The Popularity of All Creatures Great and Small

Another repost from an older blog. Although I seldom check the popularity of a post, ignoring what I think of as the "Facebook" side of Blogger, I recently took a look. Over the years, this post has collected several thousand "hits." Yup, the story about a vet in Yorkshire wins again!

Here it is on Votaries--with pictures. My views haven't materially changed since I wrote it although I haven't rewatched the show recently. I do highly recommend it.

I included the original comments, which prove a little factoid about the Internet, and one of many reasons it is pointless to rest one's sense of approval on Internet feedback (and why it is also dangerous to post raunchy photos online "just for friends"). I received proportionally one comment per 575 "hits." Considering the number of blogs I've visited myself without leaving a calling card--and that a marketing course I once attended claimed that responses to mailers are typically 1 out of 100--I wouldn't be surprised if less than 2% of traffic was a norm across the board. The Internet is good for many, many things--the process of socialization is not one of them.

The Many Seasons of All Creatures

Yes, that is also a Dr. Who!
The series All Creatures Great and Small is lovely. I'm on season 4 at this point, and I should say first that it is well-worth watching all of them. Unfortunately, the quality goes downhill with each subsequent season. So be prepared.

In his commentary, Peter Davison (Tristan) remarks that this reduction in quality was partly because the writers ran out of story ideas. (James Herriot actually had the same problem with his books). The series' creators had no idea the series would become so popular so instead of stringing out the James-Helen romance and saving some ideas for later, they stuck every incident from the first few books into the first season. Result: they had to invent and reuse a lot of material. Peter Davison makes a wry remark about his character, who is supposed to be a flirt, getting older and older while the "bright, young things" were getting younger and younger. Tristan starts out as an eccentric (a "debauched choirboy") but ends up rather dull. In the 4th season, the writers created Calum Buchanan to supply the eccentricity that Tristan supplied in the first two seasons. Unfortunately, Calum makes Tristan and Siegfried look like old fogies. It's kind of sad, although I suppose it reflects real-life.

The utterly sexy Robert Hardy
The writers also toned down Robert Hardy's character in the later seasons, which I consider a mistake. They did it because the real Siegfried, who by all accounts was quite the outrageous personality, expressed some disapproval. Hardy, who knew the real Siegfried, had based his interpretation of the character on that knowledge and had already softened Siegfried's rather manic personality. But he was told to take it down even further. It's a pity since--as James Herriot's son, Jim, points out in his excellent biography of his father--the crazy Siegfried was most people's favorite character. I love Robert Hardy! (For those of you who want to place him, he is Sir John Middleton in Sense & Sensibility; he plays the minister with the pin-striped robe in Harry Potter.) He's one of those British actors who pops up all over the place.

Perfectly cast Christopher Timothy
In the 4th season, Carol Drinkwater got tired to playing Helen and left. I think her replacement looks much more like a Yorkshire Downs' wife; Carol Drinkwater always looked like she was about to fly off to the Riviera, which she did! (Well, France.) The spark between Helen and James is missing with the replacement, however. (Gossip central: Carol Drinkwater and Christopher Timothy had an affair in real life).

Christopher Timothy doesn't change at all. He was perfectly cast, and James Herriot himself thought Timothy portrayed his personality the best (out of all the TV shows being made at the time). Timothy manages to capture that laid-back, good-humored, yet somewhat tense personality that made it possible for Herriot to get along with the Farnons but gave him ulcers later in life. (He also had extremely poor money sense.)

The worst thing about the later seasons (although the 4th season isn't so bad) is that the producers decided to overlay every scene with totally sappy music. I can't decide if it is an 80s thing or a director thing. I think it is kind of an 80s-director thing. Scenes which are not played as maudlin come across as maudlin and in some cases, the sappy, trilling music is so loud, it drowns out the rather good dialog. I wish very much that when the company had released the series on DVD, it had fixed the music, but maybe that wasn't possible. (Heaven help us if people actually like it; it's pretty horrible.)

All that said, I still recommend the series: all of it. All the seasons are sweet (with and without the music), fun, very relaxing and you learn an awful lot about vetting in the 1930s to 1950s.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Good post, thanks. Just started watching the first series having gotten a dvd of it from the library - though did see plenty of it back in the day . . . The Yorkshire air must have done them good as the main actors - the men anyway - all still in the land of the living.

