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.

headdesk

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…

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I Hate Dystopian Literature

That isn’t entirely true.There are quite a few dystopian novels I like, a lot. But, I don’t like contemporary dystopias. There, I said it. In fact, with very few exceptions, I don’t like the genre at all. But, with the new Hunger Games knockoff Divergent (quickly followed by two visually cloned dystopian films, The Giver and The Maze Runner), I don’t think it’s going away soon, at least in the movies Hollywood chooses to adapt. (Edit note: As far as publishers are concerned, though, it’s kind of yesterday…)

So, let’s first look back a little at the development of the modern and contemporary dystopian story and where we have this odd, new trend. Because, it is an odd trend. The Mean Girls and 16 Candles of today now feature evil governments and martyr protagonists taking the place of school dances and popular kids. It’s a sociologically interesting trend.

Our stories have gone from this:

Clueless

To this:

hunger games

In many ways, the first real, modern dystopia was We by Zamyatin, a Russian author whose dissenting work made him one of the most banned writers in the USSR.

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We is a story about social philosophy. In the USSR, there were artistic and social movements from Russian Constructivism to Taylorism, which deemed that one could create a rational utopia through mathematical harmonies and collectivism. In the novel, the dystopian society thinks and communicates through numbers and mathematical formulas, all while living in a literal protective bubble. The main character, rather like in Orwell’s later work, 1984, briefly has a chance to change his life, through the influences of a woman and the discovery of the outside world. This is the basis for the entire novel. I would not go so far as to say this was a brilliant work of fiction. For one thing, the mathematical aspect of the novel is not entirely realized, since the author was not really a mathematician, and furthermore the technology and speech makes it very dated. There are also some troubling racial politics, as the dystopian society is racially integrated, but the narrator still, for some reason, has to constantly say negative things about the only black person he knows. Classy. And I can’t help but note that integration seems kind of tied to the negative aspects of the collectivist society. However, one cannot deny that this is really the kind, if not the quality, of dystopias that should be written. Zamyatin was writing against a powerful and corrupt government, and used the science fiction story to illustrate concerns he had with the world he lived in. He also risked a great deal to write this book, and it widely banned in his home country. That’s a key that most fans of dystopia forget. Almost all fans and writers take exactly 0 risks these days. I mean, The Hunger Games has a hilariously unironic Subway tie-in deal, so if anything screams that that dystopia isn’t coming true, it’s a Hunger Games meatball sub.

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What I am saying is that dystopia does not have its roots in stories about oh-so-special people who are special, and there’s some kind of baddy government or something, and the special people have a love triangle, and bang! Boom! Bang! Exciting!

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That really isn’t the history of dystopia. Also… I would not suggest reading that…

Other landmark dystopian classics followed. 1984, which I’m just going to assume almost everyone has read by now, is the quintessential dystopia.

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It draws heavily from We, but creates a far more sophisticated world. Orwell’s understanding of language not only provides crisp prose, but also a world where language, as opposed to numbers, is the key. The twisting and distortion of language, through New Speak, is a huge element, almost as popular a concept as the iconic Big Brother Is Watching.

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Another landmark text is Huxley’s Brave New World, which, for some reason, is faddish to pit against 1984. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “Ahem, so, lyk, we thought we would be in 1984, but really we’re, lyk, in Brave New World, because of TV and stuff…”

Yeah…

(By the way, speaking as a non-TV owner, let’s stop bragging about how unplugged we are when we all, yes all of us, binge-watch shows on our computers. True Detective in one sitting, am I right? We aren’t superior to TV viewers. We’re just more efficient…)

It really pains me when literary criticism gets turned into this sort of nonsense. What, did Huxley only write one book? Did Orwell? Are they necessarily at odds? Are there only two dystopian novels worth talking about? What is with this insanity? To make the books an either-or decision, pitted against one another, and to simplify their messages to “1984 has tough gov’ment” and “Brave New World totes choses ur own captivity” is really to lose the value of each novel. Dystopias are, by necessity, abstracts of social concerns, and each address specific concerns within the context of a novel’s structure. Therefore, a concern in 1984, such as the loss of communication through increasingly politicized language, is not at odds with the bread-and-circuses deadening of the senses in Brave New World. Neither are either of these books at odds with the critique of collectivism and constructivism present in We. I have no idea why the so-called literary analysis of dystopia has become, “Pick one, and only one!” but it’s seriously counter-intuitive when discussing a genre that is entirely about different social critiques. It would be best to look at all angles, would it not?

Or can there be... only one?

Or can there be… only one?

And, it think that kind of, “Pick one angle! Only one!” reading is something that will come back and bite the genre in the butt. People really start arguing about is the baddy in a dystopia, as if one political side is full of heroes and the other is full of google-eyed monsters.

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Another noteworthy book is actually from a very different writer than the previous three. This is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is a different writer for a number of reasons. For one thing, where Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin were intellectuals, approaching abstracted theories through science fiction modes in a rather Dante-esque fashion, Bradbury was a self-taught writer. His sources came from observation, newspaper writing, and his imagination was formed by classic Hollywood genre pictures and pulp fiction. He was a man of dinosaurs, sideshows, spaceships, and his love of literature and the imagination came from his own pursuits and studies.

Here is a quote explaining why I love this man:

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

Greatest mind ever? Oh, maybe… maybe…

He never went to college. He was not a major political figure. And, he remains one of the best writers of the era. Bradbury’s fiction is often, almost always, interested in imagination, and the way people approach and love books is a huge part of what inspired his work and what he feared in society. Good characters value books, imagination, robotic Poe-themed houses, movie animatronic model dinosaurs, and they value these things even more than life, at times. Imagination, for Bradbury, is something akin to keeping innocence in the world, and the loss of both wonder and fear is a sign of something deeply wrong with society. This theme is most obvious in his dystopia, but many readers forget that it appears in many of his works. In Graveyard for Lunatics, a character’s loss of his beloved movie models is the impetus for his loss of innocence, and the loss of innocence for many others. His love of his art, the creation of worlds, not unlike creating novels, is his connection to life and humanity. In The Marian Chronicles, characters fleeing government censorship build robotic monuments to Poe, and yet the human characters are also destroying the leftover culture of the Martians before them, replacing beautiful, ancient cities with hotdog stands.

Bradbury, perhaps more than anyone else in the genre, placed a primacy on beauty, understanding that it is not simply the freedom to think of a particular ideology or moral, but also to enjoy and appreciate art that can be so very important. So, when he wrote Fahrenheit 451, the story doesn’t just focus on government restriction of thought. The characters burn books, but what replaces the books is given equal attention. The world left behind is not only misguided in thought, but also bereft of meaning. The characters have no real purpose to live and their actions of either violence or passion do not seem to matter. On the other hand, the good characters are willing to risk death and even die in order to maintain meaning.

