Don Giovani, ENO 2016

CONTENT WARNING: SOME DISCUSSION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT (which occurs in the opera)

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I hated the ENO’s production of Don Giovanni so much that after seeing it I was trapped for a day or more in an existential confusion spiral, left wondering whether I hated this production specifically, the ENO, Don Giovanni in general, Mozart or all opera. The theatre is powerful. It can make you question things, like whether you only hallucinated everything you ever liked about a composer.

The ENO is bedded into the old Coliseum theatre, so the venue’s gorgeous in this cheesy, dear, bust-encrusted sort of way, but the cheap seats are uncomfortable. Not Haymarket legendary ass-torture bad, but not good either. A Dark Truth Revealed: I was also a bit afraid my pants were riding too low (come on, you also worry about this at the theatre with a dudesman right behind you, you too are mortal). This resulted in me weirdly shifting a lot. As did boredom.

The English National Opera’s schtick is that they only do English language opera, so shit is always translated there (baring when they wheel out like, G&S, as they are perpetually doing: the ENO’s finances and operations are, I am told, a hot hot mess at the moment, so the money from said wheeling doesn’t come amiss). Because lines sung as opera remain hard to make out even if they are being sung in your native language (though not everyone in a London audience is necessarily super-proficient in English, of course), the ENO still does surtitles. But! only for songs proper, not sung dialogue. So like, good luck making the dialogue out.

Essentially, I think the ENO’s mission is kind of pointless now that surtitles are so well done. Why translate the opera on stage, given that you still need the surtitles? You can see how it’d bodge the music. But this is the organisation’s raison d’être, and while you can argue with this organizing concept’s utility and results, you do have to acknowledge that mission statement’s role in the ENO’s operations (something those angry over Emma Rice’s dismissal from the Globe do not, I think, adequately admit when dismissing historically-informed staging, aka Wanamaker’s organising principle).

Act 1 took nine hours, minimum, and not much happened during that period: it was like one of the more tiresome gothic novels. You could argue (and after this staging I wondered if one ought to) that not much happens in any opera, honestly. They’re usually a sort of bad play, with a thin plot and shite dialogue. A conversation with my sister, who’s classically trained (at everything, really, Meghan sings and plays a disgusting number of instruments), gave rise to examples of really good librettos and talked me down a bit as far as All Opera goes. But some combination of this libretto and this translation resulted in essentially the same bad lines repeated over and over for stretches of several minutes. Day-long, three-play Young Chekhov at the National earlier this month was less tiring (and the lines were generally worth hearing once, and maybe even multiple times, though I was never asked to do so).

Now, again, I don’t have a good enough ear to distinguish whether the problem was the score or the performance, but I came away from this production thinking ‘20% of Mozart is really good. REALLY good, as good as Amadeus promises you. The rest is plinky boring Cassio keyboard midi file hell.’ In this case we were stuck, musically, with a Diet Coke Figaro. Actually the opera-savy acquaintance I was with, who I’d also seen a Figaro with earlier this summer, wasn’t terribly impressed by the singing herein.

The set design, blocking and acting strongly reminded me of a uni production, but with a more adult budget thrown into achieving those uni-level effects. Here we are with the cast all in black and the set all in green—a sort of mid-century German minimalist look. But these choices were to no evident particular purpose. I can’t tell you what they did for this staging. It felt like the production team decided they had to do something and plucked this out of a hat without any particular vision of the effect they were going for. Same with the blocking/acting, which wasn’t so much about creating and conveying characters’ emotional through lines as giving the actors and extras Business. The most egregious moment in terms of blocking occurred during the party scene at the end of Act I. A ton of extras feebly seize-jived for ages (dark! sexy!) in the same positions as the core cast kept tripping over streamers these extras had thrown out. It was am-dram as hell—excruciatingly so, given that the National was concurrently staging Amadeus, and that their New Years party scene had a very similar moment, but staged just ridiculously better and to excellent, enthralling, chilling effect.

