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

Defending Disney: Beauty and the Beast

beauty-and-the-beast-disney

I think that if you ask most people which Disney film they like best it is usually one of the following: Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King. And, it’s not hard to see the reasoning behind these choices. These are both big, impressive films, with stories far more complex and emotional than their predecessors. They really resonated with audiences due to their strong character development, memorable songs, and state-of-the-art animation. So, first to look at Beauty and the Beast.

This is one of those rare Disney films where even non-fans kind of like it. It’s hard to find anyone who dislikes the movie, and almost everyone who does has more of an ideological reason than a film-quality reason, which is unfortunate as the film is a film, not a political tract.

After the success of The Little Mermaid and the resurgence of popular interest in not only Disney princesses but Disney animation, the studio had a new direction and a new wave of fairytale structures. The ’90s Disney pics, the Renaissance Disney films, were typified by impressive animation, ’80s mega-musical-style songs, and a new sense of youth culture. The characters are generally misfits, for some reason or another, who want something “more”. In a way, this isn’t too different than Disney’s previous interest in living one’s dreams. But, while Classic Disney tells audiences that it’s good to be optimistic, to hope, and to see the world as full of possibilities, these ’90s Disney films are interested in how their protagonists can do this and how they feel. The stories, liberated by stronger innovations in motion and anatomy, as well as new computer technology, are able to move from the archetypal structures of the past to look at characters with stronger and more realistic desires. I say more realistic, because the archetypal style doesn’t really go away. But, in ’90s Disney the good princess might want to live her dreams because she has been reading books and has desires for adventure, and because she doesn’t fit in, rather that because she is a young princess who dreams.

So, enter Belle. Belle is almost everyone’s favorite princess. At least, almost everyone I know.

Belle-disney

Again, it’s not hard to understand. Belle, like Ariel, doesn’t quite fit in. But, unlike Ariel, who makes herself an outsider simply because she’s a brooding teenager who sits in her room with her posters and collectibles and sings angsty songs to herself, Belle is different because she just thinks differently than the people around her. She’s the daughter of an eccentric inventor and enjoys reading and studying, and cheering on her father in his plans to promote new inventions to the world. Unfortunately, they live in hicksville, where the cares of the villagers are, well, provincial.

Beauty-and-the-Beast-disney-5841900-1280-720

The people don’t understand dreamers who want more than finding a line of work or getting married, and, interestingly, this doesn’t just extend to Belle. I think people forget that her father is kind of a pioneering brain, and the town thinks he’s crazy for wanting to do things like… make work easier. He invents household technology and work-saving devices.

What is interesting about Belle is that, while Ariel’s good looks and voice were what made her fit in despite her awkwardness and angst, Belle’s good looks make her more of an outcast. The women her age don’t understand why she’s into books instead of boys. The town doesn’t understand why someone pretty is so different, and so they see her as even more odd, because she attracts more attention. And, the most attention she gets is from Gaston.

gaston

Gaston is one of Disney’s more interesting villains. For one thing, he’s the first male villain in a princess movie. Considering that the films went from unable-to-animate-men to a character like Gaston, that is impressive. For another thing, Gaston is a major break from previous Disney villains. Ursula really isn’t that unusual for Disney –yet another witch with vague motivations, even if she is pretty awesome with her badass villain song. Gaston isn’t a witch or even an authority figure. He’s just the town jock, a good-looking guy whose interests happen to make him the town hero. He’s the kind of character one might initially think would be the hero, since he is vaguely good looking and has a Disney-style insta-love interest in Belle. However, he’s actually a selfish douchebag, who wants Belle because she would look good on his arm. He doesn’t share her interests, doesn’t respect her family, but thinks that she just should like him because everyone else does. He’s the town football hero who can’t understand why he doesn’t get everything his own way, the big-fish in the small pond. He’s the high school football star who always passed his classes so that he could play sports, even though he couldn’t really read.

And, frankly, I think that Belle and Gaston really typify why so many people relate to this movie. Belle is different, has ambitions that people don’t understand. How many people can relate to hearing, “Why don’t you just do what everyone else’s is doing?” or “What, do you think you’re special, wanting [fill in the blank]? Selfish!” In fact, that basically typifies all of society’s attitude toward “millennials”. “Why do you think you’re special or worthy of having a dream, ambitions, adventures? What, do you think you’re too good to work for $7 an hour flipping burgers at Pig’n’Grease, just because you have an MA in history and BAs in anthropology and classical languages? Pff, weirdo. Don’t take that unusual job. Don’t write that book. Don’t paint that. Don’t fall in love. Don’t try to fight for anything. Don’t try to get people interested in them derned books you’re always reading. You’re just a hipster!”

