Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

Archive for the tag “Literature”

As Harry Potter turns 20, let’s focus on reading pleasure rather than literary merit

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Platform 9 and ¾, the portal to Harry Potter’s magical world, at Kings Cross in London.
Harry Potter image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Di Dickenson, Western Sydney University

It’s 20 years on June 26 since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the seven-book series. The Philosopher’s Stone has sold more than 450 million copies and been translated into 79 languages; the series has inspired a movie franchise, a dedicated fan website, and spinoff stories.

Goodreads

I recall the long periods of frustration and excited anticipation as my son and I waited for each new instalment of the series. This experience of waiting is one we share with other fans who read it progressively across the ten years between the publication of the first and last Potter novel. It is not an experience contemporary readers can recreate.

The Harry Potter series has been celebrated for encouraging children to read, condemned as a commercial rather than a literary success and had its status as literature challenged. Rowling’s writing was described as “basic”, “awkward”, “clumsy” and “flat”. A Guardian article in 2007, just prior to the release of the final book in the series, was particularly scathing, calling her style “toxic”.

My own focus is on the pleasure of reading. I’m more interested in the enjoyment children experience reading Harry Potter, including the appeal of the stories. What was it about the story that engaged so many?

Before the books were a commercial success and highly marketed, children learnt about them from their peers. A community of Harry Potter readers and fans developed and grew as it became a commercial success. Like other fans, children gained cultural capital from the depth of their knowledge of the series.

My own son, on the autism spectrum, adored Harry Potter. He had me read each book in the series in order again (and again) while we waited for the next book to be released. And once we finished the new book, we would start the series again from the beginning. I knew those early books really well.

‘Toxic’ writing?

Assessing the series’ literary merit is not straightforward. In the context of concern about falling literacy rates, the Harry Potter series was initially widely celebrated for encouraging children – especially boys – to read. The books, particularly the early ones, won numerous awards and honours, including the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize three years in a row, and were shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal in 1998.

The seven books of the Harry Potter series, released from 1997 to 2007.
Alan Edwardes/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Criticism of the literary merit of the books, both scholarly and popular, appeared to coincide with the growing commercial and popular success of the series. Rowling was criticised for overuse of capital letters and exclamation marks, her use of speech or dialogue tags (which identify who is speaking) and her use of adverbs to provide specific information (for example, “said the boy miserably”).

The criticism was particularly prolific around the UK’s first conference on Harry Potter held at the prestigious University of St Andrews, Scotland in 2012. The focus of commentary seemed to be on the conference’s positioning of Harry Potter as a work of “literature” worthy of scholarly attention. As one article said of J.K. Rowling, she “may be a great storyteller, but she’s no Shakespeare”.

Even the most scathing of reviews of Rowling’s writing generally compliment her storytelling ability. This is often used to account for the popularity of the series, particularly with children. However, this has then been presented as further proof of Rowling’s failings as an author. It is as though the capacity to tell a compelling story can be completely divorced from the way a story is told.

Daniel Radcliffe in his first outing as Harry Potter in the Philosopher’s Stone, 2001.
Warner Brothers

Writing for kids

The assessment of the literary merits of a text is highly subjective. Children’s literature in particular may fare badly when assessed using adult measures of quality and according to adult tastes. Many children’s books, including picture books, pop-up books, flap books and multimedia texts are not amenable to conventional forms of literary analysis.

Books for younger children may seem simple and conventional when judged against adult standards. The use of speech tags in younger children’s books, for example, is frequently used to clarify who is talking for less experienced readers. The literary value of a children’s book is often closely tied to adults’ perception of a book’s educational value rather than the pleasure children may gain from reading or engaging with the book. For example, Rowling’s writing was criticised for not “stretching children” or teaching children “anything new about words”.

Many of the criticisms of Rowling’s writing are similar to those levelled at another popular children’s author, Enid Blyton. Like Rowling, Blyton’s writing has described by one commentator as “poison” for its “limited vocabulary”, “colourless” and “undemanding language”. Although children are overwhelmingly encouraged to read, it would appear that many adults view with suspicion books that are too popular with children.

There have been many defences of the literary merits of Harry Potter which extend beyond mere analysis of Rowling’s prose. The sheer volume of scholarly work that has been produced on the series and continues to be produced, even ten years after publication of the final book, attests to the richness and depth of the series.

The ConversationA focus on children’s reading pleasure rather than on literary merit shifts the focus of research to a different set of questions. I will not pretend to know why Harry Potter appealed so strongly to my son but I suspect its familiarity, predictability and repetition were factors. These qualities are unlikely to score high by adult standards of literary merit but are a feature of children’s series fiction.

Di Dickenson, Director of Academic Program BA, School of Humanities and Communication Arts, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

That isn’t literature

When I think of literature I think of an older guy sporting a greying moustache, sipping a sherry, wearing a smoking jacket, seated in a library of leather-bound books in front of a simmering log fire. The guy speaks with an aristocratic English accent and expounds on the greatness of some book that other older men dressed like him, sitting in similar log-fire warmed libraries, also like to read when not shagging the maid.

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Aspiring literary snob reader

Now clearly not everyone who reads literature fits this image. Some probably can’t even afford a maid to shag. But it does appear to be an image that people aspire toward, an image that informs what they deem literature, and thus what they deem worthy of reading. Rather than judging any written work based upon its lasting artistic merit – although that definition is so subjective as to be useless and ideal for starting pointless arguments…. (cough) – people seem intent on creating boundaries before a work is allowed to be judged. They must defend Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works.

