Saturday, May 31, 2014

Unpopular Opinion: We Never Lose the Child Inside

That's not a compliment.

It's actually an insult to children, since I'm sure many have greater capacity for empathy than many adults ever will. 

In school, we learn how to analyze math problems, science experiments, or motivations in literature, but strangely never everyday human behavior.  Only the most inspired teachers will set aside time to discuss human behavior, and with mandated testing, that time is smaller than ever.  

Otherwise, attempts to understand human thought are relegated to specialized fields: psychology, anthropology, criminology.  We save our deepest fears for private therapy sessions rather than discuss and analyze them in a public group.  Of course it makes sense to want privacy in some situations, but by separating feelings from our everyday lives, by telling ourselves that certain feelings shouldn't "be there," by pretending that they don't exist, we risk painting ourselves and others as one dimensional.

So we walk through life viewing people the way a four-year-old views them.  "He's bad."  "She's good."  "He's smart."  "He's stupid."  "She's mean."  

Based on, mind you, very little information.  A man yells -- he's bad.  A woman frowns -- she's mean.  A man smiles -- he's nice.  Nice people are never mean.  Nice people are friends.  Good people are never bad, and bad people are never good.

If you think that sounds, well, simplistic, look at the comments that accompany news stories.  News stories, especially criminal, paint individuals in very broad strokes.  They become not people, but characters.  The one accused of committing the crime is the "bad" one with no redeeming qualities.  The alleged victims are the "good" ones, who are entirely blameless.  While in certain cases, it does play out that way, reality is often more complicated.  Why doesn't the news ever reflect this?  What does it matter if we learn that the bad guy was sometimes good, and the good guy sometimes bad?  Do they think our tiny minds will explode?    

Perhaps, since "tiny minds" would describe the majority of commenters.  "HE'S SO EVIL!1!1" is the quality of the usual remark.  Or if it's a woman: "SHE'S SUCH A BITCH!1!1!1!1" or "[insert derogatory word for female genitalia]."  Sometimes you get interesting commentary, but you have to wind your way through dozens of knee-jerk comments that would make a five-year-old shake her head.

The celebrity-fashion industry also preys on this simple mindset.  She dumped the Nice Guy.  Therefore, she is mean.  He yelled at fans who were stalking him for ten blocks.  Therefore, he is bad.  Tied up in simple good-bad is the equally pat pretty-ugly.  She is thin and looks good in her clothes.  Therefore, she is nice, because nice people are always pretty (TV told me so).  But she frowns!  Therefore, she is mean.  And old.  

To a celebrity magazine, the worst person ever is a person who was "pretending" to be nice, but is really mean!  Because people can't ever have a bad day.

Yet in reality, people hold conflicting feelings and perform contrary acts all the time.  You can be the kindest person and the worst person within a single hour.  Someone can be friendly and easy going, yet commit acts of abuse behind closed doors.  The nice person who does charity work can also be the person who drinks too much and kills a pedestrian with her car.  The person who seems "mean" might rescue a family from a burning house.

Few would disagree with this.  So then why do we continue to hold such simple views about our fellow human beings?  Why can't we get that it's possible to hold two conflicting feelings in our head at once?

It probably goes back to primitive times, when we had to size up threats quickly.  Are you "safe"?  Are you part of my tribe?  Can I trust you?  

That primitive approach has carried through to this day.  Each new person we meet might get the same quick "Can I trust you?"/"Are you safe?" study.  While understandable in that context, it has carried over into areas where a quick study isn't as useful.  Such as job interviews, where meeting someone for 20 minutes will rarely provide enough information about how that person will perform in the workplace.  Or, of course, reading news articles about people we have never met.  

The result is that people are held -- and hold others -- to rigid behavioral standards that they can never meet.  For example, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (formerly Kate Middleton) has to go about smiling like a wax figure while her every public movement gets reported.  God forbid she wear the wrong outfit, let alone act frustrated or annoyed for even a moment, or the press would rip her to shreds.  

