Sunday, September 28, 2014

Eugie Foster, 1971-2014

Nebula award winning-author Eugie Foster died on Saturday.

She was forty-two.

I knew her from my time reviewing for Tangent Online and The Fix, where she worked as an editor.

Eugie was one of the very first people I became acquainted with in the world of science fiction fandom, and the first with whom I actually worked in it.

She was always kind, considerate, patient and supportive.

The world is a colder place for her no longer being among us.

However, her work does remain with us. If you are not familiar with it, I urge you to check it out for yourself.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Telling Lies About Tolstoy's War and Peace: The Short Version

My recent post on Tolstoy's War and Peace has been getting a lot of hits lately, and so I thought it worthwhile to write up a quick summary of my thoughts on the book.

Exactly what I had to say about the book is the following.

The length of the book; its crowding with a huge cast of at times confusingly named characters; its loose, even plotless structure; and its frequent digressions into lecturing about ideas which are in some cases abstruse, in others deeply against the grain of twenty-first century attitudes; make it a challenging read.

It must also be admitted that the book has its limits of perspective. Tolstoy is in the main focused on Russian aristocrats here, and takes little interest in the strata below them, or in the modern, urban side of life. He also subordinates the variety, balance and color of his tale to his expounding of certain ideas about life and history. Unsurprisingly the story often seem sanitized, poorly paced and even dull in places--the contrast with his contemporary Dostoyevsky, for example, quite marked--while his relation of his ideas gets repetitious.

Still, along with its challenges and its arguable defects, it has very real strengths. Tolstoy's eye for detail, and the vividness this often gives his characterizations and scenes, often elevates the interest of his material beyond what might be expected from its limitations. As one might hope from he title, he is particularly good at writing about war (and as it turns out, especially the fog of war), and while his presentation of his ideas is one-sided (and frequently self-contradicting) the ideas themselves have enough interest to engage a reader ordinarily disinclined to consider such views.

The result is a book that may not necessarily live up to the claims made for it as the greatest novel ever written, but which remains deservedly a classic, and which I found worth my while.

Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Box Office in Summer 2014, and The Movies of Summer 2015

A summer exceptionally short on megahits came to an end this Labor Day weekend.1

This season, only one movie crossed the quarter-billion dollar mark. By contrast, three or more has been the norm since about the turn of this century, with a few exceptional summers scoring as many as five (2007, 2009, 2010), and last summer seeing four.

The biggest hit was Guardians of the Galaxy, just shy of $300 million at the time of writing. By contrast, 2013 had Iron Man 3 with $409 million, and Despicable Me 2 with just a little less (some $391 million). The preceding year was even more impressive, with Avengers taking in $623 million, and The Dark Knight Rises pulling in another $448 million.

Overall, the earnings during the summer season were down almost 15 percent from the preceding year.

Of course, that is not really grounds for panic. The slow ticket sales do reflect a number of exceptional factors, like the fact that last summer's earnings had set a new record, and so skew the perception of the average; and that the bumping of a number of "tentpoles" (like Jupiter Jones) over to later release dates, and the fewness of big, family-oriented, animated films (no Pixar, etc.), meant fewer of the kinds of movies most likely to be big money-makers.

Still, the long-term picture looks worse when one thinks in terms of tickets sold rather than monetary grosses, as a quick glance at the data on BoxOfficeMojo shows.2 The fact that the top films in particular were such a letdown can be taken for a reminder of the limits of the blockbuster, "event movie" strategy--its high-risk nature, and the reality that one can only have so many successful releases of the type in any given period. The distribution of success and failure during the season also implies that not only critics, but audiences too, are weary of the kind of fare being served up. The films that did perform relatively well were the fresher and riskier releases (Maleficent, Edge of Tomorrow, Lucy, Guardians of the Galaxy), rather than the remakes and sequels of May and June that seemed such good bets (Spiderman 2, Transformers 4).

Will that fact make Hollywood a bit more adventurous in its future offerings? Perhaps, perhaps not (more likely not, given how few seem to be saying this), but 2015, at least, will come along too early to reflect any such change, and that year at least seems to be much in line with this one, with movies like Avengers 2, Mad Max 4, Jurassic Park 4, Terminator 5. A reboot of the Fantastic Four, remakes of Poltergeist and Point Break. Movie versions of Entourage, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Assassin's Creed. The Despicable Me spin-off Minions, and a sequel to Ted. More Insidious and Sinister, and more Melissa McCarthy in Spy. Another Marvel superhero franchise in Ant-Man . . .

Reviewing the list I still wondered if maybe there would nonetheless be material for another post like the one I wrote in 2013 about this summer's films ("And Now For Something Slightly Different (Maybe)"), and simply didn't see it, so I'll content myself with making guesses about how this crop will do.

As it seems to me, with even a steep drop from the earnings of the previous film, Avengers alone should be adequate to ensure one mega-hit for the summer of 2015. And there's no reason to think Marvel's luck is running out just yet, so Fantastic Four and Ant-Man have a shot at being decent performers.

Despite the flopping of Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West (yet another reminder that Westerns don't do well in summer, as if one were needed), I expect that there's enough goodwill left toward Ted to make Ted 2 a success--just as Minions will probably be a success.3 By contrast, the very hard push made for Melissa McCarthy seems to be running out of steam if Tammy's anything to go by, and Spy seems likely to suffer accordingly.

It has been a long time since either Jurassic Park or Terminator were on the big-screen, and when they did put in their final appearances, those franchises were well along a path of diminishing returns (though I personally liked the lean Jurassic Park III better than the lumbering The Lost World). That will work against them, and so will the ex-California governor's awful track record at the box office this past couple of years.

The idea of a new Mad Max film at least seems more relevant, but this franchise has been off the screen longer (thirty years!), was closely identified with a star no longer attached to it (and whose star is far from what it once was), and was never a big money-maker in the States. (Mad Max 3 made $38 million in '85, which even after inflation still isn't blockbuster money.) I'm not sure there are grounds for expecting this to change now.

I don't have much idea as to whether Man From U.N.C.L.E. will be another Mission: Impossible-like blockbuster--or an I Spy. Equally, Assassin's Creed may be the breakthrough Hollywood's been waiting for with video game-based movies--or it may be another Prince of Persia-style disappointment (though in fairness, a movie can do a lot worse than Prince did).4 And the decision to remake Point Break seems just plain incomprehensible.

This seems to imply a good many gambles--but not necessarily the kind of gambles likely to pay off. Rather than serving up something a little less conventional, it looks like a great deal of effort at squeezing exhausted properties (Terminator, etc.). And so I won't expect that 2015 will shift the talk from dismayed reactions to hopes for endless boom times.

Still, even if that summer ends up with another load of underperformers, Hollywood will not necessarily see it as reinforcing the disappointing signal from 2014, especially with foreign markets continuing to blunt its worry over the trend at home (and few in the industry seeming to worry much about intensifying competition for markets like China's and Japan's)--and in fairness, the absence of any clear alternatives that the studios might plausibly find attractive. So industry-watchers will once again talk about how something must be done, while business goes on as usual.

1. This was underscored by the following weekend being the weakest the industry has seen in thirteen years--with the last such low point due to highly exceptional circumstances simply not comparable to the events of September 4-6, 2014.
2. 2013 may have been a record year in terms of dollars earned, but ticket sales were down 15 percent from 2002, and was actually the fourth lowest year for ticket sales this century. This year seems likely to be worse than that. All the same, when the numbers are crunched at year's end, it remains more than likely that theatergoing in 2014 will be found to have been within the normal range for recent decades--4-5 tickets per capita for the twelvemonth.
3. Even before MacFarlane's film, the list of such flops was already quite long, with Jonah Hex and The Lone Ranger recent memories.
4. Despite its reputation as a flop, Prince still made $91 million at the U.S. box office, $336 million worldwide--more than any other video game adaptation to date.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Reading Literary Classics, Again

Time and again I have been struck by the difference between people how are supposed to read literary classics, and the far less inspiring way they actually experience them--a combination of unthinking respect for their Authority, and equally unthinking boredom with the actual stuff of them.

As it happens, this is not a new situation at all.

Oscar Wilde summed up the situation almost one and a quarter centuries ago in similar terms, when he remarked that:
In Art, the public accept what has been, because they cannot alter it, not because they appreciate it. They swallow their classics whole, and never taste them. They endure them as the inevitable, and as they cannot mar them, they mouth about them.
Certainly where Shakespeare is concerned, it seemed to him "quite obvious that the public really see neither the beauties nor the defects of his plays."

Moreover, he took the view that this tendency "does a great deal of harm," the public "mak[ing] use of the classics of a country as a means of checking the progress of Art. They degrade the classics into authorities."

Some decades after, H.G. Wells observed in The Outline of History that it was "a pity that the ridiculous extravagances of scholastic admirers . . . speak of [Homer's Iliad and Odyssey] as supreme and unapproachable and so forth," for these attitudes had left the general reader's response to these worthwhile works an "awe-stricken neglect."

And so it went with every other writer enjoying a company of "scholastic admirers" prone to "ridiculous extravagances" of this sort, who insured that that part of the public which did read fiction gave their attention to figures like E. Phillips Oppenheim instead. So it still goes, long after Oppenheim himself became obscure, while his heirs advertise their novels on television.

Incidentally, I expect to have more to say on Wells' Outline in upcoming posts.

Selling Theater Tickets in a Post-Netflix Era

The entertainment press is, like the rest of the press, not famous for encouraging a long-term perspective. Slight ups and downs in the mark get trumpeted as indications of endless boom times to come, or the End of Everything, when in the United States, at least, the numbers have remained fairly constant: 4-5 tickets sold per capita, per year, for the past several decades.

Still, that does not rule out the possibility of deeper and more worrying changes for the business, like the apparently decreasing tendency of the younger age cohorts to go to the theater. To go by the statistics routinely offered up on BoxOfficeGuru, for the young moviegoing (rather than mere movie-watching) is less and less a casual activity during a weekend outing, and more and more a deliberate decision--which seems understandable given that they are as a rule more cash-strapped, less mobile and more accustomed to alternatives for accessing content than older cohorts, even as all demographic categories seem to be affected by these trends.1

The result is that while it has always been the case that most movies lose money, leaving the industry dependent on a comparatively small number of big moneymakers, a "regular" movie has even less chance than before. A film simply has to offer something on the big screen that will make buying a ticket rather than waiting and seeing it on the small screen worthwhile. The most obvious way is sheer visual impact--hence, the accent on blockbuster-style spectacle, supplemented with the punch of IMAX and 3-D.

The other is making a film's release feel like an event, something the viewer wants to experience not in two months, but right NOW along with "everyone" else. Of course, there is hype, but it only goes so far when everyone does it, and those charged with generating the hype need something to work with--the very reason for the pressure on would-be filmmakers to produce "high-concept" work. Basing a film on a property which already has a large and interested following is the most obvious strategy--hence the endless sequels, spin-offs and remakes, as well as the tendency for new work to come from adaptations of already popular properties rather than original scripts. (The phenomenon is not limited to tentpoles: Twilight was not an action-packed CGI-fest, but its release was certainly received as an event by fans of the book.2)

Still, there are limits to the "event" strategy. If every movie is an event, then no movie is an event, especially if all the movies out there look alike anyway--a gripe that has become fairly routine, though it may be increasingly plausible. And particular franchises can be worked to diminishing returns in this as in other ways. The Spiderman reboot failed to stir up real excitement back in 2012, and the sequel suffered accordingly this summer, setting the tone for a season full of movies that large parts of the audience felt they could afford to miss.

Nonetheless, for all the disappointments of the past few months, Hollywood, buoyed by all the surcharges and foreign receipts, looks a long way from the kind of crisis that would require it to seriously alter its way of doing business.

1. Their decreased propensity to drive has often been noted; and it should be remembered that this is not a reflection of improved public transport, the reverse likely being the case given post-2008 cuts to public services.
2. It seems, too, that movie running times reflect similar pressures. The 90 minute film seems largely a thing of the past, just about everything seeming to be a two-and-a-half hour epic, intended to make the viewer feel they got something they wouldn't just watching a TV show at home. And of course, when the movie's main offering is spectacle, the longer running time lets it serve up more of this.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Decline of the R-Rated Action Movie

The dominance of the effects-powered science fiction and fantasy spectacle, and with it, the "summer tentpole," is typically traced back to the mid-1970s, and films like Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) and Richard Donner's Superman (1978), since which time films of the type have typically topped the box office.

Yet, their dominance of the marketplace has never been so complete as it is now. Going back over the lists of releases as recently as the 1980s, one struggled to find a handful of such films in any given year. Now in a typical summer, most weeks see a new release of the type (or even two), while a good many other such films are sprinkled around the rest of the calendar, giving the impression that it's summer all year long.

In the process they have crowded out other types of films, among them other styles of action film which had managed to flourish even in the post-Star Wars age, like the paramilitary action movie, and with it, the R-rated action movie in general (in contrast with the typically PG/PG-13-rated Spielberg-Lucas-superhero spectacles).1 During the '80s, and even much of the '90s, various Schwarzenegger and Stallone vehicles (like 1985's Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1993's Cliffhanger, and 1994's True Lies), the first three films of both the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard franchises (1987-1995), and assorted Die Hard imitators (1994's Speed, 1996's The Rock, 1997's Air Force One), as well as a slew of science fiction films made in similar style (like 1986's Aliens, 1990's Total Recall and 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day), were all among their year's top ten hits.2

The annual top twenty during these years also included such hits as 1982's First Blood, 1986's Cobra, 1987's Predator and Robocop, 1988's Rambo III, 1989's Tango & Cash, 1992's Under Siege and Patriot Games, 1993's Demolition Man, 1994's The Specialist, 1996's Broken Arrow and Eraser, 1997's Con Air and 1998's Lethal Weapon 4. Two other Schwarzenegger films widely seen as prime examples of the '80s action movie, 1984's Terminator and 1985's Commando, also came very close (making the twenty-first and twenty-fifth spots in their years, respectively).

The preponderance of these kinds of films would seem even more overwhelming if one also counted in related films like Eddie Murphy's '80s-era action-comedies (1982's 48 Hrs., and the first two Beverly Hills Cop movies in 1984 and 1987, all of which were top ten hits, with the original BHC the top earner of '84), or the period cop film The Untouchables (the sixth highest grosser of 1987).2

In fact, it could be argued that where the action genre was concerned, they were predominant, big-screen action almost synonymous with the words "People under 17 years may only be admitted if accompanied by a parent or guardian." Still, even before the end of the '80s the relationship shifted into reverse, as the shoot 'em ups characteristic of the decade became creatively exhausted and decreasingly relevant, while improving CGI and the superhero boom boosted the science fiction and fantasy epics. In succeeding years the blazing machine guns gave way to wire work and computer-based superheroic feats, and the mayhem became at once larger in scale and edited in quicker-cutting fashion, leaving less opportunity or reason to linger on gory details, while the subject matter (so often drawn from the pages of DC and Marvel) made a lighter tone appear more appropriate. The result was action that was at once more spectacular and nearly antiseptic.3 Meanwhile, film in general, the action movie included, became prone to downplay that other major reason to exclude the under-17 crowd, sexuality (such that one writer recently remarked the sexless lives of superheroes). Under such circumstances, the shift away from the "rougher stuff" was natural enough, and encouraged by the risk attendant on swelling budgets.

In hindsight, The Matrix (1999) seems particularly representative of the transition, in its blend of withering machine gun fire and superheroics (Neo even flies), and its launch of the last R-rated action franchise to meet with really massive commercial success. After its debut fifteen years ago, new R-rated action movies tended simply to continue older franchises (like Bad Boys and Terminator in 2003, Rambo in 2008), often sold on nostalgia even when that was not the case (like 2010's The Expendables), and tended to be comparatively marginal within the marketplace.4 The highest-grossing such film last year, Olympus Has Fallen, fell short of the $100 million mark to wind up only the thirty-sixth highest-earning film of its year--a long way down from the prominence of comparable movies a quarter of a century ago. Unsurprisingly, even traditionally R-rated franchises have tended to sanitize their content in pursuit of a more lucrative PG-13 rating (as Alien, Die Hard and Terminator did in the 2000s, as has been the case with the Total Recall and Robocop remakes, and now even the third installment of The Expendables).5

In short, like the sex and nudity once a regular feature of such movies, bloody violence, when not presented as part of Serious Drama (like the based-on-a-true-story terrorism-themed films in which Navy SEALs are now apt to make appearances), tends to be left to lower-budgeted fare, and one supposes, to premium cable drama like Game of Thrones, which along with the rest of the post-'90s explosion of means for accessing entertainment, saves fans a trip to the theater.

1. One might include under the heading of Spielberg-space-superheroes such things as the Star Trek franchise (first-class hits through the fourth film) and the succession of Indiana Jones imitations seen during the decade (the biggest success among which was 1984's Romancing the Stone).
2. Indeed, four of the top twenty movies of 1987 were police-centered action movies (The Untouchables, Lethal Weapon) or action-comedies (Beverly Hills Cop II, Stakeout)--even without including the science fiction film Robocop, which also made the year's top twenty.
3. Excepting the Blade franchise (1998, 2002, 2004), launched in a time when comic book movies were often lower-budgeted and less commercially ambitious, R-rated superhero movies have tended to perform modestly at best. The most successful of these, 2008's Wanted, is only #34 on BoxOfficeMojo's list of superhero films.
4. One area that has been something of an exception is the battle-heavy historical epic, the R-rated Gladiator (the #4 hit of 2000), Troy (#13 in 2004) and 300 (#10 in 2007) all doing good business, but this remains a small and fickle part of the market, especially in the United States. Another, more modest area of success is action-horror, the Resident Evil (2002, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2012) and Underworld (2003, 2006, 2009, 2012) films getting by on smaller budgets and lower grosses.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Learning History From Anime

Time and again I have been struck by the paucity of English-language writing on a major historical subject. Large patches of German history, for instance, like the Peasants' War, or the 1918 Revolution, or the history of the Federal Republic. And while World War II can seem the most thoroughly exhausted of historical subjects, very little seems to have been written about the Italian armed forces' performance and role in that conflict.

No less surprising is the scarcity of historiography about Japan. The obsessive interest in the country in the United States during the '80s does not seem to have extended to an interest in the country's history--a testament to the superficiality of that interest, and of the "expertise" on the country so highly touted at the time. Unsurprisingly, the American anime fan who finds themselves intrigued by a subject like the Warring States period, or the Bakumatsu era, who would like to know more about the career of Oda Nobunaga, or what the Shinsengumi were really like, has very few sources to which they can turn.1

That being the case with Japan, with its prominent place in world affairs during the last century, one can only imagine the scarcity of substantive information about other, less-prominent, less-studied societies--and what weak stuff must pass for expertise on their cultures.

Such is the distance between hype and reality in this "information age."

Monday, August 11, 2014

The East Asian Box Office: The Entertainment Press Gets Its Say

I have often remarked here on the trend in the hugely important markets of East Asia (China is the world's second-biggest, Japan's the third) toward the consumption of more domestically produced product, and fewer Hollywood movies.

My thoughts were a reaction to the films I saw topping the box office in China, Japan and South Korea in the past decade, but a more systematic examination only supports that conclusion, as an article in Film Business Asia showed last May. Indeed, the article notes that in 2013 "one hundred films from East Asia made more than US$10 million at their local box office," securing "a combined box office of US$3.41 billion."

Mark Schilling in his article "Why Hollywood No Longer Dominates Japan's Box Office" notes that the market share of foreign films in Japan fell from 67 percent a decade earlier to roughly half that (34 percent) by 2013--which also marked the fifth straight year in which they failed to exceed a fifty-percent share of the market.

These are impressive chunks of not just the local market to which Hollywood has paid so much attention in recent years, but the whole world market.

Of course, even if Chinese, Japanese and South Korean moviegoers are less apt to choose Hollywood, some American movies still do massive business in this region. Disney's Frozen was a megahit, pulling in close to a quarter of a billion dollars in Japan alone, and another $125 million in China and South Korea. The preceding year, Monsters University was a colossal success, while the comedy Ted was also a hit.

Still, it is increasingly being recognized that audiences are more selective regarding the American films they do. Schilling's thought, after noting the big business those American films did, is that Disney-style family films can still do well here, and that even if Ted is not exactly that, "Japanese audiences love cute, even if they get their cute from a vulgar, substance-abusing animated bear."

By contrast, they're not much for "dark and depressing"--the American entertainment industry's adoration of "dark and gritty" perhaps costing it in this part of the world.

On the Success of Game of Thrones

By the end of its fourth season, Game of Thrones became the most watched show on HBO ever.

More watched, even, than the storied Sopranos.

That the show would meet with much success at all once seemed a longshot.

And yet, in hindsight, it seems perfectly natural.

Game of Thrones succeeded as a fast, flashy, sex-and-violence-laden soap opera. And where soap opera is concerned, it is tough to beat a feudal setting.

The simple fact of the matter is that in today's world power is vested less in individuals than in large organizations, while office and office-holder are separate, and likely the products of a culture of white-collar organization men taught to always seem agreeable and "speak to the well-blunted point." Different kinds of power--public and private, economic, political and military--are vested in altogether different organizations. It all makes power diffuse, and vague, and impersonal, and the players rather self-important cogs in just one of many wheels, for all their flattering by worshipful journalists.

By contrast, in the Game, personal power is often highly concentrated and multidimensional, so that individual players like Tywin Lannister (Lord of Casterly Rock and Warden of the West, King's Hand, creditor to the throne) weigh very heavily in the scales--so much so that they don't have to worry about hiding bodies when violence becomes their preferred recourse. At the same time the drama of politics and war and wealth is tightly bound up with family drama, with people's love lives, in a way they never could be in the modern world (an incestuous relationship, a family vendetta, sufficient spark to set alight the ever-rickety feudal structure). And it is all attended by pre-modern pageantry next to which even the most lavish corporate function must pale (though admittedly, the TV production never quite does Martin's conception of these justice).

To put it another way, a couple of lawyers trying to do each other out of a partnership in their law firm, suburban adulteries, and even the tabloid scandals of the glamorous seem a very small thing next to the drama of the Lannisters and Starks.

Does this mean American television is about to unleash a torrent of feudal-set soap operas on us?

Perhaps. But it seems more likely to remain confined to channels like the CW (already invested in this area with Reign), and historical drama-minded cable networks like the History Channel (offering up Vikings) than the American Big Four, perhaps not totally averse to flirting with the form but much more likely to stick with their lawyers and suburban adulteries and such over the long run.

The Decline of the R-Rated Movie

Through the '80s and '90s, a typical year saw three R-rated films in the year's top ten earners at the American box office, and eight in the top twenty.1

During the 2000s that number dropped sharply, so that the average was more like one of the top ten, and three of the top twenty in any given year were R-rated. Since 2010, R-rated movies have been even rarer than that in the upper ranks.

What happened?

Much of it would seem to be a reflection of the transformation of the action movie during these decades, from R-rated shoot 'em ups to PG-13 rated CGI spectacles about superheroes. Along with the even more complete disappearance of the sex-themed blockbuster, this translated to a major change in the market. Today's R-rated successes, by and large, are comedies like last year's The Heat (#15), We're The Millers (#16) and Identity Thief (#20), horror films like The Conjuring (#19), and Serious Adult Dramas like American Hustle (#17)--lower-budgeted and lower-grossing fare for the most part.

1. The average was actually 3.1 of the top 10 and 7.8 of the top 20 in the years 1980-1989; and 2.9 of the top 10 and 7.6 of the top 20 in the years 1990-1999. By contrast, the number was 1 of the top 10 and 2.9 of the top 20 in 2000-2009; and 0.5 of the top 10, and 3 of the top 20, in 2010-2013. All calculations based on data from BoxOfficeMojo.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

On the Differences Between Japanese and Western RPGs

Gamers have often held the view that Japanese and Western--e.g. American--role-playing games tend to differ significantly in style. (Indeed, the Wikipedia article on role-playing video games devotes a significant amount of space to the subject.)

Setting aside the aesthetic differences (character design and the like), the conventional view seems to hold that Japanese games emphasize story and character and accessible gameplay, while American games stress more complex gaming. Accordingly Japanese games will give us well-defined characters pursuing linear quests, while American games will gives us minutely customizable characters free to roam sandbox worlds at will. The Japanese game is more likely to offer turn-based play than its American counterpart. And so on.

One can, of course, push the generalization too far. These are, after all, tendencies. Exceptions have always existed, and the line has long since been blurred by the cross-fertilization and outright imitation of past decades. Still, the generalization has some value, obvious in a comparison of, for instance, the Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior) and Elder Scroll franchises, and the responses they have elicited in North America.

Interestingly, few seem to have tried to offer an explanation for the difference. But it has occurred to me that one factor may be the personal backgrounds of the pioneers of Japanese and American gaming. Where the latter just about all seem to have been computer scientists, many of the Japanese pioneers, like Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto, came to the industry from fields outside computing, and often from the arts. (Kojima was interesting in writing and film, while Miyamoto had a degree in industrial design.)

It does not seem improbable that this subjected the cultures of these industries to differing influences, with the artists looking to draw players into a compelling story, while the engineers esteem technical intricacy and "features."

Considering the possibility I remember the old story about the first commercially sold video game, 1971's Computer Space, the modest sales of which were attributed to its complexity--co-creator Nolan Bushnell saying in hindsight that whereas all his engineer friends "loved it," the game was "a little too complicated for the guy with the beer in the bar." Obviously American video gaming has since gone on to popular success, but the engineers still seem to prevail over the artists to a degree not seen across the Pacific--with implications not just for the RPG, but the visual novel genre (much more prominent in Japan than in the West), and the fact that it was Japan's Nintendo, and not an American company, which offered up the user-friendly Wii.

What do you think?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

What is a Novel?

When I started taking an interest in literature, I naturally found myself wondering just what made a novel, a novel.

Certainly there is a consensus that a novel is a work of prose fiction. It seems fair to argue that the audience is generally expected to read them privately--rather than hear them publicly recited or performed like epic poems, or plays. It also seems plausible to contend that it has tended to stress the individual, and interiority, to a greater degree than those other, older forms--evident in such things as the time they spend inside their protagonists' heads.

Nonetheless, one can say that this generally describes the fiction we read today, and that one has to look to something else to distinguish it from, for instance, a short story. One obvious criterion is length, the short story filling a few pages, the novel a book (with the minimum estimates falling in the 40-50,000 word range).

However, there are qualitative differences as well as quantitative ones. One expects greater breadth and depth, and more detail, in a novel than in a short story--producing an "epic depiction of life," a world on the page.2

Certainly those novels esteemed as great literature tend to offer this. I find myself thinking, for instance, of writers like Hugo or Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. In a much more idiosyncratic way, even a postmodern like Vonnegut or Pynchon goes for the same thing.

In fairness, narrowly "genre" works are less likely to do this. A romance or a thriller, for instance, may offer this--but many of them, judged by this standard, give the impression of a novella, or even a short story, extended to the length of a book. Ironically, at a time when books are running rather longer than they used to, I wonder at times if this is not the direction in which a good deal of popular fiction is tending.

1. The Science Fiction Writers of America, for instance, uses the 40,000 word figure in determining what is eligible for the "novella" category of the Nebula Awards.
2. Where does the novella fit in, one might wonder? Lengthwise it's an intermediate form, which offers the detailing of a novel, but just the scope of a short story.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Is The Kindle Changing What We Read?

Much has been said of devices like the Kindle changing how we get our books. However, apart from the publicity given to independently published books (in which there has been much hype), little has been said about how they might change the kinds of books we read.

In my experience reading off of a Kindle is far better than reading off a computer screen - but still less comfortable than reading off of paper. The result is that I find myself prone to read on a Kindle for shorter periods than when reading printed books (anything more than half an hour and I start noticing the difference), and to avoid it entirely on a day when I used my computer heavily. Additionally, the small number of words the screen accommodates compared with the printed page means that anyone scanning a long stretch of text has to go through many more screens than they would pages if they were using a printed edition - which along with the quirkiness of electronic touch screens, makes moving about even an extensively hyperlinked Kindle file rather more awkward than leafing through a printed book. Not unrelated, but arguably more important, is the evidence that what psychologists and neuroscientists have long argued about reading done off screens as compared with paper - that one retains less and digests it less fully - seems to carry over to e-book readers like the Kindle.

All of this suggests that e-books are best suited to easy, comparatively undemanding readings, books which can be finished in small bites, which do not require close reading and the activities associated with it - backtracking, rereading and so forth. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a high level of readability as such - but many books which make greater demands on the reader do so for good reason, like the complexity of their subject matter.

It may be that for those sorts of reads, printed books will remain preferable, at least without advances in the technology that further narrow the gap between the two experiences. However, there is an alternative concern, especially given the ofttimes mindless boosterism for new technologies like e-book readers, and the admitted convenience of the devices - that to the extent that the selection and editing of books for publication becomes dependent on their suitability as e-books, denser, more complex or otherwise more demanding books will have an even harder time making it through the gauntlet that is the publishing process.

On Dubious Writerly Advice: "Watch the Market"

Anyone who's spent much time trying to get published has probably been advised at some point to study the market. However, just like so much of the other advice given authors, even when it has some merit (as a great deal of such advice does not), it's not of much practical use to aspiring, unpublished writers trying to break in.

I've already written quite a bit about the scarcity of useful information on book sales available to the general public (rather than, for instance, industry insiders). But processing even the limited data available to everyone can be tricky. The claim that one should check out what's selling should be qualified.

Consider the typical bestseller list. The authors there, by and large, are longtime Big Names who typically represent not the trends of today, but those of twenty, thirty or even forty years ago.

Take, for instance, the case of Tom Clancy, who had three of the biggest selling books of the early 2000s. One might have concluded from his sales at the time that military techno-thrillers were still kings of their domain – but this would have been wrong. Clancy's sales reflected his earlier success, and his acquisition along the way of enough loyal readers to make him comparatively immune to the ups and downs of the market which make and break smaller careers.

