only way to prevent yourself from being derivative—apparently that is partly a reaction, too.
The printing press, at that point, had been around for a while, but if there’s more mass production, feeling like what is uniquely human is the ability to create something new, and industrialization did involve a lot of replacing handcrafted goods with identical, factory-produced goods. And so, you could say that that might be one of the effects.
Oren: Yeah. And nowadays, it’s easy to imagine Romantics as being very anti-science and regressive, but it’s just important to remember that at the time, the thing they were reacting against was the Enlightenment, where a lot of the supposedly scientific ideas were incredibly wrong. It’s a little more sympathetic in that vein.
Chris: So, the Enlightenment also took place partly during Romanticism, and people seem to agree that at least one of its causes is a backlash to the Enlightenment, but at the same time, Romanticists still adopted some Enlightenment ideas. So they’re not completely opposed to each other, but there’s definitely a reaction happening. And people were just very arrogant in the Enlightenment, and they thought they could just reason through everything, no problem, and they were kind of incompetent as a result. So basically, this was a glorification of ancient Greece and Rome. And what they did is, they looked back at what Aristotle said, and then they interpreted it completely wrong. So in France, they were enforcing storytelling rules that some guy who had not even read Aristotle’s “Poetics” just half-interpreted, and then made up stuff.
Oren: Ah, yes, the French rules of Neoclassicism. I love them. Those are my favorite rules. I always go back to them, always obey the three “unities”, ‘cuz Aristotle said so. And somewhere, Aristotle’s like, (mumbling) “I didn’t actually say that. I said other things.” Like, no. No ghosts. Aristotle would be ashamed of you.
Chris: Yeah. So, the three “unities” are… well, first, unity of action is actually just having a cohesive plot, so that one’s fine. But there’s unity of time, which is, the story has to take place in one day, which is very silly. And unity of place, it has to take place in the same place, which is very silly. And then on top of that, the alignment was very rejecting of emotion. It was like, (silly French accent) “all emotions must be restrained,” which is a very silly thing for stories, which are kind of emotional at their core. After they made up these rules, particularly in places like France, and forced them on theater, you can kind of understand why a group of people would be like, no, we hate rules now. No rules. Everything is subjective. Only the subconscious produces great works. You can’t teach us anything. And that was not a good move, but I can understand why it happened.
Oren: You watch enough Enlightenment-era plays, and you start to sympathize with them.
Wes: There was also a big movement at that time. Industrialization kind of helped, but there were a few revolutions happening around Europe and the Americas at the time.
Oren: A few.
Wes: You know, a few. With some of the poets, like I mentioned Wordsworth and Coleridge, the French Revolution was very important because it brought, you would say, the “common people” to the front. And then, that’s why Romantics sought subjects of their artistic expressions in the form of common experiences, childhood experiences, that were generally considered low art, because it wasn’t dealing with anything high-minded, but Wordsworth just wrote a poem, “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” and it’s just that. It’s a weird return to basics, and that’s grounded in what Chris mentioned, with their love and appreciation of nature. They considered nature to be good, uncorrupted. Therefore, spending time in nature, like isolation, for example, would make you better.
And as someone who enjoys being outside, I can’t say they’re entirely wrong, but it doesn’t mean that I’m going to write a great book or anything like that, you know?
Chris: Yeah. On the plus side, because they were very into breaking all those rules, throw rules out the window… fantastical elements were not taboo, for maybe the only period ever in Western history since the Classical period, right?
Wes: Yeah, for real.
Chris: That’s why we got this burst of fantasy from that time period, and the start of science fiction, and all those things. So, some good things came out of it. The tales of King Arthur were very popular around this time, whereas Neoclassicism was popular during the Enlightenment, and a lot of their aesthetics were like Classic-period aesthetics from ancient Greece. The medieval period was really popular, so a lot of Romantic paintings that you see feature knights, and are about chivalry and all those things. They liked those things.
Oren: What I want to know is, why has nobody adapted the part of Arthurian lore, where he goes and fights the Romans? I want to read Arthur versus the Romans. I’d watch that movie.
Wes: I thought that was that Clive Owen King Arthur movie that came out years ago where he’s a Roman soldier that just adopts Britain, and then more Romans come. I think Keira Knightley was in that, too.