3:53 PM
Blogger luckygibbo said...
I must disagree with you re. the decline of the series (as it progressed)> I have been a huge fan for many years and found all the series of equal merit. However, thank you for your post and always take the opportunity to revisit the show many times (as I have)
Cheers, Dave
7:41 AM
Blogger mswindsor said...
Sorry, I'm in total disagreement...loved the entire series from the original broadcasting to DVD watching. Not only is it a fine series, it has come to be a representation of a way of life that is virtually gone now. Great show!
9:04 PM
Blogger Catracks said...
The music does get a bit annoying in Season 4, I miss Carol Drinkwater because I did imagine Helen/Joan to be a bit of a knockout and not so (sorry) hausfrau. They should have left Siegfried's character alone and matured Tristan.

What bothers me most of all is the repeat of old stories with new characters or different animals (the Gypsy Myatt?). I think I've read the books about 20 times over the years and could tell them myself. Even if they used up Alf Wight's stories, they could have either asked for more or created fresh ones. Somehow I missed their time in the RAF and the birth of the kids. Maybe Youtube skipped a bunch?) I'm still on series 4, but I hope we get the trip to Istanbul and Russia.
10:59 AM

X is for Xu (Ru Xu)

Yes, I found an "X" children's author!

Ru Xu wrote NewsPrints, a graphic novel published by Scholastic that takes place in a steampunk universe. The plot revolves around the boy Crow (Blue, the girl-dressed-as-a-boy, is the protagonist) and what exactly he is.

The art is not my favorite type of graphic art but not my least favorite either. My least favorite graphic novel art is overblow, rounded characters: it's like looking at chibii ALL THE TIME (it's a fine line: the art of Identity Crisis by Meltzer and Morales I like; the art of The New 52: Earth 2 I kinda can't stand).

NewsPrint reminds me of Superman: All Seasons, an Art Deco-like style reminiscent of classic comics; it shows up in the work of other contemporary illustrators, such as Brett Helquist (whose work on the Lemony Snicket novels is beyond perfect).

The plot of NewsPrint is unsurprising sci-fi* but well-rendered, and I checked at least twice while reading to see if a second volume has come out. Unlike so much of my reading, this book was published this year! So I assume another volume is in the works. 

*It falls into sci-fi rather than fantasy since it relies on scientific/machine explanations. More Verne than Wells but still within the genre.

It's Not Just the Acting: It's Rapport--Gordon-Levitt and Taylor Thomas

While re-watching classic sitcoms, I began to wonder, Why was Jonathan Taylor Thomas on Home Improvement so good?

It wasn't simply that he was "cute" (though he was). And it wasn't simply that he was a better actor than the other two "sons." He was--but Home Improvement didn't depend on the child actors; it depended entirely on the excellent Tim Allen. The other adult leads were more than capable of carrying the jokes when necessary.

Jonathan Taylor Thomas excelled for the same reason that Joseph Gordan-Levitt excelled in 3rd Rock from the Sun, where he played a much larger role as Tommy than Thomas did as Randy. In fact, it is rather stunning to watch 3rd Rock and realize how much the cast and scriptwriters trusted a 15-year-old (playing a 13-year-old) to carry a large portion of the show. He does it practically effortlessly.

One reason is skill. The second is emotional rapport.

Emotional rapport in acting is kind of like sexual chemistry but it goes beyond that. It doesn't necessarily token great friendship (a fact that scandal magazines seem to entirely misunderstand--when articles proclaim that the Golden Girls Fought On Set! what they mean is that White, Arthur, McClanahan and Getty weren't planning vacations together and sometimes got terse with each other off camera; on most shows most of the time, most actors are professionals and behave professionally: it's a job after all).

Emotional rapport refers to the ease with which actors play off each other. It also refers to being able to match each other's energy. Even at the age of 10, Jonathan Taylor Thomas "got" Tim Allen. Thomas knew how to feed lines to Allen and act off Allen's lines in return. Some of the early out-takes between Allen and Thomas are hilarious to watch since they clarify this point: as the actual oldest of the three child actors, Thomas understood intellectually and intuitively when something was funny, why it was funny, and how to react. 

Likewise, Gordan-Levitt's utter unself-consciousness on 3rd Rock matches the utter unself-consciousness of Lithgow, Johnston, Stewart, and Curtin. If he had behaved out of sync with the others--portraying unease in the role of old-fogey-stuck-in-a-teen-body-with-no-fixed-gender-re:-behavior, the clueless-alien-family vibe would have been lost.

Sometimes, it isn't the "great" actors that producers want but the actors who can play well with others. It makes a difference to the art and the impact/feel of the final production.

C.S. Lewis, Susan, and the Chauvinism of Male Critics

As Lewis well knew, mid-twentieth
century England could force adults into
molds that eschewed the jubilant, idio-
syncratic, and quirky--Susan let it happen.
It is somewhat popular to criticize C.S. Lewis for his portrayal of Susan in the last book of the Narnia series. In The Last Battle, Susan is described as having forgotten Narnia, scorning reminders of it as of a kiddie game she used to play with her brothers and sisters while at the same time blathering on about lipstick and nylons.

