Archive for February, 2011

Get Your Shakespeare Right

I’ve occasionally mentioned misquoted or misattributed Shakespeare on this blog before, usually in reference to greeting cards. But I have to pause yet again on behalf of politics here in my home state of Wisconsin.  Most of you know it’s been a trying time here, and that has prompted a great deal of fancy language on a great many parts.  But I would like to make it clear to everyone that this has not, in any way, been “the winter of our discontent,” as some reckless speakers have suggested  Not even for those of “us” (Wisconsinites, I assume, is the general meaning implied) who are, in fact, discontented.

The reason for this is twofold.  One, the quote isn’t a statement of fact that reads “Now is the winter of our discontent.”  The character speaking is not saying that it’s winter and we’re unhappy.  He says “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.”  The (metaphorical) winter is over, and it was just the set-up for a cheap pun in the first place.  But more importantly, the character in question is a baby-murdering villain.

This is relevant.  This is a thing to keep in mind when you quote Shakespeare.  The words you are using were not authored solely for the purpose of being pronounced authoritatively, on their own and stripped of context.  Some of the following will doubtless be old hat to many of my readers, but for pity’s sake please help spread the information.  As the signs around here say, it’s for the children.

  • It’s “Lay on Macduff,” not “Lead on Macduff.” They’re about to fight to the death, not go for a walk.
  • “Wherefore art thou Romeo” — meaning “Why do you have to be Romeo instead of some other hot guy that I’m totally allowed to bang” — not “Where art thou Romeo.” She spends more of the play knowing where he is than pretty much everyone else, when you think about it.
  • Anything Polonius says in Hamlet is pretty much meant to make him sound like a mumbling idiot.  Which, when you quote him, makes you sound like guess what?  This includes “To thine own self be true” and “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Not actually pieces of advice meant to be taken seriously.
  • On the subject of Hamlet, it’s “Alas, poor Yorick.  I knew him, Horatio,” not “…knew him well.” I don’t know why this comes up often enough for it to be a common misquotation, but it does; apparently a lot of people have friends named Yorick.
  • “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,” is followed by a number of other similar comparisons before the conclusion “To seek the beauteous eye of Heaven to garnish is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” Nothing about gilding lilies actually appears.  But you’d have to see/read King John to know that one, so we won’t hold it against people.

Those are the ones that come to mind off the top of my head.  I would guess I’ve missed many more — feel free to point ‘em out!  It will not discontent my winter.  I always enjoy updating lists.

In the Midst of It All, A Wisconsin Assembly Represenative Answers the Phone

Things have been a little exciting here in Madison recently.  For those of you that weren’t following, the State Assembly voted last night on a very controversial bill.  The vote largely went down party lines, but I noticed three Republican senators who broke away from their majority to vote against the bill.  On God knows what impulse, I called their offices at about 3 AM (the vote took place around 1 AM this morning).

I don’t really know why I did this.  I’m not a political writer or a journalist by any stretch of the imagination.  I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a state representative in my life, much less about policy.  And given that they’d been in session for about 60 hours at that point it didn’t seem likely that anyone would be hanging around the office.

But one was.  I spoke for about a minute with freshman senator Travis Tranel (R-49th), who was obviously dog-tired but took my e-mail address and promised to send his prepared statement my way.  It wasn’t a momentous conversation or an unusual one — honestly, I felt a little bad for bothering the poor guy at 3 AM.  I didn’t even say anything like “good job” or “I agree with you,” because I didn’t know why he’d voted the way he did or how he felt about the whole thing.  I just spelled my e-mail address out and said thank you.

It’s sort of a “and then I found five dollars” story when I write it out.  I’m pretty sure this is actually a large part of state and local politics — picking up the phone, taking the e-mail address; sending the prepared statement.  But it was the man himself, after a grueling marathon on the Assembly floor and what must have been one hell of a nerve-wracking choice to buck the almost entirely-united party.  I felt kind of good about it.

If the personal is the political (one of O Best Beloved’s favorite phrases), then from time to time it’s fitting that the political should be personal too.  And people should write about it.  Because why not?  There’s plenty of writing about the big things.  Might as well fill the niches too.

The awkward footnote to this story is that he never did send a statement, but I’m pretty willing to give the guy the benefit of the doubt.  He probably just spelled my e-mail address wrong when he was copying it down.  It was, after all, late as shit.

Or maybe I’m just an optimist.  But more writing-related (and less-political) fun to come Monday, so stick around for misused Shakespeare and more.  I’ll see you then.

Get Your Writerly Butt out of Your Writerly Chair

I really like drinking tea.  As a direct result our house has acquired more tea-things than any two people could ever need, even if two people whose friends are awesome friends that come over for parties with lacy hats and tiny little crustless sandwiches (ours aren’t).  These are just our favorite sets right now:

And there’s more mismatched cups and things kicking around, to say nothing of the basement full of Fiestaware at my parents’ house.  My father sneaks some of it into my luggage every time I visit for the holidays.  But you’ll notice the teacups all have something in common, and despite O Best Beloved’s urgings, it isn’t that they’re all flamingos (only five of the fourteen things pictured are flamingos, in fact, and around here that’s a pretty good average).  No, the shared-and-relevant characteristic is that they are all tiny. The biggest of those cups are the flamingos, weighing in at 80z., or about a 6oz. carry-it-to-my-desk-without-spilling capacity, and the rest are even smaller.

Two 32oz. pots of tea divided by one dainty little 4oz. cup equals a lot of trips to the kitchen and back.  For a writer, that’s a good thing.  An unprecedented stretch of full days off drove home the importance of my tiny tea cups forcibly:  without them, my butt falls asleep.  As anyone’s butt will when stuck in the same (cheap) chair and the same (hunched) posture for multiple eight-hour-plus days.  The tiny tea cup trips are my chance to get my writerly butt out of my writerly chair and recharge the mental batteries (important) as well as the feeling in my bottom (so much more important).

Non-tea-drinkers could emulate this strategy with any small, repeatable task.  It’s probably even possible to be the sort of person who gets up and stretches every hour because it’s a good thing to do — possibly in some esoteric yoga routine — but I’m very motivation-oriented (re:  bribe-requiring) about self-maintenance tasks like that.  So give yourselves reasons to get up!  Regular, brief tasks keep the butt happiest (and I fear that sentence is going to get me some strange incoming search terms).  This is probably why so many writers take up smoking, now that I think about it.

How do you keep your butt happy?  Believe me when I say that inquiring minds want to know…

Activism in Fiction: Pros and Cons

It’s been a busy week here in Wisconsin.  Politics have been on my mind and just about everyone else’s.  Even the local pizza joint is getting in on the action; so many people have called in to order pizzas delivered to the protesters on the capitol square that Ian’s Pizza now has a running tally going on their blackboard.  As of Sunday morning they’d taken orders from more than half the states in the union and a half-dozen foreign countries, including Egypt.

All of which begs the question — can we write about this stuff?  As more than news articles and blogs?  I already suggested that our state senators’ flight across the border would make a great-if-implausible novel.  Explicitly political fiction is nothing new.  The ancient Greeks wrote transparently-disguised parodies of their rivals; Shakespeare pandered shamelessly to his Queen’s (and later King’s) family pride in his histories.

But is it good?

The Pro Side:  Politics in Fiction Reflect Real Life

Every book and author has at least a little bias.  Your work reflects a little bit of real life no matter how contrived the writing gets.  Even Dick and Jane gives us an understanding of what the author thought a normal childhood looked like.  To someone who didn’t have that childhood, the work is a little expressly political.  It tells us how to live.  There is judgment inherent in the writing.

So the argument for fiction with a deliberate social or political message goes that it expresses the same things as other books, more clearly.  The actions of the characters and the world they live in teach lessons that have bearing on the reader’s real world.  The author’s judgment is instructive rather than invasive in this paradigm.  It assumes that the reader has a degree of cynicism, or at least awareness, and is able to relate the fictional story to the real world.

Some very fine and very famous books have been produced as vehicles for a specific political ideology.  So have a goddamn mountain of bad ones, so be cautioned!  There is only one 1984, and it has already been written.  But the potential for the — I won’t say genre; let’s call it an “approach” instead — the potential for the approach has certainly been proven.

The Con Side:  Activism in Fiction Obstructs the Story

It’s worth revisiting an idea I threw at you just a couple sentences ago:  expressly political fiction requires the reader to be thinking beyond the covers of the book.  It’s almost directly counter to the whole process of willingly suspending disbelief.  You have to disbelieve to give the work any relevance; you have to think simultaneously in terms of what the characters are doing and what it’s supposed to be saying about your life.

That can get in the way of the story.  It’s hard to really bury yourself in a book when you’re also wondering if the brownshirts are going to knock down your door.  And some entertainment-minded writers would argue that it’s not what fiction is supposed to make people do.

Particularly opinionated novels and stories also have this habit of sacrificing character for Making The Point that frustrates both readers and writers.  The Oppressed Minority isn’t a person.  He/she is a point the author is making — and it’s often a patronizing point, which makes it worse.  It’s hard to care about someone who’s only in the story as an illustration.  Politicized fiction has to tread a very careful line between clarity of message and entertaining prose.

This is the Part where I Tell You What to Think

Nahhh.  Kidding.  I think there’s a strong case to be made for either side, which is why I laid both out in the first place.  I’d even go so far as to say that there aren’t necessarily two cleanly-divided “sides” here.  Lots of authors have written very entertaining works that happened to strongly advocate a social or political opinion.  My parting thought would be one of caution:  a political message is like anything else you write into a draft.  When you go back and look at it, you still have to ask “Does this actually add anything to my story?”  And if it doesn’t, cut the hell out of that little bugger.

You can always blog about the hidden messages once the work gets published.

“The Help” and How Not to Put People You Know in Your Fiction

As long as I’m keeping people up to date on the news today, the Wall Street Journal reports that Kathryn Stockett, author of the bestseller The Help, is being sued by her family’s former babysitter.  The plaintiff, Ablene Cooper, claims that she was directly represented by the character “Aibileen Clark” in the novel, against her direct wishes.

Since the fictional Aibileen Clark and the real Ablene Cooper are both African-American women with a gold tooth and a deceased son, there is probably some truth to her claim.  Things get dicey because the fictional Aibileen is not, shall we say, an entirely politically correct comparison to draw to a real, live black woman.  There are some very unpleasant racial issues — unavoidable in any discussion of a book that focuses so heavily on race relations — that are likely to show up on Ms. Stockett’s doorstep in the near future as a result of this story.

And frankly, I wish her great headache and trial with them.  Not because it was a bad book — though perhaps not as good as its lavish word-of-mouth praise would make you think — or because I find her use of real-life inspiration offensive, but because she could have just come up with a different damn name. Yes, the similarities would still have been there, and yes, the real Ms. Cooper would probably still have been offended, likely rightfully so.  But the use of the real woman’s name, slightly altered, makes it obvious enough that anyone can pick up a newspaper, read the two-sentence summary, and recognize that there is a legitimate complaint.  Which many people now will.

These sorts of things are avoidable.  If you must base a character on someone you know (and particularly if that character is not a very likable or inspiring one), then for God’s sake change a few details around.  The name is an obvious first.  So are physical characteristics.  If you really hate your ex-boyfriend and want to write him into your story as a murdering puppy-rapist, go for it, but make him tall instead of short, or give him blonde hair where he’s actually brunette, or something. Turn bankers into accountants, soldiers into sailors, and men into women — little, cosmetic changes that don’t prevent you from using the character you’re stuck on.  Plausible deniability is all you’re looking for.

The idea that the black, gold-toothed Aibileen C. with a dead son is distinct from the black, gold-toothed Ablene C. with a dead son is not plausible.  It is goddamn embarrassing, and I hope you will all do better if you absolutely must base a character on someone you know.

Be interested to know what you all thought of the book itself, of course, if you read it.

A Pause for Political Theater

This was originally going to be a post about expressing your controversial opinions in fiction, or something like that, but here’s how it is folks:  my state’s senators went on the lam yesterday.  They up and left.  Fled the state.  And that’s just about as good as anything you’d find in a novel, politically-minded or otherwise.  So today is a post about how sometimes you just can’t make things up.

For those of you that haven’t been following the doings in Madison, WI lately, here’s the short version:  the governor is a Republican; both the Assembly and the Senate have heavy Republican majorities.  They pretty much get to do what they want, legislatively speaking.  Only there’s a rule on the books that says you need 20 senators present to vote on a budget-related bill, and there’s only 19 Republican state senators.  So when a bill that none of the Democratic senators could accept went to the floor — they didn’t.  They skipped town.  And because the Governor and the Senate wanted to authorize the State Patrol to bring them back, they went ahead and skipped all the towns in Wisconsin, fleeing across state lines.  Several of them are giving interviews from places like Chicago this morning, if you’re interested.

This is political theater at its finest.  It makes great TV; it keeps op-ed writers in a living.  Whatever you feel about the proposed bill (and I don’t like to be one of those doggone opinionated bloggers, so I’ll keep my thoughts to myself), I hope you can all at least get behind the wackiness that is procedural democracy running amok.  And really, this is a great test of legislators’ dedication to their constituents.  Would your state senator cross state lines to defend your interests?  Or to frustrate them, if you happen to have voted for the other guy, but hey — that’s democracy.

Also, the AFL-CIO gave me a bratwurst. That was pretty nice of them. Photo by Sarah Marsh (on her iPhone -- do those things have great resolution, or what?)

So today, I encourage all you writers out there to put something wacky in the Work In Progress.  Something really goddamn absurd, like half a legislative chamber fleeing across state lines and holing up in a Best Western as a genuine policy move (and not just for hookers and blow like usual).  Stop worrying about what your editors, or the reading public, is willing to believe.  The honorable ladies and gentlemen of the Wisconsin Senate are working hard to make your contrived plots seem plausible!

The Need for a Smart Phone Becomes Clearer

I’m not really a gadgety person.  But I felt the tug of the smart phone for the first time yesterday when I took the day off to attend to protests in Madison’s Capitol square.  It wasn’t like there was really anyone who would read anything I had to say about events (maybe fiftyish people on Twitter and a few hundred here), and I try to avoid any pretense of political writing anyway.  That’s neither my job nor my goal.

But I felt bizarrely isolated from the news in the middle of 10,000+ people making the biggest local story of the day.  When I could see what was happening on the Capitol steps I wanted to know what was going on upstairs, where the budget repair bill was being debated.  When I made it upstairs I was curious if the rally was still going on outside.  And I always wondered what people were saying on Twitter, on blogs, and on the for-god’s-sake-don’t-read-the-comments sections of the local coverage.

This comes of working from home too much.  I’ve grown accustomed to easy access of information, and to the ability to immediately start writing about things if I feel like it — no scribbled notes on a journalist’s pad; no frozen fingers from writing in a cold February wind.

What do other writers do at public events?  Do you spend the time wishing you were someone who wrote about this sort of thing, or can you relax and go with the flow?  And can you do it without a smart phone?

Love Hearts: Actually Pretty Damn Creepy

Love Hearts!

You know them.  The crunchy, tangy, sugary little candies people give each other on Valentine’s Day.  Maybe someone gave you some today?  Maybe they were even the delicious British version, instead of the flavorless bland Sweethearts we have here in the States.  Did they say something wonderful and romantic?  Were you just swept off your feet?  Was it romance and poetry?  Like…

Wait.  What?  Okay.  Maybe that was just a leftover from some, I don’t know, school awareness campaign.  Because…saying no to drugs is romantic, or something.  There’s lots of Love Hearts to choose from.  Look at all them:

We’ll just enjoy that bundle of Valentine’s cheer and forget about…huh.  Wait.  That…that can’t say what I think it says.  Can it?

Gaah!  Well…okay.  They have to cover all possible occasions.  Some people are sad on Valentine’s Day.  It’s not like the Swizzles-Matlow candy company is actually advocating anything…you know…inappropriate.

AAAAAAAUUUUUUGHHHHHH!!!

AAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!

WHAT THE FFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUCK?!?!?!

Okay, I take it all back.  Get her flowers or something.  These people are sick.

An Object Lesson in Greeting Cards

I’ve mentioned greeting cards before — and even suggested a few variations on the theme myself — yet I always find myself revisiting them around Valentine’s Day.  The king of Hallmark holidays has always brought out the best (and the worst) in publishers, but I think we have the internet to blame for my favorite breed of card, the misappropriated quote.

This should not be confused with misattributed quotes.  Simply getting the author or source wrong is one thing (as in the cards we sold last year that read “If music be the food of love, play on” — Hamelt, Act I).  Misappropriated quotes get the source right and the context horribly, often hysterically, wrong.

Our winner this year (in my humble opinion) quotes Dostoevsky on the front of a Valentine’s Day card, which someone should have known was a bad idea right from the start.  Russian novels, as a general rule, do not stir the hear to love so much as to drinking uncut vodka and staring bleakly at the snow.  There may well be a market for Valentine’s Day cards along that theme, but this product, alas, is quite sincere in its effort to inspire romance, framing the quote in twining, heart-shaped garlands and even perching a few doves on top of it.  The quote:

Only the heart knows how to find what is precious

- Fyodor Dostoevsky

is really very touching.  You can see why some irresponsible idiot of a copywriter, whose research consisted entirely of Googling “quotes about the heart,” might have thought it would make a good card despite the ominous source (Pro Tip:  He didn’t write ANY happy novels).  But honestly, just putting the whole phrase in quotes and Googling that would have been enough to reveal that the quote isn’t even a complete idea as Dostoevsky wrote it, but rather a dependent clause in a rather grim reflection:

Indeed, precious memories may remain even of a bad home, if only the heart knows how to find what is precious.

The context is not overall that horrifying (mostly a reflection on childhood); it is the total irrelevance to anything romance-related that irks.  This is a fraction of a quote talking about something quite different from hearts and doves.  It has no bearing.  It would be like putting “A great movie to take the family to — Roger Ebert” on your movie poster, if what Ebert had actually said was “If you hate your relatives and want to see them suffer, this is a great movie to take the family to” — and he’d been talking about another movie. 

So we have our oddly-twisted Dostoevsky.  Fine and well.  I blame it entirely on the internet, which has thousands and thousands of pages listing “famous quotes about…” that any card-printer on a deadline can turn to.  And if a Valentine’s Day card is a little silly, who’s really to mind?  At the very worst it’s a good laugh for the recipient-in-the-know.

I feel less sanguine about our sympathy card (or bereavement, if you prefer) that borrows from Finnegans Wake – the novel by Joyce, not the quaint little Irish ballad about a corpse asking for a drink of whiskey.  As the card says,

They lived and laughed and loved and left.

- James Joyce

I am not entirely comfortable with this.  We are theoretically offering this to people, in good faith, as a soothing offering they might make to a friend or family in distress.  It feels unfair to have picked (and edited — note the variant spellings in the original text) a somewhat appropriate-sounding phrase out of a muck which we simply do not understand, to whit:

Oye am thonthorstrok, thing mud.
(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios
of signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since
We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told
of all. Many. Miscegenations on miscegenations. Tieckle. They
lived und laughed ant loved end left. Forsin. Thy thingdome is
given to the Meades and Porsons. The meandertale, aloss and
again, of our old Heidenburgh in the days when Head-in-Clouds
walked the earth. In the ignorance that implies impression that
knits knowledge that finds the nameform that whets the wits that
convey contacts that sweeten sensation that drives desire that
adheres to attachment that dogs death that bitches birth that
entails the ensuance of existentiality.

I’ve mentioned before that literary critics still have no real consensus as regards what the hell Finnegans Wake is about (though many of them seem to view this as a merit, where I find it wholly to the work’s detriment).  So while the quotation does indeed come from a passage about a funeral (we think), I find its use as a gesture of condolence suspect at best.  Think of the hard feelings that might be caused if some well-intentioned relative were to give this to a professor of twentieth century Irish literature whose interpretation of the passage was less than favorable!  It happens more often than you might think.

There is a simple lesson here, my darlings, and that lesson is FUCKING GOOGLE IT.  However well you think you know your source, fucking Google it.

Just…fucking…Google it.

Because if you don’t, the person who gets your horrible greeting card just might.  And then where will you be, hm?

Placeholder: Come Back This Afternoon!

They tell you “don’t quit your day job,” but sometimes the day job switches shifts and your blog-writing time gets eaten.  This will be a real post (and a good one, so be sure to come back) some time Friday afternoon/evening.  If you haven’t yet, think about getting Google Reader or some similar feed program to just deposit your daily (well, thrice-weekly) dose of me direct to your inbox!  It’s like mainlining straight Geoffrey.

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