Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Good and Bad Criticism vs. Postive and Negative Criticism

In my last post, I discussed three basic types of criticism (Constructive Criticism, Reviews and Academic Analysis), aimed at three different types of audiences (artists, culture users and society).

While I find this delineation an important one to make (and one seemingly lost track of far too often, in particular by critics themselves), there is another, dual distinction that all of them share. Because in all instances one can also arguably see a distinction between good/bad and positive/negative criticism.

Now, some of you might ask yourselves at this point what I am actually distinguishing here. In what sense is there a difference between these two sets of binaries? Well, to my mind, it is all a question of reference. The set positive/negative refers to how the criticism views its subject matter. Does the criticism relay a positive or a negative opinion of the material? The set good/bad, on the other hand, refers to how the criticism itself performs its task (regardless of whether it is favourable to the material or not).

Needless to say, it is always easier on the surface for an artist to encounter a positive piece of criticism (whether it is Constructive Criticism, a Review or an Academic Analysis), but as quickly becomes apparent upon a closer look, a good piece of negative criticism is preferable to a bad piece of positive criticism in terms of usefulness.

For instance, Constructive Criticism would be useless to the artist if it only offered unsubstantiated praise, whereas substantiated criticism (whether positive or negative, or both) would leave the artist with something with which he/she could work and based on that possibly rework the material at hand. In equal measure, a unsubstantiated positive review isn't much use to a potential culture user nor by default to the artist him-/herself. A well written negative review has the potential to let a user who would favour it find it despite the reviewer's lack of appreciation for the work itself (taste, after all, famously differs); and, of course, this is also helpful to the artist in question.

So, what makes for a good or bad piece of criticism? Well, I have already introduced the notion of substantiation. Simply put good criticism is marked by being well substantiated. The critic provides reasons for why and what he/she thinks are the strengths and/or weaknesses of the material. Furthermore, the critic knows the field, genre or category of the work at hand and judges it not only on its own (and, unavoidably, against his/her own palate), but as what it is and in its own cultural continuum. Also, in the case of good criticism, it is well written or at least formulated and at the end of the day useful to its intended audience. Arguably it is perhaps needless to say, but an overflowingly positive yet unsubstantiated and/or badly formulated piece of criticism is never really helpful to anyone (well, unless the piece of criticism is a review and people reading/hearing it have already established a very good taste equivalence with the admittedly bad reviewer and hence dare to chance it on the assumption that they might like it simply because the reviewer did).

Examples of bad criticism are not hard to find. In my last post, I brought up the currently all too common issue of spoilers in reviews. It is not rocket science to figure out that if your audience hasn't read/seen/heard the material you review, it is not up to you to dissect what they have yet to encounter (please, dear reviewers, leave that one to the practitioners of Academic Analysis, where spoilers can be taken for granted). A recent example of this trend are the two editions of the book 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. The title quite clearly states that this is a guide for people who wants to find books to read, yet far too many of the review pieces I have cast an eye at include severe spoilers, which quite frankly makes the function of the book itself questionable (who is it for really? and why?).

Another example of bad reviewing is when the reviewer (this time far from mistakenly assuming that he/she is actually making an Academic Analysis of the work) seemingly is under the assumption that the artist has asked him/her for Constructive Criticism. Of course, this yet again mistakes the intended audience of the piece of criticism and ends up serving fairly little purpose. As does overly negative and belittling criticism that simply puts the work (or its creator) down without qualifying anything. Perhaps the most telling of the latter I've come across was a Swedish tabloid review of a "Best of" type collection from former Marillion singer Fish. The review consisted of the single Swedish word "Fiskrens" (roughly translated to "fish left overs (after cleaning)"). Now, I am sure the reviewer thought he was immensely witty (and the fact that he didn't appreciate the collection came through clearly), but from my end, I could not help wondering how that could constitute a job well done. There was nothing in there informing me about what presumably was bad with the music or perhaps with this particular collection.
(As a slight aside in the case of collections, I've often found it interesting when reviewers, paid or otherwise, give a new "Best of" type collection a bad review simply because of merely adding an admittedly great track or two to an already existing great collection. I mean, if there are additions that fouls up an otherwise excellent collection, fair enough, but if the main complaint, as it so often is, is that this is bad because it is so commercial, I can't help wondering who the main audience for a "Best of" collection is... those who already have (almost) everything by the artist or those who have (almost) nothing. If the answer is the latter (which I personally find most reasonable), I find it absurd to give a great collection with added value a lower grade and standing. If you did not already have the first collection, clearly the second one is the one you should opt to get.)

Reviewing what you have not read/seen/heard would also be a rather big no; especially if on a professional basis. I clearly remember a film reviewer on TV remarking that a film he had seen was so bad that he had fallen asleep midway through and I couldn't help but wonder how many people would get paid for admitting to sleeping on the job (and hence not doing it).

The worst example I have come across in that respect, however, was a case here in Sweden a few years ago, where a reviewer had written a very caustic review (primarily caustic towards the author herself) of a book that was slated for being published that fall. However, as the author had not managed to get the book finished on time, the release had been postponed, apparently unbeknownst to the critic (who equally apparently had never intended to read the book anyway but merely saw an opportunity to spew out some venomous remarks about an author he disliked). It might be hard to believe, but the stupid and extremely bad critic even defended his action by offering the statement that he disliked the author ever so strongly. As if that should in any way be part of a review of the new novel in the first place. I was not in the least saddened to hear that the newspaper in question had rid themselves of that critic's services (though I find it less than heartening that he could get it published in their paper in the first place).

At the end of the day, I'd rather have a good piece of negative criticism any day of the week and twice on a Sunday; because regardless of whether it is Constructive Criticism, a Review or an Academic Analysis, it will provide me with useful information and knowledge. Which is something a bad piece of criticism can never truly do, no matter how positive it may be.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Constructive Criticism, Reviews and Academic Analysis

Of late I have been pondering the importance of delineating types of criticism in the fields of art and culture. Roughly speaking, I would argue that there are three main types. Listed in some sort of chronological order, these would be:
  • Constructive Criticism
  • Reviews
  • Academic Analysis
So, what are they?

Constructive Criticism is an important part of the artistic process. Most appropriately it is given by people who has been asked to provide it and normally before a given work is considered "finished" by its creator. It can also be given after the work is finished, then in order for the artist to improve him-/herself in his/her next venture, but still, unasked for criticism of this type might still be considered somewhat bad manners. For an artist (art form disregarded), it is perhaps needless to say very important to find people who can provide good Constructive Criticism (I will return to the notion of good criticism in my next post) in order to develop his/her craft.

Reviews are clearly not aimed at the artist or written for his/her benefit. While many culture critics would probably frown at the notion, the purpose of reviews is to serve as a form of market guide for the "users". Don't get me wrong. I don't mean this in a strictly capitalistic sense of buying the cultural product, but whether we look at culture through a capitalistic lens or not, we are nevertheless consumers and not merely in the financial sense. Whether we are reading a book or a comic, watching a film, listening to music or catching a show (concert, theatre or otherwise), we have to invest a certain amount of time (and mostly also money, there simply is no escaping that). As such, the main purpose of a review (whether of a book, comic, film, piece of music, play or otherwise) is to help us pick and choose among the available cultural material at hand. What this means is that the review as a genre primarily is aimed at an audience which is not familiar with the cultural material. The most blatant example of bad reviewing (and one far too common these days, I hasten to add) is reviews that contain spoiler material. A review should simply never give away important plot points or the like, and that includes most of them that is not there early on as part of the basic premise of the narrative. Far too many critics seem to mistake their role as reviewers with that of academic critics, which nicely leads us to the last type of criticism at hand.