And, for all the (narcissistic) social analysis which deludes itself into thinking this is unique to our age, I’m pretty sure this theme is older and more resonating than current trending buzzwords might let on. I think when Disney unveiled a princess who has more ambition and brains than the people around her, that was a little refreshing: that it’s not elitist and doesn’t make you a horrible person to stand against mediocrity and want something more from life than “Marie, the baguettes!” and worshiping small-town heroes.

A literate young person? What an elitist hipster! Truly this is a terrible example for children!

A literate young person? What an elitist hipster! Truly this is a terrible example for children!

And, I think as much as a lot of people related to Belle, a lot of people related to a villain like Gaston. You see, where Belle just innocently desires something more from life, without judging or being unkind to the people around her, and therefore rises above provincial thinking without being an elitist, Gaston is an actual elitist. Yes, you can be a numb-skull and an elitist. He’s not above mediocrity, but he’s the best at being mediocre. He’s the douchebag frat boy who threw you into lockers. And, it’s not really his fault. Society is so mediocre that it doesn’t expect anything more. It made him.

This “more” that Disney is exploring is beyond the idea of dreams coming true and also carries with it a sense of rising above, seeking quality, being brave, being smart, striving for more than the average. Belle’s dad isn’t content with the way the world is, and so he invents ways to improve it, and Belle is the same. Interestingly, as much as this “more” and “being more” theme typifies ’90s Disney, its morals are very Pixar, not unlike The Incredibles. 

And, then, there’s the Beast, or, as Disney retroactively decided to name him, “Adam”. Yeah… they never mention this in the entire film. They probably only did so that people like me wouldn’t nickname him Marvin.

images

The Beast is a great character, however. He’s a handsome prince with an ugly soul, who becomes an ugly beast and has to become beautiful on the inside. As corny as that sounds, this is interesting for Disney, as most of their heroes up to this point have been straight up good-looking, and their villains are ugly. How do you know Cinderella’s step-sisters are evil? Because they look plain and have enormous feet! But, beyond this, The Beast is a great character, with a story arc, internal conflict, changes, and even a sense of humor. He starts out very intimidating –this frightening, Gothic monster,–and then becomes a character whose transformation is almost disappointing when he actually turns human.

This is probably not unintentional. Beauty and the Beast owes much of its look and artistic style to classic arthouse, surrealist fairytale Le Belle et la Bete, a 1946 French film by Jean Cocteau, the director of Orphee.

la-belle-et-la-bete

Cocteau reportedly thought the ending of the fairy tale was boring, unfitting for a dynamic heroine, and so he wanted audiences to be as disappointed as he was. He did this by making the ending extremely sentimental, but Disney does this by making The Beast a great character that you actually care about. In fact, Paige O’Hara supposedly cried while voicing the scene when The Beast seems to die.

belle

From a technical level, aside from borrowing heavily from Cocteau, it’s safe to say that Disney had solidified its image to the extent that it was building on its own artistic tradition more than picking art from history. However, this is not to say that the melds of art in the film do not have roots. For example, the heavy use of chiaroscuro and the interior designs of the castle itself are borrowing from the Baroque tradition.

Giovanni Lanfranco, Annunciation

Giovanni Lanfranco, Annunciation

However, the film is also very Gothic, in terms of architecture, as well as its interest in dark, monstrous images.

bbwall8

It is also Romantic, but, again, Gothic Romantic, with Belle working just as easily in that tradition’s archetype as a fairy tale archetype. It has brooding, dark passages, an interest in decayed buildings, and an anti-hero, as well as a Byronic sense of heroes being somewhat outside of society. And, this I partially blame on its other major influence, the 1980s mega-musical, and Phantom of the Opera.

