09 June 2011

Where's Papa Going With That Ax?

It’s been five days since The Wall Street Journal ran Meghan Cox Gurdon’s ridiculous takedown of “dark” YA fiction. Since then, the little corner of the blogosphere where the YA writers, critiques, fans and readers hang out (it’s between the AV annex and the theater building mostly, but sometimes behind the bleachers if we’re smoking) has exploded. #YAsaves has been pulling in lots of testimonials of people helped by YA books. And some amazing YA writers have done book by book takedowns of Cox Gurdon’s complaint.

And those are just two of the ways to respond. There are those who cautiously sort of agree, but draw the line at censorship. There are those who speak movingly of their own YA reading experiences (both as adult and teen readers). There are those who are outraged and those who saddened that we’re doing this yet again. My first impulse was to respond with a blog post about all the weird stuff I read as a kid and point out that classic YA books don’t go out of print, so any kid who wants can still read Anne of Green Gables or Sign of the Beaver or whatever ‘wholesome’ book they want.

And then I realized that my response was like everybody’s response and I could add more to the dialogue. I considered writing a post about the cultural conception of childhood and teenager-hood, the physical, mental, educational and sociological interactions that create the Western idea of adolescence. I would filter that through books and stories ancient, old and modern to show that Cox Gurdon’s argument (and all arguments like it) are patently ridiculous. I’d have included information about how, since the publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories, there has always been an under 25 demographic, and that really YA’s age group goes up that far. So I re-read her article, started gathering sources, and realized something.

The whole thing was a hatchet job.

Several blog posts had already pointed out that Cox Gurdon’s piece reads like editorial, but appears as a regular old book column. Which should have been the first clue that something fishy was going on. And don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that Cox Gurdon actually finds the books she slanders just as distasteful as she says. She has every right to fuss in print that there should be more books about teddy bears because sex is icky and there is no violence in the clean shiny happy world she lives in. That’s fine and I believe she thinks that. She also has every right to pretend like publishers only publish dark horrid novels filled with bad language then directly mail every teenager in America every book they publish, then call them up and demand they read them. Because a world in which teenagers actually, y’know drive to the mall and buy their own damn books that they picked out themselves or go to the library and check out books that they picked out themselves wouldn’t be a world where she can stand on a soapbox and scream ‘Murther!’ until the guards come.

But that’s not what this is really about.

But let’s back up a moment and talk about newspapers. (Just stay with me – I promise I’m going somewhere.) It used to be, in the city of New York, that there were nearly as many newspapers as there were people: The Sun, The Post, The World, The Standard, The Times and on and on. I could probably list fifty in English alone. Like blogs, these came in assorted political flavors. By the mid-twentieth century you found The Wall Street Journal on your right, The New York Times basically center and The New York Post to your left. (And yes, other papers like The Financial Times or The Village Voice making noise on the edges.) There are still plenty of movies and books from the time period that use the character short hand of referring to a reporter who works for The Post – you are to know immediately that this is a pie-in-the-sky idealist and he (always he) is about to be ground down to cynicism or he’s about to force some dirty politician or slumlord into the light.

But in 1976, The New York Post was bought by Rupert Murdoch. It became justifiably famous for its bizarre headlines and quite a bit more like the tabloid-esque papers so popular in Britain. Though the American version always has less nudity. But The Post slid to the right, and farther to the right, until the centrist New York Times became the leftist edge of NYC’s papers. (Yes, we’re still talking about YA novels.)

Some 30 years later Rupert Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal. The WSJ was one of those fiscally conservative pieces of print media that could create a warm fuzzy buzz, even in a hardened liberal, that let you know that everything was going to be okay just as long as those wheels of industry kept on turning. (I read The Economist when I travel, not just because people tend to leave me alone, but because its love of money and the status quo is as soothing as a mother’s lullaby.) The WSJ has, on occasion been liberal about social issues or human rights or any number of things, but mostly they want people who have money to keep making money. In America that’s about as uncontroversial as you can get. (Banking bailouts notwithstanding.)

But uncontroversial doesn’t generate page views.

If it did, nobody would be writing “dark and gritty” YA novels.

Cox Gurdon’s article, coming five months off of Amy Chua’s psychotic, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother article, is designed to hit all the buttons. Shall we take a closer look? Like BHotTM it starts with motherhood. It starts with the question of good, qualified motherhood. Then presents the modern horrors of how the free-for-all of what we call parenting in the United States. Luckily for Chua, the idea of helicopter parenting vs. hippie parenting is pretty well ingrained as part of the ‘mommy wars.’ Cox Gurdon has more heavy lifting to do to stir the pot.

But she does it in such a sad and formulaic way. It’s almost like she’s trying to be stupid. The first two books on her hit list are fantasy / science-fiction (Marbury Lens and Rage). Okay then. The literary establishment has already determined that speculative fiction is crap so she feels she’s on solid ground. So she gets sloppy. When she takes on her next book (and the argument that teens have bad stuff happen to them and then will feel better reading about similar struggles) she shows her hand.

The next book in the crosshairs is Scars. And then Cox Gurdon begins what the article is really about. First she describes a girl cutting herself and mopping up the blood with a towel , ostensibly because that is what the book is about. But it is a faceless characterless girl, it is contextless and hollow, which makes what could be important or valid merely gruesome, which is what Cox Gurdon wants the reader to think of Scars. Then she dismisses a positive School Library Journal review for the book as “inexplicable.” Next she finds a “library patron” who worried the book might cause cutter’s to relapse. (A thoughtful response to this argument, though with regards to anorexia, can be found by Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Wintergirls, in this blog post: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/11/the-troubling-allure-of-eating-disorhttp). And then she puts a librarian on the stand.

In the world of YA novels, librarians are the closest thing we have to saints and shock troops. No matter what anybody in the publishing world does in New York, if a librarian doesn’t put a book into the hand of a kid, the kid is probably not going to read it. So Cox Gurdon does the smart thing. She doesn’t condemn the librarian, but she paints them as callous. As people who really don’t care about children. She never actually criticizes the librarian she quotes, but as part of this article condemning dark books, she manages to obliquely condemn the librarian as well. But here, I’ll let you read it:
“That the protagonist's father has been raping her since she was a toddler and is trying to engineer her suicide was not the issue for the team of librarians re-evaluating the book.
‘Books like 'Scars,' or with questionable material, those provide teachable moments for the family,’ says Amanda Hopper, the library's youth-services coordinator, adding: ‘We like to have the adult perspective, but we do try to target the teens because that's who's reading it.’ The book stayed on the shelves.”

