I recently had the great pleasure of attending a stage concert production of the musical Hairspray in honor of the 25th anniversary of the cult classic movie on which the musical is based. The music was performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and John Waters, author of the film and the musical, served as narrator. In between the musical numbers Waters recounted tales of his experiences growing up in the segregated city of Baltimore in the sixties, including the racial tensions which served as inspiration for the storyline. Just before the climax of Hairspray where the Corny Collins Show becomes open both to whites and blacks alike, Waters said that this event was inspired by what had happened at a real show in Baltimore called the Buddy Deane Show. A daring group of black and white youths crashed one of the white-only dancing days and succeeded in briefly integrating the show, but sadly as a result of this it was taken off the air. However, Waters then added that this was a movie and who needed reality anyway? So he had proceeded to write the happy ending that never happened. Water’s story got me thinking about why we write fiction. The fiction of the type portrayed in Hairspray is aspirational. It allows us to imagine a better future when we are stuck in seemingly hopeless situations. Sometimes in this “vale of tears” the only thing that keeps us going is our dreams. At other times fiction is used to communicate teachings or experiences intended to inspire. My book The Sun Zebra is this type of fiction. It is not real in the sense that the right things always happen at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reasons. We know reality seldom works like this, but we use approaches like these to get the point across to the reader. Fiction also allows us to stir “stir things up.” It allows us to introduce chaos into our otherwise orderly world and then explore how people react to it and analyze the consequences. In my next book of short stories, entitled Spirit Women, half of the stories involve the supernatural. Do I believe in the supernatural? No, but I use it as a tool to support the themes of the stories. Finally, fiction is used for entertainment. I believe this is because many people are all too well acquainted with the tedium of their predictable everyday lives and they want to experience something different. Reality is often boring and life would be so much more interesting if we could fly through the air, open portals to different dimensions, conjure spirits, or battle monsters. Being unable to experience these things in the real world we seek to experience them in the imaginary realms of books, movies, or games. Regardless of the reason we write it, what fiction with no doubt has is the power to endure. When time has gone by and reality has been forgotten, it is the fiction that is remembered. Nowadays hardly anyone remembers the Buddy Deane Show and the unsuccessful attempt at desegregating it. But for the past 25 years a courageous group of white and black teenagers has battled the forces of obscurantism and triumphed thousands of times successfully desegregating the Corny Collins Show at each performance of Hairspray. You may ask: why is this? The answer is: Cause you can’t stop The motion of the ocean Or the rain from above You can try to stop the paradise We're dreaming of But you cannot stop the rhythm Of two hearts in love to stay Cause you can’t stop the beat!
Marie Shelley probably did not know what she would get started 195 years ago when she published her novel “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.” Her tale of a man playing God and the nasty consequences captured the imagination of the public, and her work became a literary success that would later move into the realms of theater and then film and television almost as soon as these were invented. It was in the 1931 film, where the master of horror Boris Karloff played the monster, that the current view of what the monster looks like was cemented in the popular culture. Since then the vast majority of visual references to Frankenstein have those emblematic electrode bolts sticking out of the sides of his neck. There are two interrelated aspects to the cultural impact of this book that I find very interesting. One is that the name Frankenstein became synonymous with “monster,” although in the book the monster does not have this name or any name for that matter. Frankenstein is the name of its creator Victor Frankenstein. The second aspect is that the word “Frankenstein” has also come to mean a creation (work or entity) that breaks free from the control of its creator and acquires a life of its own sometimes bringing hardship or ruin upon the creator. In modern society there are many instances where both of these aspects of the Frankenstein ethos, either real or suggested, are bestowed upon the creation by preceding its name with the prefix “Franken.” When my daughter was in middle school she brought home a project from her ceramics class. It was a strange dark green shape with two knobs sticking out at right angles and what appeared to be stiches on its surface. I asked her what it was and she replied, “It’s a Frankenapple.” Environmentalist and consumer advocacy groups often refer to genetically modified foods as “Frankenfoods” and to genetically modified crops as “Frankencrops.” Related to this, a rumor got started back in 2000 that involved the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain of restaurants. When the franchise began calling itself “KFC” to reflect that it offered a wider variety of food choices, the rumor originated that they did this because they were not serving chicken anymore in their restaurants but a genetically modified organism that they could not legally call “chicken.” So what were they rumored to be serving? Frankenchicken.
In 2002 the invasive Asian snakehead fish made the news when several of them were found in a pond in Crofton, Maryland. Since then the snakehead has become established wreaking havoc in the ecosystem of the Potomac River and they have been dubbed "Frankenfish." Hollywood decided to commemorate this event by releasing an apropos movie.
Filmmaker extraordinaire Tim Burton brought to the screen a story about a boy named “Victor” who brings his dog “Sparky” back to life with a lot of unintended consequences in a short film in 1984 and again in an animated full-length film to be released this year. The name of the movie? Frankenweenie.
In a 1990 film a medical school dropout endeavors to reassemble his dead girlfriend using “parts” obtained from New York prostitutes. The result? Frankenhooker.
In the cartoon Spongebob there is a 2002 episode where a doodle acquires a life of its own and runs amok causing all sort of mischief. The name of the episode is, of course, “Frankendoodle.” The punk rock band The Dead Kennedys put out a record in 1985 called “Frankenchrist.” Inside the record sleeve they ill-fatedly included a poster by artist Hans Rudolf Giger entitled “Penis Landscape.” In a true Frankenstein-like fashion the resulting obscenity trial nearly drove the band’s record label out of business. A teacher wrote an article about an unsuccessful attempt to conduct a reading class employing e-books. The tittle of her article? Frankenbook. An interesting use of the prefix is found in the term "Frankenjob" which The Urban Dictionary defines as “a job consisting of a variety of different, often largely unrelated, tasks and duties, often resulting from corporate downsizing, restructuring or layoffs that cause many people's jobs to be combined into one.” Example: After all those layoffs, management gave Fred so many different people's work, he's got a real Frankenjob now. The above are just several examples of the use of the prefix “Franken” in our societies. Have you encountered, experienced, or created anything Franken-like? Please leave a comment and share your experience. ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
The master has died. He changed the world with his fiction giving us visions of alternate realities that exposed the folly of our own, while at the same time making us dream of futures full of adventure, discovery, and wonder.
In this video he reads his poem “If Only We Had Taller Been.”
The fence we walked between the years did balance us serene.
It was a place half in the sky wearing the green of leaf and promising of peach.
We’d reach our hand and touch and almost touch the sky.
If we could reach and touch we said, it would teach us not to, never to, be dead.
We ached and almost touched that stuff; our reach was never quite enough.
If only we had taller been and touched god’s cuff, his, his hem.
We would not have to go with them who’ve gone before,
who short as us stood tall as they could stand,
and hoped by stretching, tall, that they might keep their land,
their home, their hearth, their flesh and soul,
but they like us were standing in a hole.
Oh Thomas, will a race one day stand really tall?
Across the void, across the universe and all,
and measured out with rocket fire,
at last put Adam’s finger forth; as on the Sistine ceiling,
and God’s hand come down the other way, to measure man,
and find him good, and gift him with forever’s day?
I work for that, short man, large dream.
I send my rockets forth between my ears,
hoping an inch of good is worth a pound of years.
Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal mall,
“We’ve reached Alpha Centauri.. We’re tall... Oh God, we’re tall!”
Rest in peace Ray. We will miss you.
According to a recent study released by Bowker's Pub Track Consumer Service based on 40,000 book-buying men, women, and teens, from 2010 to 2011 the leading category in e-books was fiction. This class of books accounted for 61% of unit sales, and 51% of revenue. The next few categories in terms of unit sales where: Children's Books (12%), Non-Fiction (10%), Academic/Professional (8%), Religion (5%), and Scientific/Technical/Medical (4%). In terms of revenue they were: Non-Fiction (14%), Academic/Professional (13%), Scientific/Technical/Medical (10%), Children's Books (9%), and Religion (3%).
If you look at total unit sales of books, both print and electronic, of the top 9 categories where e-books scored a significant percentage of sales, 8 were fiction. The percentages were: Science Fiction 19%, Christian Fiction 16%, General Romance and Mystery/Detective both 14%, General Fiction 12%, Espionage/Thriller and Juvenile Fiction both 9%, and Young Adult 8%. However, the non-fiction category, Literary/Classic, did nab the top spot with 20% of total book sales, but this is mostly because many works of literature that are not covered by copyright anymore are being sold electronically.
So there you have it, time to write some fiction?