Leonard Chang and Disappointed Editors

This morning I came across this article written by Korean-American author Leonard Chang:

I will start by being so bold as to quote a rejection by an esteemed former editor, publisher, and literary agent who shall remain nameless, but who read The Lockpicker in manuscript form. He wrote a brief letter of praise, but ultimately rejected the novel. The line from his letter that shouted back at me was thus:

What fails for me is that it [that] virtually nothing is made of the fact that these guys are Koreans. I suppose in the alleged melting pot of America that might be a good thing, but for the book it doesn’t lend anything even lightly exotic to the narrative or the characters.

Before you get shocked or wince sympathetically, I must confess that this was not the first time I’d receive this kind of rejection. I won’t get into the identity and racial politics of why this critique is so pernicious, but it’s enough to say that exoticism for exoticism’s sake, especially from a Korean-American writer who sees himself as American and not exotic, is just, well, antiquated.

Another rejection for another novel, another, longer quote from a legendary editor:

The characters, especially the main character, just do not seem Asian enough. They act like everyone else. They don’t eat Korean food, they don’t speak Korean, and you have to think about ways to make these characters more ’ethnic,’ more different. We get too much of the minutiae of [the characters’] lives and none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us. For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.

Half the problem is that the agents and editors, who probably knew or guessed Chang was Korean-American, expected him to write only about issues related to that ethnicity (and then, probably dreary accounts about how difficult life is in racist America). I’ve mentioned this problem before in the context of Turkish author Elif Şafak:

When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic. “I liked your book,” he said, “but I wish you had written it differently.” (Laughter) I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Well, look at it. There’s so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there’s only one Turkish character and it’s a man.” Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters, but I understood what my critic was looking for. And I also understood that I would keep disappointing him. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.

Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures: a few authors from China, a few from Turkey, a few from Nigeria.

It must be pretty depressing to be an author from an ethnic minority and find editors and agents are only interested in your stories if they include characters of that minority and they are described and behave in the way Western progressives suppose they should. As a pale-faced Brit I am unlikely to encounter such prejudices – editors and agents will reject my work for very different reasons – but the answer is there anyway: self-publish.

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Feedback on the Blurb

Firstly, I want to thank everyone for pitching in on the book blurb. 70 of you voted, 48 said you preferred the second one, 18 the first, and 4 miserable sods said both were shite, which perhaps they are. Thank you for voting, and especially for all those who wrote a comment, especially Bloke in Germany who – if readers’ reactions to his re-write are anything to go by – will be demanding royalties if this thing ends up on Oprah.

This was a fascinating exercise because it turned up results that were wholly unexpected and I need to explain why. I will start by saying this book defies categorisation, and a book agent has confirmed that. It is not really a romance, and it is most definitely not a typical, formulaic romance. It’s not even a romance with a twist, it is barely a romance at all. It is far more of a character study of two people, both of whom are flawed, struggling in a relationship with one another. It is also social commentary, and as readers of my blog should know, when it comes to that I generally don’t water things down. There are some pretty robust opinions in there, and much of what I say will generate plenty of controversy. This is why I made the decision not to engage a female editor, because I think the type of woman who goes into editing will have serious problems with a lot of the commentary taking place. A lot of people will not like this book, and quite a few might even hate it. On the plus side, this is what sells: my ultimate aim is to see a hundred thousand deranged feminists wearing pussyhats taking part in a mass burning of my book in the middle of Brooklyn.

The reason I chose this story was because it presented itself and I reckoned it would be easy to tell, but also because I thought I would be saying things that haven’t been said before in a way which is new, and I still believe that’s the case. Now it may be it’s a bag of shite and nobody is interested, but the important thing is I tell *this* story in *my* way and see if it sells. If it doesn’t, then meh. What I didn’t want to do is try to write a story which has been told before in a way which is “proven”, hoping I can do a better job than a million other writers. Perhaps I can attempt that on my third or fourth book, but not the first. Like I try to do with this blog, I reckon I have a better chance of capturing a small but dedicated niche audience rather than gaining mass appeal by saying what everyone else is and copying their style. In many ways the book is an extension of the blog, and my regular readers will recognise the narrator’s voice in places.

So, back to the blurb. The first one was my overwhelming preference because it accurately reflects the book. The one other person in the world who has read it thought this was the case too, and chose the first. I wrote the second as a generic blurb for a romance in a few minutes, but it doesn’t really reflect the book. As Adam Thiele says in the comments, the second one sounds like Mills & Boon bullshit. BiG did a grand job of improving it, but alas it doesn’t reflect the story at all – it suggests a romance with a hint of mystery to entice people in which would be great if it was a classic romance novel – but it’s not.

I learned from flogging overpriced meals in a four-star hotel that customers don’t complain about rubbish per se, they complain that their expectations haven’t been met. I may be able to shift more copies initially with my second blurb (or BiG’s edit!) but the customer will feel disappointed and leave a bad review. If I go with the first, many people might not like it and hence not buy it, but at least those that do will get roughly what they are expecting, i.e. something different. Put another way, I’d rather reach a niche market of 10,000 customers likely to be satisfied than wade into a market of 100,000 most of whom will be disappointed.Therefore I need to be honest in the blurb and give a hint of the controversy inside, and not miss-sell it. Saying that, I am quite sure regardless of the blurb a lot of people who read this book will put it down and say “Well, that wasn’t what I expected!” Like I said, it’s hard to categorise.

What I found most interesting about the vote is this. I don’t know how my readers evaluated the two options, but did they:

1) Think I was writing a romance and judge the second blurb to be more typical and fitting with a romance novel, hence likely to generate more sales?

2) Know nothing about the book and on the basis of the blurb alone decide they’d rather read Book 2 than Book 1?

Because if it’s the second one, I have discovered that my readers – who appear to be mostly male, middle-aged, and centre-right – would rather read a soppy romance novel of a classic form than a story of a fellow battling angry feminists as he tries to handle a near-nutcase and navigate the Brooklyn arts scene. I’ve got to say, that surprised me a lot.

Once again, thanks very much for your input and all the support I’m getting. I have some thinking to do, but given the editing won’t be finished until January, I have time.

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Blurb for the Book

Okay folks, I need your advice again. I need to write around 100-120 words of blurb to go on the back cover of my book and on the Amazon page. I’ve come up with two versions so far, and would like some feedback on which you think is better so I’m running a poll at the bottom of this post.

If anyone is feeling generous, please leave suggestions in the comments. Perhaps elements of each could be combined? Is anything missing? Does anything grab you? Does anything fall flat?

I should probably say that my target markets are:

1. Women aged between 30-50, more conservative than liberal, with an interest in dating, relationships, and a man’s perspective. Most will have children.
2. Men aged between 20-50, seeking dating advice and/or looking to share bad experiences.
3. Men aged between 30-50 with daughters in their teens and above, interested in social discussions.

Getting this right is the most important part of marketing any book, and I need some third-party input. This is a first draft, and I’m sure there will be several more.

So, the first:

How far should you go to maintain a relationship with a weird foreigner you met online?

It’s a question a British man struggles to answer as he falls in love with Katya, an artsy Russian living in London, only to discover she’s not who she seems.  Seeking a solution, he stumbles into a bizarre world of Brooklyn-based misfits obsessed with Burning Man, an annual gathering where anything goes. On the way he must face his own self-doubts, outbursts of angry feminism, and revelations about Katya’s past he’ll wish she kept to herself.

Entertaining, honest, and brutally realistic, this is a story of an ordinary man dating a very modern woman.

The second:

And it started off so well.

When a middle-aged British man meets Katya, a charming Russian woman, he thinks he’s finally found what he’s looking for. But one morning she blurts out a piece of her past which changes everything. Torn between staying and leaving, he tries to understand the life she’s led and the choices she’s made. But the more he discovers, the more questions arise. Why did she divorce the man she says she loved? What happened in the Orgy Dome at Burning Man? And why is she sticking with him?

Entertaining, honest, and brutally realistic, this is a story of a man in love with a woman he doesn’t know.

Vote please:

Which blurb do you prefer?

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Book Progress

Having finished the third draft and taken my book as far as I could on my own, this week I took another major step: I hired an editor.

After doing some reading around I decided to run a search on the members of the Editorial Freelancers Association, an American outfit. I plugged in a couple of details and went through the list of names almost randomly. Originally I’d intended to use a female editor for this work, but when I saw most of them lived in Brooklyn, San Francisco, and other liberal strongholds and that a good half of them had dyed hair, tattoos, and facial piercings I began to think this might not be such a good idea. Any liberal matching that description is likely to struggle with the content of my story, particularly if she’s a feminist, and this would inevitably affect her editorial work.

So I picked two men (both Americans), based mainly on the content of their websites, and sent them an enquiry. Both asked me to send a 2,000 word passage or the whole manuscript, and they’d provide a sample edit and a quote. One came back with $1,200 and the other $1,600. However, the more expensive of the two returned a much better sample edit: more explanation behind the changes, and he seemed to “get” the voice of the narrator better and buy into the story more. The other editor made two changes which I thought dumbed down the narrator’s voice, making it sound more like a young American than a middle-aged Brit. The good news is that both sets of suggestions were minor: no “WTF is this, please rewrite completely” in any of them.

I gave my preferred editor a call and we had a long chat about the editorial process and what I was looking for, and it was very productive. I made the decision to switch the spelling and punctuation conventions to American English, purely because the US is a much bigger market than the UK. The downside is I know seeing z instead of s will grate forever. I am sure I will learn a lot from my editor, who has already shown me a few ways I can improve my writing (again, minor points) and I’m looking forward to the whole process. With luck, what comes out will be a decent product which will sell.

The one downside is that he is busy until early December, so nothing will get done in November. On the plus side, it means he has work and isn’t some 25 year old grad with a BA in Media Writing who’s touting himself about as a freelance writer waiting for his first paid gig. He reckons the editing will take 14 days, so shortly before Christmas I should begin the process of accepting or rejecting the changes and compiling the final version. Then it’ll need to be proof-read, which is a separate exercise I’ll also get done professionally.

In the meantime, I need to get a book cover done. Once again, I’m going to get this done professionally and it looks to be around $350 for both an e-book and paperback cover, based on 3 options with 2 revision cycles. By now I’m seeing that getting a book self-published is going to come in at around $2,500 which isn’t that cheap. However, the most common complaints about self-published books are that they’ve not been properly edited, they’re strewn with errors, the cover looks crap, and the formatting is bad. I might be able to save money by doing a lot of this myself, but I’d be far happier with a professional-looking product than an amateur effort – particularly if I’m going to flog the thing.

I’m hoping that by mid-January it’ll be published and available to purchase on Amazon. I have a marketing strategy, and once I have something to sell I’ll put that into action and see how it goes. Frankly, I haven’t the slightest idea whether this will sell or not, nor whether anyone will like my writing or the story. But as I said right at the beginning, there is only one way to find out – and I intend to do so.

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Trigger Warnings in Books

Via someone I follow on Twitter who is quite possibly mentally ill comes trigger-warnings in books:

I’m not sure what a reader is supposed to do here. Do they simply skip the chapters in question, in which case they are either missing something important or the chapters shouldn’t have been included in the first place? Or do they line up a row of multi-coloured prescription pills and brace for impact as the offending chapter nears? Perhaps they’d be better off reading something else altogether.

And 40 chapters in a book that size? Actually, I’ve checked Amazon and it’s 43 chapters in a book with 312 pages. A new chapter every 7 pages. Not surprising it comes with a warning.

My own book, which is currently with an agent who will hopefully point me towards a decent editor, will not come with any such warnings. Although I am quite certain it will piss a lot of people off, particularly women with sympathetic leanings towards deranged, third-wave feminism. As one author I know responded to criticism of his book:

“Oh, I don’t care if you liked it, hell I don’t even care if you read it. I just wanted you to buy it!”

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More awful advice from Oliver Kamm

I’ve written before about the terrible advice Times columnist Oliver Kamm dishes out on Twitter. Here’s another example:

To which his interlocutor says:

Now I have no idea whether use of the passive voice is a good idea or not, and couldn’t even define what the passive voice is. What I do know is that writing can be both good and bad, and styles vary depending on the format of the piece and the subject. Contracts, for example, ought to be written in a different style from a romance novel. Does the passive voice suit every format? I don’t know, but one would suppose the people involved in writing and reading scientific articles have some sort of basis for their preference other than pure grammatical snobbery.

Kamm dismisses it of course, and doesn’t actually respond to Mr Ludwick – as is his wont. However, someone else he asked does:

So whose advice does one take on how to write scientific articles? A Times columnist who probably wouldn’t understand three-quarters of the terms therein, or an editor of scientific articles?

That’s what I find so pompous about Kamm. He’s a good writer – but only in one or two particular formats. I’m certain he’s never written a scientific paper, yet here he is dispensing advice which would put anyone following it on the wrong side of their editor.  To my knowledge he’s never written a novel either, and I suspect if he tried it would contain leaden prose that would make Lloyds Law Reports read like a James Bond. Anyone with a modicum of self-awareness might think “Wait a minute, this guy is writing for a very different clientele than I am, and perhaps there are good reasons why they don’t like the passive voice,” but no, it’s an airy “they don’t know what they’re talking about and should be ignored”. Now I’d have thought writing as per your clients’ or readers’ stated preferences was quite important, but apparently not according to Kamm.

I think I know what’s happened here. Back in the mid-00s Kamm wrote some decent political and historical articles on his blog, written to a very high standard. He was quickly drafted into the Times despite having no experience in journalism, but if you consider his family connections it comes as no surprise how he pulled that off. Kamm was a loud proponent of Blair’s foreign policy, particularly the “ethical interventionism” used to justify the Iraq War, even writing a book called The Left-Wing Case for a Neo-Conservative Foreign Policy. One could see back then why a metropolitan paper might want to get him on board, but since then Blairism and the neo-con foreign policy has been utterly discredited. However, Kamm never repented, sticking to his guns in supporting Blair – which he does to this day. This probably gave his employer a bit of a headache: is there really a job for a columnist who drones on about how great Blair’s foreign policies were? Not really. But they couldn’t boot him because that’s not how things work, especially with his family connections. So instead he got shoved in a corner to write about grammar and writing styles. That’s how we get gems like this:

Basically, aspiring writers should ignore all advice except that dispensed by Oliver Kamm. Some humility wouldn’t go amiss, would it?

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An Update on the Book

Yesterday I finished the third draft of my book, which basically involved me going through the whole thing line by line trying to choose the correct word and making sure each sentence read well. I did this partly by reading each line out loud as if I were standing on a stage addressing an audience. The clunky words and bad metaphors tend to jump out at you when you do that.

So it is now 75,400 words across 16 chapters. It’s a little on the light side – I was aiming for 80,000 words – but as a (kind of) romance fiction by a new author this ought not to do me any harm. Better than asking tentative readers to wade through 120k words at any rate. The next step is to read it through from start to finish, looking for obvious improvements, grammatical and spelling errors, inconsistencies, and looking at the overall pace and flow. Then I’ll be writing to one or two editors asking them for quotes.

I have no idea what to expect from the editing process, but I guess I’ll find out. In the meantime, I need to write two synopses (a long and a short), come up with a title (I may even run a poll on here once I’ve narrowed the options), get someone to design a cover, and start the ball rolling on the marketing. I’ve already started playing with the compilation software to turn it into an e-book, but I feel I have more to learn on that yet.

Anyway, completing this third draft feels like a big achievement. Hopefully that’s the hardest part done, but we’ll see.

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More on Lucy and Pete

Thanks everyone who commented on my previous post. Now some comments from me.

First of all, TDK makes an interesting point:

People seem determined to understand the question wrongly as “is she cheating?” rather than “is she lying?”

This is important, because I think the logic is that provided she’s not cheating then the lying doesn’t matter. So I’ll furnish you with some more background info.

Lucy was at university studying English when she met Pete, who was twelve years older than her and married, but with no kids. His wife was apparently open to her husband sleeping with other women, which allowed Lucy and Pete to see one another. But Pete, a freelance IT consultant, lived a weird hippy-like lifestyle which involved copious volumes of Class-A drugs, which Lucy soon got tangled up in. She used to smoke weed when they first met, but soon she was onto the harder stuff: cocaine, acid, and anything else that Pete could get hold of. She started to spend more time with him, cooped up together in her student flat or staying with his friends in other cities. She became more sexually adventurous, and had several threesomes with Pete and a woman called Amy who he met online. Her studies began to suffer, and within a few months she’d quit her course and taken an admin job at a magazine, but all the money she earned went on rent and feeding her drug habit. She loved Pete and believed he loved her in return, but after a year she began to regret quitting university, and wondered where their relationship was going. She was only 22 after all, but already her friends had graduated and some were settled down with men their own age and talking of starting a family. In the year that followed, nothing much changed for Lucy. She lost her job at the magazine and cut down the drugs, but when Pete got divorced and her hopes rose, he told her he didn’t want to be tied down again. They finally split up on her 24th birthday, when he confessed he was seeing another woman. Lucy was sad, but she understood: exclusivity had never been part of the bargain with Pete, but she didn’t want to share him any longer. For the few years she maintained the lifestyle, sleeping with Pete’s friends occasionally, and even dating one of them for six months, a man she’d known since the time they first met. On the odd occasion she’d bump into Pete at a party they’d usually go home together, but even that stopped eventually. She fell into depression and spent a month in rehab, and had several therapy sessions when she came out.

Her life took a turn for the better at 31 when her parents moved to London, allowing her to live with them while she went back to university and completed a degree in pyschology. She was working in a hospital and earning a reasonable salary when she met the narrator, an industrial chemist, who was 36 at the time. She’d not been in a proper relationship in the intervening years, just had the occasional fling. He gradually learned of her background and relationship with Pete, and they’d been dating four months at the time of the conversation I posted.

As the narrator goes on to say:

“I didn’t care she still spoke to an ex-boyfriend, nor even that she’d lied about it. In isolation we could have recovered from that, but this Pete was different. The only way I could overlook the sex, drugs, and the whole fucking lifestyle was by knowing it was in her past and she wanted to forget it. Her being friends with one of the main players cast doubt on that, and I’d put far too much faith in her already. The onus was on her to build trust with me, but she was doing the exact opposite.”

In short, the narrator never suspected her of cheating but considered it important to know whether she was still in touch with Pete. Her lying – if that’s what it was – therefore mattered.

Also interesting is what Watcher said:

It would hardly be surprising if people therefore discounted this as a form of serious interaction, even if it was quite regular.

In a way the key question (to Lucy, about being in contact, not to the commentators) is from the 1970s, but poised in the 2010s – it lacks key qualifications.

This is true, but as the narrator says:

“This why I went through the pantomime of asking if she could get hold of him. I had to be sure there were no misunderstandings.”

One thing which surprises me is that despite Lucy being asked several times whether she could get hold of this guy if she had to and her saying “no”, people – especially women – still think the question was open to interpretation, as if she didn’t know what he meant. It’s hard to think of how the narrator could have been more clear.

When the narrator finally confronted Lucy, the conversation went as follows:

‘Why did you lie about losing touch with Pete?’

‘I didn’t.’

‘Lucy, he left a comment under your photo a few weeks ago, and you replied to it. You comment on his stuff, too. You’re in regular contact.’

‘Are you sure you’ve got the right person?’

‘He’s called Pete Navardauskas, it’s a Lithuanian name. How many do you know?’

She emitted a nasty, bitter laugh. ‘Well, I can’t be expected to remember every comment made on my photos. And I’m not interested in these arguments any more. It’s over. Bye.’

‘You lied to me, Lucy.’

‘Well, we’re just gonna have to agree to disagree on that,’ she said, and hung up.

Later, he remarked:

“There’s no way you’d overlook a comment from an ex-lover with whom you had that shared history, let alone several comments. You might not remember the precise remarks but you’d not forget the interaction, and you couldn’t say you’d lost touch without lying.”

 And I think that’s important. This isn’t some random guy she met years ago, it’s a man she was in love with, slept with, shared a huge chunk of her life with, and had considerable influence on how her life turned out. Would it slip your mind if somebody like that was commenting on your photos ten years later? No, it wouldn’t.

Watcher was right about one thing, though:

It’s also the sort of question that would be a big red flag to me that this relationship had problems (not being a fan of tension and jelousy in relationships).

Yes, the relationship was fucked.

Thanks for the participation, everyone. It’s been a lot of fun.

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Did Lucy lie?

Over the course of the past year I’ve described a scenario to various people, and been surprised by the reaction of women. Just for fun (and readers interested in serious stuff are free to skip this post), I’ll lay it out here.

Background:

The narrator is in a relationship with Lucy. Ten years before, Lucy had a serious boyfriend called Pete, who she was with for about 2 or 3 years. She said there was a time when she couldn’t bear to be without him, and when they split up it was amicable but they gradually lost touch. The narrator has just looked at Lucy’s social media account.

The scene:

I should have given the account a wide berth, but the next morning I opened it. There was a photo of the toy rat, propped on its hind legs against a black ceramic skull she’d brought back from London. I’d been with her when she unwrapped it, and behind her as she took the picture. There was one comment underneath, a single word – ‘Beautiful!’ – left by Pete. ‘Thanks!’ Lucy had replied.

My throat tightened as the anger built inside me.

I looked at other photos and found more comments from Pete. I clicked on his profile, and saw comments from Lucy less than a month old. The interaction was ongoing, and in both directions. A photo from Glastonbury caught my eye, the caption alluding to how much he missed it. A sympathetic comment from Lucy lay underneath.

Lucy was outside a long time, probably on the phone with someone. By the time she came back I’d got a grip of myself, and when she sat down I buried my rage and said in a friendly tone, ‘Can I ask, is there anyone who still holds a candle for you?’

‘You mean an ex who still likes me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Michael still texts me. He wants to get back together, but there was really nothing there to begin with.’

‘All right,’ I said, nodding. This didn’t bother me. ‘Anyone else?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘How about you? Any of your exes still interested?’

‘Jane might be, I think. I get messages from her sometimes, asking how I am.’

‘Okay.’

‘So the rest of your exes – you’re no longer in touch?’ I asked.

‘No.’

‘Including those from university?’

‘Yes!’ she said, getting cross. ‘Why are you asking about this?’

I ignored her and asked, ‘What about Pete? Are you still speaking to him?’

‘No.’

‘Not at all?’

‘Why do you keep asking about this?’ she demanded again.

‘Lucy,’ I said gently. ‘Please don’t get mad, I’m just asking some questions and I’m doing it nicely.’

‘Look, if I saw him at a party I might say hello, but I wouldn’t make any special effort.’

‘So let me ask you something. It’s going to seem like a strange question, but humour me, okay?’

‘Okay.’

‘If you needed to contact him urgently – for whatever reason – could you do it? Could you get hold of him within twenty-four hours, for example?’

She stared at me in silence. I stared back until she answered the question.

‘Well, I might have an email for him somewhere,’ she said, trying to act casual and failing. ‘I don’t know, I’d have see if I still have it. Why?’

‘I’m just wondering. So you still have his email?’

‘It’s probably somewhere, but like I said, I’d have to look. What’s this about?’ Her temper was building, I had to wrap this up fast.

‘So if you wanted to get hold of Pete quickly, you could do it. Is that what you’re saying?’

With a face like thunder she picked up her phone, and I watched in silence as she furiously searched.

After a minute she stopped. ‘No, see!’ she said triumphantly, showing me the screen. ‘He’s not in my contacts any more, it’s gone. So no, I couldn’t get hold of him, even if I wanted to.’

‘Okay,’ I said neutrally. ‘That’s fair enough, thanks.’

***

When I’ve put this to women, their reaction has usually been to doubt that Lucy had lied, saying something to the effect of: “Maybe she didn’t think being in touch meant being friends on social media?” Men are a little less forgiving.

What say you, readers?

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Nocturnal Animals

Last night I watched Nocturnal Animals, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams. If you haven’t seen it and wish to, you might want to skip this post because SPOILERS FOLLOW.

The film concerns the owner of an art gallery (Adams) who’s made a right hash of her life. Severe Mummy and Daddy issues drove her as a young graduate to marry her childhood friend (Gyllenhaal) who’s a budding author but seems to be hopelessly naive about what that entails. For example, he complains his wife criticises his work, into which he’s poured his heart and soul. Well, wait until it hits the shelves pal, then you’ll know what criticism is. After two years of marriage she bins the author for some hot-shot Adonis she works with. The film takes place 19 years later when the Adonis is cheating on her with a younger, prettier woman and her gallery is failing. Cue lots of shots of her sitting in the dark, alone and weeping. The only thing missing was her securing an order for half a dozen cats down at the local pet shop.

