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Causal Realism and Jared Leto’s Joker

Ever since those first stills of his character design, Jared Leto’s Joker has left many of us scratching our heads, trying to figure out why the portrayal seems so wrong. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but the Joker is supposed to be that way; writing “damaged” on his forehead is very on-the-nose, but this character was never intended to be subtle. The problem isn’t that his appearance is silly and over-the-top; it’s that his appearance is silly and over-the-top in a way that looks designed. You can imagine the Joker wanting to look that way, but you can’t imagine him actually going to all the work to make it happen.

The Joker might like tattoos, but would he actually sit still through multiple hours-long sessions in order to get them done? The Joker might collect knives, but does he have the patience to line them all up in a neat circle just so he can lie in the middle of it? And would anyone, however damaged, choose to write “damaged” on their forehead? What would be going through their mind?

The overall impression isn’t that this is the Joker, but rather that this is someone dressed up as the Joker. Compare this to Heath Ledger’s Joker, whose clown makeup looks slapdash and several days old. It’s actually possible to imagine him applying it.

The principle here is something I’ll call “causal realism.” Causal realism states that a design in fiction should not only look right for the character and setting, but should also have a plausible explanation for how it came to be. Causal realism is violated when, for instance, a punk street kid wears a leather jacket, fancy piercings, and elaborate hair that would cost hundreds of dollars, or when a nerdy character has a name like Dwight or Eugene, as though his parents knew at birth that he’d grow up to be a nerd.

Causal realism applies to settings, too. Somewhere in the Star Wars universe there’s an architect who keeps designing structures featuring narrow, railless catwalks over enormous drops, despite the lack of purpose for either the drop or the catwalk, and despite repeated fatalities from falls. Science fiction has a real problem with designing sets to look cool rather than to serve any practical function.

Depending on the work, causal realism may not always be an important consideration. Comedies, lighter works, and works for children may lean more heavily on suspension of disbelief. Nobody gets distracted from Harry Potter wondering who named the streets in the wizarding world and what the logic was for picking a bunch of puns.

But most works, especially those in more realistic or “hard” settings, benefit from a close examination of how all the set and character designs came to be in-universe and whether the characters actually had the time, resources, and ability they would have needed to make it happen.


This post is an expanded version of a Twitter thread posted on August 9.

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Award Arithmetic

Many people in the YA community were less than enthused when the Locus Awards announced their 2016 finalists. The YA finalists were all men, one of whom was nominated twice, and several of whom it’s questionable to classify as YA authors at all. The recommended reading list they were chosen from was itself 55% male, even though YA is vastly female-dominated, again full of authors dubiously classified as YA, and riddled with glaring omissions: No Renee Ahdieh, no Victoria Aveyard, and no Sabaa Tahir to name just a few, even though they’re all bestselling, critically acclaimed authors beloved by the YA community.

Notably, the recommended reading lists are variable length and the YA list had an odd-numbered 19 entries. So the Locus Awards didn’t exclude these and the dozens of other female authors of YA fantasy due to limited space; they simply didn’t think they were worthy of consideration for the award.

And then it came to light that in the award’s 13 years, 9 times the award has gone to a white man (not counting one coauthored book). Only two women and one man of color have ever won. Seven times–more than half–the award went to the same three men (Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and China Miéville).

Coming just two weeks after the Hugos fell victim to their second ballot-stuffing debacle in as many years, this time hilariously leading to the nomination of the Chuck Tingles dinosaur erotica story Space Raptor Butt Invasion, the Locus Awards were the last holdout of respectability for SFF awards. Naturally, voices in the sci-fi community were quick to leap on them as an exemplar of how awards should be conducted.

When YA authors, so rarely given a seat at the grown-up’s table in the SFF community, expressed their objections, they were met with a shrug, even from usually sympathetic quarters. Sure, it’s too bad that the award completely excludes women, so the response from Neil Gaiman went, but nobody cheated, so that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

Yes, we have fallen so far that an absence of slate voting is a major plus instead of an assumed baseline.

