Monday 9 March 2020

Literary Clichés Part Eight: Genres

The trouble with magical realism is that it's fantasy for people who don't read fantasy.

Rural pagan survival/revival has a dark side.
Old gods live on in modern times.
Old Dark House (popular in the 30s).

Americans have a kind of surreal shaggy dog “humour”. Twin Peaks, Garrison Keiller, Cabot Cove. It’s also about rustics with funny accents who call the sheriff “shurruf”.

Statistics show that you're most likely to get your own story in a girls' comic if you're a sporty, disabled, artistic Victorian orphan who lives with a violent aunt or uncle, having a hurt sister/brother/pet who you need to earn money for, but don't realise that your best friend secretly resents you, the snobs are plotting against you, and an evil mastermind is attempting to take over your school and you're the only one who can resist her powers. ( on girls’ comics)

Girls' comics (50s, 60s) and girls' school stories (20s to 60s) were written as if the girl characters had no future. They weren’t training for a career. They never talked about boys. They had an exciting life at school, but never talked about having a more normal social life in the holidays. They never had boyfriends. The idea that they were going to leave school, go to university (or college), do a job and get married (most of them) is never even mentioned in passing. (The same thing happened in real life, too – yet there was tremendous pressure on women to get married.) Though apparently in Enid Blyton there IS talk of careers and a life beyond the hockey team. (How did you feel when you left school and your leadership qualities and skill at hockey were suddenly completely useless and you had to be feminine and charming? And you never picked up a hockey stick again.)

It’s a poor example of what I have elsewhere called the “brownstone mystery”, where the main function of the plot is to carry the reader through observations about how upper-class people live, complete with details of clothing, furniture and bitchiness. (Noah Stuart on Helen Reilly’s The Velvet Hand)

Novel about a painter who drinks a lot, talks a lot, has shabby girlfriends, sponges off everyone he knows (Joyce Cary's The Horse’s Mouth). There are endless descriptions of his work and how he (and it always is a he) works – lots of gesturing and thick impasto and mess. We are supposed to think he is a life-enhancing free spirit instead of a tedious PITA. Also he is far too obviously a stand-in for the writer and for us the readers – we are really a romantic genius who just wants to smear paint all over the bourgeois wallpaper. Nobody would write a novel about a meticulous, gentlemanly Victorian artist. And nobody would make a film about Millais. Also the Horse’s Mouth type of painter never went to art school, did life drawings, studied other artists, learned perspective or any technique, it’s all completely instinctive, you see. Segue to urban legends about dance routines being unrehearsed, speeches improvised by the actors etc.

During the war there was an “evacuee” genre in which a fastidious single middle-aged man finds himself looking after small children with runny noses, impetigo and adenoids. They speak a hilarious dialect full of dropped aitches and solve his problems and teach him humanity, or something.

Everything is exactly like real life apart from one fundamental detail that gradually becomes apparent (women are the dominant sex, 5% of the population are mutants/aliens from outer space, cannibalism is the latest fashion, your boyfriend is a vampire, everybody at your school is a clone being raised for future body parts etc.)

The killer has lifted a method from a (real or fictional) detective story. (Real-life converse: killer writes a novel revealing his/her crimes. Didn’t one of them write a book called How to Murder Your Husband, and then murder her husband?)

More here, and links to the rest. 

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