Romanticising Passion

book-spines

Fiction is a breathing, unpredictable creature. It is created by one human being (or several) and consumed by many others (or just a few) but it certainly is something that cannot be controlled. Once it has left its nest and seen the light of day, it will take whatever shape and form it takes, and there is nothing that can predict what that will be. There are so many elements at stake (from media, to society, to historical context, to audience) that will influence it, and it is truly difficult to determine what path each creature will take. Because of the status of fiction, there are stories that become extremely popular (for whatever reason) and that begin to take a form (or, say, a reputation) that creates and feeds a different idea and that result in a different product of what it was originally planned.

         It is safe to say by now that we live in an age where fandoms heavily influence and determine the path of fiction. Fandom is a blanket term I will use to describe “readership” or “viewership”, et cetera. Television shows are not only influenced by ratings (more so than by criticism and awards), they are now sometimes even funded by their targeted audience as well. The way fans respond to particular storylines will determine the direction of those (something I personally find terrifying and that I wish would stop: let’s stop killing these authors), and with that, the readings that the spectators choose to give each specific fiction product, will take a form of its own, one that will be very difficult to shake off. Not to mention the fact that the way these fictional products are created has changed as well, fanfiction is now being acquired by big publishing companies, the concept of self-publication does not sound so crazy anymore, and television shows are not only being funded by spectators but are also being distributed by a wide number of platforms (from paid services such as Netflix, to more public platforms such as Youtube).

             What am I trying to get at? Think about Romeo and Juliet. What do you think about when you think about Shakespeare’s famous play? Do you think about romance or do you think about the demise of two families? Do you think performed theatre? Written text? Film? I mean, Romeo and Juliet were two twelve year olds that met at a party, fell madly in lust, married the following day and died the next. That’s the extent of the story. You can perceive its theme as one thing or the other, but when you look at the facts, you have to wonder what happened for society to take a product about adolescent infatuation and death and turn it into a tale of star crossed lovers. I have obviously heavily reduced the true themes explored in the play, but I am trying to get a point across: Romeo and Juliet is a popularly known product, and most of the time it is inaccurately perceived.

Image4There are a few specific cases which have always struck me particularly, because they seem to have taken a form that detours so greatly from what it is that it continues to shock me that they can be interpreted so differently. For instance, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina* is a very long and rather in depth analysis of the different forms of relationships held within Russian society. It clearly establishes the line between three different marriages (Oblonsky & Dolly, Levin & Kitty, Karenin & Anna) at the same time that it deals with how these marriages deal with extra-marital relationships (Oblonsky and his many lovers, Levin and Levin (sic) and Anna and Vronsky). Each relationship is different, it deals with social disaster and defiance differently, and each example is a further proof of the difference and the uniqueness found in the human being. The novel focuses on all of these relationships and how they both intertwine and affect each other, and it does it almost in equal parts. Vronsky and Anna’s relationship is at the center of the novel and it is clearly a contrast to the rest of the relationships in the way that it deals with something perhaps different to love. It is a tale of obsession – an unhealthy and maddening obsession. An obsession that drives both parties mad, that from the very first moment, starts to deteriorate, destroying more than it can actually take. Whether if these characters willingly and consciously defy society, and how that is explored in the novel, is another story, for another day. What is clear is that Tolstoy clearly deconstructed these relationships to attempt to understand and contrast the nature of love and infatuation, as well as the nature of compromise and commitment. However, one can’t help but thinking about how differently this story seems to be perceived by the popular masses, and one can’t help but wonder if it is all a matter of advertisement or a matter of perception. When did Vronsky and Anna’s story become a tale of cross-star lovers? When was a 900 page long novel about Russian society reduced to the passion between two of its characters? Was it the way it was advertised and sold to modern audiences? Was it the reading it obtained from certain readers, or the reading it failed to obtain from other reading circles? What makes a tale of an emotionally destructive relationship turn into a love story?

                  Image3Another of the most misinterpreted stories of all time, in my most humble opinion, is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. It is the story about a broken home with very broken characters that experience all kinds of abuse and despair, where its main characters share one of the most terrifying emotionally destructive relationships ever written, and yet it continues to be perceived, by modern and older readers alike, as one of the most beautiful love stories of all time. As a young and very impressionable literature student, I was horrified when we read the novel for class and I got to know these characters – mainly Heathcliff. I had always perceived him (by what  I had heard other teachers say or what I had gathered from popular culture) as the epitome of the romantic hero, the epitome of the tortured lover… when in reality Heatcliff was the clear definition of an abuser (an abused abuser, no doubt, because Brontë’s work is complex, I am not attempting to deny that) who kept destroying everyone around him, not only those who had not treated him rightly in the past, but especially those who attempted to love or help him in any way.  After reading a lot of critical work on Wuthering Heights, I feel strangely weird writing such a short paragraph and such finalising sentences on one of the most complex characters (in one of the most complex works) of literature, but I believe it is necessary to acknowledge Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship for what it was: a physically and emotionally abusive relationship, which was self-destructive, composed of two characters so self-absorbed in their own obsession for the other, that they failed to see the reality of their context. Still today Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship continues to be sold as the story of a passionate love affair, and I find it sickening and worrying that we continue to believe in the idea of love as a painful act. What Heathcliff and Cathy felt for each other was not love, it was an unhealthy need for the other, an unhealthy need of possession. Love is about equality and respect and possession should never be a part of such equation.

                 I believe our society has made a special effort in glorifying the pain in love to the point that the lines between love and abuse have started to get blurred. As a society we have a duty to learn to discern between extreme emotion and obsession. It seems to be a very small barrier, but we have to be able to realise what composes each. Anna Karenina and Wuthering Heights are not studies on love, but studies on how destructive an obsessive emotion – which might have stemmed from love – can turn out to be.  It is true that art is what we make of it, and we might read whatever we want to read in both these pieces of literature, but I always found it particularly harming that two stories that clearly attempt to point out problematic relationships, have ended up being icons for that which they attempted to denounce.

* I would like to point out Joe Wright’s 2012 film adaptation of the novel, which was an incredible effort and which has been, I’m very sad to say, strangely overlooked by critics and viewers alike. It is an astounding deconstruction of the novel, done in a refreshingly metaphoric way, and I cannot recommend it enough. This adaptation is very objective in its portrayal of these relationships and it does not glorify the love affairs or the tragedies of its characters.

You can read Cristina’s latest article here.

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The World Was Hers for the Reading: May 2013

We consider ourselves well read ladies that are constantly on the lookout to continue finding new reads to nourish our minds. We have decided to start a collaborative and interactive section where we will discuss books we have recently read and we hope for you to give us feedback about them or perhaps others as well, helping us discover new favourite reads. Without further ado: Welcome to The World Was Hers for the Reading!

85767Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler. First published in 1990.
Reviewed by Cristina.

A referent when it comes to feminist theory, what you must take into consideration if you decide to read Butler, is that she is a philosopher, and therefore her way of approaching feminist criticism is through philosophy. Gender Trouble is an in depth analysis of the ways in which society and the human being build and continue to shape the concepts of gender, sex and being, and she does this through the deconstruction of other writer’s works. She examines the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, Claude Lévi-Strauss,Sigmund Freud, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault amongst others… And while Butler has many interesting and complex things to say, perhaps my complain about this work is that she spends so much time deconstructing other people’s work that I found myself wishing she had spent a bit more time elaborating on her own theory, which is not precisely easy to come to terms with. I do recommend this if you are interested in the field, you may not entirely agree (or entirely understand) what she is talking about all of the time (I know I did not) but that is the beauty of it.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.First published in 2013.
Reviewed by María.life-after-life-e1364310158304

Let me preface this by saying that I love Kate Atkinson. She has a unique and interesting voice and she always writes really complex female characters. Maybe that’s why Life After Life, despite its success and hype, was just a disappointment to me. As it was, I found it had a great premise that ultimately went nowhere. What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? The book promises so much and yet delivers few little. Ursula, the main character, seems to be the punching bag of history; she drowns, is raped, beaten and ultimately killed by her husband…and it all seems so pointless, yes she learns to live a little longer the next time but that’s about it. Kate Atkinson’s beautiful prose and lyrical narrative end up carrying the book most of the time because sadly, the story does nothing to sustain the reader’s interest.

