Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Reading Culture in Japan

Kate: Critics of contemporary culture often bemoan the decline of novel reading (they also often seem to be disgruntled academics whose tomes don’t sell). How does reading fare in Japan? Do books sell?
Eugene: Japanese bookstores sell on consignment (returns are allowed), and books are sold under a resale price maintenance (RPM) system that disallows discounting. Online retailers like Amazon compete on the convenience of "one-stop shopping," huge inventories, and free shipping.

Family reunion--yup, everybody's reading.
That makes it possible for small and niche bookstores to compete. Japan's high population density makes distribution more efficient. And I do think public transportation--along with a long literary culture and high literacy rates--is key in fostering "disposable" reading habits. If the ride might be long, grab an easy read.

(Like the habit we and our siblings had growing up of always carrying a book with us whenever
we went somewhere "just in case" we found ourselves stuck somewhere with nothing to do. The horror!)

The A6 format is truly pocked-sized, with lightweight but durable paper and flexible spines. A big bestselling novel like Daughter of the Murakami Pirates was initially released in two volumes of 474 and 499 pages at 1,728 yen ($15) each. The mass-market paperback was released in four A6 volumes of around 350 pages and 680 yen ($6) each.

I suspect as well that the doujinshi culture help create a printing industry adept at doing economical short runs. Along with a devoted fan base willing to spend money on their hobby.

Seriously, think of the economic impact of almost completely eliminating the automobile from the teen to thirty-something budgetary balance sheet. Which just happens to overlap with the otaku demographic.

And yet, while CDs and DVDs are (at least) two to three times more expensive in Japan, books are often less expensive, manga compilations being half what you'd pay for a translation in the U.S. In other words, the "gateway drugs"--manga and light novels--are always affordable.
Kate: How about downloading books--is the idea of "Kindle" as prevalent in Japan as it appears to be in the United States?
Eugene: Amazon is pushing the Kindle platform hard in Japan. Amazon competitors like Honto have their own ebook publishing platforms. But Japan has been slow to embrace digital media. Distribution is still about pushing physical products. Tower Records went bankrupt in the U.S. It is thriving in Japan: "Globally, 39 percent of all music sales are physical CDs and vinyl, but in Japan the figure is double that."

 When it comes to CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray, distributors are loath to give up their sky-high profit margins. The convenience factor is not as critical a variable given Japan's high urban population density and resale price maintenance laws that make possible a "nation of shopkeepers" (Adam Smith said it first). And Japanese seem to like collecting physical "stuff" (that's easy to store), not just information.
A manga shelf--with a little bit of Star Wars at the end.

The typical scene of a teenager's bedroom includes a bookcase with thirty volumes of his favorite manga neatly lined up in rows.

Books, on the other hand, aren't expected to deliver those fat profit margins, and they've always had competition from used bookstores. Manga marketing begins with loss-leading. I'm always getting emails from Honto pushing the latest free e-manga: give away the first volume, sell the rest. Plus, once a manga is typeset, it is relatively easy to convert to electronic format.

Online shopping is rapidly growing in popularity in Japan, as is electronic publishing. The latter has long been a lagging indicator but is catching up fast.
[In 2016] the combined 296.3 billion yen (about US$2.60 billion) total of print sales of manga from both compiled book volumes and magazines saw a 9.3% decrease from last year. This the 15th year in a row to mark a decline in sales for manga's print market. The print-only market is now about half of what it was in the mid-1990s.

However, sales of digital manga volumes amounted to 146 billion yen (about US$1.28 billion), a 27.1% increase from the previous year, while sales of digital manga magazines amounted to 3.1 billion yen (about US$27.24 million), a 55% increase from the previous year.
Kate: "Deluxe" print editions of manga in English will often come with fold out posters, an impossibility with digital versions. Is this a way to make the print version more appealing? Are collectors of tangible goods still a force to be appeased?
Eugene: Successful manga will often come out with revised editions featuring larger formats with heavier paper and full-color inserts (for example, initially published in Ko B-ban or JIS B6 and then coming out with a special edition A5). But that was going on long before digital publishing became a thing.

Publishing companies often house books and periodicals under the same roof, so enhancing the one with the printing techniques from the other is standard practice.
Kate: Light novels don't appear to have the same negative status as "grocery store paperbacks" do in the U.S. Is this true? Why?
Eugene: To start with, the printing quality of light novels is pretty darn high. I have a light novel I bought in 1989 for 360 yen (about $3.25). The paper has faded a bit, but the full-color wraparound dust cover and the spine are in perfect condition.

In Japan, the rift between "literature" and "stories for the masses," as Dean Wesley Smith puts it, never really developed. Sure, there are literary snobs but publishers see no point in surrendering to those pretensions. Publishers make a point of publishing and licensing just about everything that shows potential (see the comparison to commercial television production above).

Daughter manga
Along with the mass market paperback, Daughter of the Murakami Pirates was also released in a manga version. Someday there will likely be an anime and a live-action historical drama. The Moribito series recently added a high-budget (for Japanese television) live-action series to its publishing arc (light novels, manga, and anime).

The long-running Rurouni Kenshin manga series, first published in 1994, added a trilogy of live-action films in 2012-2014, adding to a catalog that includes an anime series, several anime movies, and light novels.

Even the radio drama (distributed on CD) remains a viable medium for popular culture in Japan.

Japan actually figured out how to make literacy "cool" and to hook kids on reading, from elevating calligraphy to a pop culture art form (see Barakamon), to creating the visual novel video game format that requires more reading than most novels, to publishing school textbooks that look more like manga rather than the heavy, ponderous boat anchors used in American schools.
Kate: Along the same lines, manga appears to have never had the same negative status that "comic books" has/had in the United States. When "comic books" get serious treatment in the U.S. they become "graphic novels" but manga have always been manga. Why?
Eugene: Back in the 1950s, the comic book panic briefly swept over Japan too. Writing then for the short-lived rental book market, horror manga artist Shigeru Mizuki briefly fell victim to it. Fortunately for him, as the "rental library" business dried up, so did the protests. Or everybody was too busy growing the GDP at double-digits to care.

Once his manga found a wider audience in the 1960s and made their way to television, his reputation was never in doubt, and he became one of the grand old deans of Japanese popular culture.

Every now and then, a manga artist will "go too far" (meaning WAY further than what would be acceptable in the U.S., especially for a teen audience) and get push-back from politicians and social activist types. But publishers are quick to respond and pull back just far enough to make everybody happy. It rarely turns into a sweeping indictment that sticks.

Part of this may the attitude that it doesn't matter what the kids are reading as long as they are reading.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the Japan's reading culture better than the visual novel. It's the oldest video game format in Japan. A classic visual novel like Clannad has over a million words of text in all its branches, and most contain at least in the high five figures.

