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03 July 2012 @ 11:43 am
better practices, please  
I get why they're doing it, and it makes more sense than most if not all comparisons to Harry Potter these days (50 Shades for Grey is "Harry Potter for adults"? Why would you even???), but I still find it deeply irritating when people compare a book or film to Downton Abbey. I mean, I guess if you're a fan who is *actually* only looking for a handy marker of other things set in the Edwardian period, that comparison might be useful, but it's like saying "fans of Jane Austen will love this!" just because it's a romance set in the Regency; the two things might share a couple of generic markers, but will likely be nothing alike in larger elements like tone and character, which are much more important to one's enjoyment of something. And again, it's a "genre" problem that literary fiction doesn't have. People don't compare one tedious novel about middle-class ennui and adultery to another one, at least not with nearly the same sloppy ubiquity, because each literary novel about middle-class adultery is assumed to be unique and special; because they are supposedly about "real" life, what matters is the writing, the characters, the author's point of view on the world. But historical fiction - or fantasy, or mystery, etc. - is assumed to be cookie-cutter, and the only thing that matters is the setting, so if you liked Downton Abbey you will love The Uninvited Guests. And, you know, you very well might; I'm completely sympathetic to the fact that there *are* certain elements of setting or subject or theme that contribute to enjoyment, which is why novels about time travel and changelings are going to get a look-in from me that other novels aren't automatically granted. But I love the Doctor Who episode "Silence in the Library," and yet want to thwack all the characters in The Time Traveller's Wife about the head with spoons, so genre doesn't mean that stories are interchangeable just because they have some similar elements. And I understand that there is only so much you can fit on a book jacket, so the comparison is meant to do a lot of work very quickly, in terms of "here, associate this book with that *other* thing you liked!" But it bugs me nonetheless, because it chimes so neatly with what people have to say about the genre (and other genres) in longer formats: all costume drama is the same, it's all soapy distraction from real life, there aren't any standards worth applying to it, because you either like it all or hate it all indiscriminately. (For example, Jenny Diski's recent article in - I think - the LRB about Downton Abbey. It began with that dreaded acknowledgment of assumed superiority: "well, I don't actually ever enjoy costume drama." Then why are you wasting my time writing about it for the LRB? Where are the reviewers beginning their reviews with, "well, I don't actually ever enjoy novels about suburban melancholy"? What I want is for someone who respects a genre to write reviews for it, because the mere presence of gorgeous costumes is not enough to make me enjoy something.)

And I forget what review I recently read of Bring Up the Bodies, but it was almost parodic in its unaware adoption of the other side of this coin, the "if it's good, it isn't genre" defense. Unlike, you know, *all* the other historical novels, because *they're* all the same, Mantel's novel was modern and interesting and could have been written about the halls of power today. (This is its own weird species of historical fiction bias: the idea that a novel that presents a specific period *as* specific is somehow less worthy than one that makes the sixteenth century seem just like the twenty-first. I haven't read either of Mantel's novels yet , so I don't know whether that claim is accurate, but it's certainly something the reviewer prized.) As I was writing this, I kept wanting to use Mantel's novels as a parallel situation - "If you liked The Tudors, you'll love Wolf Hall!" - but I can't remember if that line was taken with that novel. It's certainly taken with other Tudor-set fiction, but maybe if you win fancy literary prizes, you can escape that particular gravity.

As a person who wants to read more historical fiction, I find this practically frustrating as well as philosophically, because "If you liked The Tudors" is completely useless for me. If it were "if you liked the sexiness of The Tudors, you'll like this," or "actually, if you hated The Tudors for its clunky foreshadowing, narrative murkiness, and failure to make any of its female characters come to life, try this instead," then the comparisons would be helpful, but comparisons that amount to "people wear doublets and farthingales in this, too!" don't actually convey any information that I'm not already getting from the cover illustration. And I'm not automatically going to enjoy something just because I have enjoyed something set in a similar time period.
La Reine Noire: Lucrezialareinenoire on July 3rd, 2012 04:49 pm (UTC)

I HATE the dismissal of entire genres or time periods or what have you. I keep wanting to slap Amazon (as much as one can slap a corporation) for suggesting Philippa Gregory to me just because I've enjoyed other--far, far superior--historical fiction novels. Not all Tudor-set novels are created equal, etc.

I have never seen Mantel compared to The Tudors; in fact, she tends to be set in sharp contrast and often for precisely the opposite reason than the one you bring up, so that's rather odd to me.

Unlike, you know, *all* the other historical novels, because *they're* all the same, Mantel's novel was modern and interesting and could have been written about the halls of power today. (This is its own weird species of historical fiction bias: the idea that a novel that presents a specific period *as* specific is somehow less worthy than one that makes the sixteenth century seem just like the twenty-first. I haven't read either of Mantel's novels yet , so I don't know whether that claim is accurate, but it's certainly something the reviewer prized.)

Honestly, what I enjoyed most about Wolf Hall was how much it felt like something properly set in the sixteenth century. The storytelling was, of course, fantastic, but my favorite aspect was the fact that Mantel had clearly done her research and done it well. I'm buying the sequel this weekend and saving it for vacation, mostly because I know that if I start it, nothing else will get done. ;)

So I suppose the reason the reviewer thinks Wolf Hall feels modern is because it's well-written? Er...I don't even know where to start with the many flavors of wrong.

Edited at 2012-07-03 04:50 pm (UTC)
tempestsarekind: corset pouttempestsarekind on July 3rd, 2012 05:34 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I was trying to *remember* if I'd seen Mantel compared to The Tudors, because my brain kept offering it as the most recent Tudor-set novel I've been seeing in bookstores, but I don't think I actually have seen that comparison made. Every review I've read about The Uninvited Guests has mentioned Downton Abbey, though. :)

Oh, Amazon. That is frustrating! And on the reverse side, I'm always really wary when I see a book compared to Gregory - is the book actually like one of hers (in which case I should avoid it), or is the comparison simply because she's a name that the reviewer can easily grab for, as a kind of lazy signaling?

The recent Mantel reviewer certainly thought that Mantel had done her research - just that she didn't use it in standard historical-fictiony ways, and especially not to create a "period" backdrop for its own sake, which actually would be a plus for me, because worldbuilding (always within reason, of course) is something I like! And again, I think the issue with the review is much less that, objectively, Mantel doesn't do these things, and more that the reviewer seemed to have a particular stereotype of what historical fiction is like, and because s/he enjoyed the book, it couldn't have been doing those things.
La Reine Noire: Victorian Fanlareinenoire on July 3rd, 2012 05:46 pm (UTC)
Well, I will definitely be able to tell you more once I've read the new one, but Wolf Hall certainly did very good things with world-building. I guess maybe it's short-hand for "didn't include pages and pages of rapturous costume description?" which is something that, for me at least, tends to plague badly-written historical fiction more so than the good examples.

I do tend to block out the fact that lots of people read and love Gregory because I find her so deeply infuriating. ;) I suppose it is perceived to be a useful marketing ploy, just as Harry Potter is for YA, but I do think it's deeply misleading for anyone who has actually read the books. I cannot imagine someone liking both Gregory and Mantel, for instance. These people may exist, but I certainly can't think of any.

And again, I think the issue with the review is much less that, objectively, Mantel doesn't do these things, and more that the reviewer seemed to have a particular stereotype of what historical fiction is like, and because s/he enjoyed the book, it couldn't have been doing those things.

Oyy, yeah. No, Mantel is doing what historical fiction is supposed to do, and the reviewer clearly just doesn't like historical fiction. Which is fine, but what on earth is he/she doing reviewing it in the first place? Bah!

What is The Uninvited Guests? I haven't read a good Edwardian-set novel in a long time and I wasn't especially keen on the second season of Downton (such sloppy writing at times) so I do need to get my fix! ;)
tempestsarekind: ladies in waiting [elizabeth]tempestsarekind on July 3rd, 2012 06:20 pm (UTC)
Yes, I think that's probably it, too - and in a literary novel, reviewers would be more likely to call pages of clothing description "bad writing," instead of assuming that it's a part of the genre. This is the problem with having people who don't like a genre reviewing it; they often can't see that problems with a book are specific to that book. (See also : dismissive reviews of romantic comedies that assume the movie is bad because romantic comedies are dumb and cliched.)

I have a hard time imagining the crossover audience between Gregory and Mantel, myself!

I've been seeing The Uninvited Guests in local bookstores a lot lately - which is probably a combination of Downton and the Olympics/Jubilee (one bookstore has a whole Britain display table at the entrance). Anyway, it's set in a country house, and there are Secrets, and I think a girl on the cusp of adulthood. I keep meaning to request it from the library.

