it’s about character, stupid

Good thread over here about what makes a good hero or heroine.

Which reminds me of this point

The pulp days are gone (well, except for television). These days, the story is about characters, not the premise. The story is in how the characters interact with each other under pressure from the premise, not just how they react to the monster or the alien or the cool techie idea until some one or thing dies at the end.

made, I believe, by Ellen Datlow, who edited the St. Martins Press Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies, and is quoted at length in a Storytellers Unplugged post On The Slushiness of Slush.


I was talking to M. yesterday, a brilliant academic psychologist type who works with adolescents. She likened each new generation of women to a type of immigrant: born into such a new cultural era, changed so radically from what came before, that girls have to keep breaking new ground as they go, coping with choices and forces and pressures alien to their mothers, their grandmothers, so that the older generations can only look on from a female world already lost. “That’s why I’m glad you write female protagonists,” M told me. “The girls need you more than the boys do.”

For some reason this got me thinking about Sylvia Plath. When I was an undergraduate English major at university I fell in with some literary-intellectual (or at least that’s how they considered themselves) grad students, including a Ph.d. dropout I regarded with a kind of hero worship that seems inexplicable to me now (yes, he was cute, and yes, I did, and that, too, seems inexplicable. So it goes). They took a dismissive attitude toward Plath, laughed off, a little scornfully, ‘The Bell Jar’ as more-or-less chick lit (although that term wasn’t around yet) that got carried around by granola girls in long flowy dresses who hung out at the organic foods store (organic foods still a bit of a novelty). I was too young and insecure to argue the point, thinking maybe they knew something I didn’t (although whether that was about Plath or girls in long skirts I’m not sure). I knew, though, that my sister’s grade 9 English teacher was dead wrong when she sent my sister home with the blithe statement: “The only reason Sylvia Plath is famous is because she killed herself.” I told my sister that her teacher, a recent university graduate all of 25 or so, was a blooming idiot.

Years later I was sitting in a bookstore in Menlo Park waiting for a reading to begin — I think it was Alex Garland* — and to kill time I picked up a copy of Plath’s Ariel that just happened to be lying nearby and started flipping through it. I had read many of those poems before, of course, had even written essays on them, and yet now, a little bit older, coming at them so unexpectedly like this, so fresh, one right after the other —

The poems fucking blew me away.

Someone, I can’t remember who, said that he or she could recognize a good poem or short story by whether or not it “took the top of [her] head off.” I was a twenty-six year old woman reading these poems a full generation after Plath had written them and I was stunned at how forceful, modern, powerful they were; how they resonated. They took the top of my head off.

And yet those English majors I knew, my friends at university (who were bright and talented and serious about their work, have gone on to become published fiction writers and teachers themselves) and my sister’s high school teacher were so quick to dismiss her in smug, superior tones. And I’m not so sure it was because of a genuine, well-considered view of her work as a whole; in fact, I’m pretty damn sure it wasn’t. I think it was because none of us, including me, wanted to be thought of as just some silly girl.

I’m not really trying to make a particular point or any real argument here. It’s just one of those things that stayed with me through the years, an impression that haunts me, a sad little ghost.

*Talk about cute.

**Plath was mythologized a certain way because she killed herself (and because of how she and her (ex)husband Ted Hughes wrote about themselves, their marriage, each other) but her work stands on her own and would have been claimed and celebrated by the growing feminist movement even if she’d lived — much like Margaret Atwood’s work was swept up, over the years, by both feminism and the newly born Canadian literary movement so that she, to her own discomfort, became a living symbol of both. Not to mention that Plath would have gone on to a distinguished long-term career, as talented and ambitious and prolific as she was…I still think that teacher’s a blooming idiot.


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