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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

 

Happy Halloween!

Give me pumpkins and I'm a happy woman. Pumpkins!

In celebration, here's one of my favourite ghost stories: Casting the Runes by M.R. James. Nicely creepy yet thrilling, and incidentally amusing if you've ever had any dealings with publishing, as the villain is the ultimate Writer Who Deals With Rejection Badly.

Anyway, pumpkins. Look, here's one of a howling wolf. And here's the grooviest pumpkin site I know.

And here's some green pumpkins. And some orange ones.

My search is becoming manic, so I'll stop now. But pumpkins are so good!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

 

Another phrase for the Lexicon

... full credit to my friend Joel Jessup on this on; he suggested it in a comments thread a couple of days ago, and I like it so much I think it deserves its own post:

The Disbelief Turnstile

The point in the story where a character has to believe something is actually happening and isn't a dream / a con/ a symptom of madness.


It's an interesting one, that. I think one of the things I enjoyed about writing Bareback was that the set-up (which came out of a conversation with Joel, in fact) presented no Disbelief Turnstile for the character to pass through. She already knows there are werewolves. I watched a lot of werewolf movies while I was writing it, and came more and more to the conclusion that the world didn't need another story where we struggle for ages with 'But ... but werewolves aren't real, are they?'.

The thing about handling a familiar fantastical trope is that the readers themselves will have passed through that turnstile long before you put pen to paper. Other writers have opened the gates for them. The characters may be asking themselves whether this is possible, but the audience knows full well what the answer will be: yes, it's possible, now let's get on with the story. The result is that the audience will be, unless you tell the story with unusual charm, bored. It's never good for the audience to be way ahead of the characters. A little ahead for suspense purposes, perhaps, but way ahead is just marking time.

There are good stories that spend a lot of time pushing the character through the Disbelief Turnstile - An American Werewolf In London comes to mind - but Landis introduces enough new elements (humour and good special effects in particular) that it feels fresh. Landis also does something interesting: almost the whole story is spent dithering at the Turnstile. We stay there so long, in fact, that it no longer becomes an obstacle to pass through, but the point of the story: getting through it is much harder than your conventional tale would have audiences believe, and the entire plot is sustained by doubt and denial. He uses the Turnstile, but he does it properly.

On the other hand, sometimes the Turnstile gets ignored so thoroughly that the genre can wander a long way away from its roots. My boyfriend always recalls browsing in a bookshop, Murder One, I think, and coming upon an entire set of shelves labelled 'Vampire Romance'. Not just a couple of shelves, an entire bookcase. That trope had become so familiar that writers had passed through the turnstile, got on the train, and ridden all the way out to Party Town without a backward glance. To my mind, it's possible to go too far in that direction; vampire romance/erotica isn't something I'm very familiar with (having seen Interview With the Vampire, I'm assuming that 'romance' may be a euphemism here), but if the story you're telling is a romance, does it really have to have vampires? And if there are vampires, is romance the most interesting thing they can do? It's not good to labour the characters' disbelief in fantastical things, but having magical things treated as so familiar that they lose all sense of magic fails to take advantage of the whole point and potential of imaginative writing.

The Disbelief Turnstile, I'd say, functions differently in different genres. Take, for instance, the thriller. Are they really after you, or are you just being paranoid? In such cases, the Turnstile is actually an important part of the story, because it's bad character writing to have the hero believe something implausible too quickly. It's also, equally importantly, an opportunity to start raising the stakes. In order to convince the hero that there really is something going on, you have to introduce the element of danger. A creepy man in sunglasses watching you from a streetcorner might perturb you, but it's not enough of a threat to make you change your whole way of thinking. If the creepy guy suddenly pulls out a gun and aims it at your head, then the writer has simultaneously forced the character through the Turnstile and made the story a whole lot more exciting. Raising the level of danger gets both the character's and the audience's attention.

What are your views, people? Can you think of Turnstile methods you particularly like or dislike?

Friday, October 26, 2007

 

Hispid frogfish

Last weekend I saw some of these in the Horniman Museum; this weekend, you can watch them on YouTube. Hispid Frogfish. Bright yellow fish. That wave what the museum called a 'fleshy lure' on top of their heads (this one shows his about 35 seconds in). With elbows.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

 

Another Lexicon phrase

Advertising Memo

A remark made by one of the characters in which the author tries to convince the readers that the story is going great, such as 'It's like something out of a film!' or 'He'd make a great character in a novel!'.

Surprisingly common even in otherwise good pieces, this one.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

 

Movie news!

Here's an interesting update on how the Benighted movie project is going: they've brought in a new writer: to wit, Patrick Smith Kelly, who wrote the screenplays for Don't Say A Word (which I haven't seen, must add to my LoveFilm list) and A Perfect Murder, which was rather well written and had a pleasing preponderence of dialogue over explosions. This seems like good news to me: Mr Smith Kelly would appear to be a thriller writer more than a sci-fi one, which suggests he'll do a good suspenseful job on the plot rather than getting too caught up in special-effects photo ops. If you IceRocket for yourself like I do, Mr SK, hello and welcome...

I'd heard this announced on the Internet for a few days, but my agent has just sent me a copy of Variety that confirms it, so there you go.

The movie still remains to be green-lit, so if any of you lovely people live in Hollywood, here's what you have to do: get a copy of Benighted, carry it around with you, and every time you're in a public place where studio execs might be sitting, bury your nose in it, providing the occasional gasp of surprise, laugh of delight, or little tear of emotion for effect. Let's see those copies flourished up and down the streets of Hollywood, people. They pay me more if the movie gets commissioned.

Monday, October 22, 2007

 

Series cancellation

Every Friday night lately, I've been glued to the television, for Ugly Betty is back on the air, and I just can't get enough of that brave little toaster and all her marvellous melodramas. I am well and truly cliffhung, and when I heard the second series was airing, I cheered.

This is the kind of viewer response that gets the ratings that lead to second series being commissioned in the first place.

But here's something I seldom hear from devotees of a television series: I want Ugly Betty to end.

Don't get me wrong. I love that show. But I don't want it to carry on indefinitely. There are two basic reasons for this:

1. I want it to end before something comes along and cocks it up.
2. I want an ending to put me out of my misery.

To deal with these questions one at a time. The first point is fairly simple, but is something that, because of the economic pressures of producing television, series seldom tackle well.

There's only so much life in any given story. Once character arcs have been played out, there's nothing more to do with them; once story arcs are ended, the story's finished. And yet the nature of getting series commissioned is such that the end of the story is not necessarily the end of the series. If it's still got good ratings, it gets stretched out; if its ratings are falling, it gets knocked on the head halfway through the plot.

This is nothing new. Old style penny dreadfuls ran under exactly the same system; with serials, it's a law of the marketplace. But alas, it doesn't make for very good art. Obviously it's frustrating to have your favourite series cancelled unfinished, but it's not that great to have it extended ad infinitum either. Nobody likes seeing sharks getting jumped, but if a story has to carry on come what may, after a while even the most resourceful writer may start casting longing glances towards the water skis.

There are series that can sustain themselves forever; CSI is a good example, having carried on for I don't know how many episodes and spawned at least two spin-off series that are very similar, not to mention many imitators, all without any sign of losing viewers or respect. The reason for this, though, is that it's highly formulaic. This in itself is an accomplishment; while I seldom watch it, I take my hat off to the producers for creating so durable a formula. You have established characters whose personal lives are unimportant enough that they won't confuse any new viewers, in a scenario that's easily grasped and, more importantly, generates infinite new plots. Just think of a new way to kill someone, or a new subculture for a death to take place in, and you've got a new episode. It's highly unlikely that CSI is going to produce an episode that's the most groundbreaking, innovative, startling half hour the televisual world has ever seen, but it is capable of carrying on for years and years without showing much sign of flagging.

But what if you have a series that includes an over-arching plot rather than a sturdy formula? At this point, you're picking a fight with Aristotle: there needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end. If you have a beginning, and a middle, and then some positive ratings figures, and some more middle, and some good ratings, and some more middle ... well, it's unsatisfying. The series can't go on for ever. The story questions it began with will have to be answered somehow, someday, and in the end, it'll become repetitive or tacky. And what happens? Audiences lose interest, and stop watching. It can turn into a vicious circle: if audiences start to fall away, writers may come under pressure to keep catering to the hard core that are still hanging in there - either pressure from studios, or just out of gratitude to the remaining viewers for keeping them employed - but the hard core are likely to have gotten attached to the characters to the point where they have difficulty seeing the wood for the trees. The result is often a show that becomes closer and closer to soap opera, the characters' relationships with one another becoming more and more important at the expense of whatever situation the story was supposed to be resolving, none of which can be expected to engage new viewers who aren't already interested in the characters and won't get interested when all that's left is soap. This inevitably fails to revive ratings, because the show hasn't regained its original charm, so they keep dropping, and the series gets the axe - conceivably in mid-story.

And when that happens, what you're left with is a tale that ends with a whimper rather than a bang. If you look at the complete piece, it won't satisfy you; it'll be a disappointing work of art.

It's for this reason that I prefer to think that series I like won't go on forever. I'd rather they were good in my memory as well as at the time, and remembering something short but great is more satisfying than watching a dying lion.

The other reason I'd like Ugly Betty to finish well is simple suspense. The story is based on cliffhangers, crisis after crisis, brilliantly sustained - but I like all the characters enough to hope it'll work out well. If it goes downhill to the point of unrecognisability, that won't be working out well: the issues that engaged my attention will never have been resolved skilfully enough to satisfy the tension that they created. I'll be left permanently wondering what would have happened if the series had ended well, which is as bad as wondering what would have happened if it hadn't been cancelled.

There is a solution to this problem, but it places tremendous demands on the writer: you need to factor into your plotting the points at which a series could be axed, and have some kind of resolution ready for each of them, while not packing every possible resolution into any one point. Given its superior quality, it's not too surprising that The Wire is the only show I can think of that's managed to do this. The first series is self-contained; the second two back-end each other, and the fourth, which isn't out on DVD yet so I haven't seen it, apparently moves away from characters who've served their turn and starts completely afresh, which is far better than flogging a dead horse. This is how it should be done - but it's difficult, and few series seem to manage it.

I have some hopes for Ugly Betty; so far it's suitably ruthless in dispatching or manhandling characters who have finished their story arcs, and a show that cares more about the story than the characters is a rare gem - and in any case, it was originally written as a soap opera, so may survive the soapification problem better than usual. But still if any network execs are reading this: please, please don't stretch it out until it asphixiates. Just give it a good clean death, and I'll watch the next thing you commission, I promise.

Friday, October 19, 2007

 

Outed!

In the last comment thread, goosefat101 links to a cute little book called Where Dogs Dream with the remark 'there's another kit whitfield who wrote this book ... at least I'm assuming its a different one. Certainly it would be weird if it was you who wrote it.'

Well, I'm sorry to weird anybody out, but it's time to set the record straight: I did write it.

I'm even kinda proud of it.

Writing, as most of us know to our cost, is not a very lucrative job. The result is that writers have to make a living in some other way. Some of us work as firemen, doctors, teachers and other such useful professions, but there's another likely course: something that uses verbal aptitude. Writers are good with words, and like using them; that's a transferrable skill - and transferrable skills can be put to work when the bills need paying. Advertising slogans are an example; the famous 'naughty but nice' has been variously attributed to Fay Weldon, Anthony Shaffer and Salman Rushdie. Journalism is another one - and indeed a useful one when it comes to getting reviewed, as you'll already have contacts. Neil Gaiman's first book was a biography of Duran Duran; Terry Pratchett supported himself for a while as Press Officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board, writing copy about nuclear power stations. Nobody comes along with the work you really want when you're just getting started out, and you have to make the rent somehow: the result is that many a writer gets a start writing the kinds of things they never would have written on their own. It's not very different from an aspiring actor taking a job in an advert - and that can have its own merits; Anthony Stewart Head was known for years in Britain as the Gold Blend bloke, having turned in a sufficiently good performance (playing opposite the equally effective Sharon Maughan) in a series of coffee ads that they're still among the most famous advertisements in the country. You take the job, and you do it to the best of your abilities.

I used to be a copywriter. I'm also the author of Dads, Girlfriends, Little Angels and, my personal favourite, Smooches, all published by MQP. I wrote a book called The Family Chronicle for Past Times. I've even got a camera-phone picture of Smooches occupying the number-one slot on a Top Ten shelf at WH Smith, which is a higher slot than Bareback occupied in it - I think it got to about seventeen. (If this offends your view of literature, you know what to do: buy more copies! Let's knock Smooches out of its slot.)

These books followed a specific formula: the publishers would select a bunch of pictures from an archive - generally Getty Images - and hand them over to me with the commission: find quotes that are appropriate to these pictures and suit a certain overall tone, properly sourced, preferably out of copyright, and have it back within a month. I'd do these commissions in between writing Bareback.

I maintain to this day it was very good for me. Freelance work gives you a number of useful lessons:

1. It makes you appreciate fiction. It makes fiction, in fact, seem incredibly free and easy. When it's your novel, you can set the style and use any words you like; when the style is somebody else's and you have to comply with it precisely, there's far less freedom of movement.

2. It sharpens your ear for tone. When you're using quotations rather than writing them yourself, you have to listen very closely for discordant notes; anything that's too cynical, too melancholy, too preachy, too flat, too anything, is going to be rejected by the editor. This is excellent practice: it makes you really listen to language.

3. It stops you being a snob. Those books are designed to be easy reading, joke presents, but let me tell you, they're no joke to compose. They take time, hard work, patience and a strong ear for language. They're not cool and edgy; they're not meant to be. They're just nice little presents for people to give each other, and that's fine: I really couldn't say whether Bareback or Dads has given more people more happiness, but anything that adds to the sum of human joy is a good thing.

4. It stops you being too egomaniacal. Having to do exactly what you're told while working on a book that doesn't express any profound truths about your soul is very salutary.

