Dissertation Days (56): Handwriting

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? What can I say, I’ve been enjoying the time to actually write my Dissertation rather than just write about it, and I’m happy to say that I’ve made tremendous progress on both Chapter 3 and Chapter 4. And boy, does that feel good.

One thing that has really helped lately is taking my chapters and writing the introduction out by hand. This really frees my creativity and thinking in a way that typing on the computer just doesn’t do. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s better, but I do find it particularly useful when I’m struggling to get all of my ideas to fit together on paper the way they do in my head.

I have to say that I’ve been making the best progress I’ve made with these chapters since I finished Chapter 2 a year ago. I think I have finally started to see the flaws in my writing, how those flaws affect my intelligibility, and how to correct them (as much as possible). I do tend to use the word “seem” a lot, which I suspect is a way of disowning the ideas that I’m putting on paper. It’s a bad habit that I’ve gotten into, and I’m determined to break it.

As I work through my revision of Chapter 3, I’m also noticing how very, very wordy I am. It’s not just that I like long sentences and complicated syntax (though that’s true); it’s that I tend to bury my ideas so far into the sentence that whatever claim I’m making is almost totally obfuscated. So, a lot of revision has been about chopping bits and pieces here and there, pruning in order to let the ideas show forth in all of their conceptual glory.

Chapter 4 is also coming along quite nicely (FINALLY). I’ve found the core foci of the chapter, the basic structure, and the way I think it’s going to end up coming together. Now that that heavy lifting is done, I think the rest of it should start congealing. In a way, it feels more like Chapter 2 did as I was writing it, so that is (hopefully) a very good sign indeed.

Tomorrow there is a lot to get done, but I’m confident now that I’ve finally found a groove that works. Maybe, just maybe, I can get this beast done and defended by April.

On second thought.

I will.

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Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Eye of the World” (Book 1)

So, in addition to all of the things I’m working on–dissertation, novel, short story, this blog–I’ve decided to undertake a truly mammoth project: the re-reading of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time from beginning to end. So, I began, as one should, with The Eye of the World.

Though I’ve read this novel countless times since I first started the series in around 1998, I always find something new to enjoy. In this case, it’s looking for clues that point the way to some of the plot developments that will unfold in future books. And, of course, I always enjoy revisiting one of my favourite characters in this universe: Moiraine, the cunning yet altruistic Aes Sedai (I almost said Bela the horse, but thought that would be disingenuous).

I’ve always been in awe of the way that Robert Jordan was able to craft a plot that really brings out the most exciting aspects of the epic genre. Sure, things start getting a little twisty and windy as the series progresses, but in The Eye of the World all of that is still in the future. It’s hard not to feel caught up in the breathless excitement that hurtles these young people from a backwater village into the maelstrom of cosmic events. True, it’s a plot that’s basically the definition of the epic, but somehow Jordan makes it feel fresh and exciting.

But if we’re being honest, the main characters of Robert’s books are truly insufferable and almost pathologically juvenile. While one might excuse this in the first book (I wouldn’t, but some might), that excuse starts to wear thin as you go on. The women tend to come out better in that equation than the men, which reveals a great deal about how Jordan seems to think about the world, and I will say that both Egwene and Nynaeve are both likable, particularly the latter’s tragic love affair with Lan. And of course there is Moiraine, who is arguably Jordan’s finest fantasy creation.

However, when it comes to world building there is no one who can compare to Robert Jordan. The sheer scope of the world that he has constructed is almost overwhelming in its vastness and its complexity. This is true not only of the various cultures that inhabit his world–which are less straightforwardly based on our own world’s history as, say, George R.R. Martin’s-but also the vast expanse of time that it encompasses. Rand and company are not just engaged in a fight for their world, but for time itself. Ultimately, if the Dark One is able to shatter the Wheel of Time, he might be able to remake the entire span of past, present, and future in his image.