But let’s look at the middle sentence of Gaiman’s response: “But also award-winning authors who wrote popular books.” In other words, the nominations are fair because all the nominated authors deserved to win, a sentiment I saw echoed by other people as well. Let’s take it as fact for a moment (setting aside the question of whether those authors should have been in the YA category at all, or whether Joe Abercrombie was really twice as deserving as all the snubbed authors put together). This is common logic that gets applied to everything from who gets into college to who wins an Oscar. On the surface, it seems sound. Who can argue with deserving people getting rewarded? But the underlying assumptions are more complex and less innocent than they appear.

The Hugos have overshadowed this fact, but true award snubs, where an obvious shoo-in loses out to an obviously undeserving contender, aren’t terribly common. Most of the time, there are several strong contenders for an award, and while you might maintain that one of the losers should have won, you can’t usually unequivocally say that the winner shouldn’t have. The white male authors who edge out women and minorities for recognition aren’t usually guys like Chuck Tingles; they’re usually people like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, who are good writers and do deserve awards.

Thus, it’s hard to pinpoint bias in any individual case because you’d have to claim that Coraline, for instance, didn’t deserve an award. It’s only when you look at the entire landscape that a pattern develops where the deserving winners are almost always white men, while the equally deserving women and minorities walk away empty-handed time and time again.

Where are the female Gaimans and Pratchetts? The household names whose every release is a major event guaranteed to sweep the awards? There’s no lack of talented women, but without the recognition of power brokers like the ones who created the recommended reading list, they have little chance of achieving that kind of widespread recognition. Sure, there’s two-time Locus winner Catherynne Valente, but as the only solo female winner, she’s a token. She deserves better than to exist as proof that women can technically win the award. (For that matter, Gaiman deserves better than to win awards because he’s the default choice of readers who simply aren’t aware of any of the women who might provide serious competition.) Besides, she can’t be used to excuse this year’s all-male nominees.

The sentiment that it’s fair for white men to win all the awards as long as they’re sufficiently talented sends the message that women and minorities are supposed to sit down and shut up until the white men have gotten all the attention they deserve. And it sends another message, too: That the Locus Awards are just one more way the sci-fi community is out of touch.

Those Wacky Nazis

Our attitude toward Nazis is changing, and not for the better.

waitingforvader-47b5a0bEver since World War II, Nazis have occupied a unique niche as the West’s universal standard for evil*, and as such, have been the go-to model for villains in fiction for 70 years. Countless books, movies, games, and comics use Nazis as villains, and even more feature villains overtly modeled on the Nazis in their appearance, methods, or ideology. Even during the Cold War, Communists never quite had the requisite degree of absolute soulless villainy to fill this role: Lucas didn’t model his Imperial officers’ outfits on the Red Army, for instance, and Indiana Jones wouldn’t go up against Communists until 2008.

Darth-Vader-and-Darth-Vader-Jr-CosplayToday, Nazis are still treated as the embodiment of absolute evil. But as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, it is the media, not them, who have become the primary voice influencing how we understand them. Most people today, especially young people, don’t know any Holocaust survivors personally. But we’ve all seen countless movies with Nazi villains, many of them in sci-fi or other settings strongly divorced from historical reality. The influence this shift has on our culture is subtle. After all, when Nazis show up in movies, they’re the villains almost without exception. But there’s a difference between a movie villain, however evil, and a real-life mass murderer who killed millions of actual people. There’s a growing attitude that views Nazis as evil, but evil like Darth Vader. And it’s acceptable to like and even admire and emulate a movie villain (for instance, through cosplay).

Fictional villains are abstract. No matter how immersive the story, we ultimately know it isn’t real and that gives us a comfortable distance from what’s happening (hence why movie villains often commit such over-the-top acts in order to create an emotional reaction, like blowing up entire planets). Since movie villains harm no one in real life, they’re in a sense more of an aesthetic choice or a statement of one’s attitude, an attitude which some people, often a lot of people, identify with. The villain is often a movie’s most memorable character. Villains are clever, they’re stylish, they don’t play by the rules, and they always have a plan. It’s easy to see why this style, divorced from any actual misdeeds, can be appealing, as in Tom Hiddleston’s Jaguar ads, or the countless romanticized depictions of pirates that focus heavily on hats and eye makeup and only very vaguely on what they actually do.

