On Endings – a rambling post where I rant a bit and try not to be too guilty of spoilers.

More than genre, more than subject, it is the ending that defines a story, and defines how we will remember it. Sometimes an ending will exceed our expectations. Sometimes, it will derail us. And sometimes, of course, we will be disappointed. Sometimes we get to laugh, sometimes we get to sob uncontrollably and wonder what on earth we could possibly bring ourselves to read or watch next.

Sometimes, I think, people have unrealistic expectations. The ending they want isn’t necessarily the right ending for the story. Not all endings should be of the fairy-tale variety – but more about that later. ‘The end’ is not always a guarantee of closure (and where would sequels and series be if closure was de rigueur?). Charles Dickens knew this. When he wrote Great Expectations (1860-1) he came up with two endings: the right ending for a realist novel, and the fairy-tale ending he knew his readers would want. Personally, I prefer the original ending: it is far more satisfying than the too easy fairy-tale variant. And really, beyond having unrealistic expectations, what did Pip do to ‘deserve’ Estella? Far better that Estella should reclaim her personal agency from the legacy of Miss Havisham’s sense of vengeance, and from her disastrous first marriage, by finding happiness with someone outside of the story, than by ‘rewarding’ the boy she used to tease. On the other hand there are those in whom the words ‘Reader, I married him’, inspire a deep rage. Is it not enough that Jane Eyre holds on to her principles, her virtue, her hard won sense of self worth, and then gets to marry the man she loves on her own terms – not his – and as an equal? Her fairy-tale is tarnished by the madwoman in the attic, and everything she stands for; why should she not marry her psychologically and physically scarred love, and have babies? Why should she not retain her own agency and follow her heart?

Similarly, the Channel 4 drama Southcliffe (2013) seemed to garner a less than favourable response for the final episode. Judging by the reactions in my Twitter feed, the preferred ending would have seen all the untidy loose ends neatly tied off in double knots and the threads snipped. Not wanting to be spoilery, I will only say that for me, the ending made sense. In a story dealing with seemingly senseless acts of violence, and the aftermath of grief, how do you write any meaningful kind of closure? Grief is messy: it lasts as long as it lasts. To underscore this point, one of the main characters (played by Rory Kinnear) is shown to be be still dealing with the bullying he endured a child. Again, what meaningful kind of realistic closure can there be for him? In the real world, vengeance should not always be enacted  – indeed, the very point of the main story: the burning need for personal vengeance meant tragedy for too many other people. There are always consequences. But resolution is far more rare.

I have a theory that collectively we have been spoiled by the Hollywood version of happily ever after. Sure, there’s the occasional blockbuster that isn’t afraid to take the road less travelled, but for every Se7en (1995) there are too many films that are afraid to aim for anything other than the cliché. Which is fine, as far as it goes: sometimes it’s nice to see the prostitute go shopping before ending up with the wealthy business man who paid her for sex. Pretty Woman (my god but 1990 is an AGE ago) is a classic Hollywood fairytale. More to the point it’s a classic Disney fairytale, of the same vintage as The Little Mermaid (1989): a happy ending can’t be a happy ending unless the princess gets her man, regardless of the ending of the original source material. (see also, rewriting history: Pocahontas and her supposed relationship with John Smith, for which there is no evidence, etc etc)

I have a problem with Hollywood altered endings. I am aware that what makes a good novel and what makes a good film are not always mutually inclusive. There are always certain compromises to be made: events and characters cut, condensed, rearranged. But change the ending, and the story is rarely altered for the better. Compare Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (1997) with the 2007 film. Both are tagged as a fairytale that won’t behave. One ending is ultimately sweetly, darkly sad. The other is considerably less so. I leave it to you to work out which is which. (I love both: they are two separate entities, and that’s fine.) But both are fairytale endings. The film The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009) manages to sidestep the darkness of the 2003 novel’s ending, in favour of taking the cake and liberally smearing it right across the collective audience’s face. The text again is rendered as two separate entities, but  – and of course this is only my opinion –  at the expense of the novel’s identity: the flavour of schmaltz has never appealed less.