Normally I’d launch into a whinge about how speculative fiction is unfairly maligned, or how I’ve read crime fiction that has more artistic merit than most literary works. But instead I’m going to talk about graphic novels. In an article on The Conversation, Catherine Beavis explained how the graphic novel Maus came to be part of the literature curriculum.

Despite this explanation there was always going to be someone in the comments telling us how a graphic novel can’t be literature. I assume they wrote their comments whilst wearing a smoking jacket and taking a break from shagging the maid.

Well well……..so it’s art as literature.

Why not a more well-known comic (sorry graphic novel).

Not saying this isn’t a worthy addition to any curriculum, but more as social comment rather than literature.

Surely the novels of great Australian writers should be preferable – Winton, Malouf, Carey etc.

Let’s break these points apart one by one. As will be seen from further comments, the argument primarily revolves around the feelpinion that because graphic novels contain pictures they are art and thus not literature. A similar argument could be made for movies being TV shows and thus we could abolish the Oscars… actually, that isn’t a bad idea. Anyway, I guess we’d better break the news to the literature professors that Shakespeare’s plays need to be taken off of the curriculum.

The argument then moves to the “I haven’t heard of it, so it can’t be good” assertion. Maybe because they realise this isn’t a great argument, they immediately distance themselves from it. But we start to see the worthy argument being formed. I’ve argued many times that worthy is a great subjective argument put forward by people who think they are worthy.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a literary argument if someone didn’t cite some authors they deem worthy. For those unfamiliar with Winton, Malouf, and Carey, they are award-winning Aussie authors who write “interior histories” and about “people rebuilding their lives after catastrophe” and “people who experience death and will never be the same again”. None of those statements could be applied to a graphic novel about someone who survived the holocaust…. No sir.

Their list of worthy authors is as subjective as their comments about graphic novels and Maus. I could similarly ask why the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy isn’t on the curriculum. It has a lot to say about society and has entered the lexicon, which is more than can be said for any of the other authors mentioned nor the graphic novels being shunned. I could say the same again about Superman or Spiderman, which have implanted ideals and phrases of morality into society, regardless of whether people have read those graphic novels or not.

*Steps on soapbox*
I personally welcome any work into the class that will encourage kids to read, think and learn. And to anyone who derides graphic novels, they are clearly saying they don’t or haven’t read any.
*Steps down from soapbox*

The commenter responded to criticism of their subjective opinion:

That may be so, but my bigger point was that literature = words.

This is art with captions.

Not disputing that it may be hugely popular or good (even great)…
but literature it ain’t.

I think the appropriate response to this is a head shake. The problem is the black and white definition of what literature is, whilst ignoring the fact that the graphic novels fit the definition of literature. Pointing out the flaws in these opinions is as easy as saying that graphic novels, with very few exceptions, are composed of words. They also use graphics, but that is often a collaboration between the writer and the artists they work with. Thus, by the definition of “literature = words”, graphic novels are eligible to be classified as literature.

But anything to keep only the “worthy” books in contention as literature. Can’t have that kids stuff being called literary!

So I named three contemporary Australian writers – call me subjective.

I am not knocking the (art) form…just that it (to ME) is not literature.

Your opinion is obviously as valid as mine……don’t get huffy.

The last point here is one that irks me more than irksome irkers on an international irking junket. Opinions are not equally valid. That sort of subjectivism nonsense eats away at reality and suggests we “just don’t know, man”.

The commenter made a subjective list, so I put together some examples that were superior in quantifiable ways (impact on society, entering the lexicon, referenced by society) to show that the subjective claims were more worthless than a $9 note because clearly not much knowledge or thought was put into the claims.

There is also the idea of literary critique and argument, rather than stating feelpinions. I’ve stated an opinion and argued it, offering reasoning. The examples I countered with aren’t necessarily the best choices, but I have justified and quantified my argument, something you learn in high school literature class. Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer, so clearly someone in the literati agrees. And surely a Pulitzer prize winner is worthy of being on the curriculum. But of course all opinions are equally valid and “I’m entitled to my opinion”, dammit!

Surely the whole point of literature is that the reader has to imagine the scene described, the way words are spoken, the implications of what is said and much more. It’s all in the mind, which develops through reading.

A graphic novel presents the words and pictures with almost no imagining required. The number of words is hugely reduced to give way to often wasted space. In the example above there are 21 words, which if in normal lowercase type could be written in 10% of the space.

Sorry I’m not convinced graphic novels have any merit for senior students.

Shakespeare’s plays give stage directions and poetry is often deliberately obscure. So how do those examples fit this exclusionary definition of literature? I’m sure some artists would object to the idea that they aren’t conjuring a scene that develops in people’s minds. And is the idea to only allow readers to imagine a scene? Isn’t it about conveying ideas and emotions too? Isn’t this some great mental gymnastics to try to maintain Fort Literature from invasion by the Lesser Works?

The second paragraph is also exemplary of someone who hasn’t read many, if any, graphic novels. So of course this commenter wouldn’t be convinced that graphic novels are of any merit. First they’d have to know something. But that doesn’t hold them back from commenting.

While I’m in the mood for alienating folks, let me also say that this is a good example of dumbing down literature.

Give the kids a picture with limited words and maybe they’ll get the idea.

Don’t kids these days have the attention span to read a novel?

The last graphic novel I read was 480 pages long and took many hours to read. It covered sexual identity, morality, the greater good argument, do evil deeds make us evil, etc, as issues. The last “literature” novel I read was about a woman who manipulated people to get what she wanted. It was ~300 pages long and took many hours to read.*

This argument is typical of people who have a snobbish attitude to something based upon pure ignorance of the topic. Similar statements have been made throughout time, decrying the dumbing down or declining standards of today’s youth. Oddly enough it has been proven false again and again only to be spouted once more.

XKCD on declining writing standards

See the full original here: https://xkcd.com/1227/

There is a similar article on The Spectator – a home for uninformed opinion – which argues that if we let graphic novels into literature we have to let in everything. They must defend Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works. Maybe I’ll address that one at some stage when I’m feeling masochistic, but I’m going to leave it there. The maid has arrived.

*This comparison was true at the time of my original comments on The Conversation. I’ve read many graphic novels since, but no further literature novels.

Readicide

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I have long-held a disdain for the way reading and books are presented in schools. At a time when kids are trying to be cool by gaming, watching the right TV shows, seeing cool movies, Snap-chatting themselves half-naked, and sleeping until noon, schools try to suck all the fun out of reading.

Up until high school kids are more likely to read regularly for pleasure. At high school this rate declines markedly, and doesn’t really recover until retirement (if at all, as I’d argue that the older people making up those Pew survey numbers grew up in an age before internet, decent TV, and gaming). Not only are teens exposed to more other potential entertainment sources, they also find less enjoyment in reading. Something happens in high school. Something terrible. We assign them standardised texts to read!

In his book, ReadicideKelly Gallagher explains why the American system has been failing kids and how to fix it. I think many of the points apply to any nation that utilises an emphasis on standardised testing for schools. Below is a summary presentation that you can navigate to by clicking on the image. Worth a look for any fellow book nerds and/or parents.

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I don’t actually agree with everything in the overview, namely the idea that classics are classics for a reason. You have to remember that the reason a book becomes a classic is often chance, or because some person reckons it should be, not because it is always good. Plenty of good books have undoubtably been lost in obscurity and thus to history. An example of a book now regarded as a classic that was almost lost to history is Moby Dick. It faded into obscurity after its release and was pretty much forgotten until one literary critic – Carl Van Doren – revived the novel 70 years after its publication. So one guy reckoned it was good, others nodded and agreed with him, and so that means it’s a classic.*

The idea that kids should be reading classics or literary “masterpieces” is part of the problem, in my opinion. This is very much a top down decree of what is important by people who have made a career out of lecturing others on what is important…. to them. Just because they like it doesn’t mean that it will inspire kids to be lifelong readers.

Now, that isn’t to say that those “important” books aren’t worth reading. But it is to say that there is a stark difference between what a literary critic or scholar deems good, and what a kid who just read Harry Potter for the first time deems good. School curriculums would be better off without trying to bash kids over the heads with books they are unlikely to enjoy.

book-graphic

*Yes, I’m being overly simplistic.

Are Bob Dylan Lyrics Literature?

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PBS Ideas Channel had an interesting take on this contentious topic. And as is always the case, it isn’t really that simple.

I’m near the front of the queue to criticise literature for being a dry and dreary form of art that sucks the life out of its audience. But of course, as Mike discusses in the video, literature isn’t as easily defined as my dismissive rhetoric would imply. What defines literature isn’t arbitrary, but it is often about who is defining or classifying a work as such. My criticisms of literature stem from who perform this classifying, as they will often be people like Jonathan Jones – who said Terry Pratchett sucked – who will criticise the literary merits of works they haven’t read. These arbiters of artistic merit (i.e. snobs) like certain things, thus those certain things are worthy. They create lists of these worthy things and tell us we need to read them at school, study them at university, and expound on how much better these works are… until they actually read one of the unworthy ones and have to eat humble pie.

So the literary and artistic merit we often operate under in society is more about what a certain group of people like. But as Mike points out, that isn’t a good definition, and literature, and “good” art in general, are harder to define. Essentially anything can be literature. And even then the status of a work being literary may be revoked, or instated, as tastes change. Thus referring to Dylan’s lyrics as literature is probably about making us all think about lyrics as an art-form, something that has social defamiliarization. Lyrics are, after all, a form of poetry that are no less artful. Maybe this award will help us acknowledge that art/literature is all around us.

Don’t worry Nickelback, your literary award is surely just lost in the mail.

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cancer really does suck, okay? Okay.

The Fault in Our Stars is a fairly straight forward novel, telling the tale of two teenagers who meet and fall in love. With cancer. And it has the audacity to treat teenagers, cancer, and life with humour and without being patronising. No wonder the Daily Mail didn’t like it.

Anyone at all familiar with John Green, either via the Nerdfighteria community or his Vlogbrother-ing with Hank, will instantly recognise the casual wit and humour that forms the backbone of The Fault In Our Stars. I can’t claim to be a Nerdfighter, well, aside from subscribing to all of their Youtube channels and supporting their charity campaigns, since it has taken me so long to read one of John’s novels. But I think it is the humour John uses throughout the book that sets TFIOS – as it is known in Nerdfighter circles – apart from the generic “kids with cancer” novels.

I enjoyed TFIOS and would recommend it to most people. Just gloss over the generic plot, stock characters, and scenes that are only there to hold up jokes.

NB: I have the deluxe audiobook version narrated by John himself. Hard to imagine anyone else narrating, what with his dulcet tones.

View all my reviews

More guilty pleasures

Sometime during 1994 I bought one of my favourite albums of all time: Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins. Even today (boom-tish) that album sits proudly in my music collection and doesn’t sound dated. I can’t say the same for many other albums I own from the same time period. Superunknown from Soundgarden stands as a classic album, but I find it hard to listen to without having had the death of a pet weighing on my mind. I can only listen to Metallica’s Load if I promise myself I’ll put on one of their better albums straight after. Essentially, for me, the Pumpkins hit on music gold with that album.

I’ve commented before how I’ve essentially stopped being a fan of the Pumpkins, finding their offerings since Adore (which promised so much with the first single, and delivered so little with the remainder of the album) to be more filler than awesome. What I liked about the Pumpkins was not what the Pumpkins have been delivering since.

The 5 Worst Kinds of Album Every Music Fan Has Bought: Cracked.com

Your experiences may vary.

Which brings me to a discussion I was having recently on the Pumpkins album Zeitgeist. Despite buying the album, I’ve never bothered adding it to my digital library, because it only has one or two songs on it that hint at what I liked about the Smashing Pumpkins of old. A lot of fans and reviewers agree with me, with Corgan taking a potshot at fans for not even listening to the album (class act), further claiming the fans only wanted to hear the old music (probably). Anyway, the discussion had started because a couple of people were insisting the reason people didn’t like Zeitgeist was because it was too political or had political overtones.

Um, no.

While I’m not trying to imply that no-one was turned off of Zeitgeist due to the political overtones, it is clearly a long bow to draw to suggest that it was a factor, let alone a big factor, in listeners/fans disliking the album. So why would someone make this claim?

Well, simply, this is another example of people trying to justify their taste. Another guilty pleasure moment. I seem to be raising this point a lot (here on literature, here on genre vs literature, here on good vs popular, and here on guilty pleasures). It is perfectly okay for you to like what you like, there is absolutely no need to try and explain away someone else’s dislike for something you enjoy. Does it really matter if you like something everyone else hates? No. So why bother trying to put it down to political ideology or how terrorists did something…. 9/11….

Worthiness, guilty pleasures, justification: all of these things are actually stopping us from just enjoying stuff. I know I’m guilty of it, but I’m trying to get over myself. The great thing about the internet is that it is full of support groups for people who like stuff. So you don’t have to agree with everyone else on what music, books, movies, art, etc, you like. You can find your niche and create memes, gifs and video clips to bombard all your other friends with on Facebook.

Isabel Allende’s scorn for genre fiction

science-fiction-vs-proper-literature

Literature vs Genre: jetpack wins!

There is a storm brewing. In the latest of the long line of insults by literary fiction against genre fiction, Isabel Allende has taken a pot shot at crime fiction. Now apparently 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.

But that didn’t stop her writing a crime mystery. It also didn’t stop her saying that the book was a joke and ironic. I think the word she was actually looking for was hypocrite.

I’ve never really understood the people who read or write stuff they don’t enjoy. Sure, I read some really boring science journal articles, but that’s because I enjoy knowing stuff. If I’m going to sit down and read a book, I want that 10-20 hours of entertainment to be, well, entertaining. If I’m writing, which is a much longer and more involved process, why would I invest that much time in something I’m not enjoying doing?

So to some extent, I understand why Isabel decided that her mystery had to be a joke and ironic. But that is also the crux of the problem, she doesn’t seem to understand that she is also insulting readers and fans of genre fiction. I think the book store in Houston, Murder by the Book, that had ordered 20 signed copies of her novel, did the right thing in sending them back.

Now you can write a satirical or ironic take on a particular genre or sub-genre of fiction. But when you do so it has to be because of your love of all those little things you’re taking the piss out of. If you do it out of hate then you can’t turn around and try to sell it to the audience you are taking a pot shot at. I think this stuff is stupid, you’re stupid for reading it, but I still want you to pay me for insulting you.

I get a little sick of snobbishness toward genre readers and writers. Do genre readers and writers take pot shots at literary authors for their lack of plots, characters who have to own a cat and be suffering, and writing that is there to fill pages with words and not actually tell a story? No. We’re too busy reading something exciting.

It would be great if people just enjoyed what they enjoyed and stopped criticising others for enjoying what they enjoy. Enjoy.

See also:
http://www.fictorians.com/2013/03/04/literary-vs-genre-fiction-whats-all-the-fuss-about/

Love it or Hate it

To read genre or not to read genre: that really isn’t the question.

With surprising regularity there are articles written explaining why people should be reading certain types of books. It isn’t just books, of course, but I’m trying not to be distracted…. puppy! The thing that these articles have in common is snobbery.

From a young age we are given lessons in snobbery, certain things are cool to read, certain things have value or social importance. These are the things we should be reading. By definition this means everything else isn’t of value and often becomes termed our guilty pleasures. I agree with the sentiments of this article that mentions guilty pleasures as being one of the phrases that makes people hate you.

The idea that something is a guilty pleasure implies that we should feel bad because we enjoy something. Well that’s just stupid. Either we enjoyed reading the book or we didn’t. Do we really have to impress others with our cool choices in reading material? I’d argue that you can enjoy whatever you like and we need to stop with the snobbery and pretence that some books are more highbrow or worthy of reading. I’d also argue that we aren’t in high school anymore and you don’t have to be cool. And reading is cool…. no, you can’t have my lunch money.

Now I don’t want to get into the argument about reasons why people read. Some people read for pleasure, some for entertainment (I’m defining those two categories slightly differently), some to explore social issues, some to learn about a topic, some to experience emotional stories, and on the list goes. For example, I don’t read scientific papers to be entertained, I read them to learn things, but the novels I read are meant to entertain me. So some people will be snobby about what they read because of why they read. I’m more interested in addressing the other type of snobbery about reading things of worth, value and not the guilty pleasures.

A lot of this snobbery comes from English Literature academics, authors, devotees and columnists. They are regularly telling us that we shouldn’t be wasting our time reading genre fiction, we should be reading the important books. You know, the ones so important that the author didn’t bother to make them entertaining. They would have us believe that reading is too important to be just entertaining, that we can’t read a science fiction, fantasy, thriller, romance or similar genre book because that would mean we haven’t read the worthy books.

Is Terry Pratchett worthy? How about Heinlein? They put more social commentary and sophisticated language into their novels than most of the literature I’ve ever read (yes, I was a literary snob at one point). And here is the problem with the snobbery argument: they are closed minded to the idea of genre books having value and thus miss out on entertaining books that also happen to do a better job of being literature.

This is also why we see 38% of people responding to reading surveys saying that they finish a book, not because they are enjoying it, but because they feel they should finish books they start. This is that snobbery having an extended impact upon our reading habits. We’ve been trained/taught to finish books that aren’t entertaining or enjoyable because of the message or value of the book, which we will only truly appreciate by wading through the boring stuff between the book covers. It will make you think, we are promised. Sure. I always think, What a waste of time, I could have read several other books instead of drudging through this crud.

I know that snobbery is very important, because those literary people would be out of a job otherwise, but can people just keep it to themselves, please? It would be nice to see more than 40% of the population being avid readers (a book a month or more). It would be nice if we bought and read books based upon what interests us and not what would look most impressive to be seen reading or have on our bookshelves. Changing this mindset would stop memes like this one:

Stupid meme is stupid.

Stupid meme is stupid – can we just agree that a book is a book, DTB, ebook, clay tablet, whatever?

It’s great that people want to impress others with what they are reading. Currently my toddler has a really impressive array of books scattered all over the house. They make for fantastic things to trip over, stub your toe on, or make us look particularly well read on the adventures of small, overly cute animals. I’m sure all the other toddlers are impressed. I still can’t wait for him to stop impressing everyone and just have them all on an e-reader. We should be reading to enjoy reading, not to decorate our house, impress others, be worthy: no guilty pleasures, just pleasures.

What the author meant

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I’ll admit it: I did English Literature in high school. I wasn’t particularly good at it. I’ll exclude all my other excuses as to why I didn’t do well in Lit – like my general lack of motivation in school and desperate need to complete the final level of DOOM – and blame my poor grades on the above graphic.

Obviously not the graphic itself, that would be silly. I mean the message that the graphic is trying to relay, and not just that the curtains may be blue. In school and even now, I find that literature is often over-interpreted. I remember clearly one example of this when we were forced to study Shakespeare’s MacBeth. Studying a play by reading it already had me wanting to throw stuff at the teacher, as plays are meant to be watched, not read. But I remember the teacher being adamant that there was a very important juxtaposition and allegory in the comedic scene of the drunken porter.

If you can’t remember this scene in MacBeth, suffice to say it is one big joke about how being drunk makes you pee and ruins erections. Dick jokes never go out of fashion.

Apparently there is a lot of deep and meaningful stuff going on….. Dick jokes can be deep and meaningful. I always thought that MacBeth chucked in that joke scene because the rest of the play was so dark, and it gave his actors a chance to change costumes before the next act. Essentially, I thought that it was just a necessity and the master playwright had made it fun for the audience. My teacher disagreed.

But that is the thing, unless Shakespeare wrote down his intentions, or there are some amazing insights recorded from his time, then it is just conjecture, or playing with themselves. Occam’s Razor would have us take the simplest answer that fits and not try to overcomplicate things.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t deeper meaning in any artistic work, far from it. But a lot of the deeper meaning is about the reader’s projection as much as what is/was written. Take as an example the list that the wonderful Mental Floss put together:
http://mentalfloss.com/article/30937/famous-novelists-symbolism-their-work-and-whether-it-was-intentional
Many famous authors, many misinterpretations.

Now some authors and genres love to go overboard with the hidden meanings, or at least like to make it seem deep and meaningful (see Steve Hely’s satire on this). Some authors just do it accidentally as part of including various themes and ideas in their work. But literary analysis really does take that interpretation to another level.

Essentially, why can’t people just enjoy a book?

Rejection letter bingo

rejection letter

 

Just a little something for all my fellow authors.

Reading Interruptions

Reading interruptions

 

Of course, the question is: does this constitute a capital offence, punishable by the death penalty?

Book Reviews: Velocity by Steve Worland

Velocity (Judd Bell & Corey Purchase, #1)Velocity by Steve Worland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whenever there is a new thriller author on the block, especially if they are Australian, there is always someone drawing a comparison to Matthew Reilly. You can just about guarantee that this comparison will be drawn by someone who hasn’t read Matthew Reilly’s books or hasn’t read the new author’s book/s. Finally there is an author with whom this comparison is valid.

Well worth the read.

View all my reviews

Women and words

words and men
Could have something to do with more women reading books. Just saying.

The top 10 books people claim to read but haven’t

tldr

Let’s face it, a large chunk of literature and non-fiction sales are nothing to do with people reading and everything to do with being seen to read. It was no surprise to early e-reader adopters that the romance and erotica genres took off as people on the bus to work could now read the stuff they wanted to without being judged. The Guardian posted this survey of readers (although I can’t find the source) listing off everyone’s favourite reading cred books, you know, the ones you claim to have read but fell asleep at page 2.

A recent survey of 2,000 people suggests that the majority of people pretend to have read classic books in order to appear more intelligent, with more than half of those polled displaying unread books on their shelves and 3% slipping a highbrow cover on books they’d rather not be seen reading in public.

The books most likely to be lied about are, naturally, the books most often filmed, talked about and studied in school (some of the respondents must have been lying since GCSE onwards). Are any of them in your pretend-I’ve-read/never-finished pile, or do you save your literary fibbing for Finnegans Wake and Infinite Jest? Share your guilty secrets below.

1) 1984 by George Orwell (26%) I have actually read this classic. I read it because Animal Farm was one of the only books I had to read in English Lit class that I actually enjoyed (I’m not counting plays, you’re not meant to read plays, you’re meant to see them performed!!!). I enjoyed it, but I can see how people would battle to read this one.

2) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (19%) Haven’t read this one and have no intention of trying. People always talk about battling through it in small chunks because it is such an important and blah blah blah book. If it was really important it wouldn’t have been so boring as to necessitate reading it in small chunks.

3) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (18%) I watched the old black and white film, does that count?

4) The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (15%) I’ve read this many times and hated it every single time. Each time I’ve re-read it I’ve done so because I felt I was too young and/or stupid to get it, so I must re-read it because I’m so much older and smarter now. Although, John Green did manage to convince me of its literary merits via Crash Course Literature, not that I’ll bother revisiting this novel.

5) A Passage to India by EM Forster (12%) I can honestly say I’ve never heard of this book.

6) Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (11%) I’ve read it, but I will admit that I did so only after seeing the first movie. I really enjoyed the book, but it was long and waffly and I can see why others wouldn’t actually finish it. I will also say that I started reading The Hobbit when I was in school and then realised that life was worth living and stopped.

7) To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (10%) Okay, I’m guilty of this one. It is on my TBR pile. I have it on Kindle and DTB.

8) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (8%) See #2

9) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (8%) I’m going to read the zombie version.

10) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5%) If there is a zombie version of this I may read it.

Bookends?

Book ends

 

I still think that the best bookends are other books. Our bookshelves are actually two layers deep, and that isn’t accounting for the two boxes of young adult books that are sitting in a cupboard because they don’t fit on any shelves.

Writing program scams

scam

On the internet there is a scam born every minute. Whilst I love to receive email from Nigerian royalty, ads for another penis enlargement (the first one was enough, thanks), and fat loss supplements that promise not to kill me, there is a line I have to draw in the sand: scamming writers.

Most writers are hobbyists, writing because they love it. The handful that do get paid enough to be full-time writers are few and far between. So targeting writers with scams means that somewhere a monkey at a keyboard is not being fed today.

Yesterday in a writers discussion group a question was raised about whether a New, Amazing, Adjective, program that promises to give you the tools to write a 400 word article in 7 minutes.

Dear Fellow Article Writer (TA: read as mark or sucker),

Did you watch the video above? It’s hard to believe so many people would send me such raving, unsolicited testimonials about my product, “How to Write an Article in 7 Minutes or Less“. (TA: Testimonials!? Wow! I’m sold!)

If you did watch the video, you saw with your own eyes how I was able to take people who spent more than an hour writing an article down to as fast as 5 minutes per article! (TA: 5 minutes? I thought you said 7 minutes. Does this mean I get a 2 minute abs program as a bonus?)

….. (TA: edited out promotional garbage about money back guarantees and how only the scammer found the secret or developed it or whatever)

Here’s how it works.

  1. Open my 3 special research sites. (TA: Wikipedia?)
  2. Use my “skim and grab” research technique to find your
    3 main points (Takes about a minute).  (TA: Yes, because reading comprehension is for suckers.)
  3. Outline each main point with two “sub points.” (another minute here). (TA: What if there is only one point?)
  4. Use the “opening paragraph” template to quickly create the first paragraph (About 30 seconds). (TA: Insert generic filler paragraph, got it.)
  5. Use the “main point” template to write paragraphs for each of your three main points. (2-4 minutes total time) (TA: So, standard writing….)
  6. Use the “conclusion paragraph” template to quickly create the conclusion. (another 30 seconds). (TA: Insert generic filler paragraph at the end.)
  7. Proof read your article, and then submit it to the appropriate directory. (1-2 minutes) (TA: Click spellcheck and hope it doesn’t miss anything.)

The cool thing about using these templates is you never have to pause to think…but… you also enough leeway so each article remains 100% unique, and of the highest quality. (TA: Yes, why would you want to actually put any thought into your writing. Highly overrated for quality content.)

Don’t worry: My method has nothing to do with plagiarism! (TA: Of course not, copy and pasting clearly takes too long.)

Anyway, you can learn all about my 7 minute article technique by reading my special report, “How to Write an Article In 7 Minutes”, and by watching the videos I made showing step by step how I do it.

But that’s not all… (TA: Steak knives?)

My first thought upon seeing the claim that you could learn to write an article in 7 minutes was that it was bullshit. The fact that people would question if it would be possible left me a little stunned, a little thirsty and thinking about having a nap. Clearly some people are going to be taken in by these kinds of scams. So I want to just illustrate my critical thinking process and how I avoided being scammed for $37 (I know, huge amounts of money).

Drawing from personal experience, I know that I’d spend more than 7 minutes just copying in the links to the research I’d be citing, let alone reading those articles. So the first check is to understand just how long certain tasks actually take you. This scam works on the idea that you don’t really measure the time it takes for common activities. You may know how long you spend on a full article or day’s writing, but not on the little parts, like one paragraph or one sentence. So when someone presents you with some figures, you are bound to think, “Well, I do spend a lot of time staring at the screen and checking my Twitter feed.” Suddenly you are partly receptive to the con.

Let’s have a look how long writing actually takes the average person. Being a science nerd, I like to have a few figures around on writing, reading, average number of Facebook posts per hour; you know, important stats. The average person has a typing speed of 60-100 words per minute, which gives you 400-700 words written in 7 minutes. The page claims a 400 word article with 5 minutes actual writing time, which is 300-500 words written. So unless you are setting world speed records, then you won’t have time to do anything other than write.

What about editing? Nothing is perfect on a first draft, nothing! So even if this is a 400 word article written in 5 minutes, you still need to edit. Reading speed is not the same as proofreading speed, with average speeds of 180-200 words per minute. That’s another 2-3 minutes.

This program is essentially promising that you will achieve touch-typing dexterity and speed that will allow you to write fast. It is also promising that you’ll have fantastic reading comprehension skills at skim reading speeds. And yet you will also somehow acquire a time machine to allow you to also plan, research and create a concise article at the same time. The fact that the scam makes no mention of boosting your reading and writing speed and giving you keys to the Deloren, shows that someone is wanting your money and your credules.

In the meantime, send me $40 and I’ll send you some templates that I guarantee will add inches to your penis and bust size, whilst making you an awesome writer and friends with Nigerian royalty. Trust me, no-one lies on the internet.

History Repeating – The 7 Plots

A friend made the comment to me recently that a film we had both watched was merely a rip-off of another film. Rip-off is a bit harsh in my opinion. If we think hard about all the books and films we’ve ever watched and then break them down into their general plots you start to see a lot of patterns. Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. Buddies team up to do something awesome. Odd couple team up to do something awesome. When all said and done, it is hard to identify anything truly original.

As a result, people often say that there are only a certain number of basic plots and that any story is really just a variation on these plots. Depending on how detailed they want to make a “basic” plot, different writers have offered a variety of solutions. An article I found lists these

1 Plot:

Attempts to find the number of basic plots in literature cannot be resolved any more tightly than to describe a single basic plot. Foster-Harris claims that all plots stem from conflict. He describes this in terms of what the main character feels: “I have an inner conflict of emotions, feelings…. What, in any case, can I do to resolve the inner problems?” (p. 30-31) This is in accord with the canonical view that the basic elements of plot revolve around a problem dealt with in sequence: “Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Denouement”. (Such description of plot can be found in many places, including: Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1992.) Foster-Harris’ main argument is for 3 Plots (which are contained within this one), described below.

3 Plots:

Foster-Harris. The Basic Patterns of Plot. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959. Foster-Harris contends that there are three basic patterns of plot (p. 66):

  1. “’Type A, happy ending’”; Foster-Harris argues that the “Type A” pattern results when the central character (which he calls the “I-nitial” character) makes a sacrifice (a decision that seems logically “wrong”) for the sake of another.
  2. “’Type B, unhappy ending’”; this pattern follows when the “I-nitial” character does what seems logically “right” and thus fails to make the needed sacrifice.
  3. “’Type C,’ the literary plot, in which, no matter whether we start from the happy or the unhappy fork, proceeding backwards we arrive inevitably at the question, where we stop to wail.” This pattern requires more explanation (Foster-Harris devotes a chapter to the literary plot.) In short, the “literary plot” is one that does not hinge upon decision, but fate; in it, the critical event takes place at the beginning of the story rather than the end. What follows from that event is inevitable, often tragedy. (This in fact coincides with the classical Greek notion of tragedy, which is that such events are fated and inexorable.)

7 Plots

7 basic plots as remembered from second grade by IPL volunteer librarian Jessamyn West:

  1. [wo]man vs. nature
  2. [wo]man vs. [wo]man
  3. [wo]man vs. the environment
  4. [wo]man vs. machines/technology
  5. [wo]man vs. the supernatural
  6. [wo]man vs. self
  7. [wo]man vs. god/religion

20 Plots:

Tobias, Ronald B. 20 Master Plots. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993. (ISBN 0-89879-595-8)
This book proposes twenty basic plots:

  1. Quest
  2. Adventure
  3. Pursuit
  4. Rescue
  5. Escape
  6. Revenge
  7. The Riddle
  8. Rivalry
  9. Underdog
  10. Temptation
  11. Metamorphosis
  12. Transformation
  13. Maturation
  14. Love
  15. Forbidden Love
  16. Sacrifice
  17. Discovery
  18. Wretched Excess
  19. Ascension
  20. Descension.

36 Plots

Polti, Georges. The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. trans. Lucille Ray.

