Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Women in Horror – a Brief Primer.


Since it’s Halloween, I thought it would be fun to talk about women in horror movies. I must confess that I’m not the biggest fan of modern horror movies because I am a complete wimp. My main interests lie in the Universal monster films of the 20s and 30s as well as some of the RKO films from the same period (Cat People is a particular favourite), Hitchcock movies and good old Hammer Horror, although there are some horror films outside of that period that I love, and will mention later.

An interesting thing I found out whilst researching this post was that horror movies are more likely to pass the Bechdel test than films traditionally aimed at women, mainly because the female characters present are more concerned with not dying than getting the guy. However, this doesn’t give the genre a free pass in terms of female representation. I’m sure we’ve all seen at least one slasher movie where the scantily clad girl is chased screaming and crying around the house by a masked weirdo. Of course, there’s also the age old horror movie rule regarding bad behaviour, virgins, and the last girl standing. Horror can be a double-edged sword for women: a mixture of passivity and autonomy, equal parts likely to save the day or be slaughtered horribly. The Scream Queen is a staple of horror film history, even when said films were silent (“Nosferatu” and “Phantom of the Opera” are two examples).

I should note that this list is in absolutely no way comprehensive and I’ve probably missed out a bunch of amazing women positive horror films simply because it’s not my preferred genre, so please leave your own recommendations in the comments section, and maybe some books as well, particularly YA. I would also highly recommend the BBC series “A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss” if you can find it. Who doesn’t want to hear Mycroft Holmes talk about vampires?

Cat People (1942 – Dir. Jacques Tourneur).

In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood was in the middle of a horror boom thanks to the now iconic Universal monster movie series, featuring the likes of “Dracula”, “Frankenstein” and “Phantom of the Opera” (all of which I’d recommend, particularly the last one, but only the silent one). Other studios started trying to jump on the bandwagon, with varied levels of success. RKO hired producer Val Lewton to quickly make cheap horror movies for the studio with eye-catching titles, and “Cat People” was the first produced. “Cat People”, the story of a young Serbian woman called Irena who believes herself to be descended from an ancient race of people who turn into cats when sexually aroused, is one of the pioneers of the horror genre. If you’ve ever watched a scene where tension is built up slowly and quietly, only to be broken with a jump scare, then you have this movie to thank or blame (it’s a technique known as the Lewton Bus). Full of shadows, ambiguity and the ever unseen threat, “Cat People” is also an interesting case as the feared figure of the story is a sympathetic woman and her sexuality. For a film made in the 1940s, it’s a pretty progressive route to take, particularly given the heavy levels of censorship films were subjected to thanks to the Hays Code. The 1982 remake is an entirely different kettle of fish, one that’s way trashier and more incestuous (and has music by David Bowie), but worth your time. Just don’t expect quite the same level of gender progressiveness.

Alien (1979 – Dir. Ridley Scott).

Ridley Scott is sort of a feminist hero. Between “Alien”, “GI Jane” and “Thelma and Louise”, Scott has been one of the pioneers of portraying progressive, non-sexualised women in autonomous roles in film. They’ve got agency, they’re not obsessed with sex, and they don’t exist solely for the male gaze. The “Alien” franchise features one of the most popular feminist characters in film – Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, although interestingly, she isn’t really the protagonist of the first film until about halfway through. Before that, she is one part of a diverse crew, where gender really doesn’t matter. This is something that the sort-of-but-not-really prequel “Prometheus” also pulled off successfully, although the film as a whole is not quite as good (worth seeing for Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender and one very disturbing scene). Better people than me have written about Ripley’s influence on film (including this fantastic essay.)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984 – Dir. Wes Craven).

I’ve always been somewhat sceptical of Wes Craven’s given moniker of being the master of modern horror, but his influence on the genre cannot be denied. While his arguably most famous franchise does employ many of the tropes of the slasher genre seen in earlier films such as “Halloween”, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” also successfully subverts them and created, at the time, something very new. Since Freddy Krueger has become so synonymous with horror and became a bit of a punch-line in the later movies, it’s hard to remember just how straight up trippy and different the film was upon its release. It’s a genuinely terrifying concept – you can maybe outrun a knife-wielding man in a mask but you can’t beat your own body’s need to sleep. Nancy Thompson, the film’s protagonist, may embody some of the tropes of the innocent virginal last girl standing, but she’s also incredibly smart young woman who cares about others and confronts the demon full on. She breaks down the rules imposed on young women in horror by earlier films and, using her resources and a fierce intellect, takes on the monster. Craven would later go on to do this with another pioneer of the genre, which I’ll discuss later.

The Company of Wolves (1984 – Dir. Neil Jordan).

Angela Carter reworks “Little Red Riding Hood”. Need I say more? Remember all the subtle sexual metaphors present in the original tale? Carter blows them up for all to clearly see then subverts the shit out of them, as she was prone to doing. The film’s about as subtle as a bag of hammers but that’s what makes it so interesting. It’s packed full of hypnotic and latent sexual imagery, brilliant special effects, and the exploration of sexuality, with bonus Angela Lansbury. The characterisation is somewhat weak, but I think that was deliberate. This is a piece way more concerned with ideas and imagery than characters. Sexing up fairytales seems to be coming back into fashion, so check out the master doing it first, with bonus Angela Lansbury.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991 – Dir. Jonathan Demme).

