Pleasures of 2013
by Eleanor Arnason
In recent years I’ve had trouble reading fiction. This is apparently something that can happen to writers as they age. Michael Swanwick has written a brief essay on the topic in his blog Flogging Babel. (http://floggingbabel.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-evolution-of-writers-reading.html) It’s worth reading and thinking about. Swanwick argues that a writer who stops reading will diminish his own work. I suspect this is true, and that I need to start reading more.
While I struggle with this problem, I have been watching movies and TV shows on DVD. My current passion is screen versions of the novels of Jane Austen. My partner has been reading Austen novels for the first time. I have been reading them for the umpteenth time. We have both been watching the TV series and movies. Right now I would say our favorites are the 1995 TV series version of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, the 1995 movie of Persuasion with Amanda Root, the 1995 movie of Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman as an insanely romantic Colonel Brandon, and the 1996 TV movie of Emma with Kate Beckinsale. All have their problems. It isn’t easy to make a movie of an Austen novel. She is both dense and inward. Much of what happens is inside people, told either through the narrator’s description of their thoughts or through information directly given by the narrator. The scripts all try to make Austen more dramatic and romantic, less inward and restrained than her fiction actually is.
Sir Walter Scott wrote in his journal:
“Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!”
I don’t know of Austen invented the bourgeois novel of character and psychology, but she certainly was an early practitioner of this art form. It doesn’t translate easily into drama.
She is a fierce portrayer of greed and selfishness, well-known bourgeois traits; and she is funny as all heck.
In addition to Austen, I am continuing my fascination with Marvel superhero action movies. The one I’ve seen this year – Thor: The Dark World -- is not as good as the earlier origin movies: Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. There is far too much violence and noise. I felt shell-shocked coming out of the theater. I had the same response to The Avengers, which I also did not like.
At some point I am going to have to figure out the appeal of these flicks. A facebook friend of mine says they are the modern version of Great Depression musicals, distractions in a bleak, gray time.
In some ways they are the opposite of Austen: outward rather than inward, simple rather than Thor: The Dark World destroys large parts of Asgard and London, with small thought to the people killed.
The most interesting characters in the Marvel movies are the inventor and capitalist Tony Stark, who clearly suffers from Antisocial Personality Disorder -- previously known as sociopathy, and Loki, who cannot be diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder only because he is a god, and the diagnoses in the DSM do not apply to gods.
Nonetheless, I enjoy the movies. They are big, bright, fast-moving and often funny, though not in an Austen way. Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Hiddleston are both wonderful as people you really do not want to meet.
I wonder if it’s possible to argue that Austen begins the great era of bourgeois culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries and Marvel action flicks come at the end. We move from a fiction of personality and morality to Slam! Bang! Smash! Pow! The fine moral decisions that Austen describes turn into cartoonish epic battles and Might Makes Right.
This is not entirely accurate. As Spiderman (another Marvel superhero) tells us, “With great power comes great irresponsibility.”
Maybe it's better to argue that Marvel superheroes, coming after the rise and fall of classic 19th-century imperialism and the two great, terrible world wars of the 20th century, cannot focus on the nuances of everyday life. Something bigger and bolder is needed to deal with the late 20th and 21st centuries.
Eleanor Arnason has written several novels and many short stories. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People
(2001), won the James Tiptree Jr. award for gender-bending science
fiction and the Mythopoeic Society Award for adult fantasy. Her fifth
novel, Ring of Swords (1995), won a Minnesota Book Award. Aqueduct Press published her collection Big Mama Stories this year, her Lydia Duluth adventure, Tomb of the Fathers, in 2010, and her collection, Ordinary People, in 2005.