Food & Fiction: Memorable Meals in Literature

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This month’s It’s Lit! covers everyone’s favourite topic: food.

If it isn’t your favourite topic, just give yourself 48 hours without it and see if that changes your mind.

I’ve always found food scenes in books to fall into two categories: needless exposition, or important showing (Oliver Twist is a great example of this). While the video discusses the latter, it is all too common that the former is what we read most.

While I was watching the video I was reminded of something I read last year. The discussion of bread in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, particularly around the hard bread that needed to be soaked, was something that Karl Marx wrote about in Das Kapital. The hard bread was actually due to deliberate contamination to make cheap bread that workers could afford, knowing full well that it was bad for them to eat, and the employers knowing full well that the workers couldn’t afford to eat properly (keeping them hungry so they would work).

A great way to remind us future people of how society used to run.*

Food varies wildly from place to place and from culture to culture; since humans are such sensory creatures, using words to evoke the experience of eating is an excellent way to bring a text to life.

It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis.

*Let’s be honest, society would quite happily go back to those conditions, and in some areas of the world, it still is operating in that way.

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Death of the Author

The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author… or so says Roland Bathes in his essay Death of the Author. Are we talking about literally killing authors? No, this is figurative (like most uses of literally). Can Death of the Author include killing the author? Sure, but get a good lawyer first.

Let’s let Lindsay Ellis (and John Green) explain:

My take on Death of the Author is somewhat complicated. I think there is relevant information that the author has that doesn’t make it into the story (think Elvish languages from Tolkien*), but I also think that quite often if it isn’t in the story it doesn’t really exist. I think that stories are really up to the readers to interpret, as viewpoints and interpretations will change over time**, but that doesn’t mean readers always interpret correctly.

This is a hedged way of saying that Death of the Author is probably too simple a way of thinking about how stories should be interpreted. At least, that’s my interpretation of it.

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Source: Mimi and Eunice

*Let’s not get into how “relevant” I think those languages are, or a lot of that world-building from authors in general is.

**You may remember book reviews here where I’ve discussed how older books haven’t aged well due to changing societal standards. Sexism and racism are obvious changes that have happened in the last 50 years which make formerly acceptable, even progressive, moments in a story seem backward and unacceptable now.

Another thing that can occur is changes to society changes interpretations. E.g. The Baby It’s Cold Outside controversy can be summed up as an old song made references to things that we are no longer familiar with, so our interpretation changes. This makes Death of the Author a truly bad thing for any artwork that is “consumed” outside of the social and temporal setting it was made within.

Book vs Movie: Hellboy – What’s the Difference?

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This month’s instalment of What’s the difference? from CineFix looks at Mike Mignola’s graphic novel and Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a fan of Hellboy: movie or comic. Yes, I know, how dare you not love Del Toro’s amazing artistic vision! I’ve watched both Hellboy movies multiple times and have not loved them (and despite liking the Blade trilogy, Blade 2 isn’t my favourite – but Pan’s Labyrinth was fantastic). The comics I probably didn’t give them a fair chance, as I tried reading one omnibus after not enjoying the first film.

Anyway, the point I wanted to highlight from the video was something I think too many adaptations fail to do. When you are talking about a series of comics or books, there is often some prevailing themes, motifs, and imagery to them that may be less noticeable in any one edition, but taken as a whole it is important.

Because movies are often only drawing on one book at a time, or drawing on one run (or story arc) of a comic, important aspects may be lost. An example would be the Tim Burton or the Adam West takes on Batman versus the Christopher Nolan version. The latter drew upon more of the Batman comics than the earlier adaptations (not that either of those adaptations was bad*).

So while this doesn’t necessarily result in a direct adaptation, it does result in an adaptation that is faithful to the source material in the elements that matter.

*I’m pretending that the Joel Schumacher adaptations don’t exist. Akiva Goldsman is probably more to blame, given he has a long track record of making everything he is attached to that bit worse.

Top 10 Posts of 2018

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Last year I wrote one of these “Top 10” lists discussing my year of blogging. I enjoyed it so much that I thought I’d do it again.

Let’s start with the stats. Because stats are awesome. Trust me.

I had a couple of goals for my blogging in 2018. I wanted to post more regularly and have more engagement (likes and comments) as I felt like there were periods in previous years when I’d not post for weeks at a time, and views weren’t translating to people liking and commenting. Wow, the last part of that sentence makes me sound needy… Anyway, I managed to write ~46,000 words in 135 posts, easily better than previous years, and reviewed 75 books. The consistent posting seemed to keep the month-to-month views more consistent than other years, with ~22k visitors and ~27k views (down a bit on last year). Likes and comments were the highest ever and more consistent per post with +600 likes and +250 comments.

Thank you to everyone for reading, following*, liking, and commenting this year. As I continue my writing efforts the views and interactions here keep me motivated.

1) The Actual 10 Most Deadly Animals In Australia

Once again reigning supreme. Originally written for one of those comedy list sites, I’m glad so many have enjoyed this post.