In fact, the entire structure is very mega-musical. While earlier Disney used the singing and dancing and talking animals of vaudevillian productions, The Little Mermaid was entering a musical scene that had changed dramatically. Broadway was creating massive, expensive mega-hits, with big pop-musical numbers, huge sets, and epic stories. EvitaLes MiserablesPhantom, these were all enormous productions with huge influence on the new Disney structure. In the past, for example, choir music works more like a Greek chorus, with only a few exceptions, often not even sung by anyone, and there more to explain a scene or create a montage to move the plot forward. In Beauty and the Beast, the first song is a Broadway chorus, where individualized characters sing the exposition in a massive show-tune style, not unlike scenes from Les Miserables. However, the way the characters sing dialog, and the big show-stoppers, like “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest”, and the titular “Beauty and the Beast” are also in this tradition. Songs like “On My Own” from Les Miserables or the love duet, “All I Ask of You” from Phantom of the Opera would not be out of place in this style of production. I think the film might owe more than it lets on to Phantom, in general, from its use of symbolic roses and mirrors, to a brooding and disfigured-but-romantic anti-hero, to The Beast having a Gothic lair… But, a lot of people tend to really disagree with this and argue that, if anything, they are simply inspired by the same fairy tale. What’s interesting is that Beauty and the Beast then went on to become a mega-musical on the stage, itself, bringing the influences full circle.

(Original Broadway Cast) Yes, I can see no obvious influence from Phantom here...

(Original Broadway Cast)
Yes, I can see no obvious influence from Phantom here…

Perhaps because of this structure, and audiences showing a strongly favorable interest in Phantom as a romantic story — because nothing says romance like brooding  angst–

Entire pop-culture, despotic empires have formed over this concept...

Entire pop-culture, despotic empires have formed over this concept…

Beauty and the Beast is one of the most unabashedly romantic Disney films. I don’t mean this in, “Oh! I am so swept up in this love story!” but rather that the film is intentionally put together to be more romantic and have more of an emphasis on the romance than the previous films. While love has always been a huge theme in the princess movies, the films aren’t really romantic, per se. Snow White only meets her prince twice, and he barely does anything. She’s simply waiting for him to find her, somehow. Cinderella’s dream, initially, is to go to the ball, and only then does she meet the prince. They share one song together, and that’s it. Love… I guess. Neither of these films had the technical prowess to create male characters that could be on screen long enough to be romantic. The films just tell us, in Cinderella‘s case quite literally, that this is love (huh-mmm-huh-mm). Sleeping Beauty has its princess and prince fall in love in a really gorgeously animated sequence, but the story is really about the fairies. The romance is just sort of assumed because this is fairytale logic. And, while Little Mermaid does have Ariel spend more time with Eric than any of the previous couples, the story really is about Ariel’s interests and Eric isn’t that much of a character. While as a kid I used to dress up as Eric (for some inexplicable reason), he’s actually a pretty bland leading man.

Beauty and the Beast, however, opens with The Beast’s story, and asks us, “Who could ever love a beast?” Then, when the characters meet, we see them go through changes, learn about one another, and develop together until they even get a romantic ballroom scene.

dance

And, of course, it’s a forbidden love, which Disney plays up in the scene when Belle shows Gaston the magic mirror and everyone decides to become an angry mob –totally unlike that other show it totally doesn’t owe any artistic credit to. And, the interactions between the characters are more traditionally romantic, not in that I am going to argue their swoony potential, but that they literally borrow from the tropes of romance films. The characters argue a lot, and that just means they’re meant for each other (a common romance movie trope).

"Hey, girl, you piss me the hell off." (The Notebook)

“Hey, girl, you piss me the hell off.”
(The Notebook)

The characters also are more physically affectionate. They dance closer, hold hands, kiss passionately. These aren’t actors. Animators and animation directors had to choose to specifically make the chemistry stronger than, say, how Prince Eric apparently needs an entire animal choir to encourage him to kiss the girl who leans in to kiss him –and then doesn’t even do it. There are animation choices being made. People chose to draw this, in purpose. And, I think the fact that this is a romance movie, not just a love story, is part of why people really connected with the film. Audiences loved it. Critics loved it. And, it was the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

kiss

Now, of course, because this is a princess movie it has controversies. Something about making media that has a primary target of girls just makes people complain a lot, I guess.

On the left: Belle has Stockholm Syndrome and the movie encourages abusive relationships.

On the right: Oh, gosh, where to begin… Belle humiliates Gaston, Gaston is an offensive portrayal of men, Belle’s father isn’t tough and strong, there’s a fleeting image of a religious figure laughing in the scene when Gaston tries to marry Belle, Belle and The Beast are too sexy, beast characters encourage children to like monsters and those are apparently real and also the devil…

Everyone else: “There’s a controversy? What?””

