Saturday, September 30, 2006
Speaking of Mary Sue . . .
. . . who here has read Silly Novels by Lady Novelists by George Eliot? It's a fascinating and funny essay about amateur-written novels produced in her day, when it would appear to have been much easier to get published because fewer people were trying it, resulting in some gosh-awful books of the kind we normally only see from vanity presses or posted online nowadays.
What she's talking about, basically, is Mary Sue. The really interesting thing is the similarities and differences. The character is identical, but the things she gets up to by way of being perfect are completely different. It's a great document of what a different age valued.
Here's a link to it.
Here's a description of our Sue:
The heroine is usually an heiress, probably a peeress in her own right, with perhaps a vicious baronet, an amiable duke, and an irresistible younger son of a marquis as lovers in the foreground, a clergyman and a poet sighing for her in the middle distance, and a crowd of undefined adorers dimly indicated beyond. Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well-dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues. Or it may be that the heroine is not an heiress -- that rank and wealth are the only things in which she is deficient; but she infallibly gets into high society, she has the triumph of refusing many matches and securing the best, and she wears some family jewels or other as a sort of crown of righteousness at the end. Rakish men either bite their lips in impotent confusion at her repartees, or are touched to penitence by her reproofs, which, on appropriate occasions, rise to a lofty strain of rhetoric; indeed, there is a general propensity in her to make speeches, and to rhapsodize at some length when she retires to her bedroom. In her recorded conversations she is amazingly eloquent, and in her unrecorded conversations, amazingly witty. She is under stood to have a depth of insight that looks through and through the shallow theories of philosophers, and her superior instincts are a sort of dial by which men have only to set their clocks and watches, and all will go well. The men play a very subordinate part by her side. You are consoled now and then by a hint that they have affairs [meaning business affairs, ahem], which keeps you in mind that the working-day business of the world is somehow being carried on, but ostensibly the final cause of their existence is that they may accompany the heroine on her "starring" expedition through life. They see her at a ball, and are dazzled; at a flower-show, and they are fascinated; on a riding excursion, and they are witched by her noble horsemanship; at church, and they are awed by the sweet solemnity of her demeanour. She is the ideal woman in feelings, faculties, and flounces.
Sounds awfully familiar, no? But the way that the heroine expresses herself is not by being kick-ass or sweetly charming; it's usually by being educated and/or religious. Here's a thought - being really powerful in our age and being properly educated in Eliot's are things that were just coming in enough that women could aspire to them, but were not yet widespread, and hence the subject of fantasies. Possible? And being charming in our age and religious in Eliot's are areas where it's expected that women can have some clout, hence it's predictable that unimaginative women would over-emphasise them to prove a heroine's virtue.
Some more interesting comments she makes:
Such stories as this of "The Enigma" remind us of the pictures clever children sometimes draw "out of their own head," where you will see a modern villa on the right, two knights in helmets fighting in the foreground, and a tiger grinning in a jungle on the left, and several objects being brought together because the artist thinks each pretty, and perhaps still more because he remembers seeing them in other pictures.
Rather a nice idea.
And something else she talks about: unconscious incompetence. There's a study done about it which wikipedia gives a precis of under the work 'crank', surprisingly - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crank_(person) - which also echoes something Teresa Nielsen Hayden said in a Making Light post when talking about a website called RejectionCollection. It's comment 190 on this thread http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004641.html, but to save you the trouble (though it's a very interesting post, and also helpful to anyone trying to get published), Ms Nielsen Hayden says:
It's a funny thing. People who can't do advanced math, or play classical piano concertos, or pitch a no-hitter in the major leagues, generally know they can't do it. People who don't have an intimate relationship with language are far less aware of their condition, and for them the written world can be a very frustrating place. Near as we can make out, they literally can't tell that their rejected writing isn't like the writing that does get published.
And here's Eliot on the same subject:
In the majority of women's books you see that kind of facility which springs from the absence of any high standard; that fertility in imbecile combination or feeble imitation which a little self-criticism would check and reduce to barrenness; just as with a total want of musical ear people will sing out of tune, while a degree more melodic sensibility would suffice to render them silent . . . there is no species of art which is so free from rigid requirements. Like crystalline masses, it may take any form, and yet be beautiful; we have only to pour in the right elements -- genuine observation, humour, and passion. But it is precisely this absence of rigid requirement which constitutes the fatal seduction of novelwriting to incompetent women. Ladies are not wont to be very grossly deceived as to their power of playing on the piano; here certain positive difficulties of execution have to be conquered, and incompetence inevitably breaks down. Every art which has its absolute technique is, to a certain extent, guarded from the intrusions of mere left-handed imbecility. But in novel-writing there are no barriers for incapacity to stumble against, no external criteria to prevent a writer from mistaking foolish facility for mastery. And so we have again and again the old story of La Fontaine's ass, who puts his nose to the flute, and, finding that he elicits some sound, exclaims, `Moi, aussi, je joue de la flute;' -- a fable which we commend, at parting, to the consideration of any feminine reader who is in danger of adding to the number of "silly novels by lady novelists."
