Famous songs lose their context and impact when you grow up with them. You enjoy a great rhythm and learn to sing along without hearing the words. And sometimes when you do hear them, you hear the wrong parts too loud.
I was vibing with the lyric ‘What a drag it is getting old’ this morning and it made me dig out ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ and listen to it again:
I know this song well and have long thought it was an interesting critique of the misogynistic culture 1950s and 60s housewives endured; worn out, unappreciated, and bored, relying on early prescription anti-depressants that were addictive and harmful. Not the take you expect from a bunch of young men living the life of rock stars.
Most are in a hurry to point out that the Stones are underlining the hypocrisy of middle class family values critiquing drugs in youth culture, but there are a lot of barbed lines specifically aimed at the misogyny and showing a lot of empathy for the women themselves:
“Men just aren’t the same today” I hear every mother say “They just don’t appreciate that you get tired” They’re so hard to satisfy You can tranquilize your mind…
And four help you through the night Help to minimize your plight…
The song describes a woman or women heading for a complete breakdown and being offered drugs instead of help. The men don’t appreciate how much they do ‘that you get tired’, the experience of women is recognised as a ‘plight’ that’s being minimised.
The jaunty, off-kilter riff makes this sound like an upbeat song despite the minor key – it distracts from the fact that this song is actually quite empathetic and alarming (much like the tranquilisers alluded to as ‘mothers little helpers’.
All of this, I was pretty familiar with. What changed listening to it today was that rather than considering it a historical artefact – grounded in the situation of a housewife, a very alien concept to me – I related to it.
It’s not just that I myself am getting older, and seeing the big Four-Oh approaching. It’s that the anti-depressants I rely on to function are not masking the horrors of the life I am struggling to live in.
Anti-depressants have come a long way. I have unironically described the Duloxetine I’m currently on as a ‘Wonder Drug’. It does powerful good at controlling my anxiety without making me feel sedated. Depression and anxiety are the things that are altering my mind. the SNRI I take restores balance. Or attempts to.
And unlike what the song says, this is a genuine illness. I have an imbalance in my chemicals (amplified by trauma) that needs correcting.
But there’s no denying it, the situation I’m in is fucked. I do not think I would need the drugs I’m taking if I wasn’t frequently required to keep working through intollerable things.
For the mid-century housewife, misogyny and rigid gender division of labour, which devalued women’s labour, was the biggest cause. For me, an ableist, capitalistic hellscape fraught with growing fascism and transphobia is front and centre. But the two things aren’t that different. Both are rooted in binary gender essentialism and capitalist economic tyranny.
These are real problems. A real plight for which no one is offering tangible, practical help. So I need to take medication, because the heightened level of anxiety about real problems on top of my existing trauma, has just gone on too long.
The drugs in this case aren’t bad, but they’re not the long-term solution I need. In a more just society, I wouldn’t need them.
Which brings me to my second Rolling Stones song, which YouTube helpfully pointed me at after I listened to the other:
‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’.
This lyric hit a little harder, and rang a little truer than it had in previous listenings:
And I went down to the demonstration To get my fair share of abuse Singing, we’re gonna vent our frustration If we don’t, we’re going to blow a 50-amp fuse
I am so full of frustration – the ableism and transphobia are so overwhelming right now. Hell YES I feel like I’m gonna blow a 50-amp fuse.
Only there’s nothing like the demonstrations of the 50s and 60s, and I’d be too sick to go to them if they were any.
I want to RIOT but I can’t.
I also realised that over the last few years I’ve been misreading this lyric.:
You can’t always get what you want But if you try sometime You just might find You get what you need
I thought it was putting ‘you’ down for wanting things (‘I want doesn’t get’) and what you ‘need’ might be a slap in the face. The sort of thing a parent tells you to get you to shut up. I was not a fan of that.
But listening to the rest of the lyrics – especially the protest verse… It’s not saying to *stop* asking for what you want. It’s saying you have to keep trying to get what you want. You have to ask over and over, even if it means not getting what you want over and over. Because if you don’t ask, you never get what you need.
Sometimes you don’t get everything you ask for, but you still get something.
We have to get better at standing up and asking. And we have to keep standing up for each other. Because it’s hard to keep speaking up and getting your ‘fair share of abuse’.
It gave me another view of the protests I’ve been too. Especially the last one (against Trump’s visit to the UK). It was depressingly small. A police officer made me censor my sign to be more polite under threat of arrest. A fascist infiltrated our tiny protest and the other protesters had to use their signs to cover his. I ended up getting too tired and had to go home early.
It was not exactly an uplifting experience.
But like Mick says, when it’s important, protests aren’t great, validating experiences. They’re running up against a dominant culture that SUCKS. You’ll get abused for going, and most of the time you won’t get what you want out of it. But you have to keep showing up.
You have to keep showing up and asking for what you want, or you’re never gonna get what you need.
So thanks, Mick. Things are pretty shit right now, and the utter apathy of the vast majority of people about the issues that are absolutely essential to me… it’s gutting. And I can’t afford to keep pushing myself if I’m the only one doing it. But I guess what I get from this is that even when it feels like you’re just volunteering to get beaten up over and over again, continuing to show up matters. Even if it’s just writing on a blog post or a committee that never seems to achieve change.
Sometimes you achieve change. Sometimes you’re an inert object that stops bad change from happening. Sometimes you’re just an irritant that slows the tank of capitalism down as it rolls over you.
You can’t always get what you want. But sometimes, you get just enough of what you need for it to matter.
We get more of what we need when we show up together.
I’m going to continue showing up in the shitty situations where I don’t get what I want and mostly don’t get what I need. But if you show up with me we’ll get what we need a little bit more often.
I got paranoid that I’d run out of onions during the Christmas period.
While I am a Big Fan of onions, there’s really no sensible reason for the number of onions I bought, or the places I put them.
I found onions in on the preserves shelf, next to the preserves shelf, in the saucepan cupboard (inside the saucepans??), and in a crate of beer…?
This was more onions than I could normally use before they went off. So. I needed to cook something that would use a lot of onions.
I decided to make onion soup. I had never made onion soup before.
I asked for recipes and was directed to a lot of recipes for French Onion Soup. I’d never actually had that and was surprised to learn that it requires both bread and cheese. These would make the meal a bit more calorific than I was after, and to be honest, I didn’t really want them. So I took the French Onion recipes as a base line for how you turned onions into something soup-like, and made my own.
I’m calling it British Onion Soup. It’s like French Onion Soup only with less cheese and bread, and it’s goddamn delicious!
British Onion Soup
Makes 4-5 portions.
Takes 2-3 hours.
(I’m not estimating the price on these things anymore, partly because prices change over time, partly because it was different when I very poor and saying my meals were cheap, and partly because I don’t know how to estimate the cost of spices I already have in.)
You Will Need
5 large onions (doesn’t matter what colour)
4 large garlic cloves
3 Vegetarian Beef Oxo Cubes (probably other stock cubes would be fine, but I had these in and I do think the simulated beef flavour was ideal)
Some red wine vinegar (actual red wine would also work, but this is what I had)
1 litre of water
A teaspoon of thyme
Some olive oil
A tablespoon of flour
Chop each onion in half and then slice it horizontally, so you get long thin semi-circles.
Heat a saucepan to a medium-high heat.
Add a generous splash of olive oil to the saucepan and progressively add the onions as you slice them.
Keep an eye on your onions. You want them to brown, so it’s good to keep the heat reasonably high. It’s OK if they burn a little as you can scrape that off the bottom and it’ll add to the flavour, but as with anything you don’t want it to burn so much that you can’t scrape it off.
It’s good to use a hard-edged spatula rather than a spoon for scraping-off-the-bottom reasons.
Chop the garlic as you like. It’s always good to crush garlic, but it’s all gonna get simmered for quite a while, so the flavour will spread anyway.
Add the garlic to the saucepan.
When the onions have been reasonably browned, add the red wine vinegar. I did not measure this. I used maybe a cup, as Americans say? I think if I had actual red wine I would have used a glass of that, but I didn’t want it to be too vinegary.
Boil a litre of water and mix 3 Oxo cubes with the water to create stock. (I did this in three goes as my measuring device didn’t go up to a litre.)
Add the stock, thyme, and pepper.
