The Press Gallery

K.I. Press on writing • literature • publishing

Category: Rants

Sometimes A Light Sabre is Just a Light Sabre

Happy New Year! It must be time for me to post on my blog.

What I Did with My Winter Holidays

First, why do I hardly ever post? It’s not just “time,” because, let’s face it, we make the time for the things that we want to make the time for. I was telling folks in class today, I had “Watch Netflix” on my to-do list over the break, and as a result, I didn’t even, because putting it on a to-do list made it into work. (Hey Matt, the one thing I did watch was In Bruges, though! Thanks for the tip.)

Instead, I played video games and read books. I mostly only play one game. Final Fantasy VII. I played it when it came out in 1997, and I am too old to learn anything new, and I don’t really play games enough to justify buying anything else anyway. Plus, though I do have the original game and console somewhere in my basement, there’s an iPad port, and I always have the ol’ iPad with me.

There was absolutely no good reason for me to spend my precious leisure time playing Final Fantasy. This was just absolutely classic procrastination, with a strong hint of dopamine. I mean, sometimes it seems you are just SO CLOSE to earning a W-Summon in the Battle Arena, but then it takes another five hours for some reason. But to compensate for this phenomenal waste of time while pretending to be a little cartoon dude wielding a sword bigger than he is, I also spent some time reading a Very Serious Book which has itself been influential on storytelling in, among other things, games: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The Hero’s Journey

Oh, yes. I have been trying to read this book on and off for years, as I find it a bit of a slog. I’ve made better progress this time around, but I’m still only maybe a third of the way through, and man, I sort of want to punch him, except that he is dead and also may have been a nice man.

You can’t study screenwriting (or novel writing or game writing or comic writing or whatever) without hearing about The Hero’s Journey, ever since Christopher Vogler’s influential book on the subject in 1998. Vogler, who was a story editor at Disney, based his book on Campbell’s theory, applying it to story structure for screenwriting.

Campbell basically says that stories from around the world follow the same patterns, and then elaborates on those patterns. Which I’m willing to go with him on, because saying that you should recognize pattern in storytelling is kind of another way of saying that you should read a lot and learn from what’s successful in what you read (or consume in other media, too, but no matter what medium you want to write for, if you want to write, you need to read).

Vogler acknowledges the problem of the inherent maleness of the “hero” in the narrative journey, and the model he presents is flexible enough that the gendered nature of the journey didn’t seem like a big stumbling block to me when I read him. Not ideal, but it was something you could take and mess about with.

But now I’m reading Campbell, the legendary man himself. I’m paraphrasing here, but he says stuff like the hero needs to get past competing with the father in order to become “master of the world,” but that, if the character in the story is a woman, she has to similarly get past competing with the mother to become “the world that is mastered.” If I’m reading that right, he’s saying that the woman is the prize. People who defend this kind of thing will go all “you’re not meant to take it literally,” but if you’ve been paying attention you should know by now that language and symbols and stories matter and change the way that we see ourselves. (See Rebecca Solnit’s as-usual-excellent recent essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me.” )

The best part of the Campbell book for me, so far, is all the examples of stories from around the world, which he cites at length– the comparative mythology part. But he pulls the whole comparison through the filter of psychoanalysis (the book is from 1949), relying heavily on the traditional family as the be-all and end-all of human existence and leaving no room for anything other than a straight, male, cisgender hero.

Much more can, and has been, said about this, not by me. In Vogler’s nod to the topic alone, he cites a number of feminist takes on the hero’s journey. But my frustration with Campbell so far has just been one of those moments for me, you know, when you go WHAT THE HELL PEOPLE, IF THIS IS WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN CONSCIOUSLY BASING HOLLYWOOD MOVIES ON THEN NO WONDER!!!!!!!!!!!!! DIDN’T YOU NOTICE?????? DON’T YOU CARE????

Sometimes a Light Sabre is Just a Light Sabre

Which naturally brings me to Star Wars. George Lucas famously used Campbell in crafting the original series. A good article in the New Statesman the other day cited Campbell in a less than flattering way while discussing the seeming rise in female heroes lately (Rey, Furiosa, Jessica Jones). Let’s hope this rise is not a blip, because we’ve been here before. Thelma and Louise (1991) was supposed to usher in a whole new era. Did it? And that’s just at the edge of my adult memory – I’m suspecting there were moments like it before.