Eliot is out of patience for a different reason from Teresa N H, of course; the latter is tired by importuning and Eliot, being a novelist herself, in a time when women writers were not respected, is fed up with bad female novelists dragging the average down and injuring the sex's reputation; as she says, 'we believe that the average intellect of women is unfairly represented by the mass of feminine literature'.
Well, it's too long to quote the whole thing. But it's extremely interesting; the opening and the conclusion make some very sharp and funny general remarks, and the middle is full of bizarre examples. Have a look.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Mary Sue gets mean
Has anyone else noticed this little madam cropping up a lot recently?
A variant of Mary Sue becoming increasingly common in female-written and -marketed fantasy fiction. Snappy Sue is an empowered chick, generally urban and frequently in her twenties or older, who's respected/admired/worshipped for being a Strong Woman. Unfortunately, the author continually asserts her strength by giving her a tendency to take her temper out on all around her. This, oddly, makes people admire her more.
Snappy Sue gives everybody a hard time, but the narrative tends to support her, viewing this as a virtue rather than a character flaw. Any objections to her irritable behaviour is written off as not appreciating the situation, or possibly being a sexist jerk who can't handle strong women. No sympathetic character is ever shown having had enough of her bad manners and wishing she'd handle stress like a grown-up.
Even when Snappy Sue is wrong, she's right. Whenever she takes a decision, someone has to argue with her about it, so she can once again show her strength by putting them in their place; no one ever talks her out of anything. If she makes a mistake, it was an honourable one, and is generally there so she can fix it and look better than ever. She never apologises, or at least, not without getting to re-emphasise why she was right, and to enjoy the person (usually male) she's had a go at saying, 'no, I'm the one who should be sorry'. Certainly she never genuinely loses an argument in such a way that proves she was simply in the wrong and being a cow about it.
Attractive men find her a turn-on, though they tend to be 'strong' men themselves; perish the thought Snappy Sue's aggressive behaviour might lead her perfect mate to be a naturally submissive man, or that a man with a dominant personality might prefer a woman less obsessively indomitable than her. Usually, his strength manifests itself in being her rock, and in being able to dominate others in a way that reflects well on her for having a high-status man. She tends not to take the lead in the bedroom, though: he's too manly for that. In general, Snappy Sue can be seen as emotionally dominant but sexually submissive, a combination that is, at root, surprisingly old-fashioned in its gender roles.
Though she owes much to the rise of feminism, Snappy Sue fundamentally doesn't like women. She tends to be surrounded by men and have few female allies - female heroism is in short supply here, and Snappy gets all of it. She also is seldom called upon to go for long stretches without a boyfriend, or at least a man in the background that she's temporarily staying away from, but will be waiting for her when she chooses to return. Her 'strength' never takes place in isolation, and never goes unnoticed: men keep pointing it out. As such, Snappy Sue isn't really that empowered: she needs a constant supply of male attention to keep going.
On the other hand, Snappy Sue isn't overly fond of men either, or at least, not of men in themselves. Any man insisting on his own values, dignity or judgement at the expense of her wishes is likely to be written off as displaying 'male ego' - and male egos are not entitled to gratification. Male pride is just about acceptable if her fella needs to avenge something in a way that benefits her or spares her the dirty work, but if his dignity conflicts with hers, forget it: it's just machismo. Snappy Sue will thus tolerate an man's masculinity as long as it serves her, but like a sexist man, treats his gender as a weapon she can produce to slap him down if he gets too far out of line.
Men, by this definition, are primarily trophies. For bedroom purposes they are stronger than her, and their strength in serving her interests needs to be almost limitless, but they can't win a fight with her. They are seldom just friends, either, or at least, seldom friends who don't seem like they'd be happy to sleep with her if she decided to give up on her boyfriend. Men rate higher than women in that there tend to be more of them and their approval is more necessary for Snappy Sue's survival, but in the ability to be independent of the needs of her ego, they're actually doing worse. At root, they are entirely objectified - something Snappy Sue would never forgive them for doing to her.
