Gone Girl

I wanted to get a couple easy, fun airplane reads. I also love David Fincher movies and Japanese horror, so I decided it would be surefire to pick Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Natsuo Kirino’s Out (which turned out to be bonkers). To be clear, I don’t really ever read thriller novels, at least for many years. This isn’t my usual go-to genre. I had no idea what either book was about. I did not know, for instance, that I would be picking up two very different discussions on gender: an often-called misogynist book by a self-proclaimed feminist, and a proclaimed feminist book that is full of pure crazy.

I also want to begin by saying that Gone Girl is one of my least favorite reading experiences.

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Gone Girl is a mystery thriller that is becoming a movie (from the director of Fight Club and Se7en, so we can definitely expect cheerfulness and joy from the screen). It is also a “meditation” on marriage… or something. Basically, half the book is devoted to Amy and Nick, two preternaturally attractive, rich, New Yorker writers who New York a lot about New Yorking New York and how New York New York New York is.

NEW YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORK!

NEW YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORK!

Then they lose their jobs and move to Missouri. Karma.

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I cannot express how much I despise the New York writer obsession. If the Nobel Prize for literature is hopelessly biased in many ways, I can’t say that it isn’t correct about how myopic the American literary scene is. Anyone reading literary fiction, and most especially that literary fiction that is really just middle-brow book club fiction, knows that New York is ubiquitous. It is so inescapable that even light satirizing of this New York obsession –which I think is at least a part of the novel– is still too New York. While the book does address the very real issue of artists and writers being priced out of New York’s ever inflating cost of living, it still does so with such an insular adulation for the culture and beauty of NYC that the message is lost amidst a lot of pandering nonsense. And, before anyone says, “Oh, but this book shows that New York isn’t all it’s cracked up to be! It’s a satire! It shows the dark underbelly of rich, arty New York types! The author just adores Missouri!” then I have one thing to say to you:

great_gatsby

Yes. In the Jazz Era, Fitzgerald did it first and did it better.

And this book does bear more than a passing resemblance to Gatsby. It has the supposed “normal guy” from the Midwest, getting involved with a rich, beautiful New York person who may have a secret, and revealing corruption and ruined marriages. Also, someone unlikable dies.

I think that it’s not just the Gatsby-isms or the New York obsession that has this problem. The entire book feels tired, like it’s a cobbler of various other, better novels, ones which already addressed Flynn’s issues and did so better.

When I say that Gone Girl is a cobbler of other people’s better work, I am not kidding. One of the most frustrating things about this novel is how it thinks it is so very original, saying something so daring about marriage and crime and the media. And, yet, it is literally a remake. Yes. This book has already been written. And made into a film. This is the Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale scenario all over again. Sure, Hunger Games did some things that Battle Royale did not do, but it’s still basically the American, YA, Hollywood take on the original Japanese concept. In this case, Gone Girl is just a modernized, sexed-up, ultra-violent, hammy version of Leave Her to Heaven. The difference is, while The Hunger Games homages and steals from a relatively good book, Leave Her to Heaven was bland and forgettable. It’s a Noir-lite, with not enough Vincent Price.

If your book has a twist ending, it'd be great if it wasn't the same plot as a film from 1945.

If your book has a twist ending, it’d be great if it wasn’t the same plot as a film from 1945.

Now, you may say that Flynn didn’t mean to steal the exact same plot from this not-exactly-obscure old movie. I would believe that, because Leave Her to Heaven, unlike The Big Sleep or The Third Man, is boring as hell. I would believe that, except that Flynn highlights her influences. She literally has characters discussing Noir. In one awkward bit, a character says that the story is like a Noir.

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I find this grating and condescending. I don’t even like when better authors, like Donna Tartt, reference the books that inspired their work while in universe. It’s one thing to be meta, but it’s another to just awkwardly break the fourth wall for no reason whatsoever. I didn’t like, for example, when the characters in Secret History reference Dostoyevsky and The Great Gatsby, when the book already is very obviously inspired by Crime and Punishment and, again, Gatsby. We get it. We don’t need this spelled out for us. We’re not stupid. And, I really like Secret History! You should put down Gone Girl and read that instead. David Fincher should make that into a movie!

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However, when  Flynn references her inspirations, she does so in an annoyingly cutesy manner. For example, her supposedly literati, sophisticated main characters are just now, for the first time reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. That book, like Gone Girl, is about a missing spouse and deals with marriage, pop-culture, relationships (and also the affect of World War II on the psyche, magic, and Japanese culture, and a lot of other cool things that make it more interesting than Gone Girl). It’s a much better book. It’s also literally the most obvious Murakami book anyone could be reading. To highlight how dumb this is, that book came out in 1994. Gone Girl takes place in 2011 or ’12. And yet, these supposedly brilliant, literary, New York types have only just NOW discovered Murakami’s most famous work.

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And it’s not like Murakami is an unpopular writer. He’s famous world-wide and is always mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize winner. He’s a bestseller in his home country, and around the world, and has written many, many books. I’d get if the characters were only just now reading 1Q84, which is newer, or even Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which is less popular. But, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? Really? Your intellectual, “brilliant” (her words, not mine) writer characters have only just now discovered this super-popular book from the mid ‘90s? Really? Oh, well, what other “new” discoveries from the troves of celebrated, popular ’90s media will they pull out? I half expect the characters to talk about that “new and edgy” Fight Club book, or that brand new Geek Love, or the just-out-now American Psycho. Then they can tell us all about this new band called The Shins and how they just discovered Wes Anderson movies.

Hey, I just discovered this band!

Hey, I just discovered this band!

This is worse than being a hipster. This is thinking you are a hipster while showing off the media that literally everyone is already into.

When Flynn writes about intellectuals, she sounds like she’s saying what she thinks bookish people should say (which is weird, because Flynn is a successful writer, so you’d think she’d be writing what she herself knows…). Time and time again she reminds us that Nick is literary and Amy is a genius. I lost track of how many times characters call Amy “brilliant”. Yet, these supposedly literary people are really not that impressive. Amy, for all her supposed “genius” can’t write anything better than women’s journal personality quizzes, for instance. Annoyingly, she incorporates these quizzes into her POV sections of the novel, to the point where I wanted to claw my own eyes out. And both Amy and Nick have only the most basic interest in literature, despite the fact that they are supposedly lost without their identities as writers and literary types, and this is a huge deal for half the book.

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This is more than just a problem with realistic characters. This is also a plot issue. If I am to believe that these characters are so torn-up about leaving their New York scene, then I better feel like they actually care about something other than “just being in New York”. Supposedly this story is also about job loss and identity, and their jobs and identities were tied into their writer scene. Now, you may say that this is the point (which still begs the question about all the parts concerning how literary and smart the characters are), but that’s kind of not the point. The fact is, even if you have unlikable characters, you still need engaging characters. Your characters have to have some drive or impetus. We are never asked, as readers, to stand back and laugh at their behavior, as you would in a satire like Confederacy of Dunces, and neither do we get drawn into madness by understanding, but disliking, characters, like Therese Raquin. It’s too confessional and immediate, and the thriller tropes keep the reader from stepping back and contemplating the disaster.

The fact is, Flynn’s prose demands very little from readers. We get simple, YA-style first-person narratives, switching between Nick’s ongoing situation with Amy’s disappearance, and Amy’s diary. At least, for the first half. And these characters are just not compelling. To be fair, Nick’s initial confusion and ambiguity does create some suspense here, because there is some mystery. What happened to Amy? Is Nick innocent or guilty? But, Amy’s diary is unbearable, a series of reactions and audience pleading about how bad she has it and how nice she’s trying to be. It isn’t a character. It’s a series of events to be reacted to. Literally not one entry has anything to do with anything but Nick. We only get a vague definition of who Amy is based on who others are and how she reacts to them. But, we do get dozens of fake personality quizzes, so at least the prose is aggravating, childish, and clunky.

 

Amy

Amy

Nick’s first half is better, and certainly his best part. He is by far most interesting when you don’t know if he killed Amy. He’s active here. He seems creepy. He has weird reactions to the police. He seems like he could be complicated and, dare I say it, compelling. Sure, his prose style is also pretty weak, with lots of ambling and whining and talking about his cleft chin (seriously), but things are happening.

Cleft chin

Cleft chin

And then we get to the second half, a twist, and everything goes to shit.

Spoilers:

I’m serious, spoilers.

 

 

 

 

Amy isn’t dead.

Of course, if you have seen or read Leave Her to Heaven, you already know the plot twist. Even if you haven’t, current storytelling convention dictates that the obviously guilty guy in any mystery is obviously not guilty, so the twist is pretty easy to spot. Amy is settling Nick up for murder because he cheated. In Leave Her to Heaven, she actually kills herself, because that is a much braver story. But in this one she just has this complicated master-plan of evil.

This causes so many problems. I don’t mean for the characters. I mean for the book. First of all, our only access to Amy’s mind has been through her annoying diary. However, halfway through the novel, Amy says that she made it all up, the diary was a fake, and she invented that Amy. This is a problem, because so far our only character development has been that diary. Now, we are left with this conniving villain, who’s so over-the-top that she makes the character from Leave Her to Heaven look subtle, and we have no real motivation. Instead, all we get is this tirade about how tired she is of being the “cool girl”. If that sounds like something from the internet, it’s because this monologue has been shared around as a meme, which is basically all it is.

But, an abstract, intellectual idea of the problems with certain forms of gender conformity is not character development. Characters are not tropes, ideas, quirks, or morals. They are people, and Amy really isn’t a person anymore. She’s just a villain.

Meh, developed motivation is for male villains.

Meh, developed motivation is for male villains.

The only vaguely interesting part of Leave Her to Heaven is that we know from the start that the main character is marrying a psycho. Granted, we know this from some pretty dated sexism about ambitious women, but we do know that she is jealous, obsessive, competitive, and will never lose. Her family knows it, and we as the audience know it. We also see her commit her crimes, and we see her humanity. We see that she is frustrated, lonely, and sad, and that actually makes her a lot scarier when you remember that she is so extremely competitive and obsessive. She’s complex (ish… it’s still a pretty lame Noir). Amy… oh where to begin? I have no idea what Amy is supposed to be. We have no development with her, no humanity, and therefore no real scariness. She just is kinda evil, and not in a No Country for Old Men way, where we have a meditation on the problem of evil from an unstoppable force. No, she’s just bad. Kinda always was bad. Just a bad seed, I guess. Like having blond hair. It just happens.

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Another issue with this is that the author has also kind of ruined Nick. From this point onward, he’s the one only thinking about other people, being defined by other people, and reacting to them. He’s no longer dynamic, no longer interesting. Nick would literally have been more sympathetic if he had killed Amy, because he would be an active character. We can sympathize with and engage with unlikable, bad characters, from Patrick Bateman to Raskolnikov, but  Nick is now just man-victim to Amy’s harpy. These aren’t characters. These are figures in a bad joke.

Furthermore, from a construction standpoint, this novel doesn’t work once the twist is revealed. And I don’t just mean this because anyone who has seen Leave Her to Heaven could predict the twist a mile away. I mean that, from a writing standpoint, the story grinds to a halt. You see, with Nick now just being a passive victim and Amy having no character development, Flynn had to find some way to cram in details about Amy in order to reveal to Nick that he is married to a sociopath. She does this by just having people tell Nick stuff. That’s it. The thrilling novel of the year! People Talking About Stuff: The Book! Get ready for the thrilling mystery of the century, as characters you never met before tell your passive protagonist stuff that he should probably figure out himself. Sit on the edge of your seat as characters talk to you about scenes you’ll never get to read about.

Show? What’s that? Characters just come along and tell Nick things like, “Oh, yeah, Amy totes cray. She tried to frame me too.” Apparently framing is her MO, because she has done this to about four people. That’s just comical. In the end, Flynn just decides to let Amy tell the readers her evil plan, like a cartoon villain. “Oh, I used puppets to scare Nick because he’s afraid of puppets! We never saw this before, but I’m telling you now! Mwahahaa!” Really? Couldn’t have any scene showing this puppet fear, ever?  Even in the end, Amy just tells Nick everything that happened, even things that the readers already read about, because fuck redundancy. She even just tells Nick about the murder she commits, because God knows we can’t have any action in the entire book. That would get in the way of all the scenes of characters talking about how bad it is to not be in New York. You know, the exciting stuff.

Monologuing!

Monologuing!

Now, I am not an action-y type person, so the fact that I am complaining about too much introspection just speaks volumes about the quality of these characters. I don’t want to be in their heads. They don’t have anything compelling to say. And yet, Flynn lets them go on and on about marriage and gender and family life and art as if every word were profound insight into the postmodern condition. Because God knows I care so much about hearing middle class, privileged people whine about their love lives.

It doesn’t help that every character sounds like a teenage girl. Every character. Nick, Amy, the annoyingly nicknamed sister “Go” (Margaret), the supporting cast. Everyone. Characters talk like they are in a highschool romance, squeeing over their love lives, talking about how hot people are, or how hot they are. You know, like real life.

For instance, one of Nick’s big “flaws” is that he’s just too sexy. That’s a real character flaw, right? It’s like Marilyn Monroe’s glasses in How to Marry a Millionaire.

Yeah, because she's just hideous with glasses on.

Yeah, because she’s just hideous with glasses on.

Nick and other characters, however, reference his tragic handsomeness all the time. It’s like the author thinks it’s a disability. Let’s start an anti-defamation league for hot people. Obviously sexpots have just had it too hard for too long in this country! Clearly our prisons are all filled with preternaturally gorgeous, middle class, educated, white guys who look like movie stars. We have sports teams named for derogatory terms for hot guys. Every time a hot person commits a crime, media commentators demand for hot people to speak out against hot person crime. We don’t read any novels written by attractive people. We segregate our schools against the sexiest and most popular. We have a long history of lynching the gorgeous, banning their marriages, and stealing their lands. It’s just a crisis.

A proud and noble Affleck, struggling through anti-Affleck laws and cleft chin bans.

A proud and noble Affleck, struggling through anti-Affleck laws and cleft chin bans.

This really ties into some of the troublesome aspects of the story. Because before all of this, we just have a big, dumb, overblown bit of nonsense from an author trying way too hard to be smart and way too hard to be creepy, and getting way too into her chin fetish. (Note to Flynn, as much as you might find the scene about snapping sardine bones to be “chilling”, the cold reality is that sardine bones are soft. You won’t notice them. They’re delicious, not scary!) However, there is actually a controversy around this book, for some reason.

I wish I was kidding, because this book is way too silly to have a controversy. I mean, Amy literally tricks a high school classmate into pretending to be her to trick her parents into thinking she has a stalker, because Amy is famous, because her parents wrote children’s books about her which, of course, made them super wealthy and… Is this even a real book? I feel like I’m making this up from some really awkward dream.

But, because the world is cruel and illogical, this became a bfd and we have a controversy, and with it all kinds of think pieces.

Probably the most obvious is that Flynn wanted to write a book about how the husband is demonized by the media when the wife disappears. This does happen, because most crimes are committed by people close to the victim, so it’s not really surprising. But, sure, Flynn. I’m game. Media is salacious and vicious, and innocent people get dragged out for the vultures every time a crime happens. (Dingo baby, anyone?) The trouble is, Gillian Flynn has been accused of misogyny. And… that’s not a hard accusation to make. After all, this book has not one, but four false rape cases. It’s a story in which a character fakes her own abuse at the hands of various men, who are all super passive and just remain her victims because women be evil.

And it isn’t just that Amy is evil. Amy is evil in the most stereotypical ways possible: she manipulates her husband’s emotions, steals from him, fakes rape, pits men against each other, refuses to have a baby, literally steals Nick’s sperm from a fertility clinic to blackmail him with a baby, basically sexually assaults Nick, uses her beauty to fool others, plants porn in Nick’s house, uses Nick’s daddy issues against him… Even in petty, unrelated ways, she’s a stereotype. She’s judgemental about weight, calls other women ugly, is obsessed with how pretty and blond she is. It’s not breaking any new ground in terms of character development. She’s like if Princess Peach became a super villain. Miss Julie is more well-rounded and less stereotypical.

And women, in general, do not come out on top, from the anti-man news broadcaster, who you know is crazy because she’s anti-porn!!!, to the domestic abuse runaway who steals Amy’s money and has no character whatsoever (in comparison, see the hard-working, homeless-with-a-heart-of-gold squatters in the old mall, who have been falsely accused of, you guessed it, rape). Women are flirts who turn on Nick when he doesn’t respond to their offers of frito pie, and force him to TAKE SELFIES!!!

The_Scream

Women are mistresses who turn on Nick because women be jealous and can’t see how bad it looks to be a cheater when one’s spouse is missing.

Literally the only decent women in the story are the elegant, old-school newscaster, Nick’s mom, and his nurturing, motherly, laid-back, too cool, “unconventionally beautiful” sister, Go, who just understands Nick so well, and even makes him a sandwich and a beer when he’s blue…

What’s weird, though, is that Flynn says she’s a feminist, and that she wanted to create Amy because she was tired of women always being the victims and wanted women to be the villains once in a while.

Now, for one thing, yeah, I don’t doubt that is true. But, if you’re tired of not having good female villains (you know, aside from all the real Noirs, that did it first and better, Narnia, Harry Potter, and shitload of other popular stories), you might want to, you know, do that. Amy is such a poorly written character that rather than being shocking and scary, she was just funny. Oh, there goes Amy again! Golly, gee, who’s she gonna unrealistically frame by causing herself harm today? And that’s pretty much her entire character. She hurts herself and says someone else did it. It’s predictable. Furthermore, it’s kinda unbelievable. The character is supposed to be this evil genius, but, because this book is allergic to showing, we just hear that she’s brilliant. Hell, the smartest thing she does his write clues, read a book, and act bitchy. Her brilliant plan would actually never work, due to forensics (she drugs her murder victim first), she carries money out in the open in cash, she doesn’t know how to budget, she talks in personality quizzes, and she sounds like a teenager. She literally only gets away with her crimes because the plot says so.

And there’s a lot of that. By the time Nick and Go decide Amy is alive and framing Nick, the story still could go either way. Nick still looks guilty as hell and kind of has to jump through some creative hoops to arrive at his conclusion. Sure, he’s right, but he only is because Flynn says so. In real life, no one would come to that conclusion. It’s too far-fetched and crazy, which is also how it feels as a reader. The scarier it’s supposed to be, the funnier it is. It’s like a cheesy horror movie.

But, in terms of controversy, if you want to deconstruct gender tropes and create a female villain, fine. Go for it. But, don’t expect people to think you’re a feminist when she’s literally just a collection of stereotypes attacking poor, passive Nick. In fact, every man in the story is a victim to women and society, except for Nick’s abusive father, who only exists to make Nick look good by comparison and to give him a wooby back story.

The trouble is, Nick is also a horrible victim. He’s so passive and uninteresting that he would be far more compelling and sympathetic as a murderer. It is beyond the pale of reason to believe that he is victimized because he is too handsome, as well. Because everyone knows the biggest victims in society are sexy, intellectual, young, white men, with big houses. God knows that the media just loves to hate those guys, except that isn’t the world we live in. In fact, we’re so prejudiced in favor of good-looking people that people actually had a hard time convicting Ted Bundy, and he was a serial killer! And look at what they did to the Boston bomber. People actually irrationally love attractive people, even if it’s beyond all reason and they are clearly monsters.

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Nick would have been so much more believable if Flynn wasn’t so fangirly about her own characters and managed to write a plain or awkward man whose chin wasn’t to die for. If he was a little overweight, people would have discriminated against him, and we all know it. That’s a real thing, and it’s shitty and cruel, and we know it happens. Fat guys are constantly being portrayed as sexist losers and manchildren. But, sexy guys? Really?

But, honestly, I think Flynn believes she is a feminist. Feminism, despite being so present, isn’t very defined anymore, if it ever was at all. Anything vaguely relating to women is feminist. And, for some reason, it’s okay to use supposed feminism to attack other women who threaten your own insecurities.

Don't worry about your size, beautiful! Unless you're one of those stupid skinny bitches!

Don’t worry about your size, beautiful! Unless you’re one of those stupid skinny bitches… I hate them. #Feminism!!!!

In reality, guys, feminism really has nothing to do with memes and Dove ads and feeling pretty. It’s more of a loosely connected conglomerate philosophy-sociology movement about the nature of being as women (woman qua woman, if you will) as opposed to Othering definitions. From this, one derives social justice actions, like fighting child brides or winning the vote. But one does not have to be feminist to fight any of these issues at all. Logically, if feminism were just a protest, as soon as these issues are abolished, feminism would be no more. This would mean it has no ontology or epistemology, and the question of “what is woman” or “how is woman to be” would not important to answer. Unfortunately, under the guise of feminism, we get a subset that just sort of use it as an outlet for their insecurities. And, sadly, the target for these insecurities are often other women.

In reality, Flynn doesn’t hate women. But, I think she possibly hates a certain kind of woman. Rather than address social beauty standards, she makes her size-two blond villain a total bitch. Meanwhile, the brunette, unconventionally attractive, old-school, supportive, nurturing Go is awesome.

gfAnd, my problem here is that for the whole anti-cool girl rant, Go is a cool girl. She’s just a different one. She’s Taylor Swift on the bleachers. She’s the one who’s relatable. She’s not blond and twiggy. She’s stately and old-school, but not above drinking beer and sharing crass jokes with her bro and watching the sports game and being totally happy to be so supportive. Flynn isn’t attacking any gendered social structures. She’s just replaced them with one that makes her more comfortable.

The thing is, though, I can’t care that much about this book, and that’s a problem. I can’t care about the loss of their jobs, for instance.The market crash affected a whole hell of a lot more than ritzy, New York hipsters, and I just cannot be compelled to read about them in such a straight, serious manner. There is no real commentary. It’s just played too straight. I don’t care about these people, and I also do not believe they could exist. I don’t believe in Amy, because I don’t know why she does anything that she does. I don’t believe in Nick, because he’s too passive to be fully realized as a character. He’s just a victim stereotype, which is not more interesting because Flynn thinks she’s subverting gender norms (except for the fact that this is a Noir, and femme fatales are literally in all of them). I don’t believe that Amy’s parents made a fortune writing children’s books about their daughter. I don’t believe that Amy pulled off any of her crimes. I don’t believe that the answer to deconstructing rape stereotypes is to use “the girl who cried rape” stereotype four times in one novel. I don’t believe that sardine bones pop when you eat them. I don’t believe our characters are smart. I don’t believe that this case would be popular in the media, at least for very long, and I don’t believe that Nick’s taped interview would go viral online. He isn’t a cat or a naked chick or someone talking about the illuminati, so… no. Also, those youtube comments in the book should mostly be swearing, hate, and people calling each other Hitler or spamming the hell out of everything. Flynn’s world is too simple, and things work too conveniently for the plot, and so nothing is interesting or believable. The details are off, and the characters are too broad.

The book doesn’t work as a thriller, because it’s plodding, predictable, and telly. It doesn’t work as a satire because it’s played too straight and nothing is sent up. It doesn’t work as a portrait of marriage, because no one really acts like this and the characters have too little development. It doesn’t work. I don’t even like addressing its controversies because it’s too silly to be controversial. Amy frames her husband with a set of Punch and Judy puppets and a cache of bdsm pornos, for pity’s sake. That’s hilarious!

And, for those who say that Flynn WANTS us to dislike the characters, and I don’t get it… Oh, I get it. I mean, I absolutely love Zola’s books, and he’s being intentionally unlikable. I understand unlikable characters. What I don’t understand are flat, passive, uninteresting ones who never change. The characters are basically the same at the end of the novel, only Nick just knows that Amy is crazy. The situation changes, but the people don’t. We don’t see them grow or learn or change. Furthermore, I think it’s pretty obvious from Flynn’s commentary about how much of herself she put into Nick’s character (being a writer, the New York thing, the job loss, and how much she freaking adores Missouri), that we can assume Nick is the good guy. He ends the book as the passive, wooby, ridiculously attractive victim to the psychotic, domineering Amy, who probably went on to wreck his car, not understand how to use a remote, and refuse to let him watch the ball game when she wants to watch a costume drama musical.

The funny part is, David Fincher isn’t really so fond of Nick. Fincher, who adapted the novel for the screen, roots for Amy. He thinks Nick is pathetic. And, frankly, that’s not hard to understand. I mean, Nick, in a Fincher movie, is the kind of character who would be mocked by his own invisible friend. Nick is the one who would get chewed out by Morgan Freeman. And, that makes sense. Fincher likes his anarchic, violent, weirdos. Hell, even in Se7en, the serial killer technically wins. If anyone could put some realism into these characters, it’s Fincher. And, maybe this totally different take, without all the stupid emphasis on Nick’s cleft chin, and with the audience actually getting to see the events, rather than hear about them, we could get a decent-ish story… that’s still Leave Her to Heaven.

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Thank goodness I paired this with a batshit insane story about dismembering bodies. Oh, wait…

The Tigerlily False Equivalency Issue

In case you haven’t heard, Hollywood wants to remake everything. That isn’t new. And, in the view of big producers remaking old things as “gritty” and “x-treme!” new things, we have a new rendition of Peter Pan. Again. That hasn’t made much in the way of headlines, because A.) more people want to see Angelina Jolie in Meleficent and B.) Once Upon a Time already does “gritty”, YA-friendly retellings of Peter Pan et al, so who cares? Plus, I just think this market has kind of worn out its welcome. At first it was cool, what with our Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but now, now that we have “x-treme!” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and “x-treme” live-action Disney cartoons, the genre of “it was old and now it’s new and grownup and filmed in HD” is not really that cool. People didn’t embrace Robocop and Total Recall, and I haven’t seen anyone getting terribly stoked about the new Peter Pan.

That being said, it did make headlines for casting a white woman as Princess Tigerlily.

Rooney Mara. Authentic.

Rooney Mara. Authentic.

So, here we go again, the endless battle of racial casting. The usual arguments are as follows: “But, it should be about the talent, not the race! It’s just casting who’s best!”

And then we get The Last Airbender and The Lone Ranger, and clearly, no, there is no way what we got is the best. Airbender is unwatchable, and Lone Ranger just has Depp being Jack Sparrow again. Clearly this is not a meritocracy. It’s more of a stuff-producers-and-board-rooms-thought-would-sell-best-ocracy. So, capitalism. And you thought Hollywood was progressive, ha!

But, actually, a lot of people have been defending this casting decision, including a weird, Buzzfeed-style article from NPR. Seriously, first NetGeo went all Swamp People on us, and now my beloved bastion of pretention has started emulating the stuff I look up when I want to see pictures of French bulldog puppies? What’s next, putting One Direction in a Tiny Desk Concert? You leave Tiny Desk Concerts alone, evil boy bands!

Anyway, for those of you who actually pay attention to NPR (all 9 of us…) and know about it from something other than what does the FOX say, you know it’s really not a leftist station. Unless you think BBC collaboration is grossly left wing for not saying Obama is a Nigerian terrorist Muslim atheist child molester, in which case you are insane. Most of NPR is devoted to classical and underground music, trivia, car talk, Prairie Home Companion, interviews with artists and writers, discussions about the history of the world’s greatest cheese (possibly the best episode of anything ever). It’s more likely to tell you about all the craft beers you can drink at a rally than to tell you to rally. Unless you’re rallying behind craft beer. Is it perhaps more likely to appeal to someone sipping a latte in an indie café while reading Bitch Magazine than FOX’s demographic? Yes, but that’s hardly the only audience that tunes in to NPR. Although, I admit that it suffers from excessive gentrification at times, it also gives voice to unknown folk, country, and blues singers from down home places who may never have otherwise had a platform. So, I don’t know that you can say there is an NPR crowd other than the fact that it doesn’t actively fight to exclude the latte-sipper-Bitch-reader-in-indie-café the way FOX does. If anything, what you can expect is a lot of art and culture, a fascinating crossection of Americana, lots and lots of classical and opera performances, car talk, and some generally smart, solid programming, so what the hell is with this buzzfeed crap? (Says the person who inserts excessive pictures into all her posts to casually attempt at driving up hits…)

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!

Anyway, I think the argument is thus: If you’re upset about this, are you also going to be upset at casting minor comic characters as black when they were originally white? Are you upset that the newest Phantom is black? Or that stage show Aladdin is Filipino?

And, I get where they’re coming from to an extent. Tigerlily isn’t exactly an iconic Native American character. Her tribe isn’t real, and is in fact named after a really racist word (no really). And, it’s not like the Disney cartoon isn’t, you know, offensive.

Straight-up racist. Sorry, but I'm calling it.

Straight-up racist. Sorry, but I’m calling it.

There, I said it. It’s an offensive representation. I’m always shocked when someone comes up and says, “Oh, Beauty and the Beast is SOOOO offensive! There’s a fleeting image of a pastor in the crowd when Gaston was going to marry Belle, because who ever heard of pastors at weddings? Offensive! And the father isn’t portrayed as a god-like figure of pure amazaballs! That’s offensive stereotyping!!!!” and then says, “Oh, don’t be so hypersensitive about Peter Pan. They’re only gross stereotypes of an entire people. Stop being so Politically Correct.”

I’ve come to a conclusion about Political Correctness:

If it affects the person speaking, it’s not Political Correctness, it’s decency! It’s morals! It’s family values!

If it doesn’t affect the person speaking, it’s Political Correctness, tyranny, and Hitler!

Pictured here: A popular representation of political correctness.

Pictured here: A popular representation of political correctness.

What’s weird is that almost every time someone invokes the ol’ PC it has exactly jack to do with being PC. What’s the political bent here? Real PC talk is like refusing to discuss money in politics, calling rich people “job creators”, and other forms of politicized language. What we’re referring to is just manners. It’s just being decent toward someone else and not caricaturing them as something sub-human, which, if you’re going to do any Nazi comparisons, is way, way, way more apt. Nostalgia doesn’t exempt someone from being respectful. You can’t be like, “Oh, I thought it was funny to laugh at Stepin Fetchit as a kid. So, that must be totally okay, you PC Nazis!” That works about as well as saying, “Oh, I enjoyed staring at people in sideshows! Therefore The Elephant Man is a liberal Nazi Hitler PC movie for making me recognize the humanity of people I just wanna stare at and mock!”

How dare you tell me to care about someone other than myself and my gross entitlement complex? You PC Hitler!

How dare you tell me to care about someone other than myself and my gross entitlement complex? You PC Hitler!

Also, stop invoking Hitler, people.

There actually is a difference between casting a black Phantom or a black Nick Fury, and casting a white Native American or Asian character. And, here’s why. We do not have a shortage of white actors in roles. Most of our heroes, romantic leads, and overall casts are white. Even in good movies, like Her, we’ve apparently conceived a very white future. If you’re a white actor, you are only limited by the number of other white actors you’re competing against. It’s not like there are only a handful of decent roles for you, and the rest of the time you’ll be in some niche like Tyler Perry movies or direct to DVD fare, or low-budget arthouse selections that will pay you in pennies while the director sells organs to get a single theatrical release. And, the majority of our celebrity coverage is also of white Hollywood.

So, when a white role is given to an actor of a different ethnicity, it’s not taking away from a tiny pool of representation, and it’s not taking one of the few jobs an actor can get. It’s not like when Nick Fury became a black character that was the only role for white people. The entire Avengers ensemble is white!

Furthermore, there is history to consider. Who has told the stories? Whose voices get heard the loudest? In cases of Native American representation, they have been cast by white people in circuses and mock train robberies to play “savages”.They have been cast as antagonists for cowboy heroes. They have been cast as hippies for a yuppie earth-love analogue of bourgeois values. There is a long history of appropriating and defining their culture as whatever white people want it to be.

Historical 12 year old becomes sexy babe, for instance...

Historical 12 year old becomes sexy babe, for instance…

However, how often do we see Native American roles? Really. Ask yourself that. And, how often in roles when the race is incidental, like a rom-com heroine, a scientist, an action star, do we see Native actors just getting cast? Are you saying that Native American peoples just cannot act, that acting just isn’t a thing they can do? The fact is, when you give a Native Role to a white person, it’s not the same as casting a black Phantom. It’s not the same because there are hardly any Native Roles written, for anyone.

It’s also not the same because Phantom of the Opera is a stage show, so there are many, many chances for people to play the title role, in many productions. Plenty of white people have played the Phantom. Most. Pretty much all. This is only making the news because it’s the first time on Broadway, maybe ever, that he hasn’t been white. Also, stage shows don’t follow the same rules as movies. People bend gender, race, age, et cetera, all the time. While there is a lack of representation for particular groups, and I wish every talented actor could be cast fairly, it’s much more fluid than movies. You can cast a 47 year old woman as a teenaged boy in an opera. But, you can’t cast white people as Asian people in Cloud Atlas and have it not be incredibly uncomfortable and scary as hell. Film demands more verisimilitude.

Gah! The people of Innsmouth! Run away!

Gah! The people of Innsmouth! Run away!

And, again, the argument that Tigerlily isn’t a good role kind of doesn’t… work at all. What, you’re saying the source material and other adaptations are racist, so we have to be racist? I thought these were supposed to be reboots. Are we not rebooting the character, just keeping the stereotype? Why? Why do that? Why bother rebooting at all if you think the original should just be left alone? What is the point of that?

And, lastly, I think that producers don’t give audiences enough credit. They have really strict ideas about what audiences will and will not watch. They think that boys won’t follow the adventures of girls, and it was a cliché truism until The Hunger Games and everyone proved them wrong. Which, if you have ever encountered human beings outside of a very strict bubble, you already knew. Little boys have long been just fine with stories about girls, like Pippi Longstocking, which was a favorite when I worked in children’s libraries. A favorite of more boys than girls, actually.

Gee, I wonder why?

Gee, I wonder why?

 

People also think that America will only watch white people, so they do things like make the racially diverse Avatar the Last Airbender a white vs. Indian/Middle Eastern story.

Aang-Katara-avatar-the-last-airbender-26506247-720-480

 

A once racially diverse cast becomes a film about white kids being menaced by evil, Middle Eastern men.

A once racially diverse cast becomes a film about white kids being menaced by evil, Middle Eastern men.

And, yes, I know that Zuko becomes good. But, that’s not really the point, especially since there won’t be any sequels to the movie. The point is, the show has many fans, and they love it, and they love the characters, and they don’t want to see a bunch of bad child-actors shoved into roles that that shouldn’t fill. Not only shouldn’t they fill the roles because they are bad actors, but also because these aren’t white roles. Part of what people love about the show is its world-building, and it is built on distinctly non-white culture. This is just what the show is. Casting white actors just feels like cultural appropriation. It also just looks silly.

Similarly, audiences didn’t love Jack Sparrow Tonto, and that movie was an enormous disaster.

When Hollywood has occasionally rebooted material with black actors in what had been white roles, it’s also not a role contingent on race. The Karate Kid’s race is incidental. And, there’s nothing about being an orphan that makes Annie inherently white. But, Tigerlily and Tonto are specifically written as Native American characters. The Karate Kid and Annie are not played in white-face, and the characters are not representing some specific part of white history. They’re just kids, and kids are everywhere. Tigerlily and Tonto cannot be played as white, because the characters are Native American. It isn’t like having a black Karate Kid. It’d be like having a black John Smith, where race is in fact integral to what we are representing. Or, in terms of fiction, a black Snow White doesn’t work, for obvious reasons. If your character is written as inherently a specific race, then the actor doesn’t just make the role his or her own. The actor has to appropriate the race, and it is awkward. Depp didn’t play a role that had once been played by a Native actor. He played a role that is a Native character, and that is the difference between this and other race-bent reboots.

Tonto-depp

I don’t think that the meritocracy argument works, mostly because it isn’t a meritocracy. But, even if it was, it hinges on the idea that only a white actor would be best for the part. There are plenty of white actors who are very talented, and there are many roles for them, but to say that they also need the roles of other races is to imply that other races aren’t as talented. Yeah, Roony Mara is a great actress, and she may have done really well reading for Tigerlily, but does that mean that no one else could do as well in the role?

It isn’t as if Tonto or Tigerlily are especially great Native American roles. But, with so few Native Roles, and Hollywood’s disinclination to cast non-race-specific roles with diverse actors, there are only so many opportunities for work. This isn’t an issue of whether or not it’s okay for these stars to play race-bent roles, but whether or not other actors are able to get work at all.

My question is: did the filmmakers even try?

 

And this brings me to a recent pseudo-news, celebrity faux pas story about Heidi Klum, who recently dressed up like a historically inaccurate “sexy squaw” stereotype for a German reality show.

Also, this photo sucks. It's too posed and silly, and it looks like a bad instagram pic that should be captioned with lyrics to an Owl City song.

Also, this photo sucks. It’s too posed and silly, and it looks like a bad instagram pic that should be captioned with lyrics to an Owl City song.

Although I don’t think German reality TV ever needs to be news, any more than American reality TV or British reality TV or any reality TV, what interested me was the reaction. People were outraged, not over Klum’s “redface”, but over the fact that anyone considered it racist. People were quick to point out that, you see, Americans just don’t get that Germany has a tradition of seeing Native American people in this way.

Because we all know that if Germany has a traditional view of a particular race, it’s best to follow that view without question. I don’t remember a time that has ever been racist in the slightest…

However, this does bring up an interesting point. The argument isn’t whether or not the people represented care, but whether or not white America or white Germany are the best white people in this white person argument. The voice of the Native American people doesn’t matter.

This is regularly the argument behind race issues, that white liberals are just whining and other white people should do their thing. The only people whose possible offence is even questioned are white. The idea that someone from another race might actually have opinions about how they are represented is never questioned. Which, for the record, they do.

Another reaction I saw was that if people like Heidi Klum do not dress up as stereotypes of Native American culture, then the Native American peoples will only be represented by casinos. In other words, Native Americans don’t have a culture anymore. They’re just poor. And, white people now rightfully own all that is attractive about their culture and can appropriate it as such.

Because a long tradition of romanticizing Native Americans has never led to anything bad.

The fact is, Native American voices do exist. There are actors, artists, writers. If you are more familiar with a white woman in feathers than you are with Zitkala-Ša, Leslie Marmon Silko, Mary Brave Bird, and Sherman Alexie, then it’s not that Native American culture is missing but that you’re systematically ignoring it.

Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite people of all time and author of Fahrenheit 451, once said: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

By not knowing these writers, or artists, or employing actors to represent their own people, you’re silencing the culture. It isn’t that casinos and silly modeling reality shows are all that are left for Native Americans. It’s hard to read, so let’s just watch Heidi Klum take sexy pictures for a reality show.

The greatest sin a person can commit these days is asking someone to care about something. The best way to bring on rage is to say, “Maybe you should eat something that doesn’t hurt the environment, or be more energy efficient, or not commoditize a person based on sexual appeal in order to sell beer, or not sexualize young girls, or not support exploitative businesses, or care about the representation of a people.” It doesn’t cause people to change oh-so-much to say that maybe Heidi Klum’s bad photoshoot was also pretty racist, or that maybe we should actually start casting Native American actors. But, even this small amount of change is enough to send people into a rage of tooth-gnashing and pants-wetting.

But, in the end, these aren’t abstracts that white liberals and white conservatives do or do not care about. These are issues about people, people who have their own voices and cares, and whose culture is very real.

It’s not that they don’t have a voice. It’s whether or not anyone is listening.

 

 

 

Literature, Genre Fiction, and Loving the Bomb

I wanted to address some issues concerning “genre fiction”. In most book discussions, genre is a sort of nebulous figure. It can mean ideas of category, in such broad-sweeping terms as library collection labels (science fiction/fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, et cetera). It can be more subjective, however. For example, a lot of cross-genre stories have crept up where various YA fantasy elements have melded with other genres, like historical fiction or dystopia.

A historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, alternative universe, steampunk... I don't know...

A historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, alternative universe, steampunk… I don’t know…

Furthermore, readers in today’s media-saturated world often have very, very precise ideas as to what they want, often based more on a collection of tropes than on any clear idea of genre. Usually these can be picked out in a very TV Tropes sort of way: “I want a YA series with a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds anti-hero, who is also a Draco in Leather Pants character, who is in a love triangle with an All Work and No Play woman who is Conveniently an  Orphan, and a love rival Starving Artist who believes Ambition Is Evil…”

I think that this devotion to trope collection is often what prevents good literary discussion. When someone gives a very vague I -couldn’t-get-into-it excuse about a book, often it is because the person reads to fulfil a certain love of trope. With women, especially, I see a lot of readers who have a real romance for some blend of the Draco in Leather Pants and Woobies. For the uninitiated, these are TV Tropes terms for specific character types. The Draco in Leather Pants is basically what it sounds like, a hot badboy, like the 2004 version of The Phantom of the Opera or every love interest in every Cassandra Clare book ever.

Or Spike. Spike also works...

Or Spike. Spike also works…

The Woobie is a put-upon character that you feel sorry for and want to hug because nothing goes his way, which is often kind of a favorite for certain female audiences.

So, basically Angel, to continue a theme...

So, basically Angel, to continue a theme…

Audiences who really like to fix people, to be exact…

Woobie Destroyer of Worlds is when the woobie might, you know, destroy things. But not intentionally.

Frozen

Frozen

A lot of people really hate these tropes when applied to romance, saying that they encourage girls to get into bad relationships in order to “fix” someone. But, I’m not sure if that’s really fair. I think there is a sort of safety in living out the bad romance within the confines of fiction, and that appeals to people.

And some choose to express their fantasies in song...

And some choose to express their fantasies in song…

It’s also not just for women. Film Noir is laden with femme fatales, who could basically just be the female Draco in Leather Pants, and the idea of “taming” the wild woman isn’t too very different from fixing the bad boy, in my opinion.

The Big Sleep, one of the greatest movies of all time.

The Big Sleep, one of the greatest movies of all time.

However, there is definitely a subset of the population who really fetishize the tropes, intentionally seeking out books not for quality or enlightenment, but because they want to fall in love with angsty bad boys who would be good if only they had wub, sweet wub.

12751687

The romantic, angsty, dangerous love interest is named… Patch. That is hilarious…

This sets off my outrage.

Male readers often gravitate toward another wish-fulfilment fantasy, often with Chosen One narratives where a character is special and gets to have adventures and love and awesomeness because he’s just special. Eragon is a particularly dreadful example of self-indulgent wish-fulfilment writing.

All the literary credibility of a fanfic you could be reading online for free!

All the literary credibility of a fanfic you could be reading online for free! (And, yes, I know that women read this trope, as well.)

I believe I mentioned a meme in a previous post, about how one reads to escape life, and I said how this is really a very irresponsible way to live. I think that a lot of these Chosen One narratives create a reading environment where literature is not about humanity or raising up ideas and culture, but rather abandoning reality like the children in the Ray Bradbury Story, “The Veldt”.

The problem with collecting tropes is that it often makes it very hard to talk about literature as literature. A lot of people really promote the idea of obsessing over a trope as a positive thing, like it is part and parcel of the reading experience. While it’s not wrong to really like particular tropes, a collection of tropes does not actually make a story. It’s how the piece is used. For example, dystopian tropes can be used well, or they can be…

200px-Modellandcover

There have to be better ways of talking about literature. What does the author address? What about the writing style? What are the questions the author is asking or answering? How does the author enter into the dialogue of art itself? A trope can exist in a really great piece of writing, and also in some abysmal pile of shit. It has no quality requirements. Again, see the picture above. No quality requirements.

Trope collecting is more about filling a certain emotional need, such as loneliness or boredom, and has very little to do with literature. And, sure everyone has emotional needs. Sometimes everyone needs a quick escape, a way to de-stress.

I get mine from watching terrible, old horror movies, like Attack of the Killer Shrews.

I get mine from watching terrible, old horror movies, like Attack of the Killer Shrews.

The problem isn’t from these books. It’s totally fine to read easy books, or even terrible books. It’s no worse than watching TV or watching really bad horror movies about giant rodents. There is, however, a problem in only reading these books, from only being able to read these books, or from refusing to read anything else. No Draco in Leather Pants in As I Lay Dying? I guess it’s a bad book, then… Not as good as Clockwork Urban Angel Vampire Romance of Doom and Fate 7, which is clearly the real masterpiece.

"I never wanted to date any of these characters! What a hipster piece of trash!"

“I never wanted to date any of these characters! What a hipster piece of trash!”

The idea of “genre fiction” is another misuse of the word “genre”. What does that even mean? I understand that literature is supposed to transcend genre, and there is this Sontag-fuelled argument about genre not being necessary to quality. However, I think that the popular notions about genre have really corrupted these ideas.

The problem is, I do agree with this: There is no good or bad genre. There are simply good and bad works of art.

Good vampire novel...

Good vampire novel…

Cornball crap.

Cornball crap.

Good science fiction series.

Good science fiction series.

Hilariously bad John Travolta alien.

Hilariously bad John Travolta alien.

However, many people interpret that to mean: There is no literary fiction. There are simply entertaining and boring… whatever that means.

Art.

Art.

The trouble is that genre fiction has come to mean not “fiction that fits within a particular genre rather well” (something which is actually less clear than anyone seems to think), but it’s own thing. Genre fiction has become a blanket term for popular literature that usually has a low reading level, lots of action, snappy dialogue, and mass appeal. Very often, these books aren’t even strict, one-genre reads, like a YA fantasy historical romance, and are more defined by the tropes than by genre at all. Why do you think cross-genre selections of YA reads are devoted to love triangles? Because that trope, not any one genre, is popular.

Dystopia love triangle...

Dystopia love triangle…

Vampire and werewolf love triangle...

Vampire and werewolf love triangle…

Urban fantasy love triangle...

Urban fantasy love triangle…

Sort of like Modelland love triangle...

Sort of like Modelland love triangle…

Twilight with angels love triangle...

Twilight-with-angels love triangle…

Furthermore, good has been replaced by “entertaining”, which in turn often means “it has my favorite tropes and I am in love”. Entertaining doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with quality. Jangling keys in front of a baby can entertain that baby, but would probably not work on your boss.

I am wildly entertained by The Screaming Skull...

I am wildly entertained by The Screaming Skull…

I think those who study pop-culture can definitely discuss something’s popularity and mass appeal in semi-objective terms, such as why The Avengers was generally beloved while Man of Steal is so divisive. But, it doesn’t automatically mean that one’s personal entertainment is a sign of goodness. Again, Screaming Skull. And, often entertainment comes with the ability to access the media.

If one cannot understand Shakespearian English, for example, one cannot be entertained by his plays, even though they are filled with exciting plot devices and timeless characters. And the funny part is that many works of literature actually do have the tropes that people love. If readers gave the books a chance, and put forth the effort to get through the pages, they might discover that…

Heathcliff is a Draco in Leather Pants...

Heathcliff is a Draco in Leather Pants…

Frankenstein's monster is a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds...

Frankenstein’s monster is a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds…

You don’t actually have to get rid of your favorite tropes. They exist everywhere.

Most art, and that includes literature, is concerned with addressing humanity in some sense, in asking questions, in answering questions, and it participates in a dialogue with other artists, eras, cultures, as well as politics and social issues which concern the author and the audience. This isn’t boring. If this is boring, then life is boring. However, it isn’t as easy to consume as the fast-food reads that pack bestseller lists, and that makes some readers think it is boring. It’s not boring. It’s just asking the reader to do something. If we do not bring anything to the table or do any work while reading, what are we but consumers?

We're all monkeys!  (12 Monkeys)

We’re all monkeys!
(12 Monkeys)

And, again, not everything will interest every reader ever. That’s okay. That’s normal. But, never, ever being interested in anything that isn’t about sexy spies, explosions, chosen boys, woobies, angsty love, and more woobies, that’s just being obstinate. There’s a large portion of the population which is happy to laud privileged, well-to-do, educated people for being able to read basic stories in their native language by the time they are adults. I think this should happen by around age seven. No, no prize for you, college-educated person who only reads Twilight. If you were a child, maybe. Probably I would suggest that you read something else, however.

This isn’t to slight children’s and YA books. I’d praise educated adults for reading The Phantom TollboothSounder, Holes, Tuck Everlasting, Paper Towns, The Giver, The Book Thief, The Westing Game, Coraline, A Wrinkle In Time, A Cricket In Times Square, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Little Women, Alice In Wonderland, The Hobbit, Skellig, The Book of Three, House of the Scorpion, The Fledgling, The Neverending Story…

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!

 I don’t think that quality is determined by age group. However, I won’t praise them for their ability to read, or for actually deciding to read –only for picking some damn good kids’ books. And, I certainly wouldn’t extend that praise to someone reading yet another Twilight knockoff, or ghost-written, mass-produced grocery store novel, or a dystopian version of America’s Next Top Model… gah! That book…

Read it if you want to, but don’t expect the world to bow before your ability to be literate by age 26.

Didn't Disney teach you anything? You get a medal when you save your country from unrealistically muscular invaders!

Summer Reading Contest Winner, 2013. She read three books, so we gave her China.

There are kids in refuge camps who are learning to read in incredibly hard conditions. College-educated, well-to-do adults, especially those currently in college, and especially those in college and not working, should not be praised for doing what they should already know how to do.  That is what college students should be doing already. It’s a unique environment where you can spend years learning as much as you like, with professionals there to help you along the way. Anything less is just ungrateful squandering of a great privilege. When one considers the sacrifices people have made for education, from enslaved people teaching themselves, to bravely fighting for education rights for all races, to women trying to get the right to education  throughout history, to the struggles of the poor to even attain higher education, to the journey of integrating people with special education needs, it seems a little silly to praise people for just taking advantage of being in an educational environment. That’s like praising someone for eating food while at a table full of food.

Eating: not always a really good idea.  (Pan's Labyrinth)

Eating: not always a really good idea.
(Pan’s Labyrinth)

Now, none of this is to criticize fandoms. These can be very good, fun, supportive groups which address great ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s something really refreshing about people who get excited about the things they love. It’s like this awesome John Green quote:

“…because nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness’.”

And, surely it’s better than squandering higher education by being a generally useless person for four years.

Undergraduates or characters from a movie by the director of Trash Humpers? It's so hard to tell...  (Spring Breakers)

Undergraduates or characters from a movie by the director of Trash Humpers? It’s so hard to tell…
(Spring Breakers)

However, it’s not a problem of fandoms or really liking something. That is usually really positive. The problem is with being indiscriminate and not taking advantage of education. The problem is in conflating the ability to read for entertainment with being literary. Congratulations on your ability to amuse yourself, but don’t expect a medal.

Actually, the world of literature really can learn from the world of what people call “genre fiction”. That is, literature needs to learn to be more nerdy. We need to teach people to learn to love literature, and love it in that enthusiastic, omg-I-am-so-excited, wonderful way. Because, yes, it’s not about the genre. Books of any genre can be great literary works. But, the focus should be on the “great literary works” part. And the focus of teaching should be about WHY these are great. I think a lot of the reason for anti-literature reading habits come from educators who just failed at making literary works interesting. They created a gap between popular “genre” fiction and literature, and one which really shouldn’t exist. Very often, students are left in a sea of jargon, just trying to figure out what literary even means. This makes people forget all the literature that is exciting, beautiful, smart, fun, and interesting, that makes life more illuminated rather than offering a way to ignore life for a while.

So, stop worrying and learn to love the… literati-inclined, high-brow masterpieces.

strange09

Outlit C

Interim: Some actual literature

I know that this should be an update about The Lion King, but it isn’t. I am too jetlagged and sick to finish writing that right now, and also I accidentally didn’t save a portion of the post when I last worked on it. So, that happened. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what to say, since there is just a plethora of strange controversies people have dreamed up for this movie. It’s not like Cinderella, where there are all literally multiple books written about it, and an entire social phenomenon named after it, the Cinderella Syndrome. With these ’90s Disney films the controversies tend to be based more in ’90s radicalism and ’90s counter-radicalism, and neither strikes me as very intellectually substantial. The movie itself is more interesting than the controversies, and its influence on the changing world of musicals is probably going to dominate the discussion.

So, until I get that done, isn’t this supposedly a literature-based blog?

Well, yes, it is. Or, rather, it’s a literati based blog for culture and pop-culture, because someday I hope to get an article in The Rumpus… So, literature.

I had a conversation before Christmas with a few undergraduate writing students, and they expressed a certain frustration with professors who expected them to write in a “literary” fashion. Sometimes I think professors assume too much about what their audiences have in their personal lexicons, especially with terms as relatively vague and baggage-heavy as “literature” and “art”. These are ideas that have encompassed not books, but entire libraries, fields of study and philosophical arguments dating basically to the beginning of philosophy itself. Plato wrote on art. It’s a long discussion. And, while I don’t want to imply that these professors did not do a good job of explaining what they meant, or that I can do better in a blog that could alternatively be called “Two Nerds Bitching”, I do think that there’s an assumption that students have been tossed into the dialog of ideas a little earlier than what might be the case.

Actually, I think that this might be interpreted unfairly. I think many professors believe that they should not have to dumb down their classes and that students, whose primary occupation should be learning as much as possible in this rather novel period of life, should supplement their courses with additional material. This is true. However, I think that many bright students get left in a sea of terminology and possibly biased or partial definitions and, with what may be seen as an overwhelming abundance of library material, might come away with headaches and confusion. So, instead of saying that I have an answer to questions as vast and timeless as “What is art/literature?”, I’ll instead talk about what other, smarter people have talked about.

First of all, if you’re repeatedly being asked by a professor to write in a certain way, whether or not that professor has the carte blanche on all that is literary is secondary to what you are supposed to learn in this class. 9 times out of 10, the professor is trying to teach students raised on Hollywood blockbusters, TV, and fast-paced YA series how to use certain techniques. So, unless you’re just so revolutionary and brilliant that you need to fight against the system and show the world that your experimental, postmodern novel-in-verse is the next Finnegan’s Wake, I’m guessing this is an attitude problem. Obstinance isn’t a virtue in and of itself, and sometimes you need to do your writing exercises, draw your still-life sketches, play your etudes, do your plies and rond de jamb, practice your batting swings, and learn your multiplication tables. I don’t know why people think that writing is any different. You’re probably not going to suddenly breathe out the next classic novel without ever practicing your writing or studying the greats. It’s as unlikely as picking up a guitar and, without any practice or ever listening to music, shredding like a rock god. I’d like to dub this “American Idol Syndrome” or, since I currently live in the UK, “X Factor Syndrome”, the idea that out of nowhere you’ll suddenly become a star. It doesn’t matter that the winners of these shows have histories of practice, because they only really exist to their audiences between certain hours of the day, and their rise is like magic. Such is the reality in reality TV.

It's worth noting that the so-called music experts of these reality shows gave us the sterile, karaoke, High School Musical abomination that is One Direction... Oh, and Cher Lloyd.

It’s worth noting that the so-called music experts of these reality shows gave us the sterile, karaoke, High School Musical abomination that is One Direction… Oh, and Cher Lloyd.

But,  I do think that this frustration goes beyond the goth girl who dropped out of my undergraduate fiction writing class because she wasn’t allowed to submit Lord of the Rings fanfics. I think that this goes beyond people who just don’t want to write character-driven stories, or who think that they will be the next J.K. Rowling and therefore do not need to study Faulkner, and so on. Certainly, these people are real (horribly, horribly real), and, yes, they are an enormous drag on every writing course they enter. “Why do I have to read Moby-Dick when I’d rather read an urban fantasy about fast-talking wizards?” they say. Or, “I read popular fiction because I know what sells and I’m going to sell!” they proclaim, dully unaware of how much popular fiction is written by staff authors, or that the majority of such submissions are rejected unread. It’s terrible.

"Whadya mean rejected?!" [Evard Munch, The Scream, a seriously better painting than my caption...]

“Whadya mean rejected?!”
[Evard Munch, The Scream, a seriously better painting than my caption…]

However, there are plenty of bright, bookish people who get themselves on the wrong end of a confusing use of terminology. They don’t understand what their professors want. They don’t understand why they like something that seems lowbrow, or hate something that’s supposed to be highbrow. I think that a lot of talented and intelligent students somehow find themselves in this situation and burn out. And, I think that many professors believe that these students are like the “I don’t have to read writing to understand writing! I’m going to be a bestseller!” types, and brush them off.

I think that a lot of people first become unsettled by this discussion when they realize that their likes do not exactly pair up with everything that is or has been critically acclaimed. They find themselves reading a book and going, “Why do people like this? Why am I supposed to like this?” It’s like meeting a popular person and finding yourself in that uncomfortable situation when you seem to be the only one in the room who doesn’t like him. I think that this happens a lot in the visual arts and music, as well. People look at a Rothko and think, “I don’t get it. It must be crap.” People listen to classical music and are shocked to find themselves bored by Mozart and Dvořák, but enjoying Katy Perry. How can that be, when classical music is supposed to be so good and Katy Perry is so… whipped-cream boobies?

Truly she is the voice of a generation...

Truly she is the voice of a generation…

I think there’s a place between embarrassment and reactionary snobbery, and many people fall into it. “Well, yeah, I didn’t like Rothko. That’s because I haven’t been brainwashed into liking that arty bullshit! I’ve got common sense on my side. Sure, I like Vampre Night 7 better than Steinbeck’s works, but that’s because I’m a book-lover, not a hipster! And, yeah, I think Transformers 2 was a good movie and didn’t get Wild Strawberries, but that’s because I understand the common man, not that elitist crap. I might like Flo Rida, eat food that is cooked in 120 seconds, and think that Raphael was a Ninja Turtle, but at least I’m not a kale-eating snob who uses artisan cheese knives and wears vegan shoes!”

"Yeah, sure, my diet destroys the environment, my money supports slave labor, and I listen to Cher Lloyd, but at least I'm not a HIPSTER from OREGON!" [Image from Portlandia, which is awesome. Seriously. Go watch it.]

“Yeah, sure, my diet destroys the environment, my money supports slave labor, and I listen to Cher Lloyd, but at least I’m not a HIPSTER from OREGON!”
[Image from Portlandia, which is awesome. Seriously. Go watch it.]

The tragedy here is that these people are hurting themselves, just as much as a person who refuses to eat anything but fast food. The unglamorous secret is that you’re not going to like everything. And that’s okay. You won’t like every film that makes it big at Sundance or Toronto, you won’t like every piece of classical music, you won’t enjoy every play, you won’t fall in love with every painting or sculpture, you may not get a performance piece, you might not like that Nobel Prize-winning author, and you may even dislike books that people call “classics”. And that… is okay. Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, what you’re experiencing is normal.

The arts come from people, people with their own quirks, perspectives, and visions. It’s like getting to see someone’s personality in audio or visual form. And, like the people you meet every day, you may not like everyone. This, however, does not mean that you should give up on art, music, ballet, “arthouse”, or literature. You may not like a guy named Ted, but that doesn’t mean that every Ted, Teddy, or Theodore in the world is an asshole.

"I don't approve of Roosevelt's actions in Panama, and so therefore I boycott everyone who gets close to moose."

“I don’t approve of Roosevelt’s actions in Panama, and so therefore I boycott everyone who gets close to moose.”

Furthermore, those professors talking about art and literature have their likes and dislikes, as well. I had a professor who hated Death of a Salesman, and a professor who thought Shakespeare In Love was a really wonderful movie. I happen to like Death of a Salesman and I think Shakespeare In Love is the second most overrated Oscar winner after Titanic. There is room for discussion.

I cried so hard when I thought Jack might live. Thank goodness he died. See what you did, movie? You made me root for the iceberg! *sobs* You made me a bad person!

I cried so hard when I thought Jack might live. Thank goodness he died. See what you did, movie? You made me root for the iceberg! *sobs* You made me a bad person!

You see, the arts are not the sciences,and I think schools have done kids a disservice in not explaining this. I partially blame standardized tests, which turn everything into right or wrong answers, little fill-in-the-bubble sheets with simple, multiple choices. However, while there really is an answer to an equation and only in advanced math do we get more discussion (which, frankly, I don’t understand), the arts aren’t like that. Did you know that many people think some of Shakespeare’s plays aren’t any good?

