Monday, May 30, 2011

The "Don't Say Gay" bill and being "tender-hearted" in TN

So Tennessee, my home state and the setting of many of my stories and novels, has again made the national news. The State Senate passed a law dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill which outlaws even mentioning the existence of gay people in elementary and middle school. I doubt this also includes not mentioning the various slurs and code words Tennesseans have always used for gay folks; in fact, I'm sure the sponsors of the bill often employed those terms in closed-door meetings prior to presenting the bill, right after the opening prayer.

As a child with little aptitude in sports and an interest in literature, science fiction and movies, my schoolmates often teased me with those same slurs. A cousin, in fact, once taunted me with some of them for reading Star Trek: Log Five, just before he beat me up. The fact that I wasn't gay didn't particularly matter, as it never does in such situations. But it was, and remains, the way kids often are, and while I disapprove of it I also comprehend the reasons for it, especially in the South.

Still, it was nothing compared to the contempt adults showed for kids they deemed "different," "odd" or "weird," and that included a term of such surpassing brilliance that I still marvel at it: tender-hearted. It sounds almost like a compliment, much as does "Bless your heart," which is now generally known to be Southern code for, "You're so stupid." In the same way, "tender-hearted" is code for "gay." Or more precisely, it's synonymous with one of the pithier terms used to derisively describe gay males.

The first time I cursed (we called it "cussed") in front of other people got the term "tender-hearted" applied to me. When I was about ten or eleven, some older good ol' boys dragged a turtle from a pond and cut off its head in their driveway for no reason other than to do it. I told them I found it ignorant and cruel, and when they laughed at me for that, I let fly with every curse word I knew. I was also so mad I started crying. Between the tears and the general knowledge that I liked to read books, I was quickly pegged as "tender-hearted," and to this day (nearly forty years later) the people in my home town still think of me that way.

So the "Don't Say Gay" bill disappoints and saddens me, but it doesn't surprise me. Good ol' Tennesseans have a long tradition of not saying "gay." Instead, depending on the situation, they either use slurs or euphemisms, as they do for everything else. Bless their hearts.

(Please visit and support It's Okay to be Takei, George "Mr. Sulu" Takei's brilliant response to the Tennessee law.)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mamet's Theatre: an extended whine

Recently I had the unmitigated pleasure of discovering Beginnings, playwright/screenwriter Horton Foote's memoir of his years as a young man in the theater. It started me on a little run of books about American theatrical thought, such as an immense collection of Lee Strasberg lectures, and made me eager to see a live theatrical performance, something I haven't done in a while. Then I came across David Mamet's recent book Theatre. I may never go see a play again.

Mamet, like Foote, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Glengarry Glen Ross) and a successful screenwriter (The Untouchables, Hoffa). But there the similarities end. Beginnings was a warm, kind tale of people devoted to their art; Theatre, supposedly the culmination of Mamet's forty years in the trade, feels like the extended whine of an entitled old man who thinks that not enough people listen to him. In it, Mamet comes across as a combination of South Park's Eric Cartman and Patrick Swayze's "My way or the highway" speech from Road House.

I've never been a theatrical person, so my first-hand knowledge is limited. Still, the contempt Mamet shows for anyone who thinks differently than he does shoots way beyond arrogance into a kind of pathological egotism that must originate from some childhood humiliation. It's not just, "This is my way, and it works for me," it's "This is my way, and it's the only way that works, so shut the fuck up and listen."

Here's is a typical passage:

"But there is no inner life of the character, as there is no character. The character is only a few words of speech delineated on the page, and that's all there is--and the Method's concern with the character differs not at all from the daydreams of a twelve-year-old girl, e.g., 'I wonder what Rhett Butler would do if he lived now?'"

As a writer, I can understand the wariness with which he approaches those involved in producing his plays (actors, directors, designers, etc.). I sometimes feel the same way about editors, marketing departments, and so forth. The difference is, I recognize the value of their jobs. Mamet never does. For him theater begins and ends with the play's text; directors are next to useless, and I suspect if he could get rid of actors somehow, he would. He certainly doesn't want their input: "The actor's true talent and job stand still and say the words--in order to accomplish something like the purpose indicated by the author."

And the fear behind this minimizing of actors? Rejection. "The persistence of an interest in the inner life of the character is a form of deconstructionism, which is to say a rejection of the text." His text.

The pragmatist in me wants to agree with many of his tenets, but they come laced with such vitriol that I instinctively side with those he chastises. Even a bully who's right is still a bully. The contempt laced through Theatre must come from a place of supreme, intractable unhappiness that no amount of success will ever ameliorate. I feel sorry for the guy, because I doubt he's ever enjoyed any of his success the way Horton Foote clearly did (and God only knows what Mamet thinks of Foote). Still, none of this is surprising for a man bitter and misanthropic enough to write Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna.

In the commentary for the Hoffa DVD, director Danny DeVito relates the following joke (paraphrased by me):

An English professor comes out of a Broadway show and is approached by a bum asking for change. The professor haughtily says, "'Neither a borrower nor a lender be.' William Shakespeare." The bum replies, "Yeah? 'Fuck you.' David Mamet."

Yep. Fuck you, indeed. That's the core statement at the heart of Mamet's theatre, and Mamet's Theatre.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Teaser trailer for THE HUM AND THE SHIVER

Here's a glimpse of my next book, The Hum and the Shiver, out this September.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Help the southern storm and flood victims (and get cool swag)!

I'm donating both a signed copy of DARK JENNY and my personal DVD of "Excalibur" as part of the HELP WRITE NOW auction to aid victims of the recent southern storms, tornados and floods. Bidding starts at $5!

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Betrayal of Arthur and the scent of disdain

About five years ago, when I was first thinking about the story that became Dark Jenny, I began looking for books that dealt in a critical and scholarly way with the meaning of Arthurian stories. I'd read the basic, classic fiction texts--Le Morte d'Arthur, The Alliterative Morte Arthure, The Once and Future King, The Mists of Avalon, The Wicked Day--but I wanted to understand what about these stories kept them in society's consciousness for over a thousand years. This lead me to Sara Douglass' The Betrayal of Arthur.

Finding the book in a local used bookstore was utter serendipity, since it's never been officially released in the U.S. Douglass, a noted Australian fantasy author (The Axis trilogy), is also a scholar and brings both perspectives to bear on the Arthurian tales. She traces them from the eariest oral traditions up to the present (or rather, 1999 when the book was pubished). As her title implies she sees betrayal as the central theme, but not in the simple way you might expect. She acknowledges the Lancelot/Guinevere duplicity, but sees it as just one more example of a life sunken in perfidy. From the moment of conception--Uther Pendragon raping Ygerna, whether by deception or force--Arthur's life is doomed. Sexual betrayal becomes the central theme. She explains why the various eras have responded to Arthur, how and why they've changed it to suit their times, and what it means to them.

I was so fascinated by all this the first time I read the book that I missed what is actually a sizable undercurrent: her utter contempt for anyone since T.H. White who has dared to write about Arthur. From Marion Zimmer Bradley to Rosemary Sutcliffe, she implies that these authors simply lack the capacity to understand the material with which they're working.

On her web page, she devotes a fair bit of space to describing the process behind this book. Even here, her disdain for modern versions of the story is plain:

"Firstly (and uncomfortably for our modern age which doesn't like such things), the Arthurian legend as it was developed in the medieval period was a moralistic tragedy...Secondly (and this is bound to be an unpopular theme), Arthur failed because he was himself a flawed king and man."

There are other examples, but if the disdain is so thick it comes through in the author's own web page synopsis, you can imagine how it permeates the book.

And that annoys me, both because I've written my own "Arthurian" novel, and because despite being a modern fantasy author, I feel quite capable of understanding any aspect of folklore or mythology that interests me. I have no doubt Ms.Douglass would dislike Dark Jenny for several reasons (that I can't go into because they're spoilers). But the elephant in the room that she seems to miss is that we (contemporary authors) are doing the same thing Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory and TH White did in their times: creating Arthurian tales for our audiences. We may not recite ballads around campfires, or perform with lutes for royalty, but we know our readers as well as those great storytellers of the past knew theirs. In a thousand years, who knows which current works will be held up alongside Malory, Bradley certainly seems well on the way to standing the test of time.

In the conclusion of her webpage synopsis, Ms. Douglass says, "The Betrayal of Arthur is not a sop to popular culture, expectations or needs." No kidding. It remains, for me, a classic and a crucial step in the development of Dark Jenny. I wish it didn't also, after my recent re-read, leave such a sour aftertaste.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Best Thing Ever! (and a side order of WTF?)

Recently I read a review of the Doctor Who season premiere that suggested the show is essentially creating an entirely new nonlinear form of storytelling. With all respect I think this is excessive praise, much like the folks who claim Ron Moore reinvented SF television. But whether or not you agree with this idea, I'm more interested in the critical subtext that insists any currently-fashionable genre permutation must be the best thing ever!

I love Doctor Who, and I trust that the show will eventually explain most, if not all, of the nonlinear moments the series premier gave us. But this nonlinear (i.e., WTF) quality of the episode "The Impossible Astronaut" is certainly nothing unique in SF, especially British SF that makes it to America. The first season of Space: 1999 is my touchstone for WTF, and that was done thirty years ago. In fact, for many years, when SF was being produced for fans but not by them, the attitude was most definitely, "It doesn't have to make sense! It's science fiction, they'll swallow anything." (An example: the unapologetic interview with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr., included on the special edition DVD of 1980's Flash Gordon. Semple, a veteran of the Adam West Batman TV show and the 1976 King Kong remake, seems astounded and a little insulted that anyone would expect him to take a subject like Flash Gordon seriously.)

So what's behind this desire to overpraise whatever is currently popular? The need to instantly comment on and review things in the internet age is part of it, since these reviews are often written in the full flush of ardor following a new book/movie/TV show. More to the point, in many online critical commentaries there's a definite urge to preach to the choir, which means that the critics mirror rather than challenge the enthusiasms of their readers (which, after all, is how you keep readers coming back). And ironically in an era when the great works of the past are more accessible than they ever have been, there seems to be a real need to establish that the Next Big Thing is also the Best Thing Ever (witness the lavish praise heaped on the reboot of Star Trek).

And that's the opposite of real, thoughtful criticism. One purpose of critical evaluation is to remind readers that the Next Big Thing may not, in fact, be the Best Thing Ever. For example, Elizabethans experienced Macbeth as the Next Big Thing, but calling it the Best Thing Ever looks foolish when you realize Shakespeare wrote Hamlet three years earlier.

So whatever the Next Big Thing is, perhaps we need to wait until we have some critical distance before claiming it's also the Best Thing Ever.