Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

to hack or not to hack

To hack or not to hack, that is the question.

An article in the New York Times last month describes several start-up companies whose goals are “to do for books what Netflix did for movies and Spotify for music.”

As an incentive for authors and publishers to add their work to these online collections, the companies promise to deliver insights into reader behavior: how many finished the books or skipped to the end, which passages readers lingered over and which they skimmed, and so on.

The article goes on to question the viability of the business model, and quotes one writer who is both interested in seeing this reader data and worried that it might reduce her creativity or her willingness to take risks.

All in all, “E-Books are Reading You” was a good article. Thoroughly reported. Balanced in its considerations. And temperate.

This is more than I can say for the Letters to the Editors selected by the Times to publish in response to the article, under the headline “Writers Desperately Seeking Readers,” which are as neat a collection of vanity, arrogance, contempt, elitism, and reductionist thinking as you are likely to find on a mere one-eighth of a standard broadsheet.

From this description, you might think I didn’t like these letters. But I did. Because they encapsulate so many of things I find wrong with writers.

I’m not going to out the authors of these letters – they are quite easily found through Google with the information I’ve provided anyhow – I’ll simply provide my response to what they wrote. To wit:

Art is a supremely individual expression.

Yes, I agree with that.

It doesn’t ask permission; it doesn’t take an exit poll and adjust accordingly.

It doesn’t? You mean no artist has ever taken an audience’s reaction into account? How about the opinions of mentors, other artists, editors, agents, critics, friends, spouses, or lovers? Where does acting on feedback end and pandering begin? Or does the definition depend on the status of who is giving the feedback?

Artists say what they know … they have no choice in the matter.

Yes, I agree with that too. Unfortunately.

And it’s our privilege to be brought into their world.

Our privilege? I would like to decide for myself whether entering that world is a “privilege”. Many times it is. However, from my experience, when someone declares that my attention to their work is a “privilege” this is often a sign that it ain’t. In any case, I think an audience’s attention to a work of art is also a “privilege” that is earned by the artist, rather than something that is his or her natural right. Or something to be demanded in a fantasy-fascist world where the artist, self-proclaimed or otherwise, rules as a cult-of-personality dictator.

Once artists start asking how many “likes” they’ve garnered, or listening to customer-satisfaction surveys to increase their sales, they’re no longer making art: they’re moving product.

Okay, here we go. Did Shakespeare move “product”? Because we have a fair amount of evidence that he did, from his output and popularity, to his becoming one of the owners of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to the records of his investments and property purchases including New Place in Stratford. Will didn’t start rich. But he ended up that way. And he did so while becoming, as it turns out, the immortal genius of literature in English.

Then we have the famous Robert Greene, who seems – with some scholarly doubt, but not too much — to be referring to Shakespeare in his comment about “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers … [who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you.”

I have two points to make here. The first is that earning money from art, and earning it through popular success, is in no way incompatible with the highest artistic achievement; and the examples of this are so numerous and so decisive you would think there would be no need to have the discussion. Dickens. Bob Dylan. Heck, even Nabokov. I bet you can name plenty of your own. All these guys made serious coin. But not one of them ever once considered the satisfaction of their “customers”? (Well, I’ll give you Nabokov.) No real artist ever once bent to a requirement of a pope with gold or a publisher who could pay or to what people or a patron seemed to like? They never once took a commission? Really? Hum.

The second point is that a great number of the attitudes I’m spanking the hell out of here, possibly to my peril, are not really about art. They are about the vanity of people who want to be seen as artists and who jealously guard the elevated social status that perception confers.

This is where Greene comes in to play. Greene was a university-educated playwright who clearly believed Shakespeare was infringing on his turf. Where is Greene’s work now? Or consider where the reputation of Shakespeare’s two long “art” poems sit compared to his plays.

Another way to say it is that the intention to create art is no guarantee of artistic success just as the intention to please an audience is no guarantee of artistic failure. And these are just two of the many complex factors, complexly interacting, that actually drive the act of creation.

Writers such as these could be described as ‘tech savvy’ or known by an adjective that predates the digital age: hacks.

A variation on the theme here, but a couple points. First is the idea that a “hack” appears to be someone who acts on aggregate feedback from a large audience. The author of this letter describes himself as an editor. I assume that if a writer listens to his editorial feedback, he does not think this makes the writer a hack. But if so, I would like to know the reasons why acting on his advice is not pandering too.

Hovering around the fringes of these letters are two relevant ideas. The first is the genre fiction / literary fiction divide, in which the former is characterized by the low-quality pursuit of money and the latter by the high-quality pursuit of art. The second is that the categories are absolute. You are either Fifty Shades of Grey or you are The Waves; you are either a hack or you are not; you either listen to everybody or you listen to nobody but your own genius muse.

But there is actually a wide spectrum between these two poles and different artists, and different works by the same artist, fall all over the place between them. Some work that is perceived to pursue popularity and profit turns out to be art (Shakespeare again). Some work that is perceived to be art sinks into rightful oblivion. Some art is art and some crap is crap. Then there is a whole lot of mediocrity muddling around in the middle. It’s all incredibly hard to categorize, and the best we can do is begin with individual reactions to individual works.

I’d like to think that valuing integrity over popularity is fundamental to … writing books.

Ah, the idealism of youth (the writer identifies himself as 19). Actually, he seems like a nice fellow and I have no desire to criticize him. But question. Are integrity and popularity mutually exclusive?

Because by now, you know I don’t think they are and that most books are built, in part, from some combination of integrity and popularity: or if you will, the amount of work the reader performs to approach the author versus the amount of work the author performs to approach the reader. Also, popularity we can measure in all sorts of ways. How do we measure integrity?

Let’s keep going. Is integrity founded on intention or results? Let’s say for example – I don’t know this, but give it to me as a “for instance” – that E.L. James intended to write a good / high quality / literary book but her talent wasn’t up to the task of producing anything other than Fifty Shades of Grey. Does that mean the novel has integrity?

If Joyce wrote Ulysses in cynical bad faith, does that mean we should reject the book? And if Jonathan Livingston Seagull was written with total sincerity – which would make it even scarier in my opinion, but anyhow – does that mean we should embrace it?

In the end, I suppose I’m saying that it is the work that matters. The work is certainly much easier to access compared to the artist’s good or bad faith, in any case.

Well, that about wraps it up. Hope you have a good day. Now I have to get back to reading Count Fabio and the Sexy Pirate Queens on my Kindle. I’m skipping the dull parts.

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Neil Gaiman NeverwhereIf the task of the fantasy novel is to create an engaging new world and tell an absorbing story in it, then Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere delivers the goods just fine. If it is do more than these, then Neverwhere comes up a bit short.

Neverwhere is primarily the story of Richard Mayhew, a pleasant but vague financial analyst in the modern City of London (or “London Above”), and the Lady Door, a member of the aristocracy of “London Below” which is a realm of fantastical or historic persons and places below the city tied together by the London Underground.

Richard finds Door lying injured on a city street and is soon drawn into her desperate attempt to flee the killers who murdered the rest of her family while simultaneously seeking to understand the reason why her family was murdered.

Along the way, we’re introduced to a satisfying number of delights. These include the murderous Misters Croup and Vandemar, a Dickensian pair straight out of nightmare; the Floating Market where all the contending citizens of London Below gather under a general truce to plot, trade, and revel; a large group of colorful supporting players; and the angel Islington who is still mourning its failure to save the people of Atlantis from destruction.

Gaiman’s invention is not endless, however. His plot has just enough twists to keep the story in pleasant motion. Gaiman often reaches for the word or phrase you’d expect, to the extent that I was often completing his sentences in my mind as he did on the page. His Angel Islington and Richard’s snobby rich girlfriend come straight from central casting. And at best, his characters have just enough distinct qualities to be sufficient for the story – which is to say they have two.

So the young lady Door is waif-like yet resolute. The Marquis de Carabras is amoral but scrupulous in the paying of his debts. The Black Friars are kind but a touch sinister. Most particularly, and not successfully, Richard Mayhew is hapless and heroic.

Mayhew is mostly paralyzed by fear and protected by the other characters out of pity, except for a few moments when he rises to a challenge that has defeated scores of men and women from London Below over the course of centuries. One challenge is the dread “ordeal” and the other is the great “Beast of London” which lurks in a labyrinth. Neither of these victories seems probable and Gaiman makes them less so by frequently playing Mayhew’s character for laughs.

This gets at my two disappointments with Neverwhere, which I had expected to like better based on Neil Gaiman’s reputation. The first is that none of the characters were sufficiently developed that I could feel an emotion toward them and so feel that something was at stake while reading Neverwhere; and what should be at stake in reading is our hearts. Mine was never engaged.

Secondly, what binds a fictional world together and makes it breathe, whether it is utterly fantastical or obsessively mundane, is its emotional tone: how the author feels about the world he or she has created. I don’t think Gaiman ever decided how he felt. Instead, he has the ha-ha mostly feckless Richard Mayhew stumbling around a story that is threatening and apocalyptic. This makes Neverwhere entertaining for sure. But it doesn’t make it anything more.

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cropped-pgm-photo-02.jpgOn Thursday, the journal Science published a study (Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind) that found people scored better on tests measuring empathy, social perceptiveness, and emotional intelligence after they had read literary fiction than after they had read popular fiction or rigorous non-fiction.

This result cheered members of the literary community and confirmed an idea that I’ve long argued using anecdotal evidence, which is one of the most important functions of literature is to strengthen emotional intelligence.

This function also explains why literature is the only art included in core educational curriculums. The ability to accurately read the feelings of other people is perhaps the most essential skill for living in social groups, and living in well functioning social groups is one of our key adaptations as a species.

So all this is good news — which I greeted with considerable apprehension and unease.

Part of my unease comes from having observed that people who read literature don’t go about the business of becoming better people as often as they go about the business of bragging how they are better people because they read literature.

The Science study is likely to encourage the bragging folks to keep bragging about their exceptionalism; and exceptionalism is fundamentally at odds with the work of empathy, because exceptionalism encourages you to see yourself as different from others while empathy encourages you to see yourself as the same.

The Science study is also likely to reinforce certain class divisions that run right through the middle of literary reading, in which appreciation for literature is used to signal your membership in a high economic status group (ie, rich people read Shakespeare) or in a high social status group (ie, Bohemians read difficult or experimental fiction).

The use of literature as a signal of status is particularly pernicious because it actively works against the whole purpose of reading books, which is … reading books.

Instead, the status-signal readers are interested in reading “classes” of books. They read “literary” fiction not “genre” fiction or “popular” fiction, and so they look for books that conform in obvious and expected ways to these classes, in order to embrace them or reject them — even before they read them (if they ever read them).

In this world, “literary” is a synonym for “quality” and “genre” a synonym for “trash”. The problem with this is that a great deal of tedious, uninspired, self-important, plodding work is praised and a great deal of inspired, insightful, subversive work is ignored.

Now telling the difference between the two can be fiendishly difficult, especially because a truly original book is often indistinguishable from a hot mess on first encounter.

But it is the encounter that is essential: the active, engaged conversation between book and reader.

If the results of the Science study encourage more of this, all to the good. If the study just encourages more sniffing at cocktails parties, then the world will roll on much the same as before.

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UntitledLess than a week after it was released, Grand Theft Auto 5 has earned more than $1 billion in sales and reignited the debate about its rampant violence. The news coverage of the game’s more appalling details strikes me — a person whose reaction to the typical video game controller is confusion and boredom — as disturbing.

But my bigger question is this: What makes the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 different from the violence in other works of the imagination?

For example, Breaking Bad is a cultural phenomenon which has millions of Americans rooting for a man who cooks meth, manipulates his friends and family, kills adults as well as a child, and is in possession of a machine gun which is likely to figure in the show’s finale.

Macbeth is a monument of English literature which draws audiences of refinement and taste to watch the slaughter of kings, friends, innocent women and children, and soldiers while somehow persuading them to suspend judgment of the man who is the agent of all this slaughter.

I suppose the great difference among these works, if you can establish the difference, is that Grand Theft Auto 5 celebrates violence for the purposes of entertainment, while Breaking Bad and Macbeth explore the nature of violence to demonstrate its consequences.

The point of the video game is to be a criminal and win, or at least escape any consequences for your bad behavior. Macbeth, of course, doesn’t escape consequences in the Scottish play. And we are guessing that Walter White, who already exists in a self-created hell, is likely to suffer more before the show finishes at the end of the month.

But I’m not entirely persuaded by this argument I’ve just made. Part of my doubt is that I’m not sure you can demonstrate that the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 is of a different kind than Shakespeare’s.

Defenders of the game claim that it is a satire, which would turn the game into social commentary, although social commentary on the level of Brett Ellis’ American Psycho perhaps.

At this point, then, we are required to decide if Grand Theft Auto 5 is a satire done in good faith (ie, “we’re serious about our message”) or bad faith (ie, “we’re pornographers looking to protect our revenue”). And making that judgment is about as slippery a task as a critic could assign himself or herself without helpful emails provided by Edward Snowden.

I’m also not persuaded because of this question: Would Grand Theft Auto 5 or Breaking Bad or Macbeth be as popular as they are WITHOUT violence?

For example, would you really want to watch a play in which Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth talk about their frustrations with their lives and careers, while playing the polite host to King Duncan and making sure he likes the brie and that his room is comfortable? Not really.

The violence is an essential part of Macbeth‘s appeal: appealing, I think, to the dark impulses the human race all feels but which we as social animals need to suppress. These impulses also need an outlet however, and imaginary violence is a much better outlet than actual violence. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a more direct outlet than Macbeth, but this only makes it different in degree. Not different in kind.

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The twenty-one novels in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series are the greatest sustained work of English-language fiction written in the 20th century for the high craft of their characters, story lines, language, and themes, for the breadth of their erudition, and for the sheer stamina of O’Brian’s invention.

The series follows Jack Aubrey, a fighting captain in the British Navy, and his particular friend, Stephen Maturin, naturalist, naval surgeon, and intelligence officer, as they fight in the Napoleonic wars as well as the War of 1812.

The series begins with superlative novels that include the books in my best of O’Brian list below. Then, like the happiest of long-running marriages, the Aubrey-Maturin novels take a modest step down to the level of very good indeed; with my metaphorical marriage encompassing not only Jack and Stephen’s monumental friendship, but more importantly, the great devotion of O’Brian and his readers to each other.

I’ve listed my five personal favorites, in order of admiration, with notes and some spoilers. (I’ve included a complete list of the Aubrey-Maturin novels below these reviews for convenience.)

Post Captain (1972)

Post Captain - a best Aubrey-Maturin novel by O'BrianPatrick O’Brian’s magnificent sophomore work is the crown jewel of the series. The novel begins with O’Brian in full Jane Austen mode, following a young Jack Aubrey with prize money in his pocket and time on his hands because of an unfortunate lull in the Napoleonic wars, as he pursues his eventual wife, Sophie Williams.

Soon, fighting breaks out again but more significantly, Jack and Stephen’s friendship breaks down over a second woman (Stephen’s eventual wife, Diana Villiers) and they challenge each other to a duel. This is the only time in the series when the enduring friendship between the Aubrey and Maturin is shaken, and it makes for some of the most difficult and moving reading in the novels.

