But Is It Good?

Bukowski smoking

About once a month, the regularly scheduled Discourse kicks up again about a rotating list of authors and how sus it is to like them. Right now, as I write this, it’s Bukowski. It has been, and will again be, David Foster Wallace or Chuck Palahniuk or Nabokov or…

I have no particular interest in defending Bukowski. I’ve never read the guy, I don’t feel much desire to right now, whatever. I’ve no skin in this one. I just find it a little pathetic that people will pick a writer from one of these lists, to say their work is bad because they’re bad people, and substitute meaningful literary criticism or the simple, honest ‘not my thing tbh’ for ‘this is bad because he’s bad and he should’ve gone to therapy’. People with decent social attitudes knee-jerking at problematic art like this isn’t much less silly than the conservative snowflakes freaking out about wokeness all the time.

(As an aside, I dislike ‘go to therapy’ as a casual retort, used as though therapy is a panacea for interpersonal issues and bigotries or equally accessible to everyone. It’s classic white middle-class feminism.)

None of this is important, really. None of what I’m saying hasn’t been said before.

But was Bukowski’s intent (whatever we think about the value of authorial intent) to model prosocial behaviour? When a fictional character is an asshole, is the writer obligated to clearly imply or outright state their disagreement with that character? Or should readers be trusted to apply their own moral judgment like grown adults, and take the quality of a piece of art as a separate, if potentially thornily linked, question from its moral stance?

I don’t care to read JK Rowling anymore, to a large extent due to her transphobia – but I can’t reasonably point to her behaviour on twitter as a reason the Galbraith books are bad as books, any more than her TERF fans can do the inverse. It’s fine to be put off by attitudes expressed in a book, or the author irl. I occasionally give small mentions to these things in my own reviews. But this says little about the work itself, and you can’t e.g. guarantee that someone who does read Bukowski is a misogynist themselves. It’s not exactly Mein Kampf folks, come on. He’s dead, so he isn’t getting royalties either.

It’s especially funny when the moral discourse around labelling a work or its maker as a red flag gets in the way of more interesting discussions about the social implications of the work. When people say Fight Club is a red flag because white guys like Tyler Durden and he’s horrible, they’re not talking about how the narrator’s chronic insomnia was improved by crying in therapy (even though the same people doing this are normally ‘go to therapy’ types) and it was his toxic masculinity which said ‘therapy is gay bro let’s fight and give ourselves chemical burns instead’. If someone is the kind of guy to unironically like Tyler Durden, and you center your complaint on the movie/book, you’re putting the cart before the horse. And maybe (I whisper) missing something you might like if you look from another angle, though it’s totally cool if you don’t.

When Joker came out so much of the discussion was like, ‘is it incel?’, ‘will someone shoot up the cinema?’, ‘[my identity] is poor too and we don’t shoot stockbrokers’. Whether or not it was entertaining as a dark dramatic comedy almost didn’t exist as a question.

I’d like to see more of that question, alongside the repetitive discourse. More: ‘but is it good?’

Book Reviews (21)

The Republic For Which It Stands – Richard White

Intimidatingly subtitled ‘The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896’, I wouldn’t have picked up this thicc tome but Matt Christman made it sound interesting.

Turns out the period is quite interesting. White’s perspective raises similarities and challenges to our current time, and not just for the US. A core point is the failure of liberalism to meet its promise of egalitarianism and opportunity in a society of independent producers, as the realities of industrial capitalism and wage labour held sway – a story we’re still living in.

Liberals had believed that laissez-faire, contract freedom, and competition would eliminate corruption, sustain independent production, and prevent the rise of the very rich and very poor. Contract freedom quickly revealed itself as a delusion when those negotiating contracts were so incommensurate in wealth and power.

Liberalism had been forged in opposition to a world of slavery, established religion, monarchy, and aristocracy, and the victory of liberals in that contest sealed their own doom.

White’s account is at its most interesting when he’s uncovering sweeping ideological/cultural narratives – the role of ‘home’, the courage and fate of natives in western expansion, the significant struggles of race and gender – and their connection to dramatic industrial unrest. The importance White places on the environmental crisis in growing industrial cities, and its close connection to all his other threads, is insightful.

Surprising and amusing anecdotes pepper the story, with recurring figures like William Dean Howells, Frances Willard, Frederick Douglass, etc, highlighting shifts over the years. I also liked his references to contemporary fiction – the way he views The Wizard of Oz in light of the period’s themes is brilliant.

Some of the denser financial and legislative wrangling had me flagging a little. White couldn’t have done much about that without taking from his impressive scholarship, but I still think certain segments could use a touch more condensing. It’s difficult to remember the details of bills and financial intricacies as well as White himself, and he sometimes refers back to a figure where a brief reminder of who they are would be helpful.

The Sword of Destiny – Andrzej Sapkowski trans. David French
Witcher #2

The first set of stories were enjoyable, this second set a step higher in quality. Geralt’s character is stronger and more consistent: mercenary but sensitive, conflicted, a relatable mess. The frame narrative is gone, with the stories themselves having a loose chronology. While I’m unqualified to really comment on translation, there weren’t any points, as were occasionally in the first book, where I was uncertain about it.

Yennefer plays a larger role, and seeing some of that terrible dynamic the pair have – yikes. There are points where she flips instantly from brittle rage to ‘I am smol bean uwu Geralt pwease’ that don’t feel real to me, but I’m interested in where this train wreck goes. Other new/returning characters I also want to see more of. No idea why anyone tolerates Dandelion’s crap, frankly. Rapey, loudmouth, parasitic prick. Hope Yennefer immolates him at some point lol.

Which brings me to the main things that pull me out a bit: Geralt continually running into some of the same people while riding all over the place, and some anachronistic-feeling language. Cellular memory? Really? And I found the combat scenes less crisply portrayed than the first book for some reason – they’re fine, but I didn’t get the same clear sense of motion.

Yeah, looking forward to the novels.

#

Special mention: Disco Elysium – ZA/UM

A game, not a book, but it’s a text-heavy experience (with stellar voice acting) and one that beats a lot of books. In this detective RPG you explore the city of Revachol 50 years after a defeated revolution, investigating the murder of a man hanged behind the hostel you’re staying in. The case itself is engaging, but it’s the other things that truly sell this.

Your partner on the case, Kim Kitsuragi, is a fantastic character. Straightman to your amnesiac drunkard (who, depending on your build and choices, could be trying to pull himself together, ranting about a coming apocalypse, doing speed…), Kim’s personality shines in small gestures and things you can uncover in the extensive, well-crafted dialogue.

Your character’s skills embody different components of your psyche, talking to you and each other with unique voices and perspectives. They can be a major help or – particularly when failing a skillcheck, which can have hilarious results – massive hindrances. ‘Encyclopedia’ gives you helpful information, but if it’s too high you risk boring people and getting sidetracked by trivia. ‘Electrochemistry’ helps you understand the seedier side of Revachol – e.g. discerning what drug a character is on – but also yells at you to lick a rum stain. If you regularly take certain options in dialogue, or encounter certain prompts, you can be invited to ‘internalise’ a thought in your ‘thought cabinet’, further shaping your character and the things you can say and do.

The worldbuilding is great – from the geopolitical situation of Revachol, in the hands of the Coalition which defeated the Revachol Commune; to the more out-there things like Innocences and the Pale. The lead dev wrote a book set in this world which I hope gets into English eventually, because Elysium has cool ideas.

I’ve seen people complain that it’s communist propaganda. I really don’t see it. While I lean hard to port politically myself, I wouldn’t enjoy propaganda just from agreement. People who say this either missed a lot of dialogue, missed the jokes, or are triggered by left-wing views getting airtime. Internalising ‘Mazovian socio-economics’ lowers your authority score. A communist character you can meet talks movingly about how the Coalition forces blitzed all his friends in the name of capital, but he’s also a bitter tankie who thinks everything is bourgeois and everyone is a ‘pederast’. Disco Elysium treats itself and its left politics with a wry touch.

Funny, smart, emotive – my only real complaint is some quests need alternate routes. Great game, especially if you like reading stuff.

Two Articles Worried About Zoomer Birthrates

Fellow blogger Phil Ebersole linked two articles for discussion which looked at Gen Z in relation to marriage, etc, from an American conservative viewpoint: Rod Dreher’s No Families, No Kids, No Future and The Flaming Eyeball’s response The Kids Are Not Alright.

My response got a bit long and I haven’t posted for a while, so I’m copying it here too.

#

What on earth is Rod on about? 😆

“We are going to have to endure a civilizational collapse before we begin the Great Relearning. I am beginning to see now why a sociologist I heard speak a few years ago said that losing awareness of the gender binary is going to mean the end of us. He meant that we will lose cultural memory of the basic fact needed to ensure the future of our civilization.”

So birthrates are lower? Fine. It’s not a portent of civilizational collapse or human extinction lmao. There are billions of us! He’s talking as though we’re about to forget how children are made. There will still be straight people, he’s panicking at nothing – not to mention, a bi person and straight/bi partner can have a child!

“A number of readers have pointed out that the “B” in “LGBT” — bisexual — is probably doing a hell of a lot of work in that 30 percent number. This is probably true, but it doesn’t really change much. I’m not sure how many men would want to partner with a woman whose sexual desires are so unstable.”

What… what? What is he on about? His article is absurd.

The other article is a little more interesting but still rather catastrophizing. Note the dogwhistles like “soy boys” and bizarre judgements like “the increase in unappealing [female] grooming habits such dying their hair and cutting it short” – unappealing to who, eh? Aren’t people allowed varied aesthetic sensibilities? Did blue hair cause the fall of Rome?

I’d need to go do research to evaluate the biological claims there regarding testosterone levels, etc. But the social/cultural perspective is too weak to take particularly seriously.

“Modern American leftism […] is mere entropy, fake ugly men dressed as fake ugly women saying fake ugly words. This is why self-hating and freakish progressives can tirelessly work to take over institutions and cancel people, but they can’t create, preserve, or even measure value, so they just run everything into the ground. Despite routing conservatives over and over, they are terminally unhappy because they can’t produce anything of value, they don’t know how to love, and they can never put enough effort in to please their vengeful and jealous god.”

Routing conservatives over and over? Trump was in power for four years, Bernie failed, Biden is center-right by normal standards and has said ‘nothing will fundamentally change’ and that he’d veto M4A. As a progressive I have more serious reasons for some unhappiness than a fuddy conservatives’ ‘blue-hair lesbian on TV’ nonsense.

These writers’ sort of analysis is what happens if someone can only view society through the lens of conservative cultural grievances. No economic or structural perspective whatsoever. They don’t even mention climate change, which is a top-three answer imo for ‘why don’t zoomers want kids as much?’ (two others – money and more free social choice).

As a UK zoomer, my perspective would be that there are concerning issues in the world but I don’t see eye to eye with these particular writers on the problems or solutions.

Some SCPs I Like

SCP Logo

I’ve been reading more of the SCP Foundation lately. Here are a few good entries that aren’t the ones I’ve seen recommended a lot.

If you don’t know what this is, it’s a wiki where the gimmick is that the SCP Foundation contains ‘anomalous’ things, places, or entities. Each one is given a number in their records with relevant containment procedures, description, and experiment/interview/exploration logs. Entries range from horrific lovecraftian nightmares to mind-bending cognitohazards to light entertainment.

SCP 5031. Wholesome story about a misunderstood creature.

SCP 5002. An investigation into the death of a reality-bending writer in her containment cell – fantastic detective work in the context of the bizarre world of the Foundation.

Officer Lowry: Really. You Sherlock Holmes or something?
Agent O’Connor: Actually, Foundation investigations are rather more difficult. Sherlock Holmes, unlike me, could afford to eliminate the impossible.

SCP 5733. A horror movie tape for a generic slasher – in which the protagonist asks the viewer’s advice.

SCP 5545. An Antarctic site contains anomalous hallways, and also ‘contains’ a ‘conceptual site’ with a dangerous entity inside. What’s really going on here? (Don’t miss the last section.)

SCP 5858. A performance of A Streetcar Named Desire has been going for months.

SCP 3393. ‘Because of your ability to access this file, and read this sentence, you are SCP-3393.’

SCP 3000. A giant eel with severe mind-altering effects.

SCP 2006. A shapeshifter which likes scaring people.

Every month, SCP-2006 is to be shown at least one new extremely low-quality horror or science fiction movie containing horror elements. All interaction with SCP-2006 must confirm that SCP-2006 continues to believe that said works demonstrate a superb grasp of horror.

Nine Types of Job Interviews

handshake

Phone call

A lot of people don’t like this, and I don’t get why. You can stay at home in pyjamas with notes in front of you, they’re the least cursed type.

Skype call

The second least cursed – only presentable from the waist up, no travel, notes out of frame.

You really made me come all this way for that?

I.e., recite your CV to us for five minutes. It’s obvious they haven’t read it, and there’s no reason for this not to be a call unless handshake quality is really important. Hopefully you didn’t have to go too far.

Scammy scheme

You turn up and there’s a crowd of other interviewees. You’re handed a little form to fill out, with more emphasis on your interests than your experience. They ask you almost nothing, but spend ten minutes giving you a spiel about their ‘training program’ or whatever – as though anybody actually believes they’ll become a manager in six months, seeing as the same job is advertised every three months. Commission only. The job advert was either cloyingly faux-ironic or outright misleading. Any sufficiently desperate extrovert can get it.

Standard

Just the standard type, they know what they’re doing. It’s fine.

Amateur interviewer

They’re more awkward than you are. Sort of refreshing, but it can be annoying.

Casual chat

You were probably told not to dress formal, and the first thing they say is not to worry, it’s only a chat. Much like the standard interview in practice, though a bit more relaxed, and the interviewer is usually better at asking useful follow-up questions.

Sherlock HR-olmes

If HR could put you in an MRI during the questioning, they would. A long tedious affair, more suited to a NASA application than an entry-level office job. What would you do in several scenarios? How do you schedule? What meme are you? (I got asked this, said salt bae because it was the first I thought of. They said, ‘oh, so you’re a salty person.’ Jfc, there’s a wrong answer to the meme question!?!) Where were you on the night in question? Feels like a malicious therapist.

Practical

You have to do a short test or example. Whether this is cursed or blessed depends on the field and the test’s actual relevance. It can be artificial and pointless, or it can be a chance to cut through all the bs and be judged on your ability to do the actual work for once. You’ll also realise how long it’s been since you used a pen to write more than a sentence or two.

Selective Accuracy in Fantasy

Walpurgis
source

Some guy on the Daily Wire reviewing Netflix’s The Witcher: ‘No woman can fight with a sword. Zero women can fight with a sword.’

His complaint is, by the way, inaccurate. Many people have brought up Julie d’Aubigny, a bi opera singer/swordswoman who – among other adventures – attended a ball dressed as a man, kissed a woman, got challenged to a duel over it by three men, beat them all in succession, then went back to the ball.

Everybody knows that, on average, men have a strength advantage. But that’s an average, and besides skill in weaponry is supposed to make it possible to defeat someone who may be stronger than you. His reference to a ‘5 to 10-pound sword’ is also a joke, considering even claymores were around 5.5lb, with most swords much lighter.

More importantly, fantasy isn’t real. That’s sort of the point. Why is this fairly mundane area the point where his suspended disbelief snaps?

In Taking Artistic License I considered times when strict accuracy may or may not be convincing or entertaining. But there seems to be a particular trend for selective demands for accuracy in fantasy, based in reinforcing certain social attitudes. This can be at the expense of actual accuracy, or represent an arbitrary block on imagination:

‘But this historical period…’ Are you absolutely sure? Really, no foreign traders or anything? Nobody’s in the closet? You might be right, in which case fair enough. But if your version of Ancient Greece is completely straight, your research slipped up somewhere.

‘Ah, but in my fictional world of…’ So your worldbuilding has the full details of a steampunk society powered by burning the blubber of sky-whales – daily life, ecology, politics, history, five paragraphs about perfumes made using sky-whale bile. But you can’t (or didn’t choose to) imagine [multiple demographics or alternative social attitudes]

Samantha Shannon pins this down in her essay:

[E]ven in fictional worlds, the oppressed must remain oppressed. Any attempt to do otherwise is evidence of liberal fragility, box ticking, the sanitization of history or the shoehorning of unwelcome “politics” into entertainment. […]

It is typical that the same critics often base “historical accuracy”—both in historical and fantastical stories—on the fiction of a white and heteronormative past. In their minds, people of color, queer people and powerful women only had the nerve to exist in the last couple of centuries. […]

Creators can and have used fantasy to highlight both modern and historical inequalities to great effect, and they must always have the opportunity and space to do that—but, lest we forget, fantasy is not history, and is therefore not beholden to it. It can be exhausting to read about the same racist, homophobic and sexist worlds over and over again.

Fantasy as a genre is rooted in being able to picture radically different realities, where not only history and geography, but the laws of reality itself, can be reshaped from the ground up. So to me there’s something very petty about insisting that issues such as gender have to match with the comparable real-world place and time.

I’m of course not saying that every work of fiction has to be actively progressive, or that there aren’t ham-fisted ways of trying to be that can detract from entertainment or believability. But I can’t relate to the mindset where things like a medieval society being cool with gay people are less believable, and need more justification, than the dragon flying overhead or the dead raised from their graves.

On the Sarah Dessen Drama

the discourse

So let’s get into this nonsense, shall we?

In a completely innocuous article about how Common Read* books are chosen at Northern State University, the Aberdeen News quoted Brooke Nelson, who served as a volunteer on the selection committee her junior year of college: “She’s fine for teen girls,” the 2017 Northern graduate said of Dessen, “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

[…]In response to the news item, Dessen tweeted a screenshot of the quote to her 268.4k followers, saying she is “having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.”

*This isn’t a thing here – for anyone else wondering, this is a book an entire university, or just freshers, are supposed to read and consider in the year.

Various other big writers joined in to defend Dessen against Nelson’s alleged misogyny against teen girls/elitism, and the university has rolled over to apologise.

Wow, what a stupid mess.

Firstly – Sarah Dessen was not tagged in the article! This is a small publication dwarfed many-fold by Dessen’s twitter followers. Either she went out of her way to encounter this, or she stumbled on it but should have simply had the maturity to let one student not like her. I understand feeling hurt, but seriously?

This is a slightly different situation, but it bears repeating that reviews are for readers.

On the merits or otherwise of what Brooke Nelson said, people are reading a lot into very brief statements. Yeah it does sound mean, but we also don’t know if they made more constructive points in the committee.

Yes, it is common for things aimed at teen girls to be looked down on in ways things aimed at teen boys aren’t – the university had previously picked Ready Player One, which is more aimed at boys. ‘Literary merit’ is an incredibly complex subject, and whether or not a work is considered to have it can easily be shaped by biases and who gets to decide. People can be pretty snobby about works aimed at girls/women and YA.

I haven’t read Sarah Desson’s work. But isn’t it possible that it really might be – gosh! – suitable for teen girls but not an academic context? Books can be fun and good whether or not they’re ‘difficult’ or packed with dense ‘meaning’, but university reading lists tend to – understandably – value literary merit. YA books can be appropriate for academic study, and blanket statements otherwise are elitist. But they can also not be – and that’s fine.

The book picked over Dessen’s is about racial bias in the justice system. Like, that sounds like a decent thing to get students discussing?

In any case, a successful author shouldn’t be getting so dramatic because one person thinks their books aren’t university material. Why is it not good enough to have many readers appreciating what’s there?

The greater part of this drama isn’t about sticking up for teen girls, which is laudable but would take a better discussion than whatever *this* is. Liz Bruenig had a good point here on issues with how good but under-developed woke principles can work out poorly in real discourse.

[…]In this case, the YA fiction writers with huge followings and plenty of social/professional capital responded with overwhelming force to a young nobody because they *represent* teen girls.

Essentially, the fact that they *market products to teen girls* means that, in the market place, they *represent* teen girls, which means that no matter how powerful they are, attacking their work is an attack on teen girls tout court. So you can never really ‘punch up’ at them.

In my view, this is obvious nonsense. These adult women are not teenage girls, and marketing products to teen girls shouldn’t imbue them with the moral status of teen girls in woke discourse[…]

Writers – don’t do this.

No Set Reading List

LOTR

I was finishing a re-read of The Lord of the Rings recently, just as a bit of DiscourseTM started up about whether or not it’s totally obligatory to read LOTR and anyone who hasn’t is a bad person who must be banned from fantasy.

Mild exaggeration. But you can guess which side of the debate I come down on.

From the reader’s perspective, it’s very simple. People are allowed to read or not read anything they like, gatekeeping is dumb, and there’s no reason to care if people are ‘true fans’ or not.

From the writer’s perspective, the idea that certain books are obligatory if you want to write certain genres seems like a growth on the face of a more sensible idea, which is that you should have read a reasonable range of the genre. You need to know what the well-trodden ground is, to both draw inspiration and avoid clichés. But extending that to ‘fantasy writers must read LOTR’ is a mistake.

One of the chief reasons people will give is ‘this book is particularly influential, it shaped the genre for decades to come.’ Well, if that’s the case, isn’t it fine to draw lessons from all those other books influenced by it? Of course someone writing medieval epic fantasy could use knowing about what’s already been done with elves and orcs and stuff – but they can get that from the works influenced by LOTR, as they can from the thing itself. Just because Tolkien introduced something doesn’t mean he’s the guy everyone has to go back to for it. Extreme comparison, but doctors today aren’t learning about arteries from Galen.

There are loads of books in every genre. Recommending specific works for certain things is fine (here’s me doing it), but the idea that someone has to follow your reading list to have authority in the subject just… sounds lame when I say it like that, right? What objective grounds is there to make that specific work essential reading – if influence, we can read the things it influenced; if something else, is this really objective or an opinion, or cultural bias?

Also, subgenres. Why does a fantasy writer have to read LOTR if they’re actually doing a steampunk heist story?

Even if they are writing a medieval fantasy with po-tay-toes and pointy-eared archers, let’s face it: no book is perfect. For all its influence and worldbuilding and epicness, LOTR is not the platonic ideal fantasy novel. The pacing is nuts. It has more named horses than women. Tom Bombadil. Not everyone is going to enjoy it, and fantasy writers are no different. The same applies to all genres and their ‘must-reads’.

In university I had literal reading lists with classics and works I’d never heard of. There is value in reading things considered significant and things you wouldn’t think to try. Sure, there might be value in taking a recommendation, in trying LOTR or whatever else. But this doesn’t mean you have to read specific works some person yells about to be a real fan or a good writer.

Harry Potter and the Half-Dead Author

J.K. Rowling
sauce: https://tinyurl.com/y6xep3cl

J.K. Rowling has done it again, claiming ‘Dumbledore and Grindelwald had an incredibly intense sexual relationship’… which, naturally, doesn’t come through in source material.

This is the latest in a long line of Potter-comments turning increasing numbers of fans away from Rowling herself, invoking ‘the death of the author’. Lecturer Michelle Smith agrees, discussing Rowling’s retrospective diversity:

If it was not possible for readers to detect that a character was gay or Jewish then how could they possibly be considered as positive signs of increasing representation and inclusion of minority groups in popular culture?

[D]epicting a character like Dumbledore as having fallen in love with a man as a matter of course could have done much to present gay and lesbian relationships as unremarkable. In an imagined world in which the supernatural is possible and the limitations of reality are few – something for which the books have been criticised by religious extremists – it speaks volumes that a gay relationship cannot be represented to the degree where it is discernable.

To figure out to what degree Rowling’s comments should influence our interpretation of the highest-selling book series in history, we can turn to a standard idea within literary criticism.

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes challenged the traditional practice of analysing literature by focusing on the motivations and biography of a work’s author. Barthes argues that looking to the author for a text’s explanation not only limits it to a single meaning, but also denies the influence of other texts (intertextuality) and the responses of the reader in producing meaning.[…]

Barthes and Michel Foucault, among others, contributed to changes in the study of literature under the umbrella of the poststructuralist movement. Scholars abandoned the search for a work’s “true meaning” – as imparted by the author – to marshalling a variety of critical approaches relating to gender, sexuality, and class, for example, to expose the shifting meanings of a given text.

When we study literature today, we are not interested in answering what we think an author truly “meant”, but what readers understand it to mean. We examine the words within a book, their interaction with other stories in all kinds of media, and their reflection of and influence upon the world in which they have been written.

If we approach Rowling’s Twitter comments armed with Barthes, we can say that what she “always thought” of a particular character, or whether she always imagined gay and lesbian students at Hogwarts are irrelevant to how we interpret the Harry Potter series.

Though the final Potter book was published in 2007, Rowling seems eager to retain an influence on how we understand her books by revealing ostensibly new information about her characters. Whether these character points were announced to readers via Twitter or alluded to within the Potter books, however, the meanings that we as a diverse international community of readers wish to take from them trump Rowling’s intentions as an author.

So far, so convincing. Many people are sceptical of Rowling inserting representation long after it would have been bold to do so, claiming it was there all along, with scant evidence for it in the text itself. We don’t have to be fully committed to Barthes’ theory to be a bit tired of J.K’s twitter feed.

But I found another perspective, which raises a challenge to how we think about authors and their works – Classicist Caroline Bishop, contrasting modern and Roman views of authorship:

The criticism Rowling faces for her continued dabbling in the wizarding world interests me as a sign of how modern readers punish those who do not conform to the ideal of the dead author. What I find so interesting about this is that authors haven’t always had to stay dead. In fact, I suspect that if J.K. Rowling — spin-offs, prequels, Twitter feed and all — were transplanted back to ancient Rome, or to any period in which its literary tradition held sway, she might find a more welcoming audience.[…]

Roman attitudes towards authorship have not just served as examples for literary criticism that makes a virtue of unoriginality [adaptations, etc]. Their penchant for guiding the reception of their works has long had its adherents among authors, too. Dante’s ‘Letter to Cangrande’, an introduction to and allegorical interpretation of his ‘Divina Commedia’, is one notable case. […] More recently, J.K. Rowling has found herself in the company of several other authors and film-makers who continue to comment upon and expand their universes.

Rowling’s widespread unpopularity  […] suggests these practices still make some modern readers uneasy. Perhaps it is because they remind us that claims of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated. The meddling of J.K. Rowling and her ilk is a sign that authors really do exist, and that many of them can’t resist telling us how we should interpret their masterpieces. But the continued endurance of Roman literature suggests that this stance will always have adherents in addition to detractors. If we like a piece of art well enough to return to it over and over again, as has been the case with Roman literature — and up till now, at least, has also been the case with the Harry Potter books — in the long run we may come to sympathize with an author who finds herself compelled to do the same thing.

Intriguing – but are Rowling’s interventions flops because modern readers expect their authors dead? Or is it just that she’s worse at it than Cicero and Dante?

Are we all committed to authors staying dead now? Or would we have no problem with Rowling’s elaborations on the Wizarding World if they weren’t so, well, ridiculous?

Another point I’d raise is the role of choices influenced by financial incentives, rather than the internal logic of the Wizarding World. Scott Mendelson writes:

There is a real financial risk for a movie like ‘Fantastic Beasts’ having an openly gay lead or major supporting character. And I’d imagine that if J.K. Rowling knew she would be making movies featuring young Dumbledore, she never would have outed him. But now that she has, it’s an artistic conundrum that pits the fanbase against the general audiences, specifically in overseas territories with governmental censorship powers.

If authorial comments are made for commercial reasons, or other reasons separate from the integrity of the works themselves, perhaps this is a reason to be sceptical of their value whether or not we’re that committed to the death of the author.

It seems to me that the critical response to Rowling can’t be out of a wholesale opposition to writers discussing and expanding their own work. There are still people who read the ‘Silmarillion’, and curious fans routinely ask writers about aspects of their works. Hardcore Potter fans didn’t seem to have this much of an issue with Rowling in the earlier years of Pottermore, before things got so weird. I doubt everybody read Roland Barthes in the meantime.

Readers often enjoy writers elaborating on their former works – if the comments and additions strike true to the text, if they’re interesting, if they add value. If what they have to say doesn’t make us feel it was better left unsaid, or appear to have an ulterior motive. Even if author’s statements aren’t an iron law of the one objective right way to read the text, they can still be a worthwhile addition to the experience, similar to hearing what a friend thinks about it.

The problem isn’t writers commenting on their works. If their comments add something, readers will enjoy them – even if we still view the text in a way other than they intended. But if the author’s comments really stretch credulity, even an ancient Roman would prefer sticking to the source material.

Genre Trouble

pile of books

What actually is a genre?

Some say (1) it’s a meaningless marketing category, others (2) that it categorises books by certain features they share, others (3) that ‘genre fiction’ is a lowbrow thing, as opposed to ‘literary’ works.

Fellow blogger Kaleena, in A Discussion About Required Reading, said something interesting about how school shaped her perspective:

I didn’t realize that speculative works like 1984 and A Brave New World or that Slaughterhouse Five were works of science fiction. The way we were taught didn’t distinguish them and we discussed them as literary works. It wasn’t until I started reading the genre more widely that I realized what they were, that the themes of humanity and possibility are prevalent and that the genre is bonded by looking forward to a potential future and acting as a warning beacon.

What that signifies to me is the conflict between ‘genre’ as a description and ‘genre’ as a brand of (low) quality.

As I commented, works old and respected enough often have their genre de-emphasised in favour of being ‘classic’ or ‘literary’. Snobs sometimes grudgingly admit that, say, Frankenstein is sci-fi, but still treat it as an exception, mysteriously different from the lowbrow rabble – a literary classic first, sci-fi second. An awkward hoop to jump through, as the number of exceptions leaps up the more you look. Nobody tell them that Paradise Lost is literally a fanfic of the Bible.

View 3 is to me a non-starter, as it is riddled with holes. All books have some features in common with others, and can therefore be placed in certain boxes. This is independent of the work’s cultural impact, or anyone’s subjective value judgements. (Even if the feature in common is ‘this is really weird and I don’t know where to stack this’, which makes it sui generis, a Latin phrase meaning ‘chuck it other there’.)

But view 2 also has its problems. Take Frankenstein again. Sci-fi? Gothic? Horror? The trouble with boxes is that things can ooze out across a couple of them. Sometimes it’s hard to judge exactly where something goes, and coming up with an increasingly large set of sub and sub-sub-genres can get confusing.

In the case of YA, I see many people default to view 1. They will say that something like Scythe and something like Lauren Oliver’s Broken Things are clearly different genres by usual standards (sci-fi/psychological thriller), but get packaged together as YA by publishers and bookshops to target an age demographic.

Others, like the blogger Kat, argue that YA is, in fact, distinguished by a particular style or aesthetic.

Maybe the most workable definition is a laid-back version of view 2. In this case genre is something people use to find what they’re looking for and talk about similar things – while arguing over hyper-precise labelling is for insufferable nerds. Simply, genre is like the famous legal test for defining obscenity: ‘I know it when I see it’.