Continuing the series of student tips that I started here, today we’re going to be talking about research projects. You might need to turn in a research paper or presentation as part of your grade. While as a former university instructor I’ve seen plenty of students struggle to articulate their argument, I want to re-assure you that you’re not alone. It’s part of the process and I still see it as editor when we receive submissions for Fantastika Journal (and – indeed – in my own work!). You can’t – and shouldn’t – approach your research with a pre-planned argument. Even if you’re studying in the humanities, you should start with a hypothesis to test. But the hypothesis should be meaningful.
One of the main problem I’ve seen is when students/researchers struggle to distinguish their topic statement from a thesis statement. What do I mean by that? Let’s take an example from my own life. This November I (through Fantastika Journal) will be hosting a digital symposium on LGBTQIA+ narratives. The topic is important of course, but I also want to make sure that we’re making significant contributions to this discussion. So I’ve struggled for ages to come up with my own paper ideas. If you were following along with fantastikapress on twitter or Facebook, you’ve probably seen that there are hundreds of LGBTQIA+ Fantastika graphics (the symposium’s focusing on graphic forms). So, for the humanities, a topic can be any combo of theme plus text. “Non-binary identities in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman“. “Transphobia in Futurama’s ‘Bend Her’ episode” “Censorship in the dubbed Sailor Moon”. These are all examples of topics. When someone asks you what you’re research is about, you can respond with “I’m looking at non-binary identities in Sandman“. But if someone asks you what are you arguing, you should not make the same statement: “I am arguing that there are depictions of non-binary characters in Sandman.” Of course there is. That’s not an argument. Most informed people (in this case, readers of the graphic novels), will not argue with this statement. As I’ve mentioned when I outlined the thought process for my own PhD proposal, even if an educated person does object to the statement (i.e in the form of a peer reviewed publication), consider the statement within the larger field. Don’t set out to pick a fight as your central objective.
So how can we turn a topic statement (‘I’m looking at LGBTQIA+ in Sandman”) into a thesis statement?
One of the ways to do this is to ask yourself “so what?” What are you hoping to achieve by researching this topic? What does your research tell us about LGBTQIA+ or Sandman? Be sure to consider the audience carefully when you ask this question. Let’s say you answer the ‘so what?’ question with the following: “It’s important to bring attention to these representations.” Agreed. But who’s your target audience for your research? Are you making this argument to other students and instructors? Or is your research directed to the industry (writers and creators), or maybe to audiences of these works? Think carefully about what information and pre-conceived notions your audience has and how your new research will fit into this. If your target audience is inclined to agree with you, then you haven’t answered the ‘so what’ successfully.
If you’re a postgraduate student, you may also want to consider your audience in terms of different specialities, especially if you’re planning on submitting an article for publication. If you’re setting out to research LGBTQIA+ narratives in Sandman your “so what” answer will depend on the topic of the journal. Is it a Fantasy-specific journal? A journal dedicated to graphic novels? The top journal in English literature? A journal dedicated to LGBTQIA+? Consider how your research will add substantially to that field. A paper that looks at the impact of Sandman for a Fantasy journal will be entirely different from one that focuses on graphics novels. Your topic stays the same (non-binary in Sandman) but you must adapt your argument and hypothesis to answer the ‘so what?’ pertinent to each field.
As I said above, don’t worry if you don’t have an argument when you begin your research. It’s perfectly acceptable (and expected) to start with “I’ve noticed x and I find it interesting.” But keep in mind that it’s just a place to start your research. Don’t stop there. Ask yourself ‘so what?’ until you’ve found an answer that contributes meaningfully to the field and doesn’t just make white noise.
Tomorrow we’ll continue the discussion of tackling the research process with a look at abstract-writing. Until then, take care!
Continuing my Sandman re-read which I started here, as I’m focusing on themes of portraits, I’m skipping right to the end of Volume 2 The Doll’s House. The volume is bracketed at the beginning (following the prologue) and the end with depictions of the same portraits, but rendered with both subtle and obvious differences.
As I described for the start of the volume, we see a portrait of Desire in statue form followed by a depiction of Desire’s Gallery. At the end of the volume, this order is reversed as we see first Dream’s Gallery and then Desire’s statue on the final page.
The Gallery is a space in each of the Endless’s Realm. When one of the Endless wish to communicate with a sibling, they stand in their Gallery in front of the appropriate portrait with their sigil or symbol in hand to evoke and summon the sibling. The Gallery then also operates as a portal space, where Endless can cross into each other’s realms by invitation. Dream’s Gallery is made up of the same framed portraits as Desire’s but the frame has changed; Each symbol is framed with a highly ornamental golden frame. As well, although the colour tones are similar to Desire’s Gallery, small changes make the space slightly less alien, as the pictures are clearly arranged as framed pieces on the wall instead of a disturbing doubling effect where they also appear to be comic panels.
The portrait of Desire is also slightly less alien. There’s no mistaking it for a portrait of a human – the eyes are whited out, with no pupils or irises. But the colour pallet and setting has changed. In the first, the setting is immediately recognizable as a realm of the Endless with a background grid of emptiness stretching into the horizon, an image that would not occur in the natural world. Here, Desire’s portrait is set on a clear sky blue with a rolling tan landscape. Likewise, while the first depiction of the statue is done in cold colours, hinting at a metallic or marble hard and enduring medium, the depiction here hints of yellows and tans, a dusty, sandy substance that seems it will crumble away. It matches the final messages of the volume as Dream tells Desire:
We of the endless are the servants of the living–we are NOT their masters. WE exist because they know, deep in their hearts, that we exist. When the last living thing has left the universe, then our task will be done. We do not manipulate them. If anything, they manipulate us. We are their toys. Their dolls, if you will.
Neil Gaiman, The Doll House
Rather than being supreme and mighty beings, the Endless living at the whimsy and service of of the humans. In this light, the Endless Realms are just another “doll house”; tucked away in a decorative shell until their service is required. Desire demonstrates this with their flippery, pondering their existence in one moment, and in the next moment “smiles and forgets, for Desire is a creature of the moment.” Desire’s whimsy reinforces the idea that they are a doll themselves, a creature unable to maintain sustained thought when not being “played with”. In this light, we can re-examine the sculpture of Desire. While the dimensions of the first suggested an immense and powerful being, the sculpture of Desire here is a blank, empty doll.
Dear writers, if you’re going to write a 700+ page novel, please have more than one central point-of-view character – especially if you’re writing a portal quest Fantasy which spends 1/3 of the book inside the POV’s home city and/or the POV is an adolescent. Listen. No matter how interesting your character is, no one wants to live in one teenager’s head for 700 pages. Our teenage years were hard enough. Don’t make us relive that angst.
I suppose I should mention the title of the book I’m ranting about. Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy is actually half decent – once it starts going. Although the first book, The Outstretched Shadow (2003) is a slow crawl, by the second book, To Light a Candle (2004), Lackey and Mallory seem to have learned their lessons and we see the perspectives of a number of protagonists. In the first book we meet Kellen, son of the Arch-Mage (Head of the High Council which rules the city). We are also introduced to the city of Armethalieh, ruled by a totalitarian system of mages (the High Council). Within the first few pages, we are given a description of how magick effects every single facet of the city: “There was virtually no aspect of life that could not be enhanced by magick” (p. 5). This statement is bracketed by detailed examples, establishing just how integral and integrated magic is in the city. Once this is confirmed, we move swiftly into seeing the extent of the High Council’s authoritarian rule: “They, and not the merchants, determined what could be sold in the marketplace” (p. 8), right down to the patterns and colours allowed in ribbons for decorating clothing. As these details are established within the first 10 pages, it seems a bit… overkill to spend the next 150 pages reinforcing this message.
We finally get to our first exciting incident at the quarter mark, as Kellen is expelled from the city. And the sense of urgency and suspense is handled-well, showing us that the authors are equipped to write exciting scenes. But once Kellen finds safety, the pace slows to a crawl again, as Kellen begins to gather information and evaluate his pre-conceived notions. Although there are a number of interesting events to keep the plot moving – as Kellen encounters a number of fantastical creatures that are outlawed from the city – the emphasis is on his reactions to these encounters which, unfortunately, take the form of introspection, a lot of quiet solitude ambles as Kellen ponders the nature of good and evil (seriously).
I should note that throughout the trilogy, we also see the perspectives of a handful of antagonists, a device I deplore except when handled in prologues like in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. If your readers don’t like living in the head of a 17-year-old, they’re also unlikely to like seeing the perspectives of an evil – no nuances, wholly dark – character. It’s boring. And uncomfortable. So your character enjoys torturing people and doing other nasty unspeakable activities. Yuck. Do you really need to hammer out that detail over and over again? We don’t need continued reminders of why we should be rooting for the good guys. And, if you ARE going to keep reminding the reader, then we don’t need to have nearly 2/3rds of the book dedicated to introspection with the hero worrying that he’ll turn evil. I assume the contrast was supposed to establish a sense of horror if the hero gives into “temptation” and turns dark. But if you’re having such an all out black and white binary, it seems extremely unlikely that this good-hearted, conscientious person is going to turn so evil that he’ll sacrifice others for profit or pleasure.
In Story Engineering (2011) Larry Brooks describes the ideal structure of a novel. I’ll highlight the key points here:
Set-Up – first 20-25% – introduces character backstory, backstory, foreshadows antagonist
First Plot Point – everything changes for the hero
The Response – hero’s reaction (analysing, responding to)
The Attack – hero becomes proactive and tries to fix things
The Resolution – wrap things up (I.e. no new information introduced. The hero has everything they need to handle conflict)
Let’s apply this outline to The Outstretched Shadow. As I said above, the first 25% of the book gives us background information. While the first few pages describes the totalitarian government, we then spend the next 150 discovering just how extremely authoritative the government is. At 25%, right on cue (according to Brooks’ structure) Kellen is summoned to appear in front of the High Council and is then banished. So we have our first plot point, where everything changes for the hero. From there for the next 350 pages, the story is in “Response” mode. But, as I said above, this response mostly takes the form of deep introspection each time new information is revealed. 350 pages… in Response mode is… a snoozefest. Luckily Kellen is introduced to a number of interesting things that makes the reader preservere on and push past the tedious introspection bit. But you really don’t want your readers to “push past” any point of a book. At page 510 we get to “Attack” – except, significantly, the plan to attack does not come from Kellen himself. HE is not proactive. Instead, he is made to follow strict instructions, and, to top it off, he is given very little accompanying information about the whys. Kellen is sent out as a champion without being told even the smallest tiny detail about the antagonist. Heck, he’s not even told there even IS an antagonist. The language is all very vague and obscure and it’s only at page 592 that Kellen learns that he’s been sent off to face Demons. Let that sink in. Page 592. It’s at this point that we can really see the narration move into “Attack” mode, where the hero is given enough information to make a decision. But – even here – Kellen is in a position where he’s reacting and responding to the information. He’s already well into his journey that he doesn’t have a chance to make many active choices.
At about the 630 page mark we are introduced to a new character – one that is absolutely fundamental in helping to resolve the first novel (and ultimately the trilogy as a whole). From there, I would like to say that the final 80 pages go quickly. They don’t. The resolution itself is another series of introspection as Kellen faces temptations and internal conflict. It follows a fairly Cambellian and Jungian trajectory where the Shadow / Antagonist that the hero must face is himself. Which is absolutely fine, as a central goal of a journey. But not when you have nearly 710 pages dedicated to the deliberations of a single 17-year-old man-child. If you’re a writer and want to go down that route, then my advice is take a page from Jordan’s Wheel of Time and add enough characters that the introspections and self/shadow themes are varied and interesting. (Despite this rant, though, I’d like to add that I thoroughly enjoyed the next book in the series. So I still recommend it to read, but perhaps not if it’s your first introduction to Fantasy Fiction).
I’ve done so much close reading analysis that never made it into my published pieces. If you are working on publishing something yourself, it’s a hard lesson to let your darlings go. i.e, you might have this terrific piece of analysis, but it might not add much to your overall argument and/or because of word length or copyright requirements, you need to find a way to be concise instead of digging into the full quotation.
The following is material I’ve had to cut from an article published in Fantasy Art and Studies (details here; you can also find discussions of my problems with publishing this piece here). It (the cut material) focuses on BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012). As my final published piece took a survey approach, I couldn’t spend as much time to dedicate to Merlin as I had originally hoped. The first draft of this piece (a conference paper) focused almost exclusively on the television show. It took me years to figure out that I needed to cut back my attention to the show in order to let the argument come through. (University 811 Writing tip: If you’re struggling to get a piece published, you may want to consider the focus of your piece and then apply an outline approach.)
The Knights of the Round Table never fully get together in BBC’s Merlin as Arthur and titular character Merlin takes the places of the knights on their adventures. The show is clichéd in terms of production: dialogues, background music, costume, and even lighting. Not only are there violins playing when Guinevere and Arthur kiss, but there is a ray of sunlight breaking through between them[i]. But by abiding in these clichéd conventions, the writers are able to transform all the major and minor plot lines of the Arthurian legend to a point where they are barely recognizable, and still remain a quintessential Arthurian story. Merlin often ignores much of the canon. The character of Merlin is not depicted as a wizened old man, but as a young adult, the same age as Prince Arthur, and furthermore, he must hide his magical powers and take the role of Arthur’s manservant. In many of the Arthurian stories up to this point only those of noble blood can be a knight. But the British television show Merlin challenges this doctrine. Lancelot does not descend from nobility. And even Guinevere is simply the daughter of a blacksmith and the maid of Lady Morgana. It is interesting that in these feminist Arthurian novels, though the novelists argue for gender and religious equality, they still abide by a class system. While Guinevere’s right to rule usually came from matriarchal power and Morgana descended from a long lineage of priestesses, this still indicates the aristocratic right to power. While in Merlin, Arthur is also still the son of a king, more emphasis is placed on secondary characters, specifically the title character of the show – Merlin.
Although Arthur is initially depicted as an arrogant, spoiled, rich boy, through his friendship with Merlin and his love for Guinevere he slowly begins to appreciate the value of the people of the other classes. His transformation is in keeping with a conception of courtly love. As Larry D. Benson suggests in Malory’s Morte Darthur (1976), what distinguishes courtly love from other love is the concept that: “love is not only virtuous in itself but is the very source and cause of all the other virtues, that indeed one cannot be virtuous unless he is a lover”[ii]. Merlin and Guinevere’s influence inspires Arthur to show kindness to the lower class, which in turns inspires incredible loyalty in his knights (as they often emerge from among this class):
GWEN. You claim titles don’t matter to you, but you behave like a prince and expect me to wait on you like a servant. Saying it means nothing if your actions betray you. […]
ARTHUR. You’re right. You have me invited me into your home and I have behaved appallingly. […]
GWEN. Because I thought you’d shown some humility. You had done something kind for me even though I’m just a servant. A good king should respect his people no matter who they are. [iii]
The resulting code of Arthur’s knighthood is established around these perimeters. When King Uther refuses to let Arthur rescue Guinevere when she is kidnapped as she is only a mere servant, Arthur’s determination to rescue Guinevere further marks a redefinition of the knight’s code. The knight must “always put the service of ladies foremost”[iv]. However, “a lady,” in Malory’s time, would only indicate a woman of noble birth. Merlin challenges the class structure, and expands this perimeter to include service all women, children, and people in need of aid. A knight, then, is not one of noble blood, but one who demonstrates this characteristic of nobleness.
In Merlin, Arthur replaces the other knights in undertaking quests, as well as taking on other motifs associated with Lancelot. He is briefly betrothed to Princess Elena[v], a figure who is paired with Lancelot (and was made by famous by Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, circa 1842). Arthur also rescues Guinevere several times (and at least thrice from kidnapping) when it is usually Lancelot that plays Guinevere’s rescuer. It should be noted though that, like its feminist predecessors, Guinevere in Merlin unfortunately still needs to be rescued. Arthur additionally takes on the “knight of the cart” motif and the “fair unknown” motif – motifs traditionally associated with Lancelot. In “The Sword in the Stone”, “the knight of the cart” motif serves as a mechanics that forces Arthur to consider the state of his kingdom and wonder if Tristan’s hatred of his kingship is warranted: “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I don’t deserve to be king”[vi]. Arthur’s arrogance is transformed into a temporarily humility, as he considers his own qualities as a king. Similarly, when Arthur adopts the “fair unknown” motif in an earlier episode, it serves to confirm that he is a good knight (and therefore, worthy enough to be the King of Camelot one day): “I fear that people respect me because of my title. […] When I’m competing as William, my title doesn’t matter, nobody gives me any special treatment. So when I win this tournament, if I win this tournament, it will be because I deserve it. Not because I am Prince Arthur”[vii]. Arthur demonstrates a belief in a meritocratic conception of kingship, where his right to lead is not determined from noble blood or divine right.
In contrast, Lancelot’s decisions in Merlin are still fueled by a desire to serve Guinevere, returning to the outdated model of courtly love which is found in Chrétien and Malory. While he is identified as the “bravest and most noble of them all”[viii], and though he demonstrates all the aspects of chivalry, Lancelot is too submissive and humble to be accepted as a strong hero. Lancelot willingly embraces his death (smiling with his arms spread in acceptance and welcome as he walks towards his death) solely because Guinevere asks him to “look after [Arthur]. Bring him home”[ix] and thus he dies in Arthur’s place. Lancelot’s action and speech mocks the notion of equality. “Ever since I was a child,” Lancelot says when we are introduced to him, “I’ve dreamed of coming here. It’s my life’s ambition to join the knights of Camelot. I know what you’re thinking. I expect too much. After all, who am I? They have their pick of the best and bravest in the land”[x]. His deference is disturbing because, through the character of Merlin, the audience is well aware of how the nobility, and especially King Uther, treat the servant class. Though in other Arthurian stories the adultery brought about the destruction of the court, we see in Merlin that Arthur is able to persevere past their betrayal. The Lancelot-Guinevere storyline serves only to mark Arthur’s fortitude and compassion, and further distinguish the qualities of nobleness that should be found in a knight.
Note that this is a reprint of a blog previously available to read on the Fantastika Journalwebsite. The original publication was posted on 4 December 2018. I have not updated it for publication here except to make formatting changes. Re-reading the piece, I’m sad that nothing has changed for the better in global politics – or we’ve forgotten some of the horrific things that occurred in 2018 because the last 3 years have been such a dystopian nightmare. I also didn’t think that Atwood’s prophetic fiction regarding women’s body autonomy would be so poignant in 2021 as when it first published in 1985, but here we are…
The Problems of Atwood
Margaret Atwood is overrated. There. I said it. And I say that as a proud Canadian as well, so I’m sure I’ve just committed some sort of blasphemy. But bear with me here. I have three very important reasons on why The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is merely ‘okay.’ And if you disagree with all three of my reasons, only then may you commence the stoning. (Note that many members of the Fantastika Editing team are also Devout Atwood Fans and will likely help you lead the charge.)
With the recent announcement that Atwood is releasing a sequel to the novel, my initial impulse is to think that this is part of the Hollywood rebooting era that we seem to be ‘thriving in.’ Don’t get me wrong, some of these sequels have been good. Incredibles 2 (2018) leaps to mind. This is a sequel 14 years in the making and its makers’ care towards the Incredibles family shows. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is another such film which took loving attention to its source material. Yes, it undermined the beauty of all the possible variations in the multiple released cuts (read more on this in Brian Baker’s editorial in volume 2, issue 1 of Fantastika Journal). But it seemed mindful of its status as an adaptation, demonstrating both continuity with the original and a break away from it, in order to be distinct and stand on its own.
But alongside of this have been plenty of adaptations and sequels that have been huge disappointments; far too many to list and point fingers at. I’m sure the reader can think of maybe just a few that were more money-grabbing nightmares rather than artistic endeavours. And it’s hard not to see Atwood’s sequel going this way as well. The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t need a sequel. Having a sequel to a Dystopia seems to imply that there’s going to be a solution to the problems of society, one that was not planned by the author when they first envisaged their Dystopia. Of course, there have been plenty of Dystopic narratives that are introduced in trilogy structures, where one presumes that the outcome in the final book will be an eventual collapse of the dystopia. But this narrative progression is usually planned by the author, an idea made obvious by the fact that the trilogy publishes within a few years of the initial novel. In contrast here, adding a solution to The Handmaid’s Tale would undermine the very nature of the Dystopia that Atwood creates. Where The Handmaid’s Tale creates a warning of the possible consequences of society’s current actions, a solution to these problems would challenge that message. The other alternative of course is that society crumbles further. To me, this is a pointless exercise. What’s the point of lighting another fire when the world is already burning?
Which brings me to my first point on why Atwood, and The Handmaid’s Tale in particular, is overhyped. First, Atwood’s depiction of society is generally black and white. There are no shades of grey. There’s not even any colour. (More on that later.) We can see quite clearly that x is bad and y is good in the novel. Repression of women is bad. Of course it is. There’s no way that anyone morally decent would ever consider this idea as a good thing. But Atwood hammers these ideas into us, as a warning of the dangers of what could occur in our own society if we allow the repression of women to continue. And, while this extrapolation makes sense, my problem with it is that it doesn’t allow for the reader to think. Atwood leads you to the answer, like an examiner that will only accept one correct answer on a math exam.
Let’s compare for a moment Atwood’s dystopia to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974). With the subtitle “An Ambiguous Utopia,” we see right in the title two drastically different depictions of Dystopia/Utopia. The first page of the novel starts with the following description:
There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall. Like all walls it was ambiguous, two faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.
Le Guin, The Dispossessed p. 1
This concept sets up the entire narrative. Le Guin doesn’t tell you which ‘side’ is the side the reader to take. The wall represents two societies of Anarres and Urras, or a communist and a capitalist society respectively. As the narrative continues, the reader realizes that the societies governed on both sides of the wall each demonstrate their own idealistic ideas alongside corruption and decay equally. Some aspects of capitalism are bad, just as some parts of communism are. And some parts may be good. And so, Le Guin doesn’t tell the reader which of these societies to favour. She allows them to think, to contemplate, and to ultimately determine that there is no right or wrong answer. There are shades of grey, with no right path.
Now, I must admit that perhaps in today’s society, we need to see the black and the white clearly outlined. Atwood’s announcement of a sequel is based on the premise that she is updating the original’s ideas to reflect today’s global politics. And, it seems apparent that maybe some people need it hammered into their heads that some ideas are bad. Children routinely dying in school shootings is a bad thing. Tear-gassing people is bad. Locking children up in cages and separating them from their families is bad. And, the fact that certain people would argue against these ideas as ‘bad’ demonstrates just how far we’ve fallen. So, yes, Atwood’s work is completely necessary in a world where we can’t allow people to think for themselves for fear that they’ll rape and pillage those around them if we let them loose. But, I would think that these people wouldn’t be reading much of Fantastika anyway. And so, to the liberal-thinking reader (Atwood’s target audience), what ideas are they walking away with after reading The Handmaid’s Tale except an affirmation of those values that they are already hold to be true?
Of course, Atwood would not describe any of her work as Fantastika. Which brings me to my second point. Atwood believes that Science Fiction is fluff. This is quite clear in many of the statements she has made. She defines her work as Speculative Fiction, a distinct term that implies, to Atwood, a literary quality. “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen” (The Guardian, 2003). And once again, I can let Le Guin speak here, in her review of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009), the second book of her MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013):
In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can’t be science fiction, which is “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today”. This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.
Le Guin decides to respect Atwood’s statements of snobbery, as there have been plenty of Science Fiction authors (Le Guin included) who have had to fight for respectability as literary authors. But the capitulation is disquieting. How can we – as academics and readers of Fantastika – fight for the importance and value of Science Fiction and Fantasy if the very authors that produce these genres likewise disparage them? So my second point against Atwood has less to do with The Handmaid’s Tale, and more to do with the disappointment that fans are unable to acknowledge this work as a Fantastika text. Atwood here divorces herself from representing Science Fiction fans. She’s not a Science Fiction author. She writes Speculative Fiction – a term, to her, which has no or little connection to Fantastika genres.
And finally, third, let’s talk about representation itself. It took me awhile to see this one, as I was so indoctrinated in the problem. I am second generation Canadian. I was born in Canada. But my parents hail from India, and thus I am a visible minority citizen. It was in university, in a class dedicated to “Canadian Women Authors” that I first got a sense of something not quite right with the Atwood world. On the very first day, I felt like I stuck out. Now, in a university class of “Canadian Women Authors,” you can expect a fair number of students who were also Canadian women. So there was no reason why I should have felt a barrier. I, too, am a Canadian woman. As were the handful of colleagues around me who were taking the class, and the professor teaching it. But, as we started the class with a discussion of feminism – what problems do we face as women? – it quickly became apparent to me that we were speaking from one particular point of view; A group of (presumably) heterosexual and (with the exception of me) white Canadian woman, taking a senior-level university class about Canadian women – and discussing how hard our life was. This is not to dismiss or belittle the very real problems of equality that women in academia face. But it felt privileged to even have a discussion of our problems while looking down at the beautiful university grounds (we were on a top floor windowed classroom, and the metaphor of the ivory ‘tower’ of university was quite physical for me during this discussion.) I tried to point out some real-world problems that other women may face. As my classmates engaged in a discussion of living with their boyfriends (the problems of balancing domestic equality with studies and work), I contemplated how *lucky* there were to be able to live in an open and public relationship. An example of a young girl in India who was forced to marry a much older man sprang to mind as a contrasting experience. I myself, although born in Canada, struggled for years against the assumption that I will eventually get an arranged marriage. I couldn’t help but envy my classmates for their open and upfront acceptance of being able to live with their boyfriends, and, I must confess, the problems they were discussing in connection to this were absolutely alien to me at the time. But, with my undergraduate-level (in)experience, I was unable to communicate or even formulate for myself the distinction between the problems of inequality that were being discussed by my colleagues, and my own experiences and awareness of problems in other communities.
It wasn’t until I attended a lecture on Atwood and Canadian Literature as a PhD student that the problem crystallized so clearly. The professor was discussing Canadian identity in another of Atwood’s novels (Surfacing, 1972). This identity is English. And French. And – with some afterthought – Indigenous peoples. Although, I should say, that I’m not sure if Indigenous culture was included in the depiction of Canadian identity. Instead, the professor very clearly outlined Canadian identity as English/French colonial guilt. Period. “I guess I’m not Canadian then,” I remember muttering to the colleague sitting next to me.
And it was at that moment that I realized that in the Canadian Women Authors class that I took back in my undergraduate years – twenty novels studied over ten to twelve weeks, with fully three or four of these books by Atwood – none of these were written by non-white Canadian women. Or, there may have been one. Possibly. But the remaining nineteen were distinctly written by white women. Canadian women’s identity, then, is white.
And while Atwood obviously didn’t set the reading texts for this course, she perpetuates the system that allows these problems of representations to occur. The professor could not have read Canadian identity as either European or French (period) if the text itself did not allow for this discussion to occur. Moreover, how many visible minority characters can you think of – off the top of your head – in Atwood’s books? Does she have any? If/when they occur, are they major characters? Or are they in the supporting role? Dismissible. Canadian identity is not a beautifully coloured mosaic. To Atwood, it seems to be shades of pink. This is disastrous! An overly emotional response? But if you think about it, Atwood is often deemed representative of ‘Canadian literature.’ If you ask a non-Canadian if they can name a Canadian author, I’m certain that Atwood would be at the top of the list. How unfortunate then, that Atwood fails to speak for so many Canadians.
Now it’s true that this discussion of the representation of minority characters is fairly new. We only became really vocal about these concerns in last the two or three years, really. But this doesn’t mean that it wasn’t important until now! And I can’t help but think, why. Why did Atwood fail to represent a full spectrum of Canadian identity in her novels? Did she not see or consider them at all? Or perhaps this was this another act to protect herself from literary biases? (And which of these explanations is worse?) It’s true that – at the time of publication in 1985 – it may have been considered more appropriate to publish a text focused on normative characters. But again, I’m going to use Le Guin – my Fantastika-idol – as an author who is able to represent various identities without being shunned. (A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968, and The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969 are two obvious examples.) But perhaps she is able to do so as she was publishing despicable Science Fiction, and not the more ‘literary’ Speculative. How bitterly ironic, that representation is more acceptable in the ‘unreal’ genres, as opposed to those that are based on *real life*.
Moreover, Atwood’s novels are frequently identified as feminist literature. Yet Atwood’s discussion of gender-problems does not even begin to address nuances of identity in gender and sexuality. It is difficult to have a discussion of the ‘problems of minority representation’ without acknowledging the full spectrum of identity that this concept covers! Critical discussions of gender and sexuality are often integrated with issues of race. Problems of systematic repression are common to so many areas, after all. And so I fully hope that Atwood fixes some of this damage in her upcoming sequel, and takes the opportunity to represent the full spectrum of human identity. Problems of representation aside, I must admit that Atwood writes beautifully. Every word is well crafted. She not only paints a picture, but allows you to wallow in all five senses, so that you live in the world. She is a master craftsman in that regard. I simply hope that her world this time includes shades of gray and colour.
Well my commitment to blog everyday is starting to falter, so I dug deep into my vault of unfinished stories for today’s post. I stopped writing fiction … 15 years ago? and have only started to dabble in it again with a few flash fictions in the last 2 years. At that time (i.e when I started writing again), I tried to pick up the pieces of where I left off, but I couldn’t make head or tails of all the different versions in my old hard drive. So I stuck an arbitrary title on all the pieces (this one is titled with the supremely unoriginal “Prophecy”) and labelled each of the drafts with a word count. I have no idea which draft I wrote first or why I have 11 of them. I suspect that the stories are slightly different in each – enough that I couldn’t just continue writing in the same document, as I likely re-structured and rewrote everything. Take a look:
If you’re baffled why one version would have 40,000 words while another has 400, you’re not alone. Amusingly, the one I picked today WAS titled with the incredibly suitable “The Fulcrum of Chaos.” I picked a draft at random for today as I couldn’t bring myself to open up all 11 drafts at this point. I’m reminded of a tangle of wires or strings that I know needs to be untangled, but I’m going to let them sit in the box, put away neatly in my closet, pretending everything is neat and orderly. The following is the first page of a 30 page document. It’s essentially unaltered (although I couldn’t bring myself to let the grammar mistakes stand. The copy-editor in me cringes that I didn’t know the difference between things like ‘then’ and ‘than.’). In any case, enjoy! …..?
From the Chronicles of the Mages’ Guild
She heard screaming. The smell of burnt flesh. She froze in horror, looking down at the girl writhing in pain on the ground. Amber flames licked across the other girl’s skin, torching her hair. She reached a hand out toward her when the screaming cut off abruptly. Her senses were screaming at her to run. To flee.
Dropping her bag, she sprinted in the direct of the closet tree, looking for cover. The grass went up in flames behind her. She didn’t look. Kept running, dashing across the street towards the protection of the forest. She should’ve run the other way. Towards more people. But it was dark out, made darker by the new moon. There would be few people still on campus. No one to hear her scream. And whoever was after her didn’t care about harming others.
She tripped, her high heels catching on a tree root as she muttered to herself. Her breath left her in a rush as she went down hard, her knees scraping where her skirt rode up. Scrambling up, she abandoned her heels, running over the hard dirt of the path barefoot. Should she leave the path? Where would she hide? Adrenaline gave her speed, but fear robbed her of breath. She could feel her heart pounding, her chest tight. Pain exploded in her head, and she fell screaming to the floor. She wasn’t on fire. Where was the pain coming from? She couldn’t see! She patted the earth, trying to find her missing eyeglasses while she chocked for air.
Her attacker was on top of her instantly. She couldn’t see him. Her. Was it even human? Her vision was greying at the edges. The figure before her a shadow. She gasped in a breath before his fingers clawed around her throat.
Damned if she’d go without a fight! Drawing in the last of her energy, she focused on her hand, punching him in the stomach. She could smell the now familiar scent of burnt flesh, and he screamed in pain. He reared back, giving her enough space to knee him between the legs. Outraged, he drew up a knife, lashing out with a scream of rage. Searing heat speared through her chest. Her eyes blurred in pain. Movement flickered before her. A wolf. There was a wolf standing by the tree.
I love issue 13 of The Sandman. In “Men of Good Fortune” we take a break from the main narrative of volume 2 Doll’s House; a much needed reprieve before the rollercoaster of horror we’ll face in issue 14. Instead we see snippets of a White Horse tavern in England where every hundred years Dream meets with Robert Gadling, a man who simply refuses to die. Each time we are treated to a change in scenery as, even though it’s the same tavern, over the course of some 600 years, the tavern changes with the time, along with its customers, their fashions and aesthetics. The background dialogue from the tavern customers also tell of us the continued political strifes and struggles that the everyman has to face – the latest being “Thatcher’s bloody poll tax”. So while my re-reading of Sandman has focused on portraits, the issue operates as a series of portraits in itself.
That being said, there IS one illustrated portrait within the issue: a miniature painting of Robert Gadling’s wife and new born son, which Robert shows to Dream with evident pride stating, “this is what I always dreamed heaven would be like, way back. It’s safe to walk the streets, enough food, and good wine. Life is so rich.”
When next we see Robert a 100 years later, nearly thrown out of the tavern for looking like a homeless drunkard, it’s clear life hasn’t treated him so well. His wife died in childbirth, his son in a tavern brawl, and Robert was set upon by angry villagers suspicious of his immortality and charging him of witchcraft. Robert pawned the portraiture of his family 40 years ago for food, and tells Dream, “I hated every second of the last eighty years. Every bloody second.” But when Dream asks if he wishes to die, Robert responds, “Are you crazy? […] I got so much to live for.” It’s an odd but striking sentiment. Homeless, with a dead wife and son. What can he possibly have to live for? Although the fact that he pawned their portrait might indicate that he didn’t value their lives too highly. But I wonder… I wonder if he pawned their portraits so he WOULDN’T dwell on their memories. So that he could move on and keep living, instead of being haunted by their pictures. How else would a man keep living 600+ years through sheer will alone?
And it also makes me wonder, who would have that drive, to keep living, keep surviving, despite all else? Robert’s been through so many ups and downs and he doesn’t seem to resent a second of living. I doubt I would have the same stamina.
Continuing the Sandman re-read that I started here, since I’m focusing only on portraits there’s only a small one to talk about issue 11, so we’ll keep it short today. (And, to be honest, I am having a tough day. So apologies in advance if this piece doesn’t have my usual energy.)
In issue 11 we see Rose (who we met in the last issue) who has newly arrived in Florida looking for her younger brother who she hasn’t seen in 7 years, since he was 5 years old. Her investigation – or rather, her private eye’s investigation – has come back with a news clippings of her father’s death and am image of her grandfather and Jed from 4 years ago. Rose has never met her grandfather but adds (in a letter to her mum): “wish I’d met him: he sounds like a nice old guy. Looked like Santa Claus in oilskins”. The accompanying picture is of grandfather and grandson standing together in front of a lighthouse. Grandfather has his hand on Jed’s shoulder and they’re both grinning, clearly happy. A small but loving family. I suspect the happy picture is what leads to Rose to later make an incredibly naive deduction. The P.I. finally find Jed, living with the father’s cousin on a farm: “These farmers are claiming $800 a month for him, from the state. So at least they’ll be taking good care of him.” Oh Rose. The readers, having seen several pages from Jed’s point-of-view, knows exactly the standard of care that the $800/month is getting him: a cold floor in a dank and dark basement with a single blanket and a corner of the wall to pee in.
Meanwhile, Dream has his spy Matthew steal a picture of Jed as he needs to “see him to find him.” Once he does, he realizes that Jed has been severed from the Dreaming, unable to enter the Dream World as a human. This act is against Dream’s laws and he is ANGRY. Stay tuned to find out if Jed’s caretakers get meted out the justice they so rightly deserve when Dream deals with his own law breakers.
Click here if you want to see my next post in the Sandman read-along.
Continuing the Sandman re-read that I began here, today we get our first glimpse of the gallery; a personal, private gallery, housed in each of the Endless’s Fortresses. We’ll later learn that there are 7 Endless “siblings.” We were introduced to two of them in volume 1: Dream, of course, along with his older sister Death. Issue 10 opens with another Endless sibling, Desire, introduced by means of a visual portrait on the first page of the issue. As I discussed last time, the portrait is cold, alienlike. Portraits, of course, show us the artist’s representation of the qualities of the person. I’ve been musing on Desire’s portrait for the last 24 hours. The concept of desire, for me, evokes ideas of heat and passion, fire and colour and energy. But Desire here is cold, detached. It is perhaps a more appropriate depiction of Desire than the image in my head. Desire does not equate to passion. Passion seems to suggest a depth of feeling brought about by connection. One fuels the flames of passion by constantly feeding it, nurturing it, sustaining it. Desire here seems to indicate an intense longing for something without doing the work to achieve it. It suggests a fickle feeling that passes once one’s attention is diverted.
Given this assessment, the design of Desire’s gallery is suitable with their person. The gallery of the Endless is a personal space in each of their fortresses. But instead of being lined with famous artwork, the gallery contains “portraits” of each of the Endless siblings. When one of the Endless wish to communicate with a sibling, they stand in their gallery in front of the appropriate portrait with their sigil or symbol in hand to evoke and summon the sibling. The gallery then also operates as a portal space, where Endless can cross into each other’s realms by invitation. Desire’s gallery is.. cold. Reminiscent of a real world art gallery, in some ways… wide open spaces, large art pieces dominating the room with little context or curation. But the room is dark, threatening. Splashes of red add small marks of colour. The gallery pieces are placed in a uniform line on a nearly black wall.
The image is cleverly depicted like the squares of a panel in a comic or graphic novel. But in fact this is the way the gallery is exhibited: simple but powerful images on a canvas of white hanging on black. The simplicity is stark and cutting, much like Desire themselves. This is not a space that invites its viewers to linger.
That feeling of uneasiness increases as Desire summons their sibling, their twin, Despair, and the two discuss Desire’s plots against their elder brother Dream. Given that Dream has firmly been established as the protagonist of the series at this point combined with the memories of the events of the last volume, the reader is left with a quiet foreboding that a trap has been set for Dream, one that might be just as horrifying as his last set of challenges. Hopefully he will emerge from this next trial will less collateral damages.
Click here if you want to see the next post on my Sandman read-along.
Since I’m focusing on portraits for my Sandman re-read, we’re skipping past the rest of volume 1 (which I started here) and heading straight to issue 10. Volume 2 The Doll’s House is where the motif of portraits become interesting, especially in just the first few pages. We’ll talk about the first one today: a full page portrait of Desire on the first page of the issue:
How do you read a graphic novel? With full page spreads like these I take more time to examine the illustration before reading the text, let it sink into me like I’m in an art gallery. (With panels I need to read the text first for direction before I fully appreciate the image.) This image puts us into the realm of the Endless right away: the background grid of emptiness stretching into the horizon; white teeth gleaming, an uncomfortable oddity to the rest of the face and torso which is in shadows; gleaming red eyes; and a nebula of red not-stars around a planet-like heart.
The narration tells us that there is only one thing in the realm of Desire: this fortress, shaped in a giant “statue of Desire him-, her-, it-self”. An immense statue towering alone on a blanket of emptiness. The narration also identies the statue as a portrait “complete in all the details, built from the fancy of Desire out of blood, and flesh, and bone, and skin.” There is something cold about the statue, the dark blue tones echoing of cold marble or slate. The notion that it’s made of blood and flesh and bones and skins is slightly alarming. … did Desire dream it up? Is that what the text means with “fancy”? Or did Desire somehow acquire these materials to craft their self-portrait? … given the events of the last volume, perhaps it’s best not to ask.
The fortress/ self-portrait is called The Threshold. “Desire has always lived on the edge.” The text pairs nicely with the image as again we’re drawn to examine it; the background gives us a sense of that edge, an empty vastness marked off neatly with borders. The next page continues this theme as the fortress has “empty, echoing veins, like tunnels. You will walk them until you grow old and die without once retracing your steps.” Finally we’re drawn to the centre of the image, the heart itself, which seems almost to pulse. “There was only one place in the cathedral of its body to make its home. Desire lives in the heart.” While in most cases, the phrase “Desire lives in the heart” might be written off as sentimental muck appropriate for a greeting card, here the image is sublime again: something grand and terrifying. This affect is supported with the reference to a Cathedral, another large, echoing cavern which makes its audience feel humbled and awed in the face of something part divine, part alien. The first installation of volume 2 (following the prologue) thus begins with a firm reminder that the Endless are not human nor gods, but something else inexplicable. Something frightening.
Click here to see the second part of the Issue 10 read-along.