Wednesday, September 27, 2017

General Life Update Crap

Okay. It’s not actually all that late, but I’ve been sick all week, so it feels like the middle of the night, and I am exhausted, and in pain, and I’m trying so hard to keep up this two blogs a week thing, but I just can’t think of anything to say.

That’s not true. I actually have blogs planned through the end of the year. The titles and corresponding dates are all written in my notebook in purple pen, and I check one off when I write it, then again when I post it, and one more time when I actually remember to link it on my other social media. But I can’t make any of those scheduled words come out right now. They’re all up there in my head, but they refuse to come out through my fingers.

I guess it’s just one of those days. Sometimes life gets hard, you know?

My house is currently being invaded by fruit flies. This is odd primarily because the house contains no fruit. Honestly, it’s a miracle I don’t have scurvy. And I’m doing all the usual things you do to get rid of fruit flies, and it’s working, kind of. I’m catching dozens, but there are always, always more.

The good news is that I’m really improving my hand-eye coordination, catching them in the air. Also, my kill count is reaching, like, mythic levels. I haven’t beaten the brave little tailor yet, but I’m getting close. Four in one blow!

My birthday was yesterday. Nothing too spectacular, but I liked it. Twenty four. We have a monthly birthday lunch at work, and it happened to fall actually on my birthday, which was cool. Then I went to therapy, and then my family came over for a couple hours.

Yeah, like I said, I don’t have much to say. Life in the attic continues to be quiet and peaceful and fairy-tale-esque, the ongoing fruit fly battle aside. I’m a little melancholy, but I think that’s normal, and last weekend I got to make two Barbie skirt cakes!

(I happened to have the top half of a Ken lying around, and, well, what else was I gonna do with him?)

Anyway, back to the usual Wednesday stuff next week—I’ve got publishing rants, religion rants, all the usuals lined up. Sundays, of course, are reserved for fairy tales, and this coming Sunday is the launch of Lindworm! The first chapter will be posted here in a few days, and if you like it and want to keep reading, just head over to Patreon and sign up to support me for as little as $1 per month!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Lindworm: The Allegory

I don’t remember the first time I read Prince Lindworm, but I do remember the first time I understood it. It was the spring semester of my freshman year of college, and I was sitting in the left front corner of my British Literature class. As usual, I had two notebooks open—one for class notes, and one for anything actually interesting that I thought of while paying slightly less attention to class than I should have been.

On this particular day, I was neglecting Byron in favor of speculating on why, when the Lindworm’s spell was broken, we just forgot about the dead girls and everything was hunky dory. Then I thought about his mom eating the flowers, and suddenly, the whole ridiculous thing made sense. It’s a Christian allegory. 

You start out with a woman eating something she was specifically told not to eat. Hello, Eve. Nice to see you—it’s been a while.

Because of the mother’s dietary choices, the child is born cursed. Fall of man.

Then along comes our girl, and she’s willing to give her life for the sake of her kingdom, because she rocks. And because of her sacrifice (see: Crucifixion), our fallen man is redeemed, i.e. returned to humanity.  And when this happens, when he is purified by her sacrifice, all of his sins are forgiven. He is embraced by the father and immediately welcomed home.

The basic structure of this story is drawn directly from the basic structure of the Bible.

And of course, it’s not that simple. There’s more, much more, because this story is just a little crazy. There are definitely Prodigal Son elements in the versions where the queen gives birth to a prince as well as a monster, but I’ll let you think about that on your own time, because I’m much more interested in the spell-breaking, and I’m on a tight schedule—this needs to be ready to post in just a couple hours, and I still need to track down some old research.

What I consider the really big revelation here happened a few weeks after that day in British Literature, though it was also related to the class. I was writing an in-depth analysis of Tennyson’s “The Journey of the Magi.” The Catholic sacrament of penance ended up being a major theme. And that got me thinking more about the specifics of the transformation, which had previously struck me as baffling, creepy, and just this side of suggestive.

(And look, I can make it sound all nice and symbolic here, but when you get to actually writing the scene, I just can’t get all the suggestiveness out. Fair warning. It’s in chapter two.)

So let’s review the transformation. Step one: some seriously excessive molting. (Snakes molt, right? Or is it shed?) Step two: whips soaked in lye. Step three: dunk in a tub of milk. Step four: the embrace. However you wanna interpret that.

Okay. Step one. We cast off the old self, the sins, whatever. It’s really hard and it kind of hurts. Step two is, like, well. The lye is purifying, right? That’s soap? The whips are a little…we can call that penance or something, okay? I promised Biblical connections, but not necessarily theological soundness.  Think like hair shirts and whatever. He’s paying for his sins and being made clean.

Not sure why it’s milk, exactly, but step three is obviously baptism. We’re gonna call step four acceptance into the body of Christ, and ignore any sexual undertones we might be picking up.

And then the fallen son is welcomed home with opens arms, easily and fully forgiven, and everyone lives happily ever after.

This leaves us with only two mysteries in this previously completely incomprehensible story. I already told you I’m not sure about the milk, although the google search “milk symbolism”—

Wait. I take that back. It may now be twenty-six minutes after this post was initially intended to go out, but I have an answer to the milk question. Apparently, in Corinthians and Hebrews, it’s symbolic of, like, basic doctrine. So you’ve got baptism and Bible 101. Milk actually has a lot of symbolism attached to it, including purity and, apparently, Nazism, although I vote we discard that one as irrelevant to our current line of inquiry.  Let’s call the milk problem solved.

Our last mystery: the flowers. We’ve got the scene in general down as representing the fall of man, but let’s get into the specifics. Eat this one if you want a girl, that one if you want a boy. So the mom eats the girl flower, and then she eats the boy flower. She winds up with a boy lindworm, and in some versions also a boy human.

Note the lack of girl here, despite the initial intake of the girl flower. I’m completely down with the lindworm as punishment for disobedient flower-consumption, but why is it a boy? Just further punishment? Logically, if she’s going to have two kids, the first born should be a human daughter, in line with the first flower, and the second should be a male lindworm due to the forbidden flower. If there’s only one kid, why is it a boy? Did the entire request for a girl get nullified by the second flower?

Why isn't the lindworm a girl? If the lindworm is a boy, why doesn’t he have a sister? Specifically, an older sister? I don’t have an answer. It’s been years and years of intermittent research, and I don’t have an answer.

SPECIAL BONUS PROMOTIONAL TACTIC THAT I JUST THOUGHT OF NOW AND MIGHT VERY WELL COME TO REGRET BUT I’M TOO EXCITED ABOUT THE POTENTIAL OUTCOME TO CARE: Comment with a good answer to the lindworm gender question and I’ll send you a free, hand-bound copy of my chapbook thin. No limits on how many people can win; you give me an answer I like, I give you a book. Limit one per player, although I’d love to hear as many theories as you can come up with.

 (P.S. Remember to sign up to read Lindworm on Patreon for $1/month, starting on October 1st!) 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Relevance vs. Authenticity

I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of different churches over the years. You’ve all heard about my adventures with the church in European tourism. But today we’re going to talk about the mess that is millennials in the American church. This might be a problem in other countries as well, but I don’t have the data for that, so we’re going to focus on what I see right here.

My grandpa has a habit of collecting books about Christian issues. I have a habit of reading everything in sight. So what a lot of my grandpa’s books tell me is that the church is dying. It’s dying because young people don’t go to church. It’s not even that they don’t believe. It’s just that they don’t go.

Well, I’m young, and I’m here to tell you why. It’s simple, really. It’s because you’re trying too hard. Worship is all smoke and mirrors and pop songs. Like, seriously, sometimes I listen to the radio for ten or twenty minutes before I even realize I’m on a Christian station, because it all sounds like generic love songs. All the old traditions are out. For crying out loud, there’s a modern American slang translation of the Bible.  I have had to read, with my own two eyes, things like, “And then Jesus was like, hey, man, that’s not cool,” and some translator out there probably thinks he did me a favor.

My grandpa’s books also told me that if someone who doesn’t go to church is going to, they’ll go for an old, fancy, traditional one.

And you’re out here trying so hard to be relevant, to appeal to the young adult demographic by being cool and modern and whateverwe don’t want it. It isn't real. It comes off exactly like the marketing technique it is, and I don’t go to church because they’re selling something.

I have never once felt the presence of God in a church designed to appeal to my generation. That’s not to say He isn't there, because He is, but you sure have buried Him under a whole lot of crap.

Kids don’t want relevance. Kids want authenticity.

If your primary focus is drawing in a younger audience, that means your primary focus isn't God. And that’s why you fail.

Don’t give me upbeat pop songs and sermons full of fandom references. Give me faith. Give me hope. Give me love.

Give me something real, and maybe I’ll give you my attendance.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Lindworm: Cite Your Sources

I first read Prince Lindworm in a collection of Scandinavian fairy tales illustrated by Kay Nielsen, who, by the way, is awesome. The problem here is that it was a later edition of the book. At some point, I don’t remember why, I got super into finding out the history of Prince Lindworm. See, it was in this book, which was supposed to be stories from Asbjornsen and Moe. Those are the big Norwegian fairy tale dudes, for those of you who don’t know.

But I’m a little obsessive about my fairy tales. You may have noticed. And this book wasn’t even mine. It belonged to my grandparents. So of course I had my own Asbjornsen and Moe anthology. Or two. Maybe three. And I kind of kept buying these books because I wanted my own copy of this one wacky story. But it wasn’t there. So I googled the complete works of Asbjornsen and Moe. It wasn’t there.

I took advantage of my university’s interlibrary loan system to request every single book in the country that mentioned lindworms. Or lindorms. Or lindwyrms, or a variety of other spellings.

Have I mentioned that I’m a little obsessive about my fairy tales?

Several other books and authors and random people on the internet attributed the story to Asbjornsen and Moe. Who definitely didn’t record it. The reason for this, as far as I can tell? This book my grandparents had, really nice hardcover, fancy publisher, gorgeous illustrations—it was kind of a big deal. All sorts of people had read the story in this book, and only this book, and assumed the information provided was reliable.

And here’s where the publishers went wrong. There’s an editor’s note in the front. It explains that all but two of the stories in the volume are from one particular translation of the works of Asbjorsen and Moe. What they apparently neglected to mention is that one of those two stories was not only from a different translator, but a different source entirely.

So Prince Lindworm didn’t come from Norway. That’s settled. And, okay, I don’t know what to tell you about the one random outlier in my interlibrary loan adventure that said the story was from Sweden, but I’ve got this worked out.

Really, it could have been worse. When I wanted to read the earliest recorded version of Beauty and the Beast, and I couldn’t track down a translation anywhere, I spent months tearing the internet apart before I found a copy that was clearly printed well over one hundred years ago, given the spelling and lettering, in French, scanned in and saved as a pdf. I still have that saved on my computer somewhere. Given that I don’t know any French, dictionaries only provided modern spellings, and any given character could easily have been three to six different letters in that typeface, the several months I spend attempting to translate didn’t really get me anywhere. I don’t think I even translated the first paragraph successfully.

I did a little better with Prince Lindworm. It still took me a couple months to find the text, and it was still a crappy pdf with outdated spelling. Plus it was in Danish. But the lettering was slightly more modern, and I happen to be much better at slogging my way through Danish than French. A little bit of Norwegian, a little bit of Anglo-Saxon, a tiny bit of German. It’ll get you places. Sadly, my extensive background in Latin was utterly useless to French. (And Spanish. It seems my teachers lied to me. I strongly suspect Romani and Portuguese would also be a bust, but at least I can stumble blindly through basic Italian.)

It was, when I found it, three or four pages of a quite large collection. I haven’t gotten into the rest of it yet—soon, hopefully. Gamle dansk Minder i folkemunde, it’s called.  I’m good at general ideas in Germanic languages, not so much actual translations, so bear with me here, but I’m going to tentatively call this “Old Danish Memories from the Mouths of the People.” Sounds better it Danish, right? This is why I keep my translations to myself.

The compiler of this book is listed as Svend Grundtvig, and he’s generally known for collecting Danish folk songs, but as far as I can tell, in my admittedly spotty Danish comprehension, there’s no music for this one.

And, okay, I know I talk a lot about how stories, especially folk stories, don’t belong to anyone, because they’re so mutable, because a story is really a community, a conversation. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to know where the conversation started.

For crying out loud, people, cite your sources! I dedicated months of my life to this. Do you have any idea how many utterly worthless books I had to read in search of some tiny hint of origins? How many incorrect attributions I had to read? How much respect I lost for researchers in this field in general?

Look, sometimes tracking down crap pdfs of source material can be fun, okay? I love pulling random linguistic data from obscure folklore and stuff like that. But really. Really. How hard can it possibly be to say, “hey, this historically and culturally significant story that I’m making a profit on because it’s been in the public domain for a hundred years originally came from Denmark”?

There is no excuse not to give fairy tales the correct attribution. Like, anthology and picture book based fairy tales have got to be the easiest writing to make a profit on.  The story has been marinating in your brain forever, right? Do you even remember a time before you knew Cinderella? Just tell it in your own words, and someone else will come along and slap some beautiful illustrations on, and you’re good to go. It costs five minutes and zero dollars to add in a little note saying, “This adaptation was inspired by the French version of the story as recorded by Charles Perrault.”

But no, that’s too much work for you. Instead you’ll just go and publish a wildly popular book that heavily implies incorrect information, and let it spin wildly out of control until poor innocent college kids are staying up all night on the internet reading languages they don’t understand and enlisting the help of just about every library in the continental United States.


Anyway, Grundtvig is a really awesome dude who absolutely knows how to cite his stories. Kong Lindorm was told in 1854 by Maren Mathisdatter, age 67, in Fureby. It was recorded by Adjunct A. Levisen.

See? Was that so hard?

Remember to come and read my version on Patreon next month.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Trouble with Christian Fiction II: Compromise

Come on, you didn’t think I was going to leave it at that, did you? God and books are two of the most important things in my life. There is so much more to say.

Let’s think about how we look at other people, and how that makes them look at us. Fair warning: this is going to be a common theme in any post tagged “church stuff.” I’m not here for this crap about how we’re better than everyone else because we know God. We all suck, guys. That’s kind of the point.

Sometimes, sometimes in a story by, for, and about Christians, there will be a character who is both non-Christian and non-Awful. It’s pretty rare.

A lot of the time, the non-Christian is a bad guy of ridiculous proportions. Think Sauron. Think Voldemort. Except they’re just chilling in the middle of some perfectly ordinary contemporary realism. To fully illustrate this point, we’re going to expand our definition of Christian fiction to include other forms of media, not just literature.  Specifically, we’re going to talk about the movie God’s Not Dead. (Fair Warning #2: I have Strong Feelings about this movie, and it will come up again.)

I watched it with my family, because it’s the kind of thing that people like my family watch, without any high expectations, because it’s the kind of thing that people like me hate. But guys, it surpassed all of my expectations, because it wasn’t just mediocre acting, writing, and production like I expected. Among other things, it featured the Atheist Bad Guy.

ABG is a big problem. It’s the problem that this whole post is about. In the movie, it’s an evil professor who demands that all of his students renounce God. Now, this is a story that’s been circulating in my community for years and years, long before it was a crappy movie, so maybe it’s based on true events or something. I don’t know. I don’t care enough to research it. What I do know is that the movie’s interpretation of the story is ridiculous. We’ve got our evil professor, our Voldemort, our ABG, who spends a movie totally neglecting to actually teach his students anything in favor of getting into a pissing contest with a teenage boy. Dude. It’s a freshman course. Probably Gen. Ed. The dude is not going to be nearly this invested in things, and he’s going to be smart enough to know his students aren’t, either.

 In my experience, professors don’t expect you to rearrange your personal life and belief systems in order to be allowed in class (hello, it costs something like $70/class session, you are certainly not getting my entire worldview in addition to that cold hard cash). They also don’t cast aside their lesson plans in favor of fighting with students. They don’t mock their students for coming to conclusions they disagree with.

Side note: if your professors do this, they suck and should probably be fired.

The ABG occurs in a lot of Christian fiction. It’s a random dude whose life goal is, for some reason, to strip you of your beliefs, moral code, place of worship, whatever. The ABG is cartoonishly evil, performed with complete sincerity.

If you’re producing and consuming media in which the only non-Christian characters are absurdly villainous and out to get you solely because you love God, what does that tell real-life non-Christians about how you see them?

Let’s jump to the end of book. The Atheist Bad Guy—any non-Christian character, really—faces one of two outcomes. Death or conversion. Now let’s talk about what that says about how you see non-Christians.

Ideally, your ABG sees the error of his ways and is introduced, by your patient kindness in the face of persecution, to the Truth. Guys, this isn't ancient Rome, okay? If you’re going to set your stories in the contemporary US, try to maintain an element of realism—the vast majority of people are not out to get you. We could stand to be a little more prosecuted; it might be a sign that we were standing up for what actually mattered, instead of getting caught up in dumb political crap.

Anyway, back to the ABG, who probably isn't persecuting you in real life. He sees the light. He finds God. Whatever. You’re not stupid. You know the drill.

The other option is that he dies renouncing God.

(There’s a third option where he accepts the Lord on his deathbed, but I am not about to get dragged into a rant about the sickening laziness of that writing.)

Understand that what you’re saying, when you buy into this narrative, is that people who don’t convert on your timetable don’t deserve to be alive. Understand that what you’re saying when you buy into this narrative is that every human who does not find God is utterly worthless.

No. God loves all of us. And if you’re actively driving people away from Him by perpetuating the idea that he doesn’t, whether you do that by crashing funerals or waving hateful signs or writing books about the ABG, you are disgusting. Sorry; I’ve been sitting on a lot of righteous anger for a long time, here, and I’m done pulling punches. You sicken me.

Let’s try a more realistic, and incidentally more accessible, alternative. Someone isn't a Christian. Hey, maybe someone hates you and thinks you’re stupid because you are. Maybe the professor makes that challenge, and gives you some class time to build a defense. You present your argument, and he says no, not good enough, you didn’t consider this aspect. But maybe he also says, hey, that’s cool, I didn’t consider that aspect. No one stops believing what they believe, but your professor ends the story more open-minded than he started it. You’ve earned his respect by fighting for what you believe in, and he’s earned yours by listening to your arguments instead of attacking you.

The bad guy isn't bad. A lot of bad guys are, I know. But you’re not writing about Hitler, you’re writing about some random atheist, and you’re writing him like Hitler. He isn't bad, he just doesn’t agree with you. He doesn’t see things the way you do. Maybe he will someday. Maybe he won’t.  But either way, you can make him an interesting, dynamic, three-dimensional character who adds something to your story other than unrealistic levels of tension.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Lindworm: The Story

Today I’m going to tell you about my favorite story. The story that built this blog. The Danish title is Kong Lindorm. The English is King Lindworm, but it’s often translated Prince Lindworm instead, and that’s how I met it, in a collection on my grandparents’ shelf.

It goes like this:

A queen can’t have children. The literal translation of this is that “nothing was written on their wedding sheets,” which I think is stunningly beautiful, and I want everyone who says that fairy tales are just bare bones, lacking in character development or imagery, to read it.

The queen goes to a wise woman, who tells her about a fancy ritual where she puts a couple of upside-down-tea-cups by the north gate and two flowers come up overnight. Queen eats one if she wants a boy, the other if she wants a girl. She is not, under any circumstances, to eat both.

So she grows her flowers and translations vary, but usually she chooses the girl flower. Then it tastes so good, she just has to eat the other one too.

Sometimes the stupidity of fictional people just makes me want to bang my head against the wall repeatedly, you know?

I have in my possession what I believe is the earliest recorded version of this story (more on that later), and this is the point where it branches off from the one I grew up with. In the first version, the queen gives birth to a Lindworm, which is a Scandinavian dragon/snake monster, usually bipedal with small wings. In my first version, she does this, and then gives birth to a normal human son, as well. Since I started with the brother, I tend to prefer it—it adds to the story, but takes nothing away, so if you want a sense for the original, just quietly disregard a few sentences as I move forward here, assume the Lindworm is speaking to the king instead of the prince, whatever.

Prince grows up, wants to get married, sets out to find a bride. Lindworm, who slithered away immediately after birth and about whose existence their mother said nothing, appears in the road to say, “hey, actually I’m a few minutes older than you, so I’m supposed to get married first.”

A real interesting conversation ensues at the royal family dinner table that night.

They get a princess to marry the Lindworm. The Lindworm eats her right after the wedding. Prince goes bride-hunting again, Lindworm objects again, a second princess is provided. Same thing happens. Prince sets out a third time, Lindworm demands a bride a third time. Wising up, finally, the king recruits some random girl whose parents don’t have the means to go to war against him.

Third girl encounters a wise woman in the forest. Wise woman gives her some seriously wacky advice. Wedding happens, they retreat to the honeymoon suite, and the Lindworm tells our girl to take off her dress.

Only if you take off your skin, she says. He does. She does. She’s wearing a second dress. Same deal. Turns out she’s wearing one more layer than the Lindworm is, so that’s a disgusting mess. Then she whips him with whips soaked in lye. Then she dunks him in a big tub of milk. They she embraces him.

When they wake up the next morning, the Lindworm is a handsome prince. The kingdom rejoices. His bloody history is instantly forgotten. We all live happily ever after.

I was drawn to this story immediately, largely because it was completely ridiculous. For years I have burned with the desire to understand all this craziness. And I more or less do now, but more on that later. This is just the beginning.

Welcome to my new series. Welcome to my new promotional tactics. Welcome to my novel.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be talking about this story in much more detail. Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing a draft of my novel Lindworm.

Here’s how it works. I am in possession of an oft-neglected Patreon account. The first chapter will be posted here for everyone to read, on October 1. The rest of the book will be posted on Patreon, one chapter a week. This will be added to the lowest reward tier, so if you support me with just one dollar per month, you can read this story. It’s about fifteen chapters long, so that’s less than four dollars, guys, and you can totally stop supporting me once the story is done. Granted, it’s not exactly publication-ready. It’s not the final draft. But that makes it better, because you get to provide feedback. You get to help me make it better.

I’m really excited about this story, and I’m really excited about sharing it with you.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

I Temporarily Hate Classic Literature and This Is Why

Today during my lunch break I read How to Eat Fried Worms. Yesterday I read Sideways Stories from Wayside School and M.M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess. The day before, I read two books by Andrew Clemens.  I’ve been doing a lot of rereading lately. I’ve been reading some comic books.  Occasionally I’ll read a murder mystery. I haven’t read anything that could qualify as classic literature since about a year before I finished college. (Don’t tell the professors.)

It’s not that I dislike the classics. I just need a break. A long, long break.

My friends don’t get it, because my friends, like me, are all English majors. Look. When I was twelve, all I wanted to read was Shakespeare and Gulliver’s Travels and 1984. Then I went to school. What you have to understand, here, is that I went to a classical education, college-preparatory middle and high school. That’s seven years of education all about classic literature. I can recite Julius Caesar in my sleep, guys. And don’t even get me started on Cyrano de Bergerac. Do you want the Aeneid in Latin or English?

And then four years as an English major? I am litted out, man. I mean, come on, that’s eleven straight years of classics. That is Too Many Years of classics, even for the most classically minded of people—a category that used to include me, but now I’m the girl loading up on deliberately crappy YA romance while my friends dedicate summers to the study of Ulysses.

And I’m kind of mad, I think, that the combined efforts of a bunch of teachers ruined something I loved. It bugs me a lot that by my last year of school, I couldn’t put myself through the torture of finishing the assigned reading, when I used to consistently read the entire book on the first night, no matter what it was.

But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I think most of the blame goes to the classics themselves. One of the things that really bothered me senior year was all the bits and pieces of things we read. Like, if you don’t think a book is good enough to fit into your teaching schedule in its entirety, why are you wasting my time on it? No matter how good the book was originally you’re not going to get anywhere close to its true value just reading parts. It’s like turning off the volume, blocking off all but an inch of the TV screen, and trying to tell someone what the movie was about.

The problem is we’re not being asked to read a lot of these books, especially as we move forward in literary history, for the sake of the story, the characters, or a lot of the time, even the thematic elements. It’s all about the cultural significance. And if you’ve heard me go off about folklore at all, you know I’m all about the cultural significance. But if you think I’m going to devote hours upon hours to hundreds of pages of absolute crap, just because no one before James Joyce ever wrote crap in a certain style, you have got another thing coming.

Screw the classics. I’m not going to respect you for being innovative if you can’t also be good. No one can even read Finnigan’s Wake, guys. Why do we applaud something unreadable? If it wasn’t written by James Joyce, no one would think it was worth anything.

And how on earth do people decide what’s going to be a contemporary classic? Like, Jeffrey Eugenides. Did you read The Virgin Suicides? I did. Did you throw up after? I did.

There’s a certain category of books that are valued merely by virtue of being old, or unique, or even sad, as if something is worth historical preservation merely because it sucks. Are you ever, in your private life, reading for the sake of your own enjoyment, going to go out looking for a book where all the characters are immensely unlikeable?  Where everyone struggles and suffers and dies with nothing at the end to show for it? A book so dense it takes you an hour to get through a page? A book so stylistically unique that you finish it completely uncertain what actually happened, what was an extended metaphor, and what came up in your nightmares last night?

