Fiction

The Happy End Requirement: The Brokeback Mountain Example

One of the common themes I have written about here is our culture’s insistence that stories have a happy end. In the first post I wrote on the subject, The Happy End vs. The Noble End, I used the example of Brokeback Mountain as one of the few examples of a popular story with a tragic ending.

Heath Ledger’s taciturn character Ennis Del Mar never does reveal the great love of his life to anyone. Only he and the audience know what happened between him and Jack Twist and what it meant to him. A character like Ennis Del Mar is a stand in for all of the people whose struggles we will never know.

Brokeback Mountain illustrates something important about tragedies. They usually have a third main character– the society that surrounds the characters. If Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist had ridden into the sunset together, it might have made us happier as an audience. Everyone could leave the theater reassured that there may have been problems along the way but in the end, people get what they deserve in life. It would not have been a powerful story that made us ask questions about society. Sometimes only tragedy can make that point.

The author of the original short story on which the film was based, Annie Proulx, agrees. She recently told the Paris Review that she is so frustrated with people trying to rewrite the story with a happy end that she wishes she had never written the story.

[T]he problem has come since the film. So many people have completely misunderstood the story. I think it’s important to leave spaces in a story for readers to fill in from their own experience, but unfortunately the audience that “Brokeback” reached most strongly have powerful fantasy lives. And one of the reasons we keep the gates locked here is that a lot of men have decided that the story should have had a happy ending. They can’t bear the way it ends — they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. And it just drives me wild.

They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it. I can’t tell you how many of these things have been sent to me as though they’re expecting me to say, Oh great, if only I’d had the sense to write it that way.

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To Live Unmoored from Social Norms

There was an article in the Guardian today that brought to mind some thoughts I was playing with here back in 2014.

On the new Netflix show Ozark, financial adviser Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is forced to launder millions of dollars in a rural red state, under threat of death from a Mexican drug cartel. In Billions, which finished its second season in May, viewers are meant to envy and respect mega–hedge-funder “Axe” (Damian Lewis), despite his evident criminality. And then there is the wildly popular Empire, about a hip-hop dynasty ruled by the ridiculously wealthy and brutal Lyon family.

Welcome to the new aspirational television, about a 1% that lives with impunity. These series center on brilliant, albeit extremely violent entrepreneurs. Our antiheroes have technical specialties they managed to turn into criminal know-how: on Ozark, money management becomes money laundering, and on Breaking Bad, high-school chemistry instruction becomes meth production.

These anti-heroes are born of the modern struggle to remain in the middle or upper middle class. We watch these characters and receive, I argued in my previous article, the same sort of thrill delivered by Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.  We all, at times, feel burdened and constrained by society’s rules. Victorian England was still more of an honor/shame society than a good person/bad person society. People (at least those of Oscar Wilde’s class) felt most constrained on a day to day basis by the need to keep up a respectable appearance and to behave in morally upstanding ways. Therefore sexual vice and hedonism had a strong, dangerous appeal. The story of Dorian combined the pleasurable fantasy of being freed from social constraints with the horror of what society might look like if those constraints did not exist.

I argued in my article that in “modern stories where a person is attracted to evil and finds himself trapped in a world from which he cannot escape, the characters were driven by financial rather than sexual temptation.”

Dorian’s audience feared what would happen if sensuality and sexuality were decoupled from a sense of responsibility for one another. Today we are regularly confronted with stark images of what happens when money is decoupled from any sense of responsibility for others.

In her Guardian article Alissa Quart concluded: “Just ask the immensely wealthy man who is now our president and appears to say and do exactly what he wants to, regardless of the consequences: today, the ultimate luxury isn’t wealth itself. It is the ability to live unmoored from social norms, like the gods.”

Our temptation to abandon the community to satisfy our own desires excites and terrifies us.  Thus in fiction those who would be gods are destroyed and our bond of common responsibility is restored. The jury is still out on whether this is what happens in real life.

The Explosion of Their Own Myth of Fragile Womanhood

Guest posts are not a regular feature of this blog, but a few months ago I read an article on the site Women Writers, Women’s we_that_are_left_cover_artwork:Layout 1Books called Women and Myths in Storytelling.  I felt that the themes of Juliet Greenwood’s novel “We That Are Left” fit in very well with the regular themes of this blog and I asked her if she would be interested in writing a guest post. The historical novel deals with women who served on the front lines in World War I.

What struck me in particular was one line from the article: “What is most telling is that many of the men the women saved found it hard to deal with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood in need of male guidance and protection…”

I must admit that I misread it when I first scanned the line thinking that it said that the women struggled with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood. I found this intriguing because women as well as men are invested in maintaining certain cultural myths. Our sense of what it is to be feminine forms a bit of our own identities as women. Both men and women compare and contrast their individual identities to the mythic narratives. The ideals of identity, however, rarely match up with the messy reality of life. It turns out they never have.

So the women who fought in the Great War can be added to a long list of myth-busting women. As you will recall, I only recently learned that female writers outsold male-authored fiction in the 19th Century.  In the past year I learned from reading A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell that women of early U.S. history did not all live lives of quiet domesticity.

Russell writes of the late 1700s “Women were extraordinarily free during this period, most strikingly in their ability and willingness to leave their husbands…for many segments of eighteenth-century society, marriage did not have to be permanent… Far more women chose not to marry at all during this period than at any time in the first two hundred years of the United States. Researchers estimate that at least one-quarter of women living in late colonial American cities were not married… Many women in the eighteenth century not only worked in what later became exclusively male occupations but also owned a great number of businesses that would soon be deemed grossly unfeminine…Historians have estimated that as many as half of all shops in early American cities were owned and operated by women…Most upper-class ‘society’ taverns barred women, and respectable women rarely drank in taverns, but fortunately, most taverns were low class and most women were not respectable.”

This is all getting quite long for an introduction to a guest post, so without further ado, I will let Juliet Greenwood tell you about her research:

The Myth of Fragile Womanhood by Juliet Greenwood

“What is most telling is that many of the men the women saved found it hard to deal with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood in need of male guidance and protection.”

The thing that fascinated me most when I was researching the lives of women in the UK just before, and during, the First World War, was just how central the image of woman was to Edwardian society, colouring its view of how the world was, and naturally should be.

I was familiar with the image of women in Victorian novels, with their impossible skirts and lack of any independent life, but that seemed far back in history. Another time, another place. They do things differently there. But this was different. I come from a family of late starters, so my grandfather was married, and my father born, before women achieved the vote. A long time ago, but in the history of humankind, less than a breath away from where we are now. Touching distance.

The young men who went off to fight the First World War were raised on Boy’s Own adventures, full of daring do, fearless heroes saving the world and civilization (generally from foreigners and the lower orders), in which women appeared only to be saved, and to be the reason for saving civilization at all. Women were the Angel of the Hearth, the centre of the domestic sphere. They were physically fragile, intellectually weak. Their role was to produce the next generation of fine young men, and to be the quiet, supportive, modest (as in self-effacing) figure her husband needed after a long day saving the empire.

It was this image of the Angel of the Hearth that was often used against those unnatural women who longed for higher education, financial independence, or even the vote. Intellectual activity, it was argued, damaged a woman’s reproductive capacity, and unbalanced their fragile emotional state. In short, it was quite likely to send them unhinged. As for financial independence and the vote – well that was only desired by women too ugly, or too old, to attract a husband, as the anti-suffrage posters of the time loudly proclaimed.

What soon became clear, was that this image was outdated even before the Great War began. For one thing, women already outnumbered men, leaving increasing numbers of women needing to find a way of supporting themselves, and therefore working for a living as clerks and teachers, as well as in domestic service. Women were beginning to make gains, against all the odds, in obtaining university education (although not able to take degrees), and become skilled professionals, such as doctors. The advent of the bicycle, and the recognition that women benefitted from exercise, meant that women were more active. And of course some women had always been adventurers, climbing mountains, sailing up the Nile and the Congo and trekking across deserts. At home, women could be on councils and on the board of school governers, and middle and upper class women organised charitable works and ran large estates.

What was striking about the advent of war was that it brought this huge clash between this image of womanhood and the reality into sharp focus, one that, with the advent of photography, could no longer be denied. When women first volunteered their services as ambulance drivers, they were laughed at, but the necessity of war changed that. Women soon became nurses and ambulance drivers on the frontline, they set up field hospitals, kept the country going back at home. Some of the most interesting were the female spies, working behind enemy lines, gathering vital information, often collected from ordinary women in occupied France and Belgium, who counted out beans and knitted into garments the numbers of troops passing their villages. The irony was that it was the assumption that women were weak, cowardly, and non-too-bright, that offered a form of protection.

