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Archive for September, 2014|Monthly archive page

Hobbyhorses

In Uncategorized on September 19, 2014 at 10:00 am

Writing a weekly column about writing is hard.

And I know this, because I subscribe to other weekly columns — or I used to, until I realized a lot of them, like me, struggle with not just saying the same thing over and over again. I mean, once you have your message across, how many ways are there to say it?

My buddy R, who is a man of letters in the strangest of ways, has a name for the phenomenon of artists engaging in mental masturbation: “Actors talking about actors.” His other favorite is “Directors talking about directors” but he does not limit his skepticism of ego stroking to one industry or indeed to the creative arts; my favorite was the time he drily groaned “The English talking about being English” in response to Downton Abbey. (His grandparents were Irish.)

I try not to ride just one hobbyhorse, but of course, having a single hobbyhorse is what most of blogkeeping in the professional sphere is about. Pick a thing and talk about it; find a demographic and feed it; that’s branding. It’s not bad advice, just somewhat limiting, after a while. It’s why so many of these posts are reactions to news articles — at least it’s something new.

I’m rummaging around in my “wordpress essays” file for new subjects to talk about, so the coming weeks should be interesting. There will also likely be a hiatus in November as I recover from surgery — but then again, given how much time I’ll have off and how well painkillers loosen the tongue, there may be a flood. At any rate, if you have questions about writing or topics you’d like to hear me talk about, now would be an exceptional time to suggest some.

Otherwise it’s back to the creaky hobbyhorse of selfpub and crowdsourced editing…

A Better Place

In Uncategorized on September 12, 2014 at 10:00 am

One of the things I did while in Boston in July was take a lazy couple of hours and watch some television, just for entertainment’s sake. I often watch documentaries, usually without knowing much about them, and I caught hold of one called The Internet’s Own Boy, about the activism and untimely death of Aaron Swartz. Most people are aware of him in some sense; he was a child prodigy, programmer, and political strategist who was instrumental in helping defeat SOPA and PIPA, and he was harried down by the grinding machinery of US federal law enforcement for his hand in it.

The documentary is extremely well done, and while it’s clearly not without bias, it’s an informative retrospective of what was (what still is, really; Aaron committed suicide in 2013, at the age of 26) a very confusing time in terms of digital rights and the conflict between big business and personal freedom. It’s not without its triggers; it deals very heavily with suicide and survivorhood in a way that offers a pretty deep emotional impact. But it’s a good piece of film.

Regardless of all this, what stood out for me was the use and re-use of the phrase “make the world a better place”. It’s used at least three times in the documentary, first by Aaron himself as a young teen in his blog.

It struck me as I was watching it that it’s one of those phrases that has become a word, in the sense that we don’t often deconstruct the phrase into its component parts. “Maketheworldabetterplace” is a word, really, that implies an idealistic, apolitical, vague desire to do something that is unimpeachably good. It may carry connotations of global aspiration, but it’s not something we ever really examine too closely. Who doesn’t want to make the world a better place? Even people who spend their entire lives doing things that make the world a materially worse place can express the desire to make it a better one. Wanting to, in some sense, means never having to act on the want.

And it’s not that I think Aaron Swartz didn’t want to, or that he didn’t. He very visibly did make the world a better place. But in the twelve years since he wrote that, he modified the philosophy of it; at the age of twenty-six, at least according to his friends, what he wanted was for everyone to think about what they could be doing to improve things, and then do it. General to specific, and who wouldn’t expect general from an ultra-bright but still young teenager. It interested me that the people who said it about him — “He wanted to make the world a better place” — were often his elders by many years, and while most of them are activists themselves, they didn’t deconstruct the phrase either. It’s a tidy nip of faint praise, easily spoken.

It’s really the phrase-word that interests me. It’s such a passive first step; it doesn’t require any other action. “I will make the world a better place” demands an additional “and here’s how” on the end of it. “Here’s how” often demands attention paid to various things that nobody really wants to deal with and rightly so, because they’re exhausting: what material goods (money, office space, computers) are required to accomplish it, whether the “how” is morally and ethically correct, and if so, whose morals and ethics; who is hurt by the achievement of the how. The French Revolution is heralded as conceptually good, but was mainly accomplished by the middle class throwing the peasantry at the system until it broke under the weight of their bodies. Privileged advocates of various civil rights often sacrifice intersectionality when it becomes inconvenient. Making the world a better place isn’t a staircase; it’s an obstacle course where if you fall off the balance beam you might take a significant part of the world you were trying to improve with you.

Very few people who want world peace can name all the conflicts we’d have to end in order to achieve it. Lord knows, I can’t. That’s all right; while I want world peace, the creation of it isn’t the activism I’ve chosen to pursue. It’s all right not to be all things to all causes, even if “make the world a better place” seems to imply the opposite.

There is power in phrases and the more common they are, the more powerful they can sometimes be, because that power becomes invisible. Things become strings of syllables, shorthand (or rather, overly-long-hand) for wider philosophies that are the background white noise of our discourse.

The older I get, the more careful I am to choose not just words but phrases with care.

Fiction and Form

In Uncategorized on September 5, 2014 at 10:00 am

A note on this post: I’m going to be linking to a lot of fanfic below, not all of it appropriate for younger readers or work computers. Each link is followed by a rating in parentheses; please check the rating before you click. Teen+ ratings may be safe for work but may contain profanity or some sexual references; Explicit ratings contain explicit sexual material and may also contain violence and profanity.

Which, hey, if you’re looking for sex, violence, and profanity, does make your life easier, really.

A while back, there was a meme going around tumblr asking people to name ten books that have stuck with them, which eventually morphed into ten fanfics that have stuck with them. Maeglinhiei, who if my memory serves has been reading my stuff and hanging out in the cafe for quite a while, mentioned that one of my stories, Sublimation And The Snitch (Teen+), was on the list. In specific, one reason was “it’s the first time I encountered a fic not as ‘fic’ but in a different media, so to speak”, which is a lovely compliment, and got me thinking.

Sublimation And The Snitch is certainly not a traditional prose narrative; it’s framed as an essay about the application of Freudian and Jungian psychology to the game of Quidditch, and it uses that structure to explore relationships between students at Hogwarts school. The statement of it in that way — the first time someone encountered a story not as a story but as a narrative hung on a different framework — struck me as interesting. I remembered the first time I’d encountered fanfic that was outside the norm, and I thought about how fanfic continues to play with untraditional structures in a ratio that is far higher than published fiction.

I rarely encounter fiction written with the diversity of format that occurs in fanfic, and I think my experience in that sense is fairly common. Even so, the further out you go from the traditional Aristotelian dramatic arc, the more surprise you get. When readers encounter one of my other fanfics, A Partial Dictionary Of The 21st Century (Explicit), they usually comment on how difficult it must have been, because it is literally a story told as a series of vignettes attached to specific words. Having dicked around with fictional structures for twenty years at this point, it didn’t seem all that strange to me, but then I’d been dicking around with fictional structures for twenty years.

There are a ton of what might be called noncanonical structures in fanfic. My work in these areas is not the only work out there, but it’s reasonably representative: there are fanfics as essays and dictionaries, as collections of summaries and quotes (Teen+), as magazine articles (Teen+), as illustrated stories (Teen+), and with segmented structures (Teen+) — the “Five Times” or “Four Times And One Time” formats are a quite common genre at this point. I’ve read fanfics that are the same story told from two different points of view (Explicit). Fanfics exist as lists (Teen+) and as collage collections of social media (Teen+) or letters and postcards (Teen+) written by various characters involved.

Fanfic is safe for narrative experimentation because nobody is making a living at it — not the fanfic writer or their editor, not the people who run the archives where fanfic is posted. The reader pays nothing for it and usually, because it’s free and there, reads a lot more of it than your average reader of fiction reads in books. The risk in writing experimentally in fandom is extremely low; the worst consequence is a negative comment, and the much more common negative consequence is simply not much attention, which — while unpleasant — isn’t exactly punitive.

I have a distant hope that self-publishing, as it becomes more and more common, will perpetuate this low-risk environment for experimentation. At this point, because of print on demand services, self-publishing for the author is as low-risk as fanfic; there’s no upfront cash output, especially if you’re typesetting and cover-designing yourself, and most writers who get that far were writing for the pleasure of it anyway, not an imagined financial reward.

For the reader, self-publishing is a much more high-risk endeavor. Trying to find the diamonds amid the poorly-edited vanity novels and badly typset cookbooks can be a task. It’s the old gatekeeper problem again. But at least on the back end, the opportunity for experimentation is there.

I want to find a way to uplift the idea of the nontraditional narrative structure. I used some aspects of nontraditional structure in Charitable Getting and in The Dead Isle, and I’d like to use more. At this point I have a long list of books unwritten that I ought to be working on, so the nontraditional novel will probably have to wait its turn, but I feel like creating a space for these formats in original work is an important task, and one that deserves someone’s focus, whether it’s me or a reader elsewhere.

So if you know of books written with a nontraditional structure, or if you know of any sites about nontraditional structures, please let me know! Perhaps I’ll make some kind of compendium.