I’m a Buffy gal from way back. Reading Campbell has given me a new tingle of appreciation for a certain last-season episode in which Buffy gets transported back in time, to a mythic time, to meet the men who created the first Slayer, so they can basically give her a power boost for the final battle against evil. Thing is, it turns out that what they did to create the Slayer, and what they want to do to her again, is kidnap her, chain her to a rock, and force a demon on her to imbue her with demonic essence. Buffy says, no way, old dudes, I’ll find some other way to fight evil, and kicks their asses.

At the end of the series, of course, Buffy figures out how to fight evil by sharing her superpowers with others—she rejects the whole lone hero thing. My point? This mythic structure stuff can totally be messed with in a satisfying way. Buffy’s heroism still follows the pattern – descent to the underworld, fighting both inner and outer demons, encountering shape shifters, guidance from a wise mentor, death and resurrection, using her powers to change the “regular” world, check, check, check, check! Even her sharing of her superpowers fits the “return with the elixir” stage of the journey – the elixir being, in this case, heroism itself, which is the real twist on the structure.

Anyhoo. Enough Buffy talk. A casual glance at current Star Wars fan chatter does reveal some people commenting on how the essence of the Kylo/Rey conflict is potentially very gendered – not just, hey, a female hero! But, hey, a different manner of heroism! I’m not totally getting that yet, since there’s an awful lot of emphasis on daddies and light sabres. There was some interesting sexual subtext in the mind reading scene, though. (I’ll be murdered for likely misquoting, but is the line something like, “You know I can take from you anything I want?”)

It’s Late and I’m Tired Now

I also wanted to talk about Outlander and Game of Thrones. See, now I have something for next time. All part of the plan.

Back full circle: why I don’t much like blogging, and don’t do it often. Clearly, one reason is that I haven’t mastered the form. I’ve now been noodling about this topic for three hours (nearly four hours after a couple quick read-overs) and am at about 1400 words.

Also: I really put off making known my circuitous thoughts, because I feel like there’s no point in saying anything unless I’ve done a cartload of academic research to back up what I am talking about. Or at least, you know, finish the darn book before I shoot my mouth off about it. I’ve just committed all sorts of sins, not only in potentially misquoting Star Wars, but in, say, making sweeping generalizations about psychoanalysis without ever having studied it.

I’m basically reluctant to commit my informal noodlings to publication. I think I just have to get over this, because, heck, at least I’ve written something, and maybe someday with time and motivation aplenty, and after having finally achieved that W-Summon in the Battle Arena, I’ll take up Buffy scholarship and feminist comparative mythology and write an awesome paper.

But not today, and not on a blog.

The Joy of Literacy

I was sitting in my History of Publishing class while a woman gave a presentation on the history of literacy. The class was restless and confused. The presenter's visual aid–likely an overhead transparency–made no sense. The chart clearly depicted literacy steadily, and sometimes dramatically, decreasing over the ages.

Finally, someone asked a question. Was the chart accurate? Was she using some definition of literacy, some particular shade thereof, that we didn't know about?

She turned around and looked at her chart for a moment, then laughed. “Literacy, illiteracy–I always get those two things mixed up!”

Today is International Literacy Day. (Or, it was — I started writing this earlier, and then someone got up from her nap time.) Literacy is considered a human right, and as with all rights, I exhort us all to exercise it, and treat it with respect.

As I'll tell anyone who will listen, my daughter started reading this summer. This has probably been one of the greatest joys of my life, and I don't feel that my life is short on joy. Shortly after she was born, the health unit nurse dropped off the official provincial new-baby care package, which included a board book and a brochure extolling the virtues of reading to my child.

The Manitoba Government hardly needed to tell me that, but it's moments like that when my own privilege, and the privilege that my daughter grows up with every day, smacks me. It makes me sad that instructions must be given about reading to children. I know why, or think I do — inequality, historical and continued, that has affected and still affects access to education, of both formal and informal varieties.

My mother grew up in a remote, post-war farming community. Her father, typical of someone from his place and time, went to school up to grade eight. After grade eight, even if you weren't needed on the farm or in the house, there was no where else to go to school unless you wanted to be a priest. But he loved reading, and when the encyclopedia salesman came by, he bought the set. The neighbours considered this a wasteful extravagance–and it was extravagant. Encyclopedias had to be purchased on installment plans.

