Ah, look at the cute liddle cars . . .

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To find Booth and Brennan's car, follow the arrow.
I don't consider myself to be much of a car person, but there are a few television and movie cars that amuse me to no end.

I thought of this recently after watching the Bones 3.5 episode "The Yanks in the U.S." The scene where an exasperated Booth drives a liddle tiny car the wrong way through a London intersection got me laughing. It's way up there with Chevy Chase (of whom I am otherwise not a fan) in European Vacation driving round and round and round the round-a-bout: "Look kids, there's Big Ben! Look kids, there's Big Ben!"

Columbo's car and Dog.
And then there's Columbo's car. In "Death Lends a Hand," Columbo (and his car) are stopped for a spot inspection. The scene has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It is totally hilarious, especially since it is completely understated. Every time I watch the episode, I think, "Okay, I know what's coming next. The windshield wipers don't work. That just isn't that funny." And then Columbo sets the (partially broken) windshield wipers going, and I fall out of my chair laughing.

I'm also a big fan of the Bourne cars--mostly because I learned to drive in a standard, and I like watching Bourne prove his superior skills through downshifting. I always felt more in control in my standard cars although my automatic Toyota Yaris has a similar cozy feel.

However, the first action movie car chase scene that I remember liking (keeping in mind that I didn't see the semi explode in Terminator until 10+ years later) was the tank scene in Goldeneye. I realize Pierce Brosnan is not held up as a great Bond by Bond fans, but I thought the tank rolling over cars (completely altering the definition of "chase") to be totally hilarious--which it still is, even when JAG does it.


Is There a Message? Does it Matter? No

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If you are looking for a Yes, click here and here.

Story #1

I'm eight years old, driving back from seeing The Black Stallion with members of my family. I can no longer remember my opinion of the movie (I'm a girl; I was 8; it was about a horse: I'm sure I adored it).

My family members are dissecting the movie piece by piece, line by line, scene by scene, which I find all very puzzling. 

Story #2

I'm in England as part of a Theatre in London college program. We all go to see Uncle Vanya, starring Ian McKellan in the eponymous role (that summer, he was starring simultaneously in Richard III, which I also saw--no, he never confused his lines!). London playhouses are rather informal: playgoers can buy standing room when the seats run out. During the interval, I switch with my roommate, giving up my seat to stand at the rail overlooking the thrust stage.

Over an hour later, I straighten up from hanging over the rail and realize I've forgotten where I am. I have no idea even now whether the play was good or bad. Ian McKellan was in it, so I'm sure it was beautifully acted, but as for the direction, scenery, dialog . . .

No idea. For over 90 minutes, I was completely caught up in Chehov's play.

Story #3

Same program, same summer, the group goes down to Brighton to see Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench in Coriolanus. Afterwards on the bus, the other students complain about how bored they were and how they feel asleep.

I have to admit, I still don't have the slightest idea what that play is about. But bored? Crystallized in my brain is an image of Kenneth Branagh walking out on stage in his bare feet, then he and Judi Dench roaring beautiful language at each other in beautiful voices. Much later, I'll remember that he wasn't much taller than Judi Dench, but at the time, all that struck me was the powerful delivery.

Literary Criticism

The sad truth about criticism, especially for those of us English graduates trained in the stuff, is that it gets easier as we get older. I have seen The Black Stallion since I was 8; it is beautifully, stunningly photographed. It is also entirely too long and monotonously paced in parts.

For good and for bad, criticism has its place, especially if you believe, as I do, that some things are better than others. Comparisons are rather inevitable.

And (if I'm honest) criticism can be fun to write.

Still, despite the importance, inevitability, and power of criticism, I ultimately side with C.S. Lewis on this issue: the best way to enjoy a piece of art is to get swept up in it. This is why excessive praise as well as excessive criticism can be detrimental to viewing a movie or reading a book. We are already prepared for disappointment or for flaws (I find the former more problematic than the latter: regarding excessive criticism, I can always like something anyway; regarding excessive praise, the human brain has the detrimental capacity to imagine perfection--far beyond the actual possibility of its performance).

In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis argues that the best way to learn about a piece of art is to talk to the people who love it and find out why. He looks specifically at how people imbibe a piece of art--whether as users (what does this do to me or for me?) or as receivers (what is the author doing?).

For my thesis, I added a third or compromise position. To me, allowing the artist's work to sweep over me (receiver) also involves a creative component (user). I join the work, so much so that I reside in the artist's world while I am reading or watching it (one reason I only read short scary books by Stephen King, never long ones).

The Message

With this approach in mind (creative enjoyment), hunting for a message in fiction--or, contrawise, evaluating such works by their good, clean, appropriate, profound, insightful, important (take your pick) messages--creates a problem.

