Using Violence for Good and Evil

So I was cruising twitter at work, as I do, and I came across this excellent article by Drew McWeeny.

What happens when we find ‘The Line’ as viewers?

In it, he talks about how, as a movie reviewer, he has seen hundreds of depictions of rape, and how he finally just snapped. He’s questioning why this happens so often, and coming to the conclusion that is essentially laziness on the part of the writers/directors, in most cases. (It’s quite a good article, you should read it.)

Anyways, I sent it to my movie-buff friend, and he came back with this.

He makes a much-needed point. I haven’t seen a lot of movies that included on-screen rape – only one comes to mind, and I’m hoping it’s only that one, because otherwise something is seriously wrong with me that I’ve just gone and forgotten the others – but the same principle applies (in a lesser sense) to other depictions of extreme violence and sexuality on-screen.

And I responded;

And it goes beyond mere gratuitous violence/sex, which is the usual accusation against pointless content. It’s just sloppy. So much writing nowadays is short-hand for emotional impact. (And I’m guilty of this too.) We need the audience to feel grief– so the child dies. We need the audience to feel horrified– so we rape someone. It angers me on two counts, because a.) it’s sloppy writing (something I feel strongly about), and b.) it cheapens the actual grief, pain and violence. Which is something I feel even more strongly about.

I thought of you when I read this, because I seem to remember you saying something like that in the past. 😀

Then Zack again…

Well, I sure hope I said something like that. ‘Cause, yeah, it’s true. I think it also indirectly leads to lack of character development, because seriously, what kind of writer would be able to write a convincing, sympathetic, well-developed character and then just casually have another character rape him/her, or the like? I mean, maybe a psychopath writer, but I sure can’t imagine doing that, and I think what generally happens is that that kind of thing is used as a substitute for character development, which ties in to what you’re saying about sloppy writing. Ironically, because the audience or readers won’t be all that attached to the character being brutalized in some way, they won’t feel the affect of the act as keenly, which, yeah, cheapens the evil on display and feeds the growing prevalence of apathy towards this kind of stuff.

And at this point I asked if I could put the conversation on my blog.
And I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days, because of my reaction to certain things in books. Books about Cancer, specifically. And everyone in my internet is suddenly reading A Monster Calls and A Fault in Our Stars, both of which I’m sure are fabulous books, but ones that I am terrified of. This would be because I lost my little brother to cancer at the age of 4, and it was not a good time for me. (I’m not gonna bother to go into how bad of a time it was, because if you can’t infer it from “little brother died of cancer when he was four” then we clearly have a failure to communicate that goes beyond word choice.)
That’s not to say that stories about tragedy cannot be worthwhile. The best stories invariably DO contain a seed (or sometimes a forest) of pain. In all of my favourite books, horrible things happen, have happened, will happen, and are being dealt with. But pure content does not make a story good or bad. But pain as content is something like juggling fire. If it’s done well, it’s awesome. If it’s done badly, it is a really bad thing for everyone. I firmly believe that there is no middle ground.
And unfortunately, stories about cancer usually go down in flames; Nicolas Sparks being a prime example. Children dying is used in procedural TV shows to add a dash of pathos. The slow death of a child is used as a checkbox to elicit a brief emotional response, and then the story moves on to the important stuff– the sexual tension between leads. It worries and disgusts me.
So if I feel like that about cancer, something that touches huge swatches of the population and yet is mishandled in fiction and the media constantly, how do rape survivors feel about how often it’s used (as outlined in the article I linked to), to add some brief horror and sexiness to a film? How do domestic violent survivors feel about all the jokes about “he didn’t give me the right gift, so I’m gonna beat him up/if she doesn’t give you a sandwich give her a black eye.”
And I am not immune to this failing. It is so much easier to give a character a traumatic backstory and then never deal with it. Because yeah, I don’t want to deal with it. Pain is not fun to delve into, I’d rather add some trauma to make people edgy and badass and then have them be So Awesome™ for the rest of the story. So writing this post, and thinking about it, has made me realize that is a terrible approach to story-telling. If I want to share my stories (and I do), I have a responsibility to make sure they don’t go around throwing people’s pain in their face and telling them that it is worthless. And I do not want to do that.
P.S. Still gonna read The Fault In Our Stars someday. Just maybe when I’m feeling less fragile.