First, people, you have got to stop diagnosing everyone with mental illnesses. I think this Stockholm Syndrome argument is the direct outcome of people medicating kids who fidget slightly because they have “ADHD” or are “manic”. Yeah, let’s stop pretending like we have doctorates in psychiatry when we don’t. Unless you actually do, in which case why are you analyzing Belle instead of real patients? Belle doesn’t have a disorder where she has convinced herself that she cares about an abductor. That is because this is a fantasy. This isn’t about an abduction. It’s about a world where enchanted castles hold enchanted Beasts. He, feeling threatened by an outsider, imprisons Belle’s father. Belle takes his place in the castle, which The Beast is just surprised by. She doesn’t really act like a prisoner, and even leaves, only coming back when The Beast is injured by the wolves. From that point on, she stays and does things like play in the snow. Furthermore, this is, again, a fairy tale, and the story really does have this plot point. It isn’t about reality but about abstract messages, like isolation, loneliness, being an outsider. And, it’s a part of our heritage. People complain about Disney dumbing down fairy tales, and then they complain when Disney follows the fairy tales. Nobody’s every happy. It’s always something.

In the end, Belle is a smart, ambitious, sacrificial, caring, brave, and strong character, and there’s nothing anti-feminist about that. You can hardly argue that The Beast doesn’t respect her by like ten minutes into their screen-time together, also. And, what little girl after seeing this would decide that what she wants is to be captured by a real kidnapper or in an abusive relationship? That doesn’t even exist in the same reality as this story, and clearly Belle has no problem ditching loser guys.

As for the right, I am constantly boggled by the arguments concerning Gaston. The guy’s a creep. He’s the guy who constantly tries to force himself onto someone and then beats up her boyfriend. This kind of person actually does exist. And, I don’t think that the male filmmakers are attacking men. I think that, just maybe, the kind of people who grew up to make Disney cartoons might possibly have clashed with Gaston-like characters in the past. It seems likely to me that arty people who went into the cartoon business might have had their problems with Gastons as kids. Besides, how is The Beast not a good male character, the opposite Gaston? In fact, by the end, The Beast even appears gentler and Gaston looks like a raving maniac, and Belle puts a fine point on it by calling him the monster.

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The point is that not everyone who looks good and is maybe a small-town hero is a good person, which is a valuable lesson for kids. And, again, The Beast is a good male character, both kind but also strong and fierce when he needs to be. I get the feeling that some of the idea that he’s less “traditionally masculine”, a phrase which apparently forgot this was ever a thing…

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…comes from The Beast’s design when he is a prince. Because he’s… French-looking and doesn’t seem like, I don’t know, a Duck Dynasty member. Because only guys with a cleft chin, who hang antlers everywhere and shoot geese in city limits, are truly manly? Because manliness depends on fashion and looks? That sounds like a horrible lesson!

As for Belle’s father, yeah, he’s not strong. Because he’s an old man. He is, however, smart and obviously passed on his ways of thinking to his daughter. He also sacrifices and cares about her, despite being an old man and an intellectual, not a warrior. Physical strength isn’t everything, and that’s kind of the point of the movie. Plus, when Belle takes his place, the movie makes it clear that he’s not just given up. He doesn’t want her to take his place, and he almost dies looking for her. Yeah… what a horrible depiction of a kind, loving father. I wish he was more like Gaston, said no one ever.

And, yes, there is a reverend type in the crowd at Gaston’s farcical wedding. Because no reverend has never been bad… Besides, the entire town is there. The idea is that the town has spoiled Gaston so much that he literally cannot understand or stand being rejected. His entire motivation is that he’s embarrassed by this. But, I remember as a kid that a lot of people thought Belle should have been nicer to him. Let me ask you this: if a random guy burst in on your daughter with a bunch of people and was like, “We’re getting married! You’re so lucky!” would you say to her, “Be nice, girl. Be sweet about it!”? Probably not.

The last two complaints I’ll address really quickly, because they are dumb. One, do you really find a kid’s cartoon too steamy for you? What, are chair legs to steamy for you? The problem with this complaint is 100% about the complainer. Two, monsters aren’t real. You don’t have to worry about your kids falling for a real monster and thinking it’s good because… monsters are imaginary. So is Santa. But, kids will encounter very real people who look different or who are in some way outsiders, and we should care about them. Real people are hurt every day because they are different, look different, are not in the norm. But, monsters don’t exist. Real monsters are, like the movie says, like Gaston, and that’s a more realistic message to teach your kids.