Add the flour – the recipes I read for French Onion Soup added this directly, but that made for lumps that were then annoying to mix in. I would treat this like cornflour: mix with a little cold water before you add it to the hot mixture. Then it shouldn’t clump.
Simmer until it looks more like soup than onions in brown water, stirring every now and then.
You can taste to see if you want to add anything else, but be aware that the flavour will intensify as it reduces and as you mix in any onion that browns off the bottom of the pot. I added salt early on (even though I almost never do that) and I realised later that it really didn’t need it – there was plenty in the Oxo cubes.
This has a high-ish salt content because of the stock cubes, but the only fat is the oil.
Individuals have given too much away on the Internet for free for the simple love of exchanging knowledge and art, while big companies have been completely unashamed about demanding that absolutely everything pay for itself.
This leaves users/consumers – PEOPLE as individuals – all too eager to get content for free when we can.
When people put free fiction and art and knowledge up online for free – because we love each other and want to share it as widely as possible, for the sheer pleasure of connection and growth – we resist contributing to politely-voiced requests for tips because we have so little money ourselves, and everything from the big companies that dominate knowledge, entertainment, and art, COSTS. Sucks us dry and reaches into every crevice of our lives on the off chance that it can be sold.
We have to rebalance that. Somehow, we just have to.
Obviously, proper regulation would make a HUGE difference. Govenments have to step in and break up big businesses and litigate what can and cannot be sold. Companies have got around the EU demand that permission must be given to sell data by making the dialogs to give permission as obnoxious as possible. That should be prosecuted too. The law exists because people, as a whole, DO NOT WANT their information sold and used without their ability to control it. Just as artists and writers do not want their content scraped from the web.
We need to vote for people who are prepared to radically shake up the system and not make small steps on the false belief that we will only break ground with centrists if the left-leaning-parties ask quietly or lurch ever more rightward.
We need the broad, proud, socialist steps that so many countries – even the US and UK – made after WW2 that caused such huge growth.
But we also can’t count on that.
If I have one wish for the new year it is that everyone, in their personal capacity, to the extent that they’re able, support creators.
If you can afford to (and by God, some of us can) BUY books and art and tip people who write good articles and posts. And if you’re addicted to free fanfic (that’s OK, I am too) seek out those ko-fis and paypal.mes and GoFundMes etc, which those creators whose work you devour certainly have. Give them something as a thank you for what you’ve gained, even if you can’t buy their art.
If you can’t afford to: promote. Spread. Sing about the people whose work you love.
If they have non-free works you can’t pay for, shout about them too. Say, ‘Hey, this person wrote 300,000 words of fic that kept me alive when I was struggling and I ADORE them and I’m willing to bet this other thing they wrote that costs money is astonishing – please check it out!’
Make 2023 the year we love art and artists, writing and writers, crafts and crafters.
Make the radical choice to be AWARE of what makes you happy and share it. Promote it. Be the marketing individuals can’t do for themselves. Sincere, word-of-mouth-celebration of things you love.
I’m willing to be stepping back and really appreciating the things that make you happy will lift you up and make you more aware of your own joys, large and small, too.
Despite the considerable anticipation for fans, this film was released with comparatively little fanfare. It was only in cinemas for a single week, and arrived on Netflix without a splash. I saw that Knives Out was on Netflix UK before I saw that Glass Onion was.
Traditional media seem mystified by the decision, but as a disabled person I am extremely thankful. I can’t count the number of films I would have seen at the cinema if I could over the last few years: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Dune, Elvis, The Green Knight, Black Widow… But it wouldn’t have been safe, even if I did have the energy to leave the house. And by the time those movies arrived to streaming, I’d either had them spoiled or lost interest.
Some may see this as Netflix leaving in-person money on the table, but they have my money instead. And thanks to my excited tweets, toots, and Tumblr posts yesterday, a whole bunch of other folks are excited to watch it too.
Because what I saw made me extremely excited.
This film is so rich and the detail so exquisite that it won’t be possible to talk about it adequately without giving at least some spoilers, so I’m going to give a brief, spoiler-free reaction, and then delve into the details.
Low spoiler reaction: OH MY GOD, THIS IS FUN
The set up has an ecclectic group of people receive elaborate puzzle boxes that invite them to a murder mystery on a private island, hosted by tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton). He invites them to solve his murder.
One recipient, Cassandra Bland (Janelle Monae), seems rather less enamoured of the invitation.
Meanwhile, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the famous detective from the first movie, sits depressed in his bath, dealing poorly with the isolation of the pandemic.
YES, THEY ACTUALLY ACKNOWLEDGE THE PANDEMIC.
This was probably the first thing that made me sit up and really think.
Understandably, when the first lockdowns happened, most media took the position of pretending the pandemic didn’t exist, in order to avoid retraumatising everyone. However, this year, governments around the world lifted restrictions, despite the fact that the pandemic has not gone away. People continue to get infected, and while vaccines have mitigated deaths, people are still dying in large numbers, becoming disabled in even larger numbers, and already-chornically-ill people, like me, have had freedoms we’d had tentatively adopted in 2021 stripped away, because no one else is masking or social distancing.
We have been left trapped in our homes while the rest of the world spreads infections that would kill us or destroy our lives, even with vaccination.
Now the trauma is people pretending that the pandemic does not exist. So to see a piece of media include it: include masking, include selfish people not masking, include people depressed because they are trapped in their houses while others break rules without a care…
It was a blessed relief.
I felt seen.
For about 10 minutes, anyway, before they hand-waved it away so their stars could walk about unmasked. [Addendum: Ancient-string on Tumblr made a post that explained to me that they did not, in fact, hand-wave away the corona virus, and it is, in fact, present throughout the entire movie in a really glorious way. However, to explain that would be a (minor) spoiler, so only follow the link if you don’t want to see if you get it on your own.]
But this was the first inkling of what turned out to be a tour de force critique of all the problems of our times, with a fake-ass billionaire sitting squarely in the middle of them.
I said on Twitter that it’s the Citizen Kane (1941) of our time and I’m sure many people thought I was exaggerating, but I wasn’t. And not just because it’s a targeted critique of the super-rich.
This is an exquisitely well-made popular movie that people will be writing essays about for decades to come. And it’s written specifically for the problems of right now, so although I’m sure 50 years from now people will still watch and enjoy it, they won’t feel it on a visceral level the way we do now. Just as I felt a disconnect watching Citizen Kane as a 90s child.
No one ever feels searingly important movies as powerfully as the audience for which they were intended.
But a guarantee you: however much times change, this is a movie that will always be extremely fun.
I would even say that the wit and pace have been refined since the first movie. I adored Knives Out, but it took a little while to really gel for me. It was stylish and well-acted from the get go, but just not quite the polished gem of engrossing entertainment that I found Glass Onion to be, right from the start.
And, I cannot stress this enough: Daniel Craig and Janelle Monae are having a blast and it is a very great pleasure to watch them at it.
They practically vibrate off the screen with how much they clearly enjoy bouncing off each other as actors, embracing the fabulous characters they’ve been gifted.
And against this background of sheer delight, there’s a cutting analysis of the woes of our fucked up world, woven together to create a climax that digs its knives into not just billionaires, but tech bro culture; the death of truth; white supremacy; modern slavery; political corruption; the devaluation of education and art; the monopolisation and overvaluation of historic art by the rich; and cynical virtue signalling by corporations that have no connection to, or understanding of, the real issues.
Eight years ago I said it was time to watch movies from the 1930s because I could see which way the wind was blowing and it fucking depressed me that our popular culture wasn’t calling it out. BUT HERE IT IS. This is it.
And it’s not that no one has mentioned these issues before. Chernobyl is still a hugely important masterpiece that grimly asks us: “What is the cost of lies?” But for all that serious dramas like that are important, they’ll never have the power to seize the public imagination the way something that is utterly delightful can.
But to say more, I need to take a look under the hood. So if you haven’t seen it yet, go off and do that – as soon as you can! Make it your holiday watch! Get from it all the endorphoines you need in these dark times, and then come back buzzing to see if you got the same things from it that I did.
From now on here be SPOILERS
OK, let’s start with the fact that they made Bond gay.
And The gays are normal
Like, I know Daniel Craig =/= James Bond, but he’s a big hecking symbol. And Blanc is such a dramatic departure from Bond. Obviously all the same character traits are there from the first movie, where he could have been read as queer-coded, but if there was anything definitive, I missed it. By constrast, one of the first things you hear when he’s introduced is a male voice talking through the bathroom door and friends talking about a ‘Philip’ (who is clearly Blanc’s partner) as having told them things.
