Fifty Shades of Perspective

Over at the New Statesmen, Laurie Penny writes in defense of Fifty Shades of Grey, and gets it all wrong:

When you get down to it, the problem most people seem to have with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it’s for girls. Even worse – it’s “mommy porn”, porn for mommies, for older women to read and get excited about, and that dangerous nonsense really needs to be stopped right now. Everyone knows that the only women who are allowed to actually have sexuality are slender, high-breasted twenty-one year old virgins – rather like, it has to be said, the heroine of “Fifty Shades of Grey”.

My problem with Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t that it’s “Badly written,” which Laurie Penny claims is just code for “popular with women.” My problem with the book is that it’s actually badly written. The prose is bland. The characters are sketchy. The plot is a hackneyed hash of cliches and recycled tropes the author doesn’t understand, just apes because that is what the manual on how to write a story told her needed to happen in Act 3. And to defend it’s popularity on feminist grounds, because it’s a vehicle for discussing women’s sexuality and porn in public, is sophomore feminism at it’s worst.

Almost as absurd is the claim that it’s porn, and so shouldn’t be judged on its literary merits, but it’s erotic value. I’ve read letters to Penthouse that were better written and had more evocative prose than Fifty Shades of Grey. It fails as both a novel and as erotica!

The only only reason the book is popular is because of a secondary social effect: it allows timid, mainstream readers to feel transgressive. The same house fraus who feel a rush reading this watered down tripe, wouldn’t be caught dead reading The Story of O or Venus in Furs, because those books make the reader relate to people who have real kinks, and not because they are damaged, and in need of some virgin redeemer to teach them how to love. It’s because those characters find fulfillment in their kinky, sweaty, dark and forbidden lusts. And they make the reader feel as if they might as well. That’s the thrill of reading erotica. The thrill Fifty Shades of Grey fails to provide in any way.

Link via Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing.

In Defense of Escapism

During a recent discussion over at Charlie Stross’ blog about genre fiction’s relationship to the Big Idea story, there was a sub-discussion about escapism and the role it plays in science fiction and fantasy. Naturally, a lot of science fiction authors and fans are a bit defensive whenever the subject of escapism comes up. For a long time, genre literature was dismissed as nothing but escapist fantasies, avoiding the hard work of discussing the issues of the world we live in by running off to fight over magic jewelry with orcs or flying off in rocket ships to punch bug-eyed aliens in the face, imperialistically.

I’ve long been fascinated by the dismissive criticism of escapism. A lot of it has to do with literalism, which in some ways is the opposite of escapism. The literlist tendency to take metaphorical story space at face value is the native perspective in mainstream non-genre literature. When English professors contemplate having an affair with the perky young grad student, there’s no wiggle room for interpretation as to what that means. There may be an existential metaphor at play in the prose, but it’s used as a device for extrapolating the actual emotions under discussion, unlike in genre fiction, where the brain swapping

machine is very rarely meant to be taken as an actual piece of prospective technology, but rather used as a mechanism for exploring gender and identity roles in society.

Both are valid methods of telling a story, it’s just that genre fiction requires a secondary set of skills to decode those sometimes obtuse or esoteric symbolism at play. This can be a challenge for people who don’t often read genre fiction. Their decoder muscle may be atrophied or underdeveloped. And so they may mistake an escapist story or escapist element in a genre fiction as a literal wish fulfilment. The desire of the author and the fans of that story to be somewhere else, doing something untrue.

This of course is not the case. Escapism serves a very real and valid purpose and is a useful tool in the story teller’s craft.

As an example, see the story from last year about the Chinese government banning time travel  stories. They’re so afraid of loosing their grip on power, they’re trying to control people’s daydreams about a world where they never existed, or were stopped. That’s Science fiction come to life.

There’s a difference between dreaming up a better world as a way to calibrate your own desires and expectations, and forcing others to take your fantasy world, and the moral strictures that come from it, as serious policy. That’s dragging us to the other end of the spectrum: bleak nihilism (embrace, reality, it’s good for you!) on one hand and living in an untethered Lala land (clap harder, you sinner!) at the other.

