Quotes of the Day: G.K. Chesterton

7014283In honor of the anniversary of the birth of G.K. Chesterton on this date in 1874, I’ve decided to share some of the Chesterton quotes I’ve saved in my files. Enjoy.

“Theoretically, I suppose, every one would like to be freed from worries. But nobody in the world would always like to be freed from worrying occupations. I should very much like (as far as my feelings at the moment go) to be free from the consuming nuisance of writing this article. But it does not follow that I should like to be free from the consuming nuisance of being a journalist.”

“Ordinary mankind (gigantic and unconquerable in its power of joy) can get a great deal of pleasure out of a game called “hide the thimble,” but that is only because it is really a game of “see the thimble.” Suppose that at the end of such a game the thimble had not been found at all; suppose its place was unknown for ever: the result on the players would not be playful, it would be tragic. That thimble would hag-ride all their dreams. They would all die in asylums. The pleasure is all in the poignant moment of passing from not knowing to knowing.”

“Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds. If I beat my grandmother to death to-morrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong.”

“Half our speech consists of similes that remind us of no similarity; of pictorial phrases that call up no picture; of historical allusions the origin of which we have forgotten.”

“So far from it being irreverent to use silly metaphors on serious questions, it is one’s duty to use silly metaphors on serious questions. It is the test of one’s seriousness. It is the test of a responsible religion or theory whether it can take examples from pots and pans and boots and butter-tubs. It is the test of a good philosophy whether you can defend it grotesquely. It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”

“There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man. Certainly, at least, we need a theorist. A practical man means a man accustomed to mere daily practice, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all.”

“Before we congratulate ourselves upon the absence of certain faults from our nation or society, we ought to ask ourselves why it is that these faults are absent. Are we without the fault because we have the opposite virtue? Or are we without the fault because we have the opposite fault?”

“What is the use of being a politician or a Parliamentary candidate at all if one cannot tell the people that if the other man gets in, England will be instantly invaded and enslaved, blood be pouring down the Strand, and all the English ladies carried off into harems.”

“If our statesmen agree more in private, it is for the very simple reason that they agree more in public. And the reason they agree so much in both cases is really that they belong to one social class; and therefore the dining life is the real life. Tory and Liberal statesmen like each other, but it is not because they are both expansive; it is because they are both exclusive.”

“They lie when they say they have reached their position through their own organising ability. They generally have to pay men to organise the mine, exactly as they pay men to go down it.”

“If you are brave, think of the man who was braver than you. If you are kind, think of the man who was kinder than you. That is what was meant by having a patron saint.”

“The chief object of education is to unlearn all the weariness and wickedness of the world and to get back into that state of exhilaration we all instinctively celebrate when we write by preference of children and of boys.”

“I am honestly bewildered as to the meaning of such passages as this, in which the advanced person writes that because geologists know nothing about the Fall, therefore any doctrine of depravity is untrue. Because science has not found something which obviously it could not find, therefore something entirely different–the psychological sense of evil–is untrue… You might sum up this writer’s argument abruptly, but accurately, in some way like this–‘We have not dug up the bones of the Archangel Gabriel, who presumably had none, therefore little boys, left to themselves, will not be selfish.’ To me it is all wild and whirling; as if a man said–‘The plumber can find nothing wrong with our piano; so I suppose that my wife does love me.'”

“Men thought mankind wicked because they felt wicked themselves. If a man feels wicked, I cannot see why he should suddenly feel good because somebody tells him that his ancestors once had tails.”

“No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life, he forgets it himself. The whole is an extravagant riot of second bests, a pandemonium of pis-aller.”

“If our statesmen were visionaries something practical might be done. If we ask for something in the abstract we might get something in the concrete.”

“Many great religions, Pagan and Christian, have insisted on wine. Only one, I think, has insisted on Soap. You will find it in the New Testament attributed to the Pharisees.”

“The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it.”

“I believe firmly in the value of all vulgar notions, especially of vulgar jokes. When once you have got hold of a vulgar joke, you may be certain that you have got hold of a subtle and spiritual idea.”

“All the jokes about men sitting down on their hats are really theological jokes; they are concerned with the Dual Nature of Man. They refer to the primary paradox that man is superior to all the things around him and yet is at their mercy.”

“It is so easy to be solemn; it is so hard to be frivolous.”