Then later, when we see the partner, it’s famous heart-throb Hugh-fucking-Grant.
Hugh Grant and Daniel Craig are adorable ageing gays and it’s beautiful.
And domesticity is written over every inch of what little we see of their apartment. From the depression-mess in Blanc’s bathroom, to Blanc playing Among Us, to the fact that when we meet Philip he comes to the door in an apron and holding a sourdough starter. The fact that we see so little of their apartment is also one of the ways they code Blanc as normal in constrast to most of the wealthy characters who have benefited from Bron’s patronage. Blanc is dissatisfied because he cannot solve mysteries (do his job) in lockdown, and we feel how cramped he is. Constrast to Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), the former-model-turned-fashion-designer, who has ‘bent’ lockdown rules to turn her mansion into a vast party, claiming that all the people there are in her ‘pod’.
Blanc and Philip may be played by men who’ve been sex symbols when they were younger, but they are not presented in that way. While both obviously still have charm, they’re presented as comfortable, having aged gracefully, doing the things that we did (or at least were aware of lots of people doing) in Lockdown.
One thing that struck me early in this film was the commentary on beauty standards and ageing, or the perception of ageing. We see this also in Knives Out where close-ups of famously beautiful women seem to be framed to show, rather than hide their wrinkles, and I’m sure there were conscious decisions made by the make-up artists too. In the first movie I detected this as a general theme, but not an especially deep one. It was just a general sense of deception, fakeness, holding onto an image of beauty when what’s inside has become ugly.
The theme is more developed in Glass Onion, and, to my mind, is itself more graceful. While we get similar close-ups of Birdie that show her make-up as not hiding the signs of ageing, normal, comfortable ageing is much more present as a contrast. Most films go to a lot of effort to preserve the ideal of youth while using ageing stars. The stars bring in more money because they have an established carreer, but it’s often a career built while they were young and unwrinkled. Anxiety makes filmmakers try to hide the changes time has written, and even apply anti-aging CGI to make them still appear young.
But this is a cast full of older actors famous for their beauty: Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Kate Hudson, Hugh Grant, and even Ethan Hawke (briefly), and the camera never avoids the signs of age. And it presents those who seem most comfortable with it as normal, friendly, approachable. Those who try to hide it seem, by contrast, distant and uncomfortable.
This includes, by the way, the Mona Lisa. Though Bron proudly tells us that DaVinci developed a technique for painting that left no brushstrokes – a complately smooth finish – the scenes in the presence of the painting repeatedly cut to close-ups that reveal the cracks of age in her painted skin.
Fakes and originality
Having the (ostensibly) real Mona Lisa as the centrepiece in the room where much of the action takes place is not what I would call a subtle way of placing the question of forgery, fakes, and originality front and centre. A question I asked myself all through the movie was whether it would turn out to be the real Mona Lisa or a fake – after all, Bron could have been lying.
The fact that he was not reflects Bron’s own deep insecurity. He wants to be talked of in the same sentence as the Mona Lisa. That tells us that even though he’s a fake whose empire has been built on lies and theft, he still values originality and genuine talent. Even though the world believes he created the social media network Alpha, he always feels in Cassandra Bland’s shadow – because she was the real deal, and he was just hanging onto her coattails. For all that Duke Cody describes himself as sucking on Bron’s golden teat, they are all reliant for their trappings of success on the actual talent of Cassandra Bland.
None of it exists without actual creators with actual originality. Just as AI art that steals from living artists for its training database is fundamentally derivative.
Bron’s initial presentation as a faker tech bro seemed a little shallow to me – enjoyable, but shallow. Down to the use of the non-words that niggle Blanc so: inbreathiate.
But Blanc’s final speech ties it all together so perfectly. The point is that it’s stupid. It’s not even clever fakery. Clever fakery is something Blanc enjoys. Like when he solves the murder mystery written by an expensive professional writer before the game even begins. But this isn’t clever fakery.
Like Elon Musk buying Twitter because he got butthurt and making just the worst, most transparently ridiculous decisions.
Like four years of Donald Trump’s bold-faced lies.
It’s all so stupid. It infuriates clever people, and we don’t know how to respond to it.
The Glass Onion
I admit, when I first read the title I thought it was silly. Not nearly so eye-catching and pithy as Knives Out. I thought they should have just called it Knives Out 2.
I was wrong.
The point, as Blanc concludes in the end, is precisely that it’s fucking stupid. It’s transparently stupid. ‘Layers like an onion’ is too obvious a metaphor to be interesting. An onion is too ordinary an object to elevate without irony. Making an onion out of glass so you can see through it obviates the point of having layers.
But that’s the point. Of course the tech bro billionaire is a big fake. He’s never needed to be anything else.
Of course the obviously evil guy is the killer, but we were all successfully distracted from our instinctive dislike of him.
Even the clumsy moments are the point.
Like Bron using the rainbow dress as a distraction. The way corporations who funnel money to anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups will buy a float at pride to keep their image. Bron urging Birdie to spin in her meaningless rainbow dress feels too much as you watch it, and that’s just because it is. Because Bron is clumsy.
Bron has never had to be anything other than clumsy. He’s a middle-class white man who failed upwards into money off the back of a black woman’s work.
As someone who works in tech, I’m familiar with the term ‘disrupter’. A disrupter is what you want to be. Disrupters are start-ups who can drive a wedge between the established behemoths of the tech world and their customers because they’re not tied down by the weight of established practice and beaucracy. Disrupters move fast because they’re small and they can invert paradigms because they have no legacy. Sometimes disrupters live up to the hype. Sometimes they’re just causing a disruption and no good comes of it.
One thing a disrupter can’t be is a billionaire. That happens when a disrupter transitions into establishment. What most tech people want to do is find some kind of in-between ground between disrupter and slow-moving behemoth. And that’s very hard.
What we’re seeing with Musk now is just the kind of nonsense half-understanding of disrupter theory Bron waffles his way through in Glass Onion. Making changes without thinking first on the assumption that all change is disruptive and will therefore lead to profit. But real ‘disrupters’ (in as much as there are any) use inherited wealth to sit in a garage (usually not the modest affair that sounds like) and carefully develop their disruptive idea for years before bringing it to the market. Musk is just throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks. Because he’s never invented anything. He’s always inherited someone else’s labour.
It’s what Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr) wants to do with the ‘Klean’ energy project, and is horrified to learn Bron has jumped the gun on. He knows that kind of ‘disruption’ actually takes years of careful planning and testing. But that wouldn’t have been disruptive either. It would have been bankrolled by a billionaire, and controlled by him.
It’s all a facade, and a fragile one – just like an onion made of glass. It’s no misake that so much glass is broken in this movie – a glass table breaks when Cody’s killed, a glass pane is shattered when Bron attempts to kill Helen/Cassandra, and of course Helen breaks so many glass objects at the end. Glass is fragile, and you can see right through it. It’s also a reflective surface with the capacity to make us look into our selves or create illusions, so themes of introspection and questions of identity are played with throughout.
The Glass Onion is a fragile illusion that you can see right through. Like a 90s magic eye trick, all you have to do is stop looking at the outline of the illusion itself in order to see right through it to what’s really going on. (Side note: I have never, ever been able to do those, but that’s definitely why one appeared as part of the puzzle box.)
The whole idea of ‘disruption’ is really an illusion invented by privileged people, who were always a part of the establishment, using their wealth to do what few of us are in a position to: really develop their creative ideas into something useful. And then using their existing connections to get those ideas out into the world where they can make money.
That’s not really disruption.
Burn it all down
Real disruption is a riot. Real disruption comes from pain and causes pain. Real disruption aims at the whole system, not merely the current incombent.
The politician is posing as an AOC-style disruptive politician, but AOC’s a working latina funded with small donations from real constituents shaking up the establishment, Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) is a middle-class white woman funded by a billionaire. She is no different than those she claims to oppose – as she confesses when she admits she already approved Bron’s plant.
Real disruption is Helen, the black high-school teacher who wants justice for her sister.
Note the centring of education for ordinary people, which has become so devalued in the US that school teachers are known to bring in their own supplies because there’s no funding for them. (Not that we are so very far behind that in the UK; we live in fear because we know that what American corrupt politicians have, our corrupt politicians want.)
