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Friday, August 31, 2007

 

Rabbit show jumping

Did you know it existed? I didn't. But it does! And apparently the participants take it very seriously, as well they might, animal training of any kind being a definite skill.


Behold: the Bunny Olympics. What I really like is the way the first bunny sits up on its heels so its owner can pick it up when it hears her approach. The jumping is pretty impressive, but that's just sweet.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

 

Conservative fantasies

Here's an interesting article entitled 'The Aesthetics of Fantasy', on the blog of Jonathan McCalmont, discussing the format that most people think of when they hear the word 'fantasy', to wit, epic fantasy, or what he calls 'fat fantasy' (referring to the thickness of the books). Some people seem to find the concept of 'fat' perjorative, which is not how he seems to mean it (anyway, let's have some respect for different body types here, people), but to avoid annoying anyone more than I usually do, I'm going to use the phrase 'tome fantasy' instead, as less alliteratively pleasing but possibly less controversial as well.

He makes, among many interesting points, one that I've thought myself but have seldom seen expressed: namely, that the fantasy genre has a strong streak of conservatism in it. It's not what you'd expect; fantasy readers tend to think of themselves as unconventional, and in a fantasy world you can have more or less anything, which ought to lend itself to endless variation, but in fact, the market drive for more-of-the-same means that many of your bestselling authors are going to conform quite closely to the conventions that this relatively young genre has quickly accrued, and new authors are likely to be judged in the light of these conventions by conservative readers whether the writers are particularly interested in those conventions or not.

I have a theory that when it comes to fantasy, there are two main ways to make a success: either you conform closely with the prevailing fashions and establish yourself as a heavy-hitting deliverer of the conventional goods, or you engage aggressively with them and write a book that directly challenges and subverts them. McCalmont opines in another article, 'The only good fantasy novels are those that set out to pick a fight with the very foundations of the genre.' It certainly can make for a successful fantasy novel - but there's a problem: by the act of rebelling against those foundations, you implicitly acknowledge their authority. The rebellious type of book can net you considerable admiration, as people who are accustomed to the tome fantasy traditions will see you as extremely innovative, but I personally have my suspicions: it's fairly innovative to do a new take on the wicked stepmother, comic sidekick or boy-who-would-be-king tropes, but it's much more innovative to simply come up with new characters and situations without referring back to the cliches at all. If there was a law saying you had to have a comic sidekick in every story ever written, then the most original stories would be ones where the sidekick didn't behave as expected, but as no such law exists - or at least, not if you set aside tome fantasy conventions - writers are free to be entirely original if they please.

Hence the third way, which is to ignore the conventions altogether and simply write a book the way you think it should be written - but that is likely to net you a smaller audience. If your book is sold under the label of fantasy (which tends to make an author dependent on the fantasy market, as it's one of those genres many people who aren't fans simply won't touch) but fails to acknowledge the conventions, a proportion of the fantasy market is going to have difficulty knowing what to make of it. The tropes are so present in the genre that, for people who read little else, how the author engages with them is as much a criterion for assessment as how they handle fundamentals like plot, pacing and characterisation. An author who doesn't engage with the tropes at all can be found as confusing as an author who eschews plot. Hence there's a pressure from the readership to perpetuate the traditions - sales figures - which encourages publishers to find marketable authors who will keep the conventions alive. Traditionalist readers read them, and so the conventions remain.

So fantasy has a tendency towards aesthetic conservativism, or at least, certain kinds of fantasy do. But McCalmont goes further, and raises the subject of political conservatism:

It is rare for fantasy stories to be about changing the world for the better, instead they tend to revolve around protecting the status quo against an evil threatening it (Lord of the Rings) or undertaking a quest that wrenches the protagonists away from an idyllic childhood (A Song of Fire and Ice). It also explains the popularity of setting fantasy novels in what are essentially post-apocalyptic dark-ages where some earlier age of enlightenment or advancement has passed leaving only ruins, relics and legends. This results in stories that are about recapturing a by-gone age either figuratively by seeking a powerful object from that age or literally by changing the current world so that it resembles the old one more ... The tendency of fantasy novels to look backwards rather than forwards combines with unpleasantly racist and reactionary genre staples such as a confrontational attitude towards the Otherness of non-European cultures to give an impression of unpleasantly right-wing politics. This is most unfortunate as this is not necessarily reflective of fantasy writers being particularly prone to reactionary views but rather a result of sticking too closely to tropes drawn up at a time when unthinking racism and hostility to Otherness was very much the norm.

By this logic, even a left-leaning author is handling an essentially authoritarian story structure, because of the time at which such stories were first popularised. He probably has a point, but there's another element that occurs to me, due to the nature of authoritarianism. (Credit for this theory should really go to my boyfriend, who pointed it out as we discussed the above article.)

I've already recommended Bob Altmeyer's oustanding online book The Authoritarians, and I'll probably recommend it again; anyway, one of the many things he says is that authoritarianism is intimately linked with a sense of crisis. Chapter Two discusses the roots of authoritarianism, and the main one is fear: the feeling that the world is on the edge of collapse. As he puts it, 'Authoritarians score highly on the Dangerous World scale' (referring to a test that asks if you agree with statements like 'Any day now, chaos and anarchy could erupt around us.'). He continues:

[Authoritarians] are, in general, more afraid than most people are ... Events like the attacks of 9/11 can drive large parts of the population to being as frightened as authoritarian followers are day after day. In calm, peaceful times as well as dangerous ones, [authoritarians] feel threatened.

In the mindset of an authoritarian person, the barbarians are always at the gate.

Now, think about the nature of the standard tome fantasy plot. There's a Dark Lord, right? And probably hordes of minions. There's a quest that needs to be undertaken, and if it fails, the world will be plunged into darkness. The barbarians are, in fact, actually at the gate. The world in a fantasy novel really is the way authoritarians believe it to be.

The real world is seldom this black-and-white, right is seldom entirely on the side of good Us as opposed to evil Them, and considering that people have been on record complaining that things are going downhill and society is on the edge of moral collapse pretty much since humanity worked out how to write*, I think we can assume that humanity as a whole, if not fragile individuals, is a bit more robust than the panickers imagine it to be. But the very fact that people have been saying we're going to the dogs as long as they've been keeping records suggests that there's a recurring personality type that considers the world at bay from the forces of darkness, no matter what the current political situation.

In a fantasy novel, in short, the world is beset by crisis in a way that very seldom happens in the real world - but to authoritarian instincts, such a scenario expresses how things actually seem to be.

Which is to say, the tome fantasy plot has an authoritarian ring to it not because fantasy writers are authoritarian, but because authoritarians are fantasists.

Of course, some fantasy writers may well be authoritarian, but the problem is more with the story structure than with the writers. Stories express a world-view, and, even to a low-authoritarian, easygoing novelist who's more attracted to the tome fantasy story by the shimmering swords and sense of adventure, it's difficult not to in some way express a world-view that lends itself to authoritarian thinking. I suspect that in less authoritarian writers, this may present something of a puzzle. I tend to be pretty low-authoritarian in my thinking, and this led to some story issues becoming essential in Bareback: the principle that if a society was divided into two groups, there had to be wrongs on both sides; the fact that thinking ethnocentrically leads even nice people to act badly; the belief that power is easily abused and that those who have power are just as fallible as those who don't; the presence of a somewhat unreliable narrator, as I have a lot of trouble creating characters who are right about everything - it goes against the grain of how I think people really are, and the more perfect they are, the more bored with them I become. But then, the thriller structure, which is what I was using, gives you a lot of flexibility, with everything from the square-jawed government enforcer to the humane, free-thinking maverick being perfectly possible. I don't think I'd ever write a stop-the-barbarians quest, because I'd either have to demonise the barbarians and get bored as all get-out, or I'd have to humanise them and then the quest wouldn't be a good idea. But then, no writer is a perfect yardstick for any other, and there may be other unauthoritarian authors who feel better able to handle the difficulties.

To a writer who does have an authoritarian temperament, on the other hand, handling such a story will be a snap. It's a simple structure that expresses what they consider to be a fundamental truth about the world.

Does this necessarily mean that tome fantasy is a politically questionable genre? Well, to a certain extent that's going to be subjective. If you're authoritarian, you'll probably consider it expressing a higher truth, whereas if you're not authoritarian, you're either going to consider it merely enjoyable and not bother worrying about the implications, or you'll find it, if not offensive, then possibly less engaging. One reason I could never get into Tolkien, despite many recommendations, was that I simply didn't buy the idea of a Dark Lord. Even though Tolkien tries for moral complexity, and I'm sure he was a moral person (I have no idea how authoritarian he was), the closest he comes to complexity is the temptation of good people; good is definitely over Here and bad over There. There is a simple acid test for morality: either someone wants the ring destroyed, or they want it preserved. I just couldn't swallow the idea that morality was that simple, and it left me feeling less interested in the whole thing. I wonder if boredom may be a factor with moral incompatibility.

Is there a connection between conservative plotting and conservative politics? I'd be extremely wary of making such a generalisation. McCalmont remarks that:

...fantasy frequently includes a strong moral element, but that it rarely actually discusses the content of the morality in question. Instead, people fight to destroy things such as the forces of evil or ancient dead gods or corrupting artefacts or they wage war on people such as demented wizards and witch queens. In essence, morality in fantasy is not so much a question of commandments or rights, it is about wanting rid of a certain object or being on the same side as some particular person.

This is a fairly authoritarian mindset: the law is the law and you have to find the grail/get rid of the grail because that's just how it has to be. Evil is a given at the outset. To a writer who's interested in genuine moral complexity, that's a rather stymieing standpoint, and you can handle morality more flexibly if you abandon it. But what about writers who try it and are genuinely uncomfortable with authoritarianism? I'd take J.K. Rowling as an example; she has a basic morality of alliances - pretty much nobody who sides with Voldemort can be considered a good person - but complicates it by including the fact that, while you can't be for the Dark Lord and good, you can be against the Dark Lord and bad. Consider Dolores Umbridge, Blairite inquisitor and Kafkaesque torturer of children, who subjects teenagers to scarring torments in detention if they question the Ministry's party line: she's not in favour of the bad guy winning, but there's no question that she's a nasty piece of work. And, it's worth pointing out, her politics are rather close to Blair's policy of Spin: making everybody believe that everything is all right is more important than admitting there's a problem and fixing it. Which is to say, she's satirising the authorities under which the book was written. All of which suggests a pretty open-minded and non-authoritarian author.

However, there's at least a case to be made that the morality of alliances remains in some ways essential to the structure. If you look at the anti-Voldemort-but-bad people, they all have an alliance as well: they're on the side of the Ministry. People can be irritating, or peculiar, or even mean, and on the side of good, but broken down to its essentials, Rowling's story complicates morality by a rather clever device: there are three sides rather than two. The Ministry serves the function of the other bad guys; bad guys who emerge as bad over time rather than presenting as bad right away, but still, follow the story of Percy Weasley, and you'll see how the moral trajectory works: either he sides with his family under Dumbledore and is a good guy, or he sides with the Ministry, in which case, nuts to him. Rowling makes a bold attempt, and is gifted enough at writing compliicated good characters that not all the evil is on the side of the Dark Lord - people on the good side do some pretty bad things, even among the Dumbledore-followers - but as the story requires a battle structure, alliance remains at least a strong hint as to someone's basic nature. (I say this as a Rowling admirer, by the way: her psychological insights, especially with flawed 'normal' people, are pretty sound, and on the whole I think she makes an excellent fist of writing a battle-fantasy structure from a non-authoritarian viewpoint. Her solutions are, I'd say, interesting examples of the kind of choices you have to make when you want to write a morally flexible story around a structure where alliances are an essential component.)

I suspect that a major reason for this difficulty is that everyone is more inclined to authoritarian thinking when the authority is their own. And an author has absolute authority over their own stories: characters live or die by their words, and nothing gets done without their will. If you say your own character is good or bad, you're right: an author cannot run a fictional world like a democracy, because unreal people are incapable of casting votes. As a result, authors are more likely to become authoritarian when they write. In the real world, it's generally incorrect to say that a particular person or group of people are bad, but if an author says it about their own characters, they can't be wrong. They can be unconvincing, but they can't be incorrect.** Hence, the tendency to pronounce on other people's characters that is a vice in overly authoritarian personalities becomes a practical necessity for a fiction writer.

You can get away with this if you avoid classifying good and evil sides, but if someone is definitely bad, then it's a slippery slope. I'd need a lot more space than a blog entry to explore the topic properly, but I think it is this reason, rather than the fact that epic fantasy as a genre began in a more imperial age, that explains why it feels so conservative. Authoritarian personalities tend to experience life more like an epic fantasy than most people, and such experience motivates their behaviour and opinions. Combine this with the fact that, when you're writing a book, you are the authorities, and it seems hard for a liberal author to escape falling into a plot that inadvertently views the world through more authoritarian eyes than the author's workaday ones. This may not be a universal rule, of course, and as my knowledge of tome fantasy is pretty limited, it not generally being to my taste anyway, there are probably counter-examples. But I do think that as a rule, tome fantasy, a genre that's heavily indebted to a few major influences, has a tendency to be structurally conservative, certainly artistically, and at least skirting the edges of politically as well.

What do y'all think? I should say in advance that if you cite examples I may not have read them, but in general?



*As witness the Classical poet Horace, who wrote in his Odes III thus:

aetas parentum, peior avis, tulit
nos nequiores, mox daturos
progeniem vitiosiorem.

Which I've decided to translate thus:

Our parents' age, which didn't match our gran's,
Gave birth to us, a less impressive set,
And soon we'll keep disgracing all our clans
By breeding children still more rotten yet.

It's not a very accurate translation; click here for a better one (it's on page 108) - but at least mine rhymes.

That was in 23 BCE.


**Though someone pointed me towards a subsquently-rewritten
Wikipedia article which accused Rowling of 'misrepresenting' a family tree in her fiction:


According to JK Rowling, Lord Voldemort is the last surviving descendant of Salazar Slytherin. This is extraordinarily unlikely to be the case: in a thousand years, the family would have spread itself enough to permeate most of the pure-blood families (even when the cousin-marriages of the Gaunts are considered), especially when the existence of illegitimacies is acknowledged. The Gaunt status probably rested on their being the last recognisable descendants of Salazar Slytherin. Rowling's statements are easy to explain however: when the 'extinctions' of noble families are talked of, distaff descents are rarely considered, and illegitimate descents even more rarely. In addition, one might consider the case of Harry Potter's family: Rowling has stated that he has no living relatives save the Dursleys, but not only is this logically absurd (he will have second, third, fourth cousins, etc), but Rowling herself may have demonstrated a relationship between Harry and the Black family, whereby at the time of Voldemort's fall, Harry still had a living great-uncle and great-aunt (although this possibility is still disputed, due to lack of confirmation and problems of various ages: see Black Family Tree). It is therefore entirely possible that in referring to Slytherin's descent, as in referring to Harry Potter's family, Rowling has simplified the matter, and thus misrepresented it.


But I suspect that this was either written by someone very young or a bit obsessive. It's a tribute to the illusionist's skill Rowling manifests that at least one of her readers is under the impression that she's more like a biographer or historian than like someone who's been making it all up, but I fear they're on the wrong track.



Later: oh look - Jonathan McCalmont has picked up on this post, and replies to it here. I'm pasting what he said in the comments, along with my reply...


Later again: McCalmont's article about my post seems to have attracted so much negative comment that he's decided to stop debating fantasy at all for a while. Oops. I hope I haven't started a fight there. Anyway, a couple of people in the discussion thread pointed out that the word 'authoritarian' hadn't been clearly defined, and they had a point, so here goes:

Briefly, it runs thus, according to Altemeyer: an authoritarian personality displays:

- A high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in your society

- High levels of aggression the name of those authorities

- High levels of conventionalism - meaning not only a desire to live according to the norms, but the belief that everybody else ought to as well

The cognitive traits associated with these three defining features include an: unusually frightened attitude towards the dangers of the world, and the belief that any deviation from the norms is likely to be the final straw that will cast the world into chaos; a tendency to compartmentalised thinking; double standards, particularly when it comes to judging the outsiders more harshly than the insiders; illogical thinking, specifically assuming that the if the conclusion is right, the reasoning must be sound, rather than the other way; credulousness towards people who tell you what you want to hear; ethnocentrism; dogmatism; and in general, a deep discomfort with having certainties questioned and a preference for having your certainties provided by trusted leaders.

Those are authoritarian followers. Altemeyer also describes authoritarian leaders, who may cast themselves as being similar in thinking to authoritarian followers to get support, but in fact are characterised by different qualities: a strong desire for power; a belief that the world is a jungle and it's every man for himself; a conviction that kindness is for suckers and it's better to be feared than loved; lack of sympathy for those weaker than themselves; an amoral belief that right and wrong are irrelevant in comparison to what you can get away with; and, in general, a desire to be on top and a willingness to lie, pretend and screw people over to get there.

Those two personalities are a natural fit for one another and often work together to everyone's detriment, hence, despite the fact that they're very different, it can be easy to assume somebody is talking about one when actually they're talking about the other, leading to confusion. When I said 'authoritarian' in my original article, I meant authoritarian followers.

Hence, it's possible to have a book written by an authoritarian follower - or else, in the style of thinking that an authoritarian followers displays - that posits noble leaders who are protecting their flock from the evil and chaos of the world, because that's the kind of leader that authoritarian followers want to believe in. It's also possible to have a book written by an authoritarian leader, or in the style of one, in which the hero gets what he grabs and the divvil take the hindermost. I wouldn't necessarily assume that somebody who write a book in the style of an authoritarian leader or follower must inevitably be one in real life; Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, for example, are heartily of the authoritarian leader persuasion, but in real life he was an extremely shy and unhappy man who shot himself at the age of thirty after the death of his mother, poor guy. A very sad story, but not at all an authoritarian one.