But sometimes, of course, we are given the unexpected ending; endings that seem to promise one thing, and give us something else.  If you have neither read, nor watched Atonement (2001/2007), then please, do.

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It only hurts when I move.

Christmas, frankly, has been a bit rubbish so far. Starting Christmas Eve on a sleep deficit that would run into the small hours of Christmas morning (44 hours in total before my body and mind gave up fighting), before retiring early to bed after Christmas dinner – which I cooked (it was delicious, of course). Nearly three days later, somewhat less germ ridden, and bored with being in bed, I got up, and sping! My back went. 

Marvellous, isn’t it?

Still, I have managed to cook and eat some bubble and squeak, so Christmas IS now properly happening. (Finally!) It will probably be another two days before I need to eat again, so that’s a mercy. In the meantime, as painkillers aren’t really doing much of anything, I am cheerfully taking gin. We’ll see what happens when I try to get out of this chair.

 

It would be nice to start the New Year with some seasonal magic, so fingers crossed…

One of those weeks…

It has been an odd sort of week, all things considered. Nothing much of any great moment has happened in the day to day running of things, but things in the head, ideas and responses to external media… whoosh! There’s a veritable cornucopia of stuff all tangled together with knotted ends sticking out here and there that I’m finding it difficult to make sense of. Things like the absurdity of some of Sebastian Faulks’ pronunciations On Fiction, his idea – espoused on BBC Breakfast news on Wednesday morning – that the end of literary criticism, in its many forms and flavours – he mentioned Feminist, Marxist and Formalist approaches – was a thing to be applauded in favour of a return to what is essentially the Reader Response approach. This to me is a curious assertion; in the first place, the target audience at which he aims, is principally a non-academic one. It is true that most critical approaches are not a necessary adjunct to everyday life, or to reading for pleasure, but to dismiss them completely is to me shortsightedly reductionist. Reading deeper into the texts, the literary discourses, such critical approaches enrich the reading process. In the second place, he makes a Formalist call for the exclusion of the author, and the socio-historical context, when reading. I would argue that if the reader is supposed to enjoy a text as a text in its own right, ignoring its historical context should be a hindrance. It is a fallacious argument because how can anyone make a reasoned valuation of any text if they can only apply a modern reading of modern cultural and moral mores? Follow that line of reasoning far enough and you end up with an edited/censored edition of Huckleberry Finn, for example. Surely, if Literature is supposed to enable us to make sense of who and where we are, we ought to have some understanding of who and where we have been? Context IS relevent, as an underlying understanding of any text, without necessarily being the end in its own right.

I could bore you by ranting on a little more about some of the other things he said – don’t get me started on his summation of the ‘female experience’ as evidenced in Tess of the Durbervilles, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and The Golden Notebook; for heaven’s sake I adore Lawrence, but  his tenderly brutal misogyny is not something I would include as vital to the historical experience of being a woman – and there, you see, he contradicts himself implicitly… No. Enough. My head is spinning and he makes me cross. Others with cooler heads than mine have refuted him elsewhere.

What else is tangled in my head? The political situation here, the turmoil in Egypt, the seeming hint that Poland is sending to Belorussia to rise up and overthrow their electorally dubious leader. The New York writer Fran Lebowitz, who is fearless and frank and always honest, with an acerbic wit that warms or withers. I like her. What else? The tulips that I bought today, flame coloured and golden-edged. The miserably poxy cold that I’m enduring.  And the WIP… a chapter completed last night, over 1300 words written in the last couple of days – I’m beginning to pick up speed again. And in spite of the nonsense in my head (see above) this has kept me unreasoningly cheerful, despite the time of year.

I still haven’t had any lychees yet, though. I really should do something about that….

Cultural Constraints – warning, this post gets a bit rambly.

Is it possible to be too creative? To think too far outside of the box? To overstep the giant leap for mankind?