Still, we have alot of elbow room in between. That’s the playground for Escapist literature, where we define our hopes and fears and build the memetic tools to conquer the later and make the former a reality (as as close to it as is humanely possible).

The many uses of escapism are apparent in genre fiction, but also in non-genre fiction as well.

Mad Men is all about escapism. The shape of our dreams and how they contrast with reality. The escapist element is almost meta in the case of Mad Men I mean, who doesn’t want to wear a slick suit and drive a 60s era Jag? But that’s just the hook. Once you’re in that world, you start to see it form the perspective of the various characters, which is where the real story takes place.

All the characters were born between the 1890s and 1940s, and we’re watching them go through the 60s, when all the social and technological change that had been brewing for a century came to a head. It was even obliquely pointed out in one episode, where an elderly receptionist died in the office. Burt Cooper, the oldest of the partners, eulogized her by saying she was an astronaut. She was born in a log cabin and died in a sky scraper, 30 stories in the air.

As the series has gone on it’s become clear that it’s about these characters who were raised in one world and now find themselves living in another one they couldn’t have imagined growing up and confounded daily by the differences between expectation and experience.
Mad Men is one of the most SFnal shows on television even though its fantastical elements are restricted to the occasional dream sequence or drug trip. But it addresses the very core concept of Speculative Fiction, especially of the New Wave variety (I’d swear Season 5 was written by JG Ballard if I didn’t know he was dead).

Coming back around to the topic that launched this discussion about Escapism, I think the reason why it doesn’t seem like SF has a purpose any more, is because all of our contemporary fiction has become Science Fictional. Even the straight realistic period dramas address themes that were until recently, the purview of genre fiction.

Now that all fiction is addressing large social, technological and existential dilimas through a conscious lens of “what if”, all that’s left is too choose your tropes and setitngs. You can set your drama in an ad agency in 60s Manhattan or on a space ship in the 24th century. But it’s going to address the same topics. Which of course brings us back around to defending escapism as a valid and even necesary element of story telling.

Escapist fiction is a dialogue with the culture we live in. It gives our dreams of a better world a shape. It forms the vocabulary of the worlds we wished we lived in, allowing us to contrast that with the world we do live in.

As Goes Bella, So Goes the Nation

Over at Goodreads, they’ve discovered something interesting about the readers of the Twilight books (click the link to see the infographic):

There is no more divisive book on Goodreads than Twilight. It manages to top both our Best Books Ever and Worst Books of All Time lists. And now, surprisingly, we’ve discovered that where you live can indicate whether you’re a Twi-Hard or not.

With the release of the film adaption of Breaking Dawn (well, the first half of the film adaptation), we thought it might be fun to dive into some more of the incredible trove of data we have on the Twilight Saga and its readers.

A map of what each state thinks of Twilight ends up looking a lot like a map of the most recent election results. On the map above, the readers in the red states rated the book highly (the darker the red, the higher the rating), while readers in the blue states gave it a lower rating). The Midwest and the South represent The Twilight Belt, while the coasts were decidedly less impressed with the book.

Reviews were mostly distributed according to population, with the notable exception of Utah. Utah is the 34th most populous state in the US, but it generates the 6th most reviews of Twilight. In terms of cities, Salt Lake City—the 125th largest city in the country—is second only to New York in number of Twilight reviews. Opinion on the book is split in the Beehive state, with the average rating a pedestrian 3.64.

The series’ popularity in Utah becomes more explicable when you recall that the author, Stephanie Myers, is Mormon and so are the Cullens.

Having lived in the Twilight Belt/Red States most of my life, I find this not at all surprising.  The lack of literacy in that region is a scourge upon the land and the popularity of Twilight, like the rise of yokel-bating politics, is a direct result of the fact that the locals are a proudly ignorant folk. They like their leaders to be Good Old Boys and their entertainment a slick patina of pop culture that just barely covers a misogynistic pseudo-spiritual story that just happens to reinforce hetero-normative values and white male privilege. The popularity of both Twilight and Rick Perry are part of the same problem.