Confession time – when I first read the Hannibal Lecter series aged 13 or 14, Clarice Starling was my hero. Having spent a large chunk of my youth reading gruesome thriller novels with stubborn and bitter male detectives solving the case, it was a huge deal for me to read a smart, determined and complex female character taking on the dark side of human nature. Pretty much every female detective of the past 20 years of crime fiction owes at least something to Clarice (which is why I was so heartbroken to see Thomas Harris shit all over my heroine with “Hannibal”, because essentially turning one of the FBI’s top agents into a broken zombie puppet is so empowering. I will seriously never get over this!) I classify the movie more as a horror than a thriller personally. The tension throughout is sometimes unbearable, and the scenes between Jodie Foster’s Clarice and Anthony Hopkins’s now iconic Hannibal Lecter are the stuff of movie legends. It’s important for me to note that “The Silence of the Lambs” features some less than progressive elements in relation to gender and sexuality with the inclusion of the villain, known as Buffalo Bill. It’s easy to toss these criticisms aside as simply ignorance of the time (although the film was released amidst a growing demand for better LGBTQ representation in a medium that tended to portray them as psychos and victims) but it’s important to not overlook them.

Scream (1996 – Dir. Wes Craven).

Time for more Craven. This film was a staple of my childhood, along with “Friday the 13th”, and the pair feels like a natural double bill. Once again we have Craven paying homage to the genre that made his name while subverting the hell out of the rules he helped to create. It’s got enough self-awareness and sheer wit to pull off what is an impeccable satire of both horror movies and our attitudes towards them. It’s also genuinely funny, yet the dark humour never overshadows the shocks, which come thick and fast even to those who know all the rules. Sidney Prescott is a whip smart and often very cynical heroine shoved into an unenviable situation and reminds me of Nancy Thompson in many ways. I recommend the first two sequels with hesitation (haven’t seen number 4) but nothing beats the first, which still feels fresh to this day.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006 – Dir. Guillermo del Toro).



Let’s get this out of the day. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is most definitely a horror movie, not a fantasy, because the scariest thing in the film isn’t the fairy-tale creatures (although the Pale Man comes pretty bloody close) but the all too real horror of Franco’s Spain, a period in history that is still raw for many. I’m a total sucker for film-makers who can deftly combine the beautiful with the grotesque, and del Toro is arguably the best in his field right now (would somebody please give him money to make his Lovecraft film?) While “The Devil’s Backbone” is more traditional Halloween fare (and I also highly recommend it), I prefer “Pan’s Labyrinth” because of its sheer imagination. There’s enough creativity in this to fill ten generic Hollywood slasher films, and the heroine Ofelia is the true personification of the complexities of being a child (because, let’s face it, being young really sucked sometimes). I adore del Toro’s work (my favourite film of his, and actually my 20th favourite film of all time, is “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army”) and would recommend anything of his, but for a suitably spooky selection, try his loosely connected Spanish language horror trilogy of “Cronos” (a vampire movie with a mythological twist), “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”.

As I said above, I’m sure there are many more I’ve forgotten about or just haven’t seen, but I hope this is a good place to start off, and I hope you have a wonderful Halloween. As for me, I shall be in my pyjamas eating cake and watching black and white horror movies and ending the night in the traditional manner with a jump to the left…. Enjoy!



Monday, October 29, 2012

Sex in Mainstream YA - Sluts, the shaming of young women & the sexual double standard.


Here’s a little experiment you can try right now. Pick a popular YA romance of the past 6 or so years. Search for it on Amazon or Google Books, and open up the function to search within the book. Search for the words “slut” and “whore”, or any other derivative of those words. Then search for “player” or “man-whore” or “stud” or whatever the male equivalent is these days. Count how many times they appear.

House of Night: Marked (PC and Kristin Cast). Ho/ho-bag = 5 mentions. Slut = 3 mentions.

House of Night: Betrayed (see above). Ho = 5 mentions. Slut – 2 mentions

House of Night: Chosen. Ho/ho-bag = 9 mentions. Slut = mentions.

House of Night: Untamed. Ho/Ho-bag = 3 mentions. Slut = 2 mentions.

House of Night: Hunted. Ho/ho-bag = 2 mentions. Slut = 1 mention.

House of Night: Tempted. Ho/ho-bag = 2 mentions. Slut = 1 mention.

Fallen (Lauren Kate): “Not everyone at Sword & Cross is a whore of a jock.” (Page 60).

Evermore (Alyson Noel):

-          On Damen (the romantic hero): “Because the truth is, that’s just Damen. He’s a player.” (Page 62).

-          “Damen’s a player. Pure and simple.” (Page 85).

Born at Midnight (C.C. Hunter):

“Why is he old news?” … “Because he left me for some slut who would put out, that’s why.”

Whispers at Moonlight (C.C. Hunter):

“Sometimes I have sex on the brain,” Miranda admitted. “Well, I mean, I think about it. Does that make me a slut?”

Crescendo (Becca Fitzpatrick). Ho = 2 mentions. Slut = 2 mentions. Whore = 2 mentions.

-          On Patch (the romantic lead): “He really did see us as conquests. He was a player.” (page 186).

-          On Marcie (the female antagonist): “New cheerleading uniforms. The squad wants ones with bare midriffs, but the school’s too cheap to spring for new ones, so I’m fundraising.”
“This should be interesting,” Vee said. “The term Slut Squad will take on a whole new meaning.” (Page 217).

I’ve written extensively about the Hush Hush series (which I still refuse to call a saga) and my distaste for it, particularly with the slut-shaming tactics used in the characterisation of the female antagonist Marcie. This character, essentially pitched as the polar opposite of heroine Nora, is barely given the dignity of a three dimensional character. In lieu of complexities, nuance and anything resembling a real emotion, Marcie is characterised solely as the “slut”. She’s bad because she has sex (or is at least promiscuous in her behaviour) and she acts sexually because she’s bad.  She wears provocative clothing, is open about her sexual desires and kisses Patch AFTER he’s broken up with Nora (who breaks up with him because he can’t feel anything for her sexually due to being a fallen angel, even though he admits he feels for her emotionally, thus cementing Nora’s priorities). Honestly, Marcie ended up being my favourite character in the book because I felt so sorry for her. I felt even sorrier for her when I saw the reactions of some fans of the book on GoodReads:


Of course, nobody puts their view of Marcie across clearer than the book itself:

Marcie puts out,” said Vee. “That’s the only reason. She’s a pig. A rat.