The Book STAYED On The Shelves! What horror! What distress! Get the lady a divan and a glass of water! And loosen her corset while you’re at it.

But Cox Gurdon doesn’t stop there. She goes on to talk about bad language, and manages to implicate The Horn Book as an offender. The Horn Book had excerpted a letter from an editor that used the word “fucking” (and because the WSJ doesn’t use such language Cox Gurdon makes sure you know that the word was spelled out in the letter). I don’t get the Horn Book, but as the book the editor was talking about was made clear, it seems unlikely that the letter was published anonymously. And even if it was, most children’s book imprints have less than a dozen editors on staff, and it would be pretty easy to make a an educated guess who said it, send them an email and confirm it was them. But instead of placing the onus on the writer, Cox Gurdon slams The Horn Book, a venerable magazine that has been around since 1924. Curious don’t you think?

And then she hits the YA community where it really hurts. If Christians have Lent and Jews have Yom Kippur and Muslims have Ramadan, the most solemn week of children’s literature is Banned Books Week. And she mocks it. “Every year the American Library Association delights in releasing a list of the most frequently challenged books.” Delights? Really?
Now I could make a bunch of arguments here. About how Banned Book Week is the week that YA and Children’s books communities remind ourselves that we do have various responsibilities. Responsibilities to underrepresented groups, to freedom of speech and the press. That we, in fact and unlike all other writers working in America, are writing for a group who do not get to make their own decisions, who do not decide what will happen to them, who are in essence trapped (in both good and bad situations). And that books and stories are about freedom. They are about escape. And we have a duty to remember that and do it well. But too much of that would actually be off topic.

Because Cox Gurdon’s argument continues in the next sentence. “A number of young-adult books made the Top 10 in 2010, including Suzanne Collins's hyper-violent, best-selling Hunger Games trilogy and Sherman Alexie's prize-winning novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” She then goes on to insult Alexie, in a condescending way (much like I’ve been doing to her for a while now) and if this was a barroom I would have thrown the first punch after she said that. Because Alexie is brilliant. But this is a blog and I’m going to continue explaining just what this Cox Gurdon is doing and then tell you why.
She then goes on to quote a Washington DC bookseller that “editors and writers… ‘are used to videogames and TV and really violent movies and they love that stuff. So they think that every 12-year-old is going to love that stuff and not be affected by it.”

So, what has Cox Gurdon managed to do in just a few column inches of The Wall Street Journal? She has stolen parents’ trust. The fact of the matter is, parents don’t have time to read everything their kids read. My own parents and I were reading the same series of books, and my mother finished the first chapter of one and told my father she wasn’t sure I should read it because of the graphic rape. They decided to talk to me about it, only to discover I had finished the book the night before and was already reading the next one. They literally couldn’t keep up with my one (or two!) book a day habit. So parents have to trust other people when it comes to their kids’ books. They trust librarians. They trust reviews from places like The Horn Book and The School Library Journal. They trust awarding bodies. They trust bestsellers, because other parents have bought those books. They trust the publishers and editors.

Cox Gurdon has explained why you shouldn’t trust any of those people.
But she has been sloppy about. How anyone, in the age of Angry Birds, can take seriously the accusation that ‘video games made them do it’ is beyond me. And haven’t we moved past the idea that fantasy books must be treated like crap until proven classics? And of course, the people who love books so much that they make them their whole lives and professions ‘love movies and TV’ and that those Satanic flickering images rot brains and make children’s librarians think it’s okay for dads to rape their daughters and . . . how did this nonsense get published?

Remember that whole lecture I gave you on the history of newspapers before? And about generating page views? Well, Amy Chua’s BHotTM garnered the WSJ some 8,807 comments. It got Chua on morning news shows. It made her book a NYTimes Bestseller. It got Chua’s daughter published. It turned the feminist blogosphere (a much larger place than the YA one) into a month long slug fest where everyone argued race, class, motherhood, memoir, publishing, parenting, parental division of labor, the flexibility of academic jobs and children’s rights. The high rate of suicide among female Asian teens became every blogger’s favorite number to throw around for a week. It was page view gold. It was tabloid-esque. It was a lot of ladies doing verbal mud wrestling over something ridiculous: who, as long as she stayed within legal bounds, CARES how Amy Chua raised her kids? I don’t. I’ve never met any of them. They have in no way, and will in no way ever, impact my life. But of course I got suckered in too. Everybody loves a good argument, and everybody thinks they know how to raise kids (even those of us who don’t have them).

Now the WSJ couldn’t run another article just like that, and they couldn’t run it too soon.
But five or so months is good. At six months, we’d be in July. In July the publishing industry is in a dither as people prepare for August vacations. In July, parents are trying to figure out what to do to keep their kids from being bored. In July, this article would have been a blip. And it’s not tagged to anything: there’s no particularly gruesome book coming out to inspire this rant, there’s no publishing expo, there’s no nothing. This article could have run anytime in the last or next six months.

And it hits many of the same notes as TBhotTM. Children’s and YA publishing are a woman’s game. As is parenting. Everyone quoted in the article, with the exception of Sherman Alexie, is a woman. (Even the ‘fucking’ editor is a woman.) The article is geographically divided: publishers and editors in New York and the beleaguered mom and struggling bookseller in Maryland and DC (which are basically the same thing geographically). The article takes on the things we always accept to be good (Chua is out to get self-esteem and Cox Gurdon free speech) and really tries to convince us it’s bad. Both articles are just an inch or two on the side of conservative, just enough to cause some righteous indignation on the center and left.

The WSJ didn’t get nearly as many comments on Cox Gurdon’s article (only 113). The feminist blogosphere is too busy freaking out about Anthony Weiner. And really, we all know that kids are going to read what kids read, parents, Cox Gurdon and The Wall Street journal be damned.

