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branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)

Continuing on with the What I Like series, I have been reflecting on where my genre fiction tastes intersect with my Literature tastes.

I enjoy a good deal of 19th C lit of all sorts, but the authors I am very especially fond of are Herman Melville and Virginia Woolf. Comparing them to my genre fic favorites and considering just what it is I enjoy, not just about reading them, but about analyzing them, I have concluded that I like authors who turn their brains inside out on the page.

But, and this is an important caveat, I also require a modicum of poetry to really hold my attention. That was my problem with Heinlein–well, one of my problems, to go along with my disgust for his rampant misogyny. His stories read as though he turned his brain inside out, indeed, and then just shook it over the page, squashed the pages together, and sent that off to the publisher like some kind of verbal Rorschach blot.

I require some linguistic artistry to go along with the brain-guts, otherwise I just get bored.

On reflection, this is often my problem with science fiction in general, at least the kind written by actual scientists and science associates, who, as a general rule, cannot write poetry to save their souls. Limericks, yes; poetry, not so much.

On a similar note, not only is brevity the soul of wit, it is the soul of keeping me reading. I have about the same tolerance for reading minute descriptions of machines as I do for reading minute descriptions of buildings and clothing, which is to say, very little. Jane Austin and David Brin both win on this score. Issac Asimov frequently loses and the less said of James Fenimore Cooper the better.

It’s really too bad there isn’t some kind of litmus test I can do on new books, a carefully calibrated metaphorical strip I could dip between the covers to see what colors it turned–whether I’d get that turquoise tinge that means poetry plus brain-guts or the flat indigo of just poetry. Which interests me about as much as just brain-guts, which is to say, yawn.  Jacket blurbs are worthless for this purpose.

Oh, well. I guess I’m stuck with standing in the aisle flipping through my prospective books and hoping for a bit of nicely turned gut phrasing to catch my eye.

branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)

I think I have identified one of the things that leads me to like an author’s writing: when they write in several genres at once.

I knew Bujold did this, and Pratchett. But they’re both the kind of writers it’s easy to think of as simply exceptional. What I just realized, recently, is that some of my other favorites do this too. Barbara Hambly, for example.

Hambly writes science-fiction and fantasy. She writes horror. She writes historicals. She writes romance. And the thing is, she writes all of them at once. While any book of hers may lean toward one more than the rest, you can pretty much count on all those genre threads being in every book.

Of course, this means that she doesn’t usually follow most genre conventions of any of them.

Take the horror, for instance. Hambly’s books have plenty of it, whether gruesome and unknowable creatures from beyond the stars or the depths of human depravity and cruelty. But it’s never the point. It’s just there, and the characters have to deal with it. Which means she can’t be easily categorized as “dark fantasy” either, because the fantasy elements generally contribute to a very optimistic story, overall.

Or take the romance. Her books do generally feature multi-verse spanning, life altering love found at long odds. But her characters deal with it as one would expect people in the middle of deadly crises to do: “Wow, this is incredible! If we live, let’s have a good snog/marriage/deathless bond, okay? Now duck!”

As for the historical aspect, well even without her biographical blurb I’d have guessed she had either an advanced degree or an advanced hobby in history. Her narratives are chock full of little details that unmistakably set the stories in place and time. But it’s still the characters who are the point, not the details, and a lot of the books are set in places and times that didn’t actually exist, which makes it hard to call them historical fiction.

She writes against the genre grain, which I find charming. Also something I should probably keep in mind when next browsing the library or bookstore shelves.

branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)

So, we as fandom and ficcers have gone around on the question of ratings quite a few times, and for quite a few reasons by now. The most peculiar and widespread round was probably triggered by the MPAA’s pissyness over archives using the NC-17 rating. Plenty of people in US fandoms still use G-PG-R-NC-17, of course, because it’s widely established and generally understood. Others, like ff.net, adopted the slightly altered version of K-T-M. Still others have come up with still more customized variations, and some people have argued that the written word should not have a rating system applied to it at all, and that it certainly isn’t to professional publications.

Ratings are pretty embedded in fandom practice by now, of course, and I doubt we’re getting rid of them. So we struggle on to find a system that says what we want it to say. One of the more recent contributions to the debate got me started thinking, though.

Ratings, as applied to fanfiction, work rather differently than ratings applied to other media, such as movies. For one thing, they’re self-applied and, for another, they don’t actually seem to be regulatory. I am not sure, though, that this fact calls for an alteration in the most commonly used ratings.

Let us start at the beginning. What do we use ratings to indicate?

One of the most common things seems to be sex. Among US fans at least, I believe this is inherited pretty directly from the MPAA, who place a completely disproportionate emphasis on sex as the primary gauge by which to restrict audiences.

This leads me off, though, to one of the major underlying questions: do we use ratings to restrict an audience? Or so we use them for another purpose?

Consider the use of the contested NC-17 rating in fanfiction. My impression in my own fandom sector, anime fandom, is that this rating is used more as advertising than for restriction. When an author wishes to warn off parts of the audience, for disturbing content let us say, such restriction is more often handled through the warning labels rather than the rating. The rating seems most frequently used to advertise the explicitness of the sexual and/or romantic content.

In some ways, then, it seems to me that we have taken in the MPAA focus on sex and subverted it. MPAA ratings are about restriction, and focus on the presence or absence of explicit sexual content disproportionate to the wide variety of other things that might justifiably restrict the audience. Fan use of those ratings is about audience selection and enlargement; we often use them to appeal to the audience that is looking for sexual content (at least in my corner and I think in others from what little I’ve seen of book/media/etc. practice).

There is, of course, another segment of fans that is interested specifically in restriction, or, as it’s most commonly expressed, keeping youngsters away from ideas they should not yet be exposed to. The actual content of those ideas, again, varies, but some of the frequently cited ones are sexuality, cruelty and/or violence, and bad language. Ratings, however, do not seem to come up in these discussions as much as mechanical restrictions, such as registration requirements for sites that contain variously defined mature material. This may be because this segment understands perfectly well that a rating never stopped any kid, especially from doing something as simple as clicking on a link.

So the actual utility of ratings for fandom texts seems to have very little to do with audience restriction. Rather, ratings seem to serve as a special-purpose label, one that can generally be counted on to address the sexual content unless the rest of the meta information specifically points in a different direction

The meta information can be reworked as a whole, so that the rating addresses something else and the sexual content is addressed in some other way. I do this in my own archive. But if a writer or reader desires greater precision or specificity, it is unlikely that a different rating system alone will deliver it. Ratings, by their nature, are very general and not comprehensive. Verbal labels seem far more likely to deliver, on that score.

Then, too, the MPAA scale has gained jargon meaning, among US fans. When I post to fandom forums and comms, I find myself swinging back to the MPAA scale in order to communicate with my potential audience in a way the community consensus understands. Considering this, it seems to me that, at least in my parts of fandom, our subversion of MPAA is already sufficient to its task. If the rating were the only meta information available, then it would not be, but meta information has become a form of composition all its own, and, looking at it, I think this may be a good thing after all. We are not making movies; we are not publishing novels; we are writing fic, and that is a medium of its own that calls for and evolves its own framework.

We might, in fact, think of our use of the G-PG-R-NC-17 scale as fic of MPAA, a notion that rather appeals to me.

branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)

So I was reading around on tvtropes.org recently and I read Spell My Name With An S, and I read Theme Naming, and I read Word Of God, and it all reminded me of the tangle that invariably comes up over the spelling of anime/manga names. Of course, any time we deal with a source from a different language the question of appropriate translation comes up, but names… names are special. Names get all the usual issues squared.

For one thing, there’s the basic issue of how one renders the sound of a language with a completely different writing system. In some ways, this is actually the easiest part; the only reason it’s complicated at all is that English has several standardized methods of romanizing any given Asian language to choose from. So some people write “Shaoran” and some write “Syaoran”, and if the two sides occasionally try to kill each other, well that’s fandom.

Things get more fun and exciting when the ‘Japanese’ name has, in fact, been taken from another language and there is a double transliteration to deal with. That adds the question of whether we should use a standardized English transcription of the original language (Xiao Lang) or a standardized transcription of the Japanese phonetic rendering (Shaoran).

Theoretically, an official romanization could resolve the question, but we run into complications there too. The original writer may or may not understand the rules of pronunciation and transcription for a) the original language or b) English if the two are different, and may or may not even be the source of the official information in question (aka Studio Minion Syndrome). This can leave us with romanizations like “Riza”, for a name pronounced ree-sah, which doesn’t make sense as an English spelling no matter how you slice it but almost everyone uses anyway just to stop the bickering. It’s just as bad when the official in question is an English speaker who doesn’t understand Japanese phonetic transcription of loanwords; that’s when we wind up with “Arukennymon” instead of “Arachnemon”.

Then, of course, there’s the problem that Japanese does not seem to have an official standardized system for kana-fication of other languages. The characters used to render Latinate or Germanic languages, especially, can vary, and the unwritten rules appear to be pretty constantly evolving. Complicating this basic problem, the same character often gets used for more than one sound. An extended terminal “ah” syllable may stand for an “er” or it may stand for an “a”. A terminal “su” may indicate an “s” or a “th”. If there is no official romanization or, better yet, if different official sources conflict, we’re left to guess and argue and act like there are spelling OTPs.

And that’s just for starters!

Because a number of anime/manga authors mess with the spelling of their characters’ names deliberately, usually in order to indicate that they are strange/futuristic/exotic. Consider the name Kira Yamato, about as Japanese a name as you can get, but spelled on the official website in katakana, the script used for foreign words. Consider K.T.’s penchant for putting extraneous double letters in the names of some characters, eg Nnoitra. Double letters in general seem to be a popular way to strange names, especially double L’s (Cagalli, Killua). And then, sometimes, the writer goes full bore and comes up with something like “Quwrof Wrlccywrlir” for a name pronounced “Kuroro Rushirufuru” (the historical betting leans toward the last name being an imported “Lucifer”).

That’s my personal line in the sand. If I look at it and say “it doesn’t make any sense”, even after thematic research, then I don’t care if it’s official, I’ll spell according to my own best guess. Milage varies on this, of course, and some fans hold by official spellings no matter how weird. All of which only goes to show, this is another debate that will never end. Ah, well, I suppose life would be boring if fans agreed on anything.

branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)

So, upon considering the question of disability in anime, two things pop immediately to mind. One: portrayals are very limited. Two: they’re almost all symbolic.

For one thing, cognitive disabilities are pretty much non-existent unless it’s a case of dramatically going crazy or being Emotionally Wounded and, erm, deciding to destroy the world because of it. These are clearly not intended to be realistic; instead they are a highly dramatized acting out of common emotional patterns.

For another, physical injuries or illnesses are rarely as severe or lasting in effect as they should be. Anime and manga in general are not written for physical realism either–quite the reverse in most cases. They regularly disregard all laws of physics and biology, and injuries are no exception to this. When a character is injured, the results are either hop-scotched via magic or technology (eg Bleach, Getbackers), or else the healing period is skipped with, perhaps, a few scenes of the character dealing with a cast used as humor. The day-to-day issues of “I can’t use that arm” or “I can’t stand up” are rarely dealt with, certainly not by main characters.

Sometimes an illness or injury is used as a source of plot tension, something the protagonists must overcome during a critical situation (eg Card Captor Sakura), but that seems to be a one-episode sort of thing, done to emphasize the hero/ine’s sense of responsibility. The rest of the time it’s used for humor and then cured so the action which is the focus of the story can be got on with. When there is a lasting effect that must be dealt with or overcome it’s a secondary character who deals with it (eg Eyeshield 21’s Torakichi), and therefore the process is not foregrounded.

The more adult-oriented the show, the more likely injuries are to be shown realistically (eg Cowboy Bebop), but even then the process of recovery is generally invisible. If the lasting nature of an injury is dealt with at all it is more likely to be in symbolic terms (eg CLAMP’s eye thing) than in terms of what a missing or inoperable body part actually does to a person’s life and experience.

This seems to be even more true of how chronic conditions are deployed, especially the most common one I’ve observed: tuberculosis. Japanese literature in general has a love affair with beautiful pathos, and TB offers writers an illness that is a) not unsightly, b) still allows the sufferer to be active in a pinch, c) is deadly, and d) has a great historical weight behind it. (For those interested, I highly recommend The Modern Epidemic: A History of Tuberculosis in Japan by William Johnston). So TB gets used as a lever to produce tropes like ‘impending fate’, ‘fragile beauty’, ‘vain struggle against the inevitable’ and so on. Okita Soujirou’s various animated incarnations make good examples.

The bit that really interests me, though, is that, while disability is almost never shown, the experience of social isolation that goes along with it is shown. Stories like Fruits Basket, X/1999 and Meine Liebe show characters who, despite any stated disability being either completely invisible or having no effect, are sequestered. The mental and emotional injury done to them by that sequestration is dealt with in these stories. So, even as the isolation and erasure of disability and difference continues on the screen, that isolation is critiqued. To be sure, social isolation is generally presented as a very bad thing in anime and manga, something to be overcome; consider Shoujo Kakumei Utena or Rurouni Kenshin. So, in those shows that state the presence of a disability but do not actually show it, it seems that two cultural imperatives are pitted against each other: that difference be erased and that social connection be paramount.

The subtext of those stories, that one must become somehow normative to be connected, is not exactly a hopeful one, but at least a few of these characters are making it out of the attic/basement.

(And have a couple interesting links that show a bit of the shape of how Japanese culture deals with disability.)

branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)

Whenever I think about IP I find myself suffering from having one part of my brain considering the practical economic issues, another part working in abstract legal and ethical terms, and yet another part thinking about the practical writerly and interpretive issues.

For example, consider the notion of owning a character. In practical economic terms, I agree that it is useful to pretend that a concept plus description can be owned, in order that a writer be able to profit from supplying stories about that character. In economic terms I can see this working nicely as the sort of limited monopoly that, for example, patents offer, which allow inventors to recoup R&D costs and make a bit of a living.

In abstract legal terms, on the other hand, the notion of owning a concept strikes directly at something I consider a pillar of sensible and ethical practice: that ideas cannot be owned, only products. In these terms, only the specific words on a page can be an author’s property, and only direct copying of those specific words considered a violation of rights. Even a trademark, after all, that most ephemeral of intellectual property, must be a material, embodied symbol.

This touches on part of the writerly portion of my thoughts, because one thing I find curious is any author getting wound up over what another author does with “their” character.

As though it were the same character. Which, of course, it isn’t.

A character inside my head is not the same one as in someone else’s head. I might call it the same name, it might look a bit the same, but it isn’t the same character. No one can do anything to someone else’s character, because the only place someone else’s character lives is in that someone else’s head and on their page. The character in my head and on my page, that’s, well, someone else. The general agreement, in fandom and elsewhere, to pretend that all the Rukias, all the Leons, all the Rodneys we read are the same one, the shared fantasy of unity, masks this fact, I think. But the unity and the distinction exist side by side, and, in writerly terms, it is the distinction that I see most clearly. So the occasional diatribes about the “violation” of one’s characters being used by someone else seem to me to ignore some basic facts about how separate people with separate brains write.

It strikes me sometimes that many writers have a very poor sense of boundaries.

But, then, another part of my writerly thought understands, intellectually at least, that the emotional investment of writing leads very easily to a strong sense of ownership and identification. This part is entirely in sympathy with the desire to not know of the existence of stories that imagine other histories, other existences, for a character you wrote. It’s even more in sympathy with the wish to be clearly acknowledged as a source, and, if any profit is being made, to get a suitable share of it.

And that brings me back around to economic issues, and the search for viable models for licensing for commercial use. Alas, we have none yet, so this is where my thought process usually tails off into wild fantasies of a rational world.

When I try to imagine how all these different threads might actually be reconciled, that’s when I get irremediably tangled up. Practically speaking, it seems to me that the economic measure of copyright has dovetailed so neatly with emotional investment that the conjoining has become naturalized: people have started to think that copyright should protect the emotional investment and not merely serve as an economic incentive. This is certainly the direction European law seems to be moving in, witness the Berne Convention. I do not think it is a very productive direction; I do not think law should be based that immediately on emotion. But there it is, and it is certainly a fact that law changes and evolves over time, and someone will always not like it.

Which, now I think of it, probably means we’ll always be in this muddle. There will likely always be a huge middle ground that is ill defined and fuzzy. We’ll always be arguing over it from a slew of different, likely conflicting, perspectives. This is, after all, how rules are generated and laws are made.

So I suppose my conclusion today is, let us not try to quash any of these thought-threads in a vain effort to arrive at the One True Answer. Let us disagree and debate and not ever be ashamed to hold forth for what we each think is right in each moment and circumstance. The answer will change as we go exactly because no one of us controls it, and, all things considered, I can only think that this is a very good thing.

branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)

A distinction that may assist in clarifying thought:

The practical business of the sciences is to figure out how to change the material world.

The practical business of the humanities is to figure out whether and how it is a good idea to do so.

Many have asked, whenever the various vields of the humanities are judged not sufficiently Serious and Morally Approved, what is the good of studying philosophy, literature, history, political science, etc. And the answer is not, as some philosophers would have it, “because it’s the most noble and spiritual thing possible to do”. The answer is, rather, “to figure ourselves out”–so that, hopefully, we can learn our own strengths and weaknesses and improve our lives without shooting our collective foot off.

History, stories, politics, they all tell of the patterns that human action and thought take. The better we understand those patterns, the better we can judge what effect a new technology or change may have on our lives, and how we need to prepare for it. Understanding isn’t a simple A to B line, though; you can’t just study Great Literature ™ and think that will give you all the understanding you need. Someone has to study everything, so you get the whole alphabet, so you have all the parts.

Studying in the humanities is about finding those parts, and every place you look, every sort of thing you study, is another piece, another letter, that you can add to the collective bag.

Unfortunately, the pretentious philosophers were often the ones with the money and influence to be heard, and their version still pollutes the mind of many an interlocutor, who then wants to know what on earth is so noble and spiritual about studying, for example, fanfic.

Well, you know, fanfic is probably Q.

It’s the wrong question, you see. It comes out of centuries on centuries of self-serving propaganda about what scholarship in the humanities is good for. Yes, Plato, I’m looking at you. And Confucius, you too. I mean, honestly.

There’s nothing especially noble about any of this. Rather is is a) potentially useful and b) a lot of fun. That’s it. And, really, what more can you ask from any activity?

branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)
So, there's some meta running around my head, now, and it's all [livejournal.com profile] p_zeitgeist's fault.

You see, I've been wandering through her Yami no Matsuei material, and some of her perspective on Hisoka crystalized something that I've found weird about YnM for a long time. I think this weird thing is actually a pattern that's common to Japanese literature in general, but anime and manga certainly, and it is the pattern of somehow valuing the perpetuation of pain and/or shame.

Inevitability seems to be the name of the game )
branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)
It seem to be my day for thinking from other posts. Cathexys says some interesting things, while revisiting a post about fandom history, and how there are a lot of distinct fandom histories (media, sci-fi, music, celeb, book, etc.) that have all found their way onto the internet and now clash a lot over whose fandom history we're talking about at any given moment.

And it made me think about [livejournal.com profile] p_zeitgeist's Not-capade post about how western anime fandom may accept altered, skewed, denied canon more often than media or book fandoms because western anime fandom is already at one remove from the source. The culture that spawned it was not ours, and the cues and reasons and references probably go straight past most people without registering at all.

And it made me think that maybe US anime fandom is a-historical for the same reason. It's always just invented yesterday, and there are so many different levels of engagement (raw, sub, dub, etc.) that the fandom itself has very little cohesion except in small pockets. History? What history? The one that starts with Sailor Moon? Or the one that starts with Astro Boy? Or the one that's spent all its time studying Akira and Wicked City? The history that starts with Genji Monogatari, or the one that starts with Takahashi Rumiko in Japan, or the one that starts with a translator on the Tokyopop staff who may not even know the gender of all the characters?

Myself, I think this is helped along by the tendency Japan and the US share of freely reinventing their own histories every few decades. But even aside from that predisposition, US anime fandom has little that any large segment can agree on in the way of roots. Rather, it's an aerial--seeds drifting on the wind to lodge on a branch somewhere.
branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)
You know, I’m right alongside the critics who bemoan all the fic in which the sole and single resemblance between the fic character and canon character is name and possibly coloring. Or, at least, I’m right alongside the idea that this kind of fic should be clearly labled so I can avoid it. But I also see the same people pushing for total canonicity, which I really think is missing the point of fanfic itself.

My observation is that fic proliferates most vigorously in stories with lots of holes to be filled in and lots of contradictions to be reconciled. Rationalizing the disjunctures is practically the job description of a fan. Who but a fan could have come up with an explanation for “photon torpedos” (what’s it going to do, overexpose the enemy?), or the infamous “twelve parsecs”. It’s the slippages that make stories ficcable. The more incongruencies, the more fic possibilities in order to explain them (eg Harry Potter). Stories that are whole in themselves are infinitely harder to write more about (eg Cowboy Bebop).

When there are a lot of holes and inconsistencies, there are also a lot of different ways to reconcile them. The premise that a fic author choses to use in explaining why seemingly senseless things could, in fact, work in a plausible way are usually pretty individual to the author in question. I rather think this is why so many older ficcers lean toward the “Slytherin apologia” even though Rowling herself has somewhat rebuked that tendency. A little kid generally accepts that the bad guys are the bad guys and doesn’t need epistemological maps drawn for why they’re there; they’re there to be the bad guys. Older readers find themselves wondering why the hell Hogwarts would have tolerated the presence of the house if everyone in it really is evil and all the dark wizards come out of it. They need to explain what’s really going on. And you can’t do that canonically. Because if you could, then the hole wouldn’t be there to be filled in.

So, while I’m all about accurate meta-data, I’m also inclined not to throw stones at other people’s character interpretations, even when I think they’re so full of it they need a laxative. I’m happy to throw stones at bad writing, but “bad fic”…

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means” –Inigo Montoya

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