Academic and business compositions (should) tell you what their message is upfront. However, although fiction writers often start (or at least end) with a vision, the communication of that vision, message, or theme is usually (1) not primary since story or imagery or style comes first; (2) not fully acknowledged, even by the writer. 

It might be more accurate to say that a fiction writer communicates a worldview, rather than a message of theme, but even that is too precise. Stephen King states that after he finished the first draft of Carrie, he noticed the recurrence of blood as an image. During the next edit, he emphasized its symbolic value but not so much so that it got in the way of the story. Speaking of myself, I wrote a full novel-size first draft of my current novella Aubrey before I realized the story was about rape and abuse.

Courtesy: Mike Cherniske
Insisting on a message (first) and then using the message as the determiner of value (second) ignores that fiction writers--just like painters and sculptors and musicians--have chosen a medium that deliberately bypasses the (valuable in other contexts) convention of "I tell you what I want to prove; I prove it; I told you what I proved."

When my students write narratives, they have to have a thesis because the narrative is evidence, not a story for its own sake. But I still discuss with them the power of using story: "Why tell a story rather than deliver facts and figures?"

"Stories connect better," they tell me. "Stories can show us more. Stories can speak to us in different ways."

Figuring out what they connect with and how they speak is the best type of criticism.

Aurora: The Cat Who Went With Me Everywhere

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This week, I decided it was time for my oldest cat Aurora to go to kitty heaven (which actually, yes, I do believe in).

Aurora was 19-1/2 years old, the oldest cat I have ever known personally. The decision to euthanize was easier than with my cat, Max. Max was 14, which is within the normal range but seemed relatively young to me (I grew up with a cat that lived to be 3+ years more). I wasn't prepared to make THAT decision. Consequently, I put off making it far too long.

I refused to let Aurora decline and suffer as badly. When she stopped eating, I immediately begun to watch for other signs. This past Saturday, I made the decision to wait until after the weekend. It was the right decision since I got to take her to our regular vet: The Cat Doctor. It also meant that both she and I were ready. The decision was still difficult (it is never easy!), but comparatively easier than with Max.

Living without her has been far more difficult. Aurora was my "first" cat. (I don't count Sidney, my cat in high school. To put it bluntly, Aurora was the first cat for whom I paid the vet bills!)

I got Aurora from a private owner when I was living in Washington State (1995). She was actually too young, being barely 6 weeks. (Many shelters won't let kittens go until after 8-10 weeks). She literally fit into the palm of my hand. When I was at work, she would creep into the gaps of my box spring mattress. The first time I came home and couldn't find her, I desperately called her name. I heard "mew mew mew" and turned around to find her scampering to me from under the bed.

At night, she would sleep in my hair--yep, I had long hair in those days!

I felt so guilty about her being so young and having no playmate that I would drive 20 minutes each way at lunch to see her: that meant I could only spend 20 minutes petting her, but I didn't mind! At the time I lived in a studio apartment; to entertain Aurora (she was quite active in those days), I would throw balls of paper from one end of the "shoebox" to the other. After we ran through one pile (about 20 of so paper balls), I'd switch positions.

We drove across country in a 1989 Dodge Colt that looked
very much like this 1983 model. From Hatch Heaven.
I moved from Washington to Maine (with a month's break), starting August 1996. Aurora took the trip alongside me! After several test drives during which she snuck under the brakes and clutch (it was a stick-shift), I finally broke down and got a large wire kennel cage that took up half the back seat (every book on traveling with pets says to do this anyway). I added an upside down cardboard box that she could either sit on or sleep inside--plus lots of blankets, a tiny litter box, and bowls.

I discovered pretty quickly that, like her owner, Aurora gets car-sick in the backseat. Every single day started out the same: I started driving--Aurora threw up--I cleaned out the cage--Aurora was fine the rest of the way.

The car was also not air-conditioned--which on the highways made no difference. In the cities and in states with lots of construction (yes, Utah, I mean you!), the car would get unbearably hot and Aurora would start hyperventilating. I would pour water on her head from a water bottle which sounds awful but actually helped.

During that trip, she stayed at a house with a ferret (which freaked her out), a house with another cat (which she didn't mind so much except she and the other cat got into a pissing and pooping match--who can fill up the other cat's litter box the most?!), multiple hotels (which she liked), a cozy bedroom in West Virginia (which she liked) and a basement in Ohio (which she didn't). She spent a few days in upstate New York before we both drove on to Maine, where she stayed on Peaks Island; there she met her brother Max.

Aurora and Bob
From Peaks Island, Aurora moved to an apartment on Woodfords Corner, then an apartment in the West End, and finally, to our current apartment; this means that over her lifetime, Aurora adjusted to a total of five apartments (in Washington, I lived in a much larger and much nicer apartment than the studio apartment for six months before moving to Maine). She was happiest in the last: more roomy than some of the others, fewer intruding smells (although by the time we moved into this apartment, Aurora had reached the utterly-unfazed-by-anything stage of life). 