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Bradbury was quoted saying that one does not have to burn books. One only has to get people to stop reading them. I would add, one could replace great books with a sort of thoughtless page-consumption and get the job done just as well. The empty consumption of entertainment is as critiqued as the excision of literature.

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I think that often when talking about dystopias, A Clockwork Orange gets left out. I think a lot of people do not remember that it is actually set in the future, and also a lot of people have a set image of dystopias as Evil Empire vs. The Little Guy. However, this need not be the case, and a true dystopia is merely one which uses political and ideological issues to illustrate a particularly bad future. I say “true dystopia” to differentiate between this and what are really post-apocalyptic stories like The Road or I Am Legend, which are more about survival after the disaster and may not even discuss ideology at all.

So, this is Post-apocalyptic, not dystopian.

So, this is Post-apocalyptic, not dystopian.

Clockwork Orange manages to provide a great deal of detail about the setting without ever telling the reader too much. It’s a corrupt future. Crime is rampant. And, there is a great social disorder, a bankruptcy of morality, a nebulous lack of purpose. The main character spends the first segment of the novel committing acts of violence and maintaining his primacy in his gang. Then, he goes through the infamous Ludovico Treatment and is unable to choose anything but goodness. The novel uses this contrast, a character who only chooses evil being forced to only choose good, to ask questions about free will and morality itself.

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And, what I like about this novel, and why it is one of my favorite books of all time, is that it doesn’t make the evil some sort of empire. True, the evil empires in Orwell, Huxley, and Zamyatin do influence the main characters to do evil things, but the evil is clearly stemming from the fact that the characters are under a bad rule. That is the focus of the moral examination, and this is something I do not especially care for in large doses. In Clockwork Orange, Alex, the antihero and narrator, commits acts of horrific violence and depravity, and really just because he enjoys it.He has the same uncomfortable truth we see in The Dark Knight, in the portrayal of The Joker: there is something too human, too entertaining, too understandable in the enjoyment of evil, and that, not scary clown makeup or one false eyelash, is what makes these characters so frightening and so hard to ignore.

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Alex takes pleasure in doing wrong, as though it is an art to him. This is illustrated in the way he also loves Beethoven, and how the Ludovico Treatment actually takes from him his ability to feel pleasure in Beethoven’s music. His freedom to do evil is also his freedom to choose beauty. This creates a complex character dilemma, where the reader both sympathizes with and abhors Alex as both demon and victim. And, the evil Alex does, which is truly chilling and disturbed, is not caused because there is a Big Bad Government, but because Alex chooses to be evil. In fact, when the government intervenes, through the morally terrifying treatment itself, it forces Alex to be good. Therein lies the paradox, as it were. Furthermore, if you read the version with the author’s original last chapter, added later on by publishers, you see that Alex’s only real, true cure for evil is boredom. Evil, in the end, becomes tedious, and the sociopathic main character has nothing left to live for.

And that is a very important message! That evil isn’t some exotic, different Other, totally outside of ourselves. It’s not monsters, scary-looking people, political opponents, people who look or live or worship differently than we do. Society has a strange way of othering and glorifying evil. Othering, by making evil something that is not us, even if it means believing conspiracy theories or propaganda. A good example is how every group calls every other group Hitler, and then compares itself to Holocaust victims.

–Also, don’t ever do that.

I cannot tell you how much I love this sort of dystopia, as opposed to the governmental big-bad. This is because instead of giving readers a venue through which they may feel put-upon or victimized, the book forces readers to question their own capacity for right and wrong.

First, a few other mentions in the realm of classic dystopia. One author whose name may not immediately jump to mind is Philip K. Dick. Many people outside of science fiction and online communities do not know this man’s name. And yet, we know his stories, because they have made up a great deal of our pop-culture landscape. Ever see movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, and Minority Report? Yeah, these all came from one Mr. Dick, a strange writer who believed that aliens communicated with him. No, really.

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Philip K. Dick’s views on science fiction are far more in line with Bradbury’s, if Bradbury thought his Martians were real and was a conspiracy theorist. Although Bradbury is by far the more popular writer in the mainstream, with literary circles fondly embracing him, Dick is actually more successful in Hollywood. And, yet, most people have no idea that these movies are based on books, let alone books by one author.

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Probably his most famous work is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, from which we get the movie Blade Runner. The movie is a rather loose adaptation, but the story is simple. In the future, there are humanoid robots which do work for a civilization that has depleted its natural resources. They, however, are not supposed to be integrated into human society as real people. The line between humans tracking down robots, and robots themselves becomes increasingly blurred. Now, we have seen this before, most notably in the film Metropolis, and the animated remake of the same name.

The depressing as hell animated version...

The depressing as hell animated version…

At first blush, this seems like it may not even fit with the dystopian genre, and would instead be at the most a post-apocalyptic story. However, further reading shows that both the story and Blade Runner are in fact based on an ideological dystopia. Unlike Big Brother and other evil empires, this is about corporations. The story is about consumerism, and through the unbridled corporatism of the setting, humanity becomes commodity and the robotic product is indistinguishable from the human producer. Product and producer are one.

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You see this theme again in the sci-fi portion of Cloud Atlas.

Moving back to the evil empires, there is one more angle, that being the evil theocracy.

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Margaret Atwood took the formula of 1984 and We and gave it a feminist bent when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. This is a story about a future where a dictatorial theocratic society has taken rule, and created a sort of Christian Taliban social policy of female oppression, regressive sexual politics, et cetera. It introduces another category of evil rule into the dystopian complex. In a genre where often the Stalinist themes pits evil empires against religion, Atwood looks at contemporary societal conflicts and creates a religious empire, like a cult that also runs the government.

For the last two landmark examples, I’ll cite two very different writers. One is Orson Scott Card, best known for book and subsequent series Ender’s Game –and also for his controversial politics. The other is Alan Moore, the man who brought the idea of literary graphic novels to the mainstream –and also known for his controversial politics. Card’s Ender series really does not initially seem very dystopian.

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It’s futuristic, but the future is one of aliens and spaceships. However, it is what happens on earth, and the backdrop for his story, which is very dystopian and provides his criticism. Focusing on the first book, Ender’s Game is about a third child in a population-controlled future, the downtrodden hero, Ender. Ender is taken from his abusive sociopathic brother and saintly sister and placed in a space-school to learn how to defeat aliens by playing lots of cool video games. It’s actually somewhat better than that sounds. But, the dystopian aspects take the form of the government control itself. When is it okay to commit acts of violence and who may morally be used? Is what they do justifiable? The story also has a parallel plot about the brother and sister taking over the government through the use of what is basically a blog.

I’ll remove any ambiguity. I don’t think Card is a great writer. I think his prose style is basic and his ideas tend not to be very well… thought out. The blogging aspect requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, for one thing. For another, I do think that Card lets his characters get away with making morally indefensible choices based on the fact that they have no idea what they are doing. While that leads to some good questions about the nature of war, I feel like, from a story standpoint, he chose a very safe route for his character. Ender does not know about his major conflict, and so it isn’t a conflict for him. Instead, he has these Harry Potter conflicts of fitting in at special school and being a special boy, none of which is as interesting as the big conflict that the main character never knows is a conflict and therefore is never conflicted about.

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It’s like having a story about dropping a nuclear bomb, but making the main character totally oblivious to what is happening. I think the moral could be sustained far more interestingly in a short story than a novel, which leaves us with pages and pages of a character playing strategy games that don’t feel very connected to the actual point of the story. Adventure, ho.

However, I would say that Card is one of the most influential writers in terms of where the genre is today. He gave us a magic boy character. Oh, sure, Ender is actually a genius, not magic, but the archetype is still there. And, more than anything else, this trait will influence the dystopian trends of today. Although the trends of today may just be miming Harry Potter, not Ender, so I don’t really know.

"Yer a special main character, female-Harry."

“Yer a special main character, female-Harry.”

Also, Card is kind of a bigot, but that’s extrinsic to the quality of his work. I just had to address that elephant in the room.

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Moore, on the other hand, is far to the left of conservative, Mormon Card. Moore is an anarchist who believes in wizardry. And, when I say anarchist, I neither mean rioter or dork-with-an-A-symbol-hoodie. I mean that Moore is philosophically in-line with Bakunin and Bookchin and Dorothy Day and the band Chumbawama. And, he uses his work to illustrate his politics and philosophy through the pop-art of graphic novels. Does it work? Hell’s yeah! I may like Clockwork Orange best of these novels, but Moore is the writer I have read the most. It’s not just that he managed to seamlessly melt literature and comicbooks into one glorious pop-art entity, like some superhero Warhol. It’s not just that he mixes pop-culture with philosophy. Oh, no, he’s also just kind of brilliant. That’s all. Just a great, great writer with smart, intellectual plots, and memorable characters.

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So, what’s so dystopian about Moore? Well, his most obvious and purest dystopia is V for Vendetta, but I would argue that The Watchmen is also a dystopian story. In V, the future is ruled by fascism, and the titular antihero works as a vigilante against the Nazi-esque government. This sounds straightforward, and in lesser hands (like, say, the makers of the V for Vendetta movie, which sucks), it could easily be pretty simplistic and stupid. However, Moore understands perhaps more than anyone else in his medium the idea of moral grays. V fights against a government that is undeniably evil. But, he does so through acts of terrorism, and he quite literally tortures an innocent.

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He is chaotic anarchy personified, the first wild blasts against the armor of a dictatorship. The evil empire of the story is also more interesting than the parody of the Bush administration in the movie, although one would be crazy not to realize that it is also a parody of the Thatcher administration. But, more than any specific leadership, the rule is one of fascistic abstraction: limited communication, 1984 style Big Brother, curfews, control of the populace, Nazi-like concentration camps, theocratic corruption, censorship, control of the media. V’s fight can be seen as both a necessary attack on evil, and also a morally ambiguous action of someone who commits atrocity because he has no army. Interestingly, the same may be said for many people called terrorists today, which leads to some very interesting questions about who we root for. Do we root for V’s actions, which can be legitimate terrorism, if we see the trappings of Hitler on the enemy? Furthermore, how much of V’s vendetta is personal, based on his own experience in a concentration camp? The end, with Evey Hammond donning the iconic mask, says that anarchy, as an ideal, will go on, but in the hands of the gentler, the post-revolution proletarian rule.

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The Watchmen is also a dystopia, if one doesn’t become too fixated on the superhero aspect. The story parallels actual history, and asks how much freedom are we, as a society, willing to give up for protection. And, after we have protection, who protects us from the protectors. Who watches the Watchmen? That is the central theme of the story, and one which, in a world of government spying and other miscarriages of justice, feels all the more apt.

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So, if you can’t tell, I really, really, really love these graphic novels….

Also, Ayn Rand wrote Anthem. So, honourable mention, even if it is by Rand. It’s actually not bad. Like, at all. Even if you hate Rand, it’s a pretty decent retread of the ideas in We. It’s not extremely influential, but it’s a decent, little book.

So, my purpose of outlining these books is to note that dystopia has a rather varied past. Which really begs a very important question: why do they so often sound exactly the same now?

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And why, if I love many of these novels, do I kind of dislike the genre as a whole?

Well, first of all, I am going to posit that we, as a reading populace, have sort of forgotten what dystopia means. I don’t just mean writers passing off vague apocalypses as dystopia, just to create an easy baddy for our preternaturally sexy protagonist. I mean that as readers we have forgotten how to read a dystopia. For one thing, dystopias are not prophesy.

Pictured here: Not dystopia.

Pictured here: Not dystopia.

They are not predicting the future. They are, instead, focusing on a problem in the era of the author and discussing it through science fiction as a sort of metaphor or analogy. 1984 is analogous to problems in the USSR, for instance. Fahrenheit 451 illustrates the problem with losing books and great thought. But, even beyond this, many issues in dystopian classics are not about a particular power, but about individual problems, problems which readers may even find within themselves. Have we stopped reading great works? How do we judge the actions of others? How to we value freedom? What would we do?

"Which boy do you choose?" isn't actually a dystopian issue.

“Which boy do you choose?” isn’t actually a dystopian issue.

And, I think that the personal aspect of dystopia, the part which makes Alex such a compelling and frightening character in Clockwork Orange, this is the part that has been excised from reading. Instead, dystopia has become the biggest nail-biting, pants-wetting act of hysteria since people realized they could call all their enemies Hitler.

Stop me if you’ve heard this, “So, lyk, my political opposition is like Big Brother! Or, the people I disagree with are like Brave New World! Also, The Hunger Games is going to happen!”

Yeah… isn’t that all-too-familiar? How often to we hear horribly lame excuses like this, “I wanna say [insert extreme racial slur] without ever being questioned ever! Because people might question me or not want to hire me, that’s New Speak! Political Correctness is New Speak! I am entitled to be hired, even if my rampant racism makes me the very opposite of a team player!”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re on the brink of being shot as a First Amendment hero for your brave use of the n-word. Nevermind that even Westboro ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead Baptist has been legally protected as free speech, this status affirmed in 2011, so that the most hateful of speech is legal in the US. Nevermind that you’re not entitled to, say, getting paid piles of cash to say whatever you want to a major TV audience (*cough* Duck Dynasty, you’re not constitutionally entitled to a reality show *cough*). Nevermind all that. Some New Speak law is comin’ ‘round the bend, yo!