This is the essence of Snappy's Mary-Sueness: she has to be at the top of the pile, always. She gets there by fighting rather than by being charming, but it's a rigged fight. Women are kept down numerically in order to lessen the competition; men are permitted to be strong if it benefits her but required to be weak if there's a clash, and dismissed as jerks if they don't oblige. As Mary Sues go, Snappy Sue is unusually misanthropic: she has the traditional Sue's ability to bend reality around herself, but it's used to smack other characters around. As a character, she can, if well enough written, serve as a power fantasy for female readers who wish to behave selfishly but can't get away with it, reality being the jerk that it is.
While this Mary Sue is a definitely female phenomenon, the immaturity that gives birth to her is neither specifically female nor male. Instead, it's a crude understanding of strength as the willingness to get into, and the ability to win, conflicts. Other forms of strength, such as self-control and forbearance, require more patience and sacrifice than an undeveloped amour propre can countenance; as a result, Snappy Sue's displays are always cathartic and enjoyable rather than difficult and taxing. As a more conventional Mary Sue sucks love from other characters because an immature ego cannot, when fantasising about success, imagine not being fascinating, so Snappy Sue sucks victory, because an immature ego cannot imagine being wrong. Given that it's more difficult even for grown-ups to accept that they might be wrong than that they might be ordinary, Snappy Sue is somewhat less obvious than her sweeter cousins, but she is no more mature in her sensibility.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Artistic tragedies that bug me:
Antonia White stalled on her fifth novel and never broke through her block.
Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter bombed so badly he never directed another film.
Mozart died halfway through writing his requiem.
What bugs you?
(Incidentally, don't bother looking up Antonia White on wikipedia if you haven't heard of her; the article is full of mistakes. She wrote, FYI: Frost in May, The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass, and they are extraordinary.)
Monday, September 25, 2006
Somebody stop them!
I hear (a few days ago, but hey, I've been away) that Amazon is going to let authors post comments to their reviewers.
Please tell them to change their minds.
I mean, gosh, it's hard enough as it is. Actually everyone's who's reviewed my book on Amazon so far has been positive. Possibly this means I'm a genius, but I'm taking it as a sign that I'm not yet big enough to provoke the 'what's all the fuss about' response; the day I get a negative review, I'll assume it's a sign that there's a good amount of fuss. (Which isn't an invitation to start. Not that you would, right, dear readers? Right?) But I've been following newspaper and website reviews so closely that I'll be growing hair in the palm of my hands any minute, and while they've been fine for the most part, yes, a few of them provoked the 'you don't get it, you foooool!' response. I've taken to systematising them, classifying different varieties of Not Getting It. It's a pathetic attempt to exert control. But do I blog these, even though blogs need to come up with new material all the time? No. I've come close; there was one negative review I ended up loving, that basically . . . oh, and there I go. I've just had to delete a description of it. Twice. I kid you not. I deleted a description, then wrote another without realising what I was playing at. Because that's the principle: answering reviews makes you look stupid. But it's so bloody tempting.
I think I'm going to have to paint it on the inside of my glasses: Answering Reviews Makes You Look Stupid.
If I ever do it, please remind me to put myself in the Publisher Dating Dictionary. (See The Other Side, newbies, hello and welcome.)
You say: You idiots, you just don't get my book.
Dating equivalent: Bitch, you just don't know a real man when you see one.
The principle you have to keep reminding yourself of is that the book is your communique to the outside world. People will either like it or they won't. But if you have to write them a letter to explain it, then it hasn't worked for them. Maybe it'll work for someone else, but footnotes won't help.
It reminds me of a sculpture I saw over the weekend. I was going around a beautiful ornamental park, where the proprietors had decided to add some modern sculptures to the elegant landscaping and pretty temples around the place. A very nice idea, I thought. But then I spotted the old-tyres-and-junk sculpture in the middle of the elegant artificial lake. Now, that sculpture was ugly. It was dull to look at. Doubtless it was making a point about pollution, but the point was banal and could have been made without disfiguring the park, which was a far superior work of art. But the thing was, the placard explaining it said 'please don't misunderstand the nature of this artist's work: this is not an arrogant piece'. I'm serious.
Now, wasn't the audience free to think it arrogant if they wanted to? Surely if you choose to work in a visual medium, then your primary method of communication ought to be visual? If your visual work gets a negative response from everyone - not 'oh, how shocking, my bourgeois world is tottering' but 'ugh, what a cruddy piece' - and if you need a written explanation to make sure everyone understands it, then it's a failed work of art. Nowadays a lot of bad conceptual art is basically an illustration of the manifesto, which is the main point, and that's a disaster. Art works visually. Antony Gormley puts his work in landscapes, and it's arresting and beautiful, you respond to it with your eyes, not your theory-processor - I don't see him making special pleading to everyone who sees his stuff. (http://www.antonygormley.com/ Here's his website - it's a bit slow, but there's lovely stuff on it.) If he can make it work, so can - well, maybe not, given that he is very very good, but you ought at least to try.