Oren: Maybe someone has adapted it, then. I’d never heard of that one, but there you go.
Wes: It was not great, so someone still needs to adapt it.
Chris: It had a its own set of aesthetics, which included lots of emphasis on emotion, and those kinds of things. But the ideas about how stories should be generated, again, they’re very anti-intellectual, so there are no rules. Everything is subjective. You can’t learn storytelling. It has to come from your subconscious. Your brain is not allowed.
Oren: Get out of here, Brain. Oh, man. My one real experience with Romanticism is that, when I took fencing, my fencing instructor complained bitterly about Romantic fencers and how they had ruined fencing in the 1800s. Because, according to him, they had thrown out all of the techniques and all of the ways of studying how to fence, in favor of just throwing themselves at their opponent as hard as possible, in the hopes that they would get lucky and score a touch. And that was their way of fencing it. He hated it. He hated it so much.
Chris: And was this like, knowledge was lost as a result of this movement, or was there still Romantic fencers today doing this?
Oren: I think in his mind, that’s what led to modern sport fencing, which he also didn’t like very much, it gets a little hazy at that point, but it was funny and kind of interesting, listening to him describe this process.
Chris: And I think, to some extent, they did believe that there were natural principles. They just wanted to also believe that people who are genius would just automatically follow those principles from their subconscious, and therefore there was no intellectual learning required, or allowed, really.
Wes: Yeah. I think that notion manifests more so with American—they’re not really Romantics in that sense, they get the Transcendentalist label, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, with this notion of self-reliance, and that quiet contemplation can sharpen your focus and resolve and reveal what you need to do. No sounding boards, just yourself, and you’ll figure it out.
Chris: But to be clear, these notions of, “you don’t learn storytelling. You have to inherently be a natural genius and just use your subconscious,” those are definitely very prevailing in Europe, as well as the US today. In fact, I’ve definitely heard from some people in Europe that it’s worse over there. At least generally in the US, from what I’ve seen, there is an acknowledgement that craft matters at the wordcraft level. That once people get down to sentence and wording, that craft principles are important, even if they won’t acknowledge it at the story level. But in some places in Europe, even at the word level, there is no acknowledgement that craft principles are important.
Oren: We have at least one friend of the site who translates our wordcraft articles into French. And when we’ve asked them, “Does that help? We’re writing in English; how useful is English wordcraft in French?” And their answer is, that there’s nothing like that in French. And so, translating our stuff is better than nothing. And I mean, obviously, this is just one person, because none of us speak French. We can’t go and check, but that was really striking, that this person was so desperate for wordcraft advice in French, that he would go to an English website and translate it rather than finding French sources.
Chris: And obviously there’s just, the publishing business is bigger in English, so lots of people end up writing in English. The market is bigger.
Wes: And books about how to write are far more common and prevalent, and then that allows us to Romantically react against them. (laughs) And say that they’re all trash.
Chris: It’s interesting because we see this interchange today, where people will respond to really bad rules about storytelling that are just wrong by being like, no, there are no rules. See, this is why there are no rules. And it’s like, okay. But maybe those are just really bad rules that are nonsense. In the Enlightenment, people were really arrogant, and they just said a whole bunch of nonsense and then enforced it on other people in some areas. So, they should not have been doing that, but with the backlash, now “Nope, no rules at all.” There’s never a place for, “okay, but those are really terrible rules. Maybe we can come up with better ones.”
Wes: It’s just such a reasonable take, Chris. I don’t know what the problem is.
Oren: It reminds me of the frigging Game of Thrones “discourse” where people were like, maybe Game of Thrones is a sign that we need to stop having plot-focused storytelling. And it’s like, oh my God. Shoot me now. Guys, guys, it was just a bad ending, okay? They did a bad job writing it. There’s no deeper meaning here.
Chris: And it’s interesting that what happened with Romanticism is that there was another movement after that called Realism. And it basically replaced all of the aesthetic preferences of Romanticism, like the focus on nature, and of course, speculative fiction is now very taboo again, but kept all of those anti-intellectual bullies. And those are still prevalent today.
Oren: I’m just really glad we decided to throw out all the cool sci-fi stuff, but keep the idea that you can’t learn storytelling and that it’s all unknowable mystery. It’s so cool that we decided to get rid of the good parts and keep the bad part.
Chris: (laughs) Just very ironic. And again, even before people start writing, they’d often absorb these ideas. And then they start writing by, like, here, I’m just going to sit down and write a novel. I don’t need to actually learn anything, right? I could just sit down and write a novel. It really affects that learning process where, a lot of other things, we understand we can go to a class and we can learn it, and that the teacher is supposed to give us a lesson. And as long as we absorb that lesson, we can do our assignments, and then they can give us a grade based on how well we learned the lesson. But with stories, not only do people not understand, there’s something to learn, but when you’d even go to a class, the teacher’s like, okay, now, just write a story. (laughs) Go write a story. And then once you turn it in, it’s like, “Huh. You know, I just wasn’t gripped by the story. F.” Right? There’s no lesson there. It’s like, what? Isn’t it all subjective? Not that there aren’t subjective parts of stories. And not that the creativity is not an important component, but like any other subject matter, you break it down. You start with very basic things, like here’s what tension is. Now, your first assignment: create some fictional scenarios that would have tension.
Oren: Yeah. And I mean, don’t get me wrong. Looking at the state of storytelling education—of which there is no shortage—it’s just all very bad. I can definitely see how someone would come away from that thinking that, well, I guess storytelling can’t be taught; you either have it or you don’t. ‘Cuz you go to college; we’ve all got college creative writing horror stories, or you have a bunch of workshops where, what they do is they take people who are already good writers and then put them through a course, and then talk about how successful their graduates are. I mean, yeah, I know how that works. I’ve seen charter schools. I can see why someone viewing that as the state of writing education would be like, well, I guess nothing matters.
Chris: (sarcastically) Assume if the college doesn’t do a good job of teaching you, it’s because there is nothing to teach.
Oren: It’s so prevalent, right? It’s not like, well, this college doesn’t have a very good creative writing program, but that one might. It seems to be everywhere.
Wes: It’s everywhere because—time for my hot take—Romanticism is baked into the DNA of this country from the get-go. I mentioned revolutions earlier, and once I started digging into this theory a little bit more, it was almost self-evident—not to just invalidate myself immediately—but it did that, because “I’m anti-authority, and I derive my sense of self-worth from no one but myself.” Okay. So, this country does a revolution to throw off of, essentially, the Enlightenment values of Europe, and what fulfills that void is a Romantic emphasis on the individual and the importance of self-knowledge and self-expression. And plus those Romantics, as we mentioned, we’re all a bunch of sexy rebels who were against the stodgy elite.
So, hey. New nation that decides, “who are we going to be,” manifest destiny, and all those other things. Couple that with the fact that Calvinism was really popular initially, and that was basically the most strict, “you’re just born doomed” kind of faith there was. And then Romanticism gets a foothold in faith, and we can see this manifest in stories like the Scarlet Letter. Maybe an individual can take charge of their own fate and not just be condemned to hell for being born here. You know, maybe there’s a sense that what we’ve been told is not real and we can create our own destinies.
What better story to sell the world than a country where you can remake yourself on your own, without input? I mentioned Ralph Waldo Emerson. He coined the mid-19th century as the age of the first person singular, which I think is telling. But basically, all of our Americana is full of asserting the value of the individual self, this concern with the workings of an individual mind, how we affirm someone’s gut, their emotion, their instinct, right? And those values, it becomes so ingrained into our immediate—at this point, you can’t even point out bad structural, systemic issues that we have, because it’s so easy to say it’s just a few bad actors. You know, the writing advice component of this is very much the same thing, because we’re drowning in Romantic culture because everybody just thinks that we’re all kind of on our own and we have to figure it out ourselves. And if we don’t, we’re just not good enough. I don’t know. It’s just, it’s bad.
Oren: I’ll admit, for a few minutes during that, I forgot you were talking about Romanticism and thought you were talking about racism, because that would also work.
Wes: (laughs) Yeah, that’s why I was saying it’s kind of baked into this country and the culture that we export.
