This Reuters article describes how the British publishing house, Jonathan Cape, was forced to release Ian McEwan’s new novel, Saturday, early because the Evening Standard broke a publicity embargo and ran an interview two weeks to soon. Naturally, other newspapers, not wanting to be scooped by the Standard, also ran stories about McEwan’s book too early. Suddenly, Saturday was getting tons of press, but the books weren’t in stores, and now Bertelsmann’s Random House, which owns Jonathan Cape, wants the Standard to pay for the lost revenue that resulted from the runaway publicity chain reaction. The subtext to all of this, especially if you consider the story in light of the creation of the new made-for-tv Quill Awards, is that publishing companies, most of which are now owned by media conglomerates, are trying to market and sell books in the same way they might market and sell movies or music. In Hollywood, the financial success of many a film is determined by the opening weekend, or even the opening night, and all the marketing resources go towards getting people into the movie theatre on the opening weekend. The primary – though unstated – purpose of awards shows is to convince people to see the movies or buy the music that is being honored, not simply to honor it. My experience as a bookseller tells me that books don’t work this way. The book is the ultimate “word of mouth” product. The desire to read a good book is many times more likely to be initiated by a recommendation from a trusted fellow reader (or bookseller) than by a piece of clever marketing or even a prominent review. It’s my opinion that publishers shouldn’t be pushing for the huge first week numbers – forcing a book to boom or bust – but they should give books a chance to survive and thrive on their own merits… the way McEwan’s last book, Atonement, did.
You probably know about Eric Schlosser’s iconic book Fast Food Nation. In it Schlosser revealed the fatty, processed underbelly of the fast food industry, and it seems likely that all of the millions of people who read the wildly successful book thought twice before their next trip to the drive thru. What you may not know is that a movie based on the book and directed by Richard Linklater is set to come out later this year. (I first wrote about this on the blog way back in 2003, but had forgotten about it until recently.) According to IMDb, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, and Avril Lavigne are all part of an ensemble cast. There’s no official release date as yet.In the meantime, and perhaps in anticipation of the movie, a new version of Fast Food Nation has come out that’s aimed at 6th through 9th graders. Chew on This is basically a rewrite of Schlosser’s bestseller, but the idea here is that as big consumers of fast food, kids should hear Schlosser’s message too.
The NBC Wednesday night lineup ad shows Debra Messing Mariska Hargitay, and Sophia Bush, side by side, sultry-eyed and pointing guns at the camera. Lady cops, badasses all, and with great hair.
There’s been much ado lately about powerful women on TV. Between Shonda Rimes’s Olivia Pope and her newest creation, defense lawyer Annalise Keating — both described as “authority figures with sharp minds and potent libidos” — along with Homeland’s Carrie Matheson, Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen, and The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick, a golden age of women protagonists seems to be upon us. Or is it?
I’m a little concerned, frankly. True, we’re seeing a lot of women characters in high-powered jobs. And a decided feature in the current formula is that they are all extremely good at their jobs. But TV writers and showrunners also seem to be acting out the debate — launched full-force in 2012 with Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” — around women, work, and family. When I look at these so-called powerful women on TV, I see a kind of Rorschach for audiences around two questions: Is this a woman whose life you’d actually want? And: Is this a woman whose life reflects any reality you know?
I had high hopes for Madam Secretary that the writing would be smart, the show would take on complex issues of the day, and that, yes, the portrayal of a woman in high office would be engaging. Téa Leoni is terrific and winning in the role of Secretary of State Elizabeth “Bess” McCord; on this most reviewers agree (not to mention the crack ensemble cast). She’s simultaneously intense and calm, assertive and disarming, sarcastic and sincere. You trust her, and you want her to succeed. She’s sexy in a sloppy, earthy sort of way, isn’t above or below using her feminine charms strategically; and in this particular way, she is nowhere near a Hilary Clinton knock-off: she is a different girlish-boyish animal altogether, of a younger generation who didn’t have to “act like a man, dress like a man” quite so strictly in order to rise and succeed. Like Alicia Florrick, she has natural instincts for the soft power/hard power one-two punch. She’s also, unlike Hilary (public Hilary, anyway), quite funny.
