Tuesday, January 31, 2012



So anyway, I read a lot of books. Dipped a foot into just about every genre, as well as stuff which defies standard genre definition. Some books are interesting, some moving, some... well, they sure are collections of words. The one written mainstay in my literary life, though, has been terrible, trashy novels.

I think my love affair with them sort of spun off from two things in my childhood - Commando comics, which were essentially British Boys Own adventure tales, where squared-jawed heroes punch Nazis (and occasionally people from other nationalities, but they were all bad eggs) squarely in the jaw - and the Star Wars novels, which I actually ended up enjoying vastly more than the films they'd spun off of.

But before I go any deeper into this pit of literary refuse, perhaps I should define what I mean by trash? Well, it's fairly simply - I'm talking the most base and derivative of genre works; the stuff that holds the fewest narrative surprises, the most basically sketched out characters, and often (let's face it) the highest body counts. Story where the value of a human life is determined by exactly how sinister a person's gaze is, and by what kind of reptile he can be most compared to. Which reminds me - you'll get a lot of stock phrases in the prose. They'll pop up EVERYwhere. It's like all the authors have access to the same book of story terminology, and are allowed to draw from no other source. There's little-to-no experimentation with the text, and just about every event in the story is telegraphed long before it happens.

Obviously, this stuff has a lot in common with pulp fiction - indeed, pulp crime stories, penny dreadfuls' and dime-westerns were early forms of the same kind of stuff. They're rickety, slap shod works that fall apart under the barest scrutiny, and will probably rot your brain.

Besides all that, though, I find them to be a lot of fun.

What, then, is the appeal? Part of it might be an act of rebellion on my part - I don't know if you've read a lot of actual literary works, but the damn things are mentally EXHAUSTING. Not just because of their themes, but because a lot of them will spend a lot of time in simple description. Part of that is a hang-over from the Victorian-era novels (Dickens, for example, being famously paid by the word). But in any case, considering everything and every element of a story, whilst sometimes deeply rewarding, isn't very fun. Sometimes you just want the sad, allelic gardener to reject his inevitable station in life, not simply emotionally (by lusting after the landowners' comely daughter), but by literally picking up a war axe and carving his way through his world, violently rejecting everything but gushing blood and grim, pointless death. It's remarkably relaxing.

Obviously, trash can cover a lot (well, ok, generally not that many) of topics - romance is one of the more famous, for example - but my chosen poison is violence. Of course, there are many KINDS of violence in trash, and it took me a long time to refine for myself what seems to work best for me. The easiest way for me to explain it, I think, is to wave vaguely in the direction of Robert E. Howard an H.P. Lovecraft, and tell ya'll to work outwards from there.

In short, fuck chosen ones. Fuck being special because destiny says so. Fuck dynasties, fuck societal importance - the value of a person in these stories is generally defined either by simple virtues (such as killing ability, and manners), or as ultimately insignificant. Nihilistic? In a way, I suppose, though obviously one shouldn't view these sorts of stories as commentaries or morality plays (though Conan would occasionally toss in a thought or two on civilisation). I find that concept, though, utterly liberating - a giant middle finger raised in the face of determinism and supposed moral authority.

So, specifically, what sort of trash do I read? I'm sad to say that, lately, I've gotten a bit tired of Star Wars - the post-prequel direction of the franchise has made so many blunders, moving away from the aspects I enjoyed most about it, that I find it very difficult to enjoy anymore. Currently floating my boat, we have Warhammer novels - both fantasy and 40k. I enjoy these because their universes are wide enough that you can covers hundreds of different characters and stories, and don't have to tie them to a core cast of characters around which every event in the universe spins. Also, they unapologetically violent, and feature things like giant robots that fire warheads filled with demons, and swarms in insect aliens, and lots and lots of hopeless last stands (some of which are quite literally hopeless last stands). Pointless resistance in the face of utter annihilation - I loves me some of that. A lot of the authors are pretty meh, but there are a few who know how effective a literary flourish is here and there - stories like this aren't, by design, void of emotion, but they can come off as very dry if the writer spends too much time giving out detailed descriptions of the ebb and flow of battle. I much prefer stories where we get into a characters' head space - where the violence, though still aesthetically enthralling, has some real emotional weight to it. For those interested, check out authors like Chris Wright, Dan Abnett, and Aaron Demski-Bowden.

Now, if you've been paying attention, you'll have noticed that so far I've mainly spoken about shared-world franchise fiction (one spun off from a movie, one spun off from a table-top game). Part of this is because that's where the trashiest trash exists, part of this is because, frankly, I find world building can get in the way of the story I actually want to read. The world, for me, should be a backdrop, the stage on which the characters perform - not the foreground, a curtain that everyone trips over. That's because I enjoy character driven fiction most of all - and whilst a well developed world can be intellectually stimulating as one ponders the ramifications of, say, Elephant Overlords, ultimately a lot of those stories come to the same value judgements (ie: BE CAUTIOUS or SCIENCE IS DANGEROUS or TECHNOLOGY IS DEHUMANISING etc etc), and I don't often appreciate that. Fut her more, if character plays second fiddle to the setting, you get nothing but a group of card-board cut outs, pointing at the features the author wants you to notice. Ideally, of course, story, world building and character would all work in tandem - I'm just saying I have more time for an author who prioritises characters over world/plot than the other way around. And, given that the setting's already fairly well fleshed out in such franchises, they're not something that's usually examined in a lot of depth.

Other trash I enjoy - The Dresden Files make for some Buffy-style light reading. I've started David Gemmel's Druss books. Comics and video game and TV shows, of course - so much to work through there, I may save it for another blog.

One caveat - trash is often more about subject matter than moral philosophy. Never-the-less, I've learned as I've gotten older to be more demanding in what I actually enjoy. Call it a concession to maturity - I just can't dig on lack of effort man. MOVE ME WITH YOUR VIOLENCE. When that chainsword slices off your rival's face, I want to feel the impact of it! Emotionally! (Not physically, I need my face.) Just because you're writing trash, doesn't mean you can't be a craftsman about it! Objectivity still has a place, even in these sorts of stories.

So there's my opening salvo. Hopefully this will get something of a discussion going . If you're lacking in immediately responses, I'll ask a question: what sort of trash do you enjoy? Why? TELL ME YOUR SECRET SHAME.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

TOXIC MEMES - Media and identity

So anyway, as I was thinking about upcoming topics to post about, I came to a little realisation: at some point in just about every topic I'm going to be referring to the way the media represents a topic in some way. Now, there are a few reasons for this -

Now, it must be said, I am a media student - I'm basically trained to look at the world through this lens. Whenever I see a production, whether it be film, literature, news media, or so on, my brain automatically kicks into a certain gear: what is this production saying? What is it trying to say? What is it trying to avoid? Furthermore, what is it saying without even meaning to? It's not really conscious - I don't literally ask myself those questions - but those gears are always working away in the background every time I watch something. And as hard as it may be for some to understand, this does, in fact, increase my enjoyment of a lot of things - not only because understanding the process behind a work can give you a heightened level of appreciation for how everything fits together, but when you're watching a production where the creator KNOWS your brain is working this way, they'll deliberately play little games with you, fulfilling and subverting your expectations, playing mind games, and in short, exploiting view psychology to achieve a desired response. When it all fits together, it's exhilarating. When it doesn't... it's kind of like trying to drive a car where the wheels have fallen off. It doesn't matter what steps you're taking, the whole thing just isn't really going to work. In short, this is your brain on Media Studies.

Another primary reason for my media focus in this blog is, quite simply, I love stories. I love comics, movies, novels, video games, new media, and any other medium that's likely to pop up in the next few decades - I find immersing myself in other worlds, other perspectives, exhilarating. I find talking about these things endlessly fascinating. I live and breathe the things, and thus, a lot of my responses are going to be towards media simply because that's where I get a lot of my input.

Finally - and this is where things get a bit hazy - I believe there is a definite link between what people see in the media, and what they believe (which informs how they behave). The degree to which this affects people is going to vary wildly - depending on how much media they ingest, how psychologically susceptible they are, and how much they know about what's being portrayed. I haven't actually done any serious research into these effects (though it's something I might get around to these days) - but I don't believe there's any such thing as total mental immunity to the messages we receive from the media we consume. Whether it's obvious or not, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, some part of our brain takes these things on board. Thus, in either a direct or indirect way, what we consume will inform how we behave. This is an occasionally controversial arena, and I'm probably going to get a little bit of flack for it, but there it is.

So there you have it. A minor explanation of why I'm going to be harping on about TV shows when I'm covering a seemingly unrelated topic. Huzzah!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

TOXIC MEMES - Romanticizing romance

I think it would be fair to say that most people reading this would like, at some point in their lives, to be involved in a romantic relationship of some sort (or is, in fact, involved in one now). Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, says I. But why is it that a lot of us feel so utterly diminished by the lack of a partner? Why is it never really enough just to wait and see what ha
ppens, without feeling the increasing anxiety that - if we don't sort out this relationship thing sooner or later - we will DIE ALONE? Why is the idea of dying alone (TM) such an utterly terrifying one to many people?

I don't really know, of course - research is for patient people who actually have time and inclination to read through mounds of materials. Instead, I'm simply going to float some ideas about this topic, and see what spills out of my fingers. Okay? Here we go!

So, like a lot of you, I spent a lot of my time when I was younger being quite lonely. It didn't matter how many friends I had, or how close they were, something always felt like it was missing. And as far as I knew, of course, that something was a girlfriend. That's what would fix this aching void in my heart. Someone nice and funny and smart all those other little things you think you want in a partner when you're about 18. And, of course, being a shy, awkward, socially inept, physically unfit gamer/lit nerd, I wasn't going to be fixing that anytime soon (one thing I've learned that women like, you see, is the ability to form to words in front of them). And I felt horrible about this.

Somehow, my desire for a partner was not just a desire that stood on its own - it had become a reflection of my worth as a human being. And that's fucked. Even if I ever got in a relationship (which I eventually did, much to my ex's horror), I was only going to make that person responsible for keeping me happy which - as the old adage goes - is something that can really only be created internally. So that was a disaster, of course. But that's not really what I find interesting.

Like so many others, I felt that not having a partner meant that there was something wrong with me. Where does this idea come from? Narrative in media's an obvious one - heroes and heroines, across a multitude of genres would engage in romance, whether it was really relevant to the greater story or not. Of course, a lot of studio execs and the like would encourage writers to create these sub plots, as romance is usually meant to appeal to women in what would other wise be a primarily male affair. Certainly, it's treated as one of the rewards of success/being a good person - a good person comes to see you as being someone of value and loves you for it. We're also frequently taught that this is something to be valued greater than worldly concerns - money, power etc. Love conquers all. Is that a bad thing? Maybe, maybe not - but for an impressionable young mind, it can certainly help a germ of an idea of a neurosis to form.

Other sources? Well, news media, of course. Despite the thousands upon thousands of stories of spousal abuse, broken marriage, domestic violence etc, romance and relationships are still - overall - presented in a positive light, as something desirable. It's all part of the Perfect Life package - the Job, the House, the Family etc. One of the major ways to be recognised as being a fully developed, mature human being is to prove that you can maintain a stable relationship with another human being - preferably in close quarters. This disregards a number of personality types and sexual preferences, of course, but those are broader topics I may have to return to in another rant.

In any case, these are where the ideas may originate for a lot of us, but what keeps them consistently in the forefront of our minds, what makes them so important in our lives as to be utterly impossible to ignore, is each other, and our selves. Once an idea like this has taken hold, everyone accepts it as being the true state of affairs.

Of course, there are social and biological reasons for doing this - romance leads to relationships leads to babies leads to the species surviving - and certainly, I've nothing against families in general (though I find the traditional definition a bit too limiting). The problem I guess is this: it doesn't seem to matter how far our species has come, or what the individual circumstances of us are, to not pursue a romantic relationship is the act of a deviant. Even if you're not into long term engagements, you should at least be pursuing a bit of strange (and that's definitely a topic I'll be exploring later). Collectively, we're so obsessed with this idea that we have to force ourselves into such engagements, that we disregard any question that it's the right thing to do. To desire.

And that idea needs to die.

There are many good reasons to enter into a romantic relationship. There are also many bad ones. And wanting to enter into one simply because you feel you have to is something I would classify as a very bad idea. Damaging for you, and damaging for your partner. Of course, young people aren't really that interested in self-exploration, so expecting anyone to heed that idea when it might make a difference is going to be a tall order. So, naturally, that falls to the rest of us. To teach, to inspire, and to do all we can to combat the idea that, no matter where you are, no matter what you are doing in life, your circumstances will ALWAYS be improved by romance.

Talk about it, read about it, write about it. Kill this poison meme dead, and stop the cycle. I think that'll do for an opening rant. Will follow this up when ever the hell I feel like it.