Some literary critics will justify this passage by pointing out that Lewis doesn't actually condemn Susan for eternity--that's why she's not in the railway accident. She's going through a "phase." Others more angrily castigate Lewis for condemning Susan for becoming sexually mature. These are the critics that buy into the Hollywood rather than the BBC version of Shadowlands (in reality, C.S. Lewis was a sexually mature, earthy man).

Among those who castigate C.S. Lewis for his treatment of Susan, male critics seem to rise to the fore. Women critics, like myself, generally seem to have a better idea what C.S. Lewis was saying.

In sum, C.S. Lewis understood women better than his male critics. 

This is not to say that part of Lewis wasn't being an old fuddy-duddy. But taking the lipstick and nylons out of context is to take them out of context, which is exactly Lewis's point.

Here's Reality 101 for women: lipstick and nylons are accoutrements to maturity, not the point of it.

Contrast Susan with the Lauren Bacall chutzpah of Aravis
As one female critic points out, unlike many female
characters in mid-twentieth century literature,
all of Lewis's make great superheroes--even Susan!
As Paglia points out with fierce truthfulness: whether a woman wants it to happen or not, her body will mature. The menarche waits in the wings with no regard for mental readiness or long-term goals. Perhaps men don't understand this since maturity for them seems to boil down to whether or not they can put out a fire at X paces. For women, the body's steady maturity towards a single aim is inevitable and real. When I taught a class of 14-to-18-year-olds (same students over 4 years), the young women become steadily more and more emotionally and psychologically mature as the years went by; at 14, they were rather silly (like Susan still is as a young adult). At 18, they had come to grips with their physical natures and were beginning to develop healthy pragmatism and empathy as well as intellectual and social goals that embraced their full personalities.

The boys were . . . all over the map is putting it mildly. One day, I felt like I was dealing with 30-year-olds; the next, I felt like I was hollering exasperatingly at 10-year-olds.

As Paglia points out, women can't hide from nature's goal (Have babies!). The mature woman learns to deal with this; Paglia also argues that the mature woman learns how to deal with men, which may involve flirting (lipstick and nylons) or clever detente or something else entirely. Whatever it is, lipstick & nylons are not the goal; they are tools--weapons perhaps--and can be useful. To mistake them for the point is to fall back into the mentality that a woman's greatest strength is her ornamental qualities. It is also to mistake byproducts for substance--a framework for understanding women that is as shallow as tissue paper.
Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis: Spouses/Partners

Maturity, as Paglia and Lewis understand it, is the ability to handle/maneuver through the world. Part of that handling process may be to put on big sister's shoes and big sister's makeup. The immature woman, however, never realizes that more is required. She dresses up, mocks her past rather than embracing her funny eager preteen self, does the equivalent--in so many words--of putting out the fire at X paces. But the hutzpah, heart and mind, is missing. And because she has no grit, when the going gets tough, she flees to Big Daddy.

Some men prefer this type of woman. Kudos to C.S. Lewis that he didn't.

Three Versions of Murder with Mirrors

One of the pleasures of books to movies is seeing how various producers interpret a single work.

Agatha Christie's They Do It With Mirrors (Murder With Mirrors in the U.S.) is not one of my favorites. It has an utterly depressing ending, for one thing. However, the below three versions each borrow from separate aspects of the book to produce uniquely nuanced works, proving that interpretation is an endless pursuit.

BBC They Do It With Mirrors: Joan Hickson is excellently cast, of course, alongside other notables, such as Joss Ackland and Jean Simmons. The movie is the saddest of the three (although at least the scriptwriters didn't kill off nearly as many people as Christie is wont to do). One thing I appreciate about the movie is the emphasis on the three older woman--Miss Marple and the two sisters--and their youth together in Paris. This is entirely in keeping with Christie's tone.

The Helen Hayes version (1985) is fun, mostly because it is so well-cast. Bette Davis plays Louise. Leo Kern plays the detective! Tim Roth plays a troubled young man. John Woodvine even shows up (briefly). Helen Hayes, naturally, plays Miss Marple.

I am quite fond of Helen Hayes--I think she makes a great Miss Marple (much better than Margaret Rutherford or Lansbury--don't get me wrong: Angela Lansbury is wonderful as almost anybody but Miss Marple she ain't). And the movie is quite faithful to the book. The murderer is the least sympathetic of the three versions. But the Wally-Gina relationship is the most accurate (although I do enjoy the utter taciturnity of Joan Hickson's Wally; in all versions, he's an American from the West).

Unfortunately, like many of the 1980 "modernized" Christie-TV-movies, it drags on a bit. (Some of these movies are horrible and some of them are fantastic: Sparkling Cyanide with Anthony Andrews is one of the best Christies I've ever seen. And it "modernized" surprising well--apparently, politicians always behave badly.)

The French version, "Jeux de Glaces" from Les Petits Meurtres d'Agatha Christie is quite faithful to the original except in one glaring particular. *Spoilers* One of the points I love about the original is that Carrie Louise is not in fact as clueless as everyone claims. When she states that her husband is not in any real danger from Edgar, she is right! Once Miss Marple realizes that Carrie-Louise is remarkably astute about people, she is able to put all the pieces together to solve the case.

Despite the change to the Carrie Louise character, the French version is delightful as an introduction to the ever-so-1950's-stylish-and-debonair-and-caustic Detective Laurence and the utterly delightful and hilarious Alice Avril. I'm still not sure if they are potential lovers or not (the age difference is considerable). Like Mulder and Scully, it hardly matters. They are so much fun to watch!

Marlene as the resident Marilyn Monroe completes the picture.

Why I Feel Sorry for Bill Cosby

After posting about Michael Tucci, I discovered that there are non-substantiated claims of sexual harassment that may or may not include him.

And that got me thinking about Bill Cosby.

I hate to write this, but I accept that Bill Cosby did enough of the awful things attributed to him (though not all of them) that it is difficult for me to listen to his old stand-up (I always enjoyed his old stand-up comedy routines--"Buck Buck," "Ninth Street Bridge"--more than his newer routines and even The Cosby Show). Maybe one day I'll be able to go back and listen to them without immediate association to the recent fall-out. But I doubt it.

And yet, despite not greatly contending many of the allegations (although I recognize that no criminal case has yet been resolved), I find the whole thing incredibly distasteful, including the rescinding of Cosby's honorary degrees.

It isn't because I think men (or women) should get away with drugging people, threatening people, or demanding sexual favors. Yeah, that's just wrong. Rather, there's a mob mentality about the whole thing that sends shivers down the spine. There's a vague French Revolution Reign of Terror/Salem Witch Trial vibe where one begins to wonder if throwing out haphazard accusations--against someone like Michael Tucci, for example--has become a kind of game or exercise in control.

The victims--and I do believe there are victims of sexual harassment/abuse in our culture; I don't believe every accusation is a scam, etc. etc.--begin to lose my pity as their desire to burn down the castle and lynch the bad man grows. Maybe the Beast truly did do bad things; does that mean that looting treasures and smashing furniture is okay?

When an 80-year-old blind man is continually forced to undergo civil and criminal procedures, I lose my taste for blood (if I ever had it). I begin to wonder what kind of culture we live in that would do that.

And yet, I support dozens of Law & Order episodes where criminals are brought to justice years later (I've always enjoyed a good cold case), including the episode where the skeevy doctor is punished because he was dumb enough to brag about his untouchability on the news.

By the end of the trial, my
sympathies had veered
entirely towards Jackson.
The point is not that I have an answer. I don't. In a perfect utopia run by a wise and benevolent kindly somebody or other, I think I would like to see the man punished in a quiet, non-intrusive fashion that doesn't involve public pillorying and snowballing accusations. But we don't live in that world, and the current democratic adversarial system is truly better than many other systems (check out history for terrible alternatives, such as the Star Chamber).

Still, I think there is an alert embedded here--not only to people bringing sexual harassment charges (which I think they are right to do; like Paglia, I think these matters should be settled in the courts, not by academic tribunals or other such forums) but a warning against people like Kenneth Starr and people who get mouth-foaming angry about pedophiles:

No matter how unjustified, pity will rightly or wrongly eventually swerve towards the perceived underdog, whomever that underdog might be.

Funny Guy: Michael Tucci

Michael Tucci is hilarious.

Michael Tucci played Norman Briggs, the fussy hospital administrator, on Diagnosis Murder from 1993-1997. It made sense for him to leave after Season 4. Dr. Sloan no longer needed a foil to his antics. And the show couldn't really handle TWO master comedians.

Tucci is a master comedian, one of those actors who has never been entirely appreciated, mostly because he has been entirely willing to follow his own career wishes rather than the "path to stardom" (he teaches as well as accepting occasional Broadway and television gigs--he has a very nice voice).

I first encountered him on Diagnosis Murder, then recognized him when watching the much earlier Barney Miller, where he played the occasional low-level criminal. (I mostly hate Grease, so I wouldn't have recognized him from Grease (1978), in which he played Sonny.)

