Where do you get your ideas?

People often ask writers where we get our ideas.

I suppose some people might know, but I don’t. As Emma Donoghue once said,  it’s like asking how you got a cold.

Sometimes, of course, I hear a story or a snippet from history that makes my arms go all goosepimply and I scribble it down or bookmark the page and stash it away for later.

But this morning, for example, I woke up with a sentence in my mind.

‘You can’t hide out forever.’

By the time I had showered and made the coffee, I had the first few moments of a new story in my head.

I know from bitter experience that if I don’t write it down immediately, it might be gone by lunch-time. If I have to rush off to my day job, go to meetings, return emails, and write things that are not anything to do with stories, then it vanishes.

So I sat over breakfast and typed it all out.

A few months ago, I was asked to write an adventure story for Clandestine Press’s new And Then anthology. So I wrote ‘Boots and the Bushranger’, a ripping yarn about two young women who become outlaws in the wild days of Victoria’s Gold Rush. (You can pre-order the anthology here, right now, for a limited time, and you probably should because it is going to be awesome.)

I fell a bit in love, I admit, with the two characters, with researching the world of the goldfields, and with a whole lot of other story ideas that emerged through the research. I’ve always loved that country around Castlemaine. And I’ve long wanted to try my hand at historical crime fiction.

Image of rocks on Mt Alexander

The spot where I imagined Boots and the Bushranger made their last stand.

So I developed a vague plan – let’s call it a fancy – to write more stories about them, more short crime stories like those of the late nineteenth century, many of which were about feisty and smart young women. Although the stories from that era we know now are more likely to be about a certain middle-aged, eccentric chap, at the time, Sherlock Holmes had fierce rivals such as Hilda Wade and Miss Cayley  (you can read an article I wrote about them and other plucky girls in the Australian Journal of Crime Fiction).

And I like the genre – the sketching of character, the continuing and rich world, the short episodic stories that each tell a tale but also build up our sense of character and place, the odd couple of detective and chronicler – but, being me, I want to subvert it.

So this morning, Boots and her bushranger popped back into my head, unannounced, because after all, you can’t hide out forever.
It might not go anywhere. It might not even end up in the story I eventually write.

But it’s a start.

1858 etching of gold mining

The Goldfields – Old Post Office Hill, 1858

On that whole ‘relatability’ thing

Painting - St Catherine reading

Somehow in recent years, the idea has taken hold that characters – especially protagonists – in novels have to be ‘relatable.’ I blame Stephanie Meyer. She created the character Bella in the Twilight trilogy as a blank canvas onto which her teenage readers could project themselves; an audience surrogate that appealed to an audience of around 120 million.

Thanks for that.
So an entire generation of young women, in particular, has grown up with the idea that girls in novels should be just like them, even when surrounded by brooding vampires.
Many of those readers go on to read books by authors who construct powerful or difficult or troubled or hilarious female characters, and come to realise that a blank canvas is pretty, well, blank. To be fair, some writers have also argued that Bella is actually a feminist role model:
Bella is more or less modelled on the traditional fairy tale hero [not heroine], as her eventual accession to a type of monarchy is characterized not by humiliation, but rather by her gaining qualities that enable selfgovernance.
–  Meghanne Flynn
But whether or not it’s reasonable to blame Twilight (and I was being just a little facetious), I still hear and see so many comments that this book is so relatable or that book is not, and therefore no good. I just can’t relate to anybody in it.
On the other hand, in historical fiction, you will hear and see lots of emphasis on ‘authenticity.’ This somewhat mystical quality transports the reader into an imagined past and provides them with an experience that’s just like being there. Or something.
If you think these two things are possible and desirable, there’s an obvious tension here. On one hand, an ‘authentic’ figure from the distant past is very unlikely to be someone to whom a modern reader will relate – unless of course the reader projects madly onto that character, in which case the veneer of authenticity is smashed.
But do not fear, gentle reader, because I’m here to help. Kind of.
Both ideas – especially when they are framed as rules – bring trouble and strife to the act of reading, and possibly writing.

Reading and relating

What, after all, is relatability? (Apart from not actually being a word.) Is it the idea that people in books will be just like you? How tedious. Who wants to read about themselves over and over?
Of course, sometimes we all want to escape into another world, another life, and it’s easier to do that in partnership with a companionable character – a brain transplant, if you like, that enables you to feel supported and comforted as you accompany your heroine or hero on her or his journey.
But that’s just one type of reading experience. There are many others, involving characters that bring us face-to-face with the unfamiliar, unfathomable, unpleasant, perhaps even the unbearable.
lolita book cover
And what about those amazing and memorable characters who are nothing like us, but who we end up adoring? Severus Snape. Albus Dumbledore. Indeed, if you think about it, the only truly relatable character in the Potterverse is Ron, the everyman. He’s in there to be the human foil of brilliant Hermione and powerful but angry Harry. Ron’s the guy who is nothing special but has his own strengths and many weaknesses, as do we all.
But it’s not the story of Ron, is it? Thank goodness. It’s the story of Harry and Hermione and Dumbledore and Snape. Pretty much.
In each of them, we can find something that we connect with, something human and warm (even in Snape) and flawed and meaningful. They’re also interesting and unknowable and complex, and we can’t be sure what any of those characters will do or say at any moment. They aren’t like us. They all (even Snape) contain elements of who we wish we were: wise or brave or brilliant or ethical or strong or pure or funny. They are braver or brainier or more powerful than we may ever be. Together, they people a world we want to inhabit – with them.
Hermione being brainy
That’s relating.
So relating to – connecting with – characters is a wonderful part of reading (and watching TV and movies), but they don’t have to be just like us. We all have our teenage favourites; someone who showed us who we might be. Mine was Jo March. Millions of people much younger than me got to grow up with Hermione Granger and Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her friends, Josie Alibrandi, or the necromancer Clariel or Sib and Lou in Fiona Wood’s Wildlife or Hazel Grace (The Fault in Our Stars – although there are suggestions that besides Hazel, all John Green’s characters are so relatable they are much the same … as him.)
But that’s not the only possible reading experience, and if in a sense we read to understand the world and the people in it, we also read about things and people we can’t comprehend at first – about five year-old Jack and his Ma in Room or Maud Lilly in Fingersmith or the revolutionaries in A Place of Greater Safety or Takeo the samurai or for that matter Hedda Gabler or Madame Bovary or Prince Andrei.

Feel so real

Which brings us to the question of ‘authenticity.’ There’s no such thing. (Of which more at a later date.) But the idea of authenticity and the idea of relatability in historical fiction really can’t co-exist.
If an author did manage to create a character that approached the world view, voice and life of, say, a fifteenth century princess, she would be so unlike any conception of princess a modern reader brings to the reading that there is no chance the princess would be understood, let alone relatable.
When we write historical fiction, and when we read it, we necessarily bring to the process all of our post-20th century knowledge, our modern vocabulary and syntax, our fundamentally different world view and manners and customs and philosophy and skills and reading history.
It couldn’t be further from the truth, or from the idea of an authentic experience.
It is what it is – just an element of the genre.
Apart from anything else, if we really captured the speech of Anne Boleyn or Richard III or an archer at Agincourt or a pirate of the Caribbean, readers wouldn’t have a clue what they were saying, let alone be able to relate to them.
Instead, we create, try as we might, characters in our own shape and shadow.

Writers are naughty like that

Writers of all genres create characters for all sorts of reasons, not only for readers to relate to. Sometimes, we create characters who lie, or are vain, or pompous, or stupid, or rotten, or weak, or tricksy, or criminal. We create unsympathetic characters or unreliable narrators on purpose. We create anti-heroes as well as heroes. They may not be relatable, but there will (almost always) be something undeniably human about them, so that their very unreliability or unappealing nature shines a light on what it means to be human. It’s not about relating – it’s about exploring.
Seeing the world through the eyes of Hilary Mantel’s interpretation of Thomas Cromwell, or Dr March (rather than Jo) in Geraldine Brooks’ March is fascinating and compelling, but it’s not designed to make the reader feel all cozy. It can be a difficult process to put yourself in their shoes. But if you do, what do you see? You get an insight into the Tudor world – into Henry and Anne and Thomas More – unlike any you’ve ever seen. Or you feel the weakness of a character idealised as a hero by his family, and glimpse the random brutality of the American Civil War.
So what matters here is the author’s intent. If the author hasn’t tried to create a relatable character, then it’s just not relatable or I didn’t like the main character isn’t a meaningful response to the book in your hand. It doesn’t really engage with the text or the characters at all.
It says more about the reader than it says about the book.
The answer? Simply read more and read more widely – read all sorts of things, surprise yourself, and shift outside your expectation of what a protagonist can and should be.
It’s the expectation we bring to reading that matters.
Let’s be willing to be astonished.
More reading

James Dean was here

A million years ago, I worked in the housing sector, managing services for homeless young people and working on policy and advocacy. One thing I learned very quickly was that young people hated being called ‘kids’ or ‘teens’ – we are people, who happen to be young. Anything else was patronising. Nobody used the term ‘youths’ because it’s so ugly, and it’s like a police descriptor: “two youths were apprehended this morning…”  In policy, in talking to government, in working with young people, we always said ‘young people.’

Now, I know things have changed, the word ‘teen’ has become much more widespread with the globalisation of US language usage, and young people around 13 in particular don’t mind being called ‘teenagers’ because they’ve aspired to be just that for several years. Then they aspire to be young adults and then adults. ‘Teens,’ not so much. It feels like a marketing term, and this is especially true in publishing for children and young adults. The age range of teens is much more limited than the age range of young adults, too, and there’s a fair bit of slippage between the concepts.

So now we have all these debates in the industry and even in the mainstream media about teen and young adult (YA) fiction: what it is, who it’s for, what it’s doing (or not doing) to its readers. Is it too dark? Does it help young people come to terms with the world? Should adults be ashamed of reading it? Or should they embrace its possibilities? Are books for children or young adults less worthy as literature, or as recreational reading? Or a glorious new form invented by [insert current best-seller name here]?

I’d like to take two steps back.

First, let’s clarify that a lot of the debate is around realist fiction, usually set in cities – it’s called ‘contemporary’ in the trade, sometimes ‘urban contemporary.’ When pundits ask whether YA is too dark or morbid, that’s usually what they mean. They don’t really mean the rest of the world of YA, which is actually a lot of books – fantasy, romance, adventures of different sorts, and even historical fiction. They mean realist books with violence or drugs or sex or swearing – maybe death – or all of the above.

It’s not that you don’t get those things in genre fiction, because of course you do, just that in urban contemporary they are often problematised, either by the author (it’s a book about a teen being homeless or dealing with grief or racism or coming out or  self-esteem), or by the commentary on the book. It is written, in one sense, in acknowledgement of issues faced by young people, to tell their stories, which are our stories too, and some of these books are the most beautifully written, engaging, and moving stories you could ever read.

So that’s what many people think YA is, that’s what many people in libraries and the industry think YA is, and indeed that’s what many readers love to read.

(We go through phases when it’s all about a specific genre because some book or film is on the wider public radar, for example dystopian or paranormal fiction, but the issues that inflame debate are often dealt with in quite a realist manner, albeit set in a built world, as in Hunger Games.)

I think it’s also clear that, for a young person, getting your hands on the right book at the right time can change your life. If you believe you are the only queer person in the world, or the only person being beaten or abused, or hating school and everyone in it, or feeling like shit, then reading about similar experiences – feeling that in-depth, close connection you can feel with a character in long-form fiction – can sometimes even save your life. We know that. Readers tell us that.

And that’s the other step back I want to take.

That whole James Dean/Montgomery Clift troubled teen thing is partly true – we’ve all lived it – and partly a social and cultural construct of Western society in the twentieth century. YA fiction arose after the development of that trope.

Image of film poster

Those of us who write historical fiction have to deal with this tension all the time, or at least we should. When you’re writing about a time before there was such a thing as ‘teenagers’*, how do you capture the timeless clash of generations, the age-old process of finding your way in the world, without referencing the teenager concept? What do you do when writing out of a specific cultural context, perhaps where the relationship between generations is completely different? How do you enact it within the traditions of fantasy?

Can I suggest that the idea that all YA literature is teen lit, that all books are about that problematised cultural identity, underlies the commentary about the books themselves?

I worry that talking about readers of a certain age range as teens slots them into a category – a constructed social category as much as a market segment – that says to them you are like this, you need to read these books. Maybe that’s why we sometimes see a disconnect between the books that are bought for young people and the books they buy for themselves.

People who happen to be young, like everyone else, want books of all sorts, about all kinds of things, at different times. They ask for books that offer hope. They ask for books that provide context for the task of coming into adulthood, of understanding the way the world works, of explaining the inexplicable or creating the utterly fantastical. Sometimes they just want a good laugh or a bit of a day-dream.

And don’t we all?

But there’s something about the trope of the troubled teen and the language we use around it that, in turn, troubles me. I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, but it feels like the term teen categorises both people and books in ways that may not be entirely helpful. And that’s weird, because everyone I know in the field cares passionately about young people who read – or don’t read – and the stories that are written for them, and would never in a million years want to be part of a process that was unhelpful. If it exists, it has grown organically, culturally, perhaps without us seeing it.

This isn’t about the stories themselves, you understand, but about all the stuff around the stories – the discourse and the marketing and the language.

It’s not so much about all those newspaper articles. I don’t expect someone who hardly reads any YA and is writing a one-off feature to understand the complexity involved. I also know, as a journalist, that often you have to write a story on a topic on which you need to become an “expert” in a week and you only ever skim the surface. That’s all it is and it shouldn’t pretend to be anything else. And that YA is just one of those things on which everyone feels like an expert, because they were once young and read books. Whatever. So I have a new policy of not reading dumb-ass articles.

(It’s like race-walking. I know that sounds odd, but I grew up in a family of race-walkers, have spent more hours by the track than I’ve spent almost anywhere else, and every four years when the Olympic Games roll around, I have to listen to whole lot of people who haven’t seen a race since the last Games and only ever watch the highlights hotly debating whether or not some competitor should be disqualified.)

Mind you, I do get cranky when I read articles that are also based on nothing, because it tells me they have no idea of the technical requirements of writing for certain age groups and haven’t bothered to do any research or read many other authors in the field. (There’s a terrific summary here, with bonus bingo card.)

Famously, Caitlin Moran’s recent statement ** that there are no strong female characters in YA, led to the depressing situation of seeing a whole lot of people whose work I adore hopping into one another on Twitter.

So let’s just acknowledge that there’s a lot of thoughtfulness, as well as a bit of crap, written about YA at present.

What I wonder is if people who think about – worry about – and debate these issues need to reconsider a few concepts. This is a question, not an answer. Other wiser people may already have those answers.

Maybe we do mean teen fiction when we discuss contemporary YA – and maybe we need a better term. What if it limits perceptions of the books? Or does it need to be reclaimed?

What if calling our readers teens doesn’t empower them after all? Is it a term applied to them, or something they claim for themselves?

I don’t know. What do you think? What terms do you use, and how do you define them? Does it matter?

Does that troubled teen trope still influence the way we or others perceive YA fiction now?

Teenage_mafie

* From the Online Etymology Dictionary:
teen (n.) “teen-aged person,” 1818 (but rare before 20c.), from -teen. As an adjective meaning “of or for teen-agers,”  from 1947.
teens (n.) 1670s (plural), “teen-age years of a person,” formed from -teen taken as a separate word. As “decade of years comprising numbers ending in -teen,” from 1889.
teenager (n.) also teen ager, teen-ager; 1922, derived noun from teenage (q.v.). The earlier word for this was teener, attested in American English from 1894, and teen had been used as a noun to mean “teen-aged person” in 1818, though this was not common before 20c.
teenage (adj.) also teen age, teen-age; 1911, from teen + age (n.). Originally in reference to Sunday School classes. Teen-aged (adj.) is from 1922.

** Later: In retrospect, I think she meant working-class young women. While there are quite a few, we could always do with more.

Julie d’Aubigny: the true story

How much of the legend is true? How could such an amazing woman exist – and how is it that she’s not better known?

So many people ask me these questions, and I’ve spent years trying to find the answers.

I’ll write more soon on my research discoveries, and how I incorporated them into the character of Julie and into the book.

But in the meantime, here’s the real life story of Julie d’Aubigny – Mademoiselle de Maupin. Opera singer, swordswoman, star. Goddess.

 

Universally Austen

I was going to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice with a post about how it isn’t really constructed as a romance and yet is so often portrayed as some kind of blueprint for chicklit.

But the inestimable Alison Croggan has not only got there first, but done a much better job of it, too – so go read her article in Overland:

… for all their stereotypical romance structure – girl and boy meet, strike impediments, overcome them, and at last are united in matrimony – I’ve never been able to quite understand why Austen is considered the presiding muse of romance. No-one is more hostile to the idea that ‘love conquers all’ than Miss Austen.

Her books are, from beginning to end, all about money: the economic status of her characters frames and governs every aspect of their lives.

Quite. But why the romance obsession?

It is, needless to say, a fine romance, and clearly very engaging. I’ve posted before about Mr Bloody Darcy and his apparent impact on the readers of every novel with a female protagonist since 1813.

Silly image of Darcy texting

But I’ve been thinking lately more about Elizabeth Bennet and her impact on us. Of course, there are shelves full of PhD theses on the topic, but the most obvious point to make is that Lizzie is also the progenitor of countless fictional heroines – including my own.

That’s not surprising: she was one of the first popular heroines in literature, and remains one of the most finely drawn (like Jane Eyre). But while Emma Woodhouse is articulate but oblivious, Elinor Dashwood keeps her emotions to herself, Fanny Price is too timid to speak out, and Catherine Morland is fabulously naive (“I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible”), it’s Elizabeth –  and to a lesser extent Jane Bennet – who reappear most often in later novels.

Perhaps more importantly, to the reader, she is a reflection of our best selves. Although she too wishes she had said something different, something less cutting or more brilliant, in some circumstances, the Lizzie we adore always has the perfect comeback. No matter how muddy her hem, how embarrassing her mother, how undistinguished her family, how snivelling her admirers, she says the sorts of things we wish we could say. The things we imagine ourselves saying, in the bleak dark hours after being slighted or insulted or jilted.

That’s also why we love Bridget Jones, of course, because she is the brilliantly conceived flipside of Lizzie, always saying the worst possible thing – or utterly tongue-tied – in every situation.

Lizzie is who we wish we were. Jones is who we really are.

And her Darcy loves her anyway.

 

Happily ever after

On a recent school visit, the teachers asked me to talk a bit about book reviews. Good timing, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way the reviewing world has changed with so many peer-to-peer recommendation sites and a gazillion book blogs.
I love book blogs: this started out as one, in a way, many years ago. There are reviewers on blogs who are so perceptive about books, they astonish me; some who write beautifully; others who may do so one day, or who write perfectly good thoughtful pieces; others who write as fans – especially in genre – and unashamedly so.
Good on ’em all, I say.
Sites such as Good Reads, Library Thing and inside a dog* make it possible for all of us to share our thoughts on books we’ve read as, increasingly, do online library catalogues and book stores.
There are dangers, sure, and the occasional scandal, but the more the merrier.
Communities of book lovers, talking about books. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, nothing much, really.
But there is one thing I’ve noticed over and over again in discussions about books on Good Reads and facebook and various blogs: people really hate it when the book doesn’t turn out how they expect. It makes them furious.
They equate this with failure – the plot doesn’t unfold the way they imagined therefore the book sucks. And they will often take it out on the author, either through reviews, or more directly in a chat or forum, in a tone that can make your hair curl right up and slide off your head.
I’ve never been in that position myself but I hate to think what it does to an author.
Let’s take a famous example: the death of the beloved Dumbledore at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The world was shocked. The death of “a major character” had been foreshadowed by JK Rowling prior to the book’s release and it was even in all the media, but Dumbledore’s death led to an outcry. Readers believed he wasn’t really dead, and would reappear like Gandalf (of course he does, but he’s still dead). As was usual in the Potterverse, complex theories were developed to explain it, dead or alive, and the discussion continues to this day.
But Rowling as the author was always quite clear, and why wouldn’t she be? Apart from the fact that it’s her book world and she can do whatever she likes, there were myriad plot twists wrapped around the death and, most critical, Harry’s character development and quest (and Hermione’s too)  required it.
That’s not how many fans saw it: they saw it as a betrayal, as a failure of the logic they had established for themselves, as a mistake.
They have invested so much in the story – what a wonderful thing! But what else is going on there? We all love to have a theory about what will happen next. Part of the fun of online discussion of books, film and TV is that very element.
I reckon part of it, too, is the expectation that there will be happy endings. That there will be romance, and everyone will live happily ever after.
Sometimes that does happen. In life, and in art. But other things happen too – people disconnect from one another accidentally, or never connect; they argue about stupid things; they annoy you; they get scared when they should be brave; they falter and bicker and fall out of love and die. 
I remember well the shriek that went around the cinema when I was a kid watching Doctor Zhivago at the Anglesea Luxury Cinema and Lara DIDN’T TURN AROUND AND OMAR SHARIF WAS RUNNING AND THEN HE CLUTCHED HIS CHEST AND OH MY GOD AND SHE NEVER KNEW!
I nearly spat my Marella Jube into the hair of the person in front.

So if you feel betrayed by an author or a film-maker when that happens in your favourite book or series, don’t take it out on them or the work they’ve created.
What it means is that they have created a world so engaging that we, as readers, are lost in it. We are annoyed because the author wants us to be annoyed, upset because that person we loved is gone and we just don’t know what will happen next.
And that’s a good thing. Right?



*Disclosure: I work with inside a dog as part of my day job, but these comments are my own.

Unfamiliar familiar worlds

Don’t you love that feeling of reading a book set in a world that is eerily familiar – but not quite? A world, perhaps, that seems like ours but where everything is unexpected, different – foreign?

In expert hands, it can be one of reading’s great pleasures.

Here are two cases in point, in recent YA literature.

This is Shyness, Leanne Hall
Set in Melbourne (kind of), along Smith Street (maybe). Or not.

This is Shyness is the story of one night in a suburb, Shyness, where night is all there is. The sun doesn’t rise, wild kids roam and ravage, creepy men in black suits cruise the streets, and Wildgirl meets a dark, handsome howling boy just at a moment when they both need to escape.

It’s a spooky place that feels like a world we know, gone badly wrong. It’s not even dystopian fiction, really – just a beautifully imagined parallel universe of inner city bars, government flats, gangs and music and darkness.

Looking forward to the sequel, Queen of the Night, due early next year.

The Leviathan trilogy, Scott Westerfeld
Goliath (just out last month) is the satisfying final instalment of Westerfeld’s re-imagining of World War I into a steampunk world of Clankers versus Darwinians, of enormous – living – flying machines and sea creatures pitted against mechanical clanking monsters spitting bullets, of a girl dressed as a boy and a prince dressed as a commoner, of a world caught up in war and espionage and intrigue.

For younger readers, it’s a non-stop action adventure of the very best kind: intelligent and fascinating.

Voices

I’ve been hearing a lot of voices lately, but that was the plan. Part of my PhD project is about the quest (or lack thereof) for authenticity in voices in historical fiction, and now I can’t read anything without seeing through that lens. It’s a bit like when you’re going to get a new car or a new dog, and suddenly the world is filled with that model or that breed. Except this will last for years. And is, thankfully, rather more interesting than ten year-old station wagons.

So here are some initial thoughts on a few voices I’ve heard recently.

Bethia Mayfield is the narrator of Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing. Brooks can enable her readers to hear a voice from the past with sublime felicity: her March is a tricky and unsympathetic narrator whose weakness and selfishness are difficult to bear but a joy to read. Bethia, on the other hand, is the opposite. the character is engaging, but her voice – I am very sorry to say – is uneven. I heard Brooks speak about the book recently, and she mentioned that she makes great use of the Oxford Historical Thesaurus. It shows*. The reader is happily meandering around the island with Bethia when we all trip over a word, and then another, which seem to be perfectly accurate in a historical sense but somehow out of time – out of tune – with all of Bethia’s/Brooks’ other words.

It’s a very very tricky business, maintaining a voice that is palatable to the modern ear but somehow historically accurate – what Sarah Waters describes as “right enough – for us”. Brooks almost always gets it right. Just not this time. Not quite.

In Room, Emma Donoghue’s narrator is five year-old Jack, who lives in a small room with his Ma and that’s the only world he knows. Hard to imagine a more difficult task for a writer – a credible five year-old voice, but also one whose world is so confined he simply doesn’t realise, at the start of the book, that the things he sees on the television are real – and yet convey the entire action of a book, including some genuinely thrilling action – in that voice and world view.

But Donoghue manages it, beautifully. There may be the odd word that seems out of place, one or two concepts that Jack couldn’t possibly know but it doesn’t matter; it doesn’t throw you out of the story. Anyway, as Jack says, “I know all the words”.

Finally, a TV series: Downton Abbey.

I love it. I do. But please: there is no way on earth that upstairs and downstairs ever collided and colluded so often and so intimately. After the Great War – perhaps. As people’s lives were shattered by grief and missing, and as the men and women at the many Fronts discovered they could be friends or enemies across class and that death really didn’t distinguish; then the social – if not economic – barriers in British society began to crumble. Or in a crisis, such as a corpse in your bedroom, yes, one might feel a trusted maid is the only place to turn.

Sybil: can’t touch this

But it really does reek of narrative reshaping history for upstairs characters to confide in the servants, for maids to offer unsolicited personal advice, for there to be such informality and idle chatter in the house of an earl. An earl! Not a minor baronetcy, but one of the great titles in the kingdom. Perhaps I wouldn’t mind the inaccuracy it it managed to be consistent, but it isn’t. Some of the voices and relationships are consistent and some aren’t. I don’t mind the lovely daredevil Sybil being too egalitarian, but other characters on both sides waver in and out.

Yes, I am one of those people who shouts at the television or scoffs in the cinema at blatant rewriting of history. Don’t get me started on Shekhar Kapur’s versions of Elizabeth I, for example.

As if!

And if I huff “As if!” several times in one viewing, we are in trouble.

I’m afraid there have been many “As ifs” during the otherwise winning Downton Abbey, though it won’t stop me watching it.

* [Later: that sounds more brutal than I meant it to. It’s a terrific story.]

And then you get wrinkles in time

“The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. He has thrown himself completely into whatever it is that he is doing. A child playing a game, building a sand castle, painting a picture, is completely in what he is doing. His self-consciousness is gone; his consciousness is wholly focused outside himself.

“When we are self-conscious, we cannot be wholly aware; we must throw ourselves out first. This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity. So, when we wholly concentrate, like a child in play, or an artist at work, then we share in the act of creating. We not only escape time, we also escape our self-conscious selves.
“A writer may be self-conscious about his work before and after but not during the writing. If I am self-conscious during the actual writing of a scene, then it ends up in the round file.”
~ Madeline L’Engle

Mixing metaphors

Reading some nice posts over on the AFTRS blog about genre films and television: 

Karen Pearlman argues that “Genre is Necessarily Metaphoric“, including a claim that:

The purpose of Australian feature film production, I propose, is not to tell our own stories.  The purpose of our feature film industry is to make our myths.

and follows it up with Genre is not a Dirty Word“, which surveys classic genre films and argues:

…when we say Genre is not a dirty word we are not saying “sell out”, we are saying pay attention to audience expectations, create them and fulfill them.  We are saying pay attention to the history and techniques of cinema.  We are saying make stories that are bigger than yourself.  And finally, we are saying: consider the role of myth in storytelling and what stories are for.  

It doesn’t seem to be an argument against realism as such, but rather a vindication of the use of myth and metaphor in film, and especially of genre film – and television. We hear the same discussions about genre writing in print. Attack, dismissal and defence.

I wonder whether genre writing has a much healthier future on TV than in film in spite of all the death knells. It certainly seems rosy at present. Period drama, space, procedurals, westerns, even musicals are thriving.
Never mind all the vampires.