Fiction

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?

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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.

Ian Speaks! When Your Characters Take on a Life of Their Own

AngelLargeSquareOne of my favorite things about being a writer is learning how different readers respond to aspects of the writing. No two readers take away exactly the same thing. Sometimes readers respond strongly to things you didn’t even know were in there. Sometimes the exact thing one reviewer hates is the thing the next reviewer loves.

Fictional characters are sketched out by the author, but they are completed in the reader’s mind. I, of course, have a strong notion in my own mind of who my characters are, what their voices sound like, how they speak. But I do not for a moment believe that my version is the right one. It is simply my vision of them.

That is why it has been so interesting to have an audio version of my novel Angel recorded. The production is now complete and once it has gone through a quality control process taking about two weeks, an Angel audiobook will be available via Amazon, Itunes and Audible.  I am really pleased because I am a fan of audiobooks. (I listened to tons of them back when I was delivering pizza.) I have always wanted to have a book of mine available in audio, and this is the first one that will be.

The voice actor, Shea Taylor, did a marvelous job. What has been fascinating for me in listening to it is the dialogue. Taylor has his own ideas about how Paul, Ian and their friends speak. It is different from the voices I heard in my head. This gives the characters a slightly different flavor. It is really interesting to have an opportunity to hear how another reader perceives of them.

If you reviewed the print book, and would like to review the audio, please let me know. I will be getting some download codes for it once it becomes available.

Want a preview? You can hear a sample on Clyp.

Unrepentant Sensuality and the Pleasures of Sin

Dorian-Gray-dorian-gray-32846735-1600-1067So today I was reading a literary analysis of the works of Oscar Wilde. (Christopher S. Nassar called Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde.) Wait… Don’t hang up yet. Yes, I know that is a very dry opening.

I began to think about forbidden sexual practices and unrepentant sensuality, the pleasures of sin. Better?

Scholars and non-scholars have long debated the meaning of the end of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian GraySpark Notes for example, puts it this way: “The end of the novel suggests a number of possible interpretations of Dorian’s death. It may be his punishment for living the life of a hedonist, and for prizing beauty too highly, in which case the novel would be a criticism of the philosophy of aestheticism. But it is just as possible that Dorian is suffering for having violated the creeds of aestheticism.”

I am inclined to believe Oscar Wilde when he said he was not trying to impart any moral lesson at all, he was just trying to write the best literature he could. The premise he began with determined to a large extent what endings were possible. Imagine the story of a young man who wished his portrait would grow old and take on his sins instead of him. He found that his wish had magically come true… and he lived happily ever after. This is not much of a story.  I believe what Wilde wanted readers to think upon finishing the book was “Wow, that was a great story.” (And perhaps “Wow, Oscar Wilde is very clever.”)

Nassar wrote about The Picture of Dorian Gray and its relationship to the decadent movement.  the decadent “looking within and discovering not only purity but evil and corruption, yields to the corrupt impulse and tries to find joy and beauty in evil. Finally, the vision of evil becomes unbearable, the decadent has burned all his bridges, and he finds himself trapped in a dark underworld from which he cannot escape.”

When I tried to think about more 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.

The most obvious example is Breaking Bad. The main character, Walter White, is drawn into a world of crime in order to secure his family’s financial future. As the series goes on, he is drawn more and more into “a dark underworld” and becomes increasingly vile and unsympathetic.

The drama of Dorian is fueled by a particular anxiety about what can happen when sensual pleasure is entirely divorced from any emotional human connection. Victorians, on the one hand, felt constrained by the roles society forced them to play and they enjoyed the fantasy of throwing off all of those moral codes and giving in to their basest desires. On the other hand, they were afraid of what would happen if their sensual pleasures were not constrained. What if sexuality was not coupled with a sense of responsibility for one another?