Tucci has perfect timing. He also has the gift for hyperbole that comic "bad guys" require in order to avoid being too uncomfortably slimy. As Briggs in shouting mode, he is more adorable than awful. (On Barney Miller, George Murdock as Detective Scanlon, Internal Affairs, accomplishes a similar feat although he runs closer to the line--his over-the-top monologues about the nature of human imperfection keep him funny rather than so-awful-I-must-shut-off-the-TV.)

Tucci is yet another working actor who deserves kudos for a fine career--that is still in action

What Is It With Vampires En Masse?

Vampires are one of those tropes that cross borders. In Western culture, there is a disconcerting gap between the original (artistically-speaking) vampire, Dracula, and his descendants.

Dracula is a loner. It is implied in the novel--and stated outright in Saberhagen's tribute--that he is literally sui generis, arising like Aphrodite from the water without even a god's juice to help the process along. He came into being by sheer willpower. And he's alone (the villagers, wolves, and weird vampire ladies don't count).

Nosferatu is even more of a loner.
This is a vital element to the original novel's plot. Dracula--like his lesser known literary ancestors--is a solitary threat against the bulwark of society, specifically English/Western society. In Dracula, society wins. In Edgar Allan Poe's "Ligeia," the consumption-ridden vampire wins when the narrator is driven to the brink of despair. In either case, the vampire is all about being isolated. And bringing others into isolation with him (or her).

Joss Whedon uses this approach, to a degree, with Angel and Spike. They are loners who
occasionally invade others' lives (extrovert Spike moreso than introvert Angel) but their quests, even at the end of Angel, must be faced alone. They are Jedi Knights, not generals.

Like Luke's Han Solo et al, Buffy's scooby-gang begins as a collection of odd-balls, who could break off to do their own thing at any moment. Angel's scooby-gang also starts out small.

Look at all those people! Another show I don't watch.
And yet, the vampires and the scooby-gangs of nearly every current vampire television show and novel series belong to extensive, mafia (yakuza) like tribal situations with sires and "children" and so on and so forth. It's the Master's clique from Buffy, only above ground and way more riven by internal debates

This is likely the reason that I can never get into vampire literature, despite being a fan of Dracula, Buffy, and Angel. I don't find ongoing mafia/yakuza politics all that fascinating. And by the time I hit volume 3 of such a series, I'm rather tired of having to remember all the names.

Bring back the loners!

W is for Wrightson, Book Collecting, and Australian Fantasy

Patricia Wrightson's An Older Kind of Magic is one of those books that I read as a kid, then couldn't find again for years. I remembered it with great fondness, rather like The Great and Terrible Quest. Unfortunately but not atypically, I couldn't remember the author.

I scoured published book lists (fantasy and science-fiction for teenagers, etc.) and then Amazon. (Googling is far less wieldy a research tool than often imagined--it is a search engine par excellence, but it can only produce what it can produce; in addition, it takes effort and imagination to whittle down a search--ohmygosh, 248,000 hits!--to manageable proportions.) At some point, I learned Wrightson's name, then forget it again.

Lo and behold, to my delight, I rediscovered the book in a local library!

The story is magical realism at its best--honest fantasy mixed almost seamlessly into everyday life. It is droll and even slightly (very slightly) dark (fantasy noir).

Its Australian setting was utterly unique for me as a kid--and still stands out. Not only does Wrightson explore downtown Sydney and its Botanical Gardens with non-heavy exposition, she utilizes Australia-specific fantasy creatures.

Wrightson makes a fascinating point in her final notes--a point echoed in New England folklore. When the English arrived in Australia, they attempted to bring with them the sprites and fairies and imps of English folklore. These beings didn't take. Likewise, when the English arrived in
The edition I read as a teen.
New England, they weren't able to fully transfer over the trooping fairies of the English countryside. Apparently, "fairies" (using the term generically) are location-centered.

Consequently, Wrightson went to Aboriginal folklore to produce her Pot-Koorok, Nyol, and Bitarrs. They are kin to their British cousins--as well as  Native American serpents, giants, and little people--but unique to those shores.

Other Australasia teenage/children authors who produce this type of seamless magical realism:
  • Margaret Mahy (New Zealand): The Tricksters, The Changeover
  • Joan Phipson (Australia): The Watcher in the Garden 
    Of course, the New Zealanders still pay tribute to their European ties.


Romance and Vampires as an Act of Melodramatic Rebellion

The book Victorian Melodrama in the Twenty-First Century: Jane Eyre, Twilight, and the Mode of Excess in Popular Girl Culture by Katie Kapurch makes a Radway-type argument: "women's" literature carries within it a form of rebellion, specifically rebellion against conservative or patriarchal norms.