“That is why so many tired, elderly, and wealthy men go in for politics. They are responsible, because they have not the strength of mind left to be irresponsible. It is more dignified to sit still than to dance the Barn Dance. It is also easier.”

“It is incomprehensible to me that any thinker can calmly call himself a modernist; he might as well call himself a Thursdayite…The real objection to modernism is simply that it is a form of snobbishness. It is an attempt to crush a rational opponent not by reason, but by some mystery of superiority, by hinting that one is specially up to date or particularly ‘in the know.'”

“A fairly clear line separated advertisement from art. I should say the first effect of the triumph of the capitalist (if we allow him to triumph) will be that that line of demarcation will entirely disappear. There will be no art that might not just as well be advertisement. I do not necessarily mean that there will be no good art; much of it might be, much of it already is, very good art. You may put it, if you please, in the form that there has been a vast improvement in advertisements.”

“But the improvement of advertisements is the degradation of artists. It is their degradation for this clear and vital reason: that the artist will work, not only to please the rich, but only to increase their riches; which is a considerable step lower. After all, it was as a human being that a pope took pleasure in a cartoon of Raphael or a prince took pleasure in a statuette of Cellini. The prince paid for the statuette; but he did not expect the statuette to pay him. It is my impression that no cake of soap can be found anywhere in the cartoons which the Pope ordered of Raphael. And no one who knows the small-minded cynicism of our plutocracy, its secrecy, its gambling spirit, its contempt of conscience, can doubt that the artist-advertiser will often be assisting enterprises over which he will have no moral control, and of which he could feel no moral approval.”

“The key fact in the new development of plutocracy is that it will use its own blunder as an excuse for further crimes… It is as if a highwayman not only took away a gentleman’s horse and all his money, but then handed him over to the police for tramping without visible means of subsistence.”

“There has appeared in our time a particular class of books and articles which I sincerely and solemnly think may be called the silliest ever known among men… these things are about nothing; they are about what is called Success. On every bookstall, in every magazine, you may find works telling people how to succeed. They are books showing men how to succeed in everything; they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books. To begin with, of course, there is no such thing as Success. Or, if you like to put it so, there is nothing that is not successful. That a thing is successful merely means that it is; a millionaire is successful in being a millionaire and a donkey in being a donkey… I really think that the people who buy these books (if any people do buy them) have a moral, if not a legal, right to ask for their money back.”

“It is perfectly obvious that in any decent occupation (such as bricklaying or writing books) there are only two ways (in any special sense) of succeeding. One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating. Both are much too simple to require any literary explanation. If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than any one else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so.”

“You may want to jump or to play cards; but you do not want to read wandering statements to the effect that jumping is jumping, or that games are won by winners… Or suppose that in the course of his intellectual rambles the philosopher of Success dropped upon our other case, that of playing cards, his bracing advice would run–‘In playing cards it is very necessary to avoid the mistake (commonly made by maudlin humanitarians and Free Traders) of permitting your opponent to win the game’.”

“I know that I cannot turn everything I touch to gold; but then I also know that I have never tried, having a preference for other substances, such as grass, and good wine.”

“The Puritans are always denouncing books that inflame lust; what shall we say of books that inflame the viler passions of avarice and pride?”

“In the end it will not matter to us whether we wrote well or ill; whether we fought with flails or reeds. It will matter to us greatly on what side we fought.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How the Story Ends: Thoughts on the Move Christine (2016)

The 2016 film Christine is based on the true story of a Sarasota local news personality Christine Chubbuck. I did not know her story when I selected the film under the category “critically acclaimed dramas” on my streaming service. The blurb described the movie this way: “In a film based on true events, an awkward but ambitious TV reporter struggles to adapt when she’s ordered to focus on violent and salacious stories.” Journalism movies are a genre I often like, so I selected it. It was not at all what I had been expecting based on the description.

In retrospect, I believe I had read about Chubbuck when I was studying broadcasting in college, but I didn’t connect it to the film I was watching. The filmmakers undoubtedly assumed that the people who bought tickets would know how the story ends. It is not a spoiler to say that what is best known about Chubbuck is how her life ended. One morning on live TV before her regular segment she read the following “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first: an attempted suicide.” And then she shot herself on live television.

 

Had I watched the trailer before selecting the film, I would have had more of a sense of its tone. This is one case where I feel knowing the ending in advance would have made the experience of watching the film better. It would have added a tension and urgency to what was unfolding on screen. Instead, I spent most of the film wondering why I was watching this woman struggle with mental illness. What was the purpose, the point of view, of this story?

