The world does not owe creative types a living -- not yet, anyway.
It's not that today's content is of significantly poorer quality. Most of it comes from the same people I would have read in print fifteen years ago, saying the same things (only more recently), in much the same way. I live with a certain amount of poor content, which i dismiss quickly, and I spend most of my days poring over very high quality content. The difference is not the quality. It's that it is cheaper to produce, it's easier to access, and there's so much more of it. That's what drives the cost down.
... You can say that "you ought to pay" or that you "deserve" to be paid as much as you want, but I am not forced to pay. ... The point is (and I hate to state it so harshly) is that I don't owe you a living, for the simply reason that I could not possibly pay all the people I would "owe a living" under such conditions. No, the relation between you and I has nothing to do with morality, no matter what the advocates of paid online services say. It is a purely market transaction: you offer to sell me a service at a price, I consider my options, and accept or decline.
Most anyone who wants to sell their creations eventually runs into some variant of this problem -- they find that overwhelmingly, there's often no market for it, or the market is oversaturated with so many other people in the exact same position that there's no room to make a living doing it.
More on nothing ever being "mere entertainment".
In the middle of a massive slow-motion explosion of an essay (it's worth reading, get coffee) comes this fine nugget:
DOES TRADITIONAL ARC-BASED STORYTELLING HAVE AN INADVERTENT EFFECT OF SEPARATING US FROM MAKING ANY ACTUAL GROWTH OR CHANGE IN AND OF OURSELVES?
... THINK ABOUT HOW MANY FILMS WE MAKE ABOUT RACISM THAT ARE CONVENIENTLY SET IN THE PAST AND ARE ALL ABOUT WHITE PEOPLE LEARNING HOW TO OVERCOME SLAVERY / RACISM / WHATEVER IT IS. PEOPLE DON'T WALK OUT OF THE THEATER FEELING CONFRONTED BY THEIR BELIEFS. THEY WALK OUT THINK IT "WE DID IT! ISN'T THAT GOOD OF US HOW WE OVERCAME THAT?" WE ACT LIKE THESE FILMS ARE ABOUT CONFRONTING OUR PAST, BUT REALLY THEY'RE ACTUALLY ALL ABOUT REMOVING THE GUILT. THEY NEVER DIRECTLY CHALLENGE THE AUDIENCE (SAVE MASTERPIECES LIKE DO THE RIGHT THING AND, HONESTLY, 12 YEARS A SLAVE DIDN'T PULL A SINGLE PUNCH EITHER). IT ALL MAKES HULK REALIZE HOW MANY MOVIES ARE OSTENSIBLY ABOUT GROWTH AND BECOMING GOOD PEOPLE, BUT ACTUALLY DON'T HAVE THAT EFFECT ON THE AUDIENCE WHATSOEVER.
... PEOPLE WERE UP IN ARMS BECAUSE THE MOVIE [The Wolf of Wall Street] GLORIFIED THE MAIN CHARACTER, FAILING TO EVEN REALIZE THAT THE FILM WAS DIRECTLY POINTING THE FINGER AT SOCIETY FOR IDOLIZING HIM. BUT REALLY? THEY WERE JUST LIVID THAT THE FILM DIDN'T DO THE WORK FOR THEM. PEOPLE DOWNRIGHT EXPECT MOVIES TO DO THE WORK. AND WHEN THEY DON'T? THEY'RE WORRIED "OTHER PEOPLE" MIGHT TAKE THEM THE WRONG WAY. AND IT'S ALL INDICATIVE OF A HUGE PROBLEM.
... WHAT WE WANT OUT OF OUR MEDIA IS SO CRUCIAL TO HOW WE EXPERIENCE THE WORLD. AND HONESTLY, THIS STUFF IS AS MUCH A PART OF GAMERGATE AS ANYTHING ELSE. BECAUSE IT'S ALL BORN OUT OF HOW WE REACT TO THE THINGS THAT CHALLENGE US. THE THINGS THAT FAIL TO GIVE US WHAT WE WANT. HOW WE RESPOND TO IT. AND HOW WE FAIL TO SEE THAT THE THINGS THAT CHALLENGE WHAT WE WANT IN AN EFFORT TO GIVE US WHAT WE NEED IS THE CENTRAL GOAL OF ART.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a great place to start such a discussion, come to think of it, because this is guaranteed to be an elephant of a discussion.
On creative work presenting itself as science for the sake of legitimacy.
Graham Priest (I think) once defined philosophy as “that academic discipline whose limits lie within its own remit”, and all that navel gazing has a tendency to cause philosophers to be down on their own discipline. It’s common for philosophers to search for a justification for our existence by aligning themselves with other disciplines for whom that justification is supposedly not in doubt. A common (but not the only) move is for philosophers to seek a measure of intellectual rigour by comparing themselves with the formal sciences.
I don't agree with all of the negative comments here about LaTex -- if only because I cut my teeth on it really early, back when it was just TeX, and I kinda fell in love with it then too -- but this point is a really illuminating one.
Publishing companies: the unknown ideal.
In a system without the publisher operating as middleman, where the author takes his life’s work and just posts it to Amazon, each book becomes a lonely outpost in the stiff winds of the marketplace, a tiny business that must sell or die. “So what?” Yglesias might say, because that’s the kind of ruthless neoliberal thinker he is. “If people didn’t buy the book, that’s just proof of its worthlessness.”
It's a great dodge, isn't it? Proof, if anything, that the extreme left and extreme right are indistinguishable from each other, and that both worship the "invisible hand" in only slightly different incarnations.
Why "any reading is good reading" is not a great defense of reading.
What if the strenuous accessibility of “Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods” proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them in the opposite direction from that which Gaiman’s words presuppose—away from an engagement with more immediately difficult incarnations of the classics, Greek and otherwise? What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same?
This is one incarnation of a problem I keep toying with myself -- the idea that "any reading is good reading" (to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, himself quoted in the above-linked piece), and that to divide things up into High, MiddleBrow, and Swill is to do everyone involved -- readers and creators alike -- a subtle disservice at the cost of ennobling the critics.
There's no waiting for creative lightning to strike; you've got to get out there on a hill with a kite and a key on its string.
Not much time for blogging recently, but then, out into my lap, came this wonderful, previously unpublished essay by Isaac Asimov on the creative process. The whole thing is absolutely worth reading, but I will chomp out some of the most relevant parts:
The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. ...
A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.
... [T]the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits.
Once you have the people you want, the next question is: Do you want to bring them together so that they may discuss the problem mutually, or should you inform each of the problem and allow them to work in isolation? My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. ... The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.
Nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself.
... [It seems to me] the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.
My two big takeaways from his essay ought to be familiar to you long-suffering constant readers:
Amazon's new publishing curation system: the non-wisdom of crowds.
The more I read about Amazon's Kindle Scout program, the less I like it.
There's a lot about it not to like, but in the end, it all comes down to the same problem: the "wisdom of crowds" is not wisdom. It's dullard-dom.
If you ask a thousand people what seems like a good idea for a book, the vast majority of them are likely to come up with either an exact copy of what's already out there or some mild variant on it. The one who does come up with something truly original and interesting gets drowned out.
To that end, Kindle Scout sounds like a great way to do nothing more than automate creative conformity. But then again, isn't that what most companies that traffic in "creative" work these days want to do? Sounds like a great idea, until you start wondering why everyone around you is dropping dead of boredom.
On weirdness as a substitute for being original.
What with the recent discussion around David Lynch's Twin Peaks coming back to TV, or something, I ended up having a parallel discussion about the appeal of David Lynch, the man I've credited with making compulsive weirdness-for-weirdness's-sake a mainstream thing. I suspect one of the results of his cultural impact has been stuff like the bizarro lit movement (the roots of which also stretch back to folks like Burroughs, the Surrealists, the Grand Guignol, Dada, etc.), but I'm finding it's possible to be a David Lynch fan and not care for any of that stuff at all.
I think I know why, now: it's because compulsive weirdness is every bit as straight in its own way as anything else.
Storytelling descending; marketing rising.
Long week, not much blogarithm. But some insight: dammit, I seem to be contradicting myself. Very well, I contradict myself, multitudes and all that. Still, spotting it and singling it out is always a worthy exercise.
Exhibit A for the jury (and judge, and executioner): the other day I was gabbling about how everything is turning into overbudgeted comic book movies blah blah, and then in barely the next breath, talked about how creative filmmaking finds a way blah blah, and then in barely the next breath after that, mentioned that it would be nice if some of those creative-filmmaking-at-all-odds folks didn't have to rattle their cups for dimes on the boulevard just to get something made, all because it didn't happen to have Save The Cat dynamics and wasn't adapted from a comic book or a bestseller.
Now trace that line of thinking backwards: If creative filmmaking finds a way, isn't it a waste of energy to complain about how those guys don't get the gravy?
Even our entertainments are works of art whether or not we like it, and have the chance to be taken very, very seriously by somebody out there.
Going back through some of my older posts, I've noticed a few threads that I try to pick up and carry the standard for a little further each time they come up. One of them is something I guess you could call the Creator's Duty, although the way I've stumped for it might make it earn the label Creator's Snobbism instead. It goes something about like this:
If you create something, you owe it to yourself to not have the same kinds of consumption patterns as someone who just consumes. This doesn't mean you can't just kick back and mainline some Phineas & Ferb when the mood arises (and hey, everyone needs a vice), but you do need to be conscious of what putting any particular piece of "entertainment" into you will create.
"Write the book you want to read" also requires that you know what kind of book you really want to read. Not easy.
One of the standard pieces of advice that writers are given is "Write the book you want to read." This is great advice, but like all advice it has just as much potential to leave the recipient hidebound as it does to liberate him. It's no fun gnawing through straps you pulled into place yourself, trust me.
First, the good parts. It's always best to write the kind of book you want to read, because that increases the chances of you writing something that doesn't actually exist yet. If the kind of book you want to read can't be found on shelves, and you go through all the sweat'n'toil of bringing it into existence, that's a net win. You, and everyone else, get to enjoy the spoils. But ...
Why the success of 'Guardians of the Galaxy' was a two-edged sword.
Say, did I mention I saw Guardians of the Galaxy the other week? I was pleasantly surprised -- the movie is a ton of fun -- although having that reaction isn't unexpected given how I walked in knowing nothing about the material or what approach was being taken with it. But it leaves me with decidedly mixed feelings.
On the way we contrive our behavior to conform to the expectations of others, both good and bad.
Cultural imprinting is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product. ... [A]n ad campaign seeds everyone with a basic image or message. Then it simply steps back and waits — not for its emotional message to take root and grow within your brain, but rather for your social instincts to take over, and for you to decide to use the product (or not) based on whether you're comfortable with the kind of cultural signals its brand image allows you to send.
I'm still on the fence about this theory as it relates to advertising, but it does square with something I think is too often neglected in human behavior: the way we contrive our behavior to conform to the expectations of others, both good and bad.
Authors rarely impress me with the depth of their intellectual rigor, and I suspect that's because they don't see themselves as thinkers.
... I was given pause by Martin Amis’ afterword to his powerful new novel, “The Zone of Interest,” where he probes the “why” of Hitler and quotes both the icicle passage and another from Levi:
“Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify. Let me explain: ‘understanding’ a proposal or human behavior means to ‘contain’ it, contain its author, put oneself in his place, identify with him.” Levi, referring to Hitler, Himmler and the rest, goes on: “Perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us. They are non-human words and deeds, really counter-human.”
Maybe Amis didn't intend this, but his words amount to a kind of anti-intellectualism -- maybe better to say counter-intellectualism -- of evil. It's OK that we can't understand it; it's better to just stand against it and get rid of it. Never mind that the whole point of understanding something is to know where it begins and where it ends, where it comes from and what it affects, and how best to attack it in the first place.
This page contains an archive of posts for the month of October 2014.
Other Lives Of The Mind