Morning Ed: Society {2016.03.02.W}

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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60 Responses

  1. LeeEsq says:

    The story on British stories reminded me of this article published years ago on why there is no Jewish Narnia. The basic thesis of the article was that beyond the fact that Jews have historical reasons not to fantasize about medieval times itself, Judaism as a religion lacks a cosmology to give rise to fantasy. The Rabbis were highly ambivalent about dualism or the idea that anything could even jokingly challenge God. They preferred to see evil as something internal rather than external as a threat. They were also focused on this world rather than the afterlife. Heaven and hell were an afterthought to them.

    Something similar happens with the United States. The American experience doesn’t give ground to fantasy easily and American authors that write fantasy tend to write things that take place in Europe or pseudo-European places. The United States is about the struggles of ordinary people making out a living in a bountiful but potentially harsh land, technological progress, and a very Protestant society dealing with minority groups. This experience will tend to lead to more moralistic and realistic children’s literature than the wonders of Narnia or Harry Potter.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

      It also explains why American children’s literature has tended towards young adult dystopia in recent years as Protestant morality declined. Dystopias are a kind of frontier because the landscape can be harsh and unforgiving. Even if there are superpowers involved, the stories are basically about ordinary teens struggling in a way not dissimilar to living on the prairie.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Good point, Lee. That kind of applies to Star Wars, too, with Luke being (we presume) in his late teens, eager for adventure but held back by his aunt and uncle, over whose violent death he’s troubled but recovers in a few minutes.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to LeeEsq says:

        There was plenty of young adult dystopian literature back in the 70s and 80s. The stories back then generally began on the first day of a nuclear war, then told the story of the teenage and pre-teen survivors.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I suspect it’s more basic than this.

        I think that kids — especially teenage boys — gravitating toward stories whose main moral is how teenagers are smarter, wiser, and filled with more goodness than the adults who made the world before the teens go there is pretty predictable, regardless of wider social context.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Tod Kelly says:

          Yes, the classic “All The Adults Are Idiots” theme.

          Timothy Zahn has a series (Google his name & Dragonback) where he largely avoided this trope. I found them less offensive than many other YA for boys.Report

          • Kim in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            To be fair, for most of recorded history, all the adults were idiots.
            Also to be fair, the adults never started an all-out, no-holds-barred brawl spanning provinces over pantsing each other (it was quite the fad at the time, and lost the pantsee tremendous dignity).Report

            • Marchmaine in reply to Kim says:

              The issue isn’t that Adults may not be idiots, but that teenaged boys are confirmed idiots – at best; more often aspiring idiots who have a ways to go before they can even hope to make it to idiot status.Report

              • Kim in reply to Marchmaine says:

                Teenagers of all stripes are impetuous, and prone to thrill-seeking.
                This does not make them idiots.
                At age 16, Alexander the great assumes the throne (as regent).Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Kim says:

                Exception, not the rule.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Marchmaine says:

                That’s why I liked the Dragonback stories. The kid was skilled, but still 14 and an idiot in so many ways. His success was not due to being smarter than the adults, but because he was teamed up with an older, wiser mentor who helped him make ‘good choices’ (as my 3 year old would say).Report

          • Morat20 in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            Reading is, in a lot of ways, escapism. And in other ways, giving your audience what they want.

            I suspect teenagers get plenty of “Oh crap, the adults were right on this not that I’ll admit it” in real life. They don’t want it in their fiction.

            Moreover, part of being a teenager is the drive to strike out, cleave yourself from your parents, and forge your own identity separate from your family. The literature that speaks to them — or speaks to their experiences — will reflect this.

            Prachett’s Tiffany Aching books, for instance — Tiffany is often the one who sees more than anyone else, different than everyone else around her and in her family. (But she’s often shown to know so little compared to Granny Weatherwax). A good chunk of the books feed to this need to separate, to conquer the world and make herself a unique person — but also true to life, in that while she can learn and win and succeed — she’s still 60 or 70 years too early to best Granny Weatherwax, no matter how talented.Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to LeeEsq says:

      “American authors that write fantasy tend to write things that take place in Europe or pseudo-European places.”

      Is that really the case?

      It’s true if you limit “fantasy” to stereotypical “a story that happened at D&D night, novelized” stories. White knights and dragons and white wizards with white beards tend to happen in Europe, because you’re already filtering your view down to European themes.

      I am routinely stymied by the multiple genre ghettoes at our public library. I think of a recent book by an author I like, what I know of its synopsis, and think “that’s clearly fantasy” – but it’s not shelved in fantasy. I think, “well, it’s set during the Russian revolution – at a stretch you could ignore the witches and call it historical fiction” – but it’s not shelved there either. Is it “Mystery” because there’s a murder mystery theme? Is it “Canadian fiction” because of the author’s citizenship?

      In the end, almost all the fantasy I read (and I insist it’s accurately classified as fantasy) I pick up from the general fiction shelves – because while it’s definitely fantastical, it’s mostly not white dudes running around in a thinly fictionalized medieval Europe and near East. Neil Gaiman and Catherynne Valente and Kelly Link and Lev Grossman and so on don’t land in the “fantasy” genre ghetto – which maybe reinforces impressions that “fantasy” novelists are not writing the stuff that they write.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to dragonfrog says:

        Medieval American literature would be interesting, insofar as it’d be about an entirely different culture.

        You know, because America didn’t exist. Now some Native American works set during the 1200s might be interesting….

        But honestly, perhaps American authors reach towards medieval Europe because that is (by and large) the heritage we’ve got. Europe’s history that far back is mostly our history, being as we were settled by them. We still have out own take on it — the frontier mythos that’s much closer to us than to Europe, but their past is our past.Report

      • Kim in reply to dragonfrog says:

        Yeah… I’ma call bullshit on that one. The scifi author I know (who’s taken part in writing enough stuff that it’s fair to call him representative) has just as much, if not more, of a tendency to write stuff happening in Japan.

        Japan pays well for fantasy, ya know?

        I don’t think that just putting zombies into something makes it European, either. Vodun uses the walking dead more than European folklore does.Report

  2. I realize Gillard’s piece on British vs. American stories uses Huck Finn only as a hook and the comparison with Harry Potter doesn’t represent the sum of her argument, but I think it’s a mistake to classify Huck Finn as a “children’s book” in the same way that Harry Potter is. I see Huck Finn more as a novel whose main character and narrator is a child. And while I believe children can–and probably should–read it, I don’t think it’s *for* children. (Later on Gillard mentions Tom Sawyer, which is probably more of a “children’s book,” but even that contains rather wry commentary on human society that finds louder echoes in Huck Finn.)

    I should say I’ve never read Harry Potter, and I know a lot of adults who’ve enjoyed it and read it even if their kids didn’t. So maybe I’m off here.Report

    • Morat20 in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      Then again, the classic “youth” literature taught in America is stuff like Where the Red Fern Grows or Old Yeller.

      Although there’s always modern stuff. Ender’s Game was being covered 20 years ago, for instance, in the high school I attended. I know that the Hunger Games books were frequently covered in the last few years too.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Morat20 says:

        The Atlantic article still rings or is even more true if your comparing classic American youth literature to class British literature. During the first part of the twentieth century, British children’s authors were writing fantasies like the Wind and the Willows, Peter Rabbit, and later the Chronicles of Narnia and the Hobbit. American kid’s literature was grounded in realism you had coming of age tales set in rural areas or the Frontier like Old Yeller or the Little House books, some coming of age tales set in cities but I can’t give examples off the top of my head, and realistic kid’s adventure tales like the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. The fantastical stuff was very science-fiction oriented and technically for adults because it was pulp fiction.Report

        • dragonfrog in reply to LeeEsq says:

          To my point above – there are some exceptions we somehow don’t consider “fantasy” even though it’s hard to classify it as anything else.

          What are the Oz books, for example, if not children’s fantasy? And if we don’t immediately think of it when thinking of “classic children’s fantasy” is it because we’re already stereotyping “fantasy” as European, so we overlook the very American Wizard of Oz?Report

          • Will Truman in reply to dragonfrog says:

            For my own purposes of sorting, I tend to put into “Fantasy” that where the primary setting is off-world or off-dimensional. So the Oz books would qualify. However, there is an argument that the Oz books (and Narnia) shouldn’t qualify because the story is tethered to our reality. If I used that standard, it would be “Supernatural.”

            Of the various TV shows I had to sort, the hardest one between Fantasy and Supernatural was Sliders.Report

            • dragonfrog in reply to Will Truman says:

              I’ve heard of that distinction as “high fantasy” set in its own completely different world (a la Wheel of Time etc.) vs “low fantasy” set it a world mostly like our own (a la American Gods etc.)

