a novel by JOHN GRABOWSKI

Posts tagged “literature

Gone girls

screen-shot-2017-05-21-at-9-54-41-pmEllen 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.

 


What makes my blood boil…

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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.

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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

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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.


“I’ve got SECRETS!”

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One of the biggest cliches in any discussion of writing is “Why do you write?” It seems to be a question that won’t go away. I find it interesting, especially since nobody asks the plumber “Why do you plumb?” or the carpenter “Why do you carpet?”

But I’ll also tell you my answer, the same answer William Goldman gave in his excellent 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade: “I’ve got secrets!

Secrets, you hear me, secrets! And I agree. I know things, big things. Things right under our noses, only I’ve assimilated and made sense of them and now I’m bringing them to you, wrapped in a nice candy shell of good writing, witty dialogue and poignant moments.

After all, isn’t this why anyone writes?

Actually no. The genre writers, I don’t think, care too much about this sort of thing. They write mainly escapism. I know I’ll get arguments—there are lots of people who find profundities in every Star Wars and Harry Potter installment—but I really believe genre is generally antithetical to discovery, to the search for truth.

Why? Because unless you break the rules of genre (and I love it when writers do—Jose Saramago is a great example), you have certain foregone conclusions. Most people find that sort of comforting; I don’t.

I don’t care for most westerns, but one of my favorites is The Cowboys, a 1972 John Wayne film. Why? Because Wayne, obviously the star, gets shot in the back two-thirds of the way through the movie. You don’t expect that in a Western.

Another is Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. There simply isn’t enough time to describe all the ways that one went against the grain.

 

By defying genre expectations, the creators are saying, “We’ve got secrets!” Because secrets keep the genres going! And going!

That’s why I write.

It’s lonely. When I was first starting Entertaining Welsey Shaw, way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and fire was newly discovered, I read somewhere, on either the internet or a stone tablet, a quote attributed to Toni Morrison†: If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, write it.

I liked that advice, and set out to do that. I was amazed no one had written the definitive ordinary-guy-meets-celebrity novel, a setup I thought was ripe.

But agents and publishers aren’t so lofty-minded. They want stories that are very close to what they’ve already published, so they can see it that way. Despite Ms. Morrison’s advice, most people don’t like to see something they haven’t seen before. Nearly every agent and publisher I showed the novel to wanted to know, immediately, what the “comparables” were, meaning, what’s “like it.” Some websites even gave examples: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games. Yeah, agents and marketers think far and deep.

Okay, it’s hard to blame them. The business is tough, and most books, like most movies and most recordings these days, don’t make money. So they’re being very careful about what they publish. At the same time, being this reactionary often means missing the next big opportunity. Once upon a time Ms. Rowling couldn’t find anyone who would publish a 500 page book with all text and no pictures aimed at kids. It does sound absurd, doesn’t it? What smart money would pursue that?

What all this means is fiction, particularly American fiction, is wedded to genre. It’s not as bad in other cultures. But I can’t help but feel sad when I see people reading predictable stuff over and over again. I can sort of understand why predictability is desirable—you want to know, when you invest your time, what you’re going to get. An old friend recently told me this is why she goes to Disney World again and again: you know how your vacation will turn out. You know what you’re going to see, how you’re going to react, what they’ll make you feel.

Me, I love surprises. I’d rather try something new and not enjoy it. For one thing, all the things I do love were once new experiences for me, ones I was iffy about. For another, well, as I said, I love surprises, don’t like the predictable. When I go into an action hero flick, I know they’re going to succeed in their mission—blow up the big battle station or whatever—but there will be a big loss…probably the most lovable character will die. But nothing subversive will happen.

I live for subversiveness. Art is created when the norms bump up against subversiveness and friction results. If we still weren’t shooting hero cowboys in the middle of the picture, we’d still be making Stagecoach. Nothing wrong with Stagecoach. There is something wrong with still making Stagecoaches in 2017.

