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.

Heh. I was just idly thinking today about how much I hate the cliché of titling a book or article “Why [subject here] matter[s]”, when the news comes out that Newt Gingrich is releasing a book titled A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters.

Based on the book’s description, it sounds like he’s making the old argument that “American Exceptionalism” derives from the American hostility to government. Maybe so. But, as I wrote in response to similar remarks by Jonah Goldberg:

 “Americans are more instinctively hostile to government than most. Yet, this is not always the case. After all, didn’t most people readily believe the government’s worst-case claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?”

My point is that the people who speak of “American Exceptionalism” and “small government” do not always behave accordingly–specifically, when Republicans are in power, they are willing to tolerate–even embrace–expansions of government power.

Via Hacker News, an interesting article by Linda Holmes, pointing out that there isn’t enough time in the world to see all the works of literature and art:

“After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you’d otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, ‘All genre fiction is trash.’ You have just massively reduced your effective surrender load, because you’ve thrown out so much at once.

The same goes for throwing out foreign films, documentaries, classical music, fantasy novels, soap operas, humor, or westerns. I see people culling by category, broadly and aggressively: television is not important, popular fiction is not important, blockbuster movies are not important. Don’t talk about rap; it’s not important. Don’t talk about anyone famous; it isn’t important. And by the way, don’t tell me it is important, because that would mean I’m ignoring something important, and that’s … uncomfortable. That’s surrender.” [Italics hers.]

I understand this. For example, I listen to almost no currently popular music and I watch very little television. I also see few new movies, preferring to watch classic old movies instead.

This is not because I assume all the new things to be worthless, however. I go by the rule of thumb that much of the currently popular stuff is awful, some of it is mildly enjoyable, and a very small portion of it is destined for immortality as great Art.* It seems probable, at any rate. Besides, I’m not absolutist about not seeing or hearing anything new. It’s a general policy, not an iron law.

But why do I choose to spend less time on “current” art and more time on older stuff, and not the other way round? The reason is that I believe it sort of helps you be less susceptible to fads in general. It’s similar to the phenomenon Paul Graham wrote about in his essay “Taste for Makers”:

“Aiming at timelessness is also a way to evade the grip of fashion. Fashions almost by definition change with time, so if you can make something that will still look good far into the future, then its appeal must derive more from merit and less from fashion.

Strangely enough, if you want to make something that will appeal to future generations, one way to do it is to try to appeal to past generations. It’s hard to guess what the future will be like, but we can be sure it will be like the past in caring nothing for present fashions.”

Obviously, the major (but not only) exception to my avoidance of current art is the video game thing. Part of it is simply that I like games and that’s that, but another part of it is that most people don’t think of them as “Art” yet, and I’m hoping to be slightly ahead of the pack on this.

Having said that, I can think of lots of reasons one might choose to ignore old Art and focus on the new. There are pros and cons to both.

*This is why I’m sensitive about people condemning video games as unintelligent, immature, juvenile entertainment. It is true that most video games are just that, but not all of them. Some are truly brilliant, and I don’t like to see them condemned.

Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a great point:

“[M]y readings of Jane Austen, and now Edith Wharton, have really taken me back to this old claim… that women aren’t funny. As an adult, probably the first author I found to be truly humorous was Zora Neale Hurston. Better people then me can probably cite a range of other women authors who used humor in their writing, but even in my own small forays it’s clear to me that they are there. Leaving aside the desire to say something provocative, if thin, I’m thinking that a large portion of this claim originates in shrinking the range of ‘funny.’…

Also part of this is on us, by which I mean people who love books. I don’t think many people today think of fiction, creative nonfiction or poetry as particularly funny genres.” 

Read the whole thing.

He’s right. (About the literature thing. Well, I think he’s also right about the “women can be funny” thing, but I want to focus on this.)

People tend not to realize how much humor there really is in literature. One of the things that impressed me when I recently read the book Jane Eyre is how much wit there was in it. There are no “jokes” as such, but there is a great deal of humorous dialogue. Even the works of Thomas Hardy, which are almost always very dark in subject matter, contain many humorously ironic moments and witty use of language.

So, I might as well admit it: I didn’t blog yesterday because I was determined to finally finish reading the book Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, which I started way back in February. It’s a great book, and I had to see how it ended. I was quite surprised by how happily it all turned out, but this was probably because the style and time-period of the book had subconsciously reminded me of a Thomas Hardy novel, and things rarely end well in Thomas Hardy novels.

Anyway, it’s an excellent book, even if it does drag a bit in the “third act”, if you will. I plan to re-read it very soon to see what subtleties I pick up on, but I’ll read it at a more leisurely pace this time around.