Don’t Publish Your First Draft! Go Set a Watchman Reviewed

I wasn’t going to read Go Set a Watchman. My interest was piqued enough by the sketchy circumstances surrounding its publication that I read “Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise” by Catherine Nichols over at Jezebel, which I thought told me everything I needed to know.

Then Harper Lee died, another round of articles came out, and for some reason I thought, “Okay, fine, I’ll read Watchman now.” I do like to be Well Read after all, and I was in need of another book at the time. I guess news as advertising works.

So I read it. And my first impulse was right. It was not worth my time. It is not worth anyone’s time.

It’s a goddamn first draft.

This isn’t news. It’s there in the Wikipedia. Harper Lee wrote Watchman in the 1950s. She used this manuscript to attract a publisher, Tay Hohoff. Hohoff really liked Lee’s work — she described Watchman by saying, “[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line.” But she also noted that it was, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.”

So Hohoff helped Lee through several drafts, until Watchman became To Kill a Mockingbird. Along the way, the focus of the story changed. Watchman is about Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a young woman, coming to grips with the fact that her paragon father Atticus is merely human after all in rather dramatic fashion, against the backdrop of late 1940s southern race relations (which were shockingly bad). Mockingbird, by contrast, features Scout as a child who observes Atticus’s struggles as a white lawyer defending a black man in court in the early twentieth century south (when race relations were even worse).

It is true that at one point there were two sequels planned for Mockingbird, and if Watchman had been edited it might have served as book three of that planned series. But it has not been edited. As a result, there are some big issues. Tom Robinson, the black defendant, is found guilty in Mockingbird, but acquitted in Watchman. There are passages copied from one book to the other. Some characters are more thinly conceived of in Watchman than in Mockingbird, which is weird for something marketed as a sequel.

But the worst offense in my mind is the ending of Watchman. It is completely outdated in a way that no part of Mockingbird is. Jean Louise is dismayed by the overt racism of Atticus, her pseudo-boyfriend Henry “Hank” Clinton, and diverse other characters. She does not remember these characters being so racist during her childhood, and doesn’t understand what has changed. She fights with Atticus, Hank, and her uncle Jack about it, and eventually comes to an understanding with them. And part of that understanding is a good laugh at the notion that most people would ever marry outside of their race.

Maybe that was one of the more centrist positions on the issue in the 1940s and ‘50s, but as the key plank in Atticus’s bridge across the philosophical gap between himself and his daughter it is groan-worthy. This is a book about race published in 2015. It was predestined that people in mixed-race marriages would read it, and they did, including myself.

I don’t know why Lee didn’t edit Watchman, whip it into shape at least a little for its twenty-first century audience. I imagine she must not have been capable — the soundness of her mind was extensively questioned when news of Watchman’s impending publication first surfaced. I can’t imagine she simply didn’t want to expend the effort.

Whatever the reason, Watchman remains a first draft, an early version of a thing that got better. Yes, the focus and plot are substantially different from what it became. That doesn’t make it a stand-alone object, worthy of being contemplated on its own.

And while it could be argued that seeing a Great Novelist’s creative process laid bare is instructive, I argue otherwise. You learn writing by reading a lot of finished texts (both ones that you love and ones that you hate), and then by writing your own. Lee’s process is only meaningful to me because I already know it, and can relate to it. I have learned nothing by seeing Lee in her proverbial underwear, and I don’t even have the benefit of voyeuristic thrill. I just feel mildly embarrassed for her.

Alright. I guess I could have learned that Atticus Finch was a racist all along. But like Nichols said, if you paid attention, Atticus always was.


Potter (No) More

So I guess there’s more Harry Potter stuff happening. A movie in the works, a play, some short stories on Pottermore about American wizardry.

And I can’t really get into any of it.

