Posts Tagged ‘Criticism’


No more libraries???

May 19, 2011

I never thought it would happen, but apparently the days of the school library may be numbered.

On the surface, the idea seems absurd. Schools are places of learning. Having a huge collection of books in one place is an excellent way to facilitate learning. Therefore, leaving aside the issues of getting kids to enjoy reading (which I’ll get to in a second), it would seem a matter of practicality to equip schools with libraries.

Yes, technology is changing. We rely more on the Internet for research, and last I heard, Amazon was selling more e-books than actual print-and-paper books. However, that does not subtract from the importance of books as a research source. Do me a favour. The next time a set of encyclopediae is handy, look up a topic of your choosing. Then, boot up your computer, access the Internet, and search for the same topic. I’m willing to bet you’ll end up on Wikipedia.

I’m also willing to bet that it took much less time to simply open a book. Then, since I’m such a gamblin’ soul, I will make one final bet that the information in your print encyclopedia was reviewed and fact-checked, making it more reliable than the encyclopedia that “anyone can edit.”

And this is just looking at libraries from a purely academic point of view. These are school libraries on the chopping block. School libraries are instrumental in exposing kids to books and making the world of reading an accessible one. I cannot count the hours I spent in my elementary school library, devouring books that I found on my own as I perused the shelves, as well as those the librarian recommended to me. The Call of the Wild. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. From the Earth to the Moon. The Chronicles of Narnia. Sherlock Holmes. Ancient Myths and Legends. The War of the Worlds. Watership Down. Redwall. Silver Chief. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. The Hobbit.

Notice, if you will, the presence of a lot of “older” books: Verne, Wells, London. While my school library certainly had books for a younger audience, it also carried the classics. So, when you read everything of interest in the “little kid” section, you naturally moved on to some literature that, in hindsight, was extremely good preparation for the rest of my schooling, as well as my current writing.

I don’t know that it would have been possible in a public library. Don’t get me wrong, I love public libraries too, but… many of them are a lot bigger. The librarians don’t often know you as personally, and can’t always provide that individualized recommendation. They can’t say, “It’s about a magical land, with a wicked queen and a lion who saves the day. It may be a little scary, but I think you’ll like it.”

Too often, we hear news stories about how kids don’t read, kids don’t use their imagination, kids don’t have any attention span anymore because they’re too hooked in to TV and video games. Growing up, my home was well-stocked with books because my parents were huge readers. But not every child is so fortunate. Nor does every child have a public library that’s close and easily accessed (which is a tragedy too).

And yet, if you give kids the opportunity to explore books freely and comfortably, they will eventually find something that makes their imaginations soar. Then you have a reader for life.

Reading is like drinking seawater. The more you drink, the thirstier you become.

Keep them thirsting for more.



Ambiguity as a Tool

May 5, 2011

Do you know what’s really, really scary?


As you all know, I am a huge fan of fantasy. However, I also love the “fantastic.” Although the most famous examples (think Edgar Allan Poe and Algernon Blackwood) are from the Romantic era, it really straddles genre boundaries. It’s not quite speculative fiction in the sense that fantasy, sci-fi, and horror are speculative, because the reader is never 100% sure whether or not anything supernatural is going on. In fact, as soon as you know one way or the other that the strange events either are or are not supernatural, it no longer counts as truly “fantastic.” That ambiguity forms its very definition.

And that ambiguity is terrifying.

We’re afraid of the dark because we don’t know what lurks within it. These stories are the literary equivalent of crouching by a fire in the depths of the night. You can see just enough to suspect something’s out there. But you’re not sure. And even if there is something, you don’t know what it is. With such limited information, you can’t act; you can only watch, and wait, paralyzed by anxiety and self-doubt.

Left to our own devices, we come up with uniquely frightening things. Think about the Boggart in Harry Potter. It never had a shape of its own; it became whatever you feared most, and that was the source of its power. No monster is as frightening as that which we craft for ourselves.

Obviously, too much ambiguity isn’t ideal; readers will get frustrated, and frustrated readers don’t tend to hang around long. But… if you can provide enough detail to offer a hint of the shape in the shadows, while leaving the reader to fill in the specifics with their own imaginings and fears, well…

 You’ll have something pretty scary and pretty suspenseful on your hands.



