Posts Tagged ‘J. K. Rowling’

Generally speaking, I don’t make a point of giving a shit about Jonathan Franzen; there’s the unavoidable sense that it might encourage him. This is, after all, a man who casually contemplated adopting a war orphan in the hope said child might teach him about Teh Yoof, and as much as I yearn to inhabit the parallel universe where that only happened in the Woody Allen film about Franzen’s life (a universe, I might add, in which Allen himself is not a fucking paedophile), our own bizarre reality holds with smug tenacity to the dictum that truth, like so many other curious biological functions, is frequently stranger than fiction. I mean, for the love of god, you cannot make this shit up:

Franzen said he was in his late 40s at the time with a thriving career and a good relationship but he felt angry with the younger generation. “Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy [his partner] and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks.”

He added: “One of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation. They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me.”

Instead, Henry Finder, his editor at the New Yorker, suggested he meet up with a group of new university graduates. “It cured me of my anger at young people,” Franzen said.

Jonathan Franzen, everyone: a real live David Williamson antagonist.

Naturally, then, when I stumbled on a review of Franzen’s latest novel – titled, rather unambiguously, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity Is an Irrelevant Piece of Shit – I filed it away in my mental Drawer of Schadenfreude for later edification and enjoyment. Having now consumed said hatchet job, however, what I’ve mainly taken away from it – apart from yet more reassurance, were it needed, that Franzen’s work isn’t for me – is a sense of overriding irritation at seeing genre fiction hung up, yet again, as a literary whipping boy. Specifically: Franzen’s work is so bad that the reviewer – listed only as CML – can’t seem to find anything else to compare it to.

In this way, Purity, whose author aspires to universality in a way only an author contemptuous and jealous of pulp can, is worse than lowbrow genre fiction. The prose from the early chapters is less polished than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the sex is less sexy than Fifty Shades of Grey. Purity tries harder than these books, and fails more miserably…

Look: there’s a lot of intelligent criticism to be levied at the Harry Potter series, but calling Rowling’s prose unpolished does not, I would argue, fall into that category, and especially not when you’re implicitly likening the degree of failure to E. L. James’s total misapprehension of the words consent, abuse and erotica. It’s downright profane, lumping Rowling and James together under the maladapted, sneering label of lowbrow genre fiction; like saying that spray-on Easy Cheese is the same as good Brie. Genre labels aside, it’s also salient that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (thank you very much) was originally written for children, and is therefore possessed of a plainer diction than either James or Franzen aspires to. Even so, it still contains easy, comic prose like this –

There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

– while Fifty Shades of Grey contains prose like this:

“‘Argh!” I cry as I feel a weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity.

In point of fact, the only real similarity between James and Rowling is the fact that they’re both women who’ve made an absurd amount of money from their writing, which – really? Given the entire range of the literary canon to choose from, the two authors CML elects to backhandedly insult by saying, in effect, “they’re bad, but Franzen’s even worse” are arguably the two most successful female writers of recent times? James alone I can buy; however popular her books might be, no one has ever argued that it’s thanks to her riveting prose style. But paired with Rowling – paired with equal contempt with Rowling? Yeah, no: I’m gonna call sexist bullshit on that one. In this same vein, it’s worth mentioning that CML also links to John Dolan’s scathing 2010 denunciation of Franzen’s then-latest novel, The Corrections, referring to it as “a masterpiece” – which, largely, it is, except for the part where it features the single most unselfaware profession of blatant misogyny by someone attempting to decry misogyny that I’ve ever fucking witnessed:

It’s just not accurate — I mean the misogyny in this paragraph, its depiction of feminist academics as crazed hypocrites. I live with these people. Until last year I literally lived with an American Women’s Studies professor; so I’m entitled to say, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson’s attorney, “I know these people in my goddamn BLOOD!” They’re no prizes, God knows; they’re bitter and sullen and above all deeply confused; but I must say that Franzen’s venomous depiction of them gets it all wrong. As any academic knows, the real surprise about Women’s Studies professors is that very, very few of them resemble the firebreathing dyke stereotype. Most of them are wretchedly lonely women whose secret dream is a husband and kids.

See that, kids? That, right there, is a textbook example of what we in the feminism biz call a majestic display of assfuckery (that’s a technical term). I mean, really, for reals: that shit belongs in the same Bizzaro World Woody Allen film as Frazen’s adoption aspirations. Here’s a hint, men of the academic and literary spheres: if your big insider secret about Women’s Studies professors is actual goddamn surprise that they’re not all fucking stereotypes – you know, like the MISOGYNISTIC AS FUCK, OLD AS THE LITERAL SUFFRAGETTE MOVEMENT STEREOTYPE that feminists are really just “wretchedly lonely women whose secret dream is a husband and kids”then it’s entirely possible that you should shut your goddamn cakehole on the subject.

But I digress.

The point being, in slamming a book which is, by all accounts, Franzen’s laughably inept attempt to engage with feminism (among other things), it would be super helpful if the reviewer did not invoke the spectre of actual sexism as their literary ally by, for instance, consistently likening Franzen’s lack of skill to that possessed by women writers.

Which brings me to this little gem:

For Purity, like the rest of Franzen’s oeuvre, reads like a fanfic or rough draft from a creative writing student.

Nor is CML the only reviewer to negatively compare the sex in Purity to that of fanfic. According to Madeleine Davies:

But being dull—a perception that, admittedly, is totally subjective—isn’t the true crime of Franzen’s craft. It’s his stilted, erotic fan fiction-esque descriptions of sex, descriptions that imply that he doesn’t really understand how sex works or what feels good, particularly for women—as well as his continued deployment of sexual metaphors that should condemn him to life in Literary Sex Jail.

And look – okay. I get that, for most people in the literary world, fanfiction means Fifty Shades of Grey, which is unremittingly terrible in every possible respect, but it’s also a form of writing that’s overwhelmingly produced and consumed by women, so no, you don’t get to use it as a casual synonym for bad writing without that pinging my Dogwhistle Sexism senses. Fanfic is a body of work that seldom if ever sees its best works elevated to the status of literary ambassadors for the pure and simple reason that its adherents don’t get to choose what makes it to the mainstream; instead, the whole thing is treated as a lucky dip for proper writers to rummage around in, pointing and laughing at whatever they dredge up. I’ve written before, at length, about the inherent hypocrisy in how fanfiction is commonly defined and valued – which can be roughly summarised as: Public Domain Works Adapted By Famous Men = Great Literature, Copyrighted Works Adapted By Unknown Women = Trash Porn – and don’t intend to rehash the argument here. What I will do, however, for the edification of those who’ve never bothered to actually read any fanfic before dismissing it wholesale – and who, given the high probability of encountering gay sex therein, will likely never do so – is share a few quotes in support of the genre’s quality.

First, though, here’s a quote from Franzen’s Purity – something which, according to both CML and Davies, is bad enough to merit comparison with the dread fanfictions:

Your little body had once been deeper inside your mother than your father’s dick had ever gone, you’d squeezed your entire goddamned head through her pussy, and then for the longest time you’d sucked on her tits whenever you felt like it, and you couldn’t for the life of you remember it. You found yourself self-alienated from the get-go.

Oh god, MY EYES.

Look. Okay. So that’s appallingly terrible and makes me want to go bathe in industrial bleach, but in the interests of fairness, let’s also consider a Purity excerpt that has nothing to do with sex – a sort of prose-style baseline:

There’s the imperative to keep secrets, and the imperative to have them known. How do you know that you’re a person, distinct from other people? By keeping certain things to yourself. You guard them inside you, because, if you don’t, there’s no distinction between inside and outside. Secrets are the way you know you even have an inside. A radical exhibitionist is a person who has forfeited his identity. But identity in a vacuum is also meaningless. Sooner or later, the inside of you needs a witness. Otherwise you’re just a cow, a cat, a stone, a thing in the world, trapped in your thingness. To have an identity, you have to believe that other identities equally exist. You need closeness with other people. And how is closeness built? By sharing secrets. . . . Your identity exists at the intersection of these lines of trust.

Listen: I have years of routine exposure to academic philosophy under my belt at this point, and I’ve seen conference-level exposition on the nature of haecceity with more passion than that, and that was before the bar opened.

How, then, does fanfiction compare?

Let’s have a look at some of that supposedly atrocious sex I’ve been hearing about. Hell, I’ll even go the hetero option, just to aid the comparison:

Bellamy breathes out harshly and presses his face into her cheek for a second, a gesture so oddly sweet that she actually tears up a little. I’m so glad it’s him, she thinks, and grips his neck with one hand, scratching at his scalp and getting paint in his hair. I lied before, I’m so glad it’s him.

She doesn’t know how long it lasts, because she loses herself in it the second he starts to move again, holding her knee in one hand and her hair in the other. Her whole body feels like one long, giant current, and every spot he touches is like a live spark, a jolt of electricity, and of course he was right. Of course she should’ve known it’d be like this.

At some point, he must kiss her, or maybe she kisses him, or maybe it doesn’t matter because who cares who started it when it’s so good, when she feels devoured in the best way possible, so small beneath him but so powerful, all at once. Clarke wants it to last forever. She wants to go back in time and yell at herself for not doing this sooner. She wants to do it again and it’s not even over yet. She wants.

Inconceivable, by jaegermighty

Well, okay. But surely the queer romance is universally terrible, right? It’s just so inherently laughable, all those ordinarily stoic men kissing each other like it might be a thing that actually happens every day in our actual world. Right?

Dean inhales, hard. “I’m sorry. I’m dropping this on you and you don’t need-” he babbles, and then Cas is coming forward to grab him by the front of his shirt and kiss him until he shuts the fuck up. “Oh Jesus,” Dean says, when they break apart for a second. Cas’s mouth is reddening and his hands are knotted in Dean’s shirt like he’s hanging off a cliff. He looks almost as wide-eyed and hysterical as Dean feels. There is nothing happening in Dean’s brain: it’s white noise and static and the sound of loose change being shaken in coffee cans. “Holy crap,” Dean says, and pulls Cas in again by the back of his neck. Dean starts out in charge and then finds himself backed into the fridge while Cas opens his mouth and sucks the curve of Dean’s bottom lip, atomically vaporizes Dean’s top ten hits from his sexual history without unbuttoning anyone’s shirt. It is not quite how Dean expected- or feared- this would go. “What the fuck,” Dean murmurs, cupping Cas’s face with one hand so he can kiss up and down the other side of his face, under his eyes, along his cheekbones, while Cas shuts his eyes and sighs like’s falling apart. “What the fuck was I waiting for?”

“I don’t know,” Cas says. “I don’t know.”

“Why didn’t you ever-”

“Why didn’t you?”

okay, cupid, by orange_crushed

But what about philosophy, internality? Does fanfic have any real insights into human nature comparable to what you might find in a published novel?

It doesn’t stop. He can’t stop.

He manages to stop lying to everyone else, but only because it’s so goddamn frustrating when they don’t realize that he’s lying his ass off with almost every word he speaks, and he gets tired of being angry all the time, but he can’t stop lying to his father.

Little lies. Stupid lies. Obvious lies. Any lie-opportunity that presents itself and Stiles is all over it like he’d be all over Lydia if she wouldn’t mace his ass into the ground a second later.

Because his father always knows, always calls him out on it, and Stiles latches on to this when all other signs of affection dry up after his mother’s death.

(Stiles doesn’t blame his father. He wouldn’t want to hug the kid who’d killed the love of his life, either.)

The Trouble With Reclining Your Body in a Horizontal Position, by apocryphal

What about poetry, then – actual poetry, that hits like a gutpunch? Can fanfic do that?

Some nights, I wish you’d kill me

I want to be the body lying face down in the bathtub

There’s more dignity in that

Than in being

Your love interest

Recycled Hymns, by taylorpotato

Beautiful language, then – not literal poetry, but prose that enthrals in its own right. Does that ever make an appearance?

Stars spilled carelessly across the carpet of the sky, flickering silver jacks and cat’s eye marbles. Filling him up like a cup, brimming him over. The stars change, even when nothing else can. Case in point: he can see the lights of his motel flickering in the distance. Orange, red. Warm like a campfire. Again, again. The vacancy sign is crooked. It’s always crooked. It dangles a skinned cord and vibrates when the wind blows, glares brighter and fades in tiny surges, an artificial heart throbbing in the transformers. Currents are not constant, even if they seem that way: he can stare into light bulbs without blinking if he wants to, and heaven makes the bulbs wax and wane the way they really do, the way they did even when he wasn’t looking. Heaven is awash with the details of life, and heaven affords the time to observe them. He’s only a hundred meters out from the parking lot, or however many he wants to be. For a second he stands in the road and looks up. Cranes his neck back until the trees disappear from the edges of his vision, until there is nothing but night washed over him, nothing in his eyes but stars. The sky turns overhead so slowly they leave trails pulled out like taffy, bright shivering rows like the cut of a ship through still water. The wake. Here out in the middle of nowhere, the air smells like ozone and forest, like asphalt, a little like rain.

apocrypha, by orange_crushed

Can fanfiction be, not just comic, but witty? Can the prose itself make the reader laugh, instead of just describing madcap shenanigans?

When Derek comes home the next day Stiles is sprawled almost upside down on the faded leather couch, one leg thrown over the back and his head flopped over the edge. He drops his book onto his chest and smiles at Derek.

“Are you reading a book about crabs?” Derek asks, in a tone, Stiles feels, of unnecessary judgement.

Stiles slithers into a more conventional position so Derek can get a better look at the cover of Walking Sideways: The Remarkable World of Crabs.

“I’m learning a lot, dude. Did you know that there’s an actual word in science for the tendency of nature to try and evolve a crab?” He brandishes the book like a missionary tract. “Like, crabs are such a good design concept that different branches of the evolutionary tree are constantly going ‘hey, fuck it, let’s make a crab.’ There are like four totally unrelated species that independently arrived at crabbiness.”

“How embarrassing for them,” says Derek. “Like they showed up at the party wearing the same outfit.”

Stiles shoots him a shit-eating grin. “I thought you’d be personally interested, since you’re clearly a member of a new fifth species.”

Don’t Worry Baby, by kalpurna

Hell, I’ll even put my money where my mouth is: you want to take a look at my fanfic, make this argument personal? Here’s the start of my first ever foray into the Supernatural fandom:

The body is only a vessel, an earthly chalice into which the ocean of his being pours; but it is also, in the end, a body, and like all bodies, it has its mandates. Eat. Sleep. Dream. Touch. Though every atom of his borrowed flesh has died and risen, died and risen and died again, reassembled from powder to shards to pottery like an archaeologist’s miracle, still the heart that beats only as a formality refuses to do otherwise, a blood and lightning sentinel. The body is flightless, his wings visible only between blinks, an arcing shadowflash of furled storms tethered to scapulae, tendons, spine. Except when Famine touched him, he has no use for food; yet still, the stomach rumbles, the lips imbibe, the throat swallows. A ritual; the body is pious, or superstitious, or maybe just stupid. He can’t decide which. Perhaps it’s all three. But either way, it is also his piety, his superstition, his stupidity. He is not of the body, but the body is of him, and with him, and he is with it, a skin into which he has stitched himself so often that his true form – or is it now, rather, his other form? – is scarred with needlemarks, the broadest of which is Memory, and the deepest of which is Love.

Storge. Philia. Agape. All this he has known before now: love of family, love in virtue, love of God.

Eros, though – eros belongs to bodies, and to such bright creatures as inhabit them.

Even angels.

North Hell, by sysrae

Look: I could do this all night, and I’m only active in a tiny number of fandoms. There’s always been good fanfic, and there will always be good fanfic, and I’m honestly not sure which is currently making me angrier: seeing the entire medium judged in absentia to the standards of E. L. James, or used as a quick, easy way to denigrate (male) writers like Franzen by dismissively comparing them (him) to women you’ve never heard of, who write under pseudonyms and use the word cock without let or hindrance in stories whose titles have the temerity to be stolen from William Shakespeare and Pablo Neruda, Radiohead and Richard Siken.

You don’t have to convert to fandom. Just, for the love of god: can we stop trying to lambaste Purity and its predecessors by comparing them to fanfiction, please? Because every time that happens, you’re not insulting Franzen.

You’re insulting fanfic.

And frankly, it deserves better.

Last night, I went with my husband to see the final Harry Potter film. It was good fun – we both choked up a little at various points – and a satisfying conclusion to a narrative which has saturated the popcultural zeitgeist from June 1997 to July 2011. Doubtless, the influence of and significance of the series will continue for many more years to come, but right now, I can’t help but cast an eye back on the past fourteen years and remember what the series has meant to me.

When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first hit the shelves in 1997, I was eleven years old – the same age as the protagonist, and, like him, just starting high school. I wish I could say I was quick off the mark, a devotee of the series from minute one, but in fact, as was doubtless the case for millions of other people, it wasn’t until the 1999 release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that I started to catch on. Which isn’t to say that I’d never heard of the series before then; even though I was unaware of their popularity, the first two books were so omnipresent that I couldn’t help but notice them. Stopping off at a grimy, tin-shack service station on the way back from a horse-riding lesson at the age of about twelve, I remember seeing the first book displayed prominently on a cardboard rack. My interest was piqued by the cover art, blurb and premise, but the location didn’t inspire confidence. Prior to that day, I’d never a book I’d want to read – or even, possibly, any book at all – on sale in a service station. Though I’d seen it proffered elsewhere, part of me wondered: what sort of book gets sold in a place like this? Unable to think of an answer, I let it be.

But in 1999, aged thirteen, Azkaban hooked me, and for a ludicrously cosmetic reason: the cover. Or, to be more specific, the hippogriff on the cover. A mythology nerd since primary school,  fantastic creatures were both a favourite obsession and a specialty area of knowledge. Unicorns and dragons, though tempting, were common – but a hippogriff? Beyond the pages of my reference books, I’d never seen one drawn before; certainly, I’d never seen them fictionalised. Throw in the fact that the book was a hardcover with a celloglazed dust jacket (I was, and always will be, a sucker for celloglaze) and on sale at a discount, and you had a match made in heaven. I didn’t even care that it was book three of a series – a fact which would paralyze me now, but which mattered much less then, despite the fact that I never got more than three chapters through any out-of-ordered read before lack of comprehension prompted me to abandon it. By all rights, I should have given up quickly, no matter how many hippogriffs there were.

Instead, I read the whole thing in an afternoon, pestered my parents for the first two volumes the rest of that week, and then, when they finally acquiesced the following weekend, I went back and read the whole story – including Azkaban – in a single, day-long session. From then on, I was hooked. When Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire finally came out in 2000, I bought it on the release day. I was fourteen years old, and my friend Smott – a fellow geekling, responsible in her adult incarnation for my Solace & Grief character art – was visiting for a week. We each bought a copy of the book and read it together the same day: Smott in a nest of blankets on the floor of my room, and me on my bed in the corner. I was slightly quicker, though; just as I’d reached the climatic graveyard scene, Smott exclaimed over some earlier moment, to which I snappishly replied:

‘Quiet! Harry’s fighting Voldemort!’

‘Of course he is,’ Smott said placidly, and the two of us kept reading.

It was three more years before the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – a longer gap than ever before, filled with fearful suggestions that J.K. Rowling had writer’s block. By the time of its release in June 2003, I was deep in my final year of high school, grappling with exam stress, depression and the perils of being seventeen. When the Weasley twins abandoned Hogwarts, I shouted and cheered them with all the fervour of every student-reader who could only ever dream of doing likewise. Another two years passed, and by July 2005, when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out, I was nearing the end of my second year at Sydney University. This time, though, I had a different reading buddy. Sometime late the previous year, my then-boyfriend-Sean’s housemate – a shy philosophy student by the name of Toby – had expressed a belief that the Potter books weren’t all they were cracked up to be. The two of us were lounging around in the dim-and-dusty Coogee flat he shared with Sean, who was presently elsewhere. I asked if he’d read any of them; Toby said no, to which I replied that I would respect his opinion if he tried the series. Toby accepted my challenge. Rather than dislike the books, however, he soon became as fond of them as I was. After moving in to a new place in 2005, not only did he take to checking the Leaky Cauldron website for updates on Prince, he even turned his mother into a fan, too. Busy with work on his Masters thesis and coping with family health problems, it took Toby longer to read the sixth book than I did, but once he had, we wasted no time in swapping theories about RAB and where the final installment was headed.

By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released in July 2007, Toby and I were engaged and living in Melbourne, with just two months left before our wedding. We each bought a copy from the local bookstore and read it together that same weekend. Since then, we’ve watched all the films together, whether at the cinema or on DVD.  And last night, we rounded things out with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, just one day after we returned from a trip to France to our new home in St Andrews, Scotland.

1997 – 2011. Fourteen years is a long time – long enough for a girl to grow up, change schools, fall in and out of various jobs, get married, become a published author and move continents. It wasn’t Harry Potter that brought Toby and I together, but it certainly helped, and we’ve shared those stories ever since. Come September, we’ll be celebrating our fourth wedding anniversary – and wouldn’t you know it? The appropriate gift is books.

Thanks, J. K. Rowling. For everything.

Reading through the second book of Ally Carter’s excellent Gallagher Girls series, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, on the bus home yesterday afternoon, I was suddenly struck by how the representation of schools in YA writing is, in many ways, reflective of the wider problems of modern education. Now, when it comes to the subject of education generally and high school in particular, I am not what you would call an objective commentator: I have passionate opinions, and I like to share them. I mention this by way of establishing from the outset that my perception of modern education and its problems are not necessarily universal. (I like to think it should be, but that’s another story.)

The point being, high school is problematic, and regardless of differing opinions on why that is or how it might be fixed, the simple assertion that  problems do exist is not a controversial statement. And so, while reading a book about a spy academy for teenage girls, it occurred to me to wonder why some types of school are held up as interesting, awesome and excellent in YA novels, while others either blend into the background or, at worst, are depicted as hateful, prisonesque institutions. At first glance, this is something of a ridiculous question: YA is about teenagers, teenagers go to school – is it any wonder, therefore, that depictions of education in YA should vary, too? Well, no: but probing a little deeper, it’s possible to discern an interesting pattern about the types of school on offer.

To start with, let’s consider the cool schools. These are places where the actual content of various classes is depicted as positive and interesting, not only to the characters, but to the readership – and more, where the skills they teach are of demonstrable use to the protagonists. These are the schools that cause real-world teenagers to read about them and think, man, I wish I went there, and what should be instantly significant about this is not that such schools exist, even hypothetically, but that their status as such is contingent on the combination of three factors in varying ratios: glamour, agency and relevance. Dealing with the foremost of these, it’s undeniable that cool schools train their students to be, well, cool. Carter’s Gallagher Academy is a school for spies; J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts trains witches and wizards; and, though they don’t attend schools in the modern sense, Tamora Pierce’s heroines nonetheless learn to be knights and police officers in institutional settings.

Undeniably, then, glamour is a factor: to borrow Monty Python’s favourite example, who wants to read a book about a school for chartered accountancy? But even so, there’s something significant in the narrative success of schools whose aim is to churn out graduates with qualifications for a particular career: the idea of educational relevance. Beyond the novelty of reading about single-focus schools, all these stories show students being trained for an identifiable purpose, taking on difficult assignments not just through their own adventuring (though this also happens), but because the structure of the institution demands that they do so. Regular homework, genuine danger, obedience to teachers and repetitious training are never omitted or skimmed for the sake of making school look like a cakewalk: instead, they are emphasised, because in a setting where teenage protagonists are allowed to have personal ambitions – and more, where these can be actively pursued through school – then all those educational necessities which in the real world are seen as tedious, pointless and intrusive suddenly become interesting, worthwhile and relevant. Put bluntly, it’s one thing to sit resentfully through hours of geography class without the slightest idea of when it might ever be useful, and quite another to read about a scenario where, in order to prepare for their future career as a globe-trotting spy, a teenage protagonist sits down to memorise all the world’s countries and capital cities. Sure, actually doing the memory work would be difficult, time-consuming and perhaps even dull, but the end reward – being a spy – would more than compensate for it.

And then there’s the question of agency: the fact that teenage attendees of cool schools are not only expected to know what they want from life, but are frequently allowed leeway in their efforts at pursuing it. By and large, cool school teachers don’t care about standardised testing: they care about the material, about preparing you for the real world; they stand up for their students, support independence, encourage critical inquiry and – most importantly – treat teenagers as though they’re intelligent enough to have real opinions. As a result, the students of cool schools get to have genuine adventures without being constantly told that doing so is impossible, illegal or irresponsible. Which isn’t to say that their actions never have consequences, or that no one ever gets punished for breaking the rules, or even that adults never call them idiots. What it does mean, however, is that there’s a general acknowledgement that the most important, powerful and significant moments of one’s secondary education do not necessarily take place in class or as a result of school-sanctioned activities, and that a certain amount of disobedience is to be, if not actively encouraged, then certainly expected as part and parcel of growing into an independent adult. Thus, while Professor McGonagall has no compunction about taking house points or assigning detention (for instance), we never see any evidence that particular crimes at Hogwarts have lasting consequences beyond the (drastic, rarely issued) threat of expulsion. At cool schools, there is no such thing as a permanent record, and if you can’t see the link between the freedom to make mistakes without endangering your whole future and an assertion of teenage agency, then I’d be so bold as to suggest that you’ve forgotten what high school is like.

So, to recap: cool schools have glamour. They make the students work hard, but towards well-defined goals that are actually relevant, both to the real world and to their personal ambitions. They are understanding of error: punishments are personal and immediate, rather than long-term and general. They have good teachers and interesting subjects, with an emphasis on curiosity and independent research. Students at cool schools have agency, and are treated like adults-in-training rather than merely teenagers. This, to my way of thinking, distinguishes cool schools in YA fiction from most actual schools, but you’re allowed to disagree. (Note: real world schools can still have awesome teachers. If I’m asserting any dissonance in that regard, it’s that awesome teachers in cool schools never have to answer to an underfunded, over-nannied bureaucracy and are actually well-paid for their services. Which, you know. Matters.) Hopefully, though, you’ll agree that the characteristics listed above, with the exception of glamour, are all good things.

It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that writers – that is to say, intelligent, creative people working in a profession that cares absolutely nothing for their school marks or qualifications  – have a tendency to question the current educational system. Without wanting to assume my own experiences to be even vaguely universal, I can’t have been the only teenager who knew that they wanted to write stories for a living (or play sport, or be a musician or an artist or a dancer), and who therefore dedicated thousands of hours throughout high school to personal projects utterly unconnected with anything on the curriculum. Quite arguably, the fantasy of cool schools is as much for the authors as it is the readers: what would our teenage years have been like if, instead of being forced to learn things we’ve never found a use for and have subsequently forgotten, we went to schools specifically structured around our interests? What if our passions hadn’t had to compete with our coursework – if every school was like the one in Fame, only geared to our personal interests? What if we’d been taken seriously as teenagers?

It’s a rosy-lensed hypothetical, to be sure. Back here in reality, even radical educational reform would never allow for the kind of schools we all secretly yearned to attend. But even so, our desires come through in our writing: testing the waters, trying to see what school could be like if people like us were in charge. Both Liar and How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier play with the idea of different secondary systems: in Liar, the protagonist attends a class called Dangerous Words, where censorship and media dishonesty are discussed, while in Fairy, subject-centric schools are run on lines designed to foster traits valued in their particular professions, so that the rules of a sports high emphasise teamwork, discipline, obedience, punctuality and coordination over everything else. It goes without saying that YA novels feature a certain amount of escapism, but while the base assumption about teenagers is that they all want to escape from school all the time, the idea that they might be taking refuge in stories about better schools is not nearly so normative.

And when, in such novels, the teenage protagonists do rebel against school, it’s usually for very good reasons: either the school itself is terrible, or it has become terrorised. In Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, for instance, Marcus sets himself up in opposition to authority because his rights are being violated: government politics are interfering with freedom of speech, his best teacher is being muzzled, and the principal has started using particular students as informants. In Libba Bray’s trilogy about Victorian schoolgirls, Gemma Doyle and her friends use magic, courage and cleverness to make lives for themselves beyond what society expects of them as women, escaping the confines of a college that, for all its sorority, only wants to turn them into wives. To quote the final book, The Sweet Far Thing:

“They’ve planned our entire lives, from what we shall wear to whom we shall marry and where we shall live. It’s one lump of sugar in your tea whether you like it or not and you’d best smile even if you’re dying deep inside. We’re like pretty horses, and just as on horses, they mean to put blinders on us so we can’t look left or right but only straight ahead where they would lead.” 

Which brings us, finally, to the traits of mediocre schools in fiction: how are they characterised? Usually, it’s enough that the characters have more important things in their lives than what goes on at school: that they’re learning elsewhere, and – more particularly – that such external subjects are of greater interest and relevance than the content of their classes. The characters in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller, for instance, are both exceptional individuals and largely self-taught: Betty is a master of disguise, Luz is an inventor, DeeDee a chemist, Oona a hacker, and Ananka an observant intellectual. While it would be foolish to ignore the glamour factor of these interests, what’s important is that the girls are independent, resourceful and clever, pursuing their passions in their own time precisely because a traditional school environment would only limit them.

As I’ve previously had cause to mention, science tells us that the human brain continues to develop throughout our teenage years and doesn’t actually settle until sometime in our twenties. The upshot of this information – or at least, one of the social upshots – is that many adults consider their suspicions about teenage childishness to be correct. This is why schools and universities are compared to daycare centers: because students cannot be trusted to act like adults, must be coddled and protected and talked down to, protected from agency and relevancy and all the danger that comes from actually acting like an independent person held to be responsible for your own actions. Never mind that the same research about brain development talks about the power of teenagers to sculpt their own identities by exercising their intellect – by thinking, by acting, by engaging with the world – and the far from radical notion that a good way to encourage this behaviour might be to, you know, treat teenagers like adults. Oh, no: their brains are not ready! No one should do anything that matters until they’re twenty-five!

But how can the brain develop if the person attached to it is only ever treated like a child?

And this is why, to come to the long-awaited point, the depiction of schools in YA is so reflective of the current problems with Western education: both narratively and in terms of the real world, writers and readers understand the disconnect between what school is meant to achieve, and how it actually works. Passionate students must follow their interests outside the classroom. Adventurous, inquisitive, questioning students are disproportionately punished in the long term for misdemeanours that are, at base, attempts at critical thinking and independence – skills that schools are theoretically supposed to foster, but which in practice they actively suppress . Average students drift through classes without a sense of either purpose or agency, unable to find meaning in lessons that most of us forget by the time we’re twenty, and which have no bearing on anything they might care about otherwise or be interested in doing.

And so they turn to fiction: stories where the schools are genuinely good; or where, outside of school, there’s a means of learning relevant, interesting things with friends; or where, if the school is terrible, there’s a way of fighting back. Over and over, we tell ourselves stories of how things could and should be different, to the point where novels – and through them, authors – are in a sense picking up the shortfall left by school itself: suggesting interests, provoking passions, encouraging dreams and critical thinking and courage and independence, proving that there are at least some adults who understand that the way things are is not necessarily the way they ought to be.

So governments: if you’re out there, and you want to really improve your education systems? You could do a lot worse than asking some YA authors (and – gasp! – teenagers) what they think. Because in the end, we never resented  school for being school. Instead, we resented it for all the things it should have been, and could have been – but wasn’t.

Some names are big. The shadows they cast are long and deep, so that even people with only the barest grasp of that particular field of endeavour will have heard of them. After all, you can’t talk about tennis without mentioning Roger Federer. But there is a phenomenon I’m coming to loathe with a fiery, stabby vengeance – the dark side of such overwhelming notoriety in the literary world. It is the use, over and over and over, of a single speculative phrase. It consists of five little words. They are:

The Next J. K. Rowling.

Sweet merciful donkey-gods, I am sick of it. On hearing that I’m a writer, or a writer of fantasy/young adult books, the first hopeful-teasing reaction of far too many strangers is, ‘So, you’re planning to be the next J. K. Rowling?’ In that context, it’s not a compliment or a vote of confidence: it’s a grasping-after-relevance on behalf of the speaker, clutching at the most famous name they can think of to try and reverse-orient their perception of what it is I actually do, and whether or not I’m likely to succeed at it. Depending on my mood, this is either amusingly unoriginal or a source of withering despair, but at least, when it does occur, there’s a good Goddam reason: 99% of the time, I’m speaking to someone who doesn’t read much, or who doesn’t read fantasy/young adult titles, and the name-drop represents an effort on their behalf, however misguided, at finding some conversational middle-ground.

But literary reviewers have no such defence. Google the above phrase, and you’ll see what I mean: G. P. Taylor, Catherine Banner, Stephenie Meyer, Maggie Stiefvater, F. E. Higgins and Michelle Paver have all been described thusly at one time or another; puzzlingly, so has Philip Pullman, despite the fact that the first volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy was published in 1995, two years prior to the advent of Potter, with the final two books appearing in 1997 and 2000. It is a phrase currently in danger of being abused to the point of ritual castigation, and worse, it seems to be employed more out of hopes for hype and the preemptive desire to create yet another worldwide marketing phenomenon than as an admission that the book in question is brilliantly written. The public yearneth for another Cinderella story – which Rowling, with her initial poverty, blonde hair and squillions of rejection letters, personified – and journalists are eager to provide. There is a tendency to forget that she also wrote an incredible series of seven books, the popularity of which stemmed, not from her underdog status, but from the creation of a fabulous world, brilliant characters and a well-plotted story arc.

The latest candidate for the TNJKR mantle is an Australian mother of four, Rebecca James, whose teeange thriller, Beautiful Malice, has earned an advance of more than $1 million from Allen & Unwin and started a bidding war over the international publication rights after being rejected by the Australian market. More, the windfall came just as James’s business folded, effectively saving the family. Regardless of whether the book lives up to expectations, there is warmth in the story on those grounds alone: underdog victories are always emotionally satisfying. As for the book itself, I’ll certainly read it, if only because the application of the Rowling moniker will make me remember the author. There you go, Marketing Guys – viral publicity strikes again! Thank the writers at the Wall Street Journal. After all, they started it.

I wish Rebecca James every success, and I’m extremely happy that she’s managed to achieve her goal. But in future, can we please have a moratorium on calling each new writer to earn a big advance, publish in the YA fantasy genre and/or write their book as a teenager the next JK? It’s like hailing each new addition to the Australian cricket team as the next Don Bradman: unnecessary and, ultimately, inaccurate. Because what made the Potter phenomenon so powerful was that no one predicted it. Rowling didn’t earn a $1 million advance for the first volume. The series was seven books long, and they were published over an entire decade – that’s a long time to work up a fanbase, infiltrate the market and create hype for each successive instalment. Chances are, when the Next Big Thing comes knocking, most of the world will be two rooms over with their music turned up loud, and will have to hear about it on the evening news. So until then, let’s just keep our eyes peeled and defer judgement to the delivery of an actual product, shall we?

I have a theory.

Firstly: these are four little words which should strike fear into the hearts of men, especially when coming from me. You have been warned.

Consider, then, the stereotype of hardcore science fiction: heavy on detail, short on character, long on nitty-gritty and emotionally ambivalent. A crude stereotype, but despite being far from universally accurate, there’s an argument to be made that hard SF is the traditional province of male geeks exactly because of the above descriptors. Which isn’t to say that women don’t or shouldn’t read it, or that a given work ceases to be hard SF if it invalidates any of the above categories, or even that the genre lacks female characters. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, for instance, is both fabulously philosophical and supported by a wonderful knowledge of human nature, while Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire is built on immaculate details of technology and society, with chapter time shared equally between vividly written male and female protagonists. But if you were of a mind to analyse the readership of hard SF, it still seems likely that most of them, regardless of other demographic factors, would be male.

Of itself, that shouldn’t surprise us. Little boys have been raised for years with rockets and trains and plastic guns, and for much of the  – still relatively recent  – history of geekdom, things like video games, Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer and even straight fantasy were deemed by normal society to be the sole province of dysfunctional, dateless nerds. The idea of geekhood as an equal opportunities employer is something which, it seems, despite the long-established existence of female geeks, has only recently occurred to the mainstream world. There are various reasons fo this, and a great deal of iconic female sci-fi/fantasy at which to point the expostulating finger. For instance: Tamora Pierce, author of The Song of the Lioness quartet, grew up resenting the lack of female warrior heroes in fantasy novels and thereinafter set about writing some of her own, with brilliant results. Gene Roddenberry was prevented by network politics from making the first Star Trek captain female, but that didn’t stop Uhura and Janeway from getting their dues. Most obviously from the point of my generation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer proved that popularity and geekdom weren’t like oil and water: not only was it possible to put a beautiful blonde in a horror setting who didn’t get killed off in the first five minutes, but TV shows could be fantasy-based and still pull in the big ratings.

In fact, if you look at the past fifteen years of film, books and broadcasting, you’ll see a meteoric rise in mainstream awareness of fantasy. Commensurate with the rise in special effects technology, there have been innumerable film adaptations of classic sci-fi/fantasy novels – not to mention TV shows – once computer processing power made the concept seem more viable and less cheesy. Even before the advent of J.K. Rowling in 1997, the mantle of World’s Best-Selling Author belonged to Terry Pratchett. Throw in a diverse range of sci-fi fantasy programming – The X-Files, Roswell, Charmed, Firefly, Stargate, Sliders, Farscape, True Blood, Heroes, Supernatural – and it’s plain to see that public awareness of the geeky sphere is bound to have skyrocketed since the mid-nineties, if only by dint of a casual glance at the TV guide or ticket office.

All of which has helped to take social notions of geekdom away from the hard SF, lone-nerds-in-basements days of yore and instead present something friendlier, more gender-neutural. Women, of course, have been reading fantasy alongside men for as long as it’s been a separate genre, but with the patina of mass-appeal thus gained, publishers have seemingly felt able to try something new, with the consequence that previously well-established genre boundaries in the world of sci-fi fantasy have started to fall by the wayside. Ever since the established stereotypes of Who Buys What went flying out the window – and though this has undoubtably occurred, it’s still debateable as to when – geeks en masse have proven to be such a diverse demographic that the blurring of genre lines, far from deterring potential readers, has acutally become an individual draw.

Which brings me to the current trend in paranormal romance and urban fantasy, and that particular proliferation of vampires. While there’s a case to be made that fanged fiction is the literary equivalent of a dot com bubble – certainly, no trend goes upwards forever – I’m sceptical of the notion that it will all come to nothing. Urban fantasy, apart from anything else, has always been the gateway drug of make-believe: particularly on television, viewers who might otherwise be put off by fantastic elements are comforted by the simltaneous presence of what is real and familiar, while others of us get our kicks from seeing the norm subverted. The fact that Harry Potter and Edward Cullen have helped move this phenomenon from screen to page seems overdue, and not in the least bit faddish. Which isn’t to say that public opinion won’t steadily turn elsewhere until the Next Big Thing – that’s only human nature. But for all that vampires are the current flavour of the month, the idea that they’ll vannish between airings is absurd – Stephenie Meyer no more invented the oeurve than did Anne Rice.

Both despite and because of this broadening of geekishness to new and wonderful realms, hard SF remains a beloved, male-dominated genre in its own right. But if one were interested in drawing conclusions about the varying ends of a given spectrum, paranormal romance would seem to be as feminine and popular a fantastic subsidiary as hard SF is masculine. Which is why, to reach a long-awaited point, I don’t think it’s going anywhere: because for the first time, fantasy has found a foothold which isn’t mainly male or gender-neutural by virtue of diversity, but expressly, purposefully feminine – and proud of it. More than anything else, the current boom in paranormal romance feels like the response of a market which has hitherto existed, but remained largely untapped, populated by the kind of intelligent, imaginative women who might shy away from picking up a Harlequin romance novel, but who still – often without realising it – have been hankering for a little bit of literary lust. 

Ironically, it’s taken a surge in YA fantasy for this to become apparent, assuming the legions of grown women lining up to buy Twilight are anything to go by. But if there’s one thing the sexual revolution and the mainstreaming of fantasy have taught us, it’s that guilty pleasures – even when they’re not so much guilty as wildly, passionately longed-for pleasures – are nothing to be ashamed of.

When the media first started comparing Stephenie Meyer to J. K. Rowling, my hackles rose. Insofar as I could tell, both the mood and execution of their respective series seemed entirely different, a suspicion which was confirmed when, last month, I finally finished Twilight, the first book of Meyer’s quartet. Drifting through the life of Bella Swann is, in its own way, peaceful: the writing flows smoothly from page to page, a continuous, soothing rhythm comparable to soft music. The pace is good, and the characters are, by and large, believable. Given that I’m no longer wracked by teenage angst, however, I wasn’t nearly so invested in the ups and downs of Bella’s relationship as I once might’ve been. Consequently, I found the in-depth description of Edward’s every pose and expression frustrating, a troublesome sour note which, by itself, caused me to stop reading for two weeks at the halfway point. It’s not that Meyer writes clunkily – far from it. It’s simply that, as an adult, my attention is fixated less on the physicaility of fraught exchanges and more on their content.

From friends and reviews, I knew that Jacob Black was supposed to become a competing love interest later on, and a werewolf to boot. Invariably, this knowledge changed my expectations for the character: I was looking for someone to rival Edward by displaying a different kind of magnetism, helped along by the ancient were/vamp battle mojo. I was, therefore, extremely disappointed with the reality. Had Bella Swann gone to Forks and never met Edward Cullen, I felt, it was unlikely that she would’ve looked twice at Jacob. Which, of course, would be a different story; but the point of Edward and Bella is one of destiny – that regardless of the circumstances under which they met, the pair would fall in love. From Twilight, the same cannot be said of Jacob Black, and although this isn’t a plot hindrance in the first book, I suspect it may become so later on.

As a heroine, Bella is markedly different from those around her, both in her perceptions and actuality. Her internal monolouge describes her as feeling older, quieter, awkward, more distant than her teenage friends, contrasted with a childlike naivety when it comes to all things Edward. In actuality, Bella is, inded, different, but not in the way she imagines. Forks fits her like a glove, such that, despite her protestations, it’s hard to imagine her ever living boisterously in Phoenix under the hot sun, pale and quiet as she is. Indeed, presented with her physical appearance, preference for classical music and love of Jane Austen, one instinctively places Bella in an English locale: somewhere soft, green and glowing from frequent rain. It’s a measure of Meyer’s ability that she pulls off this deception with ease, allowing Bella’s self-perception to shield us from just how much she does, in fact, belong. This skillful tension permeates the narrative, and is arguably Twilight’s real heart – not romantically, but in terms of craftsmanship. It’s why the book works, and the reason it holds together: a solid sense of place.

The ending, however, troubled me, not only because it departed from that environment, but because Edward’s decision to save Bella undermined the entire narrative. In order to allow for even the barest physical interaction, Edward’s danger and ferocity are systematically blunted throughout the book, until it becomes difficult to believe they ever really existed. Similarly, his inner struggle to resist feeding on Bella has, by the end, vanished, such that the climactic moment of choice – to keep her human – poses neither threat nor tension. Over and over again, we have been told that Edward is dangerous to Bella without actually witnessing it; which suggests, ultimately, that he isn’t. Compare this to the turmoil of vampire Angel’s TV relationship with Buffy Summers. Admittedly, Buffy is significantly  stronger than Bella, such that Angel can physically attack her without killing her outright; nonetheless, it’s impossible to doubt his dark side. The same cannot be said of Edward Cullen.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Twilight. At its best, Meyer’s style is captivating, while the story flows steadily from outset to conclusion. Despite this, however, I don’t want to finish the saga. What made Twilight successful was its grounding in Forks, and the extent to which that environment was built, bones-up, to reflect Bella Swann. Outside those parameters and with Edward’s danger dissipated, the story can only be continued by making it more complicated, introducing new elements and moving the protagonists to new locations. At best, this style of serialising can make each successive volume a new first, with each story standing slightly apart from the others, unique despite a linear chronology. At worst, it devolves into the kind of add-on storytelling all too common in Hollywood sequals – notably Pirates of the Carribbean – in which a stand-alone first instalment is undermined by the introduction of a larger, unfamiliar world. The Twilight Saga will, I suspect, fall somewhere between these two points: Meyer has left enough undone to merit further exploration, but following through will invariably take the story away from what made it work in the first place, prolonging the initial catharsis by setting the characters on a largely circuitous route.

In fairness, I should read the rest of the series before passing final judgement; maybe Bella and Edward will pull the story through. Either way, Meyer isn’t the new Rowling, but that doesn’t stop her from being a skilled author in her own right, and certainly one worth keeping a careful eye on.

Alright. Let’s lay some cards on the table.

I’m a would-be fantasy novelist. I’ve written 2.5 actual books, but none are published, nor are any currently en route to being published. The first of these manuscripts was the end-product of my high school schemes, a 160,000 word, first-volume behemoth. Between the ages of 13 and 18, it went through approximately five different iterations, each new interpretation resulting in the total abandonment of the one before, to the point where you could reasonably add another 100,000-odd words to the total project. That still doesn’t include multiple rewrites, countless hand-written notes, several different maps and all the creative angst and sanity of five years’ effort. The irony was, I changed the plot so many times that by the fourth version, I realised (belatedly) that my original framework had ceased to be viable. I scrapped it all, started again, and finished the final product not long before my 19th birthday. It took that long.

Of course, it’s rubbish. There’s interesting characters, some nice ideas, a few paragraphs I’m not entirely ashamed of, and that’s about it. But it wasn’t a waste of time. From the experience, I learned patience, editing, self-analysis and proved, once and for all, that I was capable of writing an entire book. I edited and submitted, but deep down, I knew it was time to move on: I hadn’t started the sequal, and realistically, I never would.

Enter my mind-numbing stint as a legal secretary, and the oodles of spare time in front of a computer it entailed. In the middle of an exceptionally long day, I started writing a new story, in no small way inspired by a recent spate of Buffy-watching. It grew longer. And longer. A plot arc formed. Characters developed. And all of a sudden, without quite intending to, I’d written a 75,000 word quasi-young-adult fantasy novel, with jokes (or at least, my own would-be version of Douglas Adams/Neil Gaiman comic asidery) and the expectation of two more books to come. I submitted; it was rejected, but kindly, and once with actual praise. I managed to wrangle a literary agent, who sent it to Penguin. I started writing the next volume. The agent closed her agency. I kept writing. The novel made it through the first round of Penguin approvals, but was knocked back at the second. I made final contact with my ex-agent, thanking her for the opportunity, and started a new edit of the first volume.

And that brings us up to date.

Something I find intensely problematic with being a would-be author: there’s lots of us. Some are exceptional, some are average, and some are frankly appalling. As best I can tell, the vast majority of people who get rejected by publishers belong to the latter category: it’s a base assumption, and one most people tend to make. Despite my own views, I might objectively be godawful, or at least mediocre. There’s many styles of writing, after all, and blogging is no guarantee of narrative chutzpah. And there’s always room for improvement.

But what I want – what I really want – is to be a fantasy author. It’s no good pretending otherwise. I can’t vouch for my skills, but I can vouch for my determination. A small, stubborn core of me is devoted to that end. It’s why my name, and not a pseudonym, is on this blog: I want to succeed, and be known in that success. I don’t want vast riches, or to be the next J. K Rowling: were that the case, my naievete would be frightening. What I dream about – the dream of dreams – is meeting the writers I love, as a published author.

In the aftermath of Comicon, the longing hits me powerfully, and twists. Over at DeepGenre, Kevin Andrew Murphy pens a writeup that makes me ebb and wrench with jealousy: Scott Kurtz at PvP and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade, aka Tycho, aren’t helping, either. Clearly, there’s some issues here on my part, but I just want to be there, you know? The fact that I live on a different continent is just another reason to succeed.

I’d planned not to write here about trying to get published. Let’s face it: the blogsphere is a fantastic (ha!) outlet for angst, and while I’m as fond of ranting as the next person, I don’t want to whine at each and every hurdle. (Not much, anyway.) I’ll try to be good. I won’t let it hog the spotlight. But that’s where I’m coming from, and – with a bit of effort – where I’m going.