Genre shaping fiction

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoUm, I have to think through the logic of this a little (always part of the magic), but I really like the way Junot Díaz plays around with genre fiction in the creation of his character, Oscar Wao – one of those mirror in the mirror type constructions. The concept of genre shapes the character and the story, but then it also puts the shape of the story (its identity, if you will) in question… twisty. Consider the following moments in the book:

“I’m not entirely sure Oscar would have liked this designation. Fukú story. He was a hardcore sci-fi and fantasy man, believed that that was the kind of story we were all living in. He’d ask: What more sci-fi than the Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?
But now that I know how it all turns out, I have to ask, in turn: What more fukú?” (p.6)

…”anytime a fukú reared its many heads there was only one way to prevent disaster from coiling around you, only one surefire counterspell that would keep you and your family safe. Not surprisingly, it was a word. A simple word (followed usually by a vigorous crossing of index fingers).
Zafa.
…Even now as I write these words I wonder if this book ain’t a zafa of sorts. My very own counterspell.” (p.7)

The brief wondrous life of oscar wao“You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having a pair of wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest!” (p.22)

“What can I tell you? In Santo Domingo a story is not a story unless it casts a supernatural shadow.” (pp.245-246)

Ref: Junot Díaz (2008) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. faber and faber: London
[winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award]

The critics agree about the success of this blending:

“Diaz finds a miraculous balance. He cuts his barnburning comic-book plots (escape, ruin, redemption) with honest, messy realism, and his narrator speaks in a dazzling hash of Spanish, English, slang, literary flourishes, and pure virginal dorkiness.”–Sam Anderson, “New York Magazine”

“Funny, street-smart and keenly observed…An extraordinarily vibrant book that’s fueled by adrenaline-powered prose.”–Michiko Kakutani, “New York Times” (interesting metaphor!)

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The Essay

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I thought this interesting (in terms of style, as much as content):