There is, I think, something deeply horrifying about this threat. We are always encouraged to see the threats of epic fantasy as grand, certainly, but rarely are they about the destruction of time itself. That is truly an end from which there can be no redemption, for there is no escaping from the toils of time. I’m sure there’s a lot more that I want to say about the way in which the series engages with questions of temporality, but for now I’ll just say that this dramatically raises the stakes and it is this, in part, that makes this series stand out from the epic fantasy crowd.

I’ve always really enjoyed Jordan’s ability to weave in bits of horror into his epic fantasy. Both the Myrdraal and the Trollocs are truly travesties, and there is something viscerally unsettling about their presence in the novel. And while his villainous creatures are certainly the most horrifying part of this novel, there is something equally unsettling about Perrin’s newfound ability to communicate with wolves.

In the end, though, the novel is also tragic, in that it is undeniable that there is much that will be lost as these characters begin their journey toward their destiny. The death of the Green Man is just the first death of many that will afflict our heroes as they make their way through the world, confronting uncomfortable (and sometimes downright terrifying) truths about themselves in the process.

I’m going full-throttle through The Great Hunt, in which things begin to take a very grim, and even more horrifying turn, as the scope widens and the true epic quest begins. Stay tuned!

Cursory note: I have always thought that The Eye of the World has the best covers of the entire series, and I stick to that claim.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Anastasia” (1956)

I’ve always had a fascination with the legend of Anastasia Romanov, the youngest daughter of the doomed Nicholas and Alexandra who was rumoured, for much of the 20th Century, to have survived the massacre that struck her family. Before there was the exquisite Anastasia of animated fame, there was the 1956 film starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman.

The film is a briskly paced drama. While this was not quite what I was expecting–given the grandiosity of the subject matter–it works well for the film, rendering it more of a character study than the epic one might expect to tell the story of one of the most famous royals of the 20th Century. Though there are a few scenes that contain the extravagance one might expect from a period drama, for the most part the tension is between the three principal characters: General Bounine (Brynner), Anna Koref (Bergman), and the Dowager Empress Marie (Helen Hayes).

All three characters have an investment in maintaining the fiction that Anna really is the long-lost Anastasia. For Bounine, it’s the chance to make a great deal of money, while for Anna herself it is a means of recovering an identity that she may in fact have never had. And of course for the Dowager, it represents an opportunity to regain the loving family that was taken away from her in the fires of brutal revolution.

The film finds its most soaring effect is in its use of music. There is a remarkable sequence during a visit to Denmark to visit the Dowager Empress and the exuberant strains of Tchaikovsky greet her entrance (though her face isn’t revealed for a few more minutes). Though she is a supporting character, Helen Hayes manage to imbue this formidable historical figure with a grace that cannot be rivaled.

Bergman manages to imbue her own figure with a certain tragic elegance, as she is drawn in to the plot of Brynner’s rapacious general. As he draws her into his scheme, she begins to lose even the sense of who she is. Is she, in fact, the long-lost daughter of the tsar, or is she just another nameless orphan who has been brought into the scheme of an avaricious and embittered nobleman? The film leaves the answer unclear, and that is part of the pleasure.

She is matched by two other formidable characters, Brynner’s general and Helen Hayes’ iron-clad Dowager. Yul Brynner has always been one of my favourite actors from classic Hollywood, an object of simply exquisite and imposing male beauty. This film is no exception and, while he once again plays something of an asshole, he still maintains a measure of charisma. One always has to wonder what really lurks behind that austere and often callous exterior, what fiery, sensuous heart lurks in that brutal breast.

For her part, Hayes is truly magnificent of one of the 20th Century’s most tragic figures, a woman who lost her entire family and was frequently beset  She seems to bite off her words in a tense conversation with the general, and she is even more scathing to her attendant, remarking acerbically, “To a woman of your age, sex should be nothing but gender.” This is truly one of the most wonderful lines I have heard in a film.

More than that, though, Hayes is in many ways the emotional center of the film. When she finally comes to accept Anderson as her long-lost granddaughter, it is a truly heart-wrenching moment in the purest melodramatic form (ironically, she initially condemns Anna for indulging in precisely that kind of melodrama). If you don’t feel the familiar tug on your heartstrings that is the hallmark of a really good (which is to say, effective) Hollywood melodrama, then you may want to reconsider whether you are actually a fully-functioning human.

Given that we now know with a certainty that Anastasia was in fact murdered with the rest of her family, the film cannot but be fundamentally melancholy. We know all too well that the glamorous Russian princess perished at Yekaterinburg, the victim of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet the film, as any good melodrama should, indulges our hope that maybe, just maybe, history has lied to us, that in the world of fantasy known as Hollywood film, the doomed Russian princess lives on. It might be a fantasy, but it’s a pleasant one.

All in all, Anastasia is a truly compelling product of its time, full of beautiful colours, exquisite performances, and a story that is as sad as it is beautiful. Truly an exquisite film.

Reading Tad Williams: “The War of the Flowers”

Having finally found a bit of breathing space in the midst of frantic Dissertation, I thought I’d pop in and write a quick review of Tad Williams’ excellent one-volume epic The War of the Flowers. 

In the tradition of other epic fantasy writers who turn to something a little more whimsical than is usually on offer with the genre of the epic, The War of the Flowers is narrated from the perspective of the 30-something, mostly-washed-up musician Theo Vilmos. One night, he finds himself attacked by an undead creature and is saved by the foul-mouthed sprite Applecore. Whisked into the realm of the Fairies, which exists alongside our own (and to some extent mirrors ours), he soon finds himself embroiled in a long-simmering war between the various great houses of this world, some of whom wish to co-exist with humans and others that want to obliterate them. In the process, he learns a great deal about himself and solves a troubling mystery about his own heritage.

It’s not everyone who can manage to write a single-volume epic fantasy, but as always Tad Williams shows himself a master of whatever genre he turns his hand to. The pacing is, for such a large novel, quite brisk, toggling effortlessly between brisk action set-pieces and the more arcane political machinations that one always expects from the best sorts of epic fantasy. There are characters from every walk of life in this mysterious fairy world, and there are family loyalties, class warfare, and all of the other trappings that make this genre one of the most complex and fascinating in contemporary literature.

The characters are fully-drawn which means that they are often quite awful and difficult to like. This goes for Vilmos as much as it does any of the more magical creations, for Theo is the epitome of what might be called privileged white manhood. He sometimes can’t seem to wrap his head around the idea that he is not entitled to an easy answer to all of his questions, and that sometimes one is caught up in events that sweep us along. The fact that, as a rather entitled man, this lack of agency comes as a shock, reveals a great deal about how the men in our world think about the way that they inhabit social spaces. Williams has a keen eye for the insufferable nature of this sort of behaviour, and he’s not afraid to allow us as readers to get quite annoyed with Theo throughout the novel.

Of course, this being Tad Williams, there is more than a little social commentary going on throughout the novel. The higher forms of fairies are notoriously cruel, unthinking, and exploitative, and they care little (or nothing) for the lives and well-being of their fellows. They ruthlessly exploit them to power their scientific (magical) advancements, but in doing so they inadvertently sow the seeds of their own eventual downfall. The War of the Flower makes it quite clear that so many of things that many people take for granted, both in the fantasy world that Williams has created and in our own, are built, from the foundations, on the exploitation of others. It’s a troubling realization, but that is part of the brilliance of this novel.

Though it was written in the early aughts, The War of the Flowers feels even more relevant today. Button the Goblin could just as easily be a stand-in for the incendiary politics of Bernie Sanders, and the wanton cruelty of Thornapple and Hellebore bear a surprising resemblance to certain nefarious parts of the American political system of 2016 (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump and Steve Bannon). When, at the end of the novel, everything in the world seems to have fallen into ruin and chaos, there is still a glimmer that a new, more just political order might emerge from the ashes of the old. That, ultimately, is a very optimistic view of the world that it is nice to see in epic fantasy.

All in all, I enjoyed The War of the Flowers quite a lot. I’ve always admired Williams’ ability to combine thickly layered plots with lush description, and both of those tendencies are on full display here. He has definitely earned his place in the pantheon of great epic fantasy writers of our generation, and I very much look forward to my continuing journey through his oeuvre. 

Next, it’s on to the Bobby Dollar series, which I like to think of as film noir meets John Milton. Stay tuned!

Dissertation Days (55): Where We Are Now

Well, it’s been a hot minute since I posted an update. I guess I got caught up in, you know, actually writing my Dissertation. Imagine that! So, I thought I’d give everyone an update that’s a little longer than usual, in order to tell you how things are going and how they stand now.

Fortunately, the revisions for Chapter 3 are moving along at a brisk pace. I’m actually enjoying slicing out the bits of extraneous material that don’t move my argument forward. For someone who is as word-conscious as I am, that can be quite a liberating experience. Hopefully, by the end of this week (or next week at the latest), the contextualization sections–both historical and theoretical–will be ready for resubmission. Then it’s on to the close readings. Luckily, I think those are in pretty solid condition, though of course a little pruning won’t hurt. That should be done by the end of the month (at the very latest).

Chapter 4 is also coming along surprisingly well, considering this has been the chapter that has given me the most conceptual trouble. Right at the moment I’m sort of toggling between the historical context section and the close reading of the film Cleopatra. I hope to continue making some solid progress on that for the rest of this week. I had to start yet another document that is misleadingly titled “Final Version of Chapter 4,” but hopefully this time it’ll actually turn out to be true (at least until the revisions from the Adviser are handed back).

I had a bit of a panic moment last week, when I sort of forgot what it was that I was saying about Fall of the Roman Empire that set my own interpretation apart from what’s come before, but I think I overcame that little struggle. If I maintain the focus of my chapter on the tensions that I am locating, and on the affect that such tensions seem intended to create, I think I can push the existing discourse in some new and interesting directions.

My Dissertation Days posts may be a bit more sporadic than normal this month, since I’ve basically got my head down trying to finish all of this. Still, I’m going to try to remain at least somewhat consistent, since it does help me keep to my writing schedule if I know that other people are also keeping tabs on me.

So, basically, we’re holding steady. Had some productive conversations with my Adviser about both the Dissertation and the job search, and I feel at least somewhat confident about both of those (as confident as one can be about the job market, anyway). I just have to make sure that I stay disciplined, and that I also learn the necessity (and value!) of pruning my very wordy prose, and I think I might actually have a career ahead of me.

This week is going to be a busy one, but I’m confident that I can meet the goals I’ve set for myself. It just takes a bit of determination.

So, onward we go. Much to be done, but it CAN be done.

World Building (12): The Legend of Xharyush

In all the annals of Haranshar’s long history, one figure towers above all the others: Xharyush the Great. From the moment that he founded the dynasty that would rule, in one form or another, over the vast domains of Haranshar, he became the idol toward which every Shah has aspired.

The birth of Xharyush is shrouded in mystery and legend. The most commonly believed myth states that he was born to a great king but that his birth was tainted by a prophecy that foretold that he would see his world brought to ruin. Fire and death would consume the entire continent, so the prophecy went, and so the king’s adviser had hired a midwife to smother the boy when he was born. However, she disobeyed these orders and not only saved the boy, but also determined to help him escape the city and the net that was set to ensnare him.

The midwife fled with her young charge into the wilds, desperate to escape the wrath of the vizier. Somehow, we are still not certain how, she managed to make her way through the encircling princes that had besieged the king, but she did, and she managed to make her way to the highlands of Pishapur, the homeland of the King’s queen. Her father took in the infant and and named him after his own father, and there he remained, while the civil war erupted and spread across the whole continent. Though his grandfather was of the nobility, he was not a powerful figure, but for all that he gave the boy all that he could wish for in his upbringing, training him in the arts of war and diplomacy.

From those beginnings, Xharyush was able to carve out an empire the likes of which his world had never seen. He began by solidifying his grandfather’s domains, becoming an able steward and a noteworthy soldier. Bit by bit he brought the surrounding tribes under his sway as well, until he had a formidable base from which to launch an all-out attack on the fertile plains to the east. Sweeping down from the highlands of Pishapur, he soon brought those lands under his control, forcing their rebellious princes to bend the knee. He also seized control of the several cities that had served his father as capitals, forging a chain of powerful bases from which he could, if he so chose, launch attacks against any who might wish to rebel against him. He also married several of his daughters to the most prominent of his former enemies, binding them to him with ties of marriage and blood (he also took many of their own daughters as his wives, contributing to a surfeit of sons and heirs).

The empire of Haranshar under his leadership became ever more powerful, rising to heights undreamed of. The rulers of all the lands of east and west came to pay tribute to the great Xharyush, and there were none who could deny that his was the power that now bestrode the world like a colossus. His rule extended from one ocean to the other, from north to south and east to west. It was a golden age, and to this day there can still be found statues erected to the majesty of Xharyush as far north as Svardö.

And at the Shah’s side was the man who would come to be known to future generations as Zarakh, the founder of the faith devoted to the god Ormazdh. Between the two of them, they forged an empire that was founded not just on the principle that all people were created equal (in the broadest sense), but also that all should be allowed to worship the supreme god, the one under whom all other gods were subservient.

Although the Haransharin would become known as benevolent overlords who were content to let their subject peoples continue with their own faiths unmolested, there were even in these early years signs of the discontent that would eventually sunder the continent into its eastern and western halves. Those in the west preferred to think of higher things, to devote themselves to the contemplation of things beyond this world, while the faith of the Haransharin stressed the beauties of the material. Xharyush proved this in word and deed, for her stressed that the only way to have a stable kingdom was to have effective rulers in all of its districts. Though he did not call for a radical redistribution of wealth–as some thought that he would–but he did do everything in his considerable power to make life easier for the commonfolk, and they loved him for it.

In that sense, Xharyush was indeed the one who brought about the end of the world, though not in the way that the vizier had thought. When he was at last brought before the Great King for judgment, he was spared death, but he was sent into exile. No one knows what became of him, though there are still stories told in Haranshar that he made his way to the lands across the ocean that even the Anukathi know nothing of. These, however, have never been proven.

Xharyush lived until the ripe old age of 92. When he died, the throne passed peacefully to his son. It was not long before his many other sons (and not a few of his daughters) began to plot and scheme with the disaffected nobles and priests, many of whom had grown resentful of their Shah’s continuing reforms and were even less friendly toward his son (who did attempt to impose a form of wealth redistribution). Indeed, his dynasty was to prove tragically short lived, for it came to an end under the reign of his granddaughter Veptish, who was deposed after only 5 years.

Still, his influence was vast and continues to be felt. His dynasty, though brief, is still remembered. It is enshrined even in the dating system used among the Haransharin, which measures all years from the date that Xharyush had himself declared Shahanshah (which is why everything is dated from 1 F.D., after the First Dynasty).

And, of course, there are always those who believe that Xharyush will one day return to return Haranshar to its previous greatness. And the tides may just be turning in their favour…

Film Review: “The Dark Tower” (2017)

I went into The Dark Tower feeling a great deal of trepidation. The reviews, as everyone knows, had been truly abominable, and its box office performance has been similarly lackluster. All told, I was afraid that the film adaptation of one of my favourite epic fantasy series was going to be an epic disappointment.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. As both a fan of the series on which it is based and on the genre as a whole, I found the film uniquely satisfying. While it may be counterintuitive to say that an hour-and-forty-five-minute-long film can be epic, this more than fits the bill.

In brief, the film is about three central characters, all of whom bear a relationship with the Dark Tower, a structure that sits at the center of the universe and keeps the chaotic darkness, and the monsters that inhabit it, at bay. Roland (Idris Elba) is the last of a mystical race known as the gunslingers, and he is in relentless pursuit of Walter (Matthew McConaughey), a demonic figure dressed in black who yearns to bring the Dark Tower crashing into ruin and to rule among the ruins. Lastly, Jake (Tom Taylor) is a boy in our world who finds himself a pawn in Walter’s efforts to bring down the Tower.

The plot is streamlined and tight, fitting into a typical feature film length of around 1 hour and 45 minutes, which is something of a reprieve from the narrative bloat that seems to have become de rigeur for Hollywood these days. I suspect that a great deal of the critical opprobrium has to do with this pared-down narrative, which I think actually works quite well for this iteration of King’s sprawling story. As anyone who has followed the books knows, things go sort of off the rails starting in the fifth book (Wolves of the Calla), and hit their nadir in Song of Sussanah. 

What’s more, the primary trio of the film–Roland (Idris Elba), Walter/The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), and Jake–really work well together. A lot of people have noted that McConaughey seems to chew the scenery with a sort of manic delight, but if they had read the books they would know that Walter is just that sort of character, one who delights in tearing things apart just to see how they work and who would just as soon see the world collapse into ruin than see it built up. Rather than seeing this as hammy, I see it as part of the manic energy that motivates Walter in some of his manifestations (he adopts different identities depending on which worlds he inhabits).

But the real core of the film is the relationship between Roland and Jake. Lots of shit hit the fan when it was revealed that the black Idris Elba would be playing the white Roland, but I find that the gruff, hulking figure of Elba fits quite well with the way that I have always imagined Roland to be. He evinces a world-weary strength that has always been a key part of the characterization of this seminal figure in the King legendarium, and Elba clearly has a great deal of screen chemistry with his young costar.

Is the film as rich and complex as the novels on which it is based? I would have to say: definitely not. But then, it doesn’t really have to be. What it is, and what it succeeds as, is an introduction to a wider universe that is one of the great works of modern fantasy. If you go into the film with that sort of realistic expectation, then it is quite enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong; there is still much about the narrative and the spectacle that fit nicely into the conventions of the epic fantasy lexicon.

Furthermore, it’s also a telling that this film, with all of its attempts to keep at bay the darkness and chaos, ends up showing us precisely what the costs of that chaos might be. I don’t want to go so far as to say that the film is an allegory for our troubled times, but there can be no doubt that its narrative of a world that has declined (Roland’s world) and one that might (ours) that really speaks to how much some of us yearn for someone to rescue us from the chaos that seems ready to engulf everything we hold dear.

All in all, I think that The Dark Tower deserves more credit than the critics have been willing to extend it. It’s unfortunate that it was plagued with such a tortuous production history, and that it had the misfortune to debut during one of the worst box office summers in recent history. Let us hope that there is at least some possibility that the projected TV series will come to fruition and that at least a few glimmers of King’s magnum opus may yet see the screen, whether big or small.

Dissertation Days (54): Cut, Cut, Cut

Note: This is yesterday’s post. Today’s post is forthcoming.

Having received more feedback on Chapter 3, I’m charging full-steam ahead into revision mode, while continuing to keep up my forward momentum on Chapter 4.

In terms of Chapter 3, the fundamentals are there, but now it’s time to do that thing I always hate.

Yes, cutting. 

I know, I know. That’s just part of the process of writing, but it’s always difficult. Not just the cutting, but the deciding. I always find it a challenge to figure out which quotes and bits of scholarship/theory are the ones that are the necessary ones, rather than the ones that I like the most (and yes, there is often a very big difference between those two things). It was really challenging at first, but I think I am slowly getting a handle on it.

Still, I feel like I’ve got a good handle on it now, and I can see with the advantage of hindsight that there are some major branches of my argument in need of pruning.

Chapter 4, meanwhile is…coming. Today was a word vomit kind of day, as I started grappling again with what I want to say about Fall of the Roman Empire. I’m slowly groping my way forward, weeding through all of the things that have been said about it before that I want to draw upon. I know in my gut that I have something significant to say about the film, a layer of nuance that I think hasn’t been appreciated before, but it’s taking a hell of a long time to get there.

But, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I’m really making sure that I keep this chapter lean and punchy, so hopefully that will help. I will say that, toward the end today, everything threatened to fall apart, so I knew it was time to stop working on it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get back at it tomorrow in full-throttle mode.

And, much as I hate to say it, it may take a new draft (another one!) to weed out the clutter. Ugh. Oh well. Better to recognize this at the beginning of September than at the end of it.

So, tomorrow is another full day of work. However, I’ve got a plan. Now I just need to make sure that I stick to it.

I can can do this. I’ve got this.

Right?

 

It Ain’t Easy to be a Bottom in Porn

If you spend just a little bit of time poking about the comment threads on porn sites, you’ll learn something pretty quickly: no one likes a bottom. In fact, the bottom in many gay porn videos is sure to become, sooner or later, the object of scorn and ridicule, the abject that has to be cast out of the collective gay male conscious (as epitomized by the online community) in order for that community to still pride itself on its masculine credentials.

This might seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, it takes both a top and a bottom to make porn work, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the message boards. Any time a particular model or individual starts to stake out some territory as primarily a bottom, the comments begin. “Throwing a hot dog down a hallway,” “is there anyone he hasn’t fucked?,” “I wonder how much adult diapers cost?” and so on. It’s really quite insidious at some points, to such a degree that one comes to wonder why it is that people watch porn at all, or why the stars themselves would continue to offer themselves up for the derision of others (besides, of course, the obvious inducement of money). You would also be led to wonder why it is that people bother watching gay porn if all they are going to do is complain about someone having too much sex.

However, it’s not all that unexpected to see so much vitriol poured on the bottoms in gay porn. After all, if pornography is a form of spectatorial fantasy and if, likewise, it is a reflection of the social milieu that produces it, it only makes sense that people would find the bottoms in gay porn to be both the object of desire and derision. When it comes to the food chain in the world of gay men, bottoms frequently occupy the lowest rung, the subject of scorn and often pity. There is a bit of a joke among us queer men that a top that shows up on Grindr is guaranteed a success rate, since bottoms on most dating sites are seemingly a dime a dozen. Another joke is that, once you get on Grindr, you basically have to switch from bottom to versatile if you hope to get laid. It’s something of a myth, but even the most far-fetched myths have more than a bit of truth to them.

Queer theorists from Leo Bersani to David Halperin have remarked on the ambivalent relationship that many gay men have to the sex act that makes them, well, gay. It’s all well and good, in the logic of many, to be a top, for that is behaving like a man. Being all masculine and sticking your dick into things is par for the course for the average man. To be a bottom is, as everyone knows, something of a necessary evil, but it’s hardly something that one should seek out. And if you do, you had best be sure that at least your gender performance matches up with the perceived ideals of male behaviour, even if your position in the boudoir does not. No one likes a flaming faggy queen, after all (one need look no further than the many profiles that say something about “masc seeking masc” or “regular guy seeks same” or “looking for a workout buddy” to see what I mean). And heaven forbid you like musicals, or handbags, or anything else that smacks of acting like a woman.

To embrace one’s identity as a bottom in the world of gay porn is to embrace that abject position, the penetrated. It’s one thing if you are able to evince displeasure at doing it (see also: all the “Gay for Pay” actors out there who look like every moment of gay sex is an agony). But if you dare to show that you enjoy it, and if you spend a lot of time bottoming in front of the camera, then you have unforgivably and irrevocably surrendered your male card. Do not pass go, do not collect $200; you’re going straight to the adult diapers section (and can we talk about the infantilizing rhetoric for a minute. Seriously. There is little to no evidence that lots of sex, sex with big dicks, and even fisting leads to incontinence. This is just another example of gay men internalizing the pernicious logic of homophobia).

(An amusing, if irritating aside: some time ago, a friend of mine remarked that men only bottomed out of service to their partner, not because it actually felt good. At the time I was still a virgin, and I felt this clawing fear that maybe my friend was right. Maybe I was fated to never enjoy sex as a bottom! Naturally, that proved to not be the case, and I very much embrace my identity as a bottom. I tell this story because it reflects the misunderstanding that there is something shameful, painful, and/or innately more disgusting about anal sex. Let’s be real. Penetrative sex is a rather disgusting act in all of its forms, but there is much pleasure to be had, so we should let go of our hangups and not force our own assumptions on other’s behaviours).