I’ve encountered a lot of writing which really praises the idea of very abstract evil, dragons, and monsters. One writer complained that his political opposition should just admit that they are orks so that he could fight them. Need I remind anyone that orks are killed without mercy in fantasy stories? While showing kids the defeat of an abstract monster can teach kids the valuable lesson that evil can be conquered, real evil doesn’t look like imaginary monsters. We learned the lesson about slaying dragons in Sleeping Beauty, but there are more lessons that kids can learn, and Beauty and the Beast provides some of them.

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So, you read Harry Potter…

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Okay, so maybe the young adult literature phenomenon/anti-drug of your choice wasn’t chock full of vampires. More power to you. If you’re like almost everyone on the planet, you have read Harry Potter. About 3/4s of you enjoyed it, too. And, most of you who enjoyed it enjoyed the living bajeezus out of it, enjoyed it with passion, preference, and pride, enjoyed it with every molecule of your body.
Again: more power to you.
But, all things must come to an end. Chimney sweepers coming to dust, lovers young… Oh, that Shakespearian rag, it’s so elegant… I’m mixing literature here and getting ahead of myself. The point is, Harry Potter had a nice, long run, and while most people won’t fault you for re-reading the entire series, most people will when you refuse to read anything else. Ah, but that’s why we have Pushy Librarians!
Pushy Librarians, once again here to make sure YOU are reading all your intellectually metaphorical fruits and vegetables! Yes, we’ll help you with all your literati needs, whether you want/like it or not! You WILL look like a grown-ass adult when we’re through… (feel free to begin the Mulan song, “Mister I’ll make a man out of YOU!”)
So, what would you want to read next after leaving Hogwarts? Well… here are some suggestions we’re aggressively forcing upon the populace!

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1. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Ask any literati source what the grownup, literary equivalent of Harry Potter is, and 9 times out of 10 they’ll point at this book. And why not? It’s a reflective, philosophical, intellectual novel… about a boy who goes to wizarding school. It basically is THE Harry Potter-for-grown-ups. We could finish the list by just posting The Magicians ten times, and most people would be happy. But, Grossman’s novel is more than The Boy Who Lived, but totally not for kids… no… more. (That actually would be very, very sad.) This is its own entity, addressing the insecurities, yearnings, and, erm, existential crises of an older set of readers, searching for identity and purpose. It also addresses the idea of the wonders of magic as melded with the doldrums and angst of adulthood. Maybe that sounds less than appealing, but The Magicians has more than enough fantasy to satisfy the Potterhead crowd. And, admit it, getting on the end of HP, you related to those angsty, real-life, rough, dark scenes that filled the last part of the series. You did, didn’t you? And, you wouldn’t mind more of that, would you?

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2. Krabat (Or The Satanic Mill, for you English readers) by Otfried Preussler
Okay, so this is also technically a kids’ book. But, The Satanic Mill is also an obscure kids’ book, and a smart, weird, trippy one at that. It’s the kid’s book that’s socially acceptable to read in public without being suspected of having a set of Gryffindor robes and a sorting hat in your lego-castle themed bedroom. So, what is this obscure kiddie book about? Well, do you remember all the panic about “satanic schools” concerning the Harry Potter books? This is probably what those people were imagining. This is the story of a young orphan boy who goes to a school of magic… black magic. Satanic, killing-people magic. This is basically what Voldemort wants Hogarts to be. And, you might be thinking, “Huh, that sounds really disturbing for a children’s book.”
I know, right?!

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3. Phantases by George MacDonald
In the world of literature, there are certain standards of epic… beards. And, by Lincoln, did MacDonald have one of the most epic! But, facial hair aside, MacDonald was a pioneering fantasy writer. He even inspired C.S. Lewis! This is a mythical story, part fantasy part romance, concerning a questing man named Anodos, who is seeking “The Marble Lady”, the ultimate beauty. But, since this is MacDonald, it’s not just a story about quests and magic, it’s also really abstract, symbolic, and, honestly, trippy as hell. Not many religious ministers can claim that. Plus, it was illustrated by a Pre-Raphaelite artist. Does it get more magical than that? Possibly, but not without acid.

