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Thursday, June 28, 2007



Now here's something entirely fascinating.

In 1855, the perfumer Septimus Piesse wrote a book entitled The Art of Perfumery, in which he proposed the following theory: that 'there is, as it were, an octave of odours like an octave in music; certain odours coincide, like the keys of an instrument.' I read this in Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism, by Paul Collins, a touching and intriguing account of his own son's autism combined with studies of other autistic indivduals and phenomena through history, which I'd highly recommend. The book includes the scale printed out in musical notation, but I can't find it on the Net read Collins's book and you'll find it on p 127 ... however, if you go to page 26 on this link, you'll see what Piesse did: he arranged all the major scents along a treble and bass clef. The idea is that you can combine scents like musical notes: a harmonious chord smells delicious, a clashing one is revolting, just like chords can please or displease the ear. He called it an 'odophone'.

Isn't that fascinating?

Monday, June 25, 2007


Torture porn

Boy, I'm hearing that phrase a lot lately.

Horror films tend to move in cycles; one movie comes out that impresses everybody, so everybody imitates it for a while, the formula gets stale, people get bored with horror for a while and then some new film comes out that makes everyone go, 'Wow! Look at what horror can do!'. And so the time wears on.

Torture porn seems to be in right now, and I'm not watching horror movies. The last cycle was Asian horror, and several of those were actually good - Ring was the most frightening film I've ever seen, Dark Water, Audition, The Eye, all good, striking films - but I'm really looking forward to the next cycle, whatever it is. I expect it to be an improvement.

Defenders are saying it's an artistic expression of our times, but I'm inclined to think that's a load of cobblers. Splatter fims have been around for a good long time, and if we've got one specific person to point to as originator of torture porn, it's probably Eli Roth. Roth isn't a political person. He's one of those artists who enjoys the shocking and transgressive for its own sake, no matter who's in the White House: Cabin Fever predates the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo scandals that have made America's name such a beacon of freedom in the world in recent years, and from what I can gather, his auteur style is already clear in that. In an interview, for instance, Roth remarks in answer to a question about the potential misogyny of tortured-girl scenes, that he has a naked male figure in the film too, and that 'I literally have it in there just to fuck with critics.' I don't know what happened to having things in your film because you think they'll improve it, but it doesn't sound very engaged with anything other than the desire to go for the quick and dirty shock.

I'm on difficult ground here, because there are few quicker ways of making a prat of yourself than pontificating about films you haven't seen, and while I've seen Cabin Fever and Saw, the Saw sequels, the Hostel films, Captivity and all the others are right off my list of things to watch. I think I pretty much got the point from the two films I saw, and I don't feel like spending my money on tickets to films I won't enjoy: I've got repairs to make to my house. But are these films a thoughtful response to the despicable attitude to human rights the current leaders of the free world are showing? Wes Craven, after all, has claimed that Last House on the Left, which is all about people getting kidnapped and tortured, was an emotional response to the horrors of the Vietnam war. I'm more inclined to believe Craven than Roth, mostly because he comes across as a gentler person than Roth, less preoccupied with the desire to produce shock for its own sake and then to justify it by saying it's political. Also, I've seen Last House on the Left, and while it's certainly violent and bleak, it doesn't seem like a dishonourable film. The violence against the girls is not eroticised, their performances are well-observed, and they never come across as anything less than thinking human beings. More importantly, it doesn't have that somewhat gleeful sense of enjoying the shock and mischief of violence for its own sake that prevailed in Saw and Cabin Fever. Mostly, it seems like the film of a very angry young man who isn't quite sure exactly what, or exactly how many things, he's angry about.

Joss Whedon, meanwhile, has taken an admirably anti-violence stand on the whole issue, but I don't think that Womb Envy is the root of this angry, shocking, violent trend. For one thing, I'm an equal-opportunities feminist, which means assuming the same responsibility not to insult men that I demand of men re women, and womb envy seems like an insulting concept to me. If I accept it, then in justice I have to accept the concept of penis envy as well, and as I've said before, penis envy is a crock, which makes me doubtful about whether men feel womb envy either. On the whole, I reckon men are better off without wombs, and I suspect many men agree with that.

But for another, I think there are other explanations. And while artistic free expression is a fine thing and for my money, people are welcome to make these movies as long as they don't make me watch them, that doesn't mean it isn't worth thinking about them seriously. I don't know of any clear link between films and how people act - but to conclude that the things we see and watch have absolutely no impact on how we think and act would mean concluding that the advertising industry has spent the last century wasting millions upon millions of dollars producing images that cannot possibly have an effect on anyone. This does not seem a likely conclusion to me: the success of the advertising industry implies that images do have an effect, at least on superficial choices. Horror films have a less didactic message than adverts - they aren't specifically telling you to do anything, while ads are telling you straight out to buy this or that product - but it's worth bearing in mind when we wonder about how serious an issue this really is.

Why the violence? There are a number of possibilities. One is simply practicality. To get success in the artistic world, you need to get people's attention. Notoriety is a good way of doing it. Make the Nastiest Film Ever, and many people will at least read the reviews to find out what everyone is talking about. On-screen violence and mutilation is a straightforward way to go, because those are relatively inexpensive special effects - look at how Sam Raimi got himself started with Evil Dead, which was a shoestring budget if ever there was one. If you have a name to make, it's artistically easy to shock people - it's not difficult to think of mutilations that will make people squirm - and it's financially easy, because you don't need expensive sets, elaborate costumes or difficult locations. Nasty violence gets around techincal limitations, and once one person has got attention doing it, others will follow suit, until it gets boring.

That may account for the violence - but what's been ruffling feathers lately is that a lot of it is happening against women. That brings sexual aggression into it, which is a more worrying phenomenon. In This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Kevin Smith remarks that if he had control of the ratings system, rape and violence against women would bring an automatically higher rating than anything else, and many people are likely to agree with him. To a male audience, at least, the image of a man being tortured is just gross, but the image of a woman being tortured is gross, but also kind of titillating - and once someone is titillated and tempted, we're in a whole moral quagmire.

