Is the book always better than the movie?

We have a rule in this house, which was a great way to get kids reading in a media-saturated world: you can’t see the movie until you’ve read the book. We broke this rule for the last three Rowling books because they were bloated and unreadable, and we also broke it for (GASP) Lord of the Rings because I didn’t know how to hint to them that they could just skip the three-page descriptions of the weather and geological formations and come back to them later when they were older. But I digress. Is this just snobbery? Just intellectual super-posturing? I’d still argue no, mostly, but a few good examples are below.

I frankly liked GF2 better than GF1…

Perhaps there is another factor at play here. When we say the book is better, we’re announcing that we read, we’re cultured, we feed our brains something loftier than big, colourful moving images. This is rooted in the stubborn snobbism that film is the weak sibling of the arts. “Over the years, I’ve grown used to seeing the cinema dismissed as an artform,” wrote Martin Scorsese in 2017. “It’s tainted by commercial considerations … there are too many people involved in its creation … it ‘leaves nothing to the imagination’.”

Nobody has ever said the book is better than the play. We’d be terrified of someone countering that we’ve just misunderstood Sir Trevor Nunn’s mise-en-scène. The best a film adaptation can hope for is that it’s deemed better than the rollercoaster, like Pirates of the Caribbean.

Actually, when you line them up, the film often leaves the book for dust. Would you rather slog through Peter Benchley’s Jaws (in which, boringly, the shark slowly succumbs to its wounds)? Or choose Mario Puzo’s The Godfather over Brando’s hamster-pouching charisma? Has any child ever laughed harder at Beatrix Potter’s finger-wagging tales than when James Corden’s Peter Rabbit pumped Mr McGregor with 10,000 volts?

Tuesday Newsday

Sue Carter leaves Q&Q

Say it ain’t so! Sue Carter, the driving force behind Canada’s super-important books trade magazine is leaving her post to take a spot at Inuit Art Quarterly. I have no idea what precipitated the move (besides getting to look at all that gorgeous art), but I hope she’s happy there. I know the rest of the books world will be lesser for her decision though. All the best, Sue Carter!

Sue joined Q&Q almost 10 years ago and in that time she has left an indelible mark on the magazine. She brought a clear story sense, sharp writing, and deft editing to her work as well as an ability to juggle the dozens of details necessary to keep a magazine running smoothly.

During her tenure, she led a redesign of both the magazine and, introducing such popular additions as Book Making and the Agony Editor column.

Sick day news

As I isolate and wait for my Covid test, I am mostly going to slug around today and not do anything productive. So don’t expect much.

Most useful image of 2020

On the Queen’s Gambit and its lack of sexual violence

Novelist Elisabeth de Mariaffi looks at why The Queen’s Gambit was different from other shows of its kind. Girl descends basement steps in orphanage to meet up with a surly janitor and, instead of getting molested, goes on to become a chess prodigy. Why is this surprising? Because that’s not how things typically go, narratively speaking. And what does this lack of violence do to the experience of watching the show? Makes for better story and characters. Smart piece outlining the feelings many viewers didn’t even know they were having. (Full disclosure: the author of this piece is currently sitting one room away from me.)

As a writer, I think about the “woman in peril” question a lot—and as a writer of thrillers in particular, a genre in which the trope is pervasive, I often find myself trying to walk a line. I admit I don’t create violence-free worlds for my own female characters, and I’ve questioned the impetus to do so. While I certainly understand Lawless’s point of view, I am still not sure I can embrace it. I’ve questioned the Staunch Prize from its inception. Isn’t it ultimately damaging to negate this most real and prevalent part of women’s lives? Why pretend?

I’m not alone in this. Crime novelist Val McDermid was one of several writers who spoke out against the prize in the Guardian, commenting,“As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed.”

And yet it was fascinating to see how the absence of sexual violence shaped The Queen’s Gambit. Beth Harmon, the prodigy, still faces myriad challenges: orphaned at eight when her mother commits suicide, Beth is startlingly alone; she battles both a lifelong addiction and the basic misogyny of the time, both in and out of the world of chess. That basic misogyny is important. Men in The Queen’s Gambit are always standing around in groups, passing judgment: from the cops who attend the car crash where Beth is orphaned, to the boys at the high school chess club, to the men looming over her as she plays in her first big State tournament. It’s a strong, repeated image.

But these men are dismissive, rather than overtly threatening. What we see in The Queen’s Gambit is by no means a non-sexist utopia, but the series does remove this one piece of the puzzle—just the sexual assault, just the physical-safety question—and it allows us to see what this shift means for characters on both sides of the equation.

Are we in a literary drought?

Just throwing this one out there to give you something to feel indignant about this weekend. Joseph Epstein says the good times are gone. (The funniest part of this for me is I know exactly which ones of you will agree with this and which won’t.) My opinion has long been that we don’t suffer from a dearth of talent, but we do suffer from a surfeit of competence. We have lots of competent work that we shower with superlatives for marketing purposes, but we have very little work that actually matches the praise on the covers. And it means we search for actual brilliance much less urgently. But I digress. Back to people freaking out over an article:

When and why they stopped rolling are complex questions. That they have stopped, that we are in a less-than-rich period for literature today, cannot be doubted. Ask yourself whose next novel among living novelists you are eagerly awaiting. Name your three favorite living poets. Which contemporary critics do you most rely upon? If you feel you need more time to answer these questions — a long, slow fiscal quarter, say — not to worry, for I don’t have any impressive answers to these questions either. Recent years have been lean pickings for literature.

Part of the reason for this significant loss is the absence of powerful literary talent. Part may also be explained by the zeitgeist, or spirit of the time. We have for a good while now been living in what Philip Rieff called “the triumph of the therapeutic,” in which the ideas of Freud, Jung, and their successors have been dominant. Literary artists have always been highly suspicious of psychology — Nabokov called Freud “the Viennese quack” — for its narrowing and predeterminate explanations of human behavior, and rightly so.

Friday freakout news

I only mean freakout in the sense that it’s a great time for reflection on the fact that you wasted another week not doing the things you want and/or you are also not done your corporate-mandated purchasing spree.

On the history of (so-called) Free Speech

So, while we all struggle in our educated, liberal brains to wrap our heads around whether publishers should or should not publish the deluded writings of human-tighty-whitey-truck-skid and minor-professor-turned-incel-army-building-conman Jordan Peterson (spoiler, they’re not obligated to, but will because Cha-CHING!), The Guardian looks at the history of Free Speech as a thing we all use to justify saying whatever-the-fuck-we-want from whatever-the-fuck-perspective.

One reason is that “free speech” isn’t really a norm, but a slogan: a label each of us applies to language and conventions we approve of. People complaining about threats to free speech sometimes don’t like the way new norms and voices are challenging their own. Why shouldn’t Boris Johnson be allowed to talk of “piccaninnies”? How can anyone expect me to refer to a person as “they”? It’s a free country, isn’t it?

None of this is new: what free speech means has been controversial for about 400 years. Our modern concept of it began as a radical Protestant argument – that it was pointless to punish Christians for arguing about dogma and worship, because these were questions to which ultimately only God knew the answers. It was this freedom of speaking and printing that John Milton famously extolled in his Areopagitica (1644): the liberty of speculating about God’s hidden truths. It was never meant to extend to debates about public affairs, politics or morality.

Thursday news dumpster