Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz is a murder mystery nested within a murder mystery nested within a defense of murder mysteries as a literary genre

Paperback cover of Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie Murders gives the whole thing away in the first two paragraphs. And by “the whole thing,” I mean “my own reductive interpretation of what the novel’s overarching meaning is.”

If the image isn’t already a bit of a cliche, it’s rapidly becoming one. It seems lifted from advertising targeted at Women of a Certain Age (basically, over 29), selling them the ultimate luxury of just getting to relax for a couple of hours. But it’s still a perfectly concise way of establishing the whodunnit as a guiltless pleasure.

The protagonist and narrator of the book has settled into her apartment on a rainy night, equipped with a bottle of wine, a pack of cigarettes, and a bag of Doritos, ready to read the manuscript for the latest in a line of formulaic murder mysteries. “What could be better?” she asks.

Our hero has every right to be jaded about this book, since she’s edited every book in the series, she’s got a contentious relationship with the author, and she spends her entire life immersed in a publishing industry that categorizes every book as either a trivial entertainment or a life-altering masterwork, with little in between. But she remains a fan. And being intimately aware of all the tricks and gimmicks doesn’t ruin the appeal of them, but adds to their charm and the pleasure of working out their puzzles.

When I was looking for book recommendations a while back, that kind of comfortable, familiar, and engaging reading-for-entertainment was what I was hoping to find, having exhausted all of Agatha Christie’s books (apart from the Miss Marple ones, which I never liked) back in high school. Reviews of Magpie Murders made it sound perfect: a pastiche of Christie and other’s traditional murder mysteries, from the author who created the Midsomer Murders TV series. All embedded in a clever meta-fiction, in which the mystery novel gives clues to solving a larger mystery in the “real world.”

Even the positive reviews of Magpie Murders tend to describe it terms of pastiche or mimicry, and the novel would’ve been a virtuoso achievement even if it had been just that. The book changes voice seamlessly and effortlessly, not just between characters and not just between styles of writing, but between different qualities of writing. Trying to mimic both a pretentious and self-important author and a well-meaning but talentless writer is to me the literary equivalent of an actor doing a character with an accent trying to mimic another character with an accent, all through a ventriloquist dummy. But Horowitz fearlessly adopts different voices for entire passages, on top of including clues and red herrings for multiple murder mysteries, and an additional layer of anagrams, acrostics, puns, and allusions throughout.

And because the book is a murder mystery narrated by a character who edits murder mysteries, Horowitz frequently draws attentions to the book’s gimmicks and puzzles and explains how they work, but somehow, they still work. It’s much like a magician who explains sleight of hand and misdirection to the audience, and then immediately pulls off the trick anyway.

But as impressive as Magpie Murders is just as a smart and confident recreation of traditional murder mysteries, I think there’s an additional layer to it: a recurring assertion that there doesn’t need to be an additional layer to it.

It’s a love letter to mid-century murder mysteries, but it’s also a self-aware defense of them that rarely comes across as self-aware or defensive. Horowitz acknowledges all the tropes and criticisms and limitations of the genre, either directly or indirectly. Then, he asserts that those criticisms are either irrelevant or miss the point entirely, because they underestimate the skill and artistry that goes into writing a good murder mystery and why they’re so beloved by their audiences. They needn’t be life-altering works with profound insight into the human condition, but that doesn’t make them pointless garbage, either.

Part of what impresses me is that it could’ve all gone so horribly. Descriptions of Magpie Murders make it sound like the literary equivalent of the Scream movies: deconstructions of a genre that still work as well-executed and entertaining examples of the genre. As much as I love the Scream movies, they are full of that late-90s self-aware pointlessness, not really saying much about horror movies apart from “we get it.” The only gratuitously self-aware bit in Magpie Murders is the repeated reference to Midsomer Murders, which comes across half as Horowitz’s wink at the reader and half as an acknowledgement that he’s aware of the similarity in the titles but it’s given that title for a reason.

The story-within-a-story gimmick the Scream movies introduced with Stab in the sequels took the self-awareness even further, and it’s the perfect example of something clever from the 90s that now seems insufferable. It’s a defensive crutch, more concerned with letting the audience know that they’re in on the joke than with saying anything meaningful. But I don’t get any sense of condescension in Magpie Murders to the Atticus Pünd half of the story; if anything, the book feels like a love letter to that type of story written by an unapologetic fan.

The examples of “bad” writing in Magpie Murders are used in a subtly but significantly different way. One example of clunky an amateurish writing isn’t mocked, but instead is given some amount of sympathy from our professional editor protagonist, who suggests that writing talent is less of an innate gift and more of a skill. The other passage get a much harsher treatment, because it’s a pretentious and overblown attempt to mimic an “important” writer, written by someone who’s sneeringly dismissive of murder mysteries as trite and pointless. It seems to have little sympathy for the affectations of authors striving to make Great Art. Instead, the entire novel has a recurring theme praising the virtues of well-organized, readable, and accessible fiction.

At the beginning of the book, Ryeland (who seems to be speaking for Horowitz here, at least) acknowledges the life-changing power of books — but she includes Never Let Me Go and Atonement along with the Harry Potter novels, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and 1984. Some led the reader to a profound insight, some had cultural significance, and some were considered just popular entertainment but still had a huge impact on readers’ lives. It’s a rejection of the idea that the power of a book consists entirely of what a great author embeds within it. It says that the real power of a book is the result of a combination of author, a moment in time, and a reader’s interpretation.

Granted, all of that is itself a reductive interpretation from someone who’s always hated the Art vs Entertainment argument. Several times over the years — too many times — I’ve gotten in arguments with people who use “entertaining” or “a fun read” with a dismissive sneer, and who insist that a work has to be “challenging” to have any merit, and that accessibility is mutually exclusive of importance or significance. I say that art is ultimately communication (even if the idea being communicated is “interpret this for yourself”), and I’ve got little patience for pretense and artifice. So I might be reading too much into this overarching theme of taking the hot air of literary snobs. Even if that’s the case, I think Magpie Murders still stands out as an ingenious and expertly-written example of detective fiction.

Even though I did totally predict the murderer right away. Which leads me into a final couple of observations which are in mild spoiler territory. Please don’t read the rest of this until after you’ve finished Magpie Murders.

First: all the focus on anagrams and acrostics and hidden clues has left me with the nagging feeling that there’s an additional layer to the book that I’ve missed and am too dense to pick up on. I purposefully read without trying too hard to solve the puzzle in advance, and I definitely don’t have the patience to go back and look for more anagrams or common themes in the names of characters. But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to be found in “New Game+” mode.

Second: I loved that the elaborate years-long puzzle throughout the series of books was revealed not as a momentous stroke of genius, but a vulgar prank by a snob who died unsatisfied because he was never able to appreciate his actual talent. It rises above the whole argument and leaves literary snobs to their own insecure futility.

Third: There seem to be a couple of threads that were left hanging; I’m fine with them being red herrings, but I wish there were a definitive resolution to them. And if there was a definitive resolution, I was too dense to pick up on it. Is there more to Andreas’s past at the school? What was in the photos that were mentioned and dismissed by the “real” vicar’s wife? Is there any significance to the fact that Conway created pseudonyms for so many characters but left the name Jack Dartford unchanged? What about the mentions of pedophilia that never get a follow-up? Is there an additional significance to the final paragraph, or is it just a metaphor? In the beginning of the book, Ryeland says that real life doesn’t offer all the tidy endings that fiction does, but this is also a book in which the villain sits quietly while the protagonist explains the whole sequence of events, so….

Fourth: I’m happy with my interpretation of the book as being a celebration and defense of reading murder mysteries gleefully and unapologetically without being concerned about their literary merit. But I also appreciate that the last paragraph adds “…in moderation.” Horowitz seems to suggest that he doesn’t want Ryeland getting so wrapped up in fiction that she neglects to live her life. Ultimately, he seems to acknowledge the value of a great book but treats the publishing industry as shallow and self-important.

10% Chance of Soft Rains

Reading The Martian Chronicles in 2019 feels wonderfully transgressive and optimistic, and is the best example of Ray Bradbury’s genius that I’ve read so far.

I just finished reading The Martian Chronicles as a 48-year-old man in 2019. Or, it seems appropriate to point out, I had it read to me by my global internetwork-connected smart phone connected to my half-electric car as I drove on an interstate highway to my job helping to make computer software for virtual reality headsets.

The reason I point all that out is to acknowledge that the book is so well-known and highly-regarded at this point that I don’t have much to add to what’s already been said about it, except the accident of timing means I can say what it feels like to read now. (I’d read “There Will Come Soft Rains,” probably the best known of the book’s stories, as a teenager). The events of the book are due to start about a decade from now.

At least, it’ll start a decade from now according to the edition I read. Apparently, the original started in the 20th century’s favorite year for science fiction, 1999. Which was in reality a dud, seeing as how we didn’t start settling Mars, the moon did not escape from Earth orbit, and the sky didn’t even turn all purple, nor were there people running everywhere. Instead, to those of us in the United States, it just meant the Y2K scare and school shootings, or in other words the combination of dull stupidity and cyclical horror that have pretty much defined the 21st century so far.

