It’s that time of year again. No, not pumpkin spice latte season. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), where suddenly a large number of people fall under the shared delusion that it’s possible to write a novel* in a month.
(*If I were a pedant, I’d point out that 50,000 words, the NaNo goal, is actually a novella.)
I usually try to keep my NaNo bile more or less hidden, because I am fully aware of NaNo’s positive aspects. It encourages people to write! (How wonderful!) It also takes a wholly solitary activity and temporarily fills it with community spirit. Again, how wonderful: to have writers cheering each other on over social media; to have coffee shops filled with communal writing sessions.
But the trouble is… it seems to me there’s a dark little lie at the heart of NaNo. The lie is: hardly anyone actually finishes their NaNo novel.
Ahh, you know the Olympic season has begun when the fluff begins to roll out. For the uninitiated, fluff is training footage, interviews and cute behind-the-scenes moments, all packaged up to tell a story about your favourite athletes. Perhaps nowhere is fluff more important than in figure skating, where so much rests on people’s perception of you. How the public (and, of course, the judges) see you can make or break your career.
This Olympic season, the reigning Olympic champions in ice dance, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, are coming out of the gate strong – in terms of fluff, at least. In their first competition of the season, they scored below rivals Davis/White, but they’re winning the perception game. Virtue and Moir (or rather their “people”) are building on the romance narrative that began four years ago: their fluff footage is all loving close-ups, almost-kissing shots. It’s The Cutting Edge in real life and Tessa and Scott are selling it.
The Good Wife’s shake-up introduces a season that’s shaping up to be the best thing on US network TV, turning office politics into heart-in-your-throat drama.
The dreaded fifth season
Season 5 is a tricky milestone for even the best TV show. A format that felt fresh in s1 is likely to feel stale by s5; once-enthusiastic actors and writers may now be phoning it in (or have left for greener pastures). Even a devoted TV fan like me drops once-loved shows just because I’m not feeling it anymore. (The Vampire Diaries, also starting its fifth season, has slipped off my TV schedule and I’m not missing it at all.)
The Good Wife began in 2009 with a stellar first season that revolved around a disgraced politician’s wife, who goes back to work as a lawyer after a decade as a stay-at-home mom. (If it sounds on the dull side, it’s not: The Good Wife in its prime teased out perceptive commentary on women in society, while also offering up the type of meaty scenes of female friendship rarely seen on TV.)
However, the show suffered some glitches in its subsequent seasons: arcs that dragged on too long; key characters stuck in bad plotlines (*cough*Kalinda*cough*); an overzealous number of ripped-from-the-headlines cases (let’s put a pin in faux-Google, ChumHum, shall we?). Although it still delivered some moments of lovely and compelling TV, the shine seemed to have left The Good Wife.
A shot in the arm
How refreshing, then, to see the writers pre-empt the show’s slow dive into mediocrity by changing the format completely. At the end of last season, The Good Wife fractured its core cast, sending three characters (Alicia, Cary, Robyn) off to start their own firm; one to a judgeship (Diane); and leaving three more to pick up the pieces at the old firm (Will, Kalinda and, now a series regular, David Lee).
If I have a pet genre, it’s probably Young Adult. Teen fiction appeals to me on a lizard-brain level: its stories are fraught with first times (the nerves and excitement of first kisses, first loves, first heartbreaks). For adult readers, YA can be a charming trip down memory lane; reminiscences of a time when you were young and dumb and things seemed terribly complicated (but were actually pretty simple).
From sideline to juggernaut
What’s more, teen fiction doesn’t just intrigue me as a reader; it intrigues me as an industry rubbernecker, too. When I became in a teenager, back in the dark ages of 1997, the YA section of the book shop was a couple of shelves. It was a hotch-potch of saccharine fare like Sweet Valley High and The Saddle Club, perhaps with some slightly more grown-up series like The Vampire Diaries or Making Out/Making Waves thrown in. If you were really lucky, you might find a stray Francesca Lia Block novel.
Now, of course, YA is a juggernaut. It’s spawned the Twilight saga and The Hunger Games, which combined have sold some 150 million books. Unlike in the 90s, when YA was a sideline, it’s now front and centre. Readers of all ages are picking up teen novels. Movie studios are looking to YA fiction to spawn major franchises. There’s now money in YA.
So why is there so little originality? Where are the fresh, exciting ideas?
Before reading this book, I was already familiar with the famous quote from Against Our Will. It’s one of those that pops up in social justice paradise (or purgatory, depending on the day of the week), Tumblr, on a regular basis:
“From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”
Stirring stuff, indeed – but, out of context, it seems a little overwrought. So it was good to read Susan Brownmiller’s fully-formed argument for why rape should be seen as central to understanding the history of the world.
In fact, I exited Against surprisingly persuaded by Brownmiller’s thesis. Namely, that rape is an important thread that runs through history: it’s the reason women originally subjugated themselves to men, seeking protection from the constant threat of rape; it’s been used as a powerful weapon in every war; it played an intrinsic role in slavery; it’s penetrated women’s psyches, shaping their behaviour; and, as a result, it’s been sewn into the very fabric of society.
It’s a truism that if you want to see great representations of women on TV, watch women’s sports. I say this as someone who resisted the strange, overwrought cult of sports for most of my life.
Then I started watching gymnastics and resigned myself to being a cult member.
I love watching gymnastics for many reasons, but most of all, it’s the stories I’m drawn to. Stories of superhuman strength. Stories of all-too-human vulnerability. Comeback stories. Clawing-your-way-to-the-top stories. What’s best of all is that these stories all feature women.
The TV landscape may be getting better, but it still has an overwhelming tendency to put women into ‘girlfriend’ or ‘mother’ boxes. For stories of women who are so much more than either of those roles, you can’t beat women’s artistic gymnastics.