Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Goldilocks Was a Hipster

a work in progress



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When someone claims to like bad books or bad movies, they are not using "bad" as a description of quality. They are using it as a label for the kind of book that they like. 

At some point in the past "soap opera" was simply a cuss word meaning "bad drama". "Space opera" was what clever science fiction fans called the stuff that they didn't read. We'd now happily say that Iain M Banks was writing "space opera" without even the slightest implication that he really ought to have been trying harder. "Pulp" used to be a literary slur directed at stuff written quickly and printed on cheap paper: it's now a perfectly neutral way of describing stories about detectives and barbarians and pirates. 

("What a shame we are no longer allowed to go out into the garden and admire all the homosexual flowers and listen to a homosexual tune on the wireless!")

People who like "bad" books might perfectly well draw a distinction between good "bad" books and bad "bad" books. And we could point to any number of bad "good" books. The possibility of bad good "bad" books and good bad "bad" books is left as an exercise for the reader.

Some people think that a long literary novel with a forty page digression about the smell of the protagonist's granny's nightie is basically a pulp novel done badly. "Silly man" they say "He understood so little about pacing that he honestly thought we wanted endless pages about a Russian psychopath wondering the streets thinking about predestination and existentialism when he obviously should have cut straight to the actual murder." (This condition, known as "subtext blindness", is more common than you'd think.) And some people think that a pulp adventure novel is what you are left with when someone tries and fails to write a serious literary psychological doorstep. "Why didn't the writer focus on the effect of shell-shock and PTSD rather than wasting our time with endless descriptions of medieval cavalry charging down orcs with lances?" they ask.

The blessed Germain Greer thought that the Spider-Man movie took a wrong turn when Peter Parker decided to use his powers to fight crime. Surely it should have been about the Kafkesque alienation of an insect person? (She also felt that Master and Commander was too focused on boats.) Paul Merton claimed that Lord of the Rings was the worst book he'd ever read because it didn't contain any laughs; which is a bit like John Cleese telling Malcolm Muggeridge that Chartres cathedral wasn't a very funny building.

Germain Greer didn't really say that the Aubrey-Maturin series was too much about boats. What she said was that setting a story in the Nelsonic navy is a choice: in this case, a choice to tell a story which is mainly about manly men being macho and hardly at all about womanly women being feminine. Only caricature feminists have ever said that Moby Dick, Hornblower and Master and Commander ought never to have been written or that they ought to have had alternate chapters about what the mostly female civilians were doing while the mostly male sailors were out annihilating aquatic mammals and flogging each other, or that they would have been improved by the addition of one of those folk song ladies who dressed up as a boy and went to sea. What feminists actually say is "There are great number of books of the first kind, and very few of the second kind. And only the first kind seem to get turned into movies. Why do you think that is?"

Fanny Price only gets to spend three chapters agonizing about what necklace to wear to a ball because there aren't any French people firing cannon balls at her head. 


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My go-to example of loving and forgiving something which I believe to be bad is, of course, my MP3 collection of the 1940-51 Superman wireless serials. There are about a thousand 15 minute episodes and I adore every one. (Well, maybe not the alien cook who speaks in rhyme.) I understand that it went out 5 evenings a week, to be listened to by American kids when they got home from school. Episodes are simultaneously breathlessly fast paced and excruciatingly padded. The kids have got to be engaged; but the story has got to be drawn out for as long as possible. Copy boys run to Perry White's office with urgent messages; but it can take a whole episode for anyone to actually get around to reading them. "Message you say, can't you see that I'm too busy to read a fool message?" "Gee, chief, but there might be something important in it, we haven't heard from Lois for three days" "I can't nursemaid every girl reporter on my newspaper! And don't call me chief!" "What about the message?" GET ON WITH IT!

In this kind of format, it's essential that you can tell which character is which the minute they open their mouths. So practically everyone is a stereotype. Henchmen speak in that "de spring is sprung de grass is riz" Brooklyn accent. Policemen begin sentences with "to be sure, to be sure". Cab drivers sound like de black fella. Butler's are English cockneys. Jimmy Olsen says "swell" a lot. On one occassion the villain leaves a white rose at the scene of the crime and Clark Kent questions the florist. Sure enough, he sounds English and effeminate.

This tendency to very broadly drawn characters is part of the show's texture; part of the aesthetic; part of why I adore it. It wouldn't be improved by telling me about the florist's background; or by casting against type and making him a big tough guy with tattoos. But the line between broadly drawn characters; stereotypes; and out-and-out racism can be quite a wiggly one. There's a 1942 episode in which Clark switches two prisoners and remarks. "All Japs look much the same, after all." My attitude to the series might be rather different if most of the wartime episodes were not lost to posterity.  

But then again. In a pulp war story, all the enemy have to pretty uncomplicatedly baddies. That's part of what makes it a pulp war story. If you stop the action to wonder who the Jerry you just shot was, and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart; or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home, and if he would really rather have stayed there in peace, well, you might possibly have a better story, but you'd have a much worse pulp war story. 

So perhaps the person who says "I like this even though it is rubbish" is not talking about aesthetics or genre. Perhaps he is admitting that his pulp books are bad because they are, or sometimes are racist -- or sexist, or morally simplistic. He's not talking about literary quality, but morals. He is much more like someone saying  "I must admit that I enjoy looking at pornography, even though I know I ought not to" than someone saying "I must admit that I like this painting, even though the lady's head is out of proportion and her leg twists round in a direction it couldn't actually go."

continues in this vein for pages

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