An early '80s PC flashback: me and my ZX-81.
When I was a kid, the first personal computer I owned was about as far down on the food chain as you could get: the lowly Timex Sinclair 1000, aka the ZX-81. No color, no sound, no keyboard (well, it had one of those pathetic membrane keyboards), 16K of memory. But what it lacked in power or features it made up for in approachability, and in having a very active community of people making stuff for it.
We later replaced it with the ill-fated TS 2068, which added 64K of memory, color, and sound (and loaded programs a bit faster from tape), but suffered from not having much in the way of a support culture. It was a bastardized version of the far more widely-used ZX Spectrum -- why didn't they just bring that to the United States? I wondered. Then Dad started bringing home his "luggable" Panasonic PC clone, and both Sinclairs ended up in the attic for keeps.
But one thing I did do with both of those primitive little machines was write video games. They weren't very good (hey, I was twelve), but they were mine. The sense of accomplishment that came from producing something from nothing had no parallel with anything else in my experience.
Why technology doesn't promote creative diversity in the ways we like to believe it does.
The Internet rewards blockbusters, which drives out diversity. I hate the online versions of most periodicals because all of the focus is on the most popular, most emailed, and most commented on stories. As a result, when readers go to a site and have limited time, they read the things everyone else reads. This behavior promotes media economics that push writers to go for these blockbuster pieces, which occasionally are great pieces of work but more often than not are linkbait that panders to our interest in gossip. ... When you read what everyone else reads, in the same ways that they read it, you will have the same ideas. Serendipity can be a source of innovation, but not in a world where we all consume the same information.
The Internet isn't the only culprit here, but it sure has functioned as an accelerator. Or maybe "accelerant" would be the more appropriate word.
Maybe it seems paradoxical: if the Internet is so open-ended, so adept at bringing so many different kinds of things to people, why does it encourage so much me-too-ism? In big part because both of those things are propagated in the same exact ways. I doubt you can get one without running the risk of also being saturated by the other.
The solution to this stuff isn't technical, because technology cannot by itself produce a better class of creation, or even a better class of creator. Every time I see one of those articles that marvels at some of the stuff people used to accomplish in a darkroom without Adobe Photoshop, I feel as if at any moment people are going to start marveling at oil painting or cursive handwriting for being equally recherché. They are simply ways of getting a given job done, and there's still something to be said for keeping an old technique alive -- not only because it can get a job done, but because it can force you to confront the work on its own terms instead of as a mere technical puzzle.
How my "is" is not everyone else's "ought".
Lesson learned for the week: Nobody ever deliberately gives the other side ammunition to shoot him down. They always do it unthinkingly. They take the stuff that falls out of your pockets, or your sleeves -- or, in this case, your mouth -- and shoot it back at you. And all the while they're doing it, they're laughing until their ribs split.
My case in point: I've suggested, on and off, how in my own case I might well have been lucky not to have to make a living doing the creative things I love. But two seconds' thought -- and a read of the comments in an article on Alice in Chains -- showed me how easily that could become an argument along the lines of: Hey, "creative" types! Stop whining about how you can't make a living playing a guitar! Get off the stage and get real jobs like the rest of us. (The idea that musicians don't really "work" lasts until about when you actually meet a working musician, at which point the get-a-real-job rhetoric flies out the window and gets eaten by the crows.)
So let me see if I can put back some of my blown-off toes and refine my position.
The more kinds of art you try, the better your art becomes.
Acting teacher Sanford Meisner once said that the most basic goal for any actor was "living truthfully under imaginary circumstances". From what I've been able to glean about his method, it involves something similar to the way Zeami approached acting, where the pinnacle of one's work was in a kind of self-transcendence.
Meisner taught actors to strip out intellectual reactions about their performances, so that their performances -- and especially their improvisations -- come more from allowing their impulses to manifest clearly. Not randomly, but in a disciplined way. He thought of it in much the same way a musician would practice scales: from the outside, rather dull; but if you're the practitioner, and you are listening into the reptition, fascinating. John Cage comes to mind again: if something is boring, do it long enough and you'll find it's not boring at all but very interesting.
Given how unlike writing all this is, I strongly suspect writers might fare better the more they train themselves in the creative approaches employed by other art forms. The point is not to become a polymath, but simply to understand what's involved -- to see how the other half lives, so to speak. But most crucially, they learn about what unique manner of work is demanded from you in each art form:
Why the "market" can't fix problems with creative work.
In a discussion of the remote hacking of a baby monitor device, Bruce Schneier noted:
The moral here isn't that your baby monitor could be hacked. The moral is that pretty much every "smart" everything can be hacked, and because consumers don't care, the market won't fix the problem.
Emphasis mine. The substance of his comments were about technology and security, but the same, in my opinion, goes for the bad-movie problem (or the bad-book problem, or the bad-music problem).
As long as something has a large, uncritical market for it, the market can't be relied on as a corrective measure for quality. The market will not deliver better books or movies because it is not geared to improve creative products that way; it's geared to simply keep the pipeline fed and put stock on the shelves.
Is writing "competing" with TV, movies, video games, etc.?
The other day, in conversation, I came up with the phrase "the one-two cultural punch" as a label for the big dilemma that most creators face.
Some of us know that five bad books can't collectively add up to one good one. The whole of a certain urban-fantasy series whichi I won't name here can't work as a replacement for even a single Asimov short story. (I was going to say "a Chekhov play", but I decided to keep the playing field both fair and level here.) But most people, again, are not critics, and aren't in the habit of developing a critical mentality. Some of that might well be a factor of the ongoing conflation of criticism with being a gloomy killjoy, but one social myth at a time.
Book publishers should model themselves as Berry Gordy, not Lee Iacocca.
The Big Five have been so busy reducing old companies to brands that they’ve neglected the notion of what a brand should mean. Can any reader tell a Pantheon from a Riverhead novel? The logo doesn’t do the trick. The value of a publishing house — and now an imprint — has been its function as that dreaded straw man of the self-publishing gurus: a gatekeeper.... Maybe it’s time for publishers to revive the value of their brands by making them more distinctive and connecting them more closely to consumers.
My usual line about these things is how it might help to have book publishers pattern themselves more after record labels of yore -- the Motowns, the Atlantics, the Wax Trax!s. Record labels do get a nod and a name-check in the piece above, but the idea of a publishing company as the extension of a specific impresario's personal taste and curiosity is on the wane.
Well, there are a few holdouts. New Directions remains as pleasingly bohemian as ever; Melville House sees fit to put the likes of Hans Fallada back in print; and Centipede Press has been bringing back John Brunner, Tim Powers, and R.A. Lafferty to audiences who might well have never heard those names if not for them. And maybe Vertical Inc. as well. Those outfits are run by folks who are upfront about what they like and don't like, and a bit more of that would be welcome in these increasingly faceless times.
On the art of the hatchet job, and on negative criticism generally.
There was a time when the American literary world grew its own hatchet persons, and could rejoice in the thoroughness with which Mary McCarthy dismembered the reputation of Lillian Hellman. But among young writers, there seems a shortage of critics unhampered by excessive good manners.
Let's put aside our feelings about McCarthy and Hellman for the time being -- my sympathies are far more with the latter than the former at this point -- and think instead about the art of the negative review. I've written more than a few of them, and I expect more than a few of them to be penned about my own work (in fact, a few already have been).
It's as hard to write a good negative review as it is to write a good positive one. The latter can descend into hagiography; the former into poison-penmanship. Both are dead ends. But a good negative review is the kind where there's some degree of empathy for the creator, where the critic says: I know you can do better than this; I've seen you do it; what happened?
It might be better to think of more things as being art, even the things we wouldn't be inclined to call art.
Not long ago, in a discussion about bad / cheesy movies, I made the comment that such things were art even if they weren't intended to be. That statement more or less just jumped out of me, unbidden -- who at one time or another hasn't been ambushed by the truth? -- and the more I reflect on it, the more it seems right.
Part of why I said it was in light of the way cult movies emerge. Cult movies aren't "made" -- rather, they just sort of happen. You can't "make" a cult film any more than you can make something "go viral", although I suppose you could whomp together an argument to the effect that such things can be encouraged by the right combination of circumstances (the "make your own luck" argument). But on the whole, cult status isn't something that can be predicted -- it's something conferred on a film.
If that possible, I thought, then most anything that has a degree of creative work involved in its making can be thought of as a work of art. It's a status that's, in the same way as cult-dom, conferred upon the work. The work may not be a good work of art, but it does live somewhere in that category, whether it's lingering at the fringes or smack dab in the middle.
Why ''Grand Theft Auto'' isn't likely to be a movie anytime soon: integrity. What? Yes.
The freedom we have to do what we want creatively is of enormous value. The second you go near Hollywood, people seem willing, or have been forced, to lose a lot of that control. That sort of amorphous 'that won't test well' attitude is exactly how we don't work. We've always tried to think of stuff that's innovative and new, and to go into a world where that's not encouraged would be horrible.
There's still plenty of kudos in doing a film, but you shouldn't ever do anything in your life for kudos.
Emphasis mine, because boy does that ever sound familiar.
I just now looked back over the roster of projects I've worked on, and I can't ever imagine any one of them getting the Audience Testing Stamp of Approval. This isn't to say I think they're bad -- well, some of them are not nearly as good as others in my eyes -- but that to me the whole reason they're good has nothing to do with trying to get people to like them. They have to stand on their own, or not at all.
Why Kurt Vonnegut didn't think much of SF.
[Says Vonnegut:] Whatever [science fiction] knows about science was fully revealed in Popular Mechanics by 1933. Whatever it knows about politics and economics and history can be found in the Information Please Almanac for 1941. Whatever it knows about the relationships between men and women derives from the clean and the pornographic versions of “Maggie and Jiggs.”
In roughly ascending order of importance, if you ask me. The science has always been hand-waving -- god knows I indulge freely in that -- but the history and politics and economics have long been riddled with wishful thinking and contrafactual (not counterfactual) absurdity. But the people -- yeowtch!
Let's face it -- a big part of why SF is written, read,and published has little to do with being true to human behavior, and more to marketing a certain flavor of something to an audience that wants to taste it. It's been thus ever since the label "SF" existed to stick on a story in the first place. Same with romance, same with comics, same with anything that has a Genre With A Cap G label.
The mere presence of a genre label provides us with reading instructions that let us fill in many blanks on our own. Some of those filled-in blanks are things authors fill in themselves with their own heavy lifting. But when a genre label's applied, there's more of a sense that the readers can do that job on their own. Never mind the violence done to the story in the process, let alone the characters.
So if Vonnegut didn't think much of SF, it seems mainly because everyone involved in its production and consumption was locked in a vicious cycle of shooting high but aiming low.
More on not repeating yourself creatively.
Constand readers of these pages know of my own aversion to sequels and continuation for its own sake. Shea Hennum has a great post about the psychology of such things, in re Firefly:
[D]emanding that something you love continue on for as long as you want because you love the IP so much is such a selfish thing to do. Things like that very quickly reach a point where the material isn’t even good, and the only reason for it to stick around isn’t because there’s something it wants or has to say but because you want it to and your fear of endings is ruining the Mass Media landscape for the rest of us. ... You don’t want the work to stick around because it’s so good and it has much left to say, no, you want the work to stay around for you. You want whatever to haunt the world like a spectre because you can’t enjoy what you’ve been given and resist the urge to wear an idea down to gross nubs.
But this is, I confess, an angle I had never thought about before. Or rather, if I had thought about it that way, it had only come to me from the creator's side. If a creator gets some great idea for a story and then just wrings it dry for decades on end, that to me is selfish behavior; it implies that he cannot leave well enough alone.
One of the uglier sides of this sort of thing surfaced when I read about how Edgar Winter, shortly after a bout in the hospital for a liver ailment, said something to the effect that being in the hospital was one of the few times in his life he wasn't treated like an [expletive deleted] jukebox. That made me think of all the voice actors who have to endure fans begging them to say that line in that voice ... or authors who get pestered with questions about when the next book in the x series is going to come out.
Fans too often unthinkingly dehumanize the very people who bring them such great things. They focus, if not always intentionally, on the artifact rather than the person or even the process. Nobody here is being evil, just thoughtless, but a little thoughtlessness goes a long way, especially when multiplied across thousands of fans.
On the ways violence becomes an aesthetic unto itself in our entertainments.
George Orwell, in his essay "Raffles and Miss Blandish":
... what is now fashionable to call ‘realism’, meaning the doctrine that might is right. The growth of ‘realism’ has been the great feature of the intellectual history of our own age. Why this should be so is a complicated question. The interconnexion between sadism, masochism, success-worship, power-worship, nationalism, and totalitarianism is a huge subject whose edges have barely been scratched, and even to mention it is considered somewhat indelicate. ... It is important to notice that the cult of power tends to be mixed up with a love of cruelty and wickedness for their own sakes.
The presence in popular culture of all the things Orwell touched on in that list often passes without direct commentary, in big part because it's just so commonplace, and because a society's greatest madness tends to be invisible to itself. We don't think about the fascist undertones of, say, most superhero stories or the jut-jawed brand of military-porn SF. But that doesn't make us all closet fascists; it just means that we aren't always aware of how an unhealthy social message can be easily smuggled into our entertainments when we're not looking. And sometimes it happens when we are looking, and we shrug it off.
(Digression. One of the theories I have heard floated about DC vs. Marvel is that the latter franchise is the more self-conscious of the two about power and responsibility, while the former is more freely heedless of such things, but I'll leave further discussion of that to people more familiar with both.)
On why creative people must learn to say no.
Charles Dickens, rejecting an invitation from a friend: “‘It is only half an hour’ — ‘It is only an afternoon’ — ‘It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes — or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day … Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”
Going back through my notes, I see I've written more than a few times (exhibit A, exhibit B) about creativity being at least as much about selectivity as it is about having a free-ranging imagination. I wring my hands and wrinkle my nose when I see five overstuffed books instead of one good one, because to my mind that's a sign the selectivity that shapes good art -- and, in turn, quality entertainments -- isn't present. I don't need a story to be longer to be more absorbing; I just need it to be absorbing, no matter what the length. I do my best not to look down my nose at other people for not making such decisions, though.
This page contains an archive of posts in the category Uncategorized / General for the month of September 2013.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind