In addition to the other points I made in this post, I should add that it’s not in fact true that lower-class whites are depicted as the sole source of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s true that the Ewells are the most egregious example, but really everyone except Atticus Finch “goes along” with racism. Even educated people, such as the Judge, are going along with the racist system, even if they do have some feeling that they ought not to.

That’s sort of a major point of the book, actually, and I’m surprised how many people miss it.

Via Ta-Nehisi Coates, a review of the film The Help, which in passing says something with which I strongly disagree. The reviewer, Patricia A. Turner, writes:

“Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud. It’s the fallacy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a movie that never fails to move me but that advances a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals.”

This is an interesting, and typically overly class-focused, charge to level at To Kill a Mockingbird–both the film and the book–and I have to say that, especially in the latter case, I disagree with it. First of all, while it is a stereotype, I suspect it was true that those who had received an education from the schools–which were largely established by the North during Reconstruction–would be more likely to have more liberal views on race,  and those who didn’t–like the Ewells in the novel–would be less likely to.

Moreover, it is believable that the lower-class whites would be more likely to have to resort to racism at that time. I hate to keep quoting Paul Graham all the time, but once again, he put it very well:

“To launch a taboo, a group has to be poised halfway between weakness and power. A confident group doesn’t need taboos to protect it. It’s not considered improper to make disparaging remarks about Americans, or the English. And yet a group has to be powerful enough to enforce a taboo.”

This offhand comment in Turner’s review is symptomatic of an increase in hostility towards not only the film adaptation, which I suppose is reasonable, but also towards Harper Lee’s excellent book itself in recent years. About a year ago, the Wall Street Journal published a critique of it by Allen Barra, in which he criticized the book for being too simplistic. Barra claims–correctly, in my view–that “[i]n all great novels there is some quality of moral ambiguity,” but then goes on to say that “[t]here is no ambiguity in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird'”. However, Barra does make one interesting point when he compares the character of Atticus Finch to the portrayal of Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons.

Barra’s choice to make this comparison is interesting to me, first because I love both To Kill a Mockingbird and A Man for All Seasons, and second because it sets up an interesting compare and contrast exercise. Take, for instance, my favorite exchange from Bolt’s play, when Roper is demanding that More have someone arrested and More refuses:

 “ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? 

ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that! 

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down and the Devil turned round on you–where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast–man’s laws, not God’s–and if you cut them down–and you’re just the man to do it–d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.”

Compare the philosophy espoused here by More with the final scene of To Kill a Mockingbird. The sheriff says he’ll do exactly what Roper would do: ignore the law to see what he considers “Justice” done, despite Atticus’s hesitation. Who is right?

Both Atticus and More are what D&D players call “lawful good”.  And both of them pay for it; Atticus’s children get attacked by Ewell, and it is only by the actions of Boo Radley that they are saved. Radley and the sheriff, not Atticus, are the ones who ultimately save the day. In A Man for All Seasons, More pays with his own life for his insistence on adhering to both his conscience and the law.

You can can look at them as exemplary, flawless heroes–or you can look at them as naive, holier-than-thou types who cause needless grief to their loved ones because of their own righteousness. The point is, there’s more moral complexity here than some people realize.  

I should add that I think what I said in this post about video games applies to other art forms as well. Most of the movies, books and so on that I enjoy seem to be blends of different genres–which is to say, they are of no particular genre, but rather that they contain generally effective elements.

It’s similar to what Paul Graham once wrote about artists cultivating a particular style:

“[I]f you just try to make good things, you’ll inevitably do it in a distinctive way, just as each person walks in a distinctive way. Michelangelo was not trying to paint like Michelangelo. He was just trying to paint well; he couldn’t help painting like Michelangelo.”

As I see it, it’s the same thing with adhering to a genre; you don’t want to do it just so you can say “I made a typical work of this genre”, you only want to do it to the extent that the tropes of a genre are necessary for whatever you’re making.

Every now and then, I like to write critiques of fiction genres. I felt the urge to write such a piece today, but quickly realized I had said pretty  much everything I wanted to say about the horror genre already. And about the epic adventure genre, which I also like, I had nothing interesting to say. Same goes for mystery and comedy.

So I thought I’d change things up a little. I’m going to write about a genre I have very little familiarity with: romance. And by “romance” I mean of course “love stories”. (There is an older definition which means something more like “adventure”.) The only thing even close to being a romance I can remember actually liking is Jane Eyre, which I read earlier this year. This shows how ignorant I am of the genre.

Now, it’s certainly true that almost all of my favorite books, movies, video games, etc. include at least one romantic sub-plot, but that does not mean they are of the romantic genre; they merely feature elements from it.

I think this is because an actual romance story is very hard to do, because a proper romance involves two people who get along well. And as the adage says “the essence of drama is conflict”, and therefore a successful  romance is necessarily devoid of conflict for the most part. This is–or might be–interesting because while a “horror” story derives its conflict from something horrible, and an “adventure” derives its conflict from adventuring, a “romance” needs some external conflict.

A popular source of conflict is that there are social or familial bars against the romance. This is probably the most common. Another one is to write it so the couple acts like they don’t like each other until they fall in love. (I have never liked this one.)

 I suspect this why romances today, at least in film, tend to be romantic comedies. Comedies don’t really need to have terribly plausible conflict, because they are comedies. So if you’ve got a romance in search of a conflict,  you can make it a comedy and invent one pretty easily.

Lastly, although I’ve never written fiction of any genre, it seems to me that romance must be much harder to write than, for example, horror and adventure. Very few people have ever seen or thought they’ve seen ghosts, or been sent on a quest to defeat “The Dark Lord”. Whereas most people probably have fallen in love at some point. As a result, the audience for a romance story is in a better position to spot false notes in the story.
Again, these are the observations of someone who does not actually read or watch much in the genre, so they may all be wrong. I am largely extrapolating based on second-hand knowledge and what I see in romantic sub-plots in works in of other genres.

As I’ve mentioned a couple times on here lately, I didn’t much care for the last book in the Harry Potter series. So I was pleased to see this Entertainment Weekly article by Jeff Jensen that expressed one of my many problems with it. As Jensen says:

“I wish Harry’s final victory over Voldemort had nothing to do with the technicalities of Elder Wand allegiance. Not that it doesn’t make sense… But it bugs me to this day that the most dramatic, cathartic moment in Rowling’s story pivots on a twist that required a bunch of exposition to explain.”

I’ll go one better: it makes very little sense, except inasmuch as anything can make sense due to magic. This “magic did it”  explanation is perfectly satisfying when things seem dramatically “right”, but, as Jensen observes, it’s weird for Potter to have to stand there and explain the legalistic intricacies of who actually owns the wand. It would work well enough in a comic opera, but not at the climax of a seven-part fantasy epic.

Jensen goes on to say:

“Maybe [Rowling] didn’t want Harry to ‘win’ by killing anyone, even someone as loathsome as Voldemort. Messianic Chosen Ones don’t murder their way to righteous, world-saving victory. See: Luke Skywalker.”

Okay, but the ending of Return of the Jedi is way more effective in my book. The Potter ending is sort of like if Emperor Palpatine were defeated because his payment on the Death Star’s electric bill didn’t go out on time due to a bank holiday. Not dramatically satisfying.

Well not for me, anyway; though clearly most other people feel differently about the book.

I find it really hard to believe that the latest and last Harry Potter film has a 98% rating at the website “Rotten Tomatoes“. On the face of it, that suggests that is comparable in quality to the similarly-rated Lawrence of Arabia. I haven’t seen the Potter film, and I don’t know if I will, but that level of quality seems highly improbable. I’ve seen the first six films in the series and they’ve ranged from “lousy” to “enjoyable enough”.

Add in the fact that this is an adaptation of the weaker half of what I consider to be the worst book in the whole series, and I become even more dubious. Perhaps I will have to see it now, just to sate my curiosity…

As long as I’m talking about fiction, I thought I’d discuss a mistake that I occasionally see in fiction: the introduction of superfluous elements that needlessly confuse and prolong the story, weakening it overall.

There’s probably a real name for this, but I like to call it the “Prince of Monte Carlo syndrome”, after the character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke whose presence in the story is–in my opinion–unnecessary. Now, the reason Gilbert introduced the Prince was probably because he was funny; in fact, many people (not me) think his “roulette song” is the best thing in the show. But, though he’s a good character, he just doesn’t fit in well in the story, and actually messes up the flow of it by his presence.

Of course, this sort of thing is easier to get away with in comedies. In more serious works, it’s worse. I love Mass Effect 2, but, as Shamus Young and many others have pointed out, the Collectors feel like a totally unnecessary addition that serves only to muddle up everything and, worst of all, weakens the main enemy, the Reapers. Maybe they’ll make it work in Mass Effect 3, but as it is now, it’s kind of a messy plot.

This brings me to my most serious, and probably most controversial example: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Or, to be specific, just the Deathly Hallows. That book has many problems, in my opinion, but if I had to point to just one, I’d say it’s the fact that, when the Deathly Hallows are introduced, it just confuses everything. There was already a perfectly good “MacGuffin” in the horcruxes, it seemed to me that the Deathly Hallows were simply too much to deal with. This flaw isn’t fatal to the book by itself, but it combines with some other issues to make it my least favorite Harry Potter book. It put me off the franchise to such an extent I didn’t even think of it when writing this post.

The thing is, all these ideas are good by themselves; the Prince is funny, the Collectors are scary and the Deathly Hallows are an adequate plot-driving device–but they just don’t fit in well with the rest of the story. It’s not a fatal flaw–as I’ve said, Grand Duke is one of my favorite G&S works, and Mass Effect 2 is still a great game–but it can be quite jarring.

[NOTE: In this post, I’m going to spoil, to different degrees: the short stories The Call of Cthulhu and The Repairer of Reputations, and the film JFK.]

I like horror fiction–specifically “cosmic horror” of the sort exemplified by H.P. Lovecraft and, in some of his works, Robert W. Chambers. I have, in the past, expressed my preference for this over the grotesque type of horror that is more prevalent today, especially in film.

I also, as long-time readers know, enjoy conspiracy theories and conspiracy-related fiction. What I hadn’t realized, amazingly, until recently was how similar these two genres are. In the past, I’ve often supposed that it is simply too difficult to convey on the screen the same sense that can be conveyed on the page, but I realize now that the conspiracy genre is nearer the style a cinematic weird-tale should take.

H.P. Lovecraft’s assertion that in “the true weird tale… A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present” is also, in a way, a description of conspiracy fiction, even if the conspiracy in the story is entirely man-made.

Oliver Stone’s film JFK–a masterful film, if a poor history–evokes a sense not unlike the best sort of cosmic horror or “weird tale”. Although there is no doubt that the conspiracy is wholly man-made, it is revealed piecemeal so as to gradually build up the terror of thing. (It need hardly be said that I believe in the truth of this conspiracy about as much as I do in Cthulhu. I am treating it purely as a work of art, and ignoring its real-world political meaning, such as it is.)

I suppose the real genre I am after is what is called the “thriller” or “supernatural thriller”, but that somehow seems like a cheap term to describe the kind of thing I mean. Somehow such films always tend too much toward the conventionally grotesque for my tastes.

The movie The Omen –my favorite horror film–is not so different in its structure from JFK, bizarre though that sounds. Both gradually build up to the revelation of “outer, unknown forces”. In the The Omen, the forces are the Biblical forces of Evil, whereas in JFK the forces are the “military industrial complex”, but though we–and even most Kennedy conspiracy-theorists–know intellectually that this is a man-made institution, it nonetheless can assume almost supernatural, or rather preternatural, powers over the course of the film.

Indeed, much of the similarity in these works stems from the fact that Cthulhu/aliens, Gods and Devils, and Super-secret Spy organizations make for powerful antagonists to whom all manner of dramatic powers may be given by the writer.

Now, it’s well known that aliens and religion are often the stuff of conspiracy fiction. (The Da Vinci Code, Deus Ex) But, from what I have seen, the conspiracies which involve them seldom manage to become truly like “weird fiction” in the Lovecraftian sense, because they usually rely on high-level human involvement in the conspiracies, and either turn out to be too mundane or just too confusing. One problem with writing man-made conspiracies is that they ultimately must have some logical, human motivation, which Cthulhu and the Devil and such do not require.

To be really good, (in my opinion of course) a good conspiracy and a good horror story must not over-explain. I know I’ve said this before, but it is worth repeating. Lovecraft himself, I think, went too far into explanation in his famous The Call of Cthulhu. What I remember about that story is the piecing together, not the anti-climactic revelation of the Old One. Again, Chambers’ The King in Yellow, especially “The Repairer of Reputations” is an excellent example of how to do it, in my opinion. Chambers was a great practitioner of horror, Lovecraft a great theorist.

Or, to go back to JFK, the film is largely a big buildup to a finale in which nothing is resolved, only the nature of the conspiracy has been, to some extent, revealed. (It might–and I’m only realizing this now–be possible to interpret the film with Garrison as an unreliable narrator, much as Hildred is in Repairer of Reputations.) It’s not pushed too far, and not over-explained, but it is gives you enough to comprehend the magnitude of the danger without being too sure of the details.

The sort of horror film I would like to see would rely almost entirely upon frenzied discovery and investigation, like a good conspiracy story. It would require hardly any explicit violence–it could probably get a “PG-13” rating–and express the scope of the horror in a manner similar to JFK: through, as Lovecraft memorably put it, “the piecing together of dissociated knowledge”.

Meghan Cox Gurdon argues in the WSJ that modern fiction for teenagers is too dark. The argument runs that the consistently grim, even morbid, subjects in the genre have a harmful effect on their readers. Authors in that genre are, of course, upset by this article.

One thing that is strange about the WSJ article is that it interviews parents, writers, editors and booksellers, yet does not seem to interview any fiction-reading teenagers, whose opinions would seem to be highly relevant.

I’ve never liked the concept of deliberately writing a “fiction for teenagers” genre anyway. It seems to me people ought to try to write something good and not worry about who likes it. There’s too much of a “what shall we tell them to think?” vibe from the genre itself and articles like that above, in my opinion.

For what it’s worth, when I was a teenager, I don’t remember reading all that much teenage fiction, and what I did read wasn’t very good. I do remember I read a bunch of Thomas Hardy‘s novels. These had the advantages of being (a) recognized as great literature, (b) much better written than most modern stuff, whether for teenagers or anyone else, and (c) every bit as dark and depressing as the modern stuff. (For those of you unfamiliar with Hardy, his books are perhaps best described by this line from his own The Mayor of Casterbridge: “Happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.”)

I was re-reading Joseph Campbell‘s The Hero with a Thousand Faces today, and this passage caught my eye:

“[T]he symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.”

This reminded me, a little, of what I wrote in my previous post. Was Campbell right? I have no idea–frankly, I cannot say with honesty that I completely understand this, or any of his book. But I thought it interesting.