5. It teaches you respect and attentiveness about writing in general. That sales blurb on the back of your cornflake packet probably took somebody hours to compose. A Hallmark card jingle isn't going to win any Pulitzers, but it was written with care and intelligence by somebody complying with a very specific brief. My earliest mentor ran an entire agency of copywriters, and taught me a lot; copy has to be punchy, clear, lively, dynamic - all difficult things to accomplish, and it's a real skill. Copywriters are generally not expressing their own feelings: the Hallmark author who wrote that sappy little Mother's Day jingle may not have spoken to her own mother in years, but by golly, she was given the commission and she did a professional job on it. Novelists may be self-indulgent, but copywriters have to be disciplined.

6. If you're gathering quotes, it's incidentally an education in itself. Where Dogs Dream was a rather tricky commission: a collection of photos of dogs in various poses, to be matched to reflective quotes - I think the sample quote was 'What is the colour of the wind?'. Now, there is no Big Book Of Quotes That Don't Mention Dogs But Sort Of Suit Pictures Of Them: I had to spend every day for a month in the Poetry Library, reading about fifteen books a day, reading till my eyes crossed and the letters danced on the page. I read a lot of poems. I had to, because after a while, I picked up a good overview of the kind of poems that generally get written about landscape, and concluded (a bit grumpily by this point) something that you always conclude at some point during a freelance project: the nature of literature makes it very hard to meet the brief. Poets, I decided, wrote about two things: their own sensitivity, and getting laid. (Which made Smooches a far easier commission, except the book was six times as long.) Landscape poems fell into two categories: this landscape is beautiful but life is poignantly sad (too downbeat), and this landscape is nice but I'm the only one sensitive enough to appreciate it (doesn't mention the landscape enough). While I have cheered up since meeting the deadline, it was at least very interesting to read so many poems at once that I was even in the position to formulate such an irritable overview, and looking back, I feel kind of nostalgic about the whole thing. Lots of those poems were really nice.

7. It teaches you a sense of humour. Try compiling poetry quotes about dogs while reading poems that keep spoiling a promising-looking quote with a mention of the poet's hands. Try finding out-of-copyright quotes - ie, about a century old - that express a modern, warm-and-fuzzy view of fatherhood, all of them necessarily written in an era where the big thing was Respect rather than Cuddles. Being a little cork bobbing on the sea of Literature, caught between the firm brief your employer has given you on the one hand, and the stubborn tendency of literary writers not to compose stuff that lends itself to little pink gift books on the other, and you get a sense of existential comedy that's very beneficial.

8. You get paid for it.

Those were young-and-needed-the-money books, but if I needed the money again, I'd happily do more of them. They were a challenge, and I took professional pride in making them be as good as possible. For many people, I suspect, such books are as close as they may get to great poetry; in that position, I felt it was kind of privilege to be showing people just how great poetry can be. I'd like to think that some people liked a particular poem extract I picked enough to go off and read the whole thing, but even for those who didn't, I picked stuff that was as lyrical and intelligent as I could find, and there's some good writing in those books.

A writer's magnum opus may express the most about their inner life, but it's probably not their whole biography.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

 

I know it's not Halloween yet...

But I'm feeling down, and want to cheer up. So here: an incredible gallery of pumpkins! Go have a look.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

 

Ah, Nick Cave

Here's a link to one of my favourite songs: Where the Wild Roses Grow. Mostly I like it for its hypnotic rhythm and pretty harmonies, but there's also something interesting about the contrast between the song and the video, if you're interested in ballads. (Which I am, and therefore, for the duration of this post, so are you. If not, well, sorry; you can go play Tetris here instead.)


Traditional ballads have a structure you don't often see in modern verse: a stark, montage style, that presents the bare facts without comment or condolence, leaving the reader to make the leaps of understanding and to deal with the bleak story as well as they can. Very often, there's a sting in the tail: take the famous ballad Edward, Edward. We know from the refrain ('Edward, Edward'/'Mither, mither') that a young man is being questioned by his mother: we move from the facts - he is sadly carrying a bloodstained sword - to his excuses - he claims to have killed his hawk or his horse, neither of which she believes - to the awful truth: he's killed his father. Now he can do nothing but abandon his family and wander the world - and there's a twist in the tale: he curses his mother-questioner, as it was her 'counsels' that led him to do the deed. Or, to take another example: Fine Flowers in the Valley (this site includes the pretty tune for it). A woman bears a child, kills it for unknown reasons, sees a child in the Church porch and thinks she'd treat it well if it were her own, only to find that it is a vision - the ghost of her own child? The infant Christ, as in the Gospel of Matthew's 'whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me'? A conscience-stricken or sentimental hallucination? We don't know. We have to work it out, and possibly we can't. That's the horror of ballads: they don't explain themselves. They tell you the bare bones of a happening, and you have to pick them over as well as you can. Traditional ballads aren't so much like hearing a true crime story as they are like stumbling over a body as you walk through the fields.


Modern ballads often don't do that. They tell you the horror quickly: we're hanging Danny Deever in the morning. Often they give the sense of narrating the story as it's happening, a vivid, novelistic device, as in Danny Deever, or James Fenton's outstanding ballads such as 'Out of the East', or they can be narrating post facto - Blake Morrison's 'Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper' is a fine example - but there are seldom suprises in store. The theme in many modern ballads - not all, of course, but in lots - is closer to tragic inevitability, and motive is sometimes clear, sometimes half-clear, but seldom utterly dark, as with the traditional ballads.


Enter Nick Cave. 'Where the Wild Roses Grow' is a strikingly traditional ballad. The story is narrated in two voices with no description, it returns to a refrain, the story is simple, bloody and bleak, and we have no idea why it happened. And if you just listen to it on a CD, the structure is also traditional. We don't know he killed her till the last stanza. We're perhaps a few seconds ahead of the grim climax when we hear Kylie before Nick, having heard Nick before Kylie in the first two verses - but the end is balladically sudden and stark.


And yet, curiously, when we get to the video, the shift is to modern storytelling. The first thing we see are a corpse and bloodstained hands. Danny Deever is swinging overhead: suddenly we're hearing a story narrated with the conclusion already tragically clear. It's notable that Cave doesn't always do this: the equally pretty murder ballad Henry Lee shows him and P.J. Harvey simply sitting side by side, letting the words and music do the narrative with no pictures to help.


Reasons for this may be as simple as the fact that Kylie Minogue looks very pretty in a wet dress - though P.J. Harvey looks pretty in the water as well - or the desire to stage a more dramatic video, in which case the simplest way of keeping the motivations of the characters obscure is to only film after the fictional event has already taken place (if you show them during the story the ballad tells, inevitably the settings and performances will start to fill in details). I have the strong conviction that the reasons were practical rather than theoretical, as that's generally the way in art, but still, it's interesting to see the contrast between ancient and modern in the same song.


(Nick Cave also once picked a short story of mine for inclusion in an anthology, cementing my liking for the man. Go Nick Cave!)

Monday, October 15, 2007

 

Left brain or right brain?

Friday, October 12, 2007

 

This is why you need to be careful about accepting help

Writer Beware and, oh, the internet in general is buzzing at the moment because of an apparent massive plagiarism. An aspiring author, Lanaia Lee by pen-name, was about to release a self-published book when somebody pointed out that the entire first page, at least, was lifted word for word from a book by the late SF author David Gemmell.