How sexual is it supposed to be? Roth has said in an interview that: 'It's so funny how critics will always quickly reduce horror almost to a subgenre of pornography. I do feel like terms like "torture porn" are offensive.' - but, leaving aside the fact that given his film style, he really should try to be a bit more difficult to offend, he's out historically. According to the documentary Inside Deep Throat, thirty years ago pornography was pretty much the standard entry-level work for a director: you wanted to direct features, you made some skin flicks first to get some experience and credits to your name. Wes Craven himself remarked on the documentary that he'd started out that way, though he was discreet about which films he'd 'worked on'. Nowadays, if you pick up any make-your-own-movies guidebook, somewhere inside will be the suggestion that, if you want to direct something on your first go, your best bet is probably horror, citing big names like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson who got their start that way. There's a connection between the two. Both are genres that go straight after a visceral emotion, mostly bypassing the intellect: porn goes for arousal, horror goes for fear or shock, and of the emotions you can elicit in an audience, those are fairly push-button, an easy place for a director to start. Show a naked woman and heterosexual men will be aroused, show someone getting menaced and audiences will be scared: you don't need years of practice to make at least a reasonably effective film. Horror and porn aren't identical, but they are being made by the same kind of people: very young men bucking for position in a difficult profession, looking to get attention, not necessarily mature, in the most aggressive phase of their lives. Some of them move on, some stay doing what they did first.

With such directors in charge, we're unlikely to get In The Mood For Love. But does that make horror pornographic when women are involved? It's an extremely difficult question, but I think only the most partisan apologist would deny that there is, at least, an element of sexual interest in the hurting of women in the torture porn genre. Why is this? What's going on?

Misogyny is an obvious answer - but that's a big, catch-all word, too general to really explain much. I realise I'm on slippery ground here, but I think we need to consider it more carefully.

In my view, there are three primary reasons why a man will watch a film of a woman being hurt. The first is the simplest: horror fans have libidos like everybody else, and if you throw a nice naked girl into the kind of films they're going to watch anyway, then hey, that's getting chocolate and sprinkles on your sundae. And if you put a naked girl in a horror film, something bad seems likely to happen to her, because very few characters in horror films get gift baskets and a nice warm pair of socks. The horror is the form, and the naked girl is what she is in all advertising, a way of catching the male eye. 'Which horror movie shall we watch, guys?' 'How about that one? That's got horror and we'll get to see breasts!' 'Hooray! You have convinced me, my friend. Let's give our money to that one.' Laws of the marketplace seldom lead to subtlety. It's not good for women, but the real culprit is capitalism rather than horror.

The second, which is darker, is a history of sexual hostility. If you are a sexually unsuccessful man, you see a woman's right to give or withhold her consent as your enemy, because in your experience, if she has the right to say no, she will. Her right to consent always works against you. Therefore, it's emotionally satisfying to see that right trampled, because it's hurt, frustrated and humiliated you many a time. If, on the other hand, you're sexually successful (by which I mean anything from cheerfully promiscuous to happily monogamous, as long as you’re getting the kind of sex you want), you are going to see a woman's right to consent as your friend. It works for you: if a woman has the right to choose, then at least some of the time, she's going to choose you over all other men, and make you feel like someone pretty special. Hence, that right is not something you'll particularly want to see trampled, because you associate it with getting sex. A man women can want experiences consent as a combination of physical pleasure and emotional gratification - she sleeps with you because she likes you. A man who feels women would never voluntarily sleep with him, on the other hand, doesn't have the experience of a woman exercising her right to choose in a sexy way: her choice always leads to no sex, and sex isn't possible unless that choice is forcibly taken away. So it's a combination of two things: the belief that a woman wouldn't have sex with you unless she was forced, and a desire to see that unfairly punitive, negative right of consent (at least, that's how youve experienced it) punished and done away with.

This, obviously, would mean a very unhappy and unsuccessful man if we're talking about adults, but let's not forget that the main audience for horror is generally teenagers, and in terms of getting girls to sleep with them, there are plenty of boys who haven't got their game on yet. Probably they'll grow out of it, but in the meantime, there's likely to be a streak of sadism.

This is where the third explanation comes in: straightforward fetishism. Some people are just sadomasochistic in their tastes. Is an image of a naked woman tied up always erotic? No, but there are eroticised and uneroticised ways of doing them, and these movies are not on the sexless side of the line. Horror films can be an equivalent of of reading Playboy 'for the articles': officially speaking you're a horror fan, and that's your ostensible reason for watching - but if you look at the posters, you could very easily be looking at the ad for a bondage website, and if anybody tells me that isn't a sneaky pitch at the the fetishists out there, I simply won't believe them.

I've got nothing against fetishes, as long as they're practised in private between consenting adults - but of course, these images are deliberately public, casting for as wide an audience as possible, and in tone, they don't seem overly interested in consent. Possibly it's just intution, but something tells me that whoever tied that young lady up is not going to respect the safeword. It's this, I think, that's gotten so many backs up. There's something profoundly uncomfortable about seeing images of a morally complicated fetish strung out in public purely for the shock value, with the issue of consent totally removed from the question. While some people would like to see such fetishes entirely removed from the human psyche, I don't think that's going to happen: more practical, and less intrusive, is to grasp that there's a profound difference between consensual role-play and genuine abuse, and if the line seems thin, at least make it clear.

Images like this one blur that line, and that's disquieting. On the one hand, there's sadomasochism proper, which is to say, a mutually pleasurable game played between reasonable adults, who have given informed consent, who know what they're doing, who can stop at any time and who have taken care to put in safeguards that prevent any real emotional or physical harm being done. On the other, there's torture, which is one of the great evils of the world. In these posters, the latter is being dressed up in the style of the former, confusing a relatively innocent pastime and a profound moral wrong. I do not think sadomasochism debases human sexuality if it's practiced with due care, but torture chic debases sadomasochism. And that's not a good thing: people are always inclined to find issues of power and sexuality meshing together in a morally tricky mix, and if we're going to keep our grace as human beings, it seems wrong to co-opt the style of a scary-looking but non-harmful fetish to remove the natural dismay that we should feel at seeing people hurt. Sadomasochism, which requires technical skill, respect for human rights and concern for the feelings of others, should not be used as an excuse to enjoy seeing rights and feelings being trampled on, to reject the responsibility to feel empathy, or, indeed, to let any misogynistic, racist or violent impulses thrive unchecked. Torture ain't sexy, and torture ain't SM either. We ought to keep the distinction.

All things considered, I'd be less inclined to worry about whether these movies herald the end of society - nasty movies are always with us in some way, it's a fad that they're riding so high right now, and fads pass - and more inclined to suggest that cinemas feature them in a double bill with Secretary, so people can at least see a more kindly look at the stuff these horror movies are skirting around. A bit more honesty wouldn't go amiss.

And what about the violence? Well, to say anything particularly intelligent I'd have to have seen the movies as well as the posters, and as I've said, I think I'd rather keep my money. But if the stuff I have seen is anything to go by, I think what we're really looking at is a simplistic line of descent. Eli Roth may be the enfant terrible, but the real ancestor of Saw is Se7en - and Se7en is a very good film. In his book Blockbuster, Tom Shone remarked of high concept films inspired by other films (Top Gun as inspired by An Officer and a Gentleman, Beverly Hills Cop as inspired by 48 Hours, Flashdance as inspired by Saturday Night Fever), that they were:

...versions of those films that had been shorn of peripherals, strip-mined for their pockets of triumph, their character arcs reduced to telegraphic shorthand, and strung out along a gleaming bead of hit songs - that's what high concept was or felt like to cinemagoers: like being told about another, greater film by a highly excitable intermediary. (p 192)

This is a useful concept: having seen a Tarantino film with a teenage boy once, and hearing his jazzed-up remarks afterwards, I was struck by how much of its irony and skill seemed to have passed him by. We seemed to have been watching different films: all he remembered were the bits that he found really cool. Which, notably, tended to be the violent bits. Given such a tendency, and given that there were a number of very good but very violent films in the 1990s, the descent into torture porn seems almost inevitable. We're listening to excited intermediaries.

Possibly this kind of art is just the price we have to pay for more imaginative works: we get one bold piece, a rattle of silly imitations which we don't have to watch, and we can keep our eyes open for the really good things. And we don't have to watch it if we don't want to; anybody old enough to realise that not every film that's considered shocking is just too truthful and brave and sexy for the Establishment to cope with - some things are just, y'know, kind of shocking, and possibly bad films as well - is old enough to vote with their wallets. I'm entirely behind the people who got the really nasty Captivity posters taken down - people should not have to look at that stuff if they don't want to - but, feminist though I am, I can't muster much more than a weary 'Oh, fuck off' when I pass the other posters. I could be wrong, and I'm happy to be corrected, but it all seems pretty childish.

Friday, June 22, 2007


Metaphors for adolescence?

You've heard it before. The Incredible Shrinking Man, the werewolf, the mutant, all of them are popular with teenage audiences because stories of physical change echo the adolescent experience, the hormone surge that means your body is contantly changing itself.

Am I the only one who things this doesn't sound quite right?

When you're a teenager, obviously your body does change a lot. But there's something about this theory that smacks of Freud's idea of penis envy. Penis envy, among its many stupidities, is the theory of a man who tries to imagine being a woman, and can't project his empathy enough to grasp that if you've never had a penis, you don't miss it in the same way that a man who suddenly became a woman would. 'How would I feel if I was a woman? Well, I'd miss my penis...' Limited imagination, in other words. And from what I can remember of adolescence, there's an element of adult half-projection going on when people dwell so much on how fast a teenage body changes.

What adults forget is that adolescents are used to their bodies changing. It's been happening all their lives. Your body in childhood is not a fixed thing, it's a temporary point, taller every time you're measured, constantly outgrowing your clothes, surrounded by people a year younger than you who look tiny, towered over by adults, operating in a world where the doorknobs and chairs and light switches and every physical object you can think of has been designed for a body that can reach higher, spread wider, lift heavier than you can. And its this way from the moment you're born. You spend your entire prepubescence in a state of constant physical transition.

So when you reach adolescence, your body starts changing - but they're changes you have, if you've had any kind of education, been prepared for. You expect to change shape, change voice pitch, change hair patterns. You're highly self-conscious when you compare yourself with other people - but change in itself is not a foreign concept. You're just still growing. You've been doing it all your life.

The real change, I think, is aging. You don't get educated about that.

When you reach adulthood, you assume that your body is finished now, a fixed point. Which is simply not true. Bits of it stop working, and also it just changes. Your skin texture changes, and so does its colour in the areas that are usually exposed to sunlight. Your hands become dry. You're more likely to grow random hairs. Well, the list goes on, but a body past the first bloom of adulthood, where five or ten years go by with your body being pretty constant, goes back into a state of change. David Cronenberg said that The Fly isn't about science, it's about aging. And once he said it, you can instantly see what he means. I mentioned in an earlier post that you should not use a contraceptive implant - those things give you a massive hormone overdose and the side-effects are far worse than you expect - but using one for six months certainly gave me a better understanding of The Fly, because many of the side-effects were not unlike symptoms of menopause, and others were simply hard on my body in the same way that years are. The result was that I never knew when I was going to wake up in the morning and find out what new, horrible, irreversible thing had gone wrong with my body. (Boy, am I looking forward to actual menopause when I consider that.) If you've seen the movie, the theme may be familiar.

Aging also tends to bring changes for the worse, which is much closer to the horror movie theme. Obviously acne and a wobbly voice are't a joyous addition to a teenager's life, but you're surrounded by books emphasising that these things pass. And other changes are entirely for the better. Suddenly you can reach the top shelf! You can pick up heavy things! You can have orgasms, for goodness sake, which may surprise you the first time it happens but is hardly going to leave you crying 'The horror! The horror!'.

I may sound like I'm just grumbling about how whippersnappers have it easy, but I think there's grounds for considering this theory. They are simply this: it isn't generally teenagers who write and direct horror fiction. To tell a story successfully, you generally need to have some life experience and, in the case of directors, career standing, which means that you're probably in your twenties at the very youngest, and quite possibly in your forties or fifties. Adolescence is a long way behind you, but your own body is probably playing you up in some ways.

