Sunday, 26 August 2012

Lost in the shuffle

I was in a bookstore today, looking through the travel writing section and fuming at the way the books were organized. I've read a few books recently about Germany and Switzerland, and I was looking for more in this vein, but the shelves were laid out alphabetically by author, rather than by region or country. The upshot is, I scanned the entire set of shelves and came up with absolutely nothing. Which is probably for the best, because I shouldn't be adding to my book collection (just the opposite), but it got me thinking about how people browse.

The way the publishing business is going, bookstores would probably prefer that you go straight to the name authors, buy a book (or several), and go. But one of the great advantages bookstores have traditionally had over Amazon is in the browsing - where you go with a vague idea of what you want, you look through the shelves, find it, but then hang on, this looks interesting - oh, and I'd better pick this one up, too...

I know that Amazon offers suggestions for similar books, but the two books I searched for online just now - Germania by Simon Winder and Swiss Watching by Diccon Bewes - only pulled up results with the exact same subject matter (and incidentally, books I already own). When I tried adding other criteria, namely travel writing and European history, I promptly found myself staring at a list of Fifty Shades of Grey books and copycats.

So Amazon's algorithm isn't quite flawless, and it's possible what I'm looking for doesn't exist. But this also proves how important it is for bookstores to shelve their stock intelligently - you'd be pretty disappointed if you ventured into the history section at your local Barnes & Noble or Waterstone's and found poorly written erotic fiction all over the place.

Of course, matters aren't helped by established authors suggesting that different genres should be shelved together. Their thinking is that by placing science fiction and fantasy on a different shelf (typically at the back of the store, well away from sunlight), you reinforce the stereotype that only pasty virgins read that stuff. The solution, therefore, is to just stock all fiction together, so that folks who don't normally read in that genre can be enticed over to the dark side. George RR Martin, I believe, is one proponent of this idea, wistfully recalling his youthful days of perusing spinner racks filled with paperback SF, fantasy, westerns, thrillers, etc.

With all respect to the man who's sold millions of books and been proclaimed the American Tolkien by Time's Lev Grossman, not so fast. Spinner racks aside (I like the idea of those), these supporters of breaking down the genre walls are perhaps forgetting that no matter how visible their own books get, they'll always get shunted off the shelves in favor of the latest claptrap from Ian McEwan or Jonathan Franzen. Think of all the places where you saw reviews or discussions of Freedom, when it came out; now think of all the places where you saw people talking about A Dance with Dragons. Much as we in the genre would like to think otherwise, SF/F isn't really taken all that seriously by Muggles (sorry, couldn't resist).

Personally, though? I don't see this as a problem. Science fiction and fantasy is just as prone to Sturgeon's Law as any other genre, but at least it typically doesn't get writers trying to show off what they learned in their fancy creative writing MFA course.

On a more practical level, the genre ghetto should stand simply to allow new entrants to find more of what they're looking for. If you want to get people to read more SF/F, you put Tad Williams next to Connie Willis, not Irvine Welsh; just like if you want people to read more stuff like Trainspotting, you put it among similar books by similar authors.

So let's keep the science fiction and fantasy clear of the horror books, and the mysteries, and the literary fiction. Not because it's less worthy, but because you don't want to get PD James mixed up with EL James...

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

I'm old enough to remember the previous series of Batman films, the ones that began so promisingly, helmed by Tim Burton, and ended so badly under the supervision of Joel Schumacher. With that disaster in mind, I was eager to see what Christopher Nolan would do with the character when he rebooted it for Batman Begins. When that turned out all right, if not stellar, I was eager to see how Heath Ledger would play the Joker for the follow-up, The Dark Knight. And that, perhaps, set my expectations a little high for the last of the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.

Let's be clear - it's still a better summer blockbuster than most, and it ties up the threads from the previous films in a pretty satisfactory manner. Yet as I watched it, I couldn't help thinking of a quote from the Dark Knight: You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

Again, this might be a little unfair, in part because the Dark Knight was impossible to properly follow up, what with Heath Ledger's death. But the Dark Knight Rises is ultimately an unsatisfying film.

Spoilers up ahead - proceed with caution

Part of the problem is that very little in it is surprising. From the start, you're fed the idea that it's all building to an ending of some kind. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears on screen, for example, you know he's going to end up replacing someone, whether it's Batman or Commissioner Gordon. And Morgan Freeman's comment about the Bat's faulty autopilot also raised some red flags.

The other side of this whole "unsurprising" business is that the trailers kind of ruined the big set piece, in which Gotham's football stadium blows up mid-game. This is something I've been noticing more recently - the other big offender this summer was Prometheus - and it's a little annoying. One of the things that made me sit up and gasp in the Dark Knight was the scene where Batman flips the Joker's big rig right in the middle of downtown Gotham. There were shots of this in the trailers for that film, but somehow it still worked; on the other hand, the stadium sequence appeared in its entirety in the trailers, so that when I saw the film, I was left with a feeling of, "That's it?"

I think the other thing this new movie was missing was a sense of expansiveness, for lack of a better word. The Dark Knight began with the Joker's bank robbery, which gave us establishing shots of an entire city. Somehow, the Dark Knight Rises manages to feel constricted, so that you don't get a sense of a wider world beyond the caves, and the alleys, and the tunnels. Some commenters have complained about the second film's pacing, but my feeling was that it added to the sense of chaos the Joker created, and the wider city made for a perfect canvas.

And probably the biggest thing going against the Dark Knight Rises is the villain. Part of this is unavoidable, given that Heath Ledger's Joker was always going to be a hard act to follow; but after that mesmerizing, unhinged performance, Bane just didn't seem very interesting. It didn't help that his big plan was to bring down Western civilization by nuking Gotham; this was one of the weaker aspects of Batman Begins, and I was disappointed to see it resurface here. But as a character, Tom Hardy's Bane ends up just being a big dude who walks around pretending to wear suspenders; if anyone should have been given the Joker's motivation of wanting to watch the world burn, it was Bane (I read the comics, and frankly I'm still in the dark as to the original character's motivation).

On the other hand, there were a few good points. For one thing, the performances were pretty good overall - special mention goes to Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. Not so much for what she does in the film - ooh, she's bad! Now she's feeling bad about selling out Batman! What next? - but the way she inhabits the character from the first moment you see her. The look on her face when Bruce Wayne notices she's taken his mother's necklace is priceless, and in other points I was struck by her poise; physically inhabiting a character is, of course, part of what makes a role so believable, and I think she pulled it off well.

Among the other supporting characters, Gary Oldman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were well-cast as Commissioner Gordon and rookie cop John Blake. Oldman's another actor who inhabits his roles so well that he disappears into them (I call it the Harrison Ford test), and he's been consistently good as Gordon throughout the trilogy. Gordon-Levitt also has this quality in this movie, and I kind of liked how his arc in this film mirrored Oldman's in the previous two (although I'm not sure about the GCPD's practice of battlefield promotions, to be honest). The only thing that bothered me was how easily Blake deduced that Bruce Wayne was Batman - if a simple beat cop could do it, why not Gordon, who's been around Wayne for years? (I'm aware there's a suggestion that Gordon does know, but it still bothered me).

I also liked the twist toward the end, where Marion Cotillard's character is revealed to be Ra's al-Ghul's daughter Talia. Part of this was fanboy-ism, because Talia's always been a big part of the Ra's al-Ghul stories in the comics, but it was also good to see something in the story that was more than met the eye (one of my big complaints with Inception). And from a continuing fanboy perspective, the image of Bane lifting Batman over his head and then breaking his back like a twig was well-done, just as it was in the comics.

So there you go: in terms of quality, The Dark Knight Rises is probably level on quality with Batman Begins. This makes it a flawed film, but an OK one, and certainly one I'd rather see again than Cosmopolis (yeah, that's directed at David Cronenberg's comments about superhero films).

Final score: 3/5

Friday, 17 August 2012

Avoid cliches like the plague

Cliches - everyone says to avoid them. So much so that it's kind of become a cliche itself. For example, I read an article on the web the other day talking about how to be an effective manager; one of its suggestions was to surround yourself with talented people, which the author admitted was something of a cliche, but noted that it's a cliche because it's true.

That got me thinking about why exactly cliches are bad, and the answer I've come to is that they let you turn off your brain while writing.

I think the best explanation for this is George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language. In this essay, Orwell sets out a number of rules for avoiding bad or lazy writing, the first of which is, "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print."

This is particularly important in fiction writing, and even more important in writing genre fiction, where the narrative can sometimes become so stylized that it's easy to resort to cliches to transmit your ideas. For instance, it's almost de rigueur  in fantasy for the protagonist to be a kitchen boy or a farm boy, or someone generally unassuming who is eventually revealed to be the heir to an ancient throne and the only one who can wield the magic sword.

These cliches are so deeply embedded in our thinking that even Tolkien felt the need to subvert certain of them in the Lord of the Rings - which is ironic, considering how many conventions of the fantasy genre he gave rise to. On the other hand, some authors make great efforts to avoid cliches, but even this avoidance can quickly become a cliche itself.

But to get back to the real meaning of Orwell's first rule, it's worth emphasizing that he's talking about cliches in prose, rather than narrative. Think of a sunset - specifically, think of all the descriptions of sunsets you've read in books and short stories over the years. It could be "dawn's rosy fingers" or a "fiery disc dipping below the horizon" or anything like that. But after the first time somebody wrote those down, every writer who used those was essentially writing in shorthand, rather than finding their own expressions.

Two authors that do a good job, in my opinion, of writing innovative prose, are Bill Bryson and Daniel Abraham. In his first travel book, The Lost Continent, Bryson describes driving down a country road and seeing a pickup in the distance being chased by a cloud of dust; it might not be F Scott Fitzgerald, but I remember reading it a couple of years ago and being struck by the vividness of the image.

I have a similar example for Daniel Abraham, from Darker Angels, which he wrote under the name MLN Hanover - one of the characters is described as sucking his drink through his teeth, which evoked the character's state of mind (ie, he was really pissed off and trying not to show it). Abraham could have said something like, "He drained his beer with an angry look on his face" but that lacks energy - and anybody could have come up with it.

So there are some of the benefits of keeping cliches in your prose to a minimum: a description that belongs to you shows up more vividly than one the readers seen millions of times before; or it can help you express more than what the words on the page mean on their own. And more importantly, it makes the language yours. And all you need to do is keep your own brain engaged - because that'll keep your readers interested too.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Hunger Games

It's probably a truism to say that books for children or young adults have become big business. Whatever you think of them, Harry Potter and Twilight have sold millions of copies, spawned successful movie franchises and, in the case of Twilight, spun off a whole subset of literature for teenagers. What's interesting is that these series seem to come out of nowhere, with big, rabid fanbases and a lot of the books already published (although this blindsiding probably shows how out-of-the-loop I am).

The Hunger Games is another one of these types of books - I first heard about it last year, presumably because they were gearing up for the release of the movie this year. And now that I've read it, it feels like I'm seeing all the grown-ups reading it on the Tube, much as they were all reading Harry Potter ten years ago (same as me, I should add).

So, curious, I managed to get my hands on the first book, and essentially devoured it in the course of a week. Part of the reason for that is the simplicity of the prose, but I feel that simplicity helps to obscure the themes Suzanne Collins is writing about; reality TV, violence in the media, all that good stuff. In his review at the Wertzone, Adam likens it to Battle Royale, and while I was certainly aware of the similarities as I was reading the Hunger Games, I think the two stories are working off different themes.

(FYI, this post will have some spoilers, so if you intend to read the book I'd suggest you stop reading here)

I tend to take at face value Suzanne Collins' statement that she got the idea for the story when channel surfing between Iraq War footage and a reality TV show. As a result, I don't see the Hunger Games as being about the teenage years being some kind of battlefield, which is the theme of Battle Royale. There's certainly some aspect of that, but the sources Collins draws on, such as the tributes to King Minos of Crete and Ancient Roman gladiatorial games, suggest to me that her real preoccupation here is the media, and how our demands for entertainment are becoming ever more extreme.

Overall I think it works, though sometimes it gets a little obvious, especially when she starts throwing about Roman names (Cinna, Cato, Claudius, etc) for characters from the Capitol or from richer districts.  One aspect I enjoyed about the book was the preoccupation with manipulating the Tributes' image to make them appeal to the masses; I was particularly interested with how the main character, Katniss, was expected to be sexualized beyond her age of sixteen years, including by playing up a romance with the Tribute from her own district, Peeta.

As far as characterization, Katniss is a good, strong character, portrayed from the start as someone who's adapted to her harsh surroundings and is determined to survive to return to her family. Suzanne Collins maintains this portrayal throughout, even when Katniss is thrust into the Hunger Games and is expected to slaughter her fellow Tributes to get home; she does it when she has to, but not in cold blood, and she maintains her moral core throughout.

Another interesting portrayal is that of Peeta, who's also selected to take part in the Games. Because the story is told in the first-person present tense, the only information we get on him is what Katniss sees, or what he himself tells her. He's the first one who suggests to Katniss that there might be some way to fight the Capitol, by keeping true to himself rather than by rebelling openly, and this influences the outcome of the story, when they are the last two Tributes remaining and are ordered to try and kill one another (told you there'd be spoilers).

If I have some objections, it's that sometimes things in the story are a little too simple or cut-and-dried. Katniss develops a bond with another girl, Rue, who reminds her of her younger sister. Rue proves herself to be clever and mostly able to take care of herself (apart from, y'know, getting killed at some point), and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop; that is, for Rue to turn out to be the most dangerous of the Tributes, or something like that. In fairness, it's not a bad thing that Collins subverts the reader's expectations by not turning Rue into a homicidal maniac, but it's also accurate to say that once the Games start, you know straight off who the good guys and the bad guys are. The one exception is Peeta, who seems to change sides a couple of times during the story.

The other thing that slightly bothered me was when the Gamemakers announced that if two Tributes from the same district could win; the minute I read that I knew that Katniss and Peeta would be the last two, and that when they were the final survivors the rules would be changed again to force them to try and kill one another. I suppose you could have kept the suspense longer if that initial rule change hadn't occurred, but I guess Collins had to find some way for Katniss and Peeta to be working together at the end.

Still, it was a fun book, and I enjoyed how Collins used the trappings of Ancient Greece and Rome to talk about what's happening in America now. I've got the two sequels waiting for me on my bookshelf, so I'll see how she develops her themes further.