juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
A while ago I posted some incidental thoughts on the so transparent as to be insulting yet perversely fulfilling BBC Sherlock. Today, Amy posted thoughts on the first episode which closely mirror my own. The only things I have to say in response are way too long for Tumblr's reply feature, so here we go with some more thoughts which I've been meaning to write...

What happens to crime fiction when there is no crime fiction genre?

I watch a lot of murder mysteries, and read significantly less (I don't have the patience for them in novel form), but I grew up on Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown, and I've read a large chunk of Doyle's Sherlock stories. I've been watching Law & Orders and CSIs and Masterpiece Mystery!s and Castles for so long that they are pure brain candy: effortless, comforting, predictable; not mysteries. In Law & Order, it's always the actor that you recognize—the best parts get given to the bad guys. In Castle, it's always the second suspect/plot twist who gets put aside with the introduction of third, red herring suspect/plot twist. You can't solve them by watching intelligently, predictively—there are no clues to spot if only you pay attention. There are plot twists, new information, and then a confession.

But even on a bad actor-recognition day, you can figure out whodunnit—not because you can point to the dog that didn't bark, that one giveaway detail; not because you can follow the chain of reasoning and turn up a villain. You know just because you know, because you've seen a hundred mysteries and it's always the butler that did it.

That's Doyle's Sherlock. Not that there were no murder mysteries before him, but Sherlock is responsible for the formation of the genre as genre and whether or not you've read the source material, you've familiar with its impact, which is to say its tropes: key clues, interesting plot twists, creative and deductive investigator, big reveal, public confession. You're so familiar with them that you don't even need them: deduction is implied, now arrest the butler.

BBC's Sherlock is a lot of things, but clever crime fiction it is not. It talks pretty and unlike most crime fiction it does actually have some literal clues and logical deductions; you can solve it, if you want. But you don't need to—at least you don't actively need to, because you know the tropes so well that it's obviously the [cab driver] and well that was a short ... show ... wait why are they not arresting the [cab driver], why are the inspecting his [fare], how stupid is this Sherlock dude, has he not encountered his own damn canon?

And this is what gets me. How can you retell Sherlock in a world without Sherlock? Every underlying trope of the genre gets taken away, but the viewer remains innately aware of it. BBC's Sherlock is left to reinvent the wheel, to use deduction to follow clues to formulate rules that the viewer already knows, and the result is, as a murder mystery, pretty lackluster. The genre is full of lackluster, trite brain candy, but BBC Sherlock is labeled Sherlock and wraps itself up in the pretty bows of CG on-screen deduction and brilliant characterization: what would be an acceptable weakness anywhere else feels here like the viewer is smarter than the most brilliant man on earth.

I haven't watched the second season, but plan to. No spoilers for it, please.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Everything about my responses to fiction I learned from reading Homestuck: That I can care about a big cast, especially when background characters are given stealth characterization; that the right sort of characterization can redeem even the worst character; that unusual storytelling devices can be even more immersive than normal ones, because they are more visible, demanding, and—when successful—convincing; that second-person narratives are a particularly potent unusual and immersive storytelling device; that self-awareness treads a delicate line, but when it stays balanced it allows for a story to get away with the outrageous and achieve the affecting; that there is indeed media out there that suits my sense of humor (excepting Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff); and most of all, that:

I form two major connections to characters: emotional, and intellectual. These rarely overlap. I understand and sympathize with Vriska, who is aware of and confident in her internal morality—effectively amorality—but can't shake the lingering regret that this morality distances her from society, despite the fact that her regret directly conflicts with her awareness and confidence. In other words: she's a monster without regrets, except that she has regrets. I understand the anxiety of conflict between identity and community, I sympathize, I grok her if you will; but I don't obsess about her as a character, despite her fascinating role in the story, despite what we share. The bond is purely intellectual.

Meanwhile, I do obsess over Karkat. I don't identify much with his personality (even our respective self-hatreds have different grounds), although I think he's adorable; I do latch on to his obsession with relationships. I understand and share his attempt to approach intellectually what falls largely under the jurisdiction of emotion, and the potential and limitations he creates in that attempt fascinate me. He turns every relationship—his own and otherwise—into a meta-relationship, dooming it to failure in his constant attempts to comprehend and define it, pretending a certain distance from its development and eventual destruction on account of his intellectual interest, but betraying intense emotional need in his unflagging obsession with the issue. It appeals to my shared fascination with the topic, and sympathetic pitfalls of the same, and gives me everything I look for in a character: intense and troubled social interactions, in which the most intense and troubled may actually be the interaction with oneself. He's my ship and shipper in one convenient package, with the bonus analysis that I demand or else create myself; he has a mainline to my id, and that's what it takes to make me obsess over a character.

Discovering that distinction explains so much.

Homestuck also taught me that I've been waiting for quadrants my entire life. That's almost trite given fandom's obsession with the same, but quadrants are essentially a canonical institution for unusually intimate relationships, which is my primary interest in any media (oh hi Karkat, I see our kinship again). They're not perfect, but they're a breath of a fresh air and a promising start.
juushika: Photograph of a row of books on a library shelf. (Books Once More)
Some chatter about books:

When over at my parents's house, Mum and I got to talking about the lack of negative book reviews. She encountered it on Goodreads, and they were talking about it in reference to the top reviewers on Amazon. The reasoning that her discussion group had come up with: if you finish a book, it probably warrants at least three stars, an "average" rating or better. If you're taking the time and energy to leave a review, this is probably doubly true. Why put time and work, passive and especially active, into reading something that warrants neither? Especially for voracious readers, or people who write a lot of reviews—it just isn't worth it to force yourself to slog through a pile of shit just to come out the other side and give it a thumbs down.

I believe the issue is compounded by negative responses to negative reviews. Of course, this isn't always the case: an inarguably really bad book that receives a coherent review stating that the book is indeed really bad is actually likely to warrant positive response, sometimes a lot of positive response—depending, mostly, on how many people are in search of information about the book. However, few books can be classified as "inarguably bad" (One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, I'm looking at you); reader's tastes and standards vary, sometimes to a huge extent, and one person's negative review may be another person's favorite book. And that is where negative responses come from: if you say something critical about a book that other people like, the people that like the book will critique your review—often not on the basis of the review's merits, but because they disagree with its content. I can point to Cry to Heaven (which I called "enjoyable, but forgettable"). (...except for my now-glaring typo...) It's not a bad review, if I may say so myself. It's not apologetic, but it realizes strengths and weaknesses, and gives a final summary of the book as a swift read that leave no lasting impression.

However, this novel has an average 4.5 star review on Amazon, where I gave it two. It received only 4 of 14 "helpful" votes. The same is true for Good Omens ("Too light and funny for its own good," my two stars to the average of 4.5, 5 of 12 people voted the review "helpful") and a few more of my book reviews on Amazon (A Great and Terrible Beauty/Rebel Angels, Sideways). If you disagree with people, they will disagree with you, especially when they are in passionate disagreement, which is the case when you personally dislike a book that they loved. This disagreement is based on content, not on usefulness, not of style, not on whether or not the reviews is fair. And it's disheartening, as a reviewer, to put together thoughtful criticism and then have people tell you it's not thoughtful and not useful. Positive reviews are safer territory: they don't garter the same attention or disagreement—I imagine readers are more likely to go through "protecting" their favorite books than they are to trash positive reviews of the books that they dislike.

So of course the result is a predominance of positive reviews, positive reviews are often more visible (on Amazon, helpful votes push reviews closer to the first page), and once a book achieves a generally established positive rating, it is likely to continue to get more and more reviews which accord to that rating—the path of least resistance is always easiest, even here. That's regrettable, I think—the more people approve of a book, the more they will continue to approve of the book, and the voice of dissent—which is rare enough to find, since readers don't always finish the books they dislike—becomes increasingly quiet, increasingly repressed. That voice is necessary, because it keeps a book, or indeed any other media, from gaining more attention than it deserves, and because it warns readers that even though a lot of people like this book, some people do not, and depending on their tastes and standards they may be in the second category.

The obvious solution is for people to write negative reviews, but that means completing books they dislike (or perhaps leaving partial reviews, "I hated this book too much even to finish it") and ignoring the negative feedback they receive. Thinking about the issue makes me want to write more negative reviews myself. In fact, that was the only reason I finished and wrote a review of The Red Tent (complaining the whole way through). I've passed over reviewing books before (The Other Boleyn Girl springs to mind) because it seemed pointless to pull together the energy to discuss a book that I barely cared for enough to finish, all so that review would receive negative reviews—it's another 4.5'er on Amazon, and goodness all knows why, because it was a mashup of bland plot, a misplaced protagonist, and laughably bad writing. I've failed to finish books (Sharp Objects in particular, which features both excruciating writing and the world's worst pacing) which were just so painfully bad that I couldn't force myself through them—and then wished I had been able, if only to warn people away (it has an average 4.0 review).

But, of course, it defeats the purpose of loving books and loving reading if I go in search of popular texts I may dislike so I can read, hate, and negatively review them. I think the best compromise for me is to pull books off of the library shelves without research or reading reviews—it's a good way to find books that are in need of reviews, is sometimes the source of gems and great finds I would never discover any other way, and gives me the chance to try to read a variety of material, some of which I expect will be less than wonderful, and give reviews accordingly. As for negative feedback on Amazon, I've learned to ignore it or expect it. I don't know if I'll ever be able to read negative partial reviews as I should have for Sharp Objects—I prefer to restrain my opinion until I can give an informed response, and when critiquing a book, "having read it" is generally the criteria for "informed." Either way, there is always room for intelligent and coherent disagreement, and in the realm of books it is sorely needed—and if I write book reviews, I might as well be able to supply those alternate viewpoints when I hold them.

Blather aside! I am finally beginning to use my Goodreads account, and you're welcome to join or add me. Goodreads is a site that allows you to catalog your books, leave reviews, network with other readers, and join various discussion groups. It is free to use. I'm Juushika on there, as I am almost everywhere else. I will be crossposting my reviews to Goodreads, and I'll be adding unreviewed listings of other books in my library (in bits and pieces, as I own hundreds of books which are currently scattered over a dozen boxes and two book shelves), but mostly I hope to use the site to engage in book discussion. This sort of post, for example, would probably receive a mite more feedback over there than it does here—I hope I can find forums to discuss books, subjects, genres, literary issues ... the sort of discussion I miss from school, without the nervous breakdown-inspiring environment.

(My TitleHere.Net site is down because of payment issues, and while it's down, my moodtheme pictures are gone. I am brokenhearted about this, I cannot even tell you. This should have Kronk's shoulder devil and his glasses ... but instead: nothing! Sadness overwhelming.)
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
There's an episode of Sex and the City where Carrie has just had her first big breakup with Big and as usual the other girls are going through various romantic and sexual entanglements of their own—except for Miranda, who through the course of the episode grows increasingly frustrated with Carrie's inability to move on and the fact that, well:
All we talk about anymore is Big or balls or small dicks. How does it happen that four smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends? It's like seventh grade but with bank accounts. What about us? What we think, we feel, we know, Christ! Does it always have to be about them? Just give me a call when you're ready to talk about something besides men.
—Miranda, Sex and the City episode 2.1, Take me Out to the Ball Game


It's a moment that I've always loved—although, of course, immediately afterward Miranda runs into an old ex and is immediately thrown back into her own pain following their breakup, and apologizes to Carrie for not appreciating the full impact that the breakup with Big is having on her life. Which is just the thing, isn't it? Sex and the City was a brilliant show about sexual, romantic, and personal identity which remained largely unapologetic while still being humorous, but for its entire run the focus of the show was not the four female protagonists, but rather the women and their men—who they dated/slept with/married, how it impacted them, how the sex defined them, the problems that arose from such entanglements.

So Miranda makes a good point, but it's a point that is uncut by the series itself.

In a way, that's understandable and acceptable for a show called Sex and the City. In a group of heterosexual women, with sex one of the primary focuses of the show, of course the men they are entangled with would define them and their experiences in the course of the show. However, there are two shows currently running on primetime, Lipstick Jungle (full episodes on NBC.com) and Cashmere Mafia (full episodes on ABC.com). In both of these shows, which are about powerful business women living in New York, many of the plots and much of the characterization revolves around and is defined by men.

To be fair, this is more the case in Cashmere Mafia (ironically my favorite of the two) than it is in the newer Lipstick Jungle. The shows are very similar, but Lipstick (in its two episodes) has already exhibited a somewhat larger focus on plots that are not based on men. However, even with this caveat, I would say that something like 90% of the plots/conflicts/focuses that appear in the two shows are focused on men, or feature men as a driving or antagonistic force: working woman breaks up with working man that can't handle her success; working woman tries to balance her busy work life with her husband and home life; woman has an affair with a younger man; working woman is undermined, frustrated, or doubted in her job by/as a result of male power; working woman tries to reconcile with/get revenge upon/divorce cheating husband; and then, every now and then, working woman redefines product line or working woman deals with published personal slander.

For the record, I realize that men would play a driving force in almost any career woman's life (even a lesbian's!), but especially in the lives of these these 30 and 40-somethings, many married with children, working as execs in male-dominated professions. The fact that some of these plots, even that many of these plots, are male-driven is acceptable and understandable and even necessary. I can't imagine a useful or in any way accurate show about career women that didn't at some point deal with the issue of men's gender stereotypes in the workplace, for example.

But this isn't a case of a few male-driven plots, it's the case of a whole slew of them, a vast majority of them. What does it say about the show writers or us, the consumers, that the vast majority of the plots in a pair of shows about strong career women focus on or are driven by male characters? Even if these women come out on top—and they do—even if they are strong, even if they refuse to give quarter to men as a "superior sex," their stories and their characters are still defined by their dealings with men. If it's not work related, it's social; if it's not social, it's romantic. If these were shows about a group of male execs, we'd never see the same focus on wives and girlfriends and female colleges, especially not to the extent that there are almost no plots that do not involve women. They would be one aspect, one driving force amongst many.

But we can't write or watch a show about women the same way as we write or watch a show about men.

In part, that must be commentary on what it is to be a powerful American businesswomen: women are forced to define their work identities within male-dominated professions, forced to define themselves as both businesswomen and girlfriends/wives/mothers (which are traditionally competing roles), and it's only human nature to define ourselves, regardless of gender, by our sexuality and our romantic relationships. But this obsession with male-driven plots must also be commentary on what we expect women to be—we understand that may of them are by nature of their environment forced to define themselves within the status quo as it exists, which means they must define themselves in relation to men and a patriarchal culture; but we, as writers and as readers, also expect women to continue to define themselves this way, to primarily define themselves this way. A plot that doesn't revolve around male influence is somehow incomplete: it lacks emotion, it lacks conflict, it lacks personal growth. It's inadequate. It's unacceptable.

Don't get me wrong. I continue to watch these shows—Sex and the City as well as Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle—because I like them. I just wish that they could be more. The characters are interesting and also admirable, and for all of the focus on who the women are as defined by male influence, the women come out as both strong and flawed—which is to say that the show is at once empowering and identifiable. There's also some great outfits, which is a personal vicarious joy. But it saddens me that well-casted and enjoyable and promising shows like this could be more if they would rely more upon their female characters—put some faith in them to be interesting and meaningful even when not given some sort of masculine foil to be compared to or to inspire them towards growth. It reminds me a bit of Ally McBeal—interestingly the protagonist was less powerful and less self-assured (by a long ways) and yet, despite the rich romantic sideplots and the influence of male characters, Ally grew because of her boyfriends but also because of her job and her personality. Perhaps it was because there were male protagonists in the show, so it never made sense to default to male-influenced plots, but: It is certainly possible to rely on more than male influence to create plot and growth for a female character, and these shows featuring powerful women would well benefit from that knowledge. No matter how large or how justified masculine influence is on the life of a businesswoman, it is not and does not for the purposes of the show need to be the be-all and end-all. There's more to them than that, and I wish that were reflected in these shows.

Is anyone else on my flist watching either Cashmere Mafia or Lipstick Jungle? If so, I'd be very much interested in your opinions of them. As I mentioned above, the shows are also freely available on ABC.com/NBC.com, if you do want to begin watching them. (I watch all my TV online, which is why I miss out on Law & Order but keep tabs on shows like this.)

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juushika

July 2017

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