Ellen Page. Shailene Woodley. Anna Paquin. Elle Fanning. Dakota Fanning. Julia Stiles. Jessica Chastain. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Jennifer Connelley. Virginia Madsen. Connie Nielsen. Many others I’ve no doubt forgotten. Female stars in Hollywood have a disturbing tendency to be around for a few films, and then disappear into either minor roles or, at best, franchise series.
Of course this happens to the men too, and there are plenty of hot new leading male stars who have disappeared. But it seems to me the phenomenon is more common with young women.
Women seem to be more dispensable in modern filmmaking. Their parts are often more stock—yes, even if they’re an ass-kicking superhero or supervillain like Scarlett Johansson or Kate Beckinsale or Margot Robbie. Face it, it’s easy to replace one with another. Margot won’t do it, call Charlize Theron.
That makes a great payday but at the same time building a career is tough. How many actresses recently have, after their breakout picture, gone on to varied performances lately, besides Jennifer Lawrence, and that may be only because David O. Russell loves her. A few others come to mind—Michelle Williams, Keira Knightly—but not many.
Some say this is deliberate on the part of studios. It helps keep budgets down. Productions are less inclined to pay $15 million for a Julia Roberts when they can have a current “it” girl for four or five. Though they still spend upwards of $180 million on epic films, they aren’t doing it as often as they once did.
The biggest reason is simply it’s hard to find well-written lead roles for women—roles where they aren’t arm-candy to the male leads, or the damsel who has to be rescued. Sure there are a few bad-assers out there, like Michelle Rodriguez and Daisy Ridley, but those bad-assers have no depth. They’re as two-dimensional as the action figures they help sell.
So every few years we’re treated to a string of new “breakout” talents who take the world by storm with a tremendous performance in what I’m going to controversially call a legitimate film—Jessica Chastain in Zero-Dark-Thirty, Ellen Page in Juno, Shailene Woodley in The Descendants, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby—and then they either don superhero outfits or disappear altogether. Or both in succession.
It’s hard to develop acting talent when that’s your talent pool—superhero characters. It leads to a very infantile set of options for serious artists. And maybe that’s why the stars in Hollywood don’t quite shine as brightly—or as long—as they once did, not long ago. Hollywood today caters to teenagers and overseas box offices. And both are very fickle.
I read Amazon reader reviews (and if anyone, hem, wants to review mine, it’s available from Amazon and I would enjoy reading a review), and I don’t know why I do, because it’s torture. I’ll be blunt: a lot of readers have peanut butter for brains. The things the write make me scream as I read them. I click on the link that lets me tell Amazon their review should be removed and when it asks why I want to write “Because reviewer is an idiot.” But that doesn’t actually work. Trust me.
The single biggest comment that drives me bananas is, “I didn’t like the main character” (or sometimes “I couldn’t relate to anyone”). So many great books get one star reviews because “None of the characters were likeable.”
What boils my blood is, did it ever occur to the reviewer that maybe the character(s) was (were) supposed to be unlikable? Or to do it another way, why must all main characters be likable? Don’t we learn more from characters who are unlikable?
When reviewers say they want likable protagonists, they’re telling me they want to insert themselves into the role of the main character so that they can feel heroic and good.
I can’t think of a more shallow reason for reading. Or writing, I thought we passed the superhero stage when we were children, and we realized no one was as squeaky clean and all American as Clark Kent.
Don’t get me wrong. Clark’s a great guy, but can we, as readers, ever learn anything from him? No.
The wonder writer Francine Prose says this is why she doesn’t cotton to anyone who tells her how she should feel. The purpose of good writing is to discover how you feel yourself. The writer is a guide but not a dictator.
It means the journey isn’t pre-decided and pre-digested for you before you start.
I’ll repeat that.
It means the journey isn’t pre-decided and pre-digested for you before you start.
For some reason this is so hard for so many readers—particularly American readers—to get. Actually I’m being disingenuous (look it up) when I say for some reason; I know the reason. It’s how reading is taught in American schools.
Anything controversial isn’t touched anymore, for fear of backlash. So children are given pablum (look it up). College isn’t much better these days. And when people read on their own, well, look who the most popular writers are: Stephen King. Dean Koontz. Dan Brown. J.K. Rowling.
All these writers give you “reliable narrators.” Whether it’s a first person or third person narration, we’re supposed to take what they say at face-value. We’re not supposed to exist on a layer higher than them, evaluating what they as protagonists or guides present. But ladies and gentlemen, that’s where the fun is. That’s where you really learn to read.
“But,” someone said to me just the other day, “in Melville’s day people weren’t carting Moby-Dick to the beach either. They liked easy reading back then.” They did. The difference is they knew it was easy reading. No one would have called
great writing, unlike today where people smugly post that “they know what great novels are” because they teach Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer in colleges. People who carted this rather than Moby-Dick around knew they were reading escapism, and didn’t think “all things were equal,” but in our egalitarian world of today that is the mantra. It sells merchandise in the short run, but it does overall growth of any art long term.
For those who retort by citing examples of material that was considered junk in its own time but is now revered, I’ll just point out that for every one example of that there are countless more examples of junk that is…still considered junk.
You should always want to be challenged, at least a little, when you engage in culture, any culture. I want to be challenged when I write. When I start something I often don’t know what I’m going to write, how I’m going to conclude. Readers who diss works because the author didn’t hold their hand aren’t doing themselves a favor. It’s like a diet of nothing but sweets.
And we know what that does…to the teeth and to the mind.
Another post I wrote a while back about this same topic is here.
Note: I am not affiliated with these people in any way and have not even tried this product. But I do think this is where writing is headed, for a great many people, as publishing houses clamp down more and more on what they’ll put out there, fearful of anything except “sure fire” hits. Watch this rather interesting and effective promotional video to see for yourself.
What do you think? Do you think self-publishing on a large scale is a good thing or a bad thing? Do we need “gatekeepers”? And are editors and agents really “gatekeepers” in the true sense of the word, or are they more like arbitrarily-placed people whom we have to game and whose prejudices we have to bypass (when we could be busy writing)?
Comment below and share your thoughts or experiences.
He comes in every day—you can set your watch by him—and sits down to read a novel he’s toting. Brainy guy, one of those “beautiful mind” types whose IQ probably tops out on the far right of the bell curve. One day he has Moby-Dick. The next time it’s Complete Works of Isaac Babel. Then it’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Ulysses, Infinite Jest. You’ll never see him reading Twilight or Jodi Picoult.
I was talking to him the other day, in this coffee shop we both frequent. I almost hate to do this—talk to him, that is. He’s a pretty private kind of guy; you an tell by the body language he wants to be left alone. At the same time, there aren’t a lot of people who are as interesting, so I do engage him in conversation sometimes, occasionally.
He had just finished Moby-Dick for the umpteenth time. He enjoyed how it was a novel of ideas, how it rambled and meditated on all sorts of ideas and issues. We started talking about our favorites when I mentioned that so often when you tell someone you’ve read or are reading a particular novel the first thing—usually the only thing—that want to know is “What’s it about?”
In other words, he said, they want to know about the plot.
Exactly, said I.
He fairly bellowed, “Plot is overrated!”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
To me it’s not What’s it about? as it is How’s it about?
I don’t believe plot is really all that hard. Sure there are some works of fiction with amazingly intricate plots that dazzle me, but a good voice will always impress me more than a complex plot. There are almost mechanical ways to construct plots. Of course there is the shadowy, imprecise concept of genius, which resists all formula, but in a lot of ways plot is like rhythm in music—almost mathematical, chartable.
But what makes one voice so compelling that it stays with you your whole life, haunts you? Why is it Beethoven wrote in sonata form just like hundreds of other composers in his day, but it’s not the other composers we remember? Why am I listening to the Archduke Trio right now as I write this, still finding new twists in a work that’s over 200 years old?
Why does the opening of Deborah Eisenberg’s short story “Presents” astonish with its novelty:
The waves go on and on—there is no farther shore; a boat here and there in the dark water, a cluster of fronds, an occasional sunset. Cheryl closes her eyes and the warm night blue water rushes out around her. “Think it’s really like that?” she asks. Cheryl’s voice is arresting—low, and with a city accent that gives each word the finality of a bead dropping into place along a string; sometimes strangers to whom she speaks pause before responding, and look, if they haven’t looked before. “Think it’s really that blue?”
“Blue?” Carter glances down at his shirt. “Nothing’s this blue. Not even this. It’s the lights in here—make everything vibrate.” He tips the little glass bottle in his hand and spills a neat white line from it onto his forearm, which he extends to Cheryl with balletic solemnity.
I have to admit, after an opening like that, I don’t care what the story is “about.”
Back to my friend at the coffee shop. Today he had a new one; he was sitting far away and I couldn’t read the title, but it was thick and no doubt challenging. Its author no doubt created a whole universe of laws, of causes and effects as unique and detailed as the actual universe we live in, Einstein’s universe, Bohr’s universe. Think of literature that way. Like the real universe, it becomes a lot more interesting when you do.
“Plot is overrated!” I can still hear him bellowing.
Preach it, brother…
It’s a term we hear all the time. “Literary fiction.” But what is it exactly? And how do you know if you’re reading it?
Some people think there’s no such thing as literary fiction, that it’s just a fancy pedigree it likes to give itself so that it can pretend to be superior to genre fiction, the stuff for the masses.
I don’t agree. I say there are definite and distinct differences to literary fiction. And as a service to y’all, I thought I’d outline what they are, as I see them:
In literary fiction…
1. The novel is set in exotic or rarely-visited places
Or at least chic and artsy. Literary fiction never happens in Orlando, Florida or Hoboken, New Jersey. You’re either dealing with somewhere far-off (preferably in the Eastern or Southern Hemisphere), very small-town America, or, if it is a largish-place, somewhere hip like San Francisco or Portland, Oregon. New York City, particularly SoHo, is excepted, since 1) that’s an unusual or iconic place unto itself, and 2) most of your literary fiction writers live there in the first place.
2. People in literary fiction are ethnic, and have unusual names
Forget Harry, Sue, Mike, and Kathy. Literary fiction characters are named Orsi, Hassan, Yukiko, Blue, Phandango and Yesim. If there is someone named Herb, he’s a foil, he’s square, and he’s not the hero.
3. No one has an ordinary day job
Literary fiction characters almost never have day jobs. People are always artists, writers, musicians, poets, or, if they must have a job, function as museum curators, liberal arts professors or antique-store cashiers. No one ever works in a mundane place such as a bank, an insurance office, or a land title company. There may be an occasional working-class hero who’s a plumber or food-truck vendor, but he’s looking towards bigger and better things, such as when his 900-page first novel is published or his indie band breaks out.
4. Everyone has had a convoluted or unconventional childhood
No one in literary fiction ever grew up in suburban neighborhoods with cul-de-sacs and shopping malls—unless the purpose is to show how unhappy they were there. (This is especially true of novels set in the 1950s.) Lit fic characters were raised in obscure towns or on fishing boats or in far-off foreign lands (never Milan or Paris). They had two mothers and no fathers. Or vice versa. Or they were home-tutored by some eccentric. They were separated from their sibling at six and not reunited with them till many years later. They grew up on a natural foods co-op or in a village in Somalia. Preferably war-ravaged.
5. Everyone in literary fiction lives a cool retro-life
iPads and iPhones and digital streaming? No way! People in literary fiction go to old-fashioned movie theaters to watch Casablanca and Bergman. They listen to Edith Piaf or Billie Holiday—on vinyl, naturally. They drive old Volvos and wear threads from thrift stores. Everyone has a guitar, but no one plays Guitar Hero. And get this, they still write letters to people. On paper. Sure they have email and texting, but they check it once in the whole novel, not every five minutes while they’re driving, the way your friends do.
6. Literary fiction characters read literary fiction novels
The people in these worlds routinely name-drop authors like Haruki Murakami, Thomas Pynchon, Zadie Smith and Philip Roth. Nobody reads Michael Crichton, Dan Brown or James Patterson. Stephenie Meyer? Diana Gabaldon? Who are they? You wonder how those authors have sold so many books in real life.
7. Literary fiction characters never worry about money
They are artists and poets, baristas and natural food co-op cashiers. Yet they never worry about money. I mean really worry. Sure there’s a La Boheme quality to their poverty, but somehow there’s no handwringing that that part-time bookstore job doesn’t come with medical and dental insurance.
8. They have a dark secret in their past
Long-lost love. Incest. Death of a parent they never knew. A secret document in the attic. Responsibility for someone’s early demise. There’s always something hinted at on page one that isn’t completely revealed till the last chapter. And they spend most of the novel naval-gazing incessantly, reflecting on every trivial moment of their lives since pre-school.
9. No humor allowed—unless it’s ironic/sardonic
Literary fiction is not out-and-out funny. The tone must always be thoughtful, serious and somber. Keepers of the literary flame seem to forget that a bearded Englishman who is considered the greatest writer ever wrote farcical “low-brow” comedies for common people, and that these are among his most beloved works. Sure, there are lit fic stories that purport to be comic, usually in a sarcastic or snarky way. Someone will always hasten to mention A Confederacy of Dunces. The defense rests.
10. They’re in “relationship transition”
Their boyfriend (sorry, it’s almost always a boyfriend) left them. Or died, after a horrid illness or freak accident. Or their spouse has divorced them. There are never nuclear families unless they are really, really FUBAR. Someone appears in the story to comfort them, but it’s always doomed and never lasts.
11. They don’t watch TV
Everyone in the real world is glued to Kitchen Nightmares, American Idol and The Big Bang Theory. People in lit fic never fill up their spare time perusing such drivel. They occasionally may flip on CNN, but only to learn about some big event overseas that’s affecting one of the story’s characters, ie, that civil war in Somalia. They do read The New York Times, however. Religiously.
12. The book has deckled edges
It’s either literary fiction or an American history book. Often the dust jacket looks artificially-aged too. And I just love that look. So sue me.