So Amazon or not, I shall think of Antony Gormley and resist. (I might just think of him anyway. I love his stuff.) I urge others to do the same.
And if any of you spot me breaking this rule, I'm relying on you for an intervention.
Thursday, September 21, 2006
And some more...
Well, I've just e-mailed my delightful site manager, asking for some updates . . . so shortly this site will be expanded. Mostly more reviews added, plus the Lexicon updated, and an article about werewolves in history - which I'll point out when it comes on line.
Meantime, here are some more phrases that the Lexicon will shortly be containing:
Killing off a character that the reader has gotten fond of, in such a way that the dramatic and structural payoffs aren't satisfying enough to assuage the grief of seeing that nice person, who everyone had been expecting to stick around, meet with a sudden fate.
Combine Harvester Writing
'This landscape inspires such thoughts and feelings in me . . .' Dwelling on the writer, narrator or character as a figure of massive sensibility, without letting the reader share enough of their fun. Typically, the culprit is in a setting that inspires tremendous emotions in them - but we don't get to hear about the setting in a way that's clear enough to let us have our own reaction to it, and neither do we necessarily hear an overly moving description of what the feelings and thoughts are. Like praising a combine harvester without mentioning fields or bread: the culprit is a response processor, and we're supposed to admire them for being responsive more than we're supposed to take an interest in what they're responding to. An oblique form of boasting.
What I Wrote On My Holidays
Setting a novel in a nice landscape, typically involving lushly described sunlight, colours, scents and food, and using the landscape to convey an element of exoticism and heightened emotional import to whatever is happening to the hero. Can be very effective if well handled, but if not, can feel like a mechanical attempt to make the book more interesting, especially if the view of the landscape is basically that of a privileged tourist, giving rise to the suspicion that the author had a great two-week holiday there last year and needed another plot idea. If the author doesn't have a good understanding of the local culture and a willingness to treat local characters with respect, it looks unintentionally ignorant, and more generally, like the writer is an outsider in a world that they're supposed to have a godlike understanding of.
A character who, being French and all (or sometimes German, Italian or similar), occasionally can't help slipping a phrase from his native language into a sentence. Oddly enough, it's usually 'Oui' or 'cherie', ie a phrase that the reader is almost certain to understand - and that the character himself unquestionably knows the English for. In other words, making the character seem exotically foreign without thinking about how someone speaking a second language would actually talk. Implausible when the character is speaking English; downright bizarre when he's supposed to be speaking French and the multi-lingual narrator puts into English everything he's said except a few, easily-translatable words.
Trying to convey a character's accent by spelling out words exactly as he pronounces them, but putting in apostrophes for every letter he doesn't pronounce until the page is crawling with them. 'E neva pr'nounces anyfin' propa, so the author spells it out accordingly. This makes it harder for readers to sympathise with him - it's very difficult to get into what someone is saying if it takes you three times longer than usual to actually make it out - and also risks implying that the author thinks there's something abnormal about having a Cockney, Spanish or Texan accent that stops it from being written down without constant adjustments. The most effective way to convey an accent is through use of speech rhythms and choice of words, but that's more difficult; an apostrophe infestation suggests the author didn't feel they could tackle it, and possibly was distracted by the character's class or nationality from other considerations about writing them.
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Just writing for ourselves
Have you noticed, it's quite common for a writer to say 'I just write for myself'? The trouble is, there are two completely different situations where this happens. First situation:
Interviewer: Oh, Dear Writer, how is it you write such wonderful books?
Writer (blushing prettily): Well, you know, I just write for myself. It's so lucky other people like them.
Endless reviewers and fans: I've had just about enough of this, Writer, your books are getting worse and worse.
Writer (crossly): Stick it. I just write for myself and I like my books. If you don't understand the very meaningful things I'm doing, then you can go jump because I don't like you anyway.
This has got me to wondering: is there a difference between those two positions? It's possible that Writer 1 was telling the truth and might degenerate into Writer 2 if the quality falls off, but it's also possible that there are different kinds of 'writing for myself'.
What might those be? I can think of a few possibilities, but I'd like to hear more if anyone has a view...
1. An obvious possibility: any kind of writing that's not directly commissioned is writing for yourself - after all, you're the first person who sees the stuff, so you're the first person you have to please - and hence 1 is simply trying to answer a difficult question without sounding stuck up and 2 is trying to find a reason not to listen to negative feedback. (And really, most variations of 'how did you write your book' are just about impossible to answer.)
