Tag: literature

literature

Scandalous! Examining Sex in Banned Literary Classics.

“The material to which children are being exposed in certain classes in Republic Schools is shocking… This is a book that contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame. The “f word” is plastered on almost every other page. The content ranges from naked men and women in cages together so that others can watch them having sex to God telling people that they better not mess with his loser, bum of a son, named Jesus Christ.”–Wesley Scroggins, Springfield News Leader The book that Scroggins was suggesting banning from the public school curriculum back in 2010–not in the 1970s, as one might expect–was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, a classic anti-war novel regularly listed in the top 100 books of the century by literary scholars. Reading his editorial, one might expect to find a graphic sex scene a la Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream. In reality, not much happens. The PTSD-suffering hero, Billy Pilgrim, is transported (or believes he has been transported) by aliens into a zoo in which human beings are observed by little green men. An actress is sent there to be his mate. They’re both nude, a detail that is stated rather matter-of-factly in the text. The actress, Montana, is understandably frightened. And… wait for it… nothing happens.  Eventually, a couple passages later, it is revealed that they had intercourse with all the pornographic detail of a college manual on affirmative consent.  “In time, Montana came to love and trust Billy Pilgrim. He did not touch her until she made it clear that she wanted him to. After she had been on Tralfamadore for what would have been an Earthling week, she asked him shyly if he wouldn’t sleep with her. Which he did. It was heavenly.”–Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five.  Sexual morality is really subjective. And one man’s scandalous will always be another’s “what’s the big deal?”  But the bigger problem with critics of sex in literary classics is that they are interpreting the scene as about the physical act of intercourse and not seeing what the writer intended to reveal about the character or society through the sex scene. Literary writers–in fact, most writers that don’t specialize in erotica–have no interest in penning porn. What we want to do in an intimate scene isn’t titillate but provide perspective on our character and the world in which they live.  Vonnegut was writing about a character whose psyche had been wrecked by war. The alien scene mirrors his own abuse at the hands of German soldiers. The sex scene illuminates Billy Pilgrim’s own powerlessness with regard to one of the acts that people view as integral to their humanity–the choice whether or not to procreate with another person. Pilgrim doesn’t even have a choice whether or not his forced compliance will excite him or not, as he later has a wet dream thinking about this incident. The sex scene is about how his experiences have robbed him of agency.  Let’s take another scene in a more modern classic: Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner. In the scene, which I won’t excerpt here because of length, a young boy is gang raped by bullies while his friend (the narrator) hides. The scene, while horribly painful to read, is necessary because it is what brings about the protagonist’s moral crisis, the running from which defines his life. One of the central questions that the protagonist asks in Hosseini’s book is can you be a good person if you look the other way when bad things happen? The answer that I believe it delivers is “no.” And getting to that answer, along with the protagonist, requires that the reader appreciate the horrors of what we turn a blind eye to.  If a reader sees the scene only as a horrifying gang rape, he misses the point–and, because of that, naturally wants the book banned. I’d argue that no parent wants their sixteen and seventeen year old kid reading about gang rape. What we should want, as a society though, is to create sensitive people that can understand how our humanity erodes when we ignore the horrors around us.  My all time favorite on the banned list because of sex is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which I had the privilege of reading in high school. In the book, Cholly Breedlove rapes his daughter Pecola. The rape and incest is repulsive and depressing, even seen, as it is, through the eyes of the rapist.However, Morrison doesn’t include it for shock value. She is illuminating how a life filled with abandonment and demoralizing prejudice has warped Cholly, as well as trying to show how pain is passed through generations as sure as any abnormality in the DNA. As Tupac said, The Hate You Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.  If there is a lesson for writers to take away from these banned classics, it is that a sex scene should always be about far more than sex. That’s what separates even graphic scenes in literature from pornography. If there is a lesson for readers, it’s to look beyond the descriptions of the physical acts to what the writer wants you to see: the characters, the emotions, the plot–even the moral.  In the best sex scenes, there’s always a moral.     