(Despite the running order, the two comments below were posted before this update. Just to avoid further confusion.)

Monday, August 27, 2007

 

Whoa! The blog is back!

Hello again. As the astute Bran Fan spotted, this blog temporarily disappeared over the weekend, for reasons that are slightly obscure to me. My only theory is that the card I was paying for the website on expired and they just noticed it, and then took a while to renew... However, if it turns out that this was not the reason, and the blog disappears again, please accept my apologies and be assured that I'm trying hard to work out what on earth has happened.

Long post tomorrow. :-)

Friday, August 24, 2007

 

W.C. Fields juggles

... And my good giddy aunt, that man can juggle.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

 

Cynical shyness

Have you seen this? A researcher has come up with a phrase to describe the psychology of school shooters: cynical shyness. Socially awkward young men who want contact with other people but insulate themselves against rejection with feelings of anger, creating a 'cult of one', can turn violent.

It's a striking thought. You can see how it could turn into a vicious circle: a shy boy doesn't manage to make contact with other people, so, lacking good experiences of them, forms a misanthropic view, which then alienates people further and reinforces his cynicism. But something else I've noticed is that this 'cult of one' can actually extend itself into identification, a cult of disparate individuals who've never met.

When Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people and injured twenty-five others at Virginia Tech last April, I remember reading newspapers and blogs about it. What struck me was the difference between media and internet speculations about him. The papers, or at least the tackier ones, had a tendency to blame the movies - he saw Oldboy! (Or at least, he might have.) That must be why he killed all those people! - which is pretty stupid. But a lot of comments I saw people make online were, to my mind, equally odd.

Roughly, the comments went like this: it's obvious why he did it. He couldn't stand being laughed at by snobby girls and bullied by asshole boys, and one day he finally snapped.

Now, at the time, little was known about Seung-Hui. All that was really being reported was that one of his tutors had found him menacing, that he'd stalked a couple of female students and taken photographs in class, that he was withdrawn and unfriendly and didn't say much. That doesn't sound, on the face of it, exactly like your classic bullied kid: sexually harassing girls and taking unwelcome pictures, if anything, sounds more bullying than bullied. From what I can gather, it seems that he was bullied at high school and shot college students who weren't actually the people who'd bullied him; presumably by that time he'd retreated so far into cynical shyness that one set of bastards was much like another, as far as he was concerned. But still, it seems very likely that most of the people he shot hadn't actually done anything to hurt him.

But the notable thing was this: there were a lot of people out there who instantly identified with him, even in the absence of direct evidence that he was actually being bullied by the people he killed. He was unpopular and angry, and so people leapt in, filling in his background circumstances to resemble their own. The implication was clear: he was angry with everyone. That's like me. And it's justified.

Obviously it would be foolish to conclude from this that every shy, unhappy person is about to reach for a gun, but it's worrying when you think about the phenomenon of copycat crimes. Because schoolyard shootings are in many ways copycat. One lonely, angry kid hears about a massacre, and does, on a much grander scale, the same thing that lot of people were confining to internet comments: assumes that the killer was much like them - which might be right - and that what they did was therefore justified and admirable - which definitely isn't.

In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker describes assassins as being like Evel Kneivel-style stuntmen:

Like those of a daredevil, all of an assassin's worth and accomplishment derive from one act, one moment. This is true for most heroes, but assassins and daredevils are not people who rise courageously to meet some emergency. The assassins and the daredevils create their own emergencies [...] but what if someone got the motorcycle, painted it special, got the colorful leather pants and jacket, got the ramps, notified the press, got all set up at the canyon ... and then didn't do it? Suddenly he's not cool and special; he's pathetic. Now he's a guy whose silly name and goofy accessories add up to geek, not hero. The whole thing loses its luster if he doesn't do it.

De Becker also notes that the amount of attention assassins get from the press, dwelling on their 'meticulous' planning and showing them being chaffeured around by bodyguards like a star, can make the act seem more glamorous. Whether or not a school or college massacre is similar in psychology to the assassination of a celebrity I'm not qualified to judge, but it does seem likely that if an act of vengeful violence (even if vengeful towards people who haven't actually hurt the killer) becomes a compensation fantasy for an angry boy, then giving up that fantasy would require knocking over a huge cornerstone of his personality, and not acting on it would reinforce any self-hatred he was feeling. Steven King, notably, was asked about Seung-Hui's writings, and seems to have gone out of his way not to give any hint that Seung-Hui might have been admirable or understandable:

For most creative people, the imagination serves as an excretory channel for violence: We visualize what we will never actually do ... Cho doesn't strike me as in the least creative, however. Dude was crazy. Dude was, in the memorable phrasing of Nikki Giovanni, ''just mean.'' Essentially there's no story here, except for a paranoid a--hole who went DEFCON-1. He may have been inspired by Columbine, but only because he was too dim to think up such a scenario on his own.

I wonder if one reason why King is taking that line is to discourage other cynically shy boys (many of whom, I bet, are reading Steven King) who might think that Seung-Hui was just like them?

Monday, August 20, 2007

 

Agent involvement

Bran Fan asks:

Since the threads are open for questions, may I ask one? I was wondering how much an agent gets involved in line edits before trying to sell a novel, and after the sale, when the editor starts doing that job, does the agent back off?



... Hm. I guess it depends on the novel. An agent won't take on a novel unless they're pretty sure they can sell it, so editing it prior to sale is likely to be fairly minimal. If it's a borderline case, they'll make suggestions for rewrites without committing to take the author on as a client. I've known situations where agents will discuss rewrites with an author they're considering representing, but don't sign them up unless they think the rewrites have done the trick. (Note to novices: DO NOT ask an agent to do this. If they're willing, they'll volunteer, but if they don't volunteer, that means they don't want to do it, and will just consider it pestering if you ask for it. It's a big etiquette breach, and looks very amateurish.) But an agent who decides to represent a book will have to consider it to be at least close to saleable condition.

Which isn't to say that they don't suggest brush-ups, and often length reductions. What can also happen is that, if the manuscript has been doing the rounds for a bit and hasn't sold, the agent may then suggest getting some more rewrites; Bareback had a bunch of rejections, and my agent sent it to the agency's editorial consultant. (Most agencies don't have one, but the agent might do that job, or refer it to a trusted book doctor.) She suggested some cuts, and the book sold.

So an agent will work with an author to improve a book. But once a book has sold, in my experience the agent does hand over editing to the editor. The thing about an agent is that their primary job is selling: they present, promote, negotiate and monitor the interests of a work, and editorial skills, which are slightly different, are probably something that they also have, but an editor is an editing specialist, to whom they're happy to pass over the fine-tuning work. Once the book has sold, the agent's job of brushing it up is finished, and their next job is to try to sell it in other countries as well. A publisher might conceivably ask an agent's opinion over a major rewrite by way of taking soundings, but basically, once the book is with an editor, the agent can relax over editing it.

Anyone else got experience of this?

Friday, August 17, 2007

 

Showing work in progress

Somebody asked the following question in the last thread:

When you had a finished draft of your book that you were pleased with, did you get anyone to read it for you before submitting it places? (Friends, relatives? Some kind of professional reader?) Did you get any useful feedback from anyone before it started going out to agents?

The answer is yes, in some places; I'll elaborate with some general points in the hopes that it's useful. Because of my own experience, though, I'll have to go through a digression first...

Writing my first novel, I had to show a first chapter to a class I was going to, and was pleased to get positive feedback. Actually, the majority of the session involved people asking, 'So what would happen in this or that situation?', which is generally a sign that people find your premise interesting. It confirmed my feeling that I was on to a project worth pursuing, but I had that feeling anyway: I'd written the first two chapters in one of those creative rushes you sometimes get, wanting nothing more than to be left alone and carting my notebook from kitchen table to bus to bar table, doing the rounds in as anti-social a way as possible.

Once it was in progress, I had a stroke of luck. My first boss was a publisher and writer herself - a writer of non-fiction books and copy, rather than a novelist, but a very bright, language-sensitive and cheerful person. We got to be friends, and out of interest, she asked if she could see the novel I was working on. Her response was so positive that she encouraged me to spend lunch breaks working on it, and ended up giving me Wednesday afternoons off as well (there should be more bosses like that, eh?); after I stopped working for her and went freelance, she kept reading the book. Basically I e-mailed her each chapter as it was completed and got her feedback, and occasionally discussed plot points with her when it got sticky, and it was all tremendously helpful. If you look in the dedications, you'll see that they say the book would have 'no middle' without Peggy - well, that was Peggy, and her hand-holding, advice, and help was invaluable.