Academic Analysis is the area of academic critics (though I'd argue that self schooled "academics" could enter the area as well) and it is not aimed at an audience unfamiliar with the material. In many (if not most) cases, the opposite is actually true, as the academic critic can assume his/her audience's familiarity with the material. Even if he/she opts to provide a quick summary of the work at hand (so as to help people less familiar with it to follow the analysis), such summaries would by nature contain spoiler material simply because the analysis itself looks at the work at hand in full, dissecting it, looking for answers to questions raised by the work itself, the critical community or contemporary culture.

Obviously, this type of criticism is important on a societal and cultural level in any society, but it is simultaneously important not to mistake it for reviews. Just as it is of equal importance for reviewers to understand that they are not producing Constructive Criticism or Academic Analysis. After all, the three different types of criticisms are aimed at three different types of audiences.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

To Seem or Not to Seem: On the Concept of Verisimilitude

In my last post ("A Not So Invisible Man: On H. G. Wells"), I briefly mentioned the term verisimilitude; a term I already brought up at the end of "Leaps of the Imagination" (posted way back in June), then promising to return to the term and the concept. And so, here we are.

Merriam-Webster's on-line dictionary traces the word verisimilitude back to circa 1576, etymologically stemming from the Latin verisimilitudo (in its turn from verisimilis verisimilar, from veri similis like the truth). The word is defined as:
1 : the quality or state of being verisimilar
2 : something verisimilar
Verisimilar then being defined as:
1 : having the appearance of truth : probable
2 : depicting realism (as in art or literature)

For obvious reasons, being that our topic relates to fiction (whether in the form of literature, comics or film), it seems appropriate to first turn to the notion of realism. Merriam-Webster defines realism as follows:
1 : concern for fact or reality and rejection of the impractical and visionary
2 a : a doctrine that universals exist outside the mind; specifically : the conception that an abstract term names an independent and unitary reality b : a theory that objects of sense perception or cognition exist independently of the mind — compare nominalism
3 : the theory or practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization
For the purpose of our discussion here, it is obviously the third one that applies. What is important to note, is that the term itself has gone askew over the years. First because of the 19th century literary movement of realism (which still to this day, stylistically speaking, governs a great deal of the literary output to varying degrees), the existence of which makes it easy to assume that realism, at least in literature, does not exist outside of this time period or somewhat time specific genre. The second factor is the advent of the camera and its explosive impact on our perceptions in particular during the 20th century. With the camera (both photography and film, I might add) comes the notion of photorealism and the photo real; and together with the aforementioned 19th century literary genre, this leaves us with an understanding of realism as not merely pertaining to the real, but almost being the real itself; a perfect representation, as it were.

Here, however, is the rub, because as we can see in Merriam-Webster's definition, it is a "theory or practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization" and as such it can never escape the layer of representation separating it from the real... whatever the "real" is.

Being representation, realism – more than anything else – is all about convention; about what we, as an audience, perceive to be real, truthful or, simply, realistic. This can be seen very clearly in the artistic development and handling of the film medium in the documentary genre, for instance. One of the reasons why documentaries held on to using black and white, and later grainier resolution, has do with using a visual that the audience perceived as depicting the truth, because precedents were laid out that made us trust these images more, simply because conventions had taught us that they were more strongly related to the real. Now, I think we can all agree that this is in fact convention and that neither black and white images nor grainier images actually are more realistic in the sense of pertaining to actual reality; or, more real, if you want.

This brings us back to the word of the day, that is verisimilitude. The Latin origin could be translated as "like the truth" and what is like the truth is not necessarily the truth. In short, verisimilitude has nothing to do with being actual truth or reality. Rather, as a convention, it is all about making something seem true or real. It is this which takes us into the territory where I've previously used the term; that is genres of the fantastic (e.g. fantasy, horror, science fiction and superheroes).

My first real encounter with the word itself (and an encounter that altered my own discourse on the subject, I might add) occurred some years ago. I was watching extra material on the DVD edition of Superman: The Movie and the word popped up. The director, Richard Donner, realised early on in the project that the main problem or challenge would be to convince the audience that Superman could fly. Don't get me wrong here, this is not a scientific question, not about explaining away the laws of gravity or whatever else. At the end of the day, it is about that age old concept of suspension of disbelief. Most (if not all) fiction relies upon that concept at some point or other, to some degree or another, because obviously a representation is never that which it represents (not even when that which it does represent is real; and let's remember that fiction problematises such notions even further by not necessarily representing or referring to an actual real event or occurrence).

Donner's film was presented with the slogan, "You'll Believe a Man Can Fly!" (i.e. the mantra the crew worked with throughout the production) and audiences did. Not because they were given lengthy explanations about how it worked, but because the film makers visually managed to sell the idea that a man could, in fact, fly. The audience suspended their disbelief and bought into this fantastical element of the fiction.

This is an approach that some films today would do well to remember (and that goes for some comics and literature as well). We sometimes seem to live in a world where the notion of verisimilitude is either all but forgotten or gravely misunderstood.

The former could arguably be seen in films (or fiction in other media) that do not seem to even make an effort in making us believe in the fictional world projected. Here we, for instance, find stories about vampires that throw all kinds of logic (narrative or otherwise) or credibility out the window, seemingly saying to the audience that "if you can suspend your disbelief to the extent of accepting vampires, well then I presume you'll swallow anything I offer, no matter what it is or how shoddily I attempt to sell it to you."

On the other hand, the grave misunderstanding of verisimilitude is no better, really. Here we have the over explainers, the people who in their pursuit of "realistic" depictions of the fantastic tries to go beyond selling it as like the truth or real, and find a way of explaining it as actually real, preferably in a scientific manner. The question being, do we really need to know (with great in-depth understanding) why the dragon can breathe fire or how Superman can fly? Do we? Really?

Suspension of disbelief requires that we can accept that what is happening on the screen or page is happening within the confines of the fictional universe at hand. It is the question of accepting the fictional fantastic as believable, as like truth (rather than as true) and move on from there. Over explaining things rarely helps to sell what is essentially an illusion to begin with. After all, how many people actually knows how an aeroplane works and flies? How many people knows in great details how a computer functions for that matter?

And before someone cries "I know" – I'd like to quickly add; that's not the issue. Sure, there are people who know these things (obviously). But my point is that far, far from everyone in the general public does. Yet this does not make them express disbelief in either aeroplanes or computers. And, for the record, aeroplanes and computers were merely two examples from a list that could go on and on and on. We live in a reality most of us know fairly little about on a multitude of levels and with regards to a multitude of functions. Yet we do not disbelieve in all of these things, despite the fact that we might not know or understand the how or the why of it.

An over explanation of a fantastic element is often more likely to reveal flaws in logic and presentation, ultimately rendering the over explanation counter-productive. The more you tie a fantastic phenomenon into a scientific explanation, the more you depend on that scientific model to hold and to in itself contain verisimilitude. Because here is another rub: that which is true needs not always seem like truth. This is why more realistic stories (in a traditional sense) can fail in depicting things that are actually true or real. Because verisimilitude is not a question of being or not being real. It is a question of seeming real, of seeming true.

And when it comes that question... well, then what actually is, is much less important. After all, we tend to believe in that which seems real.

Monday, 30 November 2009

A Not So Invisible Man: On H. G. Wells

Having just finished The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells (having previously read an omnibus edition with The Time Machine and The War of the World), I thought it worthwhile to talk about him and his work, not to mention his importance for the genre of science fiction.

To quote from the biography in my edition of The Invisible Man:
"Herbert George Wells—novelist, social critic, and visionary futurist who became one of the most prolific and widely read writers of his generation—was born in the London suburb of Bromley, Kent, on September 21, 1866."
It might sometimes be easily forgotten that Wells was not only an early (and very important) science fiction writer, but that he also wrote other types of fiction as well as engaged in historical and political writing. In particular, his social interest as related to history and politics quite clearly shines through in his science fiction writing as well, and it might be these interests, at least in part, which earned him disparaging comments from Jules Verne (1828–1905) for the lack of strict scientific accuracy in his stories. Despite Verne's opinion in the matter, I think Wells manages to create a convincing sense of verisimilitude that allows him to tackle not only science in and of itself, but society (without which there can be no science) and its role. Don't get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Verne's approach to science fiction, but I doubt he could, for instance, have made as an intriguing study of the concept of invisibility as Wells does in The Invisible Man; simply because of the pseudo-science Wells has to resort to as a backdrop for his real agenda.

As such, I would argue, Wells probably has a stronger kinship to his fellow countryman Mary Shelley, whose creation of Frankenstein operates in similar ways to Wells' fiction (granted that Wells resorts more verbally to both the science of his day and pseudo-science if need be). Whereas Verne's focus seems to often be connected to the technological, Wells is entrenched in the realm of the social; and I would actually argue that the latter has been of overall more importance to the science fiction genre. Perhaps that is why it is easy to trace most if not all of science fiction's primary topics as already there in Wells writing.

In The Time Machine (1895), Wells covered the concept of time travel, clearly a popular science fiction topos throughout the history of the genre. It is also clear from his main focus on the Eloi and Morlocks that his future vision is strongly tied into a societal thinking (formed by many of the ideas of the time).

In The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), the idea is all about scientific experiments and the moral issues related to them (much like in Shelley's Frankenstein). More importantly, perhaps, is the strong suggestions of the science of genetics, which are at least implied by the general plot of the story. Not to mention the fact that this was far before the the discovery of DNA and the concept of cloning really entered the scientific and public debate.

In The Invisible Man (1897), the scientific experiment is once more part of the analysis, but perhaps to a greater degree, it is thought experiment on how a supernatural phenomenon like invisibility would function in the world; both practically in a sort of scientific sense and socially.

In War of the Worlds (1898), Wells turned to the notion of alien invasion, a topos so common to science fiction, both in literature and film, that it almost seems redundant to point out.

In When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), Wells revisits the future, but while the plot obviously (on a strictly technical level) involves a form of "time travel," it is different from The Time Machine in that it is merely an enhanced version of the time travelling we all do on a daily basis. As such, perhaps, the focus should be more on the topos of stories set in the future; but it is hard to not also note that the notion of extended sleep brings cryogenics and options for space travel to mind for modern readers.

And finally, in The First Men in the Moon (1901), Wells turned his attention to space travel (Verne having, of course, been there ahead of him in From the Earth to the Moon and Round the Moon) as well as another instance of first contact with an alien culture.

In short, Wells managed to cover most (if not all) of the major topoi of science fiction in a period of six years and, it could arguably be said, laid a good foundation for the genre; both terms of establishing topoi and in terms of literary style. Because I dare anyone to call Wells writing lesser literature. This is writing with a fine and acute sense for language, to be sure.

When he dies on August 13, 1946, he had long since turned to other forms of writing, but his influence on the genre of science fiction cannot be denied. In fact, it can be quite clearly seen to this day.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

First Lines Quiz #2 — Music: And the Correct Answers Are...

1. Genesis, "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight"

2. Muse, "Supermassive Black Hole"

3. Queen, "Another One Bites the Dust"

4. Pink Floyd, "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1"

5. Porcupine Tree, "Fear of a Blank Planet"

6. David Bowie, "Ashes to Ashes"

7. Marillion, "Script for a Jester's Tear"

8. Van der Graaf Generator, "La Rossa"

9. Judas Priest, "Dissident Aggressor"

10. Sting, "Russians"

Not that many participants this time around and seeing as how both of them clocked in one correct answer each, I think they both deserve honorary mentions: lazy and Tom.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

First Lines Quiz #2 — Music

Back in August, I did a First Lines Quiz inspired by my friend Lazy over at Lazy's Library. Then (as in Lazy's inspirational case) the challenge was to recognise from which book (by which author) the first lines in question were taken.

This time, however, I decided to try something slightly different, since I figured the quiz would work just as well with music. So, from which songs (by which artists/bands) are the following first lines taken?

1. "Can you tell me where my country lies?"

2. Oo baby don't you know I suffer

3. Steve walks warily down the street

4. Daddy's flown across the ocean

5. Sunlight coming through the haze

6. Do you remember a guy that's been

7. So here I am once more in the playground of the broken hearts

8. Lacking sleep and food and vision here I am again, encamped upon your floor

9. Grand canyons of space and time universal

10. In Europe and America, there's a growing feeling of hysteria

I hope you'll enjoy the challenge and good luck!

Friday, 13 November 2009

Some Thoughts on Genre

I promised in a previous post to talk a little about genre...

Genre is many things, it would seem.

Roughly speaking, I would say that there are two major different types of genre: content genres and format genres. Perhaps this is more than a bit simplified, especially considering the great amount of critical literature on genre and genre studies, but nevertheless, I feel that it is a valid view.

Content genres are, of course, genres who are defined (at least primarily) by a specific content, say science fiction or fantasy. This is not to say that some such genres can't also have certain elements and conceits vis-a-vis format, but their primary definition relies on the content they display.

Format genres, on the other hand, are defined by their format, on how they shape a text, for instance, say like poetry or novels or sonnets. And now you probably stopped abruptly with a "wait a minute" on your lips. Yes, I did write both poetry and sonnet there (cleverly separated by the novels, don't you think), and no, I did not make a mistake nor am I so badly schooled as to be unaware of the fact that sonnets are in fact poetry. My point, however, was to bring us to another complication; i.e. that genres exist as an interrelated network of hierarchical structures.

What I mean is that both within content and format genres we have levels at which these genres operate. Poetry gives us a broad genre understanding of the work at hand, whereas sonnet gives us a much more specific one, bound by rhyme schemes and metre as it were. Both describe the same thing, but with different specificity. Equally I might also say that an alexandrine is poetry (since it is true), although I couldn't claim that an alexandrine were a sonnet, or vice versa.

Basically, it's a system of species and subdivision, much similar to the old adage "a horse is an animal, but not all animals are horses."

To complicate matter even further though, it is of course, at this point, worth saying that we can cross-breed genres on the same level and of the same type, and then of course add distinctions on various levels.

So, we could have a poem, narrative in nature (and I guess function), perhaps even using the specific format of the sonnet (by using a sequence of sonnets most likely to get enough space to properly have time and space to tell a story) which is used to tell a science fiction and crime cross-breed, where we might also even be able to define a specific SF subgenre (say space opera) and a specific crime subgenre (say forensic).

As such, the definitions can occur on a very fine level or a more general one, focus on the content or the format. They will be important for the writer to understand when he or she sets out to use specific genres, yet will also be interacting with the text in manners which proves to us that an author can never fully control which genre he or she is writing in. There will always be sliding and overlapping, and the reader or viewer will inevitably see things that he or she reads or views based on what he or she knows.

