Friday, July 29, 2011

"Captain America: The First Avenger"

I have something of an inconsistent relationship with superhero comics. While I sometimes find the ideas and characters compelling the narratives often lend themselves towards cheap, repetitive thrills and rather lame science fantasy. For every Watchmen, which effectively showed that superhero comics could be a serious artform with a multilayered narrative and a number of valuable social and literary messages, you have a ream of comic lines which are just melodramatic romps with lots of explosions, people holding shocked expressions on their faces and unsurprising twist endings where people who were supposed to be dead or absent show up for a final frame full-page profile shot. It makes it hard to take the medium seriously when it's so often pulpy or unfulfilling. It's no wonder, then, that I have an equally strained relationship with superhero films. I'll admit I'm not a reader of Marvel comics; as ridiculous as DC is I find something reassuring about the safe and relatively trustworthy presence of Batman which simply lacks an appropriate equivalent in Marvel's circles. The handful of Marvel works I've read have left me thinking that when push comes to shove they're probably no better and that I'd be better off sticking to the DC characters with whom I at least have familiarity to get me by.
However this has never stopped me from viewing the film adaptations of Marvel superhero comics, and they seem to have managed a relatively consistent quality-to-quantity ratio recently. The first Iron Man was a pretty solid introduction, and while Iron Man 2 suffered from being more of the same and thus less notable a few other good ones like X-Men: First Class have kept me reasonably interested. In the lead up to this big Avengers tie-in Marvel has been planning they've done Thor too, which was okay but felt kind of rushed, and the now semi-redundant The Incredible Hulk which was... just okay. As for the previous series of X-Men films which would be virtually unwatchable without Ian McKellen carrying the rest of the cast (including Patrick Stewart, unfortunately) and the Spider-Man trilogy, of which I only saw the second and thought it was crap in spite of everyone apparently loving it, well, let's just not mention those. They seem, however, to be doing a decent job with their Avengers-related films. Not amazing or anything, but decent.
"Decent" pretty much sums up Captain America: The First Avenger. It's solid, it's robust, it's got enough action and enough laughs and enough romance and enough seriousness to get the job done without exactly pushing any major envelopes. It's kind of like Captain America himself. He's a big strong guy who can jump ten feet and outrun a car but he's not flying, throwing tanks through the air or shooting lightning at people. He's portrayed with similar stoicness by Chris "That's Actually Hilarious" Evans, who gives us a reasonably naturalistic performance. We get the impression that Steve Rogers aka Captain America is a kind of idealistic guy with a healthy dose of courage and a good heart but we never really have it shoved down our throats, which is nice. What we see the most is his humility and altruism which of course serve as an ideal counterpoint to his opponent, Red Skull.
While you would think that the classic comic book villain horrifying visage would already make Red Skull fairly hard to swallow the fact that he's played by Hugo Weaving, who is a massive ham sandwich on rye bread with cheese and a dash of mustard, turns him into an unfathomable caricature of the tallest order. We have absolutely no sympathy with this villain, nor does he have understandable motivations. Occasionally people say he's "nuts" but that's about it. He speaks in an outrageously exaggerated pseudo-German accent and has some diabolical plan to take over the world. Or destroy the world. One of those two. He seems to go for the 'destroying' option towards the end but it's suggested that he still wants to take over as well. He gets some kind of magic energy from a cube which I think may have been in the Thor post-credits sequence but it's never really explained and that lets him build distintegration cannons and some kind of super plane called the Valkyrie which has bombs that can wipe out whole cities... I think. No one ever says that but you see these flying bomb things with city names on it so I guess that was the plan. He also has Toby Jones, who seems to have scored decent secondary roles in loads of films lately, as his evil scientist offsider who inevitably gets cold feet. One day can't we have a villain and chief henchman team who actually get along? It's not helped by the unfathomable motives of Red Skull.