In retrospect, just the act of pushing the dates of the novel back seems like an optimistic move. It’s like hitting the snooze bar on human advancement, confident that in just another 30 years, we’ll have gotten our shit together enough to be able to realize the kind of dystopian future people imagined in 1950.

Reading the book in 2019, that sense of optimism and faith is the part that feels the most curiously dated. More than all of the analog technology, or the belief in the coming ubiquity of rocket-based travel, or the casual assertion of breathable atmosphere on Mars, or blue sand or canals. Bradbury asserts in the forward that it’s not a work of science fiction. It quickly becomes clear that Bradbury has no interest in futurism, either, as the book remains un-self-consciously locked in a perpetual 1950. Not just in technology but in society: attempts at humor are steadfastly in same school as The Honeymooners or The Flintstones, women are flighty and gossipy and look to their husbands for assurance, and American exceptionalism extends to space. The Martian Chronicles is a story about America, and humans’ attempts to turn Mars not into a New Earth but specifically a New America.

For the most part, though, it’s charming and wonderful. In “The Silent Towns,” the attitude finally overwhelms everything else, and the attempt to be light-hearted instead comes across as misogynistic, fat-phobic, and mean-spirited. But for the rest, it’s a kind of benign chauvinism that I hadn’t realized I’d been missing.

It’s undoubtedly a vision of a world dominated by white American men (saying “straight” is irrelevant here, since it’s a universe where non-straight people don’t even exist), but it’s not the stupid version we’re surrounded by today, full of people wallowing in willful ignorance, taking their refusal to acknowledge their own biases and blind spots to a ridiculously absurd extreme. Bradbury writes about the pioneer spirit without forgetting to acknowledge everything that the pioneers helped destroy.

Actually, much of the book reminded me of Epcot. I’m not sure if that’s because I know of Bradbury’s involvement with Spaceship Earth, or just my pathological need to associate everything with Disney parks, but whatever the case, it was a wonderful sense of nostalgia for a feeling of optimism that everyone seems to have abandoned. The Martian Chronicles isn’t too concerned that Mars doesn’t actually have canals or a breathable atmosphere; it’s just an inconvenience that can be overcome not with any particular technology but with pure human ingenuity.

So reading the book in 2019 felt almost transgressive. It was a break from the faux Progressives who’ve introduced a kind of New Puritanism, which would insist we focus on the “problematic” in the work instead of appreciating the beauty of its intent. The Fahrenheit 451-esque story “Usher II” felt as depressingly relevant now as it probably did when the Hays Code and HUAC were still fresh in memory. Resisting my first impulse to dismiss the stories as dated because of their antiquated technology, or their chauvinistic or sexist assumptions, meant that I was able to appreciate the universal insights that Bradbury was exploring. Unlike, for example, The Illustrated Man, which felt more fixated with Twilight Zone twists than universal experiences.

I think the story in The Martian Chronicles called “The Musicians” perfectly captures the tension that makes this book transcendent, and in fact the qualities that make Bradbury’s work such masterpieces. The story is about a bunch of Earth boys desecrating the corpses of Martians in their dead cities — Martians who were more or less murdered by humans, in fact — and Bradbury somehow makes it simultaneously a lamentation of the tragic needless loss of life, and a pitch-perfect celebration of boyhood in America. It loses nothing because of its lack of diversity; in fact, it’s that specificity that makes it universal. Bradbury so wonderfully understands that very specific experience that he recreates it perfectly. Even for those of us who spent our childhoods mostly indoors and afraid of breaking the rules.

Bradbury’s ability to perfectly convey how something can be simultaneously horrible and beautiful, sinister and nostalgic, and joyful and tragic, is beautifully realized throughout this book. Yes, much of the book is about Americans and the optimism of the pioneers, but ultimately it’s about how civilizations rise and fall and will continue to do so for eternity. He can write about the wonderful comfort and serenity of life in small-town America while simultaneously acknowledging what had to be destroyed for it to come about, how fragile it is and susceptible to corruption, and how it will inevitably fall to ruin, just as every wonderfully comfortable and serene world must.

That unshakeable faith in the inevitable death that leads to the inevitable rebirth imbues the entire book with an optimism that I hadn’t even noticed had disappeared. I can now recognize so many more familiar things in “There Will Come Soft Rains” than when I first read it. I have the lights in my home scheduled to turn themselves on and off, and appliances programmed to make me coffee, and devices by the bed to answer my questions, and of course my complete reliance on the handheld pocket computer that was so alien that Bradbury’s stories didn’t even speculate on it.

But even as darkly sinister as that story is, it still has faith in a world that will survive us. Bradbury’s stories mention an Earth that maxes out at around two billion people, where the devices controlling the house aren’t all aggressively corporate-driven and designed to have us consume even more than we can keep on reserve, and where nuclear warfare is the worst we could possibly do to the world. Even as Bradbury wrote about callous Earth men tossing garbage into the Martian canals, he seemed to see the damage it did more as disrespect than active destruction. He captured the risk of our destroying each other, but underestimated our desire to take as much of the Earth with us as possible.

So maybe we should take comfort in “The Green Morning,” where Bradbury conjures Johnny Appleseed to describe how humans can create an atmosphere on Mars with a combination of American tenacity and Martian magic. If Bradbury can make me vividly remember my boyhood in small-town mid-century America that I never actually had, maybe we can use that tenacity and optimism to stave off the collapse of our civilization for at least another thousand years or so.

One Thing I Love About “Stories of Your Life and Others”

I think Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang is a work of genius that dispels my assumptions about science fiction vs science fantasy

From the movie Arrival, based on “Story of Your Life”, and also a billion memes

Whenever I meet another person who’s significantly smarter than I am, my brain immediately and involuntarily starts doing this thing where it starts looking for deficits. “Okay, sure, she may understand linear algebra in a way that I’ve never been able to, but I’d be able to understand it too, if I hadn’t devoted so time to developing a sense of humor to be a more well-rounded person.”

It’s complete bullshit, of course. And it should go without saying that it never actually works, because I don’t live in an 80s teen movie where people have one defining trait. And almost every time I’ve met someone frustratingly smarter than I am, they’ve also turned out to be creative, imaginative, and often funny. (And occasionally, infuriatingly, really good-looking as well).

It was a familiar feeling reading Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, a collection of short stories seemingly written by someone better than me at understanding linguistics, semiotics, and what it fundamentally means to be human.

Usually my attempts to read science fiction end in failure, even though it’s always seemed like I should be a fan. I think I bounce off “real” sci-fi for the same reason I didn’t enjoy taking astronomy in college: the amazing things that we’ve learned about the cosmos aren’t the result of seat-of-your-pants jaunts on a faster-than-light spaceship navigating through asteroid fields, but from centuries of earthbound study. On a purely intellectual level, I can appreciate the spectacular amount of work and brilliant insight that goes into just gathering images from outer space, but still I was disappointed that astronomy classes turned out to be 1% cool pictures of nebulae and 99% geology and physics. Science fantasy is flashier and more fun than science fiction, and both are orders of magnitude more fun than actual science.

It’s appropriate that immediately before this book, I read Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke for the first time. That’s long had a reputation as being a classic of “hard” science fiction, and for good reason: its drama comes almost entirely from insurmountable limitations of physics (along with some conjecture about interplanetary politics) instead of human interaction. Its characters speak in dry monologues, the attempts at humor are almost unforgivably corny, and there’s an air of just-give-her-a-smack-on-the-ass sexism that pervades the whole thing, although to me at least, it comes across as more musty and dated than genuinely misogynist. The only real personality in the book is that Clarke comes across as way into polygamy.

The preface to the edition of Rendezvous with Rama that I read acknowledges the weakness of character development, but gives it a pass because the book isn’t “about” that. It’s a stereotype about science fiction that I’ve long just accepted as true: a story can either have scientific rigor or good character development, but never both, because they’re inherently mutually exclusive.

The aspect I love the most about Stories of Your Life and Others is that it completely refutes that idea. It takes concepts from science fantasy (and high fantasy), tells them with the rigor of science fiction, and uses them to explore some of the same ideas as contemporary literary fiction. Most of the stories in this book are deeply, profoundly human.

And they don’t use the crutch of direct allegory to make their point — like using the story of an android to ask what makes us human, which can be well-told and effective, but is still processed intellectually. The stories in this book explore a fantastic premise in all its permutations, layering on idea after idea to leave the reader with less of a conclusion and more of a feeling. I didn’t understand “Division by Zero,” for instance, and I still don’t. Even (especially?) after reading Chiang’s afterword describing the impetus for the story, I don’t feel like I can understand the depth of its premise, or fully appreciate the implications of its premise. And still, it left me feeling shaken, in a way even more troubling because I couldn’t explain it. I had to put the book down and couldn’t go back to it for a couple of weeks.

That’s why I can’t say I loved the book, even though I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to call it genius. I do think the stories at the end of this collection were well told but felt either a little predictable or a little too direct when compared to the others, but honestly only suffer when compared to the strength of the first few stories. But more than that, it took an emotional toll on me, as if I’d read seven complete novels in the time I’d intended to read one. I’d expected a short story collection to be a light read, but it was anything but. These short stories don’t feel like sketches, but like sucking on bullion cubes of densely-concentrated ideas.

I haven’t yet seen Arrival, but it’s such a beautiful idea that makes perfect sense for a movie translation. And I’ve already got Chiang’s latest collection, Exhalation, but I’m not eager to jump into it right away. One of the review blurbs calls it “relentless,” and there’s a story called “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” both of which make me think I need to take a break first and read something lighter. I can tolerate somebody being smarter than me, and I can tolerate somebody being more insightful than me, but pulling both at once just seems unfair.

Roughage: A Novel

A somewhat interesting question arises from an uninteresting debate: can books be both cinematic and literary? How much can we expect to get from a work of art, if artists deliver everything to us in an easily digestible manner?

BrankflakespackageEven by the already low standards of internet-based ponderings over the nature of art, the whole question of “Should adults read Young Adult Fiction?” is a particularly stupid one. Sites don’t raise it to encourage meaningful conversations, they raise it to take advantage of Harry Potter and Hunger Games traffic. Even now, bloggists are likely dusting off their essays on the modern myth-making of The Avengers.

And even when the discussion doesn’t fall into the Danielle Steele vs. Madeline L’Engle trap, the people bemoaning the dumbing-down of American society never have to substantiate their claims. We’ve gotten so accustomed to the idea that of course reading anything non-literary is a guilty pleasure at best, that we immediately go on the defensive. We read smart stuff too!

So it was interesting that an entry in the Books & Beer podcast raised the first non-immediately dismissible argument I’ve heard around the topic. One of the podcasters, Greg Brown, makes the claim that books usually labeled “young adult” are primarily plot-driven and use “cinematic” storytelling. But I was disappointed that the claim just lay there and wasn’t taken any further.

On Twitter, Chris Remo expanded on that by saying that cinematic storytelling is focused on delivery: “pushing” content and meaning to the audience, instead of encouraging readers to “pull” it for themselves. He went on to say that it’s unfortunate to see another medium forced into the same stylistic constraints as movies (presumably, as video games, comics, and television already have been). And finally, he said that this style of storytelling actually discourages interpretation; it trains audiences not to analyze the meaning of a work too deeply.

All interesting, reasonable points!

Before I go into how wrong they are, a disclaimer: I’m completely side-stepping the clunky “young adult” label, which invariably spins off into unproductive tangents. There are plenty of shallow books aimed at adults, just as there are plenty of great books that are typically categorized as being for children. Instead of “adult” vs “young adult,” I think it’s a lot more interesting to talk about genre fiction vs. literary fiction, and plot-driven storytelling vs. (for lack of a better word) “introspective” storytelling.

Art Finds a Way

First, I can definitely sympathize with the argument. When I first read Jurassic Park, I absolutely loved it. I read several of Michael Crichton’s books afterwards, and Jurassic Park remains the most successful example — both artistically and commercially successful — of his formula: take a concept rooted in “real” science, and then spin it off into an adventure story that gives a Popular Science-level overview of the concept.

Jurassic Park was my first introduction to chaos theory and the idea of “the butterfly effect.” It was filled with genuine quotes from actual scientists, and had its own wisecracking scientist on hand to explain everything! It was based on a fascinating concept spun off into speculative fiction, but based most of its action on actual facts: there really are species of frogs that change their sex when the population becomes unbalanced. And even though he took extensive liberties with the details, he gave a genuine overview of contemporary knowledge of dinosaurs. The velociraptor and dilophosaurus were actual species, which was a big deal for those of us whose knowledge of dinosaurs began and ended with The Flintstones.

But then I read a quote from Crichton, where he was asked what he was working on while writing Jurassic Park. He (half-jokingly) replied “I’m writing the most expensive movie ever made.”

I felt like I’d been duped! He wasn’t writing a real book, he was just writing some shallow pre-novelization! Just trying to cash in. I’d gone away from the book believing that I’d actually learned something in a clever and entertaining way, but that just made me look as stupid as if I’d said, “Yeah, The Matrix really opened my eyes, taught me a lot about what it means to be human.”

The problem with that type of thinking, of course, is that I did actually learn something. It’s not like Ian Fleming’s claim in You Only Live Twice that sumo wrestlers can suck their testicles into their body; most of the details included in Jurassic Park were based on actual contemporary scientific understanding.

But of course, facts aren’t meaning. And that’s what I thought was most clever about the book (and still do): Crichton used his formula for double duty. One of the concepts — cloning dinosaurs from DNA found inside a parasite — drove the plot, while the other — concepts of chaos theory — drove the theme.

While I’m not going to claim that the book is earth-shatteringly profound, I have grown to have a renewed appreciation for what it says about arrogance and knowledge. Obviously, it’s a contemporary spin on Frankenstein, with the theme of “tampering in God’s domain.” But it’s also an observation of the changing role of science at the end of the 20th century — we’d moved away from the unbridled optimism of the turn of the century, when we had every reason to believe that we could control and understand everything if only given enough time and enough study. We were starting to come to the realization that the universe is made of systems that are almost inconceivably complex. We’re no longer aspiring to become Conquerors of the Unknown; we just want to better understand the unknown, so that we can coexist with it.

And that message is still in the book, no matter what the motivation was for writing it, no matter how many good and bad movies were made from it, and no matter how entertaining, accessible, and “cinematic” it was. Sphere and Congo? Cinematic and also predominantly dumb. Rising Sun? Cinematic and also tedious, pedantic, and just shy of being irredeemably racist. But the material that’s “real” in Jurassic Park isn’t diminished or made any less real or less valuable just by virtue of its being wrapped in an adventure story.

The question remains, though: is my comprehension of that material diminished by the fact that Jurassic Park hands it to me in the form of a wisecracking scientist and a rampaging T. Rex? Can I really say that I “get” it, when I didn’t have to work for it?

Lost in Translation

Before you can talk about that, it’s necessary to figure out exactly what’s meant by “cinematic” writing that’s supposedly common to Young Adult fiction, and the “stylistic conventions” that are infecting real literature.

I’m assuming that it means plot-driven stories with writing that is more descriptive than interpretive. Since The Hunger Games was such a quick and effortless read, and since I read it in the middle of its major motion picture hype, I’d assumed it was a perfect example of that. But it wasn’t until I actually saw the movie adaptation that I appreciated how much the book actually does, thematically and stylistically.

After the movie, I was talking with someone who’d read the books, and she said that for the first several pages of The Hunger Games, she had no idea that the protagonist was female. I didn’t read the book until well after it’d be synopsized all over the place, and until after the movie casting had already been announced, so I knew from page one that it was written from the first-person perspective of a young woman. But going back over it, I saw that it’s deliberately left ambiguous, until she first speaks to another character. That’s a pretty big deal. For a book that adamant about presenting its target audience with a strong, responsible, and flawed but heroic female role model, it’s absolutely crucial that she’s introduced in terms of her thoughts and her capabilities, and not her appearance.

The part of the book that bothered me the most was the over-reliance on a teen love triangle, the “oh dear which cute boy shall I choose?” that’s not only a well-worn staple of stories aimed at teenaged girls, but which seems to undermine the whole notion of an independent female role model. In the movie, it’s every bit as shallow and predictable as you’d expect: teen romance set against Battle Royale. That cinematic adaptation — the switch from a first-person perspective to a third-person one — makes all the difference, and it highlights the novel twist in the book that the movie lacks.

In the book, she’s constantly aware that she’s on camera, and she’s constantly playing to the camera. The line between reality and what’s done for show is so blurred, that she’s never quite aware what she’s really feeling: is she actually falling in love with this guy, or is it just keeping up appearances? And again, for a novel targeted at an already emotionally tumultuous audience dealing with peer pressure and constant exposure to the media, that’s a big deal. It forms the basis of half the novel, but it’s never quite spelled out explicitly.

This Section is About Fevers and Fight Scenes

As for stylistic conventions, I’m going to invite jeers and/or swooning from the literary-minded people in the audience, by comparing The Hunger Games to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (Incidentally: I’ve seen The Road dismissed as “genre fiction,” but anyone who doesn’t acknowledge its literary merit is someone I just have no common frame of reference with).

I haven’t read enough young adult fiction to know whether the claim that most of them are written in a “cinematic” style has any merit. Since there’s no way in Hell I’m ever going to read any of the Twilight books, I’ve only got Harry Potter. And those books would definitely apply. They’re told in an absolutely conventional style; every scene and every moment is given roughly the same weight.

But I’d insist that The Hunger Games is pretty impressive, stylistically. It’s not what I’d call “experimental,” but it does have the most remarkable pacing of any book I’ve read in recent memory. The shift between slower, more introspective moments and bursts of action is seamless. What’s most interesting to me is how the actual structure of the writing changes: as the book transitions from the build-up to the games themselves, the paragraphs transform. Sentences crash into each other. Details that would’ve warranted a couple of sentences earlier in the book now only get a passing reference, as if everything is happening at once, glanced out of the corner of the reader’s eye. Later, when Katniss is drugged, the sense of time seems completely elastic, scenes are stretched and compressed, and you’re never quite sure if what you’re reading is real or a hallucination.

