Follies and Nonsense

February 13, 2017

The problem with revenge stories  

Spoilers below for TV dramas Apple Tree Yard and Unforgotten, if you’ve not watched them yet.

Both dramas involved complicated plots about those who have been abused turning the tables on their abusers and getting away with it.

While in real life, we might abhor vigilanteeism and we have a judicial system that is intended to be fair and impartial and not based on vengeance, we do accept that there’s a difference between fiction and reality.

Don’t we?

Some people can’t tell the difference. I vaguely remember stories about an actor who played a rapist on East Enders coming in for personal abuse on the street. There’s theories that violent games inspire real life violence. Much is made of Norwegian Anders Breivik training by playing Call of Duty – whilst ignoring all the many people who have played the same game without ever planning and carrying out a terrorist attack – and ignoring the logical point that to use it to train meant that he’d formulated a plan rather than been pushed into action by the game itself. Perhaps most worrying is the idea that Jack Bauer of 24 provided the inspiration for real life torture, post 9/11

To what degree are the writers of fiction responsible if some reader or viewer confuses the boundary?  Let’s ignore Trump, whose comprehension of the difference between lies and truth is doubtful. And consider the possibility that intelligence operatives used torture because it worked for Jack Bauer.

Would that be the fault of the producers and writers of the show? Of the actors?

Or would it be the responsibility of those whose job it was to train them, to teach them about the law, to remind them of human rights. And most of all, perhaps, that torture doesn’t actually work. Not even in those faked up storylines where the stakes are high and there’s only so many hours to save the world.

Did 24 ever have a plot line when the torture failed? That would be good story telling. I did watch the first few series but I can’t say it stuck in my mind – and in spite of the helter skelter pace, it got boring.

But I do love revenge stories. Way back at Liverpool Uni in the late 70s one of my lecturers specialised in Revenge Tragedies and forced me to write an essay on Titus Andronicus. Now that’s torture for you.

The issue some have with these current dramas is that they aren’t tragedies. Vengeance is rewarded. There’s no requirement to dig two – or six – graves.

Here come the spoilers.

In Unforgotten (the second series), a body is discovered and the investigating team gradually uncover the truth about the long-dead man. It was a variant on the Strangers on a Train story. All the suspects had met in a psychiatric unit and recognised each other as abuse victims.  And between them they hatched a plan to revenge themselves on each other’s abusers – creating perfect alibis. It would have been difficult to prove, apart from the fact that the detective followed one of them and discovered them all chatting together in a pub…  The ending, which has disappointed some, has the investigating police colluding to ignore the evidence and let it go, out of sympathy for what they’d each endured, and because they had spent the previous twenty years as productive members of society and were no longer a danger to anyone.

While this was emotionally satisfying in the drama, it’s not how we’d see it in real life. Most of us would, I assume, prefer to see the courts deal with the evidence and then allow for mitigation. Maybe in a real life situation a jury would decide they were not guilty of murder, only of manslaughter. Perhaps a short prison sentence or a suspended sentence would be deemed appropriate. Or maybe a judge would decide they needed to be made an example of to deter vigilanteeism.

Apple Tree Yard is also a revenge story, with a twist or two along the way. The heroine, Dr Yvonne Carmichael, is a scientist who falls for a dodgy guy who leads her to believe he’s a spook. Clearly she must be punished for the sin of having a fling while she has a good job, a nice house and an acceptable husband (even if he might be playing away himself, I mean, he’s a bloke, so that’s allowed, right?). And so one of her colleagues clearly senses that she’s an immoral woman and is therefore fair game, and rapes her. It’s a truly shocking scene – brutal and violent. Perhaps more shocking is the way she becomes meek and plaible and goes along with his suggestion that they share a taxi. Shocking, that is, if you believe all the myths about rape, and how victims behave – and it seems many people still do.

So we know from the outset that Yvonne is on trial, along with her lover, Mark Costley, for George’s murder.

In various twists and turns we find out that Costley was not a spook – he failed to qualify because of suspicions that he has a personality disorder – his defence against the charge of murder. He’s married, with children. Yvonne finds out she really hardly knew him at all. There are shades of the Prisoner’s Dilemma throughout – will they stay loyal to each other? It seems not. And then, in a final twist, it is revealed that he was the more romantic – not her. That she asked him to deal with George. And so she gets away with her revenge as he is convicted and she walks free.