Of course this segues into the whole plot about taking down Red Skull. Despite being a World War Two film the actual German forces are conspicuously absent for virtually all of it. The swastika is only displayed a handful of times in the first half of the film and at a conveniently early juncture Red Skull's nefarious organisation, HYDRA, goes rogue from its Nazi affiliation and starts operating their own agenda. This accomodates a huge private army and numerous facilities. If Nazi Germany barely had the resources to stand on its own, where is HYDRA getting all the metal for planes and the recruits for soldiers and so on once they sever ties with Hitler? Good outsourcing? It reduces the sense of plausibility when we have this ridiculously cheesy evil organisation like SPECTRE on steroids with so much gear in the middle of the war. This is problematic because as mentioned before Captain America is a hero who maintains a lot of his believability and humanity; he's clearly above human power but he's not alienated as some heroes are. It would have been a lot more effective in my opinion to have pitted him against the Axis as part of the actual war rather than some kind of side operation against this similar but ultimately unrelated secret army. At least having HYDRA working on its own avoids what I like to term the "Wolfenstein Nazi syndrome" where despite being stretched to the absolute limit in a hopeless battle they couldn't win somehow late-war Nazis are so often depicted with access to beyond-modern levels of technology squirrelled away in bunkers and stuff, but it's still implausibly powerful and well-equipped for a private organisation in the Forties. Speaking of which, the HYDRA troops even have this ridiculous "Hail HYDRA!" salute where they stick both hands in the air. It looks completely absurd and is impossible to take seriously. This whole thing should have been dropped. Instead we get the now-overdone Marvel film conceit where our hero must fight a villain who has the same powers as him but is evil. It happened with Stark versus Stane in Iron Man, Stark versus Vanko in Iron Man 2 (good power armour man versus bad power armour man), with Bruce Banner and Blonsky in The Incredible Hulk (good Hulk versus bad Hulk) and for all intents and purposes in Thor with Thor (good Norse god) versus Loki (bad Norse god). Now we have Captain America (good serum-enhanced soldier) versus Red Skull (bad serum-enhanced soldier). Time to come up with a new plot, guys!
This all serves as an uncomfortable juxtaposition to the rest of the film which, beyond Captain America's own enhancement, presents a reasonably realistic and only mildly romanticised depiction of the war. The montage sequence of Steve becoming a propaganda figure for the war bonds movement unaffiliated with the reality of the war is considerably effective and is rather unceremoniously and disappointingly dropped after the first part of the film the moment Steve attacks the first HYDRA base to rescue Bucky and is immediately established as a perfect combatant and leader. Again it comes back to the silliness of the main plot involving Red Skull and HYDRA which, while providing the suitably action-paced superhero fodder, is not nearly as compelling or interesting as the exploration of Steve's own character and the interesting contrast of his very science-fictiony super-soldier enhancement and the associated personal power and glamour with the harsh and bitter reality of the front lines. It might have been effective, for instance, to see Steve thrown into battle by his superiors strong but unskilled and inexperienced, how his individual power contrasts with Nazi military might or the hollowness of promotion and moneymaking compared to life-and-death in the field. Unfortunately however the ideas presented in the first half of the film, which are the best ones, never get borne to fruition. Similarly all of HYDRA's sci-fi weirdness makes the sci-fi enhancement of Steve seem relatively mundane and unopen to artistic scrutiny.
The other characters are fairly unremarkable. Tommy Lee Jones puts in an acceptable but relatively textbook performance as Colonel Phillips, Sebastian Stan's Bucky is sadly undeveloped due to a lack of screen time, and Captain America's team of all-Allied buddies are introduced too late to be particularly noteworthy. Stanley Tucci's Dr. Erskine is unfortunately a rather uninspired mentor-figure and on a nitpicky level I can't imagine anyone from that period having such dishevelled facial hair. Dominic Cooper's Howard Stark is another interesting character who doesn't get enough development. Too much time was wasted on stupid Red Skull scenes! Lastly Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter, while of course very pretty in an extremely proper kind of way and given a few impressive moments is nonetheless a predictable romantic hook for Steve and similarly fulfils an incongruous and anachronistic action-girl stereotype of the kind so favoured in these kinds of films in a now-cliché and equally condescending attempt to avoid the 'Bond girl' dilemma. While all these actors give solid performances they don't get enough time to shine.
What Captain America boils down to, then, is a game of two halves. We have the rather compelling exploration of a superhero in the brutal scenario of the Second World War and a group of curious themes to be queried about the consequences of such a situation but it's sacrificed for a boring action-based plot surrounding HYDRA and the lamentable Red Skull. I know a superhero film like this shouldn't necessarily aim for great intellectual depth but in that case I shouldn't be teased with the tantalising hints of it we get in the first half of the film! It's a shame it becomes such a romp by the end. Similarly it looks like we'll have to wait until The Avengers to get a look at how an All-American Hero from the Forties might interact with the society and culture of the Twenty-first century and Samuel L Jackson's increasingly arbitrary appearances as Nick Fury are becoming quite needless. Unfortunately there's too much franchise direction in here. If a film like this had been made on its own and for its own sake it could have been something altogether more valuable. It's a good watch and is reasonably engaging but had it gone a step further into the artistic ground rather than the safe and comfortable retreat of action it could have pushed itself into the spotlight, like Steve Rogers in one of his bond drives, as a truly great film.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"The Way of Kings" by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings is boring. There, I said it. No one else had the guts to. I have mixed feelings about Brandon Sanderson. On the one hand he took The Wheel of Time, a series which Robert Jordan had, until his death, been pointlessly spinning out for books upon books with overcomplicated plots, excessive characters and increasingly turgid prose, and turned it into something punchy, energetic and reinvigorated while still maintaining the original style. His own writing, on the other hand, possibly leaves something to be desired. I've read four Sanderson fantasy novels now, the three volumes of the Mistborn trilogy and The Way of Kings, the first and so far only item of an alleged ten-volume series. Mistborn was a trilogy which started reasonably strongly, only for Sanderson to kill off his most interesting character and over the remaining two novels explain some of the mystery and create a haunting apocalyptic scenario with almost every main character dying only to handwave it away by having one of the survivors literally become a god and set everything right. It seems a little inconsistent of Sandy, who loves to resolve the seemingly unwinnable scenario. Spoilers will abound for The Way of Kings in this review as well, by the way, so if you haven't read it and intend to then be warned, although you should also be warned that this novel doesn't match the hype and you might want to reconsider investing in the reading time.
I picked up The Way of Kings because people have been going on about it like the absolute blazes and it was meant to be the next best thing ever after Tolkien and Oporto chicken burgers, although practically all Fantasy is described that way these days, be it this or A Game of Thrones, which I haven't read but is being bandied about alot, or The Name of the Wind, which actually managed to live up to most of its reputation. The problem with The Way of Kings, though, as I already stated, is that it's boring. I can't sugar coat it. It comes in at a whopping one thousand pages and it's meant to be the first of ten volumes. I suggest you think about that for a second. Consider the one they're all compared to, The Lord of the Rings, where in the space of a single book (it's not a trilogy remember) and a thousand pages Tolkien composed a timeless classic which ran all the way from beginning to end and was still incredibly rich and complex. It's considered trite these days but in my opinion Tolkien is easily the best Fantasy author. Sometimes I think he's the only good Fantasy author. Sometimes I think since he accidentally more or less created the genre his work doesn't have to be labelled as Fantasy. Regardless, his is the master work. No one will ever top it. No one will ever have the subtlety and simple aestheticism of language, the sheer depth of backstory or the same totally genuine narrative and characters. It's not a criticism of other Fantasy authors, it's just a fact. So people really shouldn't talk about novels like The Way of Kings as being the next best Tolkien sort of thing, a labelled equally misapplied to The Wheel of Time. The Lord of the Rings is on a completely different plane to The Way of Kings.
"Grey" is how I would describe the novel. Sanderson presents to us the world of Roshar, a rocky and windswept landscape constantly buffeted by huge tempests called "highstorms". There are humans and horses but other than that the flora and fauna are virtually unrecognisable. Lots of emotions and situations have "spren" associated with them, insubstantial sprites which manifest in the air if you're feeling certain things or certain kinds of weather are occurring and so on. This is kind of interesting with ones like flamespren and fearspren at the beginning because it gives evidence to people's feelings and conditions and stuff but when there are abstractions personified as well like "gloryspren" and "honourspren" it just becomes weird. Hopefully this is explained eventually, as is having men and horses in with this weirdness because if not it makes the entire setting seem weak and inconsistent. He also presents us a society where people with brown eyes are the lower class and people with other colours are the aristocracy. Men do practical work while women are universally scholars and artists and are the only literate members of society. There's a weird energy called 'stormlight' which powers devices including a sort of power-armour called Shardplate. The Kingdom of Alethkar are fighting a war of vengeance against some non-human people called the Parshendi over the death of their previous king. A number of other nations are named and identified on maps but only a few are visited, and all but one fleetingly, in the course of the narrative. There's a lot of implied history about people called the Knights Radiant and a time when apparent nasties called the Voidbringers wanted to kill everyone. You can tell Sanderson's figured out a pretty detailed world with a variety of different cultures, and if anything the cultures and geography vary a bit from your standard 'Europe by any other name' setting, although the people of Alethkar, the Alethi, don't exactly push too many envelopes away from a reasonably textbook pseudo-medieval European template of feudal politics and general social organisation. The sense of originality is also hampered somewhat by the presence of the Vorin religion, a sort of straw-man Catholicism of the kind delightful hacks like David Eddings were always eager to employ. Nonetheless things feel fresh, although the image of this entirely gloomy, overcast, desolate world is a little uninspiring at times, and maybe it's meant to be but the lack of variety is a little unhelpful. Even Kharbranth, where the secondary plot takes place, feels a bit insubstantial at times even though it's meant to be a wondrous "city of bells".
So into this setting Sanderson plops roughly four important characters and a few others who get a little attention in side passages, sort of like the maid and the butler in a stately home. The problem with them is that Sanderson's third-person narrators are almost universally of the brooding and introspective sort, who spend paragraphs and pages internally analysing their emotions and behaviour rather than presenting them through their actions. This was a problem equally true of the Mistborn series. Sanderson seems to like to roughly divide the majority of his chapters between brooding and action, and this contributes to a lack of pace and a sense of repetitiveness. Too much brooding, and you know you're about to get a long fight scene. If a fight scene's been dragging on, you know you're up for some brooding next. Sometimes characters brood while fighting, or between fights, and very little is given over to the exposition, which is usually the interesting part. Not enough time is devoted to dialogue either, which can sometimes be more engaging than the action and brooding as well. It feels like an application of the "tell don't show" philosophy and while some people might think it makes the characters well-developed to me they were shadowy and indistinct. Critic Richard Jenkyns once semi-famously described the characters of The Lord of the Rings as "anemic, and lacking in fibre", and while I certainly don't agree about that text it fits so perfectly for Sanderson's novel that I had to mention it here. His characters are rather dull and the conversations are often stilted, awkwardly phrased, unsubtly expository or constructed of attempts at casual, flirtatious and "witty" banter which come across as cack-handed and inept, like mediocre actors reading a weak script.