My reaction is to balk at the idea, but apparently, it is so. Avant-garde can be as much a condemnation as a compliment. A friend who is taking the Creative Writing MA at the University of Gloucestershire (lucky sod), presented me with the idea – something his class had been discussing –  and  asked what I thought. As I have said, I balked.

The idea that it is only possible to be as successfully creative as the culture around us will allow instinctively feels limiting to me. Yes, of course the culture we have now is built on the foundations of the culture preceding; ergo the perception of what is culturally acceptable as meaningfully creative, as opposed to nonsense, must be defined by the common understanding of how/what society judges our culture to be. This fallacy gives us the trope of the misunderstood artist, the visionary ahead of their time; Van Gogh, Blake, Nick Drake…

This disheartens me – not because I claim to be a visionary, I don’t – but because I naively believed that our culture at large was self-aware enough to be able to look further beyond what is known, what has been done, and tried, and tested. And yet… and yet… I ought to know better. I work in book selling, I see how it works. I see what gets published, I see what gets pushed (or marketed, if you prefer), I see what sells. Sells. That is the key word. Culture in this context is about consumerism.

Money makes the art world go round. The enfants terribles who were the avant-garde have become establishment figures by virtue of the willingness of collectors to lay out absurdly huge sums of money on their work. We don’t get to decide that Tracey Emin’s My Bed is culturally acceptable; Charles Saatchi decided that when he bought it. We can have a range of opinions about it, but in the rarified world of modern art the person on the street is denied a stake in the cultural consensus; it’s beyond our price range. So someone with money gets to decide that artist X is a visionary, courting controversy in trying to push the viewer out of complacency, ahead of the consensual collusion on what we supposedly allow culture to be, while Artist Y is meaningless, nonsensical, pointless. Evelyn Waugh loathed Picasso – he would have spat venom at him if he could. It enraged him that Picasso should be so successful. ‘Culture’ then is a playground where the old is continually butting heads with the new. Inch by inch, the new becomes the old, and therefore more acceptable. Consider the Pre-Raphaelites; they looked backwards in order to move forwards. But did they really move forwards? Their work helped to reinforce the Victorian appropriation of a perceived Golden Age, King Arthur’s court of Camelot. I’m beginning to confuse myself now. The Impressionists – they alarmed some and enchanted others. Now they are ubiquitous.

Where does this leave – or lead – writing? Fads, trends, bandwagons… the book buying public can only read what the editors decide  – on the readers’ behalf – is culturally acceptable. Where would science fiction be as a genre now, if these classics had continued to be rejected? Arbiters of taste, of opinion, it’s all highly subjective. Frankly, if I see yet another variant on the sexy-vampire-tortured-by-loving-a- nubile-mortal meme, I’m going to do something I’ll probably regret. Nothing drastic, or illegal; most likely it will cause me a moment of social embarrassment. But frankly, dear editors, isn’t it time to move on? When does the bottom line finally get trashed on the glutted market? What is the next step going to be allowed to be?

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold. We might not like it.

Don’t really know what to call this one. Perhaps Fred?

So things have mostly been in a holding pattern since last I blogged. Adjustments have begun to be made in the head-space area, and a new character has introduced herself to me and has begun to intimate her story. So there has been note-making galore. This has made me quietly happy. Really, you have no idea HOW happy this has made me! <does chair-dance of glee>

I’ve spent the last few days running through and rewriting endless lists, and the last couple of hours packing. Later this morning I will be on a plane. And away from my Mac. Even if I had a laptop, I fear the part of Eastern Europe for which I am bound, is sadly lacking in the provision of wifi – at least in the countryside. Mercifully, Moleskines require no batteries or other issues of connectivity (ghastly word). And the red wine there is delicious.