Namely, the cannibalism and rape one. [Titus Andronicus, from the film Titus by Julie Taymor]

Namely, the cannibalism and rape one.
[Titus Andronicus, from the film Titus by Julie Taymor]

Did you know that writers as prominent as Jane Austen were loathed –by other prominent writers?

Namely, this guy.

Namely, this guy.

Personally, I dislike a lot of critically beloved art and literature. I don’t like The Lord of the RingsPride and Prejudice, Jeff Koons, or anything that Marina Abramovic has been doing lately. I don’t think that most of the Oscar winning movies are very good, especially things like The King’s Speech (although Circuit B will disagree with me about that one). I even think that Nirvana is an overrated band, and I don’t like Verdi’s adaptation of Othello, and I didn’t enjoy Les Triplettes de Belleville, or most of John Updike’s writings.

Is there a stronger word than "hate"? I mean... just look at this Koons shit.

Is there a stronger word than “hate”? I mean… just look at this Koons shit.

This doesn’t mean, however, that I should dislike all epic fantasies, English literature, postmodern art, performance art, Oscar winners, grunge bands, Italian opera, animated arthouse films, or strong, masculine voices in literature. This doesn’t even mean that I dislike everything these artists and writers have done. Furthermore, this does not give me grounds to depreciate the artists. They simply do not speak to me, but they do speak to many other people and I have to respect that and understand why.

The fact is, and this is the crux of the problem, the arts require a certain understanding to appreciate them. They have their own “languages”. Musical notation is, in fact, very much its own language. But, so is color, visual symbolism, visual cues, cinematography, acting, mise-en-scene, textures and brushstrokes and shapes, and, yes, language itself has its own dialects. While most people understand that language has dialects, especially when trying to speak to someone from another culture, it is for some reason often ignored that writing should have different dialects. However, this is true. One cannot, for example, say that a single, standardized, essay-type dialect is suitable for all of literature. Imagine if Shakespeare were forced into these structures? Or, how would you like to listen to a rapper who sounded like an academic essayist? Even various essays use different levels of formality depending on their function and purpose.

"I came to the understanding that I had attained a certain Usher-esque significance in popular culture, whereupon I discovered the presence of devoted female fans my concert audience. Furthermore, when visiting a White Castle, I was approached by a patron of my art who requested my autograph. I produced a pen and did sign the autograph thus: 'Dear Dave, thanks for the support, asshole!'" From "My Name Is", the essay.

“I came to the understanding that I had attained a certain Usher-esque significance in popular culture, whereupon I discovered the presence of devoted female fans in my concert audience. Furthermore, when visiting a White Castle, I was approached by a patron of my art who requested my autograph. I produced a pen and did sign the autograph thus: ‘Dear Dave, thanks for the support, asshole!'” From “My Name Is”, the essay.

Just as you cannot step into a conversation with people whose language you do not speak, you may not be able to access an artist’s work whose “language” you do not understand. What people do not realize, however, is that this doesn’t mean that they have a problem. You’re not at fault for not knowing someone’s language. However, if you want to converse with this person, you need to learn how to communicate. An inscrutable painting, a piece of music that bores you, a work of literature that you simply do not “get”, these may simply speak a different language than the one you are used to.

The good news is that very often basic exposure breaks down these barriers. NPR did a report which showed that listeners who were unaccustomed to certain kinds of music literally did not process the notes. Their brains simply could not comprehend all of the sounds. However, repeated listening allows people to learn the musical language and appreciate the subtleties of sounds and unfamiliar chords. Furthermore, scientists believe that literature actually affects a different part of your brain than, say, the next vampire romance or slick cop vs. the baddies novel. Unfamiliarity with the complex syntax and vocabulary, as well as the subtle character development and action, can be like working out a muscle that you don’t normally use. If you’re accustom to taking walks, even good walks, you’re still probably going to hurt when you take up marathon running or mountain climbing. It’s the same here.

Many people decide that when they cannot get into art or literature that they have some sort of terrible problem, or that the art/literature has a problem. The answer is that neither you nor the arts have a problem. You’re just not used to the art yet. It’s like not being able to swim a certain distance, run a marathon, or enjoy a really exotic dish. You just need to get used to it.

So, that comes to the frustration with this vague idea of what art and literature are.

I think there’s a subtle difference here that people aren’t always getting. That is: art can be anything. But, it isn’t everything. There’s a difference between what art can be and how art succeeds.

Art and literature are basically anything intended to be artistic and literary, as well as some highly successful things that maybe weren’t intended to be that high brow at the time but nevertheless affected culture profoundly over time. That’s a very simplistic way of putting it, and obviously doesn’t do justice to the discussion of aesthetics. However, I think it does answer the questions of those who do not understand what their professors are talking about.

“Why is it art?” should really be less of a question than, “How is it art?” When confronted with a professor saying, “You need to be more literary!” don’t ask what it is to be literary, but rather how something is literary, and how it works. It’s in the writing of the book, the turns of phrase, the subtle development, the way the writing builds on traditions or breaks traditions. It’s in the compositions of artwork, the techniques, the designs. It’s in the musical theory and the composition and the performance of a piece. The how-is-it-art is in the parts, which give you the completed whole.

This is why we cannot use trope identification as a form of literary criticism, because the existence of a “Draco in leather pants”, and a “woobie”, and a “word of God” reference to something greater than the book itself does not have anything to do with the actual book-ness of the piece. This is also why “symbolism” (eg “This symbolizes that the bad guy is Hitler!”) is not literary criticism. Any hack can do that.  As redundant as it sounds, the first thing to care about in writing is the writing –and that is the same for art, music, and so forth.

That is why, despite similar dystopian(ish) tropes, there is a world of difference between 1984 or A Brave New World and ...this.

That is why, despite similar dystopian(ish) tropes, there is a world of difference between 1984 or A Brave New World and …this.

You see, in visual arts we’re more comfortable with just flat-out saying this, while literature, being naturally more verbose, we’re more likely to write fourteen books on the subject. In visual arts, anything can be art. However, not everything is, as any artist or critic will tell you. So, where is the line?

The fact is, there is no multiple-choice, standardized test bubble answer –check here for art, and here for not art. The arts are very much a dialog, discussing life in different eras, and what their goals are, how they change from time to time, school to school, and person to person. Like learning a new language, the arts require audiences to put forth some effort to communicate with the pieces, and not simply sit there and expect to be entertained, as one might be with a Michael Bay movie or Vampire Academy novel.

But, I also think that knowing there is this effort and dialog does cause some people to over-think the arts. They are confronted with a piece of writing which they do not understand and they start doing the literary criticism version of what Calvin and Hobbes do with math homework.

CalvinAndHobbesMath-algebra

They start making up really complicated ways of reading the piece and then get frustrated, as though they are trying to crack a code instead of read a book/view a painting/listen to a song/watch a film. I think that bad teachers, who make students analyze the color of curtains instead of the quality of prose, are to blame for this Da Vinci Code style reading.

Not everything is a code... including everything mentioned in this book.

Not everything is a code… including everything mentioned in this book.

In actuality, most books, music, film,and art are meant to be enjoyable. They may have a more subtle or informed sense of enjoyment than what you may get from Avatar, but they are meant to be enjoyed.

Take David Foster Wallace, for instance. His book, Infinite Jest, is often brushed aside as a “hipster” or “elitist” work. This is entirely due to the fact that it is over a thousand pages long and is non-linear in structure.(Because heaven forbid anyone sustain disciplined reading over an extended period of time! I guess Les Miserables is proto-hipster, then.) However, what might surprise those who sniff at his work is that David Foster Wallace was probably one of the least elitist writers ever. And, when wondering what his work is supposed to be about, he gives you not only the most concise answer but also the best answer for what to look for in literary fiction:

“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”

And there you have it. That’s why literature affects you differently than the zooming pace and snappy dialog of the sexy FBI agent and his will-they-won’t-they-do-it partner in the latest instalment of the Xplosions and Guns and Sex series.

I once read a terrible internet meme that said something like: “I read so that I can escape reality.” Now, while we all need an escape now and again, that is still a horrible sentiment. You read not to find comfort in the struggles of those who overcame in the past, or to find out about yourself and others, or to understand the world, or to seek beauty, or to empathize with others? You read because you don’t want to think about these things and would rather imagine supernatural love triangles and magic powers? What, do you not think you have any invested interest in what happens on planet earth? Yes, bad things happen to people. Let’s not eat lotuses and forget about it. We have some duty to our neighbors. We do not have the right to be ignorant of life and therefore end up hurting someone, voting poorly, developing prejudices.

And I think that really sums up the difference between a quality work, and something that professors/critics/literati-types won’t like. Good art is about being human. It’s about finding beauty. It’s about sharing in this great dialog of all these minds. Great art, not commercial, lowest-common-denominator production, is about the common person, reaching out to everyone, open to anyone, produced by anyone, the most democratic and glorious celebration of human life and individuals in this existence we call being human. The mega-studio blockbuster is made by executives so rich that they will never move in the same spheres as you, and made from collections of marketing data. It’s mass appeal is as calculated as selling corndogs, and made from elites and for the purpose of filling pocketbooks. One has to move beyond this strange prejudice that “easy to understand” means “for the common person”, which holds the corollary that intellectual pursuits cannot be achieved by common people. That, not the pursuit of beauty, is the truly elitist position. The person who says, “Well, I am not brainwashed by art and literature so I know that Moby-Dick is bad!” is the real elitist, setting himself apart and above all the many, many minds that have been moved and influenced by these great works.

Made by programmers, funded by wads of cash, ripping off plots from Fern Gully and Dances With Wolves, but marketed and gimmick-ed into existence through the sheer artistic force of demographic data, 3D glasses, and cash.

Made by programmers, funded by wads of cash, ripping off plots from Fern Gully and Dances With Wolves, but marketed and gimmick-ed into existence through the sheer artistic force of demographic data, 3D glasses, and cash.