And this is why it’s so important that at the end Benoit Blanc, middle-class white man, steps back, and not only lets the young blank woman, Helen Brand, take centre stage… he also admits that there’s nothing he can do.
Blanc admits that all he can do is present evidence to lawyers and cops, and he knows what he has to present will not move them in the face of money and lies.
The law has failed black people, and women, and young folk, and young black women in particular. When people cannot get justice from the law, it does not mean they are without recourse. What Helen does – breaking the glass statues, and then setting fire to it all – is real disruption, and an obvious call out to the Black Lives Matter protests. As Martin Luther King Jr said: “riot is the language of the unheard”.
I would emphasise that violence in riots is usually instigated by the police, and much of what was called ‘riot’ in the BLM protests were peaceful gatherings that police hounded in an attempt to provoke riot. Nevertheless. The dismissal of any protest as not peaceful is a tool of authoritarianism. To the extent that it’s now illegal in the UK to have a protest that causes ‘disruption‘.
Protest is meant to be disruptive, in the true meaning of the word. It’s meant to be inconvenient and shake you out of your rut so you realise that something big needs to change. It’s meant to be inconvenient.
Yet Extinction Rebellion have been panned in the press for their disruptive protests. Protests that are often presented as more harmful than they really are. Many people I know were appalled by the protest of smearing cake on the Mona Lisa and throwing paint at a Van Gogh. But the paintings were entirely unharmed. These are the most expensive paintings in the world, valued far in excess of the work of any living artist. They were never in any danger.
What the papers didn’t like was the attack on wealth and ‘normality’ and big oil.
So they all wrote headlines than made it sound like the paintings themselves had been damaged. But they hadn’t been.
And even if they had been, for all I value art (and I really truly do). No single piece is worth more than the planet on which it exists.
And this is why it’s important that Helen burns the Mona Lisa in the end.
Because we should be willing to burn the symbols.
Because human lives and our planet are worth more than them.
But for some reason, a person’s death is not as powerful as a threat to a painting.
It’s burning the painting that gets the ‘shitheads’ to see that Bron is just a man. That his lies are only powerful because they stand by him. And that they could just as easily stand by Cassandra instead.
And while we’re talking about the value of a life, something was niggling away at me as I wrote this post. Something about the name Helen Brand.
I realised a few paragraphs back that it isn’t the name Helen Brand that was itching away in the back of my consciousness.
It was Sandra Bland.
I had noticed the obvious name play with ‘Cassandra’ the seer who prophesised the fall of Troy, but was cursed to never be believed. It was cute, but obvious, like so much on the surface of the Glass Onion.
The real symbolism hit me like a punch to the gut. The fact that Cassandra went by ‘Andi’ hints at another name and another meaning, but I couldn’t see anything special about ‘Andi’. Then I got it: another shortening of Cassandra is Sandra. Sandra Brand. A name so close to Sandra Bland that I actually misheard it as that on my first watch.
The real Sandra Bland was arrested in what appears to be a bogus traffic stop. Three days later she was found dead in her cell. Her death was ruled a suicide, but she had no signs of clinical depression and the cause of death is widely disputed. Video of her arrest makes her treatment seem overly violent and the arrest itself questionable.
What is clear is that she did not have to die.
Protests erupted in response, calling for an inquiry. The legal results fell well short of the mark.
To have Helen Brand, put on the guise of Cassandra Brand, whose murder was framed to look like suicide – a symbolic representation of Sandra Bland – to exact justice on someone who thought themselves to be beyond the law is… Fitting? Apt? Words struggle to express it.
That’s the best I can do. And it is that.
Perhaps some will be shocked by the violent destruction at the end of the film, but no one is harmed. Only things.
I am ever in awe of the restraint black people have shown, when they are constantly asked for civility in the face of such blatent and horrible abuses.
Sandra Bland is dead and she didn’t have to be.
Say her name.
Say it before you mention the Mona Lisa.
I’m glad Glass Onion found a way to honour it forever.
I saw a series of gifs the other day from an interview with Kevin Conroy, who died on November 30. Conroy was the voice of Batman, in Batman: The Animated Series, and he was recounting his experience of meeting a fan at a convention.
The fan wept and embraced him, and he did his best to reassure her. But she was aware of how strange it must seem. She said: ‘You don’t understand what you did for me,’ and she explained.
She’d grown up in an impoverished area, and every kid she’d known had died or ended up in jail or on drugs. Her parents had worked hard and couldn’t watch her after school, but when her school mates had been outside, getting into trouble, she had been at home watching Batman. It gave her a safe space in which to learn and grow
That time with a guardian-like figure who seemed to genuinely care saved her life. And she was meeting her saviour.
It is such a wonderful thing to have done for someone else. And yet, as Conroy reflected, we so rarely get a chance to know of the deep impact our art can have on others.
I am so very glad he got to know.
It made me reflect on the value of art, and how easy it is for us to not know how important even small and rough works of art can be to others.
I thought about a piece of GCSE art that was displayed in my school’s assembly room. All GCSE art was displayed there for a week after it had been submitted, and I always LOVED that part of the year. Those works of art made my heart soar in a way I’ve rarely felt in adult life.
I remember one tiny work very clearly. Most GCSE students (myself included) take the opportunity to produce art on giant canvases – or at my school, pieces of wood. We see what ‘the greats’ do in galleries and think that bigger is better; although many of us lack the skill to fill that space. Not this artist, though.
It was small – smaller than A4. A painting with a frame cut from lino. The image continued out, carved into the frame. We’d all had a go at making prints out of lino in Art, so I shouldn’t have been surprising that someone used it, but this was pure genius. To make a print with lino – fine. But actually seeing beauty in the form – making the lino itself a work of art – that was another level. And then they had used that to extend the work of art beyond the painting and into a 3D form – sheer brilliance!
The painting itself also caught my attention. It was a little fantasy landscape. Villages stood, implausibly, on top of great spikes of rock that rose up from a green valley. I knew enough at 13 or 14 to suspect that physics would not support this and it would be a very impractical place for a village, but I didn’t care. I was transfixed. Even now I feel my own inadequacy when it comes to describing this with words.
I wish I could recall the artist’s name or that of the painting, but it’s gone. I wish I could have spoken to that artist, to tell them how looking at their tiny work, in a room full of gigantic pieces, had made me feel. Perhaps they already understood the power of art. Perhaps the lino frame was a metaphor for how art can empower the fantastic to escape its frame and impact the real world.
At the time, all I could do was vainly wish I could talk to them and ask them what it meant. What else they might have imagined in the world they showed me through the lino frame.
They may not even think of that piece at all anymore. Maybe they threw it out. My art teacher threw out one of my paintings before I could rescue it. I was horrified. I still am, to be honest, but I now realise that was common. Part of the reason they let us create those gigantic pieces was because often they were not collected, and those works would be painted over with white emulsion, ready for next year’s students.
It’s something I struggle to get my head around. I never throw out old art or old writing. And yet I never wondered if any of my GCSE artwork had moved anyone the way that small piece moved me. Which is strange, given how I poured myself into it with complete and unabashed confidence. I was a different person at 16.
We often hope to create a Great Work that moves others the way we have been moved ourselves. I think that’s fair to say. I suspect most of us do not think our current project to be that work.
If you did anything creative at school, would you ever imagine that a stranger might still think about your project twenty-five years later? That they still regard it as one of the most powerful pieces of art they’ve ever seen, even though they are beginning to forget the details? That whenever they’re reminded of it, their heart still soars?
I doubt that unknown artist imagines such a thing about their piece. They may have affection for it, but I’m sure they can see childish flaws in it the same way I see the flaws in my own old schoolwork.
The point is that art does not have to be recognised as a Great Work to have value. To make someone’s heart soar. To save someone’s life.
There are books I’ve read and TV I’ve watched that saved my life too. I escaped into Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series as a teenager, and Menolly’s story of success and escaping through her music helped me hang on through my own experience of bullying. Those books are not without flaws, but they made my heart soar and made me believe there was a way out. That life could get better.
When I first got sick with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but had no diagnosis, I ran into trouble at work. My anxiety about the situation was so bad my heart never stopped racing. At that time, my escape was Fringe. I watched it for hours and hours, and when Peter Bishop was taking care of his father, it felt like, finally, someone was taking care of me.