Also: If you really want o make your head spin, here’s an article praising Twilight from a feminist POV, on the grounds that Bella’s objectification is something young women can relate to, unlike the ass kickery of Buffy Summers or Lisbeth Salander, who are icky masculine girls because of pants. Or something. And also that the pregnancy is realistically depicted (except for the whole vampire eating itself out of the mother’s womb).

Anyway. In the comments of that article there’s a long digressive discussion centering on Myers’ use of blank pages to represent Bella’s heartache when her vampire boyfriend leaves her (alas, temporarily). That particular passage is one of my pet peeves as a writer. The blank pages are just a gimmick to cover up Myers’ week writing skills. A good writer doesn’t shy away from delving into the murk of touchy emotional states. If anything, they relish them as a challenge. The blank pages are Myers admitting publicly she doesn’t have the emotional maturity or writerly craft to depict a lovesick teenager. Which begs the question of what she would do if a story required her to describe the savory delight of a well prepared cheesburger, let alone the ineffable quintessence of love.

On the upside, I did come upon the realization that Bella isn’t a character, she’s a McGuffin, an object to be hoarded, fought over (by men) and fetishised. Those blank pages representing Bella’s mental state when Edward isn’t around are extremely telling. Without a man to observe her, she literally has no presence in the story. She neither thinks about her predicament nor feels anything that registers as an emotion or a thought. She has about as much agency as the Maltese Falcon* (objectively worthless except for the secret thing inside her that everyone really wants).

*I was going to say the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones, but the Ark has at least enough agency to melt some Nazis for failing to recognize its inherent inertia. The Ark will not tolerate being used crassly for the needs of men. Bella exists solely for that purpose.

Oh Please, Let Sarah Palin Run for President!

Sarah Palin, America’s favorite butt monkey, has a new movie coming out. Rumor has it, she’ll be announcing her candidacy for President soon.

Nothing says credible political force like a half term governor and failed VP candidate who fled Alaska under a cloud of ethics violations. What would be even better is if she teamed up with Newt! A man whose claim to fame is that he failed to take down Bill Clinton for receiving a blowjob. These two perennial losers with outsized egos were made for each other. And once they’ve been trounced by Obama, they’ll both finally have outlived their usefulness to the political class and be shuffled off stage, never to be heard from again. And sure, we’d have to suffer through 18 months of malapropisms, garbled backtracking and not-so-veiled racist threats but it’ll be worth it, to be rid of these two jackasses forevermore.

And: I almost forgot the best part! Her movie’s title? Undefeated.

Which makes perfect sense for a biopic about a woman who lost an election as the VP candidate, was runner up in a beauty pageant and quit the only elected office she’s ever held half way through her first term.

The Word That Shall Not Be Named

when it comes to the matter of censoring the word “nigger” form Huck Finn, I’m with the Rude Pundit:

You can’t take the word “nigger”? Then, sorry, you don’t get to enjoy the rest of Twain’s satire of human degradation and idiocy (and you should probably avoid Pudd’nhead Wilson, too). You don’t get to watch Pulp Fiction. You don’t get to watch unedited episodes of The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son. You don’t get to hear Archie Bunker explain about how he got his ass kicked when he was a kid by a black boy because he used the word: “That’s what all them people was called in them days. I mean everybody we knew called them people ‘niggers.’ That’s all my old man ever called them, there.” No, we’re just not that mature anymore. (Yeah, yeah, you can say we’ve gotten more “sensitive” or some such shit. All that’s happened is that we’ve made the word more powerful by its false invisibility.)

You’re not protecting your children from bad ideas by refusing to say the word. Your kids know this, because they learned it form Harry Potter. In the HP books, the wizards all refused to say Voldemort’s name, because names have power. But by treating the name like it didn’t exist, they created negative space in which it’s power to corrupt grew. Being sensative to racial matters by refusing to talk about racism doesn’t make it go away. That is the genius of Mark Twain’s fiction. He forces the reader to confront the prejudices of themselves and their families and friends. Huck Finn makes us confront the fact that our grandfathers and great grandfathers were nice people and racist as hell. Because they were people, flawed and blinded by the circumstances of the society they grew up in, and they had to learn the hard way how to change. Censoring all the “niggers” in Huck Finn robs young readers of the power iof that story. It becomes another exercise in rote memorization and avoidance rather than confronting the themes that are right there below the surface.

Just a Theory

I woke up this morning thinking about the Bible. People ask why I don’t sleep well. The bags under my eyes? it’s because my brain is trying to kill me so it can slip off and find a new host, one that will feed it beer more often, expanding waistline be damned.

Anyway. The Bible. More specifically, it’s publishing/marketing department, i.e. organized religion, hereafter referred to simply as The Church, because I like to pretend it’s the 15th century sometimes and there aren’t 8000 churches, most of them occupying dilapidated storefronts, as if spiritual enlightenment were something you could find as easily as orange juice.

Every other year or so, the media retreads a story about some godly scientist who has just discovered the Religion Gene or the God Chromosome for the umpteenth time, and so now we have proof that humans have an innate need for religion and therefore, God exists, so take that, all you smug atheist bastards. My thought, as I staggered out of bed and wandered naked towards the toilet was that, as per anything having to do with religion or the numinous, unquantifiable experiences we humans have as a byproduct of our giant buzzing brains, is that this argument has it backwards.

It’s not religion that people like, it’s the Bible, specifically the emotionally gratifying (if completely effed-up) story it tells. The Bible tells the so-called greatest story EVAR!!1!1!eleven!111! A debatable point we can arguer at length later. Of course, the only reason the Bible is considered the Greatest Story EVAR told is because for about 1000 years, the Church, that publishing house in charge of marketing this First Among Bestsellers, went to great lengths to ensure it had no competition. Imagine Stephen King’s publisher setting fire to Dan Brown using copies of The Davinci Code as fire starters. The warm flames, the screams of panic and desperation as that fat-headed cretin is eaten alive by a ravenous flame beast fed on his own drivel…

The Church cornered the market on storytelling for  a large chunk of written history, and quite a bit before that, since most stories that survived antiquity were framed up with the same basic structure of fall and redemption. because hay, it’s a tidy little arc and makes sense, right? At least, emotional sense.

Humans don’t have a religion gene, we have a narrative gene. It evolved a million years ago, when we were still living in the savanna, and needed to make sense of the world around us. Back then, the world could kill you. You needed to stay one step ahead of the other animals and over time, we started to notice patterns, the shape of shadows in the tall grass, the faces of predators, the way they hunted and moved and left for seasons but always came back. That flocks of birds could swerve on a turn, like one mind guided them. Today we are still hunters and gathers, trying to find meaning and arrange it into a story, because a story is easy way to remember the important stuff, arrange facts and dreams and wishes. Story creates a structure so that we can make a laughable attempt at understanding the vast and complex world around us. Stories allow us to imagine the happy endings that reality always, always withholds.

That’s a pretty solid thesis, right? Too bad it’s bollocks. I made it up, as a way to try and understand why the gibbering half-apes I share the planet with think that a three thousand year old book of shepherd poetry is all the excuse they need to hate gay people and treat women like shit. That an anthology of fairy tales whitewashed by editors with an agenda can be used as the first last and only reason why a gang of perverts can rain fire down on foreigners and rape children to satisfy their darkest desires.

Because the alternative is that there is no reason. That the world is vast, unsympathetic and full of animals who will kill you soon as look at you, and some of them wear neckties and comb their hair. I need some way to understand this tragic sitcom we call life and since there’s no other option, I have to come up with my own explanation. That’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

Stopped Clocks and All That

When you’ve lost Ron Paul, you know you’re on the wrong side of history:

Is the controversy over building a mosque near ground zero a grand distraction or a grand opportunity? Or is it, once again, grandiose demagoguery?

It has been said, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” Are we not overly preoccupied with this controversy, now being used in various ways by grandstanding politicians? It looks to me like the politicians are “fiddling while the economy burns.”

The debate should have provided the conservative defenders of property rights with a perfect example of how the right to own property also protects the 1st Amendment rights of assembly and religion by supporting the building of the mosque.