But my grandfather knew what he was doing. There weren't so many books available in that time and place. My mother read that set of encyclopedias cover to cover.

Where I grew up, the only bookstore in town was a Christian one, and as a Roman Catholic, it was not somewhere I could frequent (Catholics and Protestants didn't mix in THAT time and place). We'd buy books when we went to the bigger town down the highway, but often I just read what was available. My mother was doing her degree by distance ed, and had a stack of university English textbooks purchased through the mail — that's how I read Margaret Laurence. And the entire Norton Anthology of Poetry. At the town library, I rummaged around and tried something from every genre — I remember The Guns of Navarone. And a schlocky Judith Krantz novel containing some lesbian sex scenes that left me mildly alarmed. (Until then, homosexuality had been invisible to me. Time. Place. Roman Catholic.)

Even I am daunted by the absolute glut of reading material available now. And I'm not even talking about on-line–just regular old books are available to me in quantities that I would never have imagined growing up in a remote rural setting. For a long while, later, I didn't like to use the library because I wanted to own the books (and to write in the margins–yes, I'm a book-defacer). I wanted them to always be there. They made me feel comfortable and safe.

I've gotten over that now. In the past ten years at my house we've had to give away a thousand books, easily, simply because we don't have room for them all. (I'm sure we have at least a thousand more–and that's nothing compared to many book collectors we know.) Watching, and helping, my daughter learn to read makes me feel guilty for becoming complacent about reading. That's perhaps an irrational thought for someone who teaches writing skills every day, but I'm talking more about my own reading, and my own writing, which have dwindled more and more as I've entered those career/motherhood simultaneous crunch years that everyone's been talking about and turn out to be totally real.

Hard work certainly helps, but if you want to learn to write well, almost nothing, I believe, can substitute for a lifetime of reading. And so I feel pangs of something complicated–joy, regret about my own failings, excitement and trepidation about all the wonders that await–as I explain silent letters to a three-year-old (damn you, English!). I don't feel such essential pangs when I teach at college (sorry), probably because the students are not my offspring. But also because I don't have to give my daughter a grade. She is learning to read because it is simply essential to her–she has spent her whole life watching her parents read, and write, and must do the same.






Hate the Apple Store, Love/Hate the App Store

At the risk of writing a completely unoriginal blog post, I feel the need to vent about The Apple Store.

Three times, my friends, I have now gone to Polo Park to buy an Apple accessory I required, and found that they did not have it in stock. Nothing too obscure. A Camera Connection Kit (I tried twice). A VGA adapter (i.e. dongle).

In both cases I probably should have gone over to Advance to look for said item, but as a mom who trudges over to the mall with my two-year-old, once I’ve visited one store on a Saturday, it’s lunch time, then it’s nap time, then the day might as well be over. Heck, the weekend might as well be over.

The Apple Store not having Apple products is bad enough, but it takes me forever to come to the conclusion that the product is not in stock because it is so hard to get someone to help me. Sure, the place is absolutely crawling with folks in blue shirts, but they are all demonstrating how to use an iPad. Maybe I don’t look like a big-ticket-item purchaser (a few years till the next one, I hope). Maybe it’s the toddler. Or maybe there’s something about me that says I’ve been an Apple user since 1983, and there is probably nothing they can do at this point to change that.

Anyway, I’ve come to the conclusion that The Apple Store exists primarily for branding purposes, and secondarily to sell items over $500. They make it so difficult to buy things there that I’ll just keep ordering them on-line, despite the fact that I can walk to The Apple Store in under half an hour. I tried. That’s the modern flippin’ world we’ve created, folks.

Insert grumpy harrumph here.

As for the App Store, I’m slowing down, but spent far too much money there over the first few months of my iPad. This is why I both love and hate it.

Something that desperately needs to be changed in both the App Store and in the iBookstore: you need to be able to sort media for children by age group. Try to find a bookstore where everything for anyone under 18 is lumped together in one section. In the iBookstore you’ll find a very unhelpful browsing category called “Children and Teens.” Yikes.

End rant. Next time I’ll talk about my favourite apps with a literary/publishing bent. See you!