She also tolerated two brothers, Max and Bob. Max she mothered and played with. Bob she accepted and agreed to play with (she did perk up after Bob arrived). She is survived by Bob--and me.
Feed Me!
Courtesy: Jen Jones

In terms of idiosyncrasies, for most of her life, Aurora would eat anything, including curry! She had a VERY loud yowl. She was shyer with people than my male cats have been. She was a better hunter than my male cats with sharper eyes (spotting birds on telephone wires) and (up until recently) better hearing. After Max died and gave up the position of animal-who-gets-to-sit-on-Kate's-lap-while-she-watches-TV, Aurora took over that position, only relinquishing it in the last two weeks. (When Bob took it over, I realized that both animals were sending me a message.)


Of all my cats, Aurora has been the most classic: short-haired tabby with all the proper markings, beautiful brown-tipped fur with a golden layer underneath, and huge, huge eyes. 

Altogether, Aurora Woodbury had a remarkable life--for a human, let alone a cat--and bore it with remarkable sangfroid, even for a human!

Regarding Sci-Fi Villains and Stargate SG-1: Season 9, Episodes 1-8 (So Far)

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My goal is to (eventually) watch all of Stargate SG-1 and all of X-Files. With SG-1, I have two more seasons to go (why give up now?!). With X-Files, I have three more to go.

Here's the truth about fantasy & sci-fi, and clothes:
the older they look, the cooler they are.
I finally began Season 9 of Stargate SG-1.

Initial notes:

So far I've been (mostly) disappointed. Not by the introduction of Ben Browder, whom I quite like as Richard Dean Anderson's replacement (although, of course, I would prefer to have Richard Dean Anderson!) but by the new enemy.

How would I describe the Ori . . . ?

Boring.

Regarding Sci-Fi Villains:
Goa'uld: Fun! (Great dressers. See above.)
Wraith: Fun! (Even better dressers.)
Replicators (when machines): Boring
Replicators (when human): Slightly more interesting
Borg: Fun!
Khan: Great fun!
Cylons: Kind of fun (I only watched 1 season.)
Cylon Two (played by Callum Keith Rennie): Amazing fun!
Cigarette Smoking Man: Even more amazing fun! 
Ori: Yawnsville
I realized, after scanning my list, that I like to watch bad guys that I can care about. I don't mean "care about" as in "sympathize with"--I don't actually want to applaud amoral evildoing. But I do want to care when and if the bad guys show up on the screen.

I care when Ba'al shows up and sarcasms his way around the set (what!? it should be a verb!!). I care when the Borg Queen makes an appearance. I care about Steve (Wraith from Stargate: Atlantis). I care about what Cylon Two has to say.  

I don't care about the Ori even a little tiny bit (not even when Julian Sands talks in that plushy voice of his).

It isn't that the Ori-as-enemies don't raise interesting ideas. I have to give Stargate SG-1 credit where credit is due: the writers tackle their semi-omnipotent/omniscient bad guys with more panache and insight than most shows. Not only is the problem of free-will raised (naturally) but also the rather more insightful question, "Is power by itself a good enough reason to bestow one's allegiance?" The writers also intelligently tackle the comprehensible motives people might have to bestow that allegiance (anyway).

It's the Ori themselves that don't raise a flicker of interest. They don't make me chuckle or sit-up-and-take-notice or wonder what they will do next. They don't even engender particularly interesting responses from the SG-1 team except from Daniel who gets to give a lot of well-written speeches.

Granted, the SG-1 writers have captured the humorless inflexibility of passionate fanaticism (whether it be found in religion or, say, environmentalism). But why would I want to watch a whole season of that?

Okay, so, William B. Davis shows up. Eh, I'm not sure Davis by himself is enough to salvage the concept, but then I only just finished episode 8.

Reviews of Episodes 1-8 can be found in the post below.

Stargate: Season 9, Episodes 1-8

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Avalon, Part 1 and Avalon, Part 2: Good introduction of a new character! I didn't realize until I read Wikipedia that Ben Browder was that guy from Farscape (of which I only watched a few episodes). Not only is he well-cast, he is well-introduced.

Speaking of Farscape, I truly love how unabashedly the Stargate producers love their sci-fi. Even Master Whedon can't help but poke fun at his creations. Stargate SG-1 producers and directors do this too but a frank fan-boy attitude of "oh, wow, we are so lucky to get him!" runs through every season. It's refreshing.