In my experience, having the book read by somebody who gets it can be very beneficial. Having it read by someone who doesn't, on the other hand, can be detrimental. I remember one very talented person I was on a writing course with who took to heart some comments about how her writing style, which was very rich and intense, would probably be difficult to sustain, and she spent months trying not to be so rich and intense. In fact, while such a style would have been difficult for most people to sustain, it was her natural style, and she ended up playing against her own strengths, purely because she'd taken too seriously some well-meaning advice from people who'd only just met her. It's probably better to have no reader than a reader who doesn't seem to click with you. And even once the book is finished, and published, I can tell you there will always be people who simply aren't on the same wavelength as the book: this is always discouraging, but no one individual should be taken as speaking for the whole of literate humanity.

The one thing I would make a point of distinguishing, though, is that there's a difference between letting someone see the written part of a work in progress, and discussing a work that you're planning on writing. Once the work is written, no discussion can unwrite it, but I find that talking about something I haven't got at least a first draft of is a disaster. It's my experience that the creative mind is pretty much a one-shot creature: it only wants to tell a story once, and after that it gets bored. If you tell the story before you write it, the creative mind thinks that it's all finished with that story, and is very reluctant to tell it again: it's already done it once. Discussing how to solve a plot problem with a sympathetic listener is useful, but narrating in full a story you haven't yet written down wastes energy: a mind aware that it only gets to tell the story once will put all its fire into telling it properly when you pick up the pen.

This may well be different for other writers. As I've said in previous posts, I'm a scatty writer rather than a planning writer; for someone who feels comfortable working everything out in advance, talking about unwritten stuff may not be such a fatal act. (On the other hand, why take the chance? Being frustratingly banned from telling it before it's written should at least be an encouragement to get on with it.)

Another piece of professional advice I got once the book was written may also be relevant: it was shown to Philippa Harrison, who acts as an editorial consultant to the Ed Victor agency, which represents me. She was terrifically helpful; basically she sat me down, went through the few plot points she thought needed tweaking, and did a demonstration on a couple of pages how she thought the length could be pruned down: having seen it done, I went away and did it on the rest of the book, which at that point was overlong. Philippa is another person I'm immensely grateful to, as she improved the book enormously and was a great pleasure to work with.

These, though, are mostly talking about whether to show a work that doesn't have a finished first draft yet. It sounds from your question as if you're in the position of having a finished draft and are wondering whether to show it to anyone before beginning the agency round. I fear my own experience may not be helpful here, as actually I was lucky enough to get an agent before the book was finished - my friend Peggy talked me up to an agent she met at a launch party and showed her a first chapter, that agent offered, and the two of us spent the next week doing something you're probably not supposed to do, which is contacting any agents we had any history with - people she shared mutual acquaintances with, people who'd approached me having seen short stories of mine saying 'let me know if you write a novel' - and saying, 'This book has an offer, would you like to see it as well?'. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that to anyone - it was kind of an unusual circumstance - but it does mean that I was mercifully spared the usual 'Now it's finished, what do I do?!' experience; it was more, 'Now it's finshed, I guess I'd better drop it off.'

From experience as a publisher and of having friends who are also writers, I'd say that the best course of action in a case like yours (or what I'm assuming yours is, I may be wrong) is going to vary a lot depending on circumstance. Feeling pleased with a work is a good sign, but I know from experience that it's easy to confuse what you meant to say with what you actually said; I call it the Overhead Projector: a device that sits on top of your skull projecting what you meant onto the page in such a way that it blurs what's actually there. I've written plenty of sentences that were perfectly clear to me and made no sense at all to anyone else. Because of this annoying little gadget, I'd always advise someone preparing to send a manuscript out to get some feedback on it at some point, as many books benefit from the degree of polish that only an outside opinion can lead you to; the question is in finding someone you trust to give you that. Whenever people ask me this, I usually suggest they ask around and try to get the opinion of someone who could reasonably be expected to be a fair judge - someone with experience in publishing, for preference, but those aren't always on hand. In the absence of someone like that, it may be best to ask the opinions of several friends, preferably your more book-oriented and intelligent ones, and preferably with a variety of tastes between them so you can get a balanced perspective. If one person who reads nothing but hardboiled crime says your romance is sentimental, for instance, that may be just a mismatch of tastes, but if your romantic friend and your science fiction friend and your literary fiction friend all agree, then it's probably time to cut down the sentiment. Think of friends you like to discuss things like books and movies with, and consider which of them come out with the best analyses. A box of cookies and a 'You're always so smart in your analysis so I'd love your opinion' can go a long way.

There are also book doctors. I've worked as one myself on occasion; the thing I can tell you from the other side is that it's always going to be one person's opinion, so anyone who decides to go that route should be careful to vet that person to be sure that their opinion is likely to be reasonable and their prices fair. Getting your book doctored costs money and may or may not get it sold - it's a living, so a book doctor who's getting paid is not in a position to say, 'Sorry, I think you can't write and you ought to give up'; all they can do is give you the best advice they can and hope that you follow it. There are scammers in this field, as there are in most fields of publishing, so the thing to do is check their credentials to see if they actually have respectable publishing/writing experience, and that they don't charge too much: anything over about £500 is a bit steep for a basic report (most people charge by the day, so line-by-line critiques cost more), unless that person is right at the top of their tree, in which case they'll be able to give you an impressive CV. Any book doctor that gets defensive when asked for credentials is not somebody you want to work with, and probably hiding something.

So, in my experience it's generally good to get feedback, with the proviso that it needs to be from a trusted source. What do other people think? Any advice/experiences to share?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

 

Go Lithuania!

Here's a groovy bit of news: Lithuania has just offered to buy the rights to Bareback/Benighted.

Click here and we can all sing their national anthem together.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

 

Speaking of tragic heroes...

Here's an example of a character I think is not a tragic hero, but often gets seen that way: Jimmy Porter, protagonist of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. The interesting thing about Jimmy is that he's a clear, obvious example, if you're familiar with the concept, of something you're not supposed to see in male-written literary drama - the Mary Sue.

Look Back In Anger was the subject of tremendous praise, and had tremendous influence, when it first opened in 1956; its title gave the 'Angry Young Man' movement its name, and since then it's turned up as a standard text on university courses about tragedy. Nowadays critics praise it as a period piece that supposedly rescued the British stage from stale drawing-room comedy, but this is the truth: it is an inexcusable work of art.

Critics who praise the hero tend to do so because he's 'honest'. The New York Herald Tribune, on the back of my copy, gushes: 'The truth about this conscienceless sadist is that he's absolutely alive!' It's true in the literary sense, but that is a fault of the writing, not a virtue: Jimmy looks vitally alive compared with all the other characters because he's the only one who's properly written. Osborne always acknowledged that Jimmy was a self-portrait, and as a result, the character speaks with Osborne's linguistic energy, an energy denied the other characters, but there's more to it than that. In scenes where Jimmy is on stage - scenes that Osborne could have observed while acting that way himself - the writing is much better. When Jimmy is offstage, however, the writing degenerates into wishful thinking. Characters talk about Jimmy behind his back non-stop; there's never a scene that doesn't have either Jimmy in it or Jimmy as its main focus of conversation. And what they say about him is less thoughtful character study on Osborne's part, and more a tendency to place his opinions unrealistically in the mouths of other characters. Here's the Colonel, father of Jimmy's long-suffering wife Alison, talking to her as she prepares to leave Jimmy, the husband he has tried to prevent her marrying in the first place:

I can't help feeling that [Jimmy] must have had a little bit of right on his
side ... We were all to blame, in our different ways. No doubt Jimmy acted in
good faith. He's honest enough, whatever else he may be ... Perhaps you and I
were most to blame ... I think you may take after me a little, my dear, you like
to sit on the fence because it's comfortable and more peaceful ... Perhaps it
might have been better if you hadn't written letters to us, knowing how we felt
about your husband...

Self-sacrificing of him, isn't it, to feel it would be morally right to relinquish his daughter to a man he thinks is bad for her? Alison, at this point, is pregnant, unable to tell Jimmy, and leaving him in an era where single motherhood was a disaster because she simply can't bear his bullying any more; the Colonel's attitude is extraordinarily forgiving towards the man who has just driven his daughter out of her home. But it's the 'sitting on the fence' remark that really gives it away. Jimmy's primary taunt against Alison is that she's 'pusillanimous', disinclined to make a mental effort and take sides. From what we can see on stage, this is largely because she refuses to rise to his bait when he tries to pick fights, a tactic that might be called passive-aggressive (it certainly succeeds in annoying Jimmy), but is hardly comfortable and peaceful. But this provocative accusation, which is not born out by her actual behaviour, somehow leaps into the mouth of the father who's taking her home in crisis. Jimmy's judgement has contaminated another character in a scene where you'd expect that character's opinion of Jimmy to be at its lowest.

To take another example: Helena, Alison's friend who has had an affair with Jimmy after his departure. (Helena acted all disapproving of Jimmy, but that's only because she fancied him, and that little gag alone should be worth at least ten vicious reviews.) As Helena decides to leave Jimmy, she remarks:

I have discovered what is wrong with Jimmy[.] It's very simple really. He was
born out of his time ... There's no place for people like that any longer - in
sex, or politics, or anything. That's why he's so futile. Sometimes, when I
listen to him, I feel he thinks he's still in the middle of the French
Revolution. And that's where he ought to be, of course.

Have you ever heard, in real life, anyone give so flattering an explanation of why someone is a bullying waster? But this little caress isn't even accurate, if we consider Jimmy's behaviour. While he self-pityingly decries the lack of 'brave causes' to fight for, one of his overriding qualities is cowardice. Presented with opportunities to fight for himself, he runs away. Asked whether he accepted his brother-in-law's challenge to fight when Jimmy called the man's mother 'evil minded', he replies: 'Certainly not. He's a big chap.' Losing a scuffle he's provoked with his friend Cliff, he wails 'You're a savage, a hooligan! ... You don't deserve to live in the same house with decent, sensitive people!', retreating into verbal attack as he reaslises he can't win a physical one. Faced with a family who didn't want him to marry their daughter, rather than standing his ground with them, he runs away with her and marries her on the sly before they can intervene. Having married her, he goes on the attack in all their friends' houses - but only with his best friend Hugh there to back him up. Jimmy, in fact, never gets into a fight that he isn't absolutely certain he can win; he seeks to 'draw blood', but he isn't prepared to take any actual risks. That's hardly the attitude of a revolutionary.

Neither is he any kind of real idealist. He's articulate in speech, but his thinking is entirely incoherent, getting equally angry at every single stimulus, praising things one moment and reviling them the next. Alison's friend Webster, for example, is lauded thus: 'He's not only got guts, but sensitivity as well. That's about the rarest combination I can think of.' - but later attacks him, re his homosexuality, thus: 'He's like a man with a strawberry mark - he keeps thrusting it in your face because he can't believe it doesn't interest or horrify you particularly.' The opporunity to be a good man is something he considers beneath him; he's more interested in admiring his own sensitivity. But this sensitivity is profoundly insensitive. Take, for instance, his lament over his father's death:

My mother looked after him without complaining. But that was about all. Perhaps
she pitied him. I suppose she was capable of that ... But I was the
only one who cared!

Honest assessment of a situation? Or a narcissistic disbelief that anyone else's emotions could possibly be as valid as his own? Considering that when his poor wife returns to him having had a traumatic, permanently damaging miscarriage, his first impulse is to attack her for failing to send flowers to the funeral of a friend of his the day she left him - 'You had to deny me that too, didn't you?' - the latter seems altogether more plausible.

Broken down to their essentials, 'good brave causes' of the kind that Jimmy claims to long for are always causes that increase human happiness and lessen human suffering. A man who spends all his time trying to make the people around him suffer and detroying human happiness has no right to call himself an idealist lacking a cause. Let's not forget that this was written in the mid-1950s, where such causes as racial equality, equal pay for women, the legalisation of homosexuality and sexual freedom were fights that hadn't even been started, never mind won: there's always something that needs doing if you really want to throw your shoulder to the wheel. (Of course, Osborne didn't like women, gays or racial minorities, so possibly he was happy for them all to be oppressed, but that hardly redounds to his credit.) But a man dedicated to hurting everyone around him - and that's the only purpose that Jimmy spends any energy pursuing - is not an idealist. He's simply pulling off the all-too-common trick of being both self-righteous and in the wrong.

You cannot be honest without thinking; you cannot be passionate without conviction. Wildly saying anything that comes into your head is merely hysterical. With those two supposed qualities recognised for what they are, qualities Jimmy mistakenly likes to imagine himself possessing, and which Osborne imposes on the speech of secondary characters when Jimmy leaves the stage - unable to bear his favourite being too harshly spoken of, and unable to imagine than anyone might dislike either Jimmy or himself on their own terms for legitimate reasons - Jimmy stands as a character devoid of virtues. Yet somehow, the play revolves around him.

This is where Mary Sue comes in. John Osborne - let's be honest, to use his favourite word - was a bad man. Listen to this:

What I do believe is that you are almost uniquely cold-hearted. That, far from
being the result of a troubled inner life (clearly, you have no inner life
whatever, just a commonplace hole in the air, composed of idiotic quarrels,
feuds and top of the fucking pops) or a difficult upbringing, it is from your
own appalling nature, which I commonly assume is your Mother's principal, almost
only, gift to you. It's become clear to me that I should have left you in New
York.
Jimmy lambasting Alison? It could be - it's very similar to the abuse he hurls at her throughout Look Back In Anger - but in fact, this is a note that Osborne left for his teenage daughter Nolan to find after a minor quarrel. Osborne took in Nolan when she was thirteen, threw her out when she was seventeen, and spent the intervening period hating her for such crimes as being more interested in hanging around with her friends than in meeting his. (Jimmy's cowardice evidently stems from his author: a man who so fears a confrontation with his fifteen-year-old child that he leaves a letter for her to find instead is no kind of man at all.) It may sound brave and passionate when one fictional character is doing it to another, less well-written fictional character, but see an example of it in real life, done to someone who actually has feelings, and I hope no one will make the mistake of considering it 'honest' and 'alive'.

A big part of Look Back In Anger's driving force is misogyny. Its biggest critical defender was Kenneth Tynan, with his famous 'I could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger' and praise of its 'candour'. A journalist acquaintance remarks of Tynan that 'women seem to have objected less to his sadism, which took only a mild form, than to his vanity and authoritarianism. [...] He treated women as possessions. [...] Tynan, while reserving the unqualified right to be unfaithful himself, expected loyalty from his spouse.' But a simpler demonstration can be found in Tynan's own writings. Tynan took considerable pleasure in his relationship with Laurence Olivier, and almost equal pleasure in denigrating his wife, Vivien Leigh, as a mediocre actress unworthy to associate with her great husband. In the same review of a Macbeth performance where the couple acted together, for example, he gleefully derided Leigh as 'more niminy-piminy than thundery-blundery, more viper than anaconda' while 'Sir Laurence shook hands with greatness, and within a week or so the performance will have ripened into a masterpiece'.

If one decides not to regard women as fully human, it can be most convenient: in the absence of a 'good, brave cause', one can always have a go at women instead. So with Jimmy; beginning by lamenting 'the infernal racket of the flaming female', moving on to demanding Helena 'stop breathing your female wisdom all over me', he climaxes with:

Why, why, why do we let these women bleed us to death? Have you ever had a
letter, and on it is franked 'Please Give Your Blood Generously'? Well, the
Postmaster-General does that, on behalf of all the women of the world. I suppose
people of our generation aren't allowed to die for good causes any longer ...
there's nothing left for it, me boy, but to let yourself be butchered by the
women.
This, in Jimmy's view, is the outcry of 'a kind of burning virility of mind and spirit that looks for something as powerful as itself'. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about that.

Jimmy is a hateful character, but why get so agitated about him? Well, one reason is that critics still struggle to find reasons why Look Back In Anger was a good play, rather than simply admit the truth: a mistake was made, and the play was the self-justifying fantasy of a nasty piece of work. Reading it through, I found myself struggling: the word 'evil' is a dangerous one to use, but it kept returning to me. The trouble, as I mentioned at the beginning, is that Jimmy not only speaks for Osborne, but warps the rest of the narrative. Characters never discuss their own concerns when Jimmy is off-stage; it's always Jimmy, and the kind of things they say about him are less like the kind of things someone would actually say than like Osborne struggling to work out why somebody might not like him, beginning with the faulty premise that it can't just be because no rational person could. Similarly, Jimmy warps the structure of the story. A science fiction site I found has come up with the useful phrase 'Aura of Smooth', defining it as 'the imaginary energy field self-inserted characters generate to bend the regular cast to their wills - i.e. trusting and/or falling in love with them for no stated reason', and Jimmy's Aura of Smooth is immense. Alison's friend Helena falls in love with him despite all her professions of loathing, for example, but, more horribly, Jimmy in the first act wishes, a la King Lear, that Alison should have a child that dies. Later, he wishes thus:

Perhaps, one day, you may want to come back. I shall wait for that day. I want
to stand up in your tears, and splash about in them, and sing. I want to be
there when you grovel ... I want to see your face rubbed in the mud - that's all
I can hope for. There's nothing else I want any longer.
Kindly, Osborne grants his darling's wish. Alison loses her baby, so traumatically that it leaves her barren, and she stumbles back, weeping 'I'm in the mud at last! I'm grovelling!' So potent is Jimmy's Aura of Smooth, in fact, that he not only occupies everyone's thoughts all the time - which would be mere self-indulgence - but that it extends to murder, destroying characters that happen to catch his spite.

The kind of Mary Sue one chooses tells an audience a lot about the author's fantasies. Osborne goes beyond violet eyes and magical bunny-charming powers: his fantasies are all of destruction, physical and emotional, vengeance against people who have committed no greater crime than failing to pay him the adulation he feels he deserves. And people call the play heroic. That's something one ought to take seriously.