Clannad clip: It may be a video but it has lots of words!
No matter what the language--
The visual novel is the "interactive novel" that American prognosticators are always promising is going to be the next big thing in e-publishing. And never is. While in Japan the visual novel has been a big thing in e-publishing for three decades.
Kate: Returning to light novels, will they ever find a home in the U.S.? To the same degree as manga?
Eugene: As mentioned previously, the success of the visual novel genre in Japan does point to profound differences in the "reading culture."

Nevertheless, I think that kids who grow up reading R.L. Stein and K. A. Applegate and Nancy Drew, the equivalent of light novel series, would read light novels if they could find titles in the genres they like.

The problem is building a critical mass of supply when current demand doesn't justify the investment by a publisher big enough to negotiate the licensing agreements. That critical mass has been achieved with manga and anime (it only took a quarter century).

With manga, the American publisher can work from the original print-ready PDFs, erase the speech bubbles and type in the English. A novel has to typeset from scratch. On current budgets, there is never enough editing (and often there is barely any).

A light novel that finds the right audience can do just as well as any other "long tail" genre novel, which is not all that great in any case. It's a market segment that needs to be husbanded in the short-to-medium term and shielded from the blockbuster mentality.

"Science fiction" as a genre is itself "long tail," making up about five percent of the publishing market. The "light novel" would be a fraction of that. These are the small numbers we're talking about.

Yen Press is co-owned by Kadokawa and Hachette, Kadokawa is the majority owner, so they have a vested interest in the long term. That bodes well for the future.

I don't think the light novel will ever be as successful as the manga, but it should be able to find a niche if given enough time to grow its audience and become self-sustaining. Along the way, a few break-through titles sure would help.

Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Light Novel Publishing in Japan

As with Interview with a Translator, Part 1, these posts address aspects of Japanese popular culture. There will be six posts total. Eugene, the translator, is a votary of Japanese literature, art, and contemporary culture as well as a fiction writer. More of his thoughts can be found on his website and blog.

Part 2 delves specifically into the world of light novels, Japan's reading culture and, of course, more translation challenges.

Kate: What is a light novel? Does its designation depend on subject matter or word count? If word count, why are U.S. publishers so obsessed with 100,000 words or more when the light novel clearly does well in Japan?
Light novel equivalent.
Eugene: The "light novel" is a mass market novella format in Japan, a paperback of around 40,000 words, most often printed in the A6 (4x6 inch) format. The content is genre fiction, with a dozen or so pen and ink illustrations. Furigana are included to help with the pronunciation of difficult kanji.
The equivalent of the light novel used to be a thing in American publishing too. Back in the day they were called the "pulps," after the cheap paper they were printed on. And like the pulps, light novels can be diamonds in the rough and they also can be barely good enough to pass muster. 
Dean Wesley Smith explains on his website about how the paperback novel grew from true "pocket-size" into a doorstop:
"Publishers forced writers to write longer books, not to make the books better, but to justify their need to raise book prices because of other costs. (Paper and printing were cheap, so most of the extra costs were in overhead and could be made up with just fatter books.)"
Kate: Why is the publishing industry in Japan willing to play for supposedly lower stakes?
Eugene: An established Japanese publishing firm was likely founded by a guy who started from literally nothing after the war. Most of Japan's 3,700 publishing companies are privately-held companies with less than 10 employees. Only 30 publishers have more than 1000 employees.
So keeping overhead low and spreading the costs (and risks) around is standard practice (true of Japan's movie industry too). There's no blockbuster mentality. If Your Name had made 30 million dollars instead of 300 million, everybody would have counted it a success.
This means publishers can throw just about anything against the wall to see if it sticks. In this respect, the manga and light novel resembles the Hollywood television pilot (on a much smaller scale). And it can be surprising what sticks, like this.
This is a mom.
The standard publishing contract in Japan is so standard (no advance and 10 percent of list price paid on publication) that agents usually aren't involved. Rarely to never will a Japanese publisher throw six or seven figures at an unknown who is going to be "the next big thing."
Of course, things get more complicated once the licensing deals begin. But unlike his American counterpart, the Japanese author retains most creative rights by default. And because there is no one big payday in the offing, licensing far and wide is standard practice.
Japanese publishers will publish periodicals out of the same offices, and use loss-leading manga magazines to "audition" series and artists. The cream of the crop become source material for light novels, anime, live-action television, movies, and even stage productions.
Kate: In one light novel series, the main character is an editor at a publishing company. The major author with whom he works has contracts at several different companies—this author produces one to two books per year for each company. Is this flexibility (a major author coasting between several companies) typical?
Eugene: According to Robert Whiting (author of baseball books like You Gotta Have Wa and The Chrysanthemum and Bat), most of the time a Japanese publisher will ask a writer to do a book "without a contract or an advance." Then when the book is published, "the author gets paid on books printed, not sold."
This is the opposite of how traditional U.S. publishers work. First, it means that Japanese publishers don't contractually lock down an author from the start. Second, it means they have more skin in the game once the book gets printed. A U.S. publisher can do a run of 100,000 books (and boast "100,000 books in print!"), get 50,000 returns, and pay a royalty on the 50,000 (a year later).
The Japanese publisher, by contrast, is down a 7-10 percent royalty right out of the gate. Returns can't be so easily shrugged off. However, shorter printing runs and supply more carefully matched to demand results in books going out of print faster (at least that's my experience with manga). And then you have to anxiously wait around for another printing or edition to come out.
Kate: How do Japanese writers get noticed?
Eugene: My sense is that there's a lot more going on at the grassroots level in Japanese publishing. Authors can start at zero in the doujinshi arena and build a fan base. Think of the way sports stars emerge from the gauntlet of high school and college sports. Once the professional teams get involved, they have a pretty good idea of who's worth recruiting.
One big sorting and recruiting tool are literary prizes. We tend to think of literary prizes as rewarding "Literature" (with a capital "L" because it's "high art" and it's "good for you"); or celebrating a "body of work" from a known and respected quantity (at least known to and respected by all the critics who "matter").
The two biggest literary awards in Japan are the biannual Akutagawa and Naoki prizes, the former for "the best serious literary story published in a newspaper or magazine by a new or rising author" and the latter for "the best work of popular literature in any format by a new, rising, or (reasonably young) established author."
Naoki Matayoshi
Kate: Are these awards more the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Literature or the Nebula? Or something even less hoity-toity?
Eugene: It does seem that the jurors try not to let too much pretentiousness govern their selections. Although, as in Always: Sunset on Third Street, a common writerly stereotype is the guy scribbling away in his hovel with high hopes of winning the Akutagawa prize while actually earning a living cranking out serial novels.
The serial novel is still going in Japan and many light novels start out that way.
The 2016 January Akutagawa prize was awarded to Naoki Matayoshi (no relation to the Naoki prize). He's a comedian, commentator, and occasional actor. Especially since winning the prize, he's been a regular on the chat and news show circuit. He hosts a weekly show about applied economics for NHK. He never attended college.
His biography is not terribly unusual for media intellectuals. In Japan, a diploma (the "Ivy Leagues" aside) is not a necessary credential for having smart things to say. (The protagonist in Hero passed the bar exam and became a public prosecutor without ever attending college or law school. Rare but possible.)
Daughter of the Murakami Pirates by Ryo Wada won the 2014 Japan Booksellers Yoshikawa Eiji prize for new writers, not for being "great literature" (nobody claims it is) but for being a great read. The Kodansha Manga Award has been awarded to hugely popular series like Ace of the Diamond and Attack on Titan.
As with college sports, in Japanese publishing there's the equivalent of a weekly MVP award and an annual Heisman for just about any genre in any medium. They serve a similar purpose: to reward up and coming talent, and to get the word out to the press and the public.
Kate: Why is it comparably more difficult to track down light novels in the U.S. than manga? Isn't manga harder to publish due to the art work? Is word count the reason light novels don't get translated more often?
Eugene: As far as books go, a light novel that finds the right audience can do just as well as any other "long tail" genre novel, which is not all that great. The term "manga," on the other hand, identifies it as a unique print and reading format. Expectations are met before the reading begins. A light novel is, at the end of the day, just another "book" among tens of thousands, and light novels have the additional expense of licensing fees to contend with on the balance sheet.
Along with Justin Sevakis, I also think that light novel adaptations have been slow to take off for the same reason visual novel adaptations have been slow to take off--all those words. 
One of the most popular yaoi light
novel series in the U.S., the later
volumes are far superior translations
to the earlier ones. Readers read
them anyway--but they complained.
Like American television producers, Japanese publishers try to cover every genre and demographic and hope that something catches fire. That includes, of course, chasing the latest trends.
The problem outside Japan is building a critical mass of supply when the still nascent demand doesn't justify the investment. That critical mass has been achieved with manga and anime (it only took a quarter century). It's tougher with a non-visual medium like traditional books.
The steepest cost in localizing a Japanese novel is the translation. A manga can be translated in a week or two, as opposed to a month or two (with no editing). With manga, the American publisher can work from the original print-ready PDFs, erase the speech bubbles and type in the English.
A novel has to be edited and typeset from scratch. On current budgets, there is never enough editing (and often there is barely any).
Good anime and manga can survive mediocre translations. Not so much novels. Especially when it precedes the manga, anime, and movie adaptations, the text has to stand on its own.
Coming next: Japan's Reading Culture!