Victoria Strauss's explanation has a sad ring of plausibility: Ms Lee had tried and failed to sell an earlier book through a scam agent, and then, having had a falling-out with him and subsequently making peace, found he was offering to help 'ghostwrite' some of her second novel, for a fee of $400 per month, which took about half a year. The 'ghostwritten' bits were direct plaigiarisms, possibly as an act of vengeance from the scammer, or, at best, extreme laziness. The author's been getting abused seven ways from Sunday all over the internet; she's also out several thousand dollars.

This is why you should always be careful about accepting 'helpful' suggestions.

I've already linked to a useful article giving some examples of accidental plagiarism, but here's the link again; it's well worth reading. There is a very basic lesson here: if somebody suggests substantial parts of a story, you have no way of guaranteeing that either their good faith or their memory is reliable. Accepting that kind of 'help' without a watertight contract is the equivalent of picking up food on the street: you don't know where those words have been.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't listen if someone says, 'I think you might try having the princess marry the other knight,' or 'Why don't you have the handsome doctor turn out to be the real killer?'. Those are ideas, and there's no copyright on ideas; when the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail tried to sue Dan Brown for basing The Da Vinci Code heavily on their work, they lost, even though there were close parallels. What gets you into trouble is word-for-word plagiarisms; hence, the rule of thumb is this: don't take any kind of dictation. More than four words in a row, and you're on treacherous ground. It's not unknown for someone to remember a passage and forget that they didn't invent it themselves, even with the best will in the world, and without good will, you're in a lot of danger.

If you really want to hire a ghostwriter, make sure you have a contract. And in that contract, have a clause which states that the ghostwriter is giving you nothing but their own original writing, and that if anybody sues for plagiarism based on what they've written, the legal responsibility is theirs, not yours. Check out their references, read samples of their work, do everything you can to make sure they're respectable.

But really, the only way to be safe is to make sure that every word down on the page is written by you.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

 

300 Devils

... or rather, a point of comparison between two films I've recently seen: 300, directed by Zach Synder based on Frank Miller's comic of the same name, and Ken Russell's The Devils, based on Aldous Huxley's book The Devils of Loudun.

It doesn't seem like a very natural comparison on the face of it, but it struck me as I was watching The Devils: there's a marked similarity. And what they have in common goes to the roots of a storytelling problem: how do we direct audience sympathy? How do we justify characters when there's a debate? The answer, with a certain kind of male director, seems to have some elements of crudity in both films, even though one is fairly crude and one fairly sophisticated. What we see in both films is stories of men martyred for freedom, in which the handling of facts, realism and human value are, when looked at closely, somewhat odd. And the fact that two such different films resort to the same methods says something about the strength of these methods - not necessarily in a good way.

It would be hard to find more different thinkers than Miller and Huxley; similarly, there are tremendous differences in the presentation of the movies. The Devils is an anti-authoritarian arthouse movie involving collaboration with various artists who were at the forefront of the avant-garde in their day, and 300 is, well, not. But they do have something very interesting in common: they are both films based on books which, in turn, were based on real events, and their interpretations of those events say a lot about the political thought of their respective days - 2006 in the case of 300, and 1971 in the case of The Devils.

To summarise the historical stories in brief, beginning with 300, as it's more recent and pretty much everyone will have heard of it. Greece was invaded by the Persian empire under the rule of Xerxes the Great in the fifth century BCE, and the different nation-states of Greece had varying opinions about this. Sparta, a fanatically militaristic city-state, marched three hundred soldiers to the mountain pass of Thermopylae, backed up by around seven hundred citizens of allied Thespia and nine hundred Helots, according to Wikipedia. Blocking the mountain pass, they managed to hold off Xerxes's army to reasonable effect, with the regrettable side-effect that they all died themselves, and Xerxes was subsequently kicked out of Greece by the Athenians, who had a better navy.

(Herodotos's account suggests that the Spartans made a big effort to take all the credit; he spends some time arguing that 'It was the Athenians who held the balance: whichever side they joined was sure to prevail' with the air of a man disagreeing with someone. He also comments that Leonidas sent away as many non-Spartan troops as he could from the battle because he had a 'wish to lay up for the Spartans a treasure of fame in which no other city should share'. All of which suggests there was something of the suicide bomber mentality about them, but Spartan indoctrination started at birth and was designed to override every other instinct. The place was a cult.)

The Devils is the story of a judicial murder that took place in 1634. Father Urbain Grandier, a gifted and successful priest with a talent for making powerful enemies, was accused by the nuns of an Ursuline convent of sending his soul out and possessing them. The nuns, under pressure from priests and supported by Grandier's enemies, performed some extraordinary contortions in public exorcisms, and claimed that the devil was speaking through them to accuse Grandier. Under the orthodoxies of the time, this should not have been evidence - the devil was supposed to be a liar, so even if you heard him accuse someone through a possession, you weren't supposed to believe him - but Grandier had been both a destructive rake and an aggressive factionalist, annoying numerous people including the king's chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, so Grandier was convicted anyway. Consequently, he was subjected to the 'question extraordinary' (his legs were broken in numerous places - 'question ordinary' meant survivable torture and 'question extraordinary' was reserved for people who were going to be killed anyway), and then burned alive at the stake.

Now, here's the thing. There's a very sound case to be made that in both events, the people who ended up dead were, not to put too fine a point on it, complete bastards. Critics have been saying a lot about the Spartans since 300 came out, so I'll summarise it briefly. Rather than being the champions of 'reason and justice' the film claims they were, they were, in fact, the first state with a reasonable claim to Communism - or Fascism, if you see any difference between the two in practice. Every individual's first and only duty was to the state. To this end, they separated children from their parents at the age of seven and subjected them to brutal indoctrinatory training, forbade young men to live with their families or wives until their late twenties at the earliest, institutionalised pederastic relationships, and generally speaking did everything they could to break down family life in favour of absolutist loyalty to the city. They were also slave-holders on a massive scale: the Helots, the people that surrounded Sparta, were in a state of serfdom so profound that the word has lived to the present day as a byword for indenture. Being outnumbered, the Spartans had to terrorise them to keep them in line. Part of every Spartan boy's coming of age was killing a Helot.

In short, while Athens was pioneering democracy, philosophy, economics, sculpture, drama, historianship and all those book-larnin' things that have actually lasted long enough to make anyone interested in the ancient world nowadays, the Spartans were running around on hillsides killing slaves, scorning learning, leaving no written records and giving the world a legacy of pretty much nothing, except for one thing: totalitarianism. You'd certainly welcome a troop of Spartans in your infantry, but they were not much of a gift to civilisation.

The case of Grandier is more complicated. The man had various admirable qualities which ought to be honoured: he died with tremendous courage, stood up for himself under horrendous pressure, was intelligent, talented and apparently charismatic. He refused to make a false confession under torture; you have to admire that. The enmity of Richelieu, which is probably the main reason he ended up at the stake, was not necessarily the result of a bad disposition either: he publicly criticised Richelieu in both speeches and writing, which is merely exercising freedom of speech. However, according to Huxley's book, which is what The Devils was based upon, his personal life was appalling. He was known to seduce numerous women, including Philippe Trincant, the virginal young daughter of his closest friend, who had entrusted Grandier with her education; when Philippe became pregnant, again according to Huxley, Grandier took on the role of priest, told her to bear her cross with Christian resignation and refused any claim she might have on him. Meanwhile, presumably to console himself for the inconvenience, he set about seducing another woman, Madeleine de Brou, widely known for her piety. (He eventually tried to marry her, working up various arguments against priestly celibacy to get around the fact that he'd taken a vow of chastity.) He may have meant well by Madeleine, but looking at the story of Philippe, it's hard to conclude that he did anything other than casually ruin her life.

