Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: March, 2016

World Building Fail

I’m not a fan of Harry Potter but I couldn’t help but notice the recent controversy over it. In a nutshell, I’ve seen two responses to it: 1) Rowling is writing fiction and she can write whatever she wants so PC people should just shut up or 2) huge disappointment that she has appropriated other people’s culture and she should have done research and consulted people from that culture to get things right. N. K. Jemisin’s thoughts on the whole thing  probably most closely mirror my own.

Writers, as artists, are free to do their art as they wish. But if they’re presenting their art for public consumption, they have to be prepared for the fact that there’s going to be a lot of different reactions–both good and bad–to their art. As consumers of art, we have to be prepared for the fact that the artist will not kowtow to all of our criticisms. Art is subjective. It’s qualitatively different than selling widgets.

But that said, art can be considered “bad” if it fails at its originally intended purpose.  And in this case, I get the impression that Rowling has failed at world building for some of her readers. The thing is, her “History of Magic in North America” is all about world building. And if effective world building isn’t present in that piece of fiction, then what is the point of it? In the Harry Potter universe, the premise is basically the answer to the question of “What would our world be like if there was magic in it?” By appropriating Native American culture and basically lumping all Native American cultures into some monolithic stereotype, Rowling has failed to answer that question. This isn’t an isolated incident, either. I’ve seen fans grumble about her shallow treatment of African, Asian, and South American magic. Some posit that this shallowness is a signature of her work, that even from her original seven books, she poorly accounts for the diversity in the UK and Europe.

I have only read book one and the posts on the Pottermore website so I cannot comment on the diversity of the characters or their potential portrayal as stereotypical cardboard cutouts. But from what I have read, I don’t particularly find the world building all that compelling. World building, as they say, is supposed to be like an iceberg. You show 10%, but you should also leave the impression that the 90% beneath the surface actually exists in a gigantic pile of notes somewhere. Rowling’s world building seems less an iceberg and more like an ice cream float that’s been sitting out in the sun too long. It’s as if Rowling threw in a bunch of tropes after watching a few movies and reading Wikipedia.

Of course, one could argue that there are plenty of other authors who have terrible world building yet no one’s picking on them with this much fervor. But what makes Rowling’s case different is that there are so many people around the world invested in her fictional world. If you’re going to give the impression that you’re trying to be inclusive to all of your readers, you can’t just turn around and do the opposite. And if you’re claiming artistic license, well, you have to be prepared for the fallout.

To be honest, I think Rowling set herself up for failure by attempting to describe magic in all the world’s cultures. Even if she is a diligent researcher, there would be no way for her to be familiar with everything. Writers who are better world builders know trying to tackle just one culture (even your own) is a difficult task. Heck, I’ve lived in North America my whole life and moved around a lot, but I would never presume to know every single culture and subculture that exists here. So if you want to do world building well, concentrate on that one thing first. Otherwise, go find help.

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Beauty and the Beast Has Jumped the Shark

I recently read this post about gender swapping the beauty and the beast trope and I was immediately struck by something about all the examples the author of the post gives. All of the women are “beasts” because they had something traumatic happen in their pasts. Traumatic as in actual violence and abuse. It’s as if the only way that they could be an acceptable beastly female character was to have experienced an intimate tragedy that was out of their control. In the original Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, the prince gets turned into a beast because he consciously said “no” to someone. Becoming the beast was the punishment, not the result of another punishment that already happened.

My question is: Why must these female characters have those tragic backstories in order for them to be “beasts”? Can’t they just naturally have disagreeable personalities? We know that in real life that there are men and women who are cranky simply because they just are. Can’t we have those types of female characters in our fiction as well? Or is this going to be branded as unrealistic and illogical in fiction?

I don’t think it should be inevitable that fiction follow some kind of archetypal and moralistic underpinning where every character behaves in certain ways because of Reasons. Characters can be anything and they shouldn’t be pushed into certain types simply because the author thinks the readers would find only certain things acceptable. A successful author should be able to write about any kind of character in a compelling enough way so that people will keep on reading regardless of whether they agree with those characters’ actions or not.

On Twitter, I also speculated that why those beastly female characters with tragic backstories are so popular is because they are a natural outgrowth of a very old notion or stereotype that women can only exist in two states: saint or sinner, virgin or harlot, goody-goody or bitchy. And if a woman doesn’t quite exactly fit in either of those two categories, there has to be Big Reasons. Apparently no female character can exist in the gray area simply because they just do. Instead, only male characters are allowed to be the flawed everyman without any explanation. This is why I gravitate towards “anti-heroines” rather than characters traumatized because the author needed them to be so. Anti-heroines far more resemble believably flawed people than characters constructed out of Reasons.

Anyways, this has really made me think about why the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale isn’t exactly one of my favorites even though it’s very popular with other people. This fairy tale espouses a lot of idealism–that with enough love and going beyond skin deep, you will win. I can see why it can be appealing to a lot of people. Personally, I find it very passive and not very practical. If you want to win at anything, you need to get off your butt and actually DO something. In most cases, just loving something won’t magically make everything okay. It’s probably also why I prefer some of the more obscure fairy tales like The Master Maid or Prince Lindworm where the heroines are clever and proactive. There’s hard work involved in getting to that happy ending, and they’re not just playing nice to get it either.

Views from The Getty

The Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA

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Gearing Up

Yeah, it’s another long time no see. At this point, this blog is probably going to be an occasional thing unless I get my butt in gear and start posting regularly. If you haven’t already guessed, most of my daily stuff is mostly on Twitter anyway.

This year’s first session of Camp NaNoWriMo is coming up fast–it’s next month–and I’ve been waffling about what to do. At first, I thought about starting a new project, but I’ve been also feeling bad about some of my previous projects which I’ve started but not finished. So I’m going to do something different this time and actually continue an existing project. Right now, the best candidate is the project I started during last year’s July Camp NaNo since it’s the freshest in my mind. April is probably my best chance at trying to finish that story. I can’t depend on the July session since I am already anticipating that work stuff will be especially crazy then and will be eating up my free time (and sleep time).

Recently, I’ve also been contemplating on my lack of motivation to write. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m still writing whenever I have free time. I have tons of cool ideas I want to get onto the page. But I’m also feeling a crippling sense of…inadequacy. I mean, maybe I think my ideas are cool, but in the grand scheme of things most people (and more importantly, agents and editors) will think they’re stupid and my writing subpar, at best. Part of it, too, is the realization that I’m at a point where most people my age have already accomplished so much and in comparison, I don’t really have much to show. I’m probably destined to remain in the dustbin of mediocrity for the rest of my time here. It could be worse, but it is also a bit frustrating to put in all the work and have nothing pan out.