A pig.

A rat.

Marcie Millar is not even worthy enough to be considered a human being because she is the “slut”.  Is it any wonder that these books angered me as much as they do, and this is only the tip of the sexist, slut-shaming, rape culture iceberg that this book romanticises, uses and abuses?

The most disappointing but entirely unsurprising element of this characterisation of female sexuality is that it entirely contrasts that image we’re given of the romantic hero, Patch. For a long time, I considered Patch to be the single most insulting thing ever created for YA. Sadly, he no longer is but he’s certainly still in the top five. He’s the archetypal bad boy whose heinous actions, words and treatment of other characters, particularly women, is overlooked because they’re characterised as “bad boy” actions, and said actions deem him sexy. This is the character who holds his supposed one true love down on a bed as she struggles to break free and describes how he’s been trying to kill her. All of his actions are forgiven because he’s the designated love interest, including his sexual promiscuity. Of course, because Patch is a man and therefore cannot be the same sort of threat to Nora that her supposed nemesis Marcie is (I’m not kidding, she’s actually described as her nemesis, as if she’s Loki or The Joker), he’s described as a “player”. Sex is a game that men play, according to this series, but for women it’s a tool to lessen their worth as a human being.

Unsurprisingly, Patch cannot stay promiscuous if he wishes to remain the love interest, because polygamy hasn’t quite become fashionable in YA, due to the law or something. The “I can change him” plot-line is nothing new, and of course the personality free Nora is somehow everything Patch has been looking for in a woman/victim. The frustrating thing for me is that the jerk of a hero seldom actually changes once he’s got the girl. He remains a jerk! It’s not so much “I can change him” as “I can settle”, and often this is incredibly problematic. From the abstinence porn of “Twilight” to the straight up romanticising of domestic abuse that is “Beautiful Disaster” (which I still classify as YA since the author was happy to do so when it made her money), the angel/bad boy pairing begins to feel a little like Stockholm Syndrome.

Nora, of course, is a virgin, and remains one throughout the first three books. It’s hard not to come to conclusions when presented with the evidence – the stud, the slut and the virgin. The skank arch nemesis and the pure heroine who is her opposite. When the only real reason we are given to dislike Marcie is that she dares to be open sexually, that creates a very obvious dichotomy that’s hard to ignore. Nora, and indeed the entire series, is utterly obsessed with sex. She seems to have no real connection to Patch beyond the purely physical (indeed, most of her descriptions of him rest on how handsome he is) and spends a lot of time talking about sex with her friend Vee, but she’s not actually having sex. That’s fine, and perfectly normal for a large portion of teenagers. Indeed, slut-shaming is sadly not rare amongst young people, but realism hardly applies to the series.

The realism debate is one I have issues with, particularly when it’s in a book with angels. Literature is often a reflection of the values of our world, both good and bad, but it can also be a subversion of them. Besides, if the novel insists on positioning its heroine as the moral arbitrator then has her breaking her own established rules, that’s not just a reliance on damaging tropes, that’s lazy writing.

Of course, “Hush Hush” isn’t the only culprit of this phenomenon. The “House of Night” series by P.C. and Kristin Cast features the token “bitch” Aphrodite, a young woman who is shamed and derided repeatedly by almost everyone for pretty much everything she does, including being open with her sexuality. This is rather ironic given that the series’s heroine Zoey is akin to Anita Blake for teenagers as the series progresses. 

Here’s a laughable line from the first book “Marked” that I swear could have come from a purity rings seminar:

“I doubt if there’s a teenager alive in America today who isn’t aware that most of the adult public think we’re giving guys blow-jobs like they used to give guys gum (or maybe more appropriately suckers). Okay, that’s bullshit and it’s always made me mad. Of course there are girls who think it’s ‘cool’ to give guys head. Uh, they’re wrong. Those of us with functioning brains know that it is not cool to be used like that.” (Page 67).

A few points I must raise here. One, it’s ironic to hear this lecture in the novel where the woman is the clear instigator of the oral incident. Two, Zoey presents an interesting contradiction of terms here – women are so silly and stupid that they end up being used by men for sex, yet also think it’s oh so cool to engage in it in the first place. Finally, it’s particularly interesting to note that “a 2005 report showed that teenagers who took abstinence-only education classes and pledged their virginity were not only less likely to use condoms, but also more likely to engage in oral and anal sex” (Jessica Valenti, “The Purity Myth”, Page 120).

Let’s talk about sluts for a moment. There’s a particularly memorable part of Valenti’s book where she tries to look for the definition of the word “slut”. There is no set definition for how someone can be defined as such, it’s purely objective depending on who’s using the word. For one person, having multiple sexual partners throughout one’s life may be enough to have the slut label attached to them. For someone else, something as simple as sex on the first date or indulging in sexual activities beyond the missionary is slutty. In YA, I mostly see the term “slut” attached to women who display anything remotely resembling sexual desire, or even just wearing revealing clothing. I own a lot of short dresses and make a lot of dirty jokes – how many YA novels would label me a slut?

There is nothing healthy or sensible about shaming young women for having sex, expressing sexual desire or even just thinking about sex. Forcing women into a passive role in a relationship, one that both fetishizes and degrades sex, is an unmanageable contradiction that spills out into the real world. It should be a pressing concern for every woman to spot these commonly used tropes and call them out. I doubt they’re used as often as they are out of some plot to single-handedly sign every teenage girl up to the abstinence movement (unless you’re Tony Abbott fan-girl Alexandra Adornetto). It’s mostly lazy writing or the misguided attempt to use common romance dynamics featuring angels and bad-boys. However, that’s no excuse. Slut-shaming should be as extinct as the dinosaurs.

