Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month.
Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.
Please note: The following contains spoilers for Squid Game, 3%, The Circle, Ordinary Joe, Clickbait, and some movies Adrian Grenier was in back in the late 1990s/early 2000s.
What I’m reading for work
Who Says? Mastering Point of View in Fiction by Lisa Zeidner: I think I’m starting to hate writing books again. I started hating them a little toward the end of my original study late last year/early this year, when I’d spent about six months straight reading a total of 25 books on fiction writing. I’m adding more to the list now because a peer reviewer asked me to include books that are more recent and even though I understand the need to do this, I’m feeling pretty burned out, mostly because these books have become so maddeningly predictable that I’ve stopped believing any of them have anything new to say. Which is to say, if you want to learn more about why point of view is important and how the choice of point of view affects everything in a story from dialogue to description, you could do a lot worse than Who Says? Zeidner’s discussion of point of view is pretty thorough, to the point where she even includes a section on writing from the point of view of children or animals. But many of the examples she uses are basically just the same stations of the cross that you’ll find in every writing book that’s out there: Nabokov, Updike, Faulkner, The Great Gatsby, The Yellow Wallpaper, Cormac McCarthy, etc. And though she does stop to consider commercial fiction in addition to literary fiction, it’s obvious from the way she sneers at The Da Vinci Code (which Will Storr also took some time to shit on in The Science of Storytelling, the last writing book I read before this one) that there is supposed to be something correct about attempting to produce the type of literary fiction that academics study and therefore incorrect about producing the type of commercial fiction that people actually read.(1) As always, that attitude drove me so crazy that it was hard to pay attention to anything else in the book. One thing that’s a bit mysterious to me about this book is that you would think a deep dive on point of view would be a prime opportunity to talk in detail about the role of research in creating fiction. But Zeidner never really goes there. She certainly alludes to research several times, including in a section on authenticity and appropriation. She also briefly mentions some of her own creative research, which involved hanging out with a SWAT team while they did their drills, but nothing about why this research was necessary to the process of writing her novel or what it added to her ability to create a point of view for the story she was writing. She didn’t even talk about how one manages to get a SWAT team let some random person watch them do their drills. I want to know more! Unfortunately, that’s all a reader interested in learning about the role of research in the creative process(2) will get, at least from this particular text. On to the next.
What I’m reading for fun
Haven’t Watched ‘Squid Game’? Here’s What You’re Not Missing. from the New York Times: Whenever a TV series achieves the level of popularity that Squid Game has, it’s pretty inevitable that someone is eventually going to offer up a hot take that the thing everyone is obsessing over isn’t actually that good. These pieces tend to be annoying and I’m not sure that this one, by critic Mike Hale, is any different but after sitting through five episodes of Squid Game and feeling a bit put off by certain elements of the show, this article made me feel seen. That is to say, I don’t hate Squid Game and I’m happy for the show’s success but other than its meme-ability, I don’t understand the enormous buzz around it, which has started to seem more and more manufactured as time goes on. My guess is that the reason people who have actually watched it (as opposed to just made memes of it) like it primarily because it functions similarly to a reality competition show, albeit an extremely bloody one. I admit that I found the games exciting to watch, even if it was predictable who was going to make it through each one and who wasn’t. I also appreciated that I was able to care as much as I did about the characters, mostly due to the actors’ performances. But then I started to realize that this was a show that was going to make me care about people just to kill them off horribly or involve them in terrible betrayals. That might have been fine if it felt like the show had something new or different to say that hadn’t already been said by other shows, movies, and books with almost the exact same premise. But watching this mostly made me long to go back and watch 3%, a Brazilian show with a very similar premise that manages to generate suspense around the game its characters are playing without the consequences always being life or death.(3) I’m not saying that Squid Game has to be more than it’s trying to be. It’s fine for people to enjoy it for what it is. I’m just glad I’m not the only person on the internet who wasn’t super excited about it.
What I’m watching for fun
The Circle Season 3 on Netflix: The Circle is a reality show I’ve spent way too much time thinking and writing about. Because season 2 was released so recently, I wasn’t sure I was going to watch season 3 just yet, much less write about it, but a fit of boredom one weekend sent me down the rabbit hole of the first four episodes, during which I could only think about how much I hate all of these freaking people. When it comes to its cast, The Circle has always leaned toward individuals who are trying to use the show as a launch pad to something else. Whether they state that this is the case or not, almost everyone on here is some kind of show business would-be: would-be actor, would-be influencer, would-be comedian, would-be singer, would-be model (or actual model). That doesn’t usually annoy me too much but this season it was a little too obvious how fame hungry most of these people are and that their goal was less about playing the game than it was about getting as much screen time as possible. The show eventually did find something resembling a heart. But the pacing felt off this season, especially at first when the early twists made it so that viewers had to basically watch the same person get kicked off three different times (#justiceforOrangeMichelle), thus delaying the elimination of some of the weaker or more annoying players who were introduced early on. So, yeah. Not my favorite season of the show but I can’t deny that this thing is addictive as hell and I will definitely be back. (And in the end, I was pretty happy with who the winner turned out to be.)
Ordinary Joe on NBC/Hulu: Ordinary Joe is very much not my speed. It’s a sort of This is Us clone where the conceit of the story is that it follows one man’s life through three different timelines that branch out from the day of his college graduation. In one, he’s a cop, in another he’s nurse, and in the third he’s a rock star. The reason I started watching this even though I knew it was not my thing was because I saw Charlie Barnett was in it. I’ve loved Charlie Barnett ever since seeing him in Russian Doll a few years ago. Here, he’s stuck playing the mostly supportive (…so far) childhood best friend and though he’s very charming in each version of the role, he hasn’t had a whole lot to do. I also generally like James Wolk, who plays the Joe in question and who I mostly know as Sebastian Stan’s twin brother from the short lived (and kind of terrible) series Political Animals even though I know he’s also been in other things like Watchmen. Wolk gives off some pretty strong Scott Bakula vibes here but as a character Joe is a bit of a dud so far. The rock star storyline is pretty cringeworthy despite what seems like a fair amount of musical talent from Wolk and the nurse storyline has yet to have a reason to exist though this happens to be the storyline where Charlie Barnett’s best friend character somehow ended up marrying Joe’s love interest, so I’m guessing there will be eventual conflict around that. Of the three, the cop storyline works the best but it’s also probably the most familiar and it gets dragged down by the show’s overly sentimental tone. None of this is helped by the fact that there are three different timelines in the first place. Occasionally, what you know about one timeline can add interest to another. For example, in all three timelines Joe has a ten year old son but there’s only one timeline where he knows his son and is the one raising him. But so far, the different timelines are just confusing and I’m not sure what the payoff is supposed to be. I highly doubt this is the type of show where the timelines will ever intersect with each other. Or where Rock Star Joe finds a way to cross between universes and kidnap Nurse Joe’s version of his son. Maybe that’s just as well since this show isn’t, after all, trying to be Fringe. It’s trying to be This is Us. If you like This is Us, you might like this series. I’ve seen enough to know that it’s probably not for me but I might catch up with it one day on streaming if it survives long enough to get there.
Clickbait on Netflix: I clicked on this show because I needed a break from the bleak violence of Squid Game and also because it had a picture of Adrian Grenier on the tile. I am a person of simple needs. I’m not sure Clickbait met those needs exactly but I think I liked it more than most people who have seen and commented on it around the internet. I mean, I feel a bit icky about the fact that this is a series that’s basically wagging its finger at any audience members willing to believe that this poor persecuted white man might have raped or abused a woman based on a viral video in which he’s clearly been coerced into a sort of confession. I also feel icky that even with a wonderfully diverse cast, the main story still revolves around said white guy. That said, I saw where this show was going, including the catfishing angle, from pretty early on and I admit that I was intrigued despite myself. The premise of the mystery and the basics of its solution are, I think, actually fairly clever. Unfortunately, the show decides to go for shock value in the end in a way that doesn’t work and was frankly disappointing. In a different world, this might have been an interesting interrogation into why people catfish online and what they get from pretending to be someone else. Instead, you get a creepy old couple who have suddenly decided to murder people chasing a Black boy through the woods with a gun in the middle of the night. This is Criminal Minds-level stuff. Super dumb. But I still mostly enjoyed the ride even if the destination was disappointing. Also it sent me down a rabbit hole of Adrian Grenier’s teen movie oeuvre from back in the day. The Adventures of Sebastian Cole is kind of an odd movie with some elements that today would probably be considered somewhat “problematic” but overall it was pretty ahead of both the time it was made in and the time it portrays in a lot of ways. Clark Gregg (aka Agent Coulson, if you’re an MCU fan) is especially good in it as the trans stepparent of Grenier’s character. And while Drive Me Crazy is no 10 Things I Hate About You, it has its moments.
(1) To be clear, as usual I’m not about to defend The Da Vinci Code on a quality level or call it great literature. Though it is an interesting example of research in fiction writing, mostly for all that it gets wrong about da Vinci’s life and work (as highlighted by Walter Isaacson in his biography of da Vinci) and the question of whether Dan Brown deliberately manipulated the accepted facts in order to tell a better story…or is just really bad at research.
(2) To be fair, I may be the only reader who fits this particular description.
(3) In that series, the consequence of losing is not literal death. Instead, the characters have to go back to the terrible poverty they’ve grown up in instead of being allowed to live in luxury on a remote island among the population’s intellectual elite.