They would have done far better to pay more attention to relative newcomer Dan Brown, who was far more representative of what successful newcomers were doing. In these years he was shifting from high-tech, science-heavy thrillers to religious-Masonic-historical mysteries - think of Angels & Demons as a transitional work in this respect – and ended up with the biggest-selling thriller of the decade - The Da Vinci Code.

One might also do well to remember that a writer's adaptation to a trend, after they've recognized it, is no simple thing. Certainly there are writers of enormous range, like Michael Moorcock, but few of us are so versatile – or likely to ever get the chance to try and become that. (Talented as he undeniably is, he also learned his craft when the business was very different, and afforded him an early start of a kind much less plausible today.) Even hugely successful authors often display a knack for just one kind of story, or two kinds at most, and then go on to crank out variations on it forever, long after it stops being worth their while as artists and entertainers, just to keep the money coming in.

And what is a challenge for professionals is that much more difficult for aspirants. Working without professional experience (or even long writing experience of any kind in many cases), without access to professional advice (no agent, no editor, no circle of friends and colleagues who are professionals in the Business you can show pieces of your manuscript for feedback, such as we see in so many acknowledgments' pages), while holding down a day job (perhaps one throwing endless obstacles in the way of any outside efforts), or enjoying much encouragement (let's face it: non-writers, non-artists, aren't likely to be understanding of your ambitions, and anyone who's unintentionally started a collection of form rejection letters can tell you how inhibiting they can be), the road to finishing a publishable manuscript is likely to be a long one – years, perhaps. If you go the traditional publishing route, it can be years after that before you can find an agent willing to take you on, and that agent places the manuscript, and the manuscript actually hits the market.

A decade for this whole process isn't at all unusual (and I am, of course, talking about the very, very rare success stories when I write this). In the meantime, established pros able to work more quickly, and enjoying better access to people in the business who can help them in various ways (not least in getting their manuscript into the machinery which transforms it into a published book with tolerable speed), are moving on the same trend – while a good many other aspirants who heard the same piece of advice are trying to do the same thing.

In short, by the time you succeed in finishing a publishable manuscript of the desired type, even if you do succeed at this, the trend's time will likely have passed, the market changed – so that the time frame in which you are working makes the advice to "follow the trends" meaningless. Now that isn't to say that a writer shouldn't stretch themselves, of course. That's key to staying interesting – or interested – for any length of time. And it isn't to say that one should ignore opportunities.

But there are real limits to how far you should go. Certainly an author shouldn't decide to write something they have no interest or feel for; to decide, for instance, that as young adult paranormal romance seems to be doing well, that's what they should be writing (President Obama's Young Adult Novel Plan notwithstanding). The only satisfaction the vast majority of would-be writers are likely to get out of a project is the actual pleasure of the writing; and if they don't like what they're doing, there seems little chance of anyone else liking it much either, let alone liking it enough to make the chore worthwhile. The truth is that it seems much more the case that authors succeed writing things they like which happen to be marketable at a given moment, than that they succeed by forcing themselves to cater to someone else's tastes. If you're not one of the lucky few on the exact wavelength to partake in the Next Big Thing, you might try to find a way to reconcile those imperatives – but you won't get anywhere tossing your own likes and dislikes overboard in the desperate hope of Giving The People What They Want.

New and Noteworthy (Amazon Kindle, Stross on Santorum, Heat Wave)
Writers Write About Writerly Advice
On the New York Times Bestseller List . . .
Actual Data on SF and Fantasy Publishing

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Telling Lies About Tolstoy's War and Peace


"It is very difficult to tell the truth," Leo Tolstoy remarks in War and Peace. He wrote these words in reference to Nikolai Rostov's recounting of his experiences at the Battle of Schongrabern. However, what he said of war can probably be said about anything else in life, not the least of them our experiences reading literature, including that very book. War and Peace, which has so much to say about the lie, is one of the most lied-about books, thirty-one percent admitting to having lied about reading it in a poll by Britain's National Year of Reading Organization. (Only George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four beat it out for the #1 spot.)

I suspect, too, that the book is not only much more often mentioned than read, but that like other fiction bearing the label of Great Literature it is also much more often praised than actually enjoyed--just as one would expect from a book that is read by those who actually do read it just for the "bragging rights" (as many reviewers admit on Amazon).

Why do so few books compare with War and Peace in that respect?

Why All The Fuss? Is It Really All That Hard?
Certainly Tolstoy is not difficult in the way of Joyce, or even Dickens; his writing is usually perfectly straightforward, enough so that doctrinaire advocates of "Show don't tell" can have a field day criticizing it.

Of course, War and Peace is also a notoriously long book, running to some 1,400 pages in many an edition. However, it is not all that much longer than Les Miserables, another roughly contemporaneous nineteenth century national epic set in Napoleon's shadow by a comparably acclaimed author, but which does not seem to have quite the same cachet (perhaps because most people who hear the name think of the musical?).1

Where this book really trumps the competition in the prestige stakes is the combination of that length with an extraordinary density, War and Peace presenting us with a cast of some "five hundred characters"--whose names at times seem contrived to confuse the reader. One can easily feel themselves adrift in a sea of Counts and Countesses, Princes and Princesses, Annas and Nicholais, and worse than adrift if their attention slips sufficiently to let them mistake Karagina for Kuragina, Orlov-Denisov for just plain Denisov--all the more so as the few dozen central characters are intricately interconnected with one another, as we follow their five families through no less than three wars, culminating in Napoleon's invasion of Russia.

That there is no overarching plot to unite all this action does not help (as Tolstoy owned in Russian Archive in 1868, he did not conceive of it as a novel exactly), the very shapelessness of this "mass of life" making it difficult for the reader to get a handle on it.2

The result is that while I have been accustomed to setting aside a book, and then months later coming back to it and pretty much picking up where I left off with little or no difficulty, with War and Peace I found myself forced to go back to the beginning again, and then repeat the process when I set the book aside yet again (once, after I got a third of the way in), so that it was only years later, after finding the time and energy and will to commit to reading it straight through without that kind of break, that I got all the way to the end.

One might add, too, that Tolstoy's themes are large and ambitious ones of the kind long since grown unfashionable--free will and determinism, history and History, the realities of war, mortality, happiness, the aims of life--and that Tolstoy frequently moves from dramatizing them to directly lecturing the reader about them. Indeed, taken together his remarks about the subject of war alone add up to a treatise comparable to that famously offered up by Clausewitz (who actually puts in a brief and unflattering appearance on the eve of Borodino), while the book's second epilogue eschews storytelling entirely for another treatise-in-itself on the problem of reconciling free will and determinism.

On the whole these shifts struck me as less jarring than what we see in other authors of the time, much shorter and far less digressive than those we see in Les Miserables, for instance, but still frequent and occasionally repetitive, and likely to be something of a trial for readers unaccustomed to nineteenth century novels, or to ideas like Tolstoy's. (Given that Tolstoy's ideas about a great many social and political matters--reflective as they are of an aristocratic, agrarian, mystical view of life, influenced by Joseph de Maistre and Slavophilism--come off as deeply anti-rational, anti-modern, and flatly reactionary, not merely by the standard of our time, but his own as well, just about any twenty-first century reader will likely have trouble wrapping their minds around them, never mind really engaging with them.3)

In short, the book's combination of populousness, plotlessness and sprawl, its wide range of concerns and its frequently digressive treatment of them, make great demands on the reader's concentration, patience and readiness to grapple with Big Ideas (and Unconventional Ideas at that). Problematically for those likely to read this novel in English, it also takes for granted the reader's familiarity with the military and political history of the Napoleonic era not as an English-speaker tends to recall it (Nelson, Wellington, the Nile, Trafalgar, Spain, Waterloo), but rather as a Russian would (Alexander and Kutuzov the principal opponents of Napoleon, Austerlitz, Tilsit, Smolensk, Borodino, Moscow, Berezina, central events of the narrative).

The result is that War and Peace's reputation as a "difficult" book is not totally unjustified. Far from it.

Okay, But How Is It?
Still, difficulty is not the sole reason for its prestige. There is, too, the fact that this is one of that small group of novels regularly acclaimed the Greatest of All Time.

It is probably impossible to debate such superlatives in a rigorous way, but one can (and should) try to get beyond the glowing platitudes of the fawning and the cries of boredom of the detractors--each, opaque and meaningless to the truly discerning reader--and actually discuss War and Peace as a work of fiction.

As it happened, one of the reasons why I failed to make much progress on my first few tries was that it was easy to set the book aside during those early portions in which my recourses to the character list at the front of the volume were frequent. The succession of scenes of the polite society of the uppermost of the upper classes seemed monotonous, and disappointing, this "national" epic apparently excluding ninety-nine percent of the nation.

Of course, one eventually gets the exposition out of the way, becomes able to tell the principals apart, gets a little more variety in their scenes, but even after that point (as is usual in epics) one finds some threads more interesting than others, leaving them impatient to get back to them, all the more so because of the slow stretches. It did not help that this is not one of those works that can be counted on to cut quickly back and forth across their various storylines (one result of which was that the Rostov family-centered Book Seven was rather a slog for me).

It also does not help that while the novel has its fair share of intrigue, it is still a far cry from the soap opera it might have been. Indeed, Tolstoy pointedly marginalizes the sensational and scandalous in favor of those characters offering positive demonstrations of his ideas. The result is that he consistently gives the reader the opposite of what people typically look for from their entertainment--the soul-conflicts of Maria Bolkonskaya rather than the affairs of Helene Bezukhova, Andrei Bolkonski's career of public-minded integrity rather than the shameless self-advancement of Boris Drubteskoy, Pierre Bezukhov's search for a meaningful life rather than the colorful picaresque that Dolokhov's story would have been if it were fully fleshed out (or even Bezukhov's own wilder times). Those other parts of the story are increasingly mentioned in passing rather than depicted as one proceeds through the novel, and eventually fall by the wayside, along with the stories of no fewer than two of his five principal families, the Kuragins and Drubetskoys (which may be justifiable from the standpoint of Tolstoy's purposes, but is certainly problematic from those of symmetry and completeness, to say nothing of interest).

Unsurprisingly, Tolstoy's depiction of such things as the relations between masters and serfs seems sanitized--a charge to which Tolstoy himself responded in the aforementioned Russian Archive essay, not altogether persuasively. (It would have been one thing for him to leave the rougher edges of such relationships as an acknowledged part of the background, another to exclude them as completely as he seems to do.) Say what one will, this is not a story of life from the bottom up, and from the standpoint of art as well as entertainment I regretted that Tolstoy did not have Dostoyevsky's appreciation of human weakness--or his familiarity with the lower levels of society in which dwell "les miserables"--which did much to make his books more intense experiences. (I regretted, too, that he did not share Dostoyevsky's interest in life beyond the country estate, in the developing urban world.)

Additionally, the book loses what momentum it has well before the end, dragging in the anti-climactic Book Fifteen, and never recovering its earlier vigor. Indeed, the second epilogue summing up Tolstoy's view of history not only repeats the ideas he expressed earlier, but does so much less concisely, so that it seems unnecessarily roundabout and wordy.

And of course, it has to be admitted that for all his emphasis on conveying his ideas to the reader, Tolstoy can be a frustratingly inconsistent thinker. There is more of the Romantic in the work of the "Great Realist" than one might expect, which is particularly pointed in his shifting from the ironic view of battlefield heroism he offers in his portrait of Schongrabern, and the adventures and misadventures of Nikolai Rostov in general, to an exaltation of the fighting spirit of the Russian army in its defense of its homeland, and the celebration of Kutuzov and Dokhturov as underappreciated heroes. His eagerness to demonstrate his ideas at times gets the better of his arguments, skewing his depiction of characters and events--the strain quite evident when he uses the same deterministic theory of history to condemn Napoleon, and at the same time excuse Czar Alexander all his failings and failures.

Still, despite all that, and the fact that I found Tolstoy's writing here less technically or dramatically impressive than in, for instance, his later The Death of Ivan Ilyich, he still frequently displays the eye for detail and the insight into human beings that made that work so impressive. His historical vision also struck me as sufficiently powerful and provocative for its interest to transcend his prejudices. The result is that even his most pious creations have their share of nuance, and his minor characters are at least as vividly drawn (helped, I suppose, by Tolstoy's permitting them to be much more colorful). In fact, for all my difficulties following the book in those early attempts to read it, many of his characters still made impressions strong enough that I remembered a trait or a line of dialogue months or years afterward, even when I had forgotten the characters' names--the streak of hooliganism that made the absent-minded, idealistic Pierre participate in tying a police officer to a bear's back and setting him floating down the river, for example.

As it is with his characters, so is it with his scenes, even the sluggish early chapters containing their share of bits that stick in the memory: the pathetic coquetry of the fading Anna Drubetskaya as she lobbies for an army appointment for her son Boris; the combination of detachment and awkwardness, sombreness and conniving, in Pierre's meeting with his dying father as their relatives fight over the will (where, for the record, he "shows" rather than "tells" in particularly effective fashion); Nikolai Bolkonski's bullying of Maria over a math lesson. Time and again, Tolstoy finds the few crucial words needed to bring his chosen material to life--while often managing to be immensely quotable. (One of my favorite such turns of phrase: "it always happens in contests of cunning that a stupid person gets the better of cleverer ones.")

Additionally, if Tolstoy frequently resorts to lecturing, it ought to be admitted that he is an engaging lecturer, and that he never relies on lecturing alone, time and again dramatizing his ideas very effectively. This is especially the case in the war scenes, which at their best (as with Nikolai Rostov's experiences in the war of 1805, or his cavalry charge in the 1812 campaign) make up the most impressive portrait of the fog of war and the muddle of the battlefield that I have ever encountered in fiction. Much the same can be said of the book's closely linked denunciation of the Great Man theory of history and public affairs (as in the scenes where Bagration, Kutuzov and Napoleon command, or Andrei leaves the imperial staff in disgust), which, even if it overreaches, now seems to have been far ahead of its time, and reminds us of how limited and old-fashioned popular historiography remains in ours.

And so while there were times when the book was easy to put down, there were also long stretches when I didn't want to put it down, enough of them that it was not so very long as might be imagined before I made it all the way to end, and afterward considered the book well worth my while.

Though I admit that I probably would not have thought so if I had encountered it at the same age Charlie Brown did in his long-ago New Year's special.

1. Incidentally, I am using the 2001 Wordsworth Classics edition of the Maude translation for this discussion of the book.
2. I refer to Tolstoy's "Some Words About War and Peace," which is printed at the back of the 2001 edition mentioned above.
3. This is evident in such matters as the trajectories of Pierre Bezukhov (transformed from a cosmopolitan, Westernized liberal intellectual into a passive, ascetic figure like Platon Karataev), and Natasha Rostova (satisfied in the limitation of her concerns to her husband and children, the "woman question" explicitly dismissed).
Those accustomed to Tolstoy the moralist, Tolstoy the dissident, Tolstoy the pacifist and anarchist, should note that he is not much in evidence here. For the most part that is a later Tolstoy, who condemned his own earlier work, War and Peace included.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Pursuit of Literary Perfection

No literary work is ever perfect, and one need not retreat into fuzzy talk about human fallibility to understand why. The truth is that writing involves endless compromises between different goods on the writer's part. Do they, for instance, go for poetic language in this scene, or write as plainly as possible, so as to be sure of being understood? Do they devote this chapter to developing that particular character--or do they concentrate on moving the story forward?

And so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

Indeed, we commonly judge works by the kinds of compromises writers tend to make. An author who chooses style and ideas (especially the style and ideas fashionable at the moment) over accessibility and entertainment value is dubbed "literary"; one who chooses the opposite is likely to be labeled, or dismissed, as a mere "genre" writer.

All of this reflects the reality that even the most able and versatile author will generally not be able to do everything at once, not in a single passage, not at the level of a whole book. Some imperative will go unfulfilled, some standard unmet, some taste unsatisfied.

It should be remembered, too, that few writers can do everything that we look to writers to do well, even if given the chance, because every talent has its limitations, if not of ability, then at least of interest. Some authors excel at action, but are incapable of writing dialogue that does not hurt the ear. Others write beautiful prose, but cannot plot to save their lives.

Then there is the Sisyphean nature of the editorial process. Any one adjustment in a manuscript (eliminating a minor character, shifting a scene earlier or later in the story, etc.), especially the kind of tightly written manuscript to which we are supposed to aspire, calls forth related adjustments throughout the same text--making for layer after layer after layer of edits. Then it all has to be proofread, a process which will likely lead to still more edits.

And of course, one can always go back for one more round of polishing, making the process potentially endless. If everyone did that, of course, nothing would ever get finished, and there are plenty of reasons why writers do not do so, besides deadlines and the limits of human endurance. Just as in any other activity, patterns of diminishing returns can set in here. Even negative returns are a danger--the process, past a certain point not merely a waste of time, but likely to leave the book worse off as an obsessive writer goes back and undoes what may not have been perfect, but was nonetheless worthwhile.

And no one knows this better than the writer themselves, having pored over their books so much longer and so much more intensely than anyone else ever will, more conscious of the compromises and the editorial scar tissue than any mere reader is ever likely to be--and if they have any self-respect as an artist, harsher on themselves than any (fair-minded) critic.

The result is a love-hate relationship between authors and their work, memorably described by Winston Churchill. A book, he wrote, is at first
a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.
Alas, very few writers are actually in a position to get that kind of closure. Mostly they just collect form rejection letters, after which the would-be books continue to lurk in the drawers of their desks and files in their computers like the monsters in a child's closet, awaiting their chance to tyrannize again.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tell, Don't Show

"Show, don't tell" is perhaps the most clichèd piece of writerly advice.

It may also be the most useless.

Yes, showing has its virtues, the most obvious of which is that dramatization can have a powerful effect on the reader. To give an obvious example, we are much less likely to be impressed by a writer's description of one of their characters as "intelligent" than by their actually demonstrating that character's intelligence within the story.

But in practice, fiction just about never adheres to this "ideal." Rather than "Show don't tell" it is always a matter of "Show and tell," because showing, like telling, has its limitations, requiring one to resort to the other, less celebrated method.

Chuck Wendig's comparison of the two modes nicely "shows" us the difference between the one and the other:
Telling is explanation. It is definition. It is text. It says, This is that.

Showing is revelation and illustration. It is subtext. It asks, Is this that?

Telling walks ahead of you. It pulls you along.

Showing is the shadow behind. It urges you forward.

Telling invokes. Showing evokes.
Of course, revelation and illustration and subtext and evocation trades the quick, sure way of telling the story for a lengthier process, less certain to convey the same information to the reader, who has to work harder to understand what they are reading because of the inferences they must draw from fragmentary images. It means writing which, all other things being equal, is slow and ambiguous and difficult--hardly things we associate with reading pleasure. Indeed, far from achieving that heightened dramatic effect, if the showing bores or confuses or overtaxes the reader, don't count on them to get the point, or care even if they do get it.

And of course, a writer's scrupulously abiding by this rule affects their choice of content in ways that are not always for the better. For instance, an adherence to a simple-mindedly literal understanding of "show don't tell" is apt to push us out of the character's heads, leave us looking in at them from the outside--and in all likelihood, not get to know them as well as we might if we had more direct insight into their inner life. In fact, as Joshua Henkin remarks, they might spend their time describing couches instead.

Naturally, good telling can be a lot more effective than bad showing, as well as considerably easier to achieve. Which seems to be exactly the point. The advice about what makes for "good writing," by and large, reflects capital "L" literary standards, much more than it does what people actually look for in the books they really read.

And capital L literature places a very high stress on conspicuous technical accomplishment. Showing is esteemed precisely because it is hard--and because its downsides are looked at differently. If it is slow that does not matter very much to the Guardians of Good Taste. The emphasis on the perceived outsides of things and all the pitfalls the unavoidable ambiguity creates for observers, is a good in itself--the author's minding his lowly place and not presuming to tell us how things really are because what the hell does he know anyway--is respectably "postmodern," while also not offending against the "discomfort with emotion and sincerity" that Henkin correctly identifies as part of this sensibility. And if the reader has to work that much more, and possibly get less for it--well, the prevailing Literary sensibility is defined by exactly those who enjoy textual puzzles for their own sake.

At any rate, more nuanced advice, which would give us some notion as to when to show and when to tell, like just about everything else having to do with writing, cannot be crammed into a concise, pithy-sounding, one size-fits-all formula. (Henkin, indeed, remarks that "show, don’t tell" is a "mantra between a lazy student and a lazy teacher.")

There is simply no substitute for a well-honed sense of judgment, fitting the mode of storytelling to the specific purpose at hand, one more reason why acquiring the craft can be such a lengthy and difficult process. Nonetheless, the non-exhaustive guidelines given in this post at FimFiction seem a good start. At the very least, tell, don't show, if "your narrator has a distinctive voice," if "your audience doesn't care," if "you want a scene to move fast," or if "you are making an important point or giving information that a reader needs to have absolutely clear for their understanding of the story."

To show rather than tell at such times is to show too much.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hollywood and the East Asian Box Office, 2013

The top movie at the Japanese box office this year was the final Hayao Miyazaki movie, The Wind Rises.

Of the top ten, eight were Japanese productions, with just two American imports making the list--Disney's Monsters' University at #2, Ted at #4. And the top twenty included only four more American films--Wreck-It Ralph at #13, Gravity #17, Iron Man 3 #18, Despicable Me 2 #19.

