Amy Fox

Writer. Editor. Feminist knitting designer.


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Last Friday

Two things happened on Friday last week. One of them, you probably already know about.

It feels somehow inappropriate to be blogging about the attacks on Paris. I feel a deep sense of sorrow and sympathy for the city, one that it’s impossible to really express. It’s awful whenever anywhere is attacked, but the symbolism resonates. This is a city of enlightenment, love, fashion, wine. But I wasn’t there, I’m not an expert – I’m not even French.

Yet I have written so much about Paris during my working day, listened to radio reports from the Place de la République as I applied my make up each morning, turned it over in my mind as I stirred pasta at dinnertime. It’s in my head. It’s in my heart.

I won’t feel done until I write about it for myself.

So. The other thing that happened on Friday, hours before the attacks began, is that I sat and read Carry On, the new teenage wizarding school fantasy novel with an LGBT twist by Rainbow Rowell.

(“Is this a trivial addition to a serious topic?” you might ask. I would argue not. But my postulations about the importance of teenage pop culture probably are, so I’ll leave them for another time.)

On the surface, Carry On is a self-aware, but still slightly awkward, re-hash of all the magical ‘chosen one’ stories ever written. But once you get past the opening chapters (“Oh, this must be the Hermione character… Look, now we’re at Hogwarts sort of”) there is a compelling love story, and an interesting take on corruption, power, us vs. them mentalities, and how to beat a shifting, terrifying enemy which is intent on destroying the very soul of your society.

Right at the end, a song is mentioned by name: Nick Cave’s ‘Into My Arms’.

I opened YouTube on my phone, and played it as I finished off the final few pages.

And although I’d heard it before, it had never gotten under my skin the way it did then. The deep, mournful vocals wrapped themselves around me, while the light piano promised some kind of hope.

I’ve been playing it almost on repeat ever since – whenever I get a moment alone, through headphones if I’m at work, at least twice as I go to bed.

I’m not religious. I haven’t been for a long time. But playing this song feels closer a prayer than anything I’ve felt in years.

Be safe, it says. Be loved. There is a path.

I’m not saying, obviously, that Nick Cave or Rainbow Rowell have the answer to Islamic State. But time and again at work this week, we’ve returned to the same questions as we cover the attacks:

Is there a way to win this that doesn’t involve hate?

If the enemy is calling you to come and fight them, if it craves a violent response above all else – do you have a duty to refuse to give it to them?

I don’t know.

But I believe in love.

And I’m not going to stop asking.

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Concrete: Rewriting the Rules – review

The self-help section is a scary corner of any bookshop. There are hundreds of titles promising perfection in your love life, your career, your soul – if only you’d follow a few easy steps.

The obvious response, of course, is that if it is so easy to fix every aspect of your life by reading a couple of books, then why are so many published? And why do they seem to contradict each other?

Combating this problem, Dr Meg Barker’s Rewriting the Rules claims to be an “anti-self-help” book. Rather than giving a set of rules which must be followed to the letter, Barker draws on her career as a psychology academic and sex therapist to offer a critical look at the “rules” of relationships.Rewriting the RulesImage via routledge.com

Do we really need to find “the One” to prove that we’re worth something? If we break up with someone, is that relationship now meaningless? What about sex – does that always have to be “normal”? What if we don’t want to be with just one person?

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I talk about John Green a lot: a review of Jonathan Safran Foer

I have been struggling for a couple of days to write a blog post about Jonathan Safran Foer’s two novels, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I absolutely loved them both – halfway through reading each, I declared it to be my New Favourite Book, slightly illegitimising my own statement – but when I tried to explain why, I couldn’t.

But, dedicated new blogger that I am, I kept struggling on, determined to share my Safran Foer epiphany with the world in a well-written and structured post which would inspire people to open up a new tab, head straight to Amazon and order them both. But I couldn’t. I should have known that I couldn’t – when trying to explain the book to my housemate a few days before, I had said, “He just – he uses all these – it has all these, like, different ways, you know?” Needless to say, I am far more eloquent on paper (or rather, through screen) than I am out loud, and my housemate was left looking confused, and also amused.

But even through-screen, I couldn’t really get my thoughts across. The literature student took over and I just banged on about “narrative voice”, put the word “about” in quotes (a pretentious habit picked up in a Contemporary Writing class), and reverted to rather dry phrases like “non-traditional methods”. Now, that would all be fine if I was writing an essay about the two books, and I kind of hope one day I’ll get the chance to, because writing essays about things you love ought to be the whole point of writing essays, and often sadly it isn’t. But I was writing a blog post, and kind of boring even myself.

In the end, crippled with post-book sadness and frustrated that I couldn’t accurately portray my mid-book rapture, I just started copying out whole chunks of quotations in the hope that they would do my work for me. Spoilers: this is also not how you write a good review.

And then I just gave up completely and wrote a post about Fifty Shades of Grey for someone else’s blog instead, because it is a whole lot easier to just make fun of all the stupid stuff in the world than it is to write something meaningful. Finally, I decided to just put the review aside and come back to it later, and instead went about my daily life, giving my various siblings lifts to various places, answering emails about Concrete (my university’s student newspaper, which I am editor of and without which this summer I feel bereft of all purpose), and moving on to the next book waiting in the pile – in the form of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

This was also a good book. I mean, it wasn’t Safran Foer good, but it was pretty great. It’s a Kids With Cancer book, but the kids are doing their utmost to avoid the Kids With Cancer stereotypes, and frequently point out that most of those stereotypes are a load of crap. It did really well at portraying Kids With Cancer who were actually just kids who wished they didn’t have cancer any more, because they are too young and it’s not fair and the universe can be kind of terrible. But they were also incredibly funny, and the book made some beautiful observations about life, while acknowledging that life can often kind of suck. I enjoyed it a lot.

And it was talking about The Fault in Our Stars that I finally realised what I wanted to say about Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. My dad asked, as I was around 20 pages from the end and hadn’t moved in a while, probably looking quite distressed, how it was. I told him that it was sad, “but then it is a book about cancer.”

“Oh. So not a comedy then?”

“Actually, it’s really funny. Just not right now. The best sad books are also really funny.”

It was a slightly pretentious-literature-student comment to make (what the hell gives me the right to decide what makes the best sad books? Maybe what makes the best sad books is being sad ALL OF THE TIME, with no humorous respites to remind you of the beauty of life whatsoever) but it made me realise that it was also exactly what I wanted to say about Safran Foer.

Because both his books were also immensely, heart-breakingly sad. The first was about (or maybe “about”) the Holocaust. The second, 9/11. These are not fun topics. Neither, I don’t need to tell you, is cancer. It doesn’t take a literature student, pretentious or otherwise, to make this observation.

But it was the humour of all three books I am writing about which made me love them the most. And it was Safran Foer’s humour which I enjoyed more – the difference between “I really like this sad-funny book” and “this is my New Favourite Book, no really this time, I can’t even put it into words, please just read it and find out for yourself.”

It was all in the language. Everything is Illuminated is narrated – partly – by someone who learned English through a thesaurus (“all of my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name”), while Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is narrated – partly – by a nine-year-old boy who can’t stop inventing (“… or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of “Yellow Submarine”, which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d’être, which is a French expression that I know.”)

Safran Foer created totally unique and hilarious characters, who were also completely traumatised and deeply sad. But it wasn’t one-minute-you’re-laughing-the-next-you’re-crying. The laughter and the sadness were all mixed up into one, each trying to conceal the other, adding to the other, taking away. I’m getting pretentious again, but I sort of can’t help it. I really loved these books.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, especially, stuck with me. It’s very visual – there are photos and diagrams; two pages of numbers and punctuation as a man who can’t speak tries to communicate what may be a lifetime’s worth of thoughts down the phone to his wife, but we’ll never know; partially-overheard conversations with huge gaps missing in the text; a flip book of a man falling from the World Trade Centre in reverse, so he appears to be flying upwards.

These could easily come across annoying, gimmicky or too Literary (capital L), but I enjoyed them – and they worked just perfectly at their own points in the novel, adding just enough to make it stand out from all the Good Books I’ve read to become Maybe My New Favourite Book. I absolutely adored it, and if I could, I would force everybody I know to read it just so that I could look them in the eye and say “I know, right?”

But then again, I’ll probably change my mind in a couple of weeks.


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The Fifty Shades dilemma: it is all our fault

So something pretty terrible has started happening to me recently, and when I was asked if I wanted to do another guest post for Bad Books Good Times (cheers guys!) I decided that this would be a pretty good chance to get all these confusing emotions out.

By now, I’m pretty sure everyone is sick to death of Fifty Shades of Grey. I am, and I’m not even reading the stupid things, I’m just reading a blog about reading the stupid things (it’s pretty good, you should check it out).

But I have, nobly, been keeping up the good fight anyway. I am a student of literature! There are so many great books in the world! It is basically our responsibility to warn people away from being sucked in by this nightmare. Besides, everyone is acting like erotica has only just been invented. But Mills & Boon has been around for decades, Lady Chatterly’s Lover was first published in 1928, the ancient Greeks weren’t shy about it at all, and there are Paleolithic cave paintings which are positively filthy. So pointing out to everyone you know that EL James doesn’t even write good erotica seems like a pretty decent way to pass the time.

Also, doing dramatic readings for your friends in the middle of a bookshop and watching their horrified reactions is kind of hilarious too.

But I’ve started noticing disastrous consequences. Despite reading a passage aloud in Waterstones during which Ana referred to Christian as “Mr Orgasmic” and my friends promptly vomited everywhere, a few days later I received a Facebook message from one of them, excitedly announcing that she had bought the books (and continued to want to vomit everywhere). It happened again with an entirely different set of friends. One day we were laughing about how Jose totally isn’t Jacob. The next it was “But it only cost me £9 to download all three onto my Kindle! And I kind of got really into them!”

I was appalled.

Instead of dissuading all my friends from falling into the trap, I seemed to be actively pushing them towards it.

Not even Admiral Ackbar could help them now.

There are many articles all over the internet trying to explain why Fifty Shades has become so popular so quickly. Some theories include:

  1. The ebook form which meant it could be bought and read without anyone ever knowing (this may have been true at first, but now the paperbacks are everywhere and no on seems bothered about reading it in public AT ALL).
  2. It is a slower build up than most pornography, so women respond to it better (thank you, internet, for telling women what we want).
  3. It helps to articulate previously unexpressed female fantasies (okay. I am all for women being able to explore their sexuality freely and openly. Obviously, that is not a bad thing. But see above, re: not the invention of erotica. Maybe studying an arts subject at a liberal university makes me totally biased, but come on, this is not the first time female sexuality has ever been discussed. I mean, did no one listen to Rihanna’s S&M? It’s right there in the name, you guys!)
  4. The recession means that cheap, escapist novels are more popular than ever (after all, reading about wealthy businessmen who casually own helicopters certainly makes me feel better about my life!)
  5. The most obvious, and probably the most true: no one will shut up about it.

And it’s this last one that got me thinking. I am absolutely complicit in that reason. I am writing a blog post about it. Right now. That is what I am doing. I am adding to the 88,800,000 results which turn up when you google “why is Fifty Shades of Grey so popular?” Of course my friends went out and bought it! They want to be part of the discussion too! Not being able to talk about Fifty Shades of Grey is probably now an official handicap during conversations at parties. Or at work. Or on the bus.

Plus, making fun of things is hugely entertaining. It’s an easy way to get a laugh, and it indulges that part of you that likes to feel smarter than everybody else (although it just occurred to me that “indulging the dark secret parts of your psyche” is another alleged reason the series is so popular, so if our making fun of it does just that, we are actually proving it’s own intentions true, just not in the way it expected. Balls.)

In conclusion, based on pretty much no evidence at all, the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey is all my fault. It is all of our faults for talking about it in the first place. The more we talk about it, the more the entire phenomenon spreads. The more we retweet jokes by 50 Sheds of Grey, the more people wonder what all the fuss is about. And the more people wonder that, the more it outsells Harry Potter.

I’m not saying we should stop doing those things. Making fun of Fifty Shades of Grey is basically an entire sub-genre of comedy now, one that I don’t really want to give up. There are just so many good jokes to make.

I just hope we can all live with the consequences.

Yes. This is a Fifty Shades cufflink. Whatever point I was trying to make, it has now been made.


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The Capitol is bad: an analysis of The Hunger Games

So, The Hunger Games. I haven’t had the free time to read them until the last couple of weeks, which left me out of many debates, mostly between people trying to put their finger on what, exactly, bothered them about this series. And now, because everybody else has moved on, I will try to articulate my response to that problem in a blog.

Because it’s true that as a story, they are very good. Children murdering each other! Creepy wolf mutations made out of aforementioned dead children! Dystopian politics, mind games and rebellions! A love triangle!

The problem, for me, was that there was just not a single ounce of subtlety. Absolutely everything was explained to an excruciating degree. Every metaphor came with a giant parade several floats long, declaring “Look everyone! Over here! Do you see me? I AM A METAPHOR.”

See that bread? IT IS A METAPHOR. Also the Capitol is bad.

It was all just so heavy handed. Like this moment, detailing Katniss’ inner turmoil in book one:

I avoid looking at anyone as I take tiny spoonfuls of fish soup. The saltiness reminds me of my tears.

Excuse me while I vomit everywhere.

Or this moment:

But if this is Prim’s, I mean, Rue’s last request, I have to at least try.

Because did you know that Rue reminds Katniss of Prim? It’s kind of a secret that she only mentions every time the girl shows up. Let me just take a moment to prove this, because seriously, the heavy-handedness bothered me, and this is just one example of over-explained symbolism among many.

When she first arrives, Katniss observes:

… she’s very like Prim in size and demeanour.

Then when she learns her name a few chapters later, a subtle comparison is made once again. But careful, you might miss it:

Rue is a small yellow flower that grows in the Meadow. Rue. Primrose.

In case putting their names side by side isn’t enough to make the comparison clear, Katniss later spells it out for us once more:

But I want her. Because she’s a survivor, and I trust her, and why not admit it? She reminds me of Prim.

Why not indeed? You know we really hadn’t noticed that before, Katniss. By the end, it’s not really a surprise that she gives up on any kind of narrative and just says “Prim, whoops, I mean Rue.” Because, at that point, there’s really no use even pretending that there is any kind of subtlety going on here.

See the flowers? THEY ARE A METAPHOR. Also, the Capitol is bad.

When Katniss starts talking about everything their “ancestors” did to screw things up, it gets so excruciating I can barely keep reading:

I mean, look at the state they left us in, with the wars and the broken planet. Clearly, they didn’t care about what would happen to the people who came after them.

Man. It’s almost like the entire series was created to make a point about the decline of a contemporary society which is concerned only with public image, entertainment, and who has the most powerful weapons.

Unfortunately, while all of Katniss’s thoughts and emotions are explained to an absurd degree, there are also a lot of things that are left completely unexplained, or just feel really rushed. Like the last part of Catching Fire – after the first two parts built the tension and established that whole rebellion plot, everything in the arena was very quick and hard to follow (there’s a dirty joke in there somewhere).

Sure, portraying a plot which is out of the main character’s hands and which she herself has no idea about (despite all the unbelievably obvious clues) is difficult with a first-person narrative. But even the stuff Katniss did understand was kind of rushed through. I swear the rest of the tributes died every other paragraph, and then the penultimate chapter was basically just “EVERYONE TURNS ON EACH OTHER NO WAIT EXPLOSIONS” and then it was over and I was confused.

The same thing often happened in Mockingjay. After the first two parts were just following Katniss around while she acted really stupid (this time other characters were ALSO following her around while she acted really stupid, with CAMERAS, to make PROPOS, which just made me giggle every time they were mentioned in a serious situation, because that is an unnecessarily comic name), all the action in the final part was rushed and badly explained.

Finnick dies before we even remember he’s there, and Prim shows up for about a line before she’s blown up in front of Katniss’ very eyes.

I mean, I have a lot of respect for Suzanne Collins for going ahead and killing Prim. I wasn’t sure she’d have the balls to do it. But was there really no build up whatsoever? She just showed up for no reason then exploded? Okay.

See that mockingjay? IT IS A METAPHOR. In case you miss it, every single character explains its symbolism at every opportunity. Also you know the Capitol? IT’S BAD YOU GUYS.

And that’s the real issue I had. There was so much potential for these books to be fantastic, but they just kept finding new ways to annoy me. When they should have been focusing on the rebellion and the politics of the dystopian world, they were focusing on who Katniss enjoyed kissing more. When they should have been all action and horror, it was rushed and then we were back to Katniss explaining her feelings and not understanding anything that happens around her.

And when it was really good – such as in the final chapters, when everything had fallen apart, Prim was dead, there was so much moral ambiguity that no one could be considered truly good anymore, especially not Katniss herself – even then, it still managed to annoy me. I was so excited – my first post here was about how much I like it when characters are killed off, and admittedly the series did not shy away from that. Sure, the novel was kind of lame up to that point but it was finally getting something right! Katniss’ narration didn’t get on my nerves at all when she genuinely seemed to have lost her grip on reality after everything she had been put through. But then suddenly she decided that she could live with it after all? And the cheesiest final lines ever written happened? And then she and Peeta had kids in the stupidest 20-years-on epilogue since Albus Severus Potter?

Not impressed.

And there were some really great parts too. The plot of the actual Hunger Games in the first book. The rebellion scenes in Catching Fire (even if Katniss was kind of oblivious to their significance). The genuinely dark moments of Mockingjay which, unfortunately, were often never brought up again. How much Peeta loved bread.

And because of that, despite making fun of it consistently all over twitter, I couldn’t hate it too much. Let’s be fair: it was still way, way better than Twilight.

See my fancy beard? IT IS A METAPHOR. Also, the Capitol is bad.


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Fifty Shades of Awkward: a defence of fanfiction

I have a confession to make. Once upon a time, when I was but a wee twelve-year-old pariah, with a nose too large for my face and no social skills to speak of, I would take my escape through other worlds. That itself is not the confession; “gawky kid does lots of reading and goes on to study literature” is not exactly a revelation.

However when – like millions of others – I was going out of my mind waiting for the next Harry Potter, I decided – like millions of others – to try my hand at writing within the world I enjoyed so much.

In other words, I bloody loved fanfiction.

I wonder what to do next. There are still a few days until we go home and nothing in particular to do until then. Most people are spending time with their friends, enjoying the sunshine … but I have no one to do that with.

(Instead of pictures, I have decided illustrate this post with relevant quotes from my own bad fanfic writing for your amusement.)

Just like porn, pictures of cats, and your crush’s holiday photos from five years ago, the internet has made fanfiction more accessible for everyone. However, like all of those things, it existed long before computers.

History lesson! According to Wikipedia, it has been around since people became impatient for the next Don Quixote in 1614. By the 20th Century, all the big writers were at it: E Nesbit revised Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis ripped off JRR Tolkein. It was a literary bloodbath. When Star Trek arrived in the 1960s, things really got crazy.

The thing is, fanfiction is excellent at fulfilling its purpose. Bored kids can read and write about their favourite universes to their hearts’ content. Okay, it’s never going to win any Pulitzer prizes (although I’ll have you know I was once runner-up for the 2008 Marauder-era Quicksilver Quill award on mugglenet.com) but that’s not what it’s trying to do.

If it’s good writing you’re after, of course fanfiction is not the place to start.

What?? Why?? James told her, didn’t he? Bloody hell, I’ll kill him. Oh, he’ll be sorry that he ever crossed paths with Lily Evans, mark my words! But how can I inflict juicy, juicy revenge? It needs to be painful … Oh yes, it will be painful, I can tell you!

Note the abundance of punctuation, awkward repetition, and general bizarre phrasing of the above.

Thankfully, if they’re serious about writing, most authors will eventually move on to bigger things. Writing in someone else’s universe becomes too restrictive, and the time comes when you want to create your own. And now that you have practiced plot development, dialogue, and not-sounding-like-a-total-idiot, it might be that much easier.

At the very least, you will have learnt how to string a sentence together.

She now had the respect of much of Gryffindor, but was still striving for something more – her ambition to be liked seemed to have no limit, although she would not change herself for it.

The problem is when a writer (all right, let’s just drop all pretences, EL James) is told so often that their work is “good enough to be published”, that they go ahead and actually do it. Fifty Shades of Grey, in all it’s totally-not-Twilight­ glory, becomes the result.

“What about her?” Sirius demanded, sharply, his reasonable mood suddenly being replaced by a fire of hurt and anger roaring to life in the pit of his stomach, just at the mention of her name.

Fanfiction just isn’t in the same league as published writing. It’s unedited (although some do make use of amateur volunteer “beta readers”), often extremely episodic, and it can never be truly your own. Not even if you change Bella Swan’s name, remove the vampires, and relocate her to a university in Seattle, where apparently you can study English for four years without an email address.

Which isn’t to say that people who write fanfiction are all bad writers. Once they have used it as a practice tool, they can go on to do better things. Jaida Jones, for example, started with Harry Potter fanfiction, and went on to co-author her own fantasy series which, although I haven’t read it, at least has four stars on goodreads if that is your thing. Then again, so does Fifty Shades.

However, as fanfiction does not show any signs of going away, Jones won’t be the only one who finds her feet using other people’s characters. At time of writing, the top 25 books on fanfiction.net have 1,015,606 fics between them, including 3296 about the Bible (which I couldn’t resist checking out – my favourite by far comes with the summary “So what was high-school like for Mary and Joseph?” I guess there is only one way to find out).

And there are hundreds of other book categories besides these, not to mention the entirely separate sections dedicated to films, TV shows, comics, games, animes/mangas, plays/musicals and miscellaneouses. And that’s just on the one website.

“everything else just seems to … fit, you know? It’s like where you’re wacky, I’m ordinary and where you’re scared, I’m strong. But where I’m scared, you’re the one that’s strong. Where I see a problem, you see a solution. Everything bad about me is good about you and the other way around. You know, together we almost make a whole person.”

In conclusion: although undeniably bad, fanfiction is not all bad. Sort of like the sentence I just wrote. It enables you to practice writing, gives you something to read if you want it, and stays largely off your radar if you don’t. The problem is that it’s only the really bad stuff that breaks that last rule.

Still, there’s nothing funnier than finding the most truly awful and bizarre story out there, then doing a dramatic reading with your friends. And I haven’t even mentioned slash fiction.

“Oh, Minerva,” Dumbledore chuckled, “You just don’t understand teenage boys, do you?”

McGonagall smiled, and went back to reading through Ministry education reports, as Dumbledore leaned back in his chair, and reminisced about his own days as a daring and ruthless teenage miscreant, smiling jovially, and chortling to himself.

Also: This post is also featured as the guest post on this week’s Bad Books, Good Times! Where Matthew and Ariel are reading Fifty Shades of Grey so we don’t have to!