It is, however, a film that has stayed with me and in retrospect, what seemed to be its weaknesses while I was watching, are its strengths. It is a film in which easy answers and clear villains are absent. She has co-workers and family who are patient with her mood swings and who want to help. Chubbuck’s frustration with the shift towards sensationalism for ratings is present, but it is not a bogey man, just one of many problems that Chubbuck is ill-equipped to deal with. She is not seen as worthy of promotion by the powers that be, and the sexism of the time is present, but even if there had been a level playing field, it is not clear that Chubbuck had what it took to succeed in her field. Her erratic behavior, and outspoken insubordination would have gotten her fired in most places of work. She was stiff on camera. The obstacles she faced were real, but her internal struggle was bigger than anything external.

It is rare to have a film in which a woman who is difficult to understand and to like is the viewpoint character. That alone makes the film interesting. Rebecca Hall who played Chubbuck in the film said she was drawn to the film for just this reason. “There are a lot of films about the coolness of being a misfit,” she said, “I don’t know how many films there are, certainly about women, where it shows how painful it is to feel that you don’t fit in and that you are different…”

In this era, where we are sensitive to the idea of appropriation, something that comes up quite a bit in articles about the film is the fact that the writer and director are both men. Should a man have been the one to tell this woman’s story? Is this just exploiting Chubbuck again?

Each of us has many facets to our identity. Yet we consider some identity categories to be more fundamental than others. I am firmly of the opinion that the best person to tell as story is the one who is taken with a story and can’t let it go. Craig Shilowich, the writer of Christine, was drawn to the story because he had experienced depression himself. In the lead up to her dramatic last act, he saw a vehicle to explore mental illness. I would argue that the most important aspect of Chubbuck in this story is not her femininity but her mental illness.

Shilowich refuses to turn Chubbuck into a symbol of a greater cultural message. It might have served the drama better if he had, but he was right to resist the easy sensationalism that Chubbuck’s final statement seems to critique. In the end, I was left with a visceral sense of the frustrations of trying to reach someone who is depressed and who makes herself unreachable. Most of us have experienced–if not clinical depression–at least periods of feeling like an outcast, feeling misunderstood or unable to connect to others.

I was not left with an answer to the perhaps more compelling question of why Chubbuck chose to act in such a public manner.  Why did she chose to make her final act a violent rebuke? It was a death that was engineered not only to end her own pain, but to inflict trauma on others who were forced to witness it.  We can understand and empathize with the person who finds it too difficult to go on living, but the person who wants to force other people– strangers, society at large– to suffer with her?

I find a line from the Boomtown Rats song repeating in my head: “They could see no reasons ‘cos there are no reasons.” It is fortunate that most of us find this incomprehensible and can’t truly empathize.

The film succeeds, then, in what it attempts to do. It is a think piece. A story about a sensational, tabloid-esque story that is consciously anti-sensational and humanizing. It is at the same time disturbing and, for a film that is framed around an ending, strangely unresolved.

There was a line in a Rolling Stone review of the film that struck me. It was, wrote Sam Adams, “a time when things could happen without being recorded.” This led me to a whole series of reflections on how the dictates of what constitutes a good story, and a proper ending, effects our day to day lives and how we see ourselves. This article is already too long, so I will leave those thoughts for another day.

“Beautifully Written and Quietly Moving”

9781613721032_p0_v1_s260x420What a lovely review of the novel Angel I just stumbled upon in USA Today’s “Happy Ever After” blog.

Beautifully written and quietly moving, Angel is an introspective book about discovering the many facets of who you are as a person within the context of religion, loss and love. Paul and Ian are not stereotypical romance heroes. Paul is overweight and soft. Ian can be harsh and also flighty. You don’t assume they will be a good fit and yet … they are. This is one that will stick with you far, far longer than you think it will.

Thank you to Judith from Binge on Books.

Rupert Everett’s Depiction of Wilde’s Last Years in “The Happy Prince”

I am looking forward to Rupert Everett’s new film “The Happy Prince,” which tells the story of Oscar Wilde’s last years. It has a distributor and is “coming soon” but so far I’ve only had the opportunity to see trailers and clips.