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Furthermore, what is interesting is how vague dystopias have become and how both sides gleefully use dystopia to say not, “Hey, let’s talk about our problems!” but “OMG, that’s exactly what my political opposition will do!!!! Run for the hills whilst pissing yourself dramatically!”

Perhaps there is no greater example of this trend than the way in which people read The Hunger Games. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that The Hunger Games became this popular. It capitalizes on two extremely popular tropes: a magic boy (or, in this case, extremely talented girl) archetype, and the love triangle of teen angst. It’s the natural offspring of Harry Potter and Twilight, two of the biggest publishing trends of the entire history of print. (Wrap your mind around that for a while…)

What many people seem to forget while thinking about which HP character they would want to date and which Hogwarts house they’d like to be in, is that Harry Potter is actually pretty political. The story may be about a magical boy who does magical things in a charmingly magic place (and, I’m not making too much fun, because I actually do like this series). Harry Potter is also about an evil ruler with a racist agenda, classist and racist issues in the wizarding world, the problem of media control, and even government corruption. For a story that started out with a wee orphan boy learning that he is magic and getting a fluffy owl friend, it ends with a huge bloodbath surrounding an anti-racism resistance of young people forming basically vigilante bands.

Thank, JKR… That was… exactly how I wanted to end my kiddie reads session. With horrific slaughter and attempted genocide. Happy reading, kids!

The magical world of Harry Potter. Book 7: Harry and the Harsh Reality of War... Happy reading.

The magical world of Harry Potter. Book 7: Harry and the Harsh Reality of War… Happy reading.

But, again, this kind of ending, and the maturing of the HP audience, mixed with their sudden interest in love triangles and escapist romance, made for the perfect meld for The Hunger Games. We were, as a world, apparently okay with seeing massive child-murder, and were also a little excessively jacked about the young vigilante groups. And political revolution in general.

Feel the magic.

Feel the magic.

The political climate has been one of resistance and revolution. Even the conservatives have adopted revolutionary rhetoric. And, we, as a society, were getting really comfortable with being doomsdayers. Religious apocalypses, ecological doom, even facebook all had write-ups about how doomed we were in our doomy doom. And, with a pre-existing template called Battle Royale (which is just better, sorry), it’s really not shocking that the story of a talented main character girl in a dark, scary world of evil would have a love triangle while kicking ass. That’s like the least shocking trend ever.

What is shocking is our lack of sophisticated reading. Both the left and right have had this weird argument about whose enemies are more like the dictatorship in this teen adventure series. What is even worse is how happy these people apparently are in seeing themselves as, well, the victims.

And, here’s where things get stupid. Well, stupid-er. Because we’re already arguing whether or not the right or left are the big baddies in a children’s book series, which is already pretty dumb. But, apparently, some people are actually arguing that The Hunger Games, a teen love-triangle story based on a pre-existing Japanese novel about media violence, is actually going to happen.

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And this is really where I start to have a problem with dystopia, as a whole. I am not the first person to point out that our society’s obsession with dystopia is actually pretty narcissistic. Oh, our problems today are just so much worse than ever, ever before? And, really, when confronted with this, many people have told me, Yes. They do believe this. Furthermore, they believe we are either in a secret, unknown dystopia now, or about to go into one, and then they scream about Hitler, because reading history, like reading legislation, is less fun than screaming. Yep, today we’re worse off than the victims of slavery,the Holocaust, the Gulags, the Cultural Revolution, and the Black Plague –combined. Not because we’re suffering. Most of these people are very comfortably situated in a privileged class, because those who aren’t don’t have time to argue about dystopia. No, because something bad is going to happen. In the future.

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The trouble with dystopia as a trend is that it really isn’t doing justice to these authors in context, or doing justice to the books themselves, or being literary at all. Dystopia, especially dystopia that allows one to insert themselves as the hero and their political opposition as the enemy, is escapism. We are imagining our own martyrdom and delighting in it.

" You've got life on backwards, come here let me flip it, there see, now your past is behind you. What's say you climb down off the cross use the wood to build a bridge and get over it." Christipher Titus

” You’ve got life on backwards, come here let me flip it, there see, now your past is behind you. What’s say you climb down off the cross use the wood to build a bridge and get over it.” Christopher Titus

We aren’t escaping from reality to enjoy a magical adventure with Harry and buddies, or even a silly romance with sexy vampire boys. We’re escaping to imagine ourselves as heroic martyrs in a world of extreme violence, and to imagine our suffering at the hands of people whose politics we don’t agree with.

 

The main character is me, the hot boy is my crush, and the bad guys are anyone who didn't vote for my candidate.

The main character is me, the hot boy is my crush, and the bad guys are anyone who didn’t vote for my candidate.

 

Okay, so that kind of freaks me out.

I don’t really blame the authors, anymore than I blame Burgess and Kubrick for copycat Clockwork Orange crimes, or think that American Psycho is the reason we have spree killings. I think that Collins wanted to write a smart story about the media, and, in fact, the games themselves were inspired by reality shows like American Idol, not by any legislative policy. No, I blame our poor readership, obsessed with escapism, obsessed with characters whose skin they can fill, and unable or unwilling to read more intellectual texts which may put history and culture into some kind of context. It may sound harsh, but I think we read very poorly.

And, I think that this obsession with dystopia has fostered a breeding ground for serious paranoia. Remember how I said I would get back to Card’s politics? Well, he may write fiction, but he also thinks about the possibility of a “satirical” (but totally possible, and Obama is evil) future, where youth police the streets and we live in a dystopia. And, the fact is, when your rationale comes from a reading body that mostly consists of teen books and stories about doom, and not much fact-checking or study, there is no dystopian possibility that seems too insane or remote.

Whaaaat? It could happen!

Whaaaat? It could happen!

I’m sorry if I’m coming down hard here, but there is a reason. Here’s the thing, if you believe your enemy is evil, is going to make kids fight to the death on TV, is Hitler, is the devil, then you are justified in your mind to do whatever you want to this enemy. After all, you’re a hero. You’re preventing Nazi-1984-Hunger Games-Voldemort! So what if that person is totally innocent NOW. This is NOW. Now is just before the dystopia. In the future, that person will be guilty, so any pre-emptive strike is justified.

