Star Wars Seven

Writing/literaturePosted by Jim Baker Fri, January 01, 2016 11:03PM
(cross-posted from the ZBB)

I really enjoyed the film. The one big fault I would find with it would be that there was a lack of originality - it was really well done, but well done using ideas from the existing films more than coming up with its own ones. Fault the prequel trilogy all you like, you can't deny there are a lot of new ideas in there: not necessarily good new ideas, but new ideas all the same. Pretty much everything in this new film, however, felt derivative: BB-8 was just a souped-up R2-D2; Kylo Ren was (even in-universe!) just a cheap knock-off of Darth Vader - and these were amongst the film's more original elements!

I'm not necessarily sure the lack of originality was a bad thing. Like I said, I really enjoyed the film, and lots of other people have as well. It's not a model that can last, though. This series isn't going to last very long if it's just continually rehashing old ideas.

Re: changes to GCSE Eng Lit syllabus

Writing/literaturePosted by Jim Baker Mon, May 26, 2014 08:35PM

Gove has made many bad decisions, but I'm not convinced this is one of them. Yes, To Kill A Mockingbird is a Great Novel - but it's not as if it's been suggested that it be replaced with something that's complete rubbish. It's a shame that kids won't get to read it, but surely that's made up for by the fact that they get to read another work of equal merit instead. Or do people seriously want to argue that the nineteenth century classics in question are, in fact, badly written or irrelevant or whatever? If so, I know who I think are the philistines.

At the end of the day there's only so many books you can fit into a GCSE syllabus. You're going to have to make difficult choices like Charles Dickens vs Harper Lee or whatever. It's just the practicalities of the thing. I rather suspect that if Great Expectations or something had been the number 1 set text for however many years and it was mooted that it be replaced people - the same people - would be complaining just as much, on the same grounds: that teenagers are being denied good literature. But that isn't the case. Thinking maybe we should have another book in its place isn't the same as thinking To Kill A Mockingbird is terrible. It's not as if it's universally considered to be The Single Best Book Ever Written or anything anyway.

The main argument in favour of some of the current books seems to be that they're easier for teenagers to engage with or whatever. Perhaps reading a book that's too hard will put them off reading forever! This seems a bit condescending to me - it's as if it's saying 15-year-olds can't actually cope with nineteenth century stuff, so give them something easier. Likely there are some kids who wouldn't be able to cope - but that doesn't mean everyone else should be denied access to the "harder" stuff. And I rather suspect that if you've reached the age where you take GCSEs and you're still at risk of being put off reading by a book that's too hard, reading great literature probably isn't ever going to be your thing anyway.

There's also, relatedly, the length argument. There's not much time: short books are better. Hence the popularity of Of Mice and Men. And it's true, a lot of nineteenth century books are very long - but not all of them. And it's not as if all the reading has to be done in the classroom, or that every last part of the book need be analysed. Most people should be perfectly capable of reading even a very long book over the course of a term or two as homework.

Literary fiction

Writing/literaturePosted by Jim Baker Thu, August 22, 2013 08:28PM
Here is a link to an article I read today:

I don't want to give a detailed critique of every point in that article but rather to (briefly) contest its main argument: "good commercial [i.e. "genre"] fiction is inferior to good literary fiction". There seem to me to be at least a couple of problems with this.

One is that the argument is perhaps basically definitional. Works of the "genre" type have a tendency to be promoted to the "literary" type whenever they have sufficient "literary" characteristics. Thus for example 1984 would seem to fit the basic criteria for being considered science fiction - being set in (at the time of writing) the future and having various invented technologies at least one of which is pretty central to the story. Its general dystopian feel is replicated across the sci-fi genre. Yet, because 1984 also has plenty of "literary" characteristics, it may end up being regarded as "literary fiction" and not "science fiction". Of course, if you consider "literary" characteristics (fairly reasonably) as the core of what makes something good writing, and any piece of work that has enough literary characteristics magically ceases to be "genre" fiction and becomes "literary fiction", then the best works of the latter type are always going to be better than the best of the former.

Secondly, consider the example of a specific work: Macbeth. If I were to argue that this is the greatest piece of literature ever produced I don't think many people would regard this as particularly unreasonable, even if they personally disagree. But surely Macbeth satisfies the definition of "fantasy" - not to mention sword-fights and castles and other things that tend to pop up in fantasy works, it has witches, who are not mere irrelevances but the driving force of the plot, as well as a ghost. You could perhaps argue it is "magic realism", but that is somewhat dubious, and magic realism might just be a sub-type of fantasy anyway. We might say, then, that the greatest piece of literature ever produced belongs to the fantasy genre. And that would seem to confound somewhat the argument of the linked article.

I think it's also important to note that, even if the best "literary" fiction were better than the best "genre" fiction, it doesn't follow from this that not all literary fiction is better than all genre fiction, which is maybe what is assumed in some circles. I've read quite a lot of "literary" fiction - prize-winning literary fiction, even - which is, in my opinion, really really bad. Pretty prose (i.e. prose which clings to a certain narrow and probably fairly arbitrary definition of what is "good" writing) cannot make up for a book being absolutely awful in every other respect. I would go so far as to suggest that "literary" works are more likely to be really bad books than "genre" works. Done badly, the latter stand a good chance of being vaguely entertaining whereas the former just end up as pretentious purposeless pseudo-artistic drivel.