Saturday, 28 July 2012

Hands Off the Semi-Colon and Nobody Gets Hurt

Whenever my birthday rolls around, my dad usually sends me a book or a CD, via Amazon's UK site. Sometimes he'll ask me what I want, but other times he'll surprise me, based on other books we've both enjoyed. One year he got me a translation of the Vinland Sagas, talking about the Viking expeditions to the New World, based on the fact that these sagas were part of the heritage JRR Tolkien drew on in creating Middle-Earth.

So this year he sent over a collection of MR James' ghost stories, probably because we both spent a lot of time reading HP Lovecraft back when I was in high school. That, and he also wanted me to read a particular story, The Mezzotint, which is regarded as one of James' best.

The book was pretty enjoyable in terms of providing chills, and it kind of made me want to become an antiquary (which is what nearly all of James' main characters are). James also used some interesting narrative devices to draw readers into his stories, which was fun to read. Another thing I appreciated was how The Mezzotint inspired an episode of the new Twilight Zone that scared the crap out of me in middle school - James' story centers on a picture that changes whenever the main characters look at it, depicting a ghostly incursion, and the Twilight Zone episode had something similar.

Interestingly, MR James' stories are still pretty easy to find - since reading the book from my dad, I've seen a few other collections in various bookstores, or different versions of the collection I have. But the one that really caught my eye was one that "updates" James' prose. Specifically, the preface to this new edition says something about changing the punctuation to make it easier for modern readers to follow.

I find this kind of thing objectionable, on several levels. For one thing, MR James' prose, as it stands, is not so impenetrable as to require deciphering. We're talking about fiction that was written around one hundred years ago - unlike Shakespeare or Chaucer, his English is the same as ours, and doesn't require a glossary at the back to explain unfamiliar words.

Can you imagine if someone tried to clean up James Joyce's Ulysses for modern readers, or (for a slightly more widely read example) Jane Austen? Book nerds and literature professors would storm the publishing houses with torches and pitchforks.

The other reason is that not everything needs to be easy and disposable. I'll admit that once or twice while reading James' stories, I had to go back and read more closely, because if my mind wandered I might get lost in the sub-clauses. But while this new edition's publishers might say that's why they're doing it, I'll argue that it just proves the importance of reading James' work closely.

Even though most people would scoff at the idea, you actually can sit down with a book for a few hours and really concentrate on what you're reading; some books even reward that kind of reading, by revealing all kinds of interesting subtext. And even if there's no subtext, really paying attention to the words on the page helps you visualize what's happening in the story. James' prose can be subtle, and you need to be visualizing the action to get a proper sense of how scary his stories are.

And more to the point, the way an author uses punctuation is part of their style, dammit. Finnegan's Wake might be full of run-on sentences and craziness, but that's not because James Joyce's copyeditor phoned it in that day; rejigging MR James' prose for modern readers is like remastering the Beatles... sure, someone went and did it, but most fans would rather listen to the original recordings.

I could go on, but then I'd have to change the name of this blog to the Crotchety-Old-Bastard-Lab. I think my point has been made - leave the commas where they are, step away from the semi-colon, and we can all go home to our families tonight. Nobody needs to die, right?

Saturday, 21 July 2012


The latest draft of the novel is done!

Of course, work on it continues - I've got to go back and make sure the first few chapters hang together tonally and thematically with the later ones, flesh out the characters and locales, etc. To say nothing of eventually trying to get the damn thing published.

But for now, I'm content to listen to YouTube videos featuring upbeat soul and funk songs from the 60s and 70s to show how pleased I am with myself.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Comfort Food for the Eyes

My social life is active enough that I am able to make excellent use of my LoveFilm subscription (for those in the US, LoveFilm is the UK's answer to Netflix). I get four discs sent to me each month, and I'm generally able to watch all four with time to spare.

Because the queue system is a little bit screwy, I never know exactly what they'll be sending me next - there's a priority system, which LoveFilm's system tends to completely ignore in favor of sending me things from the depths of my list. This isn't generally a problem, as I do actually want to see everything on my queue, but it gets a little annoying to be two or three discs into one show only to have the system spit out disc one of another show.

So whenever I get to the end of a season of something, I go in and start rearranging things, so I can make sure I get the next show without any interruptions. I have a lot of SF/geeky stuff in my list (there may be a correlation between this and the state of my social life, but I don't want to infer causality either way), but I like to break it up a little bit with other types of shows. For instance, I couldn't really go through all seven seasons of Voyager in one gulp - I'd have to break that up with a season of The Shield or something. But then, too many seasons in a row of the Shield would be a little much for me as well.

So I was pretty excited to be getting Season 2 of Voyager, after two seasons in a row of the Shield. There's just something reassuring for me about watching some science fiction from time to time, like eating comfort food; and in this case, not only have I had two seasons of the Shield, but with house moves and other things taking precedence, I feel like I haven't actually seen any SF this year.

Naturally, this got me thinking about why certain genres should be like comfort food for us, even if we don't particularly enjoy every example of that genre. I've sat through duff seasons of the X-Files, Babylon 5, Enterprise... and yet, bad as it all is, it still scratches some itch.

I've long been interested in the idea that genres have specific conventions, and the success of a work in a particular genre is judged on the basis of how well it hews to these conventions, and by how well it subverts the more cliched elements. In fantasy, for example, many authors are fond of talking about how many tropes they've subverted (no farm-boys who find swords of power, please!), but if you go too far out of the boundaries set by Tolkien, then it either ceases to be fantasy, or it doesn't get published (cf the sequel to Hal Duncan's Vellum and Ink).

So we go to fantasy - or detective novels, or romcoms - with certain expectations about what will be in the story. We've probably seen or read loads of other works in that genre, so we know the basic story these works all tell; what we want is to hear the story told again, but just differently enough that it surprises us. In my experience, having read The Lord of the Rings, I want to find other stories that stir the same kinds of emotions in me; the stories that do that (eg Game of Thrones) stir other emotions, and so I go looking for stories that provoke that new reaction too.

And the logical extension of this is that I then start writing stories myself that will give rise to these reactions too.

There are two extremes to which this genre expectation can go. As I've said, in the fantasy genre there's kind of this expectation now that you subvert tropes, to the point where subverting tropes becomes a trope in itself. It's also become fashionable to set stories in secondary worlds based on cultures other than the traditional European (or more accurately English) medieval setting; Guy Gavriel Kay mentioned this in an interview, which I thought was spot-on.

Superhero comics present an example of the other extreme, where the story has become so formalized that it might as well be kabuki, or more appropriately porn - each beat has to be hit perfectly, and it needs to end with a money shot, which in comics is a big splash page of somebody being punched in the face (or, if you want a double-entendre, "Pow, right in the kisser!").

The first extreme is actually the harder to avoid, because it gets to be a matter of craft and artistic vision - Tolkien presented us with a world that, while built from Scandinavian and Germanic epic poetry, was uniquely his. Many who have come after him have attempted to tell the same story, without regard to what they were bringing to it; it's what they call the second artist effect, where one artist paints a landscape because she sees something unique, and the second artist paints the same landscape because people liked the first one, or she wanted to recreate the feelings that the first landscape gave her.

This is all a bit far from my original thesis, perhaps, but I think the idea of comfort viewing is bound up with this second artist effect. We are all constantly trying to recapture an initial, powerful reaction, and sometimes it leads us down odd roads.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Euro 2012: That's that

It's been about a week since the Euro 2012 final, and I think I'm ready to write about it now. Five stages of grief and all that. Also, I was actually in Italy for the match, with no access to the internet, so the write-up had to wait until now.

I've been banging on all tournament about upsets and surprises, but this match turned out to be both a surprising one and business-as-usual, all at the same time. Business as usual because Spain beat Italy, but surprising in that Spain actually scored more than one goal on the way to doing that. Slightly embarrassingly, the only other team to concede 4 goals playing against Spain was Ireland; at the time everyone just assumed that was because Ireland was so crap and that proper teams could never concede that many against a team that doesn't play strikers.

Guess Spain showed us, huh?

It was a very odd game, though. After beating Germany pretty convincingly, Italy looked a bit slow against Spain, a bit panicky, and not quite the dominant force they presented against England. The Italian announcers insisted the team was exhausted, which may or may not have been true, but struck me as a little odd, given that Germany had 48 hours to prepare for the semi-final and still rolled over.

Probably a better explanation was that Italy got it badly wrong, and Spain managed to take advantage of it. Evidence for this was Italy's injury problems during the match. Cesare Prandelli had to use up one substitution in the first half to take off an injured Giorgio Chiellini, and then his bid to replace Riccardo Montolivo with Thiago Motta went badly wrong when Motta went off injured and left Italy with ten men for the rest of the match.

For the example of Chiellini, he wasn't at his best for the start of the game (the first goal may have been caused by his mistake, in fact), and after he went off Italy did look a lot more positive. The case of Motta is a little more worrying, however, because it came about because of some probably useless tinkering on Prandelli's part. Montolivo had been playing well before being taken off, and it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that Italy could have scored with him on the field; instead Prandelli opted not only for a more defensive formation with Motta, but also for a slower group of midfielders. With that in mind, it's not surprising that Spain's "four Pirlos" could run rings around Italy's lone Pirlo, Andrea.

This was the second instance of Prandelli squandering his substitutions, (the first was the game against England). Admittedly, Italy got away with that one, but it points to a slightly worrying tendency on his part to tinker - somewhat like Claudio Ranieri, who earned the nickname of "the Tinkerman" during his time at Chelsea.

It's impossible to tell what would have happened if Montolivo had stayed on, but I'd like to think it wouldn't have been a 4-0 drubbing.

That said, I think it's worth noting that despite the scoreline Italy had an impressive game, keeping a lot more of the possession than other teams have managed. And at the same time, they kept a positive outlook throughout (mostly), in contrast with the Italy-Spain game that graced Euro 2008.

So there goes another tournament. The next thing we have to look forward to is the World Cup in Brazil, two years from now (although rest assured I'll be blogging the Confederations Cup next summer). Everybody will be looking for Spain to continue its onslaught on the trophy cabinet (and the stats pages, by being the first European team to win in South America); at the same time, this will be Brazil's big chance to finally win the tournament on home soil, an achievement that's eluded it so far.

A lot can happen in two years, though at the moment those two sides look like the only ones with a possibility of winning. But in that case, Prandelli said it best before the match against the Germans: "Then I might as well just go home." While the World Cup is never quite as open as the European Championships, with luck all of the big teams will arrive in Brazil in two years at full strength and ready to challenge for the title.

It could happen, right?