More Thoughts on Wish-Fulfillment

The ultimate reading-to-use!
In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis argues that people should stop judging readers by what they are reading and instead look at how they read.

As I mention in a previous post, Lewis applauds readers who get swept away while reading ("receiving") versus those who read for what it can do for them ("using"). I attempted to find a middle ground in my thesis but I'll be the first to admit that my thesis was a shot in the dark. In many ways, I totally agree with Lewis but I tend to get uncomfortable with labels: describing all readers as "users" and "receivers" is too labelly.

Basically, Lewis detested
Horatio Alger books.
However, at one point in An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis presents one of my favorite arguments of all time: fantasy is less likely to engender a "using" attitude that so-called "realistic" fiction. His point is that people who read fantasy are more likely to see it as an entire, separate world about other people than to mistake the book's action for something that could literally happen to them. He then criticizes boys' and girls' books where the plucky hero(ine) goes to school, becomes popular, and wins all the awards--that type of stuff. Okay, he writes, exactly how realistic is that?

And I think he is right. I also think that a large number of academics perceive literature in exactly the second way: this could happen to me (or you, Ms. Student!).

And here I run up against a wall because actually LOTS of readers--even of fantasy--have that reaction. They don't always literally think the events could happen to them, but they often wish they could. They are drawn to the swashbuckling adventurer, the tough-minded princess, or the wise Roman/Klingon/British captain. They daydream or fan-fiction or speculate about how they would handle their favorite characters' adventures.

And I support that--even while the critic in my head wants to point out the fallacies. I once got into an entirely pointless argument (pointless on my side) when I tried to point out that even if a person lived during Jesus's time, that person wouldn't necessarily meet Jesus. Most people didn't. And many more people died of disease, got killed by storms or pirates or hunger or nutty rulers and/or ended up with leprosy than chatted with the Son of God. I wasn't being pessimistic. Accepting things-as-they-are is nothing to bemoan!

Still, there's a cost to getting to know too much about history. For a long time, I perceived Ancient Rome as far more refined and enjoyable than the Dark Ages. It wasn't. The Dark Ages were moderately more civilized than Ancient Rome; peasants and women had slightly more rights and protections; plus disease was not any MORE rampant, especially since the dictates of medieval religious thought meant that there were WAY more services available in the Dark Ages for the indigent than in Ancient Rome (read It Ended Badly by Jennifer Wright and Rodney Stark's Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History).

Yet the image or aura of the Roman villa, people wandering around in togas, and so on remains part of my internal perceptions. It's the idea, not the reality that remains so attractive. As Eugene states,
"It's not this world but a made-up movie world, a hypothetical model of the universe, where alternative realities can be played out with the promise that 'no animals were harmed during the making of this movie.'"
It's not Madame Curie dying that bothers
me--it's how cold she was!
Consequently, I can totally understand people who want to bury themselves in movies/role-playing/online games about Ancient Rome just as I can totally understand people who want to bury themselves in kings and castles and knights and chivalry--despite the fact that my basic reaction to Renaissance Fairs (okay, ANYTHING before 1950) is "But it was so COLD back then!"

This is where C.S. Lewis and my definition of wish-fulfillment comes into play. Like Eugene, I think it is an immersion in the creative image of another world, whether that world is based on history or fantasy. It may salve an emotion or satisfy an emotional need. It doesn't need to have a direct moral purpose and may prove problematic if utilized as a learning experience or window to "real life." 

For instance, I find the idea of contacting aliens utterly fascinating--not the weird aliens that supposedly experiment on people but the C.S. Lewis and Star Trek aliens that bring new cultural traditions and outlooks to the table.

The little critic in my head points out that after the initial thrill, alien-human contact would focus on trade agreements, legal wrangling over who owned Mars, and pontificating academics accusing everyone of being racist for thinking that aliens are "human-like."

