The Bad Boyfriend Analogy

Somewhere in the blogging universe several months back, I read a rave review of actress-writer Amy Poehler’s 2014 memoir, Yes Please. It was described as a good read for anyone trying to succeed in the arts and encountering mostly frustration. I wondered how this could possibly be true, considering the amazing successes Poehler has enjoyed, including being a full cast member on Saturday Night Live from 2001 to 2008, and then starring in and co-writing her own series, Parks and Recreation, from 2009 to 2015. What could she possibly have to say to the struggling artist?

Some of her opening remarks in the memoir struck me as encouraging, although perhaps disingenuous. For example: “I like hard work and I don’t like pretending things are perfect.” Is she telling us satisfaction remains elusive for her, even after having acquired fame and fortune through constant effort? And also: “I am struggling every day, just like you.” I doubt that her struggles are equal to the average creative striver, although maybe she’s simply asserting that she knows what it is to struggle. This is her explanation for the anger she let loose at an aspiring writer who had the nerve to approach her on an Amtrak train and dump his screenplay in her lap. That person, in her view, was trying to take a short cut to success, something she didn’t have the luxury of doing. She spent years honing her craft in humble improv and comedy clubs. Some lucky breaks did come her way, she acknowledges, but nothing was easy. By a combination of good fortune, a natural zest for performing, and most of all perseverance, she was able to impress the kind of people who could help her.

Poehler discusses some of her enduring insecurities, including major doubts about her looks. She has the face of a comedienne rather than a beauty queen, but she found a way around this early in her career. Improvisation provided a way of becoming somebody else, anybody else, at will. Ironically, she devotes part of her book to complaints about the difficulty of writing a book. She just comes straight out with it: “Writing a book is hard!” Don’t we all know that? She offers the only possible solution: “Just do it!”

Poehler’s best piece of advice, in my opinion, can be summed up by one of her chapter headings: “Treat your career like a bad boyfriend.” Passion, she explains, is not the same as career. Loving what you do may be a prerequisite for accomplishment, but it certainly isn’t sufficient. You may feel yourself falling in love, but who knows if the object of your passion will reciprocate the way you want him to, for as long as you need him to? Poehler herself was going through a painful divorce while writing the book, and was still figuring out how to co-parent two young sons, so her choice of a metaphor might have been influenced by real life.

That phrase struck an immediate chord with me, as I realized that the unreliable suitor could be a metaphor for any hobby, any relationship, any sports team, or anything else you are irresistibly attracted to that continually lets you down. Since the pain is still relatively fresh, I chose to apply that advice immediately to a certain baseball team that takes me for a ride every season and then drops me off in the wilderness, lost and abandoned. Baseball has always been known to imitate life in many ways, and I admittedly take it too seriously, so why shouldn’t I treat my favorite team like the worst boyfriend ever? My Washington Nationals have won four divisional championships in the past six years, and failed every time to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. Talk about a guy who takes you to the prom, buys you a lovely corsage, and then dances with someone else, or worse, leaves with someone else. Or a guy who proposes, and then never sets the date.

Bad boyfriends always have their ingenious excuses, just as the Nationals have a plethora of reasons why they’ve never gotten over that hump. This year, in Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series, Matt Wieters, the stalwart although light-hitting Nats catcher, got hit on the head by the follow-through of a batter’s swing. Because of the violent contact, the pitch should have resulted in a strikeout, and the inning should have been over. As it turned out, nobody in authority knew the rule that pertains to a catcher getting beaned. Everyone, including the committee of six umpires and Nats manager Dusty Baker, was caught up in that cluelessness. No one but the catcher himself seemed to know enough even to argue, and it’s doubtful how articulate he was after getting his brain rocked. Maybe that also accounts for the flaky things Wieters did in the immediate aftermath, including a passed ball and a wild throw that cost the Nats two runs in a game they eventually lost 9-8. Some fans continue to malign him, saying he should have reacted like a professional even under duress. Maybe the life lesson to be derived from this is that the worst boyfriends always have the most creative reason for not showing up. “I was in an accident” is a classic.

Since baseball isn’t as heart-rending for most people as it is for me, and there really isn’t anything even an ardent fan can do about it, I’d advise you to apply the bad boyfriend rule to things you can actually control. We all need a little validation to wash away the inevitable bouts of self-pity we suffer when it seems nobody understands us. If your novel simply doesn’t grab the reader, the fact that you spent years writing it will not alleviate that problem. Even the blog articles that we labor over might go days or weeks without being “liked” or commented on. Fans sweat along with their favorite teams at the crucial moments as if they were on the field themselves. Then, as likely as not, they face a long winter, unrewarded.

Amy Poehler would advise us not to bother at all with these endeavors unless we can find a way to enjoy the process. In other words, don’t expect too much. Don’t sweat it. Maybe that good review will come out of the blue. Or it might be a review that’s not so good, but at least shows that the reader took our book seriously and sort of got it. That bad boyfriend might forget your birthday, and then show up unexpectedly one day and bring you flowers for no particular reason at all. So be joyous, Poehler says, but don’t expect to be satisfied. And be careful what you wish for, because the small successes will only make you hungry for more.

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Is Fantasy Doing The Trick?

I’m not a big fan of made-up worlds. I’m more of a realist in my literary tastes. I prefer stories that could conceivably happen to me, with familiar and accessible settings, as opposed to the wildest flights of an author’s imagination. Not since childhood have I been easily captivated by fantasy, science fiction, and tales of ancient times. Nor do I readily identify with wizards, zombies, space aliens, and kings and queens of antiquity.

So what accounts for a recent, growing urge to immerse myself in the unreal? Is the real world becoming too much for me? Alternate realities seem to be all the rage these days. Maybe it’s the strain of living in a country with a crazy president, who brags about his willingness to launch real missiles at an equally unstable leader who thinks he is capable of launching them right back.

I’ve dipped into the anti-realism craze before. I read the first Harry Potter volume, The Sorcerer’s Stone, and downloaded the movie a few years ago. I recently finished reading the first volume of Game of Thrones. Do I get what the excitement is about? Absolutely. JK Rowling and George RR Martin are masters at drawing audiences into their made-up worlds and mapping them out in rich detail, giving them believability and their own inner logic. When everything is so alien, it takes extra effort on the part of the reader or viewer to grasp it. Dangerous and unexpected things lurk around every corner. The main characters go looking for danger, since they are by nature heroic, driven, or at least extremely curious. Both tales feature the occasional woman or girl who behaves as heroically, or more so, than her male counterparts.

We first glimpse Harry Potter when he is about to leave drab reality behind and become a wizard-in-training. His new school is chock-full of magic, while the outside world remains ordinary and predictable. To be sure, weird things were happening to young Harry before he ever heard of Hogwarts, but he did not associate those incidents with magic. He was a maltreated orphan whose treacherous relatives covered up the truth about his parentage, and thus tried to deny him his destiny. Although he begins to realize his true nature when he arrives at Hogwarts, that place isn’t entirely different from the public schools we all recognize. I had a flashback to junior high when I glimpsed the crowded, turbulent dining hall at the school of magic, where much the same bonding, intrigue, and sometimes nastiness goes on. I felt for young Hermione when a fellow student calls her out for her abrasive personality and superior attitude. She runs off and cries, but manages to gain some perspective and humility when she falls into the hands of a dumb but dangerous troll. The only two fellow students who have made her acquaintance, Harry and Ron, at least care enough to help her out of that jam. A mighty threesome is launched.

Harry could live a relatively safe life in school, just learning his magic lessons, but that proves impossible. As the blood of his deceased parents courses through him, he and his two friends keep testing the boundaries. The first time they venture somewhere off limits, they encounter a three-headed dog. As if that weren’t scary enough, they discern that the dog is guarding some kind of secret. Of course the kids can’t rest until they uncover it. Along the way, they discover that some of their fellow students, and even one or two adults, are not necessarily supportive. They’re either jealous, or covering up the schemes and plots of the shadowy Voldemort, the embodiment of evil. Despite being one of the original founders of Hogwarts, Voldemort is also responsible for Harry being an orphan. We learn that possessing magic powers isn’t enough; one must also learn to use them for good.

Despite its medieval trappings, Game of Thrones strikes me as a more recognizable world than Hogwarts. We have the daily news to remind us that not much has changed since the so-called dark ages. The constant, bloody feuding between at least seven distinct houses described in the book is all too familiar to the modern observer. Vestiges of that world rage on in the tribal warfare of the Middle East, and many other places. Even if lords, ladies, and knights are no longer defending strongholds and castles, we still have endless religious and national quarrels and grievances. Who can sort out the allies and enemies in the interminable fight to overthrow the Syrian government? Countless nations have put an oar into that mess without any clear idea of an end game. They may agree that ISIS is the embodiment of evil, but they seem unable to join forces to remove the menace. Besides the intractable quarrel between different branches of Islam, there are also Kurd nationalists on the scene whom the US sometimes support, except when we’re obliged to designate them as a terrorist organization to placate our on-again, off-again ally, Turkey. Sometimes we appear to be on the same side as the Russians and sometimes on the opposite side. Who will the winners be if Assad actually falls? Not that it looks like he ever will.

It’s easier to keep track of the houses contending for the Iron Throne, even with their extended families and retainers and bannermen and outriders. Most readers’ sympathies will be with the family that seems to have valid historical reasons to believe it was usurped in the old days. At least in this world, there are no major religious quarrels going on, although some folks worship the old gods and some prefer the newer ones. Everyone seems to speak a Common Tongue, while more obscure languages are spoken on the outskirts of society.

The implements of warfare are what make this world so different from the one we know. It takes real heroism to be a warrior, as there is no avoiding the enemy. It’s all hand-to-hand combat with swords and lances. There are no fighter jets dropping bombs, no drones, no suicide car attacks, no assault rifles. Amputations are the most common injury in battle. Unless they result in decapitation, they’re considered mere flesh wounds, not serious enough to stop a true fighter. Combatants are always threatening to slice off the manhood of someone they intend to humiliate, and feed it to whatever wild animal is lurking about. And this proves to be no idle threat.

Some of the characters have a ring of familiarity. Robert, the sitting king when Game of Thrones opens, reminds me in some ways of Trump, although he’s much smarter and more self-aware. Robert admits that he felt truly alive and engaged when he was fighting for the throne; the actual job of ruling bores him. He fills his days with entertainment, putting on banquets and tournaments he can’t afford. The young ruler, Joffrey, who replaces Robert on his death, is Trump-like in his childishness. He is given to empty bragging and impulsive decisions, which need to be modified and countermanded by his more mature advisors. At least Joffrey has an excuse; he really is still a child, not a 71-year-old man.

These stories have some romantic potential. Unfortunately, the budding Romeo-and Juliet-style romance I anticipated between Joffrey and Sansa, the daughter of Robert’s loyal retainer, fizzles out for the time being. I thought it had a chance even when Joffrey and Sansa’s father clash, since it appears Sansa clings to her romantic notions for a brief time. Then Joffrey goes so far as to put her father to death as a traitor, and still has the insufferable arrogance to insist that the marriage will go on. As for romance in Harry Potter, I assume it’s waiting in the wings for the kids to mature in later volumes.

Fantasies like these have the power to divert us when real and potential disasters, both natural and manmade, loom everywhere. Sometimes I feel that existential threats like nuclear war and climate change are getting alarmingly close, yet I can still go to the Mall or to restaurants without meeting a gang of marauders who might decapitate me for having the wrong family name. Stories also remind us that life is never easy, even in fantasyland. The reptilian core of the human brain has always lurked barely underneath the surface, ready to erupt at any time. Voldemort, the embodiment of evil, may not be a real person, but he isn’t so different from people we know, too many of which are in positions of power. At least our real enemies aren’t magical, so presumably we have a fighting chance. Too bad we’re not magical ourselves.

My Girls Are Unlikable

Why do readers and critics of chicklit fiction demand likable heroines? When asked why this is so important, some say they can’t get into a story unless they find themselves rooting for the central character. They must be able to identify with her, or at least care what happens to her. They’ll concede that everyone has flaws, and a perfect heroine would be dull, but she must overcome whatever foibles are standing between her and a happy life.

So how flawed can a heroine afford to be? Must she achieve near-perfection during the course of the narrative to allow the reader to develop the necessary sympathy? Do readers really strive for such perfection themselves, or think they can achieve it with such a person as a role model? In the process of writing four novels, I’ve come up with imperfect and perhaps even unlikable heroines. I never thought they were bad people, just a little messed up. Of course they tend to be self-absorbed, but aren’t most young people like that? That’s how I defend them from naysayers.

In Secretarial Wars, a story inspired by one of my office experiences, the recently divorced secretary Miriam is still sleeping with her ex-husband, although he wasted no time marrying someone else. That’s certainly not nice of her―in fact, it’s called adultery. She actually gets a kick out of risking discovery by the volatile and jealous second wife. Miriam’s professional goal is to shed her secretarial identity and become an investigative journalist. This presents a conflict of interest, as her efforts to uncover malfeasance at the office make her something of a turncoat to the agency that pays her salary. Along the way, she takes some tentative steps toward personal happiness, but without benefit of a real epiphany that would lead to a character makeover.

I chose a small-town college setting, like the one I experienced myself, for The Rock Star’s Homecoming. Imogene, a college senior, rants and raves because her unreliable boyfriend Steve won’t commit to taking her to her final homecoming dance. What will that mean for her chances to leave college with the all-important “Mrs. degree”? To makes Steve jealous, she allows herself to be seduced by the rock star who returns to campus with his now-famous band to play the dance. Since her strategy kind of works, has Imogene learned any real lesson? At least she realizes that she wants more from her post-college life than just a husband.

Handmaidens of Rock also involves girls sleeping with musicians, although the three who hang out with the band called AMO certainly have career aspirations of their own. The way they use the musicians to acquire fame and fortune in their own right might not make them the nicest people. Still, if they didn’t grab some benefits from the arrangement, the arrogant band members would be far too inclined to treat them as mere groupies.

In Let’s Play Ball, fraternal twin sisters Miranda and Jessica penetrate the world of baseball while pursuing widely different career paths and personal lives. Miranda is a bureaucrat with a stable job and what looks like a solid marriage to a lawyer. Jessica, by contrast, is a sportswriter who has sacrificed conventional career prospects and relationships to establish a magazine that pursues controversial topics. After a long struggle, she makes a success of it, and becomes engaged to the major league ballplayer who was the subject of one of her most famous profiles.

All hell breaks loose when that ballplayer is kidnapped, and Miranda is caught sleeping with a teammate whom Jessica suspects of participating in a wide-ranging plot. Obviously, Miranda is no paragon of virtue, although she claims to have been driven to it by her cheating husband. Jessica’s self-righteousness doesn’t endear her to readers either. She tends to regard herself and her fiancé as perpetual victims, and is too quick to accuse everyone in sight of participating in the vast conspiracy to destroy her perfect happiness.

I’m hardly alone in creating less-than-virtuous heroines. Famous authors have been known to do it, although they rarely make their girls totally unlikable. If they do, critics and online reviewers savage them. For example, Candace Bushnell has created a plethora of heroines in her many chicklit novels, including One Madison Avenue, Lipstick Jungle, Trading Up, and the best known of all, Sex and the City. The four SATC girls who were featured in the television series and movies tend to rise from the confusion as fully realized characters, simply because we’ve known them for so long. Carrie the writer is the most relatable to me, but Miranda the career-minded lawyer, Charlotte the homemaker, and even Samantha the nymphomaniac publicist are likable most of the time.

In one instance, however, many of Bushnell’s readers think she went too far. Trading Up features a total narcissist in Janey Wilcox, a superstar model with Hollywood aspirations. This novel has received more one and two-star ratings than I have ever seen on Amazon for a famous author. The description reads: “Modern-day heroine Janey Wilcox is a lingerie model whose reach often exceeds her grasp, and whose new-found success has gone to her head. As we follow Janey’s adventures, Bushnell draws us into a seemingly glamorous world of $100,000 cars, hunky polo players and media moguls, Fifth Avenue apartments … Unseen forces conspire to bring her down, forcing her to reexamine her values about love and friendship―and how far she’s really willing to go to realize her dreams.”

This description is somewhat inaccurate, in my opinion. As far as I can see, the only “reexamination” Janey undertakes is to figure out why she hasn’t hit the big time as forcefully as she expected. She latches onto a Hollywood mogul by pretending to write a screenplay, only to be exposed as a fraud. She marries another star maker who actually loves her and tries to help her, but he proves to be a dead end, forcing her to “trade up” again. There is no come-uppance that would make Janey a better person. There is only a vague discontent that keeps her moving on.

The soulless heroine isn’t a totally modern phenomenon. In fact, Edith Wharton raised the topic way back in the early twentieth century. Bushnell was perhaps giving us a sly wink in that direction when she had her character Janey propose Wharton’s 1913 novel, The Custom of the Country, as a film subject to one of her producer lovers.

Wharton’s heroine in that novel, Undine Spragg, was like Janey in a different era, lacking the Hollywood glitter. Undine marries three times, leaving a trail of destruction and never looking back except to offer self-justifications. Her first husband, who doesn’t share her taste for high society, bores her. He is too busy trying to support her and pay her bills to keep her amused. When she moves on, she abandons her young son, until she later sees some benefit in having him with her. An ensuing custody battle ends up destroying her first husband. Predictably, once she wins the child back, she neglects him. Her second husband has a noble title but not enough money. Her third husband does have enough money, but rather crude manners.

Wharton sums up Undine’s dilemma: “She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.” Both Bushnell and Wharton suggest that their heroines are trapped in the societies they inhabit, and are therefore perhaps not entirely to blame for being so ruthless. Undine was born into an era in which marriage provides the only outlet for an ambitious woman. Similarly, Janey is social-climbing in a community that values her beauty much more than her mind.

Both authors have created beautiful sociopaths, who by definition are incapable of change. Does that mean they’re unworthy heroines, as many critics suggest? I find them fascinating in their own way. Sociopaths may be disturbing and infuriating, but they are people too.

 

Uncooperative Heroines

I used to think it would be great fun to write steamy romances and watch them sell like hot cakes. Theoretically, it didn’t seem too hard. The requirements of the genre, as established by publishers such as Harlequin and Silhouette, were very specific as to length, type of plot, and the need for a happy resolution. Authors who mastered this form seemed able to generate at least two or three books per year. Their stories were gobbled up like candy by their addicted fans. None of these works had long shelf lives, but presumably the speed with which they were produced made up for that.

So why couldn’t I acquire this lucrative skill? I actually started my first two novels with romance at least partly in mind. Secretarial Wars is the tale of a secretary, Miriam, who aspires to be an investigative reporter, and discovers malfeasance at her quasi-government agency. Her plan is to impress a handsome underground editor with her journalistic skills. The Rock Star’s Homecoming features a college senior named Imogene who can’t get her boyfriend to commit, not even enough to take her to their final Homecoming dance. She concocts a plot to make him jealous by pursuing the leader of a homegrown rock band that returns to campus to perform at the dance (and incidentally, to cause a riot, just like the old days).

The problem with Miriam and Imogene was that they refused to behave like romantic heroines. The guys they pursued acted like jerks, which is typical male behavior in romances, especially at first acquaintance. The genre requires that the men eventually overwhelm such heroines with their redeeming qualities, beginning with sheer sex appeal. Unfortunately for Miriam and Imogene, the guys they were most attracted to were pretty much who they were, and never improved much when it came to character.

My heroines’ stories took a long time to unfold and never got totally resolved. I suppose the long epilogues, which some critics objected to, were a giveaway that there were many loose ends to tie up. I couldn’t seem to envision these stories whole. Like life, they didn’t come to me with a blueprint. It seemed the more I worked on a particular story, the more complicated the plot would become. Even though I edited as I went along, I acquired multiple threads and a profusion of secondary characters. I tried to bend my plots and characters to certain rules, but these conventions eluded me. I felt like I was back in first grade, trying in vain to color within the lines and finding out I was hopeless at art.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I studied certain hot-selling examples of the genre, trying to figure out what made them so popular. Some of these books I couldn’t finish. Not that they didn’t contain some decent writing and interesting plot twists. But in my opinion, the ever-present, required formulas dragged down what could have been intriguing stories. I found the predictability stultifying. Beyond that, the heroines simply didn’t speak to me. It’s not quite fair to say they were all alike, and yet in some ways they were.

I liked sex when I was younger, and I still like it theoretically, but I find endless, repetitive sex scenes quite boring. I roll my eyes and think, there they go again. Two people who are barely acquainted, or even dislike one another at first sight, can’t keep their hands off each other. Who really acts like that?  Lovemaking scenes rarely rise above trite writing. Can’t authors leave some of this to the reader’s imagination?

Miriam and Imogene didn’t cooperate by living happily ever after, although they were still young and hopeful when I left them. When I looked for romantic prototypes to model them on, I found too many women sacrificing every other passion in their lives for a chance at a perfect love. That is something Miriam and Imogene simply couldn’t do, as much as they longed to embrace their magic men. You can smell the main lesson of a traditional romance a mile away: a woman can’t possibly live a fulfilled life as a workaholic. In my sampling of romances, I encountered a ruthless prosecutor feared in the courtroom by criminals of all stripes, who happens to wander into a physically perilous situation while on a rare vacation, and has to be rescued by a sexy man. Of course she’s infuriated by her own helplessness, but how can she deny the pounding of her heart? I squirmed at the clumsy symbolism of a widely renowned heart surgeon whose own heart is broken. The question hovers over all of these heroines: what frustration or heartbreak are you covering up when you work so damned hard?

Sandra Brown’s Heaven’s Price, which I first read around 1983, is a prime example of a romance that has both the virtues and flaws of the genre. As far as writing and plotting, it’s not bad. Ms. Brown’s success as a romantic author is astounding. According to her Amazon page, she starting publishing in 1981 and wrote over 70 novels, 60 of which are New York Times bestsellers. Judging by her picture, she’s also blessed with movie star looks. Heaven’s Price was relaunched more than ten years after its first publication, due to customer demands. I guess you can’t argue with that kind of success. Or can you?

The very title of this book screams what it’s about and how it’s destined to end. A woman has to pay a price for her “heaven,” which is defined as the love of a good man. A man’s “goodness” is measured not by his kindness or virtue, but by his ability to turn her on. In this case, we have a heroine pushing thirty years old, who has enjoyed moderate success as a dancer but is discontent because real fame and fortune have eluded her. Her knees have been damaged by years of pounding stages, forcing her to take time off from city life and move to a remote location for treatment and rehabilitation. Her new landlord acts like a creep, but a sexy one. He pretends to be the masseuse she’s expecting, and has thoroughly manhandled her by the time the real masseuse turns up. Of course she’s angry at the deception, but who can resist such virility? What’s a little violation when you can get aroused like that?

As the relationship develops, the landlord proves to be seriously controlling in ways that would raise all kinds of red flags if this were real life. The sexual relationship develops quickly, and strikes me as barely consensual, which is typical of the genre. She might have said no at first, but she really meant yes, and since he could tell she really wanted it, he presses ahead. He also strikes me as both angry and possessive. She realizes she’s been loved before, but “never with such dominance.” Her growing need for him “could well destroy her life’s blueprint.” At one point, he tells her, “If you weren’t already battered, I’d be tempted to punish your insistence.” That seems to suggest that he didn’t need to resort to violence—just the suggestion of it was enough. Later, he comes out with, “I ought to knock the hell out of you for saying that … or better yet, I ought to throw you down on the bed …” As if violence and lovemaking are synonymous. When she pursues an audition before her knees are completely healed, he sabotages it “for her own good.” Of course she’s furious. The pain in her knees makes her even angrier, since it proves he was right. Once again, he knew better than she did what was best for her.

What really set my eyes rolling was the cheesy conversation these two have at the end, when all their differences are neatly resolved and they’re safely married. She has forgiven or soft-pedaled all of his offenses against her. Both are caught up in youthful passion, as if nothing else in the world mattered. It leaves me wondering what a couple is supposed to do when that burns out, as it inevitably must. Is there such a thing as a popular romance that depicts a relationship substantial enough to take a couple through middle and old age? Or are we to presume that fond memories of all that hot sex will suffice to keep the spark alive? At least my Miriam and Imogene will keep on trying to climb their respective career ladders, if only to have something to talk about with any future partners who respect their intellects as much as their bodies.

A Darker Side Of Anne

I started reading the “Anne of Green Gables” series as a child. The first five books took Anne from a spunky orphan of eleven years old, trying to settle into her first real home, to the early years of her marriage to longtime sweetheart Gilbert. My interest was revived as an adult when I came upon three additional books that cover the birth of her children, their growing up, and their eventual participation in World War One, with some tragic results.

Accordingly, I’ve never been able to resist any new rendition of the story that comes to the screen. To be honest, despite my fascination, some of the values that these books convey always gave me pause, even as a child. Of course, the early twentieth century was a different era from my own, and Canadian societal norms also differed in some ways from American ones. Now I find that the first season of a new Netflix series, “Anne with an E,” picks up on some of my reservations and sets out to address them.

I’m not sure I would have recognized a “nature versus nurture” debate when I was young, but ideas about that certainly pervade the story. Lucy Maud (L.M.) Montgomery drew from personal experience when she wrote about the loneliness and sorrow that orphans suffer. Although not technically one herself, she endured tough times while being raised by strict grandparents. That said, considering Anne’s troubled background, it stretches credulity to present her as a bright, sunny spirit who came to the Cuthberts, the brother and sister who adopted her, as a basically sound little girl who merely needed some training in certain social conventions. This is a child whose parents died when she was three months old, and who never heard a kind word from either of the two families who took her in. She was treated as a servant and threatened with beatings if she fell short. Further, she witnessed drunken and violent scenes that no child should be exposed to.

Granted, these books were written for young readers. That was probably the reason Montgomery never strayed far from the myth that once Anne was adopted, her troubles were mostly over, apart from a few scrapes now and then. In “Anne with an E,” the nightmares keep visiting her. At first they prevent Anne from making friends in school, other than her ever-sympathetic neighbor Diana. She is just too strange for most of the other girls. In the books, Montgomery seems to gloss over any damage done to Anne in early childhood, assuming that thanks to good genetics, she will be all right. Marilla Cuthbert, considering whether to adopt Anne, reflects that she talks too much but she’s never rude or slangy. “It’s likely her people were nice folks.”

Realistically, a girl like Anne would be a handful for someone like Marilla Cuthbert, who is portrayed in the books as fairly inexperienced in life outside the peaceful confines of her Prince Edward Island village. She is unsympathetic and impatient with Anne at first, but gradually unbends as the child’s charming personality exerts its influence. The new series, depicting as it does a more troubled Anne, seems to acknowledge that she would require careful handling from a woman who, unlike the original Marilla, approaches the task with a fairly broad mind and at least a few qualifying life experiences.

It struck me early on that in Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island, the French-speaking population was a permanent underclass that existed mainly to serve the more exalted English-speaking community. Montgomery never seems to question the rightness of this system. However, in the television series, the French boy working for the Cuthberts is given an actual personality, a quick wit to match Anne’s, and ambitions of his own. There’s also an interesting twist on Diana’s great-aunt Josephine, who becomes Anne’s financial benefactor at a crucial time. In the books, she’s an old maid who has nothing else to do with her money. However, in the series, she confides to Anne the true reason why she never married. It seems she found all the contentment she needed with a female companion.

In the later books, certain things continued to jar me. The newlyweds Anne and Gilbert move to a seaside community, where Gilbert sets up a medical practice. The first neighbor they get acquainted with entertains them with her strong opinions. In this predominantly Presbyterian community, the woman nurses an implacable, largely unexplained hatred for Methodists. Montgomery treats this as a harmless eccentricity. Presumably, the village is such a homogeneous society that there is no real chance of this lady ever encountering someone really different, like a Catholic, a Jew, or a person of color. Likewise, I grappled with the only serious quarrel that ever troubles Anne and Gilbert’s marriage. This comes about when Anne opposes Gilbert’s efforts to treat a head injury that has rendered a neighbor mentally disabled. Anne objects to any treatment for this man on the grounds that he was a bad husband to one of her friends, and would presumably be so again if he were restored to health. I was appalled by Anne’s berating of poor Gilbert over his determination to do his job. Surely a doctor’s wife should be aware of the Hippocratic Oath.

The most compelling quality about Anne as both a child and a woman, in the books as well as the series, is her imagination. She makes up stories as easily as she breathes. At first she does this primarily to escape reality, which is too grim to bear. Later, she does it to entertain her schoolmates. It would strike anyone immediately that she is destined to be a writer, perhaps of the J.K. Rowling type. She pursues this goal for awhile as a college student and a schoolteacher, publishing some short fiction in magazines. Then she marries Gilbert, becomes a mother, and all but gives up writing, seemingly without a regret.

Granted, it wouldn’t be easy for anyone to raise six children, be a doctor’s wife, and write stories on the side. And yes, women of every era have had to make difficult choices along these lines. But shouldn’t Anne, who was a born writer if ever one was depicted in literature, miss the process at least a little? If writing is in your blood, can you ever suppress the urge entirely? One of Anne’s children does become a famous poet, but is that sufficient compensation?

Montgomery did not live in an era when people obsessed about “work-life balance” as they do now. Women were expected to become homemakers, and the author eventually did so herself, although not without considerable resistance. She reportedly suffered through a few failed romances in her early life, while she was still struggling to find herself as an author. Unfortunately, she failed to marry her true love (a mistake she didn’t allow Anne to make). She seems to have “settled” in her late thirties for a minister with whom she was not particularly compatible. By then, she was an established author, which perhaps made it relatively easy to keep churning out novels while raising two sons.

The Netflix series takes considerable liberties with the original story, more in tone and message than in narrative detail. It shows Anne beginning to question the limited roles of girls and women in her conservative community. I hope to find that in later seasons, as “Anne with an E” grows up, she will make choices that are not as automatic and unquestioned as in the original books. All in all, the “Anne of Green Gables” stories were entertaining, but even when I first encountered them, they did not always tell me what I wanted to hear.

My Classic Rock Soundtrack

rockstar_55-xlI’m a music fan of the baby boomer generation, so how could I possibly resist writing a novel about a rock band? Handmaidens of Rock (2014) centers on a musical outfit that forms at a suburban Maryland high school like the one I graduated from in 1970. Before they can legitimately call themselves a band, the three members—lead guitarist Preston, keyboardist Neal, drummer Brad—must first prove they can hang together long enough to play a gig at a school dance. Once onstage, they must come up with a name on the spot, so they call themselves Homegrown. They amuse their classmates by mocking the local singing star they’re supposed to be backing up, mutilating the cheesy songs he attempts, such as “Love Potion Number Nine” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

To that point, the story is perfectly recognizable and plausible. No doubt there were bands forming all around me at my high school, but since I wasn’t intimate with any of them, I had to make up one of my own. The late 1960s-early 1970s era was a time of improbable rock dreams. The music we were hearing on the radio provided plenty of inspiration to push the envelope of our placid suburban lives. Musically, at least, we could revel in free love, dream in psychedelic colors, and march the streets to demand an end to the Vietnam War and all forms of civil strife. Those songs became closer to true life as many of us moved on to college, the military, and other real-life experiences.

Startup bands have always been lucky even to get a taste of local fame. To make my imaginary band compelling, I had to portray it as more talented than most, or at least extraordinarily lucky. One way Homegrown distinguishes itself from the musical dregs is to pick up some classy groupies, the “handmaidens” of the title. Candy, Hope, and Theda have more going for them than a strong determination to ride the band’s coattails. They’re “handmaidens,” but with ambitions of their own. They aspire to be a journalist, a fashion designer, and an actress-musician respectively. One of them, conveniently, has a powerful attorney father with connections to the music industry.

Any band that aspires to long-term success must write its own songs. How could I get my musicians to do that realistically, when I’m not enough of a musician myself to hear original songs in my mind? One technique was to keep classic rock stations playing on my computer for inspiration. Listening to songs that were popular back in my day, I’d imagine my band trying to write similar tunes. For example, “Time of the Season,” a seductive tribute to the Summer of Love by the Zombies, turned into a piece by Homegrown called “Grooving under the Desk.” The Status Quo song “Pictures of Matchstick Men” used to pound in my head all the time, since I heard it daily on the cafeteria juke box in high school. My band’s take on this was a psychedelic sex dream called “Hot Teacher in Tights.” I always loved the Doors tune “Tell All the People,” a catchy but vague call to arms with shout-outs to youth that could mean almost anything (Set them free! Follow me down! See the wonder at your feet! Your life’s complete!) My take on that was “Revolution for Amateurs,” which might or might not be an actual call to revolution.

Sad songs were part of the band’s repertoire. My lead guitarist Preston, having lost his mother at an early age, mostly hides his feelings behind a hard exterior but occasionally exposes them in song. His heartbreaking “Signals from the Clouds” bears a resemblance to King Crimson’s “I Talk to the Wind.” Idealism is also part of the musicians’ mindset. In “Peace Conquers All,” they envision a new era of free love in the streets, irresistible to the public and cops alike, as in the Animals’ “Warm San Francisco Night.”

Fresh out of high school, my band makes an amateur mock-detective movie with a witchy theme song called “Hex” (something like a popular Cream song, “Strange Brew”). With that in the can, they start writing songs with feverish speed and come up with an eclectic album inspired by that same band’s classic, “Disraeli Gears.” Further adventures follow, including trips to England, Scotland, and California. Scotland proves the most fruitful in terms of new musical directions. They spend time in a commune run by a defrocked priest known to have harbored draft resisters. Their near-worship of him inspires a spate of religious-themed songs, like the one called “Peace Warrior,” inspired partly by Jethro Tull’s “Hymn 43” (with the same refrain, “Oh, Jesus, save me!”) and partly by the Animals’ “Sky Pilot.”

The band changes its name to AMO, which sounds more grownup, and tries to find itself. While attending UCLA, the musicians become involved in a rock festival that ends tragically. Ironically, this is the event that propels them to national fame. Despite their newfound notoriety, the effects of the violence are devastating enough to send them flying off in different directions. The girls break up with their respective musicians and move on to presumably more adult relationships. Still, the wildly creative and romantic ride they took as “handmaidens of rock” can’t be forgotten. A five-year reunion concert takes place in the same high school gym where they first made a jubilant mess of backing up a semi-famous singer. Preston, emerging from a turbulent and fallow period, experiences enough of a creative resurgence to come up with two new songs: one about his inner turmoil called “The Stranger Within” (a take-off on Traffic’s “Stranger to Himself”), and one that celebrates his new marriage to a free spirit, called “Free Spirit of the Road” (which somewhat resembles the Doors’ “Queen of the Highway”).

Assigning a genre to Handmaidens of Rock has been somewhat challenging. No doubt it can be called “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” but how about “contemporary women’s fiction”? That is one of the more popular classifications these days, yet it doesn’t quite fit an early 1970s story. Some reviewers and advertisers have called the book “historical fiction.” That makes me feel ancient, since I remember the era so well. Still, maybe it’s the best way to describe a story with a classic rock soundtrack.