It strikes me that the ideas that made Oscar Wilde seem so dangerous have become quite mainstream. He advocated the idea that artists needed to explore all of their impulses in order to create art and serve humanity.  In the 21st Century the notion that a person must be in touch with her sexual nature in order to be creative and healthy is commonplace. It is hard to imagine a book like Eat, Pray, Love in which the protagonist did not find amazing sex as part of her journey of self-discovery. Our anxiety, if our blaring magazine headlines and advertisements are anything to go by, is more that we are somehow missing out on the life-transforming bliss sexuality is supposed to be bringing us.

If Breaking Bad is anything to go by, however, we do have anxiety about what happens when money is decoupled from a sense of responsibility to one another. We love the fantasy of having all of our financial worries eliminated quickly. We loved watching Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, charismatic, powerful with that cool mobile phone with the antenna. In Wall Street, Charlie Sheen’s slightly less memorable leading character is, like Dorian, trapped in a dark underworld. It is not dark in the way Breaking Bad’s world is dark, but it is depicted as a world of questionable moral values which threatens to suck the young man in– a world of large Manhattan apartments, expensive cars, and gold-digger model-esque girlfriends–pleasures that are hard to escape.

Sheen’s character keeps his moral center, although he goes to jail. The real Dorain character, though, is Gekko who has sold his soul. “Greed is good,” he says. “Greed works.” Like Dorian, Gordon Gekko has no conscience about pursuing his own pleasure. As an audience we find him both attractive and repellant because he represents the freedom that comes with complete self interest, the dream of not having to make all of the compromises we mere mortals make each day in order to get along. Yet he also represents the danger of complete self-gratification.

It is a mistake, I believe, to ask whether Dorian Gray is an argument for or against the philosophy of aestheticism. It is neither and both.  Too much social constraint and too little social constraint each have their dangers. The question is not “is pursuing self-interest good or bad,” it is “to what extent should a person pursue self-interest, in what balance and what context?”

I wrote a much more detailed version of this a few days ago and Word Press ate it. The pithy version is probably an improvement.

The Happy End: Male vs. Female

over-the-rainbow“Audiences know what to expect, and that is all they are prepared to believe in.”-Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead

Back in November, I had a conversation with an agent about a novel I am looking to publish. He had strong opinions about what types of books are marketable, as all agents do. His point of view was that for a story to sell it had to conform to certain reader expectations. There was, he argued, a natural ending for stories and the natural ending was exactly the one you would expect. In the Hollywood movie, the hero saves the world and wins the respect of his estranged girlfriend in the process, for example. If the film does not deliver the expected resolution then audiences will not be satisfied. Call it the “Rosencrantz Theory of Literature.”

Of course, what is considered a “natural ending” changes over time and across cultures. The satisfying end for the Victorians was one in which the protagonist was destroyed by cruel society. We prefer the “happy end.”

The “happy end” differs depending on whether the protagonist is male or female. Here are the two “natural ends” for popular narratives: In the male happy end the narrative is complete when the hero has scored a victory against great odds. In the female narrative the “natural ending” comes when she is content with the life she has (with bonus points if she finishes the story in true love).

Dorthy has all kinds of adventures in Oz, but the message she comes away with is “there’s no place like home.” Her victory is not becoming the leader of Emerald City, it is being content to live in black and white Kansas. She has a happy end when she stops dreaming of a better life “somewhere over the rainbow.” Put another way, victory for Dorothy is giving up on her dreams.

This is not a narrative that died in the 1940s. It was not pushed aside by women’s lib in the 1970s. In fact, I came to the realization that the expectation of a “natural ending” was different for women while watching “The Devil Wears Prada” the other night on a hotel TV.

In Prada, the protagonist is a young woman who scores what is considered to be a dream job as the assistant to the editor of a major fashion magazine. Her boss is demanding and ruthless. The young woman moves up the ranks and ends up on a glamorous trip to Paris Fashion Week rubbing elbows with high society. Her boss, incidentally, is pictured as having a rocky home life as is expected. Powerful female business women are expected to achieve status at the expense of real relationships. Our protagonist does not want to make the same mistake. In the end (spoiler alert) she walks away from the shallow and artificial life of status and glamor to return to a more “authentic” existence. We see her stepping out of a taxi and abandoning her boss as the boss looks on with disguised admiration for the young woman. The film ends with the main character walking in comfortable clothes with her head held high.

