Category Archives: review

On Sweet Valley High and detesting Diablo Cody

I am many things: a tea enthusiast, a pet lover, and a bookish nerd. What I try to avoid, sometimes successfully, is being a girl-hater. I think it is necessary to delineate those that are critical of other’s actions and those that put people down because of their own personal insecurities, or even those that are just extremely judgmental. I try to be critical of people’s actions without being catty and immature about their personal nature. Sometimes I triumph over the cattiness and sometimes I fail. Who do I fail with? Who is the one person that I can’t determine if I hate on a deeply personal level or just can’t stand their work? Who is the one person that creates things that make me want to die on the inside?

Diablo Cody.

My personal vendetta reached its boiling point with:

She wants to do a Sweet Valley High movie.

There are many things that I consider cardinal sins when it comes to taste but nothing as offensive as the above link, which actually made me shake with rage.  Let’s go over the two reasons why I want to grab Diablo Cody by the shoulders and forcefully tell her horrible things about the meatpacking industry during the early 20th century.  1. The cherished sanctity of the Sweet Valley twins and their friends; and 2. The marred, overly articulated, extraordinarily irritating gaze of freakin’ Diablo Cody (I won’t even get into the name, which speaks volumes in and of itself).

To begin with, Sweet Valley High is an institution created by Francine Pascal about two “all American” twin sisters who live an unusually active life in Southern California. It started in 1983 and spanned twenty years; twenty years full of four page descriptions of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield’s blonde haired, blue-eyed beauty. It is glorious in all of its soul searching and its moral black and white vision. Problems in Sweet Valley crop up everyday. They can be as mundane as not getting into a high school sorority (by the way, who knew there was such a thing?) or as wildly intense as when another set of twins plan to kill Elizabeth and Jessica and take on their identity (not making that up, see: Return of the Evil Twin). Regardless of the dilemma the twins reign supreme, the problems get resolved, and the twins remain sixteen for almost two decades (however there were several less superior spinoff series including Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley University and Sweet Valley Senior Year, et. al.).

Here is the basic plot of a novel: opening description of the twins:  Elizabeth is chaste, Jessica is devious; introduction to anywhere Southern California, Sweet Valley High, and a cast of friends; instant dilemma, generally having to do with either Elizabeth or Jessica; problem reaches boiling point but with the assistance of all the Roman virtues (gravitas, pietas, dignitas and virtus) the issue gets solved and the reader gets a sneak peak of what the next volume’s drama will be.

On an intellectual level I can acknowledge that the SVH series isn’t in the same league as say, Fear & Trembling by Kierkegaard. It isn’t even quite as cerebral as Nancy Drew. However, the kind of consistency in a book series provides a few benefits for young readers. Children, especially struggling readers, are drawn to a series because they create a world with consistent characters, settings, language, and even problems. This consistency creates an atmosphere of comfort for the reader;  it allows them to experience the first important element of reading:   jouissance. Jouissance, meaning “bliss” (or, in the non-readerly context, “orgasm”) is the pleasure derived from reading. It is only with the pleasure of reading that the reader can go on to experience plaisir, which, in its basest connotation, is reading for knowledge.[1] A series offers the ability for reluctant readers to become familiar with the joys of immersion through reading. Fundamentally, and ideally, they provide the building blocks for a reader to move from the plot and language basics of the series to more complex literature.

While in SVH there are ridiculous elements of frivolity and superficiality, they are books surrounding the lives of two young women. It is their world, and while they occasionally represent the archetypes of the angel/whore dichotomy, the twins are also ambitious and determined (whether you are an Elizabeth or a Jessica). I am not putting the twins on a feminist pedestal, as they generally experience first world problems and are almost always lauded for their beauty, but I do want to acknowledge the unusual candor that is associated with a young woman doggedly pursuing her wants during a time where YA books for women often included the most perfect example of the “good girl.”   On a personal level, I also learned what the word “maudlin” meant from SVH, and it introduced me to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems, as On the Edge included “Dirge Without Music.” Those two things are just basic representations of how books that are often considered laughable throwaways provide layers to further spark literary growth in even the most hesitant of readers.

Here are just a few reasons why I fear this re-make:

Diablo Cody is all of her projects, and not in the way that Van Gogh is all of his art. Every thing I have ever seen of Diablo Cody’s is just facets of Diablo Cody. It is peppered with personal opinions, it is overly verbose, and it is deftly sarcastic. Everything is highly ironic with characters that are hyper aware of themselves, and during this self-conscious exploration (I use that word loosely) the characters rarely learn anything that assists in helping them grow. And lest one think that I am unfamiliar with Cody’s work let me back myself up saying that I have read her memoir Candy Girl, I’ve watched Juno, and I survived all of United States of Tara.

All of these projects are the antithesis of the Sweet Valley series. The characters are different versions of the same seemingly precocious person. The dialogue is an exhaustingly detailed list of pop culture references, which seem to illustrate the vast indie knowledge that Diablo Cody probably prides herself on. The humor is irritatingly self-depreciating and often comes off as insincere. The interactions between the characters are unnatural and bizarrely one dimensional.  I hate to imagine Diablo Cody staring at herself in the mirror and talking to herself while the tape recorder runs, but it certainly seems like that could be a possibility.

And in case you think I am being overly critical; allow me to direct your attention back to the fact that I read her memoir. It is a self-congratulatory account of her younger days as a stripper. I have nothing against the sex industry, what I do have a problem with is someone who delineates the difference between “geek” and dumb stripper. The majority of the memoir is Cody pointing out the differences between her “unaltered” and natural body and the behavior of the “other” strippers. I was significantly bothered at Cody’s description of these seemingly “dumb” strippers while lauding her own work as a stripper because unlike those “other” strippers she was smart, she was “different,” and she was somehow worthier than all of those other working girls.

Why is it that Diablo Cody gets to depict herself as some indie goddess that is ironically working in the sex industry, but everyone else with the same exact profession gets lumped together as undesirables? It was an insulting and skewed account where one woman presents herself as a hilarious outsider in her profession while presenting the other women, who take their profession seriously, as dumb cretins who couldn’t possibly have the same amount of dignity and intelligence as the narrator.

Incase you think I am downplaying the intensely offensive nature of this memoir; here are just a few brief snippets of reviews from Amazon:

“Because of this, I find her attitude of being “above” the “dirtiness” of certain clubs disingenuous, and her condescending description of dancers an insult to any woman in that occupation. Her sudden vague-ness when describing what occurred in the Loft at Deja Vu also begs the question of how candid she really is. The few things she actually mentions are blatantly illegal, things that many dancers never do, yet despite this lack of willpower in the face of a generous and pushy client, she still expresses her belief in her own mental superiority to other strippers. I guess she didn’t see the irony” (Otoki, 2008)

“Candy Girl is so smugly, irritatingly, hiply written that it should come with a disclaimer. About four of the book’s innumerable wise-cracks are actually laugh-out-loud funny – the rest are just so painful and self-impressed that I felt like throwing the book across the room.” (Spence, Helen Joan “Loui”, 2008)

“Until I got to this line, near the very end, I thought the book was ok, though I too was troubled by the too glib writing style and the touch of oversimplification and arrogance I felt the author displayed. Then, towards the very end, she wrote what may be the most offensive sentence I’ve ever read in a book: “I was never sexually abused as a child, probably because I wasn’t pretty.”


What does appearance have to do with sexual assault at any age? This trivializes the experience of all sexual abuse survivors, and is just horrifying on so many levels I cannot believe her editor let it stand.” (Maria, 2006).

I was not exaggerating. This kind of self-entitled and arrogant writing bleeds over to every project that I have seen her involved in.

How does this relate to a movie version of a cherished YA series? Why do I find this more offensive than the 90s television series? I feel like the reasons are becoming more apparent, but in case they aren’t it is because I have confidence that the characters that I admired so much will become overly ironic, one dimensional carbon copies of Diablo Cody. I have a feeling that the stereotyping that is so overwhelming in the previously mentioned projects will now be a part of the Sweet Valley world.  And while the world of Sweet Valley certainly isn’t free from its own marginalization, in the very least they try. On rare occasions Sweet Valley at least attempted to draw a watchful eye toward serious issues, and while doing so they didn’t treat the reader as a poorly educated underling.

My biggest concern is in one distressing sentence. “I want it to be wonderfully nostalgic…” She goes on to talk about how she wants her version of Sweet Valley to be a sort of American Graffiti. This very sentiment is the easiest way for even the most casual observer, and the most fervent of Sweet Valley fans, to see that Cody doesn’t get Sweet Valley at all. Sweet Valley isn’t meant to be a snapshot or retrospect of a particular decade in the way that American Graffiti was. By only looking at Sweet Valley through the gaze of the early eighties, during its inception, one completely overlooks the legion of fans that grew with the series’ popularity. A creator doesn’t self-consciously develop nostalgia. A period piece imbibes the sense of the time and dedicatedly portrays that era, therefore evoking a sense of nostalgia.

Sweet Valley doesn’t live in the eighties. While it has nods to certain aspects of pop culture,  Sweet Valley never mentions a current president, a decade, or even a year (until recently with the last series of books and the final Sweet Valley book, Sweet Valley Confidential). Everything is a fabrication, it is a made up world that survives in its own microcosm. And there is no need for Diablo Cody to invade that world and inject herself into something that is such an esteemed part of the YA literature world. It is perfect just the way it is.

[1] Barthes, Roland, and Richard Miller. The Pleasure Of The Text. Hill and Wang, 1975. Print.


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Review: Eleven Kinds of Loneliness

(Richard Yates, Vintage Classics, 1962, 220 pp)

I was pleased by my first journey into Richard Yates’s writing. In Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, Yates has created a collection of short stories that delve into the intricacies of alienation in post-war America. His stories feature characters that have become Americana icons over the years- from soldiers to suburban children, housewives, expatriates and city businessmen. He expertly dismantles their carefully constructed exteriors in order to let the reader explore how constricting 1950s American life could be for both the privileged and down and out.

His short stories are cinematic and vaguely familiar; we have seen them often in the past decade in cinemas and in shows like the clearly Yates-influenced Mad Men. Yet the characters still feel fresh and contemporary, we know these characters, we have seen aspects of them in ourselves, in our parents and grandparents. I read this collection in three bursts because I was desperate to read more about these haunted lives while also being somewhat hesitant to endure the sometimes raw honesty of sadness contained amongst the pages. Four of the stories have especially stayed with me, “Doctor Jack-O-Lantern” and “Fun with a Stranger” both involving schoolchildren and their teachers; “A Very Good Jazz Piano”, about two Ivy League students on holiday in France; and “Out with the Old”, about veterans with TB and their lives in their ward on the cusp of a new year.

What Yates is masterful at is capturing the sense of transitional anxiety, the fear that surrounds people who are yearning for both their past and their future. These characters are not symbols of nostalgia; they are on the front line of all the social changes slowly occurring around them. They can’t see its effects yet but they can sense it, and it terrifies them. In my favourite stories, this fear and loneliness is intergenerational. In “Doctor Jack-O-Lantern”, a young boy confronts his loneliness and alienation through destruction, while in “Fun with a Stranger” it is schoolchildren who bear witness to their teacher’s loneliness, while compounding it with their lack of understanding. “ A Very Good Jazz Piano” shows inherent loneliness of a life abroad, where a constant sense of thwarted potentiality colours the interactions of two Ivy Leaguers with everyone around them, as well as each other. In “Out with the Old”, TB patients must continually negotiate their previous selves, and all roles they once had, with how they are regarded in their ward and their encroaching obsoleteness. I found this story to be particularly moving; it contained a bittersweet warmth unmarred by sentimentality.

One of the only flaws found in this lovely book is the end piece, “The Builder”. Longer than the other stories, the tone never felt particularly sincere to me. Though this was largely done purposefully- the story centres on a writer asked to write mawkish stories for a cab driver with stars in his eyes- I couldn’t move past the clunky metaphors bandied about by the characters. It didn’t contain the underlying gracefulness of the other stories. Whether this is simply my own preference of wanting some kind of desperate grace or an actual defect of the story, I cannot be certain.

Despite the last tale, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is a strong collection that is also aided by strong and beautiful cover art. The characters remain with you once you have stopped reading its pages and you realise how much the echoes of their actions reverberate throughout all of us as we attempt to survive the loneliness of the mundane.

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Filed under american, classic, fiction, review, short stories