As a viewer I couldn’t help but feel glad that Yvonne got away with her revenge. I felt sad for Costley – not for George, who was violently murdered after all. I suppose that’s because we saw the brutality of the rape. And we saw that he continued to stalk her. That even though she didn’t report him and she altered her life to avoid him, that she’d allowed him to get away with it – still he wouldn’t leave her be.

In real life, would it be acceptable to incite murder, even of someone who has violently raped you and is a determined stalker? Of course not. Even though we know perfectly well how dangerous male aggressors of this kind are. Even though we know restraining orders are of limited use, that the police often fail to take stalking seriously, even though we know how low convictions for rape are… We still wouldn’t condone that kind of violence.

But this is fiction. I’m not sure that we really expect fiction to be realistic. At least, not all forms of fiction. We criticise dramas where we think they fail to be realistic, but we accept a certain amount of deviation from reality too. No one wants to see policemen doing paperwork, or on long observations when nothing happens. It’s a story.

Where would we start criticising Apple Tree Yard for its deviation from reality? The willingness of a respectable female scientist to have sex in a broom cupboard in the Houses of Parliament with a guy she knows nothing about? Her spectacular agility in leaping to the conclusion that he’s a spook, because he makes some random observation about how CCTV cameras work?

Me, I’d rather pick holes in reality. I suppose we could write a fiction in which justice prevails – the police act correctly, there’s evidence to be had and not just he said, she said situations, the jury are educated about the myths about rape and abuse, the court system always reaches a just conclusion. And we could all it, I dunno, Utopia. It wouldn’t be very emotionally satisfying for all the people who have been let down by the justice system. See the recent Guardian article about British rape trials. Nor would it be a very good story.

I have my own dog in this race. My own addiction to revenge stories to declare. My novel, A Savage Art, is also a revenge story.  I’m sure there are lots of areas where it fails the realism test.

Revenge stories are wish fulfilment for the powerless. I suppose I believe like comedy, they’re about punching up, rather than punching down. If they make the reader or the view think about issues of morality that’s a good thing. But if we expect a story to make our minds up for us, in this brave new world of FAKE NEWS, then we’ve already lost.

Ann

For another day, perhaps. Is it wrong to punch a Nazi?

P.S. My novel is currently only £0.99/$0.99 to download

Sources

Guardian – Inside British Rape Trials

NYT – Normalising torture on 24

CSM – Did 24 help to make torture acceptable?

American Thinker – Stranger than Fiction: Does 24 Inspire Real Life Torture?


December 6, 2016

Goodreads giveaway of A Savage Art  

The Goodreads giveaway is for UK readers only. If anyone else would like a copy please go and like my Facebook page and comment on my share of this blog post, and at the end of the giveaway on the 18th December, there’ll be another signed copy for a random commenter.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

A Savage Art by A.E. Rawson

A Savage Art

by A.E. Rawson

Giveaway ends December 18, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Facebook page link

Thank you!

Ann


December 2, 2016

On Anger and Revenge  

I was just reading this interesting article about the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s new book “Anger and Forgiveness” about the dangers of anger – and inevitably given the current zeitgeist, most of the discussion centres on the role anger has played in the American election. To a political junkie, this is endlessly fascinating. I am, however, unconvinced that a strategy of meeting anger with calm reason can actually change political discourse, given that we humans are generally very emotional animals. Some of us are especially talented in the use of reason to create convincing intellectual arguments that justify our beliefs and ideologies, but often emotion is the driver, however unacknowledged. We seem to be less capable of using our reason to understand our own or anyone else’s emotions, though.

Surely anger has been the fuel that in the past has brought much needed political change – even if right now it’s fuelling a backlash against hard won progress?  Her whole argument that anger is not socially useful seems to me to boil to the “Calm down, dear” approach to injustice.

On a personal level though, I cannot quite get my head around the idea that Nussbaum claims to have never been angry. To my mind, that makes her analysis suspect. Either she is being honest, or she is unaware of her own anger – and either makes her less capable of understanding the impossibility of what she’s asking of us ‘lesser’ beings.

