Amanda Lewis has written a hagiography of the novelist Haruki Murakami, and apparently believes he deserves the Nobel prize. Let’s overlook that the prize is historically a badge of ephemerality, of middle-brow worthiness, of mediocrity.

Lewis believes Haruki Murakami became a more important writer when he got a message to convey. She helpfully summarises his message: individuals are more important than groups, individual perception is more important than historical truth or fact, violence is caused by depersonalisation of individuals. Well, that’s handy. Now we have the message, we don’t need to read the books.

One point of Haruki Murakami’s that Lewis emphasises near the end of her essay is that fact is near-worthless next to hearsay. It is somehow more “true”. Well, of course we are familiar with the idea that a poetic truth has more value, or is more profound than a mundane fact of reality. But it’s not necessarily true. Things that we call profound SEEM important; their actual importance is another thing.

For example, in Murakami’s “After the quake” he says (says Lewis) that the only person emotionally affected by news of a distant earthquake is a four-year-old girl, who has “hysterical fits” after watching news reports, because she has not yet learned the apathy of adults. Wow, what a deep truth about the innocence of childhood and moral degradation of adulthood. Except that a girl who had such fits would be extremely unusual, as four-year-olds feel very little empathy except for people who are close to them. The author’s great “truth” is a cheap poetic device conceived by someone who doesn’t know much about how people’s minds really work. The fact that he is “socially conscious” does not vindicate him. His “truth” is vacuous and inane.

At the end of the essay, Lewis relates some anecdotes about encountering the “Japanese mind”, but is unable to relate this to Haruki Murakami’s thesis in the obvious way: he has developed concern for the value of overlooked individual experience, contrasted with his previous self-professed contempt for the “masses”. But Lewis’s anecdotes show that most people don’t want to be individuals as much as they want to be like everyone else.

Instead of delivering a message, Murakami should be asking questions: What is the value of the individuality of a person who despises this quality in themselves? Of what value is that person, compared with a person who does not think their opinions and beliefs have universal qualities? And is “individuals have value” enough of a take-home message to entitle the novelist to a prize?
 

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I’ve read this complaint in a few places; I’m not sure if it’s the opinion of several different people or just one nut who gets around a lot. Basically, some people get very self-righteous about novels, movies, etc. that disobey the vampire “rules”: vampires should not go out in daylight! Vampires should be allergic to garlic! Vampires should not sparkle!!!!!!!!!!ONE

The first argument against this attitude is that we are not talking about the laws of physics here, but about fictional, magical beings. It doesn’t make a vampire less believable to say they can walk in daylight than it does to say they live on human blood. All that is required is for the story to be internally consistent.

The second problem is the supposition that artists should subordinate their imagination to the rule of an external judge. That’s a sure way to kill creativity, especially if the imposed standards are essentially arbitrary.

The fact is that most conventions of vampire fiction were invented by writers over the last couple of centuries (as opposed to coming from folklore), and many are silly or at least outdated: Fear of crucifixes makes little sense in our irreligious age. And are you going to demand that vampires not be able to cross running water? In that case, that’ll pretty much put an end to the genre, thanks to modern plumbing and drainage. And then there is the lore that vampires have numeromania and if you throw a handful of wheat the vamp must stop to count the grains – a story that consistently enforced that rule would be a comedy, not a horror.

The best thing is to judge a work by its success or failure in dramatic terms, not by its adherence to formulaic rules. So I have no problem with any variation on the vampire myths. Sparkly vamps aren’t personally my thing, but whatever floats your boat is fine by me.

 

Bound to be controversial 😀

En dash versus em dash

The en dash is wider than the hyphen but not as wide as the em dash. An em width is defined as the point size of the currently used font, since the M character is not always the width of the point size. In running text, various dash conventions are employed: an em dash—like so—or a spaced em dash — like so — or a spaced en dash – like so – can be seen in contemporary publications.

Various style guides and national varieties of languages prescribe different guidance on dashes. Dashes have been cited as being treated differently in the US and the UK, with the former preferring the use of an em-dash with no additional spacing, and the latter preferring a spaced en-dash. As an example of the US style, The Chicago Manual of Style still recommends unspaced em dashes. Style guides outside of the US tend to diverge from this guidance. For example, the Canadian The Elements of Typographic Style recommends the spaced en dash – like so – and argues that the length and visual magnitude of an em dash “belongs to the padded and corseted aesthetic of Victorian typography.” In the United Kingdom, the spaced en dash is the house style for certain major publishers, including the Penguin Group, the Cambridge University Press, and Routledge. But this convention is not universal. The Oxford Guide to Style (2002, section 5.10.10) acknowledges that the spaced en dash is used by “other British publishers”, but states that the Oxford University Press—like “most US publishers”—uses the unspaced em dash.

The en dash—always with spaces in running text—and the spaced em dash both have a certain technical advantage over the un-spaced em dash. …

 

As Australia tends to British rather than US customs – and there is a monopoly that essentially prohibits retailers from importing US books – I recall seeing the m-dash on the printed page only once in my life. It looked very strange to me. I still don’t like it – rather than separating words, it seems to draw them together like an extended hyphen. It also seems visually less “airy” than the UK format, somehow more oppressive on the eye.

The m-dash is rarely seen on the internet, except on websites of certain highbrow US magazines, used in an effort to duplicate the look of the printed version. The n-dash might appear then to have won – except that it is very often (almost always?) substituted with the hyphen, which is easier to type. Deceptively, WordPress is smart enough to understand my usage and correct it as required.
 

Revisited two outliers from the Alien universe:

Alien Resurrection DVD cover
ALIEN RESURRECTION

It’s interesting to think about why the later films are less successful than the first two. The first two are thematically very basic, 1. Old Dark House, 2. War movie. Any moral ambivalence lies in the human shenanigans.

The later two films tried to go deeper, in a way Hollywood isn’t set up to bring off. 3 is about acceptance of death (symbolised by the Alien), with the planet location being purgatory/hell. I basically like it, and it’s on my list of films to re-edit.

4 – they never quite figured it out. The overall plot motivation seems to be “We want another Alien movie.” There are ideas about the merging and crossing over of alien and human identities, but these are dropped into the plot sporadically, in amongst the action set-pieces and humorous interludes. The humour generally undermines the tone of the movie, and seems to be the film-maker winking at us, rather than something emerging naturally from the characters (as in the previous films). Weaver plays the human/alien hybrid character with a lot of smirking and artificial gestures, and is not particularly believable. Also, one thing that really bugs me, and always has, is Ripley providing a mercy killing – with a flame thrower! Surely a bullet to the head would have been kinder?

Thinking on the deceptive simplicity of the first two Alien films, I dug out my copy of

Alien vs. Predator DVD cover
ALIEN VS. PREDATOR

In terms of achieving its aims, this is a much more successful film than Resurrection. I just wish there had been more grandiosity and sense of plot direction in the later part of the pyramid section. In comparison with the earlier film, we could say this one is a tasty take-out burger, while Resurrection is a high-grade steak that is half raw, half burned to a crisp.

Next up, another viewing of Pitch Black, which David Twohy developed from his proposal for an Alien sequel set on the creature’s homeworld.

 

I posted this in a forum, and thought I’d put it here as well….

As someone currently attempting to complete my first novel (after numerous previous attempts), I think I’m more aware than most of the mechanics involved. Yes, I said mechanics. Characters don’t always spring into existence fully formed, especially if you are dealing with a lot of them. This is where method and technique matter just as much as inspiration.

The first thing to remember is character=story. Plugging characters into a story that has no personal meaning for them usually makes for an unsatisfactory story. Ideally, the main character’s personality will relate directly to the themes of the story and goals of the plot.

Second is character depth. The more detail a characterisation has, the more real they seem. Think about their little likes and dislikes, their happy and sad memories, their individual ways of dealing with the world. Don’t be afraid to make heroes terribly flawed – but remember to give them some underlying kindness and desire for love, or else they won’t be sympathetic.

Third is character detail. Although some scorn them, character charts can be invaluable, not only for keeping a record of your main character’s, um, characteristics, but also for ensuring your secondary characters aren’t just cardboard cutouts. Here’s one I prepared earlier:

Summary: (Age: , Sex: )
Appearance:
Personality:
Likes:
Dislikes:
Greatest desire:
Surprising fact:
Traumatic moment:
As a child:

When you fill one of these out, you’ll often notice characteristics bounce off each other and produce more character information (which can in turn help develop the plot).

If you relate a character’s personality to the plot, a lot of character detail should emerge automatically through the narrative and action, but keep an eye out for important characteristics that don’t come out that way. In this case, you should (generally) show (not tell) this characteristic. E.g. if you decide that your character has a short fuse, it’s necessary to show this play out, which requires planning: what is going to anger the character? How exactly will they react? Ideally you’ll make this scene a part of the plot, or at least part of an ongoing process of character development. The same thing applies to character relationships. If, for example, you want two characters to fall in love, you’ll need scenes that specifically show (or imply) the characters transitioning from not-love to in-love – things like finding each other attractive, realising they have the same attitudes, the same life-goals, finding that they miss each other.

I hope someone finds this useful!

These are just some brief comments after having finished watching the fifth season of Supernatural on DVD.

After the fine season 4 (possibly due to good stories held back from season 3 due to the writers’ strike?), this was definitely a disappointment. Season 5 was supposed to be about the Apocalypse, but the season structure gave no great feeling of this taking place, with many episodes taking on trivial sidestories, and even allowing that these can be done well, the writing was frequently mediocre.

The producers also allowed budget constraints to trivialise their supposedly world-shaking plot, with apocalyptic figures like the Whore of Babylon and the Four Horsemen appearing sporadically to terrorise rural towns with populations of up to two dozen (!), and then be easily defeated. The quality noticably increases towards the end of the season, first with a humourous and dramatic episode about the pagan gods being miffed at the presumption of the Christian Apocalypse, and then with a defined quest to obtain the four magic rings of the Horsemen. But the pagan story was completed in one episode, and there were only a couple of episodes for the ring quest before the final episode.

In the grand finale, they again trivialised the events, with the confrontation between Archangel Michael and Lucifer amounting to nothing more than a scuffle in a field.

There was also the problem of the heroes following the advice and direction of the demon Crowley, when the previous season had emphatically made the point that allying with a demon is a no-win move. This precedent was mentioned once, in the second last episode, and I think they were just hoping no-one would notice the inconsistency.

Apart from the major structural problems, it was also disappointing to see some fine performers and interesting characters given only cursory screen time – in particular the Four Horsemen (perhaps excepting War). Max Headroom fans would have been gladdened to see Matt Frewer appear as a wonderfully disgusting Pestilence, but as I said, the character is treated as a plot device and quickly dismissed from the story.

What they should have done:

After the first few episodes resolving Sam and Dean’s relationship issues (for the most part), the finding and using of the Colt should have been done in a couple of episodes, rather than spread over half the season. At the same time, we should have been made aware that the Apocalypse was definitely happening – lots of stock footage of floods, famines, wars, other natural disasters. Our heroes should have observed that these events were widespread and definitely of supernatural origin. This should have been a constant element through the series.

The Four Horsemen and the Whore of Babylon should have been named sooner, and made active, if unseen, players in the Apocalypse. The heroes could have observed the Horsemen and the Whore’s activities forming a predictable pattern as they created disasters across the globe, this providing sense of scale without expenditure, and giving the heroes a better reason to encounter their enemies than sheer good luck. (It would also have helped to do this with the angel armies too, rather than have them “sit on their hands”.)

The quest for the rings should have started much sooner, at least from the beginning of the last third of the season, and getting the ring from each horseman should have been a mini-arc of 2 to 5 episodes. The above method of predicting the movements of the Horsemen would be used to justify the small scale of the encounters on the basis of minimum collateral damage.

The pagan gods’ opposition to the Christian Apocalypse could also have profitably been spread across the season, providing contrast and humour. Also, after Sam was possessed by Lucifer, there should have been at least 1 to 2 episodes in which Dean is uncertain how strong the possession is, and what effect Sam might have on Lucifer’s actions, as well as trying to figure out the site of the showdown.

Finale, the showdown: it should have been in a more spectacular location. Michael and Lucifer should have fought in some exciting manner (it wouldn’t cost that much to have them blast some energy beams at each other, toss a car or two, or even fly around a bit). They and Dean should at least have moved around a little. The conclusion of the fight, with Lucifer and Michael falling into the hole, should have been more spectacular, with exciting camera angles, flashing lights, crazy sound effects, and screaming. And Cas healing Dean afterwards should have been a bit less easy.
 

As a follow-up to my piece “Bad advice for stupid writers“, here is “Learn the F**king Rules!“, in which an editor laments the degraded state of her profession. This is something I’ve been worrying about, too – my spelling, grammar and word sense are pretty good, and I have a feeling that the efforts of one of the new generation of editors will have only a negative effect. Is this a good enough reason to turn to self-publishing?

And any editor who uses the phrase “between her and I” (without ironic intent) should be sacked immediately!