Sunday, November 20, 2011

VAMPIRE DIARIES: Season 3 - A Humbly Disgruntled Mid-Season Review

I still love the show, but I have to confess I’m extremely disappointed with Season 3.  The mid-season finale was, however, one of the better episodes of the season.

They’ve flooded the show with a whole new cast of characters who’ve reduced the characters we’ve known and loved for two seasons to the level of bit-players, and some characters, like Jeremy Gilbert, have disappeared altogether.  True, Jeremy is one of the more annoying characters, but I think he has great potential.  They’ve subordinated character and romance to plot—which they never did during the first two seasons—and suddenly it’s Klaus’s show, even to the extent of his destroying, at least narratively, what launched the show in the first place: the love of Stefan and Elena.

We were just getting drawn into the relationship between Tyler and Caroline, when they made Tyler Klaus’s puppet and completely sidelined the growth of this character in his own right.  I actually preferred Alaric as Klaus to Klaus as Klaus; Alaric was actually chilling; Klaus comes across as more of a pouty, super-powered brat than a true monster.

Then there were the cave paintings—à la Smallville—containing secrets of ancient sorcery, but, lo and behold, there’s a stake that can kill an original after all, so why did we need all of that backstory to lead us to the cave paintings?  Season 2 slowly enriched the characters, built the narrative carefully to a great climax that involved all the chief players.  Season 3 is going for quick thrills and snappy plot-twists that have no depth, and the characters are constantly spinning around this narrative mælstrom, never settling into an individual arc story long enough to grow.

Everything started off so nicely, with Stefan torn between Klaus and Elena, and that was promising, but in the worst episode of the season, “The Reckoning,” which played like an incomplete slasher movie thrust into the middle of larger and more complex narrative arc, all that was destroyed; and where true and dangerous intimacy could have developed between Damon and Elena, all we got was tepid pathos.  And after the song and dance Jeremy led everyone trying to protect Bonnie at the end of Season 2, he just turns around and dumps her and goes back to Anna in Season 3.

Okay, this is only halfway through, or slightly less than, and I’m mainly talking about the things I disliked, but here’s hoping the show goes deeper into character relationships and leaves the slash-happy thrills on the cutting-room floor.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Millennialist Conservatism

I’ve always considered myself a literary writer and never bothered about defining myself more clearly than that.  Looking for ways to market my novels, I expanded my profile on Smashwords to include the following:

The bulk of my writing is influenced by my concerns about millennialist conservatism and the legacy of 9/11. It perturbs me greatly that 9/11 has put the fear of some generic judgmental monotheistic deity into us, so that we seem to have rebounded to a world before the great social and philosophical revolutions of the Sixties. We huddle into the false security of definitions of morality and goodness we actually outgrew decades ago.

It’s almost inconvenient, even vulgar, having something to say.  Stephen King has something to say, as does Pynchon, but they both started saying it when people were more open to listening.  I’m a great consumer of television candy, and lose patience quickly with a show that has some profound social message woven, however subtly, into its narrative fabric.  Yet I can’t seem to escape the notion that novels march to a different drum.  Most of the novelists I love are saying something—or practice their craft in a way that comments self-reflexively on the art of the novel itself.  When I read for story, I prefer children’s literature.

Yet here’s an excerpt from one of my new novels, spoken by a woman who was a professor of prosody and rhetoric at Yale and is now a high-society madam:

“Not that I have anything against Ms Rowling, whose work I thoroughly enjoy, but if, with less time on our hands and more distractions to contend with, even adults’re reading children’s fiction these days, what’s to become of truly adult literature.  Perhaps this is what it means to suffer the children and inherit the kingdom.  Nine-Eleven has done exactly what its masterminds wanted it to do.  It has put the fear of Allah into us.  We’re running scared from our former self-indulgence for fear of being smitten, if not by any one of the various monotheistic deities we keep around to make us feel like shit about ourselves as often as we need to then by another terrorist attack.”  (From Cherry Brandy: The Liqueur Sextet I)  

Monday, August 29, 2011


Morality is herd instinct in the individual
—Nietzsche, The Gay Science

The people who are regarded as moral luminaries are those who forego ordinary pleasures themselves and find compensation in interfering with the pleasures of others.
—Bertrand Russell

This entry is about transgressive literature and about how, at some level, a kind of morality reasserts itself through it.  Perhaps, instead of morality—which is always an ugly word for a writer—we should say an æsthetic.  As that arch-æsthete Oscar Wilde puts it in his Preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”  However, Wilde observes elsewhere that, “[m]orality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.”

Where and how this æsthetic reasserts itself depends on the individual writer and the individual reader.  Transgressive literature is therefore the locus primarily of imaginative individualism.  Camille Paglia’s views on the liberating power of pedophilia, abortion, and pornography are nowhere more important than in literary erotica where the word retains the veil cinematic pornography strips aside.  Nor do I mean written pedophilia as an underground movement dedicated to the delight of outlaws, diddling themselves in musty hideaways with ill-gotten contraband.  Though perhaps this argument is better made by that hair-splitting distinction between pedophilia—sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children—and ephebophilia—sexual attraction to pubescent and post-pubescent minors.  The novels of no less a luminary than Judith Krantz often include a sexually graphic encounter between a cougar and a teenage minor.  If one were to excerpt these scenes and publish them as a collection, they would be banned.  But the larger works of which they form a part—and such delightful works they are—have sold millions of copies worldwide.  And no mommies against pornography have taken to the streets of Beverly Hills with wooden spoons, foaming at the mouth, seeking to lynch Ms Krantz.

We have a long-standing suspicion of fiction, because fiction is too illusory.  Even Melville had to claim to his publishers that he’d been on a whaling expedition.  Most people would rather read a mediocre literary achievement about a community established in a secret Alpine hideaway written by someone who has climbed a mountain than a dazzling feat of the imagination concerning such a community written by someone who has never left her study.  Oscars for Best Actor are frequently awarded to portrayals of actual historical persons, because it’s easier to judge mimicry than it is to judge pure imagination.   

We have an even longer-standing suspicion of sex, because sex is too real.  Therefore fiction based on sexual transgression must be the worst and most reprehensible kind of fiction there is.  We refuse to believe that someone who writes it doesn’t want to go out and do these things or that he or she hasn’t already done them.  How can I write ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore—John Ford’s remarkably transgressive drama from 1629, if I don’t want to sleep with my sister.  When I studied this wonderful play in a class I took in college on Jacobean and Caroline drama one of the students—slightly older than the rest—announced that she sometimes had feelings like that about her brother.  Dead silence greeted this opening salvo of class discussion.  This was, after all, a Christian university.

Somehow, we can’t stop evaluating art morally.  This is dangerous.  Because if we’re looking for that whaling ship in a writer’s tool-box, we can also be looking to burn witches or blacklist commies, and we thereby fail to honor the distinction not only between imagination and reality but between fiction and fact.  Fact, as a phenomenon, has courts and labs in which to defend itself; but fiction has always been under siege with no weapon or forum by which to assert its own fictionality, its very character.  This is even before we arrive at any considerations about the possible fictitious web of all written discourse, literary or otherwise.  By supposing fiction to harbor fact, by treating it as evidence of fact, we are violating its character as surely as we violate the character of a Black person by expecting her to be White, or a gay person by expecting him to be straight.

The physical social reality of a Black or gay person is factually demonstrable, to a certain degree.  But what about the fiction of gender realignment, the factual assertion that I am a woman or a man regardless of my genitalia.  The assertion that I am a man, made by a female author writing about a male protagonist in the first person.  The social tendency to imprison a fantasy for being real—for being a sensible literary artifact—was dangerous when the Marquis de Sade challenged it and it is even more dangerous now, because we think we’re living in a free society.  In de Sade’s time they already knew the state and the church were dictating popular taste.  Now we tend not to know this—or we don’t want to know.  While websites and publishers continue to reject books on moral grounds. 

About a year ago, Amazon got into trouble for publishing a book that, at some level, celebrated pedophilia.  I had no interest in the book, so I don’t know the exact nature of its so-called crime, but it was refreshing to read about Amazon’s decision not to censor its writers—a decision it subsequently reversed.  If a book describing—however joyfully—a criminal act is itself a criminal act, then we’d have to round up and persecute at least eighty percent of all narrative art.  Why does a movie like Bonnie and Clyde or a TV show like Dexter flourish while we repress joyful depictions of pedophilia or of even non-pedophilic consensual incest.  All such works are, at some level, glorifying crime.  Why is it permissible to glorify crimes of violence but not crimes of sex.  This is an erotophobic cultural remnant of a religious predisposition to celebrate and even sanctify violence, because of its supposedly redemptive power—as in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ—and to condemn sex.  By erotophobia I mean the suspicion and fear of sex. 

I believe the entire Twilight saga and the rapturous response it has received is the result of erotophobia.  For most of us, sex must always redeem or diminish itself to become socially acceptable.  Even atheists become squeamish around pornography unless it has a story and good acting and decent writing.  Romance and marriage redeem sex—but pornography, despite its own artifice, is reprehensible because it glorifies orgasm-for-the-sake-of-orgasm.  That is, orgasm without æsthetic, social, or reproductive purpose: pleasure-for-the-sake-of-pleasure.  By a similar process, Black people have often had to be more White, or gay people have had to be more straight, to earn acceptance.  We want sex to deck itself out in romance and marriage—in stories—before it becomes acceptable to society or æsthetics.  And sex is far more fundamental than race or sexual orientation.  One of the cornerstones of my thinking comes from the Oscar Wilde quote above about morality in literature; the other is from the venerable Noam Chomsky: “If we don't believe in free expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.” 

I would never want to read a book or see a movie about the torture of infants, but I would defend any person’s right to write such a book or make such a movie.  By definition, imagination—what some people feel safer calling fantasy—must be unrestrained.  And it should be a basic human right for all fantasy to take artistic form without moral intervention.  A society that does not protect its children will collapse.  A society that makes war on the human imagination sentences its children to a labor camp run by a lunatic priest.