Friday, October 24, 2008

The Truth Hurts

So you might have seen this already, but I thought it was worth a second showing, just for shits and grins. A friend directed my attention to this illustration that neatly summarizes, I believe, the tension between "literary fiction" and any of the "genres" of fiction--thriller, romance, sci fi / fantasy, etc.
Sad but true.*
*This is not to say that all science fiction or fantasy is good, but there is at least the potential for well-written prose and plot in all genres, not just those that the establishment deems worthy.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The "Ghetto" of Literary Fiction

As an aspiring fantasy author who doesn't read as much fantasy as she probably should, I try to keep up on what's going on in Fantasy Land through various blogs and online forums. It's interesting to me to see current trends and marketing techniques, and occasionally I stumble across something that makes me laugh out loud.

Such was the case with an essay by Jon Evans on Tor.com entitled "SF gems from the literary ghetto." As an English major, I've admitted in the past to a certain pomposity and arrogance regarding "literature," though I feel I've made leaps and bounds in my personal development since I readjusted my standards somewhat. Evans turns this wide-spread discriminatory attitude on its head, however, stating unequivocally,

"A lot of SF readers dismiss literary fiction as worthless: turgid, mazy, self-referential prose, annoying characters, stories that meander for hundreds of pages without really going anywhere, and a blinkered obsession with the world of today (or yesterday), with scarcely a thought spared for tomorrow. [...] Most such fiction still languishes among an insular audience of tediously clever hipsters and academics, ignored by the SF-reading masses." [2]
Though the piece is obviously tongue-in-cheek as it stalwartly defends the science fiction genre, it actually addresses a valid point. Once upon a time, the self-identified intellectuals of the western world wrote in verse, and it wasn't until the 19th century that the novel really emerged, encouraged by bourgeois writers and women who were moving away from the upper-class-and-male-dominated genre of poetry. In the middle of the 20th century, "literary fiction" attempted to bridge the distance between poetry and fiction, creating a new form of writing for self-identified intellectuals.

Though literary fiction has been the genre of choice since the 1970s, it remains quarantined from the rest of the literary world. Efforts to define it as a genre are often difficult, as Nathan Bransford, whose blog I stumble across at least once a week in my various online explorations, points out:

"This very question was addressed at a panel at the San Francisco Writer's Conference, and everyone had a different answer. Some people feel that commercial fiction emphasizes plot whereas literary fiction emphasizes characters. Others feel that literary fiction emphasizes unique prose whereas commercial fiction is more straightforward. Still others stick to the 'I know it when I see it' defense, and then of course there's the 'literary fiction is that which does not sell' definition. Complicating any delineation are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, who write genre fiction and have plot heavy books but are considered literary."[1]

Despite the emphasis on literary genre in the publishing and academic spheres as being somehow better than other genres, however, there has been an underground resistance gaining momentum against the genre. Most notably, perhaps, is B.R. Myer's "The Reader's Manifesto," in which he points out how ridiculous and unfounded this preference for the "literary" can be:

"Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be 'literary fiction'—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance. It is these works that receive full-page critiques, often one in the Sunday book-review section and another in the same newspaper during the week. It is these works, and these works only, that make the annual short lists of award committees. The 'literary' writer need not be an intellectual one."[4]
Anyone who has tried to read anything considered "literary" can probably sympathize with his point. He continues, "Many critically acclaimed novels today are no more than mediocre 'genre' stories told in a conformist amalgam of approved 'literary' styles."[4] The difficulty lies, then, in the fact that "literary fiction" is a style of writing--a tone--an emphasis on the writer's place inside the novel rather than outside of it. It is an attempt to make prose poetic, often at the expense of the story, and has none of the traditional devices used to define genres.