And, this is why I like dystopias like Clockwork Orange and sci-fi like Minority Report, and the works of Bradbury and Moore, better than other examples. I don’t like examples where evil is because of a big bad. Even if the stories have subtle dissensions from this, that’s clearly not what readers are getting. This is even worse, to me, when the evil is a specific group that isn’t actually doing this evil. Now, if your group is the Nazis, that makes sense. They did do these horrible things. But, if your group is liberals, conservatives, Christians, Jews, Muslims, gay people, feminists, et cetera, then you run a risk of paving the way for pre-emptive strikes against them. This is why I don’t even like Atwood, despite her acclaim, because I think it breeds bigotry against religious people who haven’t actually done the terrible things in the novel. And I don’t like Michael D. O’Brien’s Children of the Last Days series, because it specifically says that liberal media is covering up for an evil dystopia of left-wing, gay, feminist, Satanic, hippie, Gaia-worshipping Nazis (yeah… he has a lot of axes to grind, I guess…). It’s all based on “what if…?”. I don’t like “what if…?”.

In Burgess’s novel, Alex is our narrator, our guide, and we see the world through his eyes.

His scary, scary eyes...

His scary, scary eyes…

We sympathize with Alex, the raping, murdering, thug. We sympathize and this makes us question ourselves, morality, freedom, and the evil that we ourselves could do without choosing to do right. We all have a choice.

Dystopia too often becomes shorthand for lazy political accusations based more on personal feeling and emotional gut-reactions to people and parties we dislike, than it is used for helpful social critique.

We talk a lot about remembering history, almost always in reference to remembering that Hitler was a thing and so therefore Hitler is everyone the speaker dislikes. I say, remember all of history. There’s another scary, bloody era that we might want to recall: The Salem Witch Trials. And, this talk of dystopia and preemptive strikes has far more in common with that than with any heroic rebellion against any teen series baddy.

Witchcraft_at_Salem_Village

Remember, the people who killed witches and burned devils and werewolves were also afraid, and trying to protect themselves. But, in the end, they are the ones we remember as the monsters. So, the next time you want to call someone Hitler, ask yourself: Has this person started a genocide and invaded countries, bringing about a World War? If the answer is no, chances are good that this person isn’t Hitler, or a dystopian villain, or a witch.

paranorman

 

And chances are, the one you fear is just as scared of you as you are of him.

And in that dreadful place Those spooky, empty pants and I were standing face to face! I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked. I howled. I yowled. I cried, “OH, SAVE ME FROM THESE PALE GREEN PANTS WITH NOBODY INSIDE!” But then a strange thing happened. Why, those pants began to cry! Those pants began to tremble. They were just as scared as I! I never heard such whimpering And I began to see That I was just as strange to them As they were strange to me! So… I put my arm around their waist And sat right down beside them. I calmed them down. Poor empty pants With nobody inside them. And now, we meet quite often, Those empty pants and I, And we never shake or tremble, We both smile and we say…”Hi!” -Dr. Seuss

And in that dreadful place
Those spooky, empty pants and I
were standing face to face!
I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked.
I howled. I yowled. I cried,
“OH, SAVE ME FROM THESE PALE
GREEN PANTS WITH NOBODY INSIDE!”
But then a strange thing happened.
Why, those pants began to cry!
Those pants began to tremble.
They were just as scared as I!
I never heard such whimpering
And I began to see
That I was just as strange to them
As they were strange to me!
So…
I put my arm around their waist
And sat right down beside them.
I calmed them down.
Poor empty pants
With nobody inside them.
And now, we meet quite often,
Those empty pants and I,
And we never shake or tremble,
We both smile and we say…”Hi!”
-Dr. Seuss

Literati outrage of the day.

Outlit C

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.

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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

So, You Read Maximum Ride…

Maximum_Ride1
James Patterson… What can we truly say about the man? Even at his worst –meaning when he doesn’t bother to write his own books at all– he’s still making pounds of cash. He makes up concepts that he doesn’t deliver, his premises are snappy and his execution is crap, he’s riddled with cliches, his books can easily be understood by any eight-year-old, and it doesn’t matter what I say because he’s a million times more successful than I’ll ever be.
Seriously, I fight for hits on WordPress. He bathes in cash.
So, instead of mocking the successful, let’s look at his YA franchise, Maximum Ride.
Maximum Ride is about a bunch of genetically altered mutant kids who are part human part bird. They have retractable wings, and all kinds of other X-men styled superpowers that they use to escape from baddies, and eventually save the world. The stories center around the titular Max, who is the unofficial leader of her group of superhero Boxcar Children (I am not the first person to make this comparison).
In many ways, this is a much better YA series than some of the others that are making their rounds. Max is a strong protagonist who certainly passes the Bechdel Test, and provides a funny, upbeat, and actually quite engaging narration. Even a crotchety, dyed-in-the-wool literati snob like myself enjoyed the hell out of Max. On the other hand, this is a series that seriously pissed me off when it all went to hell by book three.
**spoilers**
Why, in the name of Reason, did protesting against climate change end an evil science organization that had nothing whatsoever to do with climate change?
**end**

In the end, whether you loved or hated the series, it does provide some interesting characters without falling into the usual YA tropes of bland female, hot bad-boy, and… third wheel.
So, what else could a person who likes this series read?
Well….

plaguedogs_3003
1. The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams
Adams is mostly known for Watership Down, and by mostly I mean that pretty much everyone thinks that’s the only book he wrote. In literature, he’s sort of the one-hit-wonder. This is a real shame because, like the band A-ha and other one-hit-wonders, Adams actually has an impressive oeuvre. The Plague Dogs is yet another epic, beautifully crafted look into politically charged anthropomorphism.
But what, you may ask, do dogs have to do with bird-kids? Well, the central conflict of at least books one through three of Max Ride has to do with experimentation. The kids are products of lab experiments, and so fall in the cross-hairs of self-serving corporate needs and scientific advancement. A huge part of the story has to do with what one should do in science and what one can do, and how those may be different things. Also, some people do terrible things in the name of discovery or finding ways to help humanity. Where does one draw the line? In The Plague Dogs, Adams asks these questions not of humans but of animals. The dogs are a part of a lab experiment, and because they may be dangerous to humans they are hunted and pursued by those they come across. The novel begs the question of whether or not it is right to put the dogs through pain and suffering for the sake of a greater good.
If you like your lab-experimentation stories with a big, heady punch and a lot of depressing, this will make you think –and also cry. It’s a dog story, and dog stories are sad.

monster dogs

2. Lives of Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis
I swear this list is not going to be filled with dog stories! This is the last one. I promise.
Like Max Ride, Monster Dogs is about mutants fitting into the world after experimentation made them what they are. But, unlike Max Ride, the story deals more with a realistic look at The Other in society. That is, it’s about what it is like to be alien, in this case a hyper-intelligent dog-monster, and what it is like to observe the alien around you. How would you act? How do they act? Why? Monster Dogs is a beautifully written meditation on the Frankenstein mythos of identity, what it means to be a person, and how we see those different from ourselves. While Max Ride is always off to the next adventure, running away from wolf-people and mad scientists, this story looks at a society like our own that suddenly has dog people in it. How does the media react? How do people on the streets react? How do the dogs react, and what do the dogs think of their own mad scientist creator?
It’s a beautiful, under-appreciated science fiction novel, and one worth checking out!

