Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Interpretations of Culture and Globalization part 2

Read Part 1 Here.

There are other facets to the globalization/culture argument including modernity, feminism and post modernity. Those who argue for the protection of cultures against supposed incursions of the West tend to conceive of culture as a fixed, unchanging object. It is better to leave societies alone and untouched, they argue, so that they cannot be "contaminated."

It should not be assumed that modernity is the sole provenance of the West. There are numerous problems with this method of thinking, including an unconscious categorization of modernity with Western culture, which casts the non-Western as primitive. Although much of the characteristics that gave rise to modernity arose from the West, such as the widespread use of the printing press, it is a Western-centric history that fails to recognize the pivotal role of non-Western societies in giving birth to the modern era. Scholars such as Benedict Anderson have argued that the nation-state system, a defining characteristic of the modern world, originated from the New World. Features of modernity, including the beginnings of a global economy with the growth of European trade and exploration can be seen even earlier in the Muslim diaspora and Silk Road trade. Thus, modernity is as much of a legacy of the Asia and Africa as it is of the West.

Leading sociological thinkers such as Max Weber and Emile Durkheim generally understood modernity to be a consequence of industrialization. In the modern period, people, products, and tasks were characterized by increasing specialization via the division of labor. Modernity includes the standardization of social aspects that facilitate greater integration, such as time. More generally, modernity can be described of as a transition from typically smaller local communities to greater integration into a larger society.

Thus, one of the contradictions of modernity is that with greater integration, there is greater awareness of others, and correspondingly greater delineation of “us vs. them.” Hence, awareness of other cultures more sharply defines the symbols in one’s own by the simple recognition that one’s own worldview is not the same as the other’s worldview.

Tied up with issues of modernity are also issues of feminism and women’s rights. Societies wishing to be “modern” must confront conceptions and ideas that not only bring greater material comforts but drastically change the status quo. Often, these issues are most sharply in focused in issues of women’s rights.

Tabitha Kanogo’s book, African Womanhood in Colonial Kenya, shows how women’s identity and social roles have been tied up in the struggles between the traditional and the modern. In this book, Konogo demonstrates the tensions between older concepts of women as property changing with the coming of industrialization and specialization. As in seen in the west, with industrialization comes a correspondingly increased sense of individualism.

Comparative examination between clitoridectomy in Kenya and foot-binding in China suggests that ideas of feminism and equality are central to modernization. As shown in the Konogo book, the conflicts over clitoridectomy are multi-dimensional with regards to their desirability, its symbolism as an act of womanhood as well as the social mores attached to that act.

The difference between social efforts to ban clitoridectomy in Kenya and similar movements to ban foot-binding in China is that the practice of foot-binding became linked with backwardness. This concept of backwardness would not have been possible without an awareness of the opposing principle of modernity. Foot-binding was seen as suppressing women, which in turn repressed the supposed potential of the Chinese people. The Chinese (at least the upper class who wrote and left numerous tracts behind) were supremely aware of China’s place in the world, and that they lived in an era in which China was weak while the Europeans were strong and respected in the world. Therefore it was for reasons of national pride and modernity that foot-binding was eradicated, and not for concerns of the women themselves.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Harry Potter and the Stages of Life

Sigh. I just read over on that the last Harry Potter book will probably not be released until next year. By this time next year, if all goes according to plan, I should have my Masters and finished at least another novel.

I don't know about anyone else, but I there are some books that I remember as marking certain periods in my life.

My freshman year, I remember sitting out on the Quad at Vassar with my friend Laura and her family for her birthday. Her mother had gotten her a copy of this new book that had apparently been making waves over in the U.K. called "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

My sophomore year, I procrastinated on declaring my major, by reading "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."

I don't remember where I was for the third Harry Potter book, but oddly enough, it's probably my favorite of the entire series.

When the fourth book came out, I was working at my first real professional job out of college, at a law firm and becoming increasingly depressed at the thought of working in cubicle farms for the rest of my life. Harry Potter 5 took me into another world.

Harry Potter 6? Two good friends of mine from college got married that weekend. And my maid of honor gave me the copy as a bridal shower gift.

There are other books that I will always remember. When I was 12, Robin McKinely's The Hero and the Crown made me realize that it was ok for girls to go out to kill dragons.

And I stayed up all night, until about 5 a.m., the night before 9/11, unable to put down Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan.

I'm sure there are other books that mark periods of my life, but at the moment, this is what I can remember.

How about you?

Heather in Senegal

My friend Heather is a new Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal! She just arrived in April, and you can read all about her fascinating experiences there at her blog.

Some highlights:

April 3
Peace Corps has all new volunteers do a demystification visit during their first week in the country. It is a wonderful idea. I went to Kaffrin with another girl from my stage (group of volunteers who started at the same time), and we stayed with Anne, an urban agriculture volunteer. I expect my work will be similar to hers. On the first day she took us to the market for bean sandwiches and grocery shopping. This was a shocking experience. The market is a hot, crowded, loud, fish-smelling series of stands where people sell vegetables, fish, fabric, sandals, and other things. The stands are generally just tables on which the salable items are displayed in piles. Because I would not push people or force my way forward, I kept getting separated from the others. We went to the market every morning, and gradually I got used to the sites. An elderly man who sells vegetables likes to joke with Anne about her being his wife. When he saw Anne with two new females he broke into praises to Allah for giving him three wives, and he hollered threats at all nearby men lest they look at his wives.

April 19
Toubob: this is a word that basically means “different,” but can be taken as “honky” or as something more offensive. Kids call out “toubob!” every time they see me. Sometimes I reply in French or Pular that I’m not white. I say I’m black and ask where the white person is. Today I responded by saying “Asalam allekum,” which is the basic greeting. They toubobbed me again, so I repeated myself in a tone of voice that said, “Come now, I know your manners are better than that.” I like that some tones of voices seem universal. They laughed and returned the greeting in a tone that sounded a tad apologetic. If the kids are close to my home I usually introduce myself. I have also tried singing toubobtoubobtoubobtoubob back to the kids and doing a jig. Today a volunteer in her second year told us that regardless of how affective our work is, for the next two years we will be like a cartoon show on TV for our villagers.

May 24
I am sure I mispronounce many words, but my family has taken delight in correcting me on two in particular. At the end of every meal, completely regardless of how much I have eaten, as soon as I put down my spoon or otherwise indicate that I am done everyone at the bowl yells "eat!" It is as if I am a conductor giving a cue to a well trained choir. I have been responding, "mi haddi." That is what it sounded like everyone else was saying when they are full. No, they have been saying "mi harri," and I have been concluding each meal by announcing that I am circumcised. My second colorful error has been saying, "I soiled my pants," when I intended to say, "I need."

A Feminist Take on Memorial Day

I know this is late, after Memorial Day, but I've been reading a number of touching tributes to the men and women who have served in our armed forces. Despite feelings about the use and justification of war, it is important to acknowledge those who have chosen to put their lives to a greater cause. When people sign up for the military, they're signing up because they believe in something bigger than themselves (discussion of whether their beliefs are misplaced is for another day), tapping into the same motivation that drives people to join the Peace Corps.

However, there is one group that I think is always forgotten. A group that, by its very nature, does not lend itself to glorious stories, and heroic poetry, but yet, is just as vital to our nation. It's the people that get left behind, the friends and family who watch their loved ones go off. My views as a feminist is what made me think about this, because in the past, it's been the mothers and wives who are forgotten. Women's contribution to war efforts, yes, are arguably well-recognized in WWI and WWII, because they constituted some of the largest war mobilization efforts known. But I'm talking about in general, the Korean and Vietnam war mothers, wives, and sisters, and survivors of those who died in smaller battles that were never named.

Yes, there is strength and courage in those serving the military. But it also takes a certain strength and courage to watch those you love go off, risk their lives, and also help them take care of their wounds, mental and physical when they return. Today, it's not just the women who get left behind, but also the fathers, brothers, uncles and sons. Just as we need to recognize those who serve, we need to thank those who support and love our defenders.

Friday, May 26, 2006

On the Romance Genre: a historical take

There's bit a lot of discussion about what precisely defines the romance genre over at, MiladyInsanity, JorrieSpencer, Brianna's Mommy, and Bev's Books to name a few. Most readers are of the opinion that a romance HEA must involve the hero and the heroine staying together. They don't have to be married or have kids, but they must stay together.

I commented on that:

I think the definition of a HEA is changing and that’s what Aphrodisia is responding to: as long as the woman is happy, it doesn’t matter if she ends up with the hero or not. As long as everyone is happy at the end, to me, that means it is an HEA, regardless of who she’s with at the end. I don’t care if she’s partnered, married, with kids, etc, as long as she’s happy. I’m also satisfied with a “Happy for now” ending, which implies that there’s an ongoing story. So, no I don’t think it’s false advertising for Aphrodisia to stretch the genre to accomodate these changing attitudes which is what I think they’re doing.

Racy Li commented back on that:

Markets change and evolve to meet the changing tastes of society. Romance is changing to accomodate the women of the “Sex in the City” generation. I think in a few more years, it will change again, to meet the tastes of teenagers who grew up reading romances in Japanese anime.

Bev responded that:

I mean it sounds completely reasonable that any “living” thing will change over time. The same is true of literary genres, I’m sure. What we read now is definitely not the same thing published and read 100 years ago.
The problem is that there are limits, even to this type of change. Limits imposed, not by readers or even publishers, but by our own human natures. Do genres exist because we created them the way they are or do they exist because we exist and we need ways to explain that very existence to ourselves? The world around us changes, but we as human beings do not. Not that quickly, at any rate.

Bev is coming from the position that a romance is ultimately a story about a relationship (we'll leave discussions of threesomes and gay/lesbian relationships for another day) between two people, usually a man and a woman. A romance requires an life affirming HEA (happily ever after) which means that the two people must stay together.

Others, including, Angie over at Brianna's Mommy

But if you’re talking about the heroine’s HEA alone, you’re not talking about romance. Romance is about a relationship and the HEA there. If you have anything else, you have chick-lit or women’s fiction. I can’t agree that Romance is changing to include a story that’s not about the couple. Because you’re not redefining romance then, you’re just writing a different genre and calling it romance.

I decided to do some lazy research and did some googling about the history of the novel and the romance genre.

On Wikipedia (yes my history colleagues I know Wikipedia is not exactly the most reliable, but that's why I said lazy research) it says:

As a literary genre, romance refers to a style of heroic prose and verse narrative current in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

The term was coined to distinguish popular material in the vernacular (at first the Romance languages French, Portuguese and Spanish, later German, English and others) from scholarly and ecclesiastical literature in Latin.

You can read the whole article here, but essentially, what the article says is that the term romance originated the describe stories that were different from Biblical stories. These were stories like those of the Le Morte D'Arthur cycle, the Odyssey, which later grew to include myths like the Scandinavian and Norse sagas.

Wikipedia also notes that one of the most distinguished literary critics of the 20th century, Northrup Frye, wrote in his ground-breaking work, Anatomy of Criticism:

Thus if the hero is superior in kind to men, the action is a myth. If the hero is superior in degree to others and to his environment, the mode is that of Romance, where the actions are marvellous, but the hero is human. "The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability... Romance divides into two main forms: a secular form dealing with chivalry and knight-errantry, and a religious form devoted to legends of saints. Both lean heavily on miraculous violations of natural law for their interest as stories."

Thus, the definition of a "romance" as a story of a relationship between a man and a woman, is actually quite a recent and modern invention.

I tend to think of "romance" in a broader more historical sense, which reflects my interest in myths and fantasy. It involves love, but it can also involve action and adventure. For me, as long as an ending is true to the story, then I'm good with the story.

However, with that said, I understand what many people are saying. I like stories with happy endings too. (It's probably the main reason why I've stayed away from acclaimed fantasy series like Roger Zelazany and George R. R. Martin, though I finally picked up Game of Thrones the other day.) But for me a happy ending can just as easily have the hero and heroine going their separate ways, as long as it remains true to the story. Sometimes I think modern romance writers try too hard for the HEA and as a result it seems forced. I think that's why I tend to like romance and stories of relationships outside of the romance genre mainly because, well it seems more fitting to me.

And thus, in conclusion, it don't think it IS false advertising to have a book labeled "romance" if the hero and heroine don't end up together, because in fact, it marks a return to the traditional wider definition of what a romance is. Though clearly most modern romance readers seem to want the definitively modern HEA where the couple remain together, which means the market is likely to stay that way. However there if there is room for a subcategory of vampire romances, there is definitely room for a romance subcategory with non-traditional endings.

p.s. I'm new to this blogging thing, so if anyone has any objections to me mass-quoting so much, just email me and I'll take them down, though I think I put links back to the original site for every quote.

Interpretations of Culture and Globalization part 1

This is part one of a multi-part meditation on culture and globalization and Africa that I wrote a month or so ago.


In modern discussions regarding globalization, the issue of cultural imperialism and a growing homogeneity often arises with regard to less developed societies, usually in the Third World. Well meaning individuals argue that globalization instills a Western-dominated homogeneity that oppresses minorities and eradicates culture differences that ought to be preserved. They point to the plethora of big box Wal-Marts, McDonald’s, and Starbucks crowding out the multiplicity of local variations. They lament a semi-undefined uniformity, citing an array of disappearing traditions, from speaking English to loss of “traditional” dress.

However, such individuals are engaging in a different sort of cultural arrogance; it is a subconscious arrogance that individuals who are exposed to Western products and Western ways will automatically toss aside all facets of their culture, in favor of the vastly superior West. It also fails to recognize the complexities of culture.

What they fail to realize is that culture cannot be reduced simply to clothing, food, and cars. Culture is much more complex then that. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who pioneered the theories of symbolic anthropology, has argued that culture consists of the thoughts, beliefs, and actions that a group of people uses to interpret the world around them. Meaning is ascribed through socially agreed upon symbols that guide human behavior. These created symbols form “webs of significance,” which define human behavior. Culture and its symbols are learned through experience and interaction. As the human experience shifts and changes over time, so do the meanings ascribed to these symbols.

Long Island Food Review: La Brasa

I was intrigued by a new Columbian restaurant tucked away next to a Getty gas station and a Laundromat. La Brasa Restaurant, I am happy to report is one of those wonderful old-fashioned mom and pop restaurants that are becoming rarer and rarer. It’s a tiny little charmer of a place, the décor slightly fancier than a diner or a luncheonette, with white table cloths, but with a tv playing Spanish soaps. At the moment, they’re redoing their prices on the overhead lit up fast food menu, so when you walk in, just walk up to the register and grab a paper menu.

Rotisserie chicken is their specialty (and at $8 to for a whole chicken to go, quite reasonable), but don’t just limit your choosings to chicken. I’ve been back several times and I’ve never been disappointed. On Weekdays between 11:30pm to 3pm they serve great $7 lunch specials that come with a ton of food. (For a small little girl like me, this ends up being my dinner too.

I’ve had the Friday lunch special, Arroz con Pollo (shredded chicken rice) with salad, sweet plantains & soup. This was the Columbian version of fried rice with chicken, peas, carrots and it was quite nice. The chicken soup was a lovely old-fashioned home-made Columbian soup, with bits of cilantro and yucca, though lacking in the meat. It reminded me of my dad’s homemade Chinese soups where the point of a soup is the flavor of the liquid, and not what’s in the soup.

Today though, even though it was Friday, the guy let me order the Wednesday lunch special, which was pork, sweet plantains, soup, and rice and beans. The grilled pork was perfectly seared, juicey and full of flavor. The rice and beans, were perfect as always as was the plantains (and let me just say that before I tried this place, I hated plantains. That’s how good they are). And the beef soup, was wonderfully flavored, though again, lacking in the meat with only one chunk. But all that food for just $7!

I also got an order of empanadas for only $1.25. You get three, and I have to say, the texture was perfect, with a crunchy corn meal crust filled with pork and onion on the inside. Dip it in their homemade hot sauce of cilantro, garlic, and onion and you’ve got a great appetizer.

This place also prides itself on Columbian hot dogs “perros calientes” with 9 different kinds and for good reason. They’re served on a large sesame roll with a combination of lettuce, onion, ketchup, mayo, mustard, jalapeno and pineapple sauce and are wonderful. Prices range from $3.50 for the Super Perro (mozzarella, sauces, lettuce and onion) to $5 for the Mixto (topped with chorizo, chicken, mozzarella, sauces, lettuce and onion). Excellent hot dog, but this is definitely another case of quality over quantity (we Americans are too fat anyway) as the toppings are much larger than the skinny, but wonderfully flavored hot dog.

This is not to say every dish is like that, quality over quantity. You want meat? Order the Picada, which is a literally, a tray of meat, including chopped grilled steak, chicken, fired pork skin, chorizo, yucca, sweet plantains, green plantains, potato and corn cakes. The thing is massive; you could feed 2 people on it easily, and if you have girls with small appetites, you could feed 4. At $19.95, it’s a bargain.

Support old-fashioned mom-and-pop restaurants and local small businesses in Suffolk County. Stop by La Brasas, just a 5 minute straight shot down Hawkins Ave off of Exit 60 of the L.I.E. Grab some food and take it to the Hamptons with you.

La Brasa Restaurant
426 Hawkins Ave
Lake Ronkonkoma, NY 11779

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Barbara Bauer - Scam Artist

There are literary agents out there, and then there are scam artists.

Barbara Bauer is one of them.

Absolute Write was a long standing writers' forum who over the years, received a number of complaints about certain "agencies" who promised authors publication in exchange for reading fees. (Note to all writers: NO respectable Lit Agent should EVER ask for money up front).

They helpfully compiled a list of 20 worst "Preditors and Editors." Barbara Bauer complained, called the server for Absolute Write said that they were libeling her.

Miss Snark explains here why Barbara Bauer is a scam artist. (And although Miss Snark is an anonymous agent blogger, she is well-known and respected in by numerous, named and known publishing people who blog online.) Barbara Bauer had also tried to get Teresa Nielsen Hayden, of Making Light and of Tor, fired (Read the whole story here).

So I am joining Miss Snark's and Jim Hines's efforts to Googlebomb Barbara Bauer by linking to these sites and reposting the list of

20 Worst Agents

* The Abacus Group Literary Agency
* Allred and Allred Literary Agents (refers clients to "book doctor" Victor West of Pacific Literary Services)
* Capital Literary Agency (formerly American Literary Agents of Washington, Inc.)
* Barbara Bauer Literary Agency
* Benedict & Associates (also d/b/a B.A. Literary Agency)
* Sherwood Broome, Inc.
* Desert Rose Literary Agency
* Arthur Fleming Associates
* Finesse Literary Agency (Karen Carr)
* Brock Gannon Literary Agency
* Harris Literary Agency
* The Literary Agency Group, which includes the following:
Children's Literary Agency
Christian Literary Agency
New York Literary Agency
Poets Literary Agency
The Screenplay Agency
Stylus Literary Agency (formerly ST Literary Agency)
Writers Literary & Publishing Services Company (the editing arm of the above-mentioned agencies)
* Martin-McLean Literary Associates
* Mocknick Productions Literary Agency, Inc.
* B.K. Nelson, Inc.
* The Robins Agency (Cris Robins)
* Michele Rooney Literary Agency (also d/b/a Creative Literary Agency and Simply Nonfiction)
* Southeast Literary Agency
* Mark Sullivan Associates
* West Coast Literary Associates (also d/b/a California Literary Services)

If you ever get contacted by one of these agencies, stay away. FAR AWAY.

The Changing Romance Genre

Hey, the girls over at made a post about a comment I made!

And so did Milady Insanity!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Heian Japanese Poetry

A while ago, I picked up "Ten Thousand Leaves: Love Poems from the Manyoshu," translated from the Japanese by Harold Wright. The Manyoshu is an anthology of poems compiled in the 8th century during the Heian period in Japan. I totally fell in love with some of these:

Your favorite flowers
that are growing near the house
have bloomed and faded
Yet, the tears that fill my eyes
have not begun to dry

Ah, if she were here
we could listen together
on this ocean shore
To the sound of passing cranes
crying in the rising sun

How could I undo
the sash my wife had tied
as I departed?
Unless it tears itself apart
it will stay there till we meet

To love someone
who does not return that love
is like offering prayers
Back behind a starving god
within a Buddhist temple

The Heian period roughly from the 700s -1100s is generally considered
Japan's "classic" period when the imperial court was at the height of its power and when Chinese and Confucianist influence was greatest. The poems from the Manyoshu are a collection from more than 400 known writers who wrote about daily life. The book that I have, focuses specifically on the love poems, which were passed between lovers. Strange as it may be to think, Japan used to have a matriarchal culture, and during the Heian period, women kept their own name, titles, and residences. Yes residences; even if you were married, you would live in a separate building from your husband because housing was grouped according to sex. So if you were a married lady at the imperial court, you would live in the women's quarters with your maids and ladies-in-waiting.

I love short poems like these. I admire poetry like this because it can evoke so much, with such a spare use of words. It's a skill that I'm trying to learn (not poetry writing dog knows we have too many bad poets in the world), the use of as few words to convey as much as possible.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Telling Stories

It's so nice to be done with the semester.

The past week, I just relaxed by going to work, cleaning, reading all the books I've been meaning to read, and writing (yes that's how lame my life is).

I finished my first novella.

I started a new one.

The New York urban fantasy one is on hold for now; I found myself trying to write a novel with an overt message about culture and postmodernism (that's what over-education does), when what I should have been doing was writing a good story.

If you're bored and looking for something decent to read while you're stuck at work, try HerCircle ezine.

From the website:

Storytelling is an integral part of the human experience. Even before there was a written language, people told stories as a means of preserving the ideals and events important to their time. The creation of the alphabet allowed for these histories to be written down and preserved, thus forming the foundation of the literary canon that we know today.

Literature in
Her Circle is divided into four departments: What She Knows seeks to explore the multiplicity of women's realities and to identify prescribed modes of behavior; Breaking Form represents a departure from those realities and behaviors; War Cry denotes stories that consider the role of women in conflicts, both theoretical and physical; and Transcending Bounds attempts to re-imagine the many worlds of women, fostering a sense of a world community of women.

HerCircle is also currently accepting submissions...

Friday, May 05, 2006

On Catwoman

Your results:

You are Catwoman

You have had a tough childhood,
you know how to be a thief and exploit others
but you stand up for society's cast-offs.




Green Lantern

Wonder Woman



The Flash



Iron Man


Click here to take the Superhero Personality Quiz

This is funny, because I have always been a fan of Catwoman. Not a fan of any of the Catwomen that have ever been on screen, not the campy '60s series, not Michelle Pfieffer, and definitely not Halle Berry (that movie was just atrocious). She's an archetype that represents independence and the grey area between good and evil. LIke life, she is unpredictable, and has her own motives, sometimes in self-interest, and sometimes for the good. But you never know and that's why she keeps you on your toes.

I used to read and collect the Catwoman comic book, but I haven't had the money to lately (and plus I thought the that some of the male comic book writers recently put on her title ascribed motivations and thoughts to her that were ludicrous, because NO self-respecting woman would think that way, especially not Catwoman). I do think alot of the female superhero comic book characters get a short shrift and often come out not as well portrayed as the male superheroes (why does Wonder Woman currently have no love interest when every other male superhero does) because of the general lack of women in comics. I'm not saying that it's the fault of male writers, or saying that they are deliberately being sexist, or that there's a conspiracy against women; I think it's just a lack of understanding of how women think.

It's a shame because she truly is a great character.

minor rant about academic writing

Academic writing is some of the most dogawful writing. Is it the point of people to put you to sleep before you figure out what they're saying so that you can't properly discuss their ideas (Jurgen Habermas I'm talking to you, even though I think you're probably already dead). Maybe they're afraid of their ideas being understood and open to attack. If no one knows what they're saying, then everyone can nod, pretend to be intelligent and agree with them.

And why in the world would you put long lengthy quotations in the middle of a book in Latin or Indonesian and not bother to translate it? Even if you're writing the book for an academic audience, I know lots of academics, and I don't think I know a single one fluent in English, Indonesian and Latin. The point of a quotation is to illustrate a point of your argument; so having a quote in Indonesian is fine, but a little translation might be nice.

I like sparrows.

ok back to writing papers.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

this time i mean it

Ok really no more. I've really got to get my work done. (Funny, how I end up writing more when I procrastinate on writing papers).

I'll be back in a few weeks.

On Popular Fiction

I think Elizabeth Lowell has written some of the best romances out there. On her website, she has a great article, "Popular Fiction: Why We Read It, Why We Write It" that talks about the difference between "popular" and "literary fiction."

The underlying philosophy of much popular fiction is more optimistic: the human condition might indeed be deplorable, but individuals can make a positive difference in their own and others' lives. The Muses of popular fiction are Zoroaster and Jung, the philosphy more classical than to modern. Popular fiction is a continuation of and an embroidery upon ancient myths and archetypes; popular fiction is good against evil, Prometheus against the uncaring gods, Persephone emerging from hell with the seeds of spring in her hands, Adam discovering Eve.

In a word, popular fiction is heroic and transcendent at a time when heroism and transcendence are out of intellectual favor. Publishers, whose job is to make money by predicting the size of the market for a piece of fiction, are constantly trying guess where a manuscript falls on the scale of white to gray to black. Publishers to understand why readers read the books they do. Marketers give tests, conduct surveys, consult oracles, etc., and constantly rediscover a simple fact: people read fiction that reinforces their often inarticulate beliefs about society, life, and fate....

That is what critics disdain. Heroism. Transcendence.

Romances were once scorned as badly written, formulaic, lurid escapist fare best read in closets. They still are. I suspect they always will be. Their appeal is to the transcendent, not to the political. Their characters, through love, transcend the ordinary and partake of the extraordinary.

That, not bulging muscles or magic weapons, is the essence of heroic myth: humans touching transcendence. It is an important point that is often misunderstood. The essence of myth is that it is a bridge from the ordinary to the extraordinary. As Joseph Campbell said many times, through myth we all touch, if only for a few moments, something larger than ourselves, something transcendent.

Unfortunately, transcendence has been out of intellectual favor for several generations. Thus the war between optimism and pessimism rages on, and popular culture is its battlefield. Universities and newspapers are heavily stocked with people who believe that pessimism is the only intelligent philosophy of life; therefore, optimists are dumb as rocks.

How many times have you read a review that disdains a book because it has a constructive resolution of the central conflict—also known as a happy ending? The same reviewer will then praise another book for its relentless portrayal of the bleakness of everyday life.

This is propaganda, not criticism. What the critics are actually talking about is their own intellectual bias, their own chosen myth: pessimism. They aren't offering an intelligent analysis of an author's ability to construct and execute a novel.

Contrary to what the critics tell us, popular fiction is not a swamp of barely literate escapism; popular fiction is composed of ancient myths newly reborn, telling and retelling a simple truth: ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Jack can plant a beanstalk that will provide endless food; a Tom Clancy character can successfully unravel a conspiracy that threatens the lives of millions. A knight can slay a dragon; a Stephen King character can defeat the massed forces of evil. Cinderella can attract the prince through her own innate decency rather than through family connections; a Nora Roberts heroine can, through her own strength, rise above a savagely unhappy past and bring happiness to herself and others.

I like science fiction, fantasy and romance for the qualities she states here. I like good stories, stories that speak to the essence of life, that transcend boundaries and cultures. If you write something so dense and abstruse (like that word) that few people will be able to understand it, then what's the point of trying to get published?

I told my hubby recently that I was afraid I was becoming a snob. I certainly have the academic credentials to out-snob many snobs. But now that I consider the "popular fiction" that I like to read and write, I suppose that will keep me from being a snob.

I suspect that is probably why I will never enter an MFA program. No weird post modernist stuff for me!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

War of the Worlds and African Colonization...

...or how science fiction can be subversive. The following below is a very chopped up version (for brevity) of a paper I wrote for a science fiction class this past semester. I was also taking an African history class at the time, and was struck by the parallels between, War of the Worlds and African colonization. Science fiction originally began as a form of social critique (think Frankenstein, Fahrenheit 451, etc).

Maybe that's why I like science fiction so much :)


It is difficult to overemphasize the effects of technology, and the Industrial Revolution had on European motivations and justifications for colonizing Africa. Written in 1898, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was a social critique of the ways in which Europeans linked technological superiority to intellectual and racial superiority.

In War of the Worlds, Martian technology is used as a manifest representation of their intellectual superiority. The Martians bring mysterious weapons that resemble modern military armaments, including poison gas and heat rays. These weapons enable them to assert virtually unlimited power over the halpless humans whose weapons are useless against them. Because of their technology, the Martians act without fear of human reprisal.

Similarly, European technological superiority went virtually unchallenged in nineteenth century Africa. Reflecting the twin ages of industrialization and imperialism in which War of the Worlds was written, the connection between intelligence, technology, and racial superiority was intrinsically linked to justifications of imperialism. In the late 18th and 19th century, Britain’s society was transformed from an agricultural economy to one of manufacturing. Part of this revolution was made possible by technological innovations such as steam engines and factory machines. The increased efficiency in manufacturing allowed countries like Great Britain to dominate the globe economically, culturally and militarily.

At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, various countries of Europe divided and appropriated the African continent for its resources. In War of the Worlds, the Martians come to earth for the some of the same reasons that Europeans went to Africa: raw materials and natural resources (other reasons were to be beyond comprehension for humans). In War of the Worlds, the Martians use human blood, taken by force to sustain themselves, mimicking European nations who built their empires and economies on slavery. In similar fashion, as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, the high demands for rubber led to brutal exploitation of the peoples in the Congo area.

Although the advanced intelligence of the Martians is shown through their technology, Martian technology is also used as a way to challenge conventional nineteenth century definitions equating technological superiority with intellectual superiority. When discussing the tall tentacled Martian handling machines, the narrator remarks upon alien machines complete lack of wheel technology. Wells utilized the advanced Martian technology to challenge European concepts linking wheel production to technological progress. In contrast to the widespread idea that the wheel was intrinsically tied to technological progress, the advanced and highly intelligent Martians in novel did not use the wheel.

The aliens’ lack of the wheel can be seen as an attack at imperialist and racist judgments against Africans during the era of imperialism. One of the rationalizations used for the conquest of Africa was the fact that sub-Saharan Africans were intellectually inferior due to their lack of the wheel. As the wheel was considered the basis of all human technology, the Africans’ failure to use the wheel was seen as a deficit of progress and intelligence. However, as European colonists soon found themselves, the frequent rains of the tropical environment made wheel useless in sub-Saharan Africa.

In an allegory of past European efforts to penetrate Africa, the Martians are not defeated by humans, but by tiny bacteria. One of the major factors that had previously limited European expansion into Africa was unfamiliar diseases. However, advances in medicine and technology helped Europeans arrive, and stay in Africa. Written at the dawning of this scientific revolution, Wells’ social critique via allegory of foreign invasion in the era of European expansion, was a cautionary tale.

Against Moral Superiority

Arrogance and a belief in moral superiority turns me off.

This is why I dislike the languages of Bush, who suggests that you're either against America or for America. He sees black and white world, with Americans firmly on the side of the good. The problem is, is that when you believe yourself to be so strongly on the side of good, and so morally superior to everyone else, that you can't handle the slightest bit of criticism, you're in danger of becoming the very evil you fight for. How can you fight evil, without recognizing the evil within yourself?

In an article titled "The Rehabilitation of the Cold War Liberal," Peter Beinhart, in this past weekend's Sunday NYTimes Mag, articulates my position better than I could ever express it.

"Even more important, they described America itself differently. Americans may fight evil, they argued, but that does not make us inherently good. And paradoxically, that very recognition makes national greatness possible. Knowing that we, too, can be corrupted by power, we seek the constraints that empires refuse. And knowing that democracy is something we pursue rather than something we embody, we advance it not merely by exhorting others but by battling the evil in ourselves. The irony of American exceptionalism is that by acknowledging our common fallibility, we inspire the world."

That is precisely why I'm a liberal.

Unfortunately thanks to Democratic incoherence, the people who we are trying to reach out to have no clue what we stand for, except hating Bush. That's no way to win or run a country. A couple weeks ago, The Economist magazine put it best when they called the American problem "Incoherence vs. Incompetence."

If things keep going the way their going, Democrats and liberals deserve to lose 'cause we ain't offering anything anyone can understand.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Roasting Bush

This is so great. It's a transcript of Steven Colbert roasting Bush at the recent White House Press Correspondents' dinner. I'm not a big fan of the show, but this is hilarious.

Roasting Bush