Next time, I’ll be talking about YA’s fetishizing of purity and sex – the unattainable standard. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

It's Deliberately Very Gray: Interview with Kirsten Hubbard

Hey all!

Now, if you’re following me on Goodreads, you might have heard me fangirling over Kirsten Hubbard’s 2012 novel, “Wanderlove” (If you haven’t, here’s my review of it, which really can’t convey the amount of feels I have over this book.) Basically, it’s one of those stories which hit so close to home they obliterate the bull’s eye.

As you might imagine, I was super excited to have her agree to an interview. Kirsten, welcome!

“Like Mandarin”, your debut novel, is very different from the majority of YA books because its main focus is not a romantic relationship. Was that reflected in the response you got from readers? In what way?

I love this topic. I went into writing Like Mandarin adamant Grace wouldn't have any kind of hetero romance. I wanted her relationship with Mandarin to be the full focus.

And it is a relationship, as much as it's a friendship. Though not overtly romantic, it totally follows the trajectory of traditional romances: the crush, the early intensity, the jealousy, the breakup, and so on. And Grace's feelings toward Mandarin are a lot like romantic feelings. Or they might be. It's deliberately very gray. Her feelings walk the line between actual crush and "girl crush" -- a limbo familiar to many gay and bi and questioning teens, in which they're not entirely sure whether they want to be WITH somebody, or BE them. That place fascinates me, and is familiar to me.

From the responses I've seen, reviewers seem to find the lack of romance refreshing. But maybe the book would have met more success if there'd been an overt romance? It's hard to say.
Grace is a fascinating character. How did she come to be?

Thank you! Grace shares some characteristics with my mother (as a rock-collecting, small-town Wyoming teen), but more so with my twin sister. As a high school freshman, she dealt with an unexpected, paradigm-shifter of an obsession with an older girl that affected her for years. The girl wasn't anything like Mandarin. Mandarin is more of the kind of girl I would have been obsessed with myself.

Voice is often considered one of the most important aspects of a YA novel. What is your take on creating a compelling voice?

Great question. I think a lot of writers fall back on snark, sarcasm and slang. (The three S's?) But the first two can alienate readers quickly and the third gets dated often as soon as the book's published. So I try to use them sparingly.

Usually I write a character's voice how it comes to me; but in draft 1, there's a level guessing involved because I don't know her/him yet. I think it was Laurie Halse Anderson who said she doesn't know her characters until the second draft. I've found that to be true. By the time I've spent a novel with a character, I know how they'd speak & what they'd do much more clearly. I know their extra dimensions and quirks and their senses of humor and what they despise. Staying true to that, I think, is what can make voice compelling in deeper drafts.

Your sophomore novel, “Wanderlove”, details a trip in Central America. If someone gets inspired to, for example, start backpacking, where would you suggest they start from? ;)

Backpacking, my favorite! Well, I'd say it depends on where you live (plane tickets range like crazy) and what you like (beaches? islands? cities?). Costa Rica and Panama are fantastic but easy destinations for first-time backpackers, and Nicaragua (a little rougher, a lot cheaper) is a great next step. Central America is quite expensive to get to from Europe, though -- it's only worth it if you can take an extended trip, three weeks or more. Southeast Asia is also so cheap and easy to backpack through, though it comes with an extra dose of culture shock for western travelers. But you'll fall into the groove quicker than you think.

To me, one of the most compelling things about “Wanderlove” was how it explores the dynamics in a romantic couple.What do you hope readers get from Bria’s story?

I'm not a big fan of insta-love in books -- I prefer slow-developing romances, with a lot of tension and push and pull. So much more fun! That's what I wanted for Wanderlove. I also wanted to make sure both characters were good people; Rowan had to be somebody I (and readers) could root for. He's a reformed bad boy, but I didn't want him to fit into the bad boy trope, especially since misogyny is so often involved and yuck. Rowan is a good person and he respects Bria, even though he misjudges her in the beginning.

Do you have a favorite character to write about, in either of your books?

Starling and Mandarin, definitely. I just love writing feisty and/or troubled girls.

Also, I have a soft spot for Davey in Like Mandarin. Poor Davey.

What kind of stories do you feel are lacking in YA?

This is kind of a hard one. You know, I feel like there are so many brilliant books in YA right now -- it really is a literary renaissance in the age group! -- but a lot of them sort of go quietly into the night, in a market dominated by high-concept books. Not that I don't love many exciting blockbuster-type novels. But I wish there was a way to bring better exposure to quality midlist books.

(And of course that comes from a personal place with my first book, which had a very quiet debut and wasn't picked up by the major bookstores. I wrote about that here: http://kirstenhubbard.blogspot.com/2011/06/extemely-honest-and-scary-post.html)

Kirsten, thank you!

You can follow Kirsten Hubbard on twitter @kirstenhubbard, or check out her blog at www.kirstenhubbard.blogspot.com Both her novels are available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Sex in Mainstream YA - the Introduction.


Sex.

Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about sex.

I discovered something quite shocking but not surprising recently. In England and Wales, sex education is not compulsory. While a form of sex education is given in Scottish schools (and as someone who received that sex ed, I can tell you it was almost entirely useless), Catholic schools are allowed to use a form that encourages abstinence and does not discuss contraception. Our current government recently shelved plans by the previousgovernment to introduce compulsory sex education in primary schools. In America, the situation is a whole lot more depressing, with lies filled shaming used in abstinence only education and ignorance preferred over education. If you haven’t read Jessica Valenti’s “The Purity Myth”, I heartily recommend it for a more informed and detailed discussion of the phenomenon.

Why am I discussing this? Because I honestly think sex education is one of the most empowering things we can give to younger generations, particularly women, and it’s very obvious to me that our culture, including our literature, is failing teens on this issue. Out of the top ten most banned and challenged books in USA according to the ALA, seven were done so because they were considered “sexually explicit”. Ironically, one book banned for this reason was a book explaining pregnancy to children, because nobody wants to spoil the illusion of the storks and the cabbage patches.

Sex is a big part of a teenager’s life, whether they’re doing it, planning to do it, longing to do it or just happy to not have it be a driving force. I’m not sure there’s a person alive who isn’t aware of this. We also live in a society that has a really weird and contradictory attitude towards sex, particularly for women. Sex is everywhere and the sexualisation of young people, mainly women, is unavoidable, yet the portrayals of realistic sexual relationships are much harder to find, or even censored (see the controversy around the movie “Blue Valentine” receiving and NC-17 rating for an oral sex scene between a married couple).

I was looking through the list of YA books I’d read over the past two years and struggled to find an instance of a successful mainstream YA that featured a teen couple making an informed, concise and mature decision to have sex. I could remember a whole lot of fetishizing of virginity, of using sex as the ultimate prize, of a strange obsession with sex whilst staying pure. I also remembered a lot of slut-shaming, with an admittance of sexuality being enough to shame a female antagonist, whilst men were referred to as “players” or “studs”. Unfortunately, I also recalled too many instances of women being grabbed, pushed down and intimidated by the so-called romantic hero. I’ve talked about these issues at length before, but I feel they bear repeating.

This is a series of post that will talk about the stud/slut double standard, the slut-shaming of women, the fetishizing of purity, the importance of good sex (careful now), why YA needs to do sex right, and the books that do it right. I’ll also be looking for recommendations from you, our friends and readers, and hoping we can have an interesting discussion on where the future lies in this area. My first post, on the slut-shaming of women and the sexual double standard seen in many YAs, will be live next week, with each new post following every week, and ending in an open discussion of sex positive YA. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

P-2-P, Marketing Vehicles and Occupational Hazards

2012 will go down as one of the strangest years for the literary community, not just because of all the stuff that happened online, but also because of the publishing mega-phenomenon known as “Fifty Shades of Gray”.

Seriously, 50 Shades is so big, it doesn’t need its own introduction - everyone and their grandma already know what this is about, and if they don’t, they probably wouldn’t care enough to look it up now. I can imagine sociologists looking back on this year, carefully deconstructing the economic, social and political environment to pinpoint why this happened, and coming up with the same conclusion we get when trying to analyze a culture different from out own: “Shit’s crazy.”
 
(Because why else would be whitewash and appropriate other cultures, if not because we’re absolutely sure of the superiority of our own Western model?)
 
It’s hard to evaluate the impact that E.L. James’ debut will have on pop culture, whether it will result in forever stigmatizing BDSM as the refuge for the broken, or bring about a boom of pull-to-publish fanfictions (the latter concern seems justified, after “Dante’s Inferno” was picked up for re-print by a major publisher). But I feel like we’re missing out on an important thing:
 
Marketing vehicles are nothing new.
 
Movie novelizations? Books based on games? Those have existed ever since people realized that an adventure doesn’t stop after the end credits, and marketing execs decided to capitalize on that. I mean, take the “V for Vendetta” book, which basically follows the plot of the movie. Why would it exist, especially when the movie itself was adapted by the graphic novel by Allan Moore?
 
Two words: Cash grab.
 
Granted, p-2-p fanfiction isn’t quite like the novelizations of “V for Vendetta” or “Resident Evil” as it’s an original adventure with already established characters. The authors change names and appearances to avoid copyright infringement charges, of course, but p-2-p fics and marketing vehicles all start from the same place - the fans, who wanted more than the original work had to offer.
 
Is a marketing vehicle bad? Naaaaaw. I mean, Robert Anthony Salvatore basically built his career on writing D&D fiction, and nobody seems to have a problem with it (well, except for the critics who have to read it for work, but hey, occupational hazards! We all have them.) More importantly, there are plenty of books out there that are really good. Here’s Ana Mardoll talking about movie novelizations, because she’s compulsively linkeable. And I happen to have read not one, not two, not three, but four Diablo books and I think they’re pretty ace (of course, I read them in tenth grade, so I might re-evaluate my opinion if I pick them up again).
 
And here’s an interesting thing: those Diablo books? They’re not exactly original, not when you get down to the nitty-gritty of plots and character archetypes. But they’re fun, and they’re nicely written, and, more importantly, you can enjoy them without having played the game. Hell, you may have never heard of the world of Diablo - it’s okay. You don’t have to have heard of it to know who the characters are or how the magic works - it’ll be explained to you.
 
This gives the books an extra edge when it comes to popular appeal. A marketing vehicle that relies on its source material for character motivation and world-building is barely more than a supplement to the actual movie or game (or comic, or novel). It only has appeal to existing fans, which goes against the idea of a marketing vehicle, which is to draw in people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in the franchise.
 
Going back to p-2-p fanfics, you might notice that they don’t meet the main criteria for a marketing vehicle, which is being set in the world of the source material. In that aspect, p-2-p books are almost like the anti-marketing vehicle - born from the fandom and gaining success partially because of their association with a previously established popular series. This, of course, raises the question of fairness, as in - Is it fair for a de-facto marketing vehicle to turn the tables on its source material?
 
My response: go see R. A. Salvatore. The simple truth is that marketing vehicles have existed, and will continue to exist, and sometimes, they will even do better than their original franchise. Again, it’s an occupational hazard.
 
But Twilight never needed a marketing vehicle, you say? 50 Shades was published because E.L. James wanted to make money herself, you say?
 
You’d be absolutely right. But that doesn’t change where the book came from, and, even if James denounces the fandom, the fandom is partly the reason why 50 Shades sold so well it caught the eye of Random House.
 
