Saturday, September 24, 2016

Flakes

Now Playing: Silversun Pickups - Tapedeck

Early disclaimer: this post is kinda weird. I sound like a bitter fangirl. And maybe I am. But this is me writing as someone who hasn't even begun their literary career and panics at everything.

There's two versions of author Tahereh Mafi. There's the real version: New York Times best selling author, traveler, charismatic interviewer, recent contributor to the middle-grade market as well as the YA one, lover of fashion, currently working on a TV adaptation of her successful first series, an artist who's accumulated a hundred loyal fans, and married to another successful, deeply loved, equally good-looking author.*

(*I doubt the hyphen in this sentence so much).

Then there's the version of her I think about. The one I made up in my head.

The Tahereh Mafi in my head shares all the previously listed qualities as the real-life Tahereh Mafi. But the real-life Tahereh Mafi has a lot more struggles than the one in my head. I can't prove it but objectively I know she has bad days. Days when she's unsure, when she's sad, when someone or something tries to hurt her. I know that because she's human. Plus, her two heroines so far have been girls who are born special but are ostracized by society at large. I think she admitted in an interview with a BookTuber that the more she writes, the more she realizes what she's drawn to, and she's drawn to the judged and the forsaken because of her life and experiences. The Tahereh Mafi I made up is pretty much just her success, her work, her beauty, her fairy tale romance/marriage.

I have to be honest: I don't like her writing. I have many, many, many issues with her Shatter Me series, and I read the Amazon preview of Furthermore and realized that her prose still doesn't reach me. It feels like it tries too hard to be whimsical and lyrical but it ends up being nonsensical. Whenever I read Gillian Flynn, the images and phrasing are unique without being distracting, but it's the exact opposite with Mafi's writing, which is so overbearing it completely drowns all cohesion and keeps me from connecting emotionally.

I can list all the ways in which I think Shatter Me is a not a very good series--plot, character, and prose wise--but I also realized sometime in the last few years that I admired the series because of what it means for teenage girls everywhere. I can't admit that Juliette and, say, Throne of Glass's Celaena/Aelin are good characters, but they're better role models than, well, Bella Swan.

So. You know. Progress.

But accompanying that lukewarm but sincere admiration of the Shatter Me series were a few flakes of jealousy. Which I'm not all that ashamed to admit. I'm jealous of a lot of authors I like: Chuck Wendig, Marie Lu, Laurie Halse Anderson, N.K. Jemisin (especially after The Fifth Season. Wowza), Jay Kristoff, Naomi Novik, Ken Liu, George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Robin Hobb . . . .

At the same time, I'm not jealous of a lot of authors I don't like: Earnest Cline, Christopher Paolini, Stephanie Meyer, Pierce Brown, Veronica Roth, John Green.

There's also authors I adore whom I'm not remotely jealous of either: Octavia Butler, Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Anne Bishop. I used to think I was jealous of J.K. Rowling, but truth is, I'm not. I find her life story fascinating and I'm happy for her success, but I can't say I want it for myself.

Tahereh Mafi is in a very rare tier: author I don't particularly like, author I find myself envying.

"Jealousy" has a lot of negative connotations. It's not one of the deadly sins for nothing. But my jealousy isn't destructive, I think. It doesn't inspire hate.

I'm jealous of Ms. Mafi for many reasons. Maybe because even if her writing doesn't work for me, it does work for a lot of people. She inspires readers and she makes them feel empowered and she creates all kinds of stomach butterflies with the way her romances and action scenes play out. And while I consider it nonsensical a good chunk of the time, it is imaginative, and it can flow and feel vivid and enthralling.

I dislike her series, yes, but there's a passage from Ignite Me that has always been a favorite of mine. For context, at this point in the story, Juliette has super strength and is invincible. Think Superman in a world where kryptonite don't real and nobody gives a shit about the rest of the Justice League.

Here's the scene, from the climax:

I slam my elbow into the door behind me, shattering the wood into splinters that fly everywhere. I turn around and punch my way through the rest of it, kicking the door down with a sudden burst of adrenaline, and as soon as I see that this room is just a small bunker and a dead end, I do the only thing I can think of. 
I jump. 
And land. 
And go right through the floor. 

It's the use of the line break. This is one of the more straightforward passages of her entire series--no flowery metaphors or crossed out sentences or overbearing repetition.  The climax doesn't get my heart racing, but I love those three sentences; they make the entire scene click perfectly.

Plus, while I don't admire her prose all that much, it is very clearly trying to be one thing: hauntingly beautiful. Mafi wants it to be lyrical. She wants the sentences to be carved forever in your memory.

A lot of authors use the words as a vessel for what they think matters, be it plot or character. Mafi's writing reads like it's beautiful for the sake of being beautiful--which can be both a blessing and a curse. And in a way, it's where some of that admiration/jealousy of mine comes from. The Tahereh Mafi in my head is one whose life and work and artistic merit revolve around beauty, from her written work to her visual pieces in fashion and photography:

A photo posted by tahereh mafi (@taherehmafi) on

A photo posted by tahereh mafi (@taherehmafi) on


[More from her Instagram].

But despite all the possible negative connotations, I don't write any of this with disdain or smug superiority. If art is supposed to be either useful or beautiful, I prefer it to be the latter with hints of the former rather than the other way around.

So what was the exact moment I envied Tahereh Mafi?

It wasn't when I read hundreds of Goodreads reviews from girls who adored Mafi's Juliette and her romances and struggles.

It wasn't when I saw pictures of her wedding ceremony to Ransom Riggs and got to find out not only what a ceremony at a bookstore looks like, but how much I want  a beautiful bouquet made of the pages of a book:

(From her Tumblr).

It wasn't when I stumbled on articles about her daily life as a full-time author and saw a picture of her and Riggs in their study, which in turn made me imagine briefly what it'd be like to have a place like that to call my own.

It wasn't even the pictures of her strolling through rainy picturesque London or sipping a latte with foam art of a kitty.

A photo posted by tahereh mafi (@taherehmafi) on

No, it was because of this tiny clip of her on YouTube during a book signing, right when she's retelling a few amusing anecdotes involving her family's reaction to her work. I don't know what it is about those stories. I don't have any burning need to have my family read my books, but hearing her talk about her mother and brothers reading (or attempting to read) her novels, and relating that to an audience of giggling readers, while also mentioning how her brothers' voices sneak into her writing--

It makes me happy. Happy for her and wishful for me (but not all that hopeful).

Which is an apt way to describe the jealousy I experience towards all creative types. It's a lot of happiness because I want them to continue to be successful and to entertain and capture the public. But it does, admittedly make me hone in on my insecurities and my wishes.

This whole post was partially inspired by my occasional browsing of Tahereh's twitter page, btw. (I follow Marie Lu and she retweets her fellow YA authors a lot).

 It was also inspired by this one line in X Ambassadors' Renegades:

All hail the underdogs 
All hail the new kids 
All hail the outlaws 
Spielberg's and Kubrick's

That's a brilliant line, in my opinion, since it manages to convey both their individual artistic accomplishments while also hinting a reminder of their friendship. But I thought about them a lot and--

Kubrick's an artist I like, but don't envy.

Spielberg's an artist I kinda dislike, but don't envy.

You know who I envy?

J.J. Abrams. I've envied him since he did Super 8, which was basically made in homage to Spielberg's E.T.

But to reiterate, I don't actually envy J.J. Abrams, as I don't envy Tahereh Mafi. I envy the J.J Abrams I made up in my head, who only exists as the man who took the reins of the two most important franchises of pop culture and the sci-fi genre.

I'm not trying to dehumanize Abrams and Mafi. I know that they don't lead perfect lives and that they'll have bad days and, hell, maybe literary criticisms like mine reach Mafi and pain her a little bit. But given the way social media and how public images are built, I inadvertently separate who they are as people and who they appear to be as artists. I try not to let it rule me, but I've heard writers are just always the jealous type. How can we be anything else when the arts are so competitive?

I wonder if it's inspiring me to be driven or if it's simply causing me to despair.

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"Science and science fiction have done a kind of dance over the last century... The scientists make a finding. It inspires science fiction writers to write about it, and a host of young people read the science fiction and are excited, and inspired to become scientists...which they do, which then feeds again into another generation of science fiction and science..."
- Carl Sagan, in his message to future explorers of Mars.