Literature has long been sounding the alarm about sexual violence in Hollywood

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For decades, novels have implored readers to look beyond the glamour and riches.
Trey Ratcliff, CC BY-NC-SA

Billy J. Stratton, University of Denver

Recent revelations about Hollywood’s culture of sexual harassment and violence might come as a surprise to many Americans.

After all, Los Angeles – home of what some call “the American image factory” – has long carried the allure of glamour, wealth and fame. Beckoned by the iconic Hollywood sign in the Santa Monica Mountains, the city, in many regards, has become synonymous with the American dream.

People familiar with the industry might tell a more complicated story. That group includes writers who have made Los Angeles and Hollywood their subjects: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Evelyn Waugh, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion and Bret Easton Ellis. All have chronicled a seamier side of the California dream, a world awash with drugs, sex, violence and abuses of power.

So how did so many of us miss this? Could it have anything to do with the fact Americans who read literature recently fell to a three-decade low?

At the very least, the works of these writers show that literature can play an imperative role in our culture – that novels can give us a means of facing difficult issues that many of us may prefer to ignore, or don’t want to believe exist.

A city of vampires

In numerous novels since the 1930s, Hollywood’s underbelly has been revealed as a landscape rife with peril. And while many writers have explored the vice, corruption and disillusionment at the heart of Hollywood, few have gone deeper into the shadows than Nathanael West and Bret Easton Ellis.

West’s 1939 novel, “The Day of the Locust,” depicts the struggles of Faye Greener, an aspiring actress in pursuit of Hollywood fame and fortune – a dream laid waste by the men she meets along the way, who see her as little more than an object of their desires.

Pursued and stalked throughout the novel, Greener eventually turns to prostitution to make a living. Worse yet, to the novel’s protagonist, she’s the subject of disturbing rape fantasies. The story ends in a frenzy of violence at a Hollywood movie premiere – West’s ultimate denunciation of a culture and a city.

More than 40 years later, the characters of Bret Easton Ellis’s fiction are subjected to almost unspeakable forms of trauma and sexualized violence in “Less Than Zero” and “The Informers.”

In “Less Than Zero,” billboards emblazoned with the words “Disappear Here” loom over the landscape. They’re apparently advertisements that invite a blissful escape to some far-off resort. But for the novel’s main character, they become a menacing warning of a city that devours all who live and work there.

The novel’s main character, Clay, descends into the darkest recesses of this world – a journey to, as he puts it, “see the worst.” And indeed he does.

Although some of the horrors he witnesses occur in back alleys and basement clubs, the most shocking forms of violence – rapes, the viewing of snuff films – transpire at ritzy hotels and posh homes in Malibu, Bel Air and Beverly Hills. We are led to the realization that self-destruction, dehumanization and violence are built into the very fabric of Hollywood’s being.

Meanwhile, the young characters in “The Informers” live in a Los Angeles “swarming with vampires.” Many turn to alcohol, drugs and sex to cope with the depravity of lives that are hopelessly artificial and empty. For some, entertainment has devolved into watching videos of women being terrorized by “near-naked masked men.”

At one point, a main character, the son of a movie executive, meets a struggling actor.

“Unless you’re willing to do some pretty awful things,” the actor says, “it’s hard getting a job in this town.” The reader can almost anticipate the despairing surrender conveyed in his final words: “and I’m willing.”

Other novels, set outside of Hollywood, speak to what can be seen only as an epidemic of sexual violence: Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Louise Erdrich’s “The Round House,” Frances Washburn’s “Elsie’s Business,” Jessica Knoll’s “Luckiest Girl Alive.”

All hold a mirror to a world that many would prefer not to face.

Literature as ‘equipment for living’

Novels cannot replace the immediacy of the testimony offered by the courageous women who, in recent months, have publicly shared their experiences with sexual violence.

Nonetheless, such works can function as a vital corroboration for the heartbreaking truths that these women have revealed. They give a voice to perspectives that are marginalized and silenced.

The critic Kenneth Burke viewed literature not just as a form of amusement or intellectual reward, but as a way of addressing social problems by teaching, as he put it, “strategies for dealing with situations.”

An implicit element of all literature, he argued, is that it gives readers opportunities to imagine how they’d respond to complicated scenarios, from “what is promising” to “what is menacing” – all from the relative safety of our homes. He observed that readers can gain what he called an “equipment for living,” a means to help navigate our daily experiences.

Recent studies reveal other benefits. One found that deep reading makes us “smarter and nicer,” while another showed that reading literary fiction (as opposed to mass market fiction) helps people develop a greater sense of empathy.

The ConversationIn a country whose people have become increasingly isolated from and suspicious of one another, it’s something we need now more than ever.

Billy J. Stratton, Professor of American Literature and Culture; Native American Studies, University of Denver

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


How Winnie the Pooh’s illustrator helped A.A. Milne draw out the bear we all know

Martin Salisbury, Anglia Ruskin University

In children’s literature, a small number of classics are remembered for their illustrations as much as they are for the author’s words. Sir John Tenniel’s original drawings for Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books are, for many readers, impossible to disentangle from the text. Roald Dahl’s stories have become almost inseparable from Quentin Blake’s pictures, and Thomas Henry’s images of William defined him as succinctly as the writing of Richmal Crompton.

The relationship between author and artist can vary greatly. Tensions occasionally run high between the creators of verbal and visual versions of a narrative. It has been said that Tenniel was sometimes exasperated by the sheer volume of Carroll’s requested amendments to his drawings. This may have been a contributing factor to the artist’s apparent reluctance to commit to illustrating Through the Looking-Glass.

It can be difficult for authors to accept an illustrator’s interpretation of their creation. Many writers are reluctant to see their work illustrated at all, feeling that any imagery is an intrusion into the reader’s visual imagination.

Illustration itself is something of a hybrid art form, somehow straddling the worlds of graphic design and fine art, but traditionally always subservient to the written word. The UK has a particularly rich tradition of graphic art – from Hogarth, Rowlandson and Gillray through Randlolph Caldecott, Walter Crane, Beatrix Potter and on to Edward Ardizzone and Ronald Searle.

Yet compared to many nations, until recently it has never seemed entirely comfortable with according illustration and illustrators the highest status in its cultural institutions. Searle was honoured with a major retrospective at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris – but was never similarly celebrated in his home country.

So I welcome the opening of an exhibition which will shine a light on a great British illustrator whose drawings are known around the world. Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria Albert Museum in London will offer visitors the chance to see much of the original art and preparatory sketches of E.H. Shepard, whose work surely stands alongside that of Tenniel in the pantheon of great book illustration.

The exhibition will explore the interesting working relationship between Shepard and Winnie the Pooh’s creator, A.A. Milne, and the way the visual identities of their characters evolved.

Many of the drawings from the museum’s own collection are so fragile that they have not been exhibited for over 40 years. Correspondence between the two men and recently discovered early Shepard sketches reveal a great deal about the gradual emergence of Pooh as we have come to know him.

In particular, the process of making connections between drawing directly from observation and drawing from imagination, will be on display. Shepard’s Pooh Bear was initially modelled on the real toy bear of Milne’s son, Christopher Robin. But author and artist felt that he was too harsh and gruff-looking – not quite appealing enough. Instead, Shepard made a sketch of his own son Graham’s teddy bear, who was named Growler. Growler turned out to be just right and it was he who gradually “became” Pooh.

Bear necessities

Shepard’s great-granddaughter is married to James Campbell, who has overseen the Shepard estate since 2010. He recently uncovered a hoard of early drawings the artist had filed away and labelled as being of little importance. But they include what must have been some of the very first iterations of Pooh. In one of them, the bear is holding what appears to be a barrel, which Campbell suggests may have evolved into the familiar jar of honey.

Shepard’s meticulous, exacting draughtsmanship meant that he produced thousands of working drawings, which are key to understanding his process. This draughtsmanship was honed from an early age. Initially encouraged by his mother, who died when he was ten years old, Shepard continued to draw compulsively and gained entry to the Royal Academy Schools at the age of 19.

It was after he had become a regular contributor to Punch magazine that Shepard was recommended to Milne. The writer was not immediately convinced that his style was suitable, but he was pleased by the drawings for his collection of verse, When We Were Very Young.

Read More: How Winnie the Pooh teaches us the importance of play

Over time, artist and illustrator became friends. They collaborated closely on the Pooh books, not just on how or what to illustrate, but on the actual interplay between word and image. The term “picturebook” is now used to describe the book for young children that tells its story through a synthesis of words and pictures, neither of which would make sense if “read” independently of the other.

The ConversationWord-image game playing has since become increasingly sophisticated. Back in the early 1920s, Milne and Shepard were among the first to explore the potential of the page as a kind of stage – where words might be adjusted and adapted to coexist and harmonise with the pictures they accompany.

Martin Salisbury, Professor of Children’s Book Illustration, Anglia Ruskin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A prison called Gaza: new book offers a startling insight into everyday life in the territory

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Aerial bombing explosion in Gaza Strip during the Cast Lead operation. January, 2009.

James Rodgers, City, University of London

A place of spacious dimensions, and large population, with fine bazaars. It contains numerous mosques, and there is no wall around it.

To the modern reader, this is perhaps one of the more striking descriptions the medieval Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battutah, offered of the places he visited. Not because it contains anything shocking, but because of the town it portrays: Gaza.

For the city, and the war-torn strip of coastal land with which it shares a name, are today defined principally by the walls around it. Gaza has been held under siege for the best part of the last decade, since Hamas came to power in the territory.

Recent political developments, in the form of a unity government, mean that there may be more future movement through the southern border, with Egypt. Still, Gaza remains fenced in to the north and east by the Israeli Army, which vastly outguns any enemies it has in the territory. To the west lies the Mediterranean. Some shores of that sea are famous for tourism; stretches of its eastern edge are more readily associated with armed conflict, human suffering and wasted potential. Gaza definitely falls, along with Syria, into the latter category.

Without the beaches, life in Gaza would surely be immeasurably worse. The currents there make swimming hazardous; winter storms can be surprisingly violent. Yet the sky and the waves offer some relief in the form of light and air to a place where life can seem suffocating.

Flared, and died

As Donald Macintyre observes in his important new book, Gaza: Preparing for Dawn, the sea might also offer economic salvation. The discovery offshore of a gas field, Gaza Marine – estimated to hold a trillion cubic feet of natural gas – promised the solution to many of Gaza’s economic and energy woes.

Perhaps predictably, politics and conflict have conspired to stop that happening. Gaza Marine remains unexploited. Like the “telegenic background of a huge gas flame shooting into the air” – against which Macintyre describes the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, announcing unfulfilled plans to draw the wealth from beneath the waves – it has flared, and died.

It was into that sea that I watched for the final time a bright orange sun set in the spring of 2004. Since 2002, I had been the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza. At the time, I was the only international journalist permanently based in the territory. The kidnapping of my successor, Alan Johnston, in 2007 just as he was due to finish his posting, means that while correspondents continue to visit, they do not live there.

Johnston’s experience reporting “the descent into anarchy of which he himself was now a victim” (as Macintyre puts it) was a journalistic challenge which Johnston took on admirably. His fate – thankfully he was released after 16 weeks – ensures, however, that managing editors have since been rightly nervous about basing their journalists in Gaza ever since.

A child passes a bombed-out residential block in the Al-Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City.

Watching the sunset that evening, I reflected on another theme which Macintyre rightly raises. I knew I was leaving. I knew I had always been there only as long as I felt like being there. With the exception of days when fighting made it too dangerous to approach the border crossing – and there were a few – I was free to come and go as I wished.

The people among whom I was living were not. Macintyre makes this point, in all its complexity, not only in the book’s shortest chapter – “They will always miss home” – but throughout. It is a complex point because while Gazans long for the opportunities which life outside can bring: study, work, and, in the case of a would-be Olympian, sport – they do not want to abandon their home.

To do so might make them feel that they were turning their backs on their people, and leaving them to their suffering. Gazans with jobs or university places outside are sometimes nervous about returning home for visits. A deterioration in the conflict could leave them trapped and, in consequence, unemployed. Some just leave for good, but the “unresolvable contradiction”, as Macintyre succinctly puts it, remains: “Gaza as a prison to escape from, but also forever home.”

It is in telling these individual stories that Macintyre really excels. Many journalists have been fascinated by Gaza on short visits; few have bothered to try so hard to understand the story beyond the bloodshed. Macintyre’s meetings with the jeans and juice manufacturers; the music students; and that marathon runner bring the people of Gaza to life in a way that daily news reporting rarely can.

Their deaths are recorded too, of course – and, even to news audiences grimly accustomed to reading about violent deaths in the Middle East, some will shock. The Gazan mother who keeps Israeli soldiers waiting at the door – only to open it just as they have decided to blow it apart with explosives – is one that is hard to forget.

All the individual stories are in turn directed by the larger political ones. Macintyre proves himself a well-informed chronicler of the intra-Palestinian conflict: principally between Fatah and Hamas, but also between the latter and newer Islamist rivals. Gaza: Preparing for Dawn also offers wise analysis of the conflict with Israel – and international attempts to address it.

Lest we forget

Macintyre is perceptive about the gap between what even the most senior diplomats say in public, and what they seem really to think. John Kerry, the last US secretary of state to try, and fail, to solve the conflict, is reported here as saying ironically of an Israeli bombardment that killed 55 civilians in six hours, “That’s a hell of a pinpoint operation”.

No end in sight?

Diplomatic dispatches I saw when researching my last book, Headlines from the Holy Land accused Israel of “taking measures that would not be acceptable in most societies in the 21st century”. Such phrases rarely grace the more mealy-mouthed official statements. They are all the more revealing when they come to light.

Because for now, for the people of Gaza, there is little prospect of change. As 2018 approaches, one is reminded of the UN report of 2012 which asked whether the territory would be liveable in 2020. Despite that, there is no meaningful diplomatic process which might end Gaza’s misery. John Kerry failed. President Trump has shown little personal interest. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been touted as a possible player – but there are no signs of concrete progress so far.

Israel’s approach of recent years has concentrated on “mowing the grass” – a phrase designed to explain the policy of launching military operations every so often to strike at armed Palestinian groups. The euphemism also ignores the fact that the majority of deaths in major operations are civilian ones. As Macintyre points out, even if leaflets are dropped telling civilians to leave, they don’t instruct them “where to find safety after fleeing their homes”.

The ConversationJournalists covering conflict will sometimes agonise over whether their work makes a difference. If airtime and column inches alone could bring peace, then the sheer scale of coverage would have guaranteed a settlement long ago. It cannot, of course – but books such as Gaza: Preparing for Dawn do a vital job in reminding the world what goes on there. One day that knowledge may just be part of a solution.

James Rodgers, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, City, University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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