Monday, June 26, 2006

What I'm Reading

The Song of Roland, author unknown, translated by Frederick Goldin. This ancient, French, medieval story remains a part of the Literature tradition in some of America's better universities, but I have never read it. From the book cover (W. W. Norton and Company):
"French literature, it has been said, began with The Song of Roland. This great narrative poem of the late eleventh century shares with its epic predecessors by Homer and Vergil a heroic vision of war and warriors. The historic battle of Rencesvals in A.D. 778 was a thwarted enterprise ending in a painful loss, the death of Charlemagne's greatest knight, Roland. In the poem, however, this story of betrayal, defeat, and futile death is transfigured into an idealization of chivalry and valor."

I decided to read it now, because one of my future stories takes place in a time that looks very much like this medieval world of the past. It will also be filled with acts of valor and the occasional tragedy. In short, I need to bone up on how to kill people gracefully.

The Enemy: A Jack Reacher Novel, by Lee Child. I don't normally read murder mysteries, but this one came up during a discussion with a friend about writing. It's one of his favorites. I can see why. It's addictive, kind of like eating nacho-cheese-flavored Doritos. I'll post a short review of it when I'm finished (or at least a thumbs up or down).

Cicero: On Obligations. I'm still reading this one and probably will be for another six months. It's not long, but it's one of those essays that I only read in four-page snippets.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Can't Write When I'm Pissed Off

[Posted Tuesday]

So I'm waiting for some city inspectors to come by my house right now, and they're very late. They were supposed to be here this morning, but now it's looking more like 4:30 if at all, and not even a single phone call to tell us what's going on. You know if it were me doing this to them, they'd fine my ass and threaten to slap a Type III Renewal on my head (you don't even want to know what that means).

Welcome to the People's Republic of Portland. They own my home, my land, and my life. Well, not quite that bad, but close. Right now I feel as if they do. Today is/was supposed to be the last day of a tortuous, three-year-long struggle between us and the city over some of the most convoluted and senseless environmental laws you could imagine. Don't even ask me to explain.

Now my partner is starting to get nervous, because he can see that I'm getting pissed off. He keeps reminding me not to say anything unless someone asks me a direct question. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Look at me, I'm a church mouse.

Maybe he'll tell me to go and get some work done in a cafe somewhere and leave him to deal with the city. Nah. He needs me to be here. Besides, I couldn't get any work done today if it would save my sex life. Writing is one of those jobs that you can't fake. On a day like this -- like when your cat gets run over, your brother is arrested for embezzlement, or your best friend calls in tears because he/she just discovered that his/her partner is having an affair -- forget about getting anything done. Not with a creative job.

Maybe I should do something pointless like watch a violent movie. Hey, that gives me an even better idea. I should run down to the rental place and get Doom 3. I've been meaning to try it. After all, add a little hair to that demon on the box cover and he could look exactly like the inspectors from the city.


Friday, June 16, 2006

Winged Statues

Responding to my comments about my favorite sculpture, Nicholas Provenzo agrees with my praise for it, then he writes (in part):
"I recall that earlier this spring Sherri Tracinski attacked a similar sculpture by Daniel Chester French because it had wings and was allegedly named after a passage in the Holy Bible (a point that seems to be a matter of debate among art historians). Tracinski’s position was that French’s sculpture was an unreal representation of romantic love—and that no artist, save for Sandra Shaw has been able to accurately capture love in their art."

I located Tracinski's article online. (I believe I found the right one.) You can read it here. In fact, I recommend it.

To be precise, Miss Tracinski never actually claims in her article that only Sandra Shaw has ever captured real, human love in art. I believe Tracinski meant to limit the context of her article to sculpture. Also, she says that she hasn't found such a sculpture, not that one doesn't exist. She writes, "It has taken me years to find in a piece of sculpture depicting love that was real, benevolent, and untainted by tragedy.[sic]"

Having said that, I don't entirely agree with her critique.

Like her, I don't like the way that love is portrayed in Daniel Chester French's The Sons of God Saw the Daughters of Man That They Were Fair (click here). She writes, "nearly every piece [that I have found] depicts love as a physical action between two mythical figures or as a story of passionate doom," and I think she's right that French's sculpture exemplifies this message. But she assumes, I think wrongly, that the problem stems from the man's wings. She claims that the sculpture "shows us an otherworldly winged man in a passionate embrace with a very this-worldly woman."

True, the wings are huge and cannot be ignored; they virtually envelope the woman. But I don't consider that to be the most important problem with this piece. Here's where Tracinski and I part ways. She writes: "[French's piece] depicts a tender and passionate love, it isn't a real love." You're right, Miss Tracinski, it isn't real love. But it's also not a tender love, and even more than that, its passion is ironic.

Notice her rigid arm pushing away at his wing and her head held at a rigid, right angle away from him as if she aims to keep her "virtue" intact right up until she can no longer resist — even if she fully expects it to be taken. Notice that if she does not change her pose, it would be almost impossible for him to reach her lips. Notice that her leg blocks his thigh. Finally, notice that her eyes are focused, not on her suitor, but on heaven. This strikes me as an incredibly Victorian position. It says to me that this love is not conjugal. It's much too loaded with piety. While his passion is undeniably physical, her passion by contrast is directed at her own virtue, not her suitor.

That's why this sculpture conveys a "story of passionate doom." A more secular statue such as Cupid and Psyche would be more inviting of human sexuality and emotional union. Take the wings away from French's statue so that only two humans remain, and what do you have? Still, a "story of passionate doom". The wings clearly distract, but that's not where the real message of this piece is coming from. It's the pose, especially that of the woman.

So that's my response to Tracinski. Now contrast French's sculpture with the one that I favored, Canova's Cupid and Psyche (click here). Notice how his wings stay up and away from the focus of the drama. If anything, they merely tell us who he is and from which direction he came. They don't encircle the woman or even attempt to frame the action. They're incidental to the moment. From the viewer's usual perspective, it is very easy to enjoy this sculpture while virtually ignoring the fact that the man has wings. You can see this more clearly here (on Lee Sandstead's website).

But that's essentially beside the point. What's important is to contrast the mood in this sculpture with French's. Notice how, as I said, "[Psyche] reaches up for love. She touches him tenderly, bare of soul." What a vastly different perspective from French's rigid, Victorian-style maiden! Regarding Cupid, I earlier wrote "he lifts her head to his lips, and they unite in a circle beneath his hopeful gaze." By contrast, French's winged man cranes his head to kiss the woman who leans away from him.

In French's sculpture, a violent form of action seeks to take that which has been given to him, not by the woman, but by a higher power, while in Canova's sculpture, a lover fights alone for that which already belong's to him, and he wins it much to his dear lover's joy. Through Canova, we get to witness the exact moment when the lovers Cupid and Psyche reunite, a triumph of passionate, human values.

And this brings me to my final point: There's a crucial difference that I see between Canova's attitude toward the supernatural and French's. One distills his spiritual beliefs down to a divinely human moment, the other to the human side of an otherwise divine moment. (To further drive this point home, notice which of the two winged creatures rests upon an earthly stone, and which upon a cloud.)

I want to say more about the fantastic in art, but I'll have to save that discussion for later. In short, I have no problem with it, depending on the context and the treatment. My concerns mainly revolve around the issue of metaphysical value-judgments. What does an artist consider important? Answering that question is the key to focusing on the right elements when trying to make sense of — and better appreciate — any art, whether fantastic or purely realistic.


P.S. I think Daniel Chester French is an amazing sculptor. I may not like the theme of this particular piece, but I'm still in awe of it.


Monday, June 12, 2006

Rule of Reason's Carnival

Today's a big day for Toiler. My alter-ego has been featured on Nicholas Provenzo's latest Carnival of the Objectivists. His blog is Rule of Reason. Thanks, Nicholas.

It's kind of funny, because I've been toiling away over here (get it?) in my own little corner of the blog world, happy as a conch, not at all concerned about my relative obscurity, when all of a sudden a bunch of people are looking at me and saying, "Hey, dude, what are you doing?" And I'm saying, "Oh, hi. Well, I'm pretty much writing about writing, gushing about great art, getting torqued about dumb words, that sort of thing. Stick around if you like it."

I appreciate the exposure, mainly because I've always been open to meeting other hard-working writers of Romantic fiction through my blog. (By now, though, I'd be amazed if more than one or two of them are out there to be found.)

Before I started Acid Free Paper, I didn't see any reason to communicate with other writers. I wouldn't say that now, not after writing fiction pretty much full-time for the last two years. I'm beginning to realize how much hard-working people can benefit from each other's enthusiasm and insights, even in a creative job like writing fiction. Trouble is, very, very few other writers seem to be on my wavelength. The best ones that I've met so far write mysteries, sci-fi, and fantasy. None write mainstream literature.

A New Romantic literary movement appears to be decades away still. For me, it feels a bit like I'm writing in a cultural vacuum. After that initial supernova that was Ayn Rand, mainstream literature seems to have shrunk back into darkness. It's going to be a long, slow road out of it — one writer at a time.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Great Art: My Favorite Sculpture

© Lee Sandstead, used by permission

This has to be my favorite sculpture. Even in a photograph, I cannot look at it for long without being moved to tears. The woman reaches up for love. She touches him tenderly, bare of soul. He lifts her head to his lips, and they unite in a circle beneath his hopeful gaze. An exalted human experience, love and passion triumphant!

Thank you again, Mr. Sandstead, for bringing great art to our attention. If anyone out there enjoys this photo, I suggest you visit Mr. Sandstead's website, Monument Light, where you can buy prints and replicas like this one, or just enjoy the fact that such great works of art exist.


Thursday, June 08, 2006

X-Men III Plot Crimes

Literatrix torpedoes the latest X-Men movie. I agree with her, but I want to add one observation of my own.

The movie displayed some good examples of what is my second biggest pet peeve in movie making. It's an approach to plotting that I call the "cart before the horse" technique. Everybody's seen this. It usually makes viewers groan or shake their heads in disbelief, because it often appears as an overly convenient solution to a difficult problem, although I don't think that's the usual cause. Here's what I think causes it, as illustrated by this imaginary conversation between Pepe the movie producer and Willy the script writer:

Pepe: "We need to figure out how Forcefield Man will save his mother."
Willy: "No problem! We'll just do something sinister to his mother so that he'll have to use his forcefield to save her."
Pepe: "Good idea! The man's got a forcefield, so he might as well use it!"
Willy: "Right! So here's an idea: Let's have the bad guys surround her in a magical shrinking room that will crush her."
Pepe: "Ooooh, coool! A shrinking room! He'll have to use his powers."
Willy: "Exactly! It'll be perfect."
Pepe: "But wait...How do we come up with a shrinking room?"
Willy: [Scratches his head] "Oh, I've got it! We'll invent a new character with magical powers..."

It looks like these writers are rushing to easy solutions, but I don't think that's the real problem. They're being creative, which is good, but they're doing it the wrong way. I know we're not dealing with high drama here, but even the most base drama should get this right: the physical situations don't ultimately determine the man-made in a story; it's the other way around.

In this example, put mom in a circumstance that follows from her relationship with her son and from the natures of the villains. Don't worry too much about Forcefield Man's powers. Just do to her what needs to be done. Then and only then, figure out what Forcefield Man is going to do about it. Be creative! Put yourself in Forcefield Man's shoes and ask, "If my mother was in this situation, how could I use my powers in a creative way to save her?" That's letting the horse pull the cart. It's relying on the inner nature of the characters (thus, the conflict) to determine what the characters should do, and not the other way around.

Here's what happens when you make a real movie the wrong way:

[Major X-men Spoiler Follows]

Magneto's villains decide to throw Angel's father out the window instead of just killing him like they do everyone else. Why on earth?! Answer: Only so they can show off Angel's power in the most convenient way possible.

That scene was just wrong. Angel should have had to work harder to save his father. I laughed. Others groaned. It was embarrassing.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Almost Ready to Write

Man, I'm so close to being ready to start writing again! I can feel the pressure to write those first words growing stronger by the day. Over the last two days especially, insights have been coming to me fast, almost one after the other. Normally I feel satisfied with my workday if I have just one significant insight or discovery, but lately I've been having three, four, or five. Sometimes my pen can hardly keep up with my thoughts.

This is pretty normal stuff for a short story where the work only lasts for a few days leading up to the writing, then it's over in about three or four more days, maybe a week or two at the most. But with a novel, there's much more ground to cover. It takes a lot more work to get stoked over so much material.

I am stoked, though, probably because I've never been as prepared for a novel before. (To be fair to myself, I've only written one and a half novels, so I'm probably just getting better at it.)

This time I'm not going to let myself start writing until every character is totally real to me, the relationships between the characters are vivid, and all of the key physical objects are as real to me as if they were people. I'm almost there.

I can't believe that several weeks ago I thought I was ready to start writing. Hello!? What were you thinking, Toiler?! Ah, well. No unearned guilt. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I knew that I wasn't ready, that starting was just a way to prove it to myself, to make myself want to do the necessary work to get where I am today. Ugh! The mind can be such a tricky thing sometimes.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Batwoman Comes Out of Her Cave

There's been a lot of brouhaha — okay, not really all that much brouhaha — over Batwoman's coming out. What's funny about this teeny, weeny headliner is the fact that lesbians have been coming and going in comic books for ages now (though few have been high-profile characters, I admit).

George over at Bookninja expresses some concern that feminists are going to be pissed off about this high-heeled, pouty-lipped, ersatz lesbian. Of course they will be, George. Feminists are always pissed off.

Here's the probably-not-very-helpful comment that I left on George's blog:
Comic books have always been a brew of bad cliches. You just toss in a lot of super-tight crotch, plastic-rimmed cleavage, some bent genders, a couple of spikey boot thingies, and voila! You have Robin The Amazingly Useless and Sexually Ambiguous Batman Lover. Think about it: Since when has it ever added up?

Tell “your” gender theorist (is that okay?) to just relax. Sometime soon it will all be revealed that Batwoman is actually a male-identified robot sent by an evil Biptast overlord on a distant planet named Sasnak to destroy the human race, starting with rabbits.

Oh, and one other thing: You’ve got to think that a lesbian with pouty lips and spiked heels would be hard for some comic book readers to resist. (Think target audience here, folks.)

And that's all the incisive commentary that I have to offer on this most arresting issue.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Katharine Close, Champion Speller

The winner of the 81st annual Scripps National Spelling Bee is official. According to AP:
A 13-year-old New Jersey girl making her fifth straight appearance at the Scripps National Spelling Bee rattled off "ursprache" to claim the title of America's best speller on prime-time television Thursday night.

Katharine Close, an eighth-grader at the H.W. Mountz School in Spring Lake, New Jersey, is the first girl since 1999 to win the national spelling title.

Ursprache? I actually remember that word from linguistics, but that doesn't mean I would have won the bee. Far from it. I wouldn't have even gotten past the first round. Other words included "boswellize," "colluctation" and "flannelette"! And yes, that's really English. No joke.

Way to go, Katharine!

[Update: For a short time, the news was actually featured on the front page of CNN's website. Amazing.]

Spelling Champs as National Heroes?

What does it say about a culture when a sufficient number of people are expected to watch a spelling bee on national television, enough in fact that the producers expect to turn a profit from it? What's more, the bee is supposedly going to be broadcast during prime-time for the first time ever.

According to the AP article:
"Spelling bees are gaining in popularity, thanks partly to the ESPN broadcasts and the competition's starring roles in movies, including the recently released "Akeelah and the Bee," and a Tony-winning Broadway musical, said Paige Kimble, the bee's director and 1981 champion."

I'm sure this says something about our culture, but I have no idea what that might be. The trouble with trends is that for everyone one of them, there's doubtless several others trending in some other direction.

Ah, well, I can't help but hope that this is a trend toward more literacy in at least some small subset of America's vast middle. I hope so, because the opportunities available to me in my career may depend on it.