Ben Browder's Mitchell is the extroverted, excitable version of Jack (Sheppard is the extroverted, low-key version of Jack). There's a very cute scene in this first two-parter (which is actually a three-parter: see "Origin") where Mitchell yells at Teal'c about ricochet--"Bullets bounce!"--and makes a Jack motion with his hands. Teal'c stares at him, then smiles fondly. It is very, very cute.

I love Teal'c's little smile

And the Arthur stuff is compelling--although I would have liked more of it. (I think the writers were nervous about trending on "sacred" fantasy ground.)

Origin: Interesting. And I LOVE the crisp banter between Daniel and Vala. Unfortunately, this was also the point where I sighed and went, "Oh, no. THESE are the new villains?" (despite Julian Sands).

The Ties That Bind: Cute, funny Daniel-Vala episode. Vala is a great match for Daniel! His girlfriends since his wife have been a little too serious. Vala has a serious side but she definitely knows how to keep things light.

The Powers That Be: At this point, I told myelf, "Well, you might as well finish this first set" (I got discs 1&2 out of the library). The Ori are not my preferred villain type. An Ori (actually, a Prior) shows up and makes threats. Daniel gives a good speech. The Prior makes more threats. Daniel and others resist. The Prior reemphasizes threats.

And repeat.

Beachhead: I would almost say the same about this episode EXCEPT Maury Chaykin shows up and steals the entire episode. I had no idea Maury Chaykin did Stargate (he died in 2010). He is magnificent as a fully-humanized if despicable Goa'uld. At one point, he discovers that Ba'al didn't give him credit in the past for an invention. His look of bewildered hurt is beautifully done. Why can't all bad guys be like this?!

Ex Deus Machina: Even though Ba'al shows up, I didn't watch this episode as closely as I should have. It contains a great deal of Jaffa politicking.

Having complained about Jaffa politicking, I must now give Stargate writers major kudos: in the Stargate universe, there is no such thing as a vacuum. Dispose of one enemy: another rises to take its place. Get rid of a common enemy: look out, factionalism! The double-cool thing, though, is that the Stargate writers have a fundamentally stoic attitude about it all: Another enemy rises? So you fight that one too. Factionalism takes the place of heroic solidarity? So you keep trying to find common ground.

Babylon: I quite like this episode. It has a vibe to it reminiscent of earlier Stargate episodes. Besides, Tony Todd is always a treat!

Richard: The Ethics of Affection on Wattpad

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I am currently posting the revised version of Richard: The Ethics of Affection on Wattpad. The fantastic cover was designed by Eugene.

Thanks to Eugene for also helping with the new blurb (below)! Unlike Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation, Richard is nearly all romance (and answers the question raised in Aubrey, "How does Aubrey's brother get rid of that horrible fiancée!?"). Like in Aubrey, magic plays a role!
Recently appointed to a hoped-for government post, Richard St. Clair struggles to suppress less-than-appropriate feelings for his new assistant, especially since he's seen through her disguise.

He's a formally engaged man, after all. And he's got everything under control--until an unknown adversary slips him a love potion that unleashes his true affections.

With the help of his once-enchanted sister, his policeman brother-in-law, and the woman he really loves, Richard scours Kingston for his foe and a way to ethically express his heart's desires.
Richard: The Ethics of Affection continues the story of the St. Clair family begun in Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation. I will be posting 2 chapters a week starting the week of August 25, 2014.

Is There a Message? Does it Matter? Part 1.5: Writing Literary Analysis

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Been there!

In Is There a Message? Does It Matter? Part 1, I addressed academic and business writing, arguing, Yes! There must be a message! Writing a research paper or a business proposal is not about presenting the world with the fruits of one's creative genius; it's about defending and defining an idea. 

In a later post, I will discuss how a message, even about creative genius, is not required in a work of fiction. In the meantime, I am going to address the problematic task of analyzing that work of fiction.

When performing literary analysis, students are expected to find a work's message. Unfortunately, unlike with research papers and business proposals, the message is not clearly delineated in a thesis statement. It is buried amongst dialog, setting, images, characters, and symbols. It is also not called a "thesis" but rather the "theme." Usually, rather than being a proposal of what should be true, a theme is a proposal about how the world or how people function.

For students who either (1) grow up discussing literary works in their families, or (2) have a yen for dismantling literary works in the first place, delving for the theme is as easy as an algebraic equation is to a mathematician. I make the comparison because being able to spot the theme of a movie or book is less about intelligence and more about skill and interest. (And once one learns how to do it, it becomes even less about intelligence since with the right training and jargon, one can force any written work into any desired interpretation.)

Despite my cynicism, the reason that literary analysis continues to be taught at the college level is that when it is done correctly, it helps develop critical thinking. Think of literary analysis as a form of reverse engineering: here's the text--okay, how and why was it put together like this?

