Accidentally on purpose

Back in April, a friend and I gave a presentation about the latest installment of the Devil May Cry series. We noted that the themes of the game and the language of the ads for it were all about confronting power structures and challenging societal norms, but the main characters were pretty stereotypical: a rough-and-ready male hero and a helpless, innocent damsel-in-distress. We presented this as something of a failure on the part of the creators, but one of the audience members said he was quite sure this had been done intentionally as part of the social commentary.

I had not considered this. I started to feel insecure about my own interpretation. Was I just too dumb to get the joke? However, the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that he was right. It seems a little silly to be talking about definitive rights and wrongs when it comes to individual interpretations, but I felt that my friend and I had some pretty logical reasons for thinking DMC’s characters were the products of laziness rather than cleverness. There was no cage match to decide who was right, but it still got me thinking about how to judge the flaws of various media. At what point can you look at such flaws and say, “Well, they’ve done it on purpose to be clever”? That’s not something I feel comfortable assuming.

Of course, there are times it’s obvious. I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes over the semester, and even I could see that Anita Loos was using misspellings and a rather atypical form of stream of consciousness to create a gently mocking tone. But what about when it’s not obvious? I suppose I could just say we can all have our own ideas so hooray, let’s move on, but that’s not satisfying. Frankly, it doesn’t even come down to whether I like or dislike the book, game, or movie in question; I loved the DMC reboot and Dante as a character, but I still thought the game failed to depart from the norms it was railing against.

I’m not looking for a magic formula, here. Critiquing media should always be nearly as difficult and unique as creating media, I think, so I’m really just interested in reading other people’s experiences with this. What things have you read, watched, or played that used its own flaws as part of its narrative? What about that particular thing (or things) made you think the mistakes were an intentional part of the commentary rather than being just, well, mistakes?

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I was on vacation in Spain! Not really.

I have been working on this blog post for weeks. WEEKS. I started some kind of “top 10 characters!” list four times. I tried to find a recently-written excerpt that didn’t make me cringe. There was enough failing going on that one might call it epic failing. I’ve never been a fast writer, but up until this, blog posts have only taken me between two and four hours to put together. I attribute that to a combination of my nit-pickiness and all those distractions I can’t resist, but this is different. If I change tense a few times in this post, it’s because I feel like this is still going on even as I type these very words rather than being a thing of the past.

This has not been a matter of hemming and hawing over my diction or an inability to stay away from Buzzfeed for longer than 30 seconds. It doesn’t even have to do with the fact that it’s been a perfect 70 degrees and sunny lately. This is the utter doldrums. I just have nothing to say.

I think it started when I had one of those paralytic, I-think-this-is-worthless-shit-why-am-I-even-bothering moments regarding Untitled P.O.S. I say “had” like it came and it went but it’s still going on. I should soldier through my doubt and just finish it (it’s only 20K words, for Pete’s sake), right?

Right?

I don’t know.

I’m not one of those people who believe a story is worth something just because someone put time, energy, and love into it. I’ve read plenty of things people have put their best efforts and purest intentions into that have also been complete crap. I’ve never handed anyone back a piece and said, “I think you should go into construction instead,” but I’ve thought it. Cruel? Yeah. But my best friend just sent me a text saying she saw a crow kill a little songbird and start eating it. It’s just a cruel world.

My point is, I don’t want to be taken in by my own fantasies of writing a great story. I don’t want to another person who pours their soul into a book just so a better writer or thinker can tear it to shreds. I’m not afraid of criticism, but I am afraid of writing something that is legitimately, utterly worthless. I’m not afraid to bleed a little in my writing, but it’s hard to make that commitment when you have the sneaking suspicion your characters and themes will do nothing but alienate readers. And even worse, I can’t tell if I’m being the world’s gloomiest, most cynical pessimist, or if I’m just showing good judgment for once.

People are always willing to rush to my defense (against myself) and say, “You’re a good writer! You’re too hard on yourself! You’re overly critical!” I appreciate the vote of confidence, but I already know I can string a sentence together more or less correctly. I can probably put a few of them together and make a paragraph. But that doesn’t mean I have a good story. A grammatically correct story doesn’t equal one worth telling.

I don’t say any of this to suggest anyone should adopt my mindset. It’s crippling and unproductive and generally no fun whatsoever. I say it as a preview to the following revelation and most excellent advice.

*dramatic pause* *slow-motion blink* *dawn breaks over the mountains*

Wait. I don’t have any.

I’m still in the damn doldrums, and beyond that, I’m still not sure whether to keep on this story or look for a new one. How do writers know when to rewrite and edit and rewrite some more and when to start fresh? When do you admit you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and start over with a simple hero or heroine? When do you abandon ship? Is the fact that I’m unsure if the story is worth writing a sign that it isn’t?

Well, anyway. That’s where I’m at. That’s where I’ve been for this long hiatus from the blog. I don’t plan on taking any more breaks in the near future (then again, I didn’t plan this one), but with school starting up again soon I’m thinking it’ll be one post a week. So if I don’t post anything by next Friday, somebody yell at me!

One last thing: I know this is a grumpy-sounding post that doesn’t contribute any positivity to the world. Here is an absurdly fluffy kitteh to clear the air.

Look at how happy and unburdened by bad storytelling she is!

IT’S LIKE SHE’S WEARING LITTLE FLUFFY PANTALOONS. OH LORD.