Part of it is that I spent the last decade analyzing and re-analyzing the Harry Potter books with my fellow nerds and by myself, for fun. I picked the Wizarding World apart already in a previous post, and I’m done with it as a concept. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the Pottermore stories all sound like prequel material, the kind where, yeah, we really do know or can infer all this stuff already.

Moreover, much of the new material is set in America, which feels like pandering. I don’t know who decided that Fantastic Beasts and the new stories should be set in America, but I’d bet that’s a marketing decision, not an authoring one. Harry Potter’s charm is in part that it’s British! That it comes from a place dotted with castles and teapots, and not my own coffee-fueled, sky-scraper-studded land. Countries are not all the same, and JK Rowling’s style of whimsy doesn’t hold up well in an American context.

For instance, the new stories have already upset actual Native Americans. I assume (you assume, we all assume) that Rowling meant to be inclusive. But the fact is that certain Native Americans took offense at Rowling’s appropriation of their mythology, specifically “skinwalkers”.

Now, Harry Potter has always cherry picked from history and mythology, but it has largely been European history and mythology. In America, that’s default, that’s baseline, everyone’s welcome to do whatever they want to European history and mythology. But with Native Americans, their stories are still their own.

In the Wizarding World, there is no religion, no pandemics, no global warming. Racism is replaced by anti-muggle, anti-mudblood, anti-poor, and speciesist sentiments. There is no Al Quaeda, Boko Haram, Daesh, or KKK, just Death Eaters. That works in England, island alone by itself, relatively pure until the last decade or so as darker-skinned immigrants started pouring in to make the food better.

But that kind of whitewashing doesn’t work in the intersectional morass that is America. Well, not without complaint and ridicule by the left.

Me, I don’t mean to complain or ridicule. I’m just checked out of the Potter Club. Oh sure, I’ll probably go to the theme park when I get the chance, and I’ll reread the books someday — they’re good books, they’ll be fun to revisit. But that’s the thing. They’re books, a private conversation between me and Jo. A conversation she ended by saying, “Their adult lives were stable and boring. Don’t try to get more out of me because the story is over, there is no more.”

I want to respect that statement (even if the epilogue that contained it was objectively not good). Although, if Rowling had changed her mind, and Harry Potter and The Cursed Child was going to be an eighth book by Rowling, I would go buy it.

But it’s not. It’s a play by some other guy. Rowling had a hand in it, but it isn’t hers. It’s half fan fiction.

It’s hard to watch this happen to Rowling. While I’ve been privately picking apart her stories, learning this craft of fantasy storytelling from many authors but especially her, the marketers have made her their cow. And all the Potter milk is coming out pasteurized now.

As much as I want to be JK Rowling, get that popular, touch that many lives, maybe it isn’t worth it when others start to write your stories for you.

Dreaming and Awakening (Two Reviews, Plus Philosophical Meanderings!)

SPOILERS for Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and also for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

The Awakening is an interesting cultural artifact, a proto-feminist novel that was nearly lost.  Written in the early 1900s, forgotten, then picked up again and lauded in the 1960s.

Since then it has been critiqued to death.

Seriously, my edition contains 100 pages of novel, and 200 pages of historical information and literary dissection.

I did not read those 200 pages, so maybe I’m going to say things that have already been said.  But (blog post spoilers) since I do tie this back to speculative fiction, maybe I’ll say something new.

The author, Kate Chopin, was an up-and-coming American writer in the early 1900s.  She was rich — not from writing, but from smart real estate investments — had five kids, liked to go out walking by herself (scandalous!), and for most of her life had no man.  She grew up in a household full of widows, and then later lost her own husband.

At a time in history when women were more or less owned by their husbands, she was something special.

Then Chopin wrote The Awakening.

It’s the story Edna Pontellier, a New Orleans Creole woman who “awakens” to her own emotionality, and discovers that she hates her life.  She does not love her husband, and has no interest in raising her own children.

Edna changes her life as best as she can within the constraints of early 1900s, New Orleans, white, upper class society.  But she can find no solidarity.  Her good friend Adele reminds her, “Oh think of your children!”  And the man she loves, Robert, abandons Edna to spare them both the indignity of Edna’s otherwise inevitable divorce.

That’s not the end of the story, but I have a few thoughts to share before I get there.

The first is that this book is hilariously, offensively old fashioned.  If this was popular in the ‘60s, no wonder feminism got off on the wrong foot with women of color!  A tacit, Southern respect for the Confederacy pervades the novel.  There are an impressive number of brown and black characters, but almost all are minimally described servants.

For example, Edna’s nanny appears at least half-a-dozen times, but is only ever known as “the quadroon”.

Edna’s reliance on visible but largely overlooked black people, while desiring her own freedom, creates a bizarre cognitive dissonance.  I don’t know Chopin well enough to say if this is deliberate on her part or not.  If she meant to say something about race, as well as sex and class, or if the statement made itself without her conscious effort.

The second is that the ending is inevitable within the framework and philosophies of straight fiction.

The ending, if you haven’t guessed, is that Edna kills herself.

It’s not out of the blue.  Edna’s been emotionally unstable the whole time.  (She does mask it well, but that’s easy when you have black people around to cook your meals, clean your house, and raise your children for you.)  She keeps making impulsive decisions, feeling no responsibility toward anyone in her life until Adele and Robert remind her.

Think of your children.  Think of your husband.

Due to the intersection of gender, class, and race, Edna can never have the life she wants, she can never be free.  She’s screwed her life up too much already, having a husband and two children she doesn’t want.  So she kills herself.

The ending fits the book.  Chopin built up to it skillfully, with a familiarity that lets me know she had experienced great sadness herself.  But suicide has its pros and cons as a literary device.  It’s a hard ending.  It’s over for Edna Pontellier, there is no Part II.  There’s no imagining how she’ll get out of her situation.

Much has been felt, even learned, but no solution is presented.

I’m not being fair to Kate Chopin.  This book was radical at the time, so much so that despite positive reviews from women, Chopin’s career ended with Edna’s death.  And reading it helped a lot of people “awaken” to feminism.

But I’d like to compare it to my favorite suicide in fantasy; Dream, AKA Morpheus in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comic books.

Dream is the personification of the concept of dreams, an amalgam of REM cycles, whimsy, and hope.  But at the beginning of the series he is imprisoned by a magic spell.  He escapes 70 years later, but he never gets over it.  Dream has been sullied.

He builds himself a trap, an inevitable end for himself where he must die.  Sometimes he seems like he knows what he’s doing, sometimes he doesn’t, but in the end he dies.

And because this is fantasy, Dream is then reborn.  He gets to try again.

Obviously, these are two very different stories, rendered in different media, with vastly different purposes and themes.  They are both worthy of reading, and of serious consideration.  And I like them both.

But I like Sandman better.  I like that uptick of continuance and hope that so much of fantasy has.  I like the struggle through symbolism towards life, and towards wellness.

I had a friend ask me one time why I was writing fantasy if I was so interested in the psychology of my characters, if I was so interested in gender and race.  Well, I’ll tell you.

It’s because fiction ends with death, and that’s just where fantasy gets started.

Shakespeare and That Sad Puppies Thing

When I was a kid, my favorite Shakespeare play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Typical answer from a fantasy nerd, right?  But now, it’s probably Othello.  From Act I to Act V, Othello is a damming critique of (17th century) English and European society.  Iago is only able to orchestrate Othello’s fall because of the widespread bigotries that plague their society; racism, misogyny, and a general disregard for addicts.

Merchant of Venice and Hamlet were the other two contenders, but Othello wins hands down because the titular character has a full blown panic attack.  Contemplating Desdemona’s (invented) betrayal and the reparative action required of him by the demented Man Code of his time (murdering her), Othello becomes so unhinged that he babbles half-incoherently before falling “in a trance” to the stage.

Yup, that’s a panic attack.