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NW by Zadie Smith. First published in 2012.

Reviewed by Jade.

Since she published White Teeth in 2000, I had always wanted to read Zadie Smith’s work but somehow never got around to it. Then on some day back in February I decided to buy an autographed copy – score! – of NW at Vroman’s in Pasadena, California. At that time I was drawn by anything ‘London’, all coincidences really but I was watching Luther a lot, researching relocations to London etc etc. Anyway, NW was the perfect book to complement this patch of my life. London’s NW is most definitely the 5th main character of a book where 4 childhood friends’ lives intertwine in typical urban stories that feature issues of race, survival, love, struggle…. Everything feels so real and ‘close’ to the city and portrays it just perfectly. Smith’s realism is detailed, sarcastic, straight-up funny, and poetic at the same time. That kind of poetry only a city like London can offer. Just wonderful.

Jane Austen and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

This year marks the 200 anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. Because of that, I come with a confession.  This might be social suicide, but I will risk it:  I think Jane Austen is terribly underrated. I truly do. I think that even Jaenites underrate Jane Austen. This isn’t a typo.

             What’s my deal? Do I live in a cave? Am I unresponsive to the events taking place in my surroundings? Look, no. I’m aware Jane Austen is probably the most talked about female classic author. There are so many adaptations of all of her novels that sometimes you wonder if they’re truly necessary (and the answer is YES, by the way: every adaptation is necessary, every reread is necessary, do not ever let the world tell you otherwise). I was about to affirm that Jane Austen is the most adapted author of all time, but a quick Google search told me it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Still, I think that had I told you Jane Austen was, you would have believed me, because it simply makes sense. It simply feels right.

              So why on earth would I say Austen is underrated? Well, nine times out of ten, I will get strange glares whenever I proclaim to the world I LUV JANE AUSTEN. Nine times out of ten, people will believe Jane Austen wrote “those romance novels” and will go away thinking their snarky remarks are… acceptable. Nine times out of ten, a news article or whatever we call it these days will describe Jane Austen as the writer that “knew all about romance, despite being a maiden herself!”

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And that is why it is with great sadness that I said goodbye to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries last week. Because The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is not merely an adaptation of Austen’s work, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries takes Austen’s work a step forward and that is, in my humble opinion, what adaptations should be all about. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has not only adapted Pride and Prejudice to a modern setting successfully, creating a narrative that is both fluid, relevant and realistic, but it also has incorporated the 2.0 era into it, retro alimenting itself, in a very post-modern way (the show exists thanks to the wonderful mediatic world of Youtube, so the show is a big and long love letter to Youtube as a platform as well). It has also managed to adapt the novel culturally and socially into this day and age, and what is more, it has done it right.

pfi_b6ae6a73079d65ff9c582f4f582ea3e9               Pride and Prejudice is a protofeminist novel (protofeminist being understood as a text that contains feminist elements, literary wise, but that was produced in an age when feminism still had no name as such, and had no movement attached to it). As such, the revolutionary tones of Elizabeth as a protofeminist heroine have been translated into today’s settings in Lizzie as well. Elizabeth is a very revolutionary character for the times, this might come out as a shock but there are a few of her qualities as a character that make her so: consider the fact that she rejects Mr. Collins because she dislikes him, when Mr. Collins is actually the only way out of the incredibly poor economic situation of the Bennets. By marrying Mr. Collins, all of her sisters, as well as her mother, would not have had to worry about their future upon their father’s death. By rejecting him, she is refusing to sacrifice her future happiness for her family, as well as refusing to accept to play by society’s rules (those that denied women a right to inheritance, thus forcing them to attach themselves to a man as a piece of property). But that’s not the only thing making Elizabeth a revolutionary character: she is outspoken, critical and opinionated. The Lizzie Bennet’s Diaries’s Lizzie refuses a very juicy job offer from Ricky Collins in a time and age when not only her family but also herself need economic income desperately. But she does not want to “sell herself” to a kind of field she does not like, she prefers to stay true to herself and find her own way, rather than following her family’s wishes. She is also opinionated and outspoken, of course, and refuses to follow society’s rules (which is not seen as clearly as with novel-Lizzy, but can be found in the little details: she refuses to sell herself to a job, she refuses to maintain relationships, as well as forming acquaintances with people she dislikes, et cetera).

The show takes special care for making all of these characters, not just Lizzie, three
dimensional. Each character has their special purpose and even their personal subplots (as can be seen through the creation of additional secondary Youtube channels for certain characters that had a ‘back story’ in the novel but that could not be easily explored in the series). All of these characters have dreams and hopes, they have good qualities as well as flaws.

                   Lizzie wants a future, she wants a career. She moves for her family and friends but she’s thirsty (albeit slightly terrified) for change. She’s professionally driven, and extremely loyal. She’s valuable to herself and wishes to be independent, and she wishes to achieve such independence by herself. But she’s not the only character like that, this adaptation takes special care to make all characters refreshingly modern. Jane herself, who in the novel was described as a lovely creature but that was mostly exploited in regards of her love story with Bingley, is here given a very interesting career, one with which she fights for and one she puts before her love life on a number of occasions. She refuses to put up with the behaviour of those around her (as novel-Jane didn’t, in a way) and puts her own rules when it comes to forgiving and rekindling her relationship with Bing Lee. Lydia, somewhat underexplored and dismissed in the novel, considered the mindless, accelerated and promiscuous sister, is here given a different turn. The adaptation took special care to construct a back story that dealt with her romance with Wickham, giving it a frightening abusive twist (taking a look at the cheerful, lively Lydia of the first episodes, and the Lydia under Wickham’s influence as well as Lydia post-web-scandal was too heartbreaking).

VJIQw3BMyU             Not only our females have purposes, the way in which Collins, Bingley, Darcy and even Wickham are portrayed is admirable just as well. The most obvious instance is Bingley: Bingley’s proposal to Jane was revolutionary because he was marrying for love, to the woman his family somewhat disapproved of. In a modern setting, dating somebody your family disapproves of would not be enough, so what Bing Lee does it not only come back for Jane, he also refuses to confine himself to the family expectations by quitting his medical career, and decides to do things his own way, at his own pace. Only then, when both Jane and Bing have found themselves individually, then, and only then, do they decide to start something together.

               Still, and getting somewhat personal, I have to say my favourite of all is Charlotte. The way in which the adaptation has incorporated Charlotte into the narrative, allowing her to bloom as a character, creating an incredible bond between her and Lizzie and at the same time not condemning her choices, which so easily contrast with Lizzie’s, making her a very driven, loyal, independent, outspoken, successful, unique  and ultimately powerful woman, is simply brilliant.

          I’m afraid there is no short article that could make any justice to this adaptation, I would gladly write a dissertation on it, and even then I would still feel I am leaving details unexplored. But I tried to pick some representative examples to try and explain why I feel the way that I do. As I mentioned, I am a big Jane Austen fan, and as such I’ve seen many obscure adaptations of her work. But, as such a fan, not all of those have been particularly pleasing. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, however, has managed to do beautiful things with Austen’s work, and it has made me incredibly proud, week after week, to see that I am not alone in seeing her work as something other than a prolonged exploration of romance. Austen’s work was about women fighting their environment, and Lizzie Bennet is the proof of that.

          If you are so unfortunate as not having been able to follow this wonderful experiment live, you can change that right now by clicking right here, and starting from the very beginning. Be warned, though, it’s 100 episodes, and you will laugh but you will also cry (and squee, probably).

        You might also be interested in taking a look at Hank Green’s video where he explains the way the idea came to him and the reason why he chose Pride and Prejudice to develop as a web series:

Review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

“I turned the pages so fast. And I suppose I was, in my mindless way, looking for a something, version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favourite shoes.”

13562049DISCLAIMER: I will discuss the novel at length and this will lead me to reveal big plot developments so beware of spoilers.

 I feel like I need to start by saying I love Ian McEwan. I love him in a way that is difficult to express without turning into a puddle of giggly thoughts. Atonement is one of my favorite novels of all time. Whenever I read one of his books I feel like this is a man who understands human nature. That is why when I read that Sweet Tooth was coming out I was over the moon with glee. But not only were we getting a new book, it was also the first one since Atonement with a female heroine at its center. I was sold.

The basic premise for the book is simple yet deceiving. At a rather young age Serena Frome becomes a low-level recruit for England’s intelligence agency, MI5. She is supposedly hired because she is a compulsive reader (also, because she sleeps with some man?) and thus the perfect under-cover agent to infiltrate the life of writer Tom Haley in whom the agency has invested interests. Once she gets to know him it becomes impossible for her to differentiate her mission from her real feelings as she falls in love with him.

So this is a spy novel with a bit of sexy romance in it, right? Somewhere in the blurb you can even find something along the lines of “espionage is the ultimate seduction”. But is it really? Obviously it is not. What the novel turns out to be is something completely different and so much more complex and important than that. It is about women. It’s about men. It’s about male writers and a woman’s consciousness. It’s about male writers inhabiting a woman’s consciousness and making it their own playground.

From the start something in the novel feels strange. If you are a usual reader of McEwan you can sense it right from the first lines. Serena is intelligent but lacks depth. She is one-dimensional and very simple at times. She likes to read novels. She has a family. Not much of her is known prior to the moment when the book starts. She likes men. Mostly she likes to discuss the men in her life. There are facts and there are actions but there is no true self. She does not seem to grow or change. The façade of the woman is there but nothing true or interesting comes out of her. Which would be just fine in any other novel but this is in no way a character Ian McEwan would create or feel any interest in writing about.

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But of course as the book comes to a close (and much before that if you, like me, know the author) you realize that this has never been Serena’s book. It’s been Tom Haley’s all along. The fact of the matter is that towards the end of the novel Haley discovers that Serena has been lying to him and leading a double life. In order to understand her decisions he has to get inside her head and the only way he knows how to do that is by writing her. So while all along we thought Serena was the one speaking to us it turns out that it was Haley from the start. The real woman exists, but is she at all like Haley invents? Why is this important? I have read reviews suggesting that the “final twist” doesn’t work, that it lacks emotion. But this is not a book about twists. This is not a book about spies. This is a novel about writing and about the male gaze and how male writers write about women, how they try to inhabit and understand them. If Serena seems to be bland and a bit one-dimensional at times it’s because we are just scratching at the base of her true being. And if we always feel like we don’t really know her it’s because we don’t. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. Serena is just an ideal; she is not the real woman. We are supposed to be disconnected from her. Once the revelation occurs everything falls into place and most of Serena’s actions start making sense. The adoration she feels for Haley, her pliability, her intellectual inferiority, and the way she seems to enjoy his sexual domination. Once it becomes clear that Serena’s inner consciousness has been rewritten and that it was never her own but Haley’s idealized version of her it all makes sense.

“I was the basest of readers. All I wanted was my own world, and myself in it, given back to me in artful shapes and accessible form.”

I have no problem with men writing women. Men have written some of the greatest works of literature about women. I also don’t think Sweet Tooth is a critique of that. But McEwan is indeed writing about men and about this idea of what a perfect woman should be like. He is writing about how Serena is just a vessel for a man to channel his own demons. Serena is just another of the author’s creations, a vacant and compliant woman, a doll if you may. Incidentally this is a recurring theme in the book as throughout the novel we can read some of Haley’s stories, one of which is about a man who falls in love with a store mannequin. It is also in these stories that the reader can glimpse the true meaning of what is going on. The stories are powerful, have depth and are hauntingly beautiful and sad in equal parts. These stories show that the writer is not unable to transmit real feelings with his words, he has beauty in him, but in trying to imagine Serena he falls short. He doesn’t understand the woman behind the face. He over-simplifies her interests and misunderstands her actions. He makes her uninteresting and boring. He writes her as he’d wish her to be instead of how she really is; complex and flawed, a real living woman. But he does so because Serena was never the focus of the story, she was only an excuse to write about himself.

While Sweet Tooth does not have the epic scope that Atonement did and it lacks its lyricism and beauty of words (for a reason) I feel like this is a much more important book. It teaches us about the politics of gender. It shows us how deeply men can misunderstand women and how fraught with deceit and wish fulfillment relationships can be. This is a book that demands to be reread and understood.