Jorge Luis Borges Creates a List of 16 Ironic Rules for Writing Fiction

“Jorge Luis Borges 1951, by Grete Stern” via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons.

When we first read the work of Jorge Luis Borges, we may wish to write like him. When we soon dis­cov­er that nobody but Borges can write like Borges, we may wish instead that we could have col­lab­o­rat­ed with him. Once, he and his lumi­nary-of-Argen­tine-lit­er­a­ture col­leagues, friend and fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor Adol­fo Bioy Casares and Bioy Casares’ wife Silv­ina Ocam­po, got togeth­er to com­pose a sto­ry about a writer from the French coun­try­side. Though they nev­er did fin­ish it, one piece of its con­tent sur­vives: a list of six­teen rules, drawn up by Borges, for the writ­ing of fic­tion.

Or at least that’s how Bioy Casares told it to the French mag­a­zine L’Herne, which reprint­ed the list. Instead of six­teen rec­om­men­da­tions for what a writer of fic­tion should do, Borges play­ful­ly pro­vid­ed a list of six­teen pro­hi­bi­tions–things writ­ers of fic­tion should nev­er let slip into their work.

  1. Non-con­formist inter­pre­ta­tions of famous per­son­al­i­ties. For exam­ple, describ­ing Don Juan’s misog­y­ny, etc.
  2. Gross­ly dis­sim­i­lar or con­tra­dic­to­ry two­somes like, for exam­ple, Don Quixote and San­cho Pan­za, Sher­lock Holmes and Wat­son.
  3. The habit of defin­ing char­ac­ters by their obses­sions; like Dick­ens does, for exam­ple.
  4. In devel­op­ing the plot, resort­ing to extrav­a­gant games with time and space in the man­ner of Faulkn­er, Borges, and Bioy Casares.
  5. In poet­ry, char­ac­ters or sit­u­a­tions with which the read­er can iden­ti­fy.
  6. Char­ac­ters prone to becom­ing myths.
  7. Phras­es, scenes inten­tion­al­ly linked to a spe­cif­ic time or a spe­cif­ic epoch; in oth­er words, local fla­vor.
  8. Chaot­ic enu­mer­a­tion.
  9. Metaphors in gen­er­al, and visu­al metaphors in par­tic­u­lar. Even more con­crete­ly, agri­cul­tur­al, naval or bank­ing metaphors. Absolute­ly un-advis­able exam­ple: Proust.
  10. Anthro­po­mor­phism
  11. The tai­lor­ing of nov­els with plots that are rem­i­nis­cent of anoth­er book. For exam­ple, Ulysses by Joyce and Homer’s Odyssey.
  12. Writ­ing books that resem­ble menus, albums, itin­er­aries, or con­certs.
  13. Any­thing that can be illus­trat­ed. Any­thing that may sug­gest the idea that it can be made into a movie.
  14. Crit­i­cal essays, any his­tor­i­cal or bio­graph­i­cal ref­er­ence.  Always avoid allu­sions to authors’ per­son­al­i­ties or pri­vate lives. Above all, avoid psy­cho­analy­sis.
  15. Domes­tic scenes in police nov­els; dra­mat­ic scenes in philo­soph­i­cal dia­logues. And, final­ly:
  16. Avoid van­i­ty, mod­esty, ped­erasty, lack of ped­erasty, sui­cide.

The astute read­er will find much more of the coun­ter­in­tu­itive about this list than its focus on what not to do. Did­n’t Borges him­self spe­cial­ize in non-con­formist inter­pre­ta­tions, espe­cial­ly of exist­ing lit­er­a­ture? Don’t some of his most mem­o­rable char­ac­ters obsess over things, like imag­in­ing a human being into exis­tence or cre­at­ing a map the size of the ter­ri­to­ry, to the exclu­sion of all oth­er char­ac­ter­is­tics? Could­n’t he con­jure up the most exot­ic set­tings — even when draw­ing upon mem­o­ries of his native Buenos Aires — in the fewest words? And who else bet­ter used myths, metaphors, and games with time and space for his own, idio­syn­crat­ic lit­er­ary pur­pos­es?

But those who’ve spent real time read­ing Borges know that he also always wrote with a strong, if sub­tle, sense of humor. He had just the kind of sen­si­bil­i­ty that would pro­duce an iron­ic, self-par­o­dy­ing list such as this, though his­to­ry has­n’t record­ed whether his, Bioy Casares’, and Ocam­po’s young provin­cial writer would have per­ceived it in that way or pious­ly hon­ored its dic­tates. Borges does, how­ev­er, seem to have fol­lowed the bit about nev­er writ­ing “any­thing that may sug­gest the idea that it can be made into a movie” to the let­ter. I yield to none in my appre­ci­a­tion for Alex Cox’s cin­e­mat­ic inter­pre­ta­tion of Death and the Com­pass, but I enjoy even more the fact that Borges’ imag­i­na­tion has kept Hol­ly­wood stumped.

via lasesana/fae­na

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jorge Luis Borges’ Favorite Short Sto­ries (Read 7 Free Online)

Jorge Luis Borges Selects 74 Books for Your Per­son­al Library

Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967–8 Nor­ton Lec­tures On Poet­ry (And Every­thing Else Lit­er­ary)

Bud­dhism 101: A Short Intro­duc­to­ry Lec­ture by Jorge Luis Borges

Borges: Pro­file of a Writer Presents the Life and Writ­ings of Argentina’s Favorite Son, Jorge Luis Borges

7 Tips from Edgar Allan Poe on How to Write Vivid Sto­ries and Poems

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Sto­ry

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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