2. Perhaps 1 and 2 have different relationships with their inner critics; 2 sees 'writing for myself' as switching off your inner critic and 1 sees it as trying to suck up to him. In that situation, they're both writing for themselves, but one 1 has invited the inner critic to the table.
3. Writer 2's definition of 'self' has changed. A writer whose work is falling off may have experienced a mental break with their audience; perhaps they've gotten very successful (which is likely if they're still getting published even if their books are declining in quality), and have simply stopped putting themselves in the same class as their readers. In this case, they began by considering themselves primarily as readers, so writing for themselves meant writing stuff that would be generally pleasing; as their success snowballed, they took to considering themselves primarily as writers, and felt obliged only to do what was personally gratifying.
4. Writer 1 has a more writing-friendly social life. Both were always writing for themselves, but 2 had a day job when they first started writing, and since then has gone over to writing full-time. All that time sitting at home alone staring at a notebook has turned their wits a little, or at least, they don't meet as many different people as they used to, and have to spend less time finding ways to rub along with companions they wouldn't have chosen, so their 'self' is getting more eccentric. 1, on the other hand, meets more people and has friends and family who are prepared to argue with them, so is more grounded in the world.
Any other possibilities?
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Virginia Woolf agrees with me
I'm not in favour of defining books too heavily by genre, as those of you who've been following this website (and y'know, these days, who isn't?) may be aware. Leads people to miss books that they'd otherwise enjoy because of preconceptions about the genre; leads writers to get distracted and either leave out nice ideas or force in material that doesn't belong.
Having been reading A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf recently, I find she makes a similar point. She's talking about the problem of women writers who break off from their story to address the problem of sexism in society, thus disrupting their work - but she puts her finger on a wider problem than that, which is just as applicable to genre writing if you substitute the genre of your choice for the word 'woman' (especially if you consider that at the time, 'women's writing' was pretty thoroughly in the ghetto):
She met that criticism [of her sex] as her temperament dictated, with docility and diffidence, or with anger and emphasis. It does not matter which it was; she was thinking of something other than the thing itself. Down comes her book upon our heads. There was a flaw in the centre of it. And I thought of all the women's novels that lie scattered, like small pockmarked applies in an orchard, about the second-hand bookshops of London. It was the flaw in the centre that had rotted them. She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others.
It's 'thinking of something other than the thing itself' that scuppers writing, whether it's self-consciously literary or resolutely genre. The best books are always focused on the thing itself, and not the genre the thing is intended to occupy. But if you think too much about what other people expect your book to be, purely because of the little note on the back cover that says 'crime' or 'historical fiction', then you're distracted. The time to worry about genre is after the book is finished. Or hey, not even then.
Monday, September 11, 2006
I was watching a documentary on TV last night about Extreme Television. Shock! Horror! Yuck! And I mean, really, some of the things on it were pretty bloody nasty. The reality TV show that tries to induce heart attacks in its unsuspecting victims caught my attention, for instance - some unlucky unemployed woman was hired to look after what she thought was a woman in a coma, but was actually an actress playing an abused wife drugged and chained to a bed by her psychopathic husband. The really sad thing was that when the 'husband' turned up, threatening the victim for considering the wife's pleas to help her escape, the victim was, as well as crying and begging, shielding the 'wife' with her arm. It wasn't a very effective defence, but the poor woman was trying to protect her. That's incredibly brave, and she really deserved better than death threats on national TV.
A couple of the extreme scenarios, though, have raised some questions that I'd really like to hear people's views on. First off: SCARE TACTICS.
This is an American TV show that sets up its victims in horror-movie scenarios (quite inventive ones, really, and not as nasty in handling as the show I was talking about above). The example I saw, the victim had good reason to think a lunatic was about to kill him with a hammer. Now, not unnaturally, he was pretty frozen with fear. But here's a thing: not everyone freezes when they're frightened. Some people attack.
A friend of mine, for instance, was washing dishes in front of her kitchen window when her boyfriend, evidently in a puckish mood, leaped up on the other side yelling 'BOO!' Without a split-second to think about it or realise who he was, she punched at the scary face as hard as she could. Her hand went right through the window, cutting itself as the glass broke; her boyfriend had to help her bandage it. Her instinctive response to defend herself was so strong that she actually injured her own hand. And that was in the safety of her own home, when it was just her boyfriend teasing her.
So posit the following scenario. Jo, a young woman with no history of violence, is set up on a scary reality TV show. She's confronted by a big man wielding a hammer, acting like he's going to kill her. In genuine fear for her life, and without having time to think about it, her hindbrain kicks in, adrenalin floods her system, and she leaps on him, grabs the hammer, and, before the producers have time to dash in and stop her, bashes him on the head, killing him instantly.
