Amazon's self-publishing program is no curation program.
... the best stuff almost always comes from the healthy center of an industry, where experienced professionals have the resources to cultivate something the market doesn’t know it wants yet. The best stuff comes from high-risk bets. It’s not too hard to sell a slightly scandalous S&M trilogy or mass-market paperbacks or diet books. But stewardship of the next Toni Morrison is hard and takes experience and real risk because that kind of literature just isn’t going to be as popular as 50 Shades of Grey. And unfortunately, what is threatened by the devaluation of all works by a model like Amazon are the resources available to make those riskier investments. Some people may call the curators of those bets elitist, but which is the preferable tastemaker — the agent or editor steeped in literature his whole life, or Amazon’s pay-to-play model for promoting a book? Or worse, how about a bot swarm telling us how great or awful some new ebook is? I say, bring on the elitists.
To quote William Burroughs from Ministry's "Quick Fix", my own position is ticklish. I am with the invaders (that is, I publish through Amazon), no use trying to hide that. But at the same time, I disagree with many of the things they are doing.
On George R. R. Martin and repentance.
Our society is full of people who have fallen in one way or another, and what do we do with these people? How many good acts make up for a bad act? If you're a Nazi war criminal and then spend the next 40 years doing good deeds and feeding the hungry, does that make up for being a concentration-camp guard? I don't know the answer, but these are questions worth thinking about. I want there to be a possibility of redemption for us, because we all do terrible things. We should be able to be forgiven. Because if there is no possibility of redemption, what's the answer then?
There is, in my opinion, a fundamental issue here about the nature of good and evil that often gets expressed wrongly, or at the very least incoherently. As tempting as it is for us to believe so, good and evil are not things you can place on scales so that a certain variety of good "cancels out" a certain variety of bad. Much of what Martin himself says amounts to that: if there are people who have ostensibly made as many reparations as they can and are still hated for what they have done (as he cites), that tells me those things are not going to revolve around how much or how little, or even to whom.
On leaving New York City behind.
Part of me wants to hammer the keyboard with both fists over a rash of store closings in Manhattan: the Rizzoli bookstore, J&R Music World, Pearl Paint. J&R and Pearl are chains, but had the mentality of indie shops run by knowledgeable curators. Rizzoli was more or less irreplaceable. (If the Strand is next, I'll eat my hats.)
To me, losing this stuff isn't about having that many less places to shop. It's about having that many less perspectives on what a store can be, what it can provide people, and what sort of other things it can cultivate. But it's most symptomatic, if anything, of how the city just isn't "the city" anymore — of how, as James Purdy put it, New York is a city with no memory.
Such losses are not the main things that compelled me to leave the New York area, but they did come up time and again in talks with my wife about such a thing. I know that I could go back and pretend it was still the same place, and cling to the things that have somehow resisted change — this museum, that bookstore, those restaurants, these people -- but that would leave me with an increasingly deluded view of how the city was changing, and not always for the best.
On how there can be "suspense without surprise".
From Tolstoy or Dostoevsky:
What makes us “believe” in the reality of a Shakespearean play? What is it that makes Oedipus or Hamlet as exciting to us after we have seen ten performances as when we saw the play for the first time? How can there be suspense without surprise?
Emph. mine. The whole question of suspense and surprise comes up often when we look at, say, movie adaptations of comics or other media. The suspense in some franchise product like Man of Steel doesn't come from knowing, outside of a certain circle of characters, who lives or who dies — it comes mainly from us wondering how that status quo will be maintained, or at what cost it will come.
Are there too many comic book movies? No, just too many movies made from the same prefab story beats.
Much discussion as of late in the "are there too many comic book movies now?" rubric:
Comics (and thus superheroes), then, aren't a genre but are up until recently a "niche," and it's my read of the situation that the rise to prominence of this particular niche is likely seen as vaguely threatening to established critics of certain vintage. Cultural awareness is THE intellectual currency among art and entertainment writers, particularly those that cover current events within their field. Seismic shifts in what one's awareness needs to include can end an entire generation of livelihoods. Witness the culling of old guard music critics who refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of hip hop in the late-80s/early-90s.
Devin Faraci's great takedown of the too-many-comics-movies conceit is linked from the above article, and I actually credit it with knocking a certain amount of the snobbism out of my thinking on this subject.
But the problem I keep coming back to is not that we have too many movies of a certain genre or too many movies of a certain originating medium; it's that we have too many movies built out of the same prefab storytelling beats. Some of those movies can be very well made, but that doesn't ameliorate the underlying problem.
The great books of the here and now may be wholly invisible to us except in retrospect.
I'm currently clavicle-deep in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky — full disclosure, I'm a Dostoevsky man, but I won't turn down the Big T at his best — and the sheer amount of social upheaval in the 19th century that served as the background for both authors' works makes the times we live through now seem almost piddling. Well, almost. We only know the times and the manners we have been born into.
And the times and the manners I was born into don't seem any less seismic in their own way. Right now it's a three-way split between whether we choke to death on our own waste products, bottle ourselves up in our own digital creations and never come out again, or invent hyperdrive and light out for any number of other places to mess up. If there isn't the substance of some great and towering drama in all that, I don't know where else you could find it. But so far all of the great works of the moment seem to bulk so tiny in emotional content compared to their potential spiritual predecessors.
Flatter the audience at your own risk.
I sometimes think the hardest thing about writing is how easily that falls into a routine of telling people what they want to hear about things. As soon as you find you have a captive audience that likes being flattered about something, and you're rewarded for such flattery with success — it doesn't have to be monetary, just social — congratulations! You're now stuck in your own echo chamber. Hope you brought your own lunch and dinner.
This kind of flattery doesn't have to be very sophisticated. It just has to be about what the audience believes to be true, whatever the audiece is not going to be all that motivated to examine critically. This could be anything: their ideas about the relationships between men and women (and both men and women can be flattered for having ideas in that regard that range from reactionary to downright atavistic), notions about human perfectibility or social progress, whether or not the Cubs are ever going to win the pennant again — anything.
Fine. Now, let's complicate the picture further, shall we?
Me versus template storytelling, again.
... where they excel is making sure every story is expressed in the format As a ____ I can____So That____. No matter what the story is, they find a way to shoe horn it into that template. And this is where things start to fall apart. The need to fit the story into the template becomes more important than the content of the actual story.
The term "story" here is being used in the context of Agile management, where a user's needs with a particular (software) product are expressed in the form of a narrative so that a dev team can work with it more coherently.
I knew this walking in when I read this post, but at the same time, I couldn't help but think about the term "story" in its most conventional context. Isn't this what we've also managed to do with storytelling in the most general sense, turn it into a formula where the mere fact of the filling in of the blanks trumps everything else?
Me versus blurbs, again.
Discerning consumers who care about music and have good ears should be the bedrock of the music business, but many of them have given up on new artists because they can’t find reliable critics to guide them. Record labels, for their part, need frank, knowledgeable feedback from critics—both to keep them honest and hold them accountable—but such input is in short supply and veering towards extinction.
The same, I feel, goes with most any creative endeavor that has a strongly commercial component to it. I've bottled and saved a good deal of my venom for the way book criticism has become a highly degenerate practice, not least of all because of the way authors themselves are being recruited to be a part of the business by way of book blurbs.
On the difference between "culture" and "lifestyle".
Even statements that appear, at first glance, to address musical issues are often lifestyle statements in disguise. I’ve learned this the hard way, by getting into detailed discussions over musical tastes, and discovering that if you force pop culture insiders to be as precise as possible in articulating the reasons why they favor a band or a singer, it almost always boils down to: “I like [fill in the name] because they make me feel good about my lifestyle.” Most disputes about music in the current day are actually disagreements about lifestyle masquerading as critical judgments.
Why stop at music? In fact, why stop at any cultural artifact at all? I propose a thought experiment: replace the word "music" in the above formula with the words "movies", "books", "TV shows", "comics", "video games", and most every other cultural product we can attach a discrete label to. I'd bet you the whole of my next month's savings account interest accrual (OK, it's not much, but hey, it's money) that there will be no discernible change in meaning.
Give the people what they want. Or you can give the people what you want.
One of the fun pastimes I entertain with friends (read: arguments I like having) is arguing about the definitions of words with subtle shades of meaning between them. At some point along the way, one such discussion turned to the meaning of the word fantasy — in the most generic sense of the word, one broad enough to mean things like a Playboy centerfold, not one limited merely to books by Tolkien / C.S. Lewis / Eddings / GRRM / et al — and about what classified as a "harmless" vs. a "harmful" fantasy. The general consensus was that any fantasy you could not act on without such action being expressed primarily and solely as the infliction of harm upon another sentient being was bad news.
I love it when discussions like this come up, because they afford all sorts of digressions that might never come up otherwise. So, my riff on the whole thing went like this: The agreed-upon definition here presumes that the person having the fantasy wants the fantasy to come real in the first place. But many fantasies are not like that — and in fact, I'd argue the vast majority of fantasies are not like that. That's why they're fantasies and not aspirations (to pick another word that might better fit that specific bill).