What does it mean, for a book to be a marketing vehicle? Not much. It’s still a book like any other, but it’s tied to some degree with its source material. That means the author should share the glory with the original creators of the franchise, whether they like it or not. After all, if it wasn’t for that original movie or book or comic or video game, their work wouldn’t exist.
 
So, aspiring authors, ask yourselves what your goal is. If you want to write a marketing vehicle, then go polish your best self-insert fic, pitch it to the game/movie company, shake hands and pick up your check - you can pay the rent now.
 
If your goal is to write an original story and take full credit for it, then super. Just know that you won’t have an established fandom standing behind you to ensure your publishers break even.
 
You’ll notice that both ways have their good and bad sides. Occupational hazards, luvs, occupational hazards.
 
Note: Images courtesy of GR.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

We Are at the Mercy of What Other People Tell Us to Believe: Interview with Lauren Oliver

Hello, book lovers! Today, we have the extra special pleasure of talking to Lauren Oliver, author of “Before I Fall” and the Delirium trilogy.

I absolutely adored “Before I Fall”, so as you may imagine, I was really excited for this interview. And after reading Delirium and Pandemonium, well… my excitement grew tenfold.
 
Lauren, welcome!
 
Your debut novel, “Before I Fall”, is a heavily character-driven piece. How did you go about creating Sam?
 
Sam, and all the girls in that book, are largely based on my experiences in high school. I wanted to write characters that felt realistic, so I went with what I knew!
 
“Before I Fall” deals with a lot of complex themes - family, friendship, sex and bullying. How would you describe the response it got?
 
I'm still so overwhelmed and flattered by the amazing response Before I Fall has gotten. It's been such an incredible journey for my first book. I think people feel like they can relate to it.
 
Were you ever worried about “going too far” in your novels? Would you say there’s a line that a writer should not cross?
 
I haven’t actually worried too much about that; I trust my characters to lead me where they need to go, and no further.
 
The “Delirium” trilogy is set in a dystopian alternate universe where love is stigmatized as a disease. Do you think parallels can be drawn between Lina’s story and our world? If so, what would they be?
 
There are certainly many places in the world in which love is regulated, mandated, and controlled by religious and social groups; where the sexes are segregated; and where displays of affection such as kissing are forbidden. More pertinent, however, are parallels to be drawn about how the media works to communicate fear and to regulate information, even in democratic societies. We are at the mercy of what other people tell us to believe, and that is very dangerous.
 
Why is love the emotion that is outlawed?
 
Historically, many thinkers have viewed love (and passion in general), as a kind of disease or madness. And it does lead people to unpredictability and even violence, so in a society that depends on rigorous control, it made sense to me that this would be outlawed.
 
If “Delirium” is about awakening, and “Pandemonium” is about fighting back, what is the word to describe “Requiem”?
 
I guess Requiem is about understanding and living with the consequences of our choices.
 
It is said that in the age of the Internet, it’s easy for an author to become less of a Person and more of a Public Figure – do you think that’s true? And if so, would you advise for or against a closer relationship between author and fans?
 
I don’t know—I definitely feel like a Person! :) I think the increased interaction between authors and fans is great, as long as you create boundaries around certain pieces of information and remember that your friends and family exist offline, and it’s important to experience those connections away from twitter!

Lauren, thank you!

You can follow Lauren Oliver on twitter @OliverBooks, or check out her website at laurenoliverbooks.com All of her books are available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, as well as your local bookseller.
 
Images courtesy of Goodreads.

Friday, October 19, 2012

What I Want To Read More Of: Ambiguity

Content notice: Spoilers for “Twilight” and “Les Miserables” (book and musical).
 
I’ve been watching videos of the “Les Miserables” musical, which has brought back memories to me. Of course, when I first read that book I was in third grade and my biggest concern was the love story which, in retrospect, isn’t all that great (I mean, ugh, he only falls for her once she grows up and gets all hot and stuff. Shallow, dude!) Sadly, I was too immature to fully appreciate the depth and power of Victor Hugo’s characterization.

And no, that wasn’t sarcastic. I actually do find “Les Miz” to be a great work, for different reasons than I did when I was younger. I guess you could say I enjoyed the ambiguity which is presented to us.

How does this link to YA fiction? (I mean, in spite of all the “Skip Beat!” deconstructions, it’s still a YA blog.) Let’s take your archetypal representative of the genre, “Twilight”. What the story basically boils down to is whether a young woman will leave everything she has ever known to live eternity by her boyfriend’s side, or stay in her own world with a boy that is different, but equally alluring. In itself, that’s not a bad conflict, in fact, it has been used in many stories to a great effect.

But when the reader really thinks about the choice Bella is forced to make, there really isn’t much gray areas about it (no pun intended) (I wonder if we will have to do this every time we invoke that color. Maybe we should use shades of taupe instead) - Bella’s human life is seen as routine, and deeply unfulfilling. She has no hobbies, no friends, and her parents are portrayed as a couple of passive-aggressive jerks. Hell, when Edward leaves her, her life is so mundane and pointless that it’s not worth a single paragraph to describe the passage of time.

While Jacob may pose some valid arguments for Bella to stay human, it’s pretty obvious where her affections lie, and what is the “right” choice to make. Edward basically offers her everything - love, commitment, monetary stability and all the sex she can ask for - and later, the series further hammers in the “rightness” of Bella’s choice by making her the special snowflake who can get over her newborn blood-lust and thus she does not have to give up human company.

This is something which grates me about YA books nowadays - rarely do you have a scenario where you’re not one hundred percent sure what the right choice is (more true about the Paranormal genre, but Contemporary books can share the problem). There is ALWAYS a super-evil conspiracy threatening human kind. There is ALWAYS some villain plotting mass genocide. If one third of your love triangle is also from the evil camp, fear not, he will either know the wrongness of his ways or he will die, thus solving the problem.

Point is - ambiguity is pretty much gone from YA and I want it back!

Going back to “Les Miz”, it’s pretty easy to see where the book gets its title from when you consider the plot. Victor Hugo basically raises his story around the concept of “Life Sucks, Deal With It”, and refuses to give us a single black-and-white instance, even (and especially) when he pits the idealists against the harsh reality of their world.

Here’s the thing: for society to work, our justice system can’t afford to play favorites. It has to be paramount and unforgiving. So far so good, but then what happens to people like Jean Valjean and Fantine, who are pushed into a life of crime by a combination of an unfair fiscal policy and hypocritical social norms?

Or, to bring things closer to the current state of PNR YA, what if the boy you’re in love with doesn’t care for you? What if he would rather be with some rich bitch who just looks hot because she can afford to bathe on a regular basis? Well, good for him, but if he’s going to force you into dangerous situations just to deliver a sappy love letter to her, then a song and a kiss is the least he can fucking do for you.

Though I don’t like the idea that Hugo “made suffering fashionable”, he does write some of the most gut-wrenching stories out there, and the reason why they’re so sad isn’t the originality of his ideas, but how the tragedy is made to feel inevitable. Maybe “Les Miserables” would have turned out differently if this person did that just a little earlier, of this one wasn’t such an asshole, or whatever - but Hugo writes his story in such a way that a plot twist like that comes across as too convenient and unrealistic.

And the thing about real life is that ambiguity is everywhere. You’ll never be sure if this university was the right choice, or if you did the right thing when you stopped talking to this one friend. Your major might not satisfy you, but it will allow you to be independent, or maybe getting married young is the best thing that happened to you, in spite of everything everyone told you.

Truth is, you will rarely face a situation where the “right” answer is one hundred percent clear, outside of a test. So why don’t books reflect that more?
 
Note: Image via Goodreads.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Review: Small Blue Thing by S. C. Ransom

Celebrating the end of exams with best friend Grace, 17 year-old Alex rescues a swan caught on a wire in the Thames mud and finds an extraordinary bracelet. Through its disturbing and compelling powers, she finds Callum, a soul locked in a half-life of sadness and mystery following a terrible accident, and his persuasive and sinister sister, Catherine. As Alex and Callum grow closer despite the enormous obstacles to their love, the dangers mount until Alex must risk everything to save Grace and Callum must risk everything to save Alex.*

I like heroines that take shit from no-one, and happily stick it to the patriarchy. I’m happy to say that “Small Blue Thing” is one of those books.

Alex starts off as your ordinary teenage girl with an ordinary crush. Then, by the will of magic coincidence, she finds a bracelet that allows her to communicate with the people who died in the river, and finds her real soul mate. Standard, yes?

What sets this story apart from all the other tales of ghosts falling for humans and vice versa is how strong Alex is. Seriously, the girl has two different boys supposedly try to pressure her/trick her into doing something she doesn’t like, and she immediately and dramatically enforces some boundaries. It’s impressive, because of how rare this is in YA fiction. I applaud C. S. Ransom for making her heroine so firm in her decisions.

Another thing I loved was how friendship was portrayed in this book. Alex and her best friend Grace fill the dynamic of socially-awkward-girl-meets-energetic-and-outgoing-friend, but they also genuinely care for each other. No boy will stand between those two, that’s for sure. I’m incredibly happy there are still friendships like that portrayed, because honestly, there’s a deficit of those.

If there’s one thing that I didn’t like, it is how quickly Callum and Alex start talking about love. Honestly, from now on, if newly-met people start telling each other how much they’re in love before the book’s passed its halfway mark, I’ll go bananas. There’s just no way to take them seriously.

Instalove aside, I’d say that this is definitely one of the better paranormal YA’s out there. And, as an added bonus, it’s a fairly creepy story, what with these strange half-ghosts that form their own secret, tight-knit society. It’s worth checking out, for that at least.

*Image and synopsis courtesy of Goodreads.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Book Lantern Wants Your.... Feedback

Hello Book Lovers and Apples!

This Monday, we're trying something different out.

We want to bring the best to our readers - book recs, reviews, interviews. For the last month or so, we've tried out theme weeks and series posts, and it has been a great ride. But we also want to make it even better, and this is where you come in!

Your opinion matters. Tell us which features you liked - interviews, reviews, rec posts? Theme weeks? Favorite theme weeks? Open threads?

Which features did you find distracting? Were the open threads too much? The interviews? The reviews?

More so, what would you like to see more of? Opinion posts? Reviews? Interviews?

Are there any topics/ genres you would like us to expore?

Please, do let us know.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Open Thread: Skip Beat! - Feminist, or Not?

This week, we deconstructed Skip Beat! We talked themes, love interests, friends, evolutions. Now it's up to you - do you think this is a feminist story? Why, or why not?

What would you say makes it work for you?

Comment away, and as always, please be respectful.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Skip Beat! Deconstructions: All the Things I Like

Disclaimer: Contains spoilers for Skip Beat!

In spite of the things I don’t like about the manga, “Skip Beat!” is a work that has many, many merits for me. I talked already about how much I love the depiction of female friendships, especially those between Kyoko, Kanae, Maria and Chiori. I love the quirky characters (wah! Where did that giant horse come from? Oh, hi, President Takarada!). I even love the relationship between Kyoko and Ren, even if he acts like a controlling douche half the time.

Most of all, I love Kyoko.

I love how determined she is. In spite of being knocked down, several times, she still picks herself up and tries again. What does she do when she doesn’t make her first audition? She goes out and gets another chance. What does she do when a job isn’t like she pictured it? She stays professional and does it anyway. What does she do when Ren’s behavior confuses and hurts her? She talks to him, like a freaking adult (no, Ren-chan, I wasn’t being sarcastic! What made you think that?), and clears up the misunderstandings as best as she can.

