Hijacking the power of peer pressure.
In "The Destructive Influence of Imaginary Peers" (The New York Times) we learn that peer pressure propaganda can be a more effective way to influence people (and maybe win friends, too). I imagine fans of stuff like NLP are rubbing their hands over this stuff, with the exception that this has some basis in real science and NLP from all I have seen does not; it's essentially a pretentiously-labeled motivational thinking system. But that's another story.
How to fix publishing? Fix publishers, readers, books, all of the above?
Book culture is in far less peril than many choose to assume, for the notion of an imperiled book culture assumes that book culture is a beast far more refined, rarified, and fragile than it actually is. By defining books as against technology, we deny our true selves, we deny the power of the book. Let’s restore to publishing its true reputation—not as a hedge against the future, not as a bulwark against radical change, not as a citadel amidst the barbarians, but rather as the future at hand, as the radical agent of change, as the barbarian.
Those few sentences are from the tail end of this very long but deeply stimlating article, which is worth reading over a cup of coffee. Many of the ideas in it are points I've stumbled across on my own: that books are actually not low-tech (and for that reason, not in need of special protection from technological advancement); that better publishing technology does not automatically yield better publishing; and that the sheer abundance of books out there is a problem all by itself.
On a shelved "alternative present" project that never bloomed, because the idea alone wasn't enough.
In my earlier post about projects-to-be, I forgot to mention the little bit of closet-cleaning and reorganization I undertook on my idea-wiki, which turned up a whole passel of ideas that were thisclose to being useful ideas but for one reason or another didn't make it. One of them was a story project that went by the codename Alt-Pop.
The idea went something like this: it's 1994, but not our 1994. The "Video LP" (VLP) format reigns supreme in households across the nation. The LISP-PC runs on most every desktop. Claire Noto's The Tourist is in theaters and hitting the bigtime, and everyone's jazzed for the summer release of The Stars My Destination, directed by James Cameron. Alan Vega and Martin Rev have released their third gold album and are touring in support of Bruce Springsteen¹. And so on.
The problem I had with the story was simple: I couldn't for the life of me figure out the larger point of setting up a counterfactual modern history.
Life's bigger than one-upsmanship.
Somewhere -- blame my sieve of a memory for not having a precise citation -- someone said that the one thing we all need to work on is not getting up into a lather about stuff. If we took stuff less personally, all of us, we wouldn't have 85% of the guff that we have to deal with. If we stopped seeing everything flung our way as a challenge to our honor or our masculinity or our intelligence or even our patience, we'd be a lot happier for it.
Problem is, I think we like to take things personally. We really do. It shifts the blame for our own actions away from us and onto others, whether or not those others are justified in their own reactions. It feels good to have someone else to blame for something, even if that rush of self-righteousness doesn't last for more than twelve seconds.
Which will it be: to leave artifacts or to create experiences?
Another friend, another conversation.
Him: "I feel like too much of my creativity is transient and lost because it goes into games [that is, RPGs], though I'm reasonably certain that's just a matter grass, fences, and greenness."
Self: "I've been wrestling with this myself -- whether creativity is something that's meant to create permanent artifacts or transient experiences."
A day after typing those words, the inherent false dichotomy of such a statement fairly hit me in the face. It's not that creativity has to result in one or the other: a book can be as transient an experience as it is a permanent thing, especially since you can only read a book for the first time once. Was it one of my English professors who said he would give anything to be able to read King Lear for the first time again? I think it was; I suggested to him that he should see Ran as a possible way to do that.
Every book I've written, or will write, is meant to exist in two incarnations: as a wad of paper with ink marks on it (and a digital file), and as an experience. I have a lot less control than I might think over how it unfolds as an experience, something hammered rather brutally home when a prospective reader found one of my books completely uninteresting. Not a thing I could do about it save nod and remind myself not everything is for everyone.
Is either one -- artifact or experience -- better than the other? I sided with the artifact, because I felt at least then I had something I could fall back on and point to as proof of my hard work. But I get just as jealous sometimes of those who do their work and go, and leave no traces except in the form of a good time that was had by all. I know, in the end, there shouldn't be a dichotomy -- and I suspect there isn't one, except of course in my mind. But that in turn makes the challenge of pledging allegiance to the artifact, as it were, all the tougher.
