A few days ago, the science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders published a short essay titled “The Sweetweird Manifesto.” Is it an essay? IDK. I hate it when people call anything I do a “write-up” so I’m extending Anders that courtesty. In the piece, she did a “towards a working theory of” type observation of a storytelling trend that pairs absurd/bizzarre aesthetics with generosity, kindness, and emotional connection as the focus of the character and plot development. To Anders, sweetweird encompasses “…stories that feature lovable characters and a focus on supportive chosen family, set against worlds that are, shall we say, somewhat tarnished and bizarre.” Since the post first went up, Anders has revised it to include more book recommendations and more background on the origins of this type of story.
Look I fucking hate this. It’s pretty weird to me in the middle of a wave of moralizing and puritanical panic about queer sexuality that a well-known author chooses to go to bat for wholesomeness. It would be one thing if Anders set out to define a subgenre and why she likes it, and even to express her desire for more of it, but she very much did use the word “manifesto.” The last section of the post is titled “the future belongs to sweetweird.” An author in AD 2022 is using the word “grimdark.” Throughout the post, Anders does some not very deft maneuvering to position sweetweird as 1. a mode of storytelling found particularly in queer stories. 2. a constrast to cynicism and misanthropy that is the domain of “cranky cishet white dudes.” 3. therefore ideologically and morally superior to darker/cynical/pessimistic/et al narratives. We’re talking about this because Anders ultimately positioned her preference as a moral taste. When challenged about this online she did the milquetoast “Steven Universe has incredible trauma in it” dance.(more…)
The other day I watched Summer in Andalusia, an anime gem from 2003. It’s by studio Madhouse, but you would be forgiven for thinking it’s a Ghibli venture, since director Kitarou Kousaka worked on films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Nasu: Summer in Andalusia follows a Spanish cyclist, Pepe Benegeli, over one day in the Vuelta a España road race. The movie is less than 50 minutes, and it’s tempting to call it fizzy, a diversion, a cool drink to go with a vacation to an exotic place. But it’s more like the meal that grounds the story and connects the characters: pickled eggplant and red wine. That is to say: unfussy but rich and heavy with tradition. I imagine some people have watched Summer in Andalusia and found it pleasant but slim. I found it to be a beautiful and restrained window into legacy, family, roots, and talent.
It’s a sweltering day in the Spanish summer, but it’s the day where the Vuelta’s stage happens to run through Pepe Benegeli’s hometown. Pepe is a domestique for his Belgian beer-sponsored team (the logo for which is clearly a Delerium Tremens reference). This means that his job is to support the athletes who actually stand to win the entire race. The star he’s supporting, Gilmore, as well as his sponsors and most of his competitors, are not Spanish. This movie reminded me that I am part Spanish, specifically Andalusian, but I did not have an accurate picture of the landscape in my mind. The idyllic-to-my-ears title Summer in Andalusia and its cover image of three young people on a bike conjured up something a little more Call Me by Your Nameish, with tranquil pools and lazy days spent under fruit trees. Andalusia is more desert than lush paradise, though, and all the cyclists are suffering.(more…)
Here are the books I read in 2021 that have stuck with me the most. They didn’t have to come out in 2021, just be read by me in 2021.
Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans
Apollo’s Angels, by former dancer Jennifer Homans, is a dazzling achievement. It’s fascinating, comprehensive, and pretty much the only book of its kind. If you are looking for an in-depth history and exploration of ballet, you will mostly find memoirs, guides, and glossaries aside from this beautiful and heavy book. I bought it to use as a resource for an essay I was writing on my regret over quitting dance as a teenager, but I’m so glad I own it and can pour over it for years to come. Homans traces ballet’s history from the Renaissance, through the court of Louis XIV, its associations with sex work in later centuries, and much more. It will keep anyone with an academic, aesthetic, or historical interest in ballet busy for a long, long time. Homans also poses difficult questions about the role ballet and its classical aspirations towards the heavenly can play in contemporary society. She writes, “Today we no longer believe in ballet’s ideals. We are skeptical of elitism and skill, which seem to us exclusionary and divisive… We want to expand and include: we are all dancers now.” It’s something I think about a lot. It seems taboo to point out that ballet hinges on so many things that are at odds with each other: ephemerality, pain, fragility, strength – a combination of traits and talent that very few people possess. Can there be an inclusive ballet? Maybe the better question is can we live with its exclusionary nature.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
It’s a little embarrassing to be putting a Sally Rooney book on this list, as a person who is the exact target demographic for a Sally Rooney book. I do not think Beautiful World, Where Are You is as great as Normal People, but there are things about it that won’t leave my head months later. And the sex scenes are very, very good. The story is simple. Four characters (two couples) confront the idea that in the face of the many defeats of modern life, living small and caring about each other might be the only important thing. Half of the book is told in third person and half is told through e-mails between the two female protagonists, Alice and Eileen. It’s the e-mails that stuck with me (well, other than the sex scenes). In one exchance, Eileen articulates the slog of online discourse, in a moment when I was collapsing under it in my own life:
I looked at the internet for too long today and started feeling depressed. The worst thing is that I actually think people on there are generally well meaning and the impulses are right, but our political vocabulary has decayed so deeply and rapidly since the twentieth century that most attempts to make sense of our present historical moment turn out to be essentially gibberish. Everyone is understandably attached to particular identity categories, but at the same time largely unwilling to articulate what those categories consist of, how they came about, and what purposes they serve. The only apparent schema is that for every victim group (people born into poor families, women, people of colour) there is an oppressor group (people born into rich families, men, white people). But in this framework, relations between victim and oppressor are not historical so much as theological, in that the victims are transcendently good and the oppressors are personally evil. For this reason, an individual’s membership of a particular identity group is a question of unsurpassed ethical significance, and a great amount of our discourse is devoted to sorting individuals into their proper groups, which is to say, giving them their proper moral reckoning.
Some readers find this kind of thing tiring with Rooney, and with millennial writers in general. And I sort of see the criticism. Beautiful World in particular does not transport me. It grounds me in the world I already live in and reflects my own anxieties back. Reading only things that accomplished that would be impoverished, but sometimes, it’s nice to see something you’ve been feeling put down in a concise and eloquent way.(more…)