Attempts to criticize the genre, however, are often met with resistance and scorn--as Robert McCrum points out, "Literary fiction has been supported by an awesome establishment of writers, editors, critics, agents, publishers and booksellers, all of whom have, in different ways, been unwilling to question the dominant orthodoxy."[3] I must admit that I was one of the establishment who unquestioningly allowed the "dominant orthodoxy" to classify what was good, and if I fetched against a roadblock in agreeing with the dogma of literary fiction, I automatically assumed the lack was in me. (Of course, I am also under-read in contemporary literature and had never even heard of literary fiction until fairly recently.)

What if, though, Jon Evans is correct when he says so eloquently, "90% of all literary fiction is still crud"? What if "the establishment" is losing its control over what is "good"? And why does "literary" so rarely correspond with what is enjoyable, which is also different from what is "popular"? What factors, exactly, must we consider when weighing whether a particular piece is simply good?

Works Cited:

[1] Bransford, Nathan. "What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?" 26 February 2007. Nathan Bransford--Literary Agent. http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/2007/02/what-makes-literary-fiction-literary.html

[2] Evans, Jon. "SF gems from the literary ghetto." 6 October, 2008. Tor.com. http://www.tor.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=blog&id=6842

[3] McCrum, Robert. "The end of literary fiction." 5 August 2001. The Observer. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/aug/05/features.review1

[4] Myers, B.R. "A Reader's Manifesto." July/August 2001. The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200107/myers

I Done Learned English Good

Try this test if you're bored. It gives you five minutes to try to guess as many of the 100 most common words in the English language as you can. It's harder than it sounds, which explains why I got a 33%, also known as a solid F-.

Here's the description from the website: "See how many of the 100 most common words in the English language you can guess in 5 minutes... This list was compiled using the Oxford English Corpus, used by the makers of the Oxford English Dictionary [picturd left], which contains over 2 billion words of written English." http://quizicon.com/quiz?id=37

No Americans Need Apply: International Adventures with the Nobel Prize in Literature

For those who have been following the trans-Atlantic mess that is the Nobel Prize this year, it comes as no shock that an American did not win the coveted award. Horace Engdahl, pictured right, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, kind of put his foot in his mouth a couple of weeks ago when he said, "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.''[1] This is an excellent example of things that would be better unsaid, regardless of whether one believes they are true or not.

Americans fired back at Engdahl's statement, obviously, with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, saying, "'You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures." Remnick added, ''And if he looked harder at the American scene that he dwells on, he would see the vitality in the generation of Roth, Updike, and DeLillo, as well as in many younger writers, some of them sons and daughters of immigrants writing in their adopted English. None of these poor souls, old or young, seem ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola.'' [1]

Well, lo and behold, the winner of the prize was named yesterday and it was, unsurprisingly, a European: French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. What I find ironic about this is that Le Clézio's "work reflects a seemingly insatiable restlessness and sense of wonder about other places and other cultures."[2] Apparently, despite the fact that "Europe still is the center of the literary world" (according to Engdahl), it is those European writers who write about other cultures who are the most impressive. [1]

I don't feel qualified to remark on the merit of Le Clézio's win (never having heard of him before yesterday because America is so insular), but I will say this: American literature is different from European literature. For example, there is an entire American Literature department at UCLA, with different requisite courses and an emphasis on sociology and cultural studies. The literature is in tune with American culture, which is vastly different from most of Europe in many ways. This country is still in its infant stages from a literary standpoint, and the weight of the past is much less prevalent here so that we can focus on where we are rather than where we are in relation to where we've been.

The problem is that Engdahl mistakenly assumed that this difference is a bad thing, obviously forgetting that "variety's the very spice of life." What good would literature do if it completely disregarded the culture of the people reading it, instead focusing on the "center of the literary world"? America has different problems that Europe does, different issues and tensions, and it is by addressing those problems that writers prove themselves great.

I guess my point is, do we as Americans really care what the European "academy" thinks of us? We never have before, as far as I can tell, and though Joyce Carol Oates might be disappointed by the loss of the Nobel Prize in Literature to a European, I am not.