Approaching literary texts in this way is not all that different from an archaeologist starting with the ruin of a palace and then positing how it was built and where the king & queen slept. Like the archaeologist, the literary analyst can use outside texts from the time period to understood the work in question. This is far easier if the literary analyst is exploring, say, George Bernard Shaw who left copious notes about his intentions, than Shakespeare--who didn't.

In the absence of outside support, the literary analyst turns to the text: the symbols, the dialog, the characters. Here is where thinking of a text as a whole object, like a painting, rather than a linear experience is helpful. What images recur throughout the text? (What images/colors recur throughout the painting?) What symbols pop up again and again? (In The Arnolfini Portrait, what's up with the dog and the mirror and the green gown?) Who is in the text? How do they behave? Where are they? Why are they presented in this way by the author? (Why does the woman look pregnant even though she probably wasn't? Why do the man and woman look so serious? Or is it complacency?) How do they talk to each other? (What would this couple say to each if we could hear them?)

At the back of all these questions is the author's intent. Although the author's intent may never be fully discerned (Shakespeare), the search for the author's intent creates opportunities for critical thinking. It requires, if nothing else, rigor of thought.

Problems in literature courses arise when instructors throw out author's intent, focusing instead on "What it means to you!" (or, occasionally, "What is means to me!") I attended an interesting seminar a few years ago put together by two well-meaning teachers who argued, quite passionately, that teaching literature is all about dumping authorial intent and getting kids to see how the works apply to them!

I didn't disagree with everything the teachers were saying. From an academic point of view (I'll get to sheer enjoyment in a later post), I like to start a discussion of a poem or play or novel or short story by asking students, "So, did you like it? Or not? What did you get out of it? What did you think of those characters?" Engaging with the text, as any fan can tell you, is the first step to discussing it intelligently.

The problem with dumping authorial intent--from an academic point of view--is that it is intellectually on par with the archaeologist deciding that it doesn't matter whether the ruin is a temple, a palace, or a gymnasium--personally, HE would use it to create an ice rink. The latter position has its merits; it just doesn't have much merit for someone trying to be an archaeologist.

Likewise, telling a bunch of students that their application of the literary work to their lives is the only part of the equation that matters is tantamount to teaching them that "authorship" and the past have no real purpose or meaning in their lives and hardly need to be respected. The whole world, especially the world of the past, exists simply as fodder for their use (the irony being that I'm a capitalist and this "exploitation" of [usually] dead writers annoys me while promoters of this approach, like the aforementioned teachers, often define themselves as Marxists who are opposed to the so-called "capitalistic" exploitation of resources). Without getting into much detail, yes, it also bug me when people do this with the scriptures.

The essence of academics, which I support no matter how fuddy-duddy it makes me, is that claims must be backed on proof. It isn't enough to say, "But I FEEL like the story is about this" if the evidence (the symbols, the setting, the dialog) doesn't back up my feeling. If the text is merely a leaping off point to some other idea, the narrative/writing/imagery (fun!) becomes meaningless, the author's creative impulses and craftsmanship a point of indifference. At this point, the student doesn't need to read Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet or London's "To Build a Fire" or anything by Emily Dickinson. If all that is needed is something made of words that can be interpreted as holding an application to one's personal life, a car manual will do.

Sitting in that seminar, I wondered what the teachers would tell budding authors amongst their students: "That's nice, but remember, it only matters if someone else creates something of her own--and her work doesn't matter unless . . . " (To be fair, I think the teachers would be ever so proud if one of their students wrote a short story or novel: their philosophy was all about empowering THEIR students, not empowering anybody else.)

I can respect a Scriptural scholar who argues that ultimately the text is only a signpost to something else. When academics do it, however, it reveals a lack of intellectual rigor.

In Part 2, I will likely turn around and argue the exact opposite of everything above. But then Part 2 will involve a very different context.

The Travelogue as Plot Structure

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Romance novels have basically three plot structures:
1. The character-based plot structure.
2. The comedy-of-errors plot structure.
3. The travelogue plot structure.
The character-based plot structure is all about the characters--naturally! Of Georgette Heyer's books, Devil's Cub and Venetia come the closest. Other characters are incidental to the growing relationship between the hero and heroine. This is my favorite type of plot structure. Richardson's Pamela--despite its polemics--falls into this category. Amongst the sensual writers, Kleypas uses a character-based approach.

The comedy-of-errors plot structure usually entails what I also call world-based romance. The story is less about the growing relationship and more about the complex relationships and confusions between multiple characters. A lot of romance manga will start out as character-based and evolve into comedy-of-errors, simply out of necessity (as do many television shows). Comedy-of-errors plots can be extremely amusing when well done. At their best, they look easy, like making meringues (light, frothy, hilarious). Writers be warned: they aren't easy!