Who's to blame? Personally, I'd rule Jo out - if she had every reason to believe she was in danger of being murdered, it's basic self-defense. But what happens if the dead actor's family then decide to sue the show? Can the show argue that he should have known the risk he was running when he signed up? Or that it's the fault of his performance, that if he hadn't been quite so scary, that if he'd stayed out of reach a little more, he would have been okay? Would a court rule that the show had violated workplace health and safety by setting up dangerous situations? What do you think would be a fair outcome?
Here's another one. There was a celebrity makeover show, where people underwent cosmetic surgery to make them look more like their favourite movie star. Now, surgery has its limits: I might wish I looked like Julia Ormond, but while a surgeon could have a go at increasing the resemblance, the basic framework of my face and body is wrong. I'd just look like a woman who'd had a lot of surgery.
But supposing cosmetic surgery was much better, I'm talking science-fiction-novel good. Supposing, if I wanted to, I could undergo surgery that made me look exactly like Julia Ormond. And suppose something else: that Ms Ormond wasn't happy about that. That she didn't want some stranger going around looking exactly like her.
Could a movie star patent their face? After all, they can insure it: along with their talent, their face is their fortune, and the insurance thing suggests that the law recognises that to some extent. Come to that, could anyone patent their face? I can think of other reasons why it might be a good idea, the primary one being that an exact resemblance opens the way to fraud and identity theft if used by criminals. Plus, it's a pretty freaky idea; I don't think I'd like to have somebody wandering around with my face (assuming anybody would want it - and I suspect that if they could look like Julia Ormond instead, I might be a bit of a second choice). On balance, I think I'd support a face-patent bill; not necessarily anything that outlawed saying 'make my chin a bit more like Marilyn Monroe's', but a bill that ruled out imitating someone's entire face, I'd be fine with. But do you disagree - are face-patents a bad idea?
Friday, September 08, 2006
More for the Lexicon
... and here we are again with the Lexicon:
The Cliff of Justice
A convenient accident that saves the hero from moral difficulties. Just as he or she finally gains the upper hand in the climactic final struggle with the villain and is about to finish him off - or wait, is he? that would make the hero a killer! could we live with that? - the cliff edge crumbles, a rock falls from overhead, or the set otherwise intervenes and the villain dies without the hero having to do the dirty deed. This is supposed to resolve the structural need for punishment while leaving the hero untarnished, but doesn't work for two reasons: one, it's implausible, and two, it's a cop-out.
The narrative patch-job of an author who's chickening out. A situation arises in the plot that is difficult to solve, usually because it raises deep emotional, moral and/or psychological questions that would tax the author to deal with. Instead of diving in, grappling with them and producing a hard-won but satisfying solution, the author does a bit of quick pipe-work, comes up with a short plot explanation that almost works as an excuse for not going there, and rattles along as before. Works if the reader isn't paying too much attention, but a waste of an opportunity to write something really good.
You can see an interesting example of the Cliff of Justice in the two Cape Fear films. In the remake, our hero is just about to kill the villain by smashing his head with a big rock - but just as he brings it down, the river in which the villain is lying rises and drags him out of the way. The rock comes down on nothing, and the villain is born off to a watery grave. Now, the story didn't have to end that way. In the original, which is much better, our hero has been battling the villain and finally gets him on the ground, unarmed, wounded, with the gun in our hero's hand. Victory! Now, our hero almost kills him, he comes that close. Then, just at the last minute, he pulls himself together, remembers he's supposed to be the good guy here, and says, famously, 'No. No! That would be letting you off too easy, too fast . . . You're gonna live a long life . . . in a cage! That's where you belong and that's where you're going. And this time for life! Bang your head against the walls. Count the years - the months - the hours . . . until the day you rot!' It's both more morally consistent - the hero has been on the side of law rather than vengeance all the way through, it's the villain who's the vigilante - and a more serious punishment for the villain, who'd rather die than go back to jail. In the remake, the villain floats off down the river babbling in tongues, not even punished by the realisation that he's lost: he still thinks God is on his side.
The fact that the remake was done in 1991 has something to do with this, I think, as the Cliff of Justice was popular in films during the 80s and 90s, but it's a curious decision. Scorcese decided to make the hero more morally compromised - Cady, the villain, is after Bowden because Bowden was supposed to be his lawyer when Cady was tried for rape but, knowing that Cady was guilty, refused to put up a good defence, whereas in the original, Cady is after Bowden because Bowden caught him trying to rape a girl, intervened and got him jailed. Besides that, 90s Bowden is corrupt, unhappily married and generally dysfunctional, instead of a paragon. But somehow, the film can't live with the final push into making him a killer, he has to be saved morally somehow. Yet it doesn't sit with the cynical tone for him to be saved by his making a definite moral decision. He's too compromised to save himself, but not compromised enough to be beyond the need for saving. All the film can do is intervene with a Cliff of Justice and make the decision for him.
