Monday, January 19, 2009

Are You William Faulkner? Check Yes or No

An article in the current issue of The New Shetlander made me recall a writing teacher in college who, when asked about composing in the vernacular, gave this response. "You should ask yourself one question: Am I William Faulkner? If the answer is 'no,' then you should never write in the vernacular."

I'm not sure where the contempt for writing in the phonetic language of the people you're depicting comes from, but it's definitely a deeply-ingrained idea. Any time a writer tries to accurately transcribe the dialect of a particular American subculture, he or she runs the risk of appearing deliberately amateurish (or, as Raymond Chandler said about James M. Cain, "faux naif"). It's assumed, I guess, that the writer simply doesn't know better and is writing the way he or she speaks and thinks. There are exceptions, I'm sure, but I can only think of one: Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

In contrast, poet Mark Ryan Smith, in the aforementioned New Shetlander article ("Shetland Poets, Learn Your Trade: The Kind of Poetry I Want"), says, "Poets and writers should try and find the best language for their own ideas and should be encouraged in their search . . . There is nothing inherent in any medium of speech or writing that makes it superior to any other medium."

In speaking to him about the article, he added, "We are lucky in Scotland that we have such a strong vernacular literature. This is probably due to the fact that our two greatest poets, and two of the world's greatest, Burns and MacDiarmid, both wrote extensively and brilliantly in the vernacular. Their work gave writing in the Scots languages validity and worldwide recognition. I don't know how many other countries have vernacular poets of such importance and I suppose all vernacular poets in Scotland are, in a very broad sense, following on from the beginnings these two poets made."

Here in the US, comparable claims could be made for the prose of not only Faulkner but of Mark Twain*, yet it seems to have had the opposite effect: instead of encouraging others to emulate them, it has set standards that most writers cannot achieve; therefore, the reasoning seems to be, it's a sign of presumption and immaturity to even try.

As a Southerner, elements of my native dialect creep into my writing, often times without conscious intent. And yet when I write a Southern character, I back away from truly reproducing the speech patterns and rhythms that are genetically as much a part of me as my blue eyes (for example, "I don't know" pronounced as one word, "iowntno," as well as one-syllable words ["damn"] turned into two-syllable ones ["dayum"]). Instead I try to suggest the dialect, which is like tasting the flavor of a steak without sinking your teeth into the meat.

Clearly, I'm not William Faulkner. Therefore, if that college professor was correct, his tools are essentially off limits to me unless I want to risk ridicule and being thought an amateur. Eventually, as our society fragments and each culture embraces its own artistic language, will we then see these vernacular expressions as legitimately sound as anything written in grammatically proper terms?

I don't know. That is, iowntno.

*Ironically, Faulkner had a low opinion of Twain, calling him, "a hack writer who would not have been considered fourth-rate in Europe, who tried out a few of the old proven 'sure-fire' literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy." (as quoted in Bad Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever.)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

JUST IN: New cover art for Blood Groove

So the good people at Tor have completely redone the cover for my upcoming vampire novel Blood Groove. And while I liked the original art (at posting time still visible on Amazon), this new cover does a much better job capturing the book's atmosphere:

So what does everyone think?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Underworld's Hero

With the upcoming release of the latest vampire vs. werewolf film, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, I've been pondering my inexplicable affection for the first two Underworld films. By all rights I should hate them: at first glance they're surface-intense, drama-light, filled with inconsistencies and missed dramatic opportunities. They use the tattered trope of sexy, leather-clad vampires and sexy, hairy-bodied (and oddly all-male) werewolves. They're Twilight for the fetish set.

Some people close to me think it's all strictly because of Kate Beckinsale.

I dispute that, though: Ms. Beckinsale has been in some of the worst movies I've seen, such as Serendipity, Pearl Harbor, Van Helsing, Click and Brokedown Palace. She is attractive, certainly, but she's a Hollywood actress and that's part of her job. Praising an actress for being beautiful is like complimenting a doctor for knowing anatomy.

Instead, I think it's her Underworld character, Selene. In the story that encompasses the first two films, she is undeniably the hero. Not, let me point out, a heroine, which is a designation that insists upon gender. She is the hero.

This is what makes the Underworld films different. They completely invert the sexual dynamic of the standard action movie. Michael (Scott Speedman) takes the traditional "girl" role, constantly in danger and in need of rescuing. Even when he develops his own powers he still needs saving, and in both films it's Selene, not Michael, who confronts the main villain. She does so in the first film specifically to save Michael, and in the second film without Michael's help.

Not that she doesn't show physical weakness; she is a vampire, after all, and can be (temporarily) hurt, or destroyed by the sun. But she shows no stereotypically female emotional weakness. No betrayal or surprise is enough to cause her to crumble. She defeats physically stronger opponents with speed and skill, and suffers injuries when these aren't enough. She is, in fact, an antidote for every adolescent-fantasy, over-the-top caricature played by Milla Jovavich, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Garner, Sarah Michelle Gellar or Summer Glau. Yes, she's sexy in that black leather suit (or out of it), which certainly doesn't hurt. But what makes her unique is that beneath the sexiness and fetish gear, she's a hero.

I'm not really looking forward to the new Underworld film, mainly because director Len Wiseman has stepped aside for newcomer (and former special-effects guru) Patrick Tatapoulos. And because it's a prequel there's no Selene, although casting Rhona (Doomsday) Mitra as the heroine is about as close as you can get without actually using Kate Beckinsale. Still, we know how this story ends: it forms the background for the first two films. Like every prequel, it's ultimately pointless.

I'll give it a shot, though, to see if the Underworld magic is still there. And if not, that's okay. Underworld and Underworld: Evolution tell a complete story about a hero who sheds her illusions, determines her own fate and finds love on her own terms. And if she looks good in black leather doing it, that's a bonus.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

"That's the way of the world, baby."

My next novel, Blood Groove, is set in 1975 for a couple of reasons. Since it's a vampire novel, I wanted it to be free of the influence of Anne Rice; her landmark Interview with a Vampire came out in 1977. I also wanted it to take place in a time when it was still possible to exploit cracks in the system that computer technology has forever eliminated. For example, it would be difficult nowadays for someone with no verifiable past to create a legal identity, something my vampires need.

But I also chose the era for its music. 1975 was just prior to the advent of disco, the first hugely successful musical form that didn't depend on an artist. Mechanical beats and producer tweaks were all that was needed to create monstrous dance tracks that ran for over ten insufferable, indistinguishable minutes. This slippery slope has led us to our present dire musical landscape, where "sampling" is considered a valid act of creation.

But was pre-disco music really as pure as I remember? I've been forced to re-evaluate my position after stumbling across That's the Way of the World, Sig (Superfly) Shore's '75 film on corruption in the music industry.

Harvey Keitel plays Buckmaster, the producer with the "golden ear" at Mob-controlled A-Korn Records. He wants to record The Group, a black ensemble better known as Earth, Wind and Fire. The company forces him instead to turn the first single by the Pages, a family trio with a homey John Denver-ish sound, into a number one hit.

There are a number of ultra-cool things about this film. Most obviously, we get a taste of real Seventies funk thanks to EW&F, including glimpses of their legendary stage shows (guitarists rising to the rafters, grand pianos turning somersaults). We see Buckmaster use state-of-the-art studio magic to turn the Pages' inane song "Joy, Joy, Joy Everyday" into something palatable:

We get a glimpse of true Seventies fashion, including pants on Keitel so tight it's amazing he got any blood flow beneath the waist. And Maurice White, the genius behind EW&F, calls Keitel a "jive turkey."

But what's most fascinating, and powerful, is the devastating indictment of the recording industry. The film depicts it as controlled by the Mob, presided over by accountants and completely uninterested in the actual music except as product. These powers-that-be are entirely confident in their ability to convince the public that they actually want this plastic, soulless tripe. Buckmaster, as the lone man of integrity, is forced to use the same underhanded, immoral tactics (justified throughout with the phrase, "That's the way of the world") in order to rescue himself and The Group from their deal-with-the-devil contracts.

What surprised me the most about the film (aside from those aforementioned pants) was how contemporary its central dilemma remains. Can we really have progressed so little in nearly a quarter-century? Compare the Pages to, say, the Jonas Brothers and it's plain that's still the way of the world. Men in suits (or women with talk shows) can still convince vast hordes that this, not that, is what they really want.

For some persective, consider this passage from 1951, found in The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler:

"...the public is getting increasingly tired of the kind of film which explores the technical resources of the medium with relentless cleverness, but contains nothing which could be acted out on a bare stage and still make its effect."

Apparently the issues of art vs. commerce, surface vs. substance, have always been with us. In a way that's reassuring: it means that when the latest manifestations of these devils (Michael Bay, Miley Cyrus and "American Idol") rear their pointed little heads, we can at least take some comfort in the thought that their reigns of mediocrity will be mercifully short. Sadly, hydra-like, four more will likely spring up to take their place.