I was disappointed in season two of Downton as well! I think you either have to go full-out and make it a real WWI story, or don't, but the whiplash of trying to have it both ways (Matthew's paralyzed forever! Oh wait, no, he's all better) got to be laughable. I mean, it's not like I expected Matthew to stay in the wheelchair (although that could have been amazing!), but it had hardly begun as a storyline before it was over.
La Reine Noire: Victorian Fanlareinenoire on July 3rd, 2012 07:32 pm (UTC)
(See also : dismissive reviews of romantic comedies that assume the movie is bad because romantic comedies are dumb and cliched.)

Or "YA novels are just for kids" or "anything that isn't literary fiction is trash" and so forth.

Ooh, that does sound like an interesting book. I like country houses and Secrets! Possibly I will pick it up with Mantel when I let myself into the bookstore this weekend (I have had to restrict access so I don't go on a crazy spending spree since there are so many books I want to read that are available in the UK and not in the US).

I know a lot of people were disappointed with season two and for similar reasons. It really did seem as though they were trying to have their cake and eat it too and it just didn't work at all. And it just felt as though a lot of the storylines just didn't go anywhere. I might just stick to the first season and pretend the second didn't happen. ;)
tempestsarekind: books and flowerstempestsarekind on July 3rd, 2012 08:00 pm (UTC)
Yes, more's the pity. All the genres should band together like some sort of Transformers-style mega-machine and really give "literary fiction" a good shove. Its dominance is ridiculous. Like, where are the MFA programs that seriously include any genre fiction? There are some for children's/YA writing, and there's Clarion for SF/F workshops, but if you wanted to get a degree in writing while learning how to write, say, mystery novels, or fantasy, or historical fiction, where would you go?

Whenever I'm in the UK, I always come home with at least one completely random history book in paperback (usually more), because there are always so many I haven't even heard of, just casually on display in the shops. (I'm still waiting on The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England to come out here; it's been out for months in the UK!)

I just ignore season two of Downton, except for the last scene where Matthew and Mary get together. It seems to be working for me so far. :)
La Reine Noire: Lucrezialareinenoire on July 7th, 2012 12:47 pm (UTC)
Well, I just found out that Mantel is only out in hardcover, so I may just need to be patient for another few months.

ike, where are the MFA programs that seriously include any genre fiction? There are some for children's/YA writing, and there's Clarion for SF/F workshops, but if you wanted to get a degree in writing while learning how to write, say, mystery novels, or fantasy, or historical fiction, where would you go?

I have been wondering that for YEARS! I actually asked an author friend of mine (who is, interestingly enough, teaching at Clarion this year) why there weren't any Clarion-type workshops for other genres and she pointed out that, first of all, you need enough of a community for someone to be willing to make an investment in a program like that (i.e. someone with connections at a university to provide housing, etc), and that if she had to guess where a community like that would pop up, she'd predict the UK over the US, because there just seem to be more historical novelists there. Which, again, doesn't especially surprise me since for a US-based author to conduct research in the UK is horrendously expensive, and presumably far less so for authors in the UK.

I wish there were a workshop/MFA like that, though. I'd almost certainly apply for a workshop and I might even try to get over the bad taste creative writing programs have left in my mouth from undergrad if one existed that actually allowed me to write what I want to write.

And, oh, Mary/Matthew. That was the only thing that kept me watching, just because the chemistry between those two was just gorgeous. And, yes, the last scene made me absurdly happy, but everything that came before...gah!

(Incidentally, so looking forward to Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy in 1H4!)

Edited at 2012-07-07 12:49 pm (UTC)
tempestsarekind: typewritertempestsarekind on July 9th, 2012 10:09 pm (UTC)
Oh, creative writing classes. I once took one where I wrote a story that was a riff on "Tam Lin" - with quotes from the ballad and everything - and the teacher insisted on talking about it as though everything in the story were only happening in the main character's head! It was incredibly frustrating.

I do occasionally read the blog of a UK writer who writes historical fiction, Emma Darwin (although I have yet to read either of her novels!), and she did an MA and PhD in creative writing, so perhaps it might be a little easier to make yourself some wiggle room for writing historical fiction, provided that you could find the right advisors. I suspect one would be out of luck regarding other genres, though. Alas. But I'd love to take a workshop or something in writing historical fiction - maybe then I could figure out how to do it!