Ultimately it makes his characters unbelievable. They're all too stock, too mould-fitting, too perfect. They're not perfect like scary Ayn Rand characters with unfathomable motivations. They're just typical archetypes. There's the soldier, Kaladin, a former surgeon with a textbook haunted past who wants to save people but can't and is very frustrated about it. He happens to be virtually unbeatable with a spear and later develops what are for all intents and purposes magical powers involving stormlight. There's the prince, Dalinar, who is the typical grouchy, stern old leader who feels all guilty about killing and war but knows he has to do what honour demands. He also happens to wear this power armour stuff, kills hundreds of men at a time in combat and has a magic sword which lets him insta-kill people. Thirdly is Shallan, a young scholar who has gone to steal a MacGuffin from a powerful princess by becoming her ward but instead becomes enraptured by the world of scholarship and study. She too develops the ability to use magic. Fourthly there's Szeth, an assassin who sparked off the whole thing by killing the previous king of Alethkar and is now being used in fresh plots of nefariousness, much to his chagrin. He's also the greatest killer in the world and is completely untouchable in a melee. They feel like bad video game characters, their personalities secondary to their physical skills. They're just all too good at what they do to be believable, and while they all spend their time brooding even the murderous Szeth is one of these four 'tormented individuals' along parallel lines without any variety or fluctuation in their behaviour. Their big, major character traits never exhibit flaws; they are universal characteristics. The most interesting one is Shallan, who at least breaks the warrior mould and whose character arguably goes through a bit more development. Kaladin, in reverse, is somewhat more interesting in the flashback sections from before he becomes a soldier. Dalinar's sole source of variety is to be employed in the arbitrary and needless romantic subplot. However they're all rather insubstantial and never impress themselves upon the reader. It's to a significant extent the fault of Sanderson's incredibly prosaic language, which strives for the most straightforward and sufficiently-detailed account of action and thought without any real flair or aesthetic enhancement.
The plot too suffers from this. Sure, it may be part one of ten, but the novel is all just set-up. The main overarching narrative, as far as can be determined, isn't even fully established within the first novel. It's rather heavily implied that God is Dead and some other, evil god called Odium is going to destroy the world, which is so utterly bland, tired and predictable that I find it slightly insulting. If there is one thing I find tedious in Fantasy, it is the 'evil god' trope. Other than that the plot is virtually nonexistent. Dalinar tries to win the war against the Parshendi but is betrayed by his former friend and erstwhile ally Sadeas. Kaladin rises from an oppressed slave to a magic-wielding troop leader who gets his freedom in the end. Shallan tries to steal the MacGuffin, gets caught by her mentor but eventually ends up joining her anyway. All pretty standard stuff, really. That's the end of the book and the actual problem of Odium and the Voidbringers hasn't even been established yet as such. There are a lot of diversionary bits too with one-off characters where it seems like Sanderson just wants to show off the world he's invented. It's not integrated with effectiveness into the story, because too much of that is wasted on endless brooding and the action scenes which are not Sanderson's strength. Read one chapter about a guy in super armour waving a sword around and you've read them all. It's all the same: you run, trip people over, slash them with your sword or spear, occasionally an arrow grazes your helmet or whatever. There are a few moments in the flashbacks which are successful in conveying a sense of how absolutely bloody frantic, awful and terrifying it must be to participate in a real battle where lives are on the line for essentially no reason, but too much of it is just descriptions of unbelievable video game style untouchable fighting skill where Dalinar and Kaladin especially run around as blazes of boring glory. Sanderson clearly thinks these fights are extremely cool and impressive but they're tiresomely predictable and they seem amateurish and indecisive compared to the much more effective scenes which depict war as horrific, dehumanising and pointless.
Frankly what I think Sanderson needed in this one was a good editor. There's tonnes of material which could have been scrapped - overwrought descriptions, overlong brooding, unending fights - to pace the narrative better. It's almost all slog for the sake of a handful of very quickly described twists at the end, which seems to be something Sanderson likes. He also loves magic systems, and this one has 'lashing', which I think is also called "Surgebinding" or something. It basically involves manipulating gravity using stormlight. It's kind of interesting but when you've read some Sanderson like Mistborn these arbitrary magic systems start to feel a bit convoluted and like he's just reaching for the next 'out there' idea for some wacky magic. While this might sound like an immense contradiction in terms I've never liked magic in Fantasy. It only works when it's, say, the Tolkien style of magic where it's not really magic it's just great mental/artistic/spiritual potency, or the Rowling style of magic where everyone has it and it at least partially relies on words more than some special secret, because little cliques of mages and so on are generic and these 'special powers' just aren't believable when they're so alienated from real human experience.
There's not much more to say about The Way of Kings. I really don't understand why it's getting such amazingly good reviews but I guess maybe the combination of its length and the incredible dullness of its prose means that anyone can read it and feel like a clever clogs. I've got nothing against Sanderson; he seems like a good chap and his work on The Wheel of Time was a breath of fresh air but this just doesn't cut the mustard. It's too long for what actually happens, it's too generic Sanderson and the characters are lacking in depth. It's stuff like this which has me increasingly convinced that Fantasy as a genre is probably just mostly bad. I read Eddings as a kid but going back now it's ridiculously cheesy, although what makes it easier to swallow is you know that Eddings himself was finding it all just as cheesy as, if not cheesier than, the reader. Pratchett is sometimes suffocatingly smug. Brooks has good ideas but the rest of it is unengaging. Feist is similar to Sanderson - too many superheroes, dull characters and not enough plot. If you want Fantasy, stick to the reliable ones: The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. If those are too mainstream, consider looking into Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind. If that doesn't wet your whistle for speculative fiction, do yourself a favour and go for some good sci-fi: Philip K Dick, Asimov or Vonnegut, for instance. One thing I'll applaud Sanderson for is the lack of sex in his novels. Too many Fantasy authors try to 'sex up' their books (I'm looking at you, Rothfuss) and it's normally uncomfortable and unwieldy, and at least he avoids that. That doesn't redeem it though. I don't care what the fanboys and sycophants have been saying online; it's boring, it's too long, the characters are flat and it has nothing to say. If you can't do it in one book, I very much doubt you'll be able to do it in ten.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Adaptation and the Death of Culture

Sure, it's a melodramatic title. Nonetheless I think it's a problem which demands a little bit of an emotive response. It's becoming increasingly evident in my opinion that art is starting to degenerate in Western culture. I think it's a side effect of a number of issues; I could blame consumer economics or capitalism but I'd probably be better off blaming human nature and our tendence for slipping. What I mean is that we're becoming lazy as a culture. People's lives are so easy that we expect recreation and pleasure all the time, and the simpler and more direct it is the better. What this results in is an environment where people are apathetic about quality; as long as something is entertaining then it doesn't need any greater value. Of course this is a great boon for the corporate sector because as long as people essentially want to be exploited then it's a great source of profit, and greed drives the engines of consumption at both ends. So much creative product exists solely for the sake of playing off people's base emotions, the primitive human urge for awe-inspiring spectacle, cheap thrills or any other form of exploitation you could think of. Then again the other side's not in the clear either. Opposed to popular culture we have the literati, the educated elite with inscrutable novels which are written for the sake of being studied, works where if you enjoy yourself then you're either not appreciating it on the same level or completely failing to grasp the purpose of the art in question.
This is perhaps poorly explained. To summarize essentially what I perceive is a widening gap. On one side we have mass entertainment: simple, digestible and profiteering. On the other we have what I will questioningly term "high art": impenetrable texts, literary snobbery and egoism. Both sides disdain the other; the entertainment side sees high art as pointless, dull and existing only for the self-aggrandising gratification of the authors and critics. The literati side sees entertainment as crass, facile and stupid: intellectually irrelevant, manipulative and valueless. In the middle we have a kind of no-man's land. I think that's where I'm standing at the moment, wondering if the ground will just completely give away.
Why can't we have both, I ask? It's not that this situation's deliberate, really. I suppose you can blame profiteering on one hand for entertainment becoming more brainless and movements like Modernism on the other for making art inscrutable and tedious. The problem is that both factions are dominated by the worst examples possible of their respective camps. On the entertainment side of things this is where Adaptation becomes problematic. Look at things like the films of The Lord of the Rings or the 2009 Star Trek film. They were wildly popular, but both of them completely missed the point of their respective source materials. The Lord of the Rings wasn't about big drawn-out flashy battles and being 'cool', it was about an adventure, and sacrifice, and the folly of trying to seek permanence in a mortal world. As for Star Trek, well... the numerous TV series' had something to say in a vast number of episodes. In 2009 we received one film which was about turning something inherently meaningful and artistically charged yet also engrossing and entertaining into a film about nothing, a series of fight sequences and explosions which were always so much more powerful in the television series due to their rarity and consequences. In a matter of relevance to this blog's previous entries, consider Doctor Who. I know I look back on the Classic Series with blinding nostalgia but once again it has numerous examples of a fulfilled argument artistically as well as successful entertainment. Consider the notions about bigotry and fundamentalism in The Curse of Peladon, the horrors of war in Genesis of the Daleks or turning real people's pain into entertainment in Vengeance on Varos. Now I would struggle to find any examples from the New Series which really say anything apart from the sadly abandoned threads of possibility we were given in Series 5. The problem is that having something to say doesn't get your average punter into the cinema or watching the show. Look at Avatar, a ridiculously successful film with absolutely nothing to say which hadn't already been said and with vastly deeper and better examination by others but was lauded based on visuals alone. Is this all we are as a society? Have we become so lax and degenerate that all it takes are some explosions and flashing lights to make us feel like we've experienced something truly incredible?
But look at the other side, for instance. My favourite whipping boy for this is James Joyce's Ulysses. I was once legitimately told by a Modernist professor in a University English class that those of us who didn't find Ulysses to be anything special apparently hadn't grasped it or somehow hadn't read it properly. Joyce himself said he deliberately made it overcomplicated just so that academics would struggle for years to figure out what he meant. Parts of it are borderline incomprehensible and for significant sections you can lose all sense of who's who and what's going on, all in the name of self-conscious literary crypticness. That's not to say that it doesn't have some value, but it's vastly overrated, and so much of its praise clearly derives from an elaborate academic competitiveness seeking to outdo others by purporting to understand more about the novel. I could mention a number of the short stories of William Faulkner as a different example. I can't imagine how anyone could legitimately sit down, read them and derive any substantial kind of value from their content. They're mostly just beatdown tales of cynical nihilism and human degradation in the most perverse scenarios imaginable, and while I'm sure such situations do exist and have done throughout history the idea that they hold some kind of special place above other works is ludicrous. Indeed the very concept of "high art" is a ridiculous one, grounded in snobbery and pretension, egoism and self-gratification. If you could be bothered to read the whole thing then you can pretend you derived some unique artistic insight about reality or human nature and that makes you better than everyone else. At a basic level it's just as bad as populist entertainment. One is cheap and encourages human mediocrity and the other is at least subconsciously exclusionist and self-deceptive and is too emotionally dead to inspire or move.
The problem is that a human is a multinatured beast. We're animals, but we're also thinkers. It's in our makeup to be both pleasure-seeking and critical. In my view critical thought is irrelevant unless its attached to emotion and emotion is pointless and degrading if we're not critical about how we experience it. It is through the combination of the two that we learn and improve ourselves. That is why I seek the increasingly deserted middleground. I'd no more enjoy watching Avatar ever again in my life than I would having to suffer through rereading Ulysses. Give me Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? any day of the week. Give me Watchmen. Give me Dawn of the Dead. Give me something that will entertain me and make me think, and something that will make me think by entertaining me and entertain me by making me think. I consider that lately to be the great value of the speculative genre, as people broadly label science fiction, fantasy and all their permutations, in their best examples at least. Their unreal component entertains us and engages our imaginations, but it also lets us rethink and reinterpret our own nature and our own society and deliver an artistic message. And those examples up there, by the way? Give me all of them in their original format, after they were given limited attention by those scholars busy reinterpreting some inspid Jane Austen novel again, but before corporations took them and made them into mass entertainment (although I do like the film of Watchmen). To hell with entertainment and "high art" I say; give me True Art, which should do entertainment and argument better than either of the other two separately.