An intriguing SF concept is soon plundered for a mere neo-noir plotline, but save the pieces anyway.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a guy discovers, or has someone hand to him, a bag full of money. Bad guys come after him. The cops come after him. A pretty girl gets mixed up with him. Chaos ensues. It’s easily the most hoary of noir clichés, and every generation of filmmakers tries to come back to it with new graphics and hardware.
In Time takes the bag-o-bucks and swaps it for a science-fiction concept that, I admit, I adored for its audacity and potential for social commentary. At some unspecified point in our future, money no longer changes hands. Instead, time really has become money. The world is populated with folks who are the product of careful genetic engineering. At the age of twenty-five, they stop aging—and a fluorescent clock on their arm begins counting down from one year. They can work to accumulate time—or gamble, or steal—but as soon as that clock hits zero, they’re dead. It’s Logan’s Run by way of D.O.A., if you want to get your science-fiction chocolate in my noir peanut butter some more.
Future projects I see when I look at my creative to-do list.
Thought I'd take a few moments and brief everyone about the status of current and upcoming Genji Press projects.
Flight of the Vajra has been out to my beta readers for a bit. The absolute drop-dead date for a release is the end of August 2013, because after that I have AnimeFest to contend with, which is where I've typically premiered new material. The book will be released in both physical editions (possibly a special hardcover version with illustrations, depending on what I can drum up) and via the usual gamut of e-book vendors (Kindle, iTunes, Nook, Smashwords, etc.)
Work on the next project has already started. The working title is Welcome to the Fold. I don't have a project space for it here yet; I want to set one up sometime towards the end of the year once I have everything nailed down and can reveal suitable details. Estimated release date is Q3 2014 (again, August/September or so).
After that I have three other projects, none of which I have names yet, all of which are of vastly different constitutions.
An electronic pearl, an album for every home and every pair of ears.
I forget who said that perfection is not when there's nothing left to add, but nothing left to take away. Art is as much subtractive as it is additive: you spend at least as much time figuring out the frame of things, where things begin and end, as much as you do determining what to fill that frame with. There may only be twelve notes -- at least in Western music -- but look what we've been able to get out of them so far.
Every time I come across an embodiment of this sort of thing in music, I instinctively cherish it. It happened with Brian Eno's Music for Films and The Pearl, with Philip Glass's Qatsi soundtracks, with Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, and it absolutely happened with Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which I came to only after I had all the rest of those under my belt. And it was only out of sheer ignorance that things came to pass in that way: to me, Aphex Twin was one of the many bands I just pre-emptively brushed away, like so many crumbs off a table, because I didn't think they had anything to offer me. It was nice to be wrong.
I play over my own head, even when it hurts.
The other afternoon, on the way back home from the city (Samsung, please, you didn't need Radio City Music Hall to launch a phone), I took some time to organize the wiki I use to track all the ideas I used to jot down on six thousand different pieces of paper and in a dozen different notebooks. As romantic and self-disciplining as it is to fill a notebook by hand, it quickly becomes a management nightmare.
Two things struck me. First, the sheer magnitude of jottings that I considered to be discrete ideas. Some of them were no more than a few words, but in each case it was clear (to me, anyway) what they amounted to and in what direction they were intended to be developed. The second thing, and the more striking one on reflection, was how I was prioritizing -- maybe better to say triaging -- the development of each. For the first time I could recall, I was consciously saying to myself about some project, "I can't work on that story yet."
The cover art for "Flight of the Vajra" approaches completion.
A third version of the cover art:
I think this is about as close to final as it gets.
I've left out the mini-blurbs for the time being ("A Romance of the Far Future", etc.) mostly as a way to keep the cover clean. There might be some blurbage along the top, which would force me to reposition other things slightly, but I think this one's about baked.
Crowdfunding's best when the crowd has some idea what you're doing.
You need a very particular set of circumstances to pull this magic trick off. First, you need a beloved, pre-existing property. If Veronica were a brand-new character, the donations don't fly in this fast and furious, even if Thomas had a strong track record from other series. Maybe down the road, someone like Dan Harmon or Joss Whedon tries an original concept this way (I imagine "Dr. Horrible" could have been done this way had Kickstarter existed during the last writers strike), but for the time being, anything that requires several million dollars to work will have to be something the funders already care about.
My wife's a bigger fan of Veronica Mars than I (and that's mainly because she's seen the show and I haven't; I'm not pre-emptively excluding myself from the possibility of being a fan), so for me, from the outside, this appears more curious than genuinely exciting. What stood out most for me was the above insight: that you have far more success riding on the coattails of an established piece of IP than you do trying to sell someone on a new idea, cold, no matter what the venue.
It's a little like something I once told a friend in half-jest: Given the recent craze for public-domain mash-ups, I bet I could write The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Ninja Assassins and it would outsell everything else in my catalog put together by several orders of magnitude. He asked my why, then, I didn't commit such a fine, ambitious enterprise to paper. I threatened to give his septum a fist massage.
They were complaining about the movies being scorched earth in 1937.
Earlier when I noted how Edmund Wilson, in 1937, was making all the same complaints about the movies that David Denby makes today, I realized something. Hollywood in 1937 must have seemed much like the Internet today: a medium still in its relative infancy, but one having ripened to the point where people were already claiming to smell rot in the air.
I've never bothered to hide my distaste for the likes of Facebook and Twitter -- both of which I do use, but only inasmuch as I use them to call attention to this site, or to deal with things that can't happen anywhere else. I'm trying not to build any dependencies on either one, because a) they're not mine and b) they're not "social media" but ad platforms, and anyone who thinks otherwise has one rude shock in store when they find out the next way those guys, and all the rest of their kind, have in store for monetizing their so-called users. The advertisers aren't the product; the users are.
None of this is news, but it bears repeating every so often. It also lends perspective: we have been in this elevator before. A great new medium appears, trailing all sorts of promise, laden with flash and filigree, and before long it becomes just another way to sell soap and beer. But it thrives despite this, in big part because everything that is wretched about it has to be constantly maintained and rebuilt, and everything that is great about it thrives anyway.
Those who say "art form X is dead" really mean to add "except for my works of it."
In a discussion on another forum about how an artist in a given field can hold forth about art form X being dead, I came to the conclusion that they really mean to say something else: This art form is dead (or dying, or irrelevant), except for all of my instances of said art form. (Because if said form really is dead, why bother creating anything in it?)
What we have here is nothing more than a pretentious way of saying everyone else in your field sucks, except of course for you.
I know I've edged close to saying things like this, which is why I have to face up to it. It helps no one to say that your favorite art form is "dead". Imperiled, maybe, or just lacking for recent examples of it at its best -- but really, when has there not been an age when all of those things seemed to apply? Every golden age is only golden when you're looking back over your shoulder at it.
Another quote from Nile Rodgers spurs some thought.
Nile Rodgers again:
Ultimately I try and make a record for the entire world, but I know that can't be possible. ... When I'm making a record, I have to be very aware of who I really am making it for: my artist. If the record doesn't reflect that artist and their personality and their fan base, it doesn't make sense; it's almost a non-record. It's like when you go to a restaurant and you see a children's menu. That menu presupposes that there are a whole bunch of kids that are going to like franks and beans and fried chicken and pizza and spaghetti -- you don't try and get the kids to eat caviar.
Again, emphases mine.
Publishers, who needs 'em?
My friend and fellow author Gabirel Squalia recently had this to say:
So often -- from Margaret Atwood to the recent crop of YA authors -- we're presented with characters the author clearly dislikes [
because the publisher is demanding they write those characters despite this dislike] [see below]. And we're not talking about creating stories that readers want, because readers are interested in the offbeat and Gaimanesque; we're talking about creating stories that editors want to sell to readers, and both the types of acceptable stories and their methods of telling are shrinking, both.
Those who sell movies and books and whatnot to people know that the easiest way to do that is to find out what's already selling and associate their product with it in some manner. That also includes the commissioning of work to explicitly satisfy such requirements: why dig for what you know you want when you can just have it produced to fit? Why not save yourself that step?
It wasn't a golden age when we were in it.
if you're inclined to believe that fantasy fiction (for example) has been ruined since the late 1970s/early 1980s by the influx of Tolkien imitators, people who take Dungeons & Dragons as the baseline assumption of the fantasy genre, and (eventually) the rise of shallow grimdarkery as the dominant mode, then you're likely to see the golden age of fantasy as being at some point between the 1930s and 1960s, despite the fact that genre fiction didn't get much critical cred at the time. As said in my first comment, there's nothing which ties the golden age of criticism to the golden age of the subject of that criticism (assuming the term "golden age" is even remotely useful, which this conversation makes me doubt).
Emphasis mine, and in fact I would argue the two ages cannot be congruent for one simple reason: it's only really possible to understand such things in retrospect, not as they're unfolding around you. ("The owl of Minerva flies at dusk," as someone else once said: you can only fully understand something after it's over.)
It's easier to see now that Tolkien's work was not intended to give rise to a whole section of the fantasy shelf on its own, but rather that it at best flanked a whole slew of other authors doing remarkably dissimilare things. Nobody confuses Peake with C.S. Lewis, for instance, and neither of those are conflated with Tolkien.
Plus, the amount of criticial cred that SF&F generally got didn't really start reaching anything like mainstream acceptability until the mid-Seventies at earliest. I suspect, ironically enough, the one thing that allowed it to start getting exactly that was when the cultural products that took on those labels started making tons and tons of money, and could no longer be argued with as a cultural force. At that point, you don't have any choice but to start some kind of scholarly dialogue about such a thing.
On why limits are good things. (Part one of many.)
In Howard Massey's Behind the Glass -- a really fine compilation of discussions and practical advice from a whole slew of music producers -- there is a great conversion with Nile Rodgers, he of Chic and later producer of everyone from Madonna to David Bowie. At one point he's asked "For all the technological advances of the last 20 years, do you think records today sound better than they did 20 years ago?" ("Today" here meaning 2000.) Rodgers's answer:
No, absolutely not. Because for whatever we've gained in technical superiority, it makes us not necessarily work as hard. ... The fact was that we had to overcome all of those problems that the equipment gave us, and the net benefit of overcoming all of those variables was an artistic statement in and of itself. ... The old restrictions in technology forced us to do things right. It forced us to have to make decisions. It forced us to spiritually be so in tune with the other people that magic had to happen. It made you step up to the plate .... [I]n the old days, when a person hired me to work on a record, I had to get it right, right there. You had to play great, you had to be smokin', and there was no way that they could fix it and make it better .... When I played on Michael Jackson's last record ... I didn't have to give them the definitive, perfect, guitar part; I gave them lots of definitive, perfect guitar parts, and they decided which ones to use. That's weird to me. Once you're unlimited, you'll never play that same way -- you'll just go on and on .... It's like the ultimate jazz person's fantasy: "You mean to tell me I'm going to solo for the rest of my life, and and you guys will think it's great?"
Emphasis mine. This was in the days right when Protools was just becoming a consumer commodity, and every desktop PC could become a DAW that rivalled $50,000 workstations from only a few years back.
The full version of Keith Jarrett's highly experimental organ album, finally restored to life on CD.
This is the first time I’ve ever written an album review twice, but I have a good reason: this was a mutilated album, restored to its proper form. When I reviewed Keith Jarrett’s Spheres in its original CD edition, it was half the album it was meant to be. The original double LP released in 1976 was cut down to a single four-track CD when it was reissued in 1985, with no clear indication of whether Jarrett himself or his label, ECM, had approved the selections within. Worse, some of the best material on the album—especially the astonishing 3rd movement, as featured in the film Sorcerer—had not made the cut, and one had to ferret out vinyl copies of the album to hear it.
All this was rectified earlier this year, when ECM finally saw fit to release the album in its full original incarnation, spread out across 2 CDs and digitally remastered. What’s striking is how the more complete version of the album is also the more problematic version. On the one hand, it means listeners can finally discern for themselves what went missing. On the other hand, it means the album now has that much more dross.
The last installment gives us the Batman we deserve rather than the Batman we want. Not a bad thing, actually.
It’s been said that The Who By Numbers was received very poorly by both fans and critics when it first came out, in big part because it was a good album that suffered from the curse of not being a great one. The most succinct statement I can make about The Dark Knight Rises is along the same lines: it’s a very good movie afflicted with two things: a) it comes in the shadow of an outstanding one, and b) it’s forced to serve as the final statement for a franchise that changed the way people thought about comics and cinema. Small wonder many people wrung their hands or stuck their fingers down their throats.
I wasn’t surprised that people would be so divided over the film, but I was a little amazed at the way that divisiveness shaded over into outright hostility. A number of online critics pointedly left it off their lists of 2012’s best films, if only because there were so many other interesting things going on cinematically that year (Holy Motors, The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild, etc.) that throwing praise at a movie that hardly needed the boosterism probably seemed like wasted breath. It wasn’t as if you needed to champion a film that had already raked in the gross domestic product of a small nation. But what we have here is (as someone else said) the Batman we deserve rather than the Batman we want.
The artist isn't a guru, a god, or sometimes even a good guy.
A question I asked myself a while back, which I'm still working out:
... why is it that people who make the greatest pretenses towards the harnessing of the power of imagination are often themselves so unimaginative about human experience?
In other words, why is it that SF&F writers are far from being immune to bigotry, xenophobia, atavism, and the whole rest of that catalog of ills that you would think being a writer of such material would give you plenty of incentive not to have?
Where'd the site archives go? Oh, they were right here all along.
Monthly archives were missing everything after the first dozen or so entries on each page. This has since been fixed. (The full chrono and alpha archives should be OK, though.)
Our art isn't just "content", but that's what it's being turned into.
"[Radiohead] were so into the net around the time of Kid A," he says. "Really thought it might be an amazing way of connecting and communicating. And then very quickly we started having meetings where people started talking about what we did as 'content'. They would show us letters from big media companies offering us millions in some mobile phone deal or whatever it was, and they would say all they need is some content. I was like, what is this 'content' which you describe? Just a filling of time and space with stuff, emotion, so you can sell it?"
Even if you have no love for Radiohead (and I know a few who don't), this is spot-on. Such are the side effects of a market economy where keeping a pipeline filled -- putting books on a shelf, not letting the screens in a multiplex go blank -- is more important than making a connection to another person, let alone cultivating an audience.
Why masculinity in SF&F most often manifests as chest-thumping meatheadedness.
A really good essay on the way several of the most popular TV shows in recent history are all about threatened masculinity:
... I think that we deserve shows of this caliber that focus on a less narrow aspect of humanity, and for that matter, shows that recognize that the lust for power and control, and the fear of death, are not qualities unique to a certain gender or race.
This came by way of a Ferretbrain article on the House of Cards remake, which argued something similar: the show isn't about political power or revenge, but threatened masculinity, and because it doesn't recognize this properly winds up becoming something a lot less than it ought to be. The article also argues that you don't need eleven episodes to tell a story that was told more succinctly before in four, something you don't have to reach too far back into my archives to know I agree with completely. But the real meat of the piece was about masculinity.
A genre-transcending romance reaches its conclusion and ennobles itself in the process.
I’m going to start my discussion of the second and third volumes of Paradise Kiss with the sex scene in volume 2. Actually, there’s a couple of such scenes, but the one that comes most crucially to mind involves heroine Yukari and her lover / antagonist / homme fatale George. I mention it not as a way to denigrate the story, but entirely the opposite: if Paradise Kiss is able to take one of the hoariest, most stock components of any romance—the good-girl heroine losing her virginity to her bad-boy lover—and make it into a complex and nuanced story about whether or not the guy and the girl even deserve each other in the first place, or deserve something better than what they currently amount to.
I was wrong about the bottom falling out of e-book pricing, thank goodness.
A while back in a blog post for work, I wrote about (among other things) how I feared the prevalence of cheap $1-and-under e-books would cause the market for same to fall through entirely. I'm pleased to report that, as far as I can tell, I was wrong.
For indie publishers, like myself, the proper price point now seems to be around $5-7. Anything more than that puts you smack into competition with the big publishing houses (who are willing to charge as much as $15 or more); anything less than that marks you as too desperate to be serious.
This page contains an archive of posts for the month of March 2013.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind