Why Other English Teachers Sometimes Annoy Me

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I added the glasses; I usually wear contacts.
Reprise! This post was originally published in 2010. I'm going to be posting a series of posts on teaching English; I decided to start the series with this one.

Like they do with any profession or educator, people make assumptions about English teachers. As I remark on my introduction page, in some ways, I am proof of these assumptions: I'm female; I own two cats, I like to read. But in some fairly fundamental ways, I am nothing like these assumptions.

And I get thoroughly annoyed when other English/Humanities instructors not only live up to some of the more irritating assumptions but support them. It's even worse when they are proud of them!

For all you English teachers who are sick of the following assumptions (stereotypes), this post is for you!

Assumption #1: English teachers are unorganized, but that's okay because they're being spontaneous.

I worked for 10 years as a secretary before I went back to college and became an English instructor. The administrative side to teaching is annoying but not terribly difficult. Possibly, my experience makes it easier for me than it does for other English-types.

But there's really no excuse for handing essays back late, not following the syllabus, not having a syllabus, showing up late to class, using the class to discuss one's personal life/excuse one's lack of preparation, or spending the class "getting to know each other." English class is about learning to communicate, not about becoming pals with the teacher.

Face-it: "spontaneous" is just code for "lazy."

Assumption #2: English teachers like to pontificate about LIFE and LITERATURE.

This is sort of true. I'm guilty of it. But I do draw the line. For example . . .

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I have an hour between two of my classes. I spend that hour in the math department. It's great! The other adjuncts there are funny and practical, and I can talk and get work done at the same time.

Just this past Friday, I ran downstairs to the English Department to put student essays in my box. Five instructors were sitting in the English Department listening seriously while one guy pontificated about . . .

I don't know. I hightailed it out of there as quickly as possible. I felt the way you do when you almost get hit by a bus. "Whew! That was close."

Back upstairs, we had a hilarious conversation about grading methods and how students behave the last week of the semester. I don't mind a good conversation about LIFE and LITERATURE, but I tend to have those conversations with people who are way more entertaining that pontificating intellectuals.

Assumption #3: English teachers are liberal.

Not only do other English instructors assume this about me, my students assume it as well.

I do not discuss either my political persuasion (conservative libertarian) or my religion (LDS) in my composition classes. I occasionally mention these biographical tidbits in my more history-based classes. In NONE of my classes, do I use my position to soapbox about politics or religion.

(I will use the classroom to soapbox about the purpose of writing: see below).

Consequently, my students have zero data with which to assess my politics or religious beliefs. Nevertheless, most of them (who care) will assume that I'm liberal and non-religious (the latter is more understandable than the former). Every now and again, while discussing research projects, I'll say something like, "Well, you could try Forbes magazine to back up the argument you want to make. My dad really likes Forbes, and he says this about taxes . . ."

The student will do a double-take. One student told me, "I didn't think you would ever say something like that."

Partly, the students make this assumption based on THAT image of English teachers that exists in our culture. But partly, I think, they make the assumption based on the number of soapboxing, liberal English teachers they have had.

This annoys me. When I teach argument/persuasion, I teach the students to make strong arguments whatever their perspectives, NOT to make arguments based on the "right way of thinking."

I have, in fact, reached the point where I perceive both my conservatism and my religion as teaching strengths. I can make the liberal arguments when it comes to health care or taxation or abortion or the environment: I hear them all the time. But I can also supply rebuttals to those arguments, help the more conservative students strengthen their arguments (yes, I do challenge the conservative students with rebuttals as well), and I take the religious arguments seriously.

Sadly enough, I have witnessed English teachers practically having nervous breakdowns because some student made a conservative or *gasp* religious argument in a paper. "How do I grade it!?" "He used the Bible as a defense!" (As a rational tutor pointed out on Smarthinking, the Bible may not be an appropriate defense in certain venues, but it may be an appropriate defense in other venues. It depends on the audience and context. It isn't automatically wrong to use it.)

Not to beat my own soapbox to death, but no wonder students trust popular culture gurus more than Humanities professors. If the Humanities professors can't think outside the box . . .

Assumption #4: Writing is all about sounding poetical and profound.

I spend the beginning half of every semester trying to get my students to understand that I DON'T want a bunch of pseudo-profundities in passive voice that never actually tell me anything:
The explanation was by the scientists made for the clarification of how alkalis and acids intermingle to cause a reaction due to carbon dioxide.
Compare that ridiculous sentence to this:
When I mix an alkali, such as baking soda, and an acid, such as orange juice, the mixture creates carbon dioxide and bubbles.
No one could possibly think that the first sentence tells anyone anything. But I think my students honestly believe that it sounds better. And they think this because too many silly English teachers told them to not use "I" and to not state problems directly and to avoid being too obvious and to be sure to sound analytical or something.

This is what I want from all my students: an essay that clearly states what it will prove, presents well-organized and appropriate evidence, and ends with a summary of what the essay just proved. That, to me, is not only an "A" paper, it is the way I was required to write in every single job I had as a secretary (law, medicine, escrow, sales, counseling, programming).

As I tell them over and over and over, "Writing is about communication. If it doesn't communicate, it isn't doing its job. It doesn't matter how good it sounds."

There are times when I feel the odd-woman out in my English departments. Every now and again, I meet an English instructor who thinks as I do, and we commiserate [since I became a member of a curriculum committee, about three years ago, I have met more instructors who think like me!].

But most of the time . . .

Where's the math department?

July 28, 2014

Vanishing Men in Fairy Tales: Sexism Works Both Ways

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In her usual readable and engaging style, Maria Tatar tackles fairy tales in her book Off With Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. She points out that adults have always mediated which fairy tales to tell children and how; to not do so would be to ignore how thoroughly bizarre fairy tales can be, especially when used for didactic purposes. The Grimm brothers, who forced lessons into and on the tales they collected, produced positively schizophrenic narratives: Obey your parents or get eaten by a witch! Except you might get eaten anyway. But be sure to obey!

Of course, the Grimms "cleaned up" the tales alongside adding moral lessons. The scatological humor, the sex, and the more extreme violence was expurgated (although the violence lingered longer than the poop jokes and sexual humor). The original tales were likely told by adults to both adults and children (before children were pushed outside of adult discourse and labeled innocent tots).

Donkeyskin is one of those stories no one
ever tells children. It has been made into a
movie and a very good book.
Tatar then goes on to discuss the implicit sexism in these tales. Many more of the collected tales portray women as wicked than men as wicked. Along the same lines, female protagonists inevitably gain their rewards through submission and humility (while male protagonists earn their rewards mostly just for being male). In earlier, non-cleaned up versions, the female protagonists were more likely to employ wit and assertiveness. For instance, in one of the earliest versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Little Red escapes the wolf by exclaiming, "I've got to go outside to pee!" Once outside, she fetches the woodsman.

Tatar attributes this substitution of meek female protagonists for witty female protagonists to the attitudes and beliefs of the male collectors--with good reason. The Grimms, for example, produced several editions of their The Nursery and Household Tales. In each subsequent edition, the "lesson" got stronger, the female villains got worse, and the female protagonists (as well as child characters in general) got meeker and more passive.

