Author Archives: Peter "StirFrye" Yan

Catching Fire with Frye: The Hunger Games Model of Creative Writing


Archetype Spotting as Creative Writing

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has replaced The Da Vinci Code as the model/paradigm of creative writing by such popular creative writing teachers/authorities as Randy Ingermanson (Writing Fiction for Dummies 2010) and Larry Brooks (Story Engineering 2011 and Story Physics 2013).

Northrop Frye’s method of creative writing would add an extra dimension to their teachings. Frye would simply show how Collins’  re-wrote myths, or in his term, “displaced” the myths. The archetypal recipe for The Hunger Games:

1) The Reaping (Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery)

2) the 12  Districts tributes/maze (Theseus and the Minotaur)

3. the arena/human-hunting-humans (Richard Connell The Most Dangerous Game)

4. telescreens (George Orwell 1984)

5. Katniss bow/arrow and helpers  (Robin Hood).

Most creative writing teachers simply adapt Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (like Frye’s genre of Quest-Romance). When I approached Ingermanson and Brooks about Frye’s archetypal spotting/writing technique with The Hunger Games, Ingermanson could not use it; Brooks found it interesting but not instructive. Clearly what is needed is an illustration of archetypes on a micro-scale, a smaller version of what Prof. Glen R. Gill did on a macro-scale with Steven Spielberg’s films  spotting the biblical archetypes (posted previously) :

1. Genesis (Jurassic Park; A.I.)

2. Exodus (Schindler’s List)

3. Job (Minority Report)

4. Gospels (E.T.)

5. Jonah (Jaws)

6. Revelation (War of the Worlds).

While The Educated Imagination lectures brim with archetypes of setting, character and plot, perhaps what is needed is a formulaic listing of archetypes  broken down into the parts of a story, like Freytag’s Pyramid scheme (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement) or Syd Field’s 3 act structure of scriptwriting (setup, confrontation, resolution).

Both creative writing authors, Ingermanson and Brooks, basically use the screenwriting paradigm for fiction as popularized by Syd Field 3 act structure. Ingermanson’s variation on this model is to write 3 disasters prior to the deciding final climax in act 3. Brooks’s method converts Field’s 3 acts into 4 acts (the Confrontation in act 2 is split in half) and he marries character development on top of  the 4 acts/plot, as the main character goes through the stages of  Orphan (act 1), Wanderer (act 2) , Warrior (act 3), Martyr (act 4).

The closest model to Frye’s (using Frye’s method of 3 identities, individual, dual and social) is the author of the storywriting  software Dramatica.  Again, even that elaborate method could benefit from archetypal spotting, For now, without the input of Frye’s ideas (displaced archetypes or even type-anti-type typology), creative writing teachers will be missing  an extra dimension to their teachings.

Remembrance Day: Frye on In Flanders Field and Mythological Peace

On Remembrance Day, remembering how Frye viewed war and peace and poetry, how he says in what is probably my favourite book of his, Words with Power, that working in words and other media, may be our only way to salvation on earth, that is, the only way to show instead of argue with  the warmongers among  the  ideologues and/or the  “psychotic apes”.

On In Flanders Fields:

It is perhaps not an accident that the best known of all Canadian poems, “In Flanders’ Fields,” should express, in a tight, compressed, grim little rondeau, the same spirit of an inexorable ferocity which even death cannot relax, like the Old Norse warrior whose head continues to gnash and bite the dust long after it had been severed from his body.

The Bush Garden:  150

On Ideologues:

I keep having a vision of a guide or preacher or some professional haranguer standing in front of  a war cemetery in Flanders with a million crosses behind him and explaining how human aggressiveness has such essential survival value.

Late Notebooks 1982-1990: 678

On Human and Divine Commands:

In the Decalogue God says, “Thou shalt not kill,” or, in Hebrew, “Kill not.” Period, as we say now: there is nothing about judicial execution, war, or self-defence. True, these are taken care of elsewhere in the Mosaic code, because the commandment is addressed to human beings, that is, to psychotic apes who want to kill so much that they could not even understand an unconditional prohibition against killing, much less obey it.

The Great Code: 232

Cayley: Does the word also become a command?

Frye: It often takes the form of a command, yes. I think that the word of command in ordinary society is the word of authority, which relates to that whole area of ideology and rhetoric.  That kind of word of command has to be absolutely minimal. It can’t have any comment attached to it. Soldiers won’t hang themselves on barbed wire in response to a subordinate clause. If there’s any commentary necessary, it’s the sergeant’s major’s job to explain what it is, not the officer’s. Now that is a metaphor, it’s an analogy, of the kind of command that comes from the other side of the imagination, what has been called the kerygmatic, the proclamation from God. That is not so much a command as a statement of what your own potentiality is and of the direction in which you have to go to attain it.  But it’s a command that leaves your will free, whether you follow it or not.

Northrop Frye in Conversation: 182

On Human Peace vs Mythological Peace

In between these visions of creation comes the Incarnation, which presents God and man as indissolubly locked together in a common enterprise. This is Christian, but the answering and supporting “Thou” of Buber, which grows out of the Jewish tradition, is not imaginatively very different. Faith, then, is not developed by clogging the air with questions of the “Does a God really exist?” type and answering them with equal nonsense, but in working, in words and other media, towards a peace that passes understanding, not by contradicting understanding, but by disclosing, behind the human peace that is merely a temporary cessation of a war, the proclaimed or mythological model of a peace infinite in both its source and its goal.

Words with Power:  124-125


Frye on Elections in General

With the U.S. presidential elections coming up,  Frye’s comments on elections in general might help see the hoopla for what it is. One quotation is from a special lecture and the other is from an American interview with Bill Moyers. Enjoy.

It has been said that those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it: this means very little, because we are all in the position of voters in a  Canadian [or American] election, condemned to repeat history anyway whether we learn it or not. But those who refuse to confront their own real past, in whatever form, are condemning themselves to die without having been born.

(Creation and Recreation: 1980)


MOYERS: Is television here influencing politics the way it is in the United States, making it a sporting event or entertainment?

FRYE: Very much so. I would like it better if I thought we had people who could play up to it. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter all that much who’s president of the United States. What did it matter in twentieth-century history that George [Gerald] Ford was a President of the United States?

MOYERS: Are you saying that the President is the front man for a system that continues to operate irrespective of his leadership?

FRYE: I’m not sure that the pyramid myth, the notion of the man at the top of society, really conforms to the realities of twentieth-century life. There is a whole machinery that is bound to continue functioning, so that ninety-five percent of what any President can do is already prescribed for him – unless he’s a complete lunatic. For that reason, it doesn’t seem so profoundly significant who is in the position of leadership.

MOYERS: What does that say about the role of the leader in the modern world?

FRYE: It means that the leader has to be a teammate. The charismatic leader, to the extent that he is that, is a rather dangerous person if he starts taking himself seriously. I’m a little leery about the adulation bestowed on Gorbachev. He has a very complex piece of machinery to try to help operate. The historical process works itself out in ways that really don’t allow for the emergence of a specific leader. It’s only in the army that you have the specific leader because that’s the way the military hierarchy’s set up.

MOYERS: But historical processes are the accumulated actions of autonomous individuals expressing their wills, appetites, desires, passions in the world out there. Those are subject to being changed by leaders, are they not?

FRYE: People are much more pushed around than that by the cultural conditioning in which they’re brought up and the social conditions under which they have to operate. The person who emerges as leader is really the person who is the ultimate product of that social conditioning.

MOYERS: There was an Italian Marxist in the 1920s who said that in the future all leaders will be corporate. There will not be single leaders. Of course that was before Mussolini and before Hitler.

FRYE: He was right to the extent that the charismatic single leader turned out to be a disaster.

MOYERS: So maybe the corporate Leader is not only an historical necessity, but a desirable phenomenon as well.

FRYE: He’s desirable because I think he’s essential for movement in the direction of peace. When I said that it was only the military that gives you the person on top, the supreme command, you notice that the dictators, the supreme leaders, have always been leaders of an army and have always imposed what is essentially martial law on their communities.

(Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas, 1989)


Frye, St. Thomas and Basketball

The first Toronto Raptor home game yesterday to start the  new NBA season ( and no NHL games in sight) reminded me of Northrop Frye’s thoughts on the game:

At Princeton I bought four books to keep me up to date with the mid-50s. Maritain’s, Malraux’s Voices of Silence, Auerbach’s Mimesis, and Curtius on medieval literature and Latin. At that time Curtius was the only one I could read with any real profit: Mimesis was all very well but I was working out an anti-mimetic theory of literature; Malraux said a few excellent things but was full of bullshit; Maritain, as I said, kept busting his skull against this preposterous “Art and Scholasticism” thesis, insisting that critical theory just had to come out of St. Thomas, who cared as much about the arts as I do about basketball league playoffs.

           (CW: Late Notebooks 1982-1990)

Salinger’s Concrete Universal


Value judgments are a lie
Find the patterns that apply
Squeeze out Hamlet, let it dry
Presto! Catcher in the Rye.

[A poem that circulated among Victoria College students in the 1980s.]

Salinger’s book is my favourite, a work that explained to me my feelings of alienation while growing up as a C.B.C. (Canadian Born Chinese) split between two worlds, Chinese and Canadian, and wanting to be accepted by both. Perhaps that’s one reason why early on I loved English Literature so much: it was a way to be accepted by the ascendant class in Toronto during the 1970s. How much more Canadian can I be if I studied the literature?

Too bad racists are philistines. But I digress.

Frye helped explain my love of The Catcher in the Rye: The Concrete Universal. By being so specific, the novel speaks universally, beyond the limits of its time and place and setting.

It is a work situated somewhere in phase 1 of Satire/Comedy, which may also explain the universal power of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Frye helped me see that the latter is the mythical opposite of Catcher, a full blown Quest Romance/phase 2 Satire. Both protagonists skip school. Both travel through a big city. Both have dates. Both have a kid sister integral to the resolution. The difference is in the power of the main character when confronted by society. Ferris is one with his society. Holden is not, until the very end — the last line, in fact. Those who say Catcher is a depressing book are guilty of a substantial misreading. It has saved me on several occasions.

Thank you J.D. Salinger.  And, as always, thank you Northrop Frye.

New Generation of Critics vs. the Philistines


Responding to Merv Nicholson’s earlier post

Merv, from my secondary school vantage point, you can rest assured there is a new generation of Frye critics. The Educated Imagination is being taught in more high schools than ever; not only by DeepFrye’s like myself, but students.  In one school a student ON HER OWN ACCORD read EI and then pushed for a presentation before the school’s English department to have all the teachers teach Frye.  Like the classics, Frye’s work refuses to go away — no matter what the School of Resentment says.

If Frye is dead, refuted, parodied, caricatured, it is merely the myth of Goliath: new Professor Davids making a reputation slinging (mostly dirt) at the Goliath Frye. But they are the true Philistines. If you caught the exchanges between David Richter and others on this site, you will see what I mean.

I do teach my Grade 12 students other schools of critical thought, but Frye gives them the most freedom to be creative. Their essays are mostly bereft of secondary sources, as they engage the text directly, doing their own archetype spotting, not to mention ideologue spotting too. (I mean, how will a Marxist criticism of say Oedipus Rex go???)

What is most intimidating of Frye’s technique in the academy is that it exposes the gatekeepers for what they are: power hungry ideologues smashing whatever is in their way, including literature and literary criticism. In fact, Frye’s latest taxonomy of modes in Words with Power (descriptive, dialectical, ideologial, mythical, metaliteray) can also be used to chart all the schools of criticism, most of which fall under “dialectical/ideological”.