Instead, we hear lip service given to the property rights position while demanding that the need to be “sensitive” requires an all-out assault on the building of a mosque, several blocks from “ground zero.”

The property rights angle is standard Libertarian “property is more important than people” nonsense but it at least points him in the general direction of freedom, iberty and all that stuff. So, Progress! Sort of.

Anything that helps end this long slog through the racist hate mongering underbelly of America is a good thing, so credit where credit is due. Still, two points of quibble:

The Cordoba House is a Mosque in the same way that your local YMCA is a Cathedral. As in, not at all. Unless you think every Mosque comes with a pool and a squash court. In which case, sign me up!

Quibble point 2: the scare quotes around “Ground Zero.” As someone somewhere pointed out, Ground Zero is where you set off a nuke. Comparing the WTC tragedy to, say, Nagasaki is disengenuous to say the least. So there’s something else Paul managed to hit upon, in his klunky and self-interrested way. Looks like assholes are a lot like stopped clocks: right twice a day. If he keeps this up, he may eventually become a decent person. Though he’s still a Republican, so that’s unlikely.

Give a Man A fish, and He Eats For a Day; Give a Man A Fishing Pole and He Beats You to Death With It and Claims It Was Self Defense

In case you had any lingering doubts that the Tea Baggers are hypocritical idiots, the New York Times clears that right up for you:

Mr. Grimes, who receives Social Security, has filled the back seat of his Mercury Grand Marquis with the literature of the movement, including Glenn Beck’s “Arguing With Idiots” and Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law,” which denounces public benefits as “false philanthropy.”

“If you quit giving people that stuff, they would figure out how to do it on their own,” Mr. Grimes said.

Just so we’re all on the same page: Mr. Grimes is on Social Security, Medicare and drawing unemployment benefits. So naturally, he spends his free time actively protesting against the government programs that comfortably ensure him from depredation.

The article does make one thing clear: that the primary motivation behind the Teabagger protests, as incoherent as it is, relates almost exclusively to their frustration with the economy. These are people forced into early retirement or laid off because the economy went south. They can’t flip their houses and move into smaller places to save money because the housing bubble burst, leaving them in overvalued homes now worth less than the mortgages they took out on them. So yes, they’re frustrated. That’s the part that makes sense.

The part that flips your lid is how they choose to exercise that frustration. Years of listening to Right Wing lunatics like Beck and Limbaugh have atrophied their brains to the point where they no longer can engage in civic life in any meaningful way. They see a malfunctioning system in need of repair but instead of directing their new-found free time towards fixing the situation by volunteering in their communities or pressuring their elected officials to change things, they gather with other idiots to demand that their leaders do less for them. As if things were only slightly worse for the Teabaggers, then they’d be motivated to pull on their own bootstraps. But until they have to eat cat food and sleep in their station wagons, they’ll demand the government quit wasting money on lowlife bottom feeders like them and… well, that’s not very clear. In my previous post, I suggested that the Teabaggers were vehemently in favor of the status quo. But that’s not quite right. They do want change, just of an amorphous undefined sort. What they do know is they don’t like the flavor of change Obama is offering. There’s just something… dark about his kind of hope. Those ideas of his are down right… socialist? That’s not quite the word they were searching for but it’ll do, especially since it’s impolite to say the N word in public, like it used to be in the good old days of their youth.

Oh, if Only those fiscally responsible Republicans were in charge again…

The Republican National Committee spent tens of thousands of dollars last month on luxury jets, posh hotels and other high-flying expenses, according to new Federal Election Commission filings, including nearly $2,000 for “meals” at Voyeur West Hollywood, a lesbian-themed nightclub that features topless dancers in bondage outfits.

First link via TomTomorrow, second via tnielsenhayden.

Number Three is Going up Against a Sicilian When Death Is On The Line

It doesn’t help our claims that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq aren’t modern-day Crusades when the military is using firearms inscribed with Bible verses. In the great and infinite list of bad ideas, this one is pretty much number 2 (number 1: don’t start land wars in Asia).

Why don’t we just send clerics and wizards over there and be done with it.