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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

 

The literary werewolf

Well check this out. Ages ago I wrote an essay on the history of the literary werewolf, which I've likewise for ages been meaning to find a way of putting on my blog, foiled by my pathetic technical skills.

But it's online! So if anyone's interested, go read it. :-)

Monday, November 17, 2008

 

Fantasies of escape

I saw an interesting documentary the other week, called How to Write a Mills and Boon, in which the novelist Stella Duffy applied herself with commendable sincerity to the difficult task of selling a book to Mills and Boon, the world's leading romance company that sells three books a second. Her early efforts faltered - and, as she pointed out, this was not unusual; many successful writers try their hand at Mills and Boon and fail. Mills and Boon is one of those publishers that a lot of people think should be easy to sell to - after all, they produce empty-headed books, right? - only to find that it's actually very hard to impress them and that the people who generally do get published by Mills and Boon aren't ironic sophisticates cynically manipulating a gullible market, but genuine romantics who actually like the Mills and Boon stuff. This isn't so surprising, because it's hard to produce a successful work of art if you have a patronising attitude towards it, but a lot of people seem to disregard the multiply-attributed maxim that easy reading is damn hard writing when it comes to Mills and Boon. To her great credit, Duffy gave it her best shot, talked to the editor, talked to some big-time Mills and Boon fans, went to a class run by a successful Mills and Boon author, wrote and rewrote, and eventually did produce three chapters and a synopsis that the editor said she'd be happy to accept. (Whether Duffy went on to write the rest of it, I'm not sure.) Interestingly, the solution to her plot problem came from one of the fans, and it was a brilliant suggestion, one that solved the central difficulty at a stroke. If nothing else, that should stand as a refutation to anyone who thinks Mills and Boon readers are stupid - the fan came up with an idea that helped out a highly successful novelist. Frankly, there are days when I'd like to borrow that fan myself.

I've never tried to write a Mills and Boon, but I've read a few - as has pretty much everybody, which says something about the publishing house. My fiance reckons that they're porn, particularly considering how direct they are in their titles and packaging: while not all their titles are quite this bluntly descriptive, a quick glance at their website shows me titles like The Ruthless Italian's Inexperienced Wife and The Greek Tycoon's Disobedient Bride, which rather reminds me of Ali Davis (of the Porn Clerk diaries) remarking that most porn titles 'follow a pattern: (A) B N, where A is the race of the participants (optional), B is the sex act or kink - sometimes this gets astonishingly specific - and N is the number of the series. Thus you get "Blow Bang 25" or "Asian All-Anal Action 15".' Mills and Boon is unusually straightforward when it comes to race or nationality: Arab Sheiks and Italian or Mediterranean men are seen as an asset, the dark good looks and traditional masculinity being popular with readers. As I have no animus against porn as long as it's produced under safe and consensual working conditions, I don't say this to attack Mills and Boon: it's all about fantasy, and there's nothing wrong with that. Readers, after all, aren't looking for their variation in the storyline. They know how the story will end; that's part of the appeal. The difference between one book and another is going to reside in such things as the nationality, profession and relationships of the characters, so being clear about them from the outset is simply a way of helping readers make their choice.

But is 'porn' the right definition? Mills and Boon have chaste and erotic imprints to suit various tastes - which again seems not unlike porn in its fragmentation to cover a variety of niche markets - but the main fantasy of a Mills and Boon is an emotional one. My fiance points out that for-men porn is an emotional fantasy of sorts too: the fantasy of an easily-aroused woman with whom you can have no-strings sex, which is a fairly traditional male wish-fulfilment. The Mills and Boon dream is of an alpha male, a dynamic man who brings passion and adoration in equal measures, while also being totally competent, able to solve your problems and incidentally wealthy enough to end your money worries. That's a more complicated set of demands than a quick shag; the fulfilment the fantasy man offers has to stretch over a longer period of time than a porn character's does.