Reading Cross-Gender.

I think I’ve been pretty clear about my tendency to read adventure stories. I read a lot, and I read a lot things which focus on adventure. However, the vast majority of books which will be marketed as “adventure tales” have another word in the genre description. They’re “Boys’ Adventure Tales.” There are exceptions, of course, but at least in most of the books I read, the main character in a perilous drama of strength and wit would be a guy.

And at first I didn’t even notice. There were adventures, I was reading them, I was seven, and so I just read myself into them. I was constantly the main character, daring and smart and able to escape and virtuous and awesome. I was AWESOME.

And then, somewhere in there, I started to notice gender. I started to notice that I couldn’t be the main character in the books I was reading. There was this divide, and I was on the wrong side of it.

I can’t trace it back to any one book, I think it was just a combination of figuring out who I was (and wasn’t), and the sheer amount of adventures, historical fiction, and books written a century ago that I was cramming into my head. Sometimes the characters said explicitly that girls couldn’t participate in the expedition, and sometimes it was the more insidious assumption that girls would never want to come along. And again, the selection of books that I was reading comes down to a lot of factors, (what was available in the local library being a big one), but I took to heart the universal message that guys had adventures and girls were the impetuous for adventures; they were either in need of rescue or there to be impressed by the exploits of the male sex.

And oh, I took that to heart hard. At first I tried to deal with it by fully taking on the virtues of a frontier woman. They were super competent and vital people, and sometimes had adventures of their own. Frontier women were the most badass of the role models available, in fact, because I wasn’t rich enough to be a Nancy Drew and I couldn’t quite wish myself into being a princess. There still exists a terrible picture I have not managed to destroy which shows that my dedication to a frontier aesthetic also extended to fashion. It’s really terrible. Anyways, that attempt worked just about until my temper came in.

Don’t worry, this is not another history of my reading habits. (We’ve had enough of that lately.) My point is that I was still looking into books for characters who were like me, and I kept slamming up against the gender barrier. So, did the writers intend that? In the case of books written 50 or more years ago, I think it’s quite possible. This is, after all, the era of Children’s Literature With Morals, and strict gender roles were certainly a moral good. In books written more recently, I think I fell more afoul of the assumption that “adventure novel” means “novel meant for boys”.

Eowyn is just here to be rescued...

And when I first started thinking about this I spent a great deal of time being righteously indignant that I couldn’t find myself in these books, just because of my sex. How ridiculous!

Er, yes. How ridiculous, self. You should look to that. Because the brainwave that hit today is a two-parter.

The first deals with the older stuff, where gender divides were specifically put in. The authors have expressed their view, do I agree with it? A swift look at reality proves that having your reproductive organs on the inside does not guarantee you a rescuer in all situations, so unless you want to be a tragic casualty, it’s a good idea to be prepared to rescue yourself. Damsel in distress– not a viable lifestyle. Consulting reality also shows that my lack of eye-hand coordination and cardiovascular capacity makes me a poor choice to bring on an adventure, at least as the muscle. Does that have anything to do with my chromosomes? Well, as far as my chromosomes indicate I have weak eyes and like reading, yes, but that’s about it. On the other hand, if an adventure needs a storehouse of trivia and bizarre information I am so there. I think the author and I can agree to disagree on the subject of their quaint gender views, and I can enjoy the adventure for its merits or lack thereof. GENDER ISSUE SORT’D.

And the second part of the brainwave comes regarding books written more recently. They tend to be free of side characters pointedly staying home to cook, so why would I have issues with them? Because I know I cannot be the main character? Yes, and that matters why, exactly?

I think I’ve been reading at a basically basic level. I’ve been looking for myself in stories and rolling around in the awesomeness of me for a while. Which is useful– after all it’s nice to know that you’re not alone in the world, there are people like you– but it’s hardly the only way to read. Only reading in this manner is like only eating chocolate. You’re missing a lot of the essential nutrients needed for living. In this case, empathy.

Because really, gender is only the most obvious and silly place to draw a line. If I say I can’t enjoy books with Male MCs, can I also not enjoy books with Female MCs who are sporty, or social, or interested in romance, or who live in different worlds, or who follow a different faith, or who have a different skin colour, or hair colour, or who don’t have to worry about being blind without their classes, or who aren’t interested in history, or who don’t like tea? I mean, it would be hard to get over the tea barrier, but if I can empathize past that I should be able to empathize past anything.

So delicious...

Ahem. What I mean to say is that I would be severely restricting myself, to solely allow myself to enjoy books “about me.” The reading of the books which aren’t about me is the joy of it! I can see someone else’s experience, and what it’s like to be human in another life. Unless I get new eyes I am never going to be able to play sports: I have neither the depth perception, the eye-hand-co-ordination or the interest in that activity. But I can read about someone who loves sports, and as a bonus I don’t have to experience the pain.

I mean, this realization opens up SCADS of new horizons. And for goodness sake, self, I read science fiction and fantasy like they are the chief balm for my soul. Imagining the reality of another type of life should not present a huge problem for me.

2012 Debut Novel Challenge

I’ve been participating in the Story Siren’s Debut Challenge since 2010. The first year I totally won! Then in 2011 I read six of the required twelve books, and reviewed none of them. (Go me.) I still enjoyed trying for the challenge, however, because it provided a reason for me to stay up to date on what was going on in the industry (at least a little), and then I got to show off my knowledge.

So I’m doing it again this year! On my goodreads list of 2012 debuts, I have 50 books. Because of that, I am not going to describe all of them, I’ll just mention twelve thirteen. And with how long my “blurbs” ran last time, I’m giving myself a four-sentence-per-two-books limit. (So I can borrow sentences from other books if it’s absolutely necessary.) Now for some books!

Queen of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas

Fairytale retelling with Cinderella as an assassin. Y’know.
Poison, by Bridget Zimm
Teen assassin raised by nuns hunts down former best friend (and current crown princess) with aid of enchanted piglet. Seriously.
The Unnaturalists, by Tiffany Trent
Steampunk London where Vespa wants to catalog Unnatural creatures in her father’s museum and Unnatural-Revering Syrus does NOT want to be a slave in a refinery.

Top 11 Reads for 2011

Wow, isn’t that a nice tight title? I should win an award for creative titling, for that.


I saw the trend going around the blogsphere to post a list of the best books read in the previous year, and thought I should dutifully follow that trend. Then I looked back over the list of what I’ve read in the past 12 months, and my word, there are some HAWT books in that list. I’ve seriously read at least six stories which have markedly changed the way I approach reading and/or writing.

Enough prevarication! On to the list!  Continue reading

Gender and Employment…

“One effect of our segregation of male and female spheres has been the over-investment of women in homes and children and the over-investment of men in the workplace. One response to this, implied in the previous pages, is to move women into the waged workplace in a manner that allows them the same opportunities as men. But must the public, wage-earning sphere always remain geographically separate from the private, domestic sphere? That, it seems to me, is a Faustian bargain we have made with the Industrial Revolution whose full price we are just beginning to realize. We have traded a progressively higher standard of material living for fragmented and emotionally problematic relations between the sexes and generations. And as we have built an industrial economy around the model of the commuter-father, we have also multiplied our environmental problems: too many cars, too much duplication of heated or cooled space and too much concentration of energy use during the nine-to-five work-day.”

— Mary Steward Van Leeuwen, Gender and Grace

So this is one of the most fascinating non-fiction books I’ve ever read. AND I’m reading it without it being assigned in a class! This is awesome! *puts holds on all the books about gender and sociology and culture*

I also realized last night that if I get all my loans and go straight through with my education now, it will probably take me until age forty five to get them paid off. So perhaps my sudden ability to read non-fiction comes at a good time!

Why I’m a genre snob

I have a long and sometimes not-so-amiable history with reading. Or rather, with reading certain things.

You see, when you present at age eight reading books of 300 pages within a day, people are impressed– for about 12 seconds. (Sometimes this period of “impressed” takes longer, as people refuse to believe that you are actually reading the book you’re holding in your hand.) However, shortly after the people get over the shock at your feat, they immediately try to better you by suggesting you stop reading whatever trash you’re putting into your brain currently. You should read CLASSICS! You should read LITERARY works!