I think the lesson we’re supposed to take away is that you should always follow your heart and stand by your first true love no matter what. The lesson I actually took away was that spoiled brat women in their twenties acting like stroppy teenagers in dealing with their parents are likely to make catastrophic decisions which will leave them alone and miserable later in life. That’s not really the point of this post, though.

Instead I’m going to talk about lazy plot devices. Early on in the film Adam’s character receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, who she’s not seen in decades, and reads it. The film then becomes a story within a story, and we see the tale in the manuscript being played out. The idea is that the author’s new novel is so brilliant that his ex-wife will see she made a mistake in dumping him all those years ago.

The problem is the novel doesn’t seem very good or original. It concerns a man who is run off the road by rednecks (of course) in Texas after which his wife and teenage daughter are raped and murdered. The man survives and seeks revenge. This story has been done a million times already, so I wasn’t persuaded it could induce a change of heart in his ex-wife. What they needed was a really clever story, not a by-the-numbers rape-revenge yarn, but I guess if they came up with one they’d probably just make a film of that rather than use it as a sub-plot in a film about a lonely, ageing woman.

But my main issue is with what this tweet complains about:

I’m not alone in finding rape increasingly being used as a plot device, and not liking it. I’ve complained before about bad guys in movies and TV series being made into cartoons, and the audience battered over the head with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to ensure we’re left in no doubt who is good and who is bad. Making the bad guy a rapist appears to have become the default way of going about it, and I find it lazy. Rape may induce feelings of disgust and hatred, and make for intense scenes the audience won’t forget, but it’s akin to the shots of emaciated African kids with flies around their face you see in TV adverts begging for money – it’s cheap, emotional blackmail. Some years ago my sister noticed the frequency with which rape is used as a plot device when writing for the F-Word:

James Patterson’s 1996 bestseller Kiss the Girls features two male serial killers who keep beautiful, intelligent young women in a basement and sexually abuse, torture and kill them.

Before Patterson there was Dean Koontz, another immensely popular US thriller writer, whose 1986 book Night Chills features a string of graphic rape scenes alongside a female lead character who outsmarts a male military officer at every turn.

In short, male novelists have for decades been selling graphic capture-rape-torture-kill novels by chucking in ‘strong’ female characters for balance, and have even gained plaudits for highlighting violence against women in the process.

The Spectator’s Gary Dexter is in no doubt about the reason for Patterson’s appeal: “Patterson likes rape, torture, mutilation and death. So do his readers. Who doesn’t? It has been estimated that Patterson’s lifetime sales of thrillers have now topped 150 million, and that one in every 15 hardbacks bought in the world in 2007 was a Patterson novel, which means that we must all like rape, torture, mutilation and death, perhaps with extra rape on the side, and then some child rape, child torture, child mutilation and child death, then some more rape, more death and more rape, and finally some rape, death, rape and death.”

Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth was another bestseller which had the bad guy raping women with such frequency I’d roll my eyes wondering why the editor didn’t point out he’d used this scene already.

It may be necessary to include a rape scene in a film or novel – The Accused would hardly work without it, nor would I Spit on Your Grave – but in most cases it is necessary only because the writer lacks the skill or imagination to come up with anything else. You might forgive the writers of Game of Thrones frequently throwing in rape scenes because that particular series relies heavily on torture-porn, but others don’t have that excuse.

Prompted by a friend, I recently watched the pilot of the TV series The Americans. Sure enough, the female lead gets raped by her superior in a flashback, just to make sure the audience knows that this guy is evil and deserves everything that’s coming to him. The fact that his raping her is absolutely ludicrous both in terms of historical accuracy and the plot doesn’t seem to matter: the important thing is we get to see a woman being raped, thus ensuring we all talk about how serious, edgy, and thought-provoking the series is. For me, it simply showed the writers are so lacking imagination the script might as well have been created by a piece of software.

Nocturnal Animals wasn’t a bad film, and I liked the ending, but lazy writing using rape-revenge as a plot device let it down badly. I look forward to the day when authors and scriptwriters quit doing it. It’s probably one of the few subjects on which I agree with the feminists.

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