Terry Pratchett and the Question of Literature

The Librarian of the Unseen University in Terry Pratchett's Discworld. (OOK! by Paul Kidby).
The Librarian of the Unseen University in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. (OOK! by Paul Kidby).

As you may already have heard, the internet was livid with rage on Monday, after Guardian columnist  accused Terry Pratchett of being a mediocre writer who pens ‘ordinary potboilers’. Perhaps the most prominently featured response came from Sam Jordison. Crucially, Jones casually admits that he has never read Pratchett himself, and Jordison chides Jones for this admission, arguing that ‘[t]he moral weight that Jonathan Jones says is missing from the Discworld novels is very much there – but to know this, you do actually have to read them’.

 

The Literature Problem

Much ink has already been spilt by others in response to Jones’s article, but I’m interested in the discussion for what might be a different reason than most. For me, the debate over whether or not Terry Pratchett is guilty of literature is moot. The answer will invariably be either yes or no, depending on the individual reader’s perspective. This is fine. I personally adore the Discworld series, and think it has merit on many levels, but I’m not really bothered about whether it’s literature or not. What interests me is how we (both the highly educated and the popular readers) can still talk about what makes ‘literature’ and not first answer one immediately important question: when we say that a work is moving, or artful, or can ‘enrich the very fabric of reality’, who is it effecting in this way? With which group of people does a text need to be popular in order to be considered ‘literature’, and where does this group exist in relation to other groups in the cultural spectrum? There are literatures and there are literatures, and, as a Facebook friend of mine aptly put it:

Resolving the conundrum by implying that you somehow just “know” which works are classics – let’s get real, let’s not fool ourselves – takes us back to New Criticism’s obsession with discovering the intrinsic value of works.
I’ll have my criticism 21st century, thank you very much.

This is where Jones goes most wrong, though to be fair his 500-word article is more clickbait than criticism. Provoked by the public response to Pratchett’s recent death, Jones argues that  ‘middlebrow’ writers like Pratchett are drawing the attention from where it belongs – with ‘real literature’:

Thus, if you judge by the emotional outpourings over their deaths, the greatest writers of recent times were Pratchett and Ray Bradbury. There was far less of an internet splurge when Gabriel García Márquez died in 2014 and Günter Grass this spring. Yet they were true titans of the novel. Their books, like all great books, can change your life, your beliefs, your perceptions. Everyone reads trash sometimes, but why are we now pretending, as a culture, that it is the same thing as literature? The two are utterly different.

Like many champions of the traditional Western canon, Jones buys into the concept of creative genius. He also invests literature with that special je ne sais quoi that is paradoxically both transcendent and timeless, and down-to-earth, or quintessentially human. Even more problematically, Jones equates literature with a particular kind of pleasure, where only a particular kind of intellectual investment can offer real rewards:

Actual literature may be harder to get to grips with than a Discworld novel, but it is more worth the effort. By dissolving the difference between serious and light reading, our culture is justifying mental laziness and robbing readers of the true delights of ambitious fiction.

As Damien Walter (who also happens to be a Guardian columnist) points out, even if the ‘difference between serious and light reading’ isn’t entirely arbitrary, shifting from decade to decade, the real issue lies with the fact that the power to decide what belongs in each category rests in the hands of an unjust and undeserving elite:

Because let’s not forget that the literary and cultural structures Jinathan [sic] Jones rides out to defend originate from one of the most unequal and unjust cultures in human history. The Victorian Britain that derided the readers of penny dreadfuls was the same one profiting from their sweat and labour in the nation’s factories. The white, Anglo-Saxon, upper class literary and cultural elite deciding what should be classified as “great art” were simultaneously pillaging the cultural heritage of India, China and a quarter of the planet. The fortunes that paid for the exclusive university educations of Victorian Britain’s artists, writers and critics came in large part from the profits of brutal industry, murderous colonialism and, of course, the vast reparations paid to British slave owners. It’s in no way surprising that Imperial Britain defined art and culture as it defined all things, in such a way as to exclude the poor and keep the oppressed in their place. The values of British culture that Jonathan Jones takes such joy in defending are, in large part, indefensible.

When we discuss ‘literature’ as a category or as an institution, we need to be wary of the very terms of the conversation. If we’re honest, the indefensible values Jones defends still dominate Western culture as a whole. Literature in particular is still built on the repression and exploitation of poor, female, and minority voices. Who do the texts Jones champions empower, and who is empowered by Pratchett’s work? At the end of the day, that is the most important question, although the answer is rarely so straightforward.

 

Small Gods

280c1ec663044eaf277683d2a139666bThe ongoing debate about ‘literature’ and literariness actually reminds me of a Terry Pratchett novel. Like Walter, one of my favourite Discworld instalments is Small Gods (1992). It tells the story of Brutha, eighth prophet of a once-great god named Om. Most of Om’s followers don’t really believe in him anymore, but they keep his institutions around because they represent a useful way to hang on to their power. Brutha is quite possibly Om’s last believer. Though Om is fading away, and only has enough strength to manifest himself as a turtle, Brutha persists in believing that his god’s actions are driven by careful consideration and divine knowledge rather than necessity. You can find a nice analysis of the plot here.

In addition to being incredibly funny, the novel is at once a wry satire of organised religion, and an honest exploration of belief. I could draw quotes from any number of Discworld novels to defend Terry Pratchett’s ‘literariness’ (in whatever sense), but if Small Gods weren’t overtly addressing religion, it could easily be read as a metaphor for the literary establishment rather than a religious one. Likewise, you can interpret this metaphor as coming down either for or against Jones’s defence of ‘real literature’.