You may be able to gather from my tone that this attempt to better me didn’t work out with 100% success.

I mean, when I was little I was an avid devourer of adventure stories. I still really enjoy reading them. I wanted peril, physical drama, and last minute saves! I wanted witty jokes and sarcasm! I wanted happy endings. (Seriously, I had almost no tolerance for any kind of darkness until about four years ago.) And I wasn’t always very forgiving when I didn’t get this.

On one notable occasion I read Oliver Twist somehow under the impression that I was reading an adventure tale. Everything was going along well until the end, when suddenly people were dying left right and centre. After reading in vivid detail about a guy who beat his girlfriend to death and then hanged himself accidentally I wasn’t really open to seeing the end as a “happy ending”. (Trauma R Us, instead, I was kinda under the impression the ending could be filed there…)

I think, on reflection, while my language comprehension was very high, and my technical reading level was quite precocious, I wasn’t always good at picking up subtext. I focused on details, to the exclusion of the big plot picture. After all, I was reading for fun– I mean who wants to have to WORK to pick out who the bad guys are when you’re reading for fun? Moral ambiguity is hard stuff!

And then I grew up, and spent four years writing approximately six hundred thousand words of fiction and thinking a great deal about story structure, while simultaneously spending a year and a half reviewing every single book I read. Better with subtext now, thank you.

So now I’ve eschewed all my adventure books and happy endings, and I’ve moved on to reading wonderful classics and delicate, nuanced literary fiction, with refreshing jaunts into magical realism for the relaxation?

Not– quite. (Yes, my friends who know my reading tastes are laughing a lot right now, I’m sure, at the idea that I willingly read litfic.) Now I read primarily Science Fiction and Fantasy in the Young Adult/Middle Grade section. But why would I restrict myself so, you ask? Why don’t I read books for adults? What is the point of this blog post anyways?

The point of this blog post is that I think I am finally able to put my finger on why I keep reading a certain type of book. I can finally identify what it is about a story that makes me go “YES, this is AWESOME. THIS is why I read.”

It comes down to a matter of tone, of (dare I say it?) subtext. I realized this in English class, where we were discussing magical realism. I asked what made that genre different from urban fantasy. (Protip: Do not mention urban fantasy in an english lit class as though you’re familiar with it, unless you’re aiming to be hilarious.) There wasn’t an easy definition of urban fantasy handy, but magical realism is typified by nostalgia.

It harkens back to a “more simple,” pre-moden time, when the lines between magic and science were fuzzier, and things could be simply accepted at face value. There is an underlying discontent with the world as it is, and, depending on the author, the statement is either that things used to be better, or things used to be simpler, but were never better.

And then because there wasn’t a definition of urban fantasy handy, I made one. Urban fantasy (at least the stuff I like to read,) looks at the world and says “things are awesome. But you know what would be more awesome? If we added DRAGONS.”

Firefighters with WINGS.

The basic tone is hopeful, saying that things are cool, and okay, there’s a monster outside my door that wants to eat me, but I can totally beat him with the help of my friends and my endless stubbornness and some ingenuity. There is an underlying fight against despair. (Sometimes the monsters are literally despair-inducing and need to be fought.) The message is that there are monsters, but they should be and can be fought, and can and should be defeated.

"I may have been bitten by a genetically modified spider which actually messed with my DNA and made me semi-human, but I'm gonna use that to help people! Also, I don't need glasses any more-- this is the best day!"

This also applies to straight up fantasy, with terrible costs and eventual bittersweet endings and ALSO DRAGONS. And it also applies to Science Fiction, which gets adventures, peril, and also ROCKETS. And ROCKET TRAINS.

No big deal, we're just living in a science fictional universe.

Of course, not everything in these genres fits those tone categories. *looks sidelong at all the “edgy” dark stuff with “edgy” nihilistic endings*  *goes back to frequenting the YA and MG sections* *pointedly eschews the Dystopian section* But overall, I feel like my odds of coming up with a story I actually like are higher if I stay with stories which embrace the world and imagination hopefully, not despairingly.