In Post Captain, O’Brian’s skill at writing complex, lucid, and compelling battle scenes emerges in all its glory, as does his humor, most especially when Jack is forced to escape suddenly hostile French territory by disguising himself as a dancing bear.

Unlike many of the later novels in the Aubrey-Maturin series, which don’t end as much as they simply stop, Post Captain concludes with a bang.

O’Brian places Jack in command of one of the four British ships that famously captured a Spanish treasure fleet bringing gold back from the New World to finance Spain’s entry into the war against England. Stephen, in his emerging role as an indispensable intelligence officer for the British, gathers the information that makes the capture possible.

HMS Surprise (1973)

hms surprise best aubrey maturin obrianIn HMS Surprise, the pace is faster, the action more exciting, the stakes higher, and the plot architecture tighter than in Post Captain, which it immediately follows in the series’ sequence.

For my money, HMS Surprise features the best set-piece in the entire series: Jack’s brilliant and daring rescue of Stephen, who has been captured as a spy by the French and is being tortured in the town of Port Mahon on one of the Balearic Islands. This is also the moment when the friendship between Jack and Stephen becomes stronger than death, and so the great and enduring heart of the Aubrey-Maturin novels begins to beat.

In HMS Surprise, both Jack and Stephen face down significant rivals. For Jack, it is the French Admiral Linois, who defeated him in the series’ first book, Master and Commander. For Stephen, it is a new contender for Diana’s affections, who he challenges to a duel that leads to another of the series’ most famous sequences, in which Stephen performs surgery on himself.

Finally, HMS Surprise launches two more of the novels’ great elements. The first is the theme of marriage’s problematic nature, as Jack looks forward to bliss with Sophie in the book’s final lines (Jack predicts the future will be “pure paradise”). The second is exotic locales. India features prominently in HMS Surprise, and future novels will take Jack and Stephen all around the world.

The Fortune of War (1979)

The Fortune of War - a best Aubrey Maturin novel O'BrianJack and Stephen are equal as friends, but Jack is more often the agent of action in the novels, partially because he is the captain of the frigates on which Stephen serves and partially because his appalling bad judgment in nearly every aspect of his life except as frigate captain is always getting him into trouble.

The Fortune of War is the single book in the Aubrey-Maturin series that truly belongs to Stephen. In it, he and Jack have been captured by the Americans during the war of 1812. Both are taken to Boston, where a severely wounded Jack is held prisoner, but Stephen walks about with considerable freedom, since the Americans believe him to be just a naval surgeon rather than a British agent.

French agents, also in Boston, know better however, and they engage Stephen in a deadly game of cat and mouse which transforms The Fortune of War into the series’ only true spy-thriller. Thrown in the mix are Diana Villiers, that brilliant complicator of Stephen’s life, and a hair’s breadth escape that wraps up the novel nicely.

Also in The Fortune of War, O’Brian brings the double nature of Stephen Maturin into sharp focus. In the novels to this point, we’ve known Stephen as an accomplished naturalist, a committed physician, and a talented spy – but only had hints of his deadly ruthlessness. Here, Stephen kills without hesitation or regret when driven by circumstances, and O’Brian creates another contrast with his great friend, Jack Aubrey.

Jack as a naval officer is personally responsible for far more deaths than Stephen, but Jack cheerfully regards war as the world’s greatest professional sport. The rewards are immense, the rules complicated and subtle, losing often deadly, but the players feel little actual animosity for their opponents as long as they adhere to the laws of the game. In Stephen’s war, there are no rules, the killing is vicious and personal, and grudges extend beyond declarations of peace. Another way to say it, of the two men, it is Stephen who has the soul of a killer.

The Far Side of the World (1984)

far side world best aubrey maturingAs the Aubrey-Maturin series progresses, the plots of the books become less discrete and the arcs of the stories flatten; so the novels transform into one continuous narrative that blossoms with asides, digressions, false starts, storms and accidents, sudden reversals, changes of mission caused by the whims of Jack’s superiors or shifting geopolitics, and the messy complexity of the characters most of all.

The Far Side of the World is a particularly rich example of these qualities. In the novel, Jack is sent in the HMS Surprise to prevent an American frigate from attacking British whalers in the South Seas, and almost nothing goes right. He is significantly delayed by a lightning storm off the coast of Brazil that damages his ship and requires significant repairs, which allows the Americans to slip into the Pacific and strike the whalers. Later, a typhoon nearly wreaks Jack’s frigate and destroys the American ship for him. The crew is unhappy with an aging, incompetent midshipman who they believe is back luck. Stephen is entangled in political intrigue while reveling in his opportunities to collect scientific specimens. And much more.

There is something existential in all this chaos, and without suggesting that O’Brian intended to write a philosophical novel – he has entirely too much sense and talent as an artist to bother with such stuff – the total vision of The Far Side of the World delivers exactly that.

Desolation Island (1978)

desolation island best aubrey maturin o'brianIf The Far Side of the World flirted with existentialism, Desolation Islands walks right up to this dreary philosophy and gives it a big wet kiss.

Jack accepts the command of the Leopard, an aging ship barely fit to navigate the English Channel, in a mission to transport prisoners to Australia. These prisoners attack and murder some of their guards. The ship is stuck in the doldrums and battered by storms. An epidemic kills most of the prisoners and much of the crew. The Leopard is chased and nearly destroyed by a vastly more powerful Dutch ship of the line. An iceberg damages the Leopard so severely that Jack makes a desperate landing on Desolation Island (one of many in the world at that time) where they are at risk of being marooned permanently.

Desolation Island contains two of my favorite extended set pieces. The first is the Dutch ship’s pursuit of the Leopard, which takes place in the Roaring Forties, where the waves are mountainous and O’Brian’s powers of description are superb. The second is the crew’s extended stay on the cold, bleak island of the novel’s title – which Stephen regards as a natural philosopher’s paradise he is in no hurry to leave. This is an example of O’Brian’s humor, of course. But it also suggests that joy and wonder can be found any place, if you just know how to look for it.

Complete List of Aubrey-Maturin Novels by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander (1970)

Post Captain (1972)

HMS Surprise (1973)

The Mauritius Command (1977)

Desolation Island (1978)

The Fortune of War (1979)

The Surgeon’s Mate (1980)

The Ionian Mission (1981)

Treason’s Harbour (1983)

The Far Side of the World (1984)

The Reverse of the Medal (1986)

The Letter of Marque (1988)

The Thirteen Gun Salute (1989)

The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991)

Clarissa Oakes or The Truelove (1992)

The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)

The Commodore (1995)

The Yellow Admiral (1996)

The Hundred Days (1998)

Blue at the Mizzen (1999)

Glossary of Nautical Terms

The Gunroom of the HMS Surprise site has a good glossary of nautical terms that come from the “Dictionary of Sea Terms” by R.H. Dana Jr., author of “Two Years Before the Mast.” These are particularly useful to new readers of the O’Brian series but helpful to everyone. Also useful is this openstax page on the principal parts and sails of 19th century ships.

Nautical Terms That Have Become Idiomatic

Idioms are phrases whose “figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning,” as the The Oxford companion to the English language nicely puts it. The OED online says idioms are “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g. over the moon, see the light).”

Once you start reading Patrick O’Brian, you begin to realize just how may idioms in English derive from sailing ships. For example, a “loose cannon” is a wild unpredictable person liable to cause harm. This idiom comes from the guns of sailing ships which were mounted on wheeled carriages that absorbed the recoil and allowed the gun to be drawn inside the vessel for reloading. The guns and their carriages could easily weigh 3,000 pounds, and they were secured by heavy ropes. When a gun and its carriage got loose from its ropes, it could roll all over the deck from the motion of the ship injuring or killing men. Worse, the gun could plunge down a hatch and straight through the bottom of the hull, causing the ship to rapidly sink. The CrewSeekers website has an excellent list of idioms that come from sailing ships.

Tacking and Wearing a Sailing Ship

O’Brian describes the mechanics of sailing his ships in detail. This video of the Star of India shows what’s involved in tacking and wearing a sailing ship. In both tacking and wearing, the crew puts the ship about so the wind is shifted from one side of the vessel to the other. In tacking, the bow of the ship is turned through the wind. In wearing, the stern of the ship is turned. Tacking is the more difficult manuever because the crew is turning the ship into the wind while wearing involves turning the ship downwind.

 

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Breaking Bad season 05Since I am perpetually behind all trends in popular culture, I am just now discovering that Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is as purely addictive as the crystal meth his anti-hero Walter White cooks on the show.

I’m also just discovering how Breaking Bad has so magnificently balanced its “entertaining” and “serious” elements, which is another way of saying – broadly – that it has succeeded as a narrative built on character and situation as well as a narrative based on plot.

Before I get around to solving the problem of how I’m going to watch Season Six when I don’t have cable, let me throw a few semi-organized thoughts at you.

Breaking Bad Season Five: Addicted to Story

All stories are driven by conflict. And to vastly over-simplify matters, these conflicts fall into two broad categories: interior conflicts, which tend to emphasize character, and exterior conflicts, which tend to emphasize plot.

In its early seasons, Breaking Bad placed greater emphasis on internal conflict. Walt is a high school chemistry teacher driven to cook crystal meth because he fears he will die of lung cancer and leave his family penniless; and while the mechanics of working in the drug business are explored, more time is devoted to the conflicts Walt’s illness and the lies he tells to hid his business cause in his family, and then to conflicts Walt’s wife’s discovery of his profession cause in their marriage.

This balance begins to shift in Season 3 as Walt’s involvement in the drug business deepens, and he is increasingly threatened by other criminals and by law enforcement agents. The latter half of season four delivers a rush of pure narrative delight as Walt scrambles to kill his former business partner, before he kills Walt and his family; and the story barrels into the shows of Season Five with Walt declaring he wants to build his own drug “empire”.

It would be hard to over-praise Breaking Bad for how beautifully it manages its story, like a thoroughbred running the best race of its life, hitting all the beats, managing the minor cliffhangers of a commercial break and the larger cliffhangers of each episode’s conclusion.

Add to this “the mob meets MacGyver” elements, as Walt applies his Mr. Science skills to eliminate one threat after another. And top it off with a question: how does Vince Gilligan make story lines that sound ridiculous when you describe them to your wife so convincing and affecting on screen?

Walter White: Lured by Vanity, Enthralled by Winning

One answer is Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, who Vince Gilligan describes as a person who begins as Mr. Chips and who ends as Scarface, but who I think is much more interesting than Scarface.

Walt doesn’t really want money, although he begins cooking meth as a way to pay his medical bills and provide money for his family after his death. What Walt really wants is agency and recognition.

This becomes evident fairly early in the show, because Walt quickly makes enough money to take care of his family, but he is more concerned about his image as a nice but feckless and impoverished cancer-stricken dweeb than by the practical problem of how he is going to launder a half million dollars in cash.

Walt craves success then, and even more importantly, the recognition and respect that come with success. This is one of the reasons he keeps getting lured back into the drug business, because only there is his success – as the well-paid maker of the world’s best crystal meth – recognized.

It is also in this world that Walt’s intelligence and (as it turns out) decisiveness is acknowledged. He’s driven in part by desperation. He has to kill his business associates before they kill him. He has to elude the DEA. But the more often he wins, the more he likes it and the more he doesn’t stop to count the bodies that are piling up on route to his next victory.

Only when his wife shows him the pile of money he’s amassed, literally as big as a Mini Cooper, that he retires – right at the end of season five. What was Walt chasing? What were all those deaths worth?

We’ve Been Seduced by the Monster Who Is Walter White

This is a popular opinion and it’s true. Walt is a monster. The list of murders he’s committed prove it. So why are we on his side?

Part of the answer is that Walt wants what most people want: to be self-sufficient and respected. Part is that we humans are social animals who chaff at the restraints our societies put on us even as we embrace them, and stories about criminals or seducers or other people who break the rules are a safe way to dream away our frustrations with society’s restraints.

But a greater part of the answer is perhaps the loveliest fact in all narrative art. The social purpose of story and character, the moral purpose of literature – regardless of medium – is to teaches us empathy.

Story asks us to inhabit the lives and experiences of the characters on which it turns its powers, and to understand them, even if we don’t like them – even if in the end we are right to condemn them. Macbeth, Milton’s Satan, Humbert Humbert, Walter White.

It’s a great paradox of narrative art that rooting for bad guys can make us better people. But it can. At least when the bad guys are creations as brilliant as Walter White.

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sookie stackhouse novels harrisIf the perfect beach book (1) offers a likeable heroine (2) tells stories about problems you don’t have, (3) is smart but not taxing, and (4) contains enough sex to make up for the fact you can’t have any since you a sharing a motel room with your kids – then Charlaine Harris’ vampire novels, including the recently published Dead Ever After, are pretty good choices.

Certainly, Ms. Harris has earned her success with the character of Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic barmaid living among vampires, werewolves, witches, fairies, and just-folks humans in the small Northern Louisiana town of Bon Temps.

Much of Sookie’s appeal comes from the fact that she is a normal person. Every day, she gets up and works an unglamorous job. She shops for food, buys gas, cleans her house, and watches TV. At night, she says her prayers. On Sunday mornings, she goes to the local Methodist church. Sookie tries to look after her hard-working but sexually reckless brother. Most of the time, she wonders if she’s done right or not.

Sookie is also appealing because her strength comes from her character, not her paranormal abilities. In almost every fight with a supernatural being – and with many normal humans – Sookie is overmatched, but she will fight all the same if forced, rather than surrender. Sookie also has great courage. She will put herself in danger to help a friend or a person to whom she feels obligated. She will act on principle when it’s against her own self-interest. And she can make hard decisions when her good sense tells her she has to make them.

Another quality of Charlaine Harris’ vampire novels is their social commentary. The books are occupied with how society treats people who are different, and you don’t have to look hard to see the parallels between the vampires in Harris’ novel and homosexuals (and others outside sexual, gender, and lifestyle norms) in our own.

The supernatural can also be seen as the outward manifestation of interior psychology in the novels. Sookie dates vampires and werewolves, which is another way of saying she goes out with no-good men who are blood-suckers and animals, while ignoring the romantic possibilities with her dependable boss Sam, a shape shifter who likes to take the form of a collie.

Sookie’s mind-reading power functions in a similar way. Her telepathy is really the magical extension of her natural intelligence and perceptiveness, qualities that can make a woman living in a small town “different” or “odd” to many of the people around her.

None of these parallels should be taken too far. Harris does not invest every character or story with a deeper meaning. Or put another way, with a nod toward Freud’s famous observation, sometimes a vampire is just a vampire in the Sookie Stackhouse books.

Charlaine Harris is not a great prose stylist, but her writing demonstrates craft, and Harris conveys the sound of Sookie’s voice – and particularly her sense of humor – very effectively.

Her plot architecture is another matter, however. Many of the books are constructed around a series of loosely related incidents, rather than a unified story that has an arc and momentum. The mystery elements of her stories are often thin and feel perfunctory. Her plots seldom twist. And as the series has stretched on, it has become more and more of a soap opera.

This is not such a bad thing for beach books, however, and it means that you can read the series in any order. So try a couple if you discover you just can’t read Woolf’s The Waves while the ocean crashes and the seagulls cry and your neighbors the next umbrella over are blasting Bon Jovi. I couldn’t.

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