Diary of an Interesting Year by Helen Simpson

Peter Graham - The Grass Crown Headland of a Rocky Shore

Diary of an Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson is a science fiction short story and the final story in her collection In-flight Entertainment. This story is written in diary format and is a critique of the apocalyptic dystopian genre.

“Interesting” of the title is classic understatement. The comedy achieved by the irony and satire in this story is dark.

FEATURES OF THE APOCALYPTIC STORY

Apocalyptic stories tend to focus on the experience of a small group of characters, perhaps on one. This makes use of a particular cognitive bias — we are more saddened by the story of an individual than by the story of a population. When we are unable to feel empathy because the magnitude of disaster is too great, this is called psychic numbing.

THE MYTH OF THE SELF-RELIANT INDIVIDUAL

“Diary of an Interesting Year” critiques the idea that individuals are capable of looking after ourselves, given sufficient willpower, hard work and grit.

  • One reason that isolated characters seem appealing is that, ironically, they are reassuring. They give the comforting impression that anyone could thrive in isolation as they do.
  • The great loners embody an idea of freedom from the vagaries and stresses of social life (e.g. Robinson Crusoe and similar survival stories, often set on islands)
  • Famous hermits, both in real life and in fiction, are always male. They tend to be young, fit and healthy with no family responsibilities to speak of.
  • But even in stories, they are not wholly self-reliant.
  • These stories are often set in the wild. The wild is a source not only of sensory stimulation, but also of interspecies sociality. (Robinson Crusoe had a dog, two cats, some goats and a parrot, and later a human companion.)
  • Real, relentless isolation is not at all romantic. Indeed, it is far worse than the stress of social life.
  • A growing body of psychological evidence that indicates that supportive social contact, interaction and inclusion are fundamentally important to a minimally decent human life.

Aeon

How does Helen Simpson subvert and invert the reassuring modern Romanticism we’ve come to expect of apocalyptic tales, even those tales full of death and destruction?

  • The narrator is a woman rather than your typical able-bodied Magyver archetype. This woman is not a shell-like fantasy of a woman but a real woman with real woman problems. She is terrified of pregnancy and cleaning her menstrual rags is one of her tasks. A few writers such as Meg Elison (The Book of the Unnamed Midwife) have put women front and centre in apocalyptic tales, but this is still rare enough to feel like an inversion. (This Reddit thread of comments really highlights the issues writers have writing female main characters in an apocalyptic setting. Many commenters think the main character is overly concerned with women’s issues and generally unlikeable — two accusations rarely if ever levelled at male characters in desperate situations.)
  • In straight apocalyptic tales, members of a group often come together in times of crisis. They do have their own in-group conflicts but those arguments tend to be focused on the here and now of the story, because everything that happened before this terrible moment is rendered insignificant. But in this story, the narrator has a long-standing issue with her older, academic husband — he is always going on about the apocalypse. This continues to irritate her. The same old rift won’t just die because of an apocalypse. Simpson juxtaposes and combines massive, life-and-death problems with the same workaday, run-of-the-mill problems within the same diary entry, ultimately showing that humans find it very difficult to rise above our immediate situations. “Oh, shut up,” says the narrator to her husband. She tells her diary they should put ‘I Was Right’ on his tombstone. Ironically, he does end up dead and death indeed shuts him up, forever. Though “See Saw” by Katherine Mansfield is a very different kind of short story, the characters in Mansfield’s story show the same petty aspect of human nature. But Mansfield achieves this by putting her characters into a utopian setting rather than into a dystopian one.
  • Apocalyptic stories are mythic in structure, either Robinsonnades (mentioned above) or Odyssean (characters go on a journey). In “Diary of an Interesting Year” the characters have no luck staying put. There are very unromantic reasons for this — sewerage overflow is one. So they set out on a journey. In a classic myth narrative, characters will meet stock characters along the way — some will be enemies, others helpers. But in this story there are no helpers. Moreover, enemies aren’t your classic villains, rather, enemies are other desperate people competing for the same scarce resources.

G held me in his shaky arms and talked about Russia, how it’s the new land of milk and honey since the Big Melt. ‘Some really good farming opportunities opening up in Siberia,’ he said through chattering teeth.

  • Although the narrator’s husband has been proven correct about the apocalypse — which is terrible — the diarist narrator wife paints a picture in which he is pleased he is at least correct. This is all he’s got to cling to. In this story, neither the happily deluded nor the Cassandras ‘win’.
  • The husband reminds me of every single character I’ve ever seen on Doomsday Preppers. The assumption behind those shows is that it’s possible to survive with adequate preparation and self-defence. This is a comforting idea for those with the resources. But in “Diary of an Interesting Year” the husband’s vague fantasies of self-sufficiency don’t pan out, because self-sufficiency is very, very difficult.

We met a pig this morning. It was a bit thin for a pig, and it didn’t look well. G said ‘Quick! We’ve got to kill it.’
‘Why?’ I said. ‘How?’
‘With a knife,’ he said. “Bacon. Sausages.’
I pointed out that even if we managed to stab it to death with our old kitchen knife, which looked unlikely, we wouldn’t be able just to open it up and find bacon and sausages inside.
‘Milk, then!’ said G wildly. ‘It’s a mammal, isn’t it?’
Meanwhile the pig walked off.

  • In apocalyptic stories the main character usually rebels against the status quo by exposing its flaws, escaping the world entirely, attempting to take it over, or initiating a new set of rules. But these characters are low on Northrop Frye’s scale of mimetic heroes. At first they seem hapless, until we step back and realise that in the same situation we’d be no better. This is, in fact, the point.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “DIARY OF AN INTERESTING YEAR”

Unlike straight narratives, the satire does not invite reader identification with a ‘hero’ or ‘main character

SHORTCOMING

Everyone’s in a pickle, though women are even more vulnerable than men.

DESIRE

The narrator has no long term desire other than to survive each day. Anything more would turn her into a more noble hero, and she is not that. She is an ordinary person, plucked out of comfortable urban/surburban life in a rich country with no survival skills.

OPPONENT

Everyone is an opponent, though her husband G is not the sort of opponent we’ve come to expect — the long-running issues of their marriage haven’t simply evaporated.

Everyone along the path is an opponent.

She is eventually abducted by M after M kills G.

PLAN

Throughout most of the story, plans don’t turn out. Even the things stories have taught us should be simple turn out to be nigh on impossible. For instance, throwing oneself about to induce termination:

Can’t sleep. Very bruised and scratched after today. They used to throw themselves downstairs to get rid of it. The trouble is the gravel pit just wasn’t deep enough, plus the bramble bushes kept breaking my fall.

Amy Robsart exhibited 1877 William Frederick Yeames 1835-1918
Amy Robsart exhibited 1877 William Frederick Yeames 1835-1918

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle where the narrator defeats her main enemy is left off the page, presumably because the narrator can’t bear to write about it.

November 7th. It’s all over. I’m still here. Too tired to

ANAGNORISIS

After many abuses, the narrator realises she has the strength to defeat her abductor. This plan works, showing she has experienced a character arc. Using trickery, she is able to kill M. She also arranges things that he kills the baby inside her via another beating.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The story ends with the narrator buries the diary with her dead baby. She continues on her journey. We extrapolate things won’t improve for her. She now has nothing and no one.

John Everett Millais - Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind
John Everett Millais – Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind

Header painting: Peter Graham – The Grass Crown Headland of a Rocky Shore

Moral Dilemmas And Children’s Stories

moral dilemma

What Is A Moral Dilemma?

Donald Maass explains the difference between a ‘dilemma’ and a ‘MORAL dilemma’:

A dilemma is a choice between two equally good or two equally bad outcomes. A moral dilemma elevates such a choice by giving two outcomes equally excellent, or excruciating, consequences not only for a protagonist, but for others. A dilemma is a situation in which none of us likes to be caught, but in which we all sometimes find ourselves. A moral dilemma is a situation nobody wants, and which few must ever face, but which is terrific for making compelling fiction.

Donald Maass

Using Donald’s distinction, not many children’s books of middle grade level and below have moral dilemmas. The vast majority feature dilemmas, relatable because they are faced by all of us over the course of growing up: Do I sit with my old friends at lunch or with these shiny new friends? Do I follow my parents’ instructions or do I try something different?

The choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is no choice at all

Human nature dictates that each of us will always choose the “good” or the “right” as we perceive the “good” or the “right.” It is impossible to do otherwise. Therefore, if a character must choose between a clear good versus a clear evil, or right versus wrong, the audience, understanding the character’s point of view, will know in advance how the character will choose.

A thief bludgeons a victim on the street for the five dollars in her purse. He may know this isn’t the moral thing to do, but moral/immoral, right/wrong, legal/illegal often have little to do with one another. He may instantly regret what he’s done. But at the moment of murder, from the thief’s point of view, his arm won’t move until he’s convinced himself that this is the right choice. If we do not understand that much about human nature–that a human being is only capable of acting toward the right or the good as he has come to believe it or rationalize it–then we understand very little. Good/evil, right/wrong choices are dramatically obvious and trivial.

True choice is dilemma. It occurs in two situations. First a choice between irreconcilable goods: From the character’s point of view two things are desirable, he wants both, but circumstances are forcing him to choose only one. Second, a choice between the lesser of two evils: From the character’s view two things are undesirable, he wants neither, but circumstances are forcing him to choose one. How a character chooses in a true dilemma is a powerful expression of his humanity and of the world in which he lives.

Robert McKee, Story

Everyday Dilemma, Or Impossible Choice?

Janice Hardy calls the moral dilemma the ‘impossible choice‘. Hardy advises writers to include at least one impossible choice per story, even if the story isn’t overtly about that (e.g. Sophie’s Choice). If we think in terms of ‘impossible choice’, then choosing to sit with new friends instead of old friends then sounds impossible: If you sit with your old friends you could squander a chance to make extra friends. But if you sit with your new friends you might lose your old ones, since childhood is tribal. If you follow the rules about being nice to everyone, how do you deal with that covert bully who is never nice to you? Ignoring won’t work. Childhood is chock full of impossible choices.

Moral Dilemmas Give Stories Emotional Impact

Karl Iglesias in his book Writing For Emotional Impact has this to say about moral dilemmas:

Dilemmas create emotional anguish for characters, which in turn challenges readers to consider what they would do if the dilemma were theirs. Our anguish may not be as acute, as we’re one step removed, but we twist our hands anyway. That is, we twist them if the dilemma is truly difficult.

Dilemmas, then, work best when the stakes are both high and personal. When one choice is morally right, it will win out unless it is offset by a different choice that is equally compelling in personal terms. Law versus love. Tell the truth or protect the innocent. Be honest or be kind. When there’s no way to win in a story, the winner is us.

The more difficult the decision your character has to make, the more you’ll engage the reader in thinking about it and therefore compel them to read on to find out how the story turns out.

Parables always feature a moral dilemma. The main character faces a moral dilemma, makes a bad decision then suffered the unintended consequences

To take the schoolyard bully example, it is morally right to ignore a bully. That’s what kids are told to do. But in reality, ignoring bullies doesn’t work. It may feel personally right to quietly take revenge, or at the very least, to assert your own position in the pecking order by doing something that displays your own strength.



Moral Dilemmas Create Mystery

Mystery in story is always good. Not just in the mystery genres, but in every single story. 

Karl Iglesias recommends the following for creating mystery around characters:

Create a mysterious past

Special abilities, secrets. Make the secrets hurtful and embarrassing or dangerous. Your character should be willing to do about anything to protect them.

Create a mysterious present

Why is the character behaving in this particular way? Maybe they say something surprising in dialogue. The balancing act for writers is, these actions have to be both surprising and consistent with attitudes and desires.

This is where the moral dilemma comes in. As soon as you create a fork in the road for your character, this creates curiosity, anticipation and uncertainty in the reader. The mystery is: What on earth will this character do? The harder the choice, the more interesting it is to see the character’s decision.

Create a mysterious future

What will be revealed about the character and when? How will the reader be surprised?

We might use the word ‘wraith‘ to describe ‘mysterious past’. The word ‘hook’ or ‘dramatic question’ is often used to describe mystery in the present and future. 

Examples Of Moral Dilemmas In Stories For Adults

Sophie’s Choice

No one talks about moral dilemmas in fiction without mentioning this film.  In this story, the moral dilemma is the main thing. It’s right there in the title.  In desperate circumstances, on the spur of the moment, a mother has to decide between sacrificing her son or her daughter. This decision is presented as a flashback story using her present non-wartime life as a wrapper.

Fresh Complaint

Jeffrey Eugenides’ book of short stories is about men who don’t know how to behave in a more egalitarian world:

It’s sort of, you’re caught in the middle of this thing, you want to redefine what it means to be a man in our time, and then going along with that has to involve a lot of self-exposure, and a lot of recrimination and regret for your behavior. At the same time, there’s maybe some resistance to being told how you’re supposed to behave. So the characters are caught between being good and being bad. That makes for more energetic fiction, when you have someone of two minds trying to figure out a problem, as opposed to being really sure about his way and his conduct.

Vulture

Albino Alligator

This lesser known film from 1996 explores the dilemma of a woman having to kill an innocent man in cold blood so that she can survive a hostage situation. Compare this to a film such as Kidnap (2017) in which Halle Berry’s young son gets taken. Here there is no moral dilemma as she goes all out to get her son back, causing serious car accidents and even killing a cop. In this story it is taken for granted that a mother WOULD go all out for her son.

Cop Shows

The detective/crime genre is great for presenting police officers with daily moral dilemmas.

Crime writer Jo Nesbo has this to say about the approach he takes to his stories:

I give my protagonists moral dilemmas and force them to make a choice. And I try not to be the judge of the choice they make. One of the big questions I try to ask is, what is free will? What is morality? Is it something God-given, or is it a framework that society has imposed on us to make us more efficient?

Even in stories for children, writers must ultimately let the audience decide whether the character was right to have made the decision they made.

Dark Water

In this Japanese psychological horror a mother must decide between staying with her own daughter (in which case they may both be killed), or sacrificing herself to mother the little girl ghost, thereby leaving her own daughter without a mother.

Moral Dilemmas In Stories For Children

FREEDOM OR CONFORMITY?

Sticking with the wolf theme, in the Japanese feature-length anime Wolf Children, the mother of two were-children must make a series of tough decisions about what to do with her offspring. One of the first: When they get sick, does she take them to the vet or to the doctor? Next, does she stay in the city and force them to live like humans, or does she take them to the country and let them explore their wild sides?

KINDNESS OR PRAGMATISM?

In Anne of Green Gables, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert face a tough moral dilemma. They need someone who can perform traditionally masculine tasks to keep their farm running as the head into old age. But the orphan who turns up at the train station is a girl. They don’t need a girl. So, do they send her back, even though she clearly brings them such joy, and is so grateful to be on Prince Edward Island?

TO SAVE A LIFE OR PERHAPS SAVE MANY?

In The Iron Giant, Hogarth faces a tough choice. Does he report a potentially life-destroying giant to the authorities, or does he keep the giant secret and try to turn him into a benevolent entity?

TO SHARE OR NOT TO SHARE?

In “We Found A Hat” by Jon Klassen, two tortoises find one hat. They both want the hat. Only one tortoise can wear the hat. Do they fight for the hat? Do they take turns with the hat? Something else?

To lie or not to lie?

Lying and truth telling are hugely prominent themes in middle grade books in particular. Developmentally, this is when young readers start to question black and white rules about telling the truth.

A story like Wolf Hollow has a moral dilemma, to do with telling the truth or not in order to protect someone. Interestingly, Wolf Hollow was originally written for adults, and revised for children when an editor saw a position for it on the children’s book market.

Anne Shirley faces moral dilemmas of her own. She has been taught not to lie, yet she finds herself having to do exactly that when she is forced to apologise to Rachel Lynde even though she’s not the slightest bit sorry. In the end it is Matthew who teaches Anne that sometimes it’s best to say the right thing to smooth things over, even when you don’t mean them. For Anne, it’s the choice between being true to oneself and doing what’s expected. This is part of her coming-of-age arc, since we must all learn this social custom, throwing away black and white notions about when it’s okay to lie.

Personal Versus Moral Decisions

Thidwick The Big-Hearted Moose is weighed down by all these creatures living on his antlers but when shooting season begins he has to choose between saving them and being free of them himself. This is the classic moral choice versus personal choice, as distinguished by Karl Iglesias, quoted above.

To break the rules or not to break the rules?

This is also a really popular moral dilemma in children’s books, because sometimes parents dish out terrible advice. It might be because they don’t want their child to get into trouble by prioritising the personal over the moral. Often as not, it’s because the parents are too old to understand (or remember) the social intricacies that are specific to the school years.

The father in Freaks and Geeks is so hopelessly out of touch with his teenage daughter that any advice he gives her is taken to comical extremes in his dialogue. In other stories, the adult authority figure may dish out quite sensible advice which nevertheless doesn’t work in the real world. Children start to realise this from about the middle of primary school.

As a real life example, my 9-year-old daughter has a friend who was recently held hostage in the girl’s toilet (in a scene that reminds of something straight out of Bridge To Terabithia). This has lead to tears, and the girl blocking the door simply won’t budge. The school rule: Hands off. No touching at all, ever. Advice that actually might work to disrupt the power struggle going on: Barge past anyway, and if she won’t move of her own accord, too bad for her. My daughter’s friend’s real life dilemma is, does she barge past the door-blocker, bending school rules about not touching others in anger, or does she stay in the toilet and cry, cementing the social hierarchy to her detriment?

Stories dealing with the issue of bullying are well-placed to explore these moral dilemmas with nuance that school authorities themselves are unable to provide. In fact, children’s literature is currently going through a period in which adults in general are not to be trusted. This is a feature of the dystopian novel, which is recently making another comeback. Amanda Craig has this to say about this kind of children’s book:

Many are quite brilliantly plotted and written, and I recommend them, especially for reluctant readers of 11+, even if, like vampires and demons they are becoming too familiar. Children enjoy imagining how they might behave in such adventures, and the usual blend of action, romance and moral dilemma does no harm. But there are other kinds of novel being published which do worry me.

Amanda Craig

In other words, dystopian novels can be useful for the moral dilemmas they present — and in apocalyptic scenarios, these dilemmas will be a matter of life and death.

Avoiding Overt Didacticism

This advice applies especially to children’s writers, perhaps. We’re going through a period where didacticism in children’s books is a big no-no. I push back on that a little below but first, an  important distinction:

Narrative closure is not necessarily the same as thematic or ideational closure.

We might call the closure of plot a ‘narrative closure’.

We might call the other kind of closure ‘hermeneutic closure’. (Hermeneutic basically = interpretive.)

Writers generally tidy up the narrative (but not always — Hitchcock’s Vertigo is one famous example).

But even if you tidy up all your plot threads to create a satisfying conclusion, that doesn’t mean you should tidy up ideas. They don’t mean you, as writer, should come down on one side or the other of your the moral dilemma:

Your theme should take the form of an irresolvable dilemma, so you should give both sides equal weight for as long as possible until the climax. The trick is to come up with a finale that addresses the conflict and makes a concrete statement about it, without definitively declaring one side right and the other wrong. … [In your ironic and ambiguous ending] a statement is made about the dilemma, but its’ not permanently settled. You have something to say, but you don’t have something definitive to say. You have a point, but your point is untidy. You’re leaving room open for uncertainty and ambiguity, because that multiplies the meaning.

Matt Bird, Secrets of Story

This relates closely to a post I’ve already written about punishment in children’s literature. Children’s books very often come down on one side by punishing the characters who did wrong. A lot of genre fiction for adults is just the same — in crime novels especially, the rule of the genre is that the murderer gets caught (though it’s possible to blend crime with other genres and create something different).

While contemporary children’s books are said to be far less didactic than books from The First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, you’ll find they still contain messages — the messages simply seem more subtle. It all comes down to who gets punished.

There is still very much a taboo against rewarding behaviours considered bad by a popular, conservative audience.

The Gendered Nature Of Moral Decisions

Writers should be mindful of the gendered nature of this question. Girls are acculturated differently, to be kind and self-sacrificing. When female characters in children’s books make huge sacrifices we are reinforcing that message. An Australian picture book in which a female character makes a huge sacrifice for the sake of a male character is the Nick Bland book The Very Cranky Bear. The sheep shaves off her fluff to make the bear happy, but the story ends there. We don’t see how uncomfortable she is in the cold cave without her wool to protect her. Perhaps this is connected to the fact that sheep are regularly shorn, and in Australia where there are lots of sheep, we don’t really consider that a burden on the sheep. (If we didn’t shear sheep they’d grow ridiculously woolly, since that’s the way we’ve bred them.) However, it’s worth subverting gendered expectations where possible, in which case it’s necessary for writers to ask:

  • Why have I gendered my characters like this and not like this?
  • Can this self-sacrificing creature be gendered male?
  • If the self-sacrificing creature is gendered female, is she always sacrificing herself for the sake of a male, or can she at least help another female character?

A CHARACTER IS MORE LIKELY TO MAKE A BAD CHOICE IF FATIGUED

No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts.

Do you suffer from decision fatigue? from the New York Times

The Hunger Games

 

It’s safe to say this post contains spoilers about The Hunger Games.

volunteering-as-tribute

Plenty has been said about The Hunger Games and I doubt I can add another single thing, but I have been collecting links on this for ages as they raced through my feed, refusing to read them until I’d seen the movie and read the book.

BOOK VERSUS FILM

Here is one overview of the differences from Lit Reactor.

Love the books, liked the movie, don’t think the film would have nearly as much value for those who hadn’t read the books. – The Beheld

It seems to make a difference whether you watch the film first or read the book first. I fit into neither category because I watched the film as I was partway through the book. I’d already seen trailers and screenshots of the film, which would have informed my vision of District 12 and the world of the story, but I can empathise with those who say that the film did not live up to the expectations of the world they’d built inside their heads. It’s true: a film set, no matter how lavish, can never live up to a good imagination.

If I noticed one area in which the film fell down, it was in the dialogue. Dialogue could have so easily been taken straight out of the book, but it hadn’t been. (Noticeable mainly because my viewing and reading of this story happened simultaneously — probably not noticeable otherwise unless you’re a megafan.)

For instance, there’s a scene in the film where Haymitch Abernathy says to Katniss, ‘Nice dress, sweetheart.’ He then turns to Effie Trinkett, who is about to get into an elevator with them (I think), and Haymitch adds, nastily, ‘Not yours.’

I remember this scene because the rest of the audience in the theatre laughed, and I don’t find that kind of humour funny. I mean the kind of humour in which one woman is complimented on her looks while at the same time another woman is dished out a backhanded compliment. You’ve probably seen this meme: When Did This Become Hotter Than This? I hate that meme, because in its attempt to embrace a healthier body image for women, all it does is try and shift our views about ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ body types. Women are still being judged primarily on their looks. This is why we should remain a little skeptical when evaluating The Hunger Games (the movie, especially) as some sort of feminist triumph. Is it really? (See below.)

While Effie Trinket is not a character to empathise with, she does exhibit a lot of the virtues which are expected of women in her position: enthusiasm, an outward appearance of politeness and a level of personal grooming which makes her look almost scary (AKA ‘Emotional Labor’). On the scale of disagreeable characters in The Hunger Games cast, Effie Trinket is one of the more harmless.

In general, movie adaptations of books are more open to cliche, whether it be at a story level or at a dialogue level. Perhaps cliches don’t stand out as much when they come in movie form, whereas on a page they never fail to clock us in the head.

One example, true of many book to film adaptations, is that the romantic element is played up in The Hunger Games movie. That’s an example of a storyline cliche.

As for dialogue, when Rue is fatally speared in the movie, I remember Katniss crouching over her. She says something like, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ I remember thinking, although I’d not reached that part in the novel, ‘No, she’s really not. You probably shouldn’t say that.’

Then I got to that same scene in the book:

One look at the wound and I know it’s far beyond my capacity to heal… There’s no point in comforting words, in telling her she’ll be all right. She’s no fool.

I much prefer the honesty of the book scene. Why did they change it for the movie when there was really no need to? I wonder if the dialogue in the film was influenced by the track which plays at Rue’s death, the one by Taylor Swift in which the lyrics go, ‘Just close your eyes /  The sun is going down / You’ll be alright / No one can hurt you now’.

Anna Sarkeesian (Feminist Frequency) has intelligent things to say about the differences between the book and the film in this video, and I find particularly interesting the reaction of the audience inside the theatre where she saw this movie. That, I suppose, is the main benefit of seeing a film with an audience. At home, you don’t get to see other people’s reactions. I also find it disturbing what people find (and don’t) find funny.

THE GENDER GAMES

It’s interesting to read about how the Hunger Games was sparked in the mind of Suzanne Collins, in an article entitled Suzanne Collins: the queen of teen fiction for tomboys by The Guardian.

I find myself irked more and more by the term ‘tomboy’. I always have, even as a kid when I was one.

First, a tomboy is a girl, so why a portmanteau including not only the word ‘boy’, but ‘Tom’ – a boy’s name? Nothing in the word ‘tomboy’ suggests we’re actually describing a girl.

Second, the fact that the concept even exists makes salient the fact that a ‘real’ girl has to be a certain way, not that girls come in all flavours and have a wide variety of interests, clothing styles and sporting aptitude. I can see why the word tomboy may have been useful back in 1900, but I’m disappointed to see it still used un-ironically in the headlines of a major newspaper.

Third, as I have noted before, it is assumed (I think wrongly) that boys will not be interested in a story about a girl unless she is an FFT (see below), so at the very least she must be a girl in a boy’s body. I don’t think this is the case for Katniss, and I don’t even like such black and white gender distinctions because I think they’re unhelpful, but it’s the assumption that continues to bother me. The proliferation (domination?) of ‘tomboys’ as a representation of ‘strong female character’ is almost a form of femme phobia.

It has been said that the gender of Katniss is pretty irrelevant. She’s an every-hero. I find it interesting, though, that she almost seems to have outrightly reject everything that could be associated with femininity. Not only looking pretty — that’s the most obvious one, and I have to admit, a welcome change — but even cooking. Nor does caring come naturally to her. She is making soup for Peeta in the woods. While master cheffing is a masculine pursuit, the day-to-day drudgery of household food preparation is feminine, and I can’t really blame Katniss for wanting to avoid it. Hence:

I’m the first to admit I’m not much of a cook. But since soup mainly involves tossing everything in a pot and waiting, it’s one of my better dishes.

But when a character is the opposite of all things feminine, I start to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to throw in a few surprises, to show that Katniss has not rejected her gender altogether, but instead embraced the best parts and thrown away others as she sees fit. Where are the heroines who have managed that?

See also: The Gender Games, and another video from Feminist Frequency in which Katniss is evaluated as a strong female character. Conclusion: while the first book stands strong, the next two books in the trilogy see Katniss fail to continue in her growth as a person, and even regress.

Here’s another analysis of Katniss as a strong woman. The proliferation of such musings (this included) tells me something. We’ve been missing this character in her non-existence!

Dr Jennifer Shewmaker is impressed that in the movie Katniss isn’t sexualised at all.

WOMEN AS ACTION-HERO SUPERSTARS

Sociological Images always offers intelligent commentary, and in this article, argues that: “The Hunger Games should serve as a wake-up call to Hollywood that women action-hero movies can be successful if the protagonist is portrayed as a complex subject — instead of a hyper-sexualized fighting fuck toy (FFT)”

I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. I may be holding back with a few criticisms of this film for the simple fact that the producers actually took a risk and cast a genuinely strong female character as a lead in a big budget movie. Of course, the cynic in me says it wasn’t all that much of a risk, given the phenomenon which had been created by the author of the trilogy herself.

The Mary Sue references The Hunger Games in an article entitled ‘The Long Arm of the Lore: Female Heroes In Pop Culture‘, and with Katniss Everdeen as evidence, concludes that ‘kick-ass heroines are cool again’. Were they ever really uncool, or is it simply the case that audiences have had no choice?

On this point, Skepchick quite rightly questions the so-called ‘market-drivenness’ of the ghettoisation of female action leads. It comes from Hollywood producers.

Lots of people are saying that the opening weekend of The Hunger Games were good days for women and filmWill The Hunger Games Be The First Real Female Franchise?

MASCULINITY

No discussion of gender would be complete without a thought-provoking article on masculinity in The Hunger Games. (From Bitch Media)

THE BOOK ISN’T CHALLENGING OR LITERARY ENOUGH TO BE STUDIED WIDELY AS A HIGH SCHOOL TEXT

It is sometimes said that Modern Children Lack The Attention To Read Dickens, for example.

Literacy Journal’s stand is that The Hunger Games doesn’t deserve a place in the 6-12 ELA canon. I’m guessing that this is a view not unique to literacy advisors and advocates.

I can’t pretend to have made up my mind about the perceived ‘dumbing down’ of literature. That young adults today are reading less challenging works is certain. When I say ‘less challenging’, I mean the sentences are more simple at a syntactic level, the works themselves are shorter, and the plots are action dominated. I would also guess that a narrower variety of words is employed overall, but I can’t be sure about this.

What I am sure of, though, is that when it comes to the formal teaching of literature in schools, the single most important thing is that the students enjoy it, if not from the outset, then certainly by the end. I’m also sure that the literary merit of a book lies only partly in the book itself, and in large part with the way in which it is taught.

(Did you see this week that the Horrible Histories author has requested that his books not be taught in school? He surmises that if kids are made to read something, they won’t like it anymore. I’m not so sure about that. This request shows an enduring mistrust of teachers and the wonderful work so many teachers do in the classroom with regards to turning kids on to reading. As a side note, I have no idea what school inspectors have got to do with inspiring kids to read. Inspectors exist to make sure teachers and administrators are doing their jobs.)

To that end, The Hunger Games offers lots that I could immediately see as exciting and engaging in the classroom. With enthusiastic teaching, this book could lead to discussions about historical and topical issues such as war, the impact of reality TV, the distinction between public and private self (with Facebook as an example), a parable of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the list goes on.

It’s also a cautionary tale about Big Government. And undeniably a Christian allegory about the importance of finding Jesus. Or maybe a call for campaign-finance reform?

– from The LA Times

That’s not to say that I don’t have some sympathy for advocates of the slow reading movement, and the idea that some of the most life-changing books are worth the struggle.

Down here in Australia and New Zealand, many high school students have been reading John Marsden’s Tomorrow When The World Began as part of their English curriculum. I have taught this book myself, and I’d argue that Marsden and Collins are on a par as far as dystopian YA action fiction is concerned. Whether these novels are not challenging enough is hard to say. Certainly, for the top students, more challenging novels might allow them to write more nuanced essays and therefore get higher marks. But it would take an experienced teacher of gifted and talented students to say this for sure.

WHY IS KATNISS’ SKIN NOT DARKER?

A Whitewashed Hunger Games from Ms Blog.

I suspect the producers believed they were already taking a big risk by making a movie with a reluctant, non-sexualised action hero, and that they were absolved any further from doing anything else for equality’s sake. That’s the cynic in me.

You’ll not be surprised to learn that there is to be a Katniss Everdeen Barbie. (I would prefer the term ‘action hero’, but there you have it. For more on that issue, see here.) As pointed out by Jezebel, the doll doesn’t really have that ‘Seam’ darkness to her. She’s white all right.

For more YA whitewashed book covers, see The Yalsa Hub

This sense that movies should feel real started in the fifties and has been slowly evolving ever since. “We used to go to the movies for fantasy, to get take us away from everyday life,” says Turner Classic Movie host Robert Osborne, who also wrote 80 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards. “The women all looked like Katharine Hepburn or Carole Lombard and the men all looked like Cary Grant or Robert Taylor.” Now, we want people to really look like the taxi driver or the waitress at the corner deli, he says. (This also means that we want our ballerinas to look anorexic and our downtrodden victims in eighteenth-century France to be near death.)

Why Extra-Skinny (or Fat) Actresses Win Oscars

THE WOLVES, THE WOLVES

The Wolf Muttations Could Have Looked Much More Horrifying – some concept art by Ian Joyner at io9. This is probably true, but I found the wolf muttations in the movie perfectly horrifying enough, thanks. I’m just glad the directors didn’t cut to the part where the wolves ate the blond boy. Instead, we saw the look on Katniss and Peeta’s face and heard the chomping licky sounds. That’s good enough for me.

THE HUNGER GAMES = TWILIGHT?

Fortunately not. While there are some similarities, The Hunger Games is better written at a line level (ie. I didn’t want to snap all the adverbs in half and throw them across the room), the main character is not moony.

Still, there is that old love triangle thing. Or is there? Feministe argues that the relationship model in The Hunger Games is not your cliched love triangle at all.

TERRIBLE COSTUMES?

I’m sure there are a number of costume designers who are miffed they didn’t get contracted for the costume design of The Hunger Games, because it would’ve been a great gig. A number of commentators have noted that the costume design was not good. But as a non-costume designer I enjoyed the costumes of this film. I particularly appreciated the pink eyeshadow of Effie Trinket, which made her look as if she had some sort of eye-disease, and the blue ponytail of Caesar Flickerman. The whole atmosphere of this movie reminded me very much of the second episode of Black Mirror, which is probably no good to you at all, since I’m sure more people would’ve seen The Hunger Games than the second episode of Black Mirror. But I highly recommend that series if you enjoyed the atmosphere of The Hunger Games. To be honest, that mood wasn’t what I’d been expecting.

TOO UPSETTING?

E.L. James (author of 50 Shades Of Grey) has said that killing children for sport is just a little too upsetting for her. This sentiment was echoed by an avid reader I know – a teenage girl who lives on my street. When I asked her if she’d read The Hunger Games she said, “No, and I don’t intend to”. She, too, had heard enough about the story to know that it would upset her too much.

While I didn’t find the story upsetting, I do find the general theme upsetting. We’ve been sending our young people off to war for generations. Many countries around the world still do. There are young boys in African countries today who have been taken from their parents and trained as nothing but fighters their entire lives. So I would argue that we should be finding The Hunger Games upsetting. Watching this movie, we can at least acknowledge our own privilege.

How did America turn into Panem? Like others, I imagine war broke out as a consequence of over-populationa and global warming. I find this quite upsetting too. The Hunger Games may be an imagining of a post-climate change world.

And all of the above are probably why The Hunger Games finds itself on lists of banned books. Sheesh.

For More On The Hunger Games:

1. The editorial process revealed by an intern (for those interested in writing).

2. A great map of Panem.

3. Collected mentions of The Hunger Games over at Slate, subtitled ‘An Ending A Tea Partier Would Love’, which is fortunately ambiguous enough that I can’t work it out yet, not having read the next two in the trilogy.

4. Here is a description of each song in the soundtrack to the movie. I thought the standout track was the end anthem, which is unfortunate since this is the part where everyone in the theatre walks out.

5. 7 Things You Might Not Have Known About The Hunger Games from Buzzfeed

6. Ideas For A Hunger Games Party from The Daily Meal. [Not much at all, I should think, kind of like our 40 Hour Famine parties we threw as teenagers.]

7. A Hunger Games Wiki for true fans.

8. An excellent summary of themes over at Connect The Pop, a SLJ blog. Here’s part one.

9. Like me, it turns out Jezebel has been curating interesting links on The Hunger Games this week. Check it out if you’re still intrigued. Especially if you’re interested in statistics.

10. Hunger Games influences baby names, but Katniss isn’t so popular.

11. How The Hunger Games Should Have Ended

12. 15 Women Who Could Direct Catching Fire Instead Of The Actual Candidates, from The Marysue

13. Female Authors Are Prominent on the ALA Banned Books List. (The Hunger Games is one of them.)

14. The Hunger Games Gets An Honest Trailer, by some people who didn’t much like the film, via the Mary Sue

15. A Film Review from Ladybusiness

16. The Sunday Salon: The Hunger Games, Merchandise, and Androcentrism from The Literary Omnivore

17. Another bunch of links, this time collected by SLJ

18. If Hunger Games Were 10 Times Shorter And 100 Percent Honest from Cracked

19. Philip Seymour Hoffman explains why bloody Hunger Games Is Good For Kids from WSJ

20. An Exercise In Editing or, Why The Hunger Games Makes My Eyes Bleed from R.L. Brody

21. What’s Wrong With The Hunger Games Is What Nobody Noticed from The Last Psychiatrist

22. A Radical Female Hero From Dystopia from NYT

23. A spot-on sartorial satire: Fashion’s extremity of appearance, values and language makes it a perfect subject of satire as seen in ‘The Hunger Games’ from Financial Times Style

24. Things The Hunger Games Can Teach Us About The War On Women  from Good

25. The Ultimate Hunger Games Victory Feast

26. THERE’S A THE HUNGER GAMES-THEMED SUMMER CAMP IN FLORIDA, which sounds awesome — gotta admit — until I remember the plot of the actual story.

27. Katniss is “A Wreck”: A Conversation with Suzanne Collins and Francis Lawrence: TIME talks to the writer-creator of ‘The Hunger Games’ and the director of ‘Catching Fire’ — the first in an exclusive five-part series

28. Catching Fire in the New Year: The Hunger Games and Pop Culture as Teaching Tools from CtrlAltTeach

What Is Dystopia?

Thomas Benjamin Kennington - Homeless

According to a large portion of the world’s population, humankind is already living in a dystopia.

The fun part about living right now is we get to see how it ends.

@meganamram

Dystopia and The Bible

Ever since God punished Adam, Eve and the serpent for eating from that tree we have been banished from Paradise. Compared to Paradise, this toiling, this painful childbirth, these thistles and weeds growing up through our crops are considered part of this Earthly dystopia — a temporary punishment before taking up residence in Paradise once more in the after life.

If not taken literally by so many today, Earth as a dystopian setting was certainly literal for earlier peoples from the major religious traditions (and I’m guessing we’ll get there again).

Although dystopia seems to be the opposite of idyll, it has in fact the same purpose: to conserve the childrenas well as adultsin an innocent, unchanging state, comfortably freed from memories, emotions, affections, responsibilities—and from natural death. Breaking away from a safe and secluded dystopian society, children break out into linearity.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Nikolajeva goes on to explain that quite a few authors depict a reverse process, and offers A Cry from the Jungle by Norwegian author Tormod Haugen as an example of an ‘extremely complicated and equivocal novel.’

Features Of Dystopian Fiction

Characters in a dystopian plot start from a position of slavery.

If the land, people, and technology are out of balance, everyone is out for themselves. Everyone is reduced to an animal clawing for scarce resources or a cog working for the greater good of a machine.

In dystopian novels, the main character usually rebels against the status quo by exposing its flaws, escaping the world entirely, attempting to take it over, or initiating a new set of rules.

Dystopian stories often take place after a large societal restructuring, usually because of a global event. In this way they might seem post-apocalyptic, but when the conflict of a story focuses on the oppression of a government or set of ideas, rather than on the direct consequences of a wide-spread tragedy, it is dystopian.

Dystopian novels often focus on societies and cultures that appear stable and well established, whereas post-apocalyptic cultures are more imbalanced or volatile.

A Brief History Of Dystopia

The first public usage of the word ‘dystopia’ goes all the way back to John Stuart Mill in 1868. In a speech to the House of Commons, Mill said, “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians” (‘cacotopia’ was relegated to the Wastepaper Basket of History). But it wasn’t until about 50 years afterward, when authors made the word their own, that the idea of dystopia began to actually take root in the public consciousness.

Electric Literature

The Dystopia and Young Readers

According to a new report, Australian kids are feeling pessimistic about their own futures, and this goes against all evidence. Australian kids should be feeling pretty good about the future, according to one expert.

Key points from the radio interview:

  • Youth unemployment has been higher in the past, and is reflecting that it takes time to find their way into the job market, as unemployment goes down as job seekers get older. This is reflected in other countries. Southern European unemployment rates for youth (especially Southern Italy and Spain) is much more bleak.
  • Why are young Australian people pessimistic? It is thought that young Australians have unrealistic expectations about what to expect from a first job. In Brazil, China and countries like that have youth with lower expectations and are therefore more optimistic.
  • Older people need to tell young people what their own paths to success have been.
  • The media also has a part to play. We’ve seen processing plants closing down, but we don’t see the steady flow of new job opportunities coming through the news. The small trickle more than offsets the big closures. (Audiences are after bad news, and the media cater to that.)
  • The number of law graduates each year far exceeds the number of places available. Law is ‘the new arts degree’. It’s true that law graduates are still useful in the workplace even if they are not practising law, but are young law students given a realistic idea about what percentage of graduates will find jobs as lawyers? Law graduates are not expensive to produce for universities. It’s book learning so they are cheap to train. Universities are following a good economic pattern, but at what cost for the 18 year olds enrolling in these degrees, which are quite expensive for them? (Or perhaps law students are more expensive to train than we assume.)
  • IT students are equally pessimistic as law students. Private providers are competing with the universities in IT, moving into computer science, which is quite distinct from being able to program. The ability to successfully adapt different technologies in work environments, they are the crucial skills. Just being able to code in a particular language isn’t much use. Australia is good at having the bright idea and being able to adapt the bright idea in a business context.
  • Where is the pessimism coming from? The negativity from politicians doesn’t help. Universities haven’t been very good at making their graduates work-ready.
  • We need to change the nature of internships and cadetships, which currently accept large numbers of graduates but at the end of that period only one in sixty (for example in finance) will be offered a job at the end of it. This turns the whole thing into a bit of a waste of time for the other 59. Internships need to go hand-in-hand with study. Companies need to work more closely with degree programs to prepare students for the workforce.

Where else might youth pessimism be coming from? Is it limited to ‘pessimism about work’ or pessimism about the environment, politics and society in general? Could youth pessimism also be to do with the stories that are popular for young people? Today’s young people have grown up in the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature, and this is an age rife with dystopias. There have been so many dystopias in fiction that if you listen to what agents and publishers are looking for in the kidlit-o-sphere you’ll hear a lot of publishing professionals say they are sick to death of them and are looking for something completely different.

Here in Australia, parallel importing and the Hollywood trend of adapting best-selling YA books to film has changed the Australian reading landscape over the past 15 years to point where the top-selling books are mainly from America.

Insofar as best-selling books corresponds to library lending rates (which are very easy to find), here are Australia’s library lending stats for YA last year:

The most borrowed young adult fiction titles were:

  1. Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (American/science fiction adventure)
  2. Divergent series by Veronica Roth (American/science fiction adventure)
  3. The Fault in our Stars by John Green (American/romance)
  4. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak (Australian/Holocaust)
  5. Looking for Alaska by John Green (American/romance)
  6. Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (American/fantasy adventure)
  7. The Maze Runner by James Dashner (American/science fiction)
  8. Every Breath by Ellie Marney (Australian/thriller)
  9. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (American/romance)
  10. Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare (American/fantasy adventure)

Teen borrowers from Australian libraries [are] looking for a blend of escapism and realism. Gritty romances, fantasy and adventure were the main themes, with all but two of the list coming from American writers.

Australia’s Favourite Library Books

Apocalyptic Fiction

An apocalyptic novel tells the story of the end of the world, which occurs during the timeline of the story. The novels Outbreak and World War Z, or the movie Contagion, are good examples. In almost all apocalyptic stories life is threatened on a global scale: disease, natural disaster, war, or alien invasion, for example. The characters facing an apocalypse must try to outlive, outlast, or outsmart the hazards of a crumbling world, which is made increasingly unlikely when the majority of the population has fallen victim. It is common for apocalyptic novels to classify as “genre,” because the survival conflict is at the forefront of the story, making apocalyptic stories more plot driven than character based.

Post-Apocalyptic

After the zombies or super flu or nuclear war, the characters left to deal with the consequences are in a post-apocalyptic story. There are numerous examples: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I Am Legend, and the recent Station Eleven, The Dog Stars, and The Dead Lands all tell stories about people navigating a new and hostile world. The central conflict for characters in a post-apocalyptic story is managing the new physical, social, and cultural landscape left behind by a recent disaster. There are often fewer people and less established societies in post-apocalyptic novels, so the central conflict in these stories surrounds characters who are often fighting for resources or searching for other survivors.

What Is Cli-fi?

It wasn’t until I’d got to the end of writing and illustrating Midnight Feast that this article appeared in The Guardian: Global Warming And The Rise Of Cli-Fi. I realised that what I’d written was a picturebook contribution to cli-fi.

  • a sub-genre of sci-fi in which the earth’s systems are ‘off-kilter’
  • sci-fi takes place in a dystopian future, whereas cli-fi is set in a dystopian present
  • Describes works which set out to warn readers of possible environmental nightmares to come
  • The best cli-fi novels allow us to be briefly but intensely frightened: climate chaos is closer, more immediate, hovering over our shoulder like that murderer wielding his knife.
  • Unlike sci-fi, cli-fi writing comes primarily from a place of warning rather than discovery.

See Also: So Hot Right Now: Has climate change created a new literary genre, from NPR

love in the time of global warming

What do you think would happen in a globally warmed Earth? Do you envision a Cormac McCarthy sort of apocalypse with bands of humans turning evil? In fiction, this is pretty much a given. Could there be a brighter view?

Our own storybook app Midnight Feast is kind of cli-fi (if you like). Another storybook app which is more overtly about climate change is this oneJörgits is iPad-only.

Some people think there is still not enough cli-fi.

Related Links

Header painting: Thomas Benjamin Kennington – Homeless