In its original literary use the word essay was intended to apply to a newly-created form of writing and to emphasize its experimental nature. The essay was supposed to be an attempt or a trial, and Abraham Cowley – sometimes called the father of the English essay – when his little collection of essays was published, gave it the title of Several Discourses by way of Essays, and proceeded to discourse of himself and the world at large in the most charmingly discursive way. ‘The word is late’, said that very great figure in the world of the essay, Francis Bacon, when he dedicated his essays to the Prince of Wales, ‘but the thing is ancient’, though Seneca’s Epistles to Lucilius which Bacon cited as examples of the essay were also described by him as ‘Dispersed Meditations’. And Addison in The Spectator spoke of ‘The wildness of those compositions which go by the name of Essays…’ and added that Seneca and Montaigne are patterns for writings of this kind. But from the time of Bacon the use of the word has been somewhat indiscriminate. It is now to be found applied to the most diverse forms of writing, from the solemn and learned treatise to the slightest and most ephemeral effusion of the moment. It is used, for example, to describe Montaigne and his ‘well-meaning book’, as indeed it should be, for Montaigne not only created the new form of writing, but attached the word essais to his first publication in 1580. But the same word is applied to Malthus and his Essay on Population, to Locke and his Essay concerning Human Understanding, to Pope’s Essay on Criticism and his Essay on Man (although they are both in heroic couplets), to the essays of Bacon, Macaulay, Froude and Carlyle, to John Earle’s Micro-Cosmographie, or a Piece of the World discovered in Essayes and characters, to Sir Philip Sidney’s An Apologie for Poetrie, to G.K. Chesterton’s Tremendous Trifles, to the ‘Prefaces’ of Bernard Shaw, to Hilaire Belloc’s On Something, On Nothing and On Everything, to Jeremy Taylor, to Steele and Addison, Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Lamb, and to a thousand other vividly contrasted styles of writing and subject matter.
Michel de Montaigne started the fashion and English writers have adopted and adapted it to the lasting glory of literature in all the succeeding centuries. In the year 1571 he was 38 years old. He was well-to-do, and had quite deliberately turned away from ‘the eager and tumultuary pursuits of the life political’, as Lord Morley once described them, and had retired to the calm and quietude of his country home. Here it was, in ‘the tower raised above but not removed from men’s follies’, that he began  the composition of the essais that were destined to place him amongst the immortals. Had the hopes based on the peace of Saint Germain been fulfilled, Montaigne might have written no essays at all, but have spent his life in some form of political activity, for which in some respects he was well fitted. In that event, the stream of English literature might well have run in some other course that the course it followed after the publication of the first two books of Montaigne in 1580. In John Florio’s translation of 1603, the Essays were made more accessible to English readers, and in the ‘Address from the Author to the Reader’, Montaigne sets out the purpose of his mind. The memorable opening words are – ‘Reader, lo here a well-meaning book’, and he continues – ‘Had my intention been to forestal and purchase the world’s opinion and favour, I would surely have adorned my selfe more quaintly, or kept a more grave or solemne march. I desire therein to be delineated in mine owne genuine and simple and ordinarie fashion, without contention, art or study; for it is my selfe I pourtray.’
Whether this declaration is strictly true may be doubted; but Montaigne wrote of himself in the most startlingly intimate way and indulged his every thought and fancy to the uttermost. He seems to permit his mind to wander where it pleased and he gives the impression of writing as his mood dictates. He ornamented and embellished his fancies with grace and art, and wrote with solemnity or gaiety on things grave and weighty, or things excessively trivial. He wrote moreover with a seeming discursiveness that somehow never quite forsook the original theme. Perhaps Sir Edmund Gosse put the matter as simply as it can be put when he said – ‘It was in the chapters of his strange new book that Montaigne introduced the fashion of writing briefly, irregularly, with constant digressions and interruptions about the world as it appears to the individual who writes.’
As a large host of writers have followed Montaigne’s great example, perhaps it would be well to say that this air of discursiveness, so congenial to the essay, is almost always deceptive. Montaigne knew perfectly well what he was doing, and just as the modern after-dinner speaker is said to lie awake half the night considering how best to give the impression of being completely spontaneous in his speech, so Montaigne, it may be thought, with his elaborate quotations, his historical allusions, his curious speculations, and his quaint and most daring fancies, is not quite the casual and careless commentator he sometimes appears to be; but rather is he a man of some method and of great industry and of much forethought, with a plan and a scheme in all his writing.”

“The other equally great name in the history of the essay is that of Francis Bacon. He is utterly unlike Montaigne, but he is one of the chief glories of English literature. In the early part of the year 1597 he published his first volume of essays under the title of Essays. Religious Meditations, Places of Persuasion and Dissuasion. They were as different from the essays of Montaigne as anything could be. They were simple and direct, and were more akin to a collection of aphorisms, carefully gathered, and published without any ornamentation whatever.”

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) Ed. S.H. Steinberg Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Literature. London: Cassell, 1953 [I forgot to note the pagination! Ooops]

Realism – Childers and Hentzi

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Realism, according to Joseph Childers and Gary Hentzi:

