Monday, August 31, 2009

Comfortable Seats at the Theatre

...are what you may be needing if the script writers aren't up to the task. When I found out NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro (see previous post about re: literary analysis) was going to be made into a movie, starring Keira Knightly, my first thought was cool - second thought - what will the characters be doing the whole time?

I did what any intelligent person would do, zipped off to google, did a search, and checked out what other intelligent people thought about this. I found someone who agrees; the success of the movie will have a lot to do with the script.

The success of the uncanniness I wrote about in my analysis (previous post) depends greatly on reader, in this case audience, patience. What do we know about movie going audiences today? Not so patient. Perhaps things are different in England, where the film will be released in April...

And the lack of ending? Now there is a whole 'nother problem.

**spoiler alert**
In addition to the fact that there are no kick ass moments when Kathy, the main character, does something awesome, the end is a bit of a downer. And its not like the audience can be set up for NEVER LET ME GO 2 - because everybody dies. And they don't die trying to get away for the bad thing that's going to happen, they die because its what they were meant to do.
Hmmm...have fun, script writers, making that sympathic.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Human Clones: The Ultimate Uncanny

Understanding the theories and concepts of the uncanny can be extremely beneficial to the writer. By knowing what causes humans to be emotionally distressed, a writer can craft a story that will trigger anxiety at strategic times and in ways that support the intent of the work, heighten the fictive dream, and enhance the overall story experience. Ernst Jentsch, credited with being the first to identify the state of the uncanny in a 1906 essay, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny,” defines the state as a person’s “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate.” He was quick to note that awareness and understanding of such a state is important to the writer.
“In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately.”

Sigmund Freud, in his essay, “The Uncanny” later expanded this concept of the uncanny state being linked to the relationship between the animate and the innate. Additionally, he examined concepts of human development in regard to maturation as having a key relationship to a person’s perception of what is uncanny. For example, in childhood humans enjoy repetition. This appreciation begins before the child is old enough to desire, or even understand, control. As the child matures, and begins to understand the advantage of control and thus desires it, the child takes less pleasure in repetition. Therefore, continued, undesired, and uncontrollable repetition is disturbing because it represents a lack of control and thus regression and is therefore potentially alarming. Freud asserted that the state of the uncanny is linked to the subconscious in additional way. He stated that a person experiences something as uncanny because it reminds the individual of the conflict between their repressed desires, desires which the individual presumably struggles to control, and feared punishment for deviating from societal norms.

The clone characters in NEVER LET ME GO by Kazou Ishiguro are human and yet not; this juxtaposition of truths makes them particularly uncanny. They are human in that they contain human genetic material, yet they do not possess several key qualities often considered to be distinctly human characteristics or rights. The most concrete example of this is that characters (clones) in NEVER are unable to reproduce. While it is true that not all humans are biologically capable of reproduction, much of human culture, the structure of family for example, is centered on the ability and innate desire to reproduce. Ishiguro draws attention this aspect of the uncanny in chapter six when Madame (the woman who appears to be in charge of the school where the clones are housed during childhood) comes across Kathy, the main character, clutching a pillow to her chest and singing to it as though it were a baby.

“Madame…was out in the corridor, standing very still, her head angled to one side to give her a better view of what I might be doing…and the odd thing was she was crying. She just went on standing there, sobbing and sobbing, staring at me through the doorway with that same look in her eyes she always had when she looked at us, like she was seeing something that gave her the creeps.” (p 72, all page numbers paperback)

When Kathy mentions that moment to a friend, Tommy, a couple years later, the friend responds, “Madame’s probably not a bad person, even though she’s creepy. So when she saw you dancing like that, holding your baby, she thought it was really tragic, how you couldn’t have babies. That’s why she started crying.” (p 73) There are very few passages as direct as these; Ishiguro is more subtle throughout the majority of the book. This subtly, as Jentsch suggested, is even more effective as the reader’s uncertainty lingers in an almost unconscious way, heightening the tension of the story.

