Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Freedom to Offend

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”  ~ Salman Rushdie

Sir Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie’s free speech is easy to defend. He writes award-winning literature with clear artistic merit. The author bravely suffered for his art, having spent a decade in hiding after an Iranian fatwa was issued against him for his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses. The novel was considered an insult to Islam, and in addition to the fatwa, protests erupted all across the Muslim world. For years Rushdie lived under a pseudonym, the Joseph Anton of his new book’s title.

The hero and villain are clear in this story: Rushdie, on the side of democratic values and free expression, is the good guy. The Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, who called for Rushdie’s head? Bad guy. We can all rally behind Rushdie. We champion his right to offend without breaking a sweat … mostly because he doesn’t offend us.

But what about the case of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula?

Several weeks ago, a trailer for a low-budget film went viral on YouTube. The film was reportedly made in the US by Nakoula, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian, and was intended to do what it accomplished: really upset Muslims. Riots and protests have broken out all over the world in response to the clip, often from people who haven’t seen it. As with Rushdie’s novel, the protesters just know that their religion was insulted: they don’t ask for details.

Most of us in the US are appalled by Nakoula and his film. We want nothing to do with him. Thanks, but we’ll stick to defending Rushdie. The problem? This easy-out allows those who are most easily offended, who are least reasonable, to decide what everyone else gets to say. That’s not the point of living in a democracy. We went through that whole Enlightenment thing not just to defend the likes of Rushdie (easy) but to defend the likes of Nakoula (ick). We can, and should, denounce the content of Nakoula’s film: it was, according to virtually all who have seen it, obnoxious and incendiary. But we should also, and more loudly, denounce the protesters who hold an ideological gun to our heads, and tell us we better speak the proper speak or the world will go up in flames. We cannot allow their outrage to control our tongues.

A loud minority
I should take a moment to emphasize here that most of those engaging in violent protests are the Muslim equivalent of Neo-Nazis or the Westboro Baptist Church: they are fringe, they are not representative of Islam. But they are loud and they make magazine covers. However, moderate Muslims are also upset, if not violently so. They are confused about how such a film was allowed to exist. They have blasphemy laws: where are ours?

The United States indeed has no blasphemy laws per se, and fewer hate-speech laws than, say, Europe, where Holocaust denial is illegal. In contrast, many Islamic countries have no free presses at all, only government-controlled media. Blasphemy is criminalized and strictly enforced. It is difficult for people in such places to understand that anyone can say pretty much anything in a democracy: the government doesn’t vet or sponsor the speech of its citizens.

While many in the western world accept the notion of free speech, we can be a little muddier on how it plays out. I am free to tell my Scientologist friend* that her beliefs are ridiculous, that Xenu the Intergalactic Overlord is a sham, a joke, a way to part fools from their money. And by “I am free” I mean my friend cannot have me arrested for hate speech or blasphemy. The government can’t censor me. I am not, however, free from my friend’s reaction to my opinion. My friend can argue with me, delete my posts, unfriend me. When I decide to question her beliefs, I have to deal with these potential consequences. As obvious as this may seem, it’s a concept too many free-speech advocates struggle with: Our freedom to offend doesn’t protect us from anger. This is quite a serious limit on speech, actually: we have to live alongside other people. Just because we can’t be jailed by an action doesn’t mean it’s consequence-free.

As a writer, I frequently self-censor for this reason. I worry that my autobiographical fiction might upset a family member or friend, and I take pains to disguise an anecdote to avoid offense. I worry that a liberal use of foul language or sexuality, appropriate and honest as it may be for the scene or character, will cause an agent, editor, or audience to turn away from me. Writers may also self-censor if their viewpoints on religion, sex, class, and war stand apart from their peers, and this is more insidious. We may feel we must bend to the mainstream in order to have a voice. But if we do that, what are we really saying? In fact, we have nothing to say at all. We’re just parroting the zeitgeist: we end up in an echo chamber. The most influential and important voices are those that can break out of those restrictions and say something new, uncomfortable … and possibly offensive.

This is not to say that offensive speech equals useful speech. Rushdie and Nakoula may both have offended Muslims, but only one had anything constructive to say. Offensive speech can be quotidian or game-changing: the offense in itself isn’t the point. The content is the point. To be a game-changer, you’d better have more than just the ability to piss people off. You had better be able to make them think.

Gay Talese, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal 
As worried as Rushdie is about the fatwa, and this new tide of offense sweeping the radicalized world, he seems almost more worried about the silencing effect this manufactured outrage has had on potential provocateurs. Is fear of offense causing people to be silent, where they used to speak up? “If you look at America, for instance, there is a generation older than mine in which writers like Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal would have a significant public voice on issues of the day,” he said in an interview with Reuters news agency a few days ago. “Now, there's virtually no writers. Instead you have movie stars.”

I think that point is debatable, as we do have the Sam Harrises and Richard Dawkinses of the world—but they are not novelists. I recently reread Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which imagines future America as a tyrannical theocracy, and Steinbeck’s grim call for reform, The Grapes of Wrath, and I wonder where we can find such impassioned, daring novels today. The subject doesn’t have to be religion: it can be politics or economics. Steinbeck and Ayn Rand each vehemently criticized economic systems, though in completely different ways. A quick glance through the past decade’s literary standouts fails to reveal anything similar. Novelists can have an enormous impact on culture: Conservative politicians today cite Rand as if she were an actual economist, and Orwell’s novels serve as an admonition across the political spectrum. Today, when we want to warn against the dangers of government surveillance, we still have to say “Big Brother is watching you!” We’ve come up with nothing better on that front since 1949.

Not banned from MY bookshelf
But perhaps Rushdie and I are looking in the wrong place. Perhaps there are some boundary-pushing novels hiding somewhere other than the Pulitzer and Man-Booker shortlists. If you want to know which novels are getting people thinking, which are a bit subversive, you go to the banned-book list. Lately, there aren’t too many lofty literary books on there. But you know what we do find? Kid lit. That’s right, the American Library Association’s “most-challenged books” list is dominated by books written for children and teens. Kids’ books are prone to being banned for a number of reasons, of course: first, they are read by kids. You know, those innocent little people with fresh untainted minds. We don’t want ideas getting in those minds. Second, you can actually ban kids’ books, by having them removed from school libraries. It’s much harder to ban books written for grown-ups in this way.

At its peak, Phillip Pullman’s series His Dark Materials was ranked second in the top-ten books people have tried to ban in the US. The series has a question-dogma message buried within its exciting adventure plot—buried, but not deeply enough. The easily-offended caught wind of blasphemy and pounced right on the series, denouncing it and demanding it be removed from libraries.

In response, Pullman told the Guardian newspaper, “Of course it's a worry when anybody takes it upon themselves to dictate what people should or should not read. The power of organized religion is very strong in the US, and getting stronger because of the internet.” Possibly the most famous challenged author of recent years is, of course, JK Rowling, for her Harry Potter series. Before he was made Pope, Joseph Ratzinger himself condemned the books, writing that their “subtle seductions, which act unnoticed ... deeply distort Christianity in the soul before it can grow properly.” One cannot imagine Ratzinger read the series any more than the Ayatollah read Rushdie. At least nobody asked for Rowling’s head.

Burning blasphemous books at a church in Shreveport, LA
Number three on the current most-challenged list is yet another series, the wildly popular Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. As Collins’ main political message is “tyranny is bad,” this seems especially bizarre. The ALA lists reasons pro-censorship people have given for banning this series, and they include “anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence.” Violence, okay. The rest—what the heck? How did anyone find “occult” or “satanic” messages in the Hunger Games? It goes to show that the easily-offended, which seems primarily to consist of the most-religious, will find any reason to ban almost any book. While there is an enormous difference in the methods used, it is clear that the book-protestors in the Middle East and the book-protestors in the west have one thing in common: they don’t want unsettling ideas to get out there.

At last week’s UN General Assembly, many Muslim leaders called on the international community to tighten restrictions on free speech and to ban blasphemy. Egypt’s new president said that his country “respects freedom of expression” unless it is “used to incite hatred against anyone [or is] directed toward one specific religion or cult." In other words, free speech is great as long as it’s totally inoffensive. The president of Yemen opened his speech to the UN by demanding similar limits to free speech: “These behaviors find people who defend them under the justification of the freedom of expression,” he said. “These people overlook the fact that there should be limits for the freedom of expression, especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.” The Arab League’s secretary-general went further still, proposing a binding “international legal framework” to “criminalize psychological and spiritual harm” caused by statements that “insult the beliefs, culture and civilization of others."

Criminalizing “spiritual harm?” One can only imagine what George Orwell, Ayn Rand, and Margaret Atwood would have had to say to that. It is up to us, as writers, not to allow the outraged to silence us. If we aren’t actively writing “blasphemous” books, we ought to be doing everything we can to stand up for those who do.

*My “Scientologist friend” is purely rhetorical: i.e., nonexistent.

OK! I'm done! I'm done!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Playing the Role of Writer: Fact vs. Fiction

A couple of weeks ago I went to an early showing of a film currently out in theaters — The Words. It was kind of an early birthday present from my hubby and he'd really been wanting to take me to see it because of the storyline and the fact that it was about a struggling writer who makes some rather unethical choices.

I, on the other hand, was a bit skeptical.