I finally got around to watching the decent fist that whichever production company it was made of Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal. Very enjoyable, even if the budget clearly didn’t allow for properly populating Ank Morpork. Golems, a vampire and a werewolf, lovely; but where were the trolls and dwarves? And it was too clean, somehow. But still, as adaptations go, it worked. But it did remind me of a not so successful adaptation I saw several years ago. You may or may not be aware that Stephen Briggs adapted several of the earlier Discworld novels into plays, most notably Wyrd Sisters. A local theatre company put on a production, and I and some friends went to see it. We were dreadfully disappointed. The (desperately) amateur thesps had decided that a passing knowledge of Macbeth would be suffice for their effort. And a knowledge of Macbeth does help – it informs the narrative in a wonderful and witty way. BUT it is not what makes Wyrd Sisters – either play or novel – intrinsically funny. It was quite clear that neither the director nor the performers were in any way familiar with Discworld, because they did not know where the laughs were, or why the jokes were funny. It was, quite frankly, toe-curling to watch.  The audience, were for the most part, fans of Sir Terry’s particular brand of humour and insight. We knew where the jokes were, and why they should be funny. We expected them. And we did not get them.  A week later I had the dubious pleasure of overhearing one of the actors complaining to a friend that audiences were not appreciative (I think there were three performances in all), and that the whole cast were deeply pissed off. The reason they had put the play on in the first place, was because of the Macbeth connection. Clearly the audiences didn’t have a clue. The friend had heard of Discworld – she dared to ask if anyone in the <geometric shape> Theatre Company (I don’t wish to fully name it) had read the original novel.  No, they didn’t see the point, because Discworld novels are only fantasy and therefore not worth bothering with. If I hadn’t been working I rather think I would have had something to say about that. As it was I had to bite my lip and tongue quite hard. That theatre company were rude, and ignorant. They insulted their audience, they insulted the author, and they insulted the glorious plurality of literary genres. Twelve years later and it still makes me angry.

<Deep Breath>The next question is, what to take for holiday reading? A little Murakami (or rather, a fat one), the newest Atwood paperback, The Iliad (although sadly not the Fagles translation) – I can’t remember what else I’ve packed; I’m pack-lagged. So that will have to do for now.

Misuse of Language

Misuse of language is one of my pet hates. So are the Halifax adverts. And my husband’s snoring. And people buying books who count out their money onto the counter, then hold out their hand for the change; that makes me seethe inwardly. But I digress.

Misuse of language; it happens all the time, mostly quite innocently, cropping up in conversation. But then there are those misused written words, printed words, published words. They have less excuse; they are deliberate, or at the very least, thoughtless. Writers beware! It’s one thing to come across wrong words in an early draft of a chapter or short story  – although  I have come across words misused where quite clearly the context demands the antonym, and I have wondered… but I’m digressing again. The specific lexical instance that has brought me to this point occurred in last Saturday’s* Telegraph Review Magazine (I did search for the article online, but got bored looking, frankly). The article was an interview with Tom Hanks, about the new series he has produced with Steven Spielberg, The Pacific. I quote from the second introductory paragraph;

“Between the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the mornings in August 1945 when atom bombs fell on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki…”

(Will Lawrence, Telegraph Review, 27 March 2010)

I have a problem with this. Bombs do not simply fall passively from the sky. They are actively dropped. Even in the context of an article about American bravery against an alien culture** – the Imperial Army’s refusal to surrender, kill or be killed was the only order – this curious evasion of culpability stands out. Yes, Japan attacked first. But they attacked the US Fleet. By dropping two atom bombs on two cities, the US caused an unthinkable amount of collateral damage, and changed the world forever. You might as well say that the RAF flew over Dresden, which then coincidentally spontaneously combusted. Writers beware – we are responsible for how the past is written for the future to read. We must choose our words with care, lest we forget, and the truth be obscured from our children.

* I only caught up with reading the Review Magazine today, owing to last weekend’s loss to the migraine.

**And don’t get me started on classic Western narcissism, anything Occidental being good, everything Oriental, mad. Edward Said put it so beautifully, so concisely, so eruditely, in his book Orientalism, and I have just realised that I have lost my copy – HORRORS!