2) Do People In Australia Ride Kangaroos?

Second year in second place. One of my trademark snarky Quora answers. Its popularity both last year and this year shows that I need to write more articles about Australian animals.

3) Book vs Movie: The Bourne Identity – What’s the Difference?

This post was shared on a movie site and had a spike in views. I especially appreciated the belligerent commenters** who came to lecture me on all the points I could have included in a 10,000-word essay on the topic in my 400-word post.

4) Shark Attack

This is one of my older posts discussing the overblown coverage of shark attacks. I actually prefer the post I wrote a few years after this one, but probably need to revisit this topic with more recent stats. Which people can ignore in favour of the older post that pops up first in their search…

5) Fast and Furious Series

After watching Vin Diesel leap a souped-up V8 over a decidedly murky shark-filled estuary, I felt the need to write this post. I wrote another more recently summarising the series thus far. This will probably become a regular series given they have sequels, spinoffs, and a massive audience for years to come.

6) 20 Proven Benefits of Being An Avid Reader

Two places higher than last year, this article was a repost of a listicle, but unlike the original list, I’ve actually included links to references. Not that you’d know it since they have deleted the original.

7) Book vs Movie: Silence of the Lambs – What’s the Difference?

A post from last year that only seemed to find an audience this year. I’m not joking, literally 97% of the post’s views came this year. Another in my long-running series utilising the videos from CineFix.

8) 7 Types of Narrative Conflict by Mark Nichol

An older reblogged post that I added a few points to. I would actually like to write my own version of this to compile a number of posts I’ve made on this, such as 6 Story Arcs.

9) Cool Book Art

One of my art share posts. I do like sharing cool book-related pictures, cartoons, or comics. Hopefully, it gets more people to buy their stuff – hence the links I add to those sorts of posts.

10) Mythtaken: Shark Attack Deaths

Two shark posts in one list. It seems people are looking for shark attack statistics. Almost as if more people are going into shark territory and are surprised to discover sharks there. This post is 4 years old and some of the stats are 6 years old, so I should probably revisit this topic. Does anyone else hear an echo in this list?

Next year I’d like to see something from 2019 make the Top 10 for views. Two posts came close this year, but the perennial favourites keep attracting attention.

See you in 2019!

*I haven’t been keeping track of my follower numbers but know they have been steadily increasing in the last 2 years. I do appreciate the follows and everyone who ends up reading the posts on email instead of showing up in the site statistics.

**My commenting editorial policy precludes people thinking they can behave like they are on Twitter, Reddit, or Facebook, so you don’t have to see those posts.

What is the most satisfying genre of book for an author to write?

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I would posit that there are two things that are important to an author when writing with regards to the genre:

  1. That the author enjoys the genre they are writing in;
  2. That the genre suits the story they are writing.

I’d also argue that the first point is far more important than the second. I say this mainly because I want to provide a very superficial argument on the second point.

In a panel discussion entitled Bestsellers and Blockbusters on ABC TV’s Book Club, thriller author Matthew Reilly made mention of some literary authors who had been tempted to try writing thrillers – because money. Always about those big juicy bucks. Those authors didn’t really like the thriller genre and as a result, they didn’t understand how to write them and thus failed to write entertaining thrillers.

I have previously discussed one example of what Matthew raised in the above video. In 2014, the literary award-winning author Isabel Allende decided to dabble in crime fiction with Ripper. No, seriously, that was the title. Allende didn’t enjoy the experience. She was quoted as saying she hates crime fiction because:

It’s too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there’s no redemption there. And the characters are just awful. Bad people.

Allende went further to say that Ripper was a joke and ironic. The response to this was for crime genre fans to condemn her, bookstore Murder by the Book sent their orders back, and Goodreads ratings suggest it is one of her worst received books. Maybe next time she will not make those comments whilst on the promotional tour. Or, you know, not write something she doesn’t enjoy. One of the two.

Authors obviously have to invest a lot of time and energy in creating a novel. If they aren’t enjoying the experience, then that is likely to spill over into the quality of the end creation. So they are likely to invest time and energy in doing something they enjoy so that readers will enjoy it. Or try to grin and bear it as they go after some big juicy bucks.

The second point that authors consider is what genre suits the story they are trying to tell.* Genre can help define and shape the story. So the genre often acts as the stage or setting for the story. Think of science fiction and themes of social protest, or fantasy exploring social constructs, or horror exploring ways to dismember work colleagues. Obviously, some genres will be more suitable for telling certain stories.** As a result, the genre will be an important consideration in the writing process.

In summary, an author is likely to write in a genre they enjoy and utilise the genre that helps tell their story. To my mind, this is how an author thinks about the genre.

*Sometimes the opposite approach is used to give us a space western or sparkly vampires.

**Of course, shifting the usual themes and tropes from one genre to another can be a way to create stories as well. Where would we be without Firefly?

This post originally appeared on Quora.

Dirk Gently on US TV

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Yeah, Harry Enfield as Dirk!

Whenever I hear about one of my favourite novels being adapted for the big screen, or the moderate screen that fits in my house, I’m wary. Not wary in a “I hope they don’t mess this up” kind of way, but wary in a “They had better not mess this up” kind of way.

Well, one of my favourite novels was adapted for a TV show (again) and I’ve seen the first season. And I have thoughts…

I was very wary of clicking play on the trailer for the BBC America Dirk Gently series. I removed all sharp objects from my immediate vicinity before watching. If you’re a fan of Douglas Adams’ novels, you may want to do the same. Out of wariness.

Well, at least they won’t be butchering Dirk Gently, because I’m not sure that this is Dirk Gently.

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This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen a book adaptation with the lead character portrayed by someone who doesn’t physically match the role. I’m talking about Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher. Twice. Anyway, I’m not sure that Samuel Barnett really fits the Svlad Cjelli (aka Dirk Gently) middle-aged, overweight, poorly dressed, loser mould.

He is portrayed as a pudgy man who normally wears a heavy old light brown suit, red checked shirt with a green striped tie, long leather coat, red hat and thick metal-rimmed spectacles. Source

And after viewing the first season, I’m even less convinced this was a portrayal of Dirk Gently. Okay, so clearly Max Landis and his team are going for more of a “youth” vibe. Landis obviously thinks that the only way to write a quirky character (quirky being code for annoying bellend) is to have them bounce off of the walls with manic energy. Which is not something a pudgy middle-aged guy in a dirty suit does.

Then we have not-MacDuff. Elijah Wood is portraying a character named Todd. He’s meant to be more of an everyman for us to relate to (see video below for discussion). So no symphony of nature, no Susan, and no hallway couch. Todd’s relationship to “Dirk” is the typical cliched odd-couple, with the non-quirky character being inexplicably fond or loyal to the person ruining their life.

So two characters that aren’t that great* who get up to weird adventures. Right? Well, the adventures are… kinda… dull. Douglas Adams had Dirk save the world from a ghost of the people who created life on Earth, and the Norse Gods who are a bit peeved about not being admired anymore. Landis has Dirk investigating gifted people swapping bodies… and stuff.

I’m really not sure what Landis was going for. But then again, I’ve watched Bright, which leads me to conclude Landis probably doesn’t know what he’s trying to do either.

After watching this panel discussion you’d be forgiven for thinking that everyone involved had a good grasp of the material they were adapting. Landis professes to being a big fan of Douglas Adams’ writing… Yet his takeaway from Dirk Gently is manic energy guy running around being weird. The panel discusses capturing the essence of Dirk Gently, but I didn’t see the loser conman and his intricate adventures that really were holistic.

It often baffles me why screenwriters diverge so far from the source material – it feels as though I discussed this recently. Do they buy the rights but forget to buy a copy of the book for the screenwriters? In this instance that doesn’t appear to be the case. Is it just that they aren’t usually looking to do a direct adaptation but more of an “inspired by” screenplay? In which case, why buy the rights and use the character names? Landis did moan about the lack of original ideas in cinema – but this is also the same guy who talks up sequels to films nobody wanted to see. Are writers trying to avoid a direct comparison between book and adaptation? Again, why buy the rights, since the screenwriters clearly have an idea for a movie/TV show and the source material is essentially made irrelevant?

In many instances, a direct adaptation would make more sense. Beloved books would often be best served by being faithfully adapted to please fans and appeal to new fans. The source material has proved itself already: so use it! Some changes are necessary, either for run-time, or translation between mediums, but this can still be done faithfully. So why doesn’t it happen more often? I personally suspect that the screenwriters aren’t being asked to do faithful adaptations for a variety of reasons, including having bosses who don’t care about the source material. In the case of Landis, I question his abilities… I sat through this adaptation, his movies Bright and American Ultra, and think it is fair to conclude his abilities are lacking.

Maybe one day we’ll see a good adaptation of Douglas Adams’ work.**

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Yeah, this adaptation wasn’t much better.

*The characters aren’t that great, but the acting is on point. So can’t blame the actors.

**Yes, I am aware of his various radio plays and the old Hitchhiker’s Guide TV series. I can’t even remember what the latter was like it has been so long since I’ve seen it.

How JK Rowling writes mystery

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We don’t often think of fantasy novels as being mysteries. And yet, in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, the mystery elements are cornerstones of the plot.

Mystery isn’t easy to do well, either, as we will see in the two videos below from Just Write. In the Harry Potter novels we see the elements Rowling used to great effect, and in the new Fantastic Beasts movies, we see how Rowling bungles those elements.

I suppose the big takeaway is that even a master writer* can mangle the craft.

*Feel free to disagree with this assertion and point out to me Rowling’s various flaws as an author in painful detail that assumes I’ve never read the Potter books. That’s why they invented the comments section.