Posts Tagged ‘soapbox’

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.

The Craft Of Manipulating Your Feelings

In Uncategorized on August 29, 2014 at 10:00 am

Last week I talked about the somewhat surprising frankness with which the Chronicle of Philanthropy has been discussing the art of manipulative storytelling. Most storytellers want to arouse emotions in their readers, and not all of them know how; I wanted to share some tips and tricks from this unusually open discussion of manipulation in storytelling. These articles, not being about for-profit marketing, are a lot less distasteful than a marketing manual might be; being about nonfiction narratives, they also come across as a little more ethical.

And honestly, I wanted somewhere to stash some of this advice.

Let’s begin with the very recent “Are You Really Telling Stories?” which focused on the essential task of making people care in the first place. This is the bare bones of the narrative, but because it’s so basic, it sometimes gets overlooked, even in writing classes. They asked four questions, three of which I’m going to hit up here:

1. Who is your protagonist?

The protagonist cannot be an organization or a community or a large group of people. […] The psychologist Paul Slovic points to research that says people become numb to social problems when too many individuals are affected.

2. What does she want?

When gathering or writing stories, ask yourself or your storyteller about her needs and desires. Listen for words like “love” or “angry” or “searching”—anything that indicates the journey she’s on and where she imagines it leads.

3. What obstacles does she face?

Many nonprofits leave us in precisely this sort of storytelling hell of no obstacles, no conflict, just smooth sailing to the end. I suspect that’s partly because they don’t want to reveal their own difficulties as an organization for fear of alienating their supporters. “No, we’re doing great–keep giving us money!”

In almost every instance (Haruki Murakami excepted, perhaps) these three questions form about 80% of your story. If you can answer these, you’ve made the bare bones of your outline. If your work is fizzling, then perhaps the reason is that the answers to these questions aren’t clear. This isn’t even about manipulation yet — this is just about good basics. Also about good basics comes the advice “Mix struggle and success” from How To Turn Audience Emotion Into Action:

…too many success stories leave out the struggles that the real-life characters go through to achieve that success. […] Leave out the struggles, and all you have are pleasant “examples” that nobody can connect with and act on.

This is something I often face in my literary work. I shy away from confrontation in my life, and because I avoid it in life, I tend to avoid it in writing. It’s a major issue I’m still working on.

All this leads nicely into an article about the Essential Elements of Storytelling, which mainly addresses storytelling from a non-prose perspective — ie, what you have to do on the back end to get a good story out the front end. It is in two of their four elements where we start to see the ways you can tinker with your reader:


We think in stories, we tell stories, we hear them and read them and watch them every day. So there’s a temptation to say that the best and really “authentic” stories are those that spring fully formed from someone’s heart. Sometimes that’s true, but most of us need practice.

An opinion piece that I’ll get to in a minute supports this, citing the 2008 Obama presidential campaign which used “Public Narrative”, a technique developed by Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, to strengthen itself and its message:

Volunteers would get together in groups and tell stories about what drew them to the campaign, how they identified collectively, and the challenges facing the country. Those stories were then used to help them connect personally to voters and build grassroots leadership. The method is now used by civic, student, and activist groups worldwide.

Practicing storytelling isn’t simply about increasing vocabulary, developing grammar, and learning how to write clearly — it’s also about working out how you structure a narrative, who you are as the writer, and what works (or doesn’t) when it comes to impacting a reader. Essential Elements went on to talk about understanding your reader:

Market Research

Suppose an advocate tells an audience that one in three black men in Baltimore is behind bars; that audience might not take that statistic as evidence of bias in the criminal-justice system but as evidence of the inherent criminality of African-American males. Research on public opinion would help inform what stories that advocate tells and to whom.

Knowing the beliefs held by those you address is important in activist writing; understanding the target audience for your story helps you work out how to impact them. Understand your genre or, if you’re not writing within a genre, identify who you are writing for, and learn about them. The more you know about who you’re speaking to, the more efficiently you can work out how to influence their reactions to your work.

Once you’ve actually begun work, there’s great advice from an article on small wins and long-term goals for constructing single scenes in large narratives:

Speaking of his “fireside chat” radio broadcasts, [President Roosevelt] said, “I want to explain to the people … so that they will understand what is going on and how each battle fits into the picture.” The president was confident that people could “take any bad news right on the chin” if they understood the larger story.

Brett Davidson […] cited the example of the marriage-equality work of the Human Rights Campaign. That organization, he says, “does a great job of highlighting small or interim victories and featuring individual stories at the heart of these battles, while maintaining a clear long-term vision.” The organization’s website features stories of victories and setbacks in individual states, and maps and other tools to show the big picture.

In a clear marketing campaign, or in a well-constructed linear narrative, every small scene, even ones that are complete stories in themselves, is part of a larger story — the ultimate goal is the large story, but the hook that keeps people interested is the momentary scene. (I am aware the HRC and its focus on marriage equality can be problematic, but lots of problematic organizations get to be big and problematic by having really well-crafted narratives.)

Now let’s revisit the fourth question from the earlier article on basic storytelling:

4. How does it end?

You owe your audiences an ending, something that gives meaning to what you’ve just told them. As story trainer Andy Goodman wrote for the Working Narratives blog, “By the time the last line is spoken, they should know exactly why they took this journey with you. Otherwise, you’ll have wasted both your time and theirs.”

I didn’t find the full answer entirely satisfying, so instead let’s leap to that opinion piece I mentioned earlier, on the purpose of storytelling in not for profit campaigns:

Last fall I attended a talk by David Simon [creator of The Wire]. I expected him to say he was drawn to his subjects by a desire to change society, but he said that’s not at all how he sees it. Instead, he’s drawn to “fault lines” in the culture. Not coincidentally, it’s at those fault lines where issues of social import lie. But social relevance is not necessarily the same as social change.


We must link personal narratives to political challenges; provide audiences with ways to take action; treat stories as one dimension of a larger effort to create change; and engage people who may be new to a cause or who disagree with us.

VanDeCarr has seen a lot of “tell your story!” and “awareness raising” projects fall by the wayside or fail to create direct action because they don’t point out a way to go or a solution to a problem. This is a dicey subject in social justice circles, because calling out the dysfunctions of our society should not require the person doing the calling-out to suggest a solution. But within a more narrow boundary, that of storytelling, your narrative will have more impact if a suggestion of action or resolution is made. Dr. Seuss knew this:

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
SO! Catch, calls the Onceler….

An ending, for an activist writer, needs to be a call to action. For a wider-band storyteller, perhaps not, but it still needs to do one of two things: provide a resolution, or challenge the reader with its lack. There’s a difference between a story that simply stops, and one that demands you provide your own resolution; the latter should cause readers to examine their beliefs as they work to answer their questions about the ending.

We always have something to learn from other disciplines, and I’m lucky that I get to learn a lot about my secret writer alter ego’s craft from my Clark Kent Day Job. The ultimate lesson of all that, above and beyond the visible, is to keep learning, and keep asking your own questions, whether or not someone gives you a resolution.

Novels And Conferences Post X-Files

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

All right. Last week we talked about the relationship between digital communication and brickspace data relay a little. Let’s see if we can hook it into fiction and books this week.

It was once said of George Bernard Shaw that his essays were the price you paid for his plays, which would make less sense if you didn’t know that he often put his essays into his plays, thinly disguised as monologues. Shaw was a radical, an egotist, and an essayist to be sure, and like most writers throughout the ages he attempted to convey a message using fiction.  He wasn’t the first to do so — I just really love that quote about him because I think it applies to a lot of storytellers. The price you pay for a good story is often your absorption of, collusion in, or at the very least momentary complicity with the ideology of the author. That’s the point of most fiction reading, after all — to put yourself into a story. This isn’t automatically a bad thing; some authors have ideologies well worth adhering to.

Prior to the mid-nineties, these stories were heavily gatekept by economic necessity. Between Gutenberg and — for amusement’s sake — let’s say the  first episode of The X-Files in 1993, anyone could print a screed or a story or a play and distribute it, but you were paying your own way, especially if you didn’t turn an eventual profit. Which meant you had the kind of cash to spend on that, or a patron who would spend it for you, be they a wealthy donor to your cause or a publisher interested in selling your book.

When we talk about twentieth century gatekeeping we primarily talk about the publishing industry pre X-Files which, being in it for the money, published books that they thought would sell. They published compellingly written books, pop-appeal books, scandalous books, or books by someone who already had fame riding on their side. (It is also important, if not necessarily directly relevant here, to point out that the only people who generally got a look-in for consideration were white dudes, so assume that the above was not applied in an equal-opportunity setting.)

The communication of data has always required resources — the ability to pay for printing, the ability to travel to a conference, the ability to purchase ad time. This is still true in the digital age. You must have access to a computer, which must be connected to the internet, and you must have a basic level of literacy plus either training in digital communication or the time necessary to train yourself in its arts. This is not an insignificant burden and it is the reason we have the term “Digital Divide”.

That said, these resources are much easier to procure than at any other time in human history: libraries offer free access to computers and the internet, MOOCs offer free tutelage in internet use, and if you have a laptop or a smartphone you can get wifi at McDonalds for the cost of a cup of coffee. People often have access to computers and internet through their workplace if nowhere else. And people who have the money to buy a computer and pay for monthly internet are still potentially paying far less for access to mass-communication tools than they would have for most of human history.

This kind of mass communication somewhat invalidates the old reason we met face to face at conferences, as I discussed last week, but conference culture has been slow to catch on. It also invalidates, in some sense, the old reason we published nonfiction books. Don’t get me wrong, I love nonfiction and I read a lot of it, but the same information can be conveyed through the internet. A lot of scientists and historians have blogs, and STEM podcasts are proving very popular (my personal favorite is Caustic Soda, run by non-scientists with science guests). The reason we still turn to nonfiction books is narrative — a book forms a more cohesive experience, and even a nonfiction book still tells a story. And there are people who legitimately prefer reading a book to reading a screen.

So what about fiction books? Are we returning — or could we return, and should we return — to the serial model? Serial novels worked like gangbusters in the 19th century, when rising literacy rates and lowered printing costs made newspapers, and magazines like the Strand, available cheaply for mass public consumption. Internet readers seem resistant to the concept of fee-based fiction online, but Netflix has proved the fee-based consumption model at least functions, and Amazon is attempting to change peoples’ minds with its “Netflix for books” (with understandably limited success, given the traditional definition of “netflix for books” is library). Bloomberg recently suggested that the fight between Amazon and publishers currently going on over print books is sad to watch because it’s already irrelevant — that fee-based access to books in a permanent cloud will be the new face of publishing. Their logic was unsound and their research was shoddy, so I can’t recommend taking the linked article too seriously, but they are suggesting an Amazon-derived model that has realistic potential. It may be too soon to tell — or the people handling the big data may not want to share their results yet. I’m just a paladin author, usually with no publishing house to my name, so it’s difficult for me to say.

I also, last week, discussed the idea that in some cases a website about a subject could draw more attention and accolades than a presentation about the same subject, and could actually provide fodder for a better presentation. This is the new, non-gatekept marketing: hook ’em online and get interaction going, instead of shouting advertising at people and hoping something sticks. “Going viral” is a dream that has yet to be bottled, because nobody seems to be able to quantify what drives the nature of a viral meme, but going viral has never been as helpful as a long-term, hooked in, loyal and interactive fan base, known as the “long tail”. These are difficult and can be expensive to build, but the long-term return on investment is much greater, as long as the product continues to please and engage the consumer.

As an author, attending a non-author day-job-oriented conference, what I think I carried away is a confirmation that primary digital engagement is often a step in the right direction — but that not a lot of people have caught on yet.

And as I’m writing this on my authorial blog, I may be preaching to the choir.

The Trouble With Communication

In Uncategorized on August 8, 2014 at 10:00 am

So, this past weekend I went to Las Vegas and looked at a lot of powerpoint slides with hyperlinks in them.

(This is not an entirely fair assessment of my time in Vegas, perhaps. I also sprained some terribly important muscle in my foot, and was nearly assaulted by a man in a Bert From Sesame Street costume.)

Other than the genuine learning about my day job that I did at the conference, my “take-away” from the conference concerned communication, how we engage in it, and how far behind some of us are in technique for it.

I attended a lot of basic skills sessions, being relatively new to certain areas of research, and I didn’t much care for many of them. I’ve done college and grad school and literary criticism and social analysis, so when I attend a learning session I look for concept and innovation. I’m not looking for data, except as it supports the concept.

This is a little difficult to vocalize, so bear with me.

Once upon a time in the 1980s and before, you saw your colleagues in the field (any given field) once or twice a year at conferences. It was a time to come together and network and socialize, but also to share information and resources. Before the internet took off, communicating data at a mass assembly was really the only way to communicate data at all, if you didn’t want to use some kind of terrible phone tree. I’m talking here about hard data: resources, facts, terms. In my case, a lot of demographics and resources for valuating non-cash, non-stock goods.

But we have the internet now, and we have the capability both to build webpages and to mass-communicate in private through email. My discipline even has a mailing list on the old “-L” mass mail system.

So a lot of the presentations I saw this year didn’t really need to happen. And I hate to say it because people worked hard on them and the information in them was important. But it wasn’t information that needed narration. Many of the presentations I went to could have been posted online as a list of links. Many of them should have been — they’d have drawn more attention to the creator as a blog post than they did as a mediocre conference session, and the interaction surrounding the links page would have helped to make the presentation itself a lot more dynamic. (I am currently watching this happen with a colleague who, rather than present a glossary of foreign-language terms we use, put up a web glossary and is getting all kinds of kudos beyond any session attention she would get, because she’s providing a resource and not just presenting knowledge.)

The way we communicate is changing, everyone knows that, and a lot of the methodology has already been incorporated. You can livetweet a keynote speech now and your tweets will show up on a board behind the keynote speaker. You can exchange email addresses with a newly-met colleague at another institution. My colleague with the glossary had business cards made up for her website, which was a brilliant lifehack considering business cards are still the currency of choice at these conferences.

But there are subtle infrastructure issues we haven’t yet addressed — like the fact that information presentation isn’t as important as it used to be. Concept presentation is where it’s at now, since the information can come to us much more quickly and openly online. One of my internet colleagues, Lex, pointed out that after your first two years of a given conference, you’re really just there to network anyway.

(This made me want to create the Shadow Conference for next year, where those of us who don’t need certain sessions blow them off and meet in secret to do intense, Illuminati-style networking. I may yet arrange it.)

In thinking about all this, I was trying to relate it back — as I do basically everything — to my writing, but I think given that I’m running low on ideas for blog posts, I’ll handle the relationship between digital communication, brickspace communication, and literary communication in a digital world for next week.

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.

Where Has All The Reading Gone

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

It was a running joke in my grad school theatre program that nobody had much time for pleasure reading. We were all academics, and we read a lot, but very rarely did we read anything other than plays and theatre pedagogy. I remember encountering one of my fellow students and telling her I was reading a novel, and her sighing dramatically.

“I remember novels,” she said, mock-wistfully.

Her reaction — she was a third-year at the time, and I was a first-year — inspired me to be sure I made time for books. As an undergraduate, I’d seen an article about how theatres and graduate programs weren’t just looking at what your experience on your resume was — they were asking what shows you’d been to see recently, because theatre professionals are infamous for working a lot of shows but not seeing a lot outside of what they work on. So as a theatre kid I committed to seeing a lot of theatre, and when I transitioned into a more literary field, I committed to reading a lot of books. I’ve kept that commitment for many years, and while I don’t quite hit the magic “fifty two books a year” which seems so pleasant and symmetrical, I usually manage to read twenty to thirty.

So far this year I’ve read six, and that’s counting two that I read in very late December of last year. Mind you, I’ve read a lot of comic books, at least a few novels’ worth, so perhaps this year will simply be the year of comics. And the books I have read have been fairly intense: heavy political commentary, literary historical fiction, Lovecraft. Still, time to get back into novels.

As an adult, with a job (really two jobs) and a plethora of transitional events this year, from surgeries to moves to promotions, it’s easy to say that I don’t have time to read because I’m a little busy managing my actual life, but that’s also an excuse that will be valid forever; everyone has a busy life. It takes time and energy to commit to what in the corporate world is called Professional Development — keeping up skills, learning new ones, and understanding the trends and advances in our chosen field. In my case, professional development includes reading, both for pleasure (to remind myself what is pleasurable about literature) and as a form of continuing education. It means you make time for it, even when that’s difficult to do.

To be a writer, particularly a writer who wishes to speak to a culture or from a culture, you have to be a part of the culture, to understand what you can of it. Reading isn’t the whole of that but it is a significant piece, and it’s the easiest to achieve — all you really need is time, and either money or a library card.

Time to get back into it.



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.

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.

The Liar’s Contract

In Uncategorized on April 1, 2014 at 10:00 am

Today is April first, April Fool’s Day, and so I wanted to take a little time today to discuss the contract between the storyteller and the audience, because I believe there is one and I believe that violating it ranges from “depressing” to “cruel”.

While I don’t necessarily actively apply these expectations to other writers, because we each have our own ways of interacting with our readers, I have a strong belief that when I sit down to tell a story — or to write an essay — I am creating an implicit contract with my readership. That contract requires me to provide my best possible work, to be as clear and as challenging as I can, to put forth my thoughts and opinions in an organized and supported fashion and to uphold the beliefs they represent in action, and to finish the damn story.

The last one is important, and I think it’s where I diverge from a lot of writers. I believe that if you start a story for your audience, you have an obligation to finish it. A lot of people disagree; they believe they own the story and have the right to do whatever they like with it, and that readers who have an expectation of product from them are acting with an entitlement they haven’t earned. But I think that implies a certain amount of failure to respect one’s readers, and respect for the audience is important to me. While I don’t expect writers to bend to the whims of their audience, I like writers less when they react in anger to their audience asking for them to finish the story. One of the (admittedly many) reasons I don’t read George R. R. Martin’s work is that he is ostentatiously, unnecessarily aggressive about this issue, and I find it both attention-seeking and disrespectful.

Respect for one’s readers is why I also frequently get angry on April Fool’s Day, because people do it wrong.

There is a fine line between playing a prank on someone and being a dickhead, and the line falls right where you decide how much you respect the other person and how much you just want to exert your power over them. I have, on occasion, played April Fool’s pranks on my readership, but I have always made sure that they were made aware they were being pranked. When you write a joke chapter to a fanfic, or you post a fake “found page” from an as-yet unpublished book, the decent thing to do is to notify people at the end — you post a “gotcha!” so that people know they’re being pranked, so that they have the opportunity to laugh at what’s going on without feeling used or humiliated. If you don’t tell people you’re pranking them, if you leave them to embarrass themselves by reacting to it, that’s cruel. It’s not okay, and it’s not funny. It’s just a demonstration of power, a symbolic mounting meant to tell someone else that they are less than you because they fell for a trick. They’re not sharing in the joke, then. They’re just the butt of it.

And it also tells them that you are not to be trusted. Especially for people with a long experience of being bullied, that kind of behavior immediately lands you on the list of people who are willing to disrespect others for a cheap laugh. I don’t care for authors who don’t respect their readers, but I actively avoid authors who think their readers are a joke. Writing for oneself is a fine and noble goal, and sometimes a compulsion, but if you make it available for public consumption, you should respect the people who choose to spend their time reading your work. If you can’t respect them, you should ignore them; it’s not like professional writers can’t encircle themselves in layers of protection from the horrible, terrible, tedious people who are responsible for their livelihood.

I’ve broken this contract before, absolutely. I’ve failed to complete stories I’ve started, and I still feel a twinge of pain over it. Sometimes you need to move on, but that doesn’t make the contract any less valid. And I try never to break it intentionally, if I can.

So remember that it’s April Fool’s, and show a little skepticism today — and view with particular skepticism anyone who uses today as an excuse to be a dickhead.

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.