You probably get the idea that while elves and aliens are important to me, so are more meaty and realistic things.  I like to see race, gender, and religion in my speculative fiction.  I like to read about mental illness (and wellness).  If the characters are fighting a daemon or a mega corporation that’s all well and good.  But when it becomes clear the dragon is a stand-in for something else, something I or my friends have to deal with in real life, that’s when I’m jumping up and down in my seat.

So I don’t get the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies.

If you haven’t heard (you probably have, I’m about two weeks late to this party and in Internet Years that’s a millennia) a bunch of dimbulbs worked together to ensure that only “fun” stories were nominated for the Hugos this year.  “Fun” as opposed to “niche, academic, overtly [leftist]”.  Mainstream escapism for the overprivileged as opposed to anything else.

Trust me; I like fun speculative fiction.  And I write fun speculative fiction — chock full of spells, swords, spaceships, and monsters.  But there’s more to life than that, and there’s more to fantasy and sci-fi than that.  The genres are transforming into what I wish they had been in my youth.  They’ve grown up along with me, along with all of us.

Hopefully, the Puppies will grow up soon too.

The Magus Reviewed: John Fowles Doesn’t Care About Black People (or anyone else)

(THIS BOOK REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS, as much as a book written in the ‘60s can be spoiled.)

I don’t read as much as I used to.  I’d like to read more, but between my job as a property manager and my manuscript in the works, I just don’t have the time.  So I find myself picking books that I think will broaden me more than the next thing by Neil Gaiman.  I search out minority writers in fantasy and sci fi.  I dabble in nonfiction.  I try to read any “important” works I might have missed.

And a few weeks ago, I thought to myself, “Gee, it’s been awhile since I read any Real Literature.”

In case you’re not sure what I mean, Real Literature is the kind of book that my Harry Potter snubbing high school English teacher would have approved of.  Straight fiction novels that are well written, weightier than “light reading”, with a hefty thematic topic like war or civil rights, or some existentialist crisis for the main character.

There are, of course, books of this kind that I like.  I count The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Michael Chabon) amongst books I both remember fondly, and found influential.  But you might already see the pattern.  O’Brien writes buckets of blood and dances circles around reality.  Atwood creates and explores an Evangelical Christian dystopian future.  Chabon’s two main characters are chiefly employed as superhero comic creators, and one is an apprentice magician and escapist.

Even when I’m reading Real Literature, I habitually reach for something that brushes the fantastic.  So perhaps it is no surprise that this time I picked up The Magus, by John Fowles.  And perhaps it is no surprise that I think it was a waste of time.

I’ll start with the positive, and confess that the middle of this book was satisfying.  The main character, Nicholas Urfe, is subjected to a bizarre psychological experiment cum performance art piece — the godgame.  He is lied to repeatedly by a troupe of characters hired and masterminded by a wealthy eccentric, Maurice Conchis.  Nicholas is regaled with long tales of Conchis’s (sometimes-real) life, confused by the characters appearing and disappearing through stage trickery, seduced and rejected by a pair of gorgeous twins, and is at last kidnapped, drugged, bound and gagged, and made to stand as judge in a trial of himself as he is read a thorough (and thoroughly embarrassing) psychological description of himself.

But the start is a bore.  Nicholas Urfe has moped his way through life.  He doesn’t fit in well with his own parents, he feels stifled by the British school system as first a student and then as a teacher, he fancies himself a poet but never puts forth the effort necessary to write anything decent.  Nicholas is an unreliable first person narrator, a misogynist, a classist, and a racist.  He’s unsociable, and either hates or devalues everyone, including himself.

Nicholas spends the first fifty pages seducing (possibly raping — consensual sex isn’t usually accompanied by tears) and then abandoning a young woman named Alison, who is somehow both plain and unbearably sexy, with “…a characteristic bruised look; a look that subtly made one want to bruise her more.”  Then Nicholas flees the boredom of England for the boredom of a sparsely populated Greek isle, Phraxos, where he teaches at a boarding school.  He meets Conchis.  He falls in love with one of the twins.  He strings Alison along anyway, until he dumps her after a trip with her to Parnassus.

A few weeks later, Nicholas gets word that Alison committed suicide.

So it’s understandable that by the time Nicholas is punished and humiliated by Conchis and his unorthodox troupe, I was more than ready to see him punished and humiliated.  Nicholas is left handcuffed to a chair and gagged while the characters all come in wearing fantastic masks and costumes.  The room itself is underground, painted as if for some kind of arcane ritual.  I’m on the edge of my seat.

And I am nothing but disappointed.

As soon as they have paraded in, the characters pull off their costumes and masks.  They all pretend to be psychologists.  They shrink Nicholas.  They leave him tied up while the beautiful English twin makes love to a black man (oooh boy, 1960s race relations, huh?).  They drug Nicholas again and release him on top of a mountain at the edge of Athens.  Nicholas wanders back to Phraxos, and then back to England, all the while trying to deduce the real identities of Conchis and his troupe.

Then Nicholas learns that Alison’s suicide — and all the letters he had confirming it — were part of the godgame.  And the godgame isn’t over.  Alison is alive after all.

The last hundred and fifty pages consist of Nicholas’s hunt for Alison — his strings still pulled by Conchis and his troupe all the while.  You would think Nicholas would be desperate to apologize, but no.  He wants nothing more than to wring apologies from Alison.  And in the end Nicholas finds Alison, slaps her, and emotionally arm-wrestles her into his own web of lies, abuse, and trickery; his own godgame.

This is the original ending.  A revised edition of The Magus came out in the ‘70s, reportedly with a different ending, but I don’t care to read it.  I get the feeling it isn’t just Nicholas Urfe who’s a bigot and misanthrope, but Fowles himself.  He spends 600 dense pages teasing us with fantasy and mystery and giving us lies.  He’s so smug about it, he can’t help but include a two-page summary of the thematic content in the form of a fairy tale, which spells out the point.

The Magus is the story is of one man hounding another with doubts, until the whole world seems a farce and the victim becomes a new manipulator, a new magus.  It is the birth of a narcissist — not one of Dr. Twenge’s children-called-special, but a real narcissist — a soulless manipulator, a monster without a conscience.  Poor Alison with the bruise-able face is destined to be his victim, his narcissistic supply.  It’s a poor ending to tack onto a thick tome full of references to Shakespeare, the Marquis de Sade, and acclaimed fine artists.  It’s an odd ending to tack onto such a pointedly literary work, when real narcissists aren’t really capable of understanding art.  It’s outdated psychology, it’s frequently boring and repetitive, and it’s more than a little revolting.

The obvious comparison is to Lolita.  But while Humbert Humbert may be an unrepentant offending pedophile, at least Vladimir Nabokov doesn’t try to suggest a lust for children is somehow nobly attained at the end of a long and difficult mental journey.

I’m not offended so much that this book was written — the 1960s was long ago, and morally primitive by today’s standards.  But why the heck is The Magus still well-considered as Real Literature?

The Hobbit: The Ruination of a Good Franchise

Like any good fantasy nerd, I went to see Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films even though I knew they would disappoint.  And boy did they disappoint!  I just saw the 3rd installment last night, so now that I have a blog I’m going to take a moment and reflect on just what went so very, very wrong.

(Warning; mild spoilers ahead.)

Problem One: Too much CG and green-screening.  Much has already been made over this issue — scenes that should have been tense became silly and cartoonish under the relentless onslaught of computer-generated baddies, bad physics, and the armies of copy-pasted elves and dwarves.  Not that CG can’t be used for good — for instance, Smaug was blood-chilling.  I loved every moment he was on screen.

But then Smaug went down, and the rest was a bloody mess.

Problem Two: Peter Jackson either didn’t have good weapons/warfare consultants, or didn’t listen to them.  You don’t hold a bow taut before firing — you aim, draw, and loose within a second or two.  Worst offender — Bard with his Black Arrow.  Good (no, friggin’ awesome!) idea to use your own kid as part of your makeshift scorpion; bad idea to waste all the potential energy of your arm holding and holding and holding that bowstring.

You also don’t send your archers (elves) leaping over the heads of your spearmen (dwarves) right into the charging enemy (orcs).  Your archers are just going to get backed up onto the spears of their own allies, and not do any of the arching that would kill lots and lots of those orcs.  At least the orcs were smart enough to use the high ground to their advantage, but why weren’t the dwarves and elves smart enough to try and do the same?

Problem Three: You don’t solve a huge lack-of-women problem by shoe-horning in a romance.  I had originally hoped that Jackson would be clever enough to make some of the dwarves into lady-dwarves.  Well, that didn’t happen.  Instead we got Cate Blanchett reprising her role of Galadriel — who was a total bad-ass in The Battle of the Five Armies, and was actually a good addition to the story the movie told.

But we also got Evangeline Lilly completely wasting her time and immense acting skill as Tauriel.  She comes to love Kili, the oddly handsome dwarf, which would be okay except they have nothing on which to base their love.  They have a few almost-conversations in The Desolation of Smaug, but then hardly even talk to each other in Five Armies.  So…why do they love each other?

Problem Four: Whitey whitey whitey whitey white!  Come on, Jackson, it’s almost 2015!  I saw one black extra and one Asian extra in Dale, and that was it.  I don’t care that your source material was written by a racist English guy more than half a century ago, you changed the story enough that you could have diversified your cast more than that. Do better, Hollywood!

Problem Five: The potential for dramatic tension during the battle was wasted because I didn’t know anyone!

I’ve been watching those dwarves for at least 8 hours, and apart from Thorin Oakenshield none of them have any personality.  And that is absurd, given how much personality their wardrobes had!   I didn’t even know Kili — “romantic pretty boy” isn’t a personality.  And whoever that new dwarven general was…Dain, I guess?  I know that dwarves aren’t a real “race” and therefore can’t really be subject to racism, but that looked like a racist portrayal of a dwarf.

The elves were no better.  Apart from Galadriel, they could have all been played by cardboard cutouts.  And that includes not just Tauriel, but Thranduil, Elrond, and even Legolas.  I don’t fault the actors for this — the script gave them no room for personality or actual charm.

I would have liked to see Beorn again, since we saw so little of him in Desolation, but his cameo was completely pointless.  Radagast was okay, and I love that he brought the eagles in, but…why does he still have bird poop in his hair?  And it’s pretty hard to care about a hoard of CG orcs when they aren’t interesting, or frightening, or make any logical sense.

Problem Six: Peter Jackson didn’t take his own anti-capitalist philosophy to heart.

I hated the Master of Laketown — not as one hates a good villain, but as one hates an obvious soapbox for the writer to spew his personal philosophies from.  At the beginning of Five Armies, the painfully obese Master is haranguing his servants to load a boat up with gold, gold, and gold.  “Forget the books, more gold!” he cries.  He also refuses to help any of the people of Laketown evacuate as Smaug burns the whole place down — his gold is that much more important!

So since we all know what Jackson really thinks about financial greed — that it comes at the cost of real knowledge and empathy for one’s fellow humans — why did his Hobbit Trilogy favor the philosophy of the Master of Laketown?  He threw out his characters to load up his movie with more expensive CG battle scenes.  He threw out the book his movies were based on to add more expensive CG battle scenes.

I can’t think of a more appropriate metaphor than the one Jackson created himself in Laketown’s Wyrmtongue knock-off, Alfrid.  At first we expected better.  Then he put on a silly costume and stuffed his bosom with ill-gotten cash, and we’ve all let him run off with it unhindered because he’s become that pathetic.