Because nothing is as adorable as the Thermians.
I don't listen to the critic in my head (in this case) because it is the image that enchants me, not any speculations about what alien-human contact would really be like or my worries about the underlying messages/ideologies of Star Trek (sorry, Eugene!). I like to think up stories about liminality: the adjustments and adaptations people make when they leave the center and deal with the "other." The past is too cold, and fantasy is too limited (elves are elves are elves). So I use aliens. It's fun! 

Unfortunately, we live in a culture where practical "use" (how something impacts reality--what it teaches about real life/social conditions/history) reigns. So a wish that doesn't somehow dovetail with "reality" becomes the height of inappropriate behavior. Which is why I admire Lewis for pointing out that semi-realistic fiction might ultimately be less realistic in the long run than entirely non-realistic fiction--reading for "reality" can ultimately be more misleading than reading for personal pleasure. 

The Sheriffs of CSI

In the early seasons of CSI--back when I still watched--two different sheriffs show up in the first five seasons. They are played by two of my favorite character actors: Glenn Morshower and Xander Berkeley.

Both men are perfectly cast, having this slow drawl and ironic demeanor that matches CSI: Las Vegas's early tone and plotlines. They capture old-school, self-serving, canny politician-guy with ease. (Xander Berkeley shows up in a Bones episode playing the same type--he is so good that it works, but Bones is more Jonathan Adams--Season 1--than Xander Berkeley).

Both Glenn Morshower and Xander Berkeley utterly meet my criteria for hardworking, consistent character actors, not only on television but in movies! They are everywhere doing a little bit of everything from Monk (Morshower) to The Mentalist (Berkeley), from Moneyball (Morshower) to Terminator 2 (Berkeley). They also easily cross genre lines--Morshower is a Star Trek and Buffy alumnus! And they have both acted on 24 (but then, I'm starting to think everybody has.)

Other than Las Vegas Sheriff, my favorite role for Xander Berkeley is Detective Curt Landry in "Waivers of Extradition" on The Closer--where he plays a drawling, canny Texan who manages to get Brenda to give him what he wants.

For Morshower, my favorite role of his is the victim in "Monk Gets Cabin Fever." He is one of the most likable murder victims I've ever encountered (usually, they are utterly unlikable in order to explain why so many people are suspected of being the murderer). And I love his fishing hat!

Andy Flynn: Great Character

Flynn is the one shaking his head at something
Provenza said. Or at Andrew Daly's antics.
Andy Flynn from The Closer is, like many of The Closer's characters, a great, complex character.

Flynn is the officer that initially distrusts and tries to undermine Brenda. He grows to become one of her staunchest allies yet never loses his sardonic edge.

After all, Flynn is the one who shrugs his shoulders and rolls his eyes when Brenda gets semi-hysteria (how much of Brenda's hysteria is deliberate and how much is involuntary is a debate for another time). He can also hang his head like a schoolboy when chastised. He is absolutely loyal to the people he works with, the ultimate example of a character who places camaraderie before abstract principles. His behavior regarding Brenda (and the leak) at the end of the series does not contradict his behavior at the beginning--the underlying  consistency is loyalty to his squad.

In "Old Money," Flynn looks back at
Brenda and smiles his classic wry smile
as thanks.
He is also, delightfully enough, a gossip. Flynn is the one who always wants to know what the secrets in the squad are, how they will effect everyone in the squad, and what they will mean specifically to Flynn. He passes on information yet never in a way that implies a political agenda (see Robert Gossett as Taylor, another great character).

Unlike so many characters on television, his attributes do not surface for the sake of a particular storyline, only to promptly disappear. They are always there, informing how he is written. The Closer (and Major Crimes to a certain extent) has an organic feel. The stories or mysteries are the framework on which the characters' behavior and thoughts are hung--HOW they behave is entirely dependent on WHO they are to begin with.

In Major Crimes, Flynn becomes linked to Sharon Raydor romantically. I find this entirely plausible (despite his initial reservations about Captain Raydor, Flynn is capable of great loyalty--see above). Flynn-as-romantic-lead has a kind of poetic justice since to a degree Flynn could have fulfilled the romantic role in The Closer. He is far too wry and Brenda was far too committed to Fritz for Flynn to take on that role full time. But the gentle moments between Flynn and Brenda opened up the possibility that while Flynn isn't looking to save the world or "discover" himself, he does find it easy (and natural) to don the armor of chivalry. He is a fundamentally sweet-natured man looking for a good woman.

N is for Nesbit

This great cover captures the tone of
Nesbit's book. I am disgusted by children's
lit covers that imply "these books are
about kids; therefore they must be so
silly" like the current covers for the
Melendy series.
E. Nesbit was one of the most-read authors of my childhood. My family owned nearly all her children's books of which the Psammead Series is possibly her best known--Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Story of the Amulet--while The Railway Children is the most filmed/performed of all her books (and ends with one of the most dramatic scenes in all children's literature).

She uses a technique common in nineteenth century children's literature--that of the amused, outside narrator commenting occasionally on the characters' foibles. This approach can get a tad coy. (C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, both products of English narration, use this approach to a limited extent; Tolkien is far more disciplined in its use and Lewis is far less coy.) Despite the occasional "now, let's see what the boys and girls are up to" style, Nesbit survives so well because (1) the children are allowed to behave like children; (2) her yarns are darn good fun.

Nesbit did not only imagine outlandish adventures, she created narrative arcs that hold together throughout those outlandish adventures--and also expose the reader to worlds that are fascinating without being skin-crawling (see Frank L. Baum).

Clip from The Railway Children (2000)
She also has the remarkable ability to create tone, a feel of sweet nostalgia or romantic, tender yearning. She is possibly the most slice-of-life children's author I've encountered. It's amazing that Hayao Miyazaki hasn't picked up any of her material! (Yet.)

Perhaps, indirectly, he did. Nesbit is one of the greats of children's fantasy, and she influenced/paved the way for an entire generation of like-minded British authors from Lewis and Tolkien to Diana Wynne Jones, Mary Norton (of Borrowers fame) and (even) J.K. Rowlings.

British Actor: Robert Glenister

Robert Glenister is a marvelous British actor who first showed up on my radar in Persuasion as Captain Harvile, the friend of Captain Wentworth whose invitation brings Anne and others to Lyme for a visit. He is the character who discusses male versus female affection with Anne at the window in Bath while Wentworth frantically writes a love confession to Anne.

I've maintained elsewhere that all British actors seem obligated to appear in a costume drama, detective show, Dr. Who episode, and American show. Here is Robert Glenister's list:

✔Jane Austen.

Robert Glenister has appeared in numerous mystery shows, including Prime Suspect and, as a regular, Hustle.

I was ready to give up on Glenister and Dr. Who until I discovered that he voiced a character on a Dr. Who radio drama (I really need to add to my list, "Has also performed a voice on a radio drama," which are still quite popular over there). Actually, Glenister appeared live on Dr. Who in 1984 (but apparently wishes he hadn't). 

