Tag Archives: fiction

Staring Down the Male Gaze

Currently, I’m taking an independent seminar that has me analyzing the male gaze in literature across four different centuries.  I’ve plowed through four primary texts so far, with another four to go, and the whole thing will  (hopefully!) culminate in the writing of some sort of cohesive article.  One of the things I’ve been considering is how these texts not only demonstrate the male gaze, but also challenge it.  In some situations, the objectification of the gaze’s female subjects is pretty blatant, such as in the Marquis de Sade’s Justine.  I mean, I couldn’t ask for a better example of male perspective commodifying women based on appearance and general physicality.  (Come to think of it, this whole project is begging for a Marxist analysis, with a focus on commodification, but I don’t know if I can squish Marxist and Feminist analyses into one paper.  I’m definitely running the idea by my advisor, though!)  However, despite the prevalence of the male gaze as a literary institution, I’m actually finding that the sample of authors I’ve chosen buck the system more than might be expected.  Furthermore, not all of the challenges to the male gaze come from literature of the later centuries.  For example, I was able to find a few interesting anomalies in Madame Bovary, despite the fact that the novel is elsewhere stuffed with examples of the m.g.  Of course, this isn’t to say that contemporary literature is any less impressive in its opposition.  In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson seems to almost entirely avoid the male gaze, despite the fact that her first person narrator is male.  Not only does she eschew this thorn in the side of feminist theory, but she also offers alternative “gazes” that complicate and develop their subjects.

“So…that’s great and all, but what does this have to do with your writing?” you might ask.

Here’s the thing:  This whole project has made me more conscious of the perspectives I create for potential readers in my own writing.  Granted, the male gaze functions a bit differently in poetry than it does in fiction, but I’m a fiction writer as well as a poet.  When I started my doctorate, I decided to go on hiatus from fiction, due to my concerns about balancing a teaching schedule, a grad school workload, and TWO genres of creative writing.  However, now that I’ve been at the whole grad school thing for almost two years, I feel like I might be able to safely pay a little more attention to my fiction writing without completely upsetting the fragile balance of my chaotic little universe.  That being said, I’m now considering how I can best challenge the prevalence of the literary male gaze in my own work.  I worry that if I describe the appearance of a female character, that I might do so in a way that’s objectifying.  I’m trying to pay more attention to how I can use reader and character perspectives to celebrate the autonomy, complexity, and value of female subjects.  This matters to me because my doctoral project has reminded me of how pathological the male gaze is as a literary technique.  I believe that it absolutely reinforces gender inequality in contemporary society, whether consciously or not.  It’s very reassuring to me that a Pulitzer Prize winning novel such as Gilead is also a work in which I find so much progress being made in this area.  For this, I applaud Marilynne Robinson, and hope to follow her example.

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Contemporary Television and the Character-Driven Plot

I’m calling it the “Walking Dead Phenomenon.”  The “it” I’m referring to is the increased use of quasi-ensemble, revolving door casts in current television dramas.  Granted, I don’t regularly watch many tv shows, so it’s possible that what I’m identifying as a trend might simply be a collection of isolated situations.  However, the fact remains that it’s resulting, at least in my opinion, in shitty storytelling.

The storytelling angle is really the only reason why I have any business at all analyzing television shows.  I know virtually nothing about the television industry.  However, as any  writer should, I know at least a tiny bit  about how to tell a story.  Before I explain why the “Walking Dead Phenomenon” is problematic, I should probably define it in more detail.  The casting situation I’m referring to is founded on a semi-ensemble cast that is bloated with characters.  I say semi-ensemble because, in most cases, there are a few “key” characters that are more important than the others.  The revolving door component references the way in which characters are frequently killed off with all the ceremony of a toddler wielding a chainsaw.  This is, of course, to make room for more characters, who will likely fall prey to the same chainsaw-wielding toddler within the next season.

The “Walking Dead Phenomenon” irritates me primarily because I’m a fan of the character-driven plot.  Well-developed and otherwise interesting characters will sell me on just about anything.  This isn’t to say that I’m not a fan of action, but rather that I don’t think that a story can survive on action alone.  I don’t care if you’re writing a story about dragons that shoot laserbeams out of their toenails; if you fuck up the character development, my interest level will drop.  In fact, I’ll probably stop reading it.  If you disagree with me regarding the necessity of character development, I understand and respect that.  However, I hope that you’ll also be able to understand where I’m coming from as I itemize the reasons why I think that the “Walking Dead Phenomenon” (hereafter to be referred as the WDP) is a storykiller.

  • Insufficient Attention to Subplots Due to the Unmanageable Number of Characters

The Following is one of my favorite new shows.  There are some fantastic narrative things going on there.  However, because so many characters are introduced in the first season, there are a number of backstories and subplots that emerge in relation to the second-tier (i.e., not Kevin Bacon or James Purefoy) characters.  This, alone, is not problematic.  What bothers me is the fact that, due to the necessity of moving the main plot and resolving central conflicts, these backstories and subplots are abandoned or poorly developed.  This is closely connected to my next gripe, which is…

  • Killing Characters Off in MId-Arc

Sometimes, the reasons why the aforementioned subplots and backstories are abandoned are that the characters involved get killed off in the middle of their arcs, and are never fully developed as a result.  (The Following contains a number of examples of this, which I won’t discuss in detail so as to avoid spoilers.) In my opinion, this is just poor form.  It seems like the narrative equivalent of driving into a brick wall.  Who knows why this is happening, but I theorize that it’s related to the size of the casts.  Because these shows already have more characters than they can manage, they have to clearcut their casts in order to add any new characters, even if it means leaving storylines unresolved.  Incidentally, my next complaint is…

  • Meaningless Character Death

I get really emotional when I have to kill off my own characters.  I also get emotional when other people kill off theirs.  (People always say to me, “Why are you crying? None of this is real.”  I think that they are oversimplifying their definitions of real and unreal, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Killing a character is a big deal.  It should matter.  If it doesn’t matter that a character dies, then why should we, as the audience, care about anything that they do while they’re alive?   The WDP facilitates a cycle of character death without consequence.  Shows like The Walking Dead and The Following have large casts, and they do a decent job of individualizing their secondary characters.  However, they also kill them off so frequently and unceremoniously that the audience becomes desensitized to the implications of their deaths.  As mentioned before, these character deaths can also leave characters partially developed and conflicts unresolved.  It seems, in many cases, that the WDP creates a climate in which character death is a shock-value commodity with little or no bearing on the development of the story as a whole.  All of these things are discouraging to an audience; why would we bother getting invested in any of the characters at all?

I hope that this illustrates, at least in part, my concerns regarding what I’ve dubbed the WDP.  To be clear, I don’t think that the shows I’ve mentioned are bad shows.  As I mentioned, The Following is one of my new favorites.  I referenced them only to provide examples of the phenomenon I wanted to discuss.  My point is simply that storytellers have responsibilities to their audiences, regardless of their medium. 

 

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How to Sort of Succeed in Writing While Trying Really Hard

One of my goals in starting this blog was to chronicle my experiences as a writer. You may have noticed that many of these experiences have related to my strategies for dealing with the gut-punch of rejection letters. Despite that, I do manage to get published every now and then in various litmags, journals webzines, etc. However, the most monumental development in my writing career to date occurred in December of 2013, when my first full length poetry collection, How a Bullet Behaves, was released by Scars Publications. Granted, you probably won’t find my book at your local Barnes and Noble, but people can buy it on Amazon (and actually have!), which is still pretty cool. (Plus, I bet Barnes and Noble could order it for you, if that’s your thing.)

Publishing my first book has been probably my longest-standing writing goal. Getting to this point made me think about my future goals as a writer. Sometimes, I worry about stagnating, or entering into a slow decline. I always want to be moving forward with my art. I always want to be working toward achievements that excite me as much as this one did. I perennially want to be a better writer. For all of this reasons, I attended a writing conference this weekend, sponsored by the New Hampshire Writers Project. I got to hang with writers of all sorts, including friends, strangers, and a few wildly successful bestselling authors.

One thing that struck me while I was at this conference was what I truly wanted out of my writing career. On a basic level, I want my books to be published and I would like people to read them. If only it started and ended there. At the conference, I had the opportunity to listen to many authors present on the more practical aspects of a career in writng, such as the challenges of working with agents, negotiating contracts, and simply getting paid. This made me question how I define success, and whether a big-money, high profile book deal is a necessary component of that concept. Don’t get me wrong; if a publishing giant ever offered me a multi-book contract with a nice advance, I would consider myself extremely fortunate and would jump on that opportunity. However, if that doesn’t happen, and it probably won’t, will I count it as a failure? I don’t think I will, and here’s why. For one thing, many of the bestselling authors presenting happened to work in genre fiction or “blockbuster” novels. I, on the other hand, write poetry and quirky, literary fiction. These are not genres that are currently clogging bestseller lists(regardless of whether I think they should be). The current list of NYT Bestsellers in Fiction includes authors like Janet Evanovich, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Linda Lael Miller. Although I respect and admire their talent,I will never write like these authors, nor do I aspire to. This may not preclude the possibility of my achieving commercial success, but it probably won’t grease any wheels.

In considering these things, I’ve realized that commercial and financial success is not at the top of my priorities list as a writer. DISCLAIMER: This is not the moral high ground. This isn’t a commentary on anyone who values these things. Now that we’ve established that I’m not trying to be obnoxious, I’d like to stipulate that I would certainly be thrilled if I happened to achieve fame and fortune as a result of my artistic endeavors. I’m not saying that I don’t want these things, or that I would reject them. I’m simply saying that it won’t ruin my life if I don’t get there. I would consider myself a failure if I stopped writing. I would consider myself a failure if I never tried to publish another book or schedule another reading. If I can manage to be an active writer for the rest my life, I’ll probably feel pretty good about that.

Postscript: I left the conference feeling humbled, motivated, and fortunate to have received guidance from such brilliant artists. Props to NHWP for putting on such a killer event, and much gratitude to all the authors who taught workshops, especially Alice B. Fogel, Andrew Merton, JoAnn Adinolfi, and Elaine Isaak.

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Major Tom to Ground Control: First Post

Hi!  I’m Cara.  I like roller skates, glam rock, costume jewelry and rodents.  I’m fairly indifferent to long walks on the beach.  I created this blog to share my experiences as a writer.  This is not to say that I’ll be writing about staring at a laptop screen while the next scene in my novel builds itself in my head, or anything to that effect.  Instead, I want to explore the adventures of life that have had an impact on my writing, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Writing is my primary art form.  I started out as a poet, but after completing my M.F.A in Fiction, I discovered that I enjoy writing novels, too.  Fiction and poetry are the two areas of writing that I spend most of my energy on, but branching out into fiction made me consider exploring other forms of writing, too.  In recent years, I have also tried my hand at freelance journalism and playwriting.

Writing aside, I also dabble in a variety of other art forms, including painting, sketching, acting and dancing.  I do many of these things really badly.  However, there’s something really freeing about doing something simply for the sake of doing it.  This isn’t to say that I don’t write for writing’s sake–I do.  The difference is, I don’t care whether I’m a good painter or a good actor.  What I do care about is the quality of my writing, and sometimes sketching a really bad likeness of a hermit crab can do wonders for that.

Of course, non-arts based experiences also play roles in my writing life.  I imagine that this is probably true for most writers.  Sometimes, the situation that’s most inspiring to me is the one that’s the most uncomfortable, even if it has nothing to do with what I’m writing at the time.

Since I have not yet achieved the monumental success of, say, Jodi Picoult or Stephen King, my life as a writer is riddled with peaks and valleys.  After the umpteenth rejection letter in a row, it’s tough to keep churning out material.  On the other hand, those rejection letters usually provide the fuel I need to push past what my friend Lisa calls “analysis paralysis”.  I guess that’s part of the fun.  In the words of Hunter S. Thompson, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”

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