The same can be said for other celebrities, but it is practiced on a smaller scale everyday among the rest of us.  People are routinely misunderstood and maligned.  At best, this could lead to them being shunned by other members of the "tribe."  At worst, this could lead to the person being physically abused, losing freedom, or losing his or her life.

How do we teach more nuanced thinking?  The simplest way would be to start at home, with parents talking to their children about how to look beyond the surface.  If the parents can't be bothered, then schools should create classes devoted to human behavior, taught by those trained in psychology.  These classes should be taken as seriously as any for math, history, or literature.  Of course here is where it gets tricky.  The instructor would need to be someone highly skilled and good at communicating, or he or she could end up causing damage.  Also, given that so many schools have cut their individual counseling programs, it's probably a stretch to expect them to devote funding to classroom study of psychology.  Which is too bad, because its value would be almost immeasurable.  

As for those of us no longer in school, we should get in the habit of saying: "Hey, what am I doing?"  Take time to reason, to question our actions -- like adults.  

More widely practiced nuanced thinking might make it easier to see through "nice" people who are sociopaths, or value "mean" people who actually have no bad intentions.  At the very least, it would probably make a lot of people much happier.  That is something both a child and an adult can appreciate.  

The above image is royalty free from Free Images.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Ten Ways That Jane Austen Is Not a Victorian Novelist

Jane Austen was born in 1775 and died in 1817.  Most of her work was published between 1811 and 1818.  Yet she is repeatedly lumped together with authors from a much later time, such as George Eliot (1819-1880), Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), and Anthony Trollope (1815-1882).  Together, they and many others are referred to as "Victorian authors," even though Queen Victoria didn't come to the throne until 1837.

The reason seems to be because these authors, and more, frequently set their works in the English countryside, where towns were small, life was slow, and old landed wealth reigned supreme.  Of course Victorian authors covered much more than that, as anyone who has read Charles Dickens would know.  And while the countryside did, in many ways, seem suspended in time throughout the 19th century (something I comment on in a Downton Abbey post), it still experienced fundamental changes.  Changes that were beginning during Austen's lifetime, but would be more fully felt later in the century.

So here are just some ways that Jane Austen is not a Victorian author:    

1.  No mention of a train in her works.  Train travel started to become common in the 1840s.

2.  No major depictions of city life.  Whether it's Charles Dickens and London or Elizabeth Gaskell and northern cities, many of the most well-known Victorian authors went to great lengths to describe the smoke, factories, and degradation in cities, which were expanding at a rapid rate.  Whereas Austen kept mainly to the country.

3.  No major depictions of class differences.  Unless you count Fanny Price coming to live at Mansfield Park, which I don't.  Fanny was the niece of Lady Bertram and, while she lived a narrow existence in her youth, it's not like she was a servant.  Whereas Victorian novelists like Dickens, Gaskell, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and Thomas Hardy wrote piercing critiques of classism and class differences.  From slum dwellers to aristocrats, no class was spared.  By contrast, Austen looked at characters from a fairly narrow circle: usually either the old gentry or the newly rich.

4.  No moral issues of the day.  This one isn't unique to Victorians -- plenty of Austen's near contemporaries, like Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote about contemporary moral and political issues.  But not so much about reforming prostitutes, cleaning up the sanitation systems, cleaning up city slums, or women's suffrage.  Those were very Victorian issues and Austen never took part.

5.  Plots are much too easy to follow.  It's a bit stereotypical to say that all Victorian plots are convoluted, but it was certainly in vogue to have a large cast of characters and multiple, almost unwieldy, plot lines.  See, for example, Middlemarch, anything by Anthony Trollope, and do I even need to mention Dickens?  (This also goes for some of their contemporaries in other countries, like Victor Hugo or Leo Tolstoy.)  With Austen, it was: girl meets boy, boy and girl misunderstand each other, girl thwarts selfish relative, girl and boy profess their love and live happily ever after.  See?  Simple.

Girl meets boy, boy obsesses over girl, girl and boy wed...
that's it?
6.  Books are much too short.  Because of the above, the longest Austen novel is lucky to reach the midpoint of, say, a Trollope novel.  While not all Victorian authors wrote long, it was definitely encouraged by journals that published their work in multiple parts.    

7.  The Royal Navy is supreme.  Austen wrote a fair amount about the Royal Navy because at least one of her brothers served, and from novels like Persuasion, the occupation appeared to be a source of rapid social advancement.  That was because Napoleon Bonaparte was a threat during Austen's time, and his attempts to invade by sea gave British ship captains opportunity to seize French vessels and become rich from a system known as Royal Navy Prize Money.  By the mid-Victorian Era, the Royal Navy also reigned supreme -- so supreme that there was far less opportunity for an ambitious naval officer to get rich from battle.

8.  Militias are prominent.  Not to say that there were no militias during the Victorian times (I don't know), but due to the threat of a Napoleonic invasion, they would have been very prominent during Austen's time.  Armed fighting in Victorian novels would have likely involved (1) the Crimean War, (2) battles throughout the extended "Empire," or (3) the Irish struggle for independence.    

9.  No references to Africa or Asia.  Austen's novels don't contain much about The Empire, except for some vague references to an Antiguan slave plantation in Mansfield Park.  Much of Africa and Asia were not on Britain's radar until after Austen's time.  Whereas in Victorian novels, you might see vague references to "battles with the Ashanti" or the like.  

10.  No references to the Queen.  To the extent that any of these authors would mention the Royal Family, if Austen referred to the "Queen," she would likely mean the Queen Consort or Queen Anne (1702-1707) -- not Queen Victoria.   

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Pitch Perfect

It's a bit of a stretch to call Pitch Perfect a musical, though you could argue it has just as good a claim as jukebox musicals like Rock of Ages.  Or better, since it was actually, you know, worth watching.

Pitch Perfect shouldn't work nearly as well as it does.  In most respects its "edginess" has a sanded-off quality: it's the type of movie where having slightly heavy dark eye makeup makes you an alternative freak.  Where deep inner meaning can be found in The Breakfast Club ending.  Where a Mylie Cyrus song is "cool" and "now."

Virtually everything about Pitch Perfect you have seen before.  In fact, I consider it to be Bring It On with a capella singing instead of cheerleading.  Both feature situations where characters assume the mantle of leadership, which includes steering the group to a championship.  Both have the "alternative" character who was reluctant to even join, but who soon schools the rest of the group.  Both have the "cool geek" male love interest.  And both require the group to learn dizzyingly complex routines in a ridiculously short amount of time.  Do they pull it off?  SPOILER ALERT.... they do!      

Bring It On is also highly derivative, but at least it tries something new with the formula, and so is arguably the better movie.  Yet there is something infectious about Pitch Perfect.  Probably a combination of the actresses' chemistry, the generally irreverent tone, and the singing.  Because the singing is fun to watch... even when it's Mylie Cyrus.

Plot Synopsis

The Bellas, an all-female a capella group at Barden University in Georgia, manage to reach the championship round, until Aubrey Posen projectile vomits during the routine.  Determined to make up for her, er, spill, Aubrey -- now the group leader -- and Chloe Beale search for a new group that will bring them the championship.  However, few people want anything to do with the Bellas after Aubrey's embarrassment, and the group sits in the long shadow of Barden's all-male a capella group, the Treblemakers.

Enter Beca Mitchell.  She's only at Barden because her dad is a professor and her tuition's free -- but she would rather be living out her dream in Los Angeles as a DJ.  Beca's dad promises to fund her move if she is still unhappy with college one year later, but only if she makes a good-faith effort to fit in by joining a college activity.  So Beca becomes one of the latest misfit recruits to the Bellas.  Her "sisters" include Fat Amy, a politically incorrect Australian; Cynthia Rose, a black lesbian with a gambling problem; and Lilly, an Asian girl who delivers shocking pronouncements in whispers.

Aubrey wants to keep the Bellas on a short leash, which includes no romantic interaction with any Treblemakers.  But Beca is developing a relationship with "cool geek" Treblemaker, Jesse Swanson, and resents having to conform to Aubrey's dated musical numbers.  Tempers flair, friendships are broken, but everyone finally comes together for that final rally and, well, I've already spoiled the ending.

The Good

Girls Being Girls.  One of the things that is easy to ignore is how well the girls play off of one another.  It's the sort of chemistry that shows like Glee push to achieve, but never do.  It's also worth noting that Pitch Perfect falls within the trend of recent hit movies and television shows that treat relationships between women with respect.  See, for example, Frozen and Orange Is the New Black.  The latter, like Pitch Perfect, showcases not only relationships between women, but women of different body types.  That's not to say Pitch Perfect has anything very deep or meaningful to say about female diversity, but at least it never pretends that all women are a Size 2.

That also doesn't mean earlier movies like Bring It On didn't showcase women.  Besides having a heavily female-centric cast, the running gag was that the high school's cheerleading squad was far more celebrated than its football team.  However, that movie wasn't part of a notable trend.  I can only hope that the current one -- of taking women seriously without centering their experience around romance -- continues.

Humor.  While Pitch Perfect's overall tone feels fairly generic, it does slip in some good humor around the edges -- whether it is Lilly's whispers -- "I start fires to feel joy" -- or the movie playing with the fact that only a few select characters get any screen time.  "It's like you haven't been here all year long!"  "We've literally been here the whole time!"  Even broader gags, like Aubrey's projectile vomiting, are sometimes played for more subtle laughs (puke angels, anyone?).

Fat Amy is a highlight -- she could have been the endless teller and recipient of fat jokes, but thankfully she was written by someone who actually gave a damn, and played by Rebel Wilson.  So she's coy, flirtatious, sexy, self deprecating.  She talks about her "many boyfriends," and we believe her... even before we see her lounging at a pool with them.  

And yes, I too had Kimmy-Jin as a college roommate.            

The Music.  While I mock Mylie Cyrus, Pitch Perfect does actually showcase some great alternative music.  Such as "Bulletproof" by La Roux, or "Titanium" by David Guetta, neither of which I had heard before.  At least I think they're alternative -- I'm even more clueless about popular music than Aubrey.  But if you think these songs sound good individually, they sound even better mixed together.  Who would have guessed "Bulletproof" could fit so naturally with "I Saw the Sign"?    

The Singing.  Which is pretty damn good.  It had to be, obviously.  Actors like Anna Kendrick (Beca) and Skylar Astin (Jesse) have Broadway backgrounds, and there is not a weak link among the rest of the cast.  It is a joy listening to everyone harmonize so flawlessly, even if Pitch Perfect seems to rely heavily on the trope of people instantly being in sync without having ever practiced the song together.

The Bad

It's Been Done.  That's really my biggest complaint.  Again, there is virtually nothing that you have not seen before.  In addition to the time-worn staples noted above, there are:

1.  The audition filled with oddballs, complete with the alternative chick who succeeds by doing it her own way.

2.  The impromptu sing-off/cheer-off between the rival groups, setting up the tension.

3.  The midpoint performance where the group suffers because they don't yet understand how to be true to themselves.  This may include a moment where it appears they've been eliminated from competition, only to learn -- hooray! -- they made it after all.

4.  The wacky judges and/or announcers!

5.  The male love interest winning the protagonist over with song.  Bonus if the song is used in the final performance.

And going back to the "alternative chick schools the rest of the group": really, Beca is the only one in the group to understand how a mashup works?    

Jesse... Eh.  It really only struck me on the second viewing, but Jesse is kind of... stalkerish.  At one point, Beca even remarks upon it, and we're supposed to be like: "But he just cares about you, Beca!"  But really, she has a point.  He works at the same radio station, is in the rival a capella group, is always finding her and trying to engage her in conversation despite her being less than receptive.  The fact that he's charming, sincere, and seems to care about Beca's interests mostly makes up for it.  But jesus, give her some space.  It doesn't help that I think Jesse is a huge cheeseball, though I'm sure I'm in the minority.      

But It's Free!  One small quibble about the plot that I can't let go: you have free college because of nepotism, Beca!  No student loans or paying tuition.  And you want to just throw that away?  It's four years -- suck it up!    


While Pitch Perfect brings nothing new, it is a fun movie with lots of energetic singing performances, the perfect sort of thing to watch when you're in a down mood.  Other musical movies may have loftier goals, but Pitch Perfect more than manages to succeed in its goal to entertain.

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Right: DreamgirlsLes Miserables, Chicago, Mamma Mia!, Sweeney ToddMoulin Rouge, The Sound of Music

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the OperaEvitaRENTAcross the UniverseRock of AgesHairspray     

 The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Give Me Some of That Old Time Description

The sunset was like a bright beam of orange spun cotton
candy dancing on a fiery mound of... oh screw it.

So description.... yeah...

Even though I draw, my writing has always been weakest when I try to describe things.  Objects in a room.  A sunset.  Clothing.  Faces.

Still, I didn't think that my description was that bad until I encountered the view that historical novels should immerse you in the period, fully fleshing out the world to make you feel as if you were there.  See, for example, The Crimson Petal and the White.

I don't immerse.  I describe and move on.  Now and then, I'll mention a detail if I think it's important.  Or I might give a thorough description of a character if that character matters.  But I don't linger.  I rarely paint a scene.

I never thought that lessened my readers' enjoyment, but maybe I've been depriving them.  Maybe I should take the time to really sketch out the surroundings.  After all, it's not as if they all know as much about the Victorian period as I do.  Why take for granted that they could just visualize?

In mulling it over, I realized that I have several reasons that go beyond simply "weak at description."  They suggest the difficulty of finding a middle ground between not enough description and too much.

1.  Get the Scene Moving!

One thing I've learned from both script and fiction writing is that to keep the reader's attention, you need to get the scene moving and now!  You need to start the scene as late as you can -- no time spent lolly gagging and setting things up.  And once you have the characters in conversation, don't slow it down by constantly describing characters' movements.

Such directives tend to discourage scene painting.  I don't mind, truth be told.  That's because when I write, I have an orchestra playing inside my head, telling me when and how to lay down the beats to the music.  Pausing to toss out details like the way a character's hair falls on her head -- again, unless relevant -- just slows me down and takes me out of the scene.       

2.  Seeing the Scene Through Your Character's Eyes.

Another issue, which is specific to my current novel, is that I am uncomfortable describing things that my characters would not have noticed or cared about.  It's an issue that, say, The Crimson Petal and the White manages to avoid by having an all-knowing tour guide narrator from the future.  Such a narrator is only too happy to describe everything down to the door knockers because he knows that we modern viewers have no idea what they're like (well okay, door knockers).

In my case, Rage and Regret is written in close third-person perspective, which is about as close to first person as one can get without being it.  Each chapter is told from a specific character's point of view.  The narrator is not omniscient, but rather he or she (it?) knows only as much as the character.  Therefore, it wouldn't be realistic for the narrator to describe things that the character is already familiar with or wouldn't notice.

So while I would describe the setting as "one of those adorable, quaint towns where everything is made of crumbling yellow stone and the roads are super cute and narrow,"* obviously no character would.  They wouldn't think it was quaint; more likely, they would find it backward.  They would see other things that my eye would gloss over -- defects, embarrassments, inconveniences.  Instead of noting the details of a town they have known their whole lives, they would note the weather.  That makes it a challenge to write vivid description.

By contrast, in my next novel, the main character will be in a setting that is largely foreign to her.  Setting details will be important then, because it will tie in with what the character is feeling, and what options are available to her.    

* And yes, that is a terrible description that would never find its way into any of my books.  

3.  Other Books From That Genre Don't Have Immersive Descriptions. 

If my descriptions aren't immersive, it may be because many of my favorite authors aren't immersive, either.  Writers from the 19th century, in particular, seemed content to just give an initial description and move on, trusting that readers will remember.  There aren't minute descriptions of dung or street mud or the characters' chin hair every other page.  At least, not the authors I read -- Eliot, Trollope, Austen.

Ah yes, Jane Austen.  Even though she is not a Victorian author, she practically pioneered the country house genre.  Yet while she is famous for her clever wordplay, her descriptions are not, shall we say, memorable.  Take the moment where Elizabeth first sees Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice:

"Elizabeth's mind was too full of conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view.  They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road, with some abruptness, wound.  It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; -- and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance.  Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned." (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter I, Volume III)

A "large, handsome, stone building"?  A fairly adequate description.  Then we get to the interior.  "They followed her into the dining-parlour.  It was a large, well-proportioned room, handsomely fitted up."  Also: "The rooms were lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of their proprietor; but Elizabeth saw, with admiration of his taste, that it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendor, and more real elegance, than the furniture of Rosings."

Not bad, you say?  Well here's what Pemberley looks like:

Does Austen's description come close to doing it justice?  When you read "large, handsome, stone building" and about "lofty and handsome" rooms, is this what springs to mind?  Admittedly, both film productions of Pride and Prejudice took some liberties with Pemberley.  Yet an "immersionist" would argue that Austen should have provided a much clearer description -- so that we could feel its intimidating grandeur, see the mold on the ancient greying stones, smell the dank smells, feel the drafts.

There is nothing wrong with wanting those things.  But do they help the scene?  Do they help convey what Austen was trying to convey?  Moreover, without them, is the scene flatter?  Do we feel less interest in Pemberley, or Elizabeth's views of Pemberley?

If readers are all the poorer for Austen's description, it is not apparent.  Millions delight in Austen's language when it comes to Pemberley and everything else.  This despite the fact that current readers would not be familiar with the sights that Austen describes.  (Even in Austen's day, I doubt many had the time and money to tour great houses.)  In my opinion, Austen was never interested in describing every candlestick in the building; she wanted to convey Elizabeth's growing infatuation with Pemberley, which led to her change of feeling toward Mr. Darcy.

4.  A Lot of Description = Over the Top     

Finally, I have never favored a lot of description because it is so easy to go too far.  A few poorly chosen words and a description goes from sensuous to ridiculous.  So many times I read descriptions that try so hard to break apart an image and rebuild it into something new that they make no sense whatsoever.  Sometimes a sunset is just a sunset.

That Said, Should Historical Fiction Attempt to Immerse Readers?

It's a good question.  I think every author of historical fiction should try to make the setting clear and accessible -- especially those writing about lesser-known settings.  But the amount of scenery description should depend on what you are going for: if you want a taut novel that readers can burn through in a few hours, you don't need a lot.  If you want a luxurious novel where readers wallow in the surroundings, you do.  If you want a character-driven novel with a good plot, you might want something in between.

If there is one thing I'm finding, it's that you can have a slim novel (under 100,000 words), a novel with great characters and plot, and a novel with evocative scenery -- but not all three.  You simply can't fit them all in.  There is a reason The Crimson Petal and the White was 850-plus pages, and even then it didn't have enough plot.  Others may argue with this assessment, and I'd certainly be open to hearing about exceptions.  But in my opinion, since you can't have all three, you have to ask yourself which is most important.

I want to improve my scenery description, but it will probably always take a back seat to plot and character.  When I get to write big, long books, I will try to include all three.  Otherwise, my readers will just have to rely on their imaginations a bit more.

The top image was free to use, while the Austen film photos were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Blog Update: A Brief Organizing Note

One project that I'll be undertaking over the next month or so (or whenever I get around to it) is cleaning up my labels and listing them on the sidebar to make it easier for people to search my site by category.  So instead of 5,000 labels under each of my Les Miserables post, I will have just one or two labels like "les miserables" and "musical."  Or if I want to talk about my novel, I might list it and anything related under "historical fiction."  Hopefully it will make it easier for people who have come to this site for a specific purpose to find something.