The fact is, literature and the arts are about being human. When we do not understand them, it very often comes from too many preconceived notions and the worry that the piece will be too difficult. In fact, very often the opposite is true. Very often the piece is simply the story that was inside a particular artist, and that artist’s voice is trying to tell it in the best way that she knows how. And that may sound corny and mushy and too simple for a piece that seems so complex, but it isn’t. You know that “oh-so-elite” David Foster Wallace? Here’s something else he said:

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

I remember watching with my mother this documentary called Between the Folds. It’s about origami, which doesn’t sound like an interesting documentary subject, but, like I mentioned before, it’s not the what but the how that makes something art. And, this is actually one of the most delightful and entertaining movies I have ever seen.

BTFPoster0809WEB2SM

In the documentary, the origami artists discuss their development in a relatively new art form –that being the origami as fine-arts sculptures. What is interesting is how the art progresses through stages that usually take eras for arts to develop through, and how the documentary brings attention to this. Toward the end, the artists begin to look at the medium they love so much, which they have given up jobs and devoted their lives to working with, that being paper, and start to think about how little they can do with. I mean this in the most positive sense. Paper, to these artists, is absolutely beautiful, and they get a sort of kinship from the process of touching and folding the paper. I think many people forget the relationship between artist and medium, one which is very often something like a love story. If paper is beautiful, and touching and folding and working with paper is itself beautiful, then why should it simply be an art that dazzles people with the artists’ ability to draw up mathematically complex plans and turn them into 3D paper dragons?

And so, the artists begin seeking minimalist folds, one or two folds, abstracted and focusing only on the beauty of the paper. When the documentary was over, my mother said to me that it was really fascinating that as the artists matured in their craft, artists who were fully capable of creating very complex and mathematically detailed paper sculptures, were drawn to the simple. What does this yearning for simplicity say about humanity?

I think that being able to see this process, and how delighted the artists are, and how in-love they are with their craft, really helps demystify the idea that non-representational art is for this elite class of critics to interpret to the people, like guardians of an oracle. Take Rothko, for example, an artist often considered too obtuse for audiences, or possibly even a great bullshitter. No one except maybe Pollock gets as many “my kid could do that” comments as Rothko. But, this is because people are looking at his art the wrong way.

Like the origami artists, Rothko could paint in both representational –and surrealist– styles. However, he was drawn to simplifying his medium. It is like the artist Kandinsky said in his manifesto, Concerning the Spiritual In Art, art is more than just looking difficult. If you want that, go watch a trapeze act. Art is about expressing something about yourself, and life, and about seeking beauty, and about trying to present something rather special to the world. Rothko is about color.

MARK-ROTHKO-MARCUS-ROTHKOWITZ-blanco sobre rojo

I do not understand how these self-proclaimed guardians of beauty, against “Modern” art, cannot find any beauty in color, in the way it relates to other colors, in the way the light plays with it, in the delight of paint itself, in the sheer joy of color and medium. Do they ever find themselves in contemplation over a single drop of perfect alizarin crimson? Because that’s what it’s all about, no obtuse cipher of jargon and terminology, but the rapture of it, the beauty of it, the fact that colors, and paper, and words, and notes, and movement, and texture, and syntax are beautiful.

Image16rothko

These supposedly difficult prose pieces are simply relishing in the sound, texture, and music of language, its power to move,surprise, delight, terrify, enlighten, enrage, and soothe. The complex notes of classical composition, which sound like incomprehensible noise blobs to the unaccustomed ear, are really these fantastic, unique sounds, which blend together in beautiful techniques to create some of the greatest music in the world.

So, there isn’t an easy answer as to what it is that makes something literary or art. And, yes, if you’re serious about it you’ll have to do a lot of studying and expose your mind to the greats of your field, the best writers, musicians, artists, et cetera. But, if you love it, this is what you will do already. It’s what you will want to do. That’s how people who love their art behave. The person who loves music is not the person who plays the radio and dances along to the Top-40 whatever, but rather the one who listens to the best of the best, and practices. The artist doesn’t just like putting posters up or “liking/sharing” something that looks cool; artists practice art and study the art world. People who love books are not people who dully consume them like potato chips, or madly seek out fandoms to obsess over, or correct typos on the internet. They care about writing, about quality, about great words, about language, about ideas.

Stravinsky's Petrushka manuscript

Stravinsky’s Petrushka manuscript

That kind of care is really the baseline for the answer. There is no exact answer, because this isn’t a science. But, the desire to enter this dialog of art, to work with the world of art and what it has done, to be aware of the arts and their ideas, and to love and delight in the materials themselves, this is the how. It won’t always work, but might.

Wild Strawberries by Bergman

Wild Strawberries by Bergman

Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books 7

The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery – Graeme Base (writer and illustrator)

First, a short description:

Horace, a young elephant, wishes to throw an extravagant party in honor of his eleventh birthday. Planning, preparations, and the party itself go well and most enjoyably until… 

…but I won’t spoil it for you.

Now, for the content:

This is a treasure trove of a book. Just look at the artwork!

The Eleventh Hour

Does anyone else get the feeling of being in a cathedral or a palace? I’ve never seen such a lush, exquisite illustration in my life. Look at all the minute and precise details – from the opulence of Horace’ home to the proportions and features of each animal. I want this picture to be framed and hung in my house. I’d rightly call it the most elegant thing that I own.

The story itself, specifically how it’s told, has captivated me for years. The narrative rhymes throughout, but it’s more complex sort of rhyme than, say, “Horace was an elephant. / He lived inside a great big tent.” That is a made-up example. The actual language of the book is much, much richer. Here are the first two verses:

When Horace was turned Eleven he decided there should be / Some kind of celebration. “For my friends,” he said, “and me.” / For though I’ve been the age of eight and nine and six and seven, / This is the very first time that I’ve ever been Eleven!”

With that he set to work and wrote the name of every Guest, / And then eleven sorts of food that Elephants like best. / He wrote the invitations next (and sent them off that day), / And finally eleven Games for everyone to play.  

I can’t help but be enchanted. The words are elegant, but none of them are overly formal. None of them are so rare, or so outmoded, that a reader might not recognize them. I would not be at all surprised if the language of the story proved to be “immortal”.

Before purchasing this book, one thing should be known – the mystery is not solved within the story. Instead, an encrypted answer key is provided in the back. This answer key is also accompanied by a booklet that explains how to spot clues to the solution within the illustrations. So, do not be frustrated by the seeming lack of closure. That’s one of the best qualities of this book – that it provides an invitation to each reader to participate in the story, to become the detective that will solve this “curious mystery”.

Age level: I don’t think one can be specified. Give this book, or suggest it, to any child who is an independent reader.

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9780810932654-11
——————————————————————————————————–

– Circuit B

Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books 6

Persephone – Sally Pomme Clayton (writer) and Virgina Lee (illustrator)

Persephone

Part 1:

For those who do not know this Greek myth, or may not remember it, it begins in this way:

Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, the harvest-goddess. One day when she is wandering alone, Persephone is abducted by Hades, the god of the dead. He takes her to the Underworld where he declares that she will be his queen.

In the above-world, Demeter is bereft at the loss of her child. When she learns that Persephone is trapped inside the earth, she becomes furious. She then curses the land to be barren until her daughter returns. 

I won’t write the whole tale here. But that introduction is enough to know that that is how winter first came to be.

Part 2:

The story of Persephone has been on my mind since the beginning of 2013. I think I know the reason for this: that charming, lovely scene from David Almond’s My Name Is Mina, when nine-year old Mina McKee calls to Persephone and asks her to come back so that the goddess can end an especially cold England winter.

My Name Is Mina is my new favorite book, and I think that scene was the part I liked best. It made me want to revisit the original myth. So, it was to my joy that I found Clayton’s version at the local library. (The cover was so enticing! I couldn’t leave the book alone.)

Part 3:

Is Clayton’s version identical to the original Greek telling? Honestly, I don’t know. There may be a few deviations, but to the best of my memory, it’s identical (or close enough) to the Greek form. It’s not embellished in any way that I could tell. The story is written simply and clearly, as I think it should be. Persphone’s tale is not about complex, psychological motivations. The focus is on the events of the story itself, how a young goddess was robbed of the life she knew and how her fate affected the entire world.

I don’t wish to say too much on the illustrations. They really are impressive, and I’d rather you be surprised (and maybe awed) when you see them for yourselves. I will say this though: Virginia Lee’s illustrations are a perfect complement to the Persephone story.

First of all, they are done in the classical Greek art style, the kind you might see on pottery.

Red Figure

Secondly, each one manages to perfectly convey a mood or an atmosphere in the story, from innocence to horror… even to utter bleakness, as when Demeter covers the world in winter.

Demeter covers the world in winter.

Part 4:

I think the myth of Persephone is beautiful. It is a sad story, and a dark one, but it’s filled with brightness, like Demeter’s love and relentless searching for the daughter who was lost. Ultimately, it’s a hopeful tale. Yes, winter must come, but spring will always return.

As will Persephone.

Reading level: K+
Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/61-9780802853493-0

Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books 5

I had some technical difficulties and couldn’t upload images for a while. Here’s the next in the list of lovely child-appropriate material.

Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn

Andrew_Henry's_Meadow_1st_Edition_cover

This is a very special book for me. It’s one that I loved as a child. I loved the black and white illustrations with the beautiful negative space and detailed figures. I loved the drawings of nature. And, I loved the story! What kid can’t relate to this? A young boy wants to be an inventor, but his pursuits tend to make messes in the house and one day his family gets fed up and yells at him. He takes this hard, and decides he will found his own town where he will be an inventor. Along the way, he meets other unusual, misunderstood kids –musicians, artists, collectors of dandelion seeds– and they form a colony in a meadow. Then, the parents realize the children are missing and go look for them. When they see the meadow, they come to appreciate their children’s unusual gifts and their kids realize that they missed their families. And so they are reunited.

andrew-henry-thumb

It’s a very imaginative book, and one that I remember finding fairly inspirational as a kid. It is also a very sweet, gentle book, which makes sense as the author/artist created it for her son. I absolutely love children’s books that take the readers seriously and give them something beautiful, and I also love it when kids’ media isn’t all hip and cynical. This is a lovely, gentle story, and a beautiful one, and one I remember fondly!

book

Age level: probably K+
Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=andrew+henry%27s+meadow&class=