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Posts Tagged ‘criticism’

The Bonkers School

In Uncategorized on July 25, 2014 at 10:00 am

A couple of weeks ago, I screened a copy of Room 237 for myself and a couple dozen friends. When I talk about Room 237 I call it a “documentary” in quotes, because it’s one of those narratives that is technically nonfiction but realistically not quite rooted in reality. These are, admittedly, sometimes my favorite form of documentary. Not only are they entertaining, but they offer endless opportunity to sharpen critical thinking skills.

In the loosest possible sense, Room 237 is about Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, but really it is a sort of ode to overinvestment. It was assembled by Rodney Ascher, whose feelings on The Shining aren’t made visible in the film, and it documents the critical theories of five people for whom The Shining is a large part of their life — one of them makes maps of the layouts in the film, and another has written at least one book about it. Some of them believe that the film is an allegory for genocides such as the slaughter of Native Americans or the Holocaust; one, memorably, believes that Kubrick has distilled all of history into the story and made a film about “pastness”. My favorite is the man who believes that The Shining was made to tell the story of Kubrick’s personal experiences during his faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (He’s careful to say that he thinks the moon landing happened, just that the film footage we saw is fake.)

It is evident, much of the time, that these people are desperately projecting their own wants and feelings onto the film. A ski poster turns into a minotaur; a can of baking powder indicates the broken treaties European colonists made with Native Americans. A dissolve where a handful of tourists become a pile of luggage references the death-camp train deportations of the Holocaust. What appear as continuity errors to the rest of us — a suddenly-missing chair, a set missing some of its dressing, or a bathroom that seems to co-occupy space with a ballroom — appear to the subjects of the film as precise and specific choices meant to indicate their theories are correct.

It’s not that these things can’t be true — but it’s not terribly likely. A friend of mine pointed out that while Kubrick was indeed a control freak who micromanaged every aspect of the film, he also often changed the script from day to day, meaning that the cast and crew frequently had little clue what was going on. Continuity, as with many films, was not necessarily top priority. (Kubrick was also spending much of his time terrorizing Shelley Duvall.)

The further the film runs, the more you see that these people have spent a lot of time studying and analyzing the film. It’s hard to come down on them for that; we do the same in fandom with our favorite media. It also becomes evident that perhaps they have spent a little too much time on it. One of them, whose young son is sometimes heard yelling or crying in the background of his voice-over, admits with a giggle that he thinks his life is becoming The Shining. Run far, run fast.

The interpretations offered by these people derive from what I call the Bonkers School of Criticism, where the personal desire of the critic combines with the interpretive nature of all media to create a deeply bonkers theory of the media’s deeper meaning. There’s nothing wrong with in-depth analysis. There’s nothing wrong with deliberately misreading a text, either. Sometimes it’s fun to think what things could mean, even when you know the creator probably won’t go there and never intended to hint they would. But when the desire to see a specific reading overtakes the desire to accurately represent the work — when you believe the bullshit you came up with to entertain yourself with — you get the Bonkers School.

One of the saner participants in the film seems like she potentially has some really interesting things to say about Kubrick’s use of a hedge maze in the film, a setting that wasn’t present in the original novel. The association of the narrative with the concept of the labyrinth — a maze with a monster at the center — is an intriguing aspect of the film to explore, and was almost certainly something Kubrick intended, particularly since he put the climax of the film in the maze. That’s the tragedy of the Bonkers School — you fly right past “relevant” on the road to “pet theory”.

Erotomania is the delusion that some stalkers suffer, in which they believe the focus of their obsession is sending them secret messages in the way they dress, talk, and behave — even in the way they interact with their stalkers on the rare occasions they may encounter them. It’s not that any of these people think that Kubrick was aiming the message specifically at them, but they do think Kubrick was aiming a message at people like them — people who are, it’s implied, smart and special enough to understand his true, hidden meaning.

I’m a big proponent of trying not to let ego interfere with the work, when one is creating — but until I stopped to think about Room 237 for a while, I didn’t consider the idea that ego can interfere with the act of experiencing creation as well. It’s easy to say that people who attend the Bonkers School need a reality check — but perhaps more truthful to say that the best remedy would be an ego check.

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HP Lovecraft: Also A Dick

In Uncategorized on April 25, 2014 at 10:00 am

I should just do a series of pieces on dick writers throughout history. It’s not like I’d run out of material.

I’ve been reading a lot of Lovecraft lately, because I tripped and fell over a Collected Works. But I’ve been reading mainly the collaborations; stories he either wrote with other writers while he was alive, or left unfinished at his death and which were completed (some say appropriated) by August Derleth.

Lovecraft does somewhat crack me up. He was paid by the word and it’s really obvious; my favorite example is when he says “that room set aside for the preparation of food” rather than “the kitchen”.

It’s a struggle, having any kind of relationship to Lovecraft’s narrative these days. His presence in our culture is complicated. Certain characters and tropes from his stories have become so popular that they are touchstones even without their direct presence — much like Sherlock Holmes or Hamlet, you don’t really have to read the stories to know the general gist. You can buy Cthulu as a plush doll, and crack jokes about raising demons using his name; the idea of the dark, horrifying New England landscape permeates our consciousness of Lovecraft. The stories themselves have a loyal following, which I think is attributable in part to the cohesive nature of the universe — like Stephen King, Lovecraft’s stories generally sit within one narrative and share certain supernatural constants despite being outwardly set in “our” universe.

But even fans of the overall narrative of Lovecraft’s work are aware that Lovecraft’s writing contains very problematic elements, racism most prominently. These are not incorporated into the work unthinkingly, either; Lovecraft held active ideologies, racist and anti-immigrant, that he openly expressed and which clearly influenced his work. What I mean by this is that he wasn’t unthinkingly racist, which is still wrong but relates to the era in which he was raised and in which he lived. He was actively, consciously racist, with the firm belief that the white race (specifically Anglo-Nordic cultures) was inherently superior.

It manifested in one of the more insidious forms of racism, that of “cultural preservation” — segregation under a more anthropological-sounding name. The problem with racist “cultural preservation” is that it rarely seeks to preserve any culture but the dominant one it belongs to, which is permitted to corrupt or destroy all other cultures or given a pass on already having done so. This is very visible in his Innsmouth stories, which involve the corruption of a small New England town via the Polynesian wives that some of the town’s white sailor-residents bring back with them, who give birth to strange and monstrous water-dwelling children.

On a metaphorical level, Lovecraft’s narratives fail to distinguish between “different” and “other” or between “other” and “monstrous”. Different is not merely something to be feared, but an active corrupting influence. This is neatly turned on its head by a magnificent five-author round robin story, The Challenge From Beyond, in which Lovecraft immediately derails the story into his standard “aliens bent on invasion possess the body of a man” — if nothing else, one must say he commits. But the writers who follow him in completing the story, Robert E Howard and Frank Belknap Long, invert the story so that it is the human being, his consciousness transplanted into an alien body while the alien takes his, who becomes the Outside Invader. The alien, helpless to control his body, drowns; the human, empowered by human ambition in a nonviolent society, steals the aliens’ prize idol and becomes their god-king. I can only imagine Lovecraft’s reaction when he read it.

Unlike Ray Bradbury, I enjoy Lovecraft’s work in spite of the author being a dick. That said, I am always conscious of his politics when I do. In some ways, it makes for a more enjoyable experience, because on one level I simply enjoy the stories while on another I enjoy taking them apart critically to pinpoint flaws and failures, and let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy doing that?

I haven’t found, though I’m sure (I hope) it exists, a roundup of Lovecraft’s writings on race or an analysis of his works from a race-studies perspective. I did find one great article, Pop Culture’s Racist Grandpa, by Betsy Phillips, but very little otherwise is immediately visible, unless it’s an immediate track to something else. There is a thesis floating around that Lovecraft’s racism had a lot to do with his fear of sex and women, in that most of the racism in his work is linked to the concept of miscegenation, but while this is an interesting thought it’s a sidecar to the motorcycle of awful that is Lovecraft’s views on race.

It seems like a lot of discussions of Lovecraft start “Of course he was a racist, but — ” before moving on to talk about his literature, as if they were two different things; it’s not about apologia, at least not usually, but more about acknowledging his racism and then ignoring it as a part of his literature. (I am guessing most of these “racist-but” statements are  by white people.) I would like to see a criticism of his work and its relationship, directly, to his racist views, by someone who knows what they’re doing. But I suspect that person would be shouted down by people holding Cthulu plushies and rushing to tell them about that time Neil Gaiman wrote an HP Lovecraft-Sherlock Holmes mashup fanfic.

(Yes, I’ve read it. My professional opinion: Eh.)

Anyway: HP Lovecraft was a writer whose dickishness was so inherent and ingrained in his admittedly otherwise pretty great fiction that I can’t find it in myself to actually dislike him; he was just so sad and wrong about things. And he took so many words to be that way.

I Regret Nothing

In Uncategorized on April 22, 2014 at 10:00 am

That post title is a bit of a lie, but it’s also an excellent opening thesis statement. At least, I regret nothing vital.

I am catching up on about three months of back-reading, and my latest read is “The Author Sends Her Regrets” by Elizabeth Minkel, one of many reactions to JK Rowling’s recent remarks about what she might have done differently in her books. Minkel’s article echoed a lot of thoughts I had about Rowling’s remarks, but more importantly, it moved on to showcase five “Authorial Regrets” — mistakes that five great authors in history made, and how they dealt with them later.

I was charmed by Charles Dickens about-facing, even if only partially, on his portrayal of Jews; a person capable of stepping outside of their accultured prejudices in Victorian England wasn’t exactly common. And I recognized F. Scott Fitzgerald’s efforts to quantify what did and did not work about a failing novel, though I haven’t read either version of Tender is the Night and can’t actually say whether he fixed what was broken. Anthony Burgess and JD Salinger I have less sympathy for; if your biggest regret is that a book you weren’t that fond of made you famous, I have a hard time really empathizing. Ray Bradbury I have an even more difficult time sympathising with, because I am well documented in thinking he was a dick, so perhaps the less said there the better.

But the upshot is that it got me thinking about what I regret, in terms of being a writer, and the answer is not much. I am potentially a lot less complicated than the people the article talked about, in great part because I’m not as famous, but even in terms of fanfic — well, for example.

Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange and said,

The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about…

Now, I have read A Clockwork Orange, and after reading it I saw the film, and I don’t necessarily disagree with him about the latter — although I will say that, while flawed, the film very pointedly expresses the institutionalized brutality of the society in which Alex is incubated. But whether or not the film was any good seems somewhat irrelevant to me because the book was so spectacular — brutal and cruel, but amazingly executed as a pointed critique of British culture at the time and written in a language that bore only about a two-thirds resemblance to modern English. But Burgess calls it a jeu d’esprit, which when I googled that it turned out to be “a lighthearted display of cleverness”. He thinks the book’s a lightweight, and he wrote it in three weeks, for the money. If I could write a book half as good and iconic as A Clockwork Orange in twice the time, I’d feel pretty fucking great about myself.

Here’s the story as I love to tell it: a few years ago I was riding the train home when I got an idea for a fanfic set in the fictional universe of the television show Torchwood. It would be about the alien-hunting cast of Torchwood discovering an alien that looked exactly like a small grey cat, who only communicated in the kind of language you see in the LOLCat meme. I roughed out the story on the train, polished it when I got home, and posted it the next day. And it exploded. It got featured on a couple of well-known literary websites, even (which alas did not lead to networking opportunities for its author).

I wrote the damn thing on the train. And it will probably end up on my tombstone. (HE COULD HAS FANFIKSHUN.)

But for all I complain about the fame of “The LOLCat Fic“, I’m laughing while I do it — shaking my head over fate, but unashamed of it, because I know that within certain parameters it was the best work I could do. If I was going to write a story about LOLcats, by God, it was going to be the best, funniest, most interesting story I could possibly make it. I don’t regret it; I’d be a fool to regret something that has made others laugh and brought a certain measure of fame to me personally, at no cost to my dignity (not that I’ve ever had much to begin with, but I was creating something with intent, it’s not like I’m making an ass of myself on national television).

Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange for the money, and I get why if that’s the case it might not be his best work, or at any rate he might not think it is. And sometimes you do have to work for the money rather than to please oneself. But that’s why I have a day job — so that I can always be sure the stories I tell, even if I’m not as prolific as a full-time writer, are fully the best work I can provide.

I may have regrets in life, I’m sure everyone has a few (perhaps too few to mention?) but I find it hard to regret even the errors I made when I was younger: they were part of a learning curve, and at the time they were the best work I could produce.

Cruelty and Criticism

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2014 at 10:00 am

A while ago — actually long before I started this blog — a book was published called The Book Of Kings, by James Thackara. I haven’t read the book. I’d never heard of it until I came across a link to a review of it. I’m not even sure how I found the review. I think it must have been in some kind of “cruelest reviews ever” roundup.

That’s not actually a joke or an insult. I think that’s genuinely where I found it. And the fact that I clicked the link is something we’ll come back to.

The Book Of Kings was not James Thackara’s first novel, though the review claims it is. Thackara published America’s Children in 1984, Ahab’s Daughter in 1989, and The Book Of Kings in 1999. He claimed to have been working on Kings for over twenty years, so I suppose that’s where the review got the idea that it’s his first. It received some critical acclaim and some just plain criticism, but the Observer review (later reprinted in the Guardian) by Philip Hensher was a standout for nastiness. Given the praise the book received in other quarters, it’s possible Hensher was making an eye-popping attempt at pointing out the Emperor has no clothes on. Certainly his review is infamous even fourteen years later; it made it into Thackara’s wikipedia page.

Reading the review, two questions arose in my mind. First, what purpose do such book reviews serve? Second, how do terrible books get published in the first place?

I wanted to talk about reviews today, and bad books next time, because when you come down to it, they’re not really related. The function of newspaper critics rarely has much attachment to publishing or how it works.

If there are analytics of the functionality of book reviews, they’re very well hidden. I looked, but I have no way of studying the numbers to see if book reviews actually cause a boost or decline in the sales of the books they critique. Surely a positive review in a nationally-circulated newspaper, the kind that is read by people who have the money and leisure to buy and read a lot of books, can’t hurt. The newspaper has never been where I go to find out what books I should be reading, and in this digital age, where there are review blogs and sites all over the place, I don’t go there, either — but I don’t know if in this case I’m an outlier. Analytics regarding the percentage of readers who source their new titles from book reviews are similarly scarce.

Mind you, I’ve done blog tours promoting my books where I had my book reviewed on various sites; I’m not knocking internet book critics, most of whom keep their review blogs out of a passionate love of reading rather than because it earns them any kind of living wage. (The book business is the business of passion and poverty.) I review books myself, as well, though I don’t have a dedicated blog for it, and I use the reviews mostly as a way of tracking what I’ve read from year to year. But the point remains that aside from a given individual site’s statistics, we still have no real way of knowing how strongly a review impacts a book’s sales.

So what is the purpose of such an angry, cruel review? Hensher is presumably not stupid enough to think his review is actually going to prevent people from buying the book. Indeed, people probably bought it to see if they agreed with him, or just to own a book so infamously panned by a prominent critic. And Hensher is by far not the only brutal critic; the club of people who revel in that form of literary criticism isn’t a select one. There are yearly contests for nasty book reviews (this year’s Hatchet Job winner was AA Gill’s “critique” of Morrisey’s Autobiography) and googling “worst book reviews” comes up with a lot of relevant hits. It’s almost a cottage industry, of a sort.

Cruel reviews are only very rarely about the books. Once in a while I’ve been angry about a book, but a book that can inspire such passion is not ordinarily a bad book. I threw The Stand across the room when my favorite character in it was killed, but I can’t deny that however tedious the rest of the book was, King’s characters were compelling enough that I kept reading for them in spite of the plot, and was viscerally hurt when my favorite died. I can’t mock the book, I can’t be nasty about the book, when it caused such a strong reaction. Even when I’ve been bored by a book that is poorly written, I can’t summon the passion to be mean about it. It’s just a bad book. I’d say perhaps it’s permissible to be mean if you’ve bought the book and feel you’ve wasted money, but highly visible literary critics don’t normally pay for their own books — and I get mine from the library.

I think cruel reviews are about critics. Jay Rayner, writing about why people love bad reviews, believes this also:

…if there is one thing my dozen years as the restaurant critic for this newspaper has taught me it is that while people may like my restaurant reviews, what they really love are the brutally negative ones. […] It is why I have been asked to compile an eBook that is solely a collection of my reviews of bad restaurants. “My Dining Hell” is not even intended as a guide to where not to go; the vast majority of the places included have closed. It’s simply because there is an appetite for take-downs.

Even for the reader of the review, it’s not about the book, or in Rayner’s case the restaurant — it’s about seeing how deftly the critic can skewer it. Rayner believes this is because reading about someone else being horrible at something makes our day better, based on Oliver James’ theory of Social-Comparison.

While there may be truth in that, I have a different theory. I think cruelty attracts us. Cruelty involves passion and drama, and a well-turned nasty phrase, if nothing else, can garner admiration.  It’s the same reason we watch boxing matches or police dramas. Passion, drama, and artistry most frequently come together, for humans, in brutality. That sounds awfully cynical, but I don’t advocate it; I just have seen it enough to believe it.

After all, I read a phrase along the lines of “possibly the nastiest review ever written” and yeah, I clicked the link. If you take away the fact that Hensher is stroking his own ego and getting our attention by viciously attacking the creative work of another person — if James Thackara isn’t real to us, and if we don’t intellectually comprehend that this book is twenty years of his life — then it’s easy to enjoy watching a deft takedown.

(In theory. I think Hesher’s review isn’t all that great at being cruel; I think he was giggling to himself when he wrote it about how clever he was, which rarely makes for good writing.)

I don’t think it’s honestly incorrect to say that the publishing industry doesn’t need the brand of viciousness that Hensher employed in reviewing Kings (or that Gill, who talked a lot about Morrissey as a person rather than as a writer, employed in reviewing Autobiography). But Hensher and Gill didn’t do it for anyone else; not to inform the public of a badly-written book, not to enter into a dialogue on writing with the authors (heaven forbid authors and critics interact), and not to champion higher standards in literary gatekeeping. They did it to get attention. Well, after all, it worked.

But we don’t need self-aggrandizing critics in publishing. We need writers, we need readers, we need critics who are interested in the business of advancing literature and helping people find books they will enjoy. That brand of criticism isn’t about publishing. It’s about public spectacle.

Initially, somewhere in this essay, I was going to say the phrase I’m not suggesting we only review books we like. I’ve gone back and forth, actually, about whether I am suggesting that. Hensher’s style of negative critique is unimportant and unhelpful to anyone; if the purpose of literary criticism is to tell people where the good books are, why shouldn’t we review only the good ones? After all, word of mouth is still one of the most effective publicity techniques for fiction, so giving a bad book no word of mouth at all will only keep it out of the public eye.

But criticism, even outside of academic criticism, goes beyond publicity. Critics, the best critics, should be talking about not just what book are good but why bad books are bad, and how in their view as active, critical, constant readers, these pitfalls can be avoided.

Cruelty can entertain us. Particularly when it’s written down, it’s easier to enjoy it, because nobody’s being physically injured, and we presume no-one’s basic well-being is actively at stake. A good takedown, especially when it’s our “side” doing the taking-down, is thoroughly satisfying. But I believe it’s important to remember that cruelty and criticism are different things, and the former is rarely, if ever, about anything other than getting attention.

And, of course, punching up to get attention is okay; punching down to get attention is just bullying on paper. Always punch up, kids, if you have to punch anyone.

That Fantasy Book Is A Fantasy Book

In Uncategorized on March 28, 2014 at 10:00 am

So, one of the first questions someone always asks me when I bring up magical realism is, “Is [insert book title here] magical realism?”

My first instinct is always to say no, because if it were magical realism it would be marked as such and you would know, since magical realism is pretty much unlike any other genre. But I know that it is the way people relate to a genre they’re uncertain about — they want to know if a book they’ve read is a part of that genre, because then at least they have a reference point. And magical realism is a small enough genre that plenty of people haven’t encountered it conceptually, let alone read a book in the genre.

Where this becomes a little problematic is that a great deal of magical realism is its association with specific cultures and races, and the interaction between the genre and books outside of it in that sense.

Well-known fantasy novels are the most likely to be relisted as magical realism. There is a list of magical realism novels on GoodReads that I consulted when I was recommending books to people, mainly to jog my memory, and only about half of the novels there ought to be classified as magical realism. I’m not a hundred percent certain why this is, but I suspect it’s so that fans of the genre will have more to read, or to pad out the book list — or, as mentioned above, so that people have a reference baseline from which to build their knowledge. Admittedly, a certain snobbery may be involved in the perception of “true” books in the genre; magical realism is seen as literary, while fantasy is seen as genre, a lower “class” of reading. I don’t agree that genre literature should be considered a lower art form than literary fiction, but that is a fairly widespread perception even now.

The problem with reassigning popular novels to magical realism is that magical realism is its own very specific genre, and a well-known novel may edge out a more qualified one. If you can read (for example) a Neil Gaiman novel, which are popular, easy to find, and accessible, why would you go for the cryptic, difficult, and rarer work? (Before anyone shouts, I have not read all of Neil Gaiman’s novels, so I do not know if some of them are in fact magical realism, but I know they are not officially classed as such and that his writing is ordinarily much easier to read and absorb than many magical realism novels.)

This becomes more problematic because magical realism originated in Latin@ culture. There is some Surrealist influence from writers who visited Europe in the early 20th century, but magical realism is a genre born in South America and still predominantly populated with South American (and to some extent, Southwestern-US) writers. The vast majority of magical realism novelists, whatever their nationality, are of non-white origin.

Meanwhile, many novels that are “reassigned” to magical realism are by white male writers: Neil Gaiman, Charles De Lint, Ransom Riggs. This is not necessarily appropriation by these writers, who don’t usually claim their books are magical realism, but it can be seen as an appropriation of the genre by readers and critics. Adding these books to the ranks of Isabelle Allende, Julio Cortazar, Salman Rushdie, and Haruki Murakami devaluates writers whose central genre is magical realism, not to mention diluting the genre into fantasy. Because fantasy novels are much more well-known and widely read, this can result in white writers pushing writers of colour out of their own genre. In particular, reducing magical realism to a sub-genre of fantasy is a mistake, and I think it is often done because people are uncomfortable with how inexplicable magical realism can be.

Mind you, I say all this as a white male writer. But there is nothing inherently wrong with people of any race or gender writing magical realism. The mistake is in

a) Failing to acknowledge the genre’s roots
b) failing to defend the genre when writers who are not deliberately working with magical realism are mistakenly ascribed to it, and
c) as with any genre in publishing today, giving undue attention and exposure to cishet white male writers, who are incorrectly considered a baseline of normal.

Magical realism is a great genre, in part because of how difficult it can be to read; it is a genre that is intentionally, almost universally concerned with social commentary and issues of class and race, and it is deliberately designed to make you work for it. That’s not to everyone’s taste; lord knows it’s not even always to mine. But I think the result is worth the work, and I think the work is worth protecting.

The Future History Of The Book

In Uncategorized on March 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

The great speculative fiction writer, Octavia Butler, once did an essay for Essence Magazine in which she discussed how she studied the past and the present to predict the future, and the difficulties of predicting it accurately. She said, “How many combinations of unintended consequences and human reactions to them does it take to detour us into a future that seems to defy any obvious trend? Not many. That’s why predicting the future accurately is so difficult.”

But she also said, “I didn’t make up the problems [in my books]. All I did was look around at the problems we’re neglecting now.”

Butler was speaking of major social and economic problems that she felt could lead to the collapse of our culture, but what she said is true of attempting to predict any trend: it is difficult, but with a consciousness of the past and present, it’s certainly not impossible.

Within the publishing world there is a loud and ongoing debate about what the future of the book will be, or should be. The industry has been in flux for a good five years now, since the rise of the e-reader and tablet and the highly visible, increasingly aggressive stance Amazon has taken against “brick and mortar” bookstores. The major corporations of our lives are all a part of a data revolution: Google quietly collects user information, and Adobe is capable of rendering a generation of e-readers into bricks with a simple code change (fortunately they decided not to, this time). Netflix’s hit remake of the BBC classic House Of Cards was written using analytics on the viewing activity of Netflix users.

All of these things impact the art of storytelling, and they are changing the world very quickly. They require us to ask questions: how will we buy books in the future? How will we read them? What will become of paper books? What will become of bookstores? Of libraries? And what will become of authors, agents, editors, and publishers?

I don’t have a lot of answers about most of that; if I did it would be a book in itself. But I can talk a little about the central worry of most readers’ lives: that the book will disappear. It won’t, not in any vital sense, and I’m here to use history to tell you why.

Until the turn of the century, books had changed relatively little for hundreds of years. You can pick up a book published in 1850 and it will hold together fairly well; you read it the same way you read any modern book. Because of the seemingly eternal nature of a book, we forget that society has experienced this kind of flux before: there was a time before now when the book became cheap, accessible, easily distributed, and thus available to, as it were, the peasantry.

In China, printing presses existed as early as 1041 CE, when Bi Sheng, a “man of unofficial position” (a commoner) created clay characters, baked them, and secured them in plates covered in resin and wax. A few hundred years later, around the same time Johannes Gutenberg was developing a printing press in Europe, a Chinese printer named Hua Sui was adapting Bi Sheng’s design to include durable bronze moveable type.

In the west, the legend of Gutenberg is more well-known: Johannes Gutenberg adapted a screw-press, a device originally used for pressing wine and olive oil, so that it took trays of moveable type and pressed them to paper. A Gutenberg press could put out about 3600 pages a day, and became the dominant literary technology of Europe.

Bi Sheng and Johannes Gutenberg’s creations, a hemisphere apart, became the heart of publishing on a global scale.

Before the advent of the printing press in Europe, block-printing and hand-copying were the only ways to produce manuscripts, and thus books were rare, expensive, and heavily “gatekept” — only someone with the economic means to employ a copyist or print a book could distribute it widely, reinforcing the domination of the moneyed classes. What the Gutenberg printing press did, more or less immediately, was make the printed word accessible to vast numbers of people at a relatively low cost. It was a new distribution channel, and it totally messed up every previous tradition associated with the written word.

That was roughly five hundred years ago. When was the last time you encountered someone who either owned or made hand-copied books? People do still produce them, but they’re generally…short. And made in very small runs. Even self-publishers use copy machines, or lulu.com.

So, five hundred years from now, will books still be printed? Presuming we don’t encounter another dark age, what will the book look like when our descendants are as far from us as we are from Gutenberg?

Well, we’ve seen the result of that revolution: hand-written and block-printed books became the province of the artisan, the hobbyist. The end of hand-copying signalled the reduction of visual expression in most literature, such as the beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages. Any illustrations for a mass-printed document had to be carved to be inserted into the press, and one-color printing became the standard because mass production didn’t allow for multi-colored pressings except in very expensive editions. You can still see the habits of the last fifty years of printing when you pick up a modern book. We have the capability now to easily insert images directly into text, but most books printed in the last ten years still insert any images they may have into a special section in the middle, or specific designated pages throughout the book.

But is all this automatically a bad thing? The book as a physical cultural item is important, and can be beautiful, but I think it is generally agreed that the contents of a book are more important than the container. Mass production saved many books that might otherwise have fallen to dust long ago. And the question of whether the physical book will indeed fade away depends on whether e-readers can be made so affordable as to be common, even disposable, items — we may think the preponderance of e-readers is a sign of things to come, but for many they are still fiscally well out of reach. The day an e-reader is as common and as cheap as a wristwatch is the day we really need to worry for physical books. That day may never come.

Perhaps most importantly, the printing press encouraged the spread of information and knowledge. We know the internet does this; it is literally a data-based world. It makes books easy and cheap to acquire, both print books shipped from a warehouse and e-books downloaded from a server. E-readers have also, in some ways, made the very act of reading easier. There is some evidence, for example, that people are more ready to read certain genres of book, generally genres such as fantasy and romance which have been marginalized in the past as “trashy”, if they can read them on an e-reader, where nobody can see the cover.

Of course, the data flow goes both ways. When you’re reading an e-book, that e-book may be reading youMost new e-readers are capable of recording how fast you read, what passages you highlight or linger on, and what your taste in books is like. Publishers receiving that information can use it in aggregate to direct the kind of books they choose to publish; authors, if they are allowed to see it, can use it to direct the kind of books they write. Textbook publishers already use this information to dictate content; it won’t be long before a novel publisher tries to, if they haven’t already.

On the one hand, it’s a strike against original, innovative work. An author who has been dictated a framework must either work genius within it or fail. If the data is faulty and the framework is bad, they may fail anyway. On the other hand, all this data offers authors insight into what their readers want, and how best to communicate their ideas within a structure that makes their readers want to read them. There is some pretty strong kick against this among authors, but the final verdict on its usefulness hasn’t yet been made.

There is, as with any major cultural sea-change, a spectrum of use for these new tools in this new world. Perhaps books will fall by the wayside, becoming dusty museum pieces and craft hobbies as digital books take over. Perhaps those digital books will be regimented and restricted by analytic guidelines set with user data, devoid of originality.

But it is a mistake to believe that The Book is a monolith, and that authors and novels can all be swept up in one broad stroke. Even publishers, dominated by six large corporations which believe they set the standard for all, have a wide array of philosophies. Novelists, certainly, are highly diverse and individual, and our culture has both celebrated and condemned that individuality. The public, connective nature of the internet has already begun removing certain outdated gatekeepers that have kept marginalized voices from being heard.

So perhaps books will return to a time when they were visual as well as literary works of art. Perhaps literature will experience a resurgence in popularity when books become even more inexpensive to produce and easy to distribute.

In dozens of centuries of the written word, across cultures and eras, through revolutions in communication and dark ages, the ethos of the novelist seems likely to remain: independent, defiant, and original for some, others guided by the rule of culture, others still as formulaic as they’ve ever been.

It’s always been hard to keep a good book downor even a bad one. I don’t give the next five hundred years good odds of succeeding where the last few thousand have failed.

This essay was written in response to a request from Flat Earth Theatre, currently in the final stages of production for What Once We Felt, a science-fiction exploration of the schisms in society and technology.

Murder, He Groaned

In Uncategorized on March 4, 2014 at 10:00 am

Please note: there are spoilers in this essay for Rise Of The Guardians and the novel Dracula. If you do not like to be spoiled, please go watch the movie and/or read the book and then come back, because you’ve been missing out not doing that before at any rate.

There’s been a trend in media lately that I can’t say I’m on board with; the concept has been around forever, but it’s been on the upswing lately, and I kind of can’t wait until it’s back on the downswing.

I blame George RR Martin, and not just because his blog on LJ is more popular than mine.

There’s a pervasive idea in both professional writing circles and in fan circles when discussing writing, the idea that death automatically equals both immediacy and relevance. The fact that any character can die at any time means that as a reader, you are uncertain; you can never be sure anyone in a perilous situation is safe, or what will happen next.

I don’t like this idea, admittedly, in large part because I do not cope well with death. I won’t apologise for that; I want my favourite character to live, and I have a strong enough anxiety reflex that if I don’t, for example, know if the dog will live, I can’t enjoy the story. All I can do is worry about the dog. Or horse, or child, or what have you. When I watched Catching Fire recently, I got worried about whether they’d forgotten the goddamn spile.

In part it’s also that they keep killing my favourites. When I watched the children’s film Rise Of The Guardians last year, I picked a favourite very early on, and sure enough halfway through the movie, they offed him. (Spoiler: he got better, and my rage was assuaged.)

But a huge part of it is the arrogance of the statement, that somehow if you don’t support the killing of characters you are shallow, or lesser, or immature for forming emotional attachments and having a negative view of death instead of embracing its supposed beauty or pain or whatever, I cannot even be bothered with that bullshit. And this arrogance is all the more grating because it’s really a thin membrane of bravado suspended over a vast sea of insecurity and laziness.

Yeah, you heard me, laziness. Because if you can’t make your writing compelling without resorting to random murder, that’s lazy writing.

Recently a friend of mine read Dracula, and she was talking about how enjoyable she found Bram Stoker’s prose. She said to me, “It’s not like I didn’t know how it was going to end; everyone knows Dracula doesn’t win. But there was a chase down a mountain on horses and it was so exciting and I kept turning the pages like I thought the ending my be different if I didn’t read it hard enough.”

Nobody who has ever re-read a book gets to talk to me about the positive effect of unexpected death in prose. Because the truth is, while there are books I’ve read to find out “what happens next”, they are usually not the books I re-read. Because I now know what happens. The books that I return to, over and over, are the ones with compelling prose, with characters I love and wish to reconnect with, with plots that are intricate where I can see something new each time. Sometimes those are also “what happens next” books, but they have a depth that lasts beyond it.

I’m not saying you should never kill anyone in a book. Sometimes death is necessary. But you shouldn’t use “being interesting” as an excuse to do so — even if your prose is excellent, even (especially) if your story doesn’t need all that death. If you’re good enough not to kill, don’t kill. Death matters less when a story is full of it; death matters more when it is the absolute last resort of a writer who has poured the rest of their heart into making their prose live.

The Problem Of Choice

In Uncategorized on January 10, 2014 at 10:00 am

A few months ago, The Atlantic published an article called The Evolutionary Case For Great Fiction. It was pretty packed with information, and the thesis was intriguing: Jennifer Vanderbes, the author, posited that storytelling is an evolutionary trait which, back in the day, increased the chances for survival (and thus procreation) in the early human tribes who practiced it.

Here’s the idea: stories are “low risk surrogate experiences” — they allow us to understand the consequences of certain actions, for good or ill, without actually taking those actions. Not only does this give us options in perilous situations, allowing us to choose optimally for survival, but it provides us with theoretical skill sets. The example Vanderbes uses is a successful hunter, “Ernest”, who tells in detail the story of his hunt, allowing other members of the tribe to absorb the theory of his technique and the environment in which he succeeded.

And there’s math, of a sort, speculative math anyway, to back it up: while the benefits of the storytelling hunter are obvious, even if they weren’t, they could still be helpful. Vanderbes points out that “a variant that produces 1% more offspring than its alternative […] can enter 99.9% of the population in just 4000 generations.” Four thousand generations seems like a lot, but in terms of evolution it’s next to nothing. New evolutionary theory says there were probably a lot of different genetic variations on humanity coexisting in our early evolution; in four thousand generations, the Storytellers could have taken over, and given our current state of being, probably did. Superiority of tools, climate, food sources, and physical condition (due to variations and mutations) all played a part, but so in theory did stories, which is rather lovely on its own.

But Vanderbes also slips something in there without really discussing it, a subtle but clearly intentional addition: Michiko the critic.

Ernest isn’t just telling the story because he wants to. He’s telling it because he’s being judged by Michiko, a “moody, brilliant devotee of campfire stories”. Michiko’s approval or disapproval is what sets Ernest and his tribe apart from a second tribe, where John the hunter is also telling a story of his hunt. John’s story isn’t very good, but it’s not just that he’s bad at storytelling. He has no impetus to do well, because John’s tribe has no Michiko. Their stories all pretty much suck and nobody cares, and thus they don’t actually pass on the information which increases those necessary procreational odds by 1%.

Michiko makes this an article not so much about storytelling as about the importance of quality of a story, and also about the choice of story we have in the modern world. We don’t just get stories around a campfire, even mediated ones — we’re bombarded by stories all day long, from novels to news to television, films and podcasts and fanfic. So the question becomes, evolutionarily speaking, which stories give us a top survival advantage?

Which is a little silly, actually, because of course we don’t at this point need stories to survive, not in the way our distant ancestors did. In a spiritual sense, perhaps, but not in a literal “I didn’t see that water buffalo coming” sense. But we still have to decide what stories we allow into our lives, and critics are a part of that decision-making process.

Critics of everything — film and novels, pop culture, art — help us to sort out the “prime” stories. So do editors — as guardians of what makes it to print.

In theory.

In reality, critics dictate according to their own tastes and editors choose based on their own biases. Most English-language newspaper and magazine critics are white men. Editors assume books about girls won’t sell — because girls will read books about girls or boys, but boys won’t read books about girls. (Supposedly.) Rumor has it that cartoons can get cancelled if more girls watch them than boys, because girls “don’t buy toys”. (I don’t know where they’re getting that statistic but most of the girls I knew as kids had action figures and dolls, branded t-shirts and shoes, stickers of She-Ra and Spider-man.)

Which is why critics in the more generic sense are important, but official gatekeepers are problematic. Because anyone willing to make a statement and defend it can be a critic, but a gatekeeper is someone with the fiscal power to control what you experience. Like Walmart. Like all the white dudes in the review industry in the UK.

I have long been a proponent of self-publishing, and of course the big problem with self-publishing is that there’s no way to ensure, if you shop around on lulu.com for example, that you’re going to get a quality work — a work with quality characters and an interesting plot, with good research…with good spelling, let alone proper typesetting. There are blogs out there devoted to reading self-published works, but a lot of them are for-fee and it’s a difficult sea to navigate. For self-pub, word of mouth is the most powerful advertising, because self-pub is already locked out of the dominant culture’s professional reviews.

Michiko is important because she isn’t the head of the tribe, she doesn’t occupy any visible position of power. She’s just the one who’s willing to say what is good and what is not good.

We could use more critics like Michiko.

Ray Bradbury Was A Dick

In Uncategorized on January 3, 2014 at 9:00 am

Welcome to 2014! Here is my attempt to start posting here regularly again, now that I’m not riddled with disease and trying to find a new job anymore. I actually wrote this a while ago, but never posted it because of cowardice, so I thought I’d kick the new year off with it. Here is my essay on why Ray Bradbury was a dick.

My Adorably Nerdy Coworker and I had a conversation a while ago that went like this:

Sam: Did you hear that Ray Bradbury died?
Coworker: This is embarrassing: I didn’t know he was still alive.
Sam: Equally embarrassing: I don’t think I’ve read anything by him other than Fahrenheit 451. I’m not sure I could even name anything else he wrote. What else did he write?
Coworker: Wow, are you asking the wrong person about that era of science fiction.

But it got me to thinking that someone should really do “All of Ray Bradbury’s Books In Summary” because hell if I know what he wrote and some of it might look interesting enough to get from the library. And also it would be funny because one of the few passages from Fahrenheit 451 that I’ve actually retained after fifteen years had a few things to say about summaries:

Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books levelled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me? Books cut shorter. Condensations, Digests. Tabloids. Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: ‘now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbours.’ Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.

More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three dimensional sex magazines, of course.

This quote scared the hell out of me as a teenager, because I knew what Reader’s Digest was getting up to with their condensed great books. But in order to find that quote, I had to go googling for the ebook, which led me to an article that reminded me why I think Ray Bradbury was a dick.

Because, see, the reason I didn’t read more Ray Bradbury as a young man is that I read his foreword to some book or other when I was seventeen and thought to myself, this guy is a dick. I don’t need to read his bullshit. (Also, I may have liked the idea of Fahrenheit 451 but when I was whipped through it in high school I found the prose nigh-unreadable.)

When he died, I didn’t want to come right out and say Ray Bradbury was a dick because

a) he’d just died and
b) I couldn’t remember why I thought he was a dick.

I’m pretty sure it had something to do with some misogyny on his part, though that was par for the course with the old farts of the Golden Age. I get that it’s a shady thing to speak ill of the dead, if not through superstition or out of respect then because they can’t fight back and it’s hardly fair. But the end of a life of someone so influential to society is a time to study their impact and consider their contributions. Besides, Ray Bradbury is required high school reading; he had his go. So I’m going to get comfortable in my opinions:

Ray Bradbury wrote a seminal piece of English literature that stands with works like 1984 and Brave New World as a staggering social cautionary tale. Also, it’s almost unreadable as a prose piece, and its author was a dick.

This is what he said in the above-linked article:

“I was approached three times during the last year by internet companies wanting to put my books on an electronic reading device,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “I said to Yahoo: ‘Prick up your ears and go to hell.'”

He also complained about the spread of modern technology.

“We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now,” he said.

Mind you, I think Yahoo should go to hell too, but only because they’re Yahoo, not because they want to make ebooks. Also, as an aside, “We’ve got too many internets” needs to be a meme like yesterday.

But to get to the point, I can only assume he didn’t understand how e-readers work. They are the very definition of “mass dissemination of literature”, and he said they “smell like burned fuel”.

In Fahrenheit 451, so the internet tells me, Bradbury is not talking about the dangers of censorship as much as he is about the dangers of technology-based media like television and film; these are the supposedly simple, thoughtless pleasures that people give up intellectual challenge in order to enjoy. He clearly dislikes technology in general (viz the admittedly terrifying robot firehouse dog in the book). So I get that: books are virtuous and gadgets are evil, and let’s just not discuss Gutenberg’s little gadget and what it did for books.

That’s not 100% fair. In some sense I agree with him; I do not think American Idol has much material contribution to make to our culture.

But this technology that he thought in 1953 would damn our souls has turned out to be a mode of salvation. That makes me sound like a bad guy from the book, but I’m dead serious. Do you know how hard it is to kill an idea once it reaches the internet? You would need to kill the entire internet and even if you did that, some person somewhere has saved it to their hard drive in a file marked “LOL”.

You can smuggle a thousand books anywhere in the world on a piece of plastic and metal the size of your palm. You can print yourself a book from these files in the course of an hour or two. Digital books seem to encourage people to read, though I don’t have the precise numbers for that in front of me. Certainly I see more ereaders on the train today than I saw books on the train five years ago. And Ray Bradbury only allowed Fahrenheit 451 to be turned into an unkillable unburnable digital book because he couldn’t renew his publishing contract without it.

I was thinking all this as I skimmed the ebook, looking for the lines I quoted above, when I found that passage and realized I didn’t remember it the way it was written. What you read above is the version that I recalled, composed of bits and pieces scattered across a couple of pages. And here’s some bits and pieces also scattered across those same few pages that I’d forgotten about, if I ever understood them to begin with:

Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did.

Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won’t stomach them for a minute.

You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Bum the book. Serenity, Montag.

Ray Bradbury wasn’t the first white guy to say that the shaming of prejudice is the agency of censorship, or to misinterpret the goals of those striving for equality as an attempt at universal homogeneity. He definitely wasn’t the last, ’cause I’m pretty sure I saw someone say it yesterday on the internet. This particular concept isn’t even the main theme of the book. But it is there, in a fairly important moment. In high school I was assigned to read this book that seemed to say we must fight society to preserve intellectual freedom but actually said that if you were unhappy with the way dominant culture told you to be, you were the problem. You were the reason standards were “lowered” and books were burned.

Yes, Ray Bradbury did good things. He supported libraries and required, as part of his ebook contract, that Fahrenheit 451 must be downloadable by any library patron for free. He wrote a defining dystopic novel that has influenced generations of readers to revile censorship, resist simplicity, and protect the written word. (Or should I say the printed word?)

He was probably a super-nice guy in person and his books have challenged and entertained millions.

But his definition of censorship was grossly inaccurate, his dislike of technology was deeply irrational, and there comes a point where you can’t just say he was a product of his age and let him get away with it.

What a dick.