Like Om, Pratchett may not always be driven by divine forces, or by the particular brand of aesthetics to which Jones subscribes, but this clearly does not diminish the impact he has had on a vast group of people. They continue to believe in power of Pratchett’s work, and for me, this makes all the difference. As poet and critic Ian Darda points out in an excellent article on contemporary conceptual writing (which exists at another focal point in the ‘literature’ debate), power over a text’s meaning has always resided with context, not with the author, the reader, or even the text itself.

I won’t spoil Small Gods for you – provided you promise to go (re-)read it! – but it feels appropriate to let Pratchett’s work and parables speak for themselves. So without further ado, in the light of this discussion here are some of my favourite Small Gods quotes:

“There’s no point in believing in things that exist.”

(Terry Pratchett. Small Gods. London: Corgi, 2013, p.287)

Their listening was like a huge pit waiting for his words to fill it. The trouble was that he was talking in philosophy, but they were listening in gibberish.

(p.287)

“Take it from me, whenever you see a bunch of buggers puttering around talking about truth and beauty and the best way of attacking Ethics, you can bet your sandals it’s all because dozens of other poor buggers are doing all the real work around the place.”

(p.261)

“Life in this world,” he said, “is, as it were, a sojourn in a cave. What can we know of reality? For all we see of the true nature of existence is, shall we say, no more than bewildering and amusing shadows cast upon the inner wall of the cave by the unseen blinding light of absolute truth, from which we may or may not deduce some glimmer of veracity, and we as troglodyte seekers of wisdom can only lift our voices to the unseen and say, humbly, ‘Go on, do Deformed Rabbit…it’s my favorite.”

(p.230)

And finally:

You Shall Not Submit Your God to Market Forces!

(p.368)

There and Back Again: Or, What I Learned About Pop Culture at the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio

aq_g9sTVAnd we’re back! After a long and much-needed holiday in the USA, I’m in Cardiff and working on my thesis again.

My post this week is going to be a long one, and it’s going to contain a strange mix of topics (religion, politics, and popular culture), so consider yourself forewarned. Those of you who follow me on Twitter (or know me in real life) may have been wondering what on earth was going on at the beginning of July. You probably saw a lot of posts like this one, relating to points of order:

You may also have seen lots of photos of me either raising a voting card, or standing at microphones holding massive wads of paper, like so:

From 1-12 July I was in San Antonio, at the 2015 General Conference (GC) session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Over 30,000 people were in attendance, and on days when everyone was in the Alamodome venue, things got pretty impressive:

Every five years members and official delegates from the Adventist church all over the world get together to discuss and vote on necessary, if often very boring, topics. This year, those topics ranged from minor changes to policy documents all the way up to whether divisions (large, and largely administrative leadership bodies within the church) had the right to independently decide whether to recognise its female pastors as being ‘ordained’. This last topic was arguably the most controversial of the entire GC, and the final vote was split almost evenly between Africa and South America (who represented most of the 59% against), and North America, Europe, and Asia (who represented most of the 41% for).

For most of you reading this post, the whole idea of a church policy conference probably sounds crazy, and a million miles distant from your own day-to-day life. I’m with you there. Working in academia — or just in Northern Europe, where we’re all embedded in our own little social bubbles — it’s easy to forget that other people have fundamentally different ways of looking at things. Not just in the realm of structuralism versus post-structuralism, or ‘pro-Marmite’ versus ‘anti-Marmite’, but right down to the way they essentially define things like equal representation, civil rights, and freedom of speech.

Not only is it difficult to make decisions together on an abstract level with so many cultures and ways of reading, but you first have to worry about how you’re going to make those decisions on a practical level. During the GC session, for example, one division fundamentally objected to an anonymous vote, arguing that it leads to manipulation and double-dealing, while another refused to vote unless they could do so anonymously, for the exact same reason. Things got tricky very quickly. How can you begin to work together (or even alongside each other) under such circumstances? When you disagree on such basic things, can you ever hope to agree on civil rights issues? And can you achieve some kind of meaningful dialogue that still remains respectful? I certainly don’t think we were successful at either of those things in San Antonio.

Despite having grown up all over the world, I found it a difficult atmosphere to adjust to. The collision of religion and multicultural politics made my head spin — so what on earth was I doing there? Although for most of my life I’ve happily worked and studied in environments that are decidedly post-Christian, I was raised in the Adventist church. Like many people my age I’m not very active in a specific church any more — primarily for reasons of introversion, but also for its general lack of a focus on civil rights. I still identify with the culture, though, and I feel that church can fulfill an important role in society, and in people’s lives.

There are more than 18 million Adventists worldwide, and while some of them are definitely a little crazier than others, ultimately that craziness is what endears me. I like being around slightly crazy things and people; generally I feel it makes my life more interesting, and more enjoyable. So when the Dutch church asked me (a Dutch/American) to represent them at the GC my interest was piqued, and I eventually accepted. I came prepared, attended every single business session, and did my best to help balance the severe under-representation of women and young people among the delegates.

In the end it was a losing battle, and I came away from the GC feeling exhausted and alienated, with a lot of frustrations. Despite failing to personally identify with a large portion of what went on in San Antonio, however, I did meet many lovely (and keenly intelligent) people from all over the world. Through social media, I was also able to connect with others in a way I had never quite experienced before. As we all tried to cope together, and to reconcile other peoples’ images of Adventism with our own, something happened: where religion couldn’t unite us, popular culture did. We found each other slowly on Twitter, through the official hashtag #GCSA15, the millennial rallying cry #MyChurchToo, and the tongue-in-cheek self identification as a #badventist:

What started as simple conversations about #AdventistGaming and what video games we were playing (or just an excited ‘You like comics too?!’) quickly became something more than that. Popular culture became a way to engage with the dis-empowering and overwhelming metanarrative that dominated the San Antonio GC, underwriting it with reminders that there were other, equally big stories out there that we could relate to, and that we could apply to the situation. At the start of one day we knew was going to be a particularly emotional one, we turned to Star Wars:

 

Commenting on a particular agenda point, point of order, or on the conference in general became an opportunity to redefine the spectacle of it all in more familiar terms:

We even used teen dystopias to show our support for each other against overwhelming odds:

It just goes to show you (or at least, it showed me), that for something like a religion to really work, you need to connect with other people on more than just one level. For us that was popular culture – for others it may be something completely different. I’m still picking through the many things we referenced during those two long weeks, but I’ll always remember how it felt to find meaning and a voice through that common ground. The hashtag #GCSA15 may be retired now, but we won’t forget about the experiences it enabled in a hurry (and neither will our fingers):

For the moment I’m still glad it’s over, but who knows — maybe you’ll see me at #GCINDY20 in Indianapolis. At the very least, you’ll have my support (and my sad pop culture jokes) on Twitter.

Victorian Monsters? Strategies of Appropriation in the Neo-Victorian Mashup

Octopus Portrait, © Yumiko Utsu, from the Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition
Octopus Portrait, © Yumiko Utsu, from the Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition

This post originally appeared on the Victorianist, the postgraduate blog of the British Association for Victorian Studies, on 18 May 2015. It is reposted here with the kind permission of the editors.

I should probably preface this post by admitting that I’m not a real Victorianist. The Victorians were one of my undergraduate passions, and I continued to read and write all about them during my MA, but somehow I was always more interested in how we speak about the Victorians today than in how they actually spoke to themselves or to us. It was the fantasy of the Victorians that I found most intriguing. For the purposes of today’s post this works out well, because although the texts and subcultures I’m currently researching are often set in the nineteenth century, borrowing Victorian politics and aesthetics, they aren’t really Victorian either.

Specifically, I’m talking about the monster mashup, in this case the kind that appropriates objects, texts and contexts from the long nineteenth century and combines them with a very twenty-first century monster culture. These mashups come in many flavours, and can be found in virtually every artistic medium. You’ve got computer and console games like Fallen London or The Order: 1886. There are monster mashups in film and television, like Van Helsing (2004) and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (2014). They’re also in the fine arts, and a rich selection of monster mashups found themselves displayed at the recent Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition in 2013.

You’ll also find monster mashups, perhaps more predictably, among the ranks of comics and graphic novels – consider Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999) or Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer (2009). And of course there are novels, like Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula (1992|2011) or Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (2009). Arguably the best-known monster mashup in novel form is the ‘novel-as-mashup‘, popularised with 2009’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and continuing with such groan (or grin) provoking titles as Wuthering Bites (2010) and Grave Expectations (2011). These mashups lift the very words, sentences, and chapters from the texts they appropriate, changing a word here, a paragraph there to create a new (if ultimately very similar) text. From lowbrow to highbrow, drama to comedy, there’s a monster mashup for everyone.

'Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.'
‘Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.’

The targets of these mashups aren’t exclusively from the nineteenth century, but an overwhelming number have thus far turned to the Regency and Victorian eras of Britain’s literary history for their source material. Copyright laws are no doubt partly responsible for this, as is the fact that we’ve got so much physical and visual material to draw on from the nineteenth century onward. The public education system is another likely culprit, as the most popular mashups (and the ones that attract the most media attention) tend to involve the classics of art and literature that most children in the Anglo-American world are introduced to during their early education. These are also the texts that have been kept alive by a seemingly endless series of adaptations, whether on the stage, by the BBC, or in cinemas.

A few weeks ago one of my fellow Cardiff PhDs, Daný van Dam, shared a post on Gail Carriger’s ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series (2009-2012), another monster mashup set in Victorian London. She wrote the following about the series’ Victorian appropriations:

Like many other neo-Victorian novels, Carriger’s books return not so much to the Victorian period and its history as to contemporary ideas about the Victorians, projecting present-day concerns upon an earlier period.

The precise nature of the relationship between neo-Victorian fiction and the past it references is something neo-Victorian studies is very interested in. In her book History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction, Kate Mitchell puts the situation this way:

‘The issue turns upon the question of whether history is equated, in fiction, with superficial detail; an accumulation of references to clothing, furniture, décor and the like, that produces the past in terms of its objects, as a series of clichés, without engaging its complexities as a unique historical moment that is now produced in a particular relationship to the present. […] Can these novels recreate the past in a meaningful way or are they playing nineteenth-century dress-ups?’ Kate Mitchell, History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 3.

With the monster mashup, answering this question is usually fairly straightforward: this is clearly a case of dress-up. In appropriating historical texts and contexts, these overtly fantastical monster mashups don’t necessarily seek to restore or revise the past, but rather to bring it back to life as a new text, and in a new context. They are twenty-first century texts in a Victorian coat. Regardless of their apparent superficiality, these kinds of creations and discussions are important in postmodern culture. Dress-up and performance serve their own purposes, and nostalgia can be an end as well as a means. 

Screenshot from Failbetter Studios' browser-based game 'Fallen London'.
Screenshot from Failbetter Studios’ browser-based game ‘Fallen London’, which allows you to play as a citizen of this monstrous city.

Postmodern theorist and critic Fredric Jameson has frequently returned to the subject of historicity and nostalgia in his work, often in conjunction with utopia. Both nostalgia and utopia, he argues, paradoxically evoke a kind of perpetual present by fetishising either the past or the future. Unfortunately, both are doomed to creative and subversive failure – nostalgia because its narrative of the past ultimately only serves to circumscribe the present, and utopia because its totalising narrative of the future inevitably morphs into dystopia. It is the failed deployment of these two elements that has resulted in postmodernism’s stagnation or end of history.

Nevertheless, Jameson continues to pursue these twin impulses of utopia and nostalgia, aiming to contribute to:

[T]he reawakening of that historicity which our system – offering itself as the very end of history – necessary [sic] represses and paralyzes. This is the sense in which utopology revives long dormant parts of the mind, organs of political and historical and social imagination which have virtually atrophied for lack of use, muscles of praxis we have long since ceased exercising, revolutionary gestures we have lost the habit of performing, even subliminally.

For Jameson, in other words, though nostalgia and utopia are both doomed to failure and stagnation, the urge to imagine, to fantasise, and to create using these impulses remains vitally important. In this sense the creation of history-saturated fantasies is much more for the sake of present-day culture than it is an homage to history. Neo-Victorian fantasies help keep both history and imagination alive in popular culture, giving them a much-needed stretching.

Dan Hillier, ‘Mother’ (2006). Altered engraving.
Dan Hillier, ‘Mother’ (2006). Altered engraving.

As a side effect of the way they ‘stretch’ history, monster mashups also manage to revitalise history, mythologise it, and even change it in a sense. These texts encourage discussion between disparate groups of people. They also force old texts into new contexts, revealing our historical and hermeneutical distance from (and closeness to) the old contexts. This recontextualisation of the Victorians can sometimes have productive results.

To give one example, these reality-blurring and genre-bending monster texts often draw attention to the constructed nature of the self, and the problems inherent in contemporary representations of identity and otherness. Monstrous others have stood in for racial, sexual, and social minorities for hundreds of years, but in the words of Judith Halberstam, in contemporary Gothic the monster is no longer totalising:

The monstrous body that once represented everything is now represented as potentially meaning anything – it may be the outcast, the outlaw, the parasite, the pervert, the embodiment of the uncontrollable sexual and violent urges, the foreigner, the misfit. The monster is all of these but monstrosity has become a conspiracy of bodies rather than a singular form.

In contemporary Gothic, monsters are us, and we are all monstrous. In any case, through this ‘conspiracy of bodies’, neo-historical monster mashups can call out cases of imperialism, colonialism, or patriarchy without singling out a particular minority victim. Monsters represent otherness, but not a particular Other. Symbolically they oscillate between the centre and the margins, endlessly deferred. Consider Travis Louie, for example, with his fantastical portraits of Victorians. These both call us to identify with the characters they depict and present those characters as alien. Louie has a whole series of these ‘Victorian cryptozoology‘ images as well, which evoke discourses of imperialism and colonialism.

© Travis Louie
© Travis Louie

Naturally this oscillation doesn’t automatically mean that using monsters in mashup texts is unproblematic. Specific monsters are still socially marked in different ways – the homoerotic male vampire, the sexy female robot, the lower-class zombie – but monsters do add a layer of mediation, a buffer between audience and story. Texts like these open discussions of otherness that might otherwise be met with resistance or increasingly negative accusations of ‘political correctness’. And, as always, imagining difference in the past potentially creates space for difference in the present. History and its cultural traces provide the foundations and reference points for today’s ideologies.

Roland Barthes has a great deal to say about the way history and tradition become myth. For Barthes, mythologies are formed to perpetuate an idea of society that adheres to the current ideologies of the ruling class and its media. Mashups, as part of the domain of popular culture, certainly contribute to the perpetuation of society’s myths (the nation, heterosexuality, gender, etc.). They are rarely subversive in the traditional sense, but because of their appropriative nature it is difficult for anyone to control which ideas and ideologies are communicated to audiences and readers. There is always ample room for divergent interpretation.

anno-draculaIn writing about the process of mythologisation, Barthes also refers to the tendency of socially constructed notions, narratives, and assumptions to become ‘naturalised’ in the process, or taken unquestioningly as given within a particular culture. Monstrous or fantastical history inherently resists such naturalisation, because it refuses to be taken entirely seriously, though certainly possible to politicise it. Monster mashups make history strange – or sometimes reveal the strangeness of history. Kim Newman has claimed that he initially decided to write Anno Dracula in response to Thatcherism and the rise of neo-Victorian political sentiment in the late 80s. This novel describes a Victorian England in which Dracula had succeeded in Bram Stoker’s novel, and come to rule over Great Britain. In this alternate history, which can be read as ironically similar to our own, Newman re-evaluates stereotypically ‘Victorian values’ as monstrous, ultimately showing that we often see what we want to see where the Victorians are concerned.

In a discussion of the Neo-Victorian graphic novels of Alan Moore, also extremely political, Jason B. Jones argues that what makes such mashups subversive is not their disregard for literary categories or forms, but their potential redefinition of our very identities and cultural spaces. He states: ‘[s]uch game playing foregrounds the extimate aspects of historical change, as something neither wholly external nor subjective’. In other words, texts that mix history and fiction while also playing with genre convention make the reader more readily aware of the constructed nature of even the most serious history. 

the_league_of_extraordinary_gentlemen_1280x1024-1024x819

Anatomy of a Cover

0ec06a8b4e7a3c88a15b846bf68cbb5dWe’re always told that we should never judge a book by its cover, but the truth is that a lot of work goes into making sure we do. A cover generally gives us an immediate idea of the genre, register, and target audience of a book. A good cover will also generate excitement and interest, and make a book stand out from the texts around it. Book design may even save the independent publishing industry, where according to The Independent publishers are ‘springing up to provide a certain kind of reader with what they want, more than ever: the book as beautiful, covetable, keep-able object’.

Because the cover is such an important part of selling books, often the same book will have multiple different covers for various countries and age groups. Take the ever-increasing variety of Harry Potter covers as an example. Book covers also generally get an update when they’re reprinted many years later, as was the case with the subject of today’s blog post: Kim Newman’s series of alternate-history vampire novels, Anno Dracula. You may recall that I posted a few weeks ago about the second book in this series, The Bloody Red Baron, and how it deals with the balance between entertainment and ethics in its reproduction of WWI.

These books were originally released in the ’90s, when they were marketed to a very different audience. As you can see below, the original cover for Anno Dracula (the first book in the series; 1992) has a distinct Anne Rice feel to it:
Anno Dracula

The reprinting from Titan Books, however, has a very contemporary feel, and taps into the growing neo-Victorian market. In a blog post on Titan Books, illustrator Martin Stiff of Amazing 15 talks about how they arrived at the new cover, and what was discarded along the way. Martin was kind enough to let me reprint the post for you here:


For a series of books where the characters and plot span the entire twentieth century it was always going to be tough to come up with a series design which could evoke the period while also being consistent across the range.

We tried some more traditional approaches to begin with, a half-and-half style cover with a lady vampire and an image which suggests the particular decade the book is set but these felt a little boring, like we’d seen them a million times before.


Mulling it over we struck upon the idea of a continuing series of posters, with each designed in the style of the period. The first, Anno Dracula, is set in the 1880s, so I mocked up a faux Victorian music-hall poster. This sat nicely with the adult nature and looked quite sophisticated – and the central idea of the poster fashion changing with each title was a great concept. But for some reason the idea never struck home with everyone and it got shot down. But like any good vampire it was soon to rise from the dead…

Our next round of covers used a simple framing device and an ‘object’ – a blood-stained locket on Anno Dracula, an Iron Cross on The Bloody Red Baron and so forth. For a while this was the cover Titan used for sales purposes and it seemed for a while it was going to be the final cover too. Never completely comfortable with the concept we continued to fiddle with the cover and tried some versions which combined the ‘object’ idea and the ‘poster’ idea but again, nothing really worked as well as we wanted it too.





It’s very easy, after producing so many different ideas, to get a little bogged down with the approaches you’ve already tried so we went back to the drawing board and tried some entirely new directions. The concept with these were to use a well-known building which could illustrate the plot of each book (hence Buckingham Palace for Anno Dracula). We kicked about the illustrated church cover for a while, with different logo treatments and different colour ways, but again it fell at the final fence.


Finally – and as frustrating as this may seem – we went right back to the beginning! The original music-hall poster concept seemed to have lodged into people’s imaginations and more we deviated from it with the other ideas the more we all realised how much we liked it. We brought it back to the table and continued working on it (we rejigged some of the text, added new quotes, etc. – and we actually made it look like a real poster on a wall) and suddenly we had our final cover!

Part of designing a series of book covers is ensuring any ideas you might have will work across the entire range. So, using the principle concept for Anno Dracula, we worked up the second book – The Bloody Red Baron. We were lucky enough to find an evocative (and out of copyright) WWI German propaganda poster and with a little twist (the black clouds turning into bats) we hit upon a really eye-catching cover!


As you can see below, the final cover for The Bloody Red Baron ended up being slightly different, though the overall idea is the same:

AnnoDracBloodyCv

The next two books in the series, Dracula Cha Cha Cha (1998) and Johnny Alucard (2013), follow a similar pattern:

anno_dracula_chachacha

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What do you think? Do these covers make you want to pick up a copy?

If you’re interested in learning more about book cover design, BBC Radio 4 has a 30-minute podcast on The Art of Book Cover Design, with John Wilson. There’s also a nice TED Talks on the subject with Chip Kidd, associate art director at Knopf, and a video from Random House where they interview some of their designers. You may also want to check out Lousy Book Covers, a Tumblr account dedicated to sharing some of the best of the worst.

The Good, the Bad, and the Book Trailers

http://t-ry.deviantart.com/art/Reading-the-monster-395926279Happy World Book Day (a few days late, and also only in the UK and Ireland)! This week’s post will be a short one, because I’ve got a big deadline on Friday that I should be focusing on, but I’ll try to start you off on an interesting trajectory. Naturally, the part of Book Day most people probably noticed were the pictures of book-themed costumes that popped up on social media, but the official website also shared this list of YA book trailers, citing them as ‘a brilliant way to bring books to life for audiences of all ages – and often encourage young readers to pick up a book they might not usually choose’.

I have to be honest and say that I don’t often watch book trailers, although I know there are actually a lot of good ones out there (particularly for young adult titles). Most times I don’t see the appeal of having a book visualised in that way, given that I tend to be attracted by very print-centric writing styles rather than big cinematic stories. The exception may be when I see something like this video for novel-as-mashup Jane Slayre, which advertises the book while also giving us a look at the way an author expresses themselves:


A few days ago I sent off for a copy of Seth Grahame-Smith’s new book, The Last American Vampire, which is being advertised as the sequel to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I would have ended up reading this sooner or later, given the subject matter, but what ultimately got me interested in having it RIGHT NOW was this book trailer:

Is this not one of the most gloriously ludicrous things you have ever seen?

Some books definitely lend themselves to trailers better than others. Perhaps the reason I enjoy watching trailers for monster mashups is that I’m half expecting each of them to be snatched up by Hollywood. It makes me curious to see how the story will play out on-screen. Maybe it’s the fact that trailer mashups have become a real art, or that I like to see book mashups tackle multimedia crossovers as well as a genre ones. Or maybe it’s just that my treasured Sunday afternoon on YouTube is the perfect stage for the silliness that is this Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters trailer:

Sadly Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had no book trailer (than I can find), but the video for prequel Dawn of the Dreadfuls more than makes up for that oversight:

What about you, internet? Any book trailers to recommend, or violent objections to the book trailer industry in general?

 

‘Everything is Awesome’ is the Anthem of Our Age

So the Oscars were on over the weekend. And although The LEGO Movie may have been snubbed in the nominations for Best Animated Feature, it was very present in the evening’s rendition of ‘Everything is Awesome’, which included Oscar statuettes made out of LEGO blocks and a heavy metal interlude by Will Arnett (as Batman):

‘Everything is Awesome’ feels like the weird theme song of our times. Take this excerpt, rapped by SNL’s The Lonely Island:

Life is good, ‘cause everything’s awesome!

Lost my job, it’s a new opportunity—

more free time for my awesome community!

Stepped in mud, got new brown shoes:

It’s awesome to win, it’s awesome to lose!

Blue skies, bouncy springs, we just named

two awesome things!

A Nobel Prize, a piece of string,

you know what’s awesome? Everything!

Everything you see, think, or say is awesome!

Are they serious about handling adversity so positively? Maybe, maybe not. But in the wake of things like the credit crisis, the rapidly dwindling job market, and armed conflicts in Palestine, Syria, and Paris, these words feel at once ridiculous and right. What else can we do but handle the challenges thrown at us as best we can? Over on Vulture, LEGO Movie star Chris Pratt also weighed in on the song’s relevance to our contemporary world:

I think it follows the theme of this movie, which you think is just some Lego movie made to sell toys – and it’s actually a really subversive, interesting, thought-provoking commentary on society […] The song itself represents that, because it’s saying that everything is awesome, but it’s the anthem of this strange world that exists halfway between America and North Korea, you know what I mean? Twenty or 30 years from now, I think people will look back at ‘Everything Is Awesome’ and it’ll be more than just a cool pop song. It’s really reflective of where we are right now, and that’s what art is all about.

the_lego_movie_2014-wide
‘Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you’re part of a team.’

 

While it may seem strange to some that Pratt refers to a song from a children’s film as art, he’s put his finger on something that resonates with a lot of the theories on popular art in which I’m currently immersed. One thing I’m especially into at this moment is called metamodernism. Recently a lot of people have been speculating that postmodernism has run its course, and that something new is taking shape. What is this something, you ask? I’ll let Luke Turner explain:

[R]ather than simply signalling a return to naïve modernist ideological positions, metamodernism considers that our era is characterised by an oscillation between aspects of both modernism and postmodernism. We see this manifest as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp. The metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.

Basically, modernism places us in a world that, ontologically speaking, may no longer exist, and postmodernism’s relentless deconstruction makes it epistemologically difficult to move forward. Metamodernist art (and criticism) lets us have our cake and eat it too, in ‘a kind of informed naivety’. It believes in a world that it logically knows will never come to be.

Bo Bartlett, School of the Americas, 2010, oil on board, 76 x76.”
Bo Bartlett, School of the Americas, 2010, oil on board. Originally 76 x76.” Click through for an article on metamodern art.

So what does this have to do with ‘Everything is Awesome’ and The LEGO Movie? More than you would think. Seth Abramson’s got a great article from almost exactly a year ago on how The LEGO Movie represents ‘the first unabashedly metamodern children’s film in Hollywood history’. Specifically, he talks about the simultaneously ironic and sincere impulse behind the song that swept the Oscars last weekend:

In the pre-metamodern world, these lyrics would be immediately (and rightly) received as ironic. These days, not so much. In fact, it’s impossible to tell whether the exuberance behind the song above is real or feigned, as it’s simultaneously the anthem for a repressive totalitarian state run by Lord Business and an unbearably catchy, optimistic tune the high-spirited Emmet continues to enjoy even after its sinister intentions are revealed.

Though it’s a lot to wrap your head around in practice, this pairing and blurring of the ‘real’ and the ‘feigned’ are everywhere in contemporary art. Appropriately, in a blog post over on Notes on Metamodernism, Kyle Karthauser explores the notion of ‘the awesome’ as the metamodern equivalent of the sublime:

Etymologically it gestures at the sublime through “awe,” an experience that mingles abject fear and profound ecstasy. In today’s vernacular, it denotes delight (“Hall & Oates is coming to the state fair? That’s awesome!”) And while the everyday use of “awesome” may be used to describe mundane, not-terribly-profound things, in the broadening of its definition it forces us to broaden our aesthetic understanding of the space between the sublime and the beautiful. From a classical or postmodern standpoint, there is no space between the two, and absolutely no overlap.

The entire post is well worth a read, even if you only skip through to Karthauser’s analysis of Evel Knievel as an emblem of the awesome. There’s also an interesting look at the opacity or surface-heavy quality of  the metamodern era, and the moments of revelation an encounter with these surfaces can produce:

After 30+ years of the postmodern paradigm, an experience of this sort is genuinely mind-boggling. When the dominant critical practice is that of dissolving texts into various discourses, of tracing allusions, sniffing out irony, and contemplating the terminally arbitrary nature of signification itself, you aren’t prepared for Evel Knievel. You aren’t prepared for the Star Wars Kid. When someone tattoos this permanently onto their body, your belief in irony as the be-all-end-all of enlightened cultural expression has to be shaken.

These experiences certainly don’t negate our cultural and political obligations to be informed in the long term, but they do allow us a few precious moments of naivety. They give us a break from the numbing cynicism that might otherwise threaten to overwhelm and immobilise us. Especially given the vast inundation of often-negative information with which we are continually bombarded.

evel-knievel
This guy is a pretty perfect example of ‘the awesome’ at work.

