I have been reading some of the works of Lord Dunsany lately. He was a major influence on H.P. Lovecraft, and I  can definitely see some traits in him that Lovecraft would adopt in his writing.  I think Dunsany was on the whole a better writer than Lovecraft, but I enjoy the subject matter of Lovecraft’s stories more.

Lord Dunsany. Image via Wikipedia.

That’s not to say Dunsany’s tales aren’t interesting–it’s just that too many of them are pure fantasy, with the attendant tropes of what we would now call “sword and sorcery”, and I don’t care for that stuff.  I guess it’s because it’s hard for me to relate to characters in these medieval-esque fantasy lands.  In general, I prefer horror set in a recognizable time and place that actually exists or existed.  But that’s just my preference, and there are certainly some exceptions.

Not all the Dunsany stories I’ve read are typical fantasy, though.  One that I enjoyed quite a bit was “The Ghosts“.  I can’t quite decide what to make of the story–it is alternately kind of scary and kind of funny.  I don’t know if both of these effects were intentional.  The overall effect is quite weird, but then that is the point of such stories, isn’t it?

 

 

P.M. Prescott’s comment on this post reminded me about the concept of “fractal” structure for a piece of literature.  I was about to write a post about it, but then I remembered–as with the vampires a few weeks ago–that I’d already done so, two years ago, almost to the day.

He’s right that there’s a limit to how much complexity you can give a character before people will get bored of hearing about it.  That’s why the best character development is done through “showing, not telling”, as the old adage says, and having their complexity displayed through the plot-driving actions they take. And maybe best of all is having characters who are ambiguous–that way, the audience will start to make up their own explanations for their motivations–provided you give them enough material to work with.

It’s also true that you don’t need complex characters to have a good story.  The characters in Animal Farm, for example, are largely just allegorical caricatures of political figures and parties from the first half of the 20th century.  But it’s still a great book.

I guess the real key, whether your characters are nuanced and complex, or simply cut-outs who represent something else, is to make sure it all works together as part of the story you are telling. The characters and incidents need to somehow reflect or represent the larger story.

For example, one of the major of themes of the book Of Mice and Men is loneliness.  To quote the Wikipedia article:

Candy is lonely after his dog is gone. Curley’s wife is lonely because her husband is not the friend she hoped for —- she deals with her loneliness by flirting with the men on the ranch…  The companionship of George and Lennie is the result of loneliness. Crooks states the theme candidly as “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got anybody. Don’t make any difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you.”

Each of the characters and their major issues are somehow related to that theme. That’s what makes it a theme.

Another example of what I’m talking about–not so much with characters, but rather concerning the idea that the individual pieces reflect the whole, is in the Sherlock Holmes stories.  Many of them start out with Holmes and Watson talking about some minor curiosity.  Holmes then explains it to Watson by using his deductive powers, and shows how he was able to figure out what Watson (and everyone else) would miss.

Then the actual plot of the story, the central mystery, is introduced. It will be resolved in exactly the same way; with Holmes making deductions to solve the case.  This is called “foreshadowing”, but it’s just a matter of the micro-elements of the story resembling the macro-elements.

Needless to say, as P.M. noted, this is all really, really hard to write.

Thingy pointed out something I haven’t really addressed in my posts about John Steinbeck: that his preponderance of flat, unlikable and (in the case of Cathy from East of Eden) downright evil  female characters may not have been simply a reflection of animosity towards women on his part, but symptomatic of the era in which he wrote.

Maybe so.  As I said in my comment on Thingy’s blog, I can think of some female characters from other periods who were better than Steinbeck’s, but still, her point is a good one: maybe that was just how things were back then,

I’m glad this came up, because I’d been planning to do a post about this article in The New Statesman by Sophia McDougall. The point of the article is basically that “Strong Female Characters” can be almost as bad as “Weak Female Characters”, in the sense that both imply a dearth of character development.  They are equally simplistic and flat as characters.

I don’t like to list “favorite” fictional characters, because you can get to comparing apples to oranges very quickly.  Nevertheless, if you forced me to choose, I would say my favorite female character in all fiction is (you guessed it) Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II.  In fact, she’s probably my favorite fictional character, regardless of genderAnd the reason is because she’s complicated.

None of Steinbeck’s female characters are that. They are all very one-dimensional.  Now, as Thingy said, some of his male characters are pretty much cut-outs as well, but I can’t think of any female of Steinbeck’s who is as interesting as Mac from In Dubious Battle.