Frye and I, A Skinny Chinese Guy: On the 19th Anniversary of His Death Jan. 23, 2010


Among my family and friends, Northrop Frye, Canada’s greatest thinker, is the forbidden four letter F-word.

No small talk, gossip or conversation begins or ends without my mentioning his name. Back from the cottage? Frye says you re-enacted the Exodus story, escaping the city for your promised land. A fan of the Dougs, Flutie or Gilmour?  Frye calls them the classic David/Goliath, underdog story. The success of The Blair Witch Project? Frye sees it as the ironic unhappy reversal of the Hansel/Gretel story, complete with witch, forest, trail of stones, and house. The demise of hockey czar, Alan Eagleson? Frye says life imitates literature, as Eagleson exploited players just like Bluebeard exploited his wives, until one dared to bring him down. My Ukrainian wife, Leah’s surprise “that the man of my dreams turns out to be a skinny Chinese guy”. Frye says beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, as my competition, the”tall, dark, and handsome” archetype, is, thankfully, a mass media construction.

Outside of the boxed holdings at U of T’s Victoria College, Frye’s Alma Mater, one of the greatest collection of Frye paraphernalia — autographs, out-of-print books, tape recordings, photos, films, videos, lecture notes, juvenilia, short stories, caricatures, cartoons, reviews, t-shirts, interviews, newsletters — belongs to me, a skinny Canadian Born Chinese Guy (CBC for short; American Born Chinese are ABCs). Frye fanatics at Victoria College were dubbed Fryedolators or SmallFrye.  My best man, R. Bingham, christened me StirFrye.

So, why do I, and so many others, love Frye? The short and long answer: he takes us everywhere we want to go. And today, on the 19th anniversary of his death, after the tributes of more qualified and distinguished academics and writers, I have finally gathered enough nerve to pay tribute to the greatest 20th century literary critic, on behalf of his favourite audience — the non-specialist, reading lay public.

Like many readers, I first encountered Frye in ENG 101, in “The Motive for Metaphor,”  an essay I read out of patriotic duty, as he and Atwood were the only Canadians represented.  Reading Frye reminded me when I first read Revelations:  understanding little, but the incredible rush of striking metaphors — in an essay, no less — clustered in my brain like a drug-induced dream, a Frye high for awakened minds. That piece led me to the rest of The Educated Imagination and his works.

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Peter Yan’s Top Ten Reasons for Literature


10. Literature is a genuine human creation, a language like math and music, which does not occur in nature. What is defined as culture is a) giving nature a human form (the sounds of nature are not the sounds of music), b) the best that has been thought and said.

9. Political/Scientific reasons: Literature presents different visions of the world we want or don’t want, a way to measure and choose politicians and policies when we vote. It even guides and inspires science, as the visions of literature are being realized, such as Icarus and hang-gliding, or computers that write and respond to vocal commands, even the cellular phone, an influence from sci-fi Star Trek. Also, politicians and governments do not sink to their lowest level of brutality, inflicting the greatest misery on the greatest number, until they rationalize it in words. See Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Be able to read to know difference between ideas which are for or against life, and not accept them passively.

8. Literature reminds us of our need for primary concerns which we share with animals (especially our concerns for food and water, sex, clothing, shelter, and unimpeded movement) over secondary concerns which are our loyalties to a group/mob and beliefs like capitalism, religion, communism. Too often we go to war because we don’t like how another group thinks. Many stories are also of a paradise lost and gained (e.g. story of Eden, Atlantis, the Garden of Hesperides) and we can’t go anywhere unless nature is looked after as well, a strong message for the troubled environment we live in.