Which of course isn't to say that the author can sit back and simply not care.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

A Grizzly Story or a Disney Story: Thoughts on Herzog's Grizzly Man

Last evening, I watched Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, about bear lover and fanatic (for want of a better word) Timothy Treadwell. The film, made by Herzog in 2005, is composed mainly from the the over 100 hours of video filmed by Treadwell during the last five of his 13 summers spent up in grizzly bear country in Alaska, until he and his then girlfriend were killed and devoured by a bear in 2003. Despite this fact, the film has clear marks of Herzog in the way it has been edited together and the questions it raises.

If Treadwell, a recovering alcoholic and failed actor, can be described (quite aptly) as a natural Romantic, Herzog on the other hand serves as a more cynical counterpoint. For Herzog nature offers nothing Romantically sublime, but rather an utter indifference (something which Herzog's narration in the film returns to over and over again). To him, Treadwell's story is interesting mainly from two angles, both of which continually shine through:
1) the film maker's, i.e. the fact that Treadwell's footage captures scenes that are filmically sublime, in some sense; perhaps in their capturing the unforeseen and the spontaneous;
2) the human one, i.e. in Herzog's view, and the view of the finished film, Treadwell's footage tells us less about bears than about human beings, exemplified by that one human being, Timothy Treadwell.

Yet, between Treadwell's natural Romanticism and Herzog's cynical view of nature, the film brings out a third point of some importance, at least in my own analysis of it. People around Treadwell (former friends, lovers and acquaintances) continually talk about him as a person who wanted to be a bear. This is a line which his monologues on camera problematically both reaffirms and disclaims (the latter mostly in footage where he claims not to be one of the bears, but rather something like their lord and master).

Now, the notion of living with animals on the animals' terms is perhaps not as ludicrous as Herzog would seem to think. People like Dian Fossey who lived with the gorillas in Rwanda in such a manner seem to be proof of that possibility, but Treadwell for all his 13 summers in the Alaskan grizzly bear country does not seem to have been part of this. Don't get me wrong, I do not doubt that Treadwell himself believed that he was doing just that, but what his filmed material reveals something different. In none of the many clips Herzog has chosen to include in the film does Treadwell interact with the grizzly bears on the grizzly bears' term. Rather he talks to them as if they were cuddly toys (in a manner most resembling Fab 5's Carson Kressley gone nature fanatic).

I am here also reminded of The Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, whose show continuously from within the confines of civilisation makes it abundantly clear that even those animals who are among the most domesticated by us are after all a different species. While communication is possible, such a thing necessitates an understanding of that difference, of finding ways to communicate with the animal in their own language as it were. In Cesar Millan's case, this means understanding the rules of dominance and submission inherent in canine pack mentality and never mistaking the dog's expressions for human expressions.

Treadwell, while claiming to understand the language of the bears and wanting, perhaps, to be one, shows no such actual tendencies in the material we are shown. In fact, if anything, the film offers the complete opposite. With his overly film-oriented persona he brings the age of reality TV to mind (e.g. shows like Jackass, Wild Boyz or the late Steve Irwin's Crocodile Hunter, though admittedly with a different sentimental flavour), and this is where the focus ceases to be the grizzly bears and truly becomes Treadwell himself. Herzog's revelation of repeated takes on Treadwell's part brings this very conscious film maker to the fore and some of his more emotional rants also show us the failed actor still acting out (Herzog's somewhat "veiled" reference to Klaus Kinski and his own collaborations with that man, so wonderfully depicted in the documentary Mein liebster Feind, brings this out even more).

In the final analysis, Treadwell was not so much a man who had gone bear (to paraphrase an old saying). He was a recovering alcoholic who had managed to turn his back on booze by substituting it with something else. And that something else was apparently a somewhat delusional view of the natural world of the grizzly bears. Without being able to stomach the "unfairness" (a very human concept, I think you will agree) of the natural order of things, be it young cubs killed by their elders or droughts that have Treadwell raging at deities he expresses no belief in (well, maybe some belief when rain actually appears), and with his insistent habit of talking to the animals as if they were small children (in a rather cute manner, as it were), it simply becomes impossible to see Treadwell as an actual part of the bear community. He becomes a, perhaps benign (at least in the most direct sense), intruder in the world of these grizzly bears; one that was allowed for a time to co-exist in their habitat (obviously on borrowed time, as it turned out), but an intruder nonetheless. Because Treadwell obviously desired a fantasy world. His was the desire to be a Tarzan or a Mowgli, a child of the woods, of the animals; but animals as understood from a Disney-fied perspective.

Throughout the film, Treadwell continuously talks about his respect for the bears (and the foxes). Yet his continuous, cute commentary and dialogue with them (including telling the animals repeatedly that he loves them) reveals little respect for them to my eyes. That is, at least if respect in any way means understanding the Other on its own terms rather than on your own terms. Because Treadwell, for all his rants and ravings against civilisation, was at the end of the day anthropomorphizing the bears and the foxes he interacted with, attributing them human emotions and responses rather than actually trying to understand these animals on their own terms (and seemingly expecting them to understand him on his).

In the end, to return to the title of this post, Timothy Treadwell's story was a (somewhat delusional) Disney story which turned into a grizzly story, simply because there is no other way such a story could end. Understanding the Other, whether in a cultural sense or (as in this case) a species sense, necessitates a proper understanding of the terms of interaction. Projecting one's own terms upon the world can not yield any true results; nothing more than a life inside a projected fantasy bubble. And those have a tendency to be shattered pretty harshly.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Genre Writing and Writing Genres: Storytelling and Idiosynchrasies in Different Media and Genres

I recently wrote the post "Comics – A Medium Not a Genre", and I would like to follow up on that with a discussion on format, both in terms of medium and genre. The reason behind this is that there sometimes exists a flawed assumption that any good storyteller by default can tell a story in any medium or genre, and even worse, with equal skill. As if the art of storytelling was so universal as to negate any idiosyncrasies of medium or genre. True, there are universal elements, elements that can be used in many (if not all) media or genres, but there are nevertheless differences that cannot be overlooked.

A great poet need not make a good novelist, nor vice versa. By the same token, a great science fiction writer need not make a good fantasy writer. Nor does a writer in the medium of literature necessarily play well in the medium of film, or a film script writer well in the medium of comics.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that one thing excludes the other (there are plenty of writers who have mastered writing within several genres and within several media). All I'm suggesting is that it is by no means a given.

Even if we look at the most ordinary type of narrative prose fiction and compare some writers' efforts within the same type of content genre (I will be talking more about genre in an upcoming post), but in terms of novels and short stories, there are clearly some writers who are either better at the succinct format or at the longer one. The former might seem to drag his/her material out or even get lost in the effort when writing in the longer format, whereas the latter might seem cut short in the briefer format. In fact, it might not even be so clear cut a deal, not a question of good or bad as much as "not quite as good." The point, however, nevertheless stands.

And what this points to is that a writer must know and master the format. Whether the format is a genre or a medium (or even more likely an intersection of genres in a medium; say a science fiction thriller novel, citing a cross-breed of two content genres (SF and thriller), one format genre (the novel), told in the medium of literature), it is a question of knowing how that genre and/or medium functions.

In my post on comics as a medium (referred to in the opening line), I brought up the example of Angel After the Fall in order to show a difference between the media of comics and film. This difference was shown by my pointing to a failure on Brian Lynch's part to understand it in his writing a comics script that (at least partly) reads like a film script. The end result in this particular case, as stated, is not bad (not at all, I hasten to add), but there is no escaping the fact that the inclusion of Lynch's script reveals an intended effect that has not only failed to come across in the finished product; it never had a chance of coming across in that way in the first place, simply because comics aren't film (for details on the argument, see that earlier post).

From my own point of view, understanding a medium or a genre is part of the fun of tackling a particular medium or genre. Writing the script for a film or a comic should not be handled the same as writing a novel, nor even writing a comic script as you would write a film script. There are differences (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle), but the writer needs to understand these. He or she needs to play to the strengths of the medium at hand, and be aware of any potential weaknesses.

For instance, adapting Joyce's famous stream of consciousness ending of Ulysses to film with an ongoing (near mad) voice-over narration would, most likely, be catastrophic in terms of film-making and most likely quite boring (and yes, there are, of course, those who would argue that Joyce's own version isn't exactly a whole lot of fun either, but bear with me). Translating the sequence to a visual stream of consciousness perspective, however, might better suit Joyce's idea in itself, not to mention work much better in the medium of film. And, while a director is clearly the artistic captain of the film-making ship, it behoves the script writer nevertheless to write for the medium at hand. Because why should he or she write a lengthy, wordy, voice-over adaptation of Joyce's monologue if it is to be thrown out from the get go? Why not think that little bit extra and write a set of visual cues for the director to stage and operate? After all, a script writer for a film is not writing a novel (something that should be even more abundantly clear in a case of adaptation as just hypothetically described), but a script for a film. Shouldn't that script in itself be a blueprint to a successful finished product? Shouldn't it be all about visualising just that?

Maybe it's just me, but it seems strange to happily attempt to write for a medium or a genre without contemplating what it is, how it works, and how you could make it work for your story.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Research, Knowledge and Uninformed Opinionatedness

Last Saturday, Dr Jenny Mattsson defended her PhD dissertation The Subtitling of Discourse Particles. A corpus-based study of well, you know, I mean, and like, and their Swedish translations in ten American films (abstract and full text available here) at Göteborg University. Now the day before the event, the Swedish newspaper Göteborgs-Posten (GP) ran a short interview piece with her, entitled "Hon forskade sex år på småord" (Eng. trans. She researched small words for six years), which came across as somewhat odd.

To understand this oddity, I should say a few things up front.
1) Göteborgs-Posten is one of the major Swedish newspapers, especially on the western side of the country, what with it being based in Göteborg.
2) Göteborg has one of the country's biggest universities, which is by no means strange, considering it is the second biggest city in the country.
3) GP no longer reviews PhD dissertations within the humanities (with the exception for the odd dissertation on literature).

Bearing all this in mind, and for the moment leaving aside the obvious criticism against this being the case, I would like to return to the interview piece. The title itself sets a rather nasty tone (some might call it passive-aggressive) and throughout it becomes rather obvious what the interviewer wants his subject to say; that she has wasted her time and the tax payers' money researching small words (otherwise known as discourse particles) for the time period in question. Because clearly this is wasteful research, right? Joakim Lundgren at GP at least seems fairly sure of it. The question of course being how he knows this. Did he actually read the piece? It does seem unlikely, to be frank, and if anything it is more likely that he has read (or perhaps browsed through) the abstract, and from that formed a rather fixed opinion. An opinion which he then carries into the interview under the less than successful guise of objectivity. The piece as presented on-line is then followed by reader commentaries (the obvious option in this day and age), set off with the slogan "Tyck till! Behöver småorden uppmärkas mer?" (Eng. trans. What's your opinion? Do small words need to get more attention?), and the result, not very surprising, is not nice. Rather it is, at least in part, uninformed and quite ugly.

Do not get me wrong. A strong debate is good. As is a diversity of opinions. But when the opening argument is uninformed and opinionated, how can a good debate ensue? Especially when the original piece is slanted to such a degree that most readers will be following the suggested path laid down by Lundgren. And then it is very easy to say that this is wasteful research (as many people seem to think most research outside of medicine and technology is).

I am not saying that "wasteful" research does not exist. Of course, it does. The question is whether we can easily decide what is valuable research and what is not. And when. Many people like to say that the humanities and the social sciences are less valuable, more or less simply because they are harder to apply in a utilitarian fashion. But I am sure that a lot of those people would be shocked if they knew some of the research being done in medicine or technology too. Because some of that might look wasteful to the uninformed eye as well. Not to mention that some of it may be wasteful... as of yet. I am convinced that a lot of these people, if left in charge of research funding and left uninformed, might well have put a stop to the discovery of penicillin. I mean, why do research on mould, right?

A few weeks back, blogger Tom Karlsson wrote a blog post (in Swedish) in response to a newspaper column by another journalist, Richard Swartz, in Dagens Nyheter, another Swedish paper (found here). The column was obviously a cry of "sour grapes" concerning newspaper journalism losing ground to uninformed blogging (though not without its serious points about problems in newspaper journalism), which quite obviously and rightly irritated my blogging friend quite a bit. Because while there may well be reason to lament the loss of money invested in serious journalism and news analysis (of various kinds) at the newspapers today, this is largely the newspapers' own fault. And GP's piece mentioned above shows this very clearly. Because if a serious newspaper moves into uninformed and opinionated writing, which they then, in a very populistic fashion, open up to something less akin to a debate and more rightly described as pure opinionatedness to a large degree; then where are we heading?

If the individual cost of doing research is being ridiculed for one's work, not because it is bad, not even because somebody has critically gone over the work and found it wanting, but simply because somebody who cannot be bothered to actually read the work is opinionated in an unfavourable way (which is not to say that opinionatedness is any better if favourable, though clearly more easily digested and less offensive); then who do we expect will ever want to do research? And societies need a healthy and diversified research climate, within all branches of academic knowledge (and perhaps beyond).

Now the cost of useful research in any society is a lot of research, and a lot of that research will not in and of itself have a utilitarian purpose. However, we cannot judge everything by its utilitarian purpose, partly because of the fact that not being able to see the present utilitarian application of something at the present time does not equate that we will not be able to do that at a future point in time. But more importantly, how will we ever be able to know beforehand which research will provide us with useful answers? And useful to whom? For what purposes? And in what sense? Clearly these things need to be constantly discussed and argued, but in an informed manner. They need not be hung up as public spectacle and ridiculed by uninformed, opinionated people posing as objective professionals or people trusting the judgement of such people.

I am reminded of something said at a seminar at this year's Book Fair in Göteborg by Sven-Eric Liedman (Professor Emeritus of the History of Ideas at Göteborg University). In a discussion, Liedman brought up the importance of public fora and public debate, but pointed to a problem in today's society, namely that we tend to overemphasise the existence of such debate rather than the quality of it. Liedman made the point that we live in a time when it is very easy for anyone to start a blog and write a blog post, which may then in turn set off a debate or discussion in the comment section. But if the first post, the root of the debate, is merely a set of uninformed opinions, where will that leave the debate? Especially, if it merely reiterates the presentation of opinions, albeit it different in various ways and degrees.

Now, it might be easily assumed that Liedman's critical statement echoes that of Swartz's column in DN, but I am not convinced that that is the case. Swartz seems, somewhat weirdly (given his own comment that there is always a reader who knows and has understood more than the journalist/writer), set in seeing the blogs in and of themselves as part of the problem, whereas Liedman's caution rather seems to suggest that we need to consider any form of debate or discussion in qualitative terms; to consider where it stems from and what knowledge it rests upon.

As such, it is not the medium itself which should be blamed for the quality of the debate involved, but rather how the debate is set up. And on this account Lundgren's piece in GP (and by default GP itself for running the piece) failed miserably. Because nothing much good can come from uninformed opinions in the long run.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Comics — A Medium Not a Genre

There is a common, flawed assumption that comics are some form of (sub)literary genre, right next to your supposedly lesser genres of thriller, SF, horror and fantasy.

This, however, is untrue!

The argument that comics would be a literary genre is about as valid as claiming that film is a literary genre. Film is clearly a different medium from literature and while both literature and film can be, and most often are, used for storytelling (i.e., for narrative purposes), they are also different in how they can and do achieve this.

Comics, of course, also operate differently than literature. It is quite clearly more visual in nature than regular literature, which is fundamentally conceptual in that we have to imagine what we as readers "see" before our inner eyes, guided by the literary text itself. Yet, I also find Will Eisner's comment on comics being "movies on paper" to be an equal the medium. Sure, the argument could be made that comics are, in some sense, closer as a medium to film than to literature (at any rate, it is at least closer to film than literature is), but even then we are missing things, like film being an audiovisual medium, for instance (whereas comics are merely visual).

Most importantly though, I would argue for the following distinction:
Film is a temporal medium. It shows the viewer a sequence of images all placed, as it were, in the same space yet sequenced in time. As such, a film unlike say a novel actually has a set time for its own consumption (sure we can play with pauses and fast forwarding these days if we want to, but if we just want to watch the film, it is a certain number of minutes).

Comics, however, are a spatial medium. Like film it is based on visual sequential storytelling, but unlike film, the sequence is not set in time but in space. Each frame holds a specific space on a single page, each page holds a specific place in the comicbook or TPB, and the sequences of frames on each page together with the sequences of pages forms the narrative, is the narrative.

I actually found a good example to illustrate this difference when I read the first Angel After the Fall collection. Now don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed this comic, but in the extra material was an included script and I reacted to one thing in particular. Writer Brian Lynch indicates time and again that he builds up each page as a scene thinking very filmically, i.e. he sets each page up to hold a surprise reveal at the end (which will work as a sort of cliffhanger and keep the audience's interest). What struck me, however, was that this did not quite come across in the finished product. In fact, it could not. See, in film, temporal as it is, the end of the scene will not be known until we reach that particular point in time. In a comic, however, anything that I can see by a glance at the end of the page or even at the opposing page, will not come as a full on surprise for me when I reach that place. Rather, I will read the whole scene being fully (or at the very least partially) aware of what the reveal will be. For the surprise to function in a comic, the final panel on the page must instead be the cliffhanger setting up the reveal and the reveal itself needs to be in the first panel on the next page (letting the scene end there, as it were), or even effectively in some cases as a full splash page (the latter of course works particularly well with cliffhanger endings to an issue/chapter, etc.).

Another rather clear cut example, which differentiates comics as a medium, this time from literature, is a sequence from Gaiman and McKean's early masterpiece, Violent Cases. Now, while comics can be "silent" in that they only require sequential art to tell the story (or even make their argument), the medium certainly allows for and commonly uses written words as well (which is perhaps one of the reasons for wanting to view it as a literary genre). However, in Violent Cases, where the narrator is telling a story about a childhood meeting with an osteopath (who was supposedly the osteopath of Al Capone), there is a sequence which could not effectively be translated to written language (which, of course, is the domain of literature). The sequence is basically four panels (see included image) inset at the top of a what is really a full page panel. The part of the story that is being narrated is actually the osteopath relating some of his past in a series of captions, while the images we get are basically a combination of that story as seen or imagined by the osteopath and by the narrator's child self. In particular, the fourth caption and the second panel both verbally and visually introduce O'Banion, a man whom we learn in the following caption "started saying that stuff about Sicilians" (this caption is set in the third panel showing three blazing gun nozzles). The same caption then continues to state that "Al and Johnny Torrio had to have him rubbed out." All of which follow the logic of the blazing gun nozzles and the gangster language. However, the final of the four inset top panels is a repetition of the second panel (i.e. O'Banion's face looking back over his shoulder), only in this panel it is smeared as if someone has started erasing the image, and it sports the caption "(Rubbed out?)", a question from the narrator's child self. The obvious effect is the double meaning of the phrase "rubbed out" and the child's difficulty in comprehending what the story the osteopath is telling means. However, any attempt to capture this double meaning in written language quite simply becomes analytical, and in some sense both less artistic and less eloquent (albeit most likely more verbose). In effect, it shows a strength of the comics medium where any attempt to adapt the piece into a short story or a novel would entail what adaptation theorist Brian McFarlane talks about as adaptation proper (as opposed to a direct transfer); that is, finding a suitable medium equivalent to that medium specific element in the source text.

I have now shown two examples differentiating comics as a medium from both the medium of literature and the medium of film, respectively. So why does the misconception linger? Most likely, it has to do with matters of prestige. The medium of film went through a phase early in its career, where it in some sense attempted to be literature, because of literature being an older, tried and more prestitigous medium and domain. But film gained its own prestige and didn't look back... well, at least not in the sense that it wanted to be literary (now, and for most of its existence, it is merely happy to adapt literature, to use already tried source material as a basis for what is still the most expensive artistic medium around. But I'm sure we'll return to such matters at another time).

Comics, however, despite being roughly as old as film, if not even older, depending on how we define comics as a medium (Scott McCloud's definition in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, for instance, suggests that something like the Bayeux Tapestry could arguably be seen as an early comic), has simply not managed to gain the same type of prestige as film. This sadly leads to a lot of comics enthusiasts trying to lean on the prestige of literature by claiming comics as a literary genre, something of literary value, just to prove the value of the comics themselves (and yes, I have in earlier days fallen into that trap myself, I'll admit). The trap here, however, lies in the fact that, while we can argue the value of certain stories told and the telling thereof, to simply compare a piece of comics work to a literary work in literary terms, is quite frankly doing comics a disservice. They cannot do what literature can, or perhaps more accurately, they cannot do it in the same way, just as literature cannot function the same way as comics. For a story to move from one to the other requires adaptation, and adaptation proper at that, because there are medial differences to overcome in that particular translation.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Fourteen Seminars, Eight Mini Seminars, Four Signed Books and Four Days: The Göteborg Book Fair, Pt 2

So, here comes the second part of my highlights from this year's Book Fair in Göteborg.

Saturday, in terms of interesting and good seminars, seemed to focus on fantasy and imagination in literature, of the need to go beyond the real or the naturalistic and fully make use of human imagination as a writer.

The first seminar of three worth mentioning was "Drakmytologi i modern litteratur" (trans. Dragon Mythology in Modern Literature), a discussion between SF-Bokhandeln's Maths Claesson and children's writer Jo Salmsson which discussed how contemporary fantasy has developed dragon mythology from its more strictly mythological roots (actually raising quite a few questions in the mean time, which I might one day opt to look into much deeper) as well as discussing Salmsson's children's series Drakriddare (trans. Dragon Knights), the first book of which I bought and got signed after the seminar.

The next seminar, which dealt less with the genre of fantasy per se, and more with literary imagination, featured a discussion between moderator Stephen Farran-Lee and writers Carl-Johan Vallgren and Bengt Ohlsson. I have as of yet read neither of these two writers, but they have both caught my eye on more than one occasion and the conversation on stage did not lessen my interest. If anything, I regret only buying Vallgren's latest book and having that signed, and not taking the opportunity to also get Ohlsson's latest book and have that signed too. Ah well, sometimes quick unplanned purchases leads to one saving money in the wrong places... perhaps.