I love how she’s able to swallow her pride when she has to. Kyoko is not some kind of miracle actress, nor a self-made star. In fact, at the beginning of the series, she blunders about and generally, her breakthroughs happen by sheer chance, not an actual skill. But when she has problems with a role, she doesn’t hunker down and complain about how tough life is - she goes up to her friends and asks for help.

I love her imperfections. In spite of growing by leaps and bounds, Kyoko doesn’t turn into a perfect human being overnight. Her Achilles Heel (Cain Heel and Setsuka Heel? Connection?), which is her bitterness at being used, brings her down over and over again, but she still manages to recover, faster and faster an faster.

I love how she is there for her friends. When Kanae was ready to give up, not once, but twice, Kyoko was there to help her through, even when doing so meant endangering her own career. When Maria was wallowing in self-hatred, Kyoko helped her reclaim her birthday, and made her rediscover the joy of being young. When Chiori was on her way to self-destruction, instead of handing her over to the “adults”, Kyoko confronted her in such a way that Chiori was able to break out of her own circle of hatred.

I love how she would help Ren and Sho, even when they didn’t realize it. Okay, so maybe Kyoko’s relationship with those two men needs to be taken with a grain of salt. That doesn’t take away from the fact that she’s always been a good influence to them. It’s thanks to her that Sho has a career in the first place, and she is the reason he didn’t back down when the copycats showed up. The love Ren has for her enables him to face his own inner demons, and she often helps him when it gets too tough. In spite of how Ren and Sho choose to treat her, Kyoko is always there for them.

Kyoko Mogami - kicking butt in pink overalls since 2006.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Skip Beat! Deconstructions: Victim Blaming at its Finest

Disclaimer: Contains spoilers for Skip Beat!

Content note: Abusive behavior, assault, victim blaming, purity myth.

Chapters 139-150 and 171-192 are… problematic for me. On the one hand, it’s a progression of the romantic story, which is shaping up more like Kyoko/Ren, instead of Kyoko/Ren/Sho. I think the Valentine’s Day chapters are meant to separate the two men, in that Sho is a floundering man-child, while Ren is the mature, supportive guy, but honestly, it doesn’t work too well for me.

In the Valentine’s Day chapters, through a series of blunders and misunderstandings, Sho comes over to Kyoko’s workplace and forcefully kisses her in order to cement his position as her number one enemy (I swear, it makes more sense if you read the manga). Kyoko is naturally pissed off, but what’s really annoying is Ren’s reaction. After joking with her that actors shouldn’t make a big deal out of kissing, he puts on a scary face and warns her never to let her guard down again or else she will lose that “purity of heart” which actors need.

Now, this is standard romantic drama shtick, but it’s an incredibly vile thing on Ren’s part to do. First of, it’s Sho who came to the set and Sho who forced himself on her - Kyoko is the victim, and even suggesting that she’s somehow at fault makes me sick. Moreover, Ren knows that Kyoko tends to bend over backwards for the people she cares for, out of fear for losing their respect - he’s emotionally manipulating her into doing what he wants.

Please keep in mind what Ren and Kyoko’s relationship is. She calls him her “sempai”, that is, her senior in the company. Though they are friends, and he’s in love with her, she defines their relationship as a working one and he doesn’t try to correct her. Therefore, Ren has absolutely no business telling Kyoko what to do.

But he does, and he will do it frequently over the following chapters.

Kyoko is not unaffected by this behavior. On one level, she recognizes it as unfair, but earnestly believes the things Ren tells her and commits to them. While he frames things in such a way that she would reject the advances of any man, even himself, he still has a closer relationship with her than anyone else.

Is emotional manipulation acceptable? Ren seems to think of Kyoko as a baby (he explicitly states that in chapter 190), so therefore he will do anything to protect her until she’s mature enough to be with him. The problem is, Kyoko is maturing, by leaps and bounds, and she’s finding herself in a complicated situation.

Jumping on ahead, after a near-accident, Kyoko realizes that she’s close to falling in love with Ren, which sends her into a state of near panic. Determined to keep her heart safe, she lets another actor, Kijima, dress her up and escort her to a party, where Ren immediately proceeds to chastise and shame her. Basically, he says: “If you need anything, come to me, damnit”, to which she responds: “Why, is there something you want from me?” It’s an awesome moment, though ruined by the fact that Ren’s just better at this game than Kyoko.

This… passage is one that we’ve come back to a lot in recent chapters. After Sho learns about this (the party), he also seeks Kyoko out, forces her into a car ride with him and proceeds to pretty much do the same thing Ren did. In fact, chapter 190 ended in a cliffie after Ren saw Kyoko in Sho’s car, and chapter 192 has Kyoko freaking out over Ren’s reaction.

Let’s examine this, shall we? In itself, accepting a car ride isn’t a crime. Kyoko is an actress, and as such, her schedule is very fluid. A few chapters back, we see her sprinting to school after a shoot gets canceled because she has no mode of transportation of her own. Sho is her childhood friend, and while they’re not the best of buds, the manga has built their relationship to a point where they can tolerate each other.

There’s plenty of reasonable explanations why Kyoko would accept a ride from Sho, and that before we consider what actually happened - that he sought her out, forced her (through a combination of physical force and peer pressure) to accept a ride from him, and then proceed to shame her for whatever decision she made that he didn’t like.

The situation can’t be more black-and-white, and yet Kyoko is afraid… of Ren’s reaction. She’s afraid because, based off past experience, Ren will be angry at her for something she has no control over. And it’s painful to read, really painful, you know it’s not her fault, you know that Sho’s an ass, and you know that Ren will do something stupid because they just won’t damn communicate like grown ups!

Ugh…

Just… major strike here, people. Major strike.