Daily Archives: October 27, 2009

Times Are Tough All Over

Seriously, though, I’m totally happy for Steve Perry that he’s got a gig shilling for UPS.

Every time I see this dude in a UPS ad, I can’t help but expect him to break out into “Separate Ways” or something. Although for a delivery service, maybe “Send Her My Love” might be more appropriate. Either way, dude. Hair. Get it out of the 80s, man.

The Big Idea: Nicole Peeler

Does a “beach read” novel need an intellectual justification? Probably not, but if it actually has one, that’s always a bonus. And as it happens, literature professor and debut novelist Nicole Peeler has some rigorous and righteous background justification for her novel Tempest Rising, which follows the mystical adventures of half-selkie Jane True. Not only that, but Peeler also lays out some deep thoughts on “urban fantasy” in general, and why it speaks to us here and now. Hey, that’s a pretty big idea, so it’s good we’re all already here. Let’s get to it.

NICOLE PEELER:

By trade, I’m a professor of English literature. And yet, when I finally wrote a book, it wasn’t the study on the pre-ideological formation of values in contemporary fiction that I’d always intended. Instead, I wrote an urban fantasy named Tempest Rising, which is about a girl who discovers she’s half-selkie.

In other words, I wrote a book that, on the surface, is the opposite of the novels I teach and read for my day job. From its inception, I envisioned Tempest Rising as a “beach read,” something fast-paced and sexy that a reader could gobble up in a day. Conversely, I teach Modernist literature, one of the most intellectually challenging genres possible, in that Modernism sought to elevate aesthetics over ethics and to eradicate the literary axioms taken for granted by writers and readers for centuries. These were texts meant to challenge, complicate, and obfuscate reality.

And yet, the Modernists weren’t merely being obstreperous. Rather, they were attempting to forge a literary style that was not only original, but also more effective at representing their lived experience than the rigid conformity to surfaces which is literary realism. As I teach in my classes, Modernist literature was fractured and difficult not because the Modernists were jerks, but because they were weathering the death throes of the philosophical assumptions Western culture had taken for granted for so many years. In many ways, then, Modernist texts are traumatized texts, testifying to their authors’ struggles to make sense of a world apparently crumbling around them.

Which leads me to my idea for Tempest Rising, specifically, and for urban fantasy, in general. There’s been much talk in the media about the “rise” of urban fantasy. Oftentimes, this coverage is attached to a particular cultural obsession with sparkly vampires. And yet, as most commentators have admitted, there is more going on with this interest in the supernatural and the paranormal than a mere teeny-bopper fad. There’s something about urban fantasy, with its very specific images and themes, that appeals to readers from diverse generations and walks of life, right at this moment.

When I started planning my own urban fantasy, it was very obvious to me what my Big Idea was going to be. I’ve always been fascinated with religion, mythology and fairy tales, and especially the idea of Jungian archetypes: the theory that, somewhere in the deepest recesses of our brains, lie the imprinted memories of our earliest ancestors. Jung’s theory explaining why diverse cultures share similar mythologies is fascinating, needless to say, but I’d always been a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, wielder of Occam’s Razor. When I imagined myself asking Holmes the same set of questions that inspired Jung, Holmes’ response was obvious: “Perhaps these creatures exist.”

And so, the world of Tempest Rising was born: I knew the sorts of supernatural creatures that would populate my world and how they would live amongst us. The idea of archetypes that first hooked me, however, has also offered me insight into the current interest in the supernatural and paranormal. According to Jung, we soothe our fears of that which goes bump in the night by weaving narratives–complete with morals, warnings, and vivid images of loss. In other words, folk and fairy tales are an attempt to make sense of a chaotic world, just as the grand aesthetic experiment that was Modernism was also an attempt to make sense of a chaotic world.

Think, now, of the times we live in, post 9/11: a world riven by various wars, natural disasters, the real plague of AIDS, the media plagues of Avian and Swine Flu, an increasing distrust of authority figures, and the nihilistic horror of terrorism. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, is it any wonder that urban fantasy, the genre of the contemporary fairy tale, is on the rise? After all, urban fantasy offers a vision of the world in which traditional evils–vampires, werewolves, zombies–are often times merely misunderstood. Meanwhile, traditional heroes–vampire hunters, government agencies, the Church–are often revealed to be sanctimonious, narrow-minded, and murderous zealots. The binaries neatly dividing good and evil are blurred in this genre, and the underlying message in many urban fantasies seems to be that the individual must make his or her own choices: that we must rely on our own experiences and intellect in a world that wants to brand outsiders as evil, to force ideological dichotomies on reality, and to make soldiers of us all.

Urban fantasy, like its folkloric and literary predecessors, offers no more and no less than a narrative restructuring of life: one which highlights cultural anxieties about our world even as it offers escape through storytelling. So move over Modernism! These “beach reads” bite back. And we like it.

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Tempest Rising: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Tempest Rising. Follow Nicole Peeler on Twitter. Visit her group blog, The League of Reluctant Adults.

What Obama’s Doing With Fox News

I think some people are under the impression that the White House wants Fox News to disappear. Nothing, I suspect, could be further from the truth. The White House is in fact delighted that Fox News and its merry cast of commentators exists. Nor is the White House vexed that its every pronouncement concerning Fox News solidifies Fox’s core audience; that’s actually the plan. The point is not to moderate Fox News by accusing it of being biased/not a real news organization/running or being the propoganda arm of the GOP; if anything, the point is to make it more extreme in the views it airs.

Fox News isn’t the number one cable news channel because it has a broad spectrum of viewers or because the quality of its news reportage is better than those of other cable news networks or organizations. It’s the number one cable news network because it’s explicitly conservative in viewpoint where other news networks and organizations are not. Fox News garners the viewers for whom ideology trumps news; every other news organization splits the rest of the viewers.

This is good news for Fox News, since four decades of conservative railing against “the liberal media” has given it a core of like-minded viewers, who being conservative are also loyal: they’re going to be with Fox News come hell or high water (as long as Fox News doesn’t change its ideological bent, that is). But it’s also good for the White House, because at the end of the day, Fox News’ nightly audience in the third quarter of this year was 2.25 million viewers in primetime (source). For perspective this means that it has roughly the same audience as your average Dollhouse episode, which was just yanked by Fox (the broadcast network, not the cable news network), so that its ratings wouldn’t stink up November Sweeps. Even with Fox News’ ratings going through the roof because of its little war with Obama, the actual number of viewers is minuscule. Or to put it otherwise, 2.5 million Americans watch Fox News, which means that 297.5 million Americans don’t.

Which makes it a low-risk ideological foil for the White House. Follow: The White House says Fox News is not a real news organization and is the propaganda arm of the GOP, Fox News throws a very public shit fit about it, which gives it higher ratings and an impetus to skew even more to the right in its presentation, and go out of its way to criticize Obama even further. Meanwhile the noise is all covered by multiple other news outlets, which in aggregate reach a much larger audience, which show Fox News anchors and personalities in the middle of ideological conniptions, confirming to the general population the proposition that, indeed, Fox News is more interested in politics than news, and reinforcing the impression that Fox News and the GOP are reading off the same page. Which makes the GOP look unreasonable in an era in which its popularity isn’t, shall we say, spectacular to begin with. To what end? Well, you might have heard there’s a health care debate going on.

Mind you, using politics to marginalize the press is not exactly a new thing; note, if you will, the aforementioned four decades of railing against the “liberal media.” What ought to make conservatives pissed off at Obama is not that he’s taking a page out of their playbook, but that he’s improved upon it. Conservatives moaned about liberal bias in the press to carve out an alternative ideological media under the guise of “balance,” but never managed to marginalize the “liberal media” in any significant way; it was just too damn big. Obama, on the other hand, is picking a fight with a small conservative entity and is essentially forcing it to do what he wants — make conservatism (and by extension the GOP) look like an extreme political position — by adding to what it needs to survive: an audience. But it’s a small-scale audience comprised of people already opposed to the president and his policies (ie., no great political loss). The conservative war on the media was Clausewitz; the Obama war on the media is Sun Tzu.

Does such a thing carry backlash potential? Sure, although possibly not as much as conservatives like to suggest. The White House has already run this play before — it used Rush Limbaugh as a foil earlier in the year, to good effect. Limbaugh loved it, because it was good for him and his ratings; it wasn’t so great for the GOP. People fretted that the White House elevating the stature of Limbaugh would backfire, but it doesn’t appear to have done any real damage to the White House. In a very real sense going after conservative media outlets and personalities is a smart strategy for Obama. Unlike the GOP, which is in such organizational disarray that no one really knows it’ll do next, conservative media outlets and personalities are reliable: They always move toward ratings. And that’s easy enough for the White House to manipulate to its own ends.

There is some irony that Obama and his White House are waging a media war on the GOP using the tools that everyone has assumed were for the GOP’s benefit. But there’s a saying that generals are always fighting the last war, not the current one. Well, the GOP is still fighting the last media war; Obama and his White House are fighting the current one. He’s winning it. And so is Fox News. And neither of them would have it any other way.