Tale of Genji

Tale as Old as Time

It’s been a week. Mostly, I’ve been head-down in classes. This is mixed, as I am learning things, but it also means I’m not keeping up with my writing, or reading, or… anything. So I was sort of aware that there was some kerfluffle over Gaiman’s tweet that Clarion was the thing to do if you ever wanted to be a writer, but I just rolled my eyes and kept going. Unlike a bunch of people who seem to have let it knot their knickers, I know that you don’t have to do Clarion to be a writer. I can see that tweet for what it is – genuine enthusiasm on the part of a man who really enjoyed the experience of hanging out with other writers. All of you who read Mad Genius Club can appreciate that. After all, you come here to learn, and hang out with other writers and spark enthusiasm off one another. But you don’t have to leave home and work for weeks on end and it costs nothing.

Ok, now that I’m feeling a lot of pressure to produce high-quality content that will inspire you to get out there and write…

But you know that already. Writers write. It’s not about who has published you, or the prestigious awards you have received, it’s about words on the screen (or paper) and readers who want more, and aren’t shy about telling you that.

My problem right now is time. I have ideas. Oh, how I have ideas. Bursting at the seams, my head is. But I don’t have time, and there are stressful things going on in real life that mean I can’t focus on making-believe to a level that allows me to write a seamless story. What I can produce is sawdust, and dry, compared to what I want to create. I’ve been editing more than creating new, and that’s only when I haven’t had homework.

We all, I suspect, have interferences like this. Where we lose the signal in the noise of stress and life. I’ve been reassured that it will pass, in time. I hope so. I really need to write, not just to make money (I’m a mercenary wench, I am) but because I need to tell the stories.

In the meantime, I’ve been creating art. Art I can do while watching a video lecture on the Silk Road… and you know, they didn’t just transport silk over that? And it wasn’t just one road, there were many routes. Furthermore, there was the Silk Road, the Sand Road (across the Sahara Desert) and the Sea Road (around and across the Indian Ocean) which supplied spices, silk, and many other luxury goods to the Romans, Greeks, and Persians. It’s a fascinating piece of history, and one I wish I had more time to delve into, since I’ve only the lightest of knowledge about it.

This class is like reading Wikipedia articles. No, it’s got less content than some wiki articles I’ve read. But even so, it can spark ideas from which could grow stories. Not a historical – dear ghu, I don’t have time for light fantasy and space opera, never mind the level of research I’d need for that! – but the realization that humanity is both richly diverse, and strangely obstinate in habits.

I mean, doesn’t this sound like, I don’t know, a more recent time in history than Seneca lamenting to the Forum about Silk Road goods sometime around the era of Christ’s life?

“I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one’s decency, can be called clothes… Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife’s body.”

The class emphasizes gender roles oddly. I understand what the thinking is, but the reality is that throughout early history – and mind you, the class covers from Neolithic era to 1500 – the men were the public faces, the ones who wore the masks of leadership and war. The women were in the shadows, protected, sheltered, and expected to keep the home that the man could return to a sanctuary. From those similarities, when we look closer, we begin to see the differences in expectations and realities. Stereotypical roles can only be carried so far before they begin to fall apart under scrutiny. Yet the modern historian/anthropologist insists on looking at historical accounts through a lens of modern mindsets like feminism and freedom. Freedom is a rich blessing to live with, but unheard of in the era I’m studying. Even rebellions didn’t seek individual freedom, a concept which would have been regarded as madness, but leaders who would extract a lighter tribute, be less brutal to their slaves.

Diamond Sutra
A woodblock from the Diamond Sutra

For all the irritations I find in this class – which is less history and more anthropology – I am still learning from it. You can gain insight from anything, even a light novel. But you aren’t going to gain anything from the unread book. And that is why we here at the MGC talk about not using message as a club. If your reader wants that, that is what they will buy. Did you know that the world’s first printed book was not the Bible but the Diamond Sutra, a book of Buddha’s teachings? It was printed with wooden blocks, not moveable print, and it first came out in 868 – I wonder what the critics had to say. As for the first novel, it was written by a woman, in Japan, and it was a romance novel! The Tale of Genji came out in the same era in which Vikings raided cold English shores, and Omar Khayyam wrote the Rubayiyat.

Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of spring Your winter-garment of repentance fling: The bird of time has but a little way To flutter-and the bird is on the wing.

Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire, Would not we shatter it to bits, and then Remold it nearer to the heart’s desire!

It has been a thousand years, and still we write stories. Romance novels are still derided as women’s provenance and the Bible is still a best seller. The human race doesn’t change much. There will be a market for the racy novel in another thousand years.

Don’t let them get you down. Write early, write often, and when you get stuck, take the time to read something you didn’t think you would like. Stretch your wings a little and see if you can catch the wind of inspiration.

Tale of Genji
The story of a man, and a woman, is old as time.





  1. I love getting inspiration from history. Right now I just moved to Japan and I am having my mind blown by the fantastic Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. I’m immersing myself in as much history as possible.

    What strikes me as interesting is that on many forums etc. you have a bunch of people deriding Fantasy based on European history or mythology but when they do write it they present a bland unrealistic version of Eastern culture. For example, Japanese history is much more brutal, misogynistic, and patriarchal than the European medieval world.

    1. Yes, and so was Chinese. I had to write an essay comparing women of India, China, and Rome from about the era of 500 AD, and it was interesting to read the documents they provided us in the book, and read between the lines. The Chinese women may have been allowed more education, but their mentality, their upbringing, allowed them no room for recourse unlike the Indian and Roman women had (and the Indian women pretty much had only one way out – become a nun).

    2. Well, that’s because of the myth that all Eastern cultures were beautiful and enlightened and all Western cultures are brutish and primitive. What they don’t understand is that a society can have nice art and still treat people like crap.

      1. Reading about Shi Huagdi was mildly horrifying (mildly because I was already aware of who he was and what he’d done) as you realize that they basically let him go on, mad, paranoid, and murderous, until he died. Only then did they ‘make a change’ because it was unthinkable to dethrone a mad responsible for millions of deaths. Looked at from a longer view, Mao boasted of being like the First Emperor, only killing more. Publicly. And still the Chinese revered him. I don’t think you could write that level of villainy in a book and not have people here in the US scoff at it.

      2. The truth is that most if not all societies treated people like crap and most societies this current day continue to do so. Our Western ideals are truly unique but some of us forget that.

        I was reading that cesspool of stupid, the fantasy subreddit, and came across an idiotic comment by an author. She said something along the lines of “misogyny would not exist if the Catholic Church never existed.” A blatantly stupid and ahistorical comment.

        1. Egads, yes. See, the thing is that we live in a very weird society, and one that is wealthy enough to cater to our peccadilloes… like individual freedom. But they still aren’t happy.

            1. There is, but it’s careful not to be too obvious, lest the neighbors talk. It takes a LOT of work to keep a conspiracy of intelligence hidden for this long.

      1. I’m not sure if you are being sarcastic or not. But Japanese women sole existence was to please their male masters. They had no rights. Of course nobody had much in the way of rights.

        1. -not sure if you are being sarcastic or not-

          “I know because I read it on Wikipedia” wasn’t a good enough tell?

          1. Bob, I got in an argument with my dad, the Professor Emeritus, PhD Paleontology, last week over whether wikipedia was a good source. So, no. If they’ve taken him in, it’s not a good enough tell anymore.

            Dad thought I should let Son #1 use wikipedia as a valid source for an essay on the Knights Templar. Other than Sad Puppies, I can’t think of a topic more likely to have more conspiracy theory than fact. I’m still at a loss.

            We should probably all start using /s.

            1. Depending on what I’m researching, it can be useful. Often what I do is use the bibliography as a jumping-off point. Google scholar is helpful for something a bit more, ah, controversial.