Works Cited:

[1] "Nobel Literature head: US too insular to compete." The New York Times. 30 September 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/world/AP-EU-Nobel-Literature.html?ref=weekinreview

[2] Lyall, Sarah. "French Writer Wins Nobel Prize." The New York Times. 9 October 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/10/books/10nobel.html?ref=books

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Revenge of the Screenplay Writers: Film Adaptations

One of the most horrifying conversations I ever had went something like this:


(I'll call the other participant He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named because,
like Lord Voldemort, ignorance is evil)

Me: ... but I think my favorite Shakespeare play is Hamlet.
He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named: Really?
Me: Yeah, I think so. I've read it ten times, and I know it's almost a cliche
nowadays, but I really love it. There's just so much there.
He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named: I thought the Mel Gibson version was pretty good.
Me: [CHOKE]

There are two things to which I objected: 1) This person automatically associated one of the greatest literary minds in Western civilization to a cheesy Hollywood film adapation, and 2) The Mel Gibson version was the one he liked. Now, I understand that I'm prone to pomposity and talking about subjects in which other people have little-to-no interest, but I was still incredibly disturbed by the fact that this was all that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named knew about Shakespeare. Gah!

The issue as I see it is this: Hollywood has lost almost all of its creativity, instead pulling from popular books or graphic novels to reduce the risk of accidentally producing a flop. For example, take a look at the top ten grossing films of 2007:

1) Spider-Man 3--the third in a series based on a comic book.
2) Shrek the Third--a second shameless exploitation of the brand that is Shrek.
3) Transformers--a nostaligic look back on a television show that was popular in the 80s.
4) Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End--proof that Johnny Depp is willing to whore himself for money. Did you hear they're going to do a fourth?
5) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix--not only is it the fifth of a series, it's based on a best-selling novel by J.K. Rowling.
6) I Am Legend--based on a science fiction novel by Richard Matheson.
7) The Bourne Ultimatum--based on a series of books by Robert Ludlom.
8) National Treasure: Book of Secrets--like five of the previous seven movies, this was only made because the first one was so successful.
9) Alvin and the Chipmunks--not only was it a television show in the 80s, this is based on an animated singing group from the 50s. the sad part is that I'm not kidding.
10) 300--finally, this was based on a 1998 comic book series.

Wow. Just think of all the disaffected screenplay writers who now have no outlet for their creative juices. If you want to write a screenplay, you're better off writing a book or comic book that has a chance at maybe being wildly successful so that you can try to get on the team to turn it into a movie.

While some might rightly say that this is a stagnation of American cinema, I tend to think it's a good thing. How many times have you seen a movie that was so good that you tracked down the book on which it was based? In my opinion, it's actually encouraging literacy. The problem is when people either don't know it's an adaptation or when the adaptation is so different from the novel that the merits of the book are lost on the screen.

For example, the last film I saw in the theater was There Will Be Blood. (Yes, I know it came out at the beginning of the year--I'm poor and the cinema habit was the first to go.) I was so impressed by the film that I went and got the book on which it was based, Oil! by Upton Sinclair. As anyone who has seen the movie and read the book can tell you, they are completely different. The only thing that crossed the gap between the page and the screen was the names of the characters and their job descriptions. The book was a pro-labor book that extolled the working class and highlighted the evils of money, while the movie was essentially a character study of J. Arnold Ross. Both were excellent but they were completely different, and liking one does not necessarily mean that you will like the other.

Maybe this is how the screenplay writers are getting their revenge, then: if the American public isn't interested in original, culturally-relevant screenplays, then the writers will slip some in that they can claim are "based on the bestselling [insert medium here] by [insert author's name here]" but actually bear no resemblance to the original. Other examples that I can think of off the top of my head are Bridget Jones' Diary (the ending is in no way similar to the book), The Princess Bride, A Series of Unfortunate Events... the list could go on forever, though I should say that I much prefer the film version of The Princess Bride to the novel by S. Morgenstern. So shoot me.