Daniel Ferreira, my protagonist in Entertaining Welsey Shaw, has secrets, and they come out in his writings too. At the point we join him in the story, however, no one is interested in them anymore. He had one break-out book, when he was fresh out of college, Since then no one has been interested in anything he’s had to say. So he’s turning out schlock for third-tier magazines and newspapers, a hired gun.

That’s how Entertaining Welsey Shaw begins. You can read the rest of it, too, as it’s now out, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells, and just about everywhere else they sell books (if you ask nicely). You can also either get it, or ask them to order it, at your local indie book store. In fact, there’s a list of such stores right here. Whatever method of delivery you choose, from drone to phone, thanks to the internet, it’s easy to get.

And there’s currently a contest going on. Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about a haphazard encounter between our Everyman Daniel and a famous, elusive celebrity. Tell me an interesting encounter you’ve had with a celebrity, either traveling incognito or in full view. The best story (judged by me) wins a free hardback copy of the novel–a $27.99 value as they say. The link is here—https://entertainingwelseyshaw.com/2017/03/24/giveaway-get-a-free-copy-of-entertaining-welsey-shaw-for-entertaining-the-rest-of-us-with-your-story/.

Good luck! And remember, genre is fun but surprises are better.

† I always say “attributed” because there are a lot of quotes that were not said by people who are famous for saying them, even well-known quotes.

“One minute she’s surrounded by friends, the next she’s all on her own jetting across the world!”

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I thought I was reading an interview with Welsey Shaw.

But I wasn’t. She’s Cara Delevingne, and I’m amazed I’d never heard of her before.

She’s a fashion model, and she belies all the stereotypes about such models: she’s smart, funny, curious, and a terribly articulate and searching.

And one of the things she keeps articulating is how lonely her life is, and that being famous and in the spotlight constantly doesn’t make you less alone. Just the opposite, in fact. Ms. Delevingne often says she feels terribly alone.

Like Welsey she’s had some explosive outbursts. Welsey goes off on everyone inside a Manhattan Starbucks. For Ms. Delevingne, a security search at a train station in Paris caused her to erupt and call the agents names. After being detained an hour she apologized, and was sent on her way.

No explanation why she went off. But people like her are under lots of pressure (not that that’s an excuse, but…) and often it’s the small things that do it, something Daniel Ferreira learns when he gets deeper and deeper into Welsey’s life. A casual brush could bruise a career, a slip on a late night talk show could end it. Friends become foes in the blink of an eye, people use you for who you are, and if you fail to please them you are labeled a “biiytch.” And through all this, you’re supposed to always, unfailingly smile.

Delevingne’s said she battled with depression during her school years but managed to turn her life around with the help of writing and yoga. But it hasn’t worked as well as she’d hoped, apparently. After a devastating breakup recently, she has told her family that she might end up walking away from fame. And friends say she is now depressed worse than they have ever seen before. As her mother observed, “One minute she’s surrounded by friends, the next she’s all on her own jetting across the world!”

I confess I once considered an ending for Entertaining Welsey Shaw where Welsey, miserable in her alone-ness, took her life. Just writing left an incredibly bad taste in my mouth. But a number of celebrities in the spotlight—particularly, for some reason, young women—have made this decision. I truly hope Ms. Delevingne finds her way out of her darkness, and rediscovers happiness soon. Perhaps a break from fame might have a therapeutic affect. It does for Welsey, in the ending I finally opted for for the novel.

 


Replay: Emma Bovary, Welsey Shaw and FOOD

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Food, glorious food!

There’s a lot of eating in Entertaining Welsey Shaw. The last third of the novel is an orgy of meals—long, expensive meals. And there are quite a few before then, too.

Fancy meals. Meals in expensive New York City restaurants. One in Welsey’s private penthouse on Park Avenue. And several pot lucks in small-town Callicoon.

Perhaps not a novel to read if you’re on a diet.

EWS is about conversation and social interaction. And in our culture, and most others, conversation and social interaction center around eating and drinking. Especially eating.

Eating says a lot about who we are. It’s one of the best ways a writer can define character, geography and social status.

I thought of this the other day after coming across a discussion of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in the context of its many feasts. Food plays a major role in that novel, and not just as background. Flaubert’s characters are frequently eating, and the way they eat reveals their characters. Charles’s bad table manners demonstrate his lowly class, something that repulses Emma. But Emma herself sucks her fingers and licks the bottom of a glass, betraying her pretensions of sophistication and her more base side. And when Emma goes to the ball, the table manners of the nobles and the expensive foods in the scene signify their sophistication.

But aside from social refinement, food manifests class. The types of food, of course, signify this, but the fact that, say, Rouault sends Charles a turkey every year defines his character. For the lower class, food is a form of love, as it could be argued, it is in Entertaining Welsey Shaw for Anne, who is constantly worried about how and what Joseph eats. She is constantly meddling in his nutrition, reading the labels on the frozen packages in his refrigerator. Joseph begins sneaking junk food the way a smoker sneaks cigs, tossing the wrappers in a neighbor’s can. With Welsey, he has fun eating. Although Welsey is an actress and has to worry about her weight and her appearance, she seems to be one of these women who truly can eat anything (or at least many things) and not worry too much about how it sticks to her. I hate these types—don’t you?

I searched the web extensively, planning elaborate meals, usually off the actual menus at the real restaurants, both named and unnamed in the novel, that the characters visit. Of course, I don’t know if these items were on the menus back in 2008. When I couldn’t completely visualize I went to online videos to contemplate appetizers such as Caviar and Crème Fraiche Buckwheat Cornets. Then I decided not to use them. I planned and replanned meals because, like Flaubert, I wanted to tell a story partly through food. (For reasons that probably only make sense to me, and even then only on alternate Tuesdays, I substituted savory cheese truffles with chives, pecans and goat cheese instead.)

Drinking, of course, goes with food, but there’s very little alcohol in Entertaining Welsey Shaw. There is, however, coffee, which is probably the most romantic non-alcoholic drink there is. True it’s prosaic coffee, Coffee shop consumed in a Starbucks, the most common place for coffee on earth, but that’s why I wanted most of the story to take place in a Starbucks: it’s the most ordinary place on earth, and here Joseph, our protagonist, encounters the world’s most elusive celebrity. There’s something extraordinary—and this is the idea that fascinated me from the first day and made me want to start writing this thing—about the idea of being able to talk to this incredibly famous person separated only by a very small round table. Two extremely different worlds that nearly, nearly touch.

But it’s as close as they’re likely to. The Internet is filled with pictures of celebrities going to Starbucks for their caffeine fix.  Standing in line in one of their New York or LA stores may be the most likely way you’ll ever encounter a celebrity, though buried in their hoodies, wearing sunglasses or without their stage makeup, as with Welsey Shaw, you likely won’t recognize them. It’s amazing to me the hold Starbucks seems to have on the famous set, although perhaps we just get more photos of them coming out of that particularl coffee shop because it’s the most well-known and ubiquitous. Perhaps Robin Wright loves some small beanery in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood and Jonah Hill swears allegiance to an out-of-the-way spot in SoHo, but what we see in the media is countless celebs getting succor from the mermaid. Which is why I never considered setting Entertaining Welsey Shaw anywhere else.

One final aspect about all the eating in the novel. One of my favorite character-defining moments comes near the end: Joseph has actually gotten to see Welsey’s highly-private Manhattan penthouse apartment on Park Avenue. Towards evening she decides to order dinner from a fancy Italian restaurant. He, thinking he should, orders something elaborate; she gets the spaghetti and meatballs. As he sits cutting his veal and mushrooms, she slurps her pasta and gets tomato sauce all over her face. At that point he gets it: Welsey, robbed of her childhood, is having it now. That’s the key to understanding her. (They’ve also just spent the afternoon sitting on the floor playing the game of Life, with its little plastic cars and stick figure-people.) That’s one of my favorite moments in the whole novel, and food, glorious food plays a major role in defining it.

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