“In its literary usage the term realism is often defined as a method or form in fiction that provides a ‘slice of life,’ an ‘accurate representation of reality.’ Such a seemingly straightforward definition, however, belies a number of complexities that inform the concept of realism. First, and perhaps foremost, is the extreme differences in style and form among the texts that are usually identified as realistic. The term, though applicable to contemporary works, is most often used in discussion of nineteenth-century novels. Among those considered realists are George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and George Gissing in England, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Emile Zola in France, Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy in Russia, and W.D. Howells, Theodore Dreiser, and Henry James in the United States. For the most part, it might be said of these authors’ works that they focus on ordinary characters and the day-to-day events of those characters’ lives. The plots of these works encompass all social classes and tend away from excessive sentimentalizing. The characters’ speech and actions are appropriate for their education and social standing. Often these authors are extremely interested in the small details of experience, describing at length scenery, events, and seemingly unimportant objects. The representations of life found in these novelists’ works seem corroborated by nonfiction works that deal with the same subject matter. Yet at the same time that these works are categorized as realistic, one would be hard put to find common styles, techniques of plotting, or political agendas among them.
Another difficulty with the concept of realism has to do with the fact that it is applied to representations of the world. The concept of “realistic fiction” is rather oxymoronic, since ostensibly a text should be either “realistic” or a “fiction,” but it does not seem possible that it could be both. This contradiction is usually overcome by the response that “realistic fiction” attempts a faithful representation of concrete reality. Yet this too is a problematic assumption, since it begs the questions of the extent to which language, and thus fiction, actually constitute our perception of “reality.” This is not to say that realist authors were not aware of their own subjectivity or the ways in which experience is mediated through language, but they (and the critics who have unproblematically adopted [-p.256] “realism” as an analytical term) tend to assume that the nature of the material world is realtively stable and representable.” (pp.255-256)

“Another term that has been used in conjunction with discussions of realism is magic realism. Applied to a group of writers that include Latin American authors Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, as well as German Günter Grass and Englishman John Fowles, magic realism describes the technique of combining realistic depictions of events and characters with elements of the FANTASTIC, often drawn from dreams, myth, and fairy tales.
In recent years realism has come under considerable attack by post-structuralists…. Theorists such as Roland Barthes and Colin McCabe have argued that “classic,” nineteenth-century realism, in its reliance on closure (or the resolution of the plot) and its effacement of its own fictionality, reinscribe both characters and readers as essential, autonomous SUBJECTS. The basis for this subjectivity, they argue, is a middle-class “norm” that is always presented as the obvious and true. Thus, for such critics, the realist novel is a tool of bourgeois ideology that affirms that ideology and the place (and activities) of the subject within it. Another poststructuralist theorist, Jean Baudrillard, has argued that while once realism may have been at a premium, existence today operates on the level of SIMULACRA. Because we live in a world in which representation is so easily produced and disseminated, it is these simulations themselves, rather than any sort of “reality,” that constitute our being and our world. For Baudrillard, we have become so enmeshed in simulacra that our references are only to other simulations.” (p.256)

Ref: (capitals and italics in original) Joseph Childers and Gary Hentzi (1995) The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism New York: Columbia U.P.

Genre is a dialogic concept

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“The degree of abstraction necessary when working with a concept like ”genre” often glosses over the fact that no single text actually represents the abstraction in its entirety or perfectly developed form. Genre is a dialogic concept, emerging from a series of textual configurations in a process of constant revision by practitioners and theorists alike. Every individual text is synchronically and diachronically fragmented, containing traces of other genres, as well as traces of both surpassed and emerging stages of its own historical development.” (p.43)

Ref: Steffen Hantke (2002) ‘Monstrosity Without a Body: Representational Strategies in the Popular Serial Killer Film’ Post Script – Essays in Film and the Humanities. 22(2), pp.34-54

smashing image against image

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Just going through a recent – and very interesting – issue of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (37(4)Winter 2012), which looks at comics and picture books. There is a great deal of interesting stuff about genre in these articles – as well, of course, as thought about comics and picture books. In their editorial, Charles Hatfield and Craig Svonkin write:

“Sergei …Eisenstein argued that meaning was created in montage not as Pudovkin thought, by linking image to image in a coherent, deliberate chain, but rather by violently smashing image against image, so that images juxtaposed in opposition to each other create a new dialectical meaning each image separately could never evoke. Eisenstein’s model fits our project, given that comics and picture books likewise perform dialectically. Of course, the dialectic of images in cinema is not the same as that of image and written text in static form; nonetheless, Eisenstein’s dialectical theory resonates with our work here, which focuses on the intermedial space between two types of literature—and on the ways the literature itself uses dialectics to evoke meaning in the intermedial spaces between text and picture, or between picture and picture, or among text, picture, text, and picture.”[1]

“Pursuing questions of ideology…, Michael Joseph focuses his attention on the power of genres to construct their audience. Specifically, he posits the graphic novel as a liminal object that has a special relationship with its readers—“liminal” in Victor Turner’s sense of something “in between” marked by the disturbance of established social structures. Comics, Joseph asserts, particularly alternative comics, have this power to disturb, because they resist the norms of book culture and thus subvert the very category of children’s literature. The graphic novel, in his view, is neither a book nor an art object in the usual sense, but rather deconstructs the form, utility, and cultural authority of the book itself. The genre invites an embodied and material reading practice, one that refuses the transparency which convention dictates is essential to reading, and thus encourages a critical and subversive reading attitude. The effect is to cede interpretive agency to the reader (an empowerment perhaps especially important to readers in the liminal state of adolescence). Analyzing a key page from Kim Deitch’s graphic novel Alias the Cat, Joseph shows how comics refuse transparency, call attention to their own framing, and playfully exploit “bookness.”” p.433 Hatfield and Svonkin

“Thomas, Jr. [shows…] how expectations of genre determine and limit the kinds of meaning we can make of a text—that is, how genre concepts work to shape and foreclose interpretive possibilities.” p.434 Hatfield and Svonkin

“Genres are essentially literary institutions, or social contracts between a writer and a specific public, whose function is to specify the proper use of a particular cultural artifact” (Political Unconscious 92).” ~ Frederic Jameson cited p.435 Hatfield and Svonkin


[1] 432 Charles Hatfield and Craig Svonkin (2012) Why Comics Are and Are Not Picture Books: Introduction Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 37(4)Winter: 429-435

The two Coralines: different versions of childhood – Myers

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Touching on a topic that rather interests me, Lindsay Myers considers the way that fear is addressed in Henry Selick’s stop-motion film Coraline (2009). She writes:

CoralineFears about the welfare and safety of children have long dominated adult conceptions of childhood. Binary oppositions between innocence and experience, autonomy and dependency lie at the heart of modern definitions of childhood and adulthood, and attempts to break free from these essentialist dichotomies have always been fraught with difficulty. The last fifty years have witnessed major advances in the recognition of children’s rights throughout the Western world, and it is now widely acknowledged that depriving the young of their civil liberties renders them more susceptible to violence, exploitation, and abuse. Adult fears for child safety and child risk have not, however, dissipated over the course of the last few decades but rather have mutated and developed in accordance with modern advances and scientific progress (Buckingham; Beck; Best; James and Prout; Jenkins; Palmer) and concerns about the perceived menace of pedophilia, child abuse, child pornography, and childhood criminality have led to a veritable escalation in moral panic and anxiety. Progressive policies to empower the young have almost always been accompanied by discourses of protectionism that seek to control and regulate children’s lives in the service of what is perceived to be their “best interests,” and for many the process of managing and limiting child risk has become a valuable commodity (Buckingham).
CoralineThe extent to which these two parallel trends (increased autonomy on the one hand and increased regulation on the other) have impacted upon cultural representations of childhood has yet to be fully exploredAnalysis of the modern “family film” can, however, afford particularly revealing insights into this process as it necessarily unites both adult and child audiences, mediating between adult perceptions of childhood and [-p.246] a child’s understanding of adults. In contrast to children’s literature, which is predominantly author-driven, the family film is entirely market-led, a phenomenon that makes it a far more transparent portrayer of the dominant social and cultural climate than is its literary counterpart.” (pp.245-246)

“What […] are we to make [-p.247] of Selick’s creation? Is A. O. Scott of the New York Times correct when he asserts that Selick, like Gaiman, is interested in childhood, “not as a condition of sentimentalized, passive innocence but rather as an active, seething state of receptivity in which consciousness itself is a site of wondrous, at times unbearable drama”?” (pp.246-247)

