Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Oh, Those Erotic Primates

Alcoholics. Drug addicts. Misogynists. Misandrists. Misanthropes. Sexual fetishists.

Writers have been subject to stereotypes for a long, long time, and with good reason. Within every caricature is a small grain of truth that applies to enough people in a group for the stereotype to catch hold and remain in the collective consciousness. Some of the most common (and, unfortunately, most accurate) conceptions about the so-called “creative types” are the notions of substance and spousal abuse, the tendency to drink to excess to awaken the muse and the unsociable nature that drives a person to abuse their loved ones.

There are a great many writers who defy stereotypes and refuse to be denigrated by drink or violence and cannot be classified by any method, and are possibly the actual majority of people in the field. However, it is much more entertaining to delve into the lives of people who, often tragically, fit the mold of the writer out of control.

How many writers’ love of drink and mistreatment of their wives (or, occasionally, husbands) have become almost as well-known as their bodies of work? Poe, Hemingway, Mailer, Capote, Carver, just to name a few off the top of my head, were legendary both in their prose and reputations as drinkers, brawlers, abusers or a combination of the three.

Now we can add William Golding to the list.

Booze? Check. Parental issues? Check. Bizarre outlook on human sexuality? Wow. Double, possibly triple, check.

Golding, who died sixteen years ago, kept journals and other papers over the years, including a memoir intended for his wife titled Men and Women Now, that shed some light on the author and his very personal life, including his early adulthood. In the memoir he attempts to unveil, and possibly explain, the ‘monstrous side’ of his character by detailing to his wife how he tried to rape a young girl while on holiday during his first year at Oxford.

He describes a fourteen-year-old girl as being “depraved by nature” and “already sexy as an ape.” What? Seriously? I can possibly understand “depraved by nature“ as a misogynist’s attempt to justify his arousal by and intention of assaulting a young girl, but the ape comment I just cannot wrap my brain around.

Could a Briton possibly enlighten me to this turn of phrase? Is this slang that didn’t make its way across the Atlantic, or was Golding more demented than even his memoirs are hinting at? I cannot think up a scenario where primates would arouse me, and I assume most people would come to the same conclusion. I really, really hope they do. I’m willing to brush it off as some sort of regional slang, seeing as we have tons of odd phrases here in the States that no doubt leave people elsewhere scratching their heads.

In addition to his bizarre sexual escapades, which include consensual sex with the same girl only two years later (including the line "Should I have all that rammed up my guts?,” which leads me to speculate that Golding was actually a character in someone else’s novel this whole time), Golding comes out and admits, going into great detail, that he pitted boys in his charge against each other while teaching at a public school.

I’ve heard of novelists doing extensive research, but I think that might take the cake for me. He actually created a similar Lord of the Flies scenario in a controlled setting before writing the novel. Holy shit.

I’m not even sure why I’m writing this blog post, to be completely honest. How many times have we as a global community been subjected to posthumous information about a public figure that illustrates, in thick black lines no amount of correction fluid can hide, just how morally reprehensible they were in life?

Perhaps it is because I have such vivid memories of Golding and Lord of the Flies that I felt compelled to write about it. In other articles, such as this one from The Times of India, it is mentioned that Golding’s work was required reading for British schoolchildren. However, I’d like it to be noted that, in addition to being a textbook in his native country, Golding’s work (with an emphasis on Lord of the Flies) was and still is widely circulated in American public schools. I cannot vouch for all schools, or even any outside of my district, but when I was in school in the 1990s we alternated between studying British works and American ones. In ninth grade we focused mostly on Shakespeare, and in eleventh it was mostly 20th century novels. It was during this year that I read Golding, as well as Huxley and Orwell. I wrote my term paper on Orwell, something I remember to this day.

My teacher that year hated me. She seriously did, and I gave her more than a few reasons to feel that way. I never shut up. I never took anything seriously. I never stopped looking over at my best friend Jen and snickering or doodling during lectures. I was hyperactive to an almost insane degree, uncontrollably self-interested and intent on blocking out the rest of the world. I didn’t like school, didn’t like reading things that were forced upon me (though I read nonstop, starting in early childhood and continuing to this day), didn’t like studying subjects that seemed pointless to me, didn’t like a whole lot of other people.

I was not, in any possible way, an ideal student. Hell, I wasn’t even tolerable most of the time.

Something grabbed hold of me in Golding’s work, though. In between pushing up imaginary glasses and loudly mimicking Piggy’s voice and mannerisms (we were forced to watch the 1960 edition of the film during class), saying “MY SPECS!” and “MY AUNTIE OWNS A CANDY STORE” when my poor teacher only wanted to show the film and get on with it, I found a piece of work that was truly both chilling and enjoyable. I didn’t mind the worksheets and quizzes on character archetypes or Simon’s symbolism of Jesus Christ. In my own obnoxious way, I was paying attention, at least on some level. I came out of that class reviled by my teacher but passionately in love with dystopian novels, something I appreciate to this day.