However, Tatar also tries to attribute the sheer number of tales with evil mothers/stepmothers to male choice: "the men who recorded these oral tales--and for the most part the great collectors of the nineteenth century were male--showed, whenever they had a choice, a distinct preference for stories with female villains over tales with male giants and ogres."

There is obviously some truth to Tatar's observation since many of the tales about negative male behavior included incest! The Grimm brothers were obviously squeamish about including incest tales in their collection.

Adolph Tidemand
However, I think there is another explanation that Tatar bypasses--both men and women can be storytellers, raconteurs. However, by the 1800s, men were beginning to work outside the home (unlike in earlier centuries where men and women worked side by side). Circles of storytellers were becoming more and more female-oriented, at least in day-to-day life (at home around the hearth, sewing or shelling peas). And the people who supplied the Grimm brothers with many of the tales for their collection were female.

And women tell stories about women.

When women talk about parenting, they will sometimes talk about men, but they will focus on sharing tips--and criticisms--from and about other women.

In other words, women are equal opportunity critics. Take, for instance, the Salem Witch Trials, where women accused women of being witches just as often if not more than they accused men (one unusual aspect of the Salem Witch Trials was how many men were, in fact, actually accused). It is a huge mistake to assume that women are not just as likely to promote cultural assimilation--how to be a good wife/mother--as men. It is also a mistake to dismiss such female encouragement as the result of brainwashing or stupidity or gender betrayal. Some of the most vocal female proponents of cultural assimilation have been women promoting liberal agendas; how to be a "good woman" has changed, but the expectation that women--those ultimate networkers--will comply with the current definition is just as strong as it has always been.

Even Disney neglected male heroes in
earlier films. Does anyone remember a specific
characteristic of the prince in Sleeping Beauty
Cinderella, or Snow White? The heroines all
have personalities; the princes don't.
This inequality has changed in recent years.

In any case, trying to pinpoint why women criticize other women misses the point. The most noticeable thing about fairy tales isn't their emphasis on negative female characters, but the complete absence of men at all. Sure, there's "Jack & the Beanstalk," "Puss 'n Boots" and others but the best-known fairy tales are about women. When the men are present, they are negated into irrelevance. The father in "Cinderella"--is there a father in "Cinderella"? Technically, yes, but nobody ever remembers him.

Passive and humble or not, female villains and heroines occupy the pages of most fairy tales. Granted, the witty bawdiness of the original Little Red is more satisfying than the silly disobedience of the later Little Red, and that can be laid at the door of male collectors, but Little Red as a female rather than male character cannot be--it indicates that women raconteurs actually mediated not only the deliverance of these tales to male collectors but also their use in oral culture.

I point this out because although I consider Tatar one of the best analysts of fairy tales on record, her analysis often gets rather single-minded. Every motif in every fairy tale is defined as chauvinistic. Even the absence of male characters!

Twist the lens, however, and a very different explanation comes to the fore, one covered by Loudon Wainwright III's "Men," although thankfully things are improving as men and women share more responsibilities inside and outside the home. Still, to be fair, let's consider: maybe there's an absence of male characters, even male villains, in fairy tales because the female raconteurs didn't find them particularly interesting. Can't blame that on men.

M is for Mystery Writers (and Their Heroes)

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Patrick Malahide as Alleyn* 
There are so many M's that I want to comment on, I decided to split them into several posts:

Marsh, Ngaoi: Ngaoi Marsh is a Golden Age mystery writer. She created Inspector Alleyn. I enjoy her mysteries and even feel somewhat nostalgic about them. My first encounter with Marsh was in college. Whenever I was about to fly home, I would go to the mystery fiction section of the BYU Bookstore and pick out a new Marsh to get me through the plane ride.

My favorite is Killer Dolphin, which introduces one of her best secondary characters, Peregrine Jay. I also quite like Grave Mistake and Singing in the Shrouds, although the murder in the latter is downright daft (and the kind of thing that would ordinarily lead to a detective being called on the carpet).

I have mixed feelings about Marsh herself. She was one of those people back in the day who made snide little remarks about poor Sayers falling in love with her hero. What makes this not only distasteful but bizarre is that Marsh is far more worshipful of Alleyn than Sayers is of Wimsey.

With Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers may have created her ideal counterpart, but she tackles him with a degree of objectivity missing from Marsh's treatment of Alleyn. Marsh may not be in love with Alleyn, but she treats him like the ultimate cool, overly handsome guy in that really awesome clique that everyone supposedly just can't wait to join.

Alleyn is NEVER wrong (even when he IS wrong: see above); even people who initially sneer at him, end up admiring him. His subordinates adore him. He is constantly impressing people with his knowledge of Shakespeare. He would really be totally irritating if he didn't manage to be a character in his own right.


There has never been a satisfactory television or film Wimsey
although Ian Carmichael is a fabulous voice Wimsey!
A young David Hyde Pierce may have pulled it off!
Contrast this with Sayers' Wimsey, who isn't over-the-top handsome (though he has a nice body) and isn't universally beloved. Some people dislike him; others misunderstand him; the occasional murderer loathes him. He does win some people over, but even people who like him--like Charles Parker--remain objective about him. Sayers never forgets that people just don't react the same way to the same person all the time.

Marsh seems to think that as long as someone is "popular," no one will ever, ever take issue with him. It's a startlingly immature perspective that is reflected in some of her comments re: Sayers. Unintentionally or not, Marsh comes across as a cliquey high schooler laughing about that weird girl over there.

Me, I side with the weird girl.

Still, Marsh is a good writer, and the mysteries are fun. However, despite what the blurbs try to tell you, Christie is still better.

*I didn't care for Patrick Malahide as Alleyn at first, but now, I quite like him. He is actually much closer to Marsh's description of Alleyn than he appears at first--though he isn't as tall as Alleyn is supposed to be. He is also quite approachable, allowing me to like Alleyn better than I might based on just Marsh's description.

Fan Fiction, Creativity, and the Cluelessness (Again) of Literary Analysis

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Vulcan from ST: The Animated Series
In my thesis's introduction, I wrote the following:
Too often, this type of creative involvement is perceived by humanities scholars as a nice but useless side-effect, not the principal response to the arts under discussion. Again and again, they return to the value of a work as a source of historical, sociological, even personal change . . . literature should mean or do something--should feed us in a practical rather than creative way.
Not only do I still see this happening, if I could write my thesis over, I would make this problem my main argument. That is, failure to put the creative impulse first is the main failing of almost all literary analysis. 

To make my point, I'm going to examine some statements made by Constance Penley in her book NASA/TREK: Popular Science and Sex in America (1997). In a way, I feel bad about picking on Penley. The concept behind the book is interesting, and the first half (about NASA) makes for a fascinating read (to borrow the good Vulcan's favorite word). In addition, Penley tries valiantly in the second half of the book to not hide behind her academic persona, especially since the second half delves into the world of slash fiction re: Kirk and Spock. Although her academically minded friends tried to "pretty up" (intellectualize) her interest in this culture, she resists their efforts; throughout her analysis, she refuses to "dumb down" or devalue the female slash writers she came to know (Janice Radway was less successful in her analysis of romances).

Unfortunately, Penley, who is certainly not the first literary analysts to succumb to over-intellectualizing, can't resist the academic impulse to place meaning above creativity; consequently, she misses what I consider to be rather obvious explanations for people's behavior: Issue 1 and Issue 2.

Issue 1

Discussing Spock's "race," Penley writes, "Although [Leslie] Fiedler thinks a man of any color will do to stand in for the fantasy of the Negro, it is significant that the slash fans consistently avoid writing Vulcan culture and history--and Spock's race--as African or African American. They prefer to Orientalize or romanticize the color divide in a strategic yet unconscious evasion of what has historically in the U.S. been the most bitterly contentious racial division."

I had to read that 3 or 4 times. Huh? Come again? Based on a piece of literary analysis, creative writers are supposed to change a character's ethnicity?

Let me back up--one of the unwritten rules of fan fiction is that you can do anything you want as long as you don't violate the sense of that world. That is, you can put characters together "off-screen," but they should still feel/act/seem like the original characters. Otherwise, what's the fun in writing/reading about them? If the characters could be Bob and Frank (rather than Spock and Kirk), why bother?

Many fan fiction readers will assess a piece based on the sense of "Hey, you really captured that (place, relationship)!" The fans want more, but they don't want more generic science fiction or generic lovers. They want more of that specific, particular universe/those particular people.

And Spock isn't Black.
The excellent Tim Russ as Tuvok


Tuvok is, and it would be interesting to know if fan writers about Tuvok have created stories that meet Fiedler's demands. Spock, and Vulcan, however, from Day One were given the look and vibe that Penley partially criticizes. (Can't have Edward Said's dreaded Orientalism going on here! As Eugene remarks, Edward Said's intellectual descendents exhibit "the kind of offense-taking that requires years of expensive education to hone to a meaningless edge.").

It may seem that I am being too literal (Fiedler and Penley are talking about metaphorical Blackness). However, creativity can be surprisingly literal. Vulcan isn't some vague idea in the Trek universe: "Amok Time," "Journey to Babel" and the Animated Series give the planet and culture a definite feel/look.

In fact, Spock does struggle with prejudice in Star Trek and its fan fiction, and the prejudice stems from his race, i.e. being part-human on Vulcan and part-Vulcan (looking like a Romulan) on a ship run mostly by humans. But identifying him with a culture other than the one the initial creators already identified him with is meaningless intellectual blather; it has nothing to do with making the story work.

Issue 2

Penley addresses the discomfort of mainstream Trekkers with slash writers. Mainstream Trekkers, she points out, see themselves as family-friendly, regarding slash writers are antithetical to their family-friendly culture. Penley then claims, "The slash version of Star Trek threatens the Trekkers because it is not only sexually but politically scary, with its overt homoeroticism throwing into sharp relief the usually invisible homosocial underpinnings of Trekdom, the Federation, and U.S. culture."

Actually, I think it's the porn that bothers the family-friendly Trekkers. However, my point here is that in typical literary analysis fashion, Penley bypasses a prior quote (which she at least provides): "It's an insult to Gene Roddenberry's vision."

Keep in mind that fan fiction is not about throwing everything out and starting over. It's about using the place (the Federation, Middle-Earth, Narnia, Pern, Asimov's universe) as a leaping off point to create something else. And there is an ENORMOUS amount of tension amongst fans about how far one can go before that utterly invisible line is crossed (hey, Hollywood, you threw everything out!).

Consider, for instance, the tension between those of us who think Jackson's Hobbit movies capture the essence of Tolkien's vision for Middle Earth (by utilizing all of Tolkien's material) and those who think that the movies have completely missed the essence of the book. We all love Tolkien, but whether or not a creative vision has been kept or violated is a point of great debate.

The issue on the table is not whether or not Jackson properly captured current political tension regarding terrorism and torture or whether he has anything profound to say about sexual politics. I'm not saying that fans don't make those kinds of applications. I'm saying: the issue, "Did he meet our creative demands" comes first, NOT last. 

Like many, many literary analysts, Penley puts the creative need last. What's really going on is this economic-political-sociological problem, and, oh yeah, people also like being creative.

I argue exactly the opposite in my thesis (and really, throughout my blog): devoted fans almost always struggle first over the creative element before going on lastly and tangentially to application and supposed meaning. Are the slash fans violating a creative vision? Do they have the right to do so? Has a line been crossed? Has the universe that the fans love been damaged?

To take this completely out of the realm of name-calling (anyone who thinks Kirk and Spock shouldn't be lovers is a homophobe!), I feel the same way as the Trekkers about X-Files. I adore Mulder and Scully's heterosexual relationship. I also feel absolutely no need to see it "consummated" in fan fiction or anywhere else (I am on Season 7). As far as I'm concerned, Mulder and Scully act like a married couple already; I don't need it proved to me.

I think many Trekkers feel the same about Kirk and Spock. I also consider these creative debates--did I, Robot violate Asimov's vision or retain it (as much as one could expect)? What about the Lemony Snicket movie; can a wry tone be completely translated to film?--far, far more interesting than economic-political-sociological blah-de-blah.

And in the end, far more insightful regarding popular and literary art.

I Like Kojak but I Don't Like Kojak--And That's Okay

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I also like the teamwork aspect
of Kojak; it's the same thing I like
on Law & Order, Seasons 1-3, and
Tommy Lee Jones' team in The Fugitive.
Lately, I started watching Kojak. The show is quite impressive, Law & Order before Law & Order came along (the early seasons). For one thing, I have a yen for dirty police stations. I suppose the clean, shiny police stations of current cop shows are accurate to today, but I miss the sheer grime of Barney Miller's 12th precinct.

Like the first season of Law & Order, Kojak is split between domestic cases and cases involving drugs, organized crime, etc. I prefer domestic, so I don't watch every episode, but I enjoy the gritty police-work aspect of detection: collecting clues, interviewing suspects, etc.

What amazes me especially is that I enjoy the show so much despite not warming to Kojak, the character, at all.

In general, this is rather difficult to do: like a show that hinges so particularly on a single unliked character. I stopped watching Without a Trace because I loathed Anthony LaPaglia's Jack Malone. The guy was a weasel who had an affair, was surprised when his wife left him, and used the Good Old Boys network to get his job back from a more deserving subordinate. Luckily, Anthony LaPaglia did guest appearances on Frasier as Daphne's constantly inebriated brother Simon and was totally hilarious, so I don't despise him, just his character.

Jack Malone was one of several main characters in Without a Trace, and I still stopped watching; Kojak is THE main character (Crocker, Stavros, and Captain McNeil playing back-up), so how can I keep watching when I just don't find him all that inviting?

I think there are two reasons, which come back to one: The scripts don't ask me to pity Kojak. The scripts don't ask me to like him.

In other words, the scripts present Kojak as a fully realized character who frankly wouldn't much care what I think.

In contrast, Without a Trace's scripts definitely asked me to pity and care about Malone. The scriptwriters didn't defend his actions, but I was supposed to step into his shoes and care about his crazy life.

It's the difference between story and soap opera. With story, I can remain objective: Hey, there goes Kojak again confronting a suspect and saying, "Okay, okay, baby." (He doesn't say, Who loves ya, baby" all that much.) I wonder how this suspect will react?

After awhile a kind of fondness builds up because Kojak is so unrepentantly himself. But I don't HAVE to care (although I can if I want to).

Along the same lines, I get a kick out of Pope (J.K. Simmons) on The Closer. He's another adulterous weasel, but I'm not asked to approve of him; I'm just asked to enjoy his character's antics, and I do.

The soap opera approach, on the other hand, expects you to care. Why else would you keep watching? It's not as if there's, I don't know, a plot. Likewise, on Without a Trace, unless I'd gotten  invested in the problems of an adulterous man who thought he'd fixed his marriage but whose wife outwitted him so he had to do everything he could to get his job back because otherwise he'd lose his kids--well, I might as well turn on The Price is Right (and hey, look, there's Drew Carey!).

Obviously, some people enjoy the soap opera approach: Oh, the angst! The problems! The difficult decisions! I wouldn't do that but I do understand why he would do this--people are so complicated; life is all about difficult decisions, blah, blah blah. And most fiction writing assumes that readers will in fact come to care about the characters. (As C.S. Lewis states, fiction can carry us out of ourselves into another point of view.)

I look on the story versus soap opera approach as the difference between Rent and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Rent, the soap opera, tells us we should care about its characters because people are supposed to care about other people's problems. That is, the existence of problems all by themselves is the thing that is expected to pull us closer, not the quality of the problems or how the characters are handling the problems. Just--there are problems: now, feel bad.

The more objective story says, Look at these characters. I like them. You can too, if you'd want. Here's what they will do next. 

Going back to Christie and her scandalous villagers, I think this is another reason her imitators don't succeed. Christie is objective, even humorous, about her scandalous villagers. This is what is happening. Isn't it interesting? Human beings are so odd. Hmmm.

And, what do ya know, we do care.

An Inside Look at Revision: Writing the Thing Anyway

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"Where Next?" by Edward Frederick Brewtnall*
Due to a variety of reasons, including a crisis of nerves (not mine) and disapprobation based on vaguely scandalized feelings (also not mine), working on Aubrey has tested my beliefs about audiences and authors. 

Aubrey is one of those pieces I kept working on anyway. For someone who believes as firmly as I do in the "you've got to reach an audience" mantra, this begs an explanation (from myself). Where is the line between reaching the audience and writing "my" thing?

Here beginneth my ramblings:

Not too long ago, I read the latest book by an author of supernatural love stories. Her writing is kind of dopey, but I quite enjoy the sheer exuberance of her earlier novels (Greek gods! Immortal warriors! Lots of gunfights! Plot denouements that make no sense!). Her later books lack this exuberance. My theory is (1) constantly producing books takes its toll; (2) she felt a need to write like her peers/fellow genre-writers, some of whom are better craftswomen in their own way.

By trying to be like these other writers, her writing lost its own edge. The lesson: at some point, a writer has to decide, "I'm going to write my story this way anyway." As Joe mentioned in an earlier comment, writers "fixing" their own work doesn't always produce the best results.

I suppose this is where artistic integrity and on-line publishing (thanks, Eugene!) come into play. Thomas Hardy self-published Jude: The Obscure. And everybody hated it. But he did it anyway.

Of course, too much of this thumbing-the-nose doesn't go a very long way. Who reads Jude: The Obscure now? I never do. But people are forced to read other things by Hardy, so I suppose it worked.

My personal writing philosophy is what Dorothy Sayers, speaking through Harriet Vane, states in Gaudy Night. Harriet meets a woman who left academe to marry a farmer on the principle, in sum, that "farming is more noble than sitting around discussing obscure academic ideas."

Harriet doesn't disagree with her, but she does say, as tactfully as Harriet can, something to the effect of, "Wouldn't it have been better for you to use your education in a job where you could earn money using your skills? You could then give the money to the farmer if that's what matters to you. But why waste your intellectual training?"

This conversation dovetails with a recurring idea in the book: that we are best served doing the thing that we each individually can do--rather than the thing that somebody else can do. Math may be more important than writing (although in this day and age . . . ) but for me to teach math would be a joke--especially since I teach writing so much better.

Do the thing one can and should do, not the thing that someone else is doing even if it is grander or supposedly more relevant or supposedly more cute or supposedly more diplomatic.

Even if I had the skills to write Moby-Dick, I wouldn't really want to.

Of course, Moby-Dick didn't become the great American classic until Melville died! But when/how things become renowned (and whether they stay that way) is another idea for another post.

In any case, Aubrey is the thing I wanted to produce, and it's been produced. *Whew.*

The finished version of Aubrey is available on Wattpad. The current Kindle version of Aubrey will be updated by the end of the summer.

*This is absolutely my favorite picture amongst all those I found for Aubrey. It encapsulates for me the essence of Charles and Aubrey's relationship: affectionate and equal. Despite the Victorian dress, the man and the woman are equally absorbed, equally engaged, equally inquiring. She's no wilting rose petal! 

An Inside Look at Revision: Should the Character Remain Alive? What Use Will Death Serve?

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Gustave Dore's Puss in Boots
Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation is now being published on Wattpad! It is also available on Amazon and Smashwords. With every chapter, I will be posting notes about the process of revision.

Chapter 19

I've mentioned in previous posts that I consider death to be a poor pay-off. Ironically (or hypocritically, depending on one's point of view), I've killed off the occasional character myself. It's always a struggle. When writing "Her Society" (Leading Edge #57), a tale that tackles the death penalty, I pondered the ending for several months since I couldn't decide whether the main character should carry out the final act of execution. I was worried not just because execution would mean the loss of a character (who could possibly merit a sequel) but for how the act would effect my main character.

My solution was to have it both ways: the story ends the way it needed to end in terms of character and theme; however, a slight ambiguity was inserted to make the other ending possible (in retrospect).

The final confrontation between Kev and Aubrey in Aubrey raised the same issue. Should Kev be killed (he certainly deserved it) or should he be kept alive? What would his death do to Aubrey--or say about her? Would he prove useful in later stories?

The issue, I wish to point out, is a writing problem, not a matter of profundity. There is nothing instantly meritorious about a Death (capital "D") all by itself. Far too many writers, especially new writers, seem to think this. "D"=Instant Philosophical Attitudinizing. There's a connection here to why I don't allow my students to write their argument/persuasion essays on the USUAL BIG TOPICS (abortion, gay marriage, marijuana, and steroids). The students usually prefer to tackle these topics because they don't have to hunt far to find passionate opinions on them: Passionate is seen as the equivalent of insightful.

The connection to fiction is not that writers should only write about obscure topics. Or, even, that they need to come up with especially unique things to say about, well, death. Rather, the connection is that seeing something as BIG AND PROFOUND doesn't actually make it BIG AND PROFOUND. Having a character DIE!!!! doesn't really mean all that much just because it IS death. Unless the story follows the character into heaven, meaning rests with the survivors.

Consequently, I ultimately realized that it didn't really matter what happened to Kev. It only mattered what happened to my main character. Which was very freeing.

*I am a fan of Gustave Dore's lovely drawings. This one, Puss in Boots, is the ultimate cat-with-attitude! 

The Weird Intellectual Distaste for the Flesh

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The "earthy" jokes between the Amish at the
beginning of Witness would have been far more
typical of Puritans than the usual cliched image.
It is typical, especially in Western culture, to blame religion for theologically besmirching the physical experience. And if not religion, then the Victorians. (Sometimes the Puritans--although Puritans in general belong to the rather bawdy, intensely physical mindset of the 18th century.)

Regarding religion, Christianity is usually the culprit, specifically the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages--even though theological caviling regarding the body was a direct compromise with the truly wacky Gnostic ideas floating around Christendom at the time.

Which brings me directly to my point: religion, I understand. What amazes me is how often academic, ivory-tower intellectuals have an even more fuddy-duddy "eww gross" attitude towards physical realities than the religions they blame. 

Joseph Campbell is a case in point.

I greatly admire Joseph Campbell. I am immensely grateful for his work that brought mythology and the influence of mythology on popular culture back into the public arena. Unfortunately, he is also a prime example of the ivory-tower intellectual's attitude towards the physical.

I recently took out the DVD of Campbell's talks with Bill Moyers. The first conversation is remarkable, very interesting. Campbell exudes a generous, inclusive attitude towards the world's religions or "mythoi."

Things go downhill from there. Campbell starts the next conversation by belittling all Christianity for its negative attitudes towards the body. Moyers is clearly surprised--he continually tries to pull Campbell back to some of the more tolerant statements our widely read professor made in the prior interview about the purpose of a "mythos" (any mythos) in an individual's life. To a series of questions from Moyers ("Okay, then where does this lead us?" or "leave us?"), Campbell then states emphatically (without realizing that he is contradicting himself) that nothing about religion is supposed to be LITERAL. (It isn't about, for example, a LITERAL resurrection.) It's all about the metaphor: what "it" means to us at the abstract level. THAT'S transcendence.

As my progenitors thought,
"Let's go into the desert--and BUILD something!"
And he sticks to this--despite the fact that many, many religions translate their theology into some kind of physical reality, whether it be how people dress or what they build or pioneering one's way across the Rockies ("walked and walked and walked and walked"). Campbell singlehandedly decides to throw it all out. In his view, it's okay to start one's spiritual journey in the physical--but in the end, all that physical stuff is so much dross. (I'm not exaggerating; his tone is positively irate; he may not have been feeling well, but his attitude is a radical departure from the first interview.)

So much distaste for physical realities reminded me of the famous line in Paul's letters when, after hanging out with a bunch of intellectuals, he states that the concept of a literal resurrection will always be a "stumbling block" to this type of thinker.

Since this blog focuses on popular culture, I will be concentrating on that, not theology. And my point about popular culture is that academics such as Campbell only tolerate it to a point--and that point is, oddly enough, where raunchy, bawdy physical humor meets Paul's stumbling block. The physical as a jolly, positive, enlivening reality* is almost too much for these intellectual types to bear. It MUST mean something else. It MUST be a metaphor. It MUST refer to the ideas we develop as we strive for the ineffable, just before we turn into atoms or light or something intangible.

As Cordelia in Angel would say: "Boring!" 

This distaste for the physical is not the same as Augustine fretting over sex: "God, give me chastity and continence. But not yet." It is not the stigma of bastardy in the 18th and 19th centuries. It isn't even Victorian polygamists struggling between their Victorianism and their leader's instruction.

This is Gnosticism, a denial that the flesh is even a consideration. Jesus didn't have a body; it was a spiritual manifestation of his aura or other self that died on the cross. (I'm not making this up.)

Gnosticism is sort of understandable when one considers its context, the Middle Ages: unsettling ideas about bathing (it will kill you!), stupid ideas about hygiene, lots and lots of death. The denial--Hey, we are not even really here!--is somewhat comprehensible.

Don't get me wrong: I LOVE Star Trek. And this
episode about John Doe is pretty interesting.
But he turns into energy at the end. Yawn.
But now-a-days? Western scholars who, on average, live middle-class lives with plenty of bathing, hygiene, and visits to the doctor? Why are these intellectuals denying the reality of the flesh now?

From a popular culture standpoint, it is also lame (even when Star Trek does it). Because grappling with a potential physical afterlife or, to keep this in the realm of science-fiction, physical transcendence is way more mind-blowing than dealing with a concept of transcendence that is all fuzzy and abstract.

Granted, I tend not to agree with people who think that the afterlife will be just like mortality, but I put down our disagreement to differing imaginations. And it's still better that some flaky, intellectual, starring-at-one's naval view of transcendence. Reality usually is.

*As I state in my comment on the post Defending Agatha Christie, Part 1, C.S. Lewis pointed out that ivory-tower, intellectual critics will often embrace a book with a despairing or sad ending as "real life" while rejecting a book with an optimistic, happy ending as pollyannaish, unrealistic, wistful thinking. Yet both reactions are based on emotional, subjective responses to events, not objective ones. Why should the first set of emotions be more "true" than the second?

An Inside Look at Revision: The Montage & How Humans Communicate

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Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation is now being published on Wattpad! It is also available on Amazon and Smashwords. With every chapter, I will be posting notes about the process of revision.

Chapter 18

The Montage is such an effective literary and visual device that it has, of course, been totally overused. Hence, the Ultimate Training Movie Montage.

Based on Eugene's suggestion, I expanded Chapter 18 (which was originally Chapter 17 which was originally Chapter 16--eh, I've lost count) with a montage. 

The power of the montage is that it can convey a plethora of information succinctly without bogging down the story. However, remove the montage and the reader will start thinking things like, "My, that was quick! How did she learn to do that so fast?!"

It creates that patina of realism that is so important to fiction (even though it is largely imaginary).

I think the montage goes beyond fiction, however. It is the essence of academic thought and, to a degree, the essence of all thought. Humans communicate in example.

If I want someone to understand what a busy week I've had, I might say something like, "And then I had to correct 150 essays!" I may or may not mention spending several minutes every morning just trying to get my oldest cat (19 years old) to eat.

Granted, I might mention my cat (depending on whom I was talking to).  Likewise, in an interview, if the interviewer asks, "What have you done in this line of work?" the interviewee will hopefully mention and expand on the most relevant examples. Unlike some of my students who think the answer to that question is a totally unnecessary five-page resume of their life experiences, including that time when they flipped pancakes in high school (you talk about flipping pancakes if you have no other experience to share, but generally, a place like Microsoft wants to hear about your computer experience).

So perhaps it isn't so much that human want to communicate through example. It is that we learn to communicate through example by necessity. In order for communication to work with any degree of efficiency, it must move between claim and example (the essence of academic writing). I say something is true--I then prove it is true with a piece of evidence.

The problem lies in determining, How much evidence proves a claim? In fiction, this decision is largely a matter of commonsense and subjectivity (take training montages: one viewer may think the montage hasn't shown enough--the character couldn't get that good that fast!; another may think it is more than enough). In a legal matter, an actual standard of proof may need to be met for a case to even be considered by a court (interestingly enough, standard of proof was what worried the Puritan ministers who finally, ultimately, put an end to the Salem Witch Trials: if the devil can trick people, why couldn't he be tricking the accusers? What evidence was there to the contrary?).

Although the number of examples needed varies between individuals, we nevertheless all mostly accept that complete proof is impossible or, at least, improbable. By necessity, the answer to the question, "How are you doing?" will likely not include a list of all my trips to the potty in the last week--

Although if you are ever at a family reunion with people over 60, don't bet on it.

Defending Agatha Christie (Not That She Really Needs It), Part II

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Paul Eddington as the vicar in Murder at the Vicarage.
He turns out to have no hidden secrets--though his
wife has a lovely one.
The second common assessment of Christie (usually a compliment, not a criticism) is that evil lurks even in a placid village.

This is sort of true. One of Miss Marple's mantras is that village life and city life contain the same kinds of people who commit the same kinds of human acts. In a number of books, she also points out the folly of believing what people tell you simply because you met them on vacation or because they own a nice house in the village. (In one book, Miss Marple gives an interesting analysis of English life post-World War II: village life has changed; new developments are cropping up; the pattern of "I know my neighbor because I knew his father" has broken down.)

The problem with this compliment, which is often used to oppose the accusation that Christie's books are "escapist," is that writers and filmmakers who try to imitate Christie far too often mistake the concept for the substance. 

I recently tried to watch another post-Joan Hickson Miss Marple, The Blue Geranium with Julie McKenize. I figured that the original was a short story; how badly could they really mess it up?

Despite Toby Stephens and Sharon Small as guest stars, it is dreadful--mostly because it mistakes concept for substance. The movie is full of SHOCKING REVELATIONS ABOUT MIDDLE-CLASS VILLAGERS! There's poisoning and adultery and serial adultery and suicide and wife beating. Blah. Blah. Blah.

Take Murder at the Vicarage (spoilers for all books follow). In that book, Miss Marple reveals that that an affair has been going on between a wife and painter; a mysterious woman is actually the ex-wife of the murdered man and has returned to amend relations with her daughter; and a curate has a nasty habit of stealing money from the collection plate.

Bunch, Miss Marple's niece, is exactly who
she appears to be.
On the surface, this seems the same kind of thing (HIDDEN SCANDALS BEHIND THE CURTAIN OF RESPECTABILITY!). It isn't. However, I admit that it is a struggle to put the "why" into words. It is partly a matter of tone, partly a matter of theme (there are plenty of respectable characters in Christie; she didn't believe that respectability by itself was a lie) and partly something else that, for lack of a better word, I'll call commonsense.

Christie's novels never leave one feeling like one just witnessed a soap opera--unlike so many of her imitators' works. However improbable, and her novels can become improbable, human nature never leaves the table. Her point is not that everyone has a deep dark secret but that people behave badly when they don't know any better or when they are simply bad. It is deeply moral viewpoint although Christie never, never pontificates.

One of Poirot's mantras, for example, is each individual will only commit a certain type of murder. A person might murder for love or money. He or she also might murder to protect someone else. Or because it is deemed right. Or out of psychopathy. Or in self-defense. Or from fear, rage, curiosity, desperation, etc. etc. etc. (Christie's book Cards on the Table tackles this connection between individuality and murder directly.) There are as many reasons as there are people.

From Agatha
Christie, speaking through her detectives, also often points to the difference between planning/wishing a murder and actually committing one. Christie understood the rage that can lead to self-destructive acts (hence, the remarkable film Agatha with Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman), but she also understood the will not to act. The angry and dying "murderer," in "Wasp's Nest" is spared his loss of integrity by Poirot's intervention. Poirot knows that the man is not really so venal or corrupt and therefore, in a literal sense, saves his soul.

Finally, Christie argues that a bad person may refrain from murder if circumstances give him or her what he or she wants. That doesn't make that person good. The lawyer in The Moving Finger is completely amoral, but if life had given him what he wanted, no one would ever have known. Life doesn't, so the man murders his wife (and a maid) in order to marry his children's governess.

Added up, all this means that in Christie's universe, there is NOT a hidden scandal behind every curtain. Behind some, yes. But commonsense and individuality dictate that some people are exactly who they appear to be. If they do murder, the murder reflects their direct, non-hidden personalities. If they are intrinsically moral, they don't murder at all (at least, not on purpose). On the other hand, if they don't murder at all, maybe life has given them what they want, making them useless to the purposes of a murder mystery but perfectly allowable as members of the same stage. In sum, if commonsense dictates that a lack of scandal doesn't mean there isn't one, commonsense also dictates that a lack of scandal doesn't mean there is.  

Christie's ability to understand and portray this complexity of human reaction (some people are actually good; some respectability is real; scandal doesn't always lurk behind curtains like Polonius), when her rivals so continually fail, makes watching recent Christie films and reading Christie tributes something of a chancy prospect. Especially since, in reality, scandal doesn't automatically equate to interest--something Christie and her characters understood very well. After all, commonsense also dictates: just because you find a scandal doesn't mean that anybody cares.

Defending Agatha Christie (Not That She Really Needs It)

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Agatha Christie's novels have
been translated into over
100 languages.
Speaking of Agatha Christie--

This coming fall, I will be teaching sections of a required course, titled (in summary) How to Be a College Student--these types of courses are becoming de rigeur at colleges and universities, institutions that unfortunately find students woefully ill-prepared for college life.

It is likely that students have ALWAYS been woefully ill-prepared for college life--and those of previous generations simply suffered through it all and grew up. Nevertheless, the growing number of students who DO attend college has made the Freshman year a problem-to-be-solved rather than a growth experience.

Such courses are generally not that exciting (however necessary they may be) since they focus on things like "Getting to class on time" and "Taking notes." In an effort to give the relevant course more interest and substance, my local employee has (intelligently) based each section on a different topic of interest. One of my topics of interest is murder mysteries!

Consequently, I have been (re)reading a great many books about murder mysteries, especially those of the Golden Age (writers: Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Tey, Allingham, Van Dine, Chesterton, etc.) since the legacy of Golden Age mysteries still influences writers today (who write like or in opposition to the masters).

In my reading, both a criticism and a backward compliment of Agatha Christie have emerged: (1) Christie's characters are one-dimensional; (2) Christie's mysteries show the evil lurking even in a placid village.

Christie's characters are one-dimensional

I have always found this criticism of Christie odd, especially when she is compared to writers who supposedly produce more well-rounded characters. All I can assume is that the critics who perceive Christie's characters as one-dimensional have little personal creativity themselves (not an unusual state of affairs with critics) reasoning, Since the books don't contain passages of ongoing, exhaustive character development, Christie's characters must not be well-rounded!

Christie used "typing" for her own purposes. The
"scattered" writer Ariadne Oliver (played with
panache by Zoe Wannamaker in the Poirot series) 
is used by Christie to deliver trenchant and hilarious
insights on writing, murder mysteries, and being a celebrity.
Well-rounded or not (and who really cares?), Christie's characters are fully realized. She just doesn't go on and on about them. Instead, she relies on several things to clarify their roles and personalities: typing, dialog, and gaps.

Typing is an age-old method of character development (of course, when Homer does it, literary analysts get all giddy and maudlin). Jung certainly didn't have a problem with it. If a wise old man with a beard (or Liam Neeson) shows up and starts giving advice, you should listen to him (most of the time). Alec Guiness doesn't need to provide his biography in order to be Obi-Wan Kenobi. He just is. And we know it. (Stop fretting about his potty habits, people, and enjoy the story!)

Christie relies on typing both to produce characters and to undermine expectations. Therefore, although we learn more and more about Miss Marple in every book, she bursts into being as a fully realized individual in The Tuesday Club Murders. (Granted, her mode of dress changes between the stories and the novels.) She is the shrewd, benign-looking English spinster ("made not born," as Miss Climpson would say).

Gwen Watford and Joan Hickson
Christie also relies a great deal on dialog. When, in the same set of short stories, Dolly Bantry says, "I like men and gardening," adding, for the benefit of her dinner party guests, "I put the men first out of tact," we get a fully comprehensible image of her character (a character beautifully captured in the Joan Hickson films by Gwen Watford; Watford is not stout like the books' Mrs. Bantry, but she is as quixotically forthright).

And Christies relies on, for lack of a better word, gaps. I hesitated to use the phrase "reading between the lines" because I honestly doubt Christie was ever trying to be subtle. But she allows things to speak for themselves. In Murder in Mesopotamia, Richard Carey, pushed to the edge of psychological endurance, yells at Poirot that he hated his lover (his best friend's wife) "like hell." After he stomps off, Poirot talks to Nurse Leatheran. When she asks him if he believes Carey, he replies, without explanation, that he does. Nurse Leatheran is left with the impression that Poirot believes that Carey and the best friend's wife weren't lovers. But the reader comes to understand that Poirot's silence stems from a different source: he understands human nature and consequently comprehends that a man can both love and loathe the woman with whom he committed adultery.

Obviously, Christie used such silences as a tool in the mystery itself. Pierre Bayard explores Christie's deft use of silence and unspoken words in his clever book Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?  But a large amount of creativity and supposition and character development also occur in these silences. Consequently, true classics--like Christie's books--have an accessibility that a million modern literary tomes can't achieve. Christie allows you to decide whether her characters are profound or not. She doesn't bother to prove it. 

I will discuss the idea that Christie's books illustrate the evil lurking even in a placid village in my next post.

An Inside Look at Revision: On Not Writing Mysteries (Because, Let's Face It, Agatha Christie is Too Good to be True)

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Lucile Blanch by Peter A. Juley & Son*
Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation is now being published on Wattpad! It is also available on Amazon and Smashwords. With every chapter, I will be posting notes about the process of revision.

Chapter 17

Chapter 17--another chapter which has been divided into two--is one of the earliest chapters I ever wrote. At one point, in one version, it disappeared. I enjoyed bringing back Charles and Aubrey's transformation experiments!

In the very first version, Aubrey escaped from Dmitri and Kev, then forced her bespeller, Malcolm Fairways, to help her. She become his "mistress," not in fact but in the eyes of the world. After transforming into a cat at a society ball, the Academy became interested and collected her. Charles was present at the Academy meeting to get Aubrey's help in solving a series of burglaries. Although the Academy objected, Aubrey left with Charles and David, who was at that time a member of the police force, not a reporter (he is far more useful as a reporter and will likely get his own story--as will Olivia, hopefully). The meeting took place outside of Kingston; Charles, Aubrey, and David returned to Kingston in a carriage; the morning of their return is now Chapter 17.

As mentioned above, the original plot circled around a mystery: who are these thieves who can creep into locked houses?! Obviously, transformed thieves. This particular plot stayed in place for a long time, but it was eventually axed for two reasons: (1) the magic changed; Aubrey became an anomaly, not an example; (2) mysteries are really, really hard to write.

There's a reason Agatha Christie is the Queen, Empress, Princess, Lady, etc. of Crime. It is incredibly difficult to create a mystery that is not only a surprise but actually interesting to read. Pages and pages of "then the detective went and interviewed some more people" is not all that fun to read OR write. Sayers got around it by inserting somebody's (usually Wimsey's) social commentary. Ngaio Marsh managed on the most part although a few Marsh mysteries get bogged down in the middle (one thing I like about Marsh mysteries is that Alleyn does tell his colleagues what the solution is, even if he doesn't inform the reader; playing a loan hand, like Poirot and Sherlock, works for private investigators, but policemen really need to work with each other!).

Christie managed because in Christie, every interview actually matters. Even Sayers, who is possibly the best writer of the Golden Age--in terms of sentence structure, created interviews containing discardable information. But Christie's best books waste nothing. Every interview matters because in every interview, Poirot or Miss Marple get closer to uncovering the truth surrounding the entire event (not just who committed the crime).

Against such a standard, I decided emulation was not the better part of valor. It is far more sensible for a writer to work to her strengths (which for me currently include social exchanges in 19th century settings). Richard's story (Part 3 coming Monday!) is sort of a mystery, but only by accident. I don't try to plan them anymore!

*Lucile Blanch was an American painter of the 1930s (although she died in 1981). I chose her photograph because she reflects Aubrey's new can-do attitude--as does the painting by Lucile Blanch. In fact, the painting, Gittel, is almost more appropriate: Aubrey as doer and thinker.

And Lucile Blanch painted a cat (naturally!). Since the painting is called Orlando, I assume the cat was as well.


LOTR--The Books This Time--Frodo as True Hero

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"The Lord of the Rings--The Book This Time" posts address the following topics:
Orcs 
War 
Mordor
and
FRODO AT MOUNT DOOM

Tolkien is rightly perceived as the man who, alongside C.S. Lewis, brought fantasy to the modern world. Granted, it was here all along, even in America. But the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books opened up markets for British and American writers of sword and sorcery. Alongside the growth of mystery novels (and, much later, the elevation of romances), I call this the Genre Revolution!

Here is the "however": although Tolkien is responsible for (re)establishing all the classic elements of a fantasy novel--the quest, the companions, the magical item--he didn't just stick all such elements in a bag and shake them up; the elements did not dictate content (in fact, one could argue that Tolkien, like Lewis, was so steeped in Norse and Anglo-Saxon tales and legends, he didn't even realize how consistently he was utilizing their motifs).

Consequently, when Tolkien brings Frodo to Mount Doom, he does not have Frodo just toss the ring in on the classic justification that he is the hero--ergo, he can do everything!
Sam & Frodo's trip takes a week. Aragorn attacks
Mordor at the top-hand Northwest gate. As the
map illustrates,  this would distract the eye at Bara-dur.

The ring has been a true burden, not a token one (ha ha). No one else could have carried it so far, as Gandalf and Galadriel acknowledge when they refuse to take it. The ring, by its nature, consumes will. It is the ultimate nothingness which sucks up light and hope and thought. It must have an impact, and its impact must go beyond the physical (although it does weigh Frodo down). Frodo must be affected psychologically in order for the entire trilogy not to be a waste of time. The pay-off must merit the problem.

Frodo doesn't throw the ring in Mount Doom. I know some people consider this a lack of heroism, but to me, Frodo's heroism is everything he has done before arriving at Mount Doom, everything that makes the climax possible. Gollum's arrival is not a deus ex machina; Gollum is there precisely because Frodo made it possible for him to be there. Like his uncle, Frodo spared Gollum's life (Frodo more than once). Frodo used Gollum (in the absence of other guides) to lead him into Mordor. Frodo crossed Mordor despite great weariness, bringing himself, the ring, and Gollum in his wake to the crucial place.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo contemplating
what to do with the pitiful Gollum.
To me, Tolkien is painting the ultimate picture of grace, and I find it downright comforting. Frodo--who has suffered so much--is only required to do what is possible, what he can do, what is within his abilities. He is stretched to the limit, but in the end, he really isn't expected to be some supranormal superhero who can do everything and resist everything, etc. etc. He is only supposed to be himself.

Consider that Frodo surely tells Gandalf and Aragorn what occurred at Mount Doom--he did lose a finger! No one reproaches him. No one behaves as if he was a failure. He is, rather, honored by wizards and men and elves. The point is that he got the ring where he said he would against fearful odds, not that he adopted the proper role of "hero" at the proper time.

Tolkien is completely underestimated in this regard. Since he was writing world fantasy and since he created a good versus evil story, his comprehension of basic human nature is sometimes ignored. Granted, C.S. Lewis was a little more obvious and direct in his explorations of human fallibility and variability. But it's all there in Tolkien!

Take for instance Jackson's brilliant casting of Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The personality that Tolkien ascribes to the master is fully realized in Stephen Fry (who can capture pompous-political-nabob better than anyone on record).

The Master of Laketown's portrait.
In the book, the master is extremely self-serving and coolly political. He funds Thorin's expedition because he believes that the dwarfs are imposters who will die in the wilderness as soon as they run out of food. He doesn't for a moment expect them to succeed! However, despite disbelieving their claims, he sees no reason not to capitalize on their popularity! What a politician!!

Jackson simply builds on this--it is ALL in the book. And Tolkien put it there. His villains may not all be as subtly drawn as the Master. But his heroes are real heroes, not cookie-cutter heroes-as-already-constituted (just add fairy dust).

An Inside Look at Revision: He Doesn't Have to Be Bad to Be the Enemy

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Reclining lady with a Cat by
H. Guérault*
Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation is now being published on Wattpad! It is also available on Amazon and Smashwords. With every chapter, I will be posting notes about the process of revision.

Chapter 16

Sir Prescott is another character who went through several changes. In the first version, he was a pedantic academic. Through the various revisions, he grew in importance until he became a member of the Academy board and Sir James's rival.

Sir Prescott is not a bad guy. He's the Head of Rostand College. He owns a spa. He's less likely to feed Aubrey to the wolves than Sir James.

However, none of this makes him trustworthy. He may not sell Aubrey to slum magicians for money, but he would, perfectly innocently with boatloads of well-meaning, sell her for a stake in an academic argument.

Of course, he wouldn't see it that way.  He would be absolutely sure that he was doing what was best for Aubrey--helping her to overcome her terrible ordeal by submitting herself to his proven psychological methods.

This type of not-really-a-bad-guy-but-not-a-good-guy character makes for good tension and some fun. After all, who else could Aubrey manipulate by swooning--and who else would totally deserve it?  

*There is very little information on the web about H. Guerault. Apparently, he was something of a one-trick pony (hey, if it sells . . .) since he also did Reclining Lady With Dog.
On a side-note, when I tried to find more information on Reclining Lady With a Cat, I discovered that the art world is awash with pictures of ladies with cats, reclining and otherwise, including this creative parody of Leonardo Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine.

I chose Guerault's cat-lady for, again, her expression. After all, Chapter 16 is where Aubrey schemes to get what she wants.

An Inside Look at Revision: Taking the Write Kind of College Courses

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Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation is now being published on Wattpad! It is also available on Amazon and Smashwords. With every chapter, I am publishing notes on the process of revision. With this chapter, I address creative writing courses, the classic narrative structure, and Alva Vanderbilt.

Chapter 15

This chapter contains the internal climax of the novel--Aubrey makes a concrete emotional decision about how to move forward (the physical climax/confrontation comes later).

Which brings me to a story about my brother Eugene, a writing class, and getting A's in English.

When I was getting my B.A. in English several, a-hem, years ago, I took creative writing classes every semester. They were designated 218-R & 318-R which meant that I could take the same course several times from different professors. I worked my way through all the available professors and then got special permission to take a graduate level course.

The further I moved up (starting, actually, with 118), the more I encountered not only the same students but the same type of writing: stream-of-consciousness, contemporary, realistic fiction. By the time I reached the graduate level, I was just about the only student left who was still writing fantasy and science-fiction (there were a number of these students in 118, but they dropped off the radar).

This experience pretty much cured me of any belief in the effectiveness of university writing programs to provide readers with unique, popular, or culturally relevant works. As I saw for myself, such programs focus on producing the same types of writers writing the same types of stuff. I don't regret taking those courses; they forced me to produce and to deal with feedback, but as this story will soon show, they didn't make the BIG difference in my writing.

I was already trying to get published (I started when I was 17). I wasn't having much luck, a reality not reflected by the A's I received every semester from my creative writing professors. Hey, I write readable sentences. And even then, I could create drop-and-run beginnings.

But not endings. Unfortunately, even though I was still producing fantasy and science-fiction, I'd allowed myself to be influenced by my stream-of-consciousness, contemporary, realistic writing peers. I should mention that these writers were skilled at what they were doing. The problem: applying the rules of such writing to genre storytelling (which is what I wanted to do) does not work.

To compound the problem, I was excusing lazy writing--lame endings with no pay-offs--by saying stuff like, "But life doesn't have endings! People never know what will happen next! Life just, like, happens."

Does that sound like a 20-year-old or what?!

And then my brother Eugene, an alum, signed up for a How to Get Published class and invited me to join him.

And I started getting Bs.

I don't like getting Bs!

So I looked harder at my writing.

The freelance writer/instructor was giving me Bs for (1) my grammar (ironically, considering my current views on the subject--but hey, those views were formed by this experience!); (2) my lack of . . . endings (I was going to write "strong endings," but no, I actually had stories with no endings).

Once I figured out what was wrong, I blocked out every one of my stories from the previous two years  using the classic narrative structure: problem, climax, resolution. And what do you know: my problems were not only not paying-off, they kind of disappeared half-way through the story!

Paying-off-the-problem is one of the toughest issues faced by a genre/classic storyteller: if the problem is physical, is there a physical confrontation? If the problem is emotional, does the character learn/change/grow? In either case, does the climax (how the problem is confronted) move things forward for good or for ill (how the problem is paid-off)?

I still struggle with pay-offs, but that class that semester put me back on the right track.

The lesson (other than take writing classes with your older brother) is as follows: Go ahead and take college creative writing classes, but do not let them force you off your chosen path!

*Since Chapter 15 is now Chapters 15 & 16 (just revised!), I had to find a new picture. Balls in the nineteenth century could be incredibly elaborate, obvious morality tales about wealth-induced boredom and wastefulness. The young woman is Alva Vanderbilt, the mother of Consuelo Vanderbilt.

Alva is the quintessential example of a woman who makes society bend to her will while still adhering to its culture and precepts. She is best known for forcing Consuelo to make one of those famous (and doomed) Anglo-American marriages to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Since Alva divorced Conseulo's father, the same year that Consuelo got married, to marry a man she preferred, you'd think she'd have a clue about loveless marriages.

But then I think that Alva is an excellent example of why historical fiction is difficult to write. On the one hand, she was a woman outside her time: getting divorced when people rarely did, becoming a suffragette. On the other hand, she was a woman entirely of her time, encapsulating in her single being all the philosophies and views of her class. To do her justice, a writer would have to capture both facets of her personality.

Aubrey, luckily, is already on the fringe of high society; it is easier for her to break away. And that is ultimately what she may have to do to be happy.