But wait five to seven months. If I’m right, The Wall Street Journal will run some cockamamie article about food or movies or paint colors or hiking that has something to do with parenting and something to do with women and is just a little more conservative than a normal person should feel comfortable with, even if it makes some okay specific points and targets some internet savvy sub-group that will want to get up in arms about it and start twitter campaigns.

Because this wasn’t just any hatchet job: it was a hatchet job bought and designed to get us to put our eyes on the page and our words in their comment section.
And we have more important things to do. We have books to write, and edit, and sell, and hand to children. We have banned books to remember. We have responsibilities because we are the adults and they are the children. And our responsibilities are not the responsibilities of teachers or parents or even the responsibilities of the awesome older cousin who has a tattoo and rides a motorcycle and is wise in the ways of the world. We have the responsibilities of writers and editors and booksellers and librarians and our goals and values and duties are different, but important and needed. Which is why we exist. And why people try to get rid of us. And also why they can’t.

01 March 2011

What if Disney Replaced Its Princesses?

My all time favorite Disney animated film is Mulan. It is also my all time favorite film. While there are other movies out there that are funnier, or more technically accomplished or even more heartrending (and I can think of an example of each in the medium of animation), Mulan was a film that connected with me emotionally in a way no other film had before.

And while it is a strange hybrid of musical and war movie, gender inquiry and slapstick comedy, bildungsroman and buddy movie, and strangely bloodless it is more importantly, the last Disney film to come out before the creation of The Disney Princess marketing scheme.

Mulan came out in 1998 and Andy Mooney invented the marketing concept of Disney Princesses in 1999. Mulan, the character, is one of the "official" Disney Princesses, though she is neither to the manor born nor married to a prince. Perhaps because of this she is not marketed in the same manner as the other princesses. She is often not included in images of the Disney Princesses. Mulan items like dolls, lunch boxes, and t-shirts are hard, if not impossible to come by (trust me I know).
She seems to exist in a barely recognized no-mans (no-princess?) land.

In this she is similar to another female Disney character, Lilo, whose film (Lilo and Stitch) was written and directed by the head writers of Mulan. Stitch merchandise is available all over the place, but Lilo merchandise dried up soon after the release of the film. But I digress.

I've been thinking about this a lot, especially since the release of "Cinderella Ate My Daughter," a book that examines Disney's Princess marketing that targets girls as young as two. Princesses are fascinating characters. They have all sorts of advantages (beauty, kindness, grace, magical protectors, wealth, proximity to the halls of state power, and Disney ones are loaded up with spunk) and yet they are victims. Victims of spells, kidnapping, witches, poison, and occasionally less princess-y problems like wolves, near drowning, and bad parents. This inherent tension drives many princess stories, though the continual victimhood of princesses is problematic if it is the sole presentational of womanhood available to girls.

(For instance I myself played "princess" dress-up as a preschooler, but my best friend and I also played a dress up game in which we were nuns hiding from the CIA. No, I have no idea where that came from.)

Critiquing the Disney Princesses and Disney's massive marketing machine is easy though. Instead, let's imagine that Andy Mooney had never made his way to Disney from Nike marketing. And let's imagine that instead of making $304,320,254, which is what Mulan made, that it made $783,841,776, which is what The Lion King, the highest grossing American made traditional cell animated movie, made. (Yes, that IS a lot of qualifiers.) Suddenly the future of Disney animated films looks different.

No longer are we living in a pink pink pink Disney Princess world, but the multi-color, multi-cultural world of Disney Warriors.

And what would that film list look like?

To apologize for Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney produces a film version of the story of Joan of Arc. Because it's a kids movie it ends after Joan leads her army into Saint-Pierre-le-Moûtier, rousts the English and is granted nobility. Critics complain that it doesn't include her capture, trial or death, until a New Yorker reviewer points out that ending a film with a wedding is just as ridiculous.

Realizing that chicks with armor and apologies work in their favor, Disney does a three for one with it's next film, apologizing to the Brits for Joan of Arc AND apologizing to the Brits for The Black Cauldron. This time they take the legendary story of Boadicea, and much like they did in my not fantasy world with Hercules, twist it into kid friendly fare. This Finding Nemo-like story follows a desperate mother and her kidnapped daughters who will be forced into marriage with the evil Roman warlord. A huge hit with ex-colonies everywhere, it creates an important dialogue on what motherhood means and how many ways a woman can be a mother.

On a roll, Disney decides to throw a bone to the boys, and create the most subversive Western to boot. (Think of this one as the anti-Pocahontas, anti-Brother Bear film) The story of Daheste, an Apache woman warrior who fought alongside Geronimo, is re-imagined from her childhood when she learns English from a pioneer boy. He grows up to join the cavalry, and during peace times she works with the US military as a scout and translator. But in the end she remains tru to her people. The end of the film, when Daheste is hauled off in chains to Florida while her childhood friend watches was derided as both too dark for children and "anti-American." Disney marketing takes the stance that stories of struggle and complex moral choices ARE American stories, and besides, if you'd stayed until after the credits, you would have seen the scene where Daheste finally returns to Arizona as an old woman and her train is met by her childhood friend. It's not a huge financial success, but Disney finally wins the Academy Award for Best Picture.

High on their Boudica success (remember, these films are in production forever) Disney greenlit, not Tarzan, but another tale of colonial Africa. Taking the real life female Dahoney warriors (who numbered as much as 1/3 of the army) and their battle with a neighboring country during the 1700s. Critics praise Disney for finally creating a film about black characters. And Dahoney warrior woman imagery because prominent in rap videos. Some conservative critics decry the increase of female on male violence in inner city schools, as the fault of the film, but as the handful of cases they latch on to are actually all self defense, they eventually have to shut up because they look like idiots. Krav-maga and karate classes around the country report 1000% increases in female enrollment.

Disney then proceeds to "mix-it up" with some animal stories, and a few folk tale retellings. Even in this world they misstep with "Dinosaurs." Some wonder how they are going to keep feeding the massive marketing machine that has sprung up around their Women Warriors. Other studios begin to fill the gap: there's a live action film about Gertrude Bell, the female Lawrence of Arabia, and Dreamworks makes a follow up to Prince of Egypt about Judith, the Jewish woman, who when her people are under siege, cuts off the head of the general Holofernes while he sleeps in her tent. A stop motion version of Talking With Dragons is directed by Henry Selick for Tim Burton's stop motion studio (my world, okay?). Disney's sci-fi update of "The Secret Garden" (instead of Treasure Island) is beloved by a few, but mostly confuses audiences. But don't count Disney out.