Yet singling out this moment downplays how many awkward impasses this production came to. The choice to stage Don Giovanni fairly naturalistically results in a lot of odd blocking, just to fill the physical space of longish arias. We opened with overture acting—never a great choice, because it tends to Stage Business. We meet Don Giovanni as his assistant helps him procure a chain of women. The Don goes into a room with each woman (and one man, oh aren’t we naughty here are the ENO) for 30 seconds, and sure, I get it’s a montage, but between this and the fact that you cast an older dude who, per my girlfriend, looks like a mid-level mobster: wtf, he seems bad in bed (30 seconds, eh?) and not hot, why are these women into it?? And they are so into it: this production if anything amps up Giovanni’s engrossing power over women.

Apparently there’s a stage tradition of playing with the complicity of Donna Anna, a woman who, per a flat reading of the libretto, Don Giovanni attempts to rape at the start of the opera. In this production, Donna Anna willingly played a rape-fantasy sex game with Don Giovanni. This went wrong when her father burst in to save her from her attacker and Giovanni killed him. Intervention in the text or no, this staging falls firmly into the ‘bitches lie about rape’ camp (the effect is exacerbated as the production goes on). Is this the staging choice you want to make right now, when rape culture is such a public discussion? Clearly this is what they’ve pinned their characterisation of all Donna Anna’s relationships in this production on, but I’d argue that doesn’t do enough for the staging to justify the choice. Besides, those relationships are kind of incoherent and unsatisfying in this rendering, so, what was the point?

Also it’s just practically awkward, because this sex game is taking place in something like a dingy hotel, but her dad is Also There with a prostitute in another room, and like… he doesn’t say ‘hey, why are you here with my daughter?’ or anything like you just… would? In such a circumstance? I begin to resent ham-fisted attempts to insert utterly silent big side plot arcs that work against the text in ways the text would comment on if this inserted development were the case. I’ve seen it a lot now with opera and Shakespeare. I am all in favour of interpretive stagings, but when your desire to mark the text or ‘add spice’ over-rides your desire to create a cogent production, ya done the badfic. The clever subversion that actually isn’t, what we’re left with is an OR DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND?? sophomoric, self-important mess of commentary.

As a result of this production’s initial choice to render Donna Anna complicit, we also get her lying about her father’s murder and obfuscating her knowledge of it, not wanting her fiancé at all for reasons we know nooooothing about, and, worst of all, after all her hatevows, apparently fucking Don Giovanni again in Act II during her song to her lover about how she’d never be cruel. That’s just fucking odd in the action of the story.

At the end Don Giovanni plays the gothic ghost scene like he’s not at allllll afraid, and the gothic just doesn’t work like that. There’s no trace of religious awe, for sure. The ghost scene is not operatic here, it’s not scary or grand or particularly funny. It’s just a dude in a suit and a trap door. Nothing. You’ve removed all my ability to cathect one of the big endings in opera, you stupid bastards.

Don Giovanni also switches places with Leporello, his aforementioned servant, when the devil tries to drag him down to hell. He abandons his servant to his own rightful fate and then goes back to his old tricks at the end. Essentially: Don Giovanni experiences no terror, the ghost grabs him, Don Giovanni’s a bit put out, Leporello tries to save him, Don Giovanni switches places with Leporello. Down his sole homie, Don Giovanni gets another servant to wear the Leporello wig and fucks another thousand Spaniards, raping here and there, I guess. He’s not really an amusing merry rogue, he’s a garden creep: all too mundane. How many of his seductions are just pressured servant girls? It’s sort of implied, and that’s also just dull, predictable rape. Even his lack of punishment’s mundane—he’s probably a promising athlete or something.

My girlfriend likes the idea of this non-traditional, very much not in the script ending because it makes sense for Don Giovanni’s character and picks up on an earlier farsical identity-swap. And it’s not a bad idea, but again, it’s a big SILENT CHANGE in the plot, working against the voiced text. I mentioned the shake-up to a friend who likes the opera a lot. She was kind of horrified by the loss of the story as she conceives of it, and wondered how the emotional arc could work with this particular altered ending. I could go with the swap more than I could go with the Donna Anna fucking Don Giovanni in Act II weirdness, but I see her point. I have only ever seen one good thing at the ENO (Sweeney Todd with Emma Thompson), and honestly I need to remember never to try again. I’ve been more than twice burned, and the ENO does not help me decide whether opera could be my thing, like, at all.