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Left of Center

We recently completed mini-“personality type” assessments at work, sort of Myers Briggs Light. The assessment grouped us into four broad categories that corresponded to the Meyers Briggs acronyms. One group consisted of innovative rule breakers, another of detail-oriented rule followers, another of analytical loners, and a final group of gregarious harmonizers. (I fell nowhere near that last group, by the way.) While the survey painted a surprisingly accurate picture of our work and interpersonal styles, it didn’t delve into the descriptions we think of in our day-to-day, away from the workplace, sense of the term “personality;” descriptions like cheerful, moody, somber, and—my favorite—quirky. While writing about dysfunctional protagonists for yesterday’s post, I thought about my favorite characters, the ones I love, who jump out at me from the page or screen, who stick with me long after I leave the theater, turn off the TV (or exit the streaming app), or close the book covers. I realized they’re all quirky. Some are more unusual than others but they all peg out somewhere on the positive end of the quirk scale. Bobby Goren, Mike Shepherd, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe—they all exhibit unusual traits, odd characteristics, or strange habits that endear them to me. The quirks themselves are part of the appeal. They serve as mnemonics. He’s the one with the clockwork schedule, he’s the one with the outrageous mustache, he’s the one with the knack for ferreting out obscure patterns, he’s the one who talks to corpses. But, mostly, I’m drawn to unusual people, real and fictional. Remarkable people. People rooted left of center with peculiarities born of riveting backstories.
 I have noticed that, unlike in life, my favorite fictional quirky characters are all male. No quirky female characters come to mind as I write this. This is not a good thing. Female characters are allowed to be kind, supportive, devious, competent, or manic pixies but not quirky. Or are they? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe quirky women hide in the pages of books I haven’t read yet or in scenes of movies not yet seen. I hope so. How would you describe the personalities of your favorite characters? 

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Next Stop: Dysfunction Junction

  One of my favorite TV series is “Midsomer Murders,” the British cozy-cum-police procedural set in small town England, now in its twentieth season. Other, newer favorites include “The Brokenwood Mysteries,” a darker cozy-cum-police procedural set in small town New Zealand, and “Hinterlands,” so dark it’s actually Scandi-noir masquerading as village fare, set in small town Wales. All three shows share commonalities. They focus on police investigation of crimes in rural areas with adjusted per capita murder rates that rival Chicago’s. The biggest difference between the three is the degree of dysfunction in the main characters. Midsomer’s DCI Barnaby is an ordinary guy, a well-adjusted everyman with a well-adjusted wife and daughter. His home life is ordinary, if not outright idyllic. The drama and trauma occur on the job. Brokenwood’s DSS Shepherd, on the other hand, is a man with a complicated past that includes several ex-wives and at least one dead one. You get the sense he’s experienced a lot of unhappiness in a life accented by the show’s country/alt rock soundtrack. Hinterland’s (the darkest of the shows) DCI Mathias makes Kurt Wallander look like the president of the pep club in comparison. Devastated by the death of one of his children, he’s lost his wife and home and spends as much time battling inner demons as he spends tracking murderers.

Dysfunctional protagonists seem to be the “thing” in modern books, TV, and movies. The damaged hero is often as “messed up” as the villain. It’s gotten to the point where you wonder if there’s an unofficial competition to create the world’s most broken protagonist. I’ve heard authors admit to “piling on” the trauma, going out of their way to load down their character’s pasts with as much tragedy and affliction as possible. I’ve read some books where the author went so far with the dysfunction device, the protagonist (and most of the supporting characters) ended up being a walking collection of problems that bogged the story down more than advanced it. The dysfunctional hero trope is so common it’s now used to comic effect. Wreck-It Ralph, a hilarious movie about the secret lives of arcade game characters, explicitly describes one as “being programmed with the most tragic backstory ever”. The Ref, a hilarious movie about a home invasion, plays on the idea that the victims are so screwed up, the “bad guy” ends up becoming their counselor.

I’m not opposed to dysfunction in film and literature on general principle, as long as the dysfunction is an integral part of the story and not just something glommed onto a character in an effort to be trendy. Some of my favorite characters have issues. I’ll add Det. Bobby Goren to the ones mentioned above. A schizophrenic mother, a uninvolved stepfather, and a serial killer biological father certainly put the quirky star of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” high on the screwed-up life list. But I do think dysfunction has been overdone. It’s so prevalent, it’s become humdrum. Take a pill, already, see a therapist. Some authors (including authors of screenplays) don’t even try anymore. They grab a psychopathology textbook and saddle their protagonists with a laundry list of complexes and personal problems, occasionally throwing in a physical issue or two for variety, and call it a day. They assume that’s all that’s required to create a character worth sticking with for a couple hundred pages or a couple of hours in a theater or past the first commercial break. But “effed up” is not a synonym for interesting. I admit syrupy-sweet, “perfect” characters with charmed lives are annoyingly Pollyanna-ish. Average characters, however, are not. At least they don’t have to be. Don’t we all know at least one “basically normal” person who interests us? A dysfunctional background is not a prerequisite for drama and conflict. And well-adjusted doesn’t mean nothing bad ever happens. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Look at the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. James Stewart and Doris Day epitomize middle-class normality on vacation. Then they witness a murder. Then their daughter is kidnapped. Bad things. Not boring. In Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, an average, well-adjusted girl must confront the fact that seemingly normal, well-adjusted Uncle Charlie may not be. The ordinariness, bordering on banality, of the people and the town heighten the suspense and terror in the film. The devil comes to visit Norman Rockwell. In Suddenly, Frank Sinatra’s hitman holds an average family hostage in their ordinary home as part of his plot to assassinate the President. Nothing dull about that. The Slender Thread offers “regular-guy,” college student Sidney Poitier as a crisis hotline volunteer who must locate the suicidal woman who calls him before the pills she swallowed have their intended effect. Plenty of drama. Normal is not a synonym for snooze-fest.

Unbroken heroes can carry a story as well as broken ones. They can confront the same danger, conflict, and obstacles. What differs is how they handle those things. A protagonist from a happy, or at least functional, background is already out of her comfort zone when she’s unexpectedly faced with a crisis or put into dangerous circumstances. Instant drama. A character from a dysfunctional background is used to trauma, expects conflict, approaches the world from the assumption that rotten things are more likely to happen as not and life kind of sucks. They’ve developed survival skills to get them this far, survival skills they can call on to help them through the next trauma, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise in their hyper-vigilant existence. But a character who’s never experienced adversity, never had to learn to cope? Someone who, like the subject of the Mighty, Might Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get,” has “never been tested”? They have no survival skill set to fall back on, no ingrained coping mechanisms. The “untested” hero faces a steep learning curve in the “deal with it or die” game. How would someone who led a charmed life cope when that charm wears off? What does someone do when their basic assumptions–that life works out the way you want it to, that the world and people in it are basically good, that terrible things only happen to nonspecific “others”–prove wrong? When life which seemed so pleasant and harmless rears up without warning and smacks them upside the head? Then kicks them in the teeth? Do they crumple, unable to dip into their reserves and find a way to fight back? Do they rail against the injustice about to crush them, angry that they did all the right things and got sucker punched anyway? Lose faith because they didn’t get what they thought they deserved? Or do they rise to the challenge? Show their resilience? Draw on strengths they didn’t know they possessed–or borrow strength from others–and overcome the obstacles? How do they change, knowing the world isn’t really the warm, safe place they once believed it to be?

Which side of the dysfunction junction do you fall on? The more problems the better? Enough with the traumatic backstory already? Somewhere in the middle? No preference as long as it’s a well-drawn character involved in a gripping plot?

 

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I Can't Go For That, No, No Can Do…

   I read a blog post a few weeks ago about a novel that had celebrated—or notorious, depending on which side of the debate you fell on—twist ending. Comments on the blog lined up in one of two columns—loved it or hated it. The haters complained the book had run afoul of one of their pet peeves: cop-out/too-convenient endings, genre switching, unconvincing characters, etc. The reactions to that novel prompted me to ask my fellow Missdemeanors:  What do you hate most in fiction writing, mystery or otherwise? What’s your pet peeve? Alexia: I hate it when a mystery author conceals a fact from readers when that fact is critical to solving the puzzle, then has the sleuth produce the fact out of nowhere, leaving readers saying, “Where’d that come from?”. For example, Snuffy Smith’s long-lost identical twin is revealed as the murderer but his twin was never, even once, mentioned/hinted at/alluded to–not even the suggestion of the possibility Snuffy might have a twin–before the big reveal.  That’s cheating. To paraphrase the rules of the Detection Club, a detective can’t have out-of-the-blue hunches that turn out to be right, can’t withhold clues from the reader, the solution to the crime can’t be chalked up to “divine revelation, feminine intuition, mumbo jumbo, jiggery pokery, coincidence, or Act of God”.(I’ll make allowances for “Act of God” if it’s a paranormal mystery and God is the sleuth.) Michele: Since you asked, and since I recently ranted about this on Facebook… I hate it when an author pulls a cheap trick at the end of a book so that the reader is unfairly surprised. It’s a variation of what Alexia has said. Instead of spinning a plot that thrilled the reader, in a book I recently read, the author purposely deceives the reader about something not central to the plot and uses it as a cheap “thrill” at the end. If it weren’t on my Kindle, it would have been the third book I’ve thrown across the room in my entire life. The author used the deception as substitute for an exciting plot twist. Years ago, I read a book while sick with the flu that had fabulous writing, a good plot, likable characters. There was no hint that it was going paranormal until at the very end, a character walked through a door. I mean THROUGH A DOOR. And don’t get me started on the one Anita Shreve pulled. At a conference, she told livid readers that she still gets complaints on what she did in one of her books, years later. (No spoilers here). Come on, guys. Play fair! Cate: I hate it when the villain is just evil. Bad people typically have a way of justifying their actions or they weren’t fully in control when they did the bad thing and now feel remorse. I HATE the sociopathic gun-for-hire killers. Fine if the writer explains how the killer got that way—a lá Grosse Pointe Blank. But I refuse to accept the bad-just-because explanation. Robin: I have 2 pet peeves in all genres:1) “Was.” I stopped reading a best seller on page 2 after counting 26 instances of “was.” Used sparingly it can be appropriate but not 26x in the first 2 pages. Whenever I see “was,” I rewrite the sentence in my head to make it active rather than passive. Overuse just exhausts me and irritates my inner editor.2) “Fortunately” or “unfortunately.” This kind of echoes your sentiment, Alexia. These statements of coincidence dropped out of thin air with no prior context will make me stop reading. Show me the build-up as characters arrive at their opinions of good or bad circumstances, or lead me to draw my own conclusions as the story unfolds. The only time I kept reading past the repeated use of “unfortunately” was Gone Girl. It fit with the character’s voice (no spoilers so I’m not saying who said it). Susan: I hate it when I get to the end of a book and can’t remember who on earth the suspects are. You could insert any name and it wouldn’t matter. Then comes the big reveal and I think, Oh. Nice. Who? Paula: I’m not a big fan of ambiguous endings. Nor endings which play out the theme of “Life is shit.” I don’t mind “life is shit but it’s all we’ve got so enjoy what you can,” but the “life is shit, we may as well all slit our wrists now” endings I find intolerable. I don’t need a happy ending, but I at least want a hopeful one. Tracee: Can I simply agree with you all? My pet peeves are variations on your themes, although the ‘life is shit’ one is really a no-go for me. Purely evil character with no deeper meaning is probably second. Honestly, I’m so fixated on making Michele tell us which Anita Shreve pulled the ‘character out of the air’ trick that I can’t focus on anything else. I haven’t read all her books, so don’t think I simply don’t remember it. I’m going to take Michele out for drinks at Malice and force her to tell me. Then maybe that will be my top pet peeve.