Do any of you know of any? Do you think the books are always better than the movie, or are there other Princess Brides out there?

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Best $40 You'll Ever Spend

Did you ever want to be the main character in a love story? Now you can! I found a website that allows you to be the main character in an undoubtedly-steamy romance by putting in names and details. After paying only $39.95, you'll be sent a copy of your very own novel entitled Click for Love.

I decided to try out the free preview, and I had quite a bit of fun putting in the important information. You know, heroine's name: Lindsay With an A; hero's name: John Keats. The usual. I even got to pick the heroine's friend's name, so keep an eye out for Chatty Cathy's appearance in the scenes below.

___________________________________________________

Lindsay is persuaded to give online dating a try:

Lindsay viewed Cathy suspiciously, with a brown-eyed gaze as she grabbed a chair from the kitchen table and joined her friend in front of the computer.
“What are you up to?” she asked knowing Cathy all too well.
“It’s Discreet Dates dot com.”
“Yeah, so.”
Cathy turned, with a mischievous grin.
“No, Cathy! I told you, I’m done!”
“Okay, so don’t get mad yet,” she pleaded.
“No way, Cathy! Never again! Remember all that talk about trying too hard?”
“Well, I didn’t say don’t try at all! I’m worried about you. You haven’t been on a date in nearly a year-”
“Six months and I haven’t had time. Cathy, we have to get our new business off the ground,” Lindsay protested, running a hand through her brown hair.
Cathy ignored her friend’s interruption, not missing a beat, “Seriously, Lindsay, I’m thinking you're turning into a hermit and it's time to drag you out of your shell!”
“You’re exaggerating, as usual. Besides, the memory of Melroy bringing his mother on our
first date still haunts me.”
“I think Discreet Dates can help."
not so gentle reader and Say No to TB: An anonymous online chat

not so gentle reader: Why are men so infuriating?
Say No to TB: If you can tell me why women are so bewildering then maybe I can answer your question.
Lindsay gazed at the screen of her laptop as she sat at the head of her bed, still dressed in her robe, sipping coffee.
not so gentle reader: The age-old argument. I guess we’ll never figure it out.
Say No to TB: What fun would it be if we did? I mean if I knew the mystery of why the sight of a beautiful woman makes me weak and warm all over, or why her scent and the touch of her velvety skin on mine drives me wild with desire, maybe the magic would be lost.
Stirred by his words Lindsay inhaled deeply before responding.
not so gentle reader: Good point… but I still hate men sometimes.
Say No to TB: There’s a fine line between love and hate, not so gentle reader. You’ve just got to figure out how, and when, to cross it.

Lindsay and John Keats: A Chance Meeting at a Coffee Shop

“Can I get your coffee?” John offered, his striking brown eyes locked onto hers as they both moved to the front of the line.
“No, really that’s okay. You’ve done enough. Thanks for helping things along. I would've been stuck in this line forever.”
“Nonsense,” he replied, and then spoke to the barista. “Large coffee, black please, and a...”
“I’ll have the same with a little cream,” she said, pushing an errant strand of brown hair from her forehead.
When the barista turned to prepare their drinks, John offered his hand to Lindsay. “John Keats.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Keats. I guess chivalry isn’t dead. I’m Lindsay With-An-A,” she replied taking his hand in hers and feeling her skin warm to his touch. Her brown eyes conveyed a spark from within and Lindsay felt her heart skip a beat at the sight of his smile.
“Um…I was just wondering,” he hesitated, “would you like to meet for coffee again here tomorrow? A little earlier and we could probably get a table.”
Lindsay smiled, pleasantly surprised by the invitation. In contrast to her usual cautionary nature, she decided to take a chance – there was just something about this man...