frankenstein

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Hey, we couldn’t have mad scientists and creatures without the one that started them all, could we? Mary Shelley’s book-she-wrote-at-a-slumber-party-of-sorts has become iconic. We all know the story of Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist who “steals fire from the  gods”, as it were, and creates life –life he will immediately abandon in horror. The dynamic of the book is one of moral ambiguity. Who is the monster? Why do we sympathize with the creature? And, can we do this while still remaining true to what the creature really is in the story –an eloquent zombie and murderer? Is the story a cautionary tale about playing God? Is it a story about bad parenting? Is it about monsters? Nightmares? The fear that one’s best intentions will backfire and ruin your life? The fear of being a disappointment and outsider?
I’ve found that, while most people know the basic idea of Frankenstein, few actually sit down and read it, preferring to get their ideas from the movies. This is a real shame because, while there are some great Frankenstein movies out there, the book is far more complex and raises more questions than any of the adaptations. It’s an enduring classic for a reason, and one you’ll want to get!

janeeyre2

4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
It may seem out of place to suggest this Gothic romantic novel for fans of a YA science fiction series about kids who can fly. But, hear me out. Max Ride is a compelling series for one major reason, and her name is Max Ride. She’s a super strong character, an outsider, and yet also a normal girl with feelings and worries. Jane Eyre is also a strong character. She stands up to her employer, makes her own decisions about life, and, like Max, overcomes the trauma of an abusive past. Jane is also an outsider, not because she’s a superhero, but because of her station and lack of a family. She’s also in a very strange place, dominated by her mysterious employer/lover and his Gothic mansion. Yet, Jane always manages to keep her head and stay strong. She’s a survivor, like Max. Furthermore, Jane is still a normal woman, not a “strong girl” archetype. She has to struggle with her own feelings, insecurities, and her love for Mr. Rochester. This makes her extremely relatable throughout all she goes through, and the readers can connect with the story not through epic, Gothic trappings but through a tough and intelligent protagonist.
Characters make the stories, and even if Jane Eyre isn’t your genre of choice, it is certainly one that fans of the strong, female protagonist will want to check out!

something wicked

5. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Or, maybe you just like kids having fantastical adventure? Well, there’s not much more fantastical than Bradbury, and this one even has a Shakespeare quote in the title! Something Wicked This Way Comes is the story of two boys who discover a dark secret about the circus in their town. And that’s all I can tell you without spoiling it…. No, seriously, read this book! Witches, magic, scary circuses, a really freaking villain, the lighting rod man… This book is like opening a treasure chest of wonders. It’s beautiful and terrifying, and full of Bradburian goodness.
If you like strong kids, it’s also a great example. The boys are not passive horror story characters. They’re dynamic. They take action, pursue mysteries, and have to escape from the big baddies of the story –all of which are pretty terrifying. It’s a gorgeously written thrill-ride, and one that you’ll want to re-visit time and again –especially on Halloween!

adventures of sherlock

6. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Max Ride is basically a superhero story. And, Holmes is basically a superhero. He can enter a room and immediately know everything about something that happened two weeks ago. He looks at your shoes and knows whether or not you’re German. He can spot a clue in a doorpost. The man’s amazing. He even has his iconic superhero look: tweed and a pipe!
Sometimes, the boundaries between highbrow literature and pop-culture adventure cross over, and this is one of those times. Holmes is a timeless, beloved character, and one whose epicness we really don’t mind or see as a boring or unrealistic trait. He’s the epitome of cool, a super-genius, and we love him.

geek

7. Greek Love by Katherine Dunn
Hey, guys! Want some postmodernism? You do! Well, then! This is Geek Love, the story of a family of circus “freaks”, who consider freakiness a sign of superiority. The characters have a dynasty of sideshow living, with the parents who bred their children to be mutants, and the kids who have their own power struggles. It reverses expectations about who is or is not superior, with the sideshow characters starting out with a sense of greatness and beauty in their conditions, and falling from grace through their dynastic power conflicts. It’s like a very strange Greek tragedy, but with more geeks.
Oh, and to explain for the innocent, a geek is someone who bites the heads off chickens for a sideshow act.
Yes, you do need to read this.

invisible

8. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Probably the most obvious choice would have been The Island of Dr. Moreau, since it actually is a story about human-animal mutants. But, I think that The Invisible Man has far more in common with the tone of the Max Ride stories that Dr. Moreau does. Of course, if you disagree, you’re free to read them both!
The Invisible Man asks the question of what happens when, through science, you Other yourself. Instead of being mutated by scientists, Dr. Griffin causes his own downfall by making himself invisible. Like the Max Ride series, he spends much of the story trying to get about without people knowing that he is, in fact, an invisible man, and also trying to avoid the authorities. The difference is that the invisibility serum has made Dr. Griffin into a psychopath, and so he’s no innocent victim. That doesn’t mean we as the readers don’t feel sorry for him. He’s a funny, interesting, and compelling character, even if he’s also kind of terrifying. As a science fiction great, he’s definitely a character you’ll want to met.

trumpet-of-the-swan

9. The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
Yes, this is a kiddie book. But, this is E.B. White we’re talking about, the man who created such iconic stories as Charlotte’s Web. And, this is a beautiful tale that really anyone can read and not worry. It’s the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born mute. His father steals him a trumpet, and his human friend teaches him to read and write, giving him two means of communication. The story is about being an Other, once again, this time being a mute swan among trumpeters and a hyper-intelligent animal among humans. How Louis fits in and how his differences make him special, not strange, is what the story is about. Also, he’s the only character in my list who has proper wings, so there’s that. It’s a charming, beautiful, life affirming story about nature, communication, identity, and music, and one that I personally love.

And coming in for a tie…

watchmen-749826v for vendetta
10. The Watchmen and V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
Oh, you thought we were to literati to read comic books about superheroes? You thought wrong!
*dons a cape and flies off into the sunset*
Ahem… But, aside from that, Alan Moore is no low-brow writer! What other comic book has ever topped a notable books list, outranking traditional novels? Alan Moore doesn’t just create stories about action and adventure, he is writing myths for the contemporary world, stories with depth and texture that ask complex questions about society, war, peace, government, control, power, anarchy, violence, and what it means to do right.
First, The Watchmen. This is an obvious, no-brainer choice for a series about superheroes. It’s basically THE literati superhero story. The characters are an elite group of costume heroes. However, the world has grown corrupt, and their group has fallen apart. When a mysterious attacker starts picking off old heroes, even if the characters might not be that heroic in the first place, The Watchmen rise up again. Secret plots, Cold War hysteria, nuclear arms races, science, and corruption ensue, leaving the ultimate question: Who watches The Watchmen?
V for Vendetta may not be as obvious of a choice, aside from also having a connection with grassroots protesting.
occupy wall
However, the story is actually quite similar. Just ask yourself, what if the scientific corporation from Max Ride was the entire society? What if the mutants didn’t have a chance to fight on the side of good people because all the good people were completely subjugated? What if Max Ride was a super-strong anarchist Phantom of the Opera as done by David Bowie? (No, seriously, those are V’s roots, right there.) V is a like a Batman who kills people, and who lives in the world 1984. He’s smart, strong, fights for justice… and has no moral qualms about ends justifying the means, really. He’s an anarchist, and not like that kid in high school who drew A symbols on his notebook. But, his background? Mutated by evil science, deformed in an explosion, and out to take down the big bad. Something tells me Max Ride wouldn’t be that gung-ho about some of his methods. But, Max Ride was never faced with stakes like V’s. Morally ambiguous, dark, frightening, and extremely cool, V for Vendetta is a superhero story that even your snobby lit major friends will want for their collections!
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So, you read Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras…

uglies

The Uglies and Pretties books may not have the household recognition of the other books on this list, but any amount of time spent with YA books and readers thereof will tell you it’s a damn popular series. And why wouldn’t it be? Feature a world literally built on the physical insecurities of put-upon teenagers, it’s a veritable marketing goldmine. For those who don’t know, it’s about a world where normal people are “uglies”, and the government then gives the “uglies” plastic surgery to become “pretties” –who live in a sparkly city and get to have parties all the time. The downside is that all the new pretties seem to have lost their former personalities. In fact, there may be something very, very wrong with them.

Yes, it’s another dystopian series. Two in a row. But, the focus of this one is quite different than for The Hunger Games. It’s about appearance, perfection, impossible ideals, and what people might sacrifice for these ideals. Not a bad initial plot point, even if I (disclaimer) really, really do not care for these books. So, if you want stories primarily about dystopian societies, I suggest the list for The Hunger Games, because here we’re looking at Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras for their discussions of identity, social control, and independence.

So, what recommendations can happen this time from Pushy Librarians?

stepford

  1. The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
    If The Hunger Games owes its largest debt of gratitude to Battle Royale, this series owes a huge debt to The Stepford Wives. Like Uglies, Pretties, et cetera, this book looks at a society where there are certain impossible standards for perfection. In order to achieve these standards, you may literally end up losing yourself. In Stepford Wives, the focus isn’t on a dystopian government, but rather a small town. A family moves in, and soon discovers that every woman in the town is perfect, beautiful, docile, and basically the ideal, 1950s housewife. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Why does an interesting, powerful woman suddenly become a docile, demure lamb? And does the heroine’s family want this to happen to her, too?
    Ira Levin is known mostly for two books, Rosemary’s Baby and this one. Both are frightening novels based on the subject of gender identity and use horror or science fiction tropes to tell a story that illustrates these points symbolically. Like Tally in Uglies and Pretties, the story is about a normal woman who discovers a dark truth about the transformations that her peers have undergone. It’s a short but eerie story, and one of horror’s most memorable.gatsby pic jpeg
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    What does this have to do with a dystopia? you may ask. Well, it’s not a dystopian novel, really. But, it is a novel about a society that is corrupted and lost in his former convictions and purpose, the romantic ideals of the past turned against the characters, their lives set in a vapid world in which they desperately search for meaning and booze… It’s also a story about a glitterati world, where people appear to be perfect and beautiful, and which contains a dark secret. And, it’s a story about transforming yourself to fit into this world –at any cost.
    Oh, and love triangles. I know how much you YA fans love your love triangles. Well, this is one of literature’s greatest love triangles, so you’re welcome. You may put away your Tally, David, and Zane, it’s Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby time!
    The story is about a man who moves in next to a rich neighborhood, his closest neighbor a mysterious man whose life story is simply too incredible to be true. This neighbor is Gatsby, who spends all his time throwing amazing parties and being the focus of interest for those around him. But, these are not parties for the sake of the party. These are not happy parties. What is Gatsby’s secret? What is his connection to the beautiful Daisy?
    The Great Gatsby has the distinction not only of being a thought-provoking examination of the Jazz Era, its glitter and its dark side, but also of being one of the most beautifully written books in the history of literature. You heard that correctly. Also, Stephen Fry agrees, so you have to listen.
    We Have Always Lived in the Castle
  3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
    Perhaps your interest in Uglies and Pretties is more concerning the focus on young adult insecurity and being an outsider in society? And, suppose you already read Ender’s Game? Well, you’re in luck! Shirley Jackson, ladies and gentlemen!
    Jackson is probably best known to readers for her often-assigned-in-school short story, “The Lottery”, a story about a local tradition that involves something absolutely horrific. It’s kind of like The Wicker Man, but about society as opposed to religion, and with less naked dancing and Celtic folk music.

    The REAL Wicker Man doesn't have bees. It has a badass Christopher Lee --and he's scary as hell.

    The REAL Wicker Man doesn’t have bees. It has a badass Christopher Lee –and he’s scary as hell.

    We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of a young woman who lives with her sister in an old mansion, outcast by the town due to the unresolved murder of the rest of their family. The story focuses on the town’s prejudices against the girls, which may actually be quite well-founded, but even more so on our heroine’s outlook on life. She’s brainy but childish, angsty, rebellious, angry, a practitioner of sympathetic magic, superstitious, anti-social, and misanthropic. Like many of Jackson’s heroines, from The Haunting of Hill House to The Bird’s Nest, she’s part misunderstood creative spirit, part demon, an anti-hero to rival Catcher in the Rye, but with some postmodern Gothic trappings.  If you thought that Tally should have been a more active and interesting character to warrant how put-upon she is, look to this:
    “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