And he appears in the recent American crime movie Live By Night with Ben Affleck.

In fact, it was seeing the preview for Live by Night that reminded me how stellar Robert Glenister is. He isn't credited as one of the big names, but he does have a one-second clip in the preview. My response, "They got Robert Glenister! Seriously?! Wow. Maybe it's a good movie."

Celebrity-dom is utterly relative.

Robert Glenister is one of those guys who is drop-dead sexy not due to obvious Hollywood good looks but simply because he is. He has a great voice (he is THE voice for Law & Order: UK) and conveys emotion and information in a dead-pan way that isn't simply dead-pan. He projects impressive degrees of subtlety--along with snarkiness, when he needs to, as well as heartwrenching kindliness. He is the best of the actors' actors.

Thoughts on the Ending of Jane Eyre

Bicknell captures St. John's zeal.
Jane Eyre does not close with Jane Eyre's marriage to Rochester, the birth of their son, and their happily married life. It certainly mentions those things ("Reader, I married him") but it ends instead with several paragraphs about St. John. The passage is worth quoting in full:
As to St. John Rivers, he left England: he went to India.  He entered on the path he had marked for himself; he pursues it still.  A more resolute, indefatigable pioneer never wrought amidst rocks and dangers.  Firm, faithful, and devoted, full of energy, and zeal, and truth, he labors for his race; he clears their painful way to improvement; he hews down like a giant the prejudices of creed and caste that encumber it.  He may be stern; he may be exacting; he may be ambitious yet; but his is the sternness of the warrior Greatheart, who guards his pilgrim convoy from the onslaught of Apollyon.  His is the exaction of the apostle, who speaks but for Christ, when he says—“Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”  His is the ambition of the high master-spirit, which aims to fill a place in the first rank of those who are redeemed from the earth—who stand without fault before the throne of God, who share the last mighty victories of the Lamb, who are called, and chosen, and faithful.

St. John is unmarried: he never will marry now.  Himself has hitherto sufficed to the toil, and the toil draws near its close: his glorious sun hastens to its setting.  The last letter I received from him drew from my eyes human tears, and yet filled my heart with divine joy: he anticipated his sure reward, his incorruptible crown.  I know that a stranger’s hand will write to me next, to say that the good and faithful servant has been called at length into the joy of his Lord.  And why weep for this?  No fear of death will darken St. John’s last hour: his mind will be unclouded, his heart will be undaunted, his hope will be sure, his faith steadfast.  His own words are a pledge of this—

“My Master,” he says, “has forewarned me.  Daily He announces more distinctly,—‘Surely I come quickly!’ and hourly I more eagerly respond,—‘Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!’”
Since I am not a fan of St. John's insidious bullying of Jane during the proposal, I've always shrugged off this part of the story as "spin"--Bronte's attempt to pacify her Victorian audience.

Buchan captures his honesty.
Recently, however, I rethought that idea. Victorians were domestic and pious (they were also earthier than we often imagine them to be; still, they thought of themselves as domestic and pious). Take Jane getting married and having a kid: Victorians readers wouldn't have been too happy about Jane's boldness in returning to Rochester before knowing for sure that his wife was dead and they wouldn't have been too happy about a lowly governess marrying the head of a household although Jane was of a legitimately good family and had her own inheritance. And they wouldn't have been too terribly pleased about her strong  physical response to Rochester's physical advances.

But, still, ya know, marriage and a kid isn't so bad.

St. John, however, for better or worse turned his back entirely on domesticity. Victorians, in resemblance to their beloved queen (who was far less motherly or wifely than her image: see below), placed a high premium on loving God and supporting missionary work--from the comfort of hearth and home. Being religious was very, very important (no atheists here!) but in a restrained, civilized, non-weirdo American way (all those cults!).

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert: Wedded Life
St. John is extraordinarily . . . Catholic in his response to his personal call to go abroad. There's a kind of fervor in his decision and in the outcome of that decision. The guy wanted to be a martyr and by George, he succeeded!

That is the furthest thing from the married, middle class, wedded bliss purported by the queen and her subjects plus Victorian painters and poets. And it made me wondered if Bronte was pushing the envelope in more than one direction--not just in extolling Jane's supreme self-confidence in her right to choose (rather than be guided by her male relative) but in praising St. John's supreme self-confidence in his single lifestyle that puts a cause above all else.

The St. Johns of the world make me mighty uncomfortable. I'm like Spike--I like the mundane fun of ordinary life. But I can certainly commend Bronte for knocking down all the fences in her path.

M is for McGraw

When I was younger, I became enamored with Ancient Egypt. I adored Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (I knew all the songs and could sing them, tunelessly, as I wandered about the house) plus Joseph and His Brothers, the video put out by the Genesis Project. At one point, I think I even tried to read Joseph Mann's Joseph in Egypt (I gave up).

Regarding books, I naturally read Zilpha Keatly Snyder's The Egypt Game. Like the girls in the story, I researched hieroglyphs and wrote out a kind of Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. During this time period, for Christmas, my sister Ann gave me a cosmetic kit of Ancient Egypt--I still own the perfume.

I also read and very much enjoyed a book that is difficult to find now:  Lost Queen of Egypt by Lucille Morrison, a book I must have read two or three times. It tells the story of Ankhesenamen, the daughter of Akhetaten and Nefertiti, who married Tutankhamun and may or may not have vanished after his death (which, according to current investigations, was likely not a murder but still could have been).

Another influence was Mary Stoltz's Cat in the Mirror in which a modern teen experiences her past life as an Egyptian maiden. Like with many of Stoltz's protagonists, the experience allows her to tackle a teenage problem in her personal, contemporary life. When I was in sixth grade, a fellow student reported on this book for an assignment. She created a diorama in a box--one side of the box was the girl's modern bedroom; the other side was the girl's Ancient Egyptian bedroom. I can still see it in my head! 

My biggest literary influence was Mara: Daughter of the Nile by Eloise McGraw. I wish I could say it was McGraw herself--that is, I was captivated by her writing. But this is one of those cases where the subject matter drew me as much as the writing. Mara is the only book of McGraw's that I have read.

Mara is a slave who is recruited to be a spy for a young man who is trying to help Thutmose III oust Hatshephut from the throne (in reality, Hatshephut ruled successfully for 20 years--her reign was prosperous and free from excessive wars; she died of natural causes). The spy/thriller elements of the story are well-told. Mara's growth from understandably self-serving to passionately dedicated is believable. And there's a romance! I have loved reading romances all my life.