I think I’m pretty much done feeling guilty for preferring to surround myself with relatable characters and hopeful stories. Because I’m down with Homer, and Austen, and even Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Sure. Whatever. But I can’t read them anymore either, because I’ve been attacked from so many sides for so many years with the stilted, classroom versions of them, that suck all the life out, that look deeply for meaning and relevance and dismiss the beauty right on the surface. But the more contemporary a classic gets, the less likely it is to have any value outside of a classroom setting. Here are the themes, here all the styles, here are the cultural and historical backgrounds so you can comfortably dissect the work; why would you want to bother with character and plot and the big picture when everything comes together, when this is so convenient.

It’s about writing, not about storytelling, and I am always, always here for the story. Give me characters that mess up and try to fix things. Give me a terrible world where there’s still a chance to survive, to live, maybe even to turn things around.  Give me crappy dialogue and cheap paperbacks and spelling mistakes, give me characters who love and hate and can be loved and hated, settings that I can see in the background without straining my eyes, looking for the other level of meaning, give me something completely unbelievable as long as it can still be fun, I don’t care. Just give me a real story. Give me something I can feel. I’m so sick of my joy being turned into textbooks.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

In Defense of Evil Moms

Okay. It is time we had a serious conversation about maternal antagonists. There are two main things going on here, and the first one actually makes sense, so we’re going to get that out of the way, and then I can rant properly about the other thing.

The first thing concerns the position of women in the societies where most fairy tales take place. Honey, you had better be the fairest of them all, because that is the only card you have to play. Your son comes home with a pretty new wife? This isn't a new daughter to you; this is a threat. Your son is married, he’s a man now, he has more power in this household than you do. And so does his wife. You marry a guy who already has a daughter? Everything she has is something your kids won’t, because resources are pretty scarce, and being the oldest gives you power. It’s not pleasant, it’s not okay, but it’s a real part of a real world, and it deserves some measure of understanding. These women aren’t vain and evil. They’re scared and desperate. And that doesn’t make their choices forgivable, but it makes them real people, not gross caricatures.

The second thing it just stupid. And that makes it so much fun to talk about.

I remember watching a lot of Disney sequels as a kid, and feeling really uncomfortable about them, but it was several years before I understood why. In a story about, say, a sixteen year old mermaid who clashes with her father, it’s understood that, though not a bad guy, the father is an antagonist. For stories about kids, parents are there to get in the way. So when I watched The Little Mermaid II, suddenly Ariel was that parent who got in the way—Ariel was the antagonist. And it freaked me out, because that was Ariel. The same thing happened with The Lion King 2. Never make your child heroes parents; it undermines the entire storyline. I mean, it doesn’t have to, but making it work requires a certain level of nuance that just isn't going to fit in a one hour cartoon for little kids.

If the story is being told from the perspective of an unruly child, the parent is going to be perceived, to some extent, as the bad guy.

So let’s look, with that in mind, at some of our evil moms.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the prince’s mom in the Italian version of Snow White. To recap, he finds Snow’s body in the woods—and when I say body, I mean body, okay, we’ve got a literal corpse here—brings it home, plops it on his bed, and announces that this is his wife.

So our evil mom waits until he’s distracted, and prepares to dispose of the body. And the narrative treats it as if this is something condemnable, when in reality, if your son spent several days sleeping with a rotten corpse, you would probably take much more extreme measures, for his health and safety, than to bury it in the garden.

Or East of the Sun, West of the Moon. I’ve always been  utterly baffled by this one, because again, it plays it like she’s in the wrong, but what she’s doing seems totally reasonable. She finds out that her daughter is spending nights with a mystery man, and man is a generous description, okay? We don’t know. We can’t see him. It could be a troll. So she says hey, honey, how about I send you a flashlight, so you can figure out who or what you’re sleeping with.

The mom doesn’t know that this is violating the terms of some spell. The daughter doesn’t even know; she wasn’t explicitly told not to look at the guy. She probably doesn’t even know there’s a spell.

If your daughter is sleeping with a guy whose face she’s never seen, and you don’t offer a light source as the absolute least you can possibly do, I’m seriously skeptical about your parenting capabilities.

Not all the fairy tale moms are being vilified for attempting to protect their children, but even one is too many. Fairy tale heroes and heroines have never been known for their decision-making skills. Respect the moms. Respect them.