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…and I’m here to offer my comprehensive, well-informed assessment of the entire genre.

But first a bit of background.

I picked up a few romance novels as a teenager, mostly to laugh. My sister had a crush on Fabio for a while and had a copy of Pirate, a novel that he actually wrote (though when he appeared on Jay Leno to discuss the plot of the book it was clear he knew absolutely nothing about it). I flipped through the occasional copy of some Harlequin paperbacks in bookstores and at friend’s houses, mostly to look for the sex scenes at a time when actual sex was still a bit of a mystery.

I was never a devotee, though. From a pretty young age I could recognize shitty writing, and most of those books were, well, mediocre at best, horribly written at worst. When it came to literary titillation I usually preferred Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, which contained little or no actual sex but made me very, very curious about the smoldering glances traded between male vampires. And then there were V.C. Andrews and Jean M. Auel, who I’ve written about before and who left very little to the imagination when it came to descriptions of sex.

As an adult I’ve never bothered much with romance novels because a) I imagined they were repetitive and dull, and life is too short to read bad / dull books, b) the dominant guy / simpering virginal girl stories that I remembered from my teenage years were now a big turnoff, and c) if I wanted titillation I had a wealth of well-written erotic literature to choose from, never mind all the plotty stuff about corsets and dukes and horses.

But then a few years ago I stumbled onto Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and the Tumblr Romance Club. I started reading commentary on contemporary romance novels and the idea that anything that’s loved by large numbers of women tends to be written off as fluffy or dumb. (Granted, there’s plenty of criticism aimed at novels that men AND women love–Dan Brown, anyone?–but there’s a unique level of vitriol reserved for “chick lit” and “chick flicks.”) Mostly, though, I started reading some of the reviews on both of the above websites, many of which were really damn funny. Sure, when it comes to humor romance novels are low-hanging fruit, but it takes a certain amount of skill to skewer them really well. I recommend Melinda’s review of Larkspur on tumblr (Rajah is not a rapey dragon) and Sarah’s review of The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable Girl on SBTB (Kaliq dismounted with the same speed and grace as he would remove himself from the body of a woman he had just made love to.) Oh, and did you know there’s a whole subgenre of romance novels devoted to pregnant amnesiacs? And one of those novels is actually called Pregnesia?

While laughing at the really bad ones I also started to re-think my dismissal of romance novels. Maybe they’d undergone a bit of a renaissance since I was a teenager. Commenters on SBTB and tumblr spoke repeatedly of how the heroines were now a lot more kick-ass and the relationships a lot more equal. So I pored over lists of recommendations for newbies and finally downloaded two books to my Kindle.

The first one I read was Zoe Archer’s Warrior, the first in a series called Blades of the Rose (I cannot write that without giggling).  Zoe Archer got a lot of love on a lot of different romance-related websites for depicting racial diversity, creating detailed and interesting worlds, and always featuring confident, intelligent heroines. So my expectations were a bit high.

Sadly, they weren’t really met. The book wasn’t AWFUL, it just wasn’t very good. It was set in Mongolia, which I guess was supposed to be exotic but just felt sort of like a Hollywood version of Mongolia. The bad guys were 100% bad and the good guys were 100% good (yes, I know that technically the male lead was supposed to be a ruffian-turned-decent-guy, but his flaws were essentially scratches on a Ferrari). The sex scenes were fun, but they didn’t really excite me.

I think this is my fundamental problem with most romance novels–when you know for sure that two people are going to get it on (repeatedly and in a lot of different locations, often with a baby and marriage in the end), there’s just not much excitement or anticipation. I like my romance to appear in the background of a good story, not be the center of it. Lin and Isaac from Perdido Street Station. Jamisia Capra and the snake-headed alien she ALMOST had sex with in This Alien Shore. It’s more fun when you don’t know for sure if they will or they won’t, or if their relationship isn’t the whole foundation of the novel.

I made it all the way through Warrior and really needed a decent helping of China Mieville or Cormac McCarthy, but I decided that I should give the romance genre at least one more shot. So I tried Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, who also gets a lot of praise on romance novel websites.

And…damn. This one was good.

The writing was crisp, clever, and engaging–the prologue alone is a very solid little mini Gothic novel. The book didn’t take itself too seriously and was witty without being cloying. The main characters were complicated and appealing, and even though you knew they were going to end up together, it wasn’t exactly clear how. The supporting characters could have used a little more fleshing out, but that didn’t really bother me.

And the sex was actually hot. Loretta Chase did a good job of building things up slowly–a grasped hand here, a rough embrace there. But once the characters got their clothes off the writing definitely wasn’t shy.

I kind of wish that the novel hadn’t ended with (spoiler alert!) wedded bliss and a baby, but again, that’s kind of a minor criticism. I really liked this book.

The verdict, then? I’m not rushing out to download a dozen more romance novels–I tend to want a little more to chew on when I read. But sometimes I just want to have a bit of fun with a book. And I definitely think I dismissed the whole romance genre way too quickly. Something tells me there are plenty more books and authors out there that I might want to check out. So if you’re a bit of a book snob and are embarrassed to be seen reading a romance novel in public, get yourself an e-reader and just give them a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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(Thank you very much to Kathryn at Contemporary Japanese Literature, who introduced me to this collection–you can read her review of March Was Made of Yarn here.)

“In an emergency such as this earthquake, art is useless, to say the least. Our recent experience only helped expose the ultimate futility of all artistic endeavors.”

–Kikuchi Kan, Ruminations on the Earthquake, 1923

I’ll have to disagree wholeheartedly with Kikuchi Kan. An artistic response to the tsunami was exactly what I needed.

There has been a lot of response, of course–essays, newspaper articles, short films, photo collections. But unfortunately much of it has fallen into the realm of disaster porn, the kind of material that can make anyone feel like a voyeur. Since the quake Tokyo’s bookstores have been crammed with books full of photo after photo of physical devastation. These kinds of responses have their value and their purpose, but the sheer magnitude of the disaster also demanded something else.  Something absurd. I was reminded of John Whittier Treat and Oe Kenzaburo’s writings on the atomic bomb, and their claim that certain things are simply unwriteable, beyond the realm of literature. The claim of the Japanese protagonist in Hiroshima Mon Amour: “You saw nothing.”

Enter the wonderful short story collection March Was Made of Yarn. Some of the stories are underwhelming, but at least half are gorgeous. The title story by Mieko Kawakami conjures up a potent image: in the days before the quake, a pregnant woman on vacation with her husband dreams of a world made of yarn, one that occasionally disintegrates into a pile of string only to rebuild itself in a new shape.

” ‘When something unpleasant or dangerous happens, things suddenly come apart. They go back to being just yarn, they wait it out.’

‘Interesting,’ I said.

‘They’re yarn, after all. Sometimes the yarn turns into sweaters, or mittens, and that’s how they protect themselves. When something scares them, that’s how they get through it.’

‘And our baby was yarn, too?’

‘Yeah. It came straight out in a long line, as plain old yarn, and then when it was all out it sort of knitted itself into a baby shape, and I was the mother of a yarn baby. You were the father of yarn.’

She didn’t say anything after that. The silence continued for some time. I remembered that her cell phone had rung earlier and mentioned that, but she didn’t respond.

‘Even March was yarn,’ she said eventually.

‘March?’

‘Yeah. March.’

March was yarn?’

‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘In that world, even March was made of yarn.’

‘I don’t think I get it,’ I said after a while.

‘What’s not to get?’ she said.

‘I can see how books and bags and stuff could be made out of yarn, but March isn’t a thing, right? It’s just a name we give to a segment of time. How can you make something like that out of yarn?’

She looked at me like I was talking nonsense. ‘I told you. In that world even March was made out of yarn.’

‘But what does that mean?’ I said. ‘March is made out of yarn?’

‘I told you. It means March is made out of yarn.’

The absurd stories were the ones that resonated the most with me, though David Peace’s more traditional “After the Disaster, Before the Disaster” paints a vivid picture of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, describing scenes that sounded eerily familiar:

“Under the stars, beside his helmet, Ryunosuke lay on the futon between his wife and two sons. He tried to read the Bible. But he could not concentrate. He tried to read The Communist Manifesto. But, again, he could not concentrate. For under the ground, he could feel the earth continue to grind and scream, a gigantic mechanical worm burrowing through caverns and tunnels, pushing the ground up, then pulling it back down in its wake. Ryunosuke imagined the turning gears an spinning cogwheels deep within the metallic body of the beast.”

The real gem in this collection, though, is Tetsuya Akikawa’s “Box Story,” one of the most perfect short stories I’ve ever read. Describing or quoting too much would spoil it, so I’ll just say that it’s about a shortage of boxes and what happens when someone invents a method of breeding them. Seriously, this one story is enough reason to purchase the whole collection. Read it. It’s amazing.

Oe Kenzaburo and John Whittier Treat may be right about the unwriteable nature of certain catastrophes. Some things simply can’t be described, and describing them in detail doesn’t always help.  But March Was Made of Yarn reminds me with sledgehammer force of exactly why art isn’t just a luxury or a pastime. It’s a fundamental human response to tragedy, a way of shaping the shapeless and nonsensical into the familiar. Even if the only thing that feels familiar is nonsense.

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24 hours in and I’m already addicted as hell.

I joined Pinterest before I really knew what it was, and it only took a few minutes for the format to suck me in. Thus far in the digital age I’ve avoided iPhones and all their apps, Farmville, Words With Friends, Twitter, and plenty of other time-wasting online activities. Sure, I check Facebook several times a day, but I rarely spend more than a few minutes actively engaging with the site. But with Pinterest, I think I finally get it. I see how people could spend half their lives online.

What is it, exactly? Well, it’s virtual scrapbooking. With a community that somehow manages to feel small, even when it’s huge (Pinterest crossed the 10 million user mark faster than any standalone site in history, a fact that has plenty of people paying attention). Basically, it allows you to display stuff you like in categories called “pinboards”. Other people can like your stuff, or re-pin it. You can comment on each other’s stuff.

This might all sound incredibly mundane and fluffy, but Pinterest appeals to a very primal desire (for me, at least): to share things you like. I could talk for hours about books, food, movies, or even buildings that I love. And I could listen rapt for hours while someone else talked about what they loved. Pinterest lets me do both of those things with a huge group of people.

Admittedly, most online traffic represents fluffy pursuits–gaming, posting photos of food and cats, arguing over who could beat Han Solo in a fight. But for some reason arguing about sports or movies is just “online activity,” whereas sharing stuff and talking about it–especially when that stuff includes clothes, weddings, and food–is “girly” (which for plenty of people equals “dumb”). Among the boards that I’ve looked at so far, about 1% of material is related to weddings, but you wouldn’t guess that from this chartThis article represented Pinterest’s growth with a fucking hairdryer. Apparently when 80% of your traffic is female, you’re a) full of white dress-obsessed airheads, b) an endless source of snark for more “serious” internet users, and c) unable to be taken seriously as an online force.

The snarkers can snark all they want, but as Jezebel points out, “Pinterest drives more traffic than YouTube, Reddit, Google+, LinkedIn and MySpace.” And it doesn’t take a genius to see that the site isn’t just an innocuous indie effort at community–every pin equals money for Pinterest and the product manufacturers whose products are getting pinned and re-pinned. Like Facebook, Pinterest’s users generate free advertising just by sharing what they like.

But I like Pinterest so, so much more. I know it’s a marketing gimmick, and I know that by using it I’m basically just turning myself into a free billboard. But I am in love. Hopelessly. The concept is beautiful in its simplicity, as Jezebel goes on to say: “(Pinterest) seems to have identified what women want from the internet by simply allowing women to identify what they want. Period.” The online universe can snicker about Pinterest’s girly-ness all it wants, but it’d be foolish to ignore it.

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Anne McCaffrey, 1926-2011

I wanted to be Menolly. Or at least I longed for a few pet fire lizards to call my own.

Menolly was braver than I ever felt as a teenager–after being told “no” time and time again, she kept going anyway.

In the case of Killashandra Ree, I just wanted her job. Who wouldn’t want to make a fortune singing to rocks on a hostile planet? Re-reading Crystal Singer recently, I was surprised to discover that Killashandra was a lot less likeable than I remembered–she kept whining about how everyone was invading her privacy and seemed to have a very, very high opinion of her talents. But she was nobody’s sidekick, she never needed rescuing, and she flew spaceships in mach storms. And when she had casual sex it was no big deal.

I only ever read three of Anne McCaffrey’s books–Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Crystal Singer–but they were enough to impact my life and reading habits for years to come. Like a lot of other confused teenage girls, I found solace in the struggles of McCaffrey’s mostly female protagonists. They might be battling monsters on distant planets, but they were fully-fleshed human beings, and they felt like kindred spirits.

“Harper, your song has a sorrowful sound,
Though the tune was written as gay.
Your voice is sad and your hands are slow
And your eye meeting mine turns away.”
–Dragonsong

 

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Readers who’ve been waiting for China Mieville to return to the levels of brilliance he displayed in Perdido Street Station and The Scar can rejoice. Embassytown may be his best work yet.

A plot summary doesn’t really do the story justice, but here are the basics: in a human city on a planet at the edge of the known universe, the native Ariekei, who have two mouths each, speak a double-tongued language that is inseparable from thought. Instead of “Hello, how are you,” an Ariekes would say “Hello / How are you” (imagine the “Hello” positioned above the “How are you”, like a fraction). Humans cannot mimic Ariekei speech because they have only one mouth, and the Ariekei perceive recordings of their Language only as meaningless noise. Without thought behind it, Language does not exist. Thus special Ambassadors, pairs of electronically linked humans who function almost as a single unit, are the only ones who can communicate with the Ariekei, whose planet is a valuable source of hybrid machine-organic technology.

Crucially, the Ariekei are incapable of lying, or of abstract thought. Similes must first be staged in real life. Humans are often asked to “perform a simile,” becoming a living part of Language in order to make abstraction possible. The narrator, Avice, is as a child asked to be bruised and eat what is given to her. From that moment, she is invoked whenever the Ariekei want to argue that something is “like the girl who was hurt and ate what was given to her”.

I’ll stop there, because one of the true joys of Embassytown is its many revelations, not only of plot but of the nature of language (and Language) itself. Suffice it to say that at some point something goes terribly wrong, and the novel alternates between life-and-death tension and the fundamental question of what language is.  The salvation of the entire planet ultimately depends not on some epic space-battle between humans and aliens, but on a linguistic revolution.

With Embassytown, Mieville pulls off the rare feat of creating a difficult, multi-layered story that requires the reader’s full attention AND spinning an endlessly entertaining yarn. It takes a little while for things to get going (something I also found to be true of The Scar), but the payoff is immense.

There are so many small things that are wonderful about Embassytown, things that weren’t even really necessary to the backbone of the story but that make it all the more vivid and pleasurable. The narrator, Avice, is a rare find in science fiction: a female protagonist who exhibits no overtly feminine or masculine characteristics. Her ambiguous / polyamorous sexuality fits right in with those around her, and though she’s driven by a basic desire to do the right thing, she frequently acts in her own self-interest. Though other characters are not quite as multi-faceted, many unique and flawed personalities come through–even that of a humanoid robot, who Avice counts as one of her best friends.

Appropriately for a novel about the nature of language, China Mieville’s virtuoso word skills are on full display here. The introduction of dozens of new words and concepts from the very beginning of the novel can be overwhelming at times, but it adds to the flavor of the story, in which language dissembles as much as it clarifies. There are passages of great beauty that rival the best of any modern genre.

I read the last hundred pages of Embassytown with my heart in my throat, not only because of the impending climax of the story (though that was gripping), but because, admittedly, I was terrified that the novel would crash and burn. China Mieville has a habit of creating fascinating worlds or concepts, developing a narrative, and then being unable to bring the narrative and the concept to a satisfying end (this was especially evident in The City and The City). But this time, he gets it right, right up until the last words. Though the second half of the novel at times focuses more on good old-fashioned suspense than on the deeper questions about language, the incredibly satisfying conclusion manages to tie the story together, remain complex, AND address difficult questions about language all in one go.

I don’t want to say that Embassytown is much more than science fiction, a somewhat backhanded compliment that has been thrown at Mieville and other writers who’ve taken the form in bold new directions. Embassytown is great literature and great science fiction. But it also transcends genre. It’s a work of grand ideas and mundane human / alien concerns, a story that takes us to the edges of the universe but forces us to repeatedly look inward, at the language that we take for granted that is in fact a rare, miraculous gift.

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Reimagining Japan (Not)

UPDATE: In response to Brian Salsberg’s comment below, I’ve deleted the original content of this post. I wrote that post on a whim and realized later that it’s really not a good idea for me to post impressions or criticisms of a book I haven’t read. I trust Contemporary Japanese Literature’s assessment of the book, but I’m not going to make any of my own judgments until I’ve read it.

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It’s amazing how people think they can understand an entire country just by reading a book about it.

I certainly felt that way at one time. Before moving to Japan for the first time in 2000 I got hold of as many books as I could–most of them written by non-Japanese authors. By the time I was done I was sure I had the whole country figured out. No physical contact. No bringing your wife to office parties. Doctors are rough and unsympathetic. Take your shoes off and wear slippers (except on tatami mats, and except in bathrooms, where you wear bathroom slippers).

Most of it was bullshit.

Sure, anyone who’s lived in Japan for a few years can give you some basic tips on etiquette and what to expect. But this idea that you can gain a comprehensive understanding of 120 million people by reading a book–a claim that a lot of these books seemed to make–is ridiculous. These days the only real advice I give people is to expect the unexpected. And to take your shoes off. That rule still holds.

At a recent conference panel on foreign media responses to the March 11 quake and tsunami, one professor said he was disappointed that foreign impressions of Japan don’t seem to have evolved much beyond The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (still considered a valuable book by many, but written in the 1940s by an anthropologist who had famously never been to Japan). More than 60 years after that book’s publication we again learned that…the Japanese are stoic. They value group unity over individual freedom. They’re very polite. They didn’t loot  (not really true) because they’re inherently more civilized.

Sadly, a lot of books on Japan written during the 1990s–and still read by many people looking for insider knowledge of Japan–aren’t any better. Non-Japanese writers seem determined to keep stereotypes alive, even the ones that carry very little weight.

One problem is that so many of these books were written by men who seemed to be doing double duty as cultural advisers and pick-up artists. Slipped in between tips on eating and renting an apartment are all sorts of observations about the charmingness of Japanese women and recommendations for the best places to find girls. I remember being horrified at one author’s descriptions of sneaking a camera into a mixed-bathing onsen to take covert photos of nude women (which he described with a sort of “boys will be boys” attitude).

By far the worst example of this kind of book was Rex Shelley’s Culture Shock! Japan, which was, unfortunately, the book that my English language school gave me when I first arrived back in 2000. Rex seemed to think that a) everyone who was coming to Japan was male, b) they all had annoying wives who had to be placated on a regular basis, and c) no one coming to Japan would actually like it here, they would just suffer through the backwardness to make their money, have their sex and get the hell out. (This seems to be the message of a lot of guides to doing business in Japan–get in, make your money, have your sex and get the hell out.) In the case of Culture Shock! Japan, all of Rex’s examples of cultural faux pas and how to deal with them basically centered around the “What to do when your wife screws things up yet again” premise. Nice.

Another depressing look into contemporary Japanese culture–one that masqueraded as hip, edgy reading–was Karl Taro Greenfeld’s 1995 Speed Tribes: Days and Nights With Japan’s Next Generation, a collection of essays on Japanese subcultures. While I’ll give Greenfeld credit for moving away from the usual portraits of Japan as a conformist society of suited drones, he really just replaced one set of stereotypes with another. Speed Tribes billed itself as a look at the “real” Japan, but the book felt more like it was reveling in the dregs of society, presenting violent gangsters, ditzy club girls, ultra-nationalists, and porn film directors as the most authentic Japanese out there. Greenfeld also seemed to genuinely loathe his subjects–his narration in each chapter dripped with sarcasm and contempt. At one point he just stopped pulling his punches altogether, saying of Tokyo suburbanites, “Think of them as leeches sucking the city dry.” At the end of the book anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Japan is filled to the brim only with violent, miserable, self-centered people.

So what are the Books That Don’t Suck, then? For women coming to live in Japan, I always highly recommend Caroline Pover’s Being a Broad in Japan, one of the few how-to guides written by and for women. In general I’d just say avoid any book that claims to explain Japan in full. Only time can do that–way more time than most of us have on earth.

Next up: Fictional Books Set in Japan That Kind of Suck. Really just an excuse for me to rant about Memoirs of a Geisha.

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“Why can’t I write something that will awaken the dead?”

So writes Patti Smith near the end of Just Kids, the memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe that can’t really be classified as a memoir. Smith doesn’t so much chronicle as paint, scrapbook, and weave. Her book is like the bizarre but beautiful collages she and Mapplethorpe  create in their tiny hotel rooms and apartments–hodgepodge, arresting, and possessing the ability to elevate the mundane to the sublime.

Smith may not awaken the dead with her book, but she is an expert conjurer–of young love, of New York on the brink of discovery and possibility, of the Chelsea Hotel and the days in which one might run into Salvador Dali and Janis Joplin in the lobby in the same day. She had come to New York just out of high school determined to be an artist but with no idea how. Her chance meeting with Robert Mapplethorpe led to a years-long collaboration that moved between romantic and platonic love but was always intense and intimate. As Smith describes it, the two of them fell asleep in each other’s arms after their first long night together and after that never really left each other’s side except to go to work.

The road to fame for both of them–through photography for Mapplethorpe, through punk music, visual art and poetry for Smith–was a long and winding one. Throughout it all, they remained determined to “live for art and art alone.” They were destitute–Smith describes the pain and frustration she felt when, after scrounging together fifty-five cents for a Horn and Hardart Automat sandwich, she arrived only to discover that the price had been raised to sixty-five cents. (The subsequent story of how Allen Ginsburg then bought her the sandwich because he mistook her for a “pretty boy” is one of the book’s many gems.) Mapplethorpe and Smith worked only enough to pay rent and eat (and were frequently unable to do both), devoting the rest of their time to writing, drawing, and just playing with whatever artistic medium struck their fancy. It would take years of collages, poems, paintings, sketches, and polaroids before Mapplethorpe would have his first successful photography exhibition and Smith would release her groundbreaking album Horses.

Smith and Mapplethorpe saw beauty in the everyday. With their very limited money they scoured New York’s used bookstores and thrift shops for pieces of fabric, plastic, metal, and glass that would become haunting collages and the beginnings of Mapplethorpe’s famous photo aesthetic (his longtime lover and patron, Sam Wagstaff, called Mapplethorpe’s signature backgrounds “a black you can get lost in.”). Much of Just Kids consists of loving descriptions of random objects–a collage of words. Reading the book and then walking in a shopping mall, every plastic flower, every cotton scarf, every tacky rubber rain hat seems to possess some new artistic soul. Smith truly lets the reader see, if only fleetingly and with a squint, through an artist’s eyes.

Beyond its moving glimpse into the lives of uncompromising artists and rebels in a New York that is at once utterly believable and too romantic to be real, Just Kids is an amazing piece of writing. Some have commented that Smith’s recollections are probably more poetry than fact, but the distinction doesn’t seem to matter. A non-linear story that focuses more on images and impressions than actual events is perhaps the only way Smith and Mapplethorpe’s story could have been told.

Just Kids is also a reminder that great art takes time and patience. Knowing how the story ends–that Mapplethorpe became a respected and controversial photographer, and Smith the godmother of punk–the journey can be maddening. They both struggle with their artistic voices, with the messages they want to convey, with what medium will convey it best. At times they just seem to be adrift. But every misstep and chance encounter ultimately leads them to their particular brand of greatness. Mapplethorpe is given a cheap camera by a friend and initially takes pictures because he can no longer afford to buy magazines. Smith is not a musician but comes to punk through poetry readings accompanied by a piano. Today we scoff at the idea of “finding yourself,” but that was exactly what Smith and Mapplethorpe were doing. In an era when academia in particular seems so keen to make the educational process faster and more efficient, eliminating the valuable time that every creative talent needs to stumble and discover, Smith and Mapplethorpe’s stories deserve our attention.

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(image courtesy of japaneseliterature.wordpress.com)

A love affair with youth is hardly unique to Japan.  Anti-aging is a multi-billion dollar business in the U.S., where public figures are mocked for appearing old and the (supposedly) virginal adolescent is the hottest moneymaker in the pop music industry.  Beauty is youth, and youth is beauty, on both sides of the Pacific.

That said, the “youth is everything” feeling has always hit me much harder in Japan–maybe because by Japanese standards I was already old (23) by the time I got here.  Maybe it’s the fact that, rather than appearing sultry, most female models and starlets are photographed peace-signing and winking at the camera like eight-year-olds.  Maybe it’s the pervasiveness of kawaii culture–high-pitched voices, signs drawn in cuddly cartoon form, adults carrying Hello Kitty bags–that can make you feel as if you’re in a surreal, city-sized elementary school.  People in Japan–well, mostly women–not only pay billions of yen annually to look *youthful,* they seem to cultivate a childlike personality well into their twenties, thirties, and even forties.

The problem?  Well, there are a ton of problems with this, but let’s start with just one: what is considered “youthful” (and therefor beautiful, sexy, marketable, etc) is getting a lot younger.  Like, pre-adolescent young.

The New York Times recently examined the popularity of “junior idol” videos and other Japanese media that depict pre-pubescent girls in sexual situations.  One popular video features 13-year-old model Akari Iinuma making popcorn in a maid costume, dancing around in a white bikini, and playing with a beach ball while being hosed down with water.  Some junior idol photo books and DVDs feature models as young as 6.

The outrage that many U.S. residents might feel at such overt sexualization of pre-adolescent girls rings a little hollow when you consider the popularity of TV shows like Little Miss Perfect and Toddlers and Tiaras–which, when you get right down to it, are essentially one-hour blocks of little girls dancing around in bikinis.  Or the popularity of teen idols like Miley Cyrus and (ten or so years ago) Britney Spears, who are / were marketed as a kind of innocent child / sultry vixen combo.  In a way, I almost find the Japanese approach refreshing–at least the country doesn’t feign shock when an obsession with youth, virginity, and innocence is taken to the level of child porn.

Japan has long had a reputation for being lax when it comes to enforcing child pornography laws.  It’s illegal to distribute child porn, but not to possess it.  Arrests and prosecution are rare.  But when it comes to “real” child pornography–photographic depictions of minors in sexual situations–at least there are laws in place.  Until now, though, Japan’s multi-billion dollar manga industry has been exempt from these laws, given that illustrations of sexual acts are deemed “simulated pornography” and thus are not subject to the same laws governing photography and film.

That may change soon, though.  Partially inspired by overseas criticism of the graphic, underage sex that is commonplace in manga, the Tokyo metropolitan government is considering a law that would restrict manga content that features sex between minors.  Major manga publishers are against the law and are threatening to boycott a major annual manga convention if it goes through.  Publishers and creators argue that there are “no victims in manga” and that regulating illustrated content in the same way as photography or film is ridiculous.

I agree that the law is a bad one–it’s vague, confusing, and doesn’t really seem to know how to determine what kind of content would be unacceptable (how do you tell when a line-drawn character is underage?).  It’s also oddly cautious–rather than banning underage sex comics outright, it just prohibits their sale to minors (though manga publishers argue that such a ban would discourage risk-averse publishers and booksellers from handling the material at all).  And the minute Tokyo governor and all-around misogynist / racist asshat Shintaro Ishihara started throwing around the “only perverts read these things” argument, I suddenly became a lot more sympathetic to the publishers.

But I’m not sure I buy the “no victims in manga” argument, in the same way that I don’t completely buy the “no victims in hostessing” argument.  While eliminating depictions of underage sex in manga probably isn’t the answer (and may not even be possible), the blatant sexualization of pre-pubescent girls has plenty of negative consequences. The problem isn’t that such sexualization is “perverted”–trying to define and eliminate “perverted” content in any context is always a recipe for disaster.  The problem is that millions of visual media consumers are being bombarded with a fairly uniform and narrow image of female attractiveness–one that’s physically tiny, submissive, naive, and somewhere between the ages of 8 and 13. Those who don’t fit the model can either feel ugly and undesirable or spend obscene amounts of time and money trying to change themselves.

Japan’s attitude toward child pornography–especially of the “real” variety–definitely needs to change.  But as with just about any social problem, regulation is only half the answer.  Education and dialogue are more essential.  Rather than enacting a vague and most likely ineffective law,  Japan needs to have a serious conversation about its obsession with pre-pubescent girls, something that moves beyond a “sho ga nai” (can’t be helped) mentality to a serious questioning of where this obsession comes from, what its potential consequences are, and how real-life young girls should respond to it.  Change won’t happen overnight, but addressing the issue in a mature fashion, with the participation of people from many sides of the debate, would be a good first step.

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Amy Chua’s “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” piece in the Wall Street Journal, nicely timed to coincide with the publication of her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has generated an amazing amount of impassioned reaction on the web.  Chua’s defenders (some of whom were raised in homes similar to the one she describes) say that she has some good points.  “Western” parents have become too permissive, resulting in children who are lazy, unfocused, and unrealistically assuming that the outside world will treat them as “special” just for being themselves.  I’ll admit that a small number–a very small number–of Chua’s parenting techniques (mainly, pushing your children to succeed and believing in the possibility of their success) are grounded in good intentions.

Overall, though, I was horrified.

The main reasons for shock and disgust have been well covered by other blogs–the high rates of suicide and depression among Asian-Americans (particularly Asian-American women), Chua’s self-congratulatory tone as she describes what plenty of psychologists would define as child abuse, her graphic descriptions of piano practice that seem to border on the farcical.  I personally am not a) Asian-American or b) a parent, and so I won’t be responding to Chua’s article from those perspectives.  But I suppose the piece really hit a nerve with me because, while I have never (thank God) experienced the kind of parenting she describes, I have seen its results in my classrooms.

I have seen countless students buckling under the pressure to be perfect–more specifically, to fit a ridiculously narrow model of perfection enforced by their parents.  As Cynthia Liu of Technorati points out, this is perhaps the most damaging element of Chua’s parenting philosophy: it defines success in incredibly narrow ways.  Are we really to believe that every child who isn’t a musical virtuoso or who doesn’t pursue a career in medicine or science is a failure?  Why must the success that parents like Chua violently shove their children toward be defined in such narrow terms?

In the same way that I’m sickened by the slashing and burning of humanities departments at universities across the country, I’m also sickened by a parenting ideology that teaches children that creative talents are a waste of time.  Parents like Chua, who pay the tuition at major universities and thus have a lot of power in determining which departments survive,  do more harm than they realize when they refuse to pay for arts and literature classes.   They contribute to an overall system that sees the creative arts as impractical and unnecessary, resulting  in the dissolution of more than a few arts and humanities departments.  Amy Chua forces her daughters to play musical instruments, but only, it seems, to instill in them a sense of discipline and the value of hard work–she doesn’t want them to be professional musicians. She boasts that she never let her daughters participate in a school play.  Does she really think there’s nothing valuable to be learned from participating in a group creative effort, even one that doesn’t involve three hours of grueling practice per day?

As I’ve written before, it breaks my heart to encounter students who are talented writers, artists, or dancers–but whose  parents won’t let them take any of those classes because they’re a “waste of money.”  In my adult life I’ve encountered plenty of doctors and business people who desperately wanted to pursue a creative career, but their parents wouldn’t pay for anything other than a “practical” degree.  Some of them managed to defy parental expectations and follow their dreams (a goal that Chua derides in an interview with the Globe and Mail), but I imagine plenty of them are still suffering with the reality of being forced into a profession that they never really had any passion for.

I’m happy that Chua’s article has inspired so much rage and indignation, because it’s part of a larger conversation that needs to be had.  That conversation concerns parenting attitudes that preach a rigid and narrow model of perfection, that justify verbal and physical abuse of children who don’t fit that model, and that de-value the creative arts.  This parenting model, regardless of culture or ethnicity, needs to die.

UPDATE: Chua has done a considerable amount of backpedaling since the posting of the original WSJ article, saying on The Today Show that her book is really more about “her own transformation as a mother” and that “there are many ways to be a good parent.”  Still, she seems to contradict herself a lot in various interviews, one minute saying that super-strict parenting is best and the next minute saying that she feels she was too strict.  Regardless, I’d say there are still plenty of people who support the style of parenting that she describes in the WSJ article, and I still say it needs to die.

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