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Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do…

 Another confession. I’m crushing on men who don’t exist. No, I’m not delusional. I have fictional crushes. It’s a thing. Google it. I watched Father Brown, the BBC series streaming on Netflix, last night while doing my taxes. (Filed ’em at 11:55 pm–all hail the Queen of the Last Minute.) By the time I hit send in the e-file program, I realized (read: admitted) I had a crush on Inspector Sullivan and Hercule Flambeau. An odd dichotomy to crush on–a by-the-book law enforcement officer and a ruthless master thief. But they have something in common. They’re both Father Brown’s antagonists. Inspector Sullivan reminds me of Inspector Javert. Not actually a villain, but a man so dedicated to law and order he’s sometimes blinded to the greater cause of justice. Flambeau, on the other hand, is an antagonist along the lines of Professor Moriarty. A criminal mastermind, he’s Father Brown’s true nemesis. What, aside from the skill of the casting director in choosing talented, attractive actors, makes antagonists on-screen (and in-print) crush-worthy? Or at least appealing? Unforgettable? What draws us to the Dexter’s, Jokers, Moriartys, Voldemorts, and, yes, even Lucifers of the fiction world? I doubt there’s a single answer. Each reader and viewer has their own thoughts about what makes a good bad guy. Someone told me they preferred villains who behaved badly because some past experience damaged them. No bad-just-because allowed. I like antagonists who either aren’t villains–the single-minded or overzealous or rigid cop who opposes the unorthodox sleuth but ultimately wants the same thing, to see justice prevail and order restored–or the bad guy who offers some hope, however tiny, of redemption, the villain whose dormant (but not absent) conscience flares up occasionally and spurs them to do the right thing. Some like antagonists who are so well-crafted and fully developed they generate a visceral reaction, even if the reaction is to the completeness of their evil. What do you think makes a bad guy oh-so-good? Do you go for the villain who feels remorse? The one you hope to  (vicariously) save? Or the one you love to hate?

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Good Bad Guys

 I binge-watched “American Greed” on Hulu tonight. The show, in its eleventh season, airs on CNBC. Stacey Keach narrates each episode which details a fraud investigation. The show doesn’t focus as much on the law enforcement officers and prosecutors who pursue the fraudsters as it does on the con artists who commit the crimes. That’s what fascinates me about the show—the look inside the mind of a criminal, what motivates a person to lie, cheat, and steal. I remember someone in one of my writing classes asked about creating an antagonist. I don’t recall the exact wording of the question but the gist was, how do you create a believable, relatable villain? The answer was, make sure the villain is the hero of his or her own story. Every villain has a reason for their actions. Their motivation for doing what they do makes sense to them even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else. When I’m plotting a mystery the first things I figure out are whodunit, howdunit, and whydunit. Literature has given us spectacular villains, some as remarkable as the heroes they oppose. Professor Moriarty,  Mr. Ripley, County Dracula, The Joker, Cruella DeVil. In 2013, The Washington Post published a list of “best” literary villains.https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-greatest-villains-in-literature/2013/09/12/fa7dd6c6-0e74-11e3-85b6-d27422650fd5_story.html?utm_term=.f6f39f348116 Who are some of your favorite bad guys? 

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