I haven't seen this suggested anywhere, but there's a mental disorder known as borderline personality, which involves certain symptoms: violent mood swings, unstable relationships alternating between extreme idealisation and extreme devaluation, a pathological need for attention, impulsivity, chronic feelings of emptiness, inappropriate displays of anger and aggresssion... Do you see what I'm getting at here? Sound familiar? Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire is sometimes cited as a fictional borderline, and there's a lot of overlap. Jimmy's behaviour is most simply described by the phrase 'drama queen'. He wants to feel, to be the centre of attention, and in the absence of anything to justify his wild emotionality, he attacks left and right, whipping up scenes like a clumsy author where the passion and conflict is far out of proportion to the situation. He can't stand to be neglected, taking it as provocation when people iron, read, or otherwise mind their own business rather than focusing on him. He justifies everything on the grounds that it's passionate, takes everything personally. Now, moody, fantasising, needy Blanche Dubois is generally considered to be a fine piece of character writing but not an admirable character. But manipulation, scene-making, demanding attention - qualities that are traditionally despised in women - somehow gets tremendous adulation when displayed in a man.

Sexism is a heavy charge to lay against anyone, but it isn't just sexism that's the problem with Look Back In Anger. Misogyny is merely the expression of a deeper malaise: the indulgent protection of a vicious self-portrait, a mind seeking for reasons to justify its vindictiveness and settling on easy targets to blame rather than doing some hard self-examination. Jimmy Porter isn't a considered piece of introspection. Osborne doesn't disguise his faults, but neither does he really consider that they need to be changed; instead, he implausibly forces other characters to excuse and justify Jimmy behind his back. That isn't honest. Even as I think the phrase, I hear the echoes of all the stuffy old critics who excoriated challenging and important new works of art, but for once, there's no other description: Look Back In Anger is that often-named by rarely-found phenomenon, the outpouring of a sick mind.

Monday, August 13, 2007

 

Stories of conscience

Here's a point of comparison that occurred to me watching TV the other night: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and the film version of The Talented Mr Ripley, directed by Anthony Minghella. Particularly the latter two.

Fiction can do many things to reality. The pathetic fallacy is a concept familiar to English BAs: the device of describing a landscape or object as if it were possessed of human emotions, particularly used to describe a hero's outer environment in such a way as to reflect his inner state. The sky weeps as he drives home feeling sad, for example. (And in fact, it's a device that can be used with varying degrees of subtlety in films, as well. The thunderclap as the spooky old servant says the word 'Dracula' is a crude example, but it can be done with considerable grace. There's a shot used in the film adaptation of In Cold Blood, where near the end, the actor Robert Blake sits near a window telling a sad story; outside, it's raining and the water is dripping down the window. According to a documentary I saw years ago about cinematography, the effect was an accidental discovery: they put a fan on to blow the water onto the window to make sure it went in the right direction - but once they'd filmed it, they realised they had an extraordinary effect. While the actor relates a tragic story dry-eyed, the light on his face shows dripping raindrops, as if the light were weeping for him. The same effect is used in the movie adaptation of That Was Then, This Is Now, if I recall correctly; it crops up occasionally because it's a beautiful and effective way of conveying both stoicism and pain.)

And one strange effect that the pathetic fallacy can have is to convey, through incident and hint, paranoia. In such cases, it's not the landscape that becomes a conveyor of emotion, but other people who become, unknowingly, conveyors of the character's thoughts.

Take, for example, Raskolnikov's murder of the pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov spends the first book arguing with himself as to whether he should kill the hateful old woman, supplying himself with money he needs while removing a bad person from the world. The curious thing is that, while he finds it hard to come to a definite decision, as he walks around, he overhears conversations about whether it would, in theory, be justified to kill a bad person to help a great person, conversations that bizarrely externalise the idea he's secretly grappling with. Trapped in such a world, there's almost the sense that he eventually commits the murder because he has a bad idea stuck in his head and the only way to get rid of it is to act on it. But having killed her, he becomes more paranoid still - and the world continues to terrify him by surrounding him with people who insist on discussing the crime. While in many ways it's a naturalistic piece of writing, there's also something surreal and hallucinatory about Crime and Punishment: Raskolnikov's experience is at the centre of a spinning world in which the voice of his conscience keeps sounding out of the mouths of other people, his darkest thoughts keep being said aloud by people he hasn't told them to. It's a weird sort of hell where his own conscience is almost a sadistic deity, possessing and speaking through the people around him so there's no escape.

The Secret History and the film adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley are more alike than Crime and Punishment, but both of them show a similar kind of gathering hell. Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith's novels is a calculating psychopath, but the film version shows something strange and pitiable, a character in many ways similar to Tartt's narrator Richard in The Secret History. Both are young men trapped in impoverished, depressing, rather lonely lives, who manage to get themselves transported to a new environment where everything is different and beautiful. Falling in with a crowd of friends who seem to embody all the glamour and charm that their lives were missing before, Tom and Richard struggle to keep up, but disaster creeps in, ending in murder - which in both cases takes place only halfway through the story. The world gradually takes on a nightmarish quality, by a very simple device: both young men are reaching towards a bright world, trying to leave their old selves behind and become someone newer, better - only the more they grasp after the future they so desperately want, the more they find themselves entangled in a past that they desperately don't want, a past that becomes worse and worse the more they do to escape it.

Both are plausibly structured and elegantly told stories, less hallucinatory in quality than Crime and Punishment, but all of them are, in their way, nightmares of being unable to escape your own mind. Just as Raskolnikov can't get away from his own thoughts, until they eventually drive him into an action that dominates his world, so Tom and Richard can't get away from their own insecurity, their self-hatred and distate for their origins and fear that they never will make it into the sunlit world. There's a certain similarity between their victims, although those victims serve different functions in the story (Tom killing Dickie primarily because he can't bear to hear that Dickie is tired of him, Richard collaborating in killing Bunny because Bunny threatens to have his new friends incarcerated by his knowledge of an earlier crime they've committed, which would leave Richard alone). Both victims are charming enthusiasts, intially friendly, inclusive and full of bonhomie, but distractible, unstable in their attachments to people, untrustworthy and capable of turning devastatingly vicious if provoked. To an insecure person who's trying frantically to reinvent himself, such a person can be terrifying: if there's a hated side of yourself that you're struggling to conceal and discard, anyone who threatens to drag it out into public view (Bunny) or cast you back into it (Dickie) has tremendous power over you - and a callous, emotionally shallow person is very likely to do it.

In such stories, other people take on a kind of pathetic fallacy: the protagonist's fear that he can never escape his rise up from his dreary life and faulty self start to warp the narrative. The bad events that surround each young man are the consequences of his own behaviour, but they also horribly act as portents of doom, signs that his worst fears are right: he never can and never will escape.

These tragedies are unusual; fatal-flaw tales in which the downfall is not death or destruction - Raskolnikov is redeemed, but Tom Ripley and Richard Papen surivive undetected - but the inescapable presence of the fatal flaw itself. The flaw is, for both of the latter, nothing as simple as a dreadful prophecy or a violent temper: ironically and awfully, the flaw is nothing less than a sense of being flawed. And being possessed of that flaw dooms both protagonists to a fate that is simple and elegantly painful: that sense cannot and will not ever go away. It's not unlike the angst of the 'justification by faith' conundrum: if God will save you because your faith is strong, then are you sure your faith is strong enough to save you? And by the act of wondering if it's strong enough, doesn't that prove that it's not strong enough? In both cases, self-doubt brings its own kind of damnation. The fatal flaw is its own cause, its own punishment, a chimeric emotion that is elegantly horrible: by its very existence, it endlessly feeds upon itself.

It's interesting to note that both murder victims, Dickie and Bunny, in addition to being enthusiastic but unpredictable, share the fatal flaw of obliviousness: insensitivity or unconcern about other people's judgements upon them, casual lack of interest in their own personalities - the shadow opposite of the painful self-consciousness of their flawed killers. In a way, it's that obliviousness that makes them so dangerous: never having experienced that anguishing flawedness themselves, they can't be expected to have any mercy upon it - and in each case, there is a strong sense that the victim is killed fundamentally to shut him up. Tom kills Dickie to stop the insults Dickie is firing at him, which touch upon his sorest points; Richard, at the moment of Bunny's death, confesses that he doesn't think of the danger to his friends' freedom Bunny has posed, but rather to the round of insults, mockery and petty humiliations about his humble background Bunny has been subjecting him to recently (following his discovery that his friends are murderers, Bunny's behaviour has grown increasingly erratic and his natural propensity to tease people has metastasized into emotional bullying). Neither victim has the fatal flawedness of his killer, and in exacerbating his killer's sense of flaw, in infuriratingly not having it himself, he becomes so tormenting a figure that killing him seems like the only possible way of dealing with him.