Having spent quite a few years researching that period, and the years that followed, I was especially interested to see this clip of a famous episode in the lives of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. After Douglas inherited his portion of the family fortune upon his father’s death, Wilde had dinner with him and asked him to set him up with a regular endowment. The conversation went badly and both Wilde and Douglas gave an earful about the other to the journalist Frank Harris. Wilde also wrote about the episode in a letter to Robert Ross who was not present. Harris wrote about the fight in his biography of Wilde. It was the one thing in Harris’s book that Douglas hated the most and he spent years trying to suppress it.  The chapter bolstered Robbie Ross’s view that Douglas was only interested in Wilde for his money. That view has been enduring, as you will recall from my review of The Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Happy Prince.” 

Obviously, as I have not seen the film, I don’t know how this scene appears in context. What I like about it, however, is how it depicts Bosie not as hopelessly selfish and callous but rather as disgusted with how Wilde is squandering his talent. This is also how I saw the episode, and so I thought I would share an excerpt on the subject from Oscar’s Ghost.

Many years later, Frank Harris would publish a biography of Wilde, with Ross’s help. It has been widely criticised for its literary style, which bolsters his own importance and invents direct quotes as a narrative device. Douglas hated Harris’s biography. He fought to keep it from being published in England, and he worked with Harris and later George Bernard Shaw as the writers tried to come up with a version Douglas would find satisfactory.

There was one incident in the Harris book that offended Bosie the most. After Queensberry’s death, Oscar invited Bosie to the Café de la Paix. Robbie had suggested to Oscar that now that Bosie had his inheritance, he should ask him to set up an annuity of £2,000 from his estate. (About £22,000 today) This would give Oscar a regular income and would make him no longer dependent on his wife’s estate if he did anything to upset the administrators of the fund.

Something went wrong, however, in the way Oscar presented the idea to Bosie. It sparked one of Bosie’s rages. What struck a nerve seems to have been a suggestion that Bosie owed him for the ruin his family had brought on him. This was probably not the first time he had heard this complaint. As Oscar recounted the argument to Robbie, Bosie ‘went into paroxysms of rage, followed by satirical laughter’ and said Oscar had no claim of any kind on him.

Harris happened to be staying in Paris along with Bosie and Oscar and he saw each of them shortly after the blow up. Harris quotes Bosie, two days latter saying to him, ‘I do not see that there is any claim at all,’ and spitting the word ‘claim’ ‘as if the very word maddened him.’ The word ‘claim’ might have come from Wilde and was at the heart of his anger.

Although Harris does not record Oscar saying anything negative about Bosie in the conversation he reportedly had with him, two pages later Harris tells Bosie that Oscar seems to blame him for egging him on in the libel trial. (Given how the Harris book was written, Wilde may have said something like this to Harris or Harris may have gotten the idea that Oscar felt that way from a conversation with Robbie or one of Oscar’s letters to Robbie…)

‘How did I know how the case would go?’ Bosie snaps. ‘Why did he take my advice, if he didn’t want to? He was surely old enough to know his own interest… he is simply disgusting now…’

In his letter to Robbie, Oscar describes Bosie as ‘revolting’ and ‘mean, and narrow, and greedy.’ He says he is ‘disgusted’ and considers Bosie’s refusal to be an ‘ugly thing’ that ‘taints life.’ He also threw in a few negative comments Bosie had reportedly said about Robbie’s attitude towards money for good measure, contrasting Robbie’s goodness with Bosie’s badness. Bosie’s memory of the argument differed from Wilde’s. He said he had just given Oscar £40 (in another source it was £80) and that he ‘whined and wheedled and wept’ to get more.

In the letter to Robbie, Oscar quotes Harris as saying ‘One should never ask for anything: it is always a mistake.’ He suggested that Oscar should have had Robbie make the suggestion. This is quite different in tone to the conversation as it appears in Harris’s biography. There is no way Harris could have appreciated all of the subtext in that quarrel between lovers. (Harris admits as much himself.) Bosie clearly was enraged by the personal associations in something Oscar said.

‘He could earn all the money he wants if he would only write; but he won’t do anything,’ Harris quotes Bosie as saying. ‘He is lazy, and getting lazier and lazier every day; and he drinks far too much. He is intolerable.’ Bosie admitted in his ‘setting the record straight’ preface to the 1930 edition of the Harris biography that he might well have called Oscar ‘an old prostitute.’

As usual, however, the mood soon passed and had no lasting effect on his relations with Oscar. If Harris had not been around to witness it, the whole thing would probably have been forgotten. The sad fact is that at this time, Oscar was sinking deeper and deeper into addiction. He drank to excess and spent every penny that fell into his hands on liquor and rent boys. His friends were at a loss on how best to help him.

…[Oscar’s] brother Willie died at age forty-six from the effects of chronic alcoholism. After Willie’s death in 1899, Robbie got Oscar to sober up for a few months. ‘Had circumstances permitted me to be with him more than I was,’ Robbie said, ‘I might have done something with him as he liked being ordered about by people whom he knew were fond of him.’

This goes a long way to explaining Bosie’s furious pronouncements that Oscar could support himself if he were not so lazy. He and Robbie had different styles, but it seems that Robbie in his gentle, thoughtful way, and Bosie in his direct and brutal way, were both ordering Oscar around out of love.

Robbie, Bosie and Harris each tried to support Wilde without giving him the means to drink himself into a stupor. Wilde griped to each of his friends about the stinginess of the others.

Yet Bosie believed Robbie did the right thing in doling out funds to Oscar. Years later, when he had little love left for Robbie, he wrote, ‘…I do not blame Ross at all for his cautiousness about the money and for his, unfortunately fruitless, efforts to make it last a little longer than it did. In this respect he certainly acted entirely in Oscar’s interests and with the best motives.’

T.H. Bell who knew Wilde in his last year found him to be someone who had ‘nothing left in him of responsibility, truthfulness or common honesty.’ Robbie complained to him of Wilde’s ingratitude. Bell was impressed by Robbie’s loyalty to him, given how he had been treated. ‘It is evident that there must have been something at one time, if there was not much of it left in his last period, that drew to the man those good friends who stood by him.’

 

If I Ran a News Channel

I have a pet peeve. I cannot stand the expression “the other side.” By that I mean when people on television talk about political issues and describe a group of people as “the other side,” generally as a euphemism for a member of the political party to which the speaker does not belong. It drives me crazy because it flattens everything into only two possible worldviews. It assumes that the only way to view things is as a liberal or a conservative and that what you will say about any given issue can be pre-determined by which you are. It even comes up in conversations about ending polarization. “Talk to someone from ‘the other side.'” Well there are lots of sides, and we have lots of identities and lots of feelings.

I saw an interview lately with Senator Elizabeth Warren. She was asked about how immobilized Congress is by partisanship and she pushed back against this. She told a story about a bipartisan bill to make hearing aids available over the counter that made it through both houses and was signed by the president. Why did this happen? Because it was not an issue that played into any culture war narrative about the left or the right.

We can discuss all the same issues, but there are important topics that we need to depoliticize. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in a recent Ted Talk said “We have an existential threat on our hands. Our left/right divide is by far the most important divide we face… This is the urgent needs of the next 50 years and things aren’t going to get better on their own.” (A few seconds later he used my hated expression “the other side.”)

I don’t have a billion dollars to launch my own cable news network to compete with the big three, but lately I’ve been giving some thought to what I would do if I had. If you look at the cable news networks today, there is a network that has a left focus and one that has a right focus and one that tries to position itself in the center, but they are essentially doing the same thing. There is a great deal of agreement between them as to what kinds of things constitute news, what types of issues warrant discussion as news and how to talk about them. They frame almost every event in terms of what it means for the democrats or republicans chances of re-election. There was, for example, much more discussion of whether the ACA (Obamacare) would pass or be repealed and how it would effect politicians careers and the balance of power in congress and the White House, than what the law consisted of. Same with the recent tax plan.

A while back I found myself watching this Youtube clip of Alain de Botton promoting his book “The News: A User’s Manual.” I was taken with his idea, which comes in about the 35:00 mark, (sorry, I couldn’t figure out how to book mark the video with a start time on Word Press) that the problem with news is that it does not have enough biases. That is to say, rather than framing discussion through the lens of left/right we could frame them through other biases or perspectives. His example of possible alternative biases are a Buddhist bias or a psychoanalytic bias or through the perspective of Walt Whitman.

Some biases that I could imagine, and would like to see represented on my imagined network, would include an aesthetic bias, a community bias, a citizenship bias. Perhaps these would be particular hours of programming– the Buddhist hour, the aesthetic hour…

De Botton’s “School of Life” experimented with the idea of news through a philosopher’s bias in the now defunct The Philosopher’s Mail.

A key principle was that news should target our needs. When a train in France was fatally derailed by a falling rock, we took the view that this was important news; not because we need to know about the state of transport in mountain regions but because it provides a sombre memento mori: a lesson for everyone about the fragility of existence and therefore, of our duty to forgive others, to get on with what really matters and to appreciate what is good in our lives. 

(I am reporting on this late in order to combat a bias that de Botton points out early in his Google talk, the news’s assumption that the most important things are the most recent.)

In any case, if had my own news empire, its bias would be focused on eliminating left/right framing. There would be no talk about “both sides” of an issue: because there are many sides to every issue. And I would love to see hours devoted to these different sorts of biases with watchable, well-informed hosts who took fresh views at the events of the world.  This might produce a different way of looking at the same events being covered on other networks, or it might priorities different stories entirely.

If politicians or political candidates came on the network to discuss current events or legislation, they would not be identified with an R or a D. This would take some getting used to. People look to those letters to decide, before the person speaks, whether they should agree or disagree.

There is, however, other information I would include. We have amble space on the screen and have become accustomed to tickers at the bottom and bullet points at the side. So instead of the R or D, the screen would show information about the politician’s geographic region, what the main industries are there– to give a sense of who that person represents. Additionally– and this is important– the biggest sources of campaign funds would be listed.

There is a strange disconnect in journalistic standards in this area. You would expect that if a news source reported on a scientific study on germs they would not leave out the fact that it was funded by Clorox bleach. It may be that the researcher would have found bleach is most effective in killing the particular kinds of germs it studied regardless of funding source, but it is a factor that people should know about. Not so with politicians. Yes, the information is available if you’re proactive. You can find out that your local senator was mostly funded by the chemical and banking industries, but that information should be made available at the time the viewer is evaluating a representative’s statements. The fact that a particular politician’s campaign was largely funded by health insurance companies may not impact her vote on health care policy, but we should be able to evaluate whether it does or not easily.

Being reminded regularly that this is the representative’s constituency, and these are their financial supporters, might change politician’s behavior to avoid the optics of caring more for one group than the other. If nothing else, it would help voters make informed choices.

I would also issue a moratorium on basing which stories to cover on what is trending online. As I’ve noted here before, there is a kind of story which is naturally suited to thrive in the digital environment. That is a story that allows someone to use it as an identity claim on social media. They tend to be tied to the culture wars in some fashion, often revolve around someone saying something stupid, which have little real world impact on people’s day to day lives, but which can elicit outrage and backlash against the outrage.

My channel would also not report on polls and day to day fluctuations in politicians approval ratings, treating that metric like a value on the stock exchange.

While we’re at it, I think enough channels cover the ups and downs of Wall Street. If you want to find that, there are plenty of places to look. Instead, my news channel would find different measures of economic health to report on.

The main point would be to widen the frame and to view the world differently.

If anyone is out there with a billion dollars to launch a new news channel, please feel free to use my ideas.

 

 

The Three Plots of Romantic Comedies

The home page of You Tube suggested this video to me, and who am I to argue with an algorithm?  I watched it. I’m sharing it here basically for the first few seconds in which Bill Maher describes the three plots of romantic comedies, “she marries her boss, stalking is romantic, and I hate you then I love you.” He forgot one: deceiving someone is a great way to get to know them. (Maid in Manhattan, Never Been Kissed, Roxanne) More on this category later.

Every writer has her particular obsessions, themes and questions she keeps coming back to. One of mine is the effect of story telling on our every day lives. It is what drew me to the story of the feud between two of Oscar Wilde’s lovers over his legacy.

Oscar’s Ghost begins:

This is a story about stories. On its most basic level, Oscar’s Ghost is about Oscar Wilde’s life and how its telling affected the lives of two people whom fate had cast as characters in it. But it is also about other stories: the stories told in courtrooms masquerading as the `whole truth’; the stories we tell ourselves to create an identity; stories we tell others to carve out a place in the community; stories that marginalized groups tell themselves to make sense of their difference; and the stories society relies upon to explain a moment in history. Oscar’s Ghost explores how all these stories interact and what happens when contradictory narratives collide.