 

‘Everything is Awesome’ (and The LEGO Movie in general) hit a nerve in our culture because it’s simultaneously so simple and so over the top. You can read it on a number of levels – deeply and superficially, ironically and sincerely – and all of those readings would be correct. Is everything awesome? Probably not. But if we behave as though it is, we may well achieve something meaningful through that informed naivety. And we might actually enjoy ourselves in the process.

Embrace your metamodern side and listen to ‘Everything is Awesome’ here. And maybe also watch this video of hamsters eating tiny burritos.

Our Zombies, Ourselves: A Lecture with J. Halberstam

Jack Halberstam during an interview at USC. Photo by Sara Newman.
Jack Halberstam during an interview at USC. Photo by Sara Newman.

At guest lectures I usually come prepared to fully understand about half of the references made, and get excited about one or two particular sound bytes. Not so at Jack Halberstam’s lecture on Zombie Humanism at the End of the World (originally titled ‘Our Zombies, Ourselves: Queerness at the End of Time’), kindly hosted by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. Halberstam’s talk on zombie humanism and biopolitics is right in the same theoretical zone as my own PhD work on monster mashups, and her walk through wildness, pets, mess, and bare life left me sagely (and embarrassingly) nodding in agreement for the better part of an hour. I’m most familiar with Halberstam’s early work Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995), which takes a look at the social issues that accompany portrayals of monsters from the nineteenth century to the present. ‘Our Zombies, Ourselves’ presented these issues in a new jacket.

The lecture started with some of the work Halberstam is currently doing on ‘wildness’ as a theoretical concept. Wildness is a word with a lot of connotations in our culture, and can potentially be appropriated for anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-humanist ends. Wildness isn’t part of the mainstream, but is still a part of our environment and our society. It’s a place we’ve categorised as un-categorisable. A place where ideas about what’s ‘normal’ or ‘civilised’ go to die. This makes it an ideal framework for thinking about queerness, and about zombies.

In Halberstam’s conception of zombie humanism, zombies represent everyone relegated to the role of the ‘living dead’ in our society: people we’ve ‘rescued’ from death, but who only matter in that they make us feel good about that ‘human’ act of charity. Zombie humanism serves to make us more human and everything else less so, and who the ‘us’ and ‘we’ are in this scenario may not be the groups you expected. Zombies are everywhere.

You may even be one yourself. Also, if you haven't seen this episode of Community (Season 2, Episode 6), you need to go do that. Right now.
You may even be one yourself. Also, if you haven’t seen this episode of Community (Season 2, Episode 6), you need to go do that. Right now.

The first category of the ‘living dead’ Halberstam brought up in her talk was household pets – cats, dogs, goldfish, and any other animal we may ‘rescue’ from the category of food. Because no guest lecture in the UK (or anywhere else, for that matter) is complete without a reference to Monty Python, she led with the infamous parrot sketch, offering the highly tweetable statement that ‘all pets are dead parrots’. The humour in the sketch lies mainly in the stereotypical dishonesty of shopkeepers (the object could just as easily have been a boat that didn’t actually float, for example), but the irrelevance of a pet’s physical or emotional state as an object is also a factor in this joke. Why couldn’t you have a dead parrot as a pet? What makes a live parrot better, really? We take care of our pets largely without considering whether they enjoy or appreciate what we are doing. We draw arbitrary boundaries (‘Nip, don’t bite’), preferring to overlook the fact that a pet’s whole existence, like that of livestock or other ‘edible’ animals, is primarily for the benefit of humans.

Frankenweenie, everyone's favourite zombie pet.
Frankenweenie, everyone’s favourite zombie pet.

The pet discussion sparked some controversy with the more aggressively progressive pet owners in the audience, and came up quite a bit during the Q&A at the end (‘But I’m a vegan’ and ‘I don’t tell people I have cats, I say I live with two cats’), but for me the super-anthropomorphising of pets among wealthy owners only complicates this issue further. It reminds me eerily of a recent trip to South Africa, where a vineyard owner was all-too-eager to tell me how they take care of ‘their blacks’ in the aftermath of apartheid. While I realise this is an extreme comparison to make, it also seems strange to me that we are often so unwilling to even think that we might be treating the animals that live with us in a demeaning or inappropriate way. This idea of the pet as a zombie is partly a response to Donna Haraway’s humanisation of the pet as a companion species (see The Companion Species Manifesto and Lively Capital in particular), it fills in some of the theoretical gaps in the ways we typically think about our ‘furry friends’.

The category of ‘living dead’ isn’t only reserved for animals. Prisoners, refugees, the poor: all categories of people we regularly argue we are ‘helping’ while simultaneously denying them humanity/personhood. While we’re on the topic of race, Halberstam offered a fun illustration from AMC’s The Walking Dead on the ease with which non-white subjects become ‘zombies’ – in both the metaphorical and the literal sense. Human characters die all the time on the show, but never quite in the numbers they do when the predominantly white band of survivors (led by cowboy-archetype Rick) encounters a prison full of predominantly non-white inmates.

Guess how long these guys lived.
Guess how long these guys lived.

For Halberstam, the US zombie is a racialised frontier metaphor: cowboys versus Indians. This also reflects US attitudes towards the socially undead ‘zombie other’. Things are quite different in UK-produced zombie media, for example, and here Halberstam made a reference to my favourite zombie series, In the Flesh. In this series, rather than putting down the zombie uprising through extermination, the Brits turn to a different kind of domination: rehabilitation. Sufferers of Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) are given a kit that includes anti-rage meds, special contact lenses, and makeup to mimic living flesh, and are returned to their ‘natural’ environments. Here they are naturally shunned, abused, and sometimes even killed by the angry and frightened survivors of the zombie apocalypse.

zombie-post-series-boxxThe attitudes towards zombies in popular culture again reflect widespread attitudes towards the dehumanised other in our society. We paint pictures of children and adults who are mindless, self-absorbed consumers and a burden on the economy. We rehabilitate those who don’t fit our idea of the normal. We fight wars against foreign terrorist groups, put criminals into prisons and the elderly into nursing homes.  The debate here is not necessarily whether or not these people should be rehabilitated, but rather that the way we go about it is fundamentally dehumanising for the objects of these efforts. Really, though we rarely think about it, our gestures of rehabilitation are designed to make us feel more human, and transform the recipients of that unsolicited help into people who, while they may still technically be alive, have been stripped of the agency that would imbue that life with meaning.

Bookending her discussion on wildness, Halberstam also brought the concept of ‘mess’ to bear on her analysis of zombie humanism, particularly as it relates to queerness. Citing studies by queer theorists Martin Manalansan and José Muñoz, which both seek newer and more humanising ways of looking at queer lives and spaces, Halberstam explored the use of mess as both an aesthetic and a theoretical approach. In the Western world we love order, and we love binaries – especially in academia. But if we can learn to embrace mess and chaos (whatever such an approach might look like in practice), we may discover a different but equally valid system of categorisation. At the very least we will be opening ourselves to new and much-needed perspectives. This approach will be vital if we ever want to ‘kill’ zombie humanism once and for all.

'I know exactly where everything is.'
‘I know exactly where everything is.’

These theories all form part of Halberstam’s current work on fascism and (homo)sexuality. All in all it was a very interesting evening, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading Halberstam’s future work in this area. You can find a link to the original seminar description at organiser Paul Bowman’s academia.edu page.

I even got up the courage to ask a question at the end.

Of Apes and Angels

Image via 'Awesome and Oops'
Image via ‘Awesome and Oops’

“Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”
–Terry Pratchett, Hogfather (London: Corgi, 1997), p. 422

This blog has recently undergone a move from WordPress.com to a real domain, as well as a re-design that includes a new name – something more vivid and less technical than ‘Neo-Historical Monsters’. The new name, ‘Angels and Apes’,  is taken from one of my favourite quotes on the use and nature of fantasy, from one of my favourite authors. To get me in the mood for the holidays I was recently re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Hogfatherwhich is part of the extensive and excellent Discworld series. In it, Death (who speaks in all-caps) and his granddaughter Susan fight to save the Discworld equivalent of Father Christmas, because otherwise the sun will never rise again. In the novel’s climax, a sceptical Susan asks Death what would really happen if belief in the Hogfather died out. In the following – rather long – conversation, Death replies:

THE SUN WOULD NOT HAVE RISEN.

“Really? Then what would have happened, pray?”

A MERE BALL OF FLAMING GAS WOULD HAVE ILLUMINATED THE WORLD.

They walked in silence for a moment.

“Ah,” said Susan dully. “Trickery with words. I would have though you’d have been more literal-minded than that.”

I AM NOTHING IF NOT LITERAL-MINDED. TRICKERY WITH WORDS IS WHERE HUMANS LIVE.

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IT IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little-”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

[…]

STARS EXPLODE, WORLDS COLLIDE, THERE’S HARDLY ANYWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE WHERE HUMANS CAN LIVE WITHOUT BEING FROZEN OR FRIED, AND YET YOU BELIEVE THAT A… A BED IS A NORMAL THING. IT IS THE MOST AMAZING TALENT.

“Talent?”

OH, YES. A VERY SPECIAL KIND OF STUPIDITY. YOU THINK THE WHOLE UNIVERSE IS INSIDE YOUR HEADS.

“You make us sound mad,” said Susan. A nice warm bed…

NO. YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME? said Death.

[p. 422]

Though this is probably not specifically intended to be a posthuman quote, the two fit very well together. The universe would keep on existing without humans, but it would exist in a very different way – especially for us. We are creatures of experience and imagination. Everything in our world ultimately exists because we recognise it’s there; because we have decided it does in fact exist, and that it does so in a particular way. Our existence is, in fact, a kind of fantasy. With that in mind, imagining things beyond our current conception of ‘reality’ is a very important way for us to change that reality, and to push the boundaries of human experience.

This idea is a foundational part of my research. The idea that we create our own reality is what first drew me to the study of genre fiction, and it resonates with me on a deeper level as someone who embraces the postmodern philosophy that the most important questions are ontological rather than epistemological: so not ‘how did I come to be?’ but ‘who and what am I?’. The possibility of infinite imagination in identity creation is an important concept in things like revisionist mythmaking and afrofuturism, or re-writing the past to make space for different voices in the present. This is also a central question in posthumanism, which continuously tries to redefine the human from the outside in, ultimately rejecting the idea that a ‘perfect human’ can exist.

Angels and apes represent two very different human identities. One is part of classical and religious narrative, one is part of modern and scientific narrative. The angel Death’s comment about falling angels and rising apes in Hogfather is a reference to a famous paragraph from a study by playwright/anthropologist Robert Audrey:

We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted to battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.

–Robert Audrey, African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man (New York: Dell Publishing, 1961), p. 354

Whether we identify as rising apes, falling angels, or something in between, it’s important that we keep on asking ourselves who we are and what we believe, and that we keep on imagining difference.

Unless of course we no longer want to grow as people, or as a species. Then we should definitely never write or read fantasy, especially not fantasy by Terry Pratchett.