Polti claims to be trying to reconstruct the 36 plots that Goethe alleges someone named [Carlo] Gozzi came up with. (In the following list, the words in parentheses are our annotations to try to explain some of the less helpful titles.):

  1. Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority)
  2. Deliverance
  3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
  4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
  5. Pursuit
  6. Disaster
  7. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
  8. Revolt
  9. Daring Enterprise
  10. Abduction
  11. The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
  12. Obtaining
  13. Enmity of Kinsmen
  14. Rivalry of Kinsmen
  15. Murderous Adultery
  16. Madness
  17. Fatal Imprudence
  18. Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
  19. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
  20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
  21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
  22. All Sacrificed for Passion
  23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
  24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
  25. Adultery
  26. Crimes of Love
  27. Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
  28. Obstacles to Love
  29. An Enemy Loved
  30. Ambition
  31. Conflict with a God
  32. Mistaken Jealousy
  33. Erroneous Judgement
  34. Remorse
  35. Recovery of a Lost One
  36. Loss of Loved Ones.

It is therefore inevitable that it is all just a little bit of history repeating.

More examples: The Seven Basic Plots summary and Google answers.

Writing breakdown

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Top 10 Rules for Mystery Writing

 

Crime_writing_comic
  1. In mystery writing, plot is everything. Because readers are playing a kind of game when they read a detective novel, plot has to come first, above everything else. Make sure each plot point is plausible, and keep the action moving. Don’t get bogged down in back story or go off on tangents.
  2. Introduce both the detective and the culprit early on. As the main character, your detective must obviously appear early in the book. As for the culprit, your reader will feel cheated if the antagonist, or villain, enters too late in the book to be a viable suspect in their minds.
  3. Introduce the crime within the first three chapters of your mystery novel. The crime and the ensuing questions are what hook your reader. As with any fiction, you want to do that as soon as possible.
  4. The crime should be sufficiently violent — preferably a murder. For many readers, only murder really justifies the effort of reading a 300-page book while suitably testing your detective’s powers. However, also note that some types of violence are still taboo including rape, child molestation, and cruelty to animals.
  5. The crime should be believable. While the details of the murder — how, where, and why it’s done, as well as how the crime is discovered — are your main opportunities to introduce variety, make sure the crime is plausible. Your reader will feel cheated if the crime is not something that could really happen.
  6. The detective should solve the case using only rational and scientific methods. Consider this part of the oath written by G.K. Chesterton for the British Detection Club: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow on them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”
  7. The culprit must be capable of committing the crime. Your reader must believe your villain’s motivation and the villain must be capable of the crime, both physically and emotionally.
  8. In mystery writing, don’t try to fool your reader. Again, it takes the fun out. Don’t use improbable disguises, twins, accidental solutions, or supernatural solutions. The detective should not commit the crime. All clues should be revealed to the reader as the detective finds them.
  9. Do your research. “Readers have to feel you know what you’re talking about,” says author Margaret Murphy. She has a good relationship with the police in her area, and has spent time with the police forensic team. Get all essential details right. Mystery readers will have read a lot of books like yours; regard them as a pretty savvy bunch.
  10. Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit. They’re reading to find out, or figure out, whodunit. If you answer this too early in the book, the reader will have no reason to continue reading.

by Ginny Wiehardt

Source for Image

From Writers Write Blog.

Banned Books: The Huff Post sequel

It seems that the Huffington Post are stealing my article ideas. Only three days after my article lamenting censorship of books, they do an article on the 2013 Banned Books campaign (September 22-28th).

Now I’m not bitter, in fact, I’m currently covered in orange sherbet. So this follow-up article is to add my support to the Banned Books Campaign and talk about the most frequently challenged books of last year. The annual report of the American Library Association had a lot of interesting findings. They are still having problems with publishers allowing them to loan ebooks (sigh – I bet the same arguments were made when libraries first started lending books), the people using libraries still think that they offer a very important service, they have become technology and research hubs for people, but visit rates have dropped a bit. The really interesting thing for me – because I’m not American, let alone a member of an American library, so all of those points are belly lint to me – was the top ten list of challenged books for 2012.

Here is the Office of Intellectual Freedom’s Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books in 2012:

■ Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey (offensive language, unsuited for age group) TA: Exactly what were parents expecting from a book with this title?

■ The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group) TA: Oh noes, a young adult book that doesn’t treat the readers like kids!!

■ Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher (drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited for age group) TA: Another young adult book that deals with real issues, can’t have that!

■ Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James (offensive language, sexually explicit) TA: An erotica book that is sexually explicit….. Words to describe the stupid, fail me.

■ And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (homosexuality, unsuited for age group) TA: Based on real penguins, must be evil!!

■ The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit) TA: Be warned, the characters aren’t white or Christian!!

■ Looking for Alaska, by John Green (offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group) TA: Written by John Green, so clearly the complainants were too stupid to enjoy the book.

■ Scary Stories(series), by Alvin Schwartz (unsuited for age group, violence) TA: The title clearly didn’t give the game away for some sensitive little souls.

■ The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls (offensive language, sexually explicit) TA: Real life is clearly too confronting for some readers.

■ Beloved, by Toni Morrison (sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence) TA: Someone clearly thinks that slavery is a lot more fun than the author portrayed it.

The thing I find striking about this top ten list is that the books are all multiple award winners (except that crud by EL James, which makes up for lack of awards with sales to keep a publishing house afloat). As such, I’d hazard a guess that most of the complaints are coming from people who haven’t read the book, nor let their little darlings near a book. We can only hope that next year people are too busy reading good books to complain about them.

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