Contrary Erica’s Pet Peeves

As a brand new Guest Reviewer for Silk Screen Views, I think it’s no more than fair to give readers an idea of what kind of a person I am. My nickname on SSV is Contrary Erica and it should give you a bit of a clue already–I’m one of these people who will go against the grain just for the sake of it.

A prime example:  When I was about to go to university, all my classmates expected me to study English Language & Literature. It was one of the main reasons why I didn’t, and studied Slavonic Languages instead.

Another thing to know about me is that I am very, very easily annoyed. It is much easier to get me to go on forever about something I dislike than about something I like, just ask my husband. At one point he swore he was going to compile a list of all the things I hate and make me rate them, like some sort of perverted review system. He never did, but I can only say one thing: don’t get me started on pandas.

Anyway, that’s not to say that I don’t have many things I really really like, I’m just not as likely to get very passionate about them. Being a Guest Reviewer here is one way in which I hope to be able to change that.

With that in mind, this post will tackle the pet peeves I have about language that really bug me on a day to day basis. This can be spoken or written language, and they mostly happen in everyday life because thankfully they haven’t penetrated into the world of books yet.

Top of my list is the ever-increasing tendency for people to use both also and as well in the same sentence. I might be watching the six o’clock news, and the presenter, looking earnestly into the camera, says, “We have also asked this question of the Prime Minister as well.”

People, please get this straight: also and as well mean exactly the same thing! This is the worst possible tautology I’ve ever come across in my life, and it’s starting to permeate spoken language everywhere! (Well, in Britain at least. I have no idea whether Americans do this as well.)

The worst thing about this? Not only have I caught my husband doing this several times, it’s so all-pervasive that I’m starting to say it myself. I’m still noticing it when I do so, but I ask you – for how much longer? The thought sends a shiver up my spine.

Second on my list is a phenomenon of the written word, and no, it isn’t text-speak. Yes, text-speak annoys me to a certain degree, but it doesn’t drag its nails across the blackboard of my soul as much as does the expression ‘I could of done that’.

No, mister chav git! A thousand times no! You could have done that. Or, if you want to colloquialise it a bit more, you could’ve done that.

Of course, this more or less comes into the same category as people who cannot distinguish between it’s and its, or your and you’re, but at least those are proper heterographs. Okay, maybe could’ve and could of are also heterographs, but it’s just taking it a step too far, because ‘could of’ doesn’t actually mean anything, whereas its and it’s both do.

Number three on my list is a bit of a toss-up, in that I’m having difficulty deciding which of the next two annoys me more. However, after some deliberation I think it will have to be the incapacity of certain people to properly read and pronounce the word ‘mischievous’.

For the record, this is a three-syllable word with the stress on the first syllable: MIS-chie-vous. It is not a four-syllable word with the stress on the second syllable, like so many people seem to think. It is not mis-CHIE-vi-ous. It is derived from mischief, with -vous added to the end, just as grievous is derived from grief and nervous is derived from nerve.

So, a close fourth is the – again ever-increasing – tendency for people to refer to persons as ‘that’. As in, ‘the person that won the lottery last Friday’. Even a literary site such as Goodreads is falling foul to this phenomenon. I was trying to set up my author page, and Goodreads helpfully asked, ‘Are you the Erica Dakin that wrote The Ritual?’

‘No, Goodreads!’ I wanted to shout. ‘Last time I checked I was still a person, so I am the Erica Dakin who wrote The Ritual.’

During my year at Edinburgh University I was taught that this is actually a Scottish tendency, so it appears that it has worked its way south of the border and across the ocean. Well, much as I like the Scots, they can keep that particular linguistic fallacy.

At number five is that endless source of amusing internet photos which is the misuse of apostrophes, though in my case I’m particularly offended by apostrophes used to indicate a plural. Every day on my bus home from work I pass a dog-grooming parlour, and every day I somehow manage to look up from my book just long enough to see the notice in their window that says ‘Please take your dog’s to do their business before bringing them in.’

Please take my dog’s what to do its business? Why is it so hard for people to form a plural just by sticking an s at the end of a word? I mean, in English it’s pretty much the only plural that is left! It’s not even like Dutch, where if a word ends in a vowel the proper plural does include an apostrophe! Do people even know what the term plural means? Should I even bother pointing out that ‘dog’s’ is a possessive, or shall I anticipate the blank look of incomprehension at the word ‘possessive’ and just leave it?

Which brings me to another scourge of proper use of language: the inability of some people to differentiate between adjectives and adverbs. I don’t encounter it so much now that I don’t play World of Warcraft anymore, but the number of times I’ve seen people shout in general chat, “Looking for ‘blah’, paying good!”

And yes, I was pedantic enough every time to shout back, “No you’re not, you’re paying well!

Then we come to something which maybe shouldn’t be included in this particular post, but which annoys me enough that I have to get it off my chest. It concerns children.

Now, let me start by pointing out that I’m not very good with children. I don’t know what to do with them until they reach about age 15 and you can have a reasonably adult conversation with them. I’m not mother material, and I panic when someone hands me a baby and it starts to cry. Still, I appreciate that I’m a minority, and that there are many, many people who have children and are very happy with them.

That said, do you really have to let them address you as ‘mummaaaaaaaaayyyyyy’? I’ve lost count of the amount of toddlers on the bus, in the street, anywhere you like, who try to get their mother’s attention by uttering that elongated, drawn-out atrocity that makes me want to strangle a chicken. (Not the child. I know I could get into trouble for that.) I can handle ‘mum’. I can even handle ‘mu-huuuum’. But I cannot handle mummmaaaaayy. Is this another British thing? Do American children do the same? I’ll probably never know, nor do I particularly wish to find out.

My last pet peeve is a little obscure, I’m afraid, but I come across it often enough that it bothers me. It is the misuse of Old English ‘thou/thee/thy’. I was reminded of it by one of those amusing lolcat type photos someone posted on Facebook. It was funny, but it was spoilt by the fact that they’d used ‘thou’ when they should have used ‘thee’. Or the other way around, I can’t remember. So let me clarify this for those of you who aren’t sure which to use when.

Thou is used as the subject: “Prithee, thou art a very handsome prince!” the fool cackled.

Thee is used as the object, either direct: “Verily, I thought I had warned thee!”

Or indirect: “Forsooth, had I known, I would not have given thee my dog!”

Thy is possessive: “Egads, thy britches are straining to contain thee!”

For completion’s sake I should mention thine as well, which is another possessive for which I don’t know the English term, but it’s the kind of possessive which you use independently: “Take us!” the nuns cried, “we are thine!”

Apologies for the overuse of exclamation marks there. Old English people were obviously very shouty.

Now, before anyone berates me for being very harsh on people, and points out that all this stuff can be pretty difficult to learn, please remember this: I am foreign, and I managed to learn it. I’m a stickler for correct grammar, and whilst I cannot claim that I always get it right, I damn well give it my best effort, and I am mortified if I get it wrong. To me it is only natural that I expect other people to make the same kind of effort.

This likely marks me as a very judgmental person, which I suppose I am, but I have been enlisted by the lovely people of Silk Screen Views to deliver judgment on the books I read, so I have justification. Please let me leave you with one last observation: this is probably the worst I can be, and I am normally much nicer.

o–o—o–o

This post was adapted from an entry on my own blog. Feel free to pay me a visit and read some less judgmental posts.

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First World Princess Problems: Disney, Entitlement, and the Hipster Movement by Michelle Browne

Hello hello!

I am back once again with the blog post I promised earlier this week. With a fairly sizeable American Apparel store on the way to work, hipsters are pretty visible as a part of my daily life. The movement wasn’t one that I understood at first. I saw the fashion, heard some of the music–unless it was too obscure, of course–and set my brain to work, trying to comprehend it.

Source. This is pretty much half of your basic hipster wardrobe; however, fedoras, oddly-fitting 70s blouses, ludicrously high-cut pants, and chunky plastic jewelry are also mainstays. Oh, and those goddamn mustaches. Mustaches everywhere.

Part 1: Observing Hipsters

I could tell there was a trend going on, and I recognized the impact of Japanese fashion on its style, but there, my understanding ended. Thick-rimmed glasses and a mishmash of stylistic references to different eras that were combined into a decidedly unique look, generally involving Apple products. Hipster fashion was everywhere, growing each day, and yet, to be called a hipster was an insult. The look is praised and derided in the same breath. It has managed to retain an exclusive cachet even as overweight North Americans everywhere are trying to squeeze into sterility- and embolism-inducing skinny jeans.

Just in case you, dear reader, are confused by the term hipster, I’ll provide a brief description of the word’s application in most modern contexts. The current hipster look and attitude are stereotypically characterized by exclusivity, streamlined clothing cut for those with a lower-than-average BMI, expensive electronics, obscure music by mostly independent artists, and the traditional snarkiness every cool group displays at its zenith. Skinny jeans and an androgynous look are generally the norm, and a pseudo-worldly display of international interests combined with affected quirkiness are hallmarks of the attitude that matches the clothing.

Of course, this description is leaving out the history of the hipster, which is an evolving movement that takes its roots from Jack Kerouac and other Beat poets, as well as from Andy Warhol’s Factory crew. Still, don’t let the description fool you–most hipsters are, as with any trend, far less extreme than in typical descriptions, and quite a few people can make the fashions work without having to display the less tasteful aspects of the attitude.

I’m going to touch on a previous column, which dealt with cultural appropriation and skimmed over how to avoid it. I mention it because affecting ‘tribal’ styles without a specific ethnic origin and using ‘first Nations inspired’ designs, such as feather headdresses, are common to hipster styles. A lot of important touchstones for non-Euro-American cultures that happen to look cool get borrowed and recycled in the hipster look. I don’t think I need to explain why using sacred or culturally sacred symbols for casual fashion is bad and pretty disrespectful.

Still, because I don’t want to rehash what most of the internet has been bitching about for the last couple of years, I’m going to skip ahead to the part that involves Disney. We all love Disney, right?

Source. There’s your overlap. You’ve been warned.

Part 2: Disney Princesses

A few friends of mine have started to rear their own offspring, and the rest–including me–still use this and any other excuse to enjoy some Disney nostalgia. There’s no getting around it–ostensibly evil, money-grubbing, exploitative corporation or no, Disney is a company that makes a good kid’s movie. I’m not going to get full-bore feminist on everyone’s asses, and we’ll talk more about why Disney is both very good and very bad another time, but the fact remains that good songs and good animation resulted in some good movies.

The princess movies in particular have done a surprisingly good job of surviving their over-marketing. In spite of being saturated with merchandise and sequels related to the roughly grouped stories based on carefully retold fairy tales, we aren’t sick of them yet. The beauty of The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, or even the somewhat condescending Princess and the Frog film still remain, even with the faults of the films.

I hate to gut something that formed such an essential part of so many childhoods, and I hate to restate the obvious or oft-said even more, but the princess films have also done a fair bit of damage to our psyches. In addition to the body issues, the presentation of love as the end-all and be-all of life, and the easy solutions, the princesses generally had to put in only token effort to have the world delivered to their feet. Perhaps it is natural, then, that movies associated with white privilege and the style associated with white privilege have overlapped so neatly.

The thing is, the princesses always sought ‘more’, a certain meaningfulness to their lives that they just couldn’t put in place. Belle was unfashionably intelligent; Ariel, curious about a culture she was restricted from interacting with; and Jasmine, unwilling to hide from the world once she’d gotten a taste of life beyond her castle walls. The older princess films were made in a time when marriage was the only thing that mattered, and the newer films have been made with Disney trying to compensate for its past failures, so they lack the soul-searching elements that made the 90s era Disney Renaissance films so good.

Source. More dress-up time, to give your brain a quick rest and some fashion candy.

Part 3: The Point

You were probably wondering how these two were linked, and whether the entire post was an excuse to show these drawings. (It wasn’t, I promise.) The hipster movement’s roots had to do with disaffectation with privilege, and its current manifestation is both reliant on Western wealth and Western discomfort with this wealth. Yes, we’re currently experiencing a job crisis in America, but up here in Canada and down in the States, most people still have enough money for that iPhone, and will still make sure that their second-hand clothing is fashionably tight.

For young women at the moment, then, whether we’re comfortably swaddled in the illusion of security that university provides or out and learning the joys of long-term work in retail, these films still resound. Those of us who were born into the 90s or 80s, we ‘millenials’, were promised the world. And, having gotten it, or having had it snatched away by , we want ‘more’, a thing we can’t put a name to but keep searching for. Like the girls wandering around their family’s gardens and singing about their discontent, many of us feel incomplete.

The hipster movement soothes these feelings nicely, with its concentration on aesthetics and arbitrary acceptance and rejection system. The stories that resounded with us as children still resound now, well after their appeal should have expired, for the simple reason that we are trying to find meaning, and failing.

At times like this, it’s hard not to scowl and point to people like Malala Yousafzai, one of millions of girls who would kill for the educational opportunities that we grudgingly endure and even squander here. What the hell are we complaining about, one might ask, and not without reason. Privilege, though, and the easy access to money, social supports, and parental back-up plans, are their own traps. The disintegration of these backup plans as the economy has failed hasn’t really fixed the problem of growing up in a world where life is easy and hard questions are optional.

Am I saying that the answer to our desire for ‘more’ is activism rather than indifference? Well, possibly. It certainly beats settling into that sufficient job and sufficient house and wondering why being able to afford most of one’s wants just isn’t satisfactory. The thing that gives someone’s life a meaning may be something big, like getting equal educational opportunities for women, or it might be something smaller, like making art. Still, if there’s one thing we can learn from the princesses and the hipsters, it’s that ambient levels of wealth won’t keep us happy, or keep us from looking for something more significant. Romantic love alone certainly isn’t the answer, but there are answers out there. Looking, and looking beyond the next iProduct upgrade or temporary entertainment, is the only way to find that vague yet recognizeable quantity, “More”. “More”–it’s the new American dream.

*****

Thanks for returning and patiently waiting for your late Sunday night fix. Don’t forget to check back for short stories, more politics, analysis, scraps of science, and even some reviews. This is your SciFiMagpie, over and out!

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This article was originally posted on Michelle Browne’s blog on October 15, 2012.

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An Unexpected Backlash: A Tolkien Commentary by Michelle Browne

Hello hello!

So, by now, most of you have probably seen ‘The Hobbit’. I finally caught up to it in theatres just recently. I wanted to touch on the relevance of that, but I’m going to splice an analysis of Lord of the Rings in here too, and look at why the series has been so instrumental in creating the fantasy worlds of writers today. However, I also have a few choice remarks to make on culture and possibly colonialism, so don’t expect an entirely comfortable post. Get your sword, your bow, and your axe; this could get ugly.

For the sake of expediency, and because I don’t have time to reread the entire trilogy AND The Hobbit AND The Sillmarillion (blech!) before writing this review, there may be a few factual detail errors. However, given my ‘to be read’ shelves on GoodReads and Amazon, I figured it was best just to get on with it.

Photo belongs to the internets.

So, what makes the series so special? Let’s have a look at some common misconceptions and ideas while we’re trying to figure it out.

Lord of the Rings was the first book of its kind! Well…actually…

It’s more than just clever marketing, certainly. Although The Lord of the Rings series was written during WWII and published in three volumes between 1954-55, it wasn’t the first high fantasy work ever written. Before The Hobbit in 1937, Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian hit the shelves in 1932. Weird Tales, the magazine that started it all, had hit shelves back in 1923, bringing stories of horror, science fiction, and the fantastic to pulp readers everywhere. Reading these contemporary works definitely reveals some very common themes. If you’ve read H.P. Lovecraft’s work and a bit of Howard–which I have–you can see the overlap in the style of the antagonists, as well as in other elements. The spooky and mysterious forces even return in modern game narratives, such as DragonAge, The Elder Scrolls, and World of Warcraft. 

What LoTR did, though, was refine the style and give it a voice, a look, an emblematic work that encompassed new ground. Only children’s stories had been written about knights and beasts and dragons, and before that, the mythology of a people. Tolkein managed to combine children’s stories, folklore, and the organization of mythos into a single work. There’s no getting around it–the Middle Earth stories are the sort of creation myth territory that had previously belonged to whole cultures.

He single-handledly defined orcs (inventing those himself), dwarves, elves, and halfings/hobbits for generations of fantasy writers. He defined the period and setting (a sort of sparsely populated medieval Britain/Germany/France amalgam) for what high fantasy would become. He defined the idea of a big bad scary villain working through armies of henchmen. He codified the Merlin-like figure of a wise old wizard and crafted many tropes and archetypes that we still rely on. High fantasy, as it currently exists, just wouldn’t have come to be without Tolkein, or would have been markedly different.

Source. Some time, we’ll have a long talk about my mixed feelings about dragons, but this is a pretty epic picture.

So, what can you possibly say about LoTR’s impact that could be negative? He invented the genre, right?

LoTR begat many other authors’ works. Ursula Le Guin and her literary descendents have diverged a bit, but both Arthurian structure and LoTR dominate the flavour and types of worlds created by modern writers. Stories revolve around magic and whether it ought to be used (or not), kings and their courts, power struggles, fantasy racism and ancient grudges, looming evil forces or ideological conflicts, the role (or lack thereof) for women, and Epic Grand Battle Royales. Tamora Pierce, Terry Brooks, Robin Hobb, George R. R. Martin, and many other authors have all experimented with variations on this formula, with varying levels of success.

There is some really wonderful high fantasy out there, but as one reads the list, certain patterns emerge. Even from titles alone, a tendency towards the medieval is obvious. That’s all right on its own, surely, but a second glance reveals more. The vast majority, in fact, almost every single book, is set in some sort of British/Germanic/French/Nordic world. Mongolians, Chinese, Arabs, or Africans are the antagonist forces–sometimes cloaked in scales or green skin or in various deformities. While some books do deviate and head to a Middle-Eastern world–Tamora Pierce’s Circle, Guy Gavriel Kay’s canon, or G. R. R. Martin’s Fire and Ice quintet–most stay firmly in the classic medieval Europe zone.

Now, I am citing classics of the genre. I’m not all that keen on high fantasy, as stated in previous posts, but there are some books here that I truly love. Pullman, Zelazny, Martin, Bakker, Rowling, Pratchett, Nix, Gentle, Goodkind, and yes, Tolkein, are authors I’ve absolutely adored and who have influenced me. However, even these interesting and fairly diverse voices tend to gravitate to that European medieval standard I’ve mentioned. LGBTQ people are an endangered species, diversity is limited to a few strange folk and tokens, and everything is based on a muddy mix of the worst of 11th century daydreams.

So, why insist that I dislike the genre if I’ve read so much of it?

The problem is that reading one or two books in the genre, by and large, is like reading all of them. Sure, some of the authors have the excuse of time on their side, but new authors are still imitating their forebears with religious accuracy. Simply put, if you’re reading high fantasy these days, you can count on a lack of cultural diversity and different ideas, and there’s not much point in picking up a new book in the genre. I’m not saying the whole thing needs to be chucked out, or that these books are bad, per se, but I do think there’s a danger of intellectual bankruptcy and negatively influencing younger, newer authors.

Source.  This is basically how I feel when I pick up a book and find out that it’s exactly the same as a classic fantasy work. This has happened recently. Multiple times.

So, why has Lord of The Rings continued to keep such a hold on the public imagination?

I think some of it has to do with not only the greatness of the work and the shocking faithfulness of its adherence in works that followed, but also with comfort zones. I’m not going to rant about American/Eurocentric media right now, but I will say that it’s simply what we’re used to–Britain and Germany as cultural centers, with blurred understanding of how much even these two nations have changed in modern times. We know Tolkien and we know the works of authors inspired by him, and their sameness and familiarity may actually be a selling point. When people like something, they want more of it. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when even smaller-name, newer authors feel compelled to repeat the same formulas–and the formulas come from only one or two sources–you’re bound to encounter a lot of repetition. It’s a standard epic escape route.

Going back to an earlier point, not all the writings were intended to be this homogeneous. Arguably, a lot of these works cross into the real world, and when urban fantasy is lumped into High Fantasy (which it is on the Wikipedia page), you see a bit more wriggle-room and creativity. However, the idea of pushing boundaries isn’t a welcome one in fantasy circles. Consider how many of the greats–even those writing in the present–have prominent gay or lesbian characters who are open about their sexuality. Answer: Very few. Even G. R. R. Martin’s fiction, which does move away from the Euro-zone a bit, maintains misogyny (though it’s explored) and ‘European’ main characters for all the named, prominent protagonists.

It’s also given people the wrong idea about the actual medieval era, which–according to scholarly research I’ve done–is essentially nothing like the books supposedly written to imitate it. Even without the more exotic and non-realistic aspects, the time between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Medicis in the Renaissance was a very busy period for human history, not just a wasteland of political struggle and plague. The myth has faded into legend, and some things that should not have been forgotten–such as the surprising diversity of medieval science and some tolerant attitudes towards gay people–were. However, it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the world, or that the genre is doomed to continue cannibalizing itself and Tolkein.

Okay, smartypants, how do we fix it?

I’ve been leading up to this, but the answer isn’t really that difficult: we need to diversify. I would read the living crap out of a book set in ancient China or Africa. Medieval setting and all. Most authors are Europeans or Americans (yours truly included, though I’m Canadian) and there are certain knowledge limits imposed by that. That said, we’re running out of options; ideas are basically tapped dry, and being recycled at this point. Stretching beyond the classics and taking inspiration from other cultures–respectfully–could do a world of good. As well, adding new elements to the classic books, such as clashes over technology, LGBTQ and non-traditional marital structures, and different ideologies, would also change up the formula.  Some issues might arise from incompetent treatment of other cultures and LGBTQ people. That’s going to be a problem as people expand their reach and subject matter, without question, and you can bet I’ll have more to say about cultural appropriation in future.

On the other hand, nobody really likes change as a process. It’s uncomfortable. I can also anticipate a lot of screaming over destruction of the genre and that sort of thing. Given how well classic high fantasy has survived so far, I wouldn’t describe that as a real problem. In fact, some authors have already started to mess heavily with the formulas, and to excellent effect. Bakker, one of the authors mentioned, does a pretty good job of changing around traditional elements in his Prince of Nothing series, in my opinion. Eve Forward’s The Animist is another example of a book that bent a few rules by varying the races and species used.

While there’s a good discussion to be had about the realistic value about fantasy (and sci fi) stories for the real world, there’s also a need for even the most fantastical works to relate to contemporary circumstances. Our circumstances are just so different from fifty or sixty years ago that traveling back to the make-believe medieval Disneyland setting designed in that era is no longer realistic. Real Britain has a very diverse population, women comfortably work in many different industries (and men demonstrate far more than mere combat skills, proving to be excellent solo parents), and equal marriage is becoming a very important issue worldwide. Fantasy just doesn’t represent this very well, and a few updates will help the genre stay relevant and interesting for our children and children’s children. And that’s why we need to dethrone Tolkien as the one and only golden standard of fantasy, especially for new authors: if things stay the way they are, fantasy will fail to move forward. We’ll have the classics, sure, but those little pockets of racism and sexism will remain, and no culture needs that.

So, in conclusion: I actually like a fair bit of high fantasy, and have respect for many authors in the genre, but it’s already suffering from some serious inbreeding. I haven’t touched on the issues in science fiction, and I will get to that eventually. For now, it’s time for you guys to tell me your thoughts: is fantasy over-saturated with a certain setting style? Is it just the traits of the genre? Or do we need to change things? Any recommendations of new and unique fantasy series are also very welcome. I want to hear your thoughts in the comments!

*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don’t miss any of the good kind of crazy. Find me on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr. Watch out for my fantasy-themed spring: interviews with fantasy authors, content related to fantasy films and reviews, and some political commentary–the phuquerie you’ve come to expect from me. Keep checking back to see those surprise posts, too. This is your darling SciFiMagpie, over and out!
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This article was originally posted on Michelle Browne’s blog on March 17, 2013.

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