I debate this argument, not because it doesn't contain the seeds of truth but because I believe the "rebellion" is more thorough and comprehensive: teenage fans of the above series/books are rebelling as much against "progressive" expectations as against conservative ones. That is, although they are questioning whether it is a good idea to date a domineering man, they are also questioning why they have to be "good" girls who love academics, excel in the sciences, and pursue ambitious careers in order to be suitable female role models to future generations. Why can't they focus on what really interests them: dating?

Kapurch allows that teenage girls are reacting as much to the double-speak of postfeminism--be sexy and be liberated--as to patriarchal norms, but she still seems to accept the (acceptable) conclusion that they are moving towards progressive ends when they read melodramatic literature. I don't. I think some teen girls truly want to have babies at 16--not liberated sex--and I think that's kind of dumb. I also think it is possible that when they take pleasure in the pairing of violence and sex, they aren't critiquing it; they are interested in it. That is, I think it is entirely possibly that they are being "reactionary" in their reading choices.

And why shouldn't they be? Since literature reflects needs, rather than creating them, worrying that Twilight will produce girls who run out and marry at 18 is not only condescending to girls and women (no one ever assumes that adventure stories are automatically going to produce boys who leave home at sixteen, go to war, join gangs, or participate in government conspiracies), it also rather misses the point (hormones, hormones, hormones).

However, I do admire Kapurch for making the point that teenage female rebellion (whatever that rebellion is against) is as much an act as an ideology--moreso, in many ways.

She compares readers of Twilight to Beatlemania in the 1960s, pointing out that it was as much the act of enthrallment--getting to scream at celebrities--as the celebrities themselves. Extreme Twilight fans in the series' heyday were as prone to forming discussion groups--perhaps even moreso--as the fans of any particular rock group and far moreso than the fans of classical literature. The melodrama gave them something to act on.

Reading Kapurch's introduction reminded me of Reading Lolita in Tehran in which the author, Nafisi, explains why reading Jane Austen would be considered subversive in Iran in the 1980s to 1990s . It wasn't the story. The writing itself presented a form of democracy--multiple voices existing in proximity to each other without the author attempting to curtail them. The act of reading and the act of writing were inherently democratic.

It also reminded me of the amusing clip from Inside Out in which Sadness shows the first glimmering of non-apathy when she spots the angsty vampires in Riley's head. Angst becomes an act.

And finally, it made me think of Frozen. Contemporary analysis aside, perhaps "to act" *is* the ultimate purpose: I get to dress up in cool clothes and belt out a song at the top of my voice.

Ultimately, melodrama is fun.

Art in Graphic Novels

An odd criticism I occasionally encounter regarding a manga volume is "the art is bad because it is incomplete--sketchy." This is in reference to art that is impressionistic or neo-expressionistic.

I have seen quite a lot of manga art that I didn't care for. But the reason had nothing to do with the style being bad. It had everything to do with personal taste.

That is, there are certain styles of art I don't care for--like cubism, for example--but that does not mean that cubism is an inherently bad style. It isn't. I can admire Guernica even if I have zero desire to hang it in my house.

When I read this type of criticism in reviews, I start thinking that Paglia has a point: not training students in art makes them witless.

Here's a run-down of styles/schools of art (barely scratching the surface): Impressionism, Fauvism, Pop Art, Pre-Raphaelites, Realism, Surrealism, Italian Renaissance, Northern Renaissance, folk, Primitivism, Gothic . . .

Graphic artists are either trained in all these styles or know about them, either by education or simply by mucking about (I don't know what it's called but . . . ). Good graphic artists remind me of the best essay writers I teach: they don't tell me, "This is how I write. You'll just have to accept it." They say, "Oh, okay, I'll give that technique a try and see what happens." Playing with words and organization--style--fascinates them.  They might decide that the technique doesn't work for them, but they aren't closed off to what it might do for them.

Yes, manga styles are more complex than this :)
Graphic artists develop their own styles as do writers but that development isn't the result of operating in a vacuum (I go into a country field, throw up the arms, and let the muse speak to me!). It is a result of being part of a community.* I can disagree with a writing style--such as stream-of-consciousness--and develop my own because I know what that style is.

One can only wish that readers had the same background and respect for art.

*Interestingly enough, the latest research on so-called genius/invention backs up the idea of inventor+community. Contrary to old-fashioned stereotypes, people like Einstein do not function sans colleagues. Madame Curie, for instance, was part of a much greater community of scientists (including her husband, of course). They wrote letters to each other, refined ideas, tried different approaches . . . 