I suppose that is why, when I read about Golding this morning, I felt compelled to say something on the subject. I was flooded with memories of sitting in that stupid chair, behind that stupid desk, back in 1995 and finding something I loved where I least expected it. In amongst the jokes and high school rivalries and the pranks I pulled on my friends, I fell in love with a novel, at least for a short while. I really ought to go back and reread it to see if it holds up to the test of time, though I have a sneaking suspicion that it does.

To find out the author of said novel was as dark, creepy and subversive as his classic antagonist is no big deal, really. Authors tend to have their demons. I think what really surprised me about all of this is that he would reveal, so many years after the fact, his depraved youthful exploits to his wife. I wonder if she ever read the memoir or the journals and if so what her response to them were. I’m hoping that may be touched upon when these papers are published.

In the meantime, I think I might nix the idea of transcribing my journals. I’ll keep them in my nearly illegible handwriting, thank you.


Agnieszkas Shoes said...

The one that I always find unforgivable was Jean-Paul Sartre. Brilliant mind, shameful partner to Simone de Beauvoir.

Thank you for your e-mail. I'll send a proper reply tomorrow, but one point - do NOT rewrite without Japanese characters. It may be that US tastes are a little behind UK, but that is SO of the moment here. And besides, Japanese fiction is just so much more exciting than anything coming out in the UK, at least.

Jessica Brown said...

I'm looking forward to the email.

About the Japanese element of the novel - I'll respond to your comment here in case anyone else is reading.

For some reason, there's a real anti-Japanese sentiment going on in popular culture here in the US. If forced to guess, I'd have to say anime is pretty much the reason for it. As far as I'm concerned, it's as much a valid art form (at least in most cases) as any other style of animation, but it carries with it a huge stigma. I suppose this is because of its tremendous surge in popularity over the last decade, and the most visible of fanatics aren't doing anyone else any favors. I think the Internet, with its promise of semi-anonymity, factors into this a great deal as well.

Americans don't generally like foreign entertainment. This is something that gets under my skin constantly. Unlike other countries where people are content to either learn other languages or enjoy another country's pop culture with the aid of subtitles, we really have an issue with anything that is not domestic in origin. If a movie somewhere else in the world sees great success, it has to be remade by a Hollywood studio with an American cast before it gains a widespread audience. With few exceptions, these Americanized versions are incredibly subpar and can often be an outright insult to the source material. The Grudge, I'm looking at you. You too, The Eye. Holy hell, what piles of excrement those were, and the originals were amazing.

Anyway, what we have here in this country is a twofold issue. Japan is largely seen as a factory for horrible anime (and a lot of it really is horrible, seeing as we license anything and everything for a buck nowadays) and bizarre animated pornography, and nobody is exposed to the culture as a whole. Aside from foreign film fans, nobody here sees Japanese movies. Translated novels, aside from Haruki Murakami's books, are largely passed over, and even his works aren't what I would consider widespread outside of a certain demographic.

So, mention writing a book with a Japanese slant and your general reply is something along the lines of "LOL Japan" or "Is this some kind of animu thing?" It's frustrating, because I never set out to write anything inspired by an episode of Pokemon. I set out to write a story involving tea culture, immigrants and a culturally accurate ghost tale. I was worried about those responses as I wrote my draft and, unfortunately, I ended up receiving a few of them. Not as many as I'd feared, but enough to make me pause afterwards.

I'm very, very hesitant to change the story not only because it's my "baby" and I love my characters but also because I have a lot of faith in the work. I actually tried to explain my reasoning a few times but, considering an author generally doesn't get to interact with readers on such a personal level once a work's been published, I didn't think it would do me much good.

As of right now, I'm planning on working on another project this fall and coming back to In the Teahouse in a few months. I'll probably end up writing the second draft much as it already is with a lot of fleshing out and adding subplots. I'm going to write it the way I want it, and if it winds up being something that cannot find a publisher as it is I'll release it for free somehow.

Look at all those words I just wrote about a couple of draft responses. Damn.

Brandon said...

Don't worry about it, Jessica. You were making an excellent point that I, unfortunately, understand all too well. I personally prefer foreign music and storytelling as I find it far more engrossing and entertaining. If I am listening to music from another country, I want to hear it in their language; if I am watching a foreign film, I want to be subbed and not dubbed; if I want to see a film based on another from some other country or containing characters from other countries, I don't want to see a bunch of US bozos playing the parts.

I happen to be apart of a family that thinks the exact opposite. If it is not in English, they don't want to touch it. If someone wants to make a film, it must in English because English is "the language of business." I hate this way of thinking. I HATE this way of thinking. It is offensive that US exceptionialism must go so far in so many people's eyes.

These aren't all of my thoughts, but I'd rather not go into a long diatribe on your comments section.

Jessica Brown said...

Brandon, feel free to email me whenever you like. This is a particularly sore subject with me, and I love complaining about it to anyone who will listen. Kindred souls reinforce my belief and reassure me that I'm not part of some sort of microscopic minority in this country. It's good to know other people in this country object as well.

Brandon said...

I'll take you up on that. Not today, however, as I am frustrated by other things unrelated to the subject.