The Road establishes mood with its structure, as well. Its characters remain nameless, and its dialogue remains barely offset from the rest of the text, all to give the story the quality of a fable. It repeats words over and over — you’ll be reading a lot about grey ash — and uses long stretches of sentences all with the same rhythm and cadence, all to drive home the feeling of oppressive doom and despair. There are relatively few action sequences, but in those sequences, the rhythm of the sentences transforms. The structure of the sentences conveys as much of the mood as the words themselves: an unexpected word suddenly appears in a long stretch of sameness, just as a threat suddenly appears in a bleak expanse of featureless ash. Later in the book, the main character suffers a fever, and we lose track of what’s real or imagined, and time becomes elastic.

And I’m going to be super-bold and make the claim that on a purely stylistic level, in those scenes, The Hunger Games actually did it better. With one, I never lost the sense that I was reading about a character involved in a life-or-death struggle. In the other, I couldn’t maintain that sense of detachment: I was actually getting tense as Katniss scrambled away from one attack after another, and I felt as if I couldn’t keep up with the action as quickly as it was moving on the page. With one, I was aware that I was reading about a character with a fever; in the other, I was genuinely disoriented, unable to tell what was real and what wasn’t.

Of course, the books are in no way equal in “weight,” in what they’re setting out to accomplish, or in how much of the meaning of the book is conveyed through stylistic choices. The ending of The Hunger Games sets up a sequel. The ending of The Road is completely rapturous, a sense of the inherent beauty of humanity that can be understood only after a prolonged journey through Hell.

But both books demonstrate how the reader’s interpretation of a book isn’t wholly cerebral, but visceral. It’s immersive, exploiting the direct connection between the creator and the audience that’s achieved when the medium disappears. That kind of direct connection would seem to be inherently “cinematic.” But it’s not merely descriptive: it doesn’t tell you that the character is disoriented or afraid, but makes you feel disoriented or afraid.

Common Trash and Horns with Fire

Maybe the best way to highlight the differences between “cinematic” writing and bonafide literature is to look at two books adapted by people who have a perfect understanding of how to translate literature to film: True Grit and No Country for Old Men, both adapted by the Coen Brothers.

I haven’t actually read No Country for Old Men, which makes it more than a little difficult to talk about it in a literary context, to be honest. But I’ve read that the film is an extremely faithful adaptation (and that the book was originally conceived as a screenplay). I can believe that, since it’s the most “literary” film I’ve seen in a long time, possibly since The Remains of the Day. Practically every word out of Tommy Lee Jones’s mouth has a ghostly whisper behind it: This is important. This means something.

It’s a perfectly fine film, and you can’t even make the complaint that it’s too arch, or too distant. There are moments of shocking brutality every bit as stomach-turning as they’re intended to be. You’re genuinely taken through the emotions of fear, despair, and even the perverse fascination with horror, instead of feeling as if you’re watching them from afar. It’s neither artificial nor ponderous, but it’s still self-consciously weighty. It practically begs the audience to interpret it, to acknowledge that there’s a message contained inside.

And although it was interpretive, not descriptive, the end result was the opposite for me. I felt as if I’d just been lectured by the nihilists from The Big Lebowski. It seemed not only that everything the movie had to say had already been said by Fargo, but that Fargo said it more effectively, since it took the form of an undercurrent instead of a full-bore, all-channel assault.

On the other hand, I can authoritatively state that True Grit is an outstanding adaptation of an outstanding book. In fact, the one scene that’s significantly different feels as if it was supposed to be in the story all along, and was just cut from the original novel for time or pacing constraints. Both the book and the film exploit the strengths of their media: the Coens use both amazing vistas you’d expect to see in a Western and “smaller” scenes that are no less striking and memorable, and they combine music and editing and dialogue perfectly because, well, they’re the Coen Brothers. And Charles Portis has such a singular gift for characterization through dialogue that he can even make punctuation funny. (Mattie Ross writes, “…I knew if the rattlers got behind me I would be in a fine ‘pickle.'” and you know just from the quote marks how much it pains her to use something as vulgar as slang). They work in concert so perfectly that they don’t even seem like an original work and an adaptation, so much as two manifestations of the same thing: a plot-driven account of the meeting and adventures of two unforgettable, perfectly real characters.

In terms of descriptive vs. interpretive storytelling, I believe it’s the perfect counterpoint to No Country for Old Men. True Grit is plot driven; it’s a story of revenge. It’s not introspective; Portis takes complete advantage of the fact that the story’s told in first-person, but he achieves all of his characterization through the quality of the language, not by extended passages describing Mattie’s innermost thoughts. (In fact, the strength of the character comes mainly from the fact that she’s so absolutely certain of her convictions; any self-doubt or reconsideration would feel wrong).

And most importantly, any “message” contained in the book is there for you to take or leave. It’s not trying to tell you anything, it just is. The characters aren’t symbols of anything, they just exist. If the claim is that a straightforward account of the actions of a group of well-realized characters can’t be as profound as a more introspective character study, then Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn shoot that theory apart. And while it’s true that it’s shallow to have a character explicitly say, “Men shouldn’t be tampering with things that they don’t fully understand,” it’s not significantly more substantial to have a character tell you about a dream he had about his father and a horn of fire, and then leave it hanging there for the audience to figure out what it means.

The Frosted Mini-Wheats School of Literary Theory

It’s counter-intuitive, but: whenever you bemoan the loss of art that demands the audience have to interpret it, you’re actually undermining the true value of interpretation.

We all have a long-held notion of the clear division between the stuff we read just for entertainment, and the stuff that’s “good for you.” Junk food vs. roughage. But that analogy assumes that all of the “nutritional value” of a work is contained in the work itself, and reading it is simply digestion. It assumes that accessibility is at best the sugar coating that makes the content easier to swallow, and it asserts that most often, it’s just empty calories.

To violently switch analogies mid-thought, it puts the writer in the role of puzzle-master. All the answers are contained within; the savvy reader will be able to figure them out, and the process will be so much more meaningful to him because of the effort. Take that to its extreme, and you end up with Ulysses.

But interpretation is more than just digesting or deciphering; it’s a kind of creation. Even the most insightful piece of writing can only work by triggering connections, correlations, sense memories, and value judgments in the reader. The reader isn’t merely piecing together the concepts laid down by the author, but can form connections the author couldn’t ever have intended. One of the most often-cited examples of that is a sky “the color… of a television tuned to a dead channel”, which to the author was a dull gray but to later readers became a vibrant blue. That implies that even a meaningless string of obscure or archaic allusions and non-sensical stream of consciousness could be interpreted by an insightful reader to have profound meaning. Take that to its extreme, and you end up with Ulysses. (I admit that I don’t understand how Ulysses works).

There are plenty of people who steadfastly insist that interpretation is the sole purpose and value of art; that once a work is made public, it exists as its own entity, completely separate from the artist. The artist becomes just another voice in the conversation, and the artist’s intent is all but irrelevant. There’s no such thing as an invalid interpretation.

I’m definitely not willing to take it that far, since I believe that art is fundamentally communication. But I believe that it’s two-way communication, always, whether the artist intends it to be or not. So a book (or a film, or a video game) is neither a lecture nor a puzzle, but a conversation. An asynchronous and often one-sided conversation, maybe, but still a conversation. In those terms, a work that invites the reader to “pull” meaning from it is no less didactic than one that “pushes” its meaning onto the reader. Neither accounts for the constant back and forth that all audiences engage in with media, even seemingly “passive” media.

It also doesn’t account for the fact that all audiences are always looking for meaning, constantly. Even when they’re not supposed to be looking for it, and even when they’re not particularly interested in finding it.

(Nothing But) Condescension

I do actually believe that there’s art that’s “good for you,” that we as audiences can become better at interpreting works, as we form new connections that build on old ones. As we’re introduced to new concepts, and just as our tastes change, we lose our appreciation for some works and gain new appreciation for others. It’s almost always a gradual, shifting process. But I can tell you exactly when I stopped liking the band Talking Heads.

It was when I saw the video for “(Nothing But) Flowers”. The song itself is fine; it’s essentially an ironic cover of “Big Yellow Taxi” done with David Byrne’s newfound interest in “world music.” And really, whatever: it was the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, and everybody was getting heavy into irony and Ladysmith Black Mambazo back then. But the video (which isn’t easily available online in the US) had everybody singing about the downfall of society while being superimposed with factoids illustrating our slow decline into corruption and apathy: bureaucratic waste, increased gun ownership, depletion of the rain forest. In the midst of all that, one of the factoids stood out: it laments that 29% of Americans have said that they were “moved to tears” by a greeting card.

At the time, it struck me as impossibly pretentious and condescending, but it took me decades before I was able to articulate exactly why. That opportunity came when I was standing in a photography exhibit at the SF Museum of Modern Art, listening to other museum patrons’ conversations about the photographs. A woman was there with a few of her friends or relatives, and she was looking at a picture of San Francisco from the early 1970s and pointing out specific buildings. Here was where she lived with so-and-so before he died, and here was the building where they’d had a really nice dinner before so-and-so’s baby shower.

My gut reaction, I’m embarrassed to admit, was that she was doing it wrong. This wasn’t a series of snapshots, it was an art exhibition. She was supposed to be commenting on the composition of the shots or architecture of the buildings, or at the very least, making note of how socio-political changes in the city’s population have been reflected by, resisted by, and influenced by the layout and architecture of the city as a whole. Even after being familiarized with the notion of soup cans and comic strip panels and even urinals as “art,” and the concepts of Modernism, post-modernism, and form vs. meaning, I was still clinging to this idea that art has a purpose and a value, even if the purpose was to say “this has no purpose,” and even if its value was only in its ability to question its own value. I was still attached to the idea of a “right” way to interact with art, that one-way communication from artist to audience.

But it took that one incident for me to really appreciate all of those artistic movements, ones that until then I’d only understood on an intellectual level. How arrogant is it to assume that the most a member of the audience can get from a work is already predetermined by the artist? The woman in the art gallery had immediate reactions to a photograph, memories from a lifetime of experiences — how is that not more profound than my detached (and more than likely, shallow) appreciation of the way the photograph was composed?

And how is it anything other than extreme arrogance to assume that someone moved to tears by a greeting card is too dim-witted or easily manipulated to comprehend that the sentiment is simplistic, trite, and maudlin? He’s not moved to tears by the writing’s purity of form or its universal statement of the human condition; he’s reacting to a profound summation of experience, one that the card somehow manages to invoke perfectly. I know I’ve yet to read any piece of literature that’s affected me as deeply as the greeting card I got from my father in the hospital.

Siskel & Ebert & About a Billion Other People At the Movies

Every discussion of “genre” fiction vs. literary fiction invariably has at least one example of a statement that’s trivially true, presented as if it held tremendous insight. This one is no different: people shouldn’t be concerned about high art vs. low art, but good art vs. bad art. If people are able to get a profound feeling of emotion from a greeting card, then they’ll be able to find meaning anywhere, whether it’s Jurassic Park, The Hunger Games, The Road, The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, Neuromancer, Harry Potter, or, regrettably, even Twilight and The Fountainhead.

Of course, that’s not saying that each of those books is equivalent in depth, literary merit, or value; if art is a conversation, then the reader’s interpretation will never completely outweigh the author’s intent, or lack of intent. Nothing is ever going to elevate Two and a Half Men and Jack and Jill to the level of valuable contributions to culture.

But the real value in a work lies in its ability to provoke a meaningful interpretation from the audience. (Even if using that overly inclusive definition means that I have to acknowledge that Stephanie Meyers’s and Ayn Rand’s books have “value,” as long as the meaningful interpretation is “the ideas presented in this book are absolutely horrible.”) That leaves one question: does the emphasis on descriptive, plot-driven writing actively discourage this interpretation? Does it “train” readers not to analyze what they’re reading too deeply?

I’ve seen absolutely no evidence that it does, and in fact, you could make a pretty convincing case that the opposite is true.

I can say with confidence (if not actual data) that today there are more people writing about, discussing, and interpreting art than there have been at any time in history. For decades we’ve been living in a culture that’s so media-saturated, critics and commentators have become celebrities. Add in the interactivity promised by the internet, and you end up with a society of people conditioned to believe that their interaction with a creative work isn’t finished until they’ve expressed an analysis of it. For better or worse, we’re living in the age of TV Tropes. (Mostly worse).

For Christmas one year, my family took me to see The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou on opening weekend. It was over my objections, and those objections turned out to be valid — I was sitting in the theater sobbing profusely, while they were mostly bored. That’s not in any way a value judgment; it’s simply not the type of movie that would speak to them. But during the car ride home, they all made it clear that they wanted it to speak to them. “I felt like the movie was trying to tell me something, but I didn’t get what it was.”

Whether you believe that’s some inherent quality of art, or it’s a more recent side effect of living in a society of movie blogs, message boards, and book clubs, it’s clear that audiences are constantly evaluating, analyzing, and interpreting everything. Even the people who insist that “you have to turn your brain off” to appreciate Transformers have at least analyzed the movie enough to recognize that there’s nothing worth further analysis.

And I know from my own experience that I enjoy horror movies not because of any inherent love of the genre — I’m easily startled, and I have such a low tolerance for gore that I can’t even watch the Ring video without getting the shudders. I enjoy them because they’re so easy to pick apart and analyze. The Friday the 13th movies and the millennial Castle film remakes are my sudoku. And picking them apart isn’t just a pointless exercise; it makes it easier to recognize when accomplished filmmakers either exploit the same techniques, or subvert them.

One thing the high art vs. low art “debate” doesn’t want to acknowledge is that over the years, popular entertainment has been steadily getting better. (Television and comics without question, but I’d make the same claim for games and movies). Audiences accustomed to analyzing and deconstructing works of art, instead of passively absorbing them, have grown up to make their own works that invite analysis and deconstruction. When The X-Files first aired, it was groundbreaking in introducing (or more accurately, re-introducing) the concept of season-long story arcs and self-referential storytelling to episodic, dramatic television. Now, you can find that in the most unexpected places: Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated and Transformers Prime. (Seriously!)

That’s why I put so much emphasis on pop culture and on mash-ups across multiple media, and why I insist that the line between high art and low art — or genre fiction vs. literary fiction, or young adult books vs. real books — has become irrelevant. It doesn’t mean that that there’s no such thing as a completely vapid piece of entertainment — we all know there’s an abundance of those. It simply means that art doesn’t take place in a vacuum. The communication between artist and audience, combined with our overwhelming desire to analyze, interpret, and re-invent, gives rise to a culture in which there’s the potential for “meaning” anywhere and everywhere.

Eerie Tales of the House of Mystery

Today on Late to the Party Theater: Chuck discovers that Locke & Key is a terrific horror comic that calls back to the “classics” without feeling like a self-conscious reinterpretation.

LockeAndKeyIssue3
In my defense: I’ve been hearing about Locke & Key off and on for years. It’s one of the tentpole comics for IDW with plenty of coverage at comic conventions, it’s won several Eisner awards, it was getting buzz for being turned into a movie or TV series that resulted in an unaired pilot, and I’ve been hearing recommendations from people online and from my boyfriend.

So I had it on the to-read list, and I’d assumed I knew how it was going to play out just based on the premise: a bunch of kids living in an old, unfamiliar family house, discovering magic keys that open mysterious doors, each with its own power. I’d expected another urban fantasy comic, maybe similar to The Unwritten, inspired by The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe with some House of Mystery and House of Secrets mixed in.

That would’ve been fine. But what I found when I read the first volume was a lot more compelling and more layered than I’d imagined.

It goes for the slow burn. I’d already plotted out the first issue in my mind: get the kids to the house, one of them discovers the first key, they all get pulled into the mystery, they confront the bad guy, and they set up the rest of the series. But there’s no quick pay-off in the first issue. Writer Joe Hill gradually lets the prologue unfold over the entire first volume, devoting an issue to each of his characters instead of just having them serve as interchangeable protagonists.

It retains the style of the “classic” horror comics. I admit I was turned off by the art of Gabriel Rodriguez at first; it seemed too stylized to work well with the tone that the writing was trying to establish. But after a couple of issues, I grew to realize that it was perfect — the book frequently makes subtle and not-particularly-subtle references to William Gaines and the old EC horror comics, and the art keeps it rooted in that tradition. (In fact, Rodriguez’s art in Locke & Key reminds me of a particular comic artist from the late 70s and early 80s, but I’m drawing a complete blank on the name. Anyone have any ideas?)

It puts a modern spin on several different eras of horror stories. Locke & Key is unabashedly a horror comic, even more than I’d expected it to be — axes to the head, knives to the eyes, attacks with crowbars and bricks, all rendered in splash pages with gouts of blood. But while Hellblazer always seems firmly rooted in the 90s, DC’s horror comics rooted in the 70s, and Tales from the Crypt unmistakably from the 50s, Locke and Key‘s influences seem to span several decades — from gothic (with the creepy old house and the town name of Lovecraft) to modern.

I realize it’s probably bad form to draw comparisons to Stephen King when talking about Joe Hill‘s work, but the greatest achievement of King’s first novels was how well he took traditional horror stories and translated them into contemporary settings. Locke & Key does something similar for comics, but without feeling “millennial.” Looking back at the first few issues of The Sandman, the influences of EC Comics and Berni Wrightson are immediately apparent, and the introduction has the feel of a deliberate reinvention of classic horror. Right out of the gate, Locke & Key seems to acknowledge the influences without letting them become overwhelming. Classic horror comics provide the tone of the story, not the purpose.

Finally, It’s smart. Again, probably because the art grounds it in a heavily stylized, almost cartoonish atmosphere, the writing and plotting can be introspective and realistic without either coming across as mundane or as pretentious. Instead of lurid descriptions of horrific acts of violence, we get matter-of-fact descriptions of them. Instead of monologues or dramatic soliloquies, we get natural, realistic dialogue. Literary allusions — much of the back story revolves around a school production of The Tempest — don’t come across as forced. And while none of the characters is complex enough (so far) to be the focus of an entire story, they all work together well and are given enough depth to keep from collapsing into caricature. Somehow, Hill puts just enough spin on them that they seem to be characters who just happen to fit into a stereotypical role.

At this point, I’ve only gotten through the first issue of the second volume. (Possibly the best single issue of the series I’ve read so far). There’s still twenty-three issues for it all to completely fall apart, or worse, to turn into something as solid-but-predictable as I’d originally expected. For now, though, I’m happy that my first impressions are being proven wrong. And I’m reminded of being a freshman in college, just discovering The Sandman and Hellblazer and learning that there was a whole world outside superhero comics.

Edit: I forgot to mention that he does have a kid who lives in San Francisco call it “Frisco.” But apart from that, it’s all pretty good.

When I Was a Child, I Made Fun of Childish Things

Getting defensive over a sneering op-ed about what Adults should be reading

It’s entirely possible that Joel Stein is being sarcastic.

Maybe he got the request from The New York Times to participate in a discussion about adults reading young adult fiction, and his reaction was: “Seriously? After 15 years of Harry Potter book releases, the Twilight franchise, and The Hunger Games being on the NYT best seller list for eighty-four weeks, you’re going back to that well again?” So to protest, he responded with a completely over-the-top caricature of the Pretentious Insecure Twat that would be too implausibly asinine for anyone to possibly take seriously.

Or maybe he was just bored and wanted to see how many people he could piss off on Facebook, to promote sales for his new book. Maybe he’s trying to establish himself as the edgy guy who tells it like it is. Whatever the case: screw that. Irony and sarcasm are old news; sincerity is the big thing now.

And reading that article made me feel defensive. Not for enjoying books, comics, games, movies, and TV shows for a younger audience. I’m feeling defensive for always acting like there’s a problem with that in the first place.

I’ve realized that every time I write about an animated series, or a comic book, or a young adult book, I’m careful to qualify it in my description. So I’ll write 600-1000 words about a comic book convention, or a video game, or a cartoon, but I’ll make sure that everybody knows that I’m not taking it seriously or anything. All these years I’ve been as guilty of contributing to the perpetuation of douchebaggery as pieces like Stein’s, with the only difference being that I’ve been doing it without realizing it.

The problem isn’t one of substance, because there’s no substance in Stein’s piece. Instead of talking about the merits of any adult fiction past “I’m in the target demographic,” he talks about scoffing at people he sees reading inappropriate material in public.

The problem isn’t substance, but relevance. Stein’s opinions are so outdated that he might as well be wearing a straw hat and singing to us about the dangers of pool. Almost 25 years after the publication of Watchmen and decades of resulting discussions of comics as literature, in an environment where the video game industry is bigger than the film industry, and where Pulitzer Prize-winning authors hold panels with comic book authors about the dissolution of the idea of “genre fiction” in literature, Stein’s blanket dismissal just makes him seem like a relic. Someone so clueless as to use Donkey Kong as his go-to example of a video game.

And for that matter: for someone so concerned with being taken seriously, Stein should probably be aware that claiming not to know anything about The Hunger Games apart from “games you play when hungry” doesn’t make him look as literate as he believes. It makes him look like an idiot, completely unaware of his surroundings. I have even less interest in reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close than I do in reading Twilight or, for that matter, Freedom. But I could at least tell you what each is about.

Nature’s provided us with ways to quickly and easily identify things that will be toxic or dangerous. Brown spots on a piece of fruit indicate it’s unsafe to eat. Millions of pain receptors in our skin warn us when we’ve touched a hot surface. And whenever someone responds to a reference with the comment, “I don’t own a television,” it’s a clear signal to excuse yourself from the conversation and make as much distance as possible before they attempt to name-check Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace.

Because that is the real problem. Raging against legions of Twilight-reading moms not living up to their full intellectual potential is arguing against a straw man, all the while insisting that you’ve shared some sort of insight. It’s the pseudo-intellectual equivalent of complaining about airplane food, unaware that it’s been years since airlines regularly served food. The people reading “young adult” books to the complete exclusion of “adult” ones are reading them because they get something out of them, something they’re unlikely to get from material that someone else tells them is more appropriate.

Besides, they’re mostly imaginary in the first place. Just the most cursory survey of reviews on Goodreads shows that most readers are better off than Stein (and for that matter, me), because they’ll read whatever they can get their hands on. I’ve seen plenty of readers who’ll happily jump from The Hunger Games to a Sookie Stackhouse novel to a Kazuo Ishiguro novel. Suggesting that they’re wasting their time on junk food does nothing to expand their intellectual horizons, but only reveals yourself to be an ass showing impotent disdain.

And I’ve never actually encountered one of these Twilight moms, who’ll read nothing but Harry Potter and the occasional Harlequin romance. But I’ve encountered plenty of people who make gut responses to a book, or a movie, or any piece of media, based solely on its genre or its target demographic. It’s easier (and lazier) to claim that that’s a case of being discriminating. Or to claim that it’s encouraging people to challenge themselves, instead of just reassuring themselves that it’s okay to enjoy stuff that has no intellectual content. It’s bullshit.

And that’s where I’m complicit in it. I read The Hunger Games, but instead of just appreciating its masterful pacing and pointing out its clever spin on the traditional love triangle in an age of constant media exposure and awareness, I felt the need to explain that I knew it was just a kids’ book. I loved the technical artistry and economy of silent, expressive storytelling in Wall-E and Up, but still felt weird for being a 40-year-old man watching a kids’ movie. I’ve enjoyed the pulp-adventure storytelling and amazing concept design in The Clone Wars series, but I try to keep it on the down-low since it’s on Cartoon Network.

This could potentially be an amazing time to be an artist. The walls between genres and even media are dissolving, and we’re seeing cross-cultural mash-ups, literary re-interpretations of pulp material, and young adult mash-ups of mythology and social satire. One of the best books I’ve read recently was about comic books, and another was a post-apocalyptic novel. With this kind of media saturation, the whole notion of limiting yourself — I only have so much time to read all the world’s great literature! — is an overly sentimental and ultimately silly anachronism. If you haven’t read Moby Dick by now, then you probably won’t. And really, that’s fine, since it’s made its way through culture enough that its themes have been re-interpreted and reincorporated dozens of times over.

When I was growing up, I developed a real sense of the stuff I read and watched for fun as opposed to the stuff that was supposed to be “good for me.” And it’s hard to let that go. But it’s completely irrelevant nowadays. Thousands and thousands of people have something to share, and they finally have the means to share it. You can choose to take part in it, or you can get left behind.

Being Katniss Everdeen

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention! The internet’s preeminent Hunger Games fan and the bold battle against real racism.

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Man, I just can’t get a break. I was just recovering from the discovery that I’m a horrible misogynist-slash-“white knight” pseudo-feminist, and now I find out I’m a racist? If I’m this much of a jackass without even realizing it, I shudder to think what kind of damage I could be doing intentionally.

As it turns out, I got started on my path to white supremacy simply enough: I read The Hunger Games quickly, and I didn’t remember that one of the characters was described as being dark skinned.

I know now just how awful that is, thanks to the tireless work of the author of the Hunger Games Tweets tumblr and corresponding Twitter account. The account’s been keeping up the good fight by “expos[ing] the Hunger Games fans on Twitter who dare to call themselves fans yet don’t know a damn thing about the books.”

The reason I’ve seen dozens of people linking to and commenting on that tumblr is because of a post about it on Jezebel.com. Jezebel fulfills the “Give Me Something to Be Angry About” requirement of Gawker’s media empire, and they hit pay dirt on this one. In the two days since the post was published, I’ve seen at least two dozen links to it and comments on it, just from people I know. And they’ve found it “jaw-dropping,” “nauseating,” “depressing,” “abysmal,” “heart-stopping,” and it made them hate humanity.

To them, I’ve got a couple of questions:

1) How much of that Tumblr did you read?

I got about eighteen pages into it. And when you start reading, yes, it does look like page after page filled with disgustingly racist messages from people both hostile and clueless. And there are several of those. I counted about 15 before I stopped digging.

But there’s a lot more of this. And also this. And this. This too. Also this. Plus this. And of course this too, which I guess isn’t racist because it’s making fun of an Asian name.

In other words, a lot of people saying “she doesn’t look like I pictured” followed by trollfaces, “deal with it” animated GIFs, and treatises about exposing a significant social ill. In other words, a tumblr.

2) What internet have you guys been using?

Because I want to start using that one. I like the idea of being so stunned at the sight of someone saying something stupid and racist that it makes me want to vomit. The internet I’ve been reading has me seeing at least one disgustingly racist comment every morning before lunch. The internet I’ve been using lets actual white supremacist groups have websites.

Yes, any one of those genuinely racist tweets and facebook messages would be gross enough to be worth calling out. It’d be good to see any one of those tools held responsible for what he or she writes. And like I said, I counted 15 of them.

But at the same time, I kind of already knew that there are at least 15 racist people on the internet.

Why is this getting such a disproportionate level of outrage?

May the Click-throughs Be Ever In Your Favor

A huge part of it, of course, is the perfect combination of opening weekend for a hugely popular movie franchise based on a hugely popular book franchise, and the internet’s favorite hobby: complaining about stuff.

Casting for The Hunger Games was announced a pretty good while ago, and that twitter & tumblr account have been around for at least a month, as far as I can tell. It’s an amazingly fortuitous coincidence that Jezebel ran the story this week.

I can only imagine the fight that went on at Jezebel headquarters: a crass young copy editor and webmaster a few weeks ago, saying “We’ve got a story here! Let’s run it now!” Then the writer of the post turns, measured in tenor but still barely able to contain the swelling rage — I am of course picturing a stately, distinguished white man playing the part in the movie, maybe Alec Baldwin or Sam Waterston overdubbed with Morgan Freeman’s voice. And then that writer says, “I don’t know how long you’ve been here, young man, but I’ve been here long enough to know that the name Gawker Media means something. It means honor. It means integrity. It means responsibility. And it means holding onto this goddamn story until we’re sure we have all the facts!

And finally, after the story was given time to grow and season, and coincidentally The Hunger Games had a successful opening weekend, it was ready. That writer took a moment to gaze out the window at a city in turmoil, a city whose demons had to be set free so that healing could begin. And the writer picked up a phone and said simply, “It’s time.” And then hung up without saying goodbye.

The internet needs sites that give people something to be angry about. It’s what drives social media sites in the first place. Gawker Media happens to have achieved perfect vertical integration — you can read Gawker.com to make fun of women, and then Jezebel.com to be outraged at people making fun of women. Personally, I get my daily outrage quota from ThinkProgress.org, and there Alyssa Rosenberg delivered a convenient two-fer of things to piss us off: the racist and sexist things that have been written about the movie.

(The misogynistic comments in reviews are legitimately awful, since a) they’re written by people who should know better, not clueless twitterers; and b) there’s no way they’re meant to be deliberately provocative, so it’s possible the writers aren’t even aware how gross it is to be complaining that a thin actress is too fat).

I’m all for a good open shaming of people being assholes. I just feel better about it when I know it’s sincere. Not just an attempt to ride the coattails of a young adult franchise from people still pissed off that Twilight was too Mormon to have significant non-white characters.

Thoughtcrimes

Those tweets and facebook messages are plenty gross, but the tone of much of that “Hunger Games Tweets” tumblr is just as toxic. They’re both fueled by ignorance, but now one’s running on a sense of righteousness and an awful lot of media exposure.

Mean-spirited but harmless “his name is Gale not Gail lol” stuff is what fuels significant portions of the nerd internet. Give it a cause and an audience, though, and it turns nasty. And a dozen genuinely repulsive messages get turned into a Significant Social Problem That Affects Us All. (That we will write a post about and then completely forget as soon as we stop getting internet traffic from it).

As I said, I’m one of the people who didn’t remember the description of Rue & Thresh as being black. Or of Katniss and Gale as being “olive-skinned,” for that matter. I also can’t remember the hair color of any of the non-Katniss characters, or whether they might’ve been left handed or homosexual. I didn’t remember because I didn’t care. It was never relevant to the story.

When I’m reading a book, I’ve got a default picture of everybody in my head. And it’s white and male until I read something that suggests otherwise. That’s not because I’m racist and misogynist, it’s because I’m white and male. Most books look pretty much like the parts of Being John Malkovich inside Malkovich’s mind, except instead of John Malkovich it’s a 50/50 mix of myself and, for some reason, Scott Adsit. It’s weird.

When a description becomes significant, I remember it. The relevant parts of the description of Rue — the character people are making the most fuss about — are that she’s young, small, stealthy, clever, and she reminds Katniss of her sister Prim. None of that has anything to do with her being black.

But now there are legions of outraged bloggers tripping over themselves trying to assign more significance to “I didn’t picture her as black” than is there. I pictured both her and Prim as looking like a younger Dakota Fanning, myself. So what? Why so eager to put a value judgment on that? They’re going to have their work cut out for them if they want to put a stop to people making assumptions. At best, it’s impotent internet rage — I’m using animated GIFs to make a difference! At worst, it’s accusing people of crypto-racism.

To be fair, there are a few glimmers of awareness, like saying that if the mentions of race aren’t relevant to the story “It really doesn’t matter.” But there’s really only one thing on that tumblr that I do agree with completely: “The outrage makes no sense.”

Are you not entertained?!

Something about The Hunger Games isn’t sitting right with me, and I’m not quite sure exactly what it is. Minor spoilers abound.

A couple of months ago, I made a very modest resolution to read twelve books by the end of the year. By the beginning of March, I was already starting to lag behind, so I decided to cheat a little by reading something that was quick and “easy.” I’ve been seeing plenty of positive-bordering-on-breathless reviews, both professional and from friends, for The Hunger Games, describing it with all the standard book review catch phrases like “a page-turner” and “addictive” and “I couldn’t put it down.”

They may have been under-selling it. I read the book over two days, and I can’t remember the last time I finished a book — “young adult” or not — that quickly. I actually found myself getting nervous when I wasn’t reading it, anxious to get back into the story.

What’s most remarkable to me is that it was so compelling even as I spent the entire time second-guessing it and mentally criticizing it. It wasn’t the cliffhangers that kept me going, since I was able to predict most of what was going to happen. Reading the blurbs for the sequel had already spoiled the broad strokes of the ending, but until the last couple of chapters (which were very well done) I’d been able to see all of the plot developments coming from several pages away. So it wasn’t gimmickry or cheap tricks, but just some damn good writing.

At first I was a little annoyed that the book seemed so light on descriptions — for a book that spends so much of its time “world building,” most of the places and characters received just a cursory description. But I soon realized that the depth was sacrificed in favor of near-perfect pacing. Slower moments take time to set the scene and even meander into a flashback, while the action-filled scenes have sentences that crash into each other in their eagerness to reach the climax. Entire days pass between one sentence and the next. Events that change the course of the entire story are tacked onto the end of an otherwise unassuming paragraph.

And the book is very sparing in its use of melodramatic one-sentence paragraphs.

In fact, the story is told so well that I quickly forgot any uneasiness I was feeling about how derivative it is. It feels like a mash-up of Battle Royale, The Lottery, the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, Lord of the Flies, The Running Man, and 1984, comparing favorably to some of its sources while being less resonant than others. Unlike Battle Royale — and to be fair I’ve only seen the movie and not yet read the book — Suzanne Collins wisely chose to keep most of the “tributes” nameless and unidentified, and not to focus on the brutality of their deaths. This keeps it from feeling too exploitative, but it also loses most of its impact as dark satire.

It’s also frequently, and unfortunately, compared to the Twilight series. I suppose it’s inevitable, since it’s a popular young adult series with a young woman as the protagonist. And that’s the first point where I agree completely with my friend Daniel Herrera’s review: there’s no comparison. The Twilight books seem like even more of an embarrassment when you see an author create a young female protagonist as interesting as Katniss Everdeen. In fact, I have to wonder whether Suzanne Collins was taking digs at the Twilight books when she described a young male character as “sparkling,” and then later when Katniss thinks, “Twilight is closing in and I am ill at ease.” It makes me extremely ill at ease to see such a simpering, vapid, and downright unlikable character as Bella Swan become popular with so many girls, when Katniss is fully-realized, capable, independent, interesting, and flawed.

But that leads directly to my biggest problem with the book: whether it’s a requirement for young adult books, or whether The Hunger Games was intended to be a novel take on it, the book still puts so much of its focus on a teen love triangle. It’s frustrating, because the book handles it as well as possible — Katniss is anything but lovestruck and flighty; she’s even precociously cynical about the whole idea of romance. But romance still dominates the story. It sends a mixed signal — even a girl as strong as Katniss is still somehow incomplete without the right man.

And going back to the complaint about its being derivative: while I spent most of the book wishing that the romantic angle had been omitted or downplayed, I was still impressed that it was handled so cleverly. Throughout, it’s unclear to everyone, even to Katniss herself, whether she’s acting out of genuine feelings or just putting on a show for the audience. But reading reviews of The Hunger Games, I learned that even that is an idea already explored by They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

My other complaint is that the story seems to go out of its way to undermine what Katniss accomplishes. She’s established as extremely capable on her own, but then is given exactly what she needs at exactly the right moment — either by another character, or literally by a silver parachute falling from the sky. Of course it’s good to keep her realistically a human teenager instead of a super-hero, but each time another plot contrivance came along, I wished the deus ex machina were better hidden.

Ultimately, none of my criticisms of the book invalidate it. If anything, it’s more a case of two leaps forward followed by a step back. As far as best-selling young adult series go, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it: it’s clearly aimed at a different audience from the Harry Potter series, but it’s still better written and full of much, much better characterizations. And of course, I’d gladly slap copies of the Twilight books out of young girls’ hands (and their mothers’) and replace them with a copy of The Hunger Games.

With the movie series starting later this month, I’m looking forward to seeing audiences go crazy for a genuinely strong and capable character. (Which reminds me: Brave is later this year as well. It’s finally a good year for daughters!) I’m also looking forward to seeing the sponsorships and corporate tie-ins: maybe The Hunger Games brought to you by Snickers?

But I’m still not sure whether I liked the book enough to dive right into the sequels. It’s probably ghoulish to admit that I’m more eager to read about kids killing each other than I’m interested in reading about a girl deciding which non-threatening boy to go steady with. But it’s a stupid question anyway; obviously I’m team Gale all the way.

Something Rotten

Orson Scott Card finally explains what Hamlet‘s real problem was all along, but we’re still no closer to finding out why Card is such an asshole.

Over the last week or so, I’ve seen several people linking to this review of Hamlet’s Father on the Rain Taxi website. The situation is this: virulent homophobe Orson Scott Card took it upon himself to “translate” Hamlet, rewriting both the events of the play (in modern prose form) and finally giving us the long-missing backstory which explains the events. As the publisher’s blurb says: “Once you’ve read Orson Scott Card’s revelatory version of the Hamlet story, Shakespeare’s play will be much more fun to watch — because now you’ll know what’s really going on.”

Apparently, what’s really going on is that Hamlet’s father was a total homo. As I understand it from the review, Claudius comes out blameless in this version; the real bad guys were Gay Absentee Dad Hamlet and all the prince’s friends that he molested.

Whenever I read another example of Card’s pathological homophobia, I’m reminded of my first (and as far as I’m aware, only) exposure to Card’s writing: it’s a short story called “Fat Farm” that appeared in OMNI magazine in 1980. I must’ve been around 11 or 12 when I read it, and I’ll never forget it, partly because I’d never before seen such a dark and nasty piece of work.

The story is this: a morbidly obese man returns to the clinic he visits every few years, checking in as a fat man and leaving in perfect physical shape to begin the cycle once again. But this isn’t any normal clinic; this is a clinic in the future in a sci-fi anthology magazine! Instead of giving you a workout, the clinic actually transfers your consciousness into a younger, fresher, slimmer body.

What our protagonist doesn’t realized, however, is that his consciousness isn’t just transferred, but copied. His “old” body still lives, but without any of the legal rights to his identity that he had when checking in. He’s sent to a work farm, where he’s subjected to manual labor and abuse from a brutal overseer who absolutely despises him for some unknown reason. After years of working at a potato farm, he finally earns the lean, muscular (and tanned!) body he’d always wanted, buried under layers of flab. When another, disgustingly fat version of himself is brought in to work, he can feel nothing but hatred and disgust for what that version had done to himself in so short a time. And he finally learns why the overseer always hated him so much: the overseer was the original version!

The moral of the story is obvious: even with future technology, fat people will still be lazy and awful. As an impressionable pre-teen who was still wearing pants sized “Husky,” that stuck with me for a long time.

The other reason it stuck with me so much is that it was the first time I’d read anything that gay. Card spends paragraphs describing the main character seeing his younger self — he’s brought in naked, they caress, they embrace — in great detail. The protagonist works the farm naked, and Card describes lots of tight hard muscles and sun-browned flesh. And it’s not just gay, it’s 80s gay, equal parts self-loathing and cartoonish debauchery:

Somewhere, the man who would be J was dancing, was playing polo, was seducing and perverting and being delighted by every woman and boy and, God knows, sheep that he could find; somewhere the man who would be J dined.

[…]

The helicopter turned then, so that Barth could see nothing but sky from his window. He never saw the whip fall. But he imagined the whip falling, imagined and relished it, longed to feel the heaviness of the blow flowing from his own arm. Hit him again! he cried out inside himself. Hit him for me! And inside himself he made the whip fall a dozen times more.

Not just boys, but sheep! Whip harder!

For those who aren’t familiar with OMNI magazine: it was a science fiction anthology published by Bob Guccione of Penthouse fame. It had some amazing paintings for the stories, which were a combination of “hard” science fiction and sex. Keep in mind this was before the internet, when we pre-teens were still resorting to fiddling the dial on the cable box to try and get a fleeting, blurry glimpse of a tit. The stories in OMNI were usually dark, nihilistic, and with an unhealthy descriptions of sex-to-psychological horror ratio, but in those days we took what we could get.

So Card’s story was my first exposure to dudes making out with each other. (Which I suppose would now make him King Hamlet to my Horatio). And, unfortunately, it fit in with how I wanted to think of homosexuality: synonymous with irresponsibility, hedonism, excess. I wanted to reinforce that I wasn’t like those people; I was better than that. And once that was straightened up, I went back to reading about the dudes making out with each other.

It’s become a trend to suggest that the most vocal anti-gay types are all latent homosexuals themselves. Of course there’s plenty of evidence for that, provided by pastors and Republican representatives, with their work-out regimens and luggage handlers and unconventional notions of restroom etiquette. But I think that’s way too simple, if only because there can’t possibly be enough gay people to account for all of the anti-gay sentiment. The species would go extinct if there were. Fear and mistrust of people who are different, that’s much more universal.

That said, though, Card has spent a lot of time thinking and writing about gay men.

When I was searching for a copy of the story online, I turned up this article by Card saying that all the so-called “research” about the health risks of obesity are invalid. It’s a complete reversal from the guy who wrote “Fat Farm” 25 years earlier, a diatribe about how fat people are repulsive and also they have heart disease and are impotent. What’s galling is his hypocrisy in decrying prejudice against people who are overweight and the tendency to treat obesity as a moral failing. That conclusion is valid, of course, but he deserves no praise for it: Card didn’t grow a conscience over 25 years; he grew fat.

Card continues to speak and write of homosexuality as a moral failing. Maybe it really is a sign of latent homosexuality; all I can see is arrogance. He’s not so much a caricature of the self-loathing homophobe as a caricature of the modern self-described conservative. He understands science better than any politically correct “studies,” and he uses his own perverted version of “science” to support what his common sense and upbringing tell him are true. Things are so much simpler when you can reduce complex biological and sociological systems to trite conclusions and claim they’re based on evolutionary adaptation.

Ultimately, I feel the same way about the cause of Card’s homophobia as I do about the cause of homosexuality itself: it doesn’t matter. What matters is whether you’re a force for good or evil in the world. Technically, I’m supposed to feel some measure of sympathy for self-loathing homosexuals, since I used to be one, but then I remember how I never actively campaigned to treat gay people as morally and legally inferior. And I’ve got even less sympathy for anybody who claims to know what life is like for me without even knowing me. But then, I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to rewrite Shakespeare, either.

What I don’t understand is why this clown keeps getting work.

Literacy 2010: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

My return to reading, more or less, starts with a book that kind of goes downhill after the title page.

abelincolnvampirecover.jpgBook
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

Synopsis
The author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies discovers Abraham Lincoln’s private journal, detailing his history as the greatest vampire hunter of the 1800s.

Futility Disclaimer
The book was by most accounts a big success, a movie’s already in the works, and nobody expects great literature from a book called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Pros
No-brainer of a can’t-fail concept. Well researched (or at least Wikipediaed) enough to avoid being completely frivolous. Lincoln’s ally Henry Sturges is a fairly compelling character. Character voice and journal entries feel authentic enough. There are a few pretty good action sequences, and some pretty horrifying slavery-as-vampirism sequences. Has the same fortifying-by-proxy effect as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: if reading easily-accessible history is as abhorrent to you as reading Jane Austen is to me, you might get something useful out of the book. Abraham Lincoln killing vampires with an axe is what’s promised on the cover, and there’s plenty of that in the book.

Cons
Absolutely no surprises — spoiler warning, John Wilkes Booth is a vampire! — and it takes no risks with the material. Almost all of the vampire-killing stops once Lincoln gets into office, and the book loses most of its punch. The clumsily-Photoshopped period photos don’t add anything, and actually stand out against the attempts at authenticity in the text. So much of the book feels like a novelization of a made-for-TV biopic, as if the author took a list of names and places from a cursory biography of Lincoln and used it as his outline, without making it feel like everything flowed together naturally. (There are occasional exceptions, for instance with Lincoln’s friendship with Joshua Speed, where the author puts a little bit of effort into making Speed feel like a real character).

Synopsis
On the surface, it seems like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is less of the search-and-replace job that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was, but ultimately it’s the exact same concept: take “supposed to be good for you” source material, add internet-meme-inspired action sequences, and cash in from folks like me who’ll buy a book based on the title alone. This isn’t a bad book by any stretch, and it’s got more heft than the goofy title would suggest. But the gimmick is starting to feel more than a little crass, when the book takes a concept and does so little to expand on it. I’m feeling less like I’m in on the joke, riffing with the author on a wacky idea, and more like I’m being sold a T-shirt with an ironic slogan.

Ultimately, the book is too goofy to qualify as “real” literature, but too dry to qualify as action-horror-comedy. There are enough passages in the book — the embellished story of the Roanoake colony, for instance — that are just on the cusp of being interesting on their own merits, that I wish the author would try to write a book from scratch.