In short, if you have to come up with a metaphor for horror stories involving physical transformation - and there's no law that says you have to, come to that - let's not restrict ourselves to a single interpretation. There are others.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Writer in the house

Here's a question: would you want to be the only writer in the house?

I was discussing this the other day with some writer friends of mine, and we had different opinions. I suspect that for people who still live with their families, it's likely to be a thorny issue, sibling rivalry being what it is - but what about people who live with their partners/spouses?

One view expressed was a sense of relief that the partner in question didn't want to write. It left, my friend created, a feeling of separate spaces; his partner was creative in other areas, the writing was his area, and they could each maintain their own specialities.

I, on the other hand, wasn't that bothered either way. If my partner wants to write, fine; heck, if he's good at it then we can bounce ideas around to mutual benefit. On the other hand, if he doesn't want to write that's fine too, as long as he doesn't try to stop me doing it. (Which, in justice to the man, he doesn't.)

Of course, the question becomes complicated if you're both writers. How do you deal with it if one of you becomes more successful than the other? The ideal solution would be to view each other with mutual respect, share your different incomes and, possibly, the more successful one could put in the odd plug for the less well-known one. I cherish the hope that this is how many artistic couples do function. On the other hand, I've read biographies that speak of diverging career paths destroying relationships. I suspect that it comes down to how nice, secure and in love with each other both partners were in the first place, but who knows?

A lot, though, depends on the egos involved. Egos, and self-control. We all have dark days when our minds are dry and everything is blocked and we're convinced we have no talent; on such days, I fear, we tend to become rather demanding partners, difficult, moody and unreasonable, convinced nobody could possibly feel as bad as we do ... all of which requires tremendous patience from our loved ones. The other day I was reflecting that, as it's bad form to try to answer back to your reviewers, you're often obliged to make your partner the semi-willing recipient for all your opinions about negative comments, worrying sales, writer's block, rejections, and all the other things that go to making the writer's life such an endless merry-go-round of fun and frivolity. During bad moments it can be difficult to remember that, as your partner is not the person who just turned down your manuscript or criticised your book, you should in justice try to rein in your indignation when discussing it with them. We all try, I'm sure. But living with a writer is not necessarily a featherbed.

Possibly, if both partners are writers, the first-hand experience of what it's like to have a bad day or a bad review enables one partner to be more kind and supportive to the other. When someone who doesn't write says 'I'm sure it'll be fine,' it can take self-control not to snap 'What do you know about it?!' - but if they can reply 'Actually, lots,' then it's a lot more reassuring.

But here's the thing that worries me. What happens when two writers get a dark day at the same time? I tremble to consider it, but I fear that the likeliest outcome is a quarrel. Or, possibly, the crash of crockery, a sharp scream, and police kicking down the door to find one partner standing knife in hand over the prostrate body of the other, giving a wild-eyed stare as the blood drips from their knife, and yelling, 'Don't feel sorry for him, officer, you should see the problems I'm having!'

Monday, June 18, 2007


I know more than I did, and less than I'll know later

Today I am thirty years old. Here's what I've learned:

- It's a beautiful world. People say that all the time, but it really is. But you need to look for beauty if you want to see it often. Watch as if you've just regained your sight, and listen as if you've just regained your hearing.

- Value kindness above all.

- You shouldn't be embarrassed about who you are, what you want and what you like. Not only is there probably nothing wrong with you, it's counter-productive. If you act unembarrassed, people will assume you've got nothing to be embarrassed about. If you're tense about who you are, it's the tension that pushes other people away, not you yourself. Carry it lightly and nobody will question you.

- Other people are probably worried about the same things you are.

- People treat you as well as you let them.

- Self-esteem isn't connected with worth. It's just a personality trait.

- Be happy for other people. It makes them happier and you stronger.

- If a situation is of your own creation, don't go around saying it proves something about the world. It just proves something about you.

- Don't beat yourself up imagining other people's superficial judgements. If they're the kind of person who'd judge you on the superficial stuff, they're not the kind of person whose opinion is worth caring about.

- Rites of passage don't create adulthood. You can skip them entirely if you need to. Adulthood is a state of mind; you're a grown-up when you start living like one.

- You start developing an identity when you stop worrying about finding one.

- Sympathy helps when you've had a blow, but what you really need is a victory. If tangible victory isn't available, you can make an emotional victory by forming resolutions about how you'll deal with it, and living up to them.

- Pride in coping with stuff is a virtuous circle. The better you cope, the more pride you can feel in yourself - which helps you cope better. You can fly on this for a long time if you have to.

- You can't make someone love you. Not by being no trouble, not by being indispensible, not by persistence, not by stealth, not by patience, not by showing off. If someone is going to love you, they'll step up of their own free will.

- You're better off alone than with someone who makes you unhappy.

- Protestations matter less than actions. If someone says they're your friend, they love you, or they've got your best interests at heart, look at how they treat you. People usually act the way they want to, whatever they say about it.

- It's bad to repress feelings, but sometimes it's good to let them go.

- If you're the one who's upset someone, it's not your place to say 'Let's not argue about this.' That's their call, and if you try it, you're just ducking responsibility for the fall-out.

- It's not okay to treat people badly, even if they annoy you. It doesn't change them, and it makes you a jerk.

- Tell people the nice things you've heard others say about them.

- Some men don't like women, and some women don't like men. They're all wrong. Both sexes can be brave, kind, decent and honest. Being on the rough end of either gender's sexuality can knock your good opinion of them, but talk to people of other genders and orientations and you'll find that not all men are dogs and not all women are bitches: it's just that when it comes to love, everyone is fighting for their lives, and it doesn't always bring out the best in them. Everyone's only human.

- People often like you not just for yourself, but for who you let them be when they're with you. Let them be their better selves.

- If you're feeling shy, smile.

- If you're going to take a break from work, enjoy yourself. The work won't get any more done if you feel guilty about it, so you might as well have fun.