Fringe is a great show, but it’s not without it’s flaws. The first season is uneven, and I found the last season unwatchable. It doesn’t matter. Those middle three seasons still saved me.
I could go on a long time about the invaluable impact on my life of imperfect art, but I fear I’d just be entertaining myself. Instead I want to spend a few minutes thinking about a comic that’s often passed around among creatives.
The comic, in its original iteration, has only two panels. Both show a person looking at two cakes. One cake has tiers and lots of detailed icing work. The other has only two layers and sloppy frosting. The first panel is captioned ‘The Artist’ and the figure in it looks glum because their cake isn’t as good as the other cake. The second panel is captioned ‘The Audience’ and shows an excited person saying Holy shit! Two cakes!’
This comic is well-liked for good reason. It shows that even if your work isn’t perfect, it can still delight someone. But I think (in this version anyway) it misses some of what’s disappointing for an artist when they compare their work to someone more skilled.
Because I think we’re all secretly hoping to produce that Great Work that really moves someone. And one of the two cakes is visibly better than the other, at least by some standards. An audience that just wants something sugary will be pleased, but will they really be moved? Which cake will they remember 25 years later? Which cake could save a life and inspire someone to become a baker themselves? Which cake will make them feel like there is love and beauty in a hopeless world?
I may be stretching this metaphor, but that’s sort of the point.
The ‘Holy shit! two cakes!’ response suggests that the audience has no deep appreciation of, or response to, either cake. So a creator can easily look at the comic and secretly think to themselves, ‘Yes, this is an important message for others. But MY problem is that I want my audience to get more from my work than that. Maybe it is foolish of me, but I do want to move someone and to satisfy more than a momentary craving for sugar.’
What the comic – and discourse generally – fails to celebrate, is that our imperfect works can also save lives. Offer comfort and escapism. Encapsulate beautiful, moving, and original ideas. Make someone’s heart soar.
Kevin Conroy was surprised by his fan’s reaction to what was, for him, just a job. You can never know the impact your work has on others. Or when you created the right thing for someone else to find at just the right time.
It does not have to be your best work. Not because the audience doesn’t care about the content, but because imperfect works can still be of incredible, priceless value.
At the moment, it feels like the work of creators has never been so undervalued.
Even for Great Works that have an estimated value in the millions, that value seems utterly divorced from their ability to move their audience. They are trading cards for the super rich. A Van Gogh painting does have value, but does it have really so very much more value than the work of millions of artists around the world who cannot earn a living?
Let us all remember, Van Gogh’s work was not valued that way in his lifetime. How is it a recognition of greatness to overvalue a work of someone who will never profit from it, and undervalue the work of a living artist who needs to heat their home this winter?
In the last month, creative industries have been under attack like never before. It’s been part of a steady, longterm devaluation of art by those with a vested interest in framing art as ‘unproductive’. (Often the same people who can afford to own Van Goghs.)
But if that were the case, why would so much money have been poured into creating AIs like DALL-E 2, which automate art creation?
I’m not actually against artistic AIs as such. I think some of the works that have been produced that way are haunting and beautiful. I also think there could be skill in selecting which works to train an AI with and the teaching methods employed. In this sense, developers can be artists. Moreover, as a philosopher of mind, I have long been fascinated by AI – what it tells us about our how we think and what it could do for us in the future.
What’s alarming is the reports that both art and writing AIs have been trained using databases for which the owners of the AI did not have any rights. Art not in the public domain, not licenced for commercial use. Art to which the companies that created the AI did not have any right.
Most notably, DeviantArt – one of the oldest and larget art archives on the web – launched an AI art tool called DreamUp. As part of the announcement, they noted that DreamUp was based on Stable Diffusion, which scraped the web for art to create its database, and many have reported that it’s likely to have used artworks on DeviantArt itself. DeviantArt paired their launch with an announcement of a way for users to opt their work out of being used in the future, but the opt out system was impractical for artists and relied on developers voluntarily respecting the marker that the opt out added to the code for works.
Even artists who had been pro AI art before reacted to this with horror.
Then, this week, evidence was found that Open AI, which is a writing AI, may have been trained on Archive of Our Own – the largest and most well-known fanfiction archive. That’s not currently been confirmed, to my knowledge, but the evidence is striking. For example, this prompt:
Steve had to admit that he had some reservations about how the New Century handled the social balance between alphas and omegas.
creates a story in which Steve is roommates with someone called Tony, with pretty detailed reference to omegaverse dynamics. Steve (Captain America) and Tony (Iron Man) form one of the most popular ships in the Marvel fandom. Being roommates (Oh my GOD they were roommates!) is an extremely well-loved fanfic scenario for setting up romance. And if you don’t know what omegaverse is, don’t click that link if unless you’re prepared for it to awaken something in you. Suffice it to say it’s a set of very specific, usually erotic, highly kinky tropes that arose from fandom and is unlikely to be referenced outside of recent erotic romance stories.
This is especially concerning as fanfic writers produce their work entirely for free. As fanfic usually uses copyrighted characters, its legal defence lies in the fact that the writers do not seek to profit from their work in any way. Archive of Our Own has no adverts and is a charity. But a for-profit AI does not and should not have the same protections. Stealing from work offered for free is immoral, but if the AI produces works that involve copyrighted characters, that seems open to legal challenge by intellectual property (IP) owners. Especially as it’s clear that the works produced are likely to involve situations that the IP owners would not approve for their characters.
There’s a risk that large, litigeous companies (such as Disney), that have been turning a blind eye to fanfiction (because no one profits from it) target fanfic writers again if AI writers use fanfic to endanger their IP. While the last 15 years have seen a swing towards fanfiction being generally accepted, many still remember attempts by the likes of Anne Rice and Lucasfilm to suppress fanfiction – especially erotic fanfiction.
And beyond these specific troubling developments, there’s the more general concern that the recognised value of art is disappearing as AI seeks to replace it. AI art is already being used in posters and on book covers by companies and individuals who do not want to pay artists. Many now worry: could the future see AI making all our art and telling all our stories?
My thoughts on this: in the near future? No. Not all of it. The stories in particular are not good enough. But some of the art is very good. And AI could easily replace a lot of formulaic writing, such as clickbait articles.
In the abstract, this shouldn’t have to be a bad thing. Automation should make all our lives better. If AI could take over the kind of work that’s often uninteresting and uninspiring and generate profit more easily, in a just world, that extra profit would go back into society to enable more funding for arts and humanities. Artists and writers who have made a living churning out low-value work to uninspiring briefs could be freed up to make the art and novels that would really fill our lives with purpose and meaning.
But this is not a just world. We have seen that automation has not been used to make the lives of the people whose labour it has replaced better. Instead, the people at the top of the pile, who are furthest away from production (let alone creativity) earn ever more, and the people are the bottom of the pile can no longer earn a living wage – let alone pursue a career in something they enjoy.
Don’t despair yet, though. Just as artists have apparently used big company’s like Disney to take down T-shirt bots that steal their designs by tricking them into stealing Disney’s IP, it may be that Open AI scraping from AO3 will be its undoing. The Organization for Transformative Works (of which AO3 is just one project) also has its own legal team, which has been defending fanworks from the outset. They have been alerted to the matter.
Similarly, there’s already a lawsuit against Github’s Copilot for stealing code that was shared for free and using it for profit. Which is to say: AIs that are using databases they have no right to are probably going to land themselves in hot water, and there is reason to hope that some kind of sensible regulation will result.
Moreover… I don’t know. I’m not especially interested in reading stories written by a robot. Unless that robot has reached true artificial intelligence, and has ideas of its own, in which case, it’s not a robot anymore. But that is a very long way off. Part of what I get out of reading is a sense of connection and recognition from other human beings.
Stephen King has called writing a kind of telepathy. It’s one thought transmitted from one person to another. I cry at some books not simply because I imagine something painful, but because reading those books makes me feel seen. I see a pain I recognise on the page and I know that somewhere out there is another person who understood.
Reading lets me know I’m not alone. It can’t do that if it wasn’t created by a person. If it was made instead by something that knows nothing at all in itself.
And I think the same is true of art. For artistic work that isn’t meant to make you feel anything particularly profound or interesting… yes. AI might take over that. The artistic equivalent of clickbait. It’s not great. Because society is injust, it will hurt the livelihoods of artists. But it won’t end art.