Coraline - the graphic novelHaving acknowledged Gaiman’s warm reception of the film adaptation, Myers’s own reading of the two versions leads her to write: “Close comparison of the film and the book reveals that while the film initially appears to convey the “feel” of the original, underneath it is a radically conservative appropriation of the original source. Far from challenging dominant stereotypes and conventions, as does Gaiman’s literary masterpiece, Selick’s Coraline presents a fundamentally unprogressive vision of childhood, trading off the novel’s underlying theme of child empowerment for adult fears about child welfare. It constructs the child not as an autonomous protagonist but as a passive cipher, and it plays more to adult anxieties about child abuse than it does to the genuine fears and concerns of the child.
Gaiman’s Coraline is, at its heart, “a spooky, cautionary tale that works by playing on very real childhood fears” (Coats 86). It is a profoundly moving account of how one girl faces up to her deepest fears and desires, and it is, as David Rudd has observed, “centrally concerned with how one negotiates ones place in the world” (160).” (p.247) [this notion of ‘very real’ childhood fears is an interesting one, BTW]

Coraline - illustrated by Chris RiddellBy creating a long-standing kidnapping framework in which to position Coraline’s abduction, Selick not only removes the focus from Coraline but he also effectively [-p.249] renders his heroine powerless, pitting her from the outset against a devious serial killer. His recasting of Gaiman’s novel as an abduction story essentially transforms the heroine’s journey of empowerment into a panic-ridden battle against the evil “out there,” playing far more strongly to contemporary adult fears about child safety and “stranger danger” than it does to the fears and desires of the young.” (pp.248-249)

It is not only the characters and the settings that have been altered significantly in the transposition from book to film. Gaiman’s Coraline and Selick’s Coraline are also on entirely different missions. Gaiman’s Coraline is searching for self-knowledge, self-control, and agency. At the beginning of her adventures she only knows what she is not (she is not Caroline) but by the end of the novel she has learned a great deal about herself and the world. She has faced her deepest fears and desires and she has learned that you shouldn’t always get everything you ever wanted, just like that, without it meaning anything. Selick’s Coraline, on the other hand, is not particularly interested in finding her identity. It is quite clear from the highly individual nature of her attire at the beginning of the film (blue hair, blue nails, and a funky yellow Macintosh) that she has already, at least to some degree, discovered her “alterity,” and that she has no qualms in expressing this alternative “self” publicly. All Selick’s Coraline wants to do is to get away from the predatory Other Mother, and the film is far more about depriving the Other Mother of her power than it is about empowering its young heroine.” (p.250)

CoralineGaiman’s Coraline develops her increased sense of awareness by employing a combination of strategies: reflecting on past experiences, assimilating and employing previously acquired knowledge, and articulating her feelings to others (namely to the cat). Each of these techniques is foregrounded by Gaiman in order to ensure that his reader is fully aware of the complex processes behind his heroine’s development. Coraline’s decision to go back to the alternate realm to rescue her parents is born not from a sense of duty or selfishness but from a memory that she has of when her father heroically saved her from a swarm of bees, her understanding of the nature of identity derives from her challenging conversations with the cat, and the clever trick that she uses to lure the Other Mother to the abandoned well is a reenactment of the strategy of “protective coloration” a form of camouflage employed by animals to ward off predators in the wild of which the young girl became aware while watching nature programs on television. Selick’s Coraline, by contrast, does not learn from her adventures. She has very little opportunity to reflect on the consequences of her actions, since nearly all of her most significant actions having been excised from the plot.” (p.250)

CoralineSelick’s film appears to suggest that childhood “innocence” and security can only be restored if the corrupt and fallen adult world is miraculously redeemed by the child (a trope that has recently become a common staple of many recent film adaptations of children’s classics). The figure of the child in this film comes to symbolize, as in so many nineteenth-century novels, both adult hope and adult guilt. Coraline’s task is not to find her place in the world but to save the adult world from inevitable degeneration, and it is her selfless generosity and goodness that are foregrounded rather than her self-reliance, agency, and autonomy (the qualities emphasized in the book).” (p.251)