10446208_325457630980277_6533266109160739346_oThis villainy-as-aesthetic attitude accounts for the resurgence of overt Nazi imagery and language on the internet in communities like GamerGate, which has a mascot who is—you guessed it—a literal Nazi. And also an anime schoolgirl. (No, for you sweet summer children who have never heard of GamerGate, I am not making any of that up.) They see themselves as movie villains and therefore identify with Nazis, who have been presented to them as movie villains all their lives. Most of these people are simple trolls in it for the shock value, but the boundary between them and genuine neo-Nazis is blurry, with the muddying cultural waters providing cover for a resurgence of actual white supremacy. Those who only use the aesthetic “ironically” for shock value can claim that they’re not causing any real-life harm…but then again, so can the real neo-Nazis, since they too were raised in a world where the actual repercussions of their actions are abstract, not concrete.

6-reasons-star-wars-kylo-ren-and-rey-are-soulmates-not-cousins-824178Nazis as movie villains also account for the otherwise-inexplicable Case of the Nazi Romance Novel For Such a Time. Casting a real-life concentration camp commandant as not only redeemable but romantically desirable would be both impossible and obviously reprehensible. But how about a movie Nazi? Kate Breslin isn’t writing a romance about a real Nazi and a real Jew; she’s writing the equivalent of a fanfic about Rey and Kylo Ren. And Aric’s redemption at the end is not forgiveness for killing thousands of real people, but redemption in the sense of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. Anyway, that strikes me as both the most plausible and the most generous interpretation. (ETA: The same goes for Broken Angels, the other novel featuring a romance between a Jew and a Nazi. This is getting out of hand.)

This shift in cultural attitudes is not harmless. This abstraction of Nazis from real to fictional both provides cover for real-life white supremacist movements and blunts our reaction to the actual historical atrocities**. As a fiction writer, it’s difficult to figure out the most constructive reaction. It’s a Catch-22: Any depiction of Nazis in fiction, however careful, inherently reinforces the problem, but ignoring them clearly doesn’t help, either.

So for now, I’ll simply urge everyone to remember that, however many movies they appear in, the Nazis were real people who committed real atrocities, and this is something we can’t afford to forget.


*I’m curious about who, if anyone, occupied this niche before World War II. None of the players in World War I had the necessary nefariousness, nor did earlier conquerors like Napoleon, who always had a streak of the admirable, even from his enemies’ perspective.

**Coupled with the extremely high profile of the Holocaust relative to other historical atrocities, there’s an even more insidious possible consequence: The abstraction of genocide itself into a quasi-fictional concept. According to the media, only Nazis commit genocide, and Nazis are movie villains; therefore, genocide could pass from a real, recurrent, and critically important problem into the same sort of threat as a villain taking over the world. After all, when was the last time you read a book or watched a movie about, say, the Hutus and Tutsis?

Title comes from the TVTropes page about Nazis, another good example of diluting them into a stock type defined by their appearance and mannerisms. Star Wars is the property of Disney. Darth Vader cosplay found here (Darth Vader is, of course, the property of Disney). GamerGate Nazi mascot found on Reddit, obviously. For Such a Time is the property of Kate Breslin.

Why Epistolary Novels Are a Computer-Science Problem

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An epistolary novel, for those who don’t know, is a novel told through documents written by the characters, usually letters, but sometimes also journal entries, newspaper articles, emails, postcards, notes passed in class, and whatever else the author might think up. It’s an unusual and immersive storytelling format. It’s also a challenging format with its own unique difficulties that don’t apply to traditionally narrated books. Not just the obvious difficulty of creating a plausible scenario for why the characters would be sending each other book-length accounts of their activities, but the subtler difficulty of creating something that functions both as an engaging novel and a plausible letter.

It turns out that novels and letters are fundamentally different forms of writing. Letters don’t sound like novels. How are they different? That’s where computer science comes into it.