You might get a few gallery displays out of AI art, but it will be a novelty. A curiosity. I very much doubt any of us will still be thinking of a work created by AI twenty-five years later.
A mindless robot isn’t going to save many lives. It’s not going to make people feel less alone. It’s never going to make anyone wonder what it was thinking when it made the piece (not if it is mindless, and the audience knows enough about AI to know that this kind of AI is extremely simplistic and could not possibly think).
Your works matter. Even your student works and your fanfics and the little things you did and only shared on social media and got a handful of likes. Because art can stay with the viewer for decades after, even if they never spoke to the artist.
Art – creativity – has a value that is dismissed because it is hard to squeeze capital from. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s so valuable it can make someone weep in a stranger’s arms. It can make you stay up all night reading. Fill hours of anxiety with love. Provide hope that humanity can be better than it often is. It helps us hang on when we feel like there’s nothing else to live for, and it helps us dream of everything wonderful that life could be.
Art can do all that, without ever being perfect.
We should pay creatives more, because their work is already so very valuable, to all of us.
Speaking of which, if you got something out of these thoughts, you can always buy me a ko-fi…
I’ve been intrigued by two recent trends. One is an increase in stories written in the second person. The other is the discussion of whether it’s OK to write in the first person. Both of these surprised me, and I thought it would be useful to explore what these devices do for readers, and how to use them.
When I was an editor I read an awful lot of novels in an awful lot of styles. There is wondrous variety in fiction. In general, I take the position that all rules can be bent or broken, but to do so well, you need to understand the reason for the rule in the first place.
Third-person limited is a generally accepted norm for fiction writing. Over the past three decades, first-person perspective has become more accepted. Second-person perspective is relatively rare. None of these is inherently good or bad as a writing style, but it’s worth thinking about why you choose the perspective you do.
Here’s my perspective on the first, second, and third person.
Back to basics
Stories are acounts of events, delivered by one person to an audience of one or more people. Sometimes the audience is the same person as the narrator, but usually there’s at least one other person you’re talking to. Nowadays, a lot of our stories are written down, or performed by actors in TV or film. There are a lot of different ways to deliver a story. But the oldest kind of story is oral.
One person telling a story to another, with their voice*.
Our written traditions of storytelling still owe a lot to oral traditions. There are differences. For example, oral story telling relies on tropes – like repetition, meter, and verse structure – to help the person telling the story remember it. That’s why Shakespeare is written in iambic pentameter – not because he’s trying to be poncy, but because before the printing press it was very laborious to write down stories to deseminate them, so most stories were written in verse. Shakespeare was following that tradition. Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) andThe Blazing World (1666) are some of the earliest examples of long-form prose fiction. The printing press had spread across Europe about a century earlier (the first European printing press being invented in 1440), causing an explosion of literary innovation, but it still took a while before people started the think that long-form stories didn’t have to be written in verse.
Those restrictions of form really only existed to help people memorise very long stories that could be passed from storyteller to storyteller across distance and time. Even older forms of storytelling didn’t require it. Things like recounting an event that happened to you (“I says to him, I says…”), things that happened in the past (“You know that old standing stone, out in the field, well, that’s there because…”), spooky stories told round the campfire, (“There was this couple driving down a dark country road, and they heard this news report on the radio…”). So many different, every day kinds of story.
When I choose whether to write in the first or third person, I think about it in terms of those ancient, oral forms of storytelling. And I think that, consciously or unconsciously, that’s how most readers understand those forms, too.
When you choose to tell a story in the first person, you tell the story as though it happened to you, the narrator. Whether the narrator is presented as the same person as the author depends on the external framing of the story.
If you frame your story as an autobiography, you present the story as something that literally happened to you. The narrator and the author are presented as the same person (even though sometimes that might not be entirely true – you may have hired a ghost writer). Sometimes, fiction writers also frame the narrator as the author, even though the story is clearly not autobiographical. For example, Lemony Snicket is both the narrator and a character in A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Lemony is presented to readers (framed) as the author. But Lemony Snicket is clearly not a real person and the unfortunate events clearly didn’t actually happen. Daniel Handler made up both Lemony and the events.
Comedians also sometimes frame stories as autobiographical when they’re not, because the joke seems funnier if it happened to them.
But usually, in the realm of fiction, if you choose to tell a story in the first person, you frame it so that it’s clearly about someone else. The narrator and the author are not the same person. This is a bit of a departure from the oral tradition. While an oral storyteller might make themselves the same as the narrator in telling a story, if it’s clearly fiction, they’ll do so at a bit of a remove. “I’m telling this to you as my grandmother told it to me, and her grandmother told it to her. When my great-great-great-great grandmother was a very small girl, as you are now…” Or they do it with a bit of a wink or a nod, in the manner of the comedian, indicating that this event may not be quite as true as it’s presented as being.
This is because, when you present something in the first person, you automatically imply to your readers that it’s closer to the truth, to reality. This can be a great way to make a story more compelling and more immediate. The reader feels closer to the action because the narrator presents themselves as closer to the action. To the turth. To the idea that this really happened.
There used to be more hesitency about telling stories in the first person. A thought that if one did so, one had to get the framing right. To tell a story in the first person in which the narrator died was a big no-no, unless you managed to frame it in such a way that the character didn’t have to write “And then I died.” Because how could they have written it if they died?
This is because the reader is still tacitly imagining another human being physically telling them a story. A thing they can’t do if they’re dead.
Stories that found a way to do this were lauded as especially clever. The first story we read for my English Literature A-level was a first-person story in which the narrator died. It was told as a series of diary entries by a scientist who was experimenting on animals to make them super-intelligent. At the end, the entries abruptly cut off. “What happened?” our teacher asked us. “The animals killed him,” I answered. Because the storyteller had woven in enough information, through the diary entries, for us to work the ending out. A neat trick, if you can pull it off.
In the decades since then (bah, I’m getting old), both writers and readers have loosened up a bit.
I think that’s partly to do with the huge success of authors like Robin Hobb, who has masterfully written nine books in the first person perspective of Fitzchivalry Fareseer. As well as several others in the first person from the perspective of other people. And even in Hobb’s works, the tightness of the framing has loosened. In the original Farseer trilogy, Hobb is very specific in her framing, using Fitz’s obsessive writing about his own life as a device, and his abuse of a specific drug to explain the depth of detail in his memory. By the final trilogy, although Fitz’s continued writing about his own life remains a motif – a habit he passes on to his daughter, that we might have her perspective too – it isn’t entirely clear how we, as readers, have access to all that is written. Without giving too much away… I have questions.
Perhaps I attribute too much to Hobb, as I value her work so specifically, but it seems to me that as writers like her showed it was possible to write the first person well. As a result, many more writers have adopted the habit without any attempt to provide a frame that explains it. We have moved a little further away from the camp fire and the oral tradition.
The third person
The third person has long been more common when writing fiction. This is for obvious reasons. Many tales in the oral tradition were about myths and legends – larger than life characters and events that could not possibly have been witnessed by the storyteller themselves.
It also offers the valuable opportunity to present events that could not all have been seen by the same person. Or multiple perspectives on the same event.
A skilled writer, like Hobb, can introduce a second character who also writes from the first person. But if everyone calls themselves ‘I’, it can leave the reader wondering who is who. Again, I think that without some framing that explains it (as when Bee takes up her father’s habit of extensive journaling) the reader is still tacitly imagining a single person telling them the story – the narrator – as they would have been in the oral tradition. A single story teller can easily tell the story of many different people, but only if they don’t claim that each of those people was themself.
So, most stories are still written in the third person.
Intriguingly, we have seen a shift away from the oral tradition here, too. It did not used to be a very great issue to write in the third-person omniscient. That is to say: to write in the third person, but from whoever’s perspective you like, whenever you need to.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is written in the third person omniscient, along with many other great works from the twentieth century. It can be a great tool for irony to say with full confidence what one character thinks is going on, and then immediately undermine it by revealing another character knows the complete opposite is happening.
Yet most writers today will tell you that third-person omniscient is terrible, lazy writing, that’s confusing for readers – even if half an hour ago they were praising a work you know was written in third-person omniscient.
What’s going on?