An Intergalactic Dictionary

April 27, 2011

Beta Reader (noun):

1. A trusted associate who reads and offers comments on an edited first draft.

2. The person from whom you will alternately dread and crave hearing a response.

Chosen One (noun):

1. A character who is unaware of their hidden greatness, but who will somehow, inexplicably and very often despite their own incompetence, save his/her world.

2. Harry Potter (who is not a typical “chosen one” incidentally, as his importance derives from the fact that Voldemort chose him as the wizard more likely to be a threat)

Coffee (noun):

1. A mild stimulant deriving from the coffee bean.

2. Many writers’ (and adults’) drug of choice.

Con (noun):

1. A gathering of fans, usually of science fiction and/or fantasy, to discuss and celebrate the chosen object/field of their devotion.

2. The means and the ends of fandom.

Edit (verb):

1. The process of revising a first draft.

2. The process of attacking your ms with a red pen and “murdering your darlings.”

Fanboy/girl (noun):

A person who follows and enjoys a story, series, universe, or person, but to a greater degree than a typical “fan.”

Fantasy (noun):

1. Speculative fiction in which magic and/or the supernatural play a central role in the story.

2. The literature of what couldn’t be, but is.

Geekgasm (noun):

An experience of overwhelming joy induced by contact with an object, idea, person, or event which stimulates the geek centre of the brain.

Geekgasm (verb):

To experience a geekgasm. Often identified by a silly, beaming grin, a high-pitched squeal, and a happy dance.

Genre (noun):

1. A means by which books are classified.

2. An attribute of a book which often receives far more attention and/or judgement than it deserves.

Internet (noun):

1. The medium across which computers exchange information.

2. Your best friend and worst enemy.

List (noun):

1. An efficient means of organizing information.

2. Evidently, a form of energy. To be without “list” is to be passive and unresponsive.

Josephine grunted listlessly.

Mary-Sue (noun):

The protagonist of badly-written fanfiction, sometimes a thinly veiled portrayal of the author. The character is universally loved and has no physical or personality flaws save perfection and being intensely irritating.

Nightmare (noun):

1. A frightening dream.

2. A spirit-horse which forces you to ride it to various evil realms and gatherings.

3. A potential source of inspiration.

Notebook (noun):

1. A small book with blank, lined pages.

2. An object which, in large numbers, can hypnotize writers.

Pirate (noun):

1. Seafaring murderers and thieves who are often romanticized as being the jolly epitomes of awesome.

2. Someone who illegally downloads music and/or films.

Podcast (noun):

An audio programme, similar to a radio show, distributed over the internet and most frequently listened to on iPods.

Podcast Novel (noun):

A unique medium of novel, in which the story is read aloud on a podcast. It may include voice actors, music, and sound effects along with the actual narrative.

Science Fiction (noun):

1. Speculative fiction in which nonexistent, but plausible, technology and/or physical laws play a central role in the story.

2. The literature of what could be, but isn’t.

Speculative Fiction (noun):

1. Fiction wherein some element intrinsically different from the writer’s own empirical experience of natural laws is essential to the story.

2. A legitimate genre of literature.

3. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and their various subgenres.

Steampunk (noun):

1. A creative re-imagining of the Victorian Era, particularly the London milieu, with an emphasis on speculative steam-based technology.

2. What happens when Goth kids discover the colour brown (attr. I Should Be Writing).

Time paradox (noun):

1. A paradox resulting from following the circular logic of time travel.

2. A plot device.

3. A terrible thing to think about if you have insomnia and are lying awake at 2 a.m.

Tribe (noun):

The greater community of writers.

Vampire (noun):

An undead human who survives by drinking blood. Contrary to some misguided beliefs, they do not sparkle.

Writer (noun):

Someone who writes.

Writing (verb):

1. The act of transcribing or setting words down in print/type.

2. The act of creating a story with fully-realized plot, characters, and theme.

Worldbuilding (noun):

1. The process of creating an imaginary, functioning world and its various components, including religions, geography, history, cultures, and economy.

2. Something really, really fun, and really, really important… that can become a really, really good way to procrastinate if one isn’t careful.

Zombie (noun):

1. An undead creature who survives by eating brains.

2. Something which ought not to be present and/or functioning, but is.

When Joe’s computer sent spam without Joe’s knowledge, Joe realized it had become a zombie computer.


Ah, morality

April 10, 2011

Imagine two scenarios (alas, I have no claims to either… they’re stories by Philippa Ballantine and Christof Laputka, respectively).


Scenario One

A misogynist pig of  a prince views women solely as sex toys. Then he’s cursed by witches. His attempts in escaping the curse lead to his kingdom being attacked. So, to protect his kingdom, he offers his life up to the witches… and doesn’t die, but is transfigured into a woman himself.

Scenario Two

A tough, resourceful secret agent bursts in at the last second to save the heroine. We know and like this agent well. With much derring-do, he subdues his enemy by firing a neurotoxin dart at him. Obviously, the enemy is now completely helpless. Nevertheless, our “Hero” proceeds to injure him further, punching him in the face so that the dart lodged there punctures his brain.

So what?

So, I think the First Scenario is an excellent example of the convergence of theme and plot. The prince is, as I’ve mentioned, a pig. He redeems himself at the end, so we don’t want him to die. But he’s not a good person, so we don’t want him to get away scot-free either. His punishment is wonderfully ironic- now he gets to feel and truly appreciate what life is like for the women he mistreated. And he’s not dead, so there is hope he actually will learn his lesson. Even though he remains an anti-hero, he earns our (perhaps grudging) respect and admiration.

The second, however… I lost pretty well all respect I had for our heroic secret agent. Up until that point, I had liked him. He was charming, and intelligent, and actually cared about other people. But this? Morally speaking, the agent makes a fatal choice. Killing the guy was not the problem; the evil genius was evil, and it was self-defence. But the agent’s actions shows the reader that he is in fact the kind of man who will kick someone when they’re down (or cram them full of more pain when they’re already dying). These are not the actions of a hero, and therefore, he can no longer be a hero. Furthermore, given that this was at the end of the story, I’m not optimistic for any further character development that will explain this less-than-heroic act, or that we were “supposed” to not like him anymore, setting up conflict down the road.

Bad guys can become good guys through their choices. Good guys can become bad guys. But for me, the worst is when the good guys (and perhaps the person writing them) don’t realize when they’ve crossed that line.



Ice Cream Consumption Linked to Shark Attacks

March 28, 2011

When ice cream consumption rises in the summer, so does the number of shark attacks, a new study shows.

The researchers, whose findings are published in the March issue of Causation/Correlation, monitored ice cream consumption in the coastal town of  Port Bull over three years.

The scientists say their findings reveal a link between increased ice cream consumption and a greater prevalance of shark attacks. “Basically,” says Dr. John McQuaig, a researcher from the University of Wroxton, “people ate the most ice cream in the summer; sharks attacks peaked at the same time. Then, in winter, when people ate less, shark attacks decreased.”

“This sheds intriguing light on the effects of diet on humans’ appeal to carnivores, suggesting that saturated fat and dairy may be particularly attractive to sharks,” he added in a release.

Scoops and Sharks

In the study, researchers documented the number of ice cream cones eaten per capita, along with the number of shark attacks. According to their data, shark attacks were lowest in the winter, when the populace ate the least ice cream, and highest in summer, when they ate the most. Those who had eaten ice cream purchased from boardwalk or beachside stands were most likely to be linked to a shark attack. 

While not usually man-eaters, sharks require highly-caloric food to power their muscular bodies. As fat contains more calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates, it is believed that humans with higher levels of body-fat would be more attractive to sharks.

“Ice cream itself has a lot of fat,” says Dr. Anita Bath, another researcher from the University of  Wroxton.

“It’s possible that eating more ice cream leads to weight gain, which would increase your appeal to sharks. Similarly, sharks may be able to sense recently-eaten ice cream in the stomach.”

Sharks have a highly developed sense of smell and sensitive electrical receptors.

Ice cream means screams?

The overall number of shark attacks in Port Bull remained near the national average, but chances of being involved in a shark attack increased significantly if ice cream had been eaten within the last week, with beachside ice cream being the most deadly. Scientists say more research is needed to fully understand the issue.

“We’re not sure if the sharks are reacting to the presence of ice cream itself in the human body, or to the elevated body fat that comes from eating ice cream,” says McQuaig.

“In any case, it shows another way in which eating junk food can potentially shorten your lifespan.”




Likeable Characters

March 25, 2011

Somtimes things seem self-evident. So self-evident, in fact, that we forget about them and start taking them for granted. Which makes their absence all the more unnerving.

I’m specifically thinking of having likeable characters. Even more specifically, having likeable main characters. Most main characters are likeable. After all, we tend to identify with the protagonist- who wants to identify themselves with someone they loathe?  Besides, who wants to spend X hours reading X pages about people they don’t like, when they could be doing something else?

That’s not, however, to say that you have to black and white about it. While it usually turns out that your heroes are likeable and your villains are not, that doesn’t always have to be the case. It’s entirely possible to have a likeable villain, and/or an anti-hero. In fact, literature is littered with them. Think of Richard III, from Shakespeare’s play of the same name (spoilers follow). In the play, he has his young nephews murdered (whether or not the historical Richard did so is open to debate). He seduces, marries, and then breaks the spirit of Lady Anne. He manipulates his way into power, and then kills his kingmaker.

Richard III

Clearly, not a very nice guy.

But he’s charming. He’s intelligent, and determined. He’s ambitious. And yes, there is something heartbreaking in his final cry of, “My kingdom for a horse!”

However much we may dislike his actions, and yes, even the man himself, there nevertheless remains a small part of us that likes him. He appeals to a tiny, treacherous part of us. Even if we don’t necessarily want to see him succeed, we don’t necesssarily want to see him fail… and least, not too soon, not too easily. The appeal of the likeable villain comes from the contradiction: we like them, but we’re not supposed to. Contradictions like that are interesting; they keep the audience engaged.

The flip side of the coin?

Unlikeable heroes are something else. I think you can distinguish these from anti-heroes: they’re usually not a villain thrown into the role of protagonist. Instead, it seems they were intended to be likeable, but something went… wrong.

I’m reading a book right now (though I can’t say why I’m continuing to put myself through it, if not for some masochistic pleasure) in which I don’t like the protagonist. At all. I think I’m supposed to. She has a cool name. She follows the “Chosen One” archetype. The other characters like her a lot.

But I don’t.

She is self-centred, petulant, whiny, strings the male characters along (and obviously takes great pleasure in doing so), and is essentially the grown-up version of a spoiled brat. Okay, so she’s agreed to save the world. But that’s not enough to make me like her. Not when she has yet to show any moral fibre or concern for anyone but herself. Especially not when there are characters with spunk and spirit I like much, much more.

Those secondary characters are the reason I’m sticking around. As for the heroine? Well, if she were to fall off a cliff or something (though the chances of that happening are less than nil) I wouldn’t be terribly sad. When she succeeds at saving the world, I won’t be terribly happy.

Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps, as in real life, some personalities just rub people the wrong way. But if I care more about the chorus than the diva, maybe it’s time to reexamine your casting.



Words From Which I Need a Break

March 22, 2011

Amazingly, the academic year is somehow almost over. Again. And at this busy time of year (yeah, about those updates), it has come to my attention that there are an awful lot of words out there that I don’t want to hear again for a long, long time. These are words that sound awesome, words that are repositories for a whole host of concepts, and if used cunningly, obscure the fact that you may or may not know what you’re talking about.

But it’s getting to the point where I feel ill using them. Sure, they’re part of the lingo, and they earn you points… but lately I’ve seen and heard them overused and misused to such an extent that I fear they’re triggering hives. So, without further ado…

Words I Would Like to Temporarily Banish… at Least Until my Immunity Returns

  1. Construct/construction (particularly if it’s a “cultural construct”)
  2. Rhetoric
  3. Discourse
  4. Ethos
  5. Socio-economic
  6. Gendered
  7. Interpretation
  8. Identity
  9. Verisimilitude
  10.  Meta-anything (meta-linguistic, meta-narrative, meta-cognition, etc.)
  11. Daring
  12. Authenticity
  13. Paradigm
  14. Class conflict
  15. Capitalist/capitalistic
  16. Marxist
  17. Manifest
  18. “Double-vision”
  19. Self-perception
  20. Personal growth
  21. Primal
  22. Inherent
  23. Ultimate/ultimately
  24. Innocence/Loss of Innocence

And, last but not least:

25. Thus

I’m not suggesting these words go into permanent exile. No, they serve their purposes. I just think they should enjoy a nice vacation somewhere, until their proper (and sparing) use is remembered and appreciated.

Sigh. Looking forward to spring… Ah well, here’s a cartoon I find extremely relevant right about now:

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