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I recently wrote part 1 of a review on Aristotle’s book called On The Art Of Poetry. This is part 2. Here’s the link for part 1:
I finished part 1 by explaining that Aristotle had a parochial view on the role of villains in stories. He thought that we can’t have empathy for them, and that they can’t be the protagonists. But you can find a lot of narratives in books and films today in which the “bad guys” are the main characters. There are also popular villains who we feel empathy for, and we almost want them to beat the heroes. The Joker in The Dark Knight is a great example of this. Frank Underwood in House of Cards, Hannibal Lecter in the books, films, and T. V. shows about him, and Dexter Morgan in the show and novels are all “bad guys” who are also protagonists.
In the book, Aristotle writes that even women and slaves are capable of being morally good characters. But he also thought that women are inferior and that slaves are worthless. That probably sounds conservative, sexist and racist to many people. However, historically speaking, that’s more charitable than the dominant cultural perception of slaves and women during that time. Also, slaves were not only black. They were white and every other colour too. I’m not a historian, but it seems like most men valued women and slaves a hell of a lot less than they valued men. But Aristotle was different. For his time, he was probably seen as progressive and even revolutionary for arguing that these arbitrary categories of people could be morally admirable. (even though “progressive” might not have been a word in the time of ancient Greece.)
However, I agree with probably the majority of people in our modern world who believe that women and slaves are equal to men and non-slaves. Even though slavery still occurs, most western European countries abolished it a long time ago. The feminist movement in the 60s helped men see women as more equal than earlier waves of feminism too.
Another point that Aristotle makes is that it’s inappropriate for female characters to be clever or manly. He thought that only men should be “manly,” which presumably means masculine heroic stereotypes. It seems like he was arguing that women can’t be protagonists. Aristotle also claimed that only male characters can be clever. This is another antiquated sexist perception from this time period. It assumes that all women are dumb, and that only men are smart.
I mostly agree with Aristotle’s argument that a story begins with conflict that often continues throughout it. The narrative ends when the character has solved the underlying problem. That’s basically the formula in every novel and film, right? This is another idea that Joseph Campbell wrote about in his books like The Power of Myth, which are about hero mythology. I mentioned Campbell in part 1 of this review.
However, there are exceptions to this too. Sometimes, the main conflict is not solved. The story can end with the protagonist failing to solve their problems. There are many movies and books with this more realistic perspective. Sometimes, we get defeated and our enemies win. Aristotle also claims that narratives conclude with the hero vanquishing his foes. But we all know about famous novels and films in which the protagonist fails and dies at the end. In the book called Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk, the main character kills himself in the last chapter. The movie that’s based on the novel has a different ending. The hero shoots himself, but only murders his alter ego in the process. In the film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, both protagonists die at the end of it.
I also agree with Aristotle’s opinion on description and dialogue. He wrote that elaborate diction should only be used when we’re not reading someone’s thoughts, no characters are being introduced, and no action is happening. He also argued that only short description should be used to describe thoughts, when we meet characters, and with dialogue. Aristotle explained that excessively verbose diction tends to make characters and thoughts confusing. This act of being concise is called atticism.
As a fiction writer, I think that this is excellent advice. Ornate descriptions and characters talking too much tends to draw attention away from the plot. Being concise is important as long as you still give readers adequate information. You want to give just enough description to maintain suspense, but not so much that you go off on irrelevant tangents. It’s a challenging balancing act. I tend to be long-winded, so I always think about atticism when I write. In my opinion, action and dialogue are the best ways to tell stories. Events happening that the protagonists have to deal with maintains our attention. The way that they talk about these incidents shows us how us how they interact with other characters. Interpersonal relationships and action help us identify with heroes. Description is important, and some of my favourite writing is long elaborations on settings. But too much of that makes the story take forever, and causes people to lose interest.
Literature preferences are subjective, but I think that Charles Dickens is a great example of this. Our collective attention span has probably decreased since he was popular, and he’s still regarded as one of the best writers of all time. In my opinion, his writing quality is excellent. His descriptions are immersive and detailed. But to me, the plot in novels like A Tale of Two Cities is excruciatingly long and drawn-out. I get bored when I read it, even though I think that he was an expert writer. My view is that he takes too long to tell the narrative. He spends so much time describing everything in minute detail that conflict takes forever to happen. Painting a picture of the setting is all well and good. But since he gets so bogged down in that, I keep waiting for problems to occur that have to be solved. I’m too impatient and there are way too many awesome books to read. So I’d rather not experience ones that could easily be hundreds of pages shorter.
So these are my thoughts on Aristotle’s On The Art of Poetry. There is profound wisdom on stories in that book, along with antiquated views that don’t necessarily apply today. That’s why I like ancient philosophy. There are ideas that authors hadn’t figured out. But they were so intelligent that they discovered knowledge and wisdom that is still relevant today. So check out “On The Art Of Poetry.” You might realize that you like it, and there are probably other parts that I missed that you will notice. Try reading other books by Aristotle and different ancient philosophers too. They can teach us a hell of a lot, and even improve our lives.