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4. Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes
This isn’t fantasy. That doesn’t stop Tom Brown from being the closest to Harry Potter in spirit, however! Rowling’s series is sort of genre-blending. On one hand, it’s a fantasy quest, complete with unlikely heroes and dark lords. On the other hand, it’s a kid’s fairytale-fable story, with whimsical moments that would be comfortable in the realm of Roald Dahl. And, on the third hand (just roll with it), it’s a schoolboy story, a coming-of-age tale with schooldays events and relationships. In that last respect, it’s a whole lot like Tom Brown. Even many of the dynamics are like Tom Brown. Just insert a lot of rugby, and there you go. What many people really love about HP are the characters and the way they interact. The “in real life” fanfiction people have come up with, aside from being terrible, is also proof that people really like the characters for themselves. Well, if you ever wanted that dynamic in a more real-life setting, this is the book you want!

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5. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Or… almost anything Gaiman. Hey, HP fans, want to look really cool, hip, and with-it, and yet still get your fantasy fix? Try Gaiman! Gaiman has been called the literary equivalent of a rock star, and that’s basically true. In fact, there have been only a handful of writers who have had this status, and only about two after the Romantics: Hunter S. Thompson and Neil Gaiman. And Gaiman hasn’t taken every drug known to man, but still managed to be as edgy and cool. What’s interesting about Gaiman is that, although he’s obviously very charismatic and his writing is very cool, he also could easily be that one librarian that is really awesome. He’s like the perfect blend of bookish and rocking and…
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We interrupt this session for a complete fangirlish breakdown.

Anyway…
Gaiman’s stories, like Harry Potter, are inventive, exciting, and full of memorable characters. But, Gaiman also writes fantasy for an older audience, and so is able to explore darker and more dangerous themes –truth, religion, beauty, the relationship humans have to myth and archetype. In Neverwhere, we have a story of an ordinary, even boring man, who ends up accidentally involved with the goings-on of a magical underworld. The story features eloquent assassins, dashing tricksters, brave hunters, warriors, rat-people, and Door, who is basically one of the coolest characters ever.

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6. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Addressing the elephant in the room: yes. Card is very political. And, of course, that leads some people to calling him a Nazi. I don’t mean this in the usual internet way, either. People actually do say that Card is an actual Nazi.
It’s a conspiracy, and he’s not actually a Nazi. But, he does have very, well, right-wing views.
Now, will this affect your reading of Card? For me, and I’ve read Sade, the author’s beliefs don’t necessarily have to affect the art. After all, Picasso was rather sexist, and yet we all love Picasso (anti-Picasso people are welcome to shut up).
The story is a science fiction tale of a young, intelligent boy in a bad family (not unlike Harry!), who gets sent to a special school, and who has a mission to save the world (because why not?). In this case, however, he saves the world by playing a lot of really cool video games… In many ways, the story can be overly simplistic, and has troubled readers concerning the apparent justification of a character basically due to ignorance. However, the “problematic” portions of the story can be beneficial, as well, can be open for questions and really make the reader think about the complexities of violence and war. And, considering that this is very literally a story about a boy who saves the world through video-game awesomeness, that’s kind of saying a lot.
It’s not necessarily one of the best books ever written, but Ender’s Game has been immensely influential, extremely popular, and promoted enough discourse and debate to well-warrant a literati stamp of approval!

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7. The Well at the World’s End by William Morris
I don’t think we can go much further in this fantasy discussion without talking about Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. According to many literary theorists, all literary criticism is a footnote to Socrates in that it all must address Socrates’ apparent dislike of fiction (yeah… that totally happened). In the world of fantasy, all fantasy has to deal in some way with Tolkien and Lewis. Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. All fantasy writers basically have the choice of either following in the footsteps of the genre’s most significant members, or breaking with that tradition. Rowling is not an iconoclast. Harry Potter is full of Narnian and Middle Earth influences, from the style of her monsters, to mirrors that tell secrets, to religious symbolism, to entering new worlds, to the world-building, to, well, a great deal. It’s not a flaw. She’s a part of a particular literary tradition.
But, chances are you’re already pretty darn familiar with these books. If you’re not, please go read them. We’re not talking about them here. What we are talking about, however, is a book that had impact in the development of Middle Earth: The Well at the World’s End.
This is a little-known fantasy novel by Pre-Raphaelite William Morris, because Pre-Raphaelites, man!
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It’s a fantasy quest, a romance of knights and valor, not something too out of place for the Medieval and Romantic PRB. But, it was more than just as Spenserian fanfic. It also has many of the trappings of what we now refer to as the fantasy genre. The story has its own world, and world-building is an important aspect. Its attention to the past, like in the works of Tolkien, is there to create a story for the present and an escape to the exotic and unusual realms of magic.
The plot follows a knight in search of a well that produces the water of eternal life. It’s a traditional questing story, with daring-deeds and unusual characters along the way. If you want to backtrack your way into the roots of the genre the bore HP, you could definitely do worse than Morris.

