On Superheroes

Cuhullin
Cuhullin Riding His Chariot into Battle

Brian Kaller looks at the similarities and differences between the competing blockbusters Captain America: Civil War and Superman vs. Batman, and why Marvel movies are better than DC movies. Along the way, he reveals just what it is about superheroes that continues to fascinate us:

As long as humans have existed, we have told legends of people with super-human abilities, and delighted in stories of how they faced danger and out-fought or out-witted enemies. Gilgamesh for the Sumerians, Odysseus and Jason for the Greeks, Samson for the Hebrews, Beowulf for the Saxons – ancient scriptures, barbarian sagas and oral traditions swell with superheroes. In a more modern era the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, Paul Bunyan, the Lone Ranger, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes are all basically super-heroes, doing things real people can’t do. Every culture has stories like this; our forebears told them around campfires or mead-halls, 20th-century kids read them in comic books.

When societies abandon that heroic ideal, when they acquire the “philosophic indifference” of Gibbon’s latter-day Romans, the culture is in deep trouble. As our country slipped away from the post-war glow into an era of escalating hedonism, it abandoned superheroes save as pablum for children.

Yet Generation X-ers and Millennials, children of the counterculture, embraced them even into adulthood, perhaps desperate for the heroes their culture no longer provided. In this century, as the nation grows ever more troubled, we are turning back to stories that give us heroes to believe in – a sign that there is hope for us.

Yes, we can dismiss superhero movies as unrealistic, childish, and silly. And in a world of hip cynicism, self-serving politicians, and sleazy celebrities, why read or write about stubbornly courageous characters who risk life and reputation for friends or family? In a world where mouthing the easy lies of our time ensures success, why would anyone in his right mind cheer a character who questions, or, heaven forbid, rebels against accepted thought?

Because we must.

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Lovecraft

The best fiction and writing blog posts from around the ‘net, with advice and inspiration guaranteed to make you a literary cult figure. Compiled by howard.

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Fictional Atonement

Kanan Mikaya

Kanan Makiya is a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University who was an early and vocal proponent of the 2003 Iraq War. In fact, he was in the Oval Office with George W. Bush when both received news that Baghdad had fallen to American forces. No doubt the two congratulated each other at the time.

Then came the aftermath, as this New York Times article relates:

For years afterward, as Iraq fell apart, Mr. Makiya’s pen went silent while he struggled to make sense of what happened and his own role in the catastrophe.

As a Middle East scholar at Brandeis University, Mr. Makiya is a man of facts and history. Ultimately, though, he decided the best way to express what he felt became of Iraq was to write fiction. Only with a novel, he says, could he access “the larger meanings and deeper truths about what went wrong post-2003.”

The book is also an apology, and represents a decade of introspection for a man whose life’s work was closely associated with a costly war that was justified by the false assertion that Mr. Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the United States.

That says a lot about the act of writing, doesn’t it? Dr. Mikaya could have written a scholarly account explaining what went wrong in the war he advocated. But that just wasn’t enough. Mikaya had to redo the Iraq War. He had to creatively re-arrange the facts — to play with them. Fiction writing is a type of play, which development psychologists now recognize as a vital part of learning. And play isn’t just for kids — creative exploration of the world around us is both therapy and mental exercise that adults need as well.

There’s a redemptive aspect to fiction writing, also, which I believe Dr. Mikaya would acknowledge. It’s a means of making right those things from our past that still gnaw at us.

[SPOILER ALERT!]

In the novel and movie Atonement, Ian McEwan explored that aspect of writing. It’s the tale of Briony Tallis, a young girl who spitefully and wrongfully accuses her sister’s suitor of rape. That, of course, ends the wedding plans and ruins the life of both the sister, Cecilia, and her suitor, Robbie.

At the end of the story, Cecilia and Robbie are happily reunited. Then comes this admission from an elderly Briony, now a writer:

My sister and Robbie were never able to have the time together they both so longed for, and deserved. And which, ever since, I’ve… Ever since I’ve always felt I prevented. But what sense of hope, or satisfaction, could a reader derive from an ending like that? So, in the book, I wanted to give Robbie and Cecilia what they lost out on in life. I’d like to think this isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness. I gave them their happiness.

I think Flannery O’Connor was right when she said, “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.” Atonement, whose meaning includes both paying what’s owed and seeking forgiveness, is at the heart of writing.

Don’t Derail Your Writing Career Before it Starts: 8 Ways New Writers Sabotage Themselves

Derail

Anne R. Allen has a must-read post for both new and intermediate writers. She lists and discusses self-defeating practices of many newbies, such as: relying on well-meaning but uninformed advice from friends and family, overlooking the advantages of seeking out other writers for support and mutual critiquing, and failing to create and regularly UPDATE a writer’s blog.

But the mistake that stood out for me was “Writing Novels Exclusively.” Here’s what Anne says:

Once I decided I wanted to have a writing career, I dove right into writing novels. I left short stories and poetry behind. People told me they were for amateurs. …

I was short-sighted. If I’d had more publishing credits and contest wins, I would have found a publisher for my longer fiction faster.

I’d also now be sitting on a goldmine, since short stories, novelettes and novellas are hot commodities.

Anne’s absolutely right about this. I’m not claiming prescience here; in fact, I started out writing novels as well. (And I have the rejection slips to prove it!) I turned to short stories as a way to get the hang of writing for an audience as well as learning how to make my manuscripts stand out from the slush pile. I have to say it was a winning strategy — after getting a half-dozen short stories published, I tried long fiction again, and my book Aztec Midnight was finally accepted. Now, in addition to writing short stories, I’m again working on longer pieces.

But there’s another value to publishing short stories, one I learned in my previous career as a manager in the insurance industry. The most important thing you look for when you interview potential employees is a history of getting hired and promoted. A good record tells the interviewer that other professionals in the industry have put their stamps of approval on the person under consideration. Similarly, a consistent publishing history is a testament to a writer’s dedication and ability to write stories other editors like.

Seeing that other editors have accepted your previous manuscripts doesn’t guarantee an editor will accept your next submission, but it might just tip the scales in your favor.

Quote of the day

Gregory Wolfe

“Whereas I once believed that the decadence of the West could only be turned around through politics and intellectual dialectics, I am now convinced that authentic renewal can only emerge out of the imaginative visions of the artist and the mystic. This does not mean that I have withdrawn into some anti-intellectual Palace of Art. Rather, it involves the conviction that politics and rhetoric are not autonomous forces, but are shaped by the pre-political roots of culture: myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience as recorded by the artist and the saint.” – Gregory Wolfe

Witch Flambé

Witch Flambe

The latest edition of Aurora Wolf features my short story “Witch Flambé.” Set in and around modern-day High Point, North Carolina (my home town), it’s about two old friends now in vastly different circles who team up to clear a young lady who’s accused of setting fires at her employer’s “guerilla dinners.” Someone’s casting spells on the “underground dining” events, and our protagonists must seek out the help of a Scots-Irish granny witch.

Appalachian Granny Magic is one of those old Southern ways that have recently enjoyed renewed interest:

The tradition is a very old one, dating all the way back to the first settlers of the magical Appalachian Mountains who came over from Scotland and Ireland in the 1700’s. They brought along their even older Irish and Scottish Magical Traditions with them. Those two ‘old world’ Traditions were then blended with a dash of the local tradition of the Tsalagi (Now, called the Cherokee Indians.)

Because of the rural and secluded nature of the Appalachian community, the old customs, wisdom, and practices were not as often lost, forgotten, or ‘modernized’ as the ‘old world’ traditions that came over to other, more urban areas of the ‘new world.’ Therefore, one will often find that ancient Irish or Scottish songs, rhymes, dances, recipes, crafts, and ‘The Craft,’ are more accurately preserved in Appalachia than even in Ireland or Scotland.

This story was a blast to write. It has just about everything I love: good food and drink, old friends, the surprisingly enduring power of the past, nature’s astonishing ability to rejuvenate — all topped off with a delightfully scary confrontation at the end. I hope you enjoy it.