extribulum

Archive for April, 2013|Monthly archive page

A Fine Tuned Sense Of The Ridiculous

In Uncategorized on April 9, 2013 at 9:00 am

I was on the phone with my mum the other day, discussing the impending upheaval in my life — not only a potential new job but a definite move of house, whether it comes with the new job or not — and I realised that despite the very serious nature of the choices I’m facing this year, we were both laughing an awful lot. It made me think about why I spend so much of my time amused at basically everything that happens to me. One of the things I often hear from people, both in brickspace and online, is that I’m capable of making ordinary things funny. It’s something I prize, because I’m not what you would call a funny person, but I can see things as funny. And I think that’s a huge key to my writing, as well, which I didn’t work out until, well, just now.

I don’t know when my sense of absurdity developed or how, not like I know other things. I know when I found my work ethic (college — late but at least lasting) and I know where my aesthetic sense comes from, because my family gave me that, between my gran the painter and my parents who took me to tons of museums and performances when I was young. I don’t know how I learned to find the ridiculous in the ordinary.

I wasn’t a class clown as a child, and the way in which I express my view of the ridiculous isn’t necessarily spontaneous. It comes through in my writing because I sit and think about how to frame things. Some of it is turns of phrase picked up from here and there, but that’s just dressing to the essential viewpoint I have on the world. I didn’t necessarily believe my high school English teacher who said good writing comes from honestly expressing the way we see the world, but I do now, because I’ve done it.

The next story I’m hoping to work on, called Tunnel, primarily concerns the way in which families interact, and in real terms concerns the structure of Chicago, the way it’s built on Other Parts Of Chicago, and the way we have this massive underground network of passages that nearly nobody knows about. Really, the latter part came first; I wanted to write a story about the underground, and the sibling issues came out of that (and, admittedly, out of my own issues with my brother). But there’s an aspect of the story which keeps trying to take over, and it’s the ridiculous aspect: I call it Bob And The Dragon.

Because see, in this world, there’s a dragon living under Chicago. The dragon is a fun fantasy element; the ridiculous part is that very few people ever encounter the dragon, and the only one who seems to care about him is a guy named Bob. Bob is incredibly ordinary, he’s just a dude in a suit and he doesn’t have much life drama or any ambitious aspirations, but in his spare time he is a dragon tamer. Bob is the one who rescues people from the dragon and buys it expensive sushi and hugs it when it eats people he doesn’t like. Bob is ridiculous. Even the other characters think so.

And I don’t know where that ten-degrees-off-normal viewpoint, which allowed me to produce Bob in the first place, comes from. Possibly from the fact that I wasn’t an especially funny child; I spent some of my childhood and most of my teen years angry, because I was smart and could see that I was surrounded on all sides by bullshit. I can remember my mother telling me it’s not bullshit, it’s just hoops to jump through, and not thinking that was particularly better, but it’s true: much of life, much of the time, is a series of hoops. Some are fun; some are just tedious, and would be unnecessary if more people either saw them at all or called them out when they did. Dress codes, for example, are 1% necessity and 99% ludicrous. I like wearing suits and I still think it’s stupid to make me wear something less comfortable and less efficient to move in for the sake of appearing “more professional”.

When you see how much bullshit you spend your life putting up with, and the rituals you have to undergo — for me, at the moment, all my annoyance at the interview process is coming to the fore — you can either laugh or get angry. I’m too damn lazy to spend my entire life angry, so I suppose, at some point, I chose to laugh. Very likely the novels of Terry Pratchett had a huge influence on this decision as well, since he’s especially good at laughing at bullshit. However it happened, it is the base I stand on to write my stories.

Writers build worlds — it’s a necessary part of what we do. Even if your world is a realistic one, even if it’s nonfiction, you have to re-construct reality within your work. If your world’s not realistic, or if it’s only loosely based in reality, you have to do more. Personal viewpoint influences how that world is built to a massive degree. You don’t have to see a laughable world; you can be angry at what you see and want to change it, or you can see the world in shades of fantasy, or any other viewpoint you happen to have. But having a firm and critically thoughtful view of the world, knowing what you see and what you think of what you see, is absolutely necessary. Until you have that, writing for other people is a struggle that will fight you. Writing, and fiction in particular, demands every part of you, and it’s difficult to give it so much if you don’t know what you’re handing over.

In my case, what I tend to give my writing is laughter; either with the world or at it. Both are effective in their own way.

The Touchiest Of Topics

In Uncategorized on April 4, 2013 at 10:26 am

This post builds a little bit off a previous post about sex in literature, and also a little off my earlier series on how to define a YA Novel. It’s about a hot topic in the literary world right now: YA Lit and Sex.

I think that the topic is hot because YA Lit is increasingly prominent in our culture, and because sex in literature is as well. There’s also been a lot of talk lately about how dark YA Lit is becoming, but even with books like the Hunger Games series, which is held up as the ultimate symbol (if not the only one) of dark writing for kids, sex isn’t often something that comes up. At least, I assume; I figure I’d have heard about it by now if all the starving kids were also having sex. And, in part, publishers are realising that literature aimed at young adults isn’t just being bought by young adults. They’re now working to satisfy the adult desire for something a little steamier. There are a lot of great reasons for adults to read YA; I personally used to pluck random YA novels off the shelf during exam time in college, because they were easy on the brain and could be read quickly.

But, yes. For all of these reasons and others, as well, sex in YA Lit is becoming a forefront discussion.

Sex was an issue I faced when I was writing fanfic, especially Stealing Harry and Laocoon’s Children, two stories that rewrote the Harry Potter novels within an alternate universe. Because I was writing fanfic and not trying to sell anything to children, I had more latitude than a pro-published writer would; I was already including sex scenes between adults even when I was writing about Harry Potter as an eight year old. But as the kids I was writing about got older, I wanted to reflect what everloving horndogs a lot of kids are in their teens. So I was glancing off the idea of teens engaging in romantic and sexual situations; I didn’t want to write kiddie porn but I did want to be honest about how teens behave. I lost my virginity in high school; presumably it wasn’t unlikely that a tightly-knit group of friends would have similar experiences. It’s not that I feel kids ought to, it’s just that I feel like whether or not they ought to, a lot do.

I never got there, because that story fell by the wayside, but it has stayed with me, the idea that people in their teens do have sexual urges and sexual encounters. It’s a tricky place to go, because most writers (quite rightly) don’t want to use underage people as devices for sexual titillation, and more importantly they don’t want to be accused of doing it whether or not that was their intent. And I don’t want to add to the weird societal pressures surrounding sex, the conflicting “Have sex now or you’re abnormal!” and “SEX ISN’T SUPPOSED TO BE FUN, IT’S A SIN.”

I believe that people shouldn’t be ashamed of having sex, of choosing their partners and the number of their partners, as long as said partners are consenting and capable of consent. I believe people should be told that they’re supposed to enjoy the sex they have, and if they aren’t, they should be encouraged to stop what they’re doing and seek alternatives, be that different partners or different kinds of sex or no sex at all. And one of the things I discovered while exploring the nature of YA Literature is that it is predominantly about adults who have a message they want to convey to young people — like what we think about sex and how we deal with it as adults.

There’s a fantastic quote by a fellow WordPresser, fozmeadows, discussing adolescent sex in YA:

Sex/y scenes in YA matter because YA novels aren’t contraband. It’s not like sneaking a glance at the late night movie, then frantically switching channels when your parents inevitably walk in during the naked bits, or covertly trying to hide a Mills and Boon under your bed, or having to clear your browser history and check that the door’s locked if you want to look at porn or read slashfic on the internet. You can read YA novels openly – on the bus, at school, at home – and never have to worry that someone’s going to find your behaviour suspicious. Sex/y scenes in YA matter because, by the very nature of belonging to a permitted form of media, they help to disassociate sex from surreptitious secrecy: they make it something open rather than furtive, something that rightfully belongs to you, the reader, because the book was meant for you to read and remember.

Fozmeadows is speaking primarily about the way young women are treated both in the world of YA lit and within the books that compose it, which is entirely appropriate given, well, how young women are frequently treated in YA Lit. But it has a broader application as well: the idea that imbuing the concept of sex into a YA book automatically gives the reader just a little more agency and ownership than they had previously.

It doesn’t matter if the scene is detailed or not, if it’s only fiery kisses or much, much more: the point is that you’re allowed to have it, allowed to enjoy it, and that perhaps for the first time in your life, you’re viewing something arousing that doesn’t make you out to be a sex object in heels, but an active, interesting heroine who also happens to have a love life.

It’s true, too — even books that discuss teens committing complicated crimes in an adult world, like the Heist Society series, shy away from teens committing sexual acts. What really hit home for me about that second half of the quote, however, is the concept of not putting an actual sex act into the book: not having to write explicit sex between underage partners — just the legitimate, unflinching potential for sex to occur, or the mention of it happening. Even the desire for it to happen unhampered by the usual “am I ready?” self-flagellating self-examination that media aimed at teens generally includes (almost exclusively with the eventual answer of “No” at the end) would be refreshing. And Fozmeadows is right: it is enough to show readers that they get to control what happens to their bodies and when, without necessarily baring everything.

I think this is important because even authors writing for adult audiences have trouble with sex scenes, as I talked about last week. So understanding that sex in literature is something that people look for and something that can positively influence the way young people see their sexuality (and those of others) is important. But it’s just as important for writers to know that there is space between “never talking about it” and “explicit sexual description” — that wanting sex and experiencing desire can be just as important as the sex that actually happens. It’s not just teenagers who could use a higher comfort level with discussions of sex and sexuality, after all.