Pet Peeves: Look How Sexy Everyone Is!

I get sick of reading physical descriptions of characters again and again. Authors should describe them once when they are introduced, and trust that readers can remember that description for the rest of the book. I don’t need to be constantly reminded of the color of a character’s eyes. (And while we’re talking about eye color, am I the only one who notices how vastly overrepresented gray and green and even violet eyes are in fiction?) I get particularly peeved when the point of the repeated descriptions is to emphasize the physical attractiveness of the characters.

What kinds of passages am I talking about, specifically? Twilight was a big offender. Stephenie Meyer is incapable of mentioning Edward Cullen without going on about his “velvet voice” or his “messy copper hair,” whatever those descriptions even mean. It seemed like every time the character was mentioned, at least one of his physical traits had to be described, as if readers could possibly forget how sexy he is when sexiness is his most important characteristic. Now, Twilight is a pretty blatant and obvious example, but I get really picky about this stuff. I’m even annoyed by a few superfluous adjectives inserted into a scene of sex or kissing. Not just, “She stroked his bicep” (which is bad enough, right?), but “she stroked his strong, firm bicep.” Those adjectives are only there to emphasize the character’s hotness. All the information and emotion you need to understand the scene was already there before those two words got added in. Attention to language means that every unnecessary word is cut out. This overabundance of sexy adjectives usually just feels like wordiness, or sloppy editing.

Some recent books that bothered me with hotness reminders were the Halo series, the Morganville Vampires series, the Blue Bloods series, the Fallen series–and these are only the major offenders that jump out at me in memory. In Fallen the constant descriptions of Daniel’s hotness only served to make his girlfriend Luce seem desperate and unhealthy. In Blue Bloods, the emphasis on characters’ appearances was just a part of a larger problem with materialism and class snobbery. In the Morganville Vampires series, the purpose seemed to be providing a fantasy for readers, painting appealing mental pictures. The biggest problem about that is that this canned human scenery distracts from the more intriguing plot. Halo and Hades were a weird case because they were told from the point of view of an angel, and she constantly harped on the attractiveness not only of her human boyfriend, but of her fellow angels, who she treated as brother and sister, as well as her female human friends. It was like the author was insisting that when this book is made into a movie (God forbid!) all the actors absolutely must be super hot (as if there were any other kinds of actors anyway). All of these books are considered YA.

The only purpose I can see for these recurring descriptions is that it’s fanservice. The authors seem to be assuming that readers want to be sexually titillated. It’s no different from when Alexander Skarsgard and Joe Manganiello take off their shirts in True Blood. Sure, it’s fun to look at, but is it always necessary for the story? No. In this example, and in much of the fiction I’m discussing, the point of view is female, so men are objectified. But how pissed off would I be if it were ladies in skimpy bikinis held up to be ogled instead of men with ripped abs? Very. So really, there’s no difference. Fanservice is fanservice, whether it’s directed toward a male or female audience.

The problem with fanservice is that it makes a bad assumption about what the audience wants. It assumes that the reason we read or watch shows is to be turned on by the characters. It treats the characters like scenery to be gawked at. It objectifies. That’s reason enough not to like it.

When you think about fanservice, you think about gratuitous sexualized images. So it’s probably kind of weird to think about fanservice in a nonvisual media like a novel. But novels are always painting scenes and drawing pictures in the minds of readers. Novels can be very visual indeed; the only difference between a novel and a painting is that in a novel the reader imagines the picture based on a writer’s cues, instead of just looking at something a painter imagined. What’s more, every word in a novel represents a choice to emphasize or deemphasize something about a character or scene. Adding unnecessary physical description words emphasizes a character’s body and sexuality. Those extra words have the same effect as supersizing Catwoman’s boobs or posing her provocatively, just in a verbal medium instead of a visual one.

Now, I know, these scenes are usually told from the point of view of a character who’s falling in love/lust, and so it’s kind of natural they’re preoccupied with the body that’s turning them on so much. But the bodies are not the most interesting thing about a sex scene for an experienced, discerning reader. (In my imagination, all attractive bodies look pretty much the same anyway, but maybe my imagination is bland or underdeveloped in this area.) What’s interesting in a sex scene are the ways emotion is expressed, power dynamics shift, and the relationship grows or is revealed. Even in erotica, this deeper information is more stimulating than generic descriptions of bodies. Diana Gabaldon, a favorite author and a true master of great sex scenes, would agree.  Superfluous, generic adjectives about hotness only distract from the scene’s potential to do much more important work.

I read recently that Henry James said there are three questions to ask of a book: 1) What is it doing? 2) Is it doing it well? and 3) Is that thing worth doing? (Don’t take that attribution as gospel: I can’t find the quote again to save my life.) I’ve established that what these novels are doing with these repeated sexualized physical descriptions is fanservice, and some of these novels do it very well. They make the readers fall in love with the characters and get turned on by the scenes and descriptions. But the problem is that this is not really worth doing. Sexualizing and fetishizing characters like this doesn’t reach any worthwhile goals. It doesn’t teach readers anything new about relationships and their possibilities. It doesn’t question gender roles or teach healthy body image. One could even make the argument that fanservice is dangerous and bad for readers, especially young ones. Do you think that all of the twelve-year-old girls who read Twilight and fell in love with Edward and/or Jacob are better off for investing so much emotion into a fantasy? Can any human male live up to a masturbatory fiction of supernatural hotness and pitch-perfect angst? Girls joke about how Edward has spoiled them for all guys, but there is an element of truth to it, and that’s sad.

How can writers avoid fanservice and overemphasizing characters’ physical attractiveness? First of all, they can have realistic characters: people in the real world are not always hot. Second, instead of focusing on bodies, they can zero in on emotions and relationships, because these are not always solely determined by physical attraction. Third, they can write a story substantial enough to hold an audience’s interest without resorting to fanservice. Fourth, they can discuss and even emphasize characters’ physical flaws. Perhaps that person’s lover finds his scars, gray hairs, acne, or spare tire endearing. Fifth, they can edit ruthlessly, questioning every descriptive phrase and weighing its worth to the narrative. These steps are totally doable for any narrative, even erotica, and even YA.

Pet Peeves

So I’ve been writing these book reviews for seven months now and I think it’s time to reflect and look for patterns. One of my goals in blogging was to articulate an aesthetic, to figure out what I like and don’t like and why. I can’t achieve that goal just by writing a bunch of reviews: I have to go back and look at what I’ve written and find issues that come up again and again.

So this week I’ve written a set of four posts on a few pet peeves I’ve picked up in the past year or two of reading. These are things that annoy me consistently, so I took some time to think about why. I hope in linking back to previous reviews and pointing out what they have in common I can better understand and put into words why these things are so bothersome. Because in writing these posts I realized that these aren’t just mindless knee-jerk reactions, but they’re based on actual values and principles. When I don’t like something, I usually have a good reason.

Serena

Serena by Ron Rash

Serena is a Greek tragedy set in the logging country of the Smoky Mountains in the Depression. Serena is the new wife of the logging camp co-owner Pemberton. Upon their arrival back in North Carolina, they’re met by Rachel, who is carrying Pemberton’s child. After Pemberton kills Rachel’s father in a fight/duel, he and Serena refuse to help or acknowledge her and her child. The couple tightens their grasp on the logging camp, with the help of a one-handed murderer named Galloway who does their dirty work. Pemberton’s business partners die in “accidents” and the law is in his pocket. Their cold calculation in planning these murders was really chilling, reminding me of Macbeth. When Serena miscarries her own baby and is unable to bear another, her jealousy of Rachel and her child leads her to target them, causing discord with her husband. Several regular workmen at the camp regularly weigh in on the Pembertons’ fearsome activities, providing the perspective of a Greek chorus. The lush natural descriptions and regional dialects add beauty and flavor to the tale of this ambitious couple. The novel was an enjoyable read, especially for anyone who likes intense, tragic stories and striking settings.

Serena is being made into a movie with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, due out in 2014. I thoroughly approve of this casting and am looking forward to the film!

Flow

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

“Flow” is a state of mind in which you’re totally absorbed in what you’re doing and time just flashes by. Flow is a layman’s psychology book examining this state of mind, how to achieve it, and what its benefits are.

Csikszentmihalyi (whose name makes me grateful I don’t have to give a speech about this research!) goes into great detail about the characteristics of flow and what enables or prevents it. To achieve flow, you need clear goals, feedback, adequate skills, a challenge, and concentration. You have to be in this golden zone between anxiety and boredom. I was not surprised to see that the activity that people cited the most often as bringing them to the state of flow is reading.

Once the idea of flow is thoroughly explained, it’s clear that there are many practical applications. The most obvious to me, of course, is education. If students and teachers are in flow even half the day, it’s a great day. Finding that sweet spot where everyone is challenged, getting feedback, and focusing on the problem at hand, and nobody is worried or bored, is hard to do, but so gratifying when it happens.

Csikszentmihalyi emphasizes the difference between enjoyment–which can be found in the absorption of the flow state–and mere pleasure. Pleasure is just having fun, which may include very passive activities like riding a roller coaster. Enjoyment, for Csikszentmihalyi, implies a more active engagement. Through engaging in enjoyable activities that allow you to achieve flow, you can become a richer, more complex person with more fully developed mind and abilities. Finally I have a vocabulary to explain why reading is superior to watching reality TV!

I feel like I need to read this book again to try to get even more out of it. The conclusion was particularly resonant for me. It discussed storytelling, and how telling yourself a certain kind of story about your life can give a positive meaning to it. There were examples of people who had horrible traumas, but told themselves a certain story to make sense of it, and thus were able to use the trauma to make their lives richer. That underlying message is close to the kind of positive-thinking mumbo-jumbo that annoys me, but the focus on psychology and scientific evidence kept it anchored in reality. Csikszentmihalyi noted that all of the people in his research who were able to make this kind of positive spin on trauma had memories of adults telling or reading them stories as children, and many of those who were not able to move beyond trauma had no such memories. Just one more reason kids need books: to shore them up and help them weather future storms. The way we narrativize our lives is of great interest to me. I’ve always thought that the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’ve done are crucial, but it’s nice to know that science agrees.

Freedom

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

When this book first came out there was a stink about how much coverage it got. Jennifer Weiner, successful “chick lit” author, counted how many men and women get written up in the NYT book reviews and that statistics were really sad. Franzen and his hype got attached to this story with this quote: “Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the pain in others. Franzenfreude is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen.” I agree with Weiner’s industry-level critique wholeheartedly, but that doesn’t keep me from liking Franzen’s book.

As far as themes and topics go, Weiner could have picked a target with more traditionally masculine concerns. Freedom is a domestic story, painting a detailed picture of a family over the course of a lifetime, and dealing with love, children, and marriage. It’s probably true that when an acclaimed male writer writes about these topics they are taken more seriously than when a female writer does, but it’s also important to note that I didn’t find anything particularly anti-feminist about the story itself. In fact, its discussion of a main character’s rape and the victim-blaming, culprit-protecting ways her parents dealt with the issue show how serious this miscarriage of justice can be, and the way it can reverberate throughout a lifetime. Franzen and the reader are completely on the victim’s side, indignant at the other characters’ treatment of her. That’s important.

The book is also concerned with politics. Two political diatribes serve as centerpieces. Environmental concerns are foregrounded, along with corruption. Though the characters are very political, the book never felt too preachy because the characters’ political beliefs are so idiosyncratic and offbeat, and because they are often unsuccessful in living their beliefs out, or their intellectually-motivated positions do not fit their emotions and deep desires, which leads them to rationalize pretty transparently. I didn’t get the sense that Franzen himself stood wholeheartedly behind the stance of any of the characters. This attention to public politics might be the most traditionally “masculine” aspect of the book. Perhaps this theme is one reason why critics reacted to the book the way that they did and gave it importance that they might not have given to a more completely domestic (“feminine”) novel.

The book had a stylistic innovation: a five-part structure using different forms and points of view. The first and last sections are a far-removed almost-omniscient point of view, telling the story of a neighborhood and the relationships between and among the neighbors. The second and fourth sections are an “auobiography” of one of the characters, written in third person. The middle section tells of events in three of the main characters lives from a close limited third person point of view. Events are spread over at least 10 years, maybe as many as 40 if you count flashbacks. This structure allowed Franzen to examine events from several points of view and uncover their deep roots in family history.

Franzen’s wry tone was enjoyable to me. He seems to like to show people at their worst, to dig into the ugliness inside of every character and lay it bare. I think each of the four main characters had a moment like that, if not several. He was merciless. The voices of the characters, the detail in descriptions, and the occasional unexpectedly perfect word all gave pleasure at the level of the sentence.

I was really fascinated by the way the generations mirrored each other subtly, reflecting each other and falling into recurring patterns. It felt both inevitable, like a Shakespearean tragedy, and realistic, because we all notice patterns like this in our own families. Franzen really cut deep and dissected these relationships. There were many long passages of summary analyzing them, and despite not really moving the plot forward much, they were not boring because of the strong sentences and the sharp insight expressed. I notice that I keep using metaphors of digging and cuttting to describe the book and the way it reveals the characters. That feels right to me because it’s such a long book, that puts such a strong magnifying glass on just a few characters; there’s nowhere to go but deeper inside those characters, pulling apart their layers and revealing what’s really going on underneath their pretensions and stated intentions.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

The story begins with Jacob discovering his grandfather dying gruesomely of wounds inflicted by a monster that no one believes is real. After some gaslighting by his family and a psychologist, he follows up on stories his grandfather told him about his childhood in a sort of orphanage on an island off the coast of Wales. Jacob travels to the island and stumbles into the past, learning the truth about the orphanage, his grandfather, and himself. The novel is illustrated with weird black-and-white carnivalesque photographs of children that really add to the mood.

Jacob is a strong narrator, with a believable teenager’s voice, grappling with his identity and his grandfather’s past. The plot is tightly constructed, using a unique conception of time travel to create some good surprises in the climax. I’m having trouble avoiding spoilers in this review because the entire concept was so strange, and only revealed gradually. The mystery and sense of discovery would be gone if a reader already knew what was peculiar about the children and their home, so I feel spoilers are worse than usual in this case. The one weak point of the story is probably the villains, which just seem like generic bogeymen. They have a flimsy framework of motives and backstory, but are underdeveloped, especially in comparison with the other characters.

The novel ended with a sequel obviously in mind: the children leave their home to go off to have more adventures traveling through time in pursuit of the villains. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading this book and I’ll be looking forward to the next installment!

Ten Poems to Change Your Life

Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden

Roger Housden chose 10 poems and wrote interpretations/meditations about how the message of those poems could change someone’s life, or their perspective. I like this idea and I like the poems he chose, especially the Whitman. The strength of the book is its explication of the poems, applying them to life and demonstrating how their ideas are life-affirming and empowering. The weakness is in over-repetition of the poems’ quality and obfuscating mystical language.

I often don’t understand mystical language. It makes me feel inadequate as a reader, first of all, but the sense of failure and inadequacy isn’t limited to that. It makes me feel like I have some sort of spiritual deficiency when I can’t quite grasp what is meant by this esoteric, unconventionally capitalized lingo. There’s a proverb that’s not in this book, but which encapsulates my frustration with mystical language: “Let go and let God.” Let go of what? Where exactly is the muscle I need to release in order to let go of this mysterious thing? And what is it I’m supposed to allow God to do? If I step aside to let God do something, where do I step to? The non-specific nature of the language is supposed to make it applicable to any situation, but it just leads me to confusion.

Sometimes this language makes me feel discontented with my life, with my relationships, with my spiritual practice. It makes me think I must be living a surface-level life, if I don’t recognize myself in this writing. That’s a scary thought: I never wanted to live that kind of life and be that kind of person. It makes me worry that I have “settled”–something I spent most of my teens desperate to avoid, mostly because it felt so inevitable.

Some of this talk seems perfectionistic, but instead of focusing on perfect possessions and accomplishments, it’s about having perfect feelings and perfect connections with others, perfect enlightenment, perfect oneness-with-the-universe, and even perfect messiness. I learned from APW and from therapy that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and of happiness. Outsmarting and yelling down my tendency to pursue perfection at all costs is probably the only reason I’m as happy as I am today. Focusing that perfectionism on such intimate matters as my deepest feelings toward myself and my closest friends is a really bad idea.

It frustrates me to hear people talk about “Pauline” conversions that seem to come from outside stimuli of some kind, sudden, unexplicable visions and dreams that come only to those who are properly open to them, ie. everyone but me. Housden describes at least two such moments in this book. These stories make me feel like all you can do is wait around for that perfect moment, and there’s nothing you can do to make it happen, no other way to cause profound inner change in yourself. This makes me feel helpless.

And the thing is, that I don’t think Housden and writers like him want to make people feel helpless. They want to empower and awaken. Maybe they need to dumb themselves down a lot if they are to do that. Some of the poetry of their writing might be lost in breaking it all down for us spiritually-disabled. But, after all, aren’t we the ones who need it the most?

I don’t know if it’s fair to call this a review. I’m generalizing beyond this book to fit it into a pattern of lots of different motivational and spiritual speakers and writers I’ve come into contact with over the years. There are passages in the book that explicitly say things against perfectionism, but I’m reading it in the opposite way because I’m so perverse today. This is more about me and my (hopefully temporary) spiritual malaise than about this book.