The last of the three seminars mentioned had the somewhat annoying title "Fantasy för fullvuxna" (trans. Fantasy for Grown-ups) and was moderated by critic Lotta Olsson, both of which had me wary from the get go. The title mostly because it presumes that most fantasy isn't for adults, or perhaps even excludes them, and the moderation by Olsson because she proved an appallingly ignorant moderator a few years back in a seminar with Jonathan Stroud. However, the author in question being Russian writer Nick Perumov, whom I've heard a lot of good things about, I decided to give it a go anyway. And in her defense, Lotta Olsson did a much, much better job this time around. Perumov discussed his fantasy series currently published in Sweden as Svärdens väktare (literal trans. from Sw. The Watchers of the Swords) as well as his Ring of Darkness, "sequel" to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (due to be published in Sweden next year, I believe). The discussion was very interesting, although Perumov's Russian perspective sometimes became a bit forced in that he seemed blind to the fact that if we (i.e. Westerners) can't see or understand everything that's gone down in the old Soviet Union and Russia, then maybe that would also mean that his own perspective makes him miss things on our side as well. The fact that he more or less accuses of Tolkien of an anti-Russian allegory (something which Tolkien no doubt would have argued heavily against, as my understanding is that he vehemently opposed any and all allegorical interpretations of his work, for better or worse) and of therefore not being realistic, while simultaneously claiming that he himself is writing about things as they really are, is more than ironic. I mean, he is after all not writing directly about present day Russia but a fantasy realm, which then means that he himself is using the technique of allegory more blatantly than Tolkien whom he accuses of this. Ah well... I'm still interested in reading his series, which is supposedly really good. I just wish people wouldn't praise anything outside of mainstream post-Tolkienite fantasy as ever so original and unique without first making sure that it is. The description of the fantasy genre as always and ever about black and white good and evil without any nuances of moral grey areas is getting ever so tired by now.

On Sunday the main theme on my schedule was clearly comics (perhaps not a coincidence given that the Book Fair itself had a focus on comics this day... as per usual), although I had an interesting tie-in with Saturday's theme of fantasy that is also worth mentioning.

Starting with the fantasy tie-in, I'd like to briefly mention Anders Björkelid's new Swedish fantasy series, Berättelsen om blodet (trans. The Story of the Blood), and the first book in it, Ondvinter (trans. Evil Winter). I haven't read Björkelid myself yet, but once again it is material I've heard really good things about. And after hearing Björkelid talk about it and read some of it to the audience, I am even more interested and curious.

The main gist of the day, however, was comics. In fact, three seminars dealing with them. The first being entitled "Vart är den tecknade serien på väg?" (trans. Where Are Comics Heading?), with the subtitle "Vad är en grafisk roman?" (trans. What Is a Graphic Novel? – though it should be noted that the term in Swedish is not 100% the equivalent of its English origin). In this seminar, comics publisher Rolf Classon (Kartago) presented a brief overview of comics history and development, both in America and in Sweden. This was followed by a discussion between Swedish comics writers/artists Henrik Bromander, Charlie Christensen and Kim W. Andersson on comics in general and their own comics. I was only familiar with Christensen's work (I'm a huge fan of his Arne Anka), but the real find here for me was Kim W. Andersson. For better or worse, Swedish comics far too often tend to lean purely toward the American Underground and sometimes almost seem stuck in autobiographical narratives in black and white, not rarely with an aesthetic sensibility widely differing from my own (in that it comes off as crude and rather unappealling). Andersson, however, seems to have been raised on mainstream American comics fare (much like myself to a great degree) and with that source of inspiration his artistic style is much more appealing. So, I took the opportunity of buying a copy of his collected short horror stories entitled Love Hurts and got that signed. Once I've read the collection, I'm sure I will be talking more about this comics writer/artist... one way or the other.

The second comics seminar was a discussion between artist and cultural personality Carl Johan deGeer and his friend Jan Lööf, who is famous in Sweden both for his comics work and and his illustrated children's books. He's also rather famous for being somewhat of a recluse, so it was a treat indeed to see the man on stage and in fine form. The fact that I more or less by happenstance managed to pass by a table where he was signing a while later, with a very short line at that time, was also a bonus that lead me to buy volume two of his collected comics work.

The last comics seminar of the day, which I visited, was about humour in comics, about the strip format, and other formats for that matter, and how the format affects what the comics writers/artists are doing. Moderated by Tomas Torn from Serieakademin, this was a discussion between Tony Cronstam (creator of Elvis), Jonas Darnell (creator of Herman Hedning) and Lars Mortimer (creator of Hälge), and was very illuminating on many levels. From practical matters like where the strips (or comics) are published (newspapers, comicbooks, etc) to what audiences they attract and how they are allowed to develop, this was a really interesting seminar to be sure.

And that, as the saying goes, was that... Fourteen seminars, eight mini seminars, four signed books (a few others bought) and four days of running around and having a whole heckuva lot of fun.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Fourteen Seminars, Eight Mini Seminars, Four Signed Books and Four Days: The Göteborg Book Fair, Pt 1

... and a bad cold, one could add, as an explanation as to why this post have been delayed until now.

Anyway, Thursday 24 September through Sunday 27 September were the days of the annual Book Fair here in Göteborg, an event of both national and international significance. Unlike many other Book Fairs and Conventions around the world (e.g. Bologna, London or Frankfurt) this one is not aimed exclusively at the publishing world and its connected parties in education, libraries and the like, but actually open to the general public as well (naturally giving it a slightly more commercial tang to be sure).

With the possible exception of missing a year or two in the late 90s / early 00s, I've been a faithful visitor to the Book Fair since at least 1990, in various forms I might add. From trying to peddle off a script to publishers (unsuccessfully) to being there reading poetry on stage in connection with the publisher of an anthology I was in many a year ago. For the last four or five years, however, I've been going the full four days, visiting various seminars.

From experience I've learned that moderators are more important than one might at first imagine, and after the first year or two of seminars, I've sometimes opted not to go on seminars that might otherwise have gone to simply because of a known bad moderator. But in equal measure, there are moderators that can make me go to their seminars even if the subject is only remotely interesting on its own. Simply because these moderators deliver. The gold standard, in my humble opinion, being Peter Whitebrook, whom I was sad to note didn't moderate any seminar this year.

Still, it was certainly four days filled with a lot of fun. Too much really, to go through in full (especially, as my "report" is already late as it is), but allow me to mention a few highlights.

On Thursday two seminars stand out as extra interesting (though a few more comes rather close).

The first one was on the writing of a history of literature, particularly in the national sense. The seminar was exquisitely moderated by Lena Ulrika Rudeke and featured a discussion between Professor of Literature Göran Hägg (himself a writer of various literary histories of sorts) and Annika Olsson (Stockholm University) and Åsa Arping (Göteborg University), both of whom have participated in putting together the fifth, updated edition of Litteraturens historia i Sverige (trans. The History of Literature in Sweden), originally written by Bernt Olsson and Ingemar Algulin. Circling around the issue as to whether it is possible to write a literary history, or perhaps rather, if it is possible to write one literary history, the discussion seemed to point strongly towards the need for literary histories in the plural rather than the singular; for the need to contemplate the formation and development of literature from various different angles, and to constantly reconsider old knowledge from the vantage point of new knowledge and new perspectives.

The second seminar was entitled "Det förgångna definierar nutiden" (trans. The Past Defines the Present) and was moderated by John Crispinsson. It featured a discussion between historians Dick Harrison and Maja Hagerman, and publisher Stefan Hilding (Norstedts) apropos of the just started publication of a new Swedish history (first two volumes of eight out now), which incidentally is the first one of its kind in fifty years. Here too the need for a plurality of points of view and a constant need to reconsider old knowledge from the vantage point of new knowledge came to the surface.

Friday presented me with two seminars clearly above the rest.

My day started with "Bolaño på svenska – går det?" (trans. Bolaño in Swedish – Is That Possible?), which was a discussion about the late author Robert Bolaño and the inherent problems of translation, particularly in the specific case of translating Bolaño from Spanish to Swedish. While moderator Gabriella Håkansson at times left a bit to be wished for, Louise Epstein from radio channel P1's cultural department and Bolaño's Swedish translator Lena Heyman more than made up for those snags. All in all, a very good discussion on both Bolaño and on translation, the latter of which is a necessary phenomenon which I find it hard to believe isn't more widely discussed among the general public (a topic which I'm sure I will return to more in depth at some point in the future).

The second highlight of the Friday, and in all honesty possibly the highlight of the entire Book Fair, was my introduction to Israeli writer Etgar Keret. In a discussion with cultural TV personality Kristofer Lundström, Keret spoke of the necessity for humour, the problems of political parties appropriating important historical events and censorship. Keret also treated the audience to a reading of one of his short stories (in English translation) and on that basis, I will definitely be picking up at the very least one of his short story collections.

Well, I'll stop here for now, and will tell you about the highlights of Saturday and Sunday in my next post. I will make sure to have part 2 up by the end of the week, to make up for lost time.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Graphic Novel: A Brief History and Some Thoughts on a Useful Genre Term

Okay, so following speeches on the state of today's comics industry in my last two posts, "Komiks for Kids" and "Mature, Adult or Merely Sophomoric," I figured I'd spend this post looking at terminology. More specifically, I want us to turn our attention to that ever so fanciful term "graphic novel."

Since sometime in the 90s sometime this term has been running rampant in the field. It has come to pass itself off as a fancier substitute term for "comics" (which, of course, to many carry that stigma of being the domain of children). In Hy Bender's The Sandman Companion, Neil Gaiman relates the following brief yet telling anecdote:
"Once, while at a party in London, the editor of the literary reviews page of a major newspaper struck up a conversation with me, and we chatted pleasantly until he asked what I did for a living. ‘I write comics,’ I said; and watched the editor’s interest instantly drain away, as if he suddenly realized he was speaking to someone beneath his nose.
Just to be polite, he followed up by inquiring, ‘Oh, yes? Which comics have you written?’ So I mentioned a few titles, which he nodded at perfunctorily; and I concluded, ‘I also did this thing called Sandman.’ At that point he became excited and said, ‘Hang on, I know who you are. You’re Neil Gaiman!’ I admitted that I was. ‘My God, man, you don’t write comics,’ he said. ‘You write graphic novels!’
He meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.
This editor had obviously heard positive things about Sandman; but he was so stuck on the idea that comics are juvenile he couldn’t deal with something good being done as a comic book. He needed to put Sandman it a box to make it respectable."
While Gaiman's anecdote touches upon this apparent need in certain to put some comics in more respectable boxes, there is also a tendency, both among publishers and fans, to overuse the term and apply the more respectable box to more or less the entire medium of comics per default. In the case of the publishers, presumably to reach the more sophisticated non-comics reading audiences. In the case of the overeager fans, more likely to present themselves as slightly more sophisticated and attempt to wash out the nerd/geek stigma (don't get me wrong here, I am a life long comics reader and an advocate of the medium to be sure, but "a rose / By any other name"... and all that).

So, where did the term come from then?

The term first seems to have appeared in print on Richard Corben and John Jakes' Bloodstar (an adaptation of the Robert E. Howard short story "Valley of the Worm"), which was published in 1976 as an original large format volume as opposed to a trade paperback of reprinted material (see "Richard Corben's Bloodstar: A Look Back at the First Graphic Novel"). It is, of course, worth considering that the phenomenon of TPB reprints itself was not as common at the time as it is today, where TPB reprints are commonplace.

However, the term is more oftenly traced back to Will Eisner. As Denis Kitchen puts it, "Eisner created the very first successful graphic novel ---and popularizing the term--- with the publication of his seminal A Contract with God, (1978). The semi-autobiographical 'graphic novel' revolutionized the art form, inspiring countless fellow professionals worldwide to follow" (Denis Kitchen's Eisner biography; see also Andrew D. Arnold's "The Graphic Novel Silver Anniversary"). The key point here being the fact that Eisner's success and use popularised the term in a way that Corben and Jakes' effort obviously did not (at least not in historical hindsight).

During the 1980s Marvel Comics made use of the term by starting a publication line entitled Marvel Graphic Novel, which was, to borrow a phrase from John Wells, an "attempt at emulating European-style graphic novels, with big-name creators, complete-in-one-volume stories, 8.5 x 11 dimensions and fancy paper and printing" (see The Definitive Graphic Novels List). The first book in this publication series was the somewhat famous Jim Starlin piece The Death of Captain Marvel (1982), and it was followed by a number of releases up until 1993 (although more and more sporadically towards the end). DC also followed suit, though to a lesser extent, and it could be argued that Marvel managed to work up the imprint of the Marvel Graphic Novel better than DC did with their equivalent.

Following that, of course, what had originally been reserved for the publication of original comics material directly in book format (though I think some of the Marvel material is debatable in terms of length and ought more aptly be called "graphic novellas") started to cover first all kinds of TPBs (whether reprints of diverse story arcs and limited series or actual original publications) and then further on to cover the entire medium itself. Somewhat erroneously, I would argue, since that merely makes it more fanciful term for "comics."

And the term graphic novel is useful. Make no mistake about that. It is useful as a genre denomination, just as the "novel" it not so subtly leans upon is useful genre terminology in the field of literature. But for the term to be useful, it cannot be the entire medium. It cannot function as the more respectable box used to dress up the old comics for the general public. It needs to be thought of as a genre, and as a genre, it reasonably needs to be novelistic in some sense. Eisner's usage certainly applies to this category, as does quite a bit (if not all) of the Marvel Graphic Novel material, although some of that (due to its length, as mentioned above) might benefit from borrowing the term novella from literature (after all, if there are graphic novels, it would only be logical that there are also graphic novellas, as it were). Each and every TPB reprint, however, does not warrant the use of the terminology.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that the old "publication of original comics material directly in book format" rule need apply. Not at all. The novel itself had its humble beginnings in serial publication, and even rose to prominence in that area in the course of two centuries or so. Let's remember that Dickens, held up by many as one of the greatest novelists of all times, did not write novels as full books in the sense we tend to think of them today, but as serial installments on a weekly basis. That is, something very much comparable to the history of comicbook publication.

However, I would like to reiterate, there does need to be something novelistic about it. There needs to be a single story, albeit perchance multifaceted, in there. Limited series naturally quite easily fall into this slot, and I do consequently not have any problem talking about Camelot 3000, The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen as graphic novels. The same goes for clear novelistic story arcs reprinted in TPB. Most of Neil Gaiman's Sandman amply exemplify this, and is more over an extraordinarily good examples as two of the ten TPBs, Dream Country and Fables & Reflections, so clearly aren't novelistic, but rather serve as the comics equivalent of a short story collection (as many regular TPBs, of course, are wont to be). And yes, the concluding Sandman volume, The Wake, does reside on the borderlines, what with it containing a shorter "long" story (if published as a separate TPB, perhaps more of a graphic novella) and some short stories.

In all cases, however, we are talking about comics. Because if we look at it sanely, consider the term graphic novel useful and wish to keep it as such, we simply must realise that all graphic novels are comics, while far from all comics are graphic novels. The distinction has absolutely nothing to do with quality, it is not a matter of which comics are prestigious enough to go into the "respectable" box. It is simple a matter of genre.

And genre is never in and of itself about quality.