My Dungeons & Dragons friends could have the medieval time period, what with the cold and the rats and the diseases and bad plumbing. I'd take Ancient Egypt. It seemed so . . . civilized--despite the spies and angry priests, possible murders and crazy kings . . .

Japanese Slapstick

Image result for library wars Kasahara animeI remember the moment I realized that the Japanese are not all math-oriented, serious geeks (note: I see nothing wrong with being a math-oriented, serious geek).

Prior to that moment, if anyone had said to me, "But people are people. Why can't the Japanese be as silly and raunchy as everyone else?" I would have agreed. I wasn't intellectually surprised to find out I was wrong.

But, cultural assumptions being what they are, I was surprised:
So . . . I'm watching a clip of Japanese television. What's on is some type of game show or reality show where the hosts wake people up in the morning--you know, with the bed head and sleepy voice, etc. etc. This is, apparently, hilarious.

And the host makes a fart joke.

I'm not kidding!
This was my initial introduction to what cultural critics often still misunderstand: the Japanese are fans of all kinds of bodily humor, including slapstick.

I am not, which may be why I didn't notice it for so long. But the Three Stooges leave me cold. (I was the kind of kid who felt sorry for the Coyote in The Road Runner--seriously: I hated the Road Runner.)

I don't especially mind slapstick in manga (illustrated), mostly because it is less violent than farcical--less Three Stooges, more Mr. Bean--and--perhaps mistakenly--because I read it as almost entirely representational.

Sometimes the slapstick is obviously representational, such as the manga and anime scenes in Library Wars where Kasahara "freaks out" in her head about something someone has said (see above). However, often, the physical humor is exactly what it appears to be: people are giving each other headbutts and noogies and wrestling each other to the ground. Which can be cute but often make me glad I'm not watching the encounters live.

And sometimes, the physical humor is utterly amusing, such as the omake (a possible non-canon ending invented by the mangaka herself) of Wild Rock in which the hero, instead of rescuing the main protagonist from a lion, is eaten!

"So now a moment of silence," writes Kazusa Takashima in her notes, "for that poor, pathetic, but brave man who lost his life for love."

Why Psych Got Less Funny

The initial seasons of Psych are drop to the floor laughing value. The middle seasons are less funny but fairly okay storytelling. The final seasons are painfully unfunny.

What happened?

My Theory

Part of Psych's charm from the beginning were the coy allusions to outside pop culture. The following is a classic exchange between Gus and Shawn:
(Gus steps on a floorboard, making it creak.)
Shawn (to Gus): Dude, there's something under there.
Gus: What do you think it is?
(Shawn starts to make heartbeat sounds.)
Gus: Will you stop it, Shawn. You know how that story gives me the creeps. (When Shawn won't stop making heartbeat sounds, Gus gets behind a creaky rocking chair, rocks it, and speaks in an elderly voice): Norman! Norman! Norman! (Shawn freaks out.)
These allusions enhance the dialog and the viewer's enjoyment. I probably catch only about 1/2 of them but the ones I do give me the giggles and a little bit of pride for being able to spot them.

Wild West allusions always work with Timothy
Omundson who looks fantastic with and
without facial hair.
These types of allusions are funny precisely because they are designed to be delivered but not dwelt on. (My favorite example of a fly-by allusion actually comes from NCIS. In an early season, while discussing the U.S.S. Eisenhower and the fact that ships are "she"s, Tony Dinozzi says, "Then shouldn't it be named after Mamie." I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I didn't get that reference immediately. [Mamie was Eisenhower's wife.])

So the multiple allusions in Psych's early seasons are not only delightful but enhance the episodes, especially when they are joined by non-allusive banter:
Shawn: Is this a briefcase or an attaché?
Gus: I think it's a briefcase. Attachés have a softer shell.
Shawn: Really? That's all that differentiates them, a softer shell?
Gus: Well, "attaché" does have a better ring to it.
Shawn: Let's go with attaché.
Unfortunately, as the show continued, the allusions become not clever dialog but the whole point. That is, the show become . . . satiric is actually not the right word . . . entirely referential.

Really? That was your plan? That has to
be the poorest executed attack in history. I
was two feet away from you all the time. I mean,
you have to be absolutely, without doubt,
the worst murderer I have ever seen.
When Tim Curry showed up in the Season 2 episode "American Duo," he was hilarious. Yes, he was spoofing Simon Cowell but he was so cleverly obnoxious in his own right, he was enjoyable to watch.

Yet when Christopher Lloyd showed up in the Season 7 spoof/tribute to Clue, he wasn't funny at all. And he can be! But he wasn't there to be his own crazy/chewing-the-scenery self (which Tim Curry was); he was there to remind us of the other movie.

More and more of Psych's episodes in later seasons depend not on a plot that happens to contain funny references but on the funny references that sort of, maybe, not really try to form a  plot--except funny references all by themselves do not a story make. And oddly enough, they eventually cease to be funny.

Humor needs context.

Wish-Fulfillment Is Not Always Wrong

"Yes Yes Yes No No No" scene from Singin' in the Rain
Background: I believe that women do not automatically read romance literature out of wish-fulfillment, i.e. because they see themselves as the heroine of the piece and/or want to be swept away by Darcy or Mel Gibson or, to update myself a little, Josh Hutchinson or (still) Darcy.

The statement/attitude that women only read romance out of a desperate need to "get themselves a guy" is almost always accompanied by a guffaw, smirk, or patronizing tone. Truth: women readers are as capable as anyone at reading something for other types of reasons, from philosophical to writerly.

In this post, however, I want to defend the idea of reading for wish-fulfillment. Although it often gets mocked, it is a perfectly respectable reason to read.

I argue in my thesis that many readers engage in a synthesis of "using" and "receiving." I am borrowing C.S. Lewis's terms from An Experiment in Criticism, in which he argues that "users" read for the message or the personal application; he is understandably not a fan of "using," and I don't completely disagree. I saw plenty of "using" during my years as a student: people reading great literature in order to find evidence for their socio-politico-eonomico theories. And one doesn't need great literature to do that kind of thing. I can do it with a cereal box.

My contribution to Middle Earth fan fiction: a
continuation of Tolkien's map.
C.S. Lewis uses the second term, "receiving" to refer to readers allowing themselves to be swept away by a poem or short story or novel or play. They don't judge the work until they have fully experienced it.

In my thesis, I suggest a third road that combines "using" and "receiving." My point was/is that people have a creative instinct or urge (a theory that Steven Johnson defends in his latest book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World), even if they aren't "creative" in the painting-pictures-writing-books-spouting-poetry sense. In fact, the desire to "make" can be as basic as "I want to make a good birthday party" or "I want to make a decent filing system." Like Johnson, I suggest that this desire has as much weight (if not more) than power and money. (And is the basic reason why theories like Marxism that ignore community involvement and personal experience so grossly misread people and fall short of even stock-market-valid prophetic outcomes.)

The desire to exercise the creative impulse means that while people want to get swept away by Middle Earth or Asimov's robots or Ahab's Pequod, they also want to imagine themselves inside those worlds. Or at least imagine that world as a real experience. It's the same reason that shows like 1900 House were so popular yet failed--the capacity for humans to imagine an experience outweighs any reality (show).

When I watched my brothers and their friends play
Dungeons & Dragons, it was the pewter figurines
that enthralled me. The game itself was too much like Risk,
which meant it was boring, not corrupting.
The latter issue is the problem--and the reason that people guffaw at wish-fulfillment. Wanting-to-be-part-of-the-romance immediately conjures up images of women (mostly) and men (too) investing themselves in a world to the point where they cease to pay their bills or feed the dog--or, to put this in social terms, date real people or apply for real jobs.

And sure, that can happen. But people who do that stuff don't need literature, popular or "great", to pull it off. Whether they retreat to an created world for escapism or some other reason, that world is no more likely by itself to engender a negative outcome than Dungeons & Dragons was to produce psychopaths (I grew up around Dungeons & Dragons players--they all turned out fine).

As a kid, I was obsessed with Star Wars and my striped
shirt. Neither did me any damage, although I literally
unraveled the striped shirt--unfortunately.
Besides which, beyond the kind of obsession that involves people locking themselves in a room with a media system that plays Avatar over and over and over (or listening to radio pundits rant about politics over and over and over), a little obsession is by no means an unhealthy, unproductive, or problematic thing.

I think the issue comes down to semantics. The truth is obsessive nitpicking of great literature in order to produce boring socio-politico-economico theories can be just (if not more) limiting than writing fan fiction.

But writing a "treatise" or "exploring the juxtaposition of ideological factors in The Scarlet Letter" sounds better than "I wrote some fan fiction about a character who joins the Fellowship in Lord of the Rings" (see above).

Truth: In the long run, the fan fiction will prove more satisfying and more productive. It is always better to create than destroy.

L is for Laughter

Originally, L was the Lowry. I determined early on that I wouldn't discuss The Giver because (1) I only read it once; (2) I don't care for dystopia fiction (yes, I have read Lord of the Flies; yes, it is good; yes, I have no desire to read it again).

I wished instead to praise Lois Lowry's amazing comedies--which I do below:

Well-written comedies remind me of the time I tried to paint abstract art. I can produce fairly respectable representational art. But the one time I tried abstract art, it looked like mud.

It "looks" easy; it isn't--not for self-conscious adults anyway. I won't argue with those who claim, "My five-year old could do that!" Yeah, your five-year-old probably could for the same reason that non-Hollywood child actors often get the leads in movies like Glory and The Black Stallion. They bring a freshness and naturalness to the roles that adult actors can only reproduce through sheer willpower or luck.

Likewise, not everyone can be a comic, no matter how effortless it appears (and good comedy should appear effortless). Anyone can be a tragedian. Let's face it: it is EASY to be depressed and angsty and down on life. It's EASY to claim profundity by talking about BIG TOPICS. Twain hilariously spoofs this easy profundity in Huckleberry Finn when Finn learns about the young woman who produced death poetry--and people took her seriously:
O no. Then list with tearful eye,
   Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly
   By falling down a well.

They got him out and emptied him;
   Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
   In the realms of the good and great.
Comedy is hard. Good comedy with banter and strong pay-offs is even harder. You think Romeo & Juliet is difficult to teach? (It isn't.) Try Much Ado About Nothing!

Lowry's comedic works are hilarious with strong characterizations, excellent banter, and a deceptively light tone. May they never be forgotten:
Anastasia series (9 books)
Taking Care of Terrific
If you are dead-set on seriousness and don't care for dystopia fiction, check out these books by Lowry:
A Summer for Die
Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye
Following my tribute to Lowry's fiction is the extra "laughter" part:

Since I'm discussing hilarious children's fiction, and I've reached the "L"s, I have to mention Astrid Lindgren. She's best known for writing Pippi Longstocking, but she also wrote a hilarious series about a young boy named Emil: Emil and the Soup Tureen, Emil and Piggy Beast . . .

Basically, Lindgren created Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes) before Watterson did. The individual tales, vignettes, are not only clever and funny but helped by the equally funny drawings.

The Wry Friend

The wry friend plays a similar role to the wry outsider (see Spike and Crowley): he or she comments ironically or bemusedly on the behavior of the main characters. However, unlike the outsider, the wry friend does not represent the edge of society/civilization--rather he or she represents the middle-of-the-road.

Wry friends are not particularly moral or immoral. They are not strange. They don't stand out. Unlike the outsider, who scorns the hero and heroine  for trying to fit in (think Christian Slater's role in Heathers), the wry friend points out when and how far the hero and heroine stray from the middle, which, by the way, the wry friend considers a good place to be.

The wry friend's basic philosophy could be summed up as "Boy, you folks are weird." And since we, the viewers, sometimes feel weird and sometimes think other people are weirder, we know why the wry friend is saying what he is saying.

Three Wry Friends
Pete (Joe Murray) in Dharma & Greg
Pete (above image) is Greg's lazy lawyer friend who finds the whole Dharma-Greg soap opera amusing in the extreme. He tries instant love himself with Dharma's friend Jane, but he isn't cut out for it (most people aren't) and goes back to shaking his head at not only the antics of his friend and friend's wife but the eccentricities of their in-laws.
Mark Addy is seated.
D.C. Boyle (Mark Addy) in Thin Blue Line 
Thin Blue Line is my favorite Rowan Atkinson production. He gets to combine physical performance, as with Mr. Bean, with wry commentary, as with Blackadder. The role-playing sequences in Thin Blue Line are some of the funniest clips I've ever watched.

Mark Addy appears in the second season of Thin Blue Line as D.C. Boyle. Unlike the incredibly funny, malaprop-er D.C. Grim (David Haig), Boyle is not particularly invested in arguing with Inspector Fowler (Rowan Atkinson) or defending himself. His morals are indifferent at best. He will side with Fowler's subordinates as smoothly as he will side with Grim. Since he is more intelligent than Grim (like everyone at the station), he rarely gets pulled completely into Grim's antics. He also doesn't get upset when D.C. Maggie Habib (Mina Anwar) tells him off. He shrugs his shoulders, makes a wry remark, and keeps going.