Now, I'm not going to get into the whole plot, which, in my honest assessment, was full of holes, didn't have an enjoyable resolution, and had a couple of pointless characters thrown in the mix. (Yes, Olivia Wilde, I'm talkin' to you!) No, my plan is to take a look at how the main character, Rory Jansen, was depicted as an up and coming writer.

We've all seen the many toiling writers on the screen, from the glamorous Carrie Bradshaw in Sex in the City, to the grown-up Gordie writing short stories in Stand By Me, to the hellacious twist of Shakespeare's true identity in Anonymous. Or maybe you're one of those who loves the witty repartee found on Castle. But just how true to real life writing do any of these characters come close to emulating?

And that my friends is where The Words really shines!

In all the movies or television shows I've watched, this is the one film that captures a writer's struggles and how hard it is to really break into the industry. Hey, if they have to get the medical lingo right on shows like Grey's Anatomy and ER, then why is there an exception when it comes to the writing world?

Does Rory even come close to doing
the right thing?
Who cares?
At least he acts like a writer!
Multiple Rejections

When I heard Rory say that he had his manuscript out to an agent a friend recommended, I groaned. No, no, no, I thought. No knowledgeable writer would send out a full manuscript to one agent and one agent only! At this point in the film, it was obvious that Rory wasn't even actively querying agents. But then later we see Rory's rejection. And then another rejection. And they keep coming until Rory ends up in that hopeless frustrated spot all aspiring writers hit at some point in the querying process. Yes, yes, yes, I thought. Hollywood finally got it right! 

Keeping a Schedule

When I saw Rory on the screen spending every evening pounding out his manuscript on the computer without a whimsical thought passing through his mind and onto the viewers, I couldn't have been more delighted. One reason shows like Sex in the City and Men in Trees annoy me is the fact that the viewer has to have a running commentary on everything the female characters write. What I wanted to see when it came to Rory's rabid pursuit of a writing career was the fact that he took time at a specific part of each day to work diligently on his novel. No out of the blue strokes of genius here! Nope, he had a schedule every day -- snow, rain, wind, even on lovely summer evenings -- to dedicate his time to getting that rough draft finished.

Agents Don't Fawn

Going back to Men in Trees as an example, Anne Heche's character Marin Frist had agents from all over New York City fawning over her, sending her wine, chocolates, fruit baskets, weekend getaways, just so she would sign with one of them. I find this to be incredibly unrealistic. This day and age of the publishing industry I'd like to know of one agent who has sent anything to any writer just so he/she would sign with them. It just doesn't happen. In Rory's case, it never happened. When he finally submitted a manuscript to the already harried publisher he delivered mail to on a daily basis, the agent was less than happy to see yet another novel cross his desk, and from a nobody writer, no less. 
An agent might like your work,
but don't expect her to faint
from joy!
Agents Do Get Excited About Your Work

That same publisher finally told Rory he read his book and wanted to know if anyone else had read it. Rory said no and the publisher was ecstatic. He loved Rory's novel! Yes, an agent can love your work too!

Writing Can Be a Lonely Profession

If not for Rory's wife, I don't think he would've ever got out much. He was practically glued to his computer. He wasn't letting anyone read his work, and perhaps that's why he suffered so much rejection (actually, I think that's exactly why he got so many of those dreaded form letters). It's hard to let outsiders in, even if it is your spouse, because most times they don't get what you're trying to do. That or they just don't care about reading any novel, not just yours. That's why it's important to have a community of writers that one can tap into. I think Rory's life may have turned out differently if he'd been more open in what he was trying to achieve. Maybe he wouldn't have ended up in such a bind in the end.

Being a Writer Isn't a Glamorous Profession

I say this one from experience. All my writer friends have kids, perhaps a job, late nights doing homework and early mornings shoving kids out the door and running off to work. That time we do get to write is precious. I've met grandmotherly romance writers who prefer writing erotica. I've met sci-fi writers who look like they haven't bathed or slept in more than a week. I've met magazine authors who look like they wouldn't know one thing about the topics they discuss until they open their mouths and wow me. I've met Western writers who love a comfortable pair of boots and some fringe. We don't all teeter around in Manolo Blahniks or shadow police officers for our next story. Every writer is different. There is no mold we all fit into. And Rory's character was no exception. He looked like an Average Joe (okay, with Bradley Cooper playing the role, he was a very nice-looking Average Joe!) who was bumming money from a father who just wanted to see him get a real job. Yeah, we've all been there!

Be Persistent

Even with all the rejection, Rory continued on in his quest. At one point in the film, Rory tossed his manuscript into the trash. That's understandable. Sometimes we feel like we've hit a wall and that no self-respecting agent will ever take our work. But we have to be persistent. I wouldn't suggest following Rory's example in this department (Please, make sure it's your own work you're submitting!), but if you know you create good work and you have faith that there is a market, then keep at it.