It suffers from the usual Cliff of Justice problem: a story needs to be driven along by the hero's activity, which is to say, he's an adult who controls his own life. When the final resolution comes direct from the author, suddenly the story treats him like a child, steps in and says, 'don't worry honey, I'll sort it out'. Suddenly, the story is no longer relevant to the hero's actions, and that's a broken story.
Eh well. I like a lot of other Scorcese films.
Another Publisher-Dating Dictionary term, (click here to see the rest http://www.kitwhitfield.com/publisherdating.html) suggested by a nice lady at Random House:
You say: Please enclose a cheque and contract by return of post.
Dating equivalent: Hi. So shall we have sex here and now, or do you want to get married on the way back to my place?
Getting published isn't something you can mail-order: the odds of your book being accepted are always long. Acting like you can command it looks as if you think the publisher will be forced to publish you because it would be too embarrassing to contradict you, but that is emphatically not the case. Failing to acknowledge that it's the publisher's decision makes you look like you'll be difficult to work with, and also like you aren't aware that the main deciding factor will be quality rather than the author's wishes; this implies that you aren't aware that some writing is better than others - and writers who can't identify quality can't produce it. Besides that, it's trying to boss around someone you're asking for a big favour, which is never a good start.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Where do those stories go?
I've been reading a fantasy novel recently by a certain author who, out of courtesy as I think the book is bad, shall remain nameless. However, it's called to mind a question which I feel a little too old to answer.
Reading the book, which was very Mary Sue, I found myself continually muttering 'keep it in the maths book' - or math book, I suppose, for my American friends. Now, I know what I meant by that. I said it to my boyfriend, who's the same age as me and also knew what I meant by it. (Mind you, he's used to my ramblings.) I'd guess that it would be possible for someone my age to work out if they'd heard my complaints about the book. But would it make sense to a Teen of Today?
When I was in my early teens, y'see, the Internet hadn't quite kicked in. It was there, but you had to be very techie to know about it; it only caught on when I was at the end of my teens and into my twenties. In any case, there was a recurring figure in schools that I think many people would recognise: the kid who sat quietly in class writing what was usually a fantasy novel in a spare math(s) notebook when they were supposed to be paying attention to the teacher. I wasn't one of them, but I remember reading over shoulders and hearing them discussed. Now, given that these were early attempts at writing, naturally they weren't as polished in style as the work of an experienced forty-year-old pro would be, and they tended to have a fair bit of wish-fulfillment in them. The bad fantasy book I was reading felt wishful and rather immature for a book by an adult writer, hence my complaint that the author should have kept it in the maths book. (I would have been bloody impressed if I'd seen a thirteen-year-old with a book of that standard in their maths book, mark you. Writing like a thirteen-year-old is fine when you're thirteen.)
But does that idea mean anything any more, or has the Net outmoded it? What I'm really wondering is whether tomorrow, teenagers who feel the urge to write fantasy stories for their own amusement will do what we did and scam a spare notebook from the store cupboard, using it as cover during their least-favourite class, or whether they'll simply go off to the computer room at school or go back home and type up stories under the pretence of doing their homework, and then stick them on the Internet. Has the Net killed the notebook? What's going on? I feel a little old and out of touch, so if anybody feels like enlightening me I'd be most grateful.
Come to that, I'd also be interested to hear where the maths-book novels led. The stories I got to see in my school were written by people who are now of the doctors-and-lawyers persuasion, rather than writers. I, on the other hand, am the one who's just jacked in a perfectly sensible job to be a full-time writer - but my maths book contained nothing but badly-done mathematics. I wrote when English teachers set writing assignments, and I read everything I could get my hands on, but my first novel was begun in my early twenties, not my early teens, and certainly not begun quietly at the back of the classroom. I don't think it would have worked, for one thing - I tend to zone out when I write, on a time-ratio of pretty much exactly three to one. If I think I've been writing for ten minutes, half an hour has passed; if I think I've been writing for half an hour, then it's an hour and a half; it's gotten to the stage where I automatically correct my estimate, saying 'I just need another five - excuse me, another fifteen minutes.' With this time frame, I generally need more time than I'd think; there was a point when I had a commute that lasted an hour and three quarters in each direction to my job, and I was trying to write on the train - but the train journey was only half an hour, and everything I wrote was rubbish: it just wasn't enough time to work up the concentration. I suspect attempts to write during a half-hour class, while keeping one eye on the teacher, would have been subject to similar laws, in my case at least. But then again, other writers have entirely different concentration patterns, and maybe that train setting would have been perfect for them.
So where are those maths-book stories now? How many professional writers started with notebooks tucked between a science book and a Bunsen burner? How many classroom novelists decided to call it a day once they left school and no longer needed to make their own entertainment during dull classes? And if you're thirteen years old in 2006 and have a yen to write your own story, where do you go to write it? I intend to conduct an informal survey (just because I wasn't writing fiction during science classes doesn't mean I was any good at them, so a formal survey is a bit beyond me), and I'd love to hear from anyone who has an opinion. I'm going to keep asking this question at intervals, I think . . .
Friday, September 01, 2006
Myths over Miami again
Okay, I'm about to be controversial. Following on from a recent post, some people have posted the interesting information that various fantasy writers - Clive Barker and Mercedes Lackey to be precise - have been writing stories based on the myths created by homeless children in Miami, described in the 'Myths Over Miami' article I linked to. (http://www.miaminewtimes.com/issues/1997-06-05/feature.html) First off, thanks for the information, much appreciated. Be interesting to hear what you reckon, because here's my instinctive reaction to the news:
Maybe they're writing good stories. I just wish they wouldn't.
It could just be my own opinion, but I've got some reservations about nicking those myths. I mean, I know I worked in some witch trial history to my own book, so I'm not immune to accusations of myth-borrowing myself, but at least everyone involved in the witch trials is long dead. The kids who came up with this stuff are still alive. They'll be in their twenties now, and I seriously doubt any of them are rich and powerful. Apart from their parents, those stories were pretty much all they had. Seems a bit disrespectful to treat them as raw material.
Here's the thing: those stories didn't need elaborating into a fictional tale. They were complete in themselves. The fact that these kids weren't professional writers in no way means they weren't able to compose beautifully elegant and coherent tales. To be fair, I doubt that Barker and Lackey thought that: I suspect the stories were so good that it was just too tempting to resist playing around with them. But to me, the marvellous thing about, say, Bloody Mary is not just that she's a really scary monster (which she undoubtedly is); it's that she's an expression of the fear and injustice and danger of those kids' lives, real lives. The more you fictionalise, the further you remove them from the ground from which they sprung, and the more the point of the stories disappears. What makes these myths so remarkable is that they're intimately linked with real human events and situations. Putting them in a novel, even if it's a novel about Miami street kids, breaks that link.
The problem is that a fantasy writer is going to feel motivated to make Bloody Mary real. That, to me, is not going to add anything. I find Bloody Mary scary, but I find it more scary that thousands of children are living homeless and terrified on the streets of a city in the richest nation in the world. The saddest and most disturbing passage to my mind is the answer to the question, why is it only the kids who are aware of the Devil's presence in Miami?
Why didn't the rich people notice? Eight-year-old Victoria scrunches up her face, pondering. "Well, I think maybe sometimes they're real stupid so they get tricked," she replies. Plus, she adds, the Devil was "wearing all that Tommy Hilfiger and smoking Newports and drinking wine that cost maybe three dollars for a big glass." He found a large Hell door under the Colony Hotel, and just as he was offering the owner ten Mercedes-Benzes for use of the portal, he was captured by angels. "The rich people said: 'Why are you taking our friend who buys us drinks?'" Phatt continues.
A child's eye for detail going on there, and a child's understanding of social interaction, perhaps. But those are the observations of the most vulnerable members of society, who society should have been doing far more to protect. Based on how society has treated them, that's what they think about rich people. Compared with that, the idea of a weeping demon-woman is easy to deal with. Look at it this way: the children of Miami came up with Bloody Mary and the demons because they made the world make sense. The alternative would have been to believe that the world was chaotic and unjust and there was no explanation that could possibly justify why they had nowhere to live and nothing to eat and their friends were getting killed every year. The world was actually more bearable with Bloody Mary in it. Those kids were scared of Bloody Mary, but compared with the story of a mad world that offered them no safety, she was actually comforting, because at least she could be understood. Make it a story about a real demon-woman stalking homeless children, and you're focusing on the night-light and calling it the darkness.
Candyman was very good, so maybe Barker can do something worthwhile and I’m doing him an injustice. Maybe he's portrayed a vivid and accurate view of a Miami street-level child's-eye view of these myths. That might work. I dunno. I just think those myths are complete in themselves. The more people read them the better, both for their literary quality and their social import, but I don't see how they could be improved on, and making the monsters in them literally real can't be an improvement at all.
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