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A Swede in Germany

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More on distortion of literary works

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After my texts on the distortions of the books of Roald Dahl ([1]) and the semi-cancellation of Scott Adams, I ran into a great number of texts on related topics. To look briefly at some of them:

The vandalism of Dahl’s books is made the worse by Dahl’s strong objections (long before the fact, of course):

*Here and elsewhere with reservations for e.g. formatting.

He told [friend Francis] Bacon: “I’ve warned my publishers that if they later on so much as change a single comma in one of my books, they will never see another word from me. Never! Ever!”

In the recording, the writer, who had Norwegian roots, added: “When I am gone, if that happens, then I’ll wish mighty Thor knocks very hard on their heads with his Mjolnir. Or I will send along the Enormous Crocodile to gobble them up.”

(For my part, I can only second this opinion: I absolutely and categorically forbid such vandalism of any and all of my writings and other works, be they current, past, or present.)

In stark contrast to the vandalizing Brits, the French and the Dutch are saner, distance themselves from such acts, and seem set on keeping the existing translations*.

*Of course, the fact that the translations are translations automatically implies some level of distortion, and those capable of reading a book in its original language should try to do so, but this is a distortion of a different kind and, when done with sufficient competence and professionalism, a distortion that is not grossly unethical and destructive. (Unlike e.g. some absolutely atrocious German translations, e.g. of works by Terry Pratchett.)

However, as expected, Dahl is not the only victim. After the many failures of Blofeld and SPECTRE, James Bond finally takes a hit. The problem is similar to the one with Dahl—use of “sensitivity readers”* to determine what is and is not acceptable to real readers, while leaving the will of both the real readers and the author out of the picture. Who is next? Paddington Bear for stereotyping foreigners or for being offensive to abandoned children? And why has no-one taken down Jane Austen yet? Is not her books filled with stereotypical and offensive depictions of men and women in those horrifying, outdated, and sexist traditional gender roles?

*Also see below for some info on such “sensitivity readers”.

Then we have a case of defacement. This article deals with an (unsurprisingly, both female and deranged seeming) bookbinder who rebinds “Harry Potter” books in order to remove references* to their author and “create a ’safe space’ for fans who struggle to align themselves with the writer’s views”.** This is idiotic, as removing a name does not change the authorship or history of the books; and anyone who actually wishes to own and read the books, while being “triggered” by the mere name of the author on the cover, shows both a wish to have-one’s-cake-and-eat-it-too and an inability to understand what is important.*** It is, however, yet another interesting example of a Leftist tendency to believe in “word magic”. I am also reminded of the very common Leftist (implicit or explicit) view that individuals only exist to serve the collective or some party/cause/whatnot—produce all you want, but expect no recognition or reward.

*Including, apparently, replacing the copyright pages with “alternative versions”, which could raise very serious questions about the legality of the operation. (Note that she is not performing an on-demand modification of books already purchased by a long-term owner. She, herself, “seeks out second-hand copies of the series” and sells the modified versions at exorbitant prices.)

**The quoted statement, in my eyes, means something different from what is obviously intended. (And is very awkwardly formulated, even aside from the issue of meaning.)

***In contrast, a “I will never buy Rowling again!!!” would at least be somewhat understandable. It would, from what I have seen until now, be based on a faulty premise of Rowling as some hateful and evil individual, out to oppress and “discriminate” transsexuals, but, given that someone holds the premise to be true, it might not be unreasonable.

Another article from the same source deals with imagining “Harry Potter” without Rowling. In light of this, it is not inconceivable that we will see a long-term trend of detaching authors from their works, in order to deny any sign of accomplishment to those deemed heretics and to allow the True Believers to enjoy these works without themselves being viewed as heretics and/or falling victim to the “guilt by association” tactic so popular on the Left. Indeed, looking at [1] and the removal of references to Kipling in favor of Austen, would it not be expedient to just credit the one “approved” author with the works of someone not “approved”? If, say, a book mentions a character reading “The Jungle Book”, why not just proclaim it a work by Austen? (Or some other, preferably female, author who is a better chronological fit.) This would not just solve the PC problem of having the “wrong” authors show up, it would also remedy the “under-representation” of this-and-that and ensure that at least half of all important works were seen-as-written by women, that various minorities are credited with works in proportion to their numbers, etc.

Steve Sailer links to a National Review piece on the “sensitivity readers” behind the vandalism of Dahl’s works. Unfortunately, the latter page does not display for me, but Sailer has some quotes (and the comment section contains more than a few comments of interest).

Of the “sensitivity readers” mentioned in the text, at least four out of six are women*, the fifth a “transgender male poet”,** and the sixth a “queer, trans, and intersex individual” (my emphasis). Of the four official women, they are all at least one of LGBT-etc.-etc., Black, “neurodiverse”,*** and Muslim.

*Or, at any rate, have traditionally female names and/or are referred to with traditionally female pronouns. In the particular context at hand, this might not mean anything at all.

**Which likely implies “transgender female poet”, as abuse words is very common in these contexts. A woman who wants be a man is a transgender female resp. transgender woman, but is usually mislabeled as “transgender male” resp. “transgender man”.

***As a likely Aspie, I am puzzled by how many allegedly “neurodiverse” group with the Left. Stereotypical traits among the “neurodiverse” include a high degree of rationality, which is incompatible with the Left and many or most of their claims and behaviors. Whether such stereotypical traits match reality is often unclear, but I cannot suppress the suspicion that many of them are actually just “NTs” looking for another label to make themselves even more “intersectional” (note how often such individuals report with a handful of labels) or otherwise engage in mislabeling or misinterpretation. (Also note several comments following Sailer’s text.) It might even be argued that the “-diverse” part is a sign of a politically or ideologically driven identification, as opposed to actually being an Aspie, HFA, or whatnot.

This is a group that skews very heavily and very heavily into “demographics” with a strong tendency to support (and be manipulated by) the New Left, it is a group that is unlikely to be representative of mainstream readers, it is a group unlikely to be high in rational thinking, it is a group disproportionally likely to contain mental ill individuals, and it is a group that seems preselected to achieve a certain outcome. Even if (!!!) the idea of such rewrites had been legitimate, this would not be the way to go about it.

As an aside, if such skews are common, which seems plausible, it would go a long way to explain the excesses of e.g. many media franchises and how out of touch they can be with the actual audience.

In a similar direction, the British Prevent Scheme appears to deem an absurd amount of works normally considered harmless or beneficial as causing far-Right radicalization. A particularly interesting re-quote:

Historian and broadcaster Andrew Roberts said: ‘This is truly extraordinary. This is the reading list of anyone who wants a civilised, liberal, cultured education.[’]

‘It includes some of the greatest works in the Western canon and in some cases — such as Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent — powerful critiques of terrorism. Burke, Huxley, Orwell and Tolkien were all anti-totalitarian writers.’

To this, I note that some of the key differences between the Left and (at least portions of) the non-Left is their relative prioritization of conformance in opinion vs. critical/own thinking, the collective vs. the individual, big government vs. small government, and similar. Taking things to their natural conclusion, it is not really unexpected for someone on the Left to consider those who want to think for themselves and make decisions for themselves to be e.g. far Right, as their ideas/wishes/whatnot are antithetical to the Leftist ideal. Ditto to consider books “evil” that oppose government control of the people or do not indoctrinate into Leftist ideas but present ideas to be judged on their own merits or, worse, present ideas that contradict the Leftist dogmas. Etc.


Written by michaeleriksson

March 4, 2023 at 6:43 pm

Distortion of literary works / Roald Dahl

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I have repeatedly* written about the distortion of various past works by reader- and author-despising editors and whatnots—especially, those abusing their positions to push a PC extremist (or otherwise Leftist extremist) agenda.

*E.g. concerning Enid Blyton ([1]). Also note the overlapping issue of overruled choice.

As I learn today, Roald Dahl has fallen victim to a particularly large and ill-advised set of distortions. Several articles have appeared alone in “The Telegraph”, including [2] and [3], the latter partially discussing Salman Rushdie’s condemnation of the distortions.

To look at some quotes from [2]:*

*The usual disclaimers about formatting, etc., apply.

The publisher, Puffin, has made hundreds of changes to the original text, removing many of Dahl’s colourful descriptions and making his characters less grotesque.

Utterly inexcusable.*

*I use this formulation repeatedly. There is a reason for this—that the shoe fits! If anything, I use it too little: what goes on here should by rights be illegal.