Both protagonists are in the wrong, of course: being preoccupied with their own sense of flawedness has actually made them insensitive to reality. The argument that precedes Tom Ripley's murder of Dickie is an argument, not the wanton attack from Dickie that Tom seems to experience it as, and Tom is giving as good as he gets, pointing out all Dickie's most vulnerable points until Dickie too is ready to lash out - but Tom's own hurt feelings appear to overwhelm his judgement to the point where he's unable to see that he's hurting Dickie's feelings as well. Richard blindly follows his friends into murdering Bunny, alienated by Bunny's taunts and hostility, and it's only some time after the murder, when he comes upon a letter Bunny wrote to their tutor begging for help, that he realises what would have been obvious to a more mature personality: that Bunny's behaviour, however bad it is, is motivated not by spite but by terror, a fear for his own life that turns out to be entirely appropriate.

To this extent, the sense of flaw is a self-fulfilling prophecy: preoccupation with our own personalities can mislead our judgement until we create the situations we fear, at least in part because we were too busy worrying about the wrong things to do the right ones. Julian, Richard's charismatic tutor, remarks that the Furies drove people insane thus: 'They turned up the volume of the inner monologue, magnified qualities already present to great excess, made people so much themselves that they couldn't stand it.' - but our immature tragic heroes don't need Furies to do this for them; they're having enough trouble standing how much themselves they already are. But their attempts to escape this self trap them precisely because they aren't only themselves, but members of society, and their reinventions, and the lengths they go to in order to sustain them, impact upon other people.

But then, it's easy to see that if you are not the person labouring under the flaw of flawedness. The tragedy of being trapped in your own mind is precisely that you are trapped in it: if you could escape then it wouldn't be a trap. It's easy to say the justification-by-faith dilemma is a circular argument if you don't think that you're going to burn for all eternity if you get the answer wrong, and it's easier to say self-hatred is self-fulfilling if you aren't the self getting hated on. If it was as easy as saying, 'That's self-fulfilling,' then it wouldn't be a problem. A fatal flaw is always fatal to the person who possesses it, and to their casualties; it's always personal.

So I hope you're all feeling happy today about what marvellous people y'all undoubtedly are. In the meantime, anyone who can think of other interesting fatal flaws is welcome to weigh in, but I'm going to stop the cycle of doubts here, because I want to get off.

Friday, August 10, 2007

 

Formula romances

Naomi raised an interesting question in the last thread; what do we think?

Maybe I'm a cynic, but it just seems like cheap, lazy filmaking to me, with built-in audiences to guarantee a blockbuster, which in turn guarantees a sequel... and so on...

Do you think this applies to books as well? There's got to be a reason why Mills and Boon pump out so many Secret Baby/Millionaire/Cowboy books.



It's a good question. I actually have quite a bit of respect for Mills and Boon; they don't pretend to be doing anything other than what they are, which is writing books on a formula; that's fair enough, to honestly do a formula and do it well. But while I think that predictability of sales, hence safety of investment, is undoubtedly a driving force, I think there's something slightly different going on from what you get in movies.

The Secret Baby/Latino Surgeon/Desert Sheikh patterns remind me of nothing so much as the specificity of porn categories - you know, All-Asian girl-on-girl/Black men with white women/Office Hotties in Business Suits/whatever. I say this with no intent to insult, as I don't have any particular animosity towards porn per se (or at least, I have a lot of animosity to some examples of it, but none to the basic idea that people like to look at pictures of other people frolicking around in the nudd). In both cases, the market is appealing to variants of the primal mating impulse, and while in reality that impulse is governed by chemistry and opportunity, in fiction it's much harder to create chemistry. What you can substitute is a set of preferences, for physical type, social persona, demeanour and so on. So you can have dark-skinned wealthy alpha-male, or blonde debutante submissive, or exotic-looking professional supportive male nuturer, or Afro-Caribbean good-time-girl, or whatever you want; put the details clearly on view, and people who want that kind of thing will know to buy it.

I realise I may sound as if I'm cheapening romance by saying this, which is not my intention. Any company that can sell 6.6 books per second has my sincere admiration, and many Mills and Boon books are rather nicely written. Mills and Boon gives a lot of pleasure to a lot of people, and in fact, a couple of friends of mine, both smart, cultured, successful women, are long-term devotees of the books and really love curling up with them. But if the book is there to deliver a specific thing - a romantic fantasy - rather than something more nebulous like 'an aesthetic experience', categorising by taste seems like a natural consequence.

I think reader questionnaires have a lot to do with the focus on categories that Mills and Boon display as well. Rather than pumping out advertising like the movie industry, Mills and Boon take continual feedback from their readers, processing forms in which customers say what they'd like more of. This isn't always a good thing for art - if you're trying for the aesthetic experience, then it can wind up with professionals who know how to write taking direction from amateurs who don't, which is bad for quality - but if what you're selling is less individual works of art and more crafted variations on a formula, it's a good way to keep business running. But the nature of a questionnaire is to have ticked boxes and specific categories; translate that into actual books, and you wind up with lots of different imprints with very defined remits, which is what Mills and Boon have.

Movies, on the other hand, have a more unpredictable and unwieldy audience. People don't sign up for membership and ensure regular consumption of, say, Paramount movies, which you can do with Mills and Boon, so there's always the element of bottling lightning, predicting chemistry, trying to create attraction when one side of that attraction - the audience - isn't in the room with you. There's a lot of guesswork that has to go on. Movies are also trying to cater for a more complicated set of desires than just a sexual or romantic fantasy, so the questionnaire system wouldn't really work. You can just imagine it:

Do you like your films to be:

- Exciting
- Boring
- Overhyped
- Badly made
- Entertaining

Everyone is going to be ticking the same boxes, but it's harder to fulfil their requests. If everyone wants an Arabic doctor in a book, you can just put in an Arabic doctor, but if everyone wants a good film - well, you knew that already, but you're no further forward in working out how to deliver one. And, as I said, I think that too much consumer input for anything other than the most basic craft is a bad idea when it comes to specifics; the really good directors are popular because they have a natural knack for coming up with stuff that people like rather than because they've taken surveys, and if someone doesn't have that knack, then no amount of requests for a giant robot, a love interest with raven-black hair, a comedy frog and a musical score written in C major are going to help. You'll just wind up with a grab-bag of stuff that was put there by an incompetent director who was trying to tick the list rather than to make a good film.

I think books, on the whole, are seldom marketed in advance as heavily as movies. The pre-hyped ones tend to be hyped because the author is already famous, and in that case, all that's being hyped is that 'this book is by Marian Keyes/Thomas Harris/Steven King', which is a requirement that it was pretty easy for the author to supply. Say to Marian Keyes, 'I'd like you to write a book by Marian Keyes', and guess what? You're in luck. But with other books, we're back to trying to create chemistry. And in that situation, all any of us can do is try our best and hope things will work out.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

 

Pre-sold movie ideas

You know, a movie where the idea is one that's already in culture through some kind of franchise, so there's supposedly a guaranteed audience already out there. There seem to be a lot of them around at the moment.

Possibly I'm getting old, but I'm feeling a certain cultural ennui. I'm tired of celeb culture, I'm tired of sequels, I'm tired of spin-offs, and I'm tired of over-marketing. (I'm also tired of Oxford Street, but that's just because it's horrible there.) But to a marketer, a pre-sold idea sounds great if you want to make a movie. The audience is out there! Just tap in!

I haven't seen the Transformers movie. This is partly because I gather that Michael Bay is a director who aims squarely at teenage boys, which I ain't; partly it's because, while my brother had one of those toys, I didn't get to play with it much, so I feel little nostalgia. (Mind you, I had My Little Pony toys at that time, and I don't think I'll go and see any movies based on that franchise either.) But mostly it's because I think there's an inherent problem with making movies based on pre-sold ideas, particularly in this time of Internet heyday.

The problem, artistically, is a simple one. Suppose you want to make a movie about a robot. Good movies can be made on the subject, from The Terminator to The Iron Giant. But you've got to convince your audience that a robot is an inherently interesting thing to watch a movie about. Which it isn't, necessarily. You could have a really badly-made model of a robot wheeling around a dull set speaking stupid lines, ineptly filmed, to expound a boring storyline enacted by rubbish actors. Just because one good film has been made about a subject, it doesn't mean the subject's a sure-fire winner: in art, execution is everything. Every work of art needs to convince its audience that it's interesting, and it has to do it on its own.

Now, with a movie based on a franchise, especially one that has an Internet following, you've got a problem. The people who a marketing bod can reasonably expect to come and see the film are going to come and see it because it's got their kind of robot in it. The robot doesn't have to be cool and well-designed, it just has to be from the right franchise. You don't have to work very hard get them excited about it either, because while building up to the release of the movie, they'll do that for you: they'll get on their websites and excite each other while they wait in anticipation. It's all very labour-saving.

And what you lose is the artistic objective gold standard: the sense of a virgin audience.

Movies always make certain assumptions about their audience's knowledge, beliefs and attitudes. Francis Ford Coppola doesn't begin The Godfather with a character explaining to you that the Mafia is an Sicilian organised crime syndicate with a violent history in America: he assumes you know. Elim Klimov doesn't explain that Germany invaded Belarus during the Second World War at the beginning of Come and See: it's supposed to be part of the knowledge the audience will bring with them. This is a necessary part of the process, because you can't explain everything; it would be incredibly boring if you did - and once you started, where would you stop? Do you stick at saying 'Germany invaded Belarus in World War Two and killed a quarter of its population', or do you go back through the history of Hitler and his racist theories, or do you go further back and explain that Germany is a country in Europe and Belarus a country to the west of Russia, or futher back still and start defining the concepts of 'country' and 'war'? Obviously it wouldn't work: you have to have some working assumptions about what the audience can reasonably be expected to know, like the fact that the Nazis considered the Slavs an inferior race, or that there has been a Mafia in America. You also have to have some reasonable assumptions about what an audience can be expected to feel; for example, that charismatic people are interesting, or that violence is a disturbing thing.

With a virgin audience, you are starting from scrach, working with absolute rock-bottom fundamental assumptions: good spectacle is exciting, violence is alarming, threat to the heroes is engaging. These are universal rules, and hold true in any story.

But with a pre-sold audience, you have a much bigger and much more questionable assumption: this franchise is cool. And if you assume that your franchise is cool from the outset, you have far less motivation to actually make it seem cool.

Consider, for example, the first great blockbuster, Steven Spielberg's Jaws. Prior to that movie, audiences could reasonably be expected to know that sharks were carnivorous fish - but you couldn't assume they'd know that sharks could be very big and aggressive; for all you knew, the biggest shark they'd ever seen was a stuffed dogfish at their local museum. So what does Spielberg do? He begins with that famously scary theme tune, signalling loud and clear that fear is approaching; then he shows a pretty girl run happily into the water, swim out calmly, then suddenly spend the last harrowing moments of her life screaming in agony and terror, before being dragged under the silent waters. That's pretty scary. Spielberg correctly assumes that people are frightened of unpredictable threats, and that they will find the idea of dying in pain a dreadful one. So he sets out his stall: sharks attack unseen, and they deliver horrible death. He identifies your fundamental attitudes, takes dead aim on them, and gets you really, really scared. He has to work to convince you, because he doesn't assume you're already scared of sharks.

If you want to be completely convincing, you have to start with the basic assumptions everyone will have. And cool is a particularly elusive thing to convey. It can be done, but you have to work the basics. Show Toshiro Mifune strolling into a gangster-ravaged town in Yojimbo, casually ignoring threats, then taking a relaxed walk up to the grotesque men frightening the whole town into submission, killing two of them and slicing off the arm of the third in the space of about six flashing seconds, then unconcernedly wandering back, pausing to tell the coffin-maker to start building two more coffins - or, glancing back at the injured man, possibly three - and you'll convince a pretty good proportion of the audience that this man is cool. He's shown all sorts of qualities: fearlessness, calmness under pressure, a wry sense of humour and absolute self-possession, all of which, particularly when performed by an actor with Mifune's charisma, add up to a pretty cool hero.

You can create cool. But if you start on the assumption that, to take the Yojimbo example, the idea of a samurai is inherently cool, and don't bother to convince your audience that this samurai is cool, then you can find yourself looking at a pretty lame movie. And that's an assumption that's dangerously easy to fall into if you're working with a pre-sold idea. Resting on the supposed goodwill that people will feel towards the franchise, a careless filmmaker can neglect the work of actually making whatever the film is about seem impressive, because that work has supposedly already been done. But you can't get away with that: if it's not impressive in the film, the film isn't impressive.

There's an added problem now that CGI is so widespread. You can do anything, show anything. Which means, awkwardly, that you can, well, show anything. Spielberg's shark was a mixture of underwater footage, shot at some risk to his cameramen, and a mechanical model, which broke down at intervals. The shark gave him major trouble. The result was that, out of necessity, he couldn't show it very much, and had to fall back on a traditional, splendid standby: making the audience feel as if they'd seen far more than they had by working upon their emotions. Which, incidentally, made the film an outstanding piece of audience-manipulation: it had to be, or it wouldn't have worked at all. Quality was almost a side-effect of the technical limitations. Nowadays you can CGI in a shark wherever you please; you can have one tap-dancing across the deck singing 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out' if you feel inclined. So you don't have to work on the audiences emotions to make them feel as if they've seen the shark. You can just show them the shark. Which may, unfortunately, leave you with a film that contains a dancing shark and no tension, drama, timing or suspense.

Combine special effects that can take the place of skilful build-up and a pre-sold idea, and the motivation to make a movie that actually bothers to convince the audience that what they're watching is exciting has taken a serious hammering. An artistically inclined director may still decide to make a good movie, but he doesn't really have to if he doesn't feel like it.

On this logic, I decided to give the Transformers movie a miss. Perhaps unfairly; who knows? Maybe it was a masterpiece, but I decided to play the odds. My boyfriend went to see it with a mate of his, and I stayed home. I can't remember what I did, though. I'm definitely getting old.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

 

New phishing scam

Watch out for this one: an e-mail claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service, telling you to click through to claim a tax refund. Here's the one I just got:

After the last annual calculations of your fiscal activity we have determined that you are eligible to receive a tax refund of $109.30. Please submit the tax refund request and allow us 6-9 days in order to process it.

A refund can be delayed for a variety of reasons. For example submitting invalid records or applying after the deadline.

(I particularly like that sneaky little detail - if you don't get the money, the refund has been delayed because you were too disorganised, and the money vanishing from your account has nothing to do with it. Or is it an excuse for this refund not being given to you at the proper time? Who knows? Ambiguous phrasing is useful if you're scamming.)

To access the form for your tax refund, please click here
Regards, Internal Revenue Service

To a certain extent, this is an incompetent e-mail - the heading was 'Tax Refund!', and the day a government body starts e-mailing you with exclamation marks, you'll know that schoolchildren have finally got the vote and elected the Monster Raving Loony Party. But still. Be warned.

Friday, August 03, 2007

 

Nightingales

You know how writers always say that something sounds as sweet as a nightingale's song? And how nobody I know, at least, has any notion what that actually means? Well, a whim struck me and I located this nice website full of different birdsongs, including, if you'll scroll down, the nightingale. It is, indeed, a rather pleasant sound (you can hear another bird in the background, but I think it's an owl): a rather liquid, sweet, piercing sound, like copper bubbles breaking in your ears. There you are: now you know!

Lots of other sounds there as well. It's all rather soothing.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

 

The inner child

Poetess posted a question about the inner child. My answer to this one may seem a bit odd: I never felt I had an inner child. I just had a self; when I was a child, I felt like a human being, and the same holds true today. At the same time, childhood is immensely important and relevant to art - but the relevance isn't internal, it's perceptual.

When you're a child, the world is numinous. You know nothing: your ignorance is infinite and absolute. You don't know that if you want the toy, you have to crawl towards it rather than back away; you don't know that the thing that feeds you is capable of having opinions; you don't know that earth will hold you up but you'll sink into water. There is a vast amount of information that it's vitally important that you learn, and learn fast: hence, everything that you perceive is profoundly, philosophically important. A fact isn't just a fact, it's a signifier of something greater, a tiny window into an infinite universe of understanding. To a child, the world is soaked in meaning.

As an adult, the world settles into the normal, and that vividness of perception, that symbolic richness, is exchanged for the more everyday magic that is the knowledge of what to do and how to take care of yourself in a confusing universe. Remember how extraordinary that seemed as a child, the way adults just knew what to do? You buy that magic for the price of numinous perception. And it's worth having. It isn't a tragedy, and I don't believe that it's too high a price to pay, not when I remember how magical adults seemed to me as a child.

But art can make the world new again. A strange combination of words, a vibrant painting, a curious camera angle, can make you see the world as you've never seen it before, as if you were still four years old and had everything to learn. Art can combine symbols and signifiers so that once again small things hint at greater ones. Art creates a world invested once again with meaning.

There's also the question of childish artistry. Some years ago when I was learning how to write, I came upon an old English notebook from when I was eight or nine. There were some stories in there, and I read one, about objects coming to life in the classroom after dark. It was a set topic, but the story had a riotous energy to it, a wild, freewheeling inventiveness. Self-consciousness is something that we learn, and as artists, have to unlearn: seeing that story filled me with confidence, because it made me think, 'Well, if I could write that freely once, I can do it again. I'm still that person, I just need to remember I can do it.' You don't want to write like a child, but it does help to write like an adult who remembers their childhood, because what you created back then is raw energy, and if you can add adult understanding to it, then you've got something far more vital than something with adult understanding alone.

You're always the same person you were when you were a child. That's the best thing to remember.

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