              1. Useful for finding sources, sure. Acceptable as a source, no way!

                Son #1’s learning to write proper MLA-style essays. Because his mother is The Meanest Mom In The Whole Entire World. Or something. (This is why his topic was something he is fascinated by, of course. Because I’m just that Mean.)

            2. Wikipedia is a decent source for quick lookup of information on non-controversial topics. A few years back, a study by one of the major science journals found that for science articles, the number of errors they detected in Wikipedia was about twice what they found in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. OTOH, for anything controversial, it can be problematic. Even then, the bibliography and external links sections can still be of some benefit even then, and the references section can help in gauging the likely accuracy.

              1. Like how none of the citations for that onna bugeisha article predate the Clinton administration.

            3. I’ll use Wikipedia for general level knowledge stuff. The nice thing about it is that there are links to the referenced material, so you can check for facts and also use it to look for more in depth stuff. I wouldn’t use it as a primary source for actual research on anything graded though.

        2. Yes, there were some Japanese women who fought, and in fact all samurai women in some periods were taught how, mostly for defense of fortresses (or as last ditch bodyguards for high status women). The,classic women’s weapon was a long pike, the naginata.

          That does not mean that they had any increase in rights.

          1. And yes, the Wikipedia article references are very recent, but the general info is the same as what I have seen in other sources. The interpretation is awfully idealistic, though. And they did not even mention Empress Jingu’s infamous way of counting the Koreans her army beat.

  2. One of my favorite tales of the meeting between Eastern and Western cultures is this quote from a Brit on a particular Indian practice:
    “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”
    General Sir Charles James Napier
    Been thinking a somewhat similar approach would be ideal for those immigrants and refugees demanding that the West allow them Sharia practices while in our countries.

    1. I like that scene from a TV movie about the historical Dracula. The Turkish ambassadors refuse to take off their headwear when they enter Vlad’s presence, so he has iron spike driven through the tops of their heads, pinning the headwear in place, and tells the remaining one: Let this strengthen your customs and keep them in your own land where they belong.

      I don’t normally approve of attacking ambassadors, but in the context of the scene the Turks were going to invade, and the whole scene was very well done.

  3. A long time ago I got involved in a discussion over what items a time traveller to the middle ages would be best taking with them. Many suggested anything made of good steel, binoculars, fire making tools, and so forth.
    My comment was that a fairly light pack filled with spices and chocolate would be worth several times its weight in gold in any age up to the early 18th century. Past that reliable shipping made such items available to common folk. As luxuries to be sure, but not completely beyond the reach of all but royalty.

    1. Peppercorns, I mused one day as I tried to fill the grinder and spilled them everywhere, were literally worth more than their weight in gold. And here I was sweeping them up to trash them.

  4. “Yet the modern historian/anthropologist insists on looking at historical accounts through a lens of modern mindsets … ”

    A number of years ago I was reading books about Alexander the Great, and one example of his civilized nature was that he killed one man out of every ten after he conquerored a particular city.

    Modern people are shocked by such callous brutality, but men from his own time period were shocked that he left so many able-bodied fighters at his back. No matter how modern scholars try to twist things, we still study Alexander (and others like him) because he was a great general and we can still learn from his campaigns.

    1. Looking at the world through your own culture is habitual to the point that it’s the norm, whether that world is now or centuries past. The irony is that many who look at the world through modern Western mindset would have a conniption if they realized that what they’re doing is assuming there’s absolute right and wrong – and that in the West this was mostly from Christianity.

      Frankly, I think we should apply the idea of absolute right and wrong to the deeds of the past, but to understand the past we have to see things from their perspective.

  5. I can relate to the issue of distraction. Another co-worker just bailed (after a bunch of retirements) and the workload has fallen on the rest of us.

    Meanwhile, I’m still struggling to work on my current project, and if I get it done and it sells I’m faced with the challenge of continued installments set in a thoroughly non-Western world, as encountered through a hero from our world transported there.

    When I can, I’ve been doing research about female warriors in ancient times, and particularly women who had to actually live as men. I’ve been trying to get into the mindset for one of my characters who’s in that role. To put her backstory in the simplest terms, the hereditary weapons of her household confer powers that make the user deadly in combat, but they’re bound to the house’s bloodline. Her twin brother had been training to use them, but he was killed by treachery. However, the weapons were able to respond to her and complete the bond because of the whole twin thing, so she had to master them and when the noble who contrived her twin’s death tried to marry her by force and take over her house, she met him with a challenge, killed him, and was accepted as the head of her household, but that also meant she has a man’s legal status in that society and was expected to live as a man. So that’s where she’s at.

    Trouble is, her story, background and attitudes don’t conform with the modern Action Girl trope and the expectations therewith. I want her to be completely non-Western, not a modern third-wave feminist transported to some other dimension, and if you tried to talk to her about grrl power she’d look at you like you were crazy.

    I’ve been looking at stuff like Leigh Brackett’s Black Amazon of Mars and Ywain from Sword of Rhiannon, but I still don’t know if I can convey the feeling correctly.

    1. Do what you can – and let your beta readers know what you are trying to do, they may be able to pick up on things you didn’t fill in enough, or put too much detail in. Sounds interesting!

      1. The problem with tvtropes: it locks readers into a mindset. Next thing I know, they’re whipping out the action girl criteria and pointing out spots where the character doesn’t conform.

        And yeah, first she’d look at you like you were crazy, then she’d think: Wonder if you’d make a good slave?

    2. It’s not quite the same as what you are tangling with, but you might look at A. Mayor’s book _The Amazons_ if you have not found it already. She’s talking about the women of Scythia and the steppes. There’s also the Rani of Jhansi, although her case is pretty unusual.

        1. The Albanians of course, and the Norse women who were legally men. And whatsherface who was Norse, who went into her dad’s tomb to get the cursed magic sword Tyrfing and had a chat with his ghost. Boy is that poem bloodcurdling.

  6. Attack story ideas, oh yes. I was hunting up images to use in class a few weeks ago and came across the famous portrait of Francis II Habsburg, the one where he is dressed in white and seated. He looks very much like V. Putin. Which got me thinking about what if . . . Putin had been Francis II, and a few other people as well, and there is someone tracking him, trying to block him, because??? Not reincarnation, but time shifters moving forward through earth’s history, one trying to change a known track, perhaps accelerate something, and the other countering him . . . No wonder the students think I’m a bit off.

    1. The tricky thing about using a contemporary figure is that near-future real life events can quickly turn your story from profound to obsolete.

      I’m recommend reading some of Tim Powers. He’s a master of the ‘secret history’ explaining all sorts of weird SFF narratives behind the scenes of real historical people and events.

  7. I often draw from history in my fantasy work, which puts me at odds with folks like N K Jemisin who think you shouldn’t do that. Fortunately, I couldn’t give a flying flip what she thinks. 🙂

  8. I really don’t get the whole Clarion brouhaha. To me it came off as just some cheerleading. Like ‘If you want to be a successful lawyer you HAVE attend Harvard’ or ‘NYC is the only place to live’.

      1. I’ve seen too many tourists afraid of the subways, hesitant to ask directions for me to agree with the old saw. NYC is a decent place to live, but I wouldn’t want to be here as a tourist.

  9. Eh, “The Tale of Genjii” is as much a novel as “The Diary of Anne Frank”.

    And I’d classify it less as a romance and more as the biography of a sociopath.

    1. Mm, I see that you are familiar with the storyline… and yes, it is a darned disturbing book, even if you take Genji as being on the realism level of a Gothic romance hero (and several other kinds). OTOH, the second half, the story of his son the alleged goody-goody, is also disturbing.

      Come for the poetry, but don’t try to live in the palace. Brr.

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