And of course it goes without saying that porn bottoms who dare to do the unthinkable and get into topping are setting themselves up for all sorts of vitriol and dismissal. After all, how could na avowed bottom, one who is good at what he does, possibly be…versatile? It’s almost as if people are something more than just the positions that they occupy in the bedroom. There are boat loads of specific examples I could cite that have been subjected to this sort of scrutiny, but among the most prominent are Johnny Rapid (a very prolific performer who never fails to draw the ire of many commenters, despite his twinkish beauty and reasonably good performances), Armond Rizzo (don’t get me started on the number of jokes that have been made about his sphincter), and Travis of Corbin Fisher (everyone loves to hate on him when he attempts to top). Unless you’re very very lucky in gay porn world, once you become a bottom, you’re basically a bottom for the rest of your professional life. I mean, you can try to switch off and on, but chances are you’ll be met with hostility.

All of this is not to say that the tops in gay porn don’t come in for their share of criticism from the “fans.” For tops, though, the question involves less shame and more impatience if they refuse to bottom, or if they do that they don’t enjoy it, or that they can’t keep a hard-on. It is only the last of these complaints that’s truly comparable to the sort of shame that’s loaded onto the bottoms in gay porn, who are made to be the scapegoats (in the classical sense) for all of the shame that gay men seem to collectively feel for their desire to bottom.

I would go so far as to suggest that it is precisely this collective shame that explains why so many commenters on message boards reserve their greatest vitriol for bottoms. If, as Leo Bersani said some time ago, there is a certain suicidal ecstasy of embracing the role of the penetrated, then there is also a deep and almost frenzied fear of that position. Small wonder that that so many gay men continue to project that shame and sense of collective abjection onto those who most visibly and publicly give in to that suicidal ecstasy. The fact that a similar discourse does not (and perhaps cannot) surround the prominent tops in gay porn suggests, to me at least, that it is the innate vulnerability of the bottoms that render them so prone to this sort of dismissal.

As a bottom myself, I find all of this tremendously frustrating and hypocritical, just as I find it infuriating to see so many gay men disavow any traces of femininity. Heaven forbid, after all, that we show any trace of anything that doesn’t fit into the dominant model of hegemonic masculinity, that we embrace a certain measure of vulnerability. And perish the thought that we try to think outside of the box that automatically equates bottoming with passivity or misery or try to find other ways of thinking about the sexual positions we occupy.

What’s to be done about all of this, you’re probably asking right about now? Well, to start with, gay men can get over their fixation with appropriate gender behaviour. Dispense with the “straight acting” gay bullshit. It’s so 2004. We can also stop projecting our anxiety about our own sex positions onto porn performers. There are already enough problems in the world, without unloading them onto men who are, when all is said and done, just trying to make a living.

And, finally, in porn as in sex, sometimes we just need to relax, enjoy the ride, and embrace the pleasure.

Novel Weekends (11): Progress

The novel has taken a bit of a backseat this past week, as I’ve geared up to get some hardcore dissertation writing done, but I was bit by the writing bug this weekend and feeling a bit disenchanted with academia (a rejection from a journal will do that), so I wrote quite a lot in my little fictional universe.

I am now in the midst of Chapter 7. The preceding chapters are in various stages of completion, but I hope to get them into shape relatively soon. After that, I’m going to charge full-steam ahead.

So far, I’ve written chapters focused on the POVs of 5 of my principals (Theadra, Eulicia, Arshakh, Talinissia, and Antonius). I have one more major character to introduce and a couple of minor ones, and then the full cast will be there. I’m still not sure if any of them are villains in the typical sense, but I think that’s probably a good thing. There is one character who’s unpleasant, but that’s not quite the same thing.

I also really enjoyed getting to know my character Arhsakh this weekend. He’s a lot more complicated than I had previously thought. He’s a survivor, and a schemer, but he also has weaknesses and foibles, just like anyone, so we’ll see what happens to him. I see a bright future for him, but that could always change.

All in all, I’m happy with both the progress I’ve made and with the general trajectory of the plot. I think I have an interesting story to tell, and I think my story does and says something, so I think that’s a pretty good basis. It’s very easy to write shitty fantasy, but I like to think I’ve at least hit mediocre.

So, with that happy note, I’m off.

Until next week!