He was also a highly aggressive man. Again, I'm basing this on Huxley's book, and Huxley is frustratingly vague about what sources he's using to substantiate his interpretation, but as Russell was also basing his film on Huxley, I think it's reasonable to use it as a source. Here's Huxley on Grandier:

There are many people for whom hate and rage pay a higher dividend of immediate satisfaction than love. Congenitally aggressive, they soon become adrenaline addicts, deliberately indulging their ugliest passions ... Almost from the first moment of his arrival at Loudun, Grandier was involved in a series of unseemly but, so far as he was concerned, highly enjoyable quarrels. One gentleman actually drew his sword against the parson. With another, the Lietenant Criminel, who headed the local police force, he indulged in a public slanging match, which soon degenerated into physical violence.

Aggression and courage can go hand in hand, but Grandier as portrayed by Huxley was a man for whom the great joys of life were fighting men and ruining women. Persecution brought out the best in him, but it may be a while before we hear of his beatification.

So, historically speaking, both film-makers were presented with heroes whom it was difficult to like. And here's the interesting thing. Despite their wildly divergent political leanings, both Russell and Synder/Miller pick exactly the same tactic for putting us on their side. They make both the Spartans and Grandier more heterosexual than their oppenents.

Synder's Spartans are so hyper-manly that they tip over into camp - a point so obvious it's hardly worth making; there are at least four separate parodies on YouTube set to the tune of 'It's Raining Men' (if you want to watch one, I'd say this one is probably the best-edited) - but if we look at Spartan Leonidas meeting the Emperor Xerxes, there's no question about which is the butch guy here. Bewjewelled, pierced, kohl-smeared, shoulder-fondling, insinutating Xerxes is enough to send a shiver up the spine of any self-respecting homophobe. Youtube is slightly less obliging when it comes to providing detailed examples of The Devils, but watch the prissy intonation of the priest in this trailer. The two main exorcists are played by Michael Gothard and Murray Melvin, both young men whose slender figures and epicene good looks form a sharp contrast with the sturdier Oliver Reed's performance as the handsome Grandier. The film begins with a bizarre theatrical sequence in which Graham Armitage as Louis XIII stages a performance of the Birth of Venus with himself as Venus, little gold bikini and all. Richelieu, meanwhile, played by Christopher Logue, sits bespectacled and fussy, camply precise as he wheedles the king. Again, the Net is being disobliging with illustrative pictures; the best I can find is this. Scroll down to the sixth row of pictures - just under the pair that includes the full-frontal naked woman, you can't miss them - and you'll see the two actors together in the first picture, a gold-masked king primping it up in the second.

There is, to sum up, a definite consistency in physical type. The heroised men are burly, sturdy and sport facial hair; the Bad Guys are slender, lisping and dainty-featured. You can see where this tends, can't you?

Now, historically this is pretty far gone. The Spartans, macho though they undoubtedly were, had pederasty as one of the foundation-stones of their culture. The simplest way to express the extent of this is to point out that the Athenians - the Athenians, who considered same-sex love an excellent influence on a young lad - thought that the Spartans were all really a bit gay. You know how modern parlance terms sodomy 'Greek love'? Athenians called it 'Spartanizing'. Curiously, a wife on her wedding night would have her head shaved and be handed over to her husband dressed as a boy, presumably hoping anxiously that he could work out the difference if she was ever going to produce that all-important son. Straight men are perfectly capable of being peacocks, but the Spartans had a habit of coiffing their hair before a battle, with a view to dying looking fabulous, that sits very uneasily with the modern association of manhood and rugged scruffiness. Again according to Herodotos, Xerxes sent a spy and was so bewildered at the reports that they were all combing away that he had to summon a Greek collaborator, who explained that 'It is the custom of Spartans to pay careful attention to their hair when they are about to risk their lives', which suggests that Xerxes, too, thought there was something a little frilly about them. A lesbian friend has introduced me to the expressive term 'muscle Marys', which sounds pretty close to what they were. If Synder had wanted historical accuracy (though clearly he didn't), he probably should have watched less Matrix films and more Timotei ads.

Now, I say this not to impugn Spartan culture by calling them gay myself - gay is fine if you can just refrain from culling babies and enslaving your neighbours - but if you're fictionalising according to the customs of a world that associates manhood with hetereosexuality, it may be wise to observe a rule of thumb: when ancient Athens calls you gay, it's time to buy a Pride flag, throw a coming-out party and go with it.

Meanwhile, Xerxes, while undoubtedly a rather emotional man - he's the one who ordered the river Hellespont whipped for destroying a bridge - had seven children by various women, and, as far as contemporary images could record, a fairly enormous beard. (Not in itself a proof of heterosexuality, but still, not exactly as fey as all those facial piercings.) I wasn't there, but in a confrontation between the real Xerxes and Leonidas, the smart money as to who'd shagged more men would be on Leonidas.

(Come to that, even the film, if you look at its actual events, has it pretty debatable. Leonidas apparently spends his youth being flogged for no particular reason, a sadomasochist's dream upbringing. Xerxes, meanwhile, can presumably command any kind of fetish his royal mind can conceive, but what does he actually pick when we see his harem? Hot girl-on-girl action. The absolute peak of depravity, as far as he's concerned, is having ladies in their underwear make out where he can see them. For all the fetish jewellery Xerxes wears, who's the real deviant here?)

Similarly, while Louis XIII was rumoured to be gay or bi, there's no resemblance between Russell's depiction and contemporary portraits, which show him looking fairly ordinary for the period; Richelieu was a trained soldier (though also an invalid), and Mignon, played by Murray Melvin, was elderly, hardly a beautiful boy. According the documentary Hell on Earth, made by Mark Kermode about The Devils, Melvin actually approached Russell and pointed out that he seemed to have been cast as what he called 'an eighty-year-old dodderer', and wondered whether this was a good idea; Russell just told him he was sure Melvin could manage it, as indeed he does, in his elegant way.

Shouting about freedom while fighting a camp opponent seems to be hard-wired into certain kinds of film. Peter Hanly's performance as Edward II in Braveheart comes to mind, a limp-wristed sissy if ever there was one. Now Edward II was very likely gay or bisexual, but I think most people nowadays are aware that that doesn't necessarily make someone effeminate. Actually he was pretty blokey, into things like athletics and mechanical crafts, a big chap who wasn't an especially forceful personality or skilled at managing a war, but was sufficiently interested in women to have at least one illegitimate son. None of that sounds exactly mincing, does it? It sounds more like one of the natural followers on the sports team. Give him a copy of Loaded, and he'd at least have read it for the articles.

Why is this? What is it about yells of 'FREEDOM!' that necessitates a nancy opponent? It speaks of a deep but dispiriting instinct in people, that the way to resolve a moral complexity boils down to: 'Well, but you're gay!' But it's more than that, I think. This is a kind of thinking in which manhood is simply a superior state. Being a man, a Real Man, simply allows you more moral latitude, because you're more human than anyone who isn't a Real Man. Watch this clip, in which Philippe Trincant tells Grandier that she's pregnant and ruined. Despite the fact that it's her life that's been destroyed, metaphorically and perhaps literally as well - women died in childbirth all the time - the camera lingers on him as he pontificates, reflecting entirely on his own spiritual development, while in the background, her performance is frankly strange: white-faced like a pierrot, she weeps less out of fear and heartbreak than out of apparent petulance. The contrast between the reflective man in the foreground and the clownish woman fading into the background is inescapable: Russell is genuinely trying to show Grandier's behaviour as a kind of spiritual experimentation, and hers as mere hysteria. (Something that Huxley didn't try to suggest; but then, Huxley valorised Grandier less.) Now, this is very apt for the period - 1971, when the sexual revolution had been around long enough that everyone agreed that free love sounded good, but before feminism had really got its boots on and started pointing out that men getting to shag every woman they saw with no responsibilities wasn't exactly freedom for everyone. Nonetheless, it's odd.

There's a similar only-certain-people-count thinking in 300. It's been pointed out that there's something oddly un-American about the way that the Spartans, though American enough to consider themselves underdogs - they refer to mighty Persia invading 'tiny' Greece, a geographical epithet only an American could bestow on a country that size, not to mention the fact that Greeks of that era considered Greece to be pretty much the entire world - are not really on the side of the little guy unless the little guy is, well, them. Even if they're not so little. Rather than believing in the triumph of the underdog and the Little Warrior That Could, they resolutely reject the hunchback who wants to support the team and scorn the brave 'amateurs' who are giving it their flag-saluting all. It's right there in the title, in fact: there were seven hundred Boetians at Thermopylae, and about a thousand Helots, but they weren't, you know, really there. To really be in the battle, you have to count. In real terms, there were only three hundred people fighting; all the other guys who got chopped up weren't Spartan. Kungfu Monkey remarks:

'All men are not born equal, that's the Spartan belief.' And these are the good guys. Wow. On the other hand, the independent hero, the guy willing to risk it all and die for freedom, that's classic Americana. To have both in the same movie is whiplash-inducing.

But actually it's not as confusing as it seems. You simply have to factor in the idea that there are, as the French Revolution had it, 'active citizens' and 'passive citizens'; people who get a vote in the country's way of life and people who just kind of live there. That's an idea that does have some American roots, but you have to go back a ways - to 1787, in fact, where it was enshrined in law that black Americans counted as three-fifths of a citizen per head.

(As an aside, though, the point is obvious but still important: The Devils is an English film, and it does the exact same thing. If we're talking about a culture, then it's broader than just America, it's the whole modern West.)

In view of this, it's perhaps less surprising to consider that while both male protagonists have plenty to say about freedom in the films, they didn't stand for unequivocal freedom in the real world. Freedom for Spartans, perhaps, but that ain't freedom for everyone; if the Spartans had their way, we'd still be throwing underweight babies off cliffs. And Grandier's beef with the government, as portrayed uncritically by Russell, is highly debatable: Richelieu wanted the fortifications of Loudun knocked down so that the city would have to be part of France rather than self-governing. Grandier didn't; he wanted Loudun to retain its independence. Well, it may have been a popular opinion at the time, but was Richelieu's aim of centralising power in France an entirely bad idea? Because, you see, it's happened, and France is fine. Do you really want every city in your homeland to function like an armed camp?

If you engaged with that idea, though, it would be complicated. And I think that's the basic reason behind the nancification of historical figures, at least some of whom could probably have kicked the asses of the actors who played them. If you have it be a clash of opinion against opinion, the audience may not inevitably come down on the right side - or if they do, it'll take some subtle writing. If, on the other hand, there's something alienating about one side, then whatever they say is going to sound suspicious. It's notable that in The Devils, we see Richelieu's ideas presented only as he sits neatly in his chair, prating to a king who's merrily shooting captives; this is intercut with Grandier standing on the rubble and making a rousing speech to the soldiers of Loudun. Now, if you staged it differently, what you might actually have is a debate between two viewpoints, but Richelieu's logic kills puppies: a camp four-eyes banging on to a crazy gay king on the one hand; a soberly-dressed, rhetorically fine hero shouting to a cheering army on the other. The audience isn't supposed to weigh the words of either party, but rather their demeanour and context - and those demeanours and contexts are supplied entirely by the director, with little reference to reality. It's rigged.

But then again, you could ask the question another way. What is it about being the Manly Hetero Guy squaring off to the Sissy Gay Guy that necessitates cries of 'FREEDOM!'? A lot of it, I think, comes down to contemporary self-image: 'freedom' is one of those words that you're not supposed to question at all, nowadays, no matter who's using it in any context; hence, it can be a get-out-of-impeachment-free card, a with-us-or-against-us way of saying that whoever uses it must be good. Snyder has famously commented to the press that:

When someone in a movie says, 'We're going to fight for freedom,' that's now a dirty word. Europeans totally feel that way. If you mention democracy or freedom, you're an imperialist or a fascist. That's crazy to me.

As a European, I feel bound to answer: freedom isn't fascist, but the Spartans were fascist. They were the guys who invented the whole live-for-the-state, strength-through-joy, graahh-I-kick-lesser-races-ASS! politics that fascism was founded on. In Europe. Freedom isn't a dirty word, but any word gets dirty if you smear it with bullshit. There are no Teflon-coated words, and freedom wasn't Sparta's game. To quote Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians yet again (just read the darn thing, everyone):

Low RWAs [his term for authoritarian personalities] are downright suspicious of someone who agrees with them when they can see ulterior motives might be at work. They pay attention to the circumstances in which the other fellow is operating. But authoritarians do not, when they like the message ... Heck, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany after running on a law-and-order platform just a few years after he tried to overthrow the government through an armed insurrection.

This is notable in 300, for one striking reason: we're told we're supposed to support the Spartans, but we're never given a very good justification. We never see them do anything unquestionably good. They say they're free, but we never see them ruling with justice, or refusing to honour any man because of his birth - in fact, they positively revere their leader - or have a debate in which all ideas are welcome, even the ones that challenge their way of thinking, or any of that jazz. The Spartans are all tell and no show. Similarly, the Persians pull their king on a big throne and talk a lot about slavery, but what does that mean in terms of rulership? We aren't shown. It's less like a clash of ideologies and more like a clash between two politicians canvassing voters, each with the same basic policy - I want to win - but different ideas about what the right push-button word to woo the voters is. In an era of push-button politics, that's every bit as topical as Ken Russell's pre-feminist sexual libertarianism - but it's an ominous ethos: in 300, it's either talk or fight, and apart from the opposing buzzwords of each side, there's very little to choose.

So again, we're back to manliness. Persia has no policies apart from taking over, Sparta no policies apart from not wanting to be taken over; how to choose between them? Well, the guys who talk about freedom are the real guys; real guys are good, and good people stand for freedom, QED. In effect, it's taking their virtue for granted and attaching traditionally virtuous words to them without really considering what those words mean. There are, as a result of this confusion, two ways to make you support the Spartans: have them say the word 'freedom' - they don't have to live up to it, they can just say it - and have them be straighter than their opponents.

It's a curious contrast in the use of language, because Russell's film, though undoubtedly more intelligent in many ways, seems in its grandstanding to ignore language more thoroughly. People make intellectual points, but The Devils is primarily a visual film, a film of spectacle not speech, and a non-English speaker could follow it perfectly comfortably: the intellectual points are entirely ignorable in the face of the cadenenced voices and splendid pageantry. Rather than having one buzzword, there are no buzzwords; the script is closer to a musical accompaniment than an essential carrier of story. In its way, this is more consistent: if language is going to be secondary, then every word is of equal, though lesser value.

In fairness to Russell, he doesn't appear to have been homophobic in practice. The Devils had Derek Jarman, who was openly gay and a strong campaigner for gay rights and AIDS awareness, as its production designer; the two of them collaborated closely, so evidently Russell wasn't averse to real gay men. And The Devils presented him with a problem: the two bones of contention in the film are demoniac possession and the centralisation of France in the seventeenth century, two controversies so deeply rooted in the thought of an earlier era that it would be very hard for a modern audience to understand the mindset. In Hell on Earth, it's remarked that the sets were deliberately designed in contemporary minimalist style to express the fact that the citizens of Loudun, like people throughout history, considered themselves modern: Russell had to come up with something to reconcile the modern self-image of the characters and the outdated thinking. He doesn't just use homosexuality: the first image we see of Loudun is the gaping skull of a corpse broken on a wheel on the road to the city, dripping maggots from its grinning jaw, and there are plenty of images of violence and horror associated with the king as well as camp flourishes. Russell definitely gives us other reasons to object to Louis than his cross-dressing and flirty mannerisms, and those reasons are good: Grandier is a rake, but he's up against torturers. (And his death is spectacularly horrible.) But it's notable still that Russell excuses Grandier's treatment of women a great deal more than his source, Huxley, does. He also has him talk about freedom a great deal more: Huxley is more interested in 'self-transcendence' and the spiritual implications of the whole gruesome affair. As Russell becomes more political, masculinity starts kicking in, and so does talk of freedom.

300, being less sophisticated, doesn't bother. The homosexuality and talk of slavery - which we don't see in practice - is all we have against the Persians. Notably, while the Spartans talk of Persians fearing the whips, the only people we actually see getting beaten on-screen are Spartans, as part of the agoge training. Both films show people drawing huge machines, but Xerxes's throne is drawn by faceless, shadowed figures who seem little more than scenery, too vague to show any signs of minding their enslaved condition, whereas The Devils shows captive Protestants flogged along, weeping and struggling, clearly visible in the daylight as ordinary men and women being horribly mistreated. Russell retains his awareness that violence has to be a part of tyranny; Synder, celebrating a culture that valorised violence, is in rather a pickle: if he shows violence hurts, that'll make us like the Spartans less, but if he doesn't, then the slavery of which Xerxes speaks is purely notional. He goes with notional, leaving us with a war of words.

In the end, I think we're looking at clumped assumptions. Certain people are assumed to be virtuous a priori. The Devils is a better-made film, and does show Grandier developing virtues as the film progresses, although it's strangely reverent towards him even at the beginning of the story. His virtues develop in sync with his increasing importance, in fact: once he's fighting the evils of Richelieu, he becomes serene, spiritual, courageous, and, notably, he is now occupying a position in which the self-absorption that looks so bizarre in the early scenes of the film now becomes justified. Now it actually is all about him. This isn't necessarily a depiction of a character rising to the occasion; it could equally be seen as the occasion rising to the character, allowing him virtue by allocating him enough relevance to justify his egotism. 300, being a less thought-through film, doesn't trouble to make this transition; the Spartans never have to justify themselves at all, in any way. They begin right, get righter as they go along, and finish right again; audiences asking for proof of their rightness are assumed to be against freedom.

Which leads to the conclusion that in an era that valued different virtues, we might get similar stories with different buzzwords. Eighteenth-century Spartans, as shown in 300, would probably be shouting 'PROPERTY!' However people actually behave, when we start with the unquestioned assumption that they matter more than others, what happens is that whatever words are the fashionable synonym for virtue get placed into the mouths of the heroes, whether or not they're actually in the right, and behaviours that tap into prejudiced unease are plastered to the villains, whether or not they actually have a point. Successful stories always have to appeal to common assumptions - but sometimes those common assumptions don't hold up. As Grandier remarks in The Devils, 'Most religious believe that by crying "Lord, Lord!" often enough, they can contrive to enter the kingdom of heaven. A flock of trained parrots could just as readily cry the same thing with just as little chance of success.' Martyrdom for freedom may be a fine thing, but it's best to think about what the word actually means before we jump too quickly to link it with qualities with which it has, in reality, nothing at all to do.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

 

Me ears are alight

Monday, October 08, 2007

 

What is it with American sitcoms?

More particularly, why is it that every US sitcom I've ever seen always casts the European love rival as doomed and/or evil?

I stopped watching Minnie Driver on Will and Grace after she made a comment about being English and being gay meaning the same thing - racism aside, it was simply too wide of the mark to be funny (I mean, we do reproduce somehow, you know) - but I was around long enough to pick up that she was evil. Carrie at the end of Sex and the City goes all the way to Paris to be with the perfect man, only to find it all falls through thanks to European cold heartlessness and goes back to her Yankee beefcake. Ross in Friends marries English Emily and - now this is really odd - while Emily begins as completely the victim of the situation, running off in horror after he says another woman's name during their wedding ceremony, she gets portrayed more and more as controlling and unreasonable, until finally he gets to leave her. It's too dispiriting to look for other examples, but I'll stake money that there are some. Turn up with an English or French accent in a US sitcom, and somebody there is going to love you and leave you - and they'll always be the leaver, not the leavee.

What is with this? There seems to be an underlying assumption that the Euro-love, who's usually a rival to an American suitor, has something resembling an unfair advantage. I'm not sure what that is; it seems to be either quaint cuteness or mysterious sophistication, possibly both. I hasten to add I'm not saying Europeans are either cuter or more sophisticated than Americans, but there seems to be this odd cultural cringe towards Europe: fall for a Euro, and they'll break your heart so bad you'll realise your mistake and go home.

I'm hoping my American brother-in-law doesn't decide to follow this path himself, but really, why is it that you so seldom see comedies portraying a successful relationship between an American and a European? The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Frasier, and the English girl in question is a) Northern, unusual in any US sitcom (stereotypes would have you believe we're all either Cockney or titled), b) burdened with a large and bizarre enough family to get some English-baiting fun in anyway, and c) working towards being a naturalised American, which sort of removes the stain of her birthplace.

So what's going on? Why is being born in Europe equated with being untrustworthy in love? Come on, enlighten me.

Friday, October 05, 2007

 

A new term for the lexicon

Your Opinion Kills Puppies

The tendency of authors to dismiss a philosophy, political point or other abstract opinion by attributing it to a nasty character. Nobody actually disproves this nasty character's abstract principles - but he goes around killing puppies! You don't want to be like him, do you?

This is often used in dispute scenes between Our Hero and Mr Killspuppies. In such scenes, the message is not 'These people are wrong for a reason', but 'These people are bad so you don't have to listen to their arguments'. The conversation goes like this:

Hero: The sky is green!
Mr K: No it's not, it's blue.
Hero: I don't have to listen to this crap, you kill puppies!
Mr K: Darn right I do! Blue skies rule. Hey look, a little Pekinese! Where's my hammer?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

 

When I run the swimming pool...

There are going to be some changes. Here's my idea:

First, we re-christen the 'slow lane'. Its new name will be the 'laid-back lane'; on its floor will be painted images of really hip-looking fish, and music will be piped into it playing Feelin' Groovy and Easy Like Sunday Morning, and when the lifeguard moves over to that side of the pool, he'll pick up a pina colada and put on some shades. Meanwhile, the 'medium lane' will be re-christened the 'boring lane'. This will remove the stigma from being in the slow lane and re-cast it as cool, and hence all the people who are cluttering up the medium lane because they refuse to admit that moving your legs and arms about once every thirty seconds counts as swimming slowly will clear off and stop blocking the lane for people who actually do swim at medium speed.

Second, all the people who are sitting at the shallow end of the slow lane because their cardiologist/spouse told them to get more exercise, and think that sitting still in the water counts, will be sent home with some nice soap to go take a bath. It'll get their swimsuits just as wet, and I won't tell anybody they didn't actually swim.

Third, there will be heated towel rails in the changing room. Lots of them, enough for everyone, even the slow swimmers; as long as they don't keep blocking the lane, I don't want them to suffer.

Fourth, I want a spa pool. With bubbles. And a fountain. And some pina colada for me as well.

How do you want it improved once my coup is complete? All suggestions will be heard.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

 

3 for 2

I've seen people in various places get confused about this, so here's a factoid:

If you see a book being sold on the '3 for the price of 2' table, that doesn't mean it's doing badly. It's doing well.

It's not uncommon for people to assume that 3-for-2 means that the bookshops have far too many copies that nobody wants and are trying to shift them any way they can. Actually, it means they're anticipating selling so many copies that they can sell them at a discount and still clear a decent profit. It means that these books are the star attractions of the month. The 3-for-2 table is a good place for your book to go, because what it means, above all, is that people will see it. Almost anyone looking for something will drift over to that table, and a book that's on display that prominently stands a much better chance than a book that's just tucked away on the shelf. Books generally only sell 3-for-2 for a month or so, so the hope is that lots of people will buy it during that time, but also that others will see it during that time and then buy it later. If you're on that table, it's good news: I had a month there, and had to keep explaining to people who commiserated me that I was actually delighted.

What people are confusing it with is remaindering. Remaindering is bad, bad news for a book. At best, it means that it's come out in a new edition and they're selling off the old ones. More seriously, it means that sales of the book have slowed down so badly that it's not worth keeping it around any more. The publisher decides not to print or promote any more copies, and sells off the rest at a knock-down price to clear warehouse space. A book that's being remaindered is on its way to going out of print.

So next time you see your favourite author on the 3-for-2 table, don't feel bad for them. They're grinning.

Monday, October 01, 2007

 

Past vs present tense

A question Bran Fan asked a while ago, but I see I never got around to answering, was this:

I was wondering about present vs. past tense. Since about 90 percent of popular fiction is written in past tense, we are taught to read stories that way. Present tense is harder for me to read and harder to write. Wondering why you went that way for Benighted and if you're also writing new work in present tense.

Sorry for the delay, Bran Fan, I only just spotted it. It's a good question, but regrettably I don't have a very good answer. I'll do my best...

I've written in both past and present tense; currently I'm writing in the past, but for other writing projects, I've got no particular plans. When I wrote Bareback/Benighted, I didn't sit down and decide that I was going to write a book in the present tense, or consider very much what tense would be appropriate. I wrote the first chapter in a breathless rush, and Lola's voice started spilling out; in order to capture that voice, I had to use the present tense, because that was how Lola speaks.

In retrospect, my analysis would be something along these lines: Lola is an entirely subjective narrator, generally in a high state of emotion about something, very sensitive to certain things but blind to others. Because of that, it felt somehow right to be hearing her describe things as if hearing an internal monologue. The story is told entirely inside Lola's mind - she's an unreliable narrator, and you have to pick up cues from other characters to realise she's being unfair - and her mind is extremely reactive. Everything that happens triggers an emotional response; every moment is lived intensely; she broods, but she doesn't exactly reflect. For her, the past is always considered only insofar as it has an effect on how she's feeling right at this precise moment, a time to be relived rather than remembered. There is no 'emotion recollected in tranquillity' for her; she feels a reasonable variety of emotions, but tranquillity isn't one of them. To quote Wendy Cope, 'I have emotion - no one who knows me could fail to detect it -/ But there's a serious shortage of tranquility in which to recollect it.' The past tense has a degree of distance that the present leaves no space for, and as a result, it was part of Lola's personality that she should think in the present tense.

But having said that, I like writing in the present tense. That sense of up-close, vivid emotionality tends to trigger a good writing mood in me. I may well use it again. It just feels comfortable. When I read Bran Fan's question and considered using the present again, it seemed less like a challenge and more like a siren call: write in me, write in me... Hopefully this doesn't make it impossible for people to read, because I just like it.

I think one reason why the past tense is more popular is that, when we tell stories in real life, we generally use it, because we're talking about stuff that's already happened. Hence, the past tense is probably the natural one to use in storytelling. It has verisimilitude.

In speech, there's something casual about using the present: 'So I go into this bar, right? And there's this guy wandering around, and what does he do but step on my foot! So I go up to him, and I say to him, I say...' In fiction, it doesn't quite have that effect. It's hard to give a general rule, but I'd say that broadly speaking, using the past tense gives a sense of space, whereas the present is more claustrophobic. You can, in fact, move backwards and forwards in the present just as much - in fact, it can be easier to distinguish tense that way, as anything that's a flashback is automatically indicated by the use of the past tense - but it puts you right here in the action, right now: there's no distance between your 'now' and the narrator's.

I'm not sure why I enjoyed using the present so much. Perhaps I found that up-closeness cosy rather than claustrophobic; it feels warmer, somehow, than the past. Possibly it comes from reading Margaret Atwood. Possibly I was imprinted in English classes, where essays teach us to say 'Hamlet tries to kill his uncle' rather than 'Hamlet tried to kill his uncle,' that is, the sense that fictional characters exist only in the words that their creators use about them. They have no past, because they aren't real; everything they've 'done' hasn't really happened. Hence, using the past tense when talking about them isn't completely accurate - and if that's true in talking about characters, why shouldn't it be true in creating them? Then again, I don't always write in the present tense, so who knows?

I've had people convinced that writing in the present tense is much more difficult; I've even stood there saying, 'Well, no, for me with this character it was easier' and had them still insist that it was incredibly clever of me to write an entire novel in such a difficult form. It's always rather embarrassing when people attribute undeserved admiration to you for taking the path of least resistance, so hopefully this post will resolve it once and for all, and if it happens again I can run away without looking too rude.

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