A Rare Linky Post

Usually I think of my blog as the place where I put down my thoughts. But things have been so hectic of late that I haven’t really had any that are worth noting. Instead, I’m going to link to three posts that have caused me lately to stop and think.


Andrew Blackman: The Future of Books: Reactive?

This fascinating post reports on advances in technology in ‘reactive media’ in which we get to be hooked up to a machine that stimulates the storyline we’re reading if we get bored, or dials it back if we’re overreacting.

I guess that whether your reaction to all this is “Wow, that sounds cool” or “Please shoot me now” depends on what you want from your media,’ Andrew writes.

No prizes for guessing which camp I’m in.


Dutch Courage (written by my friend Ingrid): Proving Yourself

This is a beautifully written post in which Ingrid considers the subtle difference between ‘justifying yourself’ and ‘proving yourself’, a distinction linked to gender identity that she becomes aware of while supporting her young son as he grows. Masculinity, she learns, consists in part of:

The unshakeable drive to prove oneself worthy of a higher and nobler calling (love), the need to have one’s action’s approved by a band of brothers, that all-in-allness that men establish between each other through competition and the fair fight is absolutely hardwired into them. They could no more let go of it than they could drop down and walk on all fours. To laugh at this drive is to wound a man profoundly.’


The Guardian: Top Five Regrets of the Dying

This is an old post that Mr Litlove alerted me to a while back and which I return to every now and then to check in with and check myself against. It arose out of a book written by an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care. The regrets are:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard (apparently every single man said this).

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings (many felt that buried resentment and bitterness had played a part in their illnesses).

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends (ironically, while typing this my neighbour came to the door for a chat and after catching up with the headlines I had to shoo her away because I had so much work to do).

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

What a salutory lesson those five regrets encompass. I find myself particularly drawn to the last one, although I think that, taken wrongly, it can be made into an excuse for suppressing problems that really need to be dealt with. I’d probably change it into ‘I wish I’d let myself fully recognise what emotions were appropriate to any given situation, and let myself experience them.’

On that note, I will just say that I think my son is beginning to find more emotional equilibrium, and my back is a great deal better. Thanks to the splendid heated band-aid, I did make the event in Heffers last week with Jill Dawson (who turns out to be absolutely lovely). I was not what you’d call comfortable, but I was there. One less thing to regret. :)  Thank you all for your amazing, invaluable support; I certainly couldn’t manage without my virtual friends.

When Is A Cliché Not A Cliché?

I seem to be running a one-woman vendetta against the so-called ‘rules’ of writing, which strike me ever more like literary use-by dates, or a way of making decisions that prevents us from engaging our own senses in the matter. Just recently I keep coming across cries of ‘cliché!’ where I’m not convinced that a) it is a cliché or b) that it matters even so.

So, the definition of a cliché is:

is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning, or effect, and even, to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.’

But how are we to distinguish this from a phrase or an idiom or a maxim? It seems to me that the word cliché gets used for all of them. Where for instance, on the scale of cliché would you place such phrases as: ‘the answer to a prayer’ or ‘to make life a misery for someone’ or ‘not to have a leg to stand on’, all common expressions that I’ve come across recently in literary texts that sounded fine in context to me. Or even trickier, how would you evaluate the way that certain verbs take a limited number of objects? For instance, flirting with death or disaster are the other linguistic options to flirting with people (which tells you all you need to know about flirtation, I think). If we’ve only got two other options beyond the obvious one, should we avoid them through inevitable overuse? On the other end of the scale, taking someone for granted is a well-worn phrase not least because it’s the neatest, most economical way of describing a situation that commonly exists. Does that mean I have to avoid it, and find some sprawling circumlocution instead?

I found this site, a comprehensive list of clichés, and it’s positively enormous. Just from the list beginning with ‘a’, I found the following, which I would argue against as clichés:

Abandon ship – are captains in crisis now supposed to think up linguistically creative ways of expressing this?

Achilles heel – how else would we designate this part of the body? And what other way is there of expressing the figurative idea, except by long-winded explanation?

As luck would have it/As the crow flies – are these really without meaning now, or unpleasant to the ear?

Already got one paw on the chicken coop/As welcome as a skunk at a lawn party – not that I’m enamoured of either phrase, but I’d never heard of them before in my life. They can’t be clichés to me in that case.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it’s a quotation, and unavoidable at funerals.

Then there’s this site, which quite interestingly lists the most disliked clichés, as voted for somewhere or other online. Can we really object to individual words, like ‘literally’ and ‘actually’? We might dislike the frequency or lack of accuracy with which they are used, but that doesn’t make them clichés according to the definition of the term.

It’s also interesting how many clichés first came to life as jargon, particularly in the business world or on the sports field – blue sky scenario, thinking outside of the box, going forward, etc. Is jargon just cliché in waiting? It particularly tickled me to find so many online articles relating to business writing entitled ‘clichés to avoid like the plague’. Do you think they know what they did there? (and is that one still permissible or is it exhausted now?)

And what if you wanted to use a cliché but in an ironic or knowing way? What if you wanted to say ‘better the devil you know’ or ‘all’s fair in love and war’ either because the very triteness of the phrase indicates there is much more beyond it, or because despite the vastness of human nature, it sometimes happens that people behave and situations evolve just as they have always done for thousands of years. I don’t like this thought that whole areas of language have been forbidden to me. I remember Colette saying that it was pointless to search for new and outlandish ways of saying things; the best you could hope for was that one word, by its proximity, would freshen another up.  Isn’t it best sometimes to consider how a phrase works in a passage, rather than condemn it out of hand?

But then, I think my sense of cliché is very different to that of other people. Here’s the sort of thing that bothers me in narrative: when protagonists bite their lip or chew at their thumbnail in moments of indecision, or when they sigh a lot before speaking. I think it should be banned for would-be lovers to hate each other initially, and I’m not sure that vampires can be used for anything at all for at least a decade now. Linguistic clichés can make me laugh, they can have a resonance or a musicality that pleases. Situational clichés, behavioural clichés, I find much more annoying.

The Curse of the Sympathetic Character

Going online to have a mooch around the reviews of a book I’d just read, I was confronted with the stark judgement that ‘the characters in this novel were not worthy of depiction’. Now it was true that these characters were not heroic, or instantly sympathetic in that button-pressing write-by-numbers sort of way. They were people who struggled with their situations and never managed to resolve them, they were people who made mistakes and who were flawed, they were people who either couldn’t shake off unhealthy obsessions or ran away from conventional happiness – but what’s all this about being ‘worthy’? Since when have we decided that characters in novels need to be moral paragons? And yet I do see this more and more in reviews I read, the endless cry for characters to be wholly, engagingly and consistently sympathetic.

So what does it mean for a character to be sympathetic? In its most basic form, it means that the reader has to care about their fate in some way. It means that we are brought to a position of understanding their motives and actions by the author. The adorable Jenny always says that she needs to see that the character is loved or appreciated by someone else in the novel. And my dear friend Fugitive Pieces used to say that she much preferred novels where she could see that the author genuinely liked his or her own characters.

But I become increasingly concerned that what this plea for sympathetic characters actually means is a strong cultural pressure on people, in life as in fiction, to behave according to certain unwritten norms. For instance, I’ve just joined a new writing circle, and one of the authors is writing a book which features a battered wife. She is under a lot of pressure over this character, whom the other writers judge to be ‘too passive’, and ‘too pessimistic’. Opinions have been expressed that this character must at least show a determination to save herself, a strong desire to escape her situation, and full condemnation of her husband’s behaviour. Now of course, if this character were indeed feisty, determined and insightful, she most certainly would not have ended up a battered wife in the first place! Novels have a job to do of broadening our inner horizons and helping us to share experiences we might never otherwise have, and they give voice to people who have none. But can they do that, if we maintain a demand for characters to be ‘sympathetic’ according to cultural requirements that very few real people ever meet? Isn’t the fault at least in part one of intolerance of the reader, a lack of compassion borne from unreasonable cultural pressures that unjustly value extroversion, optimism and pro-activeness and unjustly deride introversion, gentleness and uncertainty?

I also feel dubious about this demand for sympathetic characters when it often seems to mean sympathetic female characters. Men are let off lightly, whilst it seems as ever to be the female protagonists who must bear the burden of society’s behavioural demands. I have to wonder whether this call for sympathetic characters is not in fact a flaw arising from a predominantly female publishing world, and certain genres heavily weighted towards a female audience, in which women are, as ever, brutally hard on their own sex. When I was discussing this issue with Mr Litlove on the weekend, he pointed out that we have to forgive ourselves before we can forgive others, and maybe this lack of compassion for characters arises from the ever-diminishing sympathy we seem to have for ordinary failings, everyday flaws.

People do good things and they do bad things; such is the nature of the human condition. Our greatest qualities can lead us into making our biggest mistakes, our unredeemable parts sometimes turn out to be essential. I think that the best characters manage to awaken a truly complicated sympathy in the reader, where we recognise how impossible it is to make judgements at all. And if readers are often chafing at the bit against characters who do not strike them as people they could care about, then maybe it’s partly because authors, striving too hard to awaken their sympathy, end up manufacturing it in artificial ways that fool no one, rather than allowing it to develop in a genuine way for ordinary, complex, flawed protagonists. Never before have readers had so  much influence over authors; we really must be careful what we wish for.

Thursday Musings

I was going to write this post much earlier in the day, but I sat down after lunch and fell asleep. That’s how it’s been lately; I’m still a little convalescent and as usual, experiencing most things through my body. But my general state of mind is, hmm, hard to find a word for it… is resistant, I suppose. I don’t want to be fussed or stressed or bothered, I don’t want anything around me or inside my head that makes too much noise or poses too many demands. I want things very peaceful and spacious right now and am fairly unrepentant about being slow and lazy. This strikes me as inevitable. What kind of a robot would I be if, leaving behind a 25-year-old chunk of my life, I could simply brush the dust off and skip away in a new direction? Perhaps there are people who are good at that sort of thing; me, I have to do the work.

I feel a great deal better about the job itself, to the point of being almost quite relieved that I don’t have to tend to the walking wounded. I made a promise to myself many years back that I would not spend so much time fixing others, and this job was not exactly in line with it. I’m even feeling better about leaving the university, since it was kind enough to make it easy for me by behaving so badly. I couldn’t help but notice that one of my well-wishers on facebook is an ex-colleague who was convicted of paedophilia, but kept his job. There’s a waitress in my college who had a short spell in prison but her job was held open. I’m really wondering whether the university has its priorities right, you know? Having written that I do feel it’s unfair, as I’m sure those people have suffered enough in other ways. But do I want to work for a place that won’t keep me because I don’t fit a box, but will readily keep others who don’t publish, can’t teach, have criminal records, or are generally unpleasant? I always believed completely that the university was a meritocracy and it’s been quite a revelation to realise that it isn’t. I don’t think I will ever understand exactly what happened, and why. The other study support tutor, a retired gentleman who works with the mathematicians and the scientists is still doing his job. I’m glad about that – he is kind and experienced and the students need him. But I can’t help but feel that my (relative) youth and femininity and my conflict-avoidant nature went against me. I can’t tell you how much it has helped to receive so many messages of support and surprise from former students and colleagues. One of the best responses I’ve had came from the porter on Sunday duty, who stood there in complete shock with his head on one side saying ‘It just don’t seem right.’

Anyway, enough, I can close the door on all that and be thankful. I don’t need to understand. But I do feel overcome by this strange lethargy and I was wondering why. Happily I saw my reiki practitioner today and thank you again to those of you who suggested reiki and brought this wonderful woman into my life. I thought maybe it was the loss of a sense of belonging, as the university is very much like a big family. But when Jodie asked me if I was troubled by the thought of standing alone, I knew that I wasn’t in the least. I’ve always preferred to be on my own, and the group mentality never sits well with me. Did I mind about my career? Well, no, not really. My proper university career ended when I gave up teaching French literature and this has just been a long epilogue. Perhaps, Jodie suggested, it was just the effect of no longer being constrained to keep up a certain role. And that, I knew at once, was exactly it. For me, being in academia came with a lot of standards I had to keep up, a huge philosophy of careful attentiveness, pedantry, precision, loyalty, engagement. I chose to do this because it seemed right. But it turns out to be a burden I can now lay down. It’s much like having had your hands tied behind your back for a long time. Once the ropes are undone you are at first numb. But when feeling returns it’s painful. The very release itself turns out to hurt.

So, as I reassemble myself into my new shape, I have to say the self-medication with books and films has been going well. I can thoroughly recommend Roman Holiday to everyone. Audrey Hepburn won the Oscar for it, and no wonder. She is utterly adorable. And Gregory Peck is completely gorgeous. A few nights later I decided to follow up with a Doris Day film and chose Pillow Talk. When Mister Litlove came in to see what I was watching, I told him that it was an odd thing, but Gregory Peck turned out to be more handsome in black and white than he was in colour. Mister Litlove looked at the screen. ‘That’s Rock Hudson,’ he said. Well, he was right, and that did explain a few things. I’m not sure what to watch next. I have the first season of Downton Abbey that’s a strong contender, or I might work my way through my Hitchcock and Woody Allen collection again. Whatever it is, it won’t be anything too demanding.