Sarai is a free-lance literature enthusiast who current works as an academic. An avid horror and fantasy reader she is an advocate for its cultural importance: saraimw.com
Everyone wants to be a detective.
The genre of detective literature – murder/mystery – has never actually experienced a period of absence. Much like the action adventure or the romance, it is a broad enough category to appeal to a wide audience. Yet what is it about detective stories that continues to engage audiences across time, across societies and across cultures? Is it that we all fundamentally like to solve puzzles? Or is it that we like being carried along with a brilliant sleuthing mind? Often it is discussed that we love the "I figured it out before the hero" sensation. So do we just like feeling smart? There are a myriad of great detective stories out there, but it would be worth honing in on the two most enduring, which is the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Agatha Christie mysteries that feature a number of different lead detectives, including Hercule Poirot.
Adult Picture Books
Firstly, I am not using "adult" as an innuendo for pornography or erotica, I actually mean adult as in the state of being over 18. Picture books are often relegated to being considered only of value to very young children. Although recent artists and writers have been producing work that fits into the young adult category, there is very little that would be categorised as an adult picture book that does not then become a graphic novel. Largely this is a matter of categorisation, as publishers are uncomfortable with the idea of an adult picture book, and that many people too would not be comfortable purchasing one. Yet those picture books that end up categorised as young adult are usually very mature in their subject matter, dealing with issues as diverse as mental health, sexuality, grief and death, love and social responsibility. A prime example of this is Shaun Tan’s ‘The Red Tree’ shows the journey of a girl through a myriad of situations in a dark world that we would recognise: isolation in a crowd, depression and anxiety, feeling trapped by a situation, loneliness, a loss of direction, a loss of self, all without engaging in any writing and yet this is still considered as only a children’s book. Another example is ‘Meh’ by Deborah Malcolm about a boys experience of depression, and then there is ‘Michael Rosen’s Sad Book’ by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake that depicts a father’s grief and mourning for his son, it even comes with a warning about the serious and realistic depiction of grief. Graphic novels and comics used to suffer from this assumption of immaturity, but many are now comfortably accepted as being adult-only.
So why is it that we still cannot accept that a book that is primarily full of pictures can be for adults, and by extension may actually have something very real and important to say?
A picture paints a deeper story
An old saying is that a "picture paints a thousand words." Anyone who has had the luck to see the work of Shaun Tan will agree, art can be used to tell intricate visual stories. His picture books such as ‘The Red Tree’ and ‘ Rules of Summer’ are visual masterpieces that speak more than the few small words that accompany them.
Often in society today we still privilege the written word to the exclusion of all else. I think it would be interesting to discuss the use of symbolism, allegory and imagery in "silent" graphic novels and picture books to tell a wordless story that is much deeper than any written version could have been. It might be nice to have a discussion of various picture books, graphic novels or even full size mural art pieces that are designed to tell a visual (wordless) story, and what this means for the viewer.
Mental Illness, Modernity and Now
The modernist period in literature saw a massive shift not only in the structural and generic elements of literature, but also in the thematic foci. One area that began to gain greater representation was the discussion of mental illness, especially through the lens of female authors. Great examples of this are Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’, Janet Frame’s ‘Intensive Care’ and much more, Charlotte Gilman Perkins ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and more. We are almost 100 years on from these breaking edge works that helped shape a greater understanding of experiences of mental illness. The prompt I would suggest would be to look now at examples of contemporary fictional works that deal with mental illness and how those experiences and stories are creating new conversations.
Using RPGs to develop secondary characters in your narrative.
A common complaint in literature is the presence of one-dimensional secondary characters. These are characters outside of the standard formula or protagonist and antagonist; or are characters that act as a stimuli for plot progression. Understandably a character that is only going to dominate a single scene or at times a single line of dialogue in your story is not going to be one that you develop in any real depth. However, the lack of any consideration, or flippant description, can be both jarring and demoralising for your reader and will ultimately remove their engagement in the story. The two most common issues are completely generic stereotypes – the balding fat cop or the little asian punk girl – or the use of disjointed extremes – the asian emo-punk girl cop with pink hair but still wearing the standard police uniform – both of which will break the verisimilitude of the reading experience.
One suggestion is to begin to develop framework secondary characters using RPG character sheets. This is similar to making up a skeleton outline of a character, but using a template that keeps all the information in the same areas. The idea is that by using these pre-generated character sheets it will allow characters to be briefly fleshed out in ways that create them as more than a stereotype, but less than a full-blown character. The use of a standard template is already a good organisational strategy that will help you manage your secondary characters. And anyone who has had experience as a DM/GM will know how vital this is for developing NPCs (non-player characters) that populate their worlds. An RPG template will help you categorise the different abilities, skills, characteristics and even notes on physical appearance of each of your secondary characters in a fast and efficient manner.
The power of names
The choice of a name is quite powerful in literature, and in most popular-culture texts, as it can set particular expectations, symbolise aspects of the character, identify even the unique context of the narrative. Children’s literature in particular has used this to good effect with the choice of names that capture the popularity and every-man position of the particular period in which it was produced. For instance Mary of ‘The Secret Garden’ is an ideal choice for the period in which the book was set, as it was an iconic English name. An example of a symbolic name is Bella Swan from ‘Twilight’ that means beautiful swan, which sets against the symbolic fact Bella perceives herself as an "ugly duckling" that blooms within the love story. There are many such examples of both selecting names of the time and names with symbolic value. What other examples can you identify?
Literature is a field of study. It is categorisation of all written (and some multimedia) texts that engage to some extent in narrative storytelling. It covers early Greek theatre, ancient mythologies, classical romance and gothic, horror verses weird, modern, post-modern, paranormal romance and so much more. It is a vast and unwieldy monster of source material.
As such, to make sense of it literary critics engage most often with literary theory – lenses and concepts that can be applied to categories of works. These range again widely: genre, feminist, post-colonial, structural, mimetic, queer – theories, etc. The use of these different lenses is important as it helps to highlight the various hidden, intended or contested views within different literature. It also helps make sense of the context in which a text is produced, and reflected on through the context in which it is being examined.
However, for many the plethora of literary theory is a terribly daunting and overwhelming spectrum. I would propose a great article that would help many would be to take a single text, one not too complex or long, and apply the different lenses to show how they work. Actually what would be excellent would be if a few people took on this topic with different texts (some old, some new) to help show the diversity of theory.
Charmed and The Power of Three
‘Charmed’ is a tv show that spanned from 1998 to 2006 following the lives of sister witches that vanquish demons. The show remains a popular choice for reruns and still has a strong following. Although in no way original in plot, lore or dialogue it has remained an enduring favourite. I would argue that in many ways, similar to ‘Supernatural,’ the show’s popularity is based not on the genre but the relationship between the sisters and the drama inherent in their lives. An interesting discussion would be to look at the comparison of the fantasy genre elements to the drama elements to see what truly is the appeal of this show.
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