              “Low fantasy” is what I mostly read, and what seems not to get shelved as “fantasy.”Report

              • Kim in reply to dragonfrog says:

                I hate that distinction.

                High fantasy is where magic is easy and plentiful
                Low fantasy is where magic is rare and not taking over the world economy.

                That’s a serious distinction about worldbuilding.

                (Fate Stay Night is a high fantasy world wherein you’re playing in a deliberately-ruled low fantasy environment. )Report

              • Morat20 in reply to Kim says:

                Then there’s God Stalk, which basically can’t decide. I suppose it’s a high fantasy world where nobody understands anything but low fantasy rules anymore….Report

              • Kim in reply to Morat20 says:

                Nu, you should see Shadow World. In which there actually is a space battle (complete with spaceships) going on, but it would take 6 rolls of 66 to actually have it impinge on the world.

                Shadow World is high fantasy, but Renaissance-level “technology” (by which we mean magically made, mostly).Report

              • DavidTC in reply to Kim says:

                @kim @dragonfrog
                The difference between high and low fantasy isn’t really either of those, although Kim’s comes closest.

                The difference is really ‘Is the world where *the magic* mostly takes place this world (low), or another world (high)?’

                And note by ‘world’ I do not mean ‘dimension’. And the qualifier ‘where the magic mostly takes place’ is very important.

                Plenty of high fantasy does not have large amounts of magic. LoTR *and* Narnia, the definitive high fantasies, both have very small amounts of magic.

                And low fantasy *usually* does have only small amounts of magic, but I’ll argue that’s because inserting too much magic *changes* the real world too much for it to recognizable, and/or too much for a Masquerade to plausible be in place.

                If you’re writing low fantasy, and you put in too much magic, you have to segregate the magic-using people away to make the premise work, and you get…Harry Potter, which is actually high fantasy, with a distinct threshold to ‘magic land’, even if it’s literally the same world.

                If you put too much magic in the real world, you get Shadowrun, or The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump. Which are neither high *or* low fantasy, really.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to DavidTC says:

                So, Dresden, high or low?Report

              • DavidTC in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Heh, I actually started to mention Dresden, but cut it out, because frankly he’s a bit confusing.

                Any low fantasy with a Masquerade and magic has places where magic operates in the open. A magic store, a headquarters, an abandoned warehouse for a fight, etc.

                And they sometimes have alternate dimensions where magic is everywhere. The Nevernever from Dresden, the Ever-After from the Hollows series, etc.

                But what makes those last two low fantasy is that those super-magic dimensions are some extremely strange place where the protagonist rarely ventures, instead of being Neverwhere or Narnia.

                In a high fantasy, the protagonist either lives in a super-magical place, or very quickly gets there and operates from there, and all the magic is there. (Minus a few ‘Dementors attack Dudley’ incidents.)

                In a low fantasy, if there are super-magical places, they are places where the protagonists very very quickly *ventures* to solve specific problems, and a lot of the magic, in fact, a lot of the story, happens outside them. Those places are usually considered very dangerous.(1)

                The Dresden Files, to get back to the topic, seems to be moving from low fantasy to high fantasy, despite the fact the protagonist really really doesn’t want to. I’m not entirely sure, though. When it was ‘case of the week’ (Which actually had some large supernatural threat behind it.), yes, low fantasy. Now, I’m not so sure. Dresden spent a book as a *ghost*, which really drives home how little he interacts with normal people.

                And here is where you can use this premise to write an entire essay on Alice in Wonderland and try to figure out, exactly, if *it’s* high or low fantasy.

                1) Now I’m suddenly wondering if there is Harry-Potter-universe ‘urban fantasy’-type fanfics, where a magical-aware Muggle lives a normal Muggle life by day, but at night fights off super-natural threats like werewolves and vampires, using hacked and stolen magical items, and Diagon Alley or wherever is this strange alien environment full of scary almost-alien people who can erase your memory or kill you with just a thought, and he has to sneak in and steal dangerous magical artifacts like hats that make your head disappear.Report

              • dragonfrog in reply to DavidTC says:

                Interesting. I guess that mostly matches what I was getting at but maybe didn’t express very well – I would always have counted the Narnia stories where someone travels from our (at least mostly) non-magical world to a more magical one.

                Certainly I’d consider the Narnia books I’d high fantasy, despite some bits of the action happening in our world – because as you say, very little of the magic happens here. That would also apply to the Oz books, the Fairyland books, The Neverending Story, Alice in Wonderland, etc.