My novel Identity Theft focuses on love stories. In Identity Theft, a rock star, Ollie, who had his greatest period of fame in the 1980s, is going through a divorce and hands social network duties over to the new kid in the office, a directionless stoner named Ethan. Ethan uses his access to flirt with a fan using his boss’s identity. The woman, Candi, has an uninspiring job in a company that is going through restructuring and threatening layoffs. When her favorite rock star starts flirting with her, she believes all of her dreams have come true. Each of the characters at various points in the story try to understand their confusing relationships by comparing their lives to popular culture. Ollie ponders whether he helped advance a false narrative about love with his own pop songs. Candi watches a romantic comedy and imagines she is about to feature in such a story. Ethan, meanwhile, binge watches romantic comedies on the theme of imposters and deceit. He uses this to persuade himself that if he just comes up with a good enough speech explaining that he did it for love Candi will fall in love with him by the end of the movie.

Romantic comedies do not get a lot of love. They’re mocked and maligned as lightweight. But the romantic comedy tropes, like our other popular story telling conventions, are our modern mythology. They are archetypes. They promise that love is transformative. Each person has only one true love. A true love takes a person out of her comfort zone. It is not made it is discovered. It overcomes all obstacles. Once it is found, the happy end has been reached. It is the end of the story.

I am not really sure what this all means for our ordinary lives, but I keep writing about it to find out.

 

 

 

Straight Authors, Gay Characters. The Case of “Call Me By Your Name.”

The other day I watched the film Call Me By Your Name.  Whenever I see a film based on a novel, I am curious to know more about the book, which brought me to this clip in which The Advocate interviews author André Aciman.

I was interested to learn that like my own novel Angel, which is also the story of a consequential love between two men, the setting came first. Aciman was inspired to write about Italy. The setting must have been romantic to him, and it brought to mind the tentativeness of early love. He initially imagined a boy/girl couple, but quickly changed because, he felt he wanted to write about overcoming inhibition and that there would be more inhibition with a gay couple.

Angel was inspired by the Pacific Northwest. In particular, Mt. Rainier. I started writing to answer the question of what might cause a minister, who was burned out on the ministry, to become a mountain tour guide. The story I wanted to tell had to have undercurrents of nature. He had to be seeking something in the mountain that he had also been seeking in his ministry, and whatever it was that he was seeking should also be the cause of his separation from the church. The thematic link that came to me was that the minister, Paul, was drawn to beauty, beauty of a particular, transient kind. Rainier is a volcano and will one day erupt. So the beauty he found in the form of Ian was something that had an awesome power.

The question of appropriation comes up in this clip. Aciman believes that artists should not be constrained to write only about their own selves and that with empathy and imagination you can put yourself in the shoes of another person. There is a joke that I believe I have quoted here before that if writers only write what they know there would be nothing but books about English professors contemplating having extramarital affairs.

I found in my own writing that I wasn’t really able to write fiction worth reading until I got beyond myself. I thank God on a regular basis that there was not much self-publishing when I wrote my first self-indulgent autobiographical novel.  The publishers who rejected it did me a great service. I don’t think that old saw “write what you know” should be taken too literally. There are multiple ways of “knowing” and that one way is to use empathy and imagination.

What Aciman knows is the hesitation of first love, and how he felt he could best illustrate it was with these two characters. In Angel what I “knew” had something to do with what it feels like to experience beauty, beautiful moments, beautiful relationships and how valuable and fleeting those glimpses of beauty can be. For whatever reason Paul and Ian came to me as the best way for me to illustrate that concept.  I don’t think a writer should shy away from writing a story in the form it comes to her, because those sparks of inspiration that are compelling enough to propel you through an entire project are too rare to brush aside.

Appropriation is tricky, though. The real problem is not that an individual artist might feel called to tell a story across various identity lines. The problem comes when a dominant group, because they are seen as having more authority or access to an audience, drowns out the voices of people from other groups telling their own stories. I wrote about this a few years ago. I had read an interview with a white writer who said she’d written a dark skinned protagonist because the world needs more books with African-American heroes.  My reaction was:

If I were to say, “There are not enough stories with African-American protagonists, and I think I should write one,” the results would be clunky. Not because I am incapable of imagining the internal life of a Black woman but because I would be approaching her as a representative of a social identity rather than as a person in her own right. The only reason I would make the choice to write from that perspective is if a story came to me that I could not imagine any other way.

I would like to think that readers, and viewers in the case of film, get a feel for what the creator was trying to express and to do. It will come across in the writing if the story is properly told, if the author was empathetic or exploitative, if the story wouldn’t be the same in any other form. From the reviews I’ve seen of the film and novel, Aciman did write characters who both straight and gay people respond to as real.

 

 

P.S. After seeing the film I can’t get that Bach piece out of my head. I suppose there are worse songs to be stuck in a continuous loop but…