Committing to writing one of these posts every month was probably a mistake because it means I get increasingly regular doses of oh-my-god-time-is-slipping-away that I have to work through, type up, and stick on the internet.

Like every so often I’ll be listening to a YouTube video and it will be casually mentioned that said video was recorded in 2018 and I’ll think to myself “oh, that’s pretty recent” and then I’ll think “no it isn’t, that was four years ago.”

Stop the world. I want to get off.

But that hasn’t stopped me Liking some Things recently. Here are a few of them.

Vampire Survivors

I’m aware my audience isn’t really a super-duper videogame audience and definitely isn’t a super-duper nostalgia-videogame audience but if you did want to spend the princely sum of three dollars on a pixel graphics game where you kill wave after wave after wave after wave of monsters in a bullet hell / wave survival / Castlevania tribute game with a lightly gothic theme then this game is for you. Honestly I’m not even sure why I like it—I was never really into the classic games that it’s a tribute to (there’s a whole “-vania” subgenre that I honestly know precious little about) but there’s something about the core gameplay loop I find deeply satisfying. Monsters attack you, you kill them, then you eventually get overwhelmed, then you unlock powerups and try again. Rinse. Repeat.

I suspect the fact that it’s three dollars helps. It’s very hard not to enjoy something that costs three dollars, especially in our new depressing world of microtransactions and games-as-service. Hell these days I think if I paid three dollars for a game and it consisted of nothing but a text box saying “you don’t have to spend any more money on this game” I’d be pretty overjoyed.

Kill monsters. Get gold. Kill more monsters. Yes it’s not proposing meaningful solutions to the systemic issues that cause monsters to exist in the first place, but what do you expect for the price?

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?

I like Agatha Christie. I especially like televised adaptations of Agatha Christie because they’re such a fixture of British television that there’s something that feels almost like home about them. And I especially like it when you get adaptations of the more obscure stand-alone stories because, well, there’s a lot of Poirot and Miss Marple out there (both of them had massive TV runs and David Suchet did very famously manage to adapt every single Poirot story for the screen over the course of the 1990s and 2000s) and it’s nice to remember that there are some really good Christie stories that don’t involve her iconic recurring characters.

I will admit that Why Didn’t They Ask Evans isn’t quite the classic that some of her other stories are. Although to be fair when you’re talking about Christie that’s a high bar because so many of her stories either originated or provided iconic examples of such genre archetypes as “the narrator is the killer”, “the detective is the killer”, “the suspects are all being picked off one by one”, “what seems to be a serial killer is actually just one person obfuscating the murder of their single real target”, “the killer was a psychotic child” and of course “the killer was all of them.” But I enjoyed it, and I think a big part of what I enjoyed about it was that it’s one of the more, as it were, deep genre stories in the canon.

Something I sometimes find myself circling back to, as somebody who enjoys, reads, and writes genre fiction of all sorts, is how closed genre fiction can sometimes feel. While I don’t have much time for the implicit value judgement that comes from dividing books into “literary” and “genre” works, I do think it’s fair to observe that genres can sometimes get the teensiest bit own-tail-eatey. And to a large extent this is inevitable. If you put a magic sword in a fantasy novel, then a reader is going to immediately bring a whole lot of context to that sword and is going to want to know if it’s Excalibur or Sting or Stormbringer or just a Sword of Monster Bashing +1 and are going to expect the writer to be familiar with all those archetypes as well. Basically reading fiction in an established genre you’re not familiar with is like walking into the middle of a conversation between six strangers who’ve been talking for an hour already about a party you weren’t at with people you don’t know.

How precisely this ongoing conversation effect manifests varies a lot from genre to genre but in crime fiction, at least in cosy crime fiction, at least in the highly specific kind of cosy crime fiction that Christie writes, it tends to manifest as complexity.

Sidebar: something else I liked this month that I didn’t have quite enough to say about that I thought it deserved its own segment was a YouTube video about the history of MMORPGs. One of the things that YouTuber pointed out was that a major problem facing MMOs as a genre—and the reason that MMOs today can never quite have the magic they did back in the day—is that the player base has just got too damned good at them. Content that would have lasted months in the early days of the genre gets chewed through in hours today by a voracious player base that the developers pretty much can’t stay ahead of.

Classic mystery stories were kind of the same. This was Christie’s fifteenth novel, so not that far into her career in absolute terms, but certainly deep enough in that she had a dedicated following who knew all of her tricks (she’d already published The One Where It’s The Narrator and The One Where It’s Everybody by this point) but who still demanded to be baffled, yet could experience bafflement only in the most convoluted of circumstances.

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans is about young Bobby Jones who, during a round of golf, finds a dying man at the bottom of a cliff. The dying man’s last words are “why didn’t they ask Evans?”. There follows an action-packed sequence of events in which Bobby and his childhood friend/romantic interest Lady Frankie Derwent engage in ever more dangerous shenanigans as they try to find out who “they” are, who “Evans” was, what “they” might have “asked” them and why “they” “didn’t”.

Their plans for this involve staging a car crash, faking concussion, and breaking into an asylum.

Vital clues in the mystery include a throwaway reference to the apparent suicide of a character who never appears in the story, and one of the supporting characters being very good at doing impressions.

The actual solution to the mystery is a fabulously this-era-of-crime-fiction-ish mix of the screamingly obvious and the ludicrously opaque. On the screamingly obvious side, there’s a scary man in black who keeps popping up and looking menacing and it turns out that yup, he’s basically the killer. On the frustratingly opaque side, the killer was working for the real villain/villainess combo who were trying to cover up a seduction/murder scam they’d done before the story even started where they’d faked the will of the dead millionaire who gets offhandedly referenced in the first episode, motivated entirely by the fact that they found out that Bobby Jones had heard the phrase “why didn’t they ask Evans” and decided that obviously the best thing to was to do a bunch of other murders to make sure that this single meaningless-out-of-context phrase didn’t lead to them getting caught for a murder that they had definitely already got away with. The main characters even lampshade this, pointing out after the villains have abducted them and tied them up to be murdered that they’re only in danger because the killers falsely assumed that either of them knew what the hell “why didn’t they ask Evans” meant.

Also, again, a major plot point is that a character is, like, really good at doing impressions.

Overall it’s enjoyable hokum. But I think my single favourite thing about it is the title.

Agatha Christie’s explanation for the inspiration behind this book is as follows: “You go to tea with a friend. As you arrive, her brother closes a book he is reading – throws it aside, says: ‘Not bad, but why on earth didn’t they ask Evans?’ So you decide immediately a book of yours shortly to be written will bear the title, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? You don’t know yet who Evans is going to be. Never mind. Evans will come in due course – the title is fixed.”

Words cannot describe how much I love this. Firstly, I love that she talks like this is something that happens to her on the regular. Like the highly specific circumstance of going to tea with a friend and arriving just as her brother is finishing a book and making a highly specific comment about it is a thing that just pops up all the time in her world. Secondly, I love it because I kind of know exactly what she means. Essentially the title of this book is a sort of memefied description of a plot hole. Writing a mystery novel called “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans” is like writing a fantasy novel called “Why Didn’t They Use the Eagles” or, for that matter, a romance novel called “Why Didn’t They Just Talk About It”.

And on an even more meta level, I love the dynamic that suggests existed between Christie and her readers. There’s a subgenre of very hard logic puzzle that takes the form “X and Y both have limited information. X is asked if they know what Y’s information is, and says no, then Y is asked if they know what X’s information is, and says no as well, and then X says ‘oh, now I know what Y knows’.” This story is basically that, but a murder. The real mystery isn’t “who killed the dead man at the golf course”, the real mystery is “what kind of crime could have been committed such that knowing that somebody investigating said crime considered Why Didn’t They Ask Evans to be an important question would allow you to solve it”. And that’s kind of brilliant.

M&S Collection Truffle & Olive Oil Crisps

This is the sort of thing which makes me feel I’m betraying my working class roots but I can’t tell if it’s betraying in the sense of ‘turning against’ or betraying in the sense of ‘revealing’. Because the thing about truffle crisps is that, on the one hand, truffles are posh. But, on the other hand, they’re still fucking crisps.  Like, they’re mass produced in a factory. They don’t actually cost that much more than, like, Walkers Sensations. And Walkers Sensations, although they are more expensive than other Walkers crisps, are not … how to put this … are not targeted at people too affluent to turn down a buy-1-get-1 free deal. The thing is, I really like truffle flavours in general but, unfortunately, because I know that false consciousness is as thing I can’t never decide whether I like the flavour of truffles because I have been told that they are a luxurious thing or because it’s actually nice. Like, I think it’s actually nice? It’s probably actually nice. And these crisps are in black and gold packaging so they must be special. In fact, they’re so special they used to do only do them at Christmas. But, unlike other Christmas foods, they’re actually pleasant to eat so they’ve started doing them all year round. The M&S Christmas-only crisp is, I believe, winterberries and prosecco which is about as awful as it sounds.

Fboy Island

First things first, I understand how TV works. But, seriously folks, if the premise of your show is that you’ve got a bunch of fuckboys on an island trying to fuck women just fucking call it Fuckboy Island.

Anyway, the premise of Fboy Island is… well. Basically, it’s every dating reality TV show which is “it’s Love Island but.” And, in this case the “but”, is that there’s only three girls but there’s a whole bunch of guys and half of them are self-proclaimed “nice guys” and the others are self-identified “fboys” (that is to say, fuckboys, the f stands for fuck, everyone knows it stands for fuck). The aim for the girls is to find a boy who isn’t shit and date him—at the end of which the happy, non-shit couple will receive £100k. The aim for the boys is, if they’re a nice guy, to date the girl sincerely so they can share the 100k with her and, if they’re a fboy, to date the girl insincerely so they can run off with the money. 

There’s a lot about this format that really works. Because there’s only three girls, and they have all the power, it means there’s a lot less of the difficult woman versus woman stuff that those kind of shows can sometimes trade on. The guys very very quickly got divided by some kind of atavistic herding behaviour into three equal pools, one per girl, and there was pretty much no tension or cross-pollination about that. This dynamic also weirdly meant that the guys could have genuinely good relationships with the girls they weren’t trying to f alongside the girls also being friends with each other. For this kind of dating show, it’s relatively self-aware (or at least gives a good impression of it) and manages some genuinely illuminating and heart-warming moments, as well as some truly epic dramas. Like, there’s a bit where one of the girls—CJ—has been let down by an fboy and she turns up at the elimination ceremony dressed like she’s going to a funeral in 1863. And when the host asks if she’s all right and has lost anybody, she promptly replies “MY HOPE.” Which, y’know, fair play CJ, I don’t think I’ve ever loved a reality TV contestant more.

Fun and games aside, there are couple of things about the series that didn’t quit work for me. While I thought the setup was interesting and, weirdly, got around a lot of the problems that dating shows often have the implicit “nice guys versus fboys” dynamic is obviously grounded in some complex assumptions about, um, what men are like. For example, there were a couple of contestants who entered as “nice guys” because they were looking for a relationship, but were also clearly very sexy, good at sex, and comfortable talking to women in a flirty way, and this was kind of framed as unusual. Even though it’s, like, not? Like, when you get right down to it, “has a lot of casual sex”, “is cool”, and “is an arsehole” are unrelated traits. You can, in fact, be nice and fuck a lot. You can definitely have difficulty getting laid but still be kind of a prick. Hell, you can even have a lot of casual sex but be bad at it and not have very much game. Because trying to pick people up in a low stakes environment is like one of those skill checks in a video game you’re allowed to retry endlessly. Like, if you want to find somebody to have casual sex with, and you don’t much mind who, you will eventually find someone who is willing to have casual sex with you. It’s a pornier version of the stable marriage problem.

I think the biggest problem, however, was that the people making the show doesn’t seem to have realised that “fuckboy” isn’t a technical term and, therefore, people who label themselves that on a reality TV show can have a, um, a problematic range experiences, motivations and personalities. Frankly, most of the fboys on fboy island were just kind of young guys who liked to fuck and didn’t care much about other people’s feelings because they were young and liked to fuck. And you can definitely imagine a situation where, either in real life or on a reality TV show, you could get with a guy like that and it could be hurtful because, well, people who don’t care about your feelings tend to do hurtful things. But the problem would be immaturity, not anything darker. But, the thing is, there is also a more messed up side to guys who have a lot of casual sex. Because, um, like PUAs were a thing and are still kind of a thing even if they don’t called themselves PUAs any more and that style of interacting with women can still very easily go places that are manipulative and involve a certain amount of disregard for consent. And the specific issue with Season 1 of Fboy Island is that there was exactly one guy who was like this. Let’s be very clear, he makes for excellent TV, but it’s excellent in a way that I have very mixed feelings about.

Spoilers for Fboy Island.

By a remarkable coincidence that definitely wasn’t engineered by the producers the final episode boiled down to the three women having to choose between an fboy and a nice guy. To give a little more context, about two-thirds of the way into the series the show actually reveals who came in as fboy and who came in a nice guy so by that point the premise kind of shifted from “can you work out who the fboys are and eliminate them” to “can you redeem an fboy” which, let’s face it, is as concept the romance genre is very familiar with. And, once again, my respect for CJ knows no bounds because she had plenty of to-camera moments where she was basically “well I do really like this fboy and he’s making me a lot of promises about how he’ll change so I could probably fix him up or I could just go with the guy who’s already nice to me.”

Anyway, of the three women, CJ picked the nice guy (although, to clarify, CJ’s nice guy was this incredibly alpha romance hero dude who paid professional football, was covered in tats, gave no fucks, had nothing to prove and was strongly implied to be excellent at sex), Nakia picked the fboy but he’d been genuinely (well, TV genuinely) falling in love with her over the course of the series and so, therefore, agreed to share the money, and that left Sarah. Sarah’s fboy was the guy with the full PUA strat and he had been, honestly, actually unpleasantly manipulative for the entire fucking show. Like, his to camera segments were basically him explaining how PUA tactics work. Like one of his choicest lines, after he’d shared some personal details about the fact he was adopted with Sarah, was “I like to open up a little bit to women so they open their legs to me.” He was very notably the only one of the guys that actively made the woman he was trying to get with work for his attention and feel insecure about whether he liked her or not (again, this is PUA 101 stuff). And, funnily enough, it worked and she picked him at the end and he took the money. Which was an amazing TV moment. And then the presenter came on and said “actually, we’re not letting you have it, because we don’t want to reward this behaviour, so we’re giving it to a charity of Sarah’s choice.”

And … I have complicated feelings about that.

If this was always the plan if someone picked an fboy and the fboy chose to take the money then … okay, fair enough, I guess? Although firstly, how the hell are you going to recruit people for season two, and secondly haven’t you then still recruited people for a rigged competition? And, obviously, all reality TV is rigged but literally not giving someone the money that they have won under the terms presented to them would, I think, actually be illegal in my country.

What gives me even more complicated feelings is the possibility that this was the company that made the show trying to save face because they suddenly realised that this series was going to end with a man being give £100k for emotionally manipulating a woman and exploiting some really problematic gender dynamics. And, on the one hand, yeah I agree, that’s not the kind of shit you should reward. But, on the other hand, maybe if you don’t want to reward that kind of shit don’t make a show the premise of which is that guys can win £100k by convincing women they care about them.

Sidebar: one of the things I kind of liked about Fboy Island is that it didn’t have the implicit sex negativity of, say, Too Hot To Handle. But, on reflection, a show that is set up with the assumption that the girls obviously want a long term relationship, because that’s what girls want, and that people who are just interested in casual sex are doing wrong is … not great? Like, it should technically be completely valid for the girl to pick a fuckboy in the final choice and be like, “okay mate, here’s the deal, I really like banging you and I obviously don’t want you to take all of my goddamn money but can we admit here and now that neither of us are in this to find a life partner, we’re here to boost our Instagram follower count, so let’s go halfies, no harm no foul.”

Unsidebar: the thing is, I do think rewarding men for doing full on PUA shit on a reality TV show is a really difficult line to walk. And I do think there is a world where the producers set things up expecting all the fboys to be charming, slightly immature lads who just liked to bang and would either be redeemed or not by the end, and therefore were not remotely prepared for someone to turn up with a skillset that at least overlaps with that of a sexual predator. I can definitely imagine them having a meeting around episode 6 where they just say “oh my God, this guy does not a play in a post #metoo world, what the fuck are we going to do if he wins it” and I can equally well imagine some member of the amoral algorithm cult standing up and saying “it’s all right, we’ll pretend it was a moral lesson.”

I’m not saying that definitely happened but I am saying that if it did happen then, um, we now have a situation where the company felt it was morally wrong to give this many the money he won fairly but not morally wrong to keep all the advertising/streaming revue they got from putting him on TV every week. Which is, y’know, a thing.

Basically this one of those situations where the only way out of the situation I can think of is to not to get in the situation in the first place. Like, either it was planned from the beginning as a gotcha for any naughty fuckboys in which case I genuinely think that’s unethical because you’re a running a competition and you have set the terms of that competition and then just arbitrarily changed them at the last minute for whatever the streaming equivalent of clicks is. Or it was a last minute course correct because they decided having someone that manipulative winning was bad in which case I’m sorry but if he can’t keep the money, you can’t keep the money either. It is clearly not okay for a corporation to say, “this man can’t profit from his immoral behaviour but we can profit from it just fine.”

I think what particularly messes with my head is that a lot of what was unacceptable about the evil fboy’s behaviour was that he used a lot of strategies that, when you think about it, were the same kind of strategies that the show itself was using to make good reality TV. It’s just the show was doing it in a depersonalised way that no-one had to take responsibility for. For example, the whole thing where they reveal who the fboys are about two-thirds of the way into the series is, ultimately, putting strong social pressure on the female contestants to at least consider picking an fboy. Like, one of the gross manipulative strategies that some kinds of men use to pressure women into sex is to “admit” that they’re a bad guy and that getting with them is risky and that it’s, y’know, something you might not want to do because you, y’know, might not be ready for it. And that’s not okay when a guy does it to someone’s face but, in that case, it’s equally not okay when the structure of a television programme that you are on, controlled by people who basically control your life for the duration of your tenure on that programme, do the same thing but with a script.  

Anyway. That’s Fboy Island. Having written all this, I feel quite bad for having enjoyed it. But, well, I did. What have you been enjoying this month? Tell me in the comments. Or don’t.  

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I watched this series on a DVD that I had to import from the Netherlands and because I haven’t watched a DVD in literal years I couldn’t quite work out how to turn the subtitles off, which meant I wound up restarting the DVD and watching its mandatory intro reel about ten times. As a result, my memories of this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice are inextricably bound up with a series of tiny trailers for 1980s BBC productions that include in, I want to stress, this exact order: a lesbian costume drama, a serious documentary about Auschwitz, and an adaptation of the Chronicles of Narnia. Honestly, by the end, it was kind of a headfuck, not least because you get a little audio clip from each one which means it goes seamlessly from a fairly explicit statement about deaths in the camps to “And how did you get into Narnia?”

ANYWAY.

I was confused for the first half of this adaption because they didn’t include the line “Netherfield Hall is let at last” which meant I had no idea where Mr Bingley was living. Or, indeed, that I was watched an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice.

This one’s genuinely interesting, although before I go into detail about what makes it interesting I’m going to play true to form and go on a massive aside about something irrelevant. Every time I watch one of these adaptations, without fail I feel like the hair is really typical of the decade they’re in. And I spent far longer than I should have exploring theories for why this is the case. It might, honestly, just be confirmation bias. That is, it might just be that because I know that these series were made in the 1970s/80s/whatever that I attribute a certain 1970s/80s/whateverness to any visual marker I can find and hair is usually the most obvious. But then part of me wonders if it’s bias on the part of the stylists rather than, well, me. Because it’s also possible that what happens is that 1980s hair stylists attempting to re-create period hair styles just naturally filter them through a 1980s lens. Like, curls were definitely in during the Regency but that was more “classical inspired” than Siouxsie Sioux. The third theory because, obviously, I had several is that hair is unusual in that it’s part of the actor’s body but it’s a part of the actor’s body that the actor is likely to have themselves styled in a manner appropriate to the era in which they live. And I get that actors will go through a lot for a role but presumably you can’t just … unperm your hair?

In any case, tl;dr, just as the 1970s Persuasion had everyone rocking a touch of beehive, this has everyone looking just a shade more glam rock than perhaps Austen intended.

I’ll often open these … whatever these are by talking about the establishing shots that they use to signal “this is a costume drama.” Like the 1970s Sense and Sensibility that just kicked off by making some poor bastard point a camera at a lake for 5 minutes. Each episode of this series starts with a bespoke little cartoon thing drawn in a period style and loosely illustrating the events of the episode. They’re really cute and characterful. Although, y’know, SPOILERS.

There’s been a jump in production values since the 1970s – they have outdoor shots now that aren’t fuzzy and the costumes hardly ever look like they’re made of nylon. Every so often, when watching these series, I do find myself wondering when the Steadicam was invented because there’s still a staticness to some of the framing and every so often the camera will zoom in for a closeup and it’ll be kind of a big moment and the camera will wobble slightly.

In a lot of ways this feels like a bit of a lost adaptation. The 1995 version with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle was so iconic that it’s sort of become “canon” ever since. And obviously this is partly because it’s the most recent really big adaptation but it also (and I’ll talk about this more when I get to it) caught the public imagination in ways that other adaptations never quite did. Like it was very much the Bridgerton of its day, being mostly famous for Darcy and Elizabeth eye-fucking each other over a pianoforte (plus the famous lake scene which has been echoed a million times since). Hell it managed to turn Colin Firth into a sex symbol and when you actually think about it he’s a lot more … the guy who winds up writing alone in France because his fiancée cheated on him with his brother than he is the ultra-brooding romance hero. Like he is definitely a man who would wear a fuzzy Christmas jumper.

Point being, the 1995 adaptation really doubled down on Pride and Prejudice as primarily a romance and that’s kind of what it’s been (and to an extent what Austen’s been) ever since. As I think I’ve mentioned before in this series, I find this … complicated. As somebody who writes within romance myself I think the mainstream tendency to shit all over it and its audience (while still happily making tons of money out of both) needs to die in a fire. And I think it’s important to recognise that there are genre romance writers writing genre romance within the romance genre who are producing books every bit as valuable and complex and full of Themes™ as you’d get in any other genre. On the other hand I also think retrojecting modern genre labels onto historical works is kind of pointless and I think the tendency of modern adaptations to treat Austen’s books as if they are the same as a modern romance novel can lead to other elements of the books being missed.

Because this is the least romancey adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I have ever seen. And I am at the same time totally here for it and ever so slightly disappointed.

The thing this adaptation does well, probably better than any other adaptation I’ve seen, is “the Bennet family”. Like it meaningfully distinguishes between Lydia and Kitty, that’s how much attention this one pays to the Bennet girls. There are multiple domestic scenes in which every single Bennet sister contributes, uniquely, in a way that characterises them and goes beyond “Kitty is the one who coughs, Mary is the one with the book”. It’s particularly noticeable after the last (genuinely lost) adaptation which seemed to have cut Mary as a character completely.

It’s also the adaptation that doubles down most strongly on the “Mr Bennet is a dick” reading. And I approve of this reading. The dynamic between Mr and Mrs Bennet in the 1980 adaptation is almost the polar opposite of the one they’d have fifteen years later, the one where he’s just great and she’s one step shy of pantomime dame. He’s consistently severe throughout and the framing and his delivery makes his humour land as genuinely cruel. There’s a scene they’ve added where all the Bennets are doing Bennet stuff in the evenings (one of the things I really enjoyed about this production is just how busy the Bennet sisters seem to be, they’re always doing something—writing, embroidering, practising on the pianoforte) and Kitty starts coughing (because it’s not Kitty unless she coughs) and Mr Bennet demands that Mary share some wisdom on the subject of coughing. Visibly flustered, she manages “one coughs when one must, does not one?” which Mr Bennet ruthlessly takes the piss out of. And where another adaptation might play this as gentle ribbing or the necessary puncturing of an overinflated ego (when you think about it, it’s a bit weird how much modern adaptations tend to present the younger Bennet girls as deserving or indeed needing to get negged by their own father) this just makes him come across as… kind of a prick?

And in a lot of ways I really admire this adaptation’s unwillingness to present men being dicks to women as cool. Aside time again—one of my least favourite bits about my nation’s tendency to unthinkingly hero-worship Winston Churchill is that anecdote about how a woman once said to him “Mr Churchill you are drunk” and he responded with “Ah, but the morning I will be sober, whereas you will still be ugly”. Like dudes, this is a drunk guy insulting a woman’s appearance because she objects to his behaviour. That’s not cool, and it’s not something that should make you a celebrated wit for the best part of a century.

Where “being a dick to women isn’t cool” slightly causes problems is that it does make Elizabeth/Darcy come across very differently from what you’d get in basically every other adaptation. This is a particularly cold and opaque version of Darcy. He’s played by David Rintoul who these days mostly does voice work although he did, bizarrely, also play Aerys Targaryen in one flashback in Game of Thrones (he’s “burn them all” guy). And honestly—and I really don’t mean this in a shady way—I can see why he mostly does voice work because he has a great voice and can do a lot with it. But his performance as Darcy is so reserved that, unlike other adaptations, it gives you no hints about his feelings at all.

And in some ways, I really like that. Because most adaptations have Darcy constantly doing some version of what I might tenuously call “torment face”, when Elizabeth finally meets him outside the context of Netherfield and sees that he is capable of being warm and generous when he isn’t in a specific social context that makes him be … the opposite of that, our reaction is “at last, Lizzie is seeing Darcy as he really is”. Here it’s more “who the fuck is this guy, why is he smiling, where did that come from”. And the thing is, that’s… kind of what Lizzie sees as well.

One of the things I mentioned about book-to-TV differences in my recent post about Bridgerton is that books can play the PoV game a lot more freely than visual media can. But on some level, this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is kind of a counterpoint. Because we do sort of see Darcy as Elizabeth sees him (even in scenes where she isn’t physically present). This comes across particularly strongly in the proposal scene. I’ve said “most adaptations” a lot and I’m going to say it again: most adaptations, in the proposal scene, bend over backwards to make you not hate Darcy even though, when you get right down to it, he’s being a complete shit here. Like even if what he’s saying is true, that just makes him one of those “telling it like it is” wankers who try to pass of rudeness as honesty.

Proposal tips for boys #3: don’t open by straight-up dissing her mom.

Indeed this whole adaptation seems far more interested in Lizzie’s psychological interiority than I’m used to from adaptations. Sometimes this leads to very … 1980s creative choices, like having a lot of voiceovers where Lizzie just sits around looking melancholy while her feelings are exposited in the background. She says “I am mortified” in voiceover at least three times and I kept half expecting her to break into “they don’t advertise for killers in the newspaper”. But, for all its heavy-handedness, this does lead to a more interesting interpretation of the character than I’m used to.

Something I keep flirting with in these posts and will probably come back to a couple of times is what I tend to think of as the “not like other girls” interpretation of Lizzie. One of the things I appreciated about the way Eloise was characterised in Bridgerton is that they mostly avoided the trap of having her advocate for her own rights by shitting on the rest of her sex. The rest of the show slightly undermines this by making it pretty clear that actually all the other women in that universe really are basically only interested in gowns and parties and marriages, but at least it was a contradiction rather than the whole thesis. Because there is an awkward tendency in historically-set fiction with a primary female lead to present said female lead as, well, “not like other girls” in a way that inadvertently frames historically restrictive gender roles as existing only because women in the era were too stupid to just realise they didn’t need husbands. It’s tangential (even more tangential than the Bridgerton example) but my most iconic example of this is actually the Halloween episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy gets all “oh I wish I could be an 18th century woman and wear pretty dresses” and then at the end Angel is all “women in that time were shit because they were all shallow and just cared about dresses.” Like fuck off, Liam.

Hell you even get the “women in this society suck except this one protagonist character” in actual fiction from the era. Dracula is full of people going on about how much better than other women Mina is because she … doesn’t a have bunch of traits that Victorian society demanded that women have, punished them for not having, and often assumed them to have whether they did or not? Abraham my dude, this is a problem you created.

Also I’ve just noticed that Bram Stoker named his cool vampire hunter guy after himself? Was Abraham Van Helsing his Totally Original Character Do Not Steal? Why have we not been taking the piss out of this for centuries?

Anyway, the thing is, Austen didn’t write like this. Because, for a start, she wasn’t a Victorian man or Joss Whedon. A lot of modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice take Mr Bennet’s—I repeat—straight-up negging his own daughters as a factual statement about what both they and regency women in general are like, and treat Lizzie as a rare and special exception.

The 1980 adaptation doesn’t. Because we spend so much time in Lizzie’s head we get a very strong sense that her preoccupations are, when you get right down to it, the same as her sisters’ and mother’s preoccupation: the very real need for herself and her sisters to marry well so they don’t, you know, fucking starve. Because we hear her thoughts we hear her being uncertain and self-recriminating and regretful, instead of just being one-note-spunky like she often comes across in other versions. Also, because the adaptation goes out of its way to characterise all of the Bennet girls as individuals with unique personalities and contexts, it doesn’t fall into the “Lydia = ALL WOMEN” trap that so many other adaptations do.

It is, in essence, a fully realised story about a fully realised family of fully realised people. And thinking about it, it’s weird that so many other adaptations aren’t that.

The thing is, though, I can see why they aren’t that, because making Lizzie into a realistic portrait of an early 19th-century woman (right down to creating a strong impression that a desire to be mistress of Pemberly is a non-trivial factor in her accepting Darcy, rather than an ironic throwaway) makes her less effective as a placeholder character in a love story.

Where I think that a lot of other adaptations over-emphasise the “romance-like” nature of Austen’s work, I do ultimately think that this adaptation under-emphasises it. And in a lot of ways that’s a necessary balance. We don’t need every single version of Pride and Prejudice to be heaving bosoms and wet shirts. But it does mean that when Lizzie and Darcy get together at the end my feeling was less “hooray, I’ve been rooting for them all this time” and more “oh good, Lizzie has secured a decent man with ten thousand a year.”

I could probably end there but I’ve suddenly realised that I’ve talked a lot about the fact that this adaptation does a really good job with its supporting cast but have, ironically, only talked about how that reflects on Lizzie and Darcy.

I’m not going to talk about every single supporting character because a lot of them are portrayed pretty much as they always are (we’re still in the era of “Mr Collins gets his own funny theme tune”). Jane, for example, is fine in this adaptation but she’s essentially the same as she is in other adaptations. Caroline Bingley and Charlotte Lucas similarly (we see more of Charlotte, even getting to see Mr Collins’s proposal, but she’s not that different from any other version).

This adaptation’s Mrs Bennet is fairly standard too but because the Bennets’ overall relationship is characterised differently, that has a knock-on effect. It’s clear in this production (and by clear, I mean Lizzie just straight-up says it in a voiceover) that Mrs B was basically Lydia when she was younger and Mr B was drawn in by her youth and vivacity and then just grew to resent her as they both got older. Which is fucking sad. Like really fucking sad. And also really feeds into the “Mr Bennet is a dick” theory.

I was weirdly impressed with Kitty in this adaptation because they, umm, they had the guts to cast somebody notably older and, well, less conventionally attractive than the person they cast as Lydia. Because when you think about it the implied dynamic of Kiddia is really fascinating and, again, a little bit tragic. Particularly at their age, two years is a huge age gap, and it really makes you wonder what Kitty was doing until Lydia got old enough to, well, go full Lydia. Because their relationship is very much an older-sister-younger-sister relationship except the ages are reversed and that actually implies some slightly—I’m going to say sad a lot but actually this is quite a melancholy book when you think about it—sad things about Kitty’s life. Because she must have spent her whole life wanting to be Lydia even before Lydia existed.

On the subject of Lydia, I like that this version feels more historical and less “teenage girls be like that” than you get in a lot of adaptations. I think one of the things that often gets lost in translation of Pride and Prejudice is that the way Lydia and Kitty behave codes as extremely expected and conventional to a modern audience because they’re almost the exact stereotype of the boy-crazy teenager. But at the time they’d actually have been quite atypical, because in any household where your dad isn’t an arsehole who hates his wife and gets off on insulting his kids and your mum isn’t having an actual nervous breakdown over the very real risk of you all being made destitute, they’d have been raised with very different values.

Then there’s Mary. And while nothing will ever quite displace Adorkable Mary Bennet from my heart, I did also really enjoy this portrayal, who I’ve dubbed “Can’t Read the Room Mary Bennet”. Although honestly an equally fitting moniker might be “Just Not a Nice Person Mary Bennet”. Because in some ways Mary, even more than Lydia and Kitty, is affected by the very specific coding that her primary character traits have in modern fiction. When you have a girl who is quiet and wears glasses and reads a lot in a modern story with strong romantic elements, you have a pretty good idea of what that person is like. For a start, she’s probably actually mega fit if she gets her hair done and takes her glasses off. But she’s also just kind of gentle and witty and, well, Not Like Other Girls. Even more than Lizzie, Mary has quintessentially placeholder protagonist traits because, well, a person who is reading a book is probably going to identify with the character who reads books.

The thing is, though, Mary isn’t like that at all. Mary is, when you get right down to it, a fucking terrible person. She doesn’t read a lot because she’s deep. She reads a lot because she’s genuinely unattractive by the standards of her day, and so has doubled down on “accomplishment” as a backup strategy, and so that she can feel superior to a society that looks down on her. She’s not a girl who reads for pleasure, she’s a girl who reads so she can own the libs with facts and logic. Like she’s the only Bennet who agrees with Mr Collins’ sentiment that the family would have been better off if Lydia had died. Lydia, let’s remember, is her actual fucking sister.

In a lot of ways, Mary Bennet is the worst and I kind of like that this adaptation lets her be the worst.

In general I think what’s interesting about this adaptation’s portrayal of the Bennet family is that it really highlights how much the Bennet sisters have been damaged by the fact that (a) they are totally fucked if they don’t get married (b) their mother has zero chill about this fact and (c) their father has far too much chill about this fact.

Jane plays the perfect regency lady so much that she convinces Bingley she’s indifferent to him, almost ruining her chances of a good match. Lizzie takes after her father so much that it takes her half the book to realise that her preconceptions might, in fact, not be the same as facts and that there’s more to life than being the smartest person in the room. Lydia and Kitty are desperate to attract a husband at all costs even to the point of gambling their reputations, and Mary knows she hasn’t got a hope of attracting a husband so doubles down on a kind of awful censorious piety.

These are genuinely damaged people and their damage is actually highly specific to their time and their environment.

I’ve been going on about this adaptation for nearly four thousand words now and the reason I’ve been able to do that is, well, it’s partly just that I’m long-winded but it’s also just that there’s at least four thousand words worth of stuff to talk about in it. Which makes the overall rating a bit difficult. There’s part of me thinks it should get a Full Darcy because it does so much well and so much that other adaptations don’t do.

But there’s also part of me that feels the fact that its Darcy and its Elizabeth having close to zero chemistry, for all that this seems to be a deliberate and totally valid creative choice, and one that is kind of central to its doing the things it is doing, is kind of a deal breaker for me.

I’m compromising on nine thousand a year. It’s good, but purely subjectively I did like the 1970s Persuasion better.

Next up: Sense and Sensibility 1980.

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I vaguely considered writing something about Bridgerton eighteen months ago because it was the big thing in romance at the time and it seemed like every Ambitious Mama and Determined Batchelor on the internet was required to have a take on it, and I kind of didn’t have one.

Or rather I did, but it was a take that season one by itself didn’t really provide enough material to talk about in my customary level of rambling, discursive detail, because that take was “okay, but what the hell are they going to do for Season Two?”

Welp, season two has happened, so I’ve got an answer now, and it’s an answer I find genuinely fascinating.

This post is called “Metabridgerton” because in a lot of ways this post isn’t actually about Bridgerton at all. It’s more about the specific challenges of adapting a particular kind of romance series to the screen, the specific decisions the showrunners appear to have made in adapting this specific series, and why I—on balance—can understand pretty much all of them even when they represent quite major deviations from the books.

This is probably going to get long, so it’s going to be in subheadings.

Part One: “Okay, But What the Hell are they Going to Do For Season Two?”

If I was more on-form I’d give each of these subheadings a little in-character intro like it’s an edition of Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers but I feel like I’d get halfway through the post, then realise that I’d put way too much effort into a not-very-amusing bit. Plus This Author suspects that the distinctive style of those interstitial fragments is actually way harder to imitate than it seems.

Where was I?

Oh yes.

Back in 2020 and 2021 the whole damned pop culture media landscape went wild for Bridgerton. The internet was flooded with spoonilingus memes, everybody was swooning over Simon and Daphne and their not-your-mama’s-costume-drama sexcapades, and it was soon announced that the show had been picked up for a run of—if I am remembering correctly—eight million and five series.

But even at the time, I remember looking at the buzz surrounding the show and thinking to myself “okay, but how are a TV-watching audience going to deal with the fact that season two isn’t about Simon and Daphne?”

Obviously for book readers, that wouldn’t be a problem. But, and I’m in no way trying to undersell the success that Julia Quinn had already achieved with the series way back in the early 2000s or the passion the book-based fandom has for the world and its characters, TV is a different animal. It has a longer reach, a different style of storytelling, and ultimately a different appeal to different people.

The Bridgerton book series is (and I probably don’t need to remind my audience of this, but bear with me) a style of serial fiction that is very well understood within the romance genre. The long-running series following a single large extended family as they each sequentially find love with different partners is a sort of genre meta-trope that exists across subgenres. You get it in historical with sprawling aristocratic clans. You get it in small-town contemporaries with no-less-sprawling modern families. You even get it in paranormals with shadowy brotherhoods of vampires, werewolves, or other supernatural beings.

But you don’t get it in mainstream media.

It’s true that with the advent of streaming dividing television up into tens of thousands of tiny laser-targeted microaudiences TV has had room to become more experimental, and there are shows that definitely do break up the usual formulas of serial television. There are anthology shows like American Horror Story where each edition is a new story with a new cast of characters. There’s procedural crime shows like The Sinner where each new season is a new case in a new context and only the detective is constant. But there has never, as far as I know, been a TV show that has tried to do that quintessentially genre romance structure of “consistent cast of characters, each one gets a one-season love story in which they are the main character” and I was genuinely intrigued to see how they were going to handle it.

It turns out the answer was “well… it’s complicated”.

Part Two: Desperately Seeking Simon

I was genuinely confused when the announcement came out that Regé-Jean Page wasn’t coming back for season two of Bridgerton.

But unlike much of the rest of the internet, what confused me wasn’t that he wouldn’t be reprising the role of Simon Basset, it was that anybody realistically expected that he would.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved his turn as Simon in the first series. I would have thought it was great to see him come back in season two. But I could completely understand why an actor who had played the romantic lead in a highly successful TV drama in 2020 wouldn’t necessarily be super-duper keen to come back and play the romantic lead’s sister’s husband in a drama in 2022.

Also, looking at his IMDB page, apparently his next major project is the new Dungeons and Dragons movie and I am fucking here for it.

Regé-Jean-Pagegate highlighted, for me, one of the first big problems of adapting the Bridgerton-style family romance for modern serial television. One of the huge draws of that kind of series, for people who are used to the genre, is that once you’ve read character A’s love story in book one (or, I suppose, in Bridgerton’s case, read character D’s love story in book one with character A’s story being reserved for book two) you get to then see character A and character A’s love interest being happily enrelationshipped (usually married, but not always, it depends on subgenre) in the background of character B’s story.

And in a book series, you can do that. Because in a book series, not to put too fine a point on it, none of your characters are real people with careers to think about. A fictional duke is always going to be free to nip over to Aubrey Hall for a quick game of Pall Mall any time the plot demands it. A real actor, not so much.

The thing is, although I hadn’t really expected Simon and Daphne to come back for season two of Bridgerton (they’re only in one scene in the book, after all) I did definitely notice that he wasn’t there. Part of this is that while the Duke and Duchess of Hastings only really pop up once in the second Bridgerton novel, Daphne is in the second series of the show quite a lot, even having major plot-critical discussions with Antony about his marriage prospects. And there does come a point where the fact that she keeps showing up solo gets… notable. Especially because a huge part of the way the Bridgerton family is characterised in both the books and the show is that they don’t have the “technically married but live very separate lives” thing you might expect from typical aristocrats. And especially especially because in the first series you kind of got the impression that Simon and Antony were really good mates, so Simon’s absence in Antony’s moments of romantic and personal crisis really stands out.

Simon’s disappearance from Season 2 really does highlight a problem in converting the big-romance-family story structure to a medium where not everybody is going to want to come back and be in the background of another person’s love story. And the structure of Season 2 of Bridgerton does, I think, represent a genuine attempt to fix that problem. It’s just that fixing that problem involves switching things up in a way that neither TV viewers nor book readers were expecting.

Part Three: Romancing the Duke Who Loved An Offer From Sir Phillip When He Was On The Way To His Kiss

There are eight Bridgerton novels. There are probably going to be eight series of Bridgerton.

Whenever a TV show comes out that’s based on a book, you get timely articles released on all the usual pop-culture tracking sites with titles like “Ten Ways Series [X] Of [Thing You Like] Is Different From The Book!” and depending on the book and the show they’re sometimes quite interesting and sometimes they’re missing the elephant in the room.

For the first series of Bridgerton, those lists were quite interesting because when you got right down to it, the first series of Bridgerton was a pretty straight adaptation of The Duke and I. So if you wanted to write a listicle about book/show differences you had plenty of grist for your mill. You could go through the whole series and say “this bit is from the book, this bit isn’t, this bit kind of is, this bit is from a future book” and overall the two pieces of media were close enough that the comparison was reasonably meaningful.

For the second series of Bridgerton, every “ten differences” listicle should have begun “1: It’s a completely different story structured completely differently for a different medium with different expectations” and then just continued with “2-10: see 1.”

Unlike Regé-Jean Page, Jonathan Bailey and Simone Ashley are scheduled to come back for season three. More specifically, they’re coming back, and pretty much every news article that’s announced that they’re coming back is making that announcement with a quote from Simone Ashley which says “Kate and Anthony are just getting started”.

And I don’t think that’s spin. I think that’s literally true.

I mean obviously it’s also spin. This is one of the biggest shows on television and I’m sure everybody involved with it is very, very careful what they say to the press. But it’s spin that sums up exactly what works about Season 2 of Bridgerton and exactly what confused everybody about it.

The first season of Bridgerton was a pretty straightforward adaptation of The Duke & I. Yes, it deviates from the book considerably (the whole bit with the prince who is also, let’s not forget, Vigilante from Peacemaker and I love it is show-original) but ultimately it does tell the whole of Simon and Daphne’s story more or less exactly as it appears in the novel. It even has an epilogue in which she’s giving birth to their first child and they’re joyfully agreeing to continue the Bridgerton tradition of alphabetical naming. By the end of S1E8, Simon and Daphne’s story is absolutely, one hundred percent, definitely, done.

Which is … kind of probably a big part of why it didn’t really make sense for Regé-Jean Page to come back for season two?

The second season of Bridgerton, by contrast, is much more strongly an ensemble-focused light-hearted costume drama that is loosely united around a central story that is… kind of inspired by the first half of The Viscount Who Loved Me.

And I do get that there are people who are annoyed at the changes. I get that there are people who want to know what happened to the bee scene, I get that a whole lot of people miss the red hot Bridgerton sex, I get that the pacing of Anthony and Kate’s relationship felt incredibly weird to a lot of people (it did to me right up until the final episode). But the more I think about it the more I think all of that makes sense when you look carefully at the ways in which a visual-medium series in which each character is portrayed by a living human being is different from a written-medium series in which all the characters exist only in one person’s imagination.

I’ll admit that this might just be me reasoning in a circle and thinking myself into a corner, but I’m increasingly convinced that while the straight-adaptation, very intense romance, strong focus on the central couple strategy was exactly the right thing for the first series of Bridgerton, it would have simply become unsustainable as the show went on.

In a book series, for an audience that is used to the conventions of the genre, sure, you can sell people on couple A (okay, D) in the first book, then ask them to invest in couple B (or A) in the second book and C (or B) in the third. But television just doesn’t work that way.

The absence of Regé-Jean Page was a disappointment for everybody but I suspect that people who came to Bridgerton from a romance reading background were disappointed for a subtly different reason than people who came to the series from a TV background. To a romance audience, the disappointment is that you don’t get the callback to the first story, you don’t get to see Simon and Daphne in their happy ending, to be reminded that love is real and that happy ever after really does continue ever after.

To the TV audience, the disappointment is that the expectation set up by the first season of the show is that it was, on a fundamental level, about Simon and Daphne. But their story was definitely over in the first series. What TV audiences missed was specifically their intense sexual chemistry, their looks of naked carnal longing, and Regé-Jean Page licking a spoon. And none of that was coming back anyway.

But Kate and Anthony are just getting started. Like they’re literally just getting started. They won’t be the focus of the next series, or the series after, or the series after that, but they’ll still have story to tell because while series one of Bridgerton basically adapted the first book, it feels a lot like series 2-8 are intending to adapt all of the other books in a more complex and overlapping way.

Part Four: You Can Type This Shit, George, But You Sure Can’t Say It

I hesitated to use this subheading because I appreciate it sounds disparaging. For those who aren’t aware of the context, it’s something that Harrison Ford said to George Lucas on the original set of Star Wars. It was actually, in context, almost certainly a joke, an actor who wasn’t especially experienced with the tropes of science fiction making a flippant complaint about the difficulty of knowing how to deliver lines like “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs”. But I’ve also always liked it as a pithy, if somewhat aggressive, summary of the differences between written and performed media.

Because actually, books are full of shit you can type but sure can’t say. And let’s be clear, I include my own books in that. Books are books. TV is TV. Movies are movies. Theatre is theatre. What works in one doesn’t work in the other.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there are no bad adaptations. Of course sometimes adaptations make changes for bad reasons—to pander to an audience they underestimate, to placate censors who would pay less attention to a less popular medium, because the people making the adaptation didn’t actually understand the text they were adapting.

But a lot of the time, it’s none of those things. A lot of the time, an awful lot of the time, it’s because they’re taking out something you can type but you sure can’t say.

Towards the end of the second season of Bridgerton I found myself having two distinct, contradictory thoughts in very quick succession. The first was “you know, I really like Eloise and Benedict’s relationship” and the second was “hang on a second, I think they’ve only ever had three conversations.”

And I’ll admit I didn’t go back and check. I’m not keeping a score of how many times individual Bridgerton characters talk to each other. But what I did realise was that my sense that Eloise and Benedict had a good relationship that I liked came entirely from the fact that every time they have had a significant conversation it has been at night, sitting on the swings, with Eloise sitting on the right and Benedict coming in to sit on the vacant swing on the left. It’s very, very, very specific.

That, my friends, is the power of visual storytelling. In a little under sixteen hours of TV these two characters have shared probably less than ten minutes of total screen time, but the scenes they do share are framed so carefully that my eyes tell my brain to fill in the blanks, and it obligingly fills in a whole brother-sister relationship that never actually has to be on the screen at all.

But while visual storytelling enables some narrative beats that you can’t pull off in a written medium, it also has a tendency to make others fall flat.

Which brings us to the bee scene and the sex.

In the book The Viscount Who Loved Me, Kate and Anthony are married by halfway through. This, amongst other things, allows them to do proper Bridgerton-fucking for the other half of the book while Anthony grapples with his unshakeable belief in his own impending doom and Kate learns to accept that Anthony really is into her and isn’t just constantly wishing she was her sister.

But the reason they get married is specifically that they’re in the garden of Aubrey Hall after the Pall Mall game, and Kate is stung on the chest by a bee, and Anthony has so much residual trauma from his father’s death that he’s convinced this will kill her and tries to suck the poison out, meaning that he’s caught by multiple witnesses with his lips on Kate’s boobs and so he has to marry her or else she will be ruined.

This does kind of work in the book. But it kind of works in the book for reasons that are very strongly book specific. Firstly you’re in Antony’s head a lot of the time so the intensity and irrationality of his bee-fear is made a lot more explicit, while in the show you get a very strong sense that he’s carrying a lot of residual baggage because of his father’s sudden death but it’s a lot less, shall we say, bee-centric. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the books do a very good job of establishing expectations and signalling to a savvy reader the kinds of tropes and beats you can expect. And let’s face it, “you were caught in a compromising situation for slightly contrived reasons so now you must marry” is a classic for a reason.

The problem is that it’s a classic that’s also used in the first book.

In a written medium, that’s not a problem. Genre readers are generally likely to read widely within their genre, to be comfortable with tropes and be used to seeing the same ones more than once. But for a TV audience? That’s different. If you’re a TV viewer Bridgerton is relatively likely to be the only historical thing you’ve watched full stop. Worse, you’re also pretty likely to have done a rewatch of the first series directly before watching the second series. A repeated plot beat like that would stand out a mile.

In a book series, having two consecutive stories in which the hero and the heroine have to get married at the half-way point because they’re caught in a compromising position in a garden is fine. On TV I can’t help but think it would have looked really, really weird.

But of course that does mean you miss out on the Bridgerton sex scenes. Hell the reason “you have to get married for an, if we’re honest, slightly contrived reason” is a trope of the lighter kind of histrom in the first place is precisely because extra-marital sex is so socially taboo in the era that you kind of have to get the hero and heroine married if you want them to bang at all.

So I suspect the showrunners were caught between a bit of a rock and a hard place. And on balance I think they picked the right rock. Choosing to tell a slower-paced story in S2 might have jarred the audience initially, but at least it signalled that not every series was going to follow the same pattern, and on balance sacrificing the banging was probably a price worth paying. If every season was just a relentlessly single-focus story about the season’s chosen couple, the series could easily have put itself into a death spiral. Every season they’d have to build up a new couple, get them married early enough to have at least three episodes of wanton rumpy-pumpy and then, next season, ditch the people the audience liked to move on to somebody else but also try to somehow persuade the actors to stick around after they’ve already had the biggest story beats they’ll ever get.

And maybe they could have made that work. But I can completely see why they took things in a different direction.

Part Five: The Hero With A Thousand Faces

There is, I think, another reason that the showrunners of Bridgerton decided to effectively spin out the first half of the plot of The Viscount Who Loved Me for the whole season and that’s because the second half of the book is based almost entirely on Anthony and Kate’s personal internal conflicts and those conflicts are very grounded in who they are as characters. But who they are as characters in the book is actually very, very different from who they are as characters in the show.

And for Kate, since she only exists in season two, that’s very much a self-contained problem. For Anthony though, it’s more interesting, and I think highlights another unique challenge of translating this kind of story from one medium to another.

One of the coolest things about written fiction, especially about multi-viewpoint serial fiction, is that you have, well viewpoints. What’s normal to one character is outlandish to another. A character one person sees as a close friend another will see as a deadly enemy. And in romance, and most relevantly to these first two series of Bridgerton, a character one person sees as a beloved if slightly overbearing brother, another character will see as an indescribably handsome, sexually intimidating but darkly seductive rakehell.

But the thing is, on TV, you kind of only get to cast one actor, and that actor has to give a consistent performance.

A huge part of what made Season 1 of Bridgerton so explosive was… well… I’m going to go back to spoon-licking, because it’s iconic for a reason. Simon was every inch the male lead. He radiated sex, basically constantly, to the extent that he was literally going down on the cutlery. But the thing is, like the mid-season-compromising-position-in-a-garden trick you kind of only get to do that once. In the books, the Anthony of The Viscount Who Loved Me is every bit as much of a bad boy sex machine as the Simon of The Duke & I and it’s completely fine because books are written media and written media have viewpoint characters and obviously the book one version of Anthony isn’t presented as the kind of man who can make women wet by breathing near them because we only ever see him from the PoV of a male friend and his actual sister.

TV doesn’t work like that. We see Anthony in series one through the neutral lens of a film camera and we see him, ultimately, as a kind if somewhat overbearing man who cares deeply for his family. Who yearns for an escape but feels the bonds of his duty and his birthright keenly. He has a mistress, certainly, but he genuinely cares for her, and is hurt when she rejects him. If in the second season he pivoted to full alpha hero mode, eating out the tableware and wielding his sexuality as a weapon, it would have felt completely out of left field.

But this makes Anthony’s latter book arc unworkable on TV. You can’t have a reforming-a-rake arc when he’s not really a rake to begin with. And show!Anthony might be a bit high-handed at times but he’s nowhere near enough of an alpha jerk to convince himself that he shouldn’t love his wife because he might die young.

If Season Two of Bridgerton had stuck to the pacing of the book plot, sure we’d have had more fucking, but there would have been essentially no conflict in the second half of the season. Show!Anthony just isn’t the kind of guy to still be acting all no-I-shall-never-love-you after he’s married and since he’s very very rich, she’s very very sensible, and they’re both clearly super in love and super hot for each other, episodes 5-8 would just have been Kate and Anthony having good sex and being happy which would be cool to watch for a while but couldn’t really carry half a series of event television.

Part Six: In Which This Author Reaches a Conclusion

Season one of Bridgerton made me wonder what the hell they were going to do and then season two made me wonder what the hell they were doing, right up to the final episode where I had a lightbulb moment and saw how it all fit together.

The glib, summarised way I’d express it is this.

Series One was a direct adaptation of a single book into a single series of television. This was the right way to make a big splashy impact but wasn’t sustainable and created clear problems which season two inherited, most notable amongst them the absence of Regé-Jean Page (although even if he’d been there, it’s not liked he’d be able to lick any more spoons, he’s married now and his spoon-licking needs to be kept strictly within matrimony). To make the series work long-term, series two needed to represent a kind of course correction from being a set of standalone adaptations of stories that wouldn’t, if adapted independently, work cohesively in a television medium, into something that is more explicitly an ensemble drama in which the core narrative of the original stories provides a kind of framing device around which the whole thing is structured.

What I suspect, going forward, is that while each season will keep the core structure and pairing of the books there will be an increasing emphasis on setting up future stories and on continuing past stories, much as—for example—the saga of Lady Whisledown’s identity continued more or less straight over two seasons. We’re already in a situation where, for example, Penelope and Colin’s story has had explicit setup that has been building for two seasons (and may build for one more if they keep to book-order for the adaptation) and I’m fully expecting to get the next stage of Kate and Anthony’s relationship in Season 3 even if their story isn’t the primary focus. And I’m looking forward to it because while it had a slow build it did also wind up being super hot.

You do lose something by having the stories play out like this. By letting a single love story overspill the boundaries of its season (incidentally my favourite device in the whole of Bridgerton is the way they say “season” in a way that is clearly intended to have a double meaning as “social season” and “season of television”) you get a less self-contained, less intense and, assuming they more or less limit their characters to only boinking within or on the cusp of marriage, less rapacious story.

But you also, I think, get something a whole lot more interesting.

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Insert ye standard “oh my God, is it really 2022 already, oh my God is March really over already.”

Here are some Things I Liked this month.

Snacking Cheese

I’m going to be trotting out the “I don’t have guilty pleasures” line several times in this post. For those who are new to the blog, I have kind of a refrain where I say that I don’t like the term “guilty pleasure” because it’s usually used to refer to things that you like but feel you shouldn’t like because they’re, like, not highbrow enough or something when there’s nothing wrong with enjoying something that’s just simple and well done. And then I go on to say that I do sometimes use the term “guilty pleasure” to describe things I like which I worry might actually be harmful in some way (like pro wrestling, see below).

These particular cheese snacks aren’t a guilty pleasure in an ethical way. At least not any more so than any other slightly overpackaged product of modern consumerism. But I am very aware that they will fucking kill me. They’ve got that “baked not fried” thing on the packaging which makes them sound all healthy and shit but it’s fucking cheese. It’s fucking solid cheese. And when you eat it, that part of your brain that evolved to live entirely on rare caches of salt and fat you’d track down between long periods of near-starvation as you roamed the tundra with your band of hunter-gatherers kicks in and says “yes, this is definitely an important and vital nutritional source, you should immediately eat all of it.”

But it’s fucking cheese. It’s far more cheese than any human being would reasonably consider eating if it was packaged in any other way but it is—and I cannot stress this enough—incredibly fucking delicious.

Snacking cheese. It is good. But don’t start eating it or you will die.

Peacemaker

So apparently the MCU is Bad Now and the DCCU is Good Now and all that is old is new again?

I’ve never quite understood why Marvel was the brand that became synonymous with superheroes even though the two characters who are most synonymous with superheroes (including the guy so synonymous with superheroes he has the word Super in his actual name) are DC properties. Although thinking about it, that might be exactly why. Superman and Batman are huge brands but outside of that DC has … what exactly? Batman’s extended rogues gallery of—as one parody musical once put it—guys with things on their heads whose whole deal is making puns about the things on their heads?

And I think that what held the DCCU back originally was that it focused too much on Superman, Batman and Superman vs Batman and failed to realise that, especially in our cynical modern world, a back catalogue consisting entirely of incredibly shit superheroes with incredibly shit gimmicks that it is impossible to take seriously, actually works really well in the right kind of movie.

Those right kinds of movies being Birds of Prey¸ The Suicide Squad (2021) (not the other Suicide Squad that they just seem to have genuinely decided didn’t exist) and its spinoff Peacemaker.

Quick version: Peacemaker is John Cena shooting people, being sad, and doing a silly dance. If that sounds good to you, you will like it. If it doesn’t, you won’t. In fact, let me link you to the title sequence. If that works for you, watch the show. If it doesn’t, then you have no soul.

In retrospect, I don’t know why I liked Peacemaker, because I am so fucking over edgy superheroes and I have been over edgy superheroes since, probably, the 1990s. Although I suppose, thinking about it, what I like about Peacemaker is that it’s kind of over edgy superheroes too.

The Peacemaker was originally just a straight up heroic characters in, like, the sixties but very quickly evolved into a villain whose deal was “I will have peace at any cost”. And in the The Suicide Squad (2021) movie, that’s the version of the character we get. He’s, not to put too fine a point on it, a lolmurderer.  The TV spinoff gives the character somewhat more depth in a way that, honestly, only half-engages with the “it’s funny to watch John Cena shooting people in the face” vibe of the film, but which I found weirdly compelling almost against my own instincts.

I should stress here that I chose the word “instincts” carefully in that I could have said “against my better judgement” and that would have been genuinely unfair. Even if this was a straight-down-the-line bro action thing for bros about how sad it is for John Cena that he has to be awesome all the time, that would be a perfectly reasonable thing to like if you like that sort of thing.

Just I personally don’t like that sort of thing, and I think what’s interesting about Peacemaker is it that seems to be that sort of thing but actually isn’t.

Sometimes obnoxious people on the internet will get really angry about the term “manpain” because they either feel, or think they can score internet points by claiming they feel, that it delegitimises men’s’ emotional reactions. And I think what Peacemaker provides is a really interesting counterpoint to that. On paper, this is a manpaintastic show: Chris “Peacemaker” Smith has an abusive father, is kind of sexist and racist, carries a great burden of guilt because of the death of someone close to him, and spends a lot of time being a broody loner. But the thing is, none of that comes across as manpain. It just comes across as regular pain.

And I’m not sure how to clearly articulate what the difference is, and the difference is subjective. But if I had to try to put it into words (because it’s literally my fucking job) I’d say that the basic difference is that manpain is presented as cool and regular pain isn’t.

There is kind of no getting away from the fact that Peacemaker is a worse version of the Punisher in a very 1960s costume. And what the makes the series work is that the showrunners kind of … just lean into that. And, don’t get me wrong, he’s still John fucking Cena so he’s still awesome and he moves like a ballet dancer who could kick your arse and the action sequences are fantastic. But they’re also genuinely willing to let him be properly pathetic. Like manpain ultimately comes from a place of power. It’s “there is a darkness that drives me”. Regular pain just hurts. And leaves you lying on an unmade bed in your crappy trailer howling your eyes out because you feel lonely and worthless.

And that’s a … that’s a genuinely quite subversive for a TV show about a superhuman murderbro to be about.

Honestly, I could say a lot more about Peacemaker because it’s kind of great. It’s genuinely hilarious in a dark, lots of people get shot in the face way. It’s got the prince from Bridgerton in it as a chirpy sociopathic serial killer who can’t read a room. It does have a slightly difficult thing where, from a certain perspective, its alien invasion plot is “refugees came to our country, then tried to take it over” and, while it tries to make it a bit more nuanced, it does wind up a little bit … um … dissonant? But overall, I Liked this a lot. Also, and I can’t stress this highly enough, you get to see John Cena and the cast doing that silly dance at the start of every single episode.

AEW

So on the subject of guilty pleasures (remember the cheese thing, above?) I enjoy pro wrestling. And I’ve written before about why I sometimes feel a bit bad about enjoying pro wrestling (tl;dr it’s dangerous and performers are in no way adequately compensated for the risks they take unless they get extremely lucky). But it turns out that you can at the very least watch pro wrestling in way that doesn’t support the genuinely awful, monopolistic, and anti-worker practices of the WWE by, well, watching other promotions.

In retrospect, I’m kind of embarrassed about how long it took me to work that out. One of the many gross things about the way the WWE works is that it flat out refuses to acknowledge that other promotions exist (unless those promotions have already been destroyed and incorporated into its monopoly) and one of the reason’s that’s gross, is that it fucking works. For the past, shit it must be forty years at least, Vince McMahon has been on a personal crusade to make his personal brand absolutely synonymous with pro wrestling, and it has totally worked. For years after I decided I couldn’t quite be arsed with the WWE any more I’d find myself really wanting to watch some wrestling but also having this strange unsettled feeling like any non-WWE promotion wasn’t “real”.

Branding. It works. And one of the reasons is works is because we all think it doesn’t work on us.

But AEW finally managed to get me over this silly mental block. Admittedly, it did this in large part because it includes a lot of people I recognise from the WWE but hey, it got me back into wrestling. And while the industry still has its issues, AEW does at least allow its performers to keep control of their own gimmicks and work for other promotions.

It’s the penultimate of those points that I think I’m enjoying the most about it. WWE has a very strong house style and that house style is…actually I’ve honestly lost track. Sort of a mix of being stuck in the 80s, having no sense of self-irony about it, and being really, really, really into really, really, really big men.

AEW, though, isn’t afraid to let people just get incredibly silly if they want to. Or not. So you’ve got this fantastic thing where half the roster is just athletic people who are good at wrestling and their gimmicks are “I am good at wrestling” and the other half are completely gonzo. Like “I am a literal dinosaur” gonzo. Like “Count Chocula meets Beetlejuice meets Mr Bean” gonzo. It’s fucking excellent.

Basically it’s people who love what they’re doing, doing what they love doing, for people who love watching them do what they love doing.

The Shrieking Shack Podcast

Okay this is a tricky one. I am very aware that there are people who grew up with Harry Potter who feel genuinely hurt by J. K. Rowling’s sharp turn into TERFery and who would rather just, like, not think about her ever again and I completely get why some people feel that way, so if you want to skip this one do go right ahead. Scroll down and tell me what you liked this month in the comments.

The thing is, I found this (now four-year-old) podcast because I saw it quoted on some gaming-related articles about the new Hogwarts video game to which I’ve paid no attention. And what specifically stood out to me about that coverage was that it was actually confronting the question of “what do we do about the fact that this beloved franchise was created by somebody who is currently using their platform to cause genuine harm” in a direct and interesting way.

The Shrieking Shack is specifically a pocast by two people who consider themselves “lapsed” Harry Potter fans and so it engages more critically with both the material and its creator than you normally get from HP focused media. And in a lot of ways I’ve found listening to it quite cathartic. Because one of the things that I’ve found very difficult about the mainstream media discourse around J. K. Rowling is that so much of it has been of the form “it’s so strange, she wrote these wonderful books about tolerance and forgiveness, but now she’s turned out to be prejudiced, how can this be?” (or, worse “J. K. Rowling wrote these wonderful books about tolerance and forgiveness and now SJWs are trying to cancel her”) And ultimately a lot of what this podcast does is look back and say “did she though?” and I’ve found that weirdly useful.

It is a reread podcast and they do go into the books with an open mind, so if you’re not in the mood to hear anything positive said about HP at all, this probably isn’t for you, but I’ve found them really good at engaging with the wider discourse around the series.

I’m still fairly early in their archives (because there are hundreds of episodes of this and they’re all 1-2 hours long) but the bit I’ve found most strangely moving so far is listening to them talking about—and I appreciate that this gets very meta and quite intense—the mainstream media response to the fact that some of the March for Our Lives protesters had Harry Potter signs. Basically, if you can remember as far back as 2018, you probably remember that there was a fairly major protest movement amongst highschool students who wanted Congress to maybe do something about gun laws? And like most popular movements it prompted a host of bad takes some of which, like this one seemed to weirdly give credit for the actions of a group of teenagers to … umm … J. K. Rowling?

One of the nice things about slightly amateur podcasting (as far as I can tell neither of the hosts are professional journalists) is that you sometimes get a far more sincere emotional reaction than you do from more slickly produced shows. You also get the kind of emotional reactions that you encounter a lot in real life but not so much in, well, non-real-life-media and their discussion of the way in which some news outlets decided that the most important thing to talk about in the wake, let’s not forget, of an actual school shooting, was … how great Harry Potter was, is shot through with a kind of nauseated anger that I found at once jarring and relatable.

Something I often say in interviews is that I’m a huge believer in the death of the author and so I’m also, in a lot of ways, a big believer in separating art from artist. But I think the “How Harry Potter Inspired the Parkland Generation” meme, even if—I suspect—it only really cropped up in a couple of thoughtlessly worded articles written by people who had a professional obligation to come up with a new take on an event that literally everybody was talking about, highlights why this can be so hard in practice. The books we read—the stories we love—are, ultimately, part of how we relate to each other and this gives the people who create those stories a disproportionate, ultimately unearned authority. And that authority can be used to hurt people.

Which, thinking about it, is kind of a bummer of an ending for a things I like post.

I’ve also enjoyed playing a tower defence game about monkeys popping balloons?

Tell me what you’ve been liking in the comments.

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This is going to be either a really short or a really long post because I kind of have nothing to say about this film but I also feel I could say nothing about it at great length.

Very, very technically speaking Jane Austen in Manhattan is an adaption of a work by Jane Austen.

Where to begin?

In the late 70s / early 80s a manuscript was discovered called Sir Charles Grandison, or The Happy Man, by Jane Austen. This was authenticated as yes, genuinely having been written by Jane Austen and yes definitely that Jane Austen not some other woman called Jane Austen like the Jane Austen from Greensboro, North Carolina or something and so was put up for auction by Sotheby’s.

There it was purchased by Merchant Ivory (the film producers) who felt that securing the exclusive ability to produce a cinematic adaptation of a previously unknown work by one of the great authors of the English canon would be a major artistic and commercial coup.

Except.

Sir Charles Grandison, or The Happy Man was, indeed, a work by Jane Austen. It was, however, a work of juvenilia by Jane Austen and, while I’m not completely clear when it was written, the film itself and information about the film I’ve been able to dredge up online suggests she probably would have written it when she was about twelve.

Moreover it was clearly based on the Richardson novel The History of Sir Charles Grandison which is, um, Richardson’s most boring novel. Like, it’s been a while since I’ve read Richardson so take this is a pinch of salt but my understanding of the basic context of THOSCG is that he wrote Pamela or Virtue Rewarded about a sexy rake guy trying to “seduce” his hot servant and everyone was like “woo, sexy rake guy, so sexy” so then he wrote Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady, about a sexy rake guy who actually drives a young woman to suicide and everyone was like “oh, that’s sad, but …woo, sexy rake guy, so sexy”. And, so he was finally like, dudes, stop finding my sexy rake sexy guys sexy and wrote a book about a very nice hero who is very nice to people and upholds both moral and Christian virtues.

Of course, obviously, you can’t write a book that’s just about a hero who is a nice man with good, Christian virtues being good and virtuous at people because there’d be no conflict so The History of Sir Charles Grandison also includes a sexy rake character (with the fabulous name of Sir Hargrave Pollexfen), but it’s okay because he’s definitely the villain, and so definitely nobody could ever, under any circumstances find him sexy and awesome.

Enter twelve-year-old Jane Austen.

So yes. Sir Charles Grandison, or The Happy Man is basically twelve-year-old Jane Austen’s fanfic of—quite specifically—the relatively short section in The History of Sir Charles Grandison where the heroine gets abducted by a sexy rake.

This is honestly, and don’t mean this pejoratively, the most fanfic thing I have ever heard. It kind of makes me feel that if Jane Austen had been born in the year 2000 then, sure, today she’d just be publishing her first novel and it would be a searingly insightful feminist critique of England in the post #metoo era. But she would also absolutely have an AO3 account and it would absolutely include at least one fic about One Direction during The Purge.

While there was a lot wrong with Jane Austen in Manhattan, and I’ll go into the a lot wrong with it in a minute, it does get credit for this one thing: that I did not think it was possible for me to love Jane Austen more than I already did but the discovery of her early 19th century darkfic proved me 100% wrong.

I am so glad she’s on our ten-pound notes.

Anyway. Imagine for a moment that you are Merchant Ivory and you have paid hundreds of thousand of pounds for Jane Austen’s The Very Secret Diaries of Sir Hargrave Pollexfen and are trying to work out how the fuck to make your money back.

Like what the actual fuck would you actually do? I’m a professional writer and I have no idea.

To give them their due, they just fucking rolled with it.

So Jane Austen in Manhattan is about people trying to make an adaptation of a lost Austen manuscript called Sir Charles Grandison, or The Happy Man. And, as far as I can tell, the scenes from the production (productions—there are two competing producers, that’s kind of the plot) do seem to use the actual text that Austen wrote. It’s just, because it’s a fragment of a fanfic, there’s clearly not much very actual text and so they get around this by making one of the competing productions an operetta (so it’s got an excuse just to repeat lines over and over and over and over again) and the other one a weird experimental arthouse piece so it’s got an excuse to have loads of bizarre physical bits in between the actual, very limited, dialogue.  

You might notice that I’m already beginning to get a bit incoherent. Long term followers of this blog who remember the Grantathon might recall something similar happening to me when I was trying to talk about Night Train to Venice (which is to this day kept from being the worst film I’ve ever seen only by the fact I’m genuinely not sure it can be called a film).

tl;dr Jane Austen in Manhattan is exactly what you would expect it to be given the context of its production.  

tl;dr-er Jane Austen in Manhattan is exactly what you would expect from a film that unironically includes the line “she’s CRAY-zee, they’re ALL CRAY-zee, he has that eFFECT on people!”

The ‘he’ in this line is Pierre, a not at all French director/producer, played by Jesus of Nazareth who is locked in a weird mortal artistic sex-death rivalry with a different director/producer named Liliana, played by All About Eve. A major feature of their strange Machiavellian duelling Svengali thing is their competition for the affections of Rachel from Blade Runner. For a terrible film, this has a weirdly prestigious cast.

And, unfortunately, that’s kind of all there is. It’s two people, both of whom want to put on an adaptation of a play they know to be unadaptable, bizarrely convinced that they have to use the same cast as each other, who used to fuck. I mean, I guess from a certain perspective is probably a satire of the New York theatre scene in the 80s.  But I don’t know, man, I wasn’t there.

I think, very straightforwardly, you probably shouldn’t watch this movie. It’s two hours of your life you’re never going to back. Although given how weird its continuity and chronology are … maybe you will? Like I’m not totally convinced that me sitting here right now, writing this blog post, isn’t actually some kind of flash-forward and I’m not, in a very real sense, still watching the movie somehow. That’s what this film is like. It just has that eFFECT on people!

If you do choose to watch it for completeness, tell yourself very firmly “I’m into this shit” because if you can get into the right mindset you can kind of convince yourself it’s brilliant. Although not, I should stress, for any reason you could ever articulate to another person.

If I had to try I’d might say that it’s like … it’s like … if you were trying to do a production of A Chorus Line except you got David Lynch to direct it and somehow managed to cast Nicholas Cage in every single role.

Or maybe I was just very very tired.

So at the start of this project I defined my rating scale on the one thousand to twelve thousand a year incomes of Austen heroes and, somewhat arbitrarily, set six thousand a year as the quality of the 1940s Pride and Prejudice. I later came to be concerned that by doing this I’d shut off the bottom half of the scale because I was expecting most things I watched as part of the process to be better than a 1940s film where Lizzie Bennet dresses as Scarlett O’Hara and shoots a bow and arrow.

I no longer have this concern.

I’m giving this 2000 a year, not because I reasonably expect anything else to be worse but because it does, I think, deserve a bonus point for the sheer ludicrousness of its origin story.

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This is a difficult adaptation to talk about because I had very mixed feelings about it.

It’s another BBC adaptation, from the same person who did Sense and Sensibility (1971) but not the same person who did Persuasion (1971). That was Granada, which may explain why it seems to have had a much bigger budget.

Then again I suppose Granada went out of business so who had the last laugh really.

Actually the way the BBC is going maybe I shouldn’t ask.

Anyway the tl;dr of this post is that it’s a brilliant adaptation in which everybody is fantastically cast except for the teeny tiny fact that their Emma comes across as a body-snatching alien who wants to eat everybody’s skin.

i am so going to eat your skin
i am imagining eating Harriet’s skin
i am only putting up with all you because i know someday i will eat your skin

Thanks for reading!

Okay I should probably go into more detail.

I should stress that I’m not really criticising the actress or her performance here (I appreciate “you tried to portray a classic Jane Austen heroine and came across like carnivorous B-Movie monster” might look a little bit like a criticism in a certain light). It’s just that the combination of the direction, the adaptation’s take on the character, and the actress’s slight tendency (which Americans or people not sensitive to British accents might miss) to over-enunciate in a way that constantly reminded me of Barbara Kellerman’s performance as the White Witch in the 1988 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe made it really hard for me not to see this adaptation as “the one in which Emma is, like, objectively, supernaturally evil.”

And, honestly, a part of this might come down to how you think about Emma in the book. Because there is a valid reading of Emma in which she is just kind of the worst and her whole arc is slowly learning to not be the worst. Like I’m sincerely amazed someone hasn’t already done an edgy modern reboot called ‘Karen’. The thing is, though, that’s not how I personally see Emma. To me, and obviously I have no authority here, she’s the most materially secure but also most emotionally exposed of Austen’s heroines.  Like her closest friend is her governess who has just left her to get married and start her own family. She has a sister but there seems to be an age gap there and, unlike many of Austen’s other sisters, they’re not even close in “well, you’re clearly awful, but I love you anyway” way. There’s literally nobody around her who is her social or intellectual equal, except Mr Knightley and he’s … honestly … slightly too old for her. I mean, obviously not by the standards of the 19th century but if those two came to dinner you’d be like “woah, there’s a dynamic here.”

Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of dynamics, I veered between thinking of this production as being “the Evil Emma” and “the BDSM Emma”, for reasons I’ll get into later.

Anyway, the point is I’ve always seen Emma as … kind of vulnerable, even before her “oh shit, I’ve got everything wrong” storyline. And while something approximating a happy ending with Mr Knightley, and they probably will genuinely be good for each other, even that feels … complicated? Far more complicated than, say, Elizabeth and Darcy, or even Marianne and Colonel Brandon.

There’s a slightly bad faith internet meme about the 1990s Beauty and the Beast which points out that Belle starts the film singing about how she wants adventure in the great wide somewhere and ultimately married to a moderately attractive dude who lives a castle about half a mile down the road from the village she grew up in. But the reason it’s slightly bad faith is that Beauty and the Beast is a children’s movie from the 1990s that’s ultimately about Disney stuff like being true to yourself and the importance of having an adorable sidekick. Emma, on the other hand, is—when you get right down it—an early 19th novel written by an adult for an audience of adults who knew full well all the ways in which their lives could kind of suck. So I don’t think it’s an accident that Emma starts the book feeling trapped and stifled and alone, stuck in a tiny social sphere she’s clearly outgrown and by the end she hasn’t even moved out of her father’s house.

And, yes, her father has a really nice house but I’m not sure that makes it better.

Of course, the part of me that’s a huge fan of genre romance wants to say, “oh but love, love changes everything, hands and faces, earth and sky.” And I do see that life in Highbury, even life in your dad’s house in Highbury, with a companion who gets you and will occasionally call you on bullshit is way better than life in your dad’s house in Highbury well, without that, but Jesus Christ. And it’s not like Mr Woodhouse is a charming Disney dad. He’s genuinely a massive pain in the arse whose whole thing is that he doesn’t want Emma to do anything at all ever in case she dies. Like, it’s sort of sometimes played a little bit for laughs (in a wry, Jane Auteny sort of way) but at the end of the day Emma’s whole life being an unpaid caregiver to an elderly relative with an undiagnosed mental health disorder and she gets no choice about this whatsoever, even when she gets married.

All of which is to say, I wish this production had been a little bit more sympathetic to Emma herself. She does get a maturation arc but, firstly, it kind of happens in the gap between episodes 5 and 6 and secondly—from my perspective—it’s very much framed as “Emma sucks, the Mr Knightley tells her off for being mean to Miss Bates, and she learns to suck less.” Which is a shame because I really liked pretty much everything else about this adaptation.  

For a start, Emma never wears fucking tartan.

I’m having a bit of trouble working out where to start with the rest of the cast because this is one of those adaptations that is so faithful that a lot of the time there’s almost nothing to say about its creative choices. Like, the guy playing Mr Woodhouse is great, but the best way to sum up his performance is as follows: you know the character of Mr Woodhouse in the novel Emma? Imagine that character? Him. Don’t get me wrong, he’s really good at playing that character—sort of tremulous and annoying, deep-seatedly selfish, but so fragile-seeming you feel bad for being angry at him about it—but there’s not a lot of analysis I can do here.  And that holds true for most of the cast. Their Knightley? Yep, that’s Mr Knightley. The Westons? Yep, exactly like you’d expect. Miss Bates? Really good performance but yep, she’s an garrulous older woman who has diminished from her former social standing and shall diminish further. This absolutely isn’t a criticism: by the book is a perfectly valid way to do an adaptation, and on those terms this is pretty much pitch perfect.

There were, however, a couple of performances that stood out in one direction or the other. To start small, I lowkey liked the Eltons—which is to say, I thought they were interestingly obnoxious. Like, I’ve seen a tendency to make Mr Elton so slimy that you can’t understand why anyone would want to get with him or want anyone they cared about to get with him. Here, though, he’s got an edge of prick (and I think Mr Knightley has a line about how he goes silly with ladies—presumably because he has marital ambitions—but is otherwise quite personable) but, in keeping with the general theme of pitch perfectness, he’s really well cast as the guy you wouldn’t want to get with yourself, but would want to set up with you friend, who you genuinely like but whose dateability you have a slightly condescending opinion about. And Mrs Elton is sort of a perfect match for him. Which is to say she’s genuinely a catch in a lot of ways (she’s attractive, she’s well-dressed, probably actually reasonably educated) but she’s fucking awful and the actress playing her is clearly having a great time being fucking awful. Also they have a nice dynamic as a couple in that, yeah, they’re both terrible but they’re terrible in compatible ways that mean they both want the same things and genuinely seem to admire each other for wanting them.

The casting choice I was most impressed with was probably Frank Churchill. A couple of years ago I saw a production of Othello in which the guy playing Iago actually looked like a solider and, holy shit, did it make a difference. Because the thing about Iago is that he’s such an iconic villain character that producers and directors habitually cast actors who look like Alan Rickman or Terry Thomas. So he wanders on stage, radiating an aura of sleaze that you taste from the back of the Gods, and everybody goes up to him, being like “Ah, honest Iago!” And Frank Churchills—Jane Austen villains in general, in fact—are often similar. But in this production, they cast the kind of actor you’d normally cast to genuinely play a guileless, affordable good guy.  He’s got a handsome, open face, when he smiles it makes him look a little bit goofy, in a way that’s charming but definitely doesn’t make you think “ah, this is a man who would have a secret engagement to a woman and then treat her like shit.” He just comes across really well and you can really see why Emma is into him. Why, in fact, Jane Fairfax might have been into him in Weymouth. He does wear breeches tight enough that it’s sometimes hard to know where to look but, hey, it was the style and Jane and Emma both clearly liked what they saw.

While Frank Churchill was the casting choice I found most impressive, the casting choice I found most enjoyable was Harriet Smith. Because she looks like this.

She is adorable. But she is that special brand of adorable where she really, really, really looks like she wants to fuck everybody she’s talking to.

And yes, this does mean that there a lot of scenes where, in the running commentary in my admittedly probably slightly idiosyncratic brain, we have Emma looking at Harriet like she wants to eat Harriet’s delicious skin, and Harriet looking at Emma like she wants Emma to do her hard, right now, on this window seat.

The weird sexual undertone of Harriet’s relationship with Emma (there’s a scene where she’s sort of demanding that Emma tell her what ribbon to put on her bonnet and clearly getting off on the powerlessness) is part of what made me sometimes think of this adaptation as “the BDSM Emma”. The other thing that made me think of it that way is that it’s sort of the only way to think about Frank and Jane’s relationship that makes it even a little bit not totally gross.

In some ways this adaptation’s Jane Fairfax is a straight-down-the-line as their Mr Woodhouse or their Miss Bates. But the actress brings a genuine quiet passion with her that occasionally simmers to the surface in scenes like the one where she insists on the right to collect her own letters or storms out of Donwell before the excursion to Box Hill that makes it just possible to read everything that goes on between her and Frank as a consensual sex game. I should say that this absolutely isn’t my reading of the original text and I don’t think it’s particularly intentional here either but she has such power bottom energy that when was  telling Emma how she’s marrying Frank at the end I found myself thinking “they are going to have so much sex” instead of what I usually think, which is “fuck, no, get out while you still can or, actually, the harsh economic reality of your society is that being married to an arsehole who treats you badly genuinely is your best option.”

Anyway, bit hard to know how to rate this really because “I loved everything about this adaptation of Emma except its portrayal of Emma” is quite hard to convert to a strict numerical ranking. I think it was slightly better than the Sense and Sensibility in terms of production values and supporting cast, but I just don’t think I can rate a version of Emma where Emma is skin-eating alien higher than adaptations where none of the cast look like they want to eat any parts of anybody. On the other hand, at least there’s not a random bow and arrow scene.

Maybe seven thousand a year?

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EDIT: BOOKS ARE ALL GONE. FORM IS NO LONGER ACCEPTING SUBMISSIONS. THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH FOR YOUR GENEROSITY. IF YOU HAVE SLIPPED THROUGH THE NET SOMEHOW AND HAVE MADE A DONATION BEFORE THE FORM CLOSED PLEASE EMAIL MARY(AT)QUICUNQUEVULT(DOT)COM AND WE’LL SORT YOU OUT!

Hello. Here’s a thing I’m doing again. That will, as ever, be done slightly haphazardly.

If you’d like to get a signed and personalised (though, I hasten to add, not annotated—that takes me forever and I still owe two people annotated editions from the last time I did something like this. So sorry, they are on their way, I promise) copy of one of my books in return for a donation to a charity supporting Ukraine (and the cost of postage) … then you can do that while I have copies of books available.

Normally I don’t feel comfortable selling signed copies of my work because the publishers give me the books for free (so it feels wrong to then try to flog them on), international postage is expensive, and also I have no idea what an appropriate price would be. However, I do have some spare copies of my books sitting around my house, and I feel this is a fair way to use them.

What I can’t guarantee, however, is copies of particular books to particular people. I have a muddled collection of my back catalogue available so it’s going to be something of a lucky dip. I realise that might be disappointing if you have a particular favourite you’d like a copy of but … well… this is for charity.

Please also do be aware that I only have limited books available. I will update the page when I’m out but please do check that I still have books to offer before you go making any donations. Although, obviously, you can donate to charity … y’know, just because.

This is also very much a one book per person type arrangement. So please do not sign-up multiple times, even if you’ve made multiple donations.

How much is this going to cost?

Well, it’s a little bit of a pay what you can. I’m going to ask you to make a donation to a Ukraine-supporting charity of your choice and my minimum recommended donation is the equivalent to $25 in your local currency.

Obviously, if you can afford to give more I would encourage you to do so, but that’s entirely up to you. If you’ve already donated to a charity supporting Ukraine then you can use that as your donation for this.

I’m afraid I’ll also need you to cover the cost of postage. For what Royal Mail considers a small parcel, tracked and signed for (assuming a book plus packaging weighs less than 500g) it works out as something like:

  • £10 if you’re in the UK
  • 20 Euros for Europe
  • $25 (or local currency equivalent) for worldwide

How does it work?

  1. Make a donation to a charity working to support Ukraine. I’ve made some suggestions below but you can absolutely choose your own, although I do reserve to reject donations to institutions that don’t reflect my values.
  2. Fill in this form [link removed because no longer taking submissions]. The form will ask for proof of donation (among other things) but please feel free to block out, you know, bank details and things for your safety.
  3. Once I’ve got your details and I’m comfortable with the organisation you’ve chosen to donate to, I’ll send you a PayPal link to cover the postage and then I’ll prepare a book for you and pop it in the post as soon as I can.

Why Ukraine?

I think the answer to that is self-evident.

What charities do you recommend?

Again, these are just suggestions.  You’re very welcome to choose a charity of your own, as long as it’s currently doing work in support of Ukraine. If you’d like to recommend a charity for my list just let me know.

Doesn’t this work out being a pretty expensive way to get a book?

Yes, but non-signed versions of my books are also available world-wide. This is for charity. And also entirely optional.

What books do you have?

I have copies of most of my recent books, including Something Fabulous, Boyfriend Material, the Kate Kane series, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, and Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake. My supplies of Ardy and Spires are somewhat limited but I’ve got a few copies knocking around.

Why don’t you do auctions like a normal person?

Because auctions make me uncomfortable. Obviously things like this come down who has money going spare but at least this way it’s the same amount of money for everyone and I don’t like the idea that only the people with the largest disposable incomes can access a book I’ve signed.

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I stopped doing Things I Liked during the pandemic because it was getting hard to Like things. And then it got briefly easier to Like things. And now it’s hard again. Well, fuck. Having said that, I am trying to maintain something that resembles a positive mental attitude. So here we go.

MicroMacro Crime City

This is a mostly adorable but also weirdly dark game thing that’s basically Where’s Wally (Where’s Waldo for American readers) but with murders.

Like Martin Handford’s famous series of children’s book, MicroMacro is based around a large detailed map full of distracting incident on which one is required to locate a specific tiny thing. It’s just that instead of specific tiny thing being a goofy dude in a stripey hat, it is instead … well. Murders. By far the simplest way to explain it is to show you the demo case.

Seriously, check it out.

Checked it out? Yeah, that’s what the game is like. They give you a situation, where a bad thing has happened, and then you need to look at all the little images surrounding the bad thing and work out how it went down and what might happen next. The cute gimmick of the game (which you’ve probably already worked out from the demo if you played it) is that there’s, well, wibbly wobbly timey wimey shit going on with the map so you’ll see a dead body but, then, elsewhere on the map you’ll see the victim earlier in the day and then slightly earlier in the day and, somewhere else, you’ll see the killer making their escape, and then further along in their escape and so on.

It’s genuinely quite hard to explain in words. That why you should check out the demo.

I found out about this game through Shut Up and Sit Down’s review and a point they make about the game with which I heartily agree is that, although it says on the box it’s for 1-6 players, it is in many ways a game for exactly 2 players. The reason for this is that it doesn’t quite work with 1 because part of the joy of the game is making little discoveries and if you make those little discoveries on your own that just feels a bit sad and futile. But if you try to play with more than 2 then (depending how big your table is, how much floor space you’ve got and so on) you can wind up getting in each other’s way. Or some of you just devolve into spectators while the group Poirot is all like “ah hah, here we see the tiny dog man with an umbrella but further along you see the umbrella, she has vanished.”

It’s lot of fun, though. I will say that, like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (wow, I reviewed that a long time ago now) it has that strictly finite number of plays thing and, unlike Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, the individual cases are short enough that I did feel the finite-ness a bit more. There are sixteen cases in the box and you can get through one in 10-20 minutes which means (*does mental arithmetic*) that this game represents roughly a 160 to 320 minutes of entertainment. However, if there’s two of you that becomes 320 to 640 person minutes of entertainment. Which doesn’t feel like loads, but the game does only cost somewhere in the twenty quid region so, depending on your relative level of affluence, it’s kind of takeaway money. And it is, by most metrics, more fun than a takeaway.

Often when I talk about boardgames, people often want to know how child friendly they are and a criticism that was levelled at early printings of the game was that some of the cases were perfectly child friendly and others were a bit … cartoon sexy. The newer print run (and the expansion pack, which is basically just the same game with a different map) gives each case a little code for how child friendly it is. As always, it’s got that slight thing where it seems to think that boobs are more of problem than murders but it does at least give you an idea of what to expect.

A Frankly Overpriced Hot Chocolate Machine

It’s winter and I wanted to cheer myself up so I had an attack of conspicuous consumption and bought a little stand-alone machine that makes cups of hot chocolate one a time. And, wow, writing that makes me feel like part of the problem. The thing is, I really like hot chocolate but, spoiled by many years in catering job, I always found home-made chocolate deeply unsatisfying. Like, it gets watery towards the bottom or has a grainy texture or hasn’t blended properly or has that slightly burned milk smell and—wow, this is really not helping me feel less like part of the problem.

Anyway, so I spent an unnecessary hundred pounds on an over-advised, over-priced, probably slightly over-engineer hot chocolate making machine from Hotel Chocolat and I’m really embarrassed about but it does make really good hot chocolate.  Like, it makes exactly one cup, it comes out exactly at drinking temperature, and it has a smooth silky texture that continues all the way to bottom, with zero grainage, clumping or waterfication. Those are technical terms. Don’t look them up.

I’m just trying to suppress the instinct to, every time I use it, to divide the cost of the machine by the number of cups of hot chocolate I’ve made it with so far in the futile hope that it’ll eventually get down to a reasonable price per cup.

Strange Horticulture

This is a cute, macabre simultaneously relaxing and stressful game about being a sort of … slightly fantasy-ish herb selling person in somewhere that feels like a fantasy Lake District. There seems to have been a strange run of these games recently, because there’s one where you run a potion which I think is very similar except you have to grind the herbs yourself, and actually that might actually only be two. But it’s still two more than I would really expect there to be.

Anyway, this is a game about identifying herbs and then giving the herbs you’ve identified to people who need herbs. There’s a sort of bizarrely metal plot happening in the background where an evil cult has summoned an demon monster thing that is just straight up murdering people and the solution to this problem is herbs, herbs and more herbs.

So…yes. It’s a totally herb-based game. Its primary gameplay loop is finding new herbs, looking those herbs up in a book to work out what those herbs are, then having people come in and say “I have this problem” and saying to yourself “ooh I think I remember which herb is the right herb for that problem, let me look in my book” and then you look in your book and you’re all “aha, have some of this” and they’re all like “thank you herb person, you’re great” and it’s just nice.

There’s also a kind of low-key puzzle element where to find new herbs you’ll get cryptic clues from a (possibly completely non-diegetic?) deck of cards that will direct you to coordinates on a map. And you’ll have to use code wheels and a sort of magic spyglass thing to find other clues and there’s all secrets to unlock and things but nine times out of ten the correct solution is a herb or something that looks like a herb and the other time out of ten the solution is an elixir you’ve just learned how to make from herbs.

Basically it’s a good game if you like herbs.

I’ve probably sold this really badly but it does have a wonderful—tactility is a weird word to use for something you control entirely with a mouse and keyboard but I think I want to say tactility. You line your herbs up on your shelves (a recent patch gave you more shelves because there weren’t quite enough originally), you pick them up, you move them around. You can water them if you want although this has no actual effect. You can also pet your cat which makes the cat happy and gives you an achievement.

It’s just nice. And about herbs. I like herbs. If the writing falls though I’ve decided I’ll become a magic herbalist. It seems nice.

Rhys Ifans as Rasputin In An Otherwise Not Great Film

So I quite liked the original Kingsman. It’s a fun silly action movie in which Colin Firth is extremely well dressed and sexier than he’s been since 1995 (we’ll get there, Austathon followers, but it’s about 24 years away). And it’s always been a bit sad to me that the series went downhill. So it was with hope and joy in my heart that I went into the prequel (The King’s Man, do you see?) with the understanding that (a) it was better than Kingsman 2 and (b) it had a fight scene where Ralph Feinnes fights Rhys Ifans as Rasputin.

I was correctly informed about how awesome it was to see Rhys Ifans play Rasputin, and how double-awesome it was to see him do a long fight sequence with Ralph Feinnes.

I was incorrectly informed regarding the not terribleness of the film.

Probably the easiest way to quickly convey how … what this is I don’t even … I found this film was that not long after the scene where, let’s say it again, the guy who played Spike in Notting Hill, wearing a huge beard and a cassock, wielding a crucifix full of opium, has a long martial arts/traditional Russian dance battle with the bloke from the English Patient, there’s a really extended, really Wilfred Owen saturated, totally played straight, sequence about the horrors of WWI trench warfare in which the protagonist’s son straight up dies.

Like there’s a funeral scene where they read Dulce et Decorum Est (three years before it was published) and then that segues almost directly into the guy from The English Patient jumping out of a plane and fighting a goat.

It’s fucking weird.

There’s a concept in videogame criticism that gets a lot of shit for being pretentions called “ludonarrative dissonance”. This is a fancy way of saying that sometimes the mechanics of a game are at odds with its story. 99% of the time this is because the story is about how bad violence is and the mechanics are about how fun it is to gun down hundreds of people with automatic weaponry.

The King’s Man is the first time I have ever seen a film with Ludonarrative Dissonance.

When the movie starts… actually, side note. The movie starts in British concentration camp during the Boer War. It makes a point of mentioning that it is specifically a concentration camp and, yeah, fair enough, it is in fact correct that concentration camps were something invented during the Boer War by Lord Kitchener (the guy with the big moustache from the Your Country Needs You poster). But not only is this never brought up again, but Kitchener (played by Charles Dance) is kind of explicitly a good guy in it? Like he dies halfway through in roughly the same way Kitchener died in real life (only with more conspiracy stuff, obviously) and I was waiting for the other shoe to drop and for it to turn out that he’d like, faked his death and was a villain all along because, let’s not forget, this is the guy who invented the concentration camp. But … no? He’s just basically a good guy in it. And then he dies, and you’re supposed to be, sort of, “oh no, that guy who was committing actual war crimes at the start of the movie is dead”.

Anyway, in the bizarrely never referenced again concentration camp scene, the English Patient’s wife gets fridged largely, as far as I can tell, because he explicitly tells her to run into gunfire, and then afterwards he goes all pacifist.

Except it’s revealed later that he’s set up the precursor of the Kingsman agency. So he’s sort of a pacifist… unless there’s someone he really wants to kill?

Which sort of feels very “vegetarian between meals” to me.

They decide to assassinate Rasputin and the English Patient is all “well I’m a pacifist but I’ll make this one exception and put the international murder network I built to the purpose for which I built it”. And then … it’s sort of like he’s cured of being a pacifist for a bit.

Then his son dies in the war, and he has sort of a relapse. But … like … pacifism isn’t the same as heroin. It’s a genuine moral position a person can actually believe in. Except in this cinematic universe it sort of is, so he has to be like, encouraged to go and do a bunch of mass murders for the sake of his mental health slash the world.

Even weirder, the final confrontation includes this whole long fight sequence where Ralph and his sidekicks murder like, a whole bunch of people whose only real crime is happening in his way. And like, properly like, sweet kill shot murder them in the face with swords, not like, second-death-star-there-might-have-been-some-innocent-people-on-that-weapon-of-mass-destruction murder. But then when he finally faces off against the villain, it’s like the movie has forgotten this and is all “oh but he’s a pacifist, how will he stop the bad man”. And the audience, I assume, is all “well, he could just kill him with a sword, like he’s just done to thirty other people?”

Pretty much the final shot of the final confrontation is the villain teetering on the edge of a cliff with the English Patient holding him by his cashmere scarf that is also a clue (don’t ask) and the villain actively taunting him with how his refusal to kill makes this a difficult situation for him.

And somehow, instead of responding by saying “can you not see the literal mountain of corpses” he instead says “I have become the man my son would have been” and then cuts the scarf with his son’s (apparently razor sharp?) Victoria cross.

It’s like … I genuinely don’t know what the film was going for. The thing is I don’t think movies are inherently obliged to have an anti-war message. I don’t even think they’re obliged to have an anti-First-World-War message (yes it was a senseless waste of human life but that is such a cold take that a film that seriously explored why the people who started the war felt they had to do it might be genuinely refreshing).

What I can’t get over is that you’ve got this jingoistic high-blood, yay murder action movie that inexplicably chose to put All Quiet on the Western Front into the middle of it.

The English Patient’s son’s whole deal is that he wants to join up and fight in the war, but his father is all “no no, I’m afraid that you’ll get fridged like your mother” but the boy is all like “no, the war shall be glorious” and then he gets into the trenches and he’s “oh no, the horrors of war, I was not prepared for this” and then he all dies tragically.

Except. Except. On either side of this sequence it’s a silly action movie. There’s this really harrowing bit where he’s on a scouting mission in no man’s land and they can’t fire any guns or else the artillery will kick off, and they get into a bloody knife fight with a group of German soldiers and he’s forced to, like, kill a young German boy who is begging for his life and it’s all … gosh isn’t war bad. But … but… but…that sequence comes in between the actual dance fighting and the completely casual massacre of vast numbers of faceless mooks, one of whom is a giant.

The English Patient’s son finally dies when he gets back to the trenches and, because he had to take on somebody else’s identity to get to the front (because his father had used his influence blah blah blah) they think he’s a spy and a scared Tommy shoots him in the head with a rifle. In slow motion.

But… we’ve established that this is a world where guns aren’t dangerous. We’re twenty minutes away from the main character blocking a hand grenade with a dinner tray.

Then again, I suppose you don’t have a health bar in a cutscene.

The film also goes to some … questionable places with its political themes. For a start blaming essentially every bad thing that happened in the twentieth century on one angry Scotsman and his sinister conspiracy is… a choice. An especially odd choice for a film that, I will remind you starts in a British concentration camp. What gets still worse is that that the random Scottish guy is fictional but none of his co conspirators are. They include Mata Hari (who is barely in it and gets to do… about what you’d expect Mata Hari to do in a film like this), Gavrilo Princip (yes the evil Scotsman really did just straight up cause the First World War) and Erik Jan Hanussen. Hanussen, for what it’s worth, survives the movie and goes on to take over the fictional Scotsman’s conspiracy, and there’s a post-credits scene where he’s introducing Lenin (who is also part of the conspiracy) to the conspiracy’s newest recruit.

No prizes for guessing who the newest recruit is.

Umm… it’s Hitler. The newest recruit is Hitler. Which means it’s sort of canon in this cinematic franchise that Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany were set up by… a conspiracy that at the end of the film is definitely being run by a Jewish man.

(And this is a bit complicated by because Erik Jan Hanussen denied his Jewish heritage and was at least in some way associated with the early Nazi party but it is still not a good look for a film made in the 2020s).

But it does have a scene where Rhys Ifans wears a huge fake beard, gives Ralf Fiennes a highly sexual leg massage and then has a dance fight with him. And that bit, I did quite enjoy.

And that’s the things I liked this month. Well, last month.

How about you?

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So, last post I mused about why there was a thirty-year gap between the 1940s Pride & Prejudice and any other Jane Austen adaptations. Turns out, there isn’t. Because there were three other Pride and Prejudices (Prides and Prejudices?) in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. These were, not in chronological order:

Season 1, Episode of Episode 17 of The Philco Television Playhouse. This sounds like a parody of a 1940s anthology show, probably because it was, in fact, a 1940s anthology show. This released in 1949 and I can find out nothing about it beyond the fact of its existence.

The 1967 BBC adaptation. You can get two episodes of this on YouTube and I’ll come back to that in a minute.

And, finally, the 1952 mini-series with … wait for it. Peter Cushing as Darcy. This is apparently lost to time and I am devastated, I am fucking devastated. Because that means that Grand Moff Darcy is not something I’m ever going to get to see beyond this one publicity still:

It is fear that will keep Wickham in line. Fear of this battlestation.

Anyway, I did my very best to source the 1967 but the rumour is that it was filmed back in the day when Equity (the British actors’ union) refused to allow recorded performances to be broadcast more than once. And, like, I can see the logic of this in a sense. If you’re just transitioning away from theatre towards filmed media then you must be acutely aware that, whereas if you’re in a play you get paid every time, if you’re on TV they pay you once and then carry on exploiting your labour for the rest of time.

Slight digression: one of the greatest rhetorical coups of history is the negative connotation we now attach to the word “luddite”. The luddites were, ultimately, completely right that automation was very very bad for the people whose jobs it replaced and they were also completely right that there were no systems in place to stop the cost of that economic change falling completely on the most vulnerable people in society. And it’s always interesting to me to look at things like Equity refusing to let recorded performances be repeated, which seem silly in retrospect, but which are actually really fucking important. Because even if they don’t work, it is kind of vital not to just let capital reap all the benefits of technological progress at the expense of everybody. Otherwise you wind up with, well, kind of what we’ve got today.

Where we were? Oh yes. The 1967 Pride and Prejudice (2 episodes of). This is a funny one. First observation: every adaptation of Pride and Prejudice includes the line “Netherfield Park is let at last” in the first six minutes. And I suppose it’s because it’s from the book and is way easier to work naturally into dialogue than “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” but part of the reason it’s so easy to work into dialogue is that it’s such a banal phrase. And yet it’s become sort of quintessential to adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. Like, I don’t think I’d believe I was watched an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice if we were updated on the current tenancy status of Netherfield Park in any other way.

I’m really sad there’s not more of this series available because it might be one of the most unique Pride and Prejudices (Prides and Prejudices) I think I’ve ever seen—even compared to the 2005 film which yoinks the time period back twenty years because the director hated Empire line dresses, and made the Bennets literally live on a farm.  Basically, I’ve seen adaptations that cut bits out or change bits around or make Mr Collins not-a-clergyman or Lady Catherine de Bourgh a goodie or do kind of aesthetic shit with what people are wearing or how they talk … but this one just straight up puts in extra scenes. And, obviously, you sometimes have little extra bits around the edges, like the bow and arrow sequence in the 1940s one, but I’ve never seen an adaptation this willing to just explore shit that you can infer happened off page but which the book doesn’t choose to show us. Like in the first episode we get scenes of Lady Lucas and Charlotte where Lady Lucas is all “you may be a minger but you’re from a good family so you should try to marry Bingley anyway” and Charlotte is all “but I can’t really be arsed and I don’t like this stripey dress” or—even weirder—conversations between Mr Bingley and Caroline Bingley about how annoying it is that Bingley keeps renting places instead of buying somewhere like Pemberley. Weirdest of all, though, is that one of the book-implied scenes they choose to show us directly is Mr Bennet arriving to visit Mr Bingley essentially in the middle of what in the book, and every other adaption, is one scene of Mr Bennet trolling his wife.

Essentially, book/all other adaptations version:

Mrs Bennet: you really need to visit Mr Bingley so we can wed our five daughters

Mr Bennet: trolololol too busy reading and being a dick

Mrs Bennet: I’m sick of this. I never want to talk about Mr Bingley again

Mr Bennet: whoops, I guess I shouldn’t have visited him the PSYCHE

Audience: Oh my god, what a cool troll move. This demonstration that he’s a slightly less shit dad than we thought proves what an awesome guy he is

Mrs Bennet: OH MR BENNET

This version:

Mrs Bennet: you really need to visit Mr Bingley so we can wed our five daughters

Mr Bennet: trolololol too busy reading and being a dick

NEW SCENE:

Caroline Bingley: who could that be?

Mr Bingley: I think it’s Mr Bennet

Caroline Bingley: but he’s a rubbishy poor person, why is he visiting us?

Mr Bingley: stop being mean, I’m sure he’s lovely

NEW SCENE

Mrs Bennet: I’m sick of this. I never want to talk about Mr Bingley again

Mr Bennet: whoops, I guess I shouldn’t have visited him the PSYCHE

Audience: we know. We were just there?

Mrs Bennet: OH MR BENNET

This is the weirdest choice they made in this adaptation. Less weird, but more utterly unforgiveable, is the following: you may recall that in the 1940s adaptation, Mary Bennet looked like this.

In this adaptation, Mary Bennet looks like this:

Because she isn’t in it. They cut Mary Bennet. The bastards. And the thing is, I do see that there’s an extent to which five sisters is too many sisters, but that’s also the entire fucking point. And, y’know, if you’re going to cut one, why not cut Kitty? She’s just Lydia Lite, Caffeine-Free Lydia, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Lydia. I mean, she doesn’t even cough in this version. What’s the point of Kitty if she doesn’t cough? On top of which, despite taking more liberties with the Bennet sisters than Wickham, this is the only adaptation the bothers to have Lydia both claim to be, and indeed be, the tallest of them.

All of which said, I really liked this adaptation. I found the extra scenes genuinely illuminating (apart from the seeing Mr Bennet visiting). They’re all things you could either suspect happened off-page or imagine happening, but including them changes the pacing up. And because all adaptions tend to be a teeny bit samey (fuck if I’m saying this now, how am I going to feel by the time I get to 2005) it kind of offers a unique perspective on the story.

Final thing: I don’t know if was just because this was filmed in the 60s but Darcy and Elizabeth just constantly look like they want to fuck, like, really hard. In the sense of “wanting to do it a lot” but also “wanting to do it quite vigorously”. This is the most get-a-room performance of Darcy and Lizzie I think I’ve ever seen, and I think it’s the most get-a-room performance I ever will see until there’s one where they actually go at it front of the magnificent fireplace at Rosings. And, actually, since all the other episodes are missing for all I know, they do.

I’m not sure I can rate this one because it’s only two episodes but I think I can at least give it a fine living somewhere on my estate.

Anyway, onto the actual thing I’m actually here to talk about, which is the 1971 Persuasion. Won’t lie, genuinely loved this. The fact that they used forms of the verb ‘persuade’ about eight times in the first twenty minutes was, I admit, a contributing factor but, also, it’s just …really good. And I say that as someone who absolutely loves the 1995 movie.  Honestly, I might just really like Persuasion full stop.

In terms of production values, this feels notably a step above the other 1971 Jane Austen adaptation. Like they have outdoor shots where the camera moves, the costumes look less like they’re made of nylon (though Anne does have a tartan dress that looks like a pair of pyjamas my Granddad used to own), and the interior shots are genuinely quite lavish. I mean, yes, there’s only three drawing rooms but they’re really lavish drawing rooms. We’re still somewhere in the “haven’t realised it’s not theatre” era of televisions, which means they didn’t think it was in any way strange to have Anne sometimes speak her thoughts aloud to an empty room like she’s doing a very short soliloquy. Given the performances are otherwise a bit more naturalistic than the 1971 Sense and Sensibility this really stands out—and makes Anne seem like she’s maybe got some issues beyond the usual “I let a friend of the family talk me out of marrying the man I loved eight years ago and have regretted it every day since” blues.

Everyone in this is good. The vulgar people are suitably vulgar, the nice people are suitably nice, Captain Benwick looks hilariously emo (which is what you want from Captain Benwick) and, weirdly, Captain Wentworth manages to be surprisingly sexy despite having facial hair that just doesn’t stop in any of the places facial hair is meant to stop. He has sideburns so long you can see both of them even in profile. That is not right. It is very wrong. It’s like an anti-goatee. It’s like two Velcro straps holding his hair in place. It’s like his head is caught in the jaws of a small but vicious furry animal.

I will admit when he first came on screen I was horrified. But he does on grow on you, much—ironically—like a pair of overlong sideburns. He just really captures the Wenworth vibe for me: which is sort of playful with a hint of melancholy and side order of hidden passion. Like, you would genuinely invite that guy to whatever party you were holding because he’d be great value, and not in a mean way.

Anne is similarly excellent, although since it only stopped being the 60s two years ago, her hair does sometimes stray a little bit towards beehive. And, for that matter, there’s a kind of indefinable sixties-ness to her face. And, don’t get me wrong, she’s incredibly beautiful but it does seem like she’s about ten seconds away from slipping into a leather catsuit, grabbing a Walther PPK and running off to shoot bad guys with Diana Rigg.

But, much like Wentworth, I think—for me—she captured a sort … Anne-ness.  It’s genuinely really satisfying to see her grow in confidence over the course of the series and she generally gives an impression of having a lot going on under the surface. I mean, except when she’s literally expositing her private thoughts to camera.

There’s also a really nice connection between the two of them. Not a dry humping on the pianoforte connection like Darcy and Elizabeth in the 1967 half-lost BBC series, but an “I can seriously believe that these people were in love eight years ago and are slowly discovering that they’re still in love” kind of way. Which is, I think, not easy to convey. It’s a very particular, and quite subtle, form of chemistry. Plus, there’s something quite … private almost about their relationship, like they know each other well, and they’re good at communicating, but they’re more interested in communicating with each other than with the audience.

Basically, this is an across-the-board good adaption, and it does a solid job of evoking its supporting characters sympathetically. The Musgroves (in the sense of Anne’s sister, and her sister’s husband, not her sister’s husband’s parents), for example, have one of those compromisey Austen marriages in which it’s very easy to make one or both of them look absolutely evil and/or miserable. Since she’s a manipulative hypochondriac and he seems to care about literally nothing but guns it would be easy to pick a villain and say “oh he/she is so neglectful/neurotic that he/she has driven his/her wife/husband to behave in a neurotic/neglectful manner”. But instead it just sort of accepts that they’re both flawed people who get on tolerably well as long as their relationship is permitted to follow its patterns. They’re neither of them the love of the other’s lives but they do, fundamentally, function as a unit. Not a very good unit, granted. Not a unit you’d get from IKEA. More a unit you’d see advertised for about twenty-eight quid on Amazon from a supplier you don’t recognise and think, hey, it’s only twenty-eight quid and I do need a unit for the end of my sofa. And it’d get there and it’d be fine only there’d be too few of those little stickers they give you to go over the screw-holes so you’d need to make sure you always had a book in front of it.

Definitely not the best unit in the world, is what I’m saying. But one that does the job.

Of course, the one character who does come close to getting a villain edit is Mr Elliott. And, honestly, I’ve never been able to work out whether he’s a villain or not, or just a kind of agent of chaos / cosmic punishment inflicted upon the house of Elliott for their vanity and foolishness. Because, the thing is, compared to Wickham or Willoughby he doesn’t actually hurt or endanger anyone, unless we make some very specific inferences about his relationship with his late wife. And, sure, he’s a bit of a social chameleon and kind of insincere but he doesn’t, y’know, seduce and abandon anyone. And the thing is, I can’t tell if this is genuinely him playing a different sort of role in the text—as I say, a big part of me feels like he’s essentially an inevitable consequence of the way that Sir Walter Elliott has lived his life, chasing superficial prestige and failing to value character—and to what extent it’s just that these books were written, like, two hundred years ago, and whereas “sexually abusive guy” is a villainous archetype that remains deeply pertinent “guy who does not respect the inherent honour of the aristocracy or strongly invest in hoarding wealth in large estates for all time” kind of doesn’t.

And, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Mr Elliott is a socialist hero but there’s this sort of dramatic scene where Anne’s friend, Mrs Smith, makes the shocking revelation about Mr Elliot’s low character and it’s all stuff like “he married for money in a way that isn’t the way of marrying for money that we approve of” and “he didn’t think a baronetcy had a greater intrinsic value than the ability to pay his bills.” And, um, yes? Sounds legit. Of course, depending on how you read it, there is an indication that he was genuinely cruel to the rich but vulgar woman he married for her wealth but, by and large, that isn’t criticism people level at him. Like, the problem isn’t that he was a dick to his rich, lower-class wife. It’s not even particularly that he married his wife for her money. It’s that he overlooked her poor connexions in order to do so.

Thinking about it, while I’m stuck in the “I can’t tell if we’re supposed to condemn these people or recognise that they’re the ones who truly understand how the world works” headspace, can I just take a moment to say fair fucking play to Penelope Clay. Sure, she’s got a name like a second-string Batman villain but, despite being barely in the story, she manages to manoeuvre herself into a full on “heads I win, tails you lose” situation.

The thing that makes me think that maybe we’re supposed to respect the social climbers at least a little bit is that Mr Elliott’s final betrayal (insofar as it is one) is that he runs off with Mrs Clay who Sir Walter Elliott had clearly been intending to marry himself. But, also, Sir Walter Elliott marrying Mrs Clay would clearly have been a terrible idea because she was, y’know, a ruthless social climber who’d ditch him the moment she saw a better opportunity. And we know she’d do this, because it’s exactly what she does.

For all Mr Elliott is a wrong’un (maybe?), Mrs Clay has him completely backed into a corner. It doesn’t matter how much a charming two-faced cad he is, he can marry as many of Sir Walter’s daughters as he likes but if Mrs Clay marries Sir Walter and has a son by him then Mr Elliott gets fuck all. So, no matter what happens, Mrs Clay (who is nobody from nowhere) completely gets to decide what happens to Kellynch Hall. Neither Sir Walter Elliott nor Mr Elliott actually have any agency in this situation at all—unless they break the habits of their respective lifetimes and have an honest conversation with each other about how neither of them should marry Mrs Clay.

Ultimately the final twist isn’t Mr Elliott runs off with Mrs Clay, it’s Mrs Clay—who is holding all the cards—decides she’d rather become Mistress of Kellynch by marrying the younger, hotter guy than by marrying the older, less hot guy. I repeat: fair fucking play, Penelope.

So that’s the 1971 Persuasion. As I said, I really loved it, either because it’s good, or because I really love Persuasion. In any case, it deserves a full Darcy: ten thousand a year.

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This isn’t a post I ever thought I’d write but I suppose I didn’t really think I’d end up watching the entire filmography of Hugh Grant. Anyway, a preview of Husband Material recently went up on NetGalley, available for anybody with a NetGalley account to download (it’s still available, by the way) and there were quite a few readers who expressed consternation/anxiety to me about whether they’d be able to access it. There was a sense of NG being for … well … other people, I think? And I’ve had similar conversations with people just in the general course of my life as a human who reads books (as well as writing them) so I thought I’d just do a brief post about NetGalley, how I use it, some of its potential pitfalls, and ways of thinking about it that might make it seem a bit less intimidating.

 So, let’s start with the basics.

What is NetGalley?

NetGalley is an electronic distribution system which publishers or authors can use to distribute Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) of books and audiobooks before they’re published/released. ARCs will usually be a pre-proofed version of the book that is perfectly readable but not yet a hundred percent ready-to-be-released polished—something you’re expected to bear in mind when you’re reading i.e. don’t take a star off your rating, or complain about the book being poorly edited, because there’s a typo on page 163.

The general economy of ARCs is that you’re exchanging access to a rough cut of the finished book in exchange for a review.  And I think this is where the first level of NG Imposter Syndrome kicks in because you don’t have to be a reporter for the New York Times to count as a ‘reviewer’. As long as you write reviews somewhere, if it’s a Goodreads account, if you have a blog, or an Instagram, or a YouTube account, or, y’know, a TikTok like a young person, or even your Twitter. If you are the sort of person who talks about books on the internet then you’re a reviewer, and if you want access to ARCs, you can probably get access to ARCs.

With couple of provisos. 

The first proviso being that NG is partially geo-locked. There’s separate sites for the following five territories: the US, the UK, France, Germany and Japan. Which means that while you can access any of them while outside of those territories (I confess I use netgalley.com and netgalley.co.uk simultaneously and will often get books from UK NG that US NG turns me down for and, hilariously enough, vice versa) you will likely have fewer books available to read or request, or have fewer requests granted, within your non-home territory.

As a British reader I will tell you right now, this is frustrating and often discouraging. But it’s actually a publisher thing, not a NG thing. Basically, when a publisher contracts the rights to a book (that is the unglamorous way of describing what happens when an author sells a book) they either contract the worldwide distribution rights or they contract the distribution rights to certain territories. And that varies publisher to publisher, book to book, author to author. But what it comes down to is: unless the publisher owns the world rights to a book, they should only be giving general access to the book to people within the territory for which they the own the rights. Otherwise, they’re impinging on what may potentially be the distribution rights of another publisher. All of which is very boring and annoying, but that’s how it works. 

The second proviso is that very popular books in popular genres by big name authors are going to be in greater demand than, uh, other books available on the site.  Even if you aren’t denied access to a book because of your location, try not to get too consumed by the Gatsby’s green light of hyper sought-after titles. You should always try—you might get lucky—but titles like these are where publishers are likely to start looking for reasons to turn you down. Not, I hasten to add, in a malicious want-you-to-suffer way but if you’ve got potentially thousands of requests for a book to click through priority is likely to be given to a) people in the home region and b) people with more established reviewing platforms or larger followings.

Which brings me to my next point.

It’s not personal, it’s NetGalley

Nobody likes rejection, and I think human beings have a particularly developed tendency to read rejection into abstract situations, or patterns of rejection into random systems. And even though asking for a book on NG is clicking a button and being told you can’t have the book is a form email that says “sorry, you can’t have the book” it can fuck with your head a little.

I mean, sometimes I get approved for, like, academic textbooks in fields for which I have no expertise whatsoever or high-profile pieces of literary fiction which, again, is not a genre I have any sort of reputation in. And the next moment I’ll be turned down for the same queer romcom that the editor literally asked me to blurb two weeks ago. I went through a stage of getting nothing but rejection from Publisher Redacted and, because I’m a tenacious prick, I decided to ask a publicist who worked for Publisher Redacted what was going on during the course of a conversation about something else entirely. I assure you I wasn’t all “I’m Alexis Hall, benches, what is wrong with you”; I think I just asked what I could do improve my chances here and it turned out that the requests were getting rejected solely because of my region. They hadn’t even noticed it was me requesting.

Which is not say that publishers should be paying that much attention or that due weight was not being accorded to my great name as a barely known writer of some books some people might have read. It’s more that I could have had a million Instagram followers, or being the most insightful reviewer who ever reviewed, and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference because the house policy is to insta-reject requests from outside the home region.

So where I’m going with this is: don’t be afraid to request things and don’t be discouraged if you don’t get them. You’ll never know why you didn’t. But it’s definitely not a reflection on you as a reviewer or an implied criticism of your level of clout or influence. And it’s definitely, definitely got nothing to do with you as a person.

The Mechanics of Requesting

Books on NG will appear before you in one of four states: archived, read now, request, wishlist.

  • Archived: means the book is, um, archived—which means it’s either close to release or has already been released and nobody can request it anymore.
  • Read now: means you’re either auto-approved by the publisher (lucky you) or the book just happens to be available to anyone who wants it. Some publishers do this temporarily to generate buzz for certain titles—like a “read this book for this weekend only!” type thing, which means lots of people will (hopefully) be talking about the book at once which will draw other eyes to the book in question. Alternatively, the book could be a debut in which case, unless the author is super well-connected, there may not yet an established fanbase to draw upon and so the publisher is attempting to get people interested. Or else an intern made a mistake when uploading the book in which case you should grab it right the heck now if it’s something you wanted access to.
  • Request: is the standard thing you’ll see as you’re using the site. If you see this, it means you can click the button, and the publisher will either decide to release the book to you or they won’t. See above, though, regarding this being an impersonal process.
  • Wishlist: this is a complicated one because it can sometimes be the default state for all books in a publisher’s catalogue if they’ve geo-locked everything and you’re in the wrong territory. The best way to check is simply to click on the publisher’s name and see if everything they’re got listed is ‘wishlist’ with no ‘request’ option for anything. Assuming this isn’t the case, publishers will sometimes move books to wishlist when they’ve already given out a lot of ARCs or the release date of the book is approaching.  When a book is wishlisted, it means the publisher can choose to grant a certain number of wishes, which means the book will made available at random to exactly that number of people who have wished for the book. I’ve never had a wish come true, but I might just be terminally unlucky. If nothing else, it’s a good way to signal interest in and support for particular titles to a publisher – so if you can’t request, there’s no harm in wishing.

How To Get Started

As NG themselves are keen to assure you (I am in no way affiliated with NG, other than being a member of the site) making an account is quick and easy: you’ll need basic information like a name and an email address.

You can also choose—and I personally appreciate this—how you want to display your name on your reviews on the site. You can either be first name, last name (and then your member type) or an auto-generated alias. Personally I go by ‘Reviewer 854169’ because I think it has as nice ring to it, and it means I know that if a publisher wants to feature a review I’ve written on the site, it’ll be because of the review itself, not who wrote the review.

Finally you have to pick a role, which for most of us will be simply “reviewer” (unless you’re one of the others, like a bookseller or an educator, of course) followed by the type of reviewer you are, which again, will either be “blogger” if you have a blog or “consumer reviewer” if you primarily review on GR and Amazon.

And that’s all you need to do set yourself up with a shiny new NG account with a review feedback score of, um, ZERO PERCENT. NG itself has a really solid help section on getting started that I shall not pointlessly replicate here but one of the best ways to start working on that review feedback percentage score is the ‘read now’ section on the site.

There’s usually a fair number of books, from all genres, in this section and you can access them freely, regardless of your blogging platform, feedback score or anything else. Honestly, you could probably have a pretty interesting NG experience if you only ever interacted with ‘read now’ titles but they’re a really good way establish your foothold on the platform for when you want to start requesting specific books.

Interlude: that’s really all there is to it

That really is all there is to it. And as long as you have realistic expectations about the books you expect to be able to access, you don’t need to be anyone “special” or already embedded in the publishing industry to request ARCs.

Geolocks and serendipity aside, there are, however, a few broad strategies you can undertake for increasing your ARC-receiving chances:

  • Have a properly filled out profile alongside links to your social media accounts
  • Keep your NG feedback percentage high (the site recommends 80% but I read like a demon and I haven’t managed to get further than the mid-70s)
  • You don’t have to write an essay per book or pass a GCSE in whatever you’ve just read, but even if your review is only a paragraph or two you can still make it a meaningful comment on your experience with the book. 
  • Goodreads alone is absolutely fine, but sometimes a secondary reviewing platform can be helpful (though you should only start a blog or a bookstagram or whatever if it would be actually be fun for you: it’s not worth it solely to get ARCs)
  • If you don’t have or want to set up a secondary reviewing platform, consider putting your review on Amazon on release day: again, this isn’t mandatory, and it shouldn’t feel mandatory, but it’s a way of supporting the author if that’s something you want to do. It’s also another way to—and forgive this awful corporate language—add value to your reviews in the eyes of the publisher. Which, in turn, means they’re more likely to approve you for things.

That’s pretty much all need to know about using NetGalley (although they do have an extensive help section on the site itself, and I’m actually quite charmed by their Bookish blog) but this would not be a blog post by me if I left it at a mere fifteen hundred words so now I’m going to dig into some of the NetGalley pitfalls and talk a bit about how I use the site personally.

Turning your hobby into a job & keeping up with the NetGalley Joneses

This is honestly probably NG’s biggest peril, because it’s very easy for that shiny pile of books you were super excited about reading to suddenly feel like an obligation. And I think there’s a couple of reasons for this.

The first is that receiving books direct from a publisher can genuinely feel different to getting them for yourself: yes, there’s an aspect, of “hurrah, I have been blessed with a gift from on high, lucky me” but also an aspect of knowing that you’ve become, in however small a way, part of a system that has expectations of you. It’s almost like … you know when you were kid and the biscuits you’d sneak from the biscuit tin were always the best tasting biscuits? And when you were given permission from your parents to have a biscuit before bed, it was still a nice biscuit, and you were glad to have the biscuit, but it wasn’t quite as magical as the biscuit you took for yourself?

There’s a profound and inescapable pleasure in reading a book for you and you alone–whether or not you choose to review it after. And you shouldn’t let NetGalley, for its all excitements and opportunities, take that away from you. On top of which, dwelling in what I’ve sometimes called ‘future bookland’ can be oddly lonely: I mean you’ve read this amazing book and you’re desperate to talk about it but … but … hardly anyone else has read it. For myself, I deal with this by consuming a varied diet of ARCs and books from my tottering tbr: it might not look like this from my GR shelves but that’s because that I don’t review every book I read for myself, whereas obviously I’m required to review every ARC I receive.

Well, I say required: there’s an incredibly useful feature on NG that allows you to return a title without supplying an official review. The expectation is, of course, that you’ll be reviewing and if you choose the “will not submit feedback” option it won’t count towards your review feedback percent (I may overly obsessed with my review feedback percent – I know plenty of reviewers who receive a steady supply arcs and their percentage is low. But I’ve always been a swot, so if you tell me to achieve 80%, I will torture myself until I do) but the option is there in case there’s some reason you feel you can’t review usefully or, indeed, at all—like there’s a technical problem with the file you were sent for example. I use this option if the publisher has been unnecessarily aggressive about reviewing (like insisting that any review could be used in publicity materials without the review author’s consent), there’s something triggering in the book itself that I can’t deal with, or my review would slant heavily negative in a way I don’t feel it would be fair to the book if it was published before the book was released. This is not to say, I hasten to add, that negative reviews should be suppressed or people shouldn’t write negative reviews in the first place—but since I’m an author with a platform of my own, I don’t want to unduly influence the way a book is received pre-publication, especially if there’s only a limited number of reviews. After publication when it’s open season on who can access and write about the book, I feel it matters less, because then my voice has less weight to it in the chorus of other voices.

The other thing it’s worth wrapping your head round, or more precisely ejecting from your head, is any sense of obligation that sometimes accompanies receiving an ARC. Or rather there’s exactly one obligation: which is that you provide a review (ideally an honest and meaningful review, but the base requirement is simply a review). The thing is, though, you don’t have to feel grateful or lucky or indebted for more than that single review. I’m not saying this to criticise publishers but ultimately they are businesses: the name of the game is always going to be money, so if they gave you a free book, it’s because they feel giving you a free book now will earn them more money in the long run—either because of your individual influence or because the cumulative influence of giving a free book to a bunch of people will essentially work like crowd-sourcing for public enthusiasm. All this is independent of what you personally thought of the book: if it turns out you didn’t like it, that’s about the book, not about the ARC process.

I’ve definitely seen some ARC receivers exhibit a certain self-consciousness around their reviews. Like, I’ll skim the reviews on the NG and see 5 star ratings followed by “I didn’t actually enjoy this”—which is a situation, I think, that arises because the reviewer is concerned that the publisher will withhold future ARCs if they don’t deliver something the publisher could interpret as positive. I obviously don’t work in marketing but my suspicion is—and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong—that it doesn’t work like this. I mean, if you trash every single book a publisher puts out they might get wary, and if you deliberately decide to hate-read every new release from an author you don’t like you might eventually stop getting ARCs for that specific person. But, in general, what you owe—and the amount of obligation you should feel you owe—begins with a book and ends with a review. That’s it. There isn’t even a timescale for the review although it’s probably a bit impolite to keep a book on your NG shelf for 87 years, and you will need to have downloaded the title before it’s archived or you won’t be able to access it. 

The other thing that can drain the pleasure out of NG faster than … um … a drainy thing is well, it’s this:

Err, I’m not crossing out the individual books listed here, I’m crossing out the section!!

My advice in using NG is to simply pretend this section doesn’t exist. Don’t look at it. Don’t worry about it. Don’t even think about it. For whatever reason, there can be a prestige culture around ARCs and about getting access to high demand titles: you absolutely don’t have to play this game and, unless you’re a very specific sort of person (who I am not condemning, by the way, you do you, always), it will probably make you miserable.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t request books that you want to read, regardless of whether they’re in demand or not, but you shouldn’t request books out of FOMO or to feel relevant or keep up with the NetGalley Joneses. One of my meaner Bookstagram hobbies is to find one of those high-profile influencers who lives in a perfect house with white shelves and exquisite buttery light and watch them ceremonially display the book they’re oh-so-excited about that the publisher were oh-so-kind to send them personally in a hand-carved rosewood box or whatever. And then wait. And wait. And wait for the post they do when they’ve read this book that they were oh-so-excited to receive. I have yet to see this happen, and I have been playing this game for a while.

I should make clear, however, that I’m telling this story not to criticise, but to point out that there are people who like reading books and there are people who like receiving ARCS. It’s absolutely fine to be either but, for your own well-being, you shouldn’t confuse one with the other, or think you need to be the one that you’re not.

Where I’m going with this, is that it’s perfectly possible to find a way to use NG that works specifically and distinctly for you—and that you don’t need to feel beholden to either publishers or to other people. Having just steered us from the Scylla of “keeping up with the NG Joneses” I don’t want to accidentally get sucked back into the “turning your hobby into a job” Charybdis but there is honestly scope for your ARC choices to make a real difference, when it comes to books that (for reasons you can probably intuit) are less likely to get reviewer attention than others.

It’s hard to do a direct comparison because books get loaded onto NG at different times and released at different times but just looking at the Berkley catalogue and focusing solely on contemporary set romcoms with illustrated covers (non-debuts):

  • Black author writing queer (book releasing Feb): 86 reviews
  • White author writing queer (book releasing Feb): 246 reviews
  • White author writing m/f (book releasing March): 259 reviews
  • White author writing m/f (book releasing April): 103 reviews
  • Black author writing queer (book releasing April): 15 reviews
  • White author writing m/f (book releasing May): 372 reviews
  • White author writing m/f (book releasing August):  191 reviews
  • Black author writing m/f (book releasing August): 8 reviews

And that’s with the backing of a major publishing house. Of course, it’s important for non-professional reviewers to request books on the basis of their personal tastes and preferences—no point grabbing an enemies-to-lovers from a marginalised author if you hate enemies-to-lovers—and reviewing needs to be about your enjoyment not about social justice. But there’s no reason it can’t be about both.  Something that comes up quite a lot in the conversations I have with readers about using NG comes down to “I just don’t see what me and my tiny blog and my GR account with 50 friends can do.” So, firstly, I don’t think reviewing needs to about what you can “do” per se. But if you feel your reviewing must or should “do” something then I offer the stats above as an indicator of the things your reviews could potentially “do”. The most significant which is helping to build a community of readers—of ordinary readers, not special magic influencers—in which books by marginalised authors are talked about as a matter of course as much as books by non-marginalised authors.

So in summary my top tips for using NG successfully:

  • Use NG as part of a varied reading diet, including the books you’ve bought / taken out of the library for yourself
  • Avoid the ‘most requested’ list like you would the dickhead on the bus who isn’t a wearing a mask
  • Unsubscribe from the NG suggestions email: it’s simply too tempting and you’ll get cool in your eyes and end requesting a bunch of books you might not actually have chosen to read and reading will ultimately feel like a chore
  • Don’t request a gazillion books at once because if you have a massive NG shelf it’ll feel intimidating and … once again … like a chore
  • Don’t take rejections personally
  • But also don’t self-reject: if you want something, ask for the thing. The worst you can get is a form email saying no
  • Browse ‘read now’ as way to increase your NG feedback percentage score and also to find titles you might otherwise have overlooked
  • Read what you want, not what you feel you should, or what everybody else seems to be reading
  • Even if you think you’re a nobody without a major social media following, word of mouth is still one of the most powerful (and unpredictable) mechanisms for selling books. I can only speak for myself but when I skim down GR reviews trying to decide if I want to buy a book, I will give much more attention to the honest thoughts of Reviewer 867363 than I will five stars from a Big Name Author.
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