Chris: Now, not that there aren’t some good instructors at universities and other places. The problem is that the prevailing culture has problems, so the few instructors that are trying really hard to change this are oftentimes outnumbered in the system. The culture at large does not encourage learning.
Oren: There’s a certain advantage to be had if you are a teacher and the thing that you teach also, philosophically, you believe only works if someone is naturally good at something, ‘cuz that’s a pretty handy escape hatch for why you weren’t able to teach this thing to somebody. “Oh, I guess it turns out they didn’t naturally have it. So, what was I supposed to do?” And it’s not like I don’t understand how hard this is. I’ve been trying to teach dev editing, and man, I’ve not had great luck. I’ve been bad at it. So, I have some sympathy here. I just hope we can do better at some point.
Chris: One thing that has also been brought to my attention, talking to people about university programs, is the extent to which many English departments are mostly run by professors that are really into studying literature, as opposed to creative writing, and they also want to believe that their favorite literature is perfect in every way. And that kind of goes against the idea of understanding craft, because once you understand craft, then there is a possibility of criticism, and they’re not actually interested in critical thinking or criticism. They’re interested in telling their students how awesome their favorite books are, which is unfortunate.
Oren: Yeah. Nobody was really interested in hearing my take about King Lear and how Gloucester is an unnecessary character who could be cut. That was my Shakespeare take and I stand by it, and Kurosawa agrees with me, because when he made Ran—amazing film—he didn’t include Gloucester, ‘cuz you don’t need him. So I got Kurosawa on my side. What do you got? (laughs)
Wes: And I got to say, the other thing is that, if you’re a best-selling writer, then Romanticism feels great, because it says that you are just inherently better than other people, and you’re a natural genius. Those people have a lot of influence, and when people don’t know, “where can I go to learn?” A lot of times, I look to the people who are successful, and people who are best-selling don’t necessarily know how to teach any of this. They don’t necessarily understand what they’re doing or know how to teach it, either. And those people have every reason to embrace this belief set, because it is so validating to them. Even if the rest of us would rather them not believe that they’re inherently superior They probably like believing it.
Oren: I do have at least a smidgen of possible good news on that front, because I don’t know, Chris, if you remember your very old macaroni art post, where you took quotes from authors that were super pretentious about how you need natural talent to be a writer, but made it about macaroni art. So that kind of statement would not fly on modern Writing Twitter, at least to the extent that I am a judge of modern Writing Twitter. And not that Writing Twitter is perfect and doesn’t have problems. It shows me a whole lot of weird hot takes every day. But I think there is at least an understanding that if an author came there and was like, I’m just naturally great and you have to be, too, if you want to write, I think they would get laughed out of town. And that doesn’t mean that the advice on there is great; authors are still bad at understanding why they’re successful, so I see a lot of authors giving bad advice on Writing Twitter, but they at least understand that there is advice to be given and that it’s not just, “well, are you great or not?” So I’ll give Writing Twitter that much.
Wes: One more thing about Romanticism that I like, and this is for me, they were about exploring the sublime. And this is not really something that we really seek to go after any more. It was very much a thing of its time. I’m sure people explore it, but basically, with your writing, to try to evoke a sense of awe, both in either a positive or negative sense of awe. I think that’s a cool endeavor, and that’s why I do enjoy reading Romantic works, is to get some of that. And granted, some of them were evoking that by describing things that no one had seen before, but now we have Google Earth, so the impact is lost. But that’s the blind notion.
Chris, you mentioned Edgar Allen Poe earlier, was really kind of brought to the foray of his refinement of that Gothic Romanticism, by saying, what if my sublime is writing a short story and exploring an emotion in incredible detail? And there’s a great public domain letter that he published—the name escapes me, but we can put it in the show notes—basically, his notion on what a short story should be, to explore an emotion in full, is kind of a fun experiment. And that’s why I think some of those stories have staying power, is that he focused on dread or horrors like that. So I don’t know, just, sublime is kind of a funny thing. And if you see that word crop up in Romantics, that’s what it is.
Oren: All right. Well with that, I think we will go ahead and end this sublime podcast. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[closing theme song]
This has been the Mythcreants podcast.
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