Where these two worlds clashed, was when these young women guided men separated from their units, or wounded, to safety. No wonder the men found the hardest thing was their total dependence on the language skills, the quick thinking, and the bravery of these ‘fragile’ flowers. Not to mention their physical prowess as they led them over the Alps to avoid border guards.

It was a shaking of a picture of the world, both for men and women, and although things have changed, it’s one that is still ongoing. The cult of the fragility of size zero, exchanging the dangerous crushing of the corset for the danger of the crumbling of malnourished bones, still presents an image at odds with the majority of women, who hold down jobs, while raising a family and juggling dreams and ambitions of their own. While James Bond (along with a parade of Hollywood heroes, some visibly well past retirement) is still the superhero, saving the world.

The image of man the hunter, man the warrior, is simple. It answers all the questions. The trouble is, it excludes the majority of the human race (of both sexes) who would rather not be either, thank you very much. It was the image that was used to argue that women didn’t need, or even want, the vote, even after Parliament (entirely made up of men) had twice democratically agreed that women should be given the right to vote. Many of those young women contributing to the war had been beaten up, sexually assaulted, tortured and abused in pursuit of their democratic rights in the face of this failure of democracy, while being informed roundly that they were acting out of ugliness and envy, and an incapacity to be a ‘real’ woman (as in weak, stupid and cowardly).

As I have been writing this post, outrage has been stirred in some quarters by the fact that in the new ‘Mad Max’ film a woman dares to bark orders at the hero, meaning that the feminists (as in ugly, envious and man-hating) have taken over, in a world gone mad.

Those incredibly brave, strong and resourceful young women, leading to safety the men whose worldview had just crumbled, must be smiling everso wryly. For the questions posed by their actions (conveniently forgotten, as is much of women’s history) are ones that still have not been answered – and still have the power to rock the world.

About JulietJuliet signing small

Juliet lives in a traditional Welsh quarryman’s cottage in North Wales, between Anglesey and the mountains of Snowdonia. As a child, Juliet always had her nose in a book. She wrote her first novel (an epic inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff and set in Saxon times) at the age of ten. After studying English at Lancaster University and King’s College, London, Juliet worked in a variety of jobs to support her writing, before finally fulfilling her ambition to become a published author.

As well as novels under her own name, Juliet writes serials and short stories for magazines as ‘Heather Pardoe’.

‘We That are Left’ was completed with the aid of a Literature Wales Bursary and was book of the Month for March 2014 for Waterstones Wales, The Books Council of Wales, and the National Museums of Wales. The kindle edition reached #4 in summer 2014.

Novels and the Ancient History of Five Years Ago

9781613721032_p0_v1_s260x420I recently went through the process of approving a set of edits on an already published novel, which is going to be re-released in a second edition. This is the first time I’ve ever been called on, or given an opportunity, to revise a work that has already been published. It doesn’t happen often.

One of the interesting dilemmas I faced in the touch up of Angel was whether or not to try to update some references that are now obsolete. The novel deals with a protestant minister (of an undefined denomination but a kind of Methodist-Presbyteriny one) who finds himself at odds with his congregation when he falls in love with another man. At the time I wrote the book Presbyterians did not allow the ordination of openly gay ministers. This changed between the time the book was purchased and first released. (The Methodists, for a number of political reasons that I will not go into here, as far as I know, have not changed their stance.)

So the culture has changed rapidly.

Back in June, before I knew the publisher wanted to re-issue Angel, I wrote about a particular passage in the novel that was out of date:

A discussion on the news the other night made me realize that my novel, published in 2011, is already becoming obsolete– and I couldn’t be happier.  A panel was discussing how quickly the dominoes were falling when it comes to U.S. states recognizing same sex marriage. I thought about a now obsolete passage in Angel in which the two protagonists joke about the comparative merits of getting married in Massachusetts or Iowa, the two states that allowed such a thing when the book was written. “The ocean is sexier than corn,” Ian said.

In only three years, the novel has become  a period piece.

Most pundits now expect that the Supreme Court will soon legalize same sex marriage across the country.

So I had to decide whether to cut the reference to Iowa and Massachusetts, indeed to traveling anywhere to get legally married, in order to bring the book up to date.

In the end, I decided to leave it as it was because the culture has changed and continues to change so rapidly, keeping the novel up to date strikes me as being a bit like constantly upgrading your software. There is always a newer version.

Yesterday I quoted George Bernard Shaw who wrote in The Sanity of Art, “The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages.” He went on to say, “The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and about all time.”

I agree with that, and that is why I think I have to leave Ian and Paul where I left them, in the recent past. Angel is set not in the present day but some time around the year 2007. I didn’t know that at the time I was writing, but I do now.

Banned by My Boyfriend: A Memory of The Unbearable Lightness of Being

“The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”-Milan Kundera, The Unbearble Lightness of Being

Way Back Wednesday is a Book Meme created by A Well Read Woman with the aim to write mini book reviews on books read in the past, that left a lasting impression.

Unbearable_lightness_of_being_posterThe first author to really pique my imagination as an adult reader was Milan Kundera.  In high school I had devoured Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and looking back, although they have very different styles, I think the experience of both of these writers was formative. A reader recently described my signature style as “vivid use of words, wry humor, and spot-on observations about humanity.”  The wry humor must have been informed by my love of Adams and observations about humanity are the literary offspring of my devotion to Kundera in my early twenties.

Most of the story-telling I had experienced as a young reader was heavily plot driven. You read (or watched TV) to find out who done it or how the hero will get to the happy end. What attracted me to Kundera was how the author used characters as a jumping off point to explore philosophical questions; to talk about human nature and society.

I still remember the passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being that made me want to read everything Kundera had written.

A year or two after emigrating, she happened to be in Paris on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of her country. A protest march had been scheduled, and she felt driven to take part. Fists raised high, the young Frenchmen shouted out slogans, but to her surprise she found herself unable to shout along with them. She lasted no more than a few minutes in the parade. When she told her French friends about it, they were amazed. “You mean you don’t want to fight the occupation of your country?” She would have liked to tell them that  behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison. But she knew she would never be able to make them understand.

Thinking back to the period when I immersed myself in Kundera’s novels, I remember that I had a live-in boyfriend for a time who was prone to jealousy and insecurity. He was suspicious of my interest in Milan Kundera. (Come to that, he was suspicious of my interest in anything besides him.) All that he knew about The Unbearable Lightness of Being came from the film adaptation of the novel. I don’t know if he had seen the film or not. What he knew about it, what most people knew about it, was that it was sexy and pushed the boundaries of acceptability at that time. The most talked about scene was a homoerotic photo shoot between the two main female characters which, as I recall, was not in the book. One of the things I loved about Kundera’s novels is that they do not lend themselves to film adaptation as the main interest in them is the philosophical musings not the plot point. I have always preferred novels that do not read like a movie. It means the author used his medium well.

My then-boyfriend, however, believed Kundera wrote dirty books. He was deeply threatened by the notion that I might have an interest in sex. He preferred the old notion that women do not like sex and therefore if one consents to have sex with you (at great cost to herself) she is making something of a sacrifice and that proves the depths of her love and devotion. If sex didn’t prove that she was entirely devoted, then what proof did you have of love? Women, of course, have had to navigate the ambiguities of what a particular act of intimacy means in context for years as we have not had the mythology that men would only want sex if they were devoted at the soul level, but for this particular man, the idea that he might have to navigate a sea of ambiguities was all quite unsettling.   (This aspect of my relationship, incidentally, found its way into my first novel Angel as the jealousy of the main character, Paul.) He was so anxious about Kundera that during the time I was with him, I could not enjoy reading it.

And so a novel that had been politically censored in the author’s home country, and a film that was at the center of discussions about depictions of sexuality in film, led to a bit of censorship at home.

The Happy End vs. The Noble End III: Navy Seal Edition

A while back I wrote a pair of articles on “The Happy End vs. The Noble End.”  The first article discussed our preference for endings in which the main character emerges victorious compared to the popular 19th Century ending in which the hero’s good deeds went unrewarded and unknown.

I wrote in the first article:

The theme of nobility conducted in secret was popular a century ago. It doesn’t sit well with us now. It seems to fly in the face of our notion of a just world. At least this is the conventional wisdom about what audiences want.

We have occasional glimpses of noble self-sacrifice. Action movies often feature a secondary character who fills that role. Michelle Rodriguez’s role in Avatar, Trudy Cachon, comes to mind, but the film does not make her crisis of conscience central and her death for a greater good is in support of the real business of allowing the heroes pummel the bad guys and save the day.

(Incidentally, while we’re talking about Trudy Cachon taking the fall so our hero can save the day, you might want to read about a couple of TV/Movie tropes. “Black Dude Dies First” and “Vasquez Always Dies.”)

In the follow up article on the topic, I talked about how we are now living in what one cultural historian calls “The Culture of Personality” as contrasted with the 19th Century “Culture of Character.”  Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, described this shift:

In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of “having a good personality” was not widespread until the twentieth. But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining….

I concluded:

The ideal hero has changed as well. The physical laborer owned his inner world, as did his hero. The service worker gets things by manipulating the impression he makes on people in the outer world. His hero acts in this realm and must win in this realm. In the culture of personality, what is not apparent to the outer world might as well not exist. If good intentions do not yield good results– directly for the person who is the viewpoint character– what is the point? We can’t abide by a story like Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth where the main character’s self-sacrifice is a secret shared only with the reader. We may not change the story to the extent that Lily Bart lives happily ever after, but in the modern film version we at least have to see that someone in her world learns what she did.

So building a “personality” and getting credit for your good deeds are matters of survival in the attention economy.

We are seeing a real world demonstration of the effects of these narratives among members of the military. In the past few weeks a couple of members of the Navy Seals have gone on record claiming to be the man who pulled the trigger and killed Osama Bin Laden.

The publicity seeking among the ranks of Seal Team Six has led Rear Adm. Brian Losey to write a letter reminding the elite forces that it is not part of their culture to take credit or seek the limelight.  As reported in the Navy Times:

“At Naval Special Warfare’s core is the SEAL ethos,” according to the letter, which was obtained by Navy Times. “A critical tenant of our ethos is ‘I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.’ Our ethos is a life-long commitment and obligation, both in and out of the service. Violators of our ethos are neither teammates in good standing, nor teammates who represent Naval Special Warfare.”

…“We will not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety and financial gain, which only diminishes otherwise honorable service, courage and sacrifice,” the letter says. “Our credibility as a premier fighting force is forged in this sacrifice and has been accomplished with honor, as well as humility.”

Yet our culture does not tell the stories of those who sacrifice with humility. Yes, our politicians lay wreaths at the tomb of the unknowns and they utter stirring words about serving with honor. But in our popular narrative we have abandoned the character who acts with honor when no one is looking. If we do not tell stories that honor those who make unrewarded sacrifices, how can we expect our soldiers to feel truly valued when their deeds remain unknown?

Ever Dream of Being Someone Else?

Identity Theft Cove Draft2Have you ever wished you could shed your identity, just for a day? Would you like to throw off the shackles of everything you are expected to be and experience life as someone new?

Maybe you’d like to be freed of the burden of your credit score and be allowed the opportunity to start again with the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you secretly dream of being a rock star and creating a public persona you can hide behind. Maybe you dream of a love that will transform your life and transport you into a new world.

What if you could escape being you?

This is the theme of my new novel Identity Theft, which I am offering for pre-sale on Pubslush.

Ethan, a college drop-out works in the offices of a pop star who goes by the stage name Blast. He is assigned the task of keeping up with the musician’s social networking. Dissatisfied with his own life, Ethan decides to play at being a rock star and starts corresponding with a fan named Candi.

Candi is in debt and works at a company that is downsizing. Talking to the rock star becomes the most glamorous and intoxicating aspect of her life. If she is interesting enough to capture the attention of her favorite celebrity, she believes, anything might be possible. The relationship changes the way she thinks about herself and the possibilities for her life.

The more they chat, the more Ethan falls in love with Candi, but he can’t figure out how to tell her the truth without ruining everything.

When the real Blast plays a concert in Candi’s hometown everything begins to unravel.

I am taking pre-orders now for Identity Theft on Pubslush. This is a crowdfunding site especially for literary projects. If the campaign meets its goal, I will be able to produce the novel and to share it with you.

This is a story I have been working on for about 15 years, and I look forward to making it available. Please visit the page and consider supporting this project.