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beauty

The news has been abuzz in recent weeks about the movie Beauty and the Beast, which will release next spring.

Why all the interest? Well, the lead actress is Emma Watson, of Harry Potter fame, and supporting actors include Luke Evans, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, and Ian McKellen. Also, there has been much discussion of how Emma has ‘feministed up’ (as coined by Zoe Williams in The Guardian) the role of Belle. But beyond that, what’s really interesting people is that this fairy tale movie by Disney is live action, not animated.

Why the shift from the animation that has made Disney so successful to live action? Because, initially, it made good business sense to take a movie that has already proved popular and re-release it in a new form; the formula is proven. As the New Statesman put it, ‘Disney is undertaking a deliberate and extensive strategy of live-action remakes of nostalgic animated successes.’

But when Disney began this venture, with the live-action remakes for The Jungle BookCinderella and Alice in Wonderland, they could not have known just how well received the new style of movie would be; The Jungle Book, released in 2016, made over a million dollars in the US on the opening weekend alone. Now, with the trend proving so popular, more movies are in the pipeline, from Mulan and Aladdin to The Lion King, Dumbo and Snow White.

So what is it about live action that’s ‘clicking’ with movie-goers? Why are we keen to see real people enacting age-old fairy tales?

I think it comes down to a desire to shrink the gap between fantasy and reality – to really be able to believe in the fairy tale. Watching a cartoon Belle fall in love with a cartoon Beast is lovely, but somewhat surreal; watching a real Belle fell in love with a Beast who’s breathtakingly realistic creates a much stronger emotional connection.

In these Disney live-action fairy tales, fantasy is made vivid and tangible. The actors are immersed in startlingly realistic fantasy worlds created through CGI; it takes some effort on the part of the audience to disbelieve what the eyes see as real.

And why would we want to believe the story is not real? To believe, even if only for a little while, to be thoroughly immersed in the story, is the great pleasure and comfort of engaging with fantasy. No wonder so many fans visit the Harry Potter Studios to explore Diagon Alley; no wonder there was such interest in a new production of The Nutcracker ballet in London, in which the audience would be guests at the Act 1 Christmas party and wander through the Kingdom of the Sweets in Act 2. We don’t just want to witness a fairy tale world – we want to escape into it. It is so much easier to imagine oneself in a world inhabited by real people than one inhabited by cartoons.

Have you seen any of the live-action Disney films? If so, how would you compare them to the animated originals? Are you keen to see the upcoming Beauty and the Beast film? Are there any other fairy tales you’d love to see on film? I would love to hear your thoughts.

I will leave you with the Disney trailers for both Beauty and the Beast movies, and a question: which most appeals to you?

7octbooks-the-lady-1
I’m delighted to share today a review of Legacy published by The Lady magazine:

Legacy is filled to the brim with family scandal, frustrated love and hidden secrets. Ruy is the ideal love interest, exuding both charm and intelligence, and Luna fits the part of innocent and fragile heroine perfectly. Fast-paced and addictive, it will keep you hooked from start to finish.

 

bestseller

In the past few weeks a non-fiction book has taken the publishing world by storm: The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel. Written by a former literature lead researcher at Apple and an associate professor of English, the book has a compelling blurb:

What if an algorithm could predict which manuscripts would become mega-bestsellers?

Girl on the Train. Fifty Shades. The Goldfinch. Why do some books capture the whole world’s attention? What secret DNA do they share? In The Bestseller Code, Archer and Jockers boldly claim that blockbuster hits are highly predictable, and they have created the algorithm to prove it. Using cutting-edge text mining techniques, they have developed a model that analyses theme, plot, style and character to explain why some books resonate more than others with readers. Provocative, entertaining, and ground-breaking, The Bestseller Code explores the hidden patterns at work in the biggest hits and, more importantly, the real reasons we love to read.

The authors, Archer and Jockers, scanned nearly 5,000 novels into a computer, amongst them 500 New York Times bestsellers, and then programmed the computer to predict which would succeed. Their algorithm returned 80 per cent correct predictions.

Most authors don’t set out with the express aim of writing a blockbuster (unless they have fantastically large egos); they are like EL James, who has said, ‘I never set out to do this. Getting to number one in the New York Times bestseller list wasn’t even a pipe dream.’ As for publishers, they do their best to predict what will sell, but will openly admit that there is no exact science to publishing a blockbuster – remember that JK Rowling was rejected over and over again with Harry Potter.

So a formula that can predict a bestseller is surely very exciting for publishers (can it be applied to the ‘slush pile’?), and for authors (by studying this book’s analysis of theme, plot, style and character, can we write a guaranteed bestseller?). The idea of a computer telling us what to write and publish, however, doesn’t prove to be inspirational.

First, most of the findings of the analysis amount to common sense for writers – for example, that ‘human closeness’ is key in a popular book.

Second, there’s just no predicting the mood of a time. As Knopf editor Carole Baron said to The Atlantic, ‘Can you predict the future in literature and art when you can’t factor in the zeitgeist? We’re always surprised.’

Third, where is the art in analysing books, spotting ‘must haves’ and then inserting them into your fiction – to writing not from the heart but to a formula? What would the future of literature be if books were increasingly written to rule, and purely in order to be bestsellers (remember, some of the very best works of literature are not bestsellers)?

Finally, what about meaning – writing and publishing for the love of it and the fun of it? Where is the meaning and enjoyment in success no longer being at least in part random?

What do you think about analysing books and then writing to rule? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

paella

If there is one thing I know about the Spanish – having visited their beautiful country many times and set my most recent fictional works, the Andalucían Nights trilogy, there – it is this: they are fiercely proud of their culture and heritage.

That pride extends to cuisine, it has become apparent in the past weeks, when the Spanish nation united in outrage over a British chef fiddling with their beloved dish paella.

Newspapers have delighted in reporting on the backlash to Jamie Oliver’s simple tweet: ‘Good Spanish food doesn’t get much better than paella. My version combines chicken thighs & chorizo’.

Paella is a traditional dish in Spain, and while regional variations on the ‘pure’ Valencian recipe exist, they never extend past a core list of ingredients, which includes rice, chicken/ rabbit/snails/seafood, green beans, white beans, artichokes, tomatoes, salt, rosemary, paprika, saffron, garlic and olive oil. Nowhere in that list, as you can see, is chorizo.

Spanish respondents on social media were deeply unimpressed by Jamie Oliver’s tweet; reactions ranged from polite but irritated, through to downright vitriolic. So why the fuss? It comes down to pride and a sense of ownership. Paella belongs to the Spanish. It is their dish, made their way. ‘Putting a twist’ on the dish and still calling it paella is offensive and disrespectful.

One group feels so passionately on the definition of paella it set up a website called Wikipaella on which you can see the definitive recipe (Spanish dictionary at the ready). ‘Our objective is to have the majority of people know what an authentic paella from our region is,’ co-founder Guillermo Navarro told the Guardian. ‘We want it to be like pizza – where people can add in whatever ingredients they want, but that they know what a traditional pizza is.’

The comparison to pizza is interesting. It’s no secret that the pizza you eat outside Italy is quite different to the pizza you eat in Italy. How do Italians feel about that? Just as the Spanish do, I think. They don’t like to see their authentic cuisine misunderstood. Just last week Italian chef Antonio Carluccio was bemoaning the state of the spaghetti bolognese served in Britain. He told the Telegraph that spaghetti bolognese does not even exist in Italy. There, ‘it is tagliatelle bolognese, with freshly made tagliatelle and bolognese without any herbs whatsoever’.

So what is a food-lover to cook that won’t offend a nation? May I suggest this:

dali

Les Diners de Gala is a cookbook that offers 136 recipes compiled by the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala. It’s already topping the bestsellers’ list on pre-orders alone, not for its authentic Spanish recipes, but instead for its highly inventive take on gastronomy. I can guarantee that tweeting ‘Here are the frog pasties I made from Les Diners de Gala; delicious!’ won’t get you in hot water with the Spanish.

elena

In the past week, book news has been dominated by a single story: that of the unmasking of notoriously private Italian author Elena Ferrante.

In case you have missed this story, here are the basics. Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist. In the past few years, her Neapolitan quartet of novels has received widespread attention and acclaim (the last was nominated for a prestigious Italian book award), so that Time magazine named her one of the one hundred most influential people on the planet in 2016.

Famously, from the start of her publishing journey Elena Ferrante has been determined to be anonymous. She wrote to her publisher before her first book was published: ‘I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.’

Elena Ferrante fans – and there are many – have long accepted that her true identity is not theirs to know; they enjoy her books, not her public persona. They also, in their droves, respect her artistic decision and right to anonymity. Some creatives are even very inspired by her example, in a world where creator has fast become more a commodity than that which is created.

But then, last week, the New York Review of Books published an exposé by an investigative journalist ‘outing’ Elena Ferrante, detailing whom he believes she actually is (I won’t even include the assumed name here, because it is irrelevant and, more to the point, disrespectful).

No doubt the New York Review thought this would be a discussion-provoking article, but it was not prepared for the massive backlash from people all around the world who were outraged by this invasive reporting and defended vehemently the author’s right to anonymity. The Times Literary Supplement put it best: ‘He thinks he has put us out of our misery, but no-one really wanted to know the identity of Elena Ferrante.’

Here are my thoughts on this incident:

  • All people have a right to privacy, and when a person has set clear boundaries, it is wrong to cross those boundaries.
  • A writer – and, indeed, any creative – is not public property. The TES likened this journalist’s exposé to that of a corrupt politician. A politician is a public servant and thus in that sense is public property and may be scrutinised and of course exposed for bad behaviour. But a writer who has done nothing but silently write is not open for exposure.
  • In revealing the author behind the pen name, the journalist has ruined some of the pleasure for readers. ‘Anonymity gave Ferrante’s readers a hard-to-define pleasure – it left them with a precious space in which to fantasise about her’ (BBC). Psychoanalyst Fiona Sinclair told the BBC: We all have a tabula rasa when we read a book, a private world that we create, and Ferrante doubled this effect with her anonymity… Her anonymity was generous, allowing her readers the freedom to imagine her as both the protagonist and the author.’
  • How must the author herself feel? How violated? Will this affect her ability to write more novels? ‘Anonymity lets me concentrate exclusively on writing,’ she had told The Guardian. She had told Vanity Fair, ‘I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.’ What right has a journalist to cause that pain?
  • Is this act, as many are saying, one of ‘masculine aggression, meant to take Ferrante down a peg’ (Digg)?
  • I wonder how much investigative work the journalist, now famous, will get be offered now. Sadly, I expect the answer is ‘plenty’.

What do you think about this news story? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

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