Of course, I am fascinated by the impulse to revenge – I’ve written a thriller exploring the question of whether it can ever be justified.  There’s a reason why we have a long tradition of revenge stories ending in tragedy. And we know the quotation from Confucious, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”  In the case of my heroine Kate, perhaps it might be wise to dig more.  Culturally we are aware of the risks of anger. We are brought up to hide and disguise our anger – this is especially true of women. And I sometimes think squelching down on angry feelings, bottling them up, can make them more dangerous.

I suppose the difficulty is deciding where it is appropriate to draw the line. Someone who has never been angry probably isn’t best placed to decide that, any more than someone who is always angry.

In this context, I am reminded of the parable of the snake who refused to hiss.

Once upon a time, a holy man went from village to village visiting the people and giving assistance wherever he could.  One day he came to a town and entered the market place.  The people were all looking so unhappy.  “What is the matter, good people?” the old man asked.  “We are so frightened,” they said.  “We can barely do our work for fear of the snake.  It bites us all the time.  We don’t know when it will appear.  We are afraid to go to work in our fields, to let our children play in the streets, to even be here in the market place.”  The old man wandered on and soon came upon the snake.  “I hear you have been biting the people,” he said, “and I would like you to stop.  They are frightened of you and don’t get a moment’s rest.”  The snake realizing how much the holy man loved it agreed not to bite anyone again.

The old man continued on his journey and a few months later came back to the same village.  When he got to the market place he found the people were laughing and shouting.  Everyone was so happy.  “What has happened?” he asked.  The villagers told him that the snake had stopped biting them, that it came out each day from its hiding place but no longer attacked them.  The old man wandered about the village and soon came upon the snake lying in the gutter.  It was bleeding, and badly cut and bruised.  The old man could see that the snake was dying.  He gently picked it up and took it into the forest and laid it down out of the hot sun.  “What has happened to you?” he asked the snake.  The snake on its last few breaths said to the holy man, “ I did what you told me.  I stopped biting the people, but they started attacking me.  Wherever I went they would throw stones at me and kick me, and thrash me with sticks.”

The holy man held the snake with great love and tenderness and stroking the snake said to it ever so tenderly,  “I told you not to bite, but I never told you not to hiss.”

My favourite quotation on anger and revenge comes from Charlotte Bronte.

Jane Eyre is talking to Helen Burns (a girl who shares Nussbaum’s views on morality, as I recall) who has just been punished by the cruel teacher Miss Scatcherd

“… you are good to those who are good to you. It is all I ever desire to be. If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way; they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should – so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.”

The best revenge, they say, is living well.  But living well must also include taking action to prevent further harm. Sometimes that might require no more than hissing. Sometimes it might require drastic action. Or so my protagonist, Kate Savage, would argue…

Ann

Sources

Article on Nussbaum’s book in The Nation – here

The parable of the snake who forgot to hiss – here

Jane Eyre Chapter Six – here


October 25, 2016

Patricia Highsmith and empathy for the sociopath  

Patricia Highsmith seems generally under-rated these days – the people who know of Ripley seem to think of either Alien or Matt Damon in the film version. Her skill with the insidious and slow burning psychological suspense story is perhaps out of fashion now, given the current trend for novels that are fast paced and full of action. I lost count of the agents who told me my second novel started too slowly, even with one murder hinted at in the first paragaph, and another at the end of the first chapter.

Gillian Flynn, writer of Gone Girl (and debut novel Sharp Objects, which in some ways I prefer) is a Highsmith fan. I read this article from the Wall Street Journal, where Flynn is talking about Highsmith’s Deep Water, and realised it was one I hadn’t read – even though I love Highsmith – from Strangers on a Train, through the Tom Ripley series, The Cry of the Owl (another slow and creepy story about the relationship between a stalker and his victim, or…). I even enjoyed – if that is the right word, her collection of very creepy short stories, Little Tales of Misogyny.

So this week I rectified that omission – and smiled to see the current edition of Deep Water has Gillian Flynn’s recommendation on the cover…  Strange times.

Like Gone Girl, Deep Water is a story about an unhappy marriage. In Gone Girl, the story is told in turn by Nick and the Amazing Amy, neither of whom turn out to be appealing, likeable characters.  The structure of Deep Water is different, and the story of Vic and Melinda is told in the third person – but Highsmith sticks very closely to Vic’s point of view, and we see everything from his perspective.

Although the story unfolds very slowly and there’s no mystery about what happens – we are, after all, seeing exactly what Vic does throughout, I found it totally impossible to put the book down. Highsmith creates a very claustrophobic world. It was only at the very end of the novel, when I paused to draw breath, that I realised I had been drawn in to Vic’s mind to the extent that I wanted him to literally get away with murder….all the way until he was carted off by the police. I had been pleased when he’d escaped detection. I had disliked the characters who, quite rightly, suspected that he was a murderer. Even though I knew he was.

How did Highsmith accomplish this?

In a way all novelists are manipulating readers – perhaps the splinter of ice Graham Greene said was in the heart of every writer is the source of Highsmith’s ability to persuade us to empathise with a sociopath.

It helps, I think, that Melinda is not a very sympathetic character. We only see her from Vic’s point of view, of course, but somehow we are persuaded to believe he might be right. First, we see she is, at the very least, a flirt. She publicly spends lots of time with a succession of other men, and Vic patiently puts up with it… We see his friends sympathise with him, and encourage him to put his foot down. He also tells us she’s a lousy mother – from making too much fuss when giving birth, to neglecting their daughter throughout the story. We see Vic spending time with his daughter, so perhaps are inclined to believe him a little too easily. Vic has created his own haven in the home – they don’t share a bedroom any more, and he has his retreat in the garage where he raises snails, and herbs, and does experiments with bedbugs… Later, after Vic has murdered one of Melinda’s lovers, she employs detectives and spends time with a man who dislikes Vic – and somehow we see this as yet another marital betrayal.

In addition there are aspects of Vic that are sympathetic. He is a popular member of the small town where he lives – the few people who seem not like him seem to be outsiders. He works as a publisher, and clearly enjoys doing good work. He is a good and generous employer. And he does seem very patient with Melinda’s indiscretions. His interest in the snails – and particularly the love life of his two favourites – seems very sad considering the coldness of his own home life.  He does genuinely seem to care for his daughter – although there are glimpses perhaps of the sociopath in her too- perhaps she is her father’s daughter. She seems to want him to be a murderer – or that is how Vic sees it.

And yet…. we are warned at the very beginning that Vic is not without flaws.  The novel starts with him telling us that he doesn’t dance – not because he can’t – but because his wife loves to dance. Later in the novel we see him dancing with female friends in order to punish her…but by then, we have been persuaded that she deserves his punishment. His friend, Horace, is always telling Vic he should be firmer with her. But just like Vic’s friends, we are lulled into trusting Vic. The story starts so slowly and we see Vic suffering as Melinda flirts with one man, then another. And to begin with it doesn’t seem so dangerous – one of her previous flirts and has been murdered and Vic merely pretends he was the killer. He takes delight in using the fantasy to scare off her current flirt.  And we enjoy him getting away with that – as we’ve become accustomed to see him as the underdog. As he sees himself…
And yet that’s not really a true picture, is it? He’s a rich man, with an independent income and work he enjoys, respected in his community. He’s not an underdog – he’s enjoying a perverse kind of power over his wife. From denying her the pleasure of dancing – to his passive aggressive and inauthentic response to her flirtations.

To quote Flynn, Highsmith “doesn’t give anything away. She does not do your work for you. She gives you all the information. She’s a very precise writer. You picture her using an eye dropper to put each word on the page. Everything is very specifically put in place, but she makes you do a lot of wonderful homework in having to think about her characters and put yourself in their positions and try to figure them out a little bit.”

There’s an absence of emotion in Vic’s story. At one point we are told that he doesn’t feel guilt – but he doesn’t really seem to feel anything – except perhaps for the snails.

So perhaps that’s how it works. We have our own theories of mind – we as readers do a lot of the heavy lifting in a Highsmith novel. We project our own emotions on to Vic, and make assumption about how he must feel. That’s how narcissists and sociopaths work on us, after all. We make excuses for their behaviour, just as we do for Vic’s. Just as his friends do. We are all fooled because we want to believe that other human beings are just like us. Even though in several places Vic quite explicitly says he’s not like other people. He’s not a conformist.

We do all like non-conformity, don’t we?

I can’t help pondering on the fact that Highsmith herself kept snails….  Perhaps the key to why I empathised with Vic is that Highsmith herself is on his side.

I think it’s time I re-read Highsmith’s book on Writing and Plotting Suspense Fiction.

Ann


October 20, 2016

What provides good experience for writing?  

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian that suggests medicine – the writer, himself a doctor and a novelist, points out that there are very many examples – he picks out Chekhov, Bulgakov, Conan Doyle, Somerset Maugham, Michael Crichton, Abraham Verghese, Khaled Hosseini.

His argument is pretty strong – doctors get to see people at times of crisis, doctors are empathic (mostly); junior doctors have to learn to take a history and present it to the consultant on ward rounds, and thus develop an ability with communication (listening as well as talking) and with story.

Having recently spent far too much time in hospital, I concede he makes an excellent case. I think I’ve certainly found lots of material from the other side of the fence – and not just if I follow through with my threat to turn it into a medical thriller. After the next operation and recovery, of course.

However I suspect he’s just cherry picking, or has fallen into the Texas Sharp Shooter logical fallacy. He’s a doctor and a novelist, and therefore he is attuned to the existence of the rest of the group who fall into his segment of that particular Venn diagram.

I wouldn’t mind betting that the same is true of all the lawyers who are also novelists. I recall when I was at Liverpool University and changed course from Law to English Language and Literature, my Law Professor made that point. Who did he mention? Henry Fielding, certainly. Erle Stanley Gardner, possibly. John Buchan. John Mortimer. I would add John Grisham, Scott Turow, Lisa Scottoline.

A similar case could be made for the reasons – they see lots of people in time of crisis, they have to have an understanding of human nature, they have to be able to construct a narrative.

So where does that leave me – with experience in the software business?

Writing a business plan was by far the longest work of fiction I produced before I completed my first novel. And I certainly met a lot of people, of all kinds. Do you have to be empathic in business? You certainly have to understand something about human nature. I think I have a fair supply of ideas for villains and victims both from some of the people I met. I do love a revenge story after all. I am sad to say that the first example that sprang to mind here was Jeffrey Archer’s first novel, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less.

Ah yes, there are quite a few politicians who have turned novelist too, aren’t there?

Of course, most writers do need another source of income. Here in the UK most writers are reported to be earning below minimum wage.  So it’s just as well that working at stuff that is not directly related to writing provides inspiration.

So this gives me an excuse for my favourite anecdote about strange experiences in the software business.

We were meeting with a guy, let’s call him Mike, who had approached us as he was interested in a partnership. He had, he said, lots of experience in tech sales, and would be interested in selling our software product in exchange for a share of the revenue he generated. He asked for a generous revenue share, and based on his experience and his projections of the sales he could make, it sounded as if he might just be worth it.  He was a little reluctant to provide references, though. We could understand that he might not want to let his current employers know he was thinking of striking out as a freelance, and he said his other experience was too far out of date.

There was a distinct whiff of rat at the this point.

Still, we continued discussions, and my business (and life) partner inserted his usual rat trap into the conversation. I won’t say what that is, exactly – he might need it again….

At the end of the meeting Mike suggested he would provide us with a draft agreement the following week, and we parted amicably.

When it arrived, I read the agreement very, very carefully. It started out so positively, with lots of wildly optimistic projections of the sales potential he could see for our software product. (Fiction, again!)

And right at the end, just one tiny sentence that made me gasp and then set me off laughing at the guy’s sheer nerve.

If he didn’t make the projected minimum sales target he’d set for himself (one that was far more reasonable that initial wild projections, granted), then at the end of the first year he would be entitled to purchase our Intellectual Property for the miserly sum of £1.00.

Yes, that’s right.

Of course we confronted him, and he came over all hurt and defensive. Of course he would work hard, he said. He was motivated to make a success of the venture. And there was no intention at all for him to spend a year doing nothing at all and then take our IP…. He just had to do something to protect himself – he wasn’t prepared to put in the amount of time required for nothing.

I’m still not sure if he would make a better victim or villain. It was so inept an attempt that I can’t imagine he would actually succeed in defrauding anyone. But he certainly had every intention of doing so!

So, medicine, law, business – what is the best source of experience for writers? I don’t think there is any best. As Nora Ephron famaously said, “It’s all material.”

Ann

Glad to be out of the software business…