But back to Thingy’s point: was that just Steinbeck’s attitude, or was it the spirit of the time? I think probably both, but I also think it’s significant that I couldn’t think of any ’30s-era female characters in books written by males that I’d consider good examples.  Perhaps you, dear reader, can think of some?

I just finished reading the novel In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck.  It is about a strike by fruit pickers in 1930s California. The two main characters are Communist revolutionaries who organize and lead the striking workers.

It is instructive to compare the book with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which I analyzed earlier this year. That book is socialist propaganda, cut and dried.  The perspective of In Dubious Battle is also sympathetic to the communists,  but Steinbeck is a much more nuanced writer than Sinclair, and so he is able to give more thought to the philosophical issues underlying the strike. The character of the Doctor alone is more interesting than anybody in The Jungle, and his ambivalence about the strike raises legitimate questions that Sinclair would never consider.

What I find interesting is that, even though it is a much better piece of literature than The Jungle, it’s not nearly as well-known, or as effective a tool for social change.  Perhaps good literature is bad propaganda, and vice-versa.

Like the other Steinbeck book I have written about, Of Mice and Men, there is an undercurrent of misogyny in this book.  The only major female character is sweet, but very dim.  Other female characters are mentioned only in passing as background elements.  It’s definitely a book about men and stereotypically “manly” things—Steinbeck always describes cars in loving detail, for instance.

I’m not going to give many more details because, well, basically I already have given you the plot summary—it is about a strike.  It’s more about the behavior of the participants than about any specific events in the strike.  I recommend reading it, and forming your own opinion. I will say that it explores the idea of charisma as a force for motivating groups of people, something I love to write about.

Lastly, a bit of trivia: In Dubious Battle is one of President Obama’s favorite books, according to this article (Via Wikipedia).

Lovecraft’s sketch of Cthulhu. Image via Wikipedia.

Longtime readers may know that I, like most sci-fi/fantasy enthusiasts, enjoy the works of of H.P. Lovecraft.  Apart from his racial views–which are thankfully absent from most of his better stories–I like his writing,  his evocative settings and memorable, unique monsters.

That said, his plots frequently aren’t as good as they could have been.  The Shadow Out of Time needed to have the middle third edited out.  The second half of The Whisperer in Darkness gives away a certain critical plot twist way too early.  The Dunwich Horror is just bad.  Ironically, though Lovecraft wrote critical essays and letters asking for subtlety in horror fiction, his own stories often failed do this, and would clumsily reveal too much detail about his creatures.

The Call of Cthulhu is probably his single most famous work.  In fact, his Cthulhu creation may be more famous than he himself is, being a sort of shorthand for the ultimate evil in certain circles.

The problem is, Call of Cthulhu isn’t a very good horror story.  Well, to be fair, the first two-thirds of it are.  The opening paragraph is one of my favorite quotes in all literature.  But then we have the last third… (I’m about to spoil the story, so be warned.)

Part of the problem of the last third of CoC is that the first two parts are so good.  Lovecraft builds up to the horror gradually, hinting and letting his narrator–and by extension, the reader–glimpse and guess rather than just outright explaining  what Cthulhu is.  With all this weighing on his mind, we come to the the adventure of Second Mate Johansen.

The mere fact that anybody even found R’lyeh in the first place is a problem.  It would have been better if its existence had only been guessed at–perhaps in “old legends telling of a weird island that has since vanished”, or something along similar lines.  Having somebody actually find it eliminates a key element that is often underused in horror, but of which Lovecraft ought to have been cognizant: that is the element of uncertainty, of wondering if all the narrator’s suspicions might be merely incipient madness.

Even worse is the part where the sailors actually witness the awakening of Cthulhu.  No matter how overwrought Lovecraft makes his prose, he can’t possibly make this monster live up to the hype he’s given it.   So, it was a big dragon-squid, was it?  That’s… somehow disappointing.

But the worst of all; the fatal flaw that almost ruins the story for me, is what happens next: the last surviving sailor makes it back to his ship and rams Cthulhu with it.   And this actually forces Cthulhu to retreat!

This is just awful horror writing.  This Elder-God, this unspeakably powerful, incomprehensibly awesome creature can be defeated by one guy with a boat?  Why not just have the Navy station a battleship out there and repeat this every time the Great Old One becomes troublesome?  Actually, that’s not even necessary, because it apparently only wakes every few “vigintillion” years anyway, which means Johansen probably has saved humanity for the rest of its existence. This is such a classic mistake, there’s even a page on TVTropes named for it: “Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?