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Stopping for a Spell, Diana Wynne Jones

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Here’s a confession: as a rule, I don’t like short stories much. (And I’m in SFF! I knoooow.) Cynthia Ozick has said some interesting things about short stories that feel like they’re extracts from a larger world versus short stories that feel complete in and of themselves, and I tend to like the former better, but with some notable exceptions this is not my preferred mode to read or to write in (I’m with Bakhtin on the dialogic novel all the way). This is a little disingenuous to say given that I do read and write a metric ton of fanfic and that fanfic mostly falls into this category, but fanfic is sort of the ultimate case of ‘extracts from a larger world’, even if the narrative shape of a given piece of fanfiction is very ‘short story’ in its form. Thus I think the rules bend around it.

Stopping for a Spell contains three short stories pitched at a younger audience than Diana Wynne Jones normally writes for. I feel more inclined to bullet points than paragraphs today, so that’s what we’re getting. These are stories I feel you could say a lot about, but which I didn’t really love. Is that my mood, the medium, or the stories themselves? Let’s go with ‘all’.

 

Chair Person (originally published 1989)

* Once again DWJ’s flair for immediate, Dickensian characterization is on show. Here we have intense physical awkwardness and Heepish humility that really, deeply isn’t.

* I wonder if DWJ is trying to say something specific about this family’s class or lifestyle, or if it’s merely a time-jump between their era and mine, but: the food this family eats is weird. Spaghetti from a can, cake mixes for a slightly socially-anxious charity-do (cake mixes aren’t even popular in the UK like they are in the US! Did they used to have a better range of these?), lemon squash, (frozen?) pizzas and (frozen?) chips. I’ve had Spaghetti-Os a couple times in my life, but they’re not really in fashion and I wouldn’t call them ‘spaghetti’ per se. The mom doesn’t work, either, so it’s not a ‘pressed career mother’ sort of thing. I know I’m in a post Great British Bake Off cultural moment, but while in the US ten years ago I might have made a cake mix for a school function for children, I can’t really imagine relying on one for this kind of adult gathering in the UK now? At a children’s party, there are “jellies, cakes, crisps and big bottles of coke”. Jellies (aka Jello)? :/ Whatever floats your boat.

Aisha assures me that this basically represents the children’s party spreads of her youth though, JELLIES AND ALL, so it’s confirmed for India/UK normal.

Yet I remain unsure why there would be Jello at a party. Not as a single, unimportant element of a family bbq or pot luck spread, just like–in and of itself. In a bowl. Like potato chips would be. Not even Jello JIGGLERS. Just Jello!

* DWJ might be trying to say something about television and knowledge, in passing, with Chair Person’s absorptive faux-information and his way of broadcasting it back at people. If she’s making a passing ‘books are better’/’fuck the nascent information age’ swipe, or even just drawing on those feelings in a more subterranean way, she could possibly have developed that idea more.

* Even in this short story we still get a ‘wtf’ DWJ non-ending. Classic. Here the plot derails around some business with the wand and the disappearing box, and the characters themselves admit the resolution was unclear. The siblings’ mum is spared the further intervention of their telescopic philanthropist of a neighborhood busy-body, which I guess is the true resolution, because that and the Chair’s inconvenient personhood were the real narrative conflicts.

* Really nonchalant magic this time, little to no ‘what does this mean’ing or sense of a break from the mundane.

* I’m a little uncomfortable with this story, which is about inconvenience: inconvenient commitments, objects and people. There’s some bleed-through between the neighborhood busy-body’s obnoxious way of going about securing help with her various charitable projects and what she wants to do in and of itself. Are her projects for helping people equally officious and meddling, or is this a kind of complacent, conservative story about the bother of being asked to care? It’s difficult to say: we don’t exactly hear that her help isn’t useful or necessary. Such ‘leave well enough alone’ impulses aren’t very DWJ, really, but then the core problem of the plot is ‘we tried to get rid of an inconvenient old thing that’s been in our house ages, it gained sentience and was a bother, how do we unperson it?’