I am excited about the *pictures* of Michelle Dockery playing Lady Percy, so I can only imagine that I will be giddy when I actually get to see her do it. :)
La Reine Noire: Hallareinenoire on July 9th, 2012 10:19 pm (UTC)
Oh, that is funny! I am reading one of Emma Darwin's books right now! (I picked it up this weekend because it was about the princes in the tower and I have no self-control.) It's very interesting so far and Manifestly Not Gregory, which I appreciate so much. Also, it is full of random references to early modern printing that I am absurdly excited about because I GET them!

Michelle Dockery is a wonderful Lady Percy. The first scene is literally her facepalming at Hotspur, which is really the only reaction one should ever have to Hotspur. ;)
tempestsarekind: historiestempestsarekind on July 9th, 2012 10:47 pm (UTC)
Both of those things are heartening to hear! I've been meaning to read that book now that I'm done with the dissertation and have a bit more spare time. And Michelle Dockery facepalming at Hotspur sounds excellent.
La Reine Noire: Vergillareinenoire on July 10th, 2012 07:35 pm (UTC)
As I said, it's good so far and I'm enjoying it. Of course, I haven't got to the actual princes in the Tower bit, so it could go pear-shaped at any point, but I'm hoping it won't. ;)
tempestsarekind: viola readingtempestsarekind on July 10th, 2012 07:39 pm (UTC)
Fingers crossed!
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tempestsarekind: martha + ten + TARDIStempestsarekind on July 3rd, 2012 05:00 pm (UTC)
That book was such a disappointment for me, because I really loved the concept of these two individuals meeting each other back-to-front! But then I had to sit through all these scenes of characters being pretentious about art and music, which is really not the book I thought I'd signed up for.
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tempestsarekind: TARDIS plus angelstempestsarekind on July 3rd, 2012 05:53 pm (UTC)
It struck me as being what non-genre writers often think genre is about - that Time Travel is a Metaphor for being Separated in Love, or whatever

Yes, exactly! And in genre fiction, the genre conceit is *sort of* a metaphor, in that the reader or viewer can find ways to sympathize with the elements of the conceit that have real-world analogues - but it has to be a real genre problem first, before it can be a metaphor. Like, "Blink" works as a metaphor for the brevity of human life, but only because the episode functions on the literal level too. That scene with old Billy Shipton in the hospital bed, where he says, "my hands...they're an old man's hands. How did that happen?" - that scene has to function on the level of Sally's experience first, where Billy's aging really *did* happen in the blink of an eye, before it can register on the symbolic level that everyone experiences their own aging that way. /random "Blink" feelings

And for me, The Time Traveller's Wife was only interested in the metaphor, which makes the whole thing so much less interesting! I definitely have my Issues with the way Moffat wound up dealing with the Doctor/River relationship, especially because I think he tried to cram too much into too little space, but I really love the thorniness of that relationship too, and the fact that we get to see it play out, especially from the Doctor's side, where he *isn't* just okay, at first, with this random person dropping into his life and knowing everything about him.

Also, yes, Henry. UGH GO AWAY.

Edited at 2012-07-03 05:58 pm (UTC)
viomisehuntviomisehunt on July 3rd, 2012 05:00 pm (UTC)
Advertisers are selling books to the public the way screenwriters claim they are forced sell films to producers, (who they often portray as woefully uninformed about history or science and consumed by by the bottom line: Profit.): "It's Jaws with Spiders...." Kevin Smith has a great film conversation about this process.

If readers are interested in period, although post World War II and extremely elegant erotica why don't they read Anias Nin?

Anne Rice wrote erotica. In the Sixties my best bud introduced me to Anne and Sorge Golon's Angelique series. http://www.librarything.com/author/golonsergeanne

I haven't read Shades of Grey yet, but Erotica is hardly "new".
Most Harlequins were soft core erotica for women, even though dreadfully, shall we say Politcally incorrect. Usually if the man was very passionate and the seduction was closer to rape, the male was Middle Eastern, or Spanish and Italian with a touch of the Moor. Older, accomplished women suffered horribly in these books. In fact I recall reading a hateful description of the older woman in the Carpetbaggers, as women hiding stomach sags and hysterectomy scars--he was comparing their appearance to that of main character's ex wife who had managed to keep her "girlish" figure after having one child.

tempestsarekindtempestsarekind on July 3rd, 2012 05:14 pm (UTC)
Sure, other media have this problem too. Although even something like "it's Jaws with spiders" is about the action of the proposed movie, along the lines of labelling something an action movie, or a thriller, or calling a book a bodice-ripper, which at least indicates the kind of thing that happens in it. The kind of historical fiction comparisons I'm talking about, by and large, don't tell one anything except the period in which something is set. It's much more like saying that Jaws and March of the Penguins are similar because they both involve animals and water.

As for erotica - I think it's the mainstream popularity of 50 Shades that people are trying to account for, not the "newness" of erotica. But comparing it to Harry Potter makes no sense, because even assuming that Harry Potter is shorthand for a massive bestseller (although the sentence was about "fantasy," so I think the author was just being inept), the comparison does no illuminating work; it doesn't help explain why 50 Shades is popular - it's like saying "these books are exactly the same because they're both popular."
viomisehuntviomisehunt on July 3rd, 2012 05:23 pm (UTC)
Yeah--I heard that comparison. And although there is no logic in the comparison, it makes sense to those who are only interested in bottom line: popularity and profit.

tempestsarekindtempestsarekind on July 3rd, 2012 05:41 pm (UTC)
Perhaps that's true - although it's why it makes even less sense in the context of where I found it, which was in an essay trying to analyze the cultural significance of 50 Shades! I'm not *entirely* convinced it works even if you're only interested in popularity and profit, though, because assuming that you want to *duplicate* those things, you need to a) figure out what made the first thing popular; and b) target the right audience. Comparing one book to another totally random book fails on both counts.
viomisehuntviomisehunt on July 3rd, 2012 06:06 pm (UTC)
the cultural significance of 50 Shades ????????
tempestsarekindtempestsarekind on July 3rd, 2012 06:25 pm (UTC)
Well, more like "why this book, and why now?" Does its popularity indicate real changes in the literary marketplace (bypassing mainstream publishing, began life as fanfic: are the gates to entry falling down?), or is it a one-off? Why is a book in a genre that really doesn't have mainstream successes suddenly so popular? And there's some idiotic stuff about whether it means suburban housewives are dissatisfied with their lives, yawn.
viomisehuntviomisehunt on July 3rd, 2012 07:20 pm (UTC)
Isn't the author a fan fiction writer who merely transformed her Twilight Fan Fiction to a book? That journey--from popular fan fiction writer to publishing --is of more interest to me than the fact that people are actually paying something that is Fan fiction inspired.

As to women's interest in erotica as new: isn't this claim rather like the absurd assuption that after nearly three centuries of American women of African descent writing about their lives (beginning with fomer slave Phylis Wheatley ) The Help was "unique" as 'First Time these women have had the chance to express themselves. What did they think Beloved or the Color Purple represented?

Edited at 2012-07-03 07:20 pm (UTC)
tempestsarekindtempestsarekind on July 3rd, 2012 07:43 pm (UTC)
But everything's new when suburban white women get their hands on it! / sarcasm

But yeah, the 50 Shades author turned her Twilight fic into the novel (though I don't know how much transformation she did). Honestly, I think people are just trying all the theories they can think of to explain the books' popularity.
viomisehuntviomisehunt on July 3rd, 2012 08:12 pm (UTC)
Maybe it is selling because people like reading about sex, and most porno flicks are designed for men, with T&A jiggling moments--I can stand in front of a mirror to watch that. I am fascinated in the sell of the books only in that I very vividly recall the Anais Nin revival about two decades ago--and hey, I wonder if I can transcribe my Doctor Who fanfictions and make a buck. I had a good laugh when all the male film critics talked about how "un-sexy" Magic Mike was. All I could think of was Rocky Horror Picture show: "I didn't make him for you...."
tempestsarekindtempestsarekind on July 3rd, 2012 08:19 pm (UTC)
Hee! Yes, ideas about what constitutes sexiness in films are so heavily biased toward a hypothetical heterosexual man; I could imagine that male critics' "sexy radar" might just break down in that instance.
Valancy: Pride&Prejudicevalancy_s on July 9th, 2012 01:06 am (UTC)
This totally reflects a shortsightedness that drives me nuts in academic treatments of historical adaptations/pop culture explorations of the past - the assumption that people like all texts from the same period for the same reasons.
tempestsarekindtempestsarekind on July 9th, 2012 10:18 pm (UTC)
It's a problem that could probably be solved, or at least ameliorated, by more acknowledgment of opinion. I know I find myself frustrated when I feel I have to take on a posture of objective unassailability, as though I've "solved" Hamlet, instead of being able to present my thoughts as my own idiosyncratic reading of the text.