Monday, 14 November 2016

Conventions and Inventions in Writing - Freedom is a Choice

Go Your Own Way if you Dare. Photo by Janet Cameron

Both conventional and inventive narratives play a part in the health of culture and society. But conventions and inventions have entirely different functions in our society and in our writing.


Conventions are elements that are familiar with both the creator and his/her audience beforehand. These consist of:
  • Favourite plots
  • Generally accepted ideas
  • Stereotyped characters
  • Popular linguistic devices
  • Common metaphors
Conventions serve their own particular functions, for example, the sharing of meanings and images allows a continuity of values. These are essential in maintaining cultural stability. Conventions are also important to an individual' s sense of security, helping to avoid identity crises, tension and maybe even mental breakdown.
Inventions, on the other hand, challenge our understanding by confronting us with new perceptions of meaning that we may not have recognised before. For example:
  • Fresh, new ways of looking
  • Three-dimensional characters
  • Experimentation with linguistics
Inventions can be used to help people adjust to a changing world. They provide us with new information that might otherwise be difficult to grasp in the real world, helping to prepare us so that we can cope with life's vagaries, and even withdraw behind our safe, conventional barrier to read a detective novel or a romance.
Doubts and Delights of Heterosexuality
An example of this withdrawal - or escapism - is cited by Alison Light. "Romance fictions deals with all the doubts and delights of heterosexuality," she says, adding that this is " institution which feminism has seen as problematic from the start."
Light disapproves of reacting with with moralising shock to romantic fiction. "That women read romantic fiction is, I think, as much a measure of their deep dissatisfaction with heterosexual options as of any desire to be fully identified with the submissive versions of femininity the texts endorse. Romance imagines peace, security, and ease precisely because there is dissension, insecurity and difficulty."
Light points out that readers collect, share and recycle their romance novels among their friends, participating in a kind of subculture and this underlines a collective identity.
Homer and Shakespeare - Recognising What is Unique
Cawelti admits that in some works it is difficult to distinguish between conventions and inventions since sometimes, these element exist somewhere between the two opposite poles. By making ourselves familiar with literary works, we can learn to recognise the major conventions and identify what is unique to a particular artwork.
Both Homer and Shakespeare combined conventional elements with great inventions of genius and complex perceptions of life. This worked out well when cultures were fairly stable over long periods of time. This mixture of convention and invention did not present any problems for society, but things started to change during the Renaissance.
Invention - New Perceptions of the World
Cawelti says: "Since the Renaissance, however, modern cultures have become increasingly heterogeneous and pluralistic in their structure and discontinuous in time. In consequence, while public communications have become increasingly conventional in order to be understood by an extremely broad and diverse audience, the intellectual elites have placed even higher valuation on invention out of a sense that rapid cultural changes require continually new perceptions of the world."
Cawelti cites Joyce's great work of literature, Finnigan's Wake which is as close as one could get to total invention without becoming meaningless. Other examples of extreme invention are the poem "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot and Samuel Becket's play Waiting for Godot. Cawelti points out that although "The Waste Land" contains a number of conventional elements, for instance, quotations from previous writers, "...these elements are structured in such a fashion that a new perception of familiar elements is forced upon the reader."
Ritual, Game and Dream
Yet, there is also a huge body of literature that is highly conventional, like Tarzan or The Lone Ranger. These formula stories, for example, detective stories, westerns, romance, seduction novels (bodice rippers), biblical epics - all of these are "...structures of narrative conventions which carry out a variety of cultural functions in a unified way." They require the selection of certain plots, characters and settings.
Cawelti describes this as a "collective ritual, game and dream" which has been synthesized into the plot, character and settings, the study of which may bring us new insights into popular literature and patterns of culture. As Alison Light says, "I think we need critical discussions that are not afraid of the fact that literature is a source of pleasure, passion and entertainment."
  • "The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature" John G. Cawelti,Journal of Popular Culture, Vol 3, 1969.
  • "Returning to Manderley: Romance Fiction, Female Sexuality and Class," Alison Light, Feminist Review, 16, 1984.

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