And no matter how annoying, repulsive and destructive Chair Person is (The story does some good work making you feel the cringing awkwardness of the family’s responses to this ‘new’ guest–the nasty tenor of the way they feel sorry for it. This is a Paddington narrative, but the newcomer is awkward and gross rather than cute.), it’s still hard to hear things like “it’s the only language they understand” from the shopkeeper when he screams at Chair Person and orders it about. That feels, in the context of the characters’ discussions about how maybe Chair Person will learn to be a proper person in time, and how it feels new, and their diminishing sympathy for it, raced? Or perhaps it sits on another axis of Othering–someone suggests their mother’s ‘eccentric old Uncle’ would be happier in a home.

This isn’t to say that DWJ ‘can’t’ or shouldn’t handle such content, or that I don’t think there’s value in being asked to think and feel difficult things about difficult subjects. But these undercurrents just sit in the story, hanging out and making the whole seem kind of cruel rather than opening the story onto deeper considerations. If your response to that is ‘but it’s just a short comedy story for quite young kids!’, well, I’m not sure that matters? It doesn’t make the underlying mechanics creep me out less.

* Another thing about these ‘short stories’ is that they’re structured like little novels, with content pulled out.

* This story also wants to say something about officiousness, but it doesn’t quite coalesce.

 

The Four Grannies (originally published 1980)

*   This is less uncomfortable than chair person, and has a few very fun lines. However that makes me realize that, compared to Jones’ usual high standards here, these protagonists aren’t very characterized (fair enough, in such a short space) and these stories aren’t that funny (which I think is more a function of the age range she’s trying to hit than their length).

* The magic is really scattershot in this one. Granny 3’s transformation into the sort of person who’d visit and bring things is never really explained, I don’t think. Nor is Emily’s ‘conversion’?

* These children’s ages are super vague.

* Do people really eat sardines so often or copiously that they need a special sardine tin opener? Is that different from just a can opener?

* There’s a lot of Incident Business in this one.

* Again, super mundane magic. Clearly a rupture from the ordinary, but not Wondrous.

 

Who Got Rid of Angus Flint? (originally published 1975)

* Kind of interesting epistolary style. Only one of the three stories in this volume in first person. Female narrator, where the previous two had brother and sister teams. Narrator strangely distant from the piece though–you’d be forgiven for missing her gender. This is curious as I sort of thought it took Jones a while to work into writing female narrators. I’d have to go back to the bibliography and see what gave me that idea, but if it’s at all true, then this is a very early example.

* This, I wouldn’t remarket for children. The titular annoying house guest foists himself upon this family because he’s getting a divorce. He’s getting a divorce because he seems to have beat the shit out of his wife. This is Bad, in the narrative, but not in a monumental way, and the parents (who aren’t portrayed as total shits) still leave this guy alone with their kids, even after he (very early on in his stay!) seems to feel free to painfully physically discipline them.

* This is the earliest of the three stories, but it’s also the best, probably because Jones is operating in something like her usual register rather than laboriously positioning herself for younger children. Again, though it’s the best it’s not something I’d have repackaged in 1996 (that’s when this copy was issued, or re-issued) with no comment.

* Interesting that she had three thematically-similar short stories to bundle. DWJ does have a core body of themes that I could have expected to provide such through-lines, but these aren’t quite them—we don’t get a textually admitted example of Bad Mother Figures or anything classically Jones. I don’t really think of DWJ as a short story writer, but then perhaps I’m wrong and she’s got mountains of them around back. I’d almost think an SFF writer of her era would have had more, due to the shape of the SFF market then. Perhaps it was a little different for her, given her typical focus on non-adult characters and readers?

* Fun ending. Honestly works for me. A DWJ ending! I know! Triumphant (insurrection of magical furniture, brought on by narrator’s enjoining them to respond to unfair insults against them) and then sweet.

* Same treatment of magic as last time, really, but with no Inciting Magical Object. All three of these feel different from DWJ’s varied other treatments of magic. Here magic is more just–plot matter, quotidian.

The Sleeper and the Spindle, Neil Gaiman

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This book’s breathless Goodreads summary does it few favours:

“A thrillingly reimagined fairy tale from the truly magical combination of author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Chris Riddell – weaving together a sort-of Snow White and an almost Sleeping Beauty with a thread of dark magic, which will hold readers spellbound from start to finish.