After years of production they release the animated epic to end all animated epics. It receives a PG-13 rating and Disney laughs it off, claiming they were sure it would get an R. The film is retelling of the story of Rani Lakshmi Bai and The Indian Mutiny of 1857. Sumptuous water color backgrounds, Bollywood style animated songs and choreography, intense battle scenes involving hundreds of charachters, an entirely new digital animation of smoke, and touching love scenes between the rebel leader and the widowed Lakshmi. Lakshmi is voiced by Parmindar Nagra from Bend It Like Beckham and she is the FIRST actress to ever be nominated for an Academy Award for an animated role. She doesn't win, and everyone swears she was robbed. Disney smartly markets the story of the Mutiny as a companion to the story of the American Revolution, and hints that is when their next movie will be set. Gene Siskel compares it favorably to Casa Blanca and Roger Ebert says it will be taught in film schools around the world, right after Lawrence of Arabia.

And we never have to encounter the Disney Princess half-marathon.

23 January 2011

To Degree or Not To Degree?

Back in December there was something of a debate over on Neil Gaiman’s blog about whether or not to get a writing degree. Well, I have two of them and am a completely unpublished, unproduced writer, so I figure I might as well weigh in.

First off I should say that I am closer to 30 than 25, am wildly underemployed, make no money, am $60,000 in debt (for grad and undergrad in NYC: so really not that much) and my assets include a half-finished novel on my hard drive.

I was encouraged not to write genre and not to write for children. (Both of which I’m doing now.) I was lucky enough not to want to try writing comics since I’ve heard that the academic response is even worse. I’ve had teachers who apparently reveled in their ability to make young adults cry in front of their peers. I’ve had classmates who were pretentious, or drug addicts, or lazy plagiarizing jerks. In arts programs grade inflation runs rampant, but is not as dangerous as the rampant egos of your classmates or professors. It is a crazy chaotic world that can cause permanent psychological damage if you invest too much of yourself in the process.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

Part of the problem is that most people think that writing programs will teach you to write. This is NOT TRUE. (Of course, studying a management textbook won’t necessarily make you a great manager either. It’s worth remembering that higher education is often a bit of crapshoot. You may gain the necessary skills to perform a task, or you may not.) There are certainly things you can learn from a good writing program, but how to write isn’t one of them.

For instance, my first writing degree is a BFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU. This was a tiny program of only fifty kids a year. When I started you could focus on playwriting or screenwriting and now they’ve added television screenwriting as well. There were basically two types of classes: traditional workshops and what could be described as history/analysis classes.

The workshops were as I described above: a lot of crazy students, a lot of crazy professors and amounts of competition that would be more familiar to the gladiatorial arena.

The fundamental course of the program was something called “Craft.” Craft combined these two types of classes. We met twice a week, one day was a workshop and one day was a lecture course (although the two had a lot of crossover). This was the same set-up for both Craft of Screenwriting and Craft of Playwriting. Again, in the crapshoot that is education, your craft teacher determined a lot about what happened to you for the next four years. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful craft teacher (the playwright Paul Selig) who really drilled us in the fundamentals of story, character, reversal, plot and structure. He gave us assignments that were achievable, but tricky: write a monologue based on a photograph, write a dialogue based on that monologue, write a scene on a train with these six random objects, write a screenplay that is an adaptation of a short story, write a scene to a piece of music, keep a dream journal and turn a dream into a short film, write a one-act play in real time (This is the greatest assignment that I’ve ever been given: you want to learn to write? Do this.). We teased out the difference between plot and structure, talked about the importance of the audience and the only textbook was Aristotle’s Poetics.

The other analysis classes were just as good. In Shakespeare For Writers we looked at theme and delved into deep structural/textual analysis of the plays (is the chaos of Much Ado About Nothing attributable to the highest ranking noble being only a prince?). In Film Script Analysis we broke down films by beat in one semester and in another we examined modern examples of given genres through the history of the genre itself. For example we watched a modern romantic comedy in conjunction with an analysis of the genre of the romance beginning with courtly love and ending with the idea of the companionate marriage.

In these classes I learned the grammar of structure: that something has to change (even just a character’s perception) in each scene, how to ask a question in one scene and build tension by not answering it until another, that you need to push your characters to do the worst things they can (or to have the worst things that could happen to them happen), and how to pick and choose among all your options to lead the audience on the journey you want them to go on. I learned how to think about story as an equation (because of x, y happens) and how to think of reversals as logic gates. I had serious conversations about establishing the appropriate amount of “peanut butter” (the emotional entanglement or stickiness of a relationship) between characters. I learned the difference between set-up, rising action, action, climax, falling action, and denouement. I learned that you have to build space into a story for character, for breathing, to make the next piece of action mean something. I learned to “tag” or “twist the knife” at the end of each scene. I learned that a sitcom writer is supposed to have three jokes a page, and if a page equals a minute, you should laugh every 20 seconds of a good sitcom. (And that if you lose your audience for more than 20 seconds you are probably in trouble, no matter what you’re writing).

But all that analysis, reading, watching, reviewing and breaking down only worked because we were leaving those classes and going into the crazy workshops. And truthfully, I loved workshops. I loved feeling like you could get your hands into the clay of the story. That each sentence (at least for the first third of a story), could lead anywhere and to anything. That the work had infinite possibilities.

Was I frustrated by my professors? Yes. (Especially when one basically said my grandmother was psychotic, because my professor’s daughter was a hospice nurse: no seriously, that was basically her argument. And context really doesn’t make it any more sensible.) Was I frustrated with selfish students who didn’t care to read or comment, but darn well wanted theirs? Yes. But that’s the way life is. Art school really will prepare you for incompetent insane bosses and nutty co-workers. Your skin will get thicker. You will learn to embrace useful critique while still loving your writing. You have to, because the other option is to quit writing.

But when I read the description of workshops like the one up at Neil Gaiman’s blog, I realize that most programs are more like my Masters program. No lectures, no breaking down writing and structure, just throwing writers into the metaphorical deep end. This sink or swim mentality would be great if you were actually auditioning people for a writing job, but it really doesn’t help students.