A Little Heat in the Back of a Limo:

John slid in beside Lindsay in the back of the silver, stretch limousine and within moments they were locked in a passionate kiss. Briefly pulling away from him Lindsay reached to the door and hit the button raising the glass partition and then returned to run her fingers through his dark brown hair.
“Its been a long time, John,” she whispered seductively, as she pressed her parted lips against his. He felt the smooth wetness of the gloss from her lips reignite the stirring in his body that had been smoldering all night. His desire could not be contained and he reached up pulling her closer, feeling her silky smoothness. Not to be outdone, Lindsay removed his bow tie and began to quickly unfasten the buttons on his shirt as John lifted her dress, and pulled her over him, her legs straddling his lap.
“Lindsay,” John moaned raggedly, as she released the button securing his pants.

__________________________________________________

Um, yeah, that might have been sexy if it weren't the worst writing I've seen in a long, long time. I mean, seriously? If I guy IM'ed me and said, "I mean if I knew the mystery of why the sight of a beautiful woman makes me weak and warm all over, or why her scent and the touch of her velvety skin on mine drives me wild with desire, maybe the magic would be lost," I think I might fall out of my chair laughing. My fictitious counterpart seems to be settling for badly written cliches.

But, on the other hand, if you're involved with an incurable romantic who would find something like this moving rather than revolting, you should definitely consider buying him/her a copy for Christmas (available at http://www.bookbyyou.com/clickforlove/default.asp) . I'm sure you'll be the hero of the hour.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Happy National Banned Books Week!

Yay! It's national Banned Books Week! We get to speak out against book burnings and support the American LibraryAssociation! Honestly, who doesn't love a librarian?

... actually, to be honest, the fact that we need to speak out against book banning and/or challenging is about an eight out of ten on my grr-o-meter. I'm sure most of you already know how I feel about those who seek to ban or challenge books (hint: two syllables, second syllable is "holes"), and I think we should do everything in our power to keep our libraries free from conservative radicals who seek to banish "unwholesome" literature. In fact, I even despise those who inquire "rhetorically" about banning books, which is why I started volunteering for the Obama campaign approximately forty-eight hours after Governor Palin was named as John McCain's choice for VP. She does know that Nazis also banned books, right?

Politics aside, however, I agree that there are some books that are disturbing to read. There are books that portray evil and disgusting things in a positive manner. Is banning these books really the way to go, however? Isn't it much more productive to look at them as studies of how some people think so that we can successfully construct arguments against those evil and disgusting things?
In addition, a lot of challenges to books are absolutely ridiculous. For example, take a look at the ten most challenged books from 2007:
1. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
2. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
3. Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes
4. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
7. TTYL by Lauren Myracle
8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
9. It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Ooh, And Tango Makes Three is an incredibly dangerous book. Want to hear what Julie Roach, of the Watertown Free Public Library, had to say about it?

This tale based on a true story about a charming penguin family living in New York City's Central Park Zoo will capture the hearts of penguin lovers everywhere. Roy and Silo, two male penguins, are "a little bit different." They cuddle and share a nest like the other penguin couples, and when all the others start hatching eggs, they want to be parents, too. Determined and hopeful, they bring an egg-shaped rock back to their nest and proceed to start caring for it. They have little luck, until a watchful zookeeper decides they deserve a chance at having their own family and gives them an egg in need of nurturing. The dedicated and enthusiastic fathers do a great job of hatching their funny and adorable daughter, and the three can still be seen at the zoo today.

God forbid! It's a blemish on the publishing industry! Ready the Book Burning Mobile!

Come on, guys, can we at least pretend to be reasonable, rational adults? If anything, we should ban books that are advertised as nonfiction that turn out to be false, not books that are actually based on true, heartwarming stories. Jeez Louise. I'm going to buy that book for my nieces just for the hell of it, I think.

Anyway, here's the website for the ALA if you're interested. It lists Banned Books events that might be happening near you (there aren't any near me, unfortunately, but I figure it's kind of like Christmas: the real joy is in your heart), books that have been banned in the past, etc:

http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/bannedbooksweek/bannedbooksweek.cfm

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