On the eve of her wedding, a young queen sets out to rescue a princess from an enchantment. She casts aside her fine wedding clothes, takes her chain mail and her sword and follows her brave dwarf retainers into the tunnels under the mountain towards the sleeping kingdom. This queen will decide her own future – and the princess who needs rescuing is not quite what she seems. Twisting together the familiar and the new, this perfectly delicious, captivating and darkly funny tale shows its creators at the peak of their talents.”

For a start, big promises there. This is, as the summary suggests, a sort-of-remix and fusion of two fairy tales. Fairy tale retellings are big right now, and so people who don’t have a specific yen to work with a specific story are getting suggestions from their publishers along ‘why not crank out–‘ lines. I think we might be at the tail end of that boom, but I don’t see it producing great work, as I’ve said* in an SH review of Over the Garden Wall (which I liked). You’re Angela Carter and you want to return to those texts, or you’re any of the five people Catherine Butler flags up as reworking Tam Lin , or you ain’t. Some writers find a prompt qua prompt generative and productive, but that’s due to a certain responsive turn of mind on the writers’ part. Prompts really aren’t for everyone, and there is something to be said for the simple motivation of wanting to work on a topic: it indicates that you have something to say about it, or at least that you’re interested in the subject. And how can readers hope to be if you aren’t?

What do such retellings do? There’s a facile quality to the ‘watered-down Carter’ impulse that wants to make these remixes Dark and Sexy, an impulse which (again, as I’ve said before) demonstrates a total ignorance of the source material, which has never needed help there. The same is true of the similarly Carter-lite impulse to make these stories Correct, in modern soft-left terms. Not to reimagine them as radical or progressive, but to make them 90s girl-power feminist, with perhaps a titillating hint of homo. Note that these are largely treatments coming from straight authors (or semi-competent, rather complacent gays–we do make them, alas).

This telling is not the most egregious example of this breed I’ve seen (that honour belongs to something I once asked for a review copy of and then said nothing about, out of politeness), but man it sure is on trend.

Back at the start of uni, I really liked Neil Gaiman. And then someone did to me what the tenth Doctor did to Harriet Jones, Prime Minister’s reputation by whispering into my ear, ‘isn’t he safe? All that influence, all the capital and leverage in the world—why isn’t Gaiman more progressive, more experimental, or more interested in pushing himself than your average polite solicitor at a garden party?’

There is something to be said for enjoying art without feeling your reception is dominated by the weight of others’ opinions, but that said, my god she was right. Gaiman’s not bad, he’s never BAD, but he could be good–he could write a GREAT book, and he’ll never fucking care to, because he’s swathed in Being Neil Gaiman and what would be the point, even? Who’d want it? People just want him to Be Neil Gaiman. And if that doesn’t endure, if he dies and after a good long while he’s the Trollope who doesn’t get read much these days or what have you, well, it was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it? There’s an almost conservative drag to his work, which is never better than Sandman was and never even interested in being better, really. It’s never building on any of that, Gaiman’s never pushing himself or answering the changed questions of changed times. He just continues, like a reliable chain restaurant of the better class, a Pizza Express possibly, to offer up aimless, floating, serviceable prose. We all like Neil Gaiman, of course. He is competent and inoffensive and says nothing deeply felt. What is not to like? Quick, get a tattoo of something from “The Doctor’s Wife”. (I have no spoon, yet I must gag.)

I’m not just dragging him, really. I got accused the other day of taking unnecessary side-swipes and–sometimes, well, yes. Sometimes I’ve made cheap jokes, and sometimes I’m even retrospectively sorry about that, in a “badly done, Emma” sort of way. But honestly, this is me making the difficult effort to articulate a critical point, and this (contextualization via snark) is one tool I have to employ. I don’t even think it’s necessarily a bad one. There will be casualties, or at least I will feel and say that in some capacities something people like, often even something I love, didn’t work, structurally or politically or what have you. If you want a celebration that makes you feel great just for occupying the economic or social categories of Geekdom–I’m sorry, I don’t even believe in that? And I’m not happy about where we are, or even where we’ve been or where we’re going, or at least I’m not exclusively so. I don’t know that I ever feel anything unambivalently, does anyone? I’m not going to pretend that I am: I wouldn’t be good at it, for one.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle”, then, is wellish written, but not amazing. Information gets doled out quite subtly, but this feels like a bit of a gimmick to me. The world seems bigger than it is because we’re given pieces of it out of order, which suggests a rich back-story. Fine. The technique works, just not–seamlessly, and I do feel a little shown around the Potemkin village.

The Queen is very much figured as a Queen rather than a princess–in charge, doing the work of governing, a bit martial–but her motivation never really crystallises through these back-story hints. All right, so at the end she’s questing, in search of nothing–again, fine? A bit bleak. Like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, but with dwarves. I never FEEL The Queen’s desires, either for freedom or for people. The homoeroticism is as static as the picture book illustrations, and lacks the visceral sensuality of the most restrained Aubrey Beardsley print. Given that this is written in a more novelistic than folkloric style, perhaps I should enter more into this character and her desires, psychologically?

The role of women in this world is weird (again with the light overlay of an unchallenging feminism). The Queen is a Cool Girl because she’s martial and don’t let no man tell her what to do. People keep adding ‘and some women too!!’ after saying something about what knights or merchants get up to, et al. In other words female participation is still exceptional, but there’s a Girls Can Do It vibe. This is the faux Middle Ages a la Murphy Brown. I don’t think there’s a problem with discarding bits of the kyriarchy that aren’t doing work in your narrative, but the nervous positioning of women in the text and the way female valorisation is tied up in assumptions of masculinity have me like ‘k’.

There’s a suggestion that the Queen is sexually drawn to the evil fairy at the heart of this story, even as she was (it’s hinted) drawn to her wicked stepmother. Putting in subtext knowingly is always odd. I’m not sure that subtext has to arise accidentally to function (I’ve heard that in stagings of “Peter Pan” the author knew exactly what he was doing and what he wanted the play to evoke, for example), but it does have to be nurtured in a particular way. I’d have to think more about how one generates subtext, or serves as a good custodian to it. Suffice it to say that incestuous mothers (and fathers) are old hat in fairy tales, as is this sort of veiled eroticism, and that I can think of less blatant and yet more dangerous and enticing examples fairly easily. I guess that’s a trade-off I’m looking for? If you’re writing now, consciously employing these tools and looking to generate these effects, then shouldn’t your effects be equally resonant, or differently so, or do anything other than sort of weakly gesturing at what’s already been better-said with fewer words? (As the Dowager Duchess said about Mary’s shit boyfriend’s communism.)

A1vDbflXiqL._SL1500_.jpgThe book is very beautiful, though I don’t feel as capable of talking critically about art as I do about fairy tales. (There are a few stupid touches: that goff skull bedspread is probably available at Hot Topic even now.) There’s a Tolkenian quality to the map images on the endpapers. Overall it’s the sort of picture book that I kept fretting I was going to besmirch with fingerly snail-trails.

So what do we gain from “The Sleeper and the Spindle”? I theoretically love remixes: why do they always disappoint me, of late? This whole great glut of them just feels unmeant and unnecessary. This example isn’t different. Not bad, not superlative, not much.

***

* The relevant bit of the earlier piece: “The New York Times claims OtGW “has the look of a dark fable but the mood of a fairy tale, more Wes Anderson than Tod Browning.”

Look, guys, how long ago did Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber come out? Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers? I know you know that Freud had some words to say on fairy tales, and that Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment had some follow-up thoughts. There is zero excuse to be working as a critic, and talking about fairy tales, and not to know about their adaptability, their sensuality and terror, the way they convey and contain cultural and personal fears, their potency, their scratchy humour. A mature and nuanced perception of fairy tales is a cliché at this point: it’s been academically accepted for damn decades. You’re seriously contrasting fairy tales with “dark fables”? You want to talk about how fairy tales’ “wistfulness” (which I find a rich and interesting mode, by the by: nostalgic and sad, and not something we should rush to temper and excuse) needs to be shaken up by sassy modernity? Are you an immortal who’s lived for centuries? Did you go to uni in the 1860s and thus miss this 101 material? Have you not read much since? Do you straight up know nothing about fairy tales and give zero fucks? If so, why are you writing about them?

(To be fair to these people, I also ask this whenever someone who doesn’t like or get the mode gets pushed into doing a “sexy grimdark fairy tale revamp” by their publisher. No one involved remembers that this material is always-already fairly sexy and dark. Just stop.)”