Judge Watkins (John McMartin) in Coach
Judge Watkins, who appears in the second season episode of Coach "Poodle Springs" (one of the funniest episodes on record), is not anyone's friend. But I love his function in this episode. Unlike the grumpy Hayden Fox, confused Dauber, high strung Judy and her mother, and peacemaker Christine, Judge Watkins goes along with whatever is happening in the moment. He and Hayden do have a moment of perfect agreement since both men are outsiders to the event (the poodle's possible death) yet insiders to the participants. They both take a rather sardonic, jaundiced view of everyone else's reactions.
Unlike Coach Fox, however, Judge Watkins leaves the impression that he is always like this: watching the upheavals of others not with chew-the-scenery overreaction (Coach Fox) or outsider coolness (Crowley) but with droll bemusement. And when he questions why anyone would (1) get so upset about a dog that isn't even dead; (2) enjoy airport gift shops; (3) call his brother in prison during a meal, he echoes the mainstream, non-eccentric part of all of us.

Getting to Know You: Character-Building in Romance

"Getting to Know You" sequences depend on
location, location, location.
One place that romances unfortunately often fail is the "getting to know you" part.

Romances need the characters to get to know each other. If they don't, the reader is left wondering, Why are these people together? The reader also needs to "see" the "getting to know you" parts--not simply be told that the characters spent an afternoon together exchanging recipes and jokes.

The problem for the writer, of course, is how long should the "getting to know you"  parts be? Too long, and the plot gets lost. Too short, and . . . Why are these people together?

Examples of "getting to know you" montages in movies and paperback romances:
The Lake House
Time travel scenarios are difficult because the characters often only know each other through a single medium: letters or phone calls or images. The Lake House is a remarkably credible film (and one of the few where I think Keanu Reeves is as good as he is in purely physical roles--it likely helps that he is acting opposite known-element Sandra Bullock). The characters not only exchange letters and share a physical space, they do in fact meet. And their meeting contains enough dialog and behavior to convince us, Yeah, that couple could make a go of it.

Beauty and The Beast (Animated)
Getting to the know the Beast works too well. Bring back the Beast!

Lisa Kleypas (Steamy)
In Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor, a slim contemporary romance novel, the main characters/couple believably become friends, then mutually interested friends on ferry rides to and from Seattle (see first image). By necessity, Kleypas has to summarize. But she provides enough conversation and enough specifics in her summaries to make their budding relationship believable. When she does have to fall back on "okay, so, they talked; I couldn't transcribe the entire conversation," she tells us what they spoke of, what types of jokes they shared, and what they found enjoyable in each other's responses.

Location, location, location.
Likewise, in Kleypas's Regency romance Devil in Winter, Sebastian and Evie elope to Gretna Green for practical/financial reasons. They barely know each other, yet by the end of the journey (first 2-3 chapters) readers feel, "Hmm, maybe this will work." Not only are we provided with dialog but also with concrete behaviors. We learn, for instance, that Sebastian for all his aloofness is kind and, more importantly, efficient in his kindness (that foot warmer!). We learn too that they are easy with each other physically. And we learn that they are capable to taking a long journey without ripping each other to shreds (I had a roommate who said she would only marry a guy after she had driven cross-country with him--and not killed him. And she did: drive cross-country with the guy she ended up marrying. No deaths!).
"Getting to know you parts" are like sports montages: a series of scenes pulled together (sometimes with music) to prove that yes, the athlete did train; yes, the ending where the underdog beats the champion will now be believable.

Don't tell me that the relationship worked out--prove to me that it could!

Sully, Fly By Wire, and Another Look at the Power of Non-Action

Sully is a good movie. It has a reliable arc, Tom Hanks--excellent as always--Aaron Eckhart in strong support and a decent if slightly inaccurate "true" human interest story.

The movie tackles the landing of US Airways A320 on the Hudson River in January 2009 and its aftermath. The landing sequence is highly accurate. The behavior of Sully and Skiles, the co-pilot, is also highly accurate. The reaction of the NTSB, on the other hand, was likely not as negative/critical of Sullenberger as the movie portrays; William Langewiesche's description of the NTSB hearing in his book Fly by Wire: The Geese, The Glide, The Miracle on the Hudson reminds me of P.J. O'Rourke's comment about the tedious monotony of town democracies: "[It's] like being a cell in a plant."

Arguably by necessity (people go to see movies about people, not mechanical objects), the movie also  entirely ignores the primary focus of Fly By Wire: namely, fly by wire. On January 15, 2009, Sullenberger was flying a plane that did everything it was designed to do to compensate for the loss of the engines, prevent pilot error, and ground itself safely. Pilot and plane together made an astonishingly successful landing. 

Langewiesche does a fine job presenting a balanced account. He extols Sullenberger's achievement and defends every one of his choices (Langewiesche points out that the NTSB later requested simulated tests based on the event; in those that used real-world timing, the test pilots all crashed; Langewiesche is basically saying what Sully says in the climax of the movie).

At the same time, Langewiesche never forgets that pilot error is responsible for a great many (as in most) airplane accidents, a reality that pilots, pilot unions, and even passengers are often reluctant to confront. 

Consequently, one of Langewiesche's most profound compliments for the humans in the story comes during the three-minute glide. It is one of my favorites because it dovetails with my own personal philosophy, one I discuss in my review of Moneyball.

Sullenberger and Skiles are heading towards the Hudson. They have remained calm and collected. In his book, Langewiesche comments on Sullenberger's extraordinary ability to focus in a crisis, and he is doing all of that now. Skiles has followed protocol, running down the (relatively useless) checklist. The flight crew have prepared the passengers for landing. Everyone has done his, her, or its job, including the plane or Airbus.

Here Langewiesche reports the conversation between Sullenberger and Skiles right before the end of the glide:
This is when Sullenberger had the presence of mind to ask Skiles if he had ideas, and Skiles had the cool to say, "Actually not." The fluency they exhibited at such a critical moment, in continuing to discuss matters calmly, helps to explain why their passengers survived [my emphasis].
In another passage, Langewiesche relays the (proper) suggestions from air traffic control and Sullenberger's responses. Sullenberger concentrated on doing his job:
You fly the airplane first, you navigate second, you talk on the radio after that. Sullenberger was clear about priorities. His silences were brilliant [my emphasis].
In a previous chapter, Langewiesche details the crash of American 965 into a mountain in Columbia. The crash was not caused by any mechanical failure but by the pilots' snowballing errors. Many of those errors began and ended with the captain who refused to admit that he had made inaccurate calculations. Langewiesche doesn't spare his criticisms of pilot arrogance. He makes clear as well that a large part of the problem was the growing confusion and miscommunication between the captain and copilot as their mutual guessing led to more and more bad decisions.

Nobody said, "I don't know."

Nobody said, "Nope, I can't think of anything."

Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum, quotes Langewiesche, quoting Ziegler, the Airbus engineer, quoting the Latin proverb.

To err is human; to persist is diabolical.