Monthly Archives: May 2011

A roll in the Hay

Wonderful events at Hay this year; I enjoyed the company of Reza Aslan, Dinaw Mengestu and Mohsin Hamid. Three writers who, in their various ways, tackle difficult subject matter with courage and true style.

One of the most remarkable things about Hay is the sense of intimacy, the lack of grandeur. Offstage, Mohsin and I chatted about his great mentor, Toni Morrison, and how his contact with her gave him a sense of belonging and ownership of his talent. But it was a tribute to his real class that he seemed as interested in my life as in discussing his own. His charisma on the stage was mesmerising, as he talked candidly about controversy, hash and the realities of contemporary Pakistani life for the young. If you haven’t read his books, then do. Moth Smoke, which we were discussing, is a gripping noir, with corruption and an infernal, eternal triangle at its heart. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was Man Booker shortlisted, is a monologue that challenges the reader’s own ideas of justification and reasonableness, and tackles the post 9/11 world with a personal history – though not, I should emphasise, Mohsin’s own.
Mohsin was reading and talking to a packed-out audience alongside Ethiopian-American author Dinaw Mengestu. Dinaw’s first novel was Children of the Revolution, which garnered prizes and critical admiration galore, and took the Guardian First Book Award in 2007. He was humble, softly spoken and ailing terribly with a sore throat. Our wonderful young steward was trying to hunt down some Strepsils, to no avail. Sans Strepsils, Dinaw nevertheless went on stage and floored the audience with a superb delivery of excerpts from his haunting novel How to Read the Air. A must-read book, and one that has true reach. While the legacy of immigration anchors the narrative, this is a novel that is of interest to anyone who has ever thought about how their parents’ pathology repeats within their own – or how they are fugitives from it – and one that considers the use and abuse of fictions in our lives. The wind repeatedly struck our tent, but it only seemed to contribute to the atmosphere and the themes under discussion.
The night before, I discussed Reza Aslan’s superb anthology Tablet and Pen. Reza is an intellectual giant, but one who is also in possession of a large heart and a fantastic sense of humour. Anyone seeking po-faced worthiness would have been disappointed. Our event was full of optimism, mixing the seriousness of this activist enterprise with a welcome levity. Knowledge and education were great, Reza noted, but without the arts cultural understanding and the sense of a shared humanity would always elude us. He regarded his anthology as another hopeful step along the way towards establishing the literature of the Middle East in the canon of world literature. Sample highlights under consideration were the hidden histories of women poets, fatwas, the truth about the green revolution in Iran, and the future of East-West relations.
Meanwhile, in the Green Room, I might have missed Mr Rob Lowe, having arrived an hour too late to deconstruct St Elmo’s Fire (regular readers of this blog will have noted my passion for the film and for Lowe’s place in it), but I swooned over one of my favourite maverick directors, none other than John Waters. Impossible fangirl, I couldn’t muster up the courage to speak to him. A missed moment to file under ‘Regret’. I bumped into friend Tiffany Murray – brilliant novelist and brilliant person, to boot. Henning Mankell, Scandinavian king of noir and creator of the Wallander mystery novels, was one of the highlights of the day, and sat quietly, with super-charged charisma. Owen Sheers had just enjoyed a fantastic event with Don Paterson. And noted journalists drank lots of coffee. There was much laughter.
At breakfast on the last day, in my pretty lodgings, I sat around a table with the distinguished author, journalist and co-writer of The King’s Speech (book of the film), Peter Conradi, and the marvellous Polly Toynbee. Both were charming, down-to-earth and very witty. Another example of the many surreal and wonderful moments I’ve experienced at Hay over the years. And to think, I might have become a medievalist. Praise be for the road not taken.

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Filed under authors, good times, making Hay, writing

Girls and Boys

Hard on the heels of the female character tropes flowchart I am so keen on: a recent study on gender imbalance regarding characters in children’s literature, reported by the Guardian. There are all sorts of counter-arguments, of course. Most pertinent would be the degree to which male characters in young children’s fiction act as default, factory-setting for efficiently involving both girls and boys at the same time. Boys seem to care a great deal about directly identifying and appear to require a male lead to ensure involvement. Girls are less fussy in this respect, which is perhaps just as well if they wish to grow up sane. I’m not saying it’s right.

In fact, in film, too, the pattern remains and seems to persist into adulthood. There is, of course, one notable exception to this: the horror genre. Carol J. Clover’s classic research has told us a lot about the way we view horror when it incorporates the final girl. It was once assumed that the final girl trope amounted to an eroticised form of violence against women. But Clover knew there was something wrong with that line. Final girls triumph. They often humiliate the killer in the process, as well as managing to top him by some creative means and often with some sort of phallic symbol. Clover discovered that men seemed not only to identify with the female lead, they actually seemed to identify more strongly than the female viewers did. Although initial identification seems to be with the killer (typically reinforced by camera angles of view), a transition occurs. The male viewer starts to connect with the female in peril (again, typically reinforced by camera angles of view). And he cheers for her.

Of course, in order to achieve this, final girls come with their problems. They are usually christened with a unisex name or even a name more commonly associated with a male. They do not drink, take drugs, party or seem to have any fun at all; meanwhile across town all the bad girls and boys are living it up – before they are brutally felled. They are always virgins, with the strong suggestion that sex terrifies them. They can therefore almost be thought to represent a virtually pre-sexualised male in some respect and perhaps even a distorted, funhouse mirror of self-objectification and gender exploration, rather similar to the questing boys of Medieval romances (it’s no coincidence that Clover is a medievalist). Final girls offer a way for men to own terror, disempowerment and sexual anxiety in a safe place. Action films, by contrast, do not function in this way: they tend to embody, in very explicit ways, wish fulfillment. Horror films exhibit the traits of the nightmare remembered. They end in victory but with a sense that resolution and relief are only temporary (as long-running horror franchises seem to confirm). Even in victory, there is a sense not of optimism – but of loss. A kind of trangression has taken place on film and within the audience, and, for now, all must return to normalcy.

But I digress. Forgive me. Back to the original point. It may well be that in young children’s fiction the gender imbalance is troubling and plain disappointing. But girls get it good eventually. We can claim the heroines of Anne Shirley and Jo March as our own final girls: true survivors and role models both, and not a chainsaw in sight.

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Filed under fiction, film, gender, top girls, women

Only Troping

I have a weakness for popular culture – specifically, popular culture through the media of film and TV. For a time, I walked in secret shame. Discovering David Foster Wallace was a revelation. And you can imagine my relief at learning that his posthumously published The Pale King references, of all things, my favourite female buddy trope of all: Laverne and Shirley.

So, tropes. Shorthanding set-up and character, they’re the stuff that crowds and flows on whiteboards of the stressed-out writers’ room for hit shows from Mad Men to Grey’s Anatomy, that distills story for the Hollywood execs who want to know what it’s about in less than three minutes (a satire on which style is inelegantly provided in Reservoir Dogs, where the group consider the meaning of Madonna’s completely obvious hit single Like a Virgin). Tropes are life represented to us as we are happy to see it, and how tropes are brought together in their magical arrangements explains why Friends was a cultural moment and why Joey, its spin-off, tanked. They also show us why so many TV series lose their mojo the minute that the potentially romantic leads get theirs on. In a wiki that would seriously impress Vladimir Propp, TV Tropes brings together the stock devices in plot and character; it’s an amusing read, but it’s also an insightful one, whether you’re interested in screen – or whether you’re a fictioneer.

My more recent discovery of another site, Overthinking It, has led me to the wonderful female characters trope flowchart. It’s tremendous fun. But it also gives food for thought. Try it out on your favourite females from film, TV and fiction, and see for yourself how hard it is to land on ‘Strong Female Character’.

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Filed under fun, popular culture, the science bit, tropes