Comments on Wardog's Ferretbrain Presents the TeXt Factor Episode Eleven – The Final!

We present the final installment of our ludicrous literary competition

Comments (go to latest)
Andy G at 21:07 on 2010-07-18
the only two books I read both won! My taste is doubly vindicated! Though possibly you should have an odd number of judges next time ;)
Arthur B at 10:29 on 2010-07-19
Wine fans: this is the wine we were having at the recording. It is delicious.
Heh, Andy.

I read the Furies of Calderon, Angels & Demons, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Dreaming Void.
Arthur B at 09:43 on 2010-07-20
If Alex starts reading upwards and Andy starts reading downwards they'll meet outside Sam Spade's office!
Wardog at 11:09 on 2010-07-20
I just finished The God of Small Things. I was braced for trauma but I was seriously not prepared for the sheer traumatic extent of the trauma. I am so traumatised :( :( Also I now totally understand Arthur's conviction that Baby Kochama was actually evil.

I did like the fact it ended on a very beautiful note - because of the fragmented chronology it was very strange to come through all that TRAUMA to something beautiful, knowing even so the TRAUMA it leads to.

I'm not ... entirely ... sure what it wanted me to take away from the text, though, apart from a broken heart.
Arthur B at 11:15 on 2010-07-20
Also I now totally understand Arthur's conviction that Baby Kochama was actually evil.

Yeah, the bit where she
convinces the kids to lie about what happened, guaranteeing that justice will not be done and that the family will be broken up, and does that pretty much out of spite
was where I ceased having any sympathy for her.

She is, in fact, the old woman who minds other peoples' business we were talking about in episode 10.
Dan H at 14:42 on 2010-07-20
I actually had much less of a problem with her. She does terrible things, but I think they're kind of understandable, at least within the context of a person who lives in a world that is itself deeply broken.

I mean to my mind it sort of undermines the whole point to pin everything down to one person.
Wardog at 15:27 on 2010-07-20
I don't actually pin it all on her - obviously it's much much more complex than that. I just wanted someone to blame at the time :)
Arthur B at 15:31 on 2010-07-20
I think you are correct that the disaster that happens and society's broken reaction to it can't be pinned on any one person; I don't think Baby is uniquely bad in that respect. Where she stands out for me is the way her interventions push things over the line from "horribly broken" to "completely irretrievably broken".

It's been a while since I actually read the end of the book (I didn't after the end of the context because I had several books which I hadn't previously read to finish off), but the impression I got was that before Kochamma sticks her oar in there was a faint, glimmering possibility that things might have... well, they wouldn't have been fixed. But something might have been salvaged. But the things she does absolutely shatters that hope, in the worst possible way.

The characters all live in a broken world, but we can still look at their actions and think about whether they make their world more broken or less. To me, Baby is someone who makes that world more broken, and does so on purpose. She isn't responsible for everything, but what she is responsible for is completely vile.
Andy G at 20:01 on 2010-07-20
It's weird, I remember being absolutely gripped and stunned by the book, so much so that as soon as I finished it I read it again, all in one weekend, but I have a very hazy recollection of what happened. I more remember the themes and the way it felt, and an occasional disconnected scene or line.

I am going to start reading it again tonight.
Jamie Johnston at 23:58 on 2010-07-20
I've now finished all the books that survived episode 7. Got to say, if we were re-playing the final with the benefit of hindsight I'd have been less happy about the draw. For me The god of small things absolutely fulfilled its promise and was maybe even a little better, whereas The woman in white let itself down in one really serious respect torward the end. Still a great book, but it's almost more disappointing for that very reason. I think it's even just possible that if I were voting now having read the ones I've read I'd vote out The woman in white before Wolf Hall.

Like Kyra, I liked the end of The god of small things. Well, maybe 'liked' is the wrong word, what with all the TRAUMA. It felt like being smashed on the ground after falling from a great height and then being gathered up gently in a soft blanket and put to bed.

As to what to take away from it... it feels to me like a strangely moral book, in that it made me feel extremely sensitized to the awfulness of insensitivity and selfishness and intolerance and to the immense value of care and emotional generosity and empathy. It sort of allows you to judge the characters while also understanding and feeling for them, and to see the great harm they do to each other while making it hard to blame them unreservedly for it. Which is quite impressive given the way judgment and sympathy often feel incompatible. What got to me most of all was the portrayal of the emotional wounding of the children, and how terrifyingly easy and largely inadvertent and certainly unintentional it is, and how in a sense they react to things so unpredictably that you feel like if you were presented with a child after reading the book you'd be paralyzed with fear of saying or doing anything at all in case it triggered some unexpected trauma, and yet at the same time it feels like a great deal of it could have been avoided if everyone had just somehow managed to care for them as human beings needing care rather than as inconveniences or social accessories or incidental details or tools.

That was also the worst thing, for me, about what Baby Kochamma does:
the way she damages Estha by making him her agent and damages both twins by finally cutting them off from one another
. Which is kind of a twisted reaction considering that other consequences of what she does include
an innocent man being beaten to death
, but.
Arthur B at 00:03 on 2010-07-21
Jamie, are you having the same objection to the end of The Woman In White as I had - namely, that
it really should have been Miss Halcombe, and not Walter, who defeated Count Fosco, and the fact that it isn't ruins the parallels previously established between the heroes and villains
Jamie Johnston at 00:22 on 2010-07-21
Arthur B at 00:38 on 2010-07-21
That's terribly counterfactual, isn't it? ;)

I consoled myself with three things about the ending I really liked:
first, there's the bit where Walter basically supplicates Marian for permission to court Laura - granted, Laura has no other close relatives who acknowledge her identity, but still, the fact that he choose to seek permission from Marian at all is noteworthy. Second, Collins chooses to end on a high note by killing Mr Fairlie. Third, Pesca displays hidden reservoirs of awesome when it turns out he's in the Illuminati. "Sir Percival Glyde smelled burning flesh, and knew it was his own..."
Jamie Johnston at 13:59 on 2010-07-21
That's terribly counterfactual, isn't it? ;)

Touché! Yeah, I thought about that, and it is to the extent that
I just would have preferred to read a version of the book in which Marian got to have an awesome showdown with Fosco because that would have been awesome.
But also it's entirely fair criticism to the extent that,
as you say, Collins quite clearly sets up the symmetry of the book in a way that demands that ending, as well as more generally by making Marian such an important character up to her illness that the reader is surely bound to expect her to regain at least some prominence after she recovers, and also by giving the narrative to Marian for approximately as long as Walter had it and thus creating an expectation, when Walter gets a second turn, that she'll get do more narration as well.
In short, I have no qualms about complaining that a book failed to end in a certain specific way when the book itself blatantly responsible for making me expect that ending.

Walter 'I'm Back And I've Manned Up' Hartright just really annoyed me. The bit where he's like 'Laura said she wanted to pull her weight in the household and that I should stop treating her like a child, so I did. By pretending to sell her rubbishy little doodles to paying clients when actually I was just hiding them under the floorboards and paying her pocket-money': I really despised him at that point. And that was a point when I particularly missed Marian because the text said she went along with it but didn't give any real indication of what she thought about it or anything, which made it feel like she'd just completely vanished from the book and been replaced by a robot double or something. I'm not saying I don't believe her character as established in the earlier parts of the book would never have done it, but she'd have had some better reason than 'South America has made me smug and patronizing', or she'd have felt uncomfortable about it, or something. And there were a lot of moments like that when she just seemed invisible in a way that I felt demanded at the very least an explanation, like maybe her confidence had been undermined by the feelings of guilt at getting ill and not being able to stop them tricking Laura into going to London or whatever; but there was nothing, and that isn't surprising because it was all Walter's narration and we know he has zero insight into Marian. That's why even when I started to suspect that Marian wasn't going to get to have an awesome showdown I still not only wanted but actually quite confidently expected her to get at least a little extra turn as narrator.

Anyway, this is all getting very grey, so maybe I should stop moaning. (OoooOOOooooh, why does Wilkie Collins keep troubling me with his disappointing end? What have I do with his end?)

But, just before I swear off the spoiler-tags,
yeah, how totally and inadvertently right were we about Pesca being the key to Fosco's downfall?
Jamie Johnston at 14:01 on 2010-07-21
(There should have been an 'is' at some point between 'when the book' and 'blatantly response' in the last sentence of my first paragraph. Readers may place it before or after 'itself' as they prefer. Interactivity!)
Arthur B at 14:25 on 2010-07-21
That's all more or less in keeping with my response; though at least
Marian's comparative invisibility in the text at least leaves open the possibility she's doing something in the background - Laura's too caught up in her painting to keep track of her, after all. I like to think Marian arranged for the other Illuminati member to show up at the opera house, and later on tipped them off about Fosco's presence in Paris. But that's taking it into fanfic realms, and there's no getting around the fact that Collins basically dropped the ball there.

As for the painting thing, it did kind of stand out for me as being almost needlessly mean, to the point where I started wondering whether Collins was parodying something. Is there some gothic novel from around the same time period featuring a heroine whose paintings everyone swoons over or something?
Dan H at 18:57 on 2010-07-21
Bearing in mind that I read The Woman In White back in my University days (so the early 2000s) and haven't reread it since, I'd say a couple of things in its defense (and for what it's worth I'm eschewing spoiler tags here because I find them clunky, we're talking in general terms, and the book's been in print for well over a century):

First off, although we were all favourably impressed by its remarkably-modern sensibilities, the book *was* written more than a hundred years ago. I don't think it's entirely realistic to expect a showdown between Marian and Fosco because when you get right down to it, the book is still set in the nineteenth century, and properly brought up young women simply don't have showdowns with sinister Italians.

Similarly I suspect that Hartright's faintly patronizing treatment of Laura is simply par for the course for the nineteenth century. I mean when you get right down to it, it's not like he's ever respected her as an equal, quite the opposite in fact.

What I remember liking about the ending is that it's so utterly ignominious and unheroic for pretty much everybody. Everybody is basically wrecked by the whole affair.
Jamie Johnston at 13:40 on 2010-07-22
I don't think it's entirely realistic to expect a showdown between Marian and Fosco because when you get right down to it, the book is still set in the nineteenth century, and properly brought up young women simply don't have showdowns with sinister Italians.

I don't feel I can really get on board with that. As Arthur says, the text very clearly sets up the idea that Glyde is Walter's nemesis and Fosco is Marian's. She even says exactly that in direct speech on at least one occasion, and Fosco says it more than once, not to mention that bit in her diary where she imagines throwing Fosco's words one by one in his teeth, which reads very much like foreshadowing. If Collins wasn't going to be able to deliver the blatantly necessary and inevitable conclusion of that idea, he shouldn't have set it up with flashing lights and big arrows pointing to it. So I'm afraid if I'm not allowed to blame the book for failing to deliver what it promises, I'm just going to blame it for promising what it fails to deliver.

Plus Marian herself evidently doesn't think it's an unrealistic expectation because when she works out that Walter's off to have the show-down she urges him to let her come.
Arthur B at 14:16 on 2010-07-22
Yeah, it definitely looks like Collins intended all along to have Marian take down Fosco and then chickened out or changed his mind at the last minute. Or Dickens as editor got cold feet and hypnotised Collins into changing it.
Dan H at 14:41 on 2010-07-22
Arthur I've told you this a hundred times, there is *no such writer* as Dickens. I just hypnotized you into believing there was.
Arthur B at 14:50 on 2010-07-22
That reminds me. I've come up with this handy chart of the various books in the Text Factor, what position they ended up in in the end, and the important details of their plots: it's a sort of pocket summary of the series. I hope listeners find it helpful!
Jamie Johnston at 15:07 on 2010-07-22
Shim at 13:57 on 2010-07-24
Inspired by Arthur's work, and some of our observations of the similarities between books, I have created an all-encompassing Venn diagram as a handy aid to memory.
Jamie Johnston at 15:30 on 2010-07-24
It's comforting to think that the last episode isn't really the end of the competition, it's just the beginning of the entertaining quasi-scientific analysis of the results. :)
Andy G at 16:38 on 2010-07-24
@ Shimmin: Isn't there infidelity in GoST too?
Arthur B at 16:57 on 2010-07-24
I think Shimmin's been forced to make some compromises to avoid breaking the Venn diagram entire. After all, there's infidelity in A Kiss of Shadows, The Maltese Falcon (and, if you accept Katherine's arguments, Wolf Hall), domestic abuse in The Woman In White, detectives in The Woman In White, Drood, SotBWotS, Angels and Demons and (presumably) Score!, and Drood has an enormously epic page count. But incorporating all that is well beyond the constraints of 2D Venn diagrams.
Shim at 17:24 on 2010-07-24
The diagram only covers books to the point where they were chucked out. In fairness, I didn't mention that. To the point where I stopped reading, there is no infidelity in GoST so far as I remember. My original notes had infidelity in The Maltese Falcon as well, but I'd forgotten about A Kiss of Shadows.
I don't regard the amateur investigators in Woman in White or Angels & Demons as detectives. South Sun briefly has someone who might maybe be a detective possibly if that bit actually happened at all and wasn't metaphorical anyway, which... I'm not minded to include. It does, however, include likely financial irregularities, which I forgot about.
Ditto domestic abuse in TWIW.
Drood's bulk was also in my original notes but got lost somewhere in the fiddling about process.

I might try to reshuffle it if I feel energetic enough.
Shim at 18:15 on 2010-07-24
I've tried again, but this one leaves out GWDT's financial irregularities, which are about the only feature the book has. I think it might be possible with complicated rejigging of sizes of the circles, but that would involve either hours of trial and error or complicated calculations that I can't do. If anyone wants to try, I can send you the .xcf files...
Arthur B at 18:38 on 2010-07-24
I wonder if there's a mathematical limit to the number of parameters and objects possessing said parameters a Venn diagram can have before it becomes impossible to draw? All the automated generators I have found online can cope with two or three circles but that's about it.
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2010-08-02
Woo, what a ride!

I'm split right down the middle between Andy and Alex. Of the two books that I've read, one was ranked second-last (Angels and Demons) and the other tied for first (The God of Small Things). Of course, the one I personally preferred got booted practically right off the bat, while the one I found tedious and uninteresting made it all the way to the top. Figures.

I must admit taking a peek at Arthur's hilarious hypnosis chart before listening to the actual episode. I was disappointed to see The God of Small Things occupying the very top, because even though I haven't yet started The Woman in White, I just know I'm going to adore it. Then I listened to the actual podcast and found out that The Woman in White didn't come in second, it tied for first. I was pleased.

Does it strike anyone else as odd, though, that you jokingly call it “racist” to vote against Roy's The God of Small Things, but not sexist? (As for a word meaning prejudice-against-dead-people, I've always been partial to Terry Pratchett's “vitalist,” myself.)

I'd like to address Kyra's remarks about The Woman in White being the “shallower” option than The God of Small Things. I'm going to speak from my own viewpoint, which is different from Kyra's but may possibly resonate with her.

I would contend that the principle objective of any artistic endeavor is (or should be) to engage the observer. (At times like this, my first instinct is to say “entertain,” then Schindler's List rises up in my mind like a chastising angel, and I must cast about for another term.) Being “deep” and “meaningful” and so on comes a far second.

In my experience, people seek out art to be emotionally and/or intellectually engaged, rather than edified. If edification transpires, so much the better, but that's not the point.

Therefore, I personally would have no problem voting for a book which engaged my interest without particularly edifying (say, The Demon's Lexicon) over one which—masterfully structured and incredibly edifying though it may have been—I had to force myself to get through because the story itself was incredibly boring (e.g. 1984).

Again, I understand Kyra did enjoy The God of Small Things, so the parallel is tenuous, but my point is that I see nothing shallow in voting for a book which is more successful at the primary task of art (engaging the observer's interest) and less edifying over one which engages less but edifies more.

In fact, this is probably utter nonsense but still a fun little construction which might even have some measure of insight (if you squint at it); on a site like ferretbrain, it's right that the “art” book and the “entertainment” book should tie for first place, rather than one winning out over the other.

I do feel disappointed to've had so many good discussions cut short by voting a particular book off. I know that's how the game works but I was wondering: what are the chances of doing a TeXt Factor Follow-Up podcast where you all come back and talk about the rest of the books you (or most of you) finished reading after they were voted off/the contest ended? (In this case, The Maltese Falcon, Wolf Hall, South of the Border, West of the Sun, and of course, The God of Small Things and The Woman in White.) You could arrange to fly Arundhati Roy out to Wilkie Collins' grave to do the podcast. What do you say?

Lastly, if you do end up making Ferretbrain Presents: The TeXt Factor an annual series—which would be awesome—will you accept nominations for books? I really, really want to nominate On the Jellicoe Road because, well, because that book is the shit. (My mum and I listened to it on CD this summer, and I was crying my eyes out the last three or four chapters.) I'd love to hear ~ten episodes (or even one episode) of you all discussing the book and sharing your thoughts and pointing out all the clever things I've missed. Pretty please?
Arthur B at 16:05 on 2010-08-02
Does it strike anyone else as odd, though, that you jokingly call it “racist” to vote against Roy's The God of Small Things, but not sexist?

I think part of that is because a big thing in The God of Small Things is the lingering aftereffects of colonialism - see Baby Kochamma spouting Shakespeare at a confused Sophie Mol, see the family as a whole be anxious that Estha and Rahel appear and behave in a manner which makes their English guests feel at home. You may have noticed in one of the episodes that we feel really quite bad about our ancestors running around the globe traumatising other cultures, so it's probably not surprising that the discussion is flavoured with a big dollop of imperial guilt.

Also, 1984 is boring? Man, I'm never going to trust a book recommendation from you again...
Andy G at 17:31 on 2010-08-02
Like you say, I think the dichotomy between art and entertainment is rather tenuous in the case of God of Small Things, because although it deals with weighty issues, it is compelling, funny and extremely pleasurable (if traumatic) to read.

That said, I'm speaking as someone who found Woman in White an absolute slog, but devoured GoST twice in a weekend.
Dan H at 09:48 on 2010-08-03
Does it strike anyone else as odd, though, that you jokingly call it “racist” to vote against Roy's The God of Small Things, but not sexist?

To be serious for a moment, I suspect it's for two reasons, firstly while thirty-three percent of the Text factor judges were female, all of us were white. Secondly, although it's kind of a joke, it's also a reference to a genuine discomfort with the fact that of the books on our list only two were by non-white authors, and in both cases our reactions to those books did contain strong elements of "gosh, this is a brown person book about brown people!"

I can't speak for my fellow judges, but I'm completely comfortable with my own ability and willingness to read books written by women, whereas the only time I'm likely to read a book by somebody who isn't white is if I'm deliberately trying to score Not-A-Racist points.
Jamie Johnston at 15:37 on 2010-08-03
About the 'shallowness' point: I'm not sure that anyone was really drawing a contrast between 'edifying / deep and meaningful' and 'entertaining / engaging'. We managed to extract plenty of Significance from The woman in white, about the nature of abusive manipulation and the danger / inevitability of not assuming people are evil even when they in fact are, and all that, as well as some Art stuff about the way the narrative was constructed and the text's awareness of its own textiness and so on. And I'm not sure that we prized The god of small things (if we did) because it was edifying and said Important Serious Things. In fact you can see from higher up this thread of comments that Kyra and I, at least, had some trouble working out what, if any, Important Serious Things it did say.

I think what we were mainly talking about was the different techniques and modes (which I think may be some kind of technical term, but I use it non-technically here) the two books use to engage the audience. The woman in white is very genre (although admittedly a genre that didn't really exist before it invented it) and engages you by making you gasp and wonder what's going to happen next and also by being just sufficiently over the top with its characterization that it's tremendously entertaining and funny without being distancing in the way that full-blown social satire is. Whereas The god of small things does it by lovely prose and quiet charm and atmosphere and a structure that's a bit disorientating but makes you wonder not so much what's going to 'happen' next as how you're going to feel next. But nobody voted for The god of small things because it was edifying but boring, if you see what I mean.

If edification comes into it, I think it's only as something you experience as part of the satisfaction of a book. The way The god of small things works on our sympathies for the characters and our instinctive moral reactions to what they do is part of what made it a rich and satisfying experience for me, because there's something quite exciting about being made, for example, to swing back and forth wildly between liking and disliking Ammu. It's the same sort of sensation as not knowing who to trust in The Maltese falcon, it just happens on a different plane. And the loveliness of the writing is similarly just a trick for creating atmosphere and emotional landscape that makes you feel a certain way, the same as in any good genre book.

So, speaking just for myself, I didn't feel I was making a choice between an 'art' book and an 'entertainment' book and thus choosing whether I prefer to be entertained or, um, arted. The art of the novel is an art of entertainment, among other things, and if a novel doesn't grip me then I regard that as a failure of artfulness. In the end I voted for the one that I felt more deeply and strongly about, which included not being remotely bored by it. If that makes sense.

About books for a future series, I still haven't read On the Jellicoe Road and would love to, but on the other hand we know Kyra's read it and it may well be that some of the others have too, and I think the general idea is (or at least, if I had my druthers, would be) to try to avoid doing books that more than one or at most two of the judges have read before. Because knowing what's going to happen slightly spoils the vote-as-you-go-along nature of the game, and because often one doesn't want to read something one's already read before, and because it would be a shame to turn an amusing and original format into just some people talking about why good books are good. Not to mention that On the Jellicoe Road has also, as you point out, actually been reviewed here already, which means that not only does Kyra already know what she thinks about it but also all her fellow judges and the listeners at home know what she thinks about it. She may well have more interesting things to say about it, but it would still make it a somewhat lopsided exercise.

Finally, amongst all the attention we're paying to the fact that Estha and Rahel's family are strange exotic brown people, we mustn't forget that the Halcombe / Fairlie family are Northeners, and possible even Geordies, who as we know are almost as mysterious and otherish as foreigners. ;)
Arthur B at 18:33 on 2010-08-03
Not to mention that On the Jellicoe Road has also, as you point out, actually been reviewed here already, which means that not only does Kyra already know what she thinks about it but also all her fellow judges and the listeners at home know what she thinks about it.

That's what gives me pause - including books previously reviewed on FB seems like unnecessary redundancy, especially since discussion about said book has probably happened on the review in question. I'd love to get the Text Factor crew to read The Grin of the Dark but it's probably not gonna happen (at least, not as part of the show) for that reason.
Robinson L at 22:00 on 2010-08-06
Thanks for the thoughtful responses, Arthur, Dan.

Andy G: I'm speaking as someone who found Woman in White an absolute slog, but devoured GoST twice in a weekend.

For some perverse reason, this makes me very happy. Look at you, you're all so beautifully, incredibly, madly different. It's amazing. /David TennantThe Doctor, ANY Doctor.

(Actually, speaking of Doctor Who, Andy, it seems that our tastes in general diverge wildly. *shrugs*)

Re: The art/entertainment dichotomy
Yes, of course it's utter rubbish when you're talking about God of Small Things/Woman in White. I just grabbed onto Kyra's momentary construction of such a dichotomy to make a more general point. The rest was me irreverently applying the dichotomy well out of context—deliberately missing the point along the way—for the sake of having a little fun with it. Which I thought was basically the idea behind the whole TeXt Factor exercise in the first place.

Re: On the Jellicoe Road
Fair enough, Jamie, Arthur. I'm still of the opinion that you can work around any such difficulties if you all decide you really want to read On the Jellicoe Road or The Grin of the Dark or whatever else. But there it is, I've put my nomination out there, and now it's up to the next round of TeXt Factor judges to decide what to do with it. at 01:50 on 2012-02-28
I ended up getting and am reading through the Woman in White (have held off on finishing season 1 of teXt factor until I'm done, actually), and it was very disconcerting at first--I keep hearing Hartwright as voiced by Arthur in my head, which is quite a thing.

Either way, looking forward to finishing the series off again when I'm done with the book.

Arthur B at 10:16 on 2012-02-28
But what has some art teacher with inappropriate thoughts about his students got to do with meeeeee? (/mrfairlie)
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