Same thing re: Silicon Valley, where the participants not only got inspired through collaboration but blatantly stole from each other as well.

V is for Vivian Vande Velde and Rumplestiltskin

Vivian Vande Velde writes mostly YA literature, mostly of the fantasy variety. One of my favorite stories is her Rumplestiltskin tale, "Straw Into Gold" which I originally read in Tales from the Brothers Grimm and Sisters Weird.  Vande Velde later compiled this and other stories all based around Rumplestiltskin into The Rumplestiltskin Problem (she created a similar collection around the tale of Little Red Riding Hood: Cloaked in Red). When I wrote Tales of a Quest, I based it loosely on Vande Velde's approach.

Although Tales of the Quest includes linking character commentary and Vande Velde's short story collection does not, she does begin the slim tome with an explanation of all that is wrong with the original tale: Why didn't the miller use his daughter to produce gold for him? Why would the daughter want to marry a king who threatened to kill her? Okay, maybe she had no choice. But why not ask Rumplestiltskin for some other type of help?

When I went to write my own Rumplestiltskin tale, originally published in Space & Time magazine, republished in Tales of the Quest, I made Rumplestiltskin a threat--it's one of my few horror stories. I also tried to bring up the economic problem of throwing too much gold at a problem (see below): inflation, anyone?

We lovers of fantasy love to play around with fantasy--I think writers are always drawn, to an extent, to world and stories that could, possibly, be manipulated for their own ends: I'll sit here and carefully unravel and reweave my little bit of the tale: no, no, I'm not in the way; keep doing your thing.

Diving Down the Rabbit Hole: Trying to Counter Birth Order Theory

Trying to convince people that birth order theory is not legitimate science is rather like trying to convince people that astrology is not real science--or, for that matter, that global warming is more problematic than true believers will countenance. All those missing correlations are swept away by the force of the theory. 

The problem with birth order theory is how much it depends on people finding the correlations they expect to find. I often encourage students to avoid writing about birth order theory simply because they make the same mistake as Sulloway: they locate and label a personality trait within a famous person, then assume that the famous person must be a firstborn, middle, or later-born child, often without even bothering to Google search if they are correct.

Only occasionally have I had a student admit, Wow, the research doesn't justify any conclusions at all!

Most birth order theory comes down to interpretation: how existing behavior fits people's expectations. Take, for example, an event that never occurred in my own family: a parent gifting a teen with a car. When the event occurs to the firstborn, the interpretation is that the parents are applauding the oldest child's maturity and good work habits; to the middle child, trying to making up for lack of attention; to the youngest child, spoiling.

But the act is the same.

In 2015, Julia M. Rohrer, Boris Egloff, and Stefan C. Schmukle from the University of Leipzig and Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz performed a lengthy investigation of birth order and its possible ties to personality. They used longitudinal data from a Great Britain study, data from an extensive study by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and data from a German survey of households that started in 1997. They relied on within-family and independent assessments (within-family assessments tend to depend on "existing beliefs and stereotypes as well as contrast effects"--that is, people within families tend to define themselves by how they are like and different from each other using the rhetoric at hand). The researchers also made within-family and between family assessments. For IQ, they used self-referencing and outside testings.

They discovered that the only measurable, consistent difference in birth order is IQ testing--and even that is negligible. Older siblings tend to test higher than younger. Don't get too cocky, older siblings! Not only is the difference minor, Rohrer, Egloff, and Schmukle reference outside studies that postulate that (1) "older siblings profit intellectually from being 'teachers' to younger siblings"; (2) later-born children are prone to "slightly underestimating [their intelligence] and firstborn children slightly overestimating their actual cognitive abilities." There is an odd but consistent correlation between how intelligent people believe themselves to be and how well they test.

Other than IQ testing, the study found that "birth order position had no significant effect on extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness or conscientiousness." The study divided the fifth of the Big Five personality traits--openness--into IQ (see above) and imagination. They found that birth order had no effect on imagination. 

The tone of the study is extraordinarily dry, only dropping into wryness towards the very end: "Brief self-report measures are also generally sensitive to detecting birth-order effects when such effects indeed exist."

In other words, within a family, family members will notice if a particular family member is good with puzzles or adept at getting along at parties or quick to spot humor in a situation. The same family is quick to discern how this relates to the person's position, or niche, within the family and to provide an interpretation: i.e. so-and-so gets along well at parties because he or she got more attention from our parents. Voila! Birth order theory is true!

However, the study's conclusion is unequivocal, if staid:  

"The central prediction of the Family Niche Theory with regard to personality could not be confirmed by our analyses . . . to conclude, birth order position seems to have only a small impact on who we become."

For those of you who are gnashing your teeth, I do have an alternative suggestion, having to do with families as blueprints--post coming at a much later date . . . 

Two Problems with Biographies: E.M. Forster Under Scrutiny

Two biographies/analyses of E.M. Forster indicate the problems with biographies.

The first, A Great Unrecorded History by Wendy Moffat, is selective to the point of occasionally, uncomfortably, being less than upfront. As a reviewer on Amazon caustically but perceptively points out,  "[W]hy, if Moffat is emphasizing the all-encompassing Sexuality Motif in her rendering of Forster's life, did she not explore the obvious?"

In other words, why is Moffat only emphasizing certain material, when so much more was available to her? And why does she fail to address potential issues? There are multiple places where Moffat should--but does not--stand back and say, "But of course, there's another side to the events in Egypt . . .  Readers may wonder why the Buckinghams maintained a different version of events. . . " and even, "But of course, Forster himself had differing reactions to his experiences." 

Forster was obviously something of a romantic idealist with a strong self-critical streak as well as a critical eye. He seems to have swayed between the version of his life that he wanted to be true and the version of his life that he accepted, in his droll way, as more likely. Moffat appears to prefer the romantic, idealistic version. Yet Forster often refutes this version of his own life--as any self-analytical person might do, dissecting, down the road, the version that seemed comfortable at the time. Moffat, however, accepts only the version that supports her thesis, often summarizing material rather than allowing quotes to speak for themselves: the quotes provide a far more complex reading. 

From a researcher's point of view, the biography not only fails to prove its thesis, it fails to noticeably or subtly address the opposition's objections. Ignoring the obvious and/or refusing to address the obvious indicates, as the above reviewer maintains, an agenda.

Having allowed for an agenda, I suggest that all biographers run the risk of "falling in love with" the subject. After all, getting to know someone so intimately is bound to encourage an attachment. I get this person. I know him or her.

So pedestal-creation (he was perfectly miserable! he was perfectly happy!) makes for an interesting but not all-encompassing or trustworthy biography.

On the other hand, the literary analysis--the biography portion follows the lecture chapters--of Frank Kermode's Concerning E.M. Forster seems to suffer from an opposite tendency, one  I encountered in my master's program. While studying critical analysis of popular culture, I came across scholars who desperately wanted to talk about popular culture, who actually liked it, but were far too embarrassed to be matter-of-fact and open about their liking.

Apparently, Forster is one of those "great" writers whom the academic establishment is vaguely embarrassed about--"great" but not as "great" as D.H. Lawrence or Henry James.

Kermode is not blind to this perspective and even seems to steady himself for the inevitable criticism (unlike Moffat, he is eminently aware of what outsiders might say) but the apologetic tone irritated me after awhile. In a passage about Aspects of the Novel, Kermode states the following:
[Forster discussed story and plot] simply and memorably, perhaps too memorably . . . The book was a big success though of a genre in which Forster might not have expected success. And that is good cause for congratulations: it was good that he, so skeptical about the value of all criticism, should test the opinion as a practitioner. Yet it remains possible to complain that in a book on such a subject he ought, perhaps, to have looked about him rather more . . .
I'm not making this up: in a single short paragraph in a lecture about Forster, Kermode qualifies any positive statement about Forster four times. I had to read Aspects of the Novel (for the first time) myself to realize how good it actually is and to appreciate that Forster crafted his lectures as carefully as he crafted his novels. Kermode seems to wish that Forster had used Aspects to create a list of "people I have read and approved of," but this type of list is precisely what makes so much literary analysis--and so many Hollywood biographies--so tiresome; Hollywood biographies focus on "all the people I know and approve of," but the result is an equally dull jockeying for status and position.

Kermode returns several times to this lack of position-jockeying in Forster--why didn't he?!--rather than accepting that Forster had darn good reasons, as a darn good analyst and writer, to limit his examples in Aspects of a Novel. He was defending claims, not soothing literary egos.

I accept that Kermode sort of admired Forster, but his analysis left me with the opposite impression. Although he seems to have liked A Room with a View, the bulk of his analysis reads as coming from a man deeply uncomfortable with his subject-matter. Since I am entirely capable of making up my own mind about Forster, I prefer reading material by someone who likes him (as he actually was) and his writing (as it actually is). Lionel Trilling, maybe?

The two issues--lack of critique; abundance of apology--may be inevitable to any biographer. When they can be solved, the result is impressive: the subject is objectively but not unfairly explored--the biographer is willing to question while still ultimately taking the subject's side.

It can be done! It is admittedly less than easy.
The successful biography