It struck me that this was the expected ending, the Rosencrantz ending, the one audiences are prepared to believe and publishers are prepared to buy.

It also struck me that it was an inversion of the expected male ending. The male protagonist’s story would tend to resolve with the man victorious in the career field he had entered. There was a point in the movie where the main character becomes aware of a plot that could oust the editor. She tries to protect the boss who has made her life so difficult. I would expect the male character to use this opportunity to forward his own interests and bring down the bad guy. It might end with him as the editor of the publication himself. It is not common for the male narrative to end not with worldly success but with the character deciding he does not want to play the game.

In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the main character is dumped by her boyfriend because her demanding job does not allow her to devote enough attention to him. As an audience we are expected to take his side and to agree that she is going the wrong direction.

This same type of conflict is quite common in films with male protagonists. A man becomes obsessed with a mission of some kind– winning a legal case, catching a killer, saving the world from aliens– what have you. At some point he argues with his wife who feels he is shirking his family responsibilities. In this case, however, the audience is expected to understand that his mission is vitally important. We do not want him to decide that catching the killer isn’t that important after all in the greater scheme of things and that he should walk away to focus on his authentic emotional life. What generally happens, instead, is that against all odds, with no one backing him, the hero completes his mission winning the admiration of his wife in the process.

Prada is not an isolated example of the “female happy end” where the woman shuns worldly status. One of the most popular films of all times is “Titanic” in which bold and feisty Rose realizes that her upper class life is empty after she meets working class Jack Dawson on deck. She walks away from a life of riches and even throws a priceless gem into the sea.

The female protagonist has a happy end not when she has status in the world, but when she transcends the desire for status.

Dorothy has a happy end when she gives up on her dreams.

Challenges of the Dramatic Parenting Narrative

A few years ago I saw this interview with Julian Lennon, and it stuck with me. I have always been a fan of the Beatles and John Lennon in particular. This interview, however, presents the stark contrast between John Lennon’s success as a musician and his performance as a father to his first son.

A couple of days ago I proposed that there might be a place in the world for the dramatic parenting narrative, a story that finds drama and heroism in the sphere of raising children.  Here is one of the challenges I see in making such stories a reality. In order to have real drama, the hero must be in jeopardy. There must be a chance that the hero will fail.

Accepting the notion that a parent might not do well, that a parent might be on the verge of completely making a wreck of things, while not losing an audience is hard. It is especially hard with a female protagonist.  We are much more apt to forgive John Lennon for his shortcomings as a parent than we would be to forgive a woman who prioritized rock star success over her child’s emotional needs.

But whether the parent is a mother or father, the dramatic parenting narrative is a challenge.  Here in the land of the free and home of the brave, we have a culture makes it seem downright immoral not to be on guard at every moment.  Terrible dangers lurk around every corner and if you fail to prepare for them, well, that is your fault.

“There’s been this huge cultural shift,” Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids said. “We now live in a society where most people believe a child can not be out of your sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision. This shift is not rooted in fact. It’s not rooted in any true change. It’s imaginary. It’s rooted in irrational fear.”

The quote is from an article that is arguably a rare example of the dramatic parenting narrative. It appeared in Salon today.   The Day I Left My Son in the Car was written by Kim Brooks, whose split-second decision to run into the store would consume the next years of her life.  A stranger, seeing that  incidence of what she believed to be a child in jeopardy, videotaped the boy waiting in the car and– without confronting the mother– went to the police.  Lapses in maternal judgment find little sympathy in a media environment which features constant reports of child predators, kidnappers and bad guys with guns.

Why are we so fearful? My best guess is that it is the flipside, once again, of our optimistic American belief in the power of the individual to control her circumstances. If you believe there is really no such thing as an accident or a crime, only poorly prepared people, you can maintain the idea that nothing bad will happen to you. (Also, you do not need to expend as much emotional energy on compassion for victims who obviously brought their misfortunes on themselves.)

With almost no permission to risk mistakes, the dramatic parenting narrative becomes rare, almost impossible.