I'm curious to know if any of you have seen The Words. Would you agree that it has one of the more realistic takes on being a writer? Are there any other films or television shows that you can think of that properly portray authors? Or ones that really get under your skin?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Don’t You Forget About Me: John Hughes and the 1980s

When we think of the 80s we remember tall bangs, blue braces, bad perms and shoulder pads. Aside from those fashion beauties, shameful memories and (burned?) photographs of our younger selves, we cannot deny that this decade produced memorable films, music icons and revolutionary television. The influence of the 80s over pop culture is undeniable.

It’s impossible to think of those years and not mention writer and director John Hughes. Although he continued writing and directing films in later decades, his name will forever be linked to the 80s. What’s odd is that toward the end of his life, he remained in relative obscurity in his native Chicago and avoided interviews and public appearances. He even started writing under a pseudonym (Edmond Dantès, in honor of the protagonist of The Count of Montecristo). Did you know that he wrote such popular films as 101 Dalmatians (1996) and Maid in Manhattan (2002)? Before doing research for this article, I had no idea. (And I’m supposed to be a fan!) Why did he make the choice of using a pen name? And why did he live in Chicago, away from the spotlight, and not in Hollywood? Perhaps we’ll never know the answers to these questions, although some people claim his decision had to do with his deep sadness after the passing of comedian John Candy.Whatever the reason (s) may have been for Hughes’s decisions, we cannot deny the legacy of his films in popular culture.

Molly Ringwald, John Hughes and the actor forever known as Jake Ryan.

However, I'm not sure Hughes ever got the recognition he deserved. Not if we compare him to writers and directors of “serious” fiction. In our culture we seem to think that drama or films with big budgets are more impressive and deserve more awards. But comedy serves an important role, too. (And it’s so hard to write well!) If all entertainment offered was tragedy, where could we go to escape our own problems? Yes, tears can be therapeutic (not according to my husband!) but so is laughter.

So what was it about the 80s that made such an impact on us? I know we were young and impressionable, but so are other generations of teenagers who grew up in other decades, yet we all keep going back to this era.

In an attempt to understand the 80s cultural phenomena and Hughes's (and other directors') contributions, I’ve come up with a few theories of my own (feel free to add yours or reject mine).

1. Teenage comedies thrived during the 80s.

Books and films for teenagers in the 70s were mostly dark. We had horror (Carrie, Halloween) and cautionary tales that talked about drug addiction, unsafe sex, rapes and/or teenage pregancies, as though filmmakers were trying to show kids the consequences of these kinds of behaviors. (Some examples are: Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, Go Ask Alice, Born Innocent and Ode to Billy Joe.) Not surprisingly, the 70s were postwar years filled with experimentation so in a way, it’s understandable that the adults of the time would make “didactic” films. As Sister Malena recently pointed out to me, other teenage films and TV shows from the 70s were set in other eras: Remember When and The Summer of my German Soldier in the 40s, Grease and American Graffiti in the 50s, and I Wanna Hold Your Hand in the 60s.

The 60s had a more positive take on teenage years, I think, but it seems like most of them focused on teen idols such as Elvis, Sandra Dee, Patty Duke or Frankie Avalon. (Picture guitars and bikinis!)

Eighties films, on the other hand, presented us with common problems of adolescence outside the beach: high school crushes (Some Kind of Wonderful, Secret Admirer, Sixteen Candles, well, probably all of them!), social divisions (Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles), principal/student conflicts (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), exchange students (who can forget Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles or Monique in Better Off Dead?) car problems (License to Drive, Ferris Bueller), etc. I know, once in a while we were exposed to drug use (St. Elmos Fire, Less than Zero) but overall the vibe of the decade was more positive than in the one prior.

Hughes understood sexual tension. He nails it in Some Kind of Wonderful (1987).

Never have teenage films been more popular than in the 80s. Notice how different they are now? How did we go from normal teenage angst to teenagers falling in love and/or fighting vampires/werewolves/angels/whatever OR behaving like adults (having sex with everything that moves?!)

2. John Hughes, in particular, wrote movies about everyday people.

If you look at Molly Ringwald’s characters, they’re all average girls (except for maybe Claire in The Breakfast Club). Sam and Andie are pretty ordinary, not nerds nor prom queens. The same goes for John Candy’s characters in both Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Uncle Buck, Eric Stoltz in Some Kind of Wonderful, and Kevin Bacon in She’s Having a Baby (I read somewhere that this film was semi-autobiographical). We feel like he know this people (or we could be them). Girls all over the world could identify with Molly’s characters because they were not stereotypes, they were real. And that made them appealing. Sure, he uses some stereotypes here and there, but I’ll talk about that next.

Okay, so he may not have been that normal. But who is?