Of Georgette Heyer's books, The Grand Sophy is a good example of a comedy-of-errors (that doesn't skimp on character). The Quiet Gentleman is another good example (and actually doubles as a mystery!) as is Arabella. Amongst the sensual writers, Eloisa James and Loretta Chase are masters at this type of plot structure.

Comedy-of-errors plot structures are hard to pull off (another reason I think romance writers are some of the most skilled writers on the planet!). Unfortunately, far too many writers (including romance writers but also a massive number of literary writers), overwhelmed by the comedy-of-errors' demands, will fall back on the travelogue.

The travelogue plot structure works as follows: the hero and heroine are going somewhere for some reason, and all kinds of crazy events occur to them in the meantime. Hey, it's a novel!

Don't get me wrong: the travelogue can be well-done, even amusing. Think: The Muppet Movie. Heyers' The Foundling is a good example. One of my favorites from the sensual writers is Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase, which is made even better by taking place in Egypt! (Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody-in-Egypt books fall into this category, a series that highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of this type of plot structure.)

Far too often, the travelogue is used as an easy solution, a way to avoid character growth and tightly plotted resolutions. The loose travelogue is not that different from the kind of mystery novel where every chapter is simply another interview with a suspect; the chapters don't build on each other.

A classic plot involves a problem/conflict--rising action--denouement/climax/epiphany--resolution. But if the storyline doesn't rise--if it is just one set of circumstances after another--the story becomes, well, rather like a home movie.  (The literary version of this is the Journey-Across-Some-Continent tale; supposedly, the main character learns about him or herself during the trek but most of the time, the main character is simply suffering for the sake of angst in general.)

The travelogue can work! But only if the "next incident" proves or shows the reader something about the characters or about the plot problem.  "And then this happened--" does not a novel make.

Hence my love for genre literature in general: a problem that must be dealt with, solved in some way--often happily--is a requirement! The blessings of paperback readers on all genre writers!!

The Incomparable Travelogue:

Snarky Commenters: Why Blogging Struggles with Unpleasant Discourse

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I recently deleted a comment to an older post, my review of the cut-for-television version of Stigmata, a movie that came out back in 1999. In the middle of my review, I refer to the end of the movie where the writers take a suddenly serious turn by bringing up Gnostic texts. Since the movie in no way merits a serious discussion of, well, anything historical, I thought this was a mistake.

In my reference to the Gnostic texts, I make the point that as a conservative (libertarian), I accept the generally accepted scholarly understanding of Gnostic texts (e.g., they are much later than even the gospels; they are surprisingly chauvinistic and disdainful of the physical experience). I also point out that as a Mormon, I have no particular investment in the argument one way or the other.

The commenter proceeded to defend Gnosticism while angrily attacking me and organized religion. The commenter finished up by disparaging Mormonism.

I dislike this kind of “attack mode” commentary; it is pointless and rude. My interpersonal communications textbook explains that people will “flame” others on-line in a way that they will never ever do face-to-face. Being on-line gives them a kind of unaccountability, a "freedom" to be unpleasant and cruel in a way that face-to-face discourse would never allow.

Based on watching my students struggle with summaries, especially plot summaries, I think there is another issue at work here. Addressing the main point of a post or short story or novel is difficult. The main point of my review of Stigmata is neither an attack on Gnosticism (although my post makes clear that I have my doubts about the historical usefulness of Gnostic texts) nor, for that matter, a defense of Mormonism, which is mentioned only in passing. The entire point of the post is that a substanceless though beautiful movie does not automatically become more substantive because a historical note of doubtful plausibility is tacked on to the end. (Thank you, Eugene, for addressing that point.)

I confess, it is very easy to get distracted by a side issue when reading a blog, especially if the author of that blog is disagreeing with a closely held belief. Been there/done that! And if the commenter had simply defended Gnosticism, I would have let the comment stand despite the surly tone; however, the "I can't believe you don't understand how dumb you are not to think exactly like me; besides, ya ya ya, everything you believe is stupid" additions, however typical of web commentary, were so completely unasked for and nasty, I had no choice but to delete the entire comment. I am ultimately responsible for my blog, and I will not be party to allowing more bizarre discourtesy into the world!

But I couldn’t help but wonder: Is there a way that the commenter could have voiced an albeit problematic position with civility?

Yes!

