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.

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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.

A few days ago, a friend of mine was recommending to me that I read some John Steinbeck books.  Then, a few days later, my blogger friend Thingy also mentioned him.  So, I guess I better get to it. I’ll try Grapes of Wrath, even though I admit the setting doesn’t appeal to me.

Another famous book I’ve never read is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which I see they have just adapted into a movie.  I’ll have to read it too at some point.  It’s also considered a great book.  It should make for an interesting contrast: Grapes is about poor Westerners in the 1930s, and Gatsby is about rich Easterners in the 1920s.

There are surprisingly many famous books that I have never read…  Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, everything by Charles Dickens that isn’t A Christmas Carol. (Actually, I’m not even 100% sure I read that–I may have just absorbed by seeing the many thousands of adaptations.)

I did recently read Dracula, by Bram Stoker.  It wasn’t very good, to be honest.  It was very slow-moving and except for Dracula himself, most of the characters were thin as paper.  Add in that it was surprisingly violent for a Victorian novel, and I didn’t care for it at all.

UPDATE: Thank you for the award, Thingy.  (I still can’t comment on your blog, BTW, but I’m glad some comments are back.) Gone With The Wind is another one I want to read, even though I fully expect to hate it from what I know about it.  It’s what the critics like to call an “important” book, so I should probably  see what all the fuss is about.

I recently read a book called The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson.  It was a forerunner of what we would call  “Lovecraftian” weird tales, in that instead of relying the stereotypical monsters, it instead used a weird atmosphere and strange alien creatures to be frightening.

That part of it is pretty cool.  Unfortunately, it’s also a forerunner of Lovecraft in another respect:  the story goes on way too long.  I think it’s partly a dramatic device to have it drag on like it does, but it’s still too long.  The feeling of weirdness and dread can’t really be sustained over a story of that length.

Even with that serious flaw, though, it’s a very good story, especially the first half of it.  Some of the science of the science-fiction elements were surprisingly well done.  The author does as good a job as one could expect of describing what seems to be the end of the universe as many astronomers predict it.

I guess that’s kind of a spoiler—but actually, it’s also a good way of conveying how long the book is: the universe ends—and then the book continues after that!

Weird article in The Daily Beast by a writer called Frank Bill.  Idea is that men are not manly enough these days, so there are fewer manly novels about manly things.

What I don’t know is what he means by “masculine writing”.  Does he mean subject matter–wars and hunting? There are books about those things. Or choice of words–short, blunt sentences?  Like Hemingway, who did both.

Tough to gut it out through lots of words.  Have to fight your way through dense jungles of adjectives and adverbs, hunt down the meaning.  Cut out useless bits.  More manly to use short sentences, or fragments.  But that has drawbacks, too. Can be hard to follow the logic.

Probably, fewer men read than women. So topics are chosen accordingly.  It’s tough, but you have to man up, grit your teeth, and realize that probably, they’ve already won the war for dominance of the bookshelves.

Thingy had a great idea on her blog last week. The idea is to take one basic scenario and then write it in the style of different authors. Be sure to read her post first. I loved it, and I just had to try a few of my own. But read Thingy’s original post and get the aforementioned “gist” before you read mine.

H.P. Lovecraft (Cosmic Horror)

Into the blasphemous January gale stepped Jack Wilmarth.  By the banks of the inconceivably ancient Massachusetts river, he surveyed the queerly-shaped yews.  At length, he selected a log and aimed with his axe a blow at it, but the bizarre atmosphere of that eldritch locale distracted him, and he chose an unfortunate angle and wounded his thumb.  As the wound spread onto the snow, he turned to behold a strange motor approaching along the ancient mountain paths trod in antiquity by the native tribes…

P.G. Wodehouse (Humor)

“What ho, what ho—it seems young Jack has made a frightful fool of himself!”

“Indeed, sir?”

“Well, the young buffoon seems to have gone out for a bit of a ramble and thought to himself he’d try his hand at wood-chopping—you know, like those frightful blighters who go about in check shirts and great hats do—but it seems he rather gave the wood a bit of miss and hit his own hand instead.  Caused a bit of a scene on the snow, I mean to say!  Must’ve looked like the first scene of A. Christie’s latest, I should think!”

“Most distressing, sir.”

“Yes, well, if his fiancée hadn’t happened by in her car so they could biff off to hospital, I think we might have found ourselves reading about the poor fish in tomorrow’s obituaries.  Still, all’s well that ends well, what?”

“Indubitably, sir.”

Ayn Rand (Objectivism)

The weak, contemptible looter Jack was far too incompetent when he stepped out of the cabin to chop wood.  He was weak-willed, and incapable of realizing Man’s natural superiority over nature, and so foolishly cut his thumb and bled deservedly in the snow.  For he had failed to comprehend the eternal philosophical truth that…

[5,000 similar words omitted.]

…he raised his head to see a beautifully-made automobile approaching through the wood, demonstrating Man’s mastery of metal to conquer the Earth.

Thomas Hardy (Tragedy)

Jack made his egress from the small-gabled forest cabin of round logs, with a view to perhaps building a fire to warm him and heat his comestibles.  But alas, it is often the case that Fate will frustrate the efforts of mortals endeavoring to improve their situation, and so he was dismayed to injure his thumb on the instrument he used for the task.  He saw the snow around him turn crimson, and glanced up to see a vehicle in the lane beyond the cabin, but it passed him by.  It is ever so that cruel Fortune will present to us the means of salvation, only to just as quickly snatch them away…

(A Role-Playing Video Game)

[Set Player Name.  Player name = “JACK”]

[You see a door inside the cabin. Open it? Y/N]

[JACK chooses “Y” Exits to snowy morning scene.  You see an “Axe of Unbeatable Strength” Use? Y/N]

[JACK chooses “Y” Damage: self = 10 x 2 CRIT. Damage: Log = 0.  HP – 20]

[Play cinema scene of car pulling up.]

I posted about the movie The Haunting the other day and Thingy confirmed in the comments that the remake wasn’t very good.  That’s so often the way with remakes.  The great director John Huston was right when he said:

They can’t make them as good as they are in our memories, but they go on doing them and each time it’s a disaster. Why don’t we remake some of our bad pictures – I’d love another shot at ‘Roots of Heaven’ – and make them good?

I found out the other day that they’ve remade the famous N64 video game Goldeneye 007again!   And today the “Black Mesa” Half-Life mod was released. Granted, that’s just a fan-made effort to satiate the demand for a new Half-Life game, so it’s a bit different.

Huston said it–they should do remakes of lousy movies, books and games.  Not necessarily the worst of the worst, but the ones that had potential and fell flat.  The game Daikatana was actually a good concept, it just didn’t work out.  They should take another try at it.  Alfred Hitchcock remade his own film The Man Who Knew Too Much.  And I think many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories could have benefited from a reworking, especially The Shadow Out of Time.

Oh, well.  I guess it makes economic sense that only popular things get remade, but it makes no artistic sense.