There’s a concept in computing called endianness. Jonathan Swift fans will recognize the name but not the concept. Endianness refers to the order in which data is stored or transmitted: Either biggest value first (big-endian) or smallest value first (little-endian). For instance, if a computer were transmitting the number 123, a big-endian system would transmit the digits in the order 1-2-3, while a little-endian system would transmit them in the order 3-2-1.

This concept can be readily extrapolated from computer communication to human communication. For instance, American dates (month-day) are big-endian, while European dates (day-month) are little-endian. (American full dates, month-day-year, are middle-endian, which I think we can all agree makes no sense at all.) Languages can also have endianness: in Russian, for instance, you tend to put the most important information at the end of the sentence, making it a little-endian language. Is everyone lost yet? Great, back to epistolaries.

Now we see the difference between novels and letters: Endianness. Novels tend to be little-endian, gradually revealing information over the course of the story and saving the biggest reveals for last. Mysteries are the most obvious example: You begin the story with few facts about the murder and gradually learn more and more, culminating in the big reveal of the murderer’s identity. This makes for an engaging read, keeping the reader curious to find out the next bit of information.

Letters, on the other hand, are big-endian. Since they’re primarily meant to convey information, rather than to entertain, after the initial pleasantries they usually present the key information first and any elaborating details afterwards. An invitation might read “You’re invited to my birthday party. It’s at my place on June 7 starting at 5 PM. Please don’t bring a present.” If the sentences were in the other order, the invitation would be incomprehensible.

Little-endian communication

Little-endian communication

This presents a difficulty when combining the two formats. Nearly any narrator would logically follow the big-endian convention when writing a letter, but it wouldn’t make for a very interesting story if the hero began the account of zir final showdown with the villain by saying “I fought so-and-so and I won” and only then relating the details. (Writers of non-epistolary novels aren’t totally free of this problem: Spoken dialogue is also big-endian. Many novels feature the kind of circuitous dialogue that would have the listener smacking the speaker upside the head and telling zir to get to the point in real life.)

There aren’t many solutions to this problem. Elizabeth Wein found a clever answer in Code Name Verity: A narrator who doesn’t actually want to communicate with the person she’s writing for, and who thus has a good reason to put off mentioning the important information as long as possible. This strategy works beautifully, but unfortunately isn’t generally applicable; it doesn’t even apply to the second half of Code Name Verity. I sidestepped the issue in the laziest way possible by writing a half-epistolary and using traditional narration for the climax. But the most common solution is to simply dispense with realism and let your narrator adopt a more novel-like voice as the story progresses. Practical, but not entirely satisfying.

The lack of well-established strategies for narrating epistolary novels is probably simply a factor of the lack of modern epistolaries, lost in a tide of changing communications. Still, epistolaries are an immensely enjoyable format, and I hope there will continue to be authors who rise to the challenge.

Letter from Wikimedia Commons. Comic strip from Comedity.

Pitch Wars Blog Hop: Why I Wrote Among the Red Stars

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UPDATE: Among the Red Stars is now represented by the fabulous Thao Le of Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency!

UPDATE 2: Among the Red Stars has been acquired by Emilia Rhodes of HarperTeen! It will be released in the fall of 2017, but you can shelve it on Goodreads now.


 

Because some stories need to be told.

RaskovaIn 20 years of writing, I’ve never before encountered a story that demanded to be written, the sort of story where you’d actually be happy to discover that someone else had beaten you to the punch and written the exact same thing, because you just want it to be out there. But then, I hadn’t met the Night Witches.

I discovered the Night Witches by way of recon pilot and fabulous hat-wearer Eugenie Shakhovskaya after innocently asking my father-in-law, who is a war aviation buff, whether any women had flown in World War I. Not being particularly interested in World War II, I didn’t pay much attention to Shakhovskaya’s Great Patriotic War counterparts until I found myself with an orphaned plot thread about a female pilot who rescues a man. I toyed with possible settings. Why not a historical one?

PlaneThen I began reading about them. Young women 18 or 20 years old, flying slow, flammable wood and canvas biplanes designed as trainers and retrofitted to hold a few bombs. Shutting off their engines to glide over their targets making no sound except the whistle of wind through the control wires, a sound that reminded the Germans of witches’ brooms. Risking their lives to defend their beloved Motherland against invaders with the stated goal of wiping them all out. Why don’t we already have a book about this? Why don’t we have a movie about this?

The people. The stories. A navigator setting a distance record gets lost in the frozen Far East. A student sends a distraught letter to her astronomy professor after hearing that a bomb hit their observatory. A pilot has a confrontation with her commanding officer and later dies in a suspicious accident. Stories that demand to be told.Litvyak

But the single biggest reason I wrote Among the Red Stars is because I made the mistake of telling my father-in-law that I was thinking of writing something about the Night Witches. He promptly told everyone he knew. At that point I had to write it.

You can see my pitch and first 250 in the Pitch Wars alternate showcase here.

Illustrations, top to bottom: Marina Raskova in the Far East; Polikarpov Po-2; Lilya Litvyak and her Yak-1. You can see the entire illustration gallery (for entertainment purposes only) here. See the rest of the blog hop after the cut.

Read the rest of this entry

Women, Weakness, and Warfare

[Trigger warning for discussion of rape and sexual violence.  Spoiler warning for Garth Ennis’ Battlefields Vol. 1.]

CaucasusOne key decision I made while writing Among the Red Stars was the choice not to have any of the characters experience sexual violence.  Some people may be puzzled by this choice; after all, isn’t rape a common war crime committed against enemy women in many armed conflicts, and weren’t the Night Witches, in combat against the Nazis, particularly vulnerable?

Many atrocities took place on the Eastern Front, but the women of Aviation Group 122 make virtually no references to sexual violence. One of the only mentions comes from Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, who wasn’t a Night Witch but the commander of a mixed-gender attack squadron:

I don’t know if I lost consciousness, but when I opened my eyes there was a fascist standing over me with his boot on my chest.  I was seriously injured: I had a broken spine, head injuries, broken arms, and a broken leg.  I was burned on my knees, legs, and feet, and the skin was torn on my neck.  I remember the face of the fascist; I was very afraid that I would be tortured or raped.  (Anne Noggle, A Dance with Death 224)

8xbRKP5VjhsIn this case, it seems, she escaped sexual violence (she was thrown in a truck without any medical treatment and shipped to a concentration camp, which is surely horrifying enough on its own). There certainly may have been unreported rapes, although, as the above quote shows, they didn’t shy away from detailed descriptions of physical violence . But most of the airwomen never even met enemy combatants face to face. Rape wasn’t a defining part of the Night Witch experience as reported by the women themselves, and we owe it to them to allow them to define their own experiences. (What did sometimes happen is still prevalent in the modern military: sexual assault at the hands of their own male officers.)

But it isn’t purely a question of historicity. Thematically, how does the inclusion of a rape scene affect this kind of story?  What message does it send?

One of the few English-language fictional representations of the Night Witches is Garth Ennis’ graphic novel Battlefields: The Night Witches.  Despite its gorgeous illustrations and solid writing, it just doesn’t feel like a respectful handling of the source material. There are a lot of reasons (why does a story ostensibly about women have a male narrator and a mostly male cast?), but one major reason was the prominent role of rape in the storyline.  One Night Witch gets gang-raped and murdered by the Nazis, two more shoot themselves to escape the same fate, and a fourth is rescued by another Wehrmacht soldier, all in one short volume that only manages to give two airwomen names.

Night-Witches-#2-smallRape, a gendered threat, thus replaces death as the primary danger these women face (only one airwoman is actually killed in combat). This framing emphasizes women’s unique weakness.  Sexual violence, of course, can and does happen to men during wartime as well, but neither Battlefields nor war fiction in general acknowledges this. Thus, the focus subtlely shifts off of women as strong and heroic and onto women as weak and vulnerable.  These women aren’t defying death, they’re escaping rape.  The reader’s implicit reaction isn’t “Those total badasses,” it’s “Those poor things.”

