Sunday, June 26, 2011

Evil in Fiction

In the nature versus nurture debate, where does evil fit in? In fiction it is difficult to determine.

Too often in fiction, evil comes from a broken home, or a place of unhappiness and abuse. Even more evil characters aren’t given any family history at all, as though evil is somehow produced in a vacuum. It is reassuring to think of evil as independently created, because otherwise we might be forced to confront an uncomfortable truth: sometimes evil comes from normal, everyday families, who live normal, everyday lives. These people have parents, children, brothers and sisters, who might be ordinary people.

And sometimes they might be extraordinary.

Once, in Germany, a man was appalled to see a group of Jewish women being forced to scrub the street. He got down on his knees and joined them. The officer in charge of the women demanded to see the man’s papers. That man was Albert Göring, younger brother of Hermann Göring . The officer, unable to arrest Hermann Göring’s brother and unable to prevent him from causing a spectacle, put a stop to the scrubbing.

Albert Göring

Albert Göring forged his brother’s signature on documents to allow dissidents to travel out of Germany. When he was in charge of the Skoda Works in Czechoslovakia, he engaged in sabotage. He used to send trucks to concentration camps to collect workers -- workers who were then secretly set free. Albert didn’t just oppose the regime his brother lived and breathed -- he actively undermined it.

Hermann Göring killed himself the night before he was due to be hanged at Nuremburg. Albert Göring lived in Germany on a state pension. He was a pariah because of his family name. He died in 1966.

If it wasn’t true, I wouldn’t believe it -- the symmetry is too perfect. Two brothers who must have played together as children, setting themselves on opposing paths in adulthood. There’s a story there. There’s also a moral.

Don’t take the easy way out by giving your villain a bleak past to match his black heart. Don’t assume that a similar upbringing or genetics will send two characters in the same direction. And don’t forget that, for better or for worse, your family will always stay with you.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

One of those weeks

I’ve had one of those weeks. You know, not a good week, and not a bad week, but a non-writing week. And I hate those.

I work shift work, which is always a challenge in itself. Usually I manage to get some writing done in work time – either saved onto a flash drive, or on my laptop, or in an old-fashioned device known as note book. But this week…nothing. And it’s not like it was that busy. I just didn’t feel like it.

Meh. Motivation. Have none.

And maybe things will look different tomorrow, when I’ve caught up on sleep and my brain is back in action. Or maybe I’m just kidding myself. 

So tell me, guys, how do you get your groove back? 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Things All Books Should Have

Do you know what I miss? 

Remember all those old books that had chapter headings? I miss those. They were like tiny little teasers at the beginning of each chapter. Sometimes they were more interesting than the chapters themselves.

Chapter Seven. In which Tarquin and Felicity embark on a motoring holiday to Caerphilly, Lydia snags her stocking, and Hugh Fortherington-Fotherington makes a startling discovery in the woodshed.

I want to bring those back.

What would you bring back if you could? Or introduce into books? 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ern Malley and Angry Penguins: from the ridiculous to the sublime

There is probably not a single university student in Australia studying literature who hasn’t heard of Ern Malley and Angry Penguins. The controversy is over sixty years old, and it’s not going anywhere. There is a moral to the story, but nobody seems exactly sure what it is.

In 1944, Max Harris, poet and editor of the modernist magazine Angry Penguins, published the complete poems of Ern Malley. The poems had been sent to him by Ern’s sister, who had unearthed them among her brother’s possessions after his death at age 25. She knew nothing about poetry herself, she claimed, but a friend suggested she send them to Harris.

Ernest Lalor Malley was a part-time insurance salesman and mechanic. He was born in Liverpool in the UK but emigrated to Australia as a child. He left school at fourteen.  He lived -- and died -- in poverty and obscurity, ignoring his own health while he scribbled out his fierce, passionate poetry in a rented room in Sydney. 

Ern Malley, by Sidney Nolan

Harris believed that Ern Malley was a poet with a “cool, strong, sinuous feeling for language”. He believed that Malley was one of the best poets Australia had ever produced. This is an extract from “Durer: Innsbruck, 1495”

I had read in books that art is not easy
    But no one warned that the mind repeats
          In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
        the black swan on trespass on alien waters.

The police were less enthusiastic. They believed the poems were smut, and Max Harris was prosecuted for publishing indecent material. Detective Vogelesang stated that “Night Piece” was obscene because “…someone is shining a torch in the dark, visiting though the park gates…I have found that people who go into parks at night go there for immoral purposes.” He also objected to the word “incestuous” although he admitted he didn’t understand what it meant in the context of Malley’s work. It didn’t matter. Max Harris was found guilty, and fined five pounds.

In a very short time, Ern Malley had become Australia’s most famous, scandalous poet. He was the poster boy for the intellectual battle between the traditionalists and the modernists, between conservative and liberal. He was reviled, and he was championed. The media couldn’t get enough.  

Small problem: Ern Malley didn’t exist.

Ern Malley was the creation of James McAuley and Harold Stewart, two conservative poets who wanted to discredit Max Harris, modernism and the avant-garde movement. The poems, the hoaxers believed, were nonsense. They had deliberately created them to have no coherent theme, no technique, no consistency and no meaning.

It worked. When the truth came out, Max Harris was a laughing stock. So were the police and the courts.

 Except it also didn’t work. Because even though they hadn’t intended to do it, McAuley and Stewart had created real poetry that resonates. 

The poetry of Ern Malley is a reminder that meaning is something for the reader to discover, and that any work is more than the sum of its parts. It is a reminder that the intent of an author might not count for anything, and that the value of a work lies in its interpretation not its execution. It’s a reminder that the law is an ass, and it’s a reminder that there is a very fine line between parody and accidental genius. 

The scandal is over sixty years old, and nobody is still quite sure who won. Not Max Harris, who spent the rest of his life defending himself for having fallen for the hoax, and not McAuley and Stewart, whose “serious” work was never as successful as Malley’s poetry. Maybe the real winner is Ern, the little battler who overcame non-existence itself to become one of Australia’s most famous poets.

As Ern wrote (or didn’t):

I have split the infinite. Beyond is anything.

For more on Australia’s greatest literary hoax, go here: Ern Malley.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Why YA? Why? Won't somebody please think of the children!

So, I'm sure everyone's aware of this opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, right? You know, the one that deplores the awful, dark, horrible world that is the YA landscape. I think it was written by this lady: 

Anyway, it's a pile of crap. That's my opinion. It wouldn't fill much space in the Wall Street Journal, and it's not my most eloquent argument ever, but I stand by it: it's a pile of crap. 

Kids are not stupid. Kids are smart enough to have their world view challenged. Kids need to have their world view challenged. And, unfortunately for a lot of kids, the world they inhabit is already dark, awful, graphic and violent. And you know what those kids need most of all? They need to know they're not alone. They need to know they can be strong, and that they are not a freak, and that if bad things happen you can overcome them. And it won't be easy, and it won't be pretty, but you can do it. And that's what good YA does. It gives kids courage, it gives kids hope, and it gives kids the knowledge that somebody out there is speaking their language. 

So what was my response to the article? I went straight to Amazon and ordered one of those awful, dark books. And next week, after pay day, I'm ordering another one until I am the proud owner of every one of the books on the list. 

Make a stand. Read good YA.  


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