- If you're putting off doing something and the anxious anticipation is stopping you from enjoying anything, just do the darn thing. You won't suffer any less in doing it than you will in worrying about it, and then you can relax.

- Go with your first instincts on visual choices.

- Don't use a contraceptive implant. Yes, this one is a little off-base and the guys don't have to read it, but ladies, seriously, those things have horrible side-effects. Talk to your doctor about an IUS instead.

- You cry over different stories depending on what's happened to you lately.

- About writing? I can't say anything useful about writing, except that you have to learn your own way of doing it and there aren't any shortcuts. If you want to do it, do it, if you don't, don't. You're fine either way. Living is what's important.

- Platitudes mean very little if you haven't lived through what they're talking about. You only see their application in retrospect.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Genres you don't read

The lovely Naomi asked an interesting question in the last-thread-but-one (Guilty Pleasures), to wit: are there particular genres that you don't read? I hummed and ha-ed and came up with a few loose examples, but it's an interesting overall idea. Some people don't read some genres on principle, which is iggerunt; some people don't read some genres because they've got limited reading time and tend to prefer other stuff, which is fair enough ... and what about you, my fine friends? Are there genres you don't read? If so, what is it that puts you off? I'd be most interested to hear your opinions.

Thursday, June 14, 2007



Oh, oh, oh, because, because, my little tadpoles are all turning into tiny little frogs and sitting on the lily pads! About a centimetre or two long, sort of this size only prettier, all jumpy and stripy-backed! My darling little babies are getting all froggy!

Soon they're going to grow up altogether and leave me. Then I will have empty-pond syndrome, I expect, but I'm going to fantasise about them all having wonderful lives anyway. And maybe they'll come back and lay eggs next year.

Frogs are just the nicest things in the world. And my tiny ones are the nicest. If anyone can think of anything cuter, I'd love to see it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Guilty pleasures

Some months ago, an Australian interviewer asked me an unexpected question:

What's your favourite guilty reading pleasure?

Well, I rather garbled the answer, for two reasons: one, if I named any specific author I'd be implying there was something wrong with their stuff, which would hardly be a tribute to an author whose work gave me pleasure, and two, the question confused me. The reason, I figured out afterwards, lay in the answer I would have given had I had time to reflect:

I never feel guilty about reading. I'm twenty-nine; I can read what I want.

Because what is this idea that you're supposed to feel guilty for reading? I don't really get it.

I can understand the idea that some books are inappropriate for some situations. I wouldn't read Gone With the Wind at a Martin Luther King memorial; I wouldn't read Delta of Venus at a children's playgroup. There's no need to be offensive. But if I read either of them at home, I don't see that I'm doing anything wrong. I'm perfectly aware that Margaret Mitchell was a horrifying racist who nonetheless had a genuine talent for character writing; in many ways Gone With the Wind resembles Triumph of the Will - a lot of talent poured into valorizing something evil, and you can admire the talent without subscribing to the philosophy - and I don't think it's ever going to make me think that slavery was a good idea. All I have to do is think of Frederick Douglass's writings, the dignity and humanity, to know who I take seriously. I hear the cry of 'Send me my grandmother!', and I know what side I'm on. Similarly, I know that erotica is best kept for adults, but as long as I'm not collaring children and making them listen to extracts, then I don't think I'm outraging anyone's innocence with good writing.

But I have the feeling that reading guilt is supposed to be more about stuff that you read for pleasure, as a treat. And when it comes to that kind of book, I have no guilt at all. Why should I? I go on the assumption that if I like a book, there must be something good about it, because if I think a book is entirely bad then I don't enjoy it.

Chick fic, for example, is supposed to be a guilty pleasure for a lot of people, I think. I'm not guilty. I like some of it. It doesn't dominate my shelves, but I'll happily recommend Jane Green and Donna Hay to anyone who's looking for a comfortable girly read, because both of those authors are smart. Jane Green is more fashionable (much more so than me, hence my personal favourite is Spellbound because the heroine cares nothing about the Right Labels), and has considerable insight and compassion that she applies to a wide variety of personalities; Donna Hay is more cosy and romantic and has an ability to make her characters vividly, charmingly ordinary while getting you genuinely caring how their adventures come out. Neither of them are trying to be Tolstoy, they're trying to be perceptive, entertaining writers whose books take the function of understanding and gossipy pals, and they're both good at it. So no guilt there: I respect those authors. I've read chick fic books I didn't think were good, so I didn't bother to reread them and didn't feel guilty about that either.

What else are you supposed to feel guilty about reading? Stuff that's bad for you, perhaps? Fashion magazines are a guilty pleasure for some women, I think, but I don't read them, because if I want to be made to feel frumpy and inadequate, I'll - actually, I don't want to be made to feel frumpy and inadequate, which is why I don't read magazines whose advertisers depend on you feeling that way and thinking their products will change that. Possibly that's a guilty pleasure, reading stuff that you know you shouldn't because it isn't good for your general happiness? I don't know. I don't read stuff that makes me feel bad about myself.

Stuff you're supposed to be too old for? I like children's books. Children are not stupid, and it takes a clever author to hold their attention. Children's books have an advantage over adults': genre has not yet taken hold in quite the same way. The main grouping of books is by age rather than by content, with the result that an author is free to invent and add whatever seems good to them without reference to convention or classification. The result is that many children's books are imaginative, thoughtful and well-written, and perfectly admirable.

'Unserious' genres? Well, I don't believe in genre. There are good and bad books in every subsection of the bookshop. Personally I think anyone who reads books purely because they're in their favourite genre, and ignores others because they're not, is missing out - which possibly means I'm making some people feel guilty by saying that, it occurs to me - but still, I stand by the point that no one genre is inherently worse than another. If it's well done, it's well done.

It seems to me that the idea of guilty pleasures in reading is based, fundamentally, on insecurity about one's own taste. If you're capable of saying to yourself, 'I think my taste is fine and if I like a book there must be something good about it' - not defensively, but cheerfully - then you're unlikely to feel guilty about reading anything. Like I said, one of the perks of being an adult is that you get to decide for yourself what you read, watch, eat, buy and wear; if you don't enjoy that, then you're just giving up the energy of youth without getting anything in return. On the other hand, if you harbour a secret fear that your taste isn't very good, then you're likely to end up feeling guilty about enjoying more or less anything.

