Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Notes on Writing: Keep it Simple

From the chapter "Simplicity" in William Zinsser's (2001) On Writing Well:

"...the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what--these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence" (p. 8).

And so...

"How can the rest of us achieve such enviable freedom from clutter? The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can't exist without the other. It's impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English. He may get away with it for a paragraph or two, but soon the reader will be lost, and there's no sin so grave, for the reader will not easily be lured back" (p. 9).

"Calm Waters" by Andrew E. Larsen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

Hank Green of the incredibly smart Youtube duo, vlogbrothers, announced his newest project this week: "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries." Described as a "vlog-based adaptation of Pride and Prejudice," Green explains he started the project out of a desire to create something new and unique for the world of new media.

This involved taking an existing work--in this case, a work of literature--and adapting it to be suitable for online video. He chose
Pride and Prejudice because its dialogue heavy content and strong character arcs make it ideal for the immediacy and vibrancy that online media offers its audience. Further, these elements also make it possible to place less importance on elaborate sets, costumes, or scenery, and focus more on the development of character and the creation of modern dialogue that evokes the witty, quick cadence that Austen mastered.

In this very modern adaptation, Lizzie is a Mass Communications student vlogging about her family as a personal exercise and experiment. She's teamed up with her best friend Charlotte Liu, a film student, and together they create weekly videos where Lizzie gives very animated renditions of her current family drama. Short, snappy, and punctuated with a slight sardonic edge, Lizzie's three-minute "slice of life" vlogs have the quick witted friendly vibe of those infamous super-fast chats from the Gilmore Girls, but also the immediacy and depth required of both the subject matter and the medium.

The creators have opted to cut the two youngest sisters, Kitty and Mary, from the cast choosing instead to feature the more pivotal sisters, Jane and Lydia. Poor Kitty and Mary were probably deemed unnecessary to the development of the story, but having this adaptation fit the "norms" of the modern day nuclear family probably also played a role. While large families of five children (or more!) may have been commonplace in the Regency period, they are less common now (though not non-existent!).

Cutting Kitty is easy enough (no one likes the whiny, petulant child in the family), but I'm afraid cutting Mary may have robbed the adaptation of some rich material. I would have loved to see a modern version of an overly moral, straight-laced teen set alongside the "slutty" Lydia. The modern Mary could have also served as a means of a refreshing new reading--maybe her moral inclinations surface in incessant preaching about the global economy and the unfair distribution of wealth--the kind of moralist who will, with the purest of intentions, point out that the chocolate bar you're eating is made from cocoa beans that were not produced under fair-trade conditions. Mary just has so much potential.

In any case, the second episode gives us our first glimpse of Jane and oh, she's perfect. Jane appears to be a fashion intern serving countless cups of coffee and claiming that it's "the price of the industry." Ah, sweet, unassuming Jane. The casting for this production has thus far, been spotless.

I'm curious to see how the series handles the rest of the cast--will Bingley (Bing Lee) and Darcy ever appear on camera? If so, how will
that happen? Lizzie is after all, vlogging from her bedroom. I'm also really trying to figure out what the modern day equivalent of shamefully running away with a man, unmarried, will be. Nothing is really sacred anymore, so it will be interesting to see what the writers use as the Lydia-induced plot point that threatens ruin for the Bennets. Lastly, I'm especially looking forward to the dark, wretched moments where Lizzie can grieve into the camera. Confessionals are nothing new in the vlog world, but a Lizzie Bennet moment of truth is something to really savour.

While eight episodes have already been filmed, there are three episodes currently available for viewing on the LizzieBennet channel on YouTube. Creation of episodes beyond these original eight are dependent on the success of the series--a large audience makes ad revenue possible and funding available. So go on, watch!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Dear Diary #1: Constructive Criticism

An entry from my diary circa 1997 expresses the well known trauma of receiving criticism on a piece of writing we believe has been misunderstood. We were told to write descriptive paragraphs for our Grade 7 Language class and my teacher had some suggestions that did not go over well:

Saturday, January 11th, 1997


Something terrible happened to me when I went to school the other day. You see, I had to write a descriptive paragraph about anything for a school assignment. I wrote about rain. I love rain. I wrote a verse where it goes like this --

the rain peletted
down to the bold
concrete and it washed
over me, it enchanted me.

I admit it certainly isn't my best, but my teacher put question marks where I wrote "bold concrete" and "enchanted me," and she corrected my spelling for pelleted. She changed it to pelted. I understand she did it for my own good, but concrete is bold! People walk, tramp, and jump on it, ride, run and skid across it, and it still remains. So wouldn't the concrete be brave, bold, then? I know it is.

I was really angry when she put a question mark next to enchanted me. Has she ever felt the rain? Has she ever really felt it? Has she heard it whisper secrets to her, laugh and sing to her? No. No, she hasn't. Everyone tries to escape the rain. They run from it. They hurry and shut their doors on it. But don't they know the rain is there to cheer them up? To sing and to laugh with them? To share secrets and tell stories to them? Do they know? NO! That is why the rain enchants me. That is why.

Why did she change peletted to pelted? I like peletted. Peletted is like -- rushing, hurrying, zooming, rapidly! Pelted is like sharp, hard, unforgiving. Doesn't she understand? I guess not.

Diagnosis: an acute case of hypersensitivity and resistance to criticism. But also a very firm sense of creative vision and JUSTICE.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book Abuse: The Trauma of Dog-eared pages

I'm currently reading The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Vishwanathan, a big, fat book with many pages. It belongs to The Duchess who is generous to a fault with lending items from her personal library--too generous because some of her books/dvds have been sadly classified as Missing In Action in a forever, full stop, plan the funeral kind of way. I tell her book kidnappers need to be banned from her library, but she persists, her eyes glaring it's for the greater good as she shucks books at gluttonous readers left and right. Guests leave her house cheeks rosy, guts paunchy, dragging bags of books behind them.

My shelves house an entire section of books that belong to The Duchess. This is okay, she tells me, because my books have also taken up residence on her shelves. She likes it that way; we have interchangeable book collections, transient volumes that are at home wherever they happen to reside -- the "what's mine is yours" ideal.

This would be fine except for the fact that I treat what's "mine" very badly. I'm a book wrecker. I like my books to feel like they've been read. My books are like shoes; I break them in. This means I deliberately crack spines before I've even started reading. I like to warm them up before I sink in. I love that satisfying, creaky paper-moan--it's like I'm cracking book knuckles and it feels so good. I read through paperbacks, covers folded back--and even try to fold back hardcovers so I can snuggle down deep. If it's a good book, I'll roll it up like a newspaper and feel it warm into the curve of my hands. I flip through the pages with my thumb and mess 'em up until the sharp-cut edge of paper is worn and feathered. Through the course of one reading, the book and I become one.

If I'm reviewing a book, I massacre it with notes in the end pages and margins, my scrawling, unreadable handwriting jamming through the text, oblivious and self-important. If I'm snacking while reading, no napkins are needed. Peanutbutter smears, smashed up bits of chocolate, and flowery drops of juice texturize my book pages, every flip of a page a glimpse into the delights of my appetite.

Book jackets never make it through an entire read. They are annoying and disruptive. I slide them off and they tumble to my bedroom floor, crushed beneath the roll of my desk chair, kicked under piles of unwashed laundry never to be seen again.

But, as I recently learned through a series of panicked texts between The Duchess and I, the most deplorable act of book wreckage I practice is the brutish habit of dog-earing pages. She likes her pages straight and clean, no obnoxious, unruly dents.

My room is littered with forlorn bookmarks all gifted to me by well-meaning friends who don't understand how unnatural and disruptive it is for me to have to slide a strip of paper in and out of my pages every time I read. I will start with good intentions, all civilized and proper, a lovely embellished bookmark tucked into my book and carefully set aside while I daintily flip pages...but then the bookmark is lost in the folds of my duvet, or has fallen under the bed, or is crushed beneath me, or is trampled by spiders and I simply cannot be bothered to worry about where it went and what I'll do without it.

I'm an aggressive dog-earer. I will fold pages right in half if there's a passage I want to come back to later. I'm not discriminating either--I will fold both top and bottom corners and will even commit double folds on those rare, but special occasions.

But when The Duchess informed me that this was the one and only thing* she could not endure her books to suffer, I realized I had to reform--at least when I was reading one of her books, which is in fact, a lot of the time. So I found a bookmark. It was adorned with pressed flowers. It had a crimson tassel.

The Toss of a Lemon is a very big, very fat book. I am enjoying it. The bookmark is still there. But I am in pain. I feel as if I've been put in restraints. Sometimes I can't breathe properly. I will admit that I do feel a bit more refined. I think I even sit up a little straighter when I read with my bookmark. I am suddenly respectable, me and my pressed flower bookmark settling down for an evening read.

BUT TAKE HEED: I am doing everything I can to stop myself from ripping this book in half. The content is fine, but this energy, this excess energy, it is driving me mad.

Are you a book wrecker? Or, do you like your pages smart and clean?

* I don't think The Duchess would appreciate food decay smashed between the pages of her book either, but because she was particularly insistent on her hatred of folded pages, I focussed my energy there. No juice stains to report.

Photo Credits: Worn book titled "Salim's visitor book" by Jaymis Loveday, clean books titled "Books" by shutterhacks, book with bookmark titled "A Storm of Swords" by flossyflotsam.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Too Embarrassed to Read

A recent post on Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes touched on the inner anxiety of reading below our "reading status." Athitakis dwells on what it means to read "middlebrow" fiction and the weight the word carries for readers who are painfully self-aware:

"To be middlebrow is to suffer from status anxiety. To be middlebrow is to read/watch/listen to things that you think qualify as high art but really aren’t, because you don’t have the intellectual chops for high art. To be middlebrow is to fail—and worse, fail for trying too hard."

This awareness of middlebrow culture--the mere fact that it exists and that we recognize it--points to an internalized anxiety of where we think we should belong along the spectrum of culture. By extension, the theory of status anxiety can be applied to any genre or classification of literature and its implications are the same: readers are ruthlessly self conscious and use their reading selections as a method of self-analysis. What we choose to read is seen as a reflection of our tastes, our intelligence, our ability to differentiate good writing from bad, quality reading material from excess matter.

This self-analysis has as much to do with how we perceive what others think about us as it does with the active process we are constantly undertaking of molding our tastes and selections to fit the image we have of ourselves--or at least the ideal version of ourselves we aim to embody. If we, as Athitakis mentions, avoid a particular writer or genre because of the implicit shame associated with reading it, we are tailoring our reading lists to coincide with a set of internal reading values--the sense that there are some things we should read and other things we shouldn't.

Reading values are honed by a variety of factors--experience, education, exposure to reading material as a young child--all creating a subconscious method of ranking what we read, differentiating between what is "good" and what is "brain candy"--enjoyable, but "bad" for us and somehow diminishing. However, a value system is not synonymous with taste. They're in a symbiotic relationship, one influencing the other, a constant tug and pull that dictates what we pick up off the shelves. You can be a critical, selective reader (in many circles this is known as being a book snob) but still have a penchant for commercial thrillers that may not have the literary meat that you usually prefer.

But, it's the shame that interests me. We care deeply about what others think of us. This is because we are keenly aware of how quickly, easily, and smugly we judge others. If we think less of someone who openly reads Danielle Steele on the train because they are happily absorbed and entertained by what we see as exploitative, sexually charged fantasies, we have made an assessment of their taste, their place in society. We reduce (or lift) people to the book they hold in their hands. One informs the other. And so, we view the books we choose to read as modes of insight into our intelligence, creativity, and taste. Our books are who we are.

But more interestingly, the choice to read salacious romance novels for example, is perceived as a fault of the reader--they read romance novels because they don't know better. They think they're "readers" but they're victims of bad taste, suffering from a lack of proper literary know-how. They're pawns in the game of popular, cotton candy publishing. They aren't real readers. But if you're reading Ondaatje, you've got depth. Your judgements of others are internalized practices that guide standards you hold for yourself. You don't read romances because they don't hold anything of value for you. You value something else.

And of course, the natural progression of this argument--if I were more objective--would be to re-analyze what we view as trash and whether it has merit or anything of value to offer. It probably does. However, I think it's perfectly fine to subscribe to a set of standards. Everything doesn't have to be okay. No one is required to justify Danielle Steele, unless they see value in doing so. Confronting status anxiety is not about discovering a new love for every possible kind of writing. It's not about validating bad writing. Standards are a good thing--they keep the bar consistently raised. Critical readers must be aware; they must have standards.

Confronting the shame we feel when reading a book is about confronting the desire to uphold an image. An image we've created for ourselves, but also the image we know others have created for us. We become prisoners of this "ideal reader", the reader we value in our minds and believe we should aspire to be. But it's also not as easy and saccharine as claiming we should break free of these moulds and pride ourselves on whatever our innate desires guide us towards. Reading is not about self-esteem.

Admitting an insatiable desire for pulp fiction, salacious romances, or Dan Brown isn't the downfall of literature. You can enjoy "rubbishy twaddle", even find value in it, without sacrificing your standards for good, quality literature. You can even create a sound theoretical argument that aims to recognize the literary value of such work. You can decide that some if it in fact, is good literature. But, you don't have to. You can read it even while acknowledging that it might be bad writing, that it really should never have been published, that it's terrible, terrible stuff--and accept that you like it. It falls somewhere on your personal reading spectrum and you like it because you like it--and that's okay.

But more than anything, understanding status anxiety is about valuing our shame and seeking to understand the driving force behind it. Our shame, or more often, our utter distaste of a certain kind of book can make us consider our standards and the personal principles we apply to reading. We can shape ourselves as readers by first understanding what we implicitly want to avoid. It doesn't have to mean change; in fact, perhaps it shouldn't. It can simply be an acute awareness of where we stand and why--a better understanding of who we are as readers and where we want to go.