The exchanges above, first between Kathy and Madame and then later between Kathy and Tommy, are an example of Freud’s expanded analysis of the uncanny. It is apparent that Madame is repulsed by those she is charged with caring for; she finds the clones uncanny. Seeing the clones in person reminds her of the conflict between her repressed or uncontrollable desires, her motivation for doing what she is even though she is repulsed by it, and her fear of societal reproach for deviating from the accepted norms. More simply put, because Madame desires something for herself she is taking part in something the knows is wrong; when she sees the clones she is reminded of that conflict and projects the “uncanniness” onto the clones thus being repulsed by them rather than by her own actions.

As with Madame, the reader is forced to accept the existence of the clones. Ishiguro ensures this by using uses a very intimate first person point of view; the narrator, Kathy, directly addresses the reader, using “you” to refer to the reader several times in the beginning and then again several times throughout novel. For example, “If you’re one of them, I can understand how you might get resentful—about my bedsit, my car…” (p 4) and then again, “I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we…” (p 13) These passages serve two purposes. One, disallowing the reader the opportunity to deny the clones’ existence and two, forcing a comparison between the reader, a true human, and the character, a human-like non-human. This forced comparison reinforces the sense of the uncanny.

Ishiguro’s exploration of the uncanny in NEVER is directly acknowledged. One passage in particular seems specifically crafted to capture the idea expressed by both Jentsch and Freud. “We could see hills in the distance that reminded us of the ones in the distance at Hailsham, but they seemed to us oddly crooked, like when you draw a picture of a friend and it’s almost right but not quite, and the face on the sheet of paper gives you the creeps.” (p 119) Another passage, less direct occurs later in the novel when Tommy is showing Kathy some animals he drew. “…and he showed me three separate sketches of a kind of frog—except with a long tail as though part of it had stayed a tadpole. At least, that’s what it looked like when you held it away from you. Close up, each sketch was a mass of minute detail…” (p 214). Although this passage is less direct, the focus on a creature that almost is what it is expected to be is evident and serves the same purpose.

Ishiguro’s exploration of the that hazy area between what is human and what is not human is more than an exploration of the physical but also of the spiritual, moral, and ethical. NEVER LET ME GO places a spotlight on the uncanny and challenges the reader to not look away.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Know About YA Trends? Amy Alessio Does

I recently met Amy Alessio when she joined the still forming YA Chapter of Romance Writers of America. When I found out that she is both a YA writer and YA librarian I knew I had to hit her up for an interview.

As a librarian who works with young adults, you must talk with teens a lot. What is most surprising about young adults as people and/or as readers?

I help run monthly clubs at the library including a Teen Corps volunteer group, a Gamers Group, writing and drawing groups and more. We also have three to five programs a week in the summer including swordfighting, CSI, scavenger hunts, after hours, video game tournaments and art classes. I also had the pleasure this summer of bringing five teens to the American Library Association conference, where they spoke with me at a Young Adult Library Services Association preconference.

So I do indeed have the pleasure of talking with teens a great deal. What surprises me is that anyone would want to work with any other age group! Honestly, I love my work. Teens today are extremely sophisticated about their activities and their future, and they are passionate about helping improve the world. I can barely keep up with my volunteer group's ideas about helping the community. Also they are very technological, but that's no surprise. A big surprise came when we realized that the library book circulation of teen materials went up 70% each year after we started getting their input about all services for their own age group. Taking their advice continuously brought in more teens in droves.

Do you see a strong relationship between teen trends in say, clothes and music, and teen trends in reading?

The public library is an equalizer. All types of teens come in. So I may not see trends in clothing and music as much as someone who works in retail or food which may appeal to markets within teens. As downloadable music became so popular in the last ten years, though, I notice teens do like more action packed books. Their attention needs to be grabbed from page one to hold them. They are used to everything instantly, from chatting to getting their music and more. And they are more interested in the larger world and cultures than perhaps before, as they are so connected to the entire world online.

While these trends are more immediate and prevalent in teens, I think both of these things resonate with adults also. I see adults with more interest in Indian/Asian or African American authors with books like The Kite Runner staying in book clubs years after publication. Also, adults want their action sooner now too; why else would we see so many Prologues in books?

How long will vampires be *hot*?