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8. 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez
Hey, HP fans, do you ever get tired of being referred to as second-class readers? Do you want to prove to your literary friends, they with their Moby-Dicks and their Things Fall Apart, that you’re just as intellectual as they are? But, does it bother you to read stories that are very realistic? Do you yearn for magic and fantasy when you’re reading your Steinbeck and Austen? Are you reading this now and going, “You think I’ve read any of those books? Heh…”? Fear not! Literature has just the genre for you: magic realism, where life, liberty, truth, and beauty come to you in a package of FREAKING magic!
Not only is 100 Years of Solitude a magic realist story complete with flying carpets, alchemical arts, levitation, and a rain of golden flowers, it’s also very, very literary. How literary? you may well ask. Try Nobel Prize in Literature literary. Oh, yeah. The man’s the dude.
So, what’s this about? Well, in a remote place in Columbia, an ambitious family sets up a town (the solitude from the title), and this is its history for one hundred years… No, come back! It may sound like a dull premise, but there is nothing but nothing that isn’t in this book! Every aspect of life, good, bad, happy, sad, romantic, disgusting, beautiful, imaginary, real, revolutionary, brutal, lecherous, perverse, and sublime is here. From rebels and firing squads to a plague of insomnia, it’s a veritable feast for the imagination and will keep you glued to the pages until you think that the book is about 1,000 words long and way too short. And that’s a sure sign of a good book!

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9. The Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis
Again, this is technically a kid’s book. But, like The Satanic Mill, probably no adult will slight you on reading it. In fact, more or at least as many adults read this book than children do. Why? Well, some of it has to do with the fact that the author is a Decemberist:
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Yes, that’s the band The Decemberists, and as all good literati know… they write songs based on literature and so are awesome. (Seriously, Infinite Jest, The Tain, Shadow Country…)
But, now is not the time to gush fangirlishly… twice. (*cough* Buy ALL the albums *cough*)
The Wildwood Chronicles is not just popular because of its musical ties and Carson Ellis’s gorgeous illustrations. It’s also a really, really smart story. The story is a well-crafted, loving treatment of the world of fantasy. It is self-conscious of its roots, to the point that may seem a bit winking at first until you take into account how earnestly the creators love their sources. It’s a story about children going to a magical world and saving the day, and it doesn’t try to put some cleaver, ironic, postmodern spin on this. It just says, “Hey, we love this kind of adventure, and that’s what we’re going to write! And it’ll be awesome!” And it is.
Plus, it has epic battles, rollicking songs, talking animals, bandits, political intrigue, and a really smart message about politics, control, and liberty. It’s something you can suggest to your kids and younger siblings and the children on the street, and something you can comfortably read in public without incurring the snobbery of the readerly elite. Just don’t be surprised when grownup adults run up to you and start singing sea shanties.

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10. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
You like books. You like magic. It only makes sense to put the two together! This is yet another magic-realist story written originally in Spanish, because Spanish-speaking people are cooler than cool. (This is an objective truth.)
The Shadow of the Wind has the distinction of being both literary and one of the bestselling books of all time, so if you were worried about it being some obscure, hipster thing, it’s not. (Of course, if you’re an adult worrying about being a hipster you might be a very sad person…) The Shadow of the Wind is a lush novel, full of dark shadows and bright lights, and a sense of deliciousness, a heady sense of smell and touch and delight… It’s like dark chocolate on a shady pavilion overlooking a sunny garden…and you’re drunk. So, basically, it’s the bomb.
The story concerns a young boy whose father is a caretaker of a book cemetery, which should already have you hooked. If that’s not enough, the boy picks a mysterious book called The Shadow of the Wind, a book that may have secret, mysterious enemies. Reading never was so cool… since Bastian went into The Neverending Story (which isn’t listed here because, dammit, you should have read it already).

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