There were moments in my Masters program where a flaw in some writing would seem obvious to me, but the responses would just seem odd. There were people who didn’t understand basic ideas about how a scene includes change or how collections of scenes need to build on each other to create rising action. These sorts of mistakes would have gotten lectures, requests for more in depth outlines, reading suggestions or even the class re-arranging the whole scene on the blackboard in my undergrad workshops. But in my Masters program there would just be vague suggestions and requests for rewrites because “it’s not working.” But there would be no look at what would work or which storytelling fundamentals were being ignored.

That sort of writing program would have destroyed me as an undergrad. There are plenty of mistakes in my writing (Well beyond typos: I have a flair for the unnecessarily complicated.) and I needed to learn how to find them, what they were, and how to fix them. I suspect a diet of strict workshops would perhaps teach you the first, but nothing about the second two.

But I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for my MFA. I didn’t want to learn how to write. I wanted a group of writers I could trust and keep meeting with, I wanted to intern (this is the most important thing you can do if you’re in art school, and I never did enough), I wanted a piece of paper that said I could teach (an MFA is a terminal degree) and I wanted to stop doing what I was doing. I got all of those things. Except for the piece of paper I imagine you could do all of that for much, much cheaper.

If you want to learn to write you shouldn’t go to a regular workshop based program. (And if you want to write screenplays or scripts, you should start by studying them, because they are much more restrictive type of writing than prose. I am constantly shocked that I get to just write what the character is thinking instead of figuring out how to reveal that through actions or dialogue.) But there are programs that teach what writing is and what it does and if you’re paying attention that information can translate into how to do it.

15 November 2010

Working Hard for the Money

Background reading for this post is here.

I put this link up on facebook. When someone asked me my opinion I started to try and answer and then realized I had a TON to say. Rather than try to put it in a tiny little facebook comment box I figured I had enough for a blog post. And besides, I haven't posted in forever.

What you may need to know about where I'm coming from in my analysis. Before I ever tried my hand at fiction writing, I wanted to be a screenwriter. I still do, but I understand it may be a circuitous route that involves me doing things like writing books. If you want to be a screenwriter, you have to understand that a script is, economically at least, like a house. You can build a house by hand and lovingly hand craft the moldings and blow your own glass windows, but once you've sold it the new owners can gut it, strip it and sell it for parts. If you can't handle that, don't write screenplays.

I've also worked for an entertainment lawyer who did client (i.e. actor, writer and director) representation. I will never be a lawyer, but I can actually read a contract at this point in my life, and let me start by saying, if you're signing a contract with a multinational corporation that produces media in some form, you're probably already screwed.

Taking those facts into consideration, here is my thoughts on James Frey's experiment in media packaging.

The problem with publishing high concept fiction that the author wants to have fully exploited is that most authors don't have the capital to exploit their own work completely. (Writing a book is, as near as I can tell, the closest an individual can get to creating capital out of thin air.) So the idea of some sort of collective that has the resources to fully exploit high-concept writing is something I'm fully behind.

Consider something like Gossip Girl: it was created and packaged by Alloy. Cecily von Ziegesar got a flat fee and her name on the books. But she doesn't get a cut of the TV show (I heard her say this at an author event) any merchandise, any foreign sales, etc.

And like the article says, the real money is in merchandise. There are plenty of books that haven't come from packagers that could be equally as good (or bad, as the case may be) a TV show as Gossip Girl, but only a company really has the resources, savvy, and most important in Hollywood the clout to take meetings with studio heads and executive producers with standing show contracts. They can walk in with stats, a platform, an existing professionally written speck script, professional pitchers (which novel really aren't) and the promise of a continued relationship with an established content provider. Most authors can't afford to fly to L.A.

So even though CVZ probably couldn't have gotten Gossip Girl made into a TV show, the audience is responding to her characters and her writing (though less of her writing on the TV show). Alloy is making a ton of money off the show, because they could do things that CVZ couldn't, right? Or are they just stealing CVZ's work? Under the current system, both seem true.

Even when an individual author can up sell their own book they get screwed. Deborah Gregory, who wrote the Cheetah Girls book, was thrilled Disney wanted to make her books into films, but she got a flat fee for ALL the subsidiary rights. She would have made residuals if the film actually netted money. So Disney took a "loss" on their movies and she made no residuals on the films. But Disney went on to make a fortune on merchandise that Gregory had no cut of.

Also, neither of these authors had a say in what sort of merchandise their writing would be associated with. An author of children's books might be totally okay with journals or stuffed animals but balk at dishes, waffle makers or child size switchblades. Joking aside, imagine a book with a strong environmental message with cheap plastic merchandise. No author would approve of that, but a major corporation that sells licenses for secondary parties to produce merchandise might because it's not like the lawyers sorting out the deal have read the book or that anyone in a creative position would probably look over the deal.

Monetarily, the guy who wrote "Number 4" for James Frey is better off than CVZ or Gregory. Especially when you consider that all writers, me included, write for free, especially at the beginning of our careers. And most authors write for free, with no guarantee of payment until the book is sold, for their ENTIRE careers.

Honestly, the money part of the contract isn't the problem. I'd be thrilled to split my subsidiary rights on some ideas I have for books (not the one I'm working on now, but that's because I don't want it fully exploited). In exchange I'd get legal and publicity expertise, the meetings with the right producers and toy companies, and to knwo that someone is fully exploiting my work on my behalf.

The ownership of copyright is also less of an issue that I think this article makes it out to be. The standard boilerplate for studio copyright now includes the phrases "in perpetuity," "the entire universe," and "on all existing technologies and those that do not yet exist." You sell movie rights, that version of the movie belongs to that studio FOREVER. And depending on the contract, that studio may own the rights and the right to grant those rights, FOREVER, forcing the writer out of the picture entirely. So if a writer's work is exploited in even the most basic way, they author's copyright may be compromised forever. But all the legal wording is basically made up. They can barely enforce copyright law in China, they certainly can't enforce it on Alpha Centauri 6,000 years after the end of human existence on technology invented by aliens who share both consciousness and memory and have therefore never invented art because they have neither point of view nor metaphor. (End digression.)

Most writers are more that wiling to sell apsects of their copyright to studios. (It's a good bet - it's a lot of money and most options never make it as far as filming.) But if a writer hates the movie that's made, good luck arranging for a remake, there will be unbelievable legal wrangling, even though the author STILL OWNS the primary copyright. But a company has resources to step in or even demand executive production credits (and the right to intervene to some extent). A company can threaten to withhold future works (which, unlike an author, they are guaranteed to have) while and individual writer gets to whine to the press.

Of course, James Frey's company's contracts sound incredibly flawed. My problem with the contract (as it's described, having never seen it) is the control of the name. As an author, your name is your brand the company is being pretty awful about it. You could work on a project for a week, get fired, lose you monetary rights, go ogg and win a Pulitzer, then find your name slapped on a book you had nothing to do with. That's really scary.

Also, working with Frey sounds like hell to the nth degree.

If a nice reasonable person had a company like this with guaranteed name stuff (one way or the other, so you know what you are getting into), a slightly higher writing fee, Creative Commons developing nation attribution noncommercial share alike licenses, and a no sweatshop guarantee on merchandise I would jump at the chance to split my copyright and subsidiary compensation with them.

Or somebody could give me a few million is start up capital so I could hire some producers as consultants, PR and publicity people, entertainment lawyers, a couple literary agents and managers, a web designer, graphic artists, sales team, sales researcher, some product designers, an app developer, assistants for key players, HR staff and a bunch of YA writers to be part-time editors and packagers and they could spend the rest of their time actually writing for the company (so part of the company's cut would actually go BACK TO the writer in the form of editorial salary).

But considering how busy I am, someone would literally have to hand me the cash. I could never get it together to raise it otherwise.

In other words, don't work for James Frey because he is an asshole, not because the contract sucks. Because it really only sucks in minor ways. Whereas, James Frey? Major asshole.

20 August 2010

Girl Meets Gun: 2 of 2

Part 2:

For those familiar with female protagonists in children’s and teen literature and media, Hit-Girl falls into a niche situated between two known genres: that of the survivalist pre-adolescent and the deadly teenager. Both of these groups speak to the importance of a sort of competent, survivalist, and occasionally violent female archetype. These characters, including Hit-Girl, have adult level competencies and skills, the ability to kill, and a tough capable independence. These characters and Hit-Girl intersect in various different ways concerning age, survival, violence, and the film’s realism

Jean Craighead George, a writer of numerous kid survival novels, includes two of my favorite teen heroines. Both Miyax from Julie of the Wolves and Billie Wind from The Talking Earth are thirteen year-old girls who survive on their own in the wild. They and Karana, the 12-year-old (and up) heroine of 1960’s Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, are the closest characters in age to Hit-Girl. These characters from middle grade books are the survivalist pre-adolescent.

While Miyax is older than Hit-Girl, it is quite clear in the book that she hasn’t had her period yet. As far as physical development and the onset of puberty, 11 year-old Hit-Girl and 13 year-old Miyax are more physically similar than not. It is unclear at what stage of her physical development Billie is at, but as she and her book share themes and an author with Miyax it seems fair to say that she is also about a year away from beginning her period. There is no similar discussion of menarche or womanhood in Island of the Blue Dolphins. However, the historical figure Karana is based on lived in the mid-1800’s when the average age of menarche was between 16 and 17. This suggests that twelve-year-old Karana is the most physically immature of all the girls (being some four or five years from her period rather than a year or so for Billie, Miyax and Hit-Girl). Yet Karana is able to build a house, make tools and fire, to fish and to protect herself from the wild dogs on her island. This suggests that in the genre of survivalist girls physical maturity and sexuality are less important than practical skills.

This basic set of skills established by the adventures of Karana. It includes building and finding shelter, creating bonds with animals, the trapping and killing of other animals for food, and other aspects of survival. Both Miyax and Billie build traditional methods of travel (a frozen sledge and a dugout canoe, respectively). Billie even makes a shirt of bird feathers in a direct nod to Karana’s best outfit.

Hit-Girl provides a playful twist on these skills. She too operates a “traditional” mode of travel: the souped-up muscle car traditional to male superheroes. She handles the threats of her local environment (drug dealers and mafia thugs), and like the other girls she befriends a local ally, though Kick-Ass may be of a slightly higher order of wildlife than Karana’s wild dog, Miyax’s wolves or Billie’s tortoise and otter friends. When Hit-Girl’s father first shoots her to test out her bulletproof vest, it is not because they plan on dressing like superheroes and staging war on drug dealers and the mafia. Instead he warns her that it is because he doesn’t want her to be scared when a punk pulls a gun on her. Miyax is also trained in esoteric survival skills –that would be considered sure death in the real world – by her father. The wider world files Miyax’s skills under the heading of preservation of culture, but for Hit-Girl, they fall under the heading of pseudo-sexual abuse. But Hit-Girl does know how to survive and does so with as much aplomb and grace as any of these other pre-adolescent heroines.

And when I say survive, I mean Bear Grylls can take his stupid show and go home because no one’s playing with anything that lame. Karana survives, primarily alone, for six years on a desert island. Billie handles an Everglades forest fire and saves herself and a local boy during a hurricane. And Miyax walks hundreds of miles through one of the harshest wildernesses known to man. These fictional girls do things that kill real life adults, yet no one is freaking out that these characters mere existence is leading the girls of America to death’s door.

It is fair to point out that these literary survivalist girls are not particularly violent toward people. Why should Hit-Girl be compared to them, when the reviewers’ difficulties suggest it is a question of violence? I would argue it’s because Hit-Girl is not very violent per se. Rather, she is very good at hurting and killing people, which is different. Hit-Girl never lashes out, she never screams or has a tantrum. She is methodical and competent. She dispatches humans rather than fish, birds or lemmings, but in the moral universe of an action movie, those she kills are worth less than animals. This is not a fair or meaningful accounting of human life. But it is identical to the accounting used in action movies starring grown men and the standard should be used for this movie as well.