I think Lovecraft must have realized this was pretty weak, so he tried to imply at the end that the cultists (here are those blasted racial ideas of his creeping in) were going to sabotage all efforts at learning about the existence of Cthulhu or R’lyeh.  But the problem with that is, the cultists are repeatedly shown to be incompetent throughout the story. Johansen and his crew-mates were able to defeat their sentry ship without even realizing what they were doing.

All in all, what an awful way to ruin a potentially terrifying monster!  The lesson for aspiring writers: if you invent a Terrifying, Scary, Nearly Omnipotent Monster, don’t ruin it by letting it be defeated  easily.  And it’s best not to actually show it in action at all, but rather to just show hints of it.

My mention of Ayn Rand in my post about The Jungle and Patrick Prescott’s comment about it set me thinking: what if Ayn Rand’s efforts to ridicule socialism went further than anyone realized?  What if the style of her books, with their interminable preaching and sprawling, momentum-killing speeches detailing various points of philosophy and economics, were meant as a deliberate counterpoint to socialist novels that did the same thing?

Look at some of the covers of Rand’s books, especially this edition of Atlas Shrugged, and notice how much it looks like Soviet propaganda art.  The structure and marketing of these books was ironically basing itself off of socialism’s propaganda.

Even Rand’s “fan club” called itself “the Collective”–again, a joke, since they were a collective of radical individualists.  They were always mocking socialist ideas and terms, so why not in the very style of the books themselves? And, most interesting of all, what if the increasingly totalitarian bent of “The Collective” was just an elaborate satire on how socialism itself went from being a theory-based social movement to a fanatical, quasi-religious cult based on the worship of idols like Marx and Lenin.

Maybe Rand was pretending to be as much of a zealot as the collectivists she hated.  Maybe she was the Sacha Baron Cohen of her time, deliberately playing a certain role to reveal something about her audience.  Like Orwell’s Animal Farm, she was showing how the principles of an idealistic revolution give way to less rational behavior in the end.

(more…)

Maybe there’s something about the name “Sinclair”.  Last year, I blogged about Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, and mentioned how terribly unsubtle its political commentary is.  I just finished reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and it has much the same problem.

Upton Sinclair did not like the meat-packing industry. And so he wrote this book to explain why it–and ultimately the entire capitalist system–was corrupt and evil.  The book tells the story of a Lithuanian family who comes to America and finds work in the Chicago meat-packing industry.  Every single horrible thing that you can imagine happening then proceeds to happen, and so, through soul-crushing poverty, crime and death, the family breaks up.

The main character is the family patriarch, Jurgis Rudkus, who goes from being an honest working man beaten down by the cruel meat industry to a cynical and selfish criminal to finding the light of socialism, which he then espouses with religious zeal.

I have to admit, though it is about as heavy-handed as it could have been, it nevertheless succeeds somewhat in making you feel sorry for the characters by sheer force of repetition.  Sinclair had this irritating habit of writing something along the lines of: “Jurgis went home that night, little knowing that something unbelievably horrible was about to happen.”  This kind of kills the suspense, and is dramatically a dreadful device, but it beats you over the head with it so much it sometimes works anyway.

The irony is that though the book is famous for its depiction of the disgusting practices of the meat-packing industry, that was really just a bit of extra detail Sinclair included. His real point was much broader; it was that the workers were oppressed by the bosses.  So, he actually accomplished the extremely rare feat of writing a novel that accomplished social change, but it was not the change he wanted. (It wouldn’t shock me if the reason the book is famous for the parts about the food production processes is because those bits are closer to the beginning, and most people quit reading after that.)

Sinclair wrote this novel for a socialist magazine, and this is where it comes to its central problem: the conflict between being a work of propaganda and a work of art.  There can be propaganda that is also art, but when a person is writing to make a political point, there is a dilemma between portraying things as they are versus how the ideology requires them to be.  So, almost all of the characters in The Jungle are just puppets with which Sinclair makes his political points.

There are vast swaths of the book that don’t really qualify as being part of the story, they are merely long lists itemizing everything that is wrong with meat-packing, or the city of Chicago, or the factories, or whatever.  The last chapter of the book is just a huge lecture on the evils of Capitalism and the virtues of Socialism:

“How is the price of an article determined?”

“The price is the labor it has cost to make and deliver it, and it is determined by the first principles of arithmetic. The million workers in the nation’s wheat fields have worked a hundred days each, and the total product of the labor is a billion bushels, so the value of a bushel of wheat is the tenth part of a farm labor-day. If we employ an arbitrary symbol, and pay, say, five dollars a day for farm work, then the cost of a bushel of wheat is fifty cents.”

“You say ‘for farm work,'” said Mr. Maynard. “Then labor is not to be paid alike?”

“Manifestly not, since some work is easy and some hard, and we should have millions of rural mail carriers, and no coal miners. Of course the wages may be left the same, and the hours varied; one or the other will have to be varied continually, according as a greater or less number of workers is needed in any particular industry. That is precisely what is done at present, except that the transfer of the workers is accomplished blindly and imperfectly, by rumors and advertisements, instead of instantly and completely, by a universal government bulletin.”

That’s just a bit of it–to give you the flavor.  It reminded me of Ayn Rand’s writing, and almost made me wonder if her books are better once you are familiar with clumsily-written socialist propaganda.  Perhaps her sledgehammer approach to philosophical writing was intended as a parody.

There are a ton of obvious questions Sinclair fails to answer in the concluding chapters.  Given the benefit of hindsight, the “Socialism is Our Salvation” message of the book is truly ironic.  Just in the above passage, you may ask “how exactly will this ‘universal government bulletin’ work?” Or perhaps, if you’re after the big game, you might wonder “if price is determined by labor, wouldn’t that mean something produced with more labor–that is, less efficiently–be more valuable than the same good produced with less labor?”

Ok, that second one is unfair.  I’m criticizing Sinclair for repeating Marx’s mistake.  But if we just stick to the problems with this as a novel, it’s still pretty bad to end your book with a series of “Marty Stu” characters giving speeches.  This Socialist F.A.Q. in the last chapter made me think of a quote from Marx–Groucho, that is.  In one of their movies, there’s a bit where Chico is asking and answering his own rhetorical questions and then asks Groucho, “Now so far I’m right?”.  Groucho responds: “It’s pretty hard to be wrong  when you keep answering yourself.”

Now, don’t misunderstand me–I’m sure a lot of the criticisms Sinclair made of the meat industry were quite valid.  It was just the solutions where he went wrong, I think.  According to Wikipedia, an employee at the publishing company for The Jungle wrote:

One feels that what is at the bottom of his fierceness is not nearly so much desire to help the poor as hatred of the rich.

Doubtless, Sinclair would say that this employee was just slandering him on behalf of the capitalists in order to crush the glorious proletariat uprising. “Now we see the violence inherent in the system!”

Seriously, though, that person was right that Sinclair hated the rich.  He seems to have surprisingly little actual interest in the poor, and besides that, he seems to have had odd little prejudices of his own.  (Especially against the Irish–I think nearly all of the bad characters in the book are explicitly noted to be Irish.)

As a novel, it is pretty poor.  As a work of propaganda, it is also fairly weak, though it did actually set people thinking and inspire them to take action to make changes in society, even if it wasn’t what the author himself had in mind.  It caught the attention of  President Theodore Roosevelt–clearly, it was an effective vehicle for getting a message across.

And if nothing else, it made me glad I’m a vegetarian, even though I’m quite certain the meat industry’s practices have improved over the last century.

As I mentioned here, I’ve been planning to read some John Steinbeck books.   I haven’t gotten to The Grapes of Wrath yet, but I recently read Of Mice and Men.  It’s very well-written, and effective at describing the scenes and characters. The first and last chapters especially do a good job painting an evocative scene for the reader.  The dialogue is also very good—Steinbeck captured rural, uneducated dialect convincingly while still making it flow naturally, so as to be readable.

The story itself is tragic, and indeed, I was duly depressed at the end of it.  But I couldn’t get past one thing about the tale: the vague undercurrent of misogyny. Curley’s wife—no name, just “Curley’s wife”—is treated as not really even a person.  By Steinbeck’s own admission, she is “not a person, she’s a symbol.” This dehumanization is quite evident in the book, and I found it rather disturbing.

There also is a heavy implication that her ultimate fate is her fault. I mean, who can blame her for flirting with the farm workers, considering what a jerk her husband is? And yet George, who is supposed to be a sympathetic character does blame her for it.  I can’t really decide if this is author’s perspective, or just the character’s perspective, though.

Steinbeck’s quote above notwithstanding, there is some attempt to humanize the character at the end, so it may be the point is just that the farm workers have misogynistic attitudes.  (Interestingly, I notice that the Of Mice and Men article on Wikipedia is in the category “misogyny”, even though no reason for this is given in the body of the article.)

However, it is still a very well-written and powerful  book.  I read that Steinbeck wrote it so that it could be either read as a novel or performed as a play.  That’s a very interesting idea, and I can definitely see how it could be easily adapted to the stage, although I don’t know if the quiet, melancholy nature scenes at the beginning and end could be translated to the stage effectively.

I’ve written on here before about how film adaptations of books are usually (though not always) unsuccessful, because the stories told in books are usually optimized for book form, and so don’t work as well on screen.  But what about books adapted from movies? Do they have the same problem?

Again; yes, usually.  But sometimes they can complement the movie well. I think it’s actually easier for a novelization to enhance a movie than for a movie to enhance a book.  You can probe the motivations and details of the characters more thoroughly on the page. But with movie adaptations, it’s more likely you’ll lose content rather than gain it.

An example of a bad novelization is the Star Wars: Attack of the Clones book by R.A. Salvatore. The whole thing feels off. It lacks much of the quick pacing of the movie, and when we get to “hear their thoughts”, as it were, the characters don’t really match up with how they seem to be acting in the film.

You don’t have to look far for a much better novelization, though:  Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Stover is a great adaptation that does a very good job illuminating other aspects of the story and fleshing out the characters in a way not possible in the movie.  One thing that’s not communicated in the movie, but which Stover includes, is the point that Anakin is very sleep-deprived during the events of the story. This helps make his decisions much more understandable.

I read a novelization of the movie The Mummy Returns, and it was about what you’d expect for a novelization of a popcorn action-adventure flick.  It’s entertaining on the screen, but dire on the page.  I think many novelizations really are nothing more than cash-ins.

One question that occurred to me as I was thinking about this issue: between books and movies, which medium do you think is more conducive to nuance and subtlety in storytelling? My first inclination was to say “books”, but then it is true that you have to spend a lot more time describing something in a book than in a film. “A picture is worth a thousand words”, as they say. What do you think?

“The fans are all upset. They’re always going to be upset. Why did he do it like this? And why didn’t he do it like this? They write their own movie, and then, if you don’t do their movie, they get upset about it.”–George Lucas

I was thinking a bit more about the Mass Effect 3 ending.  I may do a post later on with my thoughts on it specifically, but while I was thinking about it, the idea occurred to me that it was so disappointing because it was so anticipated.  Fans had years to think about how the Mass Effect series would end; and so whatever happened would likely disappoint them.  It is an intrinsically bad ending, don’t get me wrong, but its badness was amplified by how much everyone had been thinking about it.

The same thing happened, for me anyway, with the Harry Potter series.  A big plot point, discussed by fans and even used in the advance marketing of the last book was “is Snape good or evil”?  Everybody had two years to think about this question, and we all knew what was going to happen.  Even if you bet on the wrong outcome, chances were you’d heard alternate theories that turned out to be correct. It may have made it sell better to promote the debate, but it weakened the book’s dramatic power.

It’s hard to surprise your audience with twists when you are telling a story with long intervals between each installment.  The only way out is to not leave clues to what’s coming, but then the endings or plot twists will feel unsatisfying; like they just came out of nowhere.  The best plot resolutions have to have been logically set up beforehand.

Sometimes a writer can stumble on some good twist in the middle of a series.  For instance, few people see the famous twist in The Empire Strikes Back coming, unless someone has spoiled them on it.  I’ve heard that this is because George Lucas only decided to do it after A New Hope was released, so he hadn’t left enough clues to give it away before hand, but was able to satisfactorily retrofit his twist on to the second film with the vague setup given in the first. But he was very lucky.

Lucas also didn’t have the internet to contend with.  If he had, some random fan probably would have accurately guessed the ending by pure chance while speculating on some forum.  I see this as the inevitable fate of the Half-Life video game series: if they ever do release Half-Life 3, there is no way someone won’t have already guessed what the deal is with the G-Man and posted a huge essay about their theories to be discussed on some forum.

There’s no question that internet fandom has intensified this problem; for it enables like-minded people to interact and ponder their favorite series.  I don’t think this was as much of a problem before the internet, even though there were stories that appeared in installments in magazines and the like.

This problem is lessened a bit if you are not doing a sequel that directly continues a particular story.  J.J. Abrams was very smart to come up with the alternate timeline business for his new Star Trek movies, because it pretty much allowed him to do whatever he wanted.   And although it still does not really live up to its title, I think a lot of criticism from Fallout fans of Fallout 3 was blunted because it was set far away from the other games.  In other words, it’s easier to do a series that is a loosely-related group of stories in a certain setting or around a set of themes than it is to tell one coherent story over installments. And it’s easiest of all to just tell your story in one shot.  To bring us back to Mass Effect 3, I’m convinced that had they condensed the story of the whole series into one game–with the same endings–they would have gotten way fewer complaints.  On the other hand, they also would have made less money.