Archive for February, 2007

Timeless elves?

February 27th, 2007

I subscribe to the (London) Times Literary Supplement, and in the 16 February issue there was an amazing statement made about JRR Tolkien’s work.   A review of a book called IN SEARCH OF THE HOLY GRAIL: the quest for the Middle Ages, is titled “Away with the elves.”  The book looks like a pretty standard work of “reception studies” – ie, a book about how our culture and others have viewed and reacted to a particular book, artwork, culture, whatever – focused on various views of the European Middle Ages.   The reviewer (Alex Burghart) makes an amazing mistake, one apparently shared by the author, Veronica Orgenberg.   I say apparently in her case because I’ve not read the book, and the reviewer may well have got it wrong.

Anyway, the gaffe: they think that Tolkien’s works are set in the Middle Ages.  Haven’t they read LotR?  Or even THE HOBBIT?  Burghart even says that those who “buy into” Tolkien’s stories “rarely go on to read medieval history.”   Why would they?  I can only assume that Burghart (and perhaps Otenberg as well) have never read Tolkien, or if they have, they’ve done so very badly.

Tolkien’s work takes place in that great Never-When of mythology, of course.  If those who read “go on” to any field of study, it would be mythology, folklore, or linguistics.  If we had to assign it a time period from “real” history, it would have to be Iron Age, I suppose — long before the Roman Empire, long long LONG before the Christianity that marked the European Medieval world.  But it doesn’t fit in the Iron Age, either — in fact, one could pick the world apart and assign different cultures to different points in time.  One could, but the exercise would be meaningless.

I do wish that people who criticize Tolkien would read the books first.  If nothing else, good scholarship demands it.

Creating The World Within Which You’d Like To Live

February 25th, 2007

The following pull comes from today’s NY Times’s Art section, in an article about the photographic artist, Justine Kurland.  You can find the article here, with a slide show of some of her work.

[ “There’s something political about creating a world that you want to exist,” she said. And in a sense these new works also relate to the aesthetic of late 19th-century landscape photography, which “was really about this idea of projecting an idealism onto a landscape,” she said. “It was a way of settling the West.” ]

Her vision of past, present and idyll, is an interesting companion to the ideas raised (yet again! you’d think BY NOW, primatologists, at least, would get it, that the female of our species never was a passive beggar at best to great big alpha males hunting to get the food to feed herself and children) in the article about chimp mothers creating hunting weapons and tools.

However, most of all, I was struck by Kurland’s statement, “There’s something political about creating a world that you want to exist.”  Not always, but often, this would fit those of us who make worlds that don’t exist, as a matter of course.  It states succinctly, as well, why we make worlds like Sherri Tepper does, for instance, that are our deepest terrors.  Without political advocacy and activism, we cannot avoid the worlds that are our terrors, or bring into existence worlds that are better than a world of terror.

Kurland is a photographer, not a fiction writer.  This is something else I liked about her statement.  It shows us all that fiction is not the only path to envisioning worlds within which we could live comfortably, with our children, other creatures and each other.

Love, C.


February 23rd, 2007

ehjones asks:

But if writers write every day, especially as much as I’ve been lately, isn’t there a chance of burnout?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not feeling it yet.  I’m still going strong and working on a short story for entry into the writers of the future contest.  But is there a point where a writer just runs out of steam and has to step back, take a breath, and close the laptop for a few weeks or so?

My short answer to this question is:  you’ll know it when you get there.  Until you get there, don’t worry about it.

My long (long) answer:

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The Serious Business of Funny Stuff

February 19th, 2007

Thalia weeps while Melpomene is still no doubt staring glazedly at the screen, giggling uncomfortably.  I must rant while this is all fresh in my mind.

I just had the instructional if less than pleasureable experience of watching The Half Hour News Hour on Fox News.  It’s supposed to be comedy, but about the only thing funny about it was the unintended irony of it actually addressing news-worthy subjects, such as global warming and candidates for the 2008 presidential race, contrasting rather sharply with the “straight” news item that followed, more breathless coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith, who died, like, a week ago.  This is more coverage than they did for the death of Gerald Ford or for that matter, Saddam Hussein.

For those uninitiated, THHNH was created by Joel Surnow, who also created 24, about my favorite suspense spy thriller show.   THHNH is Fox News’ answer to Comedy Central’s The Daily Show & The Colbert Report.  It’s supposed to be right wing comedy, but only comes off, at best, as embarrassingly lame playground humor.  This is not because there isn’t anything funny on the left, but because there are certain rules of comedy that must be respected if it is to have any hope of success, and for Thalia’s sake, I learned these on the playground.  And while I have a rather liberal bias myself, I’m more offended by bad right wing comedy than the idea of right wing comedy period.

So lo, I call upon Thalia, Muse of Comedy, to help me to best iterate the Rules of Comedy and the various infractions thereof, as evidenced by the first painful episode of THHNH:

I. Thou shalt not laugh at thy own jokes (This be a lesser sin if they be funny, but a mortal sin if they be not)

Perhaps the gravest sin of THHNH is the laugh track.  It’s bad, the laughs are obviously recycled from a tape, but worst of all, they follow lame jokes.  If a joke doesn’t fly or otherwise dies, you can recover by simply skipping on to the next one, but if you insist that it was supposed to be a joke by laughing at yourself–or having your canned laughter laugh for you–then your audience can’t simply ignore it.

II. Jests be as birds–smile gaily when they fly, look grave when they fall flat, then move on to the next.

It’s acceptable for comedians to smile and nod after delivering a punchline and pause for laughter, but if no one smiles, laughs, cheers or otherwise signals their appreciation, simply move on.  Really.  Honestly.

THHNH is obviously hobbled by not having a live studio audience; the actors have nothing to play against except each other and their own tin ears.

Maybe this will improve.  Somehow I doubt it.

III. The Joke of the Day is best fresh from the Marketplace, not day-old, week-old, month-old or worse.  This be because the News of the Day oft be a wittier jester than thee.

Let’s see, example from THHNH: joke about Britney Spears shaving her crotch.  A throwaway gag, hardly lingered over, but far less funny than the simple fact that yesterday Britney Spears shaved her head.

This could be followed by gags about Sinead O’Connor (the last female singer who did such a thing), jokes about K-Fed’s reaction (ex-husbands are always funny), or just random bald jokes made safe because of the simple fact that Britney Spears is a woman who shaved her head by choice, not a guy who went bald.  The news is its own amusement.

IV. Whether low and base or high and refined, a jest must relate to its subject.

The best example of this from THHNH: There was a long and extended (and generally tiresome) bit of business about Barrack Obama having a (completely fictional) magazine devoted to him and his life, with this as the knee-slapper: It’s called B.O. magazine!

The trouble with this is that the relation of the gag is tenuous at best and is a pretty thin thread to hang the rest of the segment upon, especially since Senator Obama isn’t noted for any body odor.  Worse, the joke could have been used effectively if used as part of a gag about “What sort of parents name their child ‘Barrack Hussein Obama’?” with a back and forth answering that “Barrack” is a fairly ordinary name in some parts of the world (Barruch in Hebrew) and that the parents had no way of looking into the future and knowing that “Hussein” and “Obama” might one day have unpleasant associations, with the final zinger: “What sort of parent sends their child to elementary school with the initials ‘B.O.’?” and a response about “Well, fortunately for Senator Obama, he attended elementary school in Indonesia” followed by a bit of business about the lengths parents have to go to to protection their children after unfortunate naming choices.

V.  Do not tackle the Unspeakable Taboo unless guarded by the Aegis of Truth and armed with the Sword of Hilarity!

Okay, case in point: THHNH had a mostly forgettable and boring running gag about environmentalist actor Ed Begley coming to the studio in his electric car, having it run out of juice, refueling it with human waste (I’m not making this up), having it run out of “gas,” then getting picked up as a homeless person and thrown in prison where rival gangs were fighting over him.  “As a center for prison basketball?” (Begley is notably tall)  No, for something else….

Yes, a long running gag is finally ended by a prison rape joke.  And it’s unforgiveable because, instead of having any degree of truth or even poetic justice, it’s just a sadistic fantasy.  And this is the last gag of the whole stinking show.

VI. Thou Shalt Not Open with Thy Strongest Joke or Thy Claim to Fame and follow with something banal

The best bit in the whole show was the opening act, the already leaked skit with Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter as President and VP in 2009.  I’d actually thought it was rather lame one the whole (though Limbaugh did deliver a good line about being upset that Pelosi had his phone number), but really, that was it?  Two famous right wing personalities as guest stars followed by four comics I’ve not only never heard of, but who had considerably less flair and stage presense than Limbaugh?

Good gods.

Gaiman, Composition & Tarot on the Well

February 16th, 2007

The writing process facilitated by recourse to queries of the Vertigo Tarot Deck.

Scroll down to:

inkwell.vue.292 : Neil Gaiman, “Fragile Things”
permalink #3 of 46: Elise Matthesen (lioness) Tue 6 Feb 07 20:08

Vertigo Tarot, King of Swords: “Is the inner world of a story too big to get onto the page?”

You can view the Vertigo Tarot (published by Vertigo Comics / DC) here.
Love, C.


What is Genre?

February 15th, 2007

A pull quote from this a.m.’s NY Times, in an article reviewing offerings at the annual Berlin Film festival:

 [ “My point is not that these movies are interchangeable, or that their similarities betray a lack of imagination on the part of their makers. A genre is not a formula but a paradigm, an endlessly variable model that can be adapted to different temperaments and circumstances. Directorial acumen, agile screenwriting and sensitive acting distinguish the run-of-the-mill from the genuinely interesting.” ]

Granted, the writer is speaking of film and movies, but does this apply also to the genres we address here on DG — which includes movies as well as graphic novels / comix and print fiction?

If you want more context for the quote, the full article can be found here.

Love, C.

Review: Pan’s Labyrinth

February 13th, 2007

I don’t usually review films – in large part, because I rarely go out to see them. However, having recently viewed this one, I recognize it as the sort of fantasy tale that I do usually review. Here is my take – in which I discuss the ending of the film.

My reviews of short genre fiction can be read at

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Devil in the Details Redux: China Dolls and Chandlers

February 11th, 2007

Blame National Geographic.

When I was twelve or so, staying over at my grandparents with a cold, I read an issue of National Geographic which gave the history of gemcutting, the history and provenance of the various cuts–the emerald cut, the sapphire cut, the diamond cut, the rose, the brilliant and so forth–and I happily commited all this to memory, along with the rough dates of when each was developed and became popular.  Which of course some years later totally ruined a television show for me, “The Wizard,” 1986, because while I could deal with the concept of a four-foot-tall mad inventor MacGuyver type, when he pulled out the ancient Incan emerald and it was not only faceted but cut in the brilliant cut that wasn’t invented for diamonds until about the 19th century?  And it was the size of a baseball but flawless which is likewise impossible for an emerald?  The suspenders of disbelief were snapped.

Yes, I know, we’re supposed to look the other way and not raise our eyebrows.  No one seriously believed that Yul Brenner was Thai either, no matter how much tape he put on his eyelids.  And Al Jolson was not really black.

That all said, there’s a big step between “Imagine if you will” theatricality and simply getting stuff wrong, and in a big way too. Continue Reading »

Got Questions: Chapter Length

February 10th, 2007

Over in Questions?, Lizza writes:

The hardest part i’d have to say though, was getting my chapters to be more lengthy. They were short and to the point. I wanted to be able to keep the reader hanging with suspense until the final word of the chapter. This is still something that I seem to have trouble with.
How long must your chapter be? How long do publishers recommend them being?

How long must a chapter be?

Long enough to do what it needs to do.

What does it need to do?

That depends.
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The Text and its Story

February 3rd, 2007

The people who do literary theory and criticism like to use the word “text” a lot, but I suspect I am going to be using it here in a way they might not approve. The text as I conceive it is the arrangement of words that tell a story, but it is not itself the story. The story itself exists prior to the text, in the mind of the author, and beyond it, in the minds of the readers. The act of writing a story is the attempt to recreate the story in the author’s mind in the medium of written words – a text. The act of reading the text is the recreation of the story in the reader’s mind.

Of course words are not the only medium in which a story can be told, and some people call those other forms of telling “texts” as well. It is possible to tell the same story in different ways – not only in different words, but in different media, yet it remains, in some fundamental way, the same story. “Cinderella,” for example, has been retold thousands of times, with and without using words: spoken, written, sung, danced, mimed, drawn. Yet through all these alterations, it remains at its heart the same story. The thing that we recognize behind the difference in media is the story itself.

In an art studio, we can often find a dozen different artists drawing the same model. The resulting portraits are usually quite different from one another. The artist is not, as a rule, attempting a perfectly exact replication of the model’s form and features. It is rather that in the mind of each artist there is an image of the model that he is attempting to capture and reproduce in lines or brush-strokes on paper; this mental image is the analogue of the story, and the lines of the pencil are the artist’s words.

By the story, then, I mean the “thing told”; by the text, I mean the particular telling of it. And that the story itself, in our minds, exists in our minds apart from and independent of any of its tellings.

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