These non-violent survivalist girls do, however, lead into the genre of the deadly teenager. They are, if you like, the younger sisters of Buffy Sommers, River Tam and Katniss Everdean. Katniss, the heroine of The Hunger Games is most like the younger survivalist heroines. In fact, she begins as a survivalist heroine in a post-apocalyptic future where she hunts to supplement her family’s meager government rations. But when her government forces her into a televised gladiatorial type competition she becomes just as deadly as Hit-Girl. The overlap of her hunting and fighting skills speaks to the importance of including the pre-adolescent survivalists in consideration of the deadly Hit-Girl. If forced or convinced any of them would have the skills to kill another person.

Unfortunately for Hit-Girl, she exists in the somewhat real world – played by an actual eleven-year-old in a live-action film. The deadly teenagers Buffy and River, both creations of Joss Whedon, are television/movie characters. Like Hit-Girl this makes them somewhat more realistic: they are portrayed by real young women. Unlike Hit-Girl though, and perhaps because of this added realism, their foes, abilities and exploits are less realistic than they might otherwise be. Buffy is gifted with magical powers, while River has had her brain hacked by a futuristic government. Buffy fights demons, hellspawn and vampires, while River fights hyperviolent space zombies (also created by the futuristic government). It begs the question, at what point – at what age, versus which foes, with what weapons – does Hit-Girl become acceptable to our culture at large?

The question of realism can’t be ignored. We can see how books provide the competent and deadly girl with a protected space. Their stories, abilities and, in the case of Katniss, foes are, in some ways, more realistic than the television and film characters. There is a lack of magic, and even in the science fictional world of Katniss, her skills are based on years of practice and necessity. Hit-Girl may be a superhero, but she is operates in the realistic vein of Batman. She has no powers, only her training, equipment and nerve in her fight against evil. Had she been gifted with superstrength, a la Molly Hayes in Marvel Runaways would there have been any question of her propriety or sexual appropriateness? Or had she quietly remained a figure in a cult comic book, would she have ever come to the attention of cultural critics who seem to have no problem with a girl having mystical powers to kill imaginary foes.

But if one of the problems of understanding Hit-Girl is her realism you have to wonder how realistic is she? There is no way to know what a child raised on action movies and trained since toddlerhood to have the skills of an Army Ranger would actually be able to accomplish. It would probably be unethical to try and find out. But in Hit-Girl’s spectacular final battle with goons in the hallway of the crime lord’s apartment we have something that can almost be twisted into a comparison. During the Beijing Olympics China inappropriately fielded several female gymnasts under allowed age of 16. The youngest discovered to be just fourteen. They fielded them, not because they wanted to show off their underage gymnasts, but because they were the best. Their physical capabilities – their prowess to use another sexually charged word – were greater than that of the older girls who had trained longer. While it is unlikely that any of these Chinese gymnasts could have preformed their routines while killing numerous adult men, they certainly could have moved through that apartment hallway with the same grace and ease that Hit-Girl did.

But why should Hit-Girl surface now? The survivalist girl genre has existed for fifty years, violent comic books with boy sidekicks for almost a hundred. Even though there are literary, real world and filmic antecedents, Hit-Girl still struck many reviewers as an aberration. Again and again – in the media, in the news, to the girls themselves – preteen girls are presented as victims.

They are sexual victims of pedophiles, they are surveillance victims of technology, they are bullied victims of each other. The teenagers and young women these girls are shown as the next step in the journey toward adulthood are a combination of pantyless upskirt photos, fame for fame’s (or sex’s) sake and vapid soundbites. Hit-Girl is the dark glass image of these teenagers and young adults. She is the kind of thing that rises from our collective unconscious when we begin to search for a way out of decadence presented as the female body. This is not the Madonna/Whore binary, it is a more complex Joan of Arc vs. Marie Antoinette. Hit-Girl is kevlar to their nakedness, she is cunning to their shallowness, she is secret identity to their public personas, she is the shadows to their spotlights, she is violence to their violation.

Eventually my dad did get me a pocketknife – when he thought I was old enough to keep it sharp and handle it responsibly. I was eight. I feel I was lucky to read books with characters like Miyax and Karana. Still, I had to read lots of books with male protagonists (Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, Call It Courage, etc.) to get my fix of survival literature. And of course, all of these kids were surviving out in nature, far from civilization and the real threats of the world. Kick-Ass, the film Hit-Girl appears in, may not be appropriate for pre-teen and young teen girls. Then again, Hit-Girl herself probably is. If we reveal the extremes of bravery and competence available to girls, perhaps the middle ground (where girls don’t actually try to kill drug lords) will become well-trodden by middle schoolers who don’t believe that they exist solely to be victimized.

26 April 2010

Girl Meets Gun: 1 of 2

Part I:

[Spoiler Alert! This is about the recent film “Kick-Ass.” But by the end it will also include numerous references to tons of YA and children’s books and films.]

If I were a ten-year-old girl I would want to be Hit-Girl for Hallowe’en. (Heck, I want to be Hit-Girl for Hallowe’en now, but I think I’m a little too tall.) There’s no way my parents would have let me see “Kick-Ass” if I was ten. They wouldn’t let me see the PG-13 rated “Jurassic Park” when I was eleven, and I was the biggest dinosaur fan around. Part of me has still never forgiven them for my never seeing on the big screen the moment when they first reveal the herd of diplodocus.

Dinosaurs aside, the reason ten-year-old me would want to dress up as Hit-Girl has less to do with her purple wig and half-mask than it does with her birthday request. She asks for a butterfly knife. Which she uses on some low-life drug dealers a few scenes later. When I was six, I asked my dad for a pocketknife for Christmas. He didn’t get me one. But about the same time, he took me out for target practice (not William Tell style). I remember going and firing the .22 rifle that’s been my dad’s since he was a teenager. A few years ago I asked him about that trip. He agreed I’d been about six, and he insisted I’d loved shooting empty soda cans. When I asked why we’d only gone once, he didn’t have an answer.

While most reviewers have enjoyed “Kick-Ass,” Hit-Girl herself has been the center of some controversy. Roger Ebert opens his review with the statement, “I find “Kick-Ass” morally reprehensible.” And he goes on to mostly cite Hit-Girl’s death defying (and dealing) activities. Apparently having a little girl taking on a role that should be reserved for teenage boys, adult men, or half naked, cleavage baring starlets (Jolie, Angelina: Wanted; Saldena, Zoe: Losers) screws with reviewers abilities to understand basic plot concepts. Village Voice reviewer Karina Longworth writes, “progressively brutal action set pieces shot through with shaky moralism (when a child murders grown-ups, Kick-Ass wants us to cheer, but when an adult man pummels a little girl, Kick-Ass wants us appalled),” seemingly forgetting that we cheered Neo when he took out everybody and then were really upset when we thought he had died. We rejoice when Indy kills Nazis (even North African Nazis who were probably, as these things go, just regular soldiers and not death camp commandants) and cringe when he is so beaten he can’t even have sex! That the good guy’s kills are glorious and the bad guy’s are despicable is the moralism of every action movie ever.

Ebert again seems to miss the point when he willfully ignores the second beat of the scene where Hit-Girl is nearly killed, writing: “the villain deliciously anticipate[ing] blowing a bullet hole in the child's head.” But then missing that the villain, at least, values and respects Hi-Girl. He realizes she is both a worthy enemy and something to aspire to, saying with admiration, a hint of loss, and a touch of sexism that should be familiar to the movie reviewers, “If only I had a son like you.”

In an equally moralistic, though closer to crazy-town vein, Manhola Dargis insists on misinterpreting a loving father-child relationship (odd as it may be) as an inappropriately sexual one: “Tucked inside this flick is a relationship as kinky and potentially resonant as that between Lolita and Humbert Humbert.” Now, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie where a father raises up his son to be a lethal killing machine, but I’d bet money that no one would accuse that dad of sexual deviance. (Maybe they’d compare it to Karate Kid?) She also willingly implicates the director and audience: “There’s something about the killer schoolgirl that turns some filmmakers on, and audiences, too….” So if you thought Hit-Girl was awesome, you’re a pedophile? At least one NYTimes website commenter thought so, calling Hit-Girl “pedo-bait.” But the director keeps my new favorite heroine fully and demurely clothed at all times. Even her schoolgirl outfit reveals less than an inch of skin around her knees – making her more real girl and less Brittany.

Of course, the crazytown cake was taken by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker who wrote: “‘Kick-Ass’ is violence’s answer to kiddie porn. You can see it in Hit Girl’s outfit when she cons her way past security guards—white blouse, hair in pigtails, short tartan skirt—and in the winsome way that she pleads to be inculcated into grownup excess. That pleading is the dream of every pedophile….” Say what? Anthony, darling, Hit-Girl doesn’t plead. She demands, she orders, she emotionally blackmails (in the scene where she commandeers Kick-Ass’s help to avenge her father), and she’ll pull a gun. But she doesn’t plead and it’s not about sex.

But while I could take on the rest of these earth shatteringly dumb points on one by one (although Mr. Lane’s comparison of Hit-Girl to Antigone is spectacularly interesting and may get its own post), I’d really like to situate Hit-Girl in the larger world. What does it mean to be an eleven-year-old girl? What does it mean to be a fictitious eleven-year-old?

Eleven is about the age when it’s all over for girls. They are entering puberty and it’s basically all downhill from there. Between eight and eleven girls are the strongest, fastest and biggest kids on the playground. They are tougher and have better language skills than the boys too. It’s the last time their hips and knees are in the proper alignment to avoid ACL injuries (as wider adult hips put more stress on knees), it’s the last time they can run without having their breasts bounce around causing pain and back problems (or if they are going to be an A-cup, like yours truly, that they won’t feel horrifyingly inadequate because they can run without a sports bra). Menstruation means a lack of control over the body that lasts for days, not minutes like the lack of control that hits guys. Suddenly being treated like a sex object (or like you are going to be treated like a sex object) turns little girls from active controllers of their own destiny and of people’s perceptions of them into nothing more than a surface image. Suddenly older girls, parents and concerned adults start warning you about rape, pregnancy and never wearing white pants. They never talk to you about losing the body you’ve been growing in for the last ten years for one that people will judge you for, even though you’ve done nothing but keep growing. There are numerous stories of female athletes who begin their training at very young ages – gymnasts, swimmers, ballet dancers – who can no longer practice their sport after puberty or have to relearn their sport entirely. For boys who begin training at similar ages, puberty may mean awkward growth spurts, but it also means gaining the height and strength to make the skills they’ve practiced worthwhile.

So if I think that Hit-Girl is a better female action hero than Laura Croft, it’s mostly because she gets to wear an actual bullet proof vest instead of a white tank-top and push-up bra. Her age makes her terrifying to people who want their action heroines to jiggle and be sexually available. When those heroines don’t, we lack any language to discuss our discomfort that isn’t sexual as well. If Hit-Girl was a deadly eleven-year-old boy we call him a boy scout run-amok and talk about how he fulfilled the Peter-Pan fantasies of the filmmakers and was supposed to rope in the eleven-year-old boy fans who don’t already own Robin costumes. No one imagines the audience will be titillated, or that the relationship between father and son must be similar to one of sexual molestation and abuse.

The female body must exist in a sexual context. So we have no other way to discuss the bodies of female athletes, or female physics-defying assassins. Whether the actress, the screenwriter (a woman), the original creator of the comic or the director of the film, wanted to (or didn’t want to) make Hit-Girl a sexual object is a moot point, because no one can discuss her in any way that isn’t sexual. The press at large seems to lack a way to discuss a girl’s strength, flexibility, speed, competency, skills, knowledge base or deadliness without turning to the possibility of her sexual deviancy or degradation.

03 August 2009

Why I love Brooklyn

So Jake and I spent Sunday in the neighborhoods near our own. First we headed down to Park Slope where we and a friend out waited the rain in Ozzie's. Then we went to the local indie bookshop where I picked up a children's book called "The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine or The Hithering Dithering Djinn" by post-modernist extraordinaire Donald Barthelme. Jake got a zombie terrorism police procedural thriller (which somehow was not post-modernist?).

Then we headed back up Vanderbilt, stopping in Unnameable Books. Since the two used bookstores on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn closed, we were both pretty excited to check out this new hybrid new/used bookstore. While there, we started discussing comics with a woman there, who blogs about books and comics. We didn't get her name, but she gave us the name of her blog and recommended some awesome books before we left for home.

I checked out her blog, and would happily recommend it to anyone interested in literary fiction. And literary science fiction. And literary fantasy.

I don't want to say that this is the kind of thing that only happens in the big city. But let's face it: it is.

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