7. One often missed point: art and literature are therapeutic. Watching Hollywood movies is the most obvious application of art to cheer us up. Most movies are adaptations of books. No books = no movies, as scripts themselves are written in a literary form, and are direct descendants of drama and theatre. Books and other arts (role-playing) provide a healthy catharsis and emotional release, as a healthy mind is the basis of all health.

6. Reading stories force us to identify with the main character who often is very different from us. This ability to identify, to walk in someone else’s shoes, helps us to identify with and learn tolerance for people who dress, think, speak, act and worship differently.

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Top 10 Reasons to Defend Literary Criticism

top 10                 

10        It is possible to live without criticism and just experience reading. Just as it is possible to listen and enjoy music without knowing any musical theory. Just as it is possible to enjoy nature without knowing geology, chemistry, physics, biology, all subjects whose object of study is nature. But as Aristotle says all people desire to know.

9          Criticism and its potential exist the moment a work of literature comes into being. Once a writer writes in conventions like iambic pentameter, couplets, rhyme, then the criticism which examines these conventions become relevant — in this case in the form of the New Criticism.

ANALOGY: Once living things and the human body evolved, then the subject of biology potentially exists.

 8          Criticism shows us how to teach literature. There are critical methods, which parallel scientific methods. There are finite methods of reading, as some readings are valid and some are not. Academic subjects are not democratic in the sense that everyone’s opinions matter. (Science does not admit the notion of a flat earth.) Consequently criticism should reveal the valid methods of reading which contribute to knowledge.   

7.         Criticism is defined as the theory of the use of words, the awareness of the use of words. It is a social science that studies the effect of words on society, the use of words and images by literary writers, as well as the mass media, advertising, politics. It shows us the different ways of reading art, the verbal arts, applied arts, sciences, applied sciences, people and society. 

6.         We are affected by words as much as we are by the weather. Orwell’s major theme: If words are smashed and deprived of their meaning and readers become illiterate, then society cannot change for the better and most likely will turn for the worse. 

5          Criticism helps to relate literature to society. For better or worse, the critic is the pioneer and shaper of culture, a professional reader of writers.

ANALOGY: for better or worse, the law is in the hands of a judge, who is not morally superior to anyone, but merely knows the law more than the average person. 

4.         Criticism has the same relationship to literature as philosophy has to wisdom, aesthetics to art, and science to nature. It relays literature’s vision of the human condition.  Criticism should and ought to progress, to explain these infinite visions of literature, which continues to relate itself to culture, now and in the future.  We do not judge works of literature. They judge us: how well we encounter and engage literature’s vision or revelation. 

3.         Literature is mute, dumb, and cannot speak. It is “not heard but overheard,”  in Mill’s phrase. It shows rather than tells. It does not, like an essay, state its theme/thesis explicitly.  Our experience of anything, including literature, is often incomplete — we need criticism to fill in the gaps and prepare us for the kind of experience we may still potentially have. 

2          A writer should be read, experienced, assessed according to the literary conventions (s)he inherits. We need the critic, the professional reader, to clarify those conventions for the average reader. 

1          The act of criticism — reading, interpreting, translating, understanding — can be as CREATIVE as the act of producing literature. There is a creative literary imagination and a creative theoretical imagination, a power to create and a power to understand. Creativity, therefore, resides not simply in literary genre (plays, poems, prose, essay) but in the writer/artist as well as the reader.

More Oedipal References


I overlooked some  obvious literary applications of Oedipus Rex, to, of course, Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth. As Harold Bloom says, instead of doing a Freudian reading of Shakespeare, do a Shakespearean reading of Freud. Perhaps, the Oedipus Complex should have been named the Hamlet Complex, where Freud, so the story goes, discovered his most important analysis at work.

There is also this contemporary usage of Oedipus Rex:  In Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite there is a scene set in the old open Athenian amphitheatre, and one masked Chorus member is speaking with Jocasta:

“Look! Here’s a man who killed his father, and slept with his mother.”
“I hate to tell you what they call my son in Harlem.”

Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks after the break.

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