We do need stories that tackle real-world problems like rape.  But we also need stories where women are allowed to be brave and tough and adventurous without the constant reminder that they are women and therefore vulnerable. Among the Red Stars is about real-life heroes and I intend to portray them as they portrayed themselves: as competent, determined, patriotic warriors, not as victims or “poor things.”

PO-2 illustration by me. Photo of Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova found here.

In Defense of YA Literature

Critics are used to being able to state nearly any media-related opinion with some degree of immunity, but there is one pitfall that they fall into with surprising regularity: Making an a priori declaration about the inferiority of one form of media or another and then attempting to justify it with a posteriori arguments.  This is always going to be a mistake.  Ebert fell into this trap with his curmudgeonly announcement that video games could never be art, for which he had to apologize.  Other critics ought to learn from his mistake, yet they don’t.

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsThe latest curmudgeon is Ruth Graham in this Slate article denouncing adults who read young-adult literature.  Her thesis, such as it is, is that all YA books are perfectly good for children and teenagers, but that they lack the complexity to be proper literary fare for adults.

Before I dig in, I’d like to mention that I’m not myself a fan of the young-adult genre.  My personal predilections skew towards tome-length classics with bigger casts and more subplots than you usually find in YA, and I don’t relate to most teenaged protagonists.  While there are plenty of YA books that I’d classify as “good books,” I’d hesitate to argue that there are any that qualify as “great literature,” and I have a low opinion of many books that get trotted out as examples of high-quality literature for young people, like Harry Potter.  Thus, I’m not criticizing Graham because I’m defensive about books I love.  I’m criticizing her because she’s wrong.

71MT0ceUanLIt’s difficult to know where to begin.  Like most people inclined to write off large categories of things out of hand, she doesn’t seem particularly familiar with what she criticizes–she classifies The Westing Game and Tuck Everlasting as YA books from her youth, when in fact they are both middle-grade novels for younger children–and it’s tempting to dismiss her criticisms as being simply misinformed.  But the real problems with her view run deeper.

There’s the aforementioned a priori versus a posteriori problem.  Graham, to her credit, acknowledges that it’s unfair to judge the entire YA genre based on trash like Twilight (although she fails to acknowledge that most adult fiction is also trash; the closest she comes is a sidelong jab at the inferiority of genre fiction), but she nevertheless feels confident making dismissive generalizations about YA: That adults only read it for “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia;” that it “present[s] the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way;” that “the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence.”

9781423152194_custom-576e89df094fe00930112e441b559f8db507b92e-s6-c30The problem with her reasoning is obvious: She has stated unequivocally that all YA literature is unfit for adult consumption, but then she has supported her position with a number of concrete traits that she claims all YA shares, thereby tacitly admitting that if even one YA book did criticize the teenage perspective or present an ambiguous ending, it would be worthy of adult readers and her whole position would be negated.  And, of course, there are YA books that fulfill her criteria.  I’d love to see her twist herself into a pretzel trying to explain how Code Name Verity, the entire first act of which consists of a girl being tortured by Nazis, is escapism and instant gratification.

7-A-Christmas-CarolConversely, as Neil Gaiman pointed out in a deleted tweet, the classics that she presents as examples of acceptable adult fare are guilty of the very sins that she reviles.  Charles Dickens, for instance, made likable protagonists, morally unambiguous situations, and tidy endings his stock and trade (and works like A Christmas Carol, written for children, ought to be off-limits by Graham’s standards anyway).

An even larger problem is her silly either/or framing of the issue, which makes the morally correct act not reading the wrong books, rather than reading the right books.  Either position is nonsense, of course, but at least putting a moral value on reading the “right” books is, at the end of the day, encouraging people to read, whereas Graham puts the moral value on avoiding the “wrong” books and is therefore fundamentally discouraging people from reading.  Reading a wide variety of books is apparently not an option to her; immediately after acknowledging that “[t]here’s room for pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader,” she turns around and contradicts herself by saying that people who read YA “are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature.”  This focus on the purported mediocrity of YA perversely places the wide-ranging reader of all genres on a lower moral level than someone who avoids reading the offending books by simply not reading at all.

9780375842207_p0_v6_s260x420Finally, Graham may claim that she disapproves of YA based on the experience it gives to the reader, but her essay betrays another motivation: Appearances.  She doesn’t like YA because it’s for kids and she wouldn’t want to be caught reading something for kids.  It’s right there in the subtitle: “You should feel embarrassed.”  The social pressures of reading play heavily into her reasoning.  “I know, I know: Live and let read,” she grumbles, like an oenophile who honestly resents that he can’t prevent the diner at the next table from ordering a sauvignon blanc with his steak.  Her concern about appearances explains why reading both adult and YA literature is not an acceptable solution: It’s not that reading YA prevents you from appreciating the complexities of adult literature, but that reading YA may give the appearance of not appreciating the complexities of adult literature.  Read whatever you like, but if it isn’t great literature, have the decency to be ashamed of it.

Bullshit.  If you’ve judged something to be worth reading, embrace it.  You should never be ashamed of your own likes and dislikes.  An adult would know that.

Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss is unique.

The mid-20th century was a great time for picture books in general, especially rhyming books and those with minimal words; in addition to Seuss, we had P.D. Eastman, Ludwig Bemelmans, Eric Carle, Mike McClintock, Margaret Wise Brown, and many other great authors and illustrators.  But Dr. Seuss stands out among them.  What makes him so special?

yertleMany factors; one of the reasons he’s so great is his ability to resonate in some way with just about everyone.  There are two elements that I, personally, really connect with: Didacticism and surrealism.

Didacticism may be the holy grail of children’s literature.  Parents, educators want picture books to be educational, but kids can spot edutainment (and, worse, moral education) a mile away and adamantly resist it.  Dr. Seuss stands entirely apart from this conflict.  His books do teach lessons, but we never felt like we were being educated.  Returning to these books as an adult, I’m struck by the strength of the morals in stories that, as a kid, I just liked because they were fun: From a simple exhortation to try new things (Green Eggs and Ham) to pacifism (The Butter Battle Book), environmentalism (The Lorax), and the dangers of things like prejudice (The Sneetches) and even fascism (Yertle the Turtle).

the-lorax-quoteWhy did I love these books despite the morals?  The answer is that I didn’t: There was no “despite” about it.  These weren’t great books even though they taught lessons; these were great books written inextricably around their morals.  I think the reason they are so appealing when other books with morals are not is the honesty of the message.  Nothing here evokes focus groups determining the important issues that children’s books need to address (you know you got that vibe from, say, The Berenstain Bears); instead, every story feels like an honest communication from someone who really cared about this issue and wanted you to care, too.

But there was far more to Seuss than lessons.  His books had a distinctive look that placed all of them, even the most accessible, unmistakably in a world not like our own.  There was something strange about this world, something Other, something fascinating.  And that’s my second point: Surrealism*.

Dr Seuss Clark One Fish Two FishThe Seuss books that I liked the most weren’t the ones with plots and lessons, but the celebrations of pure imagination.  One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish sounds like a simple counting/colors book, but it diverges almost immediately into strange creatures and situations: the Yink who drinks pink ink, a mouse cutting a telephone wire, the Zeds whose single hair grows so fast that it needs to be cut every day, and so much more.  The phrases are so mellifluous and fascinating: “By the light of the moon, by the light of a star, they walked all night from near to far.”  “You never yet met a pet, I bet, as wet as they let this wet pet get.”  “My hat is old.  My teeth are gold.  vipperI have a bird I like to hold.  My shoe is off.  My foot is cold.”

But my absolute favorite was Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!  This one had no overarching story at all beyond the encouragement to think and imagine; each spread introduces a self-contained setting where something interesting is happening.  Some are friendly, more are creepy, and all are intriguing.  Here, too, those simple, rhythmic words stick in your head: “Think of light.  Think of bright.  Think of stairs in the night.”