    othello

  4. Othello by our man, The Bard!
    Shakespeare has something for everyone, and the idea of fitting into a seemingly perfect society is certainly no exception! Shakespeare basically rules this idea, in fact, with his play, Othello. This is the story of the titular Othello, a great warrior, talented man, and husband of the beautiful Desdemona. Unfortunately, this is Ye Olde Olden Times, and Othello is something that Europe didn’t like: a black man who isn’t shining shoes. He’s an African who fights on the side of Europe, and works to fit into European society, which appears to be so proper and cultured –from the outside. Inside, he is met with massive discrimination, even after his war triumphs, and all that due to marrying a white woman. Enter Shakespeare’s most devious villain, Iago, who seeks to warp Othello’s insecurities into suspicion and conspiracy until he is tormented into committing one of the most tragic crimes in Elizabethan theatre.
    Othello is a very complex play. On the one hand, the main character does something truly despicable by the end. On the other hand, you can’t help but feel sorry for him and Desdemona and how they simply played their parts in society, and were manipulated by Iago. It’s a tragedy, beautifully written, and will certainly make readers consider the issues of society and the roles that it sets up.stranger1
  5. The Stranger by Albert Camus
    Or, maybe you just don’t get society at all. Uglies and Pretties addresses the idea of a society that is basically meaningless, and that is the impetus for the heroine to resist and try to escape and assert her individuality. The Stranger offers a world where maybe there is no escape. And maybe it isn’t because everyone is brainwashed by an evil government, but because things don’t make sense in the postwar world. The novel poses this question: should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee? And that’s the tone of the entire book.
    If your interest is in the outsider, the person looking in and seeing the emptiness in the world, you may want to read a book in which the protagonist is so, so much more cynical and anguished than even you are. And when he eventually commits a brutal murder, would you be surprised if I told you he doesn’t seem to really care?
    Oh, well, we could at least have coffee…

    Secretly, she's considered killing at least five people by now...

    Secretly, she’s considered killing at least five people by now…

    androids

  6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
    Philip K. Dick. To say his name around any sci-fi fans is to invoke great piles of gushing. He’s one of the most influential and important sci-fi writers in history. His works have been adapted into iconic movies, including this one, which became Blade Runner. His work is creative, subtle, and poses ethical and philosophical questions for the readers, beyond the usual good vs. evil found in many books.
    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is about a post-apocalyptic future where much human and animal life has been depleted, and life-like androids work on off-planet colonies. Well, they’re supposed to. The androids may be artificially made, but they’re not without consciousness, and they come to earth and disguise themselves as humans. It’s up to our main character, a bounty hunter, to round up the renegade androids. The question remains, however, do these robots have their own individual consciousness worthy of respect as humans? Do they have souls? What is life and what are we, in ourselves?
    The book shares many similarities with Fahrenheit 451, including government mood-control, the use of media as a sedative, and the general populace’s lack of interest in the world around them. However, Philip K. Dick’s world is stranger and more experimental, reminiscent of almost a Gravity’s Rainbow kind of reality, where everything is just… off.
    Like Uglies and Pretties, it deals with fitting into a society, and who is considered better than who. What, exactly, is it to be a human being? And, could a good human being also be a robot?animal_farm
  7. Animal Farm by George Orwell
    Orwell, again! But, really, we can’t suggest books for readers of dystopian series without Animal Farm coming up! Animal Farm is an unusual, little book, because although it’s about a controlling government and has many tropes of a traditional dystopian novel, it’s about animals. It’s literally about animals that take over a farm –only to discover that not all animals are created equal in the eyes of the leaders.
    Animal Farm may seem a far cry from the series we’re doing here. But, in fact, it has many similar aspects. For one thing, the dystopia of Uglies and Pretties is revealed to be an answer to a former bad government. The bad decisions of the series come from reactions to earlier bad decisions, gone corrupt. That’s basically the entire premise of Animal Farm! Sometimes, the solution isn’t better than the disease, and may even be quite similar. While Uglies and Pretties actually does not address a previously failed government system so much as ecological depletion, and so doesn’t give a great deal to work on and see where the past could have done better, Animal Farm’s archetypes and understanding of real-world problems (like for-profit ruling elites vs. Stalinist ruling elites), is a much punchier and more intelligent compare/contrast scenario. It’s a thoughtful look at control and corruption, and definitely worth a look!dalloway
  8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
    Uglies and Pretties may focus on teen insecurities in general, but its protagonist and narrator is a teenage girl. The market it appeals to is mostly made of teenage girls who feel misunderstood and who do not feel like they can or even want to live up to the pressures around them, especially those of physical beauty. This is a pretty universal theme, and one that many teenagers face, perhaps especially girls with all the emphasis on fashion and makeup around.
    Mrs. Dalloway is a novel about feel like an outsider and being frustrated with the societal pressures around you. It is a dream-like story, about one afternoon, with a narrative that pops in and out of heads and reveals the struggles of each character to conform to their situation in life and also struggle to understand the changes in the world around them. If Holden Caulfield inspired leagues of angsty, frustrated teenaged boys, Mrs. Dalloway focuses on the domestic woman and her place in the world.
    It’s a melodic, tragic, poignant look at longing, apathy, ennui, desire, sorrow, and depression, and if all the teen angst left you wanting to step it up a notch, now’s the time to do it.persepolis-cover-small2-1
  9. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
    This is our first autobiography. You’re welcome. Oh, and it’s also a graphic novel. You’re welcome again.
    You see, sometimes you don’t need dystopias to live in an oppressive society that has specific roles for your life and strict rules that you cannot break. Sometimes, that’s real life. This is the world of Marjane Satrapi, a spunky, intelligent, creative girl growing up in Iran during the conflict between Iran and Iraq. She sees the Shah fall and the rise of theocratic Islamist extremism. She has to cover herself, segregate from the community, and sees those she loves persecuted and even killed. Throughout it all, she remains strong, and tells her story with wit, humor, and clarity, never asking for pity, but always pushing onward. She’s a strong role model for anyone, and the book is important and moving, and worth recommending to young readers as well as adults. If you want your youthful narrator and strong female protagonist, it really doesn’t get better than Persepolis.BluestEyeCover
  10. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
    Like Persepolis, this is a story that doesn’t need dystopia to discuss a corrupt society. The story is about a black community, living in segregation, and each character’s reaction to this environment. There is a tragedy coming up, where all the injustice, anger, and struggle comes to a head in the life of a little girl who feels that if she were only blue-eyed, she would be accepted.
    Uglies and Pretties focuses on the more superficial desires to look perfect, like movie stars, and the way media imagery and ideals affect those around them. What if you were in a society where not only where these ideals a problem, but that the entirety of who you were meant that you could not match this idea? What if from childhood the dolls you were given to play with looked nothing like you, and the movie stars and beauty queens looked nothing like you, and the people who lived in nice houses and had the best jobs and influence looked nothing like you, and all the politicians and powerful people of the world looked nothing like you? Don’t think “what if”. For many people, this was and in many situations still is a huge problem. In the age of segregation, it was even worse. Our character is driven through her tragedy by loneliness and abuse, and believes that if only she could change who she was, even just her eyes, she could change her fate.
    It’s a tragic and incredibly harrowing story that is also important and beautifully-written by Nobel Prize in Literature writer, Toni Morrison.