The word “fat” has been removed from every book –
Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may still look like a ball of dough, but can now only be described as “enormous”.

This is an example of a hysterical treatment of words and an obsession with words over meanings and implications. If he still looks like a ball of dough, why would it matter that the word “fat” is used? A word, I note, which was seen as perfectly harmless not long ago, and where only massive* pressure from deranged lobby-groups have brought on a very recent change—a change so recent that not even I had expected “fat” to be problematic in contexts like these. Then again, we have reached a state where pointing out that someone might live longer through eating better and exercising more is seen as fat shaming by such fanatics and where they consider well-trained models offensive.**

*Is “massive” still allowed?

**But then we have the opposite risk, should we dare suggest that someone is not fat enough, as seen in e.g. a discussion of bad-faith assumptions. (Search for “Gabriella2”.)

This also comes with the problem of what to do when fat-as-a-substance is intended. I have seen Feminists flip out over use of the word “bitch” in the context of dog breeding—might not any use of “fat” be targeted next? (Also note the discussion of “female” below.)

And what happens when someone decides that not just a description as “fat” is illicit, and that Augustus must now be made entirely generic and as skinny as Charlie? What then would the point of the character be? And why would being fat be worse than being a spoilt brat, an idiot, or whatever applied to Augustus and/or some of the other children?

Passages not written by Dahl have also been added. In The Witches, a paragraph explaining that witches are bald beneath their wigs ends with the new line: “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”

Not only an inexcusable act of vandalism*—but something entirely superfluous. Comparing this with some vandalism mentioned in [1], far greater future issues are to be expected in the future, unless the backlash is strong enough, say, turning Blyton’s “Famous Five” into social-justice warriors or removing direct or indirect criticism of the Left from other works (maybe, those by George Orwell).

*I stand by that word. This is not a matter of creating a new (if highly disputable) mustached version of the “Mona Lisa”—it is a matter of doing away with the original, so that only the mustached version is ever seen.

References to “female” characters have disappeared – Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, once a “most formidable female”, is now a “most formidable woman”.

Another example of hysterical treatment of words. I note, in particular, that some seem to have an obsessive and irrational hatred of the word “female” (but not “male”; I have e.g. seen texts contrasting “women” with “males”), despite this being a perfectly normal and highly useful noun,* both for variation and for flexibility—even when restricted to humans, “female” has a wider meaning in common use, as e.g. a girl of five is a female but not typically considered a woman. It might or might not be argued that some individual (noun) use would benefit from “woman”, in order to avoid misunderstandings when specifically an adult human female is intended, but this is not the choice that the author made—and these changes are driven by irrationality and a PC agenda, not a wish for disambiguation. (And this without opening the can of worms created by the theft of the word “woman” to refer to men-who-want-to-be women.)

*And the main or sole option as a modifier. For instance, “women physicians” are gynecologist and the like (and might or might not be women, themselves), while physicians-who-are-women are correctly referred to as “female physicians”. Also note the enormously misleading headline of “Women abusers on the rise” mentioned in [4].

“Boys and girls” has been turned into “children”. The Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach have become Cloud-People and Fantastic Mr Fox’s three sons have become daughters.

The first is a pointless modification, unless the editor is, utterly inexcusably, trying to enforce a “sex does not exist” agenda. My extremely vague recollections of “James and the Giant Peach” does not allow me to comment in detail, but if the change was along the lines of “prefer humankind over mankind” it is, at best, an illicit, if possibly well meant, distortion of the author’s language, while a change of a previously male group into a mixed group would be utterly inexcusable. The Fox daughters, finally, are a horrifying spread of screen distortions to the written word—bad on the screen; utterly inexcusable here, as the screen version is a mere adaption, while here the original is distorted.

Matilda reads Jane Austen rather than Rudyard Kipling, and a witch posing as “a cashier in a supermarket” now works as “a top scientist”.

Blatant, utterly inexcusable, agenda pushing.

To boot, one that makes Matilda looks worse, as Jane Austen appears to have far less to offer as an author, especially from an intellectual point of view, than Kipling did. Mathilda is reduced from reading literature to reading chick-lit. (Cf. an earlier discussion of “Pride and Prejudice”.) And, no, Kipling was by no means just a children’s author, no matter what the relative popularity of his works might lead the modern reader to believe. He wrote novels, short stories, and poetry for adults too, received a Nobel Prize, and is rumored to have been offered (but declined) the position as Poet Laureate. For that matter, I would not rule out that “The Jungle Book” and “Kim” are worthier reads even for an adult than “Pride and Prejudice”.*

*My own contacts with the two former are too far back to say for certain, but took place at an adult age and left a more positive memory.

To boot, one that could potentially* miss an important point, e.g. (!) that “evil might be found anywhere”, which can work as both a life lesson and as a means to increase the scare value of a certain book/scene/character. (Monsters under the bed are much worse than monsters in some faraway forest.)

*Here too, my own contacts are too far back to say for certain. (Not even at an adult age, this time.)

The words “black” and “white” have been removed: characters no longer turn “white with fear” and the Big Friendly Giant in The BFG cannot wear a black cloak.

Here we reach a point of such insanity that even my own nightmare scenarios cannot keep up: A little more than a month ago, I wrote that “[…] the words ‘black’ and ‘brown’ have so far not been under general attack (presumably, something still too absurd even for the modern Left) […]”. The simply truth appears to be that nothing is too absurd for the modern Left.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 19, 2023 at 11:55 pm

Thoughts on Aubrey–Maturin

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After a very positive re-reading of the Hornblower books a few years ago, I am currently having a first go at Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. While these books are reasonably good (very good at times), they fall well short of the Hornblower standard, and Forester appears to be not just a better writer but one of greater insight into human nature. The extreme amount of time spent on land and on non-naval matters is a particular weakness—to the point that the series’ reputation as naval books in the mold of Hornblower might be questioned.* The long stretches of intrigues with women, will-they-won’t-they, adultery, and whatnot, are particularly weak and/or pointless. Generally, there is too much that does not bring the story forward, does not result in better characterization, does not bring character development, or otherwise adds actual value.

*But here we have another instance of how expectations can influence impressions (more on this in an upcoming text); and I do not deny that part of my disappointment is the relative lack of ships doing real or metaphorical battle. However, these land-based areas are weaker in terms of value and writing than the more naval—O’Brian is not playing to his and/or the series’ strengths. Moreover, he misses a niche opportunity: there is an endless amount of other books that play on land, even high quality books; far fewer that play at sea, even fewer doing naval warfare, and fewer still doing so in a quality suitable for an adult reader.

“The Far Side of the World” was, despite some name recognition and great potential in terms of concept, particularly weak. Problems include a completely pointless and fairly imbecilic detour, during which Aubrey and Maturin, having gone overboard, went through odd adventures with Polynesians and were marooned on an island—which I got through by alternating between skimming and skipping.* Worse was that the entire book seemed to lead up to a showdown with a particular U.S. ship, where the reader would finally see some compensation for the near complete lack of naval battle—but where this confrontation petered out into the sand of an island where the adversary had already been ship wrecked. (The ensuing on-island co-existence and diplomacy had some value, but would have worked better as an addition rather than an “instead”. Moreover, the resolution of the on-island situation was also anti-climatic and featured a deus ex machina.)

*While this might be the longest skimmed/skipped stretch so far, it is by no means the only. The first might have been during some portion of the heroes involuntary stay in the U.S. in an earlier book (“The Fortune of War”?). A recurring issue is stretches of, mostly, very bad poetry that I have come to skip in a blanket manner.

My current reading, “The Reverse of the Medal”, is almost entirely land-based, deals mostly with the legal issues of Aubrey and internal intrigues between British factions, and seems contorted and almost absurd in its developments.* I am close to the end and uncertain whether I should go on with the book and the series. If I do, it will be in the hope that things turn better again.

*With reservations for exactly where the one book ended and the other began: I have been reading one a day for the last eleven days, and the books are blurring together.

The incongruent treatment of the two main characters is often disturbing. In the case of Aubrey, this might be tolerable by seeing him as someone with a highly specific set of skills and some naivety of the “civilian” world, but Maturin? A skilled duelist but unable to climb onto a ship without falling into the water—even after spending years at sea?!?* A man with an encyclopedic knowledge of parts of natural history but unable to tell larboard from starboard—again, even after spending years at sea?!? A master spy but unable to (on land!) get from point A to point B without getting lost, unless assisted by others?!? Etc. The whole thing does not make sense. In the one moment, he borders on James Bond, in the next on Mr. Bean.** “My name is Bean. Mister Bean.”

*Indeed, for a long time, maybe until the aforementioned overboard incident in “The Far Side of the World”, I contemplated the possibility that he was deliberately playing a clumsy fool in order to appear more harmless, disarm suspicion, or similar.

**Splitting the diff and suggesting Johnny English does not work, as he is half Irish, half Spanish.

The various incidents with Maturin do bring some welcome humor, but the cost in terms of character consistency and sympathy is too large. Moreover, the end result is that we have two heroes, neither of which comes across as all too bright in the balance of all factors, which makes it hard to take them seriously, to identify, to sympathize, whatnot. Hornblower, in contrast, was someone of consistent characterization and genuine greatness, who was humanized and made more relatable by some more specific and more understandable weaknesses, be it sea-sickness, self-doubt, or problems with understanding other humans—a brilliant human, not a brilliant clown.

Another weakness is the increasing appearance of retellings of earlier events, which is the mark of a poor author. If the need arises, give a short one-off introduction (the literary equivalent of a “previously on”), add an index of various persons, or similar—but do not pollute the actual main text with retellings. A few words or an individual sentence, discreetly integrated in the overall is acceptable, to give the reader a bearing, but to repeatedly spend several paragraphs on such matters is amateur hour.

As an aside, the typical “Aubrey–Maturin” label, let alone just “Aubrey” or “Jack Aubrey”, appears misleading in as far as Maturin probably is more in focus, at least after the first few books. “Maturin–Aubrey” might be closer to the mark. (But note that this is a subjective impression, not the result of a detailed page and word count.)

Excursion on Fascism, etc.:
As is often the case with historical fiction, I am struck by the often totalitarian and arbitrary societies, and how little progress there has been since “yore”. Strongly warfaring societies, as with the British Empire during the Napoleonic Wars (maybe, in general), also seem to have a strong tendency towards the stereotypically Fascist in terms of how society works, imposition of order, etc., which makes the current association of such factors with Fascism even more misleading than through just a negligence of very similar trends in e.g. some Communist countries. Chances are that Fascism or “Fascism” is not the problem, but that strong government, power-hungry politicians, putting the collective over the individual, and similar, are. Among many relevant older texts, note e.g. [1] and [2].

Written by michaeleriksson

January 24, 2023 at 5:33 pm

Done with Stephen King

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As the recurring reader might have noticed, I have a complicated reader’s relationship to Stephen King. He was, for a few years,* my favorite author and, even after I grew out of his type of writing, I occasionally revisited one of his books or, even, read something new.** Indeed, his effect on me during those years was so large that I was left with an almost morbid fascination that lasts till this day.

*To say exactly what years is tricky, after so long a time, but something like 11–17 or 10–16 seems approximately right.

**For some discussion of my 2018 re-readings of “Carrie” and “Rage”, see Stephen King and school shootings. Going by King’s bibliography on Wikipedia, the previously newest novel that I read was likely “From a Buick 8” (2002), with at least one later short-story collection, “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” (2015). (Note that my actual reading might not have been in the year of publication, however.)

Recently, I became aware that “Doctor Sleep” (2013) was a sequel to “The Shining” (1977) and decided to first re-read the latter and then read the former.

With my more adult eye, “The Shining” proved weirdly encouraging and disappointing at the same time. I particularly re-iterate my observation that King’s works are often better when they do not dabble with the supernatural. Take “The Shining”, cut out the actual shining, cut out the ghosts,* the evilness of the hotel, and the whatnot, and focus on an alcoholic and, maybe, schizophrenic caretaker, Jack Torrance, isolated in the deepest Colorado winter with his wife and son (Dan), as he slowly descends into madness—and there is a book. With King’s talent, had he truly tried to write that book, he could have achieved something great, something notable for more than entertainment value and sales numbers, something in competition for serious book prices. He chose not to.

*In the sense of actual manifestations. A presence as some type of hallucination, limited to Jack, might have worked well.

On with “Doctor Sleep”: As far as entertainment goes it was not bad, being more exiting than and quite different from “The Shining”. However, there were very few traces of something “literary”, the book felt much more mechanical, and I found myself disappointed in the near-absence of the hotel and the underlying evil.* The AA theme and the alcoholic** experiences of Dan Torrance were an interesting contrast to Jack in “The Shining”, but simultaneously a little depressing. To boot, I have read sufficiently much negative about AA over the years that I cannot deny a considerable scepticism. Even as it is written (as opposed to how I would have liked it written), “The Shining” might be remembered down the years for its (pop-)cultural importance. I doubt that the same will apply to “Doctor Sleep”.

*The hotel had been blown up at the end of “The Shining”, but the evil behind might have survived, a new hotel might have been built on the same spot, or similar. The low presence of the hotel and the previous characters, barring Dan, even raises some doubts as to whether “sequel” is a good description, or whether e.g. “spin-off” might be closer to the truth.

**King, himself, had a massive drinking problem in his younger years, and alcoholism is a common theme in his books. The alcoholic writer of Jack Torrance was also more interesting to me as a reader, with an eye on King, than the AA-going hospice worker Dan Torrance.

I thought to maybe give a few other books a chance, notably “It” (1986), which I had read twice in my youth and remembered for its complex overall story and the telling of events in both the adult and pre- or early teen lives of the heroes. After some hundred pages (I did not note the exact position), I gave up. On the upside, it was a good example of how adding detail can add life to a story and make it easier to connect with characters. On the downside, there was an enormous amount of dead weight resulting from this addition. This includes pages spent introducing the adult Stan Uris and his wife—only to have him commit suicide and the two (presumably) leave the story.* Much of the rest of the book (up to where I stopped) could have been compressed very considerably without losing anything.

*The child version of Stan was not yet, or only very cursorily, introduced. Of course, the timeline of the child versions of the heroes would contain more of Stan, but I doubt that the pages spent on the adult Stan brought much to that. (The suicide, as such, can be justified as a demonstration of the horror of It, and as a foreboding of things to come, but why spend so many words leading up to the suicide?)

What really depressed me, however, was the constant harping on various themes like “evil heteros harass gays”, “evil Whites are mean to Jews”, “evil husbands beat up their wives”, and whatnot.* This matches exactly the type of hateful and reality distorting propaganda that the Left pushes so hard today, to give e.g. ignorant voters a worldview that does not match reality to make them vote for the Left to combat all those “evil [whatnot]”, while they are just fighting fake spectres. (This is a common approach by, above all, Leftist TV makers. Also note a recent text on, among other things, false threats.)

*Of course there are evil heteros who harass gays (etc.)—the point is the proportions found in real life versus fiction and here King went from one group of evil whatnots to the next, again and again. The greatest benefit of a doubt that I can extend is that he tried to somehow relate or compare-and-contrast real-life evils with the fictional supernatural evil of It, but (a) he could have chosen better and less stereotypical targets (notably, relating to the great amounts of violence, hate mongering, and whatnot which has come from portions of the U.S. Left since no later than the 1960s), (b) he was not very successful, (c) cheap agenda-pushing is a more economical and “Occam’s Razor-y” explanation. In a twist, much of the evil in the real world arises from exactly this type of portrayal and the, usually, artificial division of the world into evil oppressors and innocent victims, “us vs. them” thinking, etc.

Indeed, it was around half-way through the much, much too long introduction of the adult Beverly and her husband Tom (who is likely not seen in the remainder of the book), which consisted mostly of him manipulating and beating her, that I first skipped ahead to the next character/chapter, and then, a few pages later, thought better of it and simply stopped reading. I have better things to do with my time.

This sentiment, “I have better things to do with my time” likely applies to most of his other works too, and will be my policy for the foreseeable future.

As much as I loved his books during that time of, maybe, 11–17, and as much as the decision to prioritize money-making is his to make, I cannot but regret the waste of talent. I genuinely believe that King could have been one of the greatest “serious” authors of our time, had he focused on that, with less supernatural components, shorter books with less dead weight, and, maybe,* more short stories.

*Just like I see his non-supernatural writing as better than his supernatural, I consider him stronger as a short-story writer than as a novelist. The “maybe” arises because his output of short stories is already quite considerable relative most other authors.

Excursion on my youth as a King reader:
A great sign of how young I was when I first read King, is that I, already a fan, was greatly puzzled by the librarian who spoke of (pronunciation-wise) “Steven King” where I had assumed a “Steppen King” or, maybe, “Step-hen King”. There I was, holding one of King’s books, and having read several more in the past—and replying with “Who?” when asked whether I liked “Steven” King’s works. (Teaching of English as a second language begins in 4th grade in Sweden. The pronunciation of “ph” might not have been the top priority, but it is bound to have shown up at a somewhat early stage. Ditto variations of how “e” is pronounced.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 18, 2022 at 6:24 pm

A few thoughts on Nabokov’s “Laughter in the Dark”

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During my recent escape to Düsseldorf, I picked up a copy of Nabokov’s “Laughter in the Dark”.* While I enjoyed reading it and saw a few points to improve my own writing, I found it interesting primarily as a counterpart to “Lolita”, with strong parallels in behavior and situation between the respective male protagonist (Albert** Albinus resp. Humbert Humbert) and female temptation (Margot resp. the eponymous Lolita): in both books, an older man falls for a younger woman, makes himself a fool and ruins himself as a result, with an end involving a confrontation with a gun and death*** for the protagonist. Indeed, the similarities are large enough that the one might amount to a reworking of the other by a more mature author, as “Lolita” is considerably longer and later.

*Apparently, originally published in Russian as “Kamera Obscura”, and subsequently translated by the author into English. Even with a translation by the author, it cannot be ruled out that the original differed in some respects, e.g. prose quality. Oddly, the two main characters are from Berlin, where much of the book plays.

**This name is used, but sufficiently rarely that I am not certain whether it is his actual given name or some type of joke/pet/whatnot name or even an error. I cannot (without re-reading) rule out that the given name, too, is “Albinus” (paralleling “Humbert Humbert”), or that the given name is “Albinus” and that the family name goes unmentioned.

***Albeit postponed and, possibly, unrelated in “Lolita”, as Humbert died of natural causes while awaiting trial. (I.e. it is not a given that he would have lived if not imprisoned.)

In particular, in a footnote to an older text, I once wrote:

As an aside, one of the other books that I picked up was Nabokov’s “Lolita”, which I am currently reading. While a very different type of book, it does take the daughter–father version of wife–husband to an extreme. Still, the eponymous Lolita appears to have a stronger will and more to say in the relationship, while barely straddling the border between childhood and womanhood, than the thirty-something heroine of [“A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness]. I might also consider Lolita and Rebecca [of the book “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier] something of kindred spirits.

This goes together with larger doubts as to who predated on whom in “Lolita”, which fits the stereotypical adult-male-abusing-an-innocent-child poorly, with manipulations and machinations by Lolita that often leave Humbert the lesser villain and the more sympathetic character. When we turn to “Laughter in the Dark”, the situation is crystal clear: Margot (young, but adult) is the predator from the first step to the end of the book. Examples include deliberate attempts to sabotage Albinus’s marriage, the (secret) intent to marry him unless her paid-by-him movie career takes off, and outright defrauding in favor of a secret lover (Axel Rex) after Albinus goes blind (literally—not “with love”; although, a deliberate symbolism might be intended).

While an interpretation from one book to another is risky, I do see my impressions of Lolita and Humbert strengthened. (But Lolita comes of as a better person than Margot and Humbert as a worse one than Albinus.)

However, there were two other works that popped up in my mind again and again while reading: Kipling’s “The Light that Failed” and the movie* “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. In the first case, the protagonist sees an unending stream of misfortunes, including the loss of his sight, his love interest, and his life. In the second, a perfidious wife and her lover take advantage of an older husband with car crashes** playing a key role.

*The original 1940s movie. I have not seen the remake or read the original novel.

**Albinus loses his sight in one, while there likely are two in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”: one staged to murder the husband, one truly accidental to kill the wife and send the lover to prison (the respective second “ring” for them). Unfortunately, Margot was still alive and at large at the end of “Laughter in the Dark”. (But I have some hopes that the overall circumstances will lead to her demise at some point after the end.)

The first two paragraphs of the book are interesting with an eye on my own doubts as to when more and when less detail is appropriate: the first summarizes the book in a very bare-bones manner; the second gives a motivation for why the book, beyond that first paragraph, might still have a value as a (much) more detailed way of saying the same. From another point of view, comparing that first paragraph with the overall book gives quite a few pointers as to why and when detail is important, e.g. what motivations different characters had and why events played out as they did. (This, in turn, but off topic, shows why it is risky to take even factually-true journalists at face value—let alone those who distort events and interpretations to their own preference. Cf. a number of earlier texts.)

The blurb at the back of the book is worthy of some remarks of its own:

An aspiring young Berlin actress turns the tables on her lustful middle-aged admirer, in Nabokov’s deadpan, deliciously cruel story of hopeless infatuation and horribly inventive revenge.

(With reservations for transcription errors.)

Apart from the extremely poor writing, this matches the contents of the book very poorly. I strongly suspect that the writer of this blurb either fell for prejudice about typical male and female behavior* or that a catering to a certain type of female reader (think “dragon tattoo”) was intended. From this blurb, the impression arises that he used and/or abused her, and that she took revenge on him, which turns the story on its head in an inexcusable manner. The only instance of “table turning” (that I can recall) is when Margot, at the end of the book, literally manages to turn Albinus’s gun at him, when his (justified) feelings of betrayal and atrocious mistreatment cause him to try to take revenge—despite being blind. Any revenge involved was neither horrible nor inventive—and certainly not successful. There were many horribly and inventive acts, by Margot, but the only way to consider them revenge were if she took out her feelings for others on Albinus.

*E.g. typical Feminist propaganda that men use women for their own ends.

Indeed, if Albinus did someone wrong, it was his wife (and, possibly, daughter), and much of that damage was only partially* his fault. Despite this, the wife took care of Albinus in the later stages of the book, while Margot only used and abused him. Similarly, if anyone did Margot wrong, it was not Albinus. A much better case can be made for Axel Miller, who briefly “kept” and then abandoned her when she was sixteen—and who resurfaced in her life as the aforementioned Axel Rex. But Axel Rex she treated well …

*Yes, he did have an affair and he did spend considerable money on his mistress (i.e. Margot), which should not be excused, but she only found out through Margot’s malicious intervention, and the marriage, based on later events, might very well have been salvageable, had the wife taken the fight instead of running away. (To avoid misunderstandings, I do not blame her from an ethical perspective for doing so, but my impression is that she wanted a continuation, which makes her actions pragmatically ill-advised.) He also seemed to have had enough money that the practical impact on the wife, pre-flight, would have been limited. To boot, the affair might never have gone beyond an unrequited infatuation or a guilty flirt, had not Margot pushed very hard for things to happen and move forward.

The aforementioned first (alone) or first two (together) paragraphs would have made a much better blurb, giving the serious reader both a better idea of the contents and a greater wish to read the book. (In my case, I bought it based on my very positive impression of “Lolita” and Nabokov’s generally high reputation. If I read the blurb pre-purchase, I do not even remember it, and if it would have had any effect, at all, then a deterring one.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 23, 2020 at 5:55 pm

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The struggling author VI

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Unfortunately, the nine* days since the previous installment have brought no improvement in the construction work. It has, mostly, not been as bad as last summer, but it is still bad enough, with a lot of hammering, drilling, various machine noises, … Two weeks for now, and no sign of an end.

*Eight, counting yesterday. As will be clear, I cannot speak with certainty for today, but going by the odds …

The situation is made the worse by the behavior of one or several parties of neighbors. Notably, this Saturday and Sunday (11th/12th) were a horror, including wild stomping* and other unacceptable noises for minutes on end, even past midnight.

*To new readers: beware that I am not speaking of someone just walking in shoes in an apartment or running down the stairs, but of outright stomping, a manner that can serve no legitimate purpose, and (often) times of day and night where even noises with a legitimate purpose would remain unacceptable.

Not only is my quality of life severely reduced, but it is next to impossible to work productively, especially as the mental stress continues even between disturbances, and factors like a lack of sleep and the aforementioned stress damage my health.

Yesterday, around noon, I had had all that I could take and am now in a hotel room in Düsseldorf—and to think that I bought an apartment to live cheaply …

As to what will happen after these few days, I will have to see, but, at this juncture, hiring a lawyer seems almost unavoidable.

Looking at my claim that my book is almost finished “in that 99%-there-but-the-last-percent-will-take-time sense”, the question is how much time—even construction work aside: I have recently started on Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, and I have another “feeling like a rank amateur” period (cf. the previous installment and Conrad). The mixture of fluid prose and how seemingly unimportant detail give color to the text is quite impressive. The style of writing would likely not work very well with my book (and, generally, books with different purposes do not necessarily benefit from the same methods), but there is still a lot for me to learn and applying at least some of it could make my book better.

As a counter-point, I did not set out to make my first book a master piece that would instantly ensure my place in the halls of history’s greatest authors. (And I would have been a fool indeed, if I had.) The point was rather to learn the craft sufficiently well that the next book would be of quality. (Which is still a far step from the great masters.) Indeed, the early works of even great masters have often been far below their later level, as exemplified by e.g. Cup of Gold, the quite poor first novel of John Steinbeck, a later Nobel Prize winner. Rome was not built in a day and an attempt to reach perfection with this, my first, book would put completion years into the future. Indeed, with a continual improvement of ability to judge quality, I might never finish.

To boot, different authors have different strengths and (like their works) different purposes. J. K. Rowling* and Terry Pratchett, e.g., have** strengths in areas like a great imagination and the ability to build fantastic and fascinating worlds, but they fall well short of Waugh in terms of prose and style. In my own, subjective and partial, assessment, I too am ahead (in this area). In terms of e.g. “higher values”, I should be past at least Rowling, who is fairly superficial—-while she is likely ahead at writing books that sell by a very considerable distance.

*Disclaimer: I have to date only read the “Harry Potter” books, and her later works might be different. Even if they are, however, her early works are a more interesting comparison at the moment.

**The present tense is inappropriate for the late Pratchett, but I will stick to it for ease of formulation.

In the overlap between the details of Waugh, the worlds of Rowling and Pratchett, and my own book (which does fall in the fantasy genre), there is the question of how much detail is to be spent at different worlds, cultures, whatnot, both with regard to invention and to narration. Hogwarts is essentially a British boarding school with magic, Pratchett draws heavily on Earth (the UK in particular), most “high fantasy” seems to land in broadly “medieval Europe” settings, etc. In reality, if someone were to step into a foreign world through a magic cupboard, the variations might be similar to e.g. those between medieval Europe and medieval Japan, with corresponding differences in e.g. religion, morals, approach to art, ways to dress, writing systems, … (Or e.g. between current Europe and Paleolithic Europe.) In the case of non-human civilizations, the differences might be enormously larger yet.* Then, with an eye at realism, effort needed, effect on the reader, risk of inconsistency**, etc., where should the line be drawn? This point of struggle will likely not have any further impact on my current book (where I have kept things comparatively simple), but it might well do so on future works.

*Yet, here they are often almost ignored, especially in bad sci-fi. Of course, in some cases, there might be a deliberate element, e.g. in that C. S. Lewis might have used dwarfs, fauns, talking beavers, whatnot partially to illustrate aspects of humanity or human behavior. This is certainly the case with some animal fables.

**E.g. in that the author forgets his own fictional premises in favor “the real world” or that the intended consequences of something turn out to be unrealistic.

Excursion on judging quality:
While there is Sisyphean aspect to my continually shifting standard and to negative comparisons like the prose of Waugh vs. my own, this is actually a good thing. It might be frustrating in the moment, but it simultaneously points to a prior improvement in ability and opens the door to future improvements, as I now have a better idea of what I should work on, might experiment with, etc.

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July 14, 2020 at 8:55 pm

The struggling author V

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The prior installment of my “struggling author” series, appears to have been published last November. Time for an update:

I have almost finished the book, in that 99%-there-but-the-last-percent-will-take-time sense: most of what remains is polishing and tuning, fixing up details, improving the language, whatnot. In this, there is obviously a risk of pushing things too far, as there is always something left to improve. There will be at least several weeks before this becomes a concern, but it does lead me to my current main struggle:

With time, I have become better and better, gained a better and better eye for what works, is good literature, whatnot, and grown less and less satisfied with prior works. As a consequence, my satisfaction with the book has not improved as much as its actual quality, leaving me with the paradoxical situation that it is much better* than I would have hoped for this time last year, but that I am still unsatisfied. Similarly, every now and then, I see some pages by someone else that make me revise my standards and give me an impulse to improve something—as with Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”: the early descriptive sections left me feeling like a rank amateur. I deliberately have not used much description, Conrad is a high bar indeed, and the rest of his book appears** less ambitious in this regard, but I still have the urge both to revise the descriptive scenes that I do have and add some more. (Whether I will, I leave unstated. If not, the impulse might affect my next book instead.)

*As in “I like it”. I make no statement about what publishers, readers, and critics will think, but no matter their reactions, I will have the knowledge that I went well beyond my own expectations for my first work, I will consider the time taken well spent, and I strongly suspect that I will love reading it, myself, ten years from now, when my memory has faded. But: if I stop revision today, I will fall short of what I could have accomplished.

**I read a chunk as I escaped construction noise this Friday, and have postponed the remainder with an eye on what might happen on Monday (i.e. tomorrow). I also read it once as a teenager, but my memory is very vague and I was less discerning at the time.

Looking at large stretches of my early efforts, just putting words on the page has been a major obstacle, to come up with something that makes sense plot-wise, to overcome my natural tendency to describe a running dog named Spot with “Spot runs”, etc. During the spring, this changed, likely, for two reasons: Firstly, I had reached some level of critical mass. Secondly, I learned to adapt my work to my strengths, including what is often a weakness when blogging: when my mind is occupied with something, ideas tend to sprout off that something*, and then new ideas off those ideas, etc. Similarly, when I see something, I tend to see things that could be improved, even though I might not have been able to spot the improvements during the planning stage. So then: “Spot runs” might be shitty text, but it is a text, and once I have “Spot runs”, I can improve it from there.

*Which explains e.g. the many “excursions” of my (blog) texts and, partially, the footnotes.

Of course, “Spot runs” is a metaphorical example, but the general idea holds true. For instance, once I have my characters in a certain situation, I might (at that point or two days later) see how something that they say or do in that situation would improve characterization or lead somewhere else, which in turn leads to some other improvement, and so on. Similarly, putting them in one situation might ring a bell regarding some accidental* detail in another situation, which causes me to add a plot development connecting the two, which in turn might add something to a third scene or give the inspiration for an entirely new scene. In one case, I had a chapter with a good idea, which seemed both thin and lifeless when written. To boot, it had the flaw that an intended plot-twist did not work, being (in my eyes, at least) too obvious. I tried to remedy the latter through adding a “guest character” (a virtual Spot) to serve as a decoy, and another character for symmetry. A day later, the chapter was twice as long and alive, as the amount of interaction between characters increased and a few sub-plots appeared—both in a manner that I had not at all foreseen as I added the new characters.

*The amount of things that have so far arisen more-or-less accidentally is enormous. In many ways, it is as were the book a river that I am merely navigating—not a canal that I am building. (As an example, above I mentioned “Heart of Darkness”. Here I coincidentally spoke of “river”. This is something that I might have been able to spin out.)

When I revise, the text tends to become longer. This is a further reason to watch the perfectionism, as too long can be worse than too short, and as the accepted wisdom is that revision should cut the old more often than add something new. So far, knock on wood, it has worked well, however, as I start from a comparatively “thin” position and as every revision tends to also improve quality. (There is at least one scene which is much too long, a “cut scene” (in movie parlance) waiting to happen; and one or two chapters that feel too much like have-a-nap-while-we-wait-for-the-real-story. They will be improved or cut, however.)

Incidentally, this way of working parallels what I often did as a software developer, and writing software and writing novels does have a thing or two in common. The former is not the perfect training for the latter, but it is not bad as a component of the training. My particular approach, which is not the only one, particularly resembles refactoring and test-driven development.

The last few weeks, I have been a little troubled to get work done again. This in part, because I needed a breather; in part, due to the current “interesting times” (note my increased blogging); in part, because the construction work is here again.

As to the last, I still do not know for how long. Friday’s disturbances were short and, unlike large portions of last year, there was no work on Saturday.* This might mean that everything was done by Friday afternoon—or just that someone was lazy and that things will start up again on Monday, to continue for months on end. If it is the latter, frankly, I do not know what I will do. Somehow, I will have to move out, or I will never be able to finish, my health will be ruined, and I will be driven to the edge of a nervous break-down. Note that around six months of construction work last year wreaked havoc on my writing (not to mention mood and health), and that the (non-construction) disturbances of someone stomping around for hours a day during the COVID-19 lock-down did a lot of damage on top of that. It is a wonder that I have managed to get as far as I have.

*Sundays are work-free by German law, but then there is usually some idiot neighbor who sees Sunday as a day to make a ruckus, again and again—better than construction, but annoying enough. This especially when the preceding week would have made peace and quiet the more important. (And, yes, I suspect that it is the same idiot who ruined the COVID-19 lock-downs. It is rarely as bad, however.)

To finally revisit the Künstlersozialkasse: These idiots are still making trouble, costing me a few hundred a month. As it appears now, they refuse to admit me, because they do not believe that I am actually serious about writing. Their pseudo-arguments include that, as I have not taken a formal course in literature or writing, there are no signs that I would have a serious interest—never mind the fact that I have spent an enormous amount of time on this book, have it completed to the point of just-needs-polishing, and that I have foregone having a regular job in the interim … (To this, note that the formal, legal criteria for admittance are comparatively low, and that the Künstlersozialkasse appears to invent its own, illegal or extra-legal, criteria to artificially keep writers out. A formal requirement that someone needs to have taken a course does not exist, neither in the law, nor in their own official information. It is excuse making—nothing more, nothing less.)

Excursion on noise and health:
(What would one of my texts be without even just one, short, excursion?) The type of health damage that can occur through e.g. months of construction or the COVID-19 lock-downs should not be underestimated. Someone might seem to bounce back fine in the short term, but what about the long-term? Possibly, something like this can make the difference between having a fatal and a near-fatal heart-attack at 75, cutting of ten years of life? I have genuine concerns that my life is being cut down at the far end through the behavior of others. Health damage often becomes obvious only when the reserves run low, e.g. with old age or when a major disease strikes. (Something, incidentally, demonstrated by the much larger effects of COVID-19 on the elderly.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 5, 2020 at 7:34 pm

In Cold Blood

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Another recent read is “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote. From my personal point of view, it is interesting in at least three regards:

  1. It demonstrates how a particular style of journalistic writing that usually fails completely actually can work, reinforcing my more general belief that it is not so much the type* of something as the quality that matters. Indeed, it shows that I had not generalized sufficiently, because I thought this type of writing hopeless. Consider e.g. the abysmally-poor-but-award-winning drivel of Claas Relotius or much of what ends up in “The New Yorker” or “Der Spiegel”. Having read “In Cold Blood”, I have a better idea of what some journalists try to do, and am somewhat more willing to respect the attempt—but I remain unaltered in my claim that they usually fail badly. (And I do not say that this type of writing should normally be considered appropriate for e.g. a news-paper, even when of Capote-level quality, as it is usually contrary to the purposes of good journalism.)

    *I deliberately go with a vague word, because the application is wide. For instance, TV is not inherently inferior to books—but the risk of finding garbage quality when randomly turning on the TV has historically been greater than when randomly grabbing a book in a bookstore. (Whether this still holds true might be disputed, considering current bookstore trends.) Similarly, the sci-fi genre might once rightfully have been maligned because so much of what was written/filmed/whatnot was on the pulp level—but this was not a consequence of the genre, it self, but of the low quality. Today, there is sufficiently much quality sci-fi available that it would be foolish to attack the genre instead of the individual work.

  2. It is a good example of an improvement of the art of writing, per se, in which it displays a legitimate case of literature without “higher values”. The main value of the book is not its content but its successful exploration of a new or different type of writing, which brings the art or the craft forward. (Secondary value is found in both entertainment and the potential for insight into the backgrounds, psychology, behavior, whatnot of the criminals involved. However, the latter should be taken with some caution, as Capote apparently did not stick entirely to the truth.)
  3. In my own writings, I wrestle with the question of detail. (How much is appropriate? What adds color and what wastes time? Etc.) This book gives many examples of how adding detail can be used to great effect and without leaving the reader on autopilot.* (But I still feel that he errs slightly on the side of too much.) The use for characterization and sympathy building is particularly effective, somewhat like Stephen King**, but in a much higher quality writing.

    *As a contrast, note my discussion of “A Discovery of Witches”, a book with damaging amounts of undue detail.

    **Stephen King might seem an odd comparison, but he has often impressed me exactly by his ability to use just a few lines to give a successful first characterization and/or build sympathy, and I would view this as his second greatest strength (behind his imagination). Reading “In Cold Blood”, I was struck repeatedly by the suspicion that it (or some other work by Capote) might have been a strong influence on King. (However, I have seen similar abilities elsewhere, in particular among short-story writers.)

Written by michaeleriksson

February 9, 2020 at 5:13 am

Reading chick-lit

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During my recent trip to Bonn, I picked up a number of books in the larger-/better-than-in-Wuppertal bookstores. Among these, two examples of “chick-lit”: “A Discovery of Witches” (ADoW) by Deborah Harkness* and “Rebecca” (R) by Daphne du Maurier**.

*Mostly through ignorance of the contents, as I had assumed that this book would be more regular fantasy and less “Twilight” than it turned out to be.

**The classification as “chick-lit” might be a little unfair, e.g. with an eye on the high quality, but the book likely caters more to women than to men. (But having seen the Hitchcock movie at least thrice, I had a much better idea of what to expect than with ADoW.) This especially in my edition, which comes with a decidedly odd, strongly red cover, picturing red cloth and with the name “Rebecca” written in large, pseudo-calligraphy letters. Indeed, while I have no qualms about reading this work, even in public, I was a little embarrassed reading this specific edition in a restaurant—the cover (unfairly) screams “cheap romance”.

I read about half of ADoW while in Bonn, taking a number of notes, and about a hundred pages of R. I finished them in the next week or two back in Wuppertal, reading a chapter here-and-there without taking notes. Below follows first a discussion of the “Bonn portion” of ADoW based on the notes, then some minor further remarks on the two books and their similarities and differences. Throughout, I make reservations for memory deficits. To cut to the chase, ADoW is sufficiently crappy that I will not bother with the sequels (and do not recommend the first book to others), while R is considerably better and well worth a read (even for a man and even for someone who has already seen the movie).

Remark: I will refer to the respective main female protagonist as “heroine” throughout, in part because the heroine of R is (probably) never named other than by pronouns and the cumbersome and ambiguous “Mrs. de Winter”. (An interesting contrast to Rebecca, the “other” Mrs. de Winter, whose name appears again and again, including as the book’s title.) This allows for more generic expressions. For the sake of completeness, the named heroine of ADoW is Diana, and the respective romantic interests are Maxim in R and Matthew in ADoW.

Discussion of ADoW based on Bonn notes (some overlap and duplication might be present):

  1. The book is derivative, stereotypical, and childish, with no attempts at “higher values” of note. The plot is limited and filled with “feel good” descriptions, the adult woman’s equivalent of Enid Blyton’s food orgies.
  2. It borders on being “porn for women”, except in as far as there is little actual sex.

    This includes female fantasies about being special* and desired, a too-good-to-be-true** man, and other sugary feel-goodery.

    *Note how the heroine is simultaneously the most talented witch in centuries, an extremely rare abstainer from magic use (or so she thinks), has an odd adrenaline overload, and has a highly successful academic career—and she does yoga and rows, to boat, sorry, to boot. In this regard, both she and Matthew could be seen as “Mary Sues”, being good at everything, bad at nothing, etc.

    **Vampire super-powers, rich and landed, hyper-educated, successful, leader of a knightly order, very old and still young looking, preternaturally beautiful, personal friend of dozens of historical persons (including Shakespeare), etc. To some degree, the book could be seen as an exercise in dreaming up the perfect man, “a discovery of a man”. This is to a high degree compatible with my hypothesis that women are relatively more likely to dream of getting a man/partner with great capabilities, while men are more likely to dream of getting the capabilities themselves.

  3. Overlapping, there are a lot of modern vampire cliches, including the odd attraction for this one special woman by a vampire who has lived for ages.*

    *And how come that Angel and Buffy were considered romantic, while a (non-vampire) man a tenth of Angel’s age would otherwise be branded a pervert and a pedophile for showing interest in a girl of sixteen, and while Angel–Buffy, or even ADoW, scenarios are arguably closer to a “Lolita” setup. (Also see another footnote on “Lolita” below.)

  4. There is too much filler, too much (mostly irrelevant) detail, too little that happens. In particular, there is an extreme focus on sensory perceptions, especially taste. This to the point that I at one point* actually threw the book away in disgust, only picking it up again the next day, because I felt that there were some lessons on both writing and women to be drawn. (Notably, is is hard for a typical man to naturally/intuitively understand the type of woman used as the heroine, and/or those women who like to read such stories, as will likely be clear from some of the items in this list.)

    *I could not find the exact place again, on short notice, but it might have been somewhere around page 200 in my edition, with some scene relating to eating or drinking having the heroine quasi-orgasmic.

    ADoW might have been good if the large low value descriptive portions and other “filler” had been removed—and the book been half as thick. The story it self has some potential, but it is drowned in nonsense.

    I am, however, starting to suspect, based on literary preferences, that women tend to be more interested in experiences*, sensations, moods, whatnot than events, psychology, ethical dilemmas, … If so, it would explain a number of oddities in works by or for women. Similarly, it might be that men read/write for entertainment and value, while women read/write for mood and “feel good” escapism—emotions, not substance.

    *In Germany, I also note phrases like “Einkaufserlebnis” (“shopping experience”), which are entirely strange to me—if I go shopping, it is not to “experience” something, it is to find suitable products. Cut out the experience, and give me good prices and many choices, and I will be perfectly happy. If women see it the other way around, this phrase and this priority becomes less odd. (Note that women are more likely to spend money on shopping and are, therefore, of more interest to the advertising industry. I am, obviously, long aware that many women see shopping as entertainment or relaxation, along the pattern of Carrie Bradshaw.)

  5. There is an extreme naivete about evolution and genetics (both referenced repeatedly) and science in general. This includes interbreeding between different species* and “teleological” mutations causing “deliberate” adaptions**. Other issues include unrealistic effects of low metabolism*** and a perpetuation of the ignorant “races do not exist” myth****.

    *I am a little vague on exactly what I meant during note-taking, but it probably was the combination of the in-universe take that humans, vampires, witches, and/or demons belong to radically different species combined with the question whether they could interbreed. Barring some highly magical exception, this does not make sense, because interbreeding between creatures of this complexity is at odds with considering them as belonging to different species or, on the outside, “neighboring” species (e.g. horses and donkeys). Similarly, the great similarity in looks would be at odds with even e.g. parallel evolution. The whole thing is simply not thought through—or the author is astonishingly ignorant of the biological sciences. (This is not made better by the various creation paths involved, with witches descending from witches, vampires being turned from human to vampire by other vampires, and demons arising as mutations of humans, IIRC. Witches excepted, this fits the pattern of typical species very poorly and raises doubts as to whether speaking of species makes sense at all.)

    **As in changing circumstances causing genes to mutate to fit the circumstances, which is not at all what happens in real life, where mutations occur somewhat randomly and the circumstances affect a filtering of those mutations. Note Terry Pratchett’s “The Last Continent” for this incompatible-with-reality type of adaption taken to a humorous extreme.

    ***If e.g. a low metabolism is the explanation for the increased life span of vampires, how do we explain that they are far faster than humans? It just does not make sense, it is like eating one’s cake and ending up with more cake than one had originally … (To my vague recollection, there was some type of excuse offered of vampires saving their energy for the needed moment, but since the behavior displayed is very far from e.g. a crocodile laying in wait for its pray, this simply does not pan out—nor am I certain that this would be realistically possible even with a more crocodilian life-style, barring magical help.)

    ****The odder in light of viewing very similar creatures as members of different species.

    However, the idea of declining species is interesting, IF motivated by insight into the current dysgenic situation. Then again, I doubt that this is the case, and more likely it will turn out that the artificial ban on interspecies relationships is the cause of the problem.

  6. More generally, there is a lot that is poorly thought-through and lacks deliberation on potential consequences, including the claim that about 1-in-10 of the population would be supernatural while the existence of supernaturals is not public knowledge, and various covenant issues*. Similarly, Matthew is attributed with an enormous influence to keep others out of the library without reason/explanation, and in a manner that is hard to combine with later events and any causal mechanism. (His knightly order notwithstanding.)

    *My notes speak only of “covenant issues” and I do not recall the details. It will likely be understandable to those reading the book, however.

    (While I have not payed attention to this aspect in great detail, where male and female authors are concerned, it is noteworthy that J. K. Rowling is similar. The over-valuation of the “Golden Snitch” in Quidditch is an obvious example, but consider also e.g. how a group of students created the “Marauder’s Map” while none of the adult wizards, Voldemort included, has something similar, or how a “time turner” (?) is given to Hermione for such a trivial task as taking parallel classes, while they are not used for more important tasks, e.g. fighting Voldemort, nor by Voldemort against the heroes. (The later “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” goes some way to remedy this, but (a) is too little, too late, (b) who is to credit for what is unclear and it need not be Rowling’s idea.)

  7. An oddity is that there is little history content from the historian author. (But this might change in the second book, which, according to included blurb, appears to be dominated by the time-travel scenario begun at the end of ADoW. Also: Magic and time travel in the same book?!? A little too much for my taste.)
  8. The development of the romance is stereotypical with a very passive woman and a man who makes all decisions/takes all initiative.

    More generally, the heroine is surprisingly passive and dependent on others, especially Matthew. On the one hand she is (allegedly) academically successful, a powerful witch, strong willed, whatnot; on the other, she behaves like a child, manages little on her own, and has an almost daughter–father relationship with her “husband”.* If she is representative for “intelligent” women, no wonder that they trail men as high-achievers, unless they are given artificial assistance to overcome largely non-existent problems (e.g. the infamous “glass roof”).

    *As an aside, one of the other books that I picked up was Nabokov’s “Lolita”, which I am currently reading. While a very different type of book, it does take the daughter–father version of wife–husband to an extreme. Still, the eponymous Lolita appears to have a stronger will and more to say in the relationship, while barely straddling the border between childhood and womanhood, than the thirty-something heroine of ADoW. I might also consider Lolita and Rebecca something of kindred spirits.

  9. (I repeatedly found myself suspecting inconsistencies in who-is-who and continuity, but I did not go back to check and might have been wrong.)

As to my post-Bonn readings, I had the impression that the story fell apart after the heroine was kidnapped.

Looking at R and, especially, R vs. ADoW, R is of much higher quality, especially when it comes to prose, some parts reading almost like poetry.* It also has some psychology, a more engaging romance, a few plot twists** that actually work; is more believable (even supernatural aspects of ADoW aside); and left me wanting to read on in another manner. A particular strength is the suspense, which even in book form is already almost Hitchcockian (but a comparison here is unfair, as ADoW belongs to a different genre).

*Notwithstanding some odd spelling errors and at least one instance of what seemed like one or more lines missing. There is a fair chance that these errors were introduced by the publisher/printer/whatnot; and if not, they are the type of errors that everyone makes and that a good editor should catch, if they slip by the author during proof-reading.

**With reservations for these already being known to me from the movie, which forces some mental approximation. A difference compared to the movie is that Rebecca is outright murdered (largely an accident in movie), but this too I already knew from a Wikipedia reading.

However, there are quite a few commonalities, including that comparatively little happens, that there are (too) many descriptions, that both heroines are virtual children (with greater justification in R, due to situation and age), that both men are extremely good catches, that both heroines land in unusual environments (including “his” estate) with mysteries and perceptions of danger, etc. A particularly interesting aspect is the (perceived or feared) romantic competition from the past, which is a major theme of R and has repeated occurrences in ADoW—and in both cases the competition turns out to be far less of a romantic threat than the heroine feared (but sometimes quite dangerous in non-romantic areas).

Looking at R alone, I was repeatedly struck by a theme of (almost) self-defeat, where lack of confidence, wasted opportunities, whatnot, unnecessarily held the heroine back. This even post-wedding, when it came to taking on the role as wife and lady of the house. Through large parts of the book, I even suspected that Danvers could have been turned to her side, had she had the guts to step into the shoes of Rebecca (but the later parts of the book cast doubt on that idea).

Excursion on coincidence and awareness (and the “nectarine phenomenon”):
I have often noticed what I think of as the “nectarine phenomenon”*. It struck again with the Ashmolean, which plays an important part in ADoW. I originally thought that it was fictional, made up for the book, until I looked up Nell Gwynne, a name occurring in R (!), on Wikipedia. Almost the first thing that I read is “Ashmolean”. (Small world …) I have seen the name at least twice in other contexts in the few weeks since.

*The word “nectarine” (resp. the Swedish “nektarin”) once lost me critical points in a quiz. I was certain that I had never heard the word before, and thought it unfairly obscure to children of ten, but I stumbled upon it again and again in the months following, which lead me to doubt that I had been right. (Admittedly, after going through a period of thinking that the world, instead of the quiz, was unfair, because “if I had only encountered the word for the first time a week before the quiz instead of a week after the quiz, then …”, but the evidence eventually mounted too high.) Similar experiences have occurred fairly often since then, in that there comes a point of awareness of e.g. a word, sound, image, actor, self-insight, whatnot and that I notice when I encounter said word (etc.) afterwards, but not before. Indeed, my awareness of the nectarine phenomenon is it self an example of the nectarine phenomenon. (But note that some amount of coincidence usually does play in, e.g. in that “Ashmolean” likely has occurred unusually often in the last few weeks.)

Excursion on “Pride and Prejudice”:
While my memory of “Pride and Prejudice”, another of my rare readings of more for-women literature, has faded too much to make this a three-way comparison, there are definitely some similarities. Notably, one of my main complaints in my unfavorable review was the lack of tempo and how little actually happened.

Excursion on boys and reading:
To the degree that differences in reading preferences hold, it could go a long way to explain the lesser interest for reading among boys: shove “Pride and Prejudice” down their throats as mandatory reading and they are likely to be put off, as it is simultaneously boring and lacking in “food for thought”. Indeed, I have read super-hero comics, so often looked down upon by women, with more “higher values”. Hornblower is certainly far more likely to keep boys reading.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 18, 2020 at 4:00 am

A few thoughts on “The Dark is Rising”

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Among my many recent re-readings we have Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series—which was a great favorite of mine as a child*. This especially the eponymous second book, which introduced Will Stanton, who to me was (what I imagine that) Harry Potter became to a later generation.**

*I do not remember the exact ages when I read this series in the past, but my first reading was well before I turned 11 (cf. **) myself and, excepting a nostalgia reading some ten years ago, I doubt that I read them past “Mellanstadiet” (years 4–6 in the Swedish school system). The childhood readings were, obviously, of a Swedish translation; the adult in English.

**Indeed, I strongly suspect that Rowling borrowed a fair bit from Cooper, including a British boy whose magic powers are revealed when he turns 11. Generally, Rowling used a great many ideas from the works of others for the “Harry Potter” series (unless she independently came up with the same ideas).

By and large, at age 44, I find the books disappointing. “Over Sea, Under Stone” was boring to me even as a child; and the too long, too haphazard, too pointless, too nightmarish* “The Lost Land” sequence in “Silver on the Tree” leaves me with just the same feeling as back then (as, to a lesser degree, do some other sequences from that book). However, the stronger books (in my recollection) now leave me a lot colder, and I see some outright deficiencies. The most notable among these is the very black-and-white approach to good and evil, including the apparent evil-for-the-sake-of-evil, which poorly matches real evil, and the common description of sensing almost tangible evil, malice, whatnot, again much unlike real evil.** This is possibly not that unusual in literature for children, but others have done it better—even Voldemort was more nuanced, including an unhappy childhood and a wish for power; and he was a real person, not some abstract force of evil. Other deficiencies include how Will jumps into the camp of the good guys more-or-less based on their own word that they are the good guys (well, apart from that almost tangible feeling of evil emanating from the other camp …), how problems often come close to solving themselves (instead of being solved by the heroes) or how just following a near-trivial instruction resolves the problem, how confrontations between the camps often amount to nothing but abstract forces clashing like two weather fronts, and how the behavior of the camps often does not make sense***.

*As in having that weird, distorted, “wrong” quality that nightmares often have—not in the “is scary” sense.

**This deficiency is what tipped the scales when I contemplated whether this text was worth the trouble. Note a few earlier texts dealing with the nature of evil, including the quite recent [1] and [2].

***Possibly, there are hidden rules, the revelation of which would change this impression. If so, however, too much of the rules are hidden, leaving the reader in a sea of arbitrariness. How, by analogy, is someone supposed to truly appreciate a football game without understanding the rules and without being able to interpret what happens (or does not happen) why? Similarly, would he not enjoy a game with rules that make more sense, e.g a game of Quidditch that does not boil down to just catching the golden snitch?

Two of the greatest strengths of “The Dark is Rising” (the book) in my child’s eye were the atmosphere and situations created (a) around the family of Will and in the family house, and (b) the scenes in the snowed-in mansion. These had a much smaller effect on me today, which could give me some pointers on how different people might experience the same scenes differently.

Looking at (a), Will was the opposite of Harry Potter, having an unusually large*, loving, and (relatively speaking) harmonious family. My own family, at the time, had been cut by divorce and was anything but harmonious—me, my mother, and a sister that I could not stand. Brothers there were none and the family dog was dead. Despite my introversion and comparatively low interest in socializing, his situation seemed so much better. Today, my interest is even lower and I suspect that I would have gone bonkers had I had his family—“Too many [children]!”, to quote the very first words of the book. Here there was, I suspect, a strong “the grass is always greener” effect in play.

*I could not find the exact number during a quick look at the book, but Will was a seventh (and youngest) son and there were sisters, two parents, and a few animals to boot.

Looking a (b), I have long held a fascination with being snowed in, fighting the cold and dark, and similar, likely partially as a side-effect of my life in Sweden, but somehow the scenes did not click this time around. This possibly partially because there were, again, very many people involved, both as a plus back then and a minus now; however, too haphazard writing and a too short duration might also have something to do with it.*

*Generally, thinking back on my recent re-reading, I have the feeling that there were quite a few crises and periods of suspense that loomed large for a short time and then were gone, almost anticlimactically, where a longer duration might have been more realistic and/or more captivating. What if they had jumped straight to the duel in “High Noon”?

Compared to works by some other authors, there is also quite little going on under the surface. The Narnia books definitely had more depth, as (going by vague memory) did the Prydain books.* To some degree, Cooper’s books are quite simplistic, as with the treatment of evil (cf. above) or the caricatured or cartoony bad guys—more Blyton than C. S. Lewis. Even Rowling, against whom I would raise a similar criticism, is ahead of Cooper.** Off the top of my head, there is only one major exception (and a few minor): the sub-story of Hawkin in “The Dark is Rising” (book), which is thought-worthy, tragic, and almost paradoxical—and the largest reason why I still rank “The Dark is Rising” as number one among the books (cf. excursion).

*These were, together with the-for-an-older-audience Tolkien and “The Dark is Rising”, the big book series of that period of my life, all with multiple readings.

**In some earlier text, I noted that books for women often had similar problems, while books by women gave me no reason to complain. “The Dark is Rising” series is written by a woman for, likely, mostly boys; while “Harry Potter” is by a woman and at least slightly tilted towards boys. With a few similar examples, I might have been too optimistic with the “books by women” part, and I begin to suspect that male authors are more likely to produce “depth” than female ones. (But my sample might be too small. Certainly, there are individual women, even in fantasy, e.g. Le Guin, who do better, and plenty of men who are as bad.)

The question of length is interesting with an eye on child-me vs. adult-me (also note an earlier footnote): children tend to read slower and have a shorter attention span, and what might seem short or too short to an adult might not be so for a child. (Generally, I do realize that viewing a children’s book from an adult’s perspective might not be entirely fair.) However, Cooper can be quite long-winded in other regards, and I had repeated occasions when I found my self skipping half a paragraph just to avoid boring dead-weight, often of a descriptive kind. If she had cut material where it served little purpose and inserted more material where it would have, then the books could have been improved.

On the upside, Cooper has a quality of language that is considerably higher than some modern authors, including Rowling (which seems to be part of a more general trend of less and less attention being paid to grammar and style as time passes).

Excursion on ranking:
My personal ranking of the books, now as then, would be “The Dark is Rising” (chronologically 2), “The Grey King” (c. 4), “Silver on the Tree” (c. 5), “Green-Witch” (c. 3), and “Over Sea, Under Stone” (c. 1). This is interesting in two regards: (a) The books with the Drew children do not fare well, and the fact that I clicked less with them as characters than with Will (and Bran) might play in.* (b) “Silver on the Tree” appears to be the most lauded by others, but is in the middle of the pack for me. I grant that this is the most ambitious of the books and likely (at least attempted as) a bit deeper than the others, but there is too much in it that does not work well as written, including (cf. above) the “The Lost Land” scenes (good ideas, poor execution). As a child, I also reacted very negatively to the revelation of Blodwen as a “double agent”; today, however, I see it as one of the few points where something thought-worthy is introduced, and evil actually has the guise of good, instead of being too obviously evil.

*But it should be noted that the order might be distorted by “Over Sea, Under Stone” being written considerably earlier than the other books, implying that Cooper might simply have been a less accomplished author at the time and that the other books might have benefited from ideas for the series gathered over the years. Moreover, “Green-Witch” is quite short, which might have had a negative effect on its ranking.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 17, 2019 at 2:03 am