Category Archives: Twilight

The Message on Manhood in Young Adult Novels – Or, What Should We Teach Boys?

Think he’s a good little boy? {PD}

“But as we debate ad nauseam whether, for example, Bella Swan is a dangerous role model for young women, we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to them? Are these barely-contained monsters really the best we can imagine?”

– YA Fiction and the End of Boys, by Sarah Mesle

When I read the above quote, I realized it was a huge question than I’ve never considered. To be upfront and honest here, I’ll admit I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of all books with male protagonists, or even know what the best-sellers in the YA genre are (other than the really major ones like Twilight and The Hunger Games). But I’ve always hated how Twilight teaches young girls that romance will be magical and perfect, and how The Hunger Games allows Katniss to string along two guys forever without ever caring how that makes the guys feel. I’ve always considered what the impact will be on girls, likely because I am a girl. But yes, what do books teach young boys?

Well, my first instinct is to say boys don’t read Twilight because they want to be like Edward. Will boys actually want to become a moody, sparkly boyfriend who tries to keep his girlfriend safe by disabling her truck and not allowing her to go anywhere, all as a result of reading Twilight? Maybe not, but that doesn’t erase the fact that there really is no message for boys about how they should be, just like the only message you can take from it for girls is a really bad one. And stereotypes aside, boys do read, and some even read Twilight. We worry so much about teaching girls to be strong, independent and intelligent, that sometimes we forget to wonder what we are teaching boys.

Part of the problem is, as Sarah Mesle says in the article I quoted above, that it’s difficult to figure out how our society actually thinks men should behave. We have lots of stereotypes, of course: the overgrown child who lives in his parents’ basement, the slacker who plays videogames all day…or the womanizer, the muscle-bound dimwit, the emotionless action-hero. The great thing about literature is that it can examine stereotypes such as these, and subvert them. But replace them with what? Good values for men appear to be not abusing any power advantage their might possess as a result of society structures, and probably not getting too absorbed with their masculinity. Because we are not sure, in contrast to many cultures before us, that masculinity is really a very good value.

So we skirt around the issue, neglect to think about it, and forget to talk about it. But maybe literature is a good place to explore the place of boys and men in our modern world. After all, “how can a boy become a good man, if he doesn’t know what that would mean?”

Like I said above, I am by no means an expert on the YA genre, but let’s take a quick look at a few I have read. I mentioned Twilight already, and I really hope both boys and girls aren’t taking lessons on how to behave from those characters. Masculinity appears to consist of being a tightly controlled monster who is tightly controlling of female characters. Another big hit was The Hunger Games, with two nicely contrasting male characters. In this book, I got the feeling that Suzanne Collins was actually attempting to include a message to boys – that’s it’s okay not to be the big, manly hunter, and that boys who like baking can be useful in tight situations too. For some readers, it seemed to work, considering Peeta is a pretty popular character. I got annoyed at how being a decent guy meant letting a girl walk all over you, but maybe Collins was attempting to show passivity as not being bad either. (I still can’t buy that). And last up is the Harry Potter series, whose popularity seems like eons ago now that all these other book series have cropped up – but hey, it was a major series, and it had a boy as the hero. Harry Potter does have something to say about a boy growing up, and takes an oddly old-fashioned approach to it. He learns to take on responsibility, self-sacrifice and concern for others, not too different from the 19th century heroes Sarah Mesle talks about. But then, the wizarding world is a bit of a throw-back itself. How this journey would play out in the bland world of Privet Drive isn’t really explored.

(All the same, would you count Harry Potter as a good role model for boys? Have you read any YA books lately with an interesting take on “manhood”?)

Sarah Mesle’s argument is, in the end, that the rise of feminism should not mean the end of conversation on what “manhood” is for boys. Because one of the points of feminism was to gain new perspectives on both genders. Now, I have a funny relationship with feminism in general, because I do not agree with everything feminists talk about, but I can agree with this. Both masculinity and femininity can be taken to an extreme, both can be abused. We shouldn’t be afraid of pointing out stereotypes, or criticizing what traditional views of males and females get wrong. But we can’t focus on one side of the conversation only, and instill what we decide are good values in our girls, without setting up some sort of target for the boys to shoot at. And this includes the way writers write for them.

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Filed under Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Misc. Books, Twilight

No Thanks, to the Guy Reciting Poetry Under My Balcony

Or, Romantic Reality vs. Fiction

What a Romantic!

The Gallant Officer, by F.Soulacroix. {{PD-US-not renewed}}

If some of the things that happen in romance novels happened to me in real life, I’d probably run the other way. It might make sense in the tightly structured, well-plotted world of the novel, but in the messy real world, not so much. After all, real life doesn’t have a plot, and it has far more dead ends and far less plot armour.

Take love at first sight. It never made sense to me that Romeo and Juliet could be madly in love after a few dances at a ball and a chat on a balcony – enough to run off and get married at the ripe old age of thirteen and twenty-ish, respectively. Here everyone is screaming at me that it’s fiction, and written by Shakespeare on top of that (and of course you have to be a literary genius yourself if you even dream of criticizing Shakespeare). But okay, I’ll go along with this story as long as I have a healthy suspension of disbelief. If, in real life, a guy proposed marriage the day after he met me, I’d freak out. (He doesn’t know anything about me yet! What crazy idea of me did he get into his head that convinced him I should be his partner for life?)

Then there’s the things the romantic hero does for the girl in these books. The worst example here is Twilight, of course. I’d never, ever, ever want a guy standing by my window watching me sleep, before I even had an inkling that he liked me. Yet somehow, because this is fiction, girls all over the world have called this ‘romantic.’ I disagree, but only by limiting such actions to a fictional world can anyone even make the argument that it is romantic. After all, in fiction the heroine can be reasonably sure the guy is actually ‘good,’ because up until that point he’s been hitting all the plot points that mark him out as the romantic hero. (In real life, you wouldn’t be waiting to see if he has a good heart or not, you’d been calling the police). Also, because she is the heroine, she can be reasonably sure he’s not going to murder her in her bed – that’s what I meant by ‘plot armour’ in the first paragraph. If it’s a tragedy, he could possibly murder her at the end, but considering this occurs halfway through the book, and the girl is our main character and point of view so far, it isn’t likely he’ll murder her now. So readers who enjoy this kind of thing can make the argument that in this particular fictional situation, these actions are ‘romantic.’

But my main point is this: some things that in books make me go awwwwwwww, would make me feel horribly uncomfortable and awkward in real life. And this is okay, as long as you recognize it – fiction is not real life, and awareness of the gap between the two is essential (otherwise you’ll be wishing to live in a dream world). And it’s good for authors to know this too. Some things that sound ridiculous if they were to happen to you today, may very well be the perfect addition to your story. Fiction, after all, is all about exaggeration.

In real life, I’d want a guy to do stuff that shows he thinks about me and cares about me, but not to go over the top. Not to do something crazy to prove to the whole world how WONDERFUL our relationship is, and how utterly devoted we are to each other. Fictional relationships are three-way relationships, with the couple mainly performing actions for the benefit of the reader. The characters have to exaggerate in fiction, to bang into the poor reader’s head that this is ‘true love.’ But in real life, I’d hope we wouldn’t have to put on a show for anyone. It’s enough that just me and the guy I like know.

Those are my thoughts on reality vs. fiction in romance – what’s yours?

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Filed under True Romance, Twilight

Breaking the 10 Simple Rules for Writing a Novel

Maybe check if you’ve got paper first…. (Writer John, by Onomatomedia. (Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0))

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. — W. Somerset Maugham

 Well, while surfing the net I stumbled across a lovely article advising people on how to write a novel in 2012 – you know, if that’s your New Year’s Resolution or something. And some of the advice is good. You really shouldn’t try to write a book based on what topic you think is “hot” right now (vampire novels are probably going to get stale pretty soon, by the way), or get distracted about what the “proper” way of going about writing is. But while lists like this usually bring up some decent points, there are always a couple rules that can be ignored or broken without hurting the novel too much.

For example, I’ve read numerous books that included the phrase “laughing eyes” or “warm eyes,” and have been guilty of using such phrases myself. Now, I don’t RECOMMEND you use the phrase, and I should probably re-edit several passages where I use the phrase. But I’d just like to point out that some editor probably noticed the poor author used a hackneyed phrase on page 282, and the book got published anyway. Remember, Twilight included the sentence, “He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare,” and it became a best-seller. My point is – you can’t predict this kind of stuff.

To take another example, a widely quoted review of Lord of the Rings complained both the work AND the characters were “anemic and lacking in depth.” You know how writing advice goes on and on about how you can’t have flat characters in your work? Well, as much as I love Lord of the Rings, I can’t claim the characters are the deepest things the literary establishment has ever seen. That, and the book goes through pages upon pages of description, poetry, and random characters that pop up and are never seen again. A classic? You bet.

Lastly, I’m going to mention Harry Potter. These books captivated me as a kid. I still have fond memories of them (though, sadly, I can’t love them as I once did). But some of the plot twists in them don’t exactly make much sense. The first book practically ends in a deus ex machina, just after a couple of kids get through protections that are supposed to keep the evilest wizards alive out. And the fourth book – tell me why the whole caboodle with the Triwizard Tournament really was the easiest way to get Harry to Voldemort? That’s still one of my favourite parts of the series, by the way.

So I feel better about the chunk of the list I’m planning to ignore. I’m not going to start outlining every story I write, because my mind doesn’t work that way. Shoot, I don’t even outline blog posts or university papers. I’m not going to shoe-horn a sex scene into every book just because it’s a “part of life.” And I never, ever have a title for my works till I’ve written a good part of them.

I guess my point is, readers and publishers overlook many, many faults in novels. Writers get nervous, because there’s absolutely no way to predict which faults they’re going to overlook. Perfectly reasonable, but you can’t let that stop you, and you’re never going to achieve perfection anyway. Just keep writing.

 

Ever read a novel yourself that broke all the rules but was fantastic anyway?

 

(Yes, finishing my current work-in-progress is one of my aims for 2012, but I really don’t need to finish another novel. I need to get the ones I have finished in publishable shape, and submit them. I’ve got so many stacks of writing, because apparently I find writing itself far more fun than the mundane reality of trying to get a book published. But in 2012 – who knows?)

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Filed under Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, On Writing, Twilight

It’s the Readers’ Fault! Why Bad Writing is Called Good

OR: Don’t Blame Them, They Didn’t Notice the Difference Anyway

page 61, by D’Arcy Norman. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Authors agonize over metaphors. They might spend ages debating word choice. They careful revise their sentence structure. What would you say if someone told you readers rarely notice this kind of thing anyway?

I’m a poor student, and like many a poor student I participate in psych research studies in exchange for meagre bits of cash. The last one I attended was rather intriguing – they were looking at whether readers actually remembered the specific word choice of the author, or if all those lovingly chosen metaphors just slipped from their memory moments after reading it.

This study tested this by having us read a story, and then giving up examples of sentences that could’ve been in the story. We had to say whether the words were exactly the same as in the story, probably the same, probably not the same, or not the same at all. I am not confident I answered them all correctly.

Now, this wasn’t about whether the reader forgot the whole story. Readers usually remember ‘how the story goes,’ and its general meaning for quite awhile. But, these researchers pointed out, the difference between “exceptional examples of literature and more mundane prose”* is the sentence structure. There are many stories dealing with themes of love, death etc., but one author’s writing is considered superior to another’s because of the wording. It is the metaphors, the language, and the word choice that elevates a good story to a great one. Except – readers don’t even notice these things on their first read-through! In other words, they could be reading fine literature or complete trash, and on their first reading they won’t even notice the difference.

When I heard this, I was amazed. But it explains a few things. Like how people can insist “The Da Vinci Code” and “Twilight” are well-written. Actually, research indicates that the true value of a text only become apparent after SEVERAL readings, and much study. And since most of your average readers left that kind of analysis behind them in English class, a lot of bad writing can become very popular.

It also takes a bit of a weight off my mind. Even if my prose is not as lofty as that of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Shakespeare, I might become popular anyway. But, on the other hand, that means the reason I am slaving over this perfect description of my main character’s inner turmoil is only to impress a bunch of fusty literary critics in ivory towers. Or maybe English teachers.

Oh well. I’ve come to the conclusion that all I can do is to write as well as I can, and hope that people like it. I still believe good writing can give a general atmosphere to a story that may not be achieved with bad writing, even if the reader cannot remember the specific words you used. Not that I’ve done any psych research to back this up.

Do you agree that sentence structure is one of the important things that separate the “exceptional” writer from the “mundane”*? Does it matter to you if the reader doesn’t even notice what you’ve put so much effort into?

 

*The quote I asterisked comes from the debriefing sheet I received after participating in this study.  I would cite it properly, but it doesn’t provide an author. It does, however, state the researchers involved are Dr. Peter Dixon and Dr. Marisa Bortolussi, so I hope mentioning them is adequate.

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Filed under On Writing, Twilight