A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 2 (All the Links!)

“Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.” ― Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics

Did you read “A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1“? In that post, I talked about the basics of what semiotics is, and a little about how it’s applied to writing. These links go to articles and sites which will explain further:

Foundational Work:

    • David Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners (1998) is online in its entirety here. This is a linguistics-based text that reads like college coursework from an old British professor, which some of you will hate and some of you will adore. It covers the history of the field and gives a foundation for later study to work from.
    • Arthur Asa Berger’s Cultural Criticism: Semiotics and Cultural Criticism is only available for sale at used bookstores but Dartmouth has one of the intro chapters up here. His Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics is also quite a good place to start, and is available on Amazon here.
    • The Encyclopedia of Semiotics, edited by Paul Bouissac, Oxford U Press (1998) is available online here.
    • A Theory of Semiotics (Advances in Semiotics), Umberto Eco (1976). My favorite! You can get it from Amazon here.
  • Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Umberto Eco (1984). The whole thing is available here as a PDF. Also excellent.
  • Exploring Visual Culture: Definitions, concepts, contexts, Rampley, Matthew. Edinburgh University Press. 2005.

Semiotics and Writing:

    • Communication Theory/Semiotics and Myth, WikiBooks
    • “The Theory of Signs and the Role of the Reader”, Umberto Eco (1981). Full article online as a PDF here.
    • “Semiotics of Minimalist Fiction: Genre as a Modeling System”, Ibrahim Taha, University of Haifa. The full article is online here.
    • Science Fiction, Semiotics Encyclopedia

… and Advertising:

…and Fashion:

… and Theater/Performance/Music:

    • Semiotics of the Theater“, The Academy
    • Musical Semiotics in the 1990s: The state of the art“, William Echard, SRB Review
    • The Semiotics of Theater and Drama, Keir Elam (1980). Full book online as a PDF here.
    • The Semiotics of Theater, Erika Fischer-Lichte, Indiana U Press (1992). Translated by Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones. Available from Amazon here.
    • Theatre Semiotics: Text and Staging in Modern Theatre, Fernando de Toro, U of Toronto Press (1995). Translated from the Spanish by John Lewis. Available from Amazon here.

… and Film:

…and Gaming:

… and Early Childhood Education

Further Reading:

    • SemiotiX – “A global information magazine. Its aim is to provide periodic snapshots of the situation of semiotic research in the world, with photos, editorials by, and profiles of, active semioticians, mini-reviews of books, state-of-the-arts at a glance, and selective publicizing of scholarly events.” Published by Semiotics Institute Online. They also offer online courses and an excellent archive of articles. They’re also working on an online semiotics encyclopedia here.
    • Signata – a scholarly journal put out by the Université de Liège. It’s not available to the public online, but if you’ve got JStor or other academic access, you should find it there.
    • Umberto Eco’s semiotics links page
  • Google’s list of scholarly articles on “semiotics and fiction” is here.

Out Now: “Last Bus to What’s Left of Albuquerque” at Kaleidotrope

Cover art by Shauna O’Meara

Kaleidotrope, a wonderful online magazine devoted to speculative fiction, published my story “Last Bus to What’s Left of Albuquerque” in their Summer 2018 issue. It’s an odd length — about 1700 words — and I was glad to see it picked up fairly quickly, on my first submission to Kaleidotrope. You never know, when you try something new or different with fiction, whether anyone else will see it in the same way you did, but Fred did. (He’s a great editor to work with; if you’re looking for a new market, I suggest sending your work his way.)

SFRevu Review said

Daymon Blue has finally been released from prison for going into debt for his daughter’s medical expenses. But what has he been released into? Another poignant tale.

I was thinking about what happens when people are released from prison, when I wrote this. How we expect most people to return to jail, how we don’t expect much good from them at all. Serving your time doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to, and the reasons why people end up arrested or imprisoned are rarely simple. We, Americans, in general, are committed to the prison system in a way few think about, and we’ve turned it into a profitable industry which is now creating new ways to punish people for being failed by society.

You can read it for free here. Please do let me know what you think, and tell your friends. Thank you!

Review: Reckoning 2 (Dec 2017)

I got a copy of this over the summer, and finally got a chance to read it this fall. I’m glad I discovered I should be paying attention to what this small magazine is offering.

That’s not to say that everything is perfect, or wonderful, or for me. On the surface, it’s a collection of poetry, fiction, and essays growing wild like plants in a field; like any wild bunch of things, it’s sometimes hard to tell which is which, and what works together with other creations in that setting instead of merely being there at the same time. There are essays which seem like stories – one that works and one that doesn’t – and poems I wanted more from, stories I would have cut down. But in between, there’s brilliance.

Before I get further into my review, I have to stop you right here and ask: have you read Innocent Ilo’s “To the Place of Skulls”? It’s easily one of the best and most impactful stories I’ve read this year, and I am honestly surprised that I haven’t seen more people talking about it. If I had to pick one story for you to read from this year’s Reckoning, it would be Ilo’s. So well-crafted it reads like it’s a far simpler story than it really is; the kind of craft that leads you into a dark and heavy place before you know it, without forcing you there, without feeling saccharine or unsupported. There’s nothing I don’t love about this story (except the subject, of course, which is both fiction and just barely, maybe tomorrow, going to be true somewhere).

Luckily, I don’t have to pick just one, from this thick annual magazine that editor Micheal DeLuca envisioned to showcase “creative writing on environmental justice”. With six poems, five essays, twelve stories, and art, there’s going to be something for everyone. Even the work I didn’t connect with has a purpose – like “From Paris, With Rage“, an essay framed as a story, which mostly focuses on teaching readers how to deal with being arrested at a major ecological protest, if that’s something you need to know. I was comforted, seeing a high level of quality work through a magazine of this size, because it tells me that it’s not a combination of good stories and bad ones, or well-written compared to badly constructed. It’s work that suits my tastes and what I needed to read at that moment, and other work that isn’t written for me. Maybe it’s written for you.

The work I did connect with, I’m grateful to have read. “A Wispy Chastening” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires is exactly what flash fiction should be: tightly written but hinting at vastly more than is on the page, allowing you to fill in the blanks in your head to supply the worldbuilding that wouldn’t fit into the word count limit. Marie Vibbert’s “Fourth-Dimensional Tessellations of the American College Graduate” is another one of my favorites – even if you don’t have a soft spot in your heart for bees like I do, it’s a cleverly winding tale of young adult attachment, and the way we collect the people who complete us, whether we like them or not.

Both “The Bull Who Bars the Gate to Heaven” by Zella Christensen and “A Hundred Years From Now” by Mohammad Shafiqul Islam are excellent poems that are simultaneously both stories and messages, and while some of the other poems here I felt lacked something, or tried too hard, these two were perfect as they are. Marissa Lingen’s “The Shale Giants” is another flash fiction story, but its word count barely constrains its slow-moving mass of rock and building resentment. Definitely worth reading.

Girl Singing with Farm” by Kathrin Köhler, is a weird science fiction story both beautiful and heartbreaking, but one that also hints at a happy ending, and even the possibility (never certain) is something most other pieces in this issue don’t offer. “Rumpelstiltskin” by Jane Elliott is one of the better uses of this particular fairy tale I’ve read in a retelling. A father slowly losing everything to a global famine recounts how the world came to be this way, and through his recollections, you get a glimpse of where the fault lies.

The answer is the same for much of Reckoning: the fault lies in ourselves. Maybe if we open up to more creative environmental writing, we’ll figure out how to fix some of what we’ve broken before it’s too late. (At the very least, Reckoning aims to get you thinking about the problem, which is the first step.)


Ebook released December 21, 2017.
e-ISBN: 9780998925226
Weightless Books
Amazon
Barnes & Noble

Print edition released June 21, 2018.
ISBN: 978-0-9989252-3-3
248 pages, 67,000 words.
$20, free shipping

What is Semiotics Anyway? A Short Primer for Writers, Part 1

I chatted with Juliette Wade on Dive Into Worldbuilding in 2016, about writing without a visual imagination, and semiotics, as it’s applied to writing. Last week, I tweeted about the semiotics of MAGA hats, which got me thinking about how useful the study of semiotics is. I’ve updated this post a little; Part 2 will post next week.

Semiotics (not to be confused with the Saussurean tradition of “semiology”) is basically the study of what visual symbols mean. It examines how signs become a kind of short-hand for meaning, with the context of the specific time and culture where that meaning developed. Semiotics is related to the study of linguistics, but isn’t confined to written or spoken language. Instead, semiotics considers whether everything is a symbol, and if the display of those symbols has an extra layers of meaning which are instantly obvious to those who understand the symbol.

Imagine a billboard. There’s a message on it, and the text of the message has at least one obvious meaning. (You can read the words.) But the letters on the billboard have extra meaning, because the font choice, or colors, or size of the letters, has an effect on the original meaning of the message. The same words printed in Comic Sans give a different impression to a reader than if they’d seen it printed in all caps, using a heavy Impact font, right? If it’s written in simple black letters, you’ll probably think of it as basic, or serious, or cheap, depending on the context, but if it’s written in ornately scrolled gilt lettering with an abundance of brightly painted flowers in between the words… that implies something different. You know this without even really thinking about it, because your life experience gives you a greater understanding of the extra meaning, based on context.

But wait, there’s more! Semiotics also looks at images as if they are components of language, imparting meaning. In other words, you can look at things which are not text – art, objects, fashion – and “read” their meaning. Here’s one example:

Fidelity has long been metaphorically portrayed in Western Art as certain historical women, as a plant, or as a dog. (“Fido” even means “trust” in Latin.) In van Eyck’s famous painting, Arnolfini and His Wife, the little dog between the two figures was obvious to viewers at the time as a reference to the faithfulness the couple should have during their marriage.

bowron_renaissance_vaneyck340x247

Jan van Eyck Giovanni, Arnolfini and His Wife (1434)
The National Gallery, London

It’s important to note that I said “viewers at the time”. The Arnolfini Painting was created toward the beginning of the Flemish Primitives period, during the Northern Renaissance. Anyone who viewed it during the 15th century understood about the dog, and probably several dozen other symbolic references as well (there’s a lot in this particular panting). They didn’t need it explained to them, because they were living in the culture that created this visual shorthand. The curtains on the bed were red, and left open, hinting at the consummation of the marriage, the future lovemaking they’d enjoy… which wasn’t any kind of a secret to the painting’s intended audience. The fruit on the windowsill implied both fertility (it’s ripe, round, and fresh) and wealth (those fruits were expensive to import) — which would have been obvious at the time. For outside, untrained, or later, viewers, it doesn’t give the same immediate impression.

In other words, for people alive when the painting was completed, semiotics turns this classic work of art into a meme. You knew what it meant because you’d seen the evolution of why these images had that meaning. You got the references. You could look at the painting and just know.

Decoding semiotic clues becomes harder as you move away from the originating culture. This could be a movement in time — most of the interpretation was done in the 20th century — or place, which is why early archeologists got so very many things wrong when they applied their 19th-century British or German worldviews to Ancient Egyptian relics. (Or any other African finds, or Native American sites, or South American, or… pretty much any dig that uncovered anything, anywhere. White privilege in action!)

Writers use the semiotics of their invented world to help their readers understand people, art, culture, and events through the lens of interpreting the things left unsaid. It’s also used to understand the written depiction of things outside of dialogue. (It’s been used on you ever since you started reading, even if you didn’t realize it.)

It’s why you probably think of “Sherlock Holmes” when you see a deerstalker hat, or the image of man in a long beige trenchcoat, wearing a fedora, standing in the shadows, implies “early 20th century detective”. It’s why that same trench coat paired with a blue suit and Converse makes you think of the Doctor, instead. These things are the visual expression of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” a phrase that means much more than the individual words suggests… To fans of Star Trek.

For some writers, putting in semiotic clues is a way to skimp on the writing. If you show us at the beginning that your main character looks and moves like Ronald Reagan, then you don’t have to work as hard to convince us that this person is charming, affable, and secretly suffering from memory loss or dementia. We’ll know that, because Reagan has become an archetype, and his presence means those things to many people now.

(There are some sub-genres that work well for this sort of writing: space adventure comedies, and Mythos stories, for example. But unless you’re careful, it’s too easy to rely on flat archetypes and facile writing, putting the work on your readers instead of yourself.)

I’m not saying that semiotics is only a cheat for lazy writers, though. It can be, sure. When done well, it also adds layers and layers of subtext to original stories. Think of the way the color red is used in The Sixth Sense or the lighting cues that Dean Cudney used in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The way Sandy changes into the black outfit in Grease and the boys instantly know what she’s trying to say about herself.

To use a more current example, it’s how you know something about a person based on the type of ballcap they wear:

Attribution: Jen Sorensen

When you know, you know.

(Part 2 will be published on Sunday, Feb 3, 2019. Stay tuned!)

Free Flash Fiction: “The Scent of Food is Memory and Love”

One of my favorites! Originally posted on my website in March, 2017.

The Scent of Food is Memory and Love

Azedah took the leaves off of the last small, round eggplant, then cut through the dark purple flesh until she had turned it into a pile of thick slices. She added them to the others already simmering in olive oil in her largest frying pan, so wide it covered most of the cooktop on that side of the stove. When both sides were golden brown, she lifted the eggplant pieces out of the pan and put then aside to drain. Quickly, her fingers moving with long experience, she chopped a large yellow onion; the fine slices sizzled when they hit the hot oil left in the pan.

“Azedah,” the house said. “The visitors have arrived.”

“Ah, they are early! Is Yasmin out of the shower?”

“Yes. Yasmin is in the study,” the house replied.

Azedah stirred the onions with a worn wooden spatula, and the smell of their cooking spread across the large kitchen. “Ask Yasmine to greet our guests,” she said. Behind her, the pressure cooker beeped, its cycle finished. She tapped the “natural release” icon, and turned back to the stove.

She reached to her left – but her hand closed on empty air. Continue reading