Changing fashion, for the most part. But it’s not entirely without reason. Writing is not and should not be treated as a monolith. That wondrous variation I mentioned before still exists. But there are trends. Some of them are caused by editors and agents who want concrete, categorisable things they know how to market. Some are less artificial. What I see is a general trend, across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, towards realism and naturalism in most forms of media, and a drawing closer to immediacy and the emotions of characters.
I don’t mean that our stories have become less fantastical. Quite the reverse, as CGI has improved, our ability to present the unrealas though it were real has increased, and endless CGI superhero movies have been the result.
Rather, with the advent of film, and especially television, our ability to present stories has become increasingly immersive. The proscenium arch of the theatre remains a significant metaphor in how we describe and think of storytelling. It’s still a big deal that Deadpool frequently breaks ‘the fourth wall’. Nevertheless, I watch most film and TV on my laptop. I take TV with me from room to room. All the stories of the world live inside my phone, which I can hold a few inches from my face, in bed.
You can see in early film that actors perform as though they’re still on stage, and how that shifts across the twentieth century as directors, cinematographers, actors, and set designers all start figuring out new ways to interact with the audience, bringing not only the actions, but the emotions, closer. Dialog can actually be whispered, not merely stage whispered. In 2011 we get Lie to Me, a whole show premised on the idea that you can read the truth in microexpressions – imagine trying to perform Lie to Me on a stage. It wouldn’t work.
So, we’re telling different stories now, as well as telling them in different ways.
When people praise Game of Thrones for its realism in a fantasy setting (I know, we’re in a new phase of critique for GoT now, but it was a big deal at the time) it was a very shallow response to point to the existence of dragons. We were talking about how up-close-and-personal we got with the emotions, as well as the in-depth consideration of politics and the horror of war.
The omniscient narrator is often felt to be slightly more detached. If we use omniscient narration for humour and irony, that’s a form of detachment, too. The deeper I am into the emotions of one character, the more jarring it is to switch to the perspective of another without warning. That’s why so many people advise to stick to third-person limited perspective. Not because third-person omniscient is inherently wrong.
And the more I see advice become prescriptive about this, the more I want to resist. People are starting to say that if you’re going to change perspectively in third-person limited, you have to do that in separate chapters. That you have to have a specific number of point-of-view (POV) characters and distinguish your POV characters from other types of characters.
If you want to do that, that’s fine. It does work for George R R Martin. But the idea that you must do this is utter nonsense. Stephen King hops minds as he pleases, with no more than a scene break, and it works exceedingly well.
I’ve also seen it argued that how you approach the thrid person should be determined by the genre you write in. I resist that too. Third person omnipotent may work particularly well for irony, but that doesn’t mean it should only be used for humour. I know that Hitchhiker’s Guide is a funny book, but it’s also science fiction, and I’ve cried at parts of that series. When I read it, it does pull on my feels. I very much do inhabit the character of Arthur Dent. I read the story, it just so happens that it’s often very funny too.
Play with genre. Play with style. Mix them up. Rigid rules stifle creativity, and honestly they just make me sad. It is worth understanding why people tend to do one thing over another, but that absolutely does not mean that only that one thing will work.
“But Ro, why are you talking about the second person last? Why wasn’t this second?”
Yeah, well, I’m gonna be up front and say that I do not like this one. And I think it is because I tacitly think of storytelling in terms of that oral tradition.
A person telling a story in the first person is presenting it as their story.
A person telling a story in the third person is telling a story about something that happened to other people.
A person telling a story in the second person is an accusation.
“You went to the standing stones, performed the ritual, and released the Ancient One, didn’t you?”
No, I fucking did not. Wow.
And yet, very recently – just the past few years – I’ve seen people telling stories in the second person more and more. It seriously confused me.
I first noticed it in fanfiction. Specifically, Detroit: Become Human (DBH) fanfiction. And that made me wonder if it’s because of the first-person persective of the game. You play three different characters (androids) and decide what to do in various situations. Were people in the fandom more likely to think of the player as a character, taking actions, because there was one person effectively puppeteering three people? And did that make them more likely to literally insert themselves, the reader, as a character, instead of doing the old-fashioned thing of writing a self-insert original character?
But I’ve seen it pop up elsewhere, too. More self-published stories are being written in the second person. I’m not really seeing it in tranditional publishing yet, but I wonder if it may spread.
Is my visceral negative reaction to second-person storytelling how some people feel about first-person storytelling?
Another author recently mentioned that when he reads a story in the first person, he feels like he’s being told the story is about him. This was a real eye-opener for me, as it doesn’t fit into my paradigm of tacitly thinking of stories in the oral tradition, as of a narrator telling a story to you. For him, a story in the first person behaves exactly as a story in the second person does for me.
This is not the criticism of first-person storytelling that I’m used to hearing. Not the objection I was raised with and slowly learnt to unpick as I saw just how well and how powerful first-person storytelling can be.
But perhaps, as writers use framing less and less to explain how a story came to be told in the first person, younger readers approach stories without thinking about how they relate to a story’s narrator. Maybe the shift away from explicit framing of first-person stories could also explain why the question of whether first person stories are OK is coming up again, when it seemed to me that we’d adjusted to simply considering them another storytelling device.
I’ve also noticed an increase in interactive storytelling over the past few years. Some authors have successfully built a platform on Twitter through telling stories where readers decide the next story via Twitter poll. In fanfic, and platforms like DeviantArt, I’ve also increasingly seen Choose Your Own-style stories, where an author posts a chapter, and asks commenters to choose from a list of options about what will happen next.
Computer role-playing games (like DBH and Dragon Age) also increasingly allow players to create very different stories and outcomes in the game based on the choices they make, not simply whether they succeed or fail in combat.
Perhaps the rise in second-person storytelling is linked to a rise in interactive storytelling, in which readers do see themselves more as part of the story.
Perhaps the paradigm is shifting, and there is no longer just one storyteller anymore.
For myself, I still cannot bring myself to read stories in the second person. But that doesn’t mean people are wrong to tell stories that way.
I would encourage writers to think – when they choose first, second, or third person perspective – about why they want to write that way. The answer can be, “It just feels right to me and I like it,” – any story should first and foremost satisfy you the writer. But if you want other people to read your story, it does help to think about how they are likely to read it.
At the moment, most people are most likely to get on with a story told in the third-person limited. You’re more likely to get pushback on a first-person story if there’s no framing that explains why it’s told in the first person, but that’s still a lot rarer than it used to be. In general, second person stories are going to be a very hard sell. A lot of people are going to read that as being told that they themselves feel a certain way when they don’t.
That doesn’t mean don’t write it, it just means… think about your audience.
*Of course, there have also always been other ways to tell stories so as to be accessible to people who can’t hear or speak. Oral traditions predate writing, but one must assume that people have always been telling each other things with their hands and other kinds of body language. I focus on oral tradition as the most influential, and as something we have a record of.
I wrote this last Sunday, to try to express my feelings at the news that protestors had removed the statue of the slave trader, Edward Colston, and dumped it in the river.
The action was non-violent (no people were hurt), powerful, and important. Yet so, so many white people were flooding social media to condemn it. Their ignorance and thoughtlessness churned my stomach.
I, too, was raised in a society where peaceful protest was put on a high pedestal, and defined away so that the only protesting actions that were deemed acceptable were those that inconvenienced no one at all.
Protests must be approved by police first.
Strikes must be scheduled to ensure the least possible disruption to service.
I only started to learn a little about civil disobedience when I studied philosophy at A Level. 16 years old and no one had mentioned it to me before.
Oh, I had heard of Martin Luther King. I knew he gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, and that he was killed. I knew about Rosa Parks solely because the character Odetta, in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three, was a black woman who had been involved in the protests, and she reflected on Rosa’s simple action of not moving from the ‘white’ section of the bus.
But I didn’t know what civil disobedience is or why it is important. That it is the action of breaking laws because those laws are unjust, as a form of protest. I didn’t understand until I took a A Level that most colleges didn’t offer, because it isn’t thought relevant to career development.
And even then, I don’t think I got it. How could I? I had been insulated from black history and the history of British imperialism my entire life. It had not featured at all in any history class. Oh, I learnt that the Spanish did terrible things to the Incas and the Mayans, but the British…?
Since then I’ve done work to try to understand. I know that there is a lot more work left to do.
For example: I did not know the history of Edward Colston, until those protestors tore down his statue.
I did not know that campaigners had petitioned to have the statue removed and been refused.
I didn’t know that the plaque on the statue described him as ‘virtuous and wise’.
I didn’t know that the new wording was blocked by the Society of Merchant Venturers and revised wording that minimised his flaws has continued to be debated while black people in the city had to walk past the statue praising him.
Yet white people decry the destruction of this statue because the statue is supposed to be teaching us about history?
No one learnt anything from this statue but lies. And peaceful, law-abiding efforts to remove the statue to a museum, or even change the plaque to put the statue in the context of history, failed.
An MP – a Minister of Parliament – had the gall to compare this statue to the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum. (A historical site he also wrong thought to be in Germany, rather than Poland.)
Auschwitz is a museum that memorialises those murdered by the Nazis and presents the history of the terrible crimes conducted there for the purpose of education. The statue of Edward Colston celebrated him as virtuous. Virtuous! A man who transported 84,000 people into slavery and killed 19,000 of those.
Again: lawful attempts to place this statue in the context of Edward Colston’s violent history had failed. The statue was purely there to celebrate him and rewrite history to mention only the his philanthropic contributions. Contributions that were paid for with the blood of black people.
Black people have been unheard for a long, long time.
I submitted my poem to a market that publishes poems in response to news stories. It was not accepted, and to be honest, I expected that. I hope they choose poems by black people, whose voices deserve to be heard above mine.
This is a poem for a specific moment in time, however. And it seems worth saying to share a message that other white people seem to be struggling to hear: something is very wrong in our society. And it affects black people disproportionately.
The celebration of slavers and other rich white men who perpetrated genocidal atrocities continues in our towns and cities is a part of what’s wrong.
We can stop that. We can say: we do not celebrate these men and what they did. We can say: these are not the aspects of our history that we want people to venerate when they come to our towns and cities.
We can remove the goddamn statues.
You can take action today.
You can write to your MP and ask for the removal of statues that venerate slavers. The writetothem.org website makes it easy to find out who your MP is and send them an email.
It’s important that we educate ourselves and each other, but it’s even more important that we take concrete action to create change where we can. As a disabled person, I can’t get out and protest, but I can donate, I can write to my MP, I can sign petitions, and I can ask for change in the institutions I work for and with.
All of us can take some kind of action to build a better society. And we should.
So, my story, ‘The Village of the Cats’, is not getting published after all 😦
I had to withdraw the story because the changes the publishers wanted would have made it a very different story – one that didn’t reflect my beliefs or the different kind of apocalypse I was trying to envisage in that story. It’s sad. Going to a book launch at World Con as one of the contributors would have been really cool.
I’m still going to World Con, though, and I’m still going to have fun.
I’ve never been to a World Con before, so I don’t know what to expect. I have no fixed plans beyond the fact that I will be cosplaying for at least part of it.
Not Daenerys this year. Well, I might bring the old wig and season 6 outfit just in case, but I wanted to do something different. I’m in the process of pulling together an Empress Celene cosplay – in her masquerade garb from the Winter Palace ball in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
This means pulling together two masks and a blue ballgown. I have even bought a hoop crinoline. I’ve spent a remarkable amount of time on it for something that’s still going to look pretty scrappy and might not make it to Ireland intact.
Hub Magazine was founded by Lee in 2007. It was an innovative and exciting publication that accepted three of my stories, five reviews, and three essays.
I owe a debt to Lee Harris, Alasdair Stuart, Ellen Allen, and Phil Lunt – all of whom worked on Hub and at various points had a hand in bringing my work to a wider audience.
So… you can now read my work again! Just access the directory and select a relevant issue – I’ve listed my works and the issues they were published in below.
Some of it I might write differently now. I’ve been writing and editing professionally for years and I’d hope my style has developed over that time. But I’m still very proud of my work published by Hub. Especially the stories and the essays.
I know a lot of people who couldn’t attend Nine Worlds last year wanted to hear my thoughts on The Dark Tower. Due to ill health, I haven’t been able to upload a web version like I’d promised, but you can read early versions of my thoughts on the The Dark Tower and the modernists in Hub 137, along with my thoughts on The Dark Tower and epics (Homer, Virgil, and Tolkien) in issue 141.
‘The Twelfth Day’, in Hub, Issue 135
‘The Harvest of the Machines’ – in Hub, Issue 72
‘Bereavement’ – in Hub, Issue 40
‘Tron: Legacy’ – in Hub, Issue 143
‘The Incredible Hulk Season Three DVD Box Set’ – in Hub, Issue 89
‘The Incredible Hulk Season Two DVD Box Set’ – in Hub, Issue 80
‘The Incredible Hulk Season One DVD Box Set’ – in Hub, Issue 73
‘Coming to Terms with the End of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Part II – Epic: Homer, Virgil, and Tolkien’ – in Hub, Issue 141
‘Coming to Terms with the End of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Part I – King and the Modernists’ – in Hub, Issue 137
‘On Being Scully, and SyFy’s new series, Haven‘ – in Hub, Issue 126
My story, ‘The Village of the Cats’, has been accepted for publication in Alternative Apocalypses, an anthology to be published by B Cubed Press. It’s going to be launched at World Con!
I’m really excited! It’s been a long time since I had anything new in print, and I’ll admit, it was getting me down. The combination of PhD + illness meant that the momentum I started building around 2008-12 just kind of… stopped. In all aspects of my writing, really. But earlier this year I decided to get serious about my submissions again. I bit the bullet and signed up to Duotrope and I sent all the stories I still believe in out on submission, and I kept sending them out when they came back.
Duotrope, for those unfamilliar, is a service that offers listings and a sophisticated search engine to writers that helps them find markets relevant to the genre and pay level they want to publish at. You can also use it to track your submissions and their listings contain detailed information about response rates, acceptance rates, and sometimes interviews with the publishers about what they’re looking for. The catch is that you have to pay a nominal monthly fee.
I’m a firm believer in Yog’s Law: that money flows towards the author. I never wanted to pay that fee. Especially when a professional pay rate is only $0.08 per word, and very few markets pay that rate. The most I have ever received for my work is still the £25 Amazon voucher I got for the first story I ever sold: a piece of flash fiction that was recorded as a podcast by Radio Ryedale. Flash fiction is usually paid by flat fee rather than by word, and £25 is very good compensation compared to the $10 that I most often see offered in the market. You can see why, in this market, it’s important that the writer – the person who produces the content that makes the publication possible – shouldn’t have to spend any money before they are accepted.
I’ve been a loyal user of Ralan.com for years. Like, since the 1990s. If you click through that link, you’ll see that the website has not changed since the 1990s, and yet it has won multiple awards. That’s for a very good reason. Ralan is always up to date, and offers comprehensive listings for pro, semi-pro, pay, token, anthologies, books, flash fiction, and contests. It covers science fiction, fantasy, horror, and humour markets. It says which markets are open, what genres they accept, what they pay, what word lengths they accept, how quickly you’re likely to get a response, and how you can submit. It’s a free service and all in all it’s pretty good.
But I hadn’t had any success for a few years, and something had to change. Some of my best stories are for very niche audiences and I needed to widen my scope. So I gave Duotrope a go. There is a free trial – so it’s worth checking out just to see the extent of services on offer.
I wouldn’t have found this market without Duotrope. It also gave me the very useful perspective that most of the markets I had been submitting to had a 99% rejection rate, so the fact that I was even getting positive and personal rejections was a good sign.
According to B Cubed Press’s Facebook group, they had over 900 submissions for the anthology, which means they only accepted 3%. My story was in that 3%.
And I think it’s a really good fit. Long time readers will know that I’m a fan of apocalyptic fiction, but I tend to get frustrated with a lot of the popular tropes. I don’t think the majority of people will default to violent, tribe-based behaviour if the trappings of modern civilisation were to be destroyed. The implications for human nature in such tropes are very negative, philosophically troubling, and frankly out-dated. Humans are fundamentally co-operative, social creatures. And I don’t think enough attention is given to the ‘softer’ skills that would be needed in a post-apocalypse environment, especially farming and textile creation. The ‘Village of the Cats’ very much reflects this perspective, andit is an Alternative Apocalypse. I’m so glad it’s found a home in an anthology that’s all about offering a fresh take on one of my favourite genres.
And I’m currently planning to be at World Con, so I’ll get to be there for the launch!
Stay tuned for more details as we move towards publication.