(grin) I see no end in sight with the vampires. I have 40 copies of each of the Twilight series which still circulate constantly, plus many more of The Vampire Diaries and more. The Vampire Diaries will be a new show on the CW this fall, too, heightening the genre. Really, Vampires have been around for several years, with Anne Rice, Buffy and Laurel K. Hamilton changing the faces of the genre. Charlaine Harris certainly kept momentum going and is more popular than ever with her TV show, too. An interesting vampire book will always find teen readers.

Predictions about upcoming trends?

Definitely I see more types of paranormal. I have to review some Zombie books; that seems to be the new creature du jour. I have also seen werewolves aplenty in adult books lately, which means they will hit teen soon too.

Steampunk is hitting teen now too. Kenneth Oppel really started the trend for teens, and now I'm seeing lots more variations with time travel into Victorian and Regency periods, too.

To my delight, I am finding many more teen mysteriers and thrillers, though still only a few teen traditional amateur sleuth series. Mysteries are my passion, and I review teen ones for Crimespree magazine. (I review all types of teen books for too.) It used to be hard to find teen mysteries. Now I'm seeing a lot more. It's the CSI effect - many teens watch those shows, too. How could they not, with the series being on every night in some form?

Amy has an awesome blog that covers vintage cookbooks. Here's what she had to say about where that interest came from.

Good question. My mother had great unusual cookbooks, though she was not a huge fan of cooking. Both Grandmothers were, and I have recipes from one. The other wrote nothing down. When I was younger I was fascinated with the crazy Jello recipes in an old Jello cookbook and made several of them. I took Square Meals by the Sterns from Mom and read it like a novel. That one discusses vintage cookbooks and funny trends in them.

My husband and I have always been into antique malls, and usually spend birthdays and anniversaries touring several. I was drawn to the vintage cookbooks over and over, and before I knew it, I had over 100. They are inexpensive and fun, from the Pillsbury Bake-Off collections to the Betty Crocker cooking/lifestyle guides. By the time I had 200 I was learning new technologies for my work at the library. It's not easy trying to keep up with teens technologically, but I do try. I wanted to teach myself blogging three years ago, and needed a topic. I started writing about the cookbooks, and my attempts to make some of those recipes.

In January of this year, I took an online class on blog book tours, and got serious about it, blogging much more often, inviting guests, promoting the blog on food sites. The traffic has grown exponentially and I've been invited to nine libraries this fall to talk to people about holiday traditions in the vintage cookbooks. I have publications planned from it too for folks who attend the programs. I use all this as an excuse to get more cookbooks, of course!

Amy is the author of "Missing Andy" a story in the MISSING anthology. Here's what she had to say about that:

The Missing Anthology was created when I asked Echelon Press CEO Karen Syed if she could publish an anthology benefiting missing persons organizations. There were several high profile ones in Chicago especially two years ago, and I wanted to do something. Karen agreed if I would edit it. I was happy to do so, and the stories in there are amazing. No one made a dime from that project; all monies were donated to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. I do have a story in there as well, "Missing Andy", about an antiques store owner who collects cookbooks and tracks down a missing teen...

Amy Alessio is a regular speaker at BEA, ALA, and Boucheron.

And you can follow Amy on Twitter.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Do you write YA?

inkpop will launch in mid-September, but here's the scoop as of now...

inkpop is the new voice in teen publishing.
You’ve heard the horror stories. When they were just getting started, even some of the world’s most successful authors weren’t immune to the pains of getting published. Navigating the traditional publishing system can be like shooting in the dark. The manuscript submission process is often a lengthy, intimidating uphill battle, and there’s no guarantee that publishers will actually read your work.

inkpop will change the old way of doing things. By asking, “What does the community think?” inkpop marks a new approach to identifying and developing talent. inkpop is an online network that connects up-and-coming authors with talent spotters and publishing professionals in the teen market. Writers are invited to post their books, short stories, essays, and poetry for the whole world to see. inkpop members identify and rank their favorite works and post their feedback and constructive criticism.

We’re all about the reader. Our social networking forum shines just as much light on authors as on the readers who provide the positive springboard for feedback. After all, inkpop members play a critical role in deciding whose projects rise to inkpop’s Top Picks.

inkpop pays careful attention to what the community thinks. Each month we compile a list of the top five projects of all time, handing over the work for our Editorial Board to read. Consisting of HarperCollins editors, the Editorial Board provides the final critique in the review process. The ultimate goal is to find the Next Big Thing in teen lit, and the ultimate prize is every aspiring author’s dream: A publishing contract.

Ready to make your mark?

If you are, contact Amy Schroeder
inkpop Site Manager

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Let Them Eat Cake

In the prefaces of both books on writing, On Becoming a Novelist and The Art of Fiction, John Gardener states that he has written his books for a specific group of writers. “I write for those who desire, not publication at any cost, but publication one can be proud of—serious, honest fiction, the kind of novel that readers will enjoy reading more than once, the kind of fiction that will survive.” (p xxiii, Becoming) He aims, not to provide insight for “…the writer of nurse books or thrillers or porno or the cheaper sort of sci-fi…” but “for the elite; that is, for serious literary artists.” (p x, Art) Throughout both books he makes clear his disdain for works produced by the non-elite, what he calls “junk fiction” (p x, Art); the type of books “one finds in drugstores, supermarkets, and even small-town public libraries.” Gardner states that these books are, “…not well written at all; a smart chimp with a good creative–writing teacher and a real love of sitting around banging a typewriter could have written books vastly more interesting and elegant.” (p ix, Art) Given his constant declarations that intelligent worthwhile people read and write intelligent and worthwhile fiction, fiction that is art and not “junk”, is it difficult to reconcile the creation of many of his characters. One possibility for reconciliation is that his characters such as Henry Soames and Callie Wells of Nickel Mountain, the roadside vendor, Pigtoe, and the stripper, Fanny, Gardner uses in his plotting examples (p 172, 175, Art)—characters who are apt to acquire their books, which in all likelihood would be “junk” fiction, at drugstores, supermarkets, or even small public libraries—are worth writing about but not worth writing for.

Gardner devotes time to in both books to addressing the importance of reader satisfaction; he clearly values the fictive dream and its ability to move the emotions of the reader. He makes a point of reminding the writer that, “The writer who does not accept the metaphysic can never write a novel; he can only play off it…We are not profoundly moved by Homer, Shakespeare, or Melville because we would like to believe the metaphysical assumptions their fictions embody…but because we do believe those assumptions.” (pps 184-185, Art) Furthermore, he reminds the writer of the responsibility to carry the reader completely through the story. Novels, he explains, must offer symphonic-like endings in which the “…closing movement echoes and resounds with all that has gone before.” If this goal is not met, the reader will, “…shut the book with feelings of dissatisfaction, as if cheated.” (p184, Art) It cannot be doubted that Gardner values and respects readers of fiction he would classify as art; it does not appear, though, despite the fact that in his own fictive work he embraces, accepts, and uses characters who—if they were in fact actual people—would not be likely to read literary art, that he values readers of what he would classify as non-art. In short, he writes about characters who he would not truly value or respect were they to be actual, living humans.

For me, writing fiction is much like making a dish to take to a potluck dinner. I create the best possible product, using all the skills I’ve acquired to date, with the intent of bringing pleasure and satisfaction—from start to finish—to whoever wants what I’ve produced. My potluck dish is usually a cake because cakes are what I make best. Chocolate cakes with homemade chocolate cream cheese frosting are what I get asked for most, so I often make those. I bake mine in a simple, disposable foil pan. I know that there will be other cakes at the potluck, maybe a fancy one with fresh fruit across the top or a delicate five layer torte served on a glass plate. That doesn’t matter to me. At the potluck, I set my cake on the table alongside the others and leave it unattended. Not everyone will reach for mine; some will take a piece of the one covered in fruit or a slice of the torte. Their preferences are okay with me; different people like different things. When it comes to mine, I don’t care who eats it; I only care that they enjoy it, that it satisfies, that it is what they wanted it to be. It seems to me that Gardner has a similar approach—making the best product and delivering it—only he adds additional steps. He determines what should and should not be made, and once the product is on the table he stands close at hand, ensuring that only the right people take a slice.