                I reject the notion that Shadowrun has too much magic, though.Report

              • dragonfrog in reply to dragonfrog says:

                Wow that came out mangled.Report

              • DavidTC in reply to dragonfrog says:

                I reject the notion that Shadowrun has too much magic, though.

                Shadowrun doesn’t have too much magic. Shadowrun has too much magic to have a *Masquerade*…which is why it doesn’t, and why it’s not low fantasy.(1)

                Low fantasy almost always requires a Masquerade, because it has to be set in our world. And Masquerades require only small amounts of magic in the world, because otherwise you need Sunnydale-levels of denial.

                (There are some exceptions to that. The Hollows series and the Sookie Stackhouse series have Masquerades that were broken in the 60s and twenty minutes in the past, respectively.(2) They both have still low levels of magic because they need to pretend that the Masquerade *did* work when it was in effect.)

                If you put as much magic in the world as in Shadowrun, then the Masquerade will last approximately ten seconds. As, in fact, I think it *did* in that universe when the magic came back.

                1) Of course, it’s not *high* fantasy either. High and low fantasy only describes a specific gradient and there are plenty of books that do not fit on them.

                2) Technically, the *supernatural* Masquerade in Sookie Stackhouse isn’t broken until about halfway through the series, when the public starts to realize that there are other supernatural creatures besides vampires, and that the vampire’s claim that their condition is merely a contagious disease explainable by science is *utter hogwash*.Report

            • Richard Hershberger in reply to Will Truman says:

              The “tethered to our reality” standard is, um…, idiosyncratic. This was the norm for fantasy since time immemorial: all those stories about Fairie, where Fairie is explicitly a place you can get to from here. This distinction smacks of something someone comes up with to justify his personal tastes, though whether it is designed to assign the desirable term “fantasy” to his tastes or to exclude the odious term “fantasy” from them is not clear.Report

              • Kim in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

                The British stories about Faeries were just about some tribe of sociopaths that lived in the woods. [Seriously, the cautionary tales don’t exist other places]

                Suppose I ought to also mention I do know someone allergic to iron, cold or otherwise. (also zinc, and copper…etc)Report

          • LeeEsq in reply to dragonfrog says:

            The Atlantic Article brings up the Wizard of Oz and points out that it still fits in the American theme because the Wizard is revealed to be an American con man/circus performer and Dorothy returns home to Kansas. The movie went one step beyond this and said Oz was just a dream because they thought the average American was too sophisticated to accept Oz as a real place. Of course, this ignores the sequels. So to a large extent Oz does fit into the paradigm.Report

            • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

              Can we please talk again when the atlantic hires people who actually understand what the Cross of Gold was all about?

              Baum was a serious writer.Report

            • dragonfrog in reply to LeeEsq says:

              The Wizard was a con man – but the witches were legit witches, the scarecrow was a legit talking scarecrow, the shoes were legit magic shoes, etc. The fact that the con man manages to con even the really powerful magicians doesn’t mean magic isn’t real in Oz, just that its magicians are fallible.

              And yes, the movie copped out, because Warner Brothers was afraid fantasy wouldn’t sell. But that was also one of the first fantasy movies ever, and American through and through.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      Who was Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer originally marketed at?Report

      • PD Shaw in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Twain said they were both written for adults to be read by adults. But I think his publisher convinced him that Tom Sawyer would sell better as a children’s book and he came around to that point of view. In his introduction to Tom Sawyer, Twain writes the book is for boys and girls, but sheepishly states that he thought adults might find it a good read as well.

        Twain initially looked into serializing Huck Finn in Century Magazine, which was for adults. Century published a promotional excerpt and the book was sold by subscription as a sequel to Tom Sawyer. It was widely perceived as a children’s book, which was the context in which libraries starting banning it.Report

  3. Damon says:

    Hollywood: If they are still making gobs of money, is this really an issue? Should anyone in the industry care unless it’s causing a hit to the top line?

    PBS: As long as I don’t have to pay for it.

    Robots: Put a SAW in this things hands and you’ve got a terminator.Report

  4. Richard Hershberger says:

    PBS has outstanding children’s programming. My older daughter was a proficient reader before entering kindergarten. The wife and I provided a lot of support and encouragement, but the nuts and bolts skills she got from PBS. (I particularly commend Word World. Sometime I really must expound upon the Platonic basis of that show.)

    That being said, the linked article wasn’t really clear on how this new project differs from PBS Kids. This already is a 24 hour feed of their kids’ programming, available as one of the digital broadcast and/or cable sub-channels. This looks suspiciously like they are expanding this, and repackaging it slightly for marketing purposes.

    Oh, and PBS adult programming is terrible: stuff that gives “middlebrow” a bad name. This really comes out during pledge drives. It’s not just that the begging sessions are unwatchable. They also pull out what they believe to be the programming that will really pull in their audience. It is invariably dreadful.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      PBS always had budgetary problems when it came to adult programming. Since they had to rely on funding from donors great and small more than guaranteed federal funding, they always lacked the money to produce really great fictional tv shows on their own but had to rely on imported British ones. Mercy Street is probably their first serious attempt at creating their own costume drama. They do better with documentaries but not to the extent that BBC does. I really can’t see PBS doing what BBC does and approaching different academics with interesting books and turning those books into documentaries. PBS really wants to be an American BBC but it can’t.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to LeeEsq says:

        What I am thinking of is stuff like quasi-classical schmaltz. Back in the day, if I was flipping through the channels and saw Yanni’s hair go by on the PBS station, I knew they were in pledge drive mode. Great Performances is spotty. Sometimes they will show a serious concert or opera or the like, but then they will go off on a pops tangent. It is like when the symphony puts on The Music of Billy Joel: sheer pandering. If you want to put that stuff on, that is fine. But it is a separate thing from putting on a symphony or opera. Mixing the two in the same time slot with the same show name trains me to expect disappointment, so perhaps best not to turn on the TV for that.

        Oh, and Downton Abbey is dreadful schlock: excellent production values, terrific acting, all wasted by absolutely awful writing.Report

        • They also pull out what they believe to be the programming that will really pull in their audience. It is invariably dreadful.

          I’ve noticed this too, and wondered about it. You’d figure they’d put on normal shows that are usually on so regular watchers would want to contribute.

          I technically agree with you about Downtown Abbey, but it’s still one of my guilty pleasures. Bad, but good even though and because it’s bad.Report

  5. Oscar Gordon says:

    Another example of using social services programs to combat gun violence.Report

    • greginak in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      Oh that brings back fun times from the 90’s. D’s wanted to spend money on various social programs to fight inner city violence but R’s screamed about pork barrel spending on midnight basketball. Dumb ol D’s trying to use liberal social engineering to coddle the violent instead of just putting them in jail.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to greginak says:

        Well I’ll take spending money on effective social programs to reduce gun violence and other violent crime over efforts to curb ownership while spending money on prison any day.

        A person who can turn their life around and become a productive citizen is always more valuable than a person who is forever defined as a prisoner & convict.Report

  6. LeeEsq says:

    Another way to look at the difference between British and American children’s literature, and I think this makes more sense than Protestant and Pagan as a distinction because the United Kingdom is a very Protestant place in it’s own way, is that American children’s literature is what you get in an egalitarian and republican society while British literature is what gets produced by a hierarchical monarchy. Harry Potter was a born a wizard and just needed to discover it, Mr. Toad of the Wind and the Willows is a country squire, and the kids in Narnia end up as kings and queens. In the United States, you have to earn things and work for them with no birth advantage. It also explains the lack of the fantastic in a lot of American kid’s literature until recently. There isn’t any room for magic in an egalitarian and republican society because that creates class distinctions between.Report

  7. Tod Kelly says:

    The Gillard thing is a little weird, since Huck Finn wasn’t written to be a children’s story. It was a satire poking fun at the American romantic-era culture, especially the romantic writers.

    It’s like saying that the Irish about better at telling children stories than the British, because Ulysses was a better book than Paddington.Report

    • Kim in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Except that he’s saying that Paddington was better than Ulysses.

      If you must grab up satires that worked as kids books, go pull the Wizard of Oz.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Kim says:


        Yes, you are right, Kim. I totally screwed that up.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Kim says:

        I’m pretty sure that the Wizard of Oz as satire piece was disproven thoroughly. Baum’s previous employment history as the person who made window displays kind of shows he intended it to be entertainment. So do all the sequels he wrote.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Kim says:

        I’m pretty sure that the Wizard of Oz as satire piece was disproven thoroughly. Baum’s previous employment history as the person who made window displays kind of shows he intended it to be entertainment. So do all the sequels he wrote.Report

        • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

          So, um, Bova’s books have something to do with the sewer now?

          No, doesn’t wash, not in the slightest.

          Show me him saying that he didn’t intend it as an allegory.Report