Why Tragic Fiction is Important

I remember I was talking to a friend about Ruroni Kenshin (note: I have never seen/read Ruroni Kenshin). She told me she enjoyed it right up to the ending … and then she told me that she was too American to enjoy the ending “I need the big, happy ending, and Ruroni Kenshin didn’t have that”.

This is one of those things which makes me feel non-American. I okay with some stories having happy endings, but the excessive prevalence of happy endings in American media is one of the things which makes me really interested in foreign fiction. The one realm in contemporary American media which seems to have a satisfactory balance of happy/tragic endings to me is theatre … even among plays written by Americans, there are a significant portion which end in tragedy.

Why do I feel this way?

Making every story have a big happy ending feels … forced. Artificial. False. I know real life does not work that way. In fact, for most people, the last moments of their lives are not their happiest. So I doubt I’m going to think ‘YIPEE! YAY!’ when my life is ending.

Some people say they want fiction to be happy and cheerful to forget the way real life works or to compensate for it but … for me, trying to forget something unpleasant does not make me feel better about the unpleasant thing.

That said, I do not want a story to be a complete downer. In fact, most tragedies are not complete downers – there are times when the characters are happy, extremely happy, before their demise. And I find this reassuring.

I have only limited control over my fate. No matter what precautions I take, getting hit by a car is at least possible practically every day. That could lead to a permanent disability such that I have to spend the rest of my life at the mercy of caregivers. It’s not the idea of being disabled which bothers me; it’s the evidence that women with disabilities are far more likely to be raped than women without disabilities, not to mention many other abuses, including murder. While collectively fighting ableism can do a lot to alleviate this problem, as an individual I would not have much power to stop the abuse. This is just one example of a tragic fate I do not have the power to prevent should my luck decide to turn on me.

However, I have had moments of great happiness in my life, and nothing can take that away from me. Tragic fiction reminds me of this.

When I am upset, I detest comedies. They seem to be denying my pain. I need to be a good mood to enjoy a comedy. That said, I do not like tragedies either when I’m upset. My comfort fiction tends to be stories which evoke nostalgia – stories which remind me that, even though I may feel awful at that particular moment, I sometimes feel really good.

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Female Characters – Without the Romance

I just read this Candi strip.

In case you can’t read it, here is a transcript:

Laura: Don’t most of the stories you read have some kind of romance in the plot or something?
Jess: It’s not always the main part of the story, but yes.
Laura: So what’s wrong about getting to read the actual result of the romance. [NOTE: While I dislike the notion that sex is by default the main result of romance, it is consistent with Laura’s character that she would say something like this]
Jess: Nothing, but do you only watch porn, or do you watch a variety of TV shows? Sometimes they show sex, most don’t, and you’re still watching them, yes?

Now, as I’ve said before, I do like romance in fiction, and most of the fiction I read has some romance.

But this strip got me thinking … what romance free fiction is out there?

I could think of two general categories:

1) Children’s fiction
2) Stories where 70%+ of the characters are male

Maybe, if I think hard enough, I’ll think of a fictional story which is dominated by female characters, is aimed at an adult audience AND which does not have romance or sex.

I almost mentioned play “Nickel and Dimed” as an example of a story with mostly female characters and practically no romance … but then I remembered that it’s based on a non-fiction book. Curses. But, when I think about it, there are plenty of interesting non-fictional stories which revolve around females without having romance or sex … so why can’t fiction be the same?

And I think it’s important for such stories to be told. When I was a child, one of my favorite things about the So You Want to Be A Wizard books is that the relationship between the female and male protagonists was EXPLICITLY non-romantic and non-sexual … alas, it’s for children, so it doesn’t count. I also like that the female and male protagonist in the His Dark Materials Trilogy could work together in a totally platonic way … until I read the ending of The Amber Spyglass … ewwww (note: I normally do not react to sexual or romantic content by saying ‘ewwww’, but I think the ending of The Amber Spyglass merits such a reaction).

So, here’s my question:

What works of fiction a) have at least 60% female characters b) are aimed at an adult audience and c) have no (or almost no) sex or romance?

Outside Blogging – Catching Up

First of all, my two guest posts at Hacking Chinese are now live. READ THEM!!!

Approaches to reading Chinese
A language learner’s guide to reading comics in Chinese

And … I somehow forgot to mention that I have a new column at Manga Bookshelf: It Came From the Sinosphere. In each post, I discuss something from Chinese-language pop culture (with a strong focus on Taiwan, though I think the focus on Taiwan will lessen over time). It comes out every week. I am not going to mention it every week … but I will occasionally do a round up. Like now:

Idol Dramas:
The Outsiders 1&2
My Queen

Novels:
The Book and the Sword
Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero, Part 1
Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero, Part 2

Comics:
Divine Melody
Creative Comics Collection

Movies:
Cheerful Wind

I plan to eventually write a personal post about Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero – even though it is not asexy/aromantic, it does touch on one of this blog’s most common themes.

One of the reasons why I am writing this new column is that I think that the way culture is shared between the United States (and other English-speaking countries to some extent) and the Chinese speaking worlds is greatly imbalanced. If something is even somewhat popular in the United States, chances are that it will be made available in Taiwan, in translation if necessary. However, some of the bedrocks of Chinese-language pop-culture are not available in English at all. I hope my column can tilt this situation, even just a teensy bit, to a more balanced state.

About My Formal Education…

I happened to have an excellent high school education. Sure, I could spend a lot of time discussing all of my high school’s flaws, but when all is said and done, my high school education greatly broadened my knowledge about the world, but more importantly encouraged me to be curious and taught me to ask better questions.

I had many good experiences in college. I had many classes which increased my knowledge and some which helped me see the world from different perspectives. However, I feel that most of what I got out of college I could have gotten outside of college – I could have read a bunch of books, I could have taken independent classes outside of college, and I could have met many of the same people (or met equally valuable people) even if I had not gone to college. While I did learn a lot and grow a lot in college, I think I would have learned and grown just as much if I had taken a different path.

And, I dare say, I am learning as much by living abroad, even though I am not officially a ‘student’, as I did in college.

I currently have a job that requires a bachelor’s degree, mainly due to work permit regulations. So, in a sense, I am using my college degree. However, the use is purely bureaucratic. I am actually not using what I learned in college very much in my job, and I think I would have been just as qualified to do the work if I had been merely a high school graduate instead of a college graduate.

At the very least, I did not have to take out any loans to fund my college education, partially because I went to community college / state university in California (low tuition), and because I come from an affluent family. Even in high school, I thought taking a loan out to fund a college education was a risky proposition, and if I had had to go into debt to fund my college education I would have probably chosen to skip it.

To me, it seems having a college education is not so much about actually acquiring useful skills, knowledge, or perspectives, but to act as a shortcut for employers who are too lazy to do a proper evaluation of prospective employees. And to mark one’s middle class status, of course.

At the same time, it seems that a high school education of the quality I had is the exception, not the rule, and that college has to take up much of the slack caused by the deficiency of high school. Most people probably do not realize how much I gained in high school, and thus would underestimate my education if I had presented myself as a mere high school education.

I think fewer people should be going to college, and that quality high school education should be the norm, not the exception.

Non-sexual Nudity

I live on a tropical island. It’s summer. I live by myself. I refuse to use the air-conditioner. What do you think I’m wearing right now?

Correct answer: nothing.

Some people might think that is too much information. I don’t think it is.

My present nudity has nothing to do with sex. It is an entirely practical decision, and I suspect you would make the same choice under the circumstances.

But the defining circumstance is that I am alone, not the temperature. When I lived in California, it was not too cold, and I truly felt safe in my privacy, I would also go nude. I find it liberating to feel so secure, with both myself and my environment, that I do not need my clothes to shield me (unlike at work).

People often assume that nudity is always sexual. But it is not. Two other examples: in the Dutch film Character there is a nude scene which seems completely non-sexual to me, and I know the people who created the Nude Revolutionary Calendar said that it was intended to be non-erotic.

In Taiwan, there are hot springs where people of all genders use the same pools and wear swimsuits, and there are hot springs which are gender segregated and everybody is naked (by gender-segregated, I mean there are only baths for ‘females’ and ‘males’ … the people who set up these hot springs do not seem to think about genderqueer people at all).

Most of the younger Taiwanese women I know say they only go to hot springs where people wear swimsuits, because they are not comfortable with other people seeing their naked bodies, even if it’s just women. I … actually feel the opposite. For one thing, I would have to buy or borrow a swimsuit (I don’t have one with me in Taiwan right now), which would be a hassle. However, the main reason is I like being in a place where it’s okay to be with other people without clothes. We do not need to hide ourselves from each other, we can just be as nature made us. And I really do not mind having a group of Taiwanese women see me naked.

I know that the situation would be different if I did not have cis-privilege … for the record, if I could be 99% certain that the men would not act like jerks, I’d be okay with a nude mixed-gender hot spring bath too. Unfortunately, due to rape culture, I do not trust men not to act like jerks.

I’m not saying that I want to be nude all the time – I most certainly do not – but I think it would be better to divorce nudity from sexuality. Clothing can be sexy; so why can’t nudity be asexy?