It’s Just the Hours He’s Been Keepin’

Blog, criticism, meta

It’s hard to pen criticism of a TV series which has had only one episode. Yet that is precisely what I will be doing with Prodigal Son.

On the surface it seems like a novel idea: a TV series about the son of a serial killer, who is a gifted yet haunted profiler.

The problems are many, however, beginning with the criminal misuse of Michael Sheen, who plays the father and was a serial killer. Sheen is a gifted actor. Take a peek at his work in Masters of Sex or Good Omens to understand what an acting juggernaut he is. In Prodigal Son he is reduced to shmarmy grinning to make him creepy.

The main character Malcolm is haunted . . . perhaps too haunted. The stereotype of the gifted yet haunted profiler is well documented by now, especially with Hannibal’s Will Graham. Malcolm is depicted taking at least half a dozen pills, suffering from night terrors, having trouble sleeping in general, potential suicidal ideation, amongst others. All of this coupled with his preoccupation with his father and murder in general. Yes, he’s haunted, but the show dove right into the deep end with Malcolm. It would have been more interesting to have Malcolm seem like he has everything together, and then, throughout the series, expose the cracks in his veritable armor as he grows closer to his father.

Next is the portrayal of “evil” via anti social personality disorder (formerly called psychopathy) and sociopathy. Evil is a nice cliche in this series: a glittering grin, a sweet looking man in a sweater, a thuggish bald white man. Evil has no name, no face. It’s just a hammy thing sent to do harm. In order to be effective, evil must have a name and a face. It must be multifaceted. It must speak with its own voice. To do otherwise is to do a disservice to victims, survivors, and to our essential humanity.

The world of the story is hammy too, screaming at you at the highest decibel. There is no subtly and it does not do any service to the plot.

Speaking of which: I think this is why Prodigal Son may be experiencing severe growing pains, and why the series, in a nutshell, is having trouble finding its footing. Fox is foolish enough to try and cram their novel idea into a humdrum police procedural. In doing so, they loose the originality and vitality of the series, and the chance to explore the characters.

I will keep watching it (I admittedly love psychological thrillers), but with reservations.

In Want of a Husband?

Blog, meta, review

I just finished watching Becoming Jane, and while I was glad to have done so, I found parts of the story hollow.

In some parts they teased us with a Pride and Prejudice Darcy/Bennett like budding romance between Jane Austen (Anne Hatheway) and the dashing Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy). When the characters finally surrender to their affections, the story becomes mired in heartbreak and heavy as a leaden ball. There is joy in the story, to be sure, but it is overcome with a sense of tragedy, of a relationship which never came to fruition. (Spoilers: Lefroy and Austen never marry, despite their best efforts.)

And therein lies the problem. Jane Austen lived to be forty-one, before falling ill one day and never fully recovering. But surely, between her youthful acquaintance with Lefroy and her latter years, she would have had joy in her life. She was a wildly successful author for her time, and had close relations with her family. Amongst many other happy things. Instead the film depicts the older Jane Austen as this austere woman, saddened by some long ago love.

The film-makers do Austen wrong in this. There were many ways to be a happy woman, and not all of them involved marriage, though it would have been difficult simply because of familial and social expectations. But the film-makers seem to forget that women did forge their own ways without men. Austen had a productive and probably happy life, regardless of her not marrying. This oversight helps mire the film in sorrow, and renders Austen into a one dimensional character, concerned mostly with Lefroy. I cannot count how many conversations focused on Lefroy, Lefroy, Lefroy . . . wasn’t the title of this film Becoming Jane?

Focusing so exhaustively on Lefroy diminishes the relationships Austen has with other characters, namely the female characters. I don’t think there was a single conversation between women in the film which was not about a man in some way, and 90 percent of those conversations were about Lefroy. I believe the film failed the Bechdel Test (Google it!) and as someone who enjoys Austen, both originals and adaptations, for the companionship women share between them, this vexes me. This is a poor representation of Jane Austen’s life if it can’t pass the Bechdel Test.

If the film had given light and life to other characters (ie, screen time), if it had shown women in each other’s company (no talk of a man in sight!), if it had given Austen more of a three dimensional character (at bit like Lefroy!) this film could have been stunning. Instead it it a betrayal of Austen’s life and work in some ways, and leaves you empty.

I understand it is supposed to have that effect, I just think the story could have been more, and more than focused on Lefroy to the point the story suffers.

I will, however, say this: I kind of don’t blame the film-makers for focusing so much on Lefroy. McAvoy is a charming, handsome man, and looks damn fine in those tailcoats of his. He is also a very good actor, of course. I think the entire cast was good, in fact, it was only the way the story was handled which “rubbed me wrong”.

Titillation (or Lack Thereof)

Blog, meta

I was reading Drew Nellins Smith’s “Let’s Not Get It On: The Indefensible Sex Scene” and found myself making faces at the article. It’s unimaginative, to say the least.

The first problem the author has is that they haven’t read. There is plenty of (gasp!) fanfiction which has provocative and wonderful sex scenes. The same is true with the Romance genre of fiction. Both provide sex scenes that are crucial to character development.

(If you feel the need to mock Romance, bite me. It was one of my staples growing up, right next to James Joyce.)

And that’s the second problem the author seems to have: the inability to recognize that character development and sex go hand in hand. They focus so wholly on the matter of sex in literature they never mention the characters. How are they feeling about this?

Impoverishment

Blog, meta, writing

I’ve applied for a few Stegner Fellowships in my time, and inevitably found myself looking at the biographies for the current Stegner Fellows. Supposedly the fellowship takes people from all walks of life, with different educational backgrounds. The website for the Stegner Fellowship states that a degree is not a prerequisite for the program. And yet, fellow after fellow had matriculated in an MFA program, and published in all the “right” prestigious literary magazines, and was neither terrifically young, nor that old — probably most in their thirties. Most were white or white-passing. I would also bet that the vast majority were straight and cisgender, and hadn’t dealt with PTSD or mental illness.

I wish it wasn’t so, but most creative writing graduate programs suffer from the same lack of diversity the Stegner Fellowship does. It’s no wonder the fellowship is populated with the same people.

This is a problem which has been commented on a great deal, so I won’t bore you with the standard “but we must have more diversity and it begins with changing our gatekeeping practices” shtick. We know that. Of greater concern to me (and to the literary community of the U.S.) is the impoverishment of literature under these conditions.

The Pleasures of Discipline

Blog, meta, writing

In my time as a writer, one persistent myth I’ve noticed, which clings to even seasoned writers, is that one should wait for inspiration. One doesn’t need to force words out with something as tedious and dull as discipline. Just let the words come naturally, as if by magic which came from rainbows farted out of a unicorn’s asshole.

Just like rainbows farted out of a unicorn’s asshole, the idea that most writers can get anywhere without discipline is false.

Queer, Here (?)

Blog, meta

I’ve been getting back into submitting short stories and I am struck by the number of queer* journals and magazines handwaving their, well, queer content with phrases like “we don’t just publish queer content” or “it doesn’t have to be about that”.

qaf uk -- stuart oh yeah right

Okay mate, if you want to wuss out, be my guest. Because that is exactly what these magazines are doing. If I want to read queer content, I look to queer magazines and journals. Hello. By basically “watering down” their content, they betray the very reason they are supposed to exist, and they betray their core readers. And that last thing, to me, is one of the gravest sins a publisher or writer can commit.  You do not dis the reader. Ever.

If you publish queer content, publish queer content. Gleefully rub it in people’s faces. Don’t give a shit about people who squawk, queer or no. Just be out and proud about it. Like, “yes, we just published an explicit story about rimming, and next issue we have lesbian lovers working through parenting!” People haven’t died in a myriad of ways, from murder to AIDs, so you can wuss out and publish content that “doesn’t have to be about that” or whatever.

* Queer because it is the best all inclusive term, has been reclaimed since the ’80’s, and hints at radicalism.

ETA: I wrote a much more eloquent blog post on pretty much the same topic here. I guess it’s been bugging me for awhile?

The Sense of a (Queer) Ending

Blog, meta, reading

I was digging through some of my old graduate school manuscripts. One of my instructors had commented that the story I’d submitted should have a more ambiguous ending. I have no doubt she was right, but this got me thinking about endings. I couldn’t help but reflect on my current work. Did the ending need more ambiguity? Could I make the ending of my novella more ambiguous?

I suppose I could. I suppose there could be more of the unknown or unknowable there. I suppose I could have some mystery hovering over the relationship of the protagonist and his lover.

But I think it would be more subversive to have an unambiguously hopeful ending. This is because the novel is a queer story; the protagonist is queer, and so is his relationship with his lover.

Queer stories, for anyone who knows, are impossibilities when it comes to endings. You have two paths and two paths only: the one which leads to a happy ending, and the other which leads to an obscene tragedy of some kind,

Guess which ending is most common, even today.

So I prefer the unambiguously happy ending. It’s more powerful, more subversive. And it gives queer people much needed hope. 

Ambiguity can have its place in fiction, certainly. But, when it comes to endings, I think queer people deserve more than tragedy or ambiguity.