Where does it come from? School classes that emphasise there are books you 'should' admire? (But then those classes introduce kids to good stuff, which isn't a blameworthy aim.) Other kids teasing you for liking this or that? (Seems more likely to leave an impression.) General insecurity that applies to more than just books? (Seems possible, but I hope not, for everyone's sake.) A sense that reading is fashionable and there are 'in' and 'out' accessories to read? (Man, I hope not.)

My boyfriend suggests that it may partly be because of an association of guilt and pleasure in religion-based cultures: if you enjoy it, you probably should be feeling guilty about it. I wonder if part of that association might be that you associate guilt and privacy: if you feel guilty about it, you'll probably do it where no one can see you, which means some cosy little alone time where you get to do things purely because you enjoy them - which is actually very relaxing. But then unless you genuinely think that you ought to be mortifying yourself non-stop, then that one doesn't seem like a good reason to feel guilty about enjoying reading either. Heck, reading is supposed to be good for you.

He also points out that if you're reading, you're not working. You withdraw from your social obligations, stop making money, looking after your house, feeding your family, participating in your community and generally being part of everyone else's business. But why should that particularly apply to some books more than others? I suppose you could make the case that difficult books are supposed to count as self-improvement in some way, so you could class them as work in the same way that exercise is supposed to be virtuous. But then some people like difficult books. If reading was inherently bad because it's non-productive, then you'd expect educated people to feel guilty about reading Middlemarch and Eugene Onegin, and I don't think they do, on the whole. I think the reason comes back to taste: those books are socially sanctioned. Then again, maybe he's right; if you've been educated and you read books that you generally need an education to appreciate, then you are at least putting the education your society invested in you to use. You're fulfilling a social role. And if you haven't had much of an education but you still like 'educated' books, then your tastes are aspirational, the self-improvement thing again.

Rationally that's nonsense; if you enjoy them you're reading them for pleasure rather than for aspiration, but it might look that way from the outside. But guilt can come either from feeling that you're letting yourself down, or from feeling that others would judge you harshly if they saw you. So where does reading guilt come from? Outside or inside? I don't know, because I'm personally pretty shameless; I can feel a bit of outside guilt if I think my reading choice would offend the company I'm in (the socially inappropriate choice thing), but otherwise I don't feel guilty so I can't refer to my own experience.

Does anyone reading this feel guilty about this or that literary pleasure? Either furnish a better explanation or stop feeling guilty, I say. But if you do feel guilt, enlighten me while you're at it. What's going on?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007



There was an interesting article in the Guardian magazine this weekend about the 'Bridezilla' phenomenon, making the point that all the stories about Brides Behaving Badly may express a deeper cultural sense that the wedding industry, with all its expensive paraphenalia and presentation of fripperies as essentials, is out of control. It reminded me of another article I read a while ago, which argues that the main aspiration expressed by an elaborate wedding is social status rather than romance.

What's really striking is that both articles talk about Disney. 'Ethnographers tell us that wedding ceremonies integrate the new couple into their social community ... providing a coherent definition of "who we are".', says the Boston Review article, going on to quote a magazine suggesting that brides learn how to dance by watching old movies. Both articles make the point that weddings tend to create a feeling of needing a tradition, while the Disney/old-time movie/princess-for-a-day modern idea isn't actually that traditional, in that it's not been around very long.

But I wonder. Does the fact that you got your idea from a movie mean that it's not traditional?

Movies are, after all, a central cultural experience in an unwieldy age. Communications technology means that we're part of a far bigger community than we can really get our heads around, and shared entertainment becomes a uniting force because it's one of the few things everybody has encountered. Meet a total stranger and try to start a conversation, and you'll probably find that TV and movies are a good beginning point. Besides that, movies are by their nature an overwhelming experience, designed to ravish your senses. Naturally they're memorable to the point of being formative: they're designed to be.

A lot of people knock Disney, either for being cutesy or for being a hugely powerful corporation. Politically I'd want to know more about them before I assumed they were an evil company, but that wouldn't necessarily prove that they produced bad art, and while they are sometimes cutesy, they've produced some good films over the years, and that deserves respect. The Disney princess works, because she's a complete assimilation of a little girl's ideas of what she wants to be when she grows up: beautiful, nicely dressed in those huge, elastically-swirling skirts that animation does so well, kind, beloved, admired. And, exposed to the idea when you are a little girl, it seems natural that it should make a deep impression on people.

Which is to say, dressing up like a Disney princess when you come to get married is not as deracinated as it seems. We don't have traditional dances or traditional foods, at least not if you're WASPy, but we have traditional movies that are as much a part of our everyday culture as a dance or a song. They are all, after all, works of art.

I can see that there's something embarrassing about wanting to be Disney's Cinderella for a day, or possibly so: it's not as couched in organic, ethnic tradition as a Fiddler On The Roof style party (but then again, I'm getting that idea from a movie). I know I've particularly enjoyed weddings between people from different religions or cultures where the ceremony combined the two - a Catholic-Jewish ceremony, a British-Sri Lankan one - partly because they seem to express the idea of combining two people's differences to create a harmonious whole, which is one definition of a happy marriage, and also because it's interesting to see how other cultures do it. But if a wedding is about tradition, about what we remember knowing all our lives, then Disney films are part of that.

None of which is a reason to bankrupt yourself, of course, or shout at your bridesmaids, or in any way act stupidly or unpleasantly - but let's be fair to the big-white-dress fantasy. It's not a sign of our removal from our culture: it is our culture.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Making sweet love

Okay, you've got to see this: there is a chocolate Kama Sutra!

(I can't say for certain whether this is work-safe or not; I mean, it's got naked chocolate people in a variety of gymnastic positions, but whether your boss will consider it about sex or sweeties is probably going to be a judgement call. Still, you have got to see it.)

What will I discover next time I go a-surfin? The Internet has many strange and wonderful things...