3. Dichotomies and contrast.

John Hughes loved contrast, and when he used archetypes, he liked to mix them up to see what emerged. Arguably, his characters in The Breakfast Club could be considered archetypes-turned-into-stereotypes. We have the prom queen, the athlete, the criminal, the nerd and the eccentric loner. But Hughes made a point at showing us how these initially stereotypical characters become unique by the end. We get to know them, and they get to know each other and themselves. Even more, they grow and change (some more than others) and yes, friends, it only takes a few hours.

Sixteen Candles shows us a variety of contrasting characters: the prom queen with the dork, Sam’s snobbish grandmother vs. the more traditional and warm grandma, and remember the girl the Chinese exchange student picks? The same goes for the villains of Home Alone: one is tall with an eagle nose, and the other one is short and chunky, which lead me to my next point.

Long Duk Dong finds love.

4. Every character counts.

Hughes was not alone in his determination that every character in his films should be interesting and complement the protagonist in some way. His colleague, "Savage" Steve Holland, excelled at creating fascinating characters in his film Better Off Dead. Think about Cusack’s younger brother, his mom with her creative cooking, and his best friend (who, mind you, is no dummy after seven years of high school!)

The most memorable characters in Holland's film have minor roles.
"I want my two dollars!"
Wait, this thing moves!
Instead of being a mere side kick, Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is more complex (and perhaps more interesting?) than Ferris. His sister, played by Jennifer Grey, is compelling in her love/hate relationship with her brother (certainly more intriguing than  Ferris’s girlfriend, played by Mia Sara). Equally memorable are Andie’s best friends: her boss and the loyal Duckie in Pretty in Pink. I love the scene where her boss/mentor is reminiscing about her own prom in the sixties and dancing with Andie. And how about Joan Cusack’s small, but memorable, role in Sixteen Candles? Who doesn’t remember the scene where she’s trying to drink from the water fountain.

Hmm... who is the most complex character here? 

5. The villain grows up.

Another characteristic of Hughes’s films is that, in the end, the villain realizes the wrong of his/her ways and changes. Some examples are Uncle Buck’s niece Tia, who makes amends with both her mother and her uncle by the end of the movie; Judd Nelson’s character in The Breakfast Club, who softens and changes his views on the “losers” from his high school;  Jake Ryan’s girlfriend in Sixteen Candles, who discovers she likes nerds after all, and Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Though not technically a villain, Martin is a very flawed protagonist: impatient, badly tempered, selfish and judgmental of John Candy’s character. In the end, when he realizes that Candy is alone in the world and homeless, he goes after him and brings him to his Thanksgiving celebration.

Good morning, honey!

6. Teenagers were treated with respect and their concerns mattered.

In an interview, John Hughes said he had chosen to write teenage films because he wanted to work with young people so they wouldn’t question his authority or experience (he went into filmmaking after being a copywriter at an advertising agency). So it was a somewhat accidental choice, but this didn’t stop this filmmaker from treating the subjects that concerned teens with respect. We see his thoughtfulness repeatedly in his films: in Sam’s heart to heart with her dad in Sixteen Candles, in Keith’s discussion with his father or his conversations with Watts in Some Kind of Wonderful, or when the characters finally open up to each other in The Breakfast Club.

7. Science nerds were cool.

John Hughes’s Weird Science and Robert J. Rosenthal’s Zapped! could be considered the forefathers of the "cool dorks" of today (i.e., The Big Bang Theory). In these films, smart teens came up with the formula for the perfect woman and the secret of telekinesis (which, of course, the guys from Zapped! used to their advantage to get girls). In the early 90s, Sandra Bullock made a similar film (Love Potion No. 9) where two scientists discover the formula to sexual attraction and use it on members of the opposite sex.

8. Families in the 80s were generally portrayed under a positive light.

Sitcoms reined supreme in the 80s. Most of them portrayed positive role models and parents and children with good relationships. The Cosby Show, Who’s the Boss? and Full House are some popular examples. But do you remember My Sister Sam, Small Wonder, Charles in Charge and Double Trouble? I do! And I LOVED them!

The Sagal Twins in the sitcom Double Trouble (1984-1985)

Let’s play a game! Can you name your Top 5 eighties movies, TV shows, actors, actresses, singers and songs?

Simple Minds - Don't You (Forget About Me)

Powered by

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Unhappily Ever After: Why Fictional Romances Must Always End in Gloom?

Romance is a universal subject. Love stories are found in every country and culture and are appreciated by all genders and ages, but why is there a penchant in literature to end such tales in grief and misfortune? Today, happy romances only exist in trashy novels, romantic comedies and telenovelas. Apparently, there is an unwritten law that modern fictional couples cannot live happily ever after. What provokes that fascination with doomed romances?

A friend that holds a history degree told me that the concept of “romantic love” is artificial, invented by medieval troubadours to earn a living. The idea of “Courtly Love” was based on a simple recipe, a knight pledged his love to a lady, but she had to be “somebody else´s lady.” Based on adultery, this medieval concept of romance was a sin that could only bring tribulations to these involved.

I had to prove him wrong. Romantic love has existed prior to the troubadours. You find it in mythology, universal folklore, even in the Bible. Some of those affairs involved free people, others turned around adulterous couples, but even the latter were allowed to enjoy some happiness. When he sleeps with the much-married Bathsheba, King David is sinning against God and man. To add insult to injury, David has her husband killed. The Lord is angry, the prophet is angry, lots of bad things happen, including the death of Bathsheba‘s firstborn. David makes public atonement, he is forgiven, marries Bathsheba, and they became the proud parents of Solomon, the wisest of kings.

 Moreover, if my friend was right and Courtly Love had imposed a tradition of gloomy romances, we wouldn´t have great literary love stories ending in bliss. However, such idyllic romances are not very common in modern literature due to a couple of reasons.

1.       Happy endings are an old fashioned ploy
Both, David Copperfield and War and Peace end in images of domestic harmony. We are talking about two pillars of modern literature, yet when I point these examples to cynical critics I get a “yes, but that is sooo Nineteenth Century.” However, not every novel written in the 1800’s included joyful love affairs; just think of Madame Bovary or Thomas Hardy´s works.

Agnes and David Copperfield, a rare example of a happy  marriage in fiction

But there is some truth in the fact that happy romances fell out of fashion during last century. Whenever love appears in Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway or Edith Wharton novels, we know it will come to heartbreak and parting. Once, I took a course in Modern English Literature just to find the reading list plagued with tales of ill-fated lovers. Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier begins with the words: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The “sad story” being a combination of messy married life, unhappy adultery and suicide. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited begins with “Here my last love died,” and although Charles Ryder is figuratively speaking, his memories depict a man who fails in his search for love and finds solace in religion.

Compared to such tear-jerking novels, The End of the Affair seemed almost jolly. Although as much a Catholic as Evelyn Waugh was, Graham Greene viewed clandestine love with compassion. During World War Two, writer Maurice Bendix has just made love to Sarah, his married mistress, when a bomb falls upon his house and almost kills him. After the incident, Sarah breaks up with him. Two years later, Bendix finds out that fearing him dead, Sarah made a vow to renounce to her lover if God saved him. Sarah is still a Catholic, won’t divorce her husband, but her love for Maurice makes her fall in is arms again. Only death separates them. Yet, Sarah is such a strong character that she comes triumphal at the end. Prior to her death, a series of tiny miracles show her that God is not angry at her weakness, and, after her passing, Maurice accepts the existence of a Divine Presence, which is what she always wanted. I came to think that this novel almost had a happy ending.

2.        “Lived happily ever after” endings are no realistic therefore they should exist only in children’s and young adults books.
 The 21th century has definitely declared war on romantic love. The scientific community goes through pains to explain that romance is based on physiological reactions, and statistics tell us that marriages are bound to last less than two decades. With such information is understandable that we inhabit a romantically-challenged society where happy marriages and fulfilling love stories are seen as impractical and improbable, at least in adult literature.
We do find some promising love stories in YA Literature. Twilight’s Bella and Edward end up together (plus a daughter), and white magic, goodness and love triumph at the end of the Harry Potter saga. Twilight’s cheerful conclusion brings to mind the last pages of typical “girly literature.” In Victorian classics such as Heidi, Jane Eyre and Louisa May Alcott´s works, heroines’ ordeals are ultimately rewarded with blissful marriages and motherhood.
Professor Baher is Jo´s reward in Little Women

But saying that romances in YA fiction must end in harmony would be a false statement.  It was certainly untrue of the juvenile literature of my day. When I was a teenager (1970’s) books “for girls” were cautionary tales with brooding finales. Titles such as My Darling, My Hamburger, Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, and Scott O’Dell’s Cathleen, Please Come Home showed the reader that reckless love resulted in unplanned pregnancies, botched up-abortions and forced marriages. Even in the controversial but less dramatic Forever, Judy Blume proved that young love was a bittersweet experience. And the most romantic YA novel I read in my youth, Bette Greene’s The Summer of my German Soldier had me crying buckets before I reached the words “The End.”

At seventeen, I was a strong believer in rewarding passion and marital bliss, but I couldn´t find it in books targeting my age, so I turned to bodice- rippers.  Heroines in Historical Romances underwent rape, beatings, betrayal and other calamities, but, by the end of the book, they had tamed their knights in soiled armors and were ready to start families in castles, manors and cattle ranches. This of course proves right those who claim that …

3.       Corny romances belong strictly in trashy literature.
If you define Harlequin romances, and other single-title heirs to the “bodice-ripper” as trash, then indeed love that lasts a lifetime is a trashy ruse.  But tragic romances were also present in more mainstream trash. Vera Caspary’s emancipated heroines never found joy in love, Jacqueline Susann´s protagonists were divided between those who died and those who ended up with men who could never make them happy. And in the last stages of Peyton Place, Allison Mackenzie has returned to her hometown after her married boss breaks her heart.
Although romance is present in every genre and subgenre, everlasting love only reigns supreme in the Romance category, a trait that forces the subgenre to be classified as “low literature.” Funny, because Jane Austen´s entire work turned around amorous dealings that would end when the protagonists, having overcome all obstacles, were seen walking down the aisle. Inspired by Austen, Georgette Heyers wrote a series of novels that became known as “Regency romances.” But as everybody knows, Austen is a literary icon, and Heyers a mere a formula-pusher. The only characteristics that bound them together were historical settings, love as the plot´s core, and closing their tales on a merry note. Would Jane Austen be considered a “serious writer” today? I think not.
Why romantic bliss was fashionable in Jane Austen times and not in  Contemporary Literature?

4.       A tragic love story is always more poignant and increases its chances for success.
I have to agree since my favorite love stories of the last twenty years, include two extremely sad bestsellers. John Le Carre is a famous writer of spy novels, but in The Constant Gardener he showed himself a master in the concoction of doomed romance. Although Tessa is killed in the early stages of the novel, her memory and love propels her husband to continue her research, clear her name and avenge her murder.

Tessa's ghost  (Rachel Weisz) comes to comfort her husband (Ralph Fiennes) in The Constant Gardener.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is one of the most poignant love stories ever written, Anthony Minghella’s film version is equally moving. I made the mistake of watching the film after lunch on a working day. I was crying when I walked out of the cinema; sobbed wildly on the cab that took me to school and had to sit in the teachers’ lounge for almost twenty minutes until I collected myself enough to teach a class.

Heartrending as these two examples are, they do not hold a candle to my favorite literary romance of all times, a sample of high literature that dares to end in a hopeful note. Henryk Sienkiewicz is probably the best known Polish author in the world. Prior to the invention of the word “bestseller,” he was writing bestselling historical novels which crossed borders and oceans. His Quo Vadis is now a classic and merited Sienkiewicz the 1905 Nobel Prize for Literature. I read Quo Vadis at age nine and have loved it since. It includes two fantastic love stories: that of Vinicius and Ligia (the protagonists), and a secondary but potent romance between Petronius (a historical character) and Eunice, his slave girl.

When focusing on human love, Sienkiewicz is careful to show the transforming and beneficiary power of an emotion that transcends religions and social classes. Ligia not only converts Vinicius, a Roman patrician, to Christianity, but her love rids him of his arrogance and cruel streak. Epicurean and cynical Petronius finds true devotion in a humble slave who chooses to die with him to escape the Emperor’s wrath.  Unlike them, Ligia and Vinicius survive Nero´s massacre, and go on to live together happily and forever away from Rome. Would the novel be more “literary” if the protagonists had died or been separated eternally?  I think not.

Star-crossed lovers add pathos and realism to a novel, but what about the reader’s needs? It has been established that happy endings represent compensation for past suffering and hope for a better future. Ian McEwen’s Atonement is an example of “high literature” therefore its bitter finale has lovers Cee and Robbie apart from each other and dead. But when Briony, who has caused their misfortunes, writes their story as a novel-within-a-novel, she chooses an ending that has them living happily ever after. She claims it’s a way to compensate them for all their trials. That is the supreme optimistic promise of everlasting love even if it exists only between the pages of a book.

Briony grows up into a novelist who believes in happy endings

What is your favorite love story of all times? Does it end in a happy or sour note? Does the ending affect the literary value of the novel? When you write love stories, how do you expect them to finish?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Fifty Shades of WTF?

Virtual rope burns hurt less
You’ve probably heard by now: Fifty Shades of Grey, the vampireless pornographic fanfic trilogy, has now outsold the Harry Potter series on Amazon’s UK site. I know, I know. We don’t really want to talk about this. We have better things to think about, like how “-saurus” became the suffix for both a kind of dictionary and a kind of flesh-eating lizard. But we must, people! We must square our little writerly shoulders and meet this information like grown-ups.

After I finished eating a few gallons of ice cream and writing bitchy things in my sparkly pink Hello Kitty diary, I sat down and tried to cope with this news from the world of fictiondom. How do I interpret the public’s apparent taste for bad porn thinly masked as a novel? And how should I, as a woman, feel about other women apparently eating up this notion that a really sexy guy is one who hurts you? This is a terribly tangled web to unweave.

First, the bad writing. When I groused about this on Facebook, I was accused of being an elitist who hated anything that was popular. (Although really, that would be more a “hipster” thing than an “elitist” thing: get your pejoratives straight!) This accusation is untrue: I actually liked the Harry Potter series; I also like other wildly bestselling authors like Stephen King and Diana Gabaldon. When I say E.L. James is a terrible writer, I am referring to her ... you know ... writing. As in: the words she has committed to paper. Let’s have a peek, shall we? (psst: This would be a good time to change the channel if your sensibilities are at all delicate.)

I seem to have lost my handcuffs
My heart starts pounding. This is it. I'm really going to do this. My inner goddess is spinning like a world-class ballerina, pirouette after pirouette.

And, in a separate passage:

I think of my dream … is that what it would be like? My inner goddess jumps up and down with cheerleading pom-poms shouting yes at me.

Oh yes! Ballerinas! Pom-poms! OMG Where’s my sparkly tiara?!?

Sadly, these are not the only times James uses the term “inner goddess." When I searched for that term in Google books, I got 45 hits in the first book alone. Forty-five. The “inner goddess” is almost always doing something an eleven-year-old would be doing. Funny, because when I think “goddess” I think “Athena” or “Ishtar.” Not “Lolita.”

Here’s another gem:

"Hard," he whispers, and he slams into me.
"Aargh!" I cry as I feel a weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity. He stills, gazing down at me, his eyes bright with ecstatic triumph.
His mouth is open slightly, and his breathing is harsh. He groans.
"Aargh!" I cry!
"You're so tight. You okay?"

Right. Where do we even start with this? Who knew losing your virginity to a sadistic billionaire turned you into a pirate? I mean, really. “Aargh?”

To be fair, it’s not all like this. I read what I could stand, and there were a few passages that didn’t make me wince or snigger. But the excerpts here are fairly representative of James’ prose style, which is not at all comparable to J.K. Rowling’s prose style. Rowling may not be Virginia Woolf or Flannery O’Connor, but she’s not cringe-inducing. She’s actually pretty clever, and funny. Perhaps more to the point, she is a children’s writer. Writing for children. James (one fervently hopes) is writing for adults.

So how does a writer so blatantly talentless end up so wildly popular? I find this truly mystifying, and am ready to hear any theories. One theory is that nobody cares about quality writing anymore, or that we’re not trained to recognize it. This doesn't explain why one bit of terrible writing would outsell all the other bits of terrible writing, however. Another theory is that James simply hit a cultural button that overrides any problems with her prose: she tapped into the female sex’s latent desire to be pummeled into submission by a strong man. Who also happens to be a bajillionaire!

It's like the 20th century never happened
Which brings me to my next point: Are women really that stupid? Or backwards? Or warped? I thought the balance of power between Edward and Bella was bad, but this homage to Twilight kicks it up a couple thousand notches. I feel I don’t know my own sex at all, if this is what they crave — even in fantasy. I am not judging the desire for woman-centered porn, by the way. As previously mentioned, I’m not squeamish and have no issue with erotica generally. It’s the content of this erotica that worries me. From the passage above, we see Anastasia’s blatant childishness, contrasted with Christian’s literally sadistic older-male predilections. I find this more than off-putting, I find it truly troublesome. That it exists is one thing — there’s a lot of porn out there with overtones of pedophilia. That such material would sell like hotcakes — to women — is what’s got me confuzzled.

Because it is women who are buying this: I don’t think too many men are secretly stashing copies under their Sports Illustrated magazines. In fact, men seem remarkably uninterested in sub-dom fantasy, from what I understand: at least in terms of book-buying. Man-books seem to concentrate rather heavily on spies and guns. When they buy sexual fantasies, they’re in DVD form, not book. We’ve all seen these movies: they are focused almost entirely on the man bringing vast swaths of women to limp-limbed satisfaction. There’s not a lot of pain involved. I’m sure the pain market exists for men, but not in the numbers we’re seeing for Fifty Shades.

Is it related to socio-economic background? Are the women reading this uneducated and therefore socialized to believe that women should be submissive to men — should find that kind of powerlessness sexy? Not from what I’ve seen: the women I know who’ve read this are college-educated and relatively liberal: they’ve got enough Susan Sontag under their belts to resist that kind of indoctrination.
Pro tip: This isn't what "grown-up" means.

In a discussion of this elsewhere, friends pointed out that sadomasochistic “romance” isn’t a new phenomenon: Harlequin romances (and the like) have long revolved around on the domineering male overpowering the initially-resistant female. But if Harlequins were already out there, filling this demographic demand, why weren’t they also selling like hotcakes? No romance, no work of erotica, has ever sold as well as this trilogy. It must offer something beyond the average romance novel. What is it?

One thing we can agree on: it’s not the quality of the writing.

What do you think? Have you read the books? How would you describe the writing — and to what do you attribute James’ runaway success? Is there some lesson aspiring writers should take away from this phenomenon?