In short, the trends of the past decade have continued, with Hollywood doing less business in Japan, and its list of successes more eclectic.1 The action and science fiction spectacles that normally top the American and world box offices in particular do less well here than elsewhere.2

As Japan has gone, so have other East Asian countries. Where seven of the top ten movies in South Korea in 2007 were American releases (and ten of the top twenty), in 2013 Hollywood accounted for just one of the top ten earners, Iron Man 3, which made only the third spot; and only four American films appeared among the top twenty (the other big imports being World War Z, Gravity and Thor: The Dark World).3

This pattern was evident in China as well. Much as the entertainment press trumpets every release in that market, the fact remains that where in 2007 six of the top ten movies there were American imports, this could be said of only two of the top ten in 2013 (Iron Man 3 and Pacific Rim), with the rest all Chinese productions, including the movie that was far and away the biggest hit, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which took in $196 million.4

Simply put, China has now developed the kind of domestic market that can support (relatively) big-budget, high-concept films like Journey, which means that lucrative as the Chinese market can be, it is also much more competitive. In fairness, Iron Man 3 and Pacific Rim by themselves earned more than those six biggest American movies of 2007 combined--but their take still represented a smaller slice of a pie. It has just been the case that that pie was growing very fast, much faster than Hollywood's share of it has fallen. That seems unlikely to go on forever, with China's rate of economic growth slowing, while Chinese film production catches up to the foreign competition in resources and versatility. This suggests that Hollywood's fortunes in China will, over the longer run (and perhaps not even the very long run) suffer as they did in Japan and Korea, boding poorly for its current heavy reliance on a rising stream of revenue from this part of the world.5

1. Together the two American films in the top ten this past year took in $134 million; the five films in the top twenty, $208 million. By contrast, nine of the top ten movies in 2002 were American (fully accounting for the top six spots, one might add), while of the top twenty, sixteen were American. The highest-earning film that year, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, took in $142 million all by itself, the top five just under $430 million. The American movies in the top ten collectively made $570 million, those in the top twenty a total of $706 million. This works out to Hollywood making just a fraction of what it formerly did in this hugely important market, even without the adjustment of the figures for inflation, which would leave the drop in its earnings looking considerably sharper than that.
2. One minor bright spot in 2013: A Good Day to Die Hard took the #22 spot (compared with the #52 position in the United States). Still, this last installment in the series hardly set the Japanese box office on fire, taking in just $22 million--as compared with $32 million for Live Free or Die Hard, and an astonishing $81 million for Die Hard With a Vengeance way back in 1995 ($123 million in today's terms, more than any movie made in Japan since 2011).
3. The six American movies that made the top ten in South Korea back in 2007 took in over $200 million, more than three times as much as the $65 million Iron Man 3 made there last year.
4. It should be noted that the performance does not look quite as bad if one looks at the top twenty rather than the top ten, eleven of the top twenty earners in Chinese theaters being American in 2013. Still, the fact that so many of the biggest American hits were crowded out of the top slots cannot be ignored.
5. The six biggest American films in the Chinese market in 2007 accounted for about $112 million of the $199 million grossed by that year's top ten--about 56 percent of the total. By contrast, Iron Man 3 and Pacific Rim earned $224 million out of some $1.081 billion earned by the top ten moneymakers, slightly less than 21 percent, rather a sharp drop in their share. The drop is less steep when one looks at the top twenty, but still quite clear, American film's share of their gross falling from 54 to 46 percent of the total.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The American Box Office, 2013: Three Observations

The title of this post says it all--these are just three observations I had about the American box office this past year.

1. Hollywood Has Overestimated Nostalgia For The '80s Action Film--But Not The Nostalgia For The Essence Of Those Films.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone flopped separately (in Last Stand and Bullet to the Head) before going on to flop together (in Escape Plan). The same went for A Good Day to Die Hard, the critically and commercially weakest performer in the series, and one might add, the Bruce Willis starrer Red 2. Only lower budgets, and the surprising strength of overseas earnings (reaching up to 80 percent of the total gross), made the difference between financial loss and modest success in the best of cases.1

Interestingly, this has happened as something of the spirit of the paramilitary films of that era resurged in recent years, most obviously in a string of recent hits prominently featuring the U.S. Navy SEALs in action abroad--like Act of Valor, Zero Dark Thirty, Captain Phillips and Lone Survivor--a stark contrast with Hollywood's previous ambivalent, often critical movies about terrorism and the Middle East (Syriana, Lions for Lambs, Green Zone, etc.).2 Something of this same spirit is evident, too, in the success of Olympus Has Fallen (one of two "Die Hard in the White House" movies this past year), the G.I. Joe movies (based on the kiddie version of '80s action film), and the Iron Man film series, the protagonist of which, more than most comic book heroes, plays the Lone American Warrior fighting the Foreign Enemy.

This is unsurprising given the parallels between the present and the post-Vietnam era, when the U.S. also suffered frustration in overseas military operations, increased economic pain and sharpened anxieties about national decline, and rightist populism ran strong. Hollywood's continuing to produce more films of this type, and audiences' continuing to attend them, will be equally unsurprising.

2. Marvel's Gamble on The Avengers Continued to Pay Off at Theaters.
Marvel's establishment of three superhero franchises (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) as a basis for launching The Avengers payed off big in 2012 with the biggest hit at the American and world box offices since Avatar. However, its direct earnings are not the only measure of its influence, the film's success apparently having succeeded in boosting the performance of the associated superhero franchises. While Iron Man 2 left a bad taste in the mouths of even confirmed fans, Iron Man 3 made a staggering $400 million in the United States, helped by enthusiasm for the 2012 film. Thor: The Dark World similarly saw a marked improvement on the gross of the first film, taking in over $200 million, a more than 30 percent rise.3

One can expect that Captain America: Winter Soldier, due out this April, will also get a helpful bump. Even were that not to be the case, it would still be safe to say that the complex of Avengers-connected films represent the largest ever commercial success for the superhero film genre, which (financially, if in no other way) is still going from strength to strength over a decade after the first X-Men film, with no end in sight.

3. Hardcore Science Fiction (and Fantasy) Remains a Risky Proposition.
We are constantly told that science fiction is king of the box office. And of course, films about superheroes (Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Thor: The Dark World, Wolverine), family-friendly animated comedic fantasies (Despicable Me 2, Monsters University, Frozen, The Croods), zombies (World War Z), the continued mining of beloved older cinematic phenomena (Oz the Great and Powerful, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and a certain post-apocalyptic young adult adventure drama (Catching Fire) indisputably remained at the very top in 2013.

Nonetheless, the boosters forget an important corollary to the rule, namely that the requisite big budgets and the fickleness of audiences toward the genre has consistently made hardcore science fiction falling outside these categories--thoroughly futuristic movies, space-set movies--a high-risk endeavor for would-be filmmakers. This past year was no exception to the rule, the responses to Oblivion, After Earth, Pacific Rim, Elysium, the third Riddick film and Ender's Game were on the whole underwhelming, while the response to Star Trek: Into Darkness was likewise something of a disappointment by the standards of blockbuster sequels.4

Additionally, while those other genres were less intensively mined this year, the same has been the case with movies like the fairy tale-based Jack the Giant Slayer, the historical fantasy 47 Ronin, and the Western The Lone Ranger (the biggest flop of the year), which underlined the hesitation of American audiences to follow Hollywood to other eras and faraway lands.

In short, unless they have a really compelling reason to do so (like a solid connection to one of those rare properties that has previously proven a strong exception to this rule, or the light touch of a Disney cartoon), U.S. moviegoers strongly prefer to find their adventure in the contemporary world, and particularly in contemporary America--with just a little science fiction or fantasy tossed in.

1. Escape Plan did much better overseas, particularly in China, where it grossed a solid $40 million (as compared with the $25 million it picked up in the States), raising the global take to $130 million--quite acceptable because of the film's $50 million budget. The fifth Die Hard movie also managed a $300 million global gross, again tolerable in light of its $92 million budget.
2. While the Navy SEALs have long been well known to the American public, such intense interest in the unit may be unprecedented in recent American history--a thing analogous, perhaps, to the British cult of the SAS John Newsinger analyzed in Dangerous Men: The SAS and Popular Culture.
3. And of course, each film saw a comparable boost overseas. Iron Man 3 made $1.2 billion globally, about twice what its predecessors did, and not much less than The Avengers; while the second Thor film took in over $630 million worldwide, a 40 percent improvement over the first film's performance.
4. Of course, Pacific Rim and Star Trek 2 were saved by strong foreign grosses. Meanwhile Gravity, the sole unqualified success among this lot, was the least like a Big Summer Blockbuster in concept and style, and also the least likely to provide a basis for replicable success.

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