But in the first two episodes, I’ve had the woeful “Oh, please” reaction to a few of the show’s story elements, all of which have to do with the “having it all” trope. Bess’s husband Henry (Tim Daly) is hunky, brainy, solicitous, maternal, and utterly content (and of course he’s never had as much as a dalliance with a short-skirted co-ed). Bess initiates hand-wringing bedtime talk about not having as much sex as they used to; he assures her, silly girl, that it’s all fine. When their eldest daughter quits college because she can’t handle being the daughter of a public figure, Bess says to her go-between husband, “I just wish she had come to me.”
Ick! Argh! Oh, please! She is the Secretary of State: please tell me that a woman with such grave and innumerable daily responsibilities for ensuring peace and human rights around the globe isn’t whining about “only” having once-a-week-sex with her absurdly perfect husband and the fact that she can’t be available, in the midst of a Benghazi-like debacle, to hear her spoiled daughter (“I have to get a job? But I was going to finish my novel!”) complain about her mother being too famous and her father being too supportive.
Those portrayals of Secretary McCord’s personal life are unworthy of her; the writers are not doing Bess, or Leoni, justice. Creator Barbara Hall told Politico that a driving question behind the creation of the character was, “How do you deal with the president of the United States in the morning and the president of the PTA in the evening?” Herein lies the folly.
The idea that leaders at the highest levels — that anyone who’s chosen a profession requiring commitment beyond the pale, necessarily and rightly so — can be a “normal” parent, is goofy. The disconnect is between the writers and their own character: I don’t see Bess McCord entertaining such notions or expectations. She’s a realist, and a grownup, and can tell the difference between what matters and what doesn’t. I see her recognizing priorities in any given moment, having sex when she wants it and not worrying when she doesn’t, entreating her children to rise to the challenge — to neither be, nor expect to be, like everyone else.
It seems to me that Barbara Hall, and the proponents of the “have it all” camp, are perpetrating something analogous to what Naomi Wolf did with her book Vagina — wherein she claims that women are not truly happy or whole if they are not having regular orgasms of the highest order. In response to the book, The New Yorker’s Judith Thurman said, brilliantly and hilariously:
I would like to take issue with the idea that we should all have a happy vagina…It’s nice to have a happy vagina, I would hope everybody could have a happy vagina, but there are many times in a woman’s life where hey, she doesn’t have a happy vagina. And if you make her think that this is the goal, that she should be devoting her energies instead of to getting her PhD, or getting a better job or taking care of whatever it is… she needs to have a happy vagina. She may not be able to have a happy vagina. There are all kinds of people who are not in line immediately for a happy vagina.
If Bess McCord does not have a hunky, happy husband, and if she is not attentive to/worried about frequency of sex, and if she is not skipping out of meetings in which terrorist attacks are being prevented in order to listen to her children talk about their day…then surely she is not truly fulfilled, nor doing her job(s) well. If the PTA is not as important to her as POTUS or ISIS, then she is not a model powerful woman.
Me, I want my Secretary of State to be clear that, for as long as her job description includes tending to ISIS, then tending to ISIS is more important than the PTA.
Inherent in Thurman’s response is a worldview I happen to share: energies must be devoted selectively. We are only human, and there is only so much energy and so much devotion. Devotion, by its nature, has obsessive, singularly focused qualities. Multiple devotions compete. The idea that such competition can be eradicated from human experience — in real life, or on TV — strikes me as misguided, a YA version of adult life. There is a cost to excellence; else it be other than excellence. I’ll say something surely controversial: I think one can do right by one’s family and be exceptionally accomplished in high leadership, or art, or service; but I don’t think one can be truly great at both. I think we’d all be a bit more relaxed if we accepted, and stopped judging, this truth.
Instead, Hall considers portrayals of more troubled figures — characters whose professional devotion creates friction and/or specific sacrifices in their personal lives — as “dark,” and has veered away from that toward, in her words, something more “entertaining,” and idealistic. These darker characters include compelling, if not always likable, characters like Claire Underwood from House of Cards, who decides not to have children because of her husband’s ambitions and their shared appetite for power; as well as Carrie Matheson, who deals with mental illness, alcoholism, sex-as-self-medication, and a disconnect with the idea of a “balanced life.” Perhaps also Peggy Olsen, who continually excels professionally while her love life fails and her family disapproves. I think of Sarah Linden from The Killing, who is obsessed with finding Rosie Larsen’s murderer, at the expense of devoted attention to her own son, and I think of Kima Greggs from The Wire, who’s much more interested in serous police work than the baby her partner has just given birth to. Even elegant Alicia Florrick has made choices: her kids and her career, but no happy vagina for her. I think, finally, of Leo McGarry, Chief of Staff on The West Wing, who — in response to his wife’s desperate plea, “It’s not more important than your marriage!” — declares, full-throated, Yes, yes it is: right now, while I’m doing it, it’s more important than my marriage.
I think also of more farcical portrayals of powerful, talented women — Selina Meyer in Veep and Laura Diamond in The Mysteries of Laura, who could give a shit about being perfect wives or mothers. It’s not that they don’t give a shit at all, but throwing off the perfectionism is what strikes me as a refreshing and more truthful brand of new feminism. Jill Lepore said it best:
I think that’s so complicated for women…but I think it’s actually been a really pernicious part of the current climate of political consultancy. Political consultants are clearly advising women candidates left and right: Tell the story of how you took very good care of your children. You must tell that story, again and again and again. I think it’s really dangerous. I think it really diminishes and impoverishes the range of experiences that people running for office can have…It has a kind of traplike quality for women politicians that all smart women politicians are quite aware of, and I think it’s important to think about the consequences of it.
We’re in an age of very good TV. Even network shows, I think, have leeway to be entertaining and complex and illuminating. Yes, yes it is: right now, what I’m doing is more important than a corny, conventional version of family happiness. Tell the truth, Madam Secretary; tell it slant if you have to, and with a sly wisdom, since you’ve shown in every other context so far that that’s your talent. If your husband bristles, if your kids get pissed, then let’s see how you handle that. How about, A great mom is sometimes not around, her vagina goes off duty, and she’s doing really important stuff. How about a new model, instead of a precious, poll-tested one.
So, my Rorschach response: Bess McCord, in her current incarnation, is not living the life that I would want, because it reflects fantasy archteype more than reality. There is nothing real or true, or even interesting, about being Great at Everything, and that imposition both flattens and disempowers an otherwise appealing character. I’m all for a golden age; I’m not sure we’re there yet.
In April of last year, Patrick noted that Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s 1977 classic film about life in the Watts section of Los Angeles, was finally getting a theatrical release after decades of red tape related to clearing the rights of the music in the film.Though declared a national treasure by the Library of Congress, the film had been rarely seen over the years. Now, Killer of Sheep is likely to reach an even wider audience. On Monday at 8pm, the film will make its television debut on Turner Classic Movies.More, from Patrick:The story, in so far as there is one, is simple. Stan, an employee of a South Central slaughterhouse (hence the title of the film), is depressed and retreating from his wife. Interspersed with scenes of Stan at home and at work (the footage of the sheep is both fascinating in its gore and haunting, like watching a lake before a storm) are snippets of kids playing, women gossiping, and men scheming to make a few dollars more. What makes Killer of Sheep so memorable is the depth and reality of the characters and the incredibly complex humor the film employs. Indeed, for a movie that says so much about poverty, it’s surprisingly funny.The movie has also recently become available on DVD.
From the venerable halls of Cambridge University in the early 1980s, emerged two of the finest comedic minds in British Comedy. From their years as writers and performers in Cambridge’s Footlights troupe, through their acting stints in Jeeves and Wooster, various seasons of Blackadder, and especially their brilliant BBC sketch comedy series “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie have spent the better part of my life making me laugh, often uncontrollably, and (occasionally) like a blithering idiot.In the 1990s, Stephen Fry reached perhaps a wider audience with his pitch-perfect performance as Oscar Wilde in Wilde, and as for Mr. Laurie, well, unless you’ve been spending the last three years on Pluto, you’ve probably heard of a certain brilliant but tormented diagnostic genius named Gregory House.All of which leads me to this: For years I’ve been fully aware that both Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are also accomplished novelists. And despite my knowledge that they, separately and together, could seemingly write and perform anything, comedy or drama, brilliantly, in any medium, I still held off reading their critically acclaimed novels. When I eventually relented, I did so with enormous trepidation. Maybe I was worried that they wouldn’t reach the same heights, in my estimation, as they already had in other media.I needn’t have worried.Hugh Laurie’s first novel, The Gun Seller is a comical, first-person account by one Thomas Lang, former soldier, now a civilian, who finds himself drawn into a bit of intrigue involving state-of-the-art weaponry, international terrorism, and well, the love of a good woman (Or is she a femme fatale?). The story moves along at a fast clip, building tension, and saying a few things about human morality along the way. And as it was published in 1996, it reflects that now almost nostalgically quaint post-Cold War, pre-9/11 era.But it’s all recounted with a savage tongue planted firmly in cheek. Describing the facial features of one of the parade of brutes who for various reasons want to kill our hero:We find that Rayner’s ears had, long ago, been bitten off and spat back on to the side of his head, because the left one was definitely upside down, or inside out, or something that made you stare at it for a long time before thinking ‘oh, it’s an ear.’While Laurie’s The Gun Seller is a comic-thriller pure and simple, Stephen Fry’s 1991 debut novel, The Liar seems a bit more layered. It tells the story of Adrian Healey, and shifts back and forth through various stages of his life. We see his English ‘public school’ adolescence – a lovelorn time spent genuinely yearning for Hugo Cartwright, one of his fellow classmates, while trying on other personae for size – rebel, actor, schemer. We see him a few years later studying at Cambridge and later still traveling to Hungary in the employ of one Professor Trefusis. On A Mission. Adrian’s mendacity proving to be his most appealingly useful trait. The one thing others can count on.There’s a thriller bubbling underneath involving codes and ciphers, and a 70s update of the Enigma cipher machine. But all of the plot machinations serve to sharpen the focus on Adrian’s character. As Trefusis tells him:”I am a student of language, Mr. Healey. You write with fluency and conviction, you talk with authority and control. A complex idea here, an abstract proposition there, you juggle with them, play with them, seduce them… You recognize patterns, but you rearrange them when you should analyze them. In short, you do not think. You have never thought… You cheat, you short-cut, you lie. It’s too wonderful… You are a hound of hell and you know it.”As good as The Liar is, Stephen Fry’s second novel, The Hippopotamus, is even better. His Ted Wallace is a giant of a character – a sly, sarcastic, 60-something jaded poet and critic. Unfailingly polite when social or family circumstances dictate, he saves up his venom and unleashes it on us, the gentle reader.The story is this: Recently fired as a newspaper theatre critic, Wallace is retained by the terminally-ill niece of an old family friend to, essentially, pay an extended visit to that old friend and his family, and report “anything unusual” back to her. The jaded poet becomes a spy. We, and he, are left in the dark as to what, exactly, we should be looking for. But gradually the fog clears. In an astonishingly moving bit of back-story, we learn of Albert, the secular, spiritually disenchanted Austrian-Jewish grandfather, who returned to Vienna in the 1930s to try to bring his cousins back to England with him:In that awful little room with its imponderably hateful smell, a smell that took all the dignity and colour and strength away from him, his tweeds, his expensive luggage and his small blue passport, in that dreadful stinking room he swore a new loyalty, to his people – his stupid, moaning and cosmically irritating people, whose religion he scorned, whose culture he despised, whose mannerisms and prejudices he abominated.We also, in the present, get a sense of the unusual circumstances that Ted was dispatched to uncover. And what began as scathing social satire with a bit of a mystery gradually forming underneath, turns into a rich, stunningly written novel full of tension and eventual catharsis. It’s a fantastic read.There are several other novels and at least one memoir in the Fry and Laurie canon, and I’d be astonished if they all weren’t written with the same penetrating wit and fierce intelligence. The halls of Cambridge would expect nothing less.