Thinking about it, something occurred to me. Fantasies speak to different emotional places, different needs and longings ... and it seems to me that the Mills and Boon fantasy appeals to the part of you that's tired. Adult life is heavy going sometimes. Money worries don't get solved at a stroke, partners can't solve all your problems, happily-ever-after requires maintenance work. Women have to do a lot: work for a living, sustain a home, keep a social life, pull together with spouses but also compromise with them ... And some days, it can seem a bit much, and the fantasy of a perfect partner who sweeps in and solves everything, whose heart you can heal merely by being yourself and who, in return, contributes everything else, sounds an awful lot easier. Less probable, of course, and very possibly not as much fun as it sounds if you actually had to live with the masterful blighter round the clock, but temptingly easy, a way of letting go.

Younger readers don't have to maintain a job and a household in the same way, perhaps, but the fantasy of ease is still appealing: girls wear themselves out worrying if they're attractive enough, if they can work out how to get along with boys, if they'll ever find a boy who can offer them what they want - and of course, if you want a steady relationship and are dating boys your own age, the younger you are, the less likely it is, given that girls mature ahead of boys. Late girlhood can be a wilderness era of waiting for male romanticism to catch up with you; the fantasy of a man who comes in and scoops you up without you having to wait and strategise and pretend you don't want to ask for commitment is again a compelling one.

So that's a female fantasy. What I'm wondering is, are there equivalents in other demographics? There is, for instance, the high fantasy epic plot, which, if less wildly profitable than Mills and Boon, is also an extremely durable story. Boy who would be king is plucked from obscurity and intitated into a community he has to lead into saving the world. Now, the main demographic for that story is teenage boys - and there's an emotional reason for that. Teenage boys, according to my fiance, spend a lot of their time feeling surplus to requirements. Nubile young women are a sexual prize, older women are the constant earth on which society stands, older men are powerful and own things and their requirements are the ones that count - but what place is there for a boy? Even a sympathetic person will concede that if you had to share an empty bus with one other person, a teenage boy would be right at the bottom of your preference list. Most teenage boys are harmless and well-meaning - probably noisily high-spirited and a bit insensitive, which makes them obtrusive company, but basically nice people - but the violent minority give the majority a bad name. Teenage boys are out of society, too young to contribute but full of energy, and as a result, can spend a lot of their time feeling not tired but unwelcome. The epic fantasy plot taps right into that yearning: you're not some useless nobody but incredibly important, central to the world's wellbeing. There's a place for you, and people want you there. You're valuable, indispensable. In real life, the world spends a lot of time telling you to get lost or pipe down, but in the epic fantasy story, the world needs you.

There's the Man of Vengeful Peace plot as well, otherwise known as 'He was just an ordinary man ... until they came for his family!' This isn't exactly a genre, more a trope that crops up in a lot of action plots, but it seems to speak to another kind of fatigue. It's difficult to be a husband and father. Gender politics have raced, loped and staggered forward wildly over the last few decades, and the old patriarchal roles are faltering. Jobs for life are pretty much a thing of the past, so being a provider no longer looks safe and certain. Women can be confused, conflicted or contradictory about what they want in a man, and children are never quite who you expect them to be. Fulfilling masculine role is a tricky proposition. But in a culture that prizes violence as an inherently masculine quality, the Man of Vengeful Peace can reclaim his manhood. Suddenly it's easy to be a good husband and father, if not physically then psychologically. You don't have to intuit what your three-year-old is thinking or measure up to your wife's expectations: all you have to do is get angry - an easy emotion, and one that requires no introspection or thought - and go get somebody. I doubt any man would seriously think to himself, 'You know, I wish somebody would just come along and kidnap my family so I could prove what a good husband and father I really am' ... but just as much as romance, it's a form of being swept off your feet. You're swept away by circumstance rather than by another character, but it's the same basic phenomenon: rather than you having to change yourself, outside forces change everything in your life, and in so doing, reveal the perfect true self that was always inside you. You don't have to work on yourself, you have to go with the flow - energetically, but still, unlike in messy real life, the plot provides you with a definite task you can accomplish and a clear and desirable reward for accomplishing it.

Those are a few I can think of. Can you think of any specific plots that appeal to the fantasies of a particular kind of life-weariness or frustration?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

 

Anyone see 'Saving Africa's Witch Children' last night

Saving Africa's Witch Children was shown last night on UK terrestrial TV, and it was one of the most harrowing things I've ever seen.

Nigeria is building up a witch-hunting drive, 'prophets' identifying 'witches' as the cause of more or less any bad event - people getting AIDS, accidents, poverty and the like. For a fat fee, exorcists attempt to drive Satan out of the witches. This involves burning with acid, beatings hard enough to break bones, driving nails through the skull, starvation, cutting with machetes, being chained up for weeks, and all manner of horrors.

The 'witches' are young children.

This kind of moral panic can crop up in any culture; the blood libel one of the oldest cultural archetypes, and people have often been hounded and tormented for it. At the moment, it's murdering children in Nigeria and ripping apart families, while heavily profiting the wolves in sheep's clothing who are selling this poison.

Stepping Stones Nigeria is a charity dedicated to the wellbeing of Nigerian children, and is working heavily to care for kids cast out by their communities, give them medical treatment, a home and an education. If you've got even a small amount of money you feel you could donate, please, think about giving it to them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

 

Happy birthday Mikalogue!


Kit: Happy birthday, sweetheart!

Mika: What is this of which you speaks?

Kit: It's your birthday, darling. You're a whole year old now.

Mika: Ooh. Is big girl now.

Kit: Yes you are, sweetie. Congratulations.

Mika: Thinks its time Mika had own door key?

Kit: ...Would you settle for a fish treat?

Mika: Ooh! Yes, yes, fish treat!

Kit: There you go, honey.

Mika: How about own bank account?

Kit: I don't think they let kitties have bank acounts, precious.

Mika: You has one, Kitty.

Kit: I mean cats. Anyway, what would you buy with it?

Mika: Power an influence, obviously.

Kit: Well, you have a regular slot on your own website. Not all cats have that.

Mika: Is true. Ahem. Mika would like to welcome you, her fans, for coming to website on this, the glorious occasion of...

Kit: Is this going to take long, sweetie? I don't want to copy-type a massive speech.

Mika: You got anything better to do?

Kit: I could give you another fish treat.

Mika: Ooh, fish treat!

Kit: There you go, sweetie. Happy birthday.

Mika: Goway, is eatin.

Monday, November 10, 2008

 

Let's think of happy things


Despite brushing my teeth after every meal and flossing at night, I have had to spend my morning in a dentist's chair getting root canal work. The crown will go on next week; in the meantime, I have a stump, like some old prospector. There were injections. There were spiky things. The dentist was a lovely person, but there was drilling. I am, as a result, mired in self-pity.

Here's a picture of a flower from my local park this summer, in an attempt to think of nice stuff. What else can you offer me? Come on, help a toothless girl out.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

 

Shame on you, California

Because, while the last votes are still being counted it seems that Proposition 8 - you know, that motion that a Constitution should actually be used to take away rights - has passed.

Any Californian who voted for Prop 8, or who could have gone to the polls to vote against it and didn't: hang your head. Constitutions are there to enshrine rights, not to block them. There are thousands of gay couples now in a state of uncertainty about whether their marriage is legal or not. You've caused a lot of human suffering. Godwin can bite me: invalidating marriages the state doesn't approve of is Nuremberg tactics. You've used your vote to enshrine in your Constitution - your Constitution - that your gay neighbours, co-workers, relations and friends are second-class citizens. Shame on you.

To everyone who took advantage of this brief window of opportunity to marry your beloved, or who would have liked to but missed the opportunity: my deepest sympathies. This isn't the end of the fight, in America or elsewhere; with enough of a fight - and gay rights has a shedload of good fighters on its side - legal discrimination has been overturned in the past and can and will be in the future. But I'm sure you're feeling pretty miserable today. My condolences. All I can say is this: whatever the law says, I see you as married. So, I hope, does everyone of good conscience. So screw Proposition 8: congratulations on your marriage, and I wish you many long and happy years together.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

 

Yes! Yes! Yes!


Finally, a sane President! Thank you, everyone in America who voted for him!

Now, speaking as a liberal who's been very angry with the Republicans for the last eight years, I'd like to propose that we all try not to waste our energy refighting them over the next four. Let's look forward to the future.

And in celebration, here's a picture of Mika, looking pretty much the way I feel.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

 

To all my American friends on Election Day

Why are you reading this? Why aren't you out voting for Obama, then going round all your friends' houses and making sure they've voted for Obama too?

Go on, get off the computer and get with the voting. The world's depending on you.

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