Friday, June 08, 2007


It was a bad idea then, it's a bad idea now

A friend put a book by Marie Corelli into my hands the other day, and it's provided me with a passage that seems to me the absolute template example of why you shouldn't try to answer your critics.

Marie Corelli (a pen name intended to imply a family connection between her and the composer Arcangelo Corelli) was an extremely successful and profoundly eccentric author of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, whose improving works met with popular acclaim and critical contempt. It's hard to blame the critics, as she was a genuine crank, convinced she was a genius comparable to Shakespeare and a moral examplar second to none; among other things, she wrote a book that attempted to rewrite the gospels and prove Judas Iscariot had a sister called Judith, and ended her days sailing about Stratford-upon-Avon in a gondola setting herself up as a Shakespearian authority/successor. She was also prone to using fiction to proselytise her opinons as to such evils as the library system, feminism and modern thought, with its 'lax morals and prurient literature'. She did tell a good story, if you can swallow her views. However, it is not of her books but of her reaction to reviews that I wish to speak today.

After several pannings, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Refusing to allow critics to get review copies unless they paid for them, she wrote a novel called The Sorrows of Satan, in which Lucio (the Devil) is condemned to be exiled from heaven until all human beings can resist him. Well, obviously nobody can, except for Jesus, and one other person: a writer called (note the intials) Mavis Claire.

Mavis Claire is a genius whose novels are given cruel and nasty reviews by critics who are generally failed writers motivated by profound envy of her talent. Our narrator is a reviewer, and says as much himself; as Corelli remarks: 'Common sense points out the fact that the novelist "reader" who has a place to maintain for himself in literature would naturally rather encourage work that is likely to prove ephemeral, than that which might possibly take a higher footing than his own.' (The idea of both reading and writing because you love the higher good that is literature, and wish to serve it and better your understanding by daily contact with it, does not seem to have occurred to her. But unpleasant people often assume others are motivated by the same malice as themselves.)

These reviews obviously don't trouble Mavis. Of course they don't. She really doesn't care; she laughs. Merrily. In fact, they trouble her so little that she makes a positive fetish of them. I'm about to quote a pretty long passage (but still slightly abbreviated, as I realise your patience may not be infinite), to stand as an out-of-copyright, author-too-dead-to-mind-I'm-using-her-as-an-example demonstration of a basic rule of writing:

If you don't like your reviews, keep it zipped. You'll only make yourself look bad trying to get the last word.

(I should possibly say, in case anyone is wondering, that I'm not posting this piece in response to any particular reviews of my own; Bareback came out last year and hasn't had any professional reviews in a while. Also because I'm still sick and this is a piece I copy-typed a while ago. But in the interests of full disclosure, because I'm an honest little toaster: yes, it had reviews; most of them were positive, a couple were negative, which is never enjoyable but I'm a big girl and reviewers have a right to their own opinions. This is the normal position of most writers.) The reason why it's worth reading Corelli's piece is that it's one of the best examples I've ever seen of how an attempt to get the last word with reviewers can have, let's say, a different effect from the one you were intending. Lucio and our narrator are shown by the graceful Mavis into her garden:

Passing under an arching grove of budding syringas, we presently came to an open courtyard paved with blue and white tiles, having in its centre a picturesque dovecote built in the form of a Chinese pagoda. Here pausing, Mavis clapped her hands. A cloud of doves, white, grey, brown, and opalescent answered the summons, circling round and round her head, and flying down in excited groups at her feet.

'Here are my reviewers!' she said laughing - 'Are they not pretty creatures? The ones I know best are named after their respective journals - there are plenty of anonymous ones of course, who flock in with the rest. Here, for instance, is the "Saturday Review"' - and she picked up a strutting bird with coral-tinted feet, who seemed to rather like the attention shown to him - 'He fights with all his companions and drives them away from the food whenever he can. He is a quarrelsome creature!' - and here she stroked the bird's head - 'You never know how to please him - he takes offence at corn sometimes and will only eat peas, or vice versa. He quite deserves his name - go away, old boy!' and she flung the pigeon up in the air and watching it soaring up and down - 'He is such a comical old grumbler! There is the "Speaker"' - and she pointed to a fat fussy fantail - 'he struts very well, and fancies he's important, you know, but he isn't ... Whenever I get a bad review I name a pigeon - it amuses me. That draggle-tailed one there with the muddy feet is the "Sketch" - he is not at all a well-bred bird I must tell you! - that smart-looking dove with the purple breast is the "Graphic", and that bland old grey thing is the "ILN", short for "Illustrated London News". Those three white ones are respectively "Daily Telegraph", "Morning Post", and "Standard". Now see them all!' and taking a covered basket from a corner she began to scatter corn and peas and various grains in lavish quantities all over the court. For a moment we could scarcely see the sky, so thickly the birds flocked together, struggling, fighting, swooping downwards, and soaring upwards - but the winged confusion soon gave place to something like order when they were all on the ground and busy, selecting their favourite foods from the different sorts provided for their choice.

'You are indeed a sweet-natured philosopher' - said Lucio smiling, 'if you can symbolize your adverse reviewers by a flock of doves!'

She laughed merrily.

'Well, it is a remedy against all irritation' - she returned; 'I used to worry a good deal over my work, and wonder why it was that the press people were so unnecessarily hard upon me, when they showed so much leniency and encouragement to far worse writers - but after a little serious consideration, finding that critical opinion carried no sort of conviction whatever to the public, I determined to trouble no more about it - except in the way of doves!'

'In the way of doves, you feed your reviewers' - I observed.

'Exactly! And I suppose I help to feed them even as women and men' she said - 'They get something from their editors for "slashing" my work - and they probably make a little more out of selling their "review copies". So you see the dove-emblem holds good throughout. But you have not seen the "Athenaeum" - oh, you must see him!'

With laughter still lurking in her blue eyes, she took us out of the pigeon-court, and led the way round to a sequestered and shady corner of the garden, where, in a large aviary cage fitted up for its special convenience, sat a solemn white owl. The instant it perceived us, it became angry, and ruffling up its downy feathers, rolled its glistening yellow eyes vindictively and opened its beak. Two smaller owls sat in the background, pressed close together - one grey, the other brown.'

'Cross old boy!' said Mavis, addressing the spiteful-looking creature in the sweetest of accents - 'Haven't you found any mice to kill today? Oh, what wicked eyes! - what a snappy mouth!' Then turning to us, she went on - 'Isn't he a lovely owl? Doesn't he look wise? - but as a matter of fact, he's just as stupid as ever can be. That is why I call him the "Athanaeum"! He looks so profound, you'd fancy he knows everything, but he really thinks of nothing but killing mice all the time, - which limits his intelligence considerably!'

Lucio laughed heartily, and so did I - she looked so mischievous and merry....

[She shows them into the house and they examine her charming workroom for a while.]

'Miss Clare', I said, now speaking with unaffected sincerity - 'I assure you, on my honour, I am very sorry I wrote that article against you. If I had only known you as you are -'

'Oh, that should make no difference to a critic!' she answered merrily.

'It would have made a great difference to me' - I declared; 'You are so unlike the objectionable "literary woman"'...

'I am very pleased to hear that,' she said simply - 'I am always glad when I succeed in winning somebody's approval and liking.'

'Does not everyone approve and admire you?' asked Lucio.

'Oh no! By no means! The "Saturday" says I only win the applause of shop-girls!' and she laughed - 'Poor old "Saturday"! - the writers on its staff are so jealous of any successful author. I told the Prince of Wales what it said the other day, and he was very much amused.'

'You know the Prince?' I asked, in a little surprise.

'Well, it would be more correct to say that he knows me,' she replied - 'He has been very amiable in taking some little interest in my books. He knows a good deal about literature too - much more than people give him credit for. He has been here more than once - and has seen me feed my reviewers - the pigeons, you know! He rather enjoyed the fun I think!'

And this was all the result of the 'slating' the press gave to Mavis Clare! Simply that she named her doves after her critics, and fed them in the presence of whatever royal or distinguished visitors she might have (and I afterwards learned that she had many) amid, no doubt, much laughter from those who saw the 'Spectator'-pigeon fighting for grains of corn, or the 'Saturday Review'-pigeon quarrelling over peas! Evidently no reviewer, spiteful or otherwise, could affect the vivacious nature of such a mischievous elf as she was.

Well, you get the idea. Corelli's piece shows something that she didn't intend: by the very act of announcing you don't care about your reviews, you show that you do. Otherwise, why bother to memorialise them and tell every passing visitor just how little you care? Clearly it's novelist's logic, arguing by analogy: saying that the bird named after a paper is stupid (and a fictional bird at that) proves absolutely nothing about the actual paper, but by such devices you can suggest a magic link - which is pretty dishonest. But aside from the dishonesty, there's also something quite disturbing there: while Mavis laughs gaily and flaunts her charitable forgiveness, it's actually a profoundly spiteful thing to do. Somebody writes you a bad review. (Possibly because they genuinely didn't like your book and felt they had a moral duty to tell the truth, but Corelli doesn't consider this option.) So what do you do? Name a bird after them, show that bird to all your visitors and dwell at great length on how unimportant the bird is. Which is to say, you take the opportunity to insult them in effigy, daily, for years, as long as the bird lives - and quite possibly you replace that bird when it dies so you can carry on insulting them, who knows? Leaving aside the cuteness of the doves and the apparently magical way they take after the papers as Corelli sees them, it's no different from making dummies of the reviewers and putting them all in dunce caps.

There are certain things one shouldn't do in public: sneer at the people who give you bad reviews, try to get a clever last word over them and flaunt just how incredibly little you care about their opinions. Mary Sue threatens, for one thing (Corelli apparently denied that Mavis Clare was a self-portrait, but I'm not sure who she thought she was kidding); your own prejudices and blind spots show through when you try to guess why other people act as they do. And joking when upset is like joking when drunk: you're never as funny as you think you are.

Most importantly, it's dishonourable. Fiction is a sacred trust: it's one of the most intimate ways one mind can speak to another, sometimes speaking down centuries of time, across language barriers and culture clashes, always speaking to the best of our ability of what it is to be human. That is incredibly important. We all have our limitations of talent and wisdom, but if we're going to presume to write, we have to be as honest as we can, otherwise we're misusing something that's essential to our sense of humanity. Fiction is for telling the truth, not for telling yourself gratifying lies, and right at the bottom of the list of things you should do is using fiction to settle scores. It's using a beautiful painting to break your neighbour's windows.

If you ever feel the urge to send up negative reviewers, don't. Just don't. They will not be the ones who end up looking bad.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


I am back...

... but ill. Turns out that sore throat wasn't just caused by the dry plane air, it was actually a cold. I am spending most of my time in bed. Boo.

Here's an interesting discovery: the staff at Boston airport are a lot nicer than the ones at Los Angeles. The LAX guys are hysterically paranoid combined with authoritarian and act like they'll pistol-whip you for pausing to sneeze ten feet away from the 'No Waiting' sign - I'm really not exaggerating very much - but the Boston guys were friendly, polite and actually cracked a few jokes. It was a big relief.

If you're ever in Boston, go to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It's lovely. It's the house of an art collector that got bequeathed to the public, with the most beautiful courtyard I've ever seen - the closest analogy, if you're English, is that it's kind of like the John Soane's Museum, but with a woman't touch...

The New England aquarium has penguins, but nothing beats the Sydney aquarium. That has platypus.

Those are my tourist observations, now I'm going back to bed. Hopefully I will be more interesting after some sleep and Lemsip.

Friday, June 01, 2007


Here's what you should look at!

I'm going to be away at a friend's wedding for a few days, which is in Boston, so jetlag will be dividing us for a while. To entertain yourselves in this dreary blog-absence, why not look at http://www.politewinter.com/, a 'conversation' between two artists who take it in turns to produce pictures, usually macabre and suggestive, often combined with fragments of sentences, each picture in response to the previous one. It's beautiful, and resonant, and disturbing in the right way. Go on, have a look, you'll really like it.


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