Friday, April 29, 2016

Quick updates

Next week I want to review what must be my favourite read so far this year, Anthony Trollope's Last Chronicle of Barset. I also want to share some more about the research and writing process for Outremer, but for now, I'm just going to make some quick updates.


I started reading Umberto Eco's Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages last night, and just one chapter in I'm thoroughly fascinated by his explanation of the radical integration of the medieval worldview. Unlike the modernist worldview, the medievals didn't put things in hermetically sealed categories: they would not have thought of any strict division between the natural and the supernatural, for instance; rather, what we today think of as the natural was a cloak worn by the deeper metaphysical realities beneath. I already comprehended some of this. The point that really surprised me was Eco's observation that the medievals had two words referring to beauty - pulchrum and aptum or honestum - the beauty of form and the beauty of usefulness - and they were never quite able to distinguish between them. To them, moral goodness (aptum) was inextricably bound up with aesthetic goodness (pulchrum). 
This was encouraging because I've always felt very strongly that I cannot not evaluate books on grounds of truth and goodness as well as beauty. To refuse to evaluate a work of art on grounds of moral value is to dis-integrate faith from life, something that I refuse to do. It's good to know that the medievals, who made some of the most glorious art civilisation has ever produced, felt the same way.

I've been reading and thoroughly enjoying The Last Chronicle of Barset, which is about middle-aged Victorian clergymen, and I also enjoyed my most recent Crusader-history-read, The New Knighthood, which is a formidably detailed and scholarly account of the Templars. At the same time, I've also been reading Throne of Glass, a young-adult bestseller featuring assassins, a deathmatch, and an eldritch abomination that murders people by night. One of the above is a bland and boring snoozefest that makes me want to weep in frustration. Hint: It's not the Templar history.


Over summer, I realised that my youngest sister had never seen Star Wars and didn't know the first thing about it, so I sniffed out some DVDs and we watched the Original Trilogy together as a family. This was even more entertaining because my mother had never seen it either. I remain confirmed in my belief that The Empire Strikes Back is one of the best films I've ever seen--a film where almost everything went beautifully right. After that high-water-mark, Star Wars went sharply downhill, and after having seen The Force Awakens more recently, I can't say I think things look like getting much better. 

Count me among those who thought the new main character, Rey, was a flagrant Mary Sue. I was then surprised to find that this is a very controversial thing to say, and I think this is a great example of how pulchrum and aptum, orthodoxy and beauty, intersect; or, in other words, it's a great example of how an aggressively feminist story decision ("we'll make the whole story about a girl who needs a man, and the skills and strengths of a man, like a fish needs a bicycle") will actually destroy the impact and aesthetic quality of an artwork. As John C Wright demonstrates in his review of The Force Awakens, this was a terrible artistic decision to make for a film trying to feature an ensemble story.

Ever heard of Claude Goudimel? He was the Huguenot composer who pioneered syncopation and soprano melody in the sixteenth century while making large contributions to the Genevan Psalter. Some of Goudimel's arrangements and harmonisations are still familiar today--chances are that if you sing the psalms, you've come across tunes with names like Old Hundredth or Old Ninety-Fifth. These were tunes from the Genevan psalter, and once you get past Old Hundredth you'll find that they feature rich harmonies and rhythms so exciting that Elizabeth I apparently referred to them as "Geneva jigs". Brother Down's Old Paths New Feet album is a perennial favourite, translating these funky old tunes into the style of modern folk rock, but if you want to learn them in a worship-appropriate setting, I highly recommend Michael Owens's site, The Genevan Psalter, where you can find voice recordings, sheet music, and midi files.


I am now wrapping up the month's work on OUTREMER. Not counting January, this is my sixth consecutive month writing 50,000 words per month, which means I recently passed the 300,000-word mark (so, about as long as Middlemarch, and creeping up on Anna Karenina). I anticipate that it will take another 100,000 to get through the rest of the plot, which means another two months' work--but I don't plan to do that right away. Although I hate to take a moment away from a story that I continue to be enormously excited about, I need the rest. So in May, I'm going to take a break to rewrite Never Send to Know, my next fairytale novella, hopefully aiming for publication toward the end of the year. Which is also enormously exciting!

Also, I think I'm going to change the title, to Death Be Not Proud. Help me out, readers! Which one do you prefer?


Lady Bibliophile said...

Death Be Not Proud has a really nice ring to it. I vote for that one!

You've been doing some incredible and thoughtful work, as always. I enjoyed the recap post!

~Schuyler <3

Suzannah said...

Thanks, Schuyler! I think DEATH BE NOT PROUD is going to be a winner.

Joy said...

I second Schuyler's vote - I love the title Death Be Not Proud - also I think it rings better with your other fairy-tale retelling titles :). Yay, can't wait!

I am seriously so stoked that Outremer is such a chunky book. I was telling my sister Gracie the other day how I just love my good chunky novels, because then I can live in that world for a good time and really feel a part of it. <3

I've heard Umberto Eco's name before - wasn't he a historical novelist? Is his work good? I didn't know he wrote non-fiction also.

I really appreciated your post, Suzannah!

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I actually liked Never Send to Know...but they both have the same sort of ring to them! There seem to be more existing books out there with the title Death Be Not Proud, but of course I don't know whether you mind that. (Says the girl who's working on a novel that shares a title with a Pulitzer winner). And I'm so glad to hear you're working on this story; I've been waiting to see when it would come along!

Kaleigh Stroink said...

I have to say that I like Never Send to Know. It's a more...unusual title, in a good way. I enjoyed this post/update. :) And from what I've seen on your social media about Outremer, I can't wait to read it! I love big books.

Suzannah said...

Joy - I've also enjoyed writing a longer book! There's a deep connection you can only build with characters you spend a seriously long amount of time with, and it's also allowing me to sort of experience some incredible, life-changing history as if I'm living through it myself.

Umberto Eco is primarily known for his fiction, yes. This is the first of his books I've ever read and it's whetting my interest for some of his novels. I think I'm going to have to read one soon.

Elisabeth and Kaleigh - ooh, you did like NEVER SEND TO KNOW? Argh! OK, I'll have to keep thinking this through! Both are, of course, John Donne quotes. I actually looked up "Death Be Not Proud" and there were only one or two more obscure works by that name. It was my original choice for the story too. But on the other hand "Never Send to Know" may be more thematic. I'll probably end up postponing a final decision till I've rewritten it. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm voting for "Never Send to Know" - obviously Donne is great no matter what you're quoting, but "Death Be Not Proud" sounds a bit cliched as a book title. Plus if your reader looks up the full quotes, "Never Send to Know" is a lot more ominous!


Anonymous said...

I quite like 'Death Be Not Proud' as it has a good, solid ring to it. But of course the title must be what you think fits the story best.

Ha! You don't like 'Throne of Glass'? I've heard conflicting sort of views on it, so it will be interesting to read yours (rubs hands together in anticipation).

Ohhh! You didn't like 'The Force Awakens'? I must read that review you linked ...

I'm just ... YOU PASSED THE 300,000 WORD MARK?!! Wha-?!! *stands up and applauds* Bravo. Bravo, you incredible creature!

Suzannah said...

Maggie, thanks for the input! This is very enlightening because I was no longer sure if NEVER SEND TO KNOW was a reasonable title or a really stupid one. I hate titling stories =)

Ness, THRONE OF GLASS is ALMOST so bad it's good, but for that to happen it'd have to be way more entertaining than it is. My eyes are getting strained from all the rolling they're doing. Just check the one-star reviews on Goodreads, because they are SO RIGHT.

THE FORCE AWAKENS had many good points, which is more than I can say for the STAR WARS prequels, but it was a bit of a mess and kind of broke the rules of its own universe. Meh.

:D Whoah there, the 300,000 words are pretty rough. But I don't mind saying they form the skeleton of a pretty awesome adventure :D

Jamie W said...

I quite liked 'Never Send to Know.' 'Death Be Not Proud' is one of my favorite sonnets--meaning that while I appreciate the allusion I also think of that phrase as specifically designating the poem. (Like when I recommend the movie 'Amazing Grace' and people say "Isn't that a hymn?") But then again that won't be true for everyone. But on a third hand, or back to the first hand, or something, nobody thinks of 'Never Send to Know' as the title of that passage, while the other does rather tend to act as a title to Holy Sonnet X.
Tl;dr: I agree with Maggie on the whole.

Joseph J said...

I have to agree with your assessment of Rey as a Mary Sue. I hadn't actually thought of her that way, probably because I tend to consider obnoxious cheerfulness a prerequisite for that sort of character. I actually rather liked her, probably because I was relieved she wasn't shoving her sexuality on the viewer, which was a refreshing change from the action heroine norm (e.g. all superheroines, everything with Angelina Jolie).

John C. Wright's review was excellent, if somewhat tainted by typical right-wing American vitriol. I was actually rather jealous of how in-depth it was, but I felt better when I saw that he was a lawyer, and has done a lot of his own writing. Did you hear that JJ Abrams said future Star Wars movies will have gay characters? The anti-masculinity theme is bad enough, but how can I let my (future) children watch a movie that normalizes homosexuality? Actually, I have to say, when I saw the Return of the Jedi recently I was pretty disgusted with the Jabba the Hutt scenes. I didn't remember it being that grotesque and risqué as a kid. The eighties were a very grungy, ugly time in cinema. I was a Star Wars fanatic as kid, but I have to admit that as an adult I have become far more ambivalent. Wright is right when he pointed out that Lucas' success was almost a fluke. I don't think he ever quite understood what made his original movies so good. Hence the prequel fiasco.

I'm surprised there aren't more books called Death be Not Proud. I sounds like the perfect murder mystery title. How about For Whom the Bell Tolls? I'm pretty sure there are no books with this title. Just trust me...

Hannah A. Krynicki said...

I like the title Never Send to Know, at least from what I have heard so far. It sounds pleasantly ominous. :) Death Be Not Proud could be slightly ambiguous for people who may have already read books with that title.

I tend to disagree about Rey, because while her character arc was a bit unbelievable, I think that if anything she was a slap in the face of feminism; I explained why on my own blog a few weeks ago. As for her sudden ability to fight an experienced Sith, I'm hoping that her backstory will provide a logical explanation in the next few movies. However, if what Joseph J said is true, I certainly hope that Abrams will change his mind about promoting homosexuality- that is one thing I will never tolerate in a family film.

Suzannah said...

Jamie - Yet more support for "Never Send to Know" - OK! I will certainly take that into consideration :).

Joseph, yes, the Jabba the Hutt scenes are gross and I believe were made more so for the 1997 rerelease. We skipped the "musical" number while watching it as a family--it was so obnoxious.

Hannah - thank you so much for the title feedback! This is really helping :).

I went and looked up your blog to see what you had to say about Rey, and I can't say I agree that she's antifeminist. For one thing, she is being celebrated to the heavens for being such a feminist character, and if she really had been a slap in the face to feminism, then we would have had much more of an outcry--something along the lines of the reaction to the latest Avengers movie where Natasha was allowed to grieve over her childlessness. I agree that Rey isn't preachy about feminism, but even feminists realise that story impacts us the most on a deeper level of story structure. They do not use Rey as a mouthpiece to argue for the total equivalence of women with men, because they know that is not as powerful as simply treating her as interchangeable with a man. This is the strain of feminism that says, "Why are we even arguing about this anymore? Isn't it obvious? The debate is over."

I certainly hope that Rey's ability to fight an experience Sith with no training whatsoever is explained in future movies, but whether it is or not, there should have been some acknowledgement in this move that "Yes, this is not normal, and there's an equally remarkable explanation". It is bad craft to make your audience explain the gaps in your storytelling.


Jamie W. said...

"It is bad craft to make your audience explain the gaps in your storytelling." YES. Sometimes I wonder if creators of serial works ever don't even try to fill gaps on the assumption that there will be a decent fan theory which they can adopt in the next installment.

Which would be infuriating.

That's part of why craftsmanship inherently matters.

Unknown said...

I understand your perspective better now, I think. I've seen a little more friction over Rey's character, at least on my own blog, and I also suspect that Abrams has hinted at Rey's backstory through flashbacks and subtle storytelling- but that is a minor point. I think we can both agree that a strong female character doesn't need to be feminist or manly. Our point of difference is just JJ Abrams' execution of that definition. Thank you for explaining your opinion; it's always refreshing to have a civil debate with another blogger. :)

Suzannah said...

Jamie - I could be wrong, but I think there are copyright issues involved in whether creators can use fan theories, so I'd be surprised if that was the case. But shoddy storytelling is sadly by no means as rare as it should be!

Hannah - I always have fun discussing stories, whether good or bad!

Christina Baehr said...

Both titles are great. "Death Be Not Proud" puts it more in the murder mystery genre. "Never Send to Know" is extremely musical, and sounds gently forboding, but it could be literary fiction. ;)

I'll have to read Wright's take on Rey, though I'm kind of loth to because I really, really enjoyed TFA. I guess I was so relieved that Rey exhibited a lot of femininity (compassion, gracefulness, longing for a father relationship) rather than the kind of butch, angry, pouty, look-at-my-smudged-eyeliner-it-makes-me-tough heroine they just unveiled in the Rogue trailer. Oh, help!

I did find that scene where she suddenly reduces Ren to a gibbering mess by looking into his mind while she's all tied up and at his mercy a little, well, telling. (The ultimate fantasy of victimised women everywhere.) And then it takes her what seems like 30 minutes of being beaten up by him in the snow before she even THINKS of trying it again?! Umm....

Suzannah said...

Thanks for the title feedback, Christina! Maybe you can help me decide - this is definitely something I want your help with. :D

Really, you enjoyed Rey? I found it really hard to connect with her--there was very little (if anything) about her character that was distinctively feminine. I actually found myself comparing her to Natasha from the Marvel movies: though she's no less a feminist character, she's at least allowed to look pretty, get in trouble, be scared, need rescue, and yearn for a home and children (granted: she's also had multiple movies' worth of character development). By contrast Rey was nothing and wanted nothing that I am or want - she was a whole new androgynous construct that I found radically unappealing.

Christina Baehr said...

Sorry, both my husband and I found her feminine - but now that I come to think about it this has more to do with the carriage and personal characteristics of the actress herself than the character as written, which was pretty androgynous.

But thinking of it another way, I wonder whether it is perhaps even more deceptive to portray these ridiculous characters as feminine at all. You can't be size 0 and beat off a horde of super-warriors with nothing but your skinny legs. You can't maintain an artistic, romantic hairdo during hand to hand combat (the baddies will use your hair to beat your brains out against the nearest hard surface). It's all so absurd, and I believe it contributes to the growing callousness towards women we see in secular culture.

I really would love to see a real woman I could identify with in one of these films. Brave, resourceful, kind; ready to use her wits when she is up against brawn. Wise and humble enough to ask for help if she needs it. That would be so transgressive. Too transgressive for Hollywood at this point.

Suzannah said...

> I wonder whether it is perhaps even more deceptive to portray these ridiculous characters as feminine at all.

YES, I agree with that, and that was one of the things I liked about Nancy Wake's biography - it demonstrated pretty clearly that in order to do all the things she did, she HAD to disguise her femininity. And that must have been a sacrifice for her because she was such a feminine woman. But with Rey I thought it was as if the scriptwriters (if not the actress) had eschewed gender altogether. She was neither butch nor feminine, she was more a blank slate. Which is the ideal that a lot of feminists yearn toward: people that are people without being either male or female.

However, when it comes to sensational fiction I think there can a place for a feminine action heroine: the martial-maiden trope goes back to Bradamante, Britomart, and Clorinda - and further.


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