Here in sum are the commenter’s thoughts translated into civil discourse (all “attack” language and rabid tone removed):
I don’t think you should be so quick to dismiss the Gnostic gospels. A Gnostic text discovered in the 20th century shows that some of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, such as resurrection, were largely invented by later writers, especially since the Catholic Church suppressed Gnostic texts. Of course, I’m not a huge supporter of organized religion, so we’re obviously coming from diametrically opposed positions!
My civil response to such a civil comment would be as follows:
My understanding is that recent scholarship shows the Pauline letters to be the most recent of all documents coming out of Jesus Christ’s ministry. And the Pauline letters do support a doctrine of resurrection. I confess, also, that I find many Gnostic teachings to be a little too opposed to the physical world/body for my taste. I prefer earthy doctrines to abstract ones. However, as you point out, we appear to be diametrically opposed: I don’t think an argument based on “my scholarship” versus “your scholarship” will get very far!
That is a far more civil exchange than the exchange that this commenter was trying to set in motion (actually, I doubt the commenter was interested in any kind of exchange; many commenters of this ilk troll the net, making nasty comments and moving on). I really don’t understand the attack-mode, especially since it doesn’t work, simply making people cling more strongly to their opinions.

Of course, considering the purpose of this blog, I would have far preferred a review of Stigmata!

Mc is for McMagic

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When I read McKinley's Beauty
for the first time, this was the
edition I borrowed from
my cousin Jennie.
Continuing with M authors, specifically Mc authors:

McCaffrey, Anne: I read dozens of her Pern books when I was younger: What it is with girls and dragons? My students are continually trying to get me to watch Game of Thrones, a show in which I have little to no interest despite its fantasy premise. Surprised at my balking, one of my young female students declared, "There are DRAGONS" in a tone of voice that suggested that the presence of dragons should be enough to captivate the interest of any real aesthete!

McCourt, Frank: Not a fantasy writer, and I haven't read Angela's Ashes, but I did read his very amusing Teacher Man. Technically, McCourt is non-fiction, but I put him in this list anyway. The link is to his obituary.

McKinley, Robin: Robin McKinley is one of my favorite fantasy authors. She writes mostly for YAs. Her best-known books include Beauty, The Hero and the Crown series, and several short story anthologies. Deerskin and Sunshine, two of her adult novels, are excellent. The first is based on a fairy tale that will NEVER become a Disney movie.

Book 2 in McKillip's series.
McKillip, Patricia is the author of one of my favorite series: The Riddle-Master of Hed. She also wrote Forgotten Beasts of Eld and Fool's Run, both unique fantasy/sci-fi novels. I haven't read many of her latest books--though they get excellent reviews. She uses lots of poetical exposition, and a little bit of exposition goes a long way with me.

McDonald, George: Technically, I should probably put George McDonald in the children's list (coming soonish). But I associate him most with Sir Gibbie, one of those shows-up-in-both-sections-of-the-library books (like Alcott's Under the Lilacs), and Phantastes, an adult fantasy book. My mom read me the former; I've never read the latter, but for you Narnia fans, the latter is the book that C.S. Lewis names as the creative catalyst for his conversion to Christianity (C.S. Lewis was a nominal Christian as a child and teen but always regretted that he underwent Anglican confirmation since he did it only to satisfy his father; he considered himself a pagan agnostic until well into his adulthood).

Latest Work in Progress: Richard's Story

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Current Cover
"No one knew Richard St. Clair’s assistant was a woman—or so he assumed until someone fed him a love potion."

So begins the story of Aubrey's brother, Richard St. Clair. A civil servant in Roesia's new government, Richard is mostly concerned with (a) evaluating historical landmarks; (b) trying to understand his boss; (c) not falling in love with his assistant; (d) remembering his engagement.

A bespelling plunges Richard into an unexpected journey through the otherworld of magic and potions in Roesia's capital of Kingston. From wily old lords to modern police, Richard hunts for the identity of his attacker; along the way, his own identity--the kind of man he considers himself to be--becomes clear.

Richard's story is being published in installments:
Installment 1
Installment 2
Installment 3
Installment 4
Installment 5
Installment 6
Installment 7
Installment 8
The last three parts will be published this week, August 4, 2014 to August 8, 2014.
Installment 9
Installment 10
Installment 11
Richard does contain some spoilers for Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation.

Installments of Lord Simon's story will begin Fall 2014.

Is There a Message? Does it Matter? Part I

1 comments
Yes. There must be a message!

In academic and business settings, a piece of writing--letter, essay, paper, resume--should always have a purpose. I spend 90% of my Freshmen Composition classes trying to convince my students that even a personal narrative must eventually relate back to the reader.

I sometimes use the analogy of home movies: "Have you ever gone to visit people you don't really know, and they insist on showing you all their home movies, and you are SOOO bored because the movies doesn't mean anything to you?"

Some of my students laugh, but not nearly enough. In fact, I don't use that metaphor as often as I used to because I get the impression that a lot of my students actually love showing their home movies to whomever they can corner long enough.

"In any case," I tell them, "your readers are not your parents or your best friends. You need to show them why your story about your life should matter to them." Readers are ultimately very self-serving.

In academic and business writing, this approach involves a degree of directness that,  unfortunately, far too many English teachers refuse to teach. Far, far, far too many of my students have been instructed by English instructors to not use "I" (even when it is appropriate), to not use the words "in conclusion" (even though lawyers and business analysts do it all the time), to not present their own opinions in their thesis statements (even though a thesis IS an opinion, not a statement of fact, no matter how it is worded) and, more than anything, to not be direct.

In other words, far too many of my students have been instructed to be artistic, heaven help them, even though very few of them are going to writing artistic masterpieces in their workplaces.

"Tell me what you are going to prove," I say. "Prove it. Then, tell me what you proved."

"It will seem redundant to you," I say. "But it won't to the reader."

"Communicating clearly," I add, "is more important than communicating creatively" (because oh so many insurance adjusters just can't wait to read summaries that include long-winded discourses on the nature of philosophy, not to mention all those the judges who spend hours wishing someone would hurry up and use phrases like "liminal hermeneutics" in a Complaint).

This problem arises because most English teachers and instructors would rather teach Literature than Composition (which is why some of us hang in there and keep teaching Composition!) and to be fair, understanding Literature involves almost exactly the opposite approach to what I just wrote!

Coming up: No. Story is everything.

When "I" Is Appropriate in Academic and Business Writing

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Who, me?
Why are English instructors so dead set against the use of "I" (first-person)?

(1) On the mistaken belief that not using "I" will help students understand the difference between objective and subjective writing.

This approach doesn't work; instead, students begin to think that simply removing "I" makes something objective, which is nonsense.

(2) As a way to help students write claims: Alien abductions are false. Designated smoking areas are a good solution for on-campus smokers. Peter Falk is adorable.

I support this reason for excising "I" since being able to produce and defend claims is necessary to academic and business writing. The lawyer doesn't say, "I really, really, really hope my client is innocent." The lawyer says, "Bob is innocent" (claim). The inventor doesn't say to a room full of venture capitalists, "I think my invention will make lots of money. But hey, you can make up your own mind" (I literally beg my students: "PLEASE do not end your argument/persuasion paper by telling the readers that it is all just your opinion, and readers can make up their own minds. Of course they can! But after spending a whole paper arguing that a particular position is right, don't give it up at the end!")

(3) In the hopes that not using "I" will inspire students to make more general applications.

I agree with this reason to an extent. But it should be backed up by additional instruction. For example, far too many English instructors assign "a narrative" as an essay in its own right, not as evidence for a claim. I discuss narrative writing more in a later post. Suffice it to say here that far too many students think that writing for English means "I write about myself; then I write about myself; then I write about myself" without wondering, "Why would anyone care?"

(4) In an effort to force students to produce more formal, "business-like" writing.

"I"=informality is a debatable claim. In academic research writing, "I" is not entirely acceptable, but it has become more common, especially in the sciences (since passive voice--"the experiment was done by"--is way, way more annoying than active voice, even for scientists).

Using "I" is far more acceptable in business writing. At the law firm I worked at, the lawyers used first-person all the time to communicate with insurance adjusters, clients, and other lawyers. There is nothing more daft than supposing that a lawyer would write a summary and analysis of a deposition for an insurance company and NOT use first-person. The insurance company is paying the lawyer to find out what she thinks, not to produce some unnecessarily wordy document in passive voice (no matter how good the lawyer is at the latter!). Someone has to take responsibility for the recommended course of action!!

In general, when it comes to academic and business writing, the overuse of "you" bugs me more than "I".

Where do I support the use of "I"?

1. In an anecdote at the beginning of an essay. I also support the use of "you" here: You wake in a strange room. Your phone isn't working. From outside comes the sound of breaking glass. This may be the worst vacation ever.

2. In the evidence. If the writer is using primary "I was there and saw it happen!" evidence, first-person is obviously the best voice to use!!

3. At the beginning of the conclusion.

No "I" (or any variation thereof):

1. In all claims, including the thesis and topic sentences (the sentences that begin body paragraphs).

2. At the end of the conclusion. End on a big thought! Apply the essay to the reader! Don't assume the reader knows who you are! The essay should never be the equivalent of a home movie!

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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With 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 is 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" their 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. In general, collected fairy tales portray female villains as more wicked than male villains. Along the same lines, while female protagonists inevitably gain their rewards through submission and humility, 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.

However, over time, the witty female protagonist got replaced by the meek female protagonist. Tatar attributes this to the attitudes and beliefs of the male collectors--with good reason. The Grimms, for example, produced several editions of their collection, 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 the characters of children) 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). Likewise, women are just as likely, if not more likely, to decide that another woman is a "bad mother" than men.

It is a huge mistake to assume that women are not as prone to promoting cultural assimilation--how to be a good wife/mother/citizen--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; the definition of "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.