Monday, January 25, 2010

Fucked up books of my childhood

Respectively, the Sweet Valley High (and satellites) books, as examined at The Dairi Burger

and VC Andrews (Inc), Trapped in the Attic.

If you, too, had your formative years at all warped by these literary classics, and had blissfully put most of the details out of your consciousness, now's your chance to have it all come flooding back to you, with hilarious commentary.

If you don't know what I'm talking about...check the sites out anyway. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll spork. Most important, you'll realize "Twlight" had nothing on the 80's for professional Mary Sues. Tragic orphans! Terrible accidents! Murder, even! Ghosts, werewolves, and vampires! And that's just the Sweet Valley series.

Perfect size six suburban twins with sparkling blonde hair! Perfect helpless heroines locked away in secret-and-spider-riddled garrets! With sparkling blonde hair! Many, many lovingly described outfits and other material details, which were of course in no way why I read the things in the first place. And of course, a whole shitload of men, some of whom are teh sexxy and buy pretty things before revealing themselves to be as bastard-y as all the others, not that there is ever any other ultimate goal besides landing one.


Edited to update:

A conversation elsewhere got me thinking more seriously about this essay by Joanna Russ in To Write Like A Woman on the modern Gothic, "Somebody's Trying To Kill Me And I Think It's My Husband." It's basically second-wave feminist analysis applied to lit crit, but she's by far one of the better ones out there.

More details and quotage shortly, but essentially her point is that in the Gothic the female "subject" position isn't really much of one; the protagonist doesn't really initiate plot, she stands there and things happen to/around her. Her main task is figuring out the "mystery" of what the hell is going on around her. Much of which involves figuring out other peoples' feelings
(especially the Man, natch).

It's interesting because her thesis not only fits the gothics she was writing about as well as the more sensationalistic VC Andrews books that probably came out after she wrote the essay, but also applies to True Blood and of course Twilight, no doubt among other contemporary hits.

As far as that goes, I was snarking when I first noted that the Sweet Valley Books, once they started not just jumping the shark but doing trapeze acts with it, eventually have all the elements associated with more standard "gothic" books like the VC Andrews books, but actually, it's not that dissimilar. There *is* no real action in SVH as such-the girls don't really *go* anywhere, despite having cunning plots to defeat rivals and hook boys and career aspirations and such-they stay forever frozen at a perfect age, and they don't ever really set anything in motion. So in order to be "exciting" it has to get soapier and soapier...

I had figured that the reason for this in the SVH books was more because having them actually change and grow would defeat the magic fantasy stasis of Perfect Teen Suburbia, but actually the Mary Sue-ism isn't at all unrelated to that fetish. I mean, it's specifically a woman's fantasy Perfect Teen Suburbia (Francine Pascal, more or less, via her many ghostwriters), a retro one, I mean. So the "waiting for something exciting to happen, which will almost certainly come from a Man" is probably kind of implicit in that.

Anyway, here's Russ in her own words:

The Modern Gothic is episodic; the heroine does nothing except worry; any necessary detective work is done by other persons, often the Super- Male. Whenever the Heroine acts...she bungles things badly. [Hi, Bella!] There is a period of terror, repeated sinister incidents, ominous dialogue spoken by various characters, and then the sudden revelation of who's who and what's what. In terms of ordinary pulp technique, these novels are formless. Even so, they obey extraordinarily rigid rules. There must be a reason for these rules.

I would propose that the Modern Gothics are a direct expression of the traditional feminine situation (at least a middle-class [white] feminine situation) and that they provide precisely the kind of escape reading a middle-class believer in the feminine mystique needs, without involving elements that either go beyond the feminine mystique or would be considered immoral in its terms.

...and here she puts a finger on the Mary Sue phenomenon in all but name:

Most striking about these novels is the combination of intrigue, crime and danger with the Heroine's complete passivity. Unconscious foci of intrigue, passion, and crime, these young women (none of whom are over thirty) wander through all sorts of threatening forces of which they are intuitively, but never intellectually, aware. Most of all, *they are of extraordinary interest to everyone*-even though they are ill educated, ordinary, characterless and usually very hazily
delineated (as one might suspect) as a stand-in for the reader.

Sometimes Heroines are very beautiful (although they don't know it) or heiresses (which they don't know, either) or possess some piece of information about the Secret (which they are incapable of interpreting). Their connection with the action of the novel is always passive; they are focal points for tremendous emotion, and sometimes tremendous struggle, simply because they exist...

In the face of this really extraordinary passivity-for if the protagonist of a novel is not active in some way, what on earth is the
novel about?-it is tempting to see these books as genuine family romances, with the Heroine as the child who is trying desperately to figure out what the grownups are up to...At their best Heroines merely stand (passively) for love, goodness, redemption, and innocence. They are special and precious because they are Heroines. And that is that."

This becomes a lot more evident with VC Andrews, who made the "family romance" part way more explicit than any of the earlier goffics Russ was examining.

As per the Mary Sueism, passivity and all, I think that's what had irritated me so much about True Blood, more so in the first season. Sookie is a *classic* of the type. And she only gets more special and precious and besotting of others as it goes on.

BTVS, whatever its flaws, was satisfying because it explicitly *doesn't* do this: Buffy really is a true protagonist, a Hero with a journey, not just someone who radiates goodness while all the fighting takes place all around her.

That said, I'm digging True Blood more in its second season probably precisely because there's so much more focus on all the subplots and secondary characters, most of whom have a more interesting "story" imo than Sookie.

So Russ concludes:

"The Modern Gothic, as a genre, is a means of enabling a conventionally Heroine to have adventures at all. It may also be a way that conventionally feminine readers can see their own situation...validated, justified, and glamorized up to the hilt, without turning Heroines into active persons or into sexually adventurous persons, both of whom violate the morality of conventional femininity.,

[It'd be interesting to see her take on the later Judith Krantz and such genre. wherein the Heroines do become much more sexually adventurous-within certain strictures-and nominally have careers, but a lot of this still applies. The "Lace" books as I recall them could be termed the Cosmo Gothic. More sex, more designer name dropping, the women become successful fashion designers or that sort of thing, and the rest is still pretty similar]

1. Housework, etc. is banned. I'm on holiday.

2. I'm upper-middle class, not lower-middle class.

3. My upward mobility is achieved through marriage.

4. I'm a good girl-modest, not too pretty but quite pretty, not too rich but rich enough, womanly, loving, dependent, and somehow "average" (even though I am uniquely precious)

5. The Super-Male *really exists* (all evidence to the contrary)

6. He really loves me, even though I am not strikingly beautiful, brilliant, talented, famous, or rich. I do not see why he loves me, but he does. He may appear to treat me badly or brusquely; still, he loves me.

7. I do nothing. I do not have to do anything. Merely because I exist, violent emotions and acts spring into being.

8. I am rewarded for being good. Aggressively sexual, beautiful, worldly women are wicked and are punished accordingly. Men don't *really* like them.

9. I have intense emotional relations with places-houses, weather, nature. (Scenery-painting is often the best-written part of these books).

10. I have pretty, romantic clothes (but not sexy or flamboyant ones). Clothes really are very important.

11. *My sexual value is my personal value and is respected by all but villains and villainesses.* Men's desire is a testimony to my personal, individual worth. I have no character, interests, or achievements, but those who do come to a bad end (if female).

12. I am a virtuoso at interpreting faces and feelings. [Sookie in True Blood takes this one further by being actually *psychic.*] This ability is not "wasted" on the everyday drudgery of infants' needs or husbands' grumpiness-it is vital in saving my life and the happiness of all about me. (Even if I come to the wrong conclusions, my intense over-reading of everybody else's emotions is still justified).

13. If I don't know what's happening, that's all right: my man does.

14. I can't save myself, but my man will do it for me. [More often torqued these days, if not consistently; Sookie's killing Rene in self-defense has shades of Final Girl, but she still has the men running to her aid, the distraction helps enable her to defend herself, and they do outright rescue her on many other occasions]

15. Life with the Super-Male is *really satisfying.*

Sookeh! SOOKEH!!!...


*sparkle out*