Rink-Rinker-Fink-1This book had a profound effect on me and my imagination.  Each picture provided a brief window into its own unique world operating by its own rules.  It was impossible not to wonder about them.  Is the Rink-Rinker-Fink a living creature?  A fossil?  A statue?  Is it dangerous or benign?  Why does its tooth need to be pulled?  I found myself automatically creating context and longer stories into which these vignettes could fit.  Most picture books were easy to understand, but Dr. Seuss challenged us.  He gave us material that was open-ended, not neatly resolved.

pantsWhen these two elements–didacticism and surrealism–converge, they work incredibly well together.  The bizarre imagery makes the story memorable; the otherworldliness of the setting underlines the universality of the lesson.  There are many stories about not being afraid of people who are different than you; only one includes a pair of sentient walking pants.  And believe me, I remembered.

What do you remember the most about Dr. Seuss?  What did he mean to you?

*I’m going against my own principle and using “surrealism” in the general sense, not the academically rigorous sense.

Images found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Review: Northanger Abbey

Ah, Jane Austen.  We know her, we love her, and we totally misrepresent her.

austenfinalIt seems like the popular perception of Jane Austen is “That girl who wrote Pride and Prejudice and also some other stuff.”  Pride and Prejudice itself is usually treated as a simplistic romance if we’re lucky, and a meaningless pop-culture element to be mashed into various hackneyed memes if we’re not.180px-PrideandPrejudiceandZombiesCover

We’ve totally lost sight that Jane Austen was, first and foremost, a satirist.  Pride and Prejudice has become a foundational romance work and itself fodder for parody and derivative works, but it was originally a satire, specifically a comedy of manners.  (The comedy of manners first arose in the late 18th century, but it’s better known to modern readers thanks to its resurgence in the late 19th century, most notably with The Importance of Being Earnest.)

The satire aspect of Austen’s work is never more apparent than in the underappreciated Northanger Abbey.  Written in 1798/1799 but only published posthumously, this one isn’t a comedy of manners, but rather a parody of the Gothic romances that were popular at the time.  It’s refreshingly different and, unlike the comedy of manners, this humor translates very well to the modern audience.  The protagonist, Catherine, has read a lot of Gothic novels, so when she gets invited to stay at an old abbey, she expects skeletons around every corner.  The lead man, Mr. Tilney, exacerbates this with a lot of teasing:

But you must be aware that when a young lady is (by whatever means) introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the house, she is formally conducted by Dorothy, the ancient housekeeper, up a different staircase, and along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before. Can you stand such a ceremony as this?

It’s hard not to see a bit of geek girl in the bookish, overly imaginative Catherine, with her tomboyish childhood:

She was fond of all boy’s plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush.

Mr. Tilney, meanwhile, is one of my favorite Austin leading men.  There isn’t a hint of the dark, brooding, tortured archetype that show up in other literature of the era (I’m looking at you, Brontës); he’s mostly silly and snarky and feels like someone who would be fun to hang out with, unlike, say, Mr. Darcy, who feels more suited to be an object of adoration than an actual friend.  There aren’t as many of Austen’s famous character studies here as in her other books, but there are a few that are spot on, especially the mansplainy James Thorpe:

“Have you ever read Udolpho, Mr. Thorpe?”

“Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do.”

Catherine, humbled and ashamed, was going to apologize for her question, but he prevented her by saying, “Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones, except The Monk; I read that t’other day; but as for all the others, they are the stupidest things in creation.”

“I think you must like Udolpho, if you were to read it; it is so very interesting.”

“Not I, faith! No, if I read any, it shall be Mrs. Radcliffe’s; her novels are amusing enough; they are worth reading; some fun and nature in them.”

“Udolpho was written by Mrs. Radcliffe,” said Catherine, with some hesitation, from the fear of mortifying him.

Northanger Abbey being one of Austen’s first novels, its problems are mostly technical.  The plotting isn’t very precise; the story feels completely lost at the beginning and requires a couple of coincidental meetings to get going.  Austen seems at a loss for decent impediments to put in the way of Catherine and Mr. Tilney’s relationship; instead she just delays it until later in the book.  We don’t even arrive at the titular abbey until more than halfway through.  But these are generally minor complaints that don’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the book.

You can get it for free from Project Gutenberg here.

Hark, A Vagrant is by Kate Beaton.  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies cover from Wikipedia.