“Although the book can be read either as an exciting adventure or as the story of a child in
trouble, the film undeniably prioritizes the latter. It does little to empower its child viewer, eliminating the child’s perspective almost entirely, perpetuating victim stereotypes and fetishizing childhood innocence.” (p.254)

“In contrast to Gaiman’s text, which teaches its heroine (and by extension its reader) that “perfect” parents are neither possible nor desirable, Selick’s film is highly critical of Coraline’s Real Parents. It goes so far as to suggest that Coraline’s vulnerability was the direct result [-p.255] of parental shortcomings, and it is especially critical of modern mothers who do not have time to tend to their children’s needs due to work commitments (Parsons, Sawers, and McInally).” (pp.254-255)

CoralineI found Myers’s analysis of the two Coralines interesting (and well-argued), but I do wonder at her definition of genres in this analysis, as in her definition of the family film in contrast with children’s literature (above, p.246), or when she writes:

“The reasons why Selick adapted Gaiman’s source text in such a radical manner surely lie in the very different cultural contexts in which the works [-p.252] are respectively positioned. Whereas Gaiman’s novel is a sophisticated literary work that consciously engages with a rich, textual heritage, Selick’s Coraline is a modern, audio-visual construct, a consumer-driven product whose success depends entirely upon its ability to tap into popular trends and desires.
coraline dollGaiman’s novel deploys, as many scholars have demonstrated, two main frames of reference—the literary fairy tale and the fantasy—both of which can be said to hold a particular affinity for the young. The split mother, the locked room, the deceptive lure, the magical talisman, and the fear of being eaten are all common fairy-tale tropes, while the eccentric cat and the magical wardrobe are indirect allusions to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, two iconic children’s fantasies, which Gaiman, himself, has admitted exerted a considerable influence over him as a child (Austin). The main influence on Selick’s Coraline, however, is the Hollywood horror film, a genre, which until recently, was the exclusive domain of adults.” (pp.251-252)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Lindsay Myers (2012) Whose Fear Is It Anyway?: Moral Panics and “Stranger Danger” in Henry Selick’s Coraline. The Lion and the Unicorn 36, 245–257

Romance, character, healing and the hero

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In her discussion of Romance, Joyce Saricks writes: “Characters rather than plots twists drive Romances. In a Romance the lovers must come to understand themselves and their relationships with each other. As readers, we see interior as well as exterior aspects of these characters, and we respond to them and their developing relationship. In her Contemporary Romances Susan Elizabeth Phillips explores complex family relationships and the difficult concepts of guilt, forgiveness, and grief. Although these affect the protagonists and force them to mature, these themes do not detract from the power of the Romance. In fact, it is because of the environment the Romance creates, one in which the characters feel safe sharing their deepest emotions, that healing finally comes.

This growth, however, is not limited only to Romances with a serious side. In almost all, the characters are forced to change, to relinquish preconceptions about themselves (often their lack of self-worth) and their partners before they are able to embrace the romantic union readers demand.” (p.134)

“That characters are written to a pattern is important, too, as it is in most genres from adventure to Women’s Lives and Relationships. the women are bright, independent, strong, and, perhaps surprisingly, not always beautiful but certainly interesting and articulate. The men must be strong, distant, and always dangerous, because the stronger the hero, the greater the victory when the heroine brings him to his senses and his knees. Conquering a gentle, affectionate, mild-mannered, sensible hero simply is not satisfying, either for the heroine or for the reader.” (p.134)

“One last important point about characterization is that we almost always get the point of view of both protagonists. This allows us to experience their inner dilemmas and follow their thoughts as they work out their relationship. This is not just her story; it is his as well. Romances are almost never written first-person; the reader and author require the third-person to create the full picture, to reveal easily the inner thoughts and struggles of both characters.” (p.135)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago