Boring Conversation Anyway: The Stupid Internet Controversies Around “The Force Awakens”

This is the first of several posts I wanted to write about “Star Wars.” This one will hopefully come out relatively positive about the new movie, but maybe not. I won’t give a full review here, because I don’t think anybody cares, including myself, but I will say that I saw the movie twice on Friday and enjoyed it immensely.

The following MIGHT contain spoilers; I haven’t really outlined what I’m typing but I’m not going to go out of my way to avoid talking about plot points in the film.

read at your own risk…

Okay, anyway I’ve read lots of interesting commentary on the new film, the more interesting bits are those that have been critical of the movie, or meta-critical of the hype and marketing buildup surrounding the film. I consider myself a big “Star Wars” fan but especially after reading posts on reddit and other sites for well over a year I’m definitely leery of other fanboys (and some, although not many, fangirls) who definitely deserve the derogatory term. Not that I myself have matured much beyond the early teens but at some point in your sad adulthood you are faced with the choice to either accept your imposter syndrome or double down on their immature fantasies, adding sex and violence and obsessive world-building and strict adherence to canon on top of their favorite franchise.

This is why “Game of Thrones”, and to some extent the “Force Awakens” are best enjoyed as guilty pleasures (although Star Wars is much more fun and less pretentious). And the most devoted fan bases of each approach a kind of religious fanaticism (and righteous anger) in their attempt to protect and defend such properties. When you combine extreme escapism with further prejudices against the Real World, you get:

Black Stormtroopers and Black Hermione

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For some reason it was a “controversy” that Finn was a black man. I guess because some really dumb racists were complaining on the internet last year. They should have been ignored. Raising their discourse to the level of “controversy” only emboldens internet trolls and basement-dwelling racists. It empowers them by throwing their sad rants into the marketplace of ideas and by extension making the rather innocuous casting decision look like progress, which it is only if seen through the lens of a grossly racist science-fiction/fantasy fanbase, a group which although majority white are not racist.

Or are they?

Here comes the next stupid internet “debate”, the casting of a black woman as Hermione in a Harry Potter play. The easy reductivist argument, and really the only way to look at this, is that the director casted who he thought was the best actress to play a role in a theatrical production based in a fictional Universe. If anything, we should be celebrating the strong and flexible narrative of the “Potterverse” one which is popular enough to allow for color-blind interpretation of characters.

This is exactly what a commentator said to me on BBC radio yesterday. But then some dufus called in, from the United States of course, to argue that “canonically” Hermione was white, as depicted in the American cover and chapter illustrations and some random comments Rowling made off-hand at some point, some time. Another called (again from the US) argued that since Emma Watson is the most famous (only) actress to depict Hermione, Hermione is white.

Some questions these people should ask themselves:

  1. Why does “Harry Potter and the Curse Child” need to take place in the same canonical Universe as the (mediocre) films, or even the books?
  2. What would these same people say if Lee Jordan was portrayed by a white man? Or Kingsley Shacklebolt? Or Nick Fury? Or Lando Calrissian? Or Blade? Or Kazaam?
  3. Why is nobody equally upset that a non-ginger was cast to play Ron Weasley? Poor Ron can barely stir up the ghost of an internet argument.
  4. Does anyone (or group of fans) “own” the rights or ability to control the “true” canon of Harry Potter? If JK Rowling doesn’t care about the fixed racial identities of her characters, why should the fans? (you won’t like my answer)
  5. Time travel back to before the casting news. Somebody asks you to name Hermione’s most important traits. How many do you name before her race? Five? Ten? Do you even mention she’s white?

So that’s that.

Is Rey a Mary Sue? 

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Now back to “Star Wars” and the dumbest “controversy” of them all: the debate over whether or not Daisy Ridley/Rey is a “Mary Sue” and why we should care?

My first reaction to both of these is: As written yes but Daisy Ridley is so charming she outacts and overcomes the bad screenwriting. and Not really.

But let’s dig deeper.

I saw this discussion in the comments section of an article on Badass Digest, one of the few sites who hasn’t tried to unconditionally heap praise on the new films (they and Salon.com have offered the best commentary I’ve seen, although I haven’t look that hard and it’s still early). Users on that site were upset that Rey was a “Mary Sue” character, or someone who was overpowered and seems to easily defeat all her enemies and all obstacles she faces.

This would indeed make for a weak character, were it true; but the sloppy storyline which sees her over-qualified to fly the Milennium Falcon and fight wannabe Siths without any kinds of training says more about the script than the character as portrayed by Daisy Ridley, who shows enough charm and nuance for us to identify with. Although plenty tough, Rey’s need and anxiety over her parents’ potential return is both a strength (of compassion) and a weakness, in theory keeping her from leaving Jakku or embracing her destiny (the film could have done a lot more with this but just sort of gives up because there’s no time or place for organic-“Organaic”?-development). She also is clearly overmatched (at first) by Kylo Ren, and you could say she was able to defeat him at the end only because he had a lot going on-he’d just killed his father, had a protracted battle with a “traitor” and then a huge cliff opened up and separated them. Also, we don’t know their actual relationship so we don’t know what Kylo Ren wants from her, much like Darth Vader’s dilemma with Luke. Does he want to kill her? Does he want to “teach” her (kinky!)? We don’t really know!

Also, Rey apparently doesn’t shower or wear different clothing, which is kind of gross I guess. But she’s still lovely.

Anyway, you have to project an awful lot onto her character from the actress and our own expectations, filling in the gaps that JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan left behind in the script. That’s Abrams’ “strength” as a director- he casts great people like Ridley and Oscar Isaac who bring a lot of personality into the film beyond what the script or story itself calls for.

But because not everyone sees it as such, the “Mary Debate” gets a lot dumber. Most responses to the “Mary Sue” complaint have not been that she isn’t a “Mary Sue” but that this isn’t a problem, because men get their “Mary Stus” like James Bond so AT LAST women get a stupid, overpowered stand-in to identify with. Which is ridiculous. Not because they’re wrong-James Bond is a blank slate of a character, or has been in the past.

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Also, perhaps Rey was written as a female version of a male superhero, with all of the requisite flaws, because her character was written by two men, neither of whom has necessarily demonstrated an ability to write above a very very masculine frame of reference.

Why do we need or want such characters? It’s like saying “at last, women have a stupid, poorly conceived character with which we can live out our own absurd power fantasies!” As said above, I’m not even sure if Rey qualifies as such. But this argument is horrible. If James Bond or Han Solo or whomever provide detrimental models for young men to identify with, then why is it “good” to try to do the same with young girls? You might say this is apples and oranges, that women need blanket presentations of sexual power, political power, superheroic power, etc…but you would be wrong.

Okay that’s it.

 

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A Square Peg in a Glory Hole: Dakota Vs…Fan Fiction?

Last week I felt like I was defeated by the internet and this week I feel bad about it so I’m going to defend myself, to myself, right here, right now:

The internet should be a great resource for writers, not only because of the platforms it provides, but because it can open up all kinds of avenues for interacting with other writers and honing your craft.

But then sometimes, “sometimes”, the wide open spaces of the internet yield more to a boom-town mentality, with prospective writers, such as and including myself, prospectively throwing their shit at the firewall and hoping something magic happens.

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As a year-long member of such an experiment, I attempted to stick my square, nonfiction prose where it didn’t belong, “just to see what happens”, over and over again into a space meant for genre fiction, and the result was pretty unsatisfying.

For now, let’s call this site the “The Glory Hole.”

How does the Glory Hole work? You put up your writing sample, a short story or 5000 words of a longer work, and you exchange critiques of other users’ material for credit to put towards getting feedback on your own. In this, the Glory Hole has developed a rather ingenious method for objective subjective feedback; since there are no incentives to write a good critique or to rate a specific person, you’re encouraged to give an honest appraisal of the writing.

Two caveats: Last year the Glory Hole removed their best feature, the literary “quiz”, which was a great way to evaluate whether users had read the whole piece. I assume they removed it because it was time consuming, some of the quizzes were stupid, and/or not enough people bothered to read the entire piece. However, now there is no real way to avoid having someone gloss over your story in about 30 seconds just to get the review credit. 

Secondly, and we will get to this below, there is incentive to write a bad review and force a users’ ranking down, especially if you yourself are near the top. 

The top user stories every month (there are rankings) get a professional glance-over, either by an agent or publisher, and people have gotten book deals out of the process. Since the whole thing costs nothing but a bit of time, it’s a great way to get feedback AND/or notoriety for your writing, even your novels, without the pitfalls of more formal, in-person workshop environments. And I’ve been clamoring (silently) for a novel-critique outlet for years, so the Glory Hole seemed very promising.

But what the experience has taught me about writing and writers in general is not so much to the good. Instead of discovering a community of writers or a treasure trove of untapped talent, I’ve discovered a parade of deluded and vicious dreamers climbing over each other to try and squeeze their way into the Glory Hole. Everything, from the means to the motive, is uncomfortably lame.

E.L.James_

What characterizes a Glory Holer?

  • Glory Hole Writers Don’t Read Enough The literary foundations behind of many of these stories stops after The Hunger Games Trilogy and Game of Thrones. The ideas conveyed, the character descriptions, the conflicts, all bely a special kind of triteness. Every other story has a Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen proxy going off on a subpar, half-baked adventure involving humans and subhumans wandering around anachronistic, vague dystopias. A serial killer taunts a girl trapped inside his manhole trap back behind the old farm. A fat and lazy interloper makes himself at home in his cousin’s flat. A Catholic woman marries a Jew and they have a secret baby. A boy discovers his parents have been replaced by aliens. These summaries belong as meta-jokes in another, better, story, but here they are the sad attempts to triangulate what may constitute the next best-seller.
  • Glory Hole Writers Aren’t Writing, They’re “World-Building” I don’t think people don’t understand plot. I don’t think plot is a difficult concept. Story is when something happens and good story is when that something that happens is a something that is compelling or gets people to keep reading. The problem is that people don’t seem very interested in telling a good story. Most of the writing within these excerpts is window dressing or portraiture, details upon details that serve to pad the writing and “flesh out” either characters or setting, but with a fundamental confusion, or lack of care, for what details are important or why they matter at all.
  • Anyone can write anything, and use words for nearly any purpose, but just throwing shit at the reader because you were too lazy to edit your work is where things start to smell…smelly. I am absolutely, one-hundred percent, against writing-as-modern-art, here’s-my-nonsense-see-what-YOU-make-of-it, claptrap, maybe because I see that a lot in my own writing. But it takes one to know one, and I know (or think I do) when someone had no motivation or “vision” behind their work other than to hope somebody ELSE would see in their writing what they couldn’t find themselves.
  • This process works, sometimes. But not all the time. Best to pity the lucky idiot who strikes gold in the Glory Hole by accident (the next M. Night Shyamalan) then to attempt to be that yourself.
  • Glory Hole Writers Are Petty and Esoteric Critics After a while, right around the time the quiz was abandoned, I made another round of edits, and my work starting showing up on the Glory Hole top 50 (or whatever), I stopped getting good reviews. And they weren’t “good” bad reviews either, ie constructive criticism meant to encourage a better submissions. I was downvoted because
  • I needed to “learn the craft.”
  • I spelled Anakin Skywalker wrong. 3947959-anakin-skywalker-force-chokeYes, this one still bugs me. In a piece of writing that both nonfiction and decidedly not about Star Wars, the critic down-voted me for spelling the name wrong of a character whose name is actually another name.The crime of “misspelling” Anakin Skywalker is somewhere between misspelling Bruce Wayne and Alonso Quixano, which is to say…okay I’m done with that.
  • They couldn’t figure out what the story was about from the first page. This is a sneaky and disingenuous criticism, that my writing started off too “confusing” or “boring” or something…but here’s the problem with that: NOBODY GOES INTO A READING COLD. That’s right, nobody. Before you pick up a book, or read a story, you know many things, up to and including:
  • The author
  • The genre
  • The description on the back of the book
  • The title
  • The pretty pictures on the cover
  • The word of mouth, or whatever caused you to notice the book or story in the first place
  • So that’s right, saying you’re bored and can’t figure out what’s going on from the opening page(s) is a bit too much like saying you can’t figure out what you’re eating from the handful of buffet glob you just shoved into your mouth without looking. Don’t blame me.
  • My story wasn’t genre fiction. Several people didn’t like my story because it wasn’t high fantasy or low sex dungeon schlockety schlock or whatever. No explosions? No crazy twist? No inter-dimensional beings from the space between the spaces? BORING. Fuck you.
  • My story wasn’t their story. The worst bit of glory hole navel gazing was when other writers would critique me for having a style different from their own. Which is, I guess, to be fair, something every writer-cum-critic has to watch out for. There is a strong tendency to take someone’s work and advise them as if you were the author. But that’s not what good criticism does. And bad criticism, the very worst, goes all the way and says “your story is bad because in my story there are sexy dwarf detectives and your story has no sexy dwarf detectives so I hated it.”
  • Glory Hole Writers Don’t Like Writing This is why I decided to give up. Because after reading story segment after segment, and receiving a slow but dependable stream of critical bile, it was clear that this really was the wrong avenue to hawk my goods. If you can’t trust the people advising you then it’s time to pull the plug, and I couldn’t trust the people in the Glory Hole, not because I didn’t think the writing was good (some of it was okay) but because I didn’t think many of them liked writing at all. And this is not a problem specific to the Glory Hole but to a lot of amateur fiction in general in the age of the internet, which is that people maybe, who like good stories, or bad stories, or watch movies, or are unaware to the extent of their own vanity, see writing as way to get rich and famous really quick. But they don’t actually enjoy or care about the process of sitting down and plugging away at something. So here is something which I feel very strongly about and I’ll end with here:
  • Everyone has a story to tell. Most people have pretty good ideas. The only thing that separates “most people” from “published writer” is the will to grind out a piece of not-shit, which could take a few days, but more often takes years. Time is the only weed out process.***

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***I’m being hypocritical because